I have a friend, about whom I have written on this blog before. In many ways Llinos (whose wedding I was joint best man at last year) thrives on making my life as difficult as possible, so of course the stories (she has another coming next week) she submitted for my challenge were going to be as dastardly in conception as most of her schemes.
I’m doing her a disservice here, she is really very nice, but her suggestion to write a story ‘about a school netball team who have to fight a mythological creature’ is pretty fiendish. Particularly as I don’t know the rules of netball.
Anyway, here is the result. I hope they kicked as much ass as she intended.
2014 – A Year In Stories
“Pass it!” Jemima screamed to Cathy. But, as usual, Cathy didn’t listen.
Jem watched as her teammate spurned another golden opportunity to pass to a player in a better position and took the shot on goal herself.
As expected it bounced back off the rim of the net and fell neatly in to the hands of the opposition Goalkeeper.
The game was tied at 45-45 in the fourth quarter. There were only minutes to go and that was the third time that her Goal Attack had squandered an opportunity to take the lead.
As play reset she ran over to remonstrate.
“What are you doing?!” she asked angrily.
Cathy shrugged. “Trying to score,” she replied, nonplussed.
“Look, Cathy, I’m the captain of this team and you need to listen to what I say. I was in a much better position to try a shot and you just ignored me and did your own thing.
“You’re a really good Goal Attack and we all want you at the club but you’ve got to be a team player sometimes and not just go for glory yourself every time you get a sniff of a shot on.”
Cathy shrugged. “Whatever.”
Jemima threw her arms up in the air in frustration and retook her position in the opposition third. The game went on and eventually the team, the Brixton High School Belles, lost 50-47.
Netball was in Jemima’s blood. Her mother had been in the England national team as a Goal Shooter for a number of years and she had taken the sport up when she started primary school.
She was gifted, and took after her mother by playing in the Goal Shooter position she had made her name in back in the 80s, before she had Jemima.
She was 16 now, and she enjoyed playing, but really had only stuck it out for this long because her mother was watching over her shoulder. Whilst her mother had been a decent player at international level, she had never quite reached the glittering heights of superstardom, and her career had been cut short by the unexpected arrival of a daughter.
And so she put all of her hopes in to Jemima, dreaming that one day she would be captain of the England netball team, and the greatest international player the country had ever seen.
Jem hadn’t yet had the heart to tell her that she wanted to be a nurse.
She had called a team meeting after the defeat the day before. She was the youngest captain the English Schools Netball League had ever seen, and she was still trying to get to grips with the pressure of being a leader.
The loss had hurt the Belles badly. They were third in the league, and the team that had beaten them, the Haverstock Harpies were above them in the table, and had only widened the gap between them.
She arrived at the school to find it deserted. It was late, of course, and all of the students had gone home hours earlier, and only the most diligent teachers were still in their classrooms marking papers.
But of course Mr Longstone, the elderly janitor was still pottering around the gymnasium when she arrived. She said hello to the friendly old man and went inside.
She was the first to arrive so she got some chairs out and set them up in a circle. Over the next few minutes the rest of the team slowly filtered in. Lucy arrived first, then Olivia and Mary came in together, and the rest of the girls all arrived together.
That left just one, and surprising no one that one was Cathy.
Cathy had only recently transferred over to the school when her family had moved down from Yorkshire, but she was finding settling in to the school and the team a little difficult, and had been a disruptive element since the start.
The only problem was that she was the best Goal Attack they had by miles, and none of them could quite bring themselves to agree that kicking her out of the team would ultimately be for the best.
Eventually she turned up and everyone settled in.
“I think we all know why we are here,” Jemima said, beginning the meeting. “If we are going to stand even the slightest chance of winning the league this year we have to work better as a team,” she went on, looking pointedly at Cathy as she did so.
Olivia sat up smartly. “I agree,” she said. “We will never win the league if we all play as individuals.”
At that point Mr Longstone walked in through the big double doors of the gymnasium.
“Are you girls ok?” he asked. “I thought I heard raised voices.”
“Everything’s fine, Mr L, thanks,” Jemima replied.
“OK then, you let me know if you need anything.”
As the old man turned to leave a terrifying, unearthly shriek came from outside. Everyone in the room reclined in horror at the noise, which did not sound as though it had been made by a creature not of this world.
“What on earth was that?!” the janitor cried. “I should go take a l…”
Before he could finish his sentence the wall of the building was torn asunder and a seven headed serpentine creature burst through the gap, picking up the janitor with one of its heads and swallowing him whole.
A collective scream echoed around the room as people scattered left and right.
“What are we going to do?!” Olivia wailed.
“Is that a HYDRA?!” several of the girls cried in unison.
The beast bore down on Jemima with malice aforethought, intent on an after dinner snack. The team captain stood there, unable to move from the sheer terror. Her life flashed before her eyes as she awaited her fate.
She flinched and shut her eyes as the beast strode up to her, but instead of taking a bite from her it moved right on past and lumbered after one of her teammates who was running away.
Risking a glance she saw that it had indeed passed her right by and was giving Mary the run around behind the five-a-side football goals.
“What just happened?” she said to no one in particular, seeing as how everyone else in the room was rather preoccupied with not being eaten by a hydra at this point.
As it happened Olivia was stood a few feet behind her, standing as stock still as she was.
“It couldn’t see you,” she said.
“What do you mean it couldn’t see me?” Jem replied. “I was right in front of it!”
“It’s a serpent, isn’t it?”
“It’s a bloody mythological creature is what it is!” Jemima responded, a little too snappily.
Jemima turned round and Olivia rolled her eyes.
“Don’t you pay attention in biology?” her teammate asked. “Serpents don’t see like mammals. They detect heat. You just looked like an oddly tall and warm rock to it because you were stood still. The hydra might be mythical but it’s still a snake. Those idiots,” she went on, inclining her head towards the rest of the team who were running around flailing their hands, “are attracting its attention by moving.”
“Right,” Jemima said, formulating a plan. This would be a true test of her leadership. And what were netball players good at if not standing still in high pressure situations?
“Listen up girls,” she shouted. “I want all of you to do catching drill immediately.”
“What are you doing?” Olivia asked.
“Getting them to stop. If they stop running it will stop chasing them for now and buy us some time.”
Sure enough all the girls had stopped in their tracks. The hydra was looking rather confused by the whole situation, and a couple of the heads were sniffing around the girls, but none were going in for the kill.
“What now?” Olivia asked.
“Well, how do you kill a hydra?” Jemima replied.
“I read a book once that said you have to chop off the heads…”
Without further ado Jemima cast about for objects that could be used for that purpose and found that she was in reach of some metal rims from disused nets. She picked one up, hefted it and threw it with full force at the creature.
It seemd to be going way off course, but as luck would have it the hydra moved one of its serpentine necks up and met the rim side on. The head slumped to the ground and turned to dust in front of their eyes.
The beast reared for a second, bellowing out a terrible scream, before settling again. Moments later, the flailing dismembered neck settled down and, like magic, two new heads grew in place of the old one.
“I thought you said I should cut it off!” Jemima yelled in disbelief.
“You didn’t let me finish!” Olivia remonstrated. “You have to chop off the heads, but if you don’t stop it two will grow back in its place!”
“Well how do you stop it?”
Olivia could only shrug. “I don’t know,move never fought a bloody hydra before. I got bored before that bit of the Wikipedia article…”
“You cauterise it.”
Olivia and Jemima turned around to see where the new voice had come from. It was Cathy.
“What do you know about hydras?!” they both asked in unison.
“My mum lived in Greece for a while,” Cathy said sheepishly, clutching her arms close to her chest. “She used to read me bedtime stories from a book of myths she bought in Athens. The way to stop a hydra growing its heads back is by cauterising the wound.”
A spark of inspiration hit Jemima. “Do you have a lighter?” Cathy nodded. “Alright, I’m going to need you to do exactly as I say.” The erstwhile rebel nodded again.
And so between the three of them they formulated a plan.
“OK girls, here’s how it’s going to go down,” Jemima called out. “Find anything you can that will sever one of the heads. Lucy and Alice, there’s a bunch of discuses near you. The rest of you will have to use the net rims dotted around.” The girls nodded. “Olivia and Mary, you run interference. Distract it long enough to buy the rest of us some time.” Olivia opened her mouth to protest at being used as cannon fodder but thought better of it. “Cathy and I will light these netballs on fire and throw them at the open wounds to stop the heads coming back. Are we understood?”
Jemima took the silence as agreement. “3, 2, 1. Go Belles!”
Her rallying call was met with a chorus of returns, and the team got to work.
Mary and Olivia ran around the beast and through its legs, trying to confuse it and tie its necks up in knots. Meanwhile the rest of girls unleashed hell, hurling everything within arms reach. Many shots missed, but enough were doing damage and eventually heads began to tumble. Cathy and Jem were ready to capitalised and sent the flaming balls on to the end of the necks with remarkable precision.
Before long the monster was defeated, and the girls lay around the gymnasium, exhausted, battered and bruised. No one had been seriously hurt in the ordeal, except for poor Mr Longstone, and the team had survived to fight another day.
Jemima, who was slumped up against a vaulting horse, turned to Cathy who was lying face down on a crash mat nearby.
“Now do you see the benefits of teamwork?” she asked, wryly.
Cathy looked up and smiled. “Sure, but I’m still not passing to you if I think I can score.”
The pair’s laughter echoed around the room as they lay sround the body of their defeated enemy.
Hello all, just a quick word from me this week. I’m sad to say that this week’s story isn’t very good. I rushed it a tad at the last minute and honestly I think it would have been better if I hadn’t included any named characters at all.
Oh well, no one will ever be completely happy with everything they write. And after all, that is what editing is for!
My cousin Simon (father of Rosie and Sam from one of my early stories) asked for: ‘A huge asteroid heads towards earth. The world awaits with baited breath. Good news: it missed! Bad news: it took out the moon. Cue massive changes to tides the world over, mass flooding and the rapid collapse of civilisation.’
And here it is!
2014 – A Year In Stories
In Off the Rim
2000 Years Ago
The quiet in the void was deafening. The icy, craggy mass hurtled its way through the vastness of space like a master assassin. Silent. Deadly.
It careened on with a purpose beyond comprehension. One day this ball of rock would affect the destinies of billions of people.
Without warning it collided heavily with another asteroid, and in that one action the very fate of human history was defined.
The rock span out of its orbit around this far off star; a star as yet unknown to humanity, whose fledgling civilizations were only now looking up in wonder at the heavens, and wondering if perhaps they held the answer to life’s questions, utterly oblivious to how right they were.
The Near Future
Jeff Rogers sat dozing in his chair at Jodrell Bank. It was 3am and he had drawn the night shifts this week. It wasn’t so bad. Someone had to man the equipment that looked out in to the infinity of space in case new objects were perceived entering the solar system that required an early warning.
This was the last of his night shifts for the week, and there had been nothing to report. There was never anything to report. He had been working at Jodrell Bank for 5 years and he had never had to report a single incoming object during the night shift.
It seemed to him that it was almost as though the universe went to sleep at night with everyone else. Of course, when he thought about it the idea was preposterous. It was always night time somewhere on earth, and new objects were sighted several times daily. Perhaps the universe just ran on GMT.
His colleague wandered past the open office door.
“How’re things, Jeff?” the man asked, poking his head in.
Jeff came to and glanced at his watch. “3 o’clock and all’s well, Barry…” He replied, with a wry smile, and went back to sleep.
On the other side of the northern hemisphere, in a room deep below Cheyenne Mountain, Sergeant Benny Goulding of the United States Army 405th Rifles, a stellar avionics expert on special secondment to NORAD, sat and watched what everyone in the base affectionately called the ‘Fortune Teller’.
It was actually a series of sophisticated computers linked to a number of orbiting satellites and other probes sent in to the depths of the solar system.
It’s sole purpose was to detect incoming interstellar objects, and determine the chances of any one of those objects colliding with and obliterating the Earth. It existed to give humanity a few hours warning if the whole planet was fucked.
Sergeant Goulding sipped at a cup of coffee and listened to the familiar bleeps indicating that the system was fully functional. It looked like it would be another easy shift.
Scientists had been predicting for years that eventually the earth would be on a collision course with an interstellar object the same size as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs all those millions of years ago.
Most of them would say with a wave of the hand that any such event was millions of years away, that mankind would long since have left the confines of its home planet and conquered far off stars by the time some kind of cosmic disaster wiped the tiny blue and green rock from the annals of history.
But there were those who were a lot more pessimistic. It’s only a matter of time, they would warn, wagging a cautionary finger, as their more reserved colleagues made a joke of their crackpot theories behind their backs.
They were constantly dismissed as nutjobs. The kind of people convinced that everything was out to destroy the world. From Vesuvius and the super volcanoes in Yellowstone to solar flares and the San Andreas fault, the planet and everything outside was trying to wipe away the stain of humanity in one way or another.
Quite some of these scientists were about to, for a very brief moment indeed, feel extremely smug.
Both machines were set off within seconds of each other as the asteroid reached their sensor range.
The British dishes, which were older and suffered from a lack of military funding enjoyed by their American counterparts picked up the signals just as the red phone on Jeff Rogers’ desk buzzed.
He jerked awake, nearly falling off his chair in surprise at the sudden noise.
The phone was designed to be used when one station reported an unusual object and needed to check with its sister station to verify the sighting. He picked up the phone gingerly, and licked his dry lips.
Sergeant Goulding replaced the receiver slowly. He let out a long breath and slicked his hair back. This was it. This was not a drill. He went through his procedures in his head. In this situation it was necessary to immediately inform the Commander in Chief. He had to call the President.
It wasn’t long before the news filtered its way down to the general public. An asteroid had entered the solar system and was on a collision course with planet earth.
Different time scales and projected landing areas were plastered across the media. Some said it would be days before the object landed, whereas some gave weeks, and others a matter of hours.
Everywhere from California to Scotland to the Sahara and the Himalayas were posited as possible impact sites by different experts. Wherever it landed, it was going to be a big one. Big enough to eradicate civilisation from the world. No one had any doubt that this was the end.
Sergeant Goulding and Jeff Rogers both knew exactly how long they had. It had been computed that at the speed it was travelling the asteroid would collide with the earth in 5 days time. And there was nothing they could do. The Fortune Teller had done her job and predicted the doom of humanity.
Vigils were held worldwide, nations put aside their differences and people spent their last moments together before the coming apocalypse. Eventually, society began to crumble as people abandoned their workplaces. Power ran out and utilities broke down as those called on to repair them stayed with their families. Petrol stations ran dry and supermarkets were looted for their remaining food as people fled underground with supplies to wait out the coming disaster.
It was on the 4th day that the news came. The rock had collided with another object in the asteroid belt. Experts predicted that it would now bypass the earth altogether, but the millions who had gone underground were unable to receive the message. They were prepared to wait it out whatever happened, and had simply locked themselves away until they were certain the event was over.
Those that had remained above ground were elated and tried to return to their normal routines on the next day; the day when the asteroid should have struck.
What the experts failed to mention, however, is that the collision with the object in the asteroid belt had thrown the rock so off course that no one could predict where it would go.
At 12pm GMT, the previously expect impact time, millions gathered together around television screens expecting an update on the progress of the asteroid. Littered on the floor in cities worldwide were newspapers with headlines reading ‘Near Miss!’ and ‘Humanity Saved!’.
Cheerful newscasters around the world announced that the asteroid had indeed missed the earth, and would have gone on to say that humanity had indeed had a narrow escape, had their broadcasts not been interrupted by a catastrophically loud explosion as the stray asteroid whizzed past the earth and slammed full speed in to the moon.
The impact sent chunks of the earth’s satellite hurtling through the atmosphere, and the shockwave shattered glass and collapsed buildings worldwide.
The tides were immediately affected and within hours several gigantic tidal waves were bearing down on densely populated costal regions of the planet.
Millions were killed in the initial shockwave, and further still in the subsequent natural disasters and debris impacts. Interstellar radiation put paid to most of those who were left after the first couple of days.
Within a week less than a million people remained alive, scattered across earth’s surface. No semblance of government or order remained, and the people were left to fend for themselves.
But if civilization did not endure, humanity did, and those that survived were eventually joined by those millions who had, sensibly it turned out, fled underground. Between them they took stock and began to rebuild the world. They vowed to right wrongs and make a new world, a better, fairer world than before.
It was certainly no easy ask. The circumstances were difficult and for some time food would be scarce. In addition there would always be people willing to take advantage of lawlessness to carve out some influence for themselves in a post disaster environment.
But humanity, like the cockroach, endured, and eventually again began to thrive. Life went on for those who remained, and the earth went on turning.
This week’s story is another human interest piece. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself, anyway. This one came from Richard Griffiths on Facebook. He asked for ‘Observations on the price of nutmeg.’
2014 – A Year In Stories
The Spice is Right
“It’s HOW much?!” Fred asked, taken aback by the response the grocer had given him when he had asked for 50 grams of nutmeg.
“Like I said, mate,” the shopkeeper replied, clearly not interested in entering in to a debate, “that’ll be a tenner.”
“Let me get this straight,” Fred said, clearly interested in entering in to a debate. “£10?”
“For 50 grams of nutmeg?”
“For 50 grams of nutmeg.”
“50 grams of bloody nutmeg?”
“50 grams of, as you so eloquently put it,” the shopkeeper replied, folding his arms, “bloody nutmeg.”
“That,” said Fred, “is a bloody ripoff.” And then he bought it anyway.
Fred would be the first to admit that 50 grams was probably, to the average person on the street, quite a lot of nutmeg. Normally he would have just refused to pay for it, but he had been asked to make a large batch of his famous pumpkin pie for the bake sale at his son’s school, and the thought of shopping at a chain supermarket made Fred feel physically ill.
“Ten bloody pounds…” he muttered to himself as he walked out of the door. “For some bloody nutmeg.”
“There’s a global shortage,” a voice chimed in from behind him.
Fred turned to face the owner of the voice, who turned out to be a short middle aged lady with wiry grey hair.
“Excuse me?” Fred replied.
“I said that there’s a global shortage,” the woman repeated. “Of nutmeg.”
“There’s a global shortage of bloody nutmeg?”
“Yes, and it’s driving the price through the roof. If you had bought that nutmeg a month ago it would have cost you half the price, if even that.”
“How can there be a global shortage of nutmeg? It’s a spice that literally grows on trees, not crude oil,” Fred said, a little flabbergasted.
“Well, you know how supply and demand works, right?” the woman replied, either not noticing or choosing to ignore the rhetorical nature of his question.
“Well in Indonesia, where the vast majority of the world’s nutmeg is produced, there was some sort of crop disease that buggered a load of the nutmeg trees and dropped production significantly. But the demand didn’t drop with the lack of supply, so the price went up when there was an excess of demand that the supply couldn’t meet. Simple economics.”
Fred merely stared at the woman, dumbfounded.
“They reckon it will go back down in price when the supply returns to normal next year,” she carried on unabated. “Shame really, I do like to sprinkle some on my hot chocolate of a winter’s evening.”
“How do you know so much about nutmeg?” Fred finally managed.
The woman sniffed at him. “I pay attention, don’t I?”
“To what, the Nutmeg Digest? The Arrakis Argus? The Joy of Mace?”
“Well now, if you’re going to be snippy…” the woman said, trailing off. By this point Fred had lost interest in the conversation, and in its place had gained an unpleasant headache, so he elected to leave the shop and go home to make the pies. Baking always relaxed him and helped to clear his head.
“Daddy!” Fred heard as he tried his best to get through his front door whilst juggling his shopping bags and house keys. His daughter, Sofia, who was his youngest, ran up and hugged his legs, which nearly caused him to lose his balance.
“Hi Sof,” he said. “How was nursery today?”
“It was good we played fire engines and made play dough cookies and Jack eated one!” she rattled off with typical enthusiasm.
“He ate it, honey, not eated.”
Sofia pondered this for a moment, a look of pure concentration on her face.
“No daddy, it’s eated,” she said decisively, before losing interest and wandering off in the way that only young children can.
“Right,” said Fred, to no one in particular. “That’s me told, then.”
He made his way in to the kitchen and deposited his shopping bags on the kitchen table.
If Sofia was home then it meant his wife, Andrea, was around somewhere as well. After dumping his bags he set off around the house searching for her.
He found her, as always, painting in the ‘study’. It actually wasn’t so much a study as a small guest bedroom that had been converted in to an artist’s studio so Andrea could paint in the time she wasn’t working.
“Hi honey,” she said, turning her head and smiling as Fred entered the room. “How are you?”
“Not bad. How is the latest masterpiece?” Fred replied,magi ing her a peck on the cheek.
Andrea laughed. “I’m still some way off Caravaggio, but it’s going well, thanks.”
“Rembrandt and Picasso better watch their backs, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Did you get the stuff for Jack’s bake sale?”
“I did. You’ll never believe the conversation I had with some lady in the shop, though. About the price of nutmeg, of all things.”
Andrea nodded sagely. “Oh yeah, there’s a global shortage, isn’t there?”
An incredulous look forced its way across Fred’s face. “Is everyone appraised on the worldwide nutmeg supply situation except for me?” he asked.
“Oh, I thought it was common knowledge…” Andrea replied, returning her attention to the painting she was working on.
Fred was utterly lost for words. Fortunately for him his daughter wasn’t, and a loud “Oops!” came from the direction of the kitchen. Fred and Andrea looked at each other.
“Do you mind going and looking, honey?” Andrea asked. “Only I’m covered in paint…”
The scene in the kitchen wasn’t pretty. Fred walked in to find his shopping bags all over the floor, their contents spread liberally across the tiles surrounding the kitchen table.
“What happened?” he asked sphis daughter after he had surveyed the carnage.
“Wilbur knocked the bags off the table!” she replied. “I told him not to, but he is a naughty cat!”
Fred folded his arms. The family didn’t have a cat. Wilbur was Sofia’s equivalent of an imaginary friend. Since she had played with a tabby at her friend’s birthday party last year she had been obsessed with the idea of getting one, but Fred and Jack were both extremely allergic, so it wasn’t possible. She made up for it with Wilbur.
“Where is Wilbur now?” Fred asked.
“He went out of the window,” Sofia replied, nodding sagely.
“He is a very naughty cat…” Fred agreed, before bending over and starting the cleanup job.
Five minutes later and he was nearly done. He cleaned up some spilled orange juice with a cloth and then went on to the last bag.
He lifted the brown paper bag up off the floor, and was greeted with a distressing sight. The bag of nutmeg contained therein had come open and spread its contents across the floor.
Fred tried desperately to salvage what was left of the pricey spice, but it was too widespread across the floor. He scrabbled at the brown pile of dust,but the problem with dust was that it was, well, dusty, and his frantic efforts seemed to exacerbate the problem rather than offer a solution.
Fred knelt, defeated on his kitchen floor. The terrible repercussions of the events of the last few minutes ringing true in his mind. He had to face facts. There was simply nothing for it. He would have to go back to the shop and buy some more nutmeg.
Fred fretted all the way to the shop. What would the shopkeeper think? A man who had been in the boutique not one hour earlier buying a supply of nutmeg that would surely be sufficient for one family to live on for some time coming back in and buying yet more of the seemingly priceless commodity. People would think he was hoarding nutmeg. For a rainy day. Most people would go for the essentials when the apocalypse came, they would say. But not old Fred. Oh no, Fred went straight for the bloody nutmeg.
The bell jingled as Fred entered the shop, ready to prostrate himself at the feet of the benevolent shopkeeper, that he might see his way to granting him access to the glorious world of nutmeg.
“Hello,” said the shopkeeper. “Weren’t you in here earlier?”
“Err, yes…” Fred said as obsequiously as possible. “I would like to buy some nutmeg.”
“Is this,” the shopkeeper asked, raising an eyebrow, “some kind of joke?”
“Would that it were, my good man, would that it were,” Fred replied, resisting the urge to bow as low as possible.
“Alright,” the shopkeeper said sceptically. “How much?”
“50 grams please.”
“That’ll be £15 please,” the shopkeeper said, pointedly.
“£15?! It was £10 when I came in earlier on!”
“There’s a global nutme…”
“…g shortage, I know. It’s all I’ve been bloody hearing about all day.”
“It is worse than they first thought,” the shopkeeper mentioned offhandedly.
“Hence the price increase, I imagine…” Fred observed wryly.
“Oh yes. That kind lady over there appraised me of the situation.”
Fred turned and looked at the woman he had engaged with earlier in the afternoon. She waved at him cheerfully.
Fred fiddled around in his wallet and came up with the £15. He handed it over to the shopkeeper, and as an afterthought added “And give me a subscription to Spice Monthly…”
Someone famous once said “Write about what you know” and this week I have been given the opportunity to do just that. This week’s brief came from Huw Lloyd Jones on Facebook, and was aboutsomething I have had plenty of experience with myself, the Northern Line of the London Underground system. So here you go, Huw. ‘Observations on the Northern Line.’
2014 – A Year In Stories
Mind the Gap
“Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.” Amina could hear the announcement taunting her over Highgate station’s public address system as she clattered down the escalator at full speed.
Her way was fraught with danger and she narrowly avoided tripping over a stray suitcase whilst trying to avoid a fellow passenger whom had clearly not received the unwritten memo about not standing on the left hand side of the escalator.
As she reached the platform level she hurtled round the corner to see the train doors shut a mere couple of seconds before she could hurl herself through them. She looked up at the information board to see how long it would be until the next Bank service. Eight minutes. Balls.
This was the third time this week that this had happened, and it was only Wednesday. Every time she had got to the station she had emerged, thoroughly out of breath, on to the platform to catch the tail end of the driver’s ‘ready to depart’ announcement.
Amina had been living in London for three weeks now, and her tube-fu certainly didn’t seem to be improving at all. Once she was on the darn thing she was fine, but she had yet to master the art of timing her arrival with that of the relevant train.
She had taken to leaving for work 10 minutes earlier than she really needed to just so she wasn’t late, continual tardiness in your first fortnight on the job not being considered a desirable trait in an employee, after all.
That morning Amina made it in to work with seconds to spare. She vowed that tomorrow, TOMORROW would be the day that she conquered the Northern Line.
The next morning saw Amina up bright and early and ready to go. To make sure her timing was perfect she had downloaded an app for her phone that told her when the next trains were due to depart.
She sat on the small sofa of her studio flat in Muswell Hill and stared intently at the screen of her phone. She knew that it was a 20 minute walk door-to-door from her flat to the station, so she waited until the app told her that there was a Bank train in 22 minutes time and set off along Muswell Hill Road with some considerable purpose.
The world seemed brighter somehow. Amina put this down to her renewed vigour for getting to work more than 5 seconds before she was due to start for the day, but nonetheless the sun was shining, the air felt fresh in her lungs and when she smiled at people, they jolly well smiled back.
This feeling lasted right up until she got to the top of the hill that lead up to Highgate station. As she rounded the corner she spotted dozens of grumpy looking commuters milling around by the bus stop at the top of the hill.
“What’s going on?” she asked one of the people at the back of the queue.
“Northern Line is down both ways between Camden Town and High Barnet. Signal failure or something,” they replied, and went back to their John le Carré novel.
Amina would gladly admit that it was only the distraction of the arriving bus and the clamour of nearly 100 people trying to cram on to it that stopped her from exploding in an apoplectic rage and turning the Archway Road in to a nuclear crater to rival that of Chernobyl.
To make matters worse people were arriving from down the hill and jostling psst her to try and get on the bus. Of course not everyone could get on and the doors closing were met with a tirade of comments about the bus driver’s upbringing and propensity for intercourse with farmyard animals.
It was another ten minutes before Amina managed to squeeze on to a bus, and she was nearly 15 minutes late in to the office that morning.
The next day was the same. When she left home her app happily told her that the trains were all running hunky dory, but by the time she reached the station all hell had broken loose.
When she bemoaned her situation to one of her friends she was rebuffed. “You shouldn’t have moved somewhere on the Northern Line!” her friend Ashley berated. “It’s called the Misery Line for a reason!”
Every morning something else would go wrong. She would just miss the train, or she would show up on time and the station staff would shrug their shoulders sympathetically as she showed them the TfL app that said the Northern Line was running a good service, despite no train having shown up in twenty minutes.
She began to become paranoid that people at work didn’t believe why she was late. None of THEM ever seemed to be late, or even perilously close. It made no sense. Old Street, where she worked, was only on the Northern Line, so everyone who worked there that got the tube must suffer the same fate, surely? Seemingly not. She wondered how much longer management would accept her cheerful-if-strained chiming that “the Northern Line was buggered again!” before she got called in for a disciplinary hearing.
The annoying thing was that it seemed to work fine in the evenings. When she came home from work there was never a problem, bar the odd ‘customer incident’. If she was going north the Nothern Line seemed content to play ball. Perhaps it had some kind of aversion to taking people in the opposite direction to its name, as if going southbound offended its very nature.
It became such a bugbear of Amina’s that for a while barely a conversation went by without her friends enquiring about her plight. And she would answer, oh yes she would answer. Eventually some learned to stop asking, at least if they didn’t fancy being subjected to a 15 minute tirade about how TfL was out to get her, but those she hadn’t seen in a while would inevitably fall in to the trap and have their ears bent about how it was all a big conspiracy.
It had become an obsession. None of her friends or family really understood her drive or determination to get one over on a transport line. Words like ‘irrational’ and ‘silly’ were bandied around, particularly by her parents.
But Amina didn’t need them. She was unwavering in her devotion to the cause of beating the Northern Line at its own game. She spent her evenings posting on forums where others in similar predicaments wrote long rambling tales about how they were being victimised by the District Line, or how the DLR was entirely designed to make their every living moment a waking nightmare.
She felt better knowing that there were others out there who were in the same predicament, that shared the same single-minded desire to stick it to TfL right where it hurt.
She regaled the forum with her tale and her thread got dozens of replies offering advice ranging from getting up half an hour earlier than normal to full on camping under her desk at work. With a sleeping bag and everything.
As she read more and more of the posts she began to realise that perhaps she wasn’t akin to these people after all. Some of the stories spoke about years of battling against one of the tube lines in an attempt to best it. She had only been trying for a fortnight.
Amina stayed up late in to the night and read these tales of woe and hardship and she made a vow to herself that she wasn’t going to become one of these people, whose entire lives are dedicated to achieving something that really they have no control over anyway. Some people were just naturally gifted in the ancient art of tube-fu, and could guarantee that they would be on time wherever they went, whereas others, such as she, were not so blessed, and were destined for a life of tardiness.
And so the next day, feeling sanguine about her late night epiphany, Amina deleted the TfL app and walked to the station footloose, fancy free and with a smile on her face. And sure enough, when she walked through the station doors she was greeted with a mob of angry commuters, who were not being let down to the platforms because there was a broken down train in the tunnel between Archway and Tufnell Park.
She was 15 minutes late for work, but this time she didn’t care. She had not let the tube get the better of her, and that was enough to keep her in a buoyant mood for the rest of the morning.
Amina sat in the break room at work and munched on a sandwich. Gerald, one of her colleagues, walked in and started fumbling with the buttons on the coffee machine.
“Hi Gerald!” Amina said chirpily.
“Afternoon, Amina,” he replied as the coffee began to pour. “You seem very happy today.”
“I am! Last night I had an epiphany and now I have found inner peace with regards to my commute. No longer will I worry about whether or not the Northern Line is going to be down, or if I’m going to be late to work. Que sera, sera and all that.”
“Well that’s good to hear,” Gerald said with a smile on his face. “I used to live in Muswell hill myself, you know. The Northern Line really is a bugger, isn’t it? You know, after a while I realised that it was almost as easy to get here by going to Finsbury Park, getting the Victoria Line to Kings Cross and then getting the bus. You have to change more but it only takes a couple of minutes longer and the Victoria Line is almost never down.”
Amina stared at him, mouth agape. She couldn’t believe it. In three weeks it had never once occurred to her that she could simply go a different way. For the last 20 days she had been infatuated to the point of mania with the idea of besting her nemesis the Northern Line, but not once had she just thought about changing her route.
“Thanks Gerald,” she finally managed after what was probably far too long a silence, “I’ll give that a try.”
And sure enough Amina was almost never late for work again. And she could hardly blame those hangovers on TfL now, could she?
Most of the briefs I’ve had for this challenge so far have shared a common theme. That is that they have asked me to describe unusual settings or situations.
Personally, as a writer, I find it easiest to write about strange situations. When things are happening that can be considered out of the ordinary it opens the door to a world of possibilities.
I have felt with a number of the stories I have written so far this year that I could have gone lots of different ways with them. So, this week’s brief was an interesting one because it asked me to do the complete opposite. It asked me to describe an every day situation for an Everyman.
The brief, submitted by Louise Harper on Facebook is as follows: ‘A day in the life of the man who ‘thumbs’ the pizza dough in the ‘handmade’ pizza factory.’
This man is no Bilbo Baggins or Arthur Dent, he’s not an average Joe thrust in to the path of adventure. At least, if he is, today is not the day that his adventure begins. Maybe one day Thijs and Sascha the Dachshund become a crime fighting duo to equal Tintin and Snowy, but right now Thijs has to go to work so he can cash his paycheck.
Of course, as always I’ve had a bit of fun with it, so what he thought was a typical day didn’t turn out to be so. I don’t think anyone would want to read a description of a man thumbing pizza dough for 8 hours, though, so I reckon I got away with it…
Oh, and if you’ve got a problem with the (rather excellent) pun in the title, take it up with Eileen because she came up with it.
2014 – A Year In Stories
Thijs Is The Life
Thijs van der Oetker considered himself to be a well read man, or rather others considered him to be well read, and he considered himself well listened. His job at the Toscana Bene Authentic Italian Pizza and Pasta factory (based in Groningen in the Netherlands) allowed for a lot of introspection.
His job was minimum wage, and truly he only did it for subsistence. He was not a man that craved possessions or wealth; he merely craved knowledge. As long as, at the end of the month, he had enough money to pay his rent, his bills, buy food for him and his dog and have a little kept aside for some more books, either paper copies or on tape, then he was a happy man indeed.
That was why, for 10 years now, he had been the man whose job it was to thumb the pizza dough out in to the shape of a pizza base. He could now do this with his eyes shut (literally), and his hands tied behind his back (metaphorically), and worked far more efficiently when he had a new audiobook of some sort playing through his headphones.
His friends and family did not understand why Thijs loved his job so much. Surely, they berated him, he must aspire to more? Had he no ambition, no dream they wondered aloud? Thijs always told them that his dream was to learn, and that he was doing just that.
The reaction was always the same. They merely shook their head and wandered off to talk to someone else at the party. A 30 year old with no desire for career progression was obviously a concept too difficult for them to deal with. Thijs on the other hand was of the opinion that if you enjoyed what you did then why aspire to move in to a position that you would inevitably find dull?
Of course, he didn’t ENJOY thumbing pizza bases in to circles, nobody did. After a couple of years he couldn’t even make a game out of it any more. They didn’t call it a menial job to fill space at the top of the job advert. What he enjoyed was getting to listen to someone talk about an interesting subject for 8 hours a day without anyone bothering him whilst he did it.
When the first ball of dough came along the conveyor in the morning he just tuned out and listened to whatever was coming in to his ears. To Thijs, this was bliss.
Over the last ten years he had consumed more books on more subjects than the average university professor would in their entire academic life. He had read, or rather listened to, books about music, physics, chemistry, biology, history, psychology, philosophy and almost all of the classic novels.
He could probably speak about 6 languages fluently, if only he had someone to speak them to, and when no new tome inspired him he would switch for a while to classical music. He was intimately familiar with the works of the Viennese masters, could hum the whole of Tchaikovsky’s back catalogue, and you would struggle to find a more knowledgeable expert on the likes of Mendelssohn and Debussy.
To put it succinctly, he was a useful person to have on your side if you wanted to win a pub quiz. Not that he was generally allowed to enter them any more. Every pub within a 20 mile radius of Groningen had essentially banned him from participating in their quiz nights. He knew too much, they protested. It wasn’t fun for every other team to consistently come second, they reasoned. He was welcome to drink there as long as he kept his mouth shut, they compromised.
Thijs was happy with this arrangement, and to be honest had even encouraged it on a couple of occasions. He did not learn in order to benefit himself financially, at least not in that way, and he definitely did not do it in order for his friends to scam a few Euros from an unsuspecting bar owner. He learned for himself. He learned because it made him happy.
Thijs was not a man prone to suspicion. In the last ten years he had encountered many books that debunked the idea of suspicion as merely a hangover from the days when it was entirely possible that our neighbour, flora or fauna, might have a go at killing us for little apparent reason.
However, this morning Thijs awoke with an ominous feeling in the pit of his stomach. He felt as though today was going to be an auspicious day for some reason, although for the life of him he could not work out why.
As usual he rose at 7.30 and fed his Dachshund, Sascha. His shift didn’t start until 9am, and the factory was a leisurely 20 minute walk away on the other side of town.
Thijs always took his time over breakfast, watching an episode of some TV show or other as he munched and his cornflakes and sipped at his orange juice – currently he was watching a series of short documentaries about whales. Finally he had a quick shower and give Sascha a tummy rub before walking out of the door.
Just a typical start to a typical morning for Thijs, who rather atypically immediately upon leaving the house was soaked to the skin by a passing bus driving through a puddle.
Thijs was in a good mood up until this point and he was determined not to let something like that bother him. After all, it was a beautiful summer’s day, and the puddle was only left over from a summer shower the night before. He would dry off by the time he made it to work.
The rest of the journey in was typically uneventful, which suited Thijs fine. And, sure enough, by the time he walked through the employees’ door in the factory he was bone dry again.
He hung his jacket up in his locker and got out his protective clothing. He set up his MP3 player and layered the uniform on top. Smock, overalls and then apron. He made sure to press play before putting his gloves on.
Today’s opus was The End of History by Frances Fukuyama. Thijs wasn’t sure he agreed with Fukuyama on many of his points, but he generally proved to be quite interesting to listen to, which was what mattered most to him generally.
As the voice in his ears began discussing the downfall of the Soviet Union and the implications for the proliferation of western democracy he walked to his station.
He greeted his colleagues Tomasz, Hilda and Lena as he went by them in the corridors. They all smiled and waved back at him as he went past,but he noticed something different about them today. They all had a glint in their eye, as if they all secretly knew something that Thijs didn’t.
Hilda was the last one he passed, and he got the same reaction from her as. He had from the other two, so he stopped her to ask what was going on. When questioned she, utilising her best poker face, replied that she had no idea what he was talking about. It was just a normal day. It was all she could do not to wink at him as he walked off.
By the time he reached his spot on the production floor he had largely forgotten about it, dismissing it as one of the silly jokes that the three were renowned for.
The first ball of dough of the day made its way down the conveyor belt just as the voice in his ear was expanding on Fukuyama’s theory of western democracy being the only remaining possibility for democratising nations.
He cracked his knuckles and spread the dough out in its container, tutting his disapproval of the American’s theories in light of recent developments in Islamic democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring.
He went on doing his job, as he did every day, for an hour. At about 10am, had he been able to hear anything other than Fukuyama’s words spoken in his ear, he would have noticed that silence had spread suddenly through what was usually a very loud factory floor.
As it was, he just carried on thumbing pizza base after pizza base, paying no attention to what was going on around him. As such he failed to notice that, when thumbing a certain, seemingly insignificant pizza base in to shape, 250 of his fellow employees stood behind him held their breath.
As he completed the routine that he did nearly five hundred times a day he prepared himself for the next ball of dough. But the dough did not come. This had never happened before. In ten years Thijs had never had to wait for the dough to come. He was lost for words. He decided he had best alert his manager, so he pressed pause on his MP3 player and turned around.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when his 250 colleagues all began whooping and cheering and letting off streamers. They were all wearing party hats. Thijs could only stare in bewilderment as a banner was unfurled; it read ‘Congratulations on Thumbing 1,000,000 Pizzas!’ and had a crudely drawn pizza on it.
The factory owner, Mr. Wyk walked up to Thijs and clasped his hand on his shoulder. “One million pizzas, boy!” he said. “That’s a hell of a lot of dough. Congratulations.”
“Thank you sir,” Thijs replied, still gobsmacked. “I don’t know what to say…”
“We’ve got a special guest for you, too,” the owner went on, and Sascha the Dachshund was brought through the crowd on a little pillow. He was wearing a tiny party hat, and wagging his tail very enthusiastically.
“Sascha!” Thijs shouted in excitement. “But Mr. Wyk, animals aren’t allowed on the production floor!”
Mr. Wyk smiled. “I think that, on this occasion, we can make an exception.”
The factory was closed for the rest of the day as all of the employees were given the time off to attend a party thrown by Mr. Wyk in Thijs’ honour. He never did get to finish the End of History that day, but for Thijs went to sleep that night with Sascha curled up at the foot of the bed knowing that for him it wasn’t the end of anything, but rather the beginning of another ten years and one million pizzas of what he hoped would be a happy and contented life.