and so to bed

We don’t abide by your pettifogging rules / in any of the ancient, most honourable schools / we’re too busy flogging in the vestibules / acquiring the emotional and spiritual tools / to perpetuate the Divine Right of Fools

I’m sorry, old chap, I don’t mean to lecture / but in the exalted realm of the executive director / we follow a much more dynamic vector / wealth creation, privilege protector / morality’s just philosophical conjecture / wholly confined to the public sector

So forgive me if I seem obtuse / but you’re really such a silly goose / surely you see there’s just no use / in asking us to introduce / measures to rein-in our abuse?

It’s the natural order, ad infinitum / I know all the terms and can easily recite ‘em / or fetch me some parchment and I’ll happily write ‘em / at a ceremony in the city to awe and excite ‘em / if you have rich friends be sure to invite ‘em

So pray to your maker and drop to your knees / stick pins in your cute little effigies / you working class nonentities / please! / if you’re hungry I’m sure there are charities / to keep you in cake and crudites

Honestly! / All this moaning about disparity / is a cause for lordly hilarity / certainly not humanity / just settle down please and enjoy your austerity / do you think it’s easy living in prosperity?

And so forth, and so on

Remember what nanny used to sing?

early to bed
early to rise
makes a slave
behave

or what was that other one…

night night
sleep curled
don’t let the bed bugs
rule the world

Chapter 30: fixing the boiler and other miracles

foggy day in london town (except we don’t actually live there) – the Gas Man Cometh – the benefits of robodogs – a rowdy chihuahua – Stanley’s superpower – roles he might audition for – Gas Man doubles as Vet – text – Stanley of the West End – Gnasher breaks the spell

I’ll never understand Stanley.
Sometimes he barks, sometimes he doesn’t.
Take today, for instance.

Today was a foggy, sleepy, nonsuch kind of day. The kind of day you think whoever’s responsible for days got bored halfway through and gave up. A day when the difference between doing something or not doing something seems no bigger than a shrug.

It had started busily enough. The Gas Man had already been round to fix the boiler. I’d taken Jess to the station. Driven to the supermarket for a top-up shop on the way back. And now I was ready to take Stanley out. Which makes him sound like something on a to-do list, which I suppose in a way he was. Normally he’d have been waging a full-on protest, marching round the house with placards, but today he simply made himself ready to go, in a suspiciously organised way, standing as passively to receive his harness as a robodog, the sort you see in YouTube clips, Boston Dynamics, demonstrating the latest incredible version, neatly trotting up and down inclines, leaping from crate to crate, all with just the faintest hiss of hydraulics. (Which is an attractive alternative, to be honest, especially when you think that when you have to pick-up, it’s only a couple of AA batteries.) So without any fuss or whining whatsoever we got ready for the walk, and the moment we were ready, we left. And that was it. And quite why it was as smooth as that, I hadn’t the faintest idea.

It felt great to be out. The air was thrillingly cold – that rolling, numbing fog that makes you feel like you’d been miniaturised and set to walk in a freezer. Climbing over ice cube trays, frigid mountains of petits pois.

We turned into the Alley – a pinch-point for conflict, as once you’ve committed to one end there’s nowhere to hide if another dog comes the other way. And bloody hell there was another dog – at least, I suspected there was. A young family was heading to their car, mum with a toddler in her arms, dad with a comedy stack of boxes, and what looked like a dog lead stretched out in front of him, although I couldn’t see for sure. I mean – if it was a dog lead, the dog was very small, as there was nothing else to show for it, lost behind the parked cars. When we got closer my suspicions were confirmed. A chihuahua, suddenly barking as loudly as it could (which wasn’t very loudly, to be fair), springing up and down on its spindly legs. Of course, all dogs are essentially wolves. So although this chihuahua must’ve known it was small and not capable of much, still it was quite ready to hurl itself at the other wolf, and let itself be eaten, so that it might stick out its legs on the way down and choke its enemy to death.

Normally, Stanley would’ve joined in by now. He doesn’t need another dog to bark; it’s enough that he suspects they’re GOING to bark, or had a dream about barking once, or thought – a long time ago – that it might be a fun and sociable thing to do. In fact, Stanley is so sensitive to barking, he’ll bark if sees someone reading a book that mentions a barking dog. And when he barks, he barks with absolute commitment, like he’s auditioning for the role of Crazy Barking Dog, or Possessed Dog, or Dog Who Is A General Pain. So normally he’d have been doing plenty of his own barking by now, and springing up and down, too. With some lunging thrown in for good measure. This time, though, he was completely indifferent. Not bothered. Positively cool about it. All he did was glance over at the chihuahua. Oh? Are you barking? Why – what on earth for, dear chap? Do calm down before you blow a proverbial. It’s simply TOO nice a day to get overwrought – doncha think?

I was so amazed I forgot to reward him with a tripe stick. Could this be the same Stanley?

I thought about the Gas Man again. He’d been particularly thorough and efficient, and Stanley had followed him around in a loving haze, ready to pass him his wrench when he needed it. So I don’t know. Maybe the Gas Man had fixed Stanley along with the boiler. Changed his gasket. Depressurised the system. No extra charge, he probably said as he loaded up the van, although if he did I missed it.

Further along through the estate, just at the path that leads through the allotments to the horse field, three women were standing chatting and each of the women had a small dog. No sooner had we come into view, all the dogs started jumping up and down and barking, exactly as the chihuahua had done. They were so agitated, it was like watching a handful of dried peas dropped on a drum, bouncing up and down all over the place. In fact, they were so exactly like the chihuahua, I was suspicious they hadn’t been to the same evening class. Taking lessons in Going Shit Crazy – Intermediate level. Then coordinated the whole thing on WhatsYapp. The women seemed used to it, though. They just laughed, struggling to untangle the maypole of the leads as the dogs ran in and out, incensed to see Stanley walking calmly over the other side of the road. I remembered to give him a bite of tripe stick this time, and he took it as delicately as a retired West End luvvie taking a cigarette. I say old bean – you wouldn’t happen to have a light, would you? Smiling indulgently through the clouds of smoke or fog, at the funny little dogs, then sauntering on, his top hat tipped forward over his ears at a rakish angle.

We walked together and everything was lovely. The sun started to break through. I started dreaming about teaching Stanley some tricks. I could totally see him dodging in and out of canes and running over see-saws, whilst I run alongside in a houndstooth jacket and sensible shoes. Or we could do Dog Dancing. I could see it as clearly as switching on the TV. We’re standing opposite each other under a glitter ball, me in a spangly bolero jacket, Stanley in a pencil skirt, or maybe the other way round, hands and paws in the approved position, chins up, ready to give them our paso doble.

Suddenly, bowling towards us over the horizon, as much like Gnasher from the Beano as it’s possible for any living animal to be – a collie dog, heading straight towards us.

‘Stanley…. Noooooo!’

Too late.

The Bark was Back.

The Flesh and the Fiends

The Flesh and the Fiends. 1960. dir. John Gilling. Watched on YouTube, so you don’t have to.

I drank too much last night. There. I admit it. The truth can’t hurt you (but the alcohol certainly can). It crept up on me, and there you are. A combination of a few days off, a stressful week – the usual excuses. The only reason I’m telling you this – except to satisfy a need of self-confession, in the sure and certain hope that it’ll strengthen my resolve to go teetotal – is to say I’m a little delicate, and struggling to make sense of the morning. So who better to turn to than Peter Cushing. I can quite imagine what Peter Cushing would say to me, if he should stroll into the bedroom where I’m typing this, yawning, and raising a coffee cup with a trembling hand. His eyebrows would flicker up a millimetre. He’d tug his waistcoat down a touch, straighten his cuffs, then say with great clarity and urgency: ‘I would like to speak with you in the LYE-BREH-REH’. And I’d immediately feel better.

So in lieu of that, here’s a film with him in – playing the part of Dr Knox in the Burke & Hare story. A role I can imagine him playing with great asceticism and truth. Because if there were ever a man you could imagine buying and selling bodies, it’s Peter Cushing. It’s also got Donald Pleasence in, which is a bonus.

That’s it. And as Ru Paul would say (another hero): Good luck. And DON’T fuck it up.

00:01 After the Rank Organisation gong (who IS that guy?) – a cemetery at night, and then in big white letters: THIS IS THE STORY OF LOST MEN AND LOST SOULS. IT IS A STORY OF VICE AND MURDER. WE MAKE NO APOLOGIES TO THE DEAD. IT IS ALL TRUE. Which bodes well for a hangover.

00:50 The cemetery looks a bit rundown. Hardly a cemetery at all – more like a pile of trash with a few headstones. The church in the background makes it look official, but apart from that, not a place you’d want to hang around in… unless…

01:03 Two guys with lanterns trudge through the cemetery, drop some chains, produce some shovels and start digging at a grave (whose stone wobbles a bit). Then a blare of trumpets and the title THE FLESH and the FIENDS. Starring Peter Cushing. (Hooray!) Donald Pleasence! (Who-hoo!) June Laverick! (Who?)

02:00 My favourite name – the camera operator Chic Waterson. I don’t know why. I can totally imagine being on the set and saying Hey Chic? D’you want anything? (not an alcoholic drink, though – obviously).

02:32 Back to the two guys digging in the cemetery. The gravestone says To the Loving Memory of Tobias McIntosh. Ironic. Not much loving going on with all these spades and chains.

02:42 They haul Tobias out head first. Not sure what they did with the coffin or how they managed it, but they’re the professionals. Tobias McIntosh looks how I feel – except more motivated.

03:00 A horse & carriage (as opposed to just a carriage, which would be weird), trots into the yard of Dr Knox’s Academy. The year? 1828. The town? Edinburgh. The time? I don’t know, it doesn’t say. Late, anyway.

03:12 A woman in a ludicrous bonnet and fur muff steps out. I wonder if that’s June Laverick? Inside the academy there’s a guy carrying a skeleton on a pole and another guy – Dr Mitchell – reading a book, so you immediately know you’re in a place of learning. Dr Mitchell opens the door to June – she smiles, but her muff is so enormous he might have to open the other door to let her in. He gives her a faint smile. Looks like she’s done this before.

03:39 He didn’t recognise that this is actually Martha, Doctor Knox’s niece (which sounds dangerously like Knock Knees, but whatever). They chat. She asks if she was really so awful three years ago and he says Well you were very young. But he says she’s very beautiful now. So that escalated.

04:01 ‘How is the doctor?’ says Martha.
‘Oh – he doesn’t change. Brilliant! Progressive! Provocative! Verbose as ever… ‘ (the doctor, or you?)

04:06 Dr Mitchell shows her into the lecture theatre where Dr K. has just told a brilliant, progressive and provocative joke and all the students are laughing in a heartily RADA way.

04:48 He’s giving a lecture about the miracle of the human body, but I can’t stop thinking about the miracle of his bowtie. It’s almost as big as Martha’s muff.

04:56 ‘…and so, today, some of you become doctors in your own right…’ continues Dr K – but honestly? His bowtie! It’s like someone used a table cloth, wrapped that round twice and used both fists to make a bow.

06:11 The students give Dr K a standing ovation. But only because it’s Peter Cushing. You’d give him a standing ovation if he came into the room and complained about the Citroen in his parking space.

06:50 Jackson, one of the students, hurries after Dr K. He wants to know why he’s not able to graduate. Dr K gives him a stern talking to, telling him he needs to be more logical and less emotional. And by the way, is he short of money…? (Er..hem). Actually, what he wants Jackson to do is ‘treat the subjects’ (by which I think he means corpses – because Jackson doesn’t look too thrilled).

07:33 Martha sneaks up on Dr K in his study. As Dr K admires her and pours her a drink (I feel queasy…), Jackson comes in and says there are ‘two gentlemen to see him with a stiff’ – which is nice. Dr K leaves with Jackson to check out the stiff; Dr Mitchell pours Martha a stiff one.

08:44 Martha’s acting is creakier than the Academy doors. She takes a little breath before each line, looks down then up again, smiles showing her bottom teeth each time like a ventriloquist’s dummy. She’s a miracle of engineering. They probably keep the battery in the muff.

09:20 Meanwhile out in the yard, Dr K meets the two grave robbers. ‘Nice n’fresh sir. Just a week in the grave,’ says the one with the line. ‘And 100% organic.’ (I added that). Dr K looks at the corpse’s face – which is a bit like me when I woke up this morning – except fresher – and says he’ll give them five guineas.

10:02 Jackson shifts the crate with the corpse in it (I swear the corpse actually blinks – but they did say it was fresh, so…) over to a tank of brine and tips it in. A bit like tuna, I suppose. Only in a shroud and not a tin.

10:25 Scene change. Outside the Merry Duke, the pub where the grave robbers hang out. In the street there are some jolly wenches laughing and carrying on. I’m not sure what a wench is. I think it’s the opposite of what Martha’s supposed to be. With wild hair, frills and no muffs. Inside the Merry Duke it’s drunken debauchery all round, something I roundly condemn. Cut to: Donald Pleasence in a ruined top hat, bad frock coat &c. He looks absolutely amazing and I want this as a tattoo, please.

10:58 Donald speaks in a weird accent – more Irish than Scottish, but hey – Donald Pleasence!

11:15 He says ‘surpraysed’ like he’s from Belfast. But honestly – I don’t care. Turns out both these guys are called Willy. Donald Pleasance is Hare, though, so that’s fine – sorry – foine. I’ll still call him Donald Pleasence, out of respect. Burke is the other one. (And he’s either wearing bad dentures or he’s got weirdly mobile lips).

NOTE: I just wiki’d Burke and Hare. They WERE from Northern Ireland! But it’s nothing you wouldn’t expect from Donald Pleasence – solid research, and a squint to die for.

11:53 Billie Whitelaw is one of the wenches. Which is a terrific bonus! What a cast! (Shame about the pub).

12:30 Jackson has gone to the pub to finish paying off the grave robbers. He gets into a fight with a drunken sailor who stole Billie’s skirt and is using it like a toreador. Billie rescues Jackson by smashing a bottle over the sailor’s head. (Every night the same in the Merry Duke. The perils of drinking. Mark my words.)

13:40 Jackson gets mugged outside the pub by Burke and Donald Pleasence. Billie scares them off, then takes him back to the brothel where she works. Everyone there is having as rowdy a time as at the Merry Duke, so I’m thinking Edinburgh in 1828 was quite the place. Her room’s a bit hovelly though. Dinge, with touch of squalour. She seduces Jackson and he almost knocks a picture off the wall in his haste.

16:30 The next morning, Jackson gets dressed and sings the kind of lah-dah-dah-dee-dum kind of nonsense song you might expect.
‘How’s your head?’ says Billie.
‘S’Alright’, says Jackson, innocently. They arrange to meet up again tomorrow.
Outside is a typical street scene – a guy demonstrating how to handle a chicken, a peasant buying fruit, extras haggling over pots, urchins dancing, that kinda thing. A little urchin girl tells Donald Pleasence and the other guy to hurry back home. Turns out some old guy has died. We see him getting nailed into a box by an undertaker in a top hat so roomy it’s probably where he keeps his tools. The old guy was a lodger and owed Burke three pounds. They decide to sell him to Dr K to clear his debt.

22:00 Cut to: a party at the Academy. The opposite to a party at the Merry Duke. Everyone’s hair is done up in curls, and when they get hot they don’t tear their clothes off they wave a fan. Dr Mitchell chats to Martha, but I’m distracted by the extras in the background doing some kind of formal dance. I think one of them was the corpse from the cemetery at the beginning. Certainly moves in the same way.

23:30 Dr K argues with a cleric about whether there’s a soul or not.
‘Can you see it?’ says Dr K. ‘…between the eyes, in the ‘Ab-DOH-men..?’ He’s a scientist, so maybe that’s how you’re supposed to say abdomen.

24:50 Burke and Donald Pleasence show Dr K the body of the lodger. ‘We heard you like ‘em fresh, sir. This one’s as fresh as a new cut cabbage’.
Whatever. They tip him in the brine.

26:00 Martha and Dr Mitchell are out punting, which is niche. When they get off the punt they run into Jackson and Billie. Jackson introduces Billie to them. Billie looks Dr Mitchell up & down like she’s pricing the job. Dr Mitchell offers them the use of their punt. Billie laughs. She doesn’t want wet drawers. This makes Dr Mitchell and Martha VERY uncomfortable. Jackson and Billie walk off (from the back it looks like Jackson forgot to take the coat hanger out when he put his jacket on). Martha & Dr Mitchell sit down for a picnic. They kiss, Dr Mitchell’s quiff almost knocking Martha’s bonnet askew (and yes, askew IS a word).

28:40 Billie persuades Jackson not to study tonight as she wants to go out for a drink. I’m guessing that’s why Jackson is still a student at 45.

29:20 Burke and Donald Pleasence have drunk all their lodger money in a boozer (I wouldn’t do that, absolutely not, nope). Donald Pleasence puts on some gloves and gets ready to convert one of the other drinkers into hard cash. They lead her outside. A geriatric in a hat with a lamp (the geriatric has the lamp, not the hat). ‘Twelve o’clock and all is well’ he says, staggering along. An early form of Apple Watch, I suppose. Burke and Donald Pleasence take the drinker back to Burke’s lodging house. Burke smothers her while Donald Pleasence dances a ghoulish jig. And there’s no-one dances a better and more ghoulish jig than Donald Pleasence. He gets a box to put her in and freaks out when he sees a rat. Everyone’s got their weak spot.

34:00 They take her to Dr K and agree to provide more. Donald Pleasence offers Dr K some snuff but if there’s one person you’re almost guaranteed not to want to take snuff from it’s Donald Pleasence (playing Hare – the actor himself you’d take as much snuff as he had and be joyfully sneezing all over the place).

35:50 Dr K is lecturing in the theatre. ‘May I draw your attention to the protuberance on the frontal lobe…’ he says, rapping a skeleton on the head with his cane. It gives a satisfying clack. He’s a great lecturer. The protuberance is actually quite big. More like a beluga whale. It’s what made the specimen a criminal, apparently. That’s why criminals are easy to spot. And so difficult to buy hats for. Jackson is caught napping and can’t explain how he would’ve treated this patient other than cutting off the protuberance with an angle grinder.

38:00 Jackson is back in Billie’s flat, waiting for her to come back from the Merry Duke or wherever. When she falls through the door she doesn’t like the expression on his face so sets the flat on fire. He puts it out. He asks her to marry him. She says no, she’s not the girl for him. Half of her wants to be a doctor’s wife and travel around in a punt, the other doesnae.

40:30 Donald Pleasence shows off his new waistcoat. Burke loves it – very harristocratic. A geriatric guy like the talking Apple Watch from earlier asks about the room to let. Donald Pleasence gives Burke a nudge. Turns out his name is Angus, a crofter who walked down from the Highlands, looking for work. He wanted to come to Edinburgh and end his days in peace. Donald Pleasence approves of that. Next thing you know, Angus is boxed up and being carried into Dr K’s back room. Dr Mitchell wonders how Angus got a bruised head, but Dr K appears and says don’t worry, there’s no need to cross examine. ‘We’ve had several prize specimens from these gentlemen in the past’. He’s all about the body, basically.

46:00 A deputation of doctors – as substantial as a three piece suite from DFS – demand to see Dr K on urgent business. Dr K shows them through to the LYE-BREH-REH. Turns out Dr K wrote a scathing article about one of the doctors who lanced an abscess that turned out to be an aneurysm. He gives them a high-handed talk about why this is dumb, and so on, and unethical – which is rich coming from someone dealing in briny cadavers.

49:50 Back in the Merry Duke, Billie is drinking plenty (not me, not any more, nope). She goes to the brothel to finish off the night. When Jackson finds she’s not at home in the hovel, he goes to the brothel, too. Confronts Billie but she’s mean to him. He runs away. She runs after him (maybe to set him on fire, not sure). Falls to her knees in the middle of a deserted street, and gets found by Burke & Donald Pleasence (and yes… .I admit that doesn’t have the same ring as Burke & Hare – but c’mon… Donald Pleasence!)

55:00 They take her to their lodgings. Donald Pleasence murders her. Mrs Burke comes in. ‘What’s she doing here? Did you touch her?’
‘No’, says Burke. ‘Donald Pleasence just killed her.’
‘Oh. That’s alright then,’ says Mrs Burke.

58:20 Jackson is working late in the lecture theatre. A porter wheels in a body under a sheet, as casual as if he’s pushing a tea trolley.
‘The Dr wants some drawings taken before we put her in the brine,’ he sniffs.
Jackson goes over, pulls back the sheet, sees Billie, collapses.
Dr Mitchell comes in – his quiff preceding him by a full five seconds.
Jackson rushes past him, muttering ‘Burke & Donald Pleasence! Burke & Donald Pleasence!’

59:00 Jackson confronts Burke in the lodging house. Starts strangling him, figuring to work up to pummelling via assault. Donald Pleasence saunters up behind him and stabs him in the back.
‘That’s one subject we won’t be selling to Dr Knox’ he says, wiping his knife on his cravat.

1:02:00 Daytime, the market square. An early form of social media shouts about the murder of Jackson. A street urchin called Daft Jamie who witnessed Burke & Donald Pleasence dragging him along smiles to himself and runs off.

1:03:20 Dr K identifies the body of Jackson at the police hovel – sorry – station. ‘D’you know why anyone would want to kill him?’ says the policeman. ‘Nope,’ says Dr K., neglecting to tell them about how yesterday he’d bought the body of Jackson’s girlfriend off Gumtree. Dr Mitchell covers for him. They talk about it in the cab home. I’m sure Dr Mitchell’s cleft chin is actually deepening the further into this mess he gets. Pretty soon he’ll have two chins, one facing the other. Maybe that way he’ll get a film to himself.

1:05:00 Daft Jamie tries to shake Burke & Donald Pleasence down. Apparently he took a ring off Jackson’s body and wonders if he should take it to the police. They say he should bring it to their house tonight, instead. Don’t go, Daft Jamie. It’d be… well… daft.

1:06:00 Martha (we haven’t seen much of her since the punting incident) – she appears at the Academy to Dr Mitchell. ‘I have a confession to make,’ she says. She’d overheard the students saying that Dr K isn’t particular where he gets his bodies. Dr K comes in. He’s wearing a cloak. He stops when he sees them talking, takes off his top hat, slams the door and walks forwards. I’m worried his cloak has caught in the door.
It hasn’t.
‘Can we discuss the lecture tomorrow?’ he says. ‘The subject is… the heart.’

1:08:00 Daft Jamie stops by a pig pen and laughs at the pigs. Maybe that’s how he got his nickname. But no – he calls two of the pigs Burke and Donald Pleasence, so he’s not that daft. He carries on into their dark house, though. Which IS daft. They attack him. There’s a big messy fight and somehow he escapes. They catch up with him and murder him in the pig pen. All this is secretly witnessed by Maggie, one of Billie’s friends from the brothel.

1:11:10 Maggie runs into the market square shouting murder. ‘It was Burke & Donald Pleasence! I seen them!’ She takes the police to their house. Then on to the Academy (this is a shortened version.. obviously the police are EXTREMELY thorough)

1:13:00 Back at the Academy, Dr Mitchell warns Dr K not to buy any more subjects from Burke & Donald Pleasence. I mean – you can have TOO fresh, and what with Daft Jamie going missing and everything. ‘Oh – d’you mean this one?’ says Dr K, flipping the sheet back. Yes. THAT Daft Jamie. The police arrive. ‘That’s him! That’s Daft Jamie!’ screams Maggie, pointing to the body on the slab, which I’m pretty sure is definitely Daft Jamie. I recognise him from the pig pen.
‘Have you examined the body yet?’ says the policeman, like it was the most natural thing in the world to come looking for Daft Jamie and find him on a slab.
‘What was the cause of death?’ he says.
‘Violence,’ says Dr K, cleaning his hands on a dirty cloth. ‘Without any doubt.’
I don’t get the feeling this policeman will EVER make detective.

1:14:00 Outside the Merry Duke a posse is forming in the classic way, flaming torches, cudgels, the works. ‘Burke and Donald Pleasence have been murdering people under our noses!’ shouts the landlord. ‘Let’s get after them!’

1:16:00 Burke & Donald Pleasence run away to hide in a warehouse. The crowd approaches making improvised rah-rah-rah noises. I’ve never SEEN so many hats. Burke and you know who bolt the warehouse door but the police have an enormous truncheon that takes a dozen of ‘em to carry and they batter down the door. Donald Pleasence throws Burke down the stairs at them, like skittles, then runs into the back room. The mob drag him back. The last we see of the mob, they’re making even more improvised rah-rah-rah noises and waving their hats in the air. So that WAS a successful mob. The long queue at the studio catering wagon was TOTALLY worth it.

1:18:46 Cut to: Martha embroidering in a drawing room. Quite a contrast. Her improvised embroidery stitches are about as believable as the crowd’s rah-rahing. Dr K paces nervously about. His bow tie is enormous again, which is no doubt a sign of anxiety. Dr Mitchell comes in. ‘They’ve arrested Burke & Donald Pleasence’ he says.

1:19:00 In the courtroom (things moved quickly back in 1828 Edinburgh). Donald Pleasence comes to the witness stand. Then cut to: a town crier announcing the verdict. Burke guilty! Dr K no charge! That’s the fastest courtroom scene I have EVER watched. And all the better for it.

1:20:40 Dr K turns up to give his lecture. The theatre is almost empty – and the students that have turned up have been fighting. A brick comes through the window. ‘Take your seats,’ says Dr K. ‘The subject of today’s lesson is neurology.’

1:21:25 Burke is led up to the scaffold. His last words are about how they hadn’t been paid for the last subject, and if they had, he’d have been able to afford a nice pair of trousers to meet his public. Meanwhile, Donald Pleasence slips out the back door of the police station, ignoring a blind beggar, which is never a good look. Various people step out of the shadows and confront him. They blind him with a torch, then when he collapses the blind beggar feels his way toward him along the wall.

1:24:50 Another mob has gathered outside the Academy (it’s obviously quite the season for mobs). He walks through the angry extras to his carriage, then gets taken to the medical council to be struck off. So not a great day, all in all. Dr Mitchell joins the medical council. He’s so concerned with events, his dimple has merged with the crease in the middle of his forehead, like a giant cottage loaf put aside to prove. He makes an impassioned plea to the council, which is – to sum up – you’re all a bunch of immoral crooks, so don’t you dare strike him off. They’re outraged, but can’t immediately disagree.

1:28:00 Dr K is walking through the empty marketplace. A little girl runs up and asks for a hennie to buy some sweets (I’m guessing a hennie is a penny – or, if it is an actual hen, I wonder how many sweets you’d get for it – probably a lot).
‘I haven’t any money,’ says Dr K, smiling in that warmly sinister way he has, ‘….but if you come to the house I can get you some.’
‘Oh, no,’ says the girl, running away, ‘You might sell me to Dr Knox.’
Dr K looks stunned. This is the first time he’s realised what he’s done. AND he hasn’t shaved.

1:29:00 Back at the Academy Dr K has a heart to heart with Martha. He admits he knew how the subjects died. He’s become an ogre, he says. He’s failed. He takes a book and wanders out of the LYE-BREH-REH. Dr Mitchell comes in. He says the medical council has exonerated him. Dr K carries on to the lecture theatre. He’s never missed a lecture, he says. ‘It’ll be quite a novelty, talking to empty walls. But at least they won’t criticise me.’ No – but the decals can be hurtful.

1:33:30 The lecture theatre is actually full, and all the students give him a standing ovation when he comes in. (Which proves my earlier point). Dr K gives a speech before the lecture. ‘Let us consider the Oath of Hippocrates. The sacred oath of our profession… blah blah … and never do harm to anyone.’ He cleans his glasses. The music swells…

THE END

That’s it! So what’ve I learned?

  1. Donald Pleasence had a squint and a whispery voice, which was perfect for playing murderers, psychos and Tory politicians.
  2. A hennie is a pennie but a hen is an oviparous feathered biped and easily forged.
  3. Burke & Hare are bodysnatchers. Not to be confused with Farrow & Ball, who make paint. Both make a killing.
  4. A large bow tie may look freakish and weird, but if there’s a fire in your hovel you can unravel it at the window and climb out.
  5. Punting looks fun but it’s really only for doctors

big dog

there was major alarm
down on the farm
someone ratted the animals out
the pigs all squealed
while the chickens appealed
fussing and flapping their wings about

the sheep muttered privately
the donkeys stood quietly
a crow looked down from the roof
the ducks on the pond
peeped out from the fronds
while the old horse stamped its hoof

save big dog!
cried an elderly hog
he doesn’t deserve this fate!
it wasn’t his plan
when you all overran
and kicked a hole in the gate

big dog was silent
watchful, defiant
he’d find out who sounded the warning
for now he’d sit tight
sleep through the night
tear out their throats in the morning

the invisible man

Michael’s sister Stephanie shows me into the bedroom. Michael is lying on top of the bed, propped up on pillows, sipping from a thick-cut glass of mauve-coloured water.
‘Please excuse the mess,’ he says, resting the glass back on his chest. ‘And thank you for coming.’
‘Would you like a cup of tea or anything?’ says Stephanie to me, hugging the corner of the door. ‘Shall I fetch you a chair?’
‘No, no! I’m happy standing,’ I tell her. ‘But thanks anyway.’
‘Or kneeling,’ says Michael. ‘Isn’t that what angels are supposed to do? At the corner of the bed?’
He finishes the last of the liquid, then winces with pain as he puts it back on the side table, alongside a Jenga of medication and a digital clock, the kind where the figures flip over. To his left on the bed is a stand for a Kindle, and one of those grabbers that you work with a lever to help pick things up.
Michael is dying of cancer. The next move is into a hospice, but he’s delaying that as long as possible. Life’s getting more difficult, though. He’s in such pain he finds it difficult to get out of bed, and when he’s up he can’t stand for long or bend over.
‘If I fall I’m done for,’ he says. ‘Socks are a particular thing. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a coffee? Or one of these…?’
He nods to the pain meds. ‘Barman’s special.’
‘That’s kind but… I’m good.’

There’s a TV up on a chest of drawers at the foot of the bed. He’s been watching an old black and white drama, frozen since I came to the door. I’m guessing it’s from the 1950s. Michael sees I’m curious and unfreezes it. The scene continues. A square-shouldered guy is talking seriously to an empty chair; a disembodied voice replies. He taps out a cigarette and hands it to the empty chair. The cigarette floats in mid-air. The square-shouldered guy lights it, then carries on with his monologue.
‘The Invisible Man?’ I say.
‘Correct!’ says Michael. ‘The first TV version. The special effects are dreadful but it was early and anyway there’s something strangely comforting about all that. Don’t you think?’
‘I know what you mean. They must’ve had fun figuring out all the moves.’
We both watch as the Invisible Man gets up from the chair – knocking it over, for clarity, or maybe because being invisible makes you more clumsy – and then sitting over on the sofa, the cushion sagging nicely in the middle to show when he’s landed. A woman comes in looking concerned. She goes over to the sofa and sits next to the Invisible Man, putting a hand out onto his lap, or where his lap might possibly be.
‘It’d be easy to get that wrong,’ says Michael.
She emotes beautifully, staring with great compassion into the space beside her.
‘All those years at acting school were not in vain,’ says Michael.

After the examination and a chat about how our service can help, Michael’s mobile phone rings. It’s out of reach on the bed. I reach out to get it, but Michael frowns and shakes his head. He takes up the grabber, pinces the phone in a precarious but firm enough grip, and then slowly and very expertly drags it towards him.
‘There!’ he says, taking it into his hands. ‘And I’m sure if you’d squinted and ignored the grabber, you’d have thought I was invisible, too!’

incident at the 7/11

a man ran in for a banana
he was wearing a banana print bandana
banana slippers and banana pyjamas
but anybody could tell
from the fella’s yelling & generally hyper manner
he was ‘bout three wigs shy of the full Hannah Montana
so anyways – he takes said banana
hurries outside to the smokers’ cabana
and gobbles it down in one helluva alarming manner
with this weird kinda side-chew, like a crazy llama
but anyways – whatever
pax humana, man
pax humana
no worries & no drama
yours – officer Roxana Fontana

which way grace

Bunty’s flat is arranged like the cabin of a yacht that ran aground ten years ago. The best you can say about it is that everything’s to hand. Her four blouses are hanging on the door handle; her four slacks are draped over the back of the rocking chair; her books and magazines are piled up on a kitchen trolley, along with her remotes, her magnifying glass, her dosette box, her emergency call button, her toffees, and then all around the place, scattered in a pattern that’s accessible to no-one else but Bunty, heaps of important, irrelevant, sentimental and otherwise wholly miscellaneous stuff. Bunty has kept a space clear on the floor in front of the fireplace for the memorial programme from her husband’s funeral, though. A gnarly, buttoned-up, shiny shoes kind of man, he stares out at the room with a dyspeptic look, like he bloody well knew this would happen.
‘Thank you so much for coming out to see me,’ she says. ‘Do have a seat.’
There’s a kitchen chair by the wall that Bunty obviously keeps clear for guests, so I sit there.
Once I’m down, she manoeuvres herself into position in front of her armchair, rocking from side to side on her rickety hips, jabbing at the carpet with the ferrule end of a solid looking walking stick.
‘This has been a godsend,’ she says, brandishing it in the air. ‘An absolute miracle. Carved from the wood of an oak tree. And look! You can use it when you go blackberrying…’ She mimes hooking brambles towards her, almost knocking the light out. ‘If there were any to be had,’ she adds, then plomps herself back in the chair. ‘D’you know where I got it? Go on! Guess where I got it.’
‘An antique shop?’
‘It was given to me!’ she says. ‘Feel it! Go on!’
I take the stick and waggle it, like a half-hearted swordsman, then hand it back.
‘Nice heft,’ I say. ‘Who gave it to you?’
‘Grace,’ she says. ‘We were friends for years. On and off. Lately we used to go to the same church. St Katherine’s. Round the corner. D’you know it?’
I nod.
‘I know where it is, anyway,’ I add.
‘Well,’ says Bunty. ‘Grace was sick. Anyone could tell. She was starting to look like George, and not in a good way.’
I pause to glance at the memorial card. George grimaces back.
‘One day she didn’t show up for mass, so I went round there. She was on one of those hospital beds they’d landed in the middle of her house, and things looked pretty grim. So we chatted about this and that, and then just as I was about to go, she grabbed this stick and held it out to me. Here, she said. You have it. It won’t be any good to me where I’m going. So I said Why? Will it burst into flames? But I don’t think she got the joke, which is par for the course, but probably just as well. So I took the stick and left. And I’ve used it ever since…’
Bunty hooks the stick over the back of the chair.
‘There!’ she says. ‘ Now then. Tell me what the devil this is all about!’

ep. 1: the paper crane killer

I’m an edgy killer
in a dark modern thriller
and I wear me some fancy boots
my calling card’s an origami bird
that I fold real cold whistling Mahler’s third
then drop on the floor
as I stroll out the door
saying ‘thanks for a stimulatin’ evening, Clem
give my respects to St Peter when you see ‘em’
or some such shit
then stroll back to my shack and shoot crack for a bit

I’m a flawed detective
drunk but still effective
and I got me some fancy angst
I live in a condo with my lizard Belmondo
that I saved from a shootout in Ol’ Colorado
I think like the perps
but deep down I hurts
now the force want me back on the paper crane case
so I stand at the mirror and study my face
the lamp at an angle
then sigh and tie a small Glock to my ankle

welcome to the anthropocene

the universe is big and pretty intense
filled with cataclysmic events
black holes busy tossing back planets
like squirrels in a tree of pomegranates
the whole thing such a source of strife
you’d never think it supported life

but when that asteroid struck catastrophically
the dinosaurs didn’t take any of it personally
they could see it was just a hunk of granite
as it wiped their asses off the planet
which is why they’d have thought it so unfair
that humans supposedly so smart and aware
they could see themselves in the reaches of space
were clueless they were trashing the place
frankly – to the embarrassing extent
they’d be calling us the next extinction event