King Albert’s Words of Advice

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King Albert’s Words of Advice and other extraordinary stories Michael Allen KingsfieldIntroduction This book is a collection of short stories. Which is not a very helpful statement as it stands, so let me give you some idea of what to expect. First, I think I should say that all these stories are aimed at the general reader. Without equating myself with the great masters of the past, I would like to think that the kind of person who will enjoy my stories is the person who, years ago, would have enjoyed Saki, or Somerset Maugham, or Roald Dahl. Fans of literary fiction should not abandon hope entirely – they may well find something here to interest them – but those with less refined tastes are likely to be better served. Second, the stories vary considerably in genre and style. Some are mainstream stories, by which I mean they are about the world of today, pretty much as it really is; others might best be described as fantasy; a couple could be cat- egorised as crime fiction; one is a ghost story; and so on. Third, it may conceivably help you to know that the stor- ies have been printed in a deliberate order. Stanley Ellin (of whom more below) chose to present his collected short stories in the order in which they were written. Stephen King, for Everything’s Eventual, preferred a random order, as determined by shuffling playing cards. I myself have fol- lowed the example of the poet Swinburne, who devoted considerable thought to the presentation of his first collec- 7tion of poems, making sure that each piece was balanced carefully against its neighbours. Of course I would not wish to dictate to you how you should read the book; and, quite rightly, you wouldn’t take a scrap of notice if I did. I merely point out that, if you start at the beginning and work through to the end, you will not be subjected to any sudden and unsettling changes of mood. Which brings me to the emotional effects of these stor- ies. I am far from being a disciple of Stephen King, but on one point he and I are in agreement. ‘For me,’ he says, ‘the emotional payoff is what it’s all about. I want to make you laugh or cry when you read a story... or do both at the same time. I want your heart, in other words. If you want to learn something, go to school.’ Hear, hear, say I. One or two of the stories in this present volume may make you smile; some deal in irony; and, although there are a couple which are on the dark side, you will not come across any out-and-out horror. As an ad- ditional guide to the reader, I have provided a few words of description at the start of each individual story. These variations in genre, style, content, and effect, are a result of my low boredom threshold. You see, I hold the view that writing ought to be fun. It’s an eccentric idea, I know, but there we are. This attitude of mine has handicapped my career as a novelist, and yet may prove to do the same in the short- story field. The problem is that if I try to write the same thing over and over again, I just can’t get interested. But of course, writing the same book over and over again (with small but significant variations) is precisely what you have to do if you wish to be a success in today’s fast-moving world of conglomerate publishing. Think Dick Francis, Catherine Cookson, Danielle Steel, John Grisham. They are 8all brand names, and anyone who wants to emulate their achievements, even on a much reduced scale, should en- deavour to become a cult brand name at the very least. Unfortunately I just can’t hack it. For example, more than twenty years ago I wrote a series of three detective novels, each featuring a policeman called Ben Spence. This Spence series was good enough to get listed in some stand- ard reference books on crime fiction (such as A Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery, by Susan Oleksiw); and, if I had been driven by purely commercial considera- tions, I would have gone on churning out the Spence books for ever. But I’m afraid I just couldn’t gear myself up for it. In those days, all my writing had to be done after a full day’s work, and if I was writing to a formula it just didn’t feel like fun. So, this assemblage of stories is a bit of a mixture, and at least in principle there ought to be something for everyone. I have avoided the temptation to tell you which stories I think are the best. In his introduction to his own collected short fiction, Stanley Ellin makes the point that, to the au- thor’s eye, not all stories are of equal merit. But, he adds, the reader will time and again ‘frown at my triumphs and smile upon my failures.’ Eventually, he says, he came to the conclusion that ‘there is no way of telling what the reader will be up to’; the only sensible thing to do is to just hand over the book ‘and then quickly step back out of range.’ Which I now do. Michael Allen Bradford on Avon, 2003 9King Albert’s Words of Advice As is fitting, the first story in this collection features a man who tells stories in return for pints of beer: pretty much what all writers do, really. In this partic- ular instance, the story that he tells is about travel through time and space. Well now, if H.G. Wells could write a successful piece of fiction entitled The Time Machine in 1895, then there is no earthly reason to suppose that the Sony Corporation of Japan could not be developing a real-life time and space machine in 2003. Is there? After all, Sony did help to invent the modern version of Michael Jackson. THERE’S A BLOKE DOWN OUR pub – name of Bernard – who reckons he’s got a time machine in his shed. If you buy him a pint, he’ll tell you about places he’s been to in it. And some of them are really weird. Course, there’s other blokes who reckon that Bernard’s just making these stories up, so that blokes like me will buy him pints. But I’m not so sure. I’ve been and had a look at his shed. He keeps it locked, naturally, because they’d nick anything round here – but he’s definitely got something in there. It’s got dials and that. You can see it through the window. Like I say, not everyone believes what Bernard says, and I once heard a bloke with red hair tell Bernard to his face 11that there’s no such thing as a time machine. But Bernard wasn’t having any. ‘Listen, smart-arse,’ he said. ‘If H.G. Wells could build a time machine in 1895, there’s no reason on earth why the Japanese can’t build one today. They just take a little while to catch up with western technology, that’s all. And as a matter of fact it isn’t just a time machine. It’s a time and space machine. It can visit parallel universes.’ Well, this bloke with red hair never said a word after that, because he didn’t know what a parallel universe was. I don’t either, of course. But Bernard’s mum told my mum that Bernard has a GCSE in physics, and he uses a com- puter at work, so I reckon he knows what he’s talking about. ‘This machine I’ve got is made by Sony,’ Bernard said. ‘I’m beta-testing it for them.’ Well, this bloke with red hair looked dead impressed when Bernard said he was beta-testing this machine. Be- cause this bloke didn’t know what beta-testing meant. I don’t either, of course. ‘Yes,’ said Bernard. ‘It’s all very interesting really. I reck- on it’ll transform society, once it becomes generally avail- able. Bit like the internet. And of course I can go to all sorts of interesting times and places in it. Watch the French Re- volution, visit Queen Cleopatra. All sorts. I had a really in- teresting experience just last night, as a matter of fact.’ ‘Oh yes?’ said the bloke with red hair, who had stopped not believing in time travel. ‘Where did you go to?’ Bernard pushed his empty glass towards this bloke. ‘Buy us a pint,’ he said, ‘and I’ll tell you.’ Well, the bloke with red hair said sorry, but he’d run out of money, so I bought Bernard a pint instead. And this is the story he told us. 12 I thought it would be nice to go somewhere warm (said Bernard), seeing as how it’s so bloody cold here at the mo- ment. So I sat down, and I dialled in a random choice of parallel universe, plus the factors warm, sunny, and lots of beautiful girls. I pressed the button, and after the usual two-minute whirring noises, there I was. I opened the door and had a look out. Just as I’d hoped, I was in a nice warm place. It was a bit like Benidorm really. I could smell the sea, there was a nice breeze blowing from the west, and there were a few palm trees to provide some shade. About half a mile away I could see what looked like a big white house with a dome for a roof. I couldn’t see any beautiful girls as yet, but I was sure there would be some somewhere. So, I set off to walk towards the big house. I hadn’t gone very far when I turned a corner and saw a bloke sitting on a wall. He had his head in his hands, as if he was really depressed, but as I got closer he looked up. And guess what – it was that Albert Coggins from Inker- man Street. ‘Morning, Albert,’ I said. ‘How’s things?’ Albert groaned. ‘Oh God. Don’t ask, lad, don’t ask.’ And then he did a bit of a double take. ‘Hang on a minute,’ he said. ‘It’s Bernard, isn’t it? Bern- ard from the Rose and Crown? Captain of the darts team?’ ‘Yes, that’s me,’ I said. ‘Bloody hell, Bernard.’ Albert was astonished. ‘How did you get here?’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I came in my Sony Supertravel mark IV time/space bodily transportation machine. I’m beta-testing it for ’em – me and about three thousand others. How about you? How did you get here?’ 13Albert groaned again. ‘Oh, more or less the same way as you, I suppose. Only not quite so scientific. You see, I was cleaning out my granny’s loft for her – as you do. And I came across this old lamp, lying at the back like, as if nobody wanted it. So I picked it up, rubbed the dirt off it, and – guess what?’ ‘A genie appeared.’ Albert looked even more astonished. ‘Yes. But how did you know?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘since I’ve been beta-testing this Sony ma- chine, I’ve come across places where genies are as common as muck. Some of these parallel universes are absolutely thick with them.’ ‘Oh,’ said Albert. ‘Well, anyway, after I’d got over the shock of having this particular genie come pouring out of my granny’s lamp, he expressed his eternal gratitude to me for releasing him from bondage, and then he offered me three wishes. Said I could have anything I wanted. Go any- where I wanted. Be anything I wanted. I only had to say.’ ‘My word,’ I said. ‘The genies I’ve met haven’t been any- where near as obliging as that, Albert. Grumpy lot most of them.’ ‘Yes, well,’ said Albert, ‘I gather they only do the three wishes bit if they’ve been stuck in a lamp for a few thou- sand years. Anyway, that’s what this one said to me. So I thought for a bit, and then I said, Well, I’d like to be king of my own country for a start.’ ‘OK,’ said the genie, ‘that’s one.’ ‘And then, I’ve always been fond of nice-looking girls, so I want a harem of five hundred of the best.’ ‘Two,’ said the genie. ‘And finally, I’d like a really good golf course next door to the palace, cos I’ve always fancied learning golf.’ 14‘That’s three,’ said the genie. ‘Your wish is my command, o master. And with that there was a whirring noise, and everything went blank for a second or two – and then I ended up here.’ ‘Well,’ I said, taking another look around. ‘I think you could have done a lot worse. It seems like a very nice place.’ Albert sighed. ‘Yes, well,’ he said. ‘It is and it isn’t. I’ve been here four years now, and the novelty has well and truly worn off on me, I can tell you....’ He suddenly looked alarmed. ‘What time is it?’ ‘Ten o’clock.’ ‘Oh, bloody hell. I’m late for the union meeting.’ He stood up. ‘You can come along with me if you like, Bernard. To tell you the truth I’d be glad of some moral support. Even though I am king.’ King Albert led the way to the fabulously white building nearby, which turned out to be the King’s palace. When we got closer, I could see that it stretched for miles in every direction. All the walls were white, and there were no direction signs or labels on any of the doors. Albert reckoned he regularly got lost. Sometimes he had to walk miles to find a loo. We eventually arrived at the council chamber, which was about the size of a football pitch, all on its own. Seated at a table in the council chamber were two people. One turned out to be the Grand Vizier. He was a really ancient-looking bloke, slightly built, with a long white beard and a flowing red robe with lots of gold trim- ming on it. The other person.... Well, the other person was Esmerelda. Bloody hell. I mean, bloody hell 15Esmerelda was one of the five hundred girls from the harem. She was about average height, with blonde hair, blue eyes, long eyelashes, a creamy complexion, dark-red lips, all wet and inviting – and more curves than your aver- age fairground roller coaster. In particular the, er, the up- per part of her curves were approximately 38DD, and they were covered – or rather adorned – by two little bits of gold plate held up by gold chain. I mean, talk about firm. And pert. And all those other rather naughty words that are used to describe ladies with impressive chests. These par- ticular chests were, believe me, unusually large and very well shaped. They were a pair of most distinguished bos- oms. They would have won prizes at the county show. No problem. I was a bit surprised, however, to find that Esmerelda was not too respectful towards her King. ‘You’re late’ she told him when we appeared. And she wouldn’t even have bothered to stand up, I don’t think, if she hadn’t noticed that I was with him, and decided to give me a full-length view. The bottom half of her body... Ooh, and what a bottom it was – never seen one like it – the bottom half of her body was loosely covered by a triangular piece of gold cloth, stra- tegically positioned, and a few flimsy pieces of gauzy mater- ial. These gauzy leg-coverings might, in a very posh lingerie shop, have been sold as the lower section of a pair of hon- eymoon jim-jams. They looked a bit fragile to me, as if they wouldn’t take kindly to being pulled off in a hurry. By heck, it makes me sweat just to think about her, even now. Anyway, to get back to the business in hand. King Albert introduced me as his adviser, and said that I was going to sit in on the discussions. 16The Grand Vizier umm-ed and ah-ed a bit, and wrung his hands, as if he wasn’t quite sure whether this was prop- er, but he soon gave way. And Esmerelda clearly didn’t give a bugger who was there. ‘Let’s get on’ she snarled. So we did. ‘I wish to make an opening statement,’ said Esmerelda. In tones which suggested that it would be unwise to try to stop her. ‘I am here, as you know, King Albert, in my capa- city as harem shop-steward of the Union of Palace Internal Slaves and Skivvies.’ ‘Known as UPISS for short,’ King Albert whispered to me. ‘And they do take the piss, believe me. They draw blood, too.’ Esmerelda stared daggers at him. ‘Once again,’ she declared, ‘his majesty the King has fallen short in his husbandly duties. There are, if I may re- mind his majesty, five hundred beautiful girls in his majesty’s harem. Exactly as per specification. Now, if his majesty has specified five hundred beautiful girls, it is only reasonable to suppose that he felt himself capable of servi- cing five hundred beautiful girls. All of whom have per- fectly normal appetites. And nothing much to do except think about satisfying those perfectly normal appetites.’ I could feel King Albert going a bit red beside me. ‘Ah well,’ he said. ‘You see – ’ Esmerelda cut him off. ‘In the four weeks which have elapsed since the last meeting of this joint union-management committee, his majesty has serviced only twenty of the harem girls. Of those twenty, thirteen have lodged formal complaints about the duration of the servicing, eight have complained about the size of his majesty’s equipment, and twelve have 17reported that his majesty got their name wrong. Even after he had been told what it was. Twice.’ King Albert was sweating quite a lot now. ‘Ah, well,’ he said, ‘you see I haven’t been feeling too lively this last month, Esmerelda.’ ‘Ms Esmerelda to you – even if you are King.’ ‘Sorry, sorry, Ms Esmerelda. You see, I’ve been feeling a bit peaky, what with it being so warm and everything, and I’m not really used to it, not long-term. Gets on me chest a bit, does the heat, and I’ve always been chesty, ever since I was a little boy. Ask my mum if you don’t believe me.’ Esmerelda would have none of this. She proceeded to recite a further list of charges. These included missing ap- pointments without advance notice, developing a headache at vital moments, and falling asleep within two minutes of completing his husbandly duties. Speaking of falling asleep, the Grand Vizier was now well away, and snoring with it. I nudged King Albert and poin- ted this out. ‘Oh, he always does that,’ whispered Albert. ‘Completely bloody useless. He’s supposed to keep things running for me, but he hasn’t a clue. I ask him to do something and it’s Oh yes, your wish is my command, o master. And then a week or two later he denies that I ever told him to do any- thing.’ Meanwhile Esmerelda was finishing off her speech. ‘To conclude: the Union demands immediate and full rectification of all these faults and shortcomings, and in the absence of such complete and total rectification of all man- agement failures, will reserve the right to take strike action. Is that clear?’ ‘Oh, totally,’ said King Albert. And to our relief, Esmerelda got up and marched off. Keeping her nose in the 18air as she went. We watched her go. ‘By heck,’ said King Albert. ‘If she was nothing but tits and arse that girl would be an absolute marvel. But unfor- tunately she’s got a mouth as well.’ I was too stunned by the sight of Esmerelda walking away to say anything. Her behind in movement was something that I have not witnessed the like of, nay, not in any of the universes what I have visited. The Grand Vizier chose that moment to wake up. ‘Ah’ he said. ‘Next item, complaints from the Union of Executioners and Torturers.’ King Albert became agitated. ‘What do they want this time?’ ‘Much the same as before, your majesty. They went you to send them more customers. They are on piece-work, after all.’ King Albert groaned, even more pitifully than ever. ‘Go outside and tell them to wait a few minutes, Mr Vizier. Like, about twenty-four hours if you can manage it.’ ‘Your wish is my command, o master,’ said the Grand Vizier. And he hobbled off towards the door, which was ap- proximately two hundred yards away. King Albert turned and looked at me. His expression was pitiful to behold. The poor fellow looked knackered. ‘You see what it’s like,’ he said. ‘Being King is absolutely no fun at all, Bernard I’m now going to spend the next half-hour being bollocked by a gang of torturers and execu- tioners – who are really frightening blokes, Bernard. And all because I don’t send them enough people to work on But I don’t want to condemn anyone to death’ And the poor chap began to sob, quite piteously. ‘I can’t play golf because although there’s a wonderful 19golf course, I didn’t think to ask for any clubs, you see. So there aren’t any.’ ‘But there’s always the harem,’ I pointed out. ‘Harem? Don’t talk to me about the bloody harem.’ Tears streamed down King Albert’s cheeks. ‘I used to enjoy a really good shag. Nothing I enjoyed more, apart from my mum’s treacle tart. But now it’s just a horrible chore. You go in there, and you find there’s one on the bed, telling me to get on with it, and then there’s a whole bloody queue of them outside the door. And I get so worried that they’re go- ing to lodge formal complaints that I can hardly get it up any more.’ Well, I could see that King Albert was in the most ap- palling mess, but he seemed to be unaware of the obvious solution. ‘But look here, Albert,’ I said. ‘There’s no need for all this gloom and doom. If you’re not having fun any longer, why don’t you just get up and leave?’ He turned to stare at me, his cheeks all wet with dis- tress. ‘Leave? How could I possibly leave?’ ‘Well,’ I said, in a most reasonable tone, ‘you could al- ways come back with me.’ So he did. Bernard had finished his story, and his pint, so I bought him another. ‘And that was that,’ he said. ‘Albert came back with me. Last Tuesday. Of course, he’d spent four years in the paral- lel universe where he was king, but in our universe he’d only been away ten days.’ ‘But I saw Albert only yesterday,’ said the bloke with red hair. ‘And he told me he’d been away on holiday. In Ben- 20idorm.’ ‘Ah, well, he would, wouldn’t he?’ said Bernard. ‘He’s a bit sensitive about the whole thing, is Albert. You would be too, in the circumstances.’ I don’t know about you, but I thought Bernard’s story about King Albert and the harem girls was really interest- ing. Of course, I didn’t believe all of it. I mean I didn’t be- lieve that the Grand Vizier would have fallen asleep in the middle of an important meeting, for a start. Anyway, I thought it would be quite interesting to have a word with King Albert, when I next saw him. I thought I might get him to tell me a bit more about Esmerelda and that. I think harem girls are really quite interesting. I wouldn’t mind meeting one or two myself. So, for the next couple of days, whenever I was going down Inkerman Street I kept my eyes open, and eventually I managed to bump into King Albert as he was walking towards the bus stop. ‘Morning,’ I said. I wasn’t sure if I should say ‘your majesty’ or not, but I thought not, on the whole, since he’s back in our universe now. ‘Did you have a good holiday?’ Albert shuddered, as if I had dropped an ice cube down the back of his shirt. ‘Ooh Don’t ask, lad. Don’t ask.’ ‘Bad, was it?’ ‘Ooh, terrible, terrible.’ I made sure that no one could overhear us. ‘I, er, I gath- er you had a bit of trouble with the harem girls. Do you think I could have a few harem girls, if I had a rub of that lamp? I wouldn’t need as many as you, though. A couple of hundred would do for me.’ Albert looked up and down the street, just as I had, to make sure that no one else was listening. ‘You’ve been talk- 21ing to Bernard, haven’t you?’ he said. ‘Well, yes,’ I admitted. Albert looked me up and down. ‘How old are you, lad?’ ‘Eighteen. Nearly.’ Albert nodded. ‘Well, I reckon you could do with a bit of advice.’ He looked at his watch. ‘I’ve got to catch a bus in five minutes, but we’ve just got time. Let’s nip into the Dog and Ferret.’ We went into the pub and Albert ordered two pints and a double Scotch. ‘My friend’s paying,’ he said. So I did. I took a look at Albert while we were waiting for the drinks. He had a very good suntan, and he did look as if he might have spent four years in a hot climate. When the drinks arrived, Albert drank the whisky al- most in one go. I was very impressed. Whenever I try to drink whisky I cough, and it makes my eyes water. Then he sank half of the pint of best bitter, and after that he guided me over to a quiet corner of the bar. ‘Now then, lad,’ he said. ‘Have you got a granny?’ ‘I’ve got two.’ ‘Right. Well, the day will come when one of your gran- nies asks you to clear out her loft for her. As they do. And the thing is this, see. If, when you’re poking about in the loft there, you come across an old lamp, do you know what you definitely should not do?’ ‘No, Albert.’ ‘You shouldn’t rub it.’ ‘Shouldn’t I?’ ‘No. Definitely not. There’s quite a lot of things a lad your age shouldn’t rub, and a lamp’s one of them. And if, by any chance, you do inadvertently pass your arm over it, by mistake like, and a genie does happen to pop out of the lamp, you should be very, very careful what you say.’ 22‘Should I?’ ‘Oh yes. And if this genie should offer you three wishes, and say that you can have whatever your heart desires, do you know what you should do then?’ ‘No, Albert.’ ‘You should say no, lad. That’s all. Just... say... no.’ He sank the second half of his pint and stood up. ‘What have I told you?’ he said. ‘Er, you’ve told me that if a genie ever offers to grant me three wishes, I should be very, very careful,’ I replied. King Albert patted me on the shoulder. ‘That’s right, lad,’ he said. ‘Whenever you’re faced with temptation, just say no, and then you’ll come to no harm.’ And with that he rushed off to catch his bus. 23Budgie Bill As I sit here at my little typing machine, I often think that there must be many more sensible things to do with one’s time than spend it writing fiction. One could go for a walk, for instance; or play bowls; or breed budgerigars. One day, while I was embarked on this line of speculation, it occurred to me that I couldn’t remem- ber ever reading a story about a man who bred budgerigars. So I wrote one, to fill this obvious gap in the market. IT IS BY NO MEANS unusual for a mother to worry about the kind of magazines which she finds hidden in her teen- age son’s bedroom, and Mrs Macklethwaite was no excep- tion to this general rule: she was very worried indeed. But Mrs Macklethwaite was unusual in one respect: in her case she was worried because she couldn’t find any mucky magazines at all. Never had done. Her boy Billy did- n’t seem to have hidden anything naughty under his bed. Or on top of the wardrobe. Or tucked behind the radiator. Ever. And since Billy was now nineteen years of age that was... Well, it wasn’t quite normal, somehow. Or so Mrs Macklethwaite thought, anyway. Mrs Macklethwaite wouldn’t have worried quite so much if Billy had been the type who preferred the real 24thing to pictures. She would have been quite relaxed if her son had been in the habit of going out pubbing and club- bing, and coming home late, and being sick in the front garden; if, in short, she had been able to assume that the top-shelf magazines would reveal to him absolutely nothing with which he was not already familiar. But Mrs Macklethwaite’s son Billy wasn’t doing any of that, you see. He didn’t even have a motorbike or watch football on the telly. What her Billy was doing was breeding budgerigars in a whopping great aviary down the bottom of the garden. What was more, he was spending all his time and money on it. And for a young man of nineteen that did- n’t seem... Well, it didn’t seem quite normal somehow. Or so Mrs Macklethwaite thought, anyway. Eventually, after much heart-searching, Billy’s Mum de- cided to do something about this unhealthy obsession. Mrs Macklethwaite’s first port of call was the local news- agent’s shop, which was run by a Mr Patel. She waited until the shop was empty, and then she said, ‘I wonder if I might have a quiet word, Mr Patel.’ ‘Certainly, certainly, Mrs Macklethwaite, how can I help you?’ ‘Well, you know my boy Billy, don’t you?’ ‘Oh yes, young Billy is one of my very best customers, no doubt about it.’ ‘Yes, well, I wonder if you’d mind telling me what sort of magazines he reads.’ ‘Ah, well now, let me see....’ Mr Patel scratched his chin. ‘There is Budgerigar Breeders’ Monthly, of course.... Budgie Bulletin.... Budgie Fanciers’ Gazette.... The Best of Birds – rather a confusing title that one, because some young men mistake it for quite a different publication, and 25

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