Friday, 5 December 2008

Daytrippers

There was a man who had a wallet more spacious than a Pickfords warehouse. Now, there is nothing you might say that was extraordinary about this, except that to get into this wallet would require the use of high explosives and an army of gnomes digging day in, day out for weeks. Actually, most gnomes draw the line when it is clear they aren’t going to get anywhere. They throw their little picks over their shoulders and shout “Bugger this!” before shooting down the Pub for something a little more tangible.

You see, Dunnings was from a little village in Yorkshire, and for some that might say it all. But it doesn’t. Most of the folk from around the Ridings aren’t bad with money. It’s only southern folk jealous that up north they don’t have to sell their souls to Satan to afford a small two-up two-down terrace house who like to perpetuate that myth.

Then of course, there is always that exception. Cue Dunnings. They swear you can hear his wallet opening from upwards of twelve miles away. The wail of klaxons, and strings of Policeman with reels of that tape students like to pinch saying “There’s nothing to see here, move along now.”

That, my friends, is the sound of Dunnings’ wallet swivelling open like the lid of Dracula’s coffin as the sun sets below the Transylvannian horizon. Lightning flickers in the distance, and the local yokels quiver at the thoughts of what mythical creatures of the night might be waiting to be unleashed. But we digress, and probably ought to leave them cowering and wondering if they got enough garlic in the shops to last all night.

After all, it takes a good degree of concentration to hammer a crucifix on the door the right way up, and we would only disturb them.



*****


On a cold and lonely railway station, deep within the harsh reality that is the barren wastelands of the north (Bolton, actually -–but don't let them southern folk know it isn’t really that barren or they’ll all move up here and I’ll have to fish out the flatcap and take the Whippets for a walk to keep up the lore) the haggard features of the terminally bored huddled close for warmth as the wind whistled savagely through the age stained canopies. A product of BR cutbacks a decade before, there was no glass left here, and the waiting room is locked and the door adorned with the sign ‘we don’t use your waiting room, so don’t use ours’.

Northern station staff can be awfully pragmatic; if no-one uses the bogs, they don’t need cleaning. Saves time, money, and the heartache of fishing dog-ends and chewing gum from the U-bend. There’s also no water rates to pay, and no need to buy in bogroll or bleach; the savings possibilities are endless.

An endless snake of freight wagons rumbled past in the gloom of another platform sending the squeal of wheels on steel shrieking like a forlorn Banshee in the darkness. On a bench, snuggled carefully amongst last week’s copies of the tabloid press a tramp settled down to the age old question that flickers behind the eyes of every hobo the world over: “Do I have a cigarette now, or do I wait for the fumes of the half a pint of Meths I just drank to dissipate before I light up?” Many a tramp has got the decision wrong on this one and ended up in not so much hot water over it, as deep shit.

As if in anticipation of the conundrum that the tramp faced, the weather decided to give him a potential reprieve in life and began to dribble. Now dribbling is not something that can normally be associated with weather, except in the isolated circumstances that involve waiting on exposed railway station platforms at night when the waiting rooms are locked up. Not just merely ‘lights off, padlock on the door’ locked up mind you. This is ‘lights on full welly, gas fire turned up to warm and toasty and the door firmly locked to taunt’. A vista that is always clearly visible through the dirty glass.

No, the weather dribbles only in these circumstances where shelter cannot be afforded. Waiting in a bus queue at night has also been noted to produce this phenomenon. It’s a kind of drizzle that at first looks doesn’t seem to be anything much at all. Tiny droplets that are almost mist. However in no time at all you are soaked to the skin; no-one knows exactly how this can be possible but it is. Life’s little mysteries, eh!

In a vain attempt to keep out the penetrating cold, a match flared in the gloom where the two would-be travellers huddled against a doorway illuminating a brief scene of ear muffs and heavy coats drawn tight. Then as it faded two pin-pricks of light glowed before the obligatory coughing as two pairs of lungs rebelled against the extra tar draw of student blend dog-end rolling tobacco.

Footsteps echoed from the stairs down to the platform and the two loitering shadows craned their necks to try in vain to see who was coming. Smoke plumed into the damp dribbly air, and two dog-ends dipped out of sight. Guilty consciences are a powerful thing, especially when the aforementioned student blend tobacco has its own secret mix of that other tobacco that hippies were only too fond of.

Two new people shuffled into sight under the harsh glare of sodium lights and the shadows relaxed. Two dog-ends reappeared, and smoke plumed again. It’s amazing how quickly the guilty lose their consciences when they know no-one important is looking.

“What are you doing here?” asked Tom T from the shadows.

His partner in crime looked the two newcomers up and down, waiting for the answer.

“You invited me,” replied Dave in confusion.

Tom T rolled his eyes in a way that years of working with the great Dave had honed to an art. You see, Dave was one of those people who you could not trust with anything. Everything he touched turned to dust, or more accurately broke. He was a klutz, a two-left-footed ham-fisted git. To lend him a book or a record was just a complicated way of adding a middle-man on that unfortunate object’s way to the bin.

When companies strive to make things idiot proof, they didn’t count on Dave getting his mitts on it. He has been barred from taking out extended warranties at no less than twelve major high street stores because they know they will lose money on the deal.

“We know you were invited,” sighed Emma, “But you brought a friend.”

She glanced to Dunnings with a smile, “Or more to the point – you brought the Boss.”

Two dodgy student blend cigarettes were casually dropped to the floor and scrunched out under foot in a move that had been honed to perfection over the years. The career skiver only remains in employ if they know all the moves, including the old chestnut involving the photocopier, the sink and three reams of blue A4 paper – I’ll tell you about it later1.

Dunnings raised an eyebrow, in that way only your Boss can do that says ‘careful now, I hear the sound of ice cracking in the vicinity of your feet’ without actually using any words at all. It’s a sort of Ventriloquist’s trick. The words appear in your mind; if you’re really unlucky your entire bottom line statement on your bank account flashes about in there too, along with a gentle reminder of what happens to the bank that likes to say yes when you ask can you default on a mortgage repayment through lack of job2.

Ignoring imminent peril, Dave began his usual pavement-and-ceiling inspection pose with eyes going up and down like yo-yos on elastic cord.

“I couldn’t help it. He dragged it out of me. I couldn’t get away.”

“You mean he asked you where you were going and you told him?” demanded Emma.

The eyes bobbed wildly. It was usually a simple way of deducing the truth about Dave in measuring the speed at which they went up and down. When the pupils blurred you knew you were onto something.

“He caught me off-guard.”

“And you told him?”

The bob-o-meter started to blip towards the top of the scale.

“I had to say something.”

His voice had raised an octave in panic, and those eyes were becoming almost hypnotic. Emma and Tom T couldn't help but nod in unison in time to the pupils.

“’Goodbye’ might have been an idea.”

By now even Dunnings had joined in under the influence of Dave’s eyes. Definitely the bob-o-meter was at severe risk of blipping towards Defcon One. As the tramp on the bench glanced to them it seemed as if three people were lost in their own private rave. The DJ clearly had put on a real head-banging number, but for all except these three the sound had been turned right down. Shaking his head he put it down to the combination of Meths and Windolene and rolled over under the comforting blanket of yesterday’s news.

Dunnings was the first to shake himself clear of the hypnotic Dave-eyeball-induced trance.

“What are you munchkins blathering about?” he demanded.

Three sets of eyes stopped their synchronised bouncing and swivelled towards him. It was a shame that other features about these people’s personages were accidentally left at the setting of ‘Goldfish at feeding time’. Breadcrumbs and Ant eggs were not, however, on the menu.

“You what?” asked Tom T. Dave can play a curious thing on memory; the sort of effect commonly associated with placing a large magnet over magnetic video tape3.

Dunnings tutted.

“Mr. Accident here told me you were off on a Pub crawl. Sounded like fun. When I asked Dave if I could come he said yes. I presumed it was OK.”

Emma looked suspiciously at Dave. The eyes said it all – like a Rabbit in car headlights4. If looks could have killed, Emma’s would have carried government health warnings and only been available with the aid of a prescription.

If the rain hadn’t have got bored of just dribbling, and instead launched into a full scale drooling competition that a dozen teething babies would have been proud of, there could have been fatalities. Instead all they could do was huddle together for what little shelter they could manage in the doorway as the gurgle of water escaping from blocked down-pipes and hammering to the concrete slabs of the platform became deafening. The weather always has a way of getting the last word into a conversation if it wants to – usually by just drowning everybody else out.

From the distance a horn burped (train horns do this in bad weather. I think it’s to add to the downtrodden atmosphere, but I couldn’t be absolutely certain) and the snake of rattling coaches oozing their uninviting yellow light across the night rolled into the platform. As it squealed to a halt the foursome made the dash across the exposed concrete risking the worst of the weather with coats pulled tight over their heads. As if anticipating their lunge for a drier place, the doors refused to open for another thirty seconds despite repeated jabbing at the button with manic gusto that would have left any proprietor of the Psycho Motel in awe.

A final flurry of wind and rain signalled that the weather knew it only had a few seconds left to go to get its full money’s worth, and with a contented sigh the doors juddered open letting the group pile in. Inside, the carriages were predictably empty. After all, with the last train to most places round here being at ten-forty, and the first train the following day to anywhere special not being until after six, who the hell in their right minds would go clubbing by train? Unless they really fancied mortgaging their soul to Satan to afford a Taxi back at two in the morning.

As Dave had been left to find the train times, this was a low point of the evening yet to come, so keep it to yourselves will you; our little secret, as it were. It would only spoil what little might be left to enjoy in this happy group of revellers’ evening away from the office. Dave being inept at almost everything he does was reading the timetable upside down and back to front. Normally this should have been easy to spot, but he had spilt a curry over it, and in the minutes before used it as a toothpick so the chances are the key information was lost forever anyway. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, shall we?

As the train began to groan and sway to the sound of Gerbils peddling5 the rather damp foursome settle into seats about a vacant table shaking the moisture from their sodden clothes and gently steaming up the carriage windows to obscure the feeble light of the station as they slide away from view. At this moment of course the rain outside will inevitably stop abruptly. It’s one of those little laws of nature, along with the fact that belly button fluff is always blue-grey regardless of what colour clothes you have been wearing. And another thing; there’s always loads of it – where does it all come from? I swear if belly button fluff was really made from bits of my clothes, all my clothes would slowly disappear into nothing over the course of several weeks. Although, back to the weather, it is also to be noted that if it hadn’t been night out there, then the sun would have also come out to taunt the people who worked so hard to find shelter, and little pretty fluffy clouds would drift in perfect ambience across the sky. They’re still up there at night; you just can’t see them.

Steam lifted from them and the mood seemed to slide in only that way that your Boss can create in tagging along in an out of hours event that you worked hard to avoid bringing him along to – and failed. Dunnings of course was pretty chirpy and happy. You see he had been working all week to find an escape route from his Wife for a night. He was at the point of even considering writing to Paul Simon to complain he’d been undersold by the song ‘There must be fifty ways to leave your Lover’ because the song mentions less than ten. What a jip! He had been caught climbing out the window three times, and Gus had told him to get off the bus when he didn’t have exact change.

“Come on everybody; we should be having fun here and not be all sour faced and miserable. This is a pub crawl we are on after all!” Dunnings chirped.

“We'll be crawling, you'll be freeloading. When was the last time that you ever bought a round?” sulked Emma in the most contemptuous voice she could muster, “That's right - never!”

Dunnings looked hurt. If not at the exact substance of the comment, then at least at the fact that her assumptions had moved faster than his mind.

“Hey, hold on - I'm thinking.”

It was almost painful. The Gerbils on the treadmill of his mind almost slipped a gear as they fought to find the evidence and patiently began to turn the well oiled wheels of his mind. The kind of face he pulled should be against some kind of laws; and if not, damn it, why not?

“Well?” asked Emma, this time a little more polite.

Tom T and Dave looked on expectantly. This was a question they had wanted to ask, but in a ‘But it’s the Boss, Dude!’ sort of way thought it was more harmonious to wait for some-one else to pose the question and take the can. And we’re not talking about the can that fizzy drinks come in, either. Nope; this can is like Pandora’s box and the contents aren’t pretty. Floating around are things you really wouldn’t want to have to scrape off the bottom of your clodhoppers, let alone your life.

Luckily the delicate nature of the situation had passed Dunnings by on the bypass of his mind. You might miss out on the sights of his thinking this way, but you get to where you are going much quicker, and you don’t get distracted and stop off at that lovely little Tea shop in the centre.

“Er, it was either March or April…” he said hesitantly, the straining of the Gerbils on the metaphysical treadmill clear on his expression.

Tom T interrupted through his trademark yawn, “Yawww! Of?”

The Gerbils found the right filing cabinet, and blew the dust of the volumes before leafing it open at the appropriate page.

“'72 or '73,” he began slowly before adding with a little more uncertainty, “Or it could have been '69.”

He trailed off, the Gerbils obviously convinced there was another volume nearby.

“No, the Wife spilled a Britvic 55 in my hair at the time – I remember it well. And I haven’t had any hair to talk about since the sixties,” he finished. The archaic memories were flowing freely now.

“We rest our case,” muttered Tom T defiantly.

Dunnings looked deflated from the rebuke.

“So that's why you didn't invite me along tonight?”

Emma sighed, noting from the synchronised floor and ceiling observation team going into practice for the Olympics that this one was going to be left to her to tidy up.

“Not exactly. It was the logistics of dragging a crowbar around all night to get money for at least one round out of your well padlocked wallet that put us off.”

Dunnings looked around at the three sullen faces, and grimaced. Warning klaxons flared up, and Police desperately wheeled out rolls of ‘Police line – do not cross’ tape to replace that which Students had trophied the night before, but it was too late.

“Hey, I'll by a r… r… round for you.”

Three heads bobbed with each stutter of the ‘r’ as if expecting the full word never to appear. As Dunnings settled back into his seat looking drained from the effort, they too could not believe what they had heard.

“Mr D, whilst we appreciate the obvious effort you had to put in to get that out, it was about as convincing a comment as Boris Yeltsin announcing to the world that he's given up booze and fags and begun a new life as a tea-totalling Monk living in a Buddhist temple to the eternal harmony of life somewhere in Tibet,” said Emma at last.

Clearly the others felt the same, but knew it was as close as they were going to get without Satan having to grit the path before he went to work in the morning.

The train suddenly rocked to a stop with a squealing of brakes unexpectedly, bringing Dunnings’ wallet fastener an unexpected reprieve. Dave peered through the condensation on the window to try and see what lay in the gloom outside.

“Oooo. Are we there already?”

Emma rubbed a peephole to squint through.

“I can't see very much. I think we've stopped in the middle of nowhere. It could be a bit of a rough area though - there's a bunch of kids trying to nick the hubcaps off moving cars, and doing quite well at it.”

Dave brightened up like the eye before the deadly storm that rips off a chunk of South America and washes it out to sea.

“Hey! D'yer think it's…”

Dunnings waved frantically trying to attract the attention of the others before it was too late. There was something about Dave that tested the most sturdy of products to their absolute limits. They say there are armies of people employed to make things idiot proof. It is a never ending saga, as the better products become, then so the better the idiots become. Dave Crompton was that better idiot.

“No! Don't let Dave say it - I swear the man's jinxed. All he has to do is look at something and it's knackered. I dread to think the consequences of him saying something at it.”

“Who? What?” said Tom T in his best ‘not-completely-with-it’ voice that carried more than a hint of an infectious yawn with it. Whilst Emma had taken heed to the wind-milling of Dunnings’ arms, there were other faculties that were not firing on all six cylinders when it came to Tom T’s mind. Perhaps five on a generous day, but not six.

“I think the trains' broken down,” replied Dave, oblivious to the consequences of baiting fate.

Even as the dust settled, at the very edge of human perception, the sound of shit hitting the fan could possibly be made out. Fate is very quick these days.

Dunnings rolled his eyes. Together with Emma, the groan echoed in stereo.

Tom T yawned; the neurone on duty in his mind hadn’t quite finished graduating neurone training college, and didn’t grasp until too late the gaping jaws of metaphysical doom that don’t take kindly to smart-arse, too late after-the-event comments.

“Yaaaaww! Shouldn't somebody have stopped him from saying that?”

Dunnings rolled his eyes in the manner of the terminally unimpressed. There was, after all, much to be unimpressed with.

“We were in the process of doing so, except for you baiting him to say something.

“Oh. Sorry.”

Dunnings beckoned. Old Crones would have been impressed.

“Come here.”

“Yes Mr D?”

Like Lambs to the Kebab shop, Tom T found his feet shuffling him into the aisle. Sometimes it is hard to disobey the man who holds all the keys to your promotional future – and the stationary cabinet.

“What do you get if you let the Dave make a boo-boo?”

Uncertain in the aisle he thought for a moment trying to kick-start the neurone. It wasn’t playing ball. Or even Cricket for that matter.

“Er, I don't really know.”

“A smack in the face.”

This confused his mind. Fate wasn’t planning for this, but elected to make it up fast as it went.

“Oh, is that a punchline or something?”

If Fate could have done a high-five, it would have done. In all the ogleplexes of every outcome of every Universe, no mortal had ever taken the bait so conclusively. Hook, line, sinker and man holding the rod too. The neurone was foundering, and the metaphorical fishing waders were slowly and inexplicably filling up with water.

It’s surprising how deep water can get. Dunnings smiled. Old Crones would have been very impressed. They might even have given him a rub of their crystal balls.

“No. This is.”

The punch hit Tom T square between the eyes, and the third law of slapstick comedy fell into play with all the smoothness of a freshly baked custard pie.

“Even I saw that one coming,” muttered Emma dryly.

Tom T lay doubled up on the floor, moaning.

“Oooo, that hurt.”

“Good.”

“Great joke Mr. D!”

In the way of all great Laurel and Hardy films, Dave could not help but laugh at the misfortune of Tom T. If he had had a bowler hat and a set of ears two sizes too big, he would have looked squarely at the camera with an idiotic grin and lifted the hat to shuffle his fingers in his hair. Simple pleasures.

Dunnings did not look impressed.

“Oh good. I'm glad we've found a way to appeal to the simpler minds of society. How's about this one?”

As Tom T crawled to his feet leaning on the table for support he was greeted with Dunnings’ boot placed deftly on his arse and shoved with enough force to send him sprawling again. If the Gods of comedy had been on the case, there might have been a custard pie placed squarely on the floor to receive his face. As it was they were caught unawares and could only manage an empty crisp wrapper and one very bemused spider that only just scurried out of the way in time.

Dunnings turned to Dave and raised an eyebrow.

“Any better for you?”

The eyebrow flickered up and down firing off the neurone in Dave’s mind that warned of impending danger. If that bowler hat had been there, it would have found itself quickly placed back on his head, and the idiotic grin wiped away faster than the sneer on a Traffic Warden’s face when he discovers that he’s just ticketed the car of his Boss. And his Boss is not impressed. His life is flashing before his eyes; it doesn’t take long and it’s very boring.

“Er, not quite as good as before Mr D. Lost its touch a bit really.”

Tom T shuffled to a sitting position and risked wrath as he poked his head up above the table.

“But the train might not have broken down,” he protested.

“Don’t give Dave any ideas!”

“But it could have been a signal.”

“It will be a signal for us to be here all night if you don’t shut up. The mind of the Dave is a powerful thing. It can destroy a watch at a thousand paces. He just needs to think about something and it’s on an extended vacation to the municipal dump.”

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