Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Eighth of December - A Riddle

The sky was a wash of purple and orange punctuated with adamantine stars, and it never changed. Underneath grew strawberries - miles upon miles of them in neat, perfect rows stretching into the distance between the sparse trees.

Jael sat alone in his tree. Not many people had their own tree. He was unusual in that respect. Piem was his closest neighbour, living in a large tree with two others, close enough to talk.

"Piem!" Jael shouted.

Piem appeared from behind one of the thick branches and raised an eyebrow, twitching his overlarge moustache.

"I'm going to do it today," said Jael.

Piem walked carefully along the branch that brought him closest to Jael's tree, sat and stared thoughtfully into the middle distance. "You want to end up like one of them?" he asked, pointing to a nearby tree from which three corpses hung, suspended from the neck. The bodies bounced against each other gently in the breeze. "They say that's what happens to you if you go down."

"I don't think they're real. Have you ever looked at them up close? They haven't got faces. They're fakes."

Piem looked unconvinced, but Jael ploughed on. "Piem, can I tell you something?"

He nodded.

"I've been feeling strange lately. This whole place... the fields, the trees..." he fell silent.

"Spit it out, then."

"I... Look, I'm not convinced any of it's real."

"You're so weird," said Piem, grinning through his walrus moustache.

"Come with me," said Jael with unusual urgency. "I'm going down to the strawberries. Today."

"You're always looking. Why do you keep looking?"

"It's better than being like those fools out there," replied Jael, gesturing in the direction of a cluster of trees on a hill. "Who wants to spend their whole lives with their eyes closed?"

Piem shrugged. "They find it easier. They don't trust people who look down all the time."

"Well I don't think it's such a bad thing," Jael replied. "The longer you look at the sky, the more stars you see. The more I look into the strawberries, the more... the more..."

"The more what? What have you seen?"

A set of swinging corpses on a nearby tree rocked in the growing wind. Jael didn't answer.

"It's Wednesday. Shall we go tree-hopping?" asked Piem in a falsely bright voice.

Jael sighed. "You realise these fields go on forever? I mean literally, forever. There's no point going sideways - we'll never get anywhere going sideways - the only way out is down."

"But why do you want to get out?"

"Is all this really enough for you? I want to be someone."

"You already are someone! You've got your own tree man! Most of the others have at least seven to a branch! There's at least two others in mine!"

"What do you mean, 'at least'?" asked Jael.

Piem looked darkly into the upper branches. "I think there's another one up there somewhere... But that's neither here nor there - your tree has the highest branches in the forest. How can you be so dissatisfied?"

"That doesn't matter much to me any more. It's getting harder. I don't know. Maybe it's me, but doesn't this place feel a bit dreamlike to you?"

Jael and Piem turned as a group of people living in a nearby tree struck up a lively song, all singing it together with their eyes screwed tightly shut.

"It's all wrong," said Jael.

"You're not feeling yourself," said Piem. "It's all right. Just stop looking down for a while and you'll feel better. It'll all work out in the end, Jael. Relax."

"You know, I think I disagree. The more you look, the more you see what's really there. There's something under the strawberries, Piem." His voice was suddenly conspiratorial. "There's someone there - with eyes - eyes the colour of... the colour of..." he gestured in circles as he searched for a metaphor. "... cranberry sauce," he finished, lamely.

"Come on man, you can't see very well - you wear those spectacles for God's sake! You sure you're not misunderstanding what you've seen?"

"No! I mean yes! The more you look the more you learn to... oh, I don't know... 'tune in', I suppose. Haven't you ever tried?"

Piem shook his head, his face blank.

"It's all right," said Jael, with a half-hearted shrug. "Maybe I am the only one. Piem?"



Jael jumped from the branch and hit the strawberries - and vanished.

Piem leapt to his feet. But Jael did not return. He was gone. And in his heart, Piem knew that one day his time would come too. But not yet. He had a few years yet.

(Written 28/02/17. This one's a riddle! So I'm not going to explain what it means here - but if you have a guess, or can figure out what's going on, please put your thoughts in the comments section! Who are Jael and Piem? and where are they? Let me know if you figure it out...)


(Update - well done to everyone who guessed, and especially to those who got it right! Here is the explanation...

Lyrics to Strawberry Fields Forever by the Beatles:

"Let me take you down 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever

Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It's getting hard to be someone
But it all works out
It doesn't matter much to me

No one I think is in my tree
I mean it must be high or low
That is you know you can't tune in
But it's all right
That is I think it's not too bad

Always, no, sometimes think it's me
But you know I know when it's a dream
I think a 'No' I mean a "Yes"
But it's all wrong
That is I think I disagree

Cranberry Sauce"

Jael = J.L. (John Lennon)
Piem = P.M. (Paul McCartney)
8th December = the date of the murder of John Lennon.)

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Mr Butler and Mr Dry

David Butler stood nervously in the glass foyer and waited. Outside, snow was falling in darkness. Automatic doors opened and closed behind him as people came and went. Michael Buble sang Christmas songs over the tannoy inside, where the glare of the supermarket lights formed a blinding, blurry mist. He patted his pockets absent-mindedly but his glasses weren't there.

David was nervous. Managing the store had been his life's work. His grandfather had founded Butler's, but in the past year it had been bought, and today he was meeting a representative from the new owners. Tomorrow the shop was officially changing hands.

An overweight man in a suit strode into the foyer, brushing the snow off his shoulders. "David? David Butler?" it said.

"Mr Dry, is it?" asked David, shaking a sweaty hand. He wished he had his glasses. The man was just an unfocused blob.

"Call me Crispin, please," said Mr Dry. "Shall we?"

David followed him inside, past the Christmas tree on which hundreds of fairy lights glowed in unfocused circles.

Mr Dry picked up a bag of tangerines and examined them critically. He groped each one like a doctor testing for lumps. "What do you notice about these tangerines?" he asked.

David took them and brought them close to his face. "They all look fine to me..."

"That, David, is the problem," replied Mr Dry. "You buy the tangerines by the crate, and bag them up in store, yes? Well from now on, we're going to put one of the fruits that are past their best - a bit watery and squashy - into every bag we sell."

David was taken aback. "But sir, we usually just throw them away!"

"It'll save us money, David. It's good business."

"Surely people will notice, sir! A bad tangerine in every bag? They're bound to pick up on that!"

"You'd be surprised," said the fat, blurry shape. "You'd be surprised. One week the husband will get the bad one, next week the wife, next week little Johnny. They won't pick up any pattern. And even if they do, they don't do anything about it. It's just business. Now, what have we got here?"

"Dry roasted peanuts, sir."

Mr Dry strode up to the nearest till and poured them out in the bagging area. "What's missing from this picture?" he asked.

David scooped up a handful of peanuts and peered at them.

"No dust, David. Where's the peanut dust?"

"The waste produced by the dry roasting process? We throw it away!"

"From now on, we're going to remove a couple of peanuts from every packet and replace them with dust. It'll save money. There's money in waste products, you know. It's good business."

David was beginning to feel very uncomfortable.

"And I'll tell you what," Mr Dry continued, "after a while, people will expect the peanut dust. They'll feel ripped off if they get a bag without it. Get someone to clean these peanuts up, will you?" 

David quickly cleaned the peanuts up himself and scurried after Mr Dry, who had picked up a sack of potatoes. 

"Now what about these? Can you see anything wrong with these potatoes, David?"

"No, sir! They are of the highest quality! Very popular with the customers!"

Mr Dry pointed to the little printed label that said where the potatoes were from. It said 'ROMANIA."

"Romania is a problem, sir?"

"No, no, of course not," he replied, "cheap as chips, I'm all for it. But from now on, we don't tell people things come from there. We say 'grown in the EU'. That way they could have been grown in Italy or France. More romantic. And we can bump the price up a bit. Everyone knows a possibly-grown-in-France potato is worth more than definitely-grown-in-Romania potato."

David's head was spinning. "Sir, is this honest?"

"There is only success or failure, David. There's money or no money. This isn't bad - it's good! Good business! You see?"

"Not at all."

"Tell me David, when did you last rearrange the store?"

"We never do that really, sir," David replied, trying to keep his voice steady. "People know where to find things. It works great, just the way it is."

"Right, well from now on, we're going to be moving everything around. One month we'll move all the eggs. Then another month we'll move the baby products. Then the sauces. Then something else again after that."

"Sir, we have always tried to be considerate towards both our employees and our customers. This sounds... for lack of a better word, disrespectful."

"It's good business, David. Rearranging will force people to search all over, exposing them to all the products and displays they might miss out on in their usual shopping routine."

"Sir, there will be complaints if we keep arbitrarily rearranging the store."

"Complaints are good, David! If a customer cares enough to complain, that shows they are beginning to feel a sense of ownership in the business. They are beginning to feel it is their shop."

"People already feel that, sir!"

"And besides, complaints won't cause any real trouble - the customer service team can simply blame Head Office. Everyone knows that wherever you work, Head Office can neither be reached nor reasoned with. Easy to blame, and impossible to actually get hold of. Damn good system, if you ask me."

"In what possible sense is that a good system, sir?"

"In the sense that it's good business."

"I thought you might say that."

Mr Dry wandered over to the hair care products and stared at the shelves. "Now," he said, "tell me about the people of this town. Are they wealthy?"

"Not wealthy, no," replied David, "but not poor either... middle class, I suppose. Families who want the best for their kids."

"You see these products? You've got the very cheapest shampoo, then some stuff priced in the middle, and then the expensive name brands. We need to change this."

"I - I'm sorry?"

"We'll discontinue the stuff in the middle. Make 'em choose between either the bog-standard cheap rubbish or the name brands. Just you watch - they'll go for the name brands every time - these middle class families - they'll feel like choosing the cheapest stuff is letting their kids down. So only leave 'em one other option. The most expensive one."

"Sir, that is immoral!"

"Not at all, not at all! We're doing them a favour, can't you see? We're giving them pride. They'll realise they can afford the best! Imagine what that does for your self-respect, David!"

David sagged. "Mr Dry, if you don't mind, I have left my glasses in my office, and must go and find them." And without waiting for a reply, he left the shop floor and fled upstairs. 

He found his spectacles in his office amongst the stock reports. As he slipped them on, the world came back into focus. He had known his last day at the store was coming, but he hadn't realised until now that it had already come. He watched Mr Dry wandering the aisles on the CCTV monitors. Tomorrow it would all change. It was already changing.

He made his way back downstairs and approached the meat counter. "Mr Rodgers. Come with me, if you would be so kind."

Mr Rodgers laid down his meat cleaver and followed Mr Butler into the dairy aisle, where Mr Dry was examining a bottle of milk.

"Mr Rodgers, this is Mr Dry." Mr Dry looked up. "He came in a green BMW which is currently parked outside in the disabled space. I'd like you to let his tyres down, please."

Mr Rodgers looked confused.

"Is this a joke?" asked Mr Dry, one eyebrow raised.

David was not smiling. "We have pressurised air available in the garage forecourt, sir - a pound a go. Good business. And Mr Rodgers, I seem to remember a length of spare tubing out in the warehouse? Please take it and siphon off his fuel."

"What do you think you're playing at, Butler?" said Mr Dry, a warning in his voice.

"We also have petrol available in the forecourt, sir. Shall I call Eileen the cashier and ask her to put up the price?"

"Put up the price? What for, man!"

"For when you get there with an empty tank, sir. Remember, there is only success or failure, Mr Dry. There's money or no money. This isn't bad - it's good! Good business! You see?"

"You are asking to be fired, Mr Butler," said Mr Dry, but David was already walking away.

He stood in the foyer for a moment, the doors opening and closing behind him, and took a deep breath. Apparently, the principles of good business only worked in one direction. When they were turned around, they became gross misconduct. With a sigh, and without saying goodbye to anyone, he walked out into the falling snow, got into his car, and drove away into the night.

Mr Rodgers the butcher didn't know what was going on, or why the new boss was glaring at him. But it was obvious that old Mr Butler hadn't liked him very much, and old Mr Butler liked everybody. As he made his way back to the meat counter, he mused on the notion that everybody liked Mr Butler too. Respectful, that's what he was. Made things easy for the staff, and they made things easy for him.

"New boss is here, Doreen," Mr Rodgers said, as he picked up his cleaver again. "Don't like the look of him. Only been here five minutes and already fallen out with the old man."

Doreen listened greedily to the whole story, and then scurried off to the alcohol aisle to gossip to Shannon, who, Mr Rodgers knew, would invariably tell everyone else in the store. He paused in thought for a few moments, and then grinned as his cleaver fell on the meat. Mr Butler knew how to make life easy for those who worked in the store. Apparently, he also knew how to make it hard.