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.