Thursday 27 September 2018

Hard Sell: From the archives

Here's a story from the archives. It was written around the end of the 90s (I originally wrote it in Comic sans!!!) so some of you may find the cultural references go over your head. If they don't, you are in good company. It followed a period when a colleague had systematically pitched me to join AMWAY, for those of you in the prior category, it is/was much like HERBAL LIFE, A pyramid selling system that monetizes your friends. I'm sure they have another way of putting it but many of you will have had some experience with their like. Enjoy...


I couldn’t say it had been an eventful first week at Intasat communications but I had managed to make a lunch-mate. Paul was a likeable bloke, a little pre-occupied with the X-files but on the whole easy to get along with. He sat at the desk opposite me and did, well I’m not entirely sure exactly what he did but he apologised a lot on the phone and came up with conspiracy theories. It was one lunchtime while sitting outside on the grassy verge of the Intasat car park listening to Paul’s theory about nano-tracking devices being introduced into food so we can all be traced at any time, that I first saw her. She breezed past us and her perfume infected my very being, it wasn’t love at first sight or anything I just had to get close to her. She, of course, didn’t notice us at all. She wafted past in a way that said that distances between deeds were a terrible inconvenience and god help anyone who inadvertently prolonged transfer.
“Paul, look” I nudged him purposely, my elbow interrupting something about sugar-puffs. “Who the fuck is that?”
“Who the fuck is who?”
“White blouse, brown hair, arse!”
“Looks like Scully” Paul replied in a way that dispelled my notion that he had been chemically castrated. “That’s Kim from retentions, she stops unsatisfied customers disconnecting, very good she is too!”
“Mmm, yeah but any boyfriend, married? What’s the score”
“So the rumours go there’s no significant other but she’s only friendly when she wants something”
“Christ on a bike! She only needs to ask.”
I didn’t see her again for two days. I can’t say that she monopolised my thoughts but I had tried on several occasions to find an excuse to pass retentions.
It was one evening as I was leaving work that I actually made contact with Kim. I was heading for the door with my jacket slung over my shoulder she was overtaking me while putting on her sunglasses, my elbow struck her in the left breast sliding under the shoulder-strap of her bag sending it to the floor with a rattle and clump.
“Oh you tw…” she cursed as she crouched for the bag. Then as I fumbled an apology she looked up at me and smiled. “You’re new aren’t you.”
“Well a week or t…” but before I had a chance to take the bull by the horns she was gone, like a vampire in mist mode slipping through a keyhole. I followed her out the door with no real hope of catching her. I did manage to see her getting into her car, a little red hatchback, sporty and quite new. No sooner had the door closed than she was speeding off.
“Put ya tongue away Mike” I turned to the owner of the deep, overloud voice, as he was readying to pour his equally oversized body into a Nissan Micra. His name was Bob or Bill or something, I saw him from time to time at the coffee machine
“While the good lord blesses us with gifts like that, my friend, I’ll do more than smell the roses”
“You couldn’t afford it Mike, trust me” he smiled a chubby smile and put himself deftly into the car.
Friday came around with no definite sightings. She either shot out on the dot of five or worked late enough for me to feel sufficiently foolish pretending not to be waiting for her in the car park. I tried, but even after a dry spell of biblical proportion I still had some shame.
I tried to rally a ground force to lunch at the pub, just a short walk from the office, but it was mid-month and beer money was thin on the ground. Paul had gone to a Star-Trek convention in Birmingham, so all alone, I decided to go to the pub, sit in the garden and sup a well-earned Guinness. It was a warm July afternoon so I stopped at my car to fetch my sunglasses. As I was locking the car door, farcically considering that my cars main security feature was the fact that few people would be seen in it let alone commit a crime for the honour, I felt a voice, yes it was almost subliminal.
“Don’t tell me, BMW’s in the shop” I looked up to see her, and she was moving slower than I had seen before.
“No,” I gulped “I just haven’t got one” I put on the glasses and went to lean on the roof of the car instantly realising the folly of this, physical contact with the outside of my car could be fatal, I jerked back upright.
“One day, I’m sure” her hair caught the sun in an ‘is she or isn’t she’ way “I can see it in your eyes, hunger” I knew the hunger she could see and it had nothing to do with BMWs.
“Yeah, one day”
“Kim” she thrust a finely sculptured hand at me with all the fluidity of a martial artist.
“Yes, Mike” I intercepted her strike catching her cool porcelain hand. While I shook her hand I tried to look her in the eyes, I failed! Her white open necked blouse made a feeble attempt to contain her mutinous breasts. Her taut tanned skin clearly visible through the thin fabric of her bra. I’m sure, in retrospect, that these observations are greatly exaggerated but I believe that every boy has x-ray vision, he just has to look hard enough. I must have got away with the gawp because when I looked up she smiled at me.
“I’m going to the pub” I ventured.
“Oh good, have one for me” then, I was so fixated on her undulating arse I failed to notice that she was walking away. “Something long and cool!” she tossed at me over her shoulder then slipped into the red Golf.
That lunch time I spent in a daze, “could I really have a chance?” I asked myself, “Why not” was the only answer I could handle.
That weekend I thought of treating myself to a new suit, but a quick look at my balance on the cash machine steered me toward a new shirt and tie instead.
On Monday I had to endure Paul’s endless Trek quotes and promises to show me the video of him being beamed-up from a paper-mache planet to a cardboard spaceship. It was while walking to the sandwich bar, getting ever closer to the point where I would tell Paul to “fucking Trek off!” that she appeared again. She came up behind me, I smelt her first, visual contact merely verifying her presence.
“Hi, Mike. New tie?” she took the tie and turned it label up at the same time giving my chest a glancing touch.
“Mmm, nice.”
“Where are you off to?” I asked nonchalantly, feeling confident
“Me, oh, I’m just going to get a quick sandwich then back to the office”
“Well” I began bravely “you might as well come with us”
“OK, why not”
I could not believe how easy that was. We were all walking together and although our slow strolling pace seemed to cause her difficulties I hadn’t said anything too stupid and even Paul had shut up. We exchanged small talk and even a little innuendo; things were indeed going well.
As we entered the sandwich bar the proprietor’s face lit up.
“Kim” he sang, her face reciprocated smiling radiantly.
“Franco, how are you?” she sang back.
“I am very well. And so are you I can see.” Why is it that no matter how badly Italians speak English they always know the right things to say. “ You will have the usual, Kim?” He instantly produced a white paper bag and passed it to Kim over the large display counter, she responded by opening her handbag.
“No, no, Kim” he gestured by touching his lips with one stubby finger and pointing it at her “We speak later, huh?”
“Later Franco, ciao!”
Then once again like an extra on the set I was watching her backside, leaving. I made a move for the door and stepped out with her, “Now or never” I goaded myself.
“What time you finishing tonight?” I spurted out before my yellow belly could swallow the words.
“Not tonight Mike” my heart sank, “Thursday, maybe” then flew again. I was still left with the feeling that she was fitting me in for a dental appointment.
“Great!” she smiled obviously eager to depart.
“Dinner”, whoa there cheque book!
“Bye” then I watched her swiftly wiggle away.
I walked back into the sandwich bar; Paul was having a huge roll constructed. When Franco had finished he turned to me, I looked through the glass at the cooked meats and various mayonnaise-based fillings, my hunger no longer panged. I ordered a Coke and Franco looked at me with knowing eyes.
On the way home I saw a sign at a petrol station CAR WASH SPECIAL-£2.50 FULL SHAMPOO I pulled in and purchased a token. The windows wound and the aerial down I inserted my car, then through the remaining open window the token in the slot. I quickly closed the window; the machine whirred into life. As the rotating brushes hit the bodywork I flinched with every creak and clatter, soap started to infiltrate the sunroof but for the most part the experience was quite painless. I parked the car on the other side to take a look, I then remembered what a nice blue she really was and promised myself I would do this more often.
Thursday came, I had cleaned and ironed a tie but it just wouldn’t look new so I put on a lesser-worn one instead. I kept a little bag for just such occasions with a sample tube of toothpaste, a folding toothbrush, and a sample spray of Calvin Klein that had come with a magazine, I brushed the dust off and took it to work.
I sneaked out of the office a little before five to perform my ablutions, showed my face back in the office to casually bid my good byes. I looked at Paul and winked.
“The truth is down there!” he paraphrased predictably, then smirked at his own wit.
“Make it so number one” I replied. Ok so there’s a little anorak in all of us!
I made my way slowly down to the lobby running over and over my opening line; she wasn’t there. Then I smelt her, she came up behind me and touch me on the shoulder.
“Hi!” she said through a smile slipping her sunglasses on.
“Hello, I thought you might have…”
“Forgotten? No how could I?” 
We decided to go to the pub near the office but Kim insisted on driving. Her Golf GTI was only a year or so old with a personal plate A11 MYN, it had a mild smell of coconuts inside. I noticed her watching me from the corner of her eye for some sign of approval.
“Nice car” I felt this was the correct comment.
“Sure,” she tapped the dashboard “don’t get these on Intasat money”
But surly she had, I thought. I was starting to feel out of my depth but Kim put me at ease by saying that she thought it wouldn’t be long before I started to have some of the things I desired. I felt definite stirrings from my trouser regions, looked out at the scenery to focus my thoughts away from exactly what I desired. We arrived at the pub and I alighted the car carefully. When we entered the pub I made straight for the bar, ordered myself a Guinness and a white wine spritzer for Kim. I steered us to a quiet corner. We began by talking about work then feeling a little more comfortable I pushed on to something closer to my motives.
“You must get asked out at work all the time” my heart paused for a reply.
“No!” she laughed out loud “Not many men at work have the balls, you’ve got that” I was suddenly glad I was sitting behind a table.
“You’re teasing now, I’ve seen the way men look at you” I tried to play coy.
“No, I’m serious. You asked me, most men are mice”. The light in the pub was dim but I could see now her eyes were green, an emerald green.
“So what makes me so unmouse-like” blatant fishing but it was the best I could do.
“Hunger!” I began to squirm again “Tell me Mike. What do you want, what you really want?” I want to take you to…I thought.
“Well, I, want lots of stuff”
“Nice car, big house, swimming pool” she offered “beautiful girlfriend”.
Rap it up I’ll take it home thanks shopkeeper, I thought. “Well, who doesn’t?”
“Yes but how many actually go for it Mike” Yes I thought, I’m here and they ain’t.
She proceeded to tell me about what had paid for her car and that she planned to give up Intasat in less than two years.
“Network marketing Mike, it’s the way forward,” she told me how by cutting out the fat-cat middle men there was enough profit for everyone, she told me of how the guy who had introduced her had a six-figure income and so could I with the right motivation.
“Mike you got to see the way this guy lives, gold, cars, house in Florida” her eyes were wide and glazed,” I’m gonna do what ever it takes to get there”
She could have been telling me about freelance dung-clearance and I would have listened, but even so it did make a hell of a lot of sense.
When we left the pub it was still light, I wasn’t quite sure where we were going but it was soon clear that she was taking me back to my car. We stopped in the car park in an empty space next to my car. She leaned over, I pursed my lips ready, she dug in the pocket behind my seat and produced a blue box.
“There’s some tapes and a book in there” then from her handbag “here’s my number” she handed me a card, which read KIM STEVENS-SILVER DISTRIBUTOR then under a telephone number and mobile number. I said I would call her and didn’t try to kiss her.
As I opened my car door her window powered down.
“This time next year a BMW, eh Mike?” She quipped.
“Yeah, sure thing”, if the celibacy don’t kill me first, I thought.
The next day at work I didn’t see Kim and I was glad for it I needed to reassess the situation if indeed there was a situation. Did I have a chance with her or was I some sort of business proposition. Was she playing hard to get or was the playing getting hard. I couldn’t believe that all was lost, after all she hadn’t told me I repulsed her, I simply hadn’t closed the evening with a snog.
On Sunday with little else to do I took out the tapes and book that Kim had given me. In the book it explained with diagrams and cartoons how the huge supermarket chains had emasculated our manufacturing industries and by cutting them out of the equation there would be rewards for all. It was so vehement in its reasoning that, it said, network marketing, as it called its methods, was the only logical way forward. I was impressed, if I recruited a few people to sell the products and they in turn recruited others I could be home and dry in a few years. I picked up the phone and dialled Kim’s number an automated voice answered, I hate speaking to machines, “Kim its Mike I read the book, gimme more” then I left my number and hung up. I looked at the mobile number but decided that if I spoke to her and then she found the message it may sound a bit too eager, plus I was a little worried I might catch her with a boyfriend or something.
Later that night she called, I was a little embarrassed that she had found me so easily. I asked her how she was and she responded with a comment about the book. I told her that I was impressed, which I was, then she asked me how much I wanted to be rich.  I told her I was hungry, she said hunger was what I needed to get on. She told me that Americo had changed her life, as it would mine. There was a meeting at a hotel nearby on Tuesday for new members and did I want to come, of course I did, we arranged that I would drive to her house and we would go in her car. She urged me not to talk about this at work just yet as private life should remain private.
I didn’t see her at all on Monday but on Tuesday we had lunch together. It was a short lunch as she had to get back to the office but it gave us time to talk in private about the meeting that night.
“Mike,” she looked at her watch “ I really have to go” she got up from the park bench where I was still sitting and gently took my tie “ you look wonderful, remember shirt and tie tonight, very formal these people” then she was gone.
That night I left work full of fervour for the evening ahead. I got home and showered, I was going to shave but I had shaved that morning and five o’clock shadow doesn’t really mean the same day. I mixed the blue jacket from my suit with a pair beige chinos to look like blazer and slacks; everyone loves a sailor.
Looking good and feeling lucky I set off. Kim lived in a street of Georgian terraces most of which had been converted into flats. No sooner had I arrived and parked behind her red golf than she was scurrying down the garden path towards her car. She was wearing a taupe suit with a very short skirt the shape tailored to please the eye, high-heels and glasses. Her hair was tied up and her officiousness excited me more than ever. I got out of the car and buttoned my jacket as I greeted her close up I sensed a trepidation that had not been evident before. I suddenly felt empowered by her anxiety, leant towards her and kissed her cheek low near the neck.
“You look gorgeous, and smell better” I certainly was feeling brave.
“Oh, thanks, you look pretty good yourself” she replied. There was definitely a quiver in her voice.
We got into the car and drove purposefully to the hotel, Kim spoke very little and when she did it was about how wonderful the people at the Americo were.
“Everybody helps each other, we even applaud each others success!”
“What, sort of stand up and clap and cheer?”
“Yes, Mike you wouldn’t believe how good it makes you feel. The English are so reserved and negative”
“So, what if you do really badly do they all get up and boo and jeer you?” I laughed.
“Only if you really deserve it!” she returned dryly serious.
Something in this last comment made me uncomfortable. I looked down at her legs, her skirt had ridden up and her panties were just visible; all was well in the world.
We parked in the hotel car park and got out the car. Kim adjusted her skirt seemingly oblivious to the fact that I had for the last third of the journey been looking at that which had preoccupied my thoughts, these last weeks. When she was happy she turned her attention to me, straightening my tie, which I had successfully ironed the night before. She stood back and looked at me.
“You look quite handsome,” she said almost surprised.
 “And you look barely preferable to a camel’s arse too” I tested the bed with humour.
“If you’re not going to take this seriously Mike, we can go home now!” my god what a threat.
We went through the main doors, passed the bar, which I made mental note of, and on toward the function hall. We reached an area at the hall’s entrance where two well-dressed women sat at a desk furnished with a big book like a ledger and a cash-tin. My eye was caught by a table full of cups and saucers at the end a white-board on an easel with a simple message TEA AND COFFEE £1.50. I turned to see Kim with her purse open.
“Two? That’s £6.00, please” one of the well-dressed women was saying up to Kim.
“Kim, I didn’t realise” I dug in my pocket.
“I got it Mike,” she said firmly without turning.
The moment we entered the double doors I felt like I had entered an Osmonds reunion, there was more enamel on display than at the Electricity board shop. A tall black guy, wearing a huge grin, thrust a firm hand in my direction; I grabbed it and wrung it in the sentiment that it had been offered.

“Hi, nice to see you!”
“Good evening to you too,” I replied. Then from nowhere another, I readied my grip.
“Hi, nice to see you tonight”
“Nice to be here” I retorted with irony; no reaction.
One after the other I shook hands attached to grey suits with grins. I got the feeling I was in a sequel to the “Stepford wives”. At last Kim was there by my side, she was close enough for me to need to button my jacket.
She turned to me and whispered close to my face, “They’re great aren’t they,” her breath was sweet and her lips momentarily so close my English reserve waned.
We took our seats forth row back and off to the left of the speaker. I looked around and quickly calculated a rough total of over three hundred and fifty. There was a hush and up stepped a stocky man in his late thirties, Kim wriggled and grabbed my knee.
“Oh great, he’s my favourite”
Some people around us had big open notebooks others had Dictaphones. The man introduced himself and asked who among us would like to be our own boss, to have our own business, almost all raised their hands. He then asked who among us had our own businesses, were their own bosses, just over a hundred hands went up, most being the Osmond’s henchmen among us, one being Kim. The speaker told us how six years ago he was a builder who was experiencing a lean period during the recession then he discovered Americo. He now had a big country house in Suffolk and he hadn’t touched a brick in over three years. He explained how we could all start to climb the income ladder by simply paying an £85 subscription to be able to buy Americo products and convincing our friends and neighbours to do the same; easy! He did stress that this was not pyramid, but net-work marketing. At one point the speaker’s wife stood up, she wore a gaudy turquoise suit and had obviously had something done to her hair recently. She seemed to speak mostly about what she had and how good life was when you are rich. The man stood again and proceeded to pull numbers out of nowhere, put them together in dubious calculations and marvel us with the results. Kim watched transfixed. I did pick out at one point something about reaching targets to earn your bonuses but my mind began to drift toward Kim’s thighs.
When the speaking finished we were invited to go and have a good cup of coffee. Everyone began to mill about shaking each other’s hands and smiling, I took Kim’s hand.
“Do you fancy a drink?” I made it clear that I did.
“Yeah, ok Mike” she looked a little shocked that I should want to leave.
We went to the hotel bar and I ordered a Guinness for me, and a white-wine spritzer for Kim.
“So, what did you think? Blown away huh. I was a little taken aback first time but now I just can’t wait for the next meeting.” Kim was now back to her old self but some of the enigma had gone. I quite enjoyed her being a little more open; a kind of regression seemed to have taken place. I asked her if she was hungry, when she said she was I suggested a nice Indian restaurant close-by. We finished our drinks and went out in to the clement night air. At the entrance were the speaker, his wife and other assorted grinners. The tackily attired wife was climbing into the passenger seat of a huge dark green Mercedes, the speaker preparing to take the driver’s seat. With my arm around Kim’s waist I clearly felt her flinch as we passed them.
The mood progressed better than I could have hoped at the restaurant. Kim asked me if I intended to subscribe to which I replied without hesitation that I would. At the end of the meal the bill came which I duly paid by cheque and dug for sufficient coinage to cover a respectable tip. I then felt Kim’s hand grab my thigh very nearly reading my thoughts.
“ Hey businessman, you wanna come back to my place for some business.”
“Erm, yeah corse” Kim’s approach took me unaware but more than willing.
We arrived outside her flat and half of me expected her to laugh shouting “gotcha, you little twat!” but she didn’t, instead she lead me into the door and up the staircase to her door and in. Boxes bordered the passageway but the light was too dim and my vision too tunnelled to notice any details. The bedroom smelled undoubtedly of Kim, I was nearly wetting myself with anticipation. All I could have wished for was accelerating into my face like a babe laden BMW, I was in danger of being run over and I didn’t give a flying scrote. She led me into the bedroom threw me on the bed then fell on me her clothes flying off into the ether. I could feel her swollen breasts against my now bare chest her nipples like pebbles indenting my skin. We thrashed around and at one point I found myself on top, my excitement in danger of running prematurely away with me. I closed my eyes trying to think of something that would retard my ardour, Maggie Thatcher, no, Dame Edna Everage, no! Suddenly I had it, Mimi Mapandreou! I had waited so long for this I couldn’t let myself flash in the pan. After the ear piercing climax we laid still, entwined and winded. Then I gave in to the all-enveloping lethargy.
The sun began to flood through the curtains, I looked over at the clock by the bedside 6.17 it pronounced. Kim was still in my arms, I pulled her close and she began to stir and so did my loins. 6.30 the alarm squawked, Kim leapt from the bed naked and glorious in the sunlight.
She walked toward the door, ”I’m going to take a shower,” she said sleepily.
I looked around the room, there were boxes all around marked AMERICO MARKETING. I got up to find the kitchen; I found it at the end of the narrow passageway also littered with Americo boxes.
“Coffee?” I shouted in the general direction of running water.
“Yes please” came the muffled reply.
A sudden image of her lathered-up in the shower came to me; I resisted the urge to join her. In the kitchen I filled the kettle boldly labelled AMERICO ELECTRICS, in the cupboard I found the AMERICO CHOICE BLEND all the containers had a similar motif. When I took the steaming cups into the bedroom Kim was in her underwear, she smelt fresh and I wanted her again. I put the cups down and approached her from behind and kissed her neck.
“Not now Mike, we gotta go to work,” she said abruptly.
“I’ll take a shower then”
“There’s a guest towel in the bathroom” she motioned to the direction I had heard the running water come from.
In the bathroom I saw more Americo labels, in fact I saw little else. I emerged from the bathroom refreshed, Kim was now fully dressed. I dressed hurriedly and joined Kim in the lounge. She was standing in front of a picture frame mirror adjusting her make-up. Across the top of the mirror were the words LOOK-NOBODY LOVES A LOSER then the Americo logo. I put my arms around her waist and gave her a squeeze; she looked up at me with knowing eyes.
“We’ll meet up after work and go through the paper work to get you signed up “
“Ok, we’ll meet after work” I smiled smugly and sat down to finish getting ready.
 She smiled at me as I put my shoes on.
“Have you got sixty quid, Mike?”
I paused a little confused “but I thought the subscription was eighty-five”
“Not the subscription, silly,” her smile fell momentarily. “You did enjoy me didn’t you?” 

Wednesday 18 July 2018

Episode 48: A Saviour is Born

You know me. You followed me around the country. You loved me on the TV when I had you in stitches with jokes about my penis. You followed me in the tabloids, you supported my charitable works. Then you didn't. I don't know why. You just stopped. Now, I have people who love me again. So much that they made me their mayor. This is my new story, From Under Dark Clouds.

Roni swung her camera round to capture the scene in the bedroom. Tears ran down her cheeks. She did celebrity exposés, this had become a war zone. The Chinaman had been a shock but now she was filming someone she had known in life, with the life removed. She had met her children. She had been a character in her narrative, a mother, now a cadaver.

I was calm, collected, speechless and willing to agree to anything. “I’ll go!” ping ping! Mike was signalling NO but he wasn’t here, he wasn’t here and he should have been. “I’LL GO! You won’t see us again!”
“NOOO!” Ares cried. He would have looked like the child at the supermarket checkout screaming for the candies were it not for his statue and suit.
Wirey and Excavator took another step back, just like you do at the checkout in case someone thinks that the child is connected to you. Genuine fear in their eyes.
I pleaded him to let Roni go and she nodded fervent agreement. “Let her go!” I dropped my head. “let me go, please.”
I am not proud. I thought I was but pride is a luxury and it had been replaced by another feeling, deep mortal fear. I confessed. I confessed. I confessed.
Ares got it all on his phone. He began swiping and tapping.
“Mike! Forfucksake, do something.” I yelled into the air. There was no ping. I knew he knew where we were, I knew he could have called the police, sent someone to our location. He did nothing. Ares persisted in swiping and tapping then yelled his frustration at the device, throwing it at the wall. Splinters rained on the hard tiled floor. Roni and I would be next. We looked at each other without words, we both knew what was coming. We would not be going to the airport. Roni’s work would finish here and now as an obituary, if it were ever finished. Maybe Jude would see that it was completed. Attend the premiere with a somber face, accept the awards on Roni’s behalf, hopefully tell of his warm and inspiring relationship with me. Send his heartfelt condolences to my wife and sons. My work would be talked about, my books hit the bestseller lists again, generating some royalties for the family. This would be my punchline. I looked toward the bedroom, the door had swung closed but I could still see the disassembled secretary’s calves and feet. Her vital body flashed through my thoughts. Just a few days before, she had been warm, passionate. Just a few days before, she had been in my bed. 
Roni kicked my shin. The men had left the room, probably to decide who would off us.
When they came back in, I stared forward unblinking, tears blurred my vision, snot running down my face. Roni was terse, resolute, bold. Wirey pulled a sack over her head then mine. My tears stopped then my fear was gone. It would be quick.
Purgatory was the back of a van. It was hot and dark. I could feel the presence of another body and by the smell I thought it was the lifeless body of the well-assembled secretary. Judgement day had come and we were travelling freight class.
The twists and turns threw us into each other until our heads hit the bulkhead and the doors swung open. “GET OUT!” There were only two bodies in the back of the van, one mine and to my relief the other was Roni. Alive. We were pulled from the van and pushed into the back seats of an awaiting car.
“Where the fuck were you taking them?” I heard voices from outside the car. I couldn't discern the reply. “You were supposed to…” They had handed us over to others, associates? They were arguing about something.
“The Greek girl...? Malaka!” Then the seat in front of me was filled and the door closed. We sped off
I heard the voices from up front but none of it made sense to me. “He is going to be really pissed off!”
“You heard?”
“Yeah!.. Malakas!”
We had taken maybe five or six corners before a hand reached from the front and pulled the sack from my head and my gag down, my hands were still tied.
“You are safe, Sir.” I didn’t feel it but we were alive. “Mike gave us your location and we saved you.” I tried to look grateful. These were not familiar faces and that was the only thing I needed.
A phone rang and the unfamiliar face in the passenger seat picked up. The voice on the other end did not wait for familiarities and greetings. It was pretty sure that it was Socrates and he was on full tilt. I heard most of what was said but could not comprehend the words. It wasn't until he hung up that my fears were confirmed. The hoods were shoved back over our heads with apology. The car stopped and we were pushed out of the car onto the road.
The car screeched away leaving the bitter taste of exhaust fumes and burnt rubber. Soon there were voices and hands on me. I heard Roni squeal but no one was taking the hood off.
“Roni! Are you OK?” I yelled. She didn’t answer and I needed her to. “RONI!”
“FUCK! Someone just stepped on me.”
“Can you see anything?” Some arms pulled me to my feet. “RONI!”
I was dragged up some stairs then turned around. The hood was taken off. The sun blinded me but my arms were still tied. Roni was being manhandled up the stairs and we were both pushed through the doorway into the shade. We were safe in a police station. Safe? My arms still tied, I was marched into a room and planted on a chair. My hands were untied but I didn’t move.
“Where is Roni, the girl with me. Where is she?” I demanded.
“She’s OK. You need to worry about yourself!” the uniform leaning over me said. He pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it blowing smoke over my head. I asked for one but he just smiled. “Last one.”
“I was kidnapped! I was nearly fucking murdered!”
“You need to watch your language!”
“But I, I'm the mayor!”
"I didn't vote for you." 
The smoke smelt tangy and I needed some. “I demand to see the chief!" 
"He didn't either."
"Get me some smokes. I’ll pay.” I search my pockets and found a crumpled note.
“Can’t run errands. We have serious police work to do... Sir.”
I reminded him of his responsibility, his duty, to protect and serve.
“We are not your police! Now tell me. Tell me how you got lost in the wrong neighbourhood.”
“I was kidnapped by Ares Mavrides. He was going to… he killed…”
“Now accusations like that are going to get you in trouble.” He left me sat at the old school desk, still engraved with adolescent graffiti and slammed the door behind him.
I was still getting used to being free. I wasn’t tied to the chair but I might as well have been. Something kept me there acquiescent, compliant. I needed a cigarette, a drink. I had four cold walls and a desk.
Fuck this shit! I stood and walked to the door. The handle was stiff, I pushed, I shouldered the door. I was locked in, banging didn’t bring help.
I went back to the chair. there was nothing else to do, one desk, two chairs, four walls.
The door clunked and in strode Socrates, he was carrying a bottle of Irish and a plastic cup.
“You’ve really put the wind up those Nazis.”
I was pleased to see him, I really was. He broke the seal on the bottle and poured a shot. I looked at it, it sang to me but I shunned it.
“Got any fags, I need to smoke.”
He pointed to the ‘no smoking’ sign, “Can’t.”
“Roni? How’s Roni, I haven’t seen her since we got here.”
“She’s ok.”
“OK SHIT! Socrates, I’m sick of hearing OK. Where is she, what are they doing with her? Why aren’t we together?” I stood. “FUCK! Let’s get out of here, Socrates.”
“Calm down. We have to talk first.”
“I was fucking kidnapped, I want out of here!”
“I want to go eat at a friendly taverna and drink.”
“I brought your favourite.”
I eyed the plastic cup. I wanted it but I wanted not to run away, to feel, to know.
“I want out!”
“There is a whole bunch of press outside. We need a plan.”
I necked the contents of the plastic cup. Socrates filled it again.
“Why didn’t they ask me about…”
“They don’t know.”
I know I should have told them. I know I should have sent them round to where ever she was laid out on the bed. I know, I know. I wanted out and she didn’t want anymore. Not like I did.
“Now, listen. The elections are coming and they’re coming fast. We’ve done well to get this far but you are still a novelty act—”
“Socrates! Shit! I have been kidnapped and nearly killed!” I heard my own words. “Fuck, Christina!” I said her name for probably the first time, she had always been the well-assembled secretary but now she was disassembled.
“Yeah, yeah he went too far. I told him—” He filled my cup, I had drunk it before I decided I shouldn’t. “Eggs will get broken but—”
“Eggs! She’s dead, Socrates. She’s dead and you’re using omelette metaphors?”
He paused an rephrased. “Some soldiers will fall.”
I didn’t know what to say but I was saying something. He wasn’t listening. He stood and went to the door and knocked. I called him. The door was held open for him and her turned, looking through me. “We need to find the hero in you.” And walked out. The key turned in the lock.
I ran to the door and pounded on it then turned to the bottle on the table. I had to stay lucid. I focused on what we had done over these months, the progress we had made but I kept returning to the one logical conclusion.
I should take this all and write a book, do a show, tour. The Americans would love this. Mad goings on in uncivilised Europe, it’s just what makes them feel superior AND for once it’s a war they didn’t start! It was simple. Yes, I would go back to London, join my family and do funny again.
The key turned and Socrates walked in. I told him I couldn’t do it anymore, I told him that I didn’t understand what was going on, I never had and I was going home.
“Yes! and that is exactly why you… WE need to make sure these animals don’t get in. Just imagine the blood on your hands if you give up now.”
“My hands? You said I was just a novelty act!”
“You are and novelty is your strength.” He put a full plastic cup in my hand and grabbed my chin, forcing me to looked in his sharp eyes. “These people need you, they need your British stiff upper lip, they need your wit and huge heart. They need you. They may not know this yet but they do.”
He was right. I could see the potential in these people, maybe the same potential the wife had seen in me all those years ago. They just needed a heavy but loving hand.
“But, Roni?”
“Don’t worry about her. Her career was made today.”
I emptied the plastic cup and Socrates went to the door. He exchanged some words with the officer and returned. It was time to go. He glanced at the plastic cup and I emptied it. The bottle I had refused to drink was at half mast. He said we’d leave it for the officers. There was always more where that came from.
Roni was already at the station door when we arrived. I touched her arm and she tugged a smile, half a lip between her teeth. Socrates opened the door and the press sprung into life. I had done this so many times, I could do it again. I drew breath and dropped my head to put my face on. But before I could project my defiant smile, I heard my name.
Roni had taken the stage and was telling the cameras and microphones of my courage, my unwavering contempt for bullies and how we may not have been there if it hadn’t been for my heroism in the face of people who should never be given power.
“People of Greece! I tell you now. If you don’t want this man, I will take him back home to Britain and I will not rest until he is our democratic leader!” She took my hand, folding it into a fist and held it aloft. And for the fist time in my life the press cheered me.
Socrates took my other hand, smiled and held it high. And, ladies and gentlemen I swear my feet left the ground.

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Thursday 28 June 2018

What's in a Name?...

This is not Sparta!

So Nova Scotia gets its independence and decides to call itself The Republic of East Maine. The Walloons of Belgium break away and chose to be the Former Belgian Republic of Champagne, The Scots Upper Cumberland, China Greater Nepal, Pakistan North India. For that matter Canada would have every right to call itself America, It is on the North American continent, has shared heredity and by omitting the ‘United States of’ part could not be accused of inciting confusion. You get the picture and you’re probably laughing at my ridiculous notions but that is exactly what has been happening in the Balkans for the past 20-odd years. Since Yugoslavia fragmented, the southernmost state has been claiming right to call itself Macedonia.

Macedonia (Macedon) was the birth place of Alexander the Great and a key part of Greek heritage. In fact, the claim over Alexander has as much to do with the dispute as the name and territories. He was born in Pella, which is still a small town in Greece. He was Hellenic, the group of ancient civilisations that shared language and culture, though at that time not a unified nation. He was tutored by Aristotle until manhood. He was what we now consider to be Greek.
The area of Macedonia has been shaved by wars and politics over the centuries and while the majority remains in modern day Greece, some is in Albania, Bulgaria and the area that claims a right to the Macedonian name, an area that the Greeks insist on calling by the name of its capital city Skopje or FYROM.
So what’s the big deal? So many years have passed since then and it could be argued that modern Greeks have little to do with the Greeks of antiquity. But it is a big deal, to both the Greeks and the former Yugoslavians. So much so that the former Yugoslavian state named their international airport ‘Alexander the Great’, named major highways after him and in 2011 a huge statue of Alexander on a horse was erected in the centre of the capital, named Macedonia square. It is a big deal to them.
The Macedonian identity and heritage means a lot to the Greeks, as the Parthenon does, as heritage means a lot to many nations it is often confused with nationalism but common heritage is imperative to all peoples, it is what bonds the residents of an area into a tribe of common goals.
Families are the smallest building blocks of community, they have a name and members are easily recognisable by this name. A chance meeting of individuals with the same surname will often spark the question of shared heritage, my name is quite rare outside Ireland and when I do meet someone who shares it, I will ask about their family history. This has on occasion sparked a feeling of kinship. Names matter. People who have grown up in the same area will have connections of memories or friends or schools or places they played. We need to have bonds. We live in an age where Europeans are encouraged to identify as one people but it will not happen and if it does, it will come at great cost. The larger the geographical reach of ethnicity becomes, the more abstract it becomes. The USA has managed this well but it began with a melting pot of Europeans who were looking for a new life far from home. That said, it has taken a lot of flag waving jingoism to maintain. The American dream, Superman, The Super bowl, a common language.
Greece has had a hard time adjusting to the Eurozone architect’s dreams of a unified republic, more than most, it just wasn’t ready. Protests at the imposed austerity were regular but since the capital controls of 2015 the fight seems have left the Greeks. Now they are reemerging with zeal, the prime minister, Alex Tsipra’s capitulation to external pressures have made him a traitor to his people and the Greeks are angry again. Tsipra has sold his address to secure his mortgage with implied promises that putting this matter to bed will be favourable to a restructuring of the bailout loans from the TROIKA of creditors. The Greeks are back on the streets but I fear now as before, no one is listening.
Macedonia is Greece, its culture, its history and its antecedents. It is as Greek as The Parthenon and as that it is a piece of world Heritage. It will not be long before whatever prefixes to the name Macedonia that are agreed by the each party are dropped in favour of the simpler Macedonia. Eventually, in the name of unification, the Greek and Slavic versions of the Story of Alexander may become homogenised.
We are trained to consider the greater good, the big picture, international relations, the smooth running of trade but identity is the base on which all these must grow. Denying where we come from will only confuse where we are going. The former Yugoslavian republic realised that early on and their leaders recognised the need for history, they found a powerful if tenuous narrative for their people and have stuck doggedly to it. To reverse this now could be catastrophic for them to continue would be a lie.
What’s in a name? Just think of when a colleague or acquaintance got yours wrong or ask a Canadian where in America he is from or a Scot if he is English, an Austrian if he is German. What’s in a name? The first thing they do in prison is take your name away, they know why and so do you.

Saturday 16 June 2018

Contactless Cards are a Major step Forward For everyone Except Consumers

You’re running through the London underground, you don’t have an Oyster card or time to stop and navigate the ticket vending machine or the bemused queues. You need a drink and nip into a shop but only have big notes to pay and can’t stand the jangling coins in your skinny jeans pocket. You’re wasting your life in the express queue at the supermarket waiting for everyone in front of you to rummage in their pockets for the change to pay for the 10 items or less. But, we now live in the future, a time when each of us carries a reusable coin that only needs to be tapped on a machine to complete our transactions. Welcome to the world of NFC technology, contactless cards where your entire bank balance and even your credit limit is available in your pocket just waiting to satisfy those moments when antiquated methods of payment are just oh too time consuming for our modern pace of life.

The advantages of tap and go payments are just too numerous to mention. Just think of the savings to governments of minting notes and coins, according to the US Federal Reserve it costs between 4-9 cents to strike a coin and 5-13 cents to mint dollar bills. There are nearly 30 billion coins in general circulation and 40 billion notes. General adoption of cards will slowly but surely reduce this expense. Plus, unlike cash, digital card payments leave a trail that can be very useful for governments and marketers alike. Forget Facebook, nothing profiles a person like their purchases. Eventually, it is the aim of all economies to eradicate all cash currency and with it the black economy. Strikes me that it could make it difficult for MPs and senators to get their back-handers, maybe they’ve thought of that one already.

The head of the Bank of England doesn't trust contactless 

So, general adoption of our flexible friends makes so much sense, not to mention the next step which is the integration of NFC chips in our phones so we don’t even need our cards. We have come so far from Pieces of silver with our sovereign’s face stamped on it. Or have we?
The trouble with cash is that it is instantly transferable, you give it to someone and they can use it. The same goes for if they stole it. Credit and charge cards gave us a signature with which secured our cash, remember how we used to get traveller’s cheques that could be cancelled if we got pickpocketed or mugged in some far-off land. Security has been the main selling point of cards. From signatures we went to chip n pin, again we had to verify a transaction with our mark. If our cards got stolen, we could cancel them and stop anyone using our hard-earned. The bank could verify this with the signature or block it with an incorrect pin. I had my card cloned once in the UK and didn’t lose a penny despite the perpetrators going on a spending binge racking up nearly £2000 of transactions before I had even noticed.
Now, contactless doesn’t have the same security, up to a certain limit per transaction if someone gets your card, they can go up the high street merrily tapping and going and with no verification, you will have a hard time proving that they are not your transactions. Basically we are back to cash. The sheer volume of small contactless transactions is too much for the banking system to process in real time so they have thousands of offline transactions that can be processed in bulk at times of lower traffic. So, it could be days after realising and cancelling your card before the real damage can be seen.
My wife recently lost her card. She realised it fairly quickly and cancelled it. When she ordered a replacement, she requested that it be non-contactless. “We can’t do that, they are all tap n’ go now.” She was told proudly. She asked if this facility could be disabled at the bank end as she never uses it. “No, we can’t do that.”
“How can I be sure that someone doesn’t steal my card again and spend my money?” she asked.
“Well, they can only buy up to a limit.” The helpful bank clerk assured her.
She couldn’t tell her what the limit was, it seems to vary (and will vary in the country that you are reading this) and she couldn’t tell her how many contactless transactions could be made in a time period but she could sell her an insurance policy. She could sell her a SMS alert service that could add insult to injury by notifying her of each time she lost more money.

How to disable your contactless card

I spoke to a bank employee who gave me very little more information apart from the fact that statistically online fraud is much higher than contactless and while there are fears of having your cards scanned while in your pocket or bag, they are quite easy to safeguard against. Apparently, an anti-NFC wallet (RFID blocking) will protect you from cyber-pickpockets although, I have read much to dispute this. Keys and other metal objects, including wrapping your cards in aluminium foil can also block the swipers.
This is an immature technology which seems to have many advantages for banks, governments and thieves and a few conveniences for us. The impetus for improved security will only come from pressure from you and I and will probably come wrapped in more intrusive data mining. In the meantime, don’t be seduced by the ease of use and the new svelte line of your trousers.

Further reading:
The head of the Bank of England discusses her mistrust of the technology and how demand for cash is actually increasing

Practical instructions to disable the contactless ability of your card

America, who is usually so quick to embrace new tech especially when it is ease of payment has been slow to adopt chip and pin and contactless. We Europeans are quick to judge the Yankees, maybe the joke will be on us

The Swedes are a trusting people but there is a limit

Friday 1 June 2018

My Rebirth in Athens

Christ! 5am might be a good time for monks and people with serious careers but it was playing havoc with my circadian rhythms. All I had to counter it was instant coffee and a cold shower. I took them grudgingly and dragged my bag to the door. I stopped and took stock, shoes on feet, trousers fastened and shirt on back. It wouldn't be the first time I’d left a house at such an ungodly hour without one of these. Shit! Getting out of anywhere with the shirt on my back was a huge bonus in this day and age. I stepped into the lift. I would normally take the stairs, they offer a much more authentic experience of gravity, but my legs couldn't be relied on, the mutinous fuckers would love an opportunity like this to see me sprawled out on my face at the foot of the stairwell, my underwear and travel-sized toothpaste spewed on the floor.


My driver was familiar so I maintained an air of grateful indignation. The nightclubs had closed their doors to revellers no more than an hour before so the roads were clear and soon enough we were pulling up outside airport departures. I alighted the cramped vehicle and she didn’t. I promised to call and patted the pocket that contained no phone.
Airports before sunrise are an anthill of activity. The travellers tend to be going somewhere to do something rather than the child-dragging escapees who’ve staked their annual savings on two weeks burning their skin, drinking cheap cocktails and praying the kids don’t drown in the sea.
No, pre-dawn flyers have to be in an office discussing things they don’t trust the phone with or gathering in hotels for conferences about stuff while dreaming of tanning their skin, drinking Tequila sunrises and praying the kids would shut up and drown already. I, dear blogees was one of the latter. The Toastmasters convention in Athens was entitled ‘Rebirth’ and I only had vague circumstantial evidence that I had experienced it the first time, birth that is.
I was flying to Athens, the crucible of democracy, western philosophy and so much more at a time when my ancestors were still figuring out how to get 100 tons of stone 200 miles from Wales to stand on Salisbury plains. And, that many years later we still haven’t worked out why.
In my seat was a young woman who was already looking nervous. She asked if I wanted her to move and I said I didn’t mind. We briefly argued about who didn’t mind the most and she stayed put. My seating was random, I had opted to save the €3 so all she had achieved was to randomise my random seating, worth €3 of anyone’s money. She was peering out the window shuffling in her seat.
“Looks a long way down, eh?” I agreed with the thought that she had not verbalised. “But you’ll hardly notice it once we get above the clouds.”
She turned and pursed her lips, I was sure I could detect a smile.
The crew took their positions to show us what to do in the event that gravity interrupted them selling us perfumes and cute, anthropomorphised plushy aircraft. We wouldn’t be flying over the sea so I ignored the bit about topping up the life vest. I mean, they love showing that video of the guy landing his Airbus in the Hudson river but we all know that air travel was never intended to be survivable. You hit the sea from 35,000 feet, you’re gonna be a smoothie with foreign coins in your pocket, you hit a mountain and you are destined to be some other passenger’s brunch. No, if I feel the earth accelerate towards me, I’ll turn my ipod volume up past the recommended safe level and try to edit the boring parts out of my life flashing before me. That said, a well-pumped life vest could go someway to breaking your fall were we to clip the top of mount Olympus. Aw! Ever the optimist.
The exhilaration of acceleration always sends a tingle up my trousers, this time it was augmented by my new travel companion’s nails in my forearm, not nearly as unpleasant as it sounds! I wondered if she’d react the same way on landing but I was too polite to request.
I opened the book I had been reading and watched the words swim around the page for a while, the instant coffee had done nothing for my concentration. Domestic flights in Europe never last long and just as I'd got settled in, the flaps on the wings started their downhill dance.
We touched down and for a moment I felt the landing gear and fuselage quarrel over direction, this sharpened my focus to the life jacket. If I was thrown from a gaping hole in the aircraft, would the inflated vest soften the impact with Terra Firma as I had previously hoped? My synapses were sparking faster than I was accustomed but I knew I wouldn’t be able to roll a cigarette and light it before the end. And anyway the no smoking lights were still lit. I reached for the duty-free bottle I’d procured before leaving the departure lounge but her nails snagged in my arm. Was this how it would all end? Thrown from a budget airline seat to be spread like jam on the toasted Athens runway and would the cramp in my legs subside for this? I would probably break her fall and be hailed a hero. At least the compensation and bolstered book sales would give my wife and kids a more comfortable life than I had managed to give them while I had been the right size and shape to fit into trousers.
Unfortunately, I was in the smokers cabin in the arrivals hall scribbling these very words when I realised none of this had actually happened. These glass-walled aquariums of shame played soothing music while extracting the smoke and advertising the sponsor’s particular brand of tobacco freedom. The rugged middle-aged model in the pictures bore no resemblance to someone who would reach for a packet and lighter before opening his eyes in the morning then hack his lungs between his first drags of the day. Modelling had never been a career option for me but in the name of honesty I made a note to self to contact Imperial Tobaccos for an audition. I reached into my bag for the bottle but it wasn’t until I was replacing the cap and putting it back that I seriously considered the folly of my actions. It was 7.30 and I still hadn’t had a decent cup of coffee, there is much to be said for keeping events in the proper sequence but saying it was a close as I got. I took one more nip before deciding that.
There was one last bag rounding the carousel when I emerged. I guessed it must be mine and took it. I headed to the first java franchise for some hard, hot and black.
I was well into my second when another flight safely touched down from the north carrying two vibrant balls of enthusiasm who were to accompany me to the conference. One of them had a plan, which was more than I had.
On the train into town they fizzed with excitement about the upcoming events, the gala ball, the keynote speakers and soon my discomfort became palpable.
I told them I’d need to dump my luggage, I could only speculate that it was mine but if people could believe that our existence was down to a huge explosion in the universe or the hand of a bearded guy who was never born, I could believe this bag between my legs was the one that contained my underwear.
I called my host for the weekend. It was obvious that I’d woken her, shit! She told me to get off at Monastiraki station and head for the ancient columns. I asked again, this was Athens, the capital of ancient, I knew I would be sleeping on a park bench trading favours to be allowed to snuggle into a flea-bitten mutt for warmth… again!
My fizzy companions got off the train. One said she’d see me soon. The other asked if I’d be ok. I doubted either.
Things were looking up. I exited the station and just outside were some columns. I took a place in the shade and rolled a cigarette. A herd of Americans passed extolling hyperboles of awe in their metallic burr, the same that makes tourist trap scammers around the world rub their hands in glee.
I finished my cigarette and ventured into the square. The stalls were hanging with hats and sunglasses and sundry tat that while professing to the contrary would never pass Greek hands until money changed hands. Many of the tourists may in fact be taking the trinkets back to where they were made.
A tall slenderman thrust a piece of handwritten paper in my hand. I gave it straight back and looked defiantly non-American.
“NO!” I said.
“Habla ingles?” he asked.
I went back to the columns for safety.
My host arrived with a smile, kissed me on both cheeks and told me I must be thirsty. I was, was it that obvious. We scurried past the made-in-China Parthenons on a chain and ducked into a bar. My watch was chiding me but I ignored it which by the second beer became easier.
We headed back into the heat and she gave me the tour of the neighbourhood. There were three supermarkets but this was her favourite. She told me to pick up a basket. I was dragging a wheelie case wearing a backpack and now trying to balance a basket that was rapidly filling with bottles and cans. I had my reservations about the cans but chose not to share them at this time.
We passed a guy sitting outside a carpet shop and my host called him by name.
“Hey! This is my English friend who’s come to write about us.”
“Are you a journalist?” he asked in perfect English.
“Well…” I began to answer but before I could I was introduced as a great writer who had a particular interest in the sub-cultures of Athens.
We spread our cache from the supermarket on a table that was hurried from inside the shop along with a bottle of a clear but potent liquid. We were joined by a parking attendant from a open space opposite that was infeasibly chequered with vehicles. They quizzed me about my life in Greece, most of which was answered by my host. They talked of a Greece that was the mother of wisdom in antiquity, a paradise on earth for tourism but had gone to the dogs in the modern context. The carpet salesman told me that he had a post-graduate in Greek literature but had been waiting for his call-up from the education authority to teach in high school, the parking attendant was a lawyer who never had the connections to get a foot hold in the profession, my host was a philosophy major who taught German at a private school while volunteering at a psychiatric ward. I felt like a hack but inspired by the potent clear liquid, the setting and hubris I invoked the Socratean method and Douglas Adams' 42.
“You see, the poverty of the modern age is not answers, we have no end of them!. No, our poverty lies in our questions!”
My company nodded in sagely agreement.
I drained another glass and fleetingly remembered my purpose in Athens, the convention. I remembered my promises to my fellow Toastmasters but we had begun to delve into the truth of Socrates’ existence and the potent liquid clarity had burned a path down to my deep-rooted acquiescence.
I looked up and just over the rooftops, high on crag of rock stood the Parthenon, and I was convinced it was gloating.

Next: I find a stage

From Under Dark Clouds

The Century of DIY