FTMT's Favourite Five Top Tenets

Monday, May 30, 2005

Phobias and Manias: FTMT Short Story No 10


Phobias and manias

“It all starts with the child, the child is affected, touched, smeared, polluted, mirrored. I don’t know but I do, it’s everywhere, it sears into you, into them, every body is affected, everybody is touched. I don’t remember anything but I know all about it like it was yesterday or the day before. It was real to me at the time, still is, still burns and cuts with it’s sharp edge, still stings with it’s poison like a memory trick and unwinding dream”.

“OK Jake, we’ve established that you had a series of bad experiences, you got burned, metaphorically and you are still hurting, still smarting from the experience. How long ago? Can you put a time, a fix on it? Is it still as fresh or is there a decay factor that I might apply? Sorry for these questions but at this stage I like to bottom things out, like to see the sea bed (as we say) just to know exactly where it is you are coming from…just stay with me on this, I wont take long and despite what you may be thinking it can all be quite painless and...”

“I don’t know the time, I was young, I was scared, I buried a lot of stuff since those days. You ask me questions too quickly, I need time to pick my answers, I’m not a machine, this is tough, painful to recall. Well some of the detail is missing you know, I was small, a kid, six maybe seven, alone in bed somewhere between sleep and awake. We lived out in the desert, dad ran a gas station, and mum ran the diner. I was alone a lot. I was happy most times. We had a zoo; we had snakes, lizards, bugs and insects. Cages made up from crates, chicken wire, old aquarium glasses for the snakes and car parts. Stuff that dad had caught, found or that travellers brought in, damn! Some of them just wandered into the house, never bothered me, never meant nothing, it was the way it was. It was always hot, ice and water, cola, ice and water the most precious things. I loved it when the Coke truck rolled in, when the machine was full and our refrigerator was filled, that good feeling of knowing you’ve enough to survive, stock is high, time can crawl then, you could relax. Security.”

“And did you relax? Was the fear lifted at these times? Trucks and visitors to your little zoo, travellers wanting gas, pancakes, a cold coke and a hot burrito to scare the dust from their throat and stuff their bellys. A few words to your dad as they filled up, checked the oil, a chat to your mom over lunch or breakfast, stumble out in the dust and look at your dime zoo, must have seen all types. All the low life travellers, desperados and weirdos out there, who else travels through the desert like that? Dumb tourists? Who pays to waste their time and look deep into dirt? The clientele at your mom’s cafĂ© must have left a lot to be desired. Are you ashamed of your mom? Ashamed of your dad? Setting up home for you in such a god forsaken wilderness with bugs and snakes for brothers and sisters: no wonder you’re in here talking to me!”

“It was OK, I loved it there, I loved the space, I loved the dust. The cool drinks, the desert sky at night, the long shadows, the way the night fell and just kept on falling and smothered you till the refuge of sleep was all you had left, no place else to go. I’d watch those desert stars through the open window I felt so safe. Critters making their night time noises in the cages, distant truck motor, generator running, far way radio sounds. Saxophones and electric guitars, clipped and sharp, crystalline blues and rock-a-billy, songs and scores from Lord knows where, but always in the distance. My mom loved that music, that radio music. And then that blue cigarette smoke from my daddy, sitting under the window, hearing his breath, smelling the tobacco, the snap of the match striking, the first big inhale to light the cigarette, the signs and the whispers to my mom, and always traffic, slow and lazy some days, rushing and whining past others.”

“So Jake, it’s women you are scared of? Women you can’t stand, can’t talk to, can’t relate to? Is it women?”

“One day I had to go, had to go, it all became more than I could handle. It was mom, you’re right, but dad was to blame, he never played his part and I guess mom couldn’t help it. When you’re lonely and alone you can do crazy things and somehow things slipped out of control. It was the night I lost my best snake..”

“Go on, you don’t mind if I take a few more notes?”

“Ssssss, ok, I lost my best snake that night Goddamn! I was trying to tell them but there was an argument, usual business, money. All melted together in the heat, it was a hot night I remember. They were bickering, mom had been a little over friendly with some customer, dad didn’t like that, or so I thought. When I look back now I realise that I didn’t really know anything about what was going on then, it was my home but it could uncomfortable at times, there always was a disconnect. Dad stayed busy like work was a drug for him; mom fled the heat of the day to find a refuge in the heat of the kitchen and anybody’s cheap conversation. I just stayed in the background, like I was a piece of scenery in some half-baked play. So it was that night, they’d been bickering but I just went straight into the workshop and told my dad that the snake had gone. The snake was one of my best, little sandy coloured Twi-catcher with sceranoid back pattern, I’d only had him two weeks but I was sure he’d be worth $10 cos he was so bright and $10 a lot of money to a kid like me, now he was gone. Dad came back into the tank area and checked them all with me with his torch but there was no sign. He wasn’t mad or anything, he wasn’t like that, he was quiet and he knew I was bugged. He patted me on the head and handed me a coke bottle from the machine and went back into the shop. I stood for a moment sucking on the cold glass top and swinging the coke around inside my mouth when there was more of a commotion from the diner. I saw dad run in from the shop into the diner, there was a few seconds silence and then a shot, then another. Then out ran a man, all in black and I could hear mom screaming in the background. The man in black ran across the lot to a parked car, jumped in and drove off at speed in a westerly direction. Tail lights twisting down the road in a dusty twilight cloud. I didn’t hear no more from the diner so I ran in through the front door that the man in black had just run out of, no idea what mayhem I was going to find. As I ran in I saw dad standing, legs apart and a gun was lying there on the diner counter. Dad was staring at it like he couldn’t believe it was real. It was big and shiny silver and it looked hot and dangerous, it was some kind of big automatic pistol. Dad was just staring at it like he was willing it to go off or go away or something. I was stood dead still not sure what move to make. Dad was almost in some kind of trance I thought and I couldn’t imagine what he’d seen or even done to get him so”.

“He stepped back sudden and turned round and looked at me square in the eyes, sweat was running down his brow I could see now his hands were a tremble. Then I began to wonder where my mom was, if their quarrel had got real big and out of hand and if that man who’d run out was all part of their fighting. I moved forward to see what might be behind the diner counter, where mom usually stood and where she should be now. Dad signalled me to freeze but I kept going because I knew that something was very wrong. I twisted by him and ran around the end of the counter to see for myself what had happened. Dad was still slow to react, he reached out to grab my collar as I ran past but he was too slow and now I was round him and inside the counter. I say my mom lying there on the green tiled floor all crumpled and awkward looking like she’d just fallen from the ceiling and landed there between the coffee deck and the refrigerator door”.

“A whole lot of things went through my head right there in double quick time, I was wondering if she was with the Lord Jesus, if he was holding her head and lifting her slow and taking her to some shining city away somewhere. Maybe he was whispering in her ear and telling her I was ok and not to worry and how we’d all be fine saying “don’t worry little darlin’”. Then as I got closer to her I saw that her hand was holding a hot dog bun, a foot long one and she was still gripping it so tight even as she lay. I thought that during the struggle and fight she had been fighting of some mad violent attacker, a robber or a molester with that hot dog and I thought no wonder she had got hurt. By now my eyes were filling up with tears and an angry kind of grief and feeling of desperation was pumping up my heart like a bicycle tyre on a hot day. I was going to burst. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and I knew my dad was going to set things right, whatever it was that was wrong. He squeezed me gentle and we both kneeled down beside mom.”

“I was looking at her up and down, her eyes were closed, her body crumpled and there was a gash on her head which was dripping fresh red blood in a vertical stain down her forehead and into her tousled, hanging hair and onto the floor. She was still gripping the hot dog. Her fingernails were chipped, the red varnish was maybe three days old and I noticed all the freckles on her arm for the first time, her apron was grease stained and pulled tight across her waist hitching and creasing at her skirt. Her thighs and legs were frozen still and at an uncomfortable angle, one shoe was off. Dad spoke, ”OK son, OK, it’ll be OK”. I was dumb and shocked, in my head the two gunshots were still reverberating, they had no place I thought, gun shots have no place in my mom’s diner, in our home, in this filling station, they have no place, these bullets don’t belong here.”

“I looked at the hot dog and saw mom’s grip tighten on it, her hand jerked and at the same moment her eyes buzzed open and she blinked. She stared at the hot dog roll again, let out a scream and in a single whiplash movement threw the roll across the diner floor. Dad moved close towards her, held her shoulders and began to speak softly. I was sobbing in a low childish sob, not believing what was happening. Mom was crying and beginning to shake as if the first wave of a huge fright had just hit her and now she must react in some mechanical, logical way. She threw her head back as if convulsing, dad caught her and cradled her and whispered more into her ear. My thoughts gathered and I thanked God and Jesus and the Pope that she wasn’t dead and in heaven, she was with us but I had no idea what was wrong, where she had been shot or anything. The blood on her head which dad was gently catching with a napkin even I knew it was too slight an injury to be a gun shot wound. I looked more and panicked less and could see no more blood or hurt. She wasn’t shot, that man who ran out had missed or shot someone or something else, not my mom.”

“I stood up and wiped my tears and asked if I should call the sheriff or Doctor Brown, dad looked at me puzzled and just repeated the it’s OK line. I stood back and at some safe distance began to tell mom I loved her. She looked up her head in dad’s lap and smiled a weak smile. I felt the shocks drain more of my strength; I walked out in front of the diner counter and saw a bloody stain and mess of skin and flesh down between a stool and the counter. There was a clear bullet hole in the floor and I could see a reptile skin pattern plastered across the floor. Dad popped up from the other side and leaned across the counter looking down meeting my gaze rising up.”

“Sandy Coloured Twi-catcher!” said dad, “tough little varmint, kill a man stone dead in sixty seconds they do say.”

“Since that night and even right now, I don’t much care for snakes.”

Monday, May 23, 2005

The bravest scientist in the world: FTMT Short Story No 9


The bravest scientist in the world

The pale grey shed on the edge of town industrial estate was a prime example of nondescript anonymous attention avoiding functional architecture in the 2oth century. It was comparatively small, bleak, devoid of external information and apart from the few cars parked nearby and the waste skip had a look of almost deliberate artistic abandonment to it. There was no natural light in the small research laboratory part, windows were bricked up and fresh air sneaked in from a primitive and unreliable ventilation system. Inside the space was divided by a number of screen walls into various functional areas, offices, labs and experimental rooms. Strip lights burned on in the main lab. They buzzed and flickered occasionally and desk reading and inspection lamps remained on all day and grew hot contributing to the dry and stale atmosphere. Two long work benches ran along each wall on either side of the door, each covered in an assortment of papers, notepads containers and clutter, behind this there was a back line of computers, printers, test rigs punctuated by red or amber power or stand by lights and miscellaneous bits of bookcase and shelving. On the walls white boards and charts alive in scribbles and diagrams covered the blank spaces and added window proportions to the otherwise bare walls. On the floor again and odd mixture of stools and trolleys and lab chairs languished. The whole room had a run down a neglected feel but it was home and valuable workspace to the small team of eight scientists and assistants who spent long hours there pursuing the explanation to or solutions for their current suite of problems.

The large hand on the white clock above the door seemed to struggle to reach the number twelve but eventually did and at about 8AM the first of the staff began to drift in to start the day. It was Monday and the start would be slow, Monday’s were always slow, even if staff had been working all weekend as occasionally happened. The team drifted in, Henry, Spike, Ricardo, Janice, Franz, Wendy, Paul and lastly their leader and mentor Dr Steven Alexander. As a cross section of the scientific community they could have been typical, all from a variety of academic and industrial backgrounds, recruited and brought together, at a high price as a result of the choices made by Dr Alexander. The nature of their work and their personality types and their respective salaries meant that accommodation and outward status was not of prime importance, it was the challenge and goals and the possibility of ground-breaking work that kept them motivated and focused.

From the library shelf the young assistant Paul reached up and selected a large folder entitled “Dictionary of Fear”. He thumbed through the thick document stopping about halfway through, his eye pausing on a lengthy footnote:

“What is the point of writing if it is simply to cover a blank page or screen with pretty words? Of what use is script that exists only as a superficial design upon a piece of paper that leads us nowhere and enriches or informs no one? Each man must strive to conquer his inherent fear of facing the truth, firstly the truth about himself and his position in this world and then to confront his true lack of knowledge and the great responsibility he holds to make his mark and in the process make sense of the many incomprehensible worlds that surround him.” Dr Steven Armstrong – Why Future Worlds Must be Better - 1992.

He closed the folder and carried through to Doctor Alexander’s private office where it was now required.

The processes of thought leading to fears and their irrational or logical sources were being explored and evaluated by the use of chemical stimulants and depressants on a fresh band of volunteers who were due to visit the lab this morning. Doctor Alexander (Dr A as he was known) had been working on the chemical control of fear. Dr A considered fear to be the most crippling and restrictive of all human emotions and a massive limitation in man’s development and next evolutionary steps. It was Dr A’s opinion that unless fear was understood and managed man was doomed as a developing animal and eventually rodents or insects, creatures with little self awareness or fear would succeed over man. Fear was in his opinion the most restrictive and basic of human limitations that needed to be brought under some form of control, if not by strength of will then by chemical assistance. Of course this type of thinking was less that popular and as a result Dr A did not enjoy support from any of the scientific mainstream or the media. The work into fear research, he reasoned, was held back by fear itself. The basic fear of tampering with such a fundamental human survival characteristic was widely misunderstood and seen by many as simply a means of turning healthy individuals into drones or dog soldiers with no conscience or reason.

The research was funded via a discrete holding company by a large US based pharmaceutical firm who wished to remain at the forefront of chemical control research, the US Government (an intelligence agency) had also shown interest but held back on actual support. Months of pilot work and drug synthesis had led up to the planned test for today and all the staff were anxious that it should run smoothly with the minimum of hold ups. The twelve volunteers were the type normally recruited for the research, unemployed, shiftless people happy to be fed and kept warm for £75 per day. This system may not stand up fully legal scrutiny but Dr A had sanctioned it as the only viable way forward for this testing stage of the project.

In the entrance module the volunteers began to arrive and were received and processed by Paul and Wendy. Personal details were confirmed or captured, a brief health check done and then each one was invited to shower and change into a white overall. Once this process was complete a simple breakfast, provide by a catering agency was offered in the refectory room. The volunteers always gladly accepted this and it helped to set the tone for the rest of the day’s testing. Once fed Paul and Wendy called them together and gave them a brief presentation on their health and safety, their pay arrangements and the timetable of tests that would occur that day. Then each of the volunteers were taken into an individual soundproofed cubicle and left alone with a TV to watch and some tea, coffee and snacks. It had been some months since the last batch of human experiments had been carried out and today marked the restart and a vital new stage of the programme.

Of the twelve men (they were all men) six would be given a newly synthesised drug and six would be given a placebo. Paul and Wendy administered the drug via the refreshments and did not themselves know who had taken what, only Dr A knew. A remote body monitor (RBM) was fitted to each man to record his test reactions and feedback the vital physiological information Dr A required. All the team, including Dr A wore similar systems in order to provide base line and calibrate able data. It was all part of Dr A’s strict set of procedures as the use of human guinea pigs had to carefully monitored and controlled and results had to be backed up by a water tight testing process. By nine thirty all the administration had been done and the guinea pigs had been primed, the tests could now begin. Every man in his own cubicle was then shown a short series of violent and frightening images, some new, some familiar from TV and film archives and some from documentary sources. The images ran for two hours allowing the drugs to act and the individual’s time to desensitise (as usually happened) and react and hopefully forget they were being monitored.

A period of settlement and silence followed the film trial and then at twelve a light lunch was served within the cubicles, comfort breaks were given via an en-suit toilet every cubicle had. Once the lunch was over, the doors were electronically locked and cockroaches were dropped into each man’s room from a hatch in the rear wall, then ten minutes later six brown rats were released in a similar way. The temperature in each cubicle was raised gradually throughout the day also and fresh oxygen was denied them. By one thirty the cubicles were becoming very unpleasant places to be. Random loud bangs and disturbing noises followed the rodents and then a mixture of steamed urine and small amounts of carbon monoxide were released via the air system. Then a tannoy message was played to inform the volunteers that contrary to the brief they had been given they were not to be released and would remain in their solitary confinement indefinitely. It was usually at this point that a number of the men would begin banging and kicking on the walls and doors, desperate to get out. A long period of complete silence and the gradual dimming of the internal lighting followed this announcement.

In the lab the wall clock ticked on and on. The bare wall seemed to resonate and amplify it’s sound to coincide with the drop of every bead of sweat on Paul’s brow. Wendy noticed and was also uneasy, mirroring Paul’s nervousness and plain anxiety. For both the thought of the pain and torture, the slow build up of fear and the x-factor of the unknown that they were subjecting the twelve guinea pigs to was upsetting, necessary but upsetting. Of course the men were paid volunteers but really their choices in life were limited and if the best that they could get was the life of a human lab rat, what was that worth? She rationalised further, for the hundredth time that soon it would be over for them, they would get the balance of their money, counselling and some support and another meal and then return quietly to a life on welfare support, and if they spoke up who would care or listen anyway? These thoughts worked for a time but she still found it hard to detach, not to empathize or care for the twelve disciples of fear locked in their personal experimental prisons.

Dr A breezed in; he was speaking in Spanish to Ricardo who accompanied him. Both men were dark and Latin looking, wearing identical lab coats and deep in their technical conversation. Paul and Wendy remained outside of it for a few more minutes until Dr A barked an order at the waiting Paul. “I want you to maintain the silent period indefinitely, I want you to extend the monitoring!” Paul spluttered “But we’ve, they’ve agreed only to an eight hour stint you cant..”
“Paul, Paul.” Grinned Dr A “This experiment is far bigger than you or I or those gentlemen on whom we depend for our further research, there is greater good, a greater mission, a quest you must learn to respect. By all means consider the apparatus that you must use in your experiment, it has a clear value, but do not lose sight of the higher purpose for the sake of some minor worry that flits across the shadow that is your soul!” Paul stepped back and Wendy stepped forward. “Sir, we need to be clear that these men are willing to remain on during an extended experiment, we must respect their freedoms despite our own needs!” “Of course my dear” Continued Dr A “We shall, you shall, the rights of all are worthy of the highest respect, and these brave subjects shall be tested and significantly rewarded for the flexible attitude they are demonstrating”.

Paul broke in once more, “We cannot ask or offer them further choices while they are in the deprivation/stimulation cubicles!” Then Dr A spluttered back, “So we shall choose for them, it is an easy matter to resolve, now do as I say, and as I think you both know best!” Dr A wheeled around leaving Paul and Wendy speechless. The men in the cubicles had been subjected to the normal tests, all that they had been briefed to expect and a little more. Now more testing was to follow and an indefinite period of deprivation and escalation of fear as the drug kicked in or as it would in 50% of the examples - did nothing. Paul continued the tests as before for a further four hours. He could sense the pent up anger, fear and frustration the poor men within the cubicles must be suffering. He felt weak and hopeless in his job and angry with himself and the Doctor.

It was at this point that the building fire alarm, normally quiet, obedient and reliable chose to sound. Unexpectedly smoke began to filter in through the air handling system and a haze grew quickly before all eyes remaining in the experimentation area. The alarm system was connected by magnetic latches to all fire exits, main doors and guinea pig cubicles, on sounding all these doors automatically opened and obediently - today they did. For a few moments there was true chaos within the building. Despite being partly smoke blinded choking staff and scientists reacted well and began to try to shepherd the confused guinea pigs from the building. The guinea pigs however misunderstood the situation and believed it to be part of the test. Perhaps they thought that a reaction was required or only allowed themselves to follow the rules of simple ignorant blind panic. The staff were not prepared for the violent outbursts that followed the release of the trapped men. Panic driven scuffles broke out and precious seconds wasted. Dr A seemed to be singled out, burly hands and shoulders bundled him backwards against the escape currents and as the last guinea pig left his cubicle Dr A was flung into it’s open door. Nobody knows who in the thick smoke and screaming slammed the cubicle door, locking the Doctor in the rapidly smoke filling cell.

The confusion between release and escape ran on as if in slow motion. In reality it took less than a minute to get everybody from the smoke filled building and out onto the shingle and gravel surfaced car park. Everybody that was except Dr Alexander. The approaching fire brigade sirens could be heard over the noise of passing traffic. Henry was holding a clipboard and taking a role-call, repeating names and clicking his pen nervously. Behind him smoke and flickers of flame were steadily devouring the laboratory as the shocked and puzzled people sat stunned in its shadow. Paul knew right away that Dr Alexander had not made it.

The Fire Department had the blaze in the ancient ventilation system out in a few minutes, but it was the smoke that had done the damage as it had been sucked and pushed through the building. It was late afternoon when Dr Alexander’s body was brought out from the smoky cell, through the lab and into daylight. His asphyxiated body was hot and dirty with the smoke but not burned, the LED from his RBM still flashing a pale green working message from his belt. The staff argued over who had let him go, over what the guinea pigs had done and how it could have all been avoided but ultimately blame could not be easily apportioned anywhere.

A week later the coroner returned the RBM to the team who had returned to a small area in the building (without ventilation). Paul took the decision to hook the RBM to the docking equipment to see what Dr A’s readings were. “It would be what he would have wanted,” he reasoned to he remainder of the team (Spike and Ricardo were by now long gone). The green RBM pulsed as the information was downloaded, a graphic display began to run as the information flowed and fed the hungry fields. Paul clicked on the mouse and waited a few precious seconds; he gulped and gasped as the graph formed before him, clicking as it found each point on the scale and now forming a straight and horizontal line, a perfectly flat line. Dr A had died in alone in his metal tomb – unafraid.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Petrolhead: FTMT Short Story No 8




Mike’s nickname was “the mechanic” though he wasn’t at all a trained mechanic; he just loved cars of all sorts. He even loved silly uncool cars like family saloon creampuffs, minivans and MPVs, Landrovers, travelling shops and ambulances as well as sports and racing cars; they all belonged to a huge exotic motoring family to him. It was the smell, the petrol fumes, the metal, the heat and noise and just how they rolled across tarmac, any tarmac. Mike could watch cars all day stopping and starting, parking, doors clunking shut, electric windows zedding down, it was all so pleasing. He watched them from office windows, at supermarket car parks, outside car dealerships, by car washes and petrol stations, slip roads and junctions. Cars and the compulsive magnetism they generated filled all of his thoughts and spare time and fascinated him.

He loved looking at those wheels turning, devouring even a small distance, circumference after circumference unwinding it’s rubber track over the road surface, overcoming forces and friction to pull or push a load along. He loved the thought that under each bonnet a hot, oily engine raced and burned in a metal container with carbs and injectors spitting petrol and air mixes, hot ramming pistons turning camshafts and crankshafts, valves popping up and down like excited prairie dogs, boiling water circulating and cooling the internal inferno, fans and belts and cables and connectors. Then there were gear boxes, all those silver cogs engaging so surely and faithfully time after time to turn drive shafts and differentials delivering that all important power down through clutches and friction pads to the wheels and tyres. “A work of art” he thought when he saw one of his particular favourites.

Of course Mike had one real petrol passion in his life, a dark blue 1998 Renault Clio 16v Sports model. Three doors, big tyres and alloys, front and rear spoiler, sports lights, chrome and custom extras everywhere and an all leather interior and a beefy stereo. The stereo was seldom used properly as Mike liked to listen to his engine’s chatter rather than listen to any music. He’d done most of the work himself and so earned his nickname from his less enthusiastic friends. Most of them had cars and liked them a lot but none of them languished the time and pride and money on theirs that Mike did on his. The funny thing was that despite Mike’s love of cars he didn’t really like to hang with the other petrolhead guys who cruised and raced and doughnuted round the burger bars and mall car parks each evening, he thought they were somehow less than pure compared to him and he dislike the way they cowboyed and to him abused their cars by showing off. He didn’t like the baseball cap and Ned culture either which he some how incorrectly pinned on that particular group of people.

When Mike made his mind up on something, so it remained, so despite his passion and taste in cars he remained a private person, even amongst his non-car best friends and hostile towards those with whom, it would seem he had most in common.

No one was quite sure how Mike had missed the boat and not become a mechanic, even a bad one. He had drifted after leaving school, done a plumbing course for a year then flipped burgers for a while before picking up a clerical job with the insurance firm and had had two small promotions that had taken him away from constant telephone working. He remained in the insurance office 9 to 5 and occasionally did extra evening shifts in their call centre but, so his friends thought, he must find it all so frustrating loving cars as he did and not being somewhere in the motor industry. He had thought about retraining, but right now at the ripe old age of 24 he needed constant cash to keep his Renault happy and couldn’t afford to stop work and retrain. He had a plan for his car, a bigger engine was going in, new suspension and shocks and a new exhaust system that would make it sound as sweet as any 16-valve symphony orchestra leaving the traffic lights.

At the weekend Mike suffered “black fingernail syndrome”, Friday night to Sunday night he was working on his car or a friends in his parent’s lock up garage. Mike had never in all his 24 years had a girlfriend; he looked upon passing his driving test and getting on the open road as some would look on losing their virginity and his current blue Renault consumed him, in mind and body as any woman would. He liked girls but remained a little afraid and kept them at a safe distance, the girls at work teased him a bit and his friends wives and partners saw him as a bit of an oddity and misfit who needed some match making. A few feeble tries had been made at pairing Mike of with some girl or other on the periphery of their social scene, and whilst the sport was fun for all the observers Mike’s first love, the overcoming of friction by petrol power always won out. Most Friday nights he got home from work and started on the car that was this weekend’s project, if he was happy with his work maybe by Saturday night he’d venture down to the pub for a gentle ribbing and few free pints from the owner of the car he’d serviced and that was his weekend.

So when it came to the Easter weekend, Mike had lots of plans, the extra long holiday time off meant he could undertake some bigger jobs, and this time it would be the new exhaust system and suspension. He had most of the parts ordered weeks before and happily checked them in as they arrived from the various suppliers he’d chosen. As the parts for the planned modifications came he unwrapped them, checked and cleaned them and laid each one out neatly, like a formula one pit crew setting up for a race. He considered the tools he’d need, the fasteners, the timing and the best way of approaching the job. It was at this point he realised that the axle stands he would need were gone, a vital part of the operation. His brother, Fraser had taken them about a month ago (without asking) after a call for help from a friend of his who was restoring an old MGB. Mike had been annoyed at the time because even though the stands actually belonged to the brother’s father, he considered any tools or equipment in the garage were firstly at his disposal, certainly not Fraser’s.

Mike new that the chances of getting the stands back were small, Fraser’s pal would be in the middle of something on his car and their return would be impossible. He phoned to check however but his feeling was right, the car was up on the stands stripped and ready for an Easter weekend’s work out also. Mike had spent most of his ready cash on the parts he needed for this job so the only alternative now was to borrow or buy cheaply second hand from somewhere. So on the Friday night, at home, as his mum was clearing away the tea dishes he picked up the local free paper and running his fingernail (not yet black) down the under £50 ads saw: “Axle stands (pair) 2 ton capacity, good condition £10.” “Perfect!” said Mike and phoned the number. They were still unsold, the address was only a few miles away and the man who had answered told Mike to pop around any time that evening.

Mike jumped into the Renault, turned the key and enjoyed the first blast of the engine, he felt good as he stabbed the accelerator and the rev counter needle blipped up 90°. Mike was a quick but careful driver but he felt every machine move in the car’s metabolism as he drove it up through the gears. So it was that though watching the road and driving well he could still see in his mind’s eye the effect his pushing in the clutch or moving the gear stick had on the hidden linkages under the trim and skin of the car. It was like an x-ray vision experience, his hands and feet tuned for any different response from the car, his ears for any unusual engine sound or note. He liked to be in control and feel the car was responding to his driving as well as it possibly could and that he was respecting it and putting none of it’s parts under unnecessary stress. All journeys were like this, a focused experience honed in on the car’s behaviour and his handling of it, the destination and arrival was seldom as important. He loved it and felt so very alive.

The address was in a council house estate, Mike had an idea where the house was and quickly found it. The first thing that caught his eye were the two orange Ford Escort Mexicos parked in the drive nose to tail, neither were taxed or looked like they’d not run in a while,” Unfinished projects” thought Mike, ”bitten off a bit much with those two”. He started to walk up the path, headed for the doorbell he could see nestling on the flaky paint on the door standard, but as he looked up the path a movement in the garage beyond caught his eye. Somebody in overalls was up to their elbows in the front end of an F plate Mini. Mike’s curiosity and the attraction of the faint smells of petrol and Swarfega got the better of him and he headed round the side of the house to see what was what. The mix of slabs and broken tarmac that made up the latter part of the driveway were stained black with oil, old cans and gaskets were strewn here and there, tyre lay lazily against walls and fences, and bits of auto jumble were piled against the side of the garage.

“Hello!” began Mike addressing the work-in-progress mini. “Hello” returned a voice from the under the bonnet of the Mini. It was a woman’s voice and Mike was a little taken aback. “Nothing wrong with a woman fixing a car”, he though, “Kylie did it in Neighbours and so did someone else, eh who was it again?” His reminiscing of Neighbours plots faltered as the overalls emerged from the mini, looked round and gave Mike a big welcoming smile. “I’m Ada, you’ll be here about the stands, my dad said so, I’ll just get them, you wait a sec..” Mike did as he was told, stood embarrassingly still and watched Ada head to the rear of the garage and begin moving things, sending out clunks and little bangs as she did. A moment later she was back with a rather rusty looking stand in each hand. She put them down on a slab and stepped back to allow Mike to inspect. “Not bad for a tenner!” she said “ maybe a little oil to ease the pins but their fine”.

Mike looked at the stands and looked at Ada. “What’s up with the Mini?” “Everything”, laughed Ada, “Every bloody thing, but I need it for next week so I’m sacrificing my weekend to get it going again”. Mike half listened to her as she began to list the faults and explained how she was tackling them, normally he’d have heard everything but suddenly a rather large part of his brain was focused only on how Ada looked and her words simply passed over him as if meant for someone else, perhaps in the next garden or out on the street. Ada was short about mid-twenties he thought, maybe plumpish but suffering some distortion from her overalls, big mouth and smile, freckles, some ginger hair escaping from a grimy baseball cap, eyes as blue as a dashboard main beam indicator and talking knowledgably about engines. She was girl and she knew about engines and her fingernails were chipped and black and he wasn’t sure what at all to say. Mike felt a funny dryness attack the inside of his mouth, he tried to swallow but there was nothing, he tried to lick his lips but his tongue was stuck and he seemed frozen to the spot. Now she was getting closer to the end of her sentence, describing problems with the head gasket on the Mini and Mike would have to talk. He was about to speak without knowing what when a there came a loud truck horn from the street. “That’ll be big Harry!” said Ada. “He’s parking up here for the night I hope, you’ll take the stands?” “Yes, yes!” said Mike quickly reaching into his pocket and handing her ten pounds. She looked at the note, smiled back at Mike and twisted it into her overall pocket. “Thank you very much!” Mike began to recover his powers of speech and was also thinking straighter. “Need any help or bits, I’ve some Mini odds and ends over at my place”.

Ada looked a little startled, “Well I need a fuel pump, got one?” “Shit”, thought Mike, ”I don’t”. Then bravely lying out loud, “Know where I can pick one up for nothing tomorrow though!” “Well that would be so good” said Ada “If it’s not too much trouble, tell me and I’ll go myself”. “No problem!” Mike blustered, “I’ll bring it round in the morning, I’m just over..” and he pointed across the housing estate roofs in the rough direction of his house. He could hear big Harry’s footsteps on the path and decided that now was a good time to go, he picked up the stands as big Harry (who was) came by the end of the house, nodded at Mike and made a beeline for Ada and gave her a big bear hug. Mike didn’t look around and walked away and back to his car, now parked behind a large artic tractor unit that almost blocked the street. Carefully Mike opened his car’s boot and taking care that the stands didn’t touch any of the paintwork placed them on a baker’s board he was using as a temporary boot liner. He clunked down the hatch, opened the driver’s door, sat down and exhaled long and loudly and stared into his lap.

It was about five minutes before he could turn the key and about seven before he moved of in the car, his thoughts now being sprayed around in his head like fuel from an injector and Ada was sprayed amongst each one. Mike’s experiences with girls were few and unhappy, cars were his first love, ever since an early age but now in Ada he’d seen that rare combination of a girl who seemed to share his interests who was attractive and living a few minutes away, though possibly with big Harry. That was not a happy thought and he decided to disregard it until the facts were clearer. Without really realising, and without thinking on the hard mechanical work his car had just done, Mike found himself parked in his driveway. First now was to locate a working fuel pump for the Mini, for Ada. A lot of phoning and an hour later he’d located one via his contacts, twenty-five miles away.

In another five minutes he was off in the car to collect the pump and nicely enough he would have to pass Ada’s house, with a slight detour, to pick it up. Probably making that detour there and back. He exited the main road and slowly drove past Ada’s, big Harry’s rig was still parked outside, and the light was fading fast, there was a warm glow from the lounge but in the garage only darkness. Ada was surely in the house now with big Harry, brother, uncle, husband, lover? An hour later, the fuel pump in a plastic carrier on the passenger floor mat, Mike was back, creeping past the house and peering across the gardens and stumpy hedges in the yellow streetlight. The glow in the front lounge was still there glowing antagonistically it seemed to Mike. He had been toying with the idea of dropping the pump in now, on his return leg but if Harry and Ada were comfortable and he butted in and how weird would it all look anyway? His father’s words returned to him, well it seemed like something his father may have said, to goad or encourage him, “faint heart ne’r won fair maid son!” He certainly felt faint focusing out through the gloom and through the passenger window over the greenery to the closed curtains. “This is me going bloody mad!” Mike shook his head and gripped the wheel tight. “Bugger it! I’m going in!”

He stopped just in front of big Harry’s truck and for the moment allowed himself the brief luxury of attempting to plan. “Ok, I go to the door, hope she answers and not Harry, hand her the pump, explain how I was passing and how it all fell into place easily, and then I offer to come and help her fix it tomorrow, brilliant! So what might go wrong…a lot… but I can’t plan for that”. Heart in hand, fuel pump in other hand Mike headed up the pathway and rang the bell. There was no obvious reaction from indoors and Harry realised he had the opportunity to escape, write the pump off as a loss and get on with his weekend, his plans and his life. That was all true but Ada, even the idea of Ada was so strong in him; even a punch in the mouth from Harry or a rebuke from Ada wouldn’t have been so bad. How had this all happened so quickly and why not ever before?

Suddenly he could hear footsteps in the hall and a shape through the frosted glass. The door opened slowly, no Dad, no Harry, just an older, shorter man, minus his top dentures, balding and with an old pullover on, which was inside out. “Ada?” said Mike, not sure what to do next. The man didn’t speak, he just turned round and shouted into the near distance “ADA! Bloke for you!” Mike shuffled on the doorstep, feeling like a double glazing salesman about to start his sales pitch on a cold call and not confident of getting a sale. The door had closed slightly as the older man, Ada’s father he imagined had returned into the house. It was opened fully by Ada shortly after. Ada looked at Mike and smiled a genuine wide, welcoming smile, Mike said nothing just allowing his right arm to rise and offer over the gift of the fuel pump, oily and messy in an Asda carrier as if it was a bunch of red roses. He knew he was grinning stupidly but he couldn’t stop and he was sure her look was a happy one also. The sight of Ada, without overalls, just in jeans and T was no disappointment either, her red hair was down, her freckles and colours were warm, how he’d love to take her to the pub and display her, a reasonable, pretty petrol head-girl in front of his mates and their girl friends. This was a fresh and revolutionary thought, with many implications, he was dumb again. Fortunately Ada spoke first, “Ohh! Thank you so much, you shouldn’t have, I’ll get my handbag and we can settle up, you really shouldn’t have!” She spun round and disappeared back into the house, there had been no sign of any opportunity to say anything at all nor any indicator of how Ada and Harry were. One thing was clear to Mike and it was simple, when he saw Ada, he felt good, very good inside - in warm, churny unfamiliar way.

Ada returned with her purse already open, she was sorting notes within it and mouthing out a counting process. “So how much do I owe you?” “Look” began Mike, “ It’s cost me nothing, a mate had it along with a few other old bits, and he owed me a favour, I’m happy for you to have it!” Ada hesitated like someone about to break a rule or code of conduct and unhappy at the prospect. “Are you sure?” Her head was slightly cocked and for moment Mike was reminded of his mum, that passed however and he nodded like a bulldog on the parcel shelf. “Fancy a coffee with us?” said Ada becoming more conscious of Mike’s grin and apparent awkwardness. “No no yes!” Mike blurted out an over eager response and almost physically turning his own volume down followed Ada into the kitchen. He hoovered up information on the way as if memorising the strip down of an engine. Her pink slippers, the dark traffic marks on the hall carpet, the glare of the hallway light, family photographs in frames by the phone, a pile of newspapers in the hall, the smell of granddad somewhere else in the house, cigarette smoke, Fabreze and pine, some cardboard boxes left over from a removal, the movement of her bum in her jeans as he trailed her progress. Without asking him what he wanted or how he liked it Ada made the coffee and most importantly only two cups. Where was big Harry?

“Sorry I didn’t quite get your name” began Ada. “Mike” said Mike. “So” continued Ada “you do a lot of tinkering with cars I imagine?” “Oh yes” said Mike “Hardly stop, every weekend I’m either working on my own or helping out with my mates, love it, love to keep busy”. Mike wanted to know exactly what Ada’s status was, married, single, separated, big Harry’s girl and was desperately fishing inside himself for a subtle question that would clarify things. The question didn’t seem to come so he allowed himself to glow and quietly panic a little inside as Ada chattered about her Mini, a new job, her granddad, the weather, her best pal who worked on the checkout at Morrison’s and her dog Barney, named after Barney Rubble (of course). Fred and Barney’s cars were amongst her earliest memories turning her onto cars, that and her dad’s Wolseley with the leather seats and the acrid smell of the burnt out motor in a Scalextric Cooper. “Harry still has that Scaletrix up in the loft”. “Big Harry?” Mike dived in with as long a sentence as he could wedge into the conversation. “Harry’s my son!” Mike felt his eyes wander lopsidedly in his head and his eyelids stretch like a fabric sunroof pulling back. “I had him when I was very young you know, never really kept up with his dad, a kid really – perhaps I’m a little older than you imagine, Harry’s been driving trucks nearly two years now, only home at weekends…” Ada let the sentence die a natural death and waited on Mike picking up. Mike coughed dryly and took a swig of the coffee Ada had placed in front of him, them blankly stared away and said “Cool!”

In an effort to recover from the surprise and also trying to put together how it was this fresh looking girl had given birth to a monster truck driver who looked like her older brother or boyfriend, Mike was struggling. She must have had him when she was bloody twelve or something. I was all very unsettling, he’d hoped for a car-chick as naive sexually as he was, now he was falling for Fred Flintstone’s mother who’d probably had half the class at secondary and the local rugby team. “It wasn’t easy” Mike noticed that Ada was talking again. “For a long time I’ve struggled on my own looking after granddad and Harry, it’s good that things are looking up for me right now, so thanks for the petrol pump and the advice (“What advice?” Thought Mike), I guess you’ll have things to do”.
Mike was on the edge of blurting again and did so; ”I can fit that petrol pump for you tomorrow in half an hour!” ”Nonsense, I’ll do it!” Ada was less than firm now. ”Look I want to help you, I…” Another tailing away but the bigger if slightly nervous smile from Ada was all the answer Mike needed. “I’ll be round at ten!” Ada seemed to accept the offer and Mike was now running dry and needing time to think so made his exit, quick and nervous, being careful not to trip or slip and walked briskly down the drive into the car and headed for home.

The journey home consisted of a lot of driving on autopilot and a lot of mental arithmetic as he tried to think of possibilities that would allow Ada and Harry both to be the ages that he would like them to be. It was obvious that Ada couldn’t be twenty five, thirty five was more likely, thirty five plus and that was assuming Harry was only twenty three. He thought of what his mum would say, his (so-called) mates laughing and facing up to Harry. He might be the same age as Harry. He thought of celebrities and their marriages and affairs, he thought of Sunday paper articles and photographs and walking into pubs and going shopping together. Finally as he turned into his own street and drive he thought about Ada. As he turned off the engine he felt a glow and a silly happy feeling. Thinking about Ada, not other people or numbers or images was making him happy. There was something to all this that he didn’t want to lose and it was all encapsulated in the person of Ada.

That night Mike couldn’t sleep. Rain was tapping and dripping on his window splishes, splots and puddle sounds drenched upwards to his room from the empty street as the secret hiss of the nightime rain took over his world. He felt high but flat, engaged but drained, all his future now seemed to hang upon fitting the fuel pump in the Mini and talking to Ada in imaginary conversations with the background Black Country rain adding a hopeless colourless soundtrack.

Next morning Mike’s friend Biffo (real name Brian) came round at nine. Biffo was twenty-two, short, skinny and dark and from certain angles almost good looking in a poor man’s Al Pacino way. Biffo had not quite discovered his purpose in life, he worked occasionally at a filling station, hung around with Mike and other car people, played darts at the pub, ate alone or with his parents and like Mike had never quiet managed to pull a regular girl. Biffo was at his usual perpetual loose end, nothing special to do other than hang out and Mike’s had been his first instinctive port of call that morning. Over tea and a bacon roll Mike told him he was doing a job on a Mini and tried diplomatically to get rid of Biffo, but Biffo, skinned like an elderly rhino in the African sun failed to take the hint and at nine fifty five the two of them pulled up outside Ada’s house and parked up behind Harry’s rig. Mike had decided that Biffo’s presence might make him look less eager and that playing a long game may now be the best tactic, besides Biffo had worked on a few Mini’s over the years and could perhaps add some value to the morning’s work if Mike got stuck.

Mike trotted up the path and rang the bell, a few awkward moments of silence passed before he saw Ada’s fingers curled round the frame as the door opened a few inches. “Come in!” Mike swallowed hard and crossed the threshold clutching his socket set and tool bag as if it was some desperate extra love token. Ada had stepped back into the hall and was now standing straight and motionless, completely naked, except for a pair of black pointy stilettos with slightly scuffed heels. Biffo put his head round the door alongside Mike and the two stared at Ada who stared back with a very mischievous glint in her eyes and the little pink tip of her tongue resting on the corner of her mouth, obviously enjoying the sensation of the two puzzled men looking at her. Her hands were behind her back, her red hair hung loose over her shoulders as she looked teasingly toward Mike and Biffo as if they were spying schoolboys. For Mike time had frozen, like a huge ice wall had now formed between him and Ada, cold and impenetrable only for it to be quickly shattered as a spear of hot fear and disbelief unexpectedly burned right through it, penetrating his mind and suddenly forcing him to jump back, back out of the house, down the path and into his car, all in an internalised second of Artic darkness and slow motion movement. He turned the key, revved the engine, crunched the car into gear with a roughness that appalled him and sped of down the street thoughtlessly leaving Biffo somewhere behind.

Biffo pushed the door, entered the hallway and stood still looking at Ada, studying her with widely curious and slowly glazing over eyes. Ada spoke first, “don’t you worry about him darlin’, he might be back, then again he might not and you and I have a little business to do, what’s your name?” Biffo answered, ”Biffo!” “Good boy!” said Ada. “You’ll do me nicely for this morning!”

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Magician's Assistant: FTMT Short Story No 7



The magician’s assistant

Beverley was the assistant to “The Great Gondolli” a travelling magician who worked the lower levels of the club, cabaret and occasionally cruise liner circuits. Based in Plymouth, because of the climate and some loose family collections they toured the UK in short but reasonably lucrative bursts. Tonight they were in Doncaster, tomorrow Chester, and next day Salford. Life was a series of long night time motorway drives, travel lodges and guest houses, snacks and crisps and rehearsal and live sessions. The act was in its twelfth year, “The Great Gondolli” having graduated from part time party work and kids conjuring shows to their now staple diet of clubs, bingo, discos and bill sharing with ex-pop idols, hypnotists, drag acts and pole dancers. Beverley had been his assistant since day one and as the act had changed and developed she had adopted a more glamorous and at times technically demanding role. Much of the act consisted of her handing him items, shielding him (blinding in the trade), distracting the audience and participating as a skilful willing victim in numerous stunts and illusions.

Gondolli (real name Bill Blair) was always hoping for the big break into TV work or into the high paying US or European cabaret circuits, but despite years of working and developing the act the big break was no nearer. The killer trick, the great illusion, the big bang he needed had eluded him and so their optimistic treadmill existence continued as he sought the idea and effect that would make both him and Beverly household names. Beverley had, as part of their visionary planning changed her surname from Hinchelwood to Hills some years ago, the irony of their current situation and their stubborn bad luck was now a constant source of annoyance. Bill and Beverley had been lovers in the early years, this feeling had now dissipated and though they remained together as a couple in practice they’re love and tolerance for one another was at a low ebb. Rooms with single beds were generally sought after though following a recent performance in Dudley and the consumption of a fair amount of champagne afterwards they had spent a night of unplanned passion together in a large double bed in the Station Hotel. Little was said about it the next day, both acting as if it hadn’t quite happened as the hotel bill was paid and they loaded their cases into the back of their Ford Transit.

This evening however Bill was grumpy, the creative muse was eluding him as he sat on the edge of the main hall at the Starlight Club, Doncaster nursing a glass of bottled orange and eating a packet of cheese and chives crisps. His feet were on a bar table and he was chewing a pencil and pulling faces. He thought again of a disappearance trick involving Beverley appearing to be cloned on return from her banishment. Somehow she would return from behind the cabinet she had disappeared from, but on both sides as a twin of herself for a personal confrontation. The problem was the size and angle of the mirror and how it was placed. Factors also were the light glare and portability all brought about because the scale of their act was too small for the kind of elaborate tricks a more sophisticated audience wanted. Bill knew that they needed to have and develop big working illusions in order that they got some kind of worthwhile media attention.

Beverley, wearing an embroidered silk robe was absent mindedly doing her nails on the opposite side of the hall, filing and inspecting each one, applying colour and polish, looking close, looking away and fiddling with the various bottles she had in her cosmetics case. She remained a very good-looking woman, tidy and fastidious and not prepared to drop her standards of appearance at all whilst on the road. She firmly believed, even after all this time that her face and figure were her fortune and that they must be cared for and maximised so that her part of the show was always as striking and well presented as it could be. Hair (mostly wigs and pieces), face, costumes (mostly sparkly and skimpy), poise and movements were all given maximum attention in her preparations. She was dogged by thoughts of how she could have done better, had a part in a bigger show, worked with a name rather than a nobody but it was hard to change when that big break may be just off the next slip road. Finishing her nails and allowing them to dry she started on her eyebrows, squaring and plucking tiny hairs forming almost invisible lines over her eyes. She sipped a diet cola and tried not to look over at the doodling Bill.

Bill was sketching mirrors and angles, planning and designing a cabinet in a stage set and getting nowhere. The idea was good, dramatic, could be misunderstood though as Beverley II could simply be a double, so the clone idea had to be well emphasised, the audience had to engage, the patter and presentation had to be right. Bill scribbled on for another half hour without making any more progress becoming more and more frustrated over his inability to crack the trick. The punters were starting to arrive and by now Beverley had completed her preening so with the minimum of spoken contact the two headed to their dressing room to change for the show that was a little over an hour away.

In the dressing room they discussed tonight’s set as they changed. It would their normal £500 show with a set menu of tricks and illusions, lasting over an hour. Bill would wear his special tuxedo with pockets and string pulls and various other hidden features. He always was meticulous and careful as he loaded up the pockets and laid out the cards and cups he needed for the first part of the act. Actually putting on the tux had become a ritual of order and timing as had preparing the trolley and the cabinets. Bill busied himself with the final trick preparations and then began to dress fully, white shirt, trousers and black socks, special shoes with hidden compartments, and the fully loaded and prepped jacket. The black tie was the last detail added as he rechecked his mental list of items and their locations, patting each hiding place for luck. Beverley was made up and quickly dressed in a silver spangley two-piece over a shimmering body stocking; her hair was pulled up tight with a ponytail topped of with a tiara. She spent fully ten minutes picking at and smoothing herself in the mirror whilst staring at her own bum. Conversation during these times was minimal, both knew the routine and timing and as professional’s mistakes were not expected or tolerated and there seemed little new detail to discuss.

Their set CD music piped up from the sound system and they were on stage and plugged in. The show ran smoothly as they slickly moved through their routine paces smartly and to decent levels of attention and applause. The big illusion they did as their climax was a disappearing cabinet trick, one Bill liked to think of as his signature, not only did Beverley disappear, so did the cabinet and so did Bill. With Bill and Beverley reappearing at the opposite side of the hall and the cabinet simply gone. In these smaller clubs, with a close up audience it was an impressive trick that went down well, in the wider world it would be considered cheesy and old fashioned. So “The Great Gondolli” and Beverley Hills effortlessly pushed through with their act and being well received returned relieved to the dressing room to relax, recover and pack up for the road. The manager of the venue was pleased with their act also, though felt it was a little shorter than he would have liked, but the comedian and singer now on could fill time easily with an extra couple of songs or gags.

Once the whole show was over, about 1030, Bill was able to remove all his props and cabinet parts from the stage and stow them in the back of the van. Then once Beverley joined and helped to finish of the last of the loading it was of to the travel lodge for a cup of tea, a shower and as good a nights sleep as either could get. Both were a little more talkative than usual as they drove back, Beverley had enjoyed the venue and Bill though frustrated by the problems with his trick development felt the show had been a good one. They came close to congratulating one another, brushed hands and arms in an air kiss manner as they turned into the lodge car park. The girl at the check in was politely uninterested in them as she handed them the key card to room 333, “last left on the third floor, checkout by 1100!” Bill thought it an odd room number, half of 666, foretold as the Biblical Beast’s own, the Devil himself’s private number, but never mind, he wanted a rest now, not a maths or theology problem to solve.

They lugged their overnight bags up stairs and along the corridor and found the half evil room, everything in it in the usual place, to the normal standard. The only thing Bill and Beverley noticed was a sweet smell that seemed to be hanging in the air by the door. They acknowledged it tiredly, set themselves ready for showers and bed in their routine way and flopped down into their single beds a little after midnight. Tired as he was Bill found sleep eluded him. That smell seemed stronger too, almost thick in the darkness. Disturbed he got up sniffing the air and opened the door into the lighted corridor. A sharp stab of cleansing light rushed into the room momentarily disturbing the sleeping beauty Beverley before Bill quickly closed the door. Nothing wrong, no obvious incident or noisy neighbour, just an increasingly pungent smell. Bill returned to bed, Beverley groaned a little in her sleep and turned over. Silently Bill watched her, sitting up on his elbows and craning over in the dark for a few moments allowed stray thoughts and old hopes to run quietly riotously across his mind. Then he slowly lay back down and fell into a conjurer’s magic sleep.

It is strange to think now that a magician occupying Room 333, an apparently magical room in Doncaster at the junction of some ancient lay-lines, would fail to sense the signs or recognise its inherent magical properties. For a real, red bloodied magician, born of earth elements and from the universal riddle school the combination of numbers and air borne odour (plasmagratamn) would have been like an early warning slap in the face. Bill as himself or “The Great Gondolli” had no real appreciation of proper magic, it was like a blunt idea to him, a half formed religion, a science with no base and not his business as he (and Bev) were entertainers. The plasmagratamn and number combination were however at work now and not on the unbelieving Bill as he hugged the pillow like a lost lover. Beverley was the focus of the magic’s attention. Magic is a conscious force, it has a purpose and a life, it is mainly good and benevolent but it can be mischievous, cruel and vindictive, the recipient or victim’s attitude can play a large part in the outcome. Stumbling into a magic hole or finding yourself in its presence will be life changing and it is always best if the moment is recognised and handled properly by the individual, even in sleep. Tonight for reasons known to no one living or dead the magic was choosing to work on Beverley.

It was at one o’clock the morning, in the quiet and dark it all began to happen. The plasmagratamn was like a cone and conduit for magic, it rose and hovered over Beverley, the tip of the cone directly over her sleeping head. Silently invisible magic juices were dispensed by the cone into her ears, nostrils and mouth. Still asleep she breathed them in, absorbed and ingested them until her being was fully explored by the magic and its power. She trembled slightly, her skin flushed, slight sweats came and went, as the blood flow and the endless road map of veins and arteries carried magical gloop through every part of her body. She dreamed vividly through the process, wildly and colourfully, the magic told her stories and pulled through elaborate plots and conclusions. New explanations and knowledge pulsed into her mind, threading through every conscious level, magic talk, magic ideas, powers and transformation. Her dreams grew new vivid life as if in cinemascope, 3D and surround sound.

Firstly she was a white horse with great deep dark eyes and a golden mane and trashing tail, galloping and racing with no rider, thundering across endless sands and seashores all unrecognisable. Snorting and bellowing into the wind and surf, splashing in half formed waves in an ecstatic and never ending run. Then she was herself, naked and hugely pregnant, in a squealing tightening pain, fit to burst, her belly expanded in quick time then her waters broke out in a pink and blue splashing flood. The flood signalled an orgasmicly delightful release of pressure, the multitude of new infants sailed away on the flood like laughing dolls come to life. Her breasts suddenly filled with milk and the babies returned from the distance to feed and grow fat and healthy - all played out in a time in the world when fat was healthy. She saw their little happy faces as they fed, paused and stared and fed again. Then she was a black dark witch, beautiful, queer and distant crouched over by a black Bakelite telephone on a hallstand in a stony walled and candle lit dungeon. As the phone rang she picked it up and devoured the receiver hungrily so that the caller and all their conversations were swallowed whole and into her digestive processes. She pulled back her witch’s cloak to reveal a glass aquarium tummy full of floating and swimming phone users babbling and squawking in frustration as they slowly disappeared and were consumed. Her two hands covered the greasy glassy front to protect and hide the telephoning victims she had feasted on. Then the phone rang and another victim was on line.

She was herself again in one of her silver stage costumes lying on a couch. A stemmed glass materialised in front of her containing a pale bubbly liquid, it pushed itself against her lips and she drank the lot. Next she felt what seemed like a hot cocktail of buzzing herbs and hormones in the back of her throat tinged with lemon juice, she gulped the liquid back and screamed as instantly her genitals bulged out from her costume to form a huge penis and testicles. She grabbed the member with her right hand tightly digging in her fingernails and drawing blood, the penis thickened in a pulsing erection pointed up between her eyes and angrily came, splattering her mouth and face. She licked her lips and swallowed more, tasting a strange lemon juice cocktail. The cycle continued for many minutes, coming, licking and swallowing until she was exhausted. Then she was aware of a floating sensation, floating in air or water or something unknown with the plasmagratamn smell heavy in her nostrils making its way through her head like a small green snake. She could see the green snake pass through her nostrils like a ghost, swimming and squirming across her brain and inside her skull, then down through her neck and throat twisting in a new route round her nervous system and vertebrae. The clinging beast moved easily and slithered round each plate shaped bone, tingling and touching every nerve in the switchback railway system that her nerves relayed messages on. It coiled and uncoiled around her belly and intestines, through her womb and emerged from her glossy wet vagina a look of exploratory triumph on its little snake face. Then half way out it turned back on itself again, opened its mouth to reveal razor reptile fangs and promptly gripped and bit into her clitoris. The searingly painful and electric effect made her pass out, lapsing into a black sleep devoid of dream or feeling as her hands clutched firmly to her groin grasping for unperceivable comfort, pleasure and protection. Then morning came, the smell was gone and daylight was struggling to pass through the heavy hotel drapes.

“I’m afraid of this flow I’m feeling” said Beverley “I woke up this morning not understanding myself, my dreams last night were grotesque, crazy and I feel sooo tense like I have to do something, but I just don’t know what it is!” Beverley was speaking and spouting far more than ever she did so early in the morning and Bill had no idea what to make of it. Their breakfast was now almost over in the Little Chef next to the travel lodge, there was no make up or preening, she’d not eaten much anyway as she was preoccupied with talking about anything that seemed to cross her mind, and there was a lot of anything. Certainly he hadn’t enjoyed a great sleep in Room 333 and that sweet and sour smell had made him uncomfortable but why on earth was she suddenly so animated, so bloody annoyingly alive and in touch with herself? It had been a very odd morning so far, she had wakened him by jumping naked into bed beside him, mounting him and giving the hottest early morning sex he could remember, next she’d taken a twenty-minute (cold?) shower and then she’d started babbling almost in tongues about her sleep and dream experiences the previous night. None of which made any sense to Bill. It was with an acute sense of relief that he’d led her out of the room and down to the diner for breakfast, but now the drivel and chat and enthusiasm for everything wouldn’t stop. Was this the stress of the road manifesting itself, was she breaking down, what had she found?

He noticed that as well her continued chatter and observations she was fidgeting non stop, she had a hold of the salt cellar, gently thumbing it and as she put it back down Bill noticed that it was floating an inch above the table. She had picked it up, held it for a few moments and now it was floating, he stared transfixed by the phenomenon and then as it slowly lost the power to hover and returned to the table he looked Beverley straight in the eyes interrupting her in mid flow (she was talking about snake charming), “How the hell did you do that?” Beverley had been so busy talking she had genuinely not noticed what had happened so Bill explained. She picked the salt up again, rubbed it whilst suppressing the strong desire to talk about snakebites and once again let it go. It dropped as if to strike the table, then stopped once inch from the cloth. The sight silenced Beverley this time and Bill’s eyes grew wider and more focused. With a little thump and a few seconds delay the salt returned once more to the table. “Whatever has happened to you”, began Bill, “ I believe it and it’s something else!”

Beverly resumed her chattering, Bill listened with a new interest and seriousness as they returned to the van to begin the journey across to their next engagement in Chester. “There must be a way we can add this levitational power you have to the act, we have to test it, we have to know how powerful it is, how you can control it!” Bill ranted and explored levitation ideas as he drove the van, Beverley still was rewinding and processing, talking about the white horse, and the sexual significance of her dreams, and the lightness she felt all about her. By ten thirty they were on the motorway, busy as any morning but today with the added hazard of thick patches of seasonal fog that controlled the speed and flow of traffic, though some drivers paid it little heed and still hammered along in the fast lane relentlessly. Beverley felt a little tense as the fog thickened around the van and Bill duly slowed down, visibility was poor with only dim lights and traffic noise breaking into their floating frost fog world. Beverley was gripping the door handle on one side and the arm rest on the other, than van was travelling at about fifty, slowing down slowly for the fog when Bill exclaimed,” bloody steering’s gone!” The wheel was suddenly light and unresponsive, the van was moving forward in the fog but the speed and sense of motion were indiscernible as the fog flicked passed mirrors and screens and tortured the wipers by holding onto the freezing moisture.

Neither Beverley nor Bill spoke as they realised they could now see nothing but fog, they were moving, the engine was running but Bill was hardly steering or driving. The sensation was like flying through the clouds because that was exactly what it was. Bill suddenly looked over at Beverley, she was still gripping the door handle and armrest and he realised what had happened. He took a deep breath, met her eyes and started to speak quietly and slowly “Bev, don’t move your hands, don’t loosen your grip on the handle, your magic thing is at work!” Beverley didn’t answer, stifled a building scream but remained still, her mouth dropping open now as the van broke through the top of the cloud of frozen fog and they got their true bearings at last. Beverley had levitated their van from the motorway surface to well above the fog bank; they were not really moving forwards, only gently upwards as if floating below a hot air balloon. “Don’t take your hands off!” repeated Bill, his voice had risen an octave and he was trying to think what best to do, as if there was some obvious solution to their predicament that he must have missed and was about to remember. It was Beverley who came up with the only practical course of action. She spoke calmly but her eyes were wet with fearful tears, “In the restaurant, I did this with the salt, when I took my hands off it didn’t crash down, it floated, it came down smoothly, it did!” “Yes!” said Bill, “you are so right and we have more control than we think, this is worth a bloody fortune!”

Beverley relaxed a little but still kept her hands on the rest and handle, Bill was having his big idea. There was no need for his hands to be on the wheel as they floated, now about three hundred feet above the fog, the cold winter landscape unfolding and the patches of surface fog breaking to reveal roads and bridges and buildings, trees and farmland carpets below them. Bill picked up his phone and called his agent. “Fred? Bill Blair here, have I a story! Get all the TV and press people you can, Bev and I are performing the fucking stunt of the century right now above the M18! Our van is being levitated by pure magic, we’re five hundred feet in the air and we’re not coming down until you get us a £10 million contract to do this over Las Vegas, Niagara Falls and the bloody Great Wall of China!” Fred was naturally a cynical businessman first and also a passionate unbeliever but Bill persisted, Bev was screaming and wailing in the background, “He’s not kidding, he’s not drunk, it’s all true, we want £100 million!”

Fred relented and agreed to call back so that coverage could be arranged, however the secret was already out. Bill and Bev became aware of a chop-chop noise and saw a completely shocked and puzzled police helicopter patrol crew staring at them and gesturing whilst flying at their own level fifty yards away. The white Ford Transit was slowly rising and spinning, they had been in the air twenty minutes or so and were somewhere above the motorway bobbing impossibly on the breeze. Bev’s hands were now getting sore and stiff and she was sobbing slightly in a mixture of pain and delayed shock. Now the challenge of how to execute a safe and a controlled landing became the main topic of conversation in the van. “OK just keep doing what you’re doing, we have time.” Said Bill now as animated as Beverley had been at breakfast. “When Fred gets back to us with the TV details you’ll slowly loosen your grip and we’ll descend as smoothly as the elevator at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, avoiding all motorway traffic, and we’ll be on every news broadcast in the world tonight!” Beverley allowed herself an apprehensive smile in return but was trembling and shaking more and more. The chopper was shadowing them still and signalling and trying to communicate allsorts as they floated like competitors in some surreal balloon championship.

Bill’s phone rang. It was a newly and increasingly hysterical Fred, the news was out, they’d been spotted, the companies and agencies were going wild, vans, crews and reporters were speeding to the area and the agencies were all wanting patched to Bill’s phone. Fred told Bill to start talking, as the news agencies were recording and broadcasting live. “Yes this is “The Great Gondolli” you are hearing and I, accompanied by my lovely assistant Beverley Hills, am performing the greatest feat of magic you will every see or hear of in your lives. We have levitated a Ford (get that Ford! Get them on the phone!) Transit along with ourselves hundreds of feet in the air through our own pure magic. Nobody can explain or replicate this trick – it is the greatest feat of magic ever!” A series of questions followed from various broadcasters in assorted accents. Bill trumpeted and crowed whilst Beverley clinging to the arm and handle began to sweat and struggle more and more with the situation. “I have to let go!” she sobbed, “I can’t stand this!” “OK, OK,” said Bill, “It’s time, the crews will have our bearings, we must have drifted well away from the motorway, we’ll do it!”

Looking down they could see that from about their seven hundred foot height they had drifted south of the motorway and looked to be above open fields and woodland. “Beverley, we’ll go now, we’ll go now!” Bill sounded calm and confident, he was already thinking about the interview he would give as they stepped out of the van onto the grass and into the media spotlight and the offers that would surely follow. Almost petrified with fear, but able to make the move Beverley slowly loosened her grip with both hands. Down below three TV trucks, two police cars and an ambulance were spinning round a farmyard trying to predict where the van might touch down. Members of the public had joined the chase around the minor roads and lanes that edged the motorway and numerous digital and video cameras were trained on the white van. On the motorway itself the traffic was crawling as everybody stared beyond the vanishing fog at the sight of a highflying van. Bill had opened up his phone line again and was about to start to describe the descent to SKY News.

“Beverley, we’ll go now!” The voice came over clearly via SKY, BBC, ITV and CNN; it was “The Great Gondolli’s ” finest moment. The white van hung in the air as the cars and vans below stopped, it looked set to land on a soft green hillock backed by a hawthorn hedge about half a mile from the motorway. Lenses focused and crews recorded as the flight was about to end and “The Great Gondolli’s ” triumphant interview and explanation would be broadcast. The van hung as if on a thread that God held, dangling like his son’s toy from some unknowable heavenly location, nose slightly down, lights on with the two occupants visible and waving inside. The police helicopter maintaining a safe and respectful distance whilst gravity and all the known laws of maths, physics and nature were being so publicly challenged before a watching world.

Then as if God had cut the thread the van suddenly plummeted back down to earth in seconds, gravity and all the accompanying laws quickly returning to their rightful and proven places from their previous temporary suspension. As the van impacted the three quarter full petrol tank exploded in a red and orange flash and fireball, a delayed thump followed and then an all consuming fire that ended the careers, hopes and lives of “The Great Gondolli” and the lovely Beverley Hills for ever. “This footage is worth millions! How on earth did they do it?” Moaned a perplexed and shocked SKY News cameraman-reporter. “Magic!” said the Police Constable.