*frequent flyer – noun phrase: regular caller without good cause
The picture: A snowy street scene. An ambulance skidding along between iced cars, its headlamps wic-wacking, its emergency lights rippling blue and red, front and back. A generous scattering of glitter.
Hidden around the picture: twenty four numbered panels. Each one has a tiny scene behind it, with a little clip of dialogue as the panel is opened.
1 The lobby of a run-down hotel. Pete, the cowardly lion, sitting in a ruined tub chair with a couple of crutches propped against it. He is wearing a spivvy black leather jacket, dirty jeans, smoking a roll-up the size of a matchstick.
‘I can’t walk.’
‘How did you get down to the lobby?’
‘I can’t walk very far.’
2 A cold, curtainless room lit by a bare light bulb. A ginger tom delicately licking its paw over on the window ledge. Below him, such a scattering of rubbish it could be a sorting room at the recycling depot. Clara, staggering around with a half empty bottle of Perry cider.
‘The door! Don’t let Garfield out! Is he out? Don’t let him out!’
3 The landing of a concrete housing block. Mr Sylvester, rattling around in a dilapidated blue blazer and slacks, propped up against the railings, shaking a brown inhaler.
‘Hello chaps. I need another one of these. But Kathleen should be home soon.’
‘Oh I don’t know. I don’t like to pry.’
4 A long and narrow lift, sheet steel and graffiti tags, a fold-down chair in the corner. Mary, shuffling out in a leopard-pattern fur coat and red slippers, fag smoke billowing around her.
‘Oh hallo boys. Is it cold out? Will I need a hat?’
5 Dolly, Queen of the Wallop, swearing and cursing in her chair, as easy as an elephant that accidentally sat back in a laundry basket.
‘How are you, Dolly?’
‘Fantabulosa, darling. What do you think?’
6 Zachary, walking out of a seafront bar, escorted by a doorman. He casts sharp looks left and right along the street, a strip of fluorescent orange hair draped across the centre of his bald head, his combat jacket zipped right up, collar up, a Chad Valley chess box tucked under his arm.
‘I will speak with you in the language you know. If I revert, I apologise. But there are certain secrets I cannot reveal to you, many of them connected with this ancient box. You’ve heard of the Knights Templar? Then you’ll understand. Dark times, my friend. Strange, dark times.’
7 Ella Mae – careening forwards on her mobility scooter, her cowboy hat slipped back on her head and her eye patch folded up, a fag trembling in her lips. She tugs it out with yellowing fingers and smiles, revealing a dental graveyard of blackened stumps.
‘The bastards have banned me from Waitrose.’
8 Stanley, standing with one hand on the door, his tousled head turned back into the flat where a beautiful springer spaniel leaps from sofa to armchair.
9 Miranda, swaying in the hallway of a Glade-drenched bungalow, her eyes swimming in and out of focus behind the dirty lenses of her glasses. Josh Groban emoting on the DVD
‘We understand you’ve taken an overdose.’
‘Will you be coming to hospital?’
‘No. Fuck off.’
10 Mrs Jessom, standing in the middle of a plush lounge, seemingly aghast to find herself in a quilted, leaf-patterned housecoat. In the corner of the room, beneath a display shelf of porcelain fairies, the life-sized mannequin of a small child in a red raincoat, her face to the wall.
‘I look a fright.’
‘I do. I look a fright.’
11 Janice, simpering in a WWF bed beneath a wall of WWF posters and WWF DVDSs. The quilt - Bret Hart, golden belt over his shoulder - has been artfully arranged to reveal teasing flashes of naked shank and brisket.
‘I was just getting ready to take a flannel bath when the cat head butted me and I fell backwards onto the bed.’
12 Jose, sitting on the steps of the entrance way, devouring a cigarette. In the half-light of the courtyard he could be a Spanish movie star, but close inspection reveals such a slack and dissolute face it’s all you can do not to bite your knuckle.
‘I see espiders. Everywhere. Espiders.’
13 Ralph, enthroned on a ruined chair amongst the detritus of his basement flat, his friend Bobby bustling about like a large, solicitous woodlouse.
‘He was knocked clean out.’
‘And that’s some of his hair in the ashtray.’
14 Joy, a frail woman of indeterminate age in teddy bear PJs, mouthing instructions from round the corner of her curtains.
‘Whatever you do, don’t say you’ll look at her chinchillas.’
15 Michael, a falling down, fag butt Father Christmas in a foetid raincoat, slumped on a bench outside the Co-op, a festive carrier bag hanging on his zimmer with a packet of sandwiches and a litre of vodka.
16 Jenny, perched on the edge of her sofa like an Egyptian mummy unexpectedly reanimated, reaching down to where an equally ancient and over-stuffed black Labrador Maisy lies sleeping on her side.
‘ Maisy, Maisy, Maisy. Just look at you now. You dear and lovely little thing.’
17 Sonia, lying on the pavement beneath the bright department store display, shaking her arms and legs in a psychogenic fit, a small crowd watching from the taxi rank alongside.
18 Susan, a young, tidily dressed girl sitting patiently on the platform bench with a flowery bag by her side and a couple of fluorescent jacketed staff standing with radios right and left.
She smiles pleasantly - ‘How are you?’ - and then slips the strap of her bag over her shoulder ready to go.
19 Kevin, sitting with his head in his hands at the kitchen table, a Tupperware box of medication in front of him.
‘I simply need you to write me out a prescription for the drugs I need.’
‘We’re not doctors, Kevin. That’s not what we do.’
‘Then I have no further use for you. Good day.’
20 Connor, bare-chested and exultant in the bedroom of a devastated squat, swigging from a carton, a white moustache of milk beading his upper lip.
‘I swallowed a razor blade.’
21 Jeannie, sitting cross legged on the double bed that takes up most of the floor space of the bedsit. Behind her, almost covering that wall, a spread of A4 photos printed off the computer - hazy, pixelated family shots of babies in prams and on laps, a sister and brother, school photos, a beach holiday.
‘And see that one there? Isn’t he gorgeous? My brother’s baby, such a cutie.’
22 Michaela, immaculately tragic in chiffon, taffeta and Maybelline gloss, one great hairy foot up on a Moroccan pouffe beside the Ottoman.
‘I’ve been such a fool.’
23 Cynthia, crying as she opens the door, waving us quickly inside, her Jack Russell skittering at insane speed around the room like an over-wound toy. Cynthia’s image is reflected a dozen times in the seventies-style hang of little round mirrors on the far wall.
‘I may have had a little bit to drink. It’s not a crime.’
24 Burt, a generously proportioned character balloon from the derelict collection, occupying three quarters of a four person settee, his t-shirt ridden up beyond the dreadful horizon of his abdomen. Above him, a wall of clocks begins chiming the midnight hour.
‘The pain? I don’t know. It’s there all the time. Sometimes I hardly notice it. Sometimes it’s completely gone. I don’t know. It’s just a pain-type pain.’
‘Have you seen your doctor?’
‘Him? Well, he’s not interested.’
All the panels stand open now.
I faxed my annual leave request through at midnight on September 1st last year.
This year, I get to be home for Christmas.