My 2021 Advent Calendar in all its glory

Today’s Advent Calendar picture is of Beryl Reid eating a wagon wheel. An actual wagon wheel.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture is of the crank handle of an old jalopy.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture is of Samuel Beckett breakdancing in the cafe at a garden centre next to the narcissi.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture is apppatently an advert for Dreadnought Sheep Dip.

Today’s advent calendar picture is of a monk trying to feed a jacket to a horse.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture shows a small field just outside of Norwich and some of the adjacent lay-by.

Today’s advent calendar picture shows Skippy the Kangaroo waiting for an exhaust manifold to be fitted to his Ford Capri. One of the mechanics is Liam Gallagher. It’s raining. The Irn Bru drinks machine has an Out of Order notice on it written in calligraphy. The man in the office behind a glass window is sad because nobody appreciates his calligraphy.

Today’s advent calendar picture shows kylie Minogue as reimagined in Fuzzy Felt

Today’s Advent Calendar picture is of Inspector Poirot looking for a pair of scissors to open the packaging that his newly bought pair of scissors have come in.

Today’s advent calendar is a picture of a colander. It’s an advent colander.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture is very minimalist and shows a penguin at the South Pole looking very quizzically at a harp.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture shows the starboard spark plugs of a coal barge.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture shows the Easter bunny.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture shows a duck behind the wheel of a 1986 Opel Manta being stopped by a policeman who happens to be a ferret, whose pointing at a speed limit sign which says 30mph, while a badger walks past pushing a prom inside of which is a lobster baby, while the other side of the road there’s a kangaroo which, inexplicably, is walking a dog.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture shows a selection of different pasta shapes laid out in size order next to a Philips screwdriver, presumably for scale.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture shows the bearded captain of the bulk carrier MSC Mercury Thora Hird on the bridge behind the wheel, but he’s vogueing, Madonna style, while his First Mate captures the whole thing on his mobile phone, as the other crew on the bridge clap and cheer. They’re obviously intending to upload it to Tiktok.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture shows an exasperated theatre director shouting at an ostrich through a megaphone on a theatre stage. Muscles are bulging in his neck. The ostrich has fluffed another line in the big monologue and will have to start again. The ostrich can barely hide its contempt. The play they are rehearsing is called Up My Left Trouser Leg.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture shows an advent calendar.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture shows a moment of hilarity on the novelty farting gnome production line. Doris has put one of them on her head and is doing a silly little dance to Cher’s Believe, everyone’s laughing, though she doesn’t realise that her supervisor is standing right behind her. This is the third time she’s done such a thing in the last week. The manufacture of novelty farting gnomes is a serious business, doesn’t she understand? And why is it necessary to add the word ‘novelty’?

Today’s Advent Calendar picture shows the Three Wise Men having stopped off to buy scratch cards , are leaning on a post box and furiously scratching them with 10p coins.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture shows an argument at the crunch nut corn flake production line because the manager has sped up the conveyor belt and they’ve obviously started falling off on to the floor, there are boxes everywhere, tempers are fraying, arms raised, red faces, bulging veins in necks, and nobody has noticed that a lion has just sauntered in through the door.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture shows a runaway flat bed truck with about fifty standard lamps balanced on the back making its way driverless through the giraffe enclosure at a safari park. The giraffes are curious, of course, and somewhat envious of these long necked mechanical objects. Maud from the adjacent tea hut looks up from her urn, she’s pointing to the large net that she’s kept just for a situation like this.

Today’s Advent Calendar picture shows Yogi Bear lying flat on his face with a tranquilliser dart stuck in his rump, in the meat aisle at Morrison’s. He’s riffled the chiller cabinet and made a hell of a mess.

Flapjacks a-plenty, a story for Christmas, by Robert Garnham

Flapjacks a-plenty

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me a cappuccino-flavoured flapjack. I say ‘true love’, he was actually the man upstairs, the one who has a face that could rival the angels and a flat that smelled of beef-flavoured crisps. I must admit there was a certain chemistry whenever he spoke, he would ask about things that had nothing to do with anything, like whether or not I preferred skimmed to semi-skimmed milk, and had I seen the football at the weekend?
I’d not been sure what to make when he had moved in, a couple of months previously. He didn’t look like the sort of person who would have time for anyone else. He drove a souped up car with a big spoiler on the back and whenever he started it up it sounded like a fart in a sewer. And he wore a baseball cap a lot of the time, and not even ironically. I’d phoned up a friend.
‘I think his name is Aaron. Although it could be Adam. It’s hard to tell. Whenever he has friends come over they stand outside my window and shout up at his flat. And you know what people are like, they’re so sloppy with their syllables, sometimes’.
‘Is he good looking, though?’
My friend, Matt, was incredibly shallow.
‘Yes, very much. He has a face that could rival the angels. And blond hair. He’s absolutely gorgeous’.
Yes, Matt was very shallow indeed.
On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me two chocolate coated flapjacks and another cappuccino-flavoured flapjack. Obviously, he didn’t know that he was my true love, yet. Plus I hadn’t eaten the flapjack from the day before, yet.
‘Where are you getting all these flapjacks from?’, I asked him.
We were in the communal entranceway. Tinsel undulated on the heat rising from the radiator.
‘It’s kind of a family tradition’, he replied.
Did I mention that he’s got blonde hair and a winning smile? I’m sure I remembered mentioning the winning smile.
‘But I don’t really like flapjacks’, he added.
‘I’ll have ’em’.
Kind of like a flapjack-orientated advent calendar, I told myself.
‘Right, I’ll see you tomorrow, then’, he said, and off he went, back up the stairs.
I kept the flapjacks in the cupboard in the kitchen, the one that gleams and shines whenever the kettle boils. I’d put a few Christmas decorations around the kitchen, some fairy lights around the microwave and some dangly jovial elves on the mug stand. Yet whenever I opened the kitchen cupboard door and saw the flapjacks there, it made me more festive than any plastic tinsel while at the same time reminding me of my true love with his blond hair and winning smile and his flat that smelled of beef-flavoured crisps.
He was out in the front driveway the next morning, putting rubbish in his bin. He was only wearing a t-shirt and shorts and it must have been about two degrees celsius out there. His manly, yet graceful frame contrasted with the drab surroundings. I almost dropped my cup of tea. Sure enough, there was a knock on my door around ten minutes later and he gave me three bakewell-flavoured flapjacks, two chocolate flavoured flapjacks and a cappuccino flavoured flapjack.
‘I saw you putting the rubbish out this morning’, I told him.
‘Crisp packets, mostly’, he replied.
And boom, that winning smile.
‘Are you okay with all of these flapjacks?’, he asked. ‘They’ve got a good date on them, so you don’t have to eat them all at once’.
‘No problem. Keep them coming . . . Aaron?’
‘Pardon?’
‘Adam?’
That grin, again.
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me four plain flapjacks, three Bakewell-flavoured flapjacks, two chocolate flavoured flapjacks and a cappuccino flavoured flapjack. To be honest it was only the cappuccino flavoured flapjack which appealed to me, which meant I was only going to be getting one a day of the sort that I actually liked, which wasn’t really fair but again I told him to keep them coming.
He went back upstairs to his flat and a short while later I could hear him belching the theme tune to Match of the Day, which, I guess, must have been quite difficult to do.
On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me five onion rings.
‘Is this some kind of a joke?’, I asked. ‘Where’s my flapjacks?’
‘The post was late this morning’, he replied.
‘My advent calendar picture today was of an advent calendar’.
‘Well’, he said, with that winning smile, ‘How meta is that?’
He went off out in his car a short while after that, baseball cap and big puffy jacket, and off he drove, those big double exhausts blowing raspberries at the cars behind them. I stood in my window next to my fairy lights and I gave out something of a deep sigh.
I don’t need to go on, but suffice to say, a veritable torrent of flapjacks arrived over the next six days sprinkled here and there with a modicum of onion rings. But it was the season of goodwill and in a strange sort of way I wondered if he felt sorry for me. It was great that he wanted to involve me in his annual tradition, what with his blond hair and his winning smile. But onion rings gave me wind, I didn’t have the heart to tell him.
The advent calendar picture that day was of a sneezing unicorn.
I’d start to imagine all kinds of scenarios where we might go out together in his souped-up car, me and my true love. Of course, he’d have to be very patient as I lowered myself down into the passenger seat. I don’t know why the suspension has to be so close to the ground in these things. We’d park in the multi-storey and go to the Christmas market, just the two of us, him in his puffy jacket and baseball cap, and sure, people might think that I was going around with my nephew, but it didn’t matter what they thought. And we’d sip mulled wine and marvel at the wooden carved decorations and the fake snow and the mince pies which were given a shockingly high mark-up just because it was a christmas market. And then he would go back to his car and he would smile and I would smile and he’d put on his CD player and instead of it being DJ J.D. Deejay D and the Angry Muvvas, it would be Bing Crosby singing I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, booming out from his speakers as we slowed down for the speed bump on which his front spoiler might scrape.
And then, subsumed beneath the warmth of sherry and mulled wine, he’d come back to my flat and we’d sit on the sofa and he’d snuggle up next to me and we’d watch late night TV. A festive edition of Police Interceptors, perhaps. With the normal theme tune but someone rattling sleigh bells over it, and superimposed fake snow over the opening titles.
Every day he would come. With his body-hugging plain white t-shirt and his blond hair and his winning smile, wearing shorts even though the heating was on. And I would look forward to it because I knew that every flapjack he delivered was his little way of saying, ‘Yeah, you’re alright, you are’.
I phoned up my friend, Shallow Matt.
‘Why don’t you ask him out?’
‘Yes, but where would we go?’
‘It’s just an expression’.
‘The christmas market? That’s just ridiculous?’
‘I didn’t mention the Christmas market’.
‘No, but you were thinking it’.
‘He went out to his car this morning. I don’t know why, perhaps he was just checking that it was still there. And he kind of ran his long fingers along the bonnet. And I thought, wow, that’s true love, that is.’
‘Do you actually like flapjacks?’, Matt asked.
‘Only the cappuccino ones’.
On Christmas Eve he came down with a box. It contained twelve Wimbledon fancy flapjacks, eleven goji berry flapjacks, ten yoghurt-topped flapjacks, an almond croissant, (I still don’t know how the almond croissant got mixed up in all this), eight caramel flapjacks, seven cherry and oat flapjacks, (‘Aren’t they all oat flapjacks?’, I’d asked), six toffee flapjacks, five onion rings, four plain flapjacks, (‘That’s your oat flapjack’, I said), three Bakewell flavoured flapjacks, two chocolate coated flapjacks and a cappuccino flavoured flapjack.
‘Just pop it down there’, I said.
‘Aren’t you going to invite me in?’, he asked, ‘What with it being Christmas Eve and all that?’
He lingered in the hall. He smiled. He even leaned on the doorpost in what I suppose was an approximation of nonchalance.
‘Come on then’.
He came in. He looked kind of smaller.
‘Do you want something to eat? I’ve just cracked open a Pot Noodle, I can easily get another one on the go’.
‘Go on, you twisted my arm’.
‘It’s good to see you, Aaron’.
‘Adam’.
‘Adam’.
I looked out the window. It was drizzling. The sun had long since disappeared behind the factory that manufactured novelty farting gnomes. (Is there any other kind of farting gnome than a novelty farting gnome?). Our reflections glared back at us from the darkened glass, me and him, my true love, with his winning smile and blond hair and plain white t-shirt and shorts, and me, and we did look kind of good together, it must be said.
‘What was your advent calendar picture today?’, he asked.
‘It was an advert for some cut-price ceiling tiles’, I replied. ‘I think I might get a different advent calendar next year’.
‘Your flat’, he said, ‘smells of flapjacks’.

Misty

Misty

She was walking up the stone steps of the ruined castle. A low mist was rolling in. Well, there had to be a low mist, didn’t there? Everything else was utterly unique, why not throw some mist into the mix? The steps were steep and she wondered if the people who’d lived and worked there all those centuries ago had ever complained about how steep the steps were, the castle itself built on the side of a vast, rocky granite crag of a hill. She knew there had to be an element of function and fortification, but she wondered why they hadn’t made at least a few concessions. It would be all so different if the place had been built these days.
‘Martin?’
Martin was ahead of her. She couldn’t see him. The mist was starting to make everything damp. She didn’t want to hurry, lest she slip, and that would really be the icing on the cake.
‘Martin?’
A voice came back from ahead.
‘What?’
‘It’s misty’.
‘Hi, Misty!’
‘Funny’.
Her name wasn’t Misty. It was Vanessa. She wasn’t laughing, either.
‘Can you just stop for a moment and let me catch up?’
The steps looked treacherous in the wet. But she’d heard rumours of a tea shack at the top and it didn’t look like it would be very busy today, what with the weather and the mist and the fact that the car park had been almost empty. She had already decided that the tea shack would be the ideal place to decide, at least for herself, if Martin were the man for her. But he’d already gone scampering off into the gloom leaving her at it. The signs weren’t good.
‘Martin? Where are you?’
‘There’s lots of lichen, up here’, came a voice from the swirling fog.
‘Seen any wizards?’
She was alluding to a joke they’d made in the car on the way here. The joke had been about wizards. They’d both laughed.
‘Wizards? Why would I see any wizards?’
‘Remember? What we were saying? In the car?’
‘What’s that?’
‘Honestly, you’ve got a memory like a sieve!’
She stood aside to let a couple of hikers pass who were coming down from the castle. Both of them had two Alpine walking sticks each, as well as boots, waterproof jackets, backpacks. She smiled as they passed and fought the temptation to jokingly tell them that they’d lost their skis. They smiled and nodded, and then disappeared into the gloom. Damn, she thought. She should have asked them about the tea shop.
‘You were saying about wizards, remember? And how they’d had to carry around these wands, you know, tools of the trade, and how phallic the wand actually is when you think about it, when you look an ancient folklore . . ‘.
No response.
‘Phallic. You know, substituting a long wand for the fact that they’ve probably got very small penises. Good morning’.
Another hiker with two Alpine walking sticks passed her, going down. Jeez, that was embarrassing.
‘Martin?’
The bastard’s gone on without me, she thought. And she continued climbing the steep, damp steps, feeling a pull on the back of her thighs.
The mist was getting denser.
This validates everything, she told herself. They weren’t compatible. Sure, it’s good not to spend so much time in each other’s company, but to leave her completely alone on the treacherous steps on the side of a ruined medieval castle, which loomed like a giant tree stump in the mist, showed that he didn’t even consider their relationship to be anything other than two individuals whose paths became occasionally diverged.
At last, she came to the top of the steps and an area where slabs of granite poked out between the tall grass, the world beyond the immediate vicinity a formless void of mist and damp, the castle walls looming.
Martin was nowhere to be seen. And she could see no tea shop.
A hiker with a pair of Alpine walking sticks emerged from the fog and passed her.
‘Misty, isn’t it?’
‘No, it’s Vanessa’.

Spontaneous Human Combustion at the Funhouse

This story was originally published in the Wonderzoo Anthology.

Spontaneous Human Combustion at the Funhouse

I think I’m going to burst into flames. It’s not a feeling I’ve ever had before. It’s not something I’ve ever thought about, except that one time. I was on a train, and the train manager came over the loudspeaker and said, ‘Take care as you alight’. Oh, I thought, I didn’t know that was a possibility. But right now, right at this moment, I think I’m going to burst into flames.

I was reading this story the other day about some man who burst into flames. There he was, just minding his own business, when, woof! A dog came in. And then he burst into flames. Ironically, his name was Ash.

He’d called his next door neighbour for help but his next door neighbour had said, ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’

‘And the rest of me, too!’, Ash had replied.

And after that, he was quite dead indeed.

It’s quite disconcerting knowing that you might go up at any minute. I phoned my ex and I said, ‘I’m worried that I’m about to go up!’

‘First time for everything, he sighed.

So much for rekindling old flames.

The thing about spontaneous human combustion is that I expect it’s the sort of thing you can only do once. I’d spent most of the afternoon in the shower. My friend Beth has always said that I have a warm personality. You don’t know the half of it, I thought of replying. ‘Let’s go to the funfair’, I suggested, ‘and pretend that it’s not about to happen. And by the way, I think I’ve got heart burn’.
‘OK’, Beth said.
‘OK what?’, I asked.
‘OK, let’s go to the funfair’.

I don’t think Beth believed me when I said that I was going to burst into flames. She said it was like one of those stories you read where the lead character is also the narrator, and it’s obvious that whatever troubles they faced they had survived, because it was a first hand account. She then told me that she didn’t entirely believe in spontaneous human combustion, but that her uncle had once seen spontaneous goat combustion, and for the rest of the day he had had a strange hankering for a lamb roast.

But she didn’t believe me, I’m sure of it. On the other hand I’d hate it if my last words were to be, ‘see! I told you!’

A friend of mine is a fireman and I phoned him up and I asked him for some advice.
‘Well’, he said, ‘you can always fight fire with fire’.
‘But that’s no bleeding good!’, I said. ‘In fact, I reckon it would be counter productive.’
‘If you want me to rush round with my big hose’, he said, ‘then you’ve got another thing coming’.
We met at a house warming party. As I say, he’s a fireman.
Ironically, his name is Bern.

Beth and I arrived at the funfair on a glorious evening. The funfair was on the village green next to the pub and the main road. The setting sun had made the sky all red and the neon and fluorescent lights of the fair contrasted and complemented the glory of the clouds. The world seemed lit with promise as if in competition with the mystique and the firmament of space in its eternal and ethereal wonder, lighting the angular facade of Wetherspoons.
‘You haven’t dried your hair after your shower’, Beth said.
‘It’s true, I am somewhat moist, but it’s all on account of the spontaneous human combustion’.
‘Just plan to do it at nine o clock’, she said. ‘Say to yourself, nine o clock is when I’ll go up in flames’.
‘Why?’, I asked.
‘Because then it won’t be very spontaneous, will it?”
‘It doesn’t work like that’, I pointed out.
‘How would you know, if you’ve never done it?’, she replied.
The funfair had all of the usual accoutrements such as stalls and a dodgems and a couple of rides, but in the middle was a circus tent with a barker standing out the front. And by this I don’t mean a dog, but a man dressed as a circus ringmaster. He seemed very excited about the tent behind him, which was decorated in large fluorescent lettering and the word, FUNHOUSE.
Beth and I stood in front of him for a little bit.
‘Roll up!, he said, through his loudspeaker. ‘Roll up! Gaze in wonder at our Funhouse! Never before in human history has more fun been crammed into one small space! See the amazing Bearded Man! Marvel at the badger who thinks he’s on EastEnders! We have relics from the sinking of the titanic, including some of the original ice! We have a horse! And a very large rug which needs putting away! Roll up, ladies and gentlemen, roll up!’
‘This might take my mind off the spontaneous human combustion’, I pointed out, ‘and if it doesn’t, they might at least have fire extinguishers’.
‘Don’t be so blase’, Beth replied.
We went inside. Beth didn’t seem very impressed. The first place we went was the Hall of Mirrors. The skinny mirror made me look thin, the wavy mirror made me look wavy, the fat mirror made me look more or less the same. The ghost train was inoperative and instead there was a rail replacement bus. The tunnel of love was just boring.
Beth seemed to be wavering in her appreciation of the Funhouse, yet I, with my lurking inevitable internal combustion, saw the fortune teller sitting on a pouffe in the corner, puffing away on a crafty fag, and thought, hmm, she might know what my future has in store. As I approached she stubbed out her ciggie in the foil casing of a half consumed Bakewell tart, and I was glad that she didn’t immediately reach for a fire extinguisher. She had an expression on her face like a ferret with gout. Her chin looked like it was about to leave her and go and join a much more successful face.
By way of greeting she said, as is customary, ‘Hello’.
Her voice was gruff, like that if a trawlerman called Pete. She waved her hands at the lingering smoke.
‘Got told off yesterday, didn’t I?’, she said, ‘I was having a gasper. Didn’t realise it was against company rules’.
‘You didn’t see that one coming?’, I asked.
‘I’m a fortune teller, love. For other people. Don’t work on meself, does it? I deal in the mystical workings of the universe, not company health and safety regulations. Now, tell me, love. Have you been to a soothsayer before?’
‘Yes, I have’.
‘And what did they say?”
‘Sooth’, I replied.
She didn’t laugh.
‘Now, listen’, she said. ‘Some bastard has nicked me tarot cards. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to use a pack of HeMan Top Trumps’.
She opened the lack and laid them on the table between us. Skeletor, was the first card, then came Castle Greyskull. The next card was Skeletor again, followed by another Skeletor. Then Groundskeeper Willie.
‘Sorry, love, don’t know how that got in there’.
Then came another Skeletor. She looked up at me.
‘Let me guess’, I said. ‘The Skeletor card isn’t necessarily an omen of death?’
‘Let’s put it this way’, she replied. ‘You’ll be saving on winter heating bills’.
Beth and I went and had another mooch around the Funhouse and we both decided to leave. The petting zoo in the corner only had chickens and I’d never wanted to pet a chicken. There were also a couple of cocks, but that’s a different matter. I had a go on the Test Your Strength machine but I couldn’t even lift the hammer. We were just about to leave when there was a sudden blinding flash of fire and warmth.
‘Oh my god!’, Beth screamed, ‘He’s gone up!’
As luck would have it, it was only a fire eater, which I was glad about because I’d been wearing my best shirt. With great panache he spewed tongues of fire, momentarily lighting up the Funhouse and scaring the chickens. Ever the snowman, he pranced and danced, his flaming torch raised to his lips followed by a blinding flash, a sharded explosion whose warmth and brilliance seared into the night throwing shadows as if making us cavemen once more, solitary beasts in search of warmth, or an inhabitant of Milton Keynes.
I’d seen fire eaters before. On holiday at the coast one year, I’d been mesmerised by Marvello and his mastery of flame. The next year, The Great Splendido was similarly exuberant, scorcher to the stars. And now here at the Funhouse, this, apparently, was Ben.
He was an interesting character. His face was angular and defined, almost cubist, like a tescos carrier bag full of chisels.
Beth and I stood and watched, entranced by Bens mastery of putting fire in his gob, and when he finished we both clapped.
‘Ah, thanks for that’, he said, in a strange high and squeaky voice. ‘Just doing my job’.
‘You were so good at it!’, I said, ‘you were literally on fire!’
‘Thanks, mister!’
‘What I’m really interested in is how you protect your insides from burning up’, I said.
‘To be honest’, he said, ‘you do get a bit of blowback, that’s how I lost my eyebrows. But as for my insides, yes, there have been one or two occasions where my lunch has been reheated. And I once belched at my Aunt’s flat and accidentally roasted her budgie. You know what, though? The best advice I could give is just to relax and not even think about it. So that’s what I do. I just get on and live my life. Oh, and when I’m practising at home, I’m always careful to turn off the smoke alarm’.
The whole time we were chatting I noticed that his bow tie was smouldering.
‘How did you get in to this?’, I asked.
‘Curry’, he replied.
He was quite cute, was Ben. I might even say, hot. I could imagine living with him, and how handy it would be. He’d have a steak and kidney pie cooked in no time. But I knew that it wouldn’t last, the two of us. I’d just had the ceiling of my flat repainted. I licked my fingertips and squeezed his bow tie, putting out the tiny flames with a slight hiss.
‘I’d better go’, he said. ‘And get my indigestion tablets’.
‘Bye’, I whispered.
‘Bye’.
At that moment the fortune teller ran over, and said rather breathlessly, ‘You will fall in love with a mysterious . . .’.
‘You’re too late’, I said.
‘Damn!’
Beth and I went outside. The sun was starting to set and the funfair was coming alive. On one side, the rides and the stalls, the lights, the neon, the music and the noise. On the other, a demonstration of dogs herding up some geese. The world seemed perfectly normal.
‘That’s the best advice’, Beth said. ‘Don’t worry. Don’t panic, don’t prevaricate. Be free to live your life without pondering on something that might not happen. If we let fate dictate our actions, then a fear of the unknown will take over, and we will never be free to enjoy ourselves. Now matter how far fetched our private fears, we mustn’t let them ruin the good times.’. She took hold of my hands. ‘Let’s go home’, she said, ‘It’s starting to get a bit chilly’.
I smiled at her and gave her hand a squeeze.
‘Yes’, I whispered.
And then, all of a sudden, woof!

Chorley Lodge and the 1984 Olympics

The other day I was in a second hand bookshop when I came across a Ladybird book of the 1984 Olympics, and all of a sudden I was transported back to a time when I was ten years old and a long, hot summer seemed to stretch ahead. My mother had bought me a copy of the same book, in which there was space to write in the winners of the various competitions. Now, you know me. I’m not exactly in to sports, and the idea of sitting there and watching the whole thing was not exciting, but I loved the idea of filling in these pages. But then with dread I realised that I would be away at Cub Camp for the first week of the Olympics and I would miss all the action. The joy of filling in all the blank pages would be denied and the book would never be complete.
I was not looking forward to Cub Camp. It would be the first time in my life that I would be away from home without my parents and I was sure that I’d be missing out on something, or that my family would be having loads of fun without me. Sure, I’d be with my friends, but I didn’t really know most of them, not really. They were just kids, and I tolerated them at the best of times. Indeed, being the 1980s, we all had the same bowl cut hairstyles and probably looked indistinguishable to the outside observer. But I much preferred being at home.
Now I say ‘Cub camp’, but we would actually be staying at a place called Chorley Lodge, which was a converted outbuilding on a former RAF World War Two airfield, on the edge of the New Forest in Hampshire. I hadn’t thought about this place for years, but the other night I watched a documentary about the natural history of the New Forest and I got to thinking about Chorley Lodge. I did a quick Google search and there it was, in all its glory. A plain concrete hut painted green with basic 1940s functional windows and probably enough asbestos to wipe out half the planet.
I remember hating it from the moment I arrived. We were looked after by a scout leader from a different troop to our own, who had this very weird idea that we should all go for a jog every morning before breakfast, but do so without our shirts, which in retrospect seems borderline dodgy. So we’d wake at sunrise from our austere bunks inside this palace of concrete blocks, and run through the adjacent pine trees which bordered what had once been the airfield, home to a hearty breakfast of puke inducing porridge.
The rest of the day would then be spent doing all sorts of wholesome blokey things. We would be split into groups of about four and assigned to some expert in their field who would do their best to teach us survival techniques or handy blokey pursuits. Orienteering was one of these, how to read a compass, how to pack a backpack, how to light a bonfire. But it always seemed that some other group would be doing an activity which was much more exciting. For example, a friend of mine had a brilliant young instructor who ran a half day practical workshop in building rockets, because apparently this is something that comes in handy if you’re ever caught in the wild. While my group had a half day workshop in Morse code. We’d be sat in a clearing dot dot dot and dash dash dashing while I could hear my friends out on the former runway launching rockets and whooping with excitement. ‘Robert, you really must concentrate. Now, what was the message I just sent you?’. Whoosh! Whoosh! Ha ha ha! ‘Erm . . Elephant knickerbocker dustbin Aunt?’ Whoosh! Kapowwww!
I think the whole week instilled in me several things which have lasted till this day. First, my hatred of communal sleeping arrangements probably stems from all thirty of us in one dorm and not feeling able to be myself. Secondly, my absolute revulsion at porridge. But thirdly, my love of forests, airfields and old buildings, even this weird cranky old concrete shack, which apparently has now been demolished, probably due to all that asbestos.
On the last day we all made wooden blocks with the name of the lodge and the date, and mine has been on the wall of my bedroom at my parents house for the last forty years. So that week at Chorley Lodge has remained in my memory, along with nighttime camp fire sing songs, outdoor eating and the vaguely kinky excitement of running semi naked through a forest.
But I never did get to complete that Ladybird Olympics 1984 book.

Music of the moment

‘Weren’t you here before?’, the waitress asks.
‘A while ago’.
He’s conscious that his English accent makes him stick out. Outside the diner windows, tall firs capture the early evening darkness, while trucks thunder past on the old highway. Bright neon reflects on the wet tarmac.
‘There’s really nothing special about me’, he insists, as he sits at a table near the plate glass window. He picks up the laminated menu. ‘It must have been over ten years ago. . .’.
Probably longer.
‘But I sure as hell remember you’, she says.
And he feels a strange connection inside. Sadness mixed with nostalgia. A hint of shame. Some jubilation.
‘I was a different man back then’.
‘You were on some tour, right? You and your . . Your uncle, right? Driving around the country. And you’d just come down from Canada’.
‘Yes’.
‘Oh, I sure remember you!’
So much had changed in the previous ten years. He looks around at the other customers in the diner. Truck drivers, a family in one corner, some lone drivers, a young couple. The rain intensifies and it starts to roll down the plate glass window.
‘You were young’, she says. ‘Mind you, so was I. The world was a different place back then, wasn’t it? Weren’t you drunk?’
‘I probably was’.
‘And we’d never had a Brit in here. Do you remember? We danced . . .’.
Oh, no.
‘Oh, I remember you, honey’.
She stands next to him and taps her long, painted nails on his shoulder.
‘You swept me off my feet. We glided across this very floor, the music was just the same but it was the music of the moment. You treated me like a proper lady for the first time in years. The bums at the counter, oh sure, they were laughing like hyenas. I said to the guys, this here is a real gentleman . Remember that? This here is a real gentleman ‘.
‘As I say, I was . . Different back then’.
‘Oh, I can’t forget someone like you. I really can’t, sugar. So, what brings you back? What brings you back here, to this crummy diner in the middle of nowhere?’
He wants to tell her that he’s retracing his steps, finding himself, doing something in memory of his late uncle, doing something in memory of his self, but it all sounds so trite.
‘I just felt like something to eat’, he lies.
And everywhere he’d been so far, nobody had remembered him at all. And it looked so different, everything looked like it had changed. It was quite dispiriting. Nobody had remembered him.
‘You staying here? For the night? In our little town? There’s a motel next door. Yes sir, you really did treat me like a proper lady’.
He and his uncle had adjoining rooms, and whisky. It was probably one of the very first times he’d even had whisky.
‘I don’t think it was me’, he says.
He gets up from his table by the window.
‘Oh, hon. I always remember a face’.
‘It wasn’t me’, he says.
And he walks away, back to the car, runs across the parking lot in the rain, through the puddles and the neon.

A lockdown Skype conversation (from March 2020)

March seems such a long time ago and the world has already changed so much. Glad that the rush on toilet rolls has calmed down.

A and B are speaking to each other over Skype.

A
So he says, he says, he can’t understand why there are so many cars parked outside people’s houses when they’re all meant to be at home. So I say, well, people are at home, aren’t they? That’s where there’s all these cars parked outside. But he still doesn’t get it. They’ve got to be visiting people, haven’t they?, he says, I’ve never seen so many cars parked in the road. So I says, where else are these cars gonna go? They belong to the people in the houses and usually they’re at work and stuff, and he says, yeah, but they all had to go out and get the cars from somewhere.

B
What a nob.

A
And he’s still going on about it. Cars, he keeps saying, look at them all parked out there! He’s standing at the window. And all these people are meant to be at home. And I lost it, I said to him, we’ve just been through this!

B
Heh-heh.

A
And then he’s in the supermarket, right? This is before it all kicked off, he’s in the supermarket and he phones me and he says, all the bread’s gone! The vultures have bought up all the bread and now there’s none! And I need bread! I’m desperate for it! And I says to him, I says, go to the bakery, I was in there just now and they had loads, and he says, what? The bakery? I’m not paying their prices!

B
Your brother is such an idiot.

A
So what have you been up to?

B
Not a lot. I went to the bins, earlier. And then I thought afterwards, oh, does that count as my one exercise for the day?

A
Ha ha.

B
Am I not allowed out now for a walk because I’ve gone to the bins? Mind you, it was further than I went yesterday.

A
I tell you what I don’t get.

B
This isn’t that thing again is it? The helicopter thing? I told you that was fake news.

A
Debs sent it to me.

B
Oh so it must be true! Helicopters coming over at night to disinfect everything. Don’t leave your windows open. Never heard such nonsense! What about all the wildlife? And farm animals, and crops, and every other living thing on the planet?

A
All right, all right, so it wasn’t true.

B
And where are we suddenly going to get all these helicopters from? And how are they going to carry all that disinfectant? And why would the government announce it over Instagram?

A
Yeah, yeah.

B
How many people did you send it to?

A
Everyone. Anyway, I tell you what I don’t get.

B
Hang on a minute.

A
What?

B
Bogey.

A
What?

B
You’ve got a bogey.

A wipes his nose several times on his sleeve.

B

So what don’t you get?

A
I tell you.

B
Go on.

A
They say you’re not meant to touch hands, right? And someone suggested doing that elbow bump thing. Well that’s ok, isn’t it. But aren’t these the same elbows that we’re meant to be closing toilet doors with? Aren’t these the same elbows that we’re meant to be sneezing into? Can’t be hygienic, can it?

B
You’ve got a point.

A
It’s true though, isn’t it?

B
You think we’re all spreading elbow germs, now?

A
We’ll survive the flu and we’ll all die to some new elbow disease.

B
There’ll be some government advice, we will all have to wash our elbows. Boil our elbows. And it will be just like a night club, the hottest joint in town.

A
What’s that? I don’t get it.

B
Never mind. Hey, do you know Justin?

A
Justin who?

B
Berwell. Justin Berwell. Actually you might not know him because we went to different schools. Berwell. Emigrated to Australia, they got the same rules over there about staying at home as we have. Anyway, he’s got this company selling these miracle diet pills. It’s all a scam. These shoddy airbrushed before and after pictures. He’s flogging these dodgy diet pills. And he has the cheek to change his profile picture to the words I deserve respect, I’m a health worker!

A
I suppose he is, in a way.

B
Diet pills, though?

A
It’s healthy.

B
It can’t be, I’ve seen the adverts.

A
Makes people feel good about themselves, though.

B
It can’t be good if he’s involved. I remember him at school. He was so obnoxious. The geography teacher once asked us if we knew where the Great Plains were and he said the airport.

A
Admittedly, that’s quite funny.

B
Diet pills, though. It’s not the sort of thing you hear about, though, is it? On a train or something, the conductor comes over the intercom and says, ladies and gentlemen, this is an emergency, is there a miracle weight loss pill salesman on board?

A
Is this a bit?

B
A what?

A
A bit for one or your shows?

B
No, it’s real.

A
Haven’t they all been cancelled?

B
Most of them.

A
Even the fringe?

B
I don’t know, yet. Mind you, if gatherings of more than two people are banned, then at least my fringe show can still go ahead.

Silence for a bit.

A
I don’t get it.

B
Things have, er, they’ve kind of . .

A
Yeah.

B
It’s all about . . Carrying on, isn’t if? Because otherwise . .

A
The way I see it, as long as we keep this up.

Silence for a short white.

B
Listen, I’m going to need some hair clippers.

A
What for?

B
For making a meringue. For my hair! What else?

A
You gonna shave it all off?

B
No! I’m just going to trim it a bit.

A
Cut your own hair?

B
I watched a YouTube video showing how it’s done, I’ll be fine.

A
Funny you should say that. I was in the hairdressers the other day.

B
You’re bald!

A
I was waiting for my brother! Anyway, this yoot comes in, big hair, huge chin. I mean it. Never seen such a big chin. I thought, now there’s someone who could do with a chin-ectomy. Anyway, the yoot comes in.

B
Get to the point.

A
Says to the hairdresser, here, can you cut my hair so that it’s curly? And she says, I can’t do that! It’s impossible! And he said no, I saw this YouTube video showing how you can cut someone’s hair and it ends up curly, so can you do it with mine.

B
Heh heh.

A
And he wasn’t having it, he kept arguing about this video, and the hairdresser was saying that it can’t be done, and then my brother had a hair cut, she did a good job.

B
Well that just kind of fizzled out there, didn’t it?

A
Massive chin.

B
So what are you up to today?

A sneezes violently into the webcam camera and the screen becomes obscured with mucus leaving just a vague outline.

B
Oh for heaven’s sake!

A tries to wipe the camera to no avail and just makes it worse.

B
Try to use some kitchen towel.

A
I haven’t got any!

B
You haven’t got any kitchen towel?

A
I used it all as toilet paper!

B
Didn’t that . . Chafe a bit?

A
Like hell!

B
For goodness sake, what are you using?

A
Pants!

B
Pants?

A
Boxers.

B
Gross!

A
Boxer briefs, to be precise.

B
Yewww!

A
It’s not like you’re actually here.

B
Why have you got boxer briefs just lying round in your living room?

A
It’s hot in here, I just took them off.

B
I’m logging off, now.

A
Log off! Log off!

B logs off. The screen goes blank.

B whispers wistfully
Bye.

The Approach

The approach

I could feel the engines throbbing through the joystick, the plane itself skimming the tops of the clouds throwing down a shadow of our outline, the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus hiding within their fluffy exterior hail, thunderstorms, bad weather. It’s a position I’ve been in more times than I can remember, the pulsating turbofans of my craft a comfort, the juddering engines, the pulsating jets, the oscillating power units, all of them at my control.
Bing bong.
I speak into the cabin intercom using that practised drawl.
‘Aaaaaaaaand ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking, Captain O. Captain. Yes, I know my surname is Captain, you could say I was destined for this job. We’re about seventy miles from Westbury International. If you look out the port side windows, you’ll see a lovely view of the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus. So we should begin our descent any time soon. Until then, please feel free to be lulled by the pulsating, oscillating, throbbing, juddering of the engines as they soothe us through the sky . . . You know . . . I might even sing to you’.
‘Don’t’, the First Officer suggested.
‘Cabin crew, prepare for . . .’.
‘Landing?’
‘Yes . . Yes . . .’.
Instinctively, I reached out a hand and stroked the topside of the cockpit controls.
‘Bring us home safely, old girl . .’, I whispered.
‘Captain O. Captain’, the First Officer, Ben, said. ‘You really are somewhat eccentric ‘.
I could feel the engines quaking and gibbering through the controls.
‘Ben . . .if that is your name . . . Flying is instinctive. It’s a relationship between not only the captain and their machine, but also solid metal and the laws of physics. It’s like an affirmation of . . I say, are you okay?’
The sweat was rolling down Ben’s face. His upper lip was glistening. He stared straight ahead as if not even noticing the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus,
‘You see . . . The quivering engines . . .’.
All of a sudden Ben yelled, ‘Can’t you see it? Don’t you understand? You’re my father!’
I was silent for a couple of seconds.
‘But . . .’.
‘Don’t try to deny it. You know it’s true. I’ve been waiting years for us to be scheduled on the same flight, just so I could tell you this!’
‘But Brad, we have our pre-landing checklist . . ‘.
‘It’s Ben. Sod the pre-landing checklist! I rose up through the ranks just for this one day, and then the moment . . . The moment I’m with you . . I . . .’. Ben let out a sign, his head silhouetted against the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus clouds. ‘I realise that I can never come between the love you have for aircraft’.
I could feel the vibrations and the trundling of the engines through the controls.
‘So your mother must be Sophie’, I whisper, ‘that winsome mechanic whose coquettish charms lit up the engineering hangar all those years ago, resulting in our tryst in the starboard fan cowling assembly . . .’.
‘That was twenty four years ago’.
‘Jeez, they’re letting you fly planes at twenty three years old, now?!’
‘Captain O. Captain. I mean . . Dad’.
The sun shines brightly on the folds and hollows of the piled cumulonimbus.
‘No time to talk, we’ve got to concentrate. Let’s get this baby on the ground ‘.
‘That’s what she said’.
‘Brad!’
‘Ben’.
We began our descent. The white fluffy clouds of the cumulonimbus gave way to a deep grey and the cockpit window was spotted with rain. A slight turbulence flexed our wings as the engines grinded and rattled through the controls. After a while we were out of the base of the clouds and the runway lights were in view.
‘Every landing’, I whisper, as we levelled and lined up, ‘is a controlled calamity’.
And the runway itself seemed to beckon us in. In much the same way that Sophie had beckoned me up into the starboard fan cowling assembly to show me an interesting leak. And then before we know it we’re down on the ground, wheels touching the runway, reverse thrust applied throwing us ever so gently into our harnesses.
‘You really only ever get one shot at this’, I tell him.
We taxi to the terminal building.
‘You really do . . ‘, I continue, my mind wandering.

Thoughts from a Cambridge hotel

Cambridge.

I was sitting in the hotel reception area this morning waiting for the man behind the desk to stop pretending to be busy. I knew that he was pretending to be busy because he was tapping away on a computer keyboard and huffing. And this is exactly what I do whenever I don’t want to be interrupted, or if I’m on a train and I don’t want anyone to sit next to me. He had very prominent eyebrows, in fact you might even call them purposeful. The left one looked like it knew what it was doing, the right one looked like it was doing its own thing, but the cumulative effect was that they were making a statement. His eyebrows were saying, we go to places you can never imagine.

From where I was sitting I had a good view into the adjacent breakfast room. It was a buffet style breakfast and I could see other guests loading their plates and bowls and filling cups from a coffee machine. They’d tried to sell me a breakfast when I’d booked in, even though the room had already been paid for. They were quite insistent that I bought a breakfast but at nine pounds I thought it somewhat exorbitant.

My parents always used to stay in places where you had a buffet breakfast. My dad would always eat too much but he would be too embarrassed to be seen getting so much food, so he used to get my mother to pile extra food on her plate, too.

A very middle class looking white couple come in with their son. They’re all smiley and looking well to do, all pastel clothing and beige chinos, while their son is an emo goth, looking very sullen, with his trendy long hair and glum expression. He lurks behind them, scowling, fed up with the world and he injustice of it all. Or maybe he was still seething over the price of the buffet breakfast. And I think, what have you possibly got to be miserable about? Your parents look nice and they’re wearing nice clothes. And the sun is shining. And you’re young and you’ve got the whole of the rest of your life in front of you. He stands behind them at the self service buffet, then gets to the front, fills up a bowl of cornflakes, goes to put milk on, and the canister has run out. And I thought, there, that’s given you something to be miserable about.

So I go to the desk to book out once Eyebrows has looked up from his keyboard and let out a sigh.
‘Room 111. It’s all paid for, I believe’.
‘Yes, it was prepaid’.
He takes my room card.
‘You haven’t paid for your breakfast’, he says.
‘But I haven’t had a breakfast’.
‘Yes, but you haven’t paid for it’.
‘I didn’t want a breakfast’.
‘My colleague has put you down for a breakfast’.
‘I said I would think about having a breakfast. And now I’ve thought about it, and I don’t want one’.
‘But you haven’t paid for if’.
‘Just as well, then’.
‘So you need to pay for the breakfast’.
‘But I haven’t had one, and I’m not having one’.
‘Anyway, you need to pay for it’.
‘Why should I pay for it when I didn’t ask for it and I didn’t want it?’
‘Because my colleague says that you wanted one’.
‘But I didn’t want one then, and I don’t want one now’.
‘So how are you going to pay for it?’
‘I’m not going to.’
He lets out a huff and slams the printed receipt on the desk.
‘Good bye’, he says.
I take the receipt and I leave. And as he door closes behind me I do begin to feel a little bit peckish.

Gravity of the situation

Thunder roar and dancing flames,
Gravity regained.
Cosmonaut Major Pavel,
Youthful hero of the
Red age
Braces in his helmet
For the crush of atmosphere . . .

Another frosty morning on the Steppes. The flat landscape is a faded sepia nothing. Her cottage is nowhere near a main road, little more than a wooden shack surrounded by a wooden fence which demarcated her territory from the endless nothing. A few flowers in pots had not yet had the chance to bloom, though they had shown green roots and signs of growth. She hung out the washing. Her breath turned to vapour, but she was used to the cold. Her scarf, her shawl, her dress, bright primary colours against the dull landscape, the dark wood panelling, the peeling paint, the overcast sky.
She hears a whistling sound. She pauses for a while, her lips clamped on clothes pegs as she hangs a pair of flowery bloomers. The whistling spins gets loud, pronounced, sustained, and she looks up just in time to see a parachute open, and suspended beneath it a Soyuz re-entry capsule. The whistling stops, and the capsule, grey and defined against the overcast sky, swings back and forth, then lands with a heavy thud in the field next to her cottage.
‘Not again’, she whispers.
She finishes hanging up her bloomers, spits out the remaining pegs into her laundry basket, then ambles over to the gate, just in time to see the hatch of the capsule open.
‘Another couple of metres and you’d have crushed my bluebells!’, she yells.
Major Pavel squeezes himself out of the capsule. Like toothpaste from a tube.
‘Olga?’, he says.
‘Pavel!’
The gravity is too much. He’s been on the International Space Station for almost a year. He kind of slumps down on to the side of the capsule.
‘How are the kids?’, he asks, as he takes off his helmet.
‘Fine, no thanks to you’.
‘I had to make sacrifices. For the good of the space programme, and for Mother Russia’.
‘Don’t give me none of that’.
‘How I’ve longed for your supple arms, capturing me, plucking my Sputnik from the sky, my sexy Soyuz so charred and beaten . . .’.
‘You just left me one morning. Gone . . ‘.
He seems dazed. He looks over at her cottage.
‘What . . . What are the chances?!’
Her dainty touch, skin so soft as new year snow.
‘Hugging my metal machine to your chest . . . You dainty flower . . ‘.
‘Don’t you go on about dainty flowers. Another five feet and you’d have crushed my dainty flowers with your fancy spacecraft. Bluebells are just coming up . . .’.
‘Did you miss me?’
‘I’m certainly glad you missed me!’
‘But did you . . Miss me?’
Her features relax, somewhat.
‘Yes’, she whispers.
‘They’ll be here soon’, he says. ‘To pick me up. Begin the debrief. Add my knowledge to the needs of the Motherland ‘. He looks at her and smiles.
‘They might not be’.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Social distancing’.
‘Olga!’
He takes a step forwards. She takes a step back.
‘Two metres!’, she says.
They stare at each other across her bluebells.
The night before he’d seen lightning over the Brazilian rainforest. He’d never felt further from home.
‘The sky’, she whispers, ‘is the same as it’s always been. But we’re all cosmonauts, now’.