Welcome, Dear Reader! 😀
As you may be seen from Clicky’s post this past Monday, the latest Underdog Anthology is now available…
*Seriously, Clicky, I can’t believe we’re up to volume nineteen already… /lights up and smokes…*
…It’s a Christmas edition, so all the short stories contained within it are Christmas themed. Here’s a sample…
*Christmas horror… Fab!*
…My own contribution this time is the latest episode of the ‘Ronageddon’ series of misadventures, which started with what I thought at the time to be a single, one-off story in the Halloween Underdog Anthology of 2020 called ‘What Time Do You Finish?’…
*Fuck Fauci! You mean I could have another seven of these to write, Clicky? …/deep drag…*
*…/sings… ‘In Covid-1984 the test series against the West Indies seemed like another…’*
…Since then, we’ve encountered Death, War, Famine, Father Christmas, Satan, God, the stork that delivers babies and Elvis Presley, but one of the principal characters from the first story is yet to make an appearance. This time, Dear Reader, we’re Finding Pesto… 😉
by Roo B. Doo
The old woman stopped and puffed her cheeks several times as she reached the third floor landing of the Elysium block of flats. The day was bright and bitterly cold but she was wrapped up against the December weather: fur lined boots, fur collared coat and a fur hat insulated her from the worst of the frosty air. After climbing six flights of stairs, however, the old woman was feeling uncomfortably warm. She got her breath back before making her way to the door decorated with a Christmas wreath, at the far end of the landing.
“Aida! Thanks so much for doing this, I really appreciate it,” the middle aged woman gushed as she opened the door wide to allow Aida Roundtree entrance to her home.
“I couldn’t say no to a spot of babysitting,” Aida replied, kissing Jocasta Darling on the cheek as she stepped inside. “How’s it all going? You’re all well?”
“Yeah, not bad,” Jocasta replied as she led Aida through to the kitchen where the kettle on the stove was just starting to whistle. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Yes, please.” Aida unbuttoned her coat and sat down at the kitchen table. “I would have been here sooner but there’s a bloody great puddle of piss in your lifts. I took the stairs.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Jocasta poured the boiling water into the mugs on the counter.
“Why, was it you?”
Jocasta was confused. “Was it me that what?”
“That pissed in the lifts.”
“No,” Jocasta laughed. She had missed the old woman’s sense of humour since she’d been sacked from her cleaning job at Frampton Lodge where Aida resided.
Jocasta set the mugs on the table and sat down. “I never use the lifts if I can help it. I don’t know why people feel the need to use them as a toilet.”
“They’re animals marking their territory,” Aida replied sagely. She lifted the steaming mug to her lips and took a tentative sip. “Ah, lovely. What time’s your hair appointment?”
“In about half an hour or so but I’ve time for a cuppa.”
Aida appraised Jocasta with her eyes. “You’re looking very well. Have you lost weight?”
Jocasta blushed. “A little bit. I’ve been exercising.”
“Those stairs will keep you fit.”
“Yes. I’ve been taking some self-defence classes and the instructor is a bit of a hard taskmaster on fitness.”
Aida noted the sparkle in Jocasta’s eyes and wondered if her ‘instructor’ was a fine looking fellow. “Well, you’re looking good on it.”
“Thank you. Wanda agreed to exchange lessons for a spot of cleaning, but actually I’m hoping to turn that into a paying gig, start my own little cleaning business. Fingers crossed.”
Wanda? Aida decided it was probably just the exercise causing Jocasta’s eyes to sparkle. Probably. “Fingers crossed.”
“And how are things with you?” Jocasta asked.
Aida sighed and opened her handbag. She took out a folded letter and slid it across the table. “That arrived yesterday.”
Jocasta’s brow creased as she read the letter. “They’re evicting you?”
“They’re evicting all of us,” Aida replied emphatically. “Frampton Lodge Retirement Home will, by the end of February, become Frampton Lodge Refugee Hostel.”
Jocasta was incredulous. “They can’t do this!”
“But they are,” Aida said sadly. She took another sip of tea.
“I don’t understand. Why would they do this?”
Aida chuckled; Jocasta was lovely woman but she could be a tad naïve. “Money. The government’s offering them more money to house refugees than old people. A lot more money, I’ll bet.”
Jocasta shook her head. “That’s dreadful and so wrong.”
“Well, you know first hand how unscrupulous they are when you were sacked for refusing the Rona jab.”
“Oh my god, Aida, what about the rest of the staff there?”
“Given notice, just like the residents. They can save a bundle on staff costs, because the immigrants won’t need nurses or carers, and they probably won’t need cleaners either.” Aida lifted her mug. “Merry Christmas,” she said bitterly.
Aida saw worry lines crease Jocasta’s face and suddenly felt guilty; she had no right to burden her friend with such bad news. “Anyway, I rang the Council straight away and wrote to my MP, so they’re on to it. There’s nothing more to be done about it today. Besides, I’m here to babysit. Where is the lad?”
“Paul’s in his playpen in the front room,” Jocasta said distractedly as she re-read the letter.
Aida gently pulled the letter from Jocasta’s grip, folded it and put it back in her handbag. “Are you going to show me to him then?”
“Of course.” Jocasta stood up abruptly. Though she tried to hide her feelings, her eyes were shiny with unshed tears.
Now Aida felt really guilty. She placed her hand on Jocasta’s arm. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. Look at it this way: the worst that can happen hasn’t happened yet and it might still work out okay; I could end up somewhere better. God knows they’ve been running Frampton into the ground over the past three years. The place is a dump.”
Jocasta sniffed loudly and nodded. “We can talk about it later when I get back?”
“Of course. Now help me up. Paul’s through here?”
Aida made her way to the front room and stood in the doorway. The room was festively decorated: dozens of Christmas cards were blu-tacked to both sides of the door and a Christmas tree, smothered in strands of tinsel and laden with baubles, stood twinkling in the corner. Paul sat in his playpen, gazing placidly at the colourful tree lights flashing on and off.
“Paul,” Jocasta called to get the toddler’s attention. “Look who’s here. Mrs Roundtree’s come for a visit.”
Aida followed Jocasta into the room. “Hello Paul!”
Paul tore his gaze from the Christmas tree lights and smiled.
“He’s been awake all morning, so he’ll likely want a nap in a while. And he’s been fed, so he shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Oh, this little chap is never a problem, are you darling?” Aida lent down and cooed at the toddler. “Haven’t you got big!”
The previous year, Aida had delivered Paul into the world when Jocasta’s waters had suddenly broken whilst on a Halloween visit to Frampton Lodge. Fortunately for Jocasta, Aida had been a career midwife before retirement and her skills, like muscle memory, had sprung into action when faced with the emergency.
“Cat!” Paul crawled across the playpen toward Aida and pulled himself upright. He reached up a chubby hand. “Cat!”
Aida glanced at Jocasta. “He’s talking and can stand up?”
Jocasta beamed at her son. “Yeah, he’s starting to.”
“You like my hat?” Aida asked, bowing her head so that Paul could touch the fur. “It’s a special hat, called a ushanka. It’s from Russia.”
“Cat!” Paul burbled and scrunched the fur with his fingers.
“One of the neighbours has a cat, I think. It likes to sit on the window ledge. Molly taught him ‘cat’,” Jocasta explained.
“Well, she’s an attentive big sister.” Aida took her hat off and placed it on the little boy’s head. “There you go. You can wear my cat hat.”
Paul screamed with surprise and laughed with delight as the hat slid down past his ears.
Jocasta lifted the brim to reveal Paul’s smiling eyes. “Aida, he’ll dribble all over it.”
“Oh, spit brushes out.” Aida removed her coat and laid it over the arm of the sofa. “Now, shouldn’t you get a move on?”
Jocasta looked at her watch. “Okay. I’m picking Molly up from school after the hairdressers and then we can have a proper catch up talk when we get back.”
“One second.” Aida pulled her purse from her handbag. She opened it and took out two ten pound notes. “Stop at the chippie on the way back and get us a fish supper for tea. My treat.”
Jocasta wavered before taking the money. “Are you sure?”
“Of course. I told you, my treat. I’ll have rock if they’ve got it. If not, then get me a battered sausage.”
“Thank you.” Jocasta knew better than to argue with Aida. She gave her another kiss on the cheek.
“And a pickled onion, but not one of them big buggers. I’ll be blowing off all night.”
“Bye Paul! Mummy will be back in a while. Be good for Mrs Roundtree.” Jocasta waved at Paul and started to leave but stopped before reaching the door. “Oh, there’s a bottle made up in the fridge,” she told Aida, “just in case, and the nappies and wipes are in the changing bag next to the sofa.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll find my way around.”
“Okay, I won’t be long. Bye-bye Paul. Bye-bye.” Jocasta waved to her son once more and left.
Aida picked up the TV remote controller and switched the TV on. She flicked through the channels until she found one showing horse racing.
She lifted Paul, still wearing her hat, out of the playpen. “Gee-gees, Paul. There’s gee-gees on the telly. Want to watch the gee-gees with me?”
“Gee gee,” Paul burbled.
“My, you are a quick learner,” Aida said, clucking Paul under the chin. “We’re going to sit on the sofa, you and me, and stroke my cat hat and watch the gee-gees on the telly. We’re going to have a lovely afternoon together.”
War yawned loudly and stretched her long limbs. She tossed the copy of Halo she’d been flitting through onto the magazines spread out on the low table in front of where she sat. “I’m bored. Do you think we’ll have to wait much longer?”
Famine sat on the floor in a lotus position, meditating. He was wearing his chef’s whites that had been carefully accessorized with gleaming rhinestones.
They’d been summoned by God for a meeting and had sat in the reception of the God Lobby for what felt like an eternity to War but was actually a little over five minutes. “Are you not talking to me?”
Famine serenely ignored her.
War’s eyes narrowed as she considered how best to get her apocalypse colleague’s attention. “Elvis Presley was overrated.”
Famine’s top lip started to curl but he remained silent.
“He was alright as a G.I. – I mean, who doesn’t love a G.I.? – but his fat phase? Sheesh! What a porker.”
Not a sound came from Famine but the muscle in his cheek started to twitch.
“It’s ironic really when you think about it,” War teased, “that Famine, King of Hunger, idolises ‘The King’, who had to be buried in an extra large coffin because he couldn’t pass up a quarter-pounder.”
“Shut your mouth,” Famine ordered in a low voice. “Elvis is King.”
“Shame about your Christmas karaoke competition being cancelled again,” War continued nonchalantly. “Must be personally gutting for you, having won it three times already.”
Famine’s shoulders sagged and his head slumped to his chest. He’d lost this particular battle with War when he bit on her quarter-pounder jibe. “Yes, I am disappoint.”
“So what happened?”
Famine unfurled his legs and leaned back against the reception chair behind him. “Everyone pulled out. Can’t have a competition with no competitors.”
“Why? You had a great crowd at last year’s event.”
The 2021 Elvis Karaoke and Striptease challenge held at Lapland nightclub, Father Christmas’s favourite haunt, had been a wildly successful evening, attracting entrants from across the country and drawing a large, enthusiastic audience. It culminated in Famine’s corporeal form Xi Xi Fat winning the sought after title for the third time, and the death of the celebrity judge, TV chef Freddie Calender, who had just declared Xi Xi the winner. The cause of Freddie’s death was reported as ‘sudden’. The fact that he was wearing Xi Xi’s g-string over his face at the time was ruled as incidental and non-contributory by the coroner. Surprisingly, for such an ignoble end, Freddie’s death received scant coverage in the press.
“There’s only a handful of us left. Most can’t afford the expense of losing a night’s business and the cost of travel. The price of fuel and energy is draining the life out of restaurants. First we had the Rona to deal with and now this.”
“And there’s a ruddy great war going on!” War snorted angrily.
Famine was taken aback by War’s outburst. He cocked his head to one side. “War?”
War raked her hands through hair. “The war in Ukraine. We’re told it’s the reason for the fuel and energy crisis, and that’s what’s causing restaurants to close down, ergo people go hungry, Famine.”
“Then why the fuck ain’t I in Ukraine?” War sounded exasperated. “I should be there. It’s my job title. Why aren’t I involved?”
Because the war and famine aren’t real… yet. I’m sorry I’m late.
Both War and Famine stood up straight before God and bowed their heads. “Ma’am.”
I see that Death is also late.
War and Famine shot each other side eyes; usually God only refers to Death by the affectionate term ‘Big D’; that she called him ‘Death’ was not a good sign.
Well, I’m sure he’ll join us when he can. I understand he’s very busy.
The silence that followed was long and awkward, not least because melancholic moans from milling souls, filing their way through the God Lobby, rose up to fill it.
War was the first to raise her head. “I hope you don’t mind me saying, Ma’am, but the souls don’t sound very happy.”
They are not.
“What is causing their unhappiness?” Famine asked.
God strode toward the balcony edge of the reception area, elevated high above the lines of souls that swirled and undulated beneath. She beckoned to War and Famine to follow her.
Come. What do you see?
Famine spoke first. “There are more of them than normal.”
Correct. They are overcrowded. What else?
War leaned over the balcony, scanning the souls intently. “Wow. Young crowd.”
Also correct but what else?
“Babies,” Death replied gravely, making War and Famine jump with his sudden appearance. “Ma’am, too many babies are dying.”
God spun round to face her Grim Reaper.
Correct. Big D, I’m glad you could finally join us.
“Regrettably I cannot stay,” Death said brusquely. “I am here to ask for assistance.”
War cupped her hand to her ear. “Did you say ‘assistance’ or ‘assistants’?”
“He said ‘assistance’,” Famine gently chided his colleague. “Why would Death need assistants?”
“Alright!” War said indignantly. “I couldn’t hear over all the moaning.”
“Actually, I require both assistance and assistants.” Death sounded embarrassed.
God crouched down to Death’s eye level.
Big D, what is it?
“Ma’am, I’m afraid I have a… a situation.”
God nodded and stood up.
Understood. Quickly, return and we’ll be along shortly.
“Thank you, Ma’am.” Death bowed his head and disappeared.
Right. Come along you two.
God started walking across the reception toward the nacre entrance to the back office.
“Where are we going?” Famine asked as he followed behind.
To help Big D with his situation.
With the Situation Room.
War groaned. She’d travelled in the Situation Room before. It was a device, created by God, to allow its occupants to discretely observe a situation unfold in situ. Unfortunately, God hadn’t taken War’s statuesque physique into consideration during the design process. “That fucking thing gives me a crick in the neck.”
Aida dreamt she was sitting in a pub garden. It was a lovely summer’s day: the sky was blue, the breeze was warm and on the table in front of her was a beaded glass of vodka tonic and a cocked cigarette smouldering in the ash tray. She was alone except for a drunken wasp that was staggering between beer rings on the sun-bleached tabletop, drinking its fill. Behind her she could hear the sound of racing commentary on the television inside the pub. She looked back at its entrance, framed with ivy and steeped in shadow and thought it was so much nicer to be sitting outside in the sunshine.
She noticed a river flowing at the bottom of the garden and as she watched, a rowing boat pulled up and tied off at a mooring. Aida couldn’t tell if the black figure in the boat was very small or extremely near. She picked up her glass and wondered how much she’d drunk.
“Aida,” the figure called and waved. “Aida Roundtree, your time is up.”
Aida waved back and downed the rest of her drink. She took a last, deep drag on her cigarette before stubbing it out. Aida looked down at the wasp and felt sorry for it. She removed the lemon slice stuck on the rim of her glass and placed it in front of the inebriated insect. “Have some fruit.”
“Aida,” the figure called again, beckoning her forward.
“Coming,” Aida grumbled. She got up from her seat and started to make her way across the grass.
“Aida. Aida Roundtree,” the voice said.
Aida slowly opened her eyes. A black robed figure kneeled in front of her. At least Aida thought the figure was kneeling but a second glance showed that the figure was actually standing. “Oh, you’re both small and near,” she said. “You were in my dream.”
“Yes, you were sleeping,” the voice from inside the impenetrable black cowl said kindly.
Aida realised she’d dozed off whilst watching the telly. Baby Paul was fast asleep, curled into her side on the sofa and still wearing her hat. “Who are you?”
“I am Death,” the figure said.
Aida looked the grim reaper over sceptically. “Are you sure? I would have thought you’d be much taller.”
“I get that a lot,” Death replied. “I blame Ingmar Bergman.”
“Well, people don’t expect the Grim Reaper to be a munchkin. Except maybe for the Little People. Maybe.”
Death sighed. “No, they’re pretty much surprised I’m not taller as well.”
“That must grate,” Aida sympathised. “Why are you here again?”
“Aida. Aida Agnes Roundtree. You are dead and I’m here to transition you to the other side.”
“What’s on the other side?” Aida tried to shift her position on the sofa. She felt a sucking sensation as she discorporated from her dead, physical body. It wasn’t pleasant but it wasn’t painful either.
Death paused. “You’ll find out.”
Aida pursed her lips and shook her head. “Nah.”
“Excuse me?” Death was not used to being denied.
“Oh, I’m sorry. No, thank you. I’m good right here for now.” Aida sounded determined.
“I understand how confusing it can be in the moments after death, but rest assured, you have died and I am here to move you on.”
“Well, you’re just going to have to wait.” Aida was adamant.
“What are we waiting for?”
“For this child’s mother to come home. Didn’t you notice the sleeping child next to me?”Aida said indignantly. “He’s in my care and I will not be leaving him all alone. Over my dead body.”
Aida’s face suddenly crumpled. She started to cry but shed no tears. “Poor Jocasta! Fancy coming home and finding the babysitter’s dead. She doesn’t deserve that! Nobody does. And poor Molly, Molly will be with her!”
“Molly?” Death reached into his robes and pulled out his PsyPad. He tapped the screen several times and scrolled. “Molly Darling lives here?”
“Yes,” Aida wailed. “Why?”
“Ah, yes,” Death said to himself. “I should have checked my Molly alerts. We have an appointment in half an hour.”
As he shut the cover on his PsyPad, Death was quite unprepared for the fearsome sight of a furious spectral Aida Roundtree hurling herself toward him.
“You leave Molly alone, you fiend! You’re not to touch a hair on that girl’s head!” Aida raged. But she passed straight through Death and landed in a heap on the floor. “Leave her alone.”
“Aida, I assure you, I have no intention of transitioning Molly any time soon. We are… acquainted.”
“Are you stalking her?” Aida demanded.
“No, nothing like that.” Death was surprised at his own defensiveness. “Molly is special.”
“Yes she is!” Aida lunged at Death once more and once more passed straight through him.
“Aida Roundtree, you need to calm yourself. Molly Darling has the ability to see me. She’s the only living human that can.”
“Oh, that poor girl,” Aida lamented loudly. “Not only is she deaf but she has you to contend with. What a curse to carry!”
Death was silent; he had never considered Molly’s ability as a curse before. There was that one time he’d wondered if he was a monster, but mostly he was too busy to think about anything more than his work. “Oh dear, Aida. We seem to have a situation.”
Aida was now standing, towering over Death with clenched fists and glaring at him malevolently.
“One moment. I’ll be right back,” Death said and vanished.
Death’s sudden disappearance startled Aida. She didn’t know what was going on and her nerves were shot to pieces. What she wanted more than anything was a cigarette. She reached into her cardigan pocket but her cigarette box and lighter weren’t there. She looked over at her dead body slumped on the sofa and saw the bulge of the cigarette box in her cardigan pocket. She tried to take it out but her hand moved straight through the pocket and the top of her thigh, as if they weren’t there. Aida grimaced. This has to be the worst week of my life.
Death startled Aida once again. “Whoop-de-doo,” she said bitterly.
“I am so sorry for any distress I have caused you, Aida Roundtree. That was never my intention,” Death apologised. “This has not been my best work.”
“You don’t say.” Aida stared down at Death, but she was no longer angry. If anything, she felt numb; the fight had gone from her.
“I’ve enlisted some help to assist us in this difficult situation.” Death gestured with his arm and from behind him a strikingly beautiful woman in a tracksuit stepped out of seemingly thin air. She was followed by a skinny Chinese chef wearing an abundance of rhinestones and slicked back hair.
“These are my friends Wanda and Xi Xi,” Death said. “They can stay with the child until Jocasta and Molly arrive home.”
“Wait,” Wanda addressed Death. “Jocasta and Molly Darling?”
“Are you the Wanda that’s teaching Jocasta self-defence?” Aida asked.
“Yeah.” Wanda sounded surprised. “Fitness and self-defence.”
“Yes, I recognise you from your photo. You were in the newspapers last year when that MP died.”
Wanda beamed with delight. “Yeah, Fighting Fit.”
“Let me guess.” Aida pointed at Xi Xi. “You’re the guy that works down the chip shop that swears he’s Elvis.”
“It’s more of a nighttime cafe,” Xi Xi replied earnestly. “Actually, we recently introduced some insect dishes to the menu to try and attract the more adventurous diner. Crispy Crickets, Baked Beetles, Edam and the Ants, you know, keeping with the music theme.”
“Really?” Wanda pulled a retching face. “And how’s that going for you?”
“So, so. It’s early days yet,” Xi Xi conceded.
Aida shook her head. “What the hell is happening?”
“Waaahhh!” Paul’s piercing cry cut through the chat.
“Aww, he’s awake,” Wanda said, stepping toward the sofa. “Do you know, I’ve only ever seen this child asleep. I was starting to think he’s Rip Van Winkle.”
She hoisted Paul up off the sofa and into her arm. “Aww, don’t cry, Paul. I like your hat,” Wanda cooed, stroking his face.”
But Paul wasn’t crying; he was smiling intensely. “Wah! Wah!”
War’s jaw dropped with sudden realisation. “Pesto? Pesto?!”
“Wah, wah, wah, wah.” Paul flung his arms around Wanda’s neck and nuzzled her hair. “Wah!”
“Is it, is that you Pesto?” Xi Xi asked, tentatively walking toward Wanda and Paul.
Paul looked at Xi Xi. “Faaaahhh!” he shouted with glee. Then he spotted Death “Dee!”
Aida stood alone and watched the strange reunion. She didn’t understand what was going on and was feeling quite forgotten.
Aida turned and saw a young woman holding out freshly lit cigarette.
“Thank you,” Aida said, plucking the cigarette from the woman’s grasp. She took a deep drag. “Where did you spring from?”
I have a box. It’s just there but it’s invisible. It’s how we arrived.
“Okay,” Aida said, puffing on the cigarette. She nodded her head toward the joyous gathering on the other side of the living room. “Looks like a family reunion.”
It is. That there is War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. They were cruelly split up two years ago.
“Weren’t we all,” Aida said dryly.
“And who are you?”
The young woman reached across and withdrew the cigarette from between Aida’s fingers. She took a light puff and handed it back.
I’m the designated driver.
Unseen by any of the occupants of 322 Elysium Estate, the smoky grey cat sat on the window sill silently watching the events of the afternoon unfold, as the daylight descending into night. Once it had seen enough, it nimbly jumped from one sill to another until it finally reached the ground. From there it ran past the rubbish bins and over the tall fence separating the estate from an empty road. It sauntered toward a street lamp and sat under its flickering cone of light, waiting.
The cat blinked lazily as headlights in the distance cut through the darkness. A vehicle rolled up and stopped under the street lamp and the orange light behind the TAXI sign on its roof switched off. A puff of cigar smoke escaped as the whirring driver’s window noisily descended, along with the sound of Bob Marley singing: Mr. Brown is a clown who rides through town in a coffin…
“Mr Tibbles,” Satan greeted the cat.
“You have something for me?”
Mr Tibbles miaowed again and swished his tail.
“So, the End of the World gang’s back together again,” Satan said reflectively. “Honestly, I thought it would have taken them longer.”
He snaked his arm out of the window and flicked the butt of his cigar to the curb, before gently scratching the top of the Mr Tibbles’ head with his long, sharp fingernails.
*Cade would have been tickled by it… /stubs butt…*