Jolly Joe’s Shadow – Nov entry

It all started when I was a shadow for a week.

Most of the lads went shadowing at factories or accountancy offices. One lucky geezer got to shadow the station master. And one poor sod was shadowing at the butchers, although that was less actual shadowing and more slicing up tripe at the back of the shop.

As for me, my old man was a gasman, a meter reader. “You could read numbers at the age of four lad, ain’t no point shadowing me. I’ve had a word with Joe Jenkins, biggest businessman in town, if not the whole of Buckinghamshire, and he says he can teach you a thing or two.”

I don’t know if my old man knew. I’m guessing not, or at least I like to think not. I was always too afraid to ask him just in case he said otherwise. I couldn’t bear the thought that my own father would encourage his own son to get involved in all that.

You see while Company House had Jenkins down as a carpet trader, it wasn’t the whole truth. Sure, he had a lot of carpets hanging around the warehouse, including the one I was lying face down on in my folks’ living room when I curled up in a ball weeping my eyes out at the end of the week.

You can wrap a lot of cash in carpets, you see. You need a big old’ lorry or seven to move them around the South. Stack a few up by the trailer door and in no time you’ve got yourself a little hidie hole at the front. Ain’t nobody gonna check them out either, well not in those days, and not when you’ve got most the bobbies in Buckinghamshire on your payroll.

No, I know what you might be thinking at this point. Joe Jenkins, master criminal? Never heard of the fella. Of course! It’s only the real master criminals who don’t get caught. Let’s put it in perspective though. Every criminal has a patch they control, OK? Heard of the Krays? They had a two mile by three mile patch in East London. Joe’s patch stretched 70 miles from up past Northampton all the way down to around the M25 – well there wasn’t an M25 in those days of course, and you know why? Joe never would have allowed it. He wouldn’t be giving those Essex and East End lads easy access to Slough and Heathrow, which was an important route for him to move stuff out the country.

You never would have guessed Jolly Joe was such a big shot from his gaffe. It was the biggest house I’d been in at that stage of my life alright. While it was all two up two down on my street, Joe had three up three down. He also had a pond in front, or was that just a puddle that didn’t drain? Can’t remember, though there was a fair bit of rain that week, which is how I got to leave all those footprints for the coppers to follow. Oh, and gravel on the drive. Never had seen that before.

“It’s so I can hear everyone approaching this place. Just in case,” Jolly Joe said to me with a wink on my first day of shadowing.

He really would wink a lot. Was probably one of his ways of keeping everyone onside. Like, obviously he’d wink when he was telling a bit of a porkie as people did those days like saying he got his giant fridge-freezer from the back of the lorry, but then even with a little statement like “bit nippy out today”, he’d flash you a smile and wink away.

Now, shadowing means following someone around as much as you can. The odd master criminal or two might not be too happy with all that, but not Joe. He showed me everything. Wasn’t all the glamour or danger that you might expect, to begin with at least, it was moving a grand here and there, doing a drop over there, chatting to associates on how to keep this official or that “sweet”. He showed me into the warehouse, and took me straight to where the carpets roll over to reveal the trapdoor to the basement. That was where he kept all his “good stuff” [wink]. Towers of cash running up the ceiling, a few paintings hanging around, a rifle locker and a hell of a lot of tellies.

Those days being those days, there wasn’t any of your drugs and automatic weapons at all. It was tellies and rifles. He got them all in acquisitions. The tellies that is. The way Joe pronounced it, acquisitions, it sounded all official and posh and everything, but basically it meant stopping the London to Manchester freight train late at night between Bedford and Rugby, and unloading a couple of TVs.

“Everyone’s onside with it” Joe explained, holding his wink so that I knew more was coming, “train drivers get a little cut, Northerners can claim for the lost tellies from the insurance co for more than they’re actually worth. We only take a couple each time, and my golden rule is nobody gets hurt. After all, I’m a gentleman, with a small g and a big m.” Then he winked.

One day, could have been the Tuesday, could have been the Wednesday, I asked him if I could go along to an acquisition as I was supposed to write an essay about the whole shadowing thing and list all the activities when I was back in school.

Joe looked taken aback.

“We do them at four in the morning, son. You need to rest for your shadowing.” He winked. “Who’s your teacher again?”

“Mr. Rogers,” I said.

“Ah ok, good to know”, he replied.

So, before you know it Friday morning has come around. I say before you know it but it actually felt like the longest week of my life. All the lads off shadowing said the same, apart from the one at the butchers who didn’t say a single word for the next six months.

Anyways, Joe’d just put the phone down and suddenly he wasn’t looking all that jolly. Not in the slightest actually. His face was had gone as white as an old dame. I’ve seen him go into the kitchen, kick the shiny fridge freezer and curse.

When he’d calmed down he came over to me – I was waiting in the living room with the door closed pretending not to notice anything.

“Seeing as it’s the end of your week and you’ve been a proper stellar shadow and all, I’m gonna give you a little responsibility. You up for that?” he asked, and I knew he was much better already as the wink was back.

“Sure,” I said, thrilled to have earned his trust.

“It’s just a little job but it is very important to me,” said Joe. He raced into the kitchen and came back in no time with a piece of paper with an address scribbled on.

“Go here please, son. Ask to speak to a fella called Doug Thomas. Now make God damn sure it is Doug Thomas, alright. And say to him – remember this son, as I don’t want you to write it down ‘Joe says stop messing around, or else’.”

“Or else what?” I ask.

“Or else, or else,” he said, “let’s leave the little rat sweating about what it all means”, he muttered.

“Oh and how old are you again, son?”

“16”

“Hmm, if you come across any bobbies today by any chance, just do yourself a favour and tell ‘em you’re 15, will you?”

“Umm ok,” I said.

You can’t imagine the thrill I had when I left Joe’s house a few minutes later. He said I should go as soon as I’d helped unload a shipment of carpets at the warehouse. He left me with the key to warehouse too! I was touching my pocket to keep checking it was there and laughing.

So anyway, I’m thinking all the time how I could handle this little job just the way Joe probably would. It sounded a little dangerous, truth be told, with all the talk of the coppers, so when the van had shot off with the carpets all safely received, I took a little detour when locking up the warehouse and got myself a rifle, which I tucked under my overcoat.

And there I was, calm as you like, at Doug Thomas’s place, ringin’ the doorbell and pushing at the rifle so it didn’t bulge the jacket too much.

Then I heard a bit of motion behind the door and the calmness just evaporated. My heart went a flutter. Then it even went wooh-wooh and I began feeling dizzy. And sick.

“What you want?” asked a stocky middle-aged man who opened the door.

“Hi, err, Joe, Jolly Joe said…are you Doug Thomas?”

“Ey! Are you carrying?” he said, staring at my jacket.

I had no idea what to say, so I instinctively turned around.

“Nobody comes to Deadly Doug’s home carrying!” he shouted, “I’m getting you done for illegal possession of a firearm!”

It was scary, I’m not going to lie, getting cuffed and bundled into the police car, getting asked 100 times where I got the rifle by an angry inspector. Then the cell. That was something else.

Now lots of people suspected Joe used his connections to get me off. He must have just assumed his men inside the police were doing him a favour. He never suspected I’d gone undercover for a small group of honest boys in blue determined to dismantle his Buckinghamshire mafia. Not when I turned up a year later asking for a job. Not when I’d been on acquisitions and gotten details on his whole organisation and tracked how he got his money turned into jewels then flew it out to a safe in Switzerland.

I’m not gonna lie, he did me a huge help allowing me to shadow him like that. Don’t know why he did it really. Must have felt he could trust me. Maybe he thought I’d be as slow as my old man.

Anyhow, the moral of this story, at least I think, is that people can gain so much from just shadowing someone for a little while. I’d like to think that as I end my 44 years in Thames Valley Police – might have even been 50 if I hadn’t been made an early retirement offer I couldn’t refuse – someone could have shadowed me every day, and learnt something, and not in my case how a master criminal operates, but how we uphold the law for everyone through honesty, sheer hard work and a can-do attitude. And if we don’t, like all the bent coppers Jolly Joe paid off back in the day, we get rooted out in disgrace.

700 police officers in the conference hall rose to their feet to lavish applause. Well, 699 really, as one was only pretending to be a police officer. One 82-year-old, whose own hard work in the prison gym over 40 of the past 44 years made him look a good 20 years younger, had managed to sneak in with a police uniform he had bought online. Joe Jenkins took in every last detail of the retiring officer as he applauded at the back of the room and began to think where and when he would exact his revenge. He sent the speaker a little wink for good measure, but he was too busy soaking up the praise to notice.

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Sep/Oct entry – The Only Witch in Hogglhausen

“I can’t consent to that” said Father Johannes. “Witches? In Hogglhausen? We are but a village of 400 souls – every one of which I can attest attends mass. How many Satanists do you suggest are living in this quiet valley and walking along the babbling stream?”

Father Tobias gulped, realising Johannes was only going to get more enraged.

“One would suffice. Should that be all a thorough investigation discovers, of course.”

“Huh!” Johannes grunted. He wanted to throw his old friend from the seminary of Ulm straight out of the rectory. He knew well he couldn’t, and that was more than a little painful. The question of what kind of investigation Johannes was expected to conduct lingered in the tense air, unspoken.

“Well, you could do worse than to see if anyone may be present in the forest at night,” Tobias said. “Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum says forests make perfect cover for devil worshippers.”

Tobias looked sternly and said in a hushed tone: “A group of thirteen was found holding a black ritual in a forest just outside of Augsburg recently.”

“Thirteen!” said Johannes, slapping his thigh as he let out a nervous laugh, “what a very convenient number.”

A spasm of tense energy carried Johannes to his feet and to the fireplace before he had even thought about going there. He took the poke and prodded the logs on which the flames were already roaring quite nicely.

“At the Prince Bishop’s palace there is a sister who tends to the fire and fills our wine in an evening,” said Tobias. “It’s a luxury one gets used to. A Dominican originating from Spain actually. A fine lady with the most splendid skin.”

Johannes winced. Whether it was thanks to the mountain air or placid village society, Johannes had no trouble keeping his vow of celibacy in his 20 years serving in Hogglhausen. Tobias’s glinting eye and drooping chin when he described the nun would be a good thing to think of as a deterrent should he ever encounter any temptation. His old friend was, after all, every bit the kind of oafish priest, warped by a failure to meet the responsibilities of his position, that Johannes worked to avoid ever becoming.

“Who really thinks this is a good idea?” asked Johannes, looking into the flames for he now preferred them to Tobias’s face.

“Why, it is quite clearly what the people want,” said Tobias, “and in this new, confusing age, the church really must heed the will of the people.”

“Ha!” said Johannes. “Was it not the church who sowed this confusion with decades of talk about heretics ever since Luther’s day? Is it not our fear and weakness that drives us to follow the blind superstition of fanatics? By lending our support to these forces, do we not legitimise them and turn our people against the weakest in their number?”

Johannes turned and faced Tobias, who had put a hand over his chin to think. He could see that Tobias, who was lazy rather than stupid, secretly agreed with everything Johannes had said.

There was a big crackling sound as a flame ripped a log in pieces.

“It is the policy of the Prince Bishop,” said Tobias eventually. Tobias himself was now looking into the fire instead of facing Johannes. “My journey here should be understood as a mission to enforce this policy across the principality.”

“But we do not have any witches here, Father.”

“Well, of course I take your word for that as an old friend, but there may be some at the palace who find that in itself all a bit suspicious.”

“So I myself might be a witch?”

“No, no, no, no! Good Heavens, Father! That is not what I was suggesting. I can only repeat that we are expecting a suspect or more to be sent to the next witch trial in Augsburg from here.”

“But I could not even start to suspect any of my parishioners of devil worship.”

“Well, that’s not what Mayor Friedrich says. He is of the opinion there are a good number of suspects.”

Father Johannes felt an urge to grab his visitor by the neck. He resisted it, as in the current climate he imagined it might be reported to the Prince Bishop that satanic spirits had possessed him and driven him into a frenzy.

“Mayor Friedrich and I agreed that by the onset of winter, the investigation here would be complete and a report dispatched to Augsburg,” said Tobias. “Of course the mayor is bowing to your holy authority when it comes to identifying any possible suspect or suspects. Who will then be given a due and balanced trial, of course.”

Johannes turned to gaze at the fireplace and Tobias left in silence.

The leaves were barely browning in Hogglhausen on the occasion of Father Tobias’s visit. Two weeks of cold mist across the valley followed, and many of the tall trees that shadowed over the village had dumped generous collections of leaves at their feet.

After the Thursday mass that followed the lifting of the miss, Frau Schmidt, a blacksmith’s wife, was sat opposite Father Johannes in the confessional box. We shall try to respect the sanctity of that environment by not revealing details of the lady’s confession. Needless to say her sins were not of the grievous kind and some years previously an incident of pocketing excessive change from a fishmonger had sent her into a long period of guilt. What she said just before leaving the box was not part of the actual confession though, and given its importance to our tale we report it in full, as follows:

“There are many unusual things about the Brugel boy, Father, and I must say that it causes me quite a lot of thought.”

“We are all unusual in some way,” answered Father Johannes. “God made us unique, after all. The Brugel boy is but a lad of seven.”

“Yes, but I mean really unusual. The way he stares into open space like he is seeing things the rest of us do not. The way he flaps his hands. I am not suspicious by nature, but all these oddities combine into a picture that makes me rather uncomfortable. We have all seen him cover his ears when we sing a requiem.”

“Given the musical ineptness among us, I myself have been tempted to do that on occasions.”

“Well there is one thing I lately realised that especially troubles me. The boy does not respond to his own name. What good reason could there be for a well grown child to refuse to acknowledge his Christian name?”

“Well, I do not know, but his family are of very good keeping.”

“Oh I don’t think the devil cares too much for well-heeled families, Father. Of course I am not suggesting that, well, I know nothing for sure. Perhaps you can use your spiritual guidance to act in this situation somehow though? Better to deal with these problems now before the child becomes an adult and heaven knows what great tragedies might befall us all.”

“Frau Schmidt, you can be assured I am monitoring this situation like all other spiritual matters in Hogglhausen, and I shall do my all to avoid ill harm falling upon any of us.”

Frau Schmidt was the sixth person to accuse the Brugel boy of witchcraft in conversation with Father Johannes.

The neat perfection of the small square on which the modest white bricked Rathaus, church and rectory were located soon gave way to a very different Hogglhausen behind. Father Johannes now walked up the haphazard paths connected the scattering of small wooden abodes located on one of the hills of the valley. The homes were densely packed in places and elsewhere separated by great swathes of meadow through which the lightest and narrowest of trails had been trodden.

After he had cleared the generous homes of several carpenters and the village’s sole doctor, Father Johannes placed his hand on a rock and paused for a moment for breath as the hillside increased in steepness. The fear of where this whole rotten business would end seemed to tug on him and call him back to the sound of the gaggling stream and thwacking of market stalls being set up in the village centre below. A desire to do some real good for once pulled him upwards though, right to where the settlement ended and the mass of forest began.

The Brugel father was a woodcutter – the village’s most common profession. While a visitor at this time of the morning to the Brugel family might have expected to hear a shout from the dark soup of trees just beyond the house or spot the swing of an axe among all the trunks, everything was eerily quiet today. That in itself was no surprise though after their neighbour had rushed, red-faced and panting, into the rectory half an hour earlier to tell Father Johannes that Brugel and his wife wanted to see him immediately.

As Johannes approached the sturdy wooden door to the family house, he heard weeping inside. He knocked as loudly as he could on the open door. He was knocking purely out of politeness though as the woman sat crying on the floor by the stove was already looking straight at him. The man beside her nodded towards the threshold.

“It is unfortunate, but my lady is of the realisation that what folk say about our second born son must be true,” said Brugel, gulping.

“Do you want to tell him?” he asked his wife, who put her hands to her face and shook her head.

“Very well. One problem is he continues to refuse to play with other children. For instance, last Sunday we retired by the stream after mass and while our firstborn recreated the battle of Breitenfeld with the other children there, our second born was using a twig to fight an unseen creature whom he called the Lord of Fire – a spirit perhaps.”

“Please allow me to interject there, Herr Brugel,” said Father Johannes, “after many a year of serving the Lord in our village I have witnessed many children struggle to reconcile the world of their imaginations with the world we see around us.”

“That may be, Father,” said Brugel, “but everything about the boy points to the same unfortunate thing. I have tried repeatedly to hand him a small axe to train his woodcutting on saplings, just as I did for his brother. Yet every time he drops the axe and counts instead the number of trees he can see. What a futile thing to do! There is only one thing I know of that could plant the curse of idleness in a person, and I dare not say its name.”

“I can understand your distress, but you must consider his young age,” said Johannes.

“But soon he will be a man, Father. His appetite increases all the time. What use is an extra mouth to feed if the hands that belong to that mouth will not also labour in the forest?”

“Life is not easy,” said Johannes, “there is a war raging across our land. Our valley is peaceful and plentiful though. I regularly send messengers to the Prince Bishop’s palace to request more alms in case ill fortune should befall any of us.”

“Alms? I will not hear talk of anyone in my family receiving alms! That is the lot of idle city folk!” said Brugel. He was angry now.

“Drop your quarrel and ask Father Johannes for the help we require!” said Brugel’s wife in an admonishing tone.

“Pardon Father, my wife is quite right!” said the husband, “we must deal with this problem. We have been seeking a cure. When summer was upon us I rode to Sandlstegg to seek a woman who sells potions for the bewitched. The potion did not work though. It only sent our boy into a violent sickness and no improvement has been seen in his general condition. We have considered sending for the physician, but we want no written record or too great a scrutiny of his condition, as we know well what might await him if news of this spreads beyond the village. We believe time is short. We must find a cure or risk his sorcery bringing ruin on our family.”

Father Johannes shook his head while remaining stood on the threshold.

“The truth is your second born cannot be cured as he is neither possessed nor sick nor evil nor – ”

His explanation was cut out by anguished sighs from the two parents. Johannes’s logic was lost on them. The sad fact was that he was probably alone in the whole village in not believing in the presence of witchcraft. As he trundled back to the village square he berated himself for not tackling the issue in any sermons. He had warned against gossip, against superstition, but always avoided direct mentions of witches for fear of what kind of debate and passions might ensue among the village folk.

‘I’ve failed them,’ he thought to himself.

—-

The smell of fir was combined with a pristine dampness in the village air when the first snow of winter fell several weeks later and dropped a spectacular white blanket over the trees ringing the village.

Father Johannes was sat by a roaring fire as he contemplated his impossible dilemma. Ignoring the demand from the Prince Bishop’s palace to send a suspect to the witch trial wasn’t an option. He found it hard to truly believe the palace might suspect him of witchcraft in revenge for denying their request, but it was a worry that flickered in the back of his conscience like a lone candle – rarely overwhelming him but never going out. The church had been operating just one degree below sheer lunacy, with hundreds if not thousands executed across the German lands with their blessing, including many women and children, and yes, priests too. If it didn’t come to that, he could still be punished for his resistance by being sent to work in a tough environment like a sick house. With Johannes moved out of Hogglhausen, Tobias would get what he wanted anyway with Mayor Friedrich’s help – the Brugel boy and maybe even some others for burning on the stake.

Johannes had done his very best to keep the witch hysteria from reaching and overwhelming Hogglhausen. Getting moved out while a witch hunting commission moved in would undo all that work. Much as he hated it, he realised that the only option was to give in and relent to the request.

The Brugel boy was the last of the parishioners he wanted to hand in. His vocation, his life even, would become totally worthless if this innocent boy was killed thanks to him. It couldn’t be.

Johannes gulped and sipped some wine.

If he was going to play ‘pick a parishioner he’d least mind seeing executed’, someone like Frau Schmidt would come close to the top of the list. Her gossiping and judgementalism was in no way worthy of such a brutal punishment though. Nor, for that matter, was any other sin he’d heard of down the years in the confession box in Hogglhausen.

There was only one thing to do. It wouldn’t be easy.

Johannes reached for some parchment, a quill and a jar of ink. His hand began to shake as soon as he took hold of the quill. He wanted to cry. Then his mood became buffeted by a gust of positivity, a realisation he was taking the bravest option, the best option. However absurd it was, he had found a roundabout way to do a great deed.

He brought quill to parchment as now he just wanted the thing over with. He began to write:

I, Father Johannes Seilhardt of the parish of Hogglhausen, hereby make an important announcement that must be told as widely as possible forthwith. The truth is I too have fallen sway to the great monster sweeping our lands. ‘Tis a long story, and impossible for another soul to truly understand. It started when I found a prohibited text under a rock in my parish and out of greed and gluttony I embraced the creed of the devil. I would regularly creep out to a nearby forest in the thick of night to smear animal blood on my face and partake in satanic rituals. I shed my vow of celibacy to have intercourse with evil spirits and returned, always hungry for more. I devoted my life to Beelzebub and took great pleasure in deceiving the village folk while I corrupted the garment of a priest. It was with huge disappointment that my many efforts to convince residents of the village to join me in my evil pursuits failed. The truth is they are to a man, woman and child, decent, hard-working and devout folk. Or from my satanic perspective, weak-willed sheep following their pointless herd. I was and am the only witch in Hogglhausen.

Johannes added his church seal and slumped to place his face on the writing table. He let out a very deep breath and composed himself to pray for the Brugel boy, for the boy’s parents, and for the whole of the village. Then he hailed the messenger and – cleverly having avoided the need to be first taken to a torture rack due to his comprehensive confession – waited for his date on a pyre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.