Summer Special: Football’s Coming Home
The crickets were chirruping away as they had for weeks, as if the summer was about to end and this was the moment for one monotonous grand finale. The distant hills were shrouded in a shimmering haze. The wheat fields were full to bursting, the crops yearning for the combine harvester’s coup de grass. When you made your way across the south lawn you could hear the blades of grass, crunching beneath your feet. OG took a sip ice of iced tea and relished the momentary feeling of coolness as it slipped down his throat. He couldn’t help feel conspicuous in the pair of pink and green striped shorts that Baz had found for him among the Ian Poulter collection of trousers on the remainder rail at the village shop. They clashed horribly, OG thought, with his faded dark blue polo shirt with its embroidered crest of the British Librarians Association Men’s Judo Squad. He should have thrown it away long ago, but it was a cherished memento of his life’s one sporting achievement. And this had happened purely by chance, OG having misread the sign on the staff-room notice board and walked into the gymnasium expecting to demonstrate his prowess at Ludo. At the beginning of the summer, Stephanie had offered to take him into Montpellier to fit him out with a new wardrobe, but their employer had scoffed at the idea and had said something about having a stock room full of “John Daly originals” that he still needed to shift.
From the shade of the gazebo, OG’s view of the pool might have resembled something from a Hockney painting. However, its shimmering surface was mostly obscured by Baz’s recumbent form, spread across the ancient wooden sun-lounger in front of him. This particular piece of furniture Baz had picked up at an auction of effects from the decommissioned Royal Yacht Britannia. As Baz had commented at the time, if it could stand up to decades of misuse by the late Princess Margaret, it should be more than a match for anything that Baz, or indeed his personal secretary, could throw at it. The afternoon sun was glistening off the dome of his Baz’s coconut oil-slathered belly. His bright-red Speedos would have been half a size too small, even for David Hockney’s experienced eye. This scene triggered a sudden memory. He thought of the famous image of Ray Winston slumbering by the pool-side in the successful Costa del Crime movie, Sexy Beast. No, that wasn’t it. Then another scene elbowed its way into his memory. He was walking down Wardour Street, holding his mother’s hand, fascinated by the sight of dozens of plump red-orange chickens turning on spits in the restaurant windows, oozing fat into the drip trays below. His mother had pulled him away with a sharp tug, “Don’t look at those things. It’s not decent.”
“It’s not decent”. OG gave a rueful smile. What would his mother make of his situation now? On the other side of the pool, perfecting her all-over tan, Camilla was pulling her long auburn curls into a clumsy bun as, Stephanie (who was also clad as nature intended) was smoothing sun-cream onto the sculptural curves of her behind. OG looked away quickly and down to the pile of notes that was piled on the table in front of him. He knew if he looked up again at the Sapphic scene across the water, sleep would be an elusive companion that night. OG turned to his papers with renewed industry and in doing so knocked a large folder of print-outs to the floor.
Baz looked around, irritated by the disturbance, “Bloody hell OG. Keep it down can you.”
OG knelt on the floor to pick up the papers. “Sorry, I can move back into the library if you like.”
Baz sighed. “No, it’s alright. It’s not as if you couldn’t do with a bit more vitamin D. Look at you. You look like a bloody ghost. Why don’t you strip off and get a bit of colour? Look at the girls over there. Don’t they look the picture of health?”
OG didn’t look. He mumbled an excuse “I don’t want to expose these papers to the sunlight. They’re original and the ink might fade.”
Baz studied OG quizzically. “What the hell is all this lot anyway?”
A gleam came into OG’s eye and he started to burble enthusiastically. “These are the are the original manuscripts of Eliota Fuimano Sapolu’s tweets. Did you know that before sending one of those, he would spend days, weeks even, drafting and re-redrafting them? Behind every 140 character missive, there might be dozens of pages of notes and ideas. His publisher, Cambridge University Press, has asked me to annotate and index them for a new collection of his papers as part of their Modern Philosophers series. Mind you, it’s taking me forever. It’s going to take me months just to get through the “F”s.”
Baz closed his eyes. “I worry about you OG, I really do. Don’t you ever long for something a bit more, well, red-blooded?”
OG looked surprised. “Not really, I’m quite happy…”
Baz cut him off. “Have you ever engaged in country sports?”
“No, not really. I watched my uncle fly-fishing once.”
Baz waved his arm dismissively. “Well you’re coming with me tonight. Make sure you’re ready by 9.30.”
“Isn’t that a bit late….”
Their conversation was interrupted when a battered old transit van came hurtling around the side of the orangery and slewed to a halt on by the side of the South Lawn. Out jumped fit young figure, wearing only a “Love Island” commemorative baseball cap and baggy LA Lakers basketball shorts. As he slammed the van door the magnetic sign (bearing the legend “Burns Brother Builders – Civil Engineering, Garden Maintenance and House Clearances”) that had been hanging precariously on its side, clattered to the ground.”
The youngster bounded over to them, carelessly knocking over Baz’s mint julip as he did so. Baz looked up. “Hello Billy, have you got something to tell me? Perhaps you are getting close to finishing that wall. I know it’s only been 15 months since our Antipodean friend decided to drive my second best Bentley through it.”
“Sorry Baz, you’re going to have to get someone else to finish this job off. Freddie and me have been offered an amazing deal over in Belfast – building the new border wall with the South. It’s £800 a day each, cash in hand and an all-you-can eat account at the local Nandos.”
Baz propped himself up onto his elbows. “Oh dear that is a shame. Still I can see how it’s too good an offer to refuse.”
“You’re not cross then?”
“Not at all. When you get an opportunity like this you have to grab it with both hands.”
There was a sudden splash and the youngster looked up and for the first time, noticed Camilla standing at the edge of the pool about to follow her companion into the water. The builder’s face lit up. “Look, if you want me to do a few more days here, I could stay on and…”
Baz shook his head. “No, you work here is done.”
Billy looked suddenly disappointed. “Okay then, if you’re sure.” There was another splash and it seemed for a moment that the youngster was starting to think he had made a huge mistake.
Baz gave a half wave “Off you go then Billy.”
Billy gave a final glance over his shoulder. “Righto then. Oh, if you see Mr Humphreys, will you thank him for me? It was a friend of his who found the job for me.”
Baz gave a final smile. “I’ll be sure to do that.”
As Billy trudged back towards the van, there were more splashes and giggles from the pool.
OG looked up from his work. “Dare I ask what they are up to?”
Baz stretched out on the lounger, “Camilla was in the team that won the British Schools Synchronised Swimming Championships for Cheltenham Ladies College. I think she’s teaching Stephanie some of her moves.”
OG squinted through the glare from the pool’s surface. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that one in the Olympics?”
Baz closed his eyes. “I think Camilla won the freestyle section.”
Vickery was sitting in the driver’s seat of the battered Land Rover Defender, the sound of the engine ticking over disturbing the cloister silence of the airless evening. Baz was waving impatiently through the passenger window. OG was walking slowly down the steps from the main entrance. “Come on man, we’ll miss all the fun if you don’t get a move on?”
OG climbed reluctantly into the back. Vickery turned to Baz “Where to Sir?”
Baz looked at his graphene Son of Samsung phone. “The text came through a few minutes ago with the coordinates.” Baz checked the OS map. “Let me see. It looks from this, like it’s the old barn over near Minchinghampton.”
As they neared Minchinghampton Common, Vickery veered off onto a side road and then down a rutted farm track. In the distance OG could see an large stone building. Baz tapped Vickery on the knee. “Park round the back of the barn. There’s another track over there that leads out onto the Forest Road. If the police show up, that’s the route we take. Got it?” Vickery nodded. “Come on OG, let’s have ourselves some sport.”
As OG climbed out of the back of the Land Rover, he made a forlorn attempt to register his unhappiness. “Look Baz, I really don’t think I can approve of this sort of thing. It’s not only immoral – it’s highly illegal. We could go to prison.”
Baz gave him a rough shove on his shoulder. “Oh for God’s sake man. Just park your lily-livered academic sensibilities for once can’t you. This kind of thing has been going on in these parts for as long as anyone can remember. It’s part of growing up in Gloucestershire. Now come on, let’s finish your education shall we.”
There was a small, unshaven. rat-faced man wearing a tattered old Barbour standing by the door. As he saw Baz he flashed a fiendish row of black and yellow teeth. “It’s you then is it? Come for a bit of sport?” The man took a long draw on his soggy roll-up and gave a long cough and a wheeze. “I thought you was above all this sort of thing these days.”
Baz gave the man a look of distaste. “Cut the cackle Sannox. How much do you want?”
The barn door opened briefly and an anonymous hand threw out a blood-stained blanket, which narrowly missed OG’s sandals.
The doorman gave a sly grin. “Well we’ve got a top bill tonight. So it’s a hundred.” Baz reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out two used fifties and placed them into the gnarled outstretched claw.
The malodorous doorman shook his head. “Each!”
As they entered the barn OG could see that the event was already under way. Men were sitting in groups on a circle of straw-bales. Twenties were changing hands in bundles as the spectators eagerly wagered with each other on the outcome of the next fight. OG felt slightly sick as he saw the pools of blood that had been hastily mopped up with small piles of sawdust.
Baz took his seat on one of the few empty spaces around the ring and beckoned OG to join him. Baz nodded in greeting to a number of familiar faces. In the middle of the circle was a bright red telephone box. OG tried to control a growing feeling of excitement when he recognised it as an original pre-war GPO “K2” designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott himself. He reached into his pocket for his phone and tried to take a photograph. Baz hissed at him. ”For God’s sake, put that way – unless you’re in the mood for a lynching!”
OG was now utterly confused. “I don’t understand, what has that got to do with this evenings… activities.”
“Good Lord OG are you completely stupid? This is phone box fighting. You take two big blokes – or four if it’s a tag match – stick ‘em in there and sit back and watch the blood flow. Don’t you ever read Shedweb?”
Into the ring stepped a figure in black trousers and a white short-sleeved shirt. “Who’s that?” whispered OG.
“That’s Stroud Wizard. He’s sort of the announcer/referee, but he’s really there to make sure that the fighting is as bloody as it can be.”
OG pointed to the short lance which the ref held in his right hand. “And what’s that for?”
Baz whispered back. “That’s a cattle-prod, in case any of them try to get out of the phone-box before they become unconscious. Now quiet, it’s about to start.”
“Gentlemen,” cried the ref in a deep basso profundo into his microphone, “Our next bout is a return match. In the red corner we have the Durlsley Detroyer himself! Let’s here it for Old Mutey!” There was a huge cheer as from out of the shadows emerged a man who must have been in his early sixties. He wore just a pair of dirty ex-Desert Rat shorts. His vast torso was covered in scars interspersed with a number of crudely-etched prison tattoos.
There was a horrible screech. From the other side of the room. “Go on Mutey, you kill the bastard! Tear him to bloody shreds!”
OG whispered to Baz, “I’m surprised they let women in here.”
Baz shook his head. “Well, that’s the Banshee and technically – according to the rules – she hasn’t been declared a woman. If anyone suspects there is a woman in the place, they are entitled to ask the person being challenged to remove their clothes by way of proof. In the Banshee’s case, no one has ever had the stomach.”
Baz’s explanation was interrupted by the referee. “And in the blue corner, we have the country’s favourite nanny nobbler. Loo—-ord Lucan.” There was a mixture of groans and cheers and above the hubbub OG heard a shrill voice cry out “Chew his goolies off for us Mutey and I’ll give you one behind the silage pit after!”
Within seconds of both men entering the phone box, OG could see fists flying and teeth being bared, before his view became obscured by the plumes of blood spurting over the windows. After about ten minutes, the phone box door flew open and Lord Lucan’s body came flying out, landing with a sickening thump onto the stone floor. Then out of the box stepped Mutey, hands raised in triumph, appearing like some bloody-demon escaped from the deepest depths of hell. He snatched his prize-money from Stroud Wizard, leaped over the ring of straw-bales like a gazelle, scooped up the Banshee in his arms (no mean feat in itself) and sped outside towards the silage pit.
Baz, nudged OG. “You enjoy that?”
OG was still struggling to keep down his tofu-burger, unable to reply.
As they carried out Lord Lucan and threw him unceremoniously into the back of a nearby muck-spreader, Stroud Wizard picked up his microphone. “And now gentlemen, the bout you have all been waiting for. “He is 438th in line to the throne, a Gloucester rugby legend….”
The name was lost as huge cheer went up and an athletic-looking figure entered the ring, his head shaved his handsome visage featuring a beautifully proportioned aquiline nose. He lifted his muscular arms and shook his fists.
The ref continued. “And the challenger is GB83.” There was a deafening silence as a pale thin bespectacled figure, bearing a remarkable resemblance to the late Carry On star, Charles Hawtrey, entered the ring. He was naked, except for a metal-studded leather loin cloth and he was shaking uncontrollably.
The bout lasted no more than two minutes before GB83’s prone body came flying out of the phone box, onto the stone floor from where he was carried to the now overflowing muckspreader. However, when his opponent emerged from the phone box, it was clear that GB83’s pugilistic endeavours had not been totally unsuccessful. There must have been a lucky punch thrown, for the hero of the hour was clutching his nose, desperately trying to stem a torrent of blood. A sudden horrified silence descended on the crowd.
Stroudie Glaws hurried over and decided to try and restore some atmosphere with a quick Q&A. He picked up his microphone and put his arm round the winner and improvised. “Er, another brilliant victory for the local lad…. Is there anything you would like to say to your fans here tonight Mike?”
He leant towards the microphone. “Does anyone have a spare roob? She’s going to fuggin’ kill be when she sees dis!”
As OG emerged onto the terrace the following morning to work on the Fuimano-Sapolu papers, he found Baz pacing up and down by the poolside. It was only 10.00 am, long before Baz’s customary breakfasting hour. “Morning Baz, is everything alright?”
Baz looked up, sill distracted. “Mmmm what. Oh, I’m just thinking about all the things that could go wrong? It’s just a bit of nerves I suppose?”
OG knew he shouldn’t press any further, but his curiosity got the better of him. “This is unlike you. What are you feeling nervous about?”
“It’s the football tonight.”
OG was disappointed by this reply. He had little or no interest in the World Cup and he was surprised that Baz was concerned with the outcome of a round-ball match. “It’s no biggie is it?”
Baz exploded. “No biggie? Millions of people are going to be affected by this – tens of millions! No biggie!” OG gathered his papers and beat a hasty retreat to the library where he spent the rest of the day. He knew by experience it was best to steer well clear when Baz was in one of those moods.
Dinner that evening was spent in a tense silence. OG was sitting at one end of the long dining table, Baz at the other. Camilla and Stephanie were in Cheltenham for the evening, watching a new play at the Everyman, called The Vagina Dialogues. It was loosely based on the original Vagina Monologues, but conducted entirely in mime, with the actors required to perform entirely naked throughout. “Don’t worry about us,” Camilla had told them, “We’ll be eating out.” OG had noticed that she had given Stephanie a playful nudge.
As Baz polished of the last of the Chateau Bastareaud ’83, he gestured to OG. “I want you to be there this evening for the football.” OG started to protest that he had not interest, but Baz just stared at him and OG knew that it was pointless to argue.
Baz called over to Vickery who was standing by the door. “Is everything ready?” Vickery nodded. Baz continued to no one in particular. “Then we might as well get ourselves ready. They processed down the corridor over towards the west wing. OG turned down the passage towards the home-cinema room, only to be halted by an irritable intervention from Baz. “Where the hell do you think you are going OG? Come on, follow me!”
They went out through the side door and out onto the pathway towards the stables and the large paddock beyond. Baz turned to Vickery, “Did you bring the flares?”
Vickery nodded. “Everything is ready sir.”
OG was even more confused. “Isn’t it a bit soon for setting off flares? I’m not sure they’ve even kicked off.”
Baz ignored him and headed into the middle of the paddock. He looked at his watch. He motioned to Vickery. He scanned the horizon. “They should have taken off from Blenheim Palace about twenty minutes ago.”
OG suddenly heard a faint pulsating noise from the east. Baz’s head twitched involuntarily – he was suddenly alive. “That’s them! Light the flares Vickery!”
Vickery pulled on the tags of two bright red flares and threw them to the ground. Flying low, skimming the tops of the trees in the nearby copse a twin-engined black special ops helicopter suddenly appeared. The three men covered their ears against the deafening noise of the machine as the pilot manoeuvred it deftly into the middle of the paddock. As the whine of the rotors diminished a door opened and out jumped a muscular figure, wearing faded blue Wranglers with a pair of intricately tooled cowboy boots and a crisp white shirt topped off with a bootlace tie.
He bounded over to Baz and gave a brilliantly white, toothsome grim. “Generalissimo Baz!” he said in a Texan drawl, “My gawd are you a sight for these sad, sore ol’ eyes.”
Baz relaxed for the first time that day. “Auerbach. You managed to find us then?”
“Well, we kinda took off from Blenheim Palace and headed west till we found the next bigbest house?”
Baz gripped the Texan’s hand, “You always were a cheeky bastard Auerbach.” Their handshake dissolved into an embrace, before Auerbach noticed OG and Vickery standing behind him.
“Are these your associates Baz.” Baz nodded. “And have they been briefed?”
“Not yet, but you can trust them. No one else knows about our transaction. Have you got the package?”
Auerbach gestured towards the helicopter just as a figure dressed in black fatigues jumped out of the aircraft, turning around to lift a silver attaché case gingerly from the hands of and unseen colleague. The figure clasped the case to his chest and marched over to where Baz and Auerbach were standing.
“We managed to switch it while he was in the john at Blenheim.” Auerbach handed the case to Baz. “Take a look if you want.” Baz placed the case on the ground and flipped the catches. Inside was a simple keyboard with an array of flashing green and red lights.” Auerbach continued, “That orange asshole loves this thing. He keeps taking it out of the case and punching away on the keyboard, just to see what will happen. You know, the chances are small but its like the monkeys and the typewriter. Only instead of the complete works of Shakespeare, you have Armageddon. We couldn’t take the risk.”
OG could contain his curiosity no longer. “You are not suggesting that this is… this is the…”
Auerbach gave a wry smile. “This is it son. The football.”
“I said to my team that we couldn’t stand by and let that simpleton asshole have the future of the globe in his hands, so we said ‘screw it’ and we set out on this little adventure. Nobody, I trust in the world more than Generalissimo Baz here to take care of it for us, just until there’s no longer a madman at the top of the tree. Until then, no one except my little team and you guys knows that the fella following the chief noodle around with the attaché case is carrying a fake. So you know, I guess I don’t need to tell you, if any word of this gets out, then we are all dead men.”
Baz nodded. “It’s been good to see you again Auerbach. The football will be here waiting for you when it’s time.”
“Thanks Baz. Hey I owe you again. You know, I’m really sorry for what happened in Guatemala. It was orders from the top you know. Assholes.”
“Yeah well I made it out eventually – as you can see. More or less in one piece.” He smiled. “And at least one person in the world still calls me ‘Generalissimo.”
Auerbach slapped Baz on the shoulder and turned back to the aircraft, whose engines were revving in anticipation of a quick departure.
As the aircraft disappeared into the night sky, OG scratched his brow. “Wow. So what do we do now?”
“You heard the man,” said Baz, “we need to stash this somewhere.” He handed the attaché case to OG. “Why not stick it under your bed for the time being. It’s as good a place as any.”
Baz strode back towards the house. “Remember, don’t play about with that thing too much OG and, whatever you do, don’t ever type in the digits 1,8,7,3.”
Fumblings the Prequel (Censorship Special)
Outside the abbey a storm was raging. Thunder clattered around the cloister, rattling the doors and shaking the stained glass windows. Seated around the high table in the great hall, were a cardinal, four monks and a priest. Silent novices brought plates of sweetmeats and flagons of wine, searching for space on the enormous oak table among the silver plates and the heaving trenchers with their remnants of bloody beef and the scattered bones of guinea fowl.
Cardinal Detritus nodded to the Abbot and raised a silver goblet. “Brother Abbott, you do your fellow Benedictines great service by allowing us to assemble here this evening. We are indebted to you. Normally, a visit to Gloucester Abbey would be a time to take pleasure in your hospitality.” The Abbott smiled appreciatively. “But I’m afraid these are troubled times. In recent years the county of Gloucestershire has become a home to many form of heresy. I’m sure Mr Caxton intended his invention to be only for the betterment of mankind, but in the wrong hands (as we all know) it lends a powerful voice to those who are in league with forces of darkness.“
The Cardinal scanned the faces of his companions. “Gentlemen, we share a special burden. We have been charged by the Council of St Quentin under the terms of the Articles of the Moderatores Sacri to root out those who are in error, to offer them the chance to repent and, should they still refuse to return to the true path, then to devise a reckoning with the redeeming power of the stake.”
As a young pale-faced novice placed a flagon of wine before on the table next to the Cardinal, the Abbot ventured an interruption. “Your Eminence, I hope that this pleases you. It was sent by our brothers in Pomerol in anticipation of this visit.”
Brother Bruno, chaplain to the Earl of Warwick, had already taken a deep draught. “Not bad. Not quite as good as the 1504 I think.” He put his nose deep into the goblet and inhaled. “I’m getting warm plums.”
Brother Lewis, who was from a mean, impoverished abbey beyond the Marches and therefore unused to fine things, sneered. “Perhaps you should have sat further away from the fire then brother.”
The cardinal, who pretended not to hear the comment, turned to the priest who was sitting at the far end of the table. Father Nijinsky was whispering into the ear of the Chief Magistrate of the Grand Council whose eyes were closed in deep contemplation of the priest’s wise words. Cardinal Detritus coughed. “Father Nijinsky, you have sought to bring to this body knowledge of a particularly egregious case for examination. Now our bodily needs are sated…” Father Bruno poured himself a large goblet of wine…. “perhaps we could prevail on you to appraise us of the details of this matter.”
A gleam came into the priest’s eye. “Of course Your Eminence. As you know, I have served as a priest in this city for more than forty moons. In that time I have tried to bring its people into obedience, not through any form of coercion but through the powerful use of persuasion and strong intellect. Sometimes my sermons go on for as little as two hours and, though the congregation will sometimes feign a need to make water or even pretend to have suffered a sudden attack of the palsy, I ensure that they are properly exposed to God’s word – usually by having the verger lock the doors and bar the windows.”
“Well, there is a person of ill-repute and foul intent, from the Parish of Dursley, a scoundrel who makes his living from wagering on his ability to wrestle with other local ruffians in low taverns across the county. He resides there in a cottage with a so-called “wise-woman” – who is not his wife – who sells charms and potions, is a teller of fortunes and is given to making strange wailing noises way into the night, causing children to wake from their slumbers in terror and sheep to give birth to two-headed lambs.”
“This rascal was not so long ago sitting in my church and was seemed much aggrieved when I preached against the sins of lust, greed and gluttony. When I was just ninety minutes into my sermon he did remove himself from his pew and ventured to leave through the south door. He was much vexed by the strength of the locks and so proceeded to exit by climbing up a bell-rope into the tower and thence onto the roof, from whence he jumped to the ground, injuring his ankle. I am happy to say this has caused him much pain and inconvenience. His apothecary advised him from engaging in his sport for two weeks, and his purse suffered greatly.”
“He was thus much angered by my preaching and paid for a printer to publish a pamphlet, denouncing me and the church. Imagine my distress when I arrived at the church for evensong last Sunday, to find a copy nailed to the door. If we don’t stop this now, soon it will be happening all over Europe.”
“For myself, my senses are softer than a maiden’s skin and such matters sit hard with me….”
Five hours later and the fire had burned down to an ember, the candles were guttering and the dawn’s early light was striking the top of the stained glass window. “And to conclude…” Father Nijinsky continued “we must proceed to the rascal’s cottage, seize his pamphlets and burn them, then hand him and his woman over to the authorities in Rome.” The priest hammered his fist on the table.
Brother Bruno woke up and nudged the Cardinal. The Cardinal coughed loudly and the assembled company lifted their heads from the table. “Father Nijinsky, you make a compelling case. We will act on your recommendations. After breakfast.”