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.

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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.

The Volcano

As I tried to regain my breath, I spent a few moments admiring each waft of smoke billowing out of the crater. They mostly took the form of zigzags. None of your boring clumpy plumes here.

“Don’t go any closer,” said our guide Miguel, adjusting his scarf to better cover his nose. “if the wind picks up and you get some of that gas in your face, you might pass out.”

Miguel turned to take a swig of water. I inched a step forward and went up on tiptoes. Just to see if I could get a glimpse of the lava that would be bubbling down there like hot chocolate in a saucepan.

“Two thousand eight hundred and sixty metres,” said Miguel. “Used to be two thousand eight hundred and seventy but we lost a bit in the last eruption.”

I nodded respectfully as I traced my eyes over the rough underside of the crater. Flecks of rock a few yards away that no being will have ever touched. My toes twitched nervously under my feet, squishing the snow as I realised there was only the same thin plate of ground separating us from the dark fiery chasm below.

This was the kind of volcano you’d see in a fairy tale. While Patagonia might mean vast barren expanses on the whole, this northernmost area of the giant region on the Chilean side was a lush ensemble of colours – with pristine green valleys, gushing blue rivers and a generous smattering of silent turquoise lakes.

The snowy smoky peak just completely dominated the little tourist town below. I loved its angular shape – just like the traffic cone I had a blurry memory of taking home a few nights before the graduation – or like a particularly pert breast. I knew from the moment I arrived bleary eyed at dawn on the bus from Santiago I had to conquer it. Thankfully there were well signposted tourist agencies at every corner waiting for you to hire a guide to take you up.

I turned around to take in the countless Andean peaks around the horizon and peer beneath the clouds for the rolling hills of the region at the foot of the volcano. It must have been around here that Clara’s husband owned the Tres Marias estate in The House of the Spirits. The tattered book I had rescued from being discarded upside down in the ‘used books – please take’ bucket at a hostel in Santiago was excellent at illustrating the shadows of this long and pleasant land – the contours of the darker details of its history you couldn’t see from the window of the bus. Perhaps Isabel Allende had been around here before describing the fields and streams where Esteban Trueba raped the peasant women at night. That this character remained T the head of the family with no punishment for his crimes had shocked me at first, made me a little more afraid to be so far from home even. Brutal realism, you could call it. How could the novel have been all sweetness and light, after all, when the writer had just seen a thriving democracy and respect for human dignity shatter underneath the feet of these polite people?

“Ooh, perfect profile pic spot,” said Tim, “get your phone out, love.”

Ed sighed. “Stop calling me ‘love’! And don’t forget your damn phone next time we travel somewhere.”

The two were loose acquaintances of mine from university who I had discovered on Facebook were happening to travel to Chile at the same time. Having first resolved to travel alone, but fearful of loneliness, I had contacted them and spent five days around Santiago awaiting their arrival so we could travel together. They had just shuffled up to the peak after pausing a little lower down to sip whisky from a hip flask.

“I’d like to apologise for my friend,” said Tim to Miguel, “he’s awfully afraid of male to male affection. Presumably some repressed homosexuality. It’s very funny really.”

“Piss off!” said Ed, “do you want your photo on this here volcano or not?”

“Alright, pipe down,” said Tim, “give me the phone when you finish though.”

“Huh?” said Ed, “I’m down to 17% battery, it better be something important you need it for.”

“It’s after 10 in the UK isn’t it? I want to check who won The Apprentice.

“Oh good call – I hope it isn’t that mean bitch!”

“What? You really want that chubby one who looks like Toadie off Neighbours to win?”

“Toadie off Neighbours? Oh, jeez, that’s a good one.”

Miguel’s feet twitched a little, as he presumably wondered what the hell the two were on about. I sensed a little disappointment in his eyes that their minds were lost elsewhere, rather than appreciating the might of this volcano.

I smiled but made no attempt to join in the conversation. I was already tiring of their chat. They seemed to be so absorbed in their own banter they could get swallowed up by it and not even notice they’d been eaten by their own humour.

The pair exchanged the black phone, which really stood out due to the contrast with the thick white blanket of snow.

I preferred to focus again on the wafts of smoke. I thought about the story of the eruption in the 1970s I’d read at the hostel. The sky turning pitch black at noon. Rocks raining down on the town and burning holes in the ground. What a weird relationship the volcano had with the town below. With its imposing peak it seemed to watch over and protect it. They knew down there it could also lash out at any moment and wreak havoc. Then it would leave bountiful deposits of fertile ground like an apologetic lover bearing flowers.

I realised within a couple of seconds I could dash to the edge of the crater and jump in. I’d never felt the slightest depressed, let alone suicidal, which helped me to plot this idea in my head without worrying I would actually be capable of it. I presumed I would end up getting scalded in a pit of lava, which had to be extremely painful, but then again most deaths are painful one way or another. It would produce endless attention, which was an immensely valuable commodity among my peer group of fresh graduates preparing to make their mark on the world – some with their elbows out jostling, and others like me with the feeling of inching along some screechy airport travelator towards an as yet unknown office career. I had applied for a few internships at London legal firms, simply because my closest friend on my English course had done the same. When nothing came out of that, I topped up my savings with my bar job and headed off to Chile.

It would be so easy to dive into the crater. My parents wouldn’t be best pleased, for sure. You could see the headlines now. ‘Recent graduate of respectable university takes suicidal plunge into Patagonian volcano’. Complete with my graduation photo. Plus an interview with Amanda, my parent’s next door neighbour saying: “He was a polite young man who just kept himself to himself really. There was nothing at all to indicate he would be capable of jumping head first into a volcano. We’re stunned.”

Tim turned to me, finally recognising my presence. “You feeling the altitude, mate?” he asked.

“A little,” I said, touching the top of the hood I’d pulled over my head to protect from the cold.

“We’ve still got some whisky if you fancy a swig?”

“No thanks,” I said. I peered down at the never-ending icy slope under my feet. It had become steep enough close to the crater for Miguel to tie a rope down for us to cling onto. It wasn’t going to be a stroll on the way down. I remembered my father’s advice, deployed loosely on numerous occasions on family walks – “respect nature and nature will find a way to look after you.”

“It’s much worse at Kilimanjaro,” said Tim, “some serious shit there.”

“Sorry?” I said, having heard him fine but not appreciating the tangent he had just embarked on.

“You see people stretchered down wailing their hearts out as you’re heading to the summit. It’s loads bigger than this one though. About 6000 metres or something. I’ll get Ed to Google it – how do you call this volcano again?”

Miguel was twisting the thermos cup back onto his flask and decided not to answer. Although his native land was blessed with enough giant peaks for his lifetime, he would have loved to have the resources to visit Kilimanjaro and didn’t like the casual way Tim spoke about an experience he was fortunate to have.

“Do you reckon if I shout loud enough, them folk in the town will hear us from here?” asked Ed, who was sat on his backpack. You could hear the potent combination of the hip flask and the altitude stirring within Ed, a guy who can be best summed up by his becoming an honorary member of the rugby team at uni, despite making no effort to play the sport, purely so he could join in their drinking games on socials.

“Uufff!” said Tim, energised. “That’s a tough one – see that group down there at the foot of the volcano?”

“Oh, right down there?”

“Yeah – shout your lungs out and see if they turn around.”

Ed paused, then shouted “Yabadabadoo!!!!” in full voice.

Tim pulled a grunted smirk, covered his mouth and broke into a howling laugh. He covered his face in his hands.

“Did they turn round?” he asked when he had finally composed himself.

“Nah,” said his friend.

“I wonder how you say Yabadabado in Spanish. That could work.”

It was Ed’s turn to lose his composure now. He arched his hand over his nose and eyes as he let off an uncontrollable chuckle.

“You google it!” he said, tossing the phone in the snow halfway to his friend.

I didn’t even spend a split second envisaging the idea in my head. There was no need to. It just seemed the natural thing to do – as if the sky or even the volcano had whispered it to me. I strolled over to the phone, picked it up, dusted off the snow and lobbed it underhand up to the opening of the crater and away, swooshing down into the void.

“Oi! What the hell!?” said an enraged Ed, leaping up. “My Samsung S7!”

I grimaced, waiting to hear a satisfying distant plop when the phone hit the lava. The sound never came.

The way down wasn’t so tricky in the end, even if I immediately had to dodge a furious volley of snowballs. I knew exactly where the bus station was. And I learned, after all, that a wilderness like Patagonia is best appreciated on your own.

 

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.