Writing

I’ve also written.  A fool’s errand, to be sure, and apologies for the lack of any coherent formatting…

“A Friend Like Archie”

Life as a kid is hard enough without your best friend exploding. Archie was only eight years old when little Isambard burst out with laughter in Archie’s back garden and spontaneously discombobulated, leaving flakes of charred youngster fluttering balletically in the afternoon breeze.
Archie had panicked, quite naturally given the circumstances, and ran upstairs to his bedroom wherein he spent the rest of the day huddled into a foetal position until his mum called him down promptly at six for his bangers and mash.
Isambard’s parents spent weeks looking for their only son; the police found no trace of the missing boy. Although he felt a deep sense of dishonesty, Archie knew somehow that he should on no account tell anybody what had happened, but eventually things settled down enough for Archie to try and fathom why his friend had exploded. .
‘Mum,’ he started quite innocuously one day over the ensuing weeks, ‘can people blow up?’ Archie’s mother turned from her whisking (she would often be found with cake mixture to hand), and smiled at her only son. They were so sweet when they talked bollocks.
‘They can do, yes, Archie. But not until they’re a bit older. All you have to do is not eat too many of Mummy’s nice cakes.’
From that moment hence Archie had been careful to eat only one of his mother’s small, fluffy, delicious fairy cakes per day. This, however, did not prevent another friend of his from exploding shortly after.
Konrad had become Archie’s new best friend by proxy. Certainly, if Isambard had not eaten so many of his own mother’s cakes he would not have exploded into crispy chunks, and Konrad would still be nothing more than a playtime associate at school. As it stood now, it looked as though Archie was stuck with this pretender, this usurper, this…this weird boy who nobody could understand because he was from a strange country that Archie had never heard of.
This strange boy was nice enough. Friendly, happy to play in the games which Archie and Isambard had enjoyed together. But nevertheless, Archie was not too downhearted when Konrad finished his counting at the tree, spun around, cried ‘Comingreadyornot!!!’ in that thick dialect that was barely understood and erupted in a shower of sizzling crisp boy-steaks. Perhaps Konrad had not been privy to the connection between cakes and blowing up?

Archie spent a long time after this without a best friend, which although lonely at times, was not without its benefits. His mother saw that he was spending more time alone and therefore thought that he might be withdrawing into himself. Her maternal solution to this was to shower Archie with little treats – jelly beans, chocolate, comics and even, though the voice of reason told Archie to beware, more cakes – and he was taken to the cinema a lot more regularly.
Archie loved the cinema; each visit presented him with a brand new menu of films he wanted to see, whether they were films about an army of badgers from an off-world badger colony in the 24th century (he particularly enjoyed that one), or strange foreign films with names that he could not pronounce. He wanted to see them all.
He may well have succeeded in seeing all of the films on offer, given how frequent it was that his mother took him to the old converted music hall on the outskirts of the village. He may have, but one day shortly after his ninth birthday, Archie made a new best friend.

Jed was a boy who Archie had never seen before in the small village community, where everyone is inclined to know everyone else. When Archie saw Jed for the first time, the red-haired stranger was sat on the wall opposite Mr. Flannery’s shop on the high street. The boy kicked his legs as he scrutinized a handful of copper coins in his palm, stopping only to throw a look of disobedient rapacity towards the shop window and, more specifically, the enormous glass jars therein.
‘’Ello,’ Archie greeted him shyly. ‘Are you new?’
‘How can I be new? You’re not born as big as I am, you know.’
‘No. I suppose not.’ Archie followed the new boy’s gaze towards the jars in Mr. Flannery’s window. ‘Are you getting some sweets, or what?’
‘Not got enough. The ginger boy looked back at the meagre sum in his palm. ‘Go and get us some liquorice.’
‘But I don’t even know your name!’
‘Jed. Allsorts would be best, if it’s all the same.’

Archie had always listened to his mum when she warned him about taking sweets from strangers. Never though, as far as he could remember, had she said anything about buying sweets for strangers. He reasoned that this would be acceptable, given that the boy on the wall was of a similar age to himself, and there was no car in sight to whisk him away to a fate which, though the details had been spared him, he knew would be terrible.
The cheerful bell jangled as Archie pushed open the to door Mr. Flannery’s. The man himself was stood behind his counter, and in front of his magical array of chocolates, bob-bons, jellies, liquorice, bubble-gum and sherbet. From the white mice to the flying saucers, Archie had tried each and every one at one time or another.
Anticipating the purpose for Archie’s visit, Mr. Flannery tore a white paper bag from its roll by the till and stepped aside to give the boy as clear a view of his stock as possible. He dutifully asked the shopkeeper for a quarter of liquorice allsorts.
‘Allsorts is it?’ Mr. Flannery said as he unscrewed the heavy jar. ‘Not one of your usual favourites, Archie!’
‘They’re for my friend,’ Archie confessed as he covetously eyed the sweets sliding off of the shopkeepers scoop and into the bag. Mr. Flannery spun the bag over with his nimble grocer’s dexterity and presented it to the lad.
‘I thought you kept to yourself these days.’
‘I made a new friend just this minute!’ Replied Archie as he handed him the correct money.,
‘Good for you, Archie. Good for you.’

Archie had made more of a friend that day than he had ever bargained for. He had made the best friend a boy could have. Jed was a friend who never left him to go and have his tea, a friend who never deserted him for any of the other boys in the playground or, worse still, any of the girls in the playground.
What Archie liked best of all about his new friend, though, was the simple fact that Jed never exploded.
Over the course of time, Archie came to put the bizarre spontaneous combustions further towards the back of his mind; indeed, he came to believe that his friends had disappeared in a far more prosaic manner. Possibly the circus had stopped him whilst passing through and its entrepreneurial ringmaster had spotted a quality of Isambard’s that suited his vocation. It may have also been the case that Konrad’s father had come looking for him from that far-away country and absconded with his long-lost son. The possibilities, in time, came to represent the truth to Archie. People did not just explode: it was that simple.

One day Jed asked Archie, as was his custom, to buy him some sweets from Mr. Flannery’s. Pocket-money seemed to disappear very quickly since their friendship had began, but in fairness to him, Jed’s mother was unable to work and so provide for her son a weekly allowance. Such parsimonious pathos found a sympathetic sponsor in Archie: he too knew the life of being an only child without a father.
The day was a pleasant one, and it was with a spring in their steps that Jed and Archie descended the winding valley down towards the village centre. Warm white pebbles on the slight dirt-path were dwarfed by huge boulders, which the pair decided between them must have fallen from the nose of a wandering stone giant.
Mr. Flannery was not in his usual place behind the shop-counter. Instead, a furtive grey-haired man of considerable corpulence eyed them suspiciously as the bell sounded its usual jangly tintineration.
‘Where’s Mr. Flannery?’ asked Jed impetuously. Jed never seemed to suffer from shyness or, that most odious of afflictions, respect for his elders.
‘Mr. Flannery has gone away for a while, young man. In his stead, I shall be looking after the shop, and with any luck improving the state of affairs around here.’ Neither Jed nor Archie understood the implications the old man was making. To their mind Mr. Flannery was the ideal shop-man: generous, chatty and always with a smile for a boy straight from school, his young brain heavy with unsolveable mathematical conundra. This straight-faced man looked better suited to work at sea, in a lighthouse or some other vocation involving lots and lots of time away from other people. Particularly small boys.
‘If I take it correctly that you come in here regularly,’ said this man, ‘then you may call me Mr. Fenton. So, now that we are acquainted…’
‘My name’s Archie, and this is my friend Jed.’
‘As I was saying before you interrupted me – by the way, young man, it is considered the height of rudeness to interrupt one’s elders – as I was saying…’ The grey-haired, pot-bellied man scratched his grey head. ‘What was I saying?’
‘A quarter of dolly mixtures, please, Mr. Fenton!’ Archie was keen to nip the situation in the bud as soon as possible. He was rapidly coming to the conclusion that he much preferred Mr. Flannery.
‘Ah yes. Dolly mixtures. Now, where would I find such things?’ Mr. Fenton turned to view Mr. Flannery’s jarred confectionary. Jed availed himself of the opportunity to avail himself of five chocolate bars from the counter display. Mr. Fenton had still yet to find the jar of dolly mixtures when the shop door tinkled to allow him egress.

Jed was sat at the exact spot on the wall as on the day when Archie met him. His feet were kicking to-and-fro, and he had already unwrapped one of his stolen chocolate bars when Archie handed him his bag of dolly mixtures.
‘Mum says it’s wrong to steal.’
‘Your mum can afford not to steal.’ Jed replied. ‘My mum says you make your own luck in this world.’
‘I wonder what that means?’ The only adages Archie had so far in his life heard had been, on the whole, of a charitable and optimistic nature. “A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed” was a popular saying amongst his mother’s small circle of friends. Archie had the impression that Jed’s mother was in all probability not in the habit of using such phrases.
‘It means that I can have as many sweets as I want, even if I can’t pay for them.’ Jed offered Archie a chocolate bar, but the latter declined. Somehow Archie knew that it would not be as toothsome as he was used to. He had never witnessed theft before; it left him with a strange tingling sensation in his belly, and the feeling that his mother would march down the dirt-path at any moment to drag him home and punish him.
‘Can I have a dolly mixture instead?’
‘Sure. You paid for them.’ Jed gave the bag back to Archie and unwrapped another bar of larcenous chocolate.

It was not long before Mr. Fenton had raised the prices in the shop. Mr. Flannery had, in his opinion, been far too generous for far too long. At the same time he reduced the wages of all three of his paperboys, whilst almost doubling their rounds. Soon he was down to two deliverers, and was aiming to be left with just the one.
Archie went into Mr. Flannery’s shop (he could not bring himself to think of the shop as being the property of Mr. Fenton) less and less; his pocket money simply could not keep up with the inflation rates of the new shopkeeper.
Jed frequently took things without paying, though, and even though he knew that this was wrong, Archie secretly championed his friend’s endeavours. Charging prices as high as Mr. Fenton’s seemed equally as wrong to him as Jed’s misappropriation. It was also noted by the pair how, even though he was clearly making lots of money, Mr. Fenton still never smiled. It was as if he regarded the populous of the village with a species of resentment.
It very soon became apparent that Mr. Flannery would not be returning to his shop. He had sold his business concern to Mr. Fenton, whom the village as a whole came to dislike.

The winter had been a long one. Jed and Archie had delighted at playing in the snow, and the Christmas had been a happy one, but soon the long nights and perishing cold began to seem like they would never end. By April the days were beginning to grow longer, but nonetheless the village had the overall atmosphere of a freezing-cold room in which a radiator had been turned on, but the heating was taking far too long to dispel the frost in the air.
Mr. Fenton continued to thrive financially in the village, whilst his popularity remained apothetically in recession. Jed still purloined sweets; the prohibitive prices Mr. Fenton now charged forced even Archie, so accustomed before to doing what was right and proper, to enjoin his friend in helping himself to the confectionary of the shop.
Although Spring was in the air, that indefinable crisp richness which to a young boy means earlier starts and later finishes to an outdoor day full of bright wonder, the remnants of the long winter could still be seen. Hoarfrost spread like a crystalline tapestry over the woodland. Dew drops sparkled in their effulgence to remind Archie and Jed of the wandering giant, whom the protracted winter must also have afflicted with a runny nose and uncontrollable sneezing.
Archie had to pull the zipper of his coat all the way to his chin to insulate himself from the mid-morning chill. Jed, however, seemed unaffected as he began to scale the ancient oak on the periphery of the woods.
‘Come on! It’s not slippy at all, Archibold!’ Jed had begun to use Archie’s full name when chiding him for his grown-up-like caution. Archie hated it; each time he heard that taunt of “Archibold!” it stung the boy keener than any half-hearted quip from the bullies at school.
‘I don’t feel like it.’ Was all he could find to say to defend himself.
Jed climbed higher up the enormous gnarled oak tree. He turned his grin down to Archie and began his mantra:
‘Arch-eee-bowled! Arch-eee-bowled!’
As ever, Archie pretended not to be affected. His mother had said that to show a bully that they were upsetting him was to give them a ticket to doing it again, and worse. He hated most of all having to use this pacific defense against Jed, the best of his best friends to date.
‘Arch-eee-bowled! Arche-eee-bo…’
Jed exploded.

Unlike the disappearances of Isambard and Konrad, Jed’s combustion led to a flat condition of non-response from the inhabitants of the village. Nobody seemed to have noticed that Jed was no longer there; there was not even a report to the police from Jed’s mother, whom Archie had never met during their brief friendship.
Archie was more upset by this ambivalence than from Jed’s death (for, now he was a year older, the boy had begun to view things in a manner more befitting a young adult, thus “death” was a word which Archie had come to include in his limited lexicon). He felt that an investigation of some sort must be undertaken, even if he was, as it certainly appeared, the only person affected by this tragedy.
It was with the shock of revelation when, one night in room unable to sleep, the realization hit Archie – no, the certainty hit him that Mr. Fenton was in some way involved. Not just with Jed’s explosion, but also those of Isambard and Konrad. It stood to reason: Mr. Fenton’s sudden appearance in the village was the only thing that had changed since…well, ever. At least as far back as Archie could remember.
In truth, he merely craved an explanation. The lies he had told himself about his first two best friends had crumbled under the inarguable fact that Jed had exploded. This was something that he could no longer ignore. How many more innocent friends would he lose over the course of his lifetime?
But for now, it suited Archie to scapegoat the rapacious shop-keeper.

The villagers were all too keen to accept on faith that there was something amiss about Mr. Fenton: many things can be forgiven in a small, provincial community, but over-charging for goods that they would have to travel great distances to find elsewhere was certainly not amongst them.
At first the people of the village settled for boycotting the shop. This of course could not last, for a protest is only as good as its food supply. And so, reluctantly the people went once more to the shop. Mr. Fenton responded positively to this, and inflated his prices even further.

Over time the village lost its communal vitality: neighbours no longer enquired about the well-being of each other; social gatherings, such as Saturday jumble sales, lost their appeal.
Archie no longer had to worry about his friends, because he had none.

The years plodded by, without much at all changing in the village. Mr. Fenton maintained his enmity with his customers, who remained powerless against him, though they regarded him with a more potent malice with each passing year.
Archie eventually grew to be a man; a man with a sound mind and a streak of strong independence. This independence led to him leaving his mother’s house at an early age and finding his way in the big city. There he trained as a chef, a vocation which thrived upon friendlessness. The long hours suited Archie perfectly, for the longer the day, the less time he had for socializing. He dreaded the hour at which he would finish mopping the kitchen floor, turn off the ovens for the night and return to his cramped apartment to shower away the day’s healthy labour. Dreaded it because only then did the full weight of his loneliness descend upon him.
His mother wrote to him regularly; more often than not her letters would disclose an update on the hated Mr. Fenton. It seemed as though his iron grip on the village of his boyhood would never be relinquished. Until one day, Archie’s mother sent him a short missive, consisting of a few short, direct words:
“Fenton’s gone too far! He’s charging tax on top of his prices! Say’s it’s because he’s the only one who gets deliveries in the village so has to pay premium! Hope you’re well. Love, Mum.”

It was shortly after this that Archie met a familiar face on his way to work. He needed the correct change for his bus fare and seeing a newsagents close by, went in for a drink. It was with great surprise that Archie noticed the smiling man behind the counter: it was Mr. Flannery.
‘Well, well, well…if that isn’t little Archie stood before me, all grown up!’
‘Mr. Flannery, ‘ Archie said after their preliminary greetings were complete, ‘Why did you leave the shop like you did?’
‘To be honest, Archie, I still don’t like to talk about it. That evil, vindictive man…’
‘He’s still there, Mr. Flannery. Still got his claws in the village.’
Mr. Flannery crossed himself, which amused Archie slightly.
‘Do you still hang around with any of your friends, now that you’ve left home?’ The elderly shop-keeper asked, apropos of nothing.
‘No. These days, Mr. Flannery, I keep myself to myself. In fact, I don’t think I’ve got a single friend in the world.’
To Archie’s further surprise, Mr. Flannery seemed glad of this, and echoed his words from all those years ago:
‘Good for you, Archie. Good for you.’

“The friends of Miss Fretwell”

This was inspired by my ex- partner who was, at the time, manager of a very haunted charity shop.  This short story doesn’t even scratch the surface of some of the things that were reported to go on there, but I like the juxtaposition of an eerie environment with middle-aged busy-bodies.

I

Let us begin, dear reader, with a preconception; an idea, if you will, that at any given time on this sphere of being, something, somewhere is always happening. Let not it be said that life is without its dramas, even though at times they appear to ever happen to other people. We zoom now onto a very British high street, situated upon the outskirts of a quintessentially British town, and our tale begins, not with a human, but with a scruffy Jack Russell terrier sniffing along the shop fronts, perhaps in search of a forgotten morsel or the scent of canine womanhood. Oh, see now, he has found something of interest in front of the charity shop (the one two doors down from the corner of the road, in which Mrs. Jessop is wont to spend her leisure in, and indulging her God-given duty as local oracle upon the ostensibly private affairs of her neighbours). Well, that can not have held so great a fascination for the little dog after all, but all the same his leg is cocked to bookmark the location for later. Thus relieved, he scampers off, and our best wishes go with him.
The hour is yet early, caught as we are in that chaotic time between breaking our fasts and attending our work, if you will forgive the presumption that you have work, gentle reader, for I know that many of you in this period of history are not burdened with the curse of over-activity. All the same, though, this is indeed the hour at hand, and to prove it here comes Grace Fretwell, manager of this benevolent emporium so recently micturated upon. Though not yet at that age whimsically known as “autumn,” the rosy bloom of youth is nonetheless too safe a distance in her past to attract any prospective Lothario; her artificially-auburned hair is in need of a touch-up, the underscoring of her eyes now in triplicate. Notwithstanding all of this, Miss Fretwell carries with her a radiance of pure confidence which has undoubtedly benefited from her title, but please, my Good Reader, I beseech you not to bring up the subject with her until you are at least better acquainted, for I need not tell you that a lady’s sensibilities concerning the time of her life and the attendant marital status are at best volatile, regardless of her outward insouciance.
In just under half an hour, Grace will open up her shop, after bringing inside and examining the retail worth of the out-of-hours donations anonymously dumped on her doorstep (this never fails to bring to Grace’s mind a verisimilitude of an abandoned baby in a Moses basket, which we as onlookers must inevitably leave in that unspoken bracket of subject matter recently related). Until then, it has long been a tradition of the Good Woman to take a morning coffee in Mrs. Braithwaite’s café adjacent.
Mrs. Braithwaite has been widowed for more years now than she was married, her beloved Ernest having suffered his fatal pulmonary convulsion whilst stood behind the very same counter from which each day she serves her standard fayre of simple sandwiches and traditional cakes. An ardent subscriber to the ethos of “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay” Mrs. Braithwaite (whom only a very select few may address as Peggy) has since spent all of her exertions into maintaining her one-woman labour of love. It goes without saying, therefore, that she has never remarried.
The bell above the front door tinkles punctually as it does on most days to Grace Fretwell’s ingress, and the two stalwart women greet one another, as is their custom, with an over-pronounced “hell-oha” apiece. Grace’s adopted pink oversize mug is waiting upon the counter (table service has long since been mutually abandoned between the pair: a sign of hearty compatriotism shared by two weather-worn public servants), rich coffee sugared with three and sparingly whitened. We shall take it as read that the ensuing preliminary small-talk consists of general polite enquiries as to one another’s health and happiness. Let us instead skip straight to Mrs. Braithwaite’s asking about the goings-on of Grace’s shop, and more specifically, the supernatural element thereof (for this indeed is the crux of our tale).
‘Do you know, Peg (yes, Grace is amongst the select few), it’s been very quiet over the last few weeks. It goes like that, dear. At times it’s absolute bedlam in there, and then it just stops without so much as a “by your leave.”’ The coffee cup warming Grace’s dainty hands is, as ever, the totem of her morning’s talk, its aromatic steam distorting slightly her view of the café’s proprietress and that woman’s tactful solicitude. Mrs. Braithwaite has been inside Grace’s shop on hundreds of occasions, at times hopeful of the odd bargain, but more often than not to see her friend and, if possible, antagonise the afore-mentioned gossip-mongering Mrs. Jessop, who maximises her talent for scandal-hunting by volunteering three days out of six. Never, though, has the venerable Mrs. Braithwaite heard so much as a muffled rattle of chains or a dull moan. Let us not draw from this a spirit of pessimism on her part; we shall say, rather, that she is among those who consider the supernal exigencies of the spiritual realm in much the same manner as world cruises: an interesting concept, but experienced exclusively by other people. Far too practical of mind is this good woman to indulge in fanciful thoughts of life after death.
‘Well, Grace, my love, so long as it’s giving you some time off. I could never tolerate My Ernest shuffling about in the night with his gout and moaning about his rotten lot, never mind some noisy so-and-so from the other side who I never knew from Adam. You will let me know though, dear, if it starts up again? One of these days I will catch it out, and I’ve got a good piece of my mind to fix its rattle with.’
‘Of course. Oh, look at the time already! I’ll have Herself Jessop banging on the door at this rate, and she’s bound to have plenty to tell me after the weekend. I’ll no doubt see you in the morning, Peg. I’ll settle up with the coffee then, if that’s ok?’
‘Alright, my love. There’s no hurry, you know that. Take care.’ And so Grace Fretwell takes her leave to embark upon a new day at the shop, whither a manifestation will either happen or not. After all this time, it really is all the same to her.

II

Mornings are always a struggle for Grace; at times it seems to her as though she will never find the energy to see to the end another day. These feelings usually disappear by around lunchtime, when the half-way mark to the working day is in sight, but the short time before opening the door is often too heavy with an oppressive atmosphere for comfort. Can we, as onlookers, proscribe this to the supernatural? Or should we, more rationally, put it down to hypersensitivity? Those dark corners of the stock room and its adjoining kitchenette seem peopled with the disembodied voices of Grace’s subconscious, and only at this time of the morning do the circumstances of her life taunt her from those dismal crannies with castigations of “spinster.”
A battered Toby jug rattles ominously on top of a display cabinet by the door, and it looks as though we have entered just as it begins to get interesting, my Good Reader. Miss Fretwell, attuned as she is to this pattern of events, has also noted this although her sense of intrigue is naturally far lesser than our own. No, it takes the sharp rapping at the door to give Grace a start. Perhaps this has allowed us a sense of smugness, for we know that the knock is nothing (or less!) sinister than Mrs. Jessop, unusually late. ‘Sorry I’m running behind, Grace,’ she begins as her superior locks the door behind her. ‘Good grief, it’s cold in here today. Is “He” misbehaving already?’
‘Oh, nothing much. Just that jug wobbling about again. I think we shall have to take it down from up there, Molly, dear.’ Molly Jessop is as accustomed to the strange goings-on of the shop as its manageress, if not more so, for the former has been a fixture far longer, indeed it was she who first related to Grace all that was abnormal about her situation upon her first week. Molly had at that time already been volunteering here for a good two years beforehand, and acted as a sort of database of its history. ‘If you’ll pop the kettle on to boil I’ll open the door.’ Mrs. Jessop gladly obliges, for the kettle, along with the teapot and the biscuit barrel, are the perfect icons of a gossip’s personality. Few are the scandals disclosed without the teaspoon to hand.
The clientele of your average charity shop are quite unlike those to be found anywhere else: if one tried to haggle on the price of objet das on the high street, one would indeed be disappointed. I need not tell you this, Dear Reader. You are a person of reasonable intelligence, and therefore know this without putting yourself through the embarrassment of the endeavour. But if you were to find the same item of finery in a second-hand boutique, in much the same condition and for a fraction of the cost, ask yourself if then you would attempt to reduce the price further. You say that you would not? Then if I tell you that I trust your conscience far enough to take your word as the truth (and I feel no reason why I should not. There is, after all, a solemn bond between narrator and audience and, besides which, I feel that I know you well enough now to know that you would not like to mislead me), may I then inform you that the lower the price, the higher the temptation to reduce that price further? This is a truism, as anyone who works within such an establishment will happily testify to. There are those, they will also add, for whom the very process of haggling supplies the sole reason for their patronage in the first place. But there is yet another, far more unqualifiedly outré, element who can readily be found within a shop such as Grace Fretwell’s on any given day of the week: a species of unrefined Noble Savage who leaves his or her evolutionary sense of propriety at the front door upon ingress. Such folk will annoy, badger, harangue and pester. They will argue, persecute, patronise and belittle whilst confidently shop-soiling and creating merry chaos. Here the uncouth find a home, and the vulgar their cultural Mecca.
But we can leave this train of thought temporarily derailed, as I have the strange inkling that something of consequence is about to transpire. A funny thing, that, and something I can with difficulty describe to my Dear Reader: your author, narrator, conduit (call me what you will, for I have in all probability been called far worse) can always feel an augerance, very much like a peculiar, non-localized tingling. In any event, my strange sense of prognostication is taking me up to the first floor with Mrs. Jessop where she must, in ostensible privacy (if only she knew!) answer the tintinerous call of nature. We shall, as gentlefolk, allow her the dignity of leaving unrecorded her ablutions, but we must turn now to see that the toilet door has become jammed, to Mrs. Jessop’s increasing consternation. ‘Grace! Grace!! GRACE!!!’ she calls, despite the fact that a cry such as this, albeit desperate and manic, is wont to go unheard on the ground floor: notwithstanding the distance down those long stairs, the everyday hue and cry of commerce and industry barging into the shop combined with voices, clattering and other such ephemeral racket much taken for granted inside the shop prevent the pathetic shrieks for help from our poor gossip-monger from being heeded below. The tiny cubicle soon fills with fear and the witless Mrs. Jessop’s inflated sense of claustrophobia until, entirely of its own accord, the door gives way slowly, as though grudgingly waved ajar by some disgruntled footman. The panic-stricken woman bolts out of this block of hysteria and flies halfway down the stairs back towards the shop floor before remembering herself and regaining her posture of comportment.
Though worried for her employee, and ultimately regretful of her condition, Grace recognises too well the signs that her shop’s spectral co-habitant is again restless, and another week of fortean phenomena is waiting to unfold.
‘There you are, dear,’ Miss Fretwell greets her elder, ‘the kettle has been boiled for positively ages now, and the feathers are spitting themselves.’ Mrs. Jessop, still shaken, goes to make the tea and coffee.
‘I see our friend is at home this week, then’ she hears placidly remarked behind her.

III

Miss. Fretwell is again sat next door in the snug environs of Mrs. Braithwaite’s coffee shop; we have rejoined her the next day, after having allowed her the remainder of Monday to do with as she pleased. Fear not, though, my Good Reader, nothing of especial interest to us has happened in our absence (for you must trust me not to be negligent in my narrative duties). ‘It caught Herself Jessop a treat yesterday, Peg!’ the formidable woman, as ever stood behind her counter, is blithely told.
‘Happen you’re in for another week of fun and games, my sweet.’
‘I should say so, Peg. I don’t think poor Molly’s ever looked so out of sorts as she did coming down those stairs. Oh no, try to keep a straight face, dear.’

IV

The luck of Molly Jessop is to improve very little today either, for whilst helping a delivery driver through the rear entrance the door slams violently, shutting her out in the morning chill. And then, shortly after lunch, she feels icy hands upon her shoulders in the stock-room. Mrs. Jessop knows full well that she is alone there, as she can clearly discern the voice of Grace passing the time of day with a couple who have just donated the detritus of their premature spring clean. We shall linger in the shop today, in order that we may test that axiom of bad luck coming in threes.

V

Much to poor Mrs. Jessop’s detriment, ill fortune would indeed appear to arrive thrice-fold, for the hideous Toby jug begins to rattle again from its new home behind the counter. Grace Fretwell is in the stock-room sorting through the day’s clothing harvest (into three piles: “Yes,” “No” and “Must Wash First.”) while Mrs. Jessop is opposite the counter replenishing the books. One particular book has taken her fancy, although an author’s conscience permits me not to name a fellow hack, for fear of improper associations. Mrs. Jessop scans the synopsis on the back cover, oblivious to the incipient danger she faces.
We shall turn our glance, gentle reader, for we can guess what is about to happen, and we shall leave it to Grace Fretwell to walk back onto the shop floor and behold Poor Jessop, prostrate, her head trickling with blood. The Toby jug lies unscratched a few feet distant, its vulgar features seemingly in a grotesque smile of malevolence. ‘Oh Molly, dear!’ exclaims the good woman of our title. She hurries across to where the dazed and crestfallen lady has been laid out. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry! I should never have left you out here all alone.’ We can gather from this that after all this time, Grace Fretwell considers the phantom trouble-maker to be her specific responsibility. ‘Let’s get you cleaned up, my love. Can you stand?’
Grace takes a dazed and unsteady Molly to the back room and sets to work cleaning her wound. As chance has it, Patricia Braithwaite chooses this moment to call into the shop. ‘Hell-oha! Grace, dear?’ She calls and makes her way towards the half-open door at the back with a makeshift “Staff Only” scribbled and underlined in purple felt tip. ‘Has Mouth Almighty Jessop cleared everyone off once and for all, then?’
Miss Fretwell cranes her neck around the doorframe wearing a painful look of chagrin, a blood-clogged tissue in her right hand and the deathly-pale image of Molly Jessop at her waist. ‘These friends of yours, Grace,’ the latter says to her employer. ‘Sometimes I feel as though they don‘t care for me at all.’


“Detectives and Lamp-posts”

Written when I lived in Birmingham.

Colours. One hears about colours constantly. I wonder if they have any idea what it’s like to know of a thing’s existence, without actually knowing it? The closest they ever get, as far as I can tell, is their ideas of their afterlife. A bizarre salmagundi of fairy tale, morality, utopianism and dreams.
But the difference between this overly-speculative recherché and not knowing the true meaning of “violet” and “turquoise” is enormous; colours exist. They are incontrovertibly around us, only we aren’t privy to this very basic of natural element.
I suppose that, over the years, we have learned to associate these abstract words – red, blue, green – with their human connotations, thus know its olfactory equivalent; as such we can readily say that an angry or malicious person may be referred to in various hues of “red,” or a friendly, placid individual could be called “blue.”
This is the closest approximation I can think of. If anyone else knows of a more effective system, I would love to hear of it.

You don’t spend as long as I have as a detective’s dog without learning a thing or two about human behaviour.
Well, I say “detective” but he’s more like a private investigator, really. Not a very good one, either.
Jack, his name is. Jack Butterfield, although his professional name is Butts. Butts like the butt of a gun. I swear he thinks we’re living in 1940’s New York. You should have seen his face when we moved into this block of flats! There’s a fire escape just outside our window, and the minute he saw it I knew that we’d be living here.
Sometimes I see him looking through that window, past the fire escape towards the big city. It never seems to matter to Jack that the city in front of him is Birmingham, because the city he sees is Manhattan. He even developed a smoking habit for the way it makes him look, as he sits there at his desk (IKEA do a lovely range of “Grizzled Private Eye” desks these days), wearing his black fedora with a fag hanging from the corner of his mouth.
Even if I could speak their language I still wouldn’t have the heart to tell him he looks like a bloody prat.

Other times, on nights when the lights are switched off and I curl up on the sofa with Jack’s fingers tickling behind me ear, I can see him engrossed in an old film while I’m at that heavenly middle-ground between cosy and asleep. No doubt you know the expression: the bottom eyelids begin to sag and the eye is a dark glaze of blankness. That’s a dog’s happiest part of the night, when the over-exuberance of a day begins to ebb away, and the warmth of belonging sails us off to a gentle continent of peace.
Jack will sit there, lost in his own little world of make-believe. Don’t ask me what the film looks like, because I am, of course, no more capable than any of you are of discerning the cathode rays of a television. But I often catch his reaction to what that box is supposed to look like. His mouth silently traces the dialogue, and I just know he’s imagining himself in the lead role.
That’s the lifestyle he’s always wanted, I think. Deep down, though, I believe he’s always known that he was never quite snipped from the same pinstripe as those long-dead purveyors of laconic dead-pan and sartorial understatement. For a start, if he ever got himself into a situation whereby he discovered a gun pointing towards him, I have no doubt that he would evacuate himself faster than I do, first thing in the morning.
No, it’s the very genius loci of film noir that attracts Jack. Give him a dark city back-street with a fire-escape over a picturesque beach, or a seedy, late-night jazz bar, spilling his guts for a barman polishing glasses; give him that instead of the coffee-shop or flash restaurant any day.
I suppose you could say that I’m Jack’s Collie-Cross-Consultant; his Go-To-Good-Boy, if you will, of all things nasal. Best nose in the business, mine is.
One day a job will land at our door that’ll really toss his salad. Some kind of complex, double-indemnity, triple-stiff affair which makes his name in the trade, and after that things’ll be different. Not that I’m unhappy with things as they are, but a dog must aim for the sweet life. I’m talking the kind of high-class tail-wagger of a breakfast that makes a happy-go-lucky fella like me roll over and offer God himself my belly to rub; going for walks in well-to-do areas with freshly-mown grass and trees with smells the like of which only ever come with respectability. That’s what I’m talking.

Jack is about three-hundred-and-sixty years old, which in human years is nearly fifty, if my maths don’t fail me too much. If, on the off-chance, any humans are reading this (highly unlikely, unless mankind has boosted its sense of smell by a thousand and has taken to sniffing the bottom end of lamp-posts!), no doubt they are surprised that a dog would be much good at mental arithmetic? Well, let me tell you, there are lots of things about dogs that you would never think likely. We’re big readers too, by and large, and just because you never see us with a book in our paws doesn’t mean that we don’t curl up with a good one when you’re out.
Ask yourself this: when was the last time your dog chewed up one of your books?
Now this: was it a good book, or a bad one?
Because we never, ever chew up a book that we like, and we like a good deal. Personally, I go in for all the Russians; Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky (please, no puns), Gogol. But then I also like the French, despite the poncey little things that they call dogs over there. I mean, what is a poodle? Neither use nor ornament, just a beast bred for its la-de-da, look-at-me-I’ve-got-an-afro looks. Bah!
Anyway, what was I saying? Oh, yes – chewing up books. The next time you shout at your dog for destroying a book of yours, have a good look at the volume he’s killed. I bet you a pound to a penny you haven’t even bothered to read it. Look at the back cover, if your little one hasn’t made this impossible.
Rubbish, isn’t it?
That’s what he’s trying to tell you, see. Think of him as a quality-controller. After all, he gets far more time to review these things than you do. With any luck, the paperback which is now strewn over a thousand spots in the room is that awful ‘Call of The Wild’ nonsense. Jack London has a lot to feel sorry about. If I were in a room with him I’d give him a white fang, and it wouldn’t be bitter-sweet.

Jack’s last commission (or, as he’ll call it, “case”) was over and done with well over a human week ago now. It was itself straight out of an old film: a woman came to Jack with a suspicion that her husband was having an affair. Fair enough, says Jack, give me the particulars.
Apparently, this dame’s old man had been staying out all night and coming back the next morning, all bleary-eyed-like and smelling to high heaven of perfume. Now this chap just isn’t the sort to go-go-gigolo all over a town, the lady says. Always been the model husband, she adds.

Oh dear. I’ve spent so long around Jack Butts that I’m starting to use his corny archaic patois. This troubles me, my friends; deeply troubles me. If I make an effort to keep this sorry impediment on its leash (ahem!), then you must promise not to make too much of a thing about it. Okay, I’ll continue…

It was at this point that she notices me curled up on the sofa, and from the outset it’s clear that she’s a bit gooey-eyed when it comes to an old hound-dog like m’self. She comes over and starts giving me the old all-in-one treatment (you know the one, bitches ‘n’ studs. That simple-talk they have when a pooch takes their fancy, the obligatory belly-rub and an enquiry about the name).
‘I like a man who likes animals,’ she says, which strikes me as funny, because she’s here about her philandering husband, yet the lady’s clearly putting the moves on my ol’ buddy Jack. Goose and gander, I start to think.
Turns out this broad has a thing for private dicks. Came as no surprise to me – I can sniff out deceit quicker than a fat man finds a rotisserie chicken. But poor ol’ Jack…clueless.
Of course this doesn’t mean he didn’t enjoy himself after he closed that bedroom door.

It’s all well and good, you might think, for Jack to be getting commissions like this, but indulging a married woman in her peccadilloes does not a living make.
This is where I despair of Jack. He never seems to stop and think. Most private detectives have some sort of background advantageous to the job; usually they are ex-police and therefore cut out for the rough and tumble of a life in espionage.
But Jack spent most of his working life working for the Post Office, and the only reason he doesn’t still work for the Post Office is that he was made redundant. Now, most other rational people would find work after this in a position suitable for a history dealing with letters and parcels. Not our Jack. Oh no!

Speaking like this, you would be forgiven for believing that I’m not Jack Butterfield’s biggest fan. The truth of it is, he’s the best friend I could wish for.
Three years I’ve been with Jack. When we first met it was by pure chance, and it’s unlikely that I would be here at all were it not for him showing up when he did.
Humans really do make me despair at times. There I was, being a nuisance to nobody, when a couple of young people – they must have been young, because I could see the tops of their heads without craning my neck – decided it would be rather a lark to play football with me.
Being only young myself, of an age approximate to a human’s when he or she is still in the cot, I took this for friendliness. Oh, the folly of the young! I had still to differentiate between all of those human smells, but if I knew then what all the subtle olfactory variations meant then I would have ran as fast as four legs can run.
I would have had nowhere to run to, though, having just decided to leave home. The two people I lived with at the time argued incessantly, and even I in my nascent puppy stages knew that the smell was nasty. Why these bipeds can’t just try to get along I’ll never know.

Which reminds me, there was one case that Jack should be remembered for. Not because he solved it, although in a way I suppose he did, but because of the singular oddness of it.
It began prosaically enough; a lady came to Jack asking for help in finding her daughter, who had been missing for a good few weeks. Not having the heart to tell this broad to go whistle Dixie, Jack accepts and begins to put his feelers out, which is private-eye-speak for taking one’s bum around all the pubs and bars in the local area and asking whatever drunken Palookas if they’re wise to the wind.
Traditionally, they then tell one to sod off.
I didn’t know what all the fuss was about; humans, in many ways, are a lot like dogs. They have a homing instinct rather similar to our own. Or, to put it another way, they know which side their bread’s buttered. It stood to reason, therefore, that this girl would come home of her own volition, sooner or later. Maybe she’d have a litter, maybe a tattoo. Maybe she’d come back married, but nine times out of ten cases like this come home, in the end.
But as the weeks went by, Jack and I (he usually takes me on his little snooping trips) came up with a big, fat nothing. It was like she’d never existed, but for her mother dropping in every day to check our progress. Not very helpful, that, either. I mean, there we were, on the case, and each day Jack has to go through the whole distraught mother routine, which just slowed the process down for us. Carol, her name was. From the smell of her I could tell that she shared her house with at least three cats. That stink of ammonia is unmistakeable, as I don’t need to tell you. It’s easy to generalise about these things, but we all know what they say about women with lots of cats, so I had the suspicion that carol may not be the full shilling. As it were.
Jane was the daughter’s name, which came as no surprise to me; whenever a girl goes missing in the films, her name’s usually Jane. Like I said, some things you can’t help picking up, little things here and there, when your best friend’s a private detective.
It was obvious that carol came over mainly to hear some assurances. Anything would have been enough to give her hope, but when Jack had nothing to offer it meant the tears again.
And between you and me, seeing a human upset always pulls at my heartstrings, so that I’m naturally obliged to go and offer my collar to cry on. I’m good at that sort of thing: a smiling face, a wagging tail and they soon cheer up. Good old me.

For weeks we trawled the streets of Selly Oak, Northfield, Longbridge and Bourneville, turning up nothing so much as a three-week-old sighting. It began to look grim, and some of these places aren’t the most welcoming environments for a nosey fella and his dog, let me tell you.
The smells there were! No matter where Jack took me, I couldn’t seem to dodge that sweet, purple smell of private fun and games. Humans walking around, unwashed, oblivious. Everywhere the black stench of misery, all the more pungent because the owners of the misery were doing it to themselves.
Waiting for Jack outside bars was the worst. I know he had no choice, and that given the chance he would much rather have taken me inside with him, but as I waited by the doorways of this pub and that I silently cursed the name Jack Butts.
This long series of blanks at long last led to a positive identification. This was in Selly Oak, and the identifier was the owner of a wonderful old book shop. I could practically read every edition inside from where I sat on the pavement.
The bookseller told Jack, after a cursory glance at the photograph we carried around with us, that a few weeks before Jane had been in every day, sometimes for hours at a time. She never bought anything, though, which led the man to believe that she was yet another impoverished student from the university campus nearby.
Has she been in since then? Jack asks.
Not once, says the bookseller, although since her last appearance a few people have come back to him with purchases, complaining of some strange scribbling on the inner covers.
But what’s that got to do with this girl? Says Jack, and I can’t believe at this point that my partner could be so dense.
She had obviously been writing in his books as she browsed, says the shopkeeper, as if talking to a chump. I’m not a hundred percent sure he’s not.
Does he have any of these books still?
Yes, of course. Can’t sell damaged goods, he says.

So Jack buys all the books that have been brought back to the shop, which doesn’t come cheap for a gum-shoe on shoe-string. He also tells the fella to get in touch if any more of these soiled works turn up.
Later that night Jack is driving me mad. Pacing up and down, repeating to himself over and over the garbled lines scribbled in the book jackets.
I’m going where it’s yellow…they can’t find me if I’m hidden in industry…I’m going where it’s yellow…
Imagine having to listen to those words coming at you for hours at a time, and there’s Jack wearing out the tread in the carpet. If he repeated them enough times, he thought he could get some sense out of them. I know how he works, see.

When Carol shows up the next day Jack tells her what he’s discovered. She takes a glance at the books, but can’t make head nor tail of it either. What does it all mean? She asks Jack.
My partner can only shrug his drooping shoulders. He asks her if Jane has had any problems with drugs in the past. Like most mothers, she resents the question, although it’s not hard to see why it was asked.
That couple I was running away from before I met Jack, they had problems with drugs, believe you me. Once, when they’d gone to bed after another silly row, I found a lump of something on the living room table. So, not knowing any better at that age, and it smelling like something I could eat, I swallowed it in one.
I was lucky, as it turned out. The stuff was very mild. I can remember, though, being laid out on the floor, unable to move. Nightmare after nightmare I had, but I couldn’t wake up from them, because I wasn’t asleep. Nasty experience, that. Terrible.

Hang on a minute, says Jane’s mum. Yellow? Industry?
Yeah…and? says our Jack.
I could be wrong, she says, but that sounds like the Custard Factory to me.

The Custard Factory is in the centre of town. It’s not a factory, and you can’t get custard there. At least, no any more. It’s a kind of modern-day Vaudeville, if you will. What the bipeds like to think of as culture. Shops selling things I’ll never understand and the type of club a dog like me would never dream of entering, let alone be allowed to enter.
Thankful for any lead at all, Jack makes his way, as soon as the mother has left, to the Custard Factory. For a good few hours, he was gone, which meant that I could avail myself of a good sleep. After the few weeks we’d had, I was more than ready to curl up and drift off to that happy place.

When he comes back, Jack’s covered in the same smell of cats that Jane’s mother had left earlier in the day. Which was odd, of course, because why would there be cats at the Custard Factory?
I remember how Jack was subdued that evening, as though he was thinking too deeply about the situation to give any portion of himself to anything other than the case. I would look up expectantly at him, and it was as if he had forgotten I was there.
The next day but one was when Carol showed up again. Jack had been worried, he told her, because of all the days he would have expected her to call in, the day following his reconnoitre at the Custard Factory, he had waited in to no avail.
I could smell the cats straight away, but the alcohol was far stronger. I think that Jack felt overpowered by it, too.
Jane’s mother seemed different; whereas before you could have cut rocks with the atmosphere of agitation which her presence in the room created, now there was just dejection. It was just as if she had convinced herself, finally, that all hope was lost, had resigned to the fact that she would never see her daughter again.
Both Jack and I found this attitude strange. If anything, we expected her to be keener than ever to learn of Jack’s findings. But all the life and fight had visibly drained from her.
She doesn’t say much, but Jack tells her (and this is the first I’ve heard of it too, because of his taciturn nature the night before) that Jane had been working at one of the clubs down at the Factory, until about two weeks before. She’d been given the boot, he says, because someone caught her helping herself to the takings from the till.
Carol’s reaction tells us nothing; neither shock, surprise nor relief at her daughter’s apparent well-being. She doesn’t even ask if there had been any news since her sacking, but Jack tells her anyway.
The owner of the club hadn’t seen Jane since, but he had received some strange things in the post. In the complete absence of Jane’s mother asking him “what things,” Jack carries on and tells her that the nightclub owner showed him a couple of paperback books, this time without any scrawling on the covers.
Carol just stands there nodding, as if none of this matters anymore. She says she should be making tracks, and leaves. Just like that.
That was the last we ever saw of her.

You’d think that that would have been it, at least as far as mine and Jacks’ involvement was concerned. Oh, how I wish it had have been!
It wasn’t too long after this that we get a call from the geezer in the book shop. Another batch of paperbacks had been returned.
Don’t tell me, says Jack, writing on the inner sleeve?
I can hear the man’s deep voice at the end of the line. No, he says, just childish scribbling.
Of anything in particular? My partner is glad, I can tell, when the man says no. I don’t think he likes working with riddles. That’s the kind of top-notch detective he is, and it shows why he’s clearly cut out for the job.
But it’s strangely reminiscent of ancient cave-art, the bookseller tells Jack. The same brutal naiveté.

After the guy hangs up, nothing happens for a good while. That really would have been the end right there, were it not for the police showing up one day.
Jane’s mother had kicked her own bucket.
What is it with humans and self-destruction?

The police are keen to learn what Carol had wanted with Jack in the weeks running up to her death. Jack, being a solid gold citizen, tells them all he knows, and in return they oblige him with certain facts of their own.
Fact Numero Uno: There are no records in existence of Jane.
Fact Numero Duo: when going over the dead woman’s house, the police had discovered a room with several locks on the outside. Investigating further, they also discover bizarre scrawls on the wall, by the sound of it very similar to those described to Jack by the bookseller.
From there on in it was, to all intents and purposes, out of Jack’s hands. The police had the mystery now, and by now the mystery had expanded so much that I think my partner would have been way out of his depth in pursuing the case any further.
And yet still our involvement was not at an end.

Summer had arrived, and I remember the unbearable heat. Days in and out Jack and I would venture out to the park together, but by the time we got there I’d be ready to drop. Just find me a tree with a big enough shade, I’d try to tell Jack with my eyes. Just let’s sit in that shade and stay there for the rest of the day, or at least until I can stop panting for long enough to move to another tree.
It was on such a day, plodding along at our exhausted pace through the brilliant heat of the park, birdsong and insect droning all but deafening me, that I suddenly noticed Jack’s excitement.
As I followed his gaze I realised what it was: it was Jane, prowling the circumference of the freshly mown grass.
Much as it takes all of my reserves of energy to do so, I loyally follow Jack as he breaks into a jog. Not that I have much of a say in the matter, what with being on my leash, and all. Jane is utterly bemused when we catch up to her, and clearly in a state of distress. She panics, and before Jack can say a word, her hand is reaching for something inside her coat.
Jane pulls the gun.
It registers with me well in advance of Jack.
I’m Man’s Best Friend. What do you think I do?
The bullet is embedded in my back leg before Jack fully comprehends what’s happening. In his disorientation, he completely forgets about Jane, who has turned tail and legged it. Not that confused, then, clearly.

I recall the feeling of calm which washed over me, collapsed on the grass with blood painlessly leaking from my thigh. I also recall the sheer panic in my friend’s eyes, wholly visible behind a thick, liquid membrane of tears.
Whole crowds of complete strangers rush over to help, but Jack just waves everyone away, senseless with hysteria. I must have had the blankest of looks on my face, because he’s all but read me the last rites, sobbing about how sorry he is.
And there I am, laid out like on a snug day. I just want to sleep.

As things turned out, I was lucky. Not for the first time in my life, either. The bullet had wedged itself, fairly harmlessly, into some soft tissue in my leg. Aside from the small puddle which I left behind me in the park, I hadn’t lost much blood, and I was back at home within the day.
Jack spoiled me rotten for weeks after that. Me, I still don’t know what all the fuss was about, but that’s not to say I wasn’t enjoying every second of being fussed over. I do believe that for those few weeks following the incident that Jack spent more money on little luxuries for me than on necessities for himself.

The police caught up with Jane, eventually. She never faced trial for shooting me, though, or for carrying the gun in the first place. She wasn’t fit, you see. Not to stand trial, not for the world in general.
It transpired that her mother had locked her in that room for most of her life. A weird experiment, by all accounts. For years on end, Jane had seen no other human being except for her mother, who for some reason had taken it upon herself to teach her at home. Although, I think that teach is probably the wrong word for it. Inculcate would be closer to the mark.
Jane’s mother had, from the day that she was able to formulate words, embarked on a most surreal regime of education, whereby she was taught one word of English per day whilst trapped in that small room. Just the one word, mind you.
It was probably Carol’s intention to find out how the human brain processes such a protracted method of teaching. Would she, as an adult, have the ability to string out entire sentences at a time, or would the words leave Jane’s mouth at the same rate as she had been taught them?
What the point of going to these extreme measures ultimately was, is anybody’s guess. Undoubtedly, I was right about Carol when I had the first whiff of her catty aroma. That’s why she killed herself, see. She was crazy enough to put her own daughter through all those years of hell, and yet she was just sane enough to realise when the game was up. Or maybe there was still some residue of humanity remaining inside of her addled mind to feel a modicum of guilt for Jane’s nightmarish life.
I don’t suppose we’ll ever really know for sure.

I still have a slight limp, which I have to confess I tend to over-pronounce whenever I feel like a bit of sympathy. I don’t think it necessarily makes me a bad dog for doing this: it doesn’t do Jack any harm to be reminded of what happened, nor does it hurt any for him to realise, every now and then, just how fortunate he is to still be around.
Do I ever think about what might have been, had I not leapt in front of that gun?
Sometimes, sure. Sometimes I wonder what Jack might have done with himself if things had turned out a lot worse. I like to think he would have forgiven himself, in time. It’s also comforting to believe that he would have gotten himself another dog. Not a dog anywhere near as cute, loyal or intelligent as me, of course. But a four-legged partner who might every now and again nudged Jack in the right direction, and enjoyed the odd tickle behind the ear for his or her troubles.

Incidentally, I still don’t understand why we’re calling these things “blogs.” Just because humans are using a term does not mean that we have to follow suit, surely?
It makes me wonder why these homo sapiens write so much trivial nonsense in their blogs? I mean, say what you like about our system, but at least we can say it works. Been doing it for ever, haven’t we? But there it is again, you see: not only do we have to call the lamp-Post Express by a new, lazy, man-made term, but dogs are beginning to sound like them, too. Anthropomorphism, surely?
I don’t know…humans.

 

“A Public Duty”

My little salute to the downtrodden bus drivers in the world…

 

I

Eleven years behind this sodding wheel. The routes have changed, but the roads are always the same. Same old peasants on and off, too. Next year I’ll jack it all in.
Two-seventy-five, love.
Town and back? Three fifty.
Lofty’s had all this for twenty-five years. Christ alone knows how he’s stomached it for that long. Old git’s probably numb to it by now- always seems that way when you catch him in the depot, anyway. I reckon he sees his job as eighty percent crossword, five percent snap box and the rest he just switches off to. What a life.
Half-fare for a dog, mate.
Wait a tic, sweetheart, I’ll drop the ramp for ya.
Bless. Sometimes when you see some of ‘em, it’s like looking into the future. Maybe that’s all I’ve got to look forward to after I’ve thrown my cards in. Can’t wait.
I like mid-mornings- well, I say like, but it’s more a case of I dislike them least of all. The rush has gone, and on the whole you just get your old ladies and them that can’t earn a crust, like the poor gal in the chair. I can almost switch off like Lofty, but I made a deal with myself a while back never to get so complacent that I end up actually like Lofty, if you see where I’m coming from. Can’t let the rot set in. It’s important to try and hold on to some of that fire that still lingers from my younger days, though admittedly it’s more like smouldering ashes now. But as long as there’s smoke coming off ‘em, I know it’s not too late.
That lad was using yesterday’s ticket, but I can’t be a jobsworth about things like that. Way I look at it, if he’s got the bottle to try it, fair play to him: money’s tight for all of us. Time was I went in for all that Marxist palaver, decent wealth distribution, that kind of thing. But as you get older you start to realise that you don’t need labels or political manifestos, because we’re all human, right? That survival instinct always finds a way to make ends meet somehow, no matter how shady your methods, and you don’t have to live in a political utopia to see that the wealth spreads itself nicely enough, off the books. There’s this old girl on our street (she gets on here sometimes, if I’m on the route that passes our way, and there’s some bingo on somewhere), been diddling the Social for donkey’s years. We all know what she’s up to, but we’d never dream of dobbing her in: that’s just not the way to go about things. Like I said, if you’ve the brass neck to play a risky game, why should you have to worry about other people fighting against you as well? The odds are against you from the start, and grassing an old bird up like that just ain’t right.
No, duck. You want the 58. This one goes the other way.
Three twenty, town.
What was I saying? Oh yeah, all that about making ends meet. Waste of time even talking about it, you ask me. The world sorts itself out, in its own way.

II

I tell you what, the things folk leave behind, you wouldn’t credit. The number of wallets and purses I’ve found rammed with cash fairly makes my eyes wobble. What was I saying about money being tight for everyone? Obviously there are a few who can afford to throw it about without a second thought. Funny how they’re all using my bus, though.
Look at that. How many “No Smoking” signs do we need? I counted sixteen on this bus alone, and there are always at least two at the stops. The same stops, of course, that have enormous billboards for trash film and TV. It’s as though they’re telling us we’re more than welcome to fill our bodies and minds with crap, but we haven’t the freedom to choose the method.
Two Fifty, chap. If you want to smoke it, take it upstairs, but be crafty about it.
Bus pass is coming to an end, is it, dear? Never mind. Just come to my bus, and you won’t have a problem.
Anyway, yeah, the things that get left behind. Last year I found a little collie puppy upstairs. Black and white, it was, lost as a lamb. So I took him home, and to be honest he’s been good as gold, but then I’ve always been a bit of a soft-arse with animals, even when I were a little lad. Kafka, he’s called. Well, I’d have felt a right numpty standing there shouting ‘Dostoyevsky,’ wouldn’t I?

Sweet Jesus, I’ll be glad to knock off today. Mind you, I say that every day. I should start saying ‘I’ll be glad to clear out next year,’ ‘cause this year I mean it: no more for me. You can keep your golden handshakes and your carriage clocks, just give me that moment when I walk through my front door, toss this knackered old Thermos in the bin and think to myself ‘That’s it, Len. You’re done.’ I’ll be down the Rose that night, never you fear! The lads’ll probably throw me a party after all the grumbling I’ve done over the years, bless ‘em. Absolutely stinking, I’ll be, the best kind of drunk there is: the drunk of a free man. My Granddad told me that. He got sent down a few years before I was born for robbing from his job (but he always used to smile at me in his way, and say ‘If I’d have stole serious money, Our Leonard, they’d have called it “fraud” and I would’ve been out long since’). So he knew better than anyone that the drunk of a free man tops everything else. I think that’s where I got my interest in politics from. See, to me it’s no different from the playground when you’re a kid: Little Tommy’s got a bag of sweets, and because he’s a good sort he shares ‘em out. But obviously when it comes to sweets, one’s never enough, so the other kids come back, cadging for more. If he hands any more out he’ll have none for himself, but if he says no they’ll call him everything from a pig to a dog and probably gang up on him. And that’s the way I see the world, what with your United Nations bombing the shit out of just about every other country who doesn’t just roll over and give it up. The whole world’s basically one big piggin’ playground, so take that, Mr. Shakespeare.

III

See them woods over there? That’s where we used to play when we were little, Me and Ken and Chalky. Used to be in there for hours, some days, just doing nothing except exploring. Everything was a new discovery to us then. You’ll laugh at this: once we found some weird sort of shape in a tree, with all this green sap, and if we looked at it in a certain way it sort of looked like a deformed man. Of course when you see that kind of thing at nine or ten it’s got to be an alien, right? So we’re there for ages, trying to work out what to do. We couldn’t go to the police because Chalky’s mam and dad told him to steer well clear, what with his being black and all. They were one of the first coloured families ‘round here, and I suppose me and Ken knocked about with him for the novelty of it. That and the fact that loads of the other kids had a problem with him. You don’t trust a different colour when you’re young. Sometimes you never grow out of it. So plod was out. If we went and told our parents we’d get a right rollicking for going in the woods in the first place, because it was around that time a few young girls started seeing this old fella with a dirty great raincoat. That was our folks out, too.
So what did we do? Christ, I can barely bring myself to tell you, in all truth! Ken goes back to his house to fetch some tools and me and Chalky stay to keep guard of the alien. Takes him a good half hour to return with this poxy little saw. Covered in rust, it was. We took the piss right out of him for that. So anyway, we gets to work sawing at this fella in the tree, trying to cut him out of the bark. We would’ve been better using lollipop sticks. Eventually, Chalky stops, all out of breath, sweat pouring down his shiny head. ‘Hang on, you two,’ he says and straightens up (because we all knew from watching our dads that when you’re sawing something you have to hunch over and give your back a right nightmare). ‘This alien’s made out of wood!’
We felt like a right bunch of Charlies, let me tell you. We never spoke about it again after that. I think it was the shame of being so daft.

Looks as though we’re in for a half-decent day, anyway. It never seems to be the right temperature for this job. Too hot and it’s muggy, no matter how many windows are open; too cold and you’re cold for the rest of the day, heating or no heating. The door flapping open every five minutes, see. If I’m totally honest, I’d have to say that I’d rather have a mild winter than a long summer, because there’s something about folk on buses in the summer and the way they sweat so much it stinks to high heaven. Those seats just get one fat, greasy arse after another. Doesn’t bear thinking about, really.
I sometimes think about Ken and Chalky. Not clapped eyes on either of them since I was about fourteen or fifteen, when we all left school and went our separate ways. Apparently, don’t quote me on it, Ken kicked the bucket some years back. His heart gave way, so I was told. Come to think of it, I can’t remember for the life of me who told me: none of my mates today ever knew him, and I haven’t seen anyone from school for, ooh, got to be nigh on twenty years now.
Chalky, though, he came a cropper when I last saw him. We only hade a few weeks of school left, so we bunked off a lot. These days your mam and dad would have a ton of shite dropped on ‘em if you wagged off. Probably end up in care. But it was different in those days- you were expected to go out to work when you were old enough to squeeze your spots, and there was fat chance of higher education back then. I remember wanting to go on to college really bad, but when Dad asked me what trade I wanted to learn, and I just looked at him gone-out-like, he laughed so hard I think I would’ve sooner he fetched me one. What I had I mind was going to college for the sake of learning, silly little prat that I was.
So there we were, right at the arse-end of our education, finding nothing better to do with ourselves than larking about. None of us had a clue about what to do with our lives. It just seemed natural that we would be like our parents. Easy to believe, when all you’ve ever known of the world is a few square miles, that everything goes around in one big circle, living, marrying, shagging, birthing, dying and over and over again.
Ken reckoned he would make his first million by the time me or Chalky had even gotten a job interview, the cocky swine. So I turned ‘round to him and said something like ‘Oh yeah, smart-arse? And how are you gonna make a million?’ But all he did was tap his nose and make us half-believe he had some scheme or other up his sleeve. He was like that, was Ken. All you had to do was talk to him for five minutes, though, to see that he was as green as the rest of us.

Chalky knew precisely where he was heading, though: borstal. No ifs or buts for him! For the last year-or-so of school it was almost like he wanted to go to prison, like someone had told him that it was like the Garden of Eden, flashed him a postcard picture of Barbados and he decided there and then that that’s where he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
Naturally, the local constabulary had no objections to this at all. In fact they bent over backwards to help him as much as they could. They must have had his future more clearly mapped out than he had, and they really made every effort to see that his dream came true. The last I saw of him was the night before he was due up in court.
He was up to so much that for the life of me I can’t recall what exactly it was they did him for in the end, but he went that day, off to his little paradise.

IV

Oh, heaven help us. It’s only Mad Bastard Bill. He’s not usually knocking about at this time of day. He’s what every driver fears the most, ‘cause he’s just not right. Bill used to be a driver himself, until he turned up for his shift one day sozzled and drove the bus straight into the multi-storey car park opposite the shopping centre. One little lad lost an arm, a few old dears had severe whiplash and Bill, he put himself in a coma for a week or two. When he woke up there was nobody at home, and when I say that I mean nobody.
Afternoon, Bill. Keeping well, are ya? The missus is grand, thanks.
Silly sod. He’s been asking me how the wife is for years, but it’s no good telling him I’ve never been married ‘cause he’ll only forget for next time. I’m lucky today- he’s gone to sit himself down ear the back. Usually he’ll stand up front and talk the ears right off you. It’s quite unsettling, the way he talks shop as though nothing had happened. I think he half-believes he still gets up and drives every day, and he can’t work out why someone always manages to get the bus that he’s been designated.
I do feel a little sorry for him, though, despite it being all his own doing. The council gave him a little bit in the way of redundancy, which they would have been well within their rights to refuse him, plus all the free travel he can use…mind you, he can use up a bloody lot.

I never did finish telling you about little Kafka, did I? He’s a cracker, he is. Always happy, that’s Kafka, and you don’t need a degree to find that statement funny. Like I said, I’ve never married, so he’s good company when I’m not at work. There’s a massive park near us, never without a dog or two for him to play with, and he makes friends everywhere he goes. Never known anything like it, the way everybody he meets instantly takes a shine to him.
He goes absolutely bananas when I get home, even though the most I ever do in a shift is six hours and my next door neighbour looks after him most of that time. But he always knows when I’m coming up the path. He’ll be at that front window, one ear pointed straight up, the other one flapping at the side of his head, and he’s got this look on his face like he’s rolling up all his energy so he can let it fly when I get through the front door.
I wouldn’t swap him for the world, never mind a life where I had a missus bleating down my ear hole all bleedin’ day. That’s something that would drive me up the wall.

Of course, I have my dreams. Something I’ve always wanted a crack at is architecture. It’s a beautiful thing, taking an empty bit of land, seeing that something should go there and then making it happen. I suppose I just like the idea of a blank canvas.
I want the freedom to let my imagination off of its leash. Some of the ideas that have occurred to me probably couldn’t even be achieved. If I tell you, you won’t laugh, will you? Good, ‘cause I’m a bit sensitive about that sort of thing, delicate little flower that I am.
One idea I had was about carving a house into a cliff face. Can you imagine the sort of planning that would take? And then all that scaffolding just to keep the whole thing from falling into the sea! But say that money isn’t an issue- people always say that, don’t they? Say you had unlimited capital to get it right. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a house set into a cliff? I’m not sure how you’d go about it, but I see it as having all steps and slopes along the rock, leading up this cave, only it wouldn’t be a cave, see. Not in the literal sense. Once you’d hollowed out the actual house there would be a steel skeleton with tons of insulation. You can’t forget the insulation on something like that.
I can just picture it, waking up of a morning with the sea right outside. Then there’d be a balcony, only you’d have to really strengthen the supports if it was on a cliff. But the idea is there, anyway.
To be honest, it wouldn’t bother me too much whether it worked or not. I think the simple act of doing it makes it worthwhile, and it’s the sort of thing that gets you remembered, after you’re gone. Just think, a couple of hundred years after I cark it, some teacher takes a class on a school trip to my house in the cliff and says ‘Now just look at what that silly old sod went and did!’ Priceless.

Excuse me a minute, please.
No, the 58. It normally pulls in a few minutes after I leave. 58, yes mate.
It’s alright, love. He’s harmless, he just stares at you.

Mad Bastard Bill’s putting the fear into the normals again. That’s the thing about him, you see: he just sits and gozzes at you for the whole journey, if you let him. I’ve had people on here trying to start trouble over it with him before now. When it gets like that I have to tell him to get off. No skin off my nose. He’ll have forgotten all about it for next time, anyway.

V

Why did I not marry? I did come close once, believe it or not. Robin, her name was, and it’s so long ago I can’t rightly picture what she looked like. I do remember the grief that came with her though. There were a lot of lads as took a shine to her, which she enjoyed a bit too much for my liking. We just had two very different ways of looking at marriage: I’m quite old-fashioned when it comes to all sort of thing. Robin wanted to be looked at and admired…basically what she was after was for the world to fall at her feet. The world might have done, but I didn’t. It was just as if circumstances all got together and decided ‘Nope. This caper’s not for our Len.‘ Lucky escape all ‘round, if I’m honest.

Did I tell you about Lofty? I can’t remember. I did? Ye Gods, I’m sure I’m getting dementia. Well, you definitely haven’t heard the one about Lofty seeing the Devil, otherwise you’d either be rolling in this here aisle or crossing yourself (depending, of course, on your theological inclinations).
What it was, and this happened years ago, mind, old Lofty was going through a bit of strife at the time. It must have been when his missus was leaving him, or carrying on behind his back, or both. Can’t remember, but it’s not that important.
Anyway, one day this funny old geezer gets on his bus with a ticket. Lofty’s never seen a ticket like this before. He says it was more like a parchment, it was that old. So for shits and giggles Lofty says he’ll give the old bugger a brand spanking new ticket in exchange for the shabby old brown thing. So fair enough, this is what he did.
He shows this old ticket down at the depot to some of the older drivers, and they all start scratching their heads, ‘cause the date on it doesn’t add up. Not sure of the precise date, but I think, if I remember rightly, that it was from the 1930’s.
So Lofty’s got his interest piqued no end now, which if you’ve ever seen him you’ll know is a bloody miracle in and of itself, so he takes this sodding ticket (which is starting to get under his skin a bit) down to public records to see if they can tell him anything.
Turns out the ticket matches exactly with a bus that caught fire back in the old days. They never did find out what caused it, but everyone on board died. Don’t ask me for the specifics, because I’m just telling you what Lofty’s told me, and I’ve never had the inclination to check up on his story.
Now Lofty’s creeped right out by this. You know he’s a laid-back sort, but knowing what he now knows, and holding this old bus ticket in his hand, he’s got shivers running all through him. But the worst part was, a couple of days later this same old boy gets on the bus again. This time he’s got the ticket Lofty gave him. Only it’s not the same, see- it looks about fifty years old.
Too scared to say anything, Lofty drives on, until they get to the terminus. When the man is getting off, Lofty chances to take a glance at his feet. He swears blind to this day that where this chap’s feet should have been where two cloven hooves. It’s weird to think of Lofty getting spooked by anything. I suppose nothing less than the Devil himself could have achieved that.
Oh, I nearly forgot! It didn’t end there, because apparently the Devil wandered off until, as if he could feel Lofty watching him, he turns around and his face has gone a deep green, like he was a goblin or something. See, I always thought the Devil was supposed to be red, but there you go. But his eyes weren’t eyes at all. They were more like “two perfect crystal mirrors” which reflected the nastiest, most degraded parts of your soul.
I asked Lofty at the time what he saw in those eyes, but he went a bit tight-lipped at that point. Can’t say I blame him. If I had the worst parts of my personality flashed in front of me, I’m not sure I’d be too quick to report it. Anyway, as soon as their eyes met, Lofty all gobsmacked and Satan showing exactly how much nastiness was in him, this great big halo of flames rose up around the old fella and he was gone. Just like that.

It’s no good asking me any more about it. That’s all he told me, and to the best of my knowledge that’s all he’s ever told anybody. Do I believe it? Strangely, I think I might. If anybody else had said to me that they’d had the Devil on their bus, I’d tell ‘em to pull the other one, but it’s just not like Lofty to make up something like that. Maybe it was a symptom of what he was putting up with at home, but he’s just to laid-back a person to get affected by things too much.

VI

Robin’s been on my bus a few times since. She’s always polite, asking how I’m getting on, and I always say ‘fair to middlin’’ just like my mam used to. She’s got a couple of little ones now, and the years haven’t been too kind to her, to say the least. So I don’t think she gets quite as many admirers as she used to have.
Some would get some satisfaction out of that, but I can’t find it in me to take pleasure in the poor lass’s not getting what she wanted out of life. Granted, she might have been happier if she’d have stayed sensible and stuck it out with me, but sensible isn’t a game that’s easily played by everyone. Life catches up with you sooner or later. Sometimes it’s generous and gives you a few years’ grace to spend how you wish. But in the end, it ends up calling you to account.
Don’t ask me who it was that finally got her in the family way. I do know this, though: he must have been something pretty bloody special for Robin to have settled for him. She always said she never wanted kids, which would’ve suited me because I’ve never been that fussed myself, either. Robin was far more suited to the life of a high-society dame, the sort that lounge around talking in that upper-middle class patois of the nineteen-twenties. She would find most things a bore, and end up getting squiffy, don’tcha know.
Mam also used to say, ‘we each of us get the life we deserve,’ but I’m not sure…there was never really any badness to Robin, just a habit of not taking other people into account when thinking about what was best for herself. She certainly never hurt me enough to deserve looking that knackered, at any rate.

VI

Would you look at the time! Not long before I knock off for the day, and glad I am of that little fact, to be sure!
You’ve been on for a while now, I must say. Where did you say you were going? Where? Never heard of it. Now don’t you feel a right pillock spending half the day on a bus with me when I wasn’t even going you’re way!
Oh well, it’s been nice chatting with you anyway. I should’ve warned you I can rattle a bit when I get started. Yes, I’ll say hello to Kafka for you, and you’ll have to let me know if you find the bus to wherever it is you’re going.
I’ll be on this route for a while yet. Gets on my wick, but I just keep on keeping on. As we do. Never mind. Next year I’ll jack it all in.

 

 

 

 

 

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