Millie and number 25

Wherefore art thou, Stu?

Still about, just…busy…

Here’s the story Millie requested I write for her 11th birthday, which – good heavens – is tomorrow!

It’s the story of a house with plumbing so complicated it becomes self aware.

Millie and number 25

It was stupid o’clock in the morning. Millie Harriet Carter was wide awake and not very happy about it.

A noise had woken her up and now she was wide awake while everyone else snored away in their beds (she thought she could actually hear her Dad snoring next door). Morning light was just beginning to creep around her curtains, lighting up her room for the start of a new day. Refusing to be beaten, Millie grabbed ‘nuffle, closed her eyes and slipped under the blankets away from the pesky daylight, in one final effort to get back to sleep before it was too late.

And then, just to make things even better, the heating came on.

CLONG! CLANG! BING-BING! WHOOOOOOM! CLANG! BONG-BONG-BONG went the radiator on the wall, the pipes under the floor and the boiler in the attic.

Every morning was the same in the little house in Bexley: if you were awake when the stupid heating came on you could forget about getting back to sleep. The house would BING, CLONG, CLANG and DONG like a hopelessly clumsy orchestra trying to quietly prepare for a concert but whose musicians kept tripping over each other.

CLONG CLONG CLONG went the radiator. WHOOOOOSH went the pipes. Millie sighed, pushing back the blankets to glare at her thrumming radiator, which gave out an almost tuneful DONG!

“Fine,” she muttered crossly, “It’s not like I was trying to sleep or anything.”

The radiator stopped, almost as though it had heard her, then began to make a peculiar MOMOMOMOM-sound. Rolling her eyes, Millie pulled the blankets back over her head; “Oh, shut up!” she hissed in the general direction of the thrumming radiator.

Again, the noise suddenly stopped as though the radiator had heard her. Poking her head out, Millie looked suspiciously at the silent radiator. “You’re not funny,” she told it.

CLONG DONG BONG-ONG replied the radiator.

“You’re not,” she repeated.

CLONG DONG, said the radiator. MOMOMOM BONG, then it went silent.

Still staring at the radiator, Millie counted to ten in her head. Still silence. “So-” she began.

CLONG BONG CLONG BONG CLONG! interrupted the radiator, so violently that it seemed to shake on the wall. DONG DONG DONG DONG DONG DONG!

“Shhh!” hissed Millie, “You’ll wake everyone up!”

Bong said the radiator, in what sounded like an apology.

Millie cocked an ear towards the door, but there was no sound from outside – perhaps they’d gotten away with it? She looked back towards the talkative radiator. “So-” she began again.

Clong the radiator chimed quietly.

“You can talk?” she finished.

Dong said the radiator.

“Shall we say ‘dong’ means ‘yes’ and ‘bong’ means ‘no’?”

Dong agreed the radiator.

“Are you magic?” asked Millie. “We’ve had magic here before; it usually means an adventure or some weird stuff going on. Are you magic?”

Clang? asked the radiator.

“You know,” said Millie, waving her arms about vaguely, “Magic. Like, talking gerbils and spiders that can spell and giant lobsters…”

Bong said the radiator, quite decisively.

“Are you sure?”

Bong bong bong.

“All right, all right, I was only asking,” Millie apologised. “Great. Now I’m apologising to my radiator,” she sighed.

Clong.

“So, you’re not magical. Do you know what you are?”

Dong.

“Are you going to tell me?”

Ding ding clang blong dongdong bong wooooosh ding-ding-ding, chimed the radiator excitedly, Boonng ding dong bing bong shoooooom.

“I didn’t understand a word of that. Can you speak English at all?”

Clong.

“Well, this isn’t getting us anywhere. Let’s see if we can teach you, shall we?”

DONG!

***

 

It wasn’t easy, and they had to do it in secret because the radiator was frightened Millie’s family might call a plumber to “fix” things, but two weeks later Millie’s radiator could speak English rather well.

Only, it turned out it wasn’t just the radiator that could speak, it was all the pipes or radiators in the entire house, which meant that calling it ‘radiator’ didn’t seem right. In the end the house chose the name ‘25’ because that was the house number and it seemed to fit; plus, 25 liked 25 because it was a square number. So, 25 it was.

“Are all houses alive, then?” Millie asked 25.

25 had a theory that it was a bit like a computer – but a computer made of pipes with water flowing through them, just like a computer was lots of minuscule circuits with electricity flowing through them, or a human brain was lots of tiny cells with chemicals and electricity flowing through them.

“First,” said 25, “I’m not a house. The part that’s me is the pipes. I can sort of feel the house, just like you can feel your body, but my thinking is done by the water flowing through my pipes.

“And second, no, I don’t think most other houses can think. My brain – or the plumbing in your house – is ridiculously complicated. There’s no reason on earth for it to have so many different pipes and taps and valves and outlets and dials and junctions and nozzles and joints and connections and meters and-”

“OK, OK, I get the picture,” interrupted Millie, “But what’s that got to do with anything?”

“Well, I think,” continued 25, “That’s why I’m alive – or awake – or whatever you want to call it. Your brain is really complicated, too – that’s what makes you alive and thinking and clever. Well, maybe not that last one…” joked 25, and the pipes went bing bing bing as it laughed at its own joke.

Millie pouted at 25.

“But, yes, whoever did the plumbing here did such a crazy job that…here I am. Most other houses have fairly simple boring plumbing that just pumps water around the house and heats the radiators or fills the bath or whatever. My plumbing is vastly superior to that,” 25 finished proudly. “I’m unique,” and its pipes gave a decisive BONG!

“So…” Millie hesitated, “you’re all alone, then?”

25 didn’t answer right away. It seemed to be thinking. “Well, that’s a very good question. No, I don’t think I am, actually.”

Again, 25 paused.

“I can…feel some…places just like me, through the pipes that connect me to the water and the sewer. These other places are connected, too, but…”

“But what?” asked Millie.

“Well, these other places are much bigger than me. They’re not houses, they’re shops or great big palace or schools, maybe? To get plumbing complicated enough to be like me they have to be huge and grand, and much bigger than little old me.” A faint, sad whooosh ran through 25’s plumbing.

Millie’s eyes went wide, “So, can you, like, speak to them?”

“Erm, well, yes, I suppose so…” said 25 carefully. “No, I’m sure I can. Hold on a minute.” There was nothing but a faint bubbling hum from 25 for a few moments. “Blimey! Yes, I can!” it suddenly cheered. Bong bong bong! chimed its pipes.

“What are they saying?” whispered Millie, in excitement. “Who are you talking to?”

“It’s Buckingham Palace!” said 25 in amazement, “I’m talking to Buckingham Palace – where the Queen lives!”

“Oh my god!” squealed Millie, nearly falling over in amazement, “This is amazing!”

“Oh,” said 25, suddenly, “Whoops! Sorry. Sorry sorry sorry!”

“What? What is it?” asked Millie, eyes wide.

“Well, er, it’s, um, well, the thing is…”

Millie shook her head, smiling, her long brown hair falling in front of her face.

“The thing is… Oh, this is embarrassing…” muttered 25, its pipes making a low shooooooom sound.

“What is it?”

“I shouldn’t say. The Palace wouldn’t like it.”

“WHAT IS IT?!” yelled Millie.

“It’s the Queen,” said 25, “She’s… Well, she’s…” 25’s voice dropped to a whisper. “She’s on the toilet. Right now.”

“Oh, my god,” gasped Millie, before both she and 25 exploded into helpless laughter at the thought.

***

The two of them had so much fun that night tuning in to palaces, shops and other buildings all around London. They tried to speak to a silly fat bank, but it wouldn’t answer – it just sat there wallowing in all its money and singing the Abba song about money, over and over again.

A sad, empty office b2uilding was desperate to talk to them. It had been empty for months and missed all the humans that used to work inside it. Even though it had moaned about all their mess and noise when they were there, it missed them now they were gone.

A museum in the middle of London was more difficult to get talking. It spoke very slowly in a terribly old-fashioned voice and got cross whenever Millie and 25 didn’t understand what it was saying. Eventually it called them “a pair of perfidious nincompoops” and refused to answer again.

They spoke to the South Bank, a place Millie had visited many times before (and even played the violin on stage there) but that seemed to be quite mad. It spoke in lots of different languages and couldn’t seem to concentrate on one thing for more than a few seconds at a time.

A distant airport, which sounded so far away they could barely hear it, didn’t really have time to speak to them anyway. It was trying to keep up with all the aeroplanes coming and going, passengers rushing everywhere, bags and supercases going round and around on carousels, cars parking, buses dropping off, shops selling lots of perfumes and big Toblerones and everything else airports do.

They spoke to an absolutely lovely sewage treatment plant, which was polite and charming as could be. The problem, it told them, was that no one wanted to speak to a sewage plant; which seemed rather unfair. Still, the sewage plant made the best of things and joked about how smelly it could be.

St Paul’s Cathedral sounded very posh and very old; some of the stories it tried to tell them sounded fascinating, but the poor thing kept falling asleep in the middle of telling them.

The Shard wasn’t very nice, so they didn’t spend long talking to it.

They spoke to a supermarket, although to begin with it was too busy to speak to them; but a little later, after it closed for the night, it sang them tunes from adverts for all of the things on its shelves.

London Bridge Station just sounded a bit confused. It kept getting them mixed up with Cannon Street station – which it had had a falling out with just after the Second World War. The two of them apparently hadn’t spoken to each other since then, but London Bridge sounded keen to make up. 25 promised to pass on a message from London Bridge to Cannon Street.

Finally, they spoke to Hall Place, which said it vaguely remembered Millie from the last time she came to visit and saw the owls – and didn’t she have a sister called “Dumber” or something? Millie and 25 laughed at this and said, no, she had a sister called Amber, but she was a bit of a dumbo, which made Hall Place laugh in return.

By this time it was getting a bit late. 25 was starting to get an ache in its pipes from all this talking, so maybe it was time for a rest, until tomorrow. In Millie’s room the radiator gurgled like your stomach does when you’re hungry. Blub blub blub!

25 giggled – bing bing bing.

Blub blub blub gurgled its pipes.

Bing bing bing giggled 25 again, sounding a little bit nervous this time. “Oh, Millie, help! I can’t stand it!” said 25 as the radiator gurgled again, “Oh, make it stop! Help!”

“What’s wrong, 25?”

Bing bing bing bing bing bing bing bing bing! giggled 25. “It’s my radiator in your room! It…it…it tickles!” And again the radiator gurgled.

Millie stared at her radiator – what was going on? What was happening to 25? And all of a sudden she had an idea. “25, hold on a second, I think I know what’s happening!”

Bing bing bing bing bing bing bing bing bing! was all 25 could say, as something tickled it mercilessly.

Running downstairs, Millie opened her Dad’s big red toolbox under the stairs. “Come on, come on, where is it?” she muttered, searching through all the tools, until she spotted what she was after: a small, cylindrical brass key. Upstairs, 25 was sounding a bit desperate – the same way you would if somebody kept tickling you.

Millie fitted the key into the side of her radiator and tried to turn it, but it wouldn’t budge. She twisted as hard as she could, until she thought her fingers might break; then, suddenly the key turned and there was a loud hiss of escaping air from the radiator.

Slowly but surely the hissing – and the bings of laughter from 25 – slowed; until the hiss was replaced by a splutter, and Millie quickly turned the key back the other way.

There was a long gentle whooooooooossshh from 25. “Oh. Oh, my goodness,” said the house with obvious relief, “Thank you, Millie. What was that? What did you do?”

“You needed bleeding,” said Millie. “My Dad showed me how to do it. You had air in your pipes, that’s all. I just let it all out.”

Whoooooossh replied a very relieved sounding 25; “Thank goodness. Millie, you’re a genius!”

Millie blushed and smiled bashfully. “Anyone could have done it,” she mumbled.

“But you did – thank you, I thought I was going to explode for a second there. How can I ever repay you?”

Millie shrugged, “Just…try and keep your pipes a bit quieter when the heating comes on, maybe?”

“Done!” said 25.

Then a thoughtful look came over Millie’s face. “Well,” she said, “Maybe there is one little thing you could do for me…”

***

Six weeks later, Millie Harriet Carter stood in the entrance of Blackfen School For Girls wearing a stiff and unfamiliar uniform, carrying a smart new school bag with a new pencil case and shiny red mobile phone. She looked around her at all the grown-up girls as they walked past: all of them seemed to know exactly where they were going in the big new school.

Millie, suddenly feeling very small and unsure what she was supposed to be doing or where to go next, swallowed nervously.

Just at that moment, there was a gentle clong from one of the pipes on the wall next to her.

You must be Millie,” it chimed gently, “Welcome to Blackfen, Millie – any friend of 25 is a friend of mine…

And Millie smiled.

Crazy, happy times

Crazy times for the Bexley Carters at the moment, as I settle into the new job, the girls reluctantly submit to after-school club again and the Lovely Melanie is summoned for jury service.

Talk about a perfect storm!

Not really a storm, however because the Lovely Melanie’s jury service hasn’t been too difficult so far. There was initially panic about getting home in time to collect the girls, even from after-school club, but so far it’s been no problem. In fact, she’s been getting home earlier than normal!

I’m not allowed to know any of the case details (and if I can’t then you guys sure as hell won’t!) except that M’ludanie Carter is on the case, is not a maverick and finds the whole thing fascinating.

After last week’s frosts and hail (I kid you not, in April!) summer has crashed in upon us, and with the sunshine we took a bus to Shooters Hill – somewhere called Severndroog Castle. Silly name, I know, and nothing to do with A Clockwork Orange (it’s a corruption of an Indian name – more here), but a stunning spot. It’s next to Oxleas Wood and Oxleas Meadow, which is another of those places you’ll be hard-pushed to believe are in London, they’re so big, green and unspoiled.

wp-1462475488521.jpg
Oxleas Woods and Meadows, with us, in distance

Severndroog Castle isn’t really a castle, more a folly, but pay the very reasonable £3 entrance fee to climb it and you’ll see some stunning views of London. And not just London – we were told by one of the very helpful volunteers that you can see seven counties from up there.

Having spotted Wembley Stadium in the middle distance I can well believe it!

And finally, what about my new job?

If you’d told me, just a month ago, that going into work would ever be fun again I’d never have believed you. Which just goes to show how wrong you can be.

Barely two full weeks in and it’s transformed me. I’m coming home smiling – hell, I’m going in smiling! Surrounded by smart, sociable, funny, helpful people, at a company that treats its staff very well, doing plenty of interesting, meaningful work that people recognise and encourage… What’s not to like?!

I’ve got a top-of-the-line laptop, been wined and dined, met people from all around the world, sampled some rum with them over lunch, am being paid more for fewer hours (but getting far more done in that time!) and next week they’re sending me to Oslo for a meeting.

Yeah, Oslo in Norway!

And I’m working back in the West End again, which is nice. I still get a out of kick of working there, even after 20 years in London; still can’t quite believe that my route there and back takes me through Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Soho, Chinatown, Regent Street and Oxford Street, to literally across the road from the BBC.

I haven’t felt this happy and grateful for far too long.😀

Not freelancing!

NotFreelanceAs it turns out, I’m mostly not going to be freelancing from now on.

With opportunities suddenly growing like weeds, and yours truly beginning to wonder if freelancing really might work, one of my main hopes rang me up out of the blue.

“We’ve got a lot of work for you, Stu,” they said, “Guaranteed six months worth; how about if you contract for us instead? Full-time with full benefits?”

Well, I…” I began.

“Or would you prefer to stay freelance? We can do that if you like. Have you been freelance long?”

“No, I think contract might be best, I’ve only been freelance 48 hours – since Friday.”

“Last Friday?”

“Yes.”

“Well, this is perfect timing for you, isn’t it?! Can you start next week?”

“Yes. Yes, I can!”

So I start tomorrow. It seems like forever since I looked forward to working, but I write this with a wide smile, full of enthusiasm about writing, meeting new people and doing a rewarding job again. I love being a writer and being able to call myself a WRITER. People paying me to do it is pretty much a bonus!

Over the last week I’ve found myself just…happy again. When you’ve been down for so long then rock-bottom starts to feel like normal. It was only this weekend, when I found myself smiling in the sunshine, stopping to smell bluebells in the woods and tickling my kids till they squealed, that I realised these simple enjoyments have largely been missing from life this last year.

It’s good to have them back. Wish me luck for tomorrow – and for the other freelance work that I’m hoping to carry on as a sideline.

You know, just in case.😉

Freelancing?

ExitYou may have noticed (or you may not…) that it’s been quite some time since I mentioned work here.

There are reasons for that.

Most of them were related to my not enjoying the job. However, I finished there on Friday and am now much happier – if somewhat lacking in disposable income.

Resigning without another job to go to isn’t something I’ve done before, and I couldn’t have done without the support (if not the happiness…) of my wonderful wife and family. Thanks, guys!

I’ve been job hunting for a while now, and despite coming tantalisingly close on occasion have yet to have any luck. But that luck seems to have changed following my resignation, just not in quite the way I expected, because I’ve now got some freelance work.

Freelancing is new to me. I have friends who are very successful at it and recommend the life to everyone. Their stories have always sounded marvellous, but while talking about tax advice, remarkable pay and choices of self-employment or limited company status, they always seemed to miss out the part where they find the work.

You know, the important part.

Luckily I seem to have stumbled onto some of this forbidden knowledge by accident.

In a couple of job interviews they loved me and my writing, but the job didn’t quite match my skillset. I shrugged my shoulders, thanked them for their time and was about to move on when the interviewer paused for a second.

“You know,” they would say, “we really did enjoy meeting you. Could we keep your details on file for the future?”

“Sure,” I would always smile, “that would be great.” And then close the door.

Well, this time, I’m pleased to say, they weren’t joking. In fact, they were so not joking that it might – just possibly maybe might – be a substitute for a “proper” job.

Only time will tell. In 12 months I might be king of the freelancers or I might be blogging from my ‘phone as I beg for money outside Albany Park station.

You’ll know it’s me because the cardboard sign will be properly spelt, grammatically correct and devastatingly effective in its call to action.:-)

 

Engineering calm

A TV programme about reconstructing a lawnmower should make good TV for insomniacs, but the first episode of James May’s The Reassembler (BBC4, last night) managed to be simultaneously fascinating and calming.

ReassemblerBetter known as part of the presenting triumvirate on Top Gear, James May’s other programmes have always interested me more, revealing his deep interest in how things work and a quiet reverence for the remarkable people who created them.

With precisely zero technical skills myself, I can completely understand this awe of technology and engineering; which is why it was so interesting to see someone with a modicum of these skills work their way through the reconstruction of something as prosaic as a 1959 Suffolk Colt lawnmower.

How does the internal combustion in a lawnmower (or anything!) work? I sort of know the theory, but seeing all the component neatly laid out like a work of art on a table, then gathered up and reassembled, revealed more in 30 minutes than any amount of books would.

But it’s May’s subtly rambling commentary on the reassembly process, interspersed with the lawnmower’s history and development, that transformed this 30 minutes of nerdistry into a  little piece of TV nirvana: I could feel my body relax – heart rate slowing, muscles relaxing, mind clearing – as, piece by piece, a lawnmower took shape once more.

It was TV as meditation!

This, I suspect, is because it brought back memories of being small and watching as my dad performed miracles in the garage: welding iron gates, fixing broken electrical appliances, making his own bricks for a wall, affixing a fold-down workbench to the wall. He would pick his way through endless drawers full of ancient and mysterious tools (passed down from his dad) to to fix or create anything.

Sadly, I haven’t inherited his practical skills, but my innate curiosity about how things work is all his doing (which is why I’m quite good at fixing computers). And that curiosity is a real gift: it taught me you’ll never ever be bored if you can recognise the artistry and complexity of the world all around you.

So, thank you, James May; but thanks more to my Dad.:-)

Thanks, Bliss!

A little bit more fame for the Carters today as the story of Millie’s birth (13 weeks premature) can now be read on the Bliss website.

Millie001It’s under my name because they wanted a Dad’s story to try and attract other dads to volunteer on the Bliss helpline, as I do.

But let’s not mention the award I won last year for “going above and beyond” – I don’t like to talk about that and all the help I’ve given to other parents and families. Let’s just put that to one side for the moment, this isn’t about all my great work for charidee.😛

Bliss - for babies born too soon, too small, too sickSeriously, however, if you think you could help and comfort anyone with a baby born too soon then visit the Bliss website for more details on volunteering. Any time or help you can offer is gratefully received, and the commitment is only what you can handle.

 

Saturdays

Saturdays when I was a lad mostly seemed to involve either hanging around leisure centres while my parents played netball and football, or staying round my Nan’s house while my parents played netball or football.

We were three brothers and it was just how Saturdays were. We explored and played and ran about the leisure centres of Swindon, running onto the pitch during half time and trying to cadge 8p for a cup of hot chocolate from the vending machine.

At my Nan’s we’d have a bonfire, teach Nan how to play computer games on our ZX Spectrum, explore the railway sidings at the bottom of her garden and help her check the football pools when the results came in (an important job since we were all going to Disneyland if she won).

Saturdays for our girls are quite different.

The Lovely Melanie and I aren’t interested in either playing or watching sport; we don’t live in Swindon; grandparents are quite a distance away, and no modern parents would let their children have an unsupervised bonfire!

Yesterday I found myself marvelling just how different the girls’ Saturdays are to my memories, after we caught the train into the centre (of London) and had a great time at the Royal Society, for their annual open day.

Crazy shades at the Royal Society
At the Royal Society

There were demonstrations, robots, talks on how science gives us “superpowers”, stunning holograms, mind-blowing augmented reality, a display of (justifiably!) award-winning photographs, lots of hands-on science displays, and all presented by really smart and nice people.

We expected it to be fun, hoped it might be inspirational – and weren’t disappointed. It was great seeing the girls getting stuck into all the displays and chatting with the people running them. I got talking to those running the robotics and hologram displays, too – it’s nice to let your inner nerd out to play and get really in-depth and interesting answers to any questions you have.

Particularly well done to the lady giving the “superpowers” talk for keeping all ages attentive, but also for showing plenty of women talking about their careers in science and engineering. Millie and Amber probably didn’t notice the gender balance, but I did.:-)

We stayed right to the very end (as did lots of other people) and then went to Chinatown, as promised, for Chinese food, which we all love. The girls loved the food and the place – especially the giant fluffy dragons by the door.

That’s where I looked around at my family, in a “proper” Chinese restaurant, eating Chinese food with chopsticks, and realised we would never have done this when I was growing up.

Not better, just different.:-)