Tag Archives: William Stafford

The Widow and the Snow

“It’s sticking!” Davey cried, his nose pressed against the window.  Janet pulled him away and drew the curtains.

“Never mind that!  Bed!” she barked, steering the boy toward the stairs.  As he got ready for bed, he babbled about the falling snow and asked her how deep she thought it would be by morning.

“The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner you can go out in it,” she reminded him.  She pecked his forehead and turned out the light.

With Davey tucked in, she went downstairs.  The snow was coming down in earnest; the forecasts warned of a countrywide white-out for the weekend and it looked like, for once, they had got it right.  Already the garden was blanketed, already the world outside was muted.  Peaceful and pretty.

Janet steeled herself.  Knowing Davey, he would be up at first light and would hurl himself outdoors without dressing properly.  She put his wellies, his scarf, his bobble hat at the foot of the stairs, hoping to be able to intercept him.

Then she began the preparations for the ritual.  Her late husband’s hat, scarf and gloves, secured in their own suitcase, were fetched out from under the stairs.  Also in the case was the fragile scroll of parchment – there would be time to rehearse the incantation, she hoped.  One day, she knew, she would have to teach Davey the words, the rhythms, the gestures he would need to make it work.

Finally, she fished in the freezer for the Tupperware box that contained the final ingredient.  It would need a few hours to defrost.

Janet shivered, but not from the cold.  Hugging herself, she sat by the kitchen counter, looking at the items she had laid out.  As was usual every year, she wondered whether she should give it a miss.  It was time to move on, time to let Harry go, once and for all.

But Davey needed his father.  The chances of sufficient snowfall were few and far between.  And he was so looking forward to it, to seeing his dad again.

She prised the lid off the plastic container.  The vial glinted at her, its precious contents, like smoke, like pale green smoke, swirled as though to greet her.

“Hello, Henry,” she muttered.  “This is the last time.”

The smoke curled and roiled as though angry.  Janet could imagine her late husband’s voice, pleading, begging.  Find clay! Henry would urge.  Find clay and make me from it.  The snow is too fleeting, too transitory.  Make me from clay and I can stay around.  Davey needs his dad.

Janet snatched up the vial.  Her thumb toyed with the stopper.

“What about what I want?” she whispered.  “What about my needs?”

The smoke glowed angrily.  The glass grew hot in her hand.

“This is the last time, Henry,” she held the bottle to the light.  “When the snow melts, I won’t be putting you back in.  I’m sorry.”

Knocking at the back door startled her.  She almost dropped the vial and that would have been an end to it, her husband’s life-force dashed on the kitchen tiles.

It was Gerald, her neighbour.  Her handsome, hunky neighbour.

“Just checking in!” he grinned.  “Brought my trusty shovel if your path needs clearing!”

Janet hid the vial behind her back.  “You’re very kind,” she pouted.  “Do you remember, inviting me to dinner one night?”

“It still stands,” Gerald beamed, his blue eyes bright in his snow-reddened face.

“Good,” said Janet.  “Because I think I’m ready.”

Behind her back, her thumb flicked the cork from the bottle and the contents dispersed into the air.  Davey would be disappointed, but it was high time he learned that the past is like snow and you shouldn’t try to hang onto it.

window snow



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Meanwhile, at the Garden Centre

“Excuse me,” Saunders approached the woman in the green body warmer.  “Do you work here?”

The woman – the photo-card on the lanyard around her neck revealed her name was Katherine – pulled her attention away from the bedding plants she was crouching nearby and blinked at Saunders from beneath an unruly fringe.   “For my sins,” she smiled, rising to a standing position.  There was soil on her cheek, Saunders noticed, and her teeth were large and square like a horse’s.  Otherwise, she wasn’t in bad shape, he assessed.  It must be all the outdoor working and the lifting of heavy things like those flat, unwieldy bags of fertiliser.

She waited, her equine smile unwavering.  Saunders looked her up and down.  The green wellies, the chequered shirt, and the dungarees beneath the padded, sleeveless jerkin.  He supposed she had to wear this garb as some sort of uniform.

Katherine blinked.  It seemed unlikely the tall man currently towering over her was going to say any more so she helped him out with a prompt.  “How can I help?”

She looked up into his bland, expressionless face.  “Was it the pansies you were interested in?  Or…”

Saunders stared at her.  “Pansies?  No.  I do not wish to purchase any plants.  My query is something of a contrary nature.  I do not wish to buy any plants at all.  Quite the reverse.  You see, I have a plant of which I wish to be rid.”

“Ah.”  Katherine shook her head.  “I’m afraid we don’t do that kind of thing.  We don’t buy ’em, we only sell ’em.  I mean, we have our suppliers, of course, who keep us stocked up – but perhaps you’d like to speak to the manager?  Is it a lot?”

“Is what a lot?”

“The plants you want to sell.”

Saunders shook his head but his blank features remained unperturbed by the impatience in his voice.  “No, no; you are not understanding me.  There is just the one plant.  Just one.  And I have said nothing about selling it.  I wish to be rid of it.  I wish to destroy it.  I have made several attempts but it seems fortified against every attack.  No blade can harm it or even make as much as a scratch on it.  It is impervious to fire and I suspect it thrives on the various brands of weed killer I have rained upon it.  I have tried everything I can think of but I fear I have reached an impasse.  Please say you will help me,” he nodded at the lanyard, “Katherine.”

“Well,” Katherine exhaled an upward puff to dislodge her fringe.  “It’s a bit of a head-scratcher.”  Her eyes narrowed.  “What kind of plant did you say it was?”

“I did not,” Saunders retorted.  “Mainly because I do not know.  It is unlike anything I have ever seen.  I can find no listing for it in any work of botanical reference you can think of.”

“Hmm.  Have you tried Wikipedia?”

Saunders hung his head.  Katherine bit her lower lip.

“Perhaps you can describe it to me.  Then I’ll have some idea what we’re dealing with.”

Saunders let out a sigh, as if he knew it would be a waste of time.  “It’s tall,” he began, measuring the air.  “Easily as tall as me.  Its trunk is as thick as my chest and appears scaly, like it has its own suit of armour.  The leaves hang like dead snakes but they emit a noxious aroma periodically; the stench of rotting carrion.”

“Hmm,” said Katherine, trying to picture the plant.  “And where did you get it?”

“That is just it.  I did not ‘get it’.  It just turned up.  It is a blight in my garden, Katherine.  Everything else is dying.  It is a blight on my life.”

Katherine pursed her lips.  “I don’t suppose you have a photograph.”

“I do not; but perhaps you would do me the kindness of visiting my garden and taking a look for yourself.”

Alarm bells rang in Katherine’s mind.  She snatched up a nearby trowel, ready to defend herself.  “That won’t be possible!” she snapped.  “We don’t do house calls.”

“A pity,” said Saunders, gloomily.

His head split open from crown to chin and a long, green shoot sprang out, shaking off its human form and snaking around the garden centre worker before she knew what was happening.  Tendrils coiled around Katherine’s waist and throat, pinning her arms to her sides and binding her legs.  A leaf slapped across her mouth like a sticking plaster.

“A pity you could not be more trusting,” Saunders’s voice tickled her ear.  “Now I shall have to ingest you right here and regurgitate you for Mother when I get back.  She was so looking forward to a solid meal for a change.”




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A Midsummer Night’s Murders

“It’s a right bloody mess, that’s what it is,” opined Detective Inspector Goodfellow, surveying the scene.  The morning light cast shadows of tree trunks over the site, like prison bars.

“Verily,” agreed Detective Constable Selkie.  “Although there is more to do with dust than blood.”

“That’s what you get,” Goodfellow held a handkerchief to his mouth.  “With the fairy folk.  Kill them and they turn to dust.  Like something you’d find under your bed.”

“So many… It looks like the whole of Oberon’s court.”

“A bloodbath – a dust bath.”  Goodfellow’s toe struck something shiny.  He stooped and retrieved it with his pencil.  It was a tiny, intricate thing, glistening in the sunlight, bejewelled with dew.  “Oberon’s crown…” Goodfellow marvelled.

Selkie shook her head.  “The King is dead.  Long live…  Who?  Who stands to sit on the throne now?”

Goodfellow shrugged.  “Titania’s diadem.  Over there.  Mustardseed’s wings… Someone really went to town on this bunch of fairies.”

“But who?”

“Our job to find out.  Duke Theseus is keen to keep this thing under wraps.  Swift resolution before the rest of the Underworld finds out.  Last thing we need is that lot waging supernatural war against Athens.”

Selkie nodded.  “Those youngsters who were messing about in the forest.”

Goodfellow shook his head.  “Already questioned.  They were all off their tits on love potion.  Courtesy of…” he dropped into a crouch, “this little chap here.”

Selkie held her breath lest she blow away the dusty form of Puck.

“Know him?”

“He had form.  Now he is formless.”  Goodfellow grimaced bitterly at his own humour.

“I don’t get it.  All those lives, snuffed out.  It makes no sense.  Who could possibly have a grudge against the fairy folk?”

Goodfellow held up a hand to silence his partner.  He took stealthy strides toward a thicket.  Selkie followed, taking care not to step on any dusty corpses.

A child was sobbing on the ground, hugging his knees, his turban askew.

“Oh, you poor thing,” cooed Selkie.  “He must have hidden in here to escape the carnage.”  She beckoned to the boy, telling him everything was going to be all right, no one was going to hurt him.

The boy looked up, warily.  He gave a wet sniff and surrendered himself to Selkie’s arms.

“A changeling…” Goodfellow realised.  “Oberon snatched him from India, it looks like.  Poor little chap.”

“We’ll get him down the station and have social services have a look at him.”

Selkie headed back to the car.  The boy watched Goodfellow over her shoulder, his eyes expressionless and unblinking.

Too late Goodfellow noticed the dusty handprints the boy was leaving on Selkie’s back.



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The Last Man in the World

The last man in the world woke up.  He cursed his fate; perhaps one of these nights, he would die in his sleep and not have to face yet another bloody day of solitude.  A nice, quiet heart attack would suit, in the wee small hours, so slight he wouldn’t feel more than a pinch but enough to finish him off, once and for all.

And then what?  If I, the last man in the world, pop my clogs, what next for this poor, benighted planet?

Not my problem, the last man in the world shrugged.  Whatever transpires, planet Earth will be a lot better off, finally cleansed of its human infestation.  The Earth will be able to heal itself at last, and Mother Nature will be able to reassert herself as the dominant force.  Thinking of the fresh air and the renewed greenery almost made the last man in the world wish he’d be around to see it, to breathe it, to run around barefoot in it…

He got out of bed.  He considered having a wash – which was the closest he had come to actually washing himself in… how long?  He couldn’t remember.  And who cared?  There was no one around to complain about his b.o. or the halitosis that wafted through his unbrushed teeth.

And you might feel better

A small voice popped into his head.

Better in yourself if you have a wash.  Refreshed.  You don’t have to go the whole hog, just spruce yourself up a bit.  Change your socks at least.  Drag a comb across your bonce.

“What’s the point?” the last man in the world cried out, silencing the small voice for a moment.

You want to watch that

It piped up after a brief but deafening silence.

Shouting at me like that.  If I stop talking to you, there really will be no one left.  And then where will you be, eh?  Well and truly on your lonesome.  And that way, madness lies!

“Shut up,” the last man in the world grumbled.  He padded across the apartment to the kitchen and put the kettle on.

No sugar in mine

“Make your bloody own!”

He stood by the kettle, listening to its rumbles growing to a roar and an eruption of steam.  He made camomile tea but left it on the counter and it went cold, forgotten.

The last man in the world decided to put some music on.  It would help him to ignore that small, nagging voice in his head.  But the more he scanned the rows and rows of albums he had collected over the years, the less able he was to make a selection.  Nothing appealed.  Nothing took his fancy.  Pieces he had loved for years had taken on the appeal of cold vomit.

It was the same with films.  Nothing in his collection seemed worth watching.  Nothing suited his mood.  Unable to choose, he stood dithering at his shelves for an hour.  At least that killed sixty minutes, he supposed.  He went back to bed.

It’s too soon.  You’ve only just got up.  You haven’t done anything.  You should get up.  Move about a bit.  Tire yourself out.

“Leave me alone,” the last man in the world put a pillow over his face.  “Just let me lie here in peace, damn you.”

Sleep would not come.  Why would it?  The small voice was right: he had not used enough energy for the slightest amount of physical fatigue.  Energy?  That was a laugh; the last man in the world lacked the energy to do anything.

But I am so tired, he wailed.  Tired of the same thoughts going around and around in my head.  I just want them to stop.

Hang about!

The small voice interrupted the last man in the world’s thoughts before they could begin another cycle.


There’s still running water


In the taps.  You filled the kettle – There’s still electricity to boil the water! There’s still power for all the music you no longer listen to and the films you don’t want to watch

The last man in the world lifted the pillow from his face.  “What do you mean?”

Think about it.  If there’s power and there’s water, there’s somebody else!  Out there!  You’re not the last man in the world after all

The last man in the world shook his head.  “Automated systems.  Same goes for the food delivery, before you say anything.  It’s all drones and such.”

But the small voice would not be appeased.

Wouldn’t hurt to go and have a look.  Get some fresh air, feel the sun on your face

“Get lost!” the last man in the world snarled.  “Get out of my head!”

He clamped the pillow to his face and thrashed around on the unmade bed.

What are you afraid of?  Are you afraid you’ll find others out there?  Other people who think and feel the way you do.  Or are you worried that you won’t?  That you’ll find out once and for all that your truly are the last man in the world.  Instead of just carrying on as though you are.  It’s pathetic.  You’re pathetic.  You’re not the last man in the world; you’re depressed, that’s all.  Pick yourself up off this bed this minute.  Put your shoes on and march through that front door

“Or else?”

Or else I’ll stop speaking to you

“Promises, promises.”

And then you really will be all alone

“All right, all right!”  The last man in the world hurled the pillow across the room, sat up and snatched his shoes from under the bed.  “If it’ll make you stop nagging,” he muttered, tying the laces.

You’ll feel better

The small voice promised.

The last man in the world stood.  He froze.  He looked across the apartment.  The front door seemed an impossibly long way away.



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The Elephant in the Room

“Gosh!  Will you look at this, you chaps?”  Hemming shone his torch into the room.  Over his shoulders, Pearce peered and Covington cowered.

“I don’t think we ought –” Covington jabbered.  In terror, he buried his face into the shoulder of Pearce’s blazer.   Pearce shrugged him off.

“Grow up, Covvy,” he sneered.  “We’re forty-eight not fourteen.”

“Even so, I don’t think we ought – Out of respect and all that.”

Hemming rounded on him; Covington recoiled, squinting from the flashlight.  Hemming too was glaring.

“Forty-eight and still entirely without balls, eh, Covvy?  I’ll say this only once and then what you bloody do is up to you.  Squiffy’s with me, aren’t you, Squiffy?”

“Bloody am!” Pearce confirmed with a grave nod.

“This place is ours now – well, the Consortium’s.  So we have every right – and what better way to show our respects than to raise a glass to the Old Bastard in his own office?  Which is now technically our office, and which is soon to be the fourth floor of a multi-storey car park and part of the largest retail park in the whole bloody county.  Wahey!”

“I should cocoa,” Pearce agreed.

“So come on in or bugger off; it’s entirely up to you.  See if I care.”  Hemming strode into the room and perched on a stack of boxes.  “About here, his desk was, wouldn’t you say?”

“Rather!” said Pearce, joining him.  Hemming gripped a bottle of champagne between his knees and twisted the cork.

“Bring those glasses, will you, old boy?”

“Rather,” said Pearce.

Covington remained in the doorway and peered at the scene.  In the gloom and after the passage of three decades, it was difficult to believe this room had been the Old Bastard’s lair.  Stripped of all furniture and denuded of decoration, the office seemed paradoxically smaller.  Or perhaps, Covington reflected, it is we who have grown?  Hemming certainly had – mostly around the middle – and he, Covington, had always been what people used to call ‘portly’.  What had once been dismissed as puppy fat was still hanging on his frame – doggedly, you might say, what!  But Pearce.  Good old Sheridan ‘Squiffy’ Pearce was as lithe and taut as he had ever been.  A bit weathered around the eyes, perhaps, with the odd fleck of white in his moustache, certainly, but of the three of us, he was certainly the best preserved.  And it made Covington feel a kind of warmth, to think they had stayed in touch, throughout all these years.

“I say, Hemming,” he called from the doorway.  “Do you ever hear from Whatsisface these days?”

“Who?” Hemming grunted, still twisting the bottle neck.

“Whojimmyflop – Perkins!”  Covington wracked his memory.  “Good old Percy Perkins!”

Hemming let the name sink in.  He shook his head sadly.  “No, can’t say that I have.”

“After it happened, he sort of disappeared,” nodded Pearce.

“That’s right,” Hemming agreed.  “Got sent down.  Quite right, too, after what he did.  Dreadful shame, though.  I always liked Percy Perkins.  He was a good egg.”

“Um…” Covington, who had only arrived at the school the term after ‘it’ had taken place, inched a few footsteps over the threshold.  “What did he do exactly?  Your friend, Perkins.”

Hemming and Pearce glanced at each other, enjoying the memory of a secret shared.

“Oh, I suppose it won’t hurt to let you in on it,” Hemming conceded.  “After all this time.  And you are part of the Consortium, after all.”

He jerked his head, beckoning Covington to approach.  Hemming lowered his voice so Covington would have no choice but to draw nearer.

“Did you never hear the story about the elephant, Covvy?”

Covington’s eyes darted as his mind raced.  His jaw dropped.  “You mean – but that – that was just a legend, wasn’t it?  Something to tell the younger boys.”

“On the contrary!  It was all true.”

“Rather!” confirmed Pearce.

“And it happened right here, in this very room.”

Covington’s eyes widened as they appraised his surroundings anew.

“That’s right.  In this very spot it stood.  Right where you are now.”

Covington’s mouth worked and his eyebrows dipped in a frown; it was a while before he could get any words out.  “But – how?  Where?  It’s impossible!”

“How: we shall never know,” Hemming shook his head.  “Perhaps Perkins was some kind of magician.  And as for the where – well, there is a safari park not far from here – which is why our retail park is so well-placed.  Shop till you drop and then take a leisurely drive through some animals – their enclosures, I mean, of course.”

Pearce nodded sagely.

“Of course, the whole thing was hushed up,” Hemming continued.

“Utterly,” added Pearce.  He even placed a finger on his lips as illustration.

“It’s reckoned it’s what triggered the heart condition that eventually finished the Old Bastard off.”


Hemming and Pearce nodded gravely.

“Of course, we – the boys, the staff, even the groundsmen – were under strict instruction never to talk about it.  Not to breathe a word.  The Old Bastard was keen not to have his reputation undermined.  If word got out that he had been made a fool of – well!” Hemming gestured expansively as if the dire consequences were self-evident.

Covington wasn’t listening.  “I suppose if you took those windows out and got a crane – a bloody big one, mind you – Er, how did they get it out again?”


“Perkins’s elephant!”

“They didn’t,” laughed Hemming.

“I should cocoa,” Pearce joined in.

“He couldn’t, you see.  So the Old Bastard kept it in here.  And no one was allowed to say a word about it.  You had to pretend it wasn’t here.  So, when he called you in for a talking-to, or a telling-off, or what-have-you…”

“Six of the best,” Pearce interjected.

“You had to squeeze into a corner and pretend it wasn’t there.  We all got used to it, after the novelty had worn off.”

Covington’s frown deepened.  “But what about the smell?”

Hemming smirked.  “I suppose the elephant got used to it.”

At last, his efforts to liberate the cork proved successful.  Pearce cheered, eagerly holding up the glassed.

“Wahey!” Hemming cried as he poured.

The trio clinked their glasses together and raised them in a toast.

“To Percy Perkins!” proposed Pearce.

“To the Old Bastard!” cried Hemming.

“To the elephant!” suggested Covington.  They drank heartily to all three and to each other and to their Consortium.

Later, as they staggered down to their cars, Covington nudged both Pearce and Hemming.

“You were having me on, just then.  Own up!”

“What?” Pearce was puzzled.

“No, we really want you in the Consortium,” grinned Hemming.

“Not about that.  About the elephant.  I don’t see how it was possible.  Nobody puts an elephant in their headmaster’s office.”

“Don’t they?” Hemming pulled a quizzical face.

“I mean, I think it’s a good story and all that, but, as you said, the Bastard was Old and had a heart condition.  I think perhaps your friend Peter Perkins –”

“Percy!” Pearce corrected.

“I think he did something else.  Scared the old man some other way.  Perhaps – perhaps – he knew something – and he threatened to blab – perhaps.”

Hemming and Pearce stopped in their tracks, all humour evaporated.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Hemming, his lips tight.

“Some things you just don’t speak of, old man,” said Pearce.

Sensing they were no longer in the party mood, Covington let himself into his car.  As he drove away, he glanced in the rear-view mirror.  His friends were still there but they were not watching him drive away.  They had turned their backs and were gazing up at the headmaster’s window.

What had happened in that office?  Covington would never know.  What was so bad that the entire school would enter into a conspiracy to scare an old man to death?  Carrying on as though there was an elephant in his office and he was the only one who couldn’t see it!  It was absurd!  What had the so-called Old Bastard done to deserve that?

A shudder of realisation ran down Covington’s spine.

All those boys, those poor boys…

It was no wonder Covington’s chums had strived for years to gain the means to knock the building down.




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Meanwhile, on the Chat Show…

Johnny: Good morning, Chad, Angelista.  Wonderful to have you on the show.  How are you enjoying the British weather?

Angelista: It’s cute.

J:  That’s one word for it!  You’re here to tell us about your new film; and it’s something that might strike a chord with some of our older viewers because it’s – well, why don’t I let you tell us?

A: Yes, why don’t you?

Chad: If I may: it’s a very British story from the 50s.

A: The 60s.

C: Right, the 60s.  Started out as a puppet show.

A: Stop motion animation.

C: What?

A: It’s not puppets, it’s stop frame animation, when they move it a little bit then take a shot, then they move it some more and so on and so forth.

J: Ha-ha, right.  But in your new version, you’re not puppets?

A: Not all of us, no.

C: We’re real.  Few prosthetics here and there.  I had to wear a fat suit.

A: Not that you need it.

J: Ha.  So, what attracted you to the project?  What made you want to be involved in a reboot of Pogles’ Wood?

A: The cash!  Hah!

C: And the chance to work with Kenny.

A: Monty.

C: Monty.  Marvellous director.

A: Fabulous.

C: And the time is right, you know.  For these stories – these marvellous stories to be told again.  But with a modern twist, you know.

J: Tell me more.  Will the purists be up in arms?

A: Well, we hope not.  We hope we’ve come at the material with respect.  Last thing we need is some nonagenarian nerds slagging us off on Twitter.

J: Ha!

C: But you’ve got to move with the times, right?

J: So, the title has been changed – to Pogles’ World?

A: That’s right.  We’ve opened the story out.  They’ve got a whole planet now.

J; And Mr Pogle…

C: That’s me.

J: Mr Pogle has a spaceship.

C: Right on.  The special effects on this project – so awesome.  They really raise the bar on this one.  Hoo-ee!

J: Right.  And Mrs Pogle?

A: I – unbeknownst to my husband – am Chief of the Secret Police.

C: But then I find out.  Hoo-ee!  Then the sparks fly.  We’ve got chases and shoot-outs like you’ve never seen before.  It’s going to rock your socks off, I promise you.

J: Right… And as Pippin, there’s a relative unknown, isn’t there?

A: Who?

J: Playing your son.  Pippin.

C: That’s right.  Jonathan Hartley-Farrington.  Awesome kid.  Never acted before.  They chose him from over thirty thousand kids.  He’s just a natural.  You’re going to love him.

J: But he died on the set.

A: True.

J: On his first day.

C: Great shame.  Waste of potential, am I right?  But they’ve CGIed him into the rest of the movie.  You can’t see the join.  Can’t have the Pogles without Pippin, can you?  And wait till you see Tog!  You know Tog, right?  That kind of squirrelly thing – what is that, I don’t know?  Well, in this one, Tog is a robot.  State of the art.  Got three midgets inside of it.  So convincing.

A: Two.  Don’t exaggerate and don’t say midgets.

C: Honestly, you’ve going to love it.  And the film is dedicated to Jonathan’s memory, which is a nice touch.

A: Because that’s what Pogles’ World is all about: family.

C: It is?  I thought it was about the environment.

A: Did you even read the script?

J: So, um, guys.  Nitty-gritty time.  What was it like working together again for the first time since your very public, very messy divorce?  Was it awkward?  Was it hard?

A: Nah.

C: Not really.

A: We’re professionals.

C: They pay me to be nice to her.

J: And your kids?  Were they around the set much?

A: Are you kidding me?

C: We don’t want our kids to see any of this stuff.  We’ve gone hard on this one, gone for the R rating.  What is that here, 18?

A: Violence and gore.

C: And a little bit of sex.

A: A very little bit!

C: Tramp!

J:  So, it’s not a family film, then?

A: Manson Family, maybe.

C:  It’s what the public want.  We had focus groups all over the States.  They want explosions and chases and all sorts of derring-do.

J:  You didn’t think to consult a British audience?

A:  No?

C:  Why would we?  The States is where the money is at.  We’re bringing the story to a new audience.  Sure, we’ve made some compromises.

A:  We’ve got Sly Stallone narrating.

C:  But it’s a real thrill ride.  I can promise you that.

J:  Right.  Well.  I look forward to stumbling across the DVD in the pound shop.  Angelista, Chad, thank you.

C:  Pogles out!

A: Get me my agent.




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Meanwhile, in the coffee shop…

Bobby steeled himself as he waited to be served.  So far, things were going in his favour.  Stefan, his favourite barista, was on the till, taking orders.  It would be easier to speak to him.  If he’d been making the drinks, Bobby would be lucky to get a nod and a smile.  Making the drinks… Bashing the beans!  Did they call it that?  Was that barista talk for making coffee?  Probably not.  Focus, Bobby, focus!  Keep your mind clear so you can pop the question – Oh, God, no!  Not that!  You’re not popping the question.  Nothing as serious as all that.  You’re just asking a question, and, with a bit of luck, you won’t be popping anything.

Keep it light.  Keep it simple.  Keep it direct.  Then, if he says No, you can move on, collect your coffee from the other end of the counter and make a dignified exit.  Then hitch a ride on the next rocket that’s being fired directly into the sun.

It’s just a drink.  You’re only asking him for a drink.  Although… ‘a drink’ sounds a bit like ‘a date’, doesn’t it?  Best to rein it in a bit, eh? ‘Fancy a couple of beers?’  Is that better?  Or is that too blokey?  Too laddish?  You don’t want to friend-zone yourself; you want to make it clear there is room for romantic involvement.

What if he doesn’t drink?  What if he can’t drink?  He might have some kind of condition.  What if he’s a recovering alcoholic?

Stop.  Wait.  Think about it.  You’ve stalked his Instagram enough times to know he enjoys more than the occasional tipple.  All those pics of bleary-eyed nights out.  With his friends.  All those people with their arms around him.  Who are they?  What if one of them’s his boyfriend?  Which one?  That tall one with the hair.  That’s who I would choose.  I bet it’s him.  I bet he’s Stefan’s boyfriend.

Coffee, then?  That’s innocent enough.  No pressure.  Or is it too friend-zoney?

Wait!  You twat!  What are you thinking?  He doesn’t want to go for coffee – he works in a bloody coffee shop.  And he won’t go to one of the competitors’ places – he’d probably get the sack for disloyalty or something if he did.  And here, he probably gets staff discount.  And he’s probably sick of the stuff anyway.  It must be like working in a sweetshop –

“Yes?  Oh, hello!” Stefan beamed at his favourite customer.  “Your usual?”

“Um…” Bobby nodded, feeling his cheeks turn red.  “Please.”

Stefan’s fingers danced on the keypad.  Bobby fumbled a fiver across the counter while Stefan scrawled on a cardboard cup.

“Anything else?” Stefan waited with bated breath.

“Um, thank – no – you,” Bobby blustered, flustered and tongue-tied.

“Loyalty card?”

“Um…” Bobby fished it from his wallet, his fingers flabby like uncooked sausages.  Stefan smirked and stamped the card.  Twice.  He handed it back and his hand brushed against Bobby’s.  Bobby let out a laugh of shock and thrill.

“Nice to see you,” Stefan grinned, holding eye contact.

“Nice to you too,” Bobby burbled.

And that was it.  The moment was gone.  Bobby faced another week of agonising, of building himself up, only to chicken out all over again.

“Americano!” cried the girl at the service end of the counter.  “Americano for Bobby?”

“Um, that’s me,” Bobby shuffled along and reached for the cup.  He couldn’t get out of there fast enough, ignoring the splashes of hot liquid that escaped from the loose-fitting plastic lid and scalded his hands.  Out in the street, he gulped lungfuls of cool air.

What a twat what a twat what a twat!

His stomach lurching, he dropped the coffee into a litterbin and skulked back to the office.

In the coffee shop, Stefan’s grin was all the wider.  At last, he had dared to do it.  He had finally plucked up the courage to jot his phone number on Bobby’s cup.  Perhaps today was the day Bobby would get in touch…



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Two phone calls on Valentine’s Day

“Look, I know it’s you.  I know it’s you who has been sending me all these things.  Don’t bother trying to deny it.  It’s got to stop.  All the flowers, the boxes of chocolates, the junk jewellery.  I don’t want aeroplanes writing my name in the sky.  I don’t want serenading.  I don’t want any of this.  I just want to be able to go about my life without fear of a gypsy violinist jumping out from behind a hedge and playing soppy music at me.  It’s embarrassing.  I don’t want you calling me at work.  Or at home.  I don’t want any of this.  I don’t want you.  That’s the bottom line.  I.  Don’t.  Want.  You.  Why can’t you get that through your thick head?  Are you listening to me?  I know you’re there; I can hear you breathing.  I can see your curtains twitching.  That’s another thing: always watching me from across the road.  Bet you’ve got binoculars trained on my house at all times.  Bloody pervert.  And don’t bother with the old ‘I’ll kill myself’ routine.  You can’t blackmail me into feeling something for you.  And if you really loved me – like you keep saying you do – you’ll respect my wishes and bloody well leave me alone.  I can’t take it anymore.  It’s too stressful.  I’m sick of this. You’re making me ill.  Am I getting through to you?  I better be – or – or – Hold on – something’s wrong – Can’t…breathe.   My chest!  My arm!  Can’t…  Get help!  Please!  Send an ambulance; you know where I live…Ah!  Please!  Help me!”

“Hello, Ambulance, please.  There’s a young woman having a cardiac arrest.  And over the road, her neighbour is committing suicide.  If you get there in time, you can help her.  And you’ll find my organ donor card in my top pocket.  I know we’re compatible – I know everything about her – promise me you’ll give her my heart.”



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The Bank Queue

“How can I help you today?”

Steinar the Viking looked at the diminutive woman who was smiling up at him.  Her circular spectacles gave her the appearance of an owl – a bird of ill omen.

“Be gone, wench,” Steinar sneered.  “It is with the teller I wish to speak.”

The woman – whose name badge revealed her to be ‘Diane’ – smiled.  “Perhaps you could use the machine.  It would save you queuing.”

Steinar looked around uncertainly.  The bank was a brightly lit place with posters of smiling people, tickled pink to be granted mortgages and savings accounts.

“Paying in, are you?” Diane nodded at the sack slung over his shoulder.

“Spoils,” Steinar grunted with a nod.  “The booty of a hundred pillages.”

“Cash, then…” Diane’s fingers danced on an iPad.

“Also the jewels of a thousand virgins – although, they are virgins no longer, if you know what I mean.”  Steinar winked at the bank employee.  For a second, Diane’s customer-service smile faltered.

“Jewels… We can offer you a safety deposit box at a reasonable monthly rate.  There is a minimum twelve month rental on that, though.”

The queue inched forward.  Steinar was just one person away from the head of the line.

“Would that be of interest to you at all?”  Diane blinked.

“Nah…” said Steinar.  “I’m just paying this lot in.”

“You could deposit the lot in a drawer,” Diane nodded at a handle on the wall.  “Perfectly safe.  The funds will be counted later and added to your account.”

“No,” Steinar stood firm.  “I must get the slip stamped or the Chief will skin me alive.”

“Oh, we can’t have that, can we?” Diane sympathised.  “Just trying to save you waiting, that’s all.”

“It’s fine,” said Steinar.  “I don’t mind waiting during works time.”

Diane nodded and moved to the person behind him.  Steinar was at the front of the queue now.  There were five tills ahead but only two of them were staffed.  He glanced over his shoulder at the others waiting behind him.

“Typical, isn’t it, eh?” he rolled his eyes.   The other customers would not meet his gaze.

“Next, please,” said a teller, sounding bored.  Steinar approached in three strides and heaved his sack onto the counter.  The teller was crestfallen.

“Didn’t anyone tell you you could use the ATM?”

Steinar let out a roar.  He snatched a pair of axes from his belt and, twirling them expertly, lopped off the teller’s head.

The people in the queue tutted.

“I apologise, everyone,” Diane addressed them, “but as soon as Pearl comes off her break, we’ll open another till.  Meanwhile, has anyone thought about using the machine?”




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Tina and Julie

“What’s this in aid of?”  Julie stood before Tina’s desk, her chest heaving, her face red.  She was holding out a sheet of paper torn from the wall above the sink in the staff kitchen.

“What it says,” said Tina, keeping her eyes on her monitor.  Julie let out a roar of contempt.  She held the paper as though it were a scroll and read it out in a declamatory tone.

“A message from the cups,” she began.  She rolled her eyes and cleared her throat but Tina wasn’t watching.  Tina continued to type – or affected to.  Julie went on.  “‘Please don’t leave us unwashed and lying around like neglected children.  Put us to beddy-byes in the dishwasher.’ What is this shit, Tina?”

“People need to wash up their cups,” Tina shrugged her narrow shoulders.  She pressed her thin lips together so Julie wouldn’t see them tremble.

“But this!” Julie brandished the poster.  “This passive-aggressive bollocks.  We’re not children, Tina.  Look at this: there’s a clipart picture of a cup and saucer with googly eyes.  And it says THANK YOU with about twenty exclamation marks, for crying out loud.”

“I’m not prepared to discuss this with you, not while you’re being so emotional, Julie.”

Julie roared again, out of frustration this time.  She turned away and Tina held her breath; perhaps Julie was about to leave – but no, she merely closed the door.  Gently – which surprised Tina.  Usually Julie went in for the all-out slam.  Tina’s eyes darted around for potential escape routes.  She didn’t like having the buxom frame of Julie between her and the exit.  Julie pulled up a chair and sat.

“Is this about me?  Is it?  Some kind of dig?”  Her voice was even, measured, all anger abated.

“Not if you wash your cups,” Tina sniffed, keeping her eyes averted.  Perhaps she should switch on the intercom then everyone in the outer office would hear and could come to her rescue if Julie turned ugly.  Uglier.

“Not that bit.  This bit.  The bit about the abandoned children.”



“It doesn’t say ‘abandoned’, it says ‘neglected’.”

“Same difference.”

“Oh, you would say that, wouldn’t you?” Tina sprang to her feet and snatched the paper.  She tore it into pieces, sobbing with fury.

“Tina!” Julie reached out.  “Tina – love.”

Tina recoiled.  “Don’t you ‘love’ me!  You never loved me.”

Julie shook her head.  “I knew you working here was a mistake.  Listen, I’ve told you before.  I gave you up for adoption because I couldn’t give you the life you deserved.  I was too young.  No prospects.  But look at you now: office manager, team leader.  I am proud of you, you know.”

Tina sniffed.  She rooted in the sleeve of her cardigan for a tissue and blew her nose.

“Look,” Julie smiled, “You’ve got to know me.  I’m not the mothering sort, am I?  Although it’s not me leaving the mugs out.”  She leaned in, confidentially, “I reckon it’s that Janice in Accounts.”

Tina looked up from behind her crumpled tissue.  “Really?”

“Bet you any money.  You see, if you want to know something, just ask.  No need to dress it all up in silly notices, is there?”

“No,” Tina giggled.  “Feel silly now.”

“Well, there’s no need, is there?”  Julie moved to the door.  “Send her in, shall I?  Janice?”

“Just a minute.”  Tina composed herself and sat up straight.  She pointed an imperious finger at the chair Julie had just vacated.  “I’ve had a word with HR about you cooking your fish in the microwave.”



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