Month: March 2015

Mondays Are Who You Really Are

Whilst I am meticulously nailing together the vital parts of the next epic (ahem!) Old College adventure, I thought I might leave you with some random bits and bobs of other little projects from here and there. This is a short story I wrote for radio…

 

Meet Benjamin Mountain – a man for all seasons, party animal, sensational golfer, handsome, witty, hilarious – and so say all of us. All except his wife, Eunice. Who really knows him. You see, to his colleagues, friends and acquaintances, Benjamin really is a modern icon; successful and talented, beautiful and dominant – a blond and bronzed demi-god in a world of ever-increasing drabness. He excels in the office; he dazzles at parties and he charms all who meet him. Everyone knows him as the happy-go-lucky man about town. But all these people don’t really know him. Not like Eunice knows him.

Eunice shuffles around the kitchen glumly, sighing softly to herself. As she carefully butters toast for her husband and keeps an eye on his delicately poaching eggs, she is bracing herself for the moment Benjamin comes down the stairs. Benjamin is not a morning person.

The familiar heavy thud thud of angry bear footsteps can be heard on the stairs, and Eunice hastily wipes crumbs onto her silky dressing gown (or, ‘house coat’ as she prefers to call it) and attends to the eggs, throwing furtive glances at the doorway as she does so.

What emerges in that doorway is not something the many fans and admirers of Benjamin Mountain would recognise. Thinning mousey hair straggles like drunken spiders down a furrowed brow to claw at sunken eyes, lined and heavy. The famously chiselled and jutting jaw is prickled with greying fuzz; the mega-watt Hollywood grin lost behind thin, drawn lips and a scowl. Oh, this is the real Benjamin Mountain, Eunice thinks to herself. If only they knew!

“Good morning, dear,” she offers, but receives only grunts in reply. “Busy week ahead?”

Breakfast is served to the accompaniment of general whining and shocking morning breath. Barely a human word is exchanged across the rather extravagant table. When eggs and toast are gone and Benjamin has retreated to the shower, Eunice clears the things with bitterness and regret. How tired she is of hearing the gushing plaudits of his colleagues at company dos! The sparkling wit! The ready smile! The ferocious torrent of charisma and delight that seems to be plentifully gushing in every direction towards everyone but her. Ha! They should see him first thing on a Monday morning.

Benjamin beams at the dashing devil in the mirror before him. A hot shower, careful grooming and endless expensive vanity products have swept away the excesses of the weekend, tightened and brightened the sagging of late nights and revitalised the worn-out husk of a human being he won’t allow himself to see. Just to slip into the tailored suit and jaunty tie and the illusion is complete. Benjamin Mountain! Legend!

Benjamin thumps down the stairs and stalks across the hallway to collect his briefcase and laptop. His phone is already ringing as he scoops it from the sideboard. He answers with such seduction and erudition, Eunice pops her head into the hallway to reassure herself that this really is her husband. She raises an eyebrow at the sound of female giggling, squeaking like a tin mouse from the phone. Benjamin proffers a limp wave farewell from a hand already full with laptop and briefcase as he bundles out the front door, never once interrupting the flow of his phone conversation.

As Benjamin strides through the city streets, his immaculate golden hair gleaming the sun, the regimented thwump thwump of his shiny black Loakes on the pavement, he basks in the admiring glances and whispered adulation that have become commonplace on his walk to the office. This is his world and this is his time and he can make anyone believe anything he wants them to. Gifted? Probably. Sociopath? Almost certainly. At the top of his game? Undoubtedly. The time has come, once again, to wrap the whole world around his little finger.

Sat at his desk, master and commander, the sales soar and the profits swell. His secretary, Megan, fawns and swoons to such an extent it is a marvel that she is able to remain upright. His boss, JP, visits Benjamin’s office several times during the day for sessions of saccharine sycophancy. In the bar after work, punters and staff alike cling like limpets to Benjamin’s every word, laugh like drains at his bawdy jokes and are struck dumb with awe at his words of wisdom. Benjamin Mountain! Legend!

All the while, Eunice lingers at home, like a living ghost haunting her own life. She feels her husband crawl into bed beside her in the wee small hours and the smells of expensive alcohol and cheap perfume almost make her choke. As he laughs at his own jokes in his sleep, she silently, fervently wishes the world would see him as she does. As he really is. Just once.

And, you know, the funny thing is, sometimes – when you want something enough, something somewhere smiles down and, no matter how improbable or unlikely, you just might get what you want.

The next morning Eunice repeats her unending egg and toast ritual. Benjamin is so fed up with egg and toast. What’s a man got to do to get a bit of bacon once in a while? Or a sausage. God, he would kill for a sausage. I suppose I could just ask her, he thinks to himself. But then, he doesn’t really feel like talking in the mornings. And this morning, in particular, he feels fairly dreadful. Perhaps he is getting too old. Perhaps it takes longer to recover these days.

To Benjamin’s horror and surprise, his morning shower and pampering ritual has little to no effect. Despite a longer than usual session of preening and beautifying, the golden hair remains lank and mousey. The eyes tired and sunken. The complexion, worst of all, sallow and aged. Some how, his razor seems to have missed a significant amount of his morning facial growth. Benjamin’s eye is caught by a little pink pot of his wife’s foundation. Oh, no. Cannot resort to wearing makeup.

Desperate, now, Benjamin buffs and shaves, plumps and puffs and repeats and repeats… but to no effect. Over an hour in the bathroom and he is unable to recreate the sleek visage he has been conjuring daily for decades. Angry and frustrated, he scowls at the reflection in the mirror. Not a legend. Benjamin Mountain. Looks like a Monday morning. In fact, he looks worse.

Once downstairs, things seem no better. He forgot to charge his phone last night and he can only stare forlornly at the lifeless handset. The seemingly unmovable stubble is itching his chin and no amount of mouthwash will stop his mouth smelling like something has died in it. Even Eunice looks concerned for him. That’s a first.

This morning’s parade to work is quite an education. Without his synthetically produced elan and style, no one notices Benjamin Mountain making his way haphazardly down the street. He is bumped and jostled like everyone else. But he is not like everyone else! He is Benjamin Mountain! Legend! Convinced he must be coming down with something, Benjamin diverts into a pharmacy on his way to the office.

Pharmacies are not the type of establishment Benjamin usually frequents. He is perturbed by the sight of a skeleton-thin creature with razor cheekbones and too much eyeliner queuing up for some monstrous looking prescription. Benjamin skulks near the foot cream until the creature has gone. The pharmacist sees him lurking, and offers a friendly smile and some assistance. Benjamin draws himself up to his full height, which feels notably depleted today, and approaches the counter.

The pharmacist looks puzzled at Benjamin’s protestations of malady. Whatever illness this is, seems to have robbed him of his usually glittering communication skills. The pharmacist doesn’t seem to understand, am I not making myself clear enough?

“But just look at me!” Benjamin exclaims, exasperated and pitiful. The pharmacist does look. He looks again.

“You look perfectly alright to me. In what way are you feeling ill?”

Benjamin tries to explain, but cannot find the right words. For some reason, he ends up telling the pharmacist that he looked in the mirror this morning and saw a slightly worn and dishevelled middle-aged man. The pharmacist points out that Benjamin is, indeed, a middle-aged man. Yes, but Benjamin Mountain doesn’t look like a middle-aged man. He looks like a legend!

Benjamin leaves the pharmacy in a state of barely concealed fury. The pharmacist was being somewhat sarcastic, he felt, when he said there wasn’t a magic pill or potion to cure ‘ordinariness’. Well, there should be! What sort of world are we living in today?

If Benjamin was hoping that the comfort zone of his professional premises would make the world a happier place, he is sadly mistaken. His bumbling and incoherent patter leaves customers cold and distant. His colleagues barely notice him and the air conditioning is broken. This latter thing is beyond his control and hardly relevant, but, in the present circumstances it is upsetting nonetheless.

After a calamitous lunchtime, where his sandwiches deconstruct and salad dressing becomes his new must-have accessory, Benjamin begins to fear that his glamour and sheen are gone forever and he will infinitely be Monday morning. He begins to wonder, with growing concern, how much of the legend is really Benjamin Mountain. Or rather, how little.

Glad when the working day mercifully draws to a close, Benjamin eschews the swanky wine bars and trudges home miserably to Eunice. When she sees his sad little face, humbled by blandness and the mundane, a part of her heart that had been forever cold towards him suddenly warms. She listens intently to his woeful tale of his dreadful day, feeling strangely comforted and pleased. Not because she takes pleasure in his discomfort, although she thought she might, but because this is the first time he has spoken to her properly in years.

As he opens his heart to her, Eunice sees for the first time in decades that which others only saw in the gloss; an intelligent and thoughtful man, now using ordinary and everyday language rather than jargon-laden sales speak. The words are spoken to her and her alone. A little worn around the edges, yet handsome, without doubt. This is the Benjamin she remembers, she knows, she loves. The irony is not lost on her. The Benjamin that she wanted everyone to see is unloved and ignored by everyone. But, she realises, still very loveable to her.

A thought strikes Eunice as Benjamin continues his melancholy oration; it was the sparkle and charisma that made him so good at his job, so successful in all he turned his hand to. His fakery and carefully crafted image are the very things that put the mock Tudor roof over their heads and gluten-free, organic food in their bellies. What now, without that? Would Monday morning Benjamin be able to provide in quite the same way as Benjamin Mountain – Legend?

Eunice stops and thinks again. She got what she wanted. They all saw him for who he really is. She has her old husband back, but he is a broken man. He might, soon, be a very poor man, too. So is this her happy ending or all just a big mistake? What is it they say about being careful what you wish for?

And so, to the moral of the story. Well, there isn’t one, really. But if you learn anything today, it’s that Mondays are who you really are.

A Place Unseen

And The Bursar watched from a place unseen, the affectionate bickering and ribald banter as much of a mystery to him now as it had been upon his arrival.

The British are so inconsistent in their communications. They are either so ridiculously repressed as to be incapable of expressing themselves, or they are mercilessly teasing those most dear to them. They are fools, fools.

As The Bursar watched and listened, thoughts flashed and flared like lasers on mirrors. With a mind that sharp he must take care not to cut himself.

She is pestering him now, The Dean, she wants to take a holiday. He wants a change of scene also… perhaps they will be travelling companions?

Yes.

That would suit my plans most comfortably. Once their interest is captivated they will lead me straight to it, of that I have no doubt. Such is their penchant for adventure.

But the other one… the friend of The Dean. He has proved himself to be most dangerous. He protects her even though she is nothing but a College servant. He must be kept at bay. At all costs.

And The Bursar remained in the place unseen and smiled to himself in the dark. His countrymen will welcome him once again once he has found it. He can return home.

Home.

And then this tiresome charade will finally be over. 

Theater Of Misdirection

Standing here at the bottom of Old College gardens, at the scene of Ryan and Maurinio’s final embrace, I would like to say that I had summoned together the finest minds of The City to hear my revelations. Sad to say, those that were summoned are not quite the finest minds and the finest minds are people who do not respond well to summoning. Regardless of this, I believe I have gathered everyone who needs to be present.

Detective Chief Inspector Thompson is certainly a man not to be summoned. He and his fragrant side-kick, the lovely Detective Sergeant Kirby, are here thanks to the earnest request of Porter, who seems ready to fall down on one knee before DS Kirby at any moment. As ever, Head Porter is at my side (or I am his side, I am never quite sure which way round it is) and we are joined by a very puzzled Head Gardener. The Dean has been coaxed from his breakfast table, with much protesting and demands of recompense. Hershel, funnily enough, was already making his way towards this very spot when we encountered him in the cloisters.

The patience of the Chief Inspector would make a saint weep. The last time he was called to one of my Agatha Christie-style explanations, events took a rather embarrassing turn. I can see it in his eyes that his expectations of this occasion are reassuringly low.

Deep breath.

“I believe I know how our unfortunate young people died,” I say nervously. There. It’s out there. I said it.

“Are you saying… this really was witchcraft?” says The Dean, eyes wide as saucepan lids. Hershel lets out an involuntary snort.

“That simply isn’t possible,” he mutters.

“But the incantation!” exclaims The Dean “I have it here! See!” He holds aloft the strange but neatly written verse, inscribed on ordinary lined paper. Hershel snatches at it and inspects it intensely.

“I don’t know that this is an incantation,” he says.

“Exactly!” I cut in, before The Dean can erupt in a flurry of contradiction. “I think Hershel could be right. What if it isn’t an incantation?”

“Well what is it, then?” asks Head Porter.

“Look,” I say. “We were all very keen to skip down the path of witchcraft, probably because this is Old College and that’s the sort of thing we do.”

“But we searched his rooms!” The Dean pleads, seemingly desperate to cling to the shreds of his pet theory. “If there were ever the rooms of an occult enthusiast, Maurinio’s rooms are they!”

Maybe,” I reply, as kindly as I can. “But I think it more likely that his fascination was more with the heavy metal music scene. The two disciplines have remarkably similar appurtenances, it is no surprise that we were mistaken.”

“Deputy Head Porter, that doesn’t explain the incantation” huffs The Dean, folding his arms.

“They’re song lyrics!” Hershel exclaims. “They’re from a song. By The Wildhearts. It’s called ‘Bad Time To Be Having A Bad Time’. Not the most cheerful of ditties, I must say.”

“Wait!” Detective Chief Inspector Thompson halts the discussion and steps a little closer. “Our investigations have thrown up compelling evidence that the Hawkins girl was indeed of the mind to execute an occult ceremony at the time of her death. She had on her person items relating to such an endeavour, complete with written instructions for a… what was it, Sergeant Kirby?”

A love spell, Sir” replies DS Kirby. Not something she and Porter had to resort to, evidently.

“Fine,” I reply, undeterred. “The Hawkins girl was there to cast a spell. Maurinio and Ryan were here to… well, to do what you do when a love spell has been successful, I suppose. But the point is – they all came to pretty much the same location, by and large, and they all lit a fire.

“The fires are the connecting thing!” Hershel says, getting rather excited. “So.. it was the fires that killed them?”

“Not the fires,” I reply. “But the smoke.” I walk purposefully towards the remnants of Maurinio and Ryan’s fire, now barely visible in the rambling flora. Close by, is a rampant crop of attractive-looking weeds boasting little purple hooded flowers. So virulent is this plant that it appears in bunches all along the boundary wall and is present, I am sure, at the boundaries of Hawkins College. Head Gardener realises my interest and slaps his forehead.

“Bloody hell!” he exclaims, instantly embarrassed by his outburst. “I mean, goodness me! That’s Aconitum – Wolfsbane!”

“Wolfsbane?” DCI Thompson places his hands on his hips. “A plant containing the toxin aconitine, the effects of which slow the heart until both it and the respiratory system are paralysed.”

“I believe that both the Hawkins girl and our chaps added Wolfsbane to their fires, either by design or mistake, and were overcome by the poisonous fumes,” There! My deduction is revealed and it doesn’t even sound too unlikely. I take the briefest of moments to muster a little pride. “They could have picked it up by accident when building the fire, or, on being attracted to the unusual bloom, thought it might add a certain fragrance to proceedings. I suppose we will never know.”

“We will have to run an analysis of the debris, of course,” muses DCI Thompson, failing miserably to hide his surprise at my sensible suggestion. “But this is a line of enquiry we had not previously considered. There is a correlation with the post-mortem report, certainly.”

I suppose it would have been too much to expect an expression of gratitude or praise from our friends of the thin blue line, but Detective Chief Inspector Thompson definitely leaves us on better terms than when he arrived. That, in itself, is something. In truth, I had no idea that Wolfsbane was growing so readily at the bottom of the gardens. On knowing that all three died from multiple organ failure I began to suspect that a toxin of some sort might be involved. With the fires being the connecting factor, I began to ponder how they might act as a conduit for such a thing. And that, as they say, is that.

The Dean was most insistent that witchcraft had indirectly played a part in one death and therefore he was right, again. I didn’t see fit to argue with him, for two reasons. Firstly, there is little point in arguing with The Dean. Secondly, who is to say that he isn’t right? I imagine it rather depends on your point of view. Certainly from the point of view of the Hawkins girl, if she hadn’t been spell casting she would still be with us today.

Perspective is a funny thing, you know. For example, the often celebrated smell of freshly cut grass, a favourite up and down the land, is in fact the smell of fear from the rest of nature, terrified that it might be the next to be cut down. A delightful scent reminiscent of bright spring mornings and long summer nights? Or the palpable expectation of vegetative genocide? It all comes down to perspective.

It just goes to show that things are rarely what they seem to be, even when they actually are.

Another mystery sort of solved. Feeling smug.

The world is merely a theater of misdirection.

And life itself?

It’s all just smoke and mirrors.