Posts Tagged ‘humour’

Night Thoughts

Posted: June 16, 2019 in Chat
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To be able to say, ‘Here was where
I had made a wrong decision.
And at this point, see, I was right’

to admit, ‘Here I had not thought through
to the consequences of everything
that I was going to do.
It was only half done – but then,
everything I’ve done’s been half done.’

And here: ‘Something said five years ago
toppled my equilibrium, much later
when poise was essential.’

And admit at times I have maybe become
the kind of person I most hate.

 

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Love, Nina, by Nina Stibbe. Published by Penguin Books, 2013.
ISBN 9780241965092

This is the type of book I do not usually take to.
Ah, but then, it is a clever book, it juggles with the questions this ‘type’ of book prompts.

The book is usually classed as non-fiction. It is presented as edited letters home – from a nanny new to London, in the 1980’s.
But the book was published in 2013. And in between? A career in publishing, family, children. In between, then, were years gaining skills in ‘the literary world’, the social and political ‘worlds’ of London, work, motherhood. A honing of skills, purpose, sense of self, awareness of the world.
There is almost a Bridget Jones aspect here, but Nina does not do the knowing semi-metropolitan sophisticat.

She wished, Nina Stibbe said in an interview of the time of publication, that she had made… (a certain character – see below)… more funny. But she saw him at the time as just a middle-aged man. Made?
And also in this comment are clues to the workings of the book.

The book plays with the genre of epistolary novels, with the innocent abroad, with the ingénue.
It is a book of two parts: 1982 -84 working as a nanny in London; 1984-87 as full time student at Thames Polytechnic.
In both parts she lived in the same small part of London: Gloucester Crescent/Regent Park Terrace,  within range of the morning waking sounds of London zoo.

As a student she admitted to having pangs for the life her fellow students lived. She was fully aware by then of the cocooned and sheltered life she lived there. It cherished her abilities, and widened her life skills and knowledge, despite that.

Across the Crescent lived the writer Alan Bennett, a frequent supper visitor to their house (the middle-aged man, above). Next door was Claire Tomalin, critic and writer. Across the Crescent further down was novelist Deborah Moggach, and Jonathon Miller. Also on the Crescent was the widow of composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams (‘A composer called Ralph?’).
Alan Bennett’s driveway was always occupied – a passing comment. We only need to think of his The Lady In The Van, to see the significance of this.
Nina was nanny to MK, deputy editor of the London Review of Books, and her two young sons.
Who’s George Melly?’ she wrote her sister, Vic, back in Leicester. ‘I’m in his bedroom.

With this set-up the character of the book must needs weave her ingénue path through influences and influencers, whilst retaining that innocence the reader identifies with. This requires very delicate balancing tricks.
And this is where the two-part structure of the book works. The ingénue nanny cannot remain uninfluenced by her environment. It would lose the reader’s trust, and the character’s credibility.
The nanny, Nina, began to study A Levels, in the vague hope of gaining more education. This is where the delicate balancing really comes to the fore. She could either come across as an unliterate boor and bore, blocking all attempts at knowledge, in order to retain the ingénue state. Or  change.
The book would be amusing, but limited, one-dimensional, if she had chosen the first path.

Scraping through her A Levels she gained admission to a degree course. But lived still in the same small cocoon. And here we see her grow: she loved the course, and her subjects – especially American drama and fiction. Instead of maintaining the suffocating and provincial self that she began with, the character-self was allowed to grow and develop.

One episode has the tutor take her students to a dress rehearsal; a Samuel Beckett play. It had Billie Whitelaw as actor.
Whilst watching the rehearsal the author was distracted by someone muttering behind them. Turning round she recognised Samuel Beckett himself; he’d come for Billie Whitelaw’s acting, of course.
She was the only one of the group saw him. Afterwards she had the task of persuading them it really had been him. The clincher was her description: Handsome but very old… symmetrical, upright, still, slight second-glass occlusion of the jaw’ (she had been a dental assistant at one point) ‘… a well-groomed fisherman.’
This, of course, is the classic photograph of Samuel Beckett, in – is it a pea jacket? – roll-neck seaman’s sweater.

Where do truth and fiction meet?
That is the question the book juggles with throughout. Her favourite course at Thames, was Autobiography and Fiction. Was there such a course? Or is this pure fiction, introducing us, the reader, to the inner dynamics of this book?
She ruminates on the balancing acts between autobiography and the requirements of fiction in the book. This is the biggest clue to the craft and skill she is employing here.
… writing truthfully is very hard…’ she writes…‘In the end the writing wins and you have you assume  it was the way it seems in the writing of it.’
‘Which is why you might be less than truthful… :to tell the truth you have to lie a bit.’
Lying is a major theme throughout the book: the little lies, the white lies, the inadvertent lies, the face-saving ones, the life-giving ones, and the whopping big ones.
‘Who threw newspaper all over your bed and floor? they ask young Sam in hospital.
‘Frank Bruno.He asked me how I was; I told him to f-off. He got annoyed and threw it all about’.

 

I have been wondering what connect there could be between a sophisticated L-R-Books deputy editor, and a nanny from the provinces with no higher education?
The big one was, of course, the children. The Nina-character went out of her way constantly to support and tend to them.
But there was also the ‘man’ issue. Nina came from a one-parent background, into another one.
This is one of the book’s big strengths, the taking down of men off their pedestal. God knows why and how they got up there to begin with.
Men are always presented as peculiar, ‘other’, strange. Hang on, isn’t that how some men see women? Still?
One of these peculiar creatures is the boyfriend who ‘must always masturbate before he can sleep’.
Yes, but he’s not being literal: a slave to his physiology. No, it’s code for him wanting a ‘hands-on’ girlfriend. How many have tried this one!
And Alan Bennett, unthreatening, homely, safe – yet he constantly surprises everyone, himself included, with his extensive and real knowledge of how household appliances work.
The oddness of others is a constant theme of shared discussion throughout the book.
And also I suspect – and here you have to know some of the Nina Stibbe backstory – the two women looked after and looked out for each other. MK looked after Nina the nanny, a young woman with much potential she had not been able to realise through the neglect that was the role of women in that period, that society.

One of my favourite episodes in the book occurs when she notices young Sam looking at his hands. ‘He does that a lot.’ says William, his brother. Are you looking at something? Or are you thinking?
Yes. No. Sometimes. Both.

So she tries it, it brings out in her a meditative mood. Up that point we have seen her quirky, hands-on, and impatient, even brusque, with abstraction, with the theory part of her degree course.
She discussed this eloquently with MK, her employer.
MK listened, then instantly turned to practical things, her mother’s recipe, for instance.

How do you read this? That is the key to the book – how you ‘read’ it. So much is suggested, by tone of voice, clipping of self-response, that the reader is drawn in to engage, fill in the gaps, the backgrounds, from clues given.

So, why do I not usually take to this type of book?
Well, look at the time and place: London, the 1980s.
What was going on in the bigger world? IRA bombings; Chernobyl in 1986 – I still hold that the need to be open about this disaster was the crucial factor behind Gorbochov’s later Glasnost and Perestroika programmes, and, well, the collapse of 1989.
Then there are the first instances of the AIDS disaster.
And what we get is a cocoon of closed-off lives.
An elite, living in their own shut-off world.
Except it isn’t, Alan Bennett had just published his book on Philby in Russia, An Englishman Abroad; he introduced current TV people into the little circle. The children were avid newspaper readers; their regular TV shows Coronation Street, The Young Ones, football: soaps, satire, and sport.

On a smaller scale we have the burgeoning 1980s music scene – apart from Prince’s Red Corvette, little makes any impact.
What we do get are the fashions in new foods going through London at the time: new menus and recipes. And we get make-up styles appearing, clothes styles, hair styles.
On the bigger scale there’s mention of someone wearing a checkered scarf, called an Arafat scarf.
This is the Labour and Socialist influence: both big supporters of the Palestinian cause. They always supported the underdog. In this case the Israeli State was the big aggressor, and the Palestinians the victims.
There are still repercussions of this in the current schisms in the UK Labour Party, now solidified into anti-Zionist tendencies.

It is this disparity between the small in the large, the small circle within the huge major City, gives the book some of its dynamic.

 

This little world set-up, impervious to the ‘moments’ of time and history, usually leaves me either cold or uninterested.
So why does this one get through? Because of its warmth, humour, and wry sideways glances at our usually hidden and discrete intellectual and cultural circles and elites.
For one.
And it is genuinely funny. It takes the tired, old ‘crazy things kids say’ to another level, adding pathos, and sheer brilliance. And, did I say, it is really very funny?

 

A TV series was attempted of the book, with Helena Bonham-Carter as MK. Many names were changed and characters omitted. It had a mixed reception.
That’s the trouble with TV adaptations, they are from one medium into another, and it is not always that easy.
With TV we have visual predominance, whereas with the book all is filtered through the perceptions of the main character. It is only visual further down the scale of perceptions. Initially we perceive from within character, what we see is already altered, re-coloured, re-balanced. The predominant engagement is language, the main character talking is to us.

 

See also: her follow-up ‘fiction’ books:
Man at the Helm, published by Viking/Penguin Books, 2014
Paradise Lodge, published by Viking/Penguin Books, 2016

from my ebook Queen of the City
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Queen-City-Michael-Murray-ebook/dp

 

‘What do you mean?’ asked Carmichael. His alertness was topping the scale, but he fought to remain calm, unperturbed. He felt his fellow travellers struggling inside.

‘Come on, now. This is First-Home stuff. You must know this.’

A lot was going on inside Carmichael, and he fought for an even demeanor.

Ok,’ he said. ‘Well, just play along a moment; why don’t we… run through the story again — memory got a little scrambled in transport.’

‘Well, it’s the Seven Worlds’ Quest.’

‘Of course it is. And?’

‘First world — you know, our first home of course.’

‘Then the second is… here?’

‘Obviously.’

‘Third?’

‘Well, they’re still working on that. It should be that place, there,’ he pointed with a hand not divided into fingers, at screen in the wall, and the Earth came up. ‘I suppose that is where you were due to go. Supposed to be continents and… but they keep shifting around, they can’t get them to hold still long enough, you know. They seem to be having trouble getting the time scale to settle down, I think. Then there’s all that, ugh, water. Most of it is, really. Pretty yucky. And there are those, you know, plants, and stuff. Not very inviting.’

‘Earth.’

‘Earth, you say. Seems more…’ he shuddered again, ‘water. Well the one after that will be that red one there.’

‘Mars.’

‘That what you call it. You are making this up.’

‘No, no. Go on.’

‘Then the biggy.’

‘Jupiter.’

‘Ju… ter.’

‘Then Saturn, er, rings?’

‘Yeh, yeh. Next though… you will not guess what that is. Go on, guess.’

‘Uranus.’

‘U-a-sus — means nothing to me. No. Guess. You can’t. Because you can’t see it, that’s why. That one is it, the ultimate mystery of all life.’

‘Ok, we’ve… I’ve got all that. It’s just, well…’

‘That’s the Quest.’

‘There are more than seven.’

‘M…more than….’ It was the nearest he got to a question.

‘Well, yes, there’s Neptune and Pluto, even, maybe, it is debated, though the arguments against are…’

‘Another….  More than seven?’

‘Well, yes.’

‘Someone always gets it wrong. Don’t they. We’re brought up on this stuff. Our Noble Quest. And now you say… there’s more than seven. They spoon-feed us this great noble quest. They purposely give the wrong information. They really want us to fail, behind all the big ideals.’

‘Look…’

‘I feel ill.’ he said. His colours were all swirling, churning.

‘Give him a few minutes.’ a voice said inside Carmichael.

‘He needs a nice cup of tea.’ said the tea voice.

‘We need to know…’ a soft voice began, and 

‘… how to get home.’ another voice butted in.

‘Tell us, tell me, about world, er, three.’

‘They’re still working on it,’ he said, faintly. ‘Can’t quite get it right, yet. Sort of thing.’

‘Oh? Who is?’

‘The Mariners. Still hunting out the warm clothes, you might say. Going to be pretty cold, and, er, wet. Very wet. Ugh.’

‘Hm.’

‘They’d better hurry up though.’

‘Oh, and why is that, then?’ his sense of irony was piqued.

‘Well, you can see. Look.’ he gestured all around. The walls were briefly transparent: they looked at a featureless landscape.

How did he do that? Carmichael was intrigued.

‘We’ve ruined this place. Like we did the first one. They used this place as a dump for waste, spoil; then it turned out we had to live here because the first had become worse. It’s even worse there, now though. I went back summer hols before last. Visit the old place. Never again. All the heavyside’s gone now. Freezing and I mean freezing, on the dark side, the poles, that sort of thing.’

‘Can you just.’ the sober voice whispered, ‘ask him how he got there?’

‘Yes, ahem, how did you get there? You know, old home?’

‘Oh, the shuttle. The vacuum shuttle.”         ‘

‘And can you use it to number, what is it, three?’

‘No. Well, they’ve talked about it. And, well, no one knows what’s there. We could just plonk down into… anything. Might be big scary monsters.’

‘Hmm.’

‘I’m not supposed to say this, but, well, they did try it. Made a bit of a mess of the place.’

‘What… sort of a mess?’

‘Oh, you know… mass extinction kind. Ahem.’

‘When… when was this?’

‘Ages ago. About six. So far.’

‘And after the first two or three… mass extinctions. They kept on trying it?’

‘Well, you know, little loss, really. Boiling seas, acid seas, frozen seas, no seas. It’s only water. Ugh. What’s water anyway.’

‘Yes, er, quite.’

Echoland

Posted: September 9, 2018 in Chat
Tags: , , , , ,

In the beginning was silence.
Ok, waves smashed on rocks long ago eroded, and great winds whipped trees out. Avalanches roared.
When the great Silures climbed out of stifling swamps, the hectic seas, they grew up and developed into monstrous beings among the plenty of the lands, and all those sounds around them.
And so, when eventually their small hunting area became scarce of game, they needed wider ranges.
They noticed the sounds around, noticed how it was the louder and more fierce sounds, made them all run, leave empty grounds. And the louder better. And so,
‘Rumble, ruMBLE, CRASH, CRASH!’ they roared.
‘AAARGH! WHOOP-AAAARGH!’
It worked, the others fled. Was that an avalanche? Was there a storm coming?
The new hunting ground was theirs.

Of course, other Silures had developed these tricks long ago, though some were only just catching-on. Was there one progenitor of tactics, trickery? You could say it was the most idle, or arrogant, the most selfish, unpopular, most ignorant, the bullies of the groups, tried this out. All to different degrees of effectiveness.
And so a competitiveness developed between them; each marshalled their weaker siblings and those who hung around for the pickings.

In the beginning was… relative… silence.
It was when the apes came down from the trees…. This happened wherever there was a long period of bad years, of droughts, fires, and the trees died a long way back. It happened everywhere the new weather patterns created from scrub and forest, bare pasture and grasslands.

The apes were crammed into smaller areas – they needed space. And also, they were curious. Their times of plenty, in the distant past, left them hungry, with a hunger they could not recognise, and nothing could assuage. Maybe if they searched in these lands, so antithetical to their natures, they could find the lost things.

And they chittered and chattered as they went, bonding their groups across the distances of the plains, deep in the grasses.

Who was it copied whom? Did the animals pick up on this new noise coming into their lands? And was this how bird calls began, imitating the morning calls of the roving bands, and the evening calls to rest? Or did the upright apes copy the new noises of birds, animals, they found themselves amongst? Then they could lure them to a sense of safety. Catch them.
Or was that for their own protection: the trickery and tactics of the Silures coming down to them in remote genetic patterns? Or was it that if they could imitate those around them, blend in, then maybe they’d be accepted?

But times, climates, terrains, change, and with them, the needs and requirements. Isolated groups sang morning bird calls to each other, becoming broken phrases, snatches of sound. A questioning note took on a certain gesture; an angry growl became a sneer.
– Echo-ing that which was inside themselves, as they clung to each other in their groups, as they passed through the dangerous places.

And cockerels copied the morning songs of the incomers. And when they themselves had long forgotten those songs, or even the state of mind, peace, appreciation, they drew those songs from, the cockerels remembered their own variations.
To try and retain some sense of wonder, some parts in the incomers grew religions from the ashes of those long forgotten camp fires.
Morning songs were now echoed in the calls summoning all to minarets, meetings, sacrifices. And the clicks of language, consonantal songs, were in the tocsin, the curfew sounds of night.

Sorry Mister

Posted: August 12, 2018 in Chat
Tags: , , ,

We broke the door of the weather
Sorry mister, we were just playin wiv our toys
loved the stink of the engines, the endless noise
then everyone wanted one, girls as well as boys
sorry mister

We lost the instructions on caring for each other
Sorry mister. The dog ate it; laptop crashed; it was there
then wasn’t. We rounded up what we knew, made a square
couldn’t remember if that’s what was meant, or where.
Sorry mister.

 

THE DETAILS cont

Had he been asleep? Something had changed. He looked around and there stood Mr Frederickson, section engineer.

‘What on earth…?’ Chris began. Frederickson in his shabby clothes: jumper and trousers a size too big – either that, or he had a lost a whole size recently. How was that possible? And how could he get away with dressing so shabby in the ultra-regulated offices of the Block? He must have friends on the inside. That was the only answer.

‘Have to disconnect the phone. Orders.’

‘How did you get in here?’

‘My little secret,’ he smirked.

‘I don’t suppose you feel like sharing it? For a…’ he rummaged in his pockets. Frederickson was already shaking his head. He walked to the phone and… yanked it from the wall.

‘Very skilled, your job.’

‘At times. Actually, it can be very skilled. And here is the interesting part: I am come to offer you a deal.’

‘Oh yes?’ warily.

‘Yes.’ confidently. ‘A way out of here.’

‘…for..?’

‘OK, let’s say, someone wants to meet you. You say hello, and, well, take it from there.’

‘Tell me more.’ Chris said. ‘No promises, mind.’

‘It’s in the details.’ said Frederickson.

‘There are the details that matter, and the details that don’t. The details that matter you can’t change, they’re always the same, evidence, provable in a court of law. But the details that don’t matter… ah, there we have it. They are the key.’

‘With a little manipulation it can all be altered. The room is still a room… take this one,’ he said, ‘as a for-instance, ok? This room holds you locked in. Door, window, ceiling, floor, wall, skirting… you get me? A little attention to the details that don’t matter, and, well, it’s still a room, but it can be a Waiting Room, or better still an Ante-Room, or Entrance Room. And the window a window of opportunity: the window-cleaner’s cradle, see, an elevator!’

‘How… er… how do I, does one, get to the elevator?’ he attempted a disinterested face.

‘One simply walks and takes it.’

‘But the window ledge…’

‘… is a corridor. A narrow one, with only one wall, but still a corridor.’

Got it. Chris thought. All in the mind. Like bladder control. All in the mind. ‘Ok,’ he said ‘… let’s give it a go.’

‘No, no, no. It’s an IS, not a maybe. Open that window when I say and… there you are. It’s not what you see, but what Is. But only when I say.’

‘It either is there or it’s not? I open the window and it is, or… not?’

‘No. Open the window When I Say. And Then it is.’

‘So,’ Frederickson said, ‘are we ready?’

Chris dashed to the window and hand on latch, turned. Frederickson was already stood right behind him. Chris nearly went through the window, glass and all.
‘No! No! No! Look, I’LL say. Ok? Aaand… open the window… NOW.’
Chris swung it wide, and…
‘Oooh, yes. Just look at that! Look. Look.’ he was tugging Frederickson’s sleeve.

‘Not such a big deal.’ So they stepped out into the narrow corridor, and…

‘Still a long way down, isn’t it.’ Chris said.

Frederickson paused, looked. Did he turn a little pale? ‘Yes; yes it is, isn’t it. Erm – perhaps a little recap. Inside. OK?’

They returned to the room. He walked Chris away from the window. Chris kept his elbows in; didn’t want any more of that business. Frederickson stood looking at the wall. Grey painted plasterboard. Was that a sheen of sweat on his face?

‘Ahem,’ clearing his throat, Frederickson seemed to be addressing the wall. ‘See this wall,’ he said, ‘It’s always a wall, yes? But what if it was a wall of fog, say? Yes?’

‘Right colour,’

‘Yes. So. Fog then. We can handle that one. Together then, and… step forward…Now!’ They did. And it was. Choking, blinding fog.

Chris heard him somewhere; it sounded like he was having trouble.

‘This wiring,’ he was muttering. ‘Shouldn’t be allowed. Definitely a Health and Safety issue. All this damned wiring.’

 

Excerpts from my 3-part urban fantasy novel, QUEEN OF THE CITY.
Amazon Kindle, now.https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07CQSVNV5/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1524942001&sr=1-1&keywords=queen+of+the+city

The Details

Chris shut the door quietly and stood looking at the phone, ringing.
It had rung about four or five times, and then all of a sudden auto-pilot kicked in; he knelt, picked up the receiver and went into the script:

‘Good morning’ (was it still morning? Who knows),
‘Epith, Wrang and Company.
This is Christopher speaking.
How may I be of assistance?’
He had always thought this last part too long-winded, Chris’ attention floated: the script was a little flowery perhaps. No, he had come to prefer something a little more snappier, like….

‘Christopher? Is that you?’

Who was this? Female. Young. Familiar voice, a Birmingham echo still in the vowel sounds. Very familiar. He was coming in to land quite rapidly…
Incredulously:

‘Andrea?’

‘Christopher?’

At that he gurgled incoherently. Too many words, and too little mouth.

‘I don’t know where I am,’ she said.

‘It’s been days.’

‘I don’t know where I am.’

‘It was all arranged; everyone contacted…’

‘I don’t know where I am.’

‘… all the invites sent out; flowers; caterers…’

‘Christopher…’

‘…hall booked, engagement party…’

‘Christopher.’

‘…and then you ring up days later and say…’

‘Christopher!’

‘…you don’t know… where you are? What do you mean you don’t where you are?’

‘I don’t. I don’t know how I got here. I don’t know where here is, it’s…’

‘Well, where is it?’

‘I Don’t Know.’

‘Well, well… describe it.’

‘It’s just a room. No windows, no chairs, tables. Nothing.’

‘What are you doing there?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘How do you eat?’

‘A cat flap. In the door. A polystyrene tray. No one says anything. No one comes in.’

‘How do you… toilet?’

‘Christopher.’

‘Go on, how do you, you know?’ A pause, silence; phone static. Then:

‘Cat litter tray.’

‘And…’

‘Through the cat flap.’

‘How do you…’

‘What?’ It didn’t sound like a question.

‘… you know… wipe…’

‘I don’t believe this. I am asking for help here, and you ask me …?’

‘Sorry.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘Sorry.’

Silence again; static. ‘Are you going to help me? Or not?’

‘You don’t know where you are?’

‘No, I don’t.’

‘And you don’t see anyone to ask, or…. You don’t remember…’

And then the phone went dead.
Chris knelt looking stupidly at the receiver. It purred to him like a cat. A robotic but contented cat. Gradually some confidence returned: ‘Look,’ he said to it, ‘I’ve always been good at the details. I love details; the more the better for me. I had to ask how, you know. It’s the details that tell, make it, ahem, real. Put the phone down, you fool.’ Did he hear a stifled laugh, somewhere? No. How could he?

He did hear voices approaching, though, and the shush-shush of shoes over carpet. Louder, approaching the door. Chris froze. The handle was held, turned. The door swung open. Silence.

‘I heard voices. I’m sure of it. No one here. Witherswill, there’s no one here.’ It was the CEO. Sir.

And head of Security.

‘Look, keep this door locked in future.’

‘Aye-aye, sir.’

Then he strode away. Chris was about to let out a long-held breath, when

‘I know you’re there,’ said Witherswill. He pulled the door shut smartly. Locked it with a sharp click. He whistled as he shush-shushed off. At that moment Chris would have given his shoes for a litter tray.

Gently, he tried the door. Nothing. Locked. That only left… the window, and the cradle. Even the thought of it gave him bladder pressure. He looked back at the phone. ‘I should at least have asked for her phone number.’ he muttered, aware now how empty rooms make noise. He tried re-dial. Nothing. He tried call-back. Nothing. He ran through the repertoire of phone knowledge. Nothing helpful for this situation. Then it struck him: ‘My god! I am the bridegroom!’

Andrea… he just couldn’t face the memory of that evening again, and sat staring blankly out of the window at grey on grey sky. A smattering of rain. ‘It’d make the cradle slippery. So that’s that.’
And besides, his stomach and leg muscles were aching from all that exercise.

An Even Worse Day At The Office

The plywood door swung to; it was cheap and looked it. Behind the door the coats were still swinging, but they did not stop. Chris watched the movement, then he heard rustling. He looked closer, saw legs emerge. It was Williamson.

‘I thought you’d gone,’ he said. Silly stuff, but he had to say something. Williamson came out fully and stared at him with a glittering eye, his other was closed. It was a knowing, almost winking knowledge.
‘You know more about all this than you let on, don’t you.’ Chris said. He was being clever here; clearly he had my private detective head on. Williamson moved kind of sideways towards him, crab-like. He was a little disconcerted by this, blurted,
‘Well, out with it.’

‘There was a ship,’ Williamson said, his look far away. No, thought Chris, I hate the sea.  ‘And a storm-blast tyrannous and strong. It drove us southward ever south, far from shipping lanes, the current’s corridors. As though it was playing with us. It drove us on to places of many wonders. Then stranded us in a rotting calm of sea, the engines down.  A place of ice and fogs, and endless days. I had been drinking rain water since leaving port – better than that muck they bought in. An albatross found us. It used our ship for resting in the endless wastes of the nights; used us like a beacon, like a… toilet,’ he snarled suddenly. ‘So I shot the filthy thing. No meat on it neither. They all blamed me for that, my colleagues. Keep to your stations! the captain said. But they hacked me, the lot of them. Filthy emails, pop-ups, stuff, stuff…. . Reported me for the slightest slip. I was soon fearing for my future. What rescued me was those… little rats and mice about the place in those days.’

‘Couldn’t we skip this bit?’ asked Chris.

‘I cared for them, bedded them down in the warehouse, fed them, and mourned them when they died. It was as though a weight passed off me. I was skin and bone, but fed the little dears as if my own flesh and blood.’

‘You really shouldn’t be telling me, anybody, this.’ Chris said horrified, drawing away from him.

‘I have to. I have to tell it. And besides…’ he gave a cunning look, with both eyes this time, ‘You’re the bridegroom.’

‘What?’ Chris spluttered. ‘Have you gone soft on top?’

Williamson went scarlet, spitting fury, frantically combing and flattening a huge comb-over. Then drawing a utility knife for parcels, muttered, ‘We should have done this before.’ He put the knife between his teeth and made slowly towards him, scattering chairs with both hands. Chris backed away into the corner, and a filing cabinet. That bruise will stay with him forever. Williamson came on and on, a kind of wild look in his eyes. A part of Chris’s brain noted how he was heading straight for the pile of papers on the floor, and… the gonk.

Crunch, and slide. It was over in a fraction of a second, but the bruise had got his adrenalin going, speeded up his sense of time. Williamson was doing this kind of slap-stick routine of every time he put foot to floor the paper skidded out from under and he was down again.

Looking back he could not believe this – someone like him dived for the table between him and the door and rolled over it, landing on two feet facing the objective. In one stride Chris hit the door. It wouldn’t open. He rattled and rattled it. Williamson was snarling, threw the table over, and was standing. Then Chris remembered it was an inward opener, flung it open in panic – and in a bound he was free. It hit Williamson full in the face, though.

Chris heard his howls behind him as he took corner after corner among cubicles, doubling back to jump from where he last stood sideways, and off down the corridor outside, then another corridor. He felt like Danny in the snowy maze in The Shining. Except there was no snow and he was a lot older than Danny. And this was the admin section of a modern office. Ok and he was on the third floor. So no maze, no snow, no Dad with an axe (would old Williamson with a parcel knife do?) and he was not a kid.

Chris ended up in an empty office. Empty; even the carpet gone. Great, he thought. Now what do I do? But there outside the window, a window-cleaner’s cradle; if he just slipped out that window, past that post and…. No way. No way. I’d rather…. And it was then a phone rang. He tracked the sound down, behind, round. Behind the door, on the bare floor a connected phone.
Ringing.

A Bad Day At The Office

‘You are supposed to be my friend.’ Chris said, struggling to keep a faux pleading out of his voice. Instead it took on a completely unintended sarcastic tone. He knew he was misjudging work-relations badly here. The sarcastic tone was one he could go with, at least. Surely it would give him room to manoeuvre.

‘There are no friends here; only colleagues.’ Anders stated, not unkindly. Then, ‘Franklin, work station six, reported you late those times. Estworth, at nine, reported Franklin for wastage. Peterson, at three, reported all of you for laziness.… I could go on.’

‘Franklin and Estworth are my buddies.’ Chris mumbled. ‘We always have lunch breaks together. Joey Franklin, Pauly Peterson….  .’

‘Anyway. I never reported anyone…’ he said firmly ‘… for anything. Ever.’

‘No, we know that. You don’t fit in.’ said Anders.

‘You’re a wrong ‘un.’ butted in Williamson.

‘That’s enough of that,’ said Anders gently. ‘I can handle this… little matter.’ Williamson didn’t move. So they did; Anders took Chris by the elbow, a strangely intimate but peculiar grasp, and steered him further into the office. Williamson said suddenly,

‘We need The Machine. Now.’ Anders glanced up sharply but there was a gleam in Williamson’s eye, his long grey beard bristled as though alive. ‘We can’t afford any more slip ups,’ he hissed to Anders. ‘You know that.’ His hand was on Chris’ other elbow now.

‘Unhand me, greybeard loon.’ Chris said wryly, unhooking his elbows from their grasps. Williamson seemed to come to himself, a cold look swept across what could be seen of his face, like a Force Nine arctic blast. By that time the other people had left their work stations and gathered around them, blocking the door, the window.

They had all gathered from their work stations like beasts at a kill, or gnats around a no gnat-repellent sunbather. The strip lighting hummed; there was a strange bellows sound from somewhere.  ‘Still got that bad chest, then,’ one murmured to another.

Then Williamson burst back through the door, barging through them all on his way. He looked victorious. They all fell back; even the light went quiet. He glowered at the table where Anders and Chris sat. A prickling sensation of fear and sweat moved through the watchers, like a Mexican wave.

‘Now we’ll see.’ crowed Williamson. He approached the table and then with one sweep cleared laptop, papers and nodding gonk onto the floor.

‘I’m sure there’s no need for this,’ Anders said quietly.

‘Too late.’ crowed Williamson again. ‘I set it on the way back. It’s got to run its course now.’ An ‘Oh.’ went around the room. Anders looked defeated. Williamson went as if to place something on the table.
‘Well then. Come here you.’ Williamson gloated at Chris. All the while Chris had looked on a little perplexed. What was all this? What exactly was going on here?

‘There’s nothing there.’ he said, quite calmly. The room seemed to tilt for a fraction of a second; everyone gave a slight gasp. Or it was suddenly so quiet the one with the bad chest became very loud.

‘No. You’re not taking this away from me.’ snarled Williamson. ‘Let’s do it.’

‘There’s nothing there,’ Chris repeated. None would meet his eyes. He had spotted a CCTV camera blinking in the corner of the ceiling. ‘Look.’ he said, ‘I’ll show you.’ He uprighted the laptop, dithered over but left the gonk, then rummaged through computer programs. He found the Security folder, Camera Eight.

‘Now watch.’ They had to pay attention, he had used the instructor’s tone. His friend, Franklin, was an excellent mimic; he’d taught him the course tutor’s voice, on lunch-breaks. He knew it’d come in handy… somewhere.

They wouldn’t let him bring them over, it would mean touching them. Some even whimpered as he tried: grown men, twice his size, whimpering. He had caught their elbows to steer them; it was a peculiar gesture, he had to admit.

‘Look.’ he said, he rewound the footage then pressed Play. Williamson entered the room at a pace; they watched as several people lurched as he bounded into them. From the cameras’ angle all could see the extent of his bald patch. Chris glanced up, Williamson looked furious, surreptitiously combing hair over with his fingers. Was that a snigger from somewhere? They watched, all crowding round, as Williamson halted – they all counted the three seconds clicking by on the playback – then he approached the table, and cleared it. Chris noticed everyone look to the pile on the floor, at this. Williamson swept his hair over again. The play-back Williamson stood there before the table, looking triumphant; they could see his beard wag happily.

‘Now look.’ Chris said. ‘See, there’s nothing on the table.’ He looked around the room and they all looked aghast. Williamson looked horrified, shamed, embarrassed; he seemed to have shrunk a foot. Anders stepped forward and quietly cut the footage. He looked tired, upset. They all turned to him.

‘What’s it mean?’ someone asked. ‘We all saw it’

‘Obviously, I didn’t’ Chris said a little loftily.

‘It looks like we’ve been hacked,’ Anders said, almost to himself. He sat down, slumped in his chair, as far as the posture-chair would allow, anyway. The others filed out of the room silently. Chris watched them all disappear separately to their sections, an air of gloom, defeat, about the place.

‘It’s been happening a lot recently,’ Anders said wearily. ‘I hoped, I really hoped, it wouldn’t happen on my watch.’ He sounded old suddenly, a catch, a waver, in his voice. Then suddenly strong: ‘It’s too early. Ten thirty? Do these people never have the morning off?’ Chris looked at him; this was a side he had not seen before: Anders the Slacker. Well, well!

‘Who? Hacked? How? Why?’ Chris was all questions; his old day-release course tutor would have been proud.

‘The question is: Where?’ Anders said thoughtfully. He sat steepling his fingers as he thought long and deep. At last with a sigh he seemed to have come to some kind of resolution, stood up and moved to the door. ‘I’d better go and check on everyone,’ he said, more to himself than Chris. At the door he turned to him, looked him directly in the eye, said,
‘Whatever you do, do not leave this room. Do you hear me? Under any circumstances Do Not leave this room.’
Then he was gone.

The Demaundes Joyous
The lightness of these, when measured against the Old English Riddles, makes them seem mere bagatelles. Quite a lot of those Old English Riddles are light and jokey also; it is just the labour of translation makes them seem less. But for ease of reading, and sheer fun, we  have these.
Did I mention translation? Yes, well, these are also translations – but not from the heavy?, stodgy? Anglo-Saxon – no, they are from the Romance of northern French.

The Demaundes Joyous

1 Who was Adam’s moder?

2 What space is from the hyest space of the se to the depest?

3 How many calves tayles behoveth to reche from the erthe to the skye?

4 Which parte of a sergeaunte love ye best toward you?

5 Which is the moost profitable beest, and that men eteth leest of?

6 Which is the broadest water and leest jeopardye to passe over?

7 What beest is it that hath her tayle between her eyen?

8 Wherefore set they upon churche steples more a cocke than a henne?

9  Why doth an ox or a cowe lye?

10 Which was first, the henne or the egge?

11 Which tyme in the yere bereth a gose moost feders?

 

– It is always best to have a ‘flavour’ of the kind of answer expected. So, here is the answer to Question 3:
No more but one if it be long ynough.

If you want to try and answer these… then let’s say you must do so in the curious English of their period.

The source of these Demaundes Joyous is Wynkyn de Worde, 1511.
The collection contains about fifty such riddles – I have skipped the more church-orientated, and so maybe a little obscure now eg Why come dogges so often to the churche? etc.
My source says the collection here is based partly on an early sixteenth-century French collection, Demandes joyeuses en maniere de quolibets.

There are some old crocks here: Which came first, egg or hen? But there is no Why did the chicken cross the road? Maybe that is in the other forty, not included.
Some are a little… indelicate? Some just crazy. All have the flavour of their period.

Enjoy.

Happy Festive Season!