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The Marmite Test

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the world is divided into two camps: those whose love Marmite and those who loathe it.

Penelope Carlow stood firmly in the former. Indeed, one might venture to say that her love for the black sticky stuff verged on obsession. As a child, she had used to creep out of bed at night, and steal downstairs to the little pantry under the stairs where she would load up teaspoons or drinking straws with the savoury spread then suck on them as other children might a lollypop. The sticky treat might not have done the harm to her teeth the sugar in a sweetie might have, but it was no friend to her pillow slip or bedding. Mrs Carlow, despairing of her oldest daughter’s nocturnal pilfering, was finally obliged to fit the store cupboard with a padlock and that, it seems, was the end of that.

It was, however, far from being the end Penelope’s passion for Marmite which soon begin to manifest its extremism in other directions.

By the time she turned thirteen years old, a tricky stage for any female off-spring, Penelope’s increasing acquaintance with the wider world led her to the appreciation of the polarising effect of Marmite.  She discovered, in short, that at least half the girls in her circle completely detested the stuff and refused to eat it, no matter what the inducement. As a younger child, she had been surprised then puzzled by this happenstance. How could her “so called” friends, who seems so like her in many ways, be so at odds over something so fundamental to one’s judgement and taste. Their reason and motivations must be inherently suspect. Thus, the realisation had crept up on her incrementally but no less forcefully for it – people who dislike Marmite are simply not trustworthy and only a fool would count upon them.

So, by the time she reached her thirteenth birthday, when needless to say Marmite sandwiches featured in her birthday tea, there was not a single girl invited to the party who did not partake. Penelope had, for good or worse, happened on an infallible standard by which she sorted the wheat from the chaff; the goats from the sheep – The Marmite Test.

From then on, she would form her opinion on meeting someone for the first time solely on their declared position on the Marmite question, and it was not very long before she had developed the skill of dropping the question into conversation very early in her acquaintance. The Marmite Test became the unquestioned and absolute arbiter regarding her social relationships.

Her family rolled their eyes and despaired of her. Her friends, who were by definition appreciators of Marmite themselves, admired her conviction of her eccentricity but secretly mourned the opportunities she missed in refusing to give some perfectly lovely people they knew and liked a chance. But Penelope remained stalwart in her adherence to The Marmite Test as her guide. Through her teenage years and into her twenties she stuck to it, as firmly as the sticky spread sticks to bread and everything else with which it comes into contact. And, as it happened, all the people who passed the Marmite Test did, in fact, turn out to be reliable, pleasant and caring friends. Not a flake amongst them.  Not one of them let her down, pinched her boyfriends from under her nose or trolled her on-line. And each and every one was prepared to hold her hair away from her face when she vomited at parties. Quod erat demonstrandum. You could not fault the logic.

Boyfriends, such as they were, were of course subject to same rigorous process of weeding out. No matter how cute their bum was, or how dreamy their eyes, Penelope refused to so much as imagine herself infatuated until the Marmite question had been settled. It may have been a strange chat up line for some, but at least it was original.

For all that, Penelope had been yet to meet the Marmite man of her dreams. Until, that is she met Mike.

She had bumped into him quite literally one evening, as she had run for a bus to meet her friends in town. He had simply stepped out, without looking, into the middle of the pavement and she had mown him down. And yes, his eyes were glued to the screen of this mobile phone at the time. In any case, once they had both picked themselves up from the ground and established that neither one had sustained any broken bones, Mike had insisted that she buy him a drink by way of an apology. Penelope had shyly looked him up and down. With his black hair and almost yellow-amber eyes, he was a bit like Marmite himself, wholly irresistible. They exchanged numbers and arranged to meet for a drink the following evening.

All throughout that first date Penelope tried to bring up the Marmite question, but somehow it just never seemed the right time. They talked for hours about books and music and travel and life, and it was clear that neither wanted the evening to end.

The following dates followed pretty much the same course and the longer it took Penelope to get it together to pose The Marmite test, the harder it became. Her friends, of course, ribbed her mercilessly about it. But he must be a Marmite lover, Penelope told herself. How could he not be? The man seems perfect.

Well, things took their own course, as often they will. Mike and Penelope were soon mutually smitten. Penelope realised that she had fallen in love for the first time, and that there was something, after all, more attractive than a yellow-lidded black jar.

Still, her little internal Marmite voice nagged her. It had been the habit of half her life-time to listen to it. Finally, the morning after the night before, came crunch-time. Mike had kissed her goodnight on the doorstep and asked if he might stay the night. Before she knew it, she had invited him in. Resistance seemed futile.

The next morning, Penelope tumbled happily out of bed leaving Mike still sleeping. She padded down to the kitchen to put some coffee on and peered into the fridge to see what they might have for breakfast then opened the cupboard above the hob. There sat a big new bulbous jar of Marmite. Marmite solders, now there was an idea.  “Go on, do it now,” urged her little Marmite voice. “Offer him the Marmite solders…just do it.”

Penelope slammed shut the cupboard. No! She would not do it. It was ridiculous and immature. Why should she risk the best thing that had ever happened to her for a childish principle? It was about time she grew up. There were plenty of other things they could have for breakfast- their first breakfast together. She would take the coffee up and ask what he fancied.

Mike smiled as she woke him and offered him the coffee. She began to ask him what he would like for breakfast, but he was up, pulling on her dressing gown, insisting he should get it. She should have breakfast in bed. It would be his treat. Did she know what she would like?” “Anything,” she replied. “Anything you make for me will be perfect…”

Penelope lay back in bed, savouring her coffee and listening to the sound of Mike moving around in her kitchen. How perfect was this?

Suddenly, there was thundering of feet and Mike appeared at the bedroom door. His face was ash white, his handsome looks distorted by an expression of appalled shock.

“I – I’m sorry…” he stammered holding up the jar of Marmite. “I’ve made a terrible mistake. I can’t believe you – you like this disgusting stuff. I thought you were my soul mate, but I must have got it terribly wrong. Forgive me…” And with that he set the jar down on the table next to the bed, as though glad to be rid of something toxic, gathered his clothes together and made a hurried exit. Penelope remained emotionally stunned and speechless in her bed, her Marmite flavoured heart breaking inside her.

Yet, when she had picked herself up out of her despair and had had time to reflect, her little Marmite voice offered a strange kind of consolation. “You see – that is what you get when you let in someone who loathes Marmite. They are simply not to be trusted!”

Chasing The Dragon

 Jonathon Bright’s friends, of whom he had all too few, were apt to describe him as a fanatic, a genius even; a man of laser focus. His enemies, of whom there were all too may and were wont to less generosity, pronounced him an ego maniac, so driven by the obsession that dominated the narrative of his existence that he was blind to all others aspects of life.

            They had a point, for whilst like so many others labouring under the curse of perfectionism, he had been almost insanely successful in his work, but that success had come at an astronomical cost to his domestic felicitation.  For like so many other families that trail behind the blazing comet of a Michelin star chef, his wife and daughter were miserable and neglected and, in the few day daylight hours that the head of his would-be dynasty was at home, he was either exhausted and grumpy, or preoccupied and grumpy. In any case he was never satisfied. And he was always grumpy.

            Jonathon’s trajectory into the stellar realms of gastronomic pre-eminence had begun benignly enough. In the early seventies, when the price of air travel, suddenly became affordable enough for the reach of ordinary working families, Jonathon’s parents had announced that they had booked a package holiday to Ibiza, a small “island-paradise” off the coast of Spain. The idea of a week spent lying on the beach or by the hotel pool, with only his parents for company, held no especial appeal to a thirteen-year boy, yet he found himself obliged to pack a suitcase and tag along. Still, it was not all bad, the kudos of being the first amongst his peers to travel in an aeroplane assured him some degree of coolness, in what was looking like a very uncool scenario.

            The week passed quickly enough and Jonathon’s one compensation was that the family got to try new and interesting fayre in the superior hotel restaurant. Mrs Bright, though a good plain cook, had never been one for adventure in the kitchen and, it being the seventies, yoghurt had seemed quite exotic enough to satisfy the modest cosmopolitan aspirations she may have harboured.

            As chance would have it and as the holiday was drawing to a close, Mr. Bright splashed out on a scenic boat tour around the islands, by way of a special family treat.  The excursion turned out to be remarkably beautiful, even to the hormone addled mind of an adolescent boy, and, little though Jonathon could imagine, would prove to be the pivotal experience of his life. Yet, it was not the scenery that stood out to Jonathon, no. It was the humble, but supremely delicious fish stew that the boat’s captain concocted on-board for his passengers’ delectation, from fish he caught fresh in his net whilst cruising the azure of that sparkling ocean.

            The memory of the taste was to remain with Jonathon, long after all other details of that week had faded. So much so, that on returning to home soil, it prompted him to invade his mother’s domain in the kitchen and with the determination that he should teach himself to cook. From that time on, he spent every free hour poring over cook books from every corner of the world, challenging his ever-broadening palette and activating neurons in his brain that had hitherto seemed in danger of premature atrophy. Pretty soon he was in the grips of an addiction to gastronomic pleasure and no recipe seems beyond his culinary ambition.

            His parents stood by and observed in puzzled amusement. They had fostered high hopes for a career in engineering, but now Jonathon was working from an altogether different blueprint for his future.  When the time came to decide on a career, he signed up for catering college, found a position in one of the up-and-coming gastropubs that were burgeoning all around the country. And the rest his history.

            By the time he had climbed the ladder to the position of Head Chef at an exclusive establishment frequented by the great and the good, Bright was already renown for his most exquisite and inventive capacity to combine flavours, in a way that seduced the taste buds and had his clients clamouring for more. Sweet or savoury, fragrantly spiced, or all three, there seemed no end to his creativity and talent. He won rave reviews from his peers and the tables in his restaurant were booked-up months in advance.  He was burning a fiery path through the heavens of fine dining and none could deny that he seemed on course for a second Michelin star.

            Yet, whenever he sat down to plan some new dish, his mind would take him back to that simple fish stew and the clarity and piquancy of those flavours would torture him, like the end of the rainbow, that you can see, but which must remain eternally out of reach. The truth was, no matter how often he had tried to recreate the dish, it never failed to confound his best efforts. And so, he concealed his impotency in the ever more complex and extraordinary culinary pyrotechnics of nouvelle cuisine. And thus, no matter how many accolades he won, they all seemed meaningless. He was the naked emperor. A gustatory charlatan. No wonder he was so miserable.

            Then one day, just about the most dreadful thing that can happen to a chef, happened. Jonathon had been suffering from difficulty swallowing. His voice seemed permanently hoarse and he was feeling under the weather. Perhaps he did shout a little too much at the underlings in his kitchen, but that is what top chefs do. It was all very tiring. He had consulted a highly recommended Harley Street specialist and had been for tests. The eminent Doctor confirmed the diagnosis with bewildering calmness. Jonathon was suffering from an advanced cancer of the oesophagus. The good news was that if he had surgery at once, they could save his life. The bad news was that following the surgery he would only ever be able to take nourishment via a tube directly into his stomach.  But at least he would be alive.

            Jonathon was having none of it. His life was food, and He was nothing without it. He would try chemo and radiotherapy, but he would not, absolutely could not concede to such surgery. The doctor shrugged. Perhaps he was sympathetic. He was after all a regular customer at Jonathon’s extremely exclusive bistro.

            The cancer advanced, it encroached upon his larynx. Things were looking grim. His wife and daughter begged Jonathon to reconsider. Grudgingly he conceded to a laryngectomy. The home may have been more peaceful for it, but the foulness of his mood pervaded it, like the stench from the wastebins at the back of his restaurant.

            Lydia, his daughter, remembered her father’s stories about the fish stew. Her whole life, she had seen nothing but disappointment with her in his eyes, but she had a good heart, and this was her last opportunity to try to please him just once, before he died. Each passing week she would slave away in the family kitchen, trying earnestly to capture the sharp and spicy flavours of that stew, only to be met with renewed failure. “His taste buds have gone, Love…” her mother consoled her – “It’s the chemo. It’ll never taste right. You’re  wasting  your time.” But Lydia remined undeterred.

            One particularly desperate day, she resolved on a last-ditch plan, packed her bags and she set of for the Ibiza. “What ever you do Father, hold on until I return…”

And Two weeks later return she did, shopping bags in hand. Jonathon lay moribund and sickeningly pale on his bed.  Lydia wasted no time and set up in the kitchen. The aroma was exquisite.  Lydia smiled – this was it. Surely, this had to be it.

She seated herself beside the bed and spooned the steaming stew into her father’s mouth, as he lay back against his pillows.

The moment the spices hit his tongue, Jonathon found himself suddenly back afloat on the crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, the wind in his hair, the tang of salt in his nostrils…and that that taste. Spicy tomatoes and peppers, garlic and Paprika – and fish, so tender and flaky, it melted in the mouth.

“Am I in Heaven?”  he asked. But his words went unheard, for he had no voice and Lydia was already closing his eyelids with a gentle sweep of her hand. So perhaps he really was.

Rats in the Attic

Outside, the coolness of the Autumn night had descended like a damp grey blanket. Inside, Julia and Eric were snuggly cuddled up on the sofa watching re-runs of Brideshead Revisited. It wasn’t really Eric’s cup of tea, but then he was mainly snoozing.

All at once Julia looked up at the ceiling. She nudged the little black cat into wakefulness. Had Eric heard that? There it was again, a soft thumping and a scratching sound. Eric raised his head, pricked up his ears, then shrugged. They both knew there were mice up in the loft space, what was the big deal? Live and let live was his motto. He closed his eyes and tucked his head beneath his paws. Julia frowned and privately wondered if the mice had somehow acquired clogs.

Half an hour later, the scratching had burgeoned into full on scrabbling. Eric responded half-heartedly, when she prodded him, but seemed no more incline to react than before. Julia scowled this time. This was no itsy-bitsy mouse. It had to be a rat, or a whole troupe of them, from the sound of it.  It was not as though she had anything against the creatures per se, everyone knows that if you live in the U.K you are never more than a spit away from one, but did they have to be quite so noisy? And goodness only knows what damage they might be wreaking. Images of power failures and electrical fires caused by gnawed wiring filled her mind. “Well,” she muttered to Eric, who seemed not the least bit interested, “I’ll speak to the letting agents tomorrow and see what they suggest.”

The Letting Agents, as is their custom, proved to be worse than useless. Had she tried laying traps or poison? Since when had the building become her responsibility? She rented the top floor flat, not the roof space. Had she tried environmental health? Surely that is down to the Landlord? replied Julia, getting hot under the collar. She could virtually hear the Letting Agent shrugging over the phone. It was obviously all too much trouble.

“Hmmph…so much for that,” grumbled Julia hanging up and looking at Eric. “And I don’t know what you are smirking about…” she added in a foul mood now. But, since the face of a cat is set permanently into a smirk, unless they are eating or yawning, she found herself obliged to apologise when she saw the look of hurt reproach in Eric’s eyes.

The sounds of the upstairs squatters increased exponentially over the next few nights. Julia drew the line at poison or traps; she loved all animals, or most of them at least, there was after all the odd fox which was the exception to the rule. But she was by no means willing to cause suffering to some oversized rodent, no matter how inconsiderate a neighbour he might be. She had kept hamsters and mice all her life and had once shared a flat with a girl who kept a rat as a pet. Whilst Julia had never quite come to terms with the scaley snakiness of its tail, she had had to admit that he was rather handsome – from a distance at least.

But the noise was beginning to drive her round the bend and earplugs did nothing to help her sleep. And then there was still the worry of gnawed electrical circuits.

“Maybe we should just go up then and put the frighteners on them?  Nothing violent, just a hint of menace, perhaps?” Julia suggested to Eric at last. Eric perked up at this. It might be just his sort of thing. Julia knitted her brows recalling his performance in the cat bar. She sometimes worried about the effect spending all those months inside that fox -(she could still not bring herself to call him by his name)- had had on the little cat. “Absolutely no violence, are we clear?” she reiterated. Eric widened his eyes. Message received and understood.

Early that evening, therefore, Julia armed herself with a rolling pin and torch and stuck the cullender on her head, by way of a helmet. Then, placing the step ladders on top of the kitchen table, she clambered cautiously up through the trap door and into the loft space, followed closely by Eric. She listened intently then shone the beam of light from her torch around. There, in the far corner, a rat sat up on his hind legs, gawping at her. He had been chomping on a piece of ceiling insulation and had stopped mid-gnaw. He seemed pretty bloody big for a rat, as it was, but the shadow thrown by the torch made him appear simply enormous. His whiskers twitched apprehensively. Julia reached behind her and felt around for Eric, who pressed himself against her flank with a purr of reassurance. “Now, look here, we don’t want any trouble,” said Julia brandishing the rolling pin to show they meant business. “Co-existing in peace is one thing, but this constant stomping up and down and scratching, well, we’re not prepared to put up with your shenanigans a moment longer, are we Eric?”
Eric took his queue and stepped into the beam of torch-light, casting an even bigger and scarier shadow against the rafters. He arched his back and fired off a warning hiss. The rat dropped his supper and gulped.

“Now, we don’t mean you any harm, all we want you to do is move on…,” continued Julia, raising the rolling pin jut a little higher, for emphasis. “Do you think you could do that?”

The rat looked at the rolling pin and all but guffawed. A girl in a ridiculous hat waving a cooking implement about was not going to intimidate him. Julia felt her heart hammering against her ribcage. They seemed to have themselves a stand-off. Then, however, the rat looked at Eric with his squinty little eyes and swallowed even harder. Eric fluffed himself out for extra dramatic effect. The shadows above him loomed still larger. This time, the rat nodded. Without further ado, he turned tail and scurried towards the cavity wall. Eric let out a miaow, just to see him on his way, then made after him at a leisurely stroll, as to though to escort him from the premises. Julia kept the beam of her torch trained on the rat the whole time. And then a funny thing happened. Julia could have sworn that, just as he was disappearing from view, the rat had turned back and winked at Eric with one of his beady eyes. But perhaps it was just a trick of the light.

Later that night, when the loft trap-door had been closed and the kitchen utensils had been replaced, Julia and Eric sat cuddled up on the sofa enjoying the peace and quiet.

“Eric…” quizzed Julia, as the penny suddenly dropped. “You had met that rat before, hadn’t you?”

Eric shrugged and mewed. He had no idea what she could mean.

“That rat has lived up there for ages and has always been as quiet as, well, a mouse, hasn’t he?”

Eric flattened his ears. What could she be suggesting?

     “I saw that wink he gave you. It was all just a bit of a stunt, wasn’t it? Something you had cooked up to make you look like the hero. Probably to make-up for that – that debacle with the cat-nip and the big fight in the bar. Admit it! Oh, Eric, shame on you. Whatever am I going to do with you?”

    But Eric was admitting nothing. He jumped down from the sofa and made for his milk bowl. He loved Julia, but sometimes she was just so high-maintenance.

Penguin 7th February 2021

I am by birth, a Genevese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic.

You may wonder therefore what brings me so far north into these frozen and inhospitable waters, all but marooned on an icebreaker bound for the deepest Artic. What indeed? I shall endeavour to tell you, though I’ll warrant you will not believe my tale and will take me for a madman or fantasist. Be that as it may, I shall start at the beginning.

My name is of no consequence, and will, I imagine be quickly forgotten. My occupation however pertains to the account at hand, for I am, or at least, was a zoo keeper at the modest but well-maintained zoological gardens in Geneva.

My charges were the penguins, a very popular exhibit with the Genevese children, though not generally regarded for their ingenuity and cunning. Some might call them cute, I suppose, but I challenge you to revise any allusions you may be under as to the appropriateness of such a description.

It is well known that penguins are flightless, but do not let that fool you. Just because they cannot fly, in the usual sense, does not mean that they are unable to take flight, which is precisely why you find me here in this god forsaken sector of the globe.

The fugitive, whom I have pursued across the expanse of Europe and half of Scandinavia, is a small specimen of penguinity known as Eudyptes Chrysocome, or more commonly the Southern Rock Hopper. His name, and you will forgive me if I do not appreciate the irony, is Frankenstein, on account of the unusual way he is wont to thrust forward his two outstretched flippers whilst in motion, and lurch from side to side. Most penguins tend to trail their flippers to their aft, so this peculiar gate marked him out from the crowd at a tender age. Whether he had any other features that deviated from the normal, may be spurious to mention, as have only been remarked upon in hindsight. It does seem, looking back, that he had indeed displayed a propensity for concealment, as we would often have to search high and low for him during roll call, yet we never suspected, or indeed could have dreamt of the fiendish strategy for escape and evasion of recapture hatching in that tiny cranium.

The evening we realised that something was amiss, we had, as usual, scoured the penguin enclosure, convinced that he was keeping out of sight, playing some mischievous trick on his keepers.

Even now, we are not sure how the actual break-out was achieved. The closest explanation we could develop, was that the cunning avian had hopped into one of a pair of discarded wellington boots, which were later picked up and removed from the enclosure. Some droppings discovered in the bottom of one boot supported this theory, though it is, I suppose, far from hard evidence.

In any case, and as unlikely as it seems, having gained his egress, the escapee went on the lam, with no reports as to his whereabouts for many days; which is no small feat for a creature who is severely hindered by the fact of having no pockets in which to keep money, or tickets, and indeed could not reach into them if he had.

Eventually, rumours of sightings began to appear on social media. He appeared to be making his way north, crossing over the Alps and deep into Germany, evading border controls and flouting all quarantine restrictions en route: and that is when I began to track him.

I stalked him up through Hamburg and into Denmark as he zig- zagged across the continent, taking refuge where he found it. Misguided individuals in every country offered him sustenance, transport and shelter, mistaking their complicity for animal welfare. But many made the fatal error of posting their interventions and penguin selfies on facebook or Instagram.

At the tip of Denmark he hopped aboard a ferry to Norway, and from thence made his way to Tromso at its northern tip, which is where I finally caught up with him. Though little then did I comprehend my fate.

The fugitive remained completely hidden for three days and nights, despite my most determined efforts and increasingly desperate enquiries, until the morning that the great ice breaker, upon whose deck I now stand, hauled anchor and set sail on its scientific expedition into the Artic hinterland. Concealed behind the great anchor chain, I watched as he sauntered nonchalantly onto the key and hopped along the gangplank unobserved by the crew. I followed, as the black and white devil slipped on board and disappeared behind the tarpaulin of the creaking lifeboats, where, possessed by God knows what obsession, I hid myself as well, until we were safely out of port.

The Captain was furious and less than sympathetic to discover that there were two such unlikely stowaways upon his vessel, and could not be worked upon. There would be no turning back, as the expedition could ill-afford to miss the vital opening of the ice; the vessel’s one and only window of opportunity for the whole year. The bird and I must take our chances. We would not be returning home anytime soon.

My nemesis, when I finally found him, and had bagged him in a handy fishnet then dragged him to my makeshift quarters, seemed unfazed. He all but laughed in my face when I admonished him for his reckless conduct and selfish disregard for my well-being. I would have to try another tack.

“But you do not seem to realise, you are going in completely the wrong direction” I reasoned “there are no Penguins at the North pole!”

But the penguin known as Frankenstein, seemed deaf to my objections. Perched on the sill of the open porthole, he regarded me with what I can only describe as contempt.

“There are now! “He cried with gleeful abandon as he sprung from the cabin window onto an ice raft that floated close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in the darkness and distance. And all I caught were the words – “So long and thanks for all the fish!” as they wafted on the artic wind.

The Kit-kat club 25th January 2021

A year had passed since Julia and Eric’s little adventure in the woods. Th rhythm of daily life in their new home in the city was no longer a novelty and after a few months or so, Eric had mustered the confidence to venture out again unchaperoned. Julia had initially fostered some misgivings, but cats will be cats, so she had had a cat flap installed and had given Eric clear guidance about her expectations. He was to be in by midnight. She, for one, had no intention lying awake until all hours, hanging on every sound, waiting for the tell-tale announcement of the cat-flap door swinging open. Eric had looked at her then stalked away. Since when had a chit of a girl become the boss of him?

            Non-the-less, comply he did. He was not unduly inconsiderate by any standards, which is saying a great deal in the case of a cat. Besides Julia had been through enough. Indeed, so had he, but it was better not to dwell on that. His arrival back home had, however, begun to creep perilously close to breaking his curfew over the last week and Julia could have sworn she smelt catnip on his breath, on a least two occasions.

            On Saturday evening, Julia and Eric were snuggled up on the sofa watching Kill Bill, their favourite video. Eric, however, seemed in no mood to settle. Finally, he jumped down onto the floor, arched his back then sauntered towards the cat flap.

“It’s a little late to be going out, isn’t it, Eric?” commented Julia with a hint of annoyance.

“Miouw…eow,” replied Eric. Now, anyone knows who know anything, knows that a cat’s mew is the feline equivalent of a zip file, in that it contains a great deal of greatly compressed information.

Julia was not exactly fluent in feline, but she had known Eric long enough to grasp the general meaning. Wherever he was off to, he wanted her to accompany him.

“But I am in my nightdress and dressing gown…”  Julia protested.

Eric shrugged, all these years and he still did not grasp the clothes thing. You would never catch him complaining of having nothing to wear.

“Oh, very well then – but we had better not be out long.” And with that she popped a torch and the front-door key safely into her dressing-gowning pocket and followed him out into the street.

It was dark and deserted. Something to be grateful for, at least. Julia followed Eric along the street until he stopped at a small alley, that separated the terraced houses from a block of commercial premises at the end of the high street. Eric turned down the alley and headed towards a pile of dustbins and tall refuse skips. Julia grimaced and pulled the gown around her. This might be the just the sort of hang out urban foxes would choose. She felt tempted to turn around and head for home, yet she her faith in Eric was complete. She followed after glad she had thought to bring the torch.

            At the far end, Eric stopped and waited for her to catch up. Then tapping on a trap door at the bottom of the wall, he stepped back and waited. The door opened and light and music poured out into the dark night. Eric exchanged mews with someone inside then lead Julia through the door and down a flight of stairs. Julia had had to crouch low to squeeze through the small opening, but once inside, found herself in a normal sized staircase. At least, she thought it seemed normal, until she noticed Eric, and that he seemed suddenly to be roughly the same size as herself. She supposed she should be used to this sort of thing, by now, but it still made her head spin a little.

            At the end of the stairs the space opened out into what was clearly a night club. A trio of rather stoned looking moggies were playing some kind of improvised jazz on a stage at one end of a room, which was filled with small tables and benches. The sound rather made Julia want to plug her ears, yet she supposed it had a kind of beat to it. A number of impossibly cool looking cats lined, what passed for a bar, but most of them looked pretty out of it, upon closer examination. The air was thick with the cloying smell of catnip. She was beginning to form concerns about Eric’s latest life choices, but he was already leading her towards a vacant table and she felt too disorientated to compose a lecture, right then. Leaving her on a bench, Eric made his way to the bar. It was obvious that he was well known to many of the customers, who exchanged nods or blinks of recognition. The barman was a fabulously handsome Russian Blue cat, who it turned was the club’s proprietor. He exchanged mews with Eric then glanced over at Julia and winked. Julia felt her heart do a little jump. He was a heartbreaker all right.

            Eric returned from the bar and pushed a twist of paper her way. Julia grimaced. She would have preferred, nay, could really have done with a shot of whisky right then. Still when in Rome. She opened the little wrapper and tipped the dried seeds into her mouth. The taste was not great and the effect minimal. Eric however, had chewed on his catnip and had begun to purr sonorously. A smile of perfect contentment spread across his face and he stared at Julia with a look of unfocused devotion. Julia wanted to be cross but, as always, her heart simply melted. So instead, she shook her head and smiled.

            And so, everything might have been fine, were it not for the fact that, at that exact moment, a dishevelled looking Ginger Tom sidled up to their table, extremely curious about the Kitkat club’s unusual guest. His once beautiful coat was dull and flea bitten and his ears bore the scars from many fights. Julia looked away, trying her hardest to avoid eye contact, to little avail. He rubbed against her shoulder and drooled. Julia shuddered in revulsion. She loved most  cats, but for her, drooling was the deal-breaker. Eric, snapping out of his torpor, made a growl of discouragement. The Ginger Tom fluffed out his tail and turned the heat of his gaze Eric’s way. Eric, backed off. He had not meant to be impolite. But both were the worse for cat-nip and needed their brains shaking up. They exchanged a volley of hisses and warning yowls .Then, suddenly, the Ginger Tom held up his paw and snapped out a single great claw, like one opening a flick-knife, and raked it across Eric’s little nose. Julia froze and let out a little cry of terror. Eric was a fraction of the size of this ginger cat, and she knew a bully when she saw one.

 A hush fell around the room as the jazz-trio ceased their caterwauling. All eyes turned to the scene. Then, all at once, Eric was on all four paws, moving so speedily, Julia could hardly see what was happening. He flung out a front paw and executed a dazzling spin, catewauling loudly, as he did so. He landed behind the great Ginger Tom and the next moment had twisted the unsuspecting moggy’s shoulder into an armlock. The Ginger Tom, recognising superior skill, submitted instantly. Yet Old Ginge now seemed the least of their troubles. Roused from their stupor by the commotion, a gaggle of rough looking cats from the other end of the bar descended on Eric en masse, claws barbed and yowling for blood.

Eric swung into action, spinning like a whirling Dervish, claws a-slashing and teeth a-snapping. Julia  tried to grab him but, fearing for her life, was forced to duck beneath the table and cower there, till all was over. Fur flew and blood sprayed in great arcs across the ceiling and walls. Under her table Julia clapped her hands over her ears, for never had such shrieks and groans been heard outside of Hell. At last, all felt silent. Julia heard a familiar mew and crept, shaking, from her hiding place. There stood Eric, ears slightly frayed and looking a little worse for wear, but very definitely the victor. Slumped in a heap against the far wall, lay a dozen or so  battered and bleeding moggies. Alive, it seemed, but only by the skin of their teeth. Some stared dazed into space, whilst others were already beginning to limp into dark corners to lick their wounds. Julia flung her arms around Eric in relief, then looked around, anxious to ensure the threat was over. Behind the bar the proprietor had reached for an old blunderbuss, he kept at hand for precisely such eventualities, and was aiming it in their direction. Catching Julia’s eye, he nodded to the exit with the clear implication that they should take it. No needed further purrsuasion  was required. They only stopped for breath once they found themselves safely back out back out in the alley.  Eric gazed up at Julia and dabbed his nose, which must have been smarting. He somehow manged to look cock-a-hoop and abjectly apologetic at the same time.

            “Time to go home, I think,” said Julia, still shaking a little. Eric was in no position to argue so, they did. All the way home Julia silently prepared a lecture on the perils of cat-nip use and the keeping of bad company, yet somehow it went unused.

“Actually Eric,” conceded Julia, once they were safely indoor with a cup of tea and a saucer of lactose-free milk, “that was pretty impressive. Where on earth did you learn those moves?”

Eric looked up from his saucer and nodded towards the T.V. Julia frowned in puzzlement. Then her face lit up. “Oh, I get it. Una Thurman. Kill Bill. You clever little devil. Sometimes though, Eric, I do think that you might be a bit too smart for your own good!”

Eric just shrugged and finished his milk. What’s a cat to do?

The Tail of Trinity Taylor 10th January 2021

My name is Trinity Taylor and for those who have not heard of me, though I cannot believe there can be many, I was born with a tail.

The midwives had recoiled in dismay at my delivery and the doctors had assured my mother that the defect could be surgically resolved. But, my mother, being my mother, would have none of it. If her daughter had been blessed with a tail, then there was some reason behind it, even if we could not yet comprehend it. She had promptly me christened Trinity after the heroine in the Matrix films. She and my father had shared a love of those films, though had little else in common. Trinity, she told me later, had not understood her role in mankind’s salvation but it was, in the end, fundamental. She had accepted her fate and lived it out without regret. Sadly, her reasoning would remain a bone of contention between us for many years. I would point out that Trinity hardly met a happy end, whenever the subject arose, and she would berate me for having entirely missed the point. At such times, my father, who otherwise tended to keep out of our mother-daughter altercations, would observe that the pair of us were as daft as brushes.

It might therefore come as no surprise that my mother was determined that I should flourish in the world, without disguise of constrain. She refused any advice to conceal my appendage and whilst not making a show of it, adapted my diapers and romper suit to give it free rein. That is, she did so until the afternoon when she took me along for her our first mother and baby playgroup and the other mothers seized their offspring and ran shrieking with fear from the building. To be fair, it did, if anything, resemble a rat’s tail and many women dissolve into screaming habdabs at the sight of a mere mouse. My mother learnt a painful lesson that day and thereafter took pains to tuck my tail into my tights or trews. At home, of course, it suffered no such restrictions and day by day I loved it more. Gradually I learned to control it, in much the same way that I learned to control my wobbly legs and arms. By the time I could walk, I could pick up simple objects and thrash it about in annoyance. I could tickle my mother’s ribs and soothe myself, by stroking my face whenever I felt upset or unwell.

                Speaking of rodents, my father turned up one day after work, with a pet rat for me. My mother was far from amused and ordered him to return it to the pet shop. Bit, it was too late. I hung onto his leg, begging him to let it stay, so stay it did. I adored little Ratty, at least at first. He was cute and dead intelligent and he had a tail like mine. However, I soon discovered that his tail lacked anything like the dexterity of mine and grew rather bored with his company. He sort of fell from the lounge window, one afternoon when we were playing bungy jumping. It was a pity, but I am pretty sure he had a more interesting life scampering around the fields and woods that backed onto our garden. After that, my mother was adamant, no more pets for me.

                And so it continued throughout my primary school. During the day, I would sit in class my tail coiled up beneath me, or wrapped around my thigh, beneath my pleated skirt. Yet, once school was over, I was using it to climb trees, balance on top of the garden wall and swat away annoying midges. There was always, however, a minor downside. Now and then, if I was tired or off my game, I would forget my tail and it would get caught in a deckchair or shut in the door. I don’t need to tell anyone how painful it is to do this to a finger, let me tell you now, a tail is a whole new world of pain. I even singed it on the electric fire once and just remembering that makes my eyes water. By the time I was eleven, it had developed a couple of kinks. Not the end of the world, but it did not exactly add to its appeal.

At junior school, however, things changed completely. Brought up on a diet of X-Men films, it was clear that my peers could only be fascinated by such an anomaly. I quickly became the coolest kid in school. I would demonstrate supreme balance during gym sessions and amuse my classmate by jabbing some swat in the ribs with the end of my tail when they put heir hand up once too often. I even terrorised a couple of fledging flashers from the neighbouring school, by placing my tail between my legs and pretending it was a penis. No matter how big they boasted their members were, they were no match for me. And if I had to, I could use mine to pick my nose.

                My mother did not view such high jinks with much appreciation. I had my future to think of. It was time to be serious and stop clowning around. But short of joining a circus or freak show, I had not the silent inkling, what I could do. My performance at school was never poor that fair to middling, despite my mother’s insistence that I was capable of better things. I began to suspect that my sole destiny in life was to cause her vexation and disappointment.

                I should mention at this point, that given the uniqueness of my condition or birth defect, as some unimaginative medical types labelled it, I was initially of interest to those boffins who concerned themselves with DNA and cellular development. For the first three years, my mother dutifully carted me to a series of regular appointments, where specimens of my blood and tissue were taken for analysis. By the fourth year, when nothing ground-breaking had been learned and precisely diddly-squat had been achieved, the enthusiasm seemed to have rubbed off. I was given an annual check-up. Mt tail was measured and weighed and asked to perform a series of perfunctory movements with it, and that seemed to that. By the age of eight, the scientific community decided to leave us to our own devices with an indifferent shrug of its shoulders. It was what it was. My mother had been crestfallen. She had been so sure my amazing tail could not have been for nothing. I was glad to be left alone.

                Then, one day, when I was just sixteen years old, I was spotted by a talent scout from a high-end modelling agency.  I had been sauntering around Coven Garden with my mates, tail swaying lithely behind me. Most of the locals we passed were used to the sight by that time and if the tourists gaped and tried to take photos, I would just flash them a smile. My tail, which by now resembled that of a hairless Sphinx cat, was a magnet to the lads but even though my friends seemed obsessed with boys and seemed in a rush to hook up with the first pimple-covered youth that looked their way, I was in no such hurry. “Mark my words,” my father had told me in a rare moment of parental intervention, “they will want you in their bed soon enough, but not to mother their children.” I knew he had a point. There is little an adolescent boy will not stoop to, to outdo his friends in sexual boasts. Fathers, a word of advice.  Tell your teenage daughters exactly what was going through your mind at their age. I guarantee you it will prove more effective than any contraceptive!

                Anyway, back to the talent scout. I was skinny and tall for my age and, though only averagely pretty, had a posture to die for, what with the tail and all. The agency agreed that I had what they called “the it factor.” I think we all know what the “it” was. The rest is history. I modelled for Channel and Gucci, Versace and Yves Saint Lauren. I travelled to Paris, Rome, New and York Milan, and when I sashayed down that cat-walk I made the other models look like moggies. Whosever show I was in became an instant success. I was the new Kate Moss, a white Naomi Campbell. The camera’s loved me. The designers loved me. The other models, needless to say, did not. Most of them would not even talk to me and those that did were cold and dismissive. I was a gimmick, a flash in the pan. The public would soon tire of my one horse act. (You had to wonder how many horses, they thought they had). I didn’t care. I appeared on the cover of Vogue, Harpers Bazaar and Cosmopolitan. And sometimes, when we were all in hair and make-up, I would reach around their backs and tap them one of them on the shoulders with my tail, a trick which never failed to reduce them to hysterics, but for which I earned no favours.

                My mother, of course, remained unimpressed by my success and was horrified by the amount of weight I had been obliged to lose, in order to squeeze into the size 0 fashions. I was not particularly happy myself. I had made a pile of money but had resorted to snorting cocaine to suppress my appetite and was, if the truth be told, perfectly miserable. Halfway through Paris fashion week I packed my bags and flew home, my eyes shielded by dark glasses and my tail tucked firmly between my legs.

                Mum and Dad were great. There were other things I could, go to college, get a job. What I needed now was rest and good old fashioned home cooking. My mother fussed around putting my clothes away for me around as I kicked off my clothes for a shower. I could have chased her out of my room, but I think she just wanted to be with me. All of sudden she exclaimed in a shocked tone. There was a strange purple mark on my tail. Had I not seen it. I craned my neck around. It was near the base of the tail close to where it grew out of my spine and I could not see it myself. “It is probably just a bruise, you know what airline seats ate like…,” I joked. But it clearly wasn’t and she had me down at the doctors’ surgery the next morning. My G.P shook his head. He was no expect on tails but he did not like the look of this. He made an urgent referral to a specialist who hummed and hawed and took a biopsy.

                It was not good news. In fact, that is the understatement of the year, it was dreadful news. The biopsy had revealed an unusual but unmistakably malignant carcinoma. It could have been caused by an old trauma, exacerbated by malnutrition and exhaustion, but one never knew.  I was lucky, it had not metastasized but soon would. There was only one treatment option. Amputation. I numbly wondered in what way I could be described as lucky. Did he not understand what he was suggesting?

                My mother, as always, took firm change. It was all very well, bemoaning the loss of a tail but it was better than the loss of my life, whatever I might think now. I submitted, leaving myself in her hands, as I had always done. But I don’t mind telling you it was the darkest time of my life. I could not imagine either myself of my life, without a tail.

                The surgery was booked in for the following day, there was, it seemed no time to be wasted.

I awoke with a pad on my back where my tail had been and a sense of unspeakable loss. Over the following weeks of recuperation, I had to relearn to walk as I had lost my balance and I would experience sensations where the tail had been. Phantom tail pain, apparently. Life seemed to have lost its flavour.

                Then, about a month late, I felt a bump, under the scar. I waited a day or two, telling myself it was just my imagination, but the next time I checked, it was still there, only it was bigger, now.

I told Mum who took a look. Had the carcinoma come back? My specialist checked it out a couple of days later and took some cells, but was pretty sure it was nothing to worry about.

                What can I tell you? Over the never six months the bump on my spine became bigger and bigger, growing longer and longer until my tail had pretty well regrown itself completely. This time the DNA chaps were wild with excitement. Did I understand what this meant? The cells in my tail held the key to cellular regeneration. Up until now, scientists had had only Lizard DNA to work with. This could be the greatest revolution in the history of medicine. Did I have any idea of my importance?

                My mother had shrugged happily and given me of those ‘I-told-you-so’ smirks. As for me, well, I can’t altogether get the hang of this new tail. Sometimes it does what I ask and others not so much but I have a growing apprehension that I hardly dare put into words. The truth is, and as strange as it sounds, I  don’t altogether trust it!

The Bookshop 2nd January 2012

Bill Stemp has kept the little bookshop in the unfashionable end of the old high street, since anyone could remember. He had never taken a day off in all the years the shop had been open for business and had opened its doors punctually at nine o’clock, come sun, rain, hail or snow. And, it would be safe to say, there was scarcely a man, woman or child in the entire town, or growing suburbs that not ventured into the dusty little emporium of literary commerce at some time in their long or short lives.

When he died of at the ripe old age of eighty-nine, his assistant and only heir, Graham, happened upon the happy idea of holding the old man’s wake in the shop itself. It seemed only fitting somehow, for he had no other family. Though, at first, striking the locals as a somewhat irregular and macabre proposition, the actual execution proved a great success. Folk came from far and wide to pay their last respects and more often than not, picked up an interesting little paperback or almanac by way of a keepsake, or purely because it had caught their eye. Business had never been better.

This particular happenstance gave our Graham pause for thought. He had fully intended to sell the old shop, once the legal formalities were completed but was having second thoughts. Kindle and the internet had put pay to the viability of most bookshops over the last ten years and privately Graham suspected that old Stemp had more or less survived on little more than the sniff of an oily rag. A fleeting perusal of the books, in the days following the old man’s death, had pretty well confirmed his suspicions.

Thus, he had originally planned to run the wake for three days, but by the end of the second afternoon had already resolved to extend this, so far as practical considerations allowed. Practical considerations being, in this case, a euphemism for the onset of those odours of decay that register themselves sickeningly and unmistakably upon the human olfactory system. Yet even by the end of the fourth day, Old Bill showed no signs of decomposition, and indeed looked as well as ever he had done in life.

What was there to lose? wondered Graham. He extended the wake indefinitely and folk began to speculate in hushed tones about the possibility of some supernatural phenomenon.

“Old Bill” they joked behind their hands, “As straight as a die in life and now incorruptible in death.”  And with such notoriety increasing, the little book shop had never been so full, or sales so robust. Graham almost thought he saw Bill wink at him once, but that of course would have been absurd. At the end of the first week, he held a stock take sale.” Make hay when the sun shines,” old Bill had always said, and Graham was not one to disagree with such sound commercial sentiments. Everything must go! Except old Bill, that is. Graham recognised a golden-egg laying goose when he saw one.

Of course, it could not continue forever. That is, the situation could not. Bill showed no sign of immanent change.  Half-way through the second week, two gentlemen from the town council’s health and safety enforcement team showed up and we all know that they possess neither flexibility nor a sense of humour. The wake would have to end and the shop would have to close. And they would have to insist on fumigation, it was non-negotiable. To make their point they nailed an official looking closure notice to the shop front door.

Graham shrugged resignedly and patted Bill fondly on the shoulder. He wondered briefly just how long the old man might remain in this state of suspended putrefaction, and the idea of propping him up in an armchair in his own little flat did flash briefly through his head, but I think we can all agree that would have been taking it too far.

And so, at last the old bookshop keeper was sent to a better place, in this case the local crematorium, (no open invitations to curious grave-robbers, thank you. Although, wouldn’t it have been fascinating to have been able to take  a peep inside a coffin, a year or two  later, has interment been permitted?) And once the will was settled, Graham sold the shop and moved to a small village in Wales, where he often thought about Bill and what might have been.

As for Bill, perhaps he did find himself in a better place and perhaps someone even set him up in a little bookshop on some corner of a cloud. But I very much doubt whether you would find a novel by Clive Barker or even Jacky Collins on those celestial shelves, and something tells me that even the harmless nonsense of Bridget Jones would fail to past muster.

A Father Xmas Carol Christmas 2020

The time is Christmas Eve. Just one minute to mid-night. A single standard lamp lights the corner of a dingy bookshelf-lined sitting room. There is no Xmas tree or sign of a Xmas decoration. It could be any night of the year. All at once there is a throbbing and rustling in the fire place. There is a dazzling flash of light and Santa Claus plops somewhat clumsily into the cold fire place.

“Hmm -I wondered when you would show up..” The tone is impatient, sarcastic even.

Santa Claus scratches his head and peers into the gloom. There is a figure seated in an armchair in the shadowed corner of the room.

“Now, now, Sir. You are meant to be in bed….” The words sound silly addressed to a grown man, but the truth is, the man, whoever he is, has caught Santa Claus off his guard.

“Do you really think I am waiting for presents?” the contempt in the voice is palpable. “Look around you? You silly little fat man, We don’t do Xmas here…”

Santa Claus doesn’t need a second glance, the austerity of the room and thick dust coating the books and shelves screams of neglect and despair. The air reeks of decay and lonely death. He is beginning to feel a little scared. He shuffles self consciously from foot to foot.

“Well, what can I help you with, then?” he asks politely, dropping his sack to the floor. The sack is almost empty, save for one remaining bulge. The long working night is all but over. Why did this have to happen now?

“It is more a question of what I wish to help you with..” replies the voice.

Santa swallows hard.

“Wh…who are you? I don’t think you are on my list?” he asks.

“My name is unimportant. I am, or was, whilst I lived, a social scientist. That is all I need to tell you and all you need to know. ” The man turns his face slowly and the light glints of a pair of heavy horn- rimmed spectacles.

Santa swallows again. He is not sure what a social scientist it. He is used to dealing with somewhat younger girls and boys.

The figure levers himself out of the chair and rises to his feet, all lanky six foot-six of him. Hunching his thin shoulders, he stalks across the room to the fireplace and places a long-fingered hand on Santa’s shoulder, then glares down into the old man’s face. Santa’s rosy cheeks turn suddenly white as chalk.

“I made the study of human misery my life’s work…” intones the tall man, waving the other hand towards the book shelves.  “And now it is time for a reckoning….”

Santa knees are beginning to knock.

“But I only ever want to bring pleasure and delight to little children, how can that have anything to do with human misery?”

“Hhhmmmm. How indeed?” muses the other…. “Come…I am going to take you on a little journey, and we shall see, what we shall see…”

He waves his hand as one sweeping away smoke, there is a strange slithering of time and space and the scene around them changes.

They stand together in another shabby front room. A dowdily dressed woman, kneels hunched before a tatty artificial Xmas tree, arranging a veritable pile of cheaply wrapped gifts. Santa goes to speak.     

“Why it is Mrs Patterson….” But his guide puts his fingers to his thin lips. “She cannot see us. This is Present Day Christmas. Observe and listen.”

The two remain standing. By and by the woman, sits back. She is weeping and mutters to herself in grief and anxiety. She wraps her arms around herself to keep warm, for although there is a gas fire in the little room, it is not turned on and it is spitefully cold.

“But why ever is she weeping?” whispers Santa.

“She is penniless…” states the tall man pointedly, as though this should be obvious… “-her husband left her for another woman back in January and does not bother with her kids or pay child support regularly.  She has a poorly paid part-time job, but can hardly make ends meet at the best of times. She regularly goes without food herself just to see her family get what they need…”

“But the presents!” chirps Santa…. “Look, how many, there are many more than I delivered for them…”

“She couldn’t bear the thought of them getting so few, so has bought them extra ones with pay day loans from unscrupulous money lenders who pray on single mothers such as she. You can see, she is worried sick about how she is going to pay the debt off – she just wanted to see their little faces happy for one day…”

Santa looks away in distress, but the scene is already fading.

The scene drifts back into focus. It is yet another room, dingier even, than the previous. A still more tatty Xmas tree occupies the corner and there is an odour of stale beer and tobacco. An old sock lies beneath the tree, but no other evidence that Christmas has touched this household.

A clock strike eight in the distance and a little girl skips into the room, her eyes lit with expectation. She is followed by a woman in a grubby dressing gown and rollers in her hair, with a cigarette hanging out of one corner of her mouth. The woman slouches onto the moth-eaten sofa, whilst the little girl whoops in delight.

“Look, Mummy, look. Santa Claus has been… I knew he would read my letter…”

Next to the tall man, Santa hangs his head in shame. He knows this little girl, it is the same Mrs. Patterson when she was just a child, perhaps eight years old.

She runs over to the tree and scoops up the sock, whilst her mother pours herself another drink…

Humming Away in a Manger, the little girl kneels and empties out the sock. On the carpet around her lie a second-hand doll, with crossed eyes and biro marks on its legs, a set of cheap felt-tip markers, a comb and a satsuma orange. The little girl stares at the gifts a moment, then tears well into her eyes. Try as she might, she is unable to hide her disappointment. She looks up at her mother.

“Well?” says her mother. “Aren’t you going to thank Father Christmas? After all the effort he made to bring you these gifts?”

“I don’t understand. Mummy…” says the little girl, hugging the doll to her. “I am grateful, really I am. But why should Santa bring other children so many presents and us so few? Mandy Davies says he is bringing her a dolls house and a new bicycle and a new dress, I don’t understand. I’ve tried so hard to be good all year. I tried not so hard to be on his naughty list.”

Her mother smirks.

“Naughty, nice? What’s that got to do with anything? People like us will never be good enough for Santa. Mandy Davies’ mother certainly does think you good enough to be her daughter’s friend, I can tell you.”

The little girl casts her eye downward. It is true. The other girls laugh at her hand-me-down school uniform and turn their backs when she tries to join in their games in the playground. Santa must feel the same.

The tall man turns to Santa Claus. “So, what have you got to say for yourself? What exactly has this little girl done to deserve such pathetic presents? Has she been so very bad? Come on man, you are the one with the lists?”

Santa spreads his hands in dismay. “It’s not my fault…I am limited to the budget depending on the family’s circumstances.”

“Yet, still you insist on disseminating the propaganda to these children that it depends on their intrinsic moral worthiness.. and they believe it. After all, Who would not believe Santa Claus?”

Santa finds himself lost for words, but the scene is already changing.

They are back in Mrs. Patterson’s little front room again. The church-bells proclaim another Xmas morning.

“Tomorrow morning….” sighs the tall man. “You recall, the same Mrs Patterson, so desperate that her own children should not grow up believing they are undeserving, as she did, that she has thrown herself on the mercy of ruthless loan sharks.

He is interrupted as two children, a girl and boy of about elven and twelve respectively, burst into the room, followed by their mother, who clasps her hands in anticipation at their delight, despite her own anxiety.

But, it is not to be. The children fall upon the parcels, tearing them open without bothering read the loving messages scribbled on the gift tags.

The little girl holds up a boldly decorated T-shirt…her face falls

“OMG, Mum. It is not even a designer label…. What do think the other girls are going to think, when they see me in this…”

“But you wanted one with that logo….”

“What-ever…”The girl shakes her head in disbelief, and moves onto the next parcel. Her brother meanwhile is fumbling with a carboard box. It contains a mobile phone, he unpacks the device, then pulls a face…

“Do me a favour, Mum. Last years’ model….I’ll look like a right dork with this…better make sure my mates don’t see it..”

And so it goes on. The children, pouting with increasing contempt whilst their mother is dying inside.

“So much for trying to be good,” mutters the girl to herself, “I might as well give up now. Kylie cheeks her parents all the time, and I’ll bet Santa brought her what she wanted…”

The scene fades. Santa Clause stands dumbfounded, back in the tall man’s cold parlour. But his ordeal is not yet over.

“You see…” says the tall man coldly, pointing an accusing finger. “ – witness the damage you have done by  perpetuating the lie that the good are rewarded and those who get nothing, do so because they are undeserving. What about the reality? That they never receive much worth having, because they never had the same advantages in the first place…?”

“But…but…” tried Santa Claus, yet to no avail. The tall man continues his relentless diatribe.

“You prop up the capitalist deception and class system that has systematically repressed the poor since mankind stepped out of the caves, yet everyone thinks you are this totally cool nice guy…..”

Santa Claus hangs his head again, yet even now a remembrance is dawning.

“Hang on a minute…yes, I remember now. Aren’t you Anthony Smith?”

The tall man stops mid-sentence.

“Er, Ye…es. What of it?”

“It’s coming back to me now…yes, little Tony Smith. A little boy with darned trousers and holes in his shoes. Christmas  1973. Your Dad had lost his job in the pit closures and times were hard. You had sent me a letter, asking for a Hornby steam engine, it was all you had ever wanted…but, sadly, it was well out of the budget.”

The tall man’s mouth has fallen open and there are tears dripping of his long nose….

“You had been such a good boy, helping your Ma and all, and studying so hard, so you could pass the eleven plus and get a scholarship for the grammar school, like your parents wanted…so you could have the things they could never give you…”

The tall man is sobbing now… “But you put me on the naughty list, and all I got was a matchbox car and a chocolate orange…and I went through all those years, unable to forget the injustice of….”

Santa frowns.

“Just a moment, Tony lad…..”

The man in the red and white suit stoops down and fumbles in his sack for the one remaining present, then holds it out to the tall man.

Antony Smith knits his eyebrows, takes the gift and pulls back the wrapping paper.

His eyes light up. A brand new bright shiny Hornby steam engine.

Almost lost for words he manages to stammers his thanks.

“You are most welcome…” smiles Santa, “but if I don’t get going now, Xmas morning will never start….” And with that he vanishes back up the chimney in a puff of red smoke.

The social scientist sits back in his armchair and cradles the red engine in his arms.

“Happy Xmas, Santa…” he whispers, as his thin body, able to rest in peace at last, dissolves into a million points of light that hover in the gloom then waft upwards through the chimney, and into the night sky.

“Happy Xmas, Tony….” Echoes back a voice from across the rooftops. And for once, for a deceased social scientist at least, it really is.

The Child-Eater

Once upon a time there lived a child-eater, who would eat up tiny small children, tooth and hair, and blood and bone and never leave a morsel behind. Sometimes, if he ate too quickly, the child-eater would vomit the child back up again and you did not want to be around when that happened as it was not a pleasant sight. All in all, he was not wildly popular and seldom found himself to parties. The child-eater did however provide one useful social function, for when boys were beastly and mean, and girls would refuse to eat their spinach or to go straight to sleep, their parents would threaten them with a visit from the child-eater who was both inexplicably and inextricably drawn to badly behaved or disobedient children. Furthermore, you could be sure that he kept lists of who was naughty and who was nice, and knew where they lived, much in the same way as his distant cousin, Santa Claus.

One day, however, the child-eater arrived at the house of a certain young lad, named Brian and decided he had bitten off more than he could chew, if you will forgive the pun. Brian was one of those unfortunate young lads, who seems always to have constant stream of snot running from his nostrils, a high-pitched whine in his voice and earwax from his glue ears smeared across his T-shirt. On top of this he was decidedly overfed and, given as he was to inactivity and overdosing on computer games, had turned to flab at an exceptionally early age. The child-eater whilst having no objection to a nice bit of fat when it had turned to well-salted crackling in a hot oven, had developed an abhorrence for the slithery feel of raw fat, which he could hardly think about without gagging. So, when Brian gawped up at him and wiped his snotty nose across his already decidedly unpalatable sleeve, the Child-eater heaved, turned on his heel and fled, deciding at that very moment to hang up his knife and fork and retire to a deserted beach in Noosa.

Now all this might have been well and good, had it not been for the ensuing deterioration in children’s behavior. For with no threat to quell childish rebellion and insubordination, parents were beginning to lose control. Children were gaining the upper hand, and there was no telling where it might end. Something had to be done. Much head scratching went on and finally a delegation of beleaguered parents was elected to travel to Noosa and hold a parley with the child-eater, who was widely regarded as having reneged on his duty.

It was of course a delicate business. The child eater demanded certain guarantees and improvement in presentation, whilst the parents in their turn, anxious that their own precious darling might be next, took the opportunity to renegotiate the terms of the contract. It was agreed that only the most horrible and unrepentant of children would be eaten, whilst those in need of more moderate castigation might forfeit a nose or perhaps an ear, and, in extremis, even a finger or toe, the terror of which would suffice to ensure adherence to improved standards of conduct.

The bargain was struck. The child-eater came out of early retirement and children were put on strict diets and instructed in the regular and timely use of handkerchiefs.

And needless to say, they all – well that is to say, most of them lived happily ever.

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