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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (musca tikkus tokkus)

1. Alan And The Restaurant Fly

“Waiter, there's a fly in my soup!”

The waiter glanced lugubriously at my soup bowl, “Yes sir,” he said. “That's Alfred.”

“Alfred?” I was puzzled. Why would a fly have a name?

“Yes sir,” explained the waiter. “Alfred is the restaurant fly. Every restaurant in New Zealand is obliged by law to employ a fly. You must have seen restaurant flies before.”

“Well yes,” I said. “I have noticed that I do seem to come across a fly every single time I eat in a restaurant. But I was not aware that the employment of these flies was a legal obligation. When was the law passed? I don't recall any discussion of it in the newspapers.”

“Oh it's not a new law, sir. It's been on the statute books for more than 150 years. It was one of the very first laws passed by the New Zealand Parliament after the Treaty Of Waitangi was signed.”

“So Alfred the Fly is an employee of the restaurant?” I asked, trying to get my head around the idea.

“Indeed he is,” said the waiter. “And his duties are quite onerous. He actually earns a larger salary than I do.”

“But I don't suppose he gets as many tips as you do,” I said. “Surely that cancels the larger salary out?”

“Well,” said the waiter, “in most countries of the world it would. But since nobody in New Zealand ever leaves a tip, the point is moot.”

“So what are Alfred's duties?” I was intrigued.

“Mainly he has to take a swim in every glass of wine. That's quite exhausting when you are as small as Alfred. We've been trying to persuade him to conserve his energy and use the breast stroke. After all, he's not as young as he used to be. But he insists that breast stroking is for wimps. Real flies use the Australian Crawl. By the end of the evening he's often quite tuckered out.. Sometimes he barely has enough strength left to shit in the salads. That's his other major job and I think it's his favourite.”

I watched Alfred doing the Australian crawl up and down my soup bowl. “So presumably it isn't only the wine that he swims in?”

“Oh no sir – any and all liquids are available to him, though wine is to be preferred because it is the most expensive of our liquid refreshments. However he has complete discretionary access. I think his choice of liquid depends on his mood. Possibly he was feeling chilled after his last marathon effort in a glass of Chardonnay. Your soup represents a perfect opportunity to warm himself up.”

Alfred swam lazily to the side of my soup bowl and hauled himself up onto the rim. He brushed himself down with each and every leg, one by one, and shook little drops of soup off himself back into my bowl. Then, after a brief rest, he launched himself into the air heading determinedly for the other side of the restaurant.

“Ah,” said the waiter, “I see that one of my colleagues has just served a salad to the diners on table number ten. Alfred must heed the call of duty. He's very conscientious. He seldom takes a rest. But don't worry, sir. I'm sure he will eventually make his way back to you. Would you care for another glass of wine?”

“No thank you,” I said. “Not just at the moment.” I put my soup spoon down. “Perhaps you could clear my soup away,” I said. “I feel that I've had enough.”

“Was everything to your taste, sir?” enquired the waiter.

“Indeed it was,” I replied. “But I'd like to leave room for the next course. However I have a question for you.”

“Yes sir?”

“Outside in the street it is the middle of winter. Why isn't Alfred hibernating, or whatever it is that flies do in the winter? Generally speaking they are seldom if ever seen at this time of the year.”

“Alfred doesn't know that it is winter,” said the waiter. “We have a lovely temperature controlled tropical rain forest in an alcove just off the kitchen and that's where Alfred lives. He seldom goes outside and so the changes of season remain unknown to him. Please don't inform him that it is winter. We wouldn't want to lose him, he's a valuable and popular employee.”

“Perish the thought,” I said.

“Thank you sir,” said the waiter. “By the way, I notice that you are reading an ebook while you enjoy your meal,”

“That's right,” I said. “I find ebook readers to be very convenient gadgets. And the touch screen is a joy and a delight to use.”

“Hmmm,” said the waiter. “I feel I should let you know that Alfred recently got a substantial pay rise because a new task has been added to his job description.”

“Oh yes?” I said. “What's that?”

“He is required to walk left and right across the screen of every customer's ebook reader, thus causing the pages to turn in rapid succession and making the customer lose his place in the book he is reading.”

“I would imagine that would be very annoying,” I said.

“Indeed it is,” said the waiter, “and Alfred is particularly proud of his skills in that area.”

“I think I'd like to order a salad,” I said, “and a glass of wine. Perhaps Alfred might find them distracting enough to allow me to finish my chapter.”

“Certainly sir,” said the waiter. “I'll fetch them immediately.”

2. Alan And The Books He Read

Ben Aaronovitch is rapidly making a name for himself as a writer of humorous fantasy. It's easy to write funny books that are exactly like everybody else's funny books. What's hard is to strike out in a brand new funny direction. But that's what Ben Aaronovitch has done. His third novel is called Whispers Under Ground and it is easily his best so far.

Peter Grant, the much put upon apprentice wizard-policeman and close friend of several of London's Rivers, has to assist in a murder investigation with international implications. The victim is an American with a father influential enough to warrant calling in the FBI. The story mostly takes place in London's underground railway tunnels (including some that aren't actually under the ground) with side excursions into the stinking sewers. It's all jolly good funny fun.

In an earlier novel in the series, Peter's friend Lesley was horribly disfigured in a magical confrontation with the bad guy. She has now officially joined the investigating team, but because her face is so hideous she has to wear a mask when she is out in public. It would have been easy for Aaronovitch to take the path of least resistance and have Peter (or his boss Inspector Nightingale) cast another magic spell to fix the damage that magic had caused in the first place. To his credit, Aaronovitch knows that there are no easy answers and Lesley has to live with the consequences of her injury. Which leads to some interesting encounters:

Abigail stared suspiciously at Lesley. ‘Why are you wearing a mask?’ she asked.
‘Because my face fell off,’ said Lesley.
Abigail considered this for a moment and then nodded. ‘Okay,’ she said.

Aaronovitch goes from strength to strength and I now find myself eagerly anticipating his fourth novel. Next year, perhaps...

In Terry Pratchett's novel Snuff we learned that Captain Vimes had a new book to read to his son. The book was called The World Of Poo and young Sam found it hilarious. Small boys are naturally fascinated by scatology. Indeed, some of us never outgrow that interest. Consequently, when The World Of Poo appeared on the bookshelves I absolutely had to buy it. And I'm pleased to say that I found it just as funny and just as fascinating as young Sam found it to be.

The World Of Poo is by Miss Felicity Beedle (with some small editorial help from Mr Terry Pratchett). She seems to be well aware of the general interests of small boys – she has also written such immortal tomes as Melvin and the Enormous Boil, The War with the Snot Goblins, and The Boy Who Didn’t Know How to Pick His Own Scabs. However The World Of Poo is her magnum opus being not only the amusing story of Geoffrey, a small boy whose ambition is to own a collection of every kind of animal and human poo in the world, but also a seriously fascinating discussion of the many practical facets of poo – septic tanks, dunnakin divers and the interesting fact that dog poo (particularly the extremely rare white turd) is a vital component in the production of the very best leather. Those people of a scatological frame of mind (and isn't that all of us?) will thoroughly enjoy this book.

Pauline Rowson has written a series of detective novels featuring one Inspector Horton. They are set in Portsmouth, on the south coast of England. Horton is a very well realised character, a flawed man (as all these detectives are supposed to be). When he was a small child his mother disappeared. Horton always felt that she had deserted him (though as he grew older he started to wonder if she had been murdered). He bears the scars of years of foster parents and children's homes and he is not the most even tempered of men.

The first 95% of each of the novels is quite fascinating. Pauline Rowson does a brilliant job of facing Horton with seemingly insoluble murders. In true police-procedural fashion, Horton plods diligently through all the usual suspects. Both Horton's colleagues and the villains he has to deal with are extremely well written and it is very easy to succumb to the spell of the book and immerse yourself in the story. However it all falls apart in the last 5% of each novel. Every single book ends with a disappointing Agatha Christie-like confrontation with the one person who couldn't possibly be the murderer. In every single novel, Horton eventually finds himself about to be killed by the murderer – but before killing him, the murderer confesses to the crimes and fills in all the little details that Horton had found so puzzling during his investigation. And then, when every 'i' has been dotted and every 't' crossed, at the last possible second, a miracle happens, Horton does not die and the murderer is hauled away to durance vile. Presumably everyone lives happily ever after until the next book. The structure is so formulaic that I actually found myself trying to predict just where and when Horton would find himself doing the dumb thing that leads to the terminal encounter. The turning point was generally quite easy to spot.

The ongoing theme of the disappearance of Horton's mother also starts to get more than a little annoying. In every novel Horton gains a small clue as to what might have happened to her. He keeps promising himself to follow up on these clues, but other things keep getting in the way. I found myself getting more and more impatient with him (or, more accurately, with Pauline Rowson). This is a story that is dying to be told, but the author keeps shying away from it. I found myself wishing that she'd bite the bullet and get on with it. But sadly, it was not to be. One day maybe...

3. Alan And The Clockwork Man

“What's the time?” asked Robin.

I glanced at the clock on the wall. “Well the big hand is pointing at the II and the little hand is pointing at the IX so it must be ten past nine.”

“That can't be right,” said Robin. “Midsomer Murders has just started on the TV and that always starts at 9.30.”

“You're right,” I said. “Perhaps the clock needs a new battery.”

I changed the battery and adjusted the time. We settled down to watch the television.

Time passed. The clock ticked. Almost without us noticing, today turned into tomorrow.

“What's the time?” asked Robin.

I glanced at the clock on the wall. “Well the big hand...”

“We've already done that,” said Robin.

“Sorry.” I compared the time on the clock to the time on my watch and the time on my computer. “The clock's about ten minutes slow,” I said. “The new battery doesn't seem to have helped. I think the clock might be broken.”

“How can we get it fixed?”

“There's a shop in Wellington that specialises in fixing clocks,” I said. “I'll take it there.”

The next day I went into the clock shop clutching my clock. The walls of the shop were covered in things that went tick and things that went tock. Occasionally, much to my annoyance, one of the things went cuckoo.

“Yes?” said the man behind the counter.

“I have a clock that is greatly in need of repair,” I explained.

“Well you've come to the right place then,” said the man. “That's all I do, day in and day out. I fix broken clocks. I don't do anything else. Let's have a look at it.”

I laid my clock on the counter and explained my problem. The man sneered at it.

“It's got one of those battery driven movements,” he said contemptuously. “Modern rubbish. They're always breaking down. It can't be repaired. I'll have to throw the old movement away and replace the whole thing. Not that it's worth bothering. Cheap, nasty things. Can't be relied on.”

I started to get the feeling that he didn't approve of clocks with electronic cogs. “But you can fix it?” I asked.

“Just said that, didn't I? Not that I really want to. Waste of time if you ask me.”

“But we really like it,” I said. “It was one of the first things we bought ourselves after we got married. It has great sentimental value. And besides, the face is really rather attractive. We like that fact that the clock is oval rather than round and the Roman numerals are particularly elegantly presented.”

“Alright! Alright! Leave it with me and I'll see what I can do. But it will take at least two weeks, I've got a huge backlog. And it will cost a fortune.”

“How much?” I asked.

“$70,” he said, obviously pulling a figure out of thin air in the hope that I would go away and stop bothering him.

“Righto,” I said. “Let's do it.”

He sniffed and sneered and tore a couple of inches of paper off a pad that was lying on the counter. He picked up a green felt tipped pen. “What's your name and phone number?” he asked.

I told him my name. He wrote it down wrongly, as everybody always does.

“No,” I said, “that's not right. The name is R-O-B-S-O-N not R-O-B-E-R-T-S-O-N.”

He scribbled over the E-R-T. “And the phone number?”

I told him my phone number. He wrote it down wrongly.

“No,” I said, “that's not right. The last four digits are 6-3-3-5 not 6-3-5-5.”

He changed the first 5 to something that might have been a 3 if you squinted at it just right, and the wind was from the west. But we only get northerly winds in Wellington, except when we get southerlies. I was not hopeful that future communications would be fruitful.

“I'll ring you when it's ready,” he said as he sellotaped the scrap of paper to the clock face. I left him to his ticks, tocks and cuckoos.

Time passed. Three weeks to be exact. I went back to the shop.

“Three weeks ago, I left a clock for repair,” I explained. “You said it would take two weeks. But since I haven't heard back from you, I thought I'd come and see what was happening with it.”

“I've been phoning you, but nobody answers. The phone just rings and rings and rings.”

“Funny,” I said. “We've not had any calls at all.”

“I've been ringing and ringing. You're never bloody there. Anyway, what does your clock look like?”

“It's sort of oval shaped...” I waved my hands vaguely and looked around the shop for inspiration. “There it is! That one over there, hanging on the wall.” I pointed at my clock and he unhooked it from the wall and brought it over.

“Here you are.” He plonked it down on the counter. There was a scrap of paper sellotaped to it. I looked at the paper and read the green felt tipped words.

“My name isn't Mr Carruthers,” I said. “And that's not my phone number.”

“Well no wonder you never answered the phone if it isn't your number,” he said. He didn't sound very surprised.

“But who is Mr Carruthers and why didn't he answer?” I asked.

“I've no idea who Mr Carruthers is,” said the man. “I imagine he's someone who wanted a clock repaired.” He looked around the dozens of clocks hanging on the walls. “I wonder which one is his?”

“Probably the one with my name on it,” I suggested.

“I doubt if it's that simple,” he said scornfully. “Oh well, it'll sort itself out. He'll come in one day asking for his clock. I'll find it for him then.”

“Does this sort of thing happen often?” I asked.

“Oh yes, all the time. You get used to it. That'll be $70.”

I took out a credit card.

“I don't do credit cards or eftpos,” he said. “Nasty, modern electronic ideas. They'll never catch on. Cash or cheque only.”

“I'll be back in a little while,” I said. “I'll have to go to a money machine. I don't usually carry that much cash on me.

“Hurry up,” he said. “If you're not back here in five minutes I'll give your clock to Mr Carruthers.”

Fortunately there was a money machine just across the road and I was back in the shop very quickly.

“Here you are,” said the clockwork man. He put my clock in a plastic bag and I took it home.

“What's the time?” asked Robin.

I glanced at the clock on the wall. “Well the big hand...”

Ben Aaronovitch Whispers Under Ground Gollancz
Miss Felicity Beedle The World Of Poo Doubleday
Pauline Rowson Deadly Waters Fathom
Pauline Rowson The Suffocating Sea Fathom
Pauline Rowson Dead Man's Wharf Fathom
Pauline Rowson Blood On The Sand Fathom
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