Tuesday, 31 July 2012

62 - Foreign Field

“Such a beautiful smile, and hanging from so blushingly youthful a face.”
Catherine affirmed his description with reddening cheeks, and re-started counting his weak pulse against her fob watch. As she did, Frederick slipped one last time from consciousness and back to the mute battlefield. The gulls outside the ward window segued into German whizz-bangs, and the crashing surf into artillery blasts.
Numb, tinnitus-bound in blast deafness, he lay at the edge of a crater, overshadowed by the shattered remains of a tree. Every inch of its bolus and boughs was stripped of bark and leaves, and splinters like the one in his chest radiated out from its heart in silhouette against the blue Belgian winter sky.
Oak? Ash? He cried at the rape of the tree, and mourned that it never would be subject of or material for an artist’s easel, nor home for rook or nightingale. He would not carve his beloved nurse’s initials upon it; its fibres would not be mashed to make a writing block, or imprinted with his posthumous collection. It would, rather, finish its existence in mute attempt to warm the bones of shivering soldiers in their muddy trenches.
Repatriated to a convalescent corner of Albion, the war poet died with words pinned to his heart, and the science of war-mongers lacerating his body.

Monday, 30 July 2012

61 - A Moot Point

Sam Peppardino was an historian, and Sam knew that history is always written by the victors. What Sam suspected – what he was exercising his brain on this evening – was that so were the fairy tales.
“Do you think ugly sisters are always nasty, Pippi?”
Pippi purred at the mention of her name.
“Or that step-mothers are invariably cruel to their step-children?”
Pippi stretched and then turned three times in Sam’s lap before settling down.
“Are all princes brave, charming and handsome?”
Pippi licked a paw and began cleaning her shiny black coat in a particularly awkward place behind her right ear.
“And what about old women who live in the woods: they can’t all be witches, can they Pippi?”
Pippi opened one green eye and stopped her cleaning paw in mid stroke, as if to ponder the question before answering it. Only she didn’t; not then.
Later, when Sam was fast asleep from all this brain-work of his, she would put the question to her friends in the forest glade where they were accustomed to meet on nights like this. For the night was a full moon night.

60 - Pit Lane Incident

Paul sipped at the water and stared at the blotter pad on the huge meeting table in front of him.
“Take your time, Mr Coelho.”
Paul counted the players in his mind. Fifteen men, excluding the driver, all trained as a team: three to each wheel; Jack-men front and back; and the release, Graham.
Paul had known Graham Greenaway for many years, but this had been only his fifth season with Coulthard: his second as release. Graham had never missed a practice and always chipped in when the team were looking to shave a half-second here or there. Practice, practice, and more practice: car up to the line, nut-men unlock the old wheels; front-wheel men roll the wheels away; rear-wheel men lift new wheels in place; nut-men lock them on and hold their hands out ‘ready’; jack-men drop the car, and the release checks the pit-lane is clear before pressing the tit to give the driver the all-clear. Clockwork.
“You seem hesitant, Mr Coelho. Please be assured this isn’t a court, and neither you nor anyone else can be found guilty of anything. We just need to establish the cause of Mr Greenaway's death.”
Paul looked down at the blotter and the expanse of polished oak, and wondered what the hell to say. All had gone just as they practiced it to, but something had made him look back. He’d rolled the worn front-right wheel away and normally wouldn’t stop until the wheel was in position on the rack in the garage, awaiting any surprise inspection by the stewards or the manufacturers. Yet this time he’d looked over his shoulder as he moved away.
Someone was whispering into Graham’s ear. Absurd! No-one whispers in anyone's ear in a pit-lane during a Grand Prix: they shout, they gesticulate, if at all. And certainly no one distracts the release man during a wheel change – ever. Yet someone had, Paul was sure of what he’d seen. Or, he had been until he’d watched the TV playback.  Fifteen men around the Coulthard Racing car – no one else – and all going like clockwork, right up until the time Graham released the car and stepped back into the path of the oncoming Jaguar, to be crushed between the two.
Paul would swear that Graham the consummate professional would never release a car into pit-lane traffic. Yet there on the replay being shown on every channel around the world was Graham putting himself in the path that would inevitably cause a collision, his own body caught in the middle of it. Paul was sure the stranger, the sixteenth man invisible to the cameras, had made Graham do what he did.
If Paul sensed that no-one around the table would accept his story about the intruder being there, the fact that he had also after the event recognized the stranger didn’t help. Without question, the man whispering in Graham’s ear had been Graham’s own father: the unmistakable blue overalls and white shoulder flashes, and the tricolour helmet had been plain to see, if only to Paul. Except Graham’s dad had died in a pit-lane fireball twenty seasons earlier: at this same circuit.
Paul looked up and caught sight of his own pathetic reflection in the chairman’s glasses. Clearing his throat, and convinced that his own F1 career was about to end, he began his tale.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

59 - A Rebus Mystery

Harry glanced at the returns trolley to see if anything caught his curious eye. Scene quickly assessed, he proceeded to a thorough investigation of the crime section. No new Hamish Macbeth stories ("I wonder if M C Beaton is still alive?"), and no unexplored Morse ("I'm sure I read that Dexter was writing another").

Head inclining first to the right and them to the left, Harry continued to trace the line-up spine by spine, shelf by shelf, looking for new cases to solve. Passing Wallander by, he eventually came across the library's small selection of Rebus books, and stopped dead. The edge of one was covered in bloody fingerprints.

"Mm ... 10 out of 10 for arresting jacket design", he thought. Then, pulling the volume from the shelf for a closer look, he felt the stickiness and noticed the scarlet stain on his fingers.

One surprised librarian and four tut-tutting readers looked up at the sound of Harry's yell. The book had fallen open to reveal a hollowed-out space, and in it a severed ear.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

58 - Rocking Chair

"You're quiet today, Nathan. Are you being bullied at school again, darling?"
"Grandma is unhappy."
"Nathan, we talked about this last week, didn't we? Grandma has gone away: she went to sleep."
"She's dead."
"Yes, dear, she's dead, and mummy would prefer not to talk about it, and for heaven's sake stop kicking the rocking chair!"
"I'm not, mummy; I'm nowhere near it. Grandma's in it, and she's not happy."
"Go to your room right now, Nathan. I won't have you talking like that!"
"Now she's smiling. She's won again, hasn't she?"

Friday, 20 July 2012

57 - Drawn

In a corner of the vast open-plan office sits David, embarrassing everyone. He smiles at the thought.
Jeremy clicks 'save' and glances over. "What does he think he's doing?"
Martin looks up from his tablet, stylus wavering. “It sure beats me. I can’t think why Christine took him on, let alone made him a partner.”
Jennings Tubney Partnership have an oddball architect on their hands, and as it happens one popular with the clients. God forbid, but he designs using an HB pencil and an A2 pad.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

56 - Like as the Hart

Norwich Castle Museum is alive with clip-boarded Year 6s, most of whom horseplay their way about the exhibits. One, whose purple blazer and green checked dress is notably unkempt even among her friends, is transfixed before a side-lit display in which sits a small bone.
“C’mon, Chrissie; let’s go find the dungeons!”
Chrissie, tongue trapped between her jaws, is writing ‘astrolagus’ and won’t notice her spelling mistake until her first Michaelmas term at Oxford some years later. She adds ‘RAIHAN’ , the runic inscription.
“It's just an eggy old bone, anyway” snorts Phoebe, who runs off.
Meanwhile, Chrissie transports herself to the Norfolk of the dark ages, wondering who the inscribed bone belonged to and what they did with it.
“In the small band, the Dane stands out among his swarthy companions. They’re playing ‘Jacks’ with sheep-knuckles and the ankle-bone of a deer. They’re getting irritated with their friend: he’s a foreigner, he uses strange words, and he’s beating them at this game he’s taught them. He wins, and claims his prize, his belonging according to the inscription on the astragalus: he wants one of the young girls of the tribe as a bride. Having misread the bounds of hospitality among these Angles, he is knifed, his body burned, and his remains interred with his gaming pieces in a shallow pit in the burial field.”
“But surely that’s all speculation, Professor?”
“Of course, James” says Chrissie. “I can no more tell you that these bones are gaming pieces, or that we should interpret ‘RAIHAN’ as ‘belonging to Raih’, than I can guess accurately what may have happened before the death of whomever was interred in the Caister pit. Indeed, the consensus is that the bones were shamanic, and that ‘RAIHAN’ simply means ‘roe’ or ‘deer’. But we need always to retain a speculative imagination with which to challenge consensus; to see ambiguous evidence in the frame of multiple possible truths. Besides, those of you working in the field will soon tire of the pressures of digging just metres in front of developers’ bulldozers: how else are you going to lighten the mood?”
With a brief laugh, the students disperse to tutorials and Chrissie gathers her notes together.
In the shallow trench, kneeling in mud and under pouring Cotswold rain, Chrissie is tired, mightily pissed off, and long overdue a pint of Hook Norton. Her dig is so poorly funded she cannot afford to cover her team with the knackered B&Q gazebo usually provided for such conditions. The director has told her to close the dig next day and hand it back to Costain to turn into a new housing estate, and even her chair at Oxford cannot win the argument. Guard down, she takes a full five minutes to realize that ochre mud is giving way to a circular smear of brown with shiny black lumps.
“Hey, I think I’ve got an inhumation.”
“No shit, Sherlock; in a Saxon graveyard, too!”
Chrissie stands the card-snap stand of someone whose spine is protesting ten years of abuse in wet digs across Europe, and her cynical companion moves in. She quickly tags, measures and photographs the context. Then she notices that one of the black objects is bigger than the others.
“What’s that?”
Roll-up half formed, Chrissie peers over her companion’s shoulder leaning on her as she scrapes away with her trowel. As the mud is washed away beneath the cleansing rainfall, they both see the inscription at the same time.
“Hey Phoebs,” says Chrissie. “Remember that ‘eggy old bone’ you ribbed me about on that school trip? I think we’ve just got ourselves another astragalus.”

Thursday, 12 July 2012

55 - Not to be Moved

I first met Billy about six one Saturday morning. I’d volunteered on the Laverstock Railway a few years before as a steward and now I was getting the chance to learn to drive, starting of course with cleaning duties.
Most of the crew had turned up the night before and stayed over on an old carriage in the sidings. I drove up early instead, so as a ‘newbie’ I was last to be paired with a buddy.
“Good to see you’re in the right kit,” said the Depot Manager. “You’ll find Billy over there,” and he pointed to where a pair of steel-toe-cap boots were sticking out from under a ‘Castle’ class locomotive, then turned and walked away with a funny little smile.
I walked over and introduced myself to the feet. “Hello; I’m Geoff. Are you Billy? I’ve been paired up with you.”
“That’s me. I won’t shake hands just now – pass me some more emery, will you?”
“Er …”
“The strip of glass-paper by my feet.”
I knew what emery paper was, but I’d been thrown by Billy’s light voice. Most engine drivers growled, in my experience, but maybe that was only when I was dressed as a steward. An oil can was passed out by a hand encased in industrial rubber gloves, and I exchanged the can for the paper.
“Cheers. What did you say your name was?”
“Thanks, Geoff. I’m just cleaning some pipework. You need to oil copper pipe first before rubbing.”
While I listened to the emery being used, I turned to look the engine over. It’s majestic lines were spoiled only by a sign, poking out from a lamp holder, which announced ‘Not To Be Moved’. Someone had just started to create a racket from inside the cab as the fire was being laid, so I didn’t hear the rubbing stop, or the scuffling of the boots.
“Right, Geoff: welcome aboard” said Billy, who took off a grease-top railwayman’s cap to reveal shoulder-length auburn hair kept up in a net. Gloves off, she thrust a well-manicured hand in my direction, and I couldn’t help notice that she’d chosen to paint her nails in Great Western colours; unconventional, to say the least.
That was three years ago, and now I’m trusted to drive ‘Hardwick Castle’ and most of our other engines. But try as I might, I’ve never been able to get Billy to come out for a meal. We do work together, though, cleaning the bigger engines as a pair beneath the sign which reads ‘Not To Be Moved’.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

54 - Job Share

“Yo Baz!”
“Smiffy says she needs more Yorkshire, Wiltshire, and Gammon ham slices on deli.”
“I’m on it, Pete.”
Barry knuckles down to the job. He’s well liked, and he never complains about the work. Going the extra mile, he remembers there weren’t too many pasties left last time he went on the shop floor, so adds a tray and heads out of the chiller.
“Hiya, Barry. How are you, love?”
“Good, thanks. You?”
“Mustn’t grumble; except to the customers, eh,” Liz laughs. “Oh you star: I’ve just sold the last Cornish.”
Barry smiles and loads the cabinet for her. He’s just standing back when he feels his mobile rumble in his pocket. They’re not allowed on the floor, so he slips out with his trolley and asks his team leader for a comfort break.
In the locker room, he checks the phone.
‘Tiger like outline – 6 full script soonest pls. D’
Barry takes his net cap off. A txt, a whoop and a leap, and the shelf-stacker is transformed into a screenwriter.

Monday, 9 July 2012

53 - Spin Doctor

“Anything exciting happening to you today, dear?”
He pulls in front of the station and, not waiting for her reply, grabs his laptop case and pecks her on a dutiful cheek before heading off for the city.
In her mind, it plays so differently. She accelerates the Cherokee up the ramp into the car park, and guns the engine on the approach to the ticket machine. A hand-brake turn to the drop-off zone, and the passenger door bursts open dropping her husband at the feet of the waiting Monday crowd. A tight donut spin closes the door, and she flies off the end of the ramp back into the High Street. Her lover is probably stepping from the shower, so no time to wait …
… but she steps meekly from the passenger side, and walks round to her daily gift of the steering wheel. She adjusts the seat and pulls carefully away to while away the time until the whole routine is reversed and she once more takes up her proper place as a passenger.
As she moves off, she catches her own eye in the rear-view mirror and winks. Today; yes, today will be different.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

52 - Changing the Wheel

Carl is sat on a grassy slope at the side of the M4 motorway, while his taxi-driver deals with a flat tyre.
“Beautiful irony; the guy looks to be really ... ‘shirty’ in his idiom.”
Carl is Brechtian Professor of Literature at Bonn, and is on his way to a seminar on German poets at UWE. He makes a mental note to bring up 'Radwechseln' in his talk, then looks at his watch.
“I’m late already: no matter, they’ll wait.”
Carl’s reputation is such that many host universities will reorganize their programmes around his availability. He lies back and thinks of the meal Greta will have ready for him when he flies back home late tonight. He knows he is very lucky, and reminds himself that on Sunday it would be nice to join the rest of the family in giving thanks to God at the Minster before lunching on campus.
Carl knows where he’s come from, and is pretty relaxed about where life’s leading him.
"The driver needs to chill: it's only a puncture."

Friday, 6 July 2012

51 - Welcome Neighbour

Quietness enfolded the village hall, with the merest hint of a cough here and there, of shoes scuffed across the wood-block floor, and of papers shuffled and straightened on the formica top of the meeting table.
Sylvia had berated them singly or in couples before the meeting; shaming them that in such a small parish there should be dissent between church and social committee. She had listed the best of times they could remember, when both had worked as one to leave a legacy; a memory.
It had worked. They knew the group needed to get its act together. It needed to renew its sense of purpose, its unity.
Before they knew it, they had elected Sylvia to the chair. She, of all people: barely a year in the village. She, they realized, who had never actually been present at any of the events or good times she had reminded them of.
They looked again at her face, now less shaming and rather more shameless. They heard her call the meeting to order.
“Now, about this footpath across my land …”

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

50 - A Slight Hiatus on the Journey

“Where to now, then?”
The clock ticked, and the air-con hummed. The traffic fumes seemed to become worse as the heat outside intensified.
“I really need to know where I’m going: I’ve lots of people to reach.”
The music Stephen had put on as a background distraction was now distracting him. He switched it off in irritation, leaving only the ticking clock and the air-con.
He tugged at his collar.
“If you’re not going to guide me, it won’t be much of a sermon, Lord. I mean, you’re the one that brought me to inner-city ministry in the first place!”

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

49 - Street Life (4)

Brian loved his mother-in-law; looking after her kept his marriage to Sheila on steady ground. Yet it seemed to Brian that once Edna died he and Sheila would have little in common. Indeed, he suspected that Sheila had found a lover.
A steady stream of suitors passed before Brian’s eyes. Somewhere beyond these imaginings, Jennifer and her son Sam were hidden from view as they took the zebra crossing in Brian’s path.

Monday, 2 July 2012

48 - Reward

Smug is as smug does, and Martin, committing his latest potboiler to the blogosphere, leaned back and reflected on nine-hundred words in just two hours. “That,” he reflected “is worth a congratulatory mint toffee.”
Reaching for the jar he found it empty. In the waste-basket lay seventy-five accusing square cellophane wrappers. They formed a neat epilogue to his efforts, as if to say ‘You will have dentures long before you have a published novel.”

Sunday, 1 July 2012

47 - Simply Pendleton

Pendleton’s place in society was secured by virtue of good fortune – everyone else’s. For it was generally held that so long as Pendleton was there to be every con-man’s patsy and a host to misfortune, the lot of the rest of humanity was much improved. Our lives were all the safer while he was around to detect life’s banana skins and twisters.
Take Pendleton’s history with the humble hotdog. Hotdog stands being 10 cents a dozen in downtown New York and – despite the odd citation from the mayor’s health officials - providing fresh dogs straight from the griddle, Pendleton would go shopping in the kind of deli where they came from the cooler in sealed bags.
The assistant at such an emporium would likely take a stiletto to the end of the packaging and place the whole thing in the oven, perhaps going so far as to brush aside a roach or two. Turning to Pendleton, he’d accept with muttered Italianate curses the proffered haphazard nickels, dimes and cents, then offer Pendleton the hot meal in mute recompense.
Pendleton would hereon attempt that competency known principally only to the fairer sex: multi-tasking. For Pendleton would at one and the same time follow the sidewalk to the subway station and, on the move, try to open the end of the hotdog pack; the closed end.
In a split second, Pendleton would discover with horror that the dog was sliding gracefully southwards from the stiletto scar and make a grab for it. The bread wrapping would disintegrate, and Pendleton would be found crouching over a hot wiener in the region of his groin. At this point, some young lady from The Bronx would appear from around the block.
Depending on just how high-class an area of The Bronx she hailed from, she might then glance down at Pendleton’s crotch, then quickly up, and continue rather more hastily on her way. Or, and this was the more likely option, she might attract the attention of one of New York’s Finest to this molester of American motherhood and makers of apple pie.
Like I said, Pendleton made all our lives safer and oftentimes a good deal more agreeable; afterwards, in the bar.