‘To be honest’, he says, ‘I really can’t remember getting home last night ‘.
And there he is, standing in the doorway of my flat, and he’s saying this with what almost amounts to a hint of jubilation in his voice. It’s New Year’s Day. And he obviously did get home last night.
‘Didn’t your brother give you a lift?’
‘He might have done, yeah, but . . . You know, I’m never drinking again. Well, not for a bit. Time for a dry January’.
It’s four in the afternoon and he’s obviously just got up.
‘I must have had a bad pint or something’.
‘There’s no such thing as a bad pint. It’s just an urban myth’.
‘Mum used to say all the time, whenever I got like this, that it’s a bad pint. That’s what does it. Ask anyone’.
‘It’s a euphemism’.
‘A new what?’
‘They should get Health and Safety to look into these breweries. All these bad pints. Oh, my head!’
He comes in and sits down in my armchair.
‘Ohhh, I think I’m going to be . .’.
I hold the waste paper bin under his nose.
‘It’s ok’, he says. ‘I’ve swallowed it’.
I look at him, sitting there. He’s wearing his t-shirt and shorts, the clothes that he wears when he’s in bed. At least he had time to change out of the clothes that he had been wearing. I look at him, with his features that look like the face of a teenager has been grafted on to the frame of a sixty year old.
‘Can you remember midnight?’ I ask.
‘The fireworks woke me up’.
‘You were asleep?’
‘Jeez. You’re such a party animal’.
‘But you had a good time, though?’
‘I can’t remember’.
I look out of the window. It was a mild, overcast afternoon. I can see people walking past to the park at the end of the street. I live in the ground floor flat directly beneath his. I knew that he was asleep because I couldn’t hear him moving around. I couldn’t hear his television, either.
‘Do you want something to eat?’
He puts his hand right over his eyes.
‘Never drinking again. Too many bad pints’.
His brother also lives in the same building. When the fireworks had started at midnight, his brother had gone outside and started up his car, and then he had just sat there for a bit, watching the fireworks from behind his windscreen. His rear brake lights had lit up my flat an otherworldly red as the new year came in. I must have gone back to sleep just after he had driven away.
‘I think maybe it might be a good idea for you to go off the booze for a little while’, I say to him.
‘I told you! It was a bad pint! And anyway, I’m doing the dry January thing. Not that I need it. Don’t you listen?’
‘I know, but you’re never serious about these things’.
‘Bucket’, he says.
I reach for the waste paper bin again.
His mother had thought we were lovers. I’ve never told him this, because I knew he’d go off on one. And when I’d told her that we weren’t, at the time that she was seriously ill and only a few days away from dying, she had told me that I should look after him. Make sure that he was okay. And I’d said, yes, I will. And that’s why I’d had been relieved, the night before at midnight, when I’d heard his brother get in the car at midnight.
‘I was thinking of going for a walk’, I say.
He clamps his hand right over his eyes, tightly.
‘Work, tomorrow’, I whisper.
‘I know’, he says. ‘Bad pint . . .’.
He gets up and shuffles towards the door.
‘Let me know if you need any food’, I tell him.
‘Yeah’, he says.
‘Yeah, you do, or yeah, you don’t?’
And then he’s gone, and it’s a happy new year, and the kids are going past on their bicycles and skateboards to the park at the end of the road, and the sun is already beginning to set, and his brothers car is still there where he’s parked if the night before, after he had brought him home.
When I heard that the great literary extremist Professor Zazzo Thiim was holding a symposium on the use of alliteration in Antarctic literature, I knew I just had to attend.
I knew that getting to the venue in the first place was in itself was a hard enough job; the convention was to be held in a remote hotel in the mountains which, in the middle of winter, would be cut off from the world by snow drifts, and sure enough, when the week of the convention came, the only way to get to the hotel was by walking the last two miles. As the darkness gathered around me, and large
fiakes of snow began to fll from the black, black sky, I gripped the handle of my suitcase and made my way up the track into the wilderness.
It must have taken a couple of hours to make the journey, and when I arrived at the hotel I was feeling irritable and uncharitable to say the least. My eyes were blinded by the motion of the snow as it had flown across my vision, and my fingers numbed from gripping the case for so long. The first thing I did was to dump my bags next to the reception desk and sit next to the roaring fire, in order that I may thaw my aching bones and curse my stupidity at having set out on such a journey in the first place. Yet only the one thought, of any substance, kept coming to me as I sat there in the orange glow: after all this effort, this had better be worth it.
I soon became aware that an old man was sitting next to me and, after a while, he asked if I was there to see Zazzo Thim.
“Yes”, I replied, “Though I am now beginning to wonder if I have made a mistake.”
The old man wrapped his scarf tighter around his neck and gave a chuckle. “I can assure you that the convention will be well-managed and adequately attended for my needs, for I, myself, happen to be Zazzo Thiim”.
“What makes you so sure that it will be so well-attended?” l asked. It was snowing heavily outside now, and the hotel did not seem to be bursting with guests.
“The subject in itself”, the old man said, smiling gleefully. “Who could fail but be enchanted by such a subject? Antarctic literature, let me remind you, is an expanding genre. I expect there shall be quite a rush tomorrow morning for seats”.
At this, he looked first left, and then right, and then whispered to me in a severe, confidential tone:
“It’s quite possible that some people might not be allowed in’.
At once l felt bad. How close l had been in deciding not to come, yet others might not have been so foolhardy. I knew that there would probably be a limited attendance as it was, yet Thiim was sure that there would be more. I felt a sinking sensation inside of me, the dejection he might feel on walking into the conference centre that next morning only to see myself sitting there.
“I can assure you”, I told the old man, “That we shall all be thoroughly enlightened”
I went to my room and changed for dinner. I decided that I would enjoy myself, and I ordered the most expensive item on the menu, yet the restaurant was virtually empty, with the exception of a table on the far side of the room where Professor Zazzo Thiim slurped, quite noisily, his soup. Every now and then I would look over at him and feel a well of pity deep in my stomach, and I soon decided that something would have to be done. But what could I do? As the waiters kept moving past, as if gauging whether or not we had finished, a plan began to formulate in my mind that I could, somehow, interest other people in the subject of Antarctic literature and perhaps even bribe them into attending. But the plan seemed hopeless, even fanciful.
After dinner I went for a walk outside in the snow. The mountains loomed, black shapes and shadows in the night sky, while gentle flakes fell from above, illuminated by the lights from the hotel. A frost was setting in, and the ground crunched with each footstep. At last l came to one of the chalets, and I was just about to turn around and head back to the main building when the door opened and Zazzo Thiim himself emerged.
“Ah!”, he said. “It’s you! Come in, come in, we shall discuss literature!” Feeling awkward at this sudden invitation, I tried to formulate some reason why I might go back, when all the time I advanced towards his cabin. “What a brave, hardy soul”, he said, “To be out on a night like this!” He held the door open for me and I entered the chalet.
It was warm inside and a fire blazed in the hearth. He motioned that I sit down, and before long he was telling me about his interest in Antarctic literature.
“I have always been interested in a young writer of Norwegian descent, Petter Jansen, a writer of such talent and deftness of touch. He would describe the harsh winters of his homeland and the very essence of being in the snow, a subject I would find most glamorous in comparison to my lowly upbringing. As soon as I could I decided I would seek out Jansen and learn from him the craft of story-telling, of descriptive language and other literary ideals. Only, according to those who worked in the book industry, Jansen was working in the Antarctic, at a research station near the South Pole”.
“Armed only with protective clothing and a set of his works, I joined an expedition by ski-mobile in the middle of the Antarctic summer. The nights were cold and the days long, the sun never seemed to leave the sky, and all the time I was filled with so many questions, so much I wanted to ask. His characters, you see, were fragile beings, brittle, like flowers left too long in the frost, and I wanted to find out why he spent more time describing the weather than he did the emotions and sensibilities of his characters. There were other questions, too: why he
should have spent all his life in cold places, when surely he could have lived anywhere on the royalties from his volumes, and why he had given up writing fiction only to work as a research scientist in the South Pole.
“On the tenth day we reached the Norwegian research station and I was privileged enough to meet Jansen. He was not what l had expected; of course, in the years since he had been published he had become an old man, and he sported the most wondrous beard, which almost reached down to the middle of his chest. He had a gruff accent, a dismissive way of sharing information, and a healthy dislike of anyone, including myself. I followed him as he worked, and watched as he drilled holes in the ice, sank instruments down into packed snow, took readings on electronic devices. He was monosyllabic, non-committal, and despite
everything, I started to wonder if I should have been there at all.
But that night we went to his tent and he shared a bottle of vodka with me. ‘And now’, he said, ‘The real work begins’. Imagine my surprise when he produced from a wooden chest a large manuscript, several thousand pages long, and a pen, whose ink kept freezing and he had to warm by candle-light. ‘What is this?, I asked. He turned to me, wearily, his face lit by oi lamps and the candles, and he said: “This is the finest Antarctic novel ever written. Indeed’, he continued, This is the only Antarctic novel ever written’.
I watched, silently, as he wrote. And with what devotion! He forsook everything in the outside worid, every distraction, and bent his head over the manuscript, writing with a bare hand, the fingers gripped tightly around the nib. For two hours he wrote, diligently, painstakingly, until his alarm clock buzzed and, of a sudden, he put the pen down, gathered the pages, and placed them back in a wooden chest.
The next day followed the same routine: scientific work in the daytime, an evening of vodka, then writing by table light. He didn’t seem to mind the fact that I was there with him – indeed. he almost welcomed my company and the interest I showed in his writing. Finally it came time for me to leave, for my colleagues were due to start the hazardous journey back to the coast, and I decided I would revel in his company for the last time.
“When he began writing I tried to watch the words as they were formed, but he kept shying away from me, positioning his body in such a way that I could not read what he was writing, and when the alarm clock rang to signal the end of his writing shift, he placed the pen down, the manuscript in the box, and he said to me: “That’s it now. Scram. The experiment is over!’
‘How crestfallen I was! It was as if I had been stabbed in the back. I returned to my tent that night feeling hurt, abused, and with a general dissatisfaction not only with Petter Jansen, but with all writers everywhere. That night I could not sleep, and a fierce wind blew up, which rattle the tent and moaned across the barren lands. In the midst of this delirium one thought came and it would not go – that possibly I might sneak into Jansen’s tent and read the manuscript for myself.
‘Two hours later the idea still lived with a bizarre logic. I could take the strain no more, and, as the first rays of the sun began to peek over the continental mountains, I left my lodgings, walked across the snow, and let myself into Jansen’s tent. He slept well, and I had managed to let myself in without him hearing. With the wooden box right below me, I had no choice but to open it up and read the manuscript right then and there.
‘Oh, the power! “The Silken Breath of a Penguin in Repose’ is a work the likes of which I shall never forget! The intense truth, the humanity on display, the concern for a world forever spoiled by man’s eternal folly! The language seemed to ooze like honey poured on from a spoon, and yet the prose was sparse, the words as economical as ice. The book was set in the future, or very slightly in the future, and Jansen himself was a character, a fortune teller who was never wrong. And the final scene, where the mad explorer wipes away a frozen tear to think of the harm his fellow man has done, almost reduced me to an insensitive and indiscriminate howl
of anguish. When I glanced up, I noticed that Jansen was staring right at me.
‘What treachery is this?’, he asked. ‘My private words, spoiled for all time! What is this but an invasion of the lowest order! How dare you spoil these most sacred pages!’
‘I had no choice’, I replied. ‘And in any case, such a wondrous work needs an audience. There is much here that might change the world. How selfish can you be if you keep this from those who need it the most? What I have just read is the most intelligent, the most poetic work ever created’.
‘You have ruined my work!’, Jansen continued. ‘You have ruined me! We had a trust, you and me, a friendship . . .’. .. And then he looked at me for a while. ‘Did you really think it was that good?’
“So we came to an arrangement, right then and there, that I would tell the world about his work, but only if I choose locations and places that would guarantee the audience would be small. And that’s why l’m here now, in the mountains, in the middle of winter, about to host a conference on alliteration in Antarctica Literature. I mean, what kind of sad person would possibly venture all the way out here for such a thing?’
I looked at the old man and smiled. Professor Zazzo Thiim then cleared his throat.
“Apart from you, that is”.
Alas, the conference did not work out exactly as he had planned. I had left messages and notes to most of the staff and the guests of the hotel that the old man needed support, that he would be crestfallen if the conference was overly attended, and that they should do everything within their powers to put off potential attendees, and yet, that next morning, when Professor Zazzo Thiim took to the stage, he was confronted by a hall completely filled with people.
“Well …”, he said, laughing feebly into the microphone, then wincing as the feedback screeched round the hall. He activated the overhead projector to show a picture of a penguin, which then hung on the wall behind him, solemn, ethereal.
“There is . .”, he stuttered, “There is, in the power and beauty of. . .Huh-huh”.
Pleadingly, he looked at me, as if asking that I should remember the reasons why he had decided to hold the conference at this particular hotel. So what else could I do?
While no-one else was looking, I leaned behind me and activated the fire alarms. Everyone got up from their seats and the hall was evacuated in seconds.
The fact is that for some time now Professor Zazzo Thim has been lost, and it is my duty to find him. The manner of his disappearance is, beyond question, one of the most unusual cases I have ever come across. Yet the evidence I have before me, and the testimony of various witnesses, all point to the one conclusion: that Professor Zazzo Thiim is trapped, helpless, somewhere in Marcel Proust’s grand novel, ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’.
It did not take me long to deduce the basics of this case. Various students and colleagues of the Professor attested that he was busy constructing some sort of grand device in the basement of the institute in which he was employed. Various noises had been heard from the cellar towards the end of each academic day, and strange lights were seen by those leaving the building, orange in hue and regulating a slow rhythm. Those closest to the Professor could not find out from him exactly what it was he was building, though one colleague, Doctor Hermann Spatt, was most helpful in his assertion that the Professor was constructing a device which would, atom by atom, replicate his body as a series of words, and distribute them throughout a chosen text.
‘How do you know this?’ I asked.
Spatt grinned at me from across his desk.
‘l asked my dear old colleague. I came right out and asked him. Of course, he was pretty drunk at the time. But he told me what the machine entailed and what would happen to him as a result’.
At this, Spatt’s smile faded, and he leaned back in his chair.
‘Such a sad waste’, he whispered.
‘You must obviously have been close to your colleague’, I said, gently.
‘Thiim? Oh no, I couldn’t stand the chap. What I’m sorry about is that a book so wondrous as ‘a la recherche . .’ should be sullied by his ugly mug’.
The key to the basement in question remained locked and, on account of the strong, fortified doors to the cellar. I quickly deduced that it would take months, possibly years to enter that sacred room. Yet I remembered what Doctor Hermann Spatt had told me, and I set about reading Proust’s epic tome, that I may find some mention within its pages of the eminent Professor Zazzo Thiim.
The institute was good enough to provide me with accommodation during my stay. It was late autumn, and the trees were almost without their leaves. The paths around the parkland in which the institute is set were slippery, and it seemed the sky was hardly ever anything but a deep grey.
Proust’s volumes accompanied me everywhere. I would take walks in the
gardens, or through the woods, with one volume open under my nose and the next thrust under my arm. I would go to the dining hall and sit with the other students, hardly noticing their banter, so engrossed was I in the societal gossip as recorded by the redoubtable Marcel. Even my rare journeys outside of the campus were spent in the company of the Guermantes family, the many minor characters and the overriding sense of times past as recorded in those weighty books. It seemed my whole life had started to revolve around the novel, and I would make lísts of the endless family members, associates and contemporaries of the narrator, but each evening I would sit down and study these lists, safe in the knowledge that none of those mentioned bore the slightest resemblance to Professor Zazzo Thiim.
At around this time, Doctor Hermann Spatt, with the help of two science students and a Professor in electronics, began to build a machine using the blueprints found in Thim’s empty office which might, when up and running, be able to rescue the Professor from the depths of the accursed novel. The machine started to take shape in a far corner of the institute’s gymnasium, roped off from the rest of the hall by an arrangement of badminton nets, and each lunch time I would call in to see what progress was being achieved.
‘None at all, Spatt said, despairingly. ‘The machine just wont function. It needs more electricity than we are supplied’.
‘Then how did Thiim’s machine run so effectively?’ I asked.
Spatt pushed back the hair from his forehead and let out a deep sigh. “The energy needed to suck a character from a book is ten times more powerful than that needed to throw a character into the narrative. You see, Thiim had the advantage of gravity, but we have nothing, nothing at all’.
I walked around the machine and looked at it from many angles.
“It’s looking quite hopeless’, Spatt said, and l swear I saw a tear well in the corner of his eye as he contemplated his missing colleague.
That night I retired to my room. By now the bed was covered with the six volumes of Proust’s masterpiece. My reading of it was haphazard at best, covering the first three sections of each novel simultaneously, so that my understanding of the plot and the order in which Marcel’s life was playing out was tenuous at best. At worst,I didn’t know what was going on.
So many dukes, matriarchs, minor members of the aristocracy, childhood memories, subtle, beautiful women with strangely masculine names. That night I fell asleep and found myself in a nightmare, a dark, dismal Paris street where Proustian characters advanced upon me with their arms outstretched, their eyes displaying a frightening malice, humming, intoning some strange, ritualistic prayer which sounded for all the world like Kylie Minogue’s first hit single, ‘I Should Be So Lucky’. I woke with a start, frightened into reality yet not trusting the world around me, the darkness of the night, the wind which, ever so gently, was roaring in the trees and stripping them of the last of the leaves.
I got up and walked to the window. I was dizzy, I was sweating, yet the room was cold. It was as if the natural laws which surrounded and informed us all had ceased, that the earth itself no longer recognised whatever constitutions had kept it going for so many years. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the trees, and the leaves falling, one by one, across the sodium light of a campus street-lamp.
‘My God’, I whispered.
Excitedly, I telephoned Doctor Hermann Spatt immediately. He answered on the third ring, and asked, blearily, what it was I wanted.
‘The machine!'”, I said. ‘You remember what you were saying? That Thiim had the benefit of gravity?’
‘And that we needed more energy because we were sucking a character out of a book, not throwing one in?’
‘Then why don’t we just turn the whole machine upside down? Put the machine on the floor and the book suspended above!’
There was silence on the other end of the line, and then Spatt’s voice cane back. ‘My word!’, he said, ‘You’re a genius!’
The next morning Spatt, accompanied by his assistants, set to work making the modifications I had suggested, while I, now with the help of three assistants of my own, continued my reading of Proust’s novel. We each took a volume and, starting at the very beginning, ploughed our way through the dense script, using different translations and even the French language original, so that we were working on three separate texts at once. Halfway through the afternoon Spatt rang to tell me that the machine was working perfectly, and all it needed was for me to find Thiim in the novel so that we might rescue him. This news gave us a welcome feeling of progress and we intensified our efforts until, by six in the evening, we were all very tired and our eyes and heads ached.
‘Thank you, lads’, I whispered, as they headed towards the door.
‘Erm, we were wondering’, said one of them, an amiable young man by the name of Adam. ‘Would you like to come out for a drink tonight?’
I smiled at their offer, for it was proof that we had gelled as a team. “Thank you, but I would rather maintain my faculties’, I told them.
Their shoulders slumped.
‘And I suggest you do the same, for we need our full concentration if we are ever to find the Professor’.
Adam smiled. ‘Very well’, he said. ‘We wouldn’t have gone overboard, anyway. Just a couple of drinks and then back home’.
‘Thanks once again’, I whispered.
The days were getting shorter, and once I had eaten my dinner, (accompanied, once
again, by the ever-present Monsieur Proust), I went back to my room and prepared for sleep. To be honest, I was beginning to doubt that we would ever find Thiim in this mammoth book, and a part of me was content just to sit back and enjoy the experience of being a small part in such a large, well-funded experiment. Though the more l thought about it, the more desperate l started to become, as I realised that the whole project now depended on me and my abilities wade through the novel for just the smallest clue. Worse still, I was afraid to sleep, for I knewthat I would be haunted by Kylie once again, that inane, stupid song, 1 Should Be So Lucky!’
Timidly, I retired to my bed.
At two in the morning I was woken by a fierce pounding on my door. Hardly able to concentrate, I opened the door and blinked in amazement to see Robert de Saint-Loup.
‘Do forgive my intrusion’, said he, ‘But I was wondering if you had had word of the Duc de Guermantes?”
‘I beg your pardon?’, said I, hardly believing my eyes.
At that moment M. de Charlus bounded down the corridor and patted Saint-Loup on the shoulder.
‘There you are!”, said he. His eyes then focused on myself, standing in the doorway in a pair of boxer shorts and nothing else.
‘Hello!’, he said, twirling his moustache.
‘I say!’, said a voice from the end of the corridor.
They both looked up and bowed, courteously, as Albertine approached. “Are you not on the way to the Verdurin ball? I proclaim it to be the most whimsical event of the decade!’
Hurriedly, I shut my door, then went over to the window. Oh, what a scene met my eyes!
The quiet park was awash with people, elegantly dressed, bowing, nodding, dancing, chatting in the glare of the street-lamp as if they were in a ball or a turn of the century function. And they were all, I was horrified to note, characters from Marcel Proust’s mighty tome.
I telephoned Spatt and he confirmed my worst suspicions. Some students, drunk of course, had broken into the gymnasium and fiddled with the machine.
Instead of pulling the hapless Thiim from the depths of the novel, they had, wantonly and without thought to the effects of their crime, pulled out every other character instead.
‘But this is horrendous!’, I whispered.
‘There’s no choice’, said Spatt. ‘We must round them all up and post them back into that hideous novel. Do you know what they’re doing now? They’re in the canteen, holding a mass madeleine tasting. This has got to stop!’
‘There’s only one way we can get them back into the novel’, I told the Doctor. ‘We must break into the basement and use Thiim’s machine’
It took the best part of the night to round up all of the characters. Because we had been using three different translations, there were three of each of them, and the three Marcels had met some time after half four and, indignant that their individualities had been compromised, had challenged each other to a duel, (from which, naturally, each one backed out.) Charlus was the worst, and three of his characters had to be retrieved from the public lavatories and from various male student’s bedrooms before they were all accounted for. At last we had rounded them
all up and we were engaged in the act of congregating them around the door to the basement, a tricky act which was achieved only by the entertainment of a piano playing Chopin and the liberal refreshment of champagne. Spatt and I, meanwhile, busied ourselves at the door. The thick oak would not budge to our shoulders, neither to a rudimentary battering ram fashioned out of an old roll-top desk. However, when one of the Robert de Saint-Loups saw what we were trying to achieve, he supplied us with some dynamite which, he assured us, was fresh from the Great War battlefields.
The following explosion was deafening. Two of the Mme de Verdurins went flying through the air, their stiff petticoats flaying in all directions. At last we entered that hallowed room and saw Thiim’s machine which, somewhat comfortingly, looked not unlike the reverse example we had fashioned in the gymnasium. Yet only now did Spatt and I see the almost fatal mistake that Thiim had made.
Indeed, the machine functioned well, and had been put together expertly. However, the absent-minded Professor had, one can only assume, accidentally, mistakenly placed within its confines not Proust’s magnificent novel, but a CD of Kylie’s first UK Number One hit, ‘I Should Be So Lucky’
It didn’t take long for the machine to be put to use. How affectionately we said good-bye to all the characters, who each invited us to various balls and society functions for the following Paris season. When they were all quite delivered, Spatt and I took Thiim’s CD upstairs to the gymnasium, where we placed it on top of the machine and pulled the necessary levers.
Seconds later, Professor Zazzo Thiim materialised.
‘Oh, my word’, he said, feeling his nervous forehead. ‘I was having the time of my life! l’ve never danced so much!”‘
‘You realise what you did?’ Spatt asked.
‘Oh, the CD? Entirely intentional, my dear friend.
‘But that’s preposterous!’
‘So many hours I’d spent on that machine, a copy of Proust under my arm. So many years I’d dreamed of meeting those wondrous characters. Yet when it came time to leave I thought long and hard about it . . ‘.
‘And I realised that I would rather be with Kylie, instead’.
‘Well, my dear Spatt. They’re so stuffy, aren’t they? And Kylie’s much more . . . Vivacious’.
At this, Thiim looked left, then right, then left again.
‘And another thing’, he added, confidentially, ‘She’s a much better dancer’.
Alas, the story does not end here. The following week, Kylie’s management refused to confirm that a new version of her original hit single had been mixed, with some quite bizarre vocals by various French dignitaries, mostly concerning the petty discriminations and social faux pas of early 20th Century Paris.
‘My god!’, Spatt whispered to me, down the telephone line. ‘We must have sent them to the wrong place!’
Yet not one scholar, student or academic genius happened to notice that Proust’s six-volume masterpiece now seemed not to have a single character left in it at all.
Between the late nineties and the mid 2000s, I wrote hundreds of short stories. This was a very hectic time in my life, and probably needlessly so. In 2000, I moved into a gothic flat near the seafront in Paignton, almost directly over the road from the shop where I worked. I was studying Open University every morning, getting up at 5, studying 6-9, going over the road and working 9-5, then home, and spending every single evening writing short stories.
On my day off I’d attend a Writers’ Circle and it soon became apparent that the other attendees seemed drawn to my funnier stories. In one story, I invented a character, a professor of literature by the name of Zazzo, and soon the other members of the writers’ circle started saying things like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to see what Zazzo gets up to next week!’
My Open University degree was in Literature, so I’d have to watch a lot of videos (it was still videos back then), and listen to lots of cassettes presented by these eccentric academic types who were a million miles away from the milieu in which I moved. I saw Zazzo as belonging to this community, perhaps barely tolerated by his contemporaries, and often shooting off at a tangent, seeing patterns where there were no patterns, narratives where there were no narratives.
Zazzo was a literary investigator. Whenever there was a mystery with a literary element, Zazzo would be there. Skateboarders quoting Shakespeare for no reason? Send in Zazzo! A crab routinely predicting the winner of the Booker Prize every year? Another case for Zazzo! The discovery of yet another Brontë sister? Who do we call? Professor Zazzo!
The Zazzo stories were saved on various floppy discs, and then promptly forgotten about for twenty years. I had no way of accessing them for quite some time, but now, thanks to various technological developments (and some paper versions I recently found), Professor Zazzo has been saved from obscurity!
My life has moved on since those days. I’ve been working as a comedy performance poet since around 2008, and worked on various other projects, so it was a delight to rediscover this strange world. And I really hope you might enjoy reading some of the stories which I shall be publishing on this blog.
ZAZZO DECLARES THE DEATH OF THE SHORT STORY (A SHORT STORY)
As the train pulled into the station, Professor Zazzo Thim felt a twinge within him, deep down where he knew his heart should have been. He didn’t want to be there, he didn’t even know why he had come back to this place where, years before he had given an infamous speech in which he had proclaimed the death, as an art form, of the short story.
There had almost been a riot. But the Professor was a sentimental man, and when he had received, in the depths of the University in which he taught literary experimentalism, a letter from a middle-aged lady who had witnessed him that day, fleeing for his life amid the baggage trollies and the tourists pursued by an angry mob, he knew he had to go back there, just for old times sake.
And now he was on a train, pulling into that very station, with its vast glass roof and endless platforms.
How lucky that he had given them the slip all of those years ago, he thought to himself as the train slowly began to slow. Would anybody recognise him now, all these years later? The grand old station was the same as it ever was. The glass roof was a dirty grey, matching the overcast skies outside, while the rusted superstructure was plastered with pigeon droppings. Zazzo pulled his coat collar around him as he stepped out of the carriage onto the worn tarmac of the platform. He felt a coldness in the air, though, an eternal coldness, as if all the emotion from the thousands, the millions of journeys begun and ended here, the lives separated, the people who would never see each other again, had somehow become crystallised and manifested just in him. The Professor began to shiver. She was waiting for him at the exit of the platform, next the aerodynamic train engine which throbbed and sizzled as it recovered from its journey. She recognised the white-haired professor from the photographs on the jackets of his various, little-read volumes on the literature of Greenland and the cultural significance of the Haiku in Guatemala. (Verdict: virtually none at all). She stepped forwards, extended her hand, then helped him with the big bag slung over his which contained the manuscript of his latest novel. They went to the station cafe. “We talk about it even now”, she said, over a cup of coffee which steamed gently in the slant of morning light. “I didn’t realise it was such a big event “. “Big event?” she asked. “It was the only event”. The cafe was filled with travellers, youths with backpacks, old ladies with small trollies, all of them static for this one moment in time before they each went their separate ways to the furthest corners of the continent. Behind the counter, the coffee machine let off a cloud of steam which moistened the ceiling, while a small radio played jazz in the kitchen. The saxophone made Professor Thiim feel sad, though he didn’t quite know why. Something about the passing of the years, perhaps. “You certainly caused quite a stir”, the woman said. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Mathilda, and the day I saw you leaping over the tracks while being pursued by that mob, I was employed in the cigarette kiosque. I remember it now, your scarf trailing in the wind, the papers of your speech flying away behind you, the angry mob piling over baggage racks and the ticket barriers, like ants coming back to their colony. Nothing stood in their path! You started a change in me . . .”, she said, contemplatively. “What do you mean?” the Professor asked.
She smiled and looked down at her coffee cup. “While was working that morning l was listening to your speech. When l saw you set up on the main concourse with a soap box and a sheaf of papers l thought you were just another religious zealot, or maybe one of those hopeless politicians with their fake promises. But when you started speaking about the short story, and speaking so eloquently, l might add, l became entranced. I remember it to this day the way you said that short stories no longer mattered, that we were all philistines because we preferred trashy novels or the television, that all writers of short stories are, in some ways, the chroniclers of the modern world, capturing moments and emotions in subtle ways which other means can never attain yet entirely forgotten by everyone, and therefore, superfluous, misguided, and entirely fake. l remember the way you used to adjust the scarf around your neck as you talked, your face wrinkled in concentration. I was so captured by this that I completely forgot about my job, and when these people started crowding around you and heckling, I thought, a-ha! He has struck a nerve!” “It’s nice that you remember”, the Professor said, fingering his collar where the scarf would have been. He remembered the scarf, he still had it at home somewhere. “So I went home and I started to read short stories. Nothing major at first – romance, a bit of light comedy. Then l professed to Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain, Checkhov. After a few years I wanted more, so l started on James Joyce, Italo Calvino, old Franz Kafka. Borges came next, of course, the master of them all. And now . . “. “Yes?” the old man asked, fearfully. “Now I’m reading Samuel Beckett’ “My word”, he whispered “And it’s all thanks to you. My life has been enriched by that moment, by the passion and the fury of that one episode. I resigned from the cigarette kiosque, enrolled in university, and I began to acquire literary ideas of my own. Do you know what it means for a character to appear in a short story, for example? The characters believe themselves, for just one moment, to be so important as to be forever captured in the reader’s mind, and lodged there forever. Yet they do not have the longevity, the life-span of characters from, say, a novel. Such animosity exists between them! The moment in which they exist is so precious, so pure and concentrated that they could never last a whole novel with the same intensity. Just look at ourselves – if we two were to last a whole novel, we would be exhausted by the end of chapter three”. The Professor nodded, solemnly “I have so many ideas inside of me” Mathilda continued. “And it’s all thanks to you. So when I read a textbook on the use of penguins in the shorter fiction of Virginia Woolf – (in which it was concluded that penguins hardly featured in any of her work) – and I saw that the author was a certain Professor Zazzo Thim, who, years before, had almost been attacked right here at this very station, I thought: ‘l have to find him, I have to thank him personally for the life he has given me”. The Professor fingered the clasp of his briefcase. He felt so many different emotions. “I’m glad”, he whispered, above the soft saxophone solo from the kitchen. “That I have made an impact on someone’s life”. He opened the briefcase and took out a manuscript. “In fact, he continued, “I would like you to have this”. “What is it?” Mathilda asked, laying an expectant hand on her chest. “My latest academic work, explaining the death of surprise endings in short works of fiction. It is my belief that all surprises have been eliminated, that nothing more can ever be said at the end of a short story which may shock or confound the reader. I have called it, ‘No More The Lonely Badger”. “I’m touched”, Mathilda said. Zazzo passed the manuscript across the table towards her and she took it in her quivering hands. “No more surprises”, she whispered, reading the sub-heading. “An investigation by Professor Zazzo Thiim”. “Just one more thing”, he asked. “Why did the crowd react so badly to my speech? Why did they set about me in such a hostile manner? Surely, the people of this city don’t care that much for the short story as to attack me personally, just because of my hypothesis? I thought about it for the last twenty years, l’ve thought about the effect l had and the passion they displayed, see, and it, too, changed my life, it changed my ideas, and I started to devote my life to demonstrating that short stories do make a difference, and l have used the episode as an illustration in lectures, academic works and after-dinner speeches. Indeed, it could be said that my whole career has been based on this one incident! So tell me, why were the crowd so unaccountably incensed?” “Didn’t you know?”, Mathilda asked. “It was the cup final day. They saw your scarf. They thought you were a United supporter”.
The tiny single-engine aircraft was just a dot at first, hovering on the horizon above the fir trees. ‘You got everything?’, Justin asked. ‘Everything’, I replied. I meant it, too. Condensed into a silver canister which shone in the low sunset. We watched the aircraft land, kicking up dust from the unmade runway surrounded by deep forest. It came to a rest in front of us. The pilot hopped down. ‘You boys ready?’, she asked. ‘Yup’. ‘You got everything?’ I held up the silver canister. ‘Ah’, she said. ‘You’re one of those modern sorts . . .’. We climbed up, Justin and I. There wasn’t much room inside, just as well I had the silver canister. If you didn’t know any better you’d have thought that I was carrying someone’s ashes. Our pilot walked a long way from the aircraft and had a cigarette next to the periphery of the makeshift airfield. ‘I hope she doesn’t set the forest alight with her cigarette butt’, Justin pointed out. ‘The undergrowth is tinder dry . .’. I’d let him sit up front, in the co-pilot’s seat. I was strapped in, the silver canister on the seat next to me, with our bags and backpacks. Of course, we could have easily left our equipment indoors, in the living room just next to the front door, before condensing them. But there were certain things that we might need on the four hour flight. Our pilot walked around the aircraft and checked all of the flaps and the rudder and the wings, and then she hopped on board and started the engine. The old craft shook and throbbed. ‘You got everything?’ she asked. ‘Canister!’, I yelled. She turned us around and we took off with a kick of acceleration, up over the tops of the trees and into the low setting sun. She put on a pair of sunglasses. ‘Dark matter compression?’ she asked. ‘Yes!’ I yelled. I’d forgotten how noisy aircraft can be. ‘So what do you do with it, just plug it in?’ ‘I know it sounds silly’, I yelled, ‘but you add cold water’. ‘It’s amazing what they can do these days’. ‘What?’ ‘I said, it’s amazing what they can do these days!’ ‘Certainly beats camping’, I shouted, as we banked over a winding blue river. ‘It’s great, too, you know? Sleeping in your own bed every night, even if you’re thousands of miles from home’. ‘Sure’, she said. She was silent for a bit. ‘The canister . . .’, she said, ‘its watertight, isn’t it? Wouldn’t want it to . . You know . . pop open up here’. Justin changed the subject. ‘Do you know if there’s a florist near the airport?’ he asked. ‘I have to get a bunch of flowers for my mother. It’s something I always do. I promised her, as soon as we landed I would get her some flowers’. ‘Birthday?’ ‘No, just a regular gift’. ‘What a thoughtful son you are’. ‘Got to keep her happy’. The little aircraft’s engine let out a reassuring constant tone. I reached down and rummaged in my rucksack for a plastic bottle of water. Some of it leaked the moment that I took the cap off. ‘For goodness sake!’, our pilot yelled, ‘be careful back there!’
I suppose I've always been a little bit clumsy. Affecting a demeanour each day of professional detachment, a manner almost sullen were it not for those moments in which human discourse were necessary, affecting an amiability, an openness, an expression of eager understanding and a willingness to compromise, only to have my belt suffer a sudden and catastrophic malfunction and my trousers fall around my ankles. A hand outstretched for a businesslike greeting, a shoe accidentally scraped against the skirting board, a sudden lurch sideways into a pot plant. Oh, I do apologise! And then later on, noticing the skirting boards around my office marked and scuffed by the numerous other times that I have stumbled. Hey, hey, your flies are undone. Again. And due to my body shape, I concede that my trousers have always been a little bit baggy.
The trill of the alarm clock had interrupted a dream in which I was trying to get a giraffe to go up the stairs of a double decker bus. The giraffe had been stubborn and no amount of tugging or enticing could tempt it up to the first floor, and once underway, it got wedged firmly, its fat buttocks blocking the stairwell, much to the consternation of my fellow passengers. It's the usual recurring anxiety dream. The long neck of the giraffe allowed it to peer up to the top deck, grinning like a bastard, while I pushed and shoved and swore from behind. Buzz buzz buzz buzz! I got up, showered, shaved, made some toast and pondered in the coming day, only to glance at my watch and discover that it was four in the morning. And then I recalled that the trill of the alarm clock had been a part of the dream. For the giraffe and I had been returning from a trip to the shops where we had purchased an alarm clock. I set to work at my desk, organising various work-related files on my laptop and trying not to think about my giraffe dream. I watched as the sun came up and lit the neighbouring houses a brilliant red, secretly resplendent as it rewarding me and others like me for getting up so early. I stopped for a few moments to look out at the sky, feeling if only for a short while the majesty of the planet in its eternal rotation, this celestial dance of time and fate, when the alarm clock sounded, this time for real. Buzz buzz buzz buzz! Had anyone been with me, no doubt, I would have at least given a smirk or acknowledgement of the humour in this, but as I was on my own, the only emotion I felt was one of deep annoyance. I got up from my desk and I switched the alarm clock off. The only comfort came from the fact that the new trousers I was wearing were significantly roomier than had been my previous pair.
I was never The class clown. When I think of this It gets me down. The popular kids Would mess around. But me? I wouldn't Make a sound.
I had a meeting with my boss today. I've written down everything that was said and I've made it into a short theatrical piece, which I call 'Bulbous'.
SANDRA stares at ROBERT from behind her desk.
SANDRA - I suppose you know why I've asked you here. ROBERT - To be honest, no, I don't. SANDRA - I've had an official complaint from one of your colleagues. ROBERT - Oh? SANDRA - It's about the meeting you chaired yesterday, on Effective Time Management. ROBERT - Yes, yes, I'm so sorry that it overran. SANDRA - No, it's not that. ROBERT - What . . what is it? SANDRA - (Sighs). Robert, is everything okay at home? ROBERT - Yes, absolutely. SANDRA - And you're not drinking heavily, or anything? ROBERT - No. In fact, I hardly drink at all. SANDRA - The complaint was actually about your appearance. Did you realise that your flies were undone the whole time? ROBERT - No, I didn't. SANDRA - So the message of the meeting, in which you were meant to instil in your colleagues a certain business-oriented professionalism, would probably have been received unquestioningly had you not got your foot stuck in the waste paper bin. ROBERT - Yes, that was rather unfortunate. SANDRA - And when you tried to pull it off, you sat on a desk, and the desk . . . Collapsed. ROBERT - Again, I apologise. SANDRA - And your nose. You see, Robert, it's becoming awfully red, and bulbous. That's why I asked about the drinking. ROBERT - As I say, I can only apologise. And I shall make an effort to act from now on in a more businesslike manner. SANDRA - Thank you, Robert. Please, for me, see that you do.
ROBERT gets up from his chair, shakes SANDRA's hand, then stumbles sideways through a glass partition wall.
Walking home through the silence of the park, I could hear a soft squeak, squeak, squeak with each footstep.
‘I've just had it with clowns’, Josh said. ‘I need a man I can respect’. We'd met online and he suggested we have a date at that new cream flan and custard pie restaurant that had just opened in the middle of the town. It seemed the sort of place where nothing could go wrong. The seating was comfortable and so was the decor, warm and inviting. We sat at a table for two at the rear of the premises. ‘That is very important to me’, Josh continued. ‘Love, yes. Love is up there. And physicality, of course, but respect. Respect is the most important of them all. It seems to me these days that everyone is a comedian, so you get that sense, too? Where's the depth? It's all artifice, isn't it? It's like we've become avatars, covered in layers of glitz and showy nothingness’. ‘You can depend on me’, I told him. ‘I treat each moment with absolute and utter seriousness’. ‘I just don't know why people feel the need to fool around’, he said, ‘in every sense of the word’. ‘I think people just want to be noticed ’, I reply. ‘That's what's happening in this modern age. We all seem to want to get a kick out of making other people uneasy. The nuance of yesteryear is gone. Subtlety is missing from all of our lives. I blame the internet and social media. People can't even be bothered to wait for the punch line, any more. They want immediate gratification, whether it be sexual or comedic’. ‘I can tell’, Josh said, ‘That you are a thinker’. ‘I try to be’. I looked at him, and he looked at me. I could see the small candle on the table between us reflected in his eyes. ‘Do you ever feel tempted’, he asked. ‘To become like all the other men? I mean, brash, and obvious, and only in it just for a laugh?’ ‘No’, I replied. ‘I try to play the long game. Strip away the surface and this world that we live in is a very serious place. And how else might one approach the act of living itself, but through the contemplation of philosophical and existentialist inquiry? In such a way, I forsake the easy option and the expediency of a cheap laugh in order to probe the searing heaviness of our own manifestation’. ‘You know what?’, Josh said, ‘I think I've finally met a man who I can respect’. At that moment the cream flan and custard pie conveyor belt around the serving desk suffered a sudden malfunction, sped up, and propelled its load, one after another, at such an angle and velocity across the room as to connect squarely with my own face, one after another in a perfect rhythm to the accompanying laughter from all the other customers. By the time the eleventh and last cream pie had been delivered with a forceful splat, and I was scooping the filling out from my eyes, Josh had long since gone.
I never realised before how small my bicycle was until I glanced sideways at my reflection in a shop window, my knees out at a crazy angle, dwarfed by the buses, the cars, the lorries.
b. I never realised quite how tatty my old jacket had become, so tatty that I tried to draw attention away from its tastiness by putting a plastic yellow flower in the lapel.
c. And I shouldn't have gone swimming and then dyed my hair. The hair dye had a chemical reaction with the chlorine from the pool and turned my hair bright green. Still, what can you do?
d. And as I filled in the official documentation online to tell my work colleagues my preferred name and pronouns, my computer’s predictive spelling changed my name from Robert to Parsnip.
e. Sandra, my boss, has for some reason pulled me from delivering a seminar on Modern Business Etiquette.
With the power of his intellect and his encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary stand-up comedy, my school friend Hasan could reduce the entire class into fits of laughter. And the laughter would drive him on, and he'd say something else that was funny, and the class would laugh some more. But Hasan was canny, he'd leave his best material for the end of the sequence, leading us up blind alleyways of silliness before delivering his punchline. Boom. As a result, this rather nerdy individual became one of the most popular people in school and I must admit to feeling rather jealous of his command of a room. My teachers would always tell my parents at parents evening that I was always serious, unsmiling, intense. They said that I wouldn't join in with the other kids, and would bury myself in my work. Perhaps they were worried that something would give, that I'd snap one day and have some sort of life-changing episode, go beserk and tell the other kids exactly what I thought of them. Humourless, is the exact word that was used on more than one occasion. But I carried on in much the same manner and took my exams. I left school with average marks. Hasan became a marketing executive for a company that manufactures airline meals.
To be mocked, and come out fighting with humour, is never a position in which I have ever found myself. Steady as she goes has always been my motto. I have rarely left myself open to ridicule by using the simple tactic of blending in to the background. And during those moments in which I have found myself in the limelight, I have adopted the simple strategy of being as intense and as dry as I possibly could. ‘You're too intense’, Steven had said to me, on what was to be the last night we'd spent together. ‘Just because I don't go down the street, laughing hysterically . . .’. ‘It's not that. It's more your tendency to over analyse everything. We can't even watch television comedies because you point out that certain things would never actually happen’. ‘All I was pointing out was that in real life, Tom would simply catch and eat Jerry . . ‘. ‘You see! You're too much of a realist. In all the time that we have been together, I never once heard you laugh. It's all buttoned up inside of you, isn't it? That's where you keep it. It has to be somewhere’. ‘Life itself is the ultimate ridicule’, I pointed out. ‘What does that even mean?’ The two of us are silent for a while. ‘I'd just like to find’, I tell him, ‘A well adjusted and content tarot card reader’. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ ‘A happy medium’. Steven thinks about it for a few seconds. ‘OK. So admittedly, that was quite amusing. But it's too late, Robert. I'm sorry, but it's too late’. Steven bent down and picked up his suitcase, walked through the door, and slammed it shut behind him. The oil painting of a clown on the wall above the sofa wobbled for a bit, then fell off and landed right on top of me, my head tearing through the canvas, the frame of the picture now hanging around my neck.
Emerging from the supermarket on the corner, the busy street glistening with a damp drizzle which fell from the overcast sky, smudged neon into the road surface. I stood there in my jacket, my loose fitting trousers, my green hair, my Parsnip name badge, my squeaky shoes, my lapel flower. I decided that I would give up on trying to understand the world, and how good it felt! I didn't need Steven or Josh or even Sandra, I didn't need any of them. Life is filled with organisms and mechanisms too complex ever to make sense of, A small, battered car screeched to a halt right next to me and a gentleman in baggy, multicoloured clothing jumped out. Then another, then one more, then two more, then six of them, seven, twelve in all, until I was surrounded, and without saying anything I understood that there was a home for me. It didn't even need analysing. Life just becomes obvious, sometimes.
In 1989 my mother bought me a second hand black and white television for my bedroom. I was fifteen years old and until that time, had not had my own TV. In those days, of course, there were only four channels so the likelihood of there being anything on to watch was very small. My sister had had her own colour TV for a couple of years, which wasn’t fair because she was younger, and not only that, but hers had a remote control. Remote controls were new technology. Our old big television downstairs had a remote control and if you lost it, you could change channels by rattling a bunch of keys. How nonchalantly, my sister would sit on her bed and be able to change channels without even having to move or grab a bunch of keys. And now I, too, had my own television set. It was a cranky old thing, (the second hand TV, not my sister), short, squat and smelling ever so faintly of burning dust and electricity. And if it was switched on for too long it would get very hot and it would turn itself off at inopportune moments, a strange little button at the back popping out with a fierce click. Once it had cooled down one was able to press the button and turn it on again. If it was still hot, the button would just stay out and you’d have to sit and wait for ages, which was no good if you were watching something really important, like Columbo. And during a heat wave you’d have to wait for hours. The damn thing would just not cool down. In the defence of my television set, though, there occasionally wasn’t anything on at all. The announcer would come on and say, well, we’ve got no programs for the rest of the afternoon, so here’s the test card. Oooooooooooooo! One day – and it must have been a Sunday – I caught the start and opening laps of the San Marino formula one Grand Prix. It was pretty hard to decipher what was happening, what with the fact that all the cars were shown in black and white, and there was always a lot of static interference every time my sister used her hair dryer. The television set had a dial, and you had to dial in to the television channel the same way that you had to with a radio finding a station. And very shortly after the start of the race there was a very bad accident involving Gerhard Berger. Motor racing was a part of my life from an early age, but I’d never taken much interest in it before. My childhood bedroom wallpaper was of John Watson’s Marlboro sponsored McLaren. It’s great to think that it was such an unenlightened age that cigarette sponsorship was allowed into the bedrooms of small boys. I didn’t know much about John Watson, or motor racing for that matter, or McLaren, or smoking, but my dad was proficient in all of these, and I picked up bits along the way, enough to know that the McLarens were still sponsored by Marlboro, and that the leading drivers of the day were Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet, and my own favourite, Gerhard Berger. And the only reason I liked Gerhard Berger was because his second name was Berger. I liked burgers. I had no interest in taking up smoking, but eating burgers was definitely helped along because of the wonders of Gerhard. The race on my little black and white television was stopped because of Berger’s accident, and as I waited for it to restart, the inevitable occurred and my television turned itself off. I put my hand on the back of it and, sure enough, it was giving off a pretty intense heat. The strain of being turned on for almost forty five minutes was obviously too much. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to use it for a couple of hours, by which time the race would probably be finished. So I went downstairs to the living room, and as luck would have it my parents were out gardening or something else interesting that parents do on a sunny spring morning in suburban Surrey, and I was able to watch the rest of the race on the big television in the living room. Now this television was colour, and having sat through forty five minutes of black and white, the contrast – no pun intended – was amazing. The colours were vibrant, the green grass around the track, the multicoloured cars and drivers and the McLarens looking just like they did on my bedroom wallpaper, their Marlboro branding vibrant and luxurious. I’d never seen a spectacle like this, the excitement and the intensity of motor racing revealed in all its technicolor brilliance, the primary colours, the advertising hoardings, the flags and banners in the crowd, the vibrant orange of the flames licking around Berger’s crashed Ferrari. It was probably at this moment that I fell in love with formula one Grand Prix racing. Now it must be said that I was a weird teenager. At fifteen years old I’d already sussed that I was gay. It was obvious to myself, though not particularly so to other people. I wasn’t entirely camp and I wore the sorts of clothing that all my friends wore, so I’m sure that nobody knew, and that it would remain this devastating big secret which I would carry with me to the grave. I told myself that I was very good at hiding it. I also thought that I was one of the handful of gay people in the entire world, that it was basically just me and Julian Clary. There didn’t seem to be any other gay role models. It was also the nineteen eighties. Homophobia was very popular in mainstream society and most people seemed to be very fond of it, particularly in Surrey where I lived on a council estate within earshot of the main runways at Heathrow Airport.
Indeed, homophobia seemed to be institutionalised. This was a time of Section 28, and the AIDS crisis was still very much being felt. And I was this strange little thing, closeted to the world and fearful of the future because I knew that, if things didn’t change, I’d never be who I wanted to be. And this was probably true of a whole generation. My only outlet was writing, and the stories I wrote were also explorations of the same closet. Characters were good friends, but nothing sexual was ever hinted at. Their only goal seemed to be to find a nice girlfriend and get married. None of these characters existed anywhere else but in an incredibly straight universe. So I was kind of glad that I’d got in to formula one motor racing, because this was the sort of thing that the average straight man really liked, all those machines and engines and drivers and strategies and ladies in bikinis carrying large lollipops with the names of the drivers, and adverts for cigarettes and beer and after shave and spanners and motor oil, and brash egos and the roar of the engines. It was a straight person’s paradise. And the more I got in to the sport, the more I saw that this gave me an escape route should I be talking to my friends and the hypothetical question comes up, ‘Are you gay?’, to which I might reply, ‘No, and did you see the race at the weekend?’ The summer progressed. Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet, Berger. These titans, these gods of the sport who towered above not only formula one, but life itself. How excited I’d tune in to catch their exploits, with their distinct personalities and their almost superhuman powers to pick me up and fly me away from gaydom into that sparkling iridescent rainbow glitter world of perpetual absolute straightness! And then, one day, along came Jean Alesi. Imagine if you had to invent the perfect racing driver. Imagine if you were writing a novel and you realised that you needed a stereotypical barely believable cartoon character of a racing driver. What characteristics would you give them, if you were a little lazy when it came to inventing such characters? A firm jaw, dazzling blue eyes, a small stature, handsome youthfulness, sultry eyes with a faraway stare. And what kind of nationality would you give your invented racing driver? French? Italian? Well, why not a mixture of both? And what kind of name would you give your hypothetical stereotypical racing driver? Something distinctly European, yet a name which sounds fast even in its spelling and economy of letters. Jean Alesi. Four syllables, not very many letters. Oh my god, he was everything I wanted him to be! Jean Alesi burst on the scene halfway through 1989. And all of a sudden these old towering idols of motor racing didn’t seem quite so special. Jean was in a much slower car, yet he was driving much better than them and spent most of his first race in second place before finishing fourth. He didn’t seem to care very much that there were people out there who needed these titans of motor racing to just keep going and going. Jean Alesi was like a fresh thought introduced into a tired way of looking at the world. Jean Alesi was the embodiment of excitement. Jean Alesi was the equivalent of saying, hey, you know what? There are other ways of living your life. Jean Alesi was also very good looking. Oh my god, I liked him a lot. And soon the exploits of Jean Alesi became the only reason that I watched formula one. Well, that and the need to appear to be the same as all the other blokes, what with formula one being so blokey. Because within this blokey structure, Jean Alesi demonstrated that there was room for something new and exciting. He held his steering wheel right at the top. He leaned his head over at crazy, exaggerated angles around the corners, it was like he was pretending to be a racing driver. It was almost, dare one say it, camp. He had no technical skill whatsoever. My nickname for him was Crazy Alesi. One of his former team mates used to call him Jean Asleazy. He seemed to run on pure enthusiasm. I wanted to come out. I was desperate for the world to know who I was. But the world was a different place back then and the framework of support that most LGBT people in the Uk mostly have now was missing back in 1989. There were hardly any gay people on television, unless it were the basis of a joke or a cheap stereotype, and section 28 was prevalent in schools preventing teachers having serious conversations about homosexuality. The AIDS crisis was at the forefront of everyone’s mind whenever the subject of gay men was discussed. Homophobia was everywhere, in throwaway comments and the laughter of school fiends, jokes told openly, and in government policies. Being gay was a personal source of shame, a hideous joke played by nature and something which I thought I might even grow out of, or at least train myself to disregard. I just hadn’t met the right woman yet, a woman with short hair, blue eyes, no female bits and only male bits, possibly French Italian, probably called Jean. I wanted the world to change. And Jean Alesi wanted to win a Grand Prix. Over the next six years, Alesi found himself in another race. I was getting older, a teenager now, late teens, the early twenties beckoning, and I gave myself the target of coming out to the world as gay in a glorious burst of music and love, before Jean Alesi won his first Grand Prix. As luck would have it, Alesi soon signed to Ferrari, a team which at the time was in one of is periodic performance troughs, so the idea that Alesi might actually win a race was now almost impossible. This gave me some breathing space. I felt like a swimmer about to plunge into icy water, steeling himself, just standing there, year after year, unable to make that final move. And knowing that if I did, I’d get more than a cold shoulder. Every other week I’d sit and watch as Alesi found a new and exciting way not to win a race, and this seemed emblematic of my own struggle. Moments of promise and potential victory falling apart, and assured win undone by some minor trifle. For six long years Jean and I struggled together to get what we wanted, to make our name on history before it was too late. And then, in 1995, when I was 21 years old, the bastard did it. It was the Canadian Grand Prix. It was one of those races in which all the other drivers fell by the wayside. And this left Alesi out in front, victory assured. I remember those final laps, I was almost crying with delight, and yet while I felt pleased that he was actually about to do it, I also felt a sense of loathing that he should get what he always wanted, and I would be left there, alone. And as he crossed the finish line in an emotional moment of tears and celebration, I thought, well, my life hasn’t changed in the slightest. If it’s any consolation, that would also be his last win in formula one. I did think about waiting until his second win to come out, and I’m glad that I didn’t, because there would be no second win. In fact it would be another four years until I came out to friends and family, by which time I already had had a partner. But that’s another story. Every now and then Jean Alesi turns up on television. He’s much older now but he’s still good looking and my mother fancies him. To me he was the epitome of what a racing driver should be, but he’s always stood for more than that. He was my personal talisman, my guardian angel, he was there showing the way without him even realising that he was doing it. He showed me that you could change the order of things just by the force of sheer enthusiasm and, of course, a lot of hard work. My own coming out felt less like a fantastic victory and more like a plane crash. And perhaps Alesi had already had his coming out moment, the time he had told his parents that yes, he was a racing driver. There are kids out there now looking for the same escape. The world is ever so slightly easier for them now. And that’s such a good thing, people seem far more open minded and people can be who they want to be. They don’t need racing drivers to show them the way. Or perhaps, they do. Perhaps we are all racing drivers now. We are all Jean Alesi.
Our eyes met across the literary festival tent, at the exact moment Professor Zazzo Thiim erupted into a coughing fit shortly after he’d tried to pronounce the names of the Welsh rural communities in Memflak’s Operetta Lampeter. It was cruel of the organisers not to cut his mic, but I looked up again and I saw you were still looking over at me, and both embarrassed, we smiled. Even to this day the sound of a phlegmy cough is enough to fill my heart with romance.
Ballad of a sad bouncer
We met outside the canvas marquee, the strong sun throwing red and white stripes across us.
‘So . . You like Memflak?’
And then we stood there for a while until a security guard asked us to move. Professor Zazzo was making his way to the book signing table, and we were in the way.
‘Do you need anything?’, someone asked him.
‘A glass of water, please’.
‘He wasn’t the most engaging of speakers’, you said, as we were bundled sideways. ‘Have you ever read any of his works?’
‘Only his pamphlet on the poetry of TV darts commentaries’.
‘Oh really? And what was his conclusion?’
‘That there wasn’t any’.
‘A wise man’, you said, and we both turned and watched as he took a seat behind a wallpapering table piled high with copies of his Memflak biography. There wasn’t a queue and a bird had defecated on his Panama hat.
‘So if you don’t like Memflak, then why did you come along?’, you asked.
I’d just assumed that most of the people who were there would have been single, naturally.
‘Just . . . Chilling’.
We chatted about so much that sunny afternoon. You told me your biggest fear was 3D printing machines suddenly gaining consciousness and 3D printing only other 3D printing machines and then the whole world becoming drowned in 3D printing machines. And I told you about a friend who had a 3D printing machine, but the first thing that the 3D printing machine had to print as soon as you got it was the instruction manual on how to print on a 3D printing machine, but the only way you could print the instructions on how to print on a 3D printing machine was to have the instructions on how to print on a 3D printing machine. We both laughed and agreed that the world was an unusual place, and I wanted to invite you back to my B and B, oh, how I wanted to invite you back to my B and B, but there was something lazy and wonderful about our sudden new friendship, and anyway, you weren’t allowed back in the B and B until 3pm. Instead, we went to the crowded cafe tent and shared a vegan sausage roll.
When you told me that you were a published poet, I almost fell off my seat.
‘But you’re so passably handsome!’
‘I know. It’s a shock, isn’t it?’
‘Are you . . . Rich?’
You couldn’t stop laughing.
‘I’m a poet. In fact, it’s the perfect career choice for me, thanks to my crippling fear of success’.
You told me that your first collection, Do Sheep Find Us Boring?, had won the Fortescue Prize for the best poetry collection to feature a mangle. Your second collection, The Non-existent Coffee Table, had fared less well, especially the scratch’n’sniff sonnet about sewage. And your third book, A Machine Which Exists Only to Destroy Itself, was what those in the publishing industry call a faulty fluorescent tube.
‘Why is it called that?’
‘Because it barely makes a flicker’.
I knew that it was because you were too handsome to be a poet. Your teeth were mostly the same colour and you had hardly any dandruff. When you sipped your tea, only a few drops went on your trousers.
I looked deep into your eyes. You looked deep into mine. The world around us seemed to fade from existence until its only components were you and me. And surely, in that stuffy tent over an over-priced sausage roll, we would surely have begun to kiss, had not there been a sudden clatter and thud from the next table and a cry of, ‘Buggering ‘ell!’, as Professor Zazzo Thiim’s chair collapsed.
We helped the old fella up from the grass.
We queued for a while to buy tickets to see the famous performance artist Bonjour Twain, for it was rumoured that she would be debuting a new piece called The Measurement of Intense Disappointment, only it turned out that queuing for the piece was the actual piece itself, and that Bonjour Twain was a thousand miles away at her home in the Alps. We then went in to a lively debate between a surrealist poet and another surrealist poet, which had been especially choreographed by the festival organisers who had told both surrealist poets that their opponent was an adherent to ultra-realism and would only be pretending to be a surrealist poet. Our next port of call was to see a book reading by Will Self, but Will Self was stuck in a traffic jam, so the audience passed the time by playing a good-natured game of battleships. Our final stop of the afternoon was a speech on Bouncy Castle Development and Design : From Mock-Medieval to the Integration of New Technologies’, which Doctor Margaret McParson actually delivered while bouncing on a bouncy castle, which went very well until she had to sip a glass of water.
It was a full afternoon.
‘Well’, you said, ‘I’d better be going’.
And now the world did that thing it does every now and then where it reveals its true colours and kind of stamps on the hopes and dreams that only reveal themselves in retrospect.
‘It’s been fun’.
‘Sure has. When will I . . . Where will I . . See you again?’
‘You can have one of my collections, if you like, then I’ll always be with you’.
‘I don’t really like poetry’.
‘My picture is on the cover. I’d like you to have it’.
You rummaged around in your shoulder bag and showed me the cover of Do Sheep Find Us Boring?. You looked about fifteen years younger.
‘That’s nine ninety-nine’.
I slipped you ten pounds. You didn’t have any change. Which is a shame, because I would have cherished that penny forever, perhaps drilled a hole in it and worn it around my neck. The book was OK, though.
You walked away after we parted with a jovial wave, and I watched you disappear into the middle-class utopia of the literary festival. I was distracted, momentarily, by Professor Zazzo Thiim tripping over a guy rope, and when I looked up again, you were gone.
I went over to the bouncy castle, and took off my shoes, and I clambered on. I bounced once. Twice. Possibly as many as five times. But my heart wasn’t in it and I was worried that someone would steal my shoes. This happened once at a funfair in Bournemouth. I’d had to walk home in my socks.
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.
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?’
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’.
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’.