Planning Permission

PlanningPermission

(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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Fiction Review: The Reopened Cask by Richard Zwicker

TheReopenedCaskMy quest to read more of the type of short stories I write continues with Rich Zwicker’s latest collection, The Reopened Cask. The cask in question is the cask that was, at least at the beginning of Edgar Allen Poe’s classic story, filled only with the finest amontillado wine and sets the theme that runs through most of the stories of this collection: an extension of a classic tale. Hence Other Wishes tells that tale of a detective investigating the case of The Monkey’s Paw and The Robot of Dorian Graham picks up on the themes of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, while the reluctant detective Phokus has a couple of outings investigating some of the stranger goings on of the Greek myths and Riddle Me attempts to give a more satisfactory answer than is customary to the age-old question of why the chicken crossed the road.

All of these stories have been published in magazines and anthologies in the past, so they’ve been edited or passed muster with an editor before they were self-published. Most of them use the high quality of the prose to carry Zwicker’s trademark wry humour and while they were easy to understand knowing the stories they were based around, the note of familiarity added a certain something when I did.

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Posted in Book review: fiction

A Shilling for a Copper

ShillingForACopper

(Spanish Coches [CC / Flickr])

Graham was supposed to walk beside Bill, but somehow he was always half a pace behind. A brand new copper was ranked far behind a constable with twelve years on the job in his actions, so it felt right even if it wasn’t regulation.

Bill stopped dead and pointed to a Ford Cortina parked by the kerbside. “There we go.”

Graham raised an eyebrow, but didn’t ask. If Bill chose to explain, he would. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t.

“First time for everything,” said Bill.

Graham had no idea what he meant, but every day was a string of first times having no idea was nothing new. Thinking about it had left him two full paces behind so he hurried to catch up as Bill crossed the road.

Bill walked round the back of the car and knocked on the passenger side window.

Graham saw a head bob into sight above the back of the seat. Its owner must have been crouched on the floor.

As he caught up, Graham saw the broken-toothed grin on the man’s face as he wound down the window.

“Hullo George,” said Bill.

“Awight Bill.” George sounded delighted to be looking up at the two coppers. “Just looking for me glasses. I think I dropped ’em down here.”

“You’re wearing them,” said Bill.

“Am I?” asked George. “I mean, I know. Found ’em, didn’t I?”

Bill reached past him to open the glove compartment. He whistled.

Graham leaned closer. What he saw sent a thrill coursing through his whole body. “Is that…?”

Bill turned a glare on Graham. It shut him up as efficiently as a smack in the mouth.

“Oh, that.” George still sounded delighted, if a little less than before. “That’s my nephew’s water pistol, that is. He must’ve forgotten it in there.”

“Are you sure?” Bill pivoted at the hips, looming closer to the car. “Because that looks an Enfield thirty-eight revolver with a sawn-off barrel to me.”

George shrugged, his grin back in place. “You know how kids are. They like ’em to look real.”

Bill said nothing.

George reached into his pocket. Graham’s fingers tightened on his truncheon. This was everything he’d been warned about at college, but something about Bill’s relaxed manner suppressed every instruction he’d ever given and kept him from drawing the truncheon.

George’s hand appeared, clutching not a weapon but a fistful of notes, which he handed to Bill. Bill flicked through them and nodded to George.

“They really shouldn’t make water pistols look so realistic,” said Bill. “Someone might get the wrong idea.”

He peeled off five twenty-pound notes, added a couple of tenners and handed them to Graham.

“Don’t you think so, young Graham?”

Bill’s eyes locked on Graham’s. It was being able to say so much without speaking a word that made Bill such a good copper.

“Yes, Bill.” Graham took the money and slipped it into his pocket. “It’s a scandal that they’re allowed to make them like that.”

“Good lad,” said Bill.

George looked at Graham for the first time. “He your new pair of wings is he, Bill?”

Bill grunted in acknowledgment.

“I see.” George nodded to Graham. “First time for everything, right?”Saturday Hooptedoodle: A Shilling for a Copper #FlashFic #flashfiction

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Informing the Customers

InformingTheCustomers

(freeimage4life [CC / Flickr])

Stanley knew it wasn’t going to go well when he was summoned to George’s office without being offered tea. George grunted, which Stanley took as an instruction to sit down, lowering his eyes to the level of George’s glare. Stanley tried a winning smile, but the glass behind George’s desk reflected the rictus of a man watching a stonemason carving the last letter of his name on to a slab of marble.

“I’m sure you know why we are having this conversation, Stanley.” George used names rarely enough that when he did, he sounded like a judge passing a sentence.

“Is it about the block email I drafted?” asked Stanley?

“It is indeed. Stanley. What on earth were you thinking?”

“Is there a problem?” asked Stanley. “I drafted it according to the brief?”

George harrumphed. Stanley had never heard anyone harrumph before. He’d always thought it was a figure of speech.

“Is there a problem, he asks.” George rattled a sheet of A4 that Stanley presumed was a printout of the draft he’d circulated. Stanley knew that if he’d printed it, it was because he’d planned to wave it around for theatrical effect. Knowing it did nothing to dilute the effect. “Well let’s look at it. Let’s start with this sentence here:

“‘We are committed to complying with all data protection regulations regarding our comprehensive collection of all personal data which you enter into our website or concluded from our analysis of your use of it, and we will only sell it on to third party companies that express a similar commitment although we cannot be responsible for their adherence to that commitment and they may be in jurisdictions where European Union regulations do not apply, in order to fund your ongoing free access to our website.”

George slammed the paper on to the desk under the palm of his hand. Even as he flinched, Stanley had to acknowledge the hours of practice that must have gone into slamming down a sheet of A4 without the paper flying out from under the hand.

“Do you think the sentence is too long?” Stanley didn’t want to speak, but George’s glower carried a demand that was impossible to deny. “I could break it up?”

George threw up his hands. “He thinks the sentence is too long! Stanley, have you even read your predecessor’s customer service emails?”

Stanley bobbed his head.

“And do you think I, or anyone else in this company, give a damn about the grammar?” George demanded. “Do you think our customer service emails are the stuff of deathless prose? Have you not noticed that in a customer service email, that sentence would be considered a marvel of brevity? No, Stanley, the problem with that sentence is not the length of it but the content.”

Stanley gathered his courage. “I was told to make our customers informed of our business model to comply with the new regulations. I thought that was what that sentence did.”

“Precisely. You have hit the nail squarely on the head.”

“I have?”

“You have,” said George. “Hence the problem with the content of that sentence. There is far too much of it. You were told to make our customers informed. If we were as suicidally inclined as to send a mail with that sentence in it, we would make them aware, which our business model depends on their not being.”

“Oh,” said Stanley.

“Oh. Oh indeed. Has the penny dropped?”

“You mean…” Stanley was afraid he was about to cry. “You mean I should draft a simple mail saying they’ll stay with us unless they use an opt-out option that will be hidden at the bottom of the mail, and will lead them through at least a couple of pages requesting information before they actually unsubscribe.”

“Go on.”

“And… and there will be another link that will take them to a page that – that we can arrange to load very slowly – that will describe our business model.”

George’s expression darkened, so Stanley spoke faster. “But the page won’t have that sentence. It will split the content of that sentence over ten thousand words of, of long, of very long sentences.”

George grunted. Last time he’d grunted, it had foreshadowed the harrumph, so Stanley dared to hope this was an aftershock and the worst had passed.

“The penny has dropped indeed,” said George. “Now it falls to you to open the door to the lavatory. Do you follow me?”

“In your footsteps,” said Stanley.

“Good. There lies the wisest path. I may not fire you after all. Now get on with it, man.”

“Right ho.”

As Stanley left George’s office, he found he was actually looking forward to the task.

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Look Past Me

LookPastMe

(Jamie Henderson [CC / Flickr])

Look at me.

No, look at me. Not past me. Focus your eyes on my face. See me instead of what you think you know about me.

Just for one moment, forget the voice in your head that’s telling you what I am. It will take courage. If you allow your gaze to linger on me for a mere moment more, I’ll be an individual to you. Not part of some amorphous mass that you sneer at with others like you. I won’t be the what that you assume me to be. I’ll be the who that I am.

I’ll be a person.

Are you afraid yet?

You should be. Because you need me to be a what, not a who.

Oh yes, that frightens you. You’re looking away already. You’re closing your mind to what I’m saying and filling it with what you think you know about me. What it’s comforting to know about me. What you need to know about me instead of what you’re in danger of learning about me.

Walk away now. Don’t look back. Take a few moments to purge your mind of any thoughts I may have infected your certainty with. Make sure that when you come back, you’re filled with the courage of conviction.

You always come back.

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Granddad’s Dreams

GranddadsDreams

(Stefan Barna [CC / Flickr])

“When I grow up, I want to design spaceships,” said Melanie.

“Really?” Granddad arched an eyebrow. “That’s a nice idea.”

Melanie was sure there was something missing from his answer but couldn’t quite see what it was. “What did you want to be when you were a child, granddad?”

Granddad frowned. “Well let me see, that was a long time ago now. I remember wanting to be a lot of things. I wanted to be an actor, you know. Like Alec Guinness.”

That made sense to Melanie. “You wanted to be Obi Wan Kenobi?”

“Who? I’ve know idea what you’re talking about. I remember seeing Kind Hearts and Coronets in the cinema and I thought it was wonderful. Sir Alec was nine different people in one film. That was how I wanted to be.”

Melanie frowned. “But you weren’t an actor, were you granddad?”

“No,” said granddad. “I wasn’t. Never even trod the boards as an amateur, now I think about it. Not long after that, I saw a Hawker Hunter flying past and I thought, up there’s where I want to be. A fighter pilot looking handsome in light blue and breaking the sound barrier.”

“But you weren’t a fighter pilot, were you granddad?”

“No,” said granddad. “I wasn’t. I never did learn to fly. Not long after that, I got appendicitis. Ended up in hospital. The doctors in there looked like they knew everything. Could solve any problem that came their way. That was who I wanted to be.”

“But you never were a doctor, were you granddad?”

“No,” said granddad. “You’ll find life’s like that, Melanie. Dreams are all very well at your age, but then you have to grow up. That’s when you find you have to be realistic. I got a job as an accountant, which was rather dull but I worked hard for forty-five years to get a decent pension to retire on. You see, Melanie, when you grow up, that’s what life’s really all about.”

“Are you sure?” asked Melanie.

“Yes, I’m afraid it is. Of course you should dream your dreams while you’re a child. Real life will be along soon enough. You’ll see.”

Melanie thought about that. “I think so. I think you mean that if I really want to design spaceships instead of being an accountant, I mustn’t keep changing my mind.”

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Follow the Girl

FollowTheGirl

(Kristine [CC / Flickr])

When the girl perches on the edge of a pool beneath a fountain to open the envelope, she’s kind enough to do it opposite a café. I can sit inside with a cup of coffee and look like any other perfectly respectable flaneur with a cup of coffee and a cigarette, watching her though the parade of flat caps, bowler hats and bonnets crossing the square between us.

I don’t like squares. Four streets intersecting gives eight exits. Exits are the bane of my profession.

I watch her flipping through the document, thinking that if it was important, she wouldn’t be perusing them in public as though she was reading Good Housekeeping. That’s the trouble with sitting in one place. When she’d been on the move, most of my mind was occupied with the tradecraft of keeping her in sight without being noticed by her. Now my mind was free to ask why a girl who suspected she might be followed would make herself conspicuous by being the only stationary person in the square. Everyone else who wasn’t in one of the shops or cafes was hurrying to their next refuge from the February chill.

I think about sidling over to sneak a glance over her shoulder, but she’s positioned herself so I’d have to stand in the pool. Conspicuous as she might be, I could get no closer without making myself even more conspicuous.

I study her posture. She’s focused on the document but I see no tension in her half sitting, half standing posture. If she’s reading orders for a daring mission or secrets that will topple governments, she’s hiding it well. It could mean she was a mistress of the art of inscrutability. It could mean I’ve spent the afternoon following her to collect a directive about a new expense claim form.

I look at her shoes beneath the hem of her coat.

They look more fashionable than comfortable. Not what she’d be wearing if she was collecting something that might get her chased.

I sip my tea, beginning to relax. Her shoes tell me I’m on a fool’s errand. Whatever is on the paper in her hand, it’s of no interest to the Firm.

It’s hard to tell from this distance, but was that a ghost of a smile crossing her lips? Something in he documents has amused her.

I’ve never heard of anyone being amused by a new expense claim form.

Did her eyes flick toward me? If I didn’t imagine it, she’s just told me that it’s not the documents that amuse her but the fact that I’ve devoted the afternoon to them. Which would only amuse her if it was exactly what she and her own Firm wanted me to be doing while their real business is being carried out elsewhere.

I raise the cup to my lips to hide the frown that is in danger of giving her an involuntary answer. I’m so intent on her that I don’t see the man until he’s right in front of me, leaning on my table and waving the Manchester Guardian. The excitement in his face is inches from my own, blotting the girl from my sight.

“Have you heard?” He’s so excited he’s almost shouting. “The Reichstag burned down last night. They’re fighting in the streets of Berlin!”

“What?” I’m trying to peer round him without making it too obvious that I’m more interested in the girl than the complete stranger jabbering in my face.

Then what he said hits me. “Who did it?”

“No one knows,” he says. “The Reds blame the Brownshirts. The Brownshirts blame the Reds. It’s all an utter pickle.”

“Good Heavens,” is all I can think of to say. Half the Firm will be running around with their hair on fire.

I now doubt that those documents refer to a new expense claim form.

The man has moved on to another table. He’s either decided that the Reichstag fire has made him a town crier for the day, or…

The girl is gone.

I look at the man, but his back is to me as he brandishes the Manchester Guardian at two middle aged women who look like they don’t understand what he’s so exercised about.

I hurry out into the square but I know I’m too late.

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Her Lost Key

HerLostKey

(Louise Leclerc [CC / Flickr])

I should have found a better opening but being me, I blurted out, “I’ve got this key.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“I thought you might have a lock,” I said.

“You mean a padlock?” she asked, “or a pin tumbler?”

I blinked. It had made much more sense when I’d gone over it in my mind an hour before.

“A pin what?” I asked.

“A pin tumbler. C’mon, if you’re looking for a lock that fits a key, you have to know what kind of lock you’re looking for or you’ll never find it.”

“That’s… logical.”

And completely off the script I’d planned. I was stalling for time now.

“Well?” she asked.

“Well, um, what kind of lock do you have? If we start there, I can work out if it’s the right key or not.”

“I have a very complicated lock and I haven’t seen it for years. I think it got dropped into a river or something, so I doubt you found it.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Or have you taken up mudlarking?”

I managed to stop myself from asking what mudlarking was. I was far enough off my script already. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think how to get back to it, so I said nothing.

“In fact,” she said, “it’s just as well it was unlocked when some fool lost the key.”

“Oh.” I realised how often I’d said, ‘oh’. “I mean…”

I stopped. What did I mean?

“Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to invite you in, would I?”

I didn’t say, ‘oh’. I was getting better at this.

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The Director’s Long Shout

TheDirectorsLongShout

(Chris Fithall [CC / Flickr])

The first thirty seconds of filming went perfectly. The camera tracked the carriage down the lane until the plywood façade masquerading as divisional headquarters, edged into the frame. It all went wrong when the two redcoated sentries snapped to attention.

“Cut!”

The carriage rolled in front of the sentries before it stopped, drawn by horses oblivious to the director’s shout.

“Who are you two?” demanded the director of the side of the carriage.

A shako-covered head appeared around the back of the carriage.

“Guardsmen?” The voice made it sound more like an appeal than a statement. It was not a tone that any sergeant-major of the guards would have tolerated.

The director’s face drained of colour. His more experienced assistants found something to do that was a safe distance from him. Safe, in this case, meant further away than someone who didn’t know him well enough to know what was coming next.

“Where are your moustaches?” Those who didn’t know him thought he sounded calm, which was why they made no effort to edge away from the danger zone. This was why their more experienced colleagues hadn’t warned them. New guys made good shock absorbers.

The guardsman who had spoken emerged into the full glare of the director’s demand. His companion followed him. They looked at each other as if to confirm that each of their upper lips were similarly bare.

“I’ll ask again,” said the director. “Once.”

The guardsmen’s heads bobbed toward him.

“Where. Are. Your. Moustaches?”

As one, the two guardsmen took an involuntary step back into the false façade of the building behind them. A panel fell off the scaffolding holding it up and crashed into the gravel next to the carriage.

The director said nothing, but his breathing was audible from the other side of the set. Every eye was trained toward him. It was as impossible to look away from him as it would have been to look away from a runaway train bearing down on a party of schoolchildren, and as agonising to watch.

“Please don’t shout,” said the carriage driver. “I know you want to shout, but the horses are already nervous from the crash and…”

In the days that followed, the witnesses would sometimes debate exactly what words the director used. The writers suggested a variety of colourful and inventive insults that encompassed everyone on the set. The electricians thought the writers were imposing the words they wanted to give their charcters on a random collection of obscenities. The camera crews were sure that whatever it was, it was directed entirely at the actors. The actors thought it was directed at the costume designer who had neglected the moustaches that were compulsory in the British army of 1894. The costume designer didn’t claim to know what he said, but was convinced that his chakras needed urgent realignment.

What they agreed on was that they would never have thought a man who needed a golf cart to get around some of the locations they’d filmed in could sustain such a high volume for so long. Nor would they have credited the transformation in the director’s face, from the white of the façade’s undercoat at the beginning of his long shout to the scarlet of the guardsmen’s tunics by the end of it.

The words made little difference to the horses, which bolted so fast that the leading lady’s parasol was torn out of her hands and left to float to the ground between the ruts the wheels left in the gravel.

“Don’t worry, boss. We’ll get it,” said one of the guardsmen.

The pair of them sprinted after the carriage. That the distance between them was lengthening rather than shortening with every stride mattered less to them than that it was heading away from the director. Futility was no reason to neglect a plausible reason to follow it.

Quiet returned to the set when the director finally ran out of breath.

An intern stepped into the space that had opened around him. Her footsteps faltered and her lip quivered, but she did not falter.

“Would you like a cup of tea, sir?”

Nobody had any difficulty in understanding the director’s answer. He had a great deal of practice with the words, ‘you’re fired’.

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The Prisoner’s Prawns

ThePrisonersPrawns

(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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