Christine Madden

journalist | editor | dramaturg | literary translator

Category: Sketches (page 1 of 2)

Great expectations

CHAZ bounded out of school and towards the bus stop. Like it knew it was a special day, the bus pulled up immediately, and Chaz got on, chose a window seat at the back and pulled out his smartphone and started tweeting.

“Birthday: so far so brilliant. On way home for family dinner. Recording equipment in the offing? Or even ukulele?? Sick!”

Five minutes later, he’d already had 46 favourites and 104 retweets. He’d even got 22 new followers today. Ten on twitter, and 12 on his YouTube channel. Life was sweet.

He got out his phone to film himself for a new vlog.

“Yo brothers and sisters it’s the day of my birth so I’m full of mirth for what it’s worth down here on earth, where we live and love to celebrate and I feel just great…”

“And it’s you I hate, so just levitate yo ass out of here,” someone who was passing him in the bus chanted.

Chaz shut off his phone. “Sod off, Dan.”

“So happy birthday, Mate,” Dan sang and got off the bus.

Minutes later, it was Chaz’s stop. Once he was home, he was planning to go straight to his room to download his video into his computer and finish his vlog. But his mum called him over. Both his parents were sitting at the table with a lovely large chocolate cake, covered with candles. God, he loved birthdays. He looked about for parcels but didn’t see any. But that was no reason to worry. Probably his present was recording equipment, and it was upstairs. That’s why they detained him. Sick.

He wished his sister could be there, too, but she’d left the family more or less years ago. Actually, come to think of it, it wasn’t long after her 16th birthday. Maybe she didn’t get what she wanted. On the other hand, the parents were a bit past it. Always going on about books written by old farts. Whatever. What could you expect? Now he communicated with his sister through Twitter mostly. She was far away in Edinburgh, studying to become a forensic pathologist. Each to his own.

“Hey Mum, Dad,” said Chaz, plonking himself down on the couch.

“Happy birthday, Charles,” said his mum.

“You’re 16 now,” said his dad. “We’d like to have a talk with you about something.”

“Yeah, sure. Can we have the cake while we’re talking?” said Chaz.

“In a minute,” said his dad. “We’d like to talk to you a bit about your future.”

“Do we have to do it now?”

“Yes, Charles. I think it’s time.”

“In the future, you know, I’d rather you called me Chaz.”

“That’s sort of what we want to talk to you about,” said his mum.

“You see,” his father started. “It’s like this, Son. You’re not really our son. Not our biological son, anyway.”

“What? I’m adopted?” Chaz gasped.

“Kind of, and kind of not,” said his mother.

“Your mother gave birth to you,” said his dad. “She incubated you, so to speak. But your genetic material is completely different.”

“So, what are you saying?”

“Charles… you really are Charles. About 17 years ago, we acquired something very valuable in an auction. It was something belonging to a famous author called Charles Dickens.”

“So I’m named after him?” asked Chaz.

“Let me finish,” said his father. “We acquired Charles Dickens’s toothpick.”

This was a bit of an anticlimax, Chaz thought. What next? William Shakespeare’s fingernail scissors?

“A magnificent relic,” said his mother.

“I don’t know if we had the idea before or after we got it,” said his father.

“It kind of all happened at once,” said his mum.

“But we had this incredible idea,” his father continued. “Charles Dickens was one of the greatest literary geniuses of all time. What a thing to give to the world, to bring back Charles Dickens. To let him continue his great work and bring beauty and literature into the world.”

Chaz could sense that this conversation was not going in a good way. And that, when it was over, he might actually not be in much of a mood for chocolate cake.

“So we had the toothpick examined for residual genetic material,” his father said. “And then we managed to revive it and grow it. And clone it.”

There was a silence. Chaz was first to speak.

“No,” he said.

“That’s right, Son. You are Charles Dickens.”

“The clone of Charles Dickens,” Chaz corrected his father.

“Yes, but that means you are, in fact, Charles Dickens.”

“But I’m not Charles Dickens,” Chaz protested. “I don’t want to be Charles Dickens. I’m Chaz. I don’t even like his bloody books.”

“Oh, come now, that’s not entirely true,” said his mum. “You’ve hardly given them a chance. You liked A Christmas Carol.”

“So?” Chaz demanded.

“That’s Charles Dickens,” said his sort-of mother. “He – you – wrote that.”

“THAT WAS THE MUPPETS!” Chaz shouted.

“All the same, Charles Dickens – you – wrote it.”

“I did not! I HATE writing.”

“You write all the time,” said his mum.

“I TWEET all the time,” said Chaz. “I tweet. On Twitter. I do vlogs Video blogs, in case you’re so bloody past it you don’t know or even notice. Not the same as writing huge, effing, boring novels is it?”

“Charles…” started his father.

“I’m Chaz, dammit. I hate being called Charles. I’m Chaz. C. H. A. Z. And you’ve just stolen my life from me. You’ve stolen my life. I had a life, and now you say it’s somebody else’s.”

“No, we’ve given you a life. A very illustrious…”

“No, stolen. I never wanted all those books you keep throwing at me. I hate books. What happened to the ukulele I asked for?”

“That’s not a serious instrument, Charles. Books are enduring works of art,” said his father.

“They’re past it,” Chaz screamed. “Just like you. I tweet. I have 12,000 followers. And counting. And I just put my first rap vlog on YouTube. I’ve got followers there, too. Not quite as many, but counting. I might even…”

Chaz was about to say, might even get a book deal, but that would have been counter productive.

“And you’re telling me I’m supposed to sit down and write these huge, insanely boring novels that nobody wants to read because, wait for it, because ‘I’m a gift for humanity’?”

“You make it sound like it’s a bad thing,” said his dad.

“OMG, I’ve had enough of this shit,” screamed Chaz, and ran out of the house, slamming the door behind him. He immediately pulled out his smartphone and started walking very quickly down the street while he typed into it.

“omg u can’t believe what psycho tossers mum and dad are. U were so right to escape,” he wrote to his sister Jane on Twitter.

The user imnotjane responded within seconds.

“O I can. It is a truth universally acknowledged that our parents are toerags.”

“U won’t believe what they told me.”

“Try me,” tweeted imnotjane. “But maybe not on Twitter.”

 

A version of this story originally appeared in the German magazine Spotlight

Spin

AFTER a few minutes of pretending to admire the paintings on the wall of the HR reception office, Mark went back to the front desk. “So,” he said.

“I’m sure it will only be a moment,” said Cynthia, without looking away from her computer screen.

“I really like your artwork,” Mark said.

“Thanks.” She smiled politely towards her screen while continuing to type. Then her computer pinged. “Robert can see you now,” she said. “You can just walk in.”

Robert, the head of HR, watched Mark enter with a big, sunny smile. “Mark,” he said, “it’s so good to see you! You’re looking remarkably well today.”

“Thanks,” said Mark. “You’re looking very well, too.”

“I just can’t believe how terrific you look,” said Robert. “Do you know what? I’m going to do a selfie of us both.”

“Erm…” muttered Mark, as Robert jumped up from his chair and ran around the desk.

“Smile!” said Robert, as he put his arm around Mark’s shoulders and held out his smartphone in front of them.

“Look at that! Gorgeous! I’m going to put that on our Twitter feed,” said Robert.

“Wow. Brilliant,” said Mark. “But I’m thinking you didn’t call me in today to take a selfie.”

“God, you’re clever,” said Robert. “That’s why I can see really big things for you in the future.”

“You can? Yes, I mean, that’s what hard work and commitment are for.”

“Take a seat, Mark,” said Robert, gesturing to a chair. “I can’t tell you how impressed we are with your forward-thinking, proactive contribution to our company. You’ve entered the left lane and left everyone behind you.”

“Well, thanks…”

“That why I feel very strongly about your future. I know you’re going to do great things. And in order to facilitate you, I’m going to see to it that you have a lot more flexibility. We’re ensuring that you aren’t hampered by your current position so that you can feel free to pursue new goals.”

“Erm…”

“I’m delighted to be able to launch you into phase two of your career. This is a proud day for us both, Mark. Once you’ve been cut loose, I can see you rocketing into action.”

“Erm, hold on, Robert. Are you saying I’m being made redundant?”

“Yes, Mark, we’re promoting you to customer. I am so happy to be able to deliver a solution that will bring us both the greatest profits.”

“But… but…,” Mark stammered. “But, Robert, you know my wife just had twins…”

“Double return,” said Robert. “God, Mark, you’re an action man everywhere.”

“Robert, you’ve just made me unemployed.”

“You’ll be skiing off-piste.”

“Dammit, Robert, are you listening to me?”

“This won’t be taking effect until the end of the month,” said Robert. “Oh, sorry. I meant the end of the week. Strap it on for a while, see what you think.”

“Strap this on, you bastard!” Mark leapt out of his chair and threw a hard punch into Robert’s handsome square jaw. Mark expected (and half-hoped) that Robert would punch him back. Instead, Robert’s head spun around full circle and snapped back into place, then he fell sideways down on the desk, eyes open, still smiling.

“Holy shit,” said Mark as Robert convulsed on his desk.

Cynthia entered. “Oh, dear.” She walked over to her boss, who lay in spasms on his desk. “He’s late for his check up.”

“Is he OK?” said Mark. “I’m really sorry, I… I don’t know what happened.”

“You punched him. They all do.” Cynthia placed her hand on Robert’s neck to check his pulse. But she didn’t. Instead, she lifted open a flap of skin. Beneath it, little lights flashed. “He badly needs to be reprogrammed.” She pressed a few switches inside Robert’s neck, and his body slumped before coming back into life. “There. I’ve rebooted him.”

“So…” Mark stuttered. “Wait. So Robert is actually Robot?”

“Yes, that’s right. It works much better that way,” said Cynthia, checking her watch. “He’ll be up and running in about 90 seconds.”

“I always thought he seemed a bit unnatural.”

“It’s much better not to get too personally involved,” said Cynthia.

“So,” said Mark, “are you a robot, too?”

A voice came from Robot’s mouth. “Don’t be silly,” he said. “Look at that gorgeous arse. I’d like to slap it.”

“Oh, dear,” said Cynthia, reaching back for Robot’s neck controls. “This often happens. The experimental 1950s vocabulary tends to assert itself after a violent trauma. I’ll just boot him up again.” She operated the switches, and Robot slumped once more.

“Oh, by the way,” she said, without looking up from Robot. “Your redundancy papers are on my desk. Would you pick them up on your way out? Don’t forget to sign for them.”

 

A version of this story originally appeared in the German magazine Spotlight

Oh holy night

“NAME?”

“Dennis. Dennis Mobray.”

“Age?”

“Six.”

The woman at the desk looked up at him over her glasses. “OK. Slightly bolshy sense of humour. I’ll make a note of that in the character profile. A lot of people don’t like that. But some families do, actually.” She scribbled something lower down on the page. “So, let’s start again. Age?”

“Thirty-six.”

“Thank you. Now, your original family configuration.”

“Is that really relevant?”

“Dennis,” the woman sighed. “We are trying to achieve the best fit possible for you and your host family. Of course the makeup of your original family is relevant in order to assure the success of your holiday visit.”

“But, Shirley,” he started.

‘Christmas was torture. I just want to watch boxsets on TV’

“I’m sorry, my name isn’t Shirley.”

“But the nameplate – ”

“This isn’t my desk. I’m filling in while Ms Nott is away.”

“Oh, right. Sorry. My appointment was with Shirley Nott. Anyway, what I wanted to say was that I don’t want to spend Christmas with anybody. I hated my family. Really, I hated them. Christmas was torture every year. So I don’t want to go anywhere. I just want to sit in front of my TV and watch box sets. Is that so bad?”

The woman sighed again and put down her pencil. “Dennis,” she said, “I understand your anxiety about the situation, but really, there’s no cause for concern. Since the government decided to do something about the increase in suicide during the holiday period by ensuring that everyone had a family to go to, it’s out job to ensure that everyone is paired with just the right family for them. So, if you’ll just co-operate now, we’ll do everything in our power to make your holiday period a happy one.”

“But…” Dennis struggled. “I’m sorry, what is your name then?”

She looked back down at the files on her desk and continued to go through them. “Holly Green.”

Dennis flinched, but continued. “Thanks, Holly. It’s like this. I just don’t want to be with anyone on Christmas Day.”

“Of course you do,” said Holly as she finished with one file and began to study the next. “Everyone wants to be with someone at Christmas. So, let’s see… “I’ve a nice family here, just perfect for you. It’s a lovely elderly couple with two adult children, both with spouses of their own, and the son has two sons of his own who just love to play football. You can all go outside and kick the ball about while gran and the women prepare the meal. The grandad got a replacement hip recently, so he just stays quiet in front of the telly watching the Queen’s speech and Dad’s Army and drinking cider.”

“Isn’t that a bit sexist? That’s exactly what contributed to my mother dying so young.”

‘He doesn’t swear quite as much, will have the four children, his mum, auntie and cats’

“Oh, dear, didn’t I tell you to explain your family circumstances? Let’s try another… Ah, here’s one. Not the same ages, but the father is a foodie, a big Gordon Ramsay fan, so he’ll be preparing a holiday meal special. It does says here he doesn’t swear quite as much as he used to, you’ll be glad to hear. He’s divorced, so I’m afraid his wife won’t be there, but he’ll have the four children, ages three to 12, his mum and his auntie. You don’t mind cats, do you?”

Dennis slapped his hands on the table. “Listen, this is ridiculous. I don’t want to spend the holidays with any family. Nobody. Not even the Holy Family. Do you understand?”

“I’m sorry, Dennis, but there’s nothing I can do. It’s regulation. So let me see if I can find another home for you … ”

“No, Holly, that’s it. I don’t want another family. Where is Shirley, anyway? Can I just again when she’s back?”

Holly sighed again. “I’m afraid that’s not possible, Dennis. She won’t be back in the office until after Christmas.”

“Oh,” said Dennis. “I’m sorry, is she ill?”

“No. Well, prevention, really. She does go a bit funny this time of year, so the doctors have recommended she travel somewhere where they don’t celebrate Christmas. So she’s in Jaipur until after New Year’s.”

“Oh, good God,” Dennis groaned.

“Oh, that’s just given me the most wonderful idea!” said Holly. “You can go to her family. Her parents have just got back together again and her brother will be on parole starting next week. They’ve actually requested someone open and friendly …”

Dennis stared at her, open-mouthed, as she got out the file. “It says here … oh, by the way, do you know how to disarm someone with a knife?”

 

 A version of this story originally appeared in the German magazine Spotlight

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