August 5, 2014
Headstuff.org asked me to write something about The Pet Shop Boys ahead of their appearance at this year’s Electric Picnic. This is what I came up with…
“Well, what about if we meet somewhere half way then?” Terry, Liam and Alex leaned in close to Ricky, hoping to hear the other side of the conversation. Ricky shook his head and rolled his eyes as the reply came back to him. “I dunno, somewhere equidistant for all of us? Old Street maybe?” Terry nodded approvingly. “It’s just that we always seem to be the ones having to go to you. It might be nice, for a change, if you guys came out this direction.”
Alex extended out his bottom lip, impressed with how Ricky was handling this delicate negotiation. The girls had a habit of getting offended quite easily. This had to be approached with care. Ricky was being firm but not aggressive, clear and concise but not dictatorial, just like they all talked about before he dialled. Ricky was definitely the right man for the job. Terry would have caved at the first protestation. Alex would have flown off the handle – cursed and yelled at them. And Liam, well Liam would have over complicated things. They would have ended up meeting in Luton or somewhere ridiculous.
“No-one’s calling you lazy!” Ricky raised his voice for the first time. The other lads patted their palms in mid air, gently encouraging him to remain calm. Ricky nodded gratefully and took a deep breath. “I know there’s nice pubs near you but there’s nice ones round here too.” Ricky’s patience was clearly starting to run dry. “Well, how do you know? You guys never come out here.” Ricky frowned and shook his head. The boys knew exactly what this meant. It wasn’t happening. The girls weren’t going to budge. Every week they had talked about finally bringing it up with them. But every week they put it off. It wasn’t worth the hassle, or the argument. It was just easier to keep things as they were, not rock the boat. But today, for some reason, they had decided that enough was enough. All they wanted was one tiny little grain of compromise. Something they could point to and say ‘See, they don’t get their way all the time.’
“Hold on a second.” Ricky covered the phone with his hand. “They’ll be in that place on Shaftesbury Avenue from nine. We can either join them or not. It’s up to us.” Terry fell back onto the sofa, deflated.
“What should we do?” Liam asked desperately.
“If we cave now, that’s it. There’s no going back,” offered Alex gravely.
“Maybe. It’d be a lot handier for them.” The four lads looked at each other, utterly depressed by their predicament.
April 1, 2014
“How long do you think I have?” asked Emma. She was concentrating on sounding dispassionate and business-like, but her trembling left hand betrayed her. David looked across to Ian, who furrowed his brow and sat forward.
“Three months. Four perhaps. If we’re lucky. We’re already picking up a noticeable downturn though.”
“Is that all?” she sighed. Ian and David nodded grimly.
Emma peered across towards the office window as she sipped Diet Coke from a glass. She turned back to Ian and David to see them both gazing idly at her breasts. She didn’t bat an eyelid.
“So if I don’t go ahead with this. What do you envisage happening?” she asked. David leaned back on his chair, with a creak.
“We always knew this game-plan would reach a point where it simply wouldn’t be a effective anymore. Didn’t we?” Emma looked back towards the window. Ian cleared his throat.
“It’s worked really well for you up to this point, Ems. But we’re now very quickly approaching a time where it will start to hurt you more than help you. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Emma put her glass down and walked over to the window. She stood there in silence for a few moments before turning and folding her arms.
“And what if I refuse to go ahead with it?”
“No-one’s going to force you to do anything, Ems” Ian said. “It’s entirely your choice. All we can do is give you our opinion.”
“David? Will you still look after me if I don’t do it?”
“Of course, love.” He fell silent for a moment. “Of course.”
Emma turned back to the window and looked down at the street below her. It was still rush hour and all the traffic in the one-way system lurched forward together in slow, inevitable, unison. She could feel herself starting to well up, but she stopped herself. She had long since developed a little exercise to bring herself back from the brink of weeping.
Ian stood and joined Emma by the window.
“Look, Emma. This whole… never showing your nipples. I think it’s great. It’s wonderful. It’s a statement. It’s empowerment. It’s your… thing. But it’s finite. The truth of the matter is, your popularity is waning. You can see it in the sales figures. People are tired of waiting. They’ve been patient, but you have to give them something new.” Emma looked over at David. He smiled and nodded back.
“This magazine,” Ian continued, “employs nearly a hundred people. I have to think of them. Honestly, Ems. If I had my way, none of our girls would go topless. And listen, I understand that you’re scared… or uncomfortable, or… whatever. But the sad, cold, hard truth is… if you want us to book you, you need to start going topless. Fully.” Ian put a reassuring palm on Emma’s shoulder. “Do you know what I mean, darling?”
Emma started going through her exercise again. But she could tell it wasn’t working.
“OK” she nodded. “You’re right.”
“Good woman.” Ian smiled and winked at David. “We’ll schedule in a shoot for Friday. Does Friday suit Ems OK, David?”
“Friday’s good for us, Ian” replied David, looking at the floor.
January 30, 2014
Written for headstuff.org
“This bench meant the world to old Paul. Every day for nearly twenty years, without fail, he would sit here and watch the world go by. There isn’t a regular of the park, who didn’t know Paul. Whether we knew him merely to nod to and exchange a quick ‘good morning’ with, or to sit alongside and pass countless minutes chatting about the big match. Everyone knew Paul. Sometimes it was hard to know where Paul ended and the bench began.” The assembled dozen or so people chuckled and nodded.
“But seriously though, we all adored Paul. Didn’t we? He was a constant source of cheerful banter and always happy to lend an ear if you had a problem. And as much as we loved Paul, he loved his bench. Nineteen years. Every. Single. Day. Can you believe that?” Everyone shook their heads. A little overzealously perhaps, as if it were a competition to prove just how incredulous they were?
“I’m sure there’s a bench just like this in heaven with his name on it. And now, forever, there’ll always be one down here with his name on it too.” The Park Ranger pulled away what looked like a velvet dishcloth, to reveal the gleaming golden plaque that had been screwed into the back of the bench. It read: ‘IN MEMORY OF PAUL SHERIDAN, WHO SAT ON THIS BENCH FOR NEARLY TWENTY YEARS. WE WILL NEVER FORGET YOU.’ A short period of squinting, fawning and clapping followed.
But soon, a slow, sarcastic clap emerged from the din. As it became louder and more pronounced, the earnest applause fell away as the gathered few turned to see where this cynicism was coming from. It was coming from Terry.
“In memory of Paul Sheridan” the old man sneered. “Who HOGGED this bench for nearly twenty years!”
The crowd parted as Terry approached the bench. He was a spindly, scruffy looking ninety something year old – raggedly dressed with the kind of scowl that could ruin your day.
“Ah, hello Sir. Is everything OK?” The Ranger nervously stepped forward, but quickly retreated as Terry waved his knobbly walking cane threateningly.
“How many of you… sycophants… know who I am?” Terry sat down on the bench. One or two people limply, uncomfortably raised their hands,. “Hah? One? Two of ye? Yeah? Thought so.”
Terry surveyed the gathered dozen and shook his head disdainfully. “Twenty one years. That’s how long I’ve been coming to this park. Nineteen? Pfft! No. Twenty-one. Every. Single. Day. For two years I sat right here. On the good bench. Having the chats with the people that passed. Smiling and being all those disgustingly lovely things you said about Paul. But then this… blow-in… arrived.” Terry awkwardly dragged one leg over the other so that they were crossed and started filling his pipe with tobacco.
“He always seemed to get here first in the morning. It didn’t matter how hard I tried. He’d always beat me here. For a few days we sat together. I told him how I’d been coming here… sitting right here… for two years… on the good bench. I joked that perhaps one day, after I’m gone, they’ll put my name on it.” Terry produced a Zippo lighter and ignited the pipe. “I could see his ears prick at that alright. That’s when he changed.” He inhaled deeply.
The Ranger stepped forward again. “OK sir, well we better…” but Terry raised his cane again and continued.
“Intimidation. Sometimes it got physical. Your… gentle genial saint… had an edge, let me tell ya. Oh yes. A ruthless edge.” Terry stiffly shifted. “This was his bench now. And under no circumstances was I to come near. I was banished from the good bench. All that was left was that one over there.” The gathered dozen or so turned to where Terry pointed. But they couldn’t see anything. “You won’t see it from here” he puffed. “It’s too overgrown and secluded down there. It’s mossy and damp and removed from all footfall and traffic. If I wanted to exchange a cheerful ‘good morning’ or talk about the football, I’d have to make do with the earwigs and the snails… over on the shit bench.”
The unease around the bench was palpable. Some cleared their throats awkwardly and shuffled their feet in the grass.
“That’s where I’ve been. For nineteen years. Every. Single. Day. Waiting for the good bench to free up. Nineteen years. Biding my time. And now that he’s finally gone, you’re telling me I have to sit next to this.” Terry eyed the plaque, shook his head mournfully and sighed. “He’s even hogging it from beyond the grave.”
The Ranger’s polite smile had all but faded. A dour cloud now hung over the assembled dozen or so. A deflated silence followed, only broken by Terry’s abrupt slapping of his knees with his palms. He rose to his feet.
“But life’s too short for such ill feeling. Right? For nineteen years, I thought I wanted the good bench more than anything. But now that I’m here, I dunno. I think I prefer the shit bench.” Terry smiled for the first time. A wave of relief washed over the gathered dozen or so. This unfortunate episode was almost over, it seemed.
Terry strolled away and down the hill, towards the hidden ‘shit bench’. They all watched him go. Then he stopped and turned. He was still smiling, but it was a different kind of smile. He suddenly had a hipflask in his hand and he raised it aloft.
“To Paul.” The dozen few nodded and smiled politely. Then there were a few sniffs.
“What’s that smell?” someone asked. Then they heard the crackling sound. Then they felt the growing heat. They turned just in time to see the bench really catch fire. It went up in seconds.
They screamed, fled and dithered. Sheer chaos. Terry couldn’t see the ensuing pandemonium from his place back on the shit bench. But he could hear it fine. He chuckled heartily and raised another toast with the earwigs.
June 8, 2009
Jemimah found the Squirrel on a Thursday. It lay dead by the side of the road in a puddle of its own fear. The body, head, hands and nose were all in pristine condition but the tail had lost its lustre. She could see no obvious signs of injury and so imagined him as a Nazi Squirrel, cowardly swallowing a cyanide capsule, lest he be hung by an Allied Badger, or worse still, a Communist Raccoon. ‘The savage bastards’ she thought.
There was something about this little crumpled ball of lifeless fur that spoke to Jemimah. Not literally. She did often speak to inanimate objects like chairs or drain pipes and yes, she was talking to this Squirrel now, but it certainly didn’t reply. It was dead. What appealed to her was how delicate he looked, how vulnerable he seemed. She decided right there in the gutter that she loved this Squirrel with all of her tiny little heart. She truly was a romantic, fickle soul. She also decided by the kerb-side that this was not to be the end for her and her new beau. Although she was only five years old, Jemimah began to formulate a plan in her head to bring this rodent back to life.
Strutting proudly through the lunch time main street rush, Jemimah sat the Squirrel on her shoulder like some sort of ghoulish pirate’s parrot. Space seemed to open out in front of them as they strolled along the otherwise packed sidewalks. Women gasped and men gagged at the sight of this toddler and her new boyfriend parading eminently in the August sunshine.
Jemimah rounded the corner and as her house came into view she said aloud; ‘Mum will be so pleased to meet you.’ Jemimah often imagined her mother as the kind of woman who openly welcomed road-kill into the household, but cruelly, in reality, she was not. It was no matter anyway, as she wasn’t home. Having tossed the Squirrel onto the kitchen floor, Jemimah clambered through the window. The back door, as it always was, was unlocked, but as Jemimah’s rather off-beat logic told her, so was the window.
‘Dad, I’m home! I’m just going up to my room to re-animate a dead Squirrel I found in a puddle of urine on the dirty street!’ called the remarkably articulate and concise child from the hall.
‘OK, honey’ replied the remarkably inattentive and negligent father from the lounge.
Jemimah had a unique way with her parents, a way of arguing her point incredibly decisively. She was capable of calmly and coherently presenting even the most ridiculous cases and arguments to her mother and father in such a way that after she had said her piece, they would think it was the most logical and sensible idea they had heard all year. It was this talent of Jemimah’s that had led to the five year-old having a bolt lock on the inside of her bedroom door, so that she could ‘have some privacy.’ She slammed the door extra hard and slid over the lock. It was a big room. Following a suggestion from Jemimah last March, her parents had agreed to swap rooms with her and now crumpled themselves to sleep in the box room on a nightly basis.
Jemimah placed the Squirrel, whom she named Henry on the landing, on a six inch miniature throne that she kept beside the bed. This was a girl with more than ordinary foresight. She dropped to her knees and began fumbling blindly under the bed.
‘Where is it?!’ she fumed. ‘Ah-ha’ she proclaimed inexplicably and continued searching. Following a further few moments of blind reaching, she produced a rather cheap looking silver robot and its remote control. All the blood had suddenly rushed to Jemimah’s head and her eyes narrowed with excited intent. She looked almost demonic as she viciously removed the robot’s outer casing with a screw-driver and threw it at a passing swan. Thankfully the cob saw the ugly lump of wrought iron in flight, hurdling towards him and ducked just in time.
Taking her Swiss army knife, another fruit of her parents’ continuing bamboozlement, she made a considered incision into Henry’s stomach and began to peel. She stood to attention beside the toilet bowl, bloody pulpy ice-cream scoop in hand and with a solemn cough, a respectful salute and a mournful yank of the toilet chain, Jemimah dismissed nine tenths of the Squirrel to the plumbing below. All that was left now was his untarnished skin.
It looked like tiny version of the best Squirrel costume you’ve ever seen at one of those rental shops. If a hamster had wanted to dress up as a squirrel for Halloween, it would have been perfect, if not a little grim. Slipping the Henry suit over the naked robot like some sort of rubber based contraceptive, Jemimah smiled proudly. She took the remote control in her left hand and the Squirrel was re-born. Henry zipped across the floor like a rat with a robot stuck up its arse.
The midday sun had long since disappeared to be replaced by the evening gloom as Jemimah and Robo-Squirrel, as she had nick-named Henry in the hall, took to the streets.
“What shall we do? Where will you take me? I’m a classy girl, you know?” she verbally pecked. Henry’s face didn’t twitch, but simply limply stared into space, as he struggled to keep pace with the little girl.
Da Vincenzo’s, the small town’s only and, by default, worst restaurant stood at the top of the main street. A small queue of hungry diners lined the building’s façade as Gigi, the dubiously Latin Maitre D’, held court at his tiny toad stool and lectern. A quiet mechanical whizzing sound caught his attention and as the queue suddenly dissolved into a retreat of grey and horrified looking would-be customers, Gigi first saw its source. Squeezed somewhat ridiculously into a Ken doll’s wedding tuxedo and with a clump of tiny daisies elastic banded to his paw, the lifeless and by now rotting Squirrel approached the desk. The seemingly impassable level of sheer surprise that was etched across Gigi’s face only doubled when the dead rodent began to speak.
“I would like a table for two my good man.” Gigi recoiled in horror. As he righted himself and leaned in to inspect the thing closer, he noticed a small walkie-talkie cello-taped to Henry’s back. He looked up and, across the road sitting on the knee-high wall, swinging her girlish legs, was Jemimah, identical walkie-talkie in hand and peering expectantly back.
“Well? A table for two please – I haven’t got all night. Hop to it.”
“Eh I’m sorry sir – we’re all booked up.” He slowly reached for the phone. Who he would call, he wasn’t entirely sure. He just knew he had to call someone.
“Now, now son – I’m sure you can find something – in the back.” The Squirrel whizzed and rattled and turned itself 90 degrees to reveal the ten euro note that was half stuffed into its tuxedo pocket.
“I’m sorry. You’re going to have to leave sir. You’re upsetting the diners.” By now, several customers at the closer tables had seen Gigi floundering, seemingly talking to no-one, but on closer inspection, the unsavoury and less than appetizing sight of a dead Squirrel, displaying the preliminary signs of rigour mortis, trying to bribe a Maitre D’ was apparent to nearly half the clientele of the restaurant.
The police pulled up outside Jemimah’s house and led her to the front door.
“I need to see him one more time officer. I need to say goodbye.”
“I’m afraid not Jemimah. It could be diseased. We’re going to have to destroy it.” It soon became apparent that Jemimah’s compelling skills extended in use beyond her family life and the policemen agreed to allow her one minute alone with the Squirrel. As the policemen peered curiously from the agreed ten metres, Jemimah took Henry in her arms and hugged what would have been the life out of him.
“I’ll never forget you Henry.” She began sobbing dramatically and rather falsely.
“I’ll never forget you Jemimah” she croaked roughly out from the side of her mouth. “I love…”
“No, don’t say it. Something’s just don’t need to be said.” She wiped a tear from her eye and tossed the Squirrel onto the lawn. Eyes shieled by a histrionic forearm, she scampered up the front step, through the door and slammed it behind her.
One of the Policemen gingerly picked up the Squirrel between his forefinger and his thumb and dropped it into a plastic shopping bag. He looked back at his partner and was met with an identical glare. It was the kind of glare that seemed to say “Let’s just drive off and not mention this again.” As the police car rounded the corner and zipped quietly away, Jemimah asked her mother what was for dinner. Seemingly, it was a night just like any other.
…Not Also, But Only.
June 8, 2009
The year is 2057. Like some horrible science-fiction cliché, every aspect of your life is governed by one entity, President Cakes. Not an elected leader or a self-appointed dictator, President Cakes is a children’s television programme.
Water now only covers 2% of your world’s surface and it is more valuable than gold. To save money, you bathe in crude oil. All your food is grown, harvested, processed, marketed and sold by President Cakes. It is low in protein and incredibly high in carbohydrates, so it requires very little water to digest.
You are happy. You are content. But you are not free.
The year is 2009. Danny Waverly’s house stands sandwiched in the centre of a red-bricked terrace on the outskirts of Luton. At six o’clock on a bleak February Saturday morning, Danny, as he always did on the weekends, leapt out of bed and hit the ground with a dull thud. Not only was it Danny’s fourth birthday today, but there was another reason to be particularly excited this morning. The BBC was premiering a brand new Saturday morning kids TV show called President Cakes. The teaser trailers and promotional campaign had captured Danny, and his entire classes’, imagination. It was all that was spoken about at school. This was the televisual event of his life so far.
“Happy Birthday, big fella.” Danny’s Dad rubbed his thigh awake as he limped out of his bedroom and into the sitting room “What are you watching?” Danny didn’t even look up. He was already transfixed.
The show itself was rather crudely animated and certainly didn’t seem to have half the budget of the thirty second trailers that heralded its arrival all month. A jagged computer generated chef walked onto a plain and seemingly infinite white background.
“You know Danny this reminds me of something. Danger Mouse and Penfold started having more and more adventures in the arctic, as the show started running out of money?” Danny’s Dad hadn’t expected much of a response to his little factoid, but he felt a tangible sense of discomfort with the sheer engagement that his son now had with the television. “You know? It was cheaper to paint?” Almost involuntarily, Danny began to sing along with the droning and charmless theme tune that simply repeated…
“President Cakes – President Cakes – President Cakes – President Cakes – President Cakes – President Cakes” and so on.
The Chef, the show’s star and host, was swarthy and unsteady on his feet. He spoke with a shamefully stereotypical Italian accent that made the Dolmio puppets seem authentic and made Danny’s Dad, a man without a single Mediterranean bone in his body, feel deeply offended. “Lets-a make-a de cakes-a!”
“Whad-a flavour a-cake-a do-ya want-a?”
Danny shouted “Chocolate!” at the television. The Chef paused before replying.
“Banana cake! OK, we-a make-a da banana-a cake-a. Just for you. And whad-a-ya want on top-a da cake?”
“You’re-a da bossa! Banana it is!” and, in real time, he would make the colourful cartoon cake right then and there. A little memerized himself, Danny’s Dad wondered whether Fyffe’s or Chiquita had a hand in producing the show. Was this a devious power play by the evil and preeminent banana lobby?
After a couple of episodes, Danny knew to only ask for Banana on his cake. It was all this Chef was able to make, it seemed. That was until the following series, in the Autumn, when all he made was cheese cake. Danny caught on much quicker this time around.
The monotonous deep chorus of “President Cakes – President Cakes – President Cakes – President Cakes” made Danny’s Dad’s toes curl each time that he heard his son singing along to it. By series four, they were churning out three episodes a day and never took a series break. It just broadcast constantly and seemingly indefinitely.
President Cakes quickly became the most influential television programme ever. If it told the children once to ask for cheese or bananas or apples, it didn’t have to repeat itself. Whatever the Chef claimed he had heard his little helpers order, in their minds, that was what they asked for and indeed what they would be asking for from then on, until told otherwise.
By the time President Cakes began broadcasting globally, it had broken free of the BBC and transmitted via its own satellite on its own network. It would hold weekly auctions where the planet’s biggest Corporations would bid billions for their product to be the ingredient used in the next cake or to be the oven the chef cooked it in, or to be the jeans that he wore. A little word in this fat Chef’s ear, one seemingly innocuous endorsement would send their profits ballistic. Instead of hard cash, Corporations began offering shares and within three years President Cakes became the major shareholder in every company that was worth mentioning. Within twelve years, it outright owned them all.
Needless to say 2038 was the first time that a television show had been elected US President. Needless to say, not one single person audibly questioned its legality. Within six months President President Cakes had taken over and abolished all of the world’s national and international governmental bodies. And who would stop it? The people who governed the nations of the world, were the same children that had grown up watching the show, the children who would never dare question the Chef’s demands, be they reasonable or otherwise. In the end it was all so simple.
In the future, when extra-terrestrial life finally visits earth, they will hear one sound as they approach; “President Cakes – President Cakes – President Cakes – President Cakes – President Cakes – President Cakes.” And if they’re unfortunate to listen long enough, who knows how far its sound will end up spreading?
Thank you. I wrote this allegorical story after I became increasingly worried about ‘In The Night Garden’.
…Not Also, But Only.
April 27, 2009
Head down and shoulders hunched, Danny boarded the train. He kept his hat pulled low just above his eyebrows and made sure his gaze never strayed anywhere above shin height. Although Danny hadn’t been in the public eye for over twenty years, a trip on public transport still created a distinct feeling of dread and discomfort for him. Danny breathed easily as he found himself stepping onto a completely empty carriage. The morning rush had long since finished and the bustling droves of professional commuters were now safely locked away in their offices. Danny removed his hat, sank into his chair and gazed out the window. Slowly, just as cautiously as the train itself lurched out of the station, Danny started to relax.
Danny put his feet up on the seat opposite and, taking one look at the scribbled instructions on the paper scrap in his breast pocket, he began the calming techniques that he had been taught by his therapist during his last session. Picking out one particular tiny cloud in the dreary grey late morning sky, Danny focussed all his attention on this one spot in the distance and slowly allowed himself to give in to an artificial feeling of floating. He suddenly began to feel euphoric, because for once, it was working. He had always been sceptical of such exercises and never experienced any success with them before. But as the train’s rattle and shake began to dissolve into a gentle sway and the abrasive repetitive noise of the wheels passing on the sleepers below turned into one solid pacific purr, Danny felt as if he was sailing through the suburbs, moving far away from civilisation and deep into the heart of his ‘happy place’.
This bliss however, was short lived. Soon Danny could feel the train beginning to slow and as it pulled into the next platform and crawled to a stop, he tensed up and the dread quickly returned in abundance. Within mere seconds, the carriage was filled with a swarm of excessively loud fourteen year olds. Girls and boys in uniforms stormed the train, shouting and laughing and pushing and barging. The carriage, that had been completely empty, apart from Danny, was suddenly standing room only. Into the three seats directly surrounding Danny, landed a steel mouthed girl, her bleach headed boyfriend and their male Teacher, who seemed only marginally older. Nudging Danny in an overly familiar fashion and with such force that it nearly winded him, the Teacher snorted;
“Sorry about this lot. We’re off for a school trip. Too much sugar I think.”
Danny smiled and concentrated on his breathing. He turned and stared out the window, desperate not to be referred to again. ‘Stay calm, they’re probably only going one stop’ he reassured himself.
“So where are you off to?” nudged the Teacher again. Danny forced a smile but still averted his gaze.
“Eh, a good bit out, Great Missenden.”
“Well, what a co-incidence? So are we. Hope you weren’t planning on sleeping” the Teacher snorted and nudged Danny again “Going to the Roald Dahl museum too? A bit old for that, aren’t you?” he snorted even louder and Danny could feel his heart rate starting to accelerate. His breathing began to follow suit.
‘As long as they don’t recognise you, you’ll be OK’ he told himself ‘they can’t be more than fifteen, they couldn’t possibly remember you and even this guy looks younger than you. If he hasn’t recognised you by now, then he’s not going to. You’re OK. Just stay calm. Find yourself another cloud.’ Danny looked out the window to pick out a cloud to focus on and begin his exercise again, but he couldn’t find one. The afternoon, as it had just turned into, had suddenly brightened up and the sky had turned abruptly clear. As if by magic, it was a beautiful sunny, clear and blue-skied day. ‘Nothing ever goes my way’ thought Danny. The train pulled out of station. It was a forty-five minute journey to Great Missenden.
Danny could feel someone looking at him. It was a feeling that he was well used to and so when it came over him again, he recognised it immediately. So adept at being looked at was Danny, that if pushed, he fancied he could even identify the direction of an offending gaze without even looking. He often day-dreamed about going on some television show and doing it blind-folded or maybe do it as a touring live show. He had it worked out that he would stand in the middle of the stage, surrounded by, say, eight people. Each would look at the floor or somewhere and, in turn but out of sequence, they would just… look at him. Still blindfolded, he would point in the direction of the person who was looking at him. He thought people would love that. But the last thing Danny wanted to do now was to throw himself back into the lime-light like that. In fact, all he really wanted was to disappear and never be seen by anyone else ever again.
Danny felt the gaze from directly in front of him and when he looked up, the girl with the braces quickly looked away and stifled a childish giggle. Danny looked back out the window and kept telling himself that she couldn’t possibly have recognised him. The girl took out her mobile phone and began moving her thumb frantically around the key-pad, finishing off with a pronounced stab at the main button. She smiled and looked over at the boy to her left. Danny was watching out of the corner of his eye as the bleachy head boy’s own mobile lit up and the crackly voice of the most terrible Catherine Tate impersonator shouted “Am I bovered. Do I look bovered?” repeatedly from its speaker. Leaving it long enough for everyone else to savour his sense of humour, the boy eventually ended it with a similarly pronounced thumb stab. He read the text, then looked at the girl and then, open-mouthed, he looked at Danny. The boy’s face lit up and just as it did, Danny’s heart sank.
As Danny turned and looked back out the window, the boy and the girl, as if some how it had been pre-planned, simultaneously lifted their mobiles and took a photograph of Danny, who looked around just in time to be snapped full on. The Teacher, genuinely surprised by what he had just seen, immediately scolded the children.
“Hey! What do you two think you’re doing?” and then, turning to Danny, said “I’m very sorry, I just don’t know what got into them.”
“Sorry sir” said the pair, in unison once again. Danny nodded politely and returned to the ever fleeting outside world. There was a brief silence, which was only broken by the boy who began humming. It was inaudible at first but gradually, it got ever so slightly louder. Danny’s ears pricked. He knew he knew the tune. And as the boy’s humming got loud enough to decipher, Danny knew exactly what the child was doing. Once again, as if it had been pre-rehearsed, the girl chimed in with vocals exactly in time with her friend’s humming. At regular intervals, in tune with the music, she would repeat the words “sausages, sausages, yum yum yum, sausages, sausages, yum yum – sausages, sausages, yum yum yum, sausages, sausages, yum yum.” The girl was doing it under her breath but it was a tune so familiar to Danny that the quietest recital of it would instantly register with him. The Teacher was baffled by the children’s behaviour.
“What are you doing? Stop tormenting this poor man please.”
“But sir, it’s the Gill’s sausages boy! Look.”
When Danny was nine years old he was forced, by his parents, to attend a casting call for an advert. A cute and somewhat singular looking boy, Danny stood out from the crowd with his bright red curly hair, upturned nose and extensively freckled cheeks. He was immediately cast to be the face of the new Gill’s Sausages ad campaign. It was an extensive and multi-platform campaign that saw Danny’s face on bus stops, buses, billboards and newspapers. His voice was regularly on the radio and an incredibly embarrassing, cringe-worthy television spot was on morning, noon and night. Danny’s face was one of the most recognisable faces of 1988. In the television ad, Danny, dressed as a pirate, sat atop a giant sausage with a mast and sail that bobbed across a cartoon sea. All the while, he chanted the incredibly catchy and incredibly irritating Gill’s Sausages ‘mantra’; sausages, sausages, yum yum yum, sausages, sausages, yum yum – sausages, sausages, yum yum yum, sausages, sausages, yum yum.
After two years of saturation and the relatively small company’s overly ambitious investment in advertising, Gill’s Sausages went belly up. Danny’s fame and particularly the quality of it meant that he could not last in any school for more than a term; such were the levels of teasing that he was forced to endure by fellow students and often the staff. Everywhere he went, that theme tune followed him like his shadow. Grown-ups and children alike would herald his arrival with their own impromptu performances of it. Danny soon began home-schooling, stopped going out altogether and started to become utterly, utterly depressed. It was ten years before the mania died to down to an acceptable enough level that he felt ready to start building his life. He tried various auditions but was laughed or sang out of nearly all of them. No one was willing to cast him in anything. He was so recognisable that Danny playing any other character would have just seemed like a comedy walk-on or cameo from the Gill’s Sausages boy. Danny ended up surrendering any hopes he had of a career in acting and instead simply took whatever work he could get. Anything that precluded dealing with people face to face would suffice. Danny drifted from call centre to call centre, doing surveys and generally trying to keep a low profile. Occasionally he would agree to do a night club personal appearance here and there. He hated it so much and it made him so unhappy but he needed to supplement his income so he could keep up with his ever escalating psychiatry expenses. It was a vicious circle that he allowed to continue on the proviso that he made himself that, one day, they would eventually forget. Even now, however, at the age of thirty, he still looked enough like his younger self to be recognised daily.
Danny had thought that by now, over twenty years later, that he would be free of this curse. But he had underestimated the emerging generation’s love affair with all things nostalgic, all things ironic. Crap became good, old became new and all things ‘random’ became adulated as strokes of genius. Unbeknownst to Danny, the TV ad in which he sailed the high seas on a swashbuckling sausage had recently hit on a wave of its own and just surpassed three million views on YouTube, with vacuous teens and twenty-somethings all over the world tossing it across Facebook and Bebo, forwarding it across offices and forums. He was one of the current internet sensations and was being toasted globally again for his utter dreadfulness. This was not a world that would forget Danny anytime soon.
“Oh my God, it is the Gill’s Sausages boy” gaped the Teacher sounding more like his student’s than they did. “Haha! From the internet, brilliant! What are you doing here?” Danny looked away, not knowing quite how to answer that. The kids opposite began texting simultaneously and suddenly the entire train carriage filled with a chorus of various obnoxious text message alerts. The news was spreading. Within seconds the entire group of student’s were gathering around Danny’s seat. He sank low in the corner, now surrounded by sixty fourteen year olds. Each one of them, grappling with each other for a better view, each one of them singing;
“Sausages, sausages, yum yum yum, sausages, sausages, yum yum – sausages, sausages, yum yum yum, sausages, sausages, yum yum” and each one of them holding their mobile phones in out in front of them, video recording like some uniformed teen-age paparazzi. Danny was hyperventilating. The walls started to close in and he could feel a tension in his chest like no other he had ever experienced. He had had dreams like this before, where he would wake up in a pool of sweat and shrieking with terror. But this was not a dream and Danny was acutely aware of it. He struggled for breath and began howling in agony, but the children seemed to only love this more. Danny reached out as if looking for a hand of help to descend and drag him away it all. But no hand came, all he could see were the glee filled faces of sixty students and one Teacher, laughing and baying and shouting at him, recording it all from sixty-one different angles. Danny closed his eyes.
Pixelated video of Danny’s death was posted on YouTube on over forty different accounts and surpassed a total of twelve million views in the three days before they were removed.
…Not Also, But Only
March 19, 2009
My ex-boyfriend Alan first told me about the web-site. He was always a pretty tight sort and so when he first mentioned that he regularly used a web-site where people offered unwanted possessions to complete strangers for free, I dismissed it as one of his needlessly mean penny-pinching schemes. Every week, he would stalk the street where we lived early each Tuesday morning, on the look out for jars or bottles or any other little gems that people had left by the roadside for recycling collection that day. He would turn them into small flower pots or fill them with dry pasta, a seemingly endless practice which he thought gave the flat character, but which I silently thought made it unnecessarily cluttered. ‘Waste not, want not’ was his infuriatingly smug catchphrase.
I can admit now that I never really liked Alan. When we met, he had complimented me on the book I was carrying by my side and it was at a time in my life when I thought that anything I did, said or experienced was unique to me and a select handful of other humans on the planet, who shared my truly singular worldview. It was our common reading of this book along with a half a dozen or so other seemingly unfathomable similarities, that led me marching blindly into the most pointless relationship of my adult life.
“It’s called Freecycle” he lectured me, his head held low, looming closely over the lap-top that his brother had deemed too slow to facilitate his online poker addiction. Alan lifted the computer up and held it hopefully to the window, trying to catch another stolen bar of our neighbours’ internet connection. “It’s the next big thing.” This was another one of Alan ridiculous catchphrases. His previous proclamations of it, in reference to Smirnoff’s limited edition prawn-flavoured vodka and the indie-rock band Star Sailor, had left me feeling more than a little dubious as he uttered it once more. “If you have something you don’t need anymore, you just go onto this site, post its description and if someone else needs it, they just email you and organise pick-up. You can even request items too.”
‘Oh God’ I thought ‘This is the dullest man I have ever met. He’s twenty-four but he talks as if he was… twenty-nine.’ It was at this point that I decided it to end it with Alan. He took it better than expected and went with little more than a murmur. The flat somehow felt colder without him and I spent that first night alone, missing him more than I had expected to. I thought about whether I had made a mistake ending it so abruptly, but I soon rallied and told myself that ‘what’s done is done’ and that going back now was not an option.
“Onwards and Upwards” I said out loud and it made me feel a little bit better. After the third time of repeating this phrase that night, I realised just how much I had been turning into Alan, him and his stupid idioms. I suddenly felt better about being alone.
Within a week or so I had thrown out all of Alan’s pointless brick-a-brack. His useless lap-top was replaced with a brand new one and I had finally gotten all the things his tight fist wouldn’t allow; Satellite TV, Kellogg’s brand corn flakes and my very own internet connection. Life was great. One night surfing on the internet, I came across a web-site, whose name rang a massive cathedral bell in my head. It was Freecycle, the site Alan had been harping on about on that last day we spent together. In these new days of relative decadence in my flat, logging on to this online haven of thrift felt nostalgic and kitsch, so I gave it a go.
I had planned on spending a few minutes having a snobbish laugh at these people’s vulgarity and parasitic behaviour but soon discovered that I had harshly misjudged the entire endeavour. It was wonderful. It wasn’t cracked wine glasses or stained mattresses that were being swapped and offered. It was genuinely useful items like second-hand guitars or good-as-new writing desks. Within twenty minutes I had spotted three things that I genuinely wanted and before long I was getting email responses from people who were more than happy to just give me their stuff. It was strangely invigorating.
Over the next few days I became what I can only describe as ‘obsessed’. I was on the site late at night, early in the morning, at lunch and for large chunks of the day in which I should have been working. I began imagining the lives and stories that lay behind the faceless names and crude avatars of my fellow users. I assigned them voices and opinions, pet hates and unfulfilled dreams. In hindsight, it may have been a little bit sad, but nevertheless, there was just something about this little community that thrilled me endlessly.
Having habitually been given DVDs by friends and family for my birthdays and Christmases, but never having been allowed by Alan to actually purchase a DVD player, my flat was well stocked with movie and TV titles that had yet to be viewed or even opened. Out of boredom rather than actual expectation, I logged onto Freecycle and quickly punched in a short post requesting a DVD player. Within minutes my inbox flashed. I had a response. It was from a new member called Boyler12, a name I hadn’t ever seen before. However, they wrote politely and eloquently, and more importantly, they offered me one ‘good as new’ Philips DVD player.
Later that evening I arrived at the address I had been given. It was a creepy looking bungalow at the end of a dank cul-de-sac on the Western outskirts of the city. I raised my finger to the door bell but as I did I nearly tripped over the package that lay on the dimly lit front step. The note that was cello taped to the small box read: ‘Here is your new DVD player. I hope you enjoy many hours of wonderful entertainment. Kind regards, Boyler12.’
“That was easy.” I thought as I drove home. Usually a pick-up like this requires at least twenty minutes worth of mindless chit-chat, chit-chat that completely obliterates the wonderful back stories and imaginary identities that I had created for these people. Without exception, not one of the four Freecyclists, that’s what we call ourselves, I had visited since joining the site, had lived up to my expectations. Each one of them had proved themselves infinitely duller than the brand new personalities I had assigned them. I felt like taking them to one side and giving out to them, telling them how they should be acting and talking and where they should be living. Instead though, I nodded and smiled and engaged them in whatever inane chatter it took for them to surrender the promised object to me.
Every time I met a new one, they seemed more and more like Alan, boring and stingy and lacking in any imagination or class. I had just about decided to re-subscribe to my initial wholly negative opinions of the web-site and cancel my membership, when I pulled up Boylers12’s intriguing abode.
Boyler12’s deliciously mysterious note and package had bucked the trend and reinvigorated my zest for Freecycle. Like a box of Milktray, left by the enigmatic Man in Black, I carried the DVD player into my flat and took a cold shower to calm myself down. Drying my hair in front of the computer, I checked my inbox. There was an email waiting for me. It was from Boyler12. “You’re very pretty” was all it said. All my common sense, all my rational thought screamed; “Eeuugh! Creepy!” but I wasn’t thinking with my head at this point and whatever part of my body that I was thinking with loved it. I clicked on ‘reply’ and typed; “Thank you. Do I get to see you?” He replied within seconds, “Perhaps. Request something else and we’ll see.” My next request for a bed-side lamp was answered by Boyler12 accompanied by instructions to return the following night.
I pulled in to his driveway, tingling with anticipation. Fresh from the hairdressers and wearing the smartest clothes I could rummage out of closet, I was eager to impress him further. As I approached the front door I saw the lamp waiting for me on the step, with another small note pinned to it. ‘Not this time, I’m afraid’ it read ‘maybe next time?’ I drove home more excited then ever. This was the single most thrilling experience of my life. The email waiting for me at home read; ‘Wow, and I thought you looked good the last time.’ I melted.
Over the next four weeks I returned to Boyler12’s house nightly. Each time a possession or item of his furniture was waiting for me and each time there was another flirty note attached. During this period, the rest of my life simply shut down. I was by now, so enraptured with my mystery man that I now only thought of him. Thoughts of friends or work or family were put to one side and the only practical thoughts in my mind were how to make more room in my flat for his stuff. I began a clear out. I had long since began asking for items I already owned, having run out of things that I didn’t have over two weeks ago. Anything that I had not gotten from Boyler12 was posted on Freecycle and was soon snapped up by the other boring ravenous cretins that inhabited the site. I took to doing as Boyler12 did and simply left the items on my doorstep so I would not have to small talk with them. ‘Just take the stuff and fuck off’ my notes eventually ended up reading. Before long my entire flat was now completely furnished with his possessions, but we were still to meet.
After dragging his double-bed into my bedroom I rested and logged into my inbox. His latest email told me that I had cleaned him out and that he had nothing left to give me. A wry smile broke on my face as I logged in and posted one more request. “Wanted: One Boyler12, new or second-hand accepted” I clicked on ‘post’. As I did, the doorbell rang. My heart leapt. I opened the door and there he was. My home was now his and he… was mine.
…Not Also, But Only
February 16, 2009
The Customer vaulted into the shop in a blustering hurricane of self-righteous indignation.
“You, yes you there!” He was spitting with rage and now sounded much more British than he was… which was not British at all. Rachel had worked in the electronics shop for over five years now and had dealt with customers with all levels of displeasure. She felt confident that she could diffuse any situation. In fact she considered it her forte as a sales assistant. As this thought flashed through her mind, she briefly reflected on how she still found herself in this job. She considered it menial and not in the least bit stimulating. But her boss, Gary, loved having her around because she was so good at her job that it left him with very little to do. He regularly showered her with compliments about her work and often her appearance. If there was one thing in this world that Rachel craved more than anything else, it was compliments. She couldn’t get enough of them. So instead of taking a chance and pursuing a career with her first love, Crazy Golf Course Design, she stayed where the going was good and the kind words were plentiful. As this rather prolonged train of thought finally pulled into station, she realised that she had just been wistfully staring in silence into the middle distance for around fifteen seconds and that the angry customer standing before her was completely red with mad.
“Eh yes sir, how may I help you?”
“Don’t pretend like you’ve never seen me before! I was in here last week.” Rachel didn’t remember the man but played along.
“Oh yes, of course, sorry sir. How are you?”
“I’m furious.” He was.
“Yes I can see that sir. What is the nature of your problem?” Rachel now slipped into her low, pacifying tone of voice that made anyone responding to it with anything less than equal calm feeling thoroughly embarrassed and foolish. The Customer took a deep breath and rallied his dignified self.
“You sold me a defective item.” Rachel remained silent and raised her eyebrows encouragingly. “Look, I’m a very important business man in the film business and I often have to remember a lot of things that are also very important for the film business. So I bought a Dictaphone to help me remember the very important things I need to remember for the film business.”
“…I see.” She didn’t.
“I often come up with a quite brilliant idea and it’s a matter of the utmost importance that I remember this idea exactly how I thought of it first when I need to, at a later date.”
“Yes sir, I know how a Dictaphone works.” This was an ill-considered reply and Rachel knew it as soon as it left her mouth. The Customer started to turn red again and a vein on the left side of his nose swelled up and began to throb. In her many years of customer relations, Rachel had never seen a nose vein before. She was conscious now that she was staring. “Eh… Go on.” He retrieved a small black item from his jacket pocket and held it aloft.
“I bought this Dictaphone from you last week… and I think it’s possessed.”
‘Oh dear…’ thought Rachel, hovering her finger over the silent alarm button underneath the counter. “Possessed?” she ventured dubiously.
“Well perhaps you’d care then to offer another explanation, for this…” The Customer stabbed the ‘record’ button with his thumb and the tape began to roll. Clearing his throat, he spoke into the microphone in his clearest business-like boom. “Note to self, idea for summer blockbuster starring Bruce Willis and Vin Diesel in a remake of the 1969 classic ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’.” The Customer pressed stop and Rachel extended her bottom lip, signifying she was impressed. It wasn’t a popular opinion but she quite liked Vin Diesel and thought that he was underrated. The Customer quickly rewound the tape and pressed ‘play’. As the tape replayed, The Customer’s voice muffled its way out of the tiny speaker.
“Note to self, idea for summer blockbuster starring Bruce Willis and Vin Diesel in a remake of the 1991 classic ‘Thelma and Louise’.” Rachel considered her response carefully. This man was clearly insane, or perhaps the host of some dreadful hidden camera TV show. Either way, she surmised, remaining calm was the way to go from here.
“Well sir, we haven’t had any complaints about this model before.” The Customer just stared at her, utterly unimpressed.
“I pitched this last week in LA, and now I’m no longer a very important business man in the film business.” Rachel opened her mouth to reply but The Customer quickly stopped her dead with a single extended index finger pointed skywards. He pressed ‘record’ once more. “Note to self, earn brownie points with the wife by taking her favourite pet dog Bonzo down to the dog groomers to be pedicured and pampered.” Rachel frowned. The Customer rewound and replayed.
“Note to self, earn brownie points with the wife by taking her favourite pet dog Bonzo down to the taxidermist’s to be stuffed and mounted on the mantle-piece.” Rachel stifled a giggle. The Customer stifled a burst blood-vessel.
“Sir, surely you would have known that that was not what you had originally intended to do with the dog that day.”
“I don’t have time for a memory! I’m too important! That’s why I bought this. But now, my career is over, my wife has left me and my dog is dead. I’m holding this shop personally responsible.” Rachel quietly pondered whether an inanimate object like a shop could be held ‘personally’ anything, let alone responsible, but then realised that correcting the man’s grammar at this point would not be a smart move. “I want to talk to the manager!” Rachel looked down. Gary, who was curled up under the counter with a pillow and blanket, now awake having been woken by the shouting, waved his hands frantically and mouthed the words; ‘I’m not here.’ Rachel sighed and gritted her teeth.
“I’m afraid he’s not available at this time sir.” That was it. Maybe it was the dead career, marriage and dog, or maybe it was the anxiety caused by his arguing with Rachel, but The Customer’s patience had finally dissolved. He erupted. He flustered and shouted and stamped and spat. Gary rose silently from his nook and peered over the counter. The tumultuous sight of this middle-aged man losing all self-control and lashing out in all directions was enough though to send him cowering back down to his hiding place. The Customer showered the poor girl in a hail of insults and obscenities. All the while Rachel concentrated on staying calm and maintaining a cool facade. But all this did was make The Customer even madder. Finally his rage climaxed in a crescendo of blind frustration and he took the Dictaphone and hurled it at Rachel’s head with all his might. The device hit her squarely on the forehead and sent her flying back into the display cabinet. She slid down onto the floor. There was a brief quiet calm, only broken by the bell above the door, which nearly fell off as The Customer made his escape and dashed out of the shop into the lunchtime rush. Gary just stared at Rachel, wide-eyed and disbelieving.
“Are… you OK?” was apparently the cream of potential utterances that he lined up in his brain and was the one he eventually plumped for. Rachel was dazed and in shock, but she nodded in the affirmative. Gary finally rallied himself into action. “I’m going to call the police. Quick, write down what he looked like so I don’t forget.” But Rachel didn’t respond and now seemed to be concussed. “Sorry, never mind. I’ll do it.” Gary fumbled around for a pen but couldn’t find one. In an instant he spotted the Dictaphone and quickly thumbed the record button. “Eh…A white male, five foot nine, medium build, was wearing a dark suit and a red tie.” Pressing stop, he grabbed the telephone and quickly dialled 999.
As three local squad cars sounded their sirens and headed in the electronic store’s direction, dispatch sounded over their radios. “All available units, woman assaulted at Wilkins’s Electronics on Claremont Avenue. Be on the look out for a yellow and purple polka-dot skinned bodybuilder, seventeen foot twenty tall, wearing a luminous green space suit and holding a massive novelty sized statue of Harrison Ford dressed as Al Capone. All units, be on the look out. He is to be considered unstable and extremely strange, over.”
…Not Also, But Only
September 15, 2008
One morning last month I woke at four-thirty. Someone coughed. I sprang up in bed like a slice of toast and looked around. The door to my en-suite bathroom was ajar and the light was on inside. I live alone, so I was scared.
That same cough again, followed by the pained strained grunt of mild constipation. He sounded frustrated. I know this because he released a deep sigh before cursing. It was a curse in a foreign language but I could tell it was a curse. You can always tell when someone is cursing regardless of what language its in. Its in the delivery. This curse was delivered in what sounded like an eastern European language of some sort.
What do you do when an eastern European burglar breaks into your home and stops to take a dump in your en-suite? What’s the etiquette here? Should I wait until he finishes before I call the police? Should I check that he has enough toilet paper, or something to read?
As quietly as I could, I pulled back the covers and swung my legs out onto the floor. I tip-toed across the room and stood motionless at the bathroom door. He sighed again. It was a mournful and depressed sigh. He was clearly very down about this dump. Throwing caution to the wind and gripping my lap-top computer, the only blunt object to hand, I prodded the door open and stepped inside.
Our eyes locked and we were fixed where we stood and sat. I could see a sharp and very real terror in his eyes. Surely no one ever feels as vulnerable as they do when they are confronted by a stranger while they’re on the toilet. What a great leveller it can be. If I were to meet this man under any other circumstances, it would be he that had the upper hand, me that had the terrible fear in my eyes. For this was more monster than man, more legend than reality. The man sitting on my toilet, locked in a bitter struggle with his bowels was the eponymous villain from Bram Stoker’s classic novel and all round cliché figure of evil, Count Dracula.
I instantly knew it was he. Dracula was always one of my favourite novels and somehow this man was exactly how I had always pictured him. He did not look like Gary Oldman or Bela Lugosi. Nor did he look like Christopher Lee or Leslie Neilsen or any other popular image of the famous character. He had the terrifying face that I had held in my own mind, the six times I had read the book and created my own unique visual imagery. Except now, he was here on my toilet, taking a dump at half four in the morning, not seeming half as diabolical as I had originally imagined.
“Can I help you?” was all I could manage. He paused and considered his answer carefully. He was clearly embarrassed.
“No… thank you. I won’t be much longer?” was all he could manage. I slowly backed away into the bedroom and closed the door. I crawled back into my bed and waited for him to finish. The wait was obviously too much for me as I soon drifted off. The next morning he was gone.
I know what you’re thinking, ‘It was obviously just a dream.’ well no, it wasn’t. I know this because the following night another famous vampire took a dump in my en-suite. I woke in my bed the same way as I had the night before, the toilet door ajar and the light inside casting a warm segment of yellow on my bedroom floor. A strained grunt again, but this time someone different. The voice was slightly more high-pitched, more cartoonish, more, well, racist. A loud splash followed by…
“One, ah, ah, ah.” Another troubled grunt pre-empted a second satisfying splash which in turn was followed by…
“Two, ah, ah, ah.” It appeared that Count Von Count from Sesame Street was taking a dump in my en-suite now. The next thing I knew, I was sitting upright in bed once again, covered in sweat and back in reality. Count Von Count was all a dream, and this… this was real. I wandered in to the en-suite and there he was again, Count Dracula sitting there, trousers around his ankles, concentrating hard.
Somehow, it wasn’t quite as awkward this time. He knew I posed him no threat and I knew that he just wanted to use my facilities. If he had wanted to kill me, eat me or suck my blood he would have done so after I had fallen asleep the previous night. I asked him, as politely as I could, why he was using my en-suite bathroom. He said that he wasn’t sure, but that he liked it and felt comfortable there. ‘Fair enough.’ I thought. He was friendly, polite and genuinely funny, a very charming man indeed. We talked for an hour. I had an early meeting the next morning, so I bade him goodnight, leaving an old copy of FHM for him to read. I made a joke about not doing anything else in there with the magazine. We had a laugh and I went back to bed.
Over the next couple of weeks, the Count returned nightly. I would go to bed earlier and earlier each night. Partly because I could not wait until it was time for his visit and partly because I needed to compensate for the sleep I was missing out on while we chatted. Each night I would wake and join him in the bathroom, me perched on a foot stool and him holding court on my toilet seat. He spoke to me of the world as he saw it, of politics and pop culture, of literature and love. Those nights quickly became my life. I stayed up later and later, slept in longer and longer, missed more and more work. It was all about my nightly chats with Count Dracula.
Two nights ago I woke at the usual time, the toilet door was ajar but the light was off. I felt sick. When something becomes so familiar and occurs so regularly and identically for so long, you feel ill when the pattern is broken. I turned on my bedside lamp and wandered over to the bathroom. Flicking the switch I found what I feared I would… nothing. He was nowhere to be seen. He hadn’t been and gone. I know this because the glass of milk and dark chocolate I had left for him hadn’t been touched and the toilet seat was stone cold. I went back to bed to await his arrival. He didn’t arrive and I didn’t sleep.
Last night I woke again at the usual time. Again the door was ajar but again the light was off. Once more I went to make sure. My heart sang as I turned on the light. The milk, half drunk, the chocolate, gone. But instead of the Count sitting on the toilet looking up at me, all that was there was a note.
The note read; ‘Dear Shane. Thank you for the use of your lavatory over the last few weeks and for your company. Both were greatly appreciated. I feel that I owe you an apology, for I fear that I was not completely truthful with you when you asked me why I was using your bathroom. You see, of late, I have been seeing someone, a lady named Valerie. She recently moved in with me and up until last month we had lived quite harmoniously together. However that is when the rows began. She became controlling and argumentative. I felt trapped and suffocated, utterly unhappy. And so I left her, packed a small bag and left my own home. The real reason that I needed to use your lavatory was simply that I had no other lavatory to use. My diet promotes regularity and I am, naturally, required to oblige. And now I must apologise once more, because I fear I was not completely honest with you at the beginning of this letter. Your company was not much appreciated, it was frankly dull and lacking in any stimulation whatsoever. The fact is that I needed your toilet and I used you to get to it. Now that I have resolved my differences with Valerie, I have moved back in and shan’t return to your pathetic en-suite. You were nothing more than a poo hole to me. Yours no more, Count Dracula.’
Needless to say I was crushed. Using someone for their toilet, it doesn’t get much more evil than that, does it?
…Not Also, But Only.
April 28, 2008
It was my Grandad’s birthday. Eighty-six years of age and sadly, taking a slow, bumbling bow from this world. I arrived at the home at about twelve. This had become a tradition that I hadn’t expected to last as long as it had. When my parents first put him in there and fucked off to their retirement villa in the south of Spain, Grandad was seventy-eight and seemingly on his last legs. Yet here he was all those years later, ‘celebrating’ another birthday. I felt duty-bound to make an appearance, although I doubted whether he was aware that I was even in the room.
The nurses had him suited and booted, ready and waiting in the wheelchair when I arrived. I think it had become a running joke to them now that Grandad was still there to inconvenience me year after year. The woman barely even tried to hide her smugness as she wished Grandad a happy birthday and did everything but pat me on the head as she told me what a great grandson I was.
Getting Grandad into the front seat of my car took ten minutes and I could see the curtains twitch as I turned back to the main building. Well I’m glad I could brighten up their day, the stupid bitches. The plan was the same as every year, take Grandad to the pub, get him a carvery lunch and a pint, then get him back to the home quick before he pissed on the car seat. Then my duty was done for a few months until Christmas.
“How are they treating you in there Grandad?” I said loudly. There was no reply. The same old happy, vacant glaze over Grandad’s face didn’t shift. He rarely spoke anymore. “How are your buddies in there? Good?” Nothing. “Still with us, are they? Or have they been carted off to the graveyard?” He just smiled and stared straight ahead. “Do you even know I’m talking to you, huh? I could probably just say whatever the fuck I wanted and you’d still just go on grinning.” He started to hum a tune quietly to himself. I left him to it.
The pub was nearly empty. I always tried to get there before the lunch rush. It was difficult enough to manoeuvre the old man around a deserted pub, it was practically impossible to do it with eighty other people rushing manically about trying to get to the top of the queue before the roast beef or their lunch hour ran out. We sat and ate in silence. The gravy was watery and tasteless, the meat, tough and slimy. None of this seemed to bother Grandad, who wolfed it all down as if it was the first meal he’d eaten in days. Then, just as the first of the rush began to filter in, I got Grandad his birthday pint. I left him to finish it while I went in search of a cigarette machine. I smoked three Marlboro Lights in a row, sitting on the window sill outside, occasionally peering in to see if he was still alive.
Back in the car and pulling out of the car park, I smiled to myself, thinking that I was becoming faster at getting him into the front seat. Eight minutes twenty this time. Next time, God forbid there is one, I might get it down to sub seven. I should have perhaps given Grandad the opportunity to use the bathroom in the pub, but that would have meant helping him on and off and probably wiping his arse too. So I thought I’d leave that particular task to that smug bitch back at the nursing home to deal with. But I was now running the risk of him pissing all over my car’s front seat. It was a brand new Golf GTI that I had saved for two years to afford and I loved it more than I have ever loved anything or anyone. I put my foot down on the dual carriage-way. The clock was ticking.
“Can we pull in please?” It was the first time I’d heard his weak little voice all day. I nearly swerved off the road with shock.
“What?” I managed as I righted the car.
“I need to wee wee.”
“No Grandad, we’re nearly there.”
“I can’t hold it.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake.” But I knew I had no choice. My upholstery was at risk.
We pulled in at a fancy looking health spa. I wasn’t about to have him squat in a shrubbery by the side of the road with everyone driving by, laughing at me. This was the only place along this stretch of road, so we went in.
The lobby was beautiful, too beautiful for us. I felt guilty just being there amongst the lavish white marble walls and floors. Everything in the building screamed ‘You don’t belong here!’ I guess that’s the way they like it. The girl behind the reception desk was the human equivalent of the lobby, way too beautiful. She looked about nineteen with the palest white skin, big green eyes and jet black hair that curved sharply down the left side of her face. She raised her head away from the computer screen and glared at us. As I wheeled the old man up to the desk, she flicked her head backwards, tossing her hair over her shoulder revealing her small, but perfectly formed breasts. I considered whether this was a deliberate move on her part to unnerve me, but then realised I was now just staring at her chest as she waited for me to speak.
“Em, would it be alright if my Grandad used your bathroom?” I quickly blurted and made a big point about looking her in the eyes.
“I’m sorry. Our facilities are for members only.” She replied coldly and returned to her work. As I gripped the wheelchair handles and began to turn around, Grandad removed the cap from his head and smiled at the girl with an innocent and harmless charm.
“Please.” He said, in a tone of voice I had simply never heard him speak before. This one short, simple little word slithered out of his mouth like silk and drifted across the desk, enveloping the Ice Queen where she sat. She melted. Her ivory milk skin quickly tinted a bright crimson and her mouth gave in to an involuntary giggle. It really was something.
“Well… I guess, if you’re quick.” she wheezed and handed me a key. “Its through the double doors and second on the right.”
I was dumbfounded by the old man’s little victory as I pushed him carelessly through the double doors. I thought perhaps I could get him to use that witchcraft to get her number or something for me on the way out. It was while this thought was circling my head that he must have leapt out of the wheelchair, because before I knew it, Grandad was ten feet away from me, striding down the corridor like an Olympic walker towards the open elevator at the opposite end. All the vacancy and fragility had suddenly disappeared. His shoulder hunch was gone and he looked a foot taller as he skipped into the closing lift.
“Grandad!” was all I could manage as the metallic doors closed leaving me staring at the reflection of me and an empty wheelchair. He was gone.
The red electronic display showed that the lift was going down so I abandoned the wheelchair and vaulted through the door marked ‘stairs’. There was only one floor below and as I emerged from the stairwell I saw an empty elevator closing. The old man was nowhere to be seen. I jogged down the corridor that led away from the lift. How did he move so fast? As I passed the wooden doors to my right and to my left I saw, through the little windows, that they were all private little saunas. Through the steam I could see the figures of unattractive naked forty-somethings oozing with sweat and struggling to cope with the heat. ‘So this is how the fatter half live.’ I thought. As I turned the corner I saw Grandad. He was twenty feet away from me, standing in the open doorway of one of these saunas. He was meticulously putting on a pair of brown leather gloves, grinning at someone or something through the door. But it wasn’t his usual glazed-over smile. It was something much more sinister.
“Ian Travers?” he asked with a brisk, business-like courtesy.
“Yes. Who are you?” replied a tired middle-class voice from inside who seemed annoyed at being interrupted.
“Dennis Reynolds says ‘Hello‘.” sneered my Grandad as he reached into his jacket, pulled out a silver handgun and fired twice in quick succession. Then there was nothing. Not a sound. Everything had frozen when the gun was produced, my body included. I was three feet away when the shots were fired but I didn’t jump, I didn’t scream, I just stopped mid-stride and hung there, unable to breathe or function. After what seemed like a day or so, Grandad broke the silence.
“Here.” he tossed me the gun. “Make yourself useful.” And again, he strode away from me, around the corner and out of sight. This surely wasn’t my Grandad.
I caught up with the old man as he waited for the elevator. He removed his gloves with the same considered care and put them in his inside pocket.
“Grandad, what the fuck is going on?” I was breathing heavily now. This was partially due to the shock of what had just happened but almost completely due to my complete lack of fitness. Grandad had hardly broken a sweat. He slapped me hard across the face sending me backwards into the wall beside the elevator doors.
“Have some manners.” he barked. I had never seen this side of my Grandad. His confidence, anger and coherency had never been there before, since I had known him. I lay back against the wall with the gun still in my hands and tried to make sense of it all. The elevator bing-ed and the doors slid open. The old man froze stiff. I couldn’t see what confronted him in the elevator but it stopped him dead. He flicked his gaze momentarily to me as his eyes tried to communicate his thoughts. I took this to mean ’keep quiet’. Terrified, I obeyed. There was a deep, tense pause. Finally, the last thing I had expected, which was probably exactly what I should of expected, happened.
“Mr. Guiney… we meet again.” said the sweetest, most harmless sounding old woman. My Grandad breathed deeply and raised his hands in the air.
“Mrs. Dockeral… how nice to see you again.” The old man took a cautionary step backwards. I could hear a light footstep on the metal as she moved forward accordingly.
“Cut the shit Martin. This isn’t a social visit.” As she said this she moved out of the lift and into my line of vision. She looked as she sounded, very small and very old. She was barely five foot, dressed like Miss Marple and looked as though she must be in her nineties. But there she was, pointing a gun that was bigger than her head at my Grandad. She hadn’t seen me though, yet.
“You‘ll always be number two Thomasina.” he taunted.
“Not anymore.” She grinned that same grin I had just seen on the old man’s face minutes earlier and raised her gun to my Grandad‘s head level. That deep pause again.
“Now Adam!” screamed Grandad and looked over to me expectantly. Now… what? There was no plan in place, was there? The old woman turned to me in shock and was now pointing her barrel at me. I froze again, just like before and braced myself for the shot. This was all the time he needed, as before I had known what was happening, Grandad had leapt across the few feet between him and the woman, sent her gun flying into the corner with some elaborate martial arts move and gripped her tightly, pinning her arms behind her back. All I could feel, see or hear then was confusion. She was screaming and spitting and barking and growling, struggling to release herself. He was shouting and wincing and pleading and wheezing, trying to hold on to this ridiculously strong geriatric.
“Hit her!” he called.
“Punch her! Knock her out!”
“I can’t she’s… really old.”
“She’s an assassin Adam! I can’t hold her much longer. Knock her out or she’ll kill us both!”
“Do it for fuck‘s sake!”
I looked down at the ground. She was lying there, not moving, but with blood pouring from her shattered nose. I had summoned up all my strength, swung back my right arm and punched her full on in the face. This was the first time I had ever punched anyone in my entire life and it was a ninety-year old woman who was having her arms held behind her back. I knelt down and pressed two fingers against her throat. No pulse. She was dead. Numbly I rose to my feet. Bing, the elevator rose away from me. My Grandad was gone. Soon to be replaced by the sound of approaching sirens. How was I going to explain this?
…Not Also, But Only.