No Worries

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A chainsaw is a marvellous tool – or as my adopted Australian friends would call it ‘A bonza bit of gear’. It can slice through huge tree trunks like butter, and let me tell you you won’t want to grab an axe ever again once you’ve used one of those little beauties.

(A friendly guy, Bill, had started chatting to me that evening in my local pub, the Dog and Duck, telling me about his last visit to England.)

See, (he went on) I was planning to use a chainsaw to help out my dear old pals Jane and Chris, my parents’ oldest friends whom I’d always known as my aunt and uncle. I was on a visit back to England from my home in Australia, and I wanted to see how the elderly couple were getting along.

And I’m sorry to tell you, Jack, that things were not looking good. Jane and Chris, both retired solicitors, had taken on ‘Journey’s End’, six years ago. It’s a lovely little old cottage with a small area of land in Wiltshire. They’d established a donkey sanctuary there, and the landowner whose huge property surrounded their home, had become a good mate, who thoroughly approved of the couple and their elderly animals.

However, three years after they arrived, the old landowner died and his relatives sold the estate to a Chinese businessman, Mr Lee. Mr Lee told Jane and Chris that he wanted to buy their cottage and land. They refused to sell. But he kept on nagging, and then shortly afterwards, as a way of pressuring them, he had then planted one hundred fast-growing leylandii trees in a square so that they completely surrounded their cottage and land. When I arrived I saw that they had grown to twenty feet in height and had totally blocked out all the light, so that midday seemed like midnight.

The house had fallen into rack and ruin, with plumbing problems, building defects, filth and grime and poor Jane had lost weight with the stress of it all: they’d simply lost the will to go on with the struggle. The donkeys mooched about unhappily in the gloom, and poor old Chris, who was now in his eighties, had lost that magnificent smile that I’d always remembered from my childhood. I’m a practical kind of guy, I like to get things done, and when I saw their miserable plight, and how the fact they weren’t allowed to cut down the wretched trees was ruining their lives, I decided on a plan of action.

“No arguments,” I told them. “You’re booked on the flight to Paris, then on to Nice, for a fortnight’s stay in a luxury hotel, and I’m paying all the bills. Meanwhile I’ll stay on here, look after the donkeys and try to talk some sense into Mr Lee. I’m a self-made property millionaire – I know how to deal with unscrupulous businessmen like that. Leave it to me.”

The dear old couple were so upset and beaten down by life that they hadn’t got the strength to disagree with my plan, and as I drove them to the airport they shed a few tears about the way their retirement had turned out, and how they could see no alternative to selling to Mr Lee, and selling the donkeys to whoever might buy them, and ending their days in a small flat in town.

Next I lost no time in visiting Mr Lee. He was an incalcitrant old bastard, and I disliked him on sight. However, during my handling of lots of construction projects in Australia I’ve found that sometimes you have to talk tough to get what you want, you have to really make things crystal clear, and sometimes even use a bit of gentle persuasion. What a shit of a man, eh? Harassing a harmless old couple like that, how dare he? In the end I’m glad to say that he finally saw things my way.

Then on the second day, after feeding the three donkeys, Alice, Laurence and Fred, whom I’d already fallen in love with, I went into town, hired myself a chainsaw and also a truck with a shredder, or wood chipper, that is a large machine attached to the truck that shreds up the timber and branches, reducing them to woodchips in seconds.  We call them ‘Big Bessies’ In Australia, on account of their size and prodigious appetite.

Next, I made enquiries and found some nice people in the village who agreed to come back and help me: Norman, a plumber, Jack, a general builder, and Louise, Jack’s wife, who had a rip-roaring business cleaning houses. The three of them proceeded to fix the place up, while I made a start cutting down the trees and shredding them.

By the end of a fortnight, we had fixed up the place real good, and we’d all had a great time together, having some laughs and going out for meals and having a few beers in the evenings. I’d cut down the last of the damned trees and a local factory had agreed to take the wood chippings, and I’d duly delivered the loads as the tipper lorry I’d hired filled up time and again. I was pleased: the cottage was once more standing proud, with sunlight filling its windows.  And now also, thanks to my new mates, everything was fixed up properly, and, thanks to Louise, the place was spruced up shiny as a new pin. The donkeys were nosing into my bag of goodies as I fed them. I could tell they were much happier, they were frisking around the fields, loving to feel the sunlight on their backs.

When Jane and Chris returned they couldn’t believe what I had achieved.

“We can’t thank you enough for giving us back our lives,” Jane told me, smiling with genuine happiness. “All the work on the cottage. But most of all for getting rid of those terrible trees. How on earth did you get Mr Lee to agree?”

I tapped the side of my nose. “Trade secret. But you got no worries now, believe me. Mr Lee is well and truly sorted. You won’t be hearing from him any more, scouts honour!” I made the silly salute with two fingers and we all burst out laughing.

“I never asked you, Bill, what exactly is the nature of your business in Australia,” Chris asked me that evening, as we discussed the next stage of my travels, a visit to Uncle Ralph in Ireland the following day.

“Oh you, know, it’s complicated,” I said. “This and that. Property mostly. People come to me and I help them solve problems.”

“You’re not working with criminals, are you?” He looked worried. “People like the mafia? Gangsters?”

“People get called lots of names,” I evaded. “At the end of the day everyone’s in business and if it helps to get along with a guy who’s a bit on the wild side, who am I to argue? We’ve all got to make a buck.”

As I got into the taxi next day I pondered on the many uses of a wood chipper. In my early days in Oz, in my wild times as a roustabout willing to do any job for a few bucks, I’d learnt lots of building and farming skills. I remembered the big shredders we’d use and how, along with the tree branches and hunks of lumber we’d occasionally toss in a dead Roo or a bit of old meat to see what happened to it. The shreds of wood chip would come out dyed a bit red sometimes, and we’d have a laugh, you know? Figuring how the blood and the bone fragments must have mixed in with the woodchips.

I smiled to myself. I knew beyond any doubt that Jane and Chris would never again hear sight nor sound of Mr Lee.

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Turning Point

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I bent his head back, clamped my lips onto his and breathed out hard.

Nothing.

I did it twice more, then tried chest compressions.

Finally, he convulsed once, then, with a huge intake of breath, began breathing at last.

I then heard the ambulance sirens, and gratefully made way for the paramedics when they ran up, clamping the oxygen mask on the old man’s face and strapping him to a stretcher.

“Well done, mate,” the cheery medic said to me, as he worked quickly.

“Thanks.”

“A lot of people wouldn’t have touched a down-and-out bloke like him unless they were thoroughly gloved up like us – looks like he’s crawling with fleas and lice – we’re gonna have to disinfect the ambulance.”

“I’m a second-year medical student,” I told him. “I’m pretty much immune to smells and personal hygiene issues don’t bother me.”

“Well, as you know, there’s lots of drawbacks in our game,” he said, turning to me with a smile. “But I tell you there’s nothing on God’s earth as wonderful as saving someone’s life. Let’s hope this bloke is the first of many for you!”

I travelled with the old chap in the ambulance, registering almost for the first time that he was pretty unsavoury, and had obviously had been living on the streets for quite a while. He was conscious now, and as I held his hand, he kept muttering, “Bless you son, bless you for your kindness…You’re going to have a good life, and I wish you all the luck in the world…”

A good life? How wrong he was. I thought back gloomily to my interview with my course tutor earlier that day.

“Trouble is, James, if you can’t handle the academic side, it’s just no good going on.”

“I’m trying me best—”

“No one is doubting that, indeed it’s precisely because you’re so good with patients on the ward, and everyone likes your attitude, that we’ve kept you here as long as we have. But you know as well as I do the academic standards we require. I believe you’ve grasped the knowledge, but exams faze you. And if you can’t handle being tested, then it’s better to cut our losses. I know your heart’s set on being a doctor, but there are plenty of other good careers in medicine.”

“Just let me take the exam on Monday, please.” I was almost in tears. “I promise, I’ll prove I can do it.”

“Well, all right.” Dr Halliday sympathised. “I’m sorry James. But you know your exam results have been slipping all this year. If you don’t get a considerably higher score than last time, I’m afraid we just can’t support you any longer…”

Outside his office, I’d managed to pull myself together. The trouble was my exam phobia was getting worse, not better.

* * *

So after leaving the old man, who was wheeled off to A and E, I took out my phone and with a lot of guilt saw the latest text from Jackie.

Where the hell are you? You should have been here an hour ago!

In all the excitement I’d clean forgotten about the party. I’d been going out with Jackie since school, and keeping up with dates with Jackie and my studies was not easy, especially as she couldn’t understand my burning ambition to be a doctor. But Jackie was beautiful, all my mates were jealous that she’d chosen me, and when I was with her I felt special. She was always telling me that I should give up my studies and take take the car salesman job her father had offered me. She resented all the hours I spent working away, and not giving her any attention.

I was a while having a thorough bath, and when I arrived at the party, Jackie ran up and was about to kiss me. But as she got closer, she stopped, her face twisted in horror.

“My God, what’s that?” She came nearer, her gaze fixed above my eye level. “Oh no!  I just saw something moving in hour hair! Christ, James, I think it’s a head louse!”

“Sorry. But as I just told you, I managed to give CPR to this poor old man. I hardly noticed his condition. Jackie it was amazing! I managed to save his life! He was on the pavement and he’d stopped breathing—”

“Who cares about some filthy old git who’s crawling with lice? You had no right to come here in that condition, embarrassing me in front of all my friends!”

In that moment I realised that Jackie would never understand why saving someone’s life was far more important than undergoing a little personal inconvenience. As I tried to explain, I could tell from the horror on her face that she was revolted by me, and, indeed I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t even realised the state I was in.

So I got some special shampoo from the all-night chemist, used it, then settled down to prepare for my exam on Monday.

I had a choice. Revise just one of the subjects we’d been doing, and gamble on that one being included in the exam, or revise everything generally. Something made me choose just one of the many subject areas, the alimentary canal, to give it extra attention. I revised every single aspect of it, as well as giving a cursory going over for all the others.

On Monday morning, when I turned over the exam paper, I couldn’t believe my luck! There were the questions on the alimentary canal I’d revised – the very ones I’d prepared so carefully for, and I answered them thoroughly.

Later in the morning, during our ward round, I couldn’t help being drawn to one of the geriatric patients the group of us had been taken to see. Something in her skin colour and general demeanour told me there was more wrong with the lady than anyone realised, or indeed that had been revealed in the cursory questions she was asked by the group of would-be doctors and their leader. While the others went ahead, I held back and looked closely at her, then asked him a few pertinent questions that were worrying me. Armed with these answers, I caught up with our professor, Dr Hunter, and asked him to go back and revaluate the old lady.

Grudgingly, he followed me back to the bed, saying: “You’d better not be wasting my time, boy.” But after he’d made his examination he abruptly announced that he was doing an immediate operation as an emergency. As he rushed off to prepare, he clapped his hand on my shoulder. “Well spotted, lad, there’s hope for you yet.”

Unfortunately, when I visited the ward where the old tramp had been admitted, I was told he’d died shortly after being admitted. “But at least he didn’t die alone, on the street,” said the friendly student nurse, when she saw how upset I was, putting her hand on my arm. “They told me you’d saved his life,” she said, looking me in the eyes. “It must be a marvellous feeling to do that – to actually save someone’s life.”

“Yes, it certainly is.”

And that was my turning point. For some reason, after that the exams didn’t fill me with dread any more, it was as if a brake had been released and I was able to relax, take my time, and answer the questions properly.

All that happened ten years ago today. And I’ve been a junior doctor in a busy A & E ward for quite a while now.

I never forgot the old man, who gave me his blessing.

And the student nurse?

I married her.

 

Be Lucky

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“May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back…”

“Thanks,” I told the woman who was sitting in the shop doorway, a cheap sleeping bag crushed up beneath her.

“It’s an old Irish blessing,” she went on, giving a beautiful smile that lit up her unwashed face below the scruffy uncombed hair. “In other words: Be lucky.”

“Thanks again.”

“Sure, don’t be thanking me, ’tis I should be thanking you.”

I didn’t need her blessing, for right now, luck was the one thing I seemed to have in abundance.

In fact it seemed as if my life just couldn’t get any better.

Three years ago I had come to the big city and I had made it big.  I had a really good job with a prosperous PR agency, and my recent pay rise had allowed me to get a mortgage for a lovely flat not far from here.  A flat that I shared with my girlfriend, Carrie, who was by anyone’s standards much higher up in the beauty stakes than I was.  Indeed I had overheard someone muttering about me, grudgingly saying, “That ugly bastard John is really punching above his weight with a classy beautiful girl like that.”

Walking to work this morning I’d come across the girl.  She was crying to herself.  I passed her once, then walked back, for seeing how upset she was, was breaking my heart.  This woman was about my own age, yet she was clearly destitute, sleeping rough, while I had everything I wanted in life.  For a moment I couldn’t believe how unfair life was. I had a decent life, surely she deserved to have the same?  What’s more, there was something familiar about her face, but I couldn’t work out what it was.

When I returned she was dabbing at her face with a tissue, but the look of sadness in her eyes when she looked up at me pierced me to the heart.

“Look,”  I began, “I don’t want to be patronising, but would you be offended if I gave you some money?”

“Do I look offended?”  she smiled as she took the fifty pounds I handed over.  “You’re kind.  That’s rare in the city of London.  Rare indeed.”

“Have you lived here long?”  I asked her.

“Since I was sixteen and my da got a job in Battersea.  A while ago my parents died, and I couldn’t stay in the flat, and when I lost my job I couldn’t find work anywhere else without an address.  I was in a hostel for a while.  I miss home, sure I do.  I grew up in the countryside of Kerry, lots of fields to play in, trees to climb, everyone had time to talk to you.”

“Not like here.”

“Sure, that’s true enough.  Everyone’s wrapped up in their own little world, scurrying along, not noticing anything.  Not caring a damn.”

We chatted for a bit, but the situation was awkward for both of us, and I was already late for work. After we said our goodbyes, I felt my day had been ruined. I was no longer looking forward to going to the office bright and early, as I usually did, to talk about fresh ideas, new clients, all the new business coming in.

But when I got there, there was something indefinably different about Goodbody, Jenkins and Dean.  As I pushed open the huge glass doors and went into the lift I met Roger, who worked with me.  His face was like thunder.

“Didn’t you get the text?”  he snapped, not returning my smile.

“What text?”

“The firm’s bankrupt!  Dennis Goodbody’s done a runner and they’ve called in the receivers.  We’re all redundant, and it doesn’t even look as if any of us are getting paid for this month, let alone the week in hand.  And the bastards told us by text!”

“What do you mean?”  I couldn’t believe what he was saying, until I checked my phone and saw that he was right..  Only last week Dennis Goodbody was glad-handing us all, giving out bonuses, saying the London office was going from strength to strength.

By now we were on the first floor and all my colleagues were walking around outside the door to the office, which had a huge lock fitted onto it.

I couldn’t stand hearing the grumbling anger of my ex-colleagues, the talk about claiming our pay in the small claims court and so on.  Reality had come and kicked me in the teeth.

When I got home, there was also something strange about my flat.  In the bedroom it seemed that all Carrie’s possessions had disappeared. I found her note on the kitchen table.  Something about ‘us growing apart’ and her meeting an old school friend on Facebook, and falling in love with him.

And then I realised that I was more worried about not getting Carrie’s share of the mortgage money than I was about her leaving me.  It was true, we had grown apart, and I had been so busy at work, I hadn’t noticed. I had no savings, so with no job and no way of paying the mortgage,  the building society would foreclose in a matter of weeks!

I remembered the months of applying for jobs to get the position with Goodbody.  And with Brexit the economy was even worse than it had been a year ago, so if by some miracle I found a job, no way would it be as remunerative as what I’d been used to.

Fuck!

By chance, I found the girl I’d met this morning in a café round the corner from where she’d been sleeping and I joined her at the table.

“I remembered where I’ve met you before,”  I told her as I sat down.  “A folk music club in Streatham. About fifteen years ago now.  You were with another guy.  I saw your face, and I never forgot it.”

“Yes,” she agreed.  “I remember you too!  You kept looking at me, and I wondered why.”

“I wanted to talk to you, but I didn’t have the courage.  I was stupid back then.”

She looked into my eyes, and for some reason I remembered the words of an old song: ‘catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, never let it fade away.’

“And so how was your morning?” she asked, smiling.  “Did the road rise up to meet you?”

“Not really.  To be honest the road rose up and kicked me up the arse.” I went on to tell her what had happened to me.

And for some reason as I told her what had happened, I couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity of everything.

She joined in my laugher.  “Sure it must have been a cack-handed blessing right enough.  I’m so sorry!”

“Don’t be sorry.  I always regretted not getting to know you at that folk club.  I never forgot you.”

And as we ordered more coffee, I realised something.

That this had actually turned out to be the luckiest day of my life.

 

The Hard Way

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“Come on, Peter, come on!

“Sorry, sorry, I’m trying my best.  I j-just can’t.”

“For heavens sake!  God, what kind of man are you?  How can you leave me up in the air like this?”

“I can use the gadget if you like?  You know, that vibrating thing—”

“Don’t bother. I’ve gone off the boil anyway now.”

Of course I should have realised that one of the drawbacks of having a lover who is forty years older than you are is that he can’t always keep up with your demands.  I’m a thirty-year-old woman, with natural needs and desires and Sir Peter Fitzbairn-Scrope was the millionaire chairman of the large multi-national charity, where I’d got a job recently.  Sir Peter also had a wife, and many children and grandchildren, none of whom knew I existed.

(This story was told to me by a much inebriated and very depressed young woman called Laura, whom I ran into one evening at the Dog and Duck.)

Not long afterwards I spoke to some mates, and was offered some stuff called Priagra. It’s a drug that’s said to be ten time more powerful than Viagra, with none of the side effects, and it’s not yet available to the general public.  I persuaded Peter to try it and nothing happened.  He doubled the dose and got a little bit of lead in his pencil.  Then he tripled the dose and that certainly did the trick.

Apart from our now solved physical problem, the chemistry between us was great, for there was an immediate and earth-shattering attraction between us.  He adored my body.  I adored his money.  A match made in heaven!

But after six months of our hole-in-corner affair, I spoke to my mate Tracey about my difficult situation.

“You’ll learn the hard way, Laura,”  Tracey warned me as we began to drink our way through a gallon of vodka.  “You’ll spend years and years seeing him secretly, he’ll treat you like shit, and I’m telling you now, he’ll never leave his wife – they never do.  Then he’ll snuff it and you won’t get so much as a fart at the funeral.”

“But what can I do?”  I wailed.

“Give him an ultimatum.  Make him abandon his family and move in with you.  It’s hard and it’s risky. But it’s the only way if you don’t want to end up being a mug.”

I realised that Tracey was right.  So I told Peter that I was determined to have him all to myself or we’d have to end things for good: his choice.  In the end he agreed with me, indeed he was quite keen on leaving his wife and family. However there was a big snag.

“If I divorce her, she’ll take more than half of everything I’ve got. We’ll have to live pretty frugally.”

“I thought of that,”  I told him.  “I work in accounts, remember?  Think of all those huge donations we get.  Why don’t you divert a little bit of cash into a secret Swiss account of your own?  That way you’ll build up a lovely big nest egg that no one else knows about.”

“Hmmm, well…”

He agreed in the end.  And in a few weeks he’d got six million quid sorted away.  It was enough for him to retire and for us to live in luxury on a tropical island in the South Seas: Bagga Bagga to be exact, which is supposed to be an earthly paradise, where all you need to do all day is swim, play golf and tennis, drink, lie on the beach and relax in the wonderful hotels.

We fixed a date: the first of November.  Everything was arranged, but I told him that he had to be deadly serious, that he’d get no second chances.  He had to leave her on that night and come away with me.  He said he’d meet me at Gatwick airport at midnight, and we’d fly away to our new life together in Bagga Bagga.  And I was so excited, because I believed him.

But I was also worried.  It all seemed somehow too good to be true. I wondered if I really was doing the right thing in pushing him to make such a drastic decision.  But I knew that if I showed the slightest bit of weakness, he’d never leave his comfortable life.  He had to be prepared to leave his family and everything else behind, and fly away with me on the first of November, come what may.  If he didn’t turn up at the airport, I told him, then I’d assume that he’d changed his mind, and I’d go away on my own and leave him for ever.

And guess what?

That’s exactly what happened.

I was waiting two  hours.  Calls to his mobile always went to voicemail, his landline the same, and texts went unanswered.  And I had no choice but to face it. He must have changed his mind, and didn’t even have the courage to tell me to my face.

So I went to Bagga Bagga on my own, deciding that since he’d already booked the hotel there I might as well take advantage of it, and spend the five thousand quid he’d given me as a present a week ago.

Once I got there I was so furious at his betrayal that I decided to pay him back in a very special way.  I had already made a note of every transaction and every payment he made into the illegal Swiss account, of every penny that he’d embezzled from the charity.  Anonymously, I sent all the facts to the newsdesks of all the major newspapers, certain that they’d pass on the information and he’d probably go to jail.  I was determined to get my own back on the bastard for treating me like that!   If he was going to ruin my life, I was going to ruin his!

In the end I stayed in Bagga Bagga for six months.  Ralph Biggun, the owner of the hotel, was a handsome bachelor of forty, and he took a shine to me, and I didn’t have to pay a bill all the time I was there, and he wined and dined me very night, and I had a wonderful time in the sun.  I never looked at a newspaper or watched world news on the TV, I just cut loose from everything and chilled out.

But all good things have to come to an end.  Ralph Biggun met someone else and I ran out of money. So I decided to come back to London and try and find a job and a place to live.

I ran into Jane, a girl I used to know from the charity where we’d worked together.  Not having read a newspaper or watched TV for months, I had no idea what had happened to Peter, but Jane lost no time in telling me.

“It was terrible,” she said, conspiratorially.  “At about the same time that you suddenly went away on holiday, they found him dead in his car in his garage at home.  He had suitcases packed, and there was a note to his wife, telling her he was leaving her.  The garage door was open, his hand was on the ignition key when he had the heart attack.  It was terrible for his wife, doubly humiliating for her when they found the note telling her he was leaving her for a younger woman.  A few days later there were reports in the newspaper about him fiddling money from our charity, some kind of secret bank account.”  She frowned miserably.  “Sir Peter posthumously lost his knighthood. And the charity was in terrible trouble for allowing it to happen, there was a huge enquiry. It eventually closed down and we all lost our jobs.”

“He died of a heart attack?”  I asked, stunned.  “He really had  been planning to leave his wife?”

“Yes.  And do you know what? Apparently the doctors discovered from the post mortem that the old fool was taking massively high doses of some new fangled impotence tablet called Priagra that’s so dangerous it hasn’t been authorised for use. They reckon that’s what killed him.  What a pillock, eh?  He had a lovely wife and family, all that money, then he nicks cash he doesn’t even need, and kills himself with Priagra. All in order to satisfy some money-grabbing young slut. What a bitch – I’d give anything to get my hands on her. By the way, I remember now, you used to work in accounts, didn’t you?  The police are going to want to talk to you.”

The Snowplate Nose

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Lily bashed the top of her husband’s coffin with her fist as she passed, muttering viciously:

“You bastard, may you rot in hell for ever!”

(This story was told to me by Betty, an old friend who’s had a lot of trouble in her life. )

Lily paused for a moment, backing off a bit and putting her hands on the timber lid and leaning forwards, as if she was contemplating wrenching off the top of the coffin and dragging his body out of it so she could attack it. Then a younger woman, presumably her daughter, came up beside her and led her away.

I wholeheartedly agreed with Lily’s sentiments as I looked upon the boxed-up earthly remains of Harold Sebastian Snowplate. Harold had been my husband too, but apparently I was Mrs Snowplate in name only. A few days ago I’d discovered that my marriage was bigamous, and therefore invalid.

I’d discussed it with Lily last week, after I’d heard he’d been killed and she had made contact with me out of the blue, when we’d both been approached by Harold’s very confused solicitor. I tried to explain to our teenage children that the man they’d known as Dad, wasn’t really their dad at all, but a kind of ridiculous impostor, even though they shared his rotten genes. When we got married, Harold had told me that he worked as an accountant for a huge multinational company, and that he could spend Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in London with me, his family, but on Thursday to Sunday he had to work in their Huddersfield office, where he claimed to live a lonely monastic life in a company flat.  The sacrifice was worth it, he explained, for it was only a temporary situation, and soon he could live full time with us when there was a full-time vacancy in the London office. A situation that went on for fifteen years.

Of course Lily had been told exactly the same story in reverse.

Now all those Christmases that he’d had to ‘Spend abroad’ at the mythical Bekker Corporation’s Lichtenstein office, made sense. As did the sudden cancellation of plans, the eternal spectre of the evil bosses of the Bekker Corporation making his life a misery by hijacking his time as they did. “It’s not for long,” he had always said, altering the proposed job change scenario once again. “In a year or two I can retire early and then we’ll have enough money to live out our dreams. . .”

Lily had two children, as I had. One of hers, and coincidentally one of mine too, had the unmistakeable ‘Snowplate Nose’ something that Harold had shown me in his family photos: a large bump along the middle, not large enough to look ugly or peculiar, but nevertheless distinctive to those who know about it. Various Snowplates throughout the centuries had apparently had this peculiarity, some of their noses being far more afflicted than others.  Indeed Algernon Snowplate had a whopper of a bump, like a large pea was skulking there, concealed just below the skin.

The Reverend Derek Harbottle took the service. He had apparently been at school with Harold and seemed to know him better than either Lily, me, or indeed any of his four children did.

The other mystery of course was, who had Harold really worked for?

“He told me he was an accountant, working for the Bekker Corporation,” I had explained to Lily when we had met for the first time a week ago.

“He told me he was a stock controller for the Flecker Corporation,” she had told me. “There always seemed to be plenty of money, we have nice house, car, no problem with the bills.”

“Same with us,” I said to her. “So what job could he possibly have done to earn enough to keep two families in relative style?”

The answer was in Reverend Harbottle’s eulogy – the only eulogy of the service, for perhaps not surprisingly none of his relatives had anything good to say about him. In fact it turned out to be anything but a eulogy.

“When Harold Snowplate fell from the roof of the Holiday Inn hotel in Newport Pagnell, the police were satisfied that it was an accident,” Revd Derek began. “But for a man who had been involved in smuggling drugs for a number of years and who also was up to his neck in criminal racketeering, it’s not surprising that he must have had a number of enemies. We’ll probably never know who did it.”

A drug dealer.

“It has to be said that Harold was not without sin. I’d even go so far as to say that he was a wicked man who had no redeeming features whatsoever. Rumour has it that he dealt in drugs at the highest levels, he operated fraudulent online operations that preyed on the elderly, he handled stolen goods and was involved in racketeering and under-age prostitution. At one time I believe he even acted as a contract killer for several organisations, and was known as a ‘gun for hire’ in the Newport Pagnell and Watford areas.

“What’s more, Harold was a profligate womaniser. He had plenty of charm, which he used to get what he wanted, and this surface charm concealed his true character to many people who knew him. Indeed from some of the people who thought they knew him best. He had at least two families that neither knew about, and he also had a number of illegitimate children born to various other women – a good many of whom I see are here.”

As I looked around the congregation, sure enough I could pick out several people there, who had the noticeable ‘Snowplate nose’. Young men and women, all of whom, were looking distinctly uncomfortable.

“No, we certainly cannot say that Harold was a good man, or that he was a good husband or father. In fact to be perfectly honest, he was a wicked evil, lying, treacherous scumbag, who used his charm to trick people. I would sum him up as. . .”

There was a long pause.

“I’d describe Harold as a complete and utter shit, whose entire life was lived as a lie.”

There was a shocked pause at these words.

“But God forgives our sins, and that is something we must all bear in mind before any of us can pass judgement. All of us are sinners, it’s just that Harold’s sins were perhaps more noticeable than most of ours. The prodigal son springs to mind, the difference being that the prodigal son must have had a vestige of decency.”

Afterwards, at the wake, the Reverend Derek opened up to me a bit. He was becoming slightly inebriated on the free-flowing wine, and he clearly felt sorry for me. “I was at school with Harold, though I hadn’t kept in touch with him,” he explained. “About fifteen years ago I ran into him at a dinner, and I could clearly see he was a lost soul in need of spiritual support. In fact my wife Alice met him there too, the two of them seemed to get on very well, and when he told her he was very keen to learn about Christianity, with a view to changing his ways, she travelled down to see him, in fact she spent several days with him, trying to explain that it’s never too late for a sinner to change your ways and accept God into your life.” He fell silent for a few moments, seemingly lost in thought.

“And did he?” I asked.

“What?”

“Change his ways?”

“Goodness no, he never intended to.”

Just then his teenage daughter Abigail appeared and smiled at us. And then I saw it:

She had the Snowplate nose. That unmistakeable bump in the middle.

Reverend Harbottle saw me looking at her. His eyes narrowed slightly as he went on. “A couple of weeks ago, Abigail had one of those DNA tests done, where they find out your ethnicity, and they can also pair you up with cousins you never knew you had,” he explained to me. “It turned out that she had a first cousin she knew nothing about. The only person that this cousin was also related to—”

“—Was Harold?” I completed for him.

“How did you guess?” he went on distractedly. “When I found out I could hardly control my anger. The times and dates matched up, you see, plus the unlikely coincidence that the tablets I was taking to boost my low sperm-count had finally done their job. Or so I thought. . .” He paused for a few moments, staring at the floor. “So then I went up to the hotel in Newport Pagnell, where I knew he was staying and . . .”

“And?”

“God forgives our sins,” he said after a long time. “At least I hope he does. If he doesn’t I’m stuffed.”

The Sandwich

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“I pressed the key down. It stayed down and wouldn’t come up. Neither would any of the others. Oh God.

“You see, he’d done it again!

“Superglue squirted into my computer keyboard was one of Rob’s favourite ‘jokes’. Afterwards, whichever of us he’d played his ‘joke’ on, would have to go out of the office to the computer store nearby and buy a new keyboard at our own expense. He always had a good laugh about it, and told each new victim that in future we should ‘stay glued to our work’.”

Sally is an old friend, and she was talking to me one evening, reminiscing about how she hated people who play practical jokes. Here in her own words is the troubling incident from her past:

Rob was the kind of boss who loved playing practical jokes. Selling advertising space for a newspaper was largely a female-oriented trade, and the other girls and I resented the behaviour of the alpha male who was our boss, but what could we do? We all needed the job, and some of us were very good at it, in spite of Rob’s malevolent influence.

There was always some joke going on. For instance once he sneakily managed to pick up Jane’s keys, that she’d left on her desk inadvertently. He kept them all morning, laughing uproariously at her increasing blind panic as she phoned her husband, checked her handbag a hundred times, and all of us were searching the office and the stairwell outside in case she’d dropped them. As she was on the point of phoning a locksmith to change the locks to her flat, a smiling Rob emerged from his office, dangling the keys in front of him, saying “Lost something Jane? You really should be more careful.”

Rob was a peculiar character in other ways too. He was a health fanatic, often arriving in a track suit after his morning run, a keen foodie who never ate anything without checking the label on the container carefully, saying things like “Your body is a temple. You shouldn’t abuse it.”

Kathy, a friendly jokey blonde girl, joined us six months ago, and right from the start we got on well, and soon she became my best friend there. We’d natter away over coffee and lunch breaks, we even lived in the same part of town so often met on the underground on the way in to work and going home.

“Do you think he just hates women?” Kathy asked me one day, when Alison had just been released from the toilet in hysterics, where Rob had locked her cubicle from the outside, so that she’d had to shout to be rescued. She’d gone home, too upset to go on working, with Rob smirking and shaking his head commenting that “Some people have no sense of humour.”

“Oh no, he likes women all right,” I told her. “In fact although he’s careful not to get entangled with anyone at work, in case he’s done for sexual harassment, he’s had lots of girlfriends. When he broke up with the last one he plastered pictures of her naked all over the internet. Do they call it revenge porn?”

“It’s so sad,” Kathy went on. “All of us get on pretty well. If that bastard wasn’t here we’d all work much faster and better and there’d be no tension or fear.”

“He thinks treating us like rubbish keeps us on our toes.” I shivered with disgust. “In another age I suppose he’d have had slaves and tortured them for his own amusement. The sad thing is, the management probably know how he behaves, but the department gets results, so they don’t care.”

All of us knew that Kathy and her boyfriend Charlie had been trying for a baby ever since they’d been together, but so far it just hadn’t happened. When she was eight weeks pregnant, Kathy couldn’t resist sharing her news, swearing me to secrecy, until at least the three months period was past. Then, sadly, she miscarried a couple of weeks later.

I’ll never forget her face when she came back to work. It had been a huge effort for her to face people again, knowing they all knew what had happened. Of course none of us said anything, she just arrived to friendly smiles, quick hugs and pats on the arm, and lots of unasked for cups of coffee. On her desk later during the morning she found a large parcel wrapped up in brown paper. She unwrapped it, and there was ‘The encyclopaedia of motherhood’, a huge colourful coffee-table book, illustrated with pictures of loving mothers with their babies. She burst into tears and ran out of the office and stayed away for a couple more days.

We all knew who had been responsible for the ‘joke’.

A few weeks later At the Christmas party, Rob got blind drunk, as he usually does. The funny thing was, Kathy was being quite friendly with him, when ordinarily she avoids him like the plague, as we all do. I thought it was weird, the way the pair of them would huddle in corners, with her plying with more and more drink. At the end of the evening, he ended up in his own office, merrily drunk and barely able to speak. Everyone else apart from him, Kathy and me had gone home, and I was waiting for her.

But instead of leaving with me, Kathy came out from Rob’s office and was messing about with one of the rolls that had been left over on the drinks table.

“Rob didn’t have lunch today,” she told me. “He said he’s very hungry.”

“What do you care?” I asked her, angry now. “And why are you so matey with Rob all of a sudden?”

“Oh you know, we all have to work together.” She shrugged and disappeared into Rob’s office with the sandwich she’d made him. As we left I glimpsed him through the gap in the door eating it hungrily.

On the Tube train we didn’t chat as usual, because I felt uncomfortable, as if something was wrong. Really I was simmering with anger with Kathy because she had betrayed our pact of hatred for our boss. In the rare silence between us, when Kathy opened her handbag I noticed her fiddling with a long white plastic tube.

“What’s that?” I asked her in surprise.

“This?” she said innocently. “Oh it’s Rob’s emerade.”

“Emerade?”

“It’s an ‘adrenaline pen’. For use in an emergency. He must have dropped it and I picked it up.” She leaned closer. “He always carries it with him. You take the top off and there’s a needle you can stick in your thigh and inject adrenaline if you’re going into anaphylactic shock.”

“Anaphylactic shock?”

“Rob told me that he’s extremely allergic to peanuts. That’s why he’s always so fussy about his food, checking the labels all the time. He told me that If he eats peanuts he goes into advanced anaphylactic shock, and if he doesn’t get this antidote within seconds his lips and tongue will swell up, so that he can’t breathe. Within a minute or so, no oxygen to the heart muscle also means his blood pressure will fall dangerously and major organs fail.” She looked at me, a slow smile spreading across her face. “Apparently It’s a really nasty way to die.”

“Don’t you think you should have given it back to him?” I asked. “After all it’s Friday night, he’s alone in the office. Anything might happen.”

“Yes, he is alone, isn’t he?” she said, still grinning. “He’s all alone there. Everyone’s gone home.”

When we got off the train I saw Kathy take out the white emerade pen, the knife she’d used to make the sandwich, and a half empty jar labelled PEANUT BUTTER. She put them all into a rubbish bin and rubbed her hands together.

“Oh, he did like that sandwich, didn’t he?” Kathy began to chuckle to herself. “He really did enjoy it.”

 

 

Breaking Point

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“For God’s sake! I’ve got two children and a husband!”

So saying, Vera pulled away from our embrace, glaring at me angrily as she stepped backwards. “You can’t just—”

“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” I apologised, then walked away quickly, doing my best to hide my misery and humiliation after the disastrous failed kiss.

My day at Faradays Advertising Ltd, the grand old 1930s building in the East End of London, didn’t get much better. In the late afternoon I had a fierce row with my boss, Tony. Tony was being unreasonable, and, perhaps because I was so upset about ruining my relationship with Vera, after months of being her friend, that I spoke out of turn and things escalated. I told him that he could stuff his job. He told me to fuck off. It was weird because normally we got on pretty well, and truth to tell, I actually liked him a lot.

So I’d lost my dreamed-of chances of happiness with Vera and I’d lost my job.

And now, after brooding alone at my desk, it was 6 o’clock on a Friday night, and I’d decided to dash off home and try to forget about my day from hell. When the lift door was just about to shut, I stuck my foot in the gap and forced it open again, sliding inside quickly before the doors closed. It didn’t move at first, then travelled down abruptly, like a stone. When I turned round I saw that Vera was beside me, and Tony was in the corner. The only other occupant in the lift was Jonathan Franklyn, a tall skinny, silent kind of guy who was usually so laid back, he was practically comatose, indeed his nickname was ‘Cool Jon’. Tonight he looked anything but cool. He was strange, wild-eyed and alert, hyped up about something. I wondered if he’d been taking drugs.

Talk about embarrassing.

Naturally we avoided looking at each other. And then the lights went out. The lift ground to a halt between the third and second floors.

My shame was complete.

“It’s no good, everyone’s gone home,” said Tony, a few moments later. He was watching Jonathan Franklyn frantically pressing the emergency help buttons by the light of his mobile phone. “Besides, if the power’s out, the emergency communication won’t be working either. And my mobile’s got no signal – must be because these old lifts are made of specially thick steel. So we’re stuck here for now.”

“But I have to go,” panicked Jonathan, totally out of character, almost shouting. “No! No!” he yelled frantically. “I have to get out of here!

“Sorry, Old Fruit, but you can’t. There’s nothing we can do but wait,” Tony said resignedly as he slid down the wall and sat on the floor, producing a bottle of whisky from a bulging carrier bag by his side. “Lifts are only machines, and machines are a lot like people. Sometimes they just reach a breaking point and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Just like I reached breaking point yelling at poor old Chris today. Anyone want to join me in a drink to pass the time?”

“A drink?” Jonathan snapped. “Do you realise what’s happening to me? Do you have any idea?” And then I could see that tears were forming in his eyes as his voice cracked. “How the fuck can you talk about a drink? Breaking point? I’ve fucking reached breaking point, I tell you. . .”

“Jonathan, calm down,” Vera told him, moving close beside him and putting a hand on his arm.  Vera is kind and sensitive. That’s one of the reasons why I fell in love with her.

He gave way to tears as he backed into the corner and sank to the ground.

“I’m supposed to be on platform five of Paddington Station in half an hour,” he told us all. “I’ve arranged to meet this girl, Sophie. She’s ill. You see, she has these mental issues, serious problems with depression. She has no self confidence. She won’t believe I want to be with her, she thinks that I’m like all the other guys she’s known that have let her down. So she set me this test. She told me that if I was prepared to go to Edinburgh with her, tonight, drop everything and just go, make a real commitment, then she’d believe I cared for her. If I don’t turn up, I dread to think what will happen. You see she’s tried suicide before now. That’s how we met, we were in the same mental illness support group. I saved her last time, by going round to her flat and talking all night. I’m afraid that when she gets to the station and finds I’m not there, and that she can’t even reach my mobile, she’ll think I’ve changed my mind. And then she might…”

Vera nodded sympathetically, the strange surreal mobile phone light swirling up from under her chin, highlighting her lovely sympathetic eyes.

“It’ll be all right,” she tried to reassure him. “I know it seems hopeless now, but you’ve got to believe in her. Come on now Jonathan, don’t give up! Close your eyes now, and think about her. Believe in her. Believe that she’s not going to do anything stupid, that you believe in her being strong and trusting in you. In my experience people are often much stronger than we think they are. ”

“Not Sophie. Sophie’s is just like a little straw in the wind.” Jonathan put his head in his hands and wept quietly. “I was going to look after her.”

Tony, who’d been watching the scene was holding up the bottle of whisky towards Vera.

“Oh stuff it, why not?” said Vera, as she sat down on the floor beside him. She rooted around in her handbag, producing some paper cups. “Luckily I bought these for my daughter’s birthday party, so we won’t have to pass round the bottle. “Are you having any, Chris?”

“You bet.”

So we all sat on the floor, and Vera and I both accepted a paper cup generously full of whisky and began sipping, illuminated by the light of our phones, as if we were taking part in some ghoulish Halloween party. The three of us kept passing the bottle round and Tony kept adding more and more.

At first we drank silently, nursing our own thoughts. But after an hour, and half of the second bottle of whisky had been drunk, the other two were more relaxed, and I suppose I was too.

“’S Funny,” Tony declared. “I’ve got something to say to you all because I’m pleasantly drunk.” He paused, smiling stupidly. “I’m an alcoholic.”

“I did wonder why you were carrying two bottles of whisky around with you,” Vera commented dryly.

“Seriously. My life is one great shitstorm, so I drink,” he went on. “And Chris.” He looked across at me. “I really was a bastard to you today, and I’m sincerely sorry. I shouldn’t have gone on at you like that. I apologise (apppolloigizze) unreservedly, Old Fruit. Truth is, I like you. I like working with you. Please (Pleeeze) don’t leave the firm.”

I looked at him and smiled myself, feeling the effects of the alcohol, and the loss of my inhibitions. “Actually I wanted to apologise to you, Tony. You were right to bollock me today. I screwed up that job.” I looked across at Vera, beyond caution or tact. “I made a fool of myself with Vera, and I felt like shit. I still do . But I shouldn’t have shouted back at you—”

“Forget it, mate,” he muttered.

Vera stared ahead. Her face was anything but beautiful, but it was full of personality, and for me, a girl’s lovely personality beats pure aesthetic beauty every time.

“You didn’t make a fool of yourself, Chris. I was just shocked when you tried to kiss me. I wanted you to know my situation.” She shook her head slowly. “And since we’re telling each other home truths, you might as well have mine.” She spoke slowly and deliberately, the way inebriated people sometimes do. “Everyone thinks I’m happy and well adjusted, the woman who everyone goes to for help and sympathy and a shoulder to cry on. That I have this wonderful life, that I’m some kind of Mother Teresa. Well I’m not.” She paused. “The fact is, it’s all a mask I hide behind. I like coming here to work, I enjoy being nice to everyone and making the best of things because my home life is so awful. My husband and I want to get divorced, but neither of us wants to give up the house. We hate each other, can’t even bear to be in the same room. Now the children are getting older it’s not so easy to keep up the pretence. But today, Chris, after you almost kissed me, I realised I can’t go on like this. I’ve got to face facts. At least he won’t fight me for custody of the children. He’s as disinterested in them as he is in me.”

“He must be mad,” I told her. “If I had a wife like you. . .”

“What?” she asked.

“I’d never look at anyone else.” I felt myself blushing, feeling I’d said too much. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”

“No,” she replied, looking straight at me. “You should have done. You’re being straight with me. Just like I had to make it clear to you today that I’m a mother, and I’ll never be separated from my children. And that if you want a relationship with me, the children are part of the package. Most guys would run a mile. I wanted to save you the embarrassment of telling me you didn’t want to get involved with me and my baggage.”

“I’m not most guys,” I told her. “And children aren’t baggage. They may not like me. If you get involved with me it might be a disaster. But I’m prepared to take the risk if you are.”

“Oh, I’m a risk taker.” She looked across and me and nodded seriously. “I always have been.”

“Well you two, you may as well know my little secret,” Tony said miserably into the silence , taking a large slug of whisky, and pouring himself another. “They say If I go on drinking like this I’ll be dead within a year. And don’t talk to me about marriage. It was drinking that broke up mine, and I never see my wife or kids anymore. They despise me. I really want to give up the booze, but I can’t. I tried Alcoholics Anonymous, but I just couldn’t get on with them. Not my thing.”

I took a breath. “You know you said you always liked me, Tony?” I asked him.

He nodded.

“In those AA groups, don’t they allocate you some kind of special friend, someone you can ring when you’re going to fall off the wagon and they come round and talk to you, help you over the crisis?”

“Yeah, if you make it that far.” He stared at me.

“Well, I’ll do it for you,” I finished lamely. “If you want to give it up, you don’t have to do it alone. I’ll help you all I can. Call me up, anytime, day or night and I’ll be there.”

“Why would you do that for me?”

“Because I like you. And I don’t want you to die.”

“Do you really mean it?”

“Yes,” I told him. “I really mean it.”

Another hour went by. Vera was sitting beside poor Jonathon, her hand on his arm, and I sat on his other side. He was just staring ahead miserably.  He hadn’t drunk any of Tony’s whisky.

“I know Sophie is going to kill herself,” he muttered to us both. “I just know it.”

“Jonathan,” Vera told him gently. “You think she’s weak and she’s given up on life. But in my experience people are often much stronger than you think they are. You have to believe in her.”

Just then the lights came on, and the loudspeaker crackled into life.

“We’ll have you all out of there in ten minutes,” said the voice, and absurdly I noticed that the man had an Aberdeen accent.

The real surprise was when the lift door opened on floor number two, and Jonathan fell into the arms of an emaciated young woman whose eyes were almost as troubled as his had been.

“When you didn’t turn up, I was going to give up on everything,” Sophie told him. “But something changed my mind. I decided I’d had enough of always giving in and being weak. I was furious, I decided to bloody have it out with you, to tell you what I thought of you, if you were going to abandon me. I’d reached my breaking point. I was determined I wasn’t going to give you up without a fight. I went to your flat and you weren’t there. When I got here, I banged on the door for ages until the security man came out, and I demanded they check the building, told them I’d start screaming if they didn’t.”

Vera took my hand as we walked to freedom. Tony gripped my shoulder with a manly squeeze and I thought I saw a tear in his eye.

“These old lifts,” said the small moustachioed Scotsman in overalls who was shaking his head and entering the lift, staring upwards at its roof. “Ach, these old cables, sometimes they just reach breaking point…”

 

 

Road Closed

 

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My grandmother died while I was sitting in my car, waiting in a traffic jam.

The main road leading from my home to the hospital had been fine earlier in the day, but, unknown to me, when I drove out, halfway to hospital I found the road blocked off, and that familiar and hated red sign saying ‘road closed’ .  Frantically I followed the yellow detour signs.  But carefully turning along all the narrow traffic-filled side roads they told me to, after twenty minutes I found they had directed me round in a circle and I was back where I started.  The satnav wasn’t in the car, and struggling to find another route on the map meant it took me an hour longer to get to the hospital, during which my grandmother died, with no one with her, and asking for me.

On the way home I’d avoided the area of course, cursing the fates and nursing an admittedly unreasonable loathing for men with hard hats and high-viz jackets.

A few days later the road was open, and, since it was clear that neither the pavement or the road had been touched, I realised that there had obviously been no earthly reason for the road closure.  When I phoned the council to enquire, no one gave me any answers. No one even cared.

Then it happened again, when I was tired out and on my way home from work, at midnight.  This time it was a much  bigger camp of hard-hatted twats, with more huge lorries, more concrete mixers, more arc lights splashing across the night sky.  I tried following the detour directions again, but once more they had been erected by a prankster or an idiot.  They led me miles out of town ultimately to a complete dead end—a field at the edge of town, in the middle of which was  a large lake.  In front me I had seen an ambulance, blue lights flashing, screeching to a stop and roaring along the detour road.  When they saw that the road just petered out, they wasted no time in doing a U-turn and screeching off.  Such was their urgency, I knew that their ridiculous delay probably meant that the patient they were rushing to attend, or to transport to hospital, might die as a result.

Anger made me restive.  Once I got back to the site of the road works, instead of parking and looking at the map, acting reasonably, something made me want to actually do something, to take some kind of action against the gang of hard-hatted shits who were making my life a misery, and causing distress and danger to so many others too.

So I parked in a side road and walked closer, climbing over the barrier to the land of bollards and shovels and concrete mixers and huge vehicles dwarfing the sky, everything lit up in bright arc lights.  Men strode around here and there.  Some were lighting fags.  Others were talking on their phones.  Yet others were sipping from cups of tea.  And no one, not a single person was doing any work at all.

Cheers and laughter rang out – I saw a few of the men gathered around someone’s phone, judging by the roars I gathered that they were watching some sports match on the tiny screen.

No one noticed me or challenged my right to be there.  And soon I saw a high viz jacket and yellow hard hat hanging on a peg, apparently belonging to no one.  On the spur of the moment I slipped them on.  Now I was able to stride about invisibly.  No one looked at me, or noticed who I was, they were too busy arsing about amusing themselves.

Further back there was a large wooden hut, a temporary structure.  I saw someone open the door and go inside, so I followed.

In one corner a television was blaring out a football match, watched avidly by some of them.  In another a snooker game was in full progress, and at a table several men were leaning back, swigging from bottles of beer.  I even caught a glimpse of a couple of men partiality unclothed, with women who were equally undressed, getting very closely acquainted.

Something made me so angry I couldn’t think straight.

I went back outside, trying to contain my fury.  I noticed a battery drill loaded with a small bit, abandoned on the ground and picked it up, sauntering nonchalantly towards where the large lorries were parked.

The petrol tank on a lorry is quite easy to find.  I located the tank of four of the lorries, and quickly drilled a hole in the bottom of each of them.  Gasoline was soon flooding out onto the tarmac, and, so far, no one had noticed.

Then I climbed up into one of the biggest lorries, struggling to remember my days as a long-distance lorry driver.  The keys were in the ignition and I started it up.  Without pausing, I slammed it into gear and drove fast, accelerating madly, steering towards the large wooden hut.

The walls and roof crashed down beneath my tons of metal, and soon I heard screams from beneath me as I continued driving across the disparate parts of the collapsed building and bodies.  I stopped and jumped down into the carnage, running back to where the lorries had been parked.

People were running around shouting, but that didn’t stop me pausing to strike a match and throw it into the river of fuel.

There was a popping sound as the lake ignited, then the fire took hold.   Men were running everywhere.  Some were in flames, others had been blown off their feet as one of the lorries exploded.

As I ran away, leaping over the barrier and witnessing another of the lorries bursting into flames that leapt to the sky, with inert bodies all around,  someone ran towards me.

“What the fuck’s happened?”  he asked.

“I think the road’s closed,”  I told him calmly.  “Don’t bother following the detour signs.”

A Sympathetic Ear

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“So my wife smashed a bottle of wine over my head and told me she hated me and that she’d been having an affair with the milkman for two years,” said the man in the pub I’d only just met. “Since then I lost my job and my flat and my car. I really don’t know which way to turn. But luckily I have these voices in my head, and I’m hoping they’ll give me some ideas of what to do…”

Clarence Milport had been talking to me for an hour, and I looked at my watch surreptitiously, wondering when I could tactfully get away.

I think I must have ‘mug’ tattooed on my forehead or something, because no matter where I go, whether it’s work, the shops or to have a quiet drink, individuals with mental problems seem to be drawn to me, and insist on telling me all about their troubled lives.

It wouldn’t matter so much if everything in my own life was rosy, but it’s not.  Just a week ago my wife left me, telling me I was hopeless in bed, I had a face like a lugubrious bloodhound and I had bored her stiff for all our ten years of married life. In one way it was a relief, because believe me, living with a woman who’s a vegan and an avowed pacifist who likes to talk for hours about her confused sexuality and thinks that she’s allergic to plaster and bricks is not easy.  But as far as I know she’s very happy in the commune for vegan lesbians she’s joined in Sussex.

I have an office job I like, but the managing director often inveigles me into having late night drinking sessions with him where he tells me of his attempts at suicide and how I was ‘the only person he felt he could talk to’. The accountant often chats to me in the afternoons too, telling me that he had never wanted to be an accountant, he’d always had the desire to be a ballet dancer and his mother wouldn’t let him, and his humdrum life was driving him mad, especially as he’s convinced that everyone thinks he’s boring because he’s an accountant.

A while ago I was minding my own business, relaxing at a local beauty spot that’s on top of a cliff, and a man nearby was about to jump to his death. But before doing so, he came across to chat to me and talked for three hours. Like a fool I gave him my phone number and he calls me regularly when he’s upset. He calls me his ‘lifeline’.

I pondered on my lunch today. I had popped into Pret a Manger for a sandwich and soon a woman had joined me at the table, telling me that she had been abducted by aliens, who had made her pregnant, and her husband wouldn’t believe her story. Luckily a nervous looking man with a twitchy left eye soon appeared and led her away.

In the end I went to see my GP, whose a friendly soul whom I’ve always liked.

“Your trouble is, people can sense you’re sympathetic and kind. You’re just too nice,” he told me. “I know because I’m a bit like you, but I’ve had to learn to toughen up – if I spent hours talking to my patients I’d never get any work done. But at university I was plagued by all kinds of waifs and strays who no one else liked, coming and telling me their tales of misery and trouble. A mate of mine helped me a lot. In fact he set himself up as a life coach, and I think he’ll be able to help you. He’s a really nice guy. He’ll give you lots of tips and techniques for tactfully getting away from mad people.”

So I went to see ‘life coach’ Peter, who had a pleasant friendly face and a welcoming smile.  He was indeed, as my doctor had told me, a really nice bloke, and I liked him. He listened to my problems and nodded seriously.

“I understand completely,” he said. “Our mutual friend Derek (my GP) was just like you at university. In one way you and Derek are very lucky people, because people instinctively like you, they feel you’re approachable and mentally ill people tend to be drawn to folk like that. I suggest that to stop this happening, it’s all a question of deflecting the unwanted attention you’re getting. You don’t have to stop being a nice sympathetic person, you just have to learn to reject people in a tactful way.”

He went on talking like that and I felt quite encouraged.

He looked at his watch after half an hour. “Do you know what, John?” he said. “You are very easy to talk to, I have so enjoyed meeting you. Matter of fact, my next patient hasn’t turned up, so unless you’re in a rush, there’s no need to end our session. Are you okay to stay for another hour?” He stretched out, frowning to himself, as he passed a hand across his forehead. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to explain a bit about myself. You see, I never really wanted to get into this line of work. I think when I was younger I should have gone to Canada and been a lumberjack. That’s what I really wanted to do – to assert my masculinity. My mother never actually understood me, I think she’d rather I’d have been a girl, and I do have these feminine qualities that I worry about, but maybe everyone does? My father never understood me either, he was an authoritarian figure who believed in ghosts and used to thrash me…”

Coronation Street

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“Here you are, son, this here’s an assault rifle. Reckon you could start World War Three with this!”

As he handed over the weapon and the boxes of ammunition, the man gave that I’ve just made a joke smile that people often do.

“But I don’t want to start World War Three,” I explained reasonably. “Besides, to start a war, surely I would need to be in charge of an army or the government or something, wouldn’t I?”

The criminal man whom I’d been sent to see didn’t answer me, just continued counting the banknotes I’d handed him to pay for the gun, all the money I’ve been saving in my post office account, that I had drawn out that morning.

Very often, people make jokes, but I never understand why they’re funny, I only know that they think they’re funny because they always do a little laugh. And I think that’s rude, don’t you? You shouldn’t laugh at your own jokes.

I’m twenty years old and they tell me I have something called ‘learning difficulties’, which isn’t, like, an illness, it’s something to do with teachers and writing and sums. I left the special school a while ago and now I live with my mum and work for Morrisons moving the trollies around, and sometimes they let me stack the shelves if someone’s with me. Everyone is nice to me, at least one of the men used to shout at me for being slow, but Mrs Russell told him off and he hasn’t done it again since.

Mostly I just go to work, but I play with my friends too, and I also watch a lot of telly with my mum and one of our favourite programmes in all the world is Coronation Street!

I love Corrie!

That’s why I got the gun, but this is a secret, don’t tell anyone. You see Mum and me won a competition to go to Coronation Street! Mum told me not to get too excited, and she says what she’s been saying to me for ages.

You see, I get worked up over what happens in the Corrie stories, I really really hate some of the people in it, and I really really like the others, especially the pretty girls. But Mum always says to me: “Brian, you mustn’t get so worked up. Because they’re not really people. You mustn’t hate them, or fall in love with the girls, or think they can be your friends, because they’re not real men and ladies and boys and girls. They’re pretend people.”

This worried me, because they looked and acted as if they were men and ladies. But Mum always goes on and on about it, she says people will laugh at me if I go on as if the characters in Corrie are real.

“No Brian, it’s a story. They aren’t real people, like our neighbours, or your friends, or the other boys and girls and men and ladies at Morrisons.”

“So they’re pretend people? Like in a story book?”

“Yes, just like in a story book. Someone invented all the men and ladies and children who are on the screen. They’re not really alive.”

“Not alive?”

“No. They’re pretend people. And that’s why you mustn’t get too involved in the stories, and start shouting at the ones you don’t like.”

“Because they’re made up? They’re in a story?”

“Exactly, Brian, because they’re made up, pretend people. They don’t exist.”

They don’t exist.

Wow.

What did she mean?

So I worked it out all on my own. They had to be, like, those pretend characters in a computer game. My friend John showed me his computer game and it was well cool. You had to shoot guys before they shot you, and really look into corners when you go into a room, for someone popping up unexpectedly and shooting you. Not shooting you, of course, but shooting your character in the game. See? They don’t exist and nor do you.

I always wear my raincoat, even if it isn’t raining. Sometimes men and ladies stare at me, but I don’t care. And it was really useful wearing the raincoat to go to Coronation Street on the day, because I could hide the rifle. I’d already practised firing it in the woods behind our house when Mum was out, I did it just like the criminal man told me, and it was easy. I shot off lots of branches.

When we arrived at Coronation Street it was just like on the telly. Same cobbled streets, but there were lots of funny men I’d never seen before at home on telly, frowny men mostly, all walking around talking into microphones, wearing headphones and shouting a lot, looking worried. The tall bald man who met us said something about ‘hersals’, and ‘hectors’, but I didn’t understand what he was talking about really. He said Mum and I could look around at the ‘hersals’ as long as we didn’t interrupt, so while he was talking, I wandered off on my own.

I went into a room, and I got a shock! There was the horrible builder man, the man with the twisty mouth who’s keeping a nice man prisoner in a cellar and bashing him up all the time. I like the man in the cellar, he looks like my friend Richard, and I really want him to be free, so he can be with his girlfriend, I like her too. So I hate the builder man.

So I got out my rifle, took aim and shot him.

It was funny. I thought he’d just disappear, like on John’s computer game, but he seemed to fall forwards in a funny way. Oh well.

Next I found the Rover’s Return pub, that’s the pub in Corrie where they all meet up, spend lots of money on beer and complain about being poor. In there was the nasty man who looks like Tintin and works in the hairdressers, the one who’s always shouting at people, with a permanent sour snidey jeer on his face. I’ve always hated him, so I shot him too. He looked quite surprised as he fell over, and then I shot his mum, the one who looks like a gerbil. She’s a silly lady, I never liked her.

Then I found the newsagent’s shop and shot the nasty little man with glasses who’s always moaning, and the big smirky black-haired lady.

I thought of trying to find the vicar man who kisses other men, so I could shoot him too, but suddenly someone grabbed me from behind, and pulled my arms back so I dropped the rifle. I was pushed to the ground and lots of men were holding me there and everywhere ladies were screaming and men were shouting and yelling something about police. I thought, maybe they’re going to let me appear in one of those police programmes? That would be well cool.

You see, secretly, I thought the men and ladies who make up the stories might be pleased I’d made things easier for them. They must hate it when’s there’s so many nasty characters, but to kill them they’ve got to come up with all kinds of twisty difficult stories about car crashes and fights. So I thought, I could save them all that trouble, just get rid of the nastiest of the people for them.

That way they could concentrate on writing more stories about the good characters, like the man in the anorak who runs the café whose poor wife died, and the nice old lady in the newsagent, or the Indianny man in the corner shop who speaks in a squeaky voice and smiles a lot. He’s lovely and smiley and he makes me laugh.

I thought the story writers might thank me and even ask me to a party or something.

Instead of that everyone seemed upset, and even though my arm was hurting, the men wouldn’t let me stand up.

I just didn’t understand. Why was everyone telling me off and cross with me?

Where was my mum?

Why was everyone so horrible to me? Why were they hurting my arm!

I started to cry.

“No good crying, boy!” A man yelled in my ear.  “Do you realise what you’ve done? All the people you’ve killed!”

“Oh no, you don’t understand,” I choked back through my tears, sobbing and trying to make him understand. “I can’t have killed them because they’re not real people. My mum told me. They’re not real people, they’re story people…”