“Dave? This is my new wife, Mandy: isn’t she a cracker?”
I look up from the table. I haven’t seen Nick in about twelve years and, despite the fact that I’m expecting to have a coffee with him, I’m a bit surprised when he shoves a pretty young woman in front of him before he’s even said ‘hello’. She looks equally embarrassed, and I manage a weak smile.
My entire history with the man consists of three occasions, two based around the fact that I joined and left his gaming group in the space of a fortnight during 2002 and one when we spent an entire weekend playing games on an old commodore 64.
“Seriously, Dave: tell me she’s not one of the best looking girls you’ve ever seen….”
In actual fact, she isn’t…..but I’m not at all comfortable with talking about the young lady as if she’s a piece of meat in a butcher’s window, so I stand up, reach out to shake her hand and offer a brief introduction. She smiles, but there’s a quick and slightly strange exchange with Nick which results in her turning around and departing Costa Canterbury, practically at a run.
“She’s off shopping,” Nick says with a grin. “Mandy loves to shop.”
“That’s nice. It’s good to see you, Nick. How have you been?”
“Yeah, yeah: terrific, since I met Mandy. The sex-“
“Great.” I nod, and point at the board. “What are you having?”
“Let’s let the fates decide, shall we?”
This is the moment I’ve been waiting for, because I’ve heard a lot of stories based around what he’s about to do.
Nick smiles again, thrusts his hand into his trouser pocket and pulls out a pair of six-sided dice. Then he begins to methodically count the board options before rolling both dice on the table.
I immediately look at my shoes, because – even though I know some real nut jobs – this is quite uncomfortable.
“Eleven,” he mutters, looking at the board. “Hmm….mango and passionfruit cooler. Damn, I hate those. Never mind.”
I sit down as he goes up to the counter, orders the drink he doesn’t like and comes to sit down at the table.
I fold my arms and lean back. “So you’re still using the dice-“
“Yes, mate. Every time.”
“Even for the big stuff?”
“Totally. I quit my job on an eight, last month….and I even cancelled a holiday when a four came up midway through check-in. Lost over a grand. Still, the dice came up on a job in Winchester, so I took that: I’m in sales, now!”
“You know me, mate: let the fates decide.”
I’m quite certain that Nick was once a normal bloke, for a geek-ridden value of normal. It wasn’t entirely the fault of Dungeons & Dragons that he went a tad off the Yellow Brick Road: he was also obsessed with mathematics at one point. Somehow, the two interests combined to give him the impression that a series of curious and unusual gods were directing his path via the dice.
“I even got Mandy from the fates.”
I pause, my own mocha halfway to my lips. “You’re not serious-“
“Absolutely. First half of the book, one to three. Second half of the book, four to six. Then narrowed it down from two rolls to page five. There were fifteen profiles, so I had to break them down into grids at first….but she came up on the second roll. I didn’t even need to look at any of the other girls. I just knew.”
My mind is in a state of frozen desolation: I just can’t quite believe what I’m hearing.
“You didn’t, like, check for shared interests or anything?”
“Yes! You know, like a love of animals, smoker or non-smoker, social drinker? You know, religious beliefs or political opinions? Life goals? The big stuff!”
“Oh, no way – she came up on a double six, mate: you don’t mess around with this stuff.”
I glance over Nick’s shoulder to see that Mandy is now outside on the street, chatting very enthusiastically with a tall and rather good looking guy who has stopped in the thin flow of Canterbury shoppers to ask her some questions he has on a clipboard. She is playing with her hair, laughing, touching his arm and giggling.
Nick catches my expression and looks over his shoulder.
“Oh yes,” he says, with a shrug. “We’ve had our problems. She’s well friendly, mate: well friendly. I’ll tell you something: my mum’s house has never been so busy. We’re practically partying every night.”
I make some small talk with Nick for the rest of the time we’re having coffee. Then I give him a hug: a really, really big hug.
I also give Mandy a hug when I pass her on the street halfway between Costa and the Cathedral. It lasts even longer than the hug I gave Nick, and I spend a lot of the time trying to wriggle free.
You can’t make this stuff up….
So, when I’m not running around after my kids, packing orders for Hoobynoo World, writing books or falling down stairs at publishing parties, you will occasionally find me propping up the benches at my local lodge. I love being a Freemason, partly because the friendship and camaraderie between the brothers is such a powerful thing but mostly because the society is absolutely nothing like people imagine (though I often feel like putting on a dark cloak when I leave the building…just to keep people guessing).
On Saturday night, I had the honour of being presented with a Grand Lodge Certificate to mark my raising to the rank of a Master Mason back in May. It’s been an incredible journey, and one I’ve talked about at length in a previous blog. The United Grand Lodge of England kindly retweeted the article, and I got lots of enquiries from folks who had always been interested in becoming masons but had never really known where to start.
There’s a good reason for this, and it’s nothing like the ones presented in Terry Pratchett’s brilliant masonic satire sections in Guards! Guards!
People in some quarters still view freemasonry as isolated and elitist, but that really couldn’t be further from the truth. If you think about it, being proposed and recommended by a member is the same as inviting someone new into your house on the word of a friend: it’s the assurance that the person you’re bringing in is reliable and trustworthy. You wouldn’t let a complete stranger walk into your house, make himself comfortable and share lots of important information and knowledge with him. More importantly, you would never knowingly take someone with no manners or a serious attitude problem to the house of people you really liked and got on well with.
“Frank? It’s Jim. You know you asked me and Jenny round to your place, tonight? Is it still on? Great: in that case, I wonder if we could possibly bring Barry. You don’t know him, but I thought you wouldn’t mind him tagging along. Oh, he can be a bit light-fingered and you’ll probably have to check his pockets before he leaves, but – seriously – don’t worry. Oh, and definitely don’t challenge him: he’s just coming off an assault charge.”
It wouldn’t happen….but you can probably see that I’m simply underlining the point.
Friend of a friend, recommended by friends. This is actually quite a sensible and hugely effective entry system that often puts off people who have only a passing interest in Freemasonry….but it never deters the folks who really want to join. Those people – the ones with no available connections – will often write letters, send emails, visit lodges and try to make the acquaintance of people they know to be masons. I’m sure there are folks out there who would view this behaviour as irritating or directed entirely by an agenda, but it’s actually very worthy and commendable: not everyone can chance upon meeting the right people at the right time. You have to make your own luck, and going to extraordinary lengths is something only the serious folks tend to do.
Freemasonry, on the whole, seems to attract genuinely decent people who want to help each other and regularly go out of their way to do so: the word ‘brotherhood’ is used in a very genuine sense. Sadly, these days people who help each other are often viewed with suspicion, even by people who should know better. I got really upset with reaction just the other day when the following situation unfolded: I saw an old lady stumble on the other side of a busy road, and I was about to cross to try to help when a teenager came speeding up to her on a bike. Convinced that the boy was going to make a grab for the bag, I sped up and bolted across the road, getting to the pair of them just as he was dumping his bike and trying to lift her on his own. I felt really bad for jumping to the wrong conclusion, but life does that to you. Life makes you that way: surprised by any good intentions and immediately suspicious of them. Shame on me: he was a good kid.
Freemasonry is all about helping people, and trying to improve lives.
I should note that I’m employing he/him in all the above instances, but there are also women’s lodges operating in the UK. These are similar to the brotherhood in almost every respect, and certainly share the same values: they have a lively and active membership that continues to grow year on year. Our own hall has a thriving lodge of lady masons who meet on different nights to their male counterparts.
Take it from me: Freemasonry is a wonderful path to take. It’s humbling, spiritual and very, very rewarding. Never be afraid to ask a friend who you know to be a mason: there’s no hush hush involved. As I was informed on my way through the door of the lodge, Freemasonry is not a secret society: it is a society with secrets….and, you know what? They’re worth earning.
Right now, we’re not the most popular family on the close: with good reason.
Last night, I went to a party at The Groucho Club in Soho for the launch of The Sophie Hicks Agency (Sophie has been my friend and agent for fifteen years), an epic event that will occupy a blog post all on its own in a few days’ time. However, before I stray off the point….
My father-in-law picked me up from London at around 8.40pm and I got in just before 11pm. I was really tired, not nearly as drunk as I wanted to be – as I was trying to be responsible after my disastrous activity at the end of the last publishing party – and feeling a bit dizzy after failing to fall asleep on the drive home.
I let our dog into the garden at 11.30pm, naturally assuming that my wife would let him back in: I shouldn’t leave it to her to do this, but I regularly do and I generally make no note of it on the way to bed. I don’t need to: Jakey always scratches at the door and one of us ALWAYS races to let him in before he wakes up the children in the bedrooms above (2 and 5, respectively). There’s absolutely no chance of us leaving him in the garden for more than a few minutes, so we don’t overly stress about this event.
Last night, however, we forgot to let him back in.
The children didn’t wake up when he barked, and we were both oblivious to the mistake thanks to a brand new industrial strength fan that was rotating in our bedroom and blocking out any noise from the garden.
To our absolute horror, my wife got up this morning to find Jake outside barking at the back door.
Our mistake recognised, we quickly brought him in and tried to make sure he was okay. He seemed to be fine, so we gave him some food and started to talk about whether or not he was likely to have made a lot of noise in the night. As neither of children woke up, we naturally assumed he had either hunkered down beside the shed or simply slept on the astroturf under the stars.
In fact, he’d been barking all night.
After this morning’s school run, an extremely friendly neighbour informed us – very delicately – that half the close had been kept awake by the incessant noise from our poor, abandoned mongrel.
As it stands, my wife is currently typing a letter to post through doors all around the close, and I’m hiding underneath a table until one of the other neighbours causes enough trouble to blot out our terrible mistake. Until then, we’re going to have to keep a low profile.
The above photograph was taken at the 30th anniversary of Ed Victor Ltd, my agents. It features myself, my wife and Anne McNeil, Publishing Chief at Hodder. It was a really great party, everybody was very relaxed and we got to enjoy beautiful surroundings with the likes of Nigella Lawson, Jerry Hall, Fredrik Forsyth and the late Sir David Frost, among others.
I was on my very best behaviour, and my wife was right beside me to make sure I didn’t reach for something I occasionally refer to as The Drink of No Return.
Now fast forward eight years, and we get to Wednesday night. The occasion? Hachette’s Late Summer party. The venue? Dartmouth House in Mayfair. The guests? Some of the greatest children’s authors in the world, including but not limited to Robert Muchamore, Jenny Oldfield, Chris Higgins, David Melling, Mick Inkpen (creator of Wibbly Pig) and Cressida Cowell, author of How To Train Your Dragon.
The speech, given by Hachette MD Marlene Johnson, is an impassioned one on the subject of children reading and how vital it is for parents to champion this skill by remembering to always put aside time to read to their little ones.
All in all, it’s a cracking party and I’m meeting some incredible people.
Then it happens.
At around 8.45pm, my agent still hasn’t arrived….so, at the point where I would usually concede that I’ve probably had enough to drink and begin to say my goodbyes, I am hovering by the exit. A waiter comes sidling up to me and offers me a refill on my wine glass.
This is a test.
I know I shouldn’t have another glass. I’m at the Drink of No Return, and I really need to switch to non-alcoholic if I’m going to be in any decent state to have an actual conversation with my agent. Besides, when I drink, I turn into a bit of an idiot: I’m not violent or anti sociable as a drunk, but I am endlessly aggressive, domineering and almost impossible to shut up without actually being knocked out.
I look at the wine bottle.
I look at the waiter.
I hold out the glass.
The rest of the evening passes in a blur. I definitely hugged a lot of people, I definitely smashed a glass and I definitely told someone (incorrectly) that their dress was on back to front. I also tried to leap – actually leap – over a railing just down the road from the building. I must have made it, because I’m writing this, but I don’t remember actually landing on my feet.
At two o’clock in the morning, I was being sick into a toilet somewhere in the heart of Mayfair.
At four o’clock, I woke up on the floor of my rented apartment. The room was spinning, and there was a dark and shadowy figure standing in the corner with a chain. Fortunately, this turned out to be an old coat left on a stand by a previous guest…but I still challenged it to a fight before I fell asleep again.
At six o’clock, I tried desperately to crawl across the lounge floor to get to a glass of water. I could see the water, but I didn’t have the strength to reach it. I got halfway to the glass, then rolled over and fell asleep while stretched out like a snow angel.
At nine o’clock, a second sick attack saw me too ill to get onto the train at Victoria: I had to wait for the next one. I did buy a giant bottle of water, but every sip was a huge effort. In a moment of risky insanity, I chanced a bacon and egg mcmuffin and a coffee from McDonald’s. I do this because I’ve just looked on google and found a hangover page that suggested an enzyme in egg yolks break down alcohol molecules at a faster rate. At this point, I don’t care if it’s true: I’m willing to try anything.
I arrived home just after lunchtime on Thursday, and my wife had little sympathy. Quite rightly, she demanded that I immediately set to work on the day’s post pile….but I just felt so ill. I still manage to look after the kids in the afternoon, do my hour on the cross-trainer, nail all my floor exercise and run my weekly gaming night with the guys…
…but the memory looms large in my head.
I am due at another party tomorrow night, this time at the Groucho Club in Soho for the launch of my agent’s new business.
I’m not drinking.
I mean it.
Not a drop.
“Stay AWAY from my wife.”
I’m not actually chasing anyone’s wife, but because I spend so much time on my own and regularly believe that I’m the centre of the universe, I immediately assume the shout is directed at me.
I’m at Westwood Cross again, but this time I’m right outside WHSmith and I’ve just parked my car in the child/parent space they reserve for people who either have a child or no conscience (as both sorts seem to pull up there).
The dude in question looks like a bulldog licking mustard off a nettle. He’s all Grant Mitchell: he has a head like a cue ball possibly laced with troll blood and a few drops of acid. He’s the sort of guy you occasionally see running down Ramsgate High Street screaming ‘Come back ‘ere, you sl*g!’ I’d like to apologise to the people of Ramsgate for that last comment, but as one of the people of Ramsgate myself I can say with no hesitation that I’ve seen this happen at least three times.
“Stay AWAY from my wife.”
I’m in no danger, because he’s already walking past my car….but now that horrible part of my personality kicks in and I really want to know who may or may not be diddling his lady. I unpack my daughter from the car, but extremely slowly….so I can watch the show. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to see anyone get hurt (I’m not Jeremy Kyle) but I do like a bit of street theatre before paying over the odds for a mocha and a pulled-pork wrap.
Cue Ball is on a mission, and now he’s hulked his way up to a hairy guy who is least the same size – possibly bigger – and only a battered Ford Focus stands between the two of them and proper old school dust up.
“I’ve not been near her!” comes the shout back, but Hairy is now stepping around his car towards Cue Ball. He’s obviously no stranger to a punch in the face, because it actually looks like he’s just come from a bar brawl in order to have breakfast before round two.
“Ted saw the two of you down the club, so don’t stack it up with me.”
Now their chin to chin and I’m absolutely certain someone is going to get hit. Even the security by Boots are on the move. This is Westwood Cross: they don’t mess about.
“She was in the club with Rhonda and Nev, mate. You’re BANG out of order.”
The ‘Bang’ comes with a shove, but now suddenly Cue Ball doesn’t seem as keen to make an issue of it.
“I’ll smash yer face in for you.”
“Get yer facts straight, Bruv.”
“You leave it.”
Now Cue Ball steps right up and takes off his jacket. Then he just balls it up, shoves it under his arm and says:
“I’m warnin’ ya: Stay AWAY from her.”
“I heard ya.”
“Sick of it, mate.”
“Phone her up: get your facts straight. Better off: phone Nev.”
“I will phone Nev, mate. I’ll phone him right now.”
“You do that, mate.”
Cue Ball turns and strides back to his car, an equally wrecked estate that’s about six bays up from mine (I’m still sorting out Evie’s pushchair, which I suddenly can’t quite operate). Hairy watches him go, shakes his head and then gets in his car and drives away.
Cue Ball puts the jacket inside his own car and then heads into Westwood Cross. He’s on the phone, presumably checking out Hairy’s story…but I’m not really paying much attention to Cue Ball anymore.
No, I’m watching a third person…….the scrawny youth outside WHSmith having a drink at one of the Coffee Corner tables with his mate: a guy I’ve come to think of as ‘Smeagol’. He’s been watching the whole thing, but unlike me he’s made no effort to disguise it. He’s grinning like a cat covered in treacle, eagerly sipping his drink and watching the whole thing with absolute glee.
I’ve made mistakes about people before, but for some reason – despite the fact that I was ogling the spectacle myself – I really, really don’t like this guy. I’m still sorting out Evie’s changing bag when he suddenly whispers something to the odious little weasel sitting next to him, gets a piece of paper from his backpack, scribbles something on it and goes running in the direction of Cue Ball’s car.
I watch with something approaching astonishment as he folds up the paper and sticks it under the windscreen wiper on the wrecked estate before hurrying back to his mate.
I’m so shocked by this that I want to say something, but within seconds the pair of them are rushing away in the direction of Primark.
…and that brings me to where I am: a turning point where I can get involved and try to put the situation right or I can just go shopping.
It’s a no-brainer for me.
The note under the windscreen reads: “Forget your wife. She’s MINE now.”
I’m just understanding the full horror of how messed up this kid is when a voice behind me says: “Oi, ginger: why you tryin’a pull off my windscreen wipers?”
That’s when everything got really complicated.
This is my little smurf with her Angry Bird backpack all ready for her first full day at nursery. It’s a sad day for me, because I’ve spent an awful lot of time with her and because my full-time daddy daycare duties are now officially at an end. This means no more baby groups, no more little trips to Costa for a Babyccino and no more singing Frozen songs in the car on the way to shopping trips that involved lots of putting things back that Evie snatched from the shelves when I wasn’t looking.
This morning was okay, I guess: I got in an hour of exercise, I packed a mountain of orders for Hoobynoo World and I even did some writing….
…but it wasn’t the same.
At 12pm, I practically raced to the nursery to pick up my smurf. Then we went shopping, sang Frozen songs in the car, hit Costa for a Babyccino and even got in a spot of Peppa Pig dominoes.
In short, we did everything we usually do…but a bit later on in the day.
I’m really very lucky to work from home. Sure, I have to do a lot of running around, a mountain of post processing and, sure, I occasionally need to write a book…..but, overall, I can’t legitimately complain.
I do miss Evie in the morning, though.
It really drags without the constant clattering of bowls, the maniacal laughter and the sudden crash that comes from a stack of DVDs being hit with a miniature bowling ball.
The house is a bit more tidy, mind.