Tag Archives: short story

Let There Be Something or Nothing

9 May

He is looking for the signs. All he needs to see are oddities or inconsistencies in the city he is so familiar with. Then he will know whether he is really the draughtsman of his own reality or a sketch in someone else’s, some organising force or entity. Then he will have solved mankind’s greatest mystery. The first day of the new millennium seems like a good time for it to happen. Let’s test the predictions of a legion of oracles, druids and laudanum fops, see if they got anything right. And if some revelation is forthcoming then it might as well arrive on a blank slate, when there is a primal glow to every clock on every computer: 0:00, 01/01/00.

Will the signs be hidden behind the quotidian just to make things more interesting? Or will they be gaudily visible like the gold and green deities on pimped-up Delhi rickshaws? He has to be eagle-eyed.

Plotting some course must surely be inappropriate. Instead he trusts in his instinct which pulls him this way and that way like a rodeo bull. The destinations smack of bipolar disorder. He finds himself in the compulsive bustle of Pekeliling Station, rubbernecking bus drivers, and then suddenly he’s getting off the LRT at a sloping, windless suburb in Jalan Petaling where he meditates on the crazed array of insect sounds. Wherever he goes he is surrounded by the melioristic skyline of rocketships licking the stratosphere.

He moves in grey-suited anonymity, fedora forbidding positive ID. It hasn’t escaped him that today there might be other forces at work for whom the signs could spell profit or advantage. There might also be parties whose interest it is to preserve the status quo, to stop him detecting the explosive truth. Near-delirious by the time he reaches Chinatown, he ponders the Homelands Food Court and grabbing some pig’s intestines on the fly. But there’s no time for that. He stands outside a luridly overpriced bar listening to the sotto offbeats and crosswind melodies of the gamelan. Nothing unusual there.

A door with a sign reading NO SEX NAVIGATION PLEASE opens and he gets a waft of computer game white noise – crowd groans, gun cracks, wench squeals. The silicon god boxes to whom spotty acolytes prostrate themselves.

He notes down the first possibility: the roof-hugging rollercoaster in Time Square is out of order, a first as far as he can remember. What can that mean? Doesn’t matter. The correct thing to do right now is to listen and absorb.

A blind man wearing a Bin Laden T-shirt sits beneath the Petronas Twin Towers, playing a kendang drum which, by the arid state of his cap, hasn’t earned him a single sen.

Near there a huge screen shows trailers for US action films all starring people who look distinctly like nightclub bouncers. High above in the sky the trails of aeroplanes almost form a cross but on second glance they are more crooked like a pair of scissors.

He joins a crowd near Maharajelela station to look at a brilliant aura that has formed around the sun. He is disappointed to be told that this is an optical effect of ice crystals in tropospheric clouds.

He wonders if the animals might know something. He once heard a spaced-out Dutchman talk on a relaxation CD about how whales have evolved a more complex language than humans and a more complete understanding of reality. In the zoo he studies the backs of cobras as they sleep coiled up in their tanks. He gazes and gazes but the psychedelic patterns don’t strike him as the elaborate work of a prime mover. He doesn’t feel like he is being drawn through the doors of perception.

An obvious destination – maybe too obvious – is the National Mosque. Might the old creeds and their talk of fate, divine intervention, providence and submission still have some relevance? He strolls between the precise, star-shaped fountains until he reaches the entrance. He has missed the public visiting time.

It is conveniently close to the National Museum of History where he muses over the succession of maps made by explorers who came to region over the years. This was a kind of reality-making of course, and usually to strict ideological spec. The early cartographers consciously downsized India and Africa. Those globes on European desktops were always for closet megalomaniacs – touch and spin your very own Earth!

A giant inflatable grouper fish promoting a cellphone company bobs along the roof of the new media plaza outside Bukit Bintang. Smaller fish, buoyed by helium, are released from the backs of transit vans and crowd together before taking leave of the ground forever, probably to be found days later deflated and wrapped round the blade of a helicopter. Some referential tuning fork is struck deep inside him. Fish multiplying. The signs might be going old-school.

In another mall, he doesn’t care which one because there are so many, he takes a translucent elevator which goes so fast his ears pop. From it he can see the operations of perhaps the greatest world religion playing out on a big screen. Sculpted shamen work their magic and conduct time-honoured rituals inducing ecstasy in onlookers. He shoots, he scores!

There are peculiar shops selling weapons like numchucks, silver-plated blowpipes and replica handguns. Traders offer him superhero T-shirts, military-style binoculars, belts, cigarette cases, intricate pen knives, scale models of the Very Important Towers.

An Indian guy seizes him by the hand, makes as if he is about to perform reflexology but instead studies his palm. “You will live long and be healthy,” he says predictably. He pauses and then adds, “Don’t worry about questions that might not have answers.”

He keeps on through the afternoon. His route ends up a formless scribble on the map: next up is Jalan Tamingsari, then a swing back to KTM Station, then southwest to the Lake Gardens, a radical swerve towards the Merdeka Stadium, on to Jalan Davis, Jalan Raja Chulan and then a leap back into the core of the city, back to Chinatown and the Colonial District. But it’s just another normal day all around KL, with a pinch more excitement than usual given the festivities looming. Inner critics question his choice of location. Why not Angkor or Borobodur; some place sparkling with mystical tradition? But the new signs, if they are to be relevant to the modern mindset, are more likely to appear in a modern milieu.

Night creeps up slowly in this eternal summer, so there is always a long intermission before darkness proper. He sees the omnipotent shine of the golden arches – there must be a record number in this city – and the guiding star of a sportswear advert projected against an office block. There’s the colonel beaming at him and him only: Maybe I have the answers, kid! Pizzas and footballs and chopsticks: the hieroglyphics of seduction. A neon terrain of leisure lifestyle designed by the West, adapted by the East and known by almost everyone on Earth. A small part of him is jealous of those who can submit to all this with blissful ignorance, those for whom cosmology ends at the supermarket till.

At five minutes to twelve he returns to his Chinese hotel where twosomes can rent rooms on an hourly basis. His quest to understand the signs forced him to change his life some time ago, to cut of the ties most normal people retain. Thus all week his phone has been beeping a symphony. Pleas by text message and mobile phone.

Where have you been call me and let’s go out for a few drinks you seemed like you needed it last time I saw you which was a long time ago hu-llo? hu-llo? don’t make me beg I just need to know you’re OK that’s all I’m not prying into yur private business I’m sure you have your own reasons your daughter needs to see you and you’ve skipped the last five weeks this is an important age for her she needs a father figure especially since we got the divorce son? son? I can’t get to Giant to do my shopping son I need your help you know I do og hello sir can you please call me back at the office concerning taxes owed for the revius three financal years much appreciated sir be reasonable friend I know you’kll say something like we don’t live in an age of reason but just meet me for ten minutes and we can sort this all out

He half-listens, half-cares. The messages are distant, unreal. Thay are petty trivia the rest of those numbskulls care so much about but don’t realise the futility of – careers, money, families, relationships. These things will not be the decoys that throw him off the scent of the signs.

He wipes the dust off the mirror and is shocked by his changed physiognomy. The key features – lips, nose, chin – have lost their association with one another and appear scavenged from different heads. The eyes have expanded and reddened like a firebrand preacher’s. The skin is the same though, its creamy ambiguity an outward reflection of the cultural slippage and identity confusion that set him on this chase in the first place.

He needs to relax himself, eject the tension of the day. He strips down to his underpants now so worn that one of his testicles hangs out of a big hole in them. He doesn’t care. He passes a pythonesque shit into the toilet and admires its girth and length for some time.

While the TV counts down he masturbates to a mind-parade of women’s faces. One of them is the assistant in his local 7/11, others include Bollywood actresses and even distant relatives. He comes on precisely the stroke of midnight as the fireworks are launched and the crowd goes untamed. The camera pulls back to show helicopters dropping powder paint in the colours of the national flag. People in the local dress of each state release balloons which are blown into an arcing pattern by the vagaries of the breeze.

Presently he slips into bed. He mustn’t dwell on the day’s happenings at all and risk importing his own opinions into this project. He will murder to dissect the truth of the signs which will only appear to him on their own terms. He must listen and absorb.

But he has no choice when it comes to his dreams. Wheels of life spinning. Sacred pillars throbbing with significance. Arks and saints and sinners. A garuda with wings of fire eating a wild-eyed snake. Monkey tricksters. Deities manifested in all the elements.

 

The signs continue to elude him into the new year and he enters a dark period of fretting over how they will appear. He needs to experience a major miracle, or a major disaster, something he could never conceive of himself. He has to be shown things of such complexity and wonder that he couldn’t have imagined them himself, couldn’t have been the godhead behind it all. But it’s a matter of interpretation; there have been plenty of miracles and disasters and things of complexity and wonder but which were the Real McCoy? Which could be taken down as evidence?

He starts to take out his frustrations on the unsuspecting. He makes a beast of himself. Back in that Chinatown food court he steals the tin from a beggar on crutches and sprints cackling into the night. He tells another beggar elsewhere that he can’t give him one ringgit because he only carries fifty notes.

He hangs around outside hotels to meet tourists who are about to go trekking into the interior. He misinforms them that the indigenous people they will encounter don’t speak Malay or English. He gives them a few phrases in an entirely made-up language of his own devising. A couple of days later the newspapers report on tourists thought to have lost their minds in remote villages talking gibberish and getting angry that the locals can’t understand them.

The schadenfreude of this keeps him mildly entertained and his mind off the profound questions, the signs. But he is soon thinking about them again…

 

Ten months later he is sat in a bar watching an audacious act of violence against a symbol of Western prosperity. Alcohol has always produced one or other of two feelings in him: pathetic empathy or icy neutrality. Tonight it is neutrality. He is surprised that the terrorists didn’t aim for a more populous target but then he suspects that that might not have been the point. A practical military victory was probably deemed less useful than a terrifying image, a sign….

His head zips back to the drummer beneath Petronas. Had that been a prediction and therefore a clue that he was looking out for the right things?

The years go by, bringing with them more potential signs. His spirits improve to a level where he now thinks he didn’t waste all that time searching. There is more terror closer to home along the border with Thailand and in nearby Bali. An old schoolfriend loses his life in the latter incident. Then a cataclysm that could have been from the apocalyptic phase of a holy book – the tsunami that mercilessly sinks islands, drowns whole tribes.

He is sure he would never have conjured so much suffering if he controlled the universe. The human subject might interpret the external world with its cognitive models but that is something quite different to creating the external world from scratch. So much responsibility there! So he plays with the scary notion that maybe there is a higher power and it is irrational and barbaric. But the alternative theory is scarier: that irrationality and barbarism is the result of random chance.

That night he has the most vivid dream of his life. He watches himself roam an endless volcanic landscape. He calls out but only echoes answer him. He looks to the sky which is devoid of a sun, a moon or stars. Only a murky light allows him to see the scabrous ground underfoot. It is a sad, desperate place and he is compelled to cry desperately. His tears fall to the ground and become puddles which expand until they become lakes which in turn form tributaries and rivers. At the edges of the water he begins to sculpt the sand into little hills. They grow into vast mountains and craggy gorges and swooning valleys. He looks up again and now a sun has appeared and he feels warmth and the new world is illuminated in a rich range of colours. He urinates and the sky follows his lead, lavishing life-giving liquid upon the landscape. Crops sprout at an amazing speed as do herbs and flowers and trees. Soon there is a kingdom of animals.

Feeling wholly satisfied he watches himself turn slowly translucent like a failing hologram, until he disappears altogether in a shroud of steam. The steam disperses upward into the atmosphere.

The next day he decides to take his destiny into his own hands. He quits all his responsibilities in this city – not a difficult process – and travels to Java where the bus takes him through rutted slums with birdcages hanging from their barbed wire balconies, where laundry is drooped over power cables and babies sleep in hammocks made from old flags. There is an all-pervading smell of smoke.

The countryside beyond cheers him up a little with its dramatic scenes of workers gathering sticks from manure-blackened fields sustained by groaning irrigation machines set in stone circles. He thinks about how different this is to home, how there is so much variety in the world.

As soon as he gets to Bali he notices a better quality of light which shows off the lushness of the vegetation, organized vaguely by rows of canes and streaming white flags to ward off pests. People in straw hats fish in the marshy lagoons carved out by low tide movements. The gentle, stained-glass sea seems to be the backdrop wherever he goes, it is always the same, always there. With little or no regulation the traffic flows across bridges, down country lanes, along beachfronts. The vehicles nudge one another for pole position, a scooter sliding between a bemo and an oncoming farm truck, an old Mercedes cutting off a motorcade carrying Hindu youths in head bands. But there are no accidents, no hard feelings. Everything goes on. Everything is as it looks. Everything is as it should be.

He arrives at a new, good, simple life. He will work at a beachfront bar, drink beer, smoke ganja, swim, soak up the sun and not think. He will unclutter his mind of meaning. He will accept the reality of appearances. He will not long for things that aren’t there, signs that may or may not exist.

(First published in Urban Odysseys: KL Stories)

Advertisements

Mr Tickle Gave Me Nightmares

7 Mar

Amber gingerly laid out the toys on the floor as if they were a ritual offering to the gods. Emerald clay lizards in vinyl frying pans. Bear-teacup hybrids with furry paws for handles. A scuffed glass bearing the simple orange form of Mr Tickle, serpentine hands holding a too-small hat to his raver’s smiley face.

The pigeon puppet on Daddy’s hand caught her attention: it nodded, shook its head, dived suddenly under the computer desk, soared high towards the energy-saving lightbulb. Then Daddy picked up a baboon from a plasticene plinth, making “ooh ooh ah ah” noises.

She shrieked with high-pitched laughter the way children will. Then she gave him a look of playful cruelty. She leaned forward, flicked the monkey on its tail with her stubby index finger and giggled.

Daddy turned his lips down glumly and struggled to simulate how a monkey might burst into tears. She sensed his difficulty with this and crossed her arms. He gave up. Some things just had to be explained, not badly acted. “Amber,” he said. “The monkey’s all upset so say sorry to him. You can’t go around hurting people like that.” He sat back on the shagpile, waiting for her response. He remembered to add, “Or animals for that matter.”

“But Daddy, but Daddy, but why does the monkey cry when he is not real?”

He had to admit he was bamboozled. Every so often she’d cut through the suspension of disbelief with a question like that, making him wonder if she was more ironically aware of their games than he gave her credit for. Then, doing a handstand which sprayed her hair across the room, she served up another few in quick succession: “Why is the pigeon e-ttached to your hand? Will the pigeon die one day? How do pigeons make other pigeons?”

Mummy entered in an invisible cloud of essential oils, amused by Daddy’s floundering explanations. She offered support by hugging his waist and kissing him on the nape. “You’re so lovely to her,” she whispered.

Daddy’s mobile rang as he tiptoed onto the topic of sex and death in the bird kingdom. “Saved by the bell!” he exclaimed, almost with joy. But his mood fell back down a gear when he heard that the babysitter couldn’t make it.

In the kitchen, Grandpa groaned above the TV showing a consumer rights programme. Mummy went to see if he was all right. “You know, love,” he said, straining forward in his wheelchair against the blanket that had been tightly tucked over his thighs. “I can always keep an eye on the nipper. You go out have yerself a nice time. Go on.”

“Thanks Dad, but she needs proper supervision.”

Grandad looked hurt and reverted his gaze back to the TV.

Mummy put an index finger to her mouth. “I mean that she needs to be bathed, her teeth brushed, put to bed and so on. And you can’t really-“

“I know, love, I know.” Grandpa reached for his keyring on the cooker. Hanging on it were symbols of a past life of physical action – a pewter model of his old boat Adventurer, a mountaineering clamp from an expedition to Ben Nevis he’d been on in the 1960s, a fob in the colours of West Ham United, a team for whom he’d briefly played a decade before. While watching the stories about dodgy builders exploiting housewives, he worked these items in his hand the way someone from a latter generation might use worry balls.

“Oh well,” said Mummy, back in the living room. “I’ll have to join you two, I suppose.” She slipped off her boots which looked conspicuously realistic and in-scale next to the toys on the floor.

“Shall I ring Asif’s for a balti?” said Dad. Without waiting for a reply, he did so.

“Yeah!” squealed Amber, clapping until her hands were red. “Curry! Curry! Curry from the curry monster!”

“You can’t have any,” said Mummy. “You’ve already had your dinner and you hardly ate any of that.”

“But I’m hungry,” Amber puckered in dismay. She slumped down to the floor with tightly folded arms.

“If you’re hungry you can finish your shepherd’s pie.”

“I hate shepherd’s pie.”

“You loved it yesterday and every day before that.”

“Well I hate it now, so there.”

Daddy played ventriloquist, giving the pigeon a guttural Brummie accent. “All roight Amber, mebbe you should eat loik I do, you knaow?” Mummy threw a pistachio nut a little too high into the air so that it ricocheted off the lampshade on the ceiling. Daddy kept a keen eye on it because its descent was much faster than he expected. Nonetheless he made an expert diving catch of it with the felt mouth of the pigeon. Amber burst into delighted laughter. Daddy winked at Mummy. “Takes me back to when I caught and bowled Mr Parker, the hated geography teacher, for nought, St Dennis School Teachers v Pupils Charity Match, May 1989.”

“You’ve still got the reflexes,” said Mummy, winking back. She pushed her blonde curls all over her face and staggered, arms stretched, zombie-style toward Amber, groaning “I’m cooomiiing to geeet yooou.”

Amber dithered, taking a diagonal step then taking it back. Down on her hands and knees, she headed for Grandpa’s old chest – a favourite hiding place – but paused halfway there. As Zombie Mummy’s shadow juddered across her, Amber squeezed herself into a ball, fingers over eyes. “I’m a-visible. I can’t see me. You can’t see me. I can’t see me. You can’t see me.”

They organised a tea party with a diverse guest list. Brummie Pigeon drank from the bear cups and Zombie Mummy pan-fried lizards. Daddy mixed his real urges into the fantasy by making the pigeon munch with spastic speed. “Oim hongroy!”

“Yeeesss.” Zombie Mummy dropped her cup on her toe and hopped about in mock agony. Amber laughed so hard she rolled on to her back like a baby.

“But seriously,” Daddy said in his normal voice. “It’s five to eleven now.”

Zombie Mummy reverted to plain old Mummy. “Five to eleven? Sh-“ She cut the cuss short, remembering Amber’s impressionable ears.

“Five to eleven!” shouted Amber. “Five to eleven! Five to eleven!” She paid homage to Mummy’s zombie act with a voice that was like an old-school tape player running low on batteries. “Fiiive tooo eeelevurrrn.”

“Or four hours after your bedtime,” said Mummy with a scowl.

Daddy rifled through his fleece’s pockets for his phone, snorting with aggravation as he did so. Not for the first or last time, Amber and Mummy exchanged amused glances. Once he’d retrieved that quintessential element of modern human communication, he used it to shout at one of Asif’s many sons. “You’ve been almost three hours! You’re only ten minutes’ walk away. Did your delivery boy get lost crossing the road?”

“Calm down,” mouthed Mummy.

“I’m hungry,” said Daddy.

“Sorry sir,” said Asif’s son.

“I’m not talking to you!”

“No, I mean I am so sorry sir.” Asif’s son proceeded to cram in as many I am so sorry sirs as he possibly could into one breath. After that, he promised the food would arrive within ten minutes.

“It’ll be free of charge?” asked Daddy.

“Yes sir, of course sir.”

“And cold I expect.” Daddy discarded the phone on the sofa as if it were chemical waste.

Mummy went to the kitchen where Grandpa had fallen asleep to a rolling news channel. She returned with a chilled bottle of rosé and a glass.

“Come on Mummy and Daddy.” Amber had tired of this extended foray into the grumpy world of adult affairs. “Play! Play! Play!”

“Well,” said Mummy. “It’s way past your bedtime. I didn’t realise how time had flown. We’ll play until our curry arrives and then you’ll go to bed with no fuss. OK?”

“OK. Play! Play!”

Mummy looked at the wine bottle and tutted. “Sorry, darling,” she said to Daddy. “I forgot to get another glass.”

“Not to worry,” said Daddy, reaching into the morass of toys. “We’ll use Mr Tickle.”

Creases formed in the soft skin of Amber’s forehead and cheeks. Her lips puffed out like marshmallows. She stared at the glass in Daddy’s hands with wary eyes. “But Mr Tickle gives me nightmares,” she said cautiously, afraid to admit the fact. Dramatic effect was added by her stretching out of the final syllable: “maaares.”

Mummy agreed but offered reassurance. “I have to admit that Mr Tickle gave me nightmares too, darling. It’s all right though, your Daddy and I will protect you from his funny hands.” Mummy took a closer look at the glass. “In fact, I think Grandpa bought me that when I was about your age. Never liked it.”

The sharp, cut-price wine made Daddy burp. He made it as loud and indulgent as he could, growling the words “I am the Burpy Monster” through it. This usually made Amber laugh. But not tonight. She was still worried about Mr Tickle.

The TV in the kitchen declared that it was now midnight. Grandpa stirred, fell back to oblivion. For the umpteenth time that day, a slinky female newsreader pouted a bulletin. News must have been scarce because she was previewing the anniversary of the Mr Men, the successful series of children’s books created by the late Roger Hargreaves. A celebratory lunch was to take place later today at Hargreaves’ old school, Sowerby Bridge Grammar in West Yorkshire. It would be attended by pupils and people connected to the franchise over the years: the original publishers, the actors in the spinoff TV series and representatives of Chorion, the company who now owned the rights to the characters.

In the living room, Zombie Mummy was trying to wrestle the Mr Tickle glass of wine from the Brummie pigeon. The doorbell went, an urgent curry alarm; Amber could almost smell the chillis, the coriander, the fenugreek, the cardamom pods, drifting through the letterbox. But her parents didn’t seem to hear. The bell rang again. “Mummy and Daddy,” Amber said, stamping a jelly shoe. “Answer the door! Answer the door!”

Brummie Pigeon took off around the room once more, eventually touching down on the toy box where it picked up more items for the tea party. Zombie Mummy made an erratic half-turn and grasped her daughter by her feet. “Do noooot meeess with thurrr zooombie!” Gravity forced Amber’s dress over her face as Zombie Mummy lifted her upside down. When Amber was at the requisite height, Zombie Mummy blew a raspberry on her stomach. Amber laughed half-heartedly and buried her head between Zombie Mummy’s knees.

The doorbell stopped ringing.

Brummie Pigeon dropped Trivial Pursuit wedges from its beak into the frying pan. “Who wants som haloomoy?”

Amber rolled free from Zombie Mummy’s grip. She lay on her side and pointed at the door. “But that was the curry man just there just then. It was.”

Zombie Mummy hissed a cooking sound. Brummie Pigeon added the baboon to the stew.

Amber was still pointing. “But that was the real food. You didn’t let the man in. You didn’t listen.” Zombie Mummy reached into the pan to rescue the baboon, feigning burns from hot fat. Brummie Pigeon snatched the utensil away. “Oi oi, that’s moyn that is. Give eet eere.” He glided over to the sealed fireplace, Zombie Mummy lurching after him.

After a last “Mummy and Daddy!” Amber gave up on these two grown people who now seemed more committed to the cause of make-believe than anyone her age. She watched them do their silly things in their silly voices.

 

***

 

Two hours later in the kitchen, news was breaking loudly enough to wake Grandpa. A vein now bulged like a prize-winning sausage in the newsreader’s once pretty head. Her register had moved up a gear from the dulcet of a pro to the squeak of an hysteric. “We are getting reports from Reuters in Los Angeles that the Hollywood screenwriter Jordan Gila has been arrested after threatening his father and daughter with a handgun at his Beverley Hills home. Mr Gila had just signed on to write a new film adaptation of the first Mr Men book, Mr Tickle, for the American animation studio Pixar. He was due to attend an anniversary lunch here in the UK which was mentioned in our earlier round-up.”

Grandpa missed half the story due to a critical coughing fit. “Love?” he hacked. “I need me pills, love. Would you fetch me me pills?” There was no response. He flicked the wheelchair’s joystick, guiding himself to the nearly closed door. “Love?” he said in a whisper enforced by all the coughing. He craned his neck to peek through the door but the gap was too narrow. Had his hearing aid been on he’d have detected a level of jollity many his age would deem inappropriate for this time of night.

Zombie Mummy was bent double, her hair rubbing the floor like a golden mop. She had been blowing a fart simulation through her lips for the last ten minutes. Brummie Pigeon finished its puke-mimes into the bin. “Aww dear,” it lamented. “Oi think we ayyte the wrongg thinggs there.” Reinvigorated, it flew off to slam the door to the kitchen.

Although Amber had now taken the view that ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ and started throwing the baboon up in the air, she couldn’t ignore Grandpa’s garbled calls. She slipped past her engrossed parents to see what he needed.

“Pills, love, please get me them. There’s a good girl. Should be in the bureau. And I’ll need some water there too. Ta, love.”

She skipped into the living room, fished through the battered old bureau and took one pill out of the green prescription bag she found. She skipped back to Grandpa, snatching the Mr Tickle glass on her way.

“What are those silly buggers doin’ now?” he asked, setting the glass and the pill on the mantelpiece above him.

Amber considered this for a while, her arms open with uncertainty. “They are…” She held the ‘are’ for such a long time that Grandpa had to hurry her. “They are playing a game,” she decided.

“But it’s two o’clock in the ruddy morning. Tell ‘em to get you to bed, me to bed then themselves to bed. That Mum of yours, what a hypocrite, eh? She said I wouldn’t be able to look after you! Cor blimey.”

The TV interjected with a grim outside broadcast of Kensington High Street shrouded with smoke. A fire had been detected at around 3 am and was believed to have started in the Head Office of Egmont Publishing UK.

Amber nestled her head in Grandpa’s woollen sleeve. “Just for a bit. Just for a bit can I pease stay here with you Grandpa? Pease.”

“Thing is, love, you need to go tell ‘em to sort it out. Stop all this carryin’ on.”

Amber puffed out her lips again. “OK.”

Things had quietened down with Zombie Mummy and Brummie Pigeon so absorbed in a game of snap that they didn’t notice the sun’s rays nagging through the curtains. They thumped cards down like industrial stamping machines, the pile growing by the second.

The doorbell rang. Amber side-stepped with her back to the wall, thinking she’d avoided detection until Zombie Mummy suddenly roared, “Snaaap! Ha ha ha!” with bared teeth and crossed eyes. “Whaaat’s my priiize?”

Brummie Pigeon buried his nose in the cards in a vain bid to stop Zombie-Mummy picking them all up. “Your proize,” he said, “should baay a fraay tickle of yong Amber there.”

Zombie Mummy did so, reaching under Amber’s dress to reduce her to a fit of reluctant laughter. In the midst of it, the young girl squeezed out a demand to open the door, but Zombie Mummy didn’t listen, she just kept tickling.

The doorbell fermata ended with a snap of the letterbox. Amber wriggled free and sprinted to the doormat where a little red card stated that a postman had tried to deliver a ‘large letter’.

Meanwhile in the kitchen, Grandpa had worn out his lungs’ capacity to groan. He manoeuvred his wheelchair back round to watch the TV.

“…We are getting early reports of a very sad development indeed. You may be aware of the charity appeal we launched in May on behalf of 7-year old Shona O’Neill from Belfast who needed stem cell treatment for a rare condition called spinal muscular atrophy. The news just in is that young Shona has slipped into a coma.”

A newly-arrived health correspondent took up the baton. “There is a connection here with some of our other stories this morning because Shona was due to be visited by actors dressed up as the Mr Men – amongst them Mr Tickle – as part of a fundraising event that some hoped would generate the last few hundred pounds required to pay for her treatment.”

Cut back to the newsreader who gave a theatrically glum look. “What a tragedy.”

“What a tragedy indeed.”

A hot flush came over Grandpa. Using the edge of the mantelpiece, he pulled himself up to the window for fresh air but felt his chest thicken with the effort. His vision disintegrated into a shattered glass effect. He reached for the pill, fumbled it and watched with panic as it plummeted to the lino floor, through a hole in the skirting board and down into the unknown cavities of this ex-Victorian poorhouse. “Amber? Amber, love?”

Amber didn’t hear him but nonetheless evaded both Brummie Pigeon and Zombie Mummy to return to the kitchen.

“Wee,” slurred Grandpa, his face turning a vivid shade of fire. “I dropped me pill down the side. Could you fetch me another? Ta.”

“Yes yes yes!”

“B-before you go, pour us some water, there’s a dear.”

“Yes yes yes!” Amber filled Mr Tickle up to his hat, handed him over to Grandpa and shot back into the living room.

The newsreader filled in some background detail. “Mr Men creator Roger Hargreaves was born in Yorkshire in 1935. He spent two decades in advertising, copywriting for companies such as Lindt chocolate and Pimms before writing the first Mr Men book in 1971.”

The muscles in Grandpa’s face had slackened so much that he spilled most of his water down his cardigan.

Amber ducked and dived past Zombie Mummy and Brummie Pigeon to the bureau, only to find that the prescription bag had vanished. She looked to Zombie Mummy. There was a spark of gall to her otherwise docile expression. Amber knew precisely what was going on. She darted behind Zombie Mummy and saw her hands clenched round the viridian parcel of drugs.

“Yooouuu caaan’t geeet it!” moaned Zombie-Mummy, lifting the vital item well beyond Amber’s tiptoe reach.

Amber jumped at full stretch like a goalkeeper saving a chip shot. “Pease Mummy,” she begged. “Pease for Grandpa! Pease for Grandpa!”

Grandpa’s head felt like it had been injected with pure capsaicin. Memories of past predicaments – punch-ups, cuts with DIY tools, a motorbike crash in 1958 – came to him unbidden. They seemed trivial compared to the acute agony of the present.

“The inspiration for the first book came when Hargreaves asked his young son the question, “What does a tickle look like?” The first six books went on to sell over a million copies in the space of 3 years.”

Zombie Mummy threw the bag into the air. Amber kept her eyes on it just as she’d been told to by every single adult she’d ever played a ball game with. But the advice was to be of no use. Brummie Pigeon shoved her aside to steal a textbook beak-catch. Amber sighed and ran.

Grandpa was failing. “At last,” he said or thought or felt, “this body, for all I’ve put the bleeder through, has reached its sell-by date.” His vision blank, his limbs deadened, his head erupting, he was somehow able to get more water from the Mr Tickle glass inside him.

“Roger Hargreaves died of a stroke in 1988.”

Grandpa’s skin seemed to turn the same tone of crimson as his West Ham fob.

“Grandpa?” Amber looked with sorrow at her empty hands. “Grandpa? Grandpa? Grandpa?” She tugged the V-neck of his cardigan. His eyes were fastened shut while the rest of his body trembled like jelly. Amber thought grimly of a toy that was running low on batteries. She kept tugging him until she felt Zombie Mummy tugging her from behind and found herself back in the living room. Brummie Pigeon flew in to collect the Mr Tickle glass. Then, on his return, he shut the door for the umpteenth time, only this time he locked it.

“What about Grandpa?” protested Amber. “I think he’s not feeling so well.”

“Doooesn’t maaatter,” boomed Zombie Mummy, resuming her game of mini badminton with Brummie Pigeon. “Yooou caaan beee piiiggy in the miiiddle.”

An alarm on Zombie Mummy’s mobile sounded to remind her that it was now 1pm and that Aunty Danielle would soon be coming to pick Amber up to go shopping at Brent Cross. The game had now been going on for half a day. This was evidenced by the family’s greasy hair, expanding sweat patches and rumbling stomachs.

“Mummy I’m hungry. I want some breakfuss.”

“Yow can ‘ave a lizard loike, can’t yow,” said Brummie Pigeon.

“I want some real food, not a-tend food! I want some real food like chewcumber samwidge with maymaise!” This was the first time that Amber had raised her voice since the game began.

But she needn’t have bothered. Aunty Danielle came to the door, knocked and went while Zombie Mummy and Brummie Pigeon played statues. Amber decided not to call out. Although her parents worried her, she could hardly ask for help. They were all playing a nice game after all. Later on, Jehovah’s Witnesses and employees of the local kebab shop dropped their literature through the door.

As the afternoon rolled on, the trio played games of movement, Amber listless, her parents remaining steadfastly in character, their stamina unlimited. They played musical chairs and musical statues and hide and seek and forty-forty-in and what’s the time Mr Wolf? and rock-paper-scissors and three-legged race and sack race and blind man’s buff and British bulldogs (although Amber had never heard of this one).

In the kitchen at what should have been teatime, there were new strands to the web of Mr Tickle stories. The newsreader, now a breezy, nerdy Welshman who looked like he’d be more at home presenting a Sunday morning religious programme, was talking about mass hysteria in West Yorkshire. Guests at the Mr Men event at Sowerby Bridge School had panicked for reasons unknown and evacuated the building. An ambulance had been called when the actor Lionel Swadlin suffered a suspected cardiac arrest. Others were reported to be in a state of shock. The image of a man dressed up as Mr Tickle dawdling next to paramedics in the school playground flickered across Grandpa’s colourless body.

There were more unheeded phone calls at around eight and ten. By 11.30, Amber was struggling to stay upright. The joints in her arms and legs throbbed from all the action. Whenever she was static for more than ten seconds, her eyelids clamped together and she started to nod off. Each time, though, she would be hustled back into the game by a peck of Brummie Pigeon’s beak or a heavy-handed tickle from Zombie Mummy.

At five to twelve, almost 24 hours into the charade, Zombie Mummy stopped passing the parcel and took a sip from the Mr Tickle glass. Brummie Pigeon did likewise. Zombie-Mummy thrust it under Amber’s nose. “Driiink?”

“No!”

“Whyyy nooot?”

“A-cause I hate Mr Tickle!”

“Bot way koind of loike him neeoow.”

“…This really has been a day of tragic news items all in some odd way related to the Mr Men character. Tom will be back later for an update…”

With her free hand, Zombie Mummy held on to Amber’s hair so she couldn’t escape. Brummie Pigeon’s beak closed around the little girl’s nose. Zombie Mummy swilled the water in the Mr Tickle glass around and around.

“No!” gasped Amber, tears gushing down her cheeks. “I don’t want a drink! I don’t!”

But the glass approached, Mr Tickle’s appalling grin slowly dominating Amber’s whole field of vision. She closed her soaking eyes, felt the hard rim of the glass bump against her teeth and the lukewarm liquid hurtle unwanted down her gullet.

Midnight.

“…And we have updates on those stories now…”

Amber lay face down on the carpet.

 

***

 

Two hours later, the TV in the kitchen was still on. The breezy Welshman was rounding up developments since midnight. “The American screenwriter Jordan Gila has released a statement through his lawyer stating that he suffered a one-off psychotic episode which he remembers nothing about. I now quote, ‘I have always been a totally law-abiding citizen who, until this moment of madness, has never so much as received a parking ticket. I simply do not know what came over me this morning when I caused such terror to the people I love the most in the world. I profoundly regret what I did.’”

In the living room, Amber and Mummy were curled up on the sofa asleep. They had both showered and changed into fresh clothes. All the toys had been cleared from the carpet into the toy box. Mummy’s phone went but she was so tired that she couldn’t answer it in time. “Sh- sugar, that was your Daddy.”

Amber joined the waking world. “It’s OK, he’ll call back. Yes he will.”

Mummy yawned a gaping chasm.

“Mummy, why were you and Daddy being so funny yesterday? You were being so funny. But it didn’t make me laugh, no, it made me unhappy.”

Mummy scratched her head. “I’m not too sure, darling. I don’t remember what happened.”

“…Other news: the actor Lionel Swadlin who suffered a heart attack at the Mr Men anniversary event is in a stable condition. Swadlin, 57, was rushed to Calderdale Royal Hospital in Halifax after complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath.”

Mummy’s phone went again and she slapped it against her ear. Her smile revealed all. Daddy reported that, contrary to his doctor’s advice, Grandpa was already up in bed, chatting to the nurses. Daddy was about to set off home.

“I was scared about you,” said Amber, snuggling into Mummy’s breasts. “I was scared of what might happen.”

Mummy glanced at the Mr Tickle glass, on its side in a pool of water. “Oh darling. It may have seemed scary but it turned out all right in the end didn’t it?”

“…The fire that started at the Head Office of Egmont Publishing UK early this morning has not claimed any lives, contrary to earlier speculations. The fire has done little damage to the Egmont building and did not spread to neighbouring businesses along Kensington High Street…

“We’re just hearing some truly great news: 7 year old Shona O’Neill who had been battling with spinal muscular atrophy has now come out of her coma. This happened at exactly 12 midnight and doctors say that she seems not to have suffered any mental or physical disabilities. From all of us in the newsroom, congratulations Shona. Perhaps you’ll be well enough for Mr Tickle to come and visit you like he promised.”

© Tom Sykes 2010

First published in Underground Voices, January 2010