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I don't know about you (well, obviously I don't, I'm not even sure who you are) but Amazon and their associates have the happy ...

Monday, 24 December 2012

The King Thing

Bit of a first draft this!  Still, it's timely:

It had been a long and arduous journey.  Long, because any journey, when you're not really sure where you're going, is bound to be perceived as long.  Arduous because they were travelling on camels, and there is nothing more arduous than a camel, especially when you are not really used to camels…or travelling for that matter.  But now, they dared to hope that their journey was almost completed.  The star that they had been 'following', hung brightly before them and seemed to indicate, as far as a star could indicate anything, that the location they were searching for was just below them.

From the rear of the party, there came a timeless and familiar cry.

"Are we there yet?"

"No, we are not, Melchior, and that is the three hundred and fourteenth time you have asked me that since we set out" Balthazar fumed.

"Alright, alright, keep your crown on dear, just asking" Melchior muttered.

"There's some men walking on the road ahead" Caspar pointed out, "perhaps they might know where we can find him?"

"Ah yes, honest shepherds" Balthazar noted with satisfaction, "just the chaps to have the local knowledge we're looking for.  Leave this to me."  As his camel drew level with the shepherds, he drew himself up to his full height and leaned forward (which is not easy to do on a camel).  Adopting his best 'talking to foreign peasants' accent, he thundered "LO!"

The first shepherd jumped a couple of feet in the air, and the second quickly hid behind him.  Rapidly recovering his composure, the first shepherd looked up at the richly dressed man looming above him, crown sparkling in the starlight.  He looked back at his companion, jerking his head in the direction of the king, in the time-honoured fashion that has meant "We've got a right one here" down the ages.

"Of course we're 'low' to you, comrade, sitting up there, lording it over us on your camel, whilst we honest artisans are down here with the sheep"

"What did he say?" asked Melchior

"Something about lard, sheep… and I think he's called Honest Artie Sans" Caspar hazarded a guess based on his limited knowledge of foreign tongues.

"Ah, a bookmaker!" Melchior noted with satisfaction, "See what odds he's offering on the sex of the baby will you Balthy?"

Balthazar, whose knowledge of the local language was somewhat better than his compatriots, ignored their babble and bent to his task.

"WE SEARCH FOR A KING" He bellowed

"W..W..What did he say?" asked the second shepherd.  The whole unsettling experience had brought back his childhood stutter.

"He said they're searching for aching" the first shepherd said with an air of authority

"Sh..Sh..Sh" The first shepherd waited for his companion to finish with a degree of trepidation, "Shouldn't think they would need to search far, on the back of those things" the second shepherd noted, finally, "I doubt they'll be able to sit down for a fortnight"

"What do you want from us?" the first shepherd reasonably asked

"WE NEED TO KNOW, oh the hell with this, I'll come down"  Balthazar gave a shouted command to his camel, which duly ignored him, but Melchior's promptly sank to its knees, depositing him unceremoniously on the ground.

"You git, Balthazar!" He yelled as he dusted the sand from his raiment, "that's the third time you've played that trick"

"Sorry about that, old chap" Balthazar apologised, "it's just a matter of getting the inflection right."  He tried again, and this time his camel sank to its knees.  Regrettably, Melchior's simultaneously sprang up, just as he was about to remount, causing him to tumble backwards onto a pile of sheep droppings.

"Now then, as I was saying" Balthazar said to the first shepherd "we are searching for a child"

"We?  How many are you?" the first shepherd asked.  He had been trying to work this out since their first encounter.  Each time he looked, it seemed as if there were a different number of camels and riders.  Sometimes more, sometimes less.

"Ah, that is indefinite" Balthazar said enigmatically

"Indefinite?  What do you mean, 'indefinite'?  You must know how many there are of you?"

"Not at all." Balthazar insisted, "It is not written in The Book, therefore, we are indefinite."

"Have you tried c…c…counting?" the second shepherd asked. 

"We can't" Balthazar said smugly "we think it's quantum"

"Quantum? What the hell's quantum when it's at home?" asked the first shepherd.

"Ah well," Balthazar smoothed his beard in a manner that was intended to denote great wisdom, but which only succeeded in adding a good number of camel hairs to his own collection, "in this case, quantum means a situation in which the action of observing something affects the outcome."

"Getaway!" the first shepherd said, with considerable disbelief.

"Pull the other one, it's got bells on it" the second shepherd averred with enthusiasm

"What's got bells on it?" the first shepherd enquired

"I dunno" the second shepherd was forced to admit, "It was something my old mum used to say."

"And did hers have bells on it?"

"Oh yes, she was a belly dancer."

None of this exchange had meant anything at all to Balthazar, but he felt he should try to educate these peasants before he went on his way.  Noblesse oblige and all that.

"Look, it's like you and your sheep.  When you count them, does it always come to the same number?"

"Well, no." the first shepherd admitted, "then again, I fall asleep more often than not when I'm counting and lose track."

"There you are then, that's quantum." Balthazar said with some satisfaction, "you have an indefinite number of sheep"

"I do not have an indefinite number of sheep!"  The first shepherd shouted, with feeling "I have 356 sheep, I'll have you know.  It just doesn't always work out to that number when I count them."

"Quantum!" Balthazar said triumphantly

"Is that the s..s..same as the w..w..wolf having them?" The second shepherd asked.

"Must be." The first shepherd agreed, "Wouldn't have thought they would have been bold enough to scoff a few kings though"

"To return to my original point" Balthazar said firmly, "Do you know where the royal child is to be found?"

"You reckon there's a royal kid around here somewhere?"

"Pull the other one…"the second shepherd began, and then thought better of it

"Doesn't really seem very likely, does it squire?" the first shepherd pointed out, "All there is here is sheep as far as the eye can see, and that bit of a town.  Granted, there's a kid screaming blue murder down there, but it stands to reason it ain't gonna be royalty don't it?  Have you tried Herod?"

"What is 'Herod'?" Balthazar asked, half expecting to be told it was a type of embrocation, which, on reflection, he thought, wouldn't be a bad thing.

"Roman bastard" the second shepherd said with feeling, "Oh, begging Your Grace's pardon" he went to tug a forelock but realised he didn't know what one was.

"Don't be abasing yourself in front of him, brother" the first shepherd said swiftly, "Just 'cause he's turned up with an indefinite number of mates riding camels, doesn't make him no better than you and me"

"Balthy, sweetheart, are we there yet?"  Melchior pleaded

"Belt up, Melchior, or I'll make your camel go down on you again" Balthazar snapped.

"Ooh, saucy!" Melchior pouted, "See, I told you he was doing it deliberately" He muttered to Caspar.

"Now," said Balthazar with more patience than he was actually feeling, "what is 'Herod'?"

"Reckons he's King around here" the first shepherd admitted, "I didn't vote for him though.  Would have thought he was past it for knocking out nippers, but you never know."

"Then he must be our goal." Balthazar argued confidently, "Where shall we find him?"

"A few miles that way." the first shepherd pointed to the West," Ruddy great palace, you can't miss it"

"That way?  Are you sure?  Only the horoscope we drew up distinctly said…"

"Oh, horoscope is it?" the first shepherd asked with interest, "What did it say about him then?"

"The child?" Balthazar asked distractedly, "Well, he's a Capricorn"

"S..s..same as me!" The second shepherd said excitedly

"Can you do mine?" The first shepherd asked

"Yes," said Balthazar, climbing unsteadily onto his camel, "You're in for a big surprise."

"Same old tripe they always come up with" the first shepherd muttered disappointedly as an indeterminate number of camels and kings loped into the distance, "you an' all!" he shouted after them.

"Wer..Wer..What do you mean by that?"

"Werl, I can't see Herod being too chuffed when a load of foreign types turn up at his gaff asking to see a new king, can you?"

They walked on, chuckling to themselves.

"You don't think…" the second shepherd began, hesitantly

"What's that, comrade?"

"You don't think this baby down here could be…?"

"This king you mean?" The first shepherd reflected for a moment, "who knows?  Got as much right as anyone else, I guess."

"I was just thinking, you know…a lamb!  Doesn't seem much does it?"

"Don't look at me, brother.  All I've got is 2 shekels and a packet of fag papers.  You should have tapped that lot up for a tip if you wanted to bring anything else"

"Lamb it is then!  Two shekels eh?  We could stop for a pint before we pop in"

"Oh, go on then.  It is Christmas, after all!"


Saturday, 22 December 2012

A Merry Christmas to All My Readers

In the time-honoured fashion, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has read any of my blog posts or books in 2012.  It has given me a great deal of simple pleasure to check my sales reports on a daily basis (or, obsessively, as my wife has it) and find that someone, somewhere, has bought one of my books.  I'm sure that he or she must be sick of the whole process by now, but he/she has my eternal gratitude.  I just hope he/she has enough money left to fund a pleasant Christmas.

Have a good one, wherever you are!

You can find all of my books at My Amazon Author Page

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Hitting the Woodwork

You've heard of professional footballers managing to miss the yards of open goal and 'hitting the woodwork' instead?  Well, this story is about the woodwork hitting me (or very nearly).

In Crime and Punishment I was talking about punishment in schools when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s.  I must admit that I mostly avoided any serious chastisement, largely because I was so invisible that most teachers would have been hard pressed to tell you my name.  School reports, particularly for P.E., used to feature such remarks as "Philip tries hard", which could be interpreted as "We're not really sure who he is, but we're pretty sure he hasn't done anything wrong, yet."

Corporal punishment was still a feature of my schooldays, and the slipper, cane and hurled blackboard rubber were daily occurrences.  Of course, the same gang of Great Uncles and the like, who used to come up with the infinitely depressing "you should treasure your schooldays, Philip, they're the best years of your life" would also trot out the old favourite "I used to get the cane regularly when I was at school, and it never did me any harm".  Whether it did them any good was, of course, not explored. 

The futility of corporal punishment, certainly in the habitual way it was doled out in my day, should have been immediately obvious to anyone walking past the Headmaster's office after Assembly, where you would have seen the same group of people lined up for the cane, day in and day out.  If this was the educational equivalent of the ultimate deterrent, then it clearly wasn't working.

I did get the occasional clip with a slipper whenever the class was selected for mass punishment for some unforgivable collective crime or other.  I also had to complete x amount of lines or 'Kings and Queens of England' (our History teacher's favourite punishment), which were always symbolically torn up when you delivered them.

The only time when I did get myself into serious hot water, was in my Woodwork class.  I'm afraid that my Woodwork teacher, Mr. W., and I didn't exactly hit it off. 

Sitting on the woodwork benches in our first ever class, all garbed in our brand new, clean white aprons, Mr. W. worked his way along the class distributing our pristine exercise books.  The doling out of exercise books and text books was a familiar ritual at the start of each school year.  Do you remember the chore of having to cover these precious objects in order to protect them?  Usually, this involved the use of any spare bits of wallpaper that hadn't been pressed into service as drawer liners.  This could result in your books sporting some rather garish floral designs, which did nothing for your street credibility.

Anyway, he reached me and I dutifully said "Thank you, sir" but, being quietly spoken, he didn't hear me and clouted me over the head with said book whilst bellowing "THANK YOU, SIR!"  Things went downhill from there.

I was fundamentally useless at woodwork, a situation which was not helped by living in fear and trembling of the teacher.  We also had Mr. W. for Technical Drawing, which occupied another large chunk of the week, so I was doubly blessed because I was rubbish at that, too.

Our first piece of woodwork was a sort of crude toy boat that we had to chisel and saw into shape.  When everyone else had finished theirs and taken it home proudly for display, I was still chiselling and sawing away at an increasingly unrecognisable chunk of wood.  In despair, Mr. W. told me to put the result in the storage space in my bench, "to be completed later", and move on to the next piece of work.  This became a regular feature of my Woodwork lessons such that, after two years of effort, working on increasingly more difficult projects, I had a bench full of incomplete and butchered lengths of timber.  In fact, the boat was the only thing I ever came anywhere near to completing.

How all this led to corporal punishment, I'll tell you in a little while.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Crime and Punishment

In It Might As Well Rain Until September, I was bemoaning the fact that the Uncles in my family (and it was always the Uncles for some reason) used to say to me "You should enjoy your school years, Philip, they're the happiest days of your life", which left me feeling positively suicidal. 

My views on school didn't really change dramatically from when I was five, and they were pretty dismal then.  About three weeks into my formal education, I apparently decided that I didn't want to participate any more.  I can actually remember something about this and I think the problem was that I suddenly realised I was stuck at school until I was at least fifteen.  As this seemed like a double life sentence, with no chance of remission, I determined that they could stick this idea where the sun didn't shine. 

It wasn't school per se that I didn't like.  I quite enjoyed learning new things and being creative.  I just wasn't all that keen on other children, particularly in any number.  Therefore, my poor Mother found herself dragging me every inch of the way from our house in Anglesey Road to Uxbridge Infants School, one Monday, with me screaming "I don't want to go to school, I don't mind being a dunce".  This was in a vain attempt to refute Mother's dire warning of what would happen if I didn't attend school.  As the idea of anyone 'making a scene' in public would have mortified her, I'm quite sure she would have hated this.  Apparently she delivered me to the Reception class teacher saying "He's been a very naughty boy" and the teacher held her hand out to me and said "Oh, he's not been naughty, have you Philip?" and I took her hand, smiled winsomely and trotted into school as if nothing had happened.

As you may have gathered from that little scene, I was something of a 'goody goody' at school.  Therefore, on the very few occasions when I was on the receiving end of some punishment or other, it was always to the delight of my much chastised schoolmates and to my absolute horror. 

The first occasion that I can clearly remember was when one of my Junior School teachers, asked me how many three-ha'pences there were in a shilling.  I know that this will sound like a MENSA question to anyone who didn't spend their childhood trying to make sense of a currency system that had twelve as the basic unit, instead of ten.  Therefore, to translate, she was asking me how many one and a half old pence there were in a shilling (which contained 12 old pence).  If you could answer that conundrum today in Junior School you would probably be awarded a Degree.  Unfortunately, my infant brain had interpreted "three-ha'pence" as "threepence" (they sounded quite similar), so I answered that there were four.  When she told me I was wrong and asked me to try again, I couldn't see how it could be anything different, so gave the same answer.  She clearly thought I was being an stubborn little tyke, told me off for sticking to my answer, and punished me by keeping me in at play time so that I could consider my response and repent my evil ways. 

Of course, the fact that I wasn't at all happy being in a maelstrom of children, meant that missing play time was no big deal at all.  In fact it was a blessed relief.  The main problem was that, even in the quietness of the deserted classroom, I still couldn't see how my answer was wrong and had therefore worked myself up into a right state by the time that the rest of the class came back, smirking at my fate.  Fortunately, the teacher must have calmed down after a cup of coffee and a No.6 Tipped in the Staff Room (it was always a permanent fog in there), and actually sat down with me to go through the sum once more, whereupon my misunderstanding came to light. 

At the time, it was the injustice of it all that really smarted, and it would again in later years, as we'll see next time.

This story, and a host of others, will appear in the new collection "A Kick at the Pantry Door" due to be published on Kindle in March, 2013.