Sir Gilchrist Temple pulled the telescope from his impeccably tailored frockcoat’s pocket and put it to his eye. It whirred to half-length then stopped. Sighing loudly, Temple lowered the optical device and wound the small key in its side. ‘Why the buggery hell do they have to mechanise every bloody object whether it’s needed or not,’ he thought with some annoyance. With the mainspring primed once more the telescope opened fully upon being raised, the view it afforded was unwelcome. “They’re gaining on us, Webb.”

“Bound to be, sir, we’re running out of floatcoke,” said Webb, wiping the back of a soot blackened hand across his sweaty and equally soot blackened forehead. “Won’t be long before the balloon sack starts to deflate.”

“That is a cold hand in the showers after rugger,” said Temple, still sweeping the sky from the rear hatch of the gondola. A streak of steam was closing in fast. “Egad, looks like one of the infernal aero-wasps has released a stinger. The floatcoke may outlast the sack yet.”

Webb lowered his head to take in the view from the glass bottom of ‘HMS Knackerknacker’, so named because of the noise the Mark II steam-converter made, a swarm of three dozen copper insectoids carpeted the canyon below. “The mechano-mites are still keeping pace with us. If we land amongst that lot we’re goners, sir.”

“Determined little blighters, I can’t believe they’ve followed us so relentlessly.”

“I know,” said Webb. “From the deserts of Sudan, through the gardens of Japan; from Milan to Yucatan, you’d think they couldn’t but they can.”

Temple lowered the telescope, which compressed itself noisily. “Brace yourself, Webb, we’re about to experience a sudden loss of altitude.”

“Through the docks of Tiger Bay, down the road to Mandalay; from Bombay to Santa Fe, little bastards find a way,” said Webb, still mesmerised by the shifting platoon below him.

“Webb, stop reminiscing and bloody well hold on!”

The stoker looked up, his slack face soon animating as he saw the approaching stinger, piston rod and beam mechanism going like the clappers, come into view and slice a huge rent in the canvas of the balloon sack with a jabbing blade on a flywheel that spat boiling water droplets as it rotated. He clamped his hand upon a rail fractionally before ‘HMS Knackerknacker’ began a rapid diagonal descent. “We’re going to die!” said the sooty stoker.

Temple’s forehead wrinkled deeply. “Pull yourself together, Webb, such cheerlessness is unbecoming of an Englishman.”

“I’m Welsh,” said Webb, his face grimmer than a slate mine on a wet Bank Holiday.

“Oh,” said Temple, “carry on then.”

“We’re going to die…and it looks like rain.”

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DARK HUMOUR by Suzanne Thorpe


Search for the bodies …

The news that the police forensic team were to dig up the gardens came as a shock to Lydia and Alice. They had just planted candytuft whilst the white radishes were at a crucial stage in their germination, so what right did these flat feet have to trounce over their land?

It seemed, after numerous phone calls to the local council, that they had every right. The crop of local disappearances, five in all, had been attributed to a former delivery van driver, who according to the Evening Bugle had confessed, with pride, to no less than five murders. Yet why attack their garden and the two adjoining it? Well this glory-seeker lived on Warren Road and again, according to the Evening Bugle, would not tell the police where he had disposed of the bodies. So the garden to his terrace house, a small scrubby affair, with a part gravel front which sprouted dandelion and nettle, was invaded by a police forensic team with a small excavator. Lydia and Alice had to admit that it looked a lot better for it though. The gravel and weed had been usurped and the overturned earth became good clay top soil so it looked a lot better and at least some good had come of the disturbance. No bodies were found though which was to turn out to be a bad thing for them, and their marigolds and flowering current shrub. For the search was to continue across the road and what better soft target than the three gardens opposite the flats? Yet it was no time to go unearthing bodies for May was the time for planting sweet peas,

and stocks.

‘Some people,’ complained Alice, ‘have no consideration for others at all!’

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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.

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.

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.

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Warren Tuttlebee turned away from the anonymous declaration of love etched into the window frame of the Birmingham outer circle number 11 bus with a lump in his throat and an ache in his heart.

‘If only someone loved me enough to call me cheeky pants,’ he sighed.

If only Megan would say something kind to him just once, then maybe he could write a declaration like that and mean it.

Whenever Warren became emotional he was compelled to fixate on the title of an appropriate love song. Taking a shaky breath, Warren whispered, ‘What can I do to make you love me?’ The young woman sitting next to him got up and moved to another seat. Warren didn’t notice because he was remembering the time he had publicly declared his feelings for Megan. He was fifteen and driven by hormonal explosions and unrequited love, he’d broke into the school one night and carved a heart into the door to girl’s toilets. Inside the heart, ‘W loves M’. Now, at twenty-eight, he was married to ‘M’ but things hadn’t turned out as perfect as he had imagined.

Warren’s love for Megan had changed from the hot, tummy tingling longing to be with her, to the development of body reflexes needed to dodge a thrown ash tray or empty vodka bottle. His colleagues within the self-employed drain cleaning fraternity said from the start that marrying the goddess of his school years because she was pregnant, was a mistake. Of course, it might have been better if the child had been his, or if little Beckham’s first uttered words while staring at Warren hadn’t sounded like, ‘sucker’.

Warren wiped his eyes and between sobs muttered, ‘the first cut is the deepest.’ The shoulders of the man sitting in front of him tightened.

The problem was that Megan absorbed his love but gave nothing back. Warren gathered his self-control and concentrated on the question he’d brought onto the number 11 outer circle, determined not to disembark until he had the answer. How was he to get Megan to love him? He wasn‘t a fussy man, he could put up with having to clean her toenail clippings from kitchen sink and he really didn’t mind the occasional slap. He could even withstand little Beckham’s ankle biting and punches to his buttocks, if Megan would return just a little of his love.

Warren sat through the quiet early afternoon on his fourth circuit around Brum surrounded by gentle conversations about false teeth and pensions but no inspiration came. At times he thought of drains and inspection pits. He missed being out on the road rodding and pressure blasting but until either his stolen van and equipment was recovered and returned, or the insurance paid up, his one-man waste management business was at a standstill.

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He was about to brew a mint Colombian latte, using a machine which had provided many a counterpoint to stories in his columns, largely thanks to his refusal to read the instructions or buy the right brand of capsule, when he noticed the time on his computer screen. Perfect. Wife would be bringing Ned and Aislin back from school in 10 minutes and they were bound to come up with something. They had never failed him, from birth to now, they were absolute gold, and as for Wife, that was a rather tricky theatre of war and he had often kept the velvet curtains there closed tight while he skulked behind the potted plants in the foyer for as long as possible. He automatically scribbled ‘Her Majesty’s Theatre of Conflict’ and ‘aspidistra’ on yellow squares and added them to the wall on his left which was thick with words and phrases. The paper pelt of the Post-it beast was rarely sheared. He pressed the button on the coffee machine, not that he wanted a hot drink, but a mini-anecdote could be handy. The coffee pod split mid-brew and the shed filled with the peculiar smell of burnt artificial mint with an earthy undertow of hot grounds. He pushed a wad of kitchen roll, supplied by his wife at the start of the year with barely suppressed exasperation, in the direction of the hissing brown rivulets, reached for his fragile thesaurus and slowly typed three sentences on a keyboard stippled with food remnants. His inability to learn how to type efficiently was another stalwart source of column inches. He was daydreaming about scheming Colombian drug lords being soothed away from the cocaine-white path of nefarious doings by the application of extreme mint therapy when he heard sounds from the house.

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