EXPECTATIONS AND EXAGGERATION by Antony Dunford

Three Pubs and a Babysitter
At The Packhorse Inn and Hairdressing Salon
In all my years as Quiz Correspondent for the New York Times I have never encountered tension such as this. I remember Beirut in '85. I was covering the semi-finals of the International Middle-East High Stakes Bar Quiz and Bingo in the dining room afterwards - high stakes! I should say. The winner got the losers' ears on a necklace and a nice little trophy inscribed with his initials. Furthermore there was a war going on around us, started by the Somerset contingent accusing the Northumbrians of trying to smuggle a pocket encyclopaedia into the gaming hall. There was blood, and death, and professional mis-conduct. But even the corpses were more laid back than most of the competitors in the Packhorse this Sunday evening. The security is worse than at the Queen of England’s monthly quiz in the Stables Bar at Buckingham palace. It brings tears to my eyes thinking of that gross waste of rubber gloves.
At Barney's Bar
Stone walls, a large, open, wood-burning fire, horse brasses and unmentionable agricultural implements dangling viciously from the ceiling. A couple stand by a wall embracing closely, whispering softly to each other. A second couple are seated at a table by the fire, nursing their drinks and saying very little. A third couple is seated near the window, chatting happily, laughing at each other with random abandon. A group of three women moving very slowly, talking through permanent smiles for fear of cracking their make-up, sit on tall stools at the bar. A group of six thuggish men in jeans and tee-shirts laugh too loudly and down beer in huge quantities. Others, both regular and passing through, make the place look lived in. Some inoffensive music plays from Barney's 50s Juke Box. Barney, the overweight, jovial barman who drinks more than most of his customers put together, is behind the bar being jovial and overweight. But our interest is in the couple who do not yet sit at the empty table in one corner.
At The Coach and Horses
Brendan and Marjorie, the Landlord and Landlady of the Coach and Horses, stared in despair at their empty pub. It was nine o'clock on a Sunday night and there was not a soul in sight. Even Roger, their habitual drunkard and permanent regular who only ever moved from his seat at the end of the bar when they picked him up to vacuum under him, was not in tonight. He occasionally moved to go to the toilet, but not always, and his toilet trips rarely took longer than forty seconds - just long enough to give Brendan time to pour another pint. Tonight his pint stood alone, and had begun to go flat. The tables were empty. The air was free of laughter. The glasses were clean and gleaming. There was a funereal atmosphere to the place, a sense of foreboding. Even the juke box had sensed it - its automatic tune selector that kicked in when nobody had put any money in it for twelve hours or so had selected Anastasia:
‘Have you ever been so lonely that you felt like you were the only one in this world?’
Funny thing was, Anastasia wasn't even on the juke box.
The Lament of the Teenage Babysitter
‘WHY ME?’ screamed the one gifted with baby-sitting duty. ‘I didn't ask to be fourteen. Nobody asked my permission before making me fourteen. And yet here I am, being fourteen. And do you know the worst thing about being fourteen? Do you? It's being automatically expected to stay at home and look after YOU LOT.’
She did her best to rub the paint from her hair before running after the eight-year-old carrying the emulsion.
At The Packhorse Inn and Hairdressing Salon
There were six teams, carefully selected by the organisers of The International Bar Quiz World Cup. The selection process, which I had rather embellished for the general public in my daily column, was not as international as I had been led to believe. One team was a group of students who had come into the pub by accident. There were four of them, and every metaphorical gun was trained in their direction. The other five teams were, in fact, the regular drinkers in the Packhorse. When I challenged them about this surprising state of affairs - that five teams from the same small-town pub had made it to the final of an international competition that they themselves had organised - they were elusive.
At Barney's Bar
‘You'll never guess what I said to her, right?’ yells one of the thuggish men spraying beer as he do so.
‘What d'ya say to 'er then?’
‘I said... Oh, I can't remember what I said, but it was funny,’ concludes the beer-sprayer, taking another mouthful.
Max puts two drinks down on the empty table in the corner, then helps Emily take off her coat. They sit opposite each other in front of the window.
At The Coach and Horses
Brendan sniffed the air.
‘There's magic out there tonight,’ he said.
Marj looked at him, then let her tongue taste the breeze that blew in through the open door, disturbing the dust on the door mat with the message ‘Welcome’ and, underneath in smaller letters, ‘Beware of Roger's lack of personal hygiene.’
‘You may be right, my lover.’
Brendan and Marj were not all that they appeared to be.
The Lament of the Teenage Babysitter
There is a delicacy and a sensibility that is part of the personality of every teenage baby-sitter. This is the best kept secret in the world.
‘GET OFF THE TELEVISION SET. YOU, OUT OF THE FRIDGE. NO! DON'T CLOSE THE DOOR UNTIL SHE'S GOT OUT TOO. YOU, YOU ARE NOT TARZAN, AND EVEN IF YOU WERE TARZAN DOES NOT SWING OFF LAMPSHADES, HE SWINGS OFF VINES AND CREEPERS. STOP DOING THAT TO THE DOG. LEAVE THE KITTENS ALONE. GET OUT OF THE FREEZER. Hang on. We don't have any kittens. WHERE DID YOU GET THOSE KITTENS? PUT THE POKER BACK. LEAVE THE CROCKERY ALONE. WATCH OUT FOR THAT BAR OF SOAP. I DON'T KNOW WHERE YOUR HEDGE-TRIMMERS ARE. WHAT DO YOU WANT HEDGE-TRIMMERS FOR? TO CUT TARZAN'S VINE? WHERE DID HE GET A VINE?’
At Barney’s Bar
‘So, how was last night?’ Emily said, taking a sip of her drink.
‘Last night? Ah, the boys’ night in,’ Max smiled. ‘Andy and I drank beer and watched Sam drool over some girl from work who was on t.v.’
‘You mean Kate?’
‘Yeah, Kate. The poor lad is smitten.’
‘By Kate?’ Emily’s tone was one of surprise.
‘Absolutely. Just his type.’
‘What is his type?’
‘Female. Available. Athletic. Although I think the athletic part is optional.’
‘He sounds choosy.’
At The Coach and Horses
No, Brendan and Marj were no ordinary, mild-mannered, part time losers in the Grand National of life. They were the second greatest lovers in the history of creation, and they were acutely sensitive to the stirring of emotions in hearts and laps around the country. They took one look at each other and grabbed their hats and coats. Pausing only to swap hats, having grabbed the wrong ones, they made for their 1957 Triumph motorcycle with sidecar. Love was in the air and they were going to track it down.
At The Packhorse Inn and Hairdressing Salon
I eventually forced the Quizmaster, a suspicious looking character by the name of ‘Honest Cyril’, to talk me through the earlier knockout rounds of the championship. Turns out there hadn't been any. I pressed further and he claimed that there had been no other entrants. I asked him about advertising. My question was along the lines of ‘Has there been any?’ He protested that they had run an extensive international advertising campaign. He showed me a one-inch high advert ‘Quiz, 9p.m.’ was all it said. Not where, or what night. No other details. It was an advertisement in the feed section of Frome Pig Breeders Quarterly, the Winter 1993 edition. I challenged him on his use of the words ‘extensive’ & ‘international’ in his description of the campaign, Frome Pig Breeders Quarterly having a circulation of two. He explained that his sister had used a copy to line the box in which she kept her hamster last time she went to Spain, and that they had run the advert more than once.
In other words, twice.
The Lament of the Teenage Babysitter
‘I DON'T CARE WHO BROKE THE TANK - TAKE THE GOLDFISH OUT OF YOUR MOUTH.’
At Barney’s Bar
‘Oh, he is. Very discerning. See the three girls at the bar?’
‘Yes,’ Emily said, warily, with a deft raise of an eyebrow.
‘Sam would only be interested in the middle one.’
‘Alright, I'll bite. Why the middle one?’
‘Well, let's start with what we know. Three women out on a Saturday Night, wearing so much make-up they could be dead and you would not be able to tell. They are clearly out to meet men, they are probably out to screw the first semi-attractive man they find. Maybe they're not even that choosy. They sit there sullen and dead-eyed, pausing only to talk about their make-up, until likely prey walks through the door. They look the same, same hair colour, probably due to the same dye, similar clothes, identical hand bags, similar faces.’
Max paused to sip his drink.
‘So how do you know Sam would go for the middle one?’
‘Easy. He's already slept with the other two.’
The Lament of the Teenage Babysitter
‘WHAT HAMSTER?’
At The Coach and Horses
The wind whistled through Brendan's hair as he sat in the sidecar. Marj, on the bike, adjusted her goggles and started the engine.
At The Packhorse Inn and Hairdressing Salon
The tension was incredible. Honest Cyril led the six men to the safe. They had each memorised one digit of the combination of the safe in which the questions were kept. The man who had set the questions and the safe combination had been summarily executed by firing squad the second the safe had been locked. You can't be too careful, obviously. Honest Cyril put his hand to the combination tumbler and nodded to the man who would divulge the first number. Six answer-writers raised their pens. Team coaches were massaging back-up pens in case a substitution became necessary.
At Barney’s Bar
‘That's cheating.’
‘O.K., then, the rest of the bar. We'll take it in turns. Tell me about the couple by the fire.’
Emily turns to look subtly at the lad and lass by the fire.
‘No, I've never been here before,’ says the lass, before reverting to silence.
‘They just met a week ago. He screwed up his courage and asked her out. She eagerly accepted. They are now on their first date. They are going through the effects of ASS, which will only be temporary,’ said Emily, succinctly.
‘Sorry, the effects of ASS? What is that?’ Max asks.
‘ASS? Awkward Silence Syndrome. You know when you first meet someone you like a lot and are too terrified to say anything for fear of frightening them away? You remember some of the things you said to me when we first came here?’
‘Ah, yes. Things like ‘Do you shave or wax your bikini line?’’
‘My personal favourite was ‘Are those your real breasts?’’
‘I was trying to be funny,’ Max protests.
‘You were very sweet. But these two-’
Emily motions to the couple by the fire.
‘Wax,’ says the lass, blushing furiously.
‘They will drink some more, their tongues will loosen a little, they will have a lovely evening, he will walk her home, kiss her good night and then sing and dance all the way back to his place.’
‘Very good, very good,’ Max smiled.
‘Your turn. The couple standing near the juke box.’
The Lament of the Teenage Babysitter
‘BE CAREFUL. DON'T LET THAT BALL ANYWHERE NEAR THE WIND- Er... SORRY MR. GROGGINS. I'LL BRING A FRESH PANE ROUND IN THE MORNING.’ - they had taken to keeping stocks of windows to fit all the nearby houses - ‘INSIDE YOU TWO. MIND THE-’
At The Packhorse Inn and Hairdressing Salon
‘Left seventeen,’ said the sixth man. There was a click. The safe door swung open. Inside was a metal box with six locks.
‘Summon the key-keepers!’ ordered Honest Cyril.
At The Coach and Horses
The engine of the ageing motorcycle roared into life. Marj slipped it into gear and drove the sixteen yards to the pub next door. There she stopped, and wondered at the six men marching over the threshold under armed guard. Each carried a key.
The Lament of the Teenage Babysitter
At last, they had gone to sleep. She settled down in front of the tv with a bowl of popcorn and a glass of lemonade. It was one of her favourite shows. It was just getting interesting when the first drip landed on her forehead.
At Barney’s Bar
Max looks at the couple standing near the juke box. She leans against him, her face buried in his shoulder. He smoothes her hair.
‘Easy. A little different, I think, to your two. These met in a club, dancing to some very funky tunes. They grooved and they ground and they ended up in bed, taxing the springs and defying the laws of gravity. They were hot, they were passionate, they were, in short pleasure on legs, be they chair legs, bed legs, dog legs, whatever. After it was over he left and went back to his place and they agreed to meet here. They already know each other intimately, and now they are soaking up each other, becoming the other, abandoning themselves to each other totally. They will have a racy relationship for three months then dump each other with fireworks and media fanfare,’ Max said, with an element of over-confidence.
‘Possibly.’
‘What do you mean, possibly? Of course that's how it is.’
Emily nods at the couple by the juke box. The girl pulls away. She has been crying.
‘Thanks, bro,’ says the girl.
‘Hey, what's a baby brother for if not to dry your eyes on. If the creep comes near you again let me know; I'll talk him to death.’
Emily looks back at Max. She hears the lass by the fire.
‘No, they're not silicone,’ says the lass.
‘You were saying?’ Emily says.
At The Packhorse Inn and Hairdressing Salon
The last key was inserted in the final lock. There was a click. Inside was an envelope. It was sealed. Honest Cyril called in the United Nations special envoy who would oversee the proceedings and ensure that there was no foul play. To ensure that the UN special envoy was in no way biased they had asked for someone wholly impartial. They had received a Martian. He was dead.
At The Coach and Horses
Brendan and Marj walked purposefully through the front door of the Packhorse. They removed their hats and coats. They ordered two halves of dry cider. They realized the title of their section of the story was no longer accurate.
The Lament of the Teenage Babysitter
The drip had to be coming from the bathroom above her head. She cautiously climbed the stairs. She cautiously tip-toed along the corridor, avoiding most of the crude baby-sitter traps. She raised her hand to the bathroom door knob. She stopped. She unplugged the electric wire attached to the knob. She put on an insulated rubber glove. She opened the door.
The ensuing flood washed away most of the houses on the street. From the landing above there was the sound of malicious giggling, like, well, you know gremlins? Well, if gremlins had gremlins - you get the idea.
At Barney’s Bar
‘So maybe I was a little out,’ Max said quickly, trying to conceal his embarrassment. ‘What about the couple by the window?’
‘Which window?’
‘The other one.’
Emily looks where Max nods, looks closely, wrinkles her brow.
‘Rarity, I think - happy couple. Together some time. Married five, six years, love each other dearly, no kids and don't want any for a while - they're enjoying themselves too much.’
‘They aren't married. They have no rings on. And they are too young to have been married five or six years anyway,’ Max lapsed into Smug Max. Emily ignored him and strained her ears to eavesdrop on the conversation of the couple in question.
‘I can hardly believe it’s our sixth anniversary next week,’ said the male half of the couple in question.
‘I wish those burglars hadn't taken our wedding rings,’ said the female half of the couple in question.
‘Oh, I wish I had a camera,’ Emily said on seeing Max’s expression.
At The Packhorse Inn and Hairdressing Salon
Under dead UN supervision Honest Cyril opened the envelope. Inside was a sheet of paper. Upon it was a single question. Honest Cyril looked puzzled, and then smiled. The answer-writers raised their pens. Honest Cyril opened his mouth. Words came out and they were:
‘Question one. What is the combination of the safe in which the answers are locked?’
At The Coach and Horses
Marj and Brendan heard the disgruntled mutterings from the Quiz Hall through the arch. They ignored them. There was a young man with glasses as thick as his arms, which were fortunately like string. He was staring at the fire and nursing a highly potent tomato juice and milk. Marj and Brendan sipped their halves of dry cider and watched the doorway.
The Lament of the Teenage Babysitter
In this world there are patient people. Most of them are in hospital beds, unless they live in the U.K. where the majority are on waiting lists. Some of them are truly patient, and can endure almost any form of annoyance or torture. Such is the teenage baby-sitter. But you can only push a girl so far. Schwarzenegger getting ready to take on a mercenary army in Commando? Ha! Soaked to the skin and wielding an expression that dried the carpet the baby-sitter climbed the stairs to the next floor. The Gremlins fled.
At Barney’s Bar
‘Have you set me up? Do you know all these people or something? Or is this women's intuition at work?’ Max asked, losing his patented cool.
Emily smiles. Max scowls.
‘What about that lot?’ Emily said, motioning to the six thuggish lads.
‘Oh, I don't know. They're undercover policemen waiting to arrest the pimp of the three prostitutes at the bar,’ Max said with a pout. He finished his drink in a mouthful. ‘Can we go now? I hear there's a quiz on at the Packhorse.’
Emily smiled.
‘O.K.. You're such a glum chappie aren't you?’
At The Packhorse Inn and Hairdressing Salon
It was at this point that Honest Cyril realised that the man who had set the questions, now deceased, had neglected to tell him the combination of the safe with the answers in it. He had also neglected to mention where the safe actually was. The tension began to dissipate.
At The Coach and Horses
Brendan and Marj watched in shocked amazement as Roger the habitual drunkard staggered through the door.
‘Yer pub's locked,’ he told them even before he ordered a pint.
‘Where've you been, Roger?’ asked Brendan.
‘Went to get me granddaughter from the station. She's staying for a while as her mother is in the clinic again.’ Roger turned to the barman. ‘Pint of whisky, barman. And what you having, love?’
Roger's question was directed at the unbelievably attractive young lady who had just walked through the door. She was like a supermodel, except she could clearly afford to eat more than once a year.
‘A tomato juice and milk, please, granddad.’
Two ears, either side of a pair of eyes staring at the fire through thick glasses, pricked up, causing the glasses to fall off.
The Lament of the Teenage Babysitter
The editors choose this moment to exercise all the powers of censorship at their disposal. Here is a picture of some daffodils and a piece of elevator music whilst you wait.
At Barney’s Bar
‘I'm sure you cheated.’
‘Sore loser.’
‘How was I to know they were brother and sister.’
‘If the wind changes your face will stick like that.’
‘Fancy they'd been married six years.’
Max and Emily leave the bar. On their way out they pass a dodgy-looking pimp-type on his way in. Unbeknownst to Max and Emily this character saunters over to the three girls at the bar. Instantly the six thuggish lads leaps on him.
‘Police. You're under arrest,’ says one of the lads.
At The Coach and Horses
Brendan and Marj, smiling happily, left Graham ‘The Geek’ Goosecreature talking merrily to Roger habitual drunkard's granddaughter. They went back to their own pub where they found Roger's pint playing poker with the implement they used for prodding the fire.
At The Packhorse Inn and Hairdressing Salon
Two members of one of the five home-grown teams, joint first with everybody else in The International Bar Quiz World Cup, left the pub. On their way out they passed a local couple - Max and Emma was it? and noticed Geeky Graham talking to some obviously short-sighted breath-taking beauty. They ambled home, happy.
In the sitting room, which was peculiarly clean and tidy as if, for example, an army of children had been forced to shampoo and blow dry the furniture, they found the baby-sitter munching popcorn and watching Robin Hood, Prince of Gateways that new soap opera set in a Nottingham supermarket.
‘Were they any trouble?’ asked the returning mother.
‘Not at all.’ Smiled the baby sitter. It was a smile that caused the wall paper to try and roll itself up and hide in the cupboard. Christopher Lee, whilst rehearsing for his role in Dracula, would have given his eye teeth for a smile like that. The father took an involuntary step backwards.
‘Good,’ said the mother, oblivious.
‘Did you win?’ asked the baby sitter.
‘Possibly,’ her father smiled.


* * *

In