“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.
After a couple of seconds hearing only the peaceful trickle of the water feature at the end of the swimming pool, punctuated by the soft roar of a motorbike in the distance, Ruth was getting hopeful.
It can’t be, she thought. But please be the end of it.
She listened again, savouring the silence while she could. The hot air seemed to have a kind of hum to it.
Her heart sank as it started up again, accompanied by the hyena-like laugh of one of the youngsters.
“WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU-U-U-U-U-U-U”
The three or four – or 35 – of them, you couldn’t be sure from the amount of noise they made, sang in as much unison they were capable of, which wasn’t much.
Some gaps in the vocals were filled by one of the party keeping a disorderly beat by slapping a balcony table with a sports shoe.
“Albert!” Ruth whispered angrily.
She heard the bed creak as her husband turned to her. “What is it, my love?” he asked.
“Don’t you think it’s time one of us went to reception to complain?”
There was a long pause. His thoughts were always slower at night.
“Ah, hear, it’s pretty annoying. I suppose though they’re just young lads abroad though, aren’t they?”
“Albert, it’s past two in the morning.”
“Gosh,” he said. “Though on the bright side, I reckon there’ll be one or two fewer Krauts out claiming sunbeds at dawn tomorrow!”
“And what about our trip to Palma? The bus is picking us up at quarter to nine!”
“Oh yeah – there’s that.”
“So I’ll go then? Unless it quietens down in the next few minutes?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
Ruth felt her husband of 40 years was fortunate that it was too dark to see her growl at that moment. How could he have not volunteered? It would be so much more hassle for her to change out of her nightdress when he could just stick on a vest – or even waltz down to reception in his night shorts. Nobody would bat an eyelid. He was chubby enough, alright, but there were far worse sights lounging around the swimming pool during the day. He’d never gone as far as developing those man boobs, thank God.
For a fleeting moment that Ruth felt existed just to trick her, the singing and laughter subsided again. Sure enough, the chorus was then sung anew, with one of the vocalists this time choosing to howl his way through the ‘you-u-u-u-u-u-u’ part like a deranged wolf.
“Wait a second, lads!” came a slurred shout. “I forgot to press record, you’re gonna have to start again.” A cacophony of groans then filled the steamy night air.
Ruth sat up. Then Albert started to snore.
How is it possible, she thought as she lumbered to reception. The dimly lit sprawling exotic plants and whitewashed apartment walls all looked distinctly less friendly than they did in the daytime.
How can the 21st century produce adult human beings incapable of using a 40 square foot tiled balcony and table without causing a major public nuisance?
Ruth flinched as she saw the silhouette of a small lizard chase across the path in front of her. She continued to the sliding doors of reception in more of a trot.
The night manager’s face reflected the glow of the computer he was peering into behind the reception desk.
“Can I help you, madam?” he asked as she approached the counter. He had a small smile on his face, but somehow she wasn’t sure if it was intended for her.
“I’d like to make a complaint. There is a group outside making a horrible noise on their balcony.”
“Oh,” he said, looking into her eyes, “have they been there for long? You’re the first person to complain about this.”
“Yes for the past two hours” Ruth said. “It’s the group of young men with a balcony on the far side of the pool.”
“Ah ok,” said the manager. He carefully weighed up what to say now he knew Ruth was talking about the group solely responsible for making last week’s bar takings the best of the summer – no small thing when the hotel owner had been annoyed all year at the bar’s performance since the new supermarket opened on the other side of the road.
“Yes I know this situation. A Dutch man from room 327 complained about them one hour ago. A very angry man.”
“Ok,” said Ruth. She gulped, taken aback that the hotel had known about the noise but not been able to act.
“Well, would it be possible to ask them to, I don’t know, go inside and close the balcony door?” Ruth asked.
“Hmm…we can ask, of course we can ask,” he said. “I suppose the problem is that they are very drunk, so we can ask and they might ignore us.”
“Right,” said Ruth, “if you could ask, please?”
“Okay, we will madam,” said the manager.
Ruth turned around and began to walk away. Then she turned again on the spot to say: “And would you be able to ring the police for me, should the noise persist?”
The manager’s mouth opened wide.
“Err, madam, I would not personally recommend that to you. You see, the police here they only speak Spanish and they won’t come anyway.”
“Well, I know a little Spanish as I lived in Madrid for a year in 1974,” Ruth said.
The manager put his finger to his brow.
“Wait a minute, madam, let me see if we can’t solve this problem for you,” he said. He then reached for a walkie talkie.
“Quique! Puedes callar estos malditos gamberros!?” he shouted – ‘Quique! Can you shut those damn hooligans up!?’
Ruth heard a groan coming out of the walkie talkie’s speaker. She left the reception and smiled on the way back to the apartment when she saw a baby lizard shuffling across the path.
Ruth was fanning herself with her folded Palma tourist map as the coach eked its way to join the end of a traffic jam heading back into the resort.
She tugged at the blue felt curtain that seemed to be unable to offer any resistance to the sun. Realising that it was doing its best, she shuffled along to the empty aisle seat at her side, hoping it might be a fraction cooler.
The cathedral had been an incredible sight – all the gold and the awesome colours of the windows just fixated your attention, making for a much more immersive experience than the cathedrals at home, pleasant enough as they are.
Other than that though, well, she felt awkward trooping around with the tour group all day, overhearing the chat of the couples and families in the party.
When the guide left them to their own devices for an hour at lunch, it was even worse. She went to a cash machine and felt most uneasy at the whole experience – the screen was barely legible in the fierce glimmer of the sun. By cupping her hand around the words and figures she finally clicked her way to 60 Euros, but she wasn’t sure if she could trust this machine without being able to read all the options. Maybe if you spent enough time here it’s the kind of thing you got used to. Maybe your eyes adjusted, but she wasn’t sure if all this bright sunlight could be good for them.
Ordering a coffee was a more pleasant experience, as her Spanish came more naturally than she expected. She had been too afraid to use it around the resort, when they all opened conversations in English anyway. She didn’t want to show up Albert either, who had no knowledge of foreign languages whatsoever. 40 years of marriage to a reputable local solicitor, and long-serving town councillor, had made her appreciate that her role involved protecting her husband’s ego in whatever way possible.
He never had any intention to come with her to Palma, she realised. Deep down, she knew it the moment his faced dropped when he realised the bus would pick them up just as the buffet was opening for breakfast. For some reason she had supressed this obvious fact, until now. He might have been smiling in the dark, during the previous night’s unwanted musical entertainment, as far as she knew. It offered the perfect excuse.
“I’m so sorry my love, I just think I’m too tired for the trip,” he had grovelled that morning.
What would he be doing now? Boozing by the pool, possibly. Calling his lover, maybe. She didn’t know if he had one at the moment. He certainly wasn’t the catch he used to be since he picked up his dodgy knee. The kids had been in secondary school when she first started to see suspicious things in his trouser pockets – phone numbers and receipts to plush restaurants she had never been to. She used to confront him back then, but for around ten years now she just threw anything out straight away. She didn’t want to know anymore.
Ruth yawned as the coach slowly wound past a never-ending line of souvenir shops.
Gosh, she hoped she’d get a good night’s sleep tonight. Hopefully the hotel staff managed to read the riot act to that group of idiots. She wasn’t too optimistic though. And to think only one other person complained – what were all the other guests doing?
Ruth became frustrated just to think about the previous night’s incident all again. She had been overcome with an anger she wanted someone else to step in and elaborate for her. She had been certain Albert would do a better job, with his deep authoritative voice. When it was left to her to say what needed to be said – well, it did feel pretty liberating though, enlivening even. She smiled, almost breaking into a giggle, at recalling the look of fear on the manager’s face when she asked about calling the police. She had no idea that she, Ruth Dorrens of Chester Avenue, had the power to plant that feeling in people.
She looked outside the window and noticed the bus was waiting at some lights while a pair of taxis exchanged beeps of the horn at the junction ahead.
Ruth took out her phone and checked her messages. Nothing at all from the boys. Did they even remember the Albert and she had gone away? Their jobs in the city seemed all-consuming.
She tapped on the internet browser and out of intrigue typed ‘Mallorca police noisy drunks’ in the search field.
A headline called ‘Boozy Brits Face Balearic Cops Blitz’ came up, dated in the past April. She tapped on the headline, and read:
Boozy Brits Face Balearic Cops Blitz
By Sun Staff Writer
Rowdy Brits who hit the booze in Mallorca this summer might be in for a surprise from the local constabulary.
Cops on the Spanish island have announced a crackdown on loutish tourists. The move comes as officials on the island seek to boost its image.
The Mallorca police have announced a zero-tolerance approach to public drunkenness, noise and nudity. They have even set up a new anonymous phone service for holidaymakers to report visitors behaving badly.
Juan De La Fontana, spokesman for the island’s police force, says: “If you come to enjoy a holiday in Mallorca responsibly, you have nothing to fear. To help you have a nice time we will be taking tough action though on anyone spoiling the atmosphere.”
In case anyone thinks that what happens in Mallorca stays in Mallorca, Spanish and British police have also agreed that any offences picked up on the island are to be automatically added to UK criminal records. So go easy on that Sangria unless you want a file with your name on in the local cop shop!
If you are in Mallorca and spot someone taking the holiday spirit a little too far, you can call to report them on +34 667 3450.
Albert smiled when he saw Ruth hold the bottle of red out to him.
“Wonderful! Thanks love!” he said.
“I couldn’t go all the way to Palma and not get you a little something,” she replied.
“Oh how was it?” he asked.
“Good, thank you,” she replied.
“Do you fancy doing anything tonight? There’s a pub quiz over at Joe’s Bar, but we probably need a bigger team to be competitive.”
“I don’t know,” Ruth said, “shall we just stay in the apartment and watch TV?”
Albert let out a small grunt, showing he was taken aback at the suggestion.
“We’ve only got the news channel in English though!”
“Ah yeah – but how about we relax and watch it till the weather comes on. Just to see how cold and wet it is at home?”
“Aha! I like your thinking, love!” said Albert. “You couldn’t open that wine for me, could you?”
Ruth found the corkscrew and the largest wine glass in the apartment, and poured the wine close to the rim. It was the strongest wine she had found in the supermarket opposite the hotel, packing a sturdy 16.5% alcohol content.
They watched the full nine o’clock broadcast, and when the weather report was over, Albert remained rooted to the sofa, holding out his empty glass. Ruth took it off him and filled it again.
17 minutes later, his eyes closed and the snoring began. She removed the glass from his right hand and the remote from his left.
Pointing the remote at the TV she increased the volume from seven to 84, stopping only when it was literally hurting her ears.
She went to the balcony door and slid it open as the booming sound of “Now we’ll take a short break and when we come back it’ll be time for our review of the morning papers!” shook the glass.
She took a room key and stepped outside the front door. She took her Palma map out of her handbag and glanced down to the smudged phone number she had written across the harbour.
She dialled +34 667 3450.
This was the way to do it, she thought, as she heard the phone ringing. She could have demanded a divorce many years ago, but what good would that have done? He most likely would have ended up with a trophy wife while he was still young enough and left her to rot. This was right. This would be humiliation. An arrest for nuisance behaviour six weeks before his retirement ceremony. She could even tip off the local paper – his legacy at the firm would be ruined!
The ringing stopped all of a sudden.
“Si, buenos tardes, con quien hablo?” barked a brusque voice.
She hadn’t expected that. She had expected a sympathetic voice in English. Her mind raced to translate the words she wanted to say. Ruido was noise in Spanish, so noisy television would be televisor ruidoso. But what about complaint? As much as she tried she had no idea what the word for that might be.
Ruth hung up.
She paced back to the apartment to turn the sound down, nervously glancing to check none of the neighbouring guests were watching. She sighed at a missed opportunity but smiled at the comfort that of her new-found power gave her.