Monday, 3 June 2013

Suicide Negotiator


     I once had a friend called Maurice. He wasn't exactly ugly. But he was no oil painting either, with his roadkill-squashed nose and birds-nest eyebrows.
     But my friend Maurice had a very special talent. A talent big enough for the police forces of three different counties to keep him in ample employment.
     Maurice was a suicide negotiator.
     Whenever someone climbed to the top of a building to throw themselves off, it was Maurice who was called to change their mind. He had a good head for heights and would sit beside them with what he called his "lunchbox".
     Now, I first met Maurice in a bar through a mutual friend one evening. I was so intrigued by the man that I turned up at his house two days later.
     I'd guessed right. He was a lonely guy and welcomed company. Within minutes we were happily chatting in his front room with cans of beer from the chilled six-pack I'd brought along. I was dying to know more about his unusual occupation and the even more unusual talent that made him so good at it.

     But it would have been bad manners to hurry him.
     I could immediately tell that he lived alone. No woman would have stood for his untidiness. Catching me glancing around he said, "my wife--Nancy--er, she died five years ago. I try my best. Still miss her like crazy."
     "Oh, I'm sorry, Maurice." There was a pause. "Um....five years is a fair while, though. You're an important guy. You earn good money. It's nice to have a woman in one's life."
     Maurice glanced at me and immediately I regretted my words. There was a flash of anger mixed with sharp pain in his eyes. "No one can take Nancy's place, d'you hear?" he grated. I looked down, kicking myself for my big mouth. Finally Maurice relaxed. "Besides, take a look at my face. How many women do you think would fancy waking up to find a gargoyle sleeping beside them?" I kept quiet, convinced I'd done enough harm for one night. "I do miss a woman though, you know?" Maurice went on into the silence.
     I nodded. "Yeah."
     We sipped  from our now lukewarm cans of beer. It was time to change the subject.
     "Maurice, I don't care what you say, but I find your line of work fascinating. What does it take? How do you do it? And that night at the bar, you mentioned some kind of lunchbox? Hey, what's with the lunchbox?"
     Maurice's eyes twinkled and suddenly he laughed, his little pot belly jiggling up and down with genuine merriment as he drained the last of his beer. I immediately opened another can for him.
     "Ah---thanks, John. It just sounded so funny, the way you said it. But, you know, it's deadly serious stuff---at least to the person I'm trying to convince not to take their own life........"
     Maurice reached sideways to a shelf and picked up what certainly looked every inch like an ordinary semi-transparent white plastic lunchbox. He opened it and pulled out a little screw-top cylinder. "It's only after I've talked to them for a few minutes---got them to relax a bit. That's when I open my lunch box. Here, have a whiff of this...."

     I took the little cylinder after he'd opened it and cautiously brought it up to my nose.
     "Wow! That's incredible, Maurice," I gasped.
     Maurice looked pleased. "A chemist friend of mine got it together. Good, isn't it."
     "It sure is. It's fantastic."
     What did I smell? The loveliest perfume in the world? The balmiest Caribbean sea breeze?
     No.
     It was the marvellous aroma of freshly baked bread. Absolutely one hundred percent authentic.
     "Well, they smell it the way you just did," Maurice went on, "and I say to them, listen, ain't that the best smell in the world? Wouldn't you like to live to taste freshly baked bread rolls again? You can't do that if you're dead, you know."
     "And what do they say?"
     Maurice pulled a face. "Nothing much. Not at first, anyway. And then I take this out."

  Maurice handed me a stunning full-colour 3-D picture of a school of dolphins playing in the sea. It was a great shot, full of movement and gay abandon. And the dolphins had the biggest smiles you have ever seen---or at least it looked that way! "See how happy they are," Maurice murmured. "You can be just as happy if you want. Just by going and watching them---and there are thousands of sights like this all over the world just waiting for you--- but how will you be able to see them if your eyes are closed for ever?"
     "They're lovely. Beautiful. I know this place called Ocean World that do dolphins, and......." I caught myself and grinned sheepishly.
     "See?" Maurice chuckled happily. "I'm getting you hooked already. And you're not even one of my suicides!"
     I was now fairly bursting with curiosity. "What else have they got in there, Maurice?" I wanted to know.
     "Listen to this." Maurice pulled out a tiny digital recorder and switched it on. I pressed it to my ear. At first all I heard was birdsong. All sorts. Totally enchanting. By the sound of it I guessed there must have been some really exotic tropical birds among them.
     And then I heard another sound.
     A tiny baby crying, far away in the distance. Insistently and plaintively.
      "Hear him?" whispered Maurice. "A newborn infant. And you d'know what he is saying? 'I'm here, folks. I didn't ask to be here, but here I am, and you've got to listen to me. I don't know what kind of life I'm going to have---how the dice are loaded. What will happen to me, good or bad. But out of millions of other souls it was me who was chosen. Get it? Me! I was selected for this brief gift of life, and let me tell you, I'm gonna make sure I enjoy it, one way or another, 'cos I just can't believe how lucky I was. So here I am, naked and cold, flailing my arms and legs about to grab your attention. To make you listen!' "
     It was more than just the words Maurice was saying. It was the way he was saying them. In a low, bass drone, full of intense emotion. Almost hypnotic. Sort of drew you in. Maurice leaned closer to me.
     "And that's you, John. That baby is you when you were born," he whispered.
     "You're right," I replied huskily. "That could be me."
     Despite myself I was moved. I swallowed the lump in my throat and gave a nervous sort of laugh. Either Maurice was a genius or he was completely nuts! But whichever one he was, he obviously knew how to make it work.
     "Is that it, then?" I mumbled in a daze. "Anything else?"
     "Oh, just one more thing, John. It's this......."
     Maurice pulled out the last object from his lunchbox. A tiny biscuit tin. He reached forward, took my hand, and poured out some pink crystals into my palm. "See, John? By this time they've got to trust me---most likely enough to let me take their hand. Okay, go on, then. Taste it."
     I did.
     What did the crystals taste of? The best gourmet meal in the world? The most sublime ice cream? No.

    None of that.
    It was strawberry popping candy.
    It took my breath away with the riot of sensation that exploded inside my mouth. I felt my head was about to hit the ceiling. I couldn't help it. I began giggling helplessly.
    "Maurice, you're completely out of your tree," I managed to get out. I really hadn't tasted popping candy since I was a little boy. And that stuff was really good. Electrifying!
    "There....you see?" said Maurice softly. "You'll never be able to taste anything as great as that again if you are dead with your mouth closed forever, now, will you?"
     A shiver went down my spine as I turned to look Maurice in the eye.
     "I have no intention of taking my own life, Maurice, wha.....?"
     I was doing it again!
     "Yup." Maurice's face relaxed into a triumphant smile. "It works, doesn't it!"
     I was impressed.
     The thing is, as I keep saying, it wasn't really what was in Maurice's lunchbox. It was the way he did the whole thing. His tone of voice, the way he said it, his body language. He just had this way with him. He made you believe every word.
     "Yes, Maurice. I now have absolutely no doubt that it works." I said. "But what does it matter what I think? You've proved it again and again, every time the cops call you out. You know, you're really something!"
     Maurice looked faintly embarrassed.
     "Ah---forget it." He waved a hand dismissively. "All this talking has made me thirsty. How about another beer?"
     I dropped by to see Maurice off and on. And he was always glad to see me. A very private and very lonely man. Cheering everyone up except himself. Performing miracles in getting people to believe in life again, but unable to do the same for himself. It was so sad. I so wanted him to be happy. He really needed a woman in his life---some guys can get by without one better than others. Maurice wasn't one of them. I knew this because it was easy to read between the lines when we chatted about stuff.
     It happened about a year later. One afternoon I got a call while I was at work. It was from a hospital in the next county.
     "We have Mr Maurice Nesbit asking for you. How soon can you come? I'm afraid he doesn't have long."
     Yes, that's the way they gave it to me. Right between the eyes!
     "What....what happened?"
     "He was talking a jumper off a window ledge." Yes, apparently 'jumper' was what they called them. "Something went wrong. The guy jumped, but suddenly changed his mind and grabbed hold of Mr Nesbit. They both went down. Jumper's dead. Not much hope for Mr Nesbit either. Sorry to break it to you like this." There was a pause while I absorbed all this. "Can you come or not?" This time the voice sounded irritable.
     "Of course I'll come. As fast as I can."
     Five minutes later I was doing everything I could not to break the speed limits down the highways and freeways in my haste to get to the hospital where Maurice lay dying.
     Maurice had the usual tubes and wires entering him this way and that. He opened his eyes at the sound of my voice.
     "John---you've come," he mumbled. "Didn't know who else would come. Never made many friends. Seemed to kinda spook them, what I do. But you were different....."
     "Maurice, you're going to be fine. You need to get out of this, my friend. Use the same techniques you're so good at, but this time on yourself. You want to live, I know it."
     This was crazy. Here I was trying to get Maurice to do what he'd tried to get all those would-be suicides to do.
     "Do I? I don't know, John. It's tough living all alone in this world. I wanted to see you. I enjoyed your being there. But there is this thing going drip-drip-drip inside me and I know I'm hurt real bad---and I was only really hanging on for you to get here....."
     He was slurring his words now. I felt tears pricking my eyes.
     "Maurice....Maurice?"
     "I'm still here, John. Because I need something. One last thing. I hadn't the courage myself. But now you're here I think it can be managed....that is, if you can help."
     He glanced across to where the nurse was standing at the far end of the intensive care room. She was gazing out of the window, not really listening, trying to give us some privacy. I leaned closer to listen to hear Maurice's words. He was getting fainter by the second.
    When I heard what he had to say I shook my head in wonder, and yes, I couldn't help a smile tugging at the stiff muscles in my face.
     I went over to the nurse and repeated what Maurice had said. Her eyes sparked into life and one hand flew to face. "Of course. No problem." She nodded vigorously.
     She walked briskly over to Maurice. "Why didn't you say so? All you had to do was ask," she chided him gently.
     Reaching to his face, with infinite tenderness the nurse smoothed the shock of grey hair away from his brow. Slowly she massaged his temples with her fingertips, then let the back of her hand sort of trail down the side of his face. I couldn't believe it. Maurice looked at least ten years younger. An instant transformation.
     "Gee, thanks, nurse," he got out in a slightly stronger voice. "You can keep my lunchbox, John. It's yours now. But let me tell you, there's nothing quite like the touch of a woman. Nothing to beat it in this whole wide world......and now I can take it with me, see....."
     Looking supremely at peace with himself and everyone else in general, Maurice closed his eyes and was gone.




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Saturday, 4 May 2013

Twist in the tale

   The Perils Of Long Distance Love


    It happened a couple of years ago. Her name was Mandy. A pale, wisp of a girl hiding behind a thick fringe of mousy hair and heavy-duty glasses. Shy, awkward and withdrawn, she slipped in like a wraith, hardly ever looked up from her computer screen, munched a sandwich from a white plastic box at lunchtime, and slipped out when it was time to go home. Of course, she would talk if you spoke to her---that is, after she'd jumped a foot into the air. So after a while no one took much notice of her any more. No one bothered.
    And then one day it all changed.
    Actually the change had been happening gradually, only it hadn't registered in anyone's consciousness. And then it did. Because the creature that Mandy had become could not be ignored any more; the heavy glasses were gone to reveal eyes with the silvery blue sparkle of a mountain stream. The hair now cascaded in glossy chestnut waves around her shoulders. The pert lips had just the right amount of lip gloss........but all that was nothing compared to the real difference in Mandy.
    This was something from deep within, as if a light had been turned on inside. Mandy was vibrant and sparky with the sheer joy of being alive.
    In short, Mandy was beautiful.
    Everyone was stunned. No one had ever seen such a metamorphosis before--- a multihued butterfly, calm and confident of its glorious presence among lesser beings. Everyone was bewitched---especially us guys. But we were to be disappointed.
    "His name is Mark," said Mandy. "We met at the bus stop. He's the best, he is really something else," she enthused. "Of course we've got to be sensible. We mustn't rush things. It's important that we take the time to get to know each other properly. If you try to fast track a relationship, it will fail. Happens all the time," she finished with a superior air. But we didn't mind. This was Mandy's time. Even some of the more envious girls were forced to concede that it was time she had some fun. Because Mandy was a nice person. Always had been, now that they thought about it.
    Every day Mandy prattled on and on about Mark. We glanced at each other and smiled. She was in love. Utterly and completely. Good for her! Just look at the change. Just look!
    And every day she floated among us, speaking in this quietly excited voice, and all of us were happy to behold this radiant girl who made our own day a little brighter.
    So it wasn't too difficult to notice when everything wasn't quite the way it should have been.
    A slight tension in the air, the lightest of frown lines on Mandy's brow. We feared the worst, and nodded wisely. Haven't all good things a nasty habit of coming to an end? Wasn't it all just a matter of time?
    But no. Mandy and Mark were still together. Only now she had a framed photograph of him. On her desk, just a glance away from her computer screen. So she had no choice but to fill us in on that aspect of Mark which she had been reluctant to mention all along.
    Oh yes, Mark was a handsome, dashing figure of a young man, fresh-faced and so elegant even when standing quite stiff and straight in his brown soldier's uniform. "It's been my worst fear. And now it's happened," moaned Mandy. "He's been posted to Afghanistan. What's really worrying is that he'll be going to the Helmand province. One of the worst places to be, so I've heard. Terrible things happen there." Mandy's lips quivered. I noticed that her eyes had become dark-circled and haunted.
    We all made the usual reassuring noises.
    What else could we do? On the other hand if Mark had chosen to be a soldier, then he had to be ready to man up and take his chances when the time came. Duty is duty. I was careful not to say this out loud, though.
    But Mandy was tough, as are most people who are in love for the first time in their lives. It was true that most of her effervescent cheer had gone, but that deep down contentment was still visible. She was going to pull through this difficult time. Mark would be fine. Yes, it wasn't going to be easy, this long and agonizing wait. But it would be over one day. And then he would be back home again and they could go on making those wonderful plans for the future. All those plans that had been so cruelly cut short by his departure.
    And, sure enough, the days went by and there were only two weeks left to go of Mark's tour of duty.
    It happened around 11am one morning, as I remember. A day just like any other day, as the words of the song go. We were having a coffee downstairs, when some of us glanced up. A cell phone had started ringing. It was Mandy's, and she was standing right at the top of a long flight of stairs, about to take her first step to come down and join us in our mid-morning coffee break.
    Mandy had the 'phone out in one fluid movement, faster than you have ever seen any cowboy draw in a Wild West movie.
    "Hello?" she said.
    And then her face went blank, the way a creased shirt does when you pass a hot iron over it. She swayed, clutching the banister, her eyes rolled up, her mouth opened in a soundless scream. And she crumpled, her knees bending, pitching her forwards. A sickening 'thunk' and Mandy began rolling down the rock-hard flight of stairs, banging on each step, arms and legs flying like a demented puppet, even as we ran up to stop her.
    It was a very long flight of stairs. She was way up, and we were way down below. Somebody called an ambulance. Mandy's eyes were closed. Limp, lifeless limbs jutted out at unusual angles. We thought she was dead, but they revived her in the ambulance. And at the hospital she went straight into intensive care.
    None of us were fit for any more work that day. We were too badly shaken and were sent home.
    It wasn't until the next afternoon that we heard the news.
    And the news we had went like this;
Mandy had concussion, a fractured skull, several broken bones, bruises and ruptures. She would need at least three months in hospital and a series of operations to recover fully. But recover she would. Everyone was certain. Why? Because she had every reason to want to recover, that's why.
    The voice on her cell phone had been that of Major Calhoun, Mark's commanding officer in Afghanistan. Mandy had recognised him instantly, and collapsed, certain that the worst had happened. The shock had been too great, her nightmare suddenly a living, breathing, evil thing as it clutched her in its cold embrace. 
     Sure, Major Calhoun had been calling from base camp in Helmand province in Afghanistan, and yes, it was about Mark. He had taken a gunshot wound and was being flown back home that evening. He was out of danger but would need one month in hospital---compared to Mandy's three.
    Someone joked that it seemed you could get hurt worse just staying at home than you would ever get being sent to old Helmand. No one laughed.
    Well, there they lay, by special arrangement, side by side in their hospital beds in the same room. Bruised and battered young lovers, holding hands across the bed sheets and taking up from where they had left off planning their future together, surrounded by the big bunches of flowers we had brought in. "So romantic!" whispered one of the nurses.
    After all, it has been said that the path of true love never runs easy.
    Anyway, all the likes of me can do is to raise a glass and say, "here's to you, Mandy and Mark. May you live to be a hundred!"





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Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Reluctant Voyager


The Reluctant Voyager


     I switched off the engine and gazed through the windscreen. The grass in the park was so green that it hurt my eyes. The old oak trees, branches bowed low, had trunks of melting brown chocolate. I felt a huge longing to go up to the man walking his dog. To join in the carefree frolic as he let his pet off the leash and it went scampering about, sniffing everything, remembering the smells as if they would be gone tomorrow.
     But I had a voyage to make. The hardest one of my life.
     I looked in my rear-view mirror. The angular concrete and glass hospital was a brooding monster, awaiting me with its busily-chewing mouth of revolving-doors. My hand shook as I locked the car. I tried to swallow past a tongue that felt thick, hot, and dry, as if my head had already entered a crematorium furnace.
     And the worst bit, of course, was being alone. But I hadn't wanted anyone to come with me. It was one of those occasions which a man needs to attend on his own.
     In Reception a wild, swinging party was going on, tempting me to stay awhile. But I knew I had to keep moving, and I knew where to go.
     My footsteps echoed along shiny corridors. I looked up. A hazy fluorescence from the overhead lights spun angelic halos around faces from my past. Some comfort, then, in this promise of an afterlife.
     Then I froze, wide-eyed and still. Two snaggle-toothed demons had just scuttled sideways around a corner with a whispery chuckle. Pale figures passed by like ghosts, satisfied with my credentials for entry to their world, glancing at me---then glancing away in tacit acceptance.
     There was a long queue outside hell. I awaited my turn patiently. My mind had gone blank. I wouldn't think. I couldn't. When I got to the top of the queue I watched the nurse's lips move but could hear no sound. And then she pointed to where the others waited, sitting in chairs. I walked over like a zombie and sat down, going semi-catatonic, staring down at the threadbare, tea-stained carpeting.

     It was a three hour wait. More than long enough to go to hell and back.
     Rocking slowly, to and fro, and then a gentle hand on my shoulder.
     "Er..... Mr Smith?"
     I got up stiffly, and made my way to the curtained cubicle, suddenly eager to see the tele-transporter that would whisk me away to unimaginable worlds. I even managed a tight, grim smile. But the nurses were used to it.

    Then a face I recognised. Alicia!
    Our eyes met. Nothing. My knees turned to jelly. I slumped down heavily in the chair opposite her desk and she looked up in alarm from her notes.
     "I----I'm all right," I muttered.
     Nurse Alicia's face thawed into a smile. "Of course you are, John. Your tests were fine. The cancer hasn't spread. Once we remove that awful polyp from your bowel your troubles will be over. You're booked in a week from today......."
     I staggered out. A drab and normal hospital corridor greeted me. The party in Reception was suddenly over, and now there was only the monotonous bustle of people coming and going. The scuttling demons had turned into cast-off plastic shopping bags. Outside, the grass was its usual semi-yellow colour, the bark on the oak trees chipped and faded. But I just stood there, feeling all the strength of the world flowing through me, inhaling lungfuls of diesel-tainted air that to me were as intoxicatingly sweet as if fresh off the powdery slopes of some alpine resort.
     Yes, my heightened sense of awareness had vanished, but I didn't care. It just felt so darn good to be alive!





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                                  Look Out...Mum's Gone Crackers (Kindle and paperback editions)  (click)                                                   

                                       Hunting The Beast (Kindle and paperback editions)  (click)
                                               

                                       May Never The Dead Return (Kindle and paperback editions)  (click)                                                     

                                       Running With Zombies (Kindle and paperback editions)  (click)                                                                               

                                 Wacky Stories For Grown Up Kids (Kindle and paperback editions) (click)

                                               

                                       An Unlawful Act In Libya (Kindle and paperback editions) (click)
                                    

                                            A Layman's Guide To The Meaning Of Life And Death (click)   
Welcome to my website (click)