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Flash Fiction…

I’m in the process of touting various manuscripts around literary agents at the moment, but am also entertaining a few quirkier pastimes, one of which is Flash Fiction: the practice of telling a story in approximately 50 words. Here are a few of my efforts…

 

Paradox

‘I’m you from the future. Thirty years from now you’ll invent time-travel and prevent nuclear catastrophe.’

‘So, what you’re saying is that I grow up to be a fat, slap-head with horrendous body odour? Screw that, I’m ditching the books and hitting the gym.’

 

‘Serendumbity’

Harry conceived an idea of genuine genius.

‘This will change everything!’

Running to tell the world he tripped, fell and became concussed. He awoke in a hospital with memory loss. A nurse offered him a snack. He’d forgotten the nut allergy. He flailed and banged his head.

‘This will change everything!’

 

Theatre People

As he began his soliloquy Horatio called to mind Freya’s advice: The best way to overcome your stage fright is to imagine the audience naked.

A woman in the lower-circle had loin-conquering breasts and he was subsequently fired for delivering his pivotal death scene with a monstrous erection.

 

Consultancy

‘Tonight’s the night. At light’s out we make good our escape. Tommy, have you acquired the guard uniforms?’

‘Yep.’

‘And Jake – the fake passports?’

‘Check.’

‘And Sebastian – Is the tunnel complete?’

‘About that…the solutioning phase went well, but due to scope creep we’ve only just commenced the spade optimisation phase.’

 

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Life in Dystopia…

There’s a long tradition in both science fiction and satire of predicting real-life events way in advance. Typically, when they manifest in reality, it’s in an even more ludicrous form then was previous jested.

Take the news for example. In the 90’s ‘The Day Today’ was a deliberately over-caffeinated parody of the emerging 24-hour coverage that is now commonplace – with unnecessarily grandiose graphics and brash, coiffured presenters. One of its creators (Armando Iannucci) has often been asked if he would ever consider bringing the show back, but has always cited Fox News as being far more pantomimic than anything he ever did as a joke.

In the 70’s Demon Koontz wrote ‘Demon Seed’- a book about a super computer that traps a woman in her automated house using an internet-like entity to take over all the applications in her house. There was a story in the papers last week about Russian spies hacking smart kettles and toasters (In the book the woman is also impregnated with a robotic abomination, but give the world time…)

The moon landing, cyber space, mobile phones, micro-waves, the atomic bomb and drones – all written about by HG Wells, Isaac Asimov et al long before they arrived.

And sixteen years ago The Simpsons did a sketch in which Donald Trump was president of the United States!

Here’s a dystopian thriller for you. It’s about a bunch of people who find out the most powerful country on earth’s been taken over by a monster and respond by going on social media and sharing comedy memes about it…

No, wait…That was Facebook this morning!

What has happened in America is insane. What is happening in the UK is equally crazy – not just Brexit (which I’m fervently opposed to), but also how vociferous many of the remain voters are about broad-brushing their opposite numbers as ‘idiot, racists’ and momentarily forgetting that we live in a democracy.

In-keeping with tradition I wrote a story last week that, this morning, happened exactly as described. It’s about a white, bald (Donald would hate him) male who rings up an energy company to complain about his gas bill. After speaking with a call centre agent he gets escalated up to a man with a Spanish name and a Spanish accent.

‘Could you go outside and check the meter for me?’ he asks.

‘Not currently,’ the bald man replies, ‘I’m in the bath.’

‘At this hour?’

‘Yes. I’ve got flu and I was up all night watching the end of the world on tele.’

‘Ah yes, the orange apocalypse.’

The Spanish sounding man calls back once the bald man is ensconced in a beanie hat and other apparel, and they continue to talk about politics rather than the bill. The Spanish man is an immigrant who voted Brexit, but now has buyer’s remorse. The bald man asks if it’ll even happen with all the anger and legal wrangling. No conclusion is reached.

At some point they resolve the bill discrepancy without partisanship or abuse.

‘Good luck surviving the nuclear winter,’

‘You too buddy.’

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El Stake-Out (Dos)

Hijo de puta! Walking around Reading – minding my own business when – boom! Nana Grande of Peruvian ‘gang’ fame (El Stake-out) appeared right on my six – A plastic bag on each hip (presumably full of guns and cocaine) – moving like stink – little moccasins tearing up the pavement – three and a half feet of raw terror. I got in a cheeky reverse photo before veering off through a car park and into Homebase…

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Todo es bueno…pero no! Nana Grande was in there too, loitering in the weapons department (rakes and hoes). She looked up and there was a sly expression of recognition.

We stood side by side at the check-out, like the world’s slowest car(t) chase. Ahead of me an old biddy made small-talk, unaware of the life and death struggle taking place behind. To my right NG took the lead and placed her items of torture (pegs and hoover bags) on the counter.

I know this looks like one of those grainy photos you see of Loch Ness or Big Foot, but the one she took of me as I was standing at the check-out (whilst possibly planted some kind of nano tracker) was crystal clear – The cojones on this woman!

As I write she’s probably in a knitted treehouse relaying the day’s events to Rosa, El Colonel and Big Mike, planning some garish pan-pipe / blow-dart related demise. My cards are marked people…

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…In Which Raconteur Skills Abandon the Ageing Lothario

The man sitting next to me is on a date. I know this by the way he answers his phone. He has that higher-pitched air of non-threatening concern so essential in the initial wooing process  (You know, the one that gets abandoned forever after a few weeks)…

‘That’s alright. I was a little late myself…No, it’s the independent one next to Starbucks… OK, see you in a few minutes.’

His date arrives and greets him with a warm smile. The man, eager to impress, steps up to the plate and unleashes the conversational mother-load: ‘Sorry for the terrible directions. Maybe we should have just met at Starbucks…but…I like to drink in places where they pay their tax.’

Even the delivery is a little strange – Kind of passive aggressive – Like: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

‘Oh,’ the woman replies, a little taken-aback. ‘Well, it’s a nice choice.’

‘Yeah…lots of companies seeking to avoid…tax…at the moment…there’s…’

He glances around the room in desperation. Our eyes lock and we share a telepathic moment.

Help me brother!

Hey man – You did this to you – Pull your shit together.

‘Facebook…and…’

‘I think maybe some of the banks,’ his date tries to assist.

‘Yes, probably – goodgood

I hate to see brethren stumble, but what am I supposed to do? Lean across and say: Tell her she looks great you douche? And besides, my date has just arrives and so I’m like: Watch and learn my young apprentice. Listen to the Surgical Sensei work his lyrical mastery…

…And within less than a minute we’re talking about Supply-Chain-Management.

How the hell did this happen?

I fall back on my training. It tells my to show interest and ask questions, so I dredge up: ‘What’s the best supply chain you’ve ever managed?’ Her face relays so many complex messages – a mixture of I’m sorry for bringing this up / Stop asking questions / You’re only making it worse, whilst also answering the question (Multi-tasking! Women are amazing!)

Over on the next table the other guy’s date is performing the coup de grace. ‘I think maybe Google don’t pay tax as well?’ They leave soon afterwards. I appreciate their honesty (put it down to experience and move on).

But I’m still there, trapped in a rictus. I don’t think it’s the women’s fault or mine – Nothing in common – that’s all. Time and time again I’m bottling lightning and laughing at my own jokes (always a good sign), but no amount of electricity can reanimate a corpse.

Forty minutes in fate cocks the weapon and places it against my temple.

A comment about TV prompts her to say ‘I’ve just finished watching the Nordic crime drama – ‘The Killing.”

‘What a coincidence – I also enjoy killing…’

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Work/Life Balance…

…Every three weeks the project I’m managing awards someone the title of ‘Team member of the iteration.’ It’s a nice idea – whoever wins receives the adulation of their peers and has a photo taken for the board in which they smile whilst holding an item associated with the company’s brand – an umbrella. This time around we decided to give the award to a group of people – the offshore software testing team, working out of an office in Chenai, India.

In the last week Chenai has been hit with the worst rainfall in over a hundred years. The city has experienced flash floods that submerged whole suburbs and turned its river into an ocean. In the face of this hardship the testers were literally forced to flee for their lives and relocate to another city hundreds of miles away. With the very real possibility that their homes had been destroyed they nevertheless focused on making up the time they had lost and diligently worked through the weekend and evenings to catch up…

…and then we got them to pose with umbrellas and took photos of them.

Travelling to work the next morning I imagined the train being derailed,  waking up in a hospital bed having had both legs amputated and my first priority being to balance a laptop on my stumps so as to pick up wifi cos that progress report wasn’t gonna write itself, to later have a grateful colleague present me with a Thomas the Tank Engine duvet and a card declaring ‘You’re a Winner!’

‘Oh my God, we’re monsters!’ I announced to the office. The general consensus was that it probably wasn’t that bad. I unleashed my Thomas the Tank Engine analogy, but not being aficionados of Ringo Starr’s difficult second album the cultural reference was lost. (At the risk of appearing too heroic I should point out that I wasn’t that vociferous in my assertions as they are keeping my project on track).

Over the years I’ve worked with many offshore teams, and the two things they all have in common are i. Uber-politeness, and ii. An insane work ethic.

I met an old friend for coffee and the subject came up.

‘Do you think maybe we’ve (I’ve) been monumentally insensitive?’

In clear earshot of the baristas, all of whom are either African or South American exchange students he replied, ‘That’s what outsourcing’s all about.’

White people…Jeez…

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Guff & Gubbins…

Imagine an embryo in a suit sitting at a desk in a cubicle disguised as an adult. Somehow it has made its way into central London on a grad scheme; the main responsibility of which appears to gravitate around the concept of making me feel old and decrepit. More pressingly (he) is now occupying the room that houses the cabinet in which my work shoes reside. I tap on the glass and open the door.

‘Hi, do you mind if I just get my shoes?’

All the blood drains from of his face. The transformation is quite dramatic. ‘Yes.’

‘You do mind?’

‘Yes I do…sorry.’

‘Oh…well I’ll jus-‘ The wall of stench hits me. He was been breaking wind – a lot. It’s a very tiny room and he clearly wasn’t expecting company. I am physically repelled and contain the outbreak with a hefty slam of the door.

Given a moment to think I realise that I probably should’ve handled that better – maybe acted as if there wasn’t a paint-stripping reek assaulting the inside of my throat and calmly returned later. I smile through the glass to show him that there are no hard feelings and that I shall retrieve the aforementioned footwear in due course. Shortly thereafter he scurries away.

4084833608a5daa7c93e65460d0af83b885b907724ee782c48b0b2c36307d596d5ad42c7Later I am returning from lunch when I see the lift doors closing. I make a dash for it and step inside. There is already someone within – the graduate! He seems mortified to be in a confined space with me. The lift takes an eternity to begin its accent, and we are only moving for a few seconds before a robot announces ‘Emergency call activated.’ The graduate steps forward. A red light is flashing in the space recently vacated by his ass-cheeks. He becomes flustered.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ I reassure. ‘It happens every other day. They should probably think about relocating the button. Someone’ll ring through in a minute and we’ll be on our way.’

…And then the stench hits me – worse then before! We are in an even smaller room. There is no escape. Embryo won’t look me in the eye. His suit looks highly flammable. He is taking a very great risk. This is too glorious an opportunity to pass up.
‘Seriously, there’s no point squeezing one out stealthily. I’m the only other person in here and I know it wasn’t me.’

‘What wasn’t you?’

Come on!’

‘How do I know it wasn’t you?’

What wasn’t me?’

‘…Whatever it is you’re talking about.’

‘How do you know? Cos it was you. If there was one other guy in here then there might be an element of mystery, but as there isn’t, there isn’t.’

Before we descend into a he-who-smelt-it-dealt-it territory a muffled, metallic sounding voice comes from the lift’s side panel. ‘Can I help you?’

‘Yeah, you can let me out of this dutch oven before I asphyxiate.’

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You are fragile and temporary…

2015-02-09 15.35.23 copyEnding One: The Thorn Tree was a pub in Wakefield, infamous for being an excessively violent place in which to drink. My friend had taken me there specifically to prove this point and was duly rewarded. Within an hour a fight broke out between two women. Some karaoke was hastily cobbled together. The mood calmed somewhat.

I believe (if memory serves – it was a long time ago) that I was in the process of being light-heartedly chastised for something when my friend stopped mid-sentence and glanced over my shoulder.

‘I think the man behind you is dead.’

‘What?’

He repeated himself. I turned to look.

‘No, don’t look. It’d be rude!’

‘How am I supposed to verify if…?’

For a few awkward moments we debated what to do – finding it semi funny / semi disturbing, and pretty certain that it would all turn out to be a misunderstanding.

‘No, I think he really is dead.’

We both stood up and took a few short paces over to the man’s table. He was sitting bolt upright, his face composed, eyes wide.

‘Evening,’ my friend said.

‘Excuse me?’ I added.

‘No blinking – He’s not there.’

An old gent, out on his own, a half finished pint, a silent slipping away. It was real.

Whilst my thoughts drifted towards the realms of ‘Is it sad that he died alone or good that he died in pub?‘ my friend had far more practical considerations in mind. Eager to preserve the man’s dignity he calmly made his way over to the bar and informed the landlady. Her reaction was the complete opposite of what had been hoped or intended. Rather than quietly dealing with the matter she flew into a fluster and started making it all about her. A very public call to the emergency services alerted the entire room to what had transpired, and we watched in bemused horror as she draped a bright yellow tea-towel over the man’s face in order to hide the fact that he was dead.

‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?’ I asked.

‘Well I can’t hardly use a sheet can I? He’d look like a ghost. ANYONE KNOW WHO HE IS?’

‘I can’t tell,’ one of the punters replied. ‘He’s got a bright yellow tea-towel over his face.’

Some in the room found it tragic; others hilarious. A few (me included) found it both.

This blog is read by a few hundred people. Statistically therefore one of you (us) is going to die a comedy death at some point, and all the things you’d like to be remembered for – being a great man, woman, lover, philanthropist – will take second billing to having chocked on a dildo during a hen-do gone horribly wrong, or decapitated by a shard of frozen urine being expelled from a plane (‘You remember Pete?’ ‘What, Pissy-Pete?’ Or ‘Hey, how about Phil?’ ‘Oh yeah, the tea-towel guy?’ etc)…

Think on…

 

Ending Two: Mike, 59, ex-marine, ex-North Sea oil rig diver, IT developer, salt-of-the-earth, two weeks from getting married for the second time, December 2005 – my leaving do. Mike’s a naturally scruffy person (a man after my own heart), but under his fiancée’s instructions he’s gone out and bought an incredibly expensive suit – Armani, voluminously huge – the kind Al Capone would’ve worn. He spends the evening taking it out of a travel bag to show people, uttering a single, well rehearsed line of dialogue and replacing it in its bag. The line:

‘I’m only going to wear this twice. Once when I get married and one when they bury me in it.’

At 10pm he leaves – last train to the south coast. We shake hands. It has truly been a pleasure. We’ll see each other tomorrow for my final day.

The next morning a phone call diverts me from the office towards a coffee shop. ‘Leaving presentation’ my all-about-me brain suggests. I push through the front door and someone is whispering in my ear that Mike died in his sleep from a brain aneurism. There then follows a fog of floating into the office, gathering up my traumatised team and taking them somewhere they can breathe. We are joined by our project sponsor, a very senior manager who laments ‘It’s a shame the pubs aren’t open. If ever there were a need for a stiff drink…’

The phone rings – my boss – Where are you? – In a coffee shop – Your team? – With me – Have you forgotten that you need to get a software build out my lunchtime? – Mike… – Yeah, I heard – Then you’ll know that the software build will need to wait a little while – I know you’re in shock, but that’s no excuse for being unprofessional – There are grown men here crying, you need to dismiss the idea from your mind – Listen Martin I will not…

The senior manager can hear what is happening. He makes a gesture to me that I should hand over the phone. ‘Hang on, Rob want’s a word.’

‘Hi Andy, it’s Rob. Yeah listen, show some compassion and f@$* off!’ He ends the call and hands the phone back with a wry smile.

I write to Mike’s fiancée (whom I’ve never met). She asks me to read the letter out at his funeral. The whole team are there, and the senior manager, and his manager, but not my (now ex) boss. All throughout the service I am feeling sorry for him and thinking that he has failed to grasp one of life’s fundamental lessons – that life does not go on, and that all things stop for death.

Mike’s fiancée comes up to me afterwards and says: ‘He rolled over in the middle of the night and whispered, ‘Great to be in bed with the one I love.’ That was the last of him.’

In moments such as these you can only go with your gut. A phrase like that doesn’t need my sympathy. It needs admiration:

‘My word,’ I reply. ‘That’s how I want to go out!’

 

Ending Three:

On Christmas day 2001 I went with my father to lay a wreathe on his mother’s grave. It was cold and had snowed recently. It was a sombre moment and there was a pregnant pause that needed to be filled with some poignant words.

But I wasn’t the one to fill it. Feeling somewhat belligerent I decided that my father (a man private about his feelings) was going to be the one to speak and not me. A considerable amount of time passed in silence. It became awkward, oppressive, slightly funny, then awkward again. Eventually, when he realised that I wasn’t letting him off the hook my father turned to me and said:

‘You know, when I pop my clogs, I’d like to be buried in a snazzy cardboard box – a pink one – something garish that offends the mourners.’

This is how we’re dealing with bereavement is it? I thought. OK, I can run with it…

‘When I die,’ I responded, ‘I’d like to be liquidised and surreptitiously added to the reception punch. I could then literally be a pain in everyone’s arse.’

Father upped the ante: ‘I’d like to be loaded into a catapult, fired into the air and, wherever by body lands, be left to rot…no, not a catapult – a trebuchet – I’d go further.’

I brought it home: ‘When you go I’m going to have you fitted with animatronics so that I can remote control you to rise from the grave going RRRRAAAHHHH!’

‘And that’ll help you cope will it?’

‘I imagine so yes.’

‘Oh good.’

 

Epilogue: Why have I written about death? It’s not because I’m building up to a personal revelation. It’s simply this.

I was meeting an old friend for lunch on Friday, but she cancelled due to fears about getting on a train to London. The killings in Paris had her on edge. I was socialising with a client a few days beforehand when we heard that a couple in San Bernardino had killed fourteen people over a work dispute. They themselves were later shot dead by police. On Thursday a man in London arbitrarily pushed a complete stranger off an underground platform into the path of an oncoming tube. The blogosphere is currently alight with debates over gun control and whether or not to invade Syria, blaming God, David Cameron and the American senate to name but a few. A company I’m working with offers terrorism insurance. I’m led to believe it’s now a fairly standard practice. I have a strong opinion on all of these things, but in some respects that’s also part of the problem – Everyone shouting into an abyss. Never before in human history have people been spoon fed death, terror, death, terror by ubiquitous media morning, noon and night. Never before have they had to be so sophisticated in compartmentalising certain horrors and placing others into context so as not to go insane, so well done you!

That’s probably the only point I was trying to make – Well done you. That I’ve chosen silly slants on the stories is part defiance and part irreverence. I once saw someone I love die and there was nothing warm or graceful about it. Afterwards I carried the mantra around in my heart: You are fragile and temporary. It would help all of us I think to know our place in the grand scheme of things…

…But statistically the world is becoming a far safer place – more parts of it enjoy more liberties then ever before, there is more diversity, less racism, greater rights for women. If we can work out how not to use everything up we might just get where we’re going.

For example: In the dim and distance past if I’d taken a shine to another man’s wife (or his cave) I’d have had to bash his head in with a rock and move in. Now alI I have to do is stalk her on Facebook, take her out to an obscenely priced restaurant, get criticised for not knowing which fork goes with which course, have her post my faux-pas on Twitter and subsequently struggle to gain the acceptance from all of her judgmental friends.

Simpler, happier times…

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