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’.

A lockdown Skype conversation

(This was written right at the very start of the lockdown, so in some senses it’s an interesting historical document. It’s an imagined conversation over Skype. Because back in the old days of march 2020 I didn’t know about the existence of Zoom.)

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 Curse of the Green Pouffe

The Curse of the Green Pouffe

Strung from lamp post to lamp post, the multicoloured fairy lights wiggled, jiggled and jumped in the wind. An angry sea scratched at the pebble beach. Flecks of sand stung cold raw cheeks. It was dusk.
The world seemed obsolete, nullified by the obviousness of the season. Decay, frost-shredded painted gaiety and cartoon characters diminished by the elements, painted on shuttered ice cream shacks.
‘It’s heaving down here in the summer’, I tell him.
‘How far is it to your flat?’
‘Just a road away. I thought we’d make a detour, so you could see, the, erm . . .’.
We walk huddled hands in coat pockets.
‘You look like your profile picture’.
‘So do you’.
I like the way that the wind ruffles his hair. His cheekbones are much more pronounced than I thought they would be.
‘Wild’, I whisper, meaning the weather.
‘Sorry?’
And he’s slightly taller than me.
There are lights on the horizon out at sea, ships sheltering in the bay, and they twinkle and pulse just like stars, and if it weren’t so cold then maybe I could create my own constellations.
‘I’m cold’, he points out.
And the multicoloured fairy lights throw down a glow which gives us several overlapping shadows, our two forms merged and combined like a pack of cards being shuffled. The iron legs of the old pier stride in to the angry sea like a Victorian lady holding up her petticoats,
‘Really cold’, he says.
‘When we get to my flat’, I tell him, ‘you’ll be warm enough’.

‘What’s that?’, he said, pointing at the pouffe.
‘It’s a pouffe’, I replied.
He walks around the living room, warily, looking at it from several angles.
‘What does it do?’
‘You put your legs on it when you’re sitting on the sofa’.
‘It’s green’.
‘Yes’.
‘Yewwww . . .’.
‘Shall we just sit down and, er, warm up and . .’.
‘With that thing, there?’
I sit down. He lingers for a bit, and then he sits down, too. We look at each other and we smile.
‘I really liked your profile’, I tell him. ‘We’ve got a lot in common, haven’t we? It was great to chat online, but I’m so glad we’ve met’.
‘Seriously’, he says, ‘it’s called a pouffe?’
‘Yes . .’.
He looks at it for several seconds.
‘I can put it out on the landing if you like, if you’ve got a . . . Phobia’.
‘It’s still been in here, though’.
‘Put it out if your mind’.
He smiles.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to’.
And then neither of us says anything for a while. I can hear the clock ticking on the mantelpiece.
‘A green pouffe . . .’.
‘Yes’.
He sighs, leans back in his chair.
‘I was in the jungle’, he whispers. ‘They said I was green. Green meant new, apparently. But I was more likely green because I just felt so unwell. The food, you see . . . And everything in the jungle was green, too. Have you ever really looked at the colour green? There are so many varieties. Green leaves, moss, bark, more leaves, green everywhere. And I felt so bad, I really did feel ill.’
‘That’s a shame. Let’s snuggle . . .’.
‘They reckon I had some sort of disease, brought about by flies. Mosquitoes, probably. They do things to the mind, and affect the way that we see the world. You can never tell how it’s going to go. But with me, it was the effect of everything. The greenery. The predominance of the colour green, just kind of crowded in on me. Made me lose my senses, in a way’.
‘Jeez. So, let’s fool around a bit, you and me. .’
‘And the greenery, it did things to me. I became obsessed. We were there to film a documentary, you see. About slugs, and I was the only newbie there, the only green member of the team. And as I say, I was throwing up the whole time . . ‘.
‘You never mentioned the throwing up.’
I try to put my arm around his shoulders, but he stands up and looks out the window.
‘Sure! A never ending spume of it. I was having visions, it was like some kind of hideous trance that the jungle had put my under. So they flew me home. And the film company, they paid to send me out and recuperate in the countryside. But the countryside, oh, have you ever been to the countryside?’
‘Every now and then. Say, aren’t you hot wearing that big jumper? And those . . Jeans?’
‘There was greenery everywhere. Greenery and scenery. And the scenery was mostly green. There were fields and trees and the fields and trees were green. Especially the evergreens. The greenest evergreens I had ever seen. And there was moss and dappled sun and rhododendrons. And there were villages and villages greens. And the village greens were green. And everyone out there eats their greens. And also some of the tractors were green.’
‘Fascinating. Say, has anyone ever said what nice lips you have? Very kissable . .’.
‘So then I came back to the city . .’.
(‘Here we go . .’).
‘ . . And there was lots of green here, too. The Starbucks logo is mostly green. And so is the fungus in the bus station. And my friend Pete’s car is green. And so is the tie I was wearing yesterday. And the traffic lights are occasionally green. Red, mostly, and amber, and red and amber, but occasionally green. And salt and vinegar crisp packets. Again, green. And the District Line is green. And it passes through Turnham Green. And even though the neon signs are multicoloured, you could probably turn ’em green. Green. Everything is green.’
‘Yes, it is somewhat ubiquitous’.
‘And it does things to me. All this green. It really does affect me very badly. I can’t stand it. I get flashbacks. Green flashbacks. You’ve got to understand’.
I laid my hand on his leg and made a mental note not to include broccoli with dinner.
‘I’ll move the pouffe’, I whisper. ‘Take it away from here, if that makes you feel any better. And then I’ll start on the dinner’.
He smiles.
‘Thank you ‘, he replies. ‘I’m sorry. But it really is giving me the willies’.
I get up and I move the pouffe outside where he can’t see if, and then I come and rejoin him on the sofa.
‘Oh my god’, he says. ‘Is that footstool over there beige? Oh no! I was in the desert, you see, surrounded by miles and miles of beige sand, when I started to feel very ill . . .’.
I let out a deep sigh, lean back on the sofa, and I start peeling an orange.

Spontaneous Human Combustion at the Funhouse

Spontaneous Human Combustion at the Funhouse

https://youtu.be/30LUNd6ihDQ

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 similar 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 thinks 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!

I’ve gone back to writing short stories! (But I’m still doing comedy performance poetry).

All I ever wanted to be when I was younger was a writer. This is really the only ambition I’ve ever had. My mother had a small bookcase with sliding glass doors and because of this, I’d always seen books as special, and as soon as I could walk, I wanted to be around books and write them, too.

I’d write at first school, filling up pages of scrap paper with words during the lunch hours and break times in which it was raining. I’ve always loved racing days because of this, knowing that I would be able to write instead of run around a playground.

I continued writing short stories all through my teenage years. My initial style was comedy and silliness inspired by my love of stand up and comedy films when I was younger. However, around 1993, something horrific happened. The horrific thing that happened was that I discovered Frank Kafka.

This opened up a whole new world to me, and I now wanted to be an existentialist, a writer of worth and note. Proust, Camus, Borges became my heroes, and I would watch the Booker Prize the same way that my friends watched the FA Cup Final. The result of this was that my writing became ever so serious and worthy and deep and, frankly, unreadable.

This lasted up to around the year 2000 when I started writing comedy short stories again. I rediscovered the art of silliness and whimsy and the joy of going to a writers circle and making people laugh. I won a few competitions, too. Nothing major, but enough to make me feel that this was something I could actually do.

In 2008 I discovered performance poetry, and then spent the majority of the next ten years writing performance poems and performing them, and amazingly, making some sort of career out of doing so. I finally got published and even ended up on the TV and this is still a surprise to me even now. You all know what I do. I make spoken word comedy shows and I take them around the UK and I’m having a whale of a time.

But . .

I’ve just taken a month and a bit off from performing. It’s the longest break I’ve had in ages. During this time, with no gigs to rehearse for or deadlines, I’ve been rediscovering the joys of short stories. And it’s all come back to me! The joy of creating situations and characters, the art of narrative, and even the joy of sitting at a desk and writing, (as most of my poems are created while standing at a music stand). Indeed, is quite forgotten how much like going into a trance it is to write short stories, to become absolutely enveloped in the story and the scenario, at one with the characters and their personalities.

So this is my big declaration. I’ve gone back to short stories! Ok, I haven’t left spoken word and I’m still creating new poems and material, but it’s a reminder that there’s something else that I can do.

The biggest thrill has come with how easy it is now to submit work to magazines. Indeed, this is something that I never used to do at all. And I am very pleased to announce, too, that I’ve already had two stories accepted for publication.

Spoken word and comedy performance poetry will continue to be my full time focus, naturally, but it feels like I’ve become more in touch with myself through writing comedy short stories, and more in touch with the dreams of the version of myself who would look out the window and see the rain and think, wow, I’m going to do some writing today!

Here’s one of my stories, on Ink, Sweat and Tears:

http://www.inksweatandtears.co.uk/pages/?p=20781

Plans for my Funeral

Plans for my funeral

I, Theodore Auberon Fricker-Fricker-Smith, being of sound mind and body, and willing to engage in matters pertaining to my future demise, and fearful not at all of the implications of such speculation, hereby, gladly and with enormous pride, give details of my funeral plans.

No-one shall wear black.

Black is the colour of mourning and it should not be worn at my funeral. I would prefer to keep in with the recent decoration of the family chapel, that those present should respect my wishes in wearing pastels, preferably lilac or lavender. Or Paisley. One has to make an effort in such circumstances not to fall into pathetic stereotypes and the stereotype of the grieving relative bedecked in black is perhaps one of the more tiresome for everyone else attending. Not everyone will be sad. Make an effort for the happy people. Pastels it shall be!

My coffin shall be carried to the church by six circus clowns, followed by two more, playing the flugel. At the same time they must be dancing, so that the coffin swirls and rotates around the church floor in a crazy rhythm as if almost celebrating the fact that I have snuffed it.
Preferably, the clowns must also be tap-dancing, though I am not too fussed about this. Oh, and they should be wearing pastels.

Sixteen massed zither players, flown in direct from the mountains round Salzburg, should serenade the guests as they file into the church. It possible, find a theremin and allow it to jam with the zither players for a while. The fusion of the two sounds, I am told, can be haunting and thought-provoking at the best of times and should fill the guests with a sense of peace, harmony and the innate goodness of man.

The vicar shall wear a Man United shirt. I have never been a fan of football, but, after having read the papers and scoured the news, I have noted that the average man worships football above all other, and Man United above all teams. Always one to go with the majority, I shall have my vicar wearing a Man U shirt. Surely, all those people can’t be wrong?

By the time the guest have arrived and the dwarfs have finished swirling and tap-dancing to the front of the chapel with my coffin, there shall be a sudden roar of music from speakers hidden in various locations around the room. Memflak’s Fifth Oompah in C Major (Rhapsody on a Theme of Tortoises) shall be fused with the latest release from the Faded Satans, ‘Granny’s Got Me In A Headlock’) – and shall be played as loud as the speakers permit. It would help if the vicar started break-dancing, in order to add to the solemnity of the occasion.

As the ceremony begins, I want a thousand coloured balloons to fall from the ceiling, each one inscribed with a word. The congregation should ignore the ceremony and, from these balloons, create a poem of deep meaningfulness and significance, which should then be proclaimed as my last final work. The balloons that are left over should be popped for no other reason than the fact that it will make such a satisfying noise.

At the commencement of the first hymn, the pipes of the organ shall be filled with jelly. Green, preferably.

There shall be no crying. Laughter shall emanate from all corners of the chapel. If there is not sufficient laughter to earn a rebuke from the nearby old folk’s home, then the zither players and the circus clowns should challenge each other to an impromptu game of It and the theremin player should be the judge. If this doesn’t work, then the vicar must be prepared to do host a spur of the moment tombola.
While this is happening, a small boy should be employed to crawi under the pews and tie together everyone’s shoelaces. And then, on the count of three, the vicar must announce that the person sitting on seat number 15c shall win a prize in the meat raffle, to which everyone will stand up and then fall over, therefore leading to the general sense of hilarity. If possibly under the circumstances, a fight should then break out.

I Theodore Auberon Fricker-Fricker-Smith, being of sound mind and body, cannot wait for this funeral and I shall therefore be attending myself, in person, before the event of my death. In fact, so tempting does this proposition sound, that the funeral shall be held next Wednesday, and I have already ordered the coffin. Bring your own beer.

Signed
Theodore Auberon Fricker-Fricker-Smith

Oh, and PS. I leave my stamp collection to the alligator.

Have you ever read the smallprint on a shampoo bottle?

PLAXHORN HAIR CARE SHAMPOO FORMULA XL5 PLUS CONDITIONER

At Plaxhorn we care for your hair!

FOR FINE OR GREASY HAIR

When you use Plaxhorn Hair Care Shanpoo Formula XL5 Plus Conditioner for the first time you will be transported to the deepest forest, to a clear pool by a bubbling stream, where the air is pure and the sunlight full of enriching vitamins , Plaxhorn Hair Care Shampoo Formula XL5 Plus Conditioner has been formulated especially with Jojoba Oil and extracts of wheat germ to leave your hair feeling luxurious. Blends of natural oils cleanse all hair types and remoisturise dry or damaged roots to add a beautiful shine that can stay up to five days after washing.

I doubt if you are reading this, and even if you are I expect no-one cares.

I am being held prisoner in a shampoo factory. This is my only means of communication with the outside world and even now I am petrified that someone is going to find out. Please, somebody out there, answer my message: rescue me from this man-made hell which smells so sweetly of sunflower extract.

The individual needs of every consumer can be met by Plaxhorn Hair Care Shampoo Formula XL5 Plus Conditioner. All of us here at Plaxhorn are proud of our reputation for innovation in the field of shampoo research, and we are so confident that you will be satisfied with our product that we do not even need to offer a money-back guarantee.

They lock me in the electricity cupboard during the day so that I can’t escape and the humming throbbing circuit boards vibrate so loudly that no-one can hear my pleas.

It’s my sister’s fault, Felicity, it’s her who’s behind this. She hates me because I’m her dirty little secret. What can I do, really, though, what can I do? I’m a nobody and she is a shampoo baron, the boss of the Plaxhorn Shampoo Cor corporation . Please rescue me from this herbal essence-soaked purgatory.

DIRECTIONS FOR OPTIMUM USAGE: Wet hair vith shower facility or cup. Apply Plaxhorn Hair Care Shampoo Formula XL5 Plus Conditioner. Gently massage into wet hair and scalp with fingertips,, lather and rinse. You may rinse twice if necessary and feel free to repeat the process. Plaxhorn Hair Care Shampoo Formula XL5 Plus Conditioner is a frequent use shampoo so you may use it as many times as you see fit.

I’m her dirty little secret and I know I’ve said that before, but that’s how I feel. You see, Daddy was going to leave the company to me. When I was a kid he would hold me up so that I could see the big vats of anti-dandruff mixtures and he would say, ‘One day, son, all of this is going to be yours. However, please avoid contact with eyes, as painful stinging may occur. If this occurs, please rinse in tepid water. Contact with ears may result in an inflammation of the inner ear and a consultation with a Doctor may be necessary. Plaxhorn hair Care Shampoo Formula XL5 Plus Conditioner has also shown to be poisonous, so refrain from swallowing. If swallowed, please feel free to call an ambulance.

Biut then I committed the worst crime that a member of this family could have suffered: I went bald. And father, on his death-bed, said How can we promote the positive aspects of our fine range of toiletries and hair care products when even the managing director is as bald as a coot? How can we assure the general public that Plaxhorn Hair Care Shampoo Formula XL5 Plus Conditioner leads to vitality and bounce when the managing director’s head reflects the fluorescent lights of the ceiling above? So Felicity was given the company instead and I was made a bottle capping machine operative.

Remember, Plaxhorn is the last line of defence against scabby-llooking hair!

Except then I kicked up such a stink that she locked me in the electricity cupboard. Some nights I dream of strangling Felicity until her face turns blue and then I assume control of the company in a blaze of publicity, with the newspapers screaming ‘Baldie wins control of shampoo company!” The ultimate in political correctness! But the long hours trapped next to the electricity metre, which spins in a slow silence, and the fuse box which sometimes sparks
and spits like an angry python, have taught me the sense of smallness that emanates from me, the futility of all my actions. Sometimes I sneak to the adjacent cleaner’s cupboard and place a mop upon my head and pretend thatI have hair.

Plaxhorn Hair Care Shampoo Formula XL5 Plus Conditioner contains the following ingredients. Ammoninm Sulfate. Amnonium. Lauryl Sulfate ..

It’s night and they have let me out of the electricity cupboard. I’m in her office now. A big picture of daddy dominates her room. I don’t understand how he had such thick, luscious hair all of his life, right up until the day he died. I have deep suspicions and that is why I am here.

Disodium. Cocani de mipa. Sodium methyl paraben.

I’m looking in drawers and cupboards because I’ve had an exciting tip-off. I heard the other bottle capping machine operatives gossiping and apparently she keeps the evidence in her desk.

Propylene alycol. Benzyl alcohol. Magnesium chloride. Water.

But now I am halted by an absurdity. The world will ask: So what? He’s dead, Felicity’s in control. And where will it get me, eh? I’ll still spend all of tomorrow in the electricity cupboard, even if I did out my own father as a wig-wearer.

Benzophenone 4, Polyquartermine 7.

And now I am leaving her office because I know it’s just not worth it. I shall go back to my cupboard. It’s small, but it’s my world and it’s far less frightening than the world outside the Plaxhorn Factory.

Plaxhorn are against the testing of products on animals.

The postmortem, ah now, there’s a different story altogether. They say he died from shampoo poisoning. He swallowed it. Silly fool, they all said. He washed his hair and he just kept on guzzling that precious nectar. He was in the shower. Swigging from the bottle.

His wig. I’m sure it’s in her drawer. He wore a wig. I’m sure of it.

If you’re reading this, send help. Please, send help.