The train

Man gets on train at country station seen off by old man & teenage boy. Sits down. Looks up at next station to find it’s identical to the one where he got on. A man identical to him is being seen off by an old man and a teenage boy.

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Death Under Surveillance

This is an excerpt from an earlier spoof about a pair of epidemiological detectives. My friend M (a far better writer than me) and I took it in turns to write chapters (this is obviously one of mine). Unfortunately, the story ended up like a car with two drivers and veered off into chaos about 8 chapters in. Well how do you follow a scene in which armies of undead commuters besiege the Tube? It was loads of fun while it lasted though.

By the way, the Welsh references were partly aimed at a colleague of ours (who gave as good as she got!) and partly at ourselves: we’re both part-Welsh. “Mortimerelli” is also a skit on a colleague.

Chapter 4: Down The Spec

“The thing is,” mused Elvis the bartender down at the Spec,”She wasn’t really called Llanwigan, she wasn’t even Welsh.”

“How can you be so sure?” Boo frowned, playing with the glass of wine in her hand . “Llanwigan sounds like a Welsh enough name to me.”

“The man said she looked like a sheep, he said she had a leek in her pocket, he said she refused to speak English… I know, I know,” said Elvis frustatedly,”But doesn’t that ring warning bells? Isn’t that just a bit TOO Welsh?”

There was a heady silence. Elvis was onto something, that was for sure.

“You think she was an imposter,” said Fordowski slowly, ”You think the whole Welsh thing was just to throw people off the scent.

“Eh, yeah, J.K.,” Boo rolled her orange eyes as she spoke. ”I think that is what Elvis has being trying to tell you.”

Fordowski nodded. Boo looked at him; he’d fallen asleep.

“Elvis…” She turned to the jumpsuit-clad barman,”I think you should keep this to yourself. Me ’n’ J.K. need to look into it and it’s better if no-one else knows. And after all, I mean, you don’t want reporters or police round here, do you? You don’t wanna go back to that big lonely house in Memphis, do you Elvis?”

Elvis shook his head and turned back to polishing glasses. Boo noticed he was trembling.

Suddenly J.K. woke and leapt up. “It was a hoax!” He shouted. “The whole scene by the canal with that Jones guy… just a ploy to lure our agents into the open. Twenty f*cking swans, my God…” he started to cry. “Dead… all of them.”

Boo shrugged. “I told you swans were a bad idea. We shoulda stuck to pigeons. They attract less attention. Swans hanging round a train station? Sauntering nonchalantly outside an NHS building? I mean, c’mon, J.K. Someone was bound to put two and two together.”

It made J.K. nervous when Boo talked about ‘putting two and two together’… ‘three and three’ was even worse. ‘Four and four’ – don’t think about it, he said to himself taking a slug of his diet coke. Those dark days of maths lessons. Never mind. He had a calculator on his mobile, they couldn’t hurt him now.

Boo was on a roll. She must have ranted for twenty minutes about the agents they’d lost in operations. Whose idea had it been to use white mice in that undercover job at the labs? Which idiot had thought a giraffe would be ‘perfect’ as a lookout at the Jubilee mob meeting when they tried to snare the big boss Queenie? He could hear a voice saying “He’s got this long neck, he’ll be able to see for miles.” Sounded like his voice. He wondered gloomily which zoo the giraffe had been carted off to.

Queenie had got away of course. They all seemed to get away these days. No matter how carefully an operation was planned, somehow the criminals got wind of it and escaped. If he didn’t watch his back he’d be pushing up weeds in somebody’s back yard soon. Mortimerelli wasn’t famous for her gardening for nothing… come to think of it, she wasn’t famous for her gardening at all.

His mind wandered on and on. What about the four kids? What had really happened to them? They’d gone out to play on the railway line as usual one night and never come back. In his more paranoid moments he wondered if someone was out to get him: the brake going on his car, the tv blowing up as he switched it on, the cobra in his bed, that weird assassin guy who’d been waiting for him in the bathroom with a knife… were they really just freak accidents or was there a pattern he wasn’t seeing?

But at that point his friend and comrade broke into his revelrie. She was standing at the door, with her false moustache already in place. “We gotta go, dream boy. Mortimerelli’s waiting for us back at the Centre. Don’t need no more problems than we’ve got already.”

J.K. picked up his deerstalker hat and followed her out, trying desperately to remember what Elvis had been telling him about before he’d fallen asleep.

Friends are always dropping keys

This poem was just sent to me by a friend. Thank God for friends!

Dropping Keys

The small person
Builds cages for everyone
She
Sees.
Instead, the sage,
Who needs to duck her head,
When the moon is low,
Can be found dropping keys, all night long
For the beautiful,
Rowdy,
Prisoners.

It’s by the Persian Sufi poet Hafez (1315–1390).

We were a family of cagoules

“We were a family of umbrellas…”

The first line from a poem called Opened by Mario Petrucci, from his wonderful collection Flowers of Sulphur*. The poem is about a funeral but for some reason this sent my mind off in a completely different direction: to days out at the seaside – Rhyl or Prestatyn – as a child. Whatever the weather when we left home, whatever the weather when we arrived at the coast, you could almost guarantee that at some point during the day it would turn, and we would have to seek refuge from the inevitable wind and rain.

You would find us crouched beneath the sea wall, invisible beneath our cagoules. My dad would be pouring milky coffee from his flask (nobody was allowed to handle the thermos except him) and my mum would be doling out butties – cheese or jam or fish paste. These would quickly acquire a coating of fine sand but that didn’t stop us eating them. In fact, the quicker you ate them the better as Sally would have them off you in a second if you put them down. She would also have your Penguin biscuit**, although you’d get in trouble if she did because dogs and chocolate don’t go. Still we’d hesitate when it came to take it, trying to decide which colour wrapper to select. This was despite the fact that we knew full well that the biscuits inside were all exactly the same. Nevertheless: Red? Blue? Green?

Sally, being a dog, was the only one of us who didn’t have a cagoule, so my dad used to open up his and wrap it around both of them. For the rest of the family this was an impossibility as we had those old-style cagoules*** you have to put on over your head like a smock. No breathable linings in those days: you got wet from the rain or wet from your sweat. Your choice.

This is how I always picture us on those family days out: a tribe of blue and red plastic ghosts. This is the image i somehow associated with the line from Mario Petrucci’s poem (have i mentioned how good it is?). The sunshine – when we had any, the sea and the sand are much more vaguely remembered. But this is not, I think, down to negativity on my part. No, I cherish that image of us huddled together in our cagoules. It is the very essence of family.

Of course, it was also the performance of family – because we were in public after all, even if there were only seagulls to view us; and so in some ways it was as much about the family we wanted to be as the family we were. But perhaps that’s also part of what a family is in any case? Aspirations and memories and food and shelter.

* ISBN: 978-1904634379, published by Enitharmon Press. See here for a review.
** Ignore the photo. It shows the modern day wrapper. Google couldn’t locate any pictures of the coloured tin-foil packaging the biscuits came in during the 70s. You will have to use your imagination/consult your memory.
***See the section on the roll-up-able cagoule on Wikipedia’s page about cagoules. I don’t remember ours being roll-up-able though.

Aeroplanes and television: how they change our world

I was thinking the other day about our internal geographies and the changing relationship these have with the world. In particular, i was musing on the effect of modern forms of transport – and to a lesser extent the effect of the modern media. A few centuries ago most people would have spent almost all their lives in one location which they’d have known very well indeed; their knowledge would have faded away gradually as they moved from this ‘centre of the universe’ until they reached the boundaries of the known.

Of course it wouldn’t have been quite that simple. There would be little irregularities – market towns they made a special journey to perhaps or pilgrimage sites – and there would have existed a vague map of other places too: lands mentioned in the Bible for example (i’m thinking of people in Britain as my example), cities from which luxury items came, the lands of myth and legend.

Still, it was a very different situation to today. Nowadays a person may live in one small district of a town, and know the way to and the location of a shopping complex on the edge of town and a few other locations but be otherwise ignorant of much of the place in which they live. They may commute by train every day passing from one small area of ‘known world’ to another, the one in which they work, through a desert of meaningless place names. How many of us have felt panic when our train breaks down en route and we’re turfed out at some station ‘in the middle of nowhere’? Even when the middle of nowhere is often the middle of somewhere, some district of the city we just don’t happen to know?

But trains have only a mild effect compared to aeroplanes. Consider for a moment those people with holiday homes in Spain or Portugal – or even Florida. Each year they migrate hundreds of miles to these places, even if only for a little while. At both ends of the journey they know precisely where they are. Those two small areas, so distant from one another, are next to one another in their internal geography. One goes from one to the other. The space in between, those miles of sea and land which they fly over, has no reality for them. Indeed, modern planes fly so high that for much of the trip travellers don’t even see the places over which they’re moving.

It’s very strange when you stop to think about it. I live maybe fifty or sixty miles from France. There are people just that distance from me living lives in towns i never see and can’t name. I never go there. Why? Well, in part – and quite a big part – because there’s no quick or easy way to get there. Far easier to get a plane to the other side of Europe or even beyond. The other reason i don’t go is because i imagine i’ve already seen these towns – or more accurately that being so close to me they can’t be sufficiently different from what i already know to make the journey worthwhile. Yet as a child even the south of England seemed like a foreign country. The first time i visited London (as a fourteen year old) i was awed and disoriented – far more so than when i later visited Istanbul or even Dhaka in fact.

It’s all about exposure. And that brings me to the other way in which places can come to feel too familiar to be worth bothering about: the constant exposure to images of them in the media. This is probably why i’ve never visited America. Why go to it and when it comes to me practically every time i turn on the telly? Of course that’s only a little sliver of America, but then, thinking about it, i’ve only ever seen a little sliver of my own country. Still, the illusion of familiarity takes root. The Internet only worsens this. You spend hours chatting to people on another continent, on the other side of the ocean. You live in your global village of far-flung contacts separated only by meaningless ‘uninhabited’ hyperspace.

One day i suppose we’ll be living in ‘virtual worlds’ spread across different planets, perhaps different galaxies. Imagine.

Into the water…

I created this blog some time back.  Chose a name, a theme and then came to a grinding halt.

Why? I asked myself.  After some thought i came to the conclusion that it’s rather like going for a swim: no matter how warm the water is you know it won’t feel that way when you dive in.  You stand there looking at the pool.  The minutes tick by and often it’s only embarrassment (someone’s coming!) that gets you to move.

Well, it’s been months not minutes and still i’m stuck at the beginning with this blog.  So to get myself going i’ve decided to write a first post about writing a first post.  You’ve just read it.  Now i’m in.