What Would Frank Choose?

WhatWouldFrankChoose

(Mike Mozart [CC / Flickr])

The bus stop defeated Ray.

He stood still and alone amid a whirl of people who all looked like they knew where to go or when to go nowhere. Most of them were looking as clueless as Ray until a bus wheezed to a halt in front of them. A dozen of them lost their demeanour of aimlessness as quickly as if they’d been told to drop it by a copper with a taser and snapped into a queue so orderly it might have been rehearsed. They marched on to the bus which pulled away with a hiss of hydraulic doors and a snarl of diesel.

Two minutes later, another bus pulled up and another random selection of people strode into a queue while no one else paid any attention to it.

How did they know?

Ray had done his homework before he came to the bus stop. He could take the 292, the 340 or the 186 to the cinema. He could tell which was which by the number on the front, side and back of the bus. He knew all that, but it turned out that it wasn’t all he needed to know.

How was he supposed to know which of the three to get on when any of them would take him from where he was to where he was going? If there had been only one bus, it would be straightforward. With three of them, he had no idea how to choose between them.

He thought about what Frank would say but. It didn’t help. He’d never chosen a bus or gone to a cinema with Frank. Deciding where to go and how to get there had always been simple for Frank. He’d say, ‘it’s me for the gym this afternoon, Ray lad, I’ve eaten too many chips,’ or, ‘Let’s have a wander round the yard while it’s not raining’.

Nothing that helped Ray choose a bus.

Ray watched a line of people board the 340 and almost joined on the end of the queue, but the door thumped shut while he was still shuffling feet that didn’t know whether to carry him toward it or stay where they were.

It was hopeless. He was never going to make it to that cinema. He turned away from the road and its perplexing busses and felt the tension slide away from his shoulders.

He stepped into a newsagent’s shop without knowing why until he saw the rack of bars of chocolate. Now he remembered what drew him in here. Chocolate had been at best a weekly treat for so long that he’d forgotten that any newsagent would sell you as much of it as you could afford.

Or would shout at you while you made off with as many as you could fit in your pockets.

No, he reminded himself, one Frank had told him to ‘keep to the straight and narrow, Ray lad, I’m counting on you to buy me a pint when I see you out there’.

If Ray wanted a bar of chocolate, he could afford to buy one with the money he was no longer going to buy a cinema ticket with.

It was less than a quid for a bar of…what?

Bounty? Snickers? Double decker?

Which one would Frank tell him to choose?

There hadn’t been bars of chocolate at the food counter. Ray had seen Frank ask for another scoop of chips on the sly every dinnertime. Sometimes he got his scoop and sometimes he didn’t, but he always asked.

The only time Frank had chocolate was when his wife sent him a Yorkie or a Toblerone or a Dairy Milk. Frank had always given Ray two or three squares, but that didn’t help right now because it hadn’t been Frank that chose it.

“Can I help you, mate?” asked the newsagent.

Ray had been staring at the chocolate for several minutes without moving. He must look like a lunatic.

He turned and left the shop. Home, he decided. He was already walking in the direction of home so fast he was almost running.

When he closed the door of his flat, he breathed a sigh of relief. The walls were bare, the cupboards were stocked with chicken and mushroom pot noodles and he’d disconnected the television so he wouldn’t need to choose a channel to watch.

He lay on his bed and looked up at the ceiling. Perhaps he’d try going outside again tomorrow.

Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Bricklayer Jack

BricklayerJack

(Tim Abbott [CC / Flickr])

Jack laid another brick. It might have been the hundredth or the thousandth he’d laid this morning.

“Good man, Jack, keep it up,” said the foreman as he walked past.

Jack covered the brick in mortar and took another brick from his hod.

“Why are we building this, boss?” he asked.

“We’re building a tower, Jack,” said the foreman.

“I know, but why?”

The foreman was already walking away, saying something Jack couldn’t hear to another bricklayer. Jack didn’t think the foreman had stopped walking around the foundations of the tower all morning.

Jack set himself to bricklaying. He might have laid the five hundredth or the five thousandth brick when word went round that it was lunch time. He joined the line to the mobile canteen and took his plate.

It didn’t look like a lot of food.

“Got any more?” he asked.

The woman behind the counter looked at him as if he’d said her daughter was ugly.

She said, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”

Jack took his food away and ate it. It didn’t take long.

When he went back to work, he decided he’d got his section of the tower wall high enough that he’d need some scaffolding before long, so he may as well set it up now.

The foreman passed by on his endless walk around the tower. “Hurry it up, Jack. Those bricks won’t lay themselves.”

“Yes, boss.”

Jack hurried it up and it wasn’t long before he was laying bricks and spreading mortar again.

Something was wrong.

He wasn’t sure when he’d noticed the tickle in his throat but it wasn’t going away. It was after he’d laid what might have been his thousandth or the ten thousandth brick that the sensation reached into his chest and pulled out an explosion of coughs that drove him to his knees.

The foreman walked past as he gasped for breath. “On your feet, Jack. Another three hours before we knock off. Your country needs you.”

“Yes, boss,” Jack wheezed.

He forced himself upright and laid another brick. It was harder work than it should have been. He found himself working slower, having to stop and cough after every dozen bricks. He felt a little better after every coughing break but not much better and never for long.

The next few times the foreman passed, Jack managed to hold in his coughs and keep working. If he could keep going for the rest of the day, perhaps he could sleep it off and he’d be fine tomorrow. But the coughing fits were getting harder to hold in and lasting longer when they came.

He was in the middle of one of them next time the foreman walked round.

“Are you coughing blood?” asked the foreman.

“No, boss.”

“Nothing wrong with you, then. Think of what your grandparents went through. Now it’s your turn.”

“Yes, boss.”

Jack might have laid his five thousandth brick or his fifty thousandth when he suddenly didn’t know which way was up and which way was down. Everything was spinning. He toppled back off the scaffolding. Heard a crack when the world broke his body.

He didn’t know how long he lay there without being able to see anything, but then he saw a cloud so he knew he was looking up. Something blotted it out and for a moment, Jack thought it must be the tower. But of course, it couldn’t be. The tower wasn’t yet high enough to blot out the sky.

It was the foreman, who was shaking his head. “If you don’t want the job, Jack, there’s plenty of others who’ll be grateful for it.”

Jack tried to get up, but he couldn’t move.

He asked, “Why are we building the tower, boss?”

The foreman was already gone.

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Things that Matter

ThingsThatMatter

(Rubbertoe (Robert Batina)Follow [CC / Flickr])

Tessa hadn’t been to Matt’s flat before. She made it to the middle of the living room before she stopped and looked around.

“You’ve got so much…you,” she said.

Matt took her coat. “What do you mean?”

Tessa waved at the wall. “Those pictures. Who are they?”

Matt shrugged. “Friends, family, the usual. Don’t you have your own pictures?”

“Yeah, of course. But not on the wall.”

Matt frowned but before he could ask what she meant, Tessa was at his bookshelf. “Have you read all these?”

“Some. I’m working my way through them.”

“That’s a lot of reading,” said Tessa.

Matt hadn’t made it past the living room door. He thought about asking Tessa if she’d like to sit down, but she looked like she hadn’t finished prowling around his flat.

“And this…what’s this?” she was looking at his sculpture.

“it’s a miniature of Rodin’s The Thinker. I keep it to remind me that when I don’t know what to do, that’s the time to stop doing anything and think about it.”

Tessa looked at him in a way he couldn’t interpret. He stopped speaking for long enough to think about it, but nothing came to him.

“What do you fund so surprising about this?” he asked. “Don’t you have pictures of the people who matter to you? Books you’re reading? Things to remind you of something?”

“Of course I do.” Tessa pulled her phone out of her handbag and showed Matt a picture of herself smiling from the screen. “I keep this picture as a screensaver to remind me to look after my self-esteem.”

Matt stopped and thought again. Once again, it didn’t help.

Tessa brandished her phone. “It’s all right here.”

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From the South

FromTheSouth

(Kai Schreiber [CC / Flickr])

She came from the south.

I was walking along the edge of the woods when the first swallows of the year arrowed over my head. I saluted as they wheeled away from the treeline and faded into the distance.

It was when I dropped my hand that I saw her. Or at least, when I noticed her. I’m not sure I can really say I saw her. I saw a shape framed around the light green of new leaves sprinkled among the branches. I am certain it was the shape of a woman but I can’t say exactly how. It was as if the dapple of sunlight and shadow had taken feminine form but the harder I tried to look directly at her, the more determinedly she stayed in the corner of my eye as she strolled toward me.

From the south.

I must have looked a proper fool, peering at someone who had just seen me salute a flock of birds that weren’t even magpies.

“I do that every year,” I said. “Salute the first swallows I see. My own little welcome to the spring.”

I was now sounding like a fool as well as looking like one.

She said nothing. The closer she got to me, the less distinct she became and the more certain I was that I wasn’t imagining her.

“I know it’s silly,” I said.

Her voice might have been a passing breeze or the drumming of a woodpecker, but her words were spoken directly into my ear. “No welcome is ever wasted. Thank you.”

I saw her walk past me or maybe through me, but when I turned to watch her walk away, she was gone. Nothing curved or shimmered between the green of the pasture and the grey dappled blue of the sky.

I turned back to the woods. The trees were in blossom.

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The Wisdom of Derek

TheWisdomOfDerek

(Charles Marley [CC / Flickr])

“Lemme in,” shouted Derek. “I’m getting drenched!”

“No.” Samantha replied through the letterbox.

“Why not? What’s the matter?” Derek knew people respond better to questions than demands.

“Because you can’t keep your pants on.”

Derek spread his arms in bemusement. Derek knew people communicate more by gesture than with words.

Then he remembered that with her mouth at the level of the letterbox, her eyes would be at the level of the wooden panel and she couldn’t see him.

He took a breath and lowered his voice to reply. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Derek knew people regard low voices as authoritative and are more likely to believe them.

“You know bloody well what I’m talking about,” said Samantha.

“All right, I’ll go.” Derek knew confrontation does not make people amenable to discussion. “But I need the book. You know I need to read a passage or two every evening.”

“Look down, you idiot,” said Samantha.

Derek looked down. If it hadn’t been for the rain in his eyes, he’d have seen his copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People on the doorstep before he found Samantha had deadlocked the front door.

He let out a cry of anguish as he sank to his knees.

“What have you done?” He lifted it gently. “It’s completely waterlogged!”

“I knew you’d need it,” said Samantha. “I couldn’t lock you out without it, could I?”

“It’s ruined.” Derek had forgotten how to get people to respond to him.

“It’s as much use to you now as it ever was,” said Samantha.

“But I can’t read it.”

“Exactly. You’ve read it from cover to cover a dozen times and you haven’t learned a thing from it.”

“I learned how to make friends,” he said. “That’s all I did. She’s just a friend. She needed a friend.”

Samantha snorted. “That book didn’t teach you the really important thing. If you’re going to text your bit on the side about how she tastes better than a caramelatte, you need a better password on your phone than one-two-three-four-five. Now piss off.”

Derek knew he needed a more up-to-date book.

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Ailurophobia

Ailurophobia

(marc carpentier [CC / Flickr])

Lord Mudeford yelped and darted behind Jones.

Jones stopped walking. “Is something the matter, m’lord?”

He flavoured his tone with a dash of curiosity. Enough to allow his employer a taste of compassion but not so much as to obscure the spirit of subservience.

“Not at all, not at all.” Mudeford’s voice quivered.

“Are you sure, m’lord? If I may say so, you sound a little disconcerted. Possibly even inconvenienced.”

“Never better. Oblivious to the slightest inconvenience. Well. Apart from…perhaps a touch of the old…ailurophobia.”

“Indeed, m’lord. Most inconveniencing.” Jones’s face remained as impassive as his voice. “If I may presume to enquire, what is the old ailur…ailuro…the inconvenience?”

“It’s a blasted nuisance is what it is, Jones. Is that ruddy cat gone yet?”

“Ah, I see. No, it appears to be taking the sun in the tree. By the way it’s regarding us, I believe it is claiming seignory over the tree and, by extension, the property beneath it.

“How utterly conceited. What gives the wretched animal any right to demand that everyone else indulge its…its…pecadilloes?”

“I really can’t imagine. M’lord.”

“It really is the limit, Jones.”

“Quite so, m’lord. Shall we take a different route?”

“Yes, yes, let’s do that. Honestly Jones, I should know better. I really should.”

“On the contrary, m’lord. Didn’t Mr Freud say that a little nervousness around animals is a healthy thing. Especially when they are covered with fur and one is caught without a pack of hounds.”

“He said that did he? And you concur with him?”

“Quite so, m’lord. I have heard it is an affliction that even Mussolini is inconvenienced by.”

“Jones?”

“Yes, m’lord.”

“Do be quiet.”

“Very good, m’lord.”

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A Predator Stalks the Supermarket

APredatorStalksTheSupermarket

(Paul Townsend [CC / Flickr])

Les would no longer be one of the herd. He strode into Sainsbury’s with his shoulders back and his head high. The automatic doors parted before him like wildebeest before a pouncing leopard. He hooked a basket from the stack with the deftness of an eagle’s snatching a rabbit in its talons.

Being a predator fitted Les better than being one of the herd. Not for him the shuffling along the aisles or the focus on nothing more distant than the nearest shelf. Les took in the entire supermarket with a sweeping glance without breaking his stride. His predator’s eye was caught by the sign for the meat, hanging above the shelfline, as his basket clanged against that of a man of the herd dithering between apples, pears and lemons.

It was a foolish man of the herd who didn’t see a predator coming in time to get out of the way. Les didn’t turn his head at the irritated ‘sorry’ that followed him. No predator had time to respond to passive aggression and a man so obviously of the herd would express very little that wasn’t passive.

Lucky for him. Les had bought a gym membership only this morning and already signed up to a kick-boxing class, which made him more prepared than any maverick who broke from the herd to challenge him would be.

Probably.

Les reached the end of the fruit and vegetable aisle, executed a right-angle turn on his heel, changed direction without losing momentum like a cheetah chasing down a gazelle. Arrived in a corridor of meat, stacked on refrigerated shelves like an offering a herd might make to appease a predator.

Now all Les needed to decide what he wanted to sink his teeth into. Would it be beef like a lion that had ambushed a buffalo? Or mutton like a lone wolf that had run down a sheep?

Mutton, he decided. Everyone ate beef, which made eating it a herd behaviour even if it was a kind of meat.

There was only one mutton shoulder left, so he powered toward it through the trudging herd and their errant trolleys until his fingers closed on ice-cold shrink-wrap.

A slap stung his wrist.

He looked down and flinched as the fierce eyes of a woman who was already returning the hand that delivered the slap to the bar of the trolley. It looked as if leaning on it was all that was keeping her on her feet, but it was Les who dropped his gaze first.

“I saw that first, young man,” she said.

“Sorry,” mumbled Les.

He backed away, then turned and picked up his pace. He left the meat aisle at a fast and purposeful walk.

It wasn’t a run because predators don’t run away from little old ladies tottering around with trolleys that were too big for them. He’d simply changed his mind – a predator’s mind, after all, was his own so he is free to change it whenever he likes – and was now bearing down on a frozen pizza.

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A Man among the Masks

Fire-dancer silhouette

(James H. [CC / Flickr])

The man rolled out of the puddle and on to his hands and knees. A knee cracked against his temple as of legs danced past his head. He pushed himself up to his knees. A foot ended a leap on his calf, making him yelp.

The man lurched to his feet.

Figures capered past him, the flickering flame of the torches flattening them to the silhouettes of the edges of their masks atop prancing human figures. Their ululating cries filled the air as he bounced from one to another, leaving him unsure whether it was a hand that caught him across the face or the cry itself taking a physical form.

An eagle mask was in his face screaming, “ul-al-ahh,” as two arms whirled him around with strength that nearly lifted the man off his feet.

“What have we here?” asked the eagle in the voice of a woman. “What does an unmasked man do here?”

“Some drunken lout in a hyena mask knocked me down,” said the man.

“Not a mask. Not a man,” said the eagle. “It was a hyena, doing what hyenas do when you are alone and vulnerable in the night.”

She threw back her head and wailed, “aaa-aayy-eee-aaah.”

“I just want to go home,” said the man.

The eagle’s head rocked back and forth as she laughed. The man had to tip his head aside to avoid her beak hitting him in the face.

“Then you should have been there before the sun set.” The eagle pulled him close and rocked back, lifting him off his feet.

The man smelled wine on the breath from beneath her mask.

She put him down and pressed herself close. “Yet here you are, sober an unmasked. You should know better than that.”

“I know your voice,” said the man. “You are-”

The eagle tipped her mask far enough to silence him with a kiss, not far enough to reveal the face beneath.

She pulled back and said, “I am an eagle. Who I was before the sun set is who I will be again when it rises, but now…aay-lee-ahh. And you are still who you are when the sun went down, which means you need wine and a mask.”

The eagle took his hand and led him toward where the torches burned brightest.

A bat slapped the back of his head.

A cat ran a hand, or perhaps a paw, down the length of his body.

They reached a place where they were surrounded by torches that threw their shimmering light long the eagle’s bare human limbs.

The man didn’t see where the flask she handed him came from but he drank deep. When he took it from his lips, she was holding a lion mask out to him.

The man took it with both hands, aware that his smile was baring his teeth to match the long fangs of the lion’s snarl. Lions took no nonsense from hyenas.

He slipped the mask over his head and kissed the eagle’s beak through the snarl.

The eagle capered away from him. and he danced after her joining the prancing silhouettes of animal faces on human forms.

“Bacchanalia!” He threw back his head and cried, “Bachaa-aan-aayy-lee-aah!”

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Hometown Friend

HometownFriend

Michelangelo’s Narcissus (Ancient Cities [CC / Flickr])

A lot has happened since we last met. Been a lot on my plate. I’ve gone whole days without so much as looking at Netflix while you were away in…where was it?

What was I saying? Oh yes, been ducking and diving. Swiping and matching. Even had a date last month. Once. OK, maybe more swiping than matching, but it all takes time. Time and effort. Swiping and matching gets exhausting. Not something you’d have had to deal with while you were doing…what was it?

Don’t get the idea that I’ve been spending all my time on Tinder. Got some work at my uncle’s firm. That was three mad days. Hardly a moment to myself. Worth every moment because it taught me I’m not cut out to work as an intern. In fact, I found out that office work isn’t for me at all. I guess you never had to worry about anything as mundane as paper jams in the photocopier while you were doing your stint with…who was it?

That internship made me sort my life out. Made me decide what I want: I’m gonna be an actor! It’s really exciting. Got myself an equity card already. I’ve been sending headshots round all the agencies. Twenty last week alone. Doing that was every bit as tough as the internship but, you know, gotta speculate to accumulate. Or something. Haven’t heard back yet, but I’m sure they’ll get round to it soon.

So yeah, a lot’s happened since you took off for that, that, the hospital…I mean the place with the kids…no, it was…don’t tell me, the refugee camp. See, I’ve been keeping up with you. You’d be a much better friend if you did the same with me.

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Learning my Aperture

LearningMyAperture

(Anders Lejczak [CC / Flickr])

When I finished speaking, his face took on that expression that radiates patience. The one that irritates the hell out of me.

“It’s all in the aperture,” he said.

I frowned at him. I didn’t bother trying not to.

“You know, the aperture you view a situation through,” he said. “It may be wide, it may be narrow, but it can only ever point in one direction at once.”

I didn’t bother hiding my sigh. “I do wish you’d speak plain English sometimes. Why is it that whenever we get on to a serious subject, you start talking round in circles?”

His smile transformed patience into serenity. Just in case patience wasn’t infuriating enough.

“Because,” he said, “if I speak plainly, I’ll tell you how things look through my aperture. That won’t help you, and then you’ll stop bringing up serious subjects which would be a great loss for us both.”

“You mean I need to see things through my own aperture?”

“No,” he said.

Sometimes I think he wants me to punch him.

“You’re already seeing the situation through your own aperture. You can’t see a situation through anything else, any more than I can see a situation through any aperture but my own. What you need to see is your aperture itself. How wide is it? What are you pointing it at?”

“I came to you for help, not a riddle in weird words,” I said. “I have a problem. I’m asking you for advice.”

“You don’t need advice. You need-”

I cut him off. “Don’t you dare say I need an aperture. Look, it’s a straightforward issue. My colleague keeps dumping work on me whenever she leaves early, and I’m sick of getting stuck in the office until all hours covering for her. How do I stop her doing it?”

“How does she dump her work on you?”

“She usually calls me. Says she’s got some crisis with her kids or her car or something and could I finish something she’s left.”

“To which you reply how?”

“I say yes.”

“Every time?”

“Of course every time. That’s the problem.”

His reply was to blast me with silent serenity.

“Ah,” I said.

Then I said, “hmm.”

He still didn’t say anything. He really is infuriating.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle
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