Located in my usual cafe, I’m sat at a table to the rear of the dining area, feeling hungover, waiting for my English fried breakfast to be served. In this fogged state of mind, I am unable to maintain the necessary chemical synaptic connection between thought and action. With the signals blinking on and off, my eyelids drawn half-down works best for now. Continue reading “vapid escalation”
Max: Patrice, Patrice! Good God man, provide me with your assistance!
Patrice: Nothing else matters now Max… Nothing, else, matters…
Max: Patrice! Help me drag poor Marcel to safety. It did not work, he is close to death! You said the waters held healing powers. It is bullshit Patrice, complete bullshit! If you don’t help me right now, I swear I will kick your ass and hold your head under the water until you yourself are healed!
Patrice: …I am in love with this woman, Max. Her name is Bernadette Soubirous. Continue reading “Max Ernst’s “Une Semaine de Bonté: Lundi, l’eau” (writing prompt)”
A short burst of escaping pressurised air caused his closed eyelids to lighten, lift, fall shut and re-open. Three blurry impressions of the outside came inside: a white ceiling, a monitor emitting a pulsing tone and an hourglass figure dressed in light blue standing nearby. A voice reverberated inside his ears, words initially overlapping each other, gradually becoming clear. He felt the touch of soft fingertips stroke the top of his hand; his head hurt like a hangover.
“Brinkinfield? Brinkinfield, can you hear me Brinkinfield?” A woman’s voice, her blonde hair tied-up, red lips cutting through the out-of-focus. He tried to reply, but the dryness inside his mouth worked resolutely against the formation of words. “Doctor! Doctor McCoy! I believe the patient is regaining consciousness!”
Barely audible padding footsteps approached, a warm palm rested across his forehead. A thumb pulled up an eyelid, Brinkinfield made out a wrinkled face moving from side to side. An eyebrow arching above an examining eye, peered into his own eye.
“50 milligrams hypo Nurse Chapel please.”
“A glass of water too, our patient is dehydrated.”
As the pressurised air hissed against Brinkinfield’s shoulder for a second time, a weight dissolved from his body and the throbbing inside his head faded.
“Well, I hope you don’t have any plans for this evening young man, you’ve had a very lucky escape.” McCoy said. “Even so, I imagine we’ll have you back on your feet given a couple of days.” The doctor began writing up his notes onto a screen-pad, handed to him by the nurse. “You have a remarkable constitution,” he said without looking up, “in all my years, I’ve not seen anything like it before.”
Trying to speak, Brinkinfield lifted his head, but coherence eluded him. He tried again, struggling to form words.
“Now you just take it easy.” McCoy laid a restraining hand onto his patient’s chest, “Rest is the best medicine I can prescribe to you. Right now, I suggest you take my advice and let Nurse Chapel here look after you.”
The rise and fall of an alert tone drew the doctor away from the patient, towards a communication device located on a desk. An illuminated red switch flashed on and off, until his finger pressed it down.
“McCoy,” came back a voice, the busy electronics of an operational control bridge coloured the aural backdrop, “how is our visitor coming along?”
“Well Jim, as you saw when we beamed him aboard, he’s received quite a battering. I can confirm there’s no damage to major internal organs, at least not as far as I can ascertain, and the patient has regained consciousness.” The doctor’s gaze scanned several different readings from a monitor. “His vital signs are beginning to return to normal, I’d say give him a day or two and he’ll be as right as rain.”
A short pause followed the doctor’s prognosis.
“Bones,” said the voice, adopting a familiar tone, “I need to ask your patient some vital questions soon. I’ve got to understand, how has an unidentified, floating tin-can of a spaceship, ended up with its pilot out here, within range of a hitherto unexplored solar system?”
“Doctor! Come quickly,” called out Nurse Chapel, “the patient is stirring again!”
“Jim,” said the doctor resisting the diversion of his attention, “I’m the Chief Medical Officer aboard this ship, not a magician!”
“Doctor! He’s trying to speak!” The urgency in the nurse’s tone won out, snagging McCoy’s concentration.
“Alright Jim, give me a few hours, I’ll see what I can do. McCoy out.”
The doctor returned to his patient, folded his arms across his chest and composed himself. He observed the nurse cleaning-off dried blood from the patient’s forehead. When she turned to look around, he read a sense of wonderment in her eyes.
“It’s truly remarkable Doctor McCoy, I am sure the cuts on his face and around his body are healing before my very eyes.”
“You’re an excellent practitioner Nurse Chapel, but not even you can heal wounds in a matter of minutes.” McCoy moved closer, held the patient’s wrist and registered his pulse. “You said he tried to speak, did he say anything that made any sense?”
“I’m – I’m not com-pletely, sure.” The nurse replied hesitantly.
McCoy’s short fuse began to smoke in frustration. “Nurse Chapel, please try to remember, what in blazes did he say!?”
“Well Doctor,” she said, “this won’t make sense, but it sounded like two letters, ‘T’ and ‘V’, followed by the word ‘show’.”
“T and V, show?” the doctor repeated. “Nurse Chapel, are you quite sure?”
“Why yes Doctor. I said it wouldn’t make any sense, what is a T and V show?”
Before McCoy could gather himself to attempt an answer, he detected the presence of a fourth person in sick bay.
“Spock! What the devil do you think you’re doing creeping up on us like that?”
“A ‘TV show’ existed up until nearly two hundred and fifty years ago. One hundred and forty nine years, 4 months and 16 days, to be exact.” Without acknowledging the doctor’s question, Chief Science Officer Spock continued with his elaboration. “An archaic, relatively short-lived form of entertainment on old earth. Commonly watched on a large, stand-alone monitor screen as a way for 20th and 21st century families to wind down, relax and share food together in the evenings. I believe interest waned dramatically by the first quarter of the 21st century, with the activity all-but dying out.”
“I’m not sure I understand.” Said the nurse.
“Nurse Chapel, it is irrelevant if you understand or not,” came back Spock’s curt reply, “these are the facts. And they lead me to ask if you are able to recall anything else the patient has said, worth of note?”
“Why yes,” replied the nurse showing mild indignation in her tone, “I believe he said ‘original series’ too. But I – I just don’t understand the context, Mr Spock.”
“What’s going on Spock?” the doctor said, “TV show, original series, what does it all mean?”
“At this moment in the investigation Doctor, I have not yet reached a conclusion.” Spock stood with his hands clasped low behind his back, his face impassive. “All I can deduce at this stage is some kind of connection between our guest and a time period over two centuries in the past. May I suggest,” continued Mr Spock, readying himself to leave, “if we are to shed any further light upon the matter, it is of the utmost importance to carefully note down whatever your patient says.”
“Are you crazy Spock?” McCoy’s eyes widened in anger, “It may have passed your notice but I am not a clerical secretary! I’m the Chief Medical Officer aboard this shi-”
“It’s alright Mr Spock and Dr McCoy,” intervened Nurse Chapel, slipping her calming arms simultaneously around her colleague’s waists. “I’ll do it. It was a long time ago, but I did short-hand note-taking in a job I held down during academy.”
* * *
Later in the day, sat in the otherwise empty ward besides her patient, Nurse Chapel busied herself with a tray of surgical instruments. Held-up individually, each one received two short warm breaths and several well-practised gentle strokes of a silken cloth. As she worked, she noted how Brinkinfield appeared to float in and back out of consciousness. He didn’t seem in any particular discomfort, and this pleased her. Sat with one leg crossed over the other, she quietly hummed a tune to herself. The cool white lighting inside the room reflected off her calf-length boots, dancing across the black polyvinyl chloride. Holding McCoy’s medical tricorder, she gave it a gentle twist. The resultant warbling sound awoke her patient.
“Nurse Chapel?” The patient whispered.
“Yes Brinkinfield, what is it?”
“Can you tell me what, what year it is?”
The nurse’s look of concern melted into a compassionate, reassuring expression.
“Why,” she said, “don’t you know? Well, it’s stardate 3468.1”
“Star date 34, 68, point 1?” Brinkinfield repeated back to the nurse.
“That’s right.” Anticipating his next question, the nurse uncrossed her legs and pulled herself nearer to the examination bed. “And you sir, are travelling on the starship U.S.S. Enterprise.”
“Well yes!” The nurse replied, “Now tell me, how did you ever know that?”
“A lucky guess, I guess.” Brinkinfield shifted his body awkwardly on the consultation bed.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question, Brinkinfield?”
“No please,” he replied, “please go right ahead.”
“Are you by any chance, of British heritage?” Elbow perched on the bed, she rested her chin in the palm of one hand, hooking a wayward lock of blonde hair behind her ear with her other hand.
“British heritage? I am British – if that’s what you mean, yes. Born in Luton Bedfordshire – although my parents moved the family away very soon afterwards.”
“Oh I thought so, I love your accent. We only have the Transporter Chief Lt. Kyle who’s of British ancestry. He has – what he refers to as a northern twang. To be honest, I don’t much care for it.” The nurse’s hand hovered above Brinkinfield’s hand, her fingernails picked out a looping, circular pattern skating across his skin.
“Nurse Chapel,” an uncertain smile briefly formed across his lips, “how exactly did I get to be here?”
“Well, my understanding is your vessel appeared on our scanners as we entered the Alpha quadrant of the Beta Geminorum system.”
“My vessel?” Said Brinkinfield.
“Yes, your ship had taken heavy damage and your life-support systems were rapidly failing, our Mr Spock detected vague life-form readings. With no response to our attempts at communication, Mr Kyle locked onto your coordinates and we transported you aboard.”
With the light inside the ward now captured in the widening pupils of her eyes, Nurse Chapel ran her hand lightly back and forth along Brinkinfield’s forearm.
“From my ship?” Brinkinfield resisted reacting to the ticklish sensation urging him to withdraw his arm.
“Yes, I’m afraid it’s gone now.” The Nurse pulled away from her patient, looked down to her lap and began flattening the creases in her uniform out across the tops of her thighs.
“Well, yes I’m sorry.” A hand moved to her forehead as she prepared to give him the uncomfortable truth. “When the Enterprise left your original position, your ship exploded as a result of an unfortunate miscalculation.”
“Oh I see.” Brinkinfield inflated his cheeks, exhaled and scratched his head.
“Yes, we’re all very sorry about that. Long story short, a misunderstanding arose between engineering and navigation, leading to a conflict between the tractor beam towing your ship and the engagement of warp drive.”
“Oh right, I see.” Brinkinfield said. “Although to be honest I have no memory of being aboard any ship.”
“Oh well that’s okay then!” Said the nurse striking a positive tone and rubbing the flats of her fingers briskly over the top of her patient’s hand. “Right! Are you hungry? Let me order you some lunch, we need to keep your strength up.”
“My name is Christine, Brinkinfield. You may call me by my first name.”
“Thank you Christine. You mentioned Beta Geminorum system, Alpha quadrant. What heading is the Enterprise on?”
“Let me think for a moment,” the nurse paused, “I overheard Mr Spock relaying coordinates earlier today.” Christine squeezed Brinkinfield’s hand several times as she recalled the incident. “Pollux IV, an M-class planet, sustainable oxygen – nitrogen atmosphere. We’ll be the first federation starship to have ventured out this way, it’s exciting – don’t you think?”
“Nurse Chapel – Christine!” Brinkinfield reached out and grabbed the nurse’s wrist. “I know this episode! We mustn’t on any account go to Pollux IV – not even get close and definitely not establish an orbit around the planet.”
“You know this episode, whatever do you mean Brinkinfield, what episode?” The nurse looked at Brinkinfield’s hand around her wrist, undecided whether she liked his hold on her or not. “You can see into the future, is that what you are saying?”
“Christine, you have to believe me, I can’t exactly explain, but it’s true strange events have occurred on this spaceship before, haven’t they, yes?” He pulled her closer.
“Well yes, it’s the nature of space travel Brinkinfield, no one week is ever like another. Anyway, how would you know about events happening on the Enterprise in the past? You’ve been aboard ship for approximately 8 solar hours. What do you know of what’s happened here before?
Brinkinfield struggled to sit himself up on the examination bed. Christine assisted, placing a pillow between the back of his head and the wall.
“Thank you Christine. This all feels disturbingly real, me sat here talking to you, the interior of this room, the equipment, McCoy and Spock, the captain’s voice over the intercom, all very familiar.”
“What do you mean, disturbingly real? Are you saying you’ve been a member of the crew previously?”
“No Christine, I’ve not ever been a crew member.” He rubbed the palms of his hands together uncomfortably. “Yet I even know you are secretly in love with Mr Spock.”
The nurse’s mouth dropped open in shock as she drew-in a sharp involuntary breath, the fair complexion of her cheeks reddened.
“You, and your feelings towards Mr–”
“Yes I heard you. Why, you weren’t even properly conscious when Mr Spock joined Dr McCoy and I earlier,” she said, “and even if you had been awake, just how in the Milky Way could you draw such a conclusion? Mr Spock arrived and departed sick bay within less than 5 minutes! And as I recall,” a flustered tone filled the nurse’s voice, “Mr Spock cut me off mid-sentence. To anyone unfamiliar with his Vulcan ways, this would appear as plain rude and not an attractive trait!”
“All this is true,” said Brinkinfield, “but it doesn’t change your feelings towards Mr Spock, despite the fact he rarely reciprocates.”
“Well maybe that’s where you’re wrong,” said the nurse, “I’ve had about as much as I can take from him.” She placed both her hands over her patient’s hand and leaned in closer. “To be completely honest Brinkinfield, I have felt drawn to you in a special way, since soon after your arrival.”
“Drawn to me?” Brinkinfield replied, caught off guard.
“Yes, I guess you already knew that, too?” Nurse Chapel said, adjusting herself into a better position. As she did so, Brinkinfield detected the sweet scent of spearmint on her breath. Tilting her head slowly to one side, the nurse planted a light kiss onto his lips. Pulling back momentarily, she kissed him again. Her lower lip brushed over the tip of his nose as her hands cradled his cheeks. The nurse looked deeply into his eyes, until her quickening breath gave way to a passionate kiss.
“Nurse Chapel, Nurse Chapel!” Came McCoy’s scratchy voice, as he ran from the doorway and across the ward. “Frankly this form of intervention in your patient’s care is excessive and most definitely not in the manual!” The doctor grabbed her by the elbows and using all his strength tried to pull her away. Met with firm resistance, the struggle continued.
“Think what this will do to Spock if he finds out!” He implored, “Think what he might do to the patient in revenge! Nurse Chapel, you’ve got to snap out of this! If not, I will call security!”
Finally, the nurse’s resistance weakened. In response, McCoy’s grip on her loosened as her body fell limp and half-draped over Brinkinfield’s torso, exhausted. Panting to catch her breath, her hands travelled in a circular pattern across the patient’s chest. In a parting gesture she closed her thumbs and index fingers tightly around his nipples, delivering a tweak and mild convulsion in the patient.
“I’m sorry doctor,” the nurse said turning to face McCoy, “this shouldn’t have happened.” Wobbling slightly she straightened out her uniform and returned the same wayward lock of hair as before behind her ear, while looking down to the floor.
“Well that’s alright Nurse Chapel.” McCoy replied, a calm and sympathetic tone to his voice returned. “I understand you have been under a lot of pressure lately, damn-it Christine we all have! What this crew needs more than anything is a prescription for shore leave.”
The doctor placed his hand onto the nurse’s upper arm in a reassuring manner and showed her his best crooked smile. “Now, why don’t you go to the rest room, sort out your make-up and bring back everyone a nice cup of coffee. Spock and the captain are headed over here shortly, with a few questions for our visitor friend.”
“Yes Doctor.” The nurse replied obediently.
“Two sugars,” piped-in Brinkinfield as she turned away, “and plenty of milk please!”
“Al-right mister, we have a few questions we’d like to ask you and you have some explaining to do.”
Upon arrival, the captain had seated himself on the edge of the consultation bed with one leg crossed over the other and both hands resting on his knee. Spock stood stock still to one side of the captain, maintaining a stern expression and arms folded across his chest.
Brinkinfield smiled uneasily, unsure if Spock had got wind of the incident with Christine. Lifting a mug in his hands, he drew a noisy sip from the fresh coffee before speaking.
“Sure, I am here to help, but before we start I must say I am as mystified as you as to how I got here.”
“Mr Spock and I debriefed Nurse Chapel in the kitchen a few moments ago,” said the captain, exchanging a satisfied look with Spock, “during which she shared with us some unusual comments you have made, and also your warning against visiting Pollux IV – or even passing close by the planet.”
“That’s correct captain, do not establish orbit around the planet.” Said Brinkinfield.
“Well, I don’t suppose you’d mind telling us why?” said the captain whimsically.
“W-ell,” Brinkinfield hesitated, “the difficulty is, I am not sure you’ll believe me. If I recall correctly, it’s a fanciful storyline to say the least.”
“A fanciful storyline, to say the least.” The captain repeated, a sense of disbelief now audible in his tone.
“If I may intervene Captain,” said Spock, unfolding his arms, “you may remember Nurse Chapel recounting several key words during her debriefing.” He pressed his hands together to assume a position of thoughtful prayer.
“Go on Mr Spock, make your point please.” Said the captain.
“From what she has divulged, we have ‘T’ and ‘V’, ‘show’, ‘original series’ and ‘episode’. We can now add to this the expression ‘storyline’, in an allusion to what the near future holds for us.”
Brinkinfield slurped at his coffee, taking two sips in quick succession. His attention switched between the captain and first officer and the plate of custard cream biscuits Christine had placed on the bedside unit, several minutes earlier.
“You’re saying there’s a link, Spock?” the captain said.
“What it appears our visitor is suggesting, is that we exist in a different reality to his own.” Spock replied.
“Like some kind of universe parallel to ours?” the captain asked, quizzically.
“Correct captain. What we consider as reality, our guest views as a television entertainment show, dating back approximately 250 years.”
“I want facts not theories, Mr Spock! Can you tell me how this man got here?”
“Sir, I do not know how he got here and furthermore, I am seriously coming to doubt our visitor friend, knows himself.”
Both men turned simultaneously to look in Brinkinfield’s direction.
Brinkinfield looked back at them, shrugged his shoulders and smiled, before dunking a biscuit into his half-drank drink.
Utilising the marvels of interweb technology, the following is the transcript of my recent radio show broadcast where I am in interview with Jan Futchinelle, l’enfant terrible investigative reporter creating a name for himself in the modern medieval city of Oxford and well beyond these county lines. For anyone out there who calls living under a stone home, Jan has spent the last few weeks talking up the #roadsituation.
I invited him onto the show, to learn a bit more about both the story and the man. Judging by the several emails received following broadcast, audience feedback suggests public opinion sits firmly behind the journalist.
Without further ado, here!
“A-nd welcome back after the news, you’re tuned into Brinkinfield’s Fried Breakfast on Radio OX72FM. If you’re travelling into Oxford city today, I have been passed some traffic info for you to take heed of. The lights are out at the Wolverine roundabout, causing some cavalier cavorting by road-users with the area classified as immediately dangerous for all nearby pedestrians. We’ve also just received news of the Botter’s Road bridge down to one lane, cordoned off by police while frogmen search the canal. This follows the report of a rather large man falling from the bridge during yesterday’s rush hour. Police are appealing for witnesses.
“Right, back to business. As listeners, you may be interested in my next guest on this morning’s show Jan Futchinelle, who’s writings on the road situation has attracted stacks of attention over the last month or so.
“Welcome Jan, I am glad for us to meet.”
“Thank you and thanks for asking me onto your show.”
“It’s a pleasure Jan, I feel we share many of the same ideas. Which is why I’ve asked you to come on and discuss what has become known as, the road situation in Oxford.”
“Yes, well, of course it’s not only effecting Oxford. Towns, villages, hamlets and cities all over the country are suffering in the same way as here.”
“Right, but here in Oxford, this is where you live and what you know and what you see, am I right Jan?”
“Oh, a little bit of French there Jan!”
“I speak 7 languages, French, Swiss, Italian, German, Austrian, a little Scandinavian.”
“I imagine it must come in handy from time to time.”
“Very occasionally, yes.”
“So Jan, what’s it all about, this road situation you’ve been writing of for the last few weeks?”
“Well, it’s been more like a year now. It breaks down into three inter-linked component parts: potholes, congestion and road-user behaviour.”
“Ok, briefly take me through them.”
“Well, has it occurred to anyone listening the idea of there existing a more suitable product for surfacing roads than the current materials, with all the technology we have at our disposal today?”
“Yes Jan, it has occurred to me before. There’s got to be, surely!”
“It’s an absolute certainty. Look at our present situation, whatever the weather conditions the roads crumble, crack and sink. The surfaces break down, unable to take the extremes of cold, warmth and wetness our seasons produce. The current materials used simply aren’t fit for purpose.”
“Certainly Jan, the road I travel in on each day provides a dreadfully bumpy ride, physically lifting me off my seat. I find myself weaving around the road to avoid the worst potholes.”
“And it is unsafe, the potential for accidents doesn’t require much imagination.”
“Agreed, I worry about my suspension and wheel axles too. I don’t believe cars are made to withstand this kind of exposure. What material do you believe would do a better job for surfacing roads?”
“Almost anything, but my favourites are re-cycled rubber from tires and re-cycled plastic. At a stroke, the inadequacies of the current recycling system we have, would be solved. There’d even be money in dredging the oceans to remove the vast tracts of discarded plastic floating around, which endanger sea life. The technology is here, the raw material is close to being free, it is a no-brainer.”
“Okay, we’re going to take a break for a tune by the Velvet Underground, Sister Ray, picked to help ease your journey into work this morning. When we come back, I’ll be reading out some recipes you’ve tweeted in, specially themed to this morning’s interview. Then we’ll talk more with Jan, on the subject of Oxford’s road situation.”
“A-nd, as we fade that out, you’re listening to Brinkinfield’s Fried Breakfast on Radio OX72FM where I’m in conversation with Jan Futchinelle, journalist, writer and all round good egg.”
“That’s a long track, Sister Ray.”
“Indeed it is Jan. Let-me-see, it comes in at 17 minutes 28 seconds… I hope no one minded me talking over the last 12 seconds as it played out.
“Now Jan, where were we?”
“Christ-alive, I’ve forgotten. Your listeners won’t know this, but during the musical interlude I got a quick trim at the barber shop located underneath the studios here.”
“Just so listeners know, Jan is sporting a clippered haircut – what would that be Jan, a zero on the number?”
“Yes, that’s right, zero.”
“But it looks like Francesco trimmed and conditioned your beard too.”
“Yes, well we could hear the Sister Ray track coming through the ceiling, and both being familiar with the song, we worked out we had enough time.”
“And you brought me back up a latte too, thank you Jan. Right, where were we? Oh, I am getting a voice in my ear saying we have enough time for some listener’s themed recipes and then we’ll go to the news.”
“I could hear that voice in your ear. It sounded like a busy bumble bee inside the flower of a daffodil. Can I just quickly mention about road tax?”
” – Not just yet Jan.”
” – About how less than 25% of the road tax goes on road maintenance?”
” – Later Jan. Okay, with the time now at exactly… six fifty seven, let’s go through some of the recipe ideas our listeners have tweeted in. Right, here’s one from Balthazar, thank you ma’am. Hm, what have we here? It looks like a hotdog from the photo – oh I see, the hotdog has cocktail sticks pinning cherry tomatoes and slices of cucumber into the side of the bread finger roll to look like car wheels. Yes, very good. And the wiggly line of mustard, that could be like a go faster stripe down the centre.”
“Normally, go-faster stripes are displayed along both sides of a vehicle rather than running down the centre.”
“True Jan, yes, but the mustard would just run and look messy I don’t doubt.”
“Depends on the mustard.”
“And what’s this we have from… Ge-ronimo…Cheeks, I think I have that right, okay let’s see, th-is, loo-ks like… oh, okay, it’s a slice of apple, with four grapes. Again, wooden cocktail sticks used as the axles. Right, I can definitely see a car theme developing here – keep them coming in. Okay, here comes the latest news and weather and we’ll be back right after this.”
“And that’s the sublime sound of Jason Lytle, formerly of the band Grandaddy, with a tune to melt your heart and make your eyes cry. In case you’ve just joined us, I am here with journalist and campaigner Jan Futchinelle, to talk about the Oxford road situation.
“Jan, we’ve talked about the road surfaces and what can be done about them.”
“Yes we have.”
“And I believe your campaigning initially came to my attention after you wrote an article entitled car ban or carbon? about the city council’s plan to exclude cars from Oxford. I also understand you have something to say about road-users, too.”
“Correct. Drivers of vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians sometimes too.”
“So what’s your beef, Jan?”
“That’s an unusual verb… but anyway, way back in the 20th century in the very early nineteen thirties, the Ministry of Transport published an 18 page booklet called the Highway Code.”
“And we’re still using it?”
“It’s been revised many times.”
“How many times Jan?”
“Regularly. The point is, the booklet contains guidance and rules about driving. Every learner driver knows that questions about the Highway Code form part of the test to acquire a full driving license.”
“Oh yes, I remember, all that stuff about stopping distances?”
“Yes and much more. Now, some of the rules explained are compulsory, whilst others are recommendations.”
“Like giving way to traffic on the right at roundabouts?”
“Correct, that’ll be a must-do rule. If you are brought to a British courtroom on a traffic violation, the Highway Code may – and probably will be referenced in a case against you.”
“I’m with you. So, what’s your point Jan?”
“My point is, the rules are pretty basic.”
“If you are sat at a junction to a main road, you give way to the traffic both ways, until the road is clear and safe to pull onto.”
“Seems like common sense there Jan.”
“But how many times have your listeners seen car drivers edge out onto main roads, as if they are entitled to some kind of special exemption from the rules?”
“Well, I’ve certainly seen this, whether they are turning left or right, or cutting across traffic to come off the main road. Often people in big four-by-fours, but not exclusively.”
“Indeed. And people blithely wave them on without consideration of possible consequences. Have you seen this happen – when a cyclist or pedestrian is endangered as a car turns? Have you seen the confusion being waved-on creates when there are two or more cars vying to take advantage of a situation? It’s madness. People, I say, just drive by the rules! That’s all I ask. Life would be so much easier.”
“Life would be better.”
“Life would be safer.”
“And that’s what really counts Jan. I am afraid we have run out of time, thank you so much for coming onto the show.”
“My pleasure. Lastly can I just say ‘cyclists, use lights day and night‘ and also mention I am giving a talk later this afternoon at Holywell’s Bookshop, inviting a Q&A session immediately afterwards.”
“Indeed Jan you can, and I believe you just have. We have time for one more themed recipe and okay, let’s see what we have here and from whom…”
“It’s a banana and are those four cherries, run through with a cocktail stick?”
“Yes I think you’re right Jan. Our thanks to justcantgetenuff for tweeting that one in. This next song is regularly requested by listeners of the show, after which we’ll go to the news and weather with Randolph Spencer. But first, here’s the Palace Brothers, with Merida …
No one knew where Pat had come from or how he’d landed the driver’s job. A transfer from an outlying British Oversea Territory became the favoured theory, amongst work colleagues. As a tall and broad-shouldered man, no one cared to challenge or question Pat.
During the household waste collection rounds, neighbours noticed how he approached the job with his precision handling of a seven and a half tonne lorry. He avoided blocking roads, allowing the morning rush hour traffic to flow freely. This man, wearing his plaid patterned flat cap, possessed a unique sense of anticipation and spatial awareness. An observant, early morning dog-walker watching Pat’s progress on a stretch of his route, would easily discern these qualities. He regularly adjusted the large, off side wing mirror and rotated the steering wheel vigorously, first clockwise and then anti-clockwise. The grim look of concentration on his face revealed a man finely tuned to a task and a master of clutch control.
He kept everyone happy, timing the movement of the refuse truck at a pace which served the operatives perfectly. Walking distances for the men reduced, while reports circulated of coordination akin to a military operation. Looked on from above, the streets pulsated to a rhythm of efficiency.
The tips flowed in throughout the year, not only around Christmas time. During early May, mothers held children up in their arms to thread flowers into button holes and behind the ears of the bin men. They became used to receiving greetings, even short and pleasant conversations. As noted, everybody seemed happy.
Everyone, except Pat.
“Something is missing.” He’d told the crew, one Friday. “There’s something more we can do.” The men scratched their heads and chins, with no idea what this might be. A few humorous comments surfaced, which Pat ignored. “Go enjoy your weekend boys, rest assured I’ll work on this over the next couple of days.” They changed out of their workwear and left the depot in silence, wondering what Monday held in store.
The new week began without the expected revelation. No one suggested Pat looked dour, as the team worked diligently through their rounds. Contemplative fitted better and more accurately described his state of mind. Each time after they’d completed a section, he would climb out of the cab and stand in the centre of the road. Stood next to his white charger, large hands rolled into fists and perched on hips, this Roman General scrutinised each detail of what lay before him.
The same routine followed for the next three days. Mild disgruntlement formed amongst the ranks, as the length of the shifts extended to encompass the analysis. Overheard grumblings in the dressing room at the council depot on the Thursday morning, prompted Pat to address his men.
“I understand the frustration you boys have been feeling this week.” He said. His expression had softened from the intense concentration, apparent the day before. “Time is of the essence, I’m hearing you say. Well, it’s not and never has been on my watch. The essence we are dealing with here, is service.”
“Boss, we’re doing a great job,” piped up Jakub, a Polish man of muscular frame. “I heard from Sylvie at the reception desk, we are likely to win the Local Council Award for Excellence this year.”
“Now boys!” Pat raised his voice several decibels to be heard above the chatter breaking out between the men, at Jakub’s news. “Mark my words, it’s never been about gongs, it’s never been about how fast we work. The public pay for a service, the role falls to us and we are paid well enough by all accounts, to deliver that service.” Pat paused, waited for silence before continuing. “You remember what I said last Friday, you’ve seen me assessing our rounds. Well, tomorrow I am introducing a new element to the our responsibilities, it is simple and yet transformative.”
“Why can’t we start it today, Boss?” Asked Lando, an Italian originating from the whitewashed hill towns in the heel forming Italy’s boot.
“Tutto a tempo debito?” Replied Pat, quoting an Italian proverb. The men sitting around Lando avidly watched him to see how he would reply.
“Okay Boss, you know best, all in good time I guess, as you say.”
“That’s right son, all in good time. Next week boys,” Pat said, looking around at each one of the faces transfixed on him, “we are going to raise the bar for household waste collection. We’ll be putting our names down in the history books, nothing will be the same afterwards. Now let’s go out there today and tomorrow, looking after ourselves and each other, and get the job done.” A spontaneous shout of approval reverberated around the changing room as the men stood up and walked out, in line behind their leader.
(end of part one (part two to follow))
The waitress hadn’t noticed him, sat in the corner at the back of the dining area. Knowing she had an interest in literature, Frankie mentioned him as he took the food order for a cooked breakfast, about how the man is a writer. She’d not heard of him before, the name didn’t ring a bell.
Mia felt he had a certain look about him, one which drew pity, sat alone by himself. “He rarely enters with a dining partner.” The cook said, “I’m certain he’s in here listening to the conversations of others, as material for his writing.”
Watching him, while waiting for the order to be prepared, she noticed his apparent discomfort. How he played around with the cutlery, constantly re-positioning the knife and fork, making minute adjustments to their placement on the table. By the time he had finished setting out the salt pot, pepper mill, coffee cup and a glass of water, the table resembled a chess board. How he thinks I am going to serve his plate to him without a mishap, I don’t know! Mia thought, I wish he would stop messing around. She found all his fussiness irritating.
Shortly, Frankie returned, whistling as he arrived from the kitchen carrying a plate of food. Handing it over, he nodded in the direction of the writer. “Look Mia,” he said, “it’s not so busy now, sit down and chat with him, he’s a regular, we want to keep our customers happy.” An encouraging smile spread across his handsome face. “Go show him he’s loved.”
“Okay Frankie, whatever you say.”
“And keep your thumb off the side of the plate and out of the beans,” Frankie whispered, “you see he’s particular about presentation.” Mia sank her chin into her neck and arched her eyebrows, balancing the plate elegantly atop her finger tips.
Sat at the table, the writer strokes his beard. He appears restless and proceeds to remove the round-framed spectacles from the bridge of his nose, folding and placing them onto the table. Immediately, he picks them back up and slides them into his shirt pocket. He senses the imminent arrival of breakfast. As is the tradition in the cafe, Mia calls out the order number and right on cue, the writer meekly raises his hand, as if excusing himself from a school classroom. She shows him a brief, half-smile in acknowledgement and walks over, deftly weaving around the chairs and tables. Why did he have to sit right at the back when there are several empty tables, located near the service counter? She wondered.
Mia had got used to men staring and mentally undressing her, while at work. She wouldn’t act upon it, but occasionally, she enjoyed the experience – if she fancied the guy. This man looked old enough to be her father and observed in a lustful way by him, made her feel uncomfortable. The young waitress felt a mild sense of disgust when she noticed his tongue slip out and run across the front of his lips, as she approached. She’d have preferred to wipe down tables, only Frankie had said for her to sit down and make conversation.
“Good morning!” she said, gingerly lowering the plate into place and sitting down in front of the writer. Surprised, the man spluttered something unintelligible and in the confusion knocked over the salt-cellar, spilling most of its contents across the table and onto Mia’s lap. “Oops! It’s alright sir, I’ll clear it up!” Again, she felt his intense stare as she cleaned up the spilt salt and wiped the grains from her hands down the front of her apron.
“I am dreadfully sorry Miss.” His cheeks flushed red. “I am so clumsy, please accept my apologies.” To Mia’s embarrassment, her tummy gave out loud a gurgle. Earlier this morning at home, she’d managed a coffee and a giant-sized maple syrup pancake. Having already completed the breakfast rush and countless circuits inside the cafe, pangs of hunger had started making their presence known.
While the writer’s normal colour had returned, Mia’s cheeks reddened as she took her turn to apologise. “Oh dear! I’m sorry about that.”
“Are you hungry?” He asked.
Yes I am, she thought. “Well, a little, I skipped breakfast today,” she lied, “never a good idea.”
“Look, please, have some of my food, here.” He pushed the plate a few millimetres across the table towards her.
“No, I couldn’t, that’s kind sir, but it’s your breakfast.”
“I insist, try some of my succulent sausage – and the hash browns. They are cooked to perfection and bound to satisfy a rumbling stomach.”
Tempted, Mia stared down the length of a Lincolnshire sausage, which the writer held aloft on a fork. Then, before she could take a bite, the sausage disappeared from view as he dipped it into a neat whirl of sauce, positioned on the side of the plate.
With sauce dripping from one end, the sausage returned level to her mouth. “Go on, eat it, you know you want to.” The writer’s smile twitched nervously, as if his facial expressions were not under his full control. Smiling, Mia decided to take up the offer and took a bite, followed by several more mouthfuls, until she’d eaten all of it.
Feeling guilt about having taken his whole sausage, she felt obliged to continue with some polite conversation. Wiping sauce from around her lips with a thumb, she said “Frankie mentioned you are a writer and a celebrity in this town. Is that right?”
“I’m not sure about the celebrity bit.” He replied, dabbing at a bead of sweat running down his forehead with a paper serviette. “But yes, I am a writer.”
“What sort of stories do you write?” She asked.
“My latest stories form part of a series, based upon obsessive compulsive behaviour.”
“That’s a coincidence,” she tells him, “I have my own story about an OCD episode in my life. Perhaps you’d like to hear it?” His eyes widened as he nodded his head enthusiastically.
“Yes, yes, please tell me.”
“Don’t let the rest of your breakfast go cold.” Mia says, pointing at his plate. “You eat, and I’ll speak.”
As the writer takes a noisy slurp of coffee, Mia begins. “It happened two years ago, not along after I’d arrived here from Sicily. The employment situation back home isn’t good, so having studied English the previous year, along with financial support from my family, I moved here. I found a modest one-bedroom flat to rent and set about looking for suitable employment. I soon discovered it’s not so great for work here either, is it?” Chewing on fried tomato and mushrooms, he held a hand up before his mouth and gave a muffled reply. With an uncertain smile, Mia continued. “Despite the generosity of my family, funds were running out and life had become stressful. My self-confidence drained away and I harboured doubts concerning my original decision to come here.” Swallowing, the writer made sympathetic gestures with his hands and nodded his head to express understanding.
Mia observed how difficult he found maintaining eye-contact. His eyes wandered and she noticed his focus return several times to the area between her neck and the edge of the table separating them. “Finally, I got a job waitressing at a cafe on the north side of the city, run by a Danish man. He was a hard taskmaster, paying little above the minimum wage. All I achieved was to add more stress and exhaustion into my life. At this point, something changed.” Hearing her remark, the writer’s line of sight moved swiftly upwards to her eyes, giving her his full attention.
“One morning, walking to the bus stop, I couldn’t remember turning the bathroom tap off. I recall the sensation, best described as a wave of fear passing through me.” A shiver went through Mia as she hooked a loose strand of dark brown hair behind her ear. “Naturally, fearing the consequences of a tap left running, I felt compelled to return to the flat. Upon reaching the bathroom, I found both taps closed with nothing more than a drip hanging off one of the spouts.” Her hands opened up and she shrugged her shoulders. “Now this will sound stupid to you, but when I reached the end of the street a second time, I wondered if maybe it was the bath tap left running and not the sink. I returned to the flat, to find the bath taps and also the kitchen taps, all safely turned off. With a sense of relief, I set out for work once again.
“Throughout the day, I felt uncomfortable. I wished I had gone back through each of the rooms, checking all the taps one by one before leaving. By the time my shift ended anxiety had taken hold, as I willed the bus to hurry along on the homeward journey. I actually ran down the street in a panic, back to my flat. Inside, I only calmed down once I’d tried all the taps and made sure they were closed off properly, by tightening each one.”
“And this happened again, the following day?” The writer asked.
“And the day after that and throughout the whole week. It simply continued and got worse.” Mia stared across the table at the half empty salt-cellar, with a look of dejection across her face. “The number of times I had to return and check increased. Frequently, I’d just stepped outside the front door and then had to rush back inside. On other occasions I returned all the way back from work, making up an excuse to the boss.”
“It sounds like your day-to-day life had become very difficult.”
“Oh this was just the beginning. By the end of the same month, I believed I’d left the oven on, the gas rings, lights, heating, windows open, refrigerator door open and the frontdoor unlocked! I had to get up earlier and earlier in the mornings, to account for the time it would take to complete the multiple numbers of checks and return trips.”
“I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you.” The writer said, pausing briefly before placing a forkful of hash browns and baked beans into his mouth.
“It became exhausting and ultimately, I avoided going out unless absolutely necessary.” Mia watched him as he chewed on his food, she had begun to warm to him a little. He’d sat there listening attentively and without judgement. She sensed a caring disposition in the him, which she hadn’t read earlier. First impressions, she thought, be wary, of first impressions. The man sat opposite her, who up to this point had been systematically working his way around the plate, looked directly into Mia’s eyes.
“You’re okay now?”
“Yes, I am.”
“How did you pull out of the nosedive?”
“Well, I’d become friends with another waitress at the cafe and she’d noticed how things were getting difficult for me. The truth is, the obsessive behaviour had crept into my work.” The cafe door opening for the fifth time in three minutes, momentarily distracted Mia’s attention. A number of customers had arrived, looking to get in and settled before the lunchtime rush. While mostly made up of individual stragglers, a group of several old men gathered around two tables lined up with each other. They chatted about local news, with one man critical of the new shopping centre project, now nearing completion.
“It’s been badly planned, badly designed and Oxford, doesn’t, need it!” He declared.
The writer brought Mia’s attention back to their conversation with a question. “How so?”
“Nothing too serious, re-checking customer’s food orders and change from the till, re-washing clean cutlery. In comparison to home-life, light relief I’d say!”
“How did the waitress help you?”
“She recommended a therapist who made home-visits, which suited my situation perfectly. A friend of hers, she’d told me, had seen him for just three months and from what she knew, he sounded pretty good.”
“So you called him up, how did he fix you?”
“Well, he arrived, a polite man in his forties, quietly confident, tall, bearded and stylishly dressed. We talked, he carefully listened. Both calm and relaxed in his presence, I felt an immediate connection. Unusual don’t you think, when meeting someone for the first time?”
Does she feel a connection with me? The writer wondered. He’d begun constructing a carefully worded question to ask her and find out, when Frankie shouted over. “Okay Topolina, cinque minuti!” Standing at the service counter where a small queue had formed, the cook smiled and raised his hand, fingers splayed wide.
ì, certo Frankie!” Mia replied, turning her head and smiling back at him. “For the first session, I did most of the talking, I told him everything I have told you. He listened attentively, rarely interrupting except when needing clarification. At the end of the hour, he said he understood life felt difficult and assured me we would work this through. When I look back, just him saying this made me feel a little better.”
“So he simply talked you out of the obsessiveness?” The writer asked, unable to conceal a sardonic tone, after ruminating over the earlier question of connection. “Did you talk all about your childhood and upbringing?”
“No, not at all. It surprised me, his approach was entirely practical. We could discuss my childhood for six months he’d said, that this may prove helpful and serve a purpose. Alternatively, we could strategise and act to resolve the immediate malady. Out of our discussions during sessions one and two, he devised and we agreed a plan to implement. Using my phone’s camera in the mornings before leaving for work, I photographed each set of taps, the gas rings, oven controls, windows, doors and light fixtures. Anything I’d ever fretted about. The photos showed everything turned off, or properly closed.” As she spoke, Mia had been pretending to take photographs with an imaginary phone in her hand. She finished by taking a close up photo of the writer’s face.
“How did taking photos help?
“Okay, the act of doing this helped put my mind at ease, the same as running around the flat carrying out a visual check. I noticed the difference shortly after I’d set off to catch a bus. On the first morning waiting at the bus stop, I felt a familiar flutter of uncertainty.” Involuntarily, the writer glanced at the waitress’ shapely chest, where her hand now rested. He could feel his cheeks begin to flush, as they were prone to do. Appearing not to notice, Mia continued with her explanation. “I took out my phone and scrolled through the pictures I’d taken and felt reassured. I continued to do this for the first week, looking at the photos a few times over the course of a day, whenever I needed to.”
“That’s still quite some routine isn’t it? Taking photos every morning all around your flat.”
“It is, you are right. But it bought me an extra hour in bed compared to before and over time, I began not needing to look at the photos during the day. Just knowing they were there on my phone, seemed sufficient. Soon, I felt more normal, like my old self. Calmness returned into my life, I slept better and adopted a healthier diet.”
“And were you keeping up with the counselling sessions?”
“Yes, I did. In the sessions we explored all these new experiences and the counsellor gave me encouragement and praised my progress. By our sixth and agreed final session, I had stopped taking photos each morning. I know this sounds silly, but if I ever felt a sense of anxiety rising, I just looked at the pictures I’d taken before.”
“Do you look at them now, nearly two years on?” The writer asked.
“No. I still have them on my phone. I haven’t seen them for over a year now. We agreed to one more appointment the counsellor and I, about three months after the last session. It served as a ‘catch-up’ session, to see how things were going.”
“Yes, it was. He gave me one last strategy, which has proven to be of value. If I go away, visiting friends or back home to Sicily for a break, I defrost the refrigerator and turn off the gas and electricity at the mains supply. I take a photo of the inside of the meter cupboard, showing the switches in the off position. I do this as an insurance.”
“I see.” said the writer, placing his knife and fork together centrally on his plate. “So you wouldn’t say you are cured, so-to-speak? There remains a risk.”
“Yes, I suppose you could say that.” Mia replied, “You know, everyone has issues. I guess I have learnt how to manage my situation, which lets me lead a pretty normal life.”
They both looked around to see a line of customers queuing from the service counter, out through the front door of the cafe. Frankie standing with both arms held aloft in a desperate gesture.
The waitress shifted the chair backwards and rose from her seat. “I hope you liked my story Mr Writer, every word of it is true – don’t go putting it into one of your stories mind!” She said winking and wagging a finger, as she turned to leave.
“Frankie! Aspettami, arrivo!“