Doug – a Christmas short story.

Dad was a funny one. He only really bothered spending time with Doug if spending time with Doug involved football. Which was fine. Doug liked football. He had serious tekkers. He’d once nutted Bruce ‘Fortress Legs’ Loughshore and lived to tell the tale. But the cold Tuesday nights of Dad leaping from his seat and telling the linesman in no uncertain terms that he, Dad, could do a better job with his head rammed up his very own arse, were not exactly conducive to whispered discussions about Doug’s eternal longing for Heidi Hawthorn and the hatching of a master plan to steal her heart and achieve impregnation and so on, which Doug had been told (by Danny B) is The Highest And Purest Form of Love. At half time Dad went to the bar for a pint and then stood next to Karen for a chat and a catch-up and a gossip. Karen sold programmes before the game and raffle tickets at half-time. She had funny ears. Dad knew her from school, or something. Doug sometimes chatted to Karen too but when he considered their conversation to be snoring boring AKA dull as a seagull AKA tedious set-me-free-dious, he skipped off and joined the other boys from school down by the pitch, where if they were lucky the bumblebee mascot would throw them a gift and the boys, and the crowd behind them, would buzzzzzzzzzzzz as a means of saying thank you oh gigantic bumblebee. The large man in Row G who shouted at everything would rise from his seat and shout cheers sweet honeybee and one of the boys, usually drifty Adam Pearce, would reply who ate all the pies, because the large man was, well, large, and it was very likely that he actually had eaten the majority of the stadium’s pie supply. And then the boys would scramble. Quick, over there. Sometimes back to seat, sometimes to Dad and Karen. Karen always offered Doug a sugarfree polo and when Doug complained about the lack of sugar Karen would tell him that he was sweet enough already. Which was a nice thing to say. But the truth was Doug was also a little on the heavy side. He was already wearing small men’s clothes when the others were barely on 7-8’s and his blubby chins counted one, two, three. Mum said it was just baby fat. She was nice like that. She didn’t ever come to football. Stayed at home and did the ironing and watched a fuzzy old film on Channel 5 which seemed rather boring but then how else and when else would the ironing get done, said Dad, and anyway girls don’t like football much. Which wasn’t true. Heidi Hawthorn liked football. She went to every game with her Dad, who worked at the school with Doug’s Mum. And Heidi was a girl. Definitely a girl. She even had the beginning of boobs, so said Andy Gordon. Her smile shone brighter than the sun and brighter than all of the stars and brighter even than Grandma’s lava lamp, which was bright enough to leave those dull lingering spots in your eyes. Heidi sat in the K block with her family. The K block was three blocks away from where Doug sat and every half-time he meant to go and see her and ask how she was and declare his eternal longing and so on. School was the same. One time when she was sitting behind him in maths she really did pat him on the shoulder and tell him that his Lion King pencil with Rafiki end-eraser had fallen on the floor. And he thought about that moment forever more. And begun dropping more things on the floor: eraser, calculator, notebook, pens, those little leaky cartridges. But Heidi did nothing about those and he fast got a reputation for clumsiness. Miss Potts called him a clutz, which was a little harsh. But that didn’t matter. Potts was a dweeb. And anyway it gave him and Heidi something to talk about if he ever bumped into her at football. Opening line: I’m a little bit clumsy but I really love you.

At the beginning of December Karen disappeared and Dad stood chatting to Ellie the Elf instead who, it turns out, also sold programmes at the beginning of the game and raffle tickets at half-time. She had rosy cheeks and pointy ears and a green felt tunic. Dad told Doug that Karen had most likely jetted off to Australia to see her family and go swimming with crocodiles which was they did at Christmas time. Snappy Christmas, and all that. At one game in the middle of December it started to snow and the dribbles of snot from Doug’s red nose solidified which was something to tell Jerry B at half-time. They sat in the canteen at the back of Block G. You’ve got snot icicles, said Jerry. Cool right, said Doug, like stalactites or is that the other one you know hold tight to the ceiling? Jerry didn’t know so he started talking about the first-half penalty which he pronounced as the Worst Decision in the History of the World. He was captain of the school team, rocked blond highlights and had a Tindr account despite being ten years below the age limit which altogether meant he was Mega Cool but Mum said to tread carefully because Jerry’s dad left home the other month and he, Jerry, therefore had the potential to be a Really Bloody Bad Influence. Doug nodded and ate some chips. He said: any more luck on Tindr? Not really, said Jerry, but it’s because girls in this country are all frigid. Jerry had travelled to India with his uncle so he would know about these things. What about you? said Jerry. Doug finished his last chip and told Jerry that he was waiting for someone special and didn’t want to rush into things and wanted to take it real slow because they’d both suffered super heartbreak before and wanted to progress at a natural pace, maybe not even holding hands before Valentines so the holding of hands would be real special and not to mention the impregnation and so on which would obviously follow and would be even special-er because it was the The Highest And Purest Form of Love. Jerry got up and said that he had to whizz before the start of the second half. So Doug went to find Dad. Maybe if things didn’t work out with Heidi Hawthorn then Tindr would have to be the inevitable route and he would either have to suppress the eternal longing or pour the jilted pain into a cold ninth year on this futile earth as an alcoholic and dabbling drug addict. Mainly Calpol or Honey and Lemon because the tablets are real hard to swallow. But that would be the last resort. Doug barged his way through the steadily drunken crowds and upon approaching Dad, he witnessed something super strange. Dad, in his long grey overcoat seemed to be holding hands with Ellie the Elf. Maybe she was sad. Doug supposed that Elves were sometimes prone to sadness, in situations of panic and despair when there is a marshmallow shortage for example or a nice kid gets coal instead of presents. But she was smiling, and so was Dad. Dad leaned in a fraction closer and stroked her hair and then they kissed. Which was a) really gross, and 2) Mega Confusing. Doug bounced over and was like: Dad what’s going on? And Dad said oh shi- and cupped his own mouth and turned away but Ellie the Elf, without batting an eyelid, knelt to Doug’s level and told him that parents, like your Dad, often send secret messages to Elves who pass on the secret messages to Father Christmas and the best way of sending those messages is whispering them real quiet, lip to lip. She asked Doug if he’d like to try it but he shook his head. She then asked him if he’d like a sugarfree polo and he said why not, and skipped back to his seat for the beginning of the second half.

There was a big game coming up on Boxing Day so Doug spent the majority of Christmas Eve drawing up the blueprint of the master plan to steal Heidi Hawthorn’s heart either at half-time or after the game. It was drawn with crayons and smelly gel pens. One option involved abseiling from the roof of the stand. But heights were a bit of an issue after going all wobbly on the London Eye last summer and unfortunately Doug just didn’t have the abs for abseiling, which was something to add to the Big List of Big Improvements for the new year. Get in shape, and all that. Another option involved asking Mum to put in a good word with Heidi’s Dad. Doug worked on the master plan periodically and did all the usual things such as leaving a carrot and a mince pie outside the front door (for there was no fireplace and Santa had a special house-key) and helping to peel the vegetables where he achieved the peeling of one entire potato. Pretty good work according to Mum. And whilst Dad was at the pub he and Mum visited Uncle Jim who showed them pictures on Facebook of his new girlfriend, Shelley, and gave them chocolate digestives that smelled and tasted of tobacco. In the car on the way home Doug announced that Uncle Jim needed to get a grip of his life and Mum laughed. Which was nice. She was usually too busy being a Mum and teaching him things about life to stop and have a good laugh. At bedtime she read him The Night Before Christmas even though they both knew he was getting a little too old for a bedtime story. But it was also nice. Mum closed the door and the minute Doug was certain that she and Dad were in their bedroom and pretty much conked out (ascertained by monitoring frequency of foot movements and muffled discussion) he grabbed the torch from his Essential Supplies under the pillow and sat up to form a kind of pyramid den under his duvet. A Top Secret Mission Base, or somesuch. He read over the master plan to steal Heidi Hawthorn’s heart. It was a great plan but needed the final touch, a little bit of Christmas help from Santa Claus. Doug wrote: Dear Santa I know you’re busy but I’m in love and I need a bit of your magic (spelt: magik) to make Heidi H love me back, or if that won’t work then ask Angelina (spelt: Angleena) Jolie please. Then there was a noise from downstairs. Definitely from downstairs. A kind of bang. From the living room? Doug tip-toed to his door. It was cold so he grabbed his Frozen dressing gown which was real snug. More noises from downstairs. A real dilemma, thought Doug. Chance of it being a burglar: 44%. Chance of it being a creepy ghost: 1%. Change of it being actual Santa Claus: 88%. The big man has his very own key remember. Then: 99%. This was perfect as Doug could deliver his last-minute request for true love to the Big Man in person. With torch in hand Doug slowly plied open bedroom door and edged down the stairs with deftness of foot and even holding in breath to minimise noise. The light was on in the living room and sure enough there was Santa with his red coat and his white beard, putting some presents under the tree. Doug watched from the hallway. It was a Slim Santa. Probably been on a sprout juice diet after Mrs Claus nagged about the outrageous amount of saturated fats in his normal diet, which is something Doug had heard about on TV. Oh and Mum was there in too. Why was Mum there? She was whispering to Santa about the presents. Santa looked a bit tired and like he didn’t really know what he was doing. This didn’t inspire a huge amount of positivity re: Mission To Make Heidi Love Doug. When Mum and Santa were done Mum stroked the bit of Santa’s cheek above his beard and then gave Santa a little peck on the lips. Mum? said Doug. Mum’s eyes went crazy big and she whipped Doug out of the room and marched him upstairs and sat him on his bed where he felt like crying all of a sudden. Mum knelt down and held him by the shoulders. Her cheeks were red. Sweetie, said Mum, I always try to tell you the truth and I won’t lie to you about this as you’re growing up fast, but you see Dad loves Father Christmas and sometimes on Christmas Eve Dad likes to dress up as Father Christmas the same way you like to dress up as Spiderman whenever you watch Spiderman. So that was Dad? said Doug. It was Dad, said Mum. So you weren’t sending Santa a secret message with your lips? asked Doug. What do you mean? said Mum. Doug explained about the lip-to-lip communication and Mum seemed really baffled about the whole thing as if it was completely new to her, so Doug then explained about Dad sending a secret message to Santa lip-to-lip with one of his elves, Ellie the Elf, who is always hanging around half-time selling raffle tickets at the football this time of year. Mum looked a bit worried all of a sudden. As if she’d just eaten a clump of earwax thinking it was a toffee truffle. Her bottom lip began to wobble as if it was going to fall off. But then she pulled it into a smile and told Doug to please go to sleep as it was Christmas very, very soon and he needed to rest otherwise he’d be falling asleep in his Turkey. Which was unlikely. But Mum was boss so he got under the covers and thought about how it was a little weird for Dad to dress up as Santa but it made sense because Santa was pretty cool and so was Spiderman. And then he had a eureka moment. The costume! The Ultimate Final Touch to the master plan to steal Heidi’s heart was his Spiderman costume which was in the cupboard or under the bed or something. Doug smiled, and fell asleep.

Christmas Day was great but at breakfast on Boxing Day Mum was telling Doug that Uncle Andy would be taking him to the football and didn’t really explain why Dad couldn’t make it all of a sudden. In fact, where was Dad? But Doug didn’t question it as he needed to get Mums approval on something or there would be Big Trouble, double bubble. He gave Mum a hug and thanked her for her cooking yesterday. She hugged back a bit tighter than usual. Then he said: Mum, can I wear my Spidey costume to football? And she said yes. Which was a Mega Result. But she carried on with the hugging forever and ever and ever until he managed to wriggle free from constriction and ran up the stairs to initiate Stage 1 of the HHHHL. The Heroic Heidi Hawthorn Heart Liberation. He donned the Spiderman costume and pretended to fire web shooters and get sudden spidey-sense about the inevitable baddie lurking under his bed and then a forward roll and whammo, a sticky web in the face. Take that, dweebo. Mum yelled up to tell him that Uncle Andy was here. And Doug was like I’m coming already. Uncle Andy was quiet and serious. He was losing his hair. He was in a fair amount of denial about losing his hair. In the car he kept asking Doug if he was alright. He’d say: you alright there buddy, you sure you’re okay? And Doug was like, jeez, I’m fine I’m not dying from rat poisoning or anything I’m fine, quit asking. At football Uncle Andy didn’t shout things at the players or the referee or the manager. Not once did he tell the linesmen that he could do a better job with his very own head up his very own arse. Instead he occasionally muttered: pass the ball pass the ball pass the bleeding ball. But Doug wasn’t really concentrating on the football anyway. He was counting down the minutes until halftime and when the fourth official raised the board to announce seven minutes of extra time Doug almost jumped out of his seat to tell the poor guy that he could do a better job of calculating extra time with his very own head up his very own armpit. When the whistle blew Doug feigned the needing of an urgent pee and dashed through the tunnel to the bar at the back of the stand. On his way through he noticed that Ellie the Elf had been replaced by another Elf and he heard an old man ask the new Elf where Karen was today and Doug briefly considered telling the man that Karen was in Australia but he had no time to spare on such distractions. Sorry Mister. Not really in the caring spirit of Spiderman but sure the old geezer would understand given Doug’s relentless and unabashed pursuit of Young Love. He jogged to Block K. He’d found out from Mum that they sat somewhere in the region of Row 30 to 35. And sure enough there was Heidi Hawthorn sitting next to her Dad and eating from a bag of Haribo, all wrapped up snug with a red bobble hat and smiling from one ear all the way to the other. Doug climbed the steps in a steady approach. His planning was a little hazy from here on out. Something about saving a random from dying or danger with his spidey-powers and proving to Heidi that was the Real Deal, kind but heroic, charming but bold, sensitive but daring, in summary; the Hot Stuff. But there was nobody around in need of saving so instead he stood at the beginning of Row 32 and stared a little at Heidi and her Dad. Like a lemon. Luckily her Dad noticed and waved a can-I-help-you-lad wave in Doug’s direction. You’re Lucy’s boy? said father of Heidi and future father-in-law of Doug, who had the kind of ginger beard that inspired both fear and respect. Doug nodded. Take a seat, said Heidi’s Dad. So he sat next to the Love of His Life with his hands between his legs, instantly regretting the choice of superhero attire. Should have gone tuxedo. Blown it. But then Heidi turned and said: Doug, right? He nodded. I’m sorry to hear about your Mum and Dad, Doug, said Heidi. Doug said: it’s nice to meet you too. And then did a weird little laugh with his shoulders and said that he better be heading back to his seat before the start of the second half because Uncle Andy would be wondering and panic-dialing Mum and before you know his name would be read out over the tannoy, and so on. And then Doug was out of there. Best to leave her wanting more. But he’d done it. He’d smashed it. He’d totally won her heart. Oh what a day. He should be carried shoulder high to the centre circle and celebrated with fireworks and jet cannons and cheerleaders, and the crowd chanting Doug, Doug, Doug, Doug. Oh what a day. Cupid had fired his sparrow, or somesuch. Her Heart was his, the day was won, and True Love had finally begun. But hold on a second, what exactly did she say about Mum and Dad?

Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology – Terrorism and Tourism

Exciting news: one of my short stories, Terrorism and Tourism, has been published in Volume 7 of the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology which was launched last night at Spike Island. My story was one of twenty short-listed from a total of 2,473 entries from all over the world – so I’m honoured to be included in such an awesome and prestigious publication. I can’t post the entire story on this blog, but below you can read the opening paragraph and if you’re interested you can buy the BSSP Anthology from Waterstones (online and in-store) or Amazon.

Terrorism and Tourism

It’s my first day as Hostage 17. Amita Choudrey, The Red Widow, stands in front of me with a tangle of wires and batteries and pretend explosives strapped underneath her niqab, and a semi-automatic by her side. The crowd of visitors are silent. We hope they are crapping, have crapped, or are preparing to crap their pants. A few have already surrendered their £40 admission; hobbling out of Exit Door G. The Red Widow shoots me, but I forget to activate the Blood Pack. I fall counter-trajectory toward the visitors into the lap of a Japanese grandpa who thinks this is the funniest thing in the world. He invites his whole extended family to take photos of him laughing and pointing at the fake dead English man inches away from his-. Which will no doubt become the crowning jewel of their London photo album. I hold my breath and am on the verge of actually dying when The Red Widow goes Off Script dragging me out of the Japs lap. And saying: put the phones and cameras away or you’re next you little kuffar dickweeds.

full crew

Cue: awkward kneeling pose ..!

chris edwards-pritchard

The award ceremony and launch night was a great celebration of new writing with inspirational speeches from George Ferguson (Major of Bristol), Patricia Ferguson (Author of The Midwife’s Daughter and Aren’t We Sisters?) and Sara Davies (BSSP Head Judge, and former BBC producer). Huge congratulations to Mahsuda Snaith for her winning story: The Art of Flood Survival, and a big thank you to Joe Melia for his enthusiastic dedication to promoting new writing and championing the resurgence of the short story.

Short Story: I’ll be your Tom if you’ll be my Marilyn.

Winner of the Gregory Maguire Award, 07/08/2014


You remember what happened next? said Adam. There was quite a lot of next. They returned to London and went to the pictures in Leicester Square twice a week for a year. Grace would wear the most wonderful dresses, even in the wintertime. They married. They travelled the world. You remember Cuba? said Adam. They had children: Gareth and Penny. They upsized. Their children had children: Max, Karl and Lizzy. And then their children’s children began to have children: Ioli. Suddenly they were old. They downsized. They travelled the world again. You remember all that? said Adam.

Grace remembered it some of the time.     

Some days she thought Penny was her late sister Kathy. Other days she thought Adam was her father, or a postman, or a prison guard. And then there were the days when she thought Adam was Mr Tom Ewell and she would get all shy and try to hide under her covers. But he’d simply crouch beside her bed and say: I’ll be your Tom if you’ll be my Marilyn.

And they’d start all over again.

You remember the beach? said Adam. They met on the steep pebbled beach of Brighton in the summer of 1956. They had both come from London to holiday with their respective families. It was a time when family holidays were so much like business affairs that most gentlemen wore three-piece suits to the beach; sitting on thin towels and carefully licking at ice-cream cones.

You remember the suits? said Adam. Adam’s father, Sergeant John Wilcox, insisted that Adam and his younger brother George wear suits to the beach, at least until they were ready to change into swimming gear. Adam was seventeen. He looked a lot older and wearier than seventeen, as if life had chiselled adolescence out of his face. His mother Irene was killed at the beginning of the blitz.

You remember my suit? said Adam. A streak of immaturity remained. Adam deliberately picked out a beige suit, so that he might blend into the beach and altogether disappear. He also chose a beige boater with a red trim to shade his face from the sun. He looked altogether like Tom Ewell, a famous American actor who had starred alongside Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, which had played at picture houses up and down the country the previous autumn.

You remember the ice-creams? said Adam. A young italian lad from Gizzy’s Parlour would park his tricycle at the top of the beach and yell: ica da creama! He wore a white uniform and a white cap, and sold Ice Cream Bricks from his tricycle box for just three pennies. Adam stood near the front of the queue and caught the attention of three girls further back.

That was you, said Adam. Grace queued with her younger sisters Eileen and Kathy, who were in bathing costumes and towels having just swum in the sea. Grace wore a blue bikini. She had wide welcoming eyes. She said to her sisters: don’t you think that man in the suit looks just like Tom Ewell, well maybe it is Tom Ewell. Eileen and Kathy giggled and despite having no knowledge of the actor urged their older sister to ask for an autograph, or failing that ask him to take them on the donkeys or the Big Wheel. Grace said okay, but when Adam walked back down the beach past the queue all she could muster was: Goodbye Mr Tom Ewell. He stopped and frowned. He looked her in the eyes, tipped his boater, and said: I’ll be your Tom if you’ll be my Marilyn. Eileen and Kathy almost died they were laughing so much, and the three sisters tumbled out of the queue onto the pebbles.

You remember what happened next? said Adam. There was quite a lot of next. They returned to London and went to the pictures in Leicester Square twice a week for a year. Grace would wear the most wonderful dresses, even in the wintertime. They married. They travelled the world. You remember Morocco? said Adam. They had children: Gareth and Penny. They upsized. Their children had children: Max, Karl and Lizzy. And then their children’s children began to have children: Ioli. Suddenly they were old. They downsized. They travelled the world again. You remember all that? said Adam.

Grace remembered it some of the time.

On the Wicked stage, shaking hands with Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse.

On the Wicked stage, accepting the Gregory Maguire Award from Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse.

Short Story: Dreaming in intervals of five

I’ve been watching her for a while. At 8:53 she comes in through the quadruple doors from Midland Road; hair scraped back, ankle joggers and running shoes, pinching stop-watch, removing headphones. At 8:55 she sits down at the piano, a slightly battered sky-blue August Förster, tucked behind the central glass elevator to platforms one, two, three and four, and Searcy’s Champagne Bar. At 8:56 she tchaikovskies her way into my heart. Again. Oh god, my heart. None but the lonely heart. At 8:57 I go weak at the knees and slide to the floor. I can’t take this any longer. Please. At 8:59 I am still on the floor. At 9:00 she leaves the piano, inserting headphones and gently bee-lining for the doors and the cold night beyond the doors. Her hair is lighter from behind. At 9:01 it is my break, and time for a serious Starbucks. Not just Starbucks: a serious Starbucks. A latte, with three shots. And then, 9:10, back to work. Pull yourself together, Lukas. I am a cleaner here, at St Pancras International. I wear a blue jumpsuit and push around a trolley with twin bins rimmed with yellow bags. I look bloody good. Oh yes, oh yes. My station is one of the better gigs: an avenue of glass-fronted shops under a giant domed ceiling – the last few fondles of the continent before you enter proper London and they disappear like the tendrils of a dream. I push my trolley through crowds teeming with possibility, of people coming together and coming apart. Some arrive from Brussels, Belgium, and some arrive from Chatham, UK. Admittedly the ones that arrive from Chatham are teeming with much less possibility than the ones from Brussels, but all of them have a purpose, powerwalking or simply ambling from one end of the station to the other, or sometimes through to Kings Cross. They all have somewhere to be and they all have somewhere to leave behind: the journeys carve meaning out of their lives. It would be very easy for me to become a bitter old man – old before my time, I’m only twenty-nine – and I’ll be the first to admit that I went through a rough patch when I first arrived in the UK. I would see someone running for a train and stick out my foot, or try to mow them down with my trolley, or empty their bags into my trolley. Keys, wallets, phones. That’s not nice. Those days are behind me now. Okay, I haven’t been back to Poland to see my mother, Kat, and the young ones Piotr and Piotrek, for a couple of years but I’ve made peace with that situation. I grew up in a small town called Plöck, on the top floor of a huge shared house not far from the river, but certainly not overlooking it. Mother was a tall thin woman who panicked if supper was any later than sundown or if we were a fraction of a second late for a social occasion, even if that social occasion was a simple outing to the park. She smiled a lot but it was always the kind of smile you see in photographs and newspapers. She talked a lot too. She tried to kill herself several times. I never heard her whistle. I never heard her hum. Music was only allowed in the house when uncle Nik came to visit, and only really accepted in the winter months. He brought with him the suka, the koza, the fiddle, and when I went to visit him in the mountains I played the piano, a fine petite grand Vogel from Kalisz. He had a bit more money than us, and whatever extra he did have, he gave to my mother. Some people have money, others don’t. He put me through university at Warsaw. I studied business management. He said that things were going to be different for me. He died when Piotr and Piotrek were just about saying their first words on this earth, and shortly after that I moved here. I send them money every month. Any money that I would have used to visit them, I send it to them instead. The boys are almost teenagers now, and eat like horses. I’m happy. I really am. You see, I have access to a transport that is completely free and can take you anywhere in the world. I have my pianos. And her, my 8:53 lady, oh-boy, she is one of the finest and smoothest pilots: calm and logistical and wooden as the piano itself. And here she is again, a day has passed, the moon and the sun each taking turns in the limelight, and the clock reads 8:55. The piano is sky-blue and battered – it has been here now for a number of years, as much a part of St Pancras as I am. And she is wearing a marmalade crop-top, not quite a running top, but a top she definitely wouldn’t wear for anything other than running. Is she happy, I wonder. Her fingertips touch the keys, eyes always open, and I notice within a note or two that she has chosen the old Russian genius again, and at 8:57 just as I’m beginning to wonder the route she runs before arriving here, and surely it’s the same route everyday, there’s a tingling hook which strikes me like a battering ram in the stomach and I am once again on the cold tiles, just outside The White Company, watching her trainers pump at the peddles and her hands whiz around in fast-forward, from high to low, like the ink head of a printer, whipping down layer after layer, making sense of CYMK. I grab a cloth from my trolley and scrub at the tiles, pretending to passers-by that there is a very good reason for my lying on the floor. These tiles don’t clean themselves, I tell them. I remain there, paralysed, until 9:00 when she stops mid-note, mid-creschendo, and jogs up the arcade and out of the door, pinching stopwatch as she leaves. A relief to stand again, but why would she stop there, and how? How can liberation exist within such tight parameters? I wonder what side of the bed she likes to sleep on, and whether her dreams are also dictated by time, dreaming in intervals of five. Surely not. Is she only woman by night? Does she have a husband? I saw no ring. Children? No. A job in the city? Yes, probably. But what has she got to go home for? A dog? Probably not. A run and a quick perfunctory play of the piano. That’s all. Day after day after day. Does it make her happy? Is it meant to make her happy? Oh 8:53, oh 8:53. The moon and the sun do their own version of changing of the guards, and back again, and the next day arrives, and then the evening. The litter dropped in my station is posher than the litter dropped elsewhere in London: a sandwich box from Marks & Spencer, a receipt from Hamleys, a stray cork from Searcy’s Champagne Bar, which dominates the whole length of the upper arcade balcony. I bend and I stoop and I greet the leftovers of avocado salads as if they were old friends. At 8:50, I take a seat at the sky-blue piano, in blue jumpsuit and steel-capped boots, trolley parked just to the side. If anybody asks, I am undertaking some maintenance; tuning etcetera. It’s fine, look at my pass, I work here. Yes, my hair did use to look like that, in 2001. Didn’t everybodies? Yes, you can chuck your rubbish in my trolley, thank you very much. I play some tchaikovsky of my own: dance of the four little swans. You know it: dee dee dee dee didili dee dee, dee dee dee dee didili dee dee, dum-dum-dum-dum. And so on. My uncle Nik taught me how to play as a child during the winter months, mainly because it was a great way of stopping your fingers from seizing like icicles. You don’t want to end up with your fingers snapping off, Lucas, you’ll need them in later-life. Ah, uncle Nik, the cheeky cretin. Yes, using them to pick up posh litter in proper London, I’m sure that’s what he meant? At 8:53, she comes through the doors from Midland Road. I can’t see her from here, the glass elevator to platforms one two three and four blocks my view, but I imagine her nonetheless, yanking out the headphones and striding to meet her next time-target, but what will she do tonight – I am sitting in her seat, my feet now toying with her damper pedal and my hands all over her black and white keys, gently hammering the wires and sometimes adding in ditties of my own, a sprinkle of improvisation. I could lose myself for hours. A few people stop to watch, including 8:53. Some of them grab instinctively for their mobile phones: snapping, tweeting, sharing. No one person is one person anymore. I see her from the corner of my eye, a jade crop-top this evening, and at first she deals well with the fact her piano is already in use, 8:55, and walks past me, as if that was the direction she had always intended to walk. She goes to the other piano, also sky-blue but this one a Sommerfeld, which sits under the central steps to the upper balcony at the other end of the arcade and never fails to draw an audience, most of whom are awaiting the Eurostar. That piano is also in use, but overplayed and always out of tune – she doesn’t want that piano anyway. Its stool is chained to a leg. It is for people who care about the audience more than they care about the music. But does she care about the music? Oh my. 8:56 now, and I can feel her walking back towards me, past Le Pain Quotidien, Forbes and Kath Kidston all of which are closed for the evening even though the well-lit displays suggest otherwise. Here she comes. I pick out her trainer footsteps from the stream of travellers above the sound of my own music, of my own breathing. By now she is adjacent to my shoulder.
I’m worried about you, I say.
Still playing the dance of the four little swans.
Dee dee dee dee didili dee dee.
She turns.
Excuse me? she says.
I’m concerned, I say.
Are you talking to me?
I’m not sure whether you are enjoying life?
What? she says.
Her voice is harsher than I imagined, more guttural.
A smoker, an ex-smoker.
She says: is this a joke?
I can’t work it out I say, are you happy?
I’ve got to go, she says.
Dum-dum-dum-dum.
Dum-dum-dum-dum.
My mother, Kat, used to tell me that love was the most precious thing in the world and that you know true love when you see it, and that you know when you never want to see it again. Before I was born her and my father were part of a folk band called Gratuluję. He played the flute. She was the vocalist. The other two members were Adam and Maciej, who both now live in L.A. I have never heard my mother sing, but Uncle Nik used to recount how her voice was more beautiful than a hundred swans gliding on water, how her smile alone would rouse applause, how her verses were plucked out of thin Dylewska air and scattered like confetti into the arms of adoring fans. It is hard to believe that my mother was ever that person. My father died in a car accident in 1984, just weeks before I screamed myself into existence. The Gratuluję soon disbanded. All musical instruments were evacuated from the house, as was all mention of my father. It is hard to believe that he was ever a person. The next evening at 8:53 I am at the piano again, and she walks straight past me to the Eurostar piano which has been hijacked by an Elton John tribute, glasses and all, toupe and all, earrings and all. She turns on the spot and walks past me and our piano to the quadruple doors out onto Midland Road, forgetting to pinch her stopwatch as she leaves. 8:57 is no 9:00, afterall. This happens again the next night, and the next, and the next – replacing Elton tribute with another musician, amateur or professional, tribute or not. There’s always somebody musical passing through my station. If anybody else is on our piano at around 8:50 I lay down the maintenance card and kick them off. I say: either it needs tuning, or you really do sound that bad, tone deaf or something, please ask your doctor to syringe the wax. Even at weekends she shows at 8:53. I don’t even know her name. Lets call her Sarah. Sara. How long has she been running and where has she been running from? What has she been running from? An abusive partner, a stifling father, a pressure-cooker job? A single mum? No, not a mother. There is something greater than the burden of children that is troubling her: a death, a break-up, a break down? I worry about her eyes. They are beautiful in the same way a television is beautiful, in that you never quite forget that wires and electrodes and tubes have conspired to give the impression of beauty, to illustrate beauty that is actually elsewhere. There are cogs and levers behind her eyes. On the Sunday after a short Skype with mother, Piotr and Piotrek, I decide that I have maybe been a little harsh on Sara, a little insensitive. Sunday is my day off, but in the evening I turn up at St Pancras nonetheless and have a sit in Le Pain Quotidien, which always feels like I’m sitting on a film set, as do all cultural imitations. Next to me is a young family, the father being around the same age as myself, and two children, possibly non identical twins, dressed as Mini and Mickey. Father is hastily gulping coffee, and mother is administering a plaster on Mini’s finger, whilst Mickey announces that he would also like a plaster. He’d like a plaster for his feelings, because his feelings are hurting. And now a biscuit. And now a drink. And now I’m feeling a little odd – it’s not the faux smell of the continent, too sweet, because that is beginning to fade, and it’s not the family either, as they are also evaporating from their chairs, mouse ear after mouse ear, and the baristas too have upped sticks leaving milk frothing into cups and microwaves mid-rotation and the chatter of the tables is being replaced with something I can’t quite understand, a music that I’ve never heard before nor will ever hear again. The twin streams of weekend people on either flank of the arcade are vanishing with every note, swept away by a tsunami of unseen oak trees, pulsing faster than all trains in and out of this station. Clocks fall apart, cashiers fizzle, guards sink, and all that possibility is replaced by a new kind of possibility: Sara 8:53 is freestyling, her hands scuttling like crabs, her face alive with the fear of not knowing what comes next, her eyes closed, and the piano frame now also degrading, ticklish wisps flirting into the air: wood burning without flames. Yes, Sara, yes. She’s playing on air now, pure air, finding nuances in the curves and the pockets and the steam, making music out of nothingness.
I knew you could do it, I shout, my arms aloft.
Like a madman.
And pop.
The music dies, and St Pancras reassembles around me.
I find myself in the arcade half-trampled in the train of Sunday evening humanity, swiped by bags and cases and handholders, by people headed in too many directions to even begin to comprehend. Mickey and Mini running for the toilet, coffee being served, tickets purchased, sweets, cigarettes, bottles, bags, newspapers, chewing gum, receipts; all of the things that get left behind. She sits at the piano silent and unmoving, small and older than I remember, touching her hair, checking that the clips are still holding it in place.
I knew you could do it, I repeat.
What is wrong with you?
I knew, I say.
A little sheepish.
Why do you keep watching me? she says, and adds, stalking me?
I’m not.
Do you even work here?
Yes.
Why the hell are you here now then? In plain clothes?
I say: are you happy?
Why are you here in your own time?
I want you to be happy.
You don’t know me.
I love you.
She stands up.
The crease of her knees knock the stool over, and she corrects a stumble.
Putting distance between us.
Face flushed.
Okay, that’s enough, she says. Just stay away from me. Just get the fuck away you creep.
She runs up the arcade and barges through the quadruple doors out onto Midland Road, shaking her head, her hair beginning to pick itself apart, clips just about hanging on.
The time is: 9:07.
I go to sleep.
And then I go back to my job.
I pick up everything that gets left behind at St Pancras and I put it the yellow bag attached to my trolley, and I empty the contents of my trolley into a large green bin, the size of a car, and that bin travels at night by train to an incinerator or to a hole in the countryside. Some of it is given a second chance: some of it becomes tins and boxes and bags and pencils. At some point I am paid for picking up the things that get left behind, and I send that money a thousands miles over the internet to mother and the boys. Occasionally I think about stowing myself on the next Eurostar to Cologne and from there onto Warsaw and then onto Plöck to see them. I do my job instead, and at 8:55 every evening I sit at the piano and play until 9:00. She hasn’t passed through here for weeks. I allow myself to think about her whilst I’m playing. I want her to walk through this arcade, just once more, in a floor-length dress, with a man on her arm, and red on her lips, her hair pinned in a bun, on their way to the Royal Opera House maybe to see a ballet, or for a weekend trip over to Paris – their laughter so contagious and pure that it brightens every bulb in the arcade. Anything can happen in my station. I don’t know if she will ever come back, but I will play tchaikovsky every day from 8:55 to 9:00 until she does.

Bohemian Banterwagons, Black Bags & Babybels

This weekend I’ll be visiting one of my favourite festivals in the UK – Wychwood Music Festival in Cheltenham. I love Wychwood – it’s the only festival I’ve been to where an angry camper has climbed up on stage in the comedy tent and emptied a black bag of rubbish over the head of a comedian, all because he once sold her a dodgy yurt.

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Wychwood has it all: great bands blasting out great tunes, kids running around chasing bubbles, sun worshippers worshipping the sun, mud worshippers worshipping the mud, cider worshippers worshipping the cider, ostrich burgers, noodles, pies, craft stalls, a Pimms bus (!), a comedy tent, workshops, artists, games, a headphone disco and this year, for the first time, it’s very own real ale festival.

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Myself and the Future Mrs P have been going to Wychwood together for four years now, and it genuinely keeps getting better every time. This year, I’m most looking forward to the bohemian banterwagon that is Bill Bailey – one of the zaniest, and musically talented artists that the comedy community / cave troll community has to offer. He is headlining the main stage on Sunday night.

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With a backdrop of purple Cotswold hills, Wychwood Festival is vast yet intimate; a refreshing melange of mystery, magic and music, a place where all kinds of worlds come together, and instead of colliding, they join hands and dance the night away. Last year, for example, there was a young family enjoying a midday picnic, munching on potato salad, dipping on hummus, crunching on rocket, and just metres away, there were a group of twenty-something’s raving and moshing and generally going crazy. One of the ravers got too close to the picnic blanket and accidentally kicked a babybel flying, but instead of getting all angry, the mother of the picnic said, and I quote, “sod the cheese,” stood up, and joined in on the raving moshing going crazy, before inviting the ravers moshers crazies to join the family for lunch. Perfect.

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If you do pop along this weekend, then one other act to watch out for is the incredible Thrill Collins, who will be playing the Hobgoblin Stage on all three nights of the festival. Their skiffle-pop music is superb, but their performance is multiplied a thousand percent by Pete, the Cajon player, and his playful plethora of facial expressions. It’s a similar experience to watching the following clip featuring Steve Carrell, and I mean that in the kindest and most admirable sense possible:

Other acts at Wychwood this weekend include include Toploader, Kate Nash and The Human League … don’t you want me, baby?

First Time Buyer 7: Chasing a Cat at a House Viewing

The cat was named George. Myself and the Future Mrs P chased the little blighter out of the kitchen, around the living room and up the stairs before he anxiously peed on the carpet, our future carpet. Lovely. Angela, the estate agent, was at the bottom of the stairs, back-to-the-wall, crumpled tissue in her hand, petrified, despite telling us that she had three cats of her own. It was our twelfth house viewing.

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This blog post is about the weird and wonderful world of house viewings. I’m a first-time buyer and my only motive for writing these blog posts is to share with you experiences, top tips, and positivity that I only wish others had shared with me.

Some house viewings feel like funerals, some feel like weddings, and others feel like arranged marriages, with the estate agent playing the role of mischievous matchmaker. After weeks, months, or maybe even years of looking at properties online, it’s such a great feeling to get in some actual real houses and do press-ups in some stranger’s spare-room, all the while thinking to yourself: yes, this will be my gym room, prepare to witness the fitness.

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What to take?

A lot of first time buyer guides recommend that you take items such as a torch and a compass to a house viewing. These items are not really needed: you are viewing a house, not doing your Bronze Duke of Edinburgh. Although there was this one time where we viewed a river barge at night-time and had to navigate our way across the Atlantic, lighting the ocean with a wind up torch in the shape of a frog.

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Top Tip: The only compass you need to take along to a house viewing is a moral compass, to stop you from getting into some poor old mums dressing gown and stealing a cookie from the cookie jar.

Top Tip: It’s also quite helpful to take some common sense and imagination along with you when you are viewing a house. I’ve written about this before, but it really is important to look beyond the horrible flower-power wallpaper, and the dirty sofa, and the avocado bathroom suite, and the basement full of rocket-launchers, and cannabis growing in the attic-room. Instead think: What would you change? How much would it cost? How many rocket-launchers are there in that basement? Where’s my damned frog torch gone?!

Expect the unexpected!

If we had known there was going to be a cat involved in our twelfth house viewing, myself and the Future Mrs P would have invested in some tins of tuna and a scratching post. The house with the cat was the house we ended up buying, and not just because we love urine stained carpets.

Upon arriving at one house viewing, an estate agent who went by the name of Craig asked myself and the Future Mrs P if we preferred a shower or a bath, with which we both answered shower, before showing us round a tiny terraced house which had no less than four shower cubicles, one of which was an annex of the living room. Craig suggested that we turn that particular shower into the smallest study in the universe and make-do with just the three showers.

Top Tip: House viewing is actually great fun, especially if your name is Nosey Parker, and it’s the closest you’ll come to the adrenaline rush of an actual burglary this side of the law. So try not to get too stressed, use your imagination and expect the unexpected.

Top Tip: Also expect the expected: rooms that don’t match up with the pictures, estate agent blunders, messy and smelly houses, and two-seater sofas that are actually no bigger than a micro pig.

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21 minutes

Apparently, the average time spent viewing a house before buying it is 21 minutes. That’s not very long. That’s not even one episode of The Big Bang Theory. And relative to the amount of money you will spend on a house, it’s really really really not very long.

Top Tip: It’s probably worth viewing anywhere from 5 – 15 houses, even if you think the first house you see is the dream house.

Other vaguely important things to remember:

  • Be nice to the estate agent.
  • Be nice to the vendor (seller) if they are present.
  • Be nice in general. It’s a great way to live your life.
  • If you like the house, try to play it cool and don’t jump around the kitchen screaming at the top of your voice: I’D CHOP OFF MY BALLS/BOOBS/BUNIONS TO LIVE HERE!
  • If you’re viewing houses as a couple, then fully prepare yourself for the quintessential: “I love it / I hate it” response. For example, I would generally hate a property if I thought an old person had recently died in it, and Future Mrs P would generally love a property if it had original wooden floorboards. Conversation and compromise are great methods of ironing out such polarisation.

Thanks for reading!

Now go view some houses. Online viewing is great, but it doesn’t beat a real-life encounter with a potential future abode. I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog-post, and drop by next time, when I’ll be babbling on about second viewings and the secret lives of estate agents.

The London Marathon and the Tunnel of Doom.

Marathon Day has come and gone, and I am immensely proud to report that I slayed the London Marathon Beast in 4 hours and 14 minutes. My first ever marathon, and what a day it was. Over the course of 26.2 miles, I was blessed by a vicar, high-fived by a panda, took a running shower with a male bride (!) and was supported the whole way round by hundreds of thousands of superb sunny spectators, all armed with banners and beer and bongodrums and jelly babies.

The outfit:

When I started fundraising back in January, I revealed that I would be undergoing a gruelling period of Endless Embarrassment where people could suggest anything for me to wear on a training run, when they made a donation. I blogged about it here, here, here and here. I had initially decided to pick the top 5 suggestions, but changed my mind the day before and attempted to incorporate EVERY single suggestion. This is what I looked like on the day:

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As you can see, I was wearing: clown socks, a tutu, periodic table signs, handcuffs, scuba gear, a feather boa, a temporary Grease tattoo, a temporary showbot tattoo, a Griffindor badge, a Lego Gandalf, fairy wings, a pink bow, a photo of me dressed as Where’s Wally, a cocktail umbrella and a bow tie. There was also a banana involved, inscribed with the words: “don’t you want me baby?” of Human League fame. All of these wacky items of clothing were suggested by people who donated to be Virgin Giving Page, here. So far, I have raised £1942 for Mind, the mental health charity.

The calm before the storm:

The day began at 6:15. Up and at ‘em. Breakfast was a horrifically delightful mix of Weetabix and flapjacks and nerves and excitement. Ankle support on, outfit on, number pinned, tracking tag attached, shoes on, chia seeds in a bottle of Lucozade Sport, and we were ready to roll. Bish bosh bash. Chia seeds!

Before I knew it, we had arrived at Maze Hill and I was saying goodbye to the family and Future Mrs P. At this stage Mother P was pretty much certain that I wouldn’t come out of this alive, and, after hearing a fellow runner talk of blisters under toenails, I was also feeling a bit of pre-marathon dread. But that all dissipated as I climbed the hill towards Greenwich Observatory and joined the river of red-bagged runners entering the Red Start. The sun was shining, the sky was blue.

On my way to the start line, I received no less than seven complements about my bow tie and one person even touched it for good luck, in the same way that gypsies rub the heads of dwarves for good luck. I imagine. With forty minutes to go, I entered Zone 5 and had my picture taken by a tourist from China, who asked me a question about Prince Harry that I still haven’t answered.

The wait was excruciatingly long, but everybody was in high spirits. One guy called Matt told me a heart-warming story about how he was running for his child who died of leukaemia last year, and a lady dressed from head to toe in pink talked incessantly about her love for the colour pink. When I asked her about the musician P!nk, she told me she only listened to classical music. A great shame, I thought.

A couple of minutes to go before the mass start, there was a thirty second silence for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombs. My thoughts turned from the three innocent spectators of the Boston Marathon to the insanity of violence and the severe juxtaposition between the worse of humanity and these thousands of fundraisers preparing to run, for some, the longest run of their lives: the best of humanity. A whistle blew and the silence was once again replaced with noise: cheering, whooping, laughter and the hum of anticipation.

GO, GO, GO:

I crossed the start line at 4 minutes past 10, and the pace was already rocketing along. I tried hard to keep to my own pace, but at times it was too easy to be swept away with the torrent of eager shoes pounding down Shooter Hill Road. Crowds lined the route, and the high-fives began in earnest.

At Mile 2, I felt some water splash my face and turned around to see a female vicar standing by a bus-stop, dressed entirely in white, splashing holy water at runners with her liturgical aspergillum. [Both great words]. I turned to the green-vested guy next to me and said: “did we just get blessed?” and he replied, between huffs and puffs, “yep, think so mate, and we’re going to need it.”

The crowds were spectacular from the very beginning to the bitter end. When I came to my first halt at Mile 16, a rather large angry chap with a beard and a bottle of coke literally pounced at me on the side of the pavement and said: WHAT ARE YOU DOING? KEEP RUNNING. You can’t really argue with that, so I slurped an energy gel and reluctantly trudged onwards.

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I stopped again at Mile 18 and slowed to a walk, but the crowds of London run a tight ship and made sure I jumped right back on the saddle (after another energy gel, of course) and the momentum, and the music and the atmosphere carried me painfully to Mile 21 where I saw the family + fiancée + friends, who told me later that I looked like I was genuinely on my last legs at this point. And they were right: it was damn tough.

Parts of my outfit had fallen off, others were doused in a horrible combination of water, Lucozade, sweat and unwanted jelly babies. I was slowing substantially, and beginning to think that my finishing time would be 6, 7, 8, 9 hours. I didn’t care: I just wanted to finish. And then, at the end of Mile 23 I hit my first ever ‘wall’, which was cunningly disguised as the Lucozade Tunnel of Yes. Or as I like to call it: THE LUCOZADE TUNNEL OF DOOM.

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It looks like quite a nice tunnel, with its words of inspiration and glowing motivational bubbles, but as I entered the tunnel the sound of the crowd gradually disappeared until it was replaced by the echoing anguish of hundreds of extremely tired human beings – and so, with no spectators around to judge me, I came to a halt and melodramatically knelt to the ground like Russell Crowe at the end of Gladiator. My leg muscles were twinging like crazy and I literally couldn’t move any further.

In slow-motion, a handful of runners shouted words of encouragement and told me to get up, don’t stop now, you’re so close. But I was perfectly fine with stopping now. It was time for a sit down and have a cup of tea, even though I don’t even drink tea. It was time to sit down, thank you very much. I’m done.

“Up you get lad” said a voice and a pair of arms pulled me to my feet. Another runner; a complete stranger had stopped to help me out, but before I could even thank him, he had whizzed off down the tunnel of doom. And so I followed him, one foot after another, and soon the tunnel was defeated and the metaphysical wall was smashed to smithereens.

The end:

The last two miles were painful and slow, but I kept telling myself that in twenty minutes time it would all be over and I could have a little (long) sit down. We were running along Embankment with the London Eye off to the left and Big Ben looming meticulously up ahead, and then it was a sharp right along Birdcage Walk and a sign that said: 800 metres to go! Just eight hundred metres left and my body received a boost of energy: I’d done it. The crowd were going mad and here was Buckingham Palace and then a final right turn along The Mall for a hobble-sprint finish. I jumped over the finish line and hugged the nearest person. Four hours, fourteen minutes and twenty-four seconds.

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And so my first ever marathon came to an end, not with a whimper, but with a jump. And then pain. And then cramp. And the some cramp-pain. And then lots of deep-heat. And some more deep-heat. It was a truly incredible day, and so far I have smashed my target and raised £1942 for Mind, the mental health charity. There is still time to donate, so if you have a spare fiver, give this a click: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/ChrisRjPritchard

Thank you to everybody who donated, and to all my friends and family who supported me on the streets of London. And most of all: thanks to the marathon stranger who picked me up in the tunnel of doom – without you, I’d probably still be there now.