Adrian Sturrock: ‘Apparently, while I’m stuck at home, everybody’s out phishing’

I’m sitting in my office at home when the phone rings.

     ‘… Good afternoon, sir, I’m phoning in relation to your recent accident.’

     Me: ‘What? Oh my God! I’ve had an accident …?’

     ‘… I’d just like to clarify a few details with you, if I may?’

     Me: ‘Am I OK? I mean … I had no idea …’

     ‘… I’m pleased to inform you that your claim has been successful and that we have now been authorised by our underwriters to deposit the agreed compensation directly into your bank account. This should only take a few moments so, if you could just confirm your account details for me, sir, I can then ensure that the full amount is transferred to you today.’

     Me (pretending to shout across the house to my wife – who’s currently at work): ‘Nat! It’s the man from the accident shop … I don’t know … probably somewhere in India … or Nigeria … he didn’t say.  Anyway, apparently, I’ve had an accident. But it’s OK because we’re now rich. Don’t bother with cooking this evening, we’re going out to eat!’

     Directing my attention back to the voice on the phone, I continue.  ‘Forgive me,’ I say, ‘it’s clear that I’m still suffering a little amnesia from the trip or fall at work. How bad was it?’

     ‘… Sorry, sir?’

     ‘Well, between you and me, it occurs that none of my family has thought to discuss the accident with me, which leaves me wondering whether it’s more serious than you’re letting on. I mean, is it terminal? Just tell me that …?

     ‘I … um … I think you’re going to be OK, sir. If you could just confirm your bank account details with me, I can transfer the full amount today.’

     ‘Are you sure you’re not just trying to be kind to me? If not even my wife can bring herself to talk about my accident, then things can’t be looking good.’

     ‘Sir, if you could just confirm your bank account details …’

     ‘There are so many things I still want to do; so many places I haven’t visited. How long have I got left? Can you at least tell me this?

    ‘Sir, please …’

     ‘Did you know that three percent of the ice in Antarctic glaciers is made up of penguin urine? I really hoped that, one day, I’d get to see that for myself.’

     ‘Sir …’

     ‘Yes, I know. And, apparently, ducks have regional accents. Did you know that? And I’ve only heard some of them. I have so much left to do … Hello? … Are you still there? …We seem to have been cut off … Hello?’

* * * * * * * *

A few hours later, Nat arrives home. ‘Hi,’ she calls, as she’s hanging up her coat in the hallway, ‘How’s your day been?’

     ‘Hi,’ I shout back. ‘I’ve had an accident.’

     ‘What!’ She’s now in the room with me. ‘What happened?’

     ‘I’m not sure. But a nice man from the telephone called to let me know that he’s going to pay me for it. Who knew that having accidents could be an actual job. If only my careers advisor at school had told me this, things might have been so different.’

     ‘And all he wanted was your bank details, right? So he could put the money straight in?’

     ‘No, I think my careers advisor just wanted to get through his day. To be honest, I don’t feel he was really committed to his job.

     ‘No, the guy on the phone.’

     ‘Oh, yes.’ I smile. ‘How did you know that?’

     ‘… You didn’t, did you?’ Nat seems to be frowning at me.

     ‘I might be stupid, Natalie, but I’m not stupid … And anyway, he rang off before I could give them to him.’

     ‘My dad usually just tells them that he has something boiling over on the cooker, and asks them to hang on for a moment while he goes to turn it down. Then he wanders off to read his paper.’

     ‘I like your dad,’ I say.

     ‘In some ways, I seem to have married him,’ she says.

     ‘I’ll take that as a slightly creepy compliment,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

The next morning, I find myself reading an online report about phishing scams in the UK. According to the police website, Actionfraud, there has been a 41% rise in telephone scam calls over the past year, amounting to £23.9m in losses. In my head, I compare this with a recent Guardian article I read that stated the current average UK salary to be £28,677. No wonder my careers teacher opted to leave ‘deception intended to result in financial or personal gain’ off his list of possible career choices.

     ‘Typical of a state school education,’ I say to myself. ‘If only I’d gone to Eton.’

 

* * * * * * * *

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Adrian Sturrock: For obvious reasons, I’m publishing this article on a Sunday.

There is a place called Hell in Norway. And every winter it freezes over. It’s a small village of only 1,589 people, which leads me to believe that all those threats I received at Sunday School as a child were mostly exaggeration, and that you have to do something pretty fucking extreme to be sent to Hell. To learn this in later life, I’m filled with both relief and the feeling that I’d been played all those years ago.

* * * * * * * * 

As one might expect, Hell has a retirement home (read ‘has’, not ‘is’), as well as a petrol station, a grocery store, and a fast food stand for passing truckers. There really isn’t a lot to do here! Most significant, however, is that Hell’s railway station is not an end-of-line stop. A sign on its outbuilding reads, ‘Gods-expedition’, an archaic spelling of the Norwegian, ‘goods handling’.

As temperatures can be as low as -25 degrees in winter, one might be forgiven for assuming that sitting in the waiting room of Hell’s station would amount to purgatory, but, as everybody knows, Purgatory is in the United States. Maine, to be precise. (According to TripHobo, there is ‘little to do in Purgatory. It is a small place which is generally used as a rest stop before moving on to better things.’ Pretty much text book then!)

Unsurprisingly – and as I’d already secretly suspected – they play the Blues in Hell. The ‘Hell Blues Festival’ started in 1992 before being changed to the ‘Hell Music Festival’ in 2006, in an attempt to attract a more eclectic crowd. The result of this, only one year later, was bankruptcy. (Not even Goths go to Hell, it seems.) The following year, ‘Blues in Hell’ was re-instated and success returned as Hell reconnected with its true demographic. Last year, British singer/songwriter Jo Harman headlined here. (Having been born in Luton, Hell must have been an almost ‘back-to-the-womb’ experience for her.)

Those who know me understand that I’m not a fan of Blues music. In fact, I place it alongside war crimes and Morris Dancing in my list of ‘Under-No-Circumstances’. However, at a squeeze, I’d still place Blues above the questionable genre of Church Hymns, which leaves me in somewhat of a dilemma regarding my preferred afterlife destination. (Have you noticed how AC/DC fans can instinctively sing along to the entire back catalogue, while church-goers who attend their event every single week still need the hymn books? There is definitely a point to be made here.)

* * * * * * * *

One of the benefits of living in the 21st Century is that one no longer has to rely on biblical supposition when it comes to the realities of Hell – not now that Hell has its own listing on Trip Advisor. A simple click of the computer mouse will tell you that Hell “wasn’t as hot as I thought it would be” and that “the train station […] is only serviced if you flag the train down.” This latter point, I feel, throws up its own existential questions.

The problem with Hell, of course, is fundamentally an ethical one: that its existence for the punishment of souls is inconsistent with a just, moral, and omnibenevolent God. On the other hand, according to lifeinnorway.com, “despite its proximity to the E6 motorway and an international airport, the village itself is remarkably peaceful. Typical Scandinavian wooden houses, well-kept gardens, lots of cyclists, kids playing in the streets: not what I expected at all!” As some schools of theological thought define Hell as specific to the individual (rather like Orwell’s Room 101), perhaps this particular town is set aside for those whose idea of torture is a recurring suburbia.

If this is not your Hell, however, don’t forget that there’s another one in Michigan, USA, another in California, another in Montana, and further Hells in Slovenia and Grand Cayman. They’ve even installed one on the moon, a lunar crater named after Maximillian Hell. Just like the song, Hell really is all around. (I am, of course, paraphrasing.)

I looked to see if Hell, Norway © has been internationally twinned with any other towns but, as yet, there haven’t been any takers despite the fact that the town can boast the honour of having produced the 1990 winner of both Miss Norway and Miss Universe (though I’m not sure how ‘The Beauty Queen from Hell’ reads on the world stage).

Hell doesn’t have a lake of fire but it does have a river and, until 1995, there was a highway to Hell, but it now goes around the village instead. And for those of you who have ever laid awake wondering, Hell is actually 14 metres above sea level. Now, that’s something the Apostles neglected to mention. 

* * * * * * * *

 

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Adrian Sturrock: ‘This summer, I travelled through eleven European countries and from this I can tell you one thing: Nobody gives a damn about Brexit except the British.’

If there was ever further proof needed as to why the European Union remains the most successful and humane project on this continent, meet me right here, right now, and I’ll show you.

     It’s a warm Tuesday morning. Nat and I are standing on the Oder Bridge, which crosses the river between Frankfurt, Germany and Slubice, Poland. The bridge acts as a border between the two countries, except that there is no border to be seen.

     The bridge itself is vibrant with the sounds of cars and trucks and cyclists and pedestrians, all going about their business, crossing and re-crossing its length. An elderly couple smile at us as they pass by on their way back from the polish farmers market on the other side of the river. We smile back at them. They are pulling a fabric shopping trolley behind them which is brim-full with fruits and vegetables. A few metres further on, a young couple in their mid-twenties approach each other from opposite sides of the water and embrace. This is daily life, except that it wasn’t always the case here.

     Today, there is nothing to indicate that we are straddling two countries other than our knowledge of the fact. Borders are human constructs, they are lines drawn on a map, created by greed and legitimised by fear. If you were to watch a sped-up history of mainland Europe from space, and if you could see each territory’s borders as real, physical things, you would witness a continual movement of these lines, ebbing and flowing like ocean tides, shimmering reflections against rock, as armies temporarily gain or forfeit each other’s land. What you wouldn’t see is the body count hidden in each of these incremental shifts, the human cost of these temporary ripples.

     Within the lifespan of people still with us, the biggest body count inflicted on any one European country by another was that inflicted on Poland by Nazi Germany, resulting in six million Polish murders on the grounds of territory and ethnic cleansing. How could these nations ever face each other again? And yet, if you were to meet me today, right here, right now, you would find it impossible to tell that there was ever a conflict. What you would witness is a warm Tuesday morning, and people going about their daily lives. And this has been achieved without borders.  

     The genius of the European Union project is in its pragmatic ability to recognise human nature for what it is. It has redirected basic human greed into financial interdependence amongst its Member States, a simple idea really, that has converted some of the darker aspects of humanity into nearly seventy years of prolonged peace. It’s no coincidence that borders that have never stayed still have been static within Member State countries since the first manifestation of the EU, back in 1950. There are people who will tell you otherwise but, frankly, they are wrong.

* * * * * * * *     

As I write this, the word proroguing is entering the British vernacular, as Boris Johnson petitions the Queen to withhold that same Parliamentary Sovereignty that so many Brexit supporters believed they were voting in favour of. The Queen, for her part, has been politically boxed in, and has no choice other than to comply. Johnson is doing this in order to force an undefined Brexit on the British people. He is fresh in office and already is destined to go down in history, though I’m doubtful that history will speak kindly of him.

     Britain is living through perhaps the only time in its own history when so many of its people have used their collective muscle to deliberately strip themselves of so many of their liberties and rights. ‘Taking back control’ was never written on the side of a bus, but its integrity is proving to be equally misleading. The British media certainly has ink on its hands every bit as indelible as that which can bring down a Shakespearean wife, and though so many of us have grown aware of the lies it perpetually spins, the newspapers march on with equal arrogance and certainty: ‘What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account.’ Lady Macbeth didn’t make it to the final Act, and nor did she deserve to. I’m sincerely hoping that Johnson’s Government won’t either.

Adrian Sturrock: Extract from ‘THE SAT NAV DIARIES’

Chapter 5 – Feeling Jung in Kesswil – (Kesswil, Switzerland)

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 Today we enter Switzerland, home to watchmaking, chocolate and assisted suicide. I’m wondering what to take back for the relatives.

     Having left Strasbourg relatively early this morning and having now crossed into Germany, we enjoy a far too brief scenic drive through the edges of the stunningly imposing Black Forest. I’m wishing I’d uploaded some equally imposing Wagner onto my iPod as an apt soundtrack to this section of road. Instead, I am destined to listen to my wife repeating the German for ‘black forest gateaux’ over and over again—she tells me she learned the phrase at school and likes the sound of it, apparently.

     Eventually the terrain flattens out a little—as does her enthusiasm for orating the name of said dessert—which she’s been doing in a variety of voices—and we arrive at the Swiss border. Our next job is to buy a vignette, a compulsory road-tax display disc for driving on main Swiss highways. I enter the official roadside building and approach the desk to pay my forty Euros but am instantly made to feel like a child as an officious sounding man in a military hat tells me off for queuing at the wrong desk.

     ‘This is the desk for people leaving Switzerland,’ he barks. ‘Go to that desk.’ He points, equally officiously, to another desk behind me.

     This seems strange. Surely, if I were driving from Switzerland into Germany, I would now be on the other side of the motorway and ‘this desk’ would be on the wrong side of the road.

     ‘Somebody should tell that guy that he’s on the wrong side of the road, then,’ I reply, pointing to Desk One. ‘Though let him down gently,’I add, leaning in a little and lowering my voice, I’m sure he’ll feel quite silly when he realises.’

     I leave Mr Military Man glaring at me as I turn and approach the other desk.

     I buy my vignette and return to the car. I now feel very European with my shiny red Swiss tax disc adorning my windscreen. I am happy and excited. I’ve never been to Switzerland before.

     ‘The man in the traffic shop wasn’t very nice,’ I tell Nat.

     ‘Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte,’ she replies.

     ‘Yeah, you’re probably right.’

     I reach for my iPod. It’s playing ‘Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck. We merge into the traffic and make our way to our first Swiss destination.

* * * * * * * *

It’s late afternoon by the time we reach Kesswil. I’m not impressed. It’s bland and grey and nothing like the Swiss movie that has been playing in my head all day.

     ‘So, where’s the friggin’ cow bells?’

     Nat is currently failing to convince me that Switzerland is beautiful.

     In guidebook speak, Kesswil is a municipality in the district of Arbon in the canton of Thurgau. In road trip speak, it is an almost adequately placed rest stop for the night, before the new excitements of tomorrow. All I really know about it as we enter the town is that it is the birthplace of Karl Jung. And it has a lake.

     As Bernice (our sat nav—keep up!) takes us along the final road to our destination for the evening, we are slightly confused to see only residential houses. No hotel.

     ‘Ah, yes,’ says Nat, ‘maybe this one is the B&B I booked.’

     ‘What? Why a B&B?’ I ask.

     ‘It was cheaper,’ she says. ‘You said keep it cheap so that we could have two nights in St Moritz.’

     Damn, I did say that, though I was thinking cheaper hotel. I don’t reply, as we have now arrived on somebody’s driveway.

     ‘Okay, you knock on the door while I grab the bags,’ I say, as I switch the engine off.

     ‘Why don’t you knock?’

     ‘Because you know the German for black forest gateaux?’

     She looks blankly at me.

     ‘Well … it’s a start,’ I offer.

     I hand her the paperwork and move to get out of the car, my gesture intended to imply both conclusion and agreement on this matter.

     By the time I’ve retrieved our bags from the boot, locked the car and started to walk towards the front of the house, Nat has managed to drag her feet just far enough to reach the door alongside me. She rings the doorbell, but even before she has time to take her finger from the button, the door is opened by a tall, elderly man with an implausibly fixed smile.

     Eerie.

     We look at each other, and then turn our attention back to who we assume to be our new host.

     ‘Hallo.’

     ‘Hello,’ replies Nat, ‘we have a reservation for this evening?’

     Behind his smile, he clearly doesn’t understand much English. I move to step in when, suddenly …. No, not suddenly. What happens next is too weird for a mere suddenly. What happens next is that Nat, my wife—whom I have lived with for six years, been married to for nearly five—inexplicably bursts into fluent German. As if this is the most natural thing to do when in a German speaking country.

     ‘Wir haben eines reservierung für diesen abend.‘

     I have no idea what is taking place now. My mind has just pressed pause on the day, and I’m watching a random scene unfold in front of me—as though I’m watching television. But my wife is on this show. And she’s been dubbed into German. And I don’t understand a thing. When the hell did my wife learn to speak German?

     ’When the hell did you learn to speak German?’ I spit out.

     ‘Shh!’ she says and continues to discuss our documentation with Mr B&B.

     Once they have concluded their commerce, the man’s smile turns to me. I decide to sidestep the language barrier by offering a very safe ‘Hi’ and holding out my right hand for a friendly handshake. It is at this point that Mr B&B holds out his left hand. This is because, I quickly realise, he has no right hand. Or right arm. I take a step forward to distract from my slight of hand as I quickly swap, um, hands. And voilà(French, you know!), no harm is done. We have successfully greeted. Sometimes, I am very proud of my quick thinking.

     ‘I think that went well,’ I whisper to Nat as we are led indoors to be greeted by Mrs B&B, who is approaching us along the passageway. She now takes over and efficiently introduces us to the dog and the television—in that order.

     We follow Mrs B&B upstairs as Mr B&B returns to the living room where, presumably, he had come from. She is turning to speak to me at almost every step. I have absolutely no idea what she is saying but she is smiling and laughing a lot so I assume they are happy things. On the other hand, I quickly begin to irritate myself by repeating the word ‘Cool’ to everything she says. I try to answer with other things but my default setting appears to be stuck.

     ‘Cool … yeah, cool … Ha! Cool …’ God, I need a new strategy for these kinds of situations.

     I’m a little relieved when Nat whispers to me that she doesn’t understand Mrs B&B either.

     ‘She’s talking too fast,’ she whispers, ‘and I’m not sure of her dialect.’

     It puts me at ease to have someone on this side of the confusion again.

     Mrs B&B is, however, picking up on the language barrier. But where she could simply have handed us the keys to the door and wished us good luck (as I would have preferred), she chooses instead to persevere through the medium of mime.

     Firstly, she introduces us to the bed, the bathroom, the balcony and the wardrobe (with its open-and-close doors), all of which we can clearly see from where we are standing in the room. I want to inform her that we now have bathrooms and wardrobes in the UK, but I consider that Nat would probably tell me off, so I stay silent. There is also the fact that I don’t speak German, of course—unlike my wife, the MI6 spy. (I will clearly need to discuss this with her later.)

     I think that Mrs B&B is now going to leave, but she hasn’t finished yet. In her attempt to make us feel at home, she has switched on the TV and is kindly—and rather frantically—flipping buttons, eagerly trying to find us an English-speaking channel. She is getting visibly frustrated by this search. So am I.

     Eventually landing on an American music channel, she smiles and puts the handset down in order to next introduce us to her A4 wipe-clean breakfast menu.

     And this is my next out-of-body experience of this trip. I can hardly hear her over the volume of the rap channel she has chosen for us and as she points to pictures of various sausages on the menu, her words are drowned out by the Afro-Caribbean gentleman on the television warning me about how he is going to ‘fuck up my hoe’ (though I believe other gardening tools are available).

     My mind is flitting between feigned interest in what Mrs B&B is failing to communicate to me and a clutch (I shall use this collective term) of black ‘booty’ being enthusiastically wobbled at me—presumably for my pleasure—on the screen beside her.

     Mrs B&B is fast becoming Mrs R&B, I feel.

     And then yet another out-of-body experience kicks in. While I have been having my previous WTF experience, her conversation has clearly moved on (to the shower temperature, Nat later tells me), and while Mr Rapper off of the TV goes into detail about which way up he prefers his ‘bitches’, Mrs B&B is standing in this same room that I am meant to be sleeping in this evening, with one hand raised above her head and the other rubbing her chest as she wriggles (seemingly to the music) while repeating ‘douche … douche …’ I am making a mental note to sleep with the light on tonight.

     By the time we have completed our full induction to our stay and finalised breakfast arrangements, Nat has found Treasure Hunt on TV. I resign myself to retrieving the final suitcase from the car.

     ‘Well done,’ she says, as we settle down to a coffee on the little sofas by the window.

     ‘What for?’ I ask.

     ‘For saying nothing during all of that.’

     ‘How do you know I had anything to say?’

     She smiles as though she has been reading my mind the whole time. ‘Well done,’ she repeats.

     ‘So, just out of interest,’ I add, ‘of all the serial killer couples you have ever heard of/met (delete as appropriate), which couple did we just meet?’

     ‘Fred and Rose West,’ she says, without even slight hesitation.

     ‘I think Jung had something when he talked about collective consciousness,’ I reply.

     ‘I don’t want to frighten you,’ she says, but did you notice that the balcony is shared by both our patio doors and Fred and Rose’s?’ She points.

     ‘Luckily, we have been blessed by that screamingly loud freight train track just a twenty foot suicide jump from the balcony. I feel this will probably remind us to shut—and lock—the patio doors before we sleep.’

     I suggest we beat Fred and Rose at their own game by appearing silhouetted against their glass doors at 3am, dressed as The Shining twins. We both like this idea, but it is now raining outside and so, instead, decide to venture out to the small lakeside restaurant we’d passed earlier.

     Despite a great view of sunset over the lake, all foods at the restaurant taste of vinegar. So we settle back down at Fred and Rose’s, excited about the coolday we have planned for tomorrow.

* * * * * * * *

Breakfast is conducted totally in German. It is here that we meet the only other couple presently staying at the B&B. They seem nice. Nat dips in and out of the conversation (using her sudden fluency in German) while helping me along as she might a special needs child she has been put in charge of. The actual child in me is quite pleased when the guy from the other couple suddenly explodes his boiled egg over himself as he tries to cut into it. I don’t know, somehow this helps level the field a little.

     I notice that yesterday’s wipe-clean breakfast menu was more of a survey than an order, as there is little relationship between what I’d previously ticked and what is now laying on my plate. I’m not overly bothered though, as I’m excited about getting back on the road. Today, we are heading into the Alps.

* * * * * * * *

I finish packing up the car while Nat settles the bill with our hosts. As I re-enter the house to say goodbye, I find that she and Rose are engaged in some kind of mutual disagreement. I’m not too sure what the issue is. I look over at Fred. He is still sat at the breakfast table where we’d left him, though now he is waving a pastry at me.

     I eventually get the gist of the situation. Rose is asserting that we had not pre-paid 30% of the total charge. However, the printed details that Nat is waving at her asserts (unfortunately in English only) that we have.

     We conclude that being the difference isn’t a lot in terms of Sterling, and being that the language barrier is evidently too large to allow clear establishment of business understanding here—and, as I quietly assert to my wife while nodding in the direction of the living room, one should never fuck with a one-armed Swiss pensioner wielding a croissant—we duly pay the difference, and I start the car.

     Nat offers to drive this next section of the journey, and so I’m free to settle into the passenger seat, check the music, and start to enjoy the slowly evolving scenery.

     Soon, we are back on the motorway.

     ‘What are you eating?’ she asks, after a few moments.

     I’m about to answer but she cuts me off …

     ‘That’s Fred’s croissant, isn’t it.’ There is an accusatory tone in her voice.

     ‘Well I wasn’t sure if he was threatening me with it or just offering me something for the journey. I didn’t want to offend him so …’

     I tail off as Nat’s face starts to turn to a warm smile. Next stop is Davos.

* * * * * * * *

 

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IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE CONSIDER SHARING IT ON YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA PAGES FOR OTHERS TO ENJOY TOO.  (Even us poor writers have to eat!)

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____________________________________________________________________

Adrian Sturrock: ‘Travelling at a moderate pace along a mostly deserted coast road – this is my first clear vision of 2019’

We’re at a New Year’s Eve party with a group of people we don’t know, wondering at which bottle of wine this situation became a thing. We’ve been roped into playing one of those weird parlour games in which we have to take turns offering up a Christmas or New Year related fact about ourselves that our partner did not previously know.

     ‘Ok,’ I say, ‘at the age of eight, I played the Angel Gabriel in the school nativity play. I was handed two monologues and the opportunity to see the majority of my school friends looking up to me while on their knees, dressed as sheep. This was quite probably my introduction to narcissism, something that I have continued to cultivate since.’ 

     ‘And he’s not even joking,’ says my wife, mock-accusingly (leaving me to assume that the ‘mock’ bit is implied).  

     ‘Was this a pivotal point in your life?’ asks a guy sat to my left, dressed in a white tuxedo. (Note to self: never assume that anyone could ever look good in a white tuxedo.)

     ‘Well, the following year, I played one of Bob Cratchit’s daughters in A Christmas Carol,’ I add.

     Nat looks up at me: ‘Really?’

     ‘It was an all-boys school,’ I remind her, ‘so, needs must.’

     ‘And how did you feel about that?’ tuxedo man asks. There is something resembling concern in his expression.

     ‘Well, in retrospect, I wouldn’t choose that particular dress again, but at least I did learn to walk confidently in heels.’

    In my periphery vision, I see Nat quietly smirking into the distance.

     ‘And were you a particular fan of Dickens?’ asks tuxedo man’s wife, clearly trying to step away from any cross-dressing reference.

     Nat discreetly places her head into her hands.

     I glance at the lady, accusingly. ‘Look, I was a struggling young actor; I had to eat somehow. And, anyway, what happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room.’

     ‘… And this is how a double entendre can be so easily fashioned into a single one,’ says Nat, to pretty much anybody who still wants to listen.

     This was the point at which the game seemed to fall apart a little.

* * * * * * * *

Nat and I have a code word for ‘Let’s get out of here’. I’m not going to tell you what it is, for obvious reasons, but it was designed to be notoriously difficult to slip into general conversation, thus adding a further level of fun to our escapes.

     Within minutes, we are out on the street, Nat having pretended to go to the loo, and me having made out that I was just popping into the next room to get ice.

     ‘How did that happen?’ I ask, as we zip around the corner and head for the beach area, where New Year’s fireworks are due to take place in just a few minutes.

     ‘Wrong place, wrong time?’ she suggests. ‘I think we were just taken by surprise while we were busy getting our drunk on.’

     ‘Well, I don’t know about you but, personally, I’m glad I had my drunk fully on. Imagine having to endure that party sober.’

     Down on the beach, crowds are congregating, Champagne bottles and flutes in hand, set to welcome in a better year. We have our 12 grapes to midnight ready, as is the Spanish custom.

     ‘Are you really going to eat a grape every time the church bell rings?’ Nat asks.

     ‘Or choke trying,’ I say. I hand her a small bag from my pocket. ‘And here’s yours.’

     ‘Oh,’ she says.

     No sooner have I passed her the bag than the bells begin to chime. Fireworks send colours into the sky, and the munching of grapes commences, followed by loud cheers and a band starting up on the staging area to our right.

     ‘Tomorrow’s going to hurt,’ I say.

     ‘It’s already tomorrow, today,’ says Nat.

* * * * * * *

I slowly come to inside a taxi that is taking us to the airport. We are travelling at a moderate pace along a mostly deserted coast road. The driver has the radio on low, presumably to keep himself awake at this early hour. The sun is rising over the Mediterranean, throwing off reds and golds across the horizon line. This is my first clear vision of 2019.

Adrian Sturrock: ‘If it is a ghost messing with the volume on my kitchen radio, I wish she’d stop it.’

Every year, a Christmas card comes through our letter box addressed to the same former occupant. It includes no return address so that we might pass it back. The name on the envelope is not the name of the person we bought the house from.

      The handwriting gives the sender away as probably quite elderly. The names of the sender, Gwen, and recipient, Florence, also suggest this. The message inside is always the same: ‘Thinking of you and your children at this time of year’.

      This is our tenth Christmas at this address. In all of these years, the sender has remained unfaltering in their commitment to ensuring a card arrives here in time. It seems that the sender has no contact with the recipient – otherwise they would know not to send a card here. I think there is something both positive and really quite sad in this gesture; it encapsulates love, loss, sadness, and optimism. It is its own Christmas story.

* * * * * * * *

      ‘I wonder how long these cards have been coming, prior to us moving in here,’ says Nat. She holds this year’s up for me to see, before opening it. We have both grown to recognise the ornately shaky handwriting on the outer covering and have learned its contents by heart. Nat places the opened card on the windowsill, a make-shift shrine – a reminder to keep ones’ loved ones close. She hugs me and pours us a wine.

* * * * * * * *

I have had daydreams in which Gwen turns up at our front door: ‘Hello, is Florence at home?’ Or, more likely, ‘Who are you, and what are you doing in Florence’s house?’ I would have to give the bad news, but at least I could offer some kindness.

      ‘Do you think it was a falling out or a losing track that led to their breakdown in communication?’ I ask.

      ‘Perhaps Florence just died and there was no one to pass on the news,’ Nat suggests.

      ‘Perhaps,’ I say. I think about this for a moment longer and then add, ‘Perhaps they’re ghosts.’ I like this idea. ‘Maybe Florence still lives here with us, in a parallel time, and the card is a physical manifestation of this.’

      ‘As in, ‘I see dead cards’?’ says Nat.

      ‘Exactly.’

      ‘Well if it is her messing with the volume on my kitchen radio, I wish she’d stop it.’ Nat shares out the rest of the Christmas cards, which have accompanied Florence’s through our letter box this morning, and we sit at the kitchen table to open them together.

      ‘To Papa Bear,’ Nat reads out. ‘This one’s for you.’

      Stacey, my son, will be coming to stay in a few days, this time bringing his girlfriend from Zurich. It’s nice to meet new family members, as we begin to lose our older ones.   

      One of the things that opening these cards reminds us of is the distances that the 21st Century’s ‘global community’ casts between modern family and friends. We consider how far the senders of each of our Christmas cards currently live from us, and from each other. This thought leads us to look at our own situation – neither Nat nor I come from this town in which we live. She’s West Country; I’m Welsh.

      Soon, we’ll be meeting up with family and friends for Christmas. I look across to the card on the windowsill. ‘I hope Gwen is OK’, I say.

      ‘And also, Florence,’ says Nat, raising her glass into the room. ‘Just in case,’ she whispers to me.

Adrian Sturrock: ‘Apparently, while I’m stuck at home, everybody’s out phishing’

     ‘… Good afternoon, Sir, I’m phoning in relation to your recent accident.’

    Me: ‘What? Oh my God! I’ve had an accident …?’

     ‘… I’d just like to clarify a few details with you, if I may?’

    Me: ‘Am I OK? I mean … I had no idea …’

     ‘… I’m pleased to inform you that your claim has been successful and that we have now been authorised by our underwriters to deposit the agreed compensation directly into your bank account. This should only take a few moments so, if you could just confirm your account details for me, Sir, I can then ensure that the full amount is transferred to you today.’

     Me (pretending to shout across the house to my wife – who’s currently at work): ‘Nat! It’s the man from the accident shop … I don’t know … probably somewhere in India … or Nigeria … he didn’t say. Anyway, apparently, I’ve had an accident. But it’s OK because we’re now rich. Don’t bother with cooking this evening, we’re going out to eat!’

     Directing my attention back to the voice on the phone, I continue.  ‘Forgive me,’ I say, ‘it’s clear that I’m still suffering a little amnesia from the trip or fall at work. How bad was it?’

     ‘… Sorry, Sir?’

    ‘Well, between you and me, it occurs that none of my family has thought to discuss the accident with me, which leaves me wondering whether it’s more serious than you’re letting on. I mean, is it terminal? Just tell me that …?

     ‘I … um … I think you’re going to be OK, Sir. If you could just confirm your bank account details with me, I can transfer the full amount today.’

    ‘Are you sure you’re not just trying to be kind to me? If not even my wife can bring herself to talk about my accident, then things can’t be looking good.’

    ‘Sir, if you could just confirm your bank account details …’

     ‘There are so many things I still want to do; so many places I haven’t visited. How long have I got left? Can you at least tell me this?

   ‘Sir, please …’

    ‘Did you know that three percent of the ice in Antarctic glaciers is made up of penguin urine? I really hoped that, one day, I’d get to see that for myself.’

    ‘Sir …’

    ‘Yes, I know. And, apparently, ducks have regional accents. Did you know that? And I’ve only heard some of them. I have so much left to do … Hello? … Are you still there? …We seem to have been cut off … Hello?’

* * * * * * * *

A few hours later, Nat arrives home. ‘Hi,’ she calls, as she’s hanging up her coat in the hallway, ‘How’s your day been?’

     ‘Hi,’ I shout back. ‘I’ve had an accident.’

    ‘What!’ She’s now in the room with me. ‘What happened?’

    ‘I’m not sure. But a nice man from the telephone called to let me know that he’s going to pay me for it. Who knew that having accidents could be an actual job. If only my careers advisor at school had told me this, things might have been so different.’

    ‘And all he wanted was your bank details, right? So he could put the money straight in?’

     ‘No, I think my careers advisor just wanted to get through his day. To be honest, I don’t feel he was really committed to his job.

     ‘No, the guy on the phone.’

     ‘Oh, yes.’ I smile. ‘How did you know that?’

     ‘… You didn’t, did you?’ Nat seems to be frowning at me.

     ‘I might be stupid, Natalie, but I’m not stupid… And anyway, he rang off before I could give them to him.’

    ‘My dad usually just tells them that he has something boiling over on the cooker, and asks them to hang on for a moment while he goes to turn it down. Then he wanders off to read his paper.’

     ‘I like your dad,’ I say.

    ‘In some ways, I seem to have married him,’ she says.

    ‘I’ll take that as a slightly creepy compliment,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

The next morning, I find myself reading an online report about phishing scams in the UK. According to the police website, Actionfraud, there has been a 41% rise in telephone scam calls over the past year, amounting to £23.9m in losses. In my head, I compare this with a recent Guardian article I read that stated the current average UK salary to be £28,677. No wonder my careers teacher opted to leave ‘deception intended to result in financial or personal gain’off his list of possible career choices.

    ‘Typical of a state school education,’ I say to myself. ‘If only I’d gone to Eton.’

Adrian Sturrock: ‘We’re dreaming of a Skype Christmas.’

     ‘You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said.’

     ‘That’s a strange way to start a conversation,’ I say.                    

     My wife tuts loudly and leaves the room.

     I’ve just done a twelve-hour shift. At the moment, I’m mostly thinking about murdering all of my colleagues, setting fire to the building, and disappearing to Bolivia to become a drugs lord. Failing that, can I afford to drop a few days and go part time?

     Some moments later, Nat re-enters the living room with a large glass of wine which she carefully places into my hand as she kneels in front of me and whispers, ‘I’m told that this magic potion enables the drinker to not give a single buggery about the world of work. Quick, drink it.’

     It takes a second glass for the magic to really kick in but, when it does, the result is absolute. ‘You’re right,’ I say, ‘I’m cured. I really don’t give a shit.’

     ‘Good. Now, can I please have your attention, just for a few moments? We need to talk about Christmas.’

     ‘Today, I learned that the Japanese for hedgehog translates as ‘needle mouse’, I say.

     ‘… What?’

     ‘Isn’t that great? I like a name that fully describes the object … like the Welsh word for microwave: ‘poppity ping’. Genius.’

     ‘I suppose the person who named the pullover totally nailed it for you, too?’

     ‘Exactly. It is what it does. Why would anybody call it a jumper? That’s just dishonest.’

     ‘… Is this your second or third wine?’ Nat takes the glass gently from my hand and places it at arm’s length behind her. ‘So, Christmas. What?’

     ‘Can we go somewhere sunny? I’m not a big fan of the UK in December; it’s merely tinsel and muddy puddles. And I’ve seen Love Actually too many times.’

     ‘We’ll need to see family too,’ she says. What are your thoughts on the best way to do this?

     ‘Skype,’ I suggest.

* * * * * * * *

As a child, Christmas just happens around you, while one is perfectly distracted by presents and shiny lights. I’ve attempted to drag this simplicity into adult life but more often than not the grown-up world doesn’t favour straightforwardness. To put this into more scientific terms, I’m told, nature likes to fill a vacuum. Where one might endeavour to remove a problem, therefore, nature will conspire to create new difficulties to take its place.

     At this time of year, nature’s usual weapon of choice is heavy use of the ‘F’ word: Family. Or more precisely, family politics.

     ‘Where did we spend Christmas last year?’ I ask

     ‘Last year, it was here,’ Nat reminds me. ‘The year before was in Somerset, with my parents.’

     ‘Then, logically, I guess this year will be at my mum’s, in Wales,’ I say. (I told you I like to keep things simple.)

     ‘Ah, thing is,’ Nat begins, ‘Rhys says he can’t get time off work, as he’s the newest member of staff. And I don’t want him spending Christmas alone.’ Rhys is Nat’s son; my step-son. ‘Any chance your mum could come to us?’

     And this is where grown-up life plots to make what should be a simple family get-together a social maze of dead ends. ‘The problem with that,’ I say, ‘is that she won’t leave the rest of the family. And we don’t have the space to invite them all.’

     So, there we have it: political stalemate. By the time the wine is all gone, Nat and I have taken this discussion around in circles more than once, with the apparent consensus being that, to please the majority, we are forced to spite ourselves – unlike Theresa May’s current Brexit plan, which aims to spite everybody, whilst pleasing nobody.

     The final decision seems … well … final: Christmas means Christmas. Apparently. Nat is to stay here, to ensure Rhys is not without company, and I am to spend this time in Wales, in order to represent us amongst the Welsh contingent.

     This feels neither a strong nor particularly stable decision, but it’s all that we have, unless we can re-negotiate our position and/or take the choice back to the people.

     One thing we don’t have to compromise on, however, is our decision to meet up – just the two of us – to see the New Year in, in Europe – thus stretching this current Brexit analogy to breaking point.  ‘I like the sunshine too,’ says Nat.

* * * * * * * *

In the meantime, the best that Nat and I can dream of is a Skype Christmas, complete with festive pullovers (not jumpers!), and the usual barrage of Christmas TV repeats where, no matter how you spin it, Two Ronnies do not make a right.

* * * * * * * *

Adrian Sturrock: ‘Drinking wine, and not straight from the bottle, raises us to at least ‘council-estate-chic’’

We’re sitting on the doorstep with a glass of wine each. It’s dark and Nat is in her pyjamas. But being we’re drinking a not too shabby pinot grigio from proper glasses (and not the bottle), we’ve decided that this raises us above ‘trailer trash’ to at least ‘council-estate-chic’.

     We’ve come out here to look at the moon. To me, it’s simply ‘pretty’, but according to the pretentious eight-year-old whose mum parked next to me at my local supermarket this evening, it’s in its ‘waxing crescent’ phase. FFS! Apparently, he’d been doing a ‘project’ at school on the various phases of the moon and was feeling the need to reel them off at the top of his voice, amongst the parked cars, like some kind of school nerd on tour.

     ‘I didn’t trip him,’ I say to Nat.

     ‘Well done,’ she says.

     ‘Sometimes, the moon looks nice, and sometimes … it’s just the moon,’ I add. ‘In my day, we made do with a ‘full moon’, a ‘half moon’, a ‘bit of a moon’, and a ‘where is the moon?’

     ‘Would that last one be during the cloudier evenings?’ Nat asks.

     ‘Don’t know, it was generally quite dark … But there really is no need for a ‘waxing crescent’. That just makes me think of plumbers.’

    ‘What’s your thoughts on a waning gibbous?’ she asks me.

    I prefer orangutans,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

Drinking wine under a brightly lit moon sounds romantic, and it might be if it wasn’t for the fact that we’re doing it on a residential street, with the woman from across the road looking disdainfully down on us from behind her curtains.

     ‘Not very subtle, is she,’ Nat says.

     ‘Not very,’ I say.

     It’s quite mild for a November evening and so I pop indoors to fetch the rest of the bottle. As I pour, I ask, ‘What are your weirdest memories of the different jobs you’ve done?’

     ‘That’s a bit of a random question,’ she says.

     ‘I took a six week career job once, at the Inland Revenue in Basingstoke, mainly so that I could pay off a loan before going to university.’

     ‘You worked for the enemy?’ she says, accusingly, She’s looking at me as if I’m suddenly a stranger to her.

     ‘I know, I say, I was young; I needed the money. I was just following orders.’

     ‘That was the most over-used line during the Nuremberg Trials.’ She says, raising her tone.

     ‘I’m not proud of it’ I say. ‘If it helps, I have no memories of the actual job whatsoever. I just remember that it was summer and I’d always eat my lunch out on the grassy verge opposite the building, so that I could feel the sun on my face. The only thing I really remember is that there was a Turkish man who worked in the offices next door who used to smile and say Hi each day as he passed. And the reason I remember him is because he’d always turn his head slightly to acknowledge me, and the breeze that constantly blew along that road, between the office blocks, would lift his comb-over to a ninety-degree angle, like a lid on a hinge. It was like he was politely raising his hat, except he wasn’t.’

      ‘It’s weird the things that rattle around inside your tiny little mind,’ Nat informs me.

      ‘So, what do you remember about your jobs?’ I ask.

      ‘I worked at some riding stables when I was a teen,’ she says. ‘I remember always being surprised by the number of holidaying city people who would rock up for riding lessons in stilettoes, and then complain about getting mud on them. It was like they’d never seen countryside before.’

     ‘I worked at a sheet metal-cutting place once. I was the guy who’d sit on a piece of rubber at the back end of the industrial guillotines. My job was to catch and stack the cut-to-size pieces as the sheets were fed into the machine. You had to get the catch-rhythm right or you’d risk injury to your hands or wrists as the machine spat out little razor sharp sections. After my first week, I was known as ‘The Mummy’.

      ‘I was a chambermaid for some holiday chalets in Somerset,’ Nat adds. ‘I remember that in one guest room I went into, someone had shat right in the middle of the bed and then meticulously made the bed back up over it. Funny, the things that stay in one’s memory.’

     ‘Ok, you win,’ I say.

      I pour the remnants of our wine bottle into our glasses and look back up towards the sky. ‘I think the moon has moved into its ‘where is the moon’phase,’ I say.

      ‘It’s getting cloudy,’ Nat says.

      We get up to return indoors, but not before raising our glasses to the woman across the street who still hasn’t realised that spying on people is best done with the lights off.

      ‘Look, it’s a partial eclipse of the room,’ I say.

* * * * * * * *

Adrian Sturrock: ‘That glove puppet won’t save up for itself, you know.’

     ‘Hello, you’re very lovely,’ my wife says to me, as I open my eyes and blink my way into the new day.

     She’s leaning on her pillow, looking down at me. I’m conscious only enough to be aware that I probably don’t look my best right now, feeling all bleary eyed and bed-headed.    

     ‘Thank you,’ I say. I smile up at her. ‘I like how you keep the bar so low.’

     ‘Yes, it’s recently been adapted for wheelchairs,’ she says, as she rolls out of bed and crosses the room. ‘I’ll leave you with that thought’, she adds, as she kisses me once on the head before disappearing downstairs.

     ‘ … So was that a compliment or … Hm. Probably not,’ I conclude, as I pull myself out from beneath the covers and am confronted with the same confused vagrant that I’m always confronted with at this time in the morning as I pass the bedroom mirror on the way to the bathroom.

     Downstairs, I can hear music playing. It’s reassuring; It’s homely. Upstairs, the vagrant in the mirror is willing me to call in sick, or, better still, fake my own death and be done with it, or at least get my stupid hair cut.

     I’m trying to think of a reason why I shouldn’t pull a sicky and jump on the next plane to somewhere warm; start a new adventure; do it now. I can’t really think of a reason not to – not one that I actually care about. But the thing is, some utter bastard, way back when I was a child, taught me the concept of deferred gratification. ‘That glove puppet won’t save up for itself, you know.’ It was the same utter bastard who taught me empathy. As Larkin pointed out, ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’.

     Larkin also posed the question, ‘Why should I let the toad work squat on my life?’ Amongst these voices from the past, I’m left with both the question and the answer to my eternal morning dilemma. I’m seriously starting to consider organised crime as an antidote to the day job.

* * * * * * * *

     ‘You’d be no good at it,’ Nat informs me, as I offer her my latest criminal masterplan over a glass of wine, that evening.

     ‘Why not?’ I say. I’m intelligent. We’re intelligent people. We must be able to come up with some kind of cunning plan between us.

     ‘Thing is,’ she says, ‘I like my job … and my liberty.’

     ‘I guess I’m on my own with this one then,’ I say.

     ‘Yep.’

     ‘If something were to go wrong, though, and I get put in prison, would you take a day off to come rescue me?’

     ‘I’d have to check my diary,’ she says. ‘Wednesdays aren’t usually good for me; I’m generally quite busy on Wednesdays.’

     ‘Oh, then I’ll try to be put away over a weekend,’ I say, annoyed. ‘…Unbelievable. Just … unbelievable.’

* * * * * * * *

     She’s right, of course, I probably couldn’t pull off a successful white-collar crime. And I’m far too arrogant to commit a blue-collar one. White-collar crime is usually committed online these days. And I’m not very techy, if I’m honest. I can hardly retune the TV. I’ll need a techy friend. Someone I trust. But can you totally trust anyone. Another criminal on board would just add to the risk.

     A friend of mine once had the idea of ram-raiding a bank with a van full of baboons. ‘Reverse in and just let the back doors swing open,’ he said, ‘The baboons will pile into the bank and take out all the bank staff and any witnesses. They really are vicious creatures.’

     ‘And how will you get the baboons back in the truck, in order to collect up the money?’ I asked.

     ‘Food. Throw a large bunch of bananas into the back of the truck as soon as all the people have been taken out. Simple.’ His answer was so instant as to suggest that my question was just plain ridiculous.

     ‘And the bank’s safe?’, I asked. ‘How will you get the safe doors open?’

     ‘… I’m, um, I’m still working on that bit,’ he said.

     In the meantime, I’ve got work in the morning.

* * * * * * * *