Tuesday, 30 April 2013

365: One Year On

During the winter months my brother and I thought we might lose Father on more than one occasion.  He developed a raspy chest infection and I could hear the phlegm knocking against his ribs every time he coughed.  I prayed he would succumb quickly and not linger like Mother did.  That wouldn't be fair to him or I.  He moved into my Victorian terrace and I converted the parlour into a bedsit affair for him with at least the illusion of independence.  Each morning as I knocked his door and went in to fetch his commode, I hoped he would have slipped away in the night.  Croaky snores told me he had survived again.

Now the weather has brightened I’ve been able to arrange for him to come to the shop with me most days.  A taxi collects him at 2.00pm and I have sweet, weak tea in Mother’s yellow rose porcelain teacup waiting for him when he arrives at 2.15pm.  I have moved his Pre-Loved books closer to the front of the shop, and now they are Rare and Antiquarian books, I have expanded them into a complete bookcase.  I’m sure he believes me when I say the move is solely because some of the books are quite valuable.  The fact that I can see him more easily too is just a bonus.

Father has surprised me since he recovered, I will admit.  First he declared a liking for blueberry muffins.  I have no idea where my meat-and-2-veg Father who sees haggis as foreign muck first tried this most American of cakes.  He usually likes one with his 3.15pm tea even though he does sometimes mutter that however delicious, food should not be blue.  Any blue blobs that fall from the muffin are squashed one by one with a shaky index finger and delivered to his tongue in a waste-not-want-not way of one who has lived through wartime rationing.

He has also shown real talent for computers.  I lent him my Dell when he was recovering and he searched for websites trading in rare and specialist books.  He asked me to create him an account so he could message the sites, and he began an enduring correspondence with a number of sellers, about old books.  He has catalogued all of our antiquarian books and is in the process of setting up a small online store himself.  Fellow book traders have been delighted to advise him about advertising and web design in return for his sage words and valuations on their treasures.

On occasion Father remembers when some of the first editions were brand new releases.  I’ve heard him curse quietly when he sees a value for a book he owned as a boy but discarded for being boring or complicated or too young for him.  I’m sure he then sets himself the task of tracking down a bargain copy, not for the purposes of making a profit but for the sheer pleasure of owning a book which others prize highly.

I’ve also been busy expanding our business beyond smart coffee and political books and old dusty volumes.  The library book club was looking for a new home during some weeks of building refurbishment and they have carried on using the shop to meet since then.  Arnie from the library still hosts the group and as well as the monthly session, the group meets once a week or so for a coffee and reading session.  We take it in turns to lead, although I like to listen to Arnie’s mellifluous voice talking us through characterization and plot so I’m happy whenever he begins the discussion.

Arnie is also something of a writer himself and as an offshoot of the book club we have set up a writing circle.  I’m nervous beginner and I hardly dare think I’ll ever be even half as good as Arnie.  He has an MA in Creative Writing, what a glamorous thing.  He networks with real and e-real writers and arranges talks at the library.  I’ve been to them all so far but have never dared ask a question.  I’m usually gregarious and feisty even but who am I to ask a published author why they made some of the stylistic decisions they did and so on.

I’m just about to capitulate and agree to work with him on setting up a small press.  We have plans to publish local writers and stock their works in the shop and the library, as well as some anthologies of our writing circle stories.  I feel happier in the planning and organizing role but I have a feeling Arnie will push me for something.  When I admired the collection ‘Braking Distance’ from Calum someone who wrote a story a day for a year, he said why didn't I try that.

Father says he would like to write a book about books and that he would like me to publish it.  He will probably type it with two fingers on my laptop in our family shop, fuelled by blue food and Mother’s tea.  Life is so different right now and I feel like I have something to plan for.  I feel like Father has a future, even though he turns 80 in a few months.  I hope that I have someone to see things through with me and it feels like Arnie and I are becoming closer and closer.

For years I envied my brother his life of escape to university, of a family and home and of the freedom to do what he wanted instead of doing a duty to the family.  Now I feel grateful I am where I am and that perhaps he is missing out on what my life is.  When the shop is quiet, I pour myself an extravagant coffee and muse on my good fortune.  When it’s very busy I love every minute and I understand why my Father treated those special books like his children each time I feel pages and covers, and tuck purchases up into bags.  

And increasingly I find myself jotting down snatches of overheard conversation or details of a customer’s hair or clothing or manner, or a brilliant plot that will surely make an excellent Hollywood blockbuster.  I have a feeling some might start to appear in my stories quite soon.

Monday, 29 April 2013

364: Callie’s Swaporama

When she was growing up, Callie loved watching Multi-Coloured Swap Shop on Saturday mornings.  Noel and Keith and Maggie and John Craven were her heroes and she never missed a programme.  Her favourite part was the Swaporama and she would cross her fingers and close her eyes, hoping each week Keith would visit her small town so she could visit and swap something.  It didn’t really matter what, just something.

The outside broadcasts never came anywhere close to Callie’s home but she realized she didn’t really have anything worthwhile swapping anyway.  So when she was grown up and asked to provide a stall at a Scout Fete with her two sons, a modern Swaporama stall seemed like the perfect solution.

The Fete was advertised on large multi-coloured posters, with Callie’s Swaporama listed as the main event running all day.  She imagined children bringing exciting plastic toys and fluffy animals, noisy games and musical instruments to swap for something they really wanted to take away with them.  She laminated cards showing ‘Offers’ and ‘Wants’, enough for 50 swaps to be underway at any time.  At £2 to trade for each side, Callie hoped her stall would bring in hundreds of pounds towards buying new Scouting tents.

On the day Callie dressed in a special 1970s outfit she had hired for the event and set up her stall with a purple T-Rex stuffed toy on show for extra authenticity.  Her first customers arrived within minutes and Callie handed over cards and thick marker pens to the eager swappers.  There was a steady stream of completed cards and fees handed over and Callie passed them to her boys to post up around her stall.

Timothy tugged and tugged at his mother’s shirt until she eventually turned away from her customers to see what the problem was.  He handed her a small pile of cards that hadn’t been fixed to the wall and said, ‘How should we sort these, Mum?’  Confused, she read them and saw items she had never anticipated would be listed.

“Offered: baby brother. Wants: baby sister, but not noisy and no pooey bums.”
“Offered: big sister.  Wants: kitten, any sort.”
“Offered: answers to senior school exams, all years and subjects available.  Wants: £25 per paper.”
“Offered: cricket bat.  Wants: stun gun, suitable for concealment about the person.”
“Offered: videos/DVDs, undisclosed titles.  Wants: videos/DVDs, imports preferred.”
“Offered: me and a lonely dad.  Wants: a new mum, no special requirements except kind please.”

Callie wondered if Keith had ever had such trouble, whether she should contact the police or demand a cut into the deals and hoped with all her heart the final card swapper got their wish.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

363: Mother Knows Best

Can I just say right off, I love being a mother.  I do.  It’s not that I couldn't wait to grow up to have babies of my own or anything, but I always knew when the time was right, I wanted children.  I thought maybe I would have two but we have three of them, all girls.  My poor husband despairs of all the pink in the house.

My girls are all perfect, all three of them.  I now feel what I hope my own mother felt when I brought home hand-drawn Mother’s Day cards proclaiming her the best mum in the world.  I know I’m probably not the best mum in the world, but I know that for my girls there isn't anyone better.  If they fall over, and let’s face it we usually have at least two grazed knees in our house at any time, it’s me they cry for.  When I’ve told them off, they look eagerly for me to forgive them and make it all better.

I didn’t notice it happen at first, it was just little things.  Taking their coats off to feel the warmth when they went back outside was just common sense.  I didn't expect Rosie’s hair to curl but I did think leaving the sandwich crusts was wasteful.  And who would want to see chomped up fish finger as Evie sang along to Barbie Girl?

I checked myself and didn’t say they would end up with piggy-snout faces if the wind blew and nor did I say starving children in any part of the world should be sent Liv’s dinner when she refused to eat it.  I felt uncomfortable when I found myself licking a tissue to wipe chocolate ice cream from three cute faces, especially because I always hated how warm it felt, but not in a good way like a morning flannel.

“I can’t believe I did that,” I admitted to my husband after the girls had gone to bed.  He looked at me and said, “Sometime when you open your mouth, your mother comes out.”

Shortly after that, my husband understood why Dad sometimes ate his meals in the garden shed.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

362: Crazy Pockets

When Colin began to lose his sight, he bought himself a coat with big pockets.  Not at first though, when he was still able to function pretty well at that point and it was just the edges of what he saw that blurred like Vaseline on a 1950s film lens.  It was almost six months before anyone noticed he always turned his entire upper body towards wherever he wanted to look and then a while longer before anyone commented on it.

But when he could no longer carry shopping bags because he needed one hand to skim the stick skewering a snooker cueball across pavements and the other to balance himself if he wobbled as he walked.  That’s when he changed his coat.

Sometimes Colin laughed inside as he packed his pockets full of his purchases.  He could barely see at all but caught a dim reflection of himself in the hallway mirror when he arrived home.  A bright streak of sunlight lit him up and he could just make out two bottles of bleach showing at his hips like a Wild West cleaner’s holster.

With the world little more than blobs and blurs and with colours running to grey more each day, Colin found little besides Radio 4 to entertain himself.  Until he hit upon the idea of Crazy Pockets.  He thought it would be just him and maybe a few bored sight-impaired folk might follow his blog, but his idea went viral.

So much healthier than happy slapping or tombstoning, Crazy Pocketeers (the community vetoed Crazy Pocketers as sounding too much like thievery) set themselves challenges to Pocket the most Crazy items they could, and post word pictures online.  Actual photos were optional but as families and friends got involved, more images started to appear always to be described in words for the talking software to share out loud.

Colin was having more fun than he could ever remember.  His most audacious Crazy Pocket yet was a large tube of hemorrhoid cream in one pocket and a purple 12” marital aid in the other.  Brailing that in a way suitable for a wide audience taxed his powers of description and he wouldn't post the image to the blog until a friend had pixellated the it so much it resembled a bunch of grapes protruding from his pocket.

When he could sense some people on the street were watching him as he passed, hoping for the glimpse of something bizarre in his pockets that they could brag about to others, Colin thought fame had found him.  That was until an international condom manufacturer asked him to consider filling his pockets with their products.  And thats when Colin’s Pockets got Crazier than he had ever imagined.

Friday, 26 April 2013

361: While She Slept

The first week, everyone visited.  Everyone who knew her and worked with her and claimed to be her friend arrived at the hospital.  Her parents recognized few faces but drew some comfort from the thought their daughter had made a difference in so many lives.  Her sister started limiting length of stay and considered a rota system.

The second week, her bruises had paled and the visits tailed off.  Tubes and machines weren’t as exciting as blood and scarring but those who didn't manage last week came along.  This week her mother knew more of the faces, but she didn't trust her mind on how long she’d recognized them.  They can’t all have been in her life all the time, even if it seemed as such.  There was the best friend and the boss and the work friend.  Nobody knew if there was a boyfriend but they guessed not.

The third week her mother had little company to listen to the beeps with.  She read to her, mostly.  Read the books they shared at bedtime years before hoping they would reach into her sleep and touch a memory.  Read those because she couldn't quite remember when her daughter had last named a book she owned.  And read those because 50 Shades of anything was hardly ICU reading.  She read the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, not aware it would have been one or the other, never both that a young child liked.

The fourth week only family came, except from a single visitor from her office.  She stayed only a short while and placed a note from the boss about return to work policies on the cabinet.  The best friend counted as family now and she came every day so her mother could go outside in the daylight, even just for a few minutes.  Her mother still read to her, beginning the same stories again and again just like she had when she was a child.

The fifth week apparently started but nobody really noticed.  It was always one long present day with dark and night merely variations.  She woke up on that day, not just a flickering eyelid and twitching finger, but properly awake.  “I knew you were there Mum,” she said.  “I could hear you and feel you touch my hand.  I wasn’t scared because of you.”

Thursday, 25 April 2013

360: Bees: Urgent Vote

There was an incredible buzz to the proceedings.  Never before had we seen such a hive of activity as the Inaugural Bee Elections.  Workers swarmed over each other to drop their votes into the honey pot.  The constant drone of beating wings filled the sky and Queening it over them all was their leader, the only candidate on the ballot slip.

That was it.  I’m completely out of bee-related cliches and a troll of Wikipedia hasn’t helped much.  My dream of recreating Orwell’s Animal Farm set in the closed world of an English beehive is floundering on my lack of beeisms.  In fact it’s worse than Animal Farm’s parody of Stalinism in your average hive.  There never was a time when the queen wasn’t in sole charge.  The queen never rose up and took over.  The rule of the queen was infinite and unchallengeable and blindly welcomed.

Did you know workers never even contemplate disloyalty but on average a queen will de-stinger 3 bees every week?  Everyone knows a bee will die once it loses its stinger, but not many know that the rapid, sharp removal that happens when a bees stings a foe results in a relatively swift and painless death.  The queen knows that.  She knows that and she knows that to remove a stinger by waggling it loose over a number of hours is excruciating and humiliating and cruel.  And she knows that to do so publicly is an excellent deterrent.

We don’t usually associate with bees at all.  We think them aloof with their royalty and goodie-goodie garden-friendly activities, whilst they think we are angry and rudely solitary and opportunistic.  They are just jealous that we can sting and sting and sting and I will admit many of us have a little bit of furry-body envy going on, although I’ll deny it if you ever repeat that.

Then I fell in love.  We know there can be no bee-and-wasp hybrid, like tigons and ligers, between us.  We just hang out and we talk and we laugh and we fly around looking at pretty stuff.  We take time out to stop and smell the flowers.  And as we teach each other about our tribal ways, we realized that we wasps have so much a better deal of it.  Bees never see their own subjugation, until now and it is just one bee.

So after dark, when we are both hidden away for the day, I will work on my Apis mellifera opus, and one day, every bee will be a free bee.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

359: Pitch Perfect

Jeremy’s usual marketing work involved clients developing the product and him pitching his ideas for a sales campaign to them.  That was how marketing always worked.  Product - pitch - campaign - kudos and money and a happy Jeremy’s wife.  It’s what he was born to do and Jeremy was damn good at it.

One morning Jeremy woke with a fully formed perfect pitch in his mind.  He could see the adverts and the posters, hear the music, knew which stars he wanted for the lead roles - the guy from TOWIE and one of the blonde Made in Chelsea girls for the juxtaposition - and had half a dozen locations in mind for when shooting began.  The slogan was exquisite.  He was the most excited he could ever remember being.

But Jeremy may have had the pitch but he didn’t have the product.  Or the client.

He wondered whether perhaps he should develop a product himself.  After all, it had been his idea and he wondered if he should offer anyone the chance to cash-in on his expertise.  Jeremy realized though, that he knew an awful lot about marketing and USPs and SWOT analyses and next to nothing about product development and design and other stuff.  He didn't even know what other stuff there might be.  So he needed a partner at least.

Over several coffees, he drew up a grid of his most successful collaborations, complete with pros and cons of working with each company or developer.  He decided some were too stupid, some too ordinary,  some he couldn't trust, some he plain loathed and those whom he had only worked with because of the money.  There were quite a few of those.

Very few met his strict criteria of intelligence, a wow-factor, honesty and integrity and someone he actually liked.  If he would spend perhaps years working closely with this person, he wanted them to be as perfect as his pitch.  A wanted another Jeremy.

He looked at his short list.  List was almost an exaggeration.  There were two names on the paper, Anneliese Gregson and Bernard Templar.  Jeremy considered both for a while, and decided he really didn’t have a preference for whom he worked with.  Anneliese was attractive, always popular with clients but she was a frightful bore about her holidaying.  Bernard was calm and reassuring but he made a little snort every so often when he breathed out.

So Jeremy decided he would ask them to pitch to him.  He’d offer them both the chance to come in with a product and whichever he felt had the best chance of success and keeping his wife spending happily, would be his choice.  He reached for the phone and dialled the first number.

“Hi, it’s Jeremy Eynham here.  I have a perfect campaign and slogan for you and I’d like you to pitch me a product,” he said when he got through.  “What would you think of if I said to you ‘I do it in pyjamas with the cat and a bottle of wine’?”

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

358: Among the Gravestones

Jimmy thought it would be romantic if we walked home through the cemetery after the pictures had finished.  He said he’d hold my hand and make sure I was safe.  “Don’t tell Father though,” he said.  He knew Father wouldn’t like it at all.

The cemetery isn't even on the way home from the pictures, not really.  We saw Audrey Hepburn’s new film, Roman Holiday.  She’s so beautiful and graceful and as we tried to make out the names through 100 years of lichen, Jimmy said I looked just like her in the dusk light.

Jimmy pulled at my hand and led me towards a monument of an angel.  “Let’s sit on the steps,” he said.  He sat close to me and slipped his arm around my shoulders.  We watched as the stars begin to sparkle in the sky and the moon threw night-shadows from the gravestones.  I felt my Gregory Peck allow the tips of his fingers graze my breast.

“Father will be worrying,” I said.  We stood and walked to the gate, this time a little further apart, and left the angel to cast her shadows unseen.

Monday, 22 April 2013

357: Zombie Fiction

Zombie fiction is the next big thing they said, it’s the new black, feel it on the Zeitgeist.  Why on earth wouldn’t I try it?  I want to write, I want to be read and I want to make it big.  I’m going to write zombie fiction.  Could you guess it wouldn't end up being quite so simple?  

First of all, I’m not really a fan of anything gory.  I’ve been known to feel faint at a splinter so I had to steel myself against the queasiness.  The research was difficult and I had to get a feel for the genre before even attempting to write.  A reader can tell if one simply tries to jump on the bandwagon, you know.  I wanted authenticity.

Second was the decision as to plot or theme, or basically what should I write about.  I thought as a new voice in zombie fiction I could try a new style, so if I made it big I would actually start off my own craze perhaps.  Not for me zombies thuddering along arms out, chasing the last few survivors in a crazy world to eat their brains.  Or strains of viruses that should protect but instead infect and zombify and kill.

I decided on zombie romance.  There were vampires and werewolves in love, dragons and slayers with beautiful maidens, sci-fi inter-galactic relationships galore.  I saw a gap in the market and I aimed to fill it with my unique stories of zombie life and love.

Then I hit my third and final consideration, shall we call it.  Is zombie fiction about zombies or by zombies?  I didn't see why it couldn't be a bit of both, which really would be authentic.  I could tell stories of how I met my zombie husband, how my friends fared on the zombie dating scene and what happens with inter-tribal zombies fall in love.

Now if I could only work out how to type with these ragged stumps of arms where I got eaten that first time and how to concentrate without my guts spilling all over the page and how to push down the all-consuming need to hunt for brains so I could construct a semblance of a narrative, I’d be well on my way.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

356: Tell-Tale Hearts

It was another of those things that had unexpected uses once it was put into production.  Mostly the emergency services used them, for finding bodies hidden in collapsed buildings or locating fleeing suspects on dark nights.  Nobody thought the capabilities of infra-red devices would be useful in the sphere of relationships until I did.

I started off with a small unit in a tent, much like a Punch and Judy show on the end of the peer or a palm reader at a county fair.  I usually pitched it myself and nobody ever questioned my right to be wherever I was.  At first it was a bit like waiting for a telegram in the war or a police knock on the door but eventually I got used to being accepted.

It worked on men and on women, although it was usually the women who wanted to know.  They would often come in as a couple, she giggling and pulling him behind her by the hand, he shrugging and declaring it was all a bit of nonsense.  I saw it so many times.  Then I would sit them in front of my machine and take an image.  Like a Polaroid it would take a few minutes to develop and it’d usually blow on it and flap it held by the corner.  That was all for show and made no difference, but at least I felt the theatrical touches justified some of my fee.

Then I would hand them a picture showing them both together, with the heat of their hearts displayed in vivid colour.  I never said it was a relative measure of whether they felt the same about each other, who felt the most for whom, but they began to see it as such.  When a bright red sat with a green or sometimes even a blue, well you can imagine.

Too many happy couples came in and awkward ones left, especially when I settled into permanent accommodation on the High Street.  It was a bit out of the way because the lease was cheap, but they still made their way to see me.  And I developed a mobile unit too, so I could do home visits.  That was so popular I had to start taking on staff and I eventually sold franchises.  It became big business for private investigators, apparently.

Sometimes just one person would come to see me without a partner.  They would ask for a diagnosis, as it became known.  Then they wanted to know was the reason they were alone because their heart was too cold.  And was it ever possible to warm a blue heart to red.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

355: Signed Copies

These are the places I have been to for this promotion - Portsmouth, Reading, Croydon, Brighton, Bristol (both branches), six places in London, Oxford and Leeds.  Yes I know, but my sister works in the Leeds branch and she arranged it specially with her manager so I could hardly say no.  These are the places I have seen Daniel - Portsmouth, Reading, Croydon, Brighton, Bristol (both branches), five places in London, Oxford and Leeds.

Now that most of the branches have a well-known coffee chain outlet inside, the shops have a mixture of book lovers, coffee lovers and coffee-drinking book lovers.  Or is it book-loving coffee drinkers, I’m never quite sure.  But still, I always make sure I arrive for signing well before I’m due to start, I wander round the shop to get the layout and then I treat myself to the biggest latte they sell, which I take to the signing table with me.

This guy was serving coffee behind the counter at the first place I went to.  I was a bit nervous to tell the truth, so I forgot to do my normal joke about what’s a barrister serving coffee for, but he was really friendly.  When I had a lull in visitors, I went back for a second one and I ended up telling him about my book.  And then a few minutes before I was due to finish, he turned up with yet more coffee, as a present for the trip home he said, asked me to sign a copy ‘For Daniel’ and wished me well with sales.  I thought maybe I’d scored an extra fan and beyond telling the story to a few friends eager to know how it went being a famous author, I gave him no more thought.

I did another signing at a branch not too far away a week later and there was Daniel again, in his serving apron.  He remembered me but not my order he said, apologizing that he saw too many customers in a day and explaining he sometimes covered in other shops.  “I’ll remember for next time,” he said and we both laughed.  The rest of the signing went well, busier this time, so I didn't have time to get a second drink.  Like before he arrived with one as a present and I was so grateful I didn’t really think it might be weird.  It was only when he asked for another signed book that I was surprised.

From then on Daniel was in every shop I went for a signing, bar one.  He always wore his coffee uniform but I never saw him in the coffee outlets again.  I started bringing a drink with me so I didn't have to risk running into him but he always stood a distance away, watching.  Sometimes he disappeared, which always worried me because he always turned up again, carrying a large drink he’d presumably bought for me.  When I was chatting to customers, somehow he always found a way to slip the drink onto my table and take mine away.  And I always saw him buying a copy of my book.

My publisher said there isn't much we can do because he never threatened me or did anything at all really, so he had every right to visit whichever bookshops he wanted to.  Besides they said, sales were much better when an author visited in person and I should enjoy spending the royalties he gave me.  I sometimes wonder where he was that other time.

Friday, 19 April 2013

354: Safe Talking

In readiness for visiting Helena, I have prepared a list of subjects to talk about.  

The cat from number 17 went missing for five days and when it came home it was missing a clump of fur from its trousers and its tail was up to an inch longer.  Derek at the shop rang and asked if he could take cuttings from your desk plant and could Simon have the baby spider plants off the leaves as some swing in the breeze when the door is open.  Supermarket delivery came on time again this week.  The library has the second part of the trilogy in but it’s already reserved for about six weeks, so I’ll bring it in then.  The garden’s budding now and I’ve moved the tubs out of the conservatory at last.

I have also prepared a list of subjects to avoid talking about.  I’ve shut up the front room and mostly live out of the other room now, to save on heating the rest of the place.  The girls are worried about whether I’m eating OK.  Half the time I’m not even hungry anyway and it seems a shame to dirty a pan for one.  It was Carl who delivered the shopping again this week and he asked after you.  He said will you ever be coming home.  The dog misses you and knows something’s up.  And so do I Helena.  So do I.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

353: Taxi Tales

The funniest thing I found in the back of my taxi?  Had to be that parrot, didn't it.  A parrot or a cockatoo, whichever it was.  The guy never came back to claim it, that’s what was funny about it.  And how do you forget to take a dead parrot with you when the purpose of the cab ride was to go and get the blessed thing stuffed?

He didn’t look like what you’d expect either.  Not the sentimental type, more like some merchant banker or city whizz kid.  At first he hid the white plastic parcel under the flap of his coat.  The company has this policy about what you can bring in the back of a taxi on account of the amount of money we’ve lost hosing down vomit and curry and phlegm and heaven knows what else.  A dead body, even if it is small and wrapped and disguised, is still a dead body.  Strictly against the rules, that would be.

It was his aunt’s bird that keeled over whilst she was on holiday I think he said.  He sat there in his suit and his mac, holding a brolly and a briefcase, and trying to balance this shrouded item on his knee then the seat then under his coat and his knee again.  He had me park a bit down from the taxidermy place, like I wouldn't guess what was in the packet.  And then he left it behind anyway.

He tipped well, which you don't always get with these city blokes.  Depends if they are on the company ticket or paying themselves.  Much more generous with someone else’s money, unless you give them a receipt for tax purposes.  Give me a break.  So I’d got round the corner when I caught sight of the thing left on the seat.  I drove straight back round but there was no sign of him.

I kept it with me for a few days in case he called me back.  He had my card, see.  But he never did.  I wondered what his aunt said when she realized Polly was gone for good.  An ex-parrot, ha ha.  Maybe I could try taking it into a petshop for a refund.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

352: A Suitable Punishment

So if I tell you how he did it, you can help me decide what we do with him, OK?  They said “It’s your duck, you deal with it,” and then they left.  I didn’t even know I had a duck.  Well anyway, he was drunk to start with but you could probably guess that with Charlie.  I don’t think he’d been to bed from the night before and he staggered in their direction, shaking his can of Frosty Jack’s.  I think he was going to flip the tab and spray them but it slipped out of his hand and sailed through the air towards them.  It hit one, the one that’s mine apparently.  I think it died right off because its neck flopped to the side at a funny angle, like its head was too heavy all of a sudden.  I stopped looking then and I watched Charlie run away, sober as can be in a flash.  I think I loved that duck, even just for a moment.  So, what is a suitable punishment for someone who kills your duck?

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

351: Gerald

Gerald took the job because he liked to look at genitals.  There was nothing sexual about it for him and the more of them he saw, the less inclined he became to ever try it.  He viewed them as one might a piece of art, with an expert eye capable of spotting flaws and perfection in a heartbeat.

He loathed how some people viewed what he did.  Gerald had few friends and of those he did have, only two knew what his job was.  Neither of them knew why he did it.  They thought it was a family thing, especially as Gerald implied his father and uncle had started the business and then sold it when they became too old to carry on.

Until then, Gerald had seen very few real genitals.  A glance stolen in the showers when he was at school, a dropped towel on the beach, a 30th birthday treat to himself of a woman whose number he found on a card stuck to the glass in a phone box.  Otherwise his knowledge was entirely theoretical, photographic and self-examined.

They looked different, before and after.  Before they were small and soft, often slightly sagging and with slack skin.  The hairs were sparse, even the young ones.  Something about death made a previously lush growth seem thin and wispy.  Afterwards they were small and sagging but plasticy with the slackness molded in place.

Gerald preferred to insert his embalmer’s tube into the femoral artery if he could, even though below the collarbone was the site most people would identify, if pressed.  He could look, that way.  He never touched because that wasn’t part of either embalming or his own hobby.

In idle moments, he wondered what an embalmer would think of his own genitals, when his time eventually came.

Monday, 15 April 2013

350: Listening to Mr Freckleston

The bees were first, they knew.  Mr Freckleston said it was because they had special hairs on their knees, but the skin on his face looks like rhubarb and he talks to himself at the bus stop, so nobody really listened to him.

They started returning to the hive covered in white.  Nobody had any idea where it came from or what it was.  When the bees stopped producing honey people got worried, but not until then.  Mr Freckleston said not to eat the honey in case the white stuff had got in it, but nobody listened because sometimes he dribbles and forgets what he’s saying.

Small animals were next, but they tried to groom the white stuff from each other and they started to die.  Little rotting bodies appeared all over and sometimes bigger animals scavenged them.  Mr Freckleston said he would burn any bodies he found and we should all do the same, but sometimes he cries into the night and sounds like a banshee, so we didn’t listen.

Now there are bees and there are animals and there are a few people who did burn the little bodies and there is Mr Freckleston and there is not much else.  Sometimes he laughs and it is a sad sort of laugh, but there isn’t anyone left to listen.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

349: Retinal Photo-Bleaching?

Carl laid in bed with his eyes screwed up tight against the morning light.  He didn’t want to open his eyes in case they were still there.  They’d been there for the last three mornings and Carl was sure they were bigger every day.

The first time he’d noticed them had been when he looked up at the lights in the entrance lobby at work.  The modern chandelier had at least a dozen small bulbs burning at the end of curled arms and when he looked away, Carl saw eight of them floating as dark dots in his vision.  Nothing unusual there, everyone gets that effect from time to time, thought Carl and he went on with his day.

But the spots didn’t fade like they normally do and when he left the office at the end of the day, Carl still saw eight dark dots everywhere he looked.  As his vision moved from one object to the next, the dots jumped and settled, as if they didn't want to be left behind on something he was no longer watching.

Carl thought they would be gone by the time he woke up the next day.  He opened his eyes and as he looked up at the ceiling, he saw the same eight dots, but perhaps each just a little larger than the previous day.  By bedtime they were still there and the following morning each dot had started to uncurl slightly, taking on the shape of a comma instead of a dot.

Yesterday morning they had been worse still, uncurling even further during the night until they looked like little worms, all eight clustered together and still jumping about with every move of Carl’s gaze.  He hated the thought of opening his eyes today but he knew eventually he would have to.  Carl counted down from three and pushed his eyelids open with his fingers.

His eyes felt rough, like he’d had sand kicked in his face and a few grains had grazed his eyeball.  There were no longer eight dots or commas or worms grouped together in front of his vision though.  Carl wasn't quite sure what he saw as things seemed blurred.  And there was movement in what he could see even though he did not move his head and he was sure the wall wasn’t moving either.

Then a long wormy shape moved across his gaze, from left to right and disappeared.  He stumbled from his bed and to the shaving mirror in the bathroom.  Flipping over the magnified side, he looked closely into his own eyes.

From the side of his left eye, just beyond the place the white met the honey brown iris that made him so popular with clubbing ladies, a worm or grub of about one centimetre appeared.  It poked out of a hole in Carl’s eye and appeared to be looking about, as if wondering where it was.  The end of it didn't quite come out of its hole so it flailed about in the air moving from side to side.

Horrified, Carl moved his fingers close to his eyeball, so he could pluck it out.  Before he could, the worm retracted into the hole, making the gritty sand feeling, and Carl could see it cross his vision, back inside his eye, moving from right to left then disappearing again as it went to join its fellow seven worms somewhere inside Carl’s head.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

348: Pissing Off a Fairy

When the King and Queen of Garvinia forgot to invite the Thirteenth fairy to the christening of their baby daughter, they were expecting her to turn up anyway and curse her in some way.  Norma had learnt a lesson or two from bad fairies of olden times and waited until all twelve other fairies had bestowed their gifts on Princess Flora before she stepped out from behind the curtain that hid her from view.

As one, the royal court groaned.  Norma wished her mother had given her a decent name like Griselda or Ursula, instead of naming her after her favourite dinner lady.  Nobody really took Norma seriously and their contempt showed.  But with this single action, Norma would show them.

“You left me out on purpose, didn’t you?” she said, pointing at the Queen.  “You don’t like me much and you’re not scared of me, so you thought even if I came I could do no real damage.  Well, all your pretty little fairies have already given their gifts so nobody can undo my gift.  Your daughter might be clever but she will only speak whilst chewing gum.  She might be graceful but she’ll fight anyone who looks at her for more than three seconds.  She might be able to dance but it will always be to the pounding sound of drum and bass.”

“I don’t understand,” said the King.  “What have you done to her?”  He had rather hoped Flora would marry well, rule over a vast kingdom with her handsome husband and he could become legendary for doing something fantastic in that huge land.  Although he had yet to decide on what he might actually do, he could see the legend crumbling before his eyes.

“Well I’ve made sure her enquiring mind will only ever desire to learn about celebrity gossip and tabloid stories.  She may be stylish but her wardrobe will always be full of man-made fibres and street clothes.  Her beauty will remain but she will hide it behind false eyelashes, rollered-on fake tan and a Chelsea facelift.”

The look on the royal faces told Norma she had won.  The Queen said, “You mean you...”

“Yes,” said Norma.  “I have cursed your daughter with a love of fakery, shallowness and reality TV.  Your daughter may be Princess of Garvinia but she will be the Queen of Chavs.”

Friday, 12 April 2013

347: Subway Denials

I don’t know what to do with that boy of mine, really I don’t.  I’ve brought him up the best I can, given the circumstances.  Tell me, what would you have done?

He left the house halfway through me asking him about the holidays, that frightful hat stuffed over his hair and his eyes barely visible beneath his fringe.  At least he’s wearing a coat these days, even if it is two sizes too big.  He spent a couple of years going everywhere practically half-dressed, however wintry it was outside.

All I asked him was whether he wanted to go to his grandfather’s at the start of the week or the end of the week.  Not that difficult a question, is it?  But he flatly refused to come at all, got really stroppy about it as well.  He just repeated, “I don’t want to,” over and over.  He managed to order his Subway between shouts and then he started swearing at me.  I don’t know what the people in that place must have thought of him.

I hoped he would understand why I have to go.  He lost his own father when he was ten and now I’m losing mine.  My mother is looking after him but she doesn't think he’ll last the summer out.  I want to see him whilst some of my Daddy is still in there.  I want to see him whilst he still remembers he is my Daddy.

Do you know what he said to me then?  He said, “Look, please, I really don't want to, can't you just leave it?” He was so quiet I could only just catch him.  “I can’t go.”  

That made me realize how hard this whole thing is on him.  He’s trying to grow up and be the man of the family when he’s still only a boy really.  I wanted him to come with me to support me through my hard time, but that’s not fair.  I need to support him because maybe he’s losing his second father figure.

But I have to be there for them both.  So who will be there for me?

Today's story was prompted by another #fridayflash by Nick Bryan. You can read it here http://www.nickbryan.com/2013/04/fridayflash-donwanna.html

Thursday, 11 April 2013

346: Snow

Toby padded outside even though he would have much preferred to stay curled up on the sofa, drowsy with sleep and snuggled against Janet’s thigh for warmth.  He stopped just across the threshold.  His hearing, usually so sharp and reliable, was dulled.  Night sounds were dampened all around and he raised his head in case anything was approaching.  Satisfied he was alone, Toby took a few more steps.

Under his feet the floor gave slightly, depressing a little with each step.  White crunches fluffed around his toes, filling the gaps between them and matting in the hairs.  It felt strange, definitely not like the sofa or the carpet, not like the normal green outside or even the sticky brown of the path through the woods they walked on weekends.  It was wet, not quite like the stream or a puddle.  More like standing on a towel used too often, where the dampness seeps slowly.

Toby walked to the closest bush and raised his leg, just high enough.  Steam clouds rose as he emptied his bladder for the first time since morning.  His long stream dribbled and melted a patch, the diameter growing steadily as he relieved his internal pressure.  Falling onto white, it splashed and echoed less than normal.

Feeling more comfortable and his interest peaked, Toby pushed his face into a pile of snow that had drifted against the garden wall.  His nose, dry from a difficult day, was shocked by the biting coldness.  He jerked his head back and flicked snow up and behind him with the edge of the safety collar he had been fitted with to stop him biting out his stitches.  Surprising himself, he snapped at it, trying to catch it in his mouth.  He pushed, jerked and flicked again, and then again until his back was sprinkled like icing sugar on a yule log.  

Tiring quickly, he turned back to the house.  Janet, watching from the window, opened the door to let him in.  The crunches between his toes had grown larger and frosted together, so as he walked across the tiles he tapped just slightly.  They both returned to their places on the sofa. Toby rested his feet against Janet so they warmed and thawed, making her trousers damp as they did.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

345: The One With No Prompt

In his column Stephen Fry once wrote every writer is allowed one story about writer’s block.  I told him that.  He rang me one day, stuck for an idea and a busy editor e-breathing down his virtual neck.  

“Stephen, Stephen, Stephen,” I said.  “Never fear, there is always the good old fall back of the writer who simply cannot put his words down in a coherent order.  Write a column about that, why don't you.  And repeat words whenever you can, Stephen.  For emphasis.  Good for padding out.  And Stephen, for emphasis.”

The truth was I had shopkeeper’s blank.

Usually I have plenty to offer him.  The vicar swore when he dropped a pot of the verger’s homemade honey.  A young mother came in with her child and let it roam unguarded between the aisles.  Fox hunting, that’s a common one.  Village school head teachers and what are their hobbies.  How electronic sales of farm produce are reinvigorating the countryside economy in some areas and how can the rest of rural England learn from this example.  Babies should never be dressed in outfits with ears - discuss.

But that day, nothing had happened.  In fact, nothing had happened all week.  Sometimes I helped ghost write but for once I had not a single suggestion and no words to form into an order of any kind, coherent or otherwise.  Country life had never let me down before and I was very disappointed.  Even closing up for an hour to take a brisk walk around the cottages, the pubs and the churchyard didn't help.

Notes, I thought to myself.  Notes.  I should record some details about what I can see and hear and smell.  As always I had my writer’s notebook with me, an essential if one doesn't want to forget the germs of fabulous novels and sparkling overheard snippets of dialogue.  Ahead of me I saw something moving in the bushes.  I retrieved my notebook, then searched for my pen.  Or a pencil.  I patted all of my pockets, some twice and some that were actually in another jacket, but I’d come out without anything to write with.

Cursing, I decided I would have to commit it to memory and crept forward towards the bushes.  There was nothing there, not anymore.  I have no idea what it might have been either.  A rat or a cat or even a bird would be no real use in prompting a National Treasure with writer’s block, for goodness sake.

Shortly after his 4.00pm submission deadline, Stephen rang me again.  “I took your advice,” he said.  “I wrote about not being able to write.  I think it’s rather good, actually.  I’m just pinging it across to you now.”

Relieved, I said I would look forward to reading it and thanked him.

“Oh and Hugh,” he said.  “I really do think you’re rather fabulous as that limping doctor, you know.  Imagine, you’ll probably end up cracking America.”

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

344: The Heston Blumenthal Lookalike Delivery Agency

I started the agency because, well because I look like Heston Blumenthal.  At first there was just me and my little Escort van and I delivered for catalogues mainly.  I had a nice little job going, regular work, some regular customers who would chat and ask after the kids, and a manageable round.  And it all started when I shaved my head.

Someone down the pub first mentioned I looked like Heston, and we all had a bit of a laugh about it.  I don't even wear my glasses all the time so it was a bit of a joke really.  Then customers started to comment, especially the ones I didn't know well or saw only once.  Quite often it gave people a bit of a surprise and I like to think sometimes made their day.  Heston fans in particular would ask me if I knew I looked like him and sometimes even if I was him.

The idea for the agency first came when I had the opportunity to deliver some extra locations on the round of a colleague who was on holiday.  A couple were restaurants and one place was very excited at the thought of Heston Blumenthal delivering to him.  He even pointed me out to a couple of diners, although I was trying to nip in and out to get on my way.

And so the idea was born.  I decided I might as well take advantage of it and set up my agency.  I got thicker rimmed glasses and kept my hair completely shaven.  I upgraded the van and had a duck painted on the side, then got some overalls with the initials H B embroidered on.  Then I set about advertising, as a serious delivery service and as a novelty service for businesses, parties and events.

The phone didn't stop and after a few weeks I had to take on staff to help.  As long as they looked like someone famous, could drive and didn't mind lifting stuff, I employed them.  I’ve got six vans now and a range of drivers.  I have a Tommy Walsh and a Craig Phillips who deliver garden and building stuff.  With me I have Jamie Oliver and we do most of the catering and retail deliveries.  A Dara O’ Briain does general and he’s popular for the heavy deliveries.  We’ve tied branching out into film stars and although there was quite a bit of demand, a number of customers were left disappointed by George Clooney and Tom Cruise couldn't reach the top shelf in the warehouse.

Next year I’m hoping to expand further and I think deliveries to swanky places like Heston’s own restaurant by top rival celebrity chefs could be big business.  I’m even looking out for a Charles and Camilla double act, who could really clean up in the West End.