The Blue of Your Shirt

Young businessman in his office

(reynermedia [CC / Flickr])

Team meetings were for dozing through. Colin was vaguely aware of targets and achievements being discussed and a new intern being introduced, but no one called on him to say anything. That was enough to put it in the top fifty percent of meetings he’d endured this week.

He made for the coffee as soon as he was released, poured a cup and started his ritual with milk and sugar. He didn’t take sugar in coffee he drank at weekends but since he’d realised that nobody gave much thought to how much time he spent fiddling with sachets, he’d cultivated the most complicated coffee-making ritual he could come up with. The longer he drew it out, the longer he was away from his cubicle.

“Hi, Colin.” The intern spoke from behind him.

He wished he’d seen her coming so he could have made a show of being startled and knocking over his coffee. He could have drawn out the ineffectual dabbing with paper towels for a full ten minutes before starting the coffee-making all over again.

By the time the thought crossed his mind, it was already too late to carry it off. He settled for saying, “hi. Can I make you one?”

The intern looked confused. He was going to have to help her to understand that in this office, an intern’s job was not to make the coffee for the staff but to help the staff procrastinate. If that involved smiling and saying thank you for the gallons of coffee that would be made for her every day, she could either develop an iron bladder or pour it into the pot plants when no one was looking. He favoured her with a smile so amiable that she’d understand that refusal was not an option.

Instead, she said, “Can I ask you… what is it about that colour of shirt you like?”

Colin frowned and looked down. He couldn’t remember which shirt he’d chosen this morning and now he’d looked, he’d have described it as ‘nondescript grey-blue’.

The intern was frowning, which made Colin feel sorry for her. She was trying to strike up a conversation in an office where she didn’t know anyone, and here he was staring at his chest as if he was startled to find himself wearing more than a pair of budgie-smugglers.

He wished he’d been paying attention when her name came up in that meeting. “How do you like your coffee? Or do you prefer tea?”

“Thank you,” she said.

It wasn’t exactly an answer, but making a shy intern feel comfortable was shaping up to be a better excuse to be away from his cubicle than spilling his coffee.

“There must be something about that colour you like,” she said. “You wear it almost every day.”

Colin shrugged. “I got a discount for a bulk buy at a surplus shop. Hang on, how do you know I wear them every day? We’ve only just met.”

“I know. But it was those shirts that brought me here.”

“Eh?”

“I saw you on the bus a few months back, and something about the colour of your shirt… it’s hard to forget.”

Having had to remind himself of the colour of the shirt while he was wearing it, Colin didn’t know what to say to that.

“So I took that bus every weekday during the rush hour until I saw your shirt again and followed you to work. When I saw your firm was looking for interns, it had to be a sign.”

Colin took a step back.

“I’ve been looking for the colour of your shirt for weeks. How could I not take the opportunity to work in the same office as it.”

Her hand darted forward to take a pinch of shirt between her fingers, catching a pinch of Colin along with it. He flinched back and knocked his coffee on to the floor.

The intern put her hand over her mouth and giggled.

“Clean that up will you?” Colin waved at the coffee spreading across the floor. “I need to be back at my desk. Right now. Urgent… something very urgent. Must not be disturbed.”

The intern was still giggling.

“Right.” Colin nodded decisively and strode for his desk.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

The Punchline is Macchiato

ThePunchlineIsMacchiato

(Barbara Asboth [CC / Flickr])

I admit that I may have been lonely. If I hadn’t been, I’d probably have reacted to a well-coiffed man shoving a microphone under my nose by mumbling something and ducking into the nearest Starbucks to buy a coffee I didn’t want. I happened to be walking past a Starbucks at the time, so it would have been easy enough.

But I hadn’t spoken to anyone for a few days and I was only wandering up and down the high street to get out of my flat. When he asked me why I’d overvalued my company’s shares and sold up before anyone noticed, I thought it was a bit weird but I played along. Told him I was partial to a large macchiato and I had to pay for it somehow.

I probably should have realised it wasn’t some sort of prank when he asked if there was anything I’d like to say to the thousands of people who lost their pensions. It’s not the sort of question someone asks as a joke but I didn’t think of that at the time. I told him I was sure they’d manage with a small cup of tea and threw in something about how you can make a pension last longer by re-using tea bags.

It was only when he asked if I’d grown a beard to disguise myself and I told him I’ve had my beard for more than ten years and he shouldn’t be cheeky that the penny dropped: he thought I was someone else.

He frowned and went quiet, which made me think perhaps he wasn’t doing one of those joke things when some overpaid comedian runs out of material so he makes the sort of people who watch his show look stupid. When I thought about it later, I realised he was frowning because it had just occurred to him that you’d been on the telly a couple of weeks ago with no more than that silly goatee of yours, and there was more than two weeks of growth between you and me.

I’d seen you myself. Not much to do but watch the news, so I tend to know what’s going on. I knew about your pump and dump, as they called it. So now I knew that this boy reporter, who was still a few years away from your level of facial hair and a lot more years away from mine, had got it into his head that I was you.

I probably should have set him straight instead of ducking into Starbucks for that coffee I didn’t want – a straightforward latte, if you’re interested, not a macchiato – and leaving him to get over his moment of doubt. So yes, I’m the beardy bloke who is all over the news this morning under headlines calling you a callous and insensitive fraudster who makes bad coffee quips.

I’m writing to say I’m sorry about that. Not that they’re calling you a callous and insensitive fraudster, because we both know that part is true. I’m only sorry that you got blamed for my bad tea and coffee quips. They were awful.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Fiction Review: You Beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas

YouBeneathYourSkinIf nobody who has influence thinks it’s worth using it for you, what’s to stop them using you?

The answer, it appears when the New Delhi police find the body of a raped and mutilated woman, is nothing at all.

Crime fiction at its best uses crime as a periscope to peek around the dark corners of a society, where the things we prefer not to think about lurk. The first sign of what’s behind the corner that You Beneath Your Skin is looking round is the crime itself: the dead woman’s face has been burned off with acid, revealing what’s beneath her skin in the gruesomely literal way possible. When an ambitious policeman, Jatin Bhatt, is persuaded to investigate he is confronted with what lurks beneath the skin of the society he owes his success to.

The theme of the shattered façade runs throughout You Beneath Your Skin, alongside its protagonists’ exploration of the layered power structures of New Delhi. We see the upper echelons of the society as Jatin curries favour with his well-connected father-in-law, but we also see the byzantine hierarchies of the slums. The ruler of that hierarchy may not live in a palace, but his power is more absolute than the prime minister’s: if those with influence have no regard for the most powerful man in the slum, they’ll have even less interest in helping whoever is under his sandal.

While it’s the exploration of power and society that makes You Beneath Your Skin stand out, I kept reading it because it’s a rollicking good crime thriller. The plot twists and turns as it throws its three protagonists around those metaphorical dark corners, and a few literal ones as well.

Different readers are likely to have different favourites, but I found Jatin the most engaging of the trio as he struggles to maintain a joyless marriage that he maintains for the sake of his son and his father-in-law’s approval while wondering if his ambition is worth the sacrifice of his happiness and the fundamental decency that he’s never quite got used to compromising.

On a different day, I might have picked Jatin’s sister, Maya, a private detective troubled by her own uneven skin. Then there’s Anjali, Jatin’s lover, a clinical psychologist who does her best to help the troubled children of New Delhi while frustrated by her inability to connect with her autistic son.

You Beneath Your Skin is a rollicking read of a crime thriller, but it’s something much more than that if you accept its tacit invitation to peek behind its own façade.

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Posted in Book review: fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Correlation for the Minister

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

(Richard Gough [CC / Flickr])

Piers was on his way to the minister’s office when Margaret stopped him.

“You’re looking very pleased with yourself”, she said.

“Am I?” Piers hoped he’d get over feeling intimidated by Margaret when he’d been in Whitehall a little longer but for now, it was all he could do to stifle an urge to apologise. “I think I’ve got the cuts he was looking for.”

Margaret raised her eyebrows, which made Piers want to go over his figures one more time. He forced himself to stand straight. He’d double checked his calculations and Margaret hadn’t seen them at all so if she looked sceptical, it couldn’t have anything to do with his spreadsheet skills.

“Where did you find these much desired cuts?”

“Well, I… here and there.”

Margaret looked Piers in the eye, which made him want to look down and scurry past her. Unfortunately, she was between the water cooler and the photocopier so he couldn’t get any closer to the minister’s office without touching her. He could at least keep his head up and look her in the eye.

“Piers, I’m not going to steal your idea,” said Margaret, “I’m just asking you what exactly it is that you plan to stimulate the minister’s enthusiasm with.”

“I was looking. At the, er, figures.” Piers swallowed. This was not how to talk to someone three bands above him who would be involved in his next performance appraisal. “I realised we can cut the fire brigade. That’s the sort of thing the minister was asking for last week.”

Margaret didn’t step aside. “How did you get to that?”

Piers shuffled his feet, wanting to get to the minister’s office as soon as he could. The minister was a Magdalen College man who had once played rugby for Harrow. He’d understand immediately, but that wasn’t something he could explain to Margaret.

It was easier to answer her question. “I looked at the figures and they were very clear. The more firemen attending a fire-”

“Firefighters,” said Margaret.

“The more firefighters attending a fire,” Piers forced himself not to sound irritated, “the greater the cost of the damage. There’s an obvious solution: reduce the number of firefighters responding to every call and we’ll reduce the damage. If we do that, we can cut the staffing numbers for the whole Fire and Rescue Service. It’s a full half billion off the annual budget.”

A note of triumph crept into Piers’s voice, much as he didn’t Margaret to think he was too self-satisfied. Still, he felt he’d earned the right to be a little pleased with himself.

Margaret’s frown suggested that she didn’t agree. Perhaps he needed to repeat his explanation slower.

“How long have you been here, Piers?” asked Margaret.

“Three weeks.”

“And did you take three minutes to wonder why no one, in the many decades in which the civil service has been scrutinising the emergency services budget, has made the brilliant deduction that fires attended by more firefighters are more expensive because it’s the firefighters that cause the damage?”

Her tone of voice made him take a step back.

“I, er, I did wonder, yes.” Piers wasn’t going to admit that it hadn’t occurred to him. “I, you know, I’m new. Fresh pair of eyes.”

Margaret’s frown did not soften.

“We did stuff like this at Oxford. My dissertation was on…” Piers heard himself starting to babble. “It doesn’t matter.”

“No, it doesn’t,” said Margaret, “because it wasn’t on the nature of correlation, was it?”

“Not exactly. It was on public service cuts under the Thatcher government. Got a first.”

“I’m sure you’ll go far.” Margaret’s voice was laced with something that might have been sarcasm or might have been resignation. “But before you put anything in front of the minister, I suggest you go back to your desk and Google ‘correlation’ and ‘causation’, and stay there until you properly understand the difference.”

“You don’t want me to take this to the minister?”

“No, Piers. I don’t want you to take that to the minister.” Margaret spoke carefully enunciated every word. “I want you to learn about correlation and causation. Have you got that?”

“You think the minister won’t understand it? That he won’t like it?”

Margaret rolled her eyes. “The minister’s a Magdalen man who expects people to be impressed that he played rugby for his school. I’m sure he won’t understand it. That’s why I’m afraid he might like it. Now go back to your desk and stay there until you understand what the problem with your brilliant suggestion is.”

Piers couldn’t help but hang his head. He wasn’t getting to the minister today.

Margaret wasn’t finished. “And I don’t want you to see the minister – about anything – until you’ve run it past me. Your job now is correlation and causation. Run along.”

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

High Invisibility

HighInvisibility

(Matt Buck [CC / Flickr])

Brona expected the people getting off the 1812 from London Bridge to be frowning. Frowns were the one obligatory part of the rush hour uniform, matching a toolbox and a paint-stained track suit as well as they matched a Savile Row suit.

She expected the frowning horde to charge the three gates in the same orderly queues as the horde disgorged by the 1757 had formed and the horde delivered by the 1827 soon would. She expected them to frown past her without a second look because a woman in the Southern Rail high-vis jacket was a part of the station’s interior along with the public intercom that has last been answered on Brona’s last day at primary school or the anti-pigeon spikes on top of the dot matrix indicators of the trains that would soon arrive and the trains that had broken down and never would.

Brona expected someone to get their timing wrong while coming through the gates because someone always did. This time, it was a woman in a trouser suit who looked like a lawyer or a banker. She swiped her card at the middle gate just as the wheelie-bag of the man in front jammed sideways, forcing him to take the extra couple of seconds to turn it sideways that disrupted it took for the gates to snap shut immediately behind him.

The trouser suited woman’s frown darkened. She slapped her card on the reader with resignation that showed she knew it was pointless. No gate would open for the same card twice in a row however hard the card was slapped on the reader, and every commuter passing through the station knew it.

The frowns in the queue behind her darkened as the queues on either side of them flowed past unimpeded, presenting them with the sort of knife-edge dilemma that they hoped they’d left at work. Should they hold their place in the middle queue and endure the agony known only to a commuter watching someone else getting home faster than they were, or should they shuffle to the back of one of those freely flowing queues only to watch the gates reopen a moment later and the person who was now standing behind them gambol through them while they had a full twenty or maybe even thirty seconds of this new queue to endure.

Brona expected them to waver for around fifteen seconds before the first of them switched queues, and for frowns to turn to scowls if it took her twenty to get the gates open. She strode for the impacted queue, the frowning horde parting in front of her with the alacrity borne of knowing that not stepping aside quickly enough be to risk physical contact, which would oblige them to acknowledge her existence with a grunted ‘sorry’.

She had the gate open in twelve seconds and received the grunted thanks she expected from the woman in the trouser suit. She allowed the horde to bear her back to her place by the exit, once again becoming part of the architecture of the station.

A man heading from the exit stepped aside from the commuter flow to stand in front of her. “Thank you. I don’t know what we’d all do if you and your colleagues didn’t keep us all moving.”

Brona said, “That was unexpected”.

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Blast from the Past: The Endocrine Tyranny

The Endocrine TyrannyIn a change from Saturday’s usual hooptedoodles, it feels like a good day to remember an old story. I remember writing The Endocrine Tyranny in Cape Town’s Obz Café, trying to conjure the brutalist architecture of the English Midlands, so well that I’m rather shocked to see it was published seven years ago. It’s still up on the Buzzy website, and the author notes are still up here.

Hope you enjoy it.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Fried Nostalgia for Breakfast

 

(Ian Turk [CC / Flickr])

The trouble with having guests staying overnight was that they tried to thank Tom by making him breakfast. It took all his restraint not to manhandle them the pair of them into the living room and just when he thought it was as bad as it could get, they started listening to the news. They weren’t even using a radio but one of those wireless slabs of metal and plastic that was called a phone these days.

She’d have no idea what to make of that, and she’d always got upset when something confused her.

Tom asked them to turn it off, which they did with no more than a raised eyebrow each. Their expressions turned a little more perplexed when the turned on the tape recorder he kept on top of the fridge, and filled the kitchen with the voice of Terry Wogan talking about the Spice Girls.

They could be as perplexed as they liked as long as she was comfortable, and listening to Terry Wogan on Radio 2 had always been part of her morning routine.

Tom didn’t object to the bacon sizzling in the frying pan. She’d always liked a bacon sandwich for breakfast, but they wouldn’t know how she liked it. He took the spatula away from them before they could mess it up.

They were backing away now, which meant they’d got the message without him having to say anything too harsh. At least, that was what Tom thought until they asked if he had a board so they could chop the mango they’d bought from Lidl.

A mango?

Tom pressed his lips together, afraid he might shout at them if he allowed his mouth to open before he’d counted to three. She’d never seen a mango in her life, and she’d certainly never heard of Lidl. If it hadn’t come from Marks and Sparks or one of the local greengrocers, it didn’t get through the door.

Sliced brown Hovis and Flora margarine, that was what went with bacon.

They’d stopped trying to help now, so hopefully they’d got the message.

He looked up to the top of the cupboard, where neither of them had even thought to glance. “That’ll do us.”

They wouldn’t hear his whisper over the crackle of oil and Bryan Adams crowing over his first real six-string from the tape recorder.

“That’ll do us, love.”

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Shooting the Deserving

ShootingTheDeserving

(Josh Beasley [CC / Flickr])

Hooper looked down at the man he’d shot four hours earlier. Handcuffed to a hospital bed with his right shoulder encased in plaster, he didn’t recognise the man who had tried to shoot the prime minister. The blue eyes that fluttered open looked almost gentle.

“You asked to see me?” Hooper sat in the chair next to the bed.

The man tried to roll toward him, which sent a wince of pain across his face although he didn’t make a sound. He slackened, looking up at the ceiling. “You must be the copper who shot me.”

The accent sounded like the product of an expensive education.

“I am,” said Hooper.

“Good shot.” The gunman gingerly turned his head toward Hooper. “Wrong target, but good shot.”

“Near enough. I was aiming for centre mass so be grateful I was slightly off.”

Hooper guessed that a man who spoke with a privately educated accent would have learned his way around a handgun at Sandhurst, so he’d know that centre mass meant the middle of the body where a bullet was usually fatal.

“I mean that I was the one aiming at the right target. Not you.”

“I’m a police officer.” He wasn’t going to give the gunman a sympathetic audience for some sort of justification either.

The gunman reached for the hospital bed controls with his left hand, but the handcuff stopped him short. “Be a good chap and help me sit up, will you?”

Hooper pressed the button that raised the top of the bed, lifting the gunman into a sitting position.

“Thanks. Difficult to take myself seriously from the supine. And I didn’t expect you to agree with me. I’d just like to get a sense of how you feel about protecting a man like that.”

Hooper concentrated on keeping his face neutral.

“You were sharp enough to see me coming. The first any of your colleagues knew was when you were already shooting. So I know you’re nobody’s fool.”

“I can call the nurse if you need more morphine.” Hooper didn’t want the gunman to get hypnotised by the sound of his own voice. He recognised the tone from when he’d been in uniform. This was a man who had been keeping his plans to himself for so long that he’d built up a desperate need to talk about them and now that keeping them secret didn’t no longer matters, they were all spilling out.

“Thing is, you saw who I was in a heartbeat, so you can’t have missed who the prime minister is. He’s been prancing around in front of cameras for so long that the whole country knows it, and you sit next to him in his limousine, hear his phone calls, see what really goes on between him and his girlfriend.”

So much for trying to derail him. Hooper went for plan B, which was to wait for the gunman to get it out of his system.

“We’re talking about a man so used to privilege that he feels a genuine sense of injustice on the rare occasions that he can’t have his cake and eat it. A man who has never kept a promise when it suits him to break it or told the truth when a lie is more convenient. It was only a couple of years ago that he was leading the cheers when his mob voted down a proposal that you boys in blue should get a pay rise that wasn’t below inflation. I’d like to know how it feels to protect a man who believes you’re worth a little less every year.”

Hooper thought it best not to reply.

“Oh come on, don’t tell me you’ve never thought of shooting him yourself.”

Hooper tried to turn the twitch of his lip into a sardonic smile, but the gunman’s much broader smile told him he hadn’t pulled it off. One of the reasons he’d opted for being a firearms officer instead of a detective was that he couldn’t keep his face as neutral as it needed to be when he was interviewing suspects.

“Of course you have,” said the gunman, “not that you’d ever do it of course. But there’s only so much time you can spend with a man like that before the first time that gun under your armpit starts to feel like a temptation. And once it’s tempted you once, that gun tempts you a little more every time he says or does something to remind you what he really is. I imagine that’s every five minutes in his case.”

Hooper focused on a crack in the paintwork on the wall.

“And perhaps if I’d given you a moment to think instead of trying to take the shot as soon as I saw you looking at me, you might have given me a moment to get a couple of rounds off. Believe me, that’s all I’d need. He’s hardly a small target.”

“If I’d had another moment,” said Hooper, “I’d have used it to aim better.”

“I wonder.” A smile played around the gunman’s lips. Hooper hoped it meant he’d talked himself out.

“My opinion of the prime minister is irrelevant.”

“You’re a professional.” The gunman’s tone was mocking, letting Hooper know he didn’t believe him.

“Yes, I am a professional. In a profession I chose after I’d thought it through. I never expected to be protecting saints. It’s not my job to judge them. My job is to stop assassination and terrorism from becoming the way politics are done in this country. If I’d hesitated and you’re as good a shot as you say you are, a hundred people with grudges wouldn’t be tweeting about what they want to do to whoever they shout at on the telly right now. They’d be googling how to do it. Most of them would be back to Twitter by tomorrow morning but two or three will have a go and if one of them draws one drop of blood from whoever they hate, they’ll set off another hundred. All thinking that if you could shoot a prime minister, they can shoot, stab or blow up whoever they want to shut up.

“We’ll stop some of them. We’ll probably stop most of them. But we won’t stop all of them so it will only be a matter of time before someone gets shot or stabbed or blown up. Maybe it will be someone who deserves it and maybe it won’t but either way, by the time it happens it will be how things are done in this country. From what you said about being tempted by a gun, I don’t think I need to tell you what that looks like. That’s why I don’t have any decisions to make when a terrorist pulls a gun. I made that decision a long time ago.”

“Quite a speech.” The gunman looked away from Hooper, his smile gone. “Is there more where that came from?”

“No.”

“You’re right of course. Those are principles I’ve pulled a trigger for myself a few times. But anger and frustration are funny things. Tend to blot out principles after a while, don’t you find?”

Hooper said nothing.

“Well, perhaps not for you. But you’re right. Forgetting them does make me a terrorist.” The gunman spoke the last word as if it tasted foul.

Hooper waited until he was sure the gunman had no more to say. He stood and pressed the gunman’s right hand, not shaking it because of his injured shoulder.

The gunman looked back at him, eyes wide in surprise. “What was that for?”

“Because you’re right too and I wish I hadn’t been on duty today because the lying tosser does need shooting.”

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Blue Reminiscence

BlueReminiscence

(Flavio~ [CC / Flickr])

My favourite colour is blue because it reminds me of you. I think it started with the cornflower dress you were wearing when we first met. Do you remember that?

No?

I’ll never forget the way it set off your blonde hair tumbling behind your shoulders, with a few maverick strands sneaking across the front of them.

But you must remember I was wearing my periwinkle blue shirt. I’ll never throw that shirt away. You must know it, I wear it every other time I see you. Long sleeves, white buttons… all right, I’ll wear it next time we meet up and point it out to you.

Then there was the Uber we took that first time we shared a taxi. A picotee blue Ford Fiesta. We stopped at your flat first and I’ll admit I was hoping you’d ask me in. I know you didn’t, but that peck on the cheek has me wanting to dance all the way home. I couldn’t do more than tap my feet on tbe passeneger-side floor which is probably why my Uber rating is only sixty-eight, but it was worth it.

I was flying high, you see. You’d launched me up into the sky, where it’s the blue of my shirt. Haha.

You don’t remember that Ford Fiesta?

Well.

That makes me feel… blue.

That was a joke.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Flavour of a Guest

SONY DSC

(Carl Campbell [CC / Flickr])

I like unexpected guests. The element of surprise gives them a piquant flavour.

This one looks particularly wholesome. Young, female, wearing a chequered shirt that suggests she sees herself as a practical sort of person and heeled her boots that show she isn’t.

There’s something about the empty windowpanes and the paint flaking from the walls that draws them, whether they’re looking for the backdrop for their next Instagram selfie or a place to smoke a joint where they won’t be disturbed.

This one has a bag over her shoulder that looks big enough for a proper camera instead of a phone. She’s walking with purpose, so perhaps that serious shirt fits her better than the heeled boots. Whatever she’s looking for, it isn’t somewhere to sit down for a last puff.

Not that she’d realise it was a last puff until she’d had a couple of lungfuls.

I follow her from derelict room to crumbling staircase, wondering what she’s looking for. They always taste better if I know something about them, and it looks like there’s more to know about this one than most.

We’re in the attic when she spins around to face me. They do that sometimes, when they suddenly realise they’re not alone. Last time one of them did that in the attic, he stumbled off the beams and put a foot through the plaster ceiling. This one shows no such clumsiness, showing perfect balance as she pivots.

She’s facing me with half of her face lit by a blade of sunlight slicing through a hole in the ceiling, shrouding the other half in shadow.

The half of her face that I can see is smiling.

None of them have ever done that before.

Neither have they said, “hello there. I believe you’ve been expecting me.”

She’s right, of course. I’ve been expecting her for so long that I’d forgotten to look for her, not seeing past the next unexpected guest that she appeared to be.

I think of asking her for the time for a last smoke, but that’s more mercy than she will allow me.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle
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