</p> Last week Ron and Maggie on the card stall turned it in, they are well-passed retirement age and there was no way that that van was ever going to get through the MOT but they will be missed.
They left a load of boxes of old cards behind and when at the end of the day I saw Laurence the towels picking them up and putting them on his van I thought ‘What does he want with a load of old greeting cards that didn’t sell?’
It was three days later when I was talking to Ken the socks that I found out why he wanted them.
He had taken the boxes of cards down to Charlton Street and when Ken wasn’t looking he had individually hidden the cards throughout all of Ken’s stock, it’s going to take him weeks to find them all.
This week Laurence got a note through from the post office. Someone had sent him a letter but hadn’t put a stamp on it so he had to go down and collect it.
Laurence drove down to the town centre, paid to park and walked to the reclamation part of the post office where an employee showed him an envelope with his name and address on it and told him that he had to decide on whether or not to pay the two pound that it costs to claim it.
He said to the guy behind the window “I’m curious, let me have it”.
He opened the envelope to find a familiar card inside. It was from Ken. I won’t tell you what was written in it but suffice to say it was a one-word message beginning with a W.
Laurence was not amused. We all thought it was hilarious.
That’s this week’s report from Pete the Market Trader. The man on the street. Literally
This week’s smartest punter award goes to the lady buying perfumes from ‘Holistic Stan’.
Now as market traders we have a thing about discount. I know that you all think that you are expected to ask for discount because you are on a market but you are not in Marrakesh now. If something is up for a pound just pay the pound and be happy and three items does not constitute a bulk buy. Having said that if you are spending good money feel free to kick us.
Stan’s customer spent good money. She spent ninety-seven quid and Stan said:
“Darling, if you spend over a hundred pound you get ten percent off”.
“I’ve got all I need!” replied the lady, indignant at his attempt to sell her more perfume.
“But Darling” said Stan “If you buy one more it works out cheaper”.
“I don’t want to spend the extra three pound” she said and walked off.
You can’t help some people.
That’s this week’s report from Pete the Market Trader. The man in the street. Literally.
He pulled back and forth on the undercarriage reloading his pump action shotgun, the well-oiled mechanism worked perfectly making a satisfying ‘chunk, chunk’ sound as it travelled. He let blast as he walked slowly backwards, edging his way towards the bunker entrance. The buckshot tore the approaching, encroaching hoard of mutant being’s limb from limb. He reloaded again ejecting plastic shell cases from the side of the gun. The fell away and gently bounced onto the floor, joining their scattered comrades like confetti at a wedding. Suddenly from the shadows on the left, a lone figure jumped at him from behind a wooden packing crate. The creature was upon him. Too close for the head shot necessary to guarantee its incapacitation. Instead Michael rammed the butt of his gun into the creatures gaping jaws. As the stink or rotting flesh almost overpowering him he pushed forward on the muzzle forcing the creatures head to collide with the solid brick wall behind it. The force of the collision caused the creature’s skull to start to crack. Again and again he pounded until the creature’s head exploded like an egg chucked hard against a wall.
Michael turned back again towards the alleyway. The diversion caused by the wayward miscreant had cost him valuable seconds and the oncoming creatures were now drawing dangerously close. Once again he squeezed the trigger and the well-balanced shotgun sent off another devastating blast, relieving the oncoming band of their skin and bone.
He turned towards the bunker door and jammed his electronic key card into its reading slot, all the time praying that it wouldn’t glitch. The panel to the side of the slot beeped and as the light turned green the metal outer door of the gatehouse opened on its hydraulic pistons. He threw himself forward into the small metallic chamber, slapping the red button on the wall with the flat of his hand as he did so. Just as the door came within inches of closing, one of the creatures jammed its body in the breach it’s long bony arms reaching out for Michael. The creatures sharp tainted yellow fingernails clawed the air a hairs breath from his face. Michael raised the shotgun one last time and let rip, scattering the emaciated creature like feathers in the wind. The door closed with an echoing thud and Michael breathed a sigh of relief.
Michael pushed another button on the wall and the internal bunker door hissed open. He made his way through the murky, red-lit room past assemblies of soldiers all huddled together around small wooden tables, drinking whisky, smoking cigarettes and playing cards. He strolled purposely past them and made his way to towards the centre of the room. As he neared his objective, with a single motion he let his right arm slip out of the strap of his oversized rucksack grabbing the left strap with both hands and with a swing of his hips, he dumped his cargo on the large wooden table in front of him. The resulting impact caused the top of the bag to fall open, sending tins rolling across the table top. Feeling considerably lighter Michael made his way to the gun rack on the wall and after storing away his firearm he thought to himself ‘That’s enough for today’.
Back to normal life again. Michael stood in the front room of his three-bedroom semi-detached house in Watford. On the table in front of him sat the wireless VR helmet and its matching luminous wands. Michael thought about how far technology had come, how real it all now seemed, it was as though you were actually there. It was seven o’clock on a Sunday morning. He always had been an early riser, an occupational hazard of being a milkman, your brain wakes up at the same time, even on your day off. Soon the whole Sunday routine would start all over again. He shuffled over towards the kitchen, stopping briefly to pick up the white bits of cotton that his trainer socks had shed over the navy blue ‘quality twist’ carpet. Michael was always dubious over any product that had to tell you that it was ‘quality’ in its description. You never bought a ‘quality’ Mercedes or a ‘quality’ Rolex, you just bought a Mercedes or a Rolex. He walked into the kitchen, flipped the lid of the two-tone plastic bin and flicked the stray white cotton strands into the already overflowing bin bag before liberating the white plastic kettle from its base and filling it to the brim ready for the onslaught. Perhaps, if he was lucky, he might even get a quick coffee in peace in front of yesterday’s football highlights before the bedlam. Alas, the sound of two small children charging downstairs said otherwise.
“Morning kids” said Michael, trying to sound enthusiastic but actually sounding bored.
“Charlottes got my Ben Ten watchtip toes” said Jack, oblivious to the need for a reciprocal response.
“Have not” said Charlotte matching Jack’s neglect. “Why would I want your stinking Ben Ten watch”.
“Give it back Charlotte” said her Dad.
“But I haven’t got it” Charlotte lied. It was the same routine every time. In twenty minutes or so the watch would turn up somewhere in the house and Charlotte would claim that Jack must have left it there.
“Okay” sighed Michael. “Tea?”
By the time Michaels wife Karen entered the kitchen the three of them were ensconced around the round pine table. Michael with toast and the kids with cereal, one chocolate based, one not. She walked over to the bread crumb covered worktop and as she raised hertiptoes to reach for the box of Special K from the top cupboard Michael thought about how lovely she still was.
“Don’t forget Jack’s got football training this morning” said Karen.
Michael loved her just a little bit less.
Michael threw Jack’s kit in the back of his estate car as Jack sat in the front fumbling with his seat belt. Michael got in the front of the car did up his seat belt, started the car and was about to reverse his silver Vauxhall estate out into the close when he finally gave up, undid his seat belt so that he could help Jack with his. Honestly if you can’t do up a seat belt what chance have you got at kicking a ball?
As they pulled out of the close Michael hit play on the cars CD player. It was the same CD they always played: ‘Dad Rocks’, a triple CD box set that the kids had bought him for Fathers day the previous year. He wasn’t exactly sure at what point he had given up on new music. When he was young he had vowed that he would never get old and that he would always listen to Radio One but that was just the naivety of youth. There comes a time when it’s just noise. Like that time that he told himself that he was going to lose weight by drinking black coffee. People would ask him if he would like a coffee and his mouth said “Yes please” but his head said “No, not unless you douse it with milk and sugar”. No, he was now firmly stuck in the musical past. He’d even caught himself saying “They don’t write songs like they used to”. The eighteen-year-old inside of him had put its head in its hands and cried.
Heavily overdriven guitar erupted from the speakers. Simultaneously Michael and Jack glanced at each other and smiled before they both turned their heads back toward the dashboard and started to nod vigorously in a ‘Wayne’s World’ style. One bar into the song and David Coverdale’s ‘Ah yeah’ was occluded by Jake and Michael’s overdubbed karaoke version. It sounded less like harmonious hard rock and more like a squabble of wailing seagulls slowly being stoned to death but they didn’t care, they liked it that way. In all fairness Jake liked anything that allowed him to make excessive noise without being told to ‘be quiet’. As they reached the dual carriage way Michael even lowered the car windows in a ‘free rock rebel style’. It didn’t really have the desired effect because a) they both had short cropped haircuts so there weren’t exactly any flowing locks to be blasted about and b) it was cold. He left the windows down for about thirty seconds, so as not to lose face with his son and then wound them both up again.
At the end of the dual carriageway Michael slowed and turned the large black plastic steering wheel manoeuvring the car into narrow pea shingle track that then widened to become the car park of Jake’s football club. He pulled up and jumped out to get Jake’s kit from the estate’s copious boot, leaving Jake in the front to battle with his seat belt.
“Zombie Killer!” came a familiar shout from the edge of the field.
“That’s for you” replied Michael, his forefinger held proudly aloft.
He really should have known better than to tell the lads about his new purchase but you know when you’re really excited about something you just can’t keep it in: “It’s so real, you actually feel like you are there. If you look up, you can see the detail on the ceiling”. They listened intently from behind rye smiles, taking it all in, giving him more than enough rope with which to hang himself. His previous nick names had been ‘milkman Mick’ or ‘milky, milky’, innocuous and with a serious lack of imagination but since the revelation that he had brought one of those new expensive virtual reality gaming head-sets those handles had gone straight out of the window. In all honesty it was a bit sad. He was a thirty-seven-year-old man who had spent the best part of four hundred quid on a piece of gaming hardware aimed at a sixteen-year-old. The thing was Mick liked video games. He always had had, ever since he was a kid and you don’t suddenly stop like something because you are considered too old for it, some things you grow out of, some you don’t. And in his defence he worked hard, he didn’t drink excessively, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t gamble, he didn’t womanise and he didn’t let the thing take over his life. He would play it early on a Sunday morning while the rest of the family were still sleeping. No, he wasn’t even fooling himself, it was still sad.
“How many did you kill this morning Mick?”
“No seriously” sniggered one of the other dad’s “I hear the level three ones are really hard to kill”
“Fuck off” repeated Mick. “and the level three ones are easy, they don’t get difficult until level five”.
“Oooh, level five” the other dad’s replied in unison.
“Fuck off” said Mick and that ended that conversation.
The best thing about Sunday morning kids football was the Bovril. He never thought to make it when he was at home but there was something about going to football that always made him think of Bovril. He always stuck too much pepper in so that he first mouthful made him cough but that was the way that his grandma used to make it and to change the recipe seemed like an insult to her memory and so he stuck with it. He would have liked to have said that the best thing about Sunday morning football was his son’s prowess of the field but let’s face it, the boy was fucking useless. They put him in defence because it was the position in which he would do the least damage. The Sunday morning football games would fit into two different categories, the ones where his boys team got smashed eighteen-nil by the opposing side of Roy of the Rovers prodigies and ones where twenty-two young lads ran around a field for ninety minutes and it was difficult to work out whether they were playing football or tag. This Sundays game was one of the later. At least it was nearly over now and a nil-nil draw was better than another trouncing and at least the Bovril was good. That’s when it happened.
Almost all of the kids on the field were in his sons defending end. The attacking sides players all desperate to be the one that scored the winning goal and his son’s sides players desperate to avoid yet another humiliating defeat. A striker for the opposing side belted the ball in the rough direction of the goal, totally ignoring the defender standing in front of him and the ball ricocheted off of the defenders back and over the heads of the huddle landing just outside at Jake’s feet. It took Jake just a split second to realise that all that stood between him and the opposing goal was the goalie (who was a big chap), a defender (who was standing on the side lines talking to his dad) and fifty yards of field. It took the rest of the huddle a split second more to realise exactly the same thing. The race was on. Jake wasn’t the best footballer in the world but he could run and he had a sufficient enough head start on the rest of the mob. He fired the ball forward and started hot on its heels as the rest of the players jostled to get clear of the group. By now the Dad on the side-lines and the opposing teams coach had cottoned on to what was happening and were screaming at the defender to “Stop him!” But the defender was on the right of the field and Jake was on the left, there was no way that he would catch him in time. Jake raced the entire length of the field, his little legs moving like an electric whisk. He made it to the box ahead of all the other players. All that stood in his way now was the opposing teams goalie.
The goalie was a large gangly lad, one of the oldest players on the field to Jake’s youngest. He came off his line and moved towards Jake, each of his limbs seemed to move contrary to the rest of his body as though he were constructed from loosely built Meccano. As his imposing spiderlike frame was about to take prey on Jake’s meagre figure one of the gangly limbs contacted with a patch of wet mud causing the goalie sliding straight past Jake as though he had just boarded a water slide. Jake faced an open goal.
Michael watched, unable to speak, unable to blink, unable to breathe. It was as though someone had put pufferfish venom in his Bovril. His son kicked the ball as hard as he could Michael watched helplessly as the ball shot straight up into the air like a rocket bound for orbit but then, just as his heart was about to sink into his shoes, the ball swerved. It didn’t swerve a lot but it was just enough for it to connect with the cross bar. I dropped to the floor, bounced a couple of times and then slowly meandered over the goal line. Okay it wasn’t the back of the net missile that Jake had been hoping for but it was still a goal. The noise that came out of Michaels mouth seemed to start somewhere far away, like the sound of a jet engine warming up until finally with more than sufficient gusto Michael screamed “Yeeeeessssssssssssssssssss”. He was still screaming as the final whistle blew.
“There you go Zombie Killer” said one of the dads’s in the pub afterwards, handing him a pint. “Your boys a fucking hero” he added.
Michael was so proud of his son he could have cried. He finished the pint with the lads and then went into the garden to retrieve his son from the bouncy castle upon which he and his mates were busy recreating Jake’s winning goal. Jake waved frantically to his friends as they exited the garden and walked into the car park within which the estate car was safely ensconced. He helped his son with the seat belt (after his latest achievement he deserved to be treated like a prince) and pulled the car onto the main road. Only then did Michael flick the CD forward to track thirteen and the singer sang the opening line: “I’ve paid my dues. Time after time”. Jake and his dad sang the same song on a loop all of the way home.
As Michael manoeuvred the large silver estate into the close, still hoarse from singing at the top of his voice for the last ten minutes, he noticed a familiar black BMW parked on the driveway. This meant only one thing, the in-laws were in. The sign of their car evoked mixed responses in Michael, on the one hand he was really looking forward to a relaxing afternoon with just the family, on the other he knew that they would be overjoyed at the news of Jake’s winning goal. On balance he decided that them being there was definitely a good thing.
Michael and Jake entered the house to yet another Queen rendition. As soon as the front door was fully open Jake ran the length of the hallway straight into the kitchen where his mum and his nan were overseeing the Sunday roast over the top of a large glass of white wine each.
“Mum, Nan I scored the winning goal”.
On hearing the news Jake’s grandad came hobbling in from the front room where he had been happily watching the motor racing. The whole kitchen erupted into jubilation and Jake was rewarded with the same amount of praise as a premier league footballer who had just scored the winning goal in the world cup. Praise from the whole family, except of course his sister who was convinced that the whole thing must have been a giant fluke.
Michael grabbed a beer from the fridge and went in to join his father-in-law in the front room where he had returned to watch the end of the motor racing. As he sat on the sofa he noticed that his VR helmet had been carefully tidied away behind the telly, out of view. He was in no doubt that the reason that his wife had done this was because she knew that the sight of the thing was likely to make her dad angry. Karen’s dad was an old-fashioned man. He could repair things. He knew how an engine worked. He was always smartly dressed. He was of the opinion that: ‘Grown men don’t play games’. Michael got on well with both of his in-laws but I think there is always a nagging doubt that perhaps they thought that their daughter could have done somewhat better than a milk man. Having said that Michael and his wife were still happily married and they had two wonderful children which was more than he could say for about ninety percent of his old school friends who by now were either divorced or who hadn’t even started.
“Who’s winning?” Enquired Michael.
“Hamilton” replied Sam, his father-inn-law.
“Who does he race for now?” Michael extended his line of questioning.
“Mercedes?” came another one-word answer.
“How are they doing this season?” Michael continued to feign interest.
Sam didn’t answer, he looked sideways at Michael, held his gaze for a couple of seconds and looked back to the telly. Michael took a swig of his beer and did the same.
There was a brief break before dinner when the grandparents were playing with the kids in the garden and Michael took the opportunity to go into the kitchen to see how his wife was getting on. She was on the phone to her sister.
“Look Jo” she said “I’ll call you tomorrow, Michaels just walked in and I haven’t seen him all day. Bye, bye bye bye, bye”.
“You’re mum and dad are coming to dinner then?” said Michael.
“We haven’t seen them for ages and I didn’t think that you would mind”.
“I don’t, I love seeing your father, I especially look forward to our long chats”. Karen started to laugh. Michael put on his dad type voice.
“Well Michael it’s really good to see you, I’m especially looking forward to you explaining to me how this new Virgil Reality helmet works”.
Karen laughed more and said.
“Virgil Reality, wasn’t he in Thunderbirds? And that sounds nothing like my father, your impressions are shit”.
“You see Michael” he continued with what was actually a piss poor impression “Hamilton drives for Mercedes and only a complete fuckwit doesn’t know that”.
“Stop it” said Karen, by now laughing uncontrollably and slightly choking on a swig of white wine.
“You alright?” said Karen’s mum Shelia walking in from the garden.
“Wrong hole” replied Karen. Usually Michael would have made a weak innuendo at this point but bearing in mind the presence of Karen’s mum who was shortly followed by her father he wisely decided against it.
“Go on thorough to the dining room, me and Michael will start bringing the dinner in” said Karen.
“Let me help” said Shelia.
“Mum! Just go and sit down, we can manage”.
“Alright then” Shelia replied. It was the same routine every time but it was nice of her to ask. Shelia went through to join Sam and the kids in the dining room.
“By the way” Karen said with a smile “Mum and dad are going to take the kids tonight.
Michael smiled back.
The dinner went well. Karen’s dad had a couple of beers and started talking about when he was Jake’s age and what Sunday league was like back in the day which bought forward a tirade of Monty Python style “When I were a lad I used to get up six hours before I went to bed, you don’t know your born” quotes and fast show style “Jumper for goal posts, isn’t it?” comments from the rest of the family, which Sam took in the good natured way in which they were intended. Then when dinner was finished Jake regaled the captive audience with his new, largely un-practiced magic tricks from the set he got for his birthday and Charlotte showed off the new dance steps that she had learned at ballet.
The evening was all over around seven o’clock and Michael and Karen helped Karen’s mum and dad decant the children and all of their various bags containing clothes, teddy’s and iPads into the black behemoth that was Sam’s car. They waved as the car turned out of the close and then they both turned at went back into the family home, shutting the door with a sense of happiness at a day well spent and the prospect, all be it brief, of their new found freedom.
Karen yawned, stretched and said
“You know what, I’m tired, I think I’ll have an early night”.
Normally Michael would be in bed long before her on account of his early morning’s at the dairy. Karen would stay up and watch films till the early hours of the morning and by the time she came to bed he was always asleep and so it was rare that they would both go to bed at the same time.
“I’m just going to tidy up a bit and I’ll be up” Michael said.
“Don’t be too long” replied Karen with a glance over her left shoulder.
He watched her slender form as it swayed gently from side to side moving towards the uppers stairs landing. He was still watching as she turned the corner out of sight. He knew full well that he would not be following her. That was a bridge too far. Instead he turned and walked back into the living room. As he stood in the centre of the room he caught site of the VR helmet behind the television and a strange irony took him. That was what he used to do for fun, for a release from his everyday life, back in the day. Michael hit the button on the side of the helmet he was currently wearing and with a hiss the visor elevated exposing his eyes to the red light of the dimly lit bunker. As his eyes became accustomed to the light he saw the familiar sight of his comrades drinking and gambling. He took his helmet off and held it face up in the palms of his hands. Michael thought about how far technology had come, how real it all now seemed, it was as though you were actually there. Why did he keep doing it to himself? Going back to the time before the war. A time before the bombs came flying, full of the virus’s that turned his friends into monsters. The bombs that took his children, that took his beautiful wife. He laughed at the thought that he used to consider his life so boring in mundane that he would escape into a world where he was a ‘zombie killer’ and now that was his real world he would give anything to go back to his old life again. He laughed but there was no joy in his laughter, only pain. Michael went over to the gun rack and liberated his trusty shotgun from its housing. He checked the digital counter on the side. One shot left. That was fine. One shot was all he would need.