Albert learns that his favourite joke might be a private one

Albert’s favourite joke is as follows.  Each day he attempts some sit-ups.  He can reach about twenty before he has to give up.

But if someone comes into the room during his brief exertions he always starts counting.

‘One hundred and twenty three,’ he says as he completes his fifth sit-up.  ‘One hundred and….twenty….four.’

Albert loves this joke so much he can sometimes laugh about it alone.

Happy Endings

Some kids ran off with my fancy new phone yesterday.  They must have guessed I was the type of man who doesn’t wear a watch.  So when they asked for the time and I reached for my phone they grabbed it and ran off.  Luckily, although you might not think it to look at me, I’ve been working out recently so I chased after them on foot.  I think they were surprised by how well I kept up with them.  But these were fat kids, out of shape, smokers most probably.  After fifteen minutes or so they finally stopped, gasping for breath, standing by the river.

“Come on now,” I said, walking towards them, “you’ve had your fun.  Give me back my phone.”

The tallest one looked at me.  “Oh no, that wasn’t our fun,” he said.  “This,” he explained, throwing the phone as far as he could into the river, “now this is our fun.”

So I leapt across the river and caught the phone just before it hit the water, landing safely on the other side.

‘Better luck next time lads,’ I shouted across to them, holding up my phone for them to admire.  I doubt their mouths have closed yet.

Okay, okay, so I might have made the last bit up.  But the real ending was a tad unsatisfying from my perspective.  Look, what is you want from me?  Bleak realism?

Rumbling Mr Chubs

Alan knows a thing or two.  That’s the thing.  That’s mostly why he’s in charge.  He knows, for example, that of the seventy or so houses on our close at least one of them will be inhabited by an alien.  He runs through the science with me: the number of planets; the number likely to have water; the likely age of those planets; how many will therefore have higher life forms and of these how many will have an interest in finding our planet and then inevitably want to send down imposters to live amongst us and report back.  He then breaks this down by country and city until he proves that one of the houses on our close simply has to be an alien abode.  That’s the technical term, Alan explains.  An alien abode.  This is one of the many things Alan knows.  Well, I say Alan knows.  In fact, I’ve heard most of this before and it actually all comes from a magazine we found lying around on one of the seats in the school bus.  But that’s the thing about Alan.  He makes the things he comes across his very own.  With me, if I say something I’ve just picked up it always sounds exactly that – picked up, someone else’s thing, like I’ve just borrowed it; stolen it even.  Alan is not like that.  Alan says that a good way to get ahead in this world is to know things.  And an even better way to get ahead is to know things that other people don’t know.  But the very best way to get ahead, according to Alan, is to know things that other people don’t want you to know.  That, he tells me, is the golden turkey.  The golden turkey? I repeat, checking because it’s my job to make notes of all our meetings. Yup, the golden turkey, he confirms.  Then he has another thought.  Mr Nick, he tells me, we’re going to call this whole operation Operation Golden Turkey.  Make a note of that, he says, waving at my notebook. Already have, I tell him proudly.

Operation Golden Turkey, Alan announces, will focus upon establishing which of the properties on Shellard Close is the alien abode.  This, he explains, will require a lot of lurking about and studying people carefully.  We will be on the lookout for any behaviour that seems unusual or suspicious.  Part of me is excited.  But, to be honest, another part of me is just a little bit disappointed.  You see, it would be fair to say that all of our operations so far have involved a lot of lurking about near parked cars and studying people on the close.  Our lines of enquiry, as Alan likes to call them, have included possible Russian spies, a terrorist plot to blow up the library, a shoplifting network with a focus on cakes and a specific investigation into Amanda at number 23 who, Alan was convinced, showed her bits to older boys in exchange for cigarettes on a regular basis, although we were never able to prove his theory correct despite hours of surveillance.  In others words, we have very little evidence that anyone on Shellard Close goes in for anything unusual or suspicious.  Then again, come to think of it, perhaps Operation Golden Turkey could focus upon the two sisters who have just moved in at number twenty six.  The older one is about seventeen and a bit on the grumpy side, but the younger one is about our age and has the biggest eyes and I’m pretty sure the most smellable hair ever invented.  We don’t know their names yet but Alan has found out they are Canadian and that they’re only over here for six months.  Time is against me if I’m going to make her my wife.  Perhaps we could study them carefully? I suggest to Alan.  Being Canadian might just be a cover story, I point out.  Isn’t it weird, I say, getting a little carried away, that they just sort of arrived on the close one day, just out of the blue?  Isn’t that really weird?  Plus we’ve never ever had Canadians in the close before.  I could find out things about them; things that they don’t want us to know.  And I could take really good notes.  It might be really important for Operation Golden Turkey if we….

But no, Alan has other ideas.  Alan has no interest in the two sisters at number twenty six.  Alan wants us to observe Mr Chubs at number fifty three.  He spells out the name for my notes even though Mr Chubs is just a code name and I’ve written it down in the notebook loads of times before.  I should have known Alan would go this way.  Alan is obsessed with Mr Chubs at number fifty three.  The thing is, Alan says, not for the first time, Mr Chubs goes out running every single night.  Every single night, including weekends, Alan repeats.  Who does that?  Mr Chubs, I reply, not understanding that there are some questions you don’t have to answer.  Alan shakes his head.  You’re missing the whole point, he says to me.  Make a note of that.

Alan and me, we never hang about when we start an operation.  So that very evening we crouch down around the cars opposite number fifty three and wait for Mr Chubs.  He’ll be out any minute, Alan whispers.  Seven thirty, that’s when he sets out.  You can set your watch by him.  I glance at my watch and sure enough at just after quarter to eight Mr Chubs comes out of the house.  He has a hi vis running top on and some dodgy skinny black leggings.  He is a bit on the chubby side (hence the code name) but he has extremely thin legs beneath his bulging belly.  Make a note of that, Alan whispers to me.  According to Alan, those legs are not natural.  They’re not thick enough.  It’s like they’re not completely human, he says, emphasising the last word.  Mr Chubs runs on the spot for a minute or two and then does some lunges.  And those lunges don’t look right either, Alan says into my ear, tapping my notebook.  They don’t look right at all.  And I’d have to agree with him on that one.  There is something very wrong about the warm up lunges of Mr Chubs.  But I don’t have time to make a note because he’s already running off down the street.

Luckily for us, Mr Chubs is not the fastest of runners, which enables us to do our favourite type of tracking manoeuvres.  Alan and I like to pretend we’re under sniper fire and run from car to tree, or from car to car, or from tree to tree, doing diagonals across the road whenever possible.  It looks incredibly military and would be very effective if someone was trying to shoot us from, say, a tallish building that has been lightly bombed.  My favourite bit is when I run up to a tree and then put my back to it and await the signal from Alan to move again.  I love that.  Sometimes I close my eyes when I reach a tree, just to hold the moment in my head a bit longer and savour my relief at not being shot.  This diagonalization, as Alan calls it, works well until Mr Chubs gets to the top of the close and turns left onto London Road.  London Road has a bus lane and no parked cars so Alan signals to me to hang back a little.  At a safe distance we watch Mr Chubs turn at the second left down Seymour Avenue.  Then, when we’re sure he’s out of sight, we sprint like crazy to catch him up.  It’s May and warm and still light and I am running with Alan and I’m breathing hard and boredom is so far away I can hardly imagine it could ever exist in my life ever again and I’m convinced I’m never going to die.  In fact, I decide there and then that I’m going to be the first person never to die.  After all, someone has to be.

We slow as we reach the top of Seymour Avenue and start working around the parked cars again, expecting to see him just ahead.  But strangely Mr Chubs is nowhere to be seen.  We edge further down the street.  Still nothing.  Alan stands up, stretching his back like an old man.  We’ve lost him, I say.  Ah no, Alan says, eyes shining.  He’s lost us.  Alan seems to be delighted that Mr Chubs has vanished.  Don’t you see? he asks me.  This proves it.  Who can disappear just like that?  That’s not a question, he adds before I can say anything.  Nobody.  No body.  But an alien being can.  A being definitely can.  They can assume other forms.  That’s why they’re called beings and not bodies.  He could become a tree or a squirrel or anything.  Do you see?  He could be a leaf, Alan continues.  There’s no reason why he has to be something big.  He could be a fly by now.  Or a moth.  Shall I make a note of this? I ask him.  Of course.  And make a note of where and when Mr Chubs disappeared.  Mr Nick, we’re going to have to rethink our whole strategy.  Alan rubs his chin.  It’s not so easy following aliens, he concludes.   People don’t seem to realise that.  But I suppose if it was easy, he says, then everyone would be doing it.

The next evening we try a different plan.  Alan will follow him from Shellard Close and I am stationed on Seymour Avenue.  I am tying my shoe laces, crouching, waiting.  Sure enough, at about five to eight, the alien known as Mr Chubs comes jogging down London Road and hangs a left at my corner.  I am nervous and truly scared.  My experience with alien life forms is still quite limited.  When will he transform?  Will it be a silent process?  What if he kills anyone who watches him change?  Is that why nobody talks about watching an alien transformation?  But no, he doesn’t do anything in the way of what Alan likes to call transmogrification.  Instead, Mr Chubs turns left at the second gate on Seymour Avenue, jogs up the short drive and rings the bell.  He looks around anxiously so I duck behind the car again, studying him through a car windscreen.  The front door opens immediately but there is no-one there in the doorway, and then he’s gone, vanished into the house without a word with the door closing quickly again behind him.  It was as if the door had never been opened.  That’s the thing about doors, Alan has pointed out to me in a previous operation – it’s extremely hard to tell when they were last opened.

Well?  Alan asks when he appears around the corner.  Did you see it happen?  I shake my head.  It’s not what we thought.  He doesn’t transmogrify into anything, I say, covering my mouth in case they can lip read at distance.  He goes in there, I say, gesturing with my head towards the house.  Did you see anyone else in there? Alan asks.  I shake my head.  Nobody.  The door just kind of opened and in he went.  No-one said a word.  I am very keen not to be a disappointing witness to Alan so I add, It was really weird Alan.  I mean really weird.  It was actually more weird than turning into a leaf.  Fantastic, Alan says.  This is fantastic.  He’s obviously going in there to report his findings.  That must be the cell centre.  That’s the way the alien abodes work, he explains.  They cluster alien abodes around a cell centre.  Mr Nick, we are onto something really exciting here.  No-one has ever found an alien cell centre before.  I can’t believe it, Alan says.  When Alan gets excited little blobs of saliva gather at the side of his mouth.  Sometimes I forget to listen to what he’s saying and just watch them, wondering how long they’ll stay there before he wipes them away.  Quite a long time generally; not that I’ve kept notes on this.  Let’s wait here and see how long it takes for him to transmit his reports to the mother ship, Alan says.  So we lurk behind the cars on Seymour Avenue, trying our best to contain ourselves, excitement spilling out occasionally in our jerky limbs.  It turns out that an alien information upload takes twenty three minutes.  Mr Chubs reappears, front door inexplicably closing behind him and off he runs back to his home as if nothing has happened, as if he’s just been out for an evening jog, like a regular human.  If you didn’t actually know what was going on then you’d never know, Alan says.  He shakes his head, trying to make sense of just how big this is.  This is massive, Alan says.

Alan decides we need to have an extraordinary meeting to review our historic findings.  There are going to be a lot of notes on this one, Alan warns me.  We don’t want to miss anything.  Here is the first heading, he dictates.  What we know.  He runs through it all for me.  We know that Mr Chubs is an alien.  We know his alien abode.  We know his cell centre.  We know that he goes out each and every night to report his findings to the cell centre.  We know how long he takes.  The second heading is this: things we do not know.  We do not if Mrs Chubs is aware of his activities.  We do not know if she knows he is an alien.  We do not know if she is providing him with information to feed back.  Alan stares out the window from my bedroom.  He decides that we need to send her a message.  She has a right to know that Mr Chubs is an alien, Alan decides.  If I was living with an alien, Alan points out, then I’d want someone to tell me.  Alan is adopted so he knows about this sort of thing.  They had to check that my new Mum and Dad were real humans, he says.  They should probably do the same thing for husbands.  But of course they don’t.  So, he asks, how can we get a message to her without Mr Chubs knowing?  Is this one of those questions that needs an answer? I ask him.  Alan gives me one of his looks.  Why don’t we write her a note when he’s out running? I suggest.  We know when he goes.  We can warn her with a note and see what she does.  If she’s an alien she’ll just eat it or burn it with her eyes.  If she’s not then she’ll do something to stop him reporting back to the mother ship.  Alan smiles one of his smiles.  Now that, Alan says, is a plan.

We write the letter there and then.  We don’t hang about in the middle of an operation either, Alan and me.  Alan wants to start it ‘Dear Mrs Chubs’ until I point out that this is not her real name and she might think the letter’s not for her.  I suggest we just go straight into it, no introduction.  Good idea, Alan says.  Concentrate on the things we know.  You need to know, I write, that the person you live with doesn’t go running every night.  He pretends to go running and instead he reports things in a house in Seymour Avenue.  He is not a normal man.  We think you need to know this.  We don’t sign it.  We leave it at that.  Alan reads it through to himself.  Then he reads it aloud.  It sounds great.  It sounds important.  That really ought to do the trick, Alan says.  And I feel proud.

The following evening we wait for Mr Chubs to go out running again.  This time, instead of following him, we put the note through the door of number fifty three.  What happens now?  I ask Alan.  Wait and see, Alan says, tapping his nose.  A couple of minutes later Mrs Chubs comes running out of the house and starts running towards London Road.  Mrs Chubs is a lot thinner and a lot faster than Mr Chubs and we find it hard to keep up with her.  Plus she seems to know exactly where she’s going.  Maybe she’s one of them as well, Alan says, as we follow her up the close.  We don’t even try diagonalization, she’s that fast.  She turns left on London Road and then left again on Seymour Avenue and we turn the corner only just in time to see her banging loudly on the cell centre door with her fists.  We are impressed and slightly shocked by Mrs Chubs.  She seems to have absolutely no fear of aliens.  And unlike Mr Chubs she doesn’t seem at all bothered about who hears her.  She pushes past whatever answers the front door and then we hear shouting and screaming from inside the house.  So brave, Alan says.  I don’t think even I could do that.  She’s taking on an entire species all by herself.  A couple of minutes later Mrs Chubs is running back up Seymour Avenue.  This time it’s Mr Chubs doing the chasing, following her down the London Road.  He tries to grab her by the shoulder but she shakes free of his hold.  She turns around to scream at him to leave her alone.  He’s trying to stop her blowing his cover, Alan says to me.  If she tells everyone he’s an alien the mother ship will probably kill him.  Their voices are getting louder and louder, carrying for miles on the warm summer air.  Call yourself a man? she screams at Mr Chubs out there on the busy London Road.  What kind of a man are you? she shouts, pushing him away.  He doesn’t fight back.  He just lets her push him.  She is most definitely onto him, Alan says to me.  Most definitely, I agree.  We follow them both back to number fifty three but nothing much happens that night.  It’s actually a bit boring after all the excitement.  The curtains are drawn and there is nothing for us to see, nothing to hear.  We give up eventually and go back to our houses.

In the morning, though, we are up in time to watch Mr Chubs load up his car with boxes and suitcases and then drive away.  See that?  Alan says.  We have well and truly rumbled him.  He’s being withdrawn to the mother ship. His mission has been aborted. And all because of Operation Golden Turkey, Alan says.  This is the most amazing operation we’ve ever done.  Definitely the best yet.  It is, I agree.  It totally is.  And I stare at Alan and wonder that any planet could ever hold as much joy as this.

Albert learns that it’s not always wise to begin by focussing upon the drawbacks of someone’s exercise regime

Albert arrived to find her in tears.  He’s been having an affair, she sobbed. He’s been pretending to go out jogging each night when actually he’s been having a quick one at number 53.  Ah, Albert said, that would explain why he’s still so large and so sweaty. I did wonder.