The Holiday From Hell


“Come and dine on the edge of the world” the brochure had offered. Steve and Maggie Malone stepped off the plane for their seventh holiday of the year. They had spent the journey in silence. Uncomfortable silence. 27 years in the civil service had aged Steve prematurely. His back was hunched and rigid,his eyes gloomy and yellow (not helped by his hip flask) and his belly the size of a space hopper.

The steps wobbled as he dismounted the plane. The gaunt figure of his wife follow loyally behind as she always did.

They stepped onto the concrete of the landing strip, tufts of grass breaking through the edges. A courtesy bus was waiting, Steve grumbled: “You’d have thought they could have parked outside the building as it’s such a small airport.”

He huffed and puffed and rolled his eyes as a Mum with two howling babies boarded the bus next to him. The bus waited for everyone to board before leaving, adding to Steve’s agitation. This was followed by an even longer wait for passport control, the luggage carousel and the car hire desk. When they finally made it to the Seat Ibiza (that the car hire firm had blatantly ripped them off on), Steve belted the car down the winding, craggy coastal road.

The sun wasn’t shining on them as the brochure had promised. Margaret was terrified every time Steve approached a bend, clinging onto the handle for dear life. But part of her didn’t care any more. Hell couldn’t be worse than putting up with Steve. Somehow the pair arrived at the hotel unharmed.

“Is that it?” sneered Margaret at the small building.
“The rest is underground you silly old cow” grumbled Steve. Margaret was used to the abuse by now. She loathed him with the passion and fury of 1000 clashing frying pans. She’d schemed to kill him a few times but didn’t know what she’d do without him. What else did she know?

They waddled their way to reception where the local island girl put on her best fake smile and gave them their key. When she sent them on their way she returned to her Whatsapp, messaging her bad boy boyfriend with the motorbike. She’d ride on the back when her shift finished. If he was lucky she’d let him into her apartment, she’d tease. But she knew full well that after hugging that testosterone along the vibrating road, she would be more than ready.

The Malones were arguing with the door lock by now, putting the card in the 3 incorrect ways before they got in. When the door slammed they huffed a huge sigh of relief. They were exasperated. With each other. The staff. Every one they’d encountered that day. Everyone except themselves of course. Nothing was going their way.

The room had been carved into the black granite cliff. A glass panel separated the room from the ocean. It was hollow and dank in the overcast afternoon light. The waves tormented and crashed on the rocks below.

“Does this place have any bloody heating?” shrieked Margaret after wrestling with her suitcase. She glowered around the room and found the Air Conditioning’s remote control. She pressed the power button with a vengeance but nothing happened.

“Urgh!” she yelled.

She stomped her way up the black spiral staircase, back to the reception desk.

“Excuse me!” she yelled, dining the bell atop the desk multiple times.
“Yes Madam” said the girl, still staring at her phone.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you”

The young woman exhaled loudly, put her phone down, tilted her head to the side and stared at her bellowing guest.

“Our air conditioning isn’t working!”
“Have you tried turning it on and off?”
“Of course I bloody well have. What do you take me for? A complete and utter fool?!”
“No Madam. Ok… an engineer will come this afternoon to fix it. Ok?”

“I should jolly well hope so” she said, before waddling her way back to the her husband.

The couple then made their way to the dining room. The salmon was undercooked and sent back twice. The champagne was warm and cheap cat piss in Mrs Malone’s opinion. But they drank it anyway. How much worse could their holiday get after all?

It could indeed get worse, the pair were soon to discover. 1200 miles away on the North Atlantic Ridge, the tension on the plate boundaries was reaching a crescendo. It was time for the ultimate release. The deep walls of rock grinded and grinded against each other. Bashing this way and that. Above the surface there was nothing more than a few ripples. A few fishermen noticed some larger waves on their trawlers, but it was all in a day’s work. However the waves were building and building, the pressure behind them mounting and mounting. The pressure in front pulled up the great watery carpet of the ocean, up and up and up.

Within an hour the wave had reached the buoys of the warning systems. Alarm bells were ringing in a non-descript office. Calls were being made in hurried tones. The Mid-Atlantic islands would be notified. Planes were chartered. Sirens would wail. The evacuations would be rushed but painless.

But in the hotel room on the edge of the world, where Mrs Malone was trying to ignore her snoring husband by attempting to read a crime novel – nobody was any the wiser. The first sign that something was amiss was when Mrs Malone stopped hearing the crashing waves. She hauled herself from her bed to the window. It was quiet here for once. She was cold. That bloody engineer hadn’t come as promised and she was preparing her next angry diatribe for the useless receptionist.

She put on an extra cardigan and went upstairs but it was empty. She pressed the bell repeatedly but nobody answered her call. Her fury was growing with every passing moment.

Then she saw it in the distance.

The towering gigantic wall of water coming towards them. It was still a fair distance away. It was sucking the sea into it. She looked out the panoramic window of the lobby. She could see more the sea bed now, with it’s nobbled rocks. She panicked.

Her time was up. Their time was up. She looked through the restaurant, desperately looking for someone, anyone. She shouted but it seemed like everyone had disappeared. She considered taking the car and the keys but – they were in Steve’s pocket. Damn! The useless oaf wouldn’t move or wake up. Her will to live was draining away anyway.

She had 5, maybe 10 minutes before she’d be taken to her watery grave. Her face was an ashen picture of despair and terror and wretched putrid disappointment. Her mind went blank. She just had to wait. It was a painful uncomfortable wait. The slurping, gurgling sound of the sea was getting closer and closer. She couldn’t bare to face her killer.

Then it happened. The glass smashed. Their last memories were feeling as through they were in a giant washing machine. With that the couple’s reign of misery was over.

The rest of the islanders had escaped on planes and helicopters. The girl at reception was taken to the top of the island’s volcano where her saviour with the dark eyes and the motorbike was now romping away with her.

And the furious ocean had now settled down – it’s job had been done.

Hubbard and Co.


“We’re ready to charter her” said the man with the tatty scarf. A sack of 200 dubloons schlossed onto the counter. The sun shone through the sack revealing the gleaming bounty. Behind the oak desk Mr Hubbard had seen all sorts of sea rats pass through his office. Hubbard and co. was the only establishment on the island that would lease boats for voyages across the 17 seas. Normally a young sailor would have to join the larger boat and become a deckhand. They’d be run ragged by the tyranical captain who’d shout them out of sleep and pay them a pittance. But here one could charter one’s own ship.

Merchants, pirates, treasure hunts and fisherman all came to Mr Hubbard for a vessel. The boats were in a sorry state. Sails were torn, the hulls were slightly leaky and God only knows if they would survive in a gale. But this was the way, this was the life for any ambitious sailor who wanted to become the stuff of legend.

Mr Hubbard was smart and sharp. He’d scalp at the top end, and tail at the bottom end. When a ship landed in the port he’d demand 10% of the cargo for the risk incurred. And for the men he didn’t trust, Hubbard would always ask for a large collateral. Crews would steal cannons and barrels of rum as they came into port. This would be stashed away somewhere until their employer voyaged onwards, then the crews would pass this onto Mr Hubbard – the ultimate pawnbroker. All sorts of goodies would be exchanged before Hubbard would accept a deal. Treasure maps, canonballs, gunpowder, ropes and even exotic birds were taken in case the crew foolishly decided to not return.

Then there was the tale of Mr Douglas who’d come straight from Liverpool. His swashbuckling face and fighting spirit had kindled a spark in Hubbard’s frozen heart. Hubbard saw part of his younger self waving his cutlass around in that office. With that he gave him a ship, a treasure map of a far off island and demanded a 50/50 split. If decided not to return, Hubbard would have a word with the island Governor to use their warships and track him down. Douglas with a cheeky grin in his eye accepted the terms and started rounding up the least troublesome deckhands he could muster from the tavern.

Their journey was reportedly long and hard. But almost, too easily, Mr Douglas had arrived on the island, dug up the treasure where it was expected to be and journeyed back with nothing but a lack of rum to contend with. On arrival, a stash of jewelry and coinage worth 2 million dubloons was added up. With this Mr Douglas built himself a large colonial house next to the town tavern. He’d host parties where he’d invite the town’s wenches in their filthy frocks, and spend his days slowly drinking and gambling away his fortune.

It was a risky business but this was where Mr Hubbard got his thrills. There were fisherman who were regular, easy, local customers. They’d bring back a few sardines, crabs and crayfish. But the excitement was with the big voyagers, the people who may or may not be trusted – the adventurers, the treasure seekers, the pirates. These were normally nasty pieces of work that Mr Hubbard was betting on, but it was a game Hubbard loved to play. Who would make it? Who would plunge to the dark depths of ocean? God only knew and it was up to Hubbard to let these voyages occur.

Now in front of him, he had a chunky fellow, four foot tall with grey overalls and hole-laden boots. His breath reeked of alcohol and made Hubbard wince but this was business and Hubbard had no passion for anything else since his wife had left for good on a boat to Sao Paulo. How the man had come up with 200 dubloons he did not know, but it was not his job to ask questions or turn down a client.

He made the man sign some papers. Why he bothered, Hubbard didn’t know – for the man in front of him wouldn’t be able to read. But he got him to mark an X at the end of the contract. They agreed on a two week lease time. He was shown to the smallest sailboat in the harbour. Mr Hubbard was regretting this deal, but the boat was probably worth more than the 200 dubloons he’d been given. So he untied the ropes from the mooring posts and waved goodbye to the ridiculously happy drunken fool.

It was now time to shut for the afternoon. For the boat business at least. He went upstairs to his office and ate a bowl of watery fish broth, then he walked to his warehouse on the edge of town.

“Purveyor of fine goods: Hubbard and sons.” said the sign in elegant writing outside. He looked up and down the street, there were a handful of waifs and strays. Inside was covered floor to ceiling with all kinds of nautical equipment. Diving masks, octopus-shaped lamps, harpoons, vintage rums ales and wines. In the back garden was the aviary where colourful plumes of birds were squawking about. His counter was a chest of drawers, salvaged from one of his ships that sunk in the harbour one night. He hummed and hawed… who would arrive here today?

When The Oil Ran Dry

The sandy, dusty air was as dry and hazy as an oven. The maroon coloured sky stood stark against the powdery orange dunes. The only thing separating the sky from the earth were 12 oil pickets. Tall, immense piston-like structures descending deep into the caverns of the earth. Deep into its bowels where the sludge of fermented trees and dinosaur bones was now treasured by modern man. Around the pistons stood a hut where 12 men lived inside. Stacked in bunkbeds and breathing the intense humming air conditioning – these men were the engineers. Monitors on the wall surrounded them notifying them of pump flow-rates, problems and maintenance due. Each of the team worked 8 hour shifts. Occasionally they would take a prepacked meal from the freezer and microwave it. A winding, bobbling track led over these dunes and down this came the odd water tanker and delivery truck bringing parts, supplies and taking members back home to their families. It was a tough isolated life that paid well for those cut out for it. For 3 months in the desert each year one could afford to pay for one’s wife and children in England, send them to a decent public school and spend the rest of their time walking the dog and enjoying the missus who would miss their company until she didn’t.

It was here that the problems began. Nobody but these engineers knew of the fate which would soon wreak havoc on the surrounding world.

It started with a gargling sound like a shower draining water away but louder and more metallic. Then the explosions began. the pumps, unable to extract any more oil created vacuum-like forces in the soil. This wrenched them downwards where the residue began to burst from the pipes and ignited in the midday heat.

The explosion created a crater, deep and wide with black gashes into the earth where ash and oil spewed.

The man in the hut were luckily of a sufficient distance to not be caught up in the blast. The kaboom woke the sleeping men and the four on their shift were left startled and in shock with flashing red screens. They hitched up the satellite phone and explained in jarred, hurried tones to their superiors of the dismal mess.

Emergency meetings were planned, the CEO’s secretary would be called – as would the Sheikh. The news was rushing over the business wires within hours. Journalists began to scribble columns. “The great oil explosion – a tragic disaster waiting to happen? Are more checks needed?” they would pen from high rise apartments.

The important men got together and pontificated about the best lawyers to send to make settlements and draft Non Disclosure Agreements with the engineers. A raft of safety inspectors would be hired in and a reputation management firm could cover up the media farce.

But the Earth had other plans. Tired of being sucked dry by her Western people to fuel their cars and petrochemical ways – she knew they had lost their way. They had pillaged the underside of her crust and she was not happy.

The next ripple was an earthquake erupting across the Western Coast of the USA. Los Angeles jiggled and the great phallic skyscrapers tumbled onto their sides. In San Francisco a giant crack emerged down Market Street and a giant canal of water divided the city. The freeways had crumbled into rubble. The devastation was vast and apocalyptic. Those who were a nuisance and drain upon the planet were swallowed up by Gaia. The telecommunication lines went down, as did the banking systems and television signals. The power soon left the grid and this left everybody deeply uncertain. Looting and riots consumed most of those left.

What now? What will we do? Phones didn’t work and couldn’t be charged. There nothing to look at and hog people’s attention. It was deeply unsettling to all involved. All they saw were the scenes of destruction, the grief, the loss of what they’d always known and relied on as cultural staples. Their livelihoods – gone. What now? What now? The surviving urban dwellers were utterly stumped. There was always a place to go, a place to be, people to see, things to do, things to eat, things to Instagram. But now – now what? They put on their shoes and walked. They left the city and headed out on the greatest adventure they’d never had. They strode through the rubblelands to the endless repeating suburbs. They marched on through the industrial wastelands until they found the vast luscious pastures where the mountains were pine-coated, where the sea opened out in sapphire sparkling blue, where the animals roamed freely.

As the days wore on they found nuts and berries to feast upon. Fruit was blossoming on the trees. People took their own patch of land and planted their own roots. Deep into the earth these roots grew and the earth gave back what the people needed. Communities were built, everyone pulled together and bonded through thick and thin. People could be people again. Fables were told of the great earthquakes and disasters of a more backwards time.

Gaia repeated herself on many occasions, unsettling all of those who were not in sync with her. Eventually the villagers grew wealthy with layers of history, stories and family.

It was a time of plenty.

Manolo’s Watch

Granddad would argue with Grandma. Grandma would argue with her daughter. Her daughter would argue with her husband. Her husband would argue with her children. And her children would argue among themselves.

But Granddad and the children got along. He would take them in his old Santana Land Rover down from the hills to the beach. They would make sandcastles and splish splosh and bury Granddad under the sand.

One achingly hot day in July Granddad didn’t wake up from under the sand. The children prodded him and hit them with their spades when he didn’t respond.

They moved his eyelids up but he didn’t move. He was gone.

Then Manolo in his 10 year old wisdom unearthed Granddad’s chest pocket and took the sandy golden watch. He wrapped it up in a bundle of seaweed in his pocket and ran to his friend Alvarito’s house. They would often sit on the edge of a balcony on their family’s whitewashed fishing cottage. They would fight and wrestle. But today little Manolo was alone.

He climbed as high as he could on the ledge, he pulled a roof tile up, deposited the bundle and replaced the tile. He then raced downstairs to ask for some pesatas to phone his family from the phonebox.

Mum, Dad and Grandma arrived all supposedly devastated. They were all trying to outgrieve each other, but none of them seemed very sad. Grandad was extremely wrinkled and 102 after all. They had all fixated on finding the watch. They asked the other children – who truthfully hadn’t seen it. They looked up and down the beach – they started frantically digging a hole but it was fruitless.

Little Manolo joined them in their efforts and put on the performance of a lifetime when interrogated by his father. It was eventually assumed that a gypsy must have stolen it while the children were playing in the sea.

The years rolled on. Manolo grew up and married his teenage sweetheart. He did his national service in the Canary Islands. He returned home jobless and penniless to his wife who was shortly made pregnant. She fretted and worried about their fate. But he always calmly said “I have a plan”. She never believed him and would gossip to the street about her hopeless husband.

When things were at their most strained he made his escape. He took two autobuses to the seaside town that was now sprouting tall apartments and palm trees and foreign tourists. Alvarito’s house was far along enough not to be touched. He climbed on the roof that night, dislodged the tile and found the gold watch. He fumbled it into his pocket.

He slept peacefully on the beach under the stars and the lull of the Mediterranean waves.

When he returned home his wife gave him the usual complaints, gripes and groans before he could say a word. When she paused for breath he pulled the watch from his pocket and she stood back and laughed. They both did. The watch would be worth at least 100,000 pesatas. This would get them their own house, a bar and keep them off the streets.

They hugged and smiled at each other. Within minutes her contractions started and within hours their baby was born.

The Man With Many Passports

He flicked through his collection.

Jake Baker
Louis Dubois
Anthony Green
David Vasquez
Emilio de Silva

His photo was nearly the same in all of them. The dates of birth varied, as did the places of birth. The nationalities of the passports varied too.

It didn´t matter. For when he woke up in the morning he could pull out that ID, that piece of paper and wear that body for the day. He would adopt their mannerisms, their history, their character. He would wear their clothes, choose those friends and
inhabit that energy.

He fitted in wherever he went. He blended in like a master chameleon, he was more of the place than those who´d lived there forever. He knew the cities, the pathways with their labyrynthine passageways and grand avenues.

In the countryside, his brain had mapped the terrain with it´s rivets and goat tracks, knowing the strands of roads in that spiders web.

He was a cosmic glutton. He would eat not just the food, but the culture, the landscapes, the energies and people. He would lap it all up and lick his lips. Some of it was delicious and nutritious. Some of it was fetid and rotten and made him ill and puke.

But when he recovered he would go again. He would cover old ground, admiring it with ever greater detail and precision. He would look at the worms in the soil in the grass, to the trunk of the trees to the branches to the twigs, to the purple aura of the living wood. Then the sky. The blue tinted bubble that seperated him and his species from the dimension from whence they came.

The man with many passports had a lonely existence. But he could be anyone he could invent. And knowing that, he was never alone.

The Childsnatcher

“Your honour…” he told the courtroom

“The toddler was running towards me in terror. His mother was attrocious – an utter wildebeast of a woman!

“I’d seen them several occasions at the library. She was always shouting at him to shut up and stop crying – but I simply don’t blame the child for crying when faced with that every day.”

“She would give him bottles of cola and sweets to shut him down for 5 minutes but it would start up again.”

“Since learning to walk he was trying to escape – and you could see the fear in this poor boy’s eyes. You could see the anguish, frustration and anger of having to please that tyrant for another 16 years. Anything was better.”

“We treat children and babies as dumb and stupid in our culture. But they know. OH BOY, do they know. They know what’s good for them. They know what’s toxic. They are wise and instinctual and in tune with their bodies, emotions and surroundings. Most unlike us adults who are self-conscious and emotionally constipated.”

“So yes… I took him.”

“The mother couldn’t catch up with my running because she smoked 40 fags a day. But let me tell you what we did. We went to the park, the sandpit, the river, the zoo and we had the most magnificent day out! I’d never seen that boy happier. He fed the goats. He talked to the lemurs. He pretended to be a pirate on his ship. He’s an extraordinarily creative and clever boy.”

“He’d always wailed and wailed because he knew there was something better and I simply listened to his need.”

“Now I know I’m making you uncomfortable in your chair and the jury box. You’re shifting and shuffling and muffling your ears. How dare he steal a child? How dare he take someone’s little baby and let it be free!? you rage in indignation.

“You caught me red-handed and I’m as guilty as charged.”

“But let me tell you, if giving a child a slice of happiness in this barbaric hostile world is a crime – then lock me up and throw away the key.”

“If you want to give me a fine. Then fine.”

“But whatever you do – don’t give me community service. Because I’ve already done it for you.”

Order Of The Crossed Keys – Chapter 2

Second class was sparse. There was no access to the buffet car, no complimentary wine and every furnishing had been selected for it’s minimised cost. The gaslight was yellow and dim. The seats solid hard wood, chosen for their durability over comfort.

M. Allegro still had no knowledge of why or where he was going. He’d simply told his deputy that he would be gone for the weekend. The envelope had contained nothing more than two railway tickets, and with that – he’d raced to the Gare de L’est.

The railway snaked and writhed around the mountainsides, this way and that, through miraculously-built tunnels, over modern steel viaducts and through dense snow-dusted forest. It bridged rivers, some trickles, some torrents. It merged remote villages along its many stops where sprinklings of passengers would board and leave. Mail was unloaded and reloaded. Small cargoes of eggs, hay and cheese were brought on and off the freight carriages. Chickens clucked as their cages were lifted on and off. Bottles of ale and wine clinked on the platform as their wooden boxes were put down.

These railways were the arteries and veins, spidering across the continent, weaving Europe together.

The November gale whistled through the pine trees against the windows. M. Allegro watched the local villagers in their grubby rags, mist rising from their mouths as they spoke in bizarre and unfathomable dialects. He watched the barrowboys pocket the odd jam jar and croissant. He noticed the conductor overcharging the fare, pocketing the difference. He saw the girl on the seat opposite, beautiful with curly blonde hair, yet her face etched with the scars of poverty. He noticed the young soot-faced driver, get off part way and embrace his wife and boy before reboarding his steed. He saw it all, just as he did at work. Of course saying nothing and doing nothing. Merely, observing.

He observed because he was puzzled. Everyone he saw and met and knew, he could understand. He would see their class, their life story, their manner of behaviour unfurling a story before his eyes. He knew the words that they would probably say before they even said them. He could forsee disaster, often preventing the disaster. He could forsee the miraculous and set about enabling miracles for his guests. But here, as he chugged through the deep valleys of the alps he was utterly baffled.

Nobody he’d met had seen what he’d see. Nobody he had met knew what he knew. Yet that man, who had sloped into the lobby of the Chateau Rouge had looked at him in the same way Allegro looked at his guests. And he was stringing him up to the Alps, 7 hours on the train, for what? To converse with him? Surely a quiet cafe in Paris would have sufficed. Or a strolling meeting through the Bois de Boulogne. But no. Here he was being taken in cattle class to the mountains.

Surely the man wasn’t a homosexuelle. No, perish the thought. So why here and why now? The only clue he really had to go on was the crossed keys seal, now broken and unsealed. He circled through increasingly far fetched possibilities, before returning to the dim carriage and the mountainscapes passing by.

The gentle tugs and rhythms of the train had sent him into slumber. He awoke at his destination and indeed the end of the line. The greasy conductor was tapping on the shoulder and it was time to get off. As he put his suitcase onto the platform he took a deep breath of the pure, crisp, clean mountain air. The crisp silence cut through the even crisper air and left him rather confused. He looked around, still coming-to in the moonlight. He blinked and sniffled. He was the only passenger here. He looked into the empty, unattended stone station with its empty, unattended cafe. He passed through the other side, to the road. The village was well presented, wood and stone houses adorned the slopes, wood smoke drifting into the snowy peaks, bright white in the moonlight. There was an inn with glowing golden light and as he approached it, he noticed the hotel.

It was small, humble, modest. There could be no more than 12 rooms burried into the mountainside, almost cave like. He waited for the peasant and donkey cart to pass in front of him before crossing the road and entering.

As he closed the wooden door of the reception cabin, his eyes met with the volumptuous beaming mountain lady in charge.

“We’re delighted you made it! I said to Geoff we ought to approach our new members straightforwardly. But you see, he always loves spinning mysteries.

Unaccustomed to the warm welcome and still in the daze of awakening, Allegro smiled and stood back.

“Give me your coat, he’s waiting in the lobby for you.”

The Nut Preservation Society

“I really fancy some nuts” he said, flailing around the kitchen. He opened and closed various cupboards before staring into the mess.

“Nutmeg? No that won’t do”

“Walnuts, got those from Spain – they’re about 50 years old. No won’t touch them.”

“Oh look hazelnuts”

He turned the packet over to reveal the use-by date was 2011.

“Oh they’ve gone.” And instead of throwing them in the bin, he put them back in the cupboard.

Meanwhile in China the squirrel was a holy revered creature of the chinese ecosystem. It was admired for it’s ability to stash through good times and survive tough winters.

Now a new fad had arisen catering for China’s new zillionaires. Following the real-estate boom, many Chinese businessmen and women had become rich beyond their wildest dreams.

However they were now cursed with wealth. Racked with fear, the fear of loss, the fear of poverty and the shame of being caught out – they hoarded. Officials were looking into claims of corruption and bribery of local mayors. It was time to hide the wealth and play it modest before the investigators caught up.

London property – that had been done.

Manhattan property – that had been done.

English football clubs – that was nearly done. And there was a good chance you’d be caught.

Gold bullion – very heavy and not much upside.

Bitcoin – well, that could be stolen in seconds and transactions were becoming traceable.

It was in this all-consuming melee of fear and greed that Mr. Ling was able to create a thriving black market for ancient nuts.

In his hyper-secure facility in the Siberian wilderness, were bunkers and bunkers full of ancient valuable nuts. These rare vintage nuts could always fetch a steep price on the international nut auction market – or so he told his clients.

Of course it was a good investment. “You’d be nutty nut to” he joked.

The clients and money flowed in in torrents. Mr Ling was importing rare cashews, walnuts, chestnuts, brazils, peanuts from all around the world. They would then be stashed in nets and cages and sent down in the elevator shaft to be stashed away.

5 years later adverts were appearing on TV in the Western world – “Cash for nuts!” they exclaimed. Many people were rediscovering forgotten nuts at the back of their kitchen cupboards. They’d send them off in envelopes and get cheques that they’d blow on bingo, the pub and trips to “Lanzarotty”.

It was at this point the ancient wisdom of Dad had paid off.

The Sock Monkeys

“Say hello to my friends” she said in a childish voice.

I looked up to see not a girl. But a grown woman playing with the sock monkeys.

“This one’s really cheeky, aren’t you?”

She was disturbingly innocent. Psychologists, doctors and social workers had placed all sorts of labels on her. Schizoid, multiple personalities, peter pan syndrome… the list went on and on. There was the unnerving sense that something blighted her.

She was unsettling yet almost quite angelic.

“He wants to give you a high five.”

I play along and give the monkey my palm.

As she moves on I look at the stallholder who’s equally unnerved. We’ve clocked each other’s discomfort and smile a wordless knowing smile.

Chateau Rouge – Order of The Cross Keys (Part 1)

Paris’ Chateau Rouge Hotel offered indifference at a premium. Every guest was met with a shrug. Each meal was served with aloofness. Thick dust coated the lobby’s carpets while bellboys in tatty uniforms ran hither and thither hauling furniture and sending orders to the hellfire kitchen. Surprisingly this establishment was popular among the elite of Paris and the international clientelle. Rudeness and impoliteness were the signs not of poor service – but of an institution that was authentic and proud of itself. There was no need for obsequious flattery. The staff paid minimal attention to the guests beyond formalities. It was a cavernous enterprise dedicated to everything that made Paris, Paris. Businessmen, politicians, diplomats, wealthy widows and anyone who was anyone would be seen here.

It was an ideal location for a gentleman to take his mistress for the afternoon, avoiding both dreary meetings and suspicion from his wife. How this hotel was full of Claudettes, Josephines and Valeries with their legs a-splay, their overacted wails echoing down the tall dim hallways.

Few enjoyed staying there, but the hotel’s reputation proceeded it and to criticise such a long-standing institution was blasphemy. Here one could lavish in one’s self importance. One could live among the replica Louis’ Quatoze furniture pretending one was the Sun King himself. The carpets were thick, dense and ornately decorated. The ceilings devinely tall, covered in angels and plaster curlicues. Above every bedstead lay a mirror to prevent the guest from ever forgetting they were the centre of their universe.

For its guests and residents, the hotel assured those inside that they were not fading into obscurity and irrelevance. Rather they were still as important as they would always be. They would always be waited upon. They would always rule their little part of French bureaucracy. They would forever be as elegant as their family dynasty.

King of the Chateau Rouge was Monsieur Allegro, head concierge. Standing at the circular desk in the centre of the spiral staircase he cared a great deal more than his demeanour would let on. When a great Princess would arrive, he would greet her with faux disinterest. When a great chanteuse arrived, he would stick his nose in air as he handed her the key. Every guest was treated with a level of such intense indifference and quiet disdain, they were left secretly gasping for more.

This approach had been carefully crafted and refined over the years by M. Allegro. In his days as a lobby boy, guests often wanted you but didn’t want you. You were to be completely invisible yet always in sight. You were to anticipate the guest’s needs before the needs were needed. You were the prop-master moving the furniture for Paris’ most pompous big cheeses. You were treated as a ghost – as though you didn’t exist. A spirit to be called upon when necessary.

As a quiet, unassuming boy, the grande-fromages would let their guard down around the young Allegro. They would talk to their wives, mistresses, family and colleagues while Allegro was hauling luggage and attending them. The boy played dumb. Taking orders. Running around the hotel like each of his other workmates. But underneath the docile facade was a very smart boy who was memorising everything her saw and heard. He was privy to the information about all sorts of European trade deals, troop numbers, distant wars and weapon supplies.

This information would fascinate him and he would keep small notebooks under his functional single bed. Every night he would jot down what he remembered. For many years the job continued as usual. His sharp mind memorising and noting every important factoid and every little preference of the hotel’s guests. He was often tipped handsomely for his snooty yet invisible service.