Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Woman in Beige

The Husband
It's four-thirty in the morning. The alarm has drilled through our dreams and she's got to be up to catch a train to Cwmbran in Wales. I'd take her in the car, it's not that far (about 140 miles), but the doctors have told me not to drive for six months. Lousy timing, but there it is. I'll sort out the cats and whatnot while she gets a shower and whatnot.

The Taxi Driver
She's ready for me. That's good. I hate it when a fare books me to pick them up at an exact time and then keeps me hanging about. OK, I could let the meter run, but it's just time wasted. She seems chirpy enough in her beige coat despite the early hour, but not too talkative. Some fares'll natter incessantly the whole journey, natter, natter, natter. Traffic's light at this hour and we're at the railway station in good time. She wants a receipt, mildly annoying but hey ho, she needs it for expenses. A tip! Nice.

The Ticket Sales Clerk
The woman in beige doesn't want to buy a ticket despite the fact that this is manifestly a ticket sales counter. She wants to know the platform for the train to Hereford, as if this were the enquiries desk or something. I pick up my Big Book of Trains and consult it for the prescribed number of moments then inform her that it's platform 10b. It's not, of course, but she won't know that - until it's too late.

The Coffee Barista
The woman in the beige coat doesn't seem to know what to order. She asks for a plain black coffee. Honestly, doesn't she even know that a black coffee is an Americano? I thought everybody knew that. And she's having a giant packet of Salt 'n Vinegar to go with it, blech! Has the woman no taste at all? There's all these lovely pastries and muffins and she wants crisps. Crisps with coffee, I ask you!

Random Passenger #1
Look at that stupid woman, she's gulped her coffee and it's too hot so she's spat it onto her beige coat. That'll leave a stain. Silly moo, doesn't she know that the coffee here is heated to roughly the same temperature as molten lava? Bugger! The 06:52 to Leicester's been cancelled because of cable theft at Nuneaton. typical! Mind you, what can you expect of the people in that area - when they're not robbing, they're throwing sticks at the moon or something.

The Enquiries Clerk
The woman in beige has been hanging around on the concourse for ages now, sipping her coffee and walking up and down, wonder what's up with her? Oh heck, here she comes. The train to Hereford? I consult the computer. It Knows All and Tells All. It's gone, I tell her. She seems downcast by these tidings. She starts blathering on about being told one platform and having to run to another because the announcement came on and it was 6b and then there was no train there only the Glasgow one which is no good and on and on and on. I bet it was Barry on Tickets that told her the wrong platform in the first place. That's just his style that is, the bastard. The next Hereford train is in an hour so she's not too happy. Mind you, I wouldn't want to hang around here for an hour either – and it's my job!

The Coffee Barista
Oh, hello, beige-woman's back. Is she regretting her choice of crisps and is looking for a nice sensible pastry? No, she just wants us to throw away her empty cup because there aren't any waste bins on railway stations since the IRA blew them all up or something in the 70s. It's funny really to see all these people wandering around holding their rubbish like a holy talisman or something because there's nowhere to put it – the ones that have the decency not to just chuck it on the floor anyway,

The Enquiries Clerk
The woman in beige is back, her face glowing from within from the lightbulb of an idea she's just had. If she goes to Newport (train for there due out in 7 minutes), can she get to Cwmbran from there? Yes, she can – and I'm telling the truth, not like that bastard Barry. She scuttles off looking happy – well, happier anyway.

The Ticket Inspector.
I love my job. I love seeing all the different Tickets everyday. Sometimes I make up little rhymes to amuse them as we speed through the countryside. Today I'm doing "If in doubt/Get your ticket out" for starters. The Ticket in the beige coat in the corner seat seems to like this. She smiles as she hands over the all-important little rectangle of cardboard. Maybe I'll do some more then. "Stay in your seat/And rest your feet/While you rock to the beat" Yeah, I love my job.

The Husband
To amuse myself, I'm looking at her route on Google Earth. I text this to her and she replies that she's been doing exactly the same thing on her phone at exactly the same time! Spooky or what?

The Welsh Platform Attendant
So there we were, me and Gareth, just havin' a bit of a chat about that train by here that's so slow movin', the sheep ride on it, when up comes this English woman. Wants to know how to get to Cwmbran. Well tha's easy, innit? Platform 3 - and that's the God's-honest truth, that. We don't hold wi' the likes o' that Barry in Birmingham, leadin' people up the garden path. Tha's not friendly, see?

The Private Finance Executive
Well it's a lovely day here in Cwmbran but where on Earth are all the taxis? There are spots marked out on the road behind the station labelled "Taxi", but taxis there are none. There's just myself and this woman in a beige coat with – if I'm not mistaken – a coffee stain on the front of it. We chat for a while and joke that, with Cwmbran being so small, Dai the Taxi is probably off being Dai the Butcher or something. Minutes pass and still no taxi, but it's nice here in the sunshine in this pretty town. The lady from behind the counter at the station comes out and gives me a card with the number of a local taxi company in case Dai (or whoever) doesn't show up soon. The woman in beige eyes the card, probably wishing she'd been given it, but as it is, I am the one with the Power to Summon Taxis, not her. We chat some more and then Dai (or whoever) turns up and, because I am a gallant fellow (and can Summon Taxis on a whim), I let her have the taxi.

The Receptionist
Well, she's here at last, so the meeting can finally start. The others were here ages ago. Still, probably not her fault, just the bloody trains. Mind you, I'm not sure I'd have come to work in a coffee-stained beige coat!
All of the people, places and events in this post are real, apart from the woman in beige, who appears by kind permission of Clumsy Narrative Devices Inc.

No cows were harmed during the making of this post.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Twelve Minutes

It is the hour of scampering.

I wave my pass at the magic square and with a swish, the door slides back and I'm released at last. I was beginning to think the day would never end, the way the hamster wheel just kept spinning with me inside going nowhere fast.

But still.

The sky is half steel-grey, half sunny blue. The grey is growing though and I'll be lucky to make it home unwet.

This business park is not particularly attractive at the best of times but now, with the light going, it looks more drab and uninspired than ever. If a giant had spilled all the grey pieces of his Lego and kicked them into two lines, it would look something like this. The hedges are neatly trimmed and just the right kind of ground-covering shrubs have been set out, but it all so soulless. Across the road, where vacant lots await more giant Lego, nature is still doing her thing and it's easier on the eye.

The wind keeps hurrying up to me, breathlessly telling me to get a move on and get home before the rain comes, before hurrying away again on important business.

I turn right onto a stony footpath that will get me home a bit quicker. I love this part: the path runs through some trees (willows, I think from their drooping branches) which stand beside an overgrown stream. It's even darker here as, even though not all their leaves are out yet, the trees form a kind of green shady tunnel.

This is where, if it were anywhere, the doorway into another dimension would be. I often imagine that one morning or evening I'll hurry through it and suddenly step into another place. I might be met by the bared teeth of a snowstorm or end up baking to death in a searing-hot desert. Maybe I'd drop with a splash into the wide green ocean with no land in sight in any direction but with a white sail on the horizon for hope. Then again, I could find somewhere that's almost exactly like here, in which case it may have already happened. That would explain the anxious feeling I sometimes get where I'm sure I'm not where I'm supposed to be – or maybe I'm just paranoid.

There's a sturdy wooden bridge over the stream where it turns to the right and crosses the path. The trolls moved out ages ago – there just weren't any Billy Goats Gruff around here. Rumour has it they moved into investment banking and, well, you know how that goes.

Up the hill, over the railway line, though the gap in the high wooden fence and suddenly I've popped out into the middle of a neat little housing estate. The path runs alongside a kids' play area where a tyre swing hangs limp and unswung in the gathering gloom.

The wind's back again to hurry me up, as if pulling my hair and then running off will help. A crow laughs at this from somewhere up on one of the chimneys. I don't know what he's got to laugh at, seeing as he's evidently too stupid to get in out of the rain.

I like this estate. There are several cats living here and over time we have become nodding acquaintances. The cats are not in evidence today though. Hopefully they are creamfully mattsitting somewhere warm and dry.

I'm past the estate now and on the road home.

It is literally all downhill from here. I pass my old school. To think I've landed up living just down the road from it and less than a mile from the house in which I was born, small world indeed. There's a sign on the fence:

I'm sure that all the anti-vandals around here must be quaking in their boots. It amuses me that this beautifully-worded sign is on the fence of my old school, it's a wunder I kan reed or rite.

I can see my house now, but the blue has been swallowed completely by the grey and the air has turned humid and heavy – muggy, as we say around here. Even the wind has gone now. Having done its best, it has left me to my fate.

I'm moving faster now: school gates, parked cars, roadworks (hello, they're new), more cars, a quick dash across the road...

Finally my key turns in the lock and I push open the front door just as the first fat drops begin to fall.

Twelve minutes.

I'm home.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

The 10 Things Thing

Following in the footsteps of Viewtiful_Justin, I have decided to do a "Ten Things" list.

1 – I have an irrational fear of soapsuds.
I think this dates from the time when, as a kid, I watched a film in which several boxes of washing power got thrown into a swimming pool. The result was a whole garden fully of fluffy white suds. I don't know why I find them so disturbing and I'm OK if they're in small numbers like in a washing-up bowl. No idea why. N.B. This does not mean I don't bathe!

2 – I used to tell people my middle name was Sarah
My usual joke is that "my family was too poor to afford middle names". When I was a kid, I really wanted one, so I used to pretend I had. Not sure why Sarah though as it's not a name I'd be that keen to have now. My little sister got a middle name though, what's that about, Mum?

3 – I love spiders and snakes.
That's it, I just do.

4 – My eyesight is about a tenth as good as normal and it only works in black and white.
Well; it's just enough of a disability to get me a free bus pass, but otherwise, it's a bit rubbish, really. It also means I can't stand bright light so I'm the doofus wearing shades on a rainy day. At least I have my ears.

5 – I Once Busked in the City Centre of my hometown
I love music and along with the not-being-able-to-resist-singing-along, I also like to write and play my own stuff. I learned more about music by trying to create it that I ever did in Mr Thorne's lessons at school. I tried my hand at busking many years ago and it was quite exciting and scary but only earned me £4 (6$?) for a couple of hours' work so I was never going to make a living at it.

6 – I tried abseiling down an 11-storey building to cure myself of my fear of heights.
Did it work?
Absolutely not.

7 – My house contains more than 3,000 books.
I cannot conceive of a life without books. Open one up and you can be anywhere, doing anything and you can stop and start anytime, the words will be waiting for you. I don't think these e-books will ever replace the weight, the feel, the smell of a book. I like second-hand books too, sometimes they have inscriptions in the front and it makes you wonder what the people were like that thought of this book as a suitable gift for that person.

8 – My most coveted superpower would be a healing touch.
Not bothered about flying or x-ray vision, but to be able to ease pain and suffering, that would be soooo cool. If I can't have that one, then teleportation please so I can stay in bed later in the mornings and still not be late for work (see item 9).

9 - I'm a night person
Seriously, I am lousy at getting out of bed in the morning. If they would just shift the workday back a few hours so I can get up about 11:00, that would be great. I've tried going to bed earlier at night, but all that happens then is I lie awake until the usual sleep time, so I've gained nothing.

10 - I got married at 17
That's quite young here in the UK, although maybe not so much in some of the states of the US. I wasn't pregnant, he was my first boyfriend, he was 12 years my senior and we're still together after 30 years.

So there you have it, 10 useless facts about yours truly.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Aardvark Sandwich

I know every millimetre of this room.

It is precisely three metres by three metres by three. There are exactly 4,300 pale green tiles on the walls and ceiling.

I know because I’ve counted them.


The carpet is a utilitarian grey apart from a mysterious irregularly-shaped brown stain in one corner that was here before I came. I’ve often wondered about that stain over the years: where did it come from? Who made it? What made it, come to that? I guess I shall never know but it amuses me to speculate sometimes in the wee small hours when sleep won’t come.

Apart from myself, there are four objects of note in the room. On the wall opposite the bed hangs a 3dTV, tuneable to any channel except one with anything worth watching. In the corner there is the sanitary cubicle, about which nothing more need be said. Along one wall is my bed which during the day can be folded up into a chair and table unit – it’s a most ingenious design, I must say.

In the other corner sits the Food Replicator, a voice-activated dispenser of any dish you heart could desire - all synthesised from the recycled atoms of, well, you really don’t want to know. This particular unit has just been upgraded today to the new CopyRight 2000 model. When I say new, I mean new to us here at Evington Maximum Security Psychiatric Institute – everyone else in the world has been enjoying this particular product of the MakroTek Corporation for at least a year already. They tell me the food will be so much better from now on.

I know it will be.

Do you know that there is a crime on the statute books that a person cannot actually deliberately set out to commit? There is, and I’m a guest here at Hotel Evington because of it. Attempted murder is what was printed on my charge sheet, and of which I was unanimously found guilty by the twelve ‘good men and true’ who sat on the jury.

Attempted murder - what a stupid, ignominious charge! It says: here is someone who couldn’t even commit a crime properly, a failure, a screw-up, a loser.

Society hates losers.

Given a little more time and a little less bad luck I would have succeeded in killing Mr Kevin Bloom, instead of merely attempting to. If his secretary had not come in when she did...

He had it coming.

Three times he passed me over for promotion in favour of his little pets. Three times! Now, you may say that getting passed over at work is a rather petty reason for killing someone but that wasn’t all – not by a long way.

He was having my house watched and my phones tapped. I know he was.

There was this old woman who just happened to move in opposite me and she kept looking out the window at me every time I came and went - writing it all down for Bloom, I’m sure. She denied it, of course, every time I asked her about it. I know she was lying.

Neighbourhood Watch, my eye!

I know the phones were bugged because of the little hint of delay on the line whenever I spoke – that little trace of echo. It’s a telltale sign. I read that somewhere.

In court, the phone company representative testified that there had been a minor fault on my phone line over the three weeks leading up to my attempting to bash out Bloom’s brains with a computer monitor. This was the cause of the faint echo, he said.

Imagine the power Bloom must have wielded to get the phone company to lie like that – under oath and everything.

He had it coming all right.

I was the best Software Engineer MakroTek had and he knew it. Okay, so maybe I didn’t suck up to him like the others. So maybe I didn’t socialise with the team after work. So what? If you’ve spent your whole day working with morons and arse-lickers, you wouldn’t want to waste your valuable time socialising with them out-of-hours, would you?

I had better things to do. I had plans to make - long-term plans which, if I’m not mistaken, are just about to pay off big-style.

I have now served five years, four months, thirteen days, seven hours and sixteen minutes of the Life sentence they handed down – not that I’m counting or anything, you understand.
I think Life was a little harsh given that I didn’t actually kill Bloom, but the court-appointed shrink said I was ‘delusional and given to episodes of paranoia’. I was, apparently, incurable and ‘likely to remain a danger to the public’.

I did explain that I was only a danger to Mr Kevin Bloom, but this did not seem to cut any ice with the judge, and so here I am in my three-by-three-by-three room with my mysterious brown stain.

And, of course, my new CopyRight 2000 Food Replicator.

Let’s see now. There are over three million lines of code controlling this baby.
I know because I’ve counted them.

In fact, I wrote most of them. Three million-plus lines. There’s no way they can have checked all of them, even if they wanted to - which I doubt they would since the CopyRight 2000 project was going to be seriously delayed now that its best Software Engineer had just been hauled away for performing a little cranial reconfiguration on the Project Manager.

It’s taken MakroTek four years to get the CopyRight 2000 into production and an extra year for the Prison Service to have one installed here.

Five years you’ve kept me waiting, you bastards.

‘Give me an aardvark sandwich.’ I hear my voice say.

I look down at what the machine has produced for me. Spot on.

They really should have taken the time to check the code – especially if the CopyRight 2000 was going to be installed in places like this, where who-knows-what crazy thing might be asked of it.

I wrote the Aardvark Sandwich algorithm never thinking I’d have to use it. It was only a just-in-case kind of thing. Paranoid Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance, as they say.

The MakroTek Corporation guarantees that the CopyRight 2000 will only ever produce food and nothing else. Boy, are they going to have some lawsuits on their hands.

I’m going to hide my "sandwich" under the mattress out of sight. Let me just make sure the safety catch is on: we don’t want any negligent discharges, do we?

Tonight is Prisoner Association – a whole hour where each crazy can get together with all the other crazies in this place. There are some real head-cases in here, you know. Serial killers, rapists, you name it.

I bet most of them will be just crazy enough to try an aardvark sandwich.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

PJ's Room

PJ, my friend of just a few weeks, has invited me to his place for coffee. He is a keen connoisseur of the bean, so it will actually be a steaming cup of Kenyan Peaberry, not a euphemism.

He's in the kitchen now, brewing up some hot black magic and I'm left alone in his room...

This odd little triangular space is all he has to call his own. The kitchen and bathing facilities are shared with other single men of limited means that share this hostel with him.

The sun is pouring in through the open window, the air smells of summer, and a bird is singing somewhere nearby out of sight...

I look around. It's all pretty unremarkable, clean and tidy – PJ is particular about cleanliness and order – I like this new thing I have learned about him.

We engage in the usual call-and-response which establishes that it's no thank you to both milk and sugar...

The single bed has been made, but is just a little rumpled where PJ has been sitting on it: there's only one chair and with quiet but insistent gallantry, he has given it to me. There is a small desk, cheap-looking but serviceable, and PJ's books are in a neat pile on top of it. I have a greedy eye for books, so I quickly snack on the spines. Most of the titles are concerned with ancient Egypt – a passion of PJ's. His Dungeons & Dragons books are there too. That's how I met him: at the local Wargamer's Club. We clicked within minutes of meeting.

The splash of coffee...

One wall of this room is taken up with a large built-in wardrobe-cum-vanity unit, complete with mirror and tiny washbasin – all spotless.

The tinkle-tinkle of spoon in cup...

Suddenly, all sound rushes away, and I am seized with an overwhelming impression, like a silent thunderclap. There is great pain here and tremendous loss, and a flash of barred windows. This man, my new friend, has spent time locked away somewhere – in a prison or hospital, I'm as sure of this as if the room had spoken aloud.

And just as suddenly, in the interval between tick and tock, the bird is singing again outside the window and PJ is pressing a mug of something that smells like heaven into my hand.

He is smiling, unconcerned that I have been alone here in his space, reading his books and his room, and oblivious to what has passed between us.