I’d been having such a nice day too. I’d washed the Rover and been to the library to read the newspapers. Then I had two poached eggs for lunch before cycling up to the allotment, empty bags in pannier, to pick runner beans.
I parked my bike and un-padlocked the potting-shed door. Going in, I had the fright of my life.
‘No chuntin’ coffee!’ said the red man sitting in my chair, bold as brass. Well, I call him a man, he was more like a grown-up baby. I couldn’t tell quite what he was, big mop of black hair, fat belly hanging over a black leather nappy. One might have called him ‘cherubic’ if he hadn’t been so bright red and in clearly such a bad mood. There was a terrible ‘eggy’ sort of smell to him, as if Carol’s chickens from the next plot had broken in and held a hen party.
‘Please moderate your language.’ I felt it important to lay down the terms of any in-going conversation before confronting him about what he was doing in my shed or the mess of broken tea bags and spilled water around my primus stove.
He ignored me. ‘Tea! Tea’s for frackin’ louse-livers. I want coffee!’ He stamped a bare red foot, making the whole shed shake. I’d read about these illegal immigrants and the things they got up to. I’m not exactly sure which country had black leather nappies for its national dress, somewhere East European probably – the Daily Mail was always going on about them. I couldn’t help but look at the Jacobs crackers tin into which I’d decanted some Maxwell House and kept on the shelf between the packets of Growmore and bonemeal in case of need.
‘Ah,’ he said, and reached for the tin.
‘Phhhhheeetth!’ he spat the drink out on the floor. ‘That’s shabbin’pusscular!’ He wasn’t happy, and to be fair, the coffee had probably been there a few years now. In an effort to calm him and his language down, I tried to engage him in conversation.
‘You, err, speak English very well’.
‘You know, considering where you come from’.
‘What you know about where I come from? You know nothing about where I come from.’
‘I went to Yugoslavia once. Holiday. Dubrovnik. 1982. I got sunburned. It’s the former Yugoslavia now of course.’
The red man-baby stared at me. I thought he might explode.
‘Imbeciliac! Come on, come on. You take me to town. We buy real coffee. We play.’
I wasn’t enamoured by this idea, ‘But I’ve got onions that need sowing.’
‘Onions? Tach! Town…now,’ and he got up with the screech of my armchair legs on the wooden floor in such a way that I knew I had no say in the matter. He swore all the way through the process of putting on the blue boiler suit I kept hanging in the shed for digging on muddier days that I insisted he covered himself up in.
The walk into Newbury was very uncomfortable. He may have been short and bare-footed but I was losing my breath struggling to keep up with him. He was talking loudly, almost shouting over his shoulder at me as I struggled to keep up. It seemed to be all about history – the slave trade and some brutal war or other – it didn’t make much sense to me, but I don’t think he expected me to say anything, nor gave me any space to do so. The only times he stopped was whenever a female was unfortunate to come into our way. He bayed at schoolgirls, hooted mothers and made clucking chicken noises at any over 60. He terrified them all. I did my best to apologise on his behalf as we paced into the high street like we had urgent business.
‘Coffee. You buy.’ I led him into Tesco and towards the beverages aisle as I sensed he was going to swear if I didn’t.
‘Coffee!’ he shouted, and clumsily grabbed an armful of jars, knocking a few off and drawing the attention of the security man who I’d noticed had given us a calculating glance when we came in.
‘Just one,’ I hissed. ‘Behave yourself.’
I was walking him back down the drink aisle towards the tills when he grabbed a bottle off the spirits rack and yelled ‘run!’ before pulling me through past the newspaper stand and out into the high street. I’ve never run so fast in my life. Before the security guard could see which way we’d gone, the man-baby tugged me into Wilkinsons a few doors down. ‘Along here’, he said, walking fast towards the middle of the shop where we stopped in the decorating section’ out of view of the window. I could hardly breathe and my heart was up in my mouth.
‘We stole…stuff!’ I hissed. ‘I would have paid.’
The red man-baby ignored me, clamped his stolen bottle of whisky between his knees and reached up to the match pots of paint.
‘Catch,’ he started pulling them out and tossing them to me. I had no option but catch them, and each time I did he immediately threw another.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked incredulously, stuffing them back on the rack as he tossed more and more to me. ‘Stop it!’
The man-baby just laughed and kept on passing the blasted paint.
In no time at all, the pots of Spilled Bean Red were in the Sherbet Froth run, and Spam Fritter Pink was now intermingled with Catheter Tan. It was a nightmare. I was panicking that one of the staff members or a store detective would hear the fracas and apprehend us.
Mercifully, he seemed to tire of this ridiculous stunt and he dragged me out through the back door, me still carrying a few pots of Clockwork Orange and Underwear Grey. I had hoped to run away, but the horrid man-baby just kept with me, having wrapped his arm over my shoulder, swigging whisky from the bottle. I would have shouted at him but was worried that one of the Train Enthusiast Society members was bound to see me if I created even more of a scene. In this press-ganged way, I did what any innocent associate to a crime spree would do, and headed for the park. He dragged us into the Superdry store, where the man-baby blew his nose volumously on an £80 tee-shirt, then to John Lewis, where to my horror he urinated in a vase whilst we were still link-armed, and then banged on the glass then made obscene gestures at the shocked assistants in JoJo Maman Bébé as we passed.
Somehow we made it to Victoria Park without arrest or violence.
The man-baby was staggering with the effects of the alcohol now, and he would still not let go of my neck which made our traverse past the swings both precarious and embarrassing. He started to sing of thieves, brigands and the lash, which rather than draw attention to us actually seemed to drive the occasional dog walker and jogger away.
I was trying to work out how I could ditch this maniac, or at least plead my innocence to the beak on Monday morning, when I saw a couple sitting on a bench by the side of our path in the distance. The man-baby didn’t see them at first, busy as he was swearing hard at a squirrel and threatening it with dreadful things should he catch it. As we approached the couple, I could see the man was filthy and in some state of collapse, the empty cans of BovvaBru strewn around him testament to a degree of intemperance even greater than that of my kidnapper. The young lady sitting next to him was beautiful. Sweet as a bag of Haribos, prim and radiant, dressed elegantly all in white. She smelled wonderfully of toasting marshmallows. I feared to what depths the man-baby would sink when he saw her.
And saw her he did. He scrunched his eyes to focus, took another swig from the nearly empty bottle, belched with his mouth no more than 6 inches from my own, and blinked.
‘Angelica’ he said in a state of recognition. ‘What in devil’s name…’
‘…in God’s name,’ she corrected him.
‘Oh good, do you two know each other?’ I asked, desperately hoping for a swift and peaceful end to my trauma.
‘Indeed we do,’ said the girl, ‘We go back a long way, don’t we, Diabolo.’
The man-baby, or Diabolo as I now knew him to called, slurred a gall bladder full of oaths which even made the drunken man shudder.
‘I reckon I win,’ said the girl.
‘Oh yes I do,’ she insisted. ‘Look at your…wimp.’ She pointed in my direction.
I looked behind me, but there was no one there.
‘Draw,’ insisted the man-baby. I was confused.
‘Excuse me?’ I asked. ‘Have I missed something?’
Angelica explained argument at a team building exercise hosted by their respective employers to improve relations, she and Diabolo had got themselves into an argument. The result of this was a wager that she could make the most evil person they could find change his ways to goodness, while he would drive the most law-abiding and decent person in the world to sin and debauchery.
‘You didn’t do so well with him then,’ I said, looking at the dribbling inebriate on the bench.
‘Do you think?’ Angelica replied, ‘he gave up his position as chairman of Llodys Bank at Mrs Tiddlywinkle’s Hedgehog Sanctuary.’
‘Oh, fair do’s then,’ I said. ‘I’m still good though, so surely you win the challenge?
‘Draw,’ growled the man-baby and pointed at my tank top. It was covered in filched Mucus Green, from one of the pots that burst earlier.
‘Draw,’ sighed Angelica.
‘Well, we’ll see about that.’ I said and I offered my hand to her. As she stood, I gently held held her face and gave her the longest, most passionate kiss I could muster.
‘There’ I said as I allowed her air. ‘Does that make me good or bad? I’ll let you two decide.’