dubiously true stories and cartoons

Monday, December 24, 2012


Christmas was always a strange time for me . . .

The smell of fireworks was still hanging in the air when they started to arrive.

Their faces were shrouded in balaclavas and they lurked malevolently in the shadows waiting for the right moment to strike. Tightly knit and well disciplined they leaped over walls and hedges with military precision to bombard the neighbourhood with song.

When the carol singers descended on us their primary aim was not to spread Joy to the World or Peace on Earth or Goodwill to All Men. No – their primary aim was to make money.

They did, however, possess one serious, fundamental flaw in their nocturnal, mercenary activity.

They didn’t know any carols.

Those that did only seemed to know one – Silent Night – and most of them only knew the first four lines of it. The less experienced groups simply repeated the first four lines of the carol over and over again until they got bored and wandered off into the night muttering obscenities to each other. The more experienced ones were more determined and, upon reaching that unremembered fifth line, moved effortlessly into an excruciating medley of songs from the back catalogue of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III. The residents of the street cowered fearfully in the dark corners of their houses whenever they heard their doorbells ring but the carol singers just kept at it, night after night, endlessly singing until the owners of the besieged houses eventually cracked and coughed up some money.

They were ruthlessly efficient.

The carol singers in our neighbourhood were ruthless . . .
My stepfather was dozing on the couch, half-watching the flickering images that danced out of the black-and-white tube driven monster in the corner of the room. The television was always turned down low at this time of the year so the approaching footsteps of marauding carol singers could be heard more clearly.

Mum was sat beside him reading the Christmas issue of People's Friend while she fed one chocolate after another into her mouth. She was eating chocolates because she wasn’t knitting. When she wasn’t eating chocolates she would knit clothes that always ended up being stuffed away in cupboards or at the bottom of wardrobes, out of sight and out of mind. Her ugly, misshapen jumpers were the talk of the street, always in hushed tones and never within her earshot.

Granddad was over in the corner leafing through Selected Essays and Journalism by George Orwell. He didn’t share Orwell’s belief in socialism and he wasn’t really reading the book – he was just filling his head full of information before Sylvia arrived.

Grandma was sat next to the electric fire, chain-smoking No 10 cigarettes, or Coffin Nails as Granddad called them. She had a glass of sherry in her free hand and her corned-beefed legs were swaying to the rhythmic sound of her mutterings as she stared blankly at the coloured lights attached to the sparse wire branches of the imitation Christmas tree.

"For God's sake, stop muttering, will you!" growled my stepfather.
"I wasn’t muttering," snapped Grandma.

She had secretly made it her vocation in life to be utterly unpleasant to him at every possible opportunity and whenever he asked her what she was muttering about she just shrugged her shoulders and treated him to one of her enigmatic smiles which convinced him that she was muttering things about him. When she saw that her muttering was irritating him she muttered all the more, only louder.

Once, he caught her muttering behind the daily newspaper, which she held fully open and upside down in front of her. When he commented on the fact that the paper was the wrong way up she just smiled sweetly and said, "I know, Captain Thin Lips, and you’ve just walked into my clever trap."

My stepfather knew there was no point in pursuing the subject of whether Grandma was or wasn't muttering, so he left it there and went back to watching the television.

"And a Merry Christmas to you, you miserable bugger," said Grandma, raising her glass to her lips.

My stepfather held a special place in his heart for Christmas because he hated every minute of it. He hated the expense and the false good cheer and the cold and especially the carol singers.

The sound of rapping knuckles on the front door broke the uncomfortable silence that followed Grandma’s less than festive toast. There were two short raps followed by three longer ones. This was the secret code given only to family and friends so my stepfather could distinguish them from the carol singers who he knew were preying on the street.

"Who’s that?" Grandma asked.

"How the bloody hell should I know," said my stepfather. "I haven’t got x-ray eyes, have I?"

"It’s probably Sylvia," said Mum.

Over in the corner Granddad smiled.

"You see," said Grandma. "It’s probably Sylvia."

My stepfather heaved himself off the settee and went grumbling into the hallway.

Sylvia was my mother’s friend and she was tarted up as usual. She was single and was forever in search of the elusive Mr Perfect with whom she could spend the rest of her life with. Unfortunately she was too stupid to realise that the perfect man didn’t exist and she usually ended up dating men who would inevitably disappoint her. 

Her hair was made up in a beehive and she had doused it with so much hairspray it caused everyone in the room to choke as she walked past them. She was dressed in a tight pencil skirt and an angora sweater that clung to her body like a second skin and made her abnormally large breasts stand out like torpedoes. Granddad told me once (out of my mother’s earshot) that he could always tell when Sylvia was coming into a room because her tits came in ten seconds before she did.

She beamed happily as she entered the room. “Merry Christmas everyone!”

"Nah then, Sylv,” said Grandma, looking Sylvia up and down with her usual disapproval. “Been out looking for Mr Wrong again, have you?"

"Eeh, there were no need for that, Edith," Granddad said. "Come and sit over here, Sylvia. I’ve saved a place for you."

"Mind when you're lighting up, Bill," Grandma said. "Sylvia's head might catch fire."

"Leave the girl alone, Edith," Granddad replied. Then he winked and patted the empty chair beside him.

Granddad enjoyed Sylvia’s company immensely because, like the rest of the family he considered her to be a bit thick and he went to extraordinary lengths to prove his point, for no apparent reason except to amuse himself. Being well read, he had a distinct advantage over Sylvia. She regarded reading to be too challenging and found it difficult to concentrate on the articles in the Radio Times, let alone novels that contained big words she couldn’t understand or even spell.
"Do you suppose George Orwell was a true visionary, or do you think Nineteen Eighty-Four was really a metaphor for the decline of Western civilisation in 1948?" Granddad asked of her, staring intently into her heavily mascara'd eyes.
Sylvia spluttered into the sherry glass she’d just been handed and her eyes began to glaze over.
"Well?" Granddad asked, impatiently.
"Da-ad, do you have to?"  implored Mum.
"I only want her opinion," Granddad replied, smiling mischievously.
Despite her rather limited knowledge of English literature, Sylvia tried to summon as much dignity as she could muster in a futile attempt to answer Granddad's loaded question.
"George Orwell?" she replied timidly, acknowledging Granddad's vastly superior intellect. "I . . . don’t really know his books, but . . . doesn’t he write . . . children’s stories?"
"That’s right, luv,” said Granddad. “As a matter of interest, how do you keep your hair up like that?"

Sylvia gave him a bemused look that suggested she was still in a state of shock. "Umm . . . Hairspray," she said, vacantly.

"Fascinating," replied Granddad, who was truly fascinated by it.

As Granddad gazed in awe at Sylvia’s gravity defying hair there was an unfamiliar knock at the front door followed by the sound of scampering feet and muffled voices from the porch. My stepfather, realising the secret code hadn’t been used, immediately sprang to his feet, switched off the television and turned out the lights. He placed a finger over his mouth and pursed his lips. "Shh," he whispered.

The room fell deathly quiet.
"Si-ilent Night, Ho-oly Night . . . " wafted through the letter box. "All is calm, All is bright . . . Round y . . . " the voices faltered momentarily  "happy, happy, happy, happy talk, talk about things we like to do –. "
The singers outside were experienced campaigners and were now, with the grace and ease of seasoned entertainers, moving into selections from the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
"Doe, a deer a female deer, ray, a drop of golden sun – "

My stepfather eased off his shoes, left the room and made his way to the kitchen, where he took a large butcher's knife from the cutlery drawer. He got down on his hands and knees and crawled down the length of the hall.

"Me, a name I call myself, far, a long long way to run – "    

The doorbell rang and he quietly lifted himself up, silently turning the latch with his free hand.

"Ooooooooooooooooooklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plai – "

My stepfather had never been a fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein at the best of times, but if there was one musical he absolutely detested it was Oklahoma. He threw open the front door and, standing under the eerie yellow light of the porch, brandishing the butcher's knife over his head, roared his fury at the six spotty-faced teenagers who were stood before him.


The only thing the carol singers saw (in the split-second they were frozen in fear) was a crazed, psychotic lunatic brandishing a butcher's knife at them. It only took one of them to panic and flee to make the others follow suit.

My stepfather slammed the door shut and made his way back to the front room. He switched on the lights and turned on the television.

As he plonked himself down into the soft warmth of the settee he turned to Grandma and said, "Aye, and a Merry bloody Christmas to you too!"


Saturday, December 15, 2012


Each night when Granddad arrived home from work he would smile warmly at me and thrust his hand into his pocket and - like magic - he would produce a dirty old sweet.

"What have we got here, then," he would say.

Gobstoppers, Black Jacks, Fruit Salads, Flying Saucers, Liquorice Sticks, Refreshers, Aniseed Balls, all found their way into the dark folds of his deep overcoat pockets.
"Anything broken?" he would ask Grandma.
"Not today," she would reply, casting a relieved glance at her treasured collection of glass animals.
They used the same words, the same rhythm of speech each night. It was something they did without even realising.

Mum and Granddad both worked at the Odeon Cinema on Dickson Road, and while they were at work I was left under the watchful eye of my Grandma, who I wore to a frazzle with my boisterous behaviour.

By the time I was five my boisterousness had been replaced with extended bouts of nervous energy and so, in an attempt to calm me down, Grandma allowed me to hold one of her glass animals, but when she did she was always at my shoulder, hopping nervously from one foot to the other.

Her extensive collection of glass animals was kept in a tall, glass-fronted cabinet that stood on the back wall of the lounge. It was the focal point of the room, her pride and joy, and ordinarily I was not allowed within a mile of it.
As well as the manufactured animals encased in their glass shrine, my grandparents had three real ones – Shane, George and That Bloody Bird.
Shane, named after Grandma’s favourite film, was an old dog, a cross (somehow) between a corgi and a German Shepherd. He had a problem with his bowels and seemed to spend most of the time releasing foul smelling odours into the room that he himself didn’t seem able to smell.

Granddad often used Shane as an excuse for when he did the same.
"Has that dog farted again?" he would say, wafting his hand across his face.
Grandma, being uncannily sensitive in the olfactory department could easily distinguish between Shane’s emissions and those of her husband. "Monkeys smell their own shit first," she would reply mysteriously.
Granddad always acted surprised when she displayed this amazing ability but he knew full well the reason why she was so perceptive – his farts didn’t smell anywhere near as bad as Shane’s.
George was named after Grandma’s brother and was a huge white rabbit that spent most of his time sprawled out in front of the fire, nibbling at the corners of an old green rug. When he wasn’t asleep he wandered about the house looking for anything green to eat. George only had one rule – Green is edible. He’d nibbled at the bottom of the green curtains in the lounge and had eaten whole chunks out of Mum's green dress when she was foolish enough to leave it lying on the floor. When one of Granddad’s workmate’s came home with him for tea he left the house later that evening completely unaware that one of the legs of his green trousers was marginally shorter than the other.
At night George slept outside in a hutch next to a wire pen where That Bloody Bird lived. That Bloody Bird wasn’t given a name because Granddad had brought it home earlier in the year to fatten it up and eat it for Easter. But, when Easter came around the thing had grown into a monster, so large and fierce that no one, least of all Granddad, had the courage to step into its pen, let alone kill it. As the months went by That Bloody Bird became more and more aggressive, strutting around its domain like a mad king and attacking anyone who went near it.

Don't mess with this turkey
"When are you going to kill that bloody bird, Bill?" Grandma asked him.
"Christmas," was his nervous reply.

Grandma was not the kind of person who tolerated idle promises and she nagged and nagged at Granddad to kill That Bloody Bird in time for the Christmas celebrations. Amazingly, he kept his word, although he did get one of his less squeamish friends to do the dirty deed, and That Bloody Bird did indeed find its way onto the Christmas table.

In life, That Bloody Bird had been the toughest turkey on the block, the toughest turkey in the history of tough turkeys. In death, it was even tougher. It was the stringiest, grisliest, foulest tasting turkey that ever walked the face of the earth. Rather than standing resplendent on the Christmas table surrounded by roast potatoes and brussell sprouts, it ended up being cast into the dustbin, providing a veritable feast for all the cats in the neighbourhood who were far less choosy.

Each year at Christmas Mum bought two tins of Quality Street  - one for the family and the other for herself. She placed the family tin on top of the glass-fronted cabinet in the lounge and I was allowed to have one a night, just before I went to bed.
"Can I have another one?"  I always asked, to which Mum always replied,

"Why not?"
"Be reasonable, will you, they have to last us all Christmas."
I was five – being reasonable was not a phrase that featured in my limited vocabulary and on Christmas Night, after gorging myself on sweets and chocolates all day I went to bed. Greed got the better of me, and after fighting to stay awake, I waited until everyone had gone to bed before executing a cunning plan I’d been pondering over since the beginning of the festive season. I crept downstairs under cover of darkness like a highly trained commando. I sneaked into the lounge, lighter on my feet than the world’s greatest cat burglar and climbed to the top of the glass-fronted cabinet with more tenacity than Edmund Hilary.
At this point it would be safe to assume that Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation was an unfamiliar and abstract concept to me. And, by understanding this inalienable truth, it would be quite correct to surmise that, as I reached that Holy Grail of tins, the top of the glass-fronted cabinet was now considerably heavier than the bottom.
My knuckles started to turn white as I watched the top of the cabinet start to move away from the wall. I didn’t know what was happening at first, but, as I turned my head to look around, the full horror of my predicament (as well as the floor) hit me.
The noise created by a glass-fronted cabinet containing several hundred tiny glass animals crashing on top of a five-year-old boy is ear shattering, but, once the cabinet and its dismembered contents had settled, the silence that followed was even more deafening.
The next sound I heard was the thundering of bare feet rushing down the stairs, followed by the metallic click of the light switch. As bright light filled the room my eyes begin to flicker and, just before I passed out, I felt the weight of the cabinet being lifted from my body.
When I regained consciousness, Mum and my grandparents were crouched over me in the wreckage that was once Grandma’s pride and joy.
"The little bugger was after the Quality Street," said Mum, her voice loaded with annoyance.
"Just be thankful he’s alright," said Granddad softly. "It could have been a lot worse."
"How could it be worse?" sobbed Grandma. "Look at all my animals."
The floor around me looked like a glass abattoir. The dismembered bodies of Grandma’s treasured collection were everywhere. At first it seemed nothing has escaped, but on closer inspection it appeared that one animal had survived. It stood proudly in the middle of its shattered, fallen comrades, fiercely defiant, and in total contradiction of Newton’s law of universal gravitation.

It was a turkey.

Grandma took one look at it and, with a face that could have stopped clocks, crushed it under the merciless heel of her slipper. 

A small glass turkey similar to the one my Grandma crushed under the heel of her slipper

"A fine Christmas this has turned out to be," she grumbled, before stomping off up the stairs.  

Granddad carried me to bed and as he covered me with a blanket he winked at me and from out of his dressing gown pocket he produced a dirty old sweet.

"Don’t tell your mum," he whispered.

“Is it a secret?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said. “Now go back to sleep, there’s a good lad.”

Then he kissed me and left the room, closing the door softly behind him.