Once More With Feeling - Sunrise short story romance

Once More, With Feeling

A Sunrise short story

Read here, or head to Wattpad, Inkitt

He’d known well in advance that 14th February would be a Saturday night. It wasn’t rocket science—last year it had been a Friday.

Sadly, that made it unduly auspicious, and he’d been trying for weeks—no, months—not to make it A Big Thing. An offhand comment from an acquaintance seldom morphs into something more tangible. It had been no more than a “We must catch up”—a phrase not known for its stellar follow-through record.

Hadn’t it?

Why had he gently fixated on it? If the apartment kitchen had been decked with a wall calendar—a lame Christmas present or 7-Eleven impulse purchase—would the date have been circled?

He liked her, and had taken her offer of a future Valentine’s hook-up at face value. Yet at times, he looked back on it with the same easy dismissal reserved for mock suicide pacts or laughable throw-aways like “If we’re both not married in twenty years, let’s get hitched rather than being single forever”.

When she’d it last year—and he’d agreed—was it a sop, or was she truly interested?

In case she was interested, he remained hopeful… and vigilant.

Sure, so he’d thought about it occasionally, a little during fall, more over the winter.

Hell, who are you kidding, Beckman? You’ve been listening for clues that EJ has hooked up with someone since last Valentine’s. Are you really that desperate for a long shot at a romantic liaison that you’ll spend a year on tenterhooks?

I think we both know the answer to that.

All the definitely-not-stalking tactics of seeking signs that she had company in the apartment opposite—a change in her demeanour when they passed occasional greetings, a new car parked outside, deliveries of flowers—had been mere curiosity, he’d told himself. But, recently, they’d come up trumps.

She was moving out.

To move in with someone? It was moot. She’d no longer be a neighbour, and the chances of a friendly—possibly more than that—reunion looked wafer-thin.

By February 8th she’d not said a word, not knocked on his door to explain, and he convinced himself of what he’d suspected all along—that it wasn’t meant to be. So the next day, Monday, he shipped out for his usual week on the road, determined to focus on what he could control, not what he couldn’t.

So EJ—Ellie—is moving? People move. Look on the bright side—it could be just to find a bigger place a few streets across. It’s bound to have kept her busy either way. Perhaps she’s forgotten our most good-natured and spontaneous of suggestions. If you had any sense you would too.

Friday 13th rolled around, 1656 miles later, and he’d done well not to waste too many hours gazing into the bottom of cups at Coffee Planet. Back at apartment 1122, he busied himself making dinner and checking a week’s worth of mail, sorting the real from the junk. There wasn’t a restaurant in town which hadn’t festooned their flyers with hearts, flowers and special dinner-for-two offers.

It’s like trying to avoid the Christmas Coke ad.

At just after eight, there was a knock on the door. As he seldom received visitors, a small spark lit in his stomach.

The look on EJ’s face was certainly apologetic, perhaps downbeat. ‘Hey, Beckman.’

‘Hey, EJ.’ He brushed crumbs from his rumpled tee.

There was a silence.

‘Look—I can explain.’

He held up a hand. ‘No need.’

‘Yeah, Beckman—need. I guess you figured out I’m moving.’

An ironic smile tweaked his lips. ‘I know some about travelling, upping sticks.’

‘I should have said earlier, but it’s been crazy.’

‘I understand. Hell—most neighbours would just leave.’

‘I though because of…’ She bit her lip. ‘…what we said—and because we get along…’

‘And you’re my overflow postal service…’

She smiled. ‘Yeah. So—I wanted to say goodbye, and that the timing sucks.’ She sighed. ‘It happened real quick. Work wanted me to move to Pittsburgh. It’s a promotion. Short notice, but—what’re you gonna do, huh?’ She shrugged.

He worked hard to internalise the kick in the stomach.

Serves you right for building it up, buddy. You latch onto enough certainties in this world, anchor to the predictable and controllable, roll with the punches the rest of the time. This is a punch to roll with—no different from a lost sale in any of a thousand towns on any of a thousand days.

‘I’m pleased for you, EJ.’

‘I ship out tomorrow.

‘Sure.’

‘It’s all boxes in there. Guys are loading in the morning, then it’s adios…’

‘Well, happy trails.’

She stepped a little closer. Her earrings twirled. They were silver mice. It took him back almost a year—the diverse collection of mouse-related ornaments in her apartment. He hoped the removal guys had packed carefully.

‘So, I can’t make our… date,’ she said.

‘Not sure it was a date.’

‘Okay. I can’t make the date.’ Her eyes searched his.

‘Well, I’d invite you in—or out—but it’s not technically Valentine’s yet. Plus, I’m sure you’re last-minute packing. Mice, or whatever. Plus, you know, EJ, don’t be guilty—I’m the guy across the hall. Getting a life makeover is more important than a friendly soiree to stick two fingers up to the hearts-and-flowers tsunami.’

‘Yeah. I guess. All the same, it would have been nice. Instead I have this lame goodbye work thing to go out to.’ She gestured to her evening attire.

‘You look nice.’

Because she does. And that makes the rain check—which is probably not even that—just that bit tougher.

‘Thanks.’

Silence washed the corridor.

‘You have good evening, EJ. And a good life.’

Her brow furrowed in what he imagined—hoped?—was a tinge of sorrow. ‘You too, Beckman.’

A presumptuous, ridiculous, opportunistic part of him willed her to peck him on the cheek as a parting gift. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility. True—he wasn’t seamlessly practised in the art of spotting a nascent attraction, but he was a people watcher (it came with the job) and it didn’t feel like straw-clutching.

Instead, she painted on a smile, gave a nervous wave, turned and left.

He held the door open and watched her go for longer than was strictly wise or necessary, then returned to another evening of bachelorhood.

During Saturday, EJ flitted in and out of his mind, much as he tried to busy himself mentally and physically. He deliberately went out at nine, trawling the food shops for stuff he needed and other shops for stuff he didn’t need. He visited both Coffee Planet places at either end of town.

Some would call it “pining”, but you couldn’t pine for what you’d never had and thus never lost.

He might as well have dredged up past failures—the time Tyler stole away his chance of a date with Glenda was a real lowlight. Except this wasn’t a failure, not of his actions, nor of his inaction. It was merely circumstance. It was the universe saying that it wasn’t meant to be—not this time, not with EJ… Ellie.

I still wonder what the J is.

They might not even have hit it off. It could have been a non-starter, a platonic hookup which never got past misplaced notions of mutual attraction.

Equally, it would be nice to come home from weekdays of empty motel rooms to find a non-empty apartment. One furnished with a five-foot-seven brunette with a penchant for rodent-related bric-a-brac.

When the endless store fronts hawking romantic staples became too much—as if their laughter towards his single-man status was louder this year—he took the Caddy for gas and an automated car wash, then headed home.

All was quiet.

He set his mind to wondering who his new neighbour across the hall would be, trying to thing about the future rather than the past. Who was to say that the next inhabitant of 1123 wouldn’t be equally likeable?

At six-thirty he ordered pizza. It was about the only thing guaranteed not to come in a heart-shaped box or flavoured with chocolate and/or champagne.

At six-fifty there was a knock at the door.

See—it could be worse, Beckman—you could be this guy, having to work on Valentine’s evening. At least you get to chill out, fill your face with carbs, and try not to think of

‘EJ?!’ His mouth hung open.

This time her face and posture were easy to read—awkwardness and embarrassment. Her right hand clasped the handle of a small roller case. She wore jeans, a hoodie, no makeup and—quickly—raised eyebrows.

What the…?

Don’t even begin to think that she’s changed her mind and given up a new life to be with you. Don’t even begin to begin to think that.

‘Yeah, er… hi. Again.’

‘You okay? What gives?’

She forced a chuckle. ‘This is a peach. The truck broke down. About five miles out of town. With all my stuff.’

‘Shoot.’

‘Yeah. They’re sending a guy with a spare part—tomorrow. They won’t offload onto a new truck, of course not. So, I have an empty apartment there, and no key, and this,’ she tugged her case.

Some guys—maybe those without an inner monologue or a soft spot for bright, smart brunettes—would have pointed out the existence of such things as motels, either in town or in Pittsburgh. But Beckman, possessing both those attributes said,

‘Come in.’

‘I couldn’t.’

That short-circuited his brain for a second. ‘So why knock?’

Her shoulders fell. ‘I don’t know. Panic?’

‘Or needing a friend to lean on?’

She pursed her lips. ‘Yeah.’

‘So come in.’

She did, and as he closed the door behind her it nearly smacked into the face of a pony-tailed youth bearing a twelve-inch cardboard box. He relieved the guy of his cargo and followed EJ into the living room.

‘Oh god, I’m interrupting.’

‘I’m not sure it’s technically possible to interrupt a white knight? They’re sworn to be ready at a moment’s notice.’

That made her smile. ‘At least don’t let your pizza get cold.’

He held it up. ‘The Valentine’s meal of champions.’

‘And knights.’

‘Did the maiden eat yet, or was she getting a burger en route to her glorious future?’

‘She didn’t eat yet, no.’

‘So sit down, EJ. There’s enough for two champions here.’ He gestured to the table.

She hesitated for a moment, then conceded. He dumped the box down, retrieved two beers from the fridge, and rejoined her.

They tucked in, the atmosphere tingling with things he wanted to ask, or say, and things he imagined she wanted to explain.

‘You’re a good guy, Beckman.’

‘So I’m told.’

‘You are a white knight, two years in a row.’ She smiled with her eyes. ‘Thanks.’

‘Sure.’ He raised his beer in toast. ‘Happy Valentine’s again… ex-neighbour.’

‘I think it’s just “Ellie” now.’

‘Sure.’

Wow, real verbose tonight, aren’t you buddy? What’s up—nervous? Careful—she’ll hear the armour chinking when you shake.

‘Look, I know the situation’s not ideal.’

‘Which—you leaving forever, or you being here now?’

Her eyes narrowed, but in query, not anger. ‘What do you think?’

‘I have no clue, Ellie. I like you, and I can’t say I hadn’t been looking forward to what we planned, until…’ He trailed off.

‘Which? Until I left unexpectedly, or until I returned unexpectedly?’ She smiled.

He drank in her face for a few moments, then made an uncharacteristically bold and swift decision. He rose, went to the kitchen, dug out his quarry and returned to the table. He set the candle down in the centre, flicked the Zippo, and lit it.

She laughed. ‘Definitely the meal of champions now.’

They polished off the pizza and he refreshed their empty bottles. She talked a little about the new job, the packing and temporarily delayed relocation, asked how his recent weeks had been. She even admitted that her ex, Jerome, had tried to win her back since the breakup last Valentine’s.

It was all very friendly, skilfully skirting the elephant in the room.

She shifted in her seat, as if uncomfortable. He realised he was being less than a good host.

‘Let’s go sit down.’

He led her to the sofa, and she sank gratefully into it. Then she leant forwards and pulled off her hoodie—she’d been so preoccupied with the food, and being bailed out of a situation, that she’d spent the whole time looking like she was loitering in the Departures hall.

The elephant trumpeted.

Was their conversational lull a reflection of the situation, or an indication that they had little in common? More than that—was it an elephant that she imagined too, or merely his romance-starved, over-hopeful misinterpretation of a friendly but odd situation?

‘Look, Ellie, I may have this wrong, but it’s still just a regular day—like it was last year—and I don’t have any agenda here.’

‘You bought a candle.’

Busted.

‘Maybe for once I was a hopeful romantic, not a hopeless one. All the same, the important thing is that you find a place to crash while the truck is fixed. If you want to have another beer, I’ll call you a cab. I hear good things about the Twisted Pine Motel.’

Her face softened. Behind it, the dancing candlelight caught her cheekbone. He’d not turned down the room light—that would have been a presumption too far—but there was still a whiff of Eros in the air.

She laid a hand on his knee. ‘Okay, here’s a confession. I’m not a one-night stand kind of girl. And, though I don’t know you so well, I don’t think you’re a one-night stand guy.’

He met her gaze. ‘I never presumed, EJ. That’s what this sofa is for. You have a long drive—you take the bed. Hell—I bought this fold-out six years ago and it’s never been used.’

‘Well, you wouldn’t need it if I hadn’t moved out, or at least if the truck hadn’t broke down.’

‘Yeah—otherwise we could have had dinner—maybe something with vegetables and everything—and then you could have just walked back across to your apartment.’

She smiled, then fixed on his face. ‘Or stayed.’

‘You just said no one-night stands.’

‘Sure. But if I lived across the way it could be two. Or more.’

He took her hand from his knee and gently held the tip of one finger. ‘If wishes were horses, huh? And if I hadn’t served you pizza on Valentine’s.’

‘The way to a girl’s heart is not through her stomach—not like a guy’s. It’s through kindness, decency and not being too shabby looking. Well, for this girl, anyway.’

He swallowed, trying to slow his heartbeat to normal.

Thirty-six and nervous like a teen? What is this—invitation to Prom?

‘I’m not sure that makes it easier—now I have that nice comments like that in my brain, which might try to find their way here.’ He touched his chest.

‘Would they?’

‘Maybe. I’d wonder what might be possible. But not as much as if we did something rash—and it went well. Doing that, and then you leaving?’ He shook his head. ‘That could be a recipe for long-distance heartbreak. Or regret. Or both.’

‘Sure. I understand. Then we’d better do nothing.’ Yet what was in her eyes belied the words, at least two some degree.

‘Yeah. Not a single thing.’

Then the elephant trumpeted so loudly, the only way he could make it shut up was to kiss her. So he did. Gently, briefly, and hopefully gallantly. It was received by a maiden no longer in distress, yet one who didn’t seem perturbed by the gesture.

He checked her face for an unspoken response. What he found was her seeking similar.

‘I figured it was only fair you should wonder too,’ he said. ‘You know—whether making this crazy arrangement was dumb, whether it actually happening was fate or blind luck. And if acting on it was a good idea or not.’

She smiled. ‘It’s not the worst idea.’

He tested that hypothesis by kissing her again.

She took his hand and clasped it between hers. ‘I was serious about the one-night stand thing. Same as the first date thing—it doesn’t happen.’

‘And I’m serious about the pull-out bed. If I can’t get my money’s worth tonight, when can I?’

‘So I’ll stay?’

He shrugged. ‘What are friends for?’

‘Hard not to like you, Beckman.’

‘Same, Ellie. Besides, it’s Valentine’s—kick out a girl I just kissed? Major asshole behaviour.’

She nodded. ‘So what do you want to do for the next three hours? Netflix? Ice cream?’

‘I have both of those.’

‘Those sound like good alternatives for consenting adults.’

‘On one condition.’

She cocked her head. ‘Oh yeah?’

‘Will you be my Valentine, Ellie?’

‘Hell yes.’

She gave him a kiss which delayed the arrival of ice cream and Netflix by a half-hour.

The pull-out bed didn’t give him cramp, and his whirring mind hadn’t kept him awake too long. Fortunately it had majored on enjoying what had happened, rather than regretting what hadn’t. When he awoke, he congratulated it on a sense of perspective.

There was no noise from the bedroom by eight, so he grabbed coffee and had a shave and a shower.

When he emerged in his robe, the bedroom door was open, so he tentatively approached, hoping to rescue some clean clothes.

The room was empty. Puzzled, he checked the living room, then the kitchen. Oddly, both were vacant.

He spotted the folded piece of paper on the side and his heart sank.

Somewhat crestfallen, he read;

“First off, this is the coward’s way out, and I’m sorry. It’s a crappy way to pay you back for your hospitality and delightfully close company. I’m hopeless at goodbyes. You saw how useless I was yesterday. Today would have been worse.

Thanks for being my Valentine and my white knight. I’d do it all again in a second.

Unless I write you before, come up and see me this time next year. Make sure you have a long weekend booked—if we make it a two-night stand, it gets past that silly rule I have. 

Take care, Ellie x ”

After he’d stood there for a long minute, wondering if it was possible to make time pass more quickly—a year in five minutes would have been ideal—he stupidly rechecked that she had in fact left, then, with heart flitting between disappointment and fond remembrance, got on with his day.

The year largely evaporated—as his years did—and his temptation to call her remained. He doubled down on his sales effort, and had the best year ever, finishing fourth in the annual Salesman of the Year rankings.

He didn’t meet anyone quite like Ellie—and the fact that he could make the comparison proved that her nice comments had indeed spread beyond his brain. He wondered if she was thinking of him, or whether life had taken over. She didn’t call, or write, but he made himself believe that no news was good news.

January came round, and the tingles of hope and expectation were again quietly forming in his heart and soul, when one Friday he returned to the apartment to find a mailed envelope with the address written in familiar hand.

He eased his shoulder bag to the floor and nervously opened the letter.

She was brief, and he quickly appreciated that the economy of words was probably disproportionate to the difficulty she’d had in writing them;

“I’d hoped not to have to write before the 14th, but it didn’t work out like that.

I’m sorry, Beckman. His name is Brad, and I think he’s the one.

Thanks for two Valentines to remember.

Take care and good luck. She’s out there for you, somewhere.

Ellie x.”

In the lower corner was the doodle of a mouse.

He was happy. Then he was sad. Then he was angry—at the world, not at her—for not running according to his selfish whims.

Whatever else he felt, he was never going to find out what the “J” was for.

That gave him a wry smile, and he decided that was the best was to sum up the whole episode, so he wore it for a while. And then, as always, it was time to move on.

Oswald - A Sunrise short story

Oswald

A Sunrise short story

The rain finished lashing the car as Beckman approached the outskirts of town.

That’ll save on the carwash for another week.

He looked around the black-on-black interior.

Maybe not on the vacuum though.

A few minutes later, he eased the now-whiter Caddy into one of many free spaces on the lot of The Pegasus Corporation. Again he wondered why Mr Malvolio had chosen premises with such a surfeit of parking area. Seldom was there more than a handful of people onsite, and there wasn’t even anything like a quarterly staff meeting or annual shindig on the warehouse floor. Of course not—that would take up valuable time and money. The salesmen knew what they had to do—what other missives could be necessary?

He locked up and went inside the bland, boxy two-storey building. 

The comfortingly familiar tap-tap-ting of Miss Broomhead’s old typewriter floated into his ears as he walked up the single corridor leading to the bijou office suite.

I wonder if she actually prefers archaic technology, or if Ol’ Stingy won’t spring for a new one for his dutiful PA?

‘Afternoon, Mr Spiers.’ Her hands paused in mid-air.

‘Hi, Miss Broomhead.’ Today, her beehive sported two hairpins tipped with enamel bees. He was never sure whether these occasional items were (1) included for comic value, (2) a function of kooky individuality, or (3) an indication of appalling fashion sense.

Of course, he could have asked her, but that would have meant asking her.

Conversations with Miss Broomhead were on a Business Level Only. He didn’t know why—they just were. There was no contractual clause, nor previous faux-pas as a guideline. They merely hadn’t had a personal conversation during his entire tenure, so starting now would just have been odd.

The typing resumed—tap-tap overlaid with the chink of her two red bangles.

“Conversation” over.

He scanned down the line of dark wooden pigeonholes set on the opposite wall.

Hallwork, Yong, Quittle, Bludge, Rattertonhurst, Gusp, Zowl, Spiers…

…Gusp?

He leant in.

Where was Follic? Had Cad Follic’s pigeonhole been moved?

He checked all forty apertures.

No.

Had Cad Follic unexpectedly moved on to pastures new? Perhaps ones where the roster of employee benefits numbered in the positive integers?

‘Miss Broomhead?’

Hands paused. ‘Yes?’ A faint, querying smile on un-showy but precisely lipsticked lips.

‘Cad Follic no longer with us?’

‘No, Mr Spiers. He was attacked by a tiger, the day before yesterday.’

Beckman blurted out an impromptu laugh at the stupidity of it.

Her brow furrowed. ‘I don’t think it’s very funny, Mr Spiers.’

He swallowed hard. ‘No. Er… that is… I mean.’ He pointlessly ran a hand through his hair. ‘Really? Wow.’

‘Yes. He was pitching to a business client. The man’s pet tiger took offence at Mr Follic for some reason and… well… he’s no longer with us.’

No longer with us? Us=fired/quit, or us=six feet under?

Same outcome.

‘And Mr Gusp…?’

‘Is his replacement. He started yesterday.’

Beckman nodded robotically. ‘Uh-huh.’

She offered a querying look, and when he wasn’t forthcoming with anything tangible, she resumed punching ink onto paper.

Wow. Poor Cad.

Hang on?

Does that mean…?

He was above me in the Salesman of the Year rankings. Surely I’m up a place now? Surely. Mr Malvolio would never transfer Cad’s sales tally across to this new Gusp guy—it would be unfair advantage, not to mention uncharacteristically generous of the old swine.

Wow.

Woo!

I’m up a place! Best year yet!

He restrained himself, just in time, from punching the air. Instead, he collected his pay check advice from the pigeonhole and headed out to the car park.

An unfamiliar car had arrived, and exiting it was a new face. The face was barely five feet above the ground. The body was stocky, the hairline very receding. Beckman reckoned the guy was easily fifty.

This guy’ll be a pushover.

He slowed as they approached each other. ‘Gusp?’

The guy stopped and cocked his head. ‘Yeah?’

‘Spiers.’ Beckman jerked his head back towards the building. ‘You the new guy?’

‘Yeah.’ He offered a fat, taught hand. ‘Oswald Gusp. Taking over Cad’s territory.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘Sorry old business.’

Beckman hung his head in sympathy, while still not ready to accept the facts at face value.

Was Cad eaten? Mauled? Blinded? Had his Salesman Patter cranial lobe been gored? 

Either way, this was the competition now—or at least one of them. One of Pegasus’ forty road warriors.

I hope you know what you’re in for, Oswald.

Plus, note to self—Google “how to defeat an angry tiger”. Can’t be too careful out there.

‘So, uh, welcome I guess. Where were you before?’

‘I was… uh… kinda in the delivery business. But the same package every time.’

That didn’t compute, so Beckman went with, ‘Sure, well, good luck.’

Oswald nodded. ‘Thanks, Spiers. See you around, maybe. Got to check in with… Walter, was it?’

‘Warehouse? Yeah.’

‘Yeah. Good. Gotta fill the old trunk, ready to pick up where Cad Follic left off.’

‘Absolutely. See you around.’

Oswald nodded curtly and ambled off, chunky legs moving awkwardly, like a triceratops.

Heading in the opposite direction, Beckman couldn’t help slowing as he passed Oswald’s car.

It was a burgundy Lincoln Continental, post-Moon landing, pre-Beckman birth. On a bad day it might get parked across two different time zones. He peered inside. There was a booster cushion on the driver’s seat.

He watched the diminutive newbie disappear inside the building and eyed the acreage of Detroit iron.

Compensating for something, Oswald?

A couple of miles from his apartment, Beckman caught sight of the Caddy’s odo tick onto 99,996.

Not wanting to let the moment absentmindedly pass him by in the morning, he went round the block three times until the magic figure appeared, then rolled up to his apartment building and disembarked for a night in a familiar bed.

As he whipped up some food, fed Bogie the leopard gecko, and turned on the TV for background company, his mind ticked over what Oswald had said.

How could you deliver the same package many times?

If you were a pilot? A musician (at a stretch)? If your employer was really bad at matching orders to customers’ delivery addresses?

He set his ageing laptop on the table and Googled one-handed as he munched through pasta.

It didn’t take long to come up with results for Oswald Gusp.

His mouth fell open. His lower jaw might well have hit the tabletop with a comedic ‘Clang!’ 

He pushed the last of the dinner aside.

He absolutely, categorially, one-hundred-percent didn’t want to, but he pressed Play on the video anyway, curiouser than a cat with a death wish.

From the video’s thumbnail, he knew exactly what to expect, and didn’t want to see it—or need to see it—but saw it anyway. And when he’d seen generally what he expected to see, he unaccountably didn’t stop, not even when he saw specifically something he thought he’d probably see. Yet, having seen it, he was caught like a rabbit in the headlights—watching, disbelieving, pondering, then repeating the sequence until it was blindingly clear that he wasn’t dreaming, hadn’t been told the wrong name, or Googled the wrong name, and that he’d actually done what he’d done and seen what he’d seen. More than that—his eye had not been drawn to Oswald’s less than statuesque hight, nor to his significant pate. Something much worse.

His mouth was still hanging open, now drier than the Atacama.

He filled it with beer, then slapped the lid of the laptop down and tried to expunge from his mind what he’d just found.

He’s just another colleague. Just another name on the roster, another position on the rankings. Merely a different Schmoe to compete with, and, hell, probably hardly bump into, ever.

All the same, that’s a VERY different line on the resumé.

Did Malvolio know about that? Had Miss Broomhead followed up the references?

He doubted it. Her ultra-conservative head had been remarkably un-exploded that afternoon.

He took a moment, gazed at the TV screen, tried to let its dance burrow into his mind and wipe out the afterimage of Oswald’s past career.

Eventually, the more palatable world of fiction subsumed the frighteningly real discovery of his new colleague’s previous métier, and the evening returned to some kind of normalcy. 

Even so, he did set an especially early alarm. 

The clock on the wall in Miss Broomhead’s ante-room ticked round to 07:30.

He never considered it her own space per se, rather the Styx through which one had to pass to enter the realm of Mr Malvolio. Seldom did anyone get called into the CEO’s office—Beckman had only seen it twice—and the only time anyone looked forward to it was when they thought they might have hit the jackpot of Salesman of the Year. Such a man would walk in a mere mortal and return as a god, never needing to work again. Certainly never again needing to encounter Oswald Gusp and his… startling secret.

He carefully (some might call it “furtively”) leafed through the items on Miss Broomhead’s desk. Quickly he found Oswald’s resumé in the OUT tray. Handling it as though the paper itself was soiled, he checked the Previous Employment section.

“Package Delivery Services” – 2004-2017

Well, you’re creative with job titles, Oswald buddy.

He carefully replaced the paper where he’d found it.

‘Hey Beckman.’

He jumped three feet in the air—a feat which would have stunned his grade-school gym teacher. Beckman was no Bob Beamon.

He even managed to simultaneously turn towards the owner of the voice. Maybe the teacher had merely needed to switch his methods from encouragement to shock tactics?

‘Jeez, Wilbur! You wanna kill off a second employee within a week?’

Wilbur held up a hand. ‘Sorry, B. What gives? Why so early? Not like you.’

Beckman gestured at the desk. ‘Clearly, trying some industrial espionage before anyone arrives. Why you in so early? Not like you either, I might say.’

Wilbur held up the other hand. ‘Busted, okay?’

Beckman glanced up at Wilbur’s hat, which was almost always a baseball cap, and certainly different every day. Today’s legend was “INSERT HEAD HERE” with an arrow pointing downwards.

Probably a wise choice for an unusually early start.

‘You were coming in here too?’

‘Yeah, but something different.’ Wilbur checked around. The office was still patently empty. ‘The new guy.’

‘Oswald? Me too.’

Wilbur’s hands dove into his pockets. ‘Oh. Well. Cool.’

‘Resumé?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Why?’

‘Thought I recognised him.’

‘Recognised him?’ Beckman’s mind did cartwheels—many not pleasant.

‘Yeah.’

‘But I thought he was an…’ Beckman also checked around redundantly, and lowered his voice, even more redundantly. ‘… “adult performer”.’

‘Oh. Yeah. Then it is him.’

Beckman’s face instinctively creased into distaste, which he quickly shook away. After all, it wasn’t a crime—neither to be a viewer nor a… participant. ‘You know him?’

‘Know? No. Know of? Yeah.’

‘You’ve seen…’ He tailed off deliberately, thrust his eyebrows up.

Wilbur pointed. ‘Then so have you.’

‘Only last night.’

‘Ah.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Okay.’

‘Yeah. Guess I… misspent my youth elsewhere. That’s all.’

Wilbur nodded slowly. ‘Yeah.’

Silence blew through.

‘Is it on there?’ Wilbur nodded at the desk.

‘Yeah. “Package Delivery Services”.’

‘Ah. Right. So he’s not… ashamed or nothing. Not hiding it.’

‘He’d have trouble hiding…’ Then Beckman stopped, realising the word “it” could be misconstrued.

Too late. Wilbur, who could have construed it, didn’t.

‘Yeah,’ he chuckled. ‘Trouble hiding that.’ 

At which point Beckman was transported back twelve hours and Oswald’s unconcealed secret flashed through his mind again.

Thanks Wilbur. Trust you to be a jock about it.

Beckman sighed. Best not to be holier-than-thou ass and try to rise above it. Wilbur was a good guy—the best thing to a friend he had at Pegasus. Besides, if you couldn’t laugh about something like this, what hope was there? It was probably the most exciting thing to happen at work since Paulson Foss had inexplicably told Mr Malvolio what he (and pretty much everyone else) thought about the guy, and been fired on the spot. Foss was lucky—Malvolio could have simply let his pet Gila monster Bruno loose, and washed his hands of any unfortunate poisonous bitings which might have transpired.

Beckman forced a chuckle. ‘Yeah. I think it’s safe to say Oswald isn’t built in proportion.’

‘Bet he gave loads of glowing references. All from people called Candy or Lolly, happy to confirm that he was able to deliver packages twenty-four seven.’

‘He’s trying to cure headaches now—back then he was more likely to give a girl one.’

Get your mind out of the gutter, Beckman Spiers. This is a co-worker.

His face fell. Creditably, Wilbur’s did too.

‘We all got secrets, B.’

Beckman nodded, even though he personally had an entirely skeleton-free closet. ‘You won’t tell I was…’ He pointed at the desk, and around the office.

‘Course not. I mean, I was too. You know, just confirming it was him. Idle curiosity, is all.’

Beckman nodded more vehemently. ‘Sure. Past is past. Like you say, we’ve all got something.’

‘What’s yours, B?’

‘Huh?’

‘Your little secret?’

‘Secret?’

‘Misdemeanour.’

‘Hmm?’

‘Little thing in the past. Slight untruth on the resumé.’ Wilbur leant in.

Beckman thought quickly. ‘Nothing. I got nothing.’

‘Nothing?’

‘Nothing.’ He shrugged.

Wilbur narrowed his eyes, then smiled. ‘I reckoned so. Paragon of virtue, you, Beckman. You always said, I always knew.’

‘Certainly no… unmentioned previous… entertainment-related roles.’

‘No. Sure. Me either. Well, I mean, I did, but, you know.’

Beckman unavoidably recoiled slightly. ‘Entertainment-related? You?’

‘Sure. I used to mix with the ladies.’

Don’t get jealous now.

‘ “Mix”.’

‘Relax. I was a vision mixer on Miss World for ten years.’ Wilbur smiled knowingly at his wordplay.

‘That’s solid, Wilbur.’ He looked around. Go on—ask. ‘Did you, you know…?’

‘Get any?’

‘Yeah.’

‘No.’

‘Right.’

‘Yeah.’

Beckman nodded at nothing in particular. ‘So, to work, I guess.’

Wilbur straightened his cap. ‘I guess.’

‘Yeah.’ The clock ticked. ‘About Oswald?’

Wilbur brightened with excessive interest. ‘Yeah?’

‘He starts at zero on the sales chart, right?’

‘Sure. This because it means you’re up one place now?’

‘No.’ Beckman coughed. ‘Well, yeah.’

‘You’ll do it, B. I have faith. Tenth year for you this year. Gotta mean something, right?’

‘Still a ways to go. But, yeah, I guess seventh place is my best yet. Might be in with a shot.’

Wilbur smiled cruelly. ‘Oughta release a few more tigers, huh?’

‘Across state, sure.’ Beckman replied with a false impish grin. He’d never knowingly cheat to win the prize. He was probably the only guy at Pegasus who wouldn’t bend the rules to get the annual gong-and-passport-to-retirement. He also knew Wilbur knew that too.

‘Wonder if they put the poor cat down.’

‘Hope so, for Oswald’s sake.’ He clicked his fingers in annoyance. ‘Shoot. If I’d known right away, I could have brown-nosed Malvolio into taking over Cad’s territory. Heck of a lot better patch than my tumbleweed breeding ground.’

Wilbur nodded. ‘What’re you gonna do, huh? Easy come, easy go. At least no tigers out your way.’

‘Hope to hell not.’

‘Snakes though.’

‘And more than twelve-inch ones.’ Beckman winked. ‘See you around, Wilbur.’

‘See you, B. Sell well.’

Beckman headed out to the Caddy, keen to put all thoughts of wildlife—desert-dwelling, garden-dwelling, or trouser-dwelling—out of his mind.

First order of business: coffee.

It was just after two in the afternoon, while Beckman was gallivanting through his fifth Coffee Planet serving of the day—trying to convince himself he’d be able to meet Oswald in the future without glancing downwards—when his cell rang.

‘Wilbur?’

‘Hey, B.’

‘This is unusual. What—we make a mistake?’

‘Huh? Oh, no—it’s him.’

‘Okay.’

‘Okay.’

‘So?’

‘So? Oh, yeah. He was just here.’

‘You didn’t say anything?’ Beckman interjected, suddenly horrified.

‘Say? That? No. No—he was just putting in a huge stock order. Need to get a semi-trailer loaded.’

‘Oswald? On his first day? A semi-trailer!’

Walter’s sigh veritably puffed through the speaker. ‘Yeah. Said he went back to the tiger guy. Cad never closed the sale. Guy was keen—maybe out of pity now. Anyway, he’s this hot shot—wanted to put the product on his employee benefit medical plan. Got a lot of employees. So—semi-trailer.’

‘Ah, snap.’

‘Yeah.’

Beckman pushed his own sigh down the mouthpiece. ‘Thanks for calling, Wilbur.’

‘Sure. Thought you should know.’

‘Yeah. Thanks.’

‘Beckman?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Puts him back above you now.’

‘Already? Ah, snap,’ he breathed.

‘Sorry, B.’

‘Yeah. Thanks Walter.’

‘Sure.’

Beckman thumbed the End button. Drained his coffee.

Shook away the disappointment.

‘Easy come, easy go.’ 

Six Sales AZ - A Sunrise short story

Six Sales, AZ.

Five sales. In one day.

Pretty stellar if you work in a car dealership.

Not so hot if you hawk boxes out of your car at ten bucks a shot.

Still, all things are relative.

Beckman stood, gawping apparently mindlessly, with the words on the menu board nothing more than hieroglyphs before his eyes.

His mind hopped between his less-than-stellar work performance, and the recent sight of a charred hulk of a building which should have been his latest Coffee Planet stop-off, but not even he liked beans roasted quite that dark.

So here he was, in a random café a block away, seeking alternate beverage arrangements.

Five is not great. But it’s better than zero, which is what you had two hours ago.

So—what to drink? What to drink, now that the de-facto rest stop is mostly ash in the atmosphere?

‘Can I help you, sir?’

He snapped from the impromptu reverie.

Her head was cocked to the side, no doubt curious as to why this gormless stranger was spending most of the afternoon selecting a simple beverage.

She barely shaded five feet, had long brown hair, and wasn’t wearing the employee-branded polo shirt. But he clocked her knapsack, her chirpy demeanour, and put two and two together—though he left it unsaid.

There was something else too.

She had buck teeth.

Beside a river somewhere, a gummy beaver was struggling with a chainsaw he’d had to buy from Home Depot. Poor little guy.

If she lived in a log cabin, it would be too funny. Luckily, he’d never find out. She was pretty enough, but (1) he liked his lips in their current state, (2) his chat-up small talk was so rusty it would take ten gallons of WD-40 to loosen up, and (3) he’d only be in town for a couple more hours. The peripatetic life is no cradle for romance.

Plus he was being cruel. He was hardly a matinee idol specimen—at least she had a distinguishing feature—he had none.

‘Just… picking something out.’

‘Try the coffee.’

He smiled. ‘You work here—you’re biased.’

There was a beat in which she wondered how he knew, and he got a self-satisfied glow from knowing, and knowing how he knew. It wasn’t rocket science: the emergence from the Staff door, the zipping up of the hoodie, the wave from the guy behind the counter.

Was she impressed? Did it matter?

You’ve got maybe ten years on her, buddy. It’s not cradle-snatching, but even so.

She shrugged. ‘Only part time. And I’m not on commission. And I’m off today now, so I won’t get your tip.’

‘No—not coffee.’

Not here.

Her hand gestured over the wooden board above the counter ten feet away. Someone approached, surmised that Beckman wasn’t the beginning, end, or entirety of the queue, and passed by to make their order, in a commendably faster-than-glacial pace.

‘Mocha, tea, sodas…’ She flashed a querying eyebrow.

He wanted to make it plain that, as a thirty-seven-year-old man, he was very adept at Reading Stuff, but didn’t want to come across as an ass.

‘Is that your hand?’ He indicated the faux chalk writing. That was a flat-out guess—his observation skills had limits.

‘Yeah. If only I’d used magic decision-chalk though, huh?’ A toothy grin appeared—a white Stonehenge—but there was a twinkle in her eye too.

Bet she makes a packet in tips.

Probably shade your commission too, road warrior.

All while in the same spot.

So not your vibe.

Did I just use the word “vibe”? What am I—twenty?

‘Don’t let me keep you. You were heading out.’

She glanced at the wall clock. ‘Dale let me go five minutes early. So I guess I have room for one more.’ She jerked her head towards a table. ‘At least take the weight off, while you’re not deciding.’

‘I guess.’

She followed him over to a square wooden table where they sat on adjacent sides. She hung her knapsack on the chair back; he did likewise with his trusty shoulder bag. It went everywhere with him—Linus’ blanket, minus the sucking.

Why is she volunteering to take time out from not being bored senseless by an older, thirsty, indecisive travelling salesman to risk the exact opposite?

Is this what they call “a spark”?

Need to get that WD-40 working on the ol’ Spotting The Signs muscle.

One thing at a time. Or probably one thing, period.

‘So—you not drink coffee?’

He glanced towards the window. ‘Only Coffee Planet, and I see they had a little accident.’

‘Fire is fire—it doesn’t judge.’

‘Crying shame.’

‘For some. Not for me.’

‘Ah—I get it now. You run this place. Happy to see the competition suffer.’ He smiled to show he was only partly joking.

‘Run? Ha! No, this is Dale’s place.’

‘All the same… business must have picked up.’

‘I guess. Why the third degree? So what if one of a faceless chain takes a hit? Capitalism sucks.’

There was a hint of vehemence in her tone, but he let it lie. He’d come in for a beverage, not an argument. Yet he was no closer to the former.

‘You have a job,’ he pointed out.

‘Just until the other thing takes off.’

‘The other thing?’

‘I make jewellery.’

He’d noticed the earrings—a chain of delicate metallic spheres leading down to a small cup, like a string of coffee beans being dropped into a mug.

After The Teeth, it was the second thing he’d clocked. All the while he was—on perpetual autopilot—keeping his senses attuned for any sign that she might be a potential customer.

Nothing yet, but, hell, five sales in two hours? He’d earned a break.

He nodded. ‘And you like coffee. Or you like modelling your wares for people who do.’

‘What can I say—Dale makes a great macchiato. So—how about it?’

He sighed.

Come clean?

‘The thing is…’ He stopped, hand hovering in mid-air, his mind absent of her name—because it hadn’t been established yet.

She caught his awkwardness. ‘Jolene. Yeah, like the song.’

He had an impish thought. ‘What song?’

Her eyes narrowed. The twinkle reappeared. ‘No, I’m not biting, Mister…?’

‘Beckman. No, not like anything. Not for a first name, anyhow.’

‘It’s a doozy, that’s for sure.’

‘Pair of conversation-starters, aren’t we?’

‘You know—it helps—chatting with customers and all. So—you not a coffee guy?’

He cracked a couple of knuckles. ‘I pretty much stick with Coffee Planet.’

She arched an eyebrow.

Wish I could do that. Just the one. It’s a great weapon. No, not weapon. Tool.

‘Okay, so I’m loyal as hell.’ He fished in the inner pocket of his charcoal jacket and pulled out a wad of CP-branded loyalty cards, held together with a rubber band which was into late middle-age and in need of being put out to pasture before it twanged into impromptu non-existence and decorated the surroundings with its captives.

Her other eyebrow arched.

Now that’s just showing off.

‘They oughta make you MVP,’ she suggested.

‘And this isn’t the whole nine yards. I got a box at home. I think I’m the loyalty department’s wet dream.’

‘You should do an interview. World Record or something.’

‘Somebody will have more.’ He carefully replaced the wad, now conscious of Ol’ Stretchy’s waning health. ‘Somebody more dull than me.’

‘Dull? With a name like that? You’re just a guy who knows what he likes. Nothing wrong with that.’ She flashed a toothy, conciliatory smile. The coffee earrings danced, reminding him of his thirst.

He looked around for a server. She caught the drift, scanned the room and was less reticent in fluttering a hand at a maroon-shirted female. Quickly, with zero-hour upon him, Beckman checked the drinks menu again.

The server arrived. ‘What can I get you, hon?’

Beckman lifted his hands from the table and clasped them together.

She angled her body towards him. She brought the tip of her pencil up to the order pad.

She wants that order from you. Whenever you’re ready.

Any time now.

You’ve had ages to choose.

It’s just a drink. Pick one.

Not coffee, obviously.

‘I’ll have…’

Good start.

He bit his lip. Checked the menu again. Checked Jolene. Swallowed.

‘… a…’

‘The milkshake is very good,’ Jolene piped up, simultaneously causing and saving his blushes, which vanished in a puff of quantum weirdness.

‘Yeah?’ he asked.

Milkshake? How long has it been?

You do like milkshake. And this was by way of something different—the Beckman lame-ass celebration for the above-average end to another mediocre week.

What could go wrong? More to the point, could it get worse than the decade which has passed in the last ten seconds?

‘I will. I’ll have a vanilla milkshake.’

Woo hoo! Wow—you’ll be tying your own shoelaces next.

Maybe we did find your distinguishing feature after all—cataclysmic idiocy.

‘Great,’ the server replied, turning to Jolene. ‘You, hon?’

‘Just a latte, thanks Emi.’

Emi set off to prepare two dairy-heavy beverages.

Apologise, style it out, or change the subject?

She beat him to the punch. ‘Did you never try Coffee Planet’s milkshakes?’

He shook his head. ‘Coffee all the way.’

‘You know, they’re getting rid of those cards. Gonna be pushing their app.’

‘Why?’

She shrugged. ‘Progress. Convenience.’

‘You guys have an app?’

‘Dale only got a cell last year. Let’s say it’s not likely soon.’

‘Well, you know where you are with cards.’

‘Bit of stickler, aren’t you, Beckman?’

‘Life on the road needs some touchstones.’

‘I figured that’s what you were. What are you selling?’

Is it that obvious what I do? Do I care?

He tugged his shoulder bag off the chair, opened the flap, withdrew a brown box and set it on the table.

Jolene peered at the anonymous carboard cuboid. ‘Not coffee—or jewellery—that would be too funny, right?’ She smiled.

‘Pain relief.’

She nodded slowly. ‘Okay. For where?’

‘Headaches.’

‘And this is what you’re in town selling. Fancy box of pills?’

‘Yes—and no. No pills, and any town.’ He sighed. ‘Ideally where people actually buy.’

‘Is this what the Friday afternoon drowning-your-sorrows-in-unspecified-drinks is? I’d go straight to bourbon.’

‘Hell, it’s not that bad. Never is. Actually this afternoon kinda rescue my visit. Five customers. Five living, breathing, hurting souls.’

‘Five? Why, what is it—like two hundred bucks?’

‘Ten bucks.’

She whistled softly. ‘Jeez, I make more than that in tips.’

‘Yeah, but you don’t get to travel the world, Jolene.’ He whipped out the pack of used loyalty cards, then winced at his maltreatment of Ol’ Stretchy. ‘You don’t get to down the filters, get the stamps, burn the gas, enjoy motel sheets, and—on a good day—have a milkshake with people like you.’

On cue, Emi arrived with their drinks, glanced in his direction, and scooted away.

Probably scared I’ll change my order after all that. Don’t blame her. Should have gone for water—hard to screw that up.

Jolene was unashamedly spectating as he cautiously picked up the glass and took a tentative sip.

‘I won’t take it personally if you gag,’ she said, displaying the full piano keyboard.

Actually, this is pretty fine.

‘Actually, this is pretty fine.’

‘So, wallow away, Beckman.’

‘Actually it was kind of a celebration.’

‘Five is good?’

‘It looked like zero here, so, yeah. I’m not graced with the greatest territory. Some towns are good—maybe a hundred a day. Some not so good. But I didn’t strike out—so that’s the plus.’

She raised her latte glass in toast and they chinked. ‘To… success.’

Strong word, but okay.

They drank.

Her brow knit. ‘So, without the fire, your celebration would have been just another Coffee Planet cup? Really?’

‘Like I said, it’s an anchor.’

‘An anchor is designed to prevent movement, and you’re a travelling salesman. What did I miss?’

He held her gaze as his mind churned over the question. 

Her pupils, he was almost certain, were grey-green. Eye colours were pretty easy for him to interpret. There were only a handful of common colours, and he’d long ago matched their names to the specific shade of grey which inhabited his monochromatic world. In the pantone of real-life, for “normal” people, there were countless things he could only take best guess at. Anything which existed in a defined palette—like eye colour—was an area of certainty he held on to.

Like an anchor.

‘I never thought about it. Maybe having fixed things I can rely on—like the taste at Coffee Planet—takes away uncertainties I don’t need. Means I can put more time and energy into trying to find customers for this.’ He tapped the box. ‘So, why change from what works? Why try another coffee, maybe hate it, and have to go somewhere else to get my fix of body fuel? Time is money.’

‘So you’re not one for new experiences?’

Was there a hidden agenda in those words? Unlikely.

‘Every day is new—even the same coffee from the same store. It’s not Groundhog Day, you know?’

‘Depends where you draw the line, I guess.’

He smiled. ‘I’m trying your milkshake, aren’t I?’

‘Maybe this could be your new habit. We could be your new stop-off.’

‘Not unless you have branches state-wide.’

‘You get around, huh?’

He sipped his very-passable milkshake. ‘Hundreds of square miles of the ass-end of nowhere.’

‘To cure headaches.’

‘It’s better than a lot of shit people do.’

‘You go door-to-door?’

He shook his head. ‘Sit around. Watch people.’ He gestured around. ‘Cafés, malls, diners. Queues are good, medical centres. Anywhere people hang out, and I can spot them.’

‘Lot of killing time.’ She slugged her coffee. The large part of his body dedicated to caffeine processing gave a silent whimper.

‘Yeah. I could write a book. You know—if my life story was anything to write about.’

That amused her, and the twinkle in her eye appeared. A twinkle which might be seized upon by other guys. People like his objectionable colleague Tyler Screw-Anything Quittle.

‘Spot them how?’ she asked.

Should I open Pandora’s Box? Give away the secrets of my roaring success? What’s she gonna do, drop a cosy life in a small town for a lifetime on the road serving the Pegasus Corporation?

And what if she did? It’s a free country.

Except it would be someone else to run against in the Salesman of the Year competition.

The key word there is “man”. Mr Malvolio would never employ a mere woman. It’s unthinkable to the guy. Wow—I think we found another reason to despise the slave-driving SOB.

Anyway, where were we?

He took another sip. ‘Call me a student of the human condition. When people have headaches, all the signs are there.’

‘Then you wade in with the patter.’

He chuckled. ‘Patter is for peddlers. If I told you I’ve been doing this for eleven years, and never had a single refund or complaint, you can see why the thing kinda sells itself.’

‘I wish my stuff did.’

‘Running your own business is brave, Jolene. I could never.’

She shrugged. ‘Well, I’ll see how it goes. If only people gave off vibes, like they do for you. You know—clutching themselves in a way which means they’re desperate for artisanal metalware!’

‘You have a business plan?’

She shook her head. ‘My boyfriend gives me some ideas, but he’s not really the type.’

‘Desk job?’

‘Fireman, here in town.’

Muscled Adonis with IQ shading three figures. Twice her size probably.

Jeez—stereotype much?

Fireman, though? Should have got to Coffee Planet quicker, sunshine.

Well, if he ever needs the Jaws of Life he doesn’t need to look far…

‘Wow. Good for him. You worry about him?’

‘Nah. He gets scrapes, but don’t we all?’

He subconsciously leant in slightly. ‘Headaches?’

She eased back by a similar amount and her eyes creased. ‘You pitching to me, Beckman?’

He held up a hand. ‘Sorry. Force of habit.’

‘No. You know what? You seem like an honest guy, and yeah, Erik does get headaches, so I’ll wrap up your stellar day and take a box—okay?’

Six? Six!

Not quite ready for the annals of history, but it rescues a day of tumbleweeds in town.

He slid the box across. She dug into a pocket and pulled out an Alexander Hamilton.

‘Thanks Jolene.’

‘Sure.’

‘When—not if—it works, spread the message and maybe I’ll come back and buy you more than a coffee.’

‘I’ll do that. Just not at Coffee Planet, okay?’

‘They rebuilding?’ he asked, trying to make it sound absentminded, and failing.

‘Yeah. Worst luck.’

‘Room for everyone on this planet. From the road warriors to the… artisan metalworkers.’

‘I guess.’

‘What happened? Anyone hurt?’

‘No. One night. Place just went up—that’s the story.’

‘Last man out forgot to turn off the sandwich toaster, I guess.’

She looked away. ‘Yeah, probably.’

‘This isn’t so bad—as a change.’ He swirled the cream liquid in the glass. Noticed her earrings again. ‘You make nice stuff, Jolene. Much as I know about it.’

‘Thanks.’ She bit her lip, pensive for a moment. ‘Do you want any pieces?’

‘I’m happy with plain skin, thanks.’

‘I meant for your wife? Girlfriend?’

‘Not applicable.’ He avoided a desperate sigh.

‘Significant other?’

‘Significant mother is about the closest I’ve got.’

Jolene’s brow furrowed. ‘Significant how?’

‘She’s my mother. Isn’t that pretty significant? Take her away, and what have you got?’

‘A different mother with a less imaginative line in names for their kids?’ she suggested.

‘Kid, singular,’ he clarified. ‘You know, I never asked which of my parents actually cooked up my name.’

‘Would it matter?’

He reflected on two relationships, one merely distant, one metaphorically out near Jupiter. ‘No.’

But maybe I’ll ask mom next time we speak. Just for idle conversation. Which is about all we have anyway.

And this here was what—Kierkegaard, climate change, the meaning of life?

It was a sale, Beckman. Another town, end of another day, another week.

And, actually, a conversation not largely about headaches, sport, or the weather. For once.

Thanks for the nudge, Jolene. You’re… okay. Maybe that fire was a blessing in disguise.  

He slugged his milkshake. Time was pressing.

A thought struck. ‘You ever ask Dale about putting a small display up, with some of your pieces?’

‘Yeah. He wasn’t keen.’

‘Did you offer him commission?’

Her face lit. ‘You think he’d go for it?’

‘Is he an ass?’

She shook her head.

He shrugged. ‘So, a few bucks commission is a free lunch. Can’t hurt to ask.’

‘Thanks, Beckman.’

‘I wrote the book on commission-based business. Well, a pamphlet.’ He sipped the last of his drink. ‘Actually, on today’s sales, maybe a Post-It Note. The little ones.’

‘All the same…’

‘I wish you luck, okay? And thanks for keeping me company. Glad I hung around.’

She downed the coffee dregs. ‘I should be going too.’ She tapped the box. ‘Can’t say I’m not intrigued.’

‘Every day is an adventure.’

She stood, pulled her knapsack onto the table, put the box inside, and refastened it. ‘That’s right. Never know what you’re going to discover. See you around, Beckman.’

He flicked his hand in farewell. ‘Bye, Jolene.’

But his mind wasn’t on the departure. It was racing at the sight of the cloth badge sewn onto her bag.

The one which read, “Capitalism Sucks.”

Accidental Valentine - A Sunrise short story

Accidental Valentine

Beckman’s heart sank as a familiar figure entered the café.

There was no point in trying to look away, bury his nose in his coffee cup, or whip up a book to cover his face.

Note to self: always carry a book.

Tyler would notice him. It was a foregone conclusion, because (1) like he, Tyler would be scouring the room for potential customers, (2) things always went right for Tyler, and (3) Beckman’s personalised license plate would stand out in a small parking lot.

Of course, it wasn’t impossible that Tyler would notice him and ignore him. Maybe even make do with a courteous nod.

Courteous—Tyler? Ha!

At times like these, the Jaws theme wormed into Beckman’s head. He caught the moment Tyler painted on a good-natured expression, bypassed the short register queue, and lasered-in on his co-worker.

Beckman initiated a look of cheery humour, sipped his traditional beverage nonchalantly, and waited to feel the soft impression from multiple rows of sharky pearly-whites.

‘Crossing boundaries now, Becky? Tsk tsk.’

Despite many years of Tyler Quittle’s innocent-yet-offensive nickname, it never bounced off him without an unseen wince. He’d given up hope that the man would finally realise his gentle jibe had no effect. Or would get bored with it. Or come up with something, if not better, then at least different.

So, ignoring the term of non-endearment (as usual), Beckman focussed on the allegation of territorial infraction. Tyler had made an error because he didn’t get it. Like he didn’t get women. Or Beckman’s vastly different persona. Or the concept of generally being pleasant.

‘Afternoon to you too, Tyler. I get where you’re coming from, so put away the wiseass. Yeah—so this branch is not inside my sales patch, but it’s not verboten. Neither is taking a damn holiday in the Rockies. I’m drinking coffee, not trying to steal your precious customers.’

Tyler Quittle’s perfect blue eyes, set into his roguish face, narrowed, as he sought bluff in Beckman’s defence. Then, eyeing Beckman as if he’d throw a punch or morph into a unicorn, he eased into the moulded black plastic seat opposite. ‘Sure?’

Beckman merely sipped his brew. ‘Do I look that dumb to sneak onto your territory?’

Tyler nodded slowly, accepting this at face value. ‘Be a damn sight easier if you weren’t obsessed with this damn place. You know—coffee’s coffee.’

The nerve of the man.

‘I happen to like Coffee Planet—okay? So I’m about four miles over your border? Live and let live. I’ll be gone in two minutes.’

‘Cos if I catch you pitching to—’

‘Blow it out your ass, Tyler.’

‘Easy, Becky, easy.’

They mentally circled each other for a minute. Beckman sipped his soon-to-be-too-cold brew.

Tyler drummed his fingers on the table. ‘Any hot plans tonight? But—why do I ask, huh?’ He smirked.

Lesser men would have put their fist through the man’s face. Luckily, the angel on Beckman’s shoulder had long-ago blinded the opposing devil, using robes searingly white and starched, causing the little red guy to topple five feet to his death and impale himself on his trident for good measure.

‘Just a regular Friday, wind up the working week. I won’t ask about you.’

Nonetheless, Tyler grandstanded, ‘Having Valentine’s at home with Jennah.’

‘Jennah? Wow. That’s over a week now. Is that a record?’

‘Can it, Beckman.’

‘Barely once a decade we get a woman—besides Miss B—at the office, but you don’t hang about. And she’s sticking with you even after her two-week locum stretch? Kudos to you, Tyler. Kudos to you.’

Tyler’s gaze again drilled into Beckman’s soul, searching for the flannel, but Beckman was too good at fake pleasantry to be discovered. Ten years alongside T. Quittle had oiled his battle armour nicely.

‘Well—she knows a good thing. Knows how to keep a guy happy too. We’re getting takeout and I’m watching some hoops with a few beers.’

‘You old romantic.’

‘If she’s happy—fine.’

‘Let’s see if she’s still curled up with you this time next year. Or even month.’

‘Like I’d take dating advice from you, Becky. About as much use as taking tips about the job. What are you—about half my total?’

‘I don’t watch other people’s sales numbers, Tyler. Waste of time.’

Tyler sneered. ‘Yeah—too depressing, I guess.’ He patted the table like a drum, then rose. ‘Have a beautiful weekend. Say hello to your lizard.’

Then he left.

‘It’s a leopard gecko,’ Beckman breathed to nobody.

 

Arizona’s February twilight was falling as he reached his apartment building. It had been a pretty slow week—only 1122 miles—but he was looking forwards to getting inside and shutting out the over-commercial wash of hearts and flowers which subsumed society.

A delivery guy stood at the door of the apartment opposite. Not the parcel or takeout kind—more individual. The only clue that he was a delivery guy was that he was delivering something. Something with a smell. A good smell.

‘Thanks,’ EJ said. Beckman sensed she meant gratitude, but that her heart wasn’t in it—like she’d ordered a new wristwatch and in the meantime suffered a lower-arm amputation.

‘Have a good night,’ Delivery Guy chirped.

‘Yeah.’

Beckman nodded the customary Never Going To See You Again hello-goodbye to the guy as he passed, then returned his attention to EJ as she lifted the two bags inside her doorway.

‘Hi, EJ.’ He’d never been told what EJ stood for, nor asked, nor expected to find out. EJ liked to be called EJ, and probably only her parents or boyfriend knew the E and the J of it. She lived across the hall, she was pleasant, she took in his deliveries while he was out (he was usually out, but equally ordered little), and they exchanged more conversation than he did with, for example, delivery guys.

‘Hey, Beckman. You’re home—means it’s the weekend.’

He flashed a smile. ‘And Valentine’s, don’t forget—although I see you didn’t forget. Or Jerome didn’t forget.’

She tried to respond with a smile, but it turned upside down pretty quickly. ‘Thanks. My idea. Bad idea as it turns out.’

He moved closer, curious. ‘You okay?’

She sighed a tornado. ‘We broke up.’

‘Today?’ he asked in disbelief.

‘Yeah.’ She shrugged. ‘He took offence at me wearing the trousers and organising a romantic night in. Told me not to waste money on a fancy private chef home order.’ She gave a maudlin chuckle. ‘Final straw. So, here we are. Hundred bucks worth of overeating stomach-ache for me tomorrow.’ She pushed a strand of long brown hair off her forehead. ‘He sure picked a day.’

‘That sucks, EJ.’ He offered the most sympathetic look in his arsenal.

Silence clanged in the short corridor.

‘You got anything planned?’

He knew she’d asked out of politeness. It was impossible to live opposite Beckman Spiers and not notice that there was nothing to notice.

‘You know—feet up, order a takeout. It’s just a Friday.’

‘What a pair, huh?’

‘Yeah.’

Yet he hadn’t moved his key towards the keyhole. He felt something in the air. An approaching unknown, but not like the spectre of Tyler. In fact, if there was a tune playing in his head, it was more like that of an ice cream truck turning into the street.

‘Look, Beckman, this is crazy, but do you want to save yourself a phone call—and me guilt and indigestion—and give me a hand with this?’ She gestured to the bags, whose mouthwatering scent was now as much a feature of the environment as the unexpected uncomfortableness of the situation.

‘Er…’

‘Not like a date,’ she clarified with a smile.

‘Just neighbours sharing a bite.’

‘Sure. Ignore the 14th part. Just… a Friday.’

What’s there to lose? She’s nice enough. And I am hungry.

Sure, she might stab me with the kitchen knife as in loco revenge for simply being a man—but that’s pretty unlikely.

He smiled. ‘Sure, EJ. Shame to waste good food.’

 

While EJ hustled up crockery, Beckman gazed around the living area.

She collected mice.

There were plastic ones, metal ones, enamel ones, glass ones, woollen ones. Big, medium, small. Singly, in families. On the shelves and the window sill and the table and the floor. A hand-drawn sticker of a mouse poked its head out from a semi-circular black sticker on the skirting.

It was much more… cutesy than he expected of her—certainly for a self-proclaimed trouser-wearer and dinner-orderer.

They sat.

She slid a Bud across the table, and raised hers. ‘Thanks, neighbour.’

He shrugged. ‘I would only have sat across the hall and worried if you’d be okay.’ He drank. ‘You know—laid awake, waiting for the anguished wails of the unfairly dumped.’

‘Oh, don’t worry—I dumped him. Seems like the way to a man’s heart isn’t always through his stomach.’

‘I think the problem is that the stomach is always receptive, but the brain isn’t. Anyway—his loss.’ He realised that could be misconstrued as A Pass. ‘The food, I mean.’

‘I did good, huh?’

He devoured another mouthful of perfect pork belly. ‘Gourmet take-out may be my new favourite thing. If I ever get the occasion.’

‘Maybe if we’re both still single, your place same time next year?’ Her wink said that the words were good-natured yet serious.

‘Another Valentine’s to remember for all the wrong reasons? Let’s hope not.’

‘Another?’ Her brow furrowed.

‘I mean—remember for the whole non-Valentine’s, must-try-harder feeling.’

‘Oh, don’t worry—I’ve had a few.’

‘I hear you.’

Just please don’t ask about them, EJ, okay? I’m having a nice platonic face-stuffing here, trying to keep your emotional head above water. Let’s not go dredging up my dating history, huh?

‘Sounds ominous, Beckman.’

‘Nope. Ominous implies a departure from the norm. It’s just another mid-February day.’ He drained his beer. ‘I certainly never got dumped on this day in history, so you’re one up on me there.’

She snorted. ‘Go me. Ring out the bells.’

‘Hey, I’m no expert, but you’re probably better off. It’s worse when you can’t see the warning signs and end up living a lie. If Jerome wasn’t Mister Right, then better to find out sooner than later.’

‘That sounds like it comes from the heart.’

He shook his head. ‘Saw it on Oprah.’

She sniggered. ‘You—Oprah?’

‘What can I say? Ten years of motel TV and too much time.’

‘So, not at home most Valentine’s?’

‘Like I said—it’s a day. Some are in the hearts-and-flowers, candlelit dinners camp; those without the means, motive and opportunity aren’t.’

‘Well, I left the candles in the cupboard. That would have been too weird.’

‘Yeah.’

She held up a mollifying hand. ‘Not that you’re not a nice guy, Beckman. I’m sure you’d be the chocolates-and-kisses type—for the right girl.’

‘Thanks, EJ. Five years of taking in my oversize mail and saying howdy, and suddenly you’ll break bread on a momentous day and say sweet things? Jerome is an ass.’

‘Was.’

A worry lanced through his brain. ‘He is gone—right? Does he have a key? I mean—’ He looked around nervously.

‘What’s up? Chill out.’

‘If he catches me, I bruise easily.’

‘Catches you? We’re having a friendly dinner.’

We know that.’

‘He’s not a violent guy.’

‘To women, maybe.’

She shrugged. ‘You’d hold your own.’

‘Suddenly I’m punching him on your behalf? After two beers and bellyful you paid for?’

‘There are two kinds of men, Beckman. The white knights, and the ones the white knights save the maidens from. Which are you?’ She smiled knowingly.

Jeez. In that case, reckon I need to head down to Horses And Armour R Us.

‘Well, now you put it like that…’

‘Relax. I’d probably punch him first.’

Collecting mice and throwing punches. Interesting combo, EJ.

She collected up the plates. ‘Men, huh?’

‘Yeah. Sorry for us.’

 

After dessert, he steadfastly remained at the table, hoping she wouldn’t want to retire to the sofa. That would be too cosy, and risked the impromptu get-together crossing into another dimension—a more Valentine-y one.

Not that it wouldn’t be welcome—very overdue, in fact—and EJ had many attractive qualities.

It just wouldn’t be right. Too opportunistic. Too rebound. Too not-white-knight.

But the nice guy approach has hardly reaped stellar rewards, has it buddy? Maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe get down off that high horse, shed that armour, and take a chance once in a while?

But those leopard spots are glued on pretty fast. Besides, “nice guy approach” implies an actual strategy—a mask. A plan, a front.

You’re just Beckman, Beckman.

So they had coffee at the table, talked about mice and take-outs and his life on the road and her life behind a computer screen and noisy Mr Hubbish upstairs and little of consequence.

And he wondered if, should they be at his apartment this time next year—as she’d joked, he might go crazy and put a candle on the table. Get a box of chocolates as a surprise. Ask her about the E and the J.

He might even tell her he had monochromatic vision. It didn’t make a difference—she was clearly a brunette with brown eyes, slim, and about a hand shorter than he.

And apparently doesn’t take a single guy for a loser.

Ten o’clock chimed on a small, tinny, mouse-themed clock.

‘Maybe this is one to remember for the right reasons?’ she suggested.

‘It beat being alone, for sure.’

‘Thanks for being my white knight.’

‘As I recall, you whistled up the horse anyhow. Besides, what are neighbours for?’

Her face lit. ‘On that…’ She rose and went to the next room, came back with a box.

‘I remember now.’ He smiled. ‘Being my PA.’

She waved it away, and set the box down on the table. ‘What is it?’

He examined the label. ‘Some fancy new save-the-planet washing soda. Mom insisted on sending it.’ Then he regretted revealing that his maternal relationship was more like that of a teenager than a mid-thirtysomething. Except it wasn’t—they seldom spoke, and she certainly wasn’t his mollycoddling supplier of necessary household goods. This had been an “Okay, mom” concession.

‘White knights gotta remain white, huh?’ he added, hoping she’d laugh and break the cringing embarrassment.

She did laugh.

Roll on February 14th next year. Hopefully she’ll be a maiden, but not in distress.

That would be one in the eye for Tyler. I can’t think EJ would be the waiting-on-her-man-while-he-lounges-around type, but another evening like this—maybe with Cupid in the room—is much more “Beckman”.

Don’t get ahead of yourself, sonny.

‘I should go. I’d be kidding if I said I had things to do, but, you know? You jog early, right?’

‘Yeah. I not wake you?’

‘No. Besides—when am I here?’

‘Sometimes, just at the right time, I guess. Thanks for company.’

‘No sweat. Thanks for the invite, EJ.’ He scooped up the box and went to the door.

‘Beckman?’

He turned. ‘Yeah?’

‘It’s “Ellie”.’

He nodded. ‘Then thanks, Ellie. Gimme a knock if you need a friend. Or if you over-order again.’ He risked a wink.

She winked back. ‘Sure.’

‘Happy Valentine’s, neighbour.’

‘You too, neighbour.’

He let himself out.

 

The tingle of warmth didn’t let up as he unpacked his trusty shoulder bag, checked the vivarium to top up Bogie’s food and water, kicked off his shoes and allowed the Tonight Show to murmur into the room.

Ellie?

I was thinking Elizabeth, so that’s a result. Wonder if it’s shortened, or given like that?

And the J?

Maybe that’s for next year.

Again, don’t get ahead of yourself, sonny. It’s a non-solitary, non-sucky February 14th. Hang out the flags for that at least.

His cell phone rang.

I didn’t give her my number? Or did I—before—for emergencies? I’ve seen this kind of thing in the movies. The unspoken connection. One of them makes the first move, the evening recommences. Valentine’s accidentally catapults proximate dwellers into tender embrace…

Heart pulsing, he looked at the screen.

It was Tyler.

If he gloats, let him. We did alright here too.

He sighed, and thumbed Accept.

‘Free advice, Becky—steer clear of women.’

Thanks for the context.

‘Evening to you too, Tyler. Besides, you don’t mean “women”, you mean ‘commitment”. Even a whole week’s worth.’

‘She walked out.’

Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

‘Jennah? Can’t figure why,’ he lied.

‘The beer and hoops was a test! She thought it was a joke. Unbelievable.’

‘Yeah. Unbelievable’s a word.’

Tyler scoffed. ‘Women, huh?’

Beckman grunted noncommittally.

Dead air.

‘Thanks for the bulletin, Tyler.’

‘You get any?’ A snort. ‘Why do I ask?’

‘No. Like you, I didn’t get any. And now I’m hanging up.’

‘Steer clear, Becky. Steer clear.’

‘Thanks for the PSA.’ He hit the little red icon and tossed the phone onto the sofa. Glanced across at the door.

Shook his head. ‘Men, huh?’

 

Read Beckman’s full adventure HERE.

“Tow Away Zone” – Sample

Scarlet? Probably.

Imperial? Likely.

Crimson? Possibly.

Spanish? Could be.

Cardinal? Doubtful.

Beckman sighed. He was bored of this game.

It was red, which was the important thing. Except it wasn’t important, not in the slightest. He’d never even seen red—it was merely a word, a concept.

It was a light; a flickering light. That was the important thing—because it was pissing him off. Keeping him awake. Riling him. Mocking him.

He rolled over. The portable alarm clock on the nightstand read 22:11.

The motel was full; no point in trudging down to the grunting oaf on the check-in desk to request a change of room. There’d only be an argument, he’d grow even more awake, and still wind up back in Room 12.

At least there lay a quantum of solace—he’d wangled Room 12.

Yet at the moment, it didn’t feel like such a good peg to hang anything on. Tight as he pulled the curtains to the window edges, the material was much too thin to fully block out the light. A static wash of red—of any shade—he could cope with. This damn irregular flickering though? Torture.

He debated the merit of asking Grunting Oaf for the neon frontage sign to be switched off, but knew he’d come across like a petty jerk.

Instead, he reluctantly threw back the covers, flicked on the ineffectual beside lamp, padded across the thin carpet, and rooted through his open suitcase. Tucked into a side pocket was an eye mask, a freebie relic he’d kept from a TWA flight back aways – a cross-country trip to see Mom, if he remembered right.

Rarely had he found it necessary to sink so low. 

The last time was, what, two years ago? 

He’d run out of gas in the middle of nowhere and spent a night in the back seat of the car. The moonlit hours and incessant cicadas turned out to be a minor inconvenience compared to the litany of aches he woke with. It had been even worse than the nights in the treehouse twenty years earlier.

At least tonight he had a bed.

He avoided thinking about what adventures it might have endured. The long years had inured him to such seeping imaginations and revulsions.

Instead, he slid back under the starchy covers, adjusted the eye mask until his view became blissful darkness, and buried his head as best as he could in the unhelpfully spongey pillow.

The air conditioning unit hummed and, now that the visual distraction had gone, his ears became more attuned to the surroundings. Was the flickering light now making an intermittent buzzing?

‘Oh, snap,’ he breathed in the darkness. Could this night suck even more?

He pulled the edges of the pillow up around his ears and hoped sleep would arrive before cramp set into his arms.

Oh, for the ability to count sheep, he mused. He’d have to count his blessings instead. He got as far as three and stopped.

He lolled his head over. How much time had passed? Would the unpredictable gods of night and slumber grant him morning?

22:21.

He found a fourth blessing; nobody was playing music or TV at an unsocial volume in the adjoining rooms. No yelling. No grunting.

Nevertheless, on such nights, dormant thoughts resurfaced about trading his Buick for a station wagon or an RV. At least that way, he’d be able to make room for a sleeping bag and be certain the courtesy light didn’t have a mind of its own or harbour dreams of a career in a nightclub.

Maybe a different vehicle would give him a new lease of life? Something needed to change.

Or did it?

Blessing One: steady job.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Not every stop-over on the road turned out like this. Tonight was an annoyance, a mosquito. Matter of fact, it was as likely to keep him awake as hearing such a tiny buzzing in the room, even if he couldn’t see the insect. Difference being, he wouldn’t wake up tomorrow with a red welt on his arm.

So, another blessing, surely. By that logic, he could come up with a million more.

Maybe he could count them:

(1) Steady job.

(2) Travel. Lots of travel.

(3) Meet interesting people. Sometimes.

(4) Health.

(5) Loving family. Well, semblance of.

(6) No noisy neighbours.

(7) No mosquito.

(8) A place to call home.

(9) Only four more stamps to go on the loyalty card before the next free coffee.

See—things could be worse. Now, go to sleep Beckman.

Miraculously, the fog began to descend. The world outside slipped into redundancy.

His breathing shallowed.

Sunday crept towards its end.

His cell phone rang. It could have been an air raid siren.

He mentally hauled himself back up the ladder to reality as quickly as he could muster, pushed aside the eye mask, stumbled out of bed with an ‘Oh, snap’, and scooped up the chirruping device from the desk. The off-brand charging cable halted his movement, so he rudely yanked it out and hit the answer key. 

Amidst the bleary chaos, he’d managed to note that the caller was “Office”, and his mood began to nosedive.

Office? On a Sunday? Have I woken in a parallel universe?

‘Spiers,’ he mumbled.

‘Is that you, Beckman?’

He recognised the terse voice, otherwise, given the time of night and his general humour, he’d have taken pains to point out that (1) this was his personal cell phone, so who did the caller think would answer? and (2) the caller had addressed him by name, thereby proving he already understood point (1).

However, knowing the caller wasn’t someone who took kindly to such logic or admonishments, Beckman kept it zipped. ‘Yes, sir, this is me.’

‘Malvolio here.’ Beckman took a calming breath; the words were hardly a revelation.

A Sunday? What fresh hell is this? 

A flourish of downdraft from the meshed duct in the stained false ceiling wafted cool air down his back and raised goosebumps. The room flickered intermittently scarlet or imperial. Or possibly crimson.

‘Yes, Mr Malvolio?’ he enquired.

‘I’ve some good news for you.’

Good? Good! Suddenly, Sunday could go hang.

Beckman waited to hear. And waited. And realised Mr Malvolio was waiting for him to indicate that he was waiting, because what else could possibly be more exciting than to be woken (kind of) in the middle (barely) of the night by a random phone call from your godawful boss, bearing news, which doubtless could wait until the first coffee, or ideally second, of the following day had passed your lips?

‘I’m all ears, sir.’ He scratched his balls.

‘Belcher is dead.’

Beckman waited for more detail. And waited. And realised Mr Malvolio was waiting for him to say something to indicate a reaction to the apparently Good News of someone’s death. Because what could be more sensible than prolonging a phone call in the not middle of the night when you’re standing with itchy balls in a cold breeze in a godawful motel room in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday?

‘Really? How?’ he asked, when of course he wanted to say, “Get bent and call me in the morning, you atrocious slave-driving freak”.

‘He got struck by lightning this afternoon.’ Malvolio said it with the same level of intrigue or sadness as one might when ordering pizza toppings.

‘Wow,’ Beckman managed, even more stupefied than he had been, ‘That’s a bad break.’

‘Not for you, Spiers. That moves you up to number two, now.’ Malvolio had evidently had enough of this heartfelt wallowing in the untimely demise of one of his workforce and was, unexpectedly, getting down to brass tacks. Or, more likely in his case, gold tacks.

‘Sheesh. I guess it does. Poor Belcher.’

‘Sad to see anyone die while they’re still in the race.’

‘Or any time,’ Beckman suggested. His mind was barely half on the call now.

Belcher’s sales volumes were now deemed irrelevant to the race. One of the riders had dropped out.

‘I suppose so. So, get your hiney moving, Spiers. Number Two position—pretty good going for a man like you.’

Such praise. 

Beckman gave the illuminated screen a hard stare. Not that Malvolio had him wrong, but to verbally concede such a fact would have been weakness. So he said nothing.

Would Malvolio take the opportunity to further crack the whip? Beckman mentally wagered his worldly possessions on it.

‘Only five days left,’ the harsh old voice continued. ‘It’s not impossible. Shoulder to the wheel, Spiers, nose to the grindstone. You can make Number One.’

‘Absolutely, sir,’ he lied. ‘I’ll get started tomorrow morning, first light.’

‘That’s what I like to hear.’

Then the phone boop-booped to indicate that the line had been hung up.

Beckman stared at the screen in a casserole of a stupor made up of tiredness, disbelief, revulsion, hope and itchiness.

Esmond Belcher is dead.

I just got promoted to Number Two on the Salesman of the Year chart.

One week to go.

Could I? Could I really make Number One? Finally?

In a pig’s eye.

He gave his balls a good long scratch and went to bed.

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE BOOK HERE, READ MORE FREE CHAPTERS HERE, OR BUY ON AMAZON/KINDLE

“Go Away Zone” – Sample

‘I thought it would have been shinier.’

‘What?’ Lolita raised a single eyebrow in the way that, weeks ago, Beckman felt only she could, before remembering that all women had some form of “Really, dufus?” disguised as something less overtly condescending / challenging / disbelieving*. (* delete as applicable).

He pressed on regardless. ‘I thought it would have been, you know, shinier. More metallic.’

‘Is that really what you think?’ There was no actual eyebrow this time, but an eyebrow lay buried in the tone.

‘What do you want me to say?’ (He’d learned that this is a good standby phrase, given no man on Earth ever fully knew what any woman was thinking, even one he might be betrothed to.)

‘You could accuse me of joking. Teasing. Lying.’

‘I may not know all your foibles, but it doesn’t strike me as a joke, and it can’t be a lie.’

‘Why can’t it be a lie?’ she asked.

‘Because we met on account of you calling me dishonest.’

‘I said you were likely to be.’

‘Either way, you’d be a heel to lie to me. Plus, if we’re getting married, that kind of thing needs a bedrock of honesty.’

‘If you’d ever let me plan the date.’ She rolled her eyes.

‘Sure, hijack a discovery like this,’ he waved a hand towards the apparently empty space five yards in front of them, ‘To kick my ass about your hot topic.’

‘Trust me, honey, when a girl hears wedding bells, there is no other topic more important.’

‘You might have warned me about that.’

‘For a guy who’s seen half the country and met like a million people, you don’t know a hell of a lot.’

‘Enough with the flattery.’ He flashed a grin.

She poked her tongue out.

Such was the not unfamiliar coda to their exchanges—and he loved her more for it. It kept him young and vibrant—not that he’d felt anything like young and vibrant during the past decade. He’d been on a trundling treadmill until she’d veritably jabbed the Stop button and sent him careering backwards into her arms.

He returned his attention to the lack of a view they’d come here to witness.

Well, I was only being honest—I did expect it to be shinier. Grander. Strangely alien.

Blame a guy for having unrealistic expectations based on a misspent youth in front of the TV?

He paced warily, taking extreme care not to get too close to something he couldn’t see or touch. Or smell. Or hear. Or taste, even if he got close enough, which he was in no way tempted to do.

Are you tempted? Of course you are. A tiny part. Come on—curiosity—it’s how we’re built. It’s what drives innovation. An inquisitive mind is a great mind.

Except you are a lightbulb salesman in a small town in Arizona. Edison you are not. He used a brilliant scientific mind. You want to do the equivalent of poking a sleeping lion with a short stick.

Well, part of you does. A tiny, tiny, stupid part.

Plus you poked a few lions already this year—and look how that turned out.

Kinda well, actually.

We only remember the good stuff—the happy days. Not the dumbass things we did along the way.

You got lucky.

Miss Lolita Milan was eyeing him simultaneously with interest, love and an almost maternal disbelief. The man-boy had a new toy.

Very lucky.

Except the man-boy wasn’t sure how this new toy worked. Or what it was. Or where it was.

‘How in hell have you all kept this a secret?’

‘We don’t want to be the new Area 51. I like a man in uniform as much as the next girl—’

‘You never met my father,’ he warned.

‘—but a thousand of them turning the town into a circus is nobody’s idea of fun. Come on, Beckman, you know Sunrise—’

‘I thought I did.’

‘—and we’re a keep-ourselves-to-ourselves kinda place. Besides,’ she said with a shrug, ‘Maybe it’s gone now.’

‘Gone?! You brought me here to show me something you can’t even see when it is there, and now say it may not be there any more. And how would we know? Maybe it is a joke.’ His eyes narrowed and he moved closer to her. ‘Is that it, honey? Wanted to laugh at the new guy? Bring him to a dead end road, spin an apocryphal tale and watch him skulk around like a curious cat, afraid of a mouse which may or may not be dead?’ 

He tried the single raised eyebrow thing, but failed dismally. It wasn’t the first time he’d tried, and he always failed dismally, but it didn’t stop him trying—for one very important reason.

He was an idiot.

She didn’t rise to it. She’d learned not to, because (1) she knew he was joking and (2) she also knew he was an idiot. One she dearly loved.

Instead, she stepped in and put a hand on his upper arm. ‘Beckman, I am deadly, deadly serious. For one, I thought you’d be interested, and for two I don’t want you absentmindedly wandering in there one day and poof!

He gazed at where her eyes were habitually shielded by reaction sunglasses, well-used to the impression of being able to see beyond them, took her hand from his arm and held it tenderly in his own.

‘A guy really knows it must be love when his girl doesn’t want him to inexplicably vanish from the face of the Earth.’

‘Certainly not while he still has her car keys in his pocket.’

‘Ah. The truest of true love.’

‘And definitely not until he’s changed his Will.’ She fought a smirk. Even an idiot could see as much.

‘I have virtually nothing to my name, but it’s all yours,’ he countered.

‘I believe that is the dictionary definition of marriage.’

‘Ah. The hot topic. It’s been at least two minutes. I was worried.’

‘I’m pleased you’re worried about me. I mean, I’m worried about you.’

‘Going in there?’ He jerked his head towards the thing neither of them could see, and which may not be there in any case.

‘Of course. Come on, you don’t poke a sleeping lion with a short stick, do you?’

Absolutely not. Never crossed my mind.

‘What about a long stick?’ he wondered.

She tilted her head down to reveal raised eyebrows over the rim of her glasses. After the Tongue Poke, the Disapproving Schoolmarm was her second favourite weapon. Perhaps it was the man-boy’s fault for doing or saying so many things that warranted its use.

Or perhaps because he deliberately provoked it, finding it deeply adorable.

Or possibly because he was an idiot.

She was his own sleeping lioness, and he always had a proverbial short stick in his pocket. In the past weeks, he’d elicited many purrs, some growls, the occasional roar. Once—no, make that twice—he’d been clawed. Yet he still carried a stick.

Because you’re an idiot.

But at least you know you are, so that’s all good.

Love will do that.

So, any time in the last romantically-barren decade wouldn’t have been disastrous to have diced with poof!, but right now was Dumb with a capital DUMB.

He kissed her to remind himself of those capitals.

And yet…

He turned to look at the Whatever It Was. She put hands on hips, indulging him, and they gazed towards the point in space where Strange Things Happened. Allegedly.

He became aware of her watching him, as curious of him as he was of it, as he sought even a flicker of evidence to dispel any remaining notion that this represented one big hoax. Just a sign, a grain of truth. Sunrise’s version of The Turin Shroud; something to give bedrock to belief.

After five minutes, the September sun climbing towards its warm zenith, he was turning away when something happened. Nothing grand, nothing alarming, but enough.

Only a flicker, six feet above the ground. A pixelation. A glitch in The Matrix. As fast as it came, it went. The view of the scrub desert and distant mountains hazed, oh so slightly. As if Whatever It Was winked at him, at them.

He turned to Lolita. Her eyebrow rose again, this time in a “Didn’t I Say?”.

His mouth opened, a guppy fish at feeding time, and he pointed involuntarily.

Day One, when he’d met Saul Paul for the first time, the eye-patched tow-truck driver had pulled Shakespeare from his mind, as easily as putting on a hat, but as unexpected as if he’d been a frog uttering the words in Aramaic.

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Saul had been obliquely explaining the mere facts of his own unannounced arrival, and the presence of Sunrise itself: on a normal day, pretty startling occurrences in themselves.

But this—the Whatever It Was? If poor Horatio had encountered this he would have shat pineapples.

Lolita sashayed over.

‘I know; “I told you so”,’ he offered.

‘So can we go? You look like you could use a root beer, and I sure do.’

‘We simply get on with our lives?’ There was disbelief, maybe childish disappointment in his voice.

‘What else did you expect? Play with it?’

‘It’s just…’ He didn’t know what it was just, except that it was. It felt like a colossal anticlimax to walk away.

‘Beckman. Darling. You’re new round here. This is part of the tour, the full disclosure. In Sunrise we do get on with our lives. What’s the alternative?’

He opened his mouth to offer some alternatives that would (1) definitely be made up on the spot, (2) probably not be well received, and (3) likely have been ventured and rejected many times before by more qualified—or at least more longstanding—people than he.

He closed his mouth. She kissed it, to mollify him.

It helped to pour water on the challenging questions he had, which were legion, but not on his inquisitiveness.

She slipped a hand into his and led him back to the car. He glanced over his shoulder. The view remained unassuming; the tarmac single track road petered out into wilderness, as if abandoned mid-construction. It certainly served no purpose, led nowhere. Or at least nowhere that could be identified, quantified or any number of other -fieds.

‘What do you call it?’ he asked, trying to sound disinterested.

‘The Portal.’

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Imperfect isolation - sci-fi novel

“Imperfect Isolation” – Sample

Jana was beginning to think that yesterday would have been a better day for it. But then, yesterday was a school day, so it had been out of the question.

Maybe they should just have gone to the zoo.

Her boots sank a full twenty centimetres into the snow. Left. Crunch. Right. Crunch. As used to it as she was, the pain in her calves was beginning.

No such problem for Tomas – he was metres ahead, crunch crunch crunch, little feet punching shallow holes in the whiteness, the seemingly boundless energy of childhood.

At least ten centimetres overnight, Jana reckoned. Harder to walk, and less likely that they would find any animal tracks, but when you promise your son that you will go out ‘hunting animals’, you go.

It was past eleven o’clock, the cool sun not yet overhead in the duck-egg blue, its glare off the white carpet not unduly troubling their unshaded eyes. Close by, the ice crystals reflected almost translucent white; far away, just a tinge of yellow to the undulating landscape. The trees had their fingertips weighed down, gravity and foliage in constant struggle, and over her shoulder, Jana quickly checked that the town was still there; it was that quiet.

Bird tracks were usually a safe bet, a dog, occasionally a wolf, and plenty of footprints. Tomas would follow most things. Neither were natural trackers, and not so much as a catapult accompanied them – to all intents and purposes it was a walk, but it was what it had become, and today it looked like being as close to a random walk as was possible.

Evidently not. Something had been out on the hills that morning. Or at least, given Tomas’ cry of excitement, Jana guessed as much. She scrunched off to the left, where the red-coated figure stood, a little finger on a little hand arrowed at the ground.

‘People.’

Jana reached the spot.

‘Person,’ she said, correcting him.

The depressions were footprints – that much was certain, but fresh they were not. The peanut-shaped hollow had smooth sides and was no more than five centimetres deep. That it pre-dated last night’s fall was obvious.

‘These came before the snow, didn’t they Tom?’

‘Yes, they’re very little. It snowed a lot last night. Where did he go?’

The head looked off to the left and with that, he began to scrunch away alongside the trail.

Jana was mildly impressed – the direction of travel was less than glaringly apparent but having come across the trail running perpendicular to his walk, Tomas was both clever and quick enough to set off in search of some answers. She followed, one pace to every two of his new perfect hollows.

It was almost five minutes later when she caught up with the boy, standing stock still in a small evergreen copse, head scanning the ground. She soon saw why. The trail didn’t vanish magically – it wasn’t that sudden, though it did end here. Amongst the trees, where only some drifting snow had blurred history and the footprints were noticeably deeper, the steady left-right march ended in trampled snow and not a single other thing.

‘Where did he go to, mummy?’

‘I don’t know darling.’

Jana cast her eyes back down the trail. Close by, it was apparent that there was no departing trail – the boot imprints clearly showed that. The visitor had not retraced his steps, or at least not without walking backwards in his original forward-facing marks for hundreds, maybe thousands of metres. It was almost as if he’d…vanished.

She scanned the ground, unconvinced by her own conclusion.

‘Maybe he died.’

‘Oh, darling, don’t say that.’ Her voice was tinged with sadness.

‘Maybe he died in the cold.’

‘Or he put on snow shoes for the way back,’ she offered, though without an answer to the question of why he would come here in the first place.

Tomas hadn’t heard. His gloved hands were pawing at the loose surface snow, scrabbling it away in search of a prize that his conscious mind would never truly have wanted him to find. Jana, reaching out a hand to stop him, retracted it, deciding that curiosity was no crime and even if it was morbid curiosity, ten centimetres of drifting snow would never cover a man who had keeled over dead without rhyme or reason.

She knelt down to watch but could not bring herself to help as the boy scooped and scraped, his little fingers surely touched by the cold but too keen to feel it.

A flash of blue appeared.

‘Mummy.’

In the weeks that followed, she wondered whether that had been the moment to haul him to his feet and usher, frog march, carry if necessary, him back across the fields and home. To silence his words and force him to forget what he’d seen, say it was a dream, say it was an old coat someone had left, anything. To deny what they had surely found.

She didn’t. She sat there, on knees and haunches in the cold silence as Tomas, second by second, handful by handful, parted the icy white sea until they were both staring into the cold dead eyes of a man.

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“Reprisals” – Sample

‘Supposing I said “Yes”?’

‘That’s the general idea.’

‘How long have we known each other?’

‘Five months, three weeks, six days.’

‘Could you at least try to not appear desperate?’

‘Not funny.’

‘How many women have there been in your life? To the nearest, say, ten?’

‘Five.’

‘You are so kidding.’

‘I am deadly serious.’

‘But I’m suddenly The One?’ Enna rolled her eyes in mock disdain.

He shrugged. ‘When you know, you know.’

‘And you know.’

‘Yes.’

‘You’re certifiable, Tom Wagner.’

‘Guilty.’

She could see he was a kid on Christmas night, waiting for the big moment. She hated to be such a party pooper, but this wasn’t merely a “What do you fancy for dinner?” This was life-changing.

‘Do I have us so wrong?’ he asked.

‘No,’ she replied comfortingly.

‘How many men have there been in your life?’

‘A lady doesn’t tell.’

‘I think I’m on safe ground when I say you’re no lady.’ He saw her about to interject. ‘And the fact you’re about to tell me to shove that remark where the sun don’t shine proves my point exactly.’

Enna closed her mouth but pushed her eyebrows up a far as they could muster.

He continued. ‘You’re a woman, but no lady. An amazing woman, the kind that—well, you heard the question.’

She thought for a second. ‘And this would mean—what?’

‘I don’t know. Togetherness, happiness, children—if you want, adventures, old age…’ He tailed off. ‘I don’t think this is a new concept.’

‘It’s not the concept. It’s the… reality.’

‘Thanks a bunch.’

‘Sorry. This has just… freaked me a bit, you know?’

‘Thanks a bunch, again.’

‘I should stop digging.’

Tom nodded and rose from the edge of the bed, giving her some physical as well as metaphorical space. The lightness of the gravity remained disconcerting, especially during movement. He wasn’t a natural at this, ever the Earth-bound desk jockey. For him, this had been Peak Romantic Gesture. 

Problem was, it didn’t look like it had been enough.

He looked out of the shallow window, across the undulating grey regolith towards the passenger Spaceport in the distance. He gave a faint chuckle. Here they were, at one sixth weight, and he felt disappointed she wasn’t walking on air. That he wasn’t. The apex of their little getaway was a damp squib, extinguished like a flame exposed to the airless vista outside.

Enna watched him standing there in his jockey shorts, her mind scrambling with reasons why either answer would be simultaneously right and wrong. She felt like a bitch. 

Here they were, the first real break away together for weeks, and she’d popped his balloon. Why was that? 

With every second it felt harder to concede to voicing an answer. If this needed such apparent consideration, how would the decision now pass without scrutiny, by either of them?

This was getting uncomfortable. She needed to say something. ‘I just imagined, somewhere, I don’t know, more romantic.’

He turned to her. Then she realised that the something she’d decided to say had probably been the wrong something.

Jeez, Enna, this has really got you flustered, hasn’t it?

‘So you have thought about it?’ he asked.

‘Generally.’

‘Just not with me,’ he extrapolated.

She sighed.

Come on Enna, stop digging you idiot.

‘I don’t know—Machu Picchu, on a gondola, under the Northern Lights. Damn it, even freaking Niagara Falls.’

‘One shot and I blew it, huh? Does that mean it’s not the question that’s the problem?’

She closed her eyes and shook her head. ‘I don’t know,’ she said with a sigh.

‘I’m sorry. I’ll take it back.’

Her eyes snapped open. ‘No, don’t do that.’

She stepped over to him, wrapped her arms around his waist, pushed her head against his chest. ‘Unless,’ she continued, ‘Well, you realise this is part of what you’d get. Me being…’

‘You,’ he inferred. ‘I said—I get the concept. For better, for worse, yada yada.’

‘I’m a horrible person.’

‘Don’t fish for compliments, Enna. You’re shit at taking them.’

‘Yeah.’ She listened to him breathe. ‘So tell me I’m a horrible person.’

‘Appalling. The worst.’ He squeezed her a little tighter. ‘Hell, I didn’t even get down on one knee.’

‘Maybe that makes you the worst.’

‘Like you’d ever let me beat you at anything.’

‘Part of the package, lover boy.’

She lifted her head and saw in his expression that the storm had passed, so she sought his lips, and that brief encounter passed for a coda to the whole sorry episode.

He broke off, catching sight of something outside.

She tutted. ‘Only you could bring me to the dullest place in the solar system to do some sightseeing.’

‘Worst Person,’ he said with a shrug.

She watched too as a shuttle slowly approached the short landing strip. ‘You’re here to watch me being put out of a job?’

‘Pilot-less ships, they’re going to happen.’

She batted it away. ‘They can test it, but it’s years off.’

‘Tell it to the guys in Big Tech.’

‘Whatever. I’ll find another job somewhere.’

‘Chief cook and bottle washer in the Wagner household.’

‘Up your ass.’

It was as she winked at him that the flash of light in the distance burned and died.

They looked.

There was no sound. The chaos was unreal, eerie.

Decompression had burst the impacting craft like a balloon, debris rising into the black sky, scattering outwards in an arc.

Involuntarily they winced, fearing impact that would shred the complex of buildings where they stood, but mercifully the trajectory was perpendicular to them. Nevertheless, they gazed, transfixed, horrified, as the parabola of destruction rained down on the edge of the Spaceport, puncturing one, then two structures.

Then came the faintest screams of anguish from other occupants of the habitation suite near to where Tom and Enna watched, helpless, in disbelief and sick despair.

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“Sacred Ground” – Sample

“I could get my sidearm and end it all now. It’s so close. The locker’s just behind me.”

He turned his head indolently until his gaze fell upon the row of three grey floor-standing cabinets. The rightmost door glared at him.

“But you can see it. That’s the problem.”

He faced forwards again.

“You can see it. I could… I could say goodbye and let you not see it. I could say goodbye and then do it.”

The silent face eyed him unchangingly.

“If I could say goodbye. You’re days and days away and I can’t say goodbye. I…”

His mind dried up.

Lazy eyes meandered around the dimly lit and expansive cabin. To the two exquisite framed images on the beige wall, their haunting beauty enhanced by the subdued atmosphere. “Sunrise Through Mist Over Keljan City” took on an almost menacing air, the tower tips of the urban jungle were as needles sunk treacherously in a creamy deep-pile carpet. “Tryn From Tryn Station” was a smothering sphere, the planet’s intangible gaseous bulk seeming to reach ever outwards to suppress the sun’s rays which foolishly sought to cascade past its askance northern polar rim.

The scenes were lessons in majesty, the photographs the epitome of perfection, the frames nothing more and nothing less than symbiotic partners for their contents and the environs. 

Trappings of a Captaincy, personality for an anonymous room.

Further. The bed was cold and empty, the stark whiteness of the sheets not wanting to offer refuge from the truth. The bed was simple; it was also large and perfectly sprung. There were mornings (or afternoons or evenings, depending on the shift pattern) that it acted like a gravity well, holding him fast, cocooned, comfortable. Duty was a necessary wrench away from almost foetal contentment and a mind that wandered across open plains and not down well-trodden roads and alleyways.

Further. Through the half-open closet door, a poorly-hangered tunic was a dark form with a glinting eye, the lapel insignia catching light from the recessed ceiling emitter and arrowing it across to the far wall like a fine sepia laser.

His gaze followed the ray’s path to where it impinged on the thick square window pane, then continued beyond, unchallenged, into infinity.

He stood and went to the aperture, naked feet feeling the cool mottled carpet. 

He peered into endlessness.

Only light can survive out there.

Yet it had been home, more or less, for what seemed like, well, forever. Not in a bad way. In a good way then, he supposed. The only way.

No more.

Those who’d never seen deep space leant on inadequate images of emptiness. First timers had their notions of blackness evaporated, their concept of cold, bleak nothing shattered. Yes, interplanetary space was alien, holo-images were amazing, a cold night on a deserted hilltop seemed quiet.

They were a very poor substitute. Laughable.

Sometimes he’d go to the Observation Deck and banish all light from the room, try to make its warm safety an extension of the inhospitable universe without, try to feel lost in it.

It too was laughable. More than once he’d laughed at it. Actually laughed.

It was a blackness without surface, an all-encompassing and utterly intangible void. The fullness of three dimensions didn’t do it justice. It was everywhere and everything because it was everything.

And nothing.

Galaxies were specks. Planets within galaxies were specks inside specks. Colonies teeming with life were fractions of fractions of the specks inside specks.

Home was wherever his feet were, and he and his home were a nothingth of a speck.

He was entirely valuable and wholly insignificant.

The struggle was vital, daily, all-consuming and completely irrelevant.

He sighed.

The stars weren’t moving; the ship was stationary. Sometimes, when you were moving at a decent enough speed, there would be something amidst the nothing to catch your attention. Occasionally it was good enough for a light gasp or a reflective moment.

That was when you felt least like a speck. Or at least lucky to be a speck, witnessing the beauty.

Not now.

His mind churned.

I love this job. 

The locker was still eyeing him ceaselessly as he turned toward it again. The vivid silver-grey door handle was there, calling.

Long moments.

The mute face across the room was still there too, impassive. He sighed.

“So what now if not this? If you were here you’d tell me. But we’d fight. I never see you, and we’d fight. You’d say I was drunk and not worth bothering with—all talk and not myself. Then I’d say I was myself and go to the locker to prove it.”

He took two steps to where the laser pistol lay concealed.

“See? And tell me why not. Peace is death. Peace is nothing for me. What else? What else do I do? What else can I do? I’m Rakkel, shining star of the Fleet! Got a tough job? Get Rakkel—he’s the one. He’s dedicated. He knows where his place is. A quiet life? Never. Betray a colleague and get thrown out? Not Rakkel. Now peace? Live and breathe the Fleet, then take it all away? What? Go home, be nobody, do nothing, see nothing, experience nothing. How?”

He ran a few skewed steps forwards and asked her eyes, his hands wide, pleading, “How?!”

There was no answer. He sat down hard on the chair and felt it, winced. The half-empty glass on the desk reached for his hand, then moved away.

A single red word

RECORDING

beamed out from the terminal screen.

“How to be nothing?”

He ran a hand through short blonde hair, pressed his palm briefly against his skull. The jarring had given impetus to the headache which had been some time brewing. He rested his elbow on the desk, closed his eyes, shook his head gently.

“If only you were here to tell me. But we didn’t choose that. Perhaps… perhaps…”

A tinny bleep issued into the room.

Door.

He closed his eyes. Not now.

He looked down at what state he was in.

Acceptable.

“Yes.”

The last thing he needed was a female form—a very appealing female form—but when the door slid back, that’s what he got. It was going to be one of those evenings. 

It had already been one of those evenings.

He took a breath to try and clear his head, muster the best sobriety he could. “Piya.”

He saw her captivating blue eyes flick to the glass on the desk, knowing she’d say nothing.

“We are standing down from Alert. The whole fleet.”

“As part of a show of… solitude, I guess.”

“Just thought I’d let you know.”

“You could have just called.”

“I was passing.”

He nodded. “Yes. Sorry.”

“I’ll leave you to…” She thought better of insinuation. She corrected herself. “’Night.”

“Yes.” Yet his thoughts were elsewhere.

The door slid open to receive her.

“Piya?” He stood. 

She stopped mid-stride. “Yes?”

“If this really is peace, what will you do?”

“Celebrate.”

“I mean, after.”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“Oh, nothing.”

After an awkward pause she half-shrugged and smiled. “Night.”

“Hmm. Night.”

The door closed and Rakkel was enveloped in silence again.

He sighed a half-drunk self-piteous sigh that was becoming too familiar of late. Only to himself. Couldn’t let this get out amongst the crew.

He pursed his lips. 

If this is peace. If.  And if not?

His head hurt. Still a tiny voice of reason was there, somewhere in the murk. It pulled his stubborn frame into action, almost as if sleepwalking.

He went to the desk and hit a key on the terminal.

OUTGOING MESSAGE DELETED.

The pretty face vanished to a point and was gone.

Rakkel Irr stretched his weary back and went to the window. He had a momentary desire to step outside, breathe deeply of the crisp air in the clear infinity and lighten his dull senses. To walk without stinting as if in a vast garden, to bound unconfined through the stars, to drink in… what was it?

Freedom.

But not freedom from travails. Not freedom from aggression. Freedom from himself.

He glanced over to the now-blank terminal.

“I’m not nothing yet,” he said to the room, turning his attention back to the transparent portal. “But you may wish you’d been here.”

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real jamie oliver banner

The Real Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver was born Margaret Ig in deepest revolutionary France some fortyfew years ago. His early years were spent living in a lake, where his parents has taken up residence to avoid the all-pervading strains of Charles Aznavour records. 

At the age of five and barely out of nappies, his childhood was traumatised by the sudden arrest of his father on charges of making sexual overtures towards a pickled herring.

At the trial, his father, Ernest Ig, threw himself on the mercy of the court and asked for sixty-three other charges to be taken into account, including committing a lewd act with a hatstand, bathing in discarded film footage of Morris Dancing, and fathering Bonnie Langford whilst under the influence of low-fat yoghurt.

The jury of one man, one woman and ten hermaphrodites gleefully found him guilty, and he was shipped off to the “La Fondue” minimum security prison and retail ear-muff outlet. There, he was subjected to such diverse tortures as the authorities could muster; Chinese burns and towel-flicking were rife, and the enforced watching of Jim Davidson videos had the inmates cruelly subjugated.

However, the Ig family’s separation was happily short-lived when Ernest was rescued by son Margaret and far-from faithful wife Claudine in a daring lunchtime raid. Disguising themselves as freelance travel agents, they easily entered the facility and absconded with a struggling Ernest, who had been quite enjoying himself until then.

Following Claudine’s carefully laid cunning plan, they ran like buggery to Calais, evading the pursuit of a crack hamster attack squad. There, a boat was waiting for them. Unfortunately it was a police boat.

Fearless, they blasted their way through the line of Gendarmes using a particularly powerful aerosol can of that dreadful artificial whipped cream, and leapt into another standby boat which Claudine had knitted only that morning.

Using Margaret as a paddle, they reached England in good time, beaching just south of Fort William. (Ernest has acquired his stout seamanship from his father, Slim, a Chinese waiter who had never set foot outside his Kentucky ranch.)

Sleeping on the move, the Ig family made their way on foot to the wilds of Bishops Stortford and broke into an abandoned caravan once allegedly used by Cardinal Wolsey. Exhausted from their journey, they slept.

When they woke, Margaret was twelve. Ernest decided that, in order not to arouse suspicion, they should change their names, and thus they became the Oliver family. Richard (nee Ernest) set about providing for the family in their new life, and easily found work pulling the legs off spiders. However, soon afterwards the international market for spiders legs collapsed, and a distraught Richard was made redundant. Walking home after his last day at work, he was mobbed by wheelchair-bound tarantulas and chewed to death.

Distraught, Jamie joined a local technical college with a view to learning a trade, and within a year had built his first sparrow. This set his life’s course straight and true, and he vowed to be the best sparrowsmith in Hertfordshire, whatever it took.

Three weeks later, he fulfilled that dream. Overcome with emotion on hearing of her son’s achievement, Jane (nee Claudine) passed out in the kitchen while making eggs Benedict and hit her head on a protruding antelope.

After being tended in hospital for twelve long years, with Jamie at her bedside 24 hours a day, Jane finally recovered consciousness. Startled by unfamiliar surroundings, the first words to her loving son were “Are Band Aid still Number One?” Tragically, she never found out. Jamie was busy dashing to the toilet to relieve twelve years of bladder discomfort, and by the time he returned to Jane’s bedside, the hospital had been closed down.

After so long in the employment wilderness, Jamie found it painfully tough getting a job. That was until he was found unconscious in the gutter outside a Burger King restaurant. The franchisee, having suffered the decimation of his staff that previous evening during a vicious bout of chutney tasting, woke Jamie with a kick to the eyebrows and employed him there and then.

The rest, as they say, is history…

Find a longer chuckle in my humour writing compendium of offbeat short stories on Kindle : The Real Jamie Oliver and other Stories

yellows banner

How Many Yellows Are There?

‘There are seventeen,’ the salesman said. 

Cameron Beg nodded. 

‘Would you like to see the colour chart?’ continued the salesman, Simon Gillfish. 

Gillfish was a slim man with a penchant for icing sugar, and would be thirty-six in four years time. He reached onto the wall-mounted rack and pulled out the folded glossy, opening it to allow his customer to see.

Beg’s eye roved over the small coloured squares set in a single row across the middle of the pamphlet. ‘I’m looking for a yellow,’ he said, as if to clarify.

‘Well this is the right chart,’ Gillfish replied, a little bemused.

‘Hmmm.’ Beg pondered the graduated illustrations of colour. ‘Is this a fair representation of the actual colour?’ he asked finally.

‘As good as it can be made, sir.’

‘What about this one?’ Beg asked, touching his finger to the fifth square from the left.

‘Sunshine,’ Gillfish said, reading out the word under the colour. ‘A good choice.’

‘Hmmm.’ Beg gently screwed up his face. ‘Not very yellow, is it?’

The normally calm salesman, five years in the paint department, began to feel his hackles rise just a little. Got a bit of a one here, he thought. ‘What about…Golden Orb?’ he suggested.

‘I was looking for something yellower.’

‘Turmeric?’

‘Not really yellow, is it. Less yellow than Golden Orb, in fact. Do you see?’

‘Yes,’ Gillfish lied.

‘Something less yellow than this one, but more yellow than that one.’

‘That one’s too yellow?’

‘Of course, isn’t it obvious? It screams yellow. It’s so vulgar and in-your-face. It’s too overstated.’

‘Too yellow?’

‘Well perhaps not too yellow, but too obviously yellow.’

‘Ah.’ Gillfish was wishing he’d taken his lunch break a little earlier.

‘That one’s just screaming  “Look at me, I’m yellow!”.’

‘It is bold, I agree. Some people like that.’

‘Well they’re peasants. Yellow, yes, but not attention-grabbing-look-at-the-size-of-my-love-truncheon yellow. It makes me want to vomit. Copiously.’

Gillfish quickly ran his hand over the right side of the chart. ‘These are more understated. Perhaps…’

‘That one?’ Beg asked incredulously, jabbing a finger at the offending square. ‘That doesn’t deserve to be called yellow. It’s little more than a very bright cream. Pretentious colour. Yellow my arse.’

The salesman took a long breath, fighting his rising impatience, and decided to take a slightly different line. ‘Did you have a colour in mind?’

Beg stared at Gillfish like the man was insane. ‘Yes! Yellow!’

‘I see,’ Gillfish said, backtracking. ‘Like… this?’ he suggested, daring to hope, gently touching a colour in the centre of the chart.

‘Now you’re taking the piss. Not yellow like that. More…’

‘Yellow?’ Gillfish mooted.

‘Yes! Not this piece of crap. Less yellow than these two, but more yellow than, well, most of the rest. And no slutty yellows. Not the kind of yellow that pulls up outside a nightclub in a Ferrari and steps out hoping all the women are looking at it. But not some prissy yellow that spends all Saturday afternoon at home watching the golf. Just a good, honest, pint-of-beer-and-a-packet-of-crisps yellow.’

Gillfish nodded sagely, hoping with all his might that armed raiders would break into the superstore and kill him. ‘This one?’ He pointed at a shade halfway across the sheet.

Beg looked like he would explode. ‘You’re not listening, are you?’ he demanded.

‘Sir, this is the only chart of yellows we have. As you see, there are seventeen.’

‘Hopeless,’ Beg said, throwing his arms up. ‘I should sue you all under the Trades Descriptions Act. Yellow? A colour chart purporting to display shades of yellow? Horse manure. I wouldn’t let my daughter out at night with any of these so-called yellows. It’s a travesty.’

‘I’m sorry sir.’ Gillfish prayed that this meant the lunatic was going to give up and leave.

‘I mean, all I want is yellow. Is that too much to ask?’

‘As I say, sir, this is the manufacturer’s chart of yellows.’

‘Well they’re obviously colour blind. Or have no idea about what a good shade of yellow is all about. Pimpled morons, the lot of them.’

‘Who are?’ 

Gillfish looked round at the sound of this new voice. A lady was approaching. From Beg’s expression, the salesman could tell that this was his customer’s wife. Poor woman, he thought.

‘The paint company,’ Beg elucidated. ‘No idea of colours, these people.’

‘Really?’ Mrs Beg queried.

‘I mean, all we want is a nice yellow.’

‘Red, darling.’

Cameron Beg looked taken aback for a second, then realisation dawned. ‘Oh, yes. Red.’

Gillfish felt his life force drain away.

Beg looked at him. ‘Sorry, yes, red.’

Gillfish nodded silently, straining to hear the sound of aliens arriving in the car park to abduct him and perform atrocious experiments on his genitals. But it was unhelpfully quiet.

Suddenly his torture was interrupted. Mrs Beg reached out an arm and lifted a pot of paint from the rack. ‘What about this one, darling?’ she asked, showing it to her husband.

‘Perfect.’

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the new flag

The New Flag

‘What about a buffalo?’ asked Grig, shaven-headed focus of the New Flag Committee.

‘Buffalo?’ Jones, the smartly-dressed Home Minister was perplexed.

‘You know, a nice big fierce buffalo. In profile.’

Bell, the Foreign Minister, furrowed his brow. ‘What does that represent?’ 

‘Well, buffaloes,’ Grig said.

Bell furrowed his deep brow and took another sip of what should have been coffee but wasn’t. He needed a moment to think, make sure he wasn’t missing something. Polonius Grig was a respected flag designer, and the Foreign Minister didn’t want to look like a eunuch at a pissing contest.

‘I see,’ Bell said. ‘But what’s the significance to Newdonia?’ He finished stirring his un-coffee and set the spoon down in the saucer.

‘Isn’t it obvious?’

‘No,’ Jones said, to Bell’s relief. Evidently he was not in a minority of one in failing to follow the designer’s train of thought.

‘Buffaloes are a great symbol of this country,’ Grig said.

‘Er, we don’t actually have any buffaloes in Newdonia,’ clarified Finch, the freckled young Arts minister. ‘Not one. Including the zoo.’

‘But they are a great symbol of strength,’ Grig said. ‘Powerful. You don’t take shit from a nation that acts like a buffalo.’

‘I’m not sure Newdonia is planning to act like a buffalo,’ Home Minister Jones suggested.

‘Really?’ Grig asked, with just a hint of desperation. ‘What about all these mock-ups I’ve done?’

‘Sorry,’ Bell said firmly. ‘You might just as well propose we use an elephant.’

‘And what’s wrong with elephants?’ Grig protested, fearing that his un-revealed backup design was shortly for the trash heap.

‘We don’t have any of those either,’ Finch pointed out.

‘But you don’t take shit from—’ Grig began.

‘The taking of shit, or otherwise, from this new nation is not the raison d’etre behind the flag design we are seeking. I thought that was clear from our brief.’

‘Designers don’t always stick to the rules. That’s why we’re called designers.’ Grig’s tone bordered on patronising.

‘All we want is a bold design,’ Jones said, trying to smooth over things, casting his gaze around the room, placating the rest of the Committee.

‘A horse?’ proffered the designer.

‘No animals!’ Finch and Bell insisted in unison.

The designer sighed and tweaked his ear pensively. ‘Okay, what about this?’ Grig picked up his felt-tips and sketched something roughly on a sheet of his notepad. He nodded satisfactorily and held the pad up for all to see.

‘Er, isn’t that the Union Flag?’ Finch asked.

‘Yes,’ Grig replied, confused.

‘Well, aren’t the UK using that?’

‘Are they? Are you sure?’

‘Pretty sure,’ Finch said.

‘Completely sure,’ Bell said.

‘Okay,’ Grig mused. ‘But do they like it?’

‘It is popular. It’s also got a lot of history behind it.’

‘You don’t have any history though,’ Grig said, stating the obvious.

‘Or a flag, as things go,’ Finch mumbled.

Grig, unfortunately, had heard the Arts minister’s under-breath jibe. His eyes lit up. ‘I’ve got it!’

Everyone perked up.

‘Don’t have a flag,’ the designer stated triumphantly, slapping a hand down on the large mahogany table.

Jones’ mouth fell open. ‘Don’t have a flag!?’ 

Bell just shook his head. Finch pulled a face.

‘Look,’ Grig said, rising to his feet, ‘What do you need a flag for anyway? You’re Newdonia. You know that. I know that. Your neighbours know that. The world knows that. They have atlases. What do you need a stupid flag for?’

‘To hang on the flagpoles,’ Bell said.

‘All the flagpoles were torn down during the revolution,’ Jones pointed out.

Bell nodded sagely. It was true.

‘The Olympics,’ Finch stated.

‘Olympics?’ Grig stopped striding and faced the raven-haired Arts representative. ‘What chance have you got of qualifying for the Olympics? Do you ever see Liechtenstein at the Olympics? You’re not even that big.’

‘World Cup?’ Bell suggested reluctantly.

‘Don’t make me laugh.’

‘Well what about all the T-shirts, souvenirs and such,’ Finch asked.

‘Think how much money you can save! No flagpoles, no tacky souvenirs. You can re-use all the picture postcards—the scenery hasn’t changed. You’re a young nation. You have to build, establish a solid fiscal platform. You can’t start plundering the publics coffers for some stupid symbol of nationhood. Keep your money. Have a big party.’

There was silence for a moment, followed by gentle nods from all the ministers.

Jones stood. ‘Well, thank you Grig. This has been a very productive session. Thank you for all your effort.’ The men shook hands.

‘Yes, thank you.’ Bell, then Finch, exchanged a parting handshake with the designer.

Grig pulled an envelope from his top pocket and handed it to the Home Minister. ‘I’ll show myself out,’ he said, heading for the double wooden doors at the end of the room.

‘What’s this?’ Jones asked after him.

‘Oh,’ Grig paused momentarily, ‘The bill.’

Find a longer chuckle in my humour writing compendium of offbeat short stories on Kindle : The Real Jamie Oliver and other Stories

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Drominivich’s Fourth

The works of little-known composer Ilya Drominivich, often regarded as impenetrably complex in their orchestration, have been the subject of little enlightening scrutinisation since his death in 1975. Now, however, a critical dissection of his most under-performed work, the dark Fourth Symphony, has been uncovered.

The reviewer, music journalist Arnold Hiccup, analysed all Drominivich’s works, but this article, shedding light on one of the Isle Of Man composer’s later masterpieces, gives the most insight into the life and mind of what one denizen of the industry described as “just some bloke from an unremarkable island”.

Written between March and May 1970, Drominivich’s Fourth Symphony reflects a turbulent period in the composer’s life, charting notably his divorce from his ninth wife Jessie and the appearance of a hairline crack in the skirting board in his study.

The opening bars of the First Movement set the tone for the piece, rumbling timpani reflecting Jessie storming into the composer’s study to confront him about an affair she believed he was having. With the flitting horns, Drominivich waves her away, saying he’s busy, but the powerful double basses beat back the brass section’s protestations. In the background, the flute conveys Ellie the cat, wandering around the room.

Brass and percussion argue for a while, laced with counterpointing minor key stirrings from the violins, hinting at the melancholy that is to come. This can be seen to grow into what is commonly known as the “divorce theme”. With an eruption of the xylophone, Ilya admits to the affair, describing Anna in rich tones of viola and cello that temporarily quiet the atmosphere. Jessie storms out in a clamour of drums and cor anglais, and as the movement ends, Ellie the cat trots after her, leaving Ilya to throw down his pen in a clash of cymbals.

In the Second Movement, Drominivich looks back on his life. The mournful tone of the oboe charts his unhappy childhood living in a scrap metal yard in the town of Douglas. His parents died before he was conceived, leaving him to be brought up by his only friend Santos. The second violins hint at Santos’ own troubles, eking out an existence as a one-armed crane operator at the docks.

The brass section then takes up the theme of his first love affair with Leila, a butcher’s assistant. At age eighteen they ran away to the countryside to get married, and the beautiful strains of the clarinet chart their passionate lovemaking. Then comes a comedy interlude, the trombone representing Drominivich’s attempts to learn to juggle, while Leila looks on, laughing and wishing she’d eloped with Santos instead.

The unusual division of the strings into eight sections allowed the composer to chart all his subsequent marriages over interlaced bars of happiness, betrayal and loss. The First Violin part is astoundingly complex, painting Ilya’s mental wranglings as he blundered from one woman to another, desperately seeking happiness. This was the time he began composing, using his art as an outlet for his feelings, and as the movement closes the piccolo and flute do a dance—the flute representing the orchestra’s rehearsal of one of his early concertos, and the piccolo representing the feelings he was trying to convey in the same passage. In the final bars the careful listener can hear a solitary flute playing Ellie’s theme as the cat walks into the room, interrupting the composer’s pointless nostalgia.

The short Third Movement opens with raw shock as the composer, sat in his study remembering his past, suddenly notices the hairline crack in the skirting board. The trumpets blare with annoyance and then run amok as Ilya wonders whether the house is going to collapse along with his marriage. Kicking his chair back, Ilya goes to the skirting board crack, but as he does so, the French horn of the chair collides with Ellie’s theme, knocking the cat unconscious. The crack, portrayed by the triangle, takes up all Ilya’s attention, and he doesn’t notice Ellie’s theme vanishing into nothing.

The rest of the movement is dominated by Jessie’s return to the room to investigate the commotion. The “divorce” theme is developed, overlaid by the wailing trumpet as the woman sees the dead cat. Jessie, again as percussion, rails at Ilya for killing Ellie, but in a flurry of brass, he again throws her out of the room, slumping to his desk in the closing crescendo of cello and bassoon.

In the Fourth Movement, time has moved on a little and the “divorce” theme is repeated with many variations, the most notable of these being the “signing the divorce papers” melody, which is slightly mournful when matched with Ilya’s theme, but almost triumphant when vying with Jessie’s restrained percussionist musings. Ellie, who was a gift to Ilya by Jessie, is not missed by the composer at all, and the cat’s theme appears only briefly when the sad Jessie scatters its ashes over the Heston Services on the M4, the site itself being represented by the flugelhorn.

Jessie gone, Drominivich looks forward to a better life, thinking about Anna. This is the only re-appearance of Anna’s Theme, the violas representing her thighs and the tenor saxophone conveying Ilya’s hand snaking up between them. The tubular bells sound as Anna arrives at the front door and she rushes into her lover’s arms, with the full orchestra united in triumphal and stirring chords that round off the symphony in happiness.

After writing this article, however, Arnold Hiccup was committed to a lunatic asylum to undergo treatment for a personality disorder. It seems he only believed he was a noted critic of classical music; in fact he was an unemployed road-sweeper with a penchant for wearing earrings made of teabags.

Drominivich’s true influences remain a mystery.

After writing this article, however, Arnold Hiccup was committed to a lunatic asylum to undergo treatment for a personality disorder. It seems he only believed he was a noted critic of classical music; in fact he was an unemployed road-sweeper with a penchant for wearing earrings made of teabags.

Drominivich’s true influences remain a mystery.

Find a longer chuckle in my humour writing compendium of offbeat short stories on Kindle : The Real Jamie Oliver and other Stories

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Alphabet Soup

Tallyjohn sighed.

It was getting late and they had barely made any progress. He could see the hints of frustration etching into Quiggle’s face as he sank into the chair.

Tallyjohn, the King’s Master Of Letters, tapped his fingers agitatedly on the meeting room’s plain round table.

Quiggle sat down opposite. ‘This is like painting the Forth Bridge,’ he sighed.

‘The what?’ Tallyjohn asked. It was 1487 and the Forth Bridge hadn’t been built yet.

‘Never mind,’ replied the blonde-eyebrowed Quiggle, Language Advisor to the London University, even though London University hadn’t been invented yet.

‘We could stay here all night and come up with a million different answers,’ Tallyjohn offered. ‘He’ll only go and change it anyway.’

‘Well of course he will,’ replied the bald Master Of Letters, replete in his Metallica T-shirt, even though Metallica and T-shirts hadn’t been invented yet. ‘You can’t have S after B.’

‘Why not?’

‘Any fool can see that’s just plain idiotic.’

‘B, F, S, A, L. It just trips off the tongue.’

In response, Tallyjohn jumped up with a measure of indignation and slapped the whiteboard that hadn’t been invented yet. His finger snagged the magnetic cut-out S and it flipped to the floor. He bent down quickly and was about to slap it admonishingly back into place, but then slid the Q across a little and pressed the S to the board next to it.

He indicated the new sequence with a flurry. “Q, S, B, F, A, L etcetera. Much better.”

Quiggle rolled his eyes and shook his head sadly. “The University won’t stand for that. QSBF? Try lecturing that to some spotty nineteen year-olds.’

‘Teenagers aren’t my problem, Advisor. The King wants the alphabet arranged in a decent memorable order and I’m not losing the rest of the evening and night debating it.’ He looked at his non-invented digital watch. It was gone eight, and outside dusk was falling.

‘My tea will be getting cold too, you know. It’s salad tonight.’

‘So let’s try and agree. It’s only the King we have to please, not you or I.’

Quiggle thought for a moment and then nodded. ‘Okay.’ Even though okay hadn’t been invented yet.

‘Okay.’

‘But M, C, Z?’ the Language Advisor queried. ‘Hardly brilliant, is it?’

‘What?!’

Quiggle got up and pulled the magnetic Z off the board. He walked behind Tallyjohn and put the Z on the extreme left edge of the board. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘Z first. Start with a really angry letter, then all the other countries will sit up and take note. We’ll have the best alphabet in the world. See – it’s a purposeful start – ZHXJE.’

Tallyjohn threw his hands in the air. ‘I give up. You know what your problem is? Your problem is that the King isn’t your problem. He’s mine. If I go in there tomorrow and start with this ZHXJE nonsense he’ll have my head off faster than you can say Englebert Humperdink.’

‘Who?’ Quiggle asked.

‘Exactly. Nine o’clock—I give the presentation; five past nine—I’m ten inches shorter.’

‘Ten what?’

‘I won’t go in there with ZHXJETKO to start and that BFSAL crap in the middle.’

‘Then we’ll never agree.’

Tallyjohn shrugged. ‘Fine.’ 

‘Fine!’

‘Arrange your stupid alphabet how you want.’

‘No. You’re the King’s whipping boy. You bloody do it!’ With that, Quiggle strode to the door, threw it open and slammed it shut after him, making the walls and the board shake.

Tallyjohn glowered after him, but it did no good.

‘Fine,’ he shouted to the room. ‘Then that’s how it is. Either he likes it or I’m deader than a dodo, even though they aren’t dead.’

With that, he punched the board and wished he hadn’t, then, boiling at Quiggle’s hot-headedness and his own impending demise, left the room and gave the door a good old slam.

The board shook violently and all the letters fell off.

An hour later, the cleaner came in, dusted off the table, emptied the small waste paper bin and put a new plastic liner in its place, even though plastic hadn’t been invented yet. Tutting at the mess on the floor, he picked up the random heap of letters and carefully arranged them in a nice line on the board.

Find a longer chuckle in my humour writing compendium of offbeat short stories on Kindle :The Real Jamie Oliver and other Stories

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Igbad’s Rollerblading Stunts

In 2018, Tarik Igbad of the Czech Republic was crowned World Rollerblading Champion. Little is known of this diminutive and foreign genius, but his enthusiasm and dedication to his craft are an example for rollerbladers everywhere.

In 1997 at the age of fifteen, Tarik’s father sold all the family’s worldly possessions to buy his only son the birthday gift of his dreams. Initially, Tarik’s progress was slow, and his father began to have second thoughts about the decision, but in October 1998 he was rewarded when Tarik learned to stand upright on the wheeled skates.

Tarik’s confidence began to grow, and by late 1999 he could be seen shuttling up and down the street outside their house in the suburbs of Prague. All the children in the neighbourhood would line the filthy pavements, beating sticks against the gutter and cheering as Tarik weaved along, wearing his favourite yellow bobble hat and blue skates.

Egged on by the crowd, and with an eye to impressing local teen beauty Ivana Belzak, Tarik attempted his first stunt. It wasn’t a pre-planned affair, just a daring spur-of-the-moment lunge for greatness. Cast down in the road was an empty tin of kidney beans, lying on its side. Passing by to check out the situation, Tarik ‘bladed up the road, made a full turn and began his run up. He built up a good head of speed, a Mexican wave of cheering urchins following him, and leapt ebulliently into the air.

A year later, after recovering from the broken collarbone and shattered knee, Tarik Igbad was ready to rollerblade again. Yet now the streets were empty. Even Ivana didn’t emerge from her front door to watch him. This made him all the more determined. Day after day he practised, leaping over chalk marks scribed in the road, until he was ready to try the can of beans again.

It was a bright warm day in June 2001 when Tarik began that run-up again, trying to banish the memory of failure from his mind, not daring to gaze into windows, to try and look past curtains, to wonder if anyone—especially his beloved Ivana—was watching him.

He cleared the tin by a full half-inch and punched the air in delight. Now he was ready for the big time.

Buoyed up, he coasted back to the site of his jump and cast the empty tin aside. Things were going to get serious. He went over to the pavement and fetched his second obstacle; a spaghetti tin. He laid it on its side and powered off for his first run.

Tarik has always candidly admitted that his first attempt was aborted, his mind distracted at the last minute by the colourful writing on the can’s wrapper. But he was not to be beaten, and on his second attempt he sailed majestically over with five-eighths of an inch to spare. He was ecstatic. He was also level-headed and knew not to push himself. He drew a line under that greatest of days and went to bed, almost tearful with joy.

A fortnight later, and with curtains undeniably twitching in the houses that lined what was fast becoming his arena, Igbad jumped the spaghetti tin with it standing upright. By the time evening came and his margin of clearance had bettered an inch, he was sure he saw Ivana Belzak’s face outlined behind her thin bedroom curtain.

By the following week, with an almost showy Tarik having graduated to two tins side-by-side, Ivana was out on the pavement, watching again, and the number of local children joining her grew day by day. It was late October when, after his first successful attempt to clear a hurdle two tins deep, Tarik finally got up the courage to speak to his beloved, and that night,  whilst still wearing rollerblades, the new local hero lost his virginity down by the stagnant canal backwater.

By early 2003, and with Ivana now a constant companion, Tarik Igbad progressed to yet more amazing stunts. Quickly he’d mastered jumping diverse obstacles such as four spaghetti tins in a row, two bricks arranged in an inverted V, and a miner’s helmet. Kids were coming from nearby streets to watch, and even his parents had stopped beating him. Late in the year he held a demonstration event, charging a small entrance fee, and used the proceeds to help buy a new pair of ‘blades to replace his very worn blue set.

Everything snowballed from there. There was the odd injury, notably a broken finger when attempting to jump a line of pre-cooked chickens, but he was already the talk of the city and much of the country too, signing autographs and resisting the temptation of groupies.

To celebrate his engagement to Ivana in October 2005, Tarik held a charity event, jumping, amongst other things, a Yamaha motorbike (upright), a disused lawnmower, a bus queue, a bus queue where the participants hadn’t been pre-warned, and the Minister Of Finance in a leotard. For the grand finale he whipped the crowd into a frenzy before jumping over three women dressed as John Dory blanched in milk with a herb sauce and steamed asparagus.

Now famous across Europe, Tarik undertook a world tour to thousands of screaming fans. It was not without incident though, nor controversy. In Milan he grazed both palms after landing awkwardly following his signature jump over six men with red hair holding jars of honey. Far more notable was the now infamous “Thames incident” which occurred during his spell in England.

Grandstanding, Tarik claimed on 17th June 2008 that the following day he would jump the river Thames. Crowds lined the London Embankments, their mood anxious but excited, waiting for the incredible stunt to play out before them. Tarik, however, occasionally prone to the odd practical joke, was talented but not insane. At 2pm he proudly jumped the river a few miles from its source in England’s heartland, clearing the fifteen inch stream with ease. The protestations of fair play were as loud as the cries of ‘foul’, but Tarik, although he left England knowing he could never play there again, retained his mantle.

From stunt jumping, he eased smoothly into competition and his prize money rocketed. Ivana his wife was always by his side and in late 2010 he bought her a square mile of the Pacific Ocean just two hours flying time from the Galapagos Islands and had it marked out with buoys in vermilion and chestnut, her two favourite colours. She knows she can go there whenever she wishes.

As new World Rollerblading Champion, Tarik hasn’t changed much. He’s still blonde and blue eyed, loves his fans, wishes his parents would accept him, and is always looking for a new challenge. 

And he still carries that empty tin of beans wherever he goes.

Find a longer chuckle in my humour writing compendium of offbeat short stories on Kindle : The Real Jamie Oliver and other Stories

weather ant

Weather Ant

For many generations, mankind has sought to forecast the weather, whether it be for personal interest or the public good. To put the latest development into context, we must briefly look at how weather forecasting has evolved through history.

The United Kingdom provides the sternest examination of the forecaster’s art, with its unique location and dreadfully dull inhabitants who seem unduly preoccupied with the clemency or otherwise of the conditions. 

Early cave paintings, discovered recently in Bromley, depict a man called Brian sticking his head out of the cave entrance and looking heavenward, then retreating inside to report to his commune that “It looks like rain”. This is followed by a discussion on the matter, particularly “What a lot of weather” they were apparently having. This tedium lasted until the following morning when it was time for Brian’s ritual sky-gazing and the pursuant soporific deconstruction. It appears that this pattern continued for many days until the commune realised that none of them had been out to hunt, and suddenly starved to death.

Victorian-era Derbyshire was graced by the legendary Mrs Climate (real name Geoffrey Whimsy) who astounded the small community of Speg with her predictions. Every evening at eight o’clock, Mrs Climate would announce her forecast for the ’morrow in the town square. The insight was based upon her perpetual sufferance from the common cold; if snot ran from her left nostril, it would be fine; if it ran from her right, it would rain. Records of the time show that her accuracy reached as high as fifty-six percent, and she was highly publicised until her untimely death in a strawberry picking incident.

The most notable advance of the nineteenth century was Waller’s Patented Weather Forecasting Machine, designed by Xavier Waller in 1897. This was the first mechanical device dedicated to climatology; an incredibly complex contraption roughly the same size as four pot-bellied pigs. Powered by a mulch consisting of finely shredded butterfly livers marinated in vinegar, the noisy machine span its various cogs and wheels, tapped its various tappets and whirred its sundry whirrs for nine hours before turning a dial clockwise or counter-clockwise depending on the predicted clemency. The first demonstration in Hyde Park was attended by some ten thousand people, and memorably the machine’s first public forecast was correct. However, rising the next morning to see the prediction come true, a self-satisfied Waller was mobbed outside of his front door by the Butterfly Protection League and elbowed into a coma.

Latterly, the steady advance of computers has contributed greatly to the accuracy of forecasting, but naturally is a costly process. The most recent trials in weather prediction have centred around a simple but effective process involving livestock.

Specifically, ants.

It has emerged that the Met Office have been undertaking secret forecasting tests within the bowels of their HQ, and, more startling, that some publicly distributed forecasts over recent months have not in fact been the result of immense computing power;

In 1998 a dull forecaster named Melvin Tuttle was examining his ant collection at home when he discovered that one of the tiny tunnels in soil of the antarium had collapsed, stranding an unfortunate ant. Not wishing to disturb the colony, Melvin left the ant to its fate—running in circles round the chamber—and set off for work, in the rain. That evening, he returned to find the ant still running. The weather, he remembered later, was still inclement. The following morning, it was still raining and the ant was still running. That evening however, the ant was very subdued, even though the weather had not subsided. By first light, Melvin was up, checking out the ant-ics. The isolated pet was digging. Outside it was fine.

This behaviour went on for a few days, and Melvin began taking notes. Soon, a pattern emerged. By noon, it seemed, the ant had a good idea of what the weather would be like for the following day—running for rain, quiet for sun, digging for cloud.

Melvin named the ant Predicto, and kept records of its success. He also wittingly caused another tunnel to collapse within his glass-contained ant colony, trapping another specimen, so he could ascertain whether Predicto’s talents were unique.

They were not.

Excited by his discovery, Tuttle passed on his findings to the director of the Met Office, Olly Solly, who initially laughed the man out of the building. Luckily for Tuttle, though, it was budget time for the business, and Solly’s brow was furrowing over the increasing costs of his bank of mainframes. Realising that by retaining the powerful computers, he would instead be under financial pressure to cut back on his attendant array of seven blonde secretaries and start spending more time with his wife Molly Solly, a brickie. As such, the director swiftly called up Tuttle and entered into discussions with the man he’d hitherto called an “insect molesting timewaster”.

Soon, Tuttle had relocated his ant farm to the Met Office HQ and began parallel forecasting alongside IBM’s finest. After a short period of adjustment for Predicto and colleague Foretello to get accustomed to the new microclimate, the ants began to match the computer for the accuracy of the following day’s forecasts.

Things were going well until Predicto died unexpectedly. Tuttle, however, was quickly on the case, and after a short period of mourning he installed a replacement—also called Predicto—into a larger cavern, this time with its own food supply and some miniature dirty magazines.

As different generations of Predictos and Foretellos came and went, Solly began to scale back his computing resources and rely more heavily on the combined talents of the ants. Every individual, when segregated from its peers, quickly took on the mantle of weather forecasting, unearthing a behaviour previously unknown to naturalists.

The Met Office managed to keep the whole deal quiet until last week, when Ant Rights protestors broke into the office and absconded with the colony. This spells trouble for Solly and Tuttle, who are known to be in discussions about whether to revive the project or return to the age of computing. They will surely be mindful of yesterday’s revelations linking Martin Whisper, Chairman of IBM, with the head of the Ant Rights Group, the shadowy Martina Whisper.

One thing is certain; we have not heard the last of animal experimentation in this field.

Find a longer chuckle in my humour writing compendium of offbeat short stories on Kindle :The Real Jamie Oliver and other Stories

The Anderson Dreams

Recently uncovered in a disused well in Chad, two audio tapes give a great insight into the mind of impresario and noted Suffolk chipmunk breeder Kookie Anderson. Anderson has denied any knowledge of the tapes, or of possibly trying to conceal them, but voice analysis experts agree that the tapes are indeed self-recorded transcriptions of his dreams, probably occurring between June 1975 and March 1978.

Here we present some of the highlights.

‘I dreamt that I was eating my own bed. After a few mouthfuls I realised that it needed ketchup, so I went to the kitchen and got some. When I was about halfway through the headboard, I ran out of ketchup. There was no more in the house! So I put on my dinner jacket and went to the corner shop to buy some more. I didn’t recognise the man serving me, so asked where the normal shopkeeper, Edwin, was. The man said that Edwin was in Madrid for a few days, on a shaving holiday. I found this very odd, because Edwin hates Spain. Last year, his son was killed by a falling cheeseboard while running the bulls in Pamplona. Edwin would never go to Madrid. That was when I realised that this must be a dream.’

‘I dreamt that my mother was trying to sell me all the motorway lights on the M1. We haggled for a long time, and eventually I became incensed and struck her with an Argentinean. All she did was smile.’

‘I was let into my own house by a camel. There seemed to be a camel party going on. They were fairly considerate, but I couldn’t sleep, so I went down to the river and washed my television. The camels hardly noticed I’d gone.’

‘I dreamt I was trying to count the number of times I had tried to fall asleep by counting sheep. A ferocious headache woke me.’

‘Last night I had a dream that I was a woman making love to the real me. I feel very depressed.’

‘The most vivid dream last night. I imagined I was the number 4. I was everywhere at the same time, on bill posters, on blackboards, on computers and in books. Most of the books were closed, though, so I couldn’t see anything. I felt very powerful, but I was always afraid of 0. Number 2, whenever I encountered him, whenever I had to stand next to him, was a real bastard. I think we should all be very wary of 2.’

‘I dreamt I was a turkey a few weeks before Christmas. It was horrible. Then I realised the solution : diet!’

‘A troublesome dream last night. I was trapped in a glass of wine. The situation quickly became more bearable though when I realised that also trapped in the glass was ex-president Jimmy Carter. We got on famously, but eventually I had to beat him to death with my left shoe. It was a big mistake. My foot got terribly wet.’

Find a longer chuckle in my humour writing compendium of offbeat short stories on Kindle :The Real Jamie Oliver and other Stories

The Gardener

‘Step into the drawing room, would you, Harman.’

‘Certainly, Mr. Wilkes.’

The gardener removed his cap, carefully wiped his boots on the rough mat by the back door, and made his way to the opulent room, its cool shade a relief from his labours. Quickly he was joined by his employer, dressed as usual in his tweed three piece suit.

There was a moment’s silence, and Harman was a little apprehensive, being unused to an invitation into the house. He thought that it must be a horticultural matter of a particularly serious nature.

Jeremiah Wilkes cleared his throat. ‘Well, Harman, the reason I have asked you in here is to discuss, ah, an important matter. A horticultural matter of a particularly serious nature.’

Harman nodded gently, a little self-satisfied.

His employer continued. ‘This garden of mine, of ours, was recently, as you know, voted one of the top fifty gardens in England. Much of that has been down to your stewardship, for which we all here at Wilkes Manor are grateful.’

‘Thank you sir.’

‘Lately however it has come to my attention that things are starting to look a little less than sprightly, less than perfect. A little forlorn, even.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Wilkes.’

‘And I’m sorry to have to say it, Harman. But the garden is not what it once was.’

‘The weather has been unseasonably warm, sir.’

‘I agree. But I think there is more to it than that.’

‘Indeed, sir?’

‘Indeed. The rose garden, for instance.’

‘The rose garden, sir?’

‘The rose garden. It seems a little bereft of roses just lately.’

‘Rotation of the soil, Mr. Wilkes. The beds need alternative plants for a few years, to regenerate.’

‘And which plants are we expecting to grow there?’

‘The fuchsias and rhododendrons, sir.’

‘Fine. And are we in the midst of this rearrangement?’

‘We are indeed, sir.’

‘And where are the plants meantime?’

‘Temporary storage, sir.’

Wilkes nodded slowly. Harman licked his lips nervously.

‘The foxgloves are looking a little thin on the ground. Last year they were excellent.’

‘They were indeed, sir.’

‘The rockery plants have gone as well, I see. And the rocks, in fact.’

‘I’m working on a new design, Mr. Wilkes. A seaside theme. I’m sure you’ll like it.’

‘It’s just that, well, we have an impressive collection and it has some value.’

‘I can quite understand sir. It’s certainly a garden to be envious of.’

‘Or was. The walled garden, for instance. Glorious for many years. Beautiful reds, wonderful yellows. Many comments have been made about the astors.’

‘I am very proud of those, Mr. Wilkes.’

‘But all gone now, it would seem. The walled garden is no more. Nor the walls.’

‘As I say, sir, the weather has been unseasonably warm. And the greenfly a touch voracious.’

‘On the walls, Harman?’

‘A new strain, I wouldn’t wonder. From Africa.’

‘The thing is, Harman, I was casting an eye over the list of entrants for this year’s Best English Garden competition. I see that you yourself are entering your garden at home for consideration.’

‘I take great pride in my own garden as well as your own, sir.’

‘I’m sure. I took the liberty of asking my driver to swing past there yesterday. Very impressive. It’s almost as if you were replicating the garden at Wilkes Manor.’

‘I like to think of it as an homage, sir.’

‘Hmmm.’ Wilkes nodded slowly. ‘Well, just see that it doesn’t take up too much of your time. We need you here on a full time basis with the competition coming up.’

‘Indeed sir, you need not worry.’

‘Good. Then that’s all. I’ll leave you to the garden.’

Harman nodded his acceptance. Jeremiah Wilkes straightened his waistcoat, turned and left the room. The gardener was quickly in pursuit, sweeping a new Coalport vase from a side table as he passed and secreting it under his jacket.

Find a longer chuckle in my humour writing compendium of offbeat short stories on Kindle :The Real Jamie Oliver and other Stories

The way of the Dodo

Every year, more species on this wonderful and diverse planet pass into extinction, many without record or even a proper wake. To go some way to redressing that balance, there follows a list of some of the more remarkable creatures that have graced this world whose last examples shuffled off this mortal coil between 1990 and 2015.

 

Jellup’s Horse

Discovered in Uruguay by Quincy Jellup in 1778, this creature bore all the hallmarks of a horse, but was no bigger than a chicken. Jellup catalogued seventeen individuals during his expedition, and fell in love with the creatures. He tried to take a pair home to England, hoping to establish the species there, but they went on the rampage on Jellup’s vessel, the Floating Coffin, and the ship sank off the Azores. The last survivor, owned as a pet by a Bolivian rancher, died peacefully in its sleep in 2003.

 

Muscat Centipede

The Muscat centipede was unique in having 102 legs, and in every other way was almost indistinguishable from the more common Straightjacket Centipede, native to the same region. An experienced naturalist could also distinguish the rarer Muscat if he was carrying a sensitive microphone, as the female of the species was prone to very quiet coughing during the mating season.
The last known pair, kept in Johannesburg zoo, were inadvertently trodden on in 1996.

 

Spotted Trenk

The Spotted Trenk was a freshwater fish similar to the pike, whose origins have been traced back millions of years. Characterised by its blue spots, the trenk was a hardy creature that was almost impossible to fish thanks to its excellent defence mechanism. When hooked on a line and landed on shore, the trenk would play dead until the fisherman’s back was turned, then leap from the bucket (or other receptacle), gnaw the fisherman’s ears, then hurtle back into the water. Inhabitants of the Alaskan region that was home to the trenk took to wearing ear guards in case they should unwittingly reel in the devisive fish.
The entire trenk population was wiped out by a mysterious disease between 1988 and 1994.

 

‘Last Post’ Warbler

This small bird, native only to the Netherlands, is thought to have its origins in England, though never recorded there. Its unique call, a surprisingly tuneful rendition of the traditional Last Post bugling motif, made it easy to locate in the open Dutch countryside.
Its unusual taste for Gouda cheese was instrumental in its extinction. Jos Boww, acknowledged expert on the Warbler, had every nesting site catalogued, but after twenty years studying the species, the bird’s incessant song eventually became too much for him and in 1998 he set out Gouda traps at all of the Warbler’s locations, captured and pureed every last example.

 

Pebble Crab

The Pebble Crab, so named for its ability to uncannily resemble a small flat circular stone, was found only on the rocky beaches of the island of Hata in the South China Sea, and is thought to have evolved there ages ago.
In 2000, this unpopulated idyll was chosen for the millenium running of the World Rock Skipping Championships, thereby unwittingly consigning the entire species to an ignominious end.

 

White Throated Hax

The Hax was a fairly dull species of antelope, notable only for its interest in snooker. Only six examples existed in the wild since the ban on Hax hunting came into effect in 1971. The Common Hax, with its complete disinterest in tabletop ball games, has thrived in African reserves since the ban, but the White Throated cousin struggled to breed.
The death of the youngest animal, called Sven, was reported in May 2009, thereby wiping out the last snooker-following creatures, which numbered 12 different species in 1937.

 

Green Marvel

This species of butterfly, once commonly seen around its South Devon habitats, had been on the wane since the introduction of the Wells family to the area in 1951. Scientists struggled for many years to explain this phenomenon or attribute the Green Marvel’s demise to some other cause, but the fact remains that on the day George and Mavis Wells arrived in Barnstaple, the first recorded heart attack amongst the species occurred.
Various coronary afflictions continued to claim young and otherwise healthy Green Marvels until the species dwindled into extinction in 1995. Ironically, the Wells family decided to move to Lincolnshire in 1996.

 

Russian Grey Whelk

The Russian Grey Whelk was first recorded by Phineas Bax in 1809, living in colonies on the country’s icy northern coast. The species was the only known migrating whelk; the entire population heading south for the summer and collecting on a small Greek island.
The creature’s navigation mechanism is not well understood, but is thought to have something to do with the Earth’s so-called leylines which hippies are always banging on about.
The extinction of this intriguing strain of whelk was discovered in 2014, when Thomas Elberg, a Danish fisherman, hauled the entire shoal aboard his vessel by mistake. All the creatures were already dead, confused and overcome by panic due to the sacks of magnetic ore which had lain on the seabed since the loss of the vessel “Death Harbinger” in a storm over the previous winter.

 

Smiling Adder

Also known as the Jolly Adder, this beige reptile was first documented by Sebastien Point in 1833. Point was a deeply disturbed French naturalist (and naturist) who, after four months exploring the jungles of Borneo, started to believe all the flora and fauna were watching him. This snake, in particular, seemed to have a fixed grin, though this was in fact an upwardly curved marking on its chin. It was all that his guide, Pooga, could do to stop the unhinged explorer from going wild with a machete.
Natural predators caused the species to dwindle over the last hundred years, and until 1992 the remaining Smiling Adder was a resident of Barnstaple Wildlife Refuge called Arthur. He was shot to death after trying to gnaw Prime Minister John Major during a publicity visit.

 
 Find a longer chuckle in my humour writing compendium of offbeat short stories on Kindle :The Real Jamie Oliver and other Stories

Books by Chris Towndrow

The Rich List

The annual publication of the UK “Rich List” is an eagerly awaited occasion, with much journalistic attention being given to its upper echelons. This, however, ignores the achievements of some of its less well-publicised members. In order to go some way to redress this balance, there follows an excerpt from the 2017 List.

Ranked No. 1876

J. Simon Harpenden, Bricklayer

Just pipped by the Spum brothers, Mr Harpenden has nevertheless had a very successful year, if a sad one. The death of his wife Irma in a tragic cucumber picking accident has reduced outgoings tremendously, allowing this resourceful individual to climb well into the top 2000.

Ranked No. 1877

Herbert Spill, Computer Programmer

A bad year for Mr. Spill, who, despite fixing the “Q” on his keyboard, suffered from financial losses after the publication of the 2016 List. He drops 198 places after blowing a cool five hundred large on a big party to celebrate his rise up the rankings last year.

Ranked No. 1878

Jemina Smith, unemployed

Heir to the Smith fortune of over £10bn, Jemina has eschewed profligacy, despite her fondness for designer socks. It has been reported that her father has refused to build any further extensions to her house, thus limiting the size of her footwear collection to its present 62,128 pairs.

Ranked No. 1879

Martin Crisp, transvestite and father of nine

Mr(s) Crisp is a new name on the Rich List this year after blackmailing the Governor of the Bank Of England.

Ranked No. 1880

Paul What, insurance salesman

Paul What faces expulsion from the Rich List as his trial draws to a close. If convicted, he will be stripped of his fortune, amassed by selling “Sun” insurance policies to old people. These policies, built on weekly or daily contributions, were only due to pay out if the sun did not rise the following morning.

Ranked No. 1881

Jane Kirkby-Follicle, inventor

Sales of her patented diamond-encrusted fishing rod have been very sluggish, and the inventor has been forced to put up personal money to keep the business afloat. She drops 762 places. As a consequence, her place as one of the most eligible spinsters in Rugby is under threat.

Ranked No. 1882

Smith Walston, pothole maker

Smith Walston has been a controversial figure over the last three years, but this hasn’t affected his wealth. He continues to thrive on his retainers, paid by local construction companies who defraud county councils and thus the taxpayer.

Ranked No. 1883

Q. Milkfancy, recycler

Mr. Milkfancy is suffering troubled times, struggling to maintain profits by stealing empty beer glasses from pub gardens and selling them off.

Ranked No. 1884

Miss S. Trouble, heiress

Miss Trouble continues to gently fritter away her family fortune, dropping 65 places. Her great grandfather Ben Trouble, of course, is famous for inventing the word ‘embryo’.

Ranked No. 1885

David David, investor

A very recent success story, David David made millions by carefully timed investments in rubber tulips for deaf children.

Find a longer chuckle in my humour writing compendium of offbeat short stories on Kindle :The Real Jamie Oliver and other Stories

chepstow

2.45 at Chepstow

‘Well Tony, a lot of excitement about this race coming up.’

‘Yes, and a big crowd here today for what should be a real test of Digger’s comeback after his long spell out of racing.’

‘Indeed. A lot of people really keen to see Max Digger back on form after that horrific bathroom cabinet accident eight months ago. And today at Chepstow he’s got the horse to do it on.’

‘Absolutely, Carl. Lager And Cheesecake is on a good run of results. Second at Windsor last week, winner at Fife yesterday, and of course he’ll be very buoyed up by his recent engagement to Smell The Glove.’

‘A very happy horse, that’s for sure. Looking great today. And there he is in fact Tony, just entering the paddock. Digger of course in his usual silks, jet black with candy pink crescents.’

‘Almost as if he’d never been away. Amazing to think that he’d achieved so much during his recuperation, opening that very successful chain of replica silk outlets and getting engaged himself. And she’s a great girl, Monica Ball-Boy, and no stranger to tragedy herself.’

‘The highlight of the summer for me was his appointment as the Secretary General of the United Nations.’

‘He’s done a lot of good, that’s for sure.’

‘Anyway, back to the race folks, and all the horses are now in the paddock. Yes, Rumbling V8 has just walked in and that completes the line-up of seven.’

‘So here’s the full starting line-up for the two forty-five at Chepstow. Lager And Cheesecake ridden by Max Digger, who we’ve already heard about. Rumbling V8 ridden by Simon Chalk in the puce and violet stripes. Tell Me Why You Like The Beatles is a bit of an outsider, but I’m sure Tim Timson will give it his best. Tim of course in his yellow and orange diamonds. Death By Chocolate is very much fancied by our colleague Ray, but his rider today is the inexperienced Mike Salamander, and I doubt very much whether he’s up to the challenge. Mike is in scarlet and violet with white flashes around the nipples. Ugh today is being jockeyed by Gary Uptown, wearing the Smithson colours of indigo cap and gentian shirt. Ugh was a faller yesterday at Plymouth but is still in good shape for today’s race. Just coming into your shot now is Mind The Doors, and on his back in the vermilion and cream zigzags is Fred Hall, a winner on Wednesday at Epsom on this mount. Not his distance today, though, I feel. Last of all, and the rank outsider, is Melvin Godstone on One Nation Under A Groove, wearing lime with chocolate stars.’

‘Thank you Tony. The going here is good to firm for this the Wichfords Peanut Butter Handicap over 2 miles and four furlongs. Really Lager And Cheesecake’s distance, this.’

‘And that explains why he’s favourite, Carl. Here’s the latest betting; Lager And Cheesecake five-to-four on, Ugh four-to-one, Death By Chocolate five-to-one, Mind The Doors eleven-to-two, Rumbling V8 and Tell Me Why You Like The Beatles are ten-to-one and One Nation Under A Groove is a-hundred-to-one.’

‘Digger is looking very confident there, Tony.’

‘Well he has a great mount. No sign of nerves at all.’

‘Now the first horse is already in the stalls. Next in is the grey, Mind The Doors. A great win by Fred Hall on Wednesday, came up through the field during the last three furlongs and took the post by a clear head.’

‘Yes, a great performance, Carl. A bit out of his league today, though.’

‘I agree. And into the stalls goes One Nation Under A Groove. Potential to be a great flat racer this mare, but a season away from a win. Just finding her preferred distance at the moment.’

‘There’s a real buzz around the stands now, a lot of expectation.’

‘This could be one of the races of the season. If you’re listening, it’s good to have you with us.’

‘And they’re all in now. Last stall closed. And they’re under starters orders…and they’re away.’

‘Two miles and four furlongs, and nosing ahead from the off is One Nation Under A Groove, just ahead of Ugh and Death By Chocolate.’

‘Mind The Doors settling into the middle of the pack, Rumbling V8 in last place.’

‘Did you have a good weekend away last weekend?’

‘Marvellous, Carl. Bath is a wonderful city.’

‘Is it a city, Tony? I don’t think it officially is.’

‘Well, a wonderful town, and great weather too.’

‘How did Annie enjoy it?’

‘She had a great time. It was a shame you couldn’t make it.’

‘It was nice that you could take Annie, I’m grateful.’

‘She’s great company.’

‘I’m lucky to be married to her. Twenty strong years.’

‘Great in the sack, too.’

‘Isn’t she?’

‘Wow, the things we got up to. She’s a fireball. Made me feel ten years younger.’

‘Did she go down on you?’

‘At the drop of a hat.’

‘Annie’s a wonder. Could suck the QE2 through a novelty straw.’

‘Real staying power too. I don’t know where the hours went.’

‘You didn’t keep the rest of the hotel awake, I hope?’

‘No complaints, that’s for sure.’

‘Because she can scream.’

‘She certainly did.’

‘And a good look around the sights, too?’

‘The Roman baths were a real highlight. You can almost feel the history of the place. And the mosaics? Truly fascinating.’

‘She said that was one of her favourite parts.’

‘The amount of time those people must have spent. All those tiny squares. Real craftsmanship, real vision.’

‘They were a monumentally successful civilisation.’

‘You’ll have to go yourself.’

‘I absolutely will.’

‘And over the line goes One Nation Under A Groove, the winner by seventeen lengths.’

Find a longer chuckle in my humour writing compendium of offbeat short stories on Kindle :The Real Jamie Oliver and other Stories

advanced sexual positions

Advanced Sexual Positions

“The Illuminator”

Good for  :  Reducing the “To Do” list

Not recommended for  :  Use outdoors, overweight couples

The man stands on the chair (recommend a sturdy kitchen-type chair, no wheels or cushions) with his buttocks against the chair back. The woman gets onto the chair and stands facing away from the man. The woman bends over until her back is at a 45 degree angle. When the man has attained a comfortable position, he changes the light bulb.

“The Surf N Turf”

Good for  :  Women called Stacey

Not recommended for  :  Vegetarians

The woman assumes the Crab position. The man assumes the Llama position.

“Just Coming, Love”

Good for  :  Safe sex

Not recommended for  : Energetic types

The man lays on the bed and achieves a state of preparedness while the woman removes her nail polish in the bathroom. The man falls asleep.

“Giving The Bird”

Good for   :  Wierdos

Not recommended for   :   Men with a fear of common fowl

The man lays on the bed. The woman straddles him and flaps her arms, clucking like a chicken.

“The Long Shot”

Good for   :  Energetic types

Not recommended for   :  Those with sensitive eardrums, impatient couples

The man and woman both engage in a rigorous 9-month course to train as Human Cannonballs. Having graduated, and when the mood is right, the couple enlist the help of professionals to set up two cannon in close proximity. Consulting appropriate experts, the couple ensure that the cannon are arranged such that the two flight paths intersect about 2 seconds after the cannonballs leave the barrel.

Both cannon are fired simultaneously. The man and woman – wearing the appropriate safety headgear – meet in mid-air, copulate, and fall to earth (a safety net).

It is recommended that both parties attain a significant state of arousal before being fired. Intercourse lasts less than 4 seconds. This position requires tremendous practice and is notoriously difficult to get right. Female orgasm has been recorded only once.

“The Obvious Deception”

Good for   :  Future divorcees

Not recommended for   :   Those who buy their milk at the supermarket 

The man goes to an important conference in Hastings. The woman shags the milkman.

“The Un-Obvious Deception”

Good for   :  Confused husbands

Not recommended for  :  Those who buy their milk at the supermarket 

The woman goes to an important conference in Hastings. The man shags the milkman.

“The Good Neighbour”

Good for   :  Suburbanites

Not recommended for  :  High rise apartment block dwellers, left-handed people

Best on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The woman pours herself a Pimms and lays out in the garden on the recliner, and soon falls asleep. The neighbour looks over his fence, sees this, dons his gardening gloves and takes the opportunity to trim the woman’s bush. When he is finished, he wakes the woman. She tells him it looks nice, but that he should clean up the leaves. He does this and then they make love.

Mowing the lawn is an acceptable substitute.

“The Yee-Hah”

Good for  :   Practising your balance

Not recommended for   : Hemharroid sufferers

The woman mounts the horse. The man mounts the woman.

“The Politician And The Mistress”

Good for   :   Role-players

Not recommended for   :  Honest people

The woman lies down on the bed. The man lies.

Find a longer chuckle in my humour writing compendium of offbeat short stories on Kindle :The Real Jamie Oliver and other Stories