Okay. Five more stories as written and submitted by you, and that’ll be all she wrote. I haven’t had as many votes for the last lot as for the first five, so if you don’t mind having another look over those too and voting for your best (and worst if you’re feeling the Inner Grinch). There’s no overall winner, just picks from each heat. My favourite will also get a little something extra.
Thanks for taking the time to put some of your tales into type. I know a number of you have found the process quite rewarding, and judging by the feedback I’ve had, you’ve made a lot of readers laugh embarrassingly loud in their workplaces, so take a bow.
I’d also like to thank Phil and Renee for being, thus far, the only actual people to give me a Christmas card this year.
Sure, I’ve got cards from my local real estate agent, any number of PR agencies, publishers, distributors and other corporate entities. I’ve even got a few foreign numbers on top of my television addressed to a woman named Sue. Sue, if you’re reading, Mike & Ada; Sal, Neil and family; and Amy and Sarah all send their love from abroad. Perhaps you could have at least been a decent enough friend to have let them know you moved house two fucking years ago.
On with the stories. A couple of these have been written in third person, but I’m assured in each case the author is one of the characters. Another even has a pseudonym to disguise its celebrity author (ohhh, how very 'We Live In A Small Town) Poor Judi kicks things off though, and opts for no such disguise…
(Vote early, vote often – winners announced on Thursday)
THE DAY I LEARNED HOW TO HANDLE EMBARRASSMENT
John Cleese recently described the meaning of life for the English as getting through life without embarrassment. I, however, must be too many generations removed from my English pioneering ancestors, for I embarrass myself with feverish regularity.
But one incident burns bright in my memory - an incident that taught me how to cope with all the embarrassments to come... Once upon a time, a long time ago when I was a grad student, I was diligently slaving over some dastardly computer code, completely engrossed in what I was doing when, suddenly, a voice behind me asked, "What's that?" I swiveled around to see my PhD supervisor, a roughish gentleman in his early sixties, pointing to a small bundle of red fabric on the floor. The eyes of the other grad students scanned from the floor to my perplexed face.
It took a moment for my brain to recognise this object, this flotsam, which was horribly, horribly, out of context. It was a pair of knickers. Not just any knickers, but my knickers. And not just my knickers, but my most scungiest, grottiest pair! Not a pair of pretty, lacy, or even clean knickers, but faded red cotton, worn through in places, and with sproings of elastic poking out.
Thinking quickly, I scooped them up and shoved them in my pocket, face burning. What could I do? What could I say? Everyone by then had worked out what they were! So I calmly said, with head held high, "they're my knickers." And I swivelled back to work.
To this day, I do not know how they got there.
SAFE SEX SUBWAY
She stood there every morning, day after day, handing out pamphlets, looking at the unhappy masses pour out of the Metro station and rush headlong into streets, jobs and lives they were only reluctantly taking part in. Madness.
What was so important to them that not one of them has the politeness, or even the curiosity to stop and listen to what she had to say?
A sick ex-prostitutes perspective on safe sex and HIV might not be to everyone's taste first thing in the morning, but surely someone, any one, would reward her efforts by stopping. Surely today someone would listen.
"Excusez-moi?" she tried again, as a fresh batch of commuters rushed past.
No one stopped. Averted gazes. Angry glares. Guilty looks and sighs of relief as they passed.
"Putain" she muttered, enjoying the irony, and settled down to wait for the next trainload to spill form the station.
"I'm sorry I ignored you just now" she heard, in terribly accented French.
An English guy probably, no, no, the pronunciation wasn't quite that bad, ah oui. Irish.
The traveller stood on front of her, stumbling awkwardly through an apology but relaxed and smiling, looking her in the eye. "It's not like I'm rushing anywhere in particular, I shouldn't have been so rude to you just now; what were you trying to say to me?" he asked.
"I felt today might be the day" she smiled to herself, and launched into her tale, full of dire warnings, sound advice and warm caring. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and he chatted back freely, so soon she was telling her story, asking him his, her mind off the job, just enjoying the connection.
Small personal details were exchanged, separateness displaced by their spontaneous exchange of intimacies.
And then it was over. He started to thank here, shuffling from foot to foot, drawing back from her, readying himself to move on with his day. She felt the distance of strangers appear between them again.
“One last thing, take these" she insisted, grabbing some condoms from her pamphlet bag and pressing them into his hands. "and make sure you use them. We would never have met like this if I had taken my own advice".
"I only hope I get the chance to" he joked, then caught himself, mumbled something in awkward understanding, and was gone.
She settled down to wait for the next trainload to spill from the station.
HENRY, HENRY & I
Squatting seems to be over in London now, but back in the mid-80s, it was quite the way for thrifty, adventurous young Kiwis to live. We prided ourselves on our practical ability in breaking into vacant council flats, fixing the dunnies, and living rent-free until we were kicked out.
But my first crack at breaking a squat didn't go too well (neither did my second, but that's another story). It all looked good for a while. A few squatters on the South London estate where our friends lived had been turfed out lately, and there were quite a few empties.
My friends C and J and I picked our night, gathered at a nearby flat, and stoutly set out to get ourselves a place to live. I got to carry out the grisly (and loud) business of forcing open the bathroom window. Eventually, we got in and I was just feeling pretty chuffed when a policeman appeared at the wide open front door. Bugger.
I very briefly considered doing a runner, but there was obviously nowhere to run to. I think C had managed to dive behind an old couch, but that didn't last long.
When we came out onto the landing of the council block, there wasn't just one cop. There were cops for Africa. And a couple of other continents too, probably. It turned out that there was a mass eviction planned for first thing the following morning, and the policing operation had already started. Doing a runner was definitely not an option.
So we got in a van and went to the local police station. In the watchroom, we sat at a table. C and J were processed before me. Naturally, they had to turn out their pockets, and this prompted me to explore my own left front pocket. Horror.
The three eighths of hash I'd purchased for myself and a friend before the expedition were not, as I had imagined, in my big black jacket back at the flat. They were in my left front pocket.
Carefully, I palmed the hash into my left leg. Then, when the sergeant turned to me, I swept it off onto the floor beneath the table. Excellent. The cleaner would find it in the morning and no one would know it was me.
With a sense of relief, I dumped the contents of my pockets onto the table. Horror.
Two little pieces of hash were under the table. And one was sitting there on top of the table, between me and the sergeant.
"Ah," said the sergeant.
He told me I'd have to be strip-searched, and, for the only time in my life, I was. It was not memorable.
By the time I came out, C and J were in a cell, and looking kind of freaked. I was put in a separate cell.
Presently, I was fetched, and brought before a detective. He was straight from ITV central casting, middle-market cop drama. He was stout and balding, with a moustache and a Houndstooth jacket.
He looked at me quizzically.
"So," he said, "What got you into drugs?"
A split second later, so soon that you might even debate whether it was actually a conscious decision, I decided that there would be an advantage in playing the dumb, naïve Kiwi.
I claimed, preposterously, that dope was near as dammit to legal in New Zealand, and I'd assumed it was so in Britain. I made up a cock-and-bull story about wandering unawares into the Railton Hotel with my chums and being pressured to buy by an unnerving Jamaican man. The detective nodded sagely.
I even claimed to have been offered the hash at an unusually low price, then thought that that was a stupid and unnecessary complication. But the detective just nodded sagely and observed that that was, indeed, an unusually good price.
I was pretty sure I was on for a diversion when I was led back to the cell (correctly, as it happened) but I still had a problem. A big one.
Every time I had been walked past the watchroom table, the two other blocks of hash had danced before my eyes, like accusing lollies. They were still there, identical to the block that had been surrendered and negotiated over, and when they were discovered in the morning, my dumb-naive-Kiwi act would start to look pretty bad. Angry detective, quite probably.
So I had to get them back.
Understand that I have never had the courage for shoplifting. But needs must. While C and J signed their forms, it took me an agonising four attempts to casually drop my sweatshirt under the table. The fourth time was really close. I scooped up my sweatshirt, and the two blocks of hash with it, cradled it under my left arm, signed my form and got the hell out.
I kept a straight face until we got around the corner, and then informed my friends what I had done. I had entered the police station with three blocks of hash, been strip-searched - and left the building with two of them.
Chuckling, I removed the two blocks from their place in the sweatshirt, and put them in my sock, just to be safe.
"Mr Barry!" rang a voice as I still had my hand in my sock.
There was a young cop behind me. I expected the worst.
"Mr Barry, you didn't sign one of your forms."
He had been kind enough to bring it around for me. I signed it, my heart hammering, and thanked him for his efforts.
When we got back to the flat, at dawn, I skinned up a fattie and we went out onto the landing to watch the circus outside. The mass eviction was in progress: cops massing, tenants massing, the odd squatter getting stroppy
I inhaled, sighed, and felt like I was in a left-wing art movie.
LAUGHTER - THE BEST MEDICINE
I have always had a challenging tendency for uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate moments. It started early, at my Brethren friend's prayers before dinner, school assemblies, the usual stuff. The recurring theme was convention making it impossible for you to get away.
The night tour of the Karori Bird Sanctuary last year was a low point. The volunteers were charming if hokey, and very safety conscious, so we had to stumble around together in the dark. Let’s face it, all the birds in there are sleeping at night, there’s nothing to be heard. So when we got to the darkest corner and the poor volunteer was desperately hushing us as a kiwi had been heard near this corner a month ago, all that could be heard was my Muttley chuckling, on and on and on.
And so to the worst. My partner's father, who I loved deeply, died this year. He used to be a cop. The police college has an annual service of remembrance and my partner and I went. You can see where this is heading. Uh oh. The problem, if I can deflect a little from my own irresponsibility, was that the convener was a true David Brent. He welcomed us all with grave self-importance. The dignitaries filed in. We sat in chairs lined up with military precision. David’s choir, in which I could see from the programme his own son was performing, were very, how shall I put it...down home. He conducted them with a lot of arm movement. They swayed. Then the first hymn was sung. But who was singing so loudly? David was wearing a Madonna style microphone. I felt a smile race across my lips, but kept a lid on.
A central part of the programme was the reading of the names. They were read, and I cried when I heard his name. But then, David started playing his wretched organ as backing music, I want to say the wind beneath my wings, but surely not. And then, the final undoing, he and his choir started gently mooing with big cow eyes, as backing as the endless list of names were read. I lost it, but actually, my partner set me off, as she was away first. It was fucking hell. I tried everything, not breathing, covering my face with a tissue in my hands to simulate paroxysms of grief, pinching my skin to hurt. Nothing worked. A couple of years later, it ended, and we could leave, shaken and chastened.
How bad is that?
OLD MAN ON BROADWAY
The old man seems to be badly hurt. He is wandering about in erratic circles on Broadway's Upper West side, two or three doors away from an all-night coffee shop. His shirt has no collar and his old pair of too-large trousers are held up by a pair of frayed suspenders. The night is cold and he has no coat. When he turns away he reveals that the back of his head is cut open and blood is streaming down through his sparse white hair and under his shirt. He is muttering unintelligibly to himself and gesturing weakly at an unseen audience.
Inside the takeout coffee bar people are shouting angrily. A plain roundfaced girl with dark hair tied up in a dirty scarf has the floor. Her two male companions are hunched over the counter, not looking at anyone.
"What a fine manly thing to do," she yells. "Why don't you pick on someone your own size?"
It is not immediately apparent whom she is shouting at. Everybody is ignoring her. A white-faced cook is nervously walking back and forth behind the counter. He doesn't know what to do.
Then a stocky European with olive skin and black hair mutters sullenly, "Shut your face." He has a thick accent and is standing further down the bar with a friend.
"That's right, be charming, you nasty piece of scum," the girl cries. "We don't need your sort in this country."
Finally the young European is goaded beyond his endurance. He storms out, pausing only to spit a large gob of phlegm at the girl. She averts her face but it splatters in her hair.
"Old men and women are just your size," she shrieks. "That's how strong and brave you are." She is screaming out the door after him. "You miserable little man."
Her words force him to reply. He shouts back a weak excuse. "I can't help it if he fell over."
As he passes behind the old man, who is still staggering around in small circles oblivious to the scene, the European abruptly stops. He grabs the back of the old man's head in both hands and examines the open wound closely. It is a belated gesture of concern. Then he and his friend stride off quickly across the road. It is hard to tell from their response whether the injury is superficial or something quite serious. The two men disappear into the night down Broadway in the direction of Times Square.
A young couple stand on the sidewalk looking at the scene. The man wears an expensive long leather coat and the woman is protected from the cold by a glamorous ankle-length lambskin coat.
The man bends down and picks up a crumpled dollar bill from off the pavement, looks at it, then thrusts it into his pocket.
"Give it to the old man," the woman with him quickly urges. "I saw that too, I thought it was his. He could have lost it when he fell over."
"No, it could be anyone's," says the man shortly.
"It could be his," insists the woman.
"Forget it. It could belong to anyone," he says, embarrassed by his unfortunate luck. "Come on, let's go."
"Why don't you give it to him?" she asks.
"It's only a dollar," he says. He feels he can't back down now. He just wants to get away from the scene. He doesn't want to become involved with the injured man. "It doesn't matter. Let's go."
They walk off down the street past the old man with the bleeding head. He is lit by garish neon signs, stumbling on the sidewalk of New York city. Nobody comes to his aid, not even the girl in the takeout bar.