Thursday, 17 December 2009

Christmas Special

At a quarter to eleven, Ebony Zerkel smiled beatifically as she folded the last of her ribbons, and traversed the length of her flat to the haberdashery drawer. As she walked, she took great pride in the home-made decorations which adorned the dining-room table. She neatly laid the scarlet ribbon in the drawer, then allowed herself a peek through the kitchen window at the snow outside. The sight of falling flakes upon the adjacent factory roof made her literally ‘eep!’ with joy.
She made her way to the bedroom and routinely checked her digital alarm clock. Already the display read 1 AM. How could this be? The thing must be broken. She pressed the necessary combination of buttons until the correct time synchronised with her wrist-watch, and lay back upon her bed. No sooner had sleep swallowed her than she was awoken with a chill, and a presence at the foot of her bed. With a start, she sat bolt-upright to survey this spectral apparition before her.
The figure was female, over six feet tall, and though not fully opaque, her body could be seen to be shapely. Long, shiny black hair swept down from her crown. Her face was distorted and sinister: Her lips were bloated like those of a carp, and her skin was stretched and pulled back as though tied in a knot behind her head. Draped over her breast was a necklace composed of a number of credit-cards and bank-notes. At the end of each long, slender arm was a collection of designer shopping bags, each one bulging and angular.
The apparition silently surveyed Ebony, and for some time, Ebony could only stare back, at a loss as to what she should say. Eventually, having ascertained that the ghost would not break the silence, Ebony cleared her throat, and meekly enquired ‘Who are you? What do you want?’
The voice that returned her questions was soft and low, and had a numinous quality to it: ‘Ebony Zerkel, I am the Ghost of Rampant Consumerism, and I am here to teach you the true impact of Christmas. Over the next two nights, you will receive two more visitors; the Ghost of Catholic Guilt, and the Ghost of Non-Biodegradable Landfill. You shall heed our warnings, Ebony Zerkel, and you shall mend your ways.’

Many years later, Ebony (now plump with middle-age) reclined on her sofa with her husband, who was already watching a Christmas Special on the television. Suddenly, the memory of her ghostly visitations returned to her. ‘How strange,’ she thought, ‘that such an event should have so little effect on me.’ As the third spirit left her that Christmas Eve, Ebony did indeed vow to mend her ways, but each successive year, a little more festive cheer returned, a few more mince pies on the table, a little more tinsel on the tree. Slowly, the effect of the visions had waned, as the cultural omnipresence of Christmas bombarded her cerebellum.
Dressed as Batman, Del Boy ran through the streets of Peckham, Rodney close behind.

Thanks everyone, and Merry Christmas. I'm going to take a short break over the holidays. I'll be back in the New Year with more nonsense.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Temporary respite is achieved through the knowledge of two scientists and a time-travelling bird.

In the midst of all this, right in the middle of all the foofaraw, after the phone call, but before the whole thing erupted, Maurice read in the New York Times about a pair of scientists named Nielsen and Ninomiya who had hypothesised that a bird may have travelled back through time from the future to disable the Large Hadron Collider, and they had proposed a thought experiment in which a card is drawn from a deck of one hundred million cards, and if that one card is a spade when all the other ninety-nine million nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine are hearts; if that one card is drawn then the Hadron Collider will be switched off forever, and they submitted this in all seriousness, and the news brought Maurice a real feeling of relief, and of lightness and buoyancy, and a quickness of step which lasted for the remainder of the morning.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Computer is slow

The computer is slow. Infuriatingly, stupidly slow. He watches as the computer tries to open a third application and counts the seconds: ‘One, two, three…’
At fifteen, the window opens at last. ‘Fifteen seconds!’ He thinks, ‘Fifteen seconds is ridiculous.’ He stands up, paces from his desk to the sink in the shared office, then back to his desk again.

As he resumes his position, he tries to look unapproachable, so that the customers will avoid his desk. He leans his head forward, furrows his brow, and picks up a pen as if in the middle of a difficult calculation.
His plan fails. Two well-dressed overweight middle-aged women loaded with shopping bags sit down at his desk. They smile disarmingly and patiently wait for his attention.

He glances back at his supervisor’s door, then corrects his posture and his countenance: ‘Yes ladies how may I help you?’
‘We’d like to book a cruise please.’
‘Certainly,’ (all the while, clicking with his mouse, to open the software) ‘is there anywhere…’ (he tries to keep engaging with them while inwardly fuming at this wickedly slow computer) ‘…special you have in mind?’ (Why won’t this evil machine work? Why won’t it open?)

He fantasises about jumping to his feet, snatching the computer monitor from the desk, raising it above his head, and launching it across the room, smashing it upon contact with the wall opposite, shards of glass and electrical sparks dropping and slicing into the meaty backs of the simpering bovine idiots before him.

The idea is greatly appealing, but what then? Having destroyed this machine, what then? He would have to walk, embarrassed, out of the shop, and down the street in just his shirt sleeves, with people watching, open-mouthed. Suddenly, he realises that he has been staring at the customers all this time, his fists balled up, and his right eye twitching.
‘Please bear with me. This computer is very slow.’

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Time for Sandwiches

When assembling a sandwich, I use three knives: The bread knife, for slicing the bread, a rounded table-knife for buttering, and a sharp paring knife for slicing the cheese. As I work, I always think that there must be a more efficient way to do this. I haven’t found one yet. Each knife is so evolved that its Darwinian specialism precludes it from any other work: The paring knife can’t cut the bread, the bread knife would be useless with butter. But each, in its own way is so perfect for the job, and they work so well together.

Remember the time that we were in Hong Kong? We were looking for somewhere for lunch. I stood at the counter for a long time, deliberating. Weakened by the journey, you caught me at an uncharacteristic moment of indecision.

‘I can’t decide whether to have the noodles or a sandwich.’

You looked at the food, hermetically sealed in its translucent plastic skin, then looked back to me.

‘Have the noodles. There will be plenty time for sandwiches.’

I assented, and ordered the noodles. The noodles were good, and salty, and they revived me sufficiently to engage us in conversation. I pulled the Lonely Planet guide from my rucksack, and opened its pages.

‘From here we could take a ferry to Kowloon, then the train to Guangdong takes around 2 hours, or we could take an overnight sleeper right into Beijing.’

You, distractedly: ‘Beijing would be amazing.’ Your focus had shifted through the window of the café, to the city outside. A street-vendor was operating a machine which crushed sugar cane to produce a jug of green juice at the other end. As he fed each trunk into the mangle, a shriek of wood and metal was audible through the glazing that separated us.

‘What is he doing?’ I could see that an idea was already forming in your head.

We never did make it to Beijing. Instead we bought two jugs of the green sugar-water, one large bottle of vodka, and you created an impromptu party back at the Youth Hostel. It was one of the best nights we had.

Anyway, the reason this is all coming back to me now is that I was just here, in our kitchen, on a break from work. I reached into the drawer to retrieve the trinity of blades to make my lunch. My index finger traversed one of our knives, and as I felt the sting, I quickly pulled my hand from the drawer. As I did, one fat globule of carmine blood dropped to the floor. I held my finger and looked down at the resultant splatter, fragmented on our laminate flooring. It occurred to me - we are now in the Time For Sandwiches.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Quadrivoltine durian dream of Bjorn Borg

Tennis-star-turned-underwear-designer Bjorn Borg slept fitfully after a fraught day at the office. A day in which his secretary quit. A day in which Bjorn’s mind suddenly emptied in the middle of a presentation. A day in which Bjorn had specifically requested a cup of black coffee, and instead was brought white tea.

In his bed that night (queen-size, with calico-coloured Egyptian cotton sheets, which he shared with Mrs. Borg), Bjorn harrumphed, and twisted his body side-to-side, the days events repeating on him like bad onions.

Eventually, sleep came, as sleep does, when Bjorn was not expecting it. Bjorn fell softly into its jaws and his sleep cycle began, drawing Bjorn deeper and deeper into its 200 thousand-year old rhythms, until finally, his eyes started twitching below their lids, and his alpha-waves began firing synapse to synapse.

Bjorn was in a garden. Not his garden, but it was somewhere he knew. As he walked to the end of the lawn, he spotted a tree which he had never noticed before. The tree was angular and exotic, and fecund with many spiky fruits. Bjorn reached his hand towards a low branch to wrest one of these fruits from its stalk. As he did, a voice boomed from above: ‘TAKE NOT OF THESE FRUITS, BJORN.’

Borg lifted his gaze to see the great, bearded face of God scowling down at him.

‘Hi God. Listen, thanks for all the tennis skills and the charmed life.’


‘God, can I ask you something?’


‘Why am I seeing you as an old bearded guy in a white robe? I mean, if I’m asked about God, I tend to give a generic answer about God being a force, or energy, rather than a person.’


‘OK. And it’s a no to the fruit, right?’


Bjorn woke with a jolt. His sheets were damp with the secreted worries of the previous day.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Archibald Benoit is a cock

During a quiet moment in his work as a Births and Deaths Registrar, Archibald Benoit accidentally turned to his computer, and googled his name. Archibald kept a fairly low profile, though not by design. He was relatively well known within his village, but the internet was a new window of experience for Archibald, and so he did not expect to be overwhelmed by search hits.

The first hit was a link to the local government website, stating in a matter-of-fact manner his job-title and phone number. The second hit, satisfyingly, was the results page of a local charity run in which Archibald had raced.

The third hit was the one. Right there, in front of Archibald's very eyes, sat the sentence ‘Archibald Benoit is a cock.’ His heart quickened at the sight of this affront. Surely he had misread it? No, There it was in black and white and blue: ‘Archibald Benoit is a cock.’

Archibald clicked aggressively on the link. It took him to a blog by the name of And Figs Might Leaf. Archie scrolled down the page in search of the reference, and found it under the date of July 21st 2009. No accompanying text, no explanation, and (Archie spent some time surveying the rest of the blog) no further mention of himself. The author used the pen-name Xianjon. This name meant nothing to Archibald. ‘Who could this person be? What on earth could he be holding against me?’ worried Archie.

Archibald slept fitfully. The following day was Saturday. Unable to concentrate on the newspaper as usual, Archie brooded on this ridiculous slur. He was a quiet and gentle man. He hadn't many friends, that's true, but he had never had an enemy. He was always kind and considerate, and always professional in his work. Why anybody would want to defame him in this manner was a mystery. He had never broken anybody's heart, never double-crossed anybody, never even bullied anybody as a child. Really - Archibald could not perceive why anybody would think him a cock.

On Sunday, during Mass, a thought occurred to Archibald for the first time: 'What if I am not the only Archibald Benoit in the world? Sure enough, it's an unusual name, but it is not beyond the reach of possibility that I may have a doppelganger.'

Yes. That must be it, concluded Benoit, there must be another Archibald Benoit in the world. And he must be an odious individual.

Set at ease by this realisation, Archibald had to wait until Monday to confirm his suspicion (he didn't have a computer at his home). He arrived at work 25 minutes early, and before even taking off his coat, he logged on, and his index fingers once again poked the words “Archibald Benoit” into the search box. It was on page 2 of results that Archie found what he was looking for. There was indeed another Archibald Benoit.

Born in Limoges, France in 1970, he trained as a doctor at the University of Paris V before setting up his own private practice in 1996. A keen runner, this Archibald had won a number of long-distance races nationally, raising over €20,000 for heart-disease charities in the process. In 1999, this Archibald left his practice in Paris to provide aid in Kosovo as a doctor for the organisation Medicins Sans Frontieres. Through his work in Kosovo, and later Sudan, this Archibald was awarded the Legion d'Honneur - the greatest honour which can be bestowed to a Frenchman. Now, this Archibald is happily married with three children. He continues to raise money for charity, and in his spare time, he works with the homeless.

Archibald Benoit sat back in his chair, his mouth open, and his eyes hooded. As he reclined he let out a sigh. 'This is it then,' he considered, ‘There can be no other explanation: I am a cock.’

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Desk of Alasdair Kettering

Sturdy nineteen-seventies shelving of wood and steel support a wall of books. Mostly paperbacks, with the odd hardback amongst them. Imperceptibly, the weight of these tomes pulls at the weakened wall plaster which supports them until one day in the future, Alasdair Kettering will return to his study to find all of his precious collection lying face-down on the floor, sprinkled with a pangrattato of metal, wood and plaster.

To catalogue this collection would be insurmountable. For the books to be placed on the shelf in any kind of order would be uncharacteristic. So, if we begin at the top-left shelf, we find A Collector’s Guide to Railway Memorabilia, next to Intertextuallity in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, adjacent to Contributions towards the resolution of conflict in Guyana. Despite this apparent chaos, if you were to ask Alasdair for a book, he would know immediately if it were in his possession, and roughly the shelf on which it resides.

Besides his library, the study is sparsely furnished: an oak desk (inherited from the previous tenant) on which sits a telephone, a laptop and, contained within its black leather case, a Windsor B flat clarinet. The chair is a green plastic garden chair which he has been using temporarily since his last office chair lost a leg. This incident happened over six months ago, though Alasdair would estimate it only a few weeks since.

On the back of the study door hangs an ‘inspirational’ poster featuring a penguin, and beneath it the words “INDIVIDUALITY. Have courage and follow your own path”. Alasdair enters his study, then closes and locks the door behind him. He circumnavigates his desk, tugging at one of his ears as he walks. As he sits down in his chair, adjusting his spectacles, he slowly reaches out for his clarinet case. Suddenly, the phone rings. The noise so startles Alasdair that it takes him a moment to regain the composure necessary to pick up the receiver. The phone reaches his ear, but he does not speak. He absorbs the digital silence on the other end of the line. Though no sound is communicated, Alasdair seems to understand this exchange, and wearily, knowingly, he replaces the phone in its cradle, and hangs his head.

Behind him, the shelves creak.

Airport coffee

From her vantage-point at the back of the queue, she counts the number of free seats in the café. The idea of eating standing up is unappealing, so she voices her concern: ‘Shall I get us a table?’

He surveys the area. Formica tables of varying heights; around them families, couples, suits and laptops. ‘We’ll be fine. Stay with me,’ then (in order to sound less needy) ‘I don’t know what you’ll want’. He checks his watch: there is time to kill. The flight doesn’t have a boarding gate yet.

‘Are we supposed to have a tray?’ she asks. ‘I don’t know,’ he replies. Casting his view downward, he spies an empty metal cage – where trays used to live. ‘Do we need one?’

In her hand is a plastic triangle containing a brie and grape sandwich. He smiles as he watches her deliberate, wrinkle her nose and finally place the packet back on the refrigerator shelf. He spies her logic before she can articulate it: that she would be foolish to order cheese in an airport café in Manchester when she will soon be able to order the Real Thing from a fromagerie. Selecting instead a tuna salad, she turns her attention to the faux-chalkboard behind the counter. ‘What size coffee are you getting?’ she asks.

‘I’m just getting a medium. I find that when I do order a large cappuccino, I don’t enjoy the last third of it. It’s a waste.’

‘I’m getting the large anyway’

‘You won’t enjoy the last third of it.’

He knows that his tone is supercilious. He thinks it funny, and he hopes that she will realise that this superior tone was a character, though at the same time he is aware that he does talk down to her.

At what stage does a couple implicitly agree that they are now so comfortable with each other that they can talk down to each other? How long must elapse before we can say hurtful, testy things with impunity - things that we wouldn’t dream of saying to anybody else? After five years? Ten? He catches her eye to communicate all this. She looks back directly, and her glance comforts him, tells him that she knows him; she knows what he is like, she knows his faults and she has now even reached a stage where she can enjoy them. To such an extent, her glance continues, that should he die, these conversations are the things that she will miss.

He shifts his attention to the seating area: ‘Actually, it’s filling up. Do you want to get us a table? I’ll pay for these.’

The tray finally does materialise at the till. He takes it and stands, vacantly surveying the tables to find her. Her new hair almost trips him, and he makes comment on this as he takes a seat with her. So veiled was the compliment within this exchange that the average passer-by would miss it. She doesn’t however, and her face beams at him. He mistakes this smile as excitement at the imminent voyage and their conversation drifts in this direction.

‘How do you feel to be away from baby?’ he tentatively asks. He knows it is a question that needs asking, that he wants the answer to, yet he is afraid to bring down the mood.

‘Strange.’ is her monosyllabic reply. Within these letters, microscopic small print exists that reads ‘I feel as though a part of me has been removed. I feel limbless. I also feel liberated, as though I was carrying a heavy load of luggage, and now I have placed it down on the street and walked away. I feel like my heart has been broken and trampled on. I can picture her face smiling, and her big, beautiful ears. I feel worried about her, and worried about myself.’

She glances down at her outsized coffee cup. The cup is an unusual design that features handles on either side. Suddenly, she laughs, and holds the cup up for inspection: ‘Does this remind you of anyone?’

They both laugh. She places the cup back down on the table and reviews its contents: ‘I can’t finish this.’