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Proper JobUPDATE: The first draft of Proper Job is now complete
I know what you're thinking: 'Taking the worlds (this one and others) by storm with his blistering debut science fiction novel, Déjà Vu, which I've bought and loved, why is this fool writing a comedy novel? Is he serious?' I'll leave that for you to decide. Below is indeed a snippet from my novel-in-progress, codenamed 'Proper Job'. It's a bit rough and ready because it's a first draft, but it should give you a flavour (see what I did there?) of the comedy riches that could soon be yours.
Like all good stories, this one starts with a game of paintball. Once more unto the breech, dear friends!
An Excerpt from Proper Job, Chapter One
St. Austell, Cornwall
Few situations focus the mind like those in which you are held against a pub wall by your throat and your balls. Few are the regrets like those of not holding your tongue after losing your beer over the man holding you against the wall by your throat and your balls.
Big Jeff's hair was still stuck to his scalp. His right eye blinked as the beer passed through it. His grip did not budge. I might have gasped, 'Friends - to me!' and waited for the chorus of unsheathed swords, but I did not wear a hat whose brim was upturned and set with a feather. There was no bunch of lace at my throat. I was a seventeen-year-old college student with glasses, a half-empty pint glass and a contraceptive anorak. My friends - Old Boy and Doogie - were shaking their heads at my stupidity. I was David and he was Goliath in an update of the biblical story relocated to the White Gold Inn, St Austell.
I checked the faces of those watching the fight: some horrified, some curious. Most fumbled for camera-phones. I wanted to see, once more, the girl who had distracted me before I bumped into the card game Jeff had been winning.
'What've ee got to say, matey?' asked Bigg Jeff. 'I was on to win that hand. Now I en't.'
'Wait,' I heard a young woman say, 'you should let him go.' Was it the woman with the moon in her eyes? I couldn't turn my head.
The edge of my vision began to crinkle.
'Look, he's going to pass out,' said Doogie.
She stepped from behind the grandfather clock. Her red-brown hair parted as she stepped towards Big Jeff. The moon was still in her eyes.
'Bloody hell,' said Doogie, as I went gently into that good night. 'He did pass out.'
'Now listen up,' the commanding officer began. He wore a poncho of Lincoln green and black waterproof trousers. The rain crackled against him. There was a knife in his boot large enough to gut a humped-back whale should the need present itself in Luxulyan woods, where his band crouched before him as he paced. His gun pointed skyward, collecting rain.
'And listen good,' I added.
'I thought you had a sore throat, private. Now listen. There are reports of enemy activity in sector four.'
I raised my hand. 'To clarify: near the ice-cream van.'
The commanding officer, who was my older brother, stopped pacing. 'It is that kind of terminology that will get you killed, soldier.' He resumed his swagger. 'The enemies are in the vicinity of the ice-cream van.'
'Perhaps you should radio them. You know, ask them where they are.'
The commanding officer treated me to a stare that only older brothers can deliver. Then he unhooked his walkie-talkie. 'Uh-this is uh-the Young Contemptibles uh-requesting info ree the upcoming engagement, over.' He covered the speaker with his palm and walked away from us, as though the information was need-to-know.
Doogie was crouched to my left. I watched as he spread an icing of mud across his forehead. His sandy hair was covered by the hood of his anorak and his eyes were protected by a visor that could double as a diving mask. He had scrawled 'Born To Kill' across the top in white correcting fluid. On my own visor, urged on by Doogie, I had written 'Animal Mother', but my writing was so neat that the effect was ruined.
Doogie was two months older than I, and always would be, the git. We had known each other for eighteen years and we were both eighteen. He was my best friend. Doogie finished with his mudpack and took his gun. He rested the barrel in the notch his elbow and practised sudden aiming at what Doogie called 'potential insurgents' and the rest of us called 'trees'.
The last member of our band was Old Boy. I had met him in the physics lab on the first day of college. Somebody had introduced us but in the excitement of our first class on springs and plasticene, I had forgotten his name. So I called him 'Old Boy', or 'Matey' (with a silent 't'), or 'Wussname', or 'Wussicle'. Old Boy laughed a lot at my jokes (why not? I did) and had difficulty projecting his voice more than two feet.
I fondled my dog-tags nervously.
'Hey, Fabe.' Doogie offered me a tube of something. 'Mozzie rep?'
'Mosquitoes? In Cornwall? Good thinking, private.' I threw the mozzie rep into the bushes and said to Old Boy, 'Doogie has left the building.'
Old Boy sniggered, which sounded like someone stifling a number of sneezes: 'Gh'k. Gh'k. Gh'k.'
'Nice,' said Doogie, managing the tone of a person who could produce a withering reply if necessary but would not, on this occasion, bother.
'Uh-roger that,' the commanding officer shouted. He was standing in front of us again. 'Ah-Young Contemptibles out.' He put his hands on his hips and one boot against a tree stump, where it kept slipping and he kept putting it back. 'Lock and load, people. Check your weapons and your webbing. The Young Contemptibles are moving on up.'
'Out,' I corrected.
'Out. Up. I ought to have you court-martialled.' He clapped once. 'Now, remember, people. Don't act the hero. Be the hero.'
'Roger over,' replied Doogie. For benefit of myself and Old Boy, he was gracious enough to pass on this advice, as would a veteran to green recruits: 'Stay frosty and alert.'
He presented me with a closed fist, which he then opened.
I sighed. This was one of the commando signals he had told me to memorize. Rather than risk the complexities of another lesson, I did the same gesture back.
Doogie looked at me as I as though I were a fool.
'Look, mate,' I whispered, 'remember what I said about my glasses?'
'No,' he replied, sniffing the air for enemy sweat.
I laughed without humour. 'Yeah y'do. My glasses don't fit under this visor, so I had to take them off. That means I can't see shit.'
'Affirmative,' he muttered, tossing the gun from one had to another.
'So when you see somebody, you have to point them out and let me aim along your arm. It will just be one big blur otherwise. Do you uh-read me, Doogie?'
'Yes, Fabe.' He slid out the magazine and tapped it once against his head. This done, he slammed it back into the gun.
The rain fell harder as the commanding officer told us to keep low and follow him and nobody would get hurt. I was not reassured; the very fact that he mentioned 'hurt' put pain on the agenda under 'any other business'.
We left our damp hollow at the eastern frontier of the woods and approached the cover of a wall. The ground was an uneven mulch. It blistered and sucked as we crept. I could see a steel sky through the trees far above. My useful visibility extended to about five metres. Beyond that, the world was blurred. From the corners of my eyes, however, I could see the yellow sweaters of the marshals. Doogie, no doubt, saw them as Valkyries set to scoop the bodies of the fallen into sweet, swinging chariots. I saw them as the putting-the-tit-in-titanium organizers of our little war who were worse than the commanding officer because I could not poke them in the ribs when they got irritating.
We walked in a crab-like scuttle that rendered our legs jelly-like but looked marvellous. Ahead: the clearing where Big Jeff had parked his ice-cream van. At the marshalls' initial briefing, Jeff had made clear that any person who shot at that van would be given his left bollock in a cone and be charged a tourist rate to lick it. Big Jeff's metaphor, not mine. I hoped it was a metaphor.
'If only we had a can of Agent Orange,' whispered Doogie. 'You know, an exfoliant.'
'If only we could give you a lobotomy.'
'Oh, you're such a -'
'Pacifists don't recommend lobotomies.'
'Ah, now we've come onto the issue of the greater good. Ouch.'
The commanding officer nodded. 'And there are more Attention Stones where that came from. You two shut up.'
The ground rose. The tree trunks were black as telegraph poles. The shrubbery was lush. Despite the rain, there was no escaping the summer heat. Our team was panting and had lost formation. The commanding officer led the group. Doogie was behind him. I was behind Doogie. Old Boy wandered on my right. We Dogs of War. We Band of Brothers. Friendship forged in the pitch of battle.
And smote in twain once the pitch was over and the real business of shielding oneself behind a comrade could begin.
Up ahead, where the vegetation was a hard wall of green, a man cleared his throat. It was followed by the sound of a punched shoulder and the word, 'Prick.' The commanding officer stopped. He crouched and patted the ground. He took a pinch of vegetation and observed its fall. He sniffed the air. Then he looked back at Doogie and held up one finger, then two, then he made a fist. Doogie turned to Old Boy and me. His expression was desperate. 'I've no idea what that means.'
A black, fist-sized ball plopped onto the woodland floor. It rolled up to Old Boy. Four anal sphincters tightened in unison. When Old Boy took the grenade and stood to throw it back, we shook our heads and hissed and waved, but it was too late.
Hell very much broke loose. The world - once green - became abruptly yellow and painful. Old Boy fell to the ground. He rolled downhill and collected leaves on his face and chest, glued by the sticky yellow paint.
Bushes ran towards us and became progressively un-bush-like as they appeared. It was the enemy: ice-cream men to a man. They had ambushed us. They crouched and - with chilling calm - saturated our position with high-velocity pellets. Their weapons farted each round, but the impact of those hellish balls was far from comical. One hit my shoulder and I almost walked from our thin cover with my hands on my hips, saying, 'Hey, that one is going to bruise.'
I elbowed my war-brother. 'Doogie, can't see.'
'What?' he said, tumbling from my right to my left: pause, fire two rounds, pause, move head in bird-like fashion towards potential insurgents, fire two rounds.
'Can't see, mate. Can't see a fricking thing.'
He dropped onto his back and shot twice into the sky. Ridiculously, he waited for a moment in case the body of an ice-cream man fell from concealment thirty feet up.
'Mate,' I continued, 'it would be smashing if you could point out those buggers.'
From his prone position, Doogie braced his hands against the ground either side of his head, put his knees on his chest, and flipped into a crouch. Fire-fire. Pause. Fire-fire.
'Impressive,' I said. 'Now, less flipping, more pointing.'
'There, there and there.'
Out of sheer boredom, I shot the commanding officer in the back a couple of times. As he looked back, I nodded grimly. 'Bloody ice-cream men,' I agreed.
The first casualty of war is innocence.
Poetic justice arrived in the form of a plastic pellet filled with paint. It struck me just below the ear. As I dropped to the ground for cover, I saw Old Boy sitting against a tree stump, cradling his gun. He had been tarred with paint and feathered with leaves. 'The horror,' he said. He caught my eye. 'The horror.'
The woods were a blurry mass of hate. They were moving patches that switched in my perception from plant to human to plant. The only figures I could make out were the yellow-jacketed marshals. Bloody vultures. I sighted one blob of yellow and let him have a few rounds. The gun bucked and farted little blue balls that flew in a shallow arc until they smudged the pristine yellow. With my face in the dirt, I heard, 'Don't shoot at the fucking marshals,' and had to smile.
Doogie cuffed me on the shoulder.
He pointed ahead. Much as I appreciated this sop from the table of a mighty warrior, there was little but greenery. I loosed several rounds before I realized I was shooting the commanding officer again.
War is hell.
We were trapped in a swirling vortex of shite. Our objective had been to visit all-out war on the ice-cream men. Have at them. Thrash them. Rout them. In short, see if they liked it up them. However, our colonial rallying cries had fallen upon deaf ears. Our lips had lost their stiffness.
In the blur ahead, I noticed movement. The commanding officer was making hand signals at me.
'I can't see,' I shouted.
'This means 'wanker'.'
'That's for shooting me in the back. Get over here.'
I ran to him and crouched at his shoulder. 'Where's Old Boy?' he asked.
'He's having a Vietnam flashback against yon tree.'
The commanding officer fired three blind rounds. 'This is just foolery. We're being flanked and there's nothing we can do about it.'
'We've passed the foolery stage. This tom foolery.'
A hail of yellow missiles struck me about the face and groin. I stumbled back, dizzy with pain, and collapsed against the tree where Old Boy was discovering the hard bedrock of his personality, having paid good money for this Primal-Scream-meets-Platoon comedy of hellish paint to strip his mind of its sanity. He grabbed my lapel and held his sticky face to mine. 'I can hear the gooks talking about us, Fabe. They're planning something.'
'We're being flanked, mate. We need to get rid of whoever is attacking from the rear.'
His reply was lost in a spell of deafness as rapid fire struck my forehead. A second volley tore through the vegetation to either side of the tree. Stray rounds also found the exposed flesh of Old Boy's neck. He bore the sudden pain with dignity at first, but then the final gossamer of his self-control broke. He let go of me and tore a grenade from his belt. It was a hefty mass of paint in a solid container combined with an explosive charge.
'Be careful with those,' I said, but the last volley had weakened my interest his safety and focused it on my forehead, which might have been cracked. Old Boy pulled off a second grenade from his belt and held both in clenched fists. With a gurn of rage, he lumbered towards the rear. The vegetation closed behind him.
'Bollocks,' I observed. Nearby, Doogie was lying in the mulch. The commanding officer was running through a number of hand movements that resembled the chorus of Black Lace's 'Agadoo'. Doogie was replying in kind. They were only feet apart.
I followed Old Boy into the thicker undergrowth at our rear.
The ground sloped towards a stream, whose watery chatter drowned the battle cries up the hill. I crouched against the rain-slick flank of a fallen tree. Old Boy stood on the opposite bank. Next to him was the man who had pinned me to the wall of the pub, by balls and throat, the previous night.
Whoever nicknamed Big Jeff had exercised his judgement. Fat Jeff would not have done, for what muscled shoulders he had. Tall Jeff would only go half way, for what a gloriously planet-like belly he had. His nose was Roman and his ears elephantine. A piratical earring dangled from one lobe and rested against the bulge of his neck. I wondered, gazing at him, whether his camouflage was a patchwork of the skins of those who had been foolish enough to play paintball against him. His next victim was due to be Old Boy, another David transfixed by this Goliath.
'Where be goyn to with that grenned?' Big Jeff asked Old Boy.
'It's not a grenade. It's a…mobile. Hello?'
Big Jeff pointed his gun at Old Boy's foot. 'Like my gun, do ee? Custom-made. High-pressure.' He fired a round. The ball left his gun at twice the usual speed and struck the earth in front of Old Boy, where it threw up leaves and a mist of yellow. Old Boy stepped backwards and almost fell into the stream.
He sighed. 'You want me to dance, don't you?'
'That would be best, mate.'
Reluctantly, Old Boy folded his arms and began a hornpipe.
I clawed through the shrubbery until I was the far side of the clearing. Let it be said: I am a coward. But let it also be said I pretend to have something in my eye when David Attenborough narrates the undignified death of a wildebeest in the bouncy castle of a crocodile's mouth. So I left my cover and scuttled downstream until I was sure Jeff would not see me cross the river. I circled behind him and approached with all the stealth I could muster. He was firing the odd round at Old Boy's feet when the hornpipe got too slow. Silently, I unhooked one of his grenades, studied the instructions, found none, pulled the pin, waited two seconds, pulled open the elasticised band of Jeff's trousers, dropped the grenade inside, and sprinted towards to Old Boy.
Big Jeff had time to shoot me in the back twice before I shouted, 'Incoming,' and hooked my arm in Old Boy's elbow. We kicked up shoulder-high arcs of water as we tripped across the stream and vaulted the fallen tree.
I looked back to see Big Jeff slapping in his pants for the grenade. His panic was redolent of Old Boy's hornpipe.
'How long is the fuse on that grenade?' I asked.
'Should be about -'
The explosion was more satisfying than I had expected, and Big Jeff's leap of surprise was impressively high. Yellow paint erupted from his trousers at the ankles and at the flies. As he landed, his eyes were wide and tearful: the ancient, non-verbal 'Why?'. He tottered for a moment, then his knees gave out and he fell onto his back, unconscious.
I looked at Old Boy. 'Oh.'
There was a leaf stuck the paint on Old Boy's chin. I plucked it off. 'Shall we just assume that we're about to have a long conversation about the morals of leaving him there versus the physical effort of moving him, and run away?'
Old Boy looked horrified. 'Leave him? Without question.'
We scampered hillward to the last known location of the Young Contemptibles, but the woods were quiet. Only the steady popping of rain could be heard. At the top of the hill, where there trees thinned, strings of sunlight broke through. The woods continued to thin until the vegetation stopped. We were in a gravel car park. Big Jeff's van was in the middle, and several other vehicles were parked on the far side. The Young Contemptibles stood to the left of the van, the ice-cream men to the right. Our patrol was covered in yellow paint. The ice-cream men were pristine.
Three yellow-jerseyed marshals commented on the military worth of our various strategies as they collected the guns.
'Fart in the wind?'
'Not as useful.'
'Oi!' one of them screamed. 'Keep your mask on until all the guns are collected. I won't tell you again.'
The commanding officer of the Young Contemptibles stirred the ground with his toe. 'Sir.'
The paintballing had done its evil work: to a man, the antagonists stood akimbo as though their bollocks needed separate score sheets for size; some were smoking cigarettes for the first time. They spoke with the gravely resignation of soldiers expecting a lifetime of combat flashbacks, wives who hid the steak knives and children who wanted to know why daddy was living in the tree house. They licked their ice-creams thoughtfully between curses.
The commanding officer shook his head at Old Boy and me.
'How did it go?' I asked.
'What does it look like? We were basted like turkeys. Like turkeys.'
Doogie called, 'What happened to you pair?'
'We were protecting the flank.'
'There was an…incident with Big Jeff.' I turned to Old Boy and nodded, as though he should pick up the story.
'The horror,' mumbled Old Boy.
One of the ice-cream men broke from their group. He had long hair and a dainty walk. I snorted. What a yokel. He stopped with his visor close to mine. He smelled nice.
'Did you know where Jeff is?' she asked.
'You're a woman,' I said, and the secretarial part of my mind filed away my comment in a drawer marked 'This is why you have so little sex'.
'Barrington, Georgie,' she called. 'Go and get Jeff, will you?'
Two of the masked ice-cream men jogged past us. They gave her their ice-creams. She licked one. Most of her face was still covered by the mask. 'My name is Penelope. Would you like an ice-cream?'
There was nothing to lean casually against. I couldn't flick a hand through my hair because it was covered by a hood. I fell back on my verbal talents. 'Ice-cream, eh?'
'What the hell happened?' she asked.
'Oh,' I said. 'Well, I get nervous around women.' I waited for her response. I waited a long time. Then I realized she was staring over my shoulder.
Big Jeff had emerged from the undergrowth. He teetered like a grizzly bear on its hind legs and I wondered if my earlier thought about David Attenborough would now haunt me: would this bear of a man rummage through the trashcan of my ribcage before I could fire off a witty piece to camera?
The moaning skulls of Barrington and Georgie - the two ice-cream men Penelope had sent for the rescue - had been rammed into Jeff's armpits the better to make crutches. The one-time Goliath was a sorry sight. The yellow paint had dribbled down his trousers and collected in his boots. His right leg could not be straightened, and with each step he took Barrington and Georgie to the brink of quadriplegia. Big Jeff's face was grimly set, as though he anticipated amputation in a field hospital. He stared at Old Boy and myself as the slow procession came to a halt.
Both teams had stopped talking. The marshals were silent. The air was fit to burst with laughter but Big Jeff's expression stopped even the bravest man - paintball-hardened veteran or no - from being the first to laugh. The air was stretched with pregnant malice like the customised camouflage over Big Jeff's belly.
'Lex,' he whispered. 'Get me a four-litre.' He nodded; as though it had, finally, come to this, whatever 'this' was. 'Vaniller.'
One of the ice-cream men climbed into the van and returned with a tub of ice-cream. 'Soft scoop,' he said solemnly. He passed it to Big Jeff, who pushed away his crutches, tottered before finding his balance, and ripped off the lid of the tub. The car park rang with the squeak of eyebrows raised against masks as Big Jeff pulled open his elasticised waistband and lowered his burned bollocks into the ice-cream.
I turned to Penelope. She licked her ice-cream. Her mouth - the only part of her face not cover by the mask - took to a smile. She alone seemed unafraid of this walking EU butter mountain. 'What happened, Uncle Jeff?'
'Grenned.' He took a deep breath. Seconds passed. 'Down the pants.' He mopped his brow with his free hand. After another pause, he said, 'Flash burns.'
Finally, Big Jeff withdrew the tub. No doubt the ice-cream faithfully retained the signature of his bollocks. I was not the only person guilty of giving their ice-cream an experimental sniff.
A marshal removed his mask. He was grinning. 'You got the ice-cream, you got the nuts. All you need is a tourist and you can charge 'em a fiver.' A torrent of hysterical laughter washed through the group, releasing the worry of the moment. Big Jeff's face was thundery. Then the marshal held up his palm. We quietened. 'Alright, take your masks off.'
In the instant before Penelope removed her mask, I knew she was the woman whose quick eyes had jumped to mine across the crowded pub, over the table where Big Jeff was playing cards with his mates, striking my forehead like a dart tipped with the blood of the Arrow Frog, weakening my right knee, setting my drinking hand aquiver, pitching me into the wall-like back of Big Jeff.
I knew this would happen because it was bloody typical, and bloody typical things often happened to me.
Penelope's hair was dark brown, almost jet, but the sunlight found an undercurrent of red. She still had the moon in her eyes. My guts twisted clockwise with the realisation that everything important in the universe now centred this sorceress. They twisted anti-clockwise with the corollary: this car park, with Penelope's nice little nose three feet from my own, would be the closest I would get. The probability that Penelope would consider going out with me was roughly equal to the probability that I could climb Mount Everest on my hands with a Sherpa balanced on my feet, shouting, 'Gee up.'
I would have to fall back on my wit.
'Sweaty, isn't it?'
I was in trouble.
'Oh, hi,' said Doogie, taking off his mask. He stroked his goatee archly. 'Remember me? We carried Fabe out of the pub after he fainted.'
A shadow fell across the three of us and we turned to see that Big Jeff was standing nearby. 'Afternoon,' I said.
'Still the joker, en't ee?' he growled.
'I just said, 'Afternoon'. I wasn't being funny.'
'I didn't say you were funny. I said you were a joker.'
It did not take a doctorate in Euclidean geometry to appreciate that the circle of predator-chasing-prey could not be combined with the triangle of two-boys-chasing-girl without considerable awkwardness, and so the four of us avoided eye contact and chose to stare at Old Boy instead. It freaked him out somewhat.
'Right,' screamed the marshal. 'Team captains to me.'
Jeff moved away from me with the disappointment of a hangman who has been ordered to untie the noose from a reprieved prisoner.
The marshal took the team captains by the wrists. 'I will now name the winner of the contest between the Young Contemptibles -' he waggled my commanding officer's wrist - 'and Bravo Two Zero -' he tried to waggle the immovable arm of Big Jeff. 'I declare the winner to be Bravo Two Zero. Congratulations. Chuck your masks into this bin.'
The four Contemptibles gathered and wondered whether we should hug, perform some kind of ritual salute, or shake hands. We shook hands.
'Never mind,' said Doogie.
'Next time, sir,' said Old Boy.
The commanding officer had a tear in his eye. 'Gentleman, it has been a privilege. A -' He took a sudden breath and turned on his heel, heading back to the car with his hands in his pockets.
The rest of the Contemptibles, apart from me, followed him, and soon the ice-cream men had drifted away too, including Penelope. Only I, Big Jeff and the marshals remained. They began to load the masks and gun into a van.
I felt the weather change as Big Jeff, and his microclimate, approached. He licked his teeth. His breath smelled like sour milk.
'So, matey,' he said. 'That was fun.'
'I assume you're being sarcastic.'
'You assume right, my handsome. Now then. When ee came back to the land a'the living, we agreed on a wager to set things straight. If ee lost this gem a'pentball, you'd never set foot in the White Gold again. Like I always say, I'll break my neck before I break a wager.'
'Would it help if I apologised for pouring my beer down your back and laughing at the result?'
'You are a bounder, sir.'
'I don't want to see you in the White Gold again, my handsome.'
Big Jeff limped away. His eyes didn't leave mine until the last moment. I helped the marshals load the guns. 'They didn't do too badly for ice-cream men,' I observed.
'The worst're postal workers.' He circled his temple with a finger. 'Tis all that stamp-leckin. What do you boys do?'
'We work in The Other Foot. For the time being.'
Big Jeff started his van and trundled away. The plastic, yellow whippy cones at the corners of the roof began to revolve. A xylophonic nursery rhyme rang out over the woods.
'That Penelope is some maid.'
I smiled. 'Yes. Some maid.'
Ian Hocking’s deadly-serious debut, Déjà Vu, is available now.
All material copyright (c) Ian Hocking, 2004