Sunday, December 18, 2011
The King knew there were such people in the world but didn’t want to be related to them.
‘We could bribe someone,’ the Queen continued.
‘Money can’t buy happiness,’ the King suggested.
‘Happiness!’ his wife snapped, ‘What’s happiness got to do with anything? We’ve been married for years. Are we happy? Of course not! Where does the word ‘happiness’ appear in the wedding vows?’
The King regarded his wife’s habit of answering her own questions, of conversing with herself, as disturbing; but it did, at least, allow him to pursue his own, private, regal thoughts, as befitted a kind and powerful ruler.
‘We’ll run a competition for her hand in marriage and a thousand pieces of silver. Suitors will overlook her ugliness for a life of luxury.’
At that moment Florence entered the chamber, just too late to hear her mother’s devastating opinion.
‘Is breakfast ready?’ she squeaked, in that annoying voice of hers. The King looked at her hump, her lank hair, her limp and her squinty eyes.
‘Better make it two thousand,’ he said.
One story from the hundred in SIXTY SECOND FICTION. Free from: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/107004>
Saturday, December 17, 2011
We sat by warm fire on a cold evening. His eyes, big, blue and trusting, demanded honesty. It was a genuine father/son moment so I did not hesitate.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘Your mum was desperate for a son. She’d had a couple of daughters and they’re lovely but there was something missing. She was inconsolable. You know how she gets.’
‘So, we went down to Mothercare to see if they had anything in. Well. They’d had a rush. The shelves were bare. Your Mum rushed up to a saleslady and asked what had happened. The lady explained that they’d had a sale and crowds of people had turned up. It’d been advertised on the telly. Every single baby had gone. Your Mum cried something terrible. She threw her arms round the lady and just wept. I even felt a bit weepy myself. I disentangled her from the lady and said, “Come on, love. We tried.”
‘We’d just got to the door when the lady called us back. “Let’s have a look in the Stockroom,” she said, “just to be sure.” So we went into the Stockroom. Huge, it was, lined with empty wooden shelves from floor to ceiling. The lady and your Mum started to look around.
‘There was nothing there except dust. Then the lady got this ladder and climbed to the very top. She leaned over the very top shelf and picked up a grubby cardboard box. She brought it down the ladder and put it on the floor in front of us. “There you go,” she said.
‘Your Mum knelt down and opened the box. She squealed with delight when she saw your face in a nest of polystyrene packing chips looking up at her. Someone had stamped “REJECT”on your forehead. It was, obviously a clerical error because we brought you home, cleaned you up and you were perfect!
‘We were both really happy because you were so gorgeous and we’ve loved you ever since.’
‘What’s for tea, Dad?’ he said.
Friday, December 16, 2011
I’m cold. I’m wet. I’m tired. It’s an early Autumn evening in Thetford Chase and I’m sitting on wet, muddy grass in a semicircle of exhausted schoolboys dressed in 1940’s battledress.
We have survived a day of pretend warfare, firing blanks from .303 rifles and throwing thunderflashes at each other. The Blue Team captured the Red Team’s flag. I’m in the Red Team and am not enjoying our collective failure. Mr Topsfield thinks its good for us. Helps us grow up. Makes men out of us.
He’s right. On this day I discover the truth about being a man. The hope, the risk, the ultimate disappointment.
He introduces us to a Major from the Inniskilling Dragoons who snaps to attention in front of us.
The Major is beautiful. He is handsome. He is the bloke we all want to be.
His boots are mirrors, his trouser crease sharp enough to shave with. His medals gleam. His belt is blinding white and carries a shining leather holster. A white lanyard is fixed to a ring at the base of the pistol’s grip at one end, the other end a loop around his neck. He is over six feet tall and obviously in tip top nick. He smiles at us. His teeth glint. We hold our breath.
‘I am now going to show you how to throw a thunderflash five hundred yards,’ he says, his voice, crisp, business-like, mellifluous.
We are stunned. It’s impossible to throw a thunderflash more than fifty feet. It’s made of cardboard and weighs nothing. It’s a big banger that cadets like us throw at one another to simulate a grenade attack. It’s explosive but not very. It certainly makes us jump. We know this Major is talking rubbish. But he has the look.
‘You will need,’ he says, ‘One Thunderflash.’ It appears in his left hand. He holds it up. We can see that it is, indeed, a real, pretend grenade.
‘And,’ he says, ‘One Verey pistol.’ He unbuttons his holster and extracts a flare gun. It looks like a real gun except it has a rather large muzzle.
‘First,’ he says, ‘You load the Verey pistol with a flare.’ He breaks the pistol open, produces a flare and puts into the pistol. He snaps the pistol shut.
‘The colour of the flare doesn’t matter,’ he says, ‘but my pistol is now loaded with live ammunition so I need to exercise care.’
We shrink back. Pointedly, he doesn’t point it at us.
‘Now comes the tricky bit,’ he says, ‘You insert the thunderflash into the barrel of the pistol.’
He does this as he speaks, It’s a tight fit and he uses a number of powerful shoves to force the thunderflash into the barrel. At last, content, he looks up and smiles. His teeth glint.
‘You’re all set,’ he says, ‘Watch!’ As if we could tear our eyes away.
‘First, You strike the Thunderflash.’ It has an emery paper striker which through friction, ignites the fuse. It will explode ten seconds later. He strikes the Thunderflash. It fizzes.
Everyone silently starts to count. One. Two…
‘Next,’ he says, ‘You assume the position with the pistol at about a forty-five degree angle to the ground.’ He raises his arm, looks at us, smiles and pulls the trigger. Three…
It’s a dud flare. Four.
The thunderflash fizzes bright. We are mesmerised. Five…
The Major’s face is contorted in a rictus of terror. Six...
Then inspiration strikes. Seven...
He smiles and sweeps his arm back. With a mighty swing, he throws the pistol as far away as he can. Eight...
Which is about three feet because the pistol is on a beautiful white lanyard round his neck. Nine…
It flies to the end of the lanyard. Drops down to the Major’s stomach. Ten.
The explosion is deafening. His stomach is black, his face black, his uniform ragged, the muzzle of the pistol a tangle of bent metal.
‘That,’ he says, ‘is not supposed to happen.’
Thursday, December 15, 2011
The other day I hear that Alyn Davies has died.
And yesterday a tree falls on the brother of a friend of mine. He’s still alive but hurt bad. He’s working in the garden, apparently, when the Grim Reaper decides to have a crack at him. It was a near miss but his future won’t be very clear until he graduates from intensive care. And there’s people out there who think there’s some sort of sense or meaning to life: Intelligent Design.
Alyn Davies was, for some years, the Principal of the college where I trained as a teacher. He was a brilliant man and created a place that nurtured students like Ken Robinson, John Godber, the complete cast of The League of Gentlemen and others who have changed the face of the country. It was a lovely place, a mansion set in a Capability Brown landscape complete with a bridge, little bits of brickwork and a couple of lakes. I sailed Enterprises, Mirrors and Fennecs on those lakes. I capsized one day and the future mother of my children rescued me in a little orange, plastic rowboat. It was a beautiful day.
Whether or not stoned, the students were a creative bunch.
The Head of Education was a tall German guy with oiled black hair. He would flatten it with a characteristic sweep of his right hand across his head.
In our third year, Alyn Davies, in an attempt both to run and not run exams, devised an interesting permutation. The exam paper was dished out at 0900am but the actual exam didn’t take place until 1500pm. We were allowed to research our answer all day and take one piece of paper into the exam room. I guess the research period was designed to let us get our citations right.
We were a creative lot, though, so we planned a wheeze. We formed a committee and divided responsibilities. The smartest bloke in the College agreed to write a model answer. Others organised duplication facilities, checked citations and made coffee. A couple of people stood by the entrance to the exam room, dishing out copies of the modal answer. A lot of people used the model answer. The exam was torpedoed. Intelligent Demonstration.
The following day I happened to be alone in the same room as the German guy. He smoothed his hair down and said to me, his accent light, ‘Why? Why did you do it?’
He knew, I’m sure, that we were young, immortal, intent. We would do anything that we could do. So we did. What difference it made to anyone or anything is one of those mysteries that hide in the mists of history. It was fun at the time, though.
What difference a falling tree makes when toppled by the idiot English climate on to an unlucky gardener is an immediate and terrible mystery.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
So, Mary Queen of Shops thinks we should organise town centres more like businesses? I guess that means town centres should set up helplines that really value our call.
Luckily, Beacon Hill isn’t a town. It’s a suburb of Hindhead, itself a Ghost Village, lobotomised since the invention of the motor car, by the A3. The A3 was a spear through the heart of Hindhead. The thunder of forty-ton trucks and pumping petrol drove everyone, except petrol station workers, away. They love the smell of petrol. Were Conan-Doyle alive today, he’d be spinning in his grave. And Louisa Conan-Doyle would be coughing for England.
When the railway arrived in Haslemere in the late nineteenth century, people who could afford the fare could take a day-trip to “Little Switzerland” and enjoy the bracing air. The area round Haslemere got the nickname because of the way it snuggled into the corrugated landscape. Unlike today (not,) rail travel in them far-off days was for the wealthy. And the air in Hindhead was, indeed, delicious.
George Bernard Shaw, well known for his gentle and liberal views,led the rush, building a stately pile down here. Arthur Conan-Doyle’s wife Louisa was a frail little thing so the creator of Sherlock Holmes built her a house in Hindhead celled, punningly, Undershaw. Those Victorians eh?
Louisa died in 1906 and Conan-Doyle, by all accounts, went potty, joining up with his magic mate, Harry Houdini, to expose fake spiritualists. Meantime, JW Turner (him of the Fighting Temeraire) painted a rather savage picture of the three footpads hanged on Gibbet hill in Hindhead for the murder of a simple sailor, Apparently, the dangling corpses could be seen from Guildford, a lesson the people of the town probably took to heart. "Let's not do that with the drunken sailor!"
To cap it all, the then Prime Minister, Labour’s Lloyd George, moved on to a huge estate just down the road. Suddenly, a load of working class people were needed in the area to till the soil, clip the hedges and serve dinner. Thus was Beacon Hill born. A pantry of toil for the gentry.
Nowadays it’s slightly more classy - or less, depending on your disposable income. There’s a butcher, a post office(!), a convenience store, a chemist, a deli, a children’s clothes shop and a splendid Italian restaurant. There’s a Chinese takeaway, an Indian takeaway, two garages and three churches. There’s a few empty shops too.
Since the tunnels coincidentally healed Hindhead’s yawning wound, the air’s been just like that which the Victorian intelligentsia so coveted. Maybe we can can it!
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Here in Hindhead there are no nasty traffic jams at the A3/A325 crossroads any more. The tunnels have put paid to that. Instead there is a pair of life-or-death “mini-roundabouts.” A mini-roundabout is actually a painted roundabout. It’s just a black and white circle painted on the road. A magic circle – because people drive round it like it was a real roundabout.
The rule is “give way to traffic from the right” because in England we drive on the left side of the road. This doesn’t work when cars approach from all directions simultaneously. They all stop, look at the roundabout, look at each other. No-one can move because everyone is giving way to the traffic from the right. A twenty-first century game of chicken has begun.
Sooner or later, the driver with the biggest death wish just goes. The car on his left stops. And so on. How anybody ever manages to use one of these roundabouts is a mystery. And in Hindhead, there’s two of them next to each other. They’ve been put there to remind people that they’re mortal.
OTSOW, Driving on the left side of the road is the proper way to drive, no matter what the world thinks.
The thing is that the most important human organ, the human heart is on the left side of the body. You can’t change that. To protect the heart, therefore, humans naturally turn to the left, putting the right side of the body in front of the heart, itself as far away as possible from an aggressor.
If you have a sword, this makes even better sense. Sword in the right hand, heart far away from an aggressor.
So the scabbard for the sword has to be on the left hip. Tough to get a sword into a scabbard on the same side as the hand that holds it. If you don’t believe me, try it.
With the scabbard on the left you can only lift the right leg to get on a horse and end up facing the same way as the horse. If you don’t believe me, try it Damage to your bits with the sword’s handle is your sole responsibility.
So you have to be standing on the pavement or a box on the horse’s left side. If you don't want to be standing in the middle of the road, THE HORSE HAS GOT TO BE ON THE LEFT SIDE OF THE ROAD!
I bet that all Americans and Europeans are either left-handed or don’t care what happens to their hearts
Monday, December 12, 2011
The less I know about something the more strongly I feel about it. I don’t know a lot about the French so I don’t like them. In fact, I despise them. If a French bloke came in right now I’d probably be rude to him. If I had a Luger, I’d probably shoot him. I wouldn’t do anything like that if he smiled and said ‘Bonjour!’ because I’d immediately know he was a reasonable person and I don’t shoot reasonable people. I can honestly say that I have never shot a reasonable person - or anybody.
Sunday, December 11, 2011
One for the kiddies - in exactly 200 words:
Mad old Mrs Frobisher sat at the dining table, her face reflected in its mahogany shine. She reached down beside her chair and brought up a large handbag on to the table.
‘O Kitty’ she sang, ‘suppertime!’
She opened the bag and took out a pair of spectacles, a six-inch nail, a claw hammer, a tin of Whiskas, a tin opener, a Spode finger-bowl and a gold chain. She put on her spectacles and examined the chain, allowing it to pour from one arthritic hand to another like a gleaming waterfall over knobbly rocks. It sparkled in the light of the chandelier.
‘Ah, Kitty!’ she cooed, as her marmalade cat jumped into her lap. ‘Peckish?’
The cat purred as Mrs Frobisher attached the chain to its collar. She passed the nail through a ring on the other end of the chain.
She took the hammer and, with determined blows, drove the nail into the mahogany. Kitty tried to run but the chain snapped taut. Mrs Frobisher opened the can and filled the bowl, placing it an inch beyond the cat’s salivating reach. The chain hummed.
Mad old Mrs Frobisher settled down for her evening’s entertainment, her face alight with glee.
Saturday, December 10, 2011
I’m in the room when my first daughter is born. It’s an amazing experience so I decide to share it with people of Basingstoke. Health and Safety hasn’t been invented yet so I and a couple of mates hire a Transit and collect a vanload of old mattresses from the Town Dump. It’s not a Recycling Centre yet.
We build a larger than life model of the female reproductive system. Installations haven’t been invented yet either.
The way it works is that you turn up at the entrance and pay 50p to the Ovaries on Duty. Then you make your way down the fallopian tubes. It’s dark and the fallopian walls are strangely stained like used mattresses.
You arrive in the womb, created from a Government Surplus parachute. It’s dark and very warm, like wombs are, as you remember. You can hear a loud heartbeat and the whistling of air in and out of the lungs. There are headphones you can wear to listen to a birth-related programme of music and poetry. There are leaflets about the wonder of birth and screens showing movies about childbirth. Time passes in an developmental way until you are fully gestated, engaged and the cervix is at full dilation.
You make your way down the cervical tract and arrive in a brightly lit, white-painted room where a masked midwife slaps you on the back and gives you a Rebirth Certificate.
The exhibition is a hit with local children, some of whom are born two or three times a day.
It’s destroyed on the Sunday by a visiting cleric, from whom the Ovaries on Duty fail to confiscate an umbrella.
He has no problem down the fallopian tubes, reaches the womb and gestates for an hour or so.
Unfortunately, during his rebirth, his umbrella becomes jammed across the cervix which has not reached full dilation. He is the cause, victim and survivor of a total cervical collapse.
At the time there are four or five people in the womb, all of whom are rescued by Caesarean Section.
Balfour Beatty (BB), the main contractors for the building of the Hindhead tunnels, won the hearts of more than 99% of people living in or around Hindhead for their superb organisation and execution of the almost £400m civil engineering project. Less than 1% of local people set up STOAT, Save The Old A Three, to spread doom and gloom about the scheme, to forecast death, destruction and disaster. They pointed out that when a truck or two blew up in the tunnel, everybody would die, die, die.
BB explained the unbelievable safety systems, evacuation plans and emergency scenarios they had thought up and planned for. They even blew up a lorry in the tunnel to test their systems! Nobody died. “Nothing,” they said, “could possibly go wrong.”
Philip Hammond, flamingo-faced Transport Minister, cut the ribbon and the traffic rolled. For the frst time, peace, oxygen and predictable travel times arrived. We looked upon BB’s mighty works and wondered.
Last week the tunnels closed for four hours. Traffic chaos ensued. Ordinary people were trapped in their cars for hours. Polish articulated trucks, driven by Satnav, tried to drive through the Punch Bowl. What BB described as a “Once in a century” event happened. Liphook became an inland island. STOAT hired skywriters to emblazon “WE TOLD YOU SO!” over the heavens. When the hysteria abated, Enquiries were launched. These would ensure that such a thing “could never happen again.” Where have I heard that before?
It was a power cut!!! Bad weather cut the power. The emergency generators failed too! The tunnels were closed for safety reasons! This was, apparently, a very, very, very unusual, completely unforeseeable, event. We spent £400m and no-one thought the power might go off!
This is the thing of it, of course. We humans think we’re really good at stuff, that we’ve cracked it, that we can do it. But we aren’t. We haven’t We can’t.
We’re human and, therefore, not half as good as we think we are. Reality gets my vote. Not hubris.
Friday, December 9, 2011
I’m in Aldershot’s Co-op pushing a trolley laden only with a frozen chicken. The little doctor and I haven’t started serious shopping yet. She can testify to the strange events that occur this day, there, in that supermarket.
It’s a long aisle shopperless save the little doctor and I. Musak plays. To my right a large, florid woman stands behind the cooked meat counter. She has tongs and arranges the sausages. To my left a callow youth stands on a stepladder stacking upper shelves. As I pass between them the woman, in a loud and raucous voice, cries. “What’s the code for corned beef?”
I am rankled. She’s shouted right through me! I bridle. Without a moment’s hesitation, doubtless possessed by an impish spirit, I shout, “Two! Six! Eight!”
The moment passes and I continue, grinning, down the aisle. The little doctor looks at me, surprised and worried. But then, I never live up to her expectations.
Then I realise that no-one seems to have noticed my angry intervention. My grin fades. I turn and approach the callow youth.
“Excuse me,” I say, “I’m sorry to trouble you.”
He turns to me, customer-friendly face all set.
“Did you hear,” I say, “That lady asking for the code for corned beef?”
“I did, sir,” he says, “I did.”
I say, “And did you also hear someone shout ‘268’?”
“I did, sir,” he says, “I did, indeed.”
I say, “I have to ask you: Is ‘268’ the code for corned beef?”
“Yes, sir,” he says, “It is.”
I look at him and he looks at me.
And then he says, “Now you mention it I did wonder who had spoken.”