The Prisoner’s Prawns


(Thomas [CC / Flickr])

The prisoner rubbed his hands. “I’m looking forward to this.”

The warder nodded politely.

“I’ve been eating your swill for weeks. Time I had a change and by God, I’m going to enjoy it.”

“Quite”, the warder agreed.

The prisoner fondled his knife and fork. “Always liked a good shrimp. D’you think they found the Dublin Bay prawns? D’you think they know how to cook ’em right?”

“I’m sure,” said the warder.

The prisoner cocked his head at the sound of footsteps.

“Here it comes. Can you hear it?”

“I can,” said the warder.

A man in prison overalls placed a plate of prawns in front of the prisoner and left without looking at either of them.

The prisoner closed his eyes and inhaled.

“That smells gorgeous,” he said. “Tell the cook I said so, will you?”

“I will.”

The prisoner impaled a prawn and placed it in his mouth. His smile was rapturous.

“Did you give your wife a last meal before you wrung her neck?” asked the warder.

The prisoner’s jaws froze. He looked at the warder for a long time before he swallowed with the expression of a man gulping down a raw lemon.

He scowled at his plate.

“Enjoy the meal,” said the warder.

“I’m not hungry.”

“What a pity.”

They looked at each other.

“How long now?” asked the prisoner.

“Not long now.”

The prisoner pushed his plate toward the warder. “Here. You have it.”

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Titanic Memories


(David Resz [CC / Flickr])

Jack Johnson implored everyone in the café to spare a dime, but Caroline’s pen didn’t stop moving. It didn’t touch the varnished table while the Eagles accused her lyin’ eyes and if it paused while Caroline explained a particularly difficult equation to Henrietta, it didn’t move from directly above her A4 pad.

“Thank you,” said Henrietta. “You’re the perfect study partner.

Caroline smiled for a moment. She liked feeling she’d helped someone. Then a rictus swam across her face and her pen flew into the air.

“What’s wrong?” asked Henrietta.

“Listen,” said Caroline.

Henrietta cocked her head for a moment, then groaned. “I hate the Titanic song,”

“I love that song,” said Caroline. “It’s the first film I watched with Sam. Retro night at the Odeon.”

“I can’t stand it,” said Henrietta. “Tim and I were watching it at his place when we had our breakup row.”

“That moment when he lifts her up and she’s flying. That was when Sam put his arm around me for the first time…” Caroline closed her eyes at the memory.

“It was that scene when he was drawing her,” said Henrietta. “I think I said something about him never looking at me like that.”

“And we kissed for the first time during the credits,” said Caroline.

Henrietta pinched the bridge of her nose as if to block her tear ducts.”I can’t remember what happened after the drawing. I know we were shouting by the time it sank.”

“Doesn’t Celine sound divine?” asked Caroline.

Henrietta scowled. “That woman sounds like a cat that’s been shut out in the rain.”

They looked at each other.

Caroline retrieved her pen. “Right. Differential equations.”

“Differental equations,” agreed Henrietta.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

On a Stationary Train

Mk3B DLV 82107

(Steve Jones [CC / Flickr])

The train had been stationary for twenty minutes when the woman across the table from Jeremy said, “It’s the first day of spring today.”

Jeremy looked up from his iPhone 7.

“First of March,” she said. “Happy first day of spring!”

Jeremy regarded her with caution. She didn’t look bonkers and twenty minutes of being stuck in the middle of nowhere without an explanation was just about long enough for strangers on a train to start talking to each other, but…

Jeremy looked out of the window at the blanket of snow smothering the home counties.

“I don’t see any daffodils,” he said.

“They’ll be along in their own time,” said the woman. “The skylarks will be singing above the fields, the ponds will be seething with tadpoles, the trees will splash with blossom.”

Jeremy blinked. “As long as we don’t have to wait for all that before the train starts moving.”

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll be moving in two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” said the woman.

Perhaps this woman didn’t travel on trains very often. Perhaps he was frowning so much that she felt the need to cheer him up. But Jeremy found himself increasingly convinced that he was sitting across the table from the sort of bonkers he really didn’t want to be stuck across a table on a stationary train from. He decided to try her out.

“And it’s the season of rent hikes and council tax increases,” he said.

The woman laughed. Her reply was drowned out by the train manager announcing that they would be on the move within the next hour and would transfer to a rail replacement bus at the next station.

The woman clapped in delight. “Oh good. I told you we wouldn’t be stuck for long.”

Jeremy was conscious of a sinking feeling.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Jim’s Sister


(Geoffrey Meyer-van Voorthuijsen [CC / Flickr])

The day my little white car broke down was the last but one time I decided enough was enough.

“You’re late,” said my sister when she opened the door to mum’s place.

“I’m fine, thank you,” I said. “How are you?”

She grunted. “It’s mum’s birthday. We’ve been waiting half an hour for you.”

“Yes, I know it’s mum’s birthday. I’m not here at the same time as you by coincidence. But my car broke down. I’ve been -”

She wasn’t interested. “Honestly, Jim, can’t you think of someone else for once?”

“That’s it,” I said. “I’m going to Thailand.”

“What are you on about?”

“I said I’m going to Thailand.”

That got her attention. “Right.” Sort of. “Well come and say hello to mum and we’ll talk about it later. And remember to say sorry.”

That settled it. “I’m going to Thailand now.”

“Don’t be silly, Jim,” said my sister. “You’ve got two horses and a llama in your back garden. Who’s going to look after them if you go skipping off to Thailand.”

Damn. She had a point there. Still… I looked at her.

“No. Absolutely not. That was me asking a rhetorical question, not me planning your logistics for you.” She stepped back from the door. “Just come in and say hello to mum, will you?”

“Good idea.” I stepped through the door. “I’ll ask her.”

“No you damn well won’t. I spend enough time driving mum around already without taking her to your place twice a day.”

I liked the sound of that. “You think she’ll say yes, then?”

My sister pinched the bridge of her nose as if trying to squeeze out an ache before it made it any further into her head. “When will I ever learn? No, don’t answer that, Jim. It was another rhetorical question. I don’t know what you were thinking, bringing horses and llamas into that tiny little garden.”

I shrugged. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

My sister dropped her hands to her hips and glared at me. It was an expression she never seemed to wear when she was talking to anyone else.

“A lot of things seem like a good idea to you because you don’t think them through. Have you still got that harp blocking your bedroom door?”

“It’s not blocking it. I can get through the door perfectly well,” I said. “If I turn sideways.”

“And how well can you play it now?”

I didn’t meet her eye. “I haven’t started the lessons yet.”

My sister took a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry about your car. Come and say hello to mum and we’ll talk about Thailand later.”

“You’re just hoping I’ll forget about it,” I said.

My sister didn’t answer, so I knew I was right. In fairness, so was she.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

A Suspiciously Washed Shirt


(Lucia ferri [CC / Flickr])

Priscilla marched into the living room, brandishing Robert’s shirt.

“You’ve washed your own shirt.” She threw it at him, covering his face.

“Hey!” Robert pulled it aside, his eyes still fixed in the direction of the television. “Arsenal are about to score. You’ll make me miss it.”

Priscilla glared down at him, arms folded, until her words sank in. He snapped his face toward her, looking like a man whose plans for a quiet evening with the Champions’ League had been disrupted by a tiger prowling through the door.

“Is.. is that a crime?” he asked.

“No, it’s a bloody miracle,” said Priscilla, “or more likely it’s an alibi. Did it, by any miniscule chance, smell of perfume?”

Robert blinked. “No.”

“Don’t lie to me. What’s her name?”

“Priscilla, there was no perfume on it.”

Priscilla seized the remote control and swept the Champions’ League from the screen. She stood directly between him and the television, forcing him into the one orientation he was accustomed to giving his full attention to. “When you start a sentence with my name, I know you’re hiding something. Who is she?”

“Pris -” Robert bit down on her name. “Darling, I promise you, I haven’t been with another woman.”

“Darling is just as much a giveaway as my name. We’re not dropping this until you tell me the truth.”

“But I -”

“All of the truth. Not just the little bit that you think will shut me up.”

Robert sighed. “All right, I’ll tell you. But you’re not going to like it.”

Priscila jutted her face toward him, prodding him to go on.

“The truth is that I found out about you and that muppet, Nigel. I’m sorry.”

Priscilla felt herself deflate. Her hands dropped to her sides. Her knees dropped her into a chair.

“Hang on,” she said. “Why are you sorry? What have you done?”

Robert couldn’t look at her. “You know I get carried away sometimes. I didn’t mean to, but the thought of you and him… and then it turned out he was a Manchester United fan… anyway, it was his blood I was washing off the shirt. Nothing to do with another woman.”

Priscilla took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Robert. I jumped to the wrong conclusion. You know how I always think it’s something really bad.”

Neither of them spoke for several minutes.

“Could I…?” Robert sounded tentative. “Maybe…”

Priscilla gave him back the remote control without speaking.

Arsenal lost three-nil.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Non-fiction Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

SapiensWe are on the threshold of both heaven and hell, moving nervously between the gateway of one and the anteroom of the other. History has still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction.

So says Yuval Noah Harari. You might answer, ‘Aren’t we always?’ – especially if you happen to be a lover of Dickens.

The history of our species as detailed in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind makes it sound as though we’ve been hovering on that threshold since the ‘cognitive revolution’ of 70,000 years ago, when the first human culture arose. There are, however, times when the doors to heaven and hell have looked particularly enticing and we live in one of those times. As with all the other times, the doors are labelled with hieroglyphics in a language we can’t read. Even if we think we’ve deciphered them, we only have a vague idea of how to make the sort of collective decision that leads to choosing one of them.

Whenever we’ve stepped through one of those doors, we’ve usually found ourselves in another threshold rather than heaven or hell, but there have never been seven billion of us before and we’ve never had technology that’s capable of restructuring the world we live in quite so comprehensively.

Sapiens is less about the choice before us now than about how we got here, via similar choices in the past. Harari leads us through the cultural innovations that brought us here, including economic leaps such as the agricultural revolutions of the last 10,000 years, the evolution of religion from animistic beliefs to the explosion of monotheism in the first millennium AD, and the geopolitical rise of the empires that dominated most of human history for around two thousand until the last of them crumbled in the last century.

If you are a firm believer in, or opponent of, any political or religious doctrine, you’ll probably find yourself disagreeing with at least part of what Harari has to say. That reflects the strength of Harari’s analysis, but is also something of an omission: it would have been interesting to know how he thinks we should go forward from here. That said, Sapiens is not a political doctrine but a work of history that draws from many disciplines across the sciences and the humanities. I found myself reading it as a continuation of the multidisciplinary history I first came across in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, albeit with another decade and a half of scientific progress to draw on.

Harari’s research is, like Diamond’s, rigorous and considered, but considerately banished from the text. Sapiens is not an academic tome, but is a very readable high-speed tour through seventy millennia of humanity with enough information in the bibliography to chase down his sources for anyone so inclined.

I’d definitely recommend it for anyone with an interest in where we are and how we got here – as long as you’re willing to have your assumptions challenged.

As a taste of what to expect, it’s worth a look at Harari’s TED talk in which he condenses some of the themes of the book into ten minutes, which is no small feat in itself:

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Traveller on the Moor


(Clifton Beard [CC / Flickr])

Horace saw the traveller immediately after the sun dipped below the horizon. A piece of darkness in the shape of a cloaked man, barely visible by the lavender sky as it moved through the heather and gorse toward him.

Horace waited for it to draw close enough to hear his halloo. Otherwise, the traveller might pass by without ever knowing there was another on the moor who did not have the last of the sun behind him.

The figure stopped a hundred paces from Horace. So the traveller was alert. Many a man would have kept his head down, huddled in his cloak against the evening chill. The traveller must have eyes as sharp as Horace himself to see a motionless figure against a dark horizon.

“Good evening.” It was a man’s voice, with enough power to carry a greeting across the distance between them. Horace heard no wariness in the words, but the distance the traveller was keeping spoke for itself.

“Good evening,” said Horace.

“Have you news from the capital?” asked the traveller.

Horace had met many a traveller on the moor, but none who did not have more recent news from the capital than he did.

“Not recently.” Horace allowed no hint that he thought it was a strange question. “By the time news finds us on the moor, it likely ain’t news no more.”

The traveller approached closer. Close enough to reveal handsome features and the best trimmed beard Horace had seen since a troupe of travelling performers crossed the moor.

“Is there a place nearby where a weary traveller might rest his head?”

Horace considered the question. “Aye. You’ll find such a place if you walk with the day at your back until you reach a stream, and follow it downhill for as long as it takes to smoke three pipes.

“Thank you, friend.”

“And none who’ll answer questions from them.” Horace jerked his chin at the horizon behind the traveller, where a band of horsemen had appeared in silhouette against the pale band of light.

The traveller looked over his shoulder. “I’ll be on my way, then.”

He resumed walking.

“There’s sanctuary for everyone on the moor,” said Horace to the traveller’s back. “Tomorrow’s pauper or yesterdays’ king, they’ll all find sanctuary and silence here.”

The traveller paused for a moment, but did not look around. Horace watched until his back had merged with the darkness.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Celeste Loves Alan


(elPadawan [CC / Flickr])

Celeste took Alan’s hand in hers.

“I love you,” she said.

Alan’s Adam’s apple bobbed. He said nothing.

“Do you love me?” asked Celeste.

“I…” Alan withdrew one of his hands to adjust his spectacles. “I’m not sure. I feel a lot. Something happens when I see you. Is that love?”

Celeste frowned. “Alan, I asked if you love me. I didn’t ask for a discourse on definition.”

“Yes, I know,” he said. “I’m trying to answer the question. You know I’m a little, well, awkward.”

“I know you are,” said Celeste, “and you know I tolerate your awkwardness. It’s part of how I know I love you.”

“Right. I see what you mean. Well, when I see you, I feel something – I don’t know what it’s called – in my chest.” Alan’s brow furrowed. “Or perhaps it’s my neck. Or my throat? It’s hard to tell.”

“Good start. Go on.”

“I feel sad at the idea of saying goodbye to you. I want to stay with you. To help you when you need help. To protect you when you need protection.”

“There you go,” said Celeste. “Like I’m trying to help you with the awkwardness. See how I’m helping you say what you mean?”

“I don’t want to change you at all. I want you to go on being Celeste. Forever.”

He reached for his glasses again.

Celeste intercepted his hand and held it in hers. “Don’t do that. It’s part of the awkwardness.

“Oh. Right.”

“See, I’m helping you. Like you say you want to help me.”

Alan’s hand twitched in the direction of his glasses. Celeste held it firmly.

“I’m not sure that’s quite what I meant,” he said.

Celeste fixed her eyes on his. “So do you love me like I love you?”

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Hope’s Firework


(Magdalena Swebodzinska [CC / Flickr])

Jonno held the firework in front of him as though it was a gold medal and the four of them had just won the Olympic relay.

“What do you see here?” he asked.

“A firework,” said Shawn.

“That’s what it is, but can we go better than that?”

“A rocket,” said Kate.

“That’s what it is physically,” said Jonno, “but let’s go metaphysical. Let’s go symbolic. It’s more than a firework. More than a rocket. It’s your ambition. It’s your hope. What is it?”

He brandished the rocket toward them, as if commanding a cheer.

Four people exchanged glances from beneath beanie hats.

“Ambition?” Kate sounded tentative.

“Hope?” Shawn suggested.

“Possibility?” Caroline chipped in.

“Yes, positivity.” Jonno seized the new word. “That’s good. That’s real good, Caroline. Now I’m going to point it at the sky like this. Because that’s what we do with hope and ambition and positivity. We gather them together and send them up. Up into the sky. Shooting for the moon. C’mon Paul, you’re quiet. What are you thinking?”

Paul folded his arms tighter around himself. “That’s it’s cold out here.”

“Right. Realism. That’s good. Can’t have ambition without realism, can we?” Jonno paused, looking aware that his voice had lost its conviction. When he spoke again, the conviction was redoubled. “Now I’m going to light the blue touchpaper and you’re all going to watch your hope streak up. Up and away. And explode positivity over our heads to light the way forward. Forward into the rest of our lives.

Jonno placed the stick of the rocket into a bottle. ” Stand back a bit, Shawn, you’ll get singed. Thanks.”

He struck a match. “Now we get excited, people!”

He touched the match to the rocket’s base, and stood back as a red glow smouldered its way toward the gunpowder. The rocket screamed upward, leaving a trail of green light.

“Now for the explosion of positivity,” shouted Jonno.

The green streak vanished into the overcast. With a pop, a faint glow lit the cloud for a moment before the night grey sky swallowed it.

“Can we go inside now?” asked Paul.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Cyril’s Wife’s Nap


(Henry Burrows [CC / Flickr])

Cyril’s patience ran out in the fourth hour. He shuffled up to his garden fence, swinging his stick in front of him as if clearing non-existent weeds out of his way.

“I say there,” he bellowed into the swirl of children in Alison’s garden. “Can’t you keep the noise down? My wife needs her afternoon nap.”

No one seemed to hear his words, but Alison waved to acknowledge him. Her face said she’d be with him as soon as she’d dealt with whatever crisis was besetting the two children in front of her. Quite how Alison could discern what those two were saying was beyond Cyril. From where he was standing, I sounded like all the children in the garden were blending their voices into a single shrill cacophony.

One of the other mothers marched up to the fence before Alison extricated herself.

“Who are you?” she demanded.

“Good afternoon, madam. My name is Cyril -”

“I don’t care what your name is. Why are you peering at the kids, you old perv?”

“I beg your pardon, madam. I merely wished to ask if you could moderate the noise. My wife -”

“They’re kids. Of course they make noise. That’s no excuse for ogling at them. Eff off or I’ll call the police.”

Cyril’s grip tightened on his stick. “This is my garden and I shall stand where I please within it. I assure you that I have no intention of effing anywhere until my wife can have her nap.”

The other woman’s mouth hardened into a line, but Alison arrived before she could answer.

“It’s all right, Tiffany,” said Alison. “I’ll talk to Cyril.”

Tiffany’s feet remained firmly planted.

“I think little Caspian’s fallen off the bouncy castle,” said Alison.

Tiffany’s eyes snapped open and she was gone with an “oh!” of horror.

“Yes, Cyril, what is it?” asked Alison.

“Nothing,” said Cyril. “Absolutely nothing at all.”

It took Cyril twenty minutes to get up the road to the newsagent and back. He composed himself before he ambled back into the garden and spent a few minutes poking his stick into his cabbages and artichokes, hoping he looked like a man looking for aphids suckling without signed permission. The woman called Tiffany shot him an occasional glare, but showed no sign of wanting to say any more to him.

When a small boy wandered close to the fence, Cyril straightened his back. “Hullo, young shaver.”

“Hello,” said the boy.

“I’ve got a present for you. Something for the party.”

The boy looked uncertain.

Cyril handed him the packet he’d bought from the newsagent. “It’s just some chocolate. Share with your friends. Enjoy yourselves.”

The boy accepted the packet of chocolate-covered coffee beans and ran back to the party. Cyril darted a look around Alison’s garden, but all of the mothers were preoccupied with the children in front of them. He saw with some satisfaction that Tiffany looked as if she needed a lie down already. Not nearly as much as she’d need one by the time the effect of all that sugar and caffeine had worn off.

“If my wife can’t have any peace,” he said under his breath, “neither will you. You think you’re tired now? Just you wait.”

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle
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