Frankie & Benny #6 – Christmas

“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…

Trick or Treat – Frankie & Benny #5

“So Frankie, shall we do yours or mine on Monday?”
“We’ll do yours Benny.  Your door sponges down easier than mine.”
“So you say.  Ok, well you’ll have to help me block the letterbox again and make sure we’ve got plenty of food in.”
“Yes, it took us a full week to get out last year after the little buggers superglued the lock.”
My lock.”
“Yes, well, we made the mistake of letting them know we were in there.”
“‘Trick or Treat?’, ‘Trick or Treat?’… If I’m honest, yes, I’d like a treat thank you.  How about I could afford to turn my heating on?  How about I don’t have to sit under a blanket at night to keep warm?”
“Ah, but we like the blankets don’t we.”
“Well yes, ok, at night with the telly on.”
“A cup of tea and a Yo-Yo.”
“Legs all tucked in.”
“And you with that bloody rubber Frankenstein hand again no doubt.”
“There should be a good film on the telly mind.”
“It’ll be a horror won’t it, being Halloween.”
“I suppose so.  What was it last year?  The Exorcist wasn’t it?”
“Yes, and you pee’d your pants.”
“I spilled my tea.  It made me jump.”
“It made you put a cushion on your crotch for the rest of the evening.”
“You know, I don’t remember Halloween even existing when we were kids.”
“No.  It was an American thing wasn’t it.”
“Yes, I think that bloody alien brought it over.”
“Alien?”
“Yes.  In that film.  Little green thing.  Long finger.  Sat on the front of a bike while all the kids wandered about with sheets over their heads.”
“E.T.?”
“Probably.  We didn’t have it till then did we: Halloween?  Bloody Trick or Treat: extortion I call it.  Robbery in a white sheet and grandma’s make-up.”
“Well, they don’t bother much with the fancy dress around here do they – unless you count a black balaclava and a baseball bat.  Never mind a pumpkin in your window to show that you’re Trick or Treat friendly.  I reckon you’d need a gun emplacement in the foyer to keep the little sods away.”
“Not so little most of them.”
“No.  So big these days aren’t they?  One day a toddler and the next a full-grown mugger.”
“They were taking credit cards last year.”
“For payment?”
“No, they were actually taking credit cards and buying stuff from the corner shop.”
“Blimey, they must have had to buy a lot of sweets: don’t they have a minimum £5 spend on a card?”
“They don’t do Haribo these days apparently, kids, they do Johnnie Walker and Benson & Hedges.”
“It was all about Bonfire Night when we were kids wasn’t it?”
“Penny for the Guy.”
Dignified begging.  At least there was some effort went into making those Guys.”
“Unless you could nick one off the smaller kids.”
“Of course, but it was all much more innocent then, wasn’t it?”
“November the fifth, a box of Brock’s in the back garden, a mug of Bovril and a blackened potato out of the bonfire.”
“Disappointing rockets and Catherine Wheels that fell off the pin and scorched your dad’s begonias.”
“Roman Candles that threw sparks into your bobble hat and burned great patches out of your hair.”
“Tying a Jumping Jack to your sister’s coat.”
“And bonfire toffee, do you remember that?”
 “I do, Francis my friend.  I do.  Rock hard shite.  It was like chewing a sweetened paving slab.”
“And Mischief Night the night before.”
“Oh yes, knock and run…”
“…Dog shit on the door handle…”
“…Bangers through the letterbox…”
“… So, we lock the door, block the letterbox, turn off the lights and pretend we’re not in until after Bonfire Night.”
“Shall we have a Halloween themed meal?”
“Like what?”
“I don’t know… Egg and chips?”
“Egg and chips?  How’s that Halloween themed?”
“Well, it’s what we always have.  Have you got a better suggestion?”
“Well, let me think now… What about Ghoulash?  Stake and chips?  Maybe something with loads of garlic in it.”
“Why garlic?”
“It wards off the vampires.”
“It wards off everything when you’ve eaten it.”
“Mm, it doesn’t sit well with me does it?”
“It oozes out of you.  Sharing a room with you is like being locked in a dustbin with a French corpse.  I have to wash my clothes when I’ve been in the lift with you.”
“No garlic then?”
“Not unless you want it with egg and chips.”
“Shouldn’t we have pumpkin?”
“Pumpkin what?”
“Pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup, pumpkin and chips.  I don’t know, I’ve never eaten pumpkin.”
“I don’t think anybody eats pumpkin.  It’s like turnip: it’s a straight out of the bag and into the bin thing.”
“So what then?”
“I’ve told you, egg and chips, a fresh cream éclair and a cup of tea.”
“A few tinnies with the film afterwards.  Champion.  Just like always… except we’ll be in the dark.”
“Oh God, yes.  I suppose I’ll be chiselling egg yolk off the settee again.”
“You leave them too runny.”
“Too runny?  Who wants a solid egg yolk?  You can’t dip your chips in a solid egg yolk.”
“You can when you’ve cooked ‘em!  Last time they were still frozen.”
“I was trying to save gas.”
“Well it didn’t work did it?  I had to thaw mine out one at a time in front of the fire.”
“You’re very quick to criticise.  You’re no Egon Ronay yourself you know.  The biggest leap forward in your cookery skills came when you took the batteries out of the smoke alarm.  And anyway, we’re not having the fire on this time.  We’ve got blankets and hot water bottles.  We’ll just sit the week out.  It’ll be like the blitz.  Especially if you’ve had garlic.”
“It’ll keep the kids away from the door.”
“It’ll definitely put them off their Smarties.”
“…Do kids still eat Smarties?”
“I’m sure they do.  I’ve seen them sharing them out.  Only the blue ones mind.”
“Are you sure they’re Smarties?”
“What do you mean, M&M’s?”
“No, I don’t think they’re M&M’s either.”
“What then?”
“I think they’re probably pills.”
“Viagra?”
“No Benny, not Viagra.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me, randy little buggers.”
“I think they’re probably amphetamines my friend?”
“What?”
“Amphetamines.  Bennies, Benny.  Speed, whiz, whip…”
“Bloody hell, you sound like a script for Batman.  What do they do with those then?”
“Well they keep them awake.  It’s why they’re down in the front there firing rockets at the fire brigade at three o’clock in the morning.  It’s why they’re setting fire to your bin at midnight.  It’s why they’re asleep all day.  It’s probably why they keep mistaking your door for a lavatory…”
“…Do you remember those little brown tablets we used to take as kids Frankie?  Really perked you up they did.”
“I think you’re talking about Fisherman’s Friends old chum.”
“Am I?”
“They certainly cleared the sinuses, I must admit.”
“Maybe I’ll get a bag of those for the Trick or Treaters.
“It might not be wise my friend.”
“No, I suppose you’re right.  We’ll keep the door shut and the lights out.  If anyone knocks we’ll pretend we’ve had a stroke.”
“…Shall we eat the Haribo now then?”
“Yes, let’s do it…”

I feel as though some explanation may be required for those of you reading this outside the UK.
Yo-Yo – a foil wrapped, mint cream topped, chocolate biscuit delight.
Haribo – jelly sweets made almost exclusively from cow knuckle and sherbert.
Bonfire Night – November the Fifth.  A ‘celebration’ of a failed attempt to blow up the British parliament in 1605, in which an effigy of one of the plotters, Guy Fawkes, is burned on a bonfire.  In the past, the effigy was often taken from house to house asking the householders to give ‘a penny for the Guy’.   This was not begging, it was tradition.  November Fifth, back then, was the only night on which, whatever the weather, fireworks were lit and as tradition dictated, damply fizzled out.  The traditional Fireworks Night now runs from mid-September to Christmas.
Mischief Night – November the Fourth.  The night on which all of those who did not stump up the ‘penny for the Guy’ learned the error of their ways.
Smarties – Like M&M’s, but less so.
Fisherman’s Friends – A small brown throat lozenge, also useful for removing the non-stick coating from Teflon pans.

 

First Drafts

Photo by John Michael Thomson on Unsplash

N.B. I wrote this and then couldn’t work out quite where to fit it in, until it occured to me that as this is an exceptional week I could post it today and it wouldn’t have to fit in at all. So here it is…

My own first drafts are often clumsy and confused, and nothing like the finely-honed and incisive fare that is eventually laid before you dear reader.  (Ah yes, antiphrasis is not dead.)  First sentences of first drafts are often nothing more than the manifestation of a pen trying to work out where to go and, more often than not, bear no resemblance whatsoever to what results from and evolves over them.  Is it just me, or is it a stage that all great authors (Still not dead!), must work through?  I took a delve into some working drafts of great opening sentences and this is what I found:

“…It was pissing down and the clock in the Town Hall was buggered again. Winston Smith, his chin tucked down into his new hessian shirt, slipped quickly through the controlled access doors of Loveme Avenue flats as, unaware of his presence, the delivery man came out, but not quick enough to prevent the mechanised lever movement from snipping off the brim of his hat.
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats, but mostly of his coat. Well, not his really if I’m honest, it was much too big for him as he’d borrowed it from his Big Brother [I wonder what I should call him? I can’t just keep calling him Big Brother, that would be mad.] who was twice his size and actually didn’t mind the cats sleeping on it because they kept the rats off. He hated the rats…”
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty Four.

“…Call me Derek [Kevin?  Maybe something slightly more biblical.  Simon maybe.]  Some years ago – [Never mind how long precisely, it doesn’t matter until I’ve got some kind of idea where I’m going with this] – having little or no money in my purse and nothing much to interest me on shore [Irony: whatever it is, it must be preferable to tar up the crack of his arse and semi-digested weevils baked into his hard tack] I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world [Is ‘see the sea’ too nursery rhyme?  I think I’d like to be allegorical – although I’d better look it up first.  What should I call the whale?  A blubbery white thing.  Donald?]…”
Herman Melville – Moby Dick

“It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.  Of course, it did mean that Montag would almost certainly lose his job at the bakery but, hey ho, enjoy it while you can, he thought.  The worse that could happen is that the Fire Brigade would come along and put the fire out…”
Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times [depending on your viewpoint I suppose], it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness [although sometimes it is difficult to tell them apart, particularly when they both work for the council], it was the epoch of belief [Do I mean epoch?] it was the epoch of incredulity [Check the thesaurus.  Is there another word for epoch that isn’t age?  Incredulity?  What’s wrong with disbelief?], it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness [should I just say ‘Autumn’?], it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us [like a cheap Chinese buffet], we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way [except for those on the number 13 bus who were going via the shopping centre… Perhaps I should stop writing after I get back from the pub.  I have no idea of where I’m going with this.  Can I base a whole novel on antithesis?  I wonder what I did with that plot about the orphan…]”
Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities

“Here is Edward Bear, coming down the stairs now, bump, bump, bump on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. ‘Pick me up you little moron,’ he murmured under his breath. ‘Is there any wonder I am a bear of little brain. Look behind you, it’s scattered all over the shagpile. Most of my intellect winds up in the Hoover. Firm, my head used to be, firm, but now it’s got less stuffing than a British Rail Christmas sandwich. My stitching is less reliable than a politician in a crowded corridor…”
A. A. Milne – Winnie the Pooh

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun… [I’m not sure about this.  Is it all just a little bit glib for a GCSE astronomy text book?]”
Douglas Adams – The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Frankie & Benny #4 – The Birthday

“It’s your birthday Frankie my friend, so you choose.  What should we do today?”
“Well now Benjamin, that’s a tricky one.  I mean the world is so full of opportunities, isn’t it?  We could take a cruise on our private yacht.  We could have lunch in our favourite restaurant in Paris, dip our toes in the water at St Tropez, perhaps fine wines and an evening with Barry Manilow in Las Vegas…   or we could perhaps walk a slow circuit of the park…”
“…Like we always do…”
“…drop in at the pub for a pie and a pint…
“…as ever…”
“…home for an afternoon snooze…”
“…the same as always…”
“…and then a film on the TV at yours or mine with a couple of cans of beer and a microwave chicken curry…”
“…just the same as every Saturday.”
“ Ay… we like it though, don’t we.”
“We do, but don’t you think that we should do something just a little bit different as it’s your birthday?
“Like what?”
“I don’t know, it’s your birthday, you choose.”
“Well ok.  We could… I can’t think of anything.”
“Oh come on.  Use your imagination.  We could go to the pictures.”
“The pictures, yes, that’s a grand idea.  The pictures.  We haven’t been to the pictures in years.  What’s on?”
“Erm, let’s see.  There’s ‘Nope’.”
“Nope?”
“Yes.”
“Is that the name of it?  Of the film?  What’s it about?”
“UFO’s I think.”
“Oh no.  I can’t be doing with all that pie-in-the-sky mularkey.  There are quite enough little green men in the pub of a Saturday night.  Isn’t there a Western on or something?”
“There’s ‘Where the Crawdads Sing.’”
“What’s a crawdad?”
“No idea?”
“Oh.  Well, who’s in it?”
“Erm, let me see here.  It says Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson and Garret Dillahunt…”
“How many people is that?”
“No idea.”
“Have you heard of any of them?”
“No.”
“There must be something else.”
“Well, there’s the new Top Gun.”
“Ah, I saw the first one of those.”
“And did you like it?”
“No.”
“Oh, we used to love the cinema though, didn’t we?  Back in the day.  You and me, two young ladies, a tanner each in the back row, a newsreel, a cartoon, a ‘B’ film and a main feature – a proper cowboy or cops and robbers…”
“A choc-ice at half time and ten minutes necking if you were lucky before the usherette turned her torch on you.”
“Necking?”
“Ay, canoodling, you know.”
“I remember the choc ices.  The chocolate always fell off in the dark.  You always came out of the pictures looking like you’d shit yourself.”
“I never could be trusted with chocolate, Benny.  I think that’s why they invented the Milky Bar, so it didn’t show up so much on my beige loons.”
“Oh, you loved those loons.”
“And my brown suede Hush Puppy boots.”
“It used to be great, didn’t it, to get dressed up for a night out I mean?”
“Part of the fun, my friend: the matching shirt and tie, the drape coat…”
“…the tank tops and the cork-heeled shoes.”
“Perhaps that’s what we could do today, for my birthday: we could get dressed up, hit the town.  Maybe we could have a more sophisticated lunch…”
“A ploughman’s, perhaps.”
“King prawns in our curry and perhaps hire a DVD instead of watching whatever old tosh is on the telly.”
“Do you have anything to play a DVD on?”
“No.”
“No, me neither.  It’s all Netflix isn’t it now.”
“Have you got that?”
“No.  I’ve got channel 4.”
“OK.  That’ll do.  We’ll watch ‘Bake Off’.”
“No, come on, let’s do it.  Let’s get dressed up and head out for town.  We might meet some ladies.”
“Oh, I’m not sure about that Benny.  I’m out of practice at all that.  I wouldn’t know what to say.”
“Let’s not worry about that for now.  Let’s just get our glad rags on and promenade.”
“Glad rags?”
“Sunday togs.  Let’s do it.”
“I’m not sure.  I think my best cardigan might be in the wash.”
“Come on, let’s just make the effort.  Trousers without an elasticated waist, shoes without a tartan Velcro strap, you could take your vest off for a start.”
“I always wear a vest.”
“Over your shirt?”
“Oh, I must have got a little out of synch this morning.  I woke up needing to… you know.  I had to rush into my clothes.  It’s freezing in that bathroom.  I’ll move my vest under my shirt, change my trousers, put some shoes on, will that suit you?”
“Maybe gel your hair a little bit.  So you don’t look quite so much like you’ve just got out of bed.”
“Gel?  I don’t think I’ve got any gel.  I’ve got some Vaseline from when I had that rash.”
“That’ll do.  Instead of walking round the park and back to the pub, we’ll go straight through, maybe to that wine bar on the other side, and we can feed the ducks on the way.”
“Do they do pies?”
“The ducks?”
“The wine bar.  Do they do pies?”
“Oh no.  Sophisticated dining there, Francis my friend, couscous I shouldn’t wonder.”
“Couscous?  What the hell is couscous?”
“No idea, but I’m sure they’ll do it with chips.”
“And beer?”
“Lager.  Fancy lager.  In bottles…”
“Ah what the hell.  It’s my birthday.  Let’s give it a go.  I’ll go and get ready.”
“You’ll need a coat, mind.”
“Really?”
“It bucketing it down.”
“Oh, I’m not sure about my best shoes in that park when it’s raining: it’s a quagmire at the best of times.  Full of dog shit as well if you’ve not got your wits about you.”
“Yes, you’re right.  Maybe not your best shoes.”
“And trousers?”
“Elasticated ankles might be wise.”
“Perhaps we could just go straight to the pub.”
“It’s much nearer.”
“I’m not really over keen on ducks, truth be told.”
“No.  Quacking little bastards.”
“Our age, it’s much more sensible to get out of the rain as quick as we can.  We could catch our deaths.”
“We’ll do that then, and after that we’ll come back here for a cup of tea – I’ve got a pack of those Breakaway biscuits…”
“…and maybe a bit of a nap by the fire…”
“…chicken curry for tea and a couple of cans with the film on the telly.”
“Sounds great… I can’t think of a better way to spend my birthday, old friend.”
“It’s always good to ring the changes.  Cup of tea and a Kit-Kat before we go?”
“Great.  Put the kettle on, I’ll go and change my vest and find a clean cardigan…”

These are my two favourite recurring characters, and a joy to write.  If you want to find more of them, you can catch them here: A Little Fiction – Frankie & Benny; A Little Fiction – Goodbyes – Frankie & Benny #2; A Little Fiction – The Night Before – Frankie & Benny #3





Gas (The Meaning of Life #4)

“…The thing is,” asserted the man in the Cavalry Twill overcoat, wiping foam from the tip of his nose with his sleeve “that it’s not our fault, so there’s no way we should have to pay for it.”
“Who should pay for it then?” asked the man in the Meerkat T-shirt.  “Who is responsible?”
“Napoleon,” said the man in the moleskin waistcoat.
“Napoleon?” laughed Cavalry Twill.  “Napoleon?  He never even had electricity.  He wouldn’t have had to take that Josephine on campaign with him, eating all the cake et cetera, if he’d had e.g. an electric blanket with him.”
“Napoleon ordered his army’s tailors to put buttons along his soldiers’ cuffs to stop them wiping their noses on their sleeves.”
“A dapper man that Napoleon,” said T-shirt.  “Wouldn’t have liked shiny sleeves.”
“Except on a mohair suit,” said Moleskin.
“Except on a mohair suit,” agreed T-shirt.  “Par for the course on a mohair suit.”
The man in the Cavalry Twill overcoat carefully picked a stray peanut from his lap and ate it in quiet contemplation.  “Putin,” he said at length.  “Putin is responsible for the current situation viz-a-viz the having to burn all the downstairs doors in order to keep warm scenario.  He should be made to pay our energy bills.”
“He’s got deep pockets, I’m sure,” said Moleskin, “but I doubt that even he can afford to pay everybody’s gas and electric.”
“Not everybody’s,” said C.T.  “Just those as need it.  Just those who e.g. have to keep their wossname knitted gilets on after they get back from the pub.  Just those who have to, for instance, get rather closer to their spouses in bed than they would ideally like to for the shared heat of a hot water bottle.  It could, in my opinion, be classed as a war crime.”
“Are you mad?” said Moleskin, a thousand tiny blood vessels popping gently behind his eyes.  “Stark, staring mad?  You do know, don’t you, that there are actual war crimes being committed out there?  That people are dying?”
“Putin denies it.”
“Well, he would, wouldn’t he.”
“He’s not denying messing with the gas though.”
Moleskin stared at C.T. for a long time.  He opened his mouth to speak, but decided it would get him nowhere.  He looked to Meerkat for support, but he was preoccupied with examining the tip of a pencil he had just extracted from his ear.  “Another pint?” he asked at length.
“Thought you’d never ask,” said C.T.
Moleskin stood slowly and lifted the glasses from the sticky table one at a time.
The man in the Cavalry Tweed overcoat carefully brushed down his sleeves.  “I mean, it’s alright for some isn’t it?” he said.
“What do you mean by that?” said Moleskin, fighting to ease his ever tightening grip on the fragile glasses.
“Well, you management types,” continued the man in the overcoat.  “It’s alright for you.”
“I’m not management!”
“He works in the same place as you,” said Meerkat.  “Same job.”
“He wears,” said Cavalry Twill, “a tie under his overall.  He has clean shoes.  He has pens in his top pocket…”
“What have my shoes got to do with anything?  I do exactly the same job as you,” said Moleskin, the cilia on the back of his neck rising as one, like the rioters at a Donald Trump rally.  “I get paid exactly the same.”
“But without the overheads.”
“I’ve got a mortgage, two kids at school, a wife who holds down two jobs to make ends meet, a nine year old car that’s in worse shape than Elton John’s toupee…”
“No dogs though,” said C.T.  “No satellite T.V.”
Meerkat looked alarmed.
“We barely watch the T.V.” explained Moleskin.  “We get all we need from Freeview.  And we listen to the radio a lot.”
“Oh can’t you see them of an evening,” sneered C.T.  “Reading books and listening to The Archers.  Drinking Earl Grey tea and dunking those Barramundi biscuits…”
“…Garibaldi,” said Moleskin.
“What?”
“Garibaldi.  The biscuits are Garibaldi.  Barramundi are fish.”
“Really?”  I suppose they told you that on Radio 4 did they?  ‘What’s My Fish’ was it, with him off the news?”
“I don’t care for raisins,” said Meerkat.  “They get under my plate.  I have to poke them out with a crochet hook.”
Moleskin glared.  “Is that really the point?” he asked.
“Well, not for you perhaps,” said C.T. patting Meerkat softly on the shoulder.  “You’ll have a dentist no doubt.  Properly fitting dentures.  Porcelain crowns I shouldn’t wonder.”
“A gas powered toothbrush,” said Meerkat, suddenly getting a feel for things.
The man in the cavalry twill overcoat and the man in the moleskin waistcoat stared at him, slack jawed, for some time.  “A man could dehydrate waiting for you to get them in,” said C.T. at last as Moleskin departed for the bar with a resigned shrug.
“Do you think that Putin will pay my gas bill?” asked Meerkat.  “I don’t mind if he doesn’t stump up for the electric.  We’ve got an electric cooker – I’d save a fortune on burned food.”
“It could be a true test of his communist convictions,” said C.T.  “From each according to his means, to each according to his needs.”
“You don’t suppose he’d pitch in a bit towards the rent as well, do you?”
“I thought you owned your house.”
“Well I do,” said Meerkat.  “Technically.  But he’s got a lot on his plate at the moment hasn’t he, that Putin, what with going mad and everything, perhaps he wouldn’t notice.  I don’t suppose he’d be too particular with his paperwork.  He doesn’t seem to be that bothered about petty bureaucracy does he?”
“Well no, I suppose not.  He’d want a bit of the property though, wouldn’t he?  If he was going to pay the rent I mean.  Somewhere with easy access to next door in case he fancied a piece of the action there sometime.  Some means of reaching next door but one…”
The man in the moleskin waistcoat returned with three pints of lager and placed them carefully on the table.
“So, if Putin’s not going to pay for the gas then, who do you think will?” asked Meerkat.
“Search me,” said Moleskin.  “We all will in the end I suppose.”
“Or go back to how things were a hundred years ago.”
“We’re already on the way I think…”


I’d probably like to say that these three are a joy to write, but it’s more true to say that they are a gift when you want to tell everybody exactly what you don’t want to say. They have also appeared in The Meaning of Life: Supplementary Philosophy (The Meaning of Life #2): Ancient Greeks (The Meaning of Life #3)

Moles

John was inordinately proud of his lawn.  It had, as he was all too happy to tell anyone unfortunate enough to be passing by, not a blade out of place.  Not a single daisy, dandelion or clover leaf marred its faultless surface.  It was the flattest lawn in town and it was the greenest lawn in town.  Nobody could deny it.

So, bleak was the midsummer morning when John rose from his bed, opened his curtains and looked down upon his own little patch of immaculately manicured sward to see, placed almost geometrically at its centre, a large, fresh molehill.  He clutched at his chest and uttered an agonised, if tightly suppressed scream.  He almost flew downstairs, his feet barely touching the only slightly less perfect shagpile surface, through the door and out onto his lawn.  “A mole,” he murmured, “a bloody mole.  I’ll have you sunshine,” and he carefully raked over the soil and patted it flat with the back of a spade. 

“It’ll do for now,” he said, but he knew that it wouldn’t.

Later that day he raked a little grass seed into his fussed-over repair and stared in anguish at the temporarily brown blight on his otherwise single-toned sod.  “A trap,” he said.

“This one never fails,” said the man at the hardware store.  “Put it in the tunnel under the mole hill and ‘Kerbam!’ he’ll never bother you again.”
“I’ve flattened the molehill,” said John.  “Reseeded it.”
“It’s no problem,” said the assistant, dropping the box into a brown paper bag, “there’ll be a new one in the morning.  Put it in that one.”
“A new molehill?” gulped John.
“Oh yes, once they’ve started, they seldom stop.”

The next morning John stared down on his lawn, the green plane mutilated by its single raked brown patch and two brand new molehills.  With a sigh, he walked slowly down the stairs into the garden where he carefully buried the mole-trap in the biggest of the two new hills. 

The following morning there had been no Kerbam!, but there had been three new molehills in the middle of the lawn.  Annoyingly they were not even symmetrically placed, but just randomly grouped around the plot.  John was beside himself.
“Why don’t you get Bernard next door to look at them,” said his wife.  “He’s lived here for years.  He’ll know what to do.”
“Bernard’s a perfectly nice bloke,” said John, “but he’s a doctor.  What I need is pest control.”

“Try this poison,” said the pest control man.  “Put it in the newest hole.  It’s guaranteed.”  He didn’t tell John exactly what it was guaranteed to do, but apparently it wasn’t to kill moles.  John’s lawn was no longer his pride and joy, it was his pain and anguish.  It was quickly becoming a total eyesore: more hill than grass.

“You really should ask Bernard,” said John’s wife.
“No,” said John.  “It’s too embarrassing.  I have to work this out for myself.”

And so, day after day, John implemented the new plans he spent the sleepless nights concocting to save his lawn from the rampaging mole: he attached a hose to the tap and flooded the tunnels with water; he attached the hose to his car and flooded them with carbon monoxide; he strode around between the hills thrusting his garden fork deep into the earth anywhere he believed the tunnels might run; he pee’d into the holes under the cover of dark, not in anticipation of any result, but merely to make himself feel better.  He tried a million ways in vain to find a solution, whilst all his wife would say was, “Talk to Bernard.”
“I can’t talk to Bernard,” he sighed.  “It’s personal now.  I saw it last night.  It popped its head out from its hill.  It was weird, furtive,” he continued.  “I’m sure it looked at me in a funny way.”

And finally, having given up completely on the sleep his body so craved, John found himself, shotgun in hand, staring at his ravaged lawn in the blue glare of a midnight full moon.  “Just pop your furry little head out tonight,” he muttered “and I’ll blow it right off your fluffy little body.” 

And then it did.  Just at his feet the soil broiled and bubbled through the grass.  A mound appeared and through it popped the head and body of the cursed mole.  John froze as it stood, rising up to its entire six inch height and, never taking its eyes from his, raised its own, perfectly miniaturised shotgun and, with a theatrical wink, pulled the trigger…

“The moral of this story is very clear,” said the coroner some days later at John’s inquest.  “Embarrassment can be fatal.  Always get a doctor to examine any suspicious looking moles.”

A Little Fiction – The Case (Dinah and Shaw part 11)

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It was with no little surprise, knowing how infrequently Shaw changed his clothes, that Dinah contemplated his suitcase as he attempted, not entirely successfully, to extricate it from the boot of the taxi.  “‘Just pack for the weekend’, you said.  ‘You won’t need much.  It’s nothing special.’”
“The last time we stayed in a hotel, you complained that I had everything in a plastic carrier bag,” he moaned.  “So, I thought I’d make an effort.”
The effort, as far as Dinah could tell, involved going to a carboot sale and buying the tattiest cardboard suitcase he could find.  Once brown faux leather and now peeling paper, the giant post-war trunk was a symphony in duck tape and string.  ‘If I were underwear,’ thought Dinah, with a shudder, ‘I would definitely take my chances in the carrier bag.’
“I didn’t want anything that looked new.” 
“Evidently.” 
“I thought it might arouse suspicion.” 
“Presumably in a way that a mouldering, bungalow-sized cardboard valise would not.  Anyway, yes, it’s very you,” said Dinah, somewhat taken aback when, rather than being affronted by her open sarcasm, he smiled brightly at the perceived compliment.
“I think it may have been to exotic places,” he said excitedly.  “It’s got a really interesting smell to it.”
“You could be right,” said Dinah.  “It does smell like something very exotic may have died in it….  A long time ago.”

Shaw lugged the festering behemoth up the marbled steps to the hotel under the watchful gaze of the concierge who didn’t mind wearing the stupid braided uniform, but most certainly was not paid nearly enough to tempt him to carry that particular crate.  Shaw held the oversized container like a mime artist struggling with something immensely heavy, although Dinah couldn’t help but wonder whether in reality, it might not be empty.  It certainly didn’t have his toothbrush in it.  That was in his top pocket with something that looked as though it might once have been a comb, and a teaspoon. 

As his passage through the revolving door to the hotel lobby involved standing the giant suitcase on its end and wedging himself behind it, his eventual entrance was the stuff of ‘Carry On’: the suitcase completing an additional three hundred and sixty degrees whilst a stationary Shaw clung grimly to the now disassociated handle.  In the subsequent melee the concierge received a really quite nasty bruise to the eye (which may, or may not, have been attributable to a flailing Shaw elbow) and an unsuspecting passer-by found herself corralled and herded into the hotel with one shoe in her handbag and somebody else’s dog on the end of an extending lead. Dinah walked calmly to the reception desk.  She and Shaw were booked in separately and occupying different rooms, Shaw had insisted on it.  It was, he assured her, crucial to the investigation that they were not seen to be together.  Why this might be, she had no idea and he was not about to say.  As usual, although unwittingly, Shaw had kept her completely in the dark about what was going on but, when pressed, had assured her that this was a proper enquiry and, more to the point, they were being paid to conduct it.  She would find out soon enough and, in the meantime, she intended to enjoy the peace and avail herself of the hotel toiletries, the bath, the hot water and the mini-bar – although not necessarily in that order – luxuriating in the knowledge that the office rent was about to be paid and that she, herself, might just be able to afford a new bra, or at least some new wires to put in the old one. 

The receptionist handed over the room key with what Dinah perceived was almost certainly a raised eyebrow.  “Would you like help with your luggage?” she asked.
“No thank you,” Dinah replied, suddenly conscious of The Minions rucksack on her back.  “I’ll manage.”

She had barely lowered herself into the foaming water when she heard the knock on the door.  She had no doubt who it was.  Nobody else knocked quite like Shaw.  “It’s on the latch,” she shouted.  “I’m in the bath.  You did say the client was paying for the mini-bar didn’t you?”
“Well, yes, I…” Sheepishly Shaw peered around the bathroom door.  “I… that is… they brought my suitcase up to my room for me – it took two of them – and now they… I don’t suppose you’ve got any change have you?”
“In my purse,” she said, fully aware that Shaw would give the porters the ten pound note that she had heretofore kept successfully secreted.  “It will cost you both the gin and the Jack Daniels from your fridge.”  Dinah heard the door click behind him as Shaw left and settled back into the bubbles, closing her eyes only for a second before she once again recognised Shaw’s impatient knock on the door.  “I told you, it’s on the latch,” she shouted.
“I took it off when I left,” Shaw shouted back.
“Why?”
“Well, you know, you’re in the bath and…”
“And?”
“Well, your purse is on the table.”
“Does it have anything left in it?”
“…I’ve brought the booze.”
Dinah raised herself from the warm embrace of soapy water and into the slightly prickly grip of an over-washed white hotel bath robe before opening the door to Shaw who breezed past her and into the room.  He began to empty his pockets onto the table.  “Gin, Jack Daniels, chocolate, peanuts and Pringles,” he beamed.  “Which would you like?”
Dinah pouted.  Or tried to.  Her robe fell open and Shaw almost broke his neck trying to look the other way whilst she pulled it back together.  It’s difficult to pout and giggle at the same time.  “You got me out of the bath,” she said.  “You can have the tin of lager out of the fridge… and the Smarties as long as you promise not to eat the blue ones… and then you can help me get the lids off these piddling little bottles and tell me what’s going on.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, why are we in this hotel?  Why are we in separate rooms when one is so much cheaper and you’re perfectly happy to sleep in the bath with a cushion, and who is paying for the mini-bar?”
“The client.”
“You said that.  So why are we here?”
“Ah…”
“Ah?”
“Well I don’t actually know yet.  It was all done over the phone.  The woman just asked if we would be prepared to take on a case that would keep us both out of the office for two days and, of course, I said yes because I thought you could do with the break and the office is so cold since they cut the electricity off.  I asked if we could have separate rooms and she said we could have whatever we liked as long as we weren’t at the office.  She said we should book into this hotel and just give her the bill when we’d finished.  She said she’d let us know what we had to do once we’d settled in…”
“Did you get a name?”
“Well no, I…”
“So, how do we give her the bill?”
“Well, she’ll be in touch won’t she?  To tell us what we need to do.”  In contrast to Dinah, Shaw knew exactly how to pout.
“Tell me, this woman, did she sound just a teensy bit like our landlady?”
“Well, now that you mention it, her voice was a little bit familiar… Shall I go and get my suitcase?”
“I think we’ll be quicker without it.  Come on, we need to find a back way out… and don’t forget the gin”

I know, I know, not what you’d really call truncated, but these two just don’t work in shorter doses…

Dinah and Shaw appear periodically through my ‘back catalogue’. Should you wish to follow their story you can do so here:

Episode 1. Excerpt from Another Unfinished Novel (Dinah and Shaw part 1)
Episode 2. Return to ‘Another Unfinished Novel’ (Dinah and Shaw part 2)
Episode 3. Another Return (Dinah and Shaw part 3)
Episode 4. Morning is Broken (Dinah and Shaw part 4)
Episode 5. Train of Thought (Dinah and Shaw part 5)
Episode 6. The Morning After… (Dinah and Shaw part 6)
Episode 7. Green Ink on the Back of a Pizza Delivery Receipt – (Dinah and Shaw part 7)
Episode 8. Searching for the Spirit of Christmas (Dinah and Shaw part 8)
Episode 9. The Writer’s Circle #31 – Dinah and Shaw (part 9 – Slight Return)
Episode 10. An Item (Dinah and Shaw part 10)

A Little Fiction – My Mistake

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The bus was empty, but I knew as soon as I saw him climb aboard, that he would choose to sit beside me.  He smelled like a dump in summer and something of which he appeared completely unaware, was moving around under his coat.  He tried to release a smile, but it merely flitted across his face like a leer in a convent and as he sat, he turned his entire body towards me as though his head had become fused to his shoulders.  He licked his lips revealing teeth the colour of teak.  He had eyes like midnight and breath like petrol, his hair sat atop his head like a hat, threadbare, unkempt and matted like a cat that could no longer clean itself, undisturbed since sleep.  He pulled a slightly threadbare fur coat tight around his shoulders, just failing to cover the lace neckline of the nightdress he wore beneath it, in an overt attempt to create a small space between us.  In his hand he carried a small stuffed toy: a penguin I think, it was hard to tell.  His stare forced me to look away and casting my eyes down I noticed that his shoes were several sizes too big for his feet, that one sole flapped loosely, mouth-like, allowing fleeting glimpses of an un-socked foot as he moved his toes rhythmically, as if they were accompanying a song in his head.

I had seen him before walking around the town, unhurried and unbothered by both drunken youths and bored policemen, and I ‘knew’ his story in my head, his name and everything about him.  His name, I concluded, was Geoffrey and he had a St John in there somewhere.  His surname was double-barrelled, probably featuring a double ‘f’.  He was definitely aristocratic, devoted to his mother who had died unexpectedly – probably from Lassa Fever or something equally romantic – leaving him alone, vulnerable and, eventually, here on the upper deck of a midnight bus with me.  A mental breakdown between then and now I surmised, life in an institution surrounded by his mother’s furs and nightclothes, and his own childhood toys, but nobody to care when he wasn’t there at night.  Nobody to worry.

I offered him a mint which he took with thin, elegant but grubby hands and a nod of thanks.  His nails were long and grimy, but elegantly filed into shape.  It seemed strange that he should take such care over the shape of his nails, but show no concern over the filth that had accumulated behind and around them.  I wondered if he cared for anything else in his life or whether this was the last thing he refused to let go.  I noticed that he had worn a ring until recently, the mark still palely traced across his finger, and wondered if it had been stolen from him or whether he had sold it to buy… what?  He didn’t smell of booze or cigarettes, just decay.  He wore nothing that could have been even approximately new and I remembered that when I had seen him around the town centre in the past he had often worn long, white satin evening gloves, the kind that are only ever otherwise seen on overdressed women at the opera or by the murderer in an Agatha Christie mystery.  Where were they now?  Had they been taken with the ring?

The bus slowed to a halt and he half-turned his body so that he faced the curved mirror that allowed a view of the bus’s doors below.  He seemed fixated on the doors, but they did not open.  I guessed the stop was one of those where the driver had to stop – do they call them ‘timing points’? – but I wasn’t sure: I had never travelled the route before.  I would normally have got a taxi home, but it was a warm night so I had started to walk, unaware of the rainclouds developing in the darkness above my head.  I was sheltering in a bus stop when the bus came along so I jumped on and asked the driver where would be the best place to get off.  I won’t pretend that his first answer was altogether helpful, but eventually we found somewhere acceptable so I paid the fare and took a seat upstairs that was, as far as I could tell, out of his view and beyond any unwelcome conversation, where I sat, happily disengaged, until my ‘companion’ stumbled into his seat. 

Eventually,  after I’m not certain how long, maybe two or three minutes, the bus sighed, juddered into gear and pulled away from the kerb, and my companion dragged his attention away from the mirror.  I felt a sudden pressure to speak, but I am the king of the non-committal nod.  I have perfected the shy smile and slight eyebrow twitch to such a degree that I seldom find it necessary to actually engage anybody in conversation.  It wasn’t going to work here though, was it?  I knew I had to speak, but how to start?  “You know, you really could do with a bath,” was honest, but not entirely tactful.  “Excuse me, but is your name Geoffrey?” might lead him to think that I was confusing him with somebody else – I had no real basis whatsoever on which to assume that it really was his name.  How do you start a conversation with a smelly, old man upstairs on a midnight bus that is not open to misinterpretation?  “What’s a smelly old man like you doing on a shitty old bus like this and why, in God’s name, did you choose to sit next to me, putting me in this insidious position?” was probably not going to cut it.  In the end, societal cowardice dictated my subsequent strategy.  “Excuse me,” I muttered, half rising.  “I think this is my stop.”

And it was then that I caught the unmistakable glint of reflected light from the knife blade as I felt it nestle uncomfortably against my side.  I felt shocked at first, not by the action, but my reaction to it.  I knew that I would not be unable to lunge past him and all that I could remember thinking was, “How has he kept that blade so shiny when he can’t even wash his bloody hands?” but I felt it unwise to enquire.  I sat down heavily.  Should I shout out for the driver who, without question, would not put himself in danger to help me?  Strangely calm, I wondered whether this was how it was all going to end for me, on the top deck of a bus with a smelly old tramp, when a sudden realisation hit me, that he probably felt he was just protecting himself, that he himself had felt threatened by something that I had said or done.  I raised my arms, palms open, as I believe it is done, and opened my mouth to speak, but he merely lifted one grimy finger to his lips and shushed quietly.  “Money, phone and watch,” was all he said.

A Little Fiction – Frankie & Benny #3 – The Night Before

“You, my friend, were drunk.”
“I was not drunk, Frankie.  I have not been drunk in many years.”
“You were slurring your words.  Were you having a stroke?”
“No.”
“Then you were drunk.”
“Nobody else said that I was slurring my words.”
“Well, they wouldn’t would they?  They wouldn’t want to upset you, in case you were having a stroke.”
“I was as sober as a Methodist christening.  I was not slurring my words.  I was not drunk.”
“You were most definitely not sober.  I walked the several miles home with you.”
“Several miles?  We were only across the road.  Eight hundred yards at the most”
“As the crow flies, Benny, I’ll give you that.  Eight hundred yards in a straight line, but you were not walking in a straight line.  You, Benny my friend, walked as far backwards as you did forwards, and twice as far to the side.  You were bouncing off parked cars and garden fences like a pinball.  You were singing to the lamp-posts.”
“You’re exaggerating again.  I know what you’re doing.  Alright, I had drunk a little – as had you – but I was not drunk.”
“Ah well, ok, have it your own way.  Have you checked your coat pocket, by the way?”
“My coat pocket?  What for?”
“Why don’t you go and check?”
“…A mushroom vol-au-vent.  What does that prove?  Everybody sneaks food away from a buffet.  It’s expected.”
“We weren’t at a buffet, Benny.  You went through the baker’s bin on the way home.  Check your other pocket.”
“…What the?…”
“Chicken Chow Mien, I believe.”
“I don’t even like Chicken Chow Mien.”
“I know.  You kept bothering a young couple at the bus stop, telling them your life story and eventually they offered you some of their food to go away.  You said that you didn’t actually like the fore-mentioned concoction – I seem to remember you showed them how the noodles get under your dentures – but that you’d take some home for the dog.”
“I don’t have a dog.”
“Indeed you do not.  Nor do you have a parrot, but you also took their prawn crackers.”
“Oh dear.  I must admit, I do have a bit of a fuzzy head this morning, but I don’t remember any of this.  Are you sure you’re not winding me up here?”
“No.  No, not at all…  Well ok, maybe just a little bit.  The landlord brought out the vol-au-vents after the quiz, that’s where you got that from.”
“And the Chow Mien?”
“That was from the couple at the bus stop.”
“Oh God…  What were we even doing at a quiz, we’re both thick aren’t we?”
“I believe that is indeed what our teachers told us Frankie.  A verdict I have never felt equipped to contradict.”
“So why were we doing a quiz?”
“There was a prize.”
“What?”
“A bottle of whisky.”
“And did we win it?”
“No, but we did drink one.”
“I think I’ll put the kettle on.  Do you want a tea?”
“I wouldn’t say no.  If I’m honest I feel a little out of sorts myself.”
“Do you want a biscuit?”
“Yes, and a couple of aspirin if you’ve got them.”
“…Why do we do it?”
“What?”
“Drink too much.  At our age, why do we do it?”
“Well, I think that if we were sober, Benjamin my friend, we would not do it, but as soon as we get drunk, then we start to drink too much.”
“So you’re saying that if we didn’t start to drink at all, then we wouldn’t drink too much?”
“Precisely.”
“Well, that’s cleared that up for me then.  Here, have a biscuit.  I’ve only got Rich Tea I’m afraid.”
“Rich Tea?  What happened to the Hobnobs?”
“I don’t have any.”
“You do, I was with you when you bought them yesterday.”
“I ate them.”
“When?”
“Last night when we got back from the pub.  I also appear to have eaten several slices of toast and fried my last two eggs.”
“You ate your last two eggs?”
“You should listen to what I say Francis, perhaps clear some of that wax from your ears.  I did not say that I ate my last two eggs, I said that I fried them.”
“So what did you do with them then?”
“Well, one of them I appear to have put in the fridge with a beer mat and a half-eaten spring roll.”
“And the other?”
“I have just found in my slipper…”
“So are you not going to wash your foot then?”
“I think I’ll just sit a minute first.  Drink my tea…  I might need to take a minute or two before…  The yolk, you know…  So how many of us did this quiz thing then?  I mean, how many were in our team?”
“Just you and me old chum.  Just you and me.”
“So we came last then?”
“Oh yes we did indeed.  Very.  But we did win a prize.”
“Really, what?”
“This.”
“A tiny cup.  Very nice.  I’ll keep it in my trophy cabinet with all the others.  What does it say on it?”
“‘Wankers.’”
“Oh classy.  Charming that.  Quite a wag, that landlord, isn’t he?”
“He did apologize.  He said that if he’d known we were going to take part, he would have had our names engraved on the loser’s trophy in advance.”
“Oh well, fair enough.”
“Yes, fair do’s, he could have insisted that the losers at least scored some points.”
“Did we not score any?”
“We never answered any, Benny.  We spent the whole night arguing over our team name.  I wanted to call us ‘Frankie and Benny’ – everyone knows who we are anyway – but you said it should be something clever and witty.”
“And?…”
“We couldn’t think of anything…  How’s your head now?”
“Not so bad.  I’m starving mind, how about you?”
“I could certainly go a fry-up.”
“Come on, I’ll just get this yolk off my sock and we’ll go and get one.”
“Ok.  I fancy the whole works: fried bread, black pudding, mushrooms…  That’ll sort me out.”
“Mind you, we did spend quite a lot at the pub last night.  If you want, I could warm us something up here instead.”
“Oh yes, and what have you got?”
“How do you fancy Chicken Chow Mien?”

These chaps are currently my favourite characters. You can find their previous appearances here and here.

A Little Fiction – Conversations with a Bearded Man (part 7) – Helpline

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For Ellie (Mrs Underfelt) – who said she liked this character.

“…I knew it would be you as soon as I dialled. How do you do it?”
The voice at the other end of the phone was exactly as I had grown to know, except for an air of confusion with which I was not familiar but, never being one to let doubt get in the way of indignation, I pressed on none-the-less. “Your card in the newsagent’s: how did you know that I would see it? How did you know that I would call?”
“Call?”
I quoted directly from the card that I had removed from the shop window. “‘Tired? Lonely? Need to hear a friendly voice? Just ring,’ and then it’s got your phone number.”
“My number? Are you sure?”
“It’s the number I just dialled.”
“But I don’t have a card in the newsagent’s.”
“Yeh, right.” I said, regretting my tone instantly. “So how come I just got you?”
“You must have mis-dialled.”
“That really is…” I wanted to say preposterous, but the notion was simply so far-fetched that I was already checking the number on the card against the number I had dialled. It was, of course, one digit different. That single digit had connected me with the man I know as Lorelei. But how? How is it even possible to dial what now amounts to a virtually random phone number, and get him. It must be some kind of trick – a mind-game or something. Maybe I was having some kind of psychotic episode. Perhaps I’d been brainwashed, or hypnotised, or… I have no idea what… I would wake up soon and find that this was all a dream.
“So, are you?” His voice pricked into my brain like defeat into an ego.
“Am I what?”
“Tired? Lonely?”
I wanted to say ‘no’, but I knew that he would see right through that. Why had I rung the number in that case? I really didn’t want this man to think that I might have been trying to contact the kind of person who routinely displays their phone number in the newsagent’s window. “Well, I’m tired of how things are. Does that make sense?”
“I don’t know. What sort of things?”
“I thought I was making progress. I thought that she might have been ready to change her mind, but instead she just told me that she was getting married again and…”
“Ah, this will be your ex-wife.”
“The new man is called Duncan. Bloody Duncan! He sounds like a Blue Peter presenter.”
“I thought you had put that particular situation behind you. I thought you said you were moving on.”
“Duncan has a sports car. Duncan has his own house. Duncan, apparently, wears clean socks every day and doesn’t behave like a three year old when things don’t go his way.”
“Ah, so you’ve not moved on quite so far as you might have hoped then?”
“The thing is, I’ve done everything she asked.”
“Have you?”
“Well, I listened.” Even through the mobile phone I could sense his eyebrows arching. “There was a lot to take in,” I explained. “She had a lot to say. It appears that I have quite a lot of faults.”
“I don’t suppose you can remember what any of them are?”
“Not really – she might have a point with the not listening thing I suppose – but the other stuff… I’m willing to try.”
“She doesn’t want you to though, does she?”
“Not now she’s got Duncan. Good old Dunc’…”
“She was alone too, just like you, although without the six foot pile of takeaway containers in the kitchen and a mound of dirty socks in the bidet, obviously.”
“She left me. She started the divorce. She said we were both unhappy.”
“And?”
“…It’s bloody infuriating.”
“She doesn’t want you to be lonely.”
“She wants me to meet somebody. To ease her conscience.”
He sighed the kind of sigh that, even over the phone, comes accompanied with a world-weary roll of the eyes. “Where are you?” he asked.
“I’m in the park,” I answered. “It’s the nearest thing I get to excitement these days. Can I get home without treading in dog shit? Can I sit on a bench without having my hat stolen by a gang of feral kids?”
“You’re not even wearing a hat.”
“How can you possibly know that? I…” I looked at my phone only briefly before ending the call. “Don’t tell me,” I said, turning to face the man who I knew I would find standing beside me, “you just happened to be in the park as well.”
“I like to walk,” he said. “I like to meet people. It’s a good way to meet people, don’t you think?”
“I’m not really lonely you know,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “Let’s have an ice cream.” We joined the short queue to the kiosk. “And we’ll see where life takes us.”
“Beautiful day,” said the woman in front of us, trying to defy gravity by remaining upright with a bouncing toddler dangling erratically from her arm. She smiled apologetically as a whirling hand caught me a glancing blow a-midriff and gently eased the child out of range. “I brought my nephew to play. An ice cream is a small price to pay, don’t you think? It’s so nice not to be staring at the walls.”
I waited for Lorelei to fill the void, but he was silent; smiling benignly at me, the woman and the world in general. He had a look of contentment that, as ever, I found impossible to understand. I tried to grin my way out of the situation, but the silence was becoming increasingly awkward.
“Do they still do 99’s?” I asked nobody in particular.
“I hope so,” said the woman. “Otherwise I’ll have to get a Flake from the newsagents on the way home. I’ll be particularly unhappy if they don’t do sprinkles.” She smiled. Quite a nice smile, in its own way. “Sara,” she said. “My name is Sara.”
“Jim,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you. And this is?…” I looked down at the child clinging to Sara’s hand.
“Oh this,” she said. “I’ve really no idea. He’s not my nephew really, I just picked him up at the playground. It’s so much easier to talk to people if you’ve got a child with you, don’t you think?” I could feel my mouth dropping open. “It’s a joke,” she grinned. “Of course I know his name… It’s written in the back of his coat.” The smile again. “This is Tom. Say hello Tom.”
“Aunty Sara’s going to buy me an ice cream,” said Tom clinging tightly to her hand. “We’re both having sprinkles.”
Lorelei coughed quietly. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve just…” He turned to the woman in the queue. “I’m sorry Sara – I hope it’s ok for me to call you Sara – I hope you don’t think me terribly rude, but I have to go. It’s been good to meet you. I hope you enjoy your ice cream.”
“We will,” I replied in perfect harmony with Sara and Tom as Lorelei turned and wandered quietly away.
“And don’t be lonely,” he said. “I’m just a call away…”
“I know,” said Sara…

The first conversation with the bearded man is here: A Little Fiction – New Book (Title Unknown) – Introduction (Conversations with a Bearded Man part one)
The second conversation is here: A Little Fiction – A Further Excerpt from a Different Unfinished Novel (Conversations with a Bearded Man part two)
The third conversation is here: A Little Fiction – A Further Further Excerpt from a Different Unfinished Novel (Conversations with a Bearded Man part 3)
Conversation four is here: A Little Fiction – Lorelei (Conversations with a Bearded Man, part 4)
Conversation five: A Little Fiction – Conversations with a Bearded Man (part 5) A Pre-Christmas Exchange
Conversation six: A Little Fiction – Conversations with the Bearded Man (part 6)

I believed that these conversations might end here, but I’ve been asked a number of times to resurrect this character and so I’m trying to think how I might do it without him wandering out of a shower to find that it’s all been a dream…