August entry – Strange Goings-On

“The man was definitely C1, did you see the tattoo poking out under his cuff?” said the female at the back of the darkened van.

“I have him as a lower end B – he wouldn’t have spent so long in the home office section if he was part of the riff raff,” said her female partner.

“Let’s look at this again,” said the boss, opening up a laptop and clicking his way through the shop’s CCTV footage. “Our orders are very clear – to take a middle class couple.”

Tony activated the handbrake and sighed. You queue to get into this place, you queue to pay, you even queue to snack on a few meatballs to avoid collapsing from exhaustion and then you have to queue to get out of the car park. What a way to spend a Saturday.

“I tell you what, love, I could murder a burger,” he said. He put the handbrake down and shifted into second gear for a few seconds before stopping again. He tried to slide the cuff of his denim jacket to cover the tattoo that Joanne had never been fond of.

“After having those greasy meatballs for lunch? Are you being serious? We’ve still got that salmon in the fridge.”

“Okay, love,” he said.

An assortment of crockery rattled around in the boot between a pair of bedside cabinets as the car navigated a speed bump.

“It’s a shame we couldn’t fit those bookcases in the car,” Joanne said.

“I know, dear – still, the cabinets and the TV stand should keep me going this weekend, then I can whizz down sometime myself to pick up the bookcases.”

“Some people have the right idea,” said Joanne, pointing at a blacked out white van that had pulled alongside them at the entrance to the roundabout leading onto the motorway, “we could easily fill one of those up with everything we need for the new house.”

Tony shrugged his shoulders.

—-

“Okay, good news, team – we’ve got clearance for further surveillance to help HQ decide whether their profiles match,” said the boss.

“Great, so we wait here on their road until they go back to the shop, do we?” asked the male subordinate.

“That’s not how it works, dimwit!” said the boss. “If they’re going to know in HQ if these are the right people, they need to see how they behave in their inner sanctum – at home.”

“So we’re going to need some bugs?” asked the female, peering at the screen on the computer. It was showing a feed from a camera placed on the top of van that had zoomed onto the couple’s semi-detached house.

“My God, we really hire the brightest and best these days,” said the boss. The woman’s blushing went unnoticed in the darkness at the back of the van. “Now as you can see, the property is well alarmed,” he continued.

“But they do have two opened bedroom cabinet boxes in the carport,” said the woman.

“We can’t easily get a bug in there though as they fill the wood with paper – it’d split in no time,” said the man, smiling at making an intelligent point.

“Who’s saying we have to hide it though?” said the boss.

“Come again?” said the man.

“How long have we been surveilling people at that shop for now? Nine years? Does that man look like someone thorough with furniture assembly? Someone who is going to check the little bags of screws and bits against the contents listed in the instructions?”

The boss looked up to see the dark outlines of two heads shaking in front of the van’s back door.

“Oh, one more thing,” said the boss. “As you know the strict ethical guidelines mean we have to take a childless couple, but we’ve been asked to verify there are no kids from any previous relationships hanging around, just in case.”

The pair of heads nodded in synchrony this time as the headlights from a passing car lit a couple of patches of their pale green faces.

Tony peered into the small plastic casing that the wire protruded from.

“Strange,” he said.

“What’s that?” asked Joanne. She stopped folding laundry on a garden table that was being used for now in the living room to peer at the scattering of boards and rails spread out over the floor.

“I’ve no idea what this little bit here with the screws is, but I’m sure I’ll get to it at some stage.”

“I’m sure it’ll be in the instructions,” said Joanne.

“Oh right, yeah I might go and fetch them out of the bin if I need them.”

“I told you that you were being too cocky binning them straight away like that.”

“Yeah well,” said Tony, “don’t forget my Dad was a carpenter – if he knew I was looking at the instructions for a poxy beside cabinet, he’d be turning in his grave. Or giving it a good sanding to make for more comfortable turning, at least.”

Joanne lifted the sleeve of a sweater she was folding to wipe a tear away from her face.

“Everything okay, babe?” asked Tony.

“No, it’s okay,” said Joanne, “it’s just as much as I love this house, it’s such a shame we don’t have any family left to invite around.”

“I know,” said Tony, placing his screwdriver on the floor and walking over to give his wife a hug. “We’ll just have to fill it with a family of our own one day.”

“Shouldn’t you be going to work now?” asked Joanne. She was spooning breakfast cereal in one hand. The other hand held a brush entangled in her hair while Tony was perusing the knife holder.

“It’s just this damn TV stand – there’s a couple of parts that won’t fit together. If I can just prize one bit out a tad, I’ll have it done in no time and get to the office by 11.”

“Honey, if you keep on prioritising things like furniture assembly over your work, you’ll be out of a job and we’ll be out on the street before you know it.”

“You’re right love, I just wish they gave me home moving leave like you. I’ll get the post out of the box and get ready.”

Tony left the kitchen and returned a minute later with a huge grin, holding a bottle of red.

“What on earth?” asked Joanne.

“Look at this!” said Tony – pointing to a note saying ‘IKEA would like to thank you for making your first purchase at our store.’

Joanne took a step back.

“Don’t you think that’s a bit, I don’t know, odd, that IKEA would handwrite a note like that instead of print it?”

“Hmm, I don’t know, maybe they’re just trying for that personal touch. Anyway, I must call work as after the weekend we had I can feel a nasty cold coming on.”

Joanne laughed and went over to the cardboard box labelled ‘kitchen stuff’ to look for their corkscrew.

Joanne woke first.

She gasped as her brain struggled to process the dark surroundings. She had a splitting headache. The last she could remember they were drinking wine on the sofa watching the one o’clock news.

She yawned and tried to focus her vision as she saw a shape peering over her. A face. It was skinny and looked slightly green. She blinked, thinking whatever had been in the wine was clouding her vision.

“Now, now, Joanne, it will be ok,” said the boss in his gruff voice.

“Your husband is sleeping,” added the female at her side.

“Oh my God, where the hell am I?” asked Joanne, swinging her arms around and hitting the side of the van.

“Shhh….” said the boss, grabbing her arms. “We don’t want to have to tie your arms too, but we will if we need to.”

At that point Joanne realised the slight pain around her waist and lifted her head up to see she had been tied to a stretcher with a giant IKEA plastic bag torn in two and bunched together into the shape of a rope. Her legs were tied to hooks too with smaller bags.

“Who are you people?” she shouted. “Tony!”

“He won’t be waking up for another half an hour. The sleeping poison is very precise. And he drank more wine than you,” said the boss.

“We have a business proposition for you,” said the woman who Joanne couldn’t see at her side.

“Business? What the hell! Let us out of here!” said Joanne.

“Of course you are free to go if you want to. I would ask that you hear us through first. You might be surprised to hear that we chose you and your husband ahead of a shortlist of 97 thousand couples around the world,” said the boss.

“I think this is some bad joke!” said Joanne, “is that green make-up on your face?”

“I’ll get to that in a minute,” said the boss, touching his cheek. “Let’s just have a little chat about your situation here. That’s a lovely new house you have!”

Joanne couldn’t help uttering a disrespectful laugh.

“But I know you’d like something bigger by the time you have a family. Which won’t be easy when you both dislike your jobs so much. Conceiving in itself wouldn’t be too easy either with your husband’s lifestyle.”

“I beg your pardon? At least he doesn’t have a face like a wilted flower like you!” said Joanne.

“Okay,” said the boss, “well believe it or not, I was actually chosen for this job in part for my good looks. It may not appear that way to you though as I don’t come from the same time and place as you.”

Joanne put her hand to her forehead and muttered “help me God.”

“You see, I and my, ahem, assistants, we come from a different world so to speak. I’m sure you’ve seen films about humans of the future or those who live in parallel universes. It’s something like that. I’m afraid we aren’t allowed to give a precise explanation now for legal reasons,” he said, sighing, “but I’m sure you understand, more or less, what I mean.”

Joanne stared back motionless, hoping only that these freaks would be true to their word to let them go once she had heard out this bizarre story.

“The world we come from is very advanced in terms of technology, but we have developed some major resource and practical knowledge gaps. Over time we became so dependent on machines, and our people went out of their homes less and less. After many generations we had all become allergic to the sun, which explains why our complexion is strange – in your eyes.”

Joanne nodded, feeling some satisfaction that a chunk of the story appeared to have been delivered.

“We developed extremely powerful computers, but slowly our society lost other interests and instincts that are natural to humans in your era. Like living in a pleasant home environment. Unfortunately, in our world we mostly live in empty concrete rooms the size of a hotel room. All communicating and entertainment occurs through computers, so we slowly lost the need for these other touches. All we need is heat and power, which we get from our many nuclear plants. There has been a small movement away from this lifestyle though, as in the last couple of generations people in our world have realised that these small non-technological things like a home interior can add a lot to overall life satisfaction.”

“Which is what led us to look for you,” added the female voice.

“Right,” said the boss. “Your era at the start of the 21st century on this planet was found to have the best combination of actual human knowledge acquired from tradition as well as an ability to understand technology – albeit in a basic form.”

“You forgot something! The furniture!” said the lady.

“I was just about to get to that, tssk!” said the boss, waving his hand dismissively at his assistant. “We manged to discover the archive of the internet a few years ago, including when prints of all objects in your world were stored there for 3D printing purposes in the year 2045. As well as the loss of knowledge, our lack of materials contributed to the extinction of things like furniture – the last tree was forested many centuries before our time. We did manage to make a major breakthrough a decade ago by producing a substitute of wood. So the good news is we now have approximately 100 gazillion pieces of Ikea furniture for our planet.”

“Great,” whispered Joanne, happy to go along with this story, which she sensed was nearing its end.

“We have all versions of the instructions too,” continued the boss. “Only nobody in our world has a clue what to do with a screwdriver or hammer.”

“Ok, I think I get it,” said Joanne.

“Hurrah!” shouted the boss. “It is exciting isn’t it! You and your husband could bring happiness back into our world. We don’t need you to assemble all 100 gazillion, only a very small sample fraction which will be filmed – and we want to be able to ask you a few questions when our fellow people get stuck. Oh and just tell us where you want to live – Buckingham Palace, the Taj Mahal or Disneyworld? All three are available if you want them.”

“I’m ever so sorry,” said Joanne, gulping for thought, “but we’re both pretty happy in our own world. We’ve just moved into a new house too, so yeah! Thanks for the offer though, it was very interesting.”

“Oh!” said the boss, flinching, “we thought you would be the ideal candidates, actually.” He looked at his underlings accusingly.

“Sorry again,” said Joanne, half smiling, “maybe you’ll find the right people if you keep on looking?”

“Hmmph,” said the boss, “well we have no legal grounds to keep you against your will. So if you want to leave, you can. Only can you explain this all to your husband when he wakes up? Just in case he is interested and persuades you into changing your mind.”

“Oh yes, of course I will” said Joanne, brushing her thumb against the plastic restraint around her waist.

“Well, what are you waiting for!” he yelled at the man in the shadows, “untie the lady.”

“If you can just place him here on the sofa please, yeah, oh maybe slightly to the right. Just a tad,” said Joanne. The boss and his assistant placed Tony down and exhaled.

“Well, farewell, dear lady. And all the best for the new house!” said the boss.

“Yeah, see you!” said Joanne. She could hear them starting an argument on the way out. They closed the door loudly and Tony’s eyes popped open.

“What the hell?” he asked.

“Don’t worry love, it happened to me too,” said Joanne. “All that shopping and DIY over the weekend must have taken its toll. The wine knocked us both out. Ha!”

She squeezed her husband’s hand.

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La Queja – July entry

After a couple of seconds hearing only the peaceful trickle of the water feature at the end of the swimming pool, punctuated by the soft roar of a motorbike in the distance, Ruth was getting hopeful.

It can’t be, she thought. But please be the end of it.

She listened again, savouring the silence while she could. The hot air seemed to have a kind of hum to it.

“AND I-I-I-I-I-I!”

Her heart sank as it started up again, accompanied by the hyena-like laugh of one of the youngsters.

“WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU-U-U-U-U-U-U”

The three or four – or 35 – of them, you couldn’t be sure from the amount of noise they made, sang in as much unison they were capable of, which wasn’t much.

Some gaps in the vocals were filled by one of the party keeping a disorderly beat by slapping a balcony table with a sports shoe.

“Albert!” Ruth whispered angrily.

She heard the bed creak as her husband turned to her. “What is it, my love?” he asked.

“Don’t you think it’s time one of us went to reception to complain?”

There was a long pause. His thoughts were always slower at night.

“Ah, hear, it’s pretty annoying. I suppose though they’re just young lads abroad though, aren’t they?”

“Albert, it’s past two in the morning.”

“Gosh,” he said. “Though on the bright side, I reckon there’ll be one or two fewer Krauts out claiming sunbeds at dawn tomorrow!”

“And what about our trip to Palma? The bus is picking us up at quarter to nine!”

“Oh yeah – there’s that.”

“So I’ll go then? Unless it quietens down in the next few minutes?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

Ruth felt her husband of 40 years was fortunate that it was too dark to see her growl at that moment. How could he have not volunteered? It would be so much more hassle for her to change out of her nightdress when he could just stick on a vest – or even waltz down to reception in his night shorts. Nobody would bat an eyelid. He was chubby enough, alright, but there were far worse sights lounging around the swimming pool during the day. He’d never gone as far as developing those man boobs, thank God.

For a fleeting moment that Ruth felt existed just to trick her, the singing and laughter subsided again. Sure enough, the chorus was then sung anew, with one of the vocalists this time choosing to howl his way through the ‘you-u-u-u-u-u-u’ part like a deranged wolf.

“Wait a second, lads!” came a slurred shout. “I forgot to press record, you’re gonna have to start again.” A cacophony of groans then filled the steamy night air.

Ruth sat up. Then Albert started to snore.

—–

How is it possible, she thought as she lumbered to reception. The dimly lit sprawling exotic plants and whitewashed apartment walls all looked distinctly less friendly than they did in the daytime.

How can the 21st century produce adult human beings incapable of using a 40 square foot tiled balcony and table without causing a major public nuisance?

Ruth flinched as she saw the silhouette of a small lizard chase across the path in front of her. She continued to the sliding doors of reception in more of a trot.

The night manager’s face reflected the glow of the computer he was peering into behind the reception desk.

“Can I help you, madam?” he asked as she approached the counter. He had a small smile on his face, but somehow she wasn’t sure if it was intended for her.

“I’d like to make a complaint. There is a group outside making a horrible noise on their balcony.”

“Oh,” he said, looking into her eyes, “have they been there for long? You’re the first person to complain about this.”

“Yes for the past two hours” Ruth said. “It’s the group of young men with a balcony on the far side of the pool.”

“Ah ok,” said the manager. He carefully weighed up what to say now he knew Ruth was talking about the group solely responsible for making last week’s bar takings the best of the summer – no small thing when the hotel owner had been annoyed all year at the bar’s performance since the new supermarket opened on the other side of the road.

“Yes I know this situation. A Dutch man from room 327 complained about them one hour ago. A very angry man.”

“Ok,” said Ruth. She gulped, taken aback that the hotel had known about the noise but not been able to act.

“Well, would it be possible to ask them to, I don’t know, go inside and close the balcony door?” Ruth asked.

“Hmm…we can ask, of course we can ask,” he said. “I suppose the problem is that they are very drunk, so we can ask and they might ignore us.”

“Right,” said Ruth, “if you could ask, please?”

“Okay, we will madam,” said the manager.

Ruth turned around and began to walk away. Then she turned again on the spot to say: “And would you be able to ring the police for me, should the noise persist?”

The manager’s mouth opened wide.

“Err, madam, I would not personally recommend that to you. You see, the police here they only speak Spanish and they won’t come anyway.”

“Well, I know a little Spanish as I lived in Madrid for a year in 1974,” Ruth said.

The manager put his finger to his brow.

“Wait a minute, madam, let me see if we can’t solve this problem for you,” he said. He then reached for a walkie talkie.

Quique! Puedes callar estos malditos gamberros!?” he shouted – ‘Quique! Can you shut those damn hooligans up!?’

Ruth heard a groan coming out of the walkie talkie’s speaker. She left the reception and smiled on the way back to the apartment when she saw a baby lizard shuffling across the path.

Ruth was fanning herself with her folded Palma tourist map as the coach eked its way to join the end of a traffic jam heading back into the resort.

She tugged at the blue felt curtain that seemed to be unable to offer any resistance to the sun. Realising that it was doing its best, she shuffled along to the empty aisle seat at her side, hoping it might be a fraction cooler.

The cathedral had been an incredible sight – all the gold and the awesome colours of the windows just fixated your attention, making for a much more immersive experience than the cathedrals at home, pleasant enough as they are.

Other than that though, well, she felt awkward trooping around with the tour group all day, overhearing the chat of the couples and families in the party.

When the guide left them to their own devices for an hour at lunch, it was even worse. She went to a cash machine and felt most uneasy at the whole experience – the screen was barely legible in the fierce glimmer of the sun. By cupping her hand around the words and figures she finally clicked her way to 60 Euros, but she wasn’t sure if she could trust this machine without being able to read all the options. Maybe if you spent enough time here it’s the kind of thing you got used to. Maybe your eyes adjusted, but she wasn’t sure if all this bright sunlight could be good for them.

Ordering a coffee was a more pleasant experience, as her Spanish came more naturally than she expected. She had been too afraid to use it around the resort, when they all opened conversations in English anyway. She didn’t want to show up Albert either, who had no knowledge of foreign languages whatsoever. 40 years of marriage to a reputable local solicitor, and long-serving town councillor, had made her appreciate that her role involved protecting her husband’s ego in whatever way possible.

He never had any intention to come with her to Palma, she realised. Deep down, she knew it the moment his faced dropped when he realised the bus would pick them up just as the buffet was opening for breakfast. For some reason she had supressed this obvious fact, until now. He might have been smiling in the dark, during the previous night’s unwanted musical entertainment, as far as she knew. It offered the perfect excuse.

“I’m so sorry my love, I just think I’m too tired for the trip,” he had grovelled that morning.

What would he be doing now? Boozing by the pool, possibly. Calling his lover, maybe. She didn’t know if he had one at the moment. He certainly wasn’t the catch he used to be since he picked up his dodgy knee. The kids had been in secondary school when she first started to see suspicious things in his trouser pockets – phone numbers and receipts to plush restaurants she had never been to. She used to confront him back then, but for around ten years now she just threw anything out straight away. She didn’t want to know anymore.

Ruth yawned as the coach slowly wound past a never-ending line of souvenir shops.

Gosh, she hoped she’d get a good night’s sleep tonight. Hopefully the hotel staff managed to read the riot act to that group of idiots. She wasn’t too optimistic though. And to think only one other person complained – what were all the other guests doing?

Ruth became frustrated just to think about the previous night’s incident all again. She had been overcome with an anger she wanted someone else to step in and elaborate for her. She had been certain Albert would do a better job, with his deep authoritative voice. When it was left to her to say what needed to be said – well, it did feel pretty liberating though, enlivening even. She smiled, almost breaking into a giggle, at recalling the look of fear on the manager’s face when she asked about calling the police. She had no idea that she, Ruth Dorrens of Chester Avenue, had the power to plant that feeling in people.

She looked outside the window and noticed the bus was waiting at some lights while a pair of taxis exchanged beeps of the horn at the junction ahead.

Ruth took out her phone and checked her messages. Nothing at all from the boys. Did they even remember the Albert and she had gone away? Their jobs in the city seemed all-consuming.

She tapped on the internet browser and out of intrigue typed ‘Mallorca police noisy drunks’ in the search field.

A headline called ‘Boozy Brits Face Balearic Cops Blitz’ came up, dated in the past April. She tapped on the headline, and read:

Boozy Brits Face Balearic Cops Blitz

By Sun Staff Writer

Rowdy Brits who hit the booze in Mallorca this summer might be in for a surprise from the local constabulary.

Cops on the Spanish island have announced a crackdown on loutish tourists. The move comes as officials on the island seek to boost its image.

The Mallorca police have announced a zero-tolerance approach to public drunkenness, noise and nudity. They have even set up a new anonymous phone service for holidaymakers to report visitors behaving badly.

Juan De La Fontana, spokesman for the island’s police force, says: “If you come to enjoy a holiday in Mallorca responsibly, you have nothing to fear. To help you have a nice time we will be taking tough action though on anyone spoiling the atmosphere.”

In case anyone thinks that what happens in Mallorca stays in Mallorca, Spanish and British police have also agreed that any offences picked up on the island are to be automatically added to UK criminal records. So go easy on that Sangria unless you want a file with your name on in the local cop shop!

If you are in Mallorca and spot someone taking the holiday spirit a little too far, you can call to report them on +34 667 3450.    

Albert smiled when he saw Ruth hold the bottle of red out to him.

“Wonderful! Thanks love!” he said.

“I couldn’t go all the way to Palma and not get you a little something,” she replied.

“Oh how was it?” he asked.

“Good, thank you,” she replied.

“Do you fancy doing anything tonight? There’s a pub quiz over at Joe’s Bar, but we probably need a bigger team to be competitive.”

“I don’t know,” Ruth said, “shall we just stay in the apartment and watch TV?”

Albert let out a small grunt, showing he was taken aback at the suggestion.

“We’ve only got the news channel in English though!”

“Ah yeah – but how about we relax and watch it till the weather comes on. Just to see how cold and wet it is at home?”

“Aha! I like your thinking, love!” said Albert. “You couldn’t open that wine for me, could you?”

Ruth found the corkscrew and the largest wine glass in the apartment, and poured the wine close to the rim. It was the strongest wine she had found in the supermarket opposite the hotel, packing a sturdy 16.5% alcohol content.

They watched the full nine o’clock broadcast, and when the weather report was over, Albert remained rooted to the sofa, holding out his empty glass. Ruth took it off him and filled it again.

17 minutes later, his eyes closed and the snoring began. She removed the glass from his right hand and the remote from his left.

Pointing the remote at the TV she increased the volume from seven to 84, stopping only when it was literally hurting her ears.

She went to the balcony door and slid it open as the booming sound of “Now we’ll take a short break and when we come back it’ll be time for our review of the morning papers!” shook the glass.

She took a room key and stepped outside the front door. She took her Palma map out of her handbag and glanced down to the smudged phone number she had written across the harbour.

She dialled +34 667 3450.

This was the way to do it, she thought, as she heard the phone ringing. She could have demanded a divorce many years ago, but what good would that have done? He most likely would have ended up with a trophy wife while he was still young enough and left her to rot. This was right. This would be humiliation. An arrest for nuisance behaviour six weeks before his retirement ceremony. She could even tip off the local paper – his legacy at the firm would be ruined!

The ringing stopped all of a sudden.

Si, buenos tardes, con quien hablo?” barked a brusque voice.

She hadn’t expected that. She had expected a sympathetic voice in English. Her mind raced to translate the words she wanted to say. Ruido was noise in Spanish, so noisy television would be televisor ruidoso. But what about complaint? As much as she tried she had no idea what the word for that might be.

Ruth hung up.

She paced back to the apartment to turn the sound down, nervously glancing to check none of the neighbouring guests were watching. She sighed at a missed opportunity but smiled at the comfort that of her new-found power gave her.

Two clicks – June entry

The flat white had a crisper taste than I had expected. The spotty new barista was actually better with the machine than a lot of the regular ones.

The white dot whirred around in its circle on the computer’s start-up screen while I heard some of the parts straining into life. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Then blankness. I reached behind the screen and traced my fingers over the yellow Nirvana smiley-faced logo I’d had engraved onto the case of the computer just below the ‘hp’ lettering. It was the proudest feature of my machine – nothing like those stickers that students slap on that start peeling to leave a sticky blemish. This had been marked on professionally at a tattoo shop in Kentish Town.

I yawned and reached for my phone to kill the time before the login screen asked me for the password. I switched it on. No phone messages. I put it aside before my fingers automatically clicked on Facebook. The guys in the office had all signed up to an app that times your Facebook usage, and I’d been ashamed to clock up the second most usage time the previous week.

It’d be good to know how they’re getting on, but I could always write on WhatsApp in a bit. There was work to be done, and I couldn’t stand that Darren always ends up sending a torrent of distracting GIFs. Like the one he sent last night of Theresa May’s face superimposed onto a donkey being teased and chased around by some villagers in the tropics somewhere – sent while we were swapping messages about the football, for Christ’s sake.

These remote working days really were the pits. All the old farts with kids and everything loved them, somehow. Then you had the jammy gits like Patrick from accounts who said he just clicks to clock on at 9, goes to the pub and pops home to click and clock off at 6. No chance of that under Sharon, who would pepper us all with messages to keep us on our toes. There was serious work to be done, but first I had to flee the depression of my sandwich-sized rented bedroom – I’ve called it sandwich-sized ever since Ricky and I worked out in the office that it’s actually smaller in volume than the world’s largest sandwich.

I grabbed my paper cup in one hand. I typed my password with the other hand and pressed enter. My computer was getting seriously slow starting up, but I can’t say I minded too much – start-up time was one of the most peaceful times of the day.

I looked up.

Wow.

I smiled and thought of Paul. He had a serious thing about girls with Mac Books. His biggest turn on, he said. It looked like the new Mac Book Pro too – 13 inch screen, in the classic shiny silver colour. It was a nice machine, no doubt about it.

As for the girl who was using it a couple of tables in front of me, well, she was an owner to match the computer, if there ever was one. A short brunette with round black-rimmed glasses. She was sat sideways to me and I could see the top of her blouse, with her slim arms leading out of the silky sleeves to hands typing purposefully at the keyboard. Typing at a steady, confident pace. Under the table a pair of black tights hugged her gently undulating calves while her feet were supported by a pair of short stilettos.

My heart was racing. It was unusual to see such a beautiful lady in the café – normally at this time I only saw old folks reading the paper or the occasional homeless person.

I clicked my way into my computer, bringing up my work portal.

I imagined Paul pulling off his chat-up trick of going and asking ‘have you been able to get the WiFi in here?’ I’d never seen it get him any further than a little small talk, but he still considered the trick a victory every time he performed it – turning around to smile and give the lads the thumbs up when his target was clicking through his internet settings for him.

I looked at her again. She was focused on the screen with a steely concentration expressed with a slight pout. I bent my head a little to see what she was working on. It looked like she was switching between her web browser and Excel. The guys I knew from accounts always said they were afraid to use Excel in public, reckoning it marked them out as nerds. It could be such a valuable programme though. She stretched her hand up and reached to scratch the back of her neck, and I watched the buttons on the tight fabric tracing the outline of her chest rise.

A message popped up on my screen. ‘Welcome to EGL WorkRemote Master – You Have 17 New Messages from Sharon_83’. I took a gulp of my flat white, crossed my fingers in my left hand for luck and clicked with my right to open the messages.

I wanted to thump my table in frustration, and settled for a tap, after seeing the first message. Entitled ‘a couple of questions about your new workflow template for QRS’ I scrolled down through a mammoth email littered with question marks – far longer than the workflow template it was referring too.

Seeing the garish pink signature at the end of the message, saying ‘Sharon xx’ was like a slap in the face. I pictured my boss stood with her arms folded in front of me in the café, peering over the top of my computer and reeling off a torrent of instructions, questions and complaints.

I used the opportunity of my remote working to recline in my seat, close my eyes, groan and mutter “fuck!”

I grabbed my phone and went straight to WhatsApp. There were no new messages in the lads’ group, but I could see they had mostly been online already that morning.

‘You’re gonna be very jealous of me, Paul,’ I wrote.

‘I think I’d be jealous of just about anyone right now,’ he replied. ‘I’ve just finished eating breakfast with a housemate sobbing uncontrollably next to me. She tried to explain a couple of times why her boyfriend woke us all up shouting abuse and why there’s a slice of toast sliding down the wall, but every time she just starts crying again. Feels like someone’s died in here!’

I selected some laughing face icons and clicked send, even though I didn’t find it particularly funny.

‘Go on then’ Paul wrote. ‘Make me jealous’.

‘There’s an absolute stunner with the latest Mac Book Pro in front of me’, I wrote.

‘OK, that worked a treat – we’re all jealous’, wrote Gav, joining the conversation. ‘I’m in Starbucks and there’s some guy in a soggy anorak who’s been reading the bible out load non-stop for the past hour on the next table.’

Paul sent an angry-faced icon. ‘Are you going to share the joy then?’

I looked across to the girl, who was looking intently into her computer now, with a hint of puzzlement on her brow.

‘I’m in my local café if you want to come down and try your WiFi trick Paul? I’ll send you all a link with the coordinates on Google Maps.’

‘Tempted’, wrote Paul, ‘send us a preview though’.

‘Yeah, don’t be a pussy’ wrote Gav, ‘show us what we’re missing!’.

I scanned around the quiet café. The barista was thumping the tongue that holds the grounded coffee in the machine over the sink, and clearing out the soggy remains with his fingers. A couple of customers had their faces hidden behind newspapers, while an old lady by the entrance seemed to be staring at a scone.

It didn’t feel right, but I could do this.

I picked up my phone, and held it up vertically in front of my face. I pretended to need to squint to read the screen.

‘Ok’ I typed, with my heart racing.

I selected the camera, adjusted it so she was in the middle of the frame, and then pressed inside the grey circle to take a photo. I scanned around to see if anyone else had been alerted to the soft click, but there was no sign of any movement.

I attached the photo into the WhatsApp group. ‘Here you are. Little treat for you :)’ I typed.

I shook my head at the ease I had succumbed to the peer pressure from my workmates, and tried to focus on my computer. Sharon had sent another message asking if I’d seen her earlier messages and could I respond ASAP?

I started to read the epic first email. My concentration was soon shattered by a vibration on my phone.

Two new WhatsApp messages.

‘Is that it!?!’ Gav had wrote.

‘A blur in the distance? Close up, please, preferably with cleavage,’ Paul wrote.

‘Piss off, come here yourself you filthy pervs,’ I typed out, but before I could press on send, two more messages appeared.

‘Go on, I’ll buy you a pint on Friday night,’ Paul wrote.

‘Yeah I’ll get you one too. I’ve zoomed in and she is damn hot, but I need to see more…’ Gav wrote.

I sighed. The plan for Friday was to go to the Toddingham Arms, one of the trendiest bars in Shoreditch. It was £6 a pint there, and I wanted to go – not least because Mandy from HR would be there. Her with the biggest jugs in the company.

The barista had disappeared from behind the counter and was out at the front of the café, checking a phone.

The girl remained engrossed in her computer display.

‘You can pull this off. Easily,’ I thought.

I ambled over towards the counter and took my phone out, pretending to read my messages. I turned on the camera, swivelled to my left and right to check the coast was clear, then turned the phone towards the girl. I pinched at the screen to zoom in until I was satisfied the section of black lace from her bra that was poking out beneath the unbuttoned top of her blouse was showing. I pressed to take two photos and slid the phone back into the pocket of my jeans. Trembling, I turned around and walked to the toilet with the intention of checking my photo and sending it in a quiet spot.

I pushed opened the door separating the toilets from the café. It didn’t swing all the way back behind me though, and in no time I was grabbed by the back of the next and thrust up against the wall, with my feet dangling below.

I wheezed and croaked. I just about managed to turn my neck to look into the furious face of the bespectacled man with thinning grey hair who had me in the stranglehold. I was trying to say “let me down”.

When I started crying, he let go and I crumbled into a heap on the vinyl floor.

I took my head out of my hands and saw that a little of the redness had abated in his cheeks.

“You-?” I said.

“Yeah, I saw you taking that photo,” he answered. “Maybe I should introduce myself – Nigel Parker, Metropolitan Police.”

“You’re-?” I said, my lips trembling.

“Off duty at the moment, but still empowered to perform arrests when I deem necessary.”

“Arrests?” I said, pleadingly.

“You bet! You wouldn’t believe how many privacy laws you’ve just violated.”

“No, no, please! I only did it because my mates asked me too,” I said. I took the phone out of my pocket and dropped it straight away, with my fingers scrambling to pick it up again.

“I’ll delete them, I haven’t even sent them yet anyway.”

“You better!” he said, pointing a chunky index finger towards me. “And I don’t want to ever see you in here again, preying on innocent women or not, or you’ll be trouble. You understand?”

I nodded my head and went back to collect my computer and go.

The lamp flickered when I turned it on before going out.

‘Shit’ I thought, ‘the bulb’s gone again’.

I sighed and peered through my window to the dim overcast morning.

I tried to keep my eyes off the heaps of dirty clothes scattered around the bedroom floor, covering the majority of the faded red carpet.

I logged onto the work portal. Just the two messages from Sharon today.

I went straight onto Facebook.

‘Haha watch this, it’s hilarious!’ Gav had wrote. Under that was a video of a chimp on a Russian talent show impersonating its owner in various emotional states.

The sound on my computer was muted and I was afraid to turn it on as Wiktor, the Czech cook who rented the room next to mine, worked nights and didn’t take kindly to being woken. I rifled through a pile of unused receipts, train tickets and a couple of unused condoms on my desk to look for my earphones. No luck.

I checked Facebook again. One of the girls in sales had shared a post from Amanda Totter, the famous lingerie model. It was a viral post that had 89,000 likes and 22,000 shares already.

“A big THANK YOU to the man who pretended to be a policeman in order to frighten off a dirty young man with an HP laptop featuring a Nirvana sticker. This predator was taking pictures of me without me noticing at La Roma Coffee in Golders Green. I might be somewhat used to it, but every woman has a right to go about their life without having their privacy trampled on by obnoxious cowards. Anyway, I wanted to thank my hero, Dave, again, before I get the chance to do it in person when I take him out for a meal at my fav restaurant on Friday.”

I sighed. I’d been thinking about getting a new laptop anyway. Now could be the perfect time. I looked at the post again and clicked ‘like’.

Waltzing with Ivy – April 2017 CW entry

Tony saw Gerald had his eyes closed and took out a cloth to wipe up the trickle of stout that had spent the last five minutes inching its way down from the rim of Gerald’s glass and across the oak bar top.

He dabbed at the bottom of the pint glass while Gerald sat with his two hands nestled around its curve.

“Won’t be long now, will it?” said Mike.

“No, I’d say not,” answered Tony. “Normally it’s when he’s on his third pint. That’s only his second tonight but he told me he’s on an empty stomach as he’s all out of tinned spaghetti.”

“Christ,” said Mike. “Isn’t he getting wheels on meals or something?”

Tony shrugged.

Mike tapped his fingers on the bartop and looked up at the nine o’clock bulletin of the news channel Tony had put on the TV when he opened the pub at two. For some reason, Tony tended to always have the TV on a very low volume – not muted but not audible without straining your ears either.

“Any more of those young ‘uns in here recently?” asked Mike.

“Yeah,” said Tony, “two groups of them on Saturday night.”

“Oh,” said Mike.

He slurped at his beer and looked across to Gerald, who had brought his forehead close to his glass in a gesture that seemed to show increased concentration. Gerald’s lower lip was quivering – perhaps he was trying to whisper something, perhaps from emotion.

Mike sniffed. The dampness that always hung around Gerald’s tweed jacket had a slightly putrid whiff to it tonight. Poor Gerald. He’d told Mike once, back when his speech was fairly lucid, that news of the death of their son, and only child, in Australia had brought him and Ivy closer together than ever before. Now she was gone too.

“I was round Cartwright Court to see George and Belinda the other week, and you wouldn’t believe how many there are. All these posh bikes chained up outside,” said Mike.

“Christ, I wouldn’t leave a bike round there even if it was anchored into the bleeding pavement,” said Tony.

Mike eyed the barman with a smile as he watched him take a spotless glass from the rack above the bar and wipe it. He considered joking about Tony’s unnecessary cleaning but decided not to.

“’Apparently they’re getting leaflets all the time asking if they’ll sell their flat to a buy-to-let. Saying they can get 200 grand for it,” said Mike.

“Get away!” said Tony.

“They’ll be trying to turn this place into a wine bar next,” said Mike.

“It’s all theirs for a bottle or two or Rioja,” said Tony, who had moved onto wiping his next dry glass.

Mike took the opportunity to look around. He took in the tarred seams of the chintz wallpaper that had long ago peeled off at various corners to reveal pockmarked plaster. It must have been a while since Tony had even straightened the pictures on the wall – one of the 1987 pub darts team had a striking slant. ‘I don’t need no fancy gimmicks’, was Tony’s mantra whenever a regular suggested a refurbishment, and there was some truth to this. No visual features were needed for the sense of comforting isolation the pub provided – the sturdy black door with its big brass handle that had always creaked in exactly the same places was enough.

Tony nudged Mike on the elbow. “Here we go,” the barman whispered.

Mike swivelled around to see Gerald’s shaky right hand lift his stout up towards his lips. Gerald’s eyes were half open now, and focused fully on beholding the glass. He held the glass in front of his lips for a few seconds before kissing it gently on the rim and placing it back down, closing his eyes.

Tony shook his head and Mike put his hand to his mouth to smother a giggle. To avoid laughing, he avoided making eye contact with Tony for a while, and instead focused on the wild splatter of countless punctures in the corkboard and wall around the dartboard, accrued over the years.

“Could be handy if you ever want to sell this place,” said Mike.

“What’s that?” asked Tony.

“Having all those youngsters in here,” said Mike.

Tony mumbled a laugh.

Mike took his phone out to check for any messages from his wife. Tony was rattling some glasses around overhead, and Gerald was now moving his hand up and down to caress his pint glass. How long this went on for, Mike couldn’t say. It was one of those moments were life just seemed to freeze and before resuming again.

Which it did. Suddenly.

Mike’s right arm jumped in fright as he heard the creak of the door and the dim light of the spring evening crept along the wall to the bar, before being shut out back to the world outside again.

He was aware that instead of the usual lumbering in of the regular customers, there was a sheepish pitter-pattering on the sticky floor behind him.

Mike could see Tony scratching one of his eyebrows.

He looked to his side as two faces pulled up alongside and below him at the bar. A young man with curly hair sprouting in all directions, angular-framed glasses and a pastel-coloured jumper that reminded him of a doormat he had decades ago. Then his friend, and possibly also his lover – a young girl with long jet black hair, an oval face, a leather jacket over her sweater and shiny black leggings.

“Do you serve mojitos?” asked the young man.

“This isn’t a curry house,” said Tony. “We used to do bacon sandwiches on a Sunday afternoon but we ain’t doing any food at the moment pal.”

The young man reddened in the face and swapped several glances with his friend.

“I’ll have a pint of bitter and a tap water then please,” said the young man.

“Fine,” said Tony, reaching for a glass and the tap.

The pub returned to its normal level of quietness, with a newsreader – who was summarising the local football and cricket news on the TV in an enthusiastic tone – becoming the centre of attention.

Mike looked across to Gerald, who was now sat upright with his eyes closed and lower lip quivering away. He saw the young man moving along the bar towards Gerald and felt his heart beating. Then came the sound of the empty stool on Gerald’s right, on the far side of the bar, being dragged a little across the floor before the man jumped up on it and took out his wallet – leaving it on the bar top.

“Don’t” said Tony, and “please” said Mike, both speaking at the same time and stretching their hands out towards the young man.

“This man’s wife sits there,” said Tony, pointing to Gerald. “She’s –” he looked at Mike for help.

“She’s in the toilet,” said Mike.

“Oh,” said the youngster surprised, “well we’ll go to a table to have our drinks, I was just going to count out some change here.”

Gerald then turned his head to see the young man and emitted a deep prolonged shriek. The man climbed down, alarmed, and tugged on the sleeve of his friend’s jacket.

“You know what, I think I better go back home, sorry,” said the young man. “I’ll leave you a fiver – I guess that should cover the pint?”

“But what about the tap water?” asked Tony. The young man reddened again.

“Only kidding you!” said the barman.

The pair returned to the door much more quickly than they had come in and Mike heard it swing shut.

“On the house!” said Tony, placing the freshly poured pint of bitter in front of Mike.

Mike went to place the empty stool back where it had been at Gerald’s side.

The weather report was followed by a few minutes of nothingness.

Then, Gerald turned to the seat on his right.

“Pleased to meet you, Miss!” he said, his words slow and gravelly. “There was some rotter trying to pinch your seat but I think I scared him off.”

“Ivy Buttleworth, you say?” Gerald continued. “What a splendid name! You’re the stationmaster’s daughter are you? I must say I have a great interest in the latest locomotives myself, but I suppose that kind of talk is quite the tedium for you.” He laughed.

“I’m going out for a smoke” said Tony, “just keep on eye on him will you? You know, make sure he doesn’t come off his stool again when he starts waltzing with Ivy.”

March 2017 entry – Number 92

I don’t know quite what it was about the young lady on the fish counter that sucked me in. Glum shop assistants tend to frighten me, but then her surly pout had a definite allure. Perhaps it was also the way she used her knife. Firm, when she was swinging it down to the counter, albeit not with the brutish force the guys at the market used. Soft when she was filleting. Tender, when she was scraping out innards or hosing out all the muck that got stuck on.

There was the intriguing fact she didn’t wear gloves but also didn’t want to touch the fish with any more fingertips than were necessary. The discrete way she brought the back of her hand to cover her nose when she needed to. The casual way she was snacking on a bag of prawns, slipping rather than cracking their heads off, when I saw her leaning against the back wall of the supermarket on her break the previous day. The cold way she had ignored me when I tried to nod a hello to her then.

I suppose I could never quite describe exactly what it was. When you’re a young man, your brain is just putting together hundreds of cues and impressions before you form your opinion. Isn’t that how it works? Starting in one or two places, you say? Well, the slim outlines underneath the white coat that seemed a size or two too large for her appeared worth knowing. But what I really wanted to know was her mind. I had an urge to know how she lived, what she dreamed of, what she watched on TV, whether she ate grated tomato on a toasted baguette for breakfast like everyone did outside that little cafe.

She pulled a dripping hake out of an icy bucket to show me. It had the same sad expression in its eyes all dead fish seem to have.

She flashed a semi-smile upon seeing me licking my lips.

“That looks delicious!” I said. “Too many chips at my hotel. Not good,” I added, patting my stomach.

She brought her finger to her mouth in a mock vomiting motion and I smiled.

She turned, unusually, to chop the hake on the worktop opposite the counter that had the weighing scales on. That meant she had her back to me. I felt sure her face was smiling away out of sight. Her arms and elbows seemed to be lighter and looser as she went to work on providing me with 500 grams.

She ran the knife over the edge of the counter and cast it to one side, having decided it wasn’t sharp enough. She grabbed another.

There must be some adage said somewhere and sometime about never asking a young lady out with a knife in her hand. Clearly I was under the influence of the holiday spirit and the sun, but again, something about the moment I couldn’t possibly quantify seemed perfect.

I didn’t allow myself to back out on seeing that her glumness had returned when she span around to present the fish in a lazily tied plastic bag with the price sticker flapping off the side.

“Anything more?” she said in a muffled tone, clearly ashamed of either her English, her job or the world.

“Yes!” I said, clearing my throat, and calming myself, having been taken aback by the emphatic start to my answer. “I’m doing a Spanish course at home in England and I thought, well, it could be really nice to meet someone Spanish here to talk to. Provided you might be perhaps interested in meeting for a café con leche one afternoon?”

She looked at me blankly and tossed her knife down into a mackerel’s stomach, where it stood with its tip wedged into a hole it had pierced in the skin.

“Maybe if I could take your number?” I asked, reasoning that I could check a few words on the internet before composing a text message to better explain myself.

“I no understand,” she said.

She swapped an apologetic glance with an old woman who was standing impatiently at my side, admiring the salmon with her green paper ticket held in her fingers.

I could feel a bead of sweat at the back of my neck trickling down with the help of the powerful fan buzzing from the ceiling.

“Numero” I said, “de telefono,” moving my hand to my ears to gesture taking a call.

The same blank expression. Was my pronunciation really that terrible?

“Look” I said, holding out my paper ticket to her with the number 92 on.

“Noventa dos,” she said, reading the number out to me in Spanish.

She looked to her side as across waddled Carlos, the barrel-shaped man with a crooked nose and sweaty cheeks who worked on the cheese counter.

Why wasn’t she wearing a name tag too? If only I could put a name to the memory now, that might make it more wholesome. I suppose at the time it just added to her enigmatic charm.

Carlos grunted something inaudible that could have been “problema” then he stooped down to put his arm around the young lady on the fish counter.

Were they? Surely not? She was a beauty, and Carlos, as well as being three times the size, was at least 15 years older than her.

I heard the slow patter of flip slops interrupt the calm sound of a Spanish pop hit behind me.

“Taylor!” It was Duffers.

I turned around, alarmed.

He had a giant red bag of crisps in his left hand, while with his right hand he tried to adjust the laces on his brightly patterned swimming shorts.

“Did you find any beer yet? The United match is starting in ten minutes.”

“Oh,” I said, “no I was just – “

“Is that…fish you’ve got there?” he said, a grin spreading from cheek to cheek as he asked.

“Oh, well, it’s just a bit of hake, I thought that – “

“Put it back! We’ll get some burgers by the pool in a bit,” he said.

“Sorry about my friend, he’s a bit crazy,” he said, laughing, as I placed the white bag with six euro 70 worth of hake back on the counter.

Then I heard a buzz as the number on the electronic display above the scales turned to 93.