Jul/Aug 18 CW entry – I, myself remains to comfort me

There was nothing physically or mentally demanding about the task of picking up a mobile phone from the bedside table every morning. Lee’s waking ritual nonetheless remained a less enjoyable part of his daily routine. One corner of his brain constantly begged him to resist the habits of his time and avoid starting the day by beaming LED light into his irises from a distance of six inches before he’d seen any natural light.

Lee tried to get it over and done with as soon as possible. This meant tapping a couple of icons to check a news website, less out of genuine interest and more out of reassurance that he wasn’t in the dark about a horrible terror attack or sudden declaration of war. He no longer checked Facebook as it seemed to always have images of Natalia in some swanky joint with her new boyfriend.

Lee knew this day was going to be rubbish as soon as a ping had shook the phone and sent a flurry of words jumping down from the top of his screen.

Worse still, the name to the top left of the text flashed Tim/Meyson & Butler. Tim Morris! Having wasted the previous evening of his life taking this boorish middle-aged man out to a steak restaurant just because his insurance company was dragging their heels over a contract renewal, he had the cheek to write to Lee at 6:45 in the morning.

Lee squinted to read the text, puzzled at the unusual form it was sent in:

I love my hour of wind and light,

I love men’s faces and their eyes,

I love my spirit’s veering flight,

Like swallows under evening skies.

Sara Teasdale. No, means nothing to me, thought Lee as his tube train rattled clunkily, as if making a quiet and ineffective protest, away from Tooting station. Teesdale Logistics – he knew them alright, as they were the first client he had ever signed to the full system – he’d popped a bottle of champagne with colleagues as they took the train back from Durham. Sara Teasdale, an early 20th century poet though? Nope.

“Ribbit, ribbit!” Lee said as he chucked his unread free business paper onto his work keyboard.

“Ribbit,” mumbled the majority of the five other members of his team as they pounded their computer keys.

It was two years since Lee’s sales team, officially known as S102, were christened The Frogs by Malcolm, the company’s sales director. It was coined during a boozy speech at their summer get together. “Just when you think this hapless bunch have finally been crushed into an ugly mush underneath the shoe of a competitive marketplace, they find a way to bounce back like a slimy frog,” were Malcolm’s words – unusually positive for him. With the unspoken Führerprinzip reigning in the office, Malcolm’s questionable humour became unquestionably funny. Lee’s team itself had no alternative but to embrace the joke, painting their computers green and hanging giant paper tadpoles from the ceiling.

“Did you get lucky last night with Tim Morris?” asked a voice from behind a desk divider and screen.

“Christ, where do I start?” said Lee.

“With an answer maybe.”

“No.”

“Oh for fu- What’s that now? Three weeks without a single sale in the team?”

“The fat so-and-so was playing hard to get. Even though I threw 100 quid on the corporate card just for his steak and three bottles of wine.”

A female somewhere to Lee’s left groaned.

“I know,” Lee continued, “he was totally sozzled by the end but still kept his cards close to his chest. Kept on saying their procurement department would have to give a go ahead for an extension and they have a backlog.”

“Sounds like complete bull.”

“Slimeball as well. He told me during the third bottle that when they first signed with us they had a better quote from ComGuard but he decided to go with us as when we threw a thing for potential clients there was a receptionist with the best knockers he’d ever seen. Julia, he said. I don’t think we’ve ever had a Julia working with us.”

“Yeah as if ComGuard would ever give a better quote than us,” said the female to the left.

Lee opened his emails and almost jumped straight out of his swivel chair.

Right at the top of the list was a brief message with a red exclamation mark next to it sent at 7:29 am. “Quick progress check in my office asap thanks,” was the ominous mixture of words.

“You’re late, frog face!” said Malcolm, his face buried in some papers as Lee walked into the door of his office.

“Well, not really,” said Lee quietly. “It’s 8:18 and we’re not supposed to start till 9.”

“Hum,” said Malcolm, tapping the huge fingers of his hairy hand on the desk. “Suppose. Suppose. Suppose.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Malcolm added, finally looking up to Lee and grinning with all the might as if he’d just finished a particularly successful sketch on Live at the Apollo with a hilarious joke. “And I suppose your job title is something like Junior Sales Executive?”

Lee nodded, even though his title was Deputy Sales Manager.

“And would I be at all correct to supposeeee,” he added, smirking as he stretched the word, “that your job is supposeeeed to involve actually selling actual damn stuff?”

Lee nodded again, reaching out behind him to feel the nob of the closed door for comfort.

“Excellent,” said Malcolm with a smile, “you’re a little cleverer than your reptilian appearance would indicate. Except you still haven’t registered a sale after your meeting with Tim Morris yesterday.”

Malcolm waved his hand angrily as Lee started to open his mouth.

“I don’t want to know. Make sure that sale is done by the end of today or don’t even think about showing your face in here tomorrow. Ciao!”

As soon as he was back in his desk, Lee brought up the mysterious message Tim Morris had sent this morning on his phone and tapped to call him. It went straight to his voicemail. After a few seconds of crackling, he heard a woman with a Chinese accent say:

When I am dead and over me bright April
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Though you should lean above me broken-hearted,
I shall not care.
I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
When rain bends…

The recording then ended abruptly with the tone prompting the caller to leave their message. It sounded like the recital had overrun the 30 seconds limit for a voicemail message. Lee called again and got the same message.

If the text message had been puzzling, this was nothing short of bamboozling. Shaking his head, Lee typed the first line of the poem into a search engine. Sara Teasdale again. A melancholy poem which was wrongly believed for a long time to have been written as a suicide note.

“Has anyone heard of Sara Teasdale?” Lee asked his team.

“Is she the one on Love Island with the, well you know?” said Mike opposite.

Lee leant back and his chair and thought. He had two hypotheses, both of which were pretty bleak for him. Firstly, as an intoxicated mess, Tim Morris lost his phone last night, which has since been happily claimed by a Chinese poetry nut. Or as an alternative, as an intoxicated mess, Tim Morris arrived at his posh house in the home counties, argued with his wife, got the boot and somehow ended up immersed in poetry with what he presumed was a lover.

But what about his office? Panicking, Lee dragged a drawer open at his desk and went rummaging through his haphazard collection of business cards, looking for Tim Morris’s office number. Predictably it was one of the last he pulled out. Relieved but fearful, he dialled the number on his office phone.

It rang about 50 times in three different tones, which didn’t sound too good.

“Meyson and Butler good morning!” said a semi-enthusiastic female eventually.

“Hello, is Tim Morris there?” asked Lee.

“Erm, he’s not actually in the office at the moment. Actually, could I ask if you are a business contact of Tim’s?”

“Yes indeed,” said Lee.

“Right, well. Something a little unusual is happening. We’ve been receiving lots of faxes with a well, rather naughty photo of Tim underneath a poem. Really a lot of them, actually. Around 500 so far, all identical.”

Having tried Tim Morris’s mobile 20 times throughout the morning, Lee decided to hit the road. He’d taken a note of the poem burning churned out incessantly by the fax machine at Morris’s office. It was another Sara Teasdale piece, the Rose and the Bee, starting with:

If I were a bee and you were a rose,
Would you let me in when the gray wind blows?

Lee had printed out copies of the three poems Morris – or whoever he was with – had recited on his morning of mayhem. Laying them across his desk he had studied any possible hidden messages, thinking if this were an episode of Sherlock Holmes it would all be some puzzle to be resolved by circling various words. There were several references to nature, and bad weather, wind and rain, but that told Lee nothing. Last he had known it was a lovely sunny morning. He peered outside the office blinds and saw that was still the case. No, this man had lost his mind, Lee thought. The one man Lee had to track down more than any other in his life.

Lee’s mind raced to think where he could look for Morris as he trundled to the underground station. The man had spoken to him for three hours over dinner the previous night, but Lee couldn’t remember being told anything about any possible hobbies or his private life. Morris had given his opinion on the new European insurance industry regulations around 12 times, so one idea Lee had was going to Westminster to see if had started a one-man protest about excessive tier-two capital buffers or whatnot. Lee dodged between stagnant tourist groups in parliament square without seeing Morris. When he became aware a heavily armed policemen was staring at him, he decided to move on.

Chinatown would be his next place to check, Lee decided, seeing as the Chinese lady reciting the poem on Morris’s voicemail message was just about the only clue to go on. He got the directions on his phone and arrived under the colourful arch after a brisk 20 minute walk. It didn’t take long to confirm there were no pot-bellied men in suits here either. He stopped for breath and realised for the first time he had broken into a steady sweat.

Lee had an instinct to sit down and think before making his next move. He walked into the first restaurant he came across – which just happened to be a black door leading into the Dim Sum Palace. He found a small table by himself and buried himself in the menu. Flicking through the pages without taking anything in, the absurdity of the situation dawned on him for the first time. Sure, he had done a few silly things to sign up clients before, but nothing quite like a hopeless chase around London in a forlorn hope of bumping into someone likely to be in a confused or maniacal state of mind. Do I have any choice though? Lee thought, with his eyes resting on a picture of a poorly presented but tasty looking bowl of crispy beef. This whole job had been one big wild goose chase, with sales targets always hovering out of his grasp. He could walk away and right into another sales job, but he’d start on a lower rung of this particularly unpleasant ladder with the knowledge he’d walked before he was pushed hovering behind his neck.

A pretty waitress of oriental appearance in a black t-shirt and leggings was peering at him over the top of the menu with a concerned look on her face.

“Does the name Sara Teasdale mean anything to you?” Lee asked.

“Haven’t the foggiest,” she replied, pushing a fork and knife out onto his place.

By the time Lee had finished his meal and reviewed the restaurant on Trip Advisor, it was late afternoon. He tried Morris’s phone again from the restaurant, reluctant to leave the dim and sleepy environment for the bustle and chaos outside. The same message. It had sounded like a depressing poem at first but became more soothing every time he heard “I shall have peace. I shall not care.”

Lee reflected that he now had one option to keep his job. With no hope of locating Morris and extending his deal, he could go back to the office and dial through all the contacts on his file until he had made enough sales to cover what the company was hoping to make from Morris’s insurance firm. With the end of the working day drawing close, that felt too much like swimming against the tide – more like plunging head first into choppy water and expecting to be magically carried to a tropical island rather than getting tangled in seaweed or hit on the head by a sightseeing boat. The only alternative was giving up, which the more Lee thought about it, had few drawbacks at all.

Lee strolled around the streets in search of an underground station. He studied some of the blank faces rushing past him and smiled. It felt like the slowest he had walked in years. He had the funny feeling that even though he had lost this particular battle, he was now winning some wider fight he couldn’t quite conceive or express in full.

He was lost in thought until he suddenly found himself at Tottenham Court Road, and continued to think as he dropped in line at the back of a giant procession of soldier ants heading down the escalator. What would Sara Teasdale have to say about that? He realised if he didn’t have to go to work tomorrow, he could go to his local library and read some more of her work. Maybe even take the book out to the park. Except the last time he’d been at the library, the experience had been ruined by a guy in an anorak at his table reading bible passages out loud, and the last time he’d taken a book to the park, a homeless guy had tried to befriend him. Not that I have anything against Christians or the homeless, thought Lee as he tapped his Oyster Card, but –.

The packed tube train had only wound out of the station when it stopped. “Heavy delays likely due to an incident at our control centre,” said the driver, to a chorus of groans. Before it had started again, the driver announced “we have a message we have been asked to play to you.”

A couple of high-pitched sounds that could have been made by someone wrestling over a microphone were played. Then a flat voice that Lee instantly recognised read:

Heaven-invading hills are drowned
In wide moving waves of mist,
Phlox before my door are wound
In dripping wreaths of amethyst.

Ten feet away the solid earth
Changes into melting cloud,
There is a hush of pain and mirth,
No bird has heart to speak aloud.

Here in a world without a sky,
Without the ground, without the sea,
The one unchanging thing is I,
Myself remains to comfort me.

Passengers’ eyes darted around the carriage at hearing the unexpected poetry recital – mostly in the hope of meeting another pair of eyes and forming an unspoken agreement, with a smile or shrug of the shoulders, on how to react. When the poem was finished, there were a couple of seconds of high-pitched interference before the voice returned.

“Good afternoon everybody. Or as it’s half four, I suppose that should be good evening to anyone lucky enough to get off work that early. My name is Tim Morris and I head the purchasing department at a blue-chip insurance company. And that, quite frankly, is it. My life, all my waking energies for the past 29 years have gone into helping a company almost drowning in money to not spend too much of it. I’ve been like you, stuck on an underground train every day for decades, kidding myself that it’s all worth it as I have a comfortable way of life and a good pension scheme. A final salary one, and there aren’t many more of those left. But that’s not the point. The point is, that’s not truly living. Last night, I had a horrible meeting with an arrogant millennial who thought because he could throw in some marketing term in every sentence that he knew something about life; about people. All because he wanted money from my company. I sat on a Circle Line train late at night, planning to read a presentation of the latest version of his rubbish software, when I noticed a book discarded in the next seat. A poetry book. ‘I haven’t read any poetry in 30 years since I was at school’ I thought. And I read it. And it was amazing! A fantastic American poet called Sara Teasdale. A little bit gloomy maybe, but that’s alright for me as I always liked The Smiths. I decided to stay on the Circle Line all night as I’d missed my train, talking to ordinary people just like you. I felt like a new man. I met a lovely lady called Kim Su from Korea, who I’ve decided to leave my wife for. It was like I was born again. That’s why I had to tell you all today. Get out now! Run, hop, buzz away little bees – while you can!”

“Okay please drop the gun now, Mr Morris” said a fainter voice in the background.

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May CW entry – Take Me to Homebase

“Stone picnic table, we’ve got a stone picnic table! Stone picnic table!” roared Bertie the Birdfeeder, otherwise known as Colin, into the mic to the tune of Guantanamera.

When Colin was in full flow like this, everything apart from the microphone was coloured a hazy grey. The world in front of his eyes didn’t register at all. He had no power to process it while he channelled every last drop of energy he could muster into his vocals. It was a state unlike anything else in life. Was it Jagger who said ‘I take to the stage as a mortal, and somehow, after the show’s over, I go back to being a mortal again’?

If his eyes focused on anything at all, it was just to loosely scan the area of space in front of him for any incoming projectiles. Nobody had mentioned the Pint of Piss since Take Me to Homebase reformed, which just went to show what a big deal it was – the proverbial urine-filled plastic pint glass in the room. The incident itself, during Undergradstock ’07, was still hard to visualise – consisting as it had merely of a sploshy container sailing past the corner of Colin’s eye and a skipped beat from Gaz the drummer. The smell had lingered a little longer – right until Colin had applied a wet cloth to wipe his sticky amp cables the following week. The distaste had lingered much further still – up to the point Gaz said he had to pack it in to study for his exams, and well beyond.

If Colin had looked up back now in 2018 while he whittled his way through the first lines of Algae on the Patio, there would have been a few ways to interpret the scene. The lone drunk flailing around the dancefloor showed someone was appreciating the music. Colin may not have been too keen on seeing the glamourous young lady sat at the bar had her back to the stage. He would have been less pleased to see her mouth “who the hell are this bunch?” to the friend she was waiting with to see the Ed Sheeran tribute act. He may have appreciated the smile on the manager in the grey blazer, who today seemed to be fairly accepting of his lot of operating a struggling music bar, when Colin stretched out the chorus “So lusciously green, but I’m gonna scrub you all clean.” The manager’s smile was kind and only moderately patronising.

Colin’s focus on singing disguised the fact that this wasn’t a time he wanted to see how the world was reacting. The band felt too raw since reforming to look into the mirror of popular opinion. The question of whether the world was ready for a post-punk band singing about garden furniture remained unresolved, after all. He hoped it was a question they were now too wise to linger on, in their 30s, 11 years clear of the insecurities of youth and the bitter smell of lobbed urine. In reality, it was a definite stumbling block. The unique selling point that had energised them when they started – a gutsy revelling in weirdness that allowed every raised eyebrow to drive them on – had soured back at university as any form of success floated well out of reach. Now the band’s unique flavour was just – well, plain weird. Colin’s Take Me to Homebase T-Shirt was still locked away in the attic – it wouldn’t fit him anymore anyway – and Gav had clearly deleted the video of one of their earlier performances on YouTube, despite denying this. Presumably nobody in the band had told any friends or workmates about the comeback gig, or else more people would be here. Colin had only told his wife, begging her not to come. He had thought about telling his 18-month-old daughter but decided against it – maybe he’d share his experience with her after the gig, if it went well.

Why were they back together then? Whatever the answer was, it wasn’t explainable with simple logic. Tommy, the bass player, had written to the rest of the band out of the blue, sending a copy of some photos from the old uni gigs he had found in the attic. Jim on lead guitar had joked how “young and not that unpretty” they had all looked and asked if anyone still played or performed. Two weekends later, they were assembled in the spare bedroom of Gaz’s house, instruments and mic at the ready, sipping coffee, smiling and commenting on Gaz’s glazing, when once upon a time it had been cider, growls and comments on female students.

“Thank you, thank you, Masters Music Bar!” Colin shouted into the mic as the song ended. He didn’t bother pausing for applause. The manager had just taken his hands out of his blazer to start clapping by the time Colin turned and gestured to the other three to start the next song. Jim angled his guitar and stroked the strings to begin the solo that commenced Unblocking the Lawnmower at Sunset.

The morning jam at Gaz’s semi-detached house had quite simply been the most uplifting few hours Colin had spent in years. He had been nervous beforehand, unsure why they were putting themselves through this. Tommy had dusted down a book with the lyrics of all their songs in. They had laughed and laughed reading through them about the ridiculousness and downright mystifying nature of some of the lines.

“ ‘Glistening like snail marks on the fence, thirsty like a rosebush, I will thrive, I will fly?’ who the hell wrote that one?” asked Tommy during the jam session. Red in the face, Colin had raised his hand to laughter from the others.

Colin tapped into this energy from their reunion now that he was on stage belting out the soft tones of their penultimate song. Nobody had suggested doing anything more than this one comeback performance. Somehow it all felt a little more comfortable now than it had back in the day though. There were no longer any sky-high ambitions to be the most popular band at the university, to send demo tapes into Radio 1 or to work on new material instead of looking for jobs straight after graduating. In their second carnation, Take Me to Homebase seemed at ease with their status as no more than a molehill in the vast musical landscape. The unspoken, unconsidered reason (until now) for their reunion, Colin reflected, was to channel the creative energy that had gotten so tangled by the lust and idealism of male youth, so damaged by the inherent insecurity of their earlier selves, and allow this to flourish one final time in this smoother environment – so the band could end on a high.

Colin grinned with eager anticipation as Unblocking the Lawnmower at Sunset ended. Bertie the Birdfeeder was next – a slow, sombre tune to end the set. It was about a senile old man wandering into open gardens to feed birds until the police apprehend him for trespassing. Colin smiled with approval as the stern teenager operating the lighting for the venue implemented their instructions to dim it ahead of the chorus of “Ok, officer, d’ya have sparrows at the station too?” Colin closed his eyes, listened to his voice booming out of the speakers for a split second and heard Jim start his final, colourful solo, with more ease and style than he ever remembered from the old days. The dimmed lighting would have made it tricky to see much across the empty dancefloor, even if Colin’s eyes were open. Colin therefore missed the young man with a notebook in detailed conversation with the bar manager.

—-

Colin’s phone pinged the following Thursday at the office. A notification alerting him of another message from the band’s WhatsApp group popped up. He sighed, as he was currently engrossed in the accounts of a haphazard client, and he didn’t want to lose his mental note of various movements needing to be made in the Excel sheet.

“Interesting band reviewed in today’s Journal, wouldn’t mind watching them some day,” Gaz had written.

Colin tapped on the photo of the ‘Culture and nightlife’ page of the local paper, puzzled. Then he saw an obscured image of himself wailing into the microphone, and he smiled.

‘Something definitely different’ was the headline.

I won’t lead you down the garden path, Take Me to Homebase are not everyone’s cup of tea on a sunny afternoon in a deckchair. As quite possibly Chippenham’s sole horticulturally-themed post-punk band, they add an undeniably explosive element to the town’s placid music scene. The energetic days of youth may be behind the four members of Take Me to Homebase, but at approximately half the age of the Rolling Stones, they were still capable of getting Masters Music Bar bouncing. Synching raw experimental zaniness with skilled instrumental play and passionate vocals, their bold and extremely original music made this reviewer tap his feet even more often than he scratched his head. Colin Tuttelwell’s powerful vocals were accompanied with aplomb by Gareth Thomas on drums, James Duckworth on lead guitar and Tom De Souza on bass. Having reformed after a decade’s hiatus, the question of whether Take Me to Homebase will grace the town’s stages again remains shrouded in mystery – or whether it will be like Hendrix at the Isle of Wight Festival, and if you weren’t there to see them, you never will. The only disappointment is that their lyrics don’t extended beyond the topic of garden furniture. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Colin stopped at the newsagents on the way home, searching through the pile of Journals to find the best-looking copy. He read the review again and smiled as he handed over his one pound fifty. He briefly considered mentioning his fame to the cashier, but he didn’t want to appear boastful. She was also around 15 years younger than him and had the look of someone who would find a boast from an older man downright annoying and strange. He consoled himself with the knowledge his wife would offer her gleeful congratulations, and the paper could be stored away safely to show his daughter his moment of fame when she was able to read.

His phone buzzed again.

“Fantastic!” wrote Jim. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to jam again on a Saturday though as my little ones are starting their swimming again when term starts.”

“Yeah my boy’s taking up rugby as well this year! That’s pretty much the whole weekend booked up,” added Tom.

Colin tucked the newspaper under his arm to write a message. “Never mind lads, we had some fun while it lasted, didn’t we?” He then skipped out of the newsagents’ door.

The Last Haddock

Al gave the basket a good shake in a failed attempt to dislodge a chip that had bent itself around the meshing in the bottom corner. He angled it to the side and shook again. Still no luck.

“I’m gunna pitch a fit with you in a second, Mister –” he muttered. Aware that his hands were starting to shake now, he placed the basket back in the fryer. The unmistakable sizzle sounded out.

“So I’ve heard you won’t be heading back to Ireland?” said Mrs Joyce, the newsagent’s widow, when the sizzling had calmed from a frantic assault to a quieter, more rhythmic hissing.

“Ain’t gonna happen Miss Joyce. Ain’t nobody I know there anymore,” he said, turning back to the chips before he had a chance to gauge her reaction.

“Well,” she said, gulping, “how nice that you’ll still be around here. We’ll be seeing you, well in here as a customer, perhaps.”

Al gave out an affirmative grunt as his fingers struggled to open a paper cone in preparation for pouring the chips in. He felt heavy from the heat. It was high time to hang his chip basket up. 83 was not an age for any of this, but still he couldn’t help feeling apprehension of what was to come.

“75 isn’t anything in this day and age, you know?” said Mrs Joyce, switching her glance several times between Al and Deborah at the till. “Look at Doris Johnson. She went to the market in Harrogate last week you know? On the bus, and everything. 96 and right as rain! Fit as a finely tuned fiddle!”

Al turned around to watch the chips cool. He wanted to say: ‘Yeah, except ol’ Doris ain’t had one thousandth of the life I’ve had’. A few bumps raised themselves on the ridge of a particularly chunky chip as the steam wafted aimlessly from the basket. Al patted his apron at the side of his bulging stomach. It had been a lot worse. 40 years of just frying fish and running had improved his physique no end, but now the aches and pains from that time of excess were returning. What he feared much more than any physical deterioration was all the time. Time to think about it all. About the past life that he had done so well to lock away but was now stood at the door with a knock, knock, knock that was getting harder to ignore.

“Where are you from in Ireland again?” asked Mrs Joyce, as Al handed her a cone of warm chips.

“Oh, nowhere in particular, kind of middle o’ nowhere, if you know what I mean?” he replied.

“Oh,” she said as Deborah tapped a few melodic chirps at the till and Mrs Joyce slid a five pound note towards her on the counter.

Deborah turned to Al to smile and shake her head. He saw the quizzical look in his boss’s eye that showed she remembered the occasion a couple of years ago a family from Limerick had stopped by on the way back from the York races, and Al had served them in an evasive silence. Still, Deborah wasn’t the sort to ask questions she knew would be uncomfortable. In fact, nobody was in the entire village. That is what made it the perfect place to retire too. Well, retire from his previous life. And now he was retiring again, leaving the fish and chip trade.

“What time do you make it, Al?” Deborah asked a couple of minutes after Mrs Joyce left. “That clock says 3:20 but my phone says 3:14.”

“Ermm, my watch says ten past,” said Al.

He was due to finish his shift at four. His final shift. He was standing on the edge of a black hole he didn’t want to look down. The ticking of the clock heaved at his heart. Amid all the fumes of battered fish, fried chips and the cloggy whiff of mushy peas he could smell the bitterness all over the shop left from his row with Deborah earlier in the week. Linda McCulfey the teacher had let the secret slip when ordering a jumbo sausage on Tuesday lunchtime – Deborah had contacted the Harrogate Gazette on the quiet, begging them to take photos and run a story on Al’s retirement. Al had immediately stormed out and gone to his flat, telling Deborah he would only come back to work when she confirmed she had cancelled the photographers. He was sorry for making her wince when he threw his apron over the counter and slammed the door in the middle of the lunchtime rush. She would have loved some positive press for the shop instead of an incident that was likely to be talk of the village for years to come – and cast doubt on the people her business employed. He had done what he had to do though. The hair may have gone – after a short period of wearing wigs, he had kept it shaved until it simply stopped growing – and the face had shredded all its earlier roundness, but he couldn’t run the risk of being recognised. Couldn’t Google even recognise a face these days? It was definitely time to call it a day. What with all the mobile phone cameras, his luck would run out at some stage.

“I’ll go in the back and check the delivery sheets. I thought Barry would be dropping off the goujons by now,” said Deborah.

“Right you are,” said Al.

He grabbed a couple of handfuls of potatoes to take to the sink. He could feel another flashback coming on. His mind wandered far away from the steel sink that Deborah’s late father Frank had proudly installed in 1998. He remembered instead the gold tap and the mirror dotted with lights. Folk swatting around him like ants checking his clothing. Someone squeezing a pill through his lips to weed out any remaining nerves. The feeling of immense power at being a rock everyone wanted to flock to. Tarred by an undercurrent of sadness at not feeling entirely human. A constant feeling of being ready to explode.

Al turned the tap to its fullest to flush out the memories. He splashed a little cold water on his forehead. He then spent several seconds focusing on the flow of the water. He recalled the words of his psychiatrist back then for the ten-thousandth time: “It’s not enough to feel like a new person. You need to be a whole new person. Focus on the little details of life like a child would. That’s the only way this will work.”

Al closed his eyes to focus on the sharp roar of the water hitting the sink basin and turned the tap closed. He opened his eyes and felt a bead of sweat drip down. He was losing his power to shut out that past life. Fear creeped up his spine once more. The pleasant memories were coming to tempt him, but when he let them in, it would only be a matter of time before all the desperate lows flooded back too.

‘Ah so be it,’ he thought, as he brushed a well-rounded King Edward potato. ‘I may have had two very different halves of my life, but at some point they have to come together into a whole’. He smiled at how proud Jerry the Shrink would be to know he was still here. He wondered if Jerry was still alive. He had thought a few times about getting some message out to him. Surely curiosity would have gnawed away at Jerry too. He would have wanted to see if his top secret plan, his very own footnote in history, had worked out. It wouldn’t be a big surprise to find Jerry had been traveling the world, scanning millions of faces, just hoping to see Al.

Al snapped out of his daze at the sound of the shop door swinging open. He staggered around to see Mumbling Maud sweeping towards the counter with her tiny robotic steps. He checked the clock. Twenty to four. It could be the last customer he ever served.

Reflecting on that had a strange affect as Al felt some of the energy of his early years, which he had spent so long feigning and then suppressing altogether, swirling up inside him again.

“Hey honey, how you doin’?” asked Al, finally dropping his faked Irish accent.

Maud grabbed the handle of her shopping basket and looked up, startled.

“Hmm, mmm, huh – you still here, are you? I thought you’d be gone by now?”

“Yes, dearie, I’m finishing 40 years of service at four o’clock. Which means for another 20 minutes I’m all yours.”

“Hmmm,” said Maud. “A haddock please, I’d say, though not a big one. And just cooked gently so it’s still soft.”

“Comin’ right up, madam!” said Al. He went to the fridge to take a haddock fillet to toss in the fryer.

“Some like them soft, some like them hard. Then some like both, I hear,” he said as the sizzling pitched up. Maud continued to silently grasp her shopping basket handle.

Al thought back to the women now. That had been the hardest thing to give up, despite age helping to dampen his passions a little. Not the wife, of course, that had all been a sham really. Memories of embracing his first loves, had stayed with him, and then he felt a tingle of excitement, and power, at all the conquests in later years. How he had kept Jerry the Shrink’s advice to steer clear of the fairer sex he would never know. Was it one of the injections they’d given him before he made the big move? Or Jerry’s mantra – ‘One wrong move and it’ll all be over. The End.’ – which Al still repeated each day at the breakfast table in his council flat. And then there was the daughter. Damn. That was the brick wall that his flashbacks, his memories always ending running into. Leaving her was a sadness he could never suppress. Folk do even worse, and to everyone there I was as good as dead. That’s what Al kept telling himself, and it may have been a branch that felt very flimsy at times among the deluge of regrets, but that’s all he had to hold onto, and hold onto it he must.

“I had a life before I came to work in this place, you know?” he said. He wasn’t quite sure if he was addressing Maud, the haddock, Deborah – who could be heard shifting boxes around at the back – or the whole world.

“Oh yes, I have heard. You came from errr, Ireland wasn’t it?” asked Maud.

“No ma’am that was all a bit of bull, if I can be frank,” said Al, smiling at seeing the bubbling in the fat pan.

“Oh.”

“I actually came all the way from Memphis, Tennessee. Except folk didn’t call me Al back then – they only put that on the counterfeit documents. A Christian name with just the two letters would speed things up, so they said. As a matter of fact, I used to go by the name of Mr Elvis Presley.”

A small chunk of batter dislodged itself from the haddock and floated to the top of the pan.

“Can I have a small amount of mushy peas on the fish when it’s ready, but no vinegar please?” asked Maud.

“Of course you can honey” said Elvis. He grinned at his last chance of relishing the insignificance working in this place had gifted him. He wrapped the haddock in paper and handed it over the counter.

“On the house!” he announced, as Maud was fumbling to open her purse.

He took off his apron and hung it up on the hooks behind the counter.

“If you see Deborah, tell her I’ve retired ten minutes early,” he said.

He left the building at the exact time the sun peered out from behind the clouds on the winter afternoon. Dazzled in light he felt like he was taking to the stage again at the International Hotel in Vegas. He could taste some of that one more time if he wrote to the papers; if he confessed to just one of the many millions of people who he had touched in his previous life more than Mumbling Maud. An ache nagged at his knee as he walked along past a mother with a pushchair and a gaggle of school children. ‘Or more likely not a soul will believe me, and I’ll be locked away’ he realised. Time to put the feet up for good.

Mr Goo Goo (Bumper Christmas CW entry)

There are some nights that are merely draped in darkness. Then there are nights that are smothered, stapled and bolted in a mighty covering of darkness under which the world reluctantly slithers about its business. Which, on such nights, mostly involves sleeping, of course. That is indeed what our hero was doing, until a point that on an objective calculation of time could be called eleven past three in the morning, but on an emotional level was merely an empty period in which the darkness had fixed its iron grasp as tightly as possible. The first thing our hero had noticed was that the wind that had assaulted the trees beneath the bedroom window the previous evening had gone. Sucked out perhaps, to better allow the darkness to attach its many tentacles which, as the grim January morning that followed showed, it was in no mood to loosen.

Our hero heard a soft patter of footsteps on the landing and yawned. Having first thought ‘Oh God, not now please’, he resigned himself to the fact his waking up couldn’t be reversed. He made a mental effort to embrace the small, if untimely ray of light that was now tugging on the handle of the bedroom door.

“Mummy! Daddy! Mr Goo Goo, wooh, wooh, wooh!” said Bella. She waved her hands about and performed a very respectable pirouette in her pyjamas for a two-and-a-half year-old, which unfortunately was not seen in the pitch darkness.

Our hero glanced across to see his wife asleep.

“Come on sweetie, back to bed – there’s still a lot of sleepy time before morning,” our hero said.

He climbed out of bed, placed his hand on his daughter’s back and led her back to her bedroom. He silently cursed the moment three weeks before he had removed the side of her cot to convert it into a cot bed.

“No! Mr Goo Goo, wooh, woooooh!” said Bella, waving her hands again and stamping her feet on the landing.

“Mr Goo Goo’s sleeping downstairs,” whispered our hero, with a hint of anger. “And your big brother and mummy are trying to sleep too, so we must be quiet.”

He helped his daughter back into her bed and wedged her duvet into the sides.

“What was she trying to say about Mr Goo Goo?” asked his wife who was sitting upright in bed as our hero returned. “Didn’t it sound like she was saying she’d heard him run around downstairs?”

“That’s impossible!” said our hero. While he deliberated confessing to his wife that he had taken the batteries out of his daughter’s favourite Christmas toy, a frantic sound, altogether out of keeping with the crushing darkness, was heard on the landing. Bella was running back to their room.

“Mr Goo Goo! Mr Goo Goo!”

Our hero had winced when Bella had unwrapped the unusually sober dark brown wrapping paper to reveal a toy monkey wearing a fez and holding a pair of cymbals.

He wasn’t quite sure why it had provoked this reaction. Was it its annoying cheesy grin? Had he seen some horror film many years ago where one of these toys grew into a giant gorilla and ran around a quiet village bashing people’s heads in with his cymbals?

Bella’s eyes had lit up noticeably more though on seeing the monkey than when she had unwrapped the doll’s set and Cathy Cat books that our hero and his wife had bought. Her pleasure increased as her older brother, James, figured out that a red button on the monkey’s left paw made it run around frantically for a few seconds – as if under the influence of narcotics – and smash its cymbals together.

Bella clapped her hands on seeing this routine for the first time. “Mr Goo Goo,” she said, laughing, and the name was born.

How the battery-powered monkey managed to always play its cymbals out of any rhythm at all was one of its mysteries. Another of its mysteries was who had bought the damn thing. Our hero had been passed all the parcels with Manchester postmarks by his wife to allow him to unpack gifts from his relatives. His effort to make a mental note of who had bought what when placing the presents under the tree on Christmas Eve completely failed though. A series of carefully-worded thank you calls to numerous aunts and cousins after Christmas was able to match most presents with their buyers – but nobody confessed to sending a delirious musical monkey. The unique, bland wrapping paper added to that conundrum.

Despite an initial attempt by our hero to put Mr Goo Goo on a cabinet shelf for safe keeping, Bella had soon demanded it back. She spent most of Christmas Day afternoon pressing the button on its paw and watching transfixed as it hurtled this way and that around the living room. One more attempt was made to give the monkey a rest when a small but vital component of the drawbridge for James’s lego castle was discovered, after an extensive search, to have become hidden up Mr Goo Goo’s sleeve. Bella was having none of it though. She did consent, at leat, to the argument before bath time that Mr Goo Goo would have to stay downstairs to look after the other toys at night. The metal cymbals would be too dangerous to have in her cot, our hero and his wife had reasoned to one another in a hushed conversation in the kitchen while preparing the turkey. Besides, they didn’t want Mr Goo Goo running around all night.

“Are we sure the present was meant for Bella, there was no tag on it?” our hero had asked his wife late one night between Christmas and New Year. “One of my aunts could have meant to send it to one of Bella’s older cousins.”

“Well she really enjoys it, doesn’t she? Isn’t that the main thing?”

“I guess so. It’d be nice if she played with her dolly too, or showed an interest in the Cathy Cat books” he said, remembering his drive to every bookshop within an hour’s radius to find one that hadn’t sold out of them. “Maybe we just need to be patient.”

Patience can be devilishly tricky to grasp at three o’clock on dark January mornings, however. The next day, Bella had rushed into her parents’ room at the same time. If our hero had wanted to check the mobile phone on his bedside table, he would have seen it was exactly the same time, 3:11. Then the following day, the same thing happened again.

“I hear Mr Goo Goo! Wooh, wooh!” she said this time.

“Look Bella,” our hero said sternly, “let’s go downstairs and see that Mr Goo Goo is sleeping on the shelf exactly where we left him.”

He turned on the landing light, pushed the stairgate open and took his daughter’s hand. The attachment between her and the toy was leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. She had screamed louder than ever before the morning she discovered Mr Goo Goo wasn’t running around because her daddy had taken its batteries out. Our hero had hurriedly put them back in, reassuring her it was an accident. As he descended down the stairs to the dark hallway, taking a step at a time and waiting for Bella to execute her careful steps, he plotted another idea. You could find articles and opinions on anything on the internet – especially when it came to reasons for cautious parenting. He could try googling ‘Is it appropriate for a two-year-old to play with a cymbal-banging monkey’ on his phone in the morning. There was sure to be somebody arguing small kids shouldn’t play with scary toys in their formative years. He could show the article to his wife, and they could plan appropriate action. Bella would hate it at first, but it would be easier to take Mr Goo Goo away now than when she is five. After a few days she would have forgotten he ever existed. And none of them would have to look at that deranged ape grin ever again.

Our hero reached for the light switch at the bottom of the stairs. The light flickered a few times and went out. Strange. He was sure he only changed that bulb a couple of months ago.

A “bang-bang-bang” from behind the living room door punctuated the silence.

Our hero’s heart skipped a beat. So his daughter was right. He heard the sound of the little cymbals again and his feet suddenly felt heavy. How could the thing be coming on at night and not falling off the shelf?

“Stay here!” he whispered to Bella, inching towards the living room door. He reached his phone out to use as a weak torch and prodded opened the door. There were no signs of movement on the living room floor.

He closed his eyes and flicked the lights on. Hearing nothing, he opened his eyes again, and looked straight to the first shelf of the cabinet where Mr Goo Goo stood, statue like. He stared into his vacant eyes and tried to deliver a look that said ‘I know what you’re up to, and I’ll show you who’s the boss around here.’

“Look Bella, Mr Goo Goo’s sleeping…” he said.

He scanned around the room, but there was no sign of anything untoward. He felt a draught underneath his robe from the cat flap the previous owners had installed in the door opening out to the garden.

He turned the light off and headed back upstairs with his daughter, knowing there was no chance he would get any more sleep that night.

It was 3:33 the following morning when our hero felt a tug on his pyjama sleeves.

“Did you hear Bella?” his wife whispered.

Our hero sighed the kind of elongated, slightly musical sigh that you can well afford to sigh when you didn’t plan on doing anything for another three and a half hours.

“I’ll go,” he said, after a few second’s wait had made it clear he should volunteer.

He went to the bedroom door thinking through the routine. Reassurance that Mr Goo Goo is sleeping and will be happy to see her in the morning after breakfast. After his Google search of its dangers had failed to yield any convincing results, he was now contemplating sabotage. A screwdriver in the battery compartment should quickly silence Mr Goo Goo from here to eternity.

“Oh Christ!” he said on seeing Bella’s bedroom door open and the stairgate swung open on its hinges.

“Honestly!” he said, running his finger over the mechanism that was supposed to lock the stairgate in place but allowed it to open with a good shove.

“What’s happened?” asked his wife, who had emerged behind him. “Good God, don’t fiddle with the damn stairgate now, go and find our daughter!”

“Sorry!” he said, racing down the stairs.

The night filled with a kind of boisterous laughter emanating from the living room that cut straight through the gloom. Then the sound of the cymbals bashing two, three then four times.

“Bella!” our hero shouted.

He swung the living room door open and stopped in his tracks. An unusually fluffy grey cat was by the cabinet – presumably by way of the cat flap – and ran its paw repeatedly over Mr Goo Goo’s cymbals, making them bang into one another.

Bella laughed another radiant laugh, pointed at the cat and said “Cathy!”

How long Cathy had been making its nocturnal visits was a mystery. As was how the stray developed the manners to wipe her paws on the doormat on the way in to leave no trace. One thing that was immediately clear was that Cathy would be one of Bella’s best friends. So much so that Bella agreed instantly to allow Cathy to take Mr Goo Goo to live in the cat basket our hero and his wife bought the next morning.

The morning

“Oh, you’re dressed already,” he said.

“Yeah I’ve got to head to the office, unfortunately,” she said, patting down the duvet.

“They work you architects hard,” he said, without daring to step beyond the threshold.

“Well, actually, I’m a solicitor. My friend Amanda is the architect.”

“Oh dear, I – rough night, huh?”

She stared.

“I forgot to tell you,” she said, “but it’s very important you don’t flush condoms down the toilet here.”

“Ah no, I put it in the bin.”

“Good.”

“I lied actually, sorry. I’ll just go now and fish it out.”

A draft slammed the door shut.