Short – but not so sweet

fountain-pen-447575_1280I’ve been thinking lately about writing a little fiction again. Those who knew my blog before it went all healthy, diety and weight-lossy back in January, will know that its roots lie in my passion for writing.  I began the blog (which was originally titled A Writer’s Notepad) whilst I was in the process of penning my first (and so far only) novel, Singled Out.

With Singled Out published and selling on Amazon, I fully expected my attention to turn to Novel Number Two.  I went away on a writing retreat and came home with a plot, characters and a full story outline.  I began writing, and made it all the way to… Chapter 5. They’re very short chapters, so that’s about nowhere, in terms of the overall story.

I ran out of steam for one reason: I had a growing feeling – not possible to ignore – that I should be spending less time at my desk, and more time getting active. I’ve made getting healthy and fit and losing my excess weight the absolute priority for 2016, and this mission-critical objective does not sit well (no pun intended) with spending evenings and weekends sat on my bum writing my novel – that being in addition to the five days a week that I spend sat on my bum writing scintillating copy for my clients.  So m’lud, the writing has been taking a back… umm.. seat.

But someone reminded me the other day of something I’d all but forgotten.  Before I took the arguably insane decision to attempt to write a whole actual novel, I’d written a few short stories.  They were for practise, to flex my writerly muscles after attending a couple of How To Write courses.  I’m not sure they’re all that good, but I posted them to the blog and they garnered a little feedback. Once I tore into my novel, it took over, and I never looked back to those short stories.

Now I’m wondering if I might try out one or two ideas, just to have a little fun with fiction again, but in small bites.  I know short stories aren’t just novels, shortened; they’re a different kind of animal altogether. But I’m wondering whether it might simply be fun to dip into my Ideas notepad and just… well… you know… write something… short.

2016-02-19 09.51.08 copyI’ll probably try and do it standing up though – now that I’ve figured out how to create a moderately stable apology for a standing desk (using my printer paper drawers, Singled Out marketing material, old files and an empty box, since you ask). It will at least keep the blood circulating through my lower limbs.

Whilst I dither about what to write, I thought I’d point newer readers to one or two of those original short stories, buried deep within the last 3 years’ blog posts. Enjoy, if you will.

Having trawled back through these three pieces, I’m struck that they seem to share a mood – and a theme: the disillusioned single woman.  Ouch.

But whilst fiction is – wholly and totally – fiction, I can admit to having become something of an expert on that particular theme over the years. I’m firmly in write what you know territory there.  So  I might try something else along the same lines.

Or would that be just too cynical?

The Play – a short story

IMG_0435Short stories are a good way to try different ideas and challenges. This one begun life as a writing exercise.  I was given a random photograph and told to write for 15 minutes without stopping, using the photograph as inspiration.  The picture was of a man – I thought he looked hot, and that’s where I began.  I got 3 rough paragraphs out in the 15 minutes and they languished in my notebook for 2 years. Recently I gave them room to grow.  This piece was the result. Not so much a story, more a vignette – a moment in time.

The lift hums through 24 floors before jolting to a halt, the words ‘Skyline Bar’ illuminating above her head.  As the doors part she can see him alone, silhouetted against the panoramic evening skyline, a blue-orange urban canvas pinpricked with light.  He’s perched astride a bar stool, one foot on the floor, one elbow resting on the bar, committed neither to sitting nor standing; a studied informality.  She watches him watching the room.  He scans from left to right, across clusters of low sofas where couples and small groups generate a babble of conversation against a backdrop of ambient electronica.

He wears an air of casual detachment like a jacket slung over one shoulder; there but not there, as if he’s somehow separate, above his surroundings.  This habitual pose doesn’t even hint at his paranoia. She knows that despite his circumstances, or because of them, he’s desperate to be seen as cool – a sophisticated urbanite – desperate to be noticed, desperate for roomfuls of strangers to be in awe of him, to wonder who he might be.

They always wonder, as he manages his image perfectly and looks the part.  He is after all a devastatingly handsome man, the wrong side of forty but looking ten years younger.  His shaven head, intense, dark eyes and subtle superiority of posture –  like a prince or a president –  radiate a tantalising cocktail of purity and danger; one which suggests he could drive a woman to heights of ecstasy or slice a blade silently through her neck, whichever might be… expedient.

He’s immaculately attired too, his wardrobe acquired through the biddable generosity of a succession of liaisons.  His is a muted designer style – Paul Smith, Gucci, Hugo Boss, nothing too obvious, never overdone – targeted to arouse the interest of those who would identify with his apparent restrained affluence.  Today he wears black and graphite, natural fabrics; impeccably casual.  As he scans the room his thumb strokes the side of a cut-glass tumbler, half-empty, ice melting.  She’s on time but he’s started without her as he always does. This would be his third at least.

She steps into the room and moves towards him.  He glances in her direction, not seeing her at first.  He stares right through her for a moment and she is snared by his cold, dead eyes.  It’s the look she notices more often than any other these days, now her significance to him is on the wane.

He’s a player, and he’s good. He’s accomplished at getting people to do what he wants and hand over what he needs.  Over the months he’s spent her money and milked her for contacts and connections.  Only now will she admit she knew from the start she was being manipulated, deceived.  It makes her feel pathetic to own up to it, but she accepted his stories because she needed to see herself as the kind, helpful one; the woman prepared to step up to the plate, as he would always put it, to support a friend in need.  And she needed him too.  Like an addict, she craved those moments where he delivered his expressions of gratitude and appreciation. She yearned for what she imagined might follow – his respect and maybe even his love.  It took too long for her to realise he had no comprehension of the word love and not the faintest interest in treating her with respect.  He’d long ago worked out how to manufacture emotions like interest, infatuation and even desire.  He’d accurately identified her needs and engineered a fantasy environment in which he seemed to fulfil them in return for her compliance.  Why would anyone respect a woman foolish enough to be taken in by such fakery?

He repaid unspecified debts and transacted questionable deals with her money, and he drew her friends and associates into worthless ventures. They were all houses made of straw and soon wind tugged at their frames and billowed around their empty rooms.  Claims of spectacular returns dissolved, replaced by hushed conversations with hostile callers, lips taut, fists balled with aggression. As the illusion of his life crumbled, out of sight of the world he sought to impress, alcohol and cocaine became his constant companions.

Only now is she prepared to acknowledge the toxic dynamic of their relationship, admitting – but still only to herself – that all is not as she paints it to the world.  Before her funds are exhausted and her friends all turn away from her, she knows she must begin to rebuff his ceaseless manipulations.  But with that, her usefulness will expire and he will be gone, which is the reason she’s postponed the moment, time and again.

Her early eagerness to oblige him has already evaporated into a parched ‘please let this be the last time’ reluctance. No doubt familiar with the signs of time running out, she imagines he is readying to move on.  She’s already an embarrassment to him, a distasteful reminder of his failures, a used-up patsy, standing between him and his next mark; someone else with assets he wants, who can be more easily persuaded to give them up.

But at this moment he still needs her.  There’s something he must obtain from her, she just doesn’t know what it is. It must be big, she thinks, because he’s been taking his time building up to it.  She tells herself whatever it is, she will refuse.  This will be the beginning of the end.  She’ll let him down as gently as she can and when it happens he’ll cut her loose and she will have to bear the pain.  She chides herself that she should have pushed him away long before. But she held on, savouring the heady rush of his presence for one more day, and another, weeks trading into months; her hope that he would change, that somehow her love could change him, proving wholly futile.

He spots her by the lift.  As if a switch has been flicked, he lights up.  His head tilts to one side and an unbearably sexual smile spreads across his face as he stands to welcome her.  Too late, she tells herself.  There were days when that look would have made her ache for him, be willing to do anything to please him, but no longer.

He summons the bartender and orders her favourite cocktail.  For a moment, she lets herself feel delight that he remembers what she likes to drink, although she knows it’s all part of the play for him.  He still occasionally makes the effort, it all works towards wringing one more big ask out of her.  It goes on the tab though – the tab which she will later pay, because he will find himself called hastily away on some unavoidable premise.  He pulls an empty bar stool towards him and motions her to sit.

‘Hi, sweetheart,’ he says. The smile his mouth forms is already disconnected from the rest of his features.

And then it begins.

‘This is hard for me, you know this.  But you’ve always been so good to me. I’ve never known anyone like you before; you’re such a loyal friend and such a wonderful person.’

She’s supposed to feel compassion toward him for his being in this painful, difficult situation, whatever it is.  She’s supposed to understand that under normal circumstances, he would never dream of calling on her for help, but that this one time it is unavoidable and he has nobody else to turn to.  She can’t bring herself to ask, what about his family; has he no other friends? She knows it will make him angry and he’ll struggle to retain his composure.  Then he’ll withdraw and sulk until she apologises for having been so insensitive. That’s how it always plays out when she asks a difficult question.  She never has found out why neither his family nor any other friends – friends she has never met – are ever able or willing to help him.

He wants money.  Again.  She hardly listens to the reason. It’s something about an overdue payment and some people she wouldn’t want to know, who’ll be coming for him in some unspecified way. It’s only ten thousand, and he only needs it for two weeks and after that he’ll be able to return it; so she can’t possibly refuse him, can she?  She’ll get it all back, after all, for he’ll be as good as his word.  She knows, doesn’t she? That he wouldn’t be asking her unless he absolutely had to.  But she’s proved herself to him so many times before; he knows she won’t let him down this time, especially as it is so vital to alleviating his current temporarily compromised scenario. Even his choice of words is disconnected from reality.

He’s right though; she has never let him down. It is he who has failed to keep his promises too many times to bear recall.  On so many occasions he’s leaned on her for small and then ever larger sums of money, for deals and ventures, for store credit, for guarantees on loans, for rent he’s fallen behind on, for letters of recommendation intended to enhance his credentials.  He’s working hard, he claims – for both of them, apparently – to break into a world where certain things about you count, where image is all and who you know and how much cash you can flash is more important than anything else. That he has no money of his own and doesn’t know anyone of consequence, and seeks to establish his credibility through her is something she’s only questioned in her own mind. She’s never asked why he doesn’t get a job like other people. She knows he has too much pride to ever be so ordinary.  Yet he isn’t too proud to pry another slice of her modest investments from her fingers.

Right up until that moment she’s been convinced she will refuse him. She’s even prepared herself for the backlash – the show of uncomprehending hurt, the far more genuine anger she feels certain will follow. She’s ready for this to be the last time she’ll see him.  Right up until that moment.

But he plays her back from the brink, as he’s done so many times before; with his words and with the intensity of his gaze, and with his exquisite, surreal beauty.  She allows herself to be drawn in by his show of self-contained assurance and his pretence of honour and love. When he tells her there’s nobody else in the world who knows him like she does, and how bright, intelligent and fascinating she is, she believes and accepts it all.  When he draws her close and whispers how he never wants to feel that he can’t enjoy being with her, she understands completely that he’s saying if she doesn’t capitulate, she will not see him again.  She is prepared for it.

But when it comes to the moment, she can’t go through with it. She stares rejection and loneliness in the face and looks away.  She fears this man and what he’s doing to her, yet what she fears more is the absence of him.

He knows all of this.  He knows he can make her give him what he needs.  It won’t be a surprise to him when she pulls a phone from her bag and goes online to her bank.  She notices her head pounds and her fingers shake as she presses the required digits one by one until it is done.  When he rests his hand on hers and delivers a look of such sincerity and gratitude through his triumphant, dead eyes, she almost believes him. And for the briefest moment she lets herself feel the soaring joy of being appreciated and valued; the glow that comes from having committed an act of kindness, even though it isn’t kindness but desperation that fuels her surrender.

As he downs his glass and heads for the lift and his own bank on the corner of the street, and from there to who knows where, he promises he will call and she knows he will not – at least, not until the next time. And as the lift doors glide together her heart shrivels and the pain of emptiness and foolishness returns, washing like a wave through her body.

(c) Julie Lawford 2013

A Coffee Break Story: Food for Thought in Brussels

I write short stream-of-consciousness fiction for one of my marketing clients. These stories are light-hearted vignettes with a mini marketing message at the end. They go down well on their blog and in the newsletter, so I’m told. That’s what you want from your marketing material, isn’t it? That people look forward to receiving it.

Here’s the latest effort. It’s not a work of literary genius, just a bit of fun.

Brussels 20kYou don’t know what you don’t know, do you? Little surprises in life wait around every corner. So when I skipped across to Brussels on the Eurostar last weekend to enjoy a little freebie open-air jazz at the Brussels Jazz Marathon, I didn’t expect to find myself being challenged by an army of fierce racers and fun-runners. But you have to take these things in your stride – no pun intended – don’t you?

It was a last minute thing. Check the weather, check it again, and then check it again. It rains a lot in Brussels. Even for an aficionado, it’s no joy perching on a plastic chair, drinking rain-diluted beer from a plastic cup in the drizzle, no matter who’s on stage. On Friday I wasn’t going to take the risk, but then the clouds parted and the little suns began to appear on the forecast, and all of a sudden, it seemed like a cool way to pass a couple of days. So I grabbed a room on Lastminute.com and a seat on the train, and it was all systems go.

Do you know Brussels? It’s a surprising place. If you’re in the trade, like I am, you can’t help but think of all those petty bureaucrats in their shiny offices with lines of international flags outside and fountains soaring into the air. You think of these guys spending day after day thinking up ways to make your life more difficult. You wonder what trading rule or cross-border regulation are they going to change today. What was I happily doing yesterday with my shipments or my paperwork, that comes with a hefty fine today? What are they going to do with our sausages, or our bananas, or my container load of merchandise from Malaysia this week? What carelessly worded line on a manifest is going to set them baying for my blood? It’s too much. I can’t deal with the stress any more – I have to find an easier way …

But I digress.

Saturday afternoon saw me up at the Sablon, in the shadow of the Notre Dame church. The beer was good, the jazz tap dancing – interesting. More fun was the steaming bowl of moules-et-frites and crusty bread with lashings of butter, followed by the mountain of crepes, cream and syrup. You have to do these things in Brussels, don’t you? Stuffed to the gills, I took a very slow stroll down to the Grand Place, pausing for a chocolate fix at one – or was it two – of those little shops that waft their cocoa-sticky aromas out the doors at you. Well, you can’t come to Brussels and not buy chocolate, can you? It’s like the beer – a hundred different flavours and every one of them delicious. You have to embrace the experience, I say.

But I made it eventually, at a very slow amble. And I have to admit, even with the sound stage cramping its style, the Grand Place looked amazing – all those gargoyles, gold-leaf and cobbles are quite a draw. I grabbed a chair and settled in for the evening. The stage dwarfed most of the acts, but the music was cool, and the atmosphere – well, that was warm, despite the unseasonal temperatures. A thousand people wrapped up in scarves and gloves – not quite what you’d hope for from a May weekend – but still managing to enjoy the show. And, well, you have to buy the beers, to keep hold of your chair. So I kept on buying. And on. And on.

Sunday morning, it took me a while to surface. I think that last beer I had might have been a bit off. Best way to shake it is a big plate of breakfast, I thought. So I wandered back up towards the Sablon and found a place. Eggs, hams, cheeses, an eruption of breads and spreads and a couple of bowls of piping hot hot chocolate. It had to be done, and it was delicious. But it lay in my gut like a slab of concrete and when I finally levered myself out the door, all I wanted to do was find a bench to sit on.

I heard it long before I saw it. It seeped into my consciousness as I sat in the square wondering how long I had to wait before it became a respectable hour to go grab a beer. I knew the jazz didn’t start up until the afternoon, and that was way back down in the Grand Place anyway. So the sound of drums, a funny rumbling, and a whole load of cheering was puzzling to say the least. I hauled myself to my feet to investigate, and followed the sound. And then I saw it… a bunch of drummers drumming and a gazillion people (37,000 to be more precise) crunching the pavement. As I drew closer the rumbling grew louder – it was the weirdest sound. If you ever saw me, you’d know why I’m unfamiliar with the sounds of a race day. If you, like me, have never stood by the side of a road race before – or much less run in one – you wouldn’t immediately recognise it. It was the noise of thousands of feet trampling thousands of water bottles underfoot – the endless, thunderous crumping, squelching, crackling mass, and the river of blue plastic, rising to cover the cobbles. It was surreal.

I salute you people, honestly I do – you go with your running. Hit the streets, beat your times, raise your charity money – I’m all for it. But I’m not the running type. I’m the sitting on a chair listening to jazz type. A plastic chair will do, but an armchair is better. Even so, this Sunday morning freight train of runners and their river of water bottles– I hate to admit it – tweaked at my guilty conscience.

Lean bodies, trim waists, muscular quads, and that intense, focussed look in their eyes – thousands of them, the very epitome of fitness and good health. You even have to admire the ones dressed like spacemen and gorillas, out for a bit of fun. Would I run 20k in a gorilla suit? I have to be honest, if I ran 20k in my own body it would probably feel as if I were running in a gorilla suit. Right now 2k would be a stretch. As wave after wave of intense racers and their fun-running compatriots washed past, crumping their water bottles and showering the bystanders, my stomach protested the excesses of my breakfast with a long, deep rumble, an indelicate belch and an unwelcome stab of heartburn.

So it’s fair to say that this little jazz jaunt to Brussels got me thinking on a couple of fronts. The music was great, but that wasn’t the game- changer. It was the runners – they did it for me. I decided it’s time for me to take action. It’s time to dust off the pedometer, sign up to a gym and buy myself a new pair of jogging pants – a bigger pair. It’s time to wave a fond farewell to fries and beer, crepes and chocolate and too much bread at breakfast time. Getting fit would help with the stress – and there was something else that could help with that too. I need to give those guys at CCL a call, see if they can’t do a better job of getting me and my shipments through the minefield of Brussels bureaucracy, than I can.

On Scrumping

appleAnother 15-minute writing practice, tidied up here and there.  The instruction was ‘Write about Picking Fruit’.  Food features significantly in my first novel (editing underway), and I welcome any excuse to get the digestive juices flowing.

Today there’s a housing estate where the orchard used to grow at the end of her garden; tidy little boxes and strips of grey tarmac replacing gnarly apple trees and knee-high grass. She would always call it the new estate, thought it was no longer new, being at least 40 years established. Most locals couldn’t stretch their minds back far enough to recall the orchard, nor the farm to which it was welded.  But she would never forget.

As a child she would be coaxed into the daylight hours by a dawn chorus of a thousand birds nesting and resting in the orchard. Playing in the garden, she would gaze over the fence to where the boughs of a hundred trees bent tantalisingly low, their plump fruit beyond the grasp of small hands. She’d watch them growing all through the spring and summer, from the moment she could first distinguish the little bumps, like marbles, that appeared as the blossom fell. Those bumps would swell, fed by the sun and the rain, until they were so big that if she could only reach them, one fruit alone would fill and even overflow her outstretched hands.

She wished herself into the middle of the orchard, skipping through the grass, stroking the peeling trunks, standing on tiptoes to smell the acidic sweetness of the nearly ripened fruit. She wished herself to a spot where she couldn’t see a building in any direction, only trees, their crinkled branches teased by the breeze, leaves flittering the sunlight. And everywhere, the swollen red-green blush of apples, brimming with life and goodness.

One day her father played with her in the garden. He noticed her yearning glances towards the orchard. ‘How’d you fancy popping over the fence to snaffle us a few?’ he said. Shocked, she examined his features to see if he was joking, but there was mischief in his eyes. ‘Go on,’ he said. ‘I’ll lift you over the fence. But you’ll have to be quick about it – you don’t want to get caught!’

Her little heart fluttered like a trapped bird as her father grasped her waist and flew her up in the air and over the fence. She ran into the orchard, thrilled to feel the tall grasses as they tickled her bare legs. It was just as she’d wished it – the apples hung so low she could reach dozens of them, so many it was hard to choose. She plucked two from a single tree and with one in each hand, ran back to the fence and handed them across to her father. ‘Go on,’ he encouraged, ‘just a couple more – we mustn’t be greedy.’ So she ran back to another tree and harvested two more fruits. She carried them high and proud and skipped back to the fence, where he lifted her back into the garden. Together they rinsed their haul under water from the garden hose. And when she took her first bite from the first apple she’d ever picked for herself straight from the tree, its juice, ripe and earthy, sweet and sharp, flooded her mouth and overran in a sticky drizzle down her chin.

It’s what was whispered about…

A few days ago I blogged about my newly established habit – a 15-minute daily writing practice inspired by the topics suggested in ‘A Writer’s Book of Days’ by Judy Reeves.  Every now and again something seems to emerge from this practice – something worth thinking about, maybe even working with.

Two days ago, the topic was: It’s what was whispered about.  I wrote for 15 minutes as Judy recommends, chasing the picture that entered my head in the first moment.  Unusually, my thoughts circled that picture on and off throughout the day.  Yesterday I went back and played with those 450 words – for an hour or so, no more.  What came out of that playtime is either nothing much, or it’s a vignette, done and finished; or it’s the outline, or the germ of a short story.  I’m not sure what.  But since my last post seems to have found its way to a bigger audience than I’m used to on this blog, I thought it might be fun to share it and find out what you think:

She hears them whispering before she reaches the kitchen.  The three of them, witches around a cauldron.  It isn’t the usual water-cooler chit-chat about last night’s Eastenders or who’s on Jonathan Ross this weekend.  Their voices are hushed and conspiratorial.  When she walks in on them, they skitter away like cockroaches.  One busies herself over a part-boiled kettle, another, the contents of a tea caddy; the third chases a stray smear of butter round a worktop.  They make their drinks in silence then they ease past her and hurry back to their desks, heads down, eyes averted.

So they know.

She’s become the object of sniggering gossip shared in snatched moments in the kitchen, the toilets, the smoking area; places where bad news is nurtured and secret goings-on mercilessly dissected and speculated upon.  She isn’t a co-conspirator in this conversation; she’s its subject.

These older, world-weary women – they’ve seen it all before, as they never tire of telling anyone who’ll listen.  They’re all so sure of themselves, always ready with an I-told-you-so and never a moment’s hesitation before they come out with it.  It would never happen to them, would it?

Or, perhaps it would.  Perhaps it had.

They’d all been young once, full of hope and optimism and as eager as she to receive a kind word or a compliment from a man of power and authority.  Had their hearts almost burst with excitement when the first move was made on them?  When that first touch had come, the placing of a hand on an arm, for just a few moments too long to be purely professional – had they become dizzy with the fear and the thrill of possibility?  When they noticed that first wistful gaze across the office, that first surreptitious wink, had they begged their eyes not to deceive them?  Had they stood, frozen to the spot in a crowded lift, certain that the sweet prickling of flesh on flesh wasn’t accidental?  What had they felt, when that first invitation came, when they’d been swept away (I’ll pick you up down the road) to a cosy lunch in an anonymous country hotel, miles away?  Had their empty existences suddenly overflowed with exquisite anticipation?

Or had they always been too street-wise, too savvy to be taken in by an old dog and his even older tricks?

Now he walks past her without so much as a glance, his eyes on everything but her, scanning the room for another hopeful child-woman with which to amuse himself for a few weeks.

She realises, now, what a casual crime was perpetrated in those few brief encounters.  She acknowledges the theft of her innocence, the ram-raid on her trust.  She knows, now, that those few cosy lunches were never about how pretty and fascinating she was, or how delightful her conversation.  She guessed it the first time he suggested they have lunch sent up to a bedroom, so they could enjoy it in private.  And she knew for certain the day he decided they should skip the pointless preamble of eating a meal altogether (you can grab sandwich from the canteen, can’t you?).  She had let herself be taken to a bedroom, and taken to a sordid slice of time where innocence withers away.  And later, while she waited patiently as he showered off the scent of her perfume and the odour of sex, the fragile ingénue died and the world-weary woman was born.

Twas the Night Before Christmas…

OK, so we’re warming up for Christmas now, aren’t we?  And I’ve been absolutely busted – run off my feet for weeks with no time to write. But I thought this seasonal tale might stand a re-run on the blog.  It’s another of the commercial ‘Coffee Break Stories’, which I write for one of my clients. This story and others like it go into their regular newsletters alongside the more formal newsy items.  People seem to enjoy a little levity and the stories put across the friendly face of this business, Customs Clearance Ltd.  The caveat… these are not works of literary genius – they are meant for fun.

This one is about a mysterious visitor who came to their offices on Christmas Eve, needing a helping hand…

I’m glad I was the first one to the office that morning – the morning after the night before – know what I mean?  I’m the boss (so they tell me), and hangover or no hangover, well, you just have to be at your desk on time, don’t you? The morning after the staff party.  Even if it is Christmas Eve.  If only to quietly note who else makes it in on time, and more to the point, who doesn’t….

Anyway, I pulled up outside at around 10 minutes before 9, and as I rounded the corner aiming for my usual parking space, I had to slam on the brakes.  There, straddling no less than ten parking spaces, including my own, was the biggest, hugest, brightest, shiniest, fanciest looking sleigh, I’d ever seen.  Well, to be honest, I haven’t actually ever seen a sleigh before in real life – just the odd one on the telly, usually round about this time of year.  But it was a pretty spectacular sight. I parked in next-door’s spot, hoping they would understand, and climbed out of the car.

Anyhow, this sleigh – think of it a bit like a very large horse-and-carriage, but with runners instead of wheels.  And…. well… reindeer instead of a horse.  Actually, I counted them, and there were twelve in all, resplendent in fine polished tack, each one bearing reins weighed down with line after line of little golden bells.  The noise was quite extraordinary – jingling bells, snorting reindeer, their breath freezing in the cold morning air, their hooves clattering against the concrete – and the gentle hum of rush-hour traffic in the background.

Anyhow, those reindeer – I noticed the one at the front seemed to have a very rosy nose – were just quietly resting, and I looked around for the driver (is that what you call somebody who steers a sleigh?).  I didn’t see him at first as he was under the porch.  But then he turned around and spotted me and with a big, booming “Ho!” he smiled broadly and waved in my direction.

My, he was a big fella, there’s no doubt about it. And he wasn’t exactly quietly dressed either.  I imagine he makes a bit of an entrance wherever he goes.  I know it was a bit nippy this morning, but even I could see he was just a little overdressed.  A big red jacket, all flumped up around the collar and cuffs with the whitest fur, matching red trousers (all a bit showy in my opinion but my wife and her friends would probably call it ‘over-coordinated’), tucked into the glossiest pair of wellington boots I’d seen for a very long time.  A wide, shiny black belt was doing its best to keep a line of bright gold buttons from popping right open.  For goodness sake, he even had a matching hat – a great floppy thing with a bobble!  He was a massive, beardy giant of a man, with rosy cheeks and a huge smile, but he bounded towards me like a puppy and embraced me in a huge warm hug.

He was too fast for me – I had to go with it.  There really wasn’t time to stick out my arm for a professional handy-shaky moment.  So there I was in the car park, being literally embraced, by this bubbly, laughing, larger-than-life chap in a red suit.

“Boy, am I glad to see you!” he boomed, when I finally managed to extract myself from his grip.  “I’ve got myself into a bit of a pickle and I need some help.”

I unlocked the front door and showed him in.  I offered him a mug of coffee, which he gladly accepted, then sat him down.  He seemed to fill the room, and he chuckled and grinned as he explained his predicament.

It seems he had an important shipment in progress and the deliveries all had to be made that night.  He had packages for just about everywhere in the world, all piled up on the back of that sleigh in the car park.  They were for children mostly, and that’s why he didn’t want to let them down.  But he’d been speaking with HM Revenue and Customs and they’d been insisting on him completing a mass of forms before he could move these packages around the world.  He didn’t look like the form-filling kind to me, and indeed, it seems this task was proving to be something of a nightmare for him.  He handed over a file bursting with crumpled sheets of paper.  It was obvious he’d lost the plot a bit with the forms but the customs guys weren’t going to let him get away with it, even though he was apparently doing all the deliveries himself.

He asked me, could I help.  Well of course!  It’s what we do, here at Customs Clearance Ltd.  No job to small – no job too big.  Customs clearance for imports and customs clearance for exports too.  I crossed my fingers though – because he kept on saying how really, very, vitally important it was that he could get all the paperwork processed today, so he could make his deliveries that night.

He was a really lovely guy – quite bubbling over with enthusiasm and good cheer.  Even considering the urgent nature of his job, he wasn’t fretting – in fact he kept chuckling quietly to himself and muttering something under his breath.  When I asked him to repeat himself, he simply said, “That plane you got from me when you were six must have made quite an impression!”… I didn’t understand what he was going on about, so I let it go.

Anyhow, with his warmth and joviality, he made me want to help him, and I quite forgot my hangover.  And as the staff slowly drifted into the office (ok, I’m minded to be generous, do I really want to be making an issue about a few minutes lateness on a day like this?).  In the end, everybody pitched in and we got all the forms on the system and processed.  The big fella in the red outfit was thrilled to bits.  He rustled up a tin of mince pies for the workers and dispensed rather too much mulled wine for my liking, but he made a lot of friends that day and put a smile on all our faces.  And when he went on his way as it began to get dark, there was a definite twinkle in his eye.

Hong Kong Phooey, Superhero – a commercial ‘Coffee Break Story’

Whilst a would-be fiction writer, I’m an active freelence marketer. Where these two worlds collide is in what I call Coffee Break Stories. These are little fictional vignettes – usually first-person stream-of-consciousness or similar, which I write for clients.  They’re not for every client, but where the products or services – or my client’s potential customer base – make it appropriate, these can be great ways to communicate a company’s personality and aspects of their proposition, in a light-hearted way.  Entertaining stories with a promo message in the tail, they mainly go into blogs and newsletters. A few I wrote a couple of years ago for a client are receiving a second airing on www.customsclearancetalk.com.  I thought it worth showcasing one or two of them on my own blog.  

Remember, these aren’t high-grade fiction, but light entertainment.  This one is about a business trip to Hong Kong.

I had man-flu within a day of landing in Hong Kong – but I couldn’t let it crush me. I think it was a combination of being stuck in the cheap-seats for 13 hours then forced to queue for a taxi in the drenching humidity of a Far Eastern summer afternoon. Still, they’d booked me into one of the most spectacular hotels on the island, down by the Macau Ferry Terminal. Amazing – I was 30 floors up, overlooking the harbour, watching the Star Ferry crossing back and forth, and a thousand other boats going about their business. It was breathtaking!

I was only supposed to be in Hong Kong for 4 days – hardly enough time to get over the jet-lag. It was meetings, meetings, every morning, so I couldn’t give in to crawling back under the duvet. I dosed up with everything I could lay my hands on and did my very best to make the most of the trip – shook a lot of hands, exchanged even more business cards, talked up the business…. and despite a raging temperature, secured a couple of very important signatures on a couple of very worthwhile contracts.

Then there was the whole ‘corporate hospitality’ side, the evenings awash with crowded restaurants, pounding night-clubs and far, far too much booze. Well, you’ve got to play the game, haven’t you, especially when the ink has hardly dried on the contract and you need to get things off to a strong start. Plus, you don’t want people thinking you’re a wuss either.

But all that was as nothing, compared to the rising panic I felt at the one other task that lay ahead of me that week….

The way it worked out, I had just one afternoon and one evening free for by far the most challenging part of the trip. I’d hardly drawn breath from announcing that I was off to Hong Kong and the shopping list was opened. What ‘her indoors’ didn’t want, wasn’t worth having…. She wanted silk… raw silk palazzo pants (whaaat?!), work shirts, lingerie, and what she rather scarily called ‘something special’ – heck, I was supposed to know what that was without even the faintest clue. Then she’d heard there were tailors who could make exact copies of existing clothing, so I’d arrived with two ladies’ skirt-suits and an evening gown in my luggage – it’s a good job I didn’t have to explain that to any airport officials. Then she wanted jewellery (isn’t it enough that she gets gold every Christmas? Obviously not.)…. Opals the stone of choice, apparently, but diamonds would be nice as well. (As well….?!) Then my adolescent lump of a son got in on the act. Picking up a pen for the first time in months, he’d produced a list – a full page – of software, widgets, gadgets and other technological bits and bobs which he promised me I could pick up for a mere fraction of their UK cost. Between them, they were determined I wasn’t to have a moment to myself – nor a moment’s peace if I returned empty-handed.

So my afternoon off, I was a man-on-a-mission. I took the Star Ferry over the water, and trawled the streets of Kowloon, armed with my lists and my bag of women’s clothing. Indeed, she was right – there were literally dozens of tailors’ shops happy to produce replica garments in 2 or 3 days. This wasn’t quite as hard as I thought it would be. The jewellery shops were rather fabulous too – not cheap (never cheap!), but I did manage to pick up something rather nice – let’s see what she makes of it when I get it home… I was directed to a huge indoor computer market for my son’s demands, and again, it was all pretty straightforward. Triumphant, I nailed it all in the one afternoon, and only needed to return briefly on my night off to collect the new outfits. It was all going to be alright after all, less the weary traveller, more the conqueror returning home with his spoils….

I was at the airport a bit early as I thought there might be some hassle over the luggage – and yes, I was indeed over-weight. But I didn’t care – I had everything. I’d even located that mysterious ‘something special’ that I was supposed to ‘use my imagination’ to seek out (and no, I’m not going to tell you what it is), so I figured on getting richly rewarded when I got home. I must have been radiating success…. confidence… triumph…. at the check-in desk. Or maybe it was the aromatic cloud of vapour-rub and menthol that had been surrounding me for days. I don’t care what – for the first time in my life, I got an upgrade! Yes, life is good.

I settled smugly into my Business Class seat, and as the freshen-up cloths and champagne began to come round, I nodded politely to my neighbour. “You look happy,” he observed, with a cheery smile. Yes indeed, I was happy. And as the bubbly took effect and my tired bones sank deeper into the armchair seat, I couldn’t help recounting to him the triumphs of my week.

We chatted on, and I explained all about my business to him – the meetings, the contracts, and the work that I had ahead of me. He asked lots of questions – seemed really interested in the sort of shipments I was going to be dealing with – then explained his own business was all about making life easier for people who shipped goods around the world. He had particular experience handling shipments from the Far East and was very familiar with the customs clearance requirements into the UK and Europe. Where I’d been worrying about how to break down container-loads and dispatch them to my retailers across Europe, he had the answers. He didn’t give me the hard-sell – in fact, in the end, it was me asking the questions, and me pressing my business card into his hand. But I sensed we’d made a mutually profitable connection in those final few hours of my trip, which made that homeward journey all the sweeter.