The Tale of The Loose Canary

Every pub-dwelling male drinker worth his salt has a ‘go to’ story.

It is the story that is pulled out when the alcohol consumption of the collective is at its most euphoric; the cornerstone anecdote to any lager-swilling raconteur’s portfolio. It has been retold so many times that each embellishment of the story-line blurs the distinction between fact and fiction further. Every recount will indubitably have the audience captivated; enraptured by every word reciprocated for the umpteenth time. My ‘go to’ story has always been The Tale of The Loose Canary.

Don’t be fooled by the vanilla description of the title. There is a canary in the narrative but it only serves to masquerade the true horror that unfolded that fateful evening; a sequence of events so improbable that it makes the odds of human existence at 4 trillion to one look like a safe bet.

It had all started so innocently. The grand re-opening of Milton Keynes’ seminal nightspot had drawn a small spattering of desperate nightclub goers to The Empire disco. The refurbish dance-floor appeared vacuous as a handful of middle-aged women bobbed rhythmically to new romantic classics. Ihad been asked to attend this landmark social function by a friend and acollection of his football associates who were atypically loud, raucous and distinctly unchivalrous to the opposite sex. This was going to be a long night– and prophetically I was proved right.

Adopting my standardised pose of leaning rigidly against a post on the periphery of the dance-floor, I was alerted by one my new found acquaintances that I may caught the attention of a woman across the other side of the room.

“Ere, that bird fancies you!” I was reliably informed. I made my first mistake that evening by inquiring as to who he was referring to.

“That one in the red. The one that looks like a horse”Unfortunately he was right on both counts. “I’ll go get ‘er for you”.

My body automatically tensed defensively in preparation for the awkward conversation that would inevitably follow. We were pushed together unceremoniously by our match-making intermediary in the expectation that fireworks would soon follow. Shortly after exhausting my full repertoire of small talk, another woman appeared out of the ether.

“Hi, can I have a quick word with you?” She pulled me to one side. “Just to let you know that my friend is married with two kids. You don’t want to go with her”

Thank God!! I had been presented with a way out of this predicament without the need to pretend to go to the toilet and never comeback. My saviour then changed the course of my night and thus my keystone anecdote was born “You’ll want to come with me”

In an act of spontaneous hedonism never to be repeated I agreed to the proposal. We discreetly left the club without arousing any suspicion and jumped in a waiting Hackney cab. A short conversation followed and it was soon established that we were going to her house. She also informed me that she had no money for the taxi and desperately needed a packet of menthol cigarettes. Before I could respond chivalrously and offer to pick up any financial impediment incurred by our act of decadence,

 I was offered a veryparticular sexual favour for the purchase of the minty cancer sticks. I can’t rememberif I agreed to the terms of the transaction before or after I realised thisentire conversation was being picked up the microphone in the back of the cab.I could never use Skyline Taxis again.

Once back at her house and with a packet of green Berkley Superkings firmly clasped in her hand, I was ushered quickly in to the living room and pushed back on to the sofa. This whole evening had a very unreal feeling to it and I wasn’t going to start craving reality just yet. After a few minutes of what can only be described as ‘pawing’, something caught my eye hanging pride of place centrally on the adjacent wall. From its outline I could see that it was either a plaque or a coat of arms and I fortuitously let my intrigue take over my base animal instincts on the sofa. As I cautiously approached the wall, the form began to look distinctly familiar. Through squinted eyes I could just make out the motto embossed at its base. Instinctively I froze in horror and my defence mechanisms whirred in to action for the second time that evening.

Who Dares Win

“You’re married!?! You’re married to someone in the SAS?!” I squealed.

“Try not to raise your voice too loud or you’ll wake up thekids” was her informative retort. They’ve got kids?! What had I got myself into?

I began surveying my immediate surroundings and stopped dead on the picture resting pride of place on the sideboard. The photo was of a very tall, strong and no doubt resourceful man clad in black uniform and nursing what appeared to be a very particular brand of assault rifle.

“It’s ok. He’s away a lot of the year and I have my needs”.

Before I could utter another word of disbelief there was avery loud knock at the door. Surely it couldn’t be my new military eliteadversary? He’d at least have a key or swing through the living room window ona rope in full fatigues.

“It’s my mate!! Quick, go and hide in the room at the top of the stairs!” I was ordered. I could make out the shape of my equine featured friend from earlier in the evening through the smoked glass in the front door.I stealthily made my way up the stairs and slowly opened a bedroom door. Suddenly a night light was turned on and two innocent little faces sleepily tried to work out who had woken them from their slumber. Before I could think of how to formally introduce myself to these weary cherubs, their Mum returned with some frightful news.

“She’s locked herself out so I have told her she can crash here tonight. She’s going to sleep on the sofa” I was trapped in this surreal pantomime until at least the morning. Reluctantly and still wearing every last piece of clothing I had worn that night I got in to bed with Mrs Elite Forces and her two bewildered children, adopting the fetal position and facing the wall.

After an extremely disjointed night’s sleep, I awoke at the break of daylight to some extremely loud snoring. There, asleep on the floor adjacent to the bed, was a Great Dane that had somehow proved very elusive the night before despite being the size of a small horse. I sat up in bed to further assess the chaos that was unravelling in front of me. As a final act of disregard for order and normality, a yellow canary appeared flying skittishly around the bedroom freely before landing gracefully on the frame of the bed. My inaugural act of hedonistic behaviour had led me to a suburban family bedroom,surrounding by a menagerie and had me asking far-reaching questions about my sanity. This nightmare took one final turn for the worse.

I could hear footsteps coming up the stairs; each one getting louder as they neared the bedroom door. The sound of my heart pounding was drowning out the snoring emitting from the comatose giant. I had to take evasive action or Shergar would find out that I had left the nightclub with her best friend. Considering every last inch of the bedroom was now consumed by a multitude of different species, the only option I could see was to hide cowardly behind the bedroom door.

As the door swung upon I took a deep breath to make myself as slender as possible. I needed had bothered. The door was immediately closed to ensure that the feral canary was contained to just the one room and I was reunited with the woman I had absconded from approximately ten hours ago.

“Oh, hi!” I inanely babbled.

“What the hell are you doing here??” was the instantaneous and sharp response.

My makeshift family went downstairs and I was left to face the music alone. I manufactured some unbelievable story that was as unrealistic as the events that had just unfolded in front of me the night before. Regardless,my long faced friend decided to take full advantage of this opportunity alone and tried to kiss me. This madness needed to stop and I had to escape this irrationality. I went downstairs and proclaimed that I had to leave. For some reason unbeknown to me I made the excuse that I had arranged an impromptu Sunday morning driving lesson, despite the fact that I was obviously at least three times over the limit.

Whilst I was waiting for my [non-Skyline] taxi to arrive I was formally introduced to the rest of the family.

“Kids, this is Uncle Marky and he will be taking us to the Beefeater soon. There’s an indoor play area there” The children exhaled an audible sign of genuine excitement. “Yay!!”

My taxi took what felt like an eternity to arrive. As it pulled away from the house, I looked back through the rear window at the three bedroom terrace that had provided the backdrop to my adversity, in sheer disbelief as to the events that had transpired that night. My perception of reality was being severely interrogated.

What I did know for certain is was that there was never going to be that visit to a mid-priced steak restaurant with adjoining soft play area and I was never going to see recompense for that packet of twenty green Berkley Superkings. But what I did now possess was a timeless story that would forever be my ‘go to’ tale.

The Room-mate From Hull

The transition from Secondary school to University can be a traumatic experience. Especially when all your applications have been rejected and you are scouring the ‘Clearing’ pages of Ceefax daily, frantically trying to find somewhere/anywhere desperate to make up their numbers.

I did have an unconditional acceptance letter from the University of Exeter, but it turned out to be a meticulously concocted April Fool’s joke by a group of close ‘friends’. I eventually worked out it was fraudulent after noticing that I had to meet in the “Adam Chapman Memorial Building” named succinctly after the school bully who tormented me on a frequent basis – but not before I had done a celebratory jig around the living room.

I eventually found a further educational establishment that wanted [needed] me [my money]. The success criteria for acceptance were that you needed to have a pulse and have intermittent access to an HB pencil. I was off to the hedonistic heights of Hull.

Due to the late nature of my application, finding accommodation proved extremely difficult. A local letting agent finally found me a place in a block of flats – a six bedroom apartment that was built to house seven students. I was aged 18, heading to a city where the entire male populous sported a wispy moustache and now I was going to have to share a room with a complete stranger. That stranger’s name was ‘Johnjo’.

Johnjo is the walking embodiment that intelligence and common sense are inversely proportionate. My first impression of him couldn’t have been further from the truth. Prior to leaving for University, this polite and extremely well-spoken Yorkshire man had rung me at home and pleasantly introduced himself as my new room-mate. He had the presence of mind to inquire as to what I was taking with me so that between us we could equip our living quarters for the next year with everything we would need without duplication. I later found out that his Mum had been whispering instructions verbatim in to his ear throughout the entire duration of that call.

September arrived and the start of the academic year was afoot. I arrived in Hull with all my worldly belongings dumped unceremoniously in to a large chequered laundry bag. Waiting eagerly for me at the top of the stairs at the entrance to the flat was Johnjo. Bounding on the spot like a springer spaniel waiting for his master to throw a soggy tennis ball, he excitedly thrust out his hand and uttered the immortal words “Hi, I’m John and I’m a little bit stupid.” Good God. That phoney offer from the University Of Exeter suddenly seemed very appealing.

Now, I have to be extremely careful how far I tap in to the infinite seam of Johnjo stories that ensued over the subsequent three years of academia for fear of starting an avalanche of idiocy.

Johnjo was an enigma. Due to his apparent detachment from reality, his life skills at aged 18 were non-existent. For tea every night he would cook a jacket potato in the microwave and then place it centrally in a sea of baked beans on a plate. It was a dish of such culinary aesthetic that it was affectionately referred to as ‘Potato Island’. He once accidentally knocked a pot plant in to his bed and then subsequently slept in soil laden bed linen for a number of weeks. He rejected the romantic advances of a fellow student claiming that he had no clean pants for the morning and needed to do some late-night hand-washing in the sink. The picture builds.

But one thing Johnjo had going for him in abundance was his passion for the arts. Grade nine violin player and a keen amateur dramatist, he joined the orchestra and drama club on his immediate arrival at university. Johnjo was very keen to segregate his artistic pursuits from the rest of his student life and kept details of all his performances clandestinely to himself. That was until I found a flyer in our shared room detailing the time and place of his next dramatic project. As a collective group of flat-mates, we were all on very good terms so I thought it’d be nice if we attended this particular show together, as a surprise for Johnjo – and it certainly proved to be exactly that.

The play was about a doomed warplane shot down during theWorld War Two and focused on the emotive dialogue between the pilot and the control tower, both of whom knew that there was only going to one fatally sad ending. I collected a programme from the foyer and flicked through briskly to see which role Johnjo was playing. He was to play a General in the Air Force present in the control tower. Strong, authoritative with a diligent sense of protocol and procedure, his character was written in to the play to convey a sense of reason to balance the emotion unfolding over the airwaves. I ushered my flat-mates eagerly in to the auditorium and we took our seats in the front row.

There before us were the entire cast, stood in their underwear and each with a potato sack over their heads. Neatly placed in front of them were their costumes. All of the actors in turn removed the sack from their heads, eyes firmly staring at the back of the room and then systematically got dressed for the performance with military precision. All apart from one.

Johnjo took off his potato sack and instead of adhering to the instruction to keep his eyes away from the audience he immediately caught a glimpse of a row of now familiar faces staring directly at him. The sense of panic was palpable. He picked up the pair of black, sharply pressed trousers in front of him and immediately put his left leg in to the hole for the right leg. After almost taking an immediate tumble, he steadied himself and managed to navigate each leg in to the appropriate hole. It only got worse from there.

The army shirt laden with stripes and medals denoting rank was buttoned up incorrectly where it was totally askew at the bottom and there was a large hole exposing his belly button. A stage-hand had to be beckoned into the unfolding drama so that the cuff links could be administered after four failed attempts. From recollection, I believe Johnjo performed the entire play barefoot as putting on the standard issue air force footwear would have brought the whole performance to its knees. The rest of the show passed mainly without further incident and we all gave him a celebratory [empathetic] slap on the back at the end.

From this point, Johnjo was a lot more careful about releasing details of his extra-curricular activities. We found out a day too late that he had played a gay Widow Twanky with Tourette’s in the drama club Christmas pantomime. Despite this, Johnjo continued to provide a wealth of comic relief throughout our academic tenure in Hull, almost exclusively without trying – more than enough to keep this blog going for a little longer…

Panic! At the Disco

To say I have been unlucky with the fairer sex is a gross understatement.

My first proper girlfriend had me sussed right from the wordgo.

 “You remind me of the Irish actor off the telly.” Who could she mean after only knowing me for one date? That immediately set my mind racing.

I started listing the cream of the quintessentially handsome Irish A-Listers. “Colin Farrell? Liam Neeson? Pierce Brosnan?”

“No. You know the one I mean – Father Ted’s little vicar mate”

Not surprisingly, we didn’t last longer than a couple of awkward and nervous months. In a time before mobile phones, I suffered the indignity of being dumped via Royal Mail as she didn’t have the heart to do it in to my doleful, puppy eyes. I had the further humiliation of having to walk around trip of four miles to the Post Office and the payment of a postage fine as she failed to put a stamp on the letter. If you ever needed validation, the cost of a broken heart is £2.57.

Even if I managed to summon confidence around women, invariably through the use of medium strength European lager, I would often be beset with the most unusual and tragic turn of events. Exemplifying this perfectly would be the time I had a very pretty girl approach me randomly in a crowded pub. Within a few short minutes of small talk we shared a very quick,yet passionate kiss. The effects of the European lager took its toll and I had to make a quick and inopportune pit-stop at the urinals. On my return, a quick scan of the pub had found my potential new love interest on the other side of the room to where I had left her. I immediately made a bee-line for her and probably used some cheap line like “Now where were we..?” We began kissing.

Suddenly, I felt a very sharp finger prodding deep in to my clavicle. A vaguely familiar voice, with a suitably more aggressive tone was demanding to know “What were we both playing at?” Completely confused and bewildered I slowly turned around and immediately felt the blood drain from my face.

I demand to know the odds of meeting two identically twin girls independently on a night out in The Castle pub in East Acton and them both showing  an interest in me. Scolding each other as they left, I was quickly returned to that familiar state of being alone. There has to be a pun here somewhere. Maybe “A bird in the hand is worth two in a pub near Shepherds’ Bush”?

At the turn of the millennium, I was still single and desperately trying to improve my odds of meeting someone by being in a place of social merriment every Friday and Saturday night – usually standing there waiting for something to happen. This next tale of misfortune was no exception. At the disco after an impromptu comedy night, a very mysterious woman suddenly appeared at my side and asked very meekly if I wanted to dance. The advent of the new millennia had brought with it a conveyor belt of ballads from boy-bands and one began to play as we moved succinctly towards the dance-floor.

It was very quickly obvious than neither of us were particularly rhythmic but that didn’t appear to matter. As we danced closely with our heads resting on each other’s shoulders my thoughts quickly turned to wanting to get to know more about this woman who had just dropped in to my life from seemingly nowhere. Brand new century; brand new luck!

We allowed ourselves the luxury of starting to dance to a second manufactured pop song, no doubt smiling as we swayed. Then something suddenly caught my eye. Across the room, I could see a very attractive girl subtly waving her hand trying to catch someone’s attention. Surely it wasn’t me – she could clearly see I was busy. She came closer and in to my immediate eye-line.It was me she was trying to attract! “Hi! I’m really sorry to bother you. Do you mind if I had a quick word?”

This was unbelievable! Torn between leaving this enigmatic woman who I had shared seven minutes of intense, close quarter dancing with and getting to know a clearly very beautiful woman, I made some awkward excuse to suspend the dance and was led to the edge of the dance-floor. I could see exactly how stunning she was now we had left the gloomy light and cigarette smoke that had enveloped the dance-floor.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I saw you on the dance-floor and I just wanted to ask you if you knew what you were doing?” To be honest, I didn’t. It was an extreme rarity for me to be in a position where I actually had a choice! I was desperately trying to think of a retort that was both intelligible and didn’t sound too desperate. Before I could utter a line of infinite suave, like “No, but I do now!” I was cut short with the chilling truth.

“I just wanted to make sure you knew that was a man you were dancing with”

And just like that *[insert imaginary click of the fingers here]* I was back to familiar surroundings -awkwardly leaning against the bar, nursing a now warm pint of lager waiting for potential love to fall in to my lap. Only this time a man in a Dorothy Perkins blouse, pedal-pushers and polka dot wedges was waving desperately at me across the dance-floor.

At least I knew I had a Plan B if my luck with the fairer sex didn’t improve.