Monday, December 22, 2008

Chinese Laundry

Hello all

The last message suggested that Ravel's revenge adventure was about to be unwound and turned into rice noodles by a text-message of gloom. The message simply said that the lawyer (let's call him Mr Woo) who had managed to penetrate the organisation producing fake copies of Ravel's World Cup trophys had to prove his prowess by playing a rival of the boss (let's call the boss Mr Wong and his rival Mr Foo) at poker in a high-stakes game that evening.

'Why is this a disaster?', asked Ravel.

'Mr Woo cannot play poker to save his bacon. He will lose bigtime and not get the job with Mr Wong. Then Mr Wong will will get new lawyer and we are doomed.'

Ravel contemplated this latest twist as he ate some rice crackers in the hotel bar. The lawyers had decided they would go shopping to help clear their minds, and Ravel was quite glad to have some time alone. He tells me that he almost gave up the idea of getting one over on Mr Wong at that point, but that his pride and sense of injustice kept him propped up just enough to eventually come up with a solution to the problem. He would, he decided, take the place of the incompetent lawyer at the table on the pretext that the lawyer had fallen sick after eating poorly cooked duck's feet at a backstreet stall.

The lawyers were not sure Mr Wong would fall for the sting, but could not offer an alternative solution. So they told Mr Woo to feign illness and offer Ravel as a substitute. To their initial surprise there was no objection, but it then turned out Mr Woo had persuaded Mr Wong that he operated as part of a team and that Ravel was a former Bulgarian champion who could provide Mr Wong with enough money to fight any legal challenge to his activities.

'I think this is what they call 'no-pressure-then'?', said one of the lawyers as they took Ravel to the designated meeting place. Ravel smiled grimly. He was no Bulgarian champion, and was indeed feeling the pressure. His last winnings had been whilst in the Bulgarian army, and his opponent had been a drunken youth boasting that he'd never been beaten. To make matters worse, he had a headache and was feeling a bit sick from too eating of many rice crackers (incidentally, this is the first time in the years I have known of Ravel showing any signs of nervousness. It softened some of my own inedequacy fears for a while).

The meeting place - where Ravel had been instructed to enter alone - was an empty warehouse on a small industrial estate. Inside was a table with 3 chairs. One chair had a man, wearing a dealer's visor, sitting facing Ravel as he entered. Another, bald headed man was facing the table but Ravel could not see his face. Around the table stood four other men in dark suits and sunglasses. One of them stepped forward and told Ravel to sit at the table. On taking his place, he noticed that the bald man (presumed to be Mr Foo) was sweating quite profusely despite the dim lighting and ambient temperature. Immediately Ravel suspected something was not quite legitimate (his soldier's instincts were kicking in despite the rice-cracker induced nausea), but he also knew he could not blow his own cover. It was a tense start.

The tension was not helped when the dealer began explaining the situation in Chinese. Ravel had picked up a few words whilst in the country, but the localised rules of poker were not in his phrasebook. The only word he recognised was 'money' - after it was said the bald man put a wad of notes on the table and Ravel followed suit (the lawyers had clubbed together confident in their man to deliver a hefty winnings). As the hefty bundle hit the table, he bit his lip in frustration at not discussing the gameplan more rigourously with the lawyers - without knowing what they had told Mr Wong he could not risk appearing anything less than fluent.

The presumed Mr Foo pushed a few notes into the centre of the table. Ravel copied him, trying not to reveal his nervousness. The dealer began to shuffle the deck and deal the cards - one face down and one face up. Ravel correctly recalled this was the opening round of 5 card stud. To many poker players this would have registered as just one of several games with the same probability of success. But to Ravel it spelled potential disaster. For some reason he'd never been able to fathom, 5 card stud was the one variation that the drunken youth back in his army days had used to trounce him time and time again. In fact, as Ravel recalled, it was only a last ditch gamble where he put up his stash of bisongrass vodka on a round of Texas hold'em winner-takes-all that won the day. With no bottles of vodka about his person, Ravel could only pray inwardly that Mr Foo could not read his mind and pummel his self-doubt into submission. It was going to be a difficult night....

*********** TO BE CONTINUED!!!! *************

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Chinese noodles

Hello all

When I last wrote, Ravel was in deep trouble in big China. His compatriot lawyer friends were essentially helpless as they watched one of their team being escorted in the wrong direction. It looked for sure as if they would have to abort their mission just to stay safe. None of the lawyers had any idea of what to do except to start walking slowly back towards the main road. Their fierce skills in the arena of marital disputes was of little use to anyone at that point. Only Ravel had any training in jungle survival, and even he was taxed as to how they might continue without a car. It was growing dark, and they were getting hungry again, having eaten all their packed lunches much earlier during the day. I don't know if you, dear reader, have ever spent any time in the Chinese countryside with hungry lawyers. I haven't either, so I have to take Ravel at face value when he said they started acting like (I quote verbatim here, so do not assume this is my sentiment) - 'women chasing last chocolate bar'.

After about half an hour of squabbling and having just walked a couple of miles towards the main road they heard a car coming towards them. Ravel recognised the sound of the engine - it was the same car that had escorted their compatriot away. Everyone tried to find cover exept Ravel, who by now was determined to face down anyone - and steal their vehicle if necessary - in order to prevent the lawyers scratching each other's eyes out. He stood in the middle of the road waving his arms. At first it appeared as if the car was going to stop, but the engine suddenly revved firecely and the mud was splattering everywhere. Ravel had but a moment to throw himself out of the way as the car sped past. Glancing towards the car as it passed, he saw two figures in the front seats. One was the man from earlier. The other was the lawyer he had escorted away. Although only catching the briefest glimpse of his expression, Ravel saw quite clearly that the lawyer was smiling.

'Look here!' shouted one of the other lawyers a minute later when they all came out of hiding, 'he dropped something!'

'Crispy fried duck and rice?', asked another lawyer, running towards the first man.

'No man. It's a note. Listen up. It says he phoned for help and a car is coming to pick us up. It also says he has made a deal with the head of the operation to defend him against accusation of selling fake goods.'

'Aaaah!' cried all the other lawyers in unison, as if a tipping point in their understanding of the situation had been reached, and they knew what this meant.

'What does this mean?', asked Ravel. Despite travelling with them for some weeks, he was still flummoxed on a regular basis by their cryptic mechanics of reasoning.

'It is easy. He is worst lawyer amongst us by a long, long way. He knows he cannot successfully defend businessman. He will have tipped off authorities. He will give poor information to barristers. We just wait now for trial and job is done. Ok?'

Ravel was not entirely sure but could offer no solution. The lawyers were adamant that their colleagues incompetence would win the day and so thy waited for the car to pick them up. The driver was know to some of the group, and they were so pleased to see him that they dived straight into the car and told him to drive as quickly as possible back to their hotel. Once there, they waited for more news. There was nothing that night, but the next morning Ravel was awoken early by someone knocking on the door. It was one of the lawyers brandishing a mobile phone. 'I just got a text', he said forlornly. 'Bad news. Sit down....'

*********TO BE CONTINUED!!!*********

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Chinese mud

Hello all

There’s nothing like an international crisis to prompt action in the McCrumble household. We’ve been largely unaffected by things until the other day – after all, if you have nothing to lose then what do you have to fear?

To bring you up to speed on events in recent months I’ll spend a short amount of time relaying what happened to young Ravel, my faithful assistant who was last heard of when departing his Bulgarian homeland for the Far East, notably China, where he planned to confront the criminal mastermind behind the theft of his physical and intellectual property (viz a viz wooden replicas of the World Cup trophy).

Despite early promise of progress – namely the name and address of a possible perpetrator, Ravel soon hit soggy ground – literally. They (Ravel and his team of Chinese-Bulgarian lawyers) were sent on a wild goose chase through marshlands to reach an isolated village where the man was reported to have his factory. About half way along their two hundred mile journey they were caught in a rainstorm that rapidly turned the road to mud. Needless to say, they got stuck. No amount of legal expertise, nor even Ravels well conditioned thighs and biceps could extricate them from their situation. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a road less well travelled, and not a soul passed the bedraggled gang for 6 hours. It was only Ravel’s training in story telling that prevented the lawyers from suffering further – he told tales of my misadventures (see blogs passim) that apparently had them ‘pissing in the mud’ with laughter. So many stories, in fact, that the 6 hours passed in no time at all (or so Ravel says - he may have embellished his story a little).

Eventually someone driving a pickup coming from the direction of the factory. One of the lawyers (disguised as a manual worker) flagged the car down and asked for help whilst the rest of the gang hid behind some trees. The car was hauled out of the mud and the lawyer started the engine. It was at this moment that the driver of the other car asked where the lawyer was going. Since there was only one place he knew lay at the end of the road, the lawyer was obliged to give its name, since to lie would have aroused suspicion.

What the lawyer didn’t know at the time (it was later explained during a game of double-or-quits poker) was that the place in question had 2 names – one for people who weren’t trusted by the informant, and one for those whose business did not clash with the inhabitants of that place. On hearing the lawyer’s name for the place, the man became immediately suspicious and ordered that the lawyer turned around to avoid ‘bandits’. When the lawyer refused, the man produced a gun and waved it around as if to emphasise the point about ‘bandits’. He offered to escort the car back to the main road and see him on his way towards Beijing.

Fearing that the man with the gun might be willing to use it, the lawyer had no choice but to agree. He did not so much as glance towards his compatriots crouching in the undergrowth, but simply got in the car and drove slowly away, ahead of the man with the gun. Ravel and his legal aides were now stranded, a hundred miles from the main road and with no prospect of reaching their target anytime soon. For all they knew, the man with the gun might have been carrying Ravel’s precious wooden trophies. A suspicion that was, in fact, actually and very positively confirmed when one of the stranded lawyers used his high powered zoom camera to take a picture. What should he spy but this….

**************** TO BE CONTINUED!!!!!!!!!******************

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Home alone....

Hello all

Today I'm all alone at home - Dolores has taken the children to see her mother, Mrs McHaggerty, who still lives up in the north of the country. By mutual consent we agreed I would stay behind - my relationship with my mother in law has never recovered since I accused her publicly of being a kleptomaniac on the front cover of my book. Understandably, perhaps, she has said if I ever say a bad word about her again she'll sue me for defamation of character. So be it. I will make no defamatory remarks about her whatsoever in this blog from here on in.

I've had a couple of requests to give an update on my faithful assistant, Ravel. First of all let me just assure you all that he is safe and well. What appeared to be a successful kidnap attempt by a gang of Chinese-Bulgarian lawyers (sanctioned by the local police chief, no less!) was in fact a misunderstanding on my part. They no more wanted to whisk Ravel away for ransom any more than I would like to see my mother in law take the place of a crash test dummy. Rather, they had arranged to take him back to Bulgaria in order to begin a legal case against the people who stole Ravel's replica-world-cup-trophy idea (see blogs passim). Ravel knew the lawyers through his uncle - a prominent judge in Bulgaria, apparently. They were in the UK for a conference when they heard about Ravel's predicament. Being half Chinese, they had inside knowledge of the legal system in that country, and promised to help the young man in his fight against the criminals.

What Ravel didn't tell me is that they are taking the fight to the enemy. I found out because he told Dolores not to tell me. She didn't tell me, but Twin Y overheard their telephone conversation and said he had valuable inside information that would only cost me a twenty pound top-up on his mobile phone. Wanting proof that he had such information, I made him sign a guarantee that, if the information proved less than invaluable, I would not only take away his mobile phone, but make him write letters to everyone in his phonebook apologising for his lying ways. I was tempted to threaten him with spending two weeks with my mother in law - who, incidentally, is is not an embittered old hag with a face like a mouldy walnut - but such a threat could easily backfire if they joined forces, so I let it go.

So, to cut a long story short, Ravel is on his way to China, accompanied by two of the lawyers who took him away from here. Twin Y told me that they plan to track the perpetrators down and serve them with the appropriate legal papers. I only hope they manage to get in and out of country without any problems. How exactly they'll find their targets I'm not sure. The criminals who stole Ravel's business are unlikely to be amateurs. I'm becoming more than a little concerned for his welfare - more concerned, even than I would be for Mrs McHaggerty if she, say, took up eating lightbulbs as a hobby to while away the kind of long and lonely nights that are often experienced by people with no social skills and unpleasant body odour issues.


Friday, July 25, 2008


Hello all

This is just a teaser. Sorry for the long delay since last posting. All will be, er, Raveled (geddit?) as soon as I get the opportunity. Since he's been gone I've found myself incumbered by all manner of parental duties that were formally his domain. I'm beginning to think No.3 in particular might now actually recognise my status.

As per Daphne's suggestion, I'm going to start doing shorter posts - just to keep my keyboard from rusting up, mainly, and to hopefully make it back up Kim Ayre's blog list.



Sunday, May 25, 2008

knock, knock, who's there?

Hello all

This is not a time for self reflection. Poor Ravel is the one who needs all the help he can get. I feel I have toughened up at least a small amount over the last two years. Being the instigator of one's own downfall has a sobering effect, and I like to think that my experiences put me on a sure footing to help out those less fortunate. A bit like - and correct me if I'm wrong - someone who has been to war and can now advise on joining which unit is least likely to lead to death on the front line.

'Ravel, my good, good friend', I said softly the other morning as he wept slowly into his cornflakes. 'I know this is not a good time for you, and I want you to know that we are all here to help.' The young man looked at me with bloodshot eyes and nodded.

'Yesh bosh. I know', came the slurred reply.

'Ravel!', said my wife more loudly than necessary. 'Are you drunk?'

'Yesh bosh. I come home later than later lash night.'

Dolores bent down to look at Ravel's eyes. 'He's very dilated, Joseph. I reckon he's been on the weed again.'

Twin X entered the room at this point. 'Phew!', he exclaimed, and proceeded to wipe an imaginary smell away from his nose. 'Can you not, like, smell 'im, like?'

Truth was, we couldn't - on account of us both having colds (number 7 this year, caught from No.3 as usual). I bent closer to have a sniff and just caught a mild whiff of sweat, smoke, alchohol and a generic unwashed-ness. 'Oh dear', I sighed. 'I think this might have gone too far. Ravel's started on the path to self destruction.'

'It's not that bad, Joseph', countered Dolores. 'He's just going through a rough patch. That's all this is, isn't it Ravel?'

'Yesh bosh', came the lacklustre reply. 'I go now, yesh?'

'Sure, go clean yourself up and sleep it off. If anyone comes calling, I'll deal with them', I said, patting Ravel on the shoulder. He rose and shuffled off in the direction of his hut, head low, gait unsure.

'He iz like well wasted, innit, you know waht I'm sayin', said Twin X emphatically in a south-London accent (he is currently into some kind of gangster rap music and insists on talking like he never left the streets).

'Leave him alone the pair of you', said Dolores firmly. 'I don't want you (pointing at me) giving him any of your 'life is box of chocolates' speeches, and both you (pointing at Twin X) and your brother...'

'He's me blud, yeah?'

'OK, your blood and you - neither of you are to start taunting him, asking him for cannabis or alcohol. Clear?'

'Dont be raggin uz orrite? We got nuff respect, you know what I'm saying?', said the young gangster, his hands chopping the air to visually emphasise the syllables (at least, I assume that's what he was doing it for).

I held both hands up in surrender. Yet again I was being told to keep my distance by Dolores. Now, I'm not a man to surrender easily to feelings of emasculation, but being told who and who I cannot converse with under my own (admittedly unpaid for) roof was taking it a bit far. 'Dolores', I said as she was clearing the dishes, 'Now, I know I've perhaps given out some bad advice in the past, but you know how I've changed. I know my limits. I won't say anything to upset him, I promise.'

My submissive approach somehow worked. Dolores put down the dishes and tried to give me a hug. I was so surprised by her action that I instinctively pushed her away - assuming, incorrectly, that she was about to swat me with the tea towel or something. 'Come here, I'm trying to be supportive', she said.

We were still hugging two minutes later when there was a knock at the barn door. 'I'll get it', I said, ' it might be the lawyers.' With that, I unclenched and proceeded to the other side of our dwelling (for those of you unfamiliar with our situation, see blogs passim for an explanation). There were several other knocks in quick succession as I unlocked the door. 'Just a moment', I shouted.

On the other side of the door were about six or seven Chinese gentlemen. All but one of them were wearing suits. 'Hello, are you Dr Macrooble?' asked the one who had been knocking. His accent was neither Chinese nor English, but more like something from eastern Europe.

'Er, yes, that is I, though actually my name is McCrumble', I replied, hesitantly.

'Sure, sure', came the quick reply. I wasn't sure at this point, but I thought I caught a whiff of alcohol on the man's breath. 'We are here for your man Ravel. He is around?'

I glanced around the men. Though at first glance the majority had appeared neatly attired, I now saw what had all the hallmarks of a group of young men who'd spent the night outdoors whilst dressed for work. A couple of them even had twigs in their hair. They must have got lost finding this place, I immediately surmised. That made them even more dedicated than I thought. I had to think quick to throw them off the scent. 'Er no, he's not here. He, er, went away. Far away. Left last, er, month. He couldn't take what had happened to him. Just left us without leaving a forwarding address. You won't probably ever find him. And I don't have any money either. I, er, have a gambling addiction and spent the whole lot on a horse race at, er, Newmarket, last week. So I think you can go now.'

The same man at the front spoke again. 'Sure sure, we know he is here Dr Macrooble. He live here, we know this. We know he came here last night, and we know he is here now. Please, you bring him to us. We have plan.'

I was not going to back down. Ravel had done many things for me, and I felt utterly obliged to defend him from these sharks. If it came down to it, I was prepared to actually launch myself at them (I did judo at school, and reckoned I could throw two of them at least). 'Look', I said, folding my arms, 'I told you, I have no idea where he is. Now please leave my premises or I will call the police.'

'Show him the SMS from Inspector Davis', said the leader to a man on his left. A phone was lifted and put in front of my face after the text had been retrieved. It said

'You take Ravel with you. He deserves it. Don't let me stand in the way! - Davis.

I read the text a couple of times whilst thinking of what to say next. It might not have been from Inspector Davis, but I did in fact recognise the number (we, er, co-operate on the pub quiz). If that message was real, then it meant Davis was in cahoots with the men in front of me, and wouldn't stop them from taking my loyal companion!

'Don't come any closer, or I'll exercise my right to use reasonable force in defence of my property. You have been warned!', I shouted, my knees bent and my arms held out karate style (why I chose karate I have no idea).

'Dr Macrooble. We are seven and you are just one. We do not want a fight. We come for our man and we go in peace. We are sorry to disturb you but we must insist you hand him over, yes?'

I took another step closer. 'This is for Ravel, you hound!' I shouted, and brought my left hand down towards his shoulder. Thinking about it now, I couldn't actually say why I chose this precise moment to attack. In my head I knew it was a futile gesture. They would make mincemeat of me within seconds. I knew this, and yet still I launched a pre-emptive strike. I felt so indebted to Ravel that I was prepared to sacrifice myself to a bunch of tatty looking Chinese lawyers with European accents, in his name.

Of course, the hand never reached the man's shoulder. I was hauled off my feet and dumped on the ground before I knew what had happened. Looking up I saw the whole bunch of them standing with their arms still folded. It was as if they hadn't even moved whilst throwing my challenge away like they might have blown away a leaf. Was this some kind of souped up martial art, some telekenetic power not seen before in the West? Was I about to be thrown a hundred metres into the wood whilst they skipped amongst the trees throwing bamboo spears at me?

'Sorry bosh. I hope you not hurt.', said Ravel, still slurring his words.

'Huh?', I cried, looking upwards. Ravel's face was near mine as he extended a hand to help me up.'

'You don't need to attack these people. I go now. I look after myself', said Ravel, a thin smile on his face.


The leader of the Chinese gang took hold of Ravel's arm, saying 'OK, we must hurry or we will miss the transport. Goodbye Dr Macrooble...and...thanks for your cooperation. Don't get up, we will see ourselves out.'

They set off at a quick jog. For a moment I was minded to run after them, but then Ravel shouted at me not to follow them. He too was jogging, unfettered and apparently un-bothered by his kidnap. Sitting there, I watched them run along the track and turn left towards the hamlet. My confusion was intensified just as they disappeared, as a gust of wind brought their voices in my direction. Now, I'm no expert in linguistics, but I have heard Ravel talk many times with his Bulgarian family on the phone, and I quite clearly heard both his voice and those of at least two other of the gang. They were all speaking Bulgarian......

************TO BE CONTINUED ***********

Sunday, May 18, 2008

happy birthday to me, is it?

Hello all

So I just checked and found that my i-friend Kim Ayres has degraded my blog down to his 'sporadic and AWOL' list. Ho hum. Deserved I suppose, given that I appear to have given up blogging. This is not entirely true of course. It is simply that my audience began to dwindle to such a low figure that I began to question why I was blogging at all. Now I am fully aware that one must blog in order to be blogged, so to speak so yes, it is partly my own fault. But when I look at the output of my i-friend Mr Gorilla Bananas, who regularly gets 50 comments per blog post, I think I'm maybe just shouting into cyberspace, and no-one can hear me type.

Dolores reminded me yesterday - on my 34th Birthday - that I hadn't mentioned the blogosphere for some time. Whether this was intended to press my blogging button, or simply to indicate she was aware of the situation I'm not sure. I smiled, and said that I had more important things to worry about. For example, at the moment, I am desperately trying to raise the spirits of my loyal companion Ravel, whose ambitious scheme of selling wooden football trophies to the Chinese became a victim of its own success just last week.

It was all going well. Despite my reservations, Ravel did manage to negotiate a contract with a firm in China that specialised in shipping football memorabilia to fans in the far east. His perfect facsimilie of the Jules Rimet trophy was sold through their website, and within a week of signing the contract he received an order for ten trophies. The capable young man shut himself away in his workshop (a shed he constructed from some scaffolding planks off an "abandoned" building site, apparently) and set to work. One week later he was packing the trophies into their box, just as the next order arrived. This time it was an order for twenty trophies. He again entered his shed, and asked only that we push food and water under the door (he had constructed the shed in a hurry and had mistakenly sawn the planks for the door somewhat short). Dolores took charge of the catering, and I was told to occupy myself away from proceedings. This, I was told, was 'to prevent too many chefs ruining the food'. I did try to point out that any business enterprise requires a team with complementary skills to proceed. My wife asked 'have you ever watched The Apprentice, Joseph?' before turning her attention to the banana and chickpea mush she was making for both No.3 and Ravel.

Left to my own devices on the first day of this new contract, I took a walk around the hamlet. It was a beautiful, sunny day and many people were out in their front gardens. We are well established here now, and several people said hello as I passed. A few more shut their doors as I approached for reasons I couldn't initially fathom. It was only when I reached the local pub that it dawned on me that that these were the people who benefited from the presence of the cult up at the Manor house (see blogs passim). Still, I figured, if 50% of the hamlet like me, that must make me 375% more popular than I was in the village up in Scotland, where my only friends out of a population of 1500 people were a butcher and a vet. Ratios are good, sometimes.

Anyways, it only took me half an hour to walk around, including a half pint at the pub, and I was back in time for lunch. 'Anything I can do to help?', I asked as Dolores washed up Ravel's bowl.

'How about walking the route backwards whilst wearing a blindfold - that should keep you occupied', she said pithily. I mulled over the idea for a few seconds before rejecting it on the grounds that I was likely to cause myself an injury. 'Nothing that a walk to the nearest hospital and a couple of nights under observation wouldn't fix, I'm sure', she retorted.

Sensing that perhaps my wife wanted me out of the way for a prolonged period, I resolved to go and visit my friend (and former marketing manager) Dr Booth over in Cambridge. I phoned and invited myself for a few days. Mark was worried for a short while that things were bad again between myself and Dolores. 'Oh no', I reassured him, 'she just gets like this whenever something important is happening. She seems to think I might, er, upset the applecart or something. Better if I just stay away really. At least until the whole thing with Ravel settles down into a routine.'

Mark was very busy at work with writing a grant application. I wondered if I might help, but he said he had it all under control and suggested I play the tourist around Cambridge. This wasn't a bad idea - I've visited a few times but not spent much time in this scholarly capital. Looking at the various options I had the choice of visiting 31 colleges, punting on the Cam, taking an open top bus tour, listening to dozens of talks at various venues, watching the university cricket team get smacked by various county sides on warm-up matches (the students start and end their season somewhat early due to the structure of the teaching terms). There were a few concerts etc but none really appealed. So I decided to tour the colleges. I figured if I managed 5 colleges a day that would keep me going for the week, when I would return home to find everything under control.

After about the tenth college on the first day, I was getting a little, well, bored. Now, I'm not taking anything away from the colleges with that statement. They are all superb examples of scholarly architecture, with a multitude of attractive courtyards and gardens and olde-worlde covered bridges to admire. But at the end of the day, they are places of study, not entertainment, and once I'd seen ten of them, I figured I'd pretty much seen them all. I asked Mark again if I could help on the grant application. Perhaps, I suggested, he might need a research assistant?

'This really isn't your thing, Joseph', he said over dinner. 'Its not about parasites I'm afraid. I'm moving into diabetes. Sorry.'

'I can learn...', I said, but there was no real hope of getting any work. I've been out of the academia for a few years now, and as Mark explained, times have changed. There isn't much room for old school people like me. The effort required to put a grant together has quadrupled in recent years. There is no room for taking on a risky prospect - and that's exactly what I would be.

Somewhat despondently I left Cambridge and went home. Ravel was still in the shed, chiselling away day and night. Dolores was less than pleased to see me, I have to say. 'Just stay away from Ravel', she told me in no uncertain terms.

Now, three weeks later, I wish I had interfered. Perhaps I could have stepped in to negotiate better terms with the Chinese firm. Maybe I could have taken on the role of understudy, carving the basic shapes whilst Ravel added the finishing touches. Maybe I would have checked the website to see the back-orders piling up and phoned the firm to reassure that Ravel could deliver. Who knows. What I do know is that we are now being sued for breach of contract, Ravel's trophy has been copied and is now on sale again but is being sourced elsewhere, and Ravel is blaming himself for once again plunging us towards ruin. I keep telling him to not take things so hard. We still haven't recovered from our last ruination - this one won't make much difference. He smile weakly when I tell him this and pats me on the shoulder. I smile back, but behind the smile I'm more than slightly worried. You see, I finally got some insurance money from the fire at the Institute. This means I have an asset. Lawyers love assests, I know that for certain.


Monday, February 11, 2008

World Cup Glory?

Hello all

It's been a while since I last put fingers to keyboard to recount the daily challenges that comprise my attempts to get through this life I've been given / shaped / accidentally run into etc. It's not that I've given up writing or blogging, but rather that my life is no longer such an interesting journey. The last couple of months have seen us adjust more firmly to living a life of poverty, and we are now all very adept at scraping a living. Ravel sells his wooden carvings out of a layby on a trunk road about 2 miles from the barn. Dolores has become the hamlet's leading house-compantion, and now visits over ten elderly people on a regular basis. I have set myself up as a home tutor teaching biology to struggling students. The twins have started attending a secondary school after some protracted negotiations (and a few white lies). Number 3 is now 10 months old and is doing well - he's already walking and charming visitors with a ready smile.

It's so quiet round here that I've had plenty of time to reflect on my own shortcomings. Perhaps more than anything, I've come to realise that I can't simply blunder through life in the belief that my instincts will always bring a satisfactory conclusion. Looking back over my mis-adventures of recent years I was astonished to find just how many times I was the architect of my own down-fall. What was even more disturbing was the fact that I could never see things coming. This latter observation caused me some consternation, and so I approached Ravel one morning for counselling.

'Yes boss?', he asked as I approached. My trusted assistant was carving a piece of ash into what looked like a scale replica of the World Cup trophy.

'Ravel - I, er, need your advice'.

'Huh? Are you sure boss? Sure, fire away at me.'

'Yes, well, I know this might sound unusual, but I want to find something out about myself, and I think you might just be able to help.'

Ravel put down his chisel and blew gently over the top of the wooden trophy. He cleared a chair (a fine piece of furniture made from birch twigs, an old baking tray and old milk cartons) and motioned for me to sit down. The chair sagged under my weight, and made a sound like a whoopee cushion, but held firm - the milk cartons acting as some kind of cushion.

'Comfortable, boss?' asked Ravel as he sat cross legged on the ground.

'Comfortable enough. Right, so, you see - it's like this. I've been thinking about things, and I've sort of come to the conclusion that I need to undergo some kind of re-evaluation of who I am and where I'm going with my life. As part of that process I want you to be totally honset.'

'You know I am honest always. I am proud of my honesty. I hide nothing from you, boss', said Ravel, his voice raised as if indignant.

'I'm not questioning your honesty Ravel. I'm just asking you to be totally honest when I ask you some potentially difficult questions. You see, I am also very aware of your loyalty, and I'm slightly worried that I might force you into a conflict of interest situation by placing your loyalty up against your honesty.'

Ravel looked at the ground, and then at his trophy. There was a slightly awkward pause before he finally spoke again, his voice flat. 'What is it you want to tell me, boss?'

'Right, so long as we are clear, I'm just trying to find out where I've been going wrong. We've been through a lot together and I thought you would be the best person to ask. So don't hold back, Ravel. Just be completely open and honest.' I sat back on the chair and held out my hands as the milk cartons expelled the remainder of their flatulent air. Ravel looked at me with narrowed eyes for a moment before turning back to his trophy, chisel in hand.

'Like you say, boss, you have put me in a conflicting interest. Dolores say I must not massage your ego, but you are the boss, so I cannot not massage your ego, but you say I must be honest, so I cannot be not honest at same time as not massage your ego at same time as not making you upset because you are the boss.'

'I see', I said, not really seeing anything at all. Ravel had almost turned his back on me. I was momentarily minded to admonish him, but of course he was right. I had put him in a difficult position. 'Sorry', I muttered as I rose from the chair. The milk cartons made a sucking noise as they expanded. Temporarily unsure as how to respond, I watched Ravel as he carefully chiseled away at the base of his carving. It then struck me that I should engage in a little polite conversation, to signal that there were no hard feelings. 'So, that's a nice carving', I said slowly.

'Yes boss. I have been thinking that the world cup is coming, and I can move into the market for what you call nick nacks. This will be a best seller. I carve it from memory but I know for sure the measurements are correct.'

'Er, OK, Ravel. So, er, the World Cup is in 2010, yes?'

'I know boss. I take great care so need to start early. I need to build up stock to make sure no-one is disappointed. Simple business rules.'

I sat down again. One of the milk cartons collapsed and I ended up sitting at a slight angle. On the one hand I was keen to promote Ravel's artistic talents, but at the same time I was wary of the need to meet supply and demand criteria whenever one was undertaking any kind of business venture. 'It could be a best seller indeed', I ventured, trying to be diplomatic. 'So, er, who are your customers Ravel?' I looked around the room as if trying to locate them.

'China, boss.'

'Huh?' I exclaimed loudly, as the realisation of his mistake dawned on me. 'Only one problem with that, my good man. I think you've got the World Cup and Olympics mixed up. The World Cup is in South Africa. It's the Olympics that are in China - and they're on this year!' With that, I stood up and patted Ravel on the shoulder.

'I know boss,' replied Ravel. 'I keep up with the news on my winding up radio. I send to China then China send them to football fans all over world. I have contract. They come next week to take photograph. They...'

'Huh?', I exclaimed again. 'Hold on. You're telling me you have a business venture in China? You didn't tell me about it? Who is coming? Have you signed something? We can't afford to lose anything Ravel!'

My faithful companion could sense I was getting a little anxious. Now it was his turn to pat me on the shoulder and inject a dribble of patronising tone into his words. 'Boss, I know what I am doing, yes? They bring money or there is no deal. Sit down and let me explain, ok?'

I sat down on the milk-bottle chair once again, drew breath in an attempt to stop the palpitations that had suddenly gripped me, and listened to what Ravel had to say. He told the story in a rather long format, so I'll give you the abridged version. Essentially, he'd been out one day selling his carvings of mushrooms, woodland animals etc in the usual layby just outside the village. A man had stopped and was perusing the nick-nacks whilst humming the famous England football anthem 'Vindaloo' by the popular band 'Fat Les'. Ravel had never heard the song before, but was intrigued by its melody, and offered the man a mushroom in return for him teaching the song. The two of them started chatting about football and wooden nick-nacks and all manner of things, including the Olymics. Now, it turned out that the man who bought the mushroom was travelling to China the following week to sign some business deal related to the Olympics, and the little wooden object was to be a present for his business-partner. Ravel asked if such things were popular in China, to which the answer was 'probably not'. However, it then turned out that the man's business partner was a great football fan, and had always dreamed of holding the World Cup trophy aloft. Something like a wooden lightbulb lit above Ravel's head at this point, and he offered on the spot to make a (carbon?) copy of the trophy in whatever wood the man desired. Three days later, he'd carved a perfect replica in ash, using only his memory of pictures of the trophy for measurements.

To cut a long story even shorter, the man took the trophy to China and came back two weeks later with an abundance of praise for Ravel and his talent. He also came back with an order for 30 more trophies and a promise of 'handsome payment'. The deadline was next week.

'Are you sure this isn't a scam?', I asked after Ravel had finished his story, still not sure whether to believe what I had heard.

'I am sure not.', he replied, holding up his latest replica to inspect the finish. 'You wait, boss. Soon our money worry are finish. I teach your boys how to carve - we sweep up in China, no problem.'

I left at that point, not wishing to dampen his enthusiasm by any logic devaluation of his dream. If it is a scam, I guess it hasn't cost us anything except several hours of Ravels time when he could have been carving wooden mushrooms instead. Dolores was pleased when I told her, saying that my attitude towards Ravel had much improved of late. She was so happy, in fact, that we had an, er, early night - the first in over 6 months. That made me so happy that I decided to blog again.

World Cup glory here we come!