I have lots of words but don't know the right order for them.

Friday, 20 January 2012


As always, he was early.  She’d seen his face on LovePals, of course, so he’d be recognisable, but experience – seventeen of them –  had told him that it was only fair to let her take in the rest of him, gasp, pretend to be looking for someone else, and scoot for the exit. 

She’d suggested this locale.  Bar, he supposed it would be called: halfway between a pub and a restaurant.  The waitress – Chinese, Malaysian? – was very professional, managing to overlook his obvious deformities within seconds.  After he’d explained that he wouldn’t be ordering until his companion arrived, she even managed to flirt with him a little.  He flirted back, but his heart was thumping too hard.  On the website, he’d written “I am not physically perfect.”  This was true.  His left leg was four inches shorter than his right, and he was – no better way to put it – a hunchback.  He had been born that way, in fact the doctors had recommended surgery (his mother told him later) when he was six; she had (she told him later still) declined.  “Simon,” she’d said, “God made his decision.”  Whether God had consulted her, or him, was never made clear.
He looked around.  The place was fairly empty, but he couldn’t spot anyone who might be Naomi.  He had a printout of her profile photo in his jacket pocket, but it wouldn’t do to pull it out and start making comparisons.  Anyway, not necessary: he would definitely recognise her.  Five foot seven, cropped dark hair, huge black eyes, a cheeky half-smile …  What the hell am I doing here? he thought.
The plate glass door opened, and there she was.  Something must have told her where he was, because she made immediate eye contact and walked straight over.  He had, as always, deliberately seated himself in such a way that the whole of him would be instantly and obviously noticeable, but she just sat down opposite him.
“Simon?”  He nodded.  “Am I late?”  She looked at her wristwatch, a quite expensive-looking one.  “No, I’m not.  In fact I’m three minutes early.”  She giggled.  Cobblers.”
This last word came out in quite a different voice from the previous ones.  Not exactly a shout; more of a coarse hiss, like someone who wanted to shout but had laryngitis or something.  Simon looked at her.  She wasn’t blushing, was she?  He didn’t want to stare.
“Sorry,” she said, in her normal voice.  “You’ll get used to that.  At least I’m working off List B today.  Anal!”
The waitress was hovering near the bar, glancing their way. 
“Um – Naomi?”  said Simon.  She nodded.  “Um – what would you like to drink?  If anything, of course.  I – ”
“Yes, of course.  Well … I do like alcohol, but it doesn’t like me.  I mean, it gets me going in directions I really shouldn’t, you know what I mean?”  No, I haven’t a clue, he thought.  “I’d better just have a cup of tea.”
Simon caught the waitress’s eye and she came over.
“Can we have tea for one, please, and, oh, a Becks for me.”
“Earl Grey or English Breakfast?”
She giggled again.  “It’s too late for breakfast, so –  Earl Grey, please.  Gallimaufry!”
He decided to ignore that.  The waitress didn’t seem to have noticed.  It was time to get on with it.  This was about the furthest he’d got so far.  He tried to remember the script LovePals sketched out for beginners.  Written by a bunch of teenagers who’d never been beyond a quick snog behind the bike sheds, he’d thought when he read it.
 “So, Naomi, what do you do?”
“ Well, I used to work in a call centre, but then obviously …”
“Have you not noticed?”  Have you not noticed?  “And you?  Dogdoo!”
“I’m on, oh God …  Disability?”
“Well, me too. Surprise surprise …”
Silence.  The drinks arrived.  The conversation struggled forwards as they sipped.
“So.  Hobbies?  Pastimes?  Music?  Books?” she said brightly.  Gosh, though, she was gorgeous.  He was beginning to regret this.  He wanted to tell her about his disability, and about his mother …
“I do read a lot …”
 “I love the Smiths … mmwah humding!”
“More a New Orleans man myself …”
“… and tango dancing … oops …”
“…  Funnily enough, I’m a Terrier …”
“A Terrier?”  She leant forward.  “You like animals?  I have a pet tarantula …Maracas!”
“No, the Territorial Army.  It’s a nickname.  I don’t actually yomp around the countryside toting guns, of course, but …”
“It’s a form of Tourette’s,” she said.  “I used to be pretty out of it, but I learnt some control techniques from an amazing therapist.  She taught me to sublimate – is that the word?  Sheet!  Like that.  And to keep my voice down.  People only generally notice in kind of, um, intimate situations.  Which is why – ”
“Which is why you don’t get into many of those?”
She stopped dead.  Her eyes went cold for a moment.
The waitress had been conducting a whispered conversation with the barman.  Now she came over.
“Are you ready to order?”
Simon avoided eye contact with Naomi.
“I don’t think we’ll be eating, actually.”
Dump!” said Naomi, rather loudly.  A few customers looked up.  The waitress scuttled away and consulted again with the barman, who hesitantly started across towards them.  A burly customer at the next table was getting to his feet.   The barman arrived.
“Is everything all right?”
Simon smiled his most charming smile, part of his armoury.
“Absolutely, thank you.”  He shot a warning glance at Naomi, but she was studying her nails.
“Except that I couldn’t help hearing – ”
“Oh, I’m sorry.  Nothing to do with this, er, location.  You just overheard the punchline of a not very funny joke.”  Oh God.  “I once told one rather loudly in a crowded restaurant which begins ‘That was the worst meal I’ve ever eaten’ – ”  Keep digging, Simon.  “And the punchline is – ”
“–  ‘and the portions were so small!’” shouted Naomi.
The barman backed away.  The burly customer had dropped back into his chair, but started to rise again.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it.  If you’re quite sure there’s nothing we can – ”
Naomi stood up.
Buggerwittery!” she screamed.
 “Actually,” said Simon, “if you could just bring us the bill?”
The barman looked around.
“There won’t be any charge on this occasion, sir,” he said.
Simon and Naomi headed for the plate glass doors.
“That’s very kind of them,” she said to him.  “But you must let me pay next time.  Cobblers!”
She giggled.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Death Speaks

The first time Death spoke out loud was just before Joey died.  They’d heard fire and were running, and Joey tripped over something and the sniper’s bullet hit his back instead of his leg.  He was going to be dead, the three of them knew straight off, but Jazz stopped, and without a word they picked him up and dragged him to some kind of cover.  He wasn’t conscious, wouldn’t ever be again, not proper; but Jazz looked at him, then at Mick and Darko.  It was crazy – there’d been no time to swap news before they set out, and then not much room for conversation, but they wanted Joey to know that his family were OK.  Mick had heard about the gas explosion in Reading which had destroyed a house two down from Joey’s: they wanted to tell him his family were OK, which was crazy because he hadn’t even heard about the explosion.  Jazz wasn’t thinking straight, and as he saw this, and saw the pointlessness, Death said: What’s The Deal?

Jazz said: For each minute he gets, you get a day off my life.  He didn’t say it out loud, but Mick and Darko heard him, he could tell, though they didn’t speak.  Death didn’t speak either.  Jazz and Death shook hands, and Joey opened his eyes.  Jazz nodded to him.  ‘Mick’s got news.’  Mick came in close.  ‘Joey, there was some stupid accident back home,’ he said.  ‘Near your place.  Something blew up, but the good news – ’  Jazz nodded again.  ‘ – the good news, your folks are OK.  They’re fine.  The house is OK too …’  Joey did a kind of smile.  ‘That’s great,’ he said.  ‘I feel better now.’  Then he died.


Jazz reckoned afterwards he’d struck a good deal, because three weeks later he caught his own bullet (in the leg, hah!) and was hospitalised for ages.  So Death’s extra day didn’t look to be quite as close as it had out there.  There was stress counselling, after which the considered opinion was, better off out of the front line.  There was nothing the counsellors could put their fingers on, just hints, perhaps, just clues in the eyes, the way he seemed to be inappropriately amused by what was meant to be an innocent question, or at least to seem to him like one – this guy might not be totally stable!  Jazz had read Catch-22, and knew it wasn’t that easy; but, having done the deal, he knew he had to distance himself from this ‘war’ stuff fast and far: his new friend would be watching all the time, every inch of the way, and mercy was not part of the contract, indeed had already been cashed in.  It was, actually, quite easy.  All he had to do was remember that, to the rest of the world, any guy who appears to believe that he has conversations with Death is probably not trustworthy with a gun.  And as that was nothing but the truth, no acting was required.  In July, he was flown back home. 
In October, he was invalided out.  It was easy enough to get down the pub, even with the gammy leg.  Mick was always there, Darko less often, but when he showed he’d close the joint.  Mick called it ‘craic’, Darko ‘liming’; Jazz thought of it, if at all, as ‘having a laugh’.  Keri wasn’t that keen, him being out most nights; but when he pointed out that he’d had three years’ worth, plus being crippled, she really didn’t have a leg to stand on.  She even laughed when he made that joke, and got more matey with Cally, Mick’s wife, and a few other girls from around the area.
One night they were supping up a bit fast, to squeeze in a last quick one before the ladies’ curfew.  It was getting a bit sentimental, as usual.  Mick said ‘I reckon old Joey might’ve been the lucky one.’  Darko grabbed him by the arm.  ‘You always say that, mate.  Every fucking time.’  Mick said ‘It’s true though, isn’t it?’  Jazz was just back with the round.  He made the usual joke: ‘Calm down, lads, it’s only a war.’  They all laughed, and Mick went off for a piss. 
The strange guy in the corner, who they’d been noticing since about half-nine, went out too.  Darko was about to follow when they heard shouts, then a scream.  Oh fuck, thought Jazz, and raced for the khazi.  The weird guy was away out the back, but Mick was stooped over the stainless steel, blood dripping in.  Death stepped in the way and said to Jazz: What’s the Deal?  Jazz replied: Five more minutes?  Death smiled and disappeared.  The ambulance made it in time to get Mick comfortable.


It was a good night out, boys and girls together.  Darko, who had to be called by his real name, Colin, had met Kayleigh by chance in Aldi of all places.  They got a bit of stick.  ‘Couldn’t you at least have met in Waitrose?’ Keri enquired with a straight face.  Kayleigh said something about needing to slum it to meet proper blokes.  They were in Lahore, which didn’t sell booze, so Jazz volunteered to nip round the corner shop and pick up some more beers.  ‘Better get a taxi back,’ he heard Darko shout on his way out.

As he was paying, his phone went.  It was Keri.  ‘Can you do Heimlich, cos Colin’s choking and nobody here seems to know – ’  He dropped the beers.  ‘On my way.’  He tried to give instructions as he ran, but he could hear Darko still choking, and he could tell that Keri was panicking and nobody had a clue; and as he was running he was thinking about Death, and how promises can be made and then broken, because you don’t think about there being two sides to a promise, you just make it because that’s the only way out, so you promise anything, and then time catches up, and then –
He started across the road against the lights.  Death met him halfway.  No Hurry, said Death.  Done Deal.  My turn now.  I call in my purchased day.  Jazz turned his head and saw the lorry.  Time caught up.  He stared Death in the eye.  You’ve forgotten something, he said.  It’s a leap year.  I get an extra day. 
He leapt.