Poker Face

(///.together.deal.zebra – Khalifa International Stadium, Qatar)

It was Pedro’s turn to deal. Marco nibbled meditatively on some fine savannah grass. Franco sipped from his clay pitcher of water. Bob fidgeted nervously, as he always did.

They looked at their cards. Marco checked. Nibbled some more. Franco put down a handful of grass. A sharp intake of breath. All eyes on Bob.

“I’ll see you and raise you,” betting some grass and a twig.

“Every time,” Pedro muttered. “Check.”

Cards were swapped in and out. Betting resumed. Marco folded. He was calm. Franco folded. Less calm. Bob put down three acacia leaves.

“OK that’s it,” Pedro exploded. “Whenever we’re together, it’s the same. You win!”

“Problem?” Bob asked warily.

“Yes,” and Pedro reached for his phone. “CCTV’s been watching you. I know.”

“Know what?”

“You’re cheating. And you’re no zebra!” He turned his phone round to show them the video, and they could clearly see a card being surreptitiously pulled from a black and white sleeve, with golden fur briefly revealed underneath.

“He’s a lion!” Marco and Franco screamed. They turned the card table upside down in their haste to get away. But Pedro stood bravely in front of the unmasked Bob, demanding answers, oblivious to the danger.

“What’s your excuse?” he asked.

Bob stood up and shook off his zebra suit, revealing his huge mane, shining teeth and massive paws. And then he slumped down again, bereft.

“It’s the grass,” he said. “I need the grass.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m such a disappointment to my family. A vegetarian lion! I can’t tell them. But you guys, you’ve got the best grass going at your game. I had to get some.”

The zebras watched as Bob shed tears and quivered on his seat. Pedro went over to him and patted him gently on the paw.

“Next time, lose the costume,” he said kindly.

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Why this location?

The Woman in the Back Row

(///space.divide.acted – Radcliffe Camera, Oxford, UK)

Max and Hector clinked glasses. “Your very good health,” Max said.

“And yours,” Hector replied, before putting his glass down with a sigh. “Thirty years. I can’t believe we’ve been doing this thirty years!”

“We’re men of our word,” Max replied. “We said we’d meet back near our old college once a year. And we do. That’s worth drinking to. And look what I found!”

He enthusiastically pulled an old photo out of his jacket and put it down for them both to look at it.

“Goodness,” Hector said. “It’s the old Divide and Rule gang. Will you look at that. What were we doing?”

“Production of Cymbeline. I directed, you acted. Look at us all.”

“All that energy, all that ambition. The incredible things we were going to do!”

Max chuckled. “I know. You were going to win Oscars. I was still planning to go into space. Bertie there expected to win at least two Nobel prizes. Peter hadn’t given up on being World Chess Champion. We were all going to change the world.”

Hector shook his head. “We didn’t though, did we. Done all right, money, families, the usual stuff. Haven’t really made a big dent though. World would have coped just fine without us.”

They drank in silence.

“Don’t forget Charlotte though,” Max pointed out. “There, right at the back.”

“There is that. She was such an oddball though. So quiet. Never socialised, made no real impression on anyone. Just said her lines and then went home. Really strange person.”

Max nodded. “True enough.” He drank some more beer. “But it goes to show, you can never really tell about people. Hard to predict who’ll end up as Prime Minister.”

Hector had a drink. “Yes. Hard to predict.”

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Why this location?

Seeing the Light

(///allotment.fishlike.baroque – Ligatne nuclear bunker, Lativa)

The thing that really stood out when the end came was the serenity of it all. Take Ronald, pottering away in his London allotment, standing up to pause and stretch, leaning on his shovel when he heard the deafening noise and turning his head instinctively to the blinding flash in the sky.

Or Deirdre, sipping tea in a baroque café in Paris, nibbling daintily on a shortbread biscuit even as the roar engulfed her. Horace on America’s East Coast, insisting on using the few seconds that remained to hole his putt. Fiona, waking briefly in her Sydney bed to give her husband a final embrace.

You see, it had been the waiting that had been so unbearable. The escalation of conflict. The threats, the counter threats, the growing certainty that this time sanity would not prevail, the human instinct for survival would not rescue them. That had been the torture, the permanent anxiety over the destruction to come.

So people had stopped worrying. They had developed a fishlike ability to forget everything almost instantly and had just got on with living and having fun, determined to enjoy whatever was left to them. They blocked out the madness of their leaders, a madness they were powerless to stop.

People were calm when the bombs fell, and as oblivion swept over the world in great waves, they relaxed, knowing the ordeal of the waiting was over and happy at least to have made the most of their last few days.

Surrendering to the light had proved to be easy after all.

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Why this location?

Silly Love Songs

(///hurry.weds.pencil – The Beatles Story, Liverpool, UK)

She was still an old romantic. Boy meets girl, boy weds girl, boy and girl live happily ever after. But the boys she met weren’t like that. “You can’t hurry love” the one who wouldn’t commit told her. “Love will tear us apart” advised the one who never smiled. “Nobody loves me but my mother” said the one who promptly ran away.

So now here she stood at a high table in a busy café, pencil furiously scribbling down her thoughts, when a handsome young man in a leather jacket with a walrus motif on the lapel came up to her. He smiled and swept his hand through his finely coiffed hair.

“Paperback writer?” he asked nervously, pointing at her notebook.

Even though she shook her head she had instantly warmed to him. “Step right this way,” she beckoned him.

He put down his coffee and passed her his slice of honey pie. “From me to you,” he said.

They fell easily into conversation. She told him about learning to make truffles at the Savoy. He told her about his run-in with the taxman and how he had got by with a little help from his friends. She told him about her singing bird. He told her about his holiday in a Norwegian wood.

He had to go. “Can we come together again soon?” she asked.

“It won’t be long,” he reassured her.

“Can I call you up?”

“You know my name, look up the number.”

As they stared at each other, she found herself irresistibly drawn towards him, gripped by an overwhelming desire to hold his hand.

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Why this location?

Sheep’s Clothing

(///endlessly.hook.blotchy – Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire, UK)

The villagers huddled together in the large, draughty room. The strangers milled around, asked them questions they could just about understand, made markings on the boards and papers they held in front of them. Conversed in low tones. Gave them drinks and strangely wrapped foods. 

Centuries of living undiscovered in the woods, endlessly shielding themselves from others because of The Trauma, all finished. Explorers had found them and had insisted on bringing them to this place.  

But The Trauma was real, The Trauma had happened and would happen again. Their ancestors had seen it and passed it down the generations, and they had resolved to isolate forever to be safe. 

The strangers in their matching uniforms continued asking questions – a man with a blotchy face, a woman with orange hair. They were persistent, probing, but they seemed kind, and they wore the villagers down.

The mayor haltingly described The Trauma and the strangers drew it.

The villagers recoiled in panic when they were shown the familiar images. A little girl in a red hood. A benevolent old woman. A wolf tearing her apart from the inside and then devouring the girl. But the strangers seemed amused. 

They went away and came back a few minutes later with colourful books. Lots of them. There were pictures. Of the little girl. Of the old woman. Of the wolf!

The strangers were part of it. They knew of The Trauma and celebrated it. And now they had managed to hook them in. 

The villagers knew there was no escape. They only had one option now.

They would have to stand up and fight.

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Why this location?

The Missing Ingredient

(///arts.healthier.wonderfully – Brick Lane, London)

People booked months in advance. They travelled the length of the country. They flooded social media with their thoughts.

Gillian’s Chicken Du Jour, the most talked about meal in the country. Shatteringly crisp skin encasing wonderfully moist flesh, a medley of vegetables, some fried, some healthier, and three sauces of piquant sourness and salty bitterness.

But what was the mystery ingredient, the one which attracted the hordes?

Gillian quizzed the diners every night, but nobody could tell her the correct answer.

“Tabasco!” screamed one.

“Wild garlic,” insisted another.

“Passion,” shouted a man who had watched too many TV cooking competitions.

The answer was in a sealed envelope in a secure frame on the wall of Gillian’s restaurant. She had promised a prize to whoever got it right. She was confident she would never have to pay out.

Until the food critic Bernie Noble strolled in. He knew the dark arts of the food industry and was not seduced by the smell or the taste.

He knew exactly why people wanted to boast about having eaten Chicken Du Jour.

“You’re charging people £200 a pop for a piece of poultry,” he said. “The magic ingredient, the one which really makes them come, is the price.”

Gillian stared ruefully at him and headed towards the frame. Never mind, she thought. Imagine how many people will pay £300 for the world’s greatest trifle.

_______________________________

Why this location?

Symphony Interrupted

(///saving.violin.brains – New Scotland Yard, London)

Don’t get me wrong, I love music. But only when it’s played well. When it’s played badly, well that’s a fucking abomination. It has to be stopped. So I stop it.

What I really hate is buskers. I hate a booming guitar in a subway passage, vocals yelled across people’s heads. I hate a screeching violin on a street corner, massacring Vivaldi. And I hate, hate, hate a mouth fucking organ. Anywhere. Period.

So I get rid of them. I make sure they never come back. Subtle of course. All it takes is a poisoned lollipop, thrown in with all the money.

I’m careful, wear my hood, drop it quickly and go. The police haven’t got the brains to find me, but no point taking a risk, not when there’s still so much work to do.

They don’t always eat them. But I read about enough unexplained deaths to know my efforts are paying off, sometimes weeks after my donation. Occasionally they pass them to their kids. Collateral damage. Unfortunate, but necessary and it does the job. They don’t want to busk again after that.

I’m never going to stop, the buskers don’t so why should I? I’m on a mission. Around the country, around the world. Killing buskers, one by one, saving everyone from their pernicious influence.

So enjoy the peace I’ve given you. Appreciate music as it is meant to be appreciated.

And never forget, I’m doing it for all of us.

You’re welcome.

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Why this location?

A Life of Fulfilment

(///invalidity.impose.tickling – Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan)

“That’s good. And that.” Barry fired off photos on his phone.

“Get that,” Deirdre suggested, pointing to the flags fluttering from the walls. Barry snapped away.

A young monk walked close to them, curious it seemed about their phone. Barry gestured to him to take a closer look. The robed young man inclined his shaven head to study it.

“What life is this to impose on a kid,” Barry muttered. “What is he, 18? Stuck here, away from everything, praying, studying, nothing to hear except those endless bells, nothing to see except the goats.”

“Don’t be rude,” Deirdre hissed.

“He doesn’t understand. Do you like this?” Barry asked the monk abruptly. “This tickling your fancy?”

The monk stepped back, bowed and walked away.

“You insulted him.”

“Nonsense, I showed him what he’s missing.”

“You did neither,” a voice behind them interrupted. They turned to see another monk, resembling the young man in every way except for his aged features and twinkling smile.

“What did we do then?”

“You misunderstood,” the old monk said. “You showed him something you thought he needed. But he doesn’t. He chooses this. This peace and solitude, this oneness with what is real. Your world view is mistaken, it is an invalidity.”

They turned back to look at the young monk. This time he smiled. And pulled his phone out of his sleeve.

“He also has the latest model,” the older monk chuckled. “We embrace our past here. But we are also at one with the future.”

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Why this location?