Sunday, 30 November 2014

Number 42 update

First, here's what October Jones does...

Brilliant, simple idea. What could be tricky about that? Before trying it out on a plane, I'd master the art on a train journey.

I climbed onto the long-delayed train heading in the wrong direction, and unpacked my camera and my new post-its and sharpie. I'd expected to be in a reserved seat on the crowded London train, using the crowds to be disguise what I was doing. But a theft of copper cables from Slough a week before meant that didn't exist, so I was sitting on the Birmingham train in an empty carriage. At Bicester Shopping Village, a handful of people got on, mostly sitting behind my left shoulder, but right in my eyeline was a massive African man with smart suit, bags and bags of designer shoes, and the largest head I'd ever seen, as wide as his shoulders and coming straight out of them. He was my man, and he was going to have Father Christmas's head. He obliged by immediately nodding off to sleep. This was too easy.
I carefully took out the post-its, angled them to fit his body, and drew a quick Santa as discretely as I could. As I finished, I had a stupid paranoid feeling that people were watching me. Although I knew this was ridiculous, I looked around. Five people were looking at me, some sniggering and some just sneering. 
Ha ha, I smiled. Just drawing Father Christmas on a post-it. Not trying to superimpose it on anyone's body or anything, oh no. 
I waited ten minutes until everyone had forgotten, and subtly got out my camera. I used the camera's viewing screen as a rear-view mirror. It was OK – everyone was looking out of the window. I switched on the camera and disabled the flash. Millimetre by millimetre, I edged my Santa picture into the middle of the table, and sank low into my seat to line up the photo. It was hard to line up. I went lower, and lifted the post-it slightly. Still no good. I slid down as far as I could – that was it, more or less, except the picture was much bigger than the man. I stretched out my arm as far as it would go, and pressed my head back into the seat. Now it was lined up, but the post-it was in focus, and the man wasn't. I focused on the man instead, and the post-it went blurred. Hmm, not great, but worth a test shot. I squeezed the shutter. The light flickered for a few seconds, then lit up the carriage with a bright flash. There was giggling and tutting behind me. I felt myself reddening, and struggled up off the floor and back onto my seat. I glanced backwards – six people now sneering at me. I spun back round, tutting myself now as if my camera had gone off independently. The large African man was scowling at me, as you would if a tosser with a post-it had woken you by taking a flash photo of you uninvited. 
I switched off my camera, and gave in to the shame, wishing I was skilled, cool and subtle like October Jones, or, better still, just somewhere else. I didn't take the post-its on the plane.

Number 45

I wasn't sure what to expect when I stepped into the community hall. According to the website, the church wishes 'only to provide evidence of life after death'. Blimey. Would it be more like a religious service or a séance?
There were about forty people sitting in rows, facing a table at the front with two women sitting behind it. Everyone seemed to be smiling, and there was a buzz of chat. On the table was a homemade 'Spiritualist Church' sign next to a cross and a hymn board. I knew I had to leave early, and was hoping for a seat by the exit, but the only free chair was right at the front. The woman next to me was friendly. 'We turn off the lights and talk to the dead, you know,' she said. She was laughing, which suggested church service. A silence fell, and the older woman at the front, after a few welcoming words, invited everyone to stand and say the Lord's prayer. I stood up and kept quiet, feeling awkward and intrusive. We sat down and someone passed me a folder full of typed sheets – a homemade hymn book.
The first 'hymn' was Wonderful World, which isn't a hymn, but is a good song. I stood up and opened my hymn book, but couldn't bring myself to sing, possibly because I felt I should stick to my observer role, possibly because my Louis Armstrong voice would be bound to slip out and give me a coughing fit.
We sat down, and one of the congregation was invited to step to the front and read the 'Age shall not weary them...' verse as Remembrance Day was coming up. Next hymn: I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing. This was already getting a bit muddled. After this, the visiting medium was asked to say some inspiring words. She was a primary teacher, it turned out, and she talked about her class's reaction to learning about Ann Frank, and particularly about the people who helped the Frank family. At first the theme was courage, but then God and Angels became involved, and I lost the thread. But it was very soon time for the final hymn: Bring me Sunshine - a fine song to accompany the strange combination of images in my head. 
We settled down, and the visiting medium was reintroduced. Without explanation of what she'd do – everyone seemed to know, she said, 'I'd like to speak to the lady in the second row with the pink cardigan'. The 50-something lady nodded excitedly. 'I'm here with an older gentleman – he's very neatly dressed,' said the medium. The cardigan lady nodded excitedly. 'That's my father!' she said, instantly recognizing him from his unique feature. 'He's a nice man.'
'Yes – that's definitely him!'
The medium thought this was too easy. She proceeded to stage 1b: 'He says things were difficult for him at the end of his life'. Nods 'He says you were really good to him.' More nodding, and what looked like a tear. 'But his life before that was a bit easier,' she said. This was amazing. It was at this point I noticed she was doing strange things with her hands before she spoke, writing in the air with a far-off gaze, or frantically tapping the side of her head, as if she her body and mind were temporarily taken over as she received these messages. Surely people weren't believing this! I looked around - they were. Maybe it was me who was crazy. 'I could be stubborn, though!' she said, switching to the first person. 'And he could get cross if anyone said anything bad about his family,' she added, switching back to the third person, as if she'd gone too far. What were we supposed to be picturing. Was the neat gentleman standing next to her, or had he taken her over. Why was he talking in short, vague, sentences? And what was he making her write in the air? It was too mysterious for me to comprehend, especially when the spirit went on to reveal that he'd had a nice life, and that the lady in pink would have an opportunity coming her way in the next year, which she should take, because it would be a bit of fun. The spirit had clearly read the Daily Mail horoscope when he was on earth.
            The medium moved onto another, oldish, woman. This time it was a cantankerous old lady who actually had a heart of gold who was speaking to her. She was well below average height. The woman in the congregation shook her head. 'No, I can't place her.' The medium momentarily looked annoyed. 'She could be difficult!' she snapped. 'I'm well below average height ... no more than five foot!' The woman in the audience was clearly failing to place her. 'No,' she said, 'It's no one I know.' This was too much for the medium, who clearly didn't suffer fools. 'Does anyone know this lady?' she frowned. 'She's NOT VERY TALL!' There was no response, and the medium rolled her eyes. Forty people in the audience, and not one of the dopy feckers recognizes this basic stereotype. A few deep breaths and she recovered her composure and chose another receiver. The woman – it was almost all women in there apart from a couple of old men, me, and a teenage boy in there with his granny – took the bait, as did the next two, nodding, smiling and even shedding a few tears as the medium typed and tapped, barely keeping up with her inbox.
An hour had passed, and it had long since become tedious. The 39 people whose dead relatives weren't being channeled all carried on smiling benignly, receiving some kind of comfort. I waited till the medium changed receiver, and headed for the door. I caught her reading my mind as I left. My mind was saying that although she was tricking these people, they were there voluntarily and seemed to be comforted. Pretty much the same deal as in any church, but with a bit of homemade charm. I felt a twinge of guilt for intruding.

Number 44

I'd never heard of World Toilet Day, but having read about it, I'm all in favour.
I want to make people's stay in my toilet a pleasant one.
I arrive early at work so I can do my business undisturbed, and identify the cubicle - anyone serious about relaxing would have to choose the end cabin furthest away from the urinals. flat surfaces for flower pots - a basic design fault. I'll have to balance the chrysanthemums on the paper dispenser. I can already see this ending in court.
Then the in-flight entertainment: In one corner, a selection of 'humorous quotations' printed off from google; in the other, a handful of 'photos taken at exactly the right moment' from the same place. In the centre, the official World Toilet Day poster. Hanging from the handle on long pieces of string, Private Eye for the highbrow, and National Enquirer, which I suspect everyone will choose. Enough there even for the long-haul customer...
I keep my ear out for people's comments during the day, but no one mentions toilets in my earshot. Before leaving for home, I pop in to check the poster hadn't fallen down and there's no one lying on the floor beside a shattered chrysanthemum pot. Everything is calm. Only the decorated cubicle is occupied. From inside, I can hear the sound of someone turning the pages of a magazine. That makes me happy, that someone is enjoying a few minutes of relaxation, flowery smells and sensational news at the end of his working day.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Number 41

This happened quickly. Claire had pre-warned our good friend and neighbour, Sam Taplin, that I had this challenge. I went round to his house to ask him if he wanted to go to Laughter Yoga (challenge 24 - he was too tired) and to set up a time for the magic lesson. 'Let's do it now' he said, pulling a pack of cards from out of his ear, and we were off.
'I got robbed by a gang in New York at the weekend,' he said as he shuffled the cards. I chuckled. I liked the patter that went with his tricks. 'They took money out of my account in different places around the city. I lost £500'. I nodded enthusiastically, wondering how the trick would end - probably the 'gang' would be the four kings, that would soon appear stuck to the outside of the window along with 50 ten-pound notes. 'They must have got my bank card number' he said. 'Ha, yes' I said, winking. He looked perplexed. 'No, I actually did get robbed at the weekend'. 'Oh ... you actually ... erm, I'm really sorry...'. So that was the first trick: I'd made myself look like an arse. I listened sympathetically as Sam told me about the nasty incident, then he turned his attention to the trick.
I'd been mindblown by Sam's tricks several times - my only experience of close-up magic. He'd joined the Magic Circle in his early years in Huddersfield, and had honed his skills with Paul Daniels, before shooting off up his own branch of trickery. Surprisingly, I'd actually astonished him, even though I can't do any tricks. One late night in the pub, after Sam had, as I remember it, made the ace of clubs appear inside the barman's eye, I'd taken the cards and improvised a trick, going for the 52-to-1 shot as I picked a random card after various cuttings, clumsy shufflings, and even a flinging, and said 'Is this your card?'. It was, and for a second he was speechless. If only I'd managed to remain cool and say, 'I might teach you that one some day'. Instead I started jumping up and down on the spot, squawking, 'Jesus, what were the chances!' until I was alone in the pub.

So I asked Sam to think of his very simplest trick, halve it, then adapt it as if he were teaching it to a chimpanzee. After a few seconds' thought, he showed me a trick which seemed to involve both reading my thoughts and manipulating cards using telekinesis. If he'd levitated and turned his head 360 degrees I wouldn't have been more amazed.
Then he showed me how to do it. It really was ridiculously simple. It mainly relied on distracting me at a vital moment, which turned out to be slightly easier than distracting a dog with a sausage.
'Is it really that simple?' I asked. I felt pretty stupid for not seeing how it was done. 'But you must think I - and anyone else who can't see the trick - is stupid.' The split-second pause before he said 'No, of course not!' answered my question. 'Now do the trick on me', he said, distracting me easily again.
I tried, dropping the cards clumsily several times (non-opposable thumbs) before triumphantly turning over a card. 'And that,' I said smugly, 'is your card', It wasn't. Bollocks. A few more tries and I could do it, as long as I didn't talk, and he didn't look at me or breathe.
I thanked him and shot home to try it out on Lola before I forgot it. My patter was slick. 'Do what I tell you. Don't talk or breathe.' Six attempts later, just before I ran out of swearwords, I got the right card. 'What do you think of that?' I said. Lola put a thumb up, her face blue. 'You can breathe now.' 'Amazing', she gasped.