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)

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

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 – Five Minutes in the Car

“…So, do you think that bees know that they’re going to die when they sting you?”
“I don’t think that a bee knows anything.  A bee just is.  A tiny tangle of neurons with honey-making facilities at one end and munitions at the other.  They are driven purely by instinct – like a man at a free bar.”
“If they did know they were going to die, would they still sting you?”
“But they don’t.”
“So, there they are, settling nicely on your nose when they decide they might just give you a bit of a dig and they never, not for one second, think to themselves, ‘Actually, this might not end well for me.’  Nothing inside of them says, ‘Hang on, if I do this, much of what I currently have inside of me will then be on the outside of me, and wearing internal organs externally is never a good thing.’?”
“I don’t think a bee is quite that rational, no.”
“We had a swarm of bees in our garden once.  The sky was black with them and the noise was horrendous, but when they settled they formed a ball about the size of a football.  It was nice, kind of sleepy, just a gentle buzz to it and a few little stragglers flying lazily around it – until I went just one step too close.  Then the whole thing got angry.  The buzz became irritated.  It throbbed.  It was a clear threat: ‘just one step closer!’  So I stepped back and suddenly the whole thing became calm again.  It was definitely thought through.”
“I think it’s just instinct isn’t it?  A reaction to perceived threat.  There’s nothing they can do to affect it.”
“It’s a bit of a stark life though, isn’t it, being a worker bee?  Up at the crack of dawn, flying from plant to plant collecting nectar to feed the young; mind that hornet; dodge the man with the folded-up newspaper, knowing – or, if you’re to be believed, not knowing – that if you wanted to sting the annoying little kid with the cricket bat, it would be the last thing you ever did.”
“Well, it’s not something that you would ever have to worry about, is it?  All the worker bees are female.  The male bees are called drones because they are boring, energy-sapping users who exist solely for the opportunity to mate the minute the virgin queen drops her guard.  They are useless wastrels who sit around doing nothing all day and get fanned and fed by the females for their trouble.  They don’t even have a sting in their tails.  Remind you of anyone?”
“Well, it seems to me that if these drones just lounge about the hive all day being fed and watered before popping out every now and then for a bit of nooky with royalty, maybe they’re the ones with brains.”
“Well, it’s not all beer and skittles.  It’s a single-use penis, I’m afraid.  A couple of seconds of frustration for the queen and then the drone dies.  I suppose it saves him having to help raise the kids.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I like insects.  It’s why I married you.”
“You have to feel sorry for male insects, don’t you?”
“Do you?”
“Yes, like those spiders: one chance to mate and then straight away afterwards the female eats him.  It’s not very romantic is it?”
“Romantic?  It’s life isn’t it.  You forget that males are here for only that one single function.  If you didn’t contain sperm, we’d have no use for you whatsoever.”
“Oh yes, so who’d open your jars?”
“I’m sure there’s a gadget for it.”
“What about checking your tyre pressures, your oil level?  What about topping up your windscreen washer fluid?”
“Gadgets for all of those, I’m sure.”
“Ok then, what about a woman’s other needs?”
“Oh, there’s definitely a gadget for those…”
“You say that, but can you actually imagine a world without men?  …Well?”
“I’m sorry, I was just imagining…”
“There are loads of things that women can’t do you know.”
“Really?  Outside of getting women pregnant and peeing standing up, what might they be?”
“When did you last clean out the pond pump?  When did you empty a mouse trap or de-worm the cat?”
“Choosing not to do things is not the same as not being able to do them.  I choose not to fart at the dinner table, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t do it.”
“Well, even if you’re right and all that men are good for is making babies, that, at least, is one thing you can’t do without us.”
“Yet…  We’re working on it.”
“Well maybe we’re working on having babies without you.”
“Really?  That will be good.  Who’s going to change their nappies?”
“…How far have we got to go?”
“Before we can make babies without the messy bit?  Well, we can do that now can’t we?”
“I meant before we get to the hotel.”
“Why, do you need the toilet?”
“Oh, very funny.  I can’t see the sat-nav.  I just wondered how many near-collisions we might have before we arrive…  Don’t you think you were a bit close to that cyclist?”
“What cyclist?”
“The one on the…  Oh, very funny.”
“We’re about an hour away.  Look, the doctor told you that you needed to rest your ankle, why don’t you give your mouth a rest too?”
“You hate driving in silence.”
“I can put the radio on.”
“You hate the DJ.”
“I can change the station?”
“Not since you broke the tuning knob when you decided that you hated the song that was playing.”
“Oh…  Well you’ll have to talk to me then.”
“What about?”
“I don’t know.  Perhaps we could avoid the bee conundrum for a little while though.”
“Right, so…  Do you think that wasps know that they’re not going to die when they sting you?…”

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 – Conversations with a Bearded Man (part 7) – Helpline

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

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…
 

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.
“Kaleidoscopes?”
“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.”
“What?”
“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?”
“Mint.”
“Classy.”
“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.”
“We?”
“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?”
“Where?”
“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?””
“No.”

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.

Superpowers

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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…