Saturday, 27 May 2017

Hip To Be Square Meal

It's already well established that I am a grumpy old fart with all the trendiness of Queen Victoria. The only aspect of 'hip' I have is the rather wide set near my bum. I have been accidentally 'on trend' (whatever the chuff that is) twice in my life. Such was the shock I had an attack of the vapours and had to lie down. So you can guess that the latest 'hipster' trend is something I view with narrow-eyed suspicion, much like that your parents used to reserve for Top of The Pops...or computers. (The irony that I am turning into my parents is not lost).

And so, hipsterism has even crept in to the way we eat. Having lunch is no longer a way to cram in calories to get you through the afternoon. It's a 'dining experience' - theatre and Art and, well, faff. Look, I'm not adverse to theatre and art – Husband Of The House (HOTH) and I met at Am Dram (that's another story best reserved for when I've had a lot more gin). I just don't particularly want it all the time and particularly not when I'm getting to that 'hangry' (angry hungry) stage of the day when all I want is food.

Take this week. HOTH and I went out for lunch. We decided to go to the new place that had opened in town (I'm not naming names!!). As soon as we walked in we realised it was TRENDY. It was young & hip & happening. It was.......YOUNG!

First, none of the tables or chairs matched. It looked like the dining equivalent of Scrapheap Challenge meets Ikea End Of Season Sale. Not even two chairs at one table were the same. Upstairs was all bare plaster & exposed light fittings. Sort of like that stage of Grand Designs where Kevin McCloud goes round when the money's run out and then the woman miraculously gets pregnant. The walls were covered in a mish-mash of paintings and drawings of various styles and (to be honest) talent. And it was heaving.

We snagged a table and sat down, perusing the bright! and! cheerful! menu! that! used! too! many! exclamation! marks!!!! There was lots of the flowery menu language to describe the food - 'nestled in', 'drizzled with', 'in a bed of'...you know the thing.

Having chosen our Artisan Unicorn Hooves On A Bed of Centaur Hide Drizzled With Leprechaun Tears (just kidding - HOTH had a burger and I had a steak ciabatta with fries) we placed the order at the bar, got our drinks and sat down to wait.

And wait we did. Wait and wait and wait. To say that the service was....erm...relaxed would be like saying The Great Wall Of China is a bit long. Or that Justin Bieber is slightly annoying. Twenty long minutes ticked by. We ran out of conversation. Being married nearly eleven years this does not take long these days. We looked for one of the waiting staff to chase up the order. Now...here's the clever bit of Trendy Place. The waiting staff are all dressed in their own clothes (as in no uniform or recognised theme, not that waiting staff should swap outfits before coming on shift. That would be weird. Wait...hang on.....I'm sensing the next trend. Remember if it happens you saw it here first). Anyway, Own Clothes Staff means you can't tell them apart from the customers! Is that tattooed & pierced girl one of the staff or trying to get served? Is the guy in the painted on jeans rolled up mid-shin, plaid shirt, brogues and too much facial hair the manager or a mangeur (that's French for eater - I looked it up)? Or just so achingly hipster he's making my palms itch? You couldn't tell. And, not being hip, we didn't want to risk being Laughed At for being Luncheon Luddites. So, we carried on waiting. Without much conversation we looked like we were on an awkward first date or something.

Thirty minutes after placing our order, the food arrived. My chips, sorry, House Fries were in a bucket. A little steel bucket. Why? What aspect of chips says 'Serve me in a cold steel bucket separate to the main part of the dish. Yeah, cold steel so I arrive at the table at something like less than room temperature'? Which, this being a trendy place, is obviously cool. At least the rest of our food was on (non-matching) plates rather than boards, slates, floor tiles or, I don't know, in a size 12 Doc Marten boot hand painted with a picture of the chef's mum.

And, do you know what? It was really nice. The food, I mean. It was lovely. Juicy steak done just right, delicious melted cheese and wholegrain mustard mayo. Side salad with a really tasty tarragon dressing. Delicious. HOTH reports that the chorizo burger was just as nice, with pesto mayo for more depth of flavour. Honestly flavourful food. We hoovered it down with 'mmmmmms' of approval and much wiping of mouths & fingers in a matter of minutes. Finally replete, we left as nonchantly as we could, nodding to staff, or customers, or maybe the postman for all we could tell. Trying to look like the kind of people who ate at that kind of place all the time - when we're not sampling micro-brewery beers no-one has ever heard of or watching Scandinavian detective shows re-dubbed into Japanese or something, that is.

The thing is, we would eat there again. We will eat there again, most likely taking Small Boy Of The House (SBOTH) who, at nearly ten, is far, far more on trend than we can ever hope to be. He'll up our cred (do you youngsters still say 'cred'?) by at least a factor of ten. It was genuinely very nice food, with a decent varied menu and it serves alcohol. But why all the fuss and faff and 'Emperor's New Food'?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not after harking back to the times where a trip to the Beefeater for prawn cocktail, leathery steak and Black Forest gateau was the height of sophistication, I just want to be able to choose my food without having to use a thesaurus. Where I know who the waiting staff are and where my food - all of it - will be served on a nice warm plate in slightly less time than it takes me to eat the damn thing. Somewhere where I might actually look like I fit in with the rest of the clientelle and not look like an extra from How We Used To Live or The Supersizers Eat.....

Right....enough ranting....I'm off to find a Wetherspoons!

Just kidding ;-)



Laserquest Flasher

I’ve had a few hapless adventures through life. Actually, there have been more than a few. Not all of them even involved alcohol. After much thought, I decided to start with this one.

Laserquest Flasher explained..........

Come with me, if you will, on a journey back in time. Back, in fact, to 1989. Here we go – twinkly, winkly music and wibbly wobbly screen wipe. There – are we all here safe and sound? Good. So – the Laserquest Flasher story, eh?

It’s 1989. I’m not quite out of my teens. The charts were full of Kylie, London Boys and Debbie Gibson. Madonna was causing controversy with Like a Prayer and Anneka Rice was flitting all over the country in a helicopter directed by hapless contestants desperate to find the clues and ‘stop the clock!’

Fashion was.......eclectic. On the day in question I was dressed in a crisp white blouse with shoulder pads so wide that, from behind, I probably looked like an armchair. This was teamed with a tight black mini-skirt and four-inch white stilettos. Classy. In my head I looked like Christie Brinkley. I thought I looked like the dog’s bollocks. In reality, I probably looked more like a tramp’s breakfast but, hey, this was 1989. We all looked weird.

The day at work had gone OK. Boring as usual and I was clock-watching, waiting to go home. Five o’clock rolled round and I headed out of the door. To my surprise, my boyfriend at the time (not Husband Of The House – sorry to disappoint everyone!) was waiting for me outside with a bunch of his mates from where he worked. He didn’t usually meet me after work, so this was new. ‘We’re going Laserquest’ he announced. Fair enough, I thought, I can call my mates and meet them somewhere. ‘No,’ he said ‘We’re ALL going to Laserquest’. Nothing was going to change his mind on this. Oh. Poo.

For the uninitiated, Laserquest is a game where you run around with body armour covered in sensors and people shoot at you with laser beams in (toy) guns. If your sensor is hit by someone else’s laser, they score a point, you get a point against you. It’s played in near pitch-dark with UV lights on to navigate by. It sort of resembled a bad sci-fi movie. All funky and futuristic. I’m assured it’s great fun. SBOTH loves it.

The snag is, as I’m sure you know, that white clothing GLOWS under UV lights. It is practically visible from space. And there I was, in a pure white blouse and white stilettos. As soon as I set foot in the place I lit up like a sodding Christmas tree. It was like turning on a giant torch. In short, an absolute perfect victim.
Seemingly as one, practically the entire pack of participants turned and started shooting at me. I couldn’t have been a better target if I’d had a giant cross painted on my back and a bull’s eye on my forehead. The ‘pew, pew, pew’ of all the guns firing in my direction and the bleeping of my sensors registering hits filled my ears. It was like ‘Running Man’ meets ‘Platoon’.

‘Sod this’ I thought and made a break for the exit. Now, let me tell you, HOLLYWOOD LIES!!! It is not possible to sprint like Usain Bolt in drag while wearing four inch heels and a mini skirt. It’s barely possible to get anything more than a trot. A determined tortoise could have overtaken me.

Then, suddenly, at the top of a slope, I lost my footing. My treacherous heels skidded out from underneath me and I slammed down on my back. Winded, I slid helplessly from top to bottom of the slope. My skirt, short to begin with, slid with me. But it slid UP. All the way up around my waist, exposing my lacy underwear and (I am cringing at the memory) my stockings and suspenders to everyone in the immediate vicinity.

I briefly toyed with the idea of pretending I was unconscious but instead struggled to my feet amidst cat-calls and wolf-whistles, trying to rearrange my clothes and restore some dignity. My face was burning with embarrassment – you could have cooked bacon on it. My blouse was covered in dirt and muck, my stockings laddered. I handed back my Laserquest gear without making eye contact with the sniggering bloke behind the counter and stalked out of the place, head held high.

I walked out to an explosion of cheers, applause and laughter. I looked up to where people were pointing. To my utter horror I noticed TV cameras were broadcasting footage of games currently being played to the queue outside and the rest of a very busy Manchester street. Everyone, everyone, had seen me crash, smash and most of all – spectacularly flash. Something like fifty or so (although it seemed at the time like half of the city) had watched as I made a complete fool of myself and shown them what my mother had told me never to show in public. I was mortified. Not even waiting for my boyfriend and his gang of goons I tottered off, face glowing, and hailed a cab home, pretending that nothing had happened. He was not happy that I had ‘shown him up’ but frankly, I couldn’t have cared less what he thought. I’m just happy ‘You’ve Been Framed’ wasn’t on telly at the time.

I have never, ever set foot in Laserquest since. Small Boy Of The House) SBOTH has had two parties there but even the thought of it makes me shudder. I think I may have PTLQFS (post-traumatic Laserquest Flasher Syndrome). Though, to be fair, most people who saw me unmentionables have probably got it as well. I could claim that I never wore outfits like that again but I’d be lying. The following day I was probably in chinos, stripy t-shirt and a gold-buttoned blazer. Come on, this was the eighties! The decade that taste forgot. Well, forgot me, anyway.

Later days, people!





Philharm-chronic

I have circulated the rumour that Husband Of The House (HOTH) and I are not averse to The Arts. We enjoy the theatre - we've been to see plays wot have been done in proper Shakespeare-ese AND followed what was going on (laughed at the jokes and everything), visited art galleries, tutted at The Tate and goggled at The Guggenheim and have chosen to watch subtitled films from time to time. We've even been known to partake of some of the lighter operas. But after a recent visit to see the BBC Philharmonic I wonder if we should call it a day and just watch back-to-back episodes of El Dorado or Hollyoaks instead.

We had been sent an amazing offer for tickets for a performance of the BBC Philharmonic at The Bridgewater Hall for the incredibly low price of just two quid each. So, it wasn't any particular pieces or movements we'd actually heard of - but if you don't try new stuff you never know if you like it, right? We decided to take up the offer and booked ourselves an evening of Culture!

Instead of a Saturday night spent eating Haribo and watching telly in my comfy clothes I had a wash, slapped on the tutty (that's make-up where I live), got gussied up in my fancy clothes - though I drew the line at heels - and headed off with HOTH to immerse ourselves in classical music.

The first half was very enjoyable. Soaring strings, vibrant brass, proficient percussion and a lively Maestro waving his baton round like a good 'un. He even conducted the orchestra for a while (badum-tish - I'm here all week). There was a proper choir who went 'aaaaaaah, ooooooh, ohhhhhhh, laaaaaaah' about three times in total. All very impressive and refined. The audience clapped and whooped and cheered when each of the pieces ended and we were enthralled at the skill and experience of all of the musicians. After roughly forty-five minutes it came to a resounding crescendo and we all trooped out for half-time drinks (£6.65 for a gin & tonic and a diet coke), chattering delightedly.

The five minute bell rang and we took our places for the second instalment. A piano had been wheeled in during the interval - and what we were reliably informed was an 'ondes martenot' (although it looked like a Vibraphone to me and HOTH). All very exciting. The orchestra, soloists and Maestro took to the stage.....and that's when it all went horribly wrong.

Instead of melodic, evocative music there came an hour and forty-five minutes of loud, brash, discordant....noise. It was if the composer had taken a bunch of angry chimps and a few keyboards for the piano bits, let loose a pack of sugar-hopped toddlers in the pots & pans section of Sainsbury's and taken his inspiration for the strings from a bag of cats on heat being put through a mangle. There was even a woman whose sole job was to wave her maracas around (don't even go there) at seemingly random intervals. Almost the entire audience looked baffled.

The bloke on the piano was bouncing up and down like a manic kangaroo on disco-biscuits while his pet page turner sat beside him flipping the score at the nod of a head. How he knew when that was among all the other bopping is anyone's guess. Maybe he just made it up as he went along. Then Vibraphone woman chipped in with high-pitched screeches and wails (from the instrument, not, like, vocally) that were so painful the people on the front row were wincing and sticking their fingers in their ears. It sounded like a cross between the incidental 'spooky' music from 'Ghostbusters' and Alicia Keys falling downstairs.

No-one knew when to clap. We thought one piece had finished and tentatively applauded only for it all to kick off again with some mad arrangement of notes and a pitying look from Piano Man. It was beginning to sound like someone had dropped all the sheet music on the way to the Hall, shuffled it and just thought 'Sod it, no-one will know'. Which we didn't, of course.

It was one of those nights that became interminable. People were getting up and leaving whenever there was a break in the torture. One bloke fell asleep and the three ladies in front of us were overcome with hysterical giggles whenever they caught each other's eye. HOTH kept looking up at the fixtures, praying one would come loose and come crashing onto him a la Phantom Of The Opera to end his misery. All that kept him going was watching the pianist's score book become thinner and thinner as we neared the end. Discreet glances at watches became less and less discreet. I've had more enjoyable smear tests. If this was Culture you can bloody well keep it. I'd sooner watch Joey Essex reading a Chinese takeway menu. At least it had only cost us two quid each. Some of the tickets had been on sale for nearer forty.

Finally, after what seemed a lifetime, it was over. We could tell it was really finished because all the orchestra stood up and Maestro turned round to us looking sweaty and smug. We made a break for it before anyone got the idea for an encore, emerging into the night aurally assaulted, culturally confused and....well...underwhelmed. No danger of us queuing up for a copy of the CD, put it that way.

To add insult to injury, we were stiffed £16 for the privilege of parking. FOUR TIMES what we'd paid to be 'entertained'. We could have stayed in the car park and made our own entertainment for less. It certainly wouldn't have lasted nearly two hours and might even have been slightly more enjoyable.

Next time, I think we'll stick with what we know. A bit of Beethoven, a soupcon of Strauss, a dollop of Dvorak. Sod expanding my horizons. There's a reason that path is less travelled by - it leads to a mad woman with a Vibraphone and a pogoing pianist. Don't say you haven't been warned.


Winegate

I'm currently laid up with an extreme sort of vertigo. Not the most fun I've ever had, let me tell you. Imagine having five pints of snakebite, then getting on the waltzers for a bit. That's how I feel at the minute, but without all the fun of imbibing. It's making stairs interesting. Well, when I say 'interesting', I kind of mean 'hazardous'. But, then again, it's not like I need a wonky balance system to make me accident prone.

Take 'Winegate', for example. Last year Husband Of The House (HOTH) & I decided to spend our tenth wedding anniversary in Stratford upon Avon. Be a bit romantic, take in some culture, that kind of thing. I booked us into an absolutely gorgeous guest house just outside Stratford. It was set in its own grounds, just two rooms. The owners made their own bread, jams & preserves and their hens laid eggs for our breakfast. It was delightful.

We arrived and were shown to our room. I'd let the landlady know it was our anniversary and so the room had been set with decorative lights around the bed, candles and a bottle of champagne. The bed was beautifully made with crisp, snow white bed linen and the carpet was a deep cream pile. I felt ever so genteel.

The night of our anniversary we went out for a nice meal and to see a play at the RSC. Very grown up & civilised. On return to our room we got ready for bed and, the night still being young, opened a bottle of wine. A deep, dark red wine. All was going well, romantic glass of wine and posh chocolates in bed on our tenth wedding anniversary. And then.......disaster.

My hand left hand jogged the glass of wine in my right. Half the contents slopped out and sloshed massively all over the pristine bottom sheet. I squealed in horror and leapt out of bed. In doing so I tore off the scab where I'd cut my leg shaving earlier. Blood began to pour out of the cut. I scrambled like a mad woman round the bed to the bathroom to get something to try and clean up the mess. HOTH stared in open-mouthed horror as I splashed blood all over the cream carpet and merlot soaked into the snowy sheets. It looked like a scene from CSI. Scrabbling into the bathroom, my wine-soaked right arm brushed against the crisp white bathrobes hanging behind the door, smearing them with yet more stains. Everything seemed to be going in slow motion as I grabbed handfuls of tissues, a mug of water, baby wipes...anything I could think of to clear up the horror in the bedroom.

HOTH and I began to have one of those hissed voice arguments you have when you don't want anyone to hear. He went to fetch one of the towels we'd brought with us - one of the dark blue ones whose dye runs when it gets wet.....more hissing and sniping ensued. So much for a romantic evening!

Finally, after about half an hour of scrubbing and almost an entire packet of baby wipes later, the  wine stain was reduced to a translucent pink and the blood drops were barely visible - you really had to look for them to see them. Phew. Humiliation averted. Except now the bottom sheet on my side of the bed was soaking wet. There was no way I could sleep on that. There was only one thing for it.....out came the travel hairdryer. All (something like) 40 watts of it. The sheet would probably have dried quicker if a geriatric cat had spent a while farting on it. Eventually, the bed was dry enough for me to get back into - although I made sure I finished my wine before getting back in (wounded leg swathed in loo roll to prevent more carnage). Our heart rates and blood pressure returned to something like normal and we tried to enjoy the rest of the night.

Heaven knows what the couple next door must have thought. They'd have heard a small cry of dismay, a thud, more wails, more thudding, the tap running, a mysterious hissed & low voiced conversation, a weird scrubbing noise on the skirting boards and then half an hour of the hair dryer concerto...I don't know what I would have imagined was going on. Either a murder or some really kinky proceedings, probably.

The next morning we nonchalantly strolled down to breakfast like nothing had happened, exchanging a friendly 'good morning' (but little eye contact) with our neighbours. After breakfast we hurriedly checked out and fled for home. About an hour after setting off I got a text. It was from the landlady. Oh 'eck! Busted. But no, it was a lovely message thanking us for the biscuits we'd left as a thank you gift and offering us a discount if we book directly with the guest house next time. We were very relieved. If ever we stay there again I'm wrapping myself and the whole bloody room in cling film! Hey, if it works for Dexter.

To be honest, though, that was probably the least embarrassing of all my shenanigans. It's a wonder I've got to this age in one piece, to be honest. There's 'A Wee In The Dark', 'Loo Lock In' and, of course, 'Laser Quest Flasher' but they're all for another time. And you may need to buy me a drink first. Just as long as it's not a glass of merlot in a clean, white room.











Blackpool

It's about this time every year that Husband Of The House (HOTH), Small Boy Of The House (SBOTH) and I pile into the family car and take a trip to Blackpool. This is a family Tradition. With a capital T. That is, something we Always Do and have done since SBOTH was not quite a year old. Cars and jobs have come and gone (as have hair, teeth and weight), but the Family Outing to Blackpool remains a constant. There was one year when someone else took SBOTH instead, but we don't like to talk about that and, if I do, it's usually with a cat's bum mouth. We tend to go early in the evening, timing it so we're there not long before the Illuminations come on but before the rowdy crowds, lakes of vomit and fist-fights start appearing. I could do without explaining to SBOTH what that man with a willy-shaped hat on and the lady in the flashing bra are doing behind the bins, thank you very much.

The trip follows the same kind of routine every year - a wander on the front to spend the equivalent of the national debt of a small country in the arcades. No longer the 'penny arcades' of my youth - long gone are the crank-handled one arm bandits, replaced with acres of neon and flashing lights, loud beeps, boops & sirens, geared to grab the attention of kids and instant entertainment addicts. Still, SBOTH actually won some money on the 'coin shove / Tipping Point' machine this year - an event as rare as the coming of Halley's Comet or England winning the World Cup, but much more exciting. Of course, he ended up putting it all back in - but that's part of the fun. Apparently.

Next comes fish and chips at our favourite chippy. It's a bit of a drive away from Blackpool itself, away from the main drag and the churned out buckets of grease selling for £2.99 a throw (up). It is still really popular - there can be queues out of the door on some nights. The fish is cooked fresh to order, piping hot in a crisp, tasty batter, translucent and delicious. The chips are chunky, proper chips - all different sizes and 'gob scadding' (mouth scalding) as my dad says. I think we'd been visiting the place for about three years, eating the goodies out of paper while sitting in the car, before I realised there was a restaurant attached and we started 'sitting in'. It's delightfully olde-worlde with proper Formica tables and leatherette seats. Thankfully the Trendies haven't got their manicured mitts on this place yet and long may that continue.

This year we piled in as usual, took our seats and waited for the....well, waitress (yes, the place still offers waited tables) to come and take our order. Having demanded our delights - two 'Dining Room Specials' (cod, chips, mushy peas, bread & butter and a cup of tea so strong it could hold its own in a fight with Mike Tyson) and large cod & chips for SBOTH - a boy who loves his fish - we relaxed and chatted, as you do. Then HOTH then noticed that the vinegar in the plastic bottles looked suspiciously pale. Instead of the dark brown malty colour you normally associate with chippy vinegar, this was a watery, translucent colour. Sort of the colour of your wee after a really heavy night out on the lash, probably involving a kebab and some ill-advised shots near closing time. Or is that just me?

To say that I like my vinegar is to say elephants are slightly larger than an amoeba or that the All Blacks are a bit good at rugby. I love the stuff. I have been known, on occasion, to drink vinegar from a pickled onion jar (don't judge me). The sight of this stuff worried me. I had a taste. I had another taste, just to make sure. My heart sank. The owner had obviously watered it down. A LOT. I'm all for businesses maximising profit and cutting costs, but this was ridiculous. This wasn't vinegar as we knew it anymore. It was inert. It was so watered down it had practically changed state into an alkaline. My friends, this was homeopathic vinegar. One part acetic acid to a million. A shark couldn't have sensed the vinegar in that bottle. I was Very Disappointed. Fish & chips without vinegar is like Morecambe without Wise, Ant without Dec, Donald Trump without his wig....I silently fumed and contemplated a sulk.

The waitress brought our lovely food. My fish lay there, hot & tempting, begging to be drowned in vinegar, sprinkled with salt and devoured. I didn't want to disappoint it. HOTH took the bull by the horns. He asked the waitress if they had any sachets of vinegar available, something that could legally be called vinegar. No, sorry, they didn't. I began to half-heartedly splash some liquid on my dinner when she reappeared with a full, unopened, unsullied bottle of The Good Stuff. Real, proper vinegar - the stuff that makes you cough when it evaporates as it hits your chips. 'I told him he waters it down too much.' she muttered. I could have hugged her. She stood over us as we liberally splattered our dinners with it, joyful in the malty, tangy smell (except SBOTH. He hates vinegar. He's weird. Unless he had so much of the stuff while in the womb it put him off). Food duly anointed, the waitress took the bottle back off us and away, hidden again like contraband until someone was brave enough to ask again.

I'm very happy to report that, after that, the food was as gorgeous as ever. Hot, tasty, huge portions filled our bellies and set us up for the finale to the trip. The Illuminations themselves. SBOTH always buys something light-up, neon and twizzy on a stick to wave around on the journey (that ends up forgotten in the Narnia under his bed by the end of the following week) and we set off 'to see the lights'. A drive down the Golden Mile 'oohing' and 'aahing' at flashing light-bulbs in colourful arrangements like we've never seen electricity before. The only time of year when you willingly drive at five miles an hour in a humongous line of traffic and don't moan. Vegas it ain't, but it's Tradition and something we hold dear. Some parts of the display are better than others - the sparse strings at one end, melding into character pieces - one year, sponsored by Hollands, there was a section of illuminated pies with unsettling faces on them, nearly put me off my pastry - and finally on to the terrific tableaux, huge screens and animated displays like Alice in Wonderland, Native Americans, a pile of pirates prancing, the Haunted House. They save the best stuff to last. If you accidentally come into the display from the wrong end it must be really disappointing.

Lights looked at, we set off home. SBOTH falls asleep in the back, twizzer in hand & snuggled under coats. HOTH & I singing along to the tunes on the radio like a cut price Sonny & Cher (I refuse to be drawn on who's who), driving home in the dark and wondering just how many more times we can do this before SBOTH decides it's lame and refuses to come along anymore. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Until then, the Tradition stands. Just stop watering down my condiments and we'll be fine, okay?




Rugger Buggers

While I’m waiting to be fit to travel any distance – and for Small Boy Of The House (SBOTH) to actually have an away game – my thoughts turned to the folk whose children (girls as well as boys, of course) enjoy playing rugby. As I’ve said before, in the main they are a friendly, welcoming bunch. The RFU has specific codes of conduct for parents as well as children that stops a lot of the pitch-side nastiness, swearing and violence sometimes associated with the game with the round ball. Occasionally there are some that overstep the mark – those who have dreams of little Timmy running out at Twickenham or perhaps vicariously living their thwarted dreams of International glory through their offspring, but these are mercifully few and far between. Besides, they are usually subjected to the kind of Hard Stare that would make Paddington Bear wee in his wellies and muttered  asides about whether they’re serving Has-Beens and Wanna-Beens with the Full English Breakfast this morning.

Sometimes among the crowds of long-suffering parents, however – and if you are really lucky – you may spot Affluent Area Rugby Dad (AARD). AARDs are generally men in their mid- to late-forties who still believe that they look in their early twenties and dress accordingly. Conventional Rugby Dad dresses for the weather. Usually something he’s found on the floor next to the bed that doesn’t smell too badly and is relatively free of stains. Not AARD. You’ll know an AARD as soon as you see one.

AARD will be the one who, despite it being near freezing, will be wearing the deep, nipple skimming V-neck sweater – probably cashmere and costing nothing less than £300, obviously. Over this he will be wearing a casually looped scarf or, better yet, one of those checked Arabic scarves like Kate Adie used to wear. This will be teamed with a pair of skinny jeans so tight that, not only can you tell to which side he dresses, you can also see whether ‘noddy’ still has his hat on or not. The outfit will be finished with a pair of tan cowboy boots, or a hideous pair of eye-wateringly expensive trainers usually endorsed by a rap star. Mutton dressed as ram, if you will.

AARD also appears to have used a year’s supply of Just For Men (in ‘extra deep black’) in one application. While he labours under the illusion he looks like Johnny Depp he more resembles David Gest. Sometimes there is a pony-tail. AARD is also no stranger to the spray tan or sun bed either, quite often looking like he’s swum through a lake of Wotsits to get to the ground. You know, the 'Ross From Friends Tan' look. He will drive something like an Audi or Beemer – and makes sure all you peasants know it by twirling his oversized key fob around whenever there’s anyone in his eye-line.

Almost exclusively, AARD will spend the entire match either TALKING VERY LOUDLY about his latest 'acquisitions', skiing trip or second home in The Maldives or will be hollering into his mobile phone a la Dom Joly about ‘sealing the deal’ and ‘seizing the moment’. You suspect he’s actually on the phone to his bewildered mum or the Speaking Clock as he continually looks round to see if we’re all watching. Which we’re trying not to but, well, you just can’t help it. It’s like picking a scab.

It is also abundantly clear that he actually knows very little about the actual game of rugby as he shouts for penalties when little Malcontent or Defacto (one of those pseudo posh names) is tackled near the try line or demands that the ref awards a corner kick when the ball goes out of play. When he does pay any attention he encourages the children to try a header or ‘give the goalie something to think about’.

Young Pesto / Epiglottis / Germolene is already showing signs of following in Daddy’s footsteps. They firmly believe that the rugby universe revolves around them, that they are the Most Important Player (since Daddy bought the team kit this season and donates handsomely to the tombola) and that no-one else should have a touch of the ball. Should any player from the opposing team have the temerity to come within five yards little Antimacassar will fling themselves to the floor like a pole-axed buffalo. Completely missing the point that anyone on the ground in rugby is Fair Game and will gleefully be trampled on by a dozen small (and not so small) children. Most of these will probably be their own team-mates heartily sick of the diva-ish antics the rest of them have had to endure so far this season.

After the match, AARD and his offspring will briefly berate the referee about his lack of bias towards Their Team. The ref couldn’t care less who AARD might be. Since it would probably be easier to knit fog while herding cats than to referee a bunch of kids he’s looking just forward to a pie and a pint – or several. Feeling suitably superior AARD and child will then stalk off in a cloud of expensive after-shave (which has had everyone wondering who had been using TCP) and impregnable self-belief to their car. AARD will rev the engine for a bit before driving off to Overpriced Leafy Suburb where they live, leaving us hoi polloi behind to enjoy the burger & chips or droopy pizza served at the club for the hungry hordes of sweaty small people and their freezing parents. AARD offspring will, of course, be dining on the finest ‘haricots cuits au four sur pain grille’ and ‘jus de cassis’ (that’s beans on toast and a Ribena to us, but let’s not burst their bubble, eh?). And so it will be until the next game. Unless wee Phlegm decides they're 'bored' of rugby and want a pony instead.

So next time you are (un)lucky enough to be standing on a quagmire of a local rugby pitch, breath steaming, nose dripping and feet likes blocks of ice, see if you can spot an AARD. It might just be enough to warm your cockles. Unless, of course, you are the AARD in the park!



It's official. I'm definitely a curmudgeonly, middle-aged old fart with as much romance in my soul as The Terminator. How do I know this?

You know when you shop online you get sent all sort of other links, sites and offers? Well, today I received one from a well known discount voucher company. You know, the one associated with women who are crap at eating sushi and are forever having their leg hair ripped off? Yes, THAT one. Anyway, among today's (tat) offers was a necklace proclaiming 'I love you to the moon and back'. Lovely, yes?

Moon & Back

Except, all I thought was 'Well, that's not really very far'. Told you I was a romantic. Because, well, it's not really. It's fewer than 500,000 miles. And while I wouldn't want to have to walk it, cosmically speaking it's probably the equivalent of nipping to the corner shop. Neither far, nor romantic - unless you bring me back a packet of Munchies or a Magnum. Let's face it - The Proclaimers have probably walked more than that by now, and they're hardly my first choice to put me in The Mood (although it was the second dance at our wedding).

'I love you to Proxima Centauri and back' (about 8.5 light years) maybe. Or 'I love you to the ends of the known universe and back'. That's more like it. But I suppose that's a bit hard to get round the outside of a necklace, not to mention harder to spell.

While I'm at it - since when did declarations of love become quantifiable in terms of distance? What's wrong with loving someone more than.....I dunno....a seat on the train home? THAT means an awful lot to me. It means an awful lot to most of the passengers if the scrum for it is anything to go by. HOTH knows I'm in a good mood if I tell him I love him more than Haribo. If I tell him I love him more than Tangfastics he gets Ideas.

But, it's probably just me. Most people are perfectly happy with the moon & back. Some folk would be happy with a nip to the corner shop. To be fair, I'm more than content with my lot......I'm just not prepared to pay an online discount voucher company good money to say it.

Sparkle Science

Now, I don't often get angry and shout at the tellybox. Actually, that's a damn lie. I shout at it a lot. But it's not often I'm quite so incensed with rage as I was last night. What made it worse was that SBOTH was in the room and I had to temper my language accordingly, which was neither easy nor satisfying. So what was it that had be so apopletic with rage? That made me spy my arse so much I was practically donut shaped? Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you this shiny pile of utter crap.

Sparkle Science. Sparkle. Science. Sparkle flipping Science. A pink, shiny, glittery 'science' kit aimed at girls. As if girls can only possibly be interested in science if it's covered in pink, glittery, shiny crap. How patronising? I begged my parents for a chemistry set for years when I was younger. I wasn't allowed to have one. Not because my parents didn't think it was for girls, more that they were worried I'd blow myself up, set fire to the house or set about on a plan for world domination (the latter being especially appealing). If they'd have presented me with this abomination I'd have thanked them graciously, of course, but inside I'd have been deeply disappointed and mortally offended. The box would likely have been consigned to under my bed, unused, and eventually disposed of.

If you can't see the box clearly, the cartoonish Comic Sans font invites the recipient (who must grin inanely when presented with the box , while wearing an unfeasible amount of make up for a child) to 'Grow your own crystal necklace', 'Grow a sparkly geode', 'Make a fab glitter bath bomb', 'Create glitter chalk' and 'Make a glitter lava lamp' and announces it's 'The Amazingly Sparkly Glitzy Chemistry Set'. It does have a pseudo Breaking Bad periodic table graphic (for Scandium and Cerium, if you're interested) but that seems to be its only nod to science science. Apparently, these are 'experiments', not just an excuse to make a pile of tat. Tat covered in glitter because, well, wimminz like sparkly glittery stuff and their wickle heads can only absorb science if it's pink and shiny and makes them look pretty. My blood pressure is rising to dangerous levels just thinking about it.

I'm pretty bloody sure Marie Curie wasn't bothered about how pink & pretty radium was - or how sparkly her polonium necklace looked and whether it went with her shoes. Rosalind Franklin was probably more interested in her works on viruses and early contribution to understanding DNA than in knocking up a glittery lava lamp for the lads in the lab. In the year when we're celebrating the Suffragette Movement and 100 years of The Women's Institute, science is being marketed to girls as pink, sparkly, glitzy and pretty - and that its results are, or should be, things that make you look pretty or decorate your house. It's infuriating.

I know there are things like Gross Science that are usually advertised using small boys throwing fake poo at their older sisters, but at least the box is in pastel, neutralish colours with cartoon pictures - at least one of which is a girl having fun. Much more gender neutral. This.......thing.....is being marketed exclusively at girls. What if there are boys who want to make bath bombs & sparkly geodes?

Science is having a hard enough time recruiting women without banal, fluffy crap like this. Making a 'fab' bath bomb and a lava lamp isn't going to encourage hoardes of females into scientific fields. Stuff like this is more likely to put them off. Is this really the best they could come up with? It's shallower than a petri dish and reinforces the message that women are only here for decoration or to make it. That's not a message I want to be passing on to girls growing up today.

I get that it's a toy, it's meant to be fun - but what's wrong with marketing a regular chemistry set, electronics kit or microscope & slides? Proper science equipment? Making them more appealing to both genders? It doesn't have to be bloody pink, sparkly or pretty to be fun, interesting and educational. It doesn't have to be pink, sparkly and pretty to appeal to females. Just stop it and give us credit where it's due. Put a lid on the patronising. Don't demean science by making everything bubble-gum Barbie before you think we'll buy it or understand it. Women do real science, get over it.

And don't get me started on gingham...........

               




Good Old Days

Claire slouched in the chair, her shoulders hunched in irritation. How she hated coming to Grandma’s house. It was always so boring. Every week was the same. She would be made to sit in the same uncomfortable, itchy, horsehair wingback chair. Her precious Sunday afternoons would have to be spent wishing the hours away until the visit was over and they could go home. Week in, week out she was forced out of her favourite jeans and into a dress – something hideous with frills or gingham – and her patent leather shoes, polished up with butter that morning. She drew the line at a ribbon in her hair, though, that was for little kids. Grandma would open the door dressed in her housecoat and beam her embarrassingly toothless grin. Claire would cringe when she was told how ladylike she was looking. Grandma would grab her and give her a sloppy kiss, stinking of fags and lavender talc, before ushering her into the chair by the draughty window. And then the torture would begin. Hours and hours of the grown-ups chattering on about stuff that held no interest for Claire. Not that it mattered. Grandma was of the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ school of thought and so all the conversations were aimed well above her head. She didn’t know why she let herself be dragged along. She was nearly thirteen for God’s sake!

It was no different this week. She had tried to entertain herself by counting the cabbage roses on the wallpaper or the holes in the net curtains, but her expression always betrayed her. ‘Stop scowling, Claire,’ her Grandma berated her, ‘If the wind changes your face will stick like that. Pretty young girl like you with a face like a wet week. Wouldn’t happen in my day’.

Claire groaned. Here we go, she thought. Now it starts.

‘You didn’t have any of this nonsense when I was a girl,’ Grandma sniffed, ‘All the kids sitting on their backsides all day, Walkman thing plugged into their ears listening to rubbish. Twiddling on their GameBots.’

‘GameBoys’. Claire muttered under her breath, rolling her eyes. Seriously, why couldn’t old people get anything right?

‘In my day, we played out from first light to sunset. Only came in for a sandwich at lunch and tea when Dad came home from work. All day we were out. No fat kids when I was young.’ She glanced meaningfully at Claire, who was reaching for another custard cream. ‘And don’t get me started on the bloody racket they call music!’

Nobody did, thought Claire, darkly.

‘It’s all noise. When I was a girl it was music you could dance to! Waltzes and foxtrots, that’s dancing. Oh, I remember going to the Palais on a Saturday night in my best frock with my friend Betty, listening to the band playing real tunes. We’d sit under the lights and wait for a young gentleman to come over to ask us to dance and then walk us home. All very nice. All proper. None of this ‘snogging’ in the dark and not even knowing their names.’ Grandma harrumphed and adjusted her bosom.

Claire sighed and glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. Had it really only been half an hour?

‘Kids respected their elders, they did. Stood up for them on the bus if there were no seats, opened doors for them. Ignorant little bugger on the 58 had to be told to stand up when I went to the precinct on Wednesday. The look he gave me! I nearly clipped him one round the ear, except you can’t touch the precious little darlings these days, can you? If you ask me that’s when it all started going wrong. Kids today think the world owes them a favour.’ She looked over at Claire again as though everything were her fault.

‘You could leave your doors unlocked, too. Nobody heard of anyone getting robbed. Everyone looked out for everyone else. Community you had then. You knew your next-door neighbours. Never mind a cup of sugar, they’d lend you their last farthing. We might not have had much, but we shared what we had. Those were the Good Old Days!’

Change the bloody record Grandma, Claire thought bitterly. What about rickets? You had rickets then. And polio. Kids dying. And smog and pollution. No telly, no videos, no MTV. Nobody got robbed because nobody had anything worth stealing. Husbands could beat their wives and kids and nobody cared. Married women weren’t even allowed to work! Good Old Days? Don’t make me laugh!

And she tuned out her Grandma’s chunnering, staring out of the window as the rain soaked the pavement, waiting until the clock finally struck four and she was free.

*

Claire slouched in the chair, her shoulders hunched with grief. How she had loved coming to Grandma’s house. Every week had been reassuringly the same. Choosing her prettiest dress and best shoes, waiting for Grandma to open the door with her happy smile and loving kiss. Glowing with pride as Grandma told her how grown up she was looking then showing her to her special chair by the window. She used to listen attentively as Grandma told her anecdotes about when she was growing up, how she had met Grandad at a local dance, the music they had danced to. She fondly remembered the fascinating tales of how the town used to be, when everyone had been friendly and took care of one another, how she used to wish she had been alive then and how she had laughed when Grandma mixed up her words when talking about new technology.

A hand on her shoulder broke her reverie. The undertaker telling her the cars were ready. She smiled sadly to herself as she looked around Grandma’s front room for the last time. She’d give anything to hear some more of her stories. Those Sunday afternoons had been her favourite times. Those Sundays had been the Good Old Days.


School Reunion

Natalie dresses nattily
While Hattie chatters cattily
About her next door neighbours and their kids
And Reuben reminisces
Of the kisses with his missus
In the days before his marriage hit the skids
Walter waxes lyrical
Although he’s rather cynical
And tends to make his speeches overlong
Then Brenda blethers with ennui
On how the way things used to be
But makes sure she is heard above the throng

All the Queen Bees and Wannabes
The A-stars and the Average Cs
Sip lukewarm Cava standing ‘round the gym
Over canapés and nibbles
They remember all their quibbles
But never all the words to the school hymn
And while everyone is gabbing
There’s plenty of back-stabbing
As they relish in bad romance and failed schemes
At the end each feels superior
With their motives most ulterior
Same time next year? Of course, darling. In your dreams!



Love Sick

What is it with bloody Mills & Boon
Those soppy women who coo and moon
Over long haired chaps without a shirt
Or handsome surgeons whose idea to flirt
Is to make snide remarks and throw a snit
Frankly, I think it’s a load of....tosh
Why are they all called Estevez?
What’s wrong with Derek, Steve or Bez?
Why a doctor or a millionaire?
Why not a plumber with thinning hair?

And the women themselves, don’t get me started!
No wonder they end up broken hearted
That bunch would make Jane Austen spin
In her grave as they take it on the chin
When the hero of the tawdry saga
Tries his luck against the Aga
Only to snub her at the Society Do
Honestly, are these ladies all on glue?
I can’t see why they’re so besotted
I’d tell these berks to go and get knotted

I know I should get off my big high horse
I’m staring down the barrel of the menopause
I should think back to when I was a girl
Channel Barbara Cartland, give romance a whirl
But three pages in to Fifty Shades
My opinion on this stuff remains unswayed
All that leather and chains and sparkly Spandex?
The rest of the book gets used as Andrex
I guess I’ll never get this genus
With its hundreds of different words for...love

Where playboys with their wicked wiles
With perfect hair and crooked smiles
Their bank accounts obscenely laden
Always win over the blushing maiden
Who hated them in Chapter One
But by the end is Quite Undone
And melts the heart of the Alpha Male
In every single bleeding tale
And despite the warnings from her friends
Is waltzing down the aisle by the end

A woman here got off with Jesus?
Oh wait, ‘Hey-seus’ – I never know what pleases
The readers of this tiresome genre
Where Baby is never put in the corner
I think I’ll stick to what I know
I just can’t give these things a go
I can’t be doing with all that palaver
I’d rather be home eating crisps, supping Cava
You can keep your Fabio, Rex and Gino
I’ll stick to Mr Men and The Beano







Bye, soul - Silver Lining

Jack knew his soul was missing not long after waking up. Waking up face down behind a dumpster in some dank alleyway he didn’t recall entering. Though, to be fair, he didn’t remember much of last night. Not much after the blonde with the sly smile had handed him another of those weirdly addictive green drinks. But, yeah. Soul – missing. A strange, empty hollowness in his core. A void he couldn’t quite explain.

All this went through his mind in the seconds it took him to sit upright, then stagger to his feet. A dizzying wave of nausea coursed through him and he closed his eyes, fighting the rising bile. A cold film of sweat broke out over his skin and he shuddered violently. Vomit spattered the pavement, splashing his shoes and pants . Great.  Now he smelled like a tramp as well as looked like one.

Jack wiped his mouth with a trembling hand and looked around. Where the hell was he? He straightened, patting his pockets. No surprises – wallet and phone both gone. He looked at his wrist – watch too. Almost two grand out of pocket and, of course, no insurance cover. He never thought he’d need it.

A rustling sound caught his attention. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a scrap of paper. No, wait, a napkin. He opened it up , squinting at the scrawl on it in....was that blood? He sniffed it. No, red ink. Definitely red ink. He laughed nervously,  self-consciously, shaking his head. Too many crappy sci-fi shows and horror movies. But. There was the issue of the missing soul.

He glanced at the napkin again. It looked like an address. 66 Sixth Street. Six. Six. Six? Really? Fucking cliché of the week. Had to be bogus, right? Still...he had other things to worry about right now. Here he was, covered in puke, God knows where, with no money or phone to call for help. He limped to the opening of the alleyway, got his bearings. Looking around he realised he was less than five blocks from home. Home, a hot shower and report his lost wallet and personal effects to the police and phone company. The clock above the bank across the street told him it was still only six am. That explained the relative quiet of the streets. Five blocks wouldn’t take long at this time of the day.

Just over an hour later, Jack was freshly showered and in clean clothes. Reports had been filed with the credit card company, a new phone was on the way and his bank cards cancelled. Miraculously, his accounts were intact. Either the scumbag hadn’t had any luck trying to scam the cards or hadn’t had time to try before they were stopped. One small consolation. Just the police report to make now.

A bored sounding officer took down what details Jack was able to provide. Yes, he was drunk. No, he didn’t see who mugged him – he couldn’t even confirm he’d been mugged rather than been the victim of an opportune thief. He wasn’t hurt, no apparent injuries at all. Apart from his missing soul – and he wasn’t about to mention that to the police. Not right now. Not unless he wanted a swift visit from a shrink with an all-too-eager habit of locking guys up in the loony bin. That was the last thing he needed right now.

Thanking the officer and putting down the phone on his platitudes, Jack swallowed the last of his coffee and took stock. He couldn’t shake the feeling, no the certainty that his soul was missing. He was confused and curious how he knew it was gone. It’s not like he’d spent all his time contemplating it, examining it, thinking about it. He was no good ol’ Catholic boy forever at Mass. The last time he’d been in a church was his father’s funeral over a year ago. He hardly ever went to services. He wasn’t sure he actually believed. And, yet. Here he was, sitting at his breakfast bar, knowing without a shadow of a doubt that he was soulless. The thought should have terrified him, appalled him, turned him into a gibbering wreck. He’d taken it all rather calmly, he thought. With the same Big City ambivalence as losing his wallet, watch and phone. He wasn’t sure what that said about him as a person – or if, in itself, it was a symptom of his missing soul. The hole in his being, his psyche, was like a missing tooth. A rotten hollow prodded and poked.

He looked at himself in the mirror over  the fireplace. No difference that he could see. No horns, no red, glowing eyes, no forked tongue. Just Jack. Maybe a bit tired looking, hungover, been through the mill of tying a serious one on last night. Not that much different to how he looked most Saturday mornings, if he were honest.

The shrill ringing of the phone made his jump, startling him from his reverie. He frowned, not recognising the number on caller ID. He snatched up the receiver thinking it was maybe the mobile phone company calling him back with some red-tape bullshit about a replacement. He knew how those guys operated, always trying to screw the customer over.

‘Mr Tennyson?’ a dry, oddly formal voice enquired.

‘This is he. Is this NetTech?’

There was a pause. Jack thought he could hear the wind sighing over the line. ‘No, Mr Tennyson. I’m afraid not. We represent our client.’ The pause again.

‘Your client? Who is your client? What the hell has your client got to do with me?’

A dry, mirthless laugh. ‘All in good time, Mr Tennyson. We need to ensure that we are speaking to the correct Mr Tennyson. It isn’t the world’s most unusual name.’

‘Look, pal,’ Jack growled, ‘I’m not in the mood for games. I had a rough night. You called me. I’m giving you nothing. For all I know you’re trying to scam details to rip me off. I’m not stupid.’

A brief hiss of static. ‘Stupid enough to sell your soul, Mr Tennyson?’ There was the hint of a smirk in the bone dry voice.

‘Sell my....what the hell are you....look, who the fuck is this?’

‘From your reaction, Mr Tennyson, I think we have the right person. Let’s....how do you put it....cut the bullshit.’ All trace of mirth was gone from the voice. Jack shivered and goose bumps broke out all over his flesh. There was a tone in the voice that disturbed Jack, somewhere on a deep, primal level. His mouth was suddenly dry.
‘We have something of yours, Mr Tennyson. Something we believe you may have disposed of in haste and poor judgement. We’re not.....unreasonable, Mr Tennyson. We understand you weren’t quite in possession of your full faculties to make a deal with our salesperson.’ The voice couldn’t disguise their distaste.

‘Salesperson?’ Jack echoed. ‘I don’t understand.’

A weary sigh. ‘Must I spell it out for you? Did you sell your wits as well as your mortal soul? Last night you were drinking – rather heavily, I might add, at Ziggy’s Bar on East Street, were you not?’ Jack grunted agreement.

‘While you were there, you met one of our operatives. At the time she was in costume as a blonde female in provocative clothing. Is any of this familiar, Mr Tennyson?’ A pause. ‘I shall take your silence as affirmation. Unfortunately, our operative decided to improvise. Go off piste, as it were.’

‘I’m still not following.’ Jack’s head was starting to pound in time with his heartbeat.
‘She was not authorised to carry out the transaction, Mr Tennyson. No sanction was requested from her superiors. In short, Mr Tennyson, your contract is null and void. Invalid. Not worth the, ah, napkin it was written on.’ Distaste on the word ‘napkin’. He could almost feel the disapproval down the phone line.

Jack’s head was spinning. If he’d actually, really sold his soul last night what had he got in return? You didn’t sell your soul for nothing, did you? There was always some amazing perk, wasn’t there? At least in the movies. Wealth beyond measure, luck, fantastic looks, all he women he could ever want. Jack looked around. His apartment looked exactly the same. From the conversation he’d had with the bank earlier he knew there were no miraculous millions in his account. His face had looked the same when he had shaved this morning and, well, to be crude, his dick was the same size as it ever was. What the fuck had he got out of  this bogus deal?

‘Look, pal. I just need to clarify the small print before I take any more of your crap. You’re telling me one of your.....staff went rogue? Made a private sale?’

‘That is correct, Mr Tennyson. Rest assured she has been reprimanded.’

‘Assured nothing. What I want to know is what this means for me? Why are you telling me all this? Surely if the contract is invalid I just get my, er, goods returned, like ‘zap’? No harm, no foul? Chalk it up to a drunken experience and move on?’ Jack’s palms were sweating and he wiped them on his jeans. He noted the tremble as he did so.

The mirth was back in the voice ‘Oh, that it could be so Mr Tennyson. We really wish it were that simple.’

‘So what do you want me to DO?’ Almost shouting down the phone now.

‘You are aware of the address you were given? Meet us there in one hour. We will be able to resolve this matter to mutual satisfaction, we are sure. One hour, Mr Tennyson.’ There was a click and the line went dead.

Jack sat on the arm of the sofa, suddenly wearier than he’d ever been in his life. His head was spinning with what the voice on the end of the line had said, what had happened, what he had done. Wait...what had he done? He was no clearer about what he had got out of the deal last night, bogus or not. There was nothing as far as he could tell. Unless it had already been taken back because of the void contract? There was nothing for it. He’d have to find the address on the napkin and go see these jokers, whoever they were. Sixth Street wasn’t too far away. Better seize the bull by the horns and get this whole mess sorted.

The day was turning out cloudy and humid. Sweat was trickling down Jack’s back and his hair was soaked by the time he found the address. The way the day had been going he’d half expected the building to have mysteriously disappeared – or to be a dark and dingy hovel crammed between a pawn shop and a strip joint, but apparently the cliché only lent itself to the address. Sixty-six Sixth Street turned out to be a relatively new building, all chrome and glass, brightly lit and clean. A brass nameplate was screwed to the wall declared ‘Legio Associates’. Jack took a deep trembling breath and pushed the buzzer. After a brief pause a dry voice he had come to recognise only too well came through the speaker. ‘Right on time, Mr Tennyson. Do come in.’  The door opened with a click and Jack pushed his way into the lobby. Another impossibly attractive woman sat behind a gleaming desk. She looked up as Jack approached and pointed to an elevator with an immaculately manicured fingernail. ‘Floor six. You’re expected.’ Returning to her duties, she dismissed Jack as if he had never been there.

The elevator doors already stood open and Jack entered, pressing the button for the sixth floor. The doors slid noiselessly shut and he began his ascent. Tinny muzak he could almost recognise played discreetly and he hummed along. It was only just before the doors opened he realised it was Danse Macabre and he shook his head in wry amusement. Nice touch, guys. He was beginning to think that maybe this was all some elaborate prank, something arranged by the guys at work. But, still. That emptiness, the feeling of not quite being whole nagged at him. That was something he couldn’t explain away with thoughts of office banter.

There was a ping and the elevator doors slid back to reveal a large but sparsely furnished office. An impressive oak desk stood in front of a large north-facing picture window that was partly shaded with blinds, high backed chairs arranged in front and behind it. To the right a straggly potted palm desperately in need of water, to the left a tall oak filing cabinet ornately decorated with brass handles and fittings. A bland grey carpet finished the room. No, wait. Just to the edge of Jack’s vision was a large painting by an artist he didn’t recognise. A disturbing picture in shades of red, black and deep orange which, on closer inspection, appeared to be made up of images of tortured men, women and children, their faces contorted in agony and fear. An involuntary shudder ran down Jack’s spine and he turned away from the painting.
A man was standing directly behind him. Jack started and cried out. He hadn’t even heard anyone enter the room. There was nowhere anyone could enter from other than the elevator, as far as he could see. The man smirked and extended a hand. ‘Welcome, Mr Tennyson. You made good time, I see. Coffee?’

Jack shook his head wordlessly. The man was painfully thin, skin stretched tightly over his skull accentuated gaunt features and the bones of his hands and wrists jutted beneath his shirt cuffs. Dark hair clipped very close to his scalp did nothing to alleviate the skeletal illusion. The man viewed Jack impassively with intelligent eyes so brown they appeared almost black. ‘Sit, please.’ The man gestured to one of the chairs, sitting himself in the one behind the desk. ‘This shouldn’t take too much of our time.’

Jack perched tentatively on the edge of the chair, trying not to show any sign of nerves. He was aware of the sweat patches under his arms and the slight musky smell he gave off. If the man noticed, he didn’t let it show. Despite his racing heart, Jack decided to try to take control of the situation, take the ball back as it were. He looked around the office dismissively, ‘So,’ he smiled, ‘What’s with the hokey address?

The man looked up, an expression somewhere between irritation and confusion on his face, ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘The address. Sixty-six Sixth Street. Six, six, six? The number of the beast? All a bit theatrical, isn’t it?’

This time the man gave Jack a long, unimpressed look – like Jack was some spectacularly dumb child giving wildly incorrect answers to the simplest of questions. In a weary tone he replied ‘The rent is reasonable and the office comes with a cleaner. Anything else is merely happenstance or an overactive imagination caused by too much bad fiction. You appear to be reading far too much into unnecessary trifles, Mr Tennyson.’ A pause. ‘Perhaps you should have paid as much attention to detail last night?’

Touché, you sanctimonious asshole, thought Jack.

‘Now, if we may attend to business? We have discussed the invalid contract between you and our employee, Mr Tennyson,’ the man began, affecting to look at some document in his hand. ‘I don’t propose to waste our time going over old ground. In short, you traded your soul,’ that hint of distaste again, ‘in an unauthorised transaction with a junior employee. That transaction is therefore invalid and we intend to straighten this matter out for all concerned. Let it not be said that we are anything but fair.’ The man smirked and looked at Jack over steepled fingers. His attitude was irritating, like this was some amusing joke to him. It was starting to piss Jack off – and you didn’t piss Jack Tennyson off if you knew what was good for you.

Jack cleared his throat, fixing the guy with a withering look. ‘Straightened out. Hmmm. I see. Forgive my ignorance, but what exactly are we straightening out? As far as I can see – as far as I can tell – your ‘employee’ got me drunk, took advantage of my addled state and conned me into selling you my soul. Now you’re telling me that, because she hadn’t run the deal past you in triplicate for rubber stamping, it’s void. That’s it’s invalid. That, in short, you’re trying to wriggle out of the deal?’

‘Now, wait, Mr Tennyson....’ the man held up a placatory hand.

‘No. YOU wait. First I was incapacitated and metaphorically robbed by your employee. Then I was dumped in an alleyway and actually robbed of all my personal effects by some low-life while I was sleeping it off. Your employee has to take some responsibility for that loss, as well, Mac....’

‘Believe me, Mr Tennyson, she most certainly has.’ The man snapped, voice cracking like a whip, ‘Please be assured that she has been well reminded of her responsibilities. Of her place in the order of things.’ His tone left Jack in no doubt that he wasn’t referring to a stiff talking-to and loss of parking privileges. Not that he particularly cared what happened to her. It was her fault he was here in the first place, stuck in this office with this control freak. A control freak who hadn’t even had the manners to introduce himself. Jack began to sweat again despite the air conditioning, wondering again about the sense in coming here. After all, no-one even knew he was here. He ran a finger round his collar, trying to loosen it while attempting to look casual.

‘Now,’ the man smoothed an imaginary crease from the sleeve of his jacket, ‘What do you remember about last night?’

‘I’ve already told you, I was drunk. She got me drunk. I can’t remember a thing!’

A sigh. ‘Mr Tennyson, I’m trying to help you here. Close you eyes and think. Remember.’ As if reading Jack’s thoughts he added ‘I assure you that you will come to no harm. Close your eyes.’

In spite of himself, Jack did as he was told, sitting back in the chair, letting his eyes close and his mind drift. Slowly, images began to form. Faint hints and flashes. Still nothing very clear. He’d been out with the guys from work, invited last minute, as an afterthought probably when he’d wandered over and asked what they were talking about. There had been a brief, awkward silence, exchanged glances and then a muttered, half-hearted invitation. He’d tagged along to spite them and because he really hadn’t had anything better to do.

They’d gone to a few bars, had a few drinks. There had been stilted small-talk at first, some attempt to include him in conversation – how did he think the football would go this weekend, where was he going on holiday. Barber shop talk. Then conversation had turned to women and sexual conquests, dirty stories and offensive language, jokes at his expense. The crude, cruel laughter reminding him of school, of college, of life. He left and they hadn’t even noticed, too wrapped up in their macho posturing and tribal banter of Men.

He had walked, just walked, for some time. Lost in thoughts of self-pity and self-loathing in equal measure. When he finally looked around he was in an unfamiliar part of town, not somewhere he’d been much before. The streets were near empty of people, even though it was relatively early, at least for this town. He knew he was a fair way in the complete opposite direction of his apartment. He looked up and down the street but could see no cabs. A long walk, then. To add to his discomfort a thin, miserable drizzle began to fall. He turned up his collar and began to trudge home.
He saw the club then – dingy, shadowy, not his usual kind of place. He didn’t know what had drawn it to his attention, why he’d gone in. He paid the girl behind the counter, but he couldn’t recall what she’d looked like. Made his way into a small, dimly lit room – a few tables, occupied by faceless couples locked in embraces, lost in each other. A bar along one wall was lined with bottles of booze in various colours. Jack’s eyes flickered behind his lids as he recalled the scene.

Music. There had been music. Not a tune he knew. Slow and easy. A melancholy double-bass was plucking chords like heartstrings. A mournful saxophone, crying like a long lost soul. A shiver of brushes on drums like fingers on his spine, the caress of a lover, an acquaintance, a stranger. Sometimes in the dark they’re all the same.

He had made his way to the bar, trying to catch the bar-tender’s eye. He had felt her next to him rather than seeing her approach, even though the back of the bar was mirrored. Warm flesh pressing against his arm. Blonde hair, vivid blue eyes – surely coloured contacts, too blue to be anything but. Red, red mouth. Perfect body in a little black dress. But he could remember nothing else about her. Nothing. Every time Jack tried to recall exactly what she’d looked like her features swam away from him, blurred and melted.

She had smiled with that red, red mouth. Whispered something in his ear about buying a bottle and sitting down, saving all the hassle of returns to the bar, of interruptions in conversation. Her breath had been hot and she had smelled of cinnamon and cloves, exotic spices. She had caught the barman’s attention and ordered a bottle of some green drink, sauntering off to a table leaving Jack to pay an eye-watering sum without a second thought. He had followed her to a table, sipped the green drink at first. It had tasted faintly herbal, very moreish. Next he was swigging, tossing down glass after glass as she had watched and smiled that red, red smile. The hours slipped by unnoticed. He had talked and rambled, told the same jokes he always told. Then the room was spinning, looping lazy circles around  him – and he didn’t care. He was here in this great new club, with this amazing, gorgeous woman who actually seemed to like him. She certainly listened and laughed in all the right places, which few women normally did, and she had touched his hand, his arm, his face, his thigh – so, so high on his thigh. He felt amazing, incredible, invincible. He would sell his soul to feel like this every single day for the rest of time ................

And there it was. Sell his soul to feel powerful, important, liked. Sell his soul to feel like every Joe Schmoe did after a few drinks. With some game-playing bitch stringing him along, looking to get him wasted and rip off his wallet. A million lonely men, a million drunken Friday nights, all being played out the same way.......but this time, this time, there had been much more lost than dignity and dollars. She had smiled again, oh that smile. Her eyes had sparkled as she had laughed at this. Wouldn’t it be funny, she had said, if they pretended he HAD sold his soul? ‘Let’s have a giggle and pretend you sold your soul to me, in exchange for always feeling the way you do now, for being confident and care-free, cocksure. Feeling like a somebody. Being a somebody.’ He had found this hilarious, a terrific wheeze. She’d taken a pen – a novelty pen shaped like a syringe full of blood he’d noticed, from her bag, scribbled something on a napkin and handed it to him. He’d signed without reading, of course. It was just a joke, just a drunken prank between two new friends whose chance meeting was showing definite promise. The napkin disappeared into her bag and she scribbled something onto another, tucking it into his pocket with a sly smile. Her phone number, maybe? ‘Just in case you ever need to contact me.’ She had purred.

She had taken him by the hand, then. Led him outside into the cold, damp night. The air had hit him like a sledgehammer and now the memories were truly gone. Just a vague recollection of walking, walking, walking – her hand warm in his as they stumbled along and the soft swell of her breast against his arm. He was Jack Fucking Tennyson and he owned the world.

His eyes snapped open. Shame and humiliation swept over him as the realisation of what he had done sunk in. The man was watching, impassively. It seemed that he had known what had happened, had seen it all unfold in Jack’s head. How he had made a fool of himself. Sold his soul to feel good about himself. Sold his soul for an illusion of confidence – a real con trick.

‘So you see, Mr Tennyson,’ the man said at last, ‘You were...how do you say it....hoodwinked. There was nothing actually given in return for your soul. No fair exchange. You gained no real advantage from this, even if you’d been in your right mind. You could go out tonight, buy a bottle of expensive alcohol, or cheap booze, or street-brewed moonshine and, in the right company, would feel exactly as you felt last night, how you felt this morning. That is why there is no contract between us, Mr Tennyson. Not only because of the way our employee behaved, not only because you gained nothing that could not be gained by other means, but – quite simply – a soul taken under the circumstances it was isn’t worth the paperwork.’ He looked down his nose at Jack.

‘In short, Mr Tennyson, you have nothing to offer us. Nothing we want. You are no-one, you will amount to nothing, you have nothing to offer us. You aren’t a powerful senator who can arrange things to our advantage, you aren’t an important or wealthy businessman who can influence your acquaintances to our way of thinking. You are a pathetic, middle-aged salesman in a pathetic job, with no ambition, no prospects. You have what you have because of careful saving and investment and generous parents. Not because you are important, or clever. You still felt like someone this morning because you believed you were. We all know what belief can lead to, don’t we? All this...’ he gestured at Jack dismissively, ‘is a hangover thought from last night. You were sold magic beans, Mr Tennyson. Magic beans.’

Jack felt cold, sick, stupid. Is that all it was? Strung along by his dick and booze? The right word from a pretty face at the time he needed it most? It had been that easy to take his soul from him? The humiliation burned but not, he hoped, as hot as that bitch was burning now. He wanted to wipe that smirk from this sonofabitch’s face, too. He envisioned himself leaping from the chair, across the desk and punching, punching, punching the smug bastard until he was a bloody pulp. His legs even twitched at the thought, ready to launch.

‘I wouldn’t carry out that thought, Mr Tennyson.’ the man said mildly, straightening his cuffs. He looked directly at Jack with those near black eyes and suddenly all the urge to fight was gone. The bravado and confidence ebbed away, the old doubts came creeping back in. Was he really just Jack Tennyson? Good ol’ Jack. Wouldn’t say boo to a goose, give you his last dollar, apologises when someone else steps on his foot or spills his drink. Jack the nobody. Sad Sack Jack the office laughing stock. He slumped in his chair, silent for a long moment.

‘So, if you will just sign this waiver that we have agreed the contract was void we can finalise the return of your property within the hour,’ business-like, the man began to open drawers in the desk, take out papers. ‘No harm, no foul as you said.’

Jack took a deep breath, let it out slowly. ‘No.’

‘I beg your pardon?’ the man froze mid-movement. He looked at Jack as though he were mad.

‘I said, no.’ Jack repeated. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was saying, why he was saying it. It was as if someone had taken over his body. ‘Keep the damn thing. If it’s such a worthless pile of crap, you’re welcome to it. Doesn’t seem like it’s much damn use to me, either.’ He laughed. The man was actually goggling at him. ‘Seems to me the thing’s been holding me back. Keeping me in my place. Such a useless, pathetic goody-two-shoes soul, “yes, ma’am” and raise your hat, discretion is the better part of valour BULLSHIT,’ he was standing now, shaking with rage, full of piss and vinegar, as his dad would have said. ‘You’ve actually done me a favour, you smug bastard. Without that millstone of decency around my neck I can start being the kind of person I’ve always wanted to be. You’re wrong, buddy, it wasn’t the booze that gave me the confidence to be a real man, it was the freedom from guilt, the release of conscience, the...........emancipation!’ He spread his arms like a gospel preacher and grinned into the man’s face, ‘I am REBORN-AH,’

The man stood, suddenly appearing nervous ‘I don’t think you understand the implications of this, Mr Tennyson.’

‘FUCK the implications!’ Jack cackled. ‘Fuck YOU! I don’t want to hear about any fucking stupid implications. I. DON’T. CARE. I LOVE this. Listen, you smarmy asshole, you take this down. I, Jack Harcourt Tennyson, hereby bequeath my immortal soul to.....to....this bunch of jerks, to do with as they please. I relinquish all claim. I RENOUNCE MY SOUL!’ He raised his arms theatrically towards the heavens. Somewhat disappointingly there was no dramatic crash of thunder, no lightning, no flames. No choir of angels or crying of anguished demons. Just the ticking of a clock somewhere and an awkward silence as both men sat down again.

After a few beats the man cleared his throat ‘Well, if you’re absolutely sure, Mr Tennyson...’

‘Sure as eggs.’ said Jack. He didn’t even know what that meant and he snorted laughter.

‘Very well. Then there’s nothing more to say. You have willingly handed your soul to us and seek nothing in recompense. You have waived your right to cancel the contract and you do not wish us to return it. It is therefore ours, by right, for all eternity. Is that correct, Mr Tennyson?’

‘Completely and utterly correct. Couldn’t be more correct. You’re now the proud owner of my piece of shit, lily-livered soul. Have fun with it.’

The man leaned forward and spoke into an intercom somewhere on the desk, ‘Mr Tennyson is finished here, now. Kindly allow him to leave the premises’. He looked at Jack, stood and offered his hand ‘I’d like to say it’s been a pleasure, Mr Tennyson. I can’t, but you appreciate the sentiment. It’s certainly been an unusual day at the office.’

The elevator pinged and the doors slid open. Jack was half-expecting a huge thug or capering demon to be waiting for him, but it was empty. He stepped inside and pressed the button for the ground floor.

‘Goodbye, Mr Tennyson. See you soon.’ The doors slid shut and the man was gone. Jack whistled happily to himself. He felt good, he felt powerful, he felt invincible again. And all it had taken was getting rid of some Catholic guilt-tripper he’d called his soul. If he’d known that’s all it had taken he would have done it years ago! First thing on Monday morning he was going into work and telling them to shove it. Tell all the guys with their macho bull and shit-eating grins exactly what he thought of them. He’d wanted to do this for years but had been too afraid to, been too ‘Corporate Yes Man’ to do what he wanted to do. Now things were going to be different. All change now. This was The Year Of Jack Tennyson.

He stepped out of the elevator and, bidding a cheery but unreciprocated goodbye to the woman at reception, went out into the street with a spring in his step. The clouds had cleared and the day was bright and blue, the sun beating down from the sky. A perfect day for a brand new start. He squinted up and sketched a comic salute to the cosmos. Yes, things were certainly looking up for him, now.

They say he just walked into the road without looking. They say he never saw the truck barrelling towards the junction. They say there was nothing the driver could have done, anyway. The damn fool in the cheap salesman’s suit had just stepped off the kerb and straight under the wheels. There had been a terrible thud and a crunch and.....well, sorry to say it, a squelch. The happy, smiling man had been reduced to a pile blood and gore and broken bones. Hardly recognisable as a human being anymore. Passers-by had been sick in the gutters and the driver of the truck had collapsed in a dead faint he didn’t stir from for two days. The only person who hadn’t seemed traumatised, eye witnesses told police, had been the skinny guy with near black eyes who had been standing on the corner watching impassively. When the truck had hit he had smiled a self-satisfied smile, nodded contentedly and disappeared in the crowd. The police never found him. The street-cleaners followed the ambulances and the accident investigators and hosed what was left of the guy into the sewers and everyone had gone home to upload their phone videos of the scene and tell their friends they had been there, even if they hadn’t. The sun set and the world went on.

Jack knew his soul was missing not long after waking up. Waking up face down behind a skip in some dank alleyway he didn’t recall entering. Though, to be fair, he didn’t remember much of last night. Not much after the blonde with the sly smile had handed him another of those weirdly addictive green drinks. But, yeah. Soul – missing. A strange, empty hollowness in his core. A void he couldn’t quite explain.



The Misrememberings of Ada Butterworth

Ada Butterworth would tell anyone who was willing to listen – and quite often even if they weren’t – that she had a mind like a steel trap, the memory of an elephant. Some people would say, behind her back and perhaps a little unkindly, that it was more like she couldn’t shut her trap and she had the backside of an elephant. Either way, she loved to reminisce about her life and the lives of others. The problem was that Ada’s version of events was usually somewhat different to everyone else’s. It’s not that she set out to lie about anything, or was deliberately malicious – more that she had a tendency to misremember. Any story she told came fully equipped with rose-tinted spectacles, belief-suspension underpants and a near-incurable case of ‘Wish-it-was-itis’. Anyone in hearing distance would be regaled with fantastic stories of her schooldays and early life. As long as they didn’t mind that it may not have been an entirely accurate recollection. Ada’s reminiscences should have begun with a Hollywood style screen-shot saying ‘Inspired by a true story’.

For instance, she could often be found holding court in the snug of The Dead Duck, half a stout in front of her, beguiling fellow customers with lurid tales of her impoverished childhood. How she and her siblings (the twins and youngest brother Edwin) would spend winter nights shivering together in a single bed with sagging, worn mattress,  springs poking into their young, tender flesh. How they huddled together for warmth beneath a pile of coats and old overalls, singing themselves to sleep by the light of a single, guttering candle. The candle itself was a mongrel affair moulded together from the ghosts of candles past, flickering and smoking sullenly on a saucer on the bedside table. She wove yarns of playing in the cobbled streets in hand-me-down clothes with patches, of grubbing for coal by the railway lines and skipping to school in her clogs, slate wrapped in an old pillow case. Her voice trembled as she recalled empty, rumbling tummies, going to bed hungry or of having dripping on toast or sugar butties as their only sustenance all day. New listeners, unaccustomed to Ada, would sit agog – pints untouched – as she painted a picture of poverty that would have had Oliver Twist organising a whip-round. And she would gratefully accept ‘just another half’ from the young hipsters who hung on to her every word.

The thing is, this isn’t how her siblings remembered things at all. They recalled a childhood more Disney than Dickens. A three-bedroomed house in the nicer part of the town with an immaculately donkey-stoned step (courtesy of Mrs Jenkins who came in to ‘do’ twice a week) and fires in the hearth in winter. They had electricity in every room, a proper bath and an indoor loo, although each bedroom still had a chamber-pot - or ‘guzunder’ - to save trips in the dark. There was always food on the table or in the pantry. They got tinned pink salmon with brown bread and butter for tea every Saturday even if the vicar wasn’t coming round and a succulent roast on a Sunday with crispy Yorkshire puddings as big as their faces. The nearest they had come to cobbled streets was in the ‘Olde Tyme’ museum, any slates they encountered were on the roof and as for patches – well, that had had a capital P and was their dog.

It had always been the same. Ever since she was a young girl adults had indulged Ada in her childish ‘romanticisms’. She told her stories with such enthusiasm and conviction that they allowed this little peccadillo. At least she was entertaining – more so than Arthur who always had his head in a book, Martha who was forever complaining about something or Edwin, who spent most of his childhood sporting a moustache of snot and seemed to be comprised mainly of freckles and scabs. The grown-ups would exchange a glance over Ada’s young head as she prattled on, roll their eyes and convince themselves she’d grow out of it. Except, of course, she never did. The family gradually drifted apart once their parents died. Encounters were reduced to significant birthdays, inevitable family funerals and the obligatory dutiful Christmas card. Ada was excluded from the ‘round robin’ letters, though, as she couldn’t be trusted not to turn them into another saga more embroidered than the Bayeux Tapestry.

But ask anyone which misremembering they, well, remember the most almost everyone will say the same thing - When Ada Witnessed A Murder.

To say that Ada Butterworth liked crime dramas was like saying that the sea was a bit wet, or the sun was more than a bus-ride away. She planned her television viewing around them.  Every week she would avidly buy a TV guide and spend a happy hour circling her favourite shows in marker pen so she wouldn’t forget they were on. From historic period dramas involving monks to glossy American shows where everyone was beautiful, had shiny teeth and glossy hair. Each night she would sit with the curtains drawn, lights off and a quarter of peppermint creams on her lap as she soaked up the murder and mayhem, following the clues and trying to guess ‘Whodunit’ before the detectives. Sometimes she was even right.

One night, after a marathon session of back-to-back episodes of Widechapel, Ada wandered into her kitchen to make herself a cocoa before bed. She popped her ancient kettle onto the stove to boil (none of your fandangled electric nonsense for our Ada) and spooned the powder carefully into her mug. As she waited for the water to heat up she gazed out of the back kitchen window. The night outside was dismal. Squally wind spattered rain against the windows and harried litter along the gutters like a mother chiding an errant child. She shivered despite the warmth of her kitchen, glad she was home and on her way to bed.

Then, a movement in the corner of her eye. A dark shape, blacker than the shadows around it, broke from behind next door’s shed. It paused, looking furtively around it, crouched and tense. Ada let out a small squeal as the shape seemed to look straight at her. She ducked suddenly beneath the work-top, heart hammering in her ample breast. She crept towards the wall and slapped the kitchen light off with trembling fingers, her back pressed tightly against the skirting board, panting in fright.

Seconds ticked by on the kitchen clock. Ada’s heart and breathing slowly returned to normal and she wiped her sweating palms on her Winceyette nightie. Curiosity might have killed the cat but it was Ada’s bread and butter. It wasn’t long before she crept back to the window and hauled herself up until she could peek over the sill. The shadow was still there, but it was now obviously a man. A man dressed head to toe in black clothes, hood pulled up, hands in gloves. She watched in growing horror as the man began to move down the alleyway between the houses, dragging a long, bulky package wrapped tightly in black bin bags behind him, struggling with the weight. What on earth could he be doing? At this time of night, in this weather? There was no doubt at all in Ada’s crime-filled mind. The man was carrying a body!

The figure paused, breathless, at the end of the alley. As the light from the street-lamp caught his face she recognised with a start that it was her neighbour, Ted. Ada’s mouth opened in a perfect ‘o’ of horror as she realised what – or who – must be swathed in the plastic. Ted’s wife, Dot. Come to think of, she hadn’t seen Dot for a couple of days, not since New Year’s Day in fact. She remembered bumping into Ted last week at the corner shop and him telling her that Dot had gone to visit her sister in the next town over. Her eyes widened as the penny dropped. It must have been a weak attempt at a cover story. Dot was dead, Ted had killed her and was trying to give himself an alibi. And here he was, in the dead of night, disposing of her body!
For a moment, Ada was frozen in shock. While she’d never really liked Dot all that much, thinking the woman was a busybody gossip, there was the principle of the matter. Yes, Dot had mercilessly bullied and belittled Ted, humiliating him in the pub with tales of his inadequacy in the garden, at work and...elsewhere but murder? That was a step too far, even for Ada. She peered through the window, crouching so she couldn’t be seen as Ted turned the corner and headed towards the back of the houses opposite and the small wood beyond.

A sudden scream shattered Ada’s reverie. She shrieked herself, hand flying to her mouth, heart battering wildly. Was Dot still awake in those bags? Was Ted burying her alive? The screaming continued, louder and more clamorous, closer than it should be. Ada looked around, bewildered, then shook her head in rueful self-reproach as she realised that the injured party was her kettle, announcing it had come to the boil. She switched off the gas flame underneath and the shrill cry diminished to a low moan. She was still getting herself under control when she spied Ted making his way nonchalantly back down the alleyway. He walked as though he didn’t have a care in the world, a spring in his step even. Ada heard his back gate swing shut. Minutes later the sound of the television could he heard through the thin walls, obviously tuned to a comedy show as she could hear canned laughter. To her horror she heard Ted guffawing along as though nothing untoward had happened.

Moral outrage, civil duty and self-preservation fought for supremacy in her mind. At last, civil duty took charge and she found herself reaching for the telephone. Her hands shook as she dialled 9-9-9 and asked for the police. She breathlessly recounted what she’d seen and what she knew, her mouth dry, her palms making up for the loss of moisture in her mouth. Panic made her voice tremulous and in her own head she sounded like a little old lady. To her relief the call handler took her information very seriously, double-checking the details. His reassuring voice and demeanour calmed the maelstrom in her mind and by the time he had told her that the police were on their way she began to feel better about herself, that she’d done The Right Thing. All thoughts of cocoa abandoned she sat at the kitchen table and waited for the drama to unfold, a warm glow of self-satisfaction growing within her as she imagined the news headlines: ‘Local Heroine Thwarts Evil Murderer: Wife Killer Ted Jarvis Jailed’.

Within the hour Ada heard the unmistakable sound of the police helicopter overhead, heading for the woods. Headlights swept the sky like a giant waving a torch in the darkness and, over the din, she thought she could hear dogs barking. She caught sight of figures creeping along the alleyway – police in dark clothing and protective gear heading towards Ted’s back door. A resounding crash brought her to her feet as the officers battered down both front and back doors, pouring into the house shouting ‘Police – nobody move! Get down, get down!’ at the tops of their voices. Ada grinned to herself – this was just like it was on telly! The sounds of scuffles and Ted’s plaintive, confused voice could be heard in the back yard and she watched as he was dragged from his house. Arms handcuffed behind his back he was hefted between two burly officers and shoved unceremoniously into the back of a waiting police van which took off, not with a squeal of brakes and yammering sirens as she had expected, but with little ado, its sirens dark.

Squads of police remained and she heard noises through the night as the house was meticulously searched from top to bottom. A long-faced detective who introduced himself as DC McGuire came in to take her statement. He carefully took down everything Ada told him, occasionally interrupting to ask a question or clarify a detail which she found a bit annoying as he spoiled her flow. More than one he told her to ‘just stick to the facts please, madam’ as she had offered her thoughts and ideas on what Ted had done and the state of the union in the Jarvis household. He had even turned down the offer of a cup of cocoa and plate of biscuits. Nothing like any of the telly detectives at all. It was becoming mildly disappointing.

Finally, as the first fingers of light crept through the windows, the detective decided he had enough information and with a surly promise to get in touch if he needed anything else he left her to her own devices. Despite the long night and lack of sleep Ada was far too excited to even think about going up to bed. Too many questions remained unanswered in her mind. How had Ted done it? Why had he done it? Was he even now handcuffed to a table at the police station as a pair of policemen played ‘Good cop, bad cop’ trying to break him and get him to confess to his terrible deeds? Her brain spun as she played out the scene in her mind, imagining every question and Ted, steely eyed, snarling that he wouldn’t tell them anything – the threat of violence bubbling near the surface.

She turned on the radio to see if there was anything on the local news. There was nothing on the eight o’clock news, nothing on the half-eight bulletin. She wondered if there had been a news blackout – an embargo to protect the investigation. Finally, at nine o’clock, there was a brief mention of the police conducting a search for a ‘missing local woman’ and ‘a man helping police with their enquiries’. Nothing about a murder at all. Deciding to go and see if the search party needed any help (she had seen the body and the direction Ted was dragging it in after all) she pulled on her coat and wrapped her scarf around her head to ward off the winter chill. She shut her door carefully behind her, studiously avoiding the gaze of the bored looking policeman outside next door, feeling a little thrill of excitement as she saw the splintered wood of the front door.

To her dismay, the entire exit from the alleyway was cordoned off by police tape and another four officers, stamping their feet in the cold, breath pluming in the morning air. No amount of explaining that she was an important witness would make them let her through. No exhorting to their better nature changed their minds. Not even dropping DC McGuire’s name would sway them. Bloody jobsworths, Ada thought darkly as she retraced her steps. She knew there’d be no point trying a different route – all were being guarded. Well, she sniffed to herself, it was their loss. Their look-out if they missed vital clues because they snubbed her offer of assistance. She’d make sure it all came out when she was inevitably called as a material witness in Ted’s trial. She would make sure the judge knew just who was at fault for the delays in closing the case.

She called at the corner shop on the way home. It was buzzing with people chattering, speculating about what was going on – why the place was crawling with the police, why their sleep had been disturbed by the helicopter clattering overhead like an oversized, malevolent wasp. Ada beamed as she announced that she knew exactly what was going on. In fact, it was due to her heroics that the police were here at all. The customers gathered round rapt as she described the events of the nights before in hushed tones, pausing now and again to allow for their gasps of disbelief and cries of astonishment. Mr Abraham the shopkeeper wouldn’t take a penny for her bread, newspaper and tin of salmon, congratulating her for bringing such an evil maniac to justice. Who’d have thought old Ted had it in him? Good job Ada had stepped up or who knew who else he’d have slain in their beds. She left the shop in a glow of gratitude and self-importance, already planning what she’d wear when the local TV reporters came round to interview her, rehearsing what she’d say.

As she neared her house she heard raised voices. A woman, her back to Ada, was shrieking at the red-faced young constable outside the Jarvis house who had his hands spread wide trying to placate her, stammering to get a word in edgeways. Ada sidled closer, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible while still ear-wigging the conversation. Maybe this was Dot’s sister, bereft at her loss, hysterical with grief. As she neared the woman turned. Ada’s world slowed, seconds stretching into hours, sounds diminishing until they seemed to be coming from underwater. The woman haranguing the policeman wasn’t Dot’s sister. It was Dot Jarvis herself.

Mind reeling, hands quivering, Ada nodded a nervous greeting to Dot and slammed her door shut. She sank to the floor in the hallway, shopping bag dropped, purchases spilling across the lino. If Ted hadn’t murdered Dot who had he killed? What poor woman had met her demise at the hands of this madman? Did the neighbourhood have another Jack The Ripper in their midst?

A hammering on the door brought her to her feet like a Jack in the Box, her heart beating in sympathy with the rapping of the knocker. A peek through the spy-hole revealed an impatient and extremely angry-looking DC McGuire. She timidly opened the door and peered around the jamb but he was already pushing his way in even as he asked if he could enter. Before she could open her mouth he was raving at her. Did she know what the penalty was for wasting police time? Did she understand what she had done? Did she get some kind of kick out of besmirching the character of a poor man who had done her no harm? Tears ran down Ada’s bewildered face as he led the way into the kitchen and motioned her to sit down.

The search officers had found the body, he explained. Forensics had been on standby to swing into action. They had carefully made the first cuts into the black plastic of the bin bags, bracing themselves for what lay beneath. First there was confusion, then a burst of hysterical laughter as the layers were unwrapped to reveal the old artificial Christmas tree Ted Jarvis had been dumping before his wife got home from visiting her sister. The one she had been nagging him to take to the tip since they took it down. Ted, of course, had forgotten and it was only after receiving a telephone call from Dot that he decided to take any action. It had been too late to take it to the tip by then, so he had encased it bin bags from under the sink, wrapped it in parcel tape and waited until it was dark before dumping it in the woods. Everyone did it, Ted had cried - the Council did a big clear up every month. He didn’t think one straggly old Christmas tree would make much difference. They’d never know who it was.

Burning with humiliation, Ada mumbled apology and explanation as DC McGuire continued to rant. Eventually, his anger spent, he growled that they were letting her off with a warning this time, but she had better make sure of her facts in future before she thought about pulling this kind of stunt again. He slammed the door behind him as he departed, leaving her in a pall of shame. Shame grew to indignation, indignation to outrage. At least she had done something, tried to be a good citizen. So what if she had been wrong this time? What if she hadn’t have been? It was ostrich-like behaviour from neighbours that let serial killers get away with it for so long. All the crime shows said so. The police should be thanking her for her efforts, not castigating her and treating her like a loony. But, still. Everyone was going to think the same as the police. They’d all be laughing at her. Mr Abraham would probably want the £5.49 for her shopping this morning. Would she ever be able to face going out again? How could she look the Jarvises in they eye? She put her head in her hands and wept alone in her kitchen.

*

Things settled down eventually, as things do in small communities. Ted and Dot moved to be nearer her sister, out from under the gaze of gossips. Not even a swanky new front door courtesy of the local constabulary could persuade them to stay. The compensation money paid for a Man With A Van and the deposit on a nice new flat. People stopped whispering, giggling and pointing as Ada scurried past. Shouts of ‘Oi, Ada. Seen any good murders lately?’ grew sporadic and eventually stopped, especially when Mr Trimble from Number Eight got the teenage babysitter pregnant and there was something else to tittle-tattle about.

And as for Ada? Well, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. A few weeks after the Jarvises had left Ada received an official looking letter. Her heart was in her mouth as she tore open the brown envelope, fearing the worst. A piece of paper fluttered to the floor as she opened the letter and she bent to pick it up. Her face creased in puzzlement then broke into a wide smile as she realised what it was. A cheque for £175. The Council had sent her a reward for reporting Ted Jarvis for fly-tipping! Ada chuckled, then began to giggle and finally hoot with laughter as the irony hit her. Ted hadn’t got away with his perfect crime after all.

Smiling to herself she pulled on her coat - this called for a celebration. She hummed happily as she locked her door and headed down to The Dead Duck. She’d just remembered something really important she had to tell the regulars in the snug.