Chilling Jack


(Linzi [CC / Flickr])

Jack rolled his eyes when he found the freezer door open. He reached out to close it but a shout froze his fingers five centimetres from touching it.

Stop! What are you doing, man?” Jim held his hands up as if he could hold the door open from across the room. “It’s baking in here.”

“What do you mean?” Jack had been asking that question a lot since Jim had been his flatmate.

“I mean it’s hot. I’m sweating. We’re all sweating. The whole northern hemisphere’s sweating. Heatwave, dude.”

“I know what ‘baking’ means,” said Jack. “I’m sweating for England myself. But what’s that got to do with closing the freezer?”

“Well duh. It’s cooling the flat down.”

Jack flipped the freezer door closed. “Does it feel like the flat is any cooler with it open? And don’t say duh. We’re not twelve years old.”

“Ooh, get Mr Mature.” Jim put his hands on his hips and wiggled. “And it was totally cooling the room down. That’s what freezers do. Cool things. It can chill the room instead of just the pizzas. Now open the door, get a beer and chill yourself. You sound like you need it.”

“Jim, that’s not how freezers work. You open the door, the compressor works harder and makes the flat hotter. Not cooler. Hotter. And we’re out of beer. Even though I haven’t drunk any of it.”

“Oh? I wonder where that went.” Jim changed direction before Jack could answer. “Get yourself a glass of cold water then. You need something before all that negativity boils you from the inside.”

“It’s not negativity that’s making me hot. It’s being in a flat with a freezer running at full power during a heatwave.”

Jack poured himself a glass of water. He did need something cold to drink and if there was no beer, water would have to do. He thought about dropping come ice into it but opening the freezer to get it would restart the argument about whether he should shut it.

“It’s totally your negativity,” said Jim. “Let it go. Chill your beans. We’re all headed for the heat death of the universe. There’ll be all the time in the world to be hot then.

“The world won’t… oh, never mind.” Jack sat down and drank his water. It was better than trying to unravel Jim’s idea of cosmology. It would be far easier to find a new flatmate.

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Little Baz Asks Nicely


(Akhilesh Ravishankar [CC / Flickr])

I was coming out of Aldi when the boy punched me in the face. It wasn’t much of a punch. I didn’t even drop my three microwave chicken tikka masalas and two pints of milk.

“What d’you do that for?” I asked.

“Sorry,” he said, and punched me again.

He was having to punch upward to reach my face and he didn’t have much meat on him, so it didn’t have much weight behind it, but it caught me on the lip which stung a bit so I nutted him.

I felt bad about that. Looking down at him, I saw he wasn’t as young as I’d first thought but he couldn’t have been more than twenty. I’d have been more restrained if I’d been working, but then you expect some drunk moron to kick off with you when you’re on the door of a club. It’s what you’re there for. This kid caught me by surprise by trying it on at Aldi in the middle of the afternoon, which was why he was lying there groaning with his hand over half his face.

I leaned over him. “You all right, mate?”

“What d’you do that for?” he asked.

“I just asked you that. What do you think I’m gonna do if you punch me in the face? Look, you’re OK. I didn’t get your nose. Better a lump in the face for a few d

ays than six months inside, which is what you’ll get if you go around punching strangers.”

I gave him my hand and pulled him to his feet. He looked shaky but there was no blood leaking from under his hand and the eye it wasn’t covering looked focused. That eye was fixed on me like I was speaking Hungarian.

“Ain’t you Big Jeff?” he asked.

“No, they call me Little Baz.”

His brow furrowed as he looked up at me from below the level of my collar bones. “They told me to punch Big Jeff. Said he’s the guy with short hair, a goatee and a blue T-shirt.”

I looked down. My T-shirt was blue. I’ll give him that.

I nodded up the street, where another kid was skulking next to the recycle bin. He was five foot nothing and looked like he’d need help lifting himself out of bed in the mornings, but he had short hair and a goatee and he was wearing a blue T-shirt. He saw me looking and ran away.

“There goes Big Jeff,” I said.

The boy who’d punched me sagged against the plate glass window of Aldi. “Now what am I going to do? I’ve messed it all up.”

“You’re going to stay out of prison, son,” I said. “That’s the main thing.”

A tear ran down the cheek I could see.

“What’s so bad about that?” I asked him.

“They’re gonna kill my mum.”

“You what?”

“My mum’s already inside. She owes money. A lot of money, you know? They said they’d wipe the debt if I got myself sent down so I could take a condom full of heroin with me. They said I should punch Big Jeff, he’ll call the cops and I’ll get six months. Out in three and my mum’ll be out by the end of the year.”

I looked him up and down. “And you think that’ll be the end of it? Once these people get their hooks into you, they don’t let you go. Sounds like you’ve already seen enough to know that.”

He shuffled his feet. “It’s me mum.”

I should’ve walked away then. Should’ve said it’s not my problem.

I said, “Why don’t you come back to mine and tell me about it over a chicken tikka masala. You look like you could do with a meal.”

So he did.

That’s how I ended up here, asking you nicely to clear his mum’s debt. You don’t know me, so there’s something you need to understand. I’m a good doorman. Never did like the word ‘bouncer’. When you step out of line, I ask you nicely not to do it again.


If I have to ask again… well, you’re hanging out of a fifth floor window with your door kicked in and your mate in there spark out. That was part of me asking nicely.

So what’s it to be?

Do I have to ask twice?

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

The First Rung of the Ladder


Ghost Ladders by Louise Bourgeois (MOMA)

You need to open your eyes to climb the ladder. Go on, have a look around.

I said open your eyes.

That’s it. Good start. You’re looking at the top and now you can actually see it. Eyes on your destination.

That being said… yes, you see the problem.

Well, you don’t see it because you’re still staring at the top of that one ladder and wondering why you can’t get on to it. You need to start with the rung above the floor if you’re going to get to the top and that ladder. If you’re not going to look around you, you may as well leave your eyes closed and save them the bother of seeing.

How would I know why the ladder doesn’t reach to the floor? It’s your metaphor, not mine. What do you expect from me? Psychoanalysis? I’m not Sigmund Freud. I’m just someone who’s using a pair of eyes properly.

Don’t be like that. I’m not being sarcastic. I’m being literal. Stop flailing around underneath that ladder, take a look around at your eye level and you’ll see what I mean.

That’s it.

There, you see the ladder that will actually help you. The one that goes all the way from the floor, where you are right now, to the ceiling where you want to be. Yes I know it’s the longest climb of all the ladders you can see. That’s because it extends to where you actually are instead of starting at a point you’d have to levitate to before you could get aa foot on a rung.

Of course, you’re not interested in that one. You’d rather jump up and down underneath the shortest ladder. So that’s where you’ll stay, jumping up and down in the same place, wondering why you can’t get started on the easiest climb.

Telling the story of your life.

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Fiction Review: The Suicide Club by Rachel Heng

TheSuicideClubThe two people ahead of me in the queue agreed they wouldn’t want to live forever.

“What if your choice was to live forever or die tomorrow?” I asked.

Neither of them had an answer for that. Neither did I, which was why I’d asked the question. Because while not many of us are comfortable with the idea of immortality, most of us will do everything we can to delay our death for as long as we can.

The morbid topic came up in the queue to get our copies of The Suicide Club signed by Rachel Heng, and remained in the back of my mind while I was reading it. The premise of The Suicide Club is that in a future New York where ‘lifers’ can hope to live for three hundred years as long as they obsessively nurture their health, a chance encounter upends Lea’s carefully regulated life and throws her into contact with the situation every lifer dreads – group therapy.

The Suicide Club presents a world that could be a dystopia or a utopia depending on your point of view, but it takes a very different direction to predecessors like Brave New World or 1984. The usual trope of dystopian fiction is to follow a character who is disaffected from the system and becomes a lone rebel in a sea of conformity. Lea follows a different path in that far from being a dissident, Lea’s goal is to find her way back to conformity in a system that suspects her – which would be a lot more straightforward if she didn’t find herself caring about other people.

Heng gives us a dark satire on the health obsession of our time, but also explores the inescapable truth of our own lives and of those close to us: sooner or later, they end.

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Posted in Book review: fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Dr Inspiration’s Cruise


(Charles Mims [CC / Flickr])

Samantha made sure she was the last to enter the auditorium and slipped into a seat at the back. A few people were still working their way to seats on the rows further forward, hand over hand along the seat backs as the room rolled with the ship. No one was looking at Samantha, which was what she wanted.

The lights dimmed as soon as everyone was in their seats. The auditorium was in near darkness for the thirty seconds Samantha had thought was long enough to build the anticipation without anyone succumbing to the urge to check their phone. It had seemed right when they rehearsed last week, but it felt a lot longer now they were on the cruise. She leaned her head back against the back of the seat. The motion had made sense when she could see the horizon but in a windowless room, her inner ear was telling her it was plain wrong.

Light flared on the stage – thank Heavens – and Doctor Inspiration strode on to the stage, arms spread in the open posture Samantha had taught him and teeth gleaming from the whitening Samantha had paid for.

“Are we feeling positive today?” Doctor Inspiration, or Gary as he’d been when Samantha met him two weeks ago, stumbled forward but caught the lectern before losing too much dignity.

A murmur of acknowledgement spread through the audience. You never got the cheer first time. Samantha taught him that.

“We’re here to harness the power of positivity,” enthused Doctor Inspiration, “so let’s give it a better start than that. Are we feeling positive today?”

This was where he’d practised raising his arms, palms up, as though lifting the positivity level in the room through his own strength. The moment he took his hands off the lectern, his face registered his mistake. He began to fall backward. Doctor Inspiration jerked his hands upward, flailed and grabbed the lectern before losing his balance completely.

A couple of rows in front of Samantha, someone cheered, then looked around the silent audience. Samantha blessed the dark that hid the embarrassed expression that would be on the man’s face.

“I’m delighted to hear it,” said Doctor Inspiration as if the room had given him the reception they’d have given a winning goal. “I’m more than delighted. I’m almost ecstatic, because positivity breeds positivity. I say almost because I’m not quite there yet. Let’s see if we can get there by the end of this. I say ‘we’ because that’s how positivity works. I can’t get there alone. I need you with me.”

Samantha allowed herself to breathe again. It hadn’t been a great start, but Doctor Inspiration was getting into his stride now.

“When you think positive, positive things come to you. When you surround yourself with positivity, it sinks into you. So that’s what we’re going to do this week. We’re all going to be positive so that we surround ourselves with positivity. We’re going to swim in so much positivity that we’ll carry it home with us at the end of the week.”

He was learning to ride the lectern now, so his swaying was getting less obvious. There was something about that voice. That swaying. The background vibration of the ship’s engines… Samantha closed her eyes. It didn’t help.

“There are a few simple tricks we can all learn to free that positivity,” Doctor Inspiration was saying.

Samantha had to hand it to him. He’d learned his lines and he delivered them with panache.

“Let’s start with you.” He pointed to someone in the front row. “Come up here on the stage.”

He offered his hand to pull the woman up beside him. Samantha groaned inwardly when she saw he’d selected a pretty brunette. She’s told him a dozen times not to start with the most attractive woman he saw. It made him look like he was more interested in getting laid that spreading positivity, which of course he was but there was no reason to make it obvious. She’d have to work harder at pushing Gary further beneath the surface of Doctor Inspiration.

“What’s your name?” Doctor Inspiration’s full attention was on the brunette now. Look at the audience, Samantha silently implored him.

The ship chose that moment to reverse its roll. Doctor Inspiration and the brunette sidestepped across the stage with a co-ordination that would have delighted Samantha if she’d been a choreographer instead of an events manager.

Both of them grabbed for the lectern as they lurched past it. Screws ripped free of the wooden stage and somehow Doctor Inspiration landed on top of the lectern, which landed on top of the brunette. There was a moment of silence, then the brunette let out a cry that was half scream and half groan.

“C’mon, love,” said Doctor Inspiration, “there’s no need for that sort of negativity.”

The brunette was trying to curl up around her ribs. Samantha swore to herself, dreading what would be said on Trip Advisor if she was hurt as badly as she sounded. Another scream tore through the auditorium. The high pitch was worse than the vibration. Samantha dashed for the doors but didn’t make it. She vomited over three paying customers before making it to the doors.

As she staggered through the doors, it came to her. Doctor Inspiration had always been a bad idea. Next time, Gary would be Professor Positive. And there would be no ship involved.

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Prime Minister Johnson


(Matt Brown [CC / Flickr])

“I have the briefing on the North Korea situation here, Prime Minister,” said Janet to the back of his head.

The Prime Minister didn’t look around. “Not now, Beth. Can’t you see I’m having my hair done?”

“Yes, Prime Minister, but I thought you’d want to look it over before you meet President Trump.”

Janet wondered how many sentences she’d started with that construction.

Yes, Mr Member of Parliament for the bottom left corner of Nowhereshire, but…

Yes, Minister, but…

Yes, Prime Minister, but…

It must be in the tens of thousands.

The hell with it, she had her retirement date now so her pension was safe. “And it’s Janet. Beth’s on maternity leave.”

“Ah yes, of course she is. Hope it’s not one of mine.”

The hairdresser joined the Prime Minister’s chuckle, but he didn’t look up. He was picking his way through the Prime Minister’s yellow hair in a way that reminded Janet of a documentary of chimpanzees grooming each other for lice.

“Well look here, Jane, it took me more than nine months to get Beth’s priorities straight. I know you civil servants gestate your babies faster than you take my hints, but perhaps you can be the exception.”

“Prime Minister?”

The Prime Minister sighed. “Apparently not. That was a hint, you see. Well, I’ll explain. Air Force One is landing in two hours, at which point I’ll be shaking hands with the best coiffed president in American history. I’ll be broadcast from Birmingham to Beijing, and what people need to see is Good Old Boris. Not a tangle of greying roots blithering on about North Korea. That’s what foreign secretaries are for.”

“You’ll look fabulous, dearie,” said the hairdresser. “There won’t be a heart in Birmingham that isn’t a-flutter. Or Beijing.”

Janet glared at him. He winked, letting her know that among the concentric circles surrounding the Prime Minister, a private hairdresser inhabited zone one while a private secretary’s priorities had to commute in from zone four or five.

“As you’re here, Jilly, make yourself useful and tell me something useful about the president. Do MI6 know anything I don’t, or do they get their information from Twitter like the rest of us?”

Janet kept her face carefully neutral. The Prime Minister might not be looking at her, but the hairdresser would love a chance to slip the knife in when she wasn’t in the room. “Yes Prime Minister, but you didn’t request a report.”

“Didn’t I? Oh well, you’re all civil servants, aren’t you? I’m sure you all gossip together. From where I’m sitting, the whole civil service looks like an extended version of Brasenose College. They were always the first to hear what was up. What they know, I’m sure you know.”

“That’s because you’re looking in a mirror. As usual.” Janet spoke under her breath.

Not far enough under her breath. The hairdresser glared.

“What’s that? Speak up,” said the Prime Minister.

“I said I don’t know what MI6 know about the president, Prime Minister.”

“Well what do you think? The civil service always likes to be seen as omniscient. Now’s your chance to prove it. What’s your opinion?”

“Yes Prime Minister, but knowing something is different to having an opinion on it. Civil Servants don’t have those. Not after the first five years or so, anyway.”

The hairdresser tutted.

“Tell you what, Jean,” said the Prime Minister. “You tell me your opinion and I’ll read the briefing on North Korea. Deal?”

Oh what the hell, thought Janet. It wasn’t as if civil service gossip was exactly classified. It was just dangerous to give ministers any information until you’d satisfied yourself it wouldn’t inspire any ideas. “We know he’s a man who felt the need to build a skyscraper and write his name on it, and that he felt the need to bring up the size of his opponent’s hands during the Primaries. I have no opinion on that, but others may draw their own conclusions.”

“They may?” asked the Prime Minister.

“Oh believe me, we do. Take it from a connoisseur.” The hairdresser wiggled his pinkie. “Plenty have before.”

The Prime Minister snorted with laughter. It took Janet a moment to realise the ‘plenty have’ referred to who had taken it. It was like being in conversation with Kenneth Williams. She wouldn’t have blamed Beth if she’d got herself pregnant just to get away from it.

“So that’s what the civil service talks about in the ladies’ loos,” said the Prime Minister.

Janet tried to force a smile. Perhaps she managed to lift one corner of her mouth, but she wouldn’t have put money on it.

“It’s not bad, but I don’t see that it helps,” said the Prime Minister. “I wasn’t going to invite him to compare. Though now you bring it up -” The Prime Minister bit off what he was about to say. Janet doubted he cared about the propriety of it, so he must have realised what conclusions the hairdresser would draw if he continued down that route. “Well if he asks for a companion, make sure she’s briefed not to laugh.”

The hairdresser wagged his eyebrows at Janet. She managed not to roll her eyes.

“Are you going to say it or shall I?” He asked her.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She put all the authority of her decades in the civil service into her tone.

All four of them bounced off the hairdresser. “Come along, don’t be coy. You say a little more than that about him in the ladies’ loos, don’t you? Don’t keep us in suspense. Leak it, dearie, leak it.”

The Prime Minister guffawed, once again alerting Janet to the double-entendre that had passed her by.

She said nothing, leaving the floor to the hairdresser. He seized it like a veteran understudy hearing Hamlet had sprained a vocal chord. “What the lovely lady is too delicate to say is that a string of very public relationships with tall blonde models invites the same delicious conclusions in the ladies’ loos as it does in my favourite nightclub.”

Janet bit her lip. She’d already said too much for a seasoned civil servant. “I really think you should look at the briefing on North Korea, Prime Minister.”

“Sod North Korea, that’s what we’re renewing Trident for. I want to know what you two are saying about the president. Sometime before Air Force One lands, if it’s not too much to ask.”

Janet wondered how a man who saw double-entendres everywhere could be so slow on the uptake. To her relief, the hairdresser was enjoying the role of amateur intelligence analyst too much to want to relinquish it. “It’s what we call trying too hard. Oh my dears, I can’t see a man like that without wanting to give him what he really wants. Generous to a fault, that’s me.”

“Well bugger me!”

“I wouldn’t put it past him to try.”

“Well that’s marvellous. We’ve got him! Janice, get on the phone to MI5 quick smart. I want pictures and sound.”

“I’m sorry, Prime Minister, are you suggesting…”

“No I’m not suggesting, I’m ordering. And you know perfectly well what I’m ordering. It’s hardly as if no one’s ever done it before. How d’you think I passed my A-levels?”

“I knew it, dearie,” said the hairdresser. “You’re a brilliant man.”

The Prime Minister swelled with the praise. “I’m a devious sort, I’ve never denied it. Except in public, of course. Now I know we didn’t have to deal with the Secret Service at Eton, but that’s what we pay MI5 for. He’s not going to want his minders to know, is he? So he can be persuaded to give them the slip. On the phone, Jasmine, on the phone.”

“Yes, Prime Minister, but -”

“How’s the hair?” the Prime Minister asked the hairdresser.

“Perfect, dearie. Prime Ministerial and sexy all in one package.”

“Let us to it pell mell, then. And be clear with the spooks, Jackie. Pictures and sound. I want him in the palm of my hand.”

“It’s Janet, Prime Minister.”

He left without taking the briefing.



I don’t usually duplicate my hooptedoodles, but this one seems strangely apposite this week. I wrote it a little over two years ago, and I suppose I should be grateful that only half of it has come to pass. Yet.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Life Sentence


(Barney Moss [CC / Flickr])

The young man drank off another cup of wine.

The man with the grey beard gave him a look that the younger man had known his whole life. The look that said indulgence could be allowed to go so far, and so far it had now gone.

The young man poured another cup in reply.

“Three more and you’ll be drunk,” said the grey bearded man.

The young man fingered the cup but did not raise it. “How precise.”

“I’ve known you since you sucked your wet nurse dry. And you give me all the practice I need in estimating how much wine is needed to get you drunk.”

“Three more?” The younger man closed his hand around the cup. “Then I shall need at least four.”

The grey bearded man gave the flagon to the servant. “Be a good fellow and lock this away. We’ll be in need of it later.” He turned back to the younger man. “Drink that off as a farewell to the freedom of your youth and let us be gone.”

The young man’s eyes were on the flagon being carried out of the room. When the door closed, he raised the cup but replaced it on the table without drinking it. He stood and walked to the other door, placing one foot in line with the other and holding his arms outstretched. “You see I go to my prison freely. And sober.”

He spoke the word ‘sober’ as if it were a curse.

“Then you make a good start,” said the grey bearded man. “Many have killed to sit where you will sit in a few minutes, only to go so drunk that they needed a man on either side to keep them from falling down on the way.”

“And I wish they sat there still while I remained a free man.”

The streets were deserted, so none but the younger man heard the grey bearded man’s reply. “Then you are the right man to take their place.”

The young man grunted. “Well, we shall see if you still say that in a few years, when you have foiled a half dozen plots to replace me and must decide whether you will do right to stop another half dozen.”

The grey bearded man replied with a gravity he rarely used when they were alone. “I have no doubt at all that I will still be saying it on my death bed.”

“You make a good jailer.” They stopped at the cathedral door. “Well, the men who wear the cross keys must turn the key and I shall be yours.”

The two men shook hands.

The grey bearded man took a step back and bowed. “Your Majesty.”

The door swung open and the young man turned to look down the aisle toward the throne. He focused his eyes on the velvet cushion in front of it and the crown that lay on it. “Behold the key to the jail where must live the rest of my life.”

The grey bearded man waited for him to take the first two paces toward it and fell into step.

Behind him.

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Filtered Alice


(DualD FlipFlop [CC / Flickr])

Nigel knew he’d regret coming before Alice opened the door to her flat. She let him in without a word and led him into her kitchen.

“It’s in the bin,” she said.

“What is?” asked Nigel.


Nigel looked at Alice, who stood with her back to the countertop. It was as far as she could get from the bin without leaving the kitchen and standing in her living room.

Nigel opened the lid to the pedal bin, wishing she hadn’t got him so well trained that he was fishing things out of her bin at two in the morning without her even having to ask. He picked a scrunched up ball of paper off the pile of Chinese takeaway packaging.

He unwrapped the paper to reveal a printout of a picture of a woman who he recognised as Alice, but with skin that was so smooth it made her look like a mannequin. Her throat had been pulled so tight that her chin was sharpened to a point. Her eyes were enormous with irises of electric blue in place of the brown eyes regarding him from across the kitchen.

“I need Photoshop to find the real me,” said Alice.

“Last time I was here, it was because you needed me to crop your last boyfriend out of a selfie so you could use it for your Tinder profile,” said Nigel. “When did you learn how to use Photoshop? You did this with an Instagram filter.”

“I didn’t ask you here to be pedantic.”

“You didn’t ask me here at all. You just called me up and said you were here with dim sum and noodles. I thought you needed to talk and you were offering me a late dinner.”

“I was offering you a late dinner.” Alice sounded defensive. Bad sign. “But I ate it while I was waiting for you to get here.”

Nigel took a deep breath. “All right. Why is your Insta… your Photoshop of Dorian Gray in the rubbish? And why does it look like an elf from Middle Earth that’s overdone the Botox?”

Alice’s face hardened. “I do not look like an elf. That’s the real me you’re holding there. Me. Alice. The woman. And stop showing off about how many books you’ve read.”

Nigel caught himself before he told her the real Alice was the one living, breathing and glowering right in front of him. “All right. Why is this Alice in the bin?”

“Because she’s too good to be me. I’m telling you this because you’re the only one who will understand. Even if you are the most irritating person I know.”

“I don’t understand,” said Nigel, even though it was beginning to make more sense than he wanted it to.

Alice said nothing.

Don’t let her draw you in, Nigel told himself.

“You’re seeing this as the real, good, beautiful Alice.” Nigel wanted to kick himself for saying it. “You put it – or her or you or whatever – in the bin because it reminds you of who you would like to be and who you think you are not.”

“Exactly,” said Alice. “You do understand. That’s why you’re the most irritating person I know.”

Nigel put the kettle on. He was going to be here all night.

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Ian Chooses a Train


(Smabs Sputzer [CC / Flickr])

Ian ran down the stairs to the platform so fast he nearly fell on his face. The indicators on the concourse had told him he had two minutes to go before the train departed from platform… damn. Was it platform six or platform seven? A train stood on either side of him. One of them would take him to Basingstoke. Which meant the other one might take him anywhere that lay in the opposite direction.

There must be something down here to tell him which one. He located the dot matrix indicator hanging from the ceiling, impartially between the two trains. ‘Information currently unavailable. No smoking’.

“Of course it’s not available,” Ian muttered, wishing he was a smoker so he could show the thing what he thought of its orders.

At least one of his two minutes had ticked away while he was glaring at the dot matrix indicator, leaving him without enough time to dash back up the stairs to the concourse, check the boards there and dash down again.

“Fifty-fifty,” he told the dot matrix indicator.

He entered the train on his right. The carriage looked empty, which seemed promisingly likely in a train going to Basingstoke. And he could have the luxury of not only a double seat but a whole table to himself.

Perhaps his luck was in.

At the other end of the carriage, someone stood up from behind the row of seats. The carriage hadn’t been empty after all. The thought crossed Ian’s mind a split second before he registered that the figure was so tall that its Freddy Kruger mask brushed the ceiling and so wide that it filled the aisle it was now standing in with its leather jacket, jeans and DMs.

“Hi there,” said Ian. “Do you know if this train goes to Basingstoke?”

No answer. Ian found himself staring at the Freddy Kruger mask. It was only now that he was beginning to register that his mind ought to be at least as concerned about that mask as by whether he was on the right train or not.

“It’s not Halloween today, is it?” Ian asked the masked figure.

“No.” The figure lumbered down the aisle toward Ian.

Some instinct made Ian look behind him. A similarly masked and leathered figure was shambling down the aisle from the other end of the carriage.

A babble of bleeps announced that the doors were about to close.

“D’you know what?” asked Ian. “I think I’m on the wrong train. Silly me.”

He shot through the doors. A roar of laughter chased him on to the platform, drowning out the alarm. He turned back to see both the masked figures doubled over with mirth.

“Mental banter,” shouted one of them just before the doors rumbled shut.

Ian gave them the finger, which caused one of them to laugh so hard he fell over.

“Still fifty-fifty,” muttered Ian and got on the other train.

He looked down the carriage. No morons in masks, which was a good start. Just a woman sitting at one of the tables.

A rather beautiful woman, now he looked again, with high cheekbones and dark hair tumbling over the shoulders of her white blouse. She looked up, locking her hazel eyes on his.

Ian dropped his gaze. He started to turn to find a seat in the opposite direction but she waved. “Hi there.”

He looked back to her. She was beckoning him over.

“Look, I’m sorry to ask this, but could you help me?” Her Scottish accent matched her looks. “I’ve been handing out free samples of my brewery’s beer at a sales conference and I’ve come away with rather more than I expected.”

She raised a bottle to Ian.

Ian blinked. “You’re offering me a beer?”

“Sure. I’m sick of lumping it about and the more we drink, the less I’ll have to carry.”

Ian sat opposite her and took the beer. He took a sip. He took another. He looked up to see the woman smiling, which made her look even more beautiful.

“That’s incredible.” Ian wasn’t sure if he meant the beer or her smile.

“Plenty more where that came from,” said the woman.

“Well… thank you. Not to change the subject, but do you know if this train goes to Basingstoke?”

“Basingstoke? No, that’s the other side.” The woman waved to where the train Ian had tried first was gathering speed. “This one’s non-stop to Inverness.”

Ian took another sip, which tasted even better than the first two. He glanced at the woman’s left hand. No wedding ring.

“No. I’m quite sure I’m on the right train.”

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Planning Permission


(srv007 [CC / Flickr])

Mr Harrison welcomed Tim into his house and had him sat down with a cup of tea and a custard cream before Tim could get his recorder out, let alone ask a question.

“I’m really glad your paper decided to run this,” said Mr Harrison. “I’m just a normal person against the establishment, so it’s important that my story gets told.”

Told on page seven under the half-page Specsavers advert, thought Tim, if it’s a slow news day. The paper wouldn’t be sending their newest reporter if they thought it was important.  “So tell me what happened.”

“Like I said, I’m a normal bloke. Retired last year. Got some time on my hands so I thought I’d add a bit of space to my house. No big deal. But the amount of fuss about it, you’d think I was building Buckingham Palace on my driveway.”

Tim nodded encouragement.

“I got a letter from the council saying I needed planning permission. Load of red tape. I was building on top of what’s already here. I wasn’t increasing the footprint. I was a builder before I retired, so I know about these things.”

“You’ve dealt with planning permission before, then?” asked Tim.

“Well, not exactly. The management dealt with the paperwork, I just did the building. But it stands to reason, doesn’t it?”

Tim was careful not to look as if he agreed or disagreed. “So they stopped you?”

“The tried.” Mr Harrison tapped his nose. “Those tossers next door complained about the noise. Well, you can’t build much without power tools, can you? I like to get started early and weekends don’t mean a lot when you’re retired. What I do at half past seven on a Sunday morning’s my own business if it’s on my own property, isn’t it?”

“So they tried to stop you?”

“Tried is the word, my boy. But we worked it out.”

“No more work on a Sunday morning?” asked Tim.

Mr Harrison snorted. “Nah, I started work at six o’clock. Soon as it got light. I showed them, I did.”

“Right.” Tim was having to make an effort to keep his tone neutral. “Did anyone else complain?”

“Oh yeah. No one wants to leave a normal bloke alone anymore. They’re tossers on the other side as well. Soon as I’d got the walls up, they were moaning that I was blocking the light to their garden. Like they own the sunlight! ‘Course the council took their side and brought up the planning permission again. See what I mean about red tape? This whole country’s drowning in it.”

“Hm.” It was the only thing Tim could trust himself to say that would sound non-committal.

“So the council are taking me to court if I don’t pull it down, and now I’ve got an ASBO that says I’m not even allowed to do that before ten in the morning. They’re all a bunch of little Hitlers and these tossers,” he waved his arms, indicating his neighbours on both sides, “they’re Quislings, which is even worse. An Englishman’s home is his castle, am I right?”

“I’m sure,” said Tim.

Mr Harrison frowned, telling Tim his answer hadn’t met the required level of enthusiasm.

“I’ll be in court next week and I’ll expect to see you in the gallery,” said Mr Harrison. “I’ll tell the whole Stasi lot of them where to shove it. I’m just a normal person against the establishment. You tell your readers what I tell them. Are you with me?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” This time, Tim meant it. If Mr Harrison got himself removed from the courtroom, Tim might get his first page four.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle
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