Alby Stone: Surviving Christmas

Copyright © 2018 Alby Stone

Ahead, the Pole Star and a horizon hidden in darkness. Behind him, a long, meandering trail of furrowed footprints in the snow. Back further still, among trees and rocks, the shredded remains of his blue Cessna 185. Escaping that with only small cuts and a few bruises had been a miracle worthy of the time of year. But he was lost and cold and alone. His winter clothes wouldn’t keep him alive for long in the Alaskan night.

It had been a routine flight, right up until the storm hit. One last job before the holiday. Anchorage to Kodiak and back, returning home from a charter – scientists one way, cargo the other, he’d done it a hundred times without incident, could do it in his sleep. But not this time. First the lightning, then the wind, instrument failure followed by loss of power and a near-blind descent through dense snow and hailstones the size of his fist. A freak, completely outside his experience, impossible to predict. Not even time to send a distress call before the radio died and the plane slipped into its downward rollercoaster glide. Now he was in deep trouble.

The cargo – cardboard cartons filled with Inuit and Yup’ik handcrafted goods, small wooden carvings, necklaces and amulets made for tourists – had some minor cultural significance and maybe monetary worth but no survival value. Blankets would have been useful, maybe even a pair of snowshoes. Nor had there been anything in the plane. No weapons, no cigarette lighter or matches to make a fire, no food. All he had was an empty flare gun – fired and unanswered – and what he stood up in, a red anorak and lined cargo pants, Timberlands; thermal underwear, shirt and sweater. Dressed for cold, but not this kind of cold. This was Shit Creek, and he had no paddle. At least the grizzly bears would be fat and asleep at this time of year. But there were other predators. Not that he’d have to worry about them, not the way the temperature was falling.

He trudged on, the Pole Star his only target. There was nothing else to aim at. Hopefully, if he went north he would still be roughly on course for Anchorage. A long, hard trek, though he might just make it or strike lucky by stumbling across a road with traffic. A slim chance, but not wholly impossible. But if he’d overshot Anchorage completely and ended up in the Denali National Park, well, he might as well lie down and die right now. Six million acres of mountains, trees and snow might look beautiful on a postcard, but to a man in his position it meant only a cruel and sad death from exposure. Or worse.

What a shitty way to spend the last few hours of Christmas Eve. By now he should be in the Blue Fox or – his favoured hangout when a job paid out – Darwin’s Theory, knocking back a beer or two before going home to his apartment, then in the morning driving over to spend Christmas Day with his folks. Roast turkey and mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. Giving and opening presents. His mother fussing over him as if he was still her little boy, his father smiling easily and spinning bourbon-lubricated yarns late into the evening. Would he ever see them again? It was looking doubtful.

He was tired but had to keep moving. Shivering was good, so was feeling cold. It was when you stopped feeling the cold that the real problems began. Hypothermia caused disorientation and hallucinations, and gave rise to irrational behaviour. Paradoxical undressing, a desperate shedding of clothes as blood vessels constricted to cause an unbearable and treacherous hot flash. Terminal burrowing, where you dug into the snow like an animal, a crazed last bid to keep warm, forgetting that human beings just weren’t designed to do that. Frostbite was another danger. His hands and feet were already numb, as were his nose and ears. Even if he was rescued, even if he somehow made it to safety, it was likely that not all of him would be going home.

A movement caught his eye, then another, just ahead and to his right, something slinking silently from tree to tree, little more than a shadow, hard to identify in the gloom. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem large enough to be a threat. A fox, probably – perhaps a lynx or wolverine. Animals that wouldn’t attack a grown human, though they wouldn’t think twice about feasting on his corpse. Not a wolf, at any rate. He was fairly sure of that. In this neck of the woods they travelled in packs. Please God, no wolves.

Or maybe he was suffering from that delusion he’d read about when he was a kid, where travellers in snowy wastelands think there is an additional member of their party, a phantom who vanishes when a count is made. Not a ghost, of course. He didn’t believe in ghosts. But surely it was only wise to be afraid of whatever out here might be mistaken for one?

Sometimes the very thought of fear brings the thing itself, a blind and unreasoning dread that may sometimes propel but more often than not simply petrifies. And now, by admitting its existence, he’d let it in. It filled his soul with an inner chill that matched his surroundings and threatened to overflow, to burst out as a scream. He fought it down and forced his feet to keep moving. One after another, striving to maintain pace length. Eyes fixed firmly ahead, no sideways glances. Swing that leg, half a yard and ram it forward, make another bone-wearying trough of a footprint. Then another, and another. Wishing he was shorter and less bulky, the belly smaller, less to carry around. So hard with the snow so deep, with freezing muscles and blood screaming for sugar, exposed skin yearning for honest warmth.

Keep going. You’ll soon be there.

Be where?

You’ll see. Soon.

*

‘You’re a tough bastard, I’ll give you that. When your plane came down I gave you an hour, maybe two, assuming the crash hadn’t killed you outright. But six straight hours of walking in these conditions? By rights you should be very dead by now. I’m impressed.’

He opened his eyes and slowly sat up, surprised to find that he was indeed alive, lying on a bed and covered with thick blankets, the inner chill banished. Welcome heat from a fire he could not see. Something smelled good and cheering.

She spoke again. ‘Here, drink this. It’s not too hot, but take it slowly.’

He took the cup gratefully, sipped the extra-sweet coffee, the warm liquid soothing his chapped lips. The caffeine and sugar quickly hit the spot, quickening the blood and clearing some of the fog from his mind. His limbs and fingers were still stiff and his limbs ached, and his vision was slightly blurred. He examined his fingertips, gently touched his ears and nose. He wiggled his toes. Everything felt normal, no pain or numbness, nothing missing. He was alive and had astonishingly escaped even frostbite.

The woman came back into view. She was, he guessed, around thirty – pretty in a homely kind of way. Light brown hair worn long and loose, greying a little. Striking amber eyes. A grey dress from neck to ankle, long sleeves. Thin but lithe. Hands that spoke of hard work. Toothy, friendly smile. ‘How are you feeling?’

‘Tired and a little achy. Picked up a bruise or two in the crash. I feel good, though, considering the alternative. Where am I?’ His voice sounded strange, hoarse and wheezy. Obviously he wasn’t yet completely unfrozen. He drank more coffee. It tasted like fiery nectar.

‘My home. Found you lying in the snow nearby when I went out to look for rabbits a while ago. You were wet through, near-frozen on the outside. Had to take most of your clothes off. Hope you don’t mind.’

He realised that beneath the blankets he was only wearing his thermal vest and shorts, and laughed weakly. ‘Mind? You saved my life. I can’t thank you enough. You live out here on your own?’

‘Not at first. There were others.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s hard out here. They were old, got sick, accidents. Just me and the kids now. They’re in the other room now, sleeping.’

‘You have kids here?’

‘Boy and a girl, still pretty small.’ She looked away. ‘Their father passed just a month ago. Went hunting, never came back.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that. I guess it must be quite a way from the nearest town. Seems a strange place to live. I don’t mean to be rude.’

‘That’s okay. We came here just because it’s so isolated. Away from people, you know. It’s a good place to live, even in winter. Beautiful in sun or snow. It provides all I need, usually. It’s home.’

There was, he sensed, a story behind her words. The solitude, the simple clothes – he guessed maybe she belonged to some religious sect or back-to-nature movement. But there was also something strange about the cabin, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was square, maybe twenty feet by twenty, the walls hung with plain ochre and green blankets, no windows, just the hearth and the bed. He couldn’t see a stove or cooking range, chairs or cupboards. Maybe this was just one room of several – this must be a bedroom and that door must lead to a larger living area. But there was a white carpet, and in one corner was a Christmas tree, shrouded in tinsel, multicoloured baubles gleaming in the firelight, so tall its top was lost somewhere in that high, shadowed ceiling. It looked gorgeous.

‘Did you see my plane come down?’

She shook her head. ‘Heard it crash, that’s all. Nothing else out here to make a noise like that. I figured you’d be on your own. Light aircraft, late on Christmas Eve? Only working planes would be up there, and in these parts that usually means a one-man operation. Didn’t know exactly where it came down, or how far it was, so there wasn’t much point in going out to look. I guessed whoever was in it was heading for home. Roast turkey and mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. Presents. Family. Mom and dad.’

‘How long have I been asleep?’

‘A few hours.’

‘It must be Christmas Day by now, damn it. I’m going to miss Christmas dinner.’

‘Don’t worry, there’s food here. Enough for a feast. Not that you need building up. Plenty of meat on those bones.’

His teeth began to chatter. ‘I’m feeling cold again,’ he said drowsily.

‘You should get some more sleep,’ the woman said. ‘You’re exhausted. Here, I’ll lie alongside you to keep you warm. Christmas dinner can wait a while.’

‘You’re so kind. Thank you.’ He closed his eyes, slept deeply.

He dreamed he was in a forest clearing, supine in a deep bed of snow that covered his body from the navel down. Scattered around him were a red anorak, black cargo pants, Timberland boots, a sweater, a green plaid shirt,a thermal vest. His mouth was filled with barely melted snow. The clearing was roughly square, walled with spruce and larch. Above him rose the majestic Milky Way, a sparkling curve of silvery dust set with stars that blazed like jewels in the cloudless night sky. But his eyes were dimming, the picture fading back into a slumber that would be deep and eternal.

The wolf rose from his side and licked her grey chops. This was her home and tonight it had provided. The human was bigger than most of the few she’d seen in her time. Enough for a feast, enough to keep them alive for another few days until something else came along. Survival was all that mattered. Her belly rumbled. She called to her hungry pups.

 

Alby Stone: Grandfather

Copyright © 2018 Alby Stone

Remembrance is both good and bad. You just can’t beat a well-constructed happy memory. Equally, you can’t really escape past misfortune, not by moving forward, not by forgetting, nor by reinvention. No matter how you regard or reshape your history, the bad things still happened – and they happened to you. Rewriting in the now does not change that.

It’s a little more complicated for me, but the rule still applies.

I called my grandson this morning. I like to know that he’s okay, even when I know he isn’t. It’s always good to hear his voice, though what he says is sometimes distressing. But he’s an intelligent, resourceful young man and his activities are so interesting that I am always eager to listen. In some ways he reminds me of my own youth, though I am sure I was never so boastful of the least success.

When I was his age, give and take a few years, my life was one long adventure. I lived in what might reasonably be described as a self-contained war zone – suburban London in the late Sixties and early Seventies may have been quiet and sedate for some, but not for me – and came close to death on many occasions. The first time was in 1969, when I was fifteen years old. It was just before nine in the evening and I was walking home from a friend’s house, crossing a main road that nowadays would be busy. Then, of course, there were fewer vehicles on the road and not a lot to do after the shops shut and work ended for the day, so apart from a bus and a couple of old boys on bicycles the road was more or less empty. Then a car pulled out of a side street and accelerated, heading straight for me. Luckily, the sound of the engine revving startled me, and I managed to dive to one side. I caught a glimpse of the driver’s face as he passed – it seemed vaguely familiar but I didn’t know him – then rose to my feet and shakily cursed him. Over the years, that face came to haunt me, though it would be a very long time before I could put a name to it.

For all his faults, all his obsessions and the single-mindedness that has caused us both so much heartache and soul-searching, I love my grandson very much. I can’t say the same for his late father, though. My son was a deeply unpleasant man, brutal and violent. He beat and bullied his wife into alcoholism and an early grave. He served time in prison for crimes I don’t care to think about. Thanks to him my grandson has severe psychological and emotional problems, not to mention a good number of scars and a few once-broken bones. My son died five years ago in what the police said was a mugging that went wrong – a knife in the belly on a deserted street in the early hours of a cold Sunday morning. I’m pretty sure nobody was sorry to see the back of him. Not me, and that’s a fact.

My son’s demise reminded me of the seventh attempt on my life – an unexpected assailant as I was taking a shortcut home one night in 1971, the sudden blade glancing off the tobacco tin in my inside jacket pocket, becoming tangled in the cloth and falling to the ground as I ran away. The would-be assassin, as usual, made no attempt to conceal his face. As ever, there was that bewildering sense of almost-recognition that refused to bring a name to mind. The coincidence was uncanny, though an eyewitness said my son’s killer was masked.

My grandson has unrealistic ambitions, a life plan that is destined to fail. We have no secrets – well, I have one that he will never be told – and we talk openly and honestly about his legacy of fear and pain, his constant depression and despair. He says if his plan doesn’t succeed, he will take his own life. I hate to hear him talk that way. I tell him, with absolute certainty, that it won’t come to that. But he sneers at my confidence. He has his own. It isn’t his fault he doesn’t know he’s wrong.

Just thinking about him breaks my heart.

The murder attempts went on for eleven years, one or two a month, right up until I got married, when I was twenty-six. I never told anyone about them. Some gut instinct told me it would be inadvisable. Besides, who would believe me? I was a nobody, an ordinary young man living a dull, average life. I didn’t do drugs, I wasn’t involved in crime. I hadn’t wronged anyone, not as far as I knew. Who would want to kill me? But the attempts continued. The sniper on a tall building, the brick dropped from a high window, the cars from nowhere, the knives and blunt instruments in the dark, the gas leaks, the hand forcing beneath the bathwater. Petrol through the letterbox, sliced brake cables, the shove in the back on a train platform. The cyanide in the coffee, detected just in time. And always that face, the face that loomed in my dreams and nagged at my memory until…

What happened that night is burned into every axon and dendrite in my brain. Yet somehow I didn’t see it, not until it was too late.

Who am I kidding? It was always going to be too late.

My grandson doesn’t know that I know. Not that he’d ever stop talking about himself long enough to register anything I have to say. It’s all about him, all the time. His terrible life, his endless angst, what he suffered at his father’s hands, an eternal ebb and flow of suffering and blame. I’ll kill myself, he wails, though we both know he’s too much of a coward to take his own life. It’s easier and more self-affirming to blame, blame, blame. Really, my existence is only acknowledged when he’s blaming me for the way his father turned out. I know differently, of course. I remember the love and care my wife and I showered upon our only child, the opportunities we gave him, the time we took and the money we spent. It wasn’t our fault nature gave us a selfish, vicious narcissist – that our blessing turned out to be a curse. My grandson doesn’t see it that way, though. I am to blame, the cause of all his misery. I wish I’d never been born, he says with monotonous regularity. I am so glad his grandmother is no longer around to witness his descent into self-loathing and nihilism.

Yes, my grandson is a clever and inventive man, quite brilliant actually, and I love him dearly. But I can’t say I like him all that much. He shuts himself away in his cellar, surrounding by electronic components and arcane tools, building machines he claims will change the world, transform people’s lives. Well, he’s right about that. One of them will certainly change his life.

I didn’t realise until that proud day – for me if not his father – when my grandson went away to university. I took a photograph, him standing in the garden flanked by my wife and son, all smiling for my camera – not that my son’s smile reached his dead, cold eyes – and in that moment, gazing into the viewfinder, I knew. Recognition was belated but total.

Blame, blame, blame. My fault, mine alone.

That night, that terrible night. Strolling home after seeing her to her door, a chivalry that was nearly suicidal. He lunged at me from the darkness of a garden, flowing from shrubbery like an eel after prey, the knife glinting yellow in sodium light. Black hooded top, grey jogging bottoms, unusual clothing in those days. That face, twisted in hatred. We struggled, fell to the pavement. The knife turned and was buried to the hilt in his chest, driven home by his own misguided hand. I stood and stared down at that face, horror diluted by relief. My tormentor was no more. I ran from the scene, sweating for days until it became clear that the police would not be following a trail to my door. It was over.

That face. So like my own when I was his age.

My grandson phoned again just now. For once I interrupted the usual litany of woe. What are you wearing? I ask. I can almost hear his impatient shrug. Grey joggers, black hoodie. Why? No matter, I say. Then I feel compelled to tell him this one thing, one last time. I love you, you know.

He hangs up straight away. It isn’t what he wants to hear. I could try to warn him, but he’s habitually deaf to my advice. And what would it achieve? What happened is what has always happened, what will always happen. Really, his life was over long before he was born. I know because I was there.

For a few seconds, I feel guilty and desperately sad. Then I think of all the times he tried to kill me, and sympathy evaporates. The little shit deserves what’s coming to him.

Alby Stone: Wigwam Ban Man

Copyright © 2018 Alby Stone

Like most people, I hadn’t really noticed how far the aberration had gone. Too busy worrying about the important things in life – the kids’ education, our health, my job, making a decent home for my family, the turbulent and usually depressing fortunes of Charlton Athletic – I’d been more or less deaf to the clamour and hadn’t seen how radically it had changed perceptions and affected our institutions. At least, not until the day of my son’s seventh birthday. The day had begun brightly in every sense – waking up to glorious sunshine, the profound joy of seeing the excitement on his face, watching as he wolfed down his breakfast before opening his presents. In the afternoon, the party. A dozen or so of his friends eating cake and trifle, then playing raucously in the garden. My wife and I were enjoying it as much as the kids, sneaking the occasional gin and tonic and chatting with other parents, lazily chewing the fat while the little boys and girls entertained themselves.

Then came the knock at the door. I opened it to a man in a brown suit and a woman wearing a drab, smock-like dress that appeared to be cut from the same bolt of cloth as her companion’s attire. He was short and skinny, she was even smaller, and I towered over them. They brandished identity cards with photographs in the favoured passport style – unadorned faces staring straight ahead, emotionless and mildly disturbing. I squinted but without my spectacles the accompanying script was too small to read, and in any case they were returned to their pockets of origin before I would have had a chance to read them even if I could have. The woman spoke. ‘Mr Campbell? Tyrone Campbell?’

That was my name, as it had been my grandfather’s. I answered in the affirmative and waited for them to state their business. Like so many people with my background, and despite my respectable occupation and impeccable citizenship credentials, I was wary of white people with official ID cards. The Windrush scandal was many years in the past, and though I had been unaffected in one sense, in another I was as involved as any other descendant of those who had arrived on ships to answer Britain’s call. The Home Office ‘hostile environment’ policy and changes to immigration law had been designed to foster fear and uncertainty, to make immigrants and their children ill at ease – for which read ‘not wanted here’ – and that job had been done all too well. Irrespective of documentation, reputation or occupation, none of us was unscathed, especially we who had been children at the time. The worries of adults are easily transmitted to their children. And anxiety is both contagious and transformative. Fear of the knock on the door was now hard-wired.

They exchanged glances, the kind of look government officials wear when they are about to deliver bad news of the hugely gratifying kind. I should know. I’d worn it myself often enough when interviewing tax evaders and their less savoury kin, the avoiders. ‘May we come in?’

‘Not until you tell me who you are and what you want,’ I said, smiling politely.

The man shook his head. ‘Very well, if that’s how you want to play it. My name is Ronald Buckland, and this is my colleague, Julie Pullen, Ms Pullen. We are from the Office of Cultural Identity, Enforcement Division.’

‘Never heard of it,’ I told them. ‘Which Department?’

‘Culture, Media and Sport,’ said the woman. ‘Though technically we are a cross-departmental team, so we are also subject to oversight by the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Among others. Until last year we were part of the Department for Rejoining the European Union, now defunct.’ she sighed. ‘Well, let’s be honest – after Davies and Fox they were never going to have us back.’

‘Well, I work for HMRC, and I’ve never heard of you. What do you do?’

‘We investigate complaints, Mr Campbell.’ The woman’s smile was wholly insincere. ‘And a complaint has been made against you. That is why we are here.’

‘A complaint? About what?’

‘A matter of cultural inappropriateness. In your garden, as we speak.’

I was mystified. ‘What, a child’s birthday party?’

They exchanged glances once more. ‘I think we’d better come in,’ said the man.

‘And if I refuse to let you in?’

‘We have power of entry,’ the woman told me. ‘You’ll leave us no choice but to summon police assistance. If necessary, they will break down your door. And you will be arrested and charged with obstruction.’

And the nightmare began.

Really, I should have known. I’m a well-educated and not unintelligent man. I work for the government, and even with all those other important things to distract me, I ought to have taken note. All those training courses and awareness events – yes, I should have known. But I’d treated it all as a joke. We all had. Surely nothing that stupid could ever become law? Yet clearly it had. The scene unfolding in my back garden proved it.

The woman spoke, the man made notes on the kind of pad I recognised from work, cheap stationery supplied by the inadequate contractor du jour. My wife and our friends looked on from the kitchen window, the children continued to play, though they were less confident and lively than before. They all knew something was wrong. I still didn’t have a clue what it might be.

Eventually, the man and woman came over to where I stood. ‘It’s got to go, I’m afraid.’ Pullen handed me a form. ‘This is a compliance order. You have one hour to remove and dispose of the item, in a respectful manner as prescribed by law. Failure to do so within the specified time will result in prosecution.’ She emphasised the point by forcefully extending a digit in the direction of the offending item, which occupied pride of place in the centre of the lawn.

I stared uncomprehendingly at the form, then my eyes followed her finger. ‘The wigwam? This is about a bloody wigwam?’

Pullen frowned. ‘There’s no need for that kind of language,’ she said. ‘We’re only doing our jobs.’

Buckland made a note, cleared his throat and spoke. ‘As it says on the form, this is an order made in accordance with the Cultural Identity Enforcement Act 2057, section 3, paragraph 2(c)(7). Items and imagery reserved for Native American use only.’ He looked around, leaned toward me. Artificially confidential, conspiratorial. ‘A word to the wise, Mr Campbell. That framed bullfight poster in your hall. Souvenir from Spain, right? Well, you really ought to get rid of it. Paragraph (2)(c)(17), items and imagery reserved for European nations. And that woman in your kitchen, the one wearing the sari? She doesn’t look Indian.’

‘Hindu convert,’ I explained. ‘Married to an Indian man. That’s their daughter.’ I pointed to a small brown-skinned girl with trifle on her grinning face.

‘That’s acceptable,’ the man allowed. ‘And that woman wearing a cross…?’

‘She’s the vicar. That’s her son over there, the one in the Batman suit.’

‘Religious items appropriate to faith, good. Superhero costumes are acceptable, as long as they fall within guidelines.’

‘Guidelines? For kids’ superhero outfits?’

He seemed surprised. ‘Of course. It wouldn’t do to have white or Asian children dressed as Black Panther, would it? Black Lightning and Luke Cage? They are classed as reserved characters. Surely a man of your ethnicity would appreciate that.’

Frankly, I didn’t give a toss which kids wore what superhero get-ups, but sneakily justifying this bullshit by invoking my race was well out of order. ‘Don’t pretend this is about me. My family’s been in this country for a century, and I’m as British as you, despite the colour of my skin. Frankly, I’m disappointed that you’d even mention it.’

‘I’m sorry – I merely thought you would have a greater appreciation of the importance of cultural identity.’

‘Rubbish. You were playing the race card. And I never thought I’d be saying that to a white man. Look, isn’t this cultural appropriation nonsense going just a little too far?’

Buckland made a face. ‘Between you and me, some of it is a little silly. Presumably you’ve been following the Pasta Trial in the High Court.’

‘Pasta Trial? What’s that?’

‘Exceptions to the Enforcement Act can be made upon contractual payment of royalties to a bona fide representative of a source culture. The Italian government has requested compensatory payment for pasta, pizza and other foods traditionally associated with the Italian peninsula. The big supermarkets and restaurant chains have formed an alliance to fight the move, but they won’t win, as the legislation is watertight. However, there has been a complication. China is claiming a share of any royalties for spaghetti, as noodles were invented by the Chinese. Marco Polo, you know. Unfortunately Taiwan is also claiming those royalties, so it’s getting a little nasty. And Mexico is claiming a share of royalties on tomato-based sauces and similar products. The Italians are spitting feathers. Sourced locally from Leghorns, one presumes.’

‘That sounds pretty complicated. It seems to me that this legislation is a rod for our own backs.’

‘It gets worse, believe me. The Mexicans are also claiming royalties on avocados, chilli, maize, potatoes and tobacco. But so are various Native American tribes. India is demanding payment for curries and other foodstuffs deriving from the subcontinent, including tea, as are Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. China, inevitably, is demanding money for dishes originating or copied from there. But that isn’t the worst of it. Behind the scenes, China is also claiming exclusive use of paper money, printed matter, and fireworks – that or a huge compensatory payment, and we’re talking billions. Meanwhile, Jamaica wants a one-off two billion pounds for reggae. This is strictly entre nous, naturally.’ He smiled. ‘French grandmother, so I can say that.’

‘I’m not surprised the government’s keeping quiet about that. This will drive up prices to an unaffordable level. It could bankrupt the country. People could starve.’

‘I agree. It’s political correctness gone not so much mad as totally insane and drooling in a straitjacket. Quite honestly, I don’t think it would ever have gone that far here in the UK – but you know the trouble we had securing international trade deals after Brexit. Every agreement came with multiple strings attached, and as we’ve become more dependent on – ah – sensitive countries, the strong-arm tactics have worsened. But we’re hitting back. The Foreign Secretary is in talks to offset these financial impositions. After all, no matter what the Chinese say, we gave the world cricket, rugby, football and golf. There’s a good chance of some success with the quid pro quo approach, however. Japan has agreed to keep origami, karate and judo off the table as long as we do the same with whisky and pinstripe suits.’

‘That sounds hopeful.’

 ‘Well, we’re also stuck with karaoke. And greater problems are looming, unfortunately. Everyone is claiming to have invented beer, trousers and agriculture. In fact, the Chinese are claiming to have invented everything, and the Hindu nationalists in India aren’t far behind. Then there’s religion. The Israelis are demanding payment for Christianity, and word is that they’re putting the squeeze on Islamic countries, claiming that the Prophet got the idea of monotheism from Jews, which for all I know may be true, even if the Iranians are saying Zoroaster started it all and Egypt reckons Akhenaten invented it. And various Arab states are claiming payment for algebra and chemistry – and coffee, which is bad news for much of South and Central America. Whole countries are having to find alternative names for the stars and planets, and atlases around the world are being revised and reprinted. It’s a mess, no question.’

I was pondering this when I noticed his colleague was no longer present. ‘Oh,’ Buckland said airily, ‘she’s probably just having a look round your house.’

‘Can she do that?’

‘Power of entry gives power of inspection. Don’t worry. It’s just routine. I’m sure you have nothing more to hide.’

‘I wasn’t hiding the wigwam or the bullfight poster,’ I pointed out. ‘I wasn’t even aware they were illegal.’

‘Oh, they’re not illegal as such. Merely reserved. If you were Native American then you’d have a perfect right to owning and displaying the wigwam.’

A thought struck me. ‘Where does this leave the museums?’

‘Potentially rather empty. For instance, the British Museum has already agreed to return the Elgin Marbles, and many lesser items will be going back to their place of origin. Arrangements have been made to secure some exhibits on a permanent loan basis, but for exorbitant fees that may make the place financially unviable. That was in the news only last week, as it happens. Big demonstrations, Farage and Johnson doddering down the Strand with a bunch of equally decrepit UKIP, Tory and BNP veterans. Mind you, I’d thought Farage died years ago. Must be in his nineties now. Surprised he could still walk, let alone keep hold of his pint and fag at the same time. He made a speech about how it was vital for us to leave the EU and made snide remarks about Belgians no one could remember. Johnson’s now so obese he can barely move. He was wearing one of those new lightweight solar-powered exoskeletons. He fell out of it in Trafalgar Square. Into a fountain, of course.’

‘Did he drown?’

‘Sadly, no.’

At that moment Ms Pullen came storming out through the back door, waving a book. ‘You failed to declare this, Mr Campbell,’ she cried.

I peered at the book. ‘Oh, come on. Even books?’

‘Not just any book. I can overlook the Cervantes, Dumas, Tolstoy and others, in accordance with Schedule II of the Act, Permitted Exemptions (Literary)(2)(a), Translations Promoting Positive Images of Nation or Culture – but not this, as it is an instruction manual specific to a particular culture and promotes activities included in section 4, paragraph 2(7) of the Act – intellectual property with practical applications, in this case practices reserved for use by Indian nationals or their direct lineal descendants.’

I laughed incredulously. ‘The Kama Sutra? You mean to tell me this nonsense even covers our sex lives?’

‘This is no laughing matter, Mr Campbell. That section of the Act can have very serious consequences. Tell me, were you utilising any of the – er – techniques described in this book when your son was conceived?’

‘Well, it’s none of you damned business, but he’s seven. We only got the book two years ago, to spice things up a bit. I’m pretty sure it’s the 2056 edition. Do the sums.’

She looked at the edition date and relaxed. ‘I’m pleased to hear it, though we will require a written deposition signed by both you and your wife, along with an undertaking that you will discontinue any – um – techniques you may have previously employed or are still using.’

‘Oh, for… Hang on a minute. What serious consequences did you mean?’

She reddened. ‘If your son had been conceived while using a… technique from this book, he would have been confiscated. And he would have become the property of the Indian government, unless they were prepared to waive their claim. On payment of a small fee, as provided for in the legislation and separate reciprocal arrangements, for use of their cultural property as a service.’

‘What do you call a small fee?’

‘Fifty thousand pounds. A small price to pay for a child.’

‘Not if you haven’t got fifty grand kicking about. What happens to the kids if their parents can’t afford to pay?’

‘As far as I am aware, that has yet to happen. But they would be re-educated as Indian nationals, taught to speak Hindi, and given a place to live and employment appropriate to their caste.’

‘But my son doesn’t have a caste. And I thought the caste system had been outlawed in the twentieth century?’

‘You really should keep up to date, Mr Campbell. It was reinstated five years ago in line with India’s current cultural policies. It’s all those claims they’re making for the historical veracity of the Mahabharata. They say if the caste system was good enough for the people who invented aeroplanes, the internet, atomic warfare and beer, then it should serve them as well today.’

‘Christ, this just gets better and better. Why hasn’t all this been publicised?’

‘It’s been on the news, and has been debated in Parliament.’

‘But nobody watches the news if there’s something better on and nobody pays attention to Parliament unless the party leaders are insulting each other or someone’s apologising for a sex scandal.’

‘It’s a moot point anyway,’ Buckland put in. ‘And I mean that literally. France has objected to our use of the word “Parliament”, so it’s going to be renamed. “Folkmoot” has a bit of a ring to it, don’t you think?’

‘It sounds like something out of Tolkien. Horrible.’

‘Get used to it,’ said Buckland. ‘Do you know just how much of out legal and political terminology is French? It’s all got to be translated into Old English, to make it sound a bit grander than modern English words. Luckily, the Italians are fine with the Latin, as we used to be part of the Roman Empire. It makes them feel that they’re still relevant.’

‘This is insanity,’ I groaned.

‘It’s necessary,’ said Pullen. ‘People’s culture is part of their identity and should be inviolate. Take your own culture, for example.’

‘My own culture? Me and Buckland have been through this. I’m British.’

‘No, you’re legally a Briton of Afro-Caribbean Heritage. That means you have a distinct identity which is protected in law. Just think – you won’t have to put up with seeing white youths with dreadlocks or playing reggae – that will be banned under the forthcoming deal with Jamaica – or speaking in fake Jamaican accents, not unless they want three months in prison.’

‘But I don’t have dreadlocks, and I don’t even like reggae. I’m a bald jazz fan. As for kids speaking Jafaikan, I really couldn’t give a damn.’

‘Jazz is a tricky one,’ said Buckland. ‘It’s like beer. Everyone’s claiming it – West African nations, Jews, the Irish and Scots… And the Chinese, of course. In fact, there are quite a few troublesome grey areas in this field. You remember all that fuss about the cheomsang back in 2018?’

‘I was just a toddler in 2018. Remind me.’

‘A white American girl posted a picture of herself online. She was wearing a prom dress based on the traditional qipao or cheomsang associated with Chinese women. A man self-identifying as Chinese took exception to what he called “cultural appropriation”, and he sparked an internet campaign. The poor girl was vilified in social media. Then, just as all the fuss was dying down, someone pointed out that the cheomsang had actually been imposed on Chinese women by the Manchurians when they took control of China. So this traditional Chinese garment wasn’t Chinese at all, except by enforced adoption. Naturally, the Chinese soon claimed to have invented Manchuria. It stopped the rioting in Beijing and Shanghai.’

‘But doesn’t all this prove that the idea of cultural appropriation is complete and utter rubbish? Ideas, artistic styles, styles of clothing, technological developments – these are not things that respect national or ethnic boundaries. I can’t think of any culture that’s grown up in isolation and never taken anything from another. Cultural exchange is necessary. Without it we’d still be hunting bloody mammoths and wearing their skins.’

‘I think everyone recognises that,’ said Pullen, with a nod to Buckland, who made a note of my mild profanity. ‘This is only partly about giving credit where it’s due. The main thrust is identity – retaining ownership and control of particular aspects of a culture that make it unique and so confer uniqueness on its people, while at the same time preventing other cultures from making use of those aspects to reinforce lazy cultural stereotypes.’

‘Like dreadlocks and reggae?’

Pullen bridled. ‘There’s no need to be sarcastic, Mr Campbell.’

‘Yeah, well. All I see is a whole lot of people wanting to be unique because they think their culture makes them better than all others. And a whole lot more wanting to make money out of it.’

Buckland grinned and nudged Pullen. ‘Wait for it…’

‘I mean,’ I went on, warming to the subject, ‘isn’t that what the Nazis were all about? Reclaiming ideas and images from their so-called Aryan past and shouting about how it made them superior? Hitler would have loved all this rubbish.’

‘Bingo,’ said Buckland. ‘That’s a fiver you owe me. No banknotes, just in case.’

Reductio ad Hitlerum,’ sighed Pullen, handing Buckland five pound coins. ‘Better known as Godwin’s law. If a discussion goes on long enough, sooner or later somebody will compare someone else to Hitler or the Nazis.’

‘Well, much as I hate to point out the blindingly obvious, what you’re doing is exactly the kind of thing the Gestapo used to do. Anyway, how the hell did you know about the wigwam? It only arrived this morning and it wasn’t put up until a couple of hours ago.’

‘A tip-off from a concerned citizen, Mr Campbell,’ Pullen smirked. ‘And I’d thank you to refer to it as a tipi, as Native American custom requires. It is a portable habitation of poles and cloth associated with indigenous peoples of the North American plains and prairies. The wigwam, wickiup or wetu is actually a dome-shaped structure built from whatever materials come to hand, and is typical of tribes associated with forested regions. This is clearly a tipi. Schedule 3 of the Act – concerning the protection of cultures through strict use of correct terminology – provides that the proper words must be used for all items, ideas and persons.’

My temperature was rising. ‘It was that miserable old git from number twenty-eight, wasn’t it? He’s had it in for me ever since the kids put a football through his window. I offered to pay but he still insisted on taking me to court over it. Bloody lawyers.’

Pullen again muttered something about offensive language. Buckland made a note of it, then looked up at the sky. ‘Spitting with rain,’ he observed. ‘The forecast said it would be turning wet, cold and windy. Good job you’re taking the tipi down anyway.’

‘Wigwam,’ I growled and turned to go indoors.

‘Where are you going?’ Pullen asked, as the raindrops grew fatter and more frequent.

‘I’m going in to get my parka. It’s going to be chucking it down in a minute.’

They looked at each other. Pullen smiled blissfully. Buckland at least had the good grace to look embarrassed. ‘Parkas are an Inuit creation,’ said Pullen. ‘Well, actually they and anoraks are claimed by several peoples. The Inuit, the Kallalit in Greenland, the Nenets of Siberia…’

‘And the Yupik,’ added Buckland. ‘The Yupik are often classed as Inuit but they are linguistically and culturally distinct. The word Inuit doesn’t even occur in their languages, and they don’t like being called it. Anyway, the disagreement over origins means that in this case it will probably be impossible to allocate royalties and the clothing may simply be subject to a banning order. Oh, and I hope you don’t have any willow pattern crockery. The Chinese, you know.’

I mentally took a quick inventory. Shoes and socks, trousers and jeans, boxer shorts, shirts, coats and scarves. Most of my wardrobe was good, plain generic clothing with equally good, plain English names. My wife’s, though – lingerie, negligees and brassieres; espadrilles, culottes and camisoles; kimonos, pashminas and stilettos… She would need a lengthy shopping trip and a downwardly-revised fashion sense if she was to avoid either public nudity or penury by pay-off. And all because sundry collections of rabid nationalists wanted to feel superior to all the others.

‘What about learning languages?’

‘Approved and licensed individuals only.’

‘Foreign travel?’ It had been a fair while since I’d travelled abroad.

‘No problem there, Mr Campbell. Though you must now be proficient in that nation’s main language, to at least a conversational level.’

‘And to do that I’d need a license and approval. How much?’

‘An internationally-agreed standard rate of one hundred US dollars for the license, and five hundred to pay for the approval process. Oh, and the fixed ten per cent tariff for handling foreign currency.’

‘So it’s all a racket,’ I scoffed. ‘This whole thing is a trade-off between nationalist lunatics and money-grabbing con artists. It’s always the same. Cui bono?’

‘Latin,’ said Buckland approvingly. ‘I think you’re getting the hang of it. Should save you a few quid in the long term.’

‘Ah yes,’ said Pullen. ‘That reminds me. There is a five hundred pound charge for our services, payable immediately. Inability or refusal to pay will result in a fine of one thousand pounds and three months imprisonment. Card payments only.’ She looked at her wristwatch. ‘I must also point out that you now have just under ten minutes left in which to dismantle and dispose of the tipi. Otherwise…’ A shrug. ‘But you can pay when you’ve done that. Mr Buckland will give you a receipt.’

I almost panicked, wondering how the hell I was going to dispose of the wigwam – okay, the tipi – in such a short time. Those wooden poles were long and would never fit in the dustbin. I eyed Buckland and Pullen nervously. Then I became angry, the rage building up to a point at which I could no longer control myself. How dare these unthinking bureaucrats come to my home, disrupt my son’s birthday party and start laying down what I was sure would turn out to be a wholly unworkable law? How dare they threaten an honest working man, a man who had never before committed a crime of any kind, who didn’t have so much as a parking ticket to his name? The bastards were going to pay.

Almost rigid with fury, I called to the kids, telling them to go indoors. But it wasn’t because of my anger, or even the rain. I grinned at Buckland and Pullen, watching me from the shelter of an umbrella, as first I removed the cloth from the tipi, then set about rearranging the poles, setting two of them sharp end upward in the existing holes. I only needed the two. At that moment I didn’t care that Vlad the Impaler was Romanian. Bucharest could sue me for payment when it was all over. So could Beijing.

Alby Stone: The Discovery

Copyright © 2017 Alby Stone

‘Of course, you understand the need for secrecy.’ Ted MacBride stared at the document once again, wishing the conference table would open up and swallow it – that he would wake up from this bad dream and find it was a Sunday and he could look forward to a nice, relaxing round of golf. ‘There’s no way the public can know this. The first major lunar mission for more than sixty years, a symbol of restored international harmony after the horrors of twenty years ago, and it’s a total fuck-up. Billions of dollars and this is what we get? The American people will go crazy.’

‘We are all in the same boat,’ said Fangzhou. ‘The People’s Republic of China has also invested heavily in this project.’ He swept a hand through the air, describing a circle that took in everyone present. ‘As have the governments of Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, the European Union and Russia. None of us want this. No one could have predicted what was found. But we must try to be positive.’

‘Agreed,’ said Kawasaki, the Japanese representative. He nodded toward Malinov, his Russian counterpart. ‘I believe Nikolai has a suggestion that may be helpful.’

The craggy Russian stood, groaning under his breath and yearning for a glass or two of vodka. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the International Lunar Survey Expedition has, from most of our points of view, been a disaster. The expected minerals and metallic ores do not exist. So from that perspective, our nations’ investments have been wasted. But all is not lost.’

‘Not lost? Are you fucking joking?’ Amy Holloway, the Australian, shook her head incredulously. ‘As Ted said, billions of US dollars and roughly the same from every government represented here. It’s a fucking catastrophe.’

‘Perhaps not,’ said Malinov. ‘ Let us review the findings. The Survey Team excavated at six points on the moon’s surface – north and south poles and four equidistant points on the lunar equator, as planned. They followed this with sixteen further excavations at sites roughly equidistant from the first set of tests. After consultation with Mission Control in Almaty, Houston and Beijing, another ten excavations were undertaken at sites selected at random. The results were consistent and conclusive. All previous lunar surveys, from earth or space, have been mistaken. The new survey conclusively shows the surface of the moon was originally an even layer of regolith, loose dust and rock about three metres deep, covering a non-lithic core. The visible features we see now – craters, so-called mountains, ridges and so on – are the result of displacement of that surface layer caused by meteor impacts over thousands of years. What we found beneath the regolith was wholly unexpected – something that has never shown up in any scientific study, though somehow it does seem to have been enshrined in terrestrial folklore.’

‘But how is that possible?’ Sondrine Menard, the EU representative, was practically tearing her immaculately coiffed brown hair out by the roots. ‘We have used radar, infrared and laser scanning, mass spectroscopy, all the tools of modern technology. And they all show the moon to be a solid mass of rock. They cannot have been fooled. It is impossible.’

‘Evidently, it is possible,’ said the Indian representative, who insisted upon being called Mrs Patel. ‘Instruments may lie but excavation does not. What we need to worry about is not that it happened – or what was being concealed – but how and why.’

‘We don’t know why, but we do know how it has gone undetected for so long,’ said Malinov. ‘The team drilled furher beneath the surface and found evidence of a transmitter, a device possibly thousands of years more advanced than anything we have. Somehow, it intercepts any beams or waves attempting to scan the moon and sends a fake return signal. It’s an automated defence mechanism, presumably placed there by an advanced non-human civilisation.’

‘What?’ Kawasaki was stunned. ‘Aliens? Why am I hearing this only now?’

Malinov and MacBride exchanged uneasy glances with Fangzhou. ‘The Presidents of Russia, China and the United States thought best to keep it under wraps. Temporarily.’

‘Permanently, you mean,’ said Holloway, folding her arms and wrinkling her nose in disgust. ‘You are only telling us now because you need our help in putting a positive spin on this fucking fiasco. What else have you bastards strong-armed the survey team into keeping it from us? Is that why they are still being held incommunicado in Houston?’

‘They’ve been able to talk to their families,’ said MacBride.

‘But they haven’t been allowed to discuss the mission,’ said Mrs Patel. ‘And there’s always a security officer present.’

‘Look, we don’t want mass panic,’ said MacBride. ‘You know what would happen if people found out aliens had visited thousands, maybe millions of years ago. Rioting, looting, lawlessness. All the world’s religions would be in serious trouble. Everyone would assume all that Roswell and Area 51 bullshit was true and they’d no longer trust our governments. We can’t admit the problem until we have a solution.’

‘A solution to what, exactly?’ asked Menard.

‘We need a way to exploit what the survey found,’ said Malinov. ‘If handled properly, this discovery could change the world for the better. We’ve all seen the same data, but I don’t think we’re not all reading it the same way. There’s a fantastic opportunity here. Just think about it. We could eliminate global suffering virtually overnight. We are open to ideas.’ 

‘Bring in the English,’ said Holloway.

Silence fell. Eye contact was avoided. The only sounds were those of shuffled papers and shifting bottoms. ‘Impossible,’ said Menard eventually. ‘Since it left the European Union, England has been…’ She searched for the right words.

‘Unstable, unpleasant and ungovernable,’ Holloway said. ‘Human rights abuses, crime rate through the roof, widespread racism and homophobia, administrative corruption, no investment, unemployment on a previously unimaginable scale, a dying economy. The whole country’s been sucked dry and asset-stripped by the very people who bankrolled the campaign to leave the EU. The English haven’t got a pot to piss in. And while they were cutting off their nose to spite their face, they also left the European Space Agency. No money and no involvement. But from what I’ve read today, they’ve got the know-how we need.’

Menard bristled. ‘The ESA also has the “know-how”, as you put it. In France we have experts who could resolve this.’

‘From what I’ve read today,’ Holloway repeated slowly, ‘only the English can provide the specialised expertise we need.’

‘They won’t go for it,’ said Mrs Patel. ‘It would wipe out their economy.’

‘Their economy is already wiped out,’ said Kawasaki. ‘Since the European finance centre switched to Frankfurt and international investors pulled out, even their service industries have collapsed. With Northern Ireland joining the Republic, and Scotland gaining independence and de facto control of North Sea oil, they have nothing the rest of the world wants, except cheap sex for sleazy tourists and the chance of a selfie at Stonehenge or outside Buckingham Palace. All the rich people have left for good except the Royal Family and the politicians, and they spend most of their time out of the country anyway. We know from the last UNICEF report that the only children not living in abject poverty are the ones selling themselves in the sex trade. Malnutrition is rife, and so are diseases associated with it. I never thought I’d say this, but in the year 2037 England is as bad as North Korea was before the revolution thirteen years ago. They may be impoverished international pariahs but we need them. If necessary we can fund the follow-up mission between us. Look upon it as an investment.’

‘I still don’t understand, said Park, the South Korean. ‘How can the English help?’

‘They can help,’ said Holloway, ‘because there is one man in the United Kingdom of England and Wales with an intimate knowledge of what was found beneath the lunar surface. One man who knows how to exploit it. One man who can save his people, and solve the world’s most pressing problem. And help us keep our jobs, of course.’

MacBride shrugged. ‘Okay, as long as our governments agree.’

‘We have no choice,’ said Holloway.

‘I agree,’ said Mrs Patel. ‘And if the governments of the United States, China and Russia are unwilling to do so, then the Indian government will make sure the world knows what is going on. As, I believe, will the governments of Japan, South Korea and Australia. Madame Menard?’

The Frenchwoman gave a traditional Gallic shrug. ‘I still think this is a matter best handled by the European Union, and specifically France, but I will abide by the majority decision. Reluctantly.’

‘Okay,’ said MacBride with a relieved sigh. ‘Let’s do it.’

*

The unusually large landing module touched down. After a while, the airlock door opened and a spacesuited man emerged clutching a spade, which he used to gauge the consistency of the regolith. The man gazed excitedly at the grey moonscape. Then he turned to the landing module and gave a thumbs-up. A few minutes later, a platform descended from the belly of the craft and when that met the ground a diminutive figure drove a small caterpillar-tracked vehicle from it to where the man stood. The smaller figure operated the digging mechanism, rolling his eyes occasionally as the standing man inexpertly supervised the excavation. After a while, the man held up a hand and the digger was moved back. He carefully studied the substance they had exposed, and nodded thoughtfully.

The man took a spoon from a pouch on his suit and gouged out a small sample, which he placed in a complicated airlock on his helmet’s faceplate. A tiny conveyor belt extended inward from the airlock and delivered the sample to his waiting mouth. He bit and chewed thoughtfully, then smiled delightedly and turned to his companion.

‘They were right – it is Wensleydale! Nicely matured, too. Now let’s get the ship loaded. Job well done, lad.’

Alby Stone: The Day the Earth Still Stood

Copyright © 2018 Alby Stone

Interior – the Oval Office of the White House. POTUS has his feet on desk and is ‘reading’ the latest issue of Playboy. An aide enters.

AIDE [urgently]: ‘Mr President, the aliens are invading!’

PRESIDENT[reluctantly removing his feet from the desk and his gaze from the centrefold]: ‘Whoa there! Whoa, I say! We talking about wetbacks, boy?’

AIDE: ‘Not the Mexicans this time, sir. These are real aliens, from outer space.’

PRESIDENT [slams fist on desk]: ‘Hot damn. Have the little green bastards landed in this once-again Great Nation yet?’

AIDE: ‘Not yet but they’re on their way. Shall I tell the hospitals to be prepared for mass casualties?’

PRESIDENT: ‘Only for the ones that got insurance, boy. Hey, are you sure about this? What does NASA say?’

AIDE: ‘Er – there’s nobody left at NASA, sir. They couldn’t afford hardware and staff after you cut their funding. I did call them but the janitor was on his break.’

PRESIDENT: ‘Fire the disrespectful asshole. He had it coming. So how come we know about this alien invasion?’

AIDE: ‘Routine interrogation of a suspected Muslim, sir.’

PRESIDENT: ‘Hey, I thought I’d thrown all those bastards out of this once-again Great Nation?’

AIDE: ‘You did, sir. But you didn’t rescind the executive order quotas for tort…  – I mean, enhanced interrogation of suspected Muslims. And others. The CIA has been rounding up anyone with a beard, just to make up the numbers for those reports you never read. There’s only ZZ Top and Ted Nugent left.’

PRESIDENT: ‘I always said the CIA are our greatest weapon in the war on terror. Those boys are keen, I’ll give them that.’

AIDE: ‘Erring on the side of caution, as you told the British Prime Minister.’

PRESIDENT [sighing]: ‘Was that ever a disappointment. When they told me Mrs May was gonna be paying me a visit, I thought they meant Brook Power. Instead I get an old broad who looked like she’d just won a lemon-sucking contest. And why the fuck was she wearing a Guantanamo Bay jumpsuit? I’ll never understand women. Or the Brits. Anyway, what did this terrorist guy say about the aliens?’

AIDE: ‘It only took a few sessions of waterboarding to make him spill the beans, Mr President. He told us all we need to know. The aliens are gonna land on the White House lawn with a big silver robot. Seems they sent spies here years ago to check us out, a little fat guy with a long neck and a bunch of others up at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.’

PRESIDENT [slams fist on desk]: ‘Devil’s Tower? Shit, they must be Satanist aliens. That silver robot sounds pretty cool, though. What else did he say?’

AIDE: ‘He told us everything, sir. Sang like Dolly at the Grand Ol’ Opry. Thanks to him we now know there’s going to be a robot rebellion and a plague of zombies, and a big war in some place called Westeros. I think that’s near Switzerland. He also told us where Elvis is hiding out.’

PRESIDENT: ‘You see? I always said torture works. Say, I got an idea. I’m gonna build a wall around our Great Planet. And I’m gonna make the aliens pay for it, one hundred per cent.’

AIDE: ‘Might be a problem there, Mr President. Since you cut funding to all government agencies and deported all the foreign workers, the construction industry has collapsed.’

PRESIDENT: ‘What about good old American know-how?’

AIDE: ‘You fired all the scientists because they disputed your alternative facts about alleged global warming and – well, pretty much everything.’

PRESIDENT [slams fist on desk]: ‘Those assholes had it coming. Damn. If the American people get wind of this there will be mass panic. My popularity rating might even go down. We’d better have a news blackout.’

AIDE: ‘No problem there, sir. Since you closed down most of the lying fake news agencies and pissed off Rightfart there’s only Fuchs left. And right now they’re busy covering the Clinton trial.’

PRESIDENT: ‘Is the Pentagon on standby?’

AIDE: ‘Mr President, the Pentagon is always on standby. But the military is thin on the ground since you cut the defence budget to pay for the total abolition of federal taxes and the alterations to Mount Rushmore.’

PRESIDENT: ‘One gold-plated Dump has got to be better than four outdated chumps. Well, I’m sure the NRA will step up to the plate. What about the nukes?’

AIDE: ‘Still aimed at North Korea, China and Mexico City, as per your instructions. We can’t change that because the new eyes-only target codes were in that last security report.’

PRESIDENT: ‘You mean…?’

AIDE: ‘Yes, sir. The one you wiped your butt with.’

President [slams fist on desk]: ‘Screw those CIA assholes! They shoulda warned me!’

AIDE: ‘They did try, Mr President. You fired the Director because he disagreed with the alternative facts, remember? And the one after him. And the one after…’

PRESIDENT: ‘The assholes had it coming. And only an asshole would believe fake news over alternative facts.’

AIDE: ‘Of course, sir. But the codes were the next item on the agenda.’

PRESIDENT: ‘Agenda? There was an agenda?’

AIDE: ‘You wiped your butt with that too, sir.’

PRESIDENT [slams fist on desk]: ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna fire the nukes anyway. That’ll make those Satanist alien wetbacks sit up and take notice. I’ll show those tentacled liberal fuckers I mean business. Who cares about a few dead commies and a bunch of radioactive Mexicans? The assholes had it coming. Nobody dumps on Dump. And we’ll be just fine in the bunker. Okay, now tell me. When’s the comeback concert?’

AIDE: ‘Sir? Comeback?’

PRESIDENT: ‘Elvis, of course. I want a front table.’

AIDE: ‘I’ll get right on to it. But sir, what about the response?’

PRESIDENT: ‘Response? What response?’

AIDE: ‘Nuclear response from China, sir. If we nuke ‘em, they won’t just let it go.’

PRESIDENT [slams fist on desk]: ‘I don’t give a flying fuck what the Chinese think. The only opinions I value are those of the people of this once-again Great Nation.’

AIDE: ‘Er, that’s because you’ve deported, executed or jailed anyone who doesn’t agree with you. Rightly so, of course.’

PRESIDENT: ‘The assholes had it coming. Damn. There’s only one thing for it. We have to go to Retcon 1.’

AIDE: ‘Um – don’t you mean Defcon 1?’

PRESIDENT: ‘I know what I mean. We need some backdated alternative facts, pronto. And the backdated alternative facts are that the feminazis, commies, liberals, Obama, Hillary Clinton, Muslims and Mexicans are responsible for this alien invasion shit storm and the coming nuclear catastrophe. Call the Pooch. This is his territory.’

AIDE: ‘Uh, you fired the Pooch, sir.’

PRESIDENT: ‘I did? Well, I guess the asshole must have had it coming. Right, get somebody else onto it. See if that guy from The West Wing is available. Meanwhile, I’ll go on Twitter and tell the people of our once-again Great Nation the reason the aliens are coming is the deal Obama made with that Australian motherfucker, and we can work up a story about the aliens being responsible for the Burning Man massacre.’

AIDE [shocked]: ‘There’s been a massacre at Burning Man?’

PRESIDENT: ‘Watch this space, son. The assholes had it coming. Rich people should play golf and make deals, not dick around in the desert like a bunch of fucking hippies. Okay, problem solved. Now what I was I doing?’

AIDE: ‘You were looking at the Playboy centrefold, sir.’

PRESIDENT: ‘Bullshit. I was reading the features. Hey, can you get me a coffee and a cheeseburger? And while you’re out, head down to the National Archives and bring me the Constitution.’

AIDE: ‘The Constitution? The original?’

PRESIDENT: ‘Yeah. I need a crap and I’ve run out of reports.’

Alby Stone: For Goodness Sake

Copyright © 2017 Alby Stone

Fortification was required. He unscrewed the cap and took a large mouthful of vodka, exhaling gratefully as the liquid warmed his tongue and made its leisurely way down his throat, then one last drag on the cigarette before it was flushed away. He closed the lavatory window and exited the cubicle, then placed the bottle in his locker and attempted to camouflage the smoke and vapour lingering on his breath with an extra-strong mint. It would see him through until the morning break, by which time he would be in dire need of a repeat dose. By lunchtime – well, there was a pub just across the road.

He drew a deep breath and left the changing room, making his way through the sparse knots of early risers, eventually arriving at what he was beginning to think of as his Golgotha. Even though it was entirely the wrong season for that sort of spectacle, public torture and execution would surely be a fitting end to what, on the whole, had turned out to be a thoroughly crap life spent struggling to rise above the circumstances of his birth but failing miserably to improve the lousy hand he’d been dealt. He’d tried hard, nobody could deny that – except the Department for Work and Pensions, whose default position appeared to be that he was a lazy, feckless sponger to be treated as a potential criminal and patronised at every opportunity – but he had no influence upon global events or financial trends, no control over the actions or fortunes of others. His efforts led only to decline, a spiral of diminishing returns. At his age, the latest redundancy left him with nowhere to go. Until he found himself here.

The working day began with a cursory inspection of his work station – health and safety regulations bought him a few minutes’ breathing space each day. Then he refreshed his memory with a quick read through the script, really a decision tree of mandatory responses carefully drafted so as to avoid offending children or parents of any NRS, BAME, NS-SEC or LGBTQIA persuasion. It seemed everyone had rights except him. As prepared for the forthcoming ordeal as he would ever be, he took his seat, an uncomfortable plastic chair poorly disguised as an Arctic snowdrift. Alright, so the old dust sheet glazed with a spot of white spray paint wouldn’t fool anyone with functioning eyes and more than three brain cells, but it seemed to keep most of his customers happy, as did the plastic reindeer and the improbably cute cardboard cut-out polar bear. It didn’t really take much.

This wasn’t exactly what he imagined when that sour-faced old bat at the Job Centre asked him if he’d ever pictured himself in uniform. Yeah, he said, who hasn’t? Everyone’s entitled to a fantasy or two. Despite his advancing years, and a nagging suspicion that she was taking the piss, he was thinking Royal Navy, RAF, Grenadier Guards, SAS – even the police or fire brigade, paramedic or security guard at a pinch. But not this. Never this. It was unfair, inhuman. But what could he do? They were poised to stop his benefit, which meant he was waiting at the threshold of yet another last-chance saloon. He’d protested, of course, but it was a stark choice: take the job or be completely skint at the very worst time of year to be without money. So he swallowed his pride and chased it down with the bitter medicine. The pay was rubbish, only a couple of pence above minimum wage, but at least it was only for twenty-four days, excluding a few days off, and it wasn’t physically demanding. He could do it. No problem, apart from the obvious.

Famous last words. At the interview they told him he would be paid a month in arrears, on the last working day of the month. The second piece of bad news was learning that his Universal Credit would stop as soon as he started work, because that too was paid a month in arrears, and technically at the start of the next month he would be earning money. He would, they said, just have to learn to budget, like everyone else. The housing element of his benefit would also stop and he would be liable to pay that, and a month’s worth of council tax, from his distinctly unimpressive pay packet. The only glimmer of hope was that his benefit claim would be restarted when this temporary job ended – though it would take at least six weeks to come through, probably longer. He was caught between a rock and a hard place, and being squeezed mercilessly. The only course of action was to carry on with what he’d started. This way he had a small chance of making it to the resumption of his benefit relatively unscathed and still with a roof over his head. In the meantime, he would spend his dwindling funds on booze. It got him through the day.

He stared down at his ‘uniform’. Red and white – red and bloody white. The ultimate humiliation. No self-respecting Spurs supporter should be seen dead wearing these colours. And it was too sodding hot. And the damned beard itched like hell. And the stupid fluffy eyebrows kept falling off. The grotto still stank from the previous evening, when the last customer had thrown up a vast load of well-churned burger, chips, ice cream, chocolate and cola, along with a pint or so of gastric juices. The kid had demanded, in flagrant contravention of the clearly signposted terms and conditions parents were supposed to read before letting their offspring loose in the grotto, to sit on his knee. In the end he’d compromised and placed the designated customer chair over the joint in question – he was damned if he was going to be accused of some monstrous act by a snotty-nosed brat with an attitude problem – and listened impatiently as the boy recited an inordinately long list of preferred options, none of which cost less than a three-figure sum, before emptying his stomach without so much as a hiccup as advance warning. How he had escaped the child’s spectacular projectile vomiting was a complete mystery. If he didn’t know better he would have put it down to divine intervention.

Every day brought a fresh horror. He’d been draped with beer-stained Arsenal scarves by drunken Gooners, threatened with violent retribution by smartphone-eyed brats severely disappointed by last year’s presents, and scrutinised with suspicion by hatchet-faced young mothers convinced that any man who would do this job must surely have perverse intentions toward their sticky, rodent-like offspring. Last Saturday afternoon had been the worst so far. Parked in the grotto with only half an hour to go before knocking-off time, mouth watering at the prospect of a few pints in the Coach and Horses, followed by a good, long lie-in the next morning, he was thinking maybe things weren’t quite so bad after all – though that rosy hue may have been a side-effect of those regular nips of vodka and a couple of beers where others might have placed a sandwich. Then they appeared, marching haphazardly through the mall and squawking like flock of mad parakeets, antlered, festooned with tinsel and strings of flashing lights, hats that matched his own, swaying precariously on heels little more than long needles. A bloody hen party. His prayer for invisibility fell on deaf ears. When that first fake fingernail pointed in his direction, simultaneous with a screech that brought the rest of them to heel, he knew there would be no escape.

I bet we could make you come more than once a year.

Show us your red-nosed reindeer.

Was that you up my chimney last night?

Let’s see your sack.

And so it went. A stream of unoriginal innuendo. Mistletoe from somewhere. A cocktail of wet, mocking kisses. A drunken, gin-scented tongue squirming in his ear like a huge, panicked tadpole. Clammy hands roaming inside his costume. Interminable selfies, all trout-pouts and lewd gestures. When they eventually tottered off to the next unsuspecting bar, they’d stolen his hat and beard, broken the reindeer, drawn a moustache and spectacles on the polar bear, and one of them had taken a crafty leak inside the grotto, ruining the white bargain-basement nylon carpet that passed for snow. And he was sure their barrage of high-decibel squeals and chirrups had permanently damaged his hearing. Next time a hen party appeared he would up sticks and run for it, wages and benefits be buggered.

If all that wasn’t bad enough, there was the music blasted out by the mall PA system, a ceaseless loop of seasonal schmaltz and banality, the same ninety-minute compilation repeated eight times a day. One of the speakers was directly behind him, no more than twenty feet away. Put bars around the grotto, lighten his costume by a couple of shades of yellow, and he could be in Guantanamo Bay, though he suspected Camp X-Ray would be less degrading and not quite as brutal.

Now the first customer of the day was approaching, a stunted creature of indeterminate age, gender, ethnicity and species, swathed in acrylic wool and bulked out with quilting as insulation from the festive rain and freezing wind haunting the streets outside. Its head was partly concealed by an over-large mob cap. One of its hands grasped an unwrapped, half-eaten chocolate bar dripping with thick, brown saliva; the other terminated in an attractive young woman who was presumably its mother, though she could equally have been its older and better-dressed sister.

What followed was uncomfortably familiar, like being forced to watch an old home movie.

’Look, Santa,’ the child gurgled, dense brown liquid oozing from its mouth and down the little round chin. Its eyes lit up in wonder, a pair of muddy LEDs.

‘Santa can fuckin’ wait,’ snapped the probable mother. ‘I’m goin’ to the fuckin’ nail bar, an’ I gotta top up me phone, then we gotta get yer nan’s present an’ me fags.’

‘Santa,’ the kid repeated, its mouth turning down at the corners, leaking two small drops of brown goo.

‘For fuck’s sake, I told you, we ain’t got time. I’m meetin’ Wayne at two an’ I gotta drop you off at yer nan’s before I get ready to go out.’

The little eyes screwed tightly shut. ‘I want to see Santa,’ the tot grizzled, its mouth opening wide and letting loose a cascade that could have passed for diluted tar.

‘Now look what you fuckin’ done,’ the semi-adult growled. ‘It’s gone all down yer fuckin’ front. Fuckin’ showin’ me up in front of everyone.’ She delved into her bag, a Louis Vuiton knock-off if ever there was, and dredged up a wad of paper napkins emblazoned with the familiar golden arches. A quick wipe of the child’s quilted front, a stained, crumbled tissue dropped uncaringly on the mall floor.

‘Santa,’ the youngster sobbed, a bubble of snot inflating at her right nostril. Another wipe, more litter. The kid emitted a low, keening wail.

‘I can’t fuckin’ take you nowhere,’ the grown-up grumbled.

The smaller entity responded with a barely audible whisper. ‘Santa? Please?’

‘Pack it in, you little sod. Oh, fuck it. Go on then. Five minutes an’ that’s yer lot. As long as it fuckin’ shuts you up.’

The child scampered eagerly into the grotto, snatching off its headgear to reveal a mop of curly brown hair. A little girl – though obviously, as stated in the terms and conditions of his employment, in these days of alphabet soup fluidity it was wrong to make binary assumptions based on mere biology. Wary as this Santa was of very small children of any sexual orientation or self-identified gender, his heart went out to this one. Where her larger companion was dressed to the nines in clean, pressed and seemingly brand-new threads with fake designer labels, the kid’s grubby clothes had seen better days, probably on someone else’s back, and she needed a bath. The girl was an inconvenience, the barely tolerated by-product of a selfish existence. He’d seen it before, at very close quarters. Her infancy was, he suspected, the same as his had been – a disappeared father, a mother whose attention and resources were focused wholly upon herself. It had not been an ideal preparation for life. Hence his present situation: a man for whom low self-esteem and failure were self-fulfilling prophecies, dressed in the cheap costume of an imaginary being and paid peanuts to give others the sense of wonder and hope that had long ago vanished from his own heart.

‘Is that your mum?’ he asked, keeping his voice low.

The girl nodded shyly, gazing it him with big brown eyes that had never seen much worth seeing and probably never would. At best, he thought, she would grow up to be just like her mother. At worst, one of the world’s doormats, neglected and bereft of self-esteem, destined to be a combined domestic servant and punch-bag. But he would stick to the script.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Janie Smith. J-A-N-I-E. Nan taught me to spell it. My mum’s name is Chelsea, but I don’t know how to spell that. She works in a club. She’s got a boyfriend called Wayne. They went to America in the summer. I stayed with Nan. Mum’s got a Honda Civet. It’s red an’ shiny. But I’m not allowed in it in case I’m sick, like I was in her old car.’

‘How old are you?’

‘Six.’

‘Have you been good this year?’

She nodded, then glanced at her mother, who was standing a few yards away, arms folded and face like curdled milk. The girl sighed and shook her head, casting her eyes down.

‘That’s alright,’ he said, reciting Option 2 of the set responses. ‘Nobody can be good all the time, can they? And it doesn’t matter, as long as you haven’t done anything really bad. What would you like for Christmas or whichever midwinter festival you celebrate?’

‘A puppy,’ she said quietly. ‘But mum won’t let me have one. Vet bills an’ food costs too much. She won’t be able to buy fags an’ Processo.’

Bugger the script. ‘You mean Prosecco. Horrible stuff. I think I’d rather have a dog. What sort of things do you like to do?’

A shrug. ‘Drawing an’ painting best. An’ playing. An’ stories. An’ choc’late. Mum gets me choc’late from Poundland. She says it keeps me quiet. It’s cheap.’

‘Have you got lots of pencils and crayons, paints and paper?’

She shook her head. ‘Mum says it’s a waste of money, cos it’ll only get used up or thrown out.’

 ‘If you had a puppy, would you take good care of it? Make sure it has enough to eat and drink?’

A firm nod, serious eyes. ‘My friend Ibiza’s got a Staffie but he bites. Nan’s got a Yorkie called Freddie. I go with her when she takes him for a walk. She lets me hold his lead, an’ I like giving him his baths an’ brushin’ him, an’ playin’ with him in the garden. I want a cockatoo.’

‘I think you mean a cockerpoo. Do you live near here?’

Another nod. ‘We live in Grant Avenue. There’s a shop on the corner. It smells funny.’

That would be Pongo, the no doubt ironically-named ‘artisan’ toiletries store. He’d been in there once, just out of curiosity, in more affluent times. Their products did have some unusual scents, predominantly horse manure and rancid cat piss. The organic liquorice soap he’d bought as a novelty looked like a freshly-released dog turd when he unwrapped it, and didn’t smell much better. It went straight in the bin. No wonder the hipster behind the counter had smiled liked that when he handed over that tenner. ‘I know it.’

The girl reached out and stroked his beard. ‘It feels like cotton wool,’ she said, smiling. ‘Are you really Santa?’

‘Yes, of course I am. And I can prove it.’ He reached down to the small sack filled with packets of sweets that were supposed to be dished out to customers as they departed, a token down-payment on festive treats to come. The kids were not to leave empty-handed, that was the rule – number 47, if he remembered correctly. ‘Here,’ he said, handing her the whole sack. ‘All yours, Janie. Merry Christmas. Now you wait here a minute. I’m just going to have a quick word with your mother.’

By this time the woman was busy with her iPhone, perhaps checking for messages from Wayne, more probably admiring her selfies on Facebook. Her eyes widened with surprise when Santa suddenly appeared before her.

‘Chelsea Smith?’ He took his employee ID card from his pocket and flashed it quickly, before she could notice the mall logo. ‘Richard Hannay, Child Protection Agency,’ he lied. ‘I’m working undercover. We’ve had our eye on you for some time.’

The woman blanched. ‘Child Protection? What am I supposed to’ve fuckin’ done?’

He exhaled a sigh and shook his head sadly. ‘It’s more what you haven’t done. You haven’t taken care of her, for one thing. I mean, just look at her. Charity shop clothes that need cleaning as badly as she does. And she’s as unhappy as any kid I’ve ever seen. You don’t beat her, and she appears adequately fed, I’ll give you that. But otherwise it’s a clear case of neglect, physical and emotional. Are you aware of the penalties for that? Do you know she could be placed in care?’

She gasped, slumped, then rallied, reflex indignation. ‘Who fuckin’ grassed me up? Was it that fuckin’ old bitch at number seventeen?’

‘A concerned citizen, that’s all you need to know. Someone who is genuinely interested in Janie’s welfare. But that’s the least of your worries. I’m not impressed by what I’ve seen today, Ms Smith. My report will reflect that. However, I am prepared to give you a chance to make things better.’

Like most people, Chelsea Smith had only a dim idea of what the law could or could not do. And an inbred fear of people in authority, which in her bubble of a world meant anyone with a laminated photo ID card, a reasonable vocabulary and diction, and a stern attitude, even if they had bloodshot eyes and were dressed as Father Christmas with one fluffy white eyebrow hanging loose. ‘Yer fuckin’ jokin’ me, right?’ she queried, her voice quavering.

He frowned. ‘This is anything but a joke, Ms Smith. You have until the end of February to turn things around. Our officers will be keeping a close watch on Grant Avenue, and if they do not see the expected improvements – well, I’m sure I don’t need to spell it out. The courts do not look kindly upon those convicted of neglecting their children.’

She nodded frantically, no doubt envisaging money draining from her hands, perhaps even picturing herself behind bars, vilified in the press and on social media. ‘End of Feb, right. What’ve I gotta do?’

He could have screamed. This young woman was bloody clueless. ‘Well, for starters you can give her a good bath, clean the clothes she has, and get her some new ones. Spend more time with her, preferably without shouting or swearing. Read to her. Take her out, not just when you go shopping but for herself – a film, the zoo, a walk in the park, feed the ducks. Buy her some paints, coloured pencils, a sketch book, something like that. Kids like to draw, don’t they? I know I did when I was her age. Little things like that can make a big difference.’

‘I can’t afford all that.’

‘But you can afford a brand new Honda Civic. A nice red one, I believe. You can afford those expensive clothes. You can afford to smoke. You can afford to jet off on holiday to the USA with your boyfriend. All things considered, I would say you could also afford to cut down just a little on your personal luxuries so that your child can have a proper upbringing. You can make a start by getting her something nice for Christmas, something that shows you care about her. I suggest a puppy. Normally I would be against giving pets as Christmas presents. My friend in the Animal Welfare Unit has told me some very sad tales of puppies and kittens abandoned after Christmas. But I think a dog would be ideal for Janie. Pet ownership can teach people a great deal about responsibility. We would be monitoring the dog’s progress along with Janie’s, of course. A cockerpoo would be an excellent choice, as they’re good with children. In fact, I strongly recommend it. As my report will show.’

‘A fuckin’ dog? Yer havin’ a laugh. It’ll need feedin’ – an’ I’ll get hairs all over me bleedin’ clothes,’ she protested.

‘You can feed a dog for a day for less than it costs to buy a bottle of Prosecco or a pint of lager. And you appear to be able-bodied, so I’m sure you can brush your clothes without too much trouble.’

She attempted another rally. ‘I’ve got rights, you know. I’ve got the right to – er…’ That was as far as she got. Everyone knew they had rights, but only a few people seemed to know what they were, or that other people also had rights. Their best guess was usually that they had the right to do as they damned well pleased, which was probably why so many morons ended up behind bars for doing really stupid things.

‘Your child also has rights,’ he said sternly. ‘And you have responsibilities, legally and morally. It’s a simple choice. What’s more important to you – your fun and ego, or your child’s welfare and happiness?’

The real answer to that question was written all over her face, but she knew she was cornered. ‘Me kid, innit?’

He glared at her. ‘We’ll hold you to that, Ms Smith. Just remember, we know where you live. You’re on our list, and we’ll be checking, so you’d better watch out. Now take your child somewhere and give her a treat. Buy her some crayons and paper, something decent. And remember, cut out the bad language. Children are impressionable.’

Chelsea Smith scuttled away, pausing only to collect Janie from the grotto. He watched with grim satisfaction as they entered the nearby toyshop. Giving that self-obsessed young mother a dressing-down – not to mention posing as an official from a fictitious council department and making threats he had no authority to make – had not made him feel good. The woman was merely a product of her time, hypnotised by the sight of her face on a screen, learning to be the way she was by following the televised misadventures of a growing army of accidental celebrities who revelled in their shallowness and vanity, and who believed a pretty face and a six-pack or fake tits excused all ignorance, stupidity and poor behaviour.

No, he didn’t feel good about what he had just done. He had no sense of pride. But he felt righteous. Maybe he had made a small difference to one child’s life, if only for a few weeks or months. It was, he thought, probably the best thing he had ever done. Perhaps this good deed would change his luck – assuming, of course, that Somebody Up There had been paying attention, which he very much doubted.

He looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes until his break. He needed a cigarette and a good snort of vodka after that performance. Maybe he should have taken up acting. Too late now, of course. He shook his head wearily and resumed his position in the grotto, trying unsuccessfully to stick the errant eyebrow back on. The music changed, from ‘Jingle Bells’ to ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’.

The exultant screech made him look up, though for some reason he saw the pointing fingernail before the sound registered. Then they were heading straight for him, a tottering nightmare phalanx of heels, squeals, tinsel and antlers. His heart sank. Another bloody hen party? At this time of the morning?

‘Oh, for – ’

Alby Stone: Dog and Pony Show

Copyright (c) 2017 Alby Stone

It isn’t often that I’m intimidated. Never, in fact. But this was the exception that proved the rule. Usually when I’m called to business appointments I find the client on his or her knees in a muddy puddle, clutching some kind of offering – just lately I’ve had my bloody fill of chickens – alone and possessed of a facial expression somewhere between surprise, desperate hope and abject terror. But this – well, it was outside even my extensive experience.

He was on his knees right enough, and in the traditional position; but that was as far as it went. The patellae in question were resting on a white velvet cushion embroidered with the Stars and Stripes. The offering – at least, that’s what I at first took it to be – appeared to be some kind of small mammal, perhaps a Persian cat or angora rabbit with improbably coiffed bottle-blonde fur, curled up asleep on top of the man’s head. And the unidentifiable creature’s human perch wasn’t alone.

‘Who the hell are they?’ I pointed at the group of men and women standing in the road behind my latest client. I’ll call him Jones. Client confidentiality would ordinarily be enough, but this bloke would sue even me if I gave him half a chance.

‘Them? Oh, they’re my people. Bodyguards, PA, personal trainer, stylist, campaign manager, a couple of gofers. And my lawyers, of course. I don’t even take a shit without legal representation.’ Three men wearing suits that put my hand-tailored Italian masterpiece to shame nodded courteously, if a trifle coldly. Their eyes flashed like supermarket checkout displays.

The client squinted suspiciously. ‘Say, you got a beard. Are you a Muslim?’

I ignored him and focused on my surroundings, hitherto unnoticed due to my fascination with the client’s entourage, and his odd choice and location of offering. There were more people, quite a lot of them. Bright lights all around. And cars, heavy traffic. It all seemed familiar but I couldn’t quite place it. That’s disorientation for you. ‘Where are we?’

 ‘The junction of Virginia Avenue NW and 19th Street NW, DC,’ one of the client’s flunkeys replied, after checking a map. ‘It’s at the centre of a triangle formed by the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Memorial. This is an auspicious place, right at the heart of power in this great nation.’

‘Not the sort of power you’ll be getting your hands on anytime soon, mate,’ I growled under my breath. ‘Let my client speak for himself,’ I continued aloud. ‘There’s a good boy.’

Jones was still squinting. ‘You sound like a Brit, just like on the TV show. That’s good. I like the British. They know how to do the right thing.’

‘Unlike you,’ I observed. ‘Traditionally the client requests my presence at a deserted crossroads at midnight – alone, not with a bloody circus trailing behind him. Or her,’ I added. Historically, women have rarely requested my services in this manner. The recent flurry of female supplicants was, I supposed, a heartening sign that gender equality was finally becoming a reality. Though my client would no doubt put the kybosh on that if his grasping hands ever held the reins of authority.

‘I do things my way or not at all,’ said Jones, puffing himself out like a gamecock. ‘So what do I call you?’

I shrugged. ‘You can call me “Sir”, “Lord”, “Master”, whatever seems appropriate.’

The man frowned, which seemed to cause the animal on his head some discomfort. ‘Hey, I’m on first-name terms with everyone. That’s my style. But whatever suits you, pal.’

Pal? In all my years no one had ever addressed me in such a manner. I bristled, tempted to show him there and then precisely what suited me. I smiled instead. Payment for his insolence could wait. The long game has always been the most satisfying. Mind you, that night I was on a tight timetable.

‘Look, you called me. Can we just get on with this? Lemmy was in the middle of a great story about Hendrix when you called. I thought the bishop was going to piss himself. Mind you, that might have just been the sight of my butler stoking the fireplace. And I have an appointment elsewhere.’

‘Okay,’ said the client. One of the lawyers leaned over and whispered in his ear. ‘Yeah, got it. Where were we? Oh yeah, I want to be President.’

That much was already public knowledge and I told him so.

‘Yeah, but there may be – obstacles, capisce? Certain things in my past that might be better forgotten. By everyone, know what I mean? Things that’ll probably take a little more than putting a positive spin on them.’

‘I’m the Father of Lies,’ I pointed out. ‘Or at least I was until recently. These days I feel like a sodding amateur. Honestly, are you modern politicians totally incapable of telling the bloody truth?’

Jones made that Mussolini face that certain kinds of mindless bigot find just adorable. I brightened. I would soon be in possession of a fine pair of bookends. They’d look good above one of the fireplaces, in one of the more distant chambers that I hardly ever visited. If there’s one thing attention-seekers hate, it’s being ignored. I do what I can.

‘Anyway,’ I said. ‘What’s the offering? And why on earth have you got it on top of your head?’

He stared at me blankly. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ He snapped his fingers and another of his people stepped forward, nervously – and with not a little difficulty – clutching a large, angry, squirming rooster. Black, of course.

‘It’s still alive,’ I pointed out.

‘Yeah, we weren’t sure of the protocol. Thought you might prefer to off the critter yourself. Who’s got the machete?’

The client’s people huddled together and conferred. Hands were spread, heads shaken and blame exchanged. It was as clear as day that no one had remembered the machete. Eventually a hapless lackey was selected to impart the bad news to his boss, whose face turned crimson with fury and as distorted as a choice Notre Dame gargoyle when he began what was surely the bollocking against which all subsequent bollockings would be measured. I checked my watch. At this rate I was going to miss that Black Sabbath gig I’d been looking forward to. The tickets had cost an arm and a leg. Not mine, obviously.

‘Look, if it’s all the same to you I’m quite happy with a live one.’

The client narrowed his eyes. ‘But I was told you liked a big black – ’

I wagged a finger in warning. ‘Not one more word about poultry, sunshine. Right, so you want to be the leader of the so-called free world. What’s in it for me?’

For the first time he seemed unsure of himself. ‘Well, my soul, of course.’

‘Actually, I already have that. A contract with me is made more by deed than spoken or written agreement. Bad actions constitute a kind of IOU.’

‘Bad actions? What the fuck did I do?’

Normally I would have given an evil laugh and vanished in a puff of sulphurous smoke, but he seemed genuinely baffled. That’s the trouble with sociopaths. Even if they know they’ve done wrong it just doesn’t register. Lack of conscience is also lack of self-awareness, and no amount of narcissism can make up for it. I felt duty-bound to spell it out.

‘You haven’t exactly led a blameless life, Mr Jones. You claim to be a Christian, yet you’ve lied, cheated, stolen and fornicated your way through several decades of existence. You’ve bullied, threatened, insulted, defamed and humiliated more people than most of your supporters could count, assuming they even possess basic numeracy skills. You’ve admitted committing numerous sexual assaults. You believe the strong have a duty to exploit the weak, a belief which has been expressed in almost every action you have ever taken. Do you really think I might not have noticed?’

The Foghorn Leghorn defence response kicked in again. Mussolini took the stage once more. ‘Yeah, but I’m a fucking Christian. So I grab a little pussy now and again, and I never give a sucker an even break. Big fucking deal. I earned the right to take what I want when I want it. That’s the American Dream, pal. And that’s what my election campaign is all about, the whole dog and pony show. I want to make America great again. When I’m President I’m gonna kick out those godless Mexican Catholics and the Muslims, get rid of ObamaCare, abolish all gun control laws, put the faggots and feminazis in their place, and make sure the people who create the wealth get to keep it, whatever they’ve made and no matter how. What the fuck’s wrong with that?’

I was almost speechless. I’d only met one person with a similar degree of self-righteous arrogance, and that was the guy who’d given me my job. It was probably just as well that although Jones was nearly as bad-tempered and vengeful as the Almighty, he didn’t have the omniscience and omnipotence to give it substance. Mind you, once he got his hands on the CIA and those nuclear codes he wouldn’t be far off.

‘In broad theological terms, all Jewish, Muslim and Christian sects believe in the same God. And the same Devil. Do you really think God gives a shit about beards, hairstyles, pictures, language or whether or not a woman keeps her head covered? It’s God, for Christ’s sake – he’s got more to worry about than that. He’s trying to keep the universe in one piece and all you lot can do is think up new ways to argue with your neighbours. And kill them. God didn’t invent nations and religions – you did. He didn’t invent guns. He’s not offended by nudity or sex. He didn’t create America – that was all down to planet formation, geology and the unfathomable human fetish for lines on maps. He didn’t even make you humans. All he did was create life and allow it the freedom to evolve. So don’t any of you use religion to justify your actions. Like all living creatures, you have free will in accordance with your biology. How you choose to employ it is up to you. But you have to accept the consequences.’

‘What consequences?’

‘In your case, it means sitting at one end of a bookshelf for all eternity. In a library nobody ever visits. Though I’m sure I can arrange the occasional social call from some of the Mexicans and Muslims you’ve pissed off.’

The face grew redder. ‘You can’t do that to me. Do you know who I am?’

There it was, the plaintive cry of the self-important man caught with his trousers down. ‘Of course I know. And you know who I am. Otherwise you wouldn’t have called me, right?’

One of the lawyers tapped his shoulder and whispered something. ‘Yeah, right,’ said Jones. ‘Let’s get back to business. My attorneys have drawn up the contract. All we have to do is sign.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘No contract, no deal.’

He stared at me again, this time in disbelief. Behind him, a dozen jaws dropped in sycophantic unison. ‘You can’t refuse,’ he hissed. ‘My people have done the research. I know you can’t refuse.’

I nodded. ‘Technically, I shouldn’t. And in most cases I wouldn’t. But as I said, your soul is already mine. I know you have a history of unethical business dealings but you simply can’t sell me something I already possess. In short, you have nothing to bargain with. I am, therefore, remaining strictly neutral. You win or lose without my help or hindrance. The American people can make their own mistakes.’

‘I can do what the fuck I like, you limey punk. Okay, if my soul isn’t good enough, I can give you much more than that. Three hundred twenty million, give or take.’

Oh, dear. Someone had been talking. And had earned himself a little extra-special treatment a few years down the line. I was going to enjoy that. Confidentiality is a two-way street. ‘Well, as you have apparently heard, I did recently make a deal with someone whose soul was already my property, but who was able to offer me something else. But he had the wherewithal to deliver. You, on the other hand, have nothing to offer except that poor chicken. And that weird thing on your head, which frankly I don’t want because it gives me the creeps. Tell me, does your nation’s Constitution say anything about the President making decisions on behalf of the people with the people’s full consent?’

‘No, we have a long and proud tradition of not trusting the government, and especially not the President.’

‘Quite. I am well acquainted with many Americans who hold that view. I was talking to a Mr McVeigh about it only a couple of years ago. It seems you people really do believe that two wrongs make a right. But I digress. Anyway, have you yourself not said that the electoral process is rigged?’

‘Well, if I don’t win then obviously it is.’

‘But you would agree that means no American citizen should accept or trust the outcome, no matter what that is?’     

‘Not unless I win.’

I shook my head, making sure the tip of my beard remained steady and aimed in his direction. ‘That isn’t logical, is it? Rigged is rigged, after all. But my point is that mistrust of the President is integral to the American way of thinking. Unlike, say, the United Kingdom, where there is a tacit understanding and consent that representative democracy is a pyramid with the Prime Minister at its top, a structure that allows the Prime Minister to make decisions for the entire country, the United States of America is a federation. Each state has its own legislature, its own government. Furthermore, all branches of the federal government – executive, judicial and legislative, including the office of President – are answerable to a higher authority. The Constitution. And what does the Constitution guarantee?’

‘The right to bear arms,’ he said, crossing his own and pouting like a freshly grounded teenage girl. ‘The right to pursue happiness, and screw anyone who doesn’t like it. The right to say what the fuck I want.’

‘It’s a bit more than that,’ I sighed. ‘Its opening words are “We, the people of the United States of America”; and it is a document that makes it absolutely clear that the US government exists to serve the people. In the UK, people are subjects; they serve government. Your Constitution guarantees individual liberty and collective equality. In short, although the President may speak on behalf of the people, he or she cannot in any way deprive them of liberty unless such a deprivation is as the result of due legislative process. In short, the souls of the American people are not yours to give away.’ I pointed a finger at the client’s people. ‘And you can tell Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel over there not to bother checking the law books. The Constitution trumps everything.’

Jones began to shout, incoherently at first. After what were for me a few enjoyable and entertaining moments he regained a semblance of self-control and a sort of intelligibility returned. ‘Don’t get all clever with me, asshole. I’m gonna sue you for every last fucking buck. Breach of contract.’

I smiled. ‘There is no contract. Anyway, you can’t sue me. United States ex relatione Gerald Mayo versus Satan and his Staff, United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania 1971.’ I nodded at the lawyers. ‘You can look that one up. It’s an object lesson in what happens when you allow deranged fuckwits unfettered access to the legal system. I was in the public gallery that day. I’d never even heard of the plaintiff. Typical, blaming me for his own mistakes. Bearing false witness, a broken commandment too far, as I like to tell him. And he had the bloody nerve to claim I was an American, thanks to that silly story by Stephen Vincent Benét. Couldn’t even tell fact from fiction, like most humans nowadays. Or ever, come to think of it. Still, one day, eh? Hope springs eternal, and all that.’

Unable to contain his rage, Jones screamed and punched the air and stamped his feet. I was slightly disappointed that he didn’t do a Rumpelstiltskin and deliver both halves of his miserable, shrivelled soul to me there and then, but it was still fun to watch. His entourage – some of whom had clearly been on the receiving end of his tantrums before, as they were already backing away – turned on their heels and ran. I tuned out Jones’ ridiculous display for a few seconds while I considered the fact that they were more afraid of him than they were of me. On reflection, I was indeed rather less dangerous than Jones. I could just picture him with his Mussolini face and petulant pout, jabbing a meaty finger down on a lethal red button just because of a bad morning on the golf course or an offensive tweet. The man was downright fucking scary. Yes, they were right to run.

I scooped up the chicken, which clucked amiably and snuggled contentedly against me. He was a handsome little fellow, and quite good-natured now his captors had beaten a retreat. ‘I think I’ll keep him,’ I said to Jones. ‘I bet I can train him to peck at eyes. I shall call him Johnson.’

‘Johnson? What kinda dumb name is that for a rooster?’

‘He just reminds me of another big, not very bright cock I know,’ I replied. ‘Just be thankful he isn’t a duck.’ I began the usual disappearing procedure. Sulphurous smoke isn’t as easy to conjure up as you might think, and it had been a long night. I looked at my watch again. If I got a shift on I could take Johnson to his new home, get him settled, see to some business, and make it to the Black Sabbath concert in time to get a couple of beers in and check out the merchandise stall before heading for the mosh pit. I was really looking forward to seeing Ozzy. He was getting on a bit and with my busy schedule this would probably be the last chance I ever had to see him perform live. Or dead. Don’t believe the stories.

I waved cheerfully at Jones as the thick, yellow smoke began to rise. ‘I’ll see you when the dog and pony show is over,’ I said genially. Johnson squawked happily. He seemed to appreciate the scent of brimstone.

‘Yeah? I’ll see you in Hell first, buster,’ Jones sneered.

I patted the rooster’s head. ‘Precisely. Come on, Johnson, let’s go home and have dinner. I’m not sure what chickens eat, to be honest, but have you ever tried eyeballs?’

Alby Stone: A Contract is a Contract

Copyright (c) 2017 Alby Stone

Smith isn’t his real name, of course. I pride myself on discretion and confidentiality, all part of the service. You can probably guess who he is, but that isn’t my fault. I don’t point the cameras or write the headlines. I don’t force him to act the goat whenever he so much as sniffs a paparazzo. I didn’t make the client a fucking brand. That was all down to him and no one else. So was what happened next. Attention-seekers make their own bad luck. And he was one of the people responsible for yours.

The first time I saw him he was down on his knees, eyes rolling, a machete in his right hand, blood up to his elbows. And I don’t mean figuratively. Chickens make a real mess when you decapitate them, more so if you don’t have the faintest idea of how to do it. At first I thought he was either extremely drunk or off his head on drugs, but I soon realised that stupefied was his natural state. ‘What’s that supposed to be?’ I asked. It was a rhetorical question, of course. He was covered in blood and feathers and liberally peppered with chicken shit.

‘It’s for you,’ he replied, grinning nervously but hopefully. ‘Is it – ah – acceptable?’

‘What, a fucking chicken? Surely you could do better than that? I mean, you’re not exactly poor, are you? You could have got me a racehorse or something. A pedigree dog would have been nice.’

‘Oh dear,’ he mumbled. ‘Sorry. I thought it was traditional. All the books say you like a big black cock.’

I sighed so deeply they must have felt it back home. ‘The books are wrong, I can assure you of that. I’m strictly a ladies’ man and I don’t give a damn about colour.’ The fixed, vacuous expression suggested my little joke was lost on him. ‘As for that thing,’ – I pointed disdainfully at the sorry object dangling from his left hand – ‘it’s bloody insulting. Chickenfeed, in fact. I prefer something more meaningful than mangled poultry.’ I stared down at him and shook my head. ‘Look here, have you got a towel or something else you could use to clean yourself up a bit? Frankly, you’re a bloody eyesore.’

He actually looked around him. We were at the point where two very remote and totally dark country lanes crossed, just after midnight. The only sign of civilisation was his car parked a dozen or so yards away. Did he actually expect there to be towels draped across a hedgerow? Perhaps a butler with a set of bathroom accoutrements? The fool didn’t deserve it but I took pity on him. I’ve always been a sucker for the terminally pathetic. Besides, this was business. ‘Forget it,’ I growled. ‘Just bloody well stand up. You’re making the place look untidy. What do you want?’

His face was blank. ‘I beg your pardon?’

The man was clearly going to be hard work. ‘You called, I came,’ I patiently explained. ‘It’s what I do. Now what do you want? I left a perfectly good party to come here. The bishop was explaining why he thought it was a good idea to introduce pubescent choirboys to the finer points of Classical Greek culture. It promised to be most entertaining and he was only just getting warmed up.’

‘Crikey. Um, well – look here, do you know who I am?’

‘I do indeed, Mr Smith,’ I replied. ‘We do have newspapers where I come from. And television, unfortunately. No doubt you know who I am.’

‘Of course I do. I’m not stupid.’

Oh, but he was, irredeemably so. There’s nothing worse than a stupid man who thinks he’s clever. And this man possessed a stupidity finely honed and enlarged to monumental stature by wealth, Eton and Oxford. It went hand in glove with the heavily manicured ego and vastly inflated sense of self-worth. In other words, he was a true British toff – a master of nothing who was absolutely convinced that he was born to rule everything in his visual or conceptual range. People like him are also indefatigable windbags. When he opened his mouth to speak I held up a hand to stop him. If we didn’t cut to the chase I was going to be there all bloody night. ‘Long story short. You want to be Prime Minister, right? Please, don’t insult my intelligence by denying it. You’re a politician, for crying out loud. It goes with the territory – low on ability, huge on expectations. And with your background that also meant massive on sense of entitlement. So, what are you offering? And believe me, that flyweight bantam will not buy you anything more than my contempt.’

He prevaricated. His expression changed to that amalgam of schoolboy furtiveness and baffled desperation familiar from the media images. ‘Actually, I’m not so sure now. I mean, it’s a jolly big step, isn’t it? I don’t know if I should, not really.’

I shook my head. ‘Well, if that’s the way you want it, that’s fine by me. There’s a rather good single malt waiting for me at home. It’s traditional to toast a bishop, and that’s always fun. But take it from me, you’ll never be Prime Minister without a very big helping hand.’

Vanity pricked, he took umbrage. ‘Why not?’ he blustered.

‘Because you’re incompetent, insensitive, lazy and thick. You’re a liar and a cheat. And, because you’re such a shameless publicity hound who can’t even be arsed to adequately cover up his blunders and treacheries, everyone knows how selfish and unscrupulous you are. Sure, they like to laugh at you – but it’s obvious to anyone with eyes in their head that you’d be out of your depth in a toddler’s paddling pool, even if you wore stilts and a top hat. Alright, you can get away with that at a local level, up to a point. I daresay your party has plenty of dimwitted ladies who foolishly believe you might one day be so gracious as to ring their division bells, and more than a few low-charisma men in grey suits who think hanging out with you would make them shine a little brighter than totally dull. But do you honestly think you could con the entire country into supporting you as a candidate for Prime Minister? Even the British public isn’t that fucking dense.’

‘But people love me,’ he insisted. ‘All the opinion polls say how popular I am. I’ve worked jolly hard at my public persona and I know I’m popular.’

‘Coco the Clown was popular but for some reason I just can’t seem to recall his time in office. I’m telling you, Hell will freeze over before they vote you into Number Ten.’

‘Ah.’ The piggy eyes narrowed. The furtive look returned. He was cornered. I was his only option and he knew it. ‘Well, I suppose I should consider it. Oh, alright then. But can you do it?’

‘I’m the best PR man and fixer around,’ I told him. ‘Of course I can bloody do it. Now what are you offering in return?’ I was expecting the usual, but he surprised me.

‘Sixty-five million,’ he shot back. No hesitation. Sixty-five million. No conscience, either.

I was impressed. It was the best offer I’d had in years. Not even the Germans and Russians had given me that much. The tempter was sorely tempted, but it was important to know the detail before agreeing to anything. Caution was necessary. ‘That would buy you a heck of a lot of PR. What makes you think you can deliver the goods?’

‘It’s all about contracts,’ he said, now smugness personified. ‘Ours is a representative democracy. A general election is an unwritten contract between the nation and the man – or woman, though between you and me I think Margaret will prove to be a one-off – they put into Downing Street. The beauty of it is that it’s a contract mutually if tacitly agreed by everyone. The public agrees to abide by the ballot and elects a party to represent them. The elected party has agreed that one particular person will represent them in each constituency and make binding decisions in Parliament on their behalf. In practice, the elected members go along with the Cabinet, which does what the Prime Minister wants. In other words, one person, the Prime Minister, speaks and acts on behalf of everyone in the country, with the people’s full assent. So any contract I agree with you on a conditional basis will come into force immediately Her Majesty formally asks me to form a government. Sixty-five million, give or take a couple of thousand. All yours if you keep your side of the bargain.’

I thought about it. Legally, his argument was, I realised, watertight. A contract is a contract. This was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I extended my right hand. Who cared about a spot or two of blood and a few feathers? The suit would dry clean.

‘It’s a deal,’ I said. We shook on it. Blood was transferred from his hand to mine, sealing the transaction in the time-honoured gentlemanly way with the most important witness of all looking on, though my client seemed oblivious of the fact that my existence made that independent observer both logical and inevitable. Humans have an astonishing capacity for self-deception and a seemingly limitless supply of blind spots. Their innate stupidity helps. Smith had all those in spades.

‘What are you going to do?’

I stroked my extravagant goatee thoughtfully. ‘I have a few ideas. You’ve got a referendum on EU membership coming up, right? The first thing you do is declare for the Leave campaign, drive a wedge between party factions. After that, you do what you do best. Make a few outrageous statements, waffle like a simpleton, bluster like a country squire caught shagging the parson’s wife, and lie through your teeth. Let’s face it, you’ve already done the groundwork. Keep repeating the lies no matter what, and if anyone comes out with a contradictory fact you just accuse them of scaremongering or being unpatriotic. Enough people will believe you, because people always tend to believe the person who shouts loudest and keeps things so simple that they don’t have to waste time thinking about it when they could be in the pub or looking at porn on the internet. Meanwhile, I’ll make sure the Remain campaign is as limp and bland as the people fronting it. I also have another couple of irons in the fire that should help. Vote Leave will win and Cameron will stand down. Trust me, there will be a new Prime Minister by the end of the summer. That is my promise to you.’

For a moment I thought he was going to cry with joy. ‘Well, I must say that seems simple enough. Are you sure you can deliver your end of the bargain?’

I straightened and peered down my nose at him. He’s tall but I’m taller. And rather more imposing, what with my jutting beard and wicked dress sense. It’s the Italian suits. Handmade by a Pope’s former personal tailor, a good man with a needle and thread but not what you’d call a good man. ‘Please. Do not doubt me. I have a very long memory.’ Deliberately, I wiped the blood from hand onto his sleeve and prepared to go home.

‘So,’ he smiled, now childishly happy. ‘Will you need to see me again?’ He clearly hoped not.

I returned the smile with thermal interest. ‘Count on it.’

*

You know the rest. On the 23rd of June 2016 the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland narrowly voted, by 52% to 48%, to leave the European Union. It was only 38% of the registered electorate, and around a quarter of the country’s total population. Many of the voters didn’t really understand what they were voting for and hardly any knew anything more about what they were voting against than the lies and misinformation they read in the tabloids or heard from media pundits I would classify as probably clinically insane. In other words, a small but vocal, belligerent and bigoted minority got its own way. I don’t think that’s particularly democratic, but there you go. A contract is a contract.

I know what you’re thinking. Smith didn’t become Prime Minister, did he? No, it was Theresa May who became the new tenant of 10 Downing Street. So what happened? Did I renege on the deal?

Not at all. You all know me. I need no introduction. I’m a man of wealth and taste, the guy with all the best songs. My word is my bond. But I too am bound by a contract. My job is unique in the sense that I am contractually obliged to accept each and every deal that comes my way, even if they conflict. They want, I give, I take my payment. It’s a simple arrangement. And that obligation gave me a major headache in the run-up to the referendum. Smith was only the first to offer me exactly the same deal. In fact, I spent every midnight for a month appearing at deserted crossroads at the behest of politicians wanting to be Prime Minister – or party leader with an over-optimistic view to fulfilling the contract at a later date – in exchange for a deferred sixty-five million, including their own. And that doesn’t include the currency speculators, commodity brokers, and hedge fund managers; or the racists, xenophobes and fascists. Okay, those guys had rather less to offer than Smith and other the politicians, and in effect they’d already been donated. But I turn nobody away. Many a mickle makes a muckle, as the Scots say, and like the people who’ve been screwing your economy for decades, I always play both sides. It must have been a major shot in the arm for poultry farmers, but it was a terrible waste of chickens. Obviously the politicians couldn’t all be Prime Minister, could they? Not all at the same time; and quite a few would die before they got another opportunity. And not everyone can own the same dollar. But a deal is a deal.

Here’s the catch. You see, what those fools didn’t realise is that the mere act of making a deal with me is enough to damn them for all eternity even if I am unable to meet my side of the bargain. God is a very jealous guy, and despite what his hippie son says, he’s not what you’d call a forgiving deity. Far from it. You forsake him once and it’s fuck you and goodnight, fire and brimstone and torment forever, longer if possible. That’s the deal you sign up for when you say your first prayer. Christian, Muslim, Jew, it’s all the same: if you believe for even one second, you are in the game and have agreed to play by the house rules. And if you believe in me sufficiently to actively call upon my services, then you necessarily believe in Him. A contract is a contract, and this batch of clients was in too much of a hurry to bother with the small print. Amusingly, the ones with law degrees were the least careful. Fools rush in, and all that. I think you’ll agree that they all deserve what’s coming to them.

In the end I didn’t have to lift a finger. Brexit won the day but it did so because of voter apathy and my trusty old friends, human stupidity and unenlightened self-interest. The right-wing thugs were mine anyway, so all they’ll get is what was already coming to them; and the referendum result did those posh idiots and greedy bastards no good at all. Spectacular, wasn’t it? First, the economy threw itself off a tall building. Then the political parties tore themselves apart. A non-stop orgy of recrimination, betrayal, backstabbing and bitching as my clients jockeyed for position and generally fucked each other over. Smith was one of the early casualties when the nation shook itself free of the EU yoke and revealed its true, rotten colours. Yes, I know everyone thinks he and a few others didn’t do too badly out of it, but the history books will see it differently, I’m sure. The future is theirs to fuck up, and they will not disappoint. And after that? I’m really looking forward to seeing them all again, especially Smith. Big black cocks? I’ll give him big black cocks. I’m an equal opportunities employer and there are quite a few people of colour down there who still righteously resent those ‘picaninnies’ and ‘watermelon smiles’ jibes.

Anyway, I must dash. These are busy times. I have to make preparations for accommodating all those politicians. That’s on top of record numbers of Anglican and Catholic clergymen, a sudden influx of rock stars, a fistful of American presidential candidates, hundreds of blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em celebrities, an assortment of bankers, and quite a few overzealous but deluded Muslim men who are in for a rather nasty shock. Seventy-two virgins? After what they’ve done? No fucking chance. The best they’ll get will be a good rogering from John Wayne Gacey and his pals, several times a night from now until whenever. And, speaking of the devil, I really must do something about that paedophilic prelate. Not that he’s going anywhere. In fact, he seems wholly disinclined to move. Anyone would think I’d nailed his feet to the floor.

The biggest job, of course, is going to be ensuring there will be sufficient accommodation for all those souls Smith and his colleagues – yes, all of them – promised me. There’s plenty of space but the amenities will have to be upgraded and I’ll need to take on more staff. I’m thinking of trying out a new recruitment system I learned from the UK Civil Service – it’s always good to mix business with pleasure. But it’s going to mean a fair bit of hard graft and a shitload of paperwork. Work, work, work. There’s such a lot to do. It’s going to take forever.

But you can rest assured, I’ll be seeing you soon enough. All sixty-five million of you. A contract is a contract.

Alby Stone: Round Here

Copyright © 2017 Alby Stone

 

‘It’s tradition, see. Round here a man names his sons after himself. Keeps it simple. No grandstanding.’

The beer was too warm and a bit flat, but I drank some anyway, just a sip. It seemed the polite thing to do, and besides, the drink was partly why I was there. The weather was warm and I needed a break from my ad hoc tour of East Anglian B roads. The drive on the A1 from my parents’ home in Doncaster to London was monotonous at the best of times, and I had a few hours to kill before the evening’s production team meeting, so I’d decided to take the scenic route for a change while I considered ideas for the next programme. It would, I thought, be nice to see a bit of countryside. Inevitably, not quite having my mind on the journey resulted in wrong turns and poor judgement of both time and distance. It took a while to get myself unlost, somewhere vaguely south-east of Wisbech, a small village called Midham, which was actually on the AA map. By then I was hungry, thirsty and badly needed a pee, so a pit-stop was a no-brainer.

The village was picturesque and the pub was both pretty and blessedly cool. And after twenty minutes eavesdropping while I ate a ploughman’s lunch and slowly sipped a half pint of local bitter, I’d noticed something intriguing, something that might even make for a good story. The old boy at the other end of the table, alternately studying the sports section of the Daily Mirror and reaching down to pet his dog, seemed the logical person to ask about it.

‘So how do you tell each other apart, Mr, er…?’

‘Call me John,’ the old man helpfully supplied. ‘Well, we call each other by surname or nickname. One on one, or with people from different families, it doesn’t matter, does it? We’re all just “John” then. I’ve got two sons, both called John, just like me and my brother. Big John and Little John.’

‘What do your sons call you?’

He peered at me in that semi-pitying way old people do when someone younger says something stupid. ‘Dad, of course.’

Duh. ‘What about the women?’

‘Ah, we’re a bit more relaxed about that. Anything goes, as long as it’s a proper, respectable woman’s name like Joan or Jean or Jane, maybe Jenny or Janet. Nothing made-up or fancy. No film star names, not round here.’

‘Any other names?’

He seemed surprised by the question. ‘What, for women? No, that’s it. Don’t need more. We did have a Margaret once, mind. They still talk about her. Bit flighty she was, by all accounts. Just what you’d expect with a flashy name like that. Airs and graces, big ideas. Took off with a soldier from Diss and went off to Southwold with him. Bloody Southwold! He was called George. Turned her head with his red coat and that knobkerrie he brought back as a souvenir from Ulundi.’

Wondering what a knobkerrie was and where Ulundi might be located, I drank more beer, barely enough to moisten my lips. ‘So if a man has two sons, they’re both called John? Every family?’

He nodded. ‘Or more than two. When the second one comes along the oldest gets called Big John and the new lad is Little John. If there’s a third, he gets called Small John.’

‘And if there’s a fourth?’

He laughed. ‘Don’t be bloody daft, woman. We’re not made of money round here. Can’t afford to keep more than three young ‘uns at a time. Not sons, at any rate. Traditional community like ours, you can only divvy up a family business so far. We always stop after three sons. Self-control, see? Mind you, it means we’re usually a bit short of women.’

‘So what are you?’

‘I’m Big John,’ he said proudly. I looked him over. Five foot three in his boots and trilby, and built like the elderly brindled whippet that dozed at his feet.

‘It must still be confusing.’

He shrugged, supped. ‘You get used to it.’

I changed the subject. ‘So what do you do for a living?’

‘I’m a blacksmith,’ he said. He didn’t look strong enough to think of a hammer, let alone wield one.

‘And what’s your surname?’

‘Smith, of course. Family name, handed down through the generations. That’s what we do round here.’ He pointed at two men standing at the bar. ‘See those blokes? Big John and Little John Carpenter. Also known as Grumpy John and Fat John. What do you think they do?’

I took a wild guess. ‘Er – carpentry?’

‘That’s right. Between them they’ll knock you up anything from a bookshelf to a barn. There’s a Joiner family in the next village. Same difference. But you get the picture, eh? The landlord here is Big John Taverner. Those blokes playing dominoes in the corner? Big John Miller, John Butcher, Little John Plumber, Big John Baker. Small John Shepherd over yonder, talking to John Gardener. That’s our way, see. The name comes with the trade and the trade comes with the name. Same with all the villages round here.’

‘And nothing ever changes?’

The man snorted. ‘We’re not bloody hillbillies, girl. Of course things change. I mean, not much call for Fletchers and Bowyers any more, right? Not in this day and age. They took up new trades and changed the family names. Gunner and Driver they are now. One lot sells guns, the others are cabbies, as you’d expect. The Tanners opened a betting shop and became the Gambles. We keep up with the times round here.’

‘That’s fascinating. Presumably you also have Hatters, Tailors, Shoemakers…’

‘Cobblers.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Not Shoemakers, Cobblers. These days they sell and repair shoes but don’t make them.’ He pointed again. ‘That’s Small John Cobbler over there. Just came in with his missus, Joan, Draper as was. That’s her sister with them, young Jean. She’s wed to Little John Sexton. The Sextons look after all the churches. A person’s name tells you what they do. We like it that way round here. Right?’

‘Right. So what about more modern trades?’

‘Don’t get much call for most of them. But it’s what you might expect. The Sparks family are electricians, do computer repairs on the side. The Stamps run the post office, the Messengers deliver the mail. They used to be the Coopers, Ropers and Weavers but we buy all that stuff in these days. Same principle, though.’

‘Um. I suppose it makes sense.’

‘Well, we’re flexible round here. But the point is, you always know who you’re dealing with, what to talk about, that sort of thing. See, if I go to the next village and get talking to a bloke and I find out he’s called Painter, I know who to call if I need a spot of decorating done.’

‘Of course.’ I finished my beer. For one thing, I really had to get back to the television studio for that meeting. For another, it was time to get out of there before things got uncomfortable, as they always did when I was not quite telling the truth, and that moment was surely imminent. ‘Well, it’s been lovely talking to you John, but I really must be getting on. Long drive home, things to do when I get there.’

Old-fashioned courtesy was still alive and kicking in this part of rural Norfolk. He eased himself upright and held out a calloused hand, which I dutifully shook. The whippet grunted in its sleep but otherwise didn’t so much as twitch.

‘Been nice to meet you, young lady. But I didn’t get your name.’

I’ve always been a really terrible liar. The blush was uncontrollable, a crimson beacon in the gloom of the bar. Thankfully, I managed to control what my mum always called my fibber’s stammer.

‘Jane,’ I told him as I backed away toward the door, avoiding his eyes, increasingly anxious to get back to my car and on the road. ‘Jane Merchant.’

He nodded and smiled, wishing me a safe journey as I made my exit. Driving away from the village I felt a bit guilty about the lie, but what could I do? I didn’t want him or any other local John getting the wrong idea. There was no way I was going to tell him my name was actually Jezebel Hawe. I could imagine what they’d think of that round there.

Alby Stone: Bean Feast

Copyright © 2016 Alby Stone

One thing Christmas is guaranteed to provide – apart from horrible socks you’ll never wear, indigestion, rubbish television and at least one crippling hangover – is disappointment. Newton’s third law does not apply to Christmas presents. In fact, it could easily be rewritten to suit the festive season: for every present given there will be an inferior and decidedly cheaper gift received. It’s a paradox, a simultaneous display of ostentatious expenditure and targeted tight-fistedness. I’m usually on the targeted end.

But sometimes totally crap presents are not what they seem. Christmas can bring the odd surprise package.

Last Christmas I gave my friend Sam – she used to be my girlfriend but a few years ago unilaterally decided that the ‘girl’ prefix was inappropriate, though we remained on good terms and usually spent Christmas Day together, largely to avoid the seasonal family get-together horror – a boxed set of DVDs and a big box of Thornton’s chocolates. We exchanged gifts in the café round the corner from where she works, a long-standing ritual dating from before we became first a serious item, then not an item at all. Sam was delighted with her haul. In return I received a package the size of a matchbox, which turned out to be rather smaller than that after the layers of wrapping paper were removed. Quite a bit smaller.

Taking the object between the tips of my thumb and index finger, I held it up to the light, squinting as I tried to work out what the hell it was.

‘Do you like it?’ said Sam, seemingly pleased with herself.

‘It looks like a dried bean,’ I replied. ‘A pinto bean, to be precise.’

She shook her head. ‘It’s a Mexican jumping bean.’

Now I know a bit about Mexican jumping beans. For a start, they are not beans at all. They don’t even look like beans. They move when heated because they are inhabited by moth larvae that kick up a bit of a fuss as they dehydrate. The thing I held was too big, a different shape, and the wrong colour.

‘A pinto bean,’ I repeated. ‘Look, it has the right pinky-brown colour, the speckles. It’s a pinto bean.’

‘You’re wrong,’ she pouted. That was Sam’s default response to not being right – sulky face and blanket denial, usually quickly followed by a bare-faced, extravagant lie. ‘It is a Mexican jumping bean. And it’s magic.’

I rolled my eyes. ‘Right. A magic bean. What do I do with it? Grow a giant beanstalk then climb up it, kill a giant and steal a goose that lays golden eggs?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. This is a real magic bean. It will grant you three wishes. I got it in that New Age place on the quays. The woman in the shop said all you need to do is express your wish in a rhyme but you actually have to address the bean just like you would talk to a person. And you have to mean it. When it jumps you’ll know you’ve done it right.’ Her lower lip trembled. She was getting upset.

The last thing I wanted to do was upset Sam. I still carried a mildly incandescent torch for her, and I didn’t want her making a scene and getting either of us barred from what had become, over the years, my favourite café. The toasted sandwiches were terrific. ‘Right,’ I sighed. ‘Speak the rhyme, wait for it to jump. Okay, I’ll give it a spin.’

‘Not here,’ she said hastily. ‘Anyway, I have to go now. Henry’s taking me to Rome for Christmas. Got to get back to the office for my suitcases. Have to be at the airport in two hours.’

‘But it’s your turn to make Christmas dinner,’ I protested. ‘And who’s Henry?’

‘He’s the new managing director. Really good-looking and absolutely loaded, all the girls fancy him. It’s a business trip.’ Of course it was. ‘I know we usually spend Christmas Day together but you’ll have to manage on your own this year.’

Not even a ‘sorry’. The green-eyed monster hidden within me uncoiled and hissed. I told it to leave it out. ‘That’s nice. Is he treating all the staff to Christmas in Rome?’

‘No, only me. Don’t give me that look. He’s just a colleague, a friend.’

With the word ‘boy’ soon to be in front of it, I thought but did not say. Sam stood, gave me a quick peck on the cheek and a hurried ‘Merry Christmas,’ and practically flew out of the door, leaving me with half a cup of cold coffee and a sour disposition. And a sorry-looking dried pinto bean.   

*

Back at my flat, I poured myself a large drink – neat vodka with a twist of lime – and took stock. It was the day before Christmas Eve; everyone I knew was either away or lumbered with entertaining and providing for visiting family, and I was too broke to go anywhere. There was nothing to look forward to except festive game shows and Christmas editions of television soap operas, and microwaved meals. I didn’t even have a turkey. Meanwhile, the woman who had captured my heart and rejected it as comprehensively as any aggressively healthy immune system was heading off to the Eternal City for what was certain to be a very dirty weekend with the office Romeo. Bloody Henry.

I took the bean from my pocket, stared at it gloomily for a while, and poured myself another, larger drink. I’d been to Rome myself so I had an idea of how long the flight took. I estimated that Sam and Henry would be on their way from Rome airport to their hotel about now. I looked at the bean again. It didn’t even make five.

Now I don’t think of myself as a jealous or vindictive man. In fact, I’m generally stoical and easy-going, even where matters of the heart are concerned. Sam had been out with other men since we broke up and it hadn’t bothered me one bit. Well, it had bothered me, but I was pretty much resigned to accepting that my romance with Sam was a thing of the past. I was grown up, adult, realistic, sensible and so on. But at that moment I was very bothered by the fact that I’d been fobbed off with an utterly shite excuse for a Christmas present and left on my own while she swanned off to Rome with that contemptible bastard Henry. Okay, for all I knew Henry was a nice, decent guy with a genuine affection for her and honourable intentions. But I was buggered if I was going to admit that, not even to myself. I poured another large vodka, not bothering with the twist of lime this time, and downed it. I glared at the bean and gave it an experimental rub, then I held it out on the palm of my right hand.

‘O bean, jumping bean, my magical implement; for the next ten days make Henry sexually impotent.’

I held my breath and waited, expecting nothing but a minimal lessening of my spite levels. After thirty seconds, I laughed self-consciously and relaxed. Of course nothing had happened. Three wishes? Yeah, right.

Then the bean jumped, flipping an inch into the air above my palm before falling back and remaining still.

‘Bloody hell,’ I whispered as I reached for the vodka bottle.

I was rattled because, somehow, I knew it had worked. I didn’t believe in magic – and certainly not in supernaturally-endowed legumes or any other kind of spooky vegetable produce. I didn’t believe in anything, really. I was neither superstitious nor credulous in matters of mysticism or religion. There was no mystical tingle, theremin soundtrack or portentous dimming of lights, no reverberating thunderclap. Yet I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt. Henry would be spending his hoped-for Roman shagfest looking helplessly down at a non-functioning and hopelessly flaccid piece of reproductive equipment that no amount of titillation, aphrodisiac or Viagra could kick-start into usefulness; Sam would be staring at him with pursed lips and a look of barely-restrained fury. She didn’t respond well to disappointment.

For a moment I was tempted to wish to be a fly on the wall in a certain Roman hotel room, but I couldn’t even work out how to turn that into a rhyme, let alone build in any safeguards against flypaper, spiders or rolled-up copies of la Repubblica. By that point I was a bit drunk, but had yet to succumb to stupidity. Besides, even if I’d ruined Sam’s Yuletide sex life, I had to do something positive for myself. I needed another drink and a good think. No hurry.

Outside, a bunch of carol singers launched into an uneven but enthusiastic rendition of ‘Good King Wenceslaus’. My response was to put a White Stripes CD in the stereo and crank up the volume, with the cordless headphones on so I couldn’t hear either the excruciating singing or the doorbell. Then I got another bottle of Smirnoff from the freezer. As an afterthought, and a nod to the necessity of a balanced diet, I rooted around in the cupboards until I found a bag of cheesy nachos. Alternately munching and sipping, I wondered what I should wish for next. And it was obvious, really. I removed the headphones.

‘O bean, magic bean, this Christmas I would like female company; to love and nourish and in every way look after me.’

I held my breath. The bean jumped. The doorbell rang. I rubbed my hands together.

*

When I opened the door, my mother was standing there. ‘Surprise!’ she cried, as she thrust a package into my hands. It felt like a bottle.

‘Mum, what are you doing here?’ This was not what I’d been hoping for. Obviously.

‘Well, you never come to see us at Christmas. I don’t blame you – I know how difficult your father can be at this time of year. So I thought, if the molehill won’t come to the mountain…?’ That was Mum, always mixing up her proverbs. Resigned to her presence, I invited her in. Just as I was getting her settled – she’d also brought a box of mince pies, and had put the kettle on – the doorbell rang again.

Outside it had started to rain, a freezing December downpour. A middle-aged woman stood on my doorstep, soaked and shivering. ‘I’ve come about the cleaning job,’ she said.

‘Cleaning job? I don’t need a cleaner.’ Well, thinking about it, I probably did. The likes of Kim and Aggie have never set foot in my home. There were cobwebbed corners I would never dare set foot in.

‘Is this number 9? Are you Mr Johnson?’

‘No, this is number 36 and I’m Mr Redwood.’

‘Oh, bugger. I must have got turned around in the rain.’ She shivered some more.

‘Look,’ I said, taking pity, ‘why don’t you come in out of the rain for a bit? My mum’s just put the kettle on.’

Mum took it in her stride. ‘Plenty of fish in the tap,’ she said. The cleaner sat down by a radiator and gratefully accepted a mug of tea. The doorbell rang.

The rain had eased off a bit but it was colder. Two women in police uniform were looking me up and down. ‘Mr Wallace?’ said one.

‘No, I’m Mr Redwood. This is number 36.’

The other police woman nodded. ‘Ah,’ she said. ‘Not Mr Douglas Wallace at number 7?’

‘Definitely Mr Redwoood at number 36.’

They exchanged glances. ‘We’ve had reports of a man acting suspiciously in this street,’ said the first policewoman. ‘Have you seen anything unusual going on?’

Apart from a magic Mexican jumping bean, the unheard-of appearance of my mother and the sudden inability of people to find the right house number, I hadn’t, and I told them so. They didn’t seem convinced.

‘Would you mind if we came in to have a look around? Just to make sure everything’s alright.’

‘No problem,’ I replied. ‘My mum’s just made some tea. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind a nice hot drink on a night like this.’

I’d only just introduced them to my mother when the doorbell sounded once again.

It all went swimmingly for a while. My mum, the cleaner and the policewomen were soon joined by the lady vicar from the church at the end of the road, who was under the impression that I was a housebound pensioner called Mrs Perkins; two female paramedics who’d come to the right number but the wrong street; two enterprising young caterers with a consignment of food for an address in a road that appeared not to exist in the A-Z or on Google Maps; a MacMillan nurse visiting a man several doors away who I knew for a fact had died the week before; a young woman in a parka delivering pizza, whose scooter broke down the moment she arrived by mistake at my place; a very attractive woman who simply refused to believe that I wasn’t Mr Rice from number 45, who’d called the escort service and paid by credit card up front; and seven women of varying age who turned out to be the local Women’s Institute carol singers on a spur-of-the-moment second trip round the neighbourhood that evening.

It was all there, everything a man could ever wish for or need: maternal love, nurture, nourishment, care, entertainment, protection – even sex, should opportunity arise and the pre-paid escort was up for it, and if the others would bugger off and give us some privacy, not that anyone showed any sign of wanting to leave. Everything, all at once. But I made the most of it. The WI singers performed a capella versions of classic rock songs – with the policewomen disconcertingly adept at air guitar. We tucked into the pizzas, and the sandwiches and savoury snacks the caterers had provided. We drank vodka from my freezer, whisky from the bottle my mother had given me, the caterers’ wine boxes, brandy from the vicar’s hip flask. Phones and pagers chirruped, buzzed and honked, but none of the ladies gave a toss. A few spliffs appeared. We danced, sang along with the carollers and generally loosened up.

Then another policewoman arrived. Except she wasn’t. Fuddled by drink, I was half-naked and in pink, fluffy handcuffs before I realised she was a strip-o-gram. And, alarmingly, the voice shouting the loudest encouragement to the striptease artiste belonged to my mother.

*

I awoke in my bed, the great-grandfather of all hangovers performing an over-amplified drum solo in my skull, feeling like something a dog had just thrown up. A quick glance at the muted dawn glow visible through the curtains was like staring into an arc light. I was naked, as were the female bodies piled on top of me. My poor bed creaked alarmingly as I painfully extricated myself from the tangle of limbs.

I didn’t want to look, but I couldn’t help myself. How we’d all fitted into my bed was beyond me. There was the escort, the stripper, the cleaning lady, one of the genuine policewomen, and – well, if I was the God-bothering type I would never be able to show my face in church again, that was for sure. Mind you, she was quite something under that cassock.

What on earth had happened? I had a vague memory of the escort handing round some little blue pills she said would make the party go with a bang. I suppose we’d all just gone along with it. By then everyone was pretty drunk, me most of all, and it was the very last thing I recalled prior to waking. Go with a bang? It had been like Hiroshima. It was astonishing that my bed was still in one piece.

I slipped into my dressing gown and stumbled to the living room, which was scattered with empty bottles, paper plates, scraps of tinsel, plastic cutlery and abandoned sandwiches with curling edges, and littered with snoring bodies in various states of undress, including several couples in intimate embraces. My view of the WI was forever changed. The poinsettia on the sideboard looked in a bad way – I doubted it would recover from the paramedics’ attempt to smoke it. Someone had attempted to put up Christmas decorations, seemingly aided by a concept of geometry not normally associated with this universe. My mother was asleep in an armchair, mumbling incoherent messages to herself. Thankfully, she was alone and fully clothed, though she was wearing my boxer shorts on her head.

As quietly as I could, I performed my ablutions, took a couple of painkillers, dressed and slipped out before anyone else emerged from slumber. I had a hunch quite a few of my guests would have regrets, and recrimination would undoubtedly follow, with accusation swimming shark-like in its wake. There would be music I really didn’t want to face.

In the café I ordered a full English breakfast with extra toast, a large coffee and a glass of orange juice. The seasonal baubles and sparkles hurt my eyes. The waitress was quietly singing along with Noddy Holder, who right then I could cheerfully have throttled with his own kipper tie. The magic bean, rescued from under the sofa after a hasty search, was in my jacket pocket. I took it out and examined it under the merciless strip lighting.

On closer examination, the speckles weren’t as haphazardly located on the bean’s surface as I’d thought. I slowly rotated the bean, trying to discern a pattern. The speckles, I realised, were clusters of tiny words in an ornate script of some kind, possibly runes, arranged to form interlocking hexagons. Whichever way the bean was turned, one hexagon was always visible; yet each one was subtly different.

‘Like snowflakes,’ I said to myself.

‘Sorry?’ said the passing waitress.

‘I’d like cornflakes,’ I replied. ‘Do you have cornflakes?’

‘We don’t do cereals.’

‘In that case, could I have another coffee, please?’

‘Coming right up.’ She smiled and walked back behind the counter.

The bean was covered in snowflake-like designs made up of what were surely occult symbols, a powerful spell of some kind. Well, it must be if it could grant wishes with such spectacular success, right?

Why endlessly-repeating snowflakes? Did the pattern represent infinite possibility? Or did it signify an eternal winter of the soul, unending remorse at the selfish, hurtful and ultimately self-destructives wishes of the bean’s user? Maybe its creator merely thought the design was pretty. An experimental press with a fingernail indicated that the speckles were not paint or ink. They had grown there, just like the markings on an ordinary pinto bean. The major difference was that this particular bean made wishes come true.

With a sudden flash, I remembered that Henry was still unable to raise anything more than a desperate hope in the groin department. And I knew that none of the women currently occupying various parts of my flat had any intention of leaving the place before Twelfth Night. Christmas meant all of it. Strangely, that thought only made me feel obscurely sorry for Henry. I mean, it wasn’t his fault, was it?

‘Bugger me,’ I said.

‘Sorry?’ said the waitress as she placed the coffee on the table.

‘Mug of tea,’ I replied, ‘when you get a minute, thanks. I’m pretty thirsty this morning.’

I tried to think of stories in which wishes were granted. Aladdin’s genie of the lamp had granted them in a fairly straightforward way, but then Aladdin hadn’t really asked for anything more complicated than wealth and power. Meanwhile, The Monkey’s Paw was a stark reminder to be careful what you wished for in case you got it. As indeed I had. And it made me think.

I had no claim on Sam. Her choice had been made six years earlier, and we’d both had relationships with other people since then. We hadn’t been on such good terms as I liked to pretend, either. Normally we only called each other or met up when one of us needed someone to talk to – someone who would listen while we unloaded and moaned about work, other people or life in general. It was a habit, that was all. The previous Christmas I’d missed half of the seasonal episode of Doctor Who wondering why we still bothered. My spiteful reaction to her telling me about Henry was simple envy – not of Henry, but the fact of Sam having a good time while I languished on my own. I’d been mean-spirited and petty. As for what I’d inadvertently put those women through…

‘What a bastard,’ I muttered.

‘Sorry?’ said the waitress as she delivered my tea.

‘Got any mustard?’ I asked.

She looked puzzled. ‘Are you sure? Doesn’t really go with tea, does it? And you haven’t even finished your coffee yet.’

‘Forget it,’ I told her. ‘Sorry.’

When she’d gone back to the counter, I held the bean on the flat of my palm.

‘O bean, magic bean, I’ve made wishes that were bad; and now I wish that I never had.’

The bean jumped.

*

Sam was pleased with her presents. She’d been dropping broad hints about that Downton Abbey box set for weeks. It felt good to see her eyes light up at the prospect of consuming chocolates while curled up on the sofa watching her favourite costume soap opera. In return I received a package the size of a matchbox, which turned out to be rather smaller than that after the wrapping paper was removed. Quite a bit smaller.

Taking the object between the tips of my thumb and index finger, I held it up to the light, squinting as I tried to work out what the hell it was.

‘Do you like it?’ said Sam, seemingly pleased with herself.

‘I don’t believe it,’ I said, pretending to be excited. ‘It looks like an authentic magic Mexican jumping bean. They will grant you three wishes, or so I’ve heard. I’ve always wanted one of these. Thank you so much. Wherever did you find it?’

‘I got it in that New Age place on the quays. The woman in the shop said all you need to do is express your wish in a rhyme but you actually have to address the bean just like you would talk to a person. And you have to mean it. When it jumps you’ll know you’ve done it right.’ Her lips curved into a smile.

I drank some coffee, gazed around the café, taking in the decorations, trying not to hear John Lennon’s doomed seasonal appeal to global sanity playing in the background. ‘I fancy doing something else this Christmas,’ I told her. ‘Would you mind if I went to stay with my folks this year?’

Her eyes widened. ‘Of course not.’ She was clearly relieved. ‘Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that. I won’t be around anyway. Henry’s taking me to Rome for Christmas. Got to get back to the office for my suitcases. Have to be at the airport in two hours.’

‘Then you won’t have to make Christmas dinner,’ I said. ‘And who’s Henry?’

‘He’s the new managing director. Really good-looking and absolutely loaded, all the girls fancy him. I know we usually spend Christmas Day together but I couldn’t really turn down the offer to go to Rome.’ She looked away. ‘It’s a business trip.’

Of course it was. ‘That’s nice. Is he treating all the staff to Christmas in Rome?’

‘No, only me. Don’t give me that look. He’s just a colleague, a friend.’

With the word ‘boy’ soon to be in front of it, I thought but did not say. Well, good luck to them both. ‘You have a lovely time in Rome,’ I said. ‘Make the most of it. Merry Christmas, Sam.’

Sam stood, gave me a quick peck on the cheek and a hurried ‘Merry Christmas,’ and practically flew out of the door, leaving me with half a cup of cold coffee and an odd feeling of satisfaction. And a magic Mexican jumping bean.

I drank up, paid up and left. Outside the café I took the bean from my pocket, smiled and dropped it onto the frosty pavement, then ground it to pulp beneath my heel. I didn’t pause to wonder how or why I could remember things that hadn’t yet happened. All I knew was that it wouldn’t be right to wish for a repeat performance. I’d manage Christmas without magic beans, thank you very much.

For some reason I was whistling ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ all the way to the supermarket, in every aisle – even at the interminable checkout queue. I whistled all the way home, carrying my Christmas supplies – including a fistful of DVDs and a couple of paperback novels – as if they were bags of feathers. While I stood on the doorstep fumbling for my keys with hands as frozen as the turkey I’d just purchased, someone spoke behind me.

‘Excuse me, do you know where Mrs Perkins lives? I think I’ve been given the wrong address.’

The husky voice was instantly recognisable, as was the cassock. And I now knew what treasures that shapeless robe of office concealed. ‘Certainly, vicar,’ I replied, turning to greet her with a smile. ‘She lives at number 32.’ I looked at the over-laden bags she had laid on the pavement to give her arms a rest. ‘If you’ll just give me a minute to get this stuff indoors, I’ll give you a hand with that lot. It looks heavy.’

‘That’s very kind of you. Are you sure it’s no trouble?’

‘None at all,’ I assured her. ‘And when we’ve seen to Mrs Perkins, perhaps you’d care to join me for a small brandy?’