Extracts From The Minister Abroad – A Cheltenham Cropper

If you can keep your head when all around you
are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you happen to be in Greggs in Cheltenham, having purchased sufficient sandwiches and crisps for lunch for three adults, the best way of getting back to where you parked the car is to retrace your steps up the main shopping thoroughfare, turn left at the junction, pass Primark, go over a main road and you will find yourself back at the car parks. The one on the left is currently undergoing redevelopment and it is the one on the right which most people use.
This is the short journey undertaken by our three stalwarts, The Minister aka The Champ, Hamdan Almakstobbytoum and The Bookie Basher, on the first day of The Paddy Power meeting in November 2015. It is normally a hazardless journey, thanks in no small way to the local council lowering the centre of the pavements at all the road crossings, allowing easier access for the wheelchairs of the disabled. The edges on either side of the lowered section are of course normal height. It was at one of these crossings where it happened. Just at the entrance of the currently unused car park on the left. I, The Minister, led the way as usual, setting a cracking pace. The Bookie Basher, laden with Gregg’s sandwiches and crisps, was close behind. Hamdan, struggling with housemaids knee, was dragging his leg dramatically in last place. I’m not sure if he was auditioning for a part in the pantomime, Treasure Island, or trying to impersonate Richard the Third. On reflection I think he should limiit his thespian ambitions to the shakespearean role as he looked ‘nowt’ like Widow Twankey.
At the site of the incident I, sensibly, chose the lower central part of the pavement and my progress was unimpeded.However just as I cleared the obstacle I became aware of such a clatter behind me and my suspicion that something was amiss was exacerbated when a Gregg’s Ham Salad Sandwich, in thankfully robust packaging, came flying past me. I also became aware of a packet of Walker’s Cheese & Onion making its own way swiftly down the main highway. I just had time to pluck the crisps from under the wheels of a number 9 bus, Cleeve Hill via The Racecourse, before turning my attention to what had happened. I was confronted by the sight of The Bookie Basher spreadeagled face down on the ground surrounded by sandwiches, which had only this morning been lovingly prepared by representatives of Greggs & Co. He was doing a pretty good impersonation of a beached whale and I thought where’s Captain Ahab when you need him. By this time several onlookers were rushing to assist. Even Hamdan, produced a personal best dead heating with an octogenarian, to get there. And, I think he would have beat her if she didn’t have the advantage of a walking stick and he hadn’t been reciting “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”. I wouldn’t care but he doesn’t have a kingdom. Not even an allotment.
“What happened”, I queried and everybody started talking at once. Eventually things quietened down and The Bookie Basher related his version of events.
“I thought I could take the lead on your right hand side but did not allow for the increased height of the pavement, clipped the top and, to use a steeplechasing term, pecked on landing”, he explained.
“More like arse over tit”, observed one astute observer, neatly avoiding steeplechasing terms.
“The monsieur, he went down like, how you say Le bag de hammers?”, contributed one foreign gentleman, who may or may not have been using steeplechasing terms.
There was also an intervention by someone who professed to be a medical practitioner but was in reality a trainee vet. A fact that became abundantly clear when he started counting The Bookie Basher’s teeth. His diagnosis, “This horse will never work again” was greeted with hoots of derision by the increasing assemblage who took great delight in chasing him down the high street, threatening to thrust the aforementioned vet’s humane despatcher up his rectal passage, prior to pulling the trigger.
The Bookie Basher was by this time on his feet and looking slightly embarrassed but OK. He reported no head injuries but a slight grazing of the right knee, which produced an audible gasp of relief from the congregation with the realisation that mouth to mouth resuscitation would not be necessary and the need to draw straws was no longer required. The crowd consequently began to disperse with lots of back slapping and well wishing for the victim, who demonstrated his well being by making progress, albeit with a slight limp, back to the car.
The good news is that all the sandwiches and crisps, having been harvested, and put back in the Gregg’s carrier bag by the ever helpful congregation, were undamaged and an enjoyable lunch was had by all concerned. The drawback was that I, The Minister, was accompanied to the racecourse by “Limp Along Leslie” on one side and a “Richard the Third wannabee” on the other.
The Bookie Basher’s wretched day ended with no winners but he was able to console himself and ease the pain by taking whisky in the evening. Somethings, thankfully, never change.

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Extracts from “The Minister” Abroad Documenting a Life of Total Incompetence.

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
but make allowance for their doubting too;
…..
If you need to get from Blaydon to Bamburgh on the first monday in November, picking up your eldest brother-in-law, Terry, on the way at 9am, the best way to go is by car. “The Minister”, having made a study of such things, knew that the main ingredients for a successful trip were:
(a) A car;
(b) Car Keys, with which to initiate operation of (a); and
(c) Sufficient fuel, which when added to (a), would allow successful completion of the journey there and back.
There are others but those 3 elements are definitely needed.

Armed with ingredient( b), “The Minister” set out at 8-30 am to make successful assignation with ingredient (a), which he knew to be strategically parked in the garage overnight. The ever reliant car key (a) did it’s job and “The Minister” set out for Morrison’s Petrol Station, in good time, to ensure that ingredient (c) was also in place. At this stage everything was going to plan and a successful outcome was confidently expected.

In truth nobody knows how “The Minister” got his name but this is a good point to try and throw some light on to it. The theory, which I support, is that it originates from the early 1960s when he spent some time as a missionary for The British Council in darkest British West Hartlepool, which at that time was in the early stages of colonisation. The British Council, in their wisdom, refused to send bishops or above as reports were coming back that the natives were hanging primates on the beach. They opted for the, some say incompetent, I prefer inexperienced, Minister. At that time the expected lifespan in the area was very short, with Missionary Sandwich and Missionaire en Crut aux Champignons alternating as Le Plat du Jour in most of the area. The story of his survival is shrouded in mystery, and part of a much longer story, but the belief is that his incompetence was viewed, by the local tribal leaders as a mental illness and they took care of him whilst christening him, Le Ministere Extraordinaire. I’ll leave you to make your own mind up on the veracity of this version.
I apologise for the digression but it helps give new readers of these journals some background information.
“The Minister”, with song in his heart, made steady progress to the local Morrison’s where the manufacturer’s recommended unleaded petrol can be purchased at very competitive rates. Although the station was quite busy, it took “The Minister”, having practised the operation many times in the past, no time at all to fill the tank to the brim. Retrieving his credit cards from his pocket he set out to pay at the kiosk. It was at this point that the, ever alert, “Minister”, became aware something was wrong. When taking his cards out of his pocket he noticed the pocket was left empty, and he believed the resident left in situ should be a set of keys including a car key, which for those paying attention will realise, is one of the main constituents to a successful outcome of the days enterprise. A quick survey of the only other pocket in the jacket, considered ‘de rigeur’ for such occasions, showed that this also was empty and devoid of any keys. A quick check of all other pockets in todays ensemble proved to be futile. Ignition? No. Inside the car? No. Under the car? No. In the vicinity of the car? No.
“The Minister” was puzzled. The keys were in his possession minutes earlier. He could not have got the car here without them. They had to be on his person or in the vicinity. The suspicion that someone may have picked them up accidently or deliberately began to gnaw unhelpfully at him.
At this point other motorists started taking an interest. All of them came up with the same helpful suggestions.
” Have you checked your pockets”?
“Is it in the ignition”?
“In the car. under the car, over the car”?
Knowing that the keys must be in the vicinity somewhere “The Minister” gave myself, taking care not to offend the ever growing assemblage, a thorough personal frisk, but with no success. He gave up and set about planning to somehow retrieve the spare key held at home. In the meantime he still had to pay for the petrol. He explained the situation to the kiosk attendants who, ever helpful, asked, “Have you checked your pockets”? And the whole rigmarole was gone through again.
The splendid emloyees of Morrisons agreed to the car remaining whilst “The Minister” started to plan the retrieval of the spare key.
The first step was to inform Brother-in Law Terry of the problem. He, to his credit, immediately grasped the urgency of the situation. He was, after all, a noted member of the local constabulary in his heyday; rising steadily to the post of Detective Chief Inspector. Being known as “Tel of the Yard” did him no harm and added a lot of credibility to his image in the ‘dog eat dog’ world of promotion panels. Unlike his contemporary PC Thomas Thrower whose soubriquet “Tosser of the Yard” was, in hindsight, a foreseeable handicap. Terry arrived within minutes. Without waiting for the car to come to a complete standstill he was out and sliding effortlessly over the bonnet before coming to an elegant crumpled heap on station forecourt. Old habits die hard. It wasn’t difficult to guess what would be his first words.
“Have you checked your pockets?” No doubt under the illusion this would be an original thought. “The Minister”, weary by now, deigned to reply but instead waited for the questions regarding ignition etc to be delivered first before allowing his body language to tell the ex-detective all he needed to know.
Leaving the station staff to continue searching the car and surrounding area, using the light from mobile phones where deemed necessary, Terry and “The Minister” were off in pursuit of the spare key; all the time hoping the car was still there when they got back. The tension was mounting.
It didn’t take long to get the spare key and return to find the car still standing there, but looking slightly forlorn and unwanted. The petrol station staff had, by this time, given up the search and agreed to exchanging telephone numbers to contact each other in the event of the keys turning up.
After a small diversion, to leave Terry’s car at his house, he and “The Minster” were off and away up the A1 on the way to Bamburgh. Only 30 minutes behind schedule but still mystified as to what happened to the keys.
The purpose of going to Bamburgh was to meet up with another brother-in-law, Paul, who was also going there in his car. The intention being to use two cars to enable all three to walk the stretch of The Coastal Path between Beadnell and Bamburgh. Two cars would meet at Bamburgh. One car to take all three to Beadnell. Walk from Beadnell to Bamburgh. Take the other car back to Beadnell to pick up the car that had been left there.
Paul, of course, was blissfully unaware of the drama which had taken place and would be at least 30 minutes ahead. He had to be told what had happened and it fell to Terry, by use of mobile telephonic equipment, to explain that he and “The Minister” would be late. Paul, second in line to the patriarchal throne, to his credit, took the news in his stride. The lack of any linguistic violence suggested he was totally unperturbed, apart from incoherent mutterings about carers and care homes, by the news that he would have a good half hour wait before the remainder of the expeditionary force reached him.
The journey to Bamburgh for “The Minister” and “Tel of the Yard” was uneventful and they reached the destination in relatively good time. No time was wasted in transferring all the walking equipment to Paul’s car and the full expeditionary force set off for Beadnell.
At Beadnell it only remained for “The Minister” to climb into his walking boots and reacquaint himself with his jacket, which he had taken off for the journey.
It was when he threw the jacket around his shoulders that he heard the noise. It was a metallic jangling sound. Much like you would expect to hear from a set of keys, including a Ford car key, being thrown about. He shook the jacket. There it was again. Could it be? He checked the pockets. Nothing there! He removed the jacket and began systematically feeling all round it until eventually his hand came across something solid, which he assumed must be in the lining.
“Ah. Ha”, he exclaimed.
This alerted brothers 1 and 3 in the family hierarchy that something was up and they started to pay closer attention.
“The Minister” continuing his search of the jacket had found an opening. A secret opening.
His hand trembling he inserted it into the opening and brought out a slightly grubby blue handkerchief, 2 used tickets for Gloucester v Harlequins Rugby Union circa March 2017 and a set of keys, including a Ford car key. At that moment the clouds parted, angels sang and the contents of his hand seemed illuminated by brilliant bright sunshine. It was a miracle. The missing keys had amazingly been reconstituted before their very eyes. It was as if they had been in the jacket all the time.
The brothers momentarily dumbstruck soon found their voices without any attempt at sincerity.
Terry. “My lips are sealed.”
Paul. “It will go no further.” Fingers already rapidly accessing the texting keys of his mobile phone.
It was however relief all round and the mini miracle would make it a day to remember.
The walk got underway immediately following a brief interlude at an emergency roadside urinal (the public facilities being closed for the winter) and with the sun shining brightly and a wonderful lunch at Seahouses, roughly halfway, it was completed without any further drama. Another section of the coastal path had been completed. It was a wonderful day out and one which none of the participants will ever forget. It is not every day you witness a miracle!

Concessionary Bus Pass

On the occasion of my mother’s 40th birthday, she received the following letter (written by my Dad).

NORTHERN GENERAL TRANSPORT

Transport House

Winlaton Bus Depot

NE22 1EY

18th February 1990

Dear Mrs Allen,

It has come to our attention that today is your birthday and I am pleased to inform you that you are now entitled to apply for a concessionary bus pass. I would be grateful, therefore, if you could please complete the enclosed questionnaire and forward it to our Head Office together with your Birth Certificate, Pension Allowance Book and a recent photograph; preferably of yourself; although in certain circumstances a near relative or family pet will suffice.

We will also require documentary evidence in the form of sworn statements, from two members of the clergy (one MUST be a Pope) who know you intimately, to confirm that you are indeed still alive.

These statements need to be backed up by forensic evidence so will you please provide samples of your own:

Blood;

Urine;

Skin tissue;

Toenails;

Teeth (no dentures please);

Hair (if you have any).

The samples will, following analysis at the company’s laboratory in Crawcrook, be retained by us so it is strongly advised that you form no lasting attachments to them.

The pass, if granted, may be used from 10am to 4pm Monday to Friday and all day Saturday and Sunday and by surreptitiously slipping the driver a fiver, he will do his best to find you a seat. Seats must, of course, be relinquished to anyone paying the full fare. Alternatively the company also has available a full range of shooting sticks which are authorised for use on all our vehicles and can be hired at very competitive rates for the duration of your journey. Ask for details from your friendly neighbourhood GO Ahead Northern driver.

The concessionary pass is for your use only and is not transferable. It must be available for inspection at all times. To assist our inspectors in their duties, the company insists that a unique 16 digit personal identification number be tattooed to your wrist. (Please state preference left or right on your application). GO Ahead Northern will, free of charge, introduce you to our In House Tattooist and a list of his charges are enclosed for your information. The company reserves the right NOT to accept work from unauthorised artists as proof of identity.

I am under instruction from the Minister of Transport to remind you that it is an offence, under the 1960 Transport Act, as amended by the Bill of Rights 1989, to remove, change or deface the tattoo in any way. Any attempt to defraud the company by “having your arm off” will lead to the pass being permanently withdrawn.

The company operates under strict codes of behaviour and insist that pass holders do NOT interfere with the comfort or convenience of fare paying passengers and above all refrain from sitting on the driver’s knee. All aids to walking including sticks and walking frames must be stored in the receptacles provided.

Finally, on behalf of the company, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you a very happy birthday and look forward to receiving your application prior to senility creeping in.

Yours sincerely

 

Emma Royds-Hurt

(Public Relations)

James Bond Gets Old (A Work In Progress)

Bond stood under the hot needles of water and his eyes stung as the sweat from his brow flowed into them. His breathing continued to labour and his heart rate showed a stubborn reluctance to slow. He stared down at the greying curls of hair on his pot belly and sighed. He turned the shower tap to cold and stood under the icy blast for as long as he could stand it, then turned it off. He tied a towel around his waist and hobbled back towards his locker where Bill Tanner stood, drying his hair vigorously.

“Bloody nearly beat you that time, James,” he said.

Bond nodded, not wanting to give away the fact that he was still out of breath. He zipped his wooden Slazenger squash racquet back into his bag. Tanner’s was one of those new-fangled titanium jobs. Bond didn’t care for them. They felt wrong in his hand and although he had lost a yard or two of pace around the court, he felt he could still rely on his phenomenal hand-eye coordination to make up for the disparity in head-size.

“I thought that last game would never end. What did it finish? 13-11?”

Bond nodded again. “Your serve’s definitely getting better, Bill,” he said. “That’s half the battle, getting your opponent on the back foot.”

“Yes. My backhand volley still needs a bit of work though.”

Bond dressed carefully, but efficiently. His shirt might have been fastened moments before he fastened it around his damp torso. Dots of moisture showed through on his breast. He tucked it carefully into his trousers and lowered himself carefully onto the bench. He slid one sock on easily. The other, he squeezed over a bunion the size of a golf ball. He made a mental note to remind himself that he ought to see the doctor about it. He knew that he wouldn’t though.

 

As was the ritual, Tanner bought the first round in The Coal Hole on The Strand. He placed the double vodka in front of Bond and smiled to himself as Bond sprinkled a few grains of pepper onto the surface.

“Old habits, huh James?”

“If only,” replied Bond, bitterly rolling up his sleeve to apply a nicotine patch to his arm.”

“You’re not telling me you’ve given up?”

Bond shrugged and drank half of his drink. “Bloody quack,” he said. “Apparently there’s some kind of shadow on my left lung. They’ve done a biopsy.”

“Blimey. Sorry James.”

Bond shook his head. “It’s probably nothing,” he said, instinctively touching the wooden table.

They were silent for a few moments. A speaker above their heads burst into life, blaring out an old Beatles number. Without speaking, they agreed to finish their drinks and head elsewhere. The cold air hit the back of Bond’s throat and provoked a coughing fit. He bent double and Tanner placed a hand on his back. Bond wiped his mouth on a handkerchief and they carried on.

“Sure you’re ok, old man?” said Tanner.

“Never better,” said Bond, palming the bloody handkerchief. “Speaking of old men, how is the cranky old bastard?”

“He’s still hanging on. I went to see him yesterday. Kept calling the nurse ‘Moneypenny’ and asking her to send in double o seven.”

Bond couldn’t help smiling. “I’ve not been for a while. He didn’t know me last time I went.”

“No,” said Tanner, bowing his head slightly. “Nor me.”

 

It was easy to miss the Nell Gwynne Tavern as you walked up towards Trafalgar Square but Bond and Tanner turned up the narrow alley without breaking stride like automatons who knew instinctively the number of paces from Aldwich. There may have been enough room to swing a cat inside, but certainly not a big one. A lynx would have been out of the question. As a result, space was at a premium and the stools around the bar like Mayfair on the Monopoly board. Bond squeezed between them and the Irish barmaid, recognising him, poured their usual; a pint of Guinness – for Tanner – and a double Grey Goose with two ice cubes. He handed over a five pound note and perused the chalkboard menu. It read: Cheese and Onion or Salt and Vinegar. Bond pocketed his change without counting it. Even after several years, he still hadn’t gotten used to this blasted decimalisation.

He squeezed his way through the narrow bar, savouring the confused amalgamation of different types of tobacco in his lungs. It didn’t compare to his own special blend of Morlands with the three gold rings but it was better than nothing. He ducked his head and made his way gingerly down the steep steps to the gents. It seemed like these days his bladder held less than it used to and he was back and forth to the lavatory every other round.

He stood at the urinal trough for some time before anything happened. The door opened behind him and he stepped to one side to make room for the newcomer. There was barely enough room for two men to stand side by side.

“Well, well, well,” said a voice in a thick Russian accent. “Double O Seven, I believe?”

Bond tried to turn but something cold and metallic pressed into the small of his back.

“Smert Shpionam,” said the voice. Bond’s heart stopped. He knew the words, of course. “Death to spies” in Russian. The skin on the back of his hand itched. There was something about the voice though. The accent wasn’t quite right. There was too much of a drawl to it…

Bond smiled and in one quick movement, he grabbed the metal hook and spun round, twisting the arm up the back of his assailant.

“Woah, careful there James. You’re gonna pull my arm off. What’s left of it, anyway.”

“Felix Leiter, you old scoundrel,” said Bond, grinning at the not-so-sandy-haired Texan. “What the devil are you doing here?”

“Long story. Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you about it.”

“Bourbon? I’m not sure they’ll do it with branch water, mind.”

Bond helped Felix back up the stairs to the bar. They were steep enough if you had two legs. He bought a double Jack Daniels and introduced him to Tanner. There were no seats in the bar so they stood outside in the lane. There were a few spots of rain but nothing to soak them through.

“So, Felix,” said Bond. “Are you here on business, or pleasure?”

“Bit of both, actually,” said Felix. “It’s all panic stations at Langley. Called up everyone in their little black book. I’m supposed to be retired, Godammit. Interrupted me right in the middle of my golf swing.”

“Golf swing?”

“Hey, you think just cuz I got one arm I can’t play golf?” I can’t hit it a real long way but it goes in the right direction.”

“So you’re no longer at Pinkertons?”

Felix shook his head. “Uh uh,” he said. “Got out a year or two back.”

“About the same for me,” said Bond. “Anyway, how on Earth did you know where to find me?”

“Moneypenny. She told me you’d most likely be in one of these places. I tried The Coal Hole first.”

“You must have just missed us.”

“Hey, you must be losing your touch. You never used to be this predictable.”

Bond shrugged. “I’m not sure I have the enemies I used to,” he said, with a hint of melancholy.

“Still looked like you messed your pants when you thought I was from SMERSH, though.”

Bond snorted. “You old fraud. That accent was as phoney as hell.” He held up his glass. “Another?”

“I’ll get em.”

Moments later, Felix came back outside balancing three glasses against each other. “Anyway,” he said. “I got a suite at The Savoy so I just had to stroll up the road to find you.”

“The Savoy?” Bond whistled. “Very nice. If you get a massage, ask for Yvette. Tell her I sent you.” He winked.

“It ain’t like that. Officially I’m on official business. However much of a waste of time I think it is.”

“Waste of time?”

“I’ve only been sent over here to liaise with you.”

Bond didn’t quite spit his drink out. “With me? But I’m retired!”

I know that. That’s what I told em, but they seem to have you pegged as some kinda superhero over there. Clearly they’ve never met’cha.”

“Even when I was still, you know, active, I couldn’t have helped in England. That’s MI5’s jurisdiction. Or maybe Special Branch down at Scotland Yard.”

I know that. And deep down, I reckon even they know that. But you see how desperate they are?”

Bond shook his head. “It’s madness.”

“It’s not like MI5 won’t be involved. I guess they think they have enough on their plate. The way I heard it, they’re stretched pretty thin these days, dealing with the IRA.”

“Well that’s certainly true,” said Bond, finishing his drink. “They get dozens of anonymous bomb threats every day. Probably 99 out of 100 are hoaxes but I’ll be damned if I know how they filter all the cranks.”

“Anyway,” said Felix. “Once I found out I was getting an expenses-paid trip to London outta it, I stopped arguing, you know what I’m saying? I figured I’d catch up with my old buddy, maybe catch a West End show or two, and let the professionals sort out this mess.”

“Sounds good to me.”

 

A Bank Holiday Ghost Story

Stella hated bank holiday Mondays. The long weekend always seemed to exacerbate the weekly anxiety of going back to work. The problem with bank holidays, she thought. Is that although you get an extra day off, you get two Sundays, not two Saturdays. To avoid thinking about her gargantuan to-do list the following day, she took a bottle of Pinot Grigio out of the fridge. Just one glass, she thought. Just to take the edge off the dread. That was another problem with bank holidays. A full week of work had to be crammed into only four days. Stella held the bottle and twisted the aluminium collar holding the screw cap in place. It came away with a satisfying click. She savoured the glug-glug-glug of the wine as it poured into the chilled glass and she curled up on the settee.
Stella turned on the television and scrolled through the channels one by one, struggling to find something she wanted to watch. It seemed to be wall-to-wall snooker. She gave up and turned on the radio. She picked up her phone and absently scrolled through Facebook. It was filled with people who seemed to have had much more interesting weekends than her. Denise and Mike had been to Amsterdam. Sam and Jason had been camping in the Lake District. There had been a picture of the two of them at the top of Helvellyn. The only mountain Stella had scaled had been the pile of ironing that had threatened to take over the living room. She sighed and switched to Twitter. All that served to do was to remind her of the forthcoming election. She felt her anxiety rise again and locked her phone. She poured a second glass of wine.
By the time she had finished her third glass – the last of the bottle – Stella was feeling thoroughly depressed and more than a little tipsy. She was just falling off to sleep when she was startled by the buzz of her phone. She was disappointed to find it was a text from her mobile phone provider. She checked Facebook and Twitter again. No notifications. She opened Snapchat and took a selfie. God! I look awful, she thought. She flicked through the filters to try out the various augmented reality options. The software detected her face and added a pair of dog’s ears to her head and a snout to her nose. When she opened her mouth, a tongue lapped out of the mouth of her image. She sent the video to Debbie, her friend from work, and closed her eyes. The image of the video stayed in her vision, projected onto the back of her eyelids for a time. She decided that she was more drunk than she thought. It appeared as though there was a second set of dog’s ears over her shoulder, as if the software had detected another face standing behind her. Within minutes, she was asleep and snoring loudly.

Bleary-eyed, Debbie stared at her computer screen and scanned the various trending topics on Twitter. She scrolled through several pages before she realised she hadn’t taken anything in. She sighed and glanced at the clock. How could it only be 10:30? It felt like she’d been at work for hours. She heard footsteps behind her and without thinking, a reflex action in her left hand pushed the ‘alt’ and ‘tab’ keys on her keyboard and the screen toggled to a half-completed spreadsheet. Her manager sat in the swivel chair next to hers.
“Morning, Debs,” he said. Debbie’s skin crawled. She hated that contraction of her name, and the intrinsic familiarity it implied.
“Morning, Kevin,” she replied, covering up her shudder by rubbing her arms and pulling a scarf around her neck.
Kevin nodded to the blank screen next to hers. “No sign of Stella?”
Debbie frowned. “No,” she said. “Has she not called in?”
Kevin shook his head. “I just wanted to check if you’d heard anything before I call her.”
Debbie shrugged. “Sorry.”
“She’s probably just stuck in traffic,” said Kevin. “She might be stuck in a tunnel with no signal or something.”
Debbie considered pointing out the fact that if that were the case, there’d be little point calling her. She decided against it. “Traffic was fine for me this morning,” she said. She took her phone out of her bag. There were no missed calls or messages but there was a Snapchat notification in the top left hand corner. Debbie didn’t really get Snapchat. She supposed she was too old for it really. Just another one of those things that kids these days seemed to be into that went over her head. She glanced at her ‘Flirty at Thirty’ mug and winced. When did she start saying ‘kids these days’?
Kevin picked up Stella’s phone and dialled her number. Debbie opened up the message. It was one of those silly filtered videos that made the person look like some kind of animal. Stella sent them from time to time but Debbie didn’t usually bother watching them. Something was different this time though. There was a second set of dog’s ears over Stella’s shoulder. She peered at the screen, nosey about who Stella was with but she couldn’t actually make out a face. Just a disembodied pair of ears. Debbie put on her glasses and something flashed on the screen just as the video, infuriatingly, ended. She heard Kevin leaving a voicemail message. He dialled Stella’s home number.
Debbie started the video again. She guessed Stella would get some kind of notification but she didn’t mind that. There was something odd about it. She watched intently to the end this time. Just as the countdown clock clicked to zero, she shrieked and dropped her phone, cracking the screen.
Kevin put down the receiver on Stella’s phone. “What’s up?” he said.
Debbie’s hand was shaking as she picked up her phone. “Nothing,” she said. “Just burned my hand on my coffee.” It was a lie. Her coffee was lukewarm at best.
“I can’t get through to her on her mobile or landline,” said Kevin. “I’ll give her another half an hour and try again.
“No!” said Debbie, loud enough to surprise herself. A few people turned to look at her. She felt the blood rush to her face and her ears throbbed.
“No?”
“I want to make sure she’s alright. I’ll take a long lunch and go round her place.”
Kevin seemed to think it over as if in his head, he was thinking of an excuse to say no. “OK,” he said, eventually. Debbie guessed that he was relieved it would save him a job.
Debbie felt sick as she climbed into her car. She looked at herself in her rear-view mirror. She wondered if her eyes had been playing tricks on her. They must have been, and yet a part of her mind knew that they hadn’t. That they had actually seen what she thought they’d seen: a pair of glowing red eyes; and although she wasn’t sure of the definition, she was certain that the word ‘malevolent’ could have been invented for them.

Debbie pulled into Stella’s cul-de-sac as an ambulance was coming out. There was a slowly-dispersing crowd outside her house and somehow, Debbie knew. She parked the car with one wheel on the kerb but she didn’t care and she jumped out to ask the nearest person what was going on.
“I’m so sorry,” said an old women in a dressing gown and grubby white slippers. “Did you know her?”
Debbie noted the past tense and felt tears coat her eyes, blurring her vision. She nodded. In a daze, she heard only snippets of what the woman said: “Such a shame”, “so young as well” and something about a “faulty Carbon Monoxide detector, apparently.”
Numb, Debbie sat down on the kerb. She watched the Snapchat video again. This time, Stella’s face was gone and all that was left was the comical second set of dog’s ears and those penetrating, hateful, crimson eyes.

Farewell NaPoWriMo

April’s finally over
And May is on its way
Thirty poems written
One for every day

Some were truly terrible
Some were merely bad
Some were silly nonsense
Some were slightly sad

But it can never be said
That I hadn’t tried
And the fact that I did it
Fills me up with pride

After thirty days of rhyme
Filled with lows and lows
I’m going to spend my time
Writing purely prose

I sure know how to pick ’em…

I sure know how to pick ’em
The women for whom I fall
Too far out of my league
To notice me at all

It always seems to be
That when I fall in love
She’s too pretty or too smart for me
Or all of the above

Some I’m scared to approach
And I’m too shy on the phone
Some are already married
Or in the wrong time zone

If it’s not to be my fate
To end up on the shelf
I suppose that first I need
To learn to love myself