a perch in the square

The thunderstorms they promised have yet to materialise. Instead, a giant grey lid has drawn low over the city, holding down a pressurised heat that makes you long for clear skies and a clean breeze, the sea, and a rock to dive from.

I’m visiting Andrew, a patient whose history of alcohol abuse and mental health problems means he needs to be a double-up. I’ve arranged to meet Sandy, one of the nurses, at the address. As well as my obs bag and folder I’m carrying a perching stool, because the notes say Andrew injured himself recently and needs something to sit on when he washes. I’m so hot now I’m tempted to stop and sit on it myself, right here in the street, and just wave for people to go round.

Andrew lives on a new estate, somewhere I’ve been before but only to the outer houses. I’ve heard the private parking arrangements can be fraught, so I take the safest option of leaving my car out on the street and walking through. Rookie error. The estate turns out to be the architectural equivalent of a cavity – a small entrance roadside that quickly opens out into a wide, faux village green, red brick Lego houses on four sides and cul-de-sac arms windmilling off at the corners. Whether it’s the heat, my innate stupidity, the evil planners, or all three, but I cannot figure out the way the numbers run. I take the south side of the green; of course, the numbers are completely wrong. I cut across the green, but in the far corner they’re even lower. I have a sudden, terrible image of myself, discovered years later by maintenance staff when they strim around some overgrown bins, my skeleton sprawled on the rusty perching stool, a squawking crow gothically and ironically perched on me. The maintenance staff taking a picture, uploading it. People commenting yeah right how fake.

Eventually, though, more through luck than judgement, I find myself standing outside the entrance to Andrew’s place. There’s an intercom with half a dozen numbers, high numbers at the bottom, low numbers at the top. Andrew’s buzzer is at the bottom, which means, I’d guess, he lives on the top floor. Great. I put my stuff down, sit on the stool, and wait.

Sandy rings. She’s lost. The satnav has taken her somewhere else entirely. I try to give her directions but it’s only then I realise how little I understand the area myself. We spend five minutes trying to establish which way she’s facing, whether we’re talking about the same convenience store, the same school. I can’t remember whether the entrance to the estate is opposite a boarded-up pub or a church. I’ve walked too far into the estate to walk back onto the road and wave as she drives past. She says don’t worry she’ll drive around a bit and see what happens. I say fine, good luck, see you later.

Take a breath. Take stock.

A large white van enters the square from the far corner, drives round the opposite side and stops in the road facing me. It idles there a second, then a guy in a baseball cap and a face as red as his shirt leaps out, fluorescent tabard wings flapping behind him. He strides round the front of the van leaving his door wide open, throws open the side of the van, grabs out a parcel, hurdles a small flower border with his index finger already extended to press the intercom so forcefully he almost puts it through the wall. He stands there, breathing heavily, looking around. He sees me sitting there and seems to straighten. After a second he nods once, sharply, then spins the parcel in his hand like Billy the Kid. The door opens. Even before the woman has said hello the guy has chucked the parcel at her. She drops it and apologises, but he’s already vaulted back over the border, slammed the side door shut, slid arse-first across the bonnet, thrown himself into the driver’s seat and set off, only closing the driver’s door when he’s made ten yards. The woman slowly retreats back inside. The square falls silent again.

A woman further down on the left comes outside, carrying a folded camping chair in her left hand, a glass of drink in her right, a rolled magazine under the same arm. She drops the chair down onto the scrap of grass outside the main door, pulls the magazine from under her arm, sets the magazine and the drink down, then shakes out the chair, kicking the feet out securely with a crocked foot. When she sees me I wave. She nods back, but in a non-committal way, then carries on setting herself up – a little more self-consciously, it seems to me – occasionally glancing my way to try to figure out quite what I’m doing over here, perched on my perching stool. She must realise I’m an official visitor, though? Black trousers, black shoes, a white polo shirt (the hot weather allowance instead of a tunic), an ID badge hanging from my belt. But then – if I’m visiting, why am I sitting outside the house and not going in? There’s no way of miming that I’m waiting for a colleague, and I’m certainly not going over there to explain. Because what if she isn’t wondering what I’m doing? Maybe she’s just happy to see someone else sitting down in the square. You can overthink these things.

My phone rings. Sandy has found the entrance and wants to know whether to drive in or not. I tell her that I didn’t drive in but wished I had. I give her directions to follow once she’s reached the square.
‘This is exciting,’ she says. ‘It’s like in the films when the pilot has a heart attack and the control tower tells a passenger how to fly the plane.’
I agree with her, although when I hang up I try to remember a film where that happened and can’t think of one.

A few minutes pass, more than you’d need to drive round. I wonder whether to ring again.

I look across at the woman again. When she sees me she raises her glass in a cheers way. I smile and nod and mime how hot it is by wiping my forehead and flicking my hand off to the side. But then I wonder if she interprets that as me saying how hard I’m working when I’m patently not.

Sandy pulls up in her enormous car. Watching her drive front first into the parking space is like watching a tanker super-cautiously nudging into dock. After a while she struggles out, desperate to avoid dinking the neighbouring car with her door, which she only manages by using her knuckles as a cushion.

‘I forgot to get the air con gassed-up when it went in last week so basically I am fully cooked now!’ she says. ‘Anyway. Here I am. I made it.’

I fetch the key from the key safe and we struggle up the stairs to Andrew’s flat. We stand in the doorway, puffing and blowing and staring inside.

He’s lying prone on a low sofa, covered in a fleece. The room is unbearably hot, the radiators on, the windows closed. A tropical greenhouse would be several degrees cooler. Sandy looks at me, widening her eyes over the top of her mask, her forehead already glistening with sweat.
‘Andrew?’ she says. ‘Would you mind if we open a window please?’
‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ he says, slowly turning his jaundiced face to the side and giving us both a sad, heavy look. ‘I like it warm.’

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Stanley v.2

I made a new Stanley from the recycling
basically just experimenting
with everything and anything

his head was a cracked plastic funnel
a baked bean can for a muzzle
his ears a pair of raggedy flannels

for his eyes I used two diet coke tops
his legs were four old floor mops
his claws quartered rubber door stops

his body was a novelty cushion
wires to work every facial expression
a bark from a bootleg jazz session

it turned out better than I anticipated
I hoped he might’ve celebrated
but Stanley growled at the creature I’d created

status update X

I’m the shit / the shaman / the showman / the show me the way to go home man / I’m the snowman / the do this or don’t man / the row row row the boatman / the use your vote man / I’m the last to know the first to go man / I’m lionel backdraft and the silicone cases / I’m Fortnum and Macy’s / a brace of tasties / a hopeless meander / I’m goosey goosey whatnot / I’m ribena / I’m both hyena and low-ena / I’m roger moore sans eyebrows / I’m sidney scarecrow and the lowbrows / I’m a dreamer and a cynic / I’m a disney frog singing in the fracture clinic / so let me down gently and kick me slowly / I’m greedy / reedy / super speedy / bdsm needy / I’m the creme de la phlegm / the credo / I’m the hulk in speedos / practising hula hoop in the eye of a tornado / I’m the last and the least / Banquo on the back row licking a big feast / I’m a tooth in a tumble dryer / a secret admirer / Bezos on the scrounge / tossing back benzos in the business lounge / I’m a stunt / a cunt / a miserable moo / I’m a frequent flyer and so are you / I’m an interplanetary fraud / a hoarder with plaudits / an electric eel on antispasmodics / a snorer / a bored borer / a high scorer / a top drawer explorer / visionary ignorer / I’m the bouncer who bounced / the announcer who flounced / I’m a long hard look / at the death row prisoner eating a book / I’m cautious charlie and the undercooked / I’m a raucous caucus / a lawless chorus / burning down the barricades July thru August / I’m the least likely to succeed / I’m peed / pawed / floored / fixed / nixed / bereft / I get taken out first round with a delicious left / why’n’cha watch the playback / jack / but stay well back / maybe write me a letter / I promise I’ll read it when things get better

the cat came back

I saw a cat that looked like you
and wondered if it might be true
that nurse who scanned the chip was wrong
and handed me a different dead cat all along

but how could that be? a chip’s a chip
I can’t imagine she’d have trouble with it
it’s just – you looked exactly the same
and nuzzled my hands when I said your name

Solly was really a brilliant cat
if Death could be tricked he’d be up for that
sneaking out from under their cloak
leaping to life from the side of the boat

but black and white’s a common kinda pattern
from Kathmandu to downtown Manhattan
and I felt the stab of last year’s sorrow
when I saw he lacked a mask like Zorro

what a ride

I’m just your average homo sapiens
so I’ve no idea why I got abducted by aliens

I was out walking Stanley the dog
when there was this sudden creepy fog
then a noise like someone bowing a saw
that carried on annoyingly a minute or more
till a fierce white light snapped down
and I felt myself rising off the ground
waggling helpless as a mackerel
controlled by forces supernatural
till I rose up through a dodgy looking hatch
and landed on deck for the creatures to catch

Let me try to describe ‘em
I mean – at first I totally didn’t buy ‘em
they looked kinda hokey
sounded worse than me at karaoke
almond eyes, sensitive mouths
a bunch of tentacles north & south
if you ask anyone to draw an alien
from Buddhist monk to Episcopalian
I’m damned sure thems the figures you’d see
but that’s what I found leering down at me

They took me to their leader
an older unit with a badge that said PETER
(his real name was probably SCHNORQ or KLARHT
but they didn’t wanna alienate me right at the start)
he put my phone up on a giant screen
I put in the password twenty eighteen
the other aliens gathered round
moved their tentacles so I could sit down
as PETER swiped and the images swam
all the videos I’d watched on Instagram
and every time he’d stop and frown
and sigh and tut and shake his suckers
like humans were the ditziest mothafuckas
and he’d look to me for an explanation
to understand the population:

‘that’s someone falling over at a wedding
that’s Motor Bikin’ by Chris Spedding
that’s three kids jumping in the water
that’s a goose walking on wet mortar
that’s a kitten on a trampoline
that’s switching lip balm with germolene
that’s a wheelie and a stoppie
that’s a ten second paper poppy
that’s a guppy looks like Trump
that’s a starving dog on a dump
that’s a bunch of sweet Jedi moves
that’s a dachshund overdubbed with coconut hooves
that’s how to draw sheep
that’s Tom Hardy & Meryl Streep
that’s Rihanna in Tijuana
that’s Ray of Light by Madonna
that’s Ray Winstone on a lilo
that’s shortcrust versus filo
that’s bloopers from Friends
that’s Jennifer Aniston again
that’s a three year old doing a halfpipe
that’s a woodcock and a snipe
that’s le parkour
that’s Alan Moore
that’s a spiky dress at the Met
that’s a clown swallowing a cigarette
that’s a gas explosion at a depot
that’s a fashion selfie in Aleppo
that’s Grampa, Lily and Herman Munster
that’s a drunk guy falling in a dumpster
that’s a stream of molten lava
that’s J-Lo eating guava
that’s Miley Cyrus
that’s an anti-vaxxer wrestling someone dressed like the virus
that’s Charlize Theron reacting to confetti
that’s a good hard stare from Giacometti
that’s a fashion selfie in Chernobyl
that’s a bad flood in Grenoble
that’s someone eating a cake like a brain
that’s Jennifer Aniston again
that’s a bridge collapsing
that’s Miley Cyrus relaxing
that’s a dachshund with a pipe and beret
that’s three girls twerking on the MTA
that’s a fight at the checkout
that’s – no idea what that’s about…’

Peter suddenly raised a tentacle
slithered down sadly off his pedestal
‘thanks for your help in this difficult matter
I’ve seen enough of this mindless chatter
forget the probing – he’s not to blame
just toss him back to whence he came’

and the next thing I knew I was back in the forest
and Stanley was gone – completely lorest

the constellation of jeffrey

Jeffrey Bezos
rich as pharaohs

rides his gleaming space vibrator
with a qualified pilot and navigator

gets a minor epistaxis
thinking about his unpaid taxes

but suddenly he’s weightless
billions lighter but destined for greatness

presses his shining face to the glass
amazed they got away so fast

stares back down on planet Earth
wonders what the old rock’s worth

hat

It’s so hot my shoes feel tacky, like I’m puddling footprints of molten plastic as I go. I’m visiting a patient in a bunkerish, red-brick block called The Apples. Quite why they called it The Apples is anyone’s guess. Maybe there was an orchard here once. Maybe they tried a lot of other names, nothing fit, so they asked a five year old. Maybe they misunderstood the architect, who actually said ‘Thermopylae’ over the phone. Whatever the reason, the block is just about as far away from apples as it’s possible to be. Unless you count supermarkets.

There’s an elderly woman dragging a wheeled shopping bag up the path ahead of me, her long white hair reflecting the sunlight so powerfully it’s like she’s wearing a bridal veil of spun silver.
‘Where’s your hat?’ I say to her as I gradually overtake her.
She stops, turns and frowns.
‘Don’t believe in ‘em,’ she says. Then carries on.
When we get to the main door I tell her I’ll buzz my patient to let me in, but her frown deepens so much it meets her chin. She swipes her fob in front of the pad.
‘Let me get that for you,’ I say, holding the door.
She drags her shopping bag into the shady hallway.
‘I’m using the lift,’ she says, and nods for me to take the stairs.

Luckily, Mr Felstrom is on the first floor. I wonder if he’ll be confused, me knocking on his flat door without having buzzed the intercom first. There’s no sound from within the flat, so I’m surprised when the door suddenly opens and he’s standing there, looking as if he’s been waiting for me there ever since I rang to arrange the visit a half hour ago. He looks extraordinary – comprehensively buttoned into a tartan shirt, his bristly hair sticking straight up, like he showered, then dried himself by standing over a vent.

Mr Felstrom’s flat is as small and ruthlessly organised as the cabin on a ship, everything aligned with everything else, even the piles of letters on the table in size order, the letter opener parallel, a list of medications surrounded by a display of equidistant pill packets. Even the fridge magnets are all in a grid. I begin to feel as if I’ve been uploaded into a photograph, just like the one on the calendar – a young woman standing next to him under a tree – blu-tacked to the kitchen door. The calendar is covered with carefully written dates and an array of post-its with important messages.

‘My daughter’s coming round later to take me to the park,’ he says, after I’ve finished the examination and I’m writing up the notes.
‘That’s nice! A lovely day for it. If you wear a hat. Which park are you going to?’
‘You know,’ he says.
‘Which?’
‘The long one.’
‘Like one of those stately home kinda parks?’
‘Lots of trees.’
‘Sounds amazing.’
I try naming a local park.
‘No,’ he says.
I try to think of a couple of big parks out of town.
He shakes his head.
‘How are you getting there?’ I say, hoping that might shed some light.
‘On the bus,’ he says.
‘Fantastic! Maybe you could sit on the top deck and get a great view.’
‘My daughter’s taking me.’
‘Lovely.’

He stares at me, blinking rapidly but otherwise completely still. And it’s something about the way he speaks and looks, combined with the stultifying heat in the room, the hectic geometry of the place, the grid of his shirt, that starts to make me feel a little dizzy.
Bus? Park? Daughter?
‘But don’t forget to wear a hat,’ I say.
Hat?

status update IX

I’m Davy Crocket / out of powder and out of pocket / trading my beaver for an Easter bonnet / D for Davy or maybe Dunce on it / but hey – at least I’m honest / I don’t give a moose shit whose musket’s longest / you can find your own way out of the forest

I’m poor Mrs Rochester raving in the attic / a flare for fire and the melodramatic / energetic & enigmatic / two parts FOMO, one part Panic / a risk to everyone but especially asthmatics

I’m Ulysses, stripteased, tied to the mast / having furiously asked / my greased and snake-hipped crew to bind me fast / which they reluctantly agreed to do at last / then retreated to watch and gossip from the aft / and wiki my wicked BDSM past

I’m Jiminy Cricket wishing on a star / sprawled on the bonnet of a Karmann Ghia / wondering where all the real boys are

I’m Maximus Decimus Meridius / loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius / father to a murdered son, Minimus / husband to a murdered wife, Mousimus / and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next – did that sound imperious? / good – I want them to know I’m serious

I’m sweaty Jack / goose and harp safely in the sack / singing while I’m swinging at the beanstalk with my axe / giving the ogre a heart attack / cos he’s halfway down and can’t go back