Joker in the Pack Michael  Fitzalan


Some Simple Shopping and Traffic Blocking

Before leaving the office the way that I came in, through the Portakabin, I promised profusely to be at the bar on time. It took all my acting ability to pretend to be enthusiastic about our meeting later on in the day. My good mood had evaporated quicker than dew in the desert. 

Inside, as I plodded through the town, I was crying. My shallow breathing told me I was dying. I no longer wanted to breathe, let alone swim, after the discovery that Freddie was going to marry my new girlfriend, Adel. I did not stand a chance; she liked her cars fast, her champagne chilled and her boyfriends as rich as a Croesus. 

By the time I had reached the hotel, I had decided to make the most of the afternoon. There was a warm breeze coming off the land; I knew the water would be ice cold but at least I would not freeze once I got out of the water and if I had to share Adel with feckless Freddie, then it was better than not seeing her at all. I had to see her one more time so I could convince my heart that it should not break over her. 

In my room I folded and packed my work suit in a special suit bag; from my gorse yellow Millican Smith waterproof roll pack, I took out a pair of white tennis shorts, a Britannia blue polo shirt, a pair of navy tennis shoes and a change of underwear. 

I always packed these extra items; you never knew when you might have to play a game of tennis or round of golf to cement an important deal. 

Luckily, Lawless did not play sport; he was a sailor who enjoyed Pilates and hot yoga or working out under the auspices of a personal trainer. 

My work shirt and the underwear I had worn for the meeting went into a beige linen laundry bag that I had hung on the bathroom peg and I showered for the second time that day. 

I washed away the tension of the security shield around Lawless, the elation of being in love with Adel, the stress of meeting with the richest and most dangerous man in Europe and I scrubbed away the disappointment of unrequited love. The shower was cold.

Packing up and dressing in the clothes I had laid out on my bed, I checked out before midday, paid for a locker to keep my suitcase in, made sure I had my mobile in one pocket of my shorts and my wallet in the other. I had spotted the shop on the way up. I could hardly miss it; the double sliding doors were open, and a security guard was holding an old lady’s arm behind her back with one hand while pulling a pair of white sports socks from her raincoat with the other. 

I suppose he was suspicious of a woman wearing a raincoat in a heat wave.

She could have been anyone’s granny. It had not improved my mood; I was suffering from the ennui of a jilted lover – I had forgotten to wash that incident from my mind. I suppose that I must have been so depressed about Adel that I was numb to the pain of others. 

Distractedly, I walked in. The security guard was still there; the granny had gone. Every single person in the shop, including the person on the till and the security guard, looked like a villain. It would have been comical if I was in a better mood; everyone shuffled along the aisles, looked around, met someone else’s eyes, then moved along another few feet and repeated the process. Six people performed the pantomime: click clack went the hangars on the rail, as items were examined, head bowed, then the heads rose in unison, followed by a quick look around like a startled meerkat spotting a mongoose and looking for an escape route. Immediately, they bowed again, shifted along the row like swans drifting down a river; then, the click clack was repeated. 

Another security man stood at a screen built into a podium and watched an array of screens that tracked the people in the aisle. He was too busy scanning the screens to notice me swanning in. 

I went straight up to the cashier’s desk.

I like the personal touch; internet shopping is great for suits and shoes. I’m 34 waist, 34 inside leg, 42-inch chest, so a 42-long suit off the peg fits me like a glove. I wear size twelve shoes and my shirt collar is sixteen and a half. I can get everything I need delivered to my door within twenty-four hours if I have the money for it. Cycle couriers can make a fortune delivering clothes.  The Joker

When it comes to swimming trunks, I had to try them on; I bought a pair of speedos once and it looked like I was smuggling a pigeon in my swimming briefs – not a good look. I bought a pair of swimming shorts next and the waist came up to my nipples and the hem at the bottom reached my knees. 

‘Hi there,’ I breathed, all cool and confident, sounding like an experienced shopper who buys something new every week. ‘I’m new in town.’ The Joke


‘I know, otherwise I would have seen you in here before, wouldn’t I?’ said the ‘Surly Sue’ behind the counter. 

She wore black jeans and a black T-shirt, but the shop had made her put on a pale pink pinafore. Then, she left it undone so her own clothes could be seen from the side. She was about my age; I might have flirted with her if I was not feeling so morose. Besides, she was giving me a look to match her clothes, dark and cool, which did not help. 

We were both low; I did not have the strength to bring us both back to normal with a bit of banter and a few jokes, but I never give up.

‘Why are pirates called pirates?’ I ventured. The Joker

‘Because they argh!’ she spat, looking at me like I was the lamest of lame dogs and she wanted me put out of my misery.

‘Where are the swimming trunks, please?’ I asked not disguising my defeat. I felt like a helium balloon that had lost half its gas. 

‘See the sign that says swimwear, over your shoulder?’ The Joker

‘Yes.’ The Joker

‘Well, Einstein; what do you reckon you might find there, a ball gown?’ she asked incredulously. Her attitude and response did not deserve a reply; besides I could not think of a comeback quickly enough. 

Wandering off, I decided I hated all women. The Joker

Normally, I would not countenance such rudeness and would have responded in kind but the new broken-hearted me would take any shoddy treatment from anyone. 

The security guard looked up from the screen as I passed wondering how I was going to shoplift, dressed in what I was wearing. There was nowhere I could stash the items unless I slipped a pair of socks into my trousers. Click clack like a train on a track, I decided I would not look back. 

Selecting a fetching pair of swim shorts made from navy sailcloth and lined with natural canvas, I looked at the price tag. I hated the fact that I could buy a pair of trousers for a fifth of the price, a pair of shorts for a third of the price. 

Supply and demand had pushed up prices for items in demand and depressed prices for those everyday items no one needed or wanted. I took the most expensive item of clothing that I had ever bought in my life to the counter where the ‘Surly Sue’ sat and stared at me.  The Joker

‘Is that all?’ she asked.

‘Are you kidding; I’ve never bought such an expensive item; the price is exorbitant. It might as well have a gold-plated gusset,’ I complained. The Joker

‘Gusset? You mean crotch, you Wally!’ she guffawed, her face creased up into a sweet smile, she was quite pretty when she smiled.  The JokerThe Joker

‘I used to work in fashion, we used to always say gusset; besides I bet you don’t know what a Wally is you great sissy.’

‘Yes, I do!’The Joker


‘Not really.’ The Joker

‘Wally is a pickled cucumber, a gherkin. People in the East End of London used to order salt beef sandwiches with a Wally on the side. Take a bite of beef sandwich, take a bite of gherkin and you have an explosion of taste in your mouth.’

‘You’re a bit of a blooming know-it-all, aren’t you?’ The Joker

‘If you say so,’ I protested, feeling crushed, again. 

I was not warming to the female sex that day, after all.

‘Aren’t you the one who Adel rang me about, the one who’s going to put his swimsuit on Mr. Lawless’s account?’

‘I pay my own bills, thank you,’ I huffed, ‘and make up my own jokes, too.’   

I fully expected her to say how awful they were but instead she offered to tell me a joke. Did everyone in this town use push–pull psychology to win friends, play unfriendly and cold; play warm and friendly, switching from one to another like the wink of a lighthouse beam? The Joker

‘Bet you haven’t heard the one about the baby balloon?’ she bragged, spitting out the last two words with venom. 

‘No, but I’m not sure I want to,’ I assured her. 

‘Well baby balloon is used to sleeping with his mum and dad – some people do that with a newborn baby. Anyhow, after a few months he’s getting too big, so daddy balloon builds him a cot and insist he sleep there.’

‘Is this a long joke?’ I interrupted, ‘I’ve got an appointment at three.’

She smiled patiently at me, which won me over, immediately. 

‘Bear with me, it’s worth it; so, after a bedtime story, baby balloon sleeps but during the night he get lonely, he bounces out of the cot and into his parents’ bed but there’s no room for him, he’s too big.’

‘A big baby balloon?’ 

‘So, he decides to let air out of his mum, but still there’s no room.’

I did not know if I should laugh; was it the punch line? I wondered.

‘Do you have this in extra-large,’ asked a stranger, not part of the original six; that made a magnificent seven customers in one shop, a record for post-Brexit Britain.

‘Anne, you know we don’t keep stock, if it’s not out on the rack, we don’t have it. You’re interrupting my joke.’

‘And your traffic-blocking the till,’ Anne spat back, staring pointedly at me and wandering off to the rail, watched like a hawk by the security guard. 

‘So, baby balloon lets the air out of daddy balloon. Still no good, but then he lets some air out of himself and he can fit in nicely and sleeps like a baby for the rest of the night.’

‘Ha, ha,’ I said sarcastically, ‘Slept like a baby, that’s a killer joke, hilarious, you should be on the telly. You remind me of Jack Dee – remember him from the old days, dry but funny?’

‘I ‘in’t finished yet,’ she protested. ‘The next day, daddy balloon was furious; he was so angry he bounced off the ceiling, he sent baby balloon to the naughty step. Then he bounced to see him: “Right,” says he, “you were meant to sleep in your own bed, but you crept into ours, you’re a big balloon, now, far too big to share the bed with us. I am disappointed in you.”’

‘I’m not surprised,’ I said.  

‘The price has come off this one,’ announced a man wearing overalls, holding a pair of jeans 

‘Was it on the rail marked everything for twenty pounds?’

‘Oh, right, I didn’t see that, sorry. I’ve got so much on my mind.’

‘I know, Theo, it’s a big job you’re doing; don’t go around buying clothes for your painters, they’ll take advantage.’

‘You’re right, Kate, I’ll get back to the job.’

When he went, she continued.

‘Poor Theo, he’s a shopaholic, I have to set him straight every time, plays havoc with my commission.’

I raised my eyebrow to signify that I could not care less. 

‘So, we were at the point where daddy balloon tells off baby balloon,’ I exclaimed pointedly, I had already had enough waffle that day; I did not need more. ‘He’s sitting on the naughty balloon step, no doubt.’

‘So, the baby balloon says sorry. Daddy balloon says that he’s still cross and baby balloon asks why. Daddy balloon says, I’m angry because you were meant to sleep on your own and you didn’t; you let your mum down, you let me down but worst of all you let yourself down.’

I laughed, relieved that her story was over; it was a rubbish joke and I laughed and laughed, so much so that I hardly noticed another customer actually buy something. 

Theo sidled back into the shop and told Kate that he needed a pair of swimming shorts and started eyeing up the pair in my hand. That wiped the smile of my face and focused my mind on completing the transaction. 

‘Kate, you’ve cheered me up; thank you,’ I assured her, desperate to get out of there. 

‘And you wanted to cheer me up when you came in,’ she observed.

‘How did you know?’

‘You trotted over to me like a happy puppy.’

‘I can be a bit obvious,’ I admitted, smiling at her to know I appreciated her foresight and forthright psychological profiling. I am like a puppy, I suppose. ‘What are you doing for lunch?’

‘Eating my cheese and pickle sandwich in an empty storeroom while the manager covers the till for half an hour, why?’

‘Come and have lunch with me at The Captain Benbow; it might be a laugh.’

‘I doubt that but I’ve nothing else on, so I’ll see you at one.’

I smiled broadly, looked into her pale blue eyes and thought briefly about falling in love for the second time that day. Deciding against further heartache, I paid with cash: eighty-four pounds. I’m sure the manufacturers had no idea their goods were being sold at seven times the recommended retail price. I hoped that they would be suitably horrified if they ever found out. 

Written by Michael Fitzalan

Michael Fitzalan’s first novel gained cult status and here are some others: Waterwitch was a hit with those who have ever sailed; two brothers battle storms and Spanish support for the Malvinas in an attempt to meet up with their girlfriends in Ibiza. They have to get from The Algarve to Ibiza, all very straightforward until engine failure and storms threaten to sink all their plans. The Taint Gallery tells the story of a modern Romeo and Juliet; the story is set in Cheslea and Fulham, not Verona, nevertheless, it is a doomed relationship. The book was shunned by big publishers for its highly charged and graphic sexual content and the small publisher who produced the book folded, copies are rare. A reprint is planned for its twentieth anniversary next year; it is still as pertinent and shocking today as it was back in 1996. Switch is an amazing mixture of Franz Kafka realism yet it reads like a Raymond Chandler thriller. Joe Ederer falls for a French girl but he is recovering from being dumped by his English girlfriend. A fish out of water in London, he chases her home only to be rejected. He hooks up with a suffocating drug addict and that is when his nightmares begin. Major Bruton’s Safari is the story of innocents abroad; a family invited to celebrate the coronation of the Kabaka of Buganda become indoctrinated into the ways of Africa. With an acerbic observer on hand, the family experience the warmth and ways of Uganda that help them to understand themselves a little better. IPG – Innocent Proven Guilty is about a teacher, Philip Hayward whose brother sold their shared flat and ran off to America with the proceeds. Philip bumps into his brother’s ex-girlfriend and she tells him his brother is back. Racing to the address she gave him, he arrives to find his brother with a knife in his back. As he leaves, his shoes leave bloody footprints and the police come looking for him. Carom – Finn McHugh and his team take on a swindler and smuggler, Didier, who is depraved in so many ways. They know he is smuggling art and drugs; he must be stopped before others take him out. The Cubans, want him dead, Finn wants to break the smuggling ring. Who will win? Remember the Fifth November – Guy Fawkes was innocent, Catesby was a broken man who brought his children up in the Anglican faith, yet Robert Cecil arranged for them to be portrayed as terrible villains. With a spy service second to none and with moles everywhere how could someone hatch a plot like this and fail to be discovered? The answer, they could not. Read the truth! One – Bullying does not go on anymore in schools. I would not bet on it. Weep as you read the terrible story of a school bully and the misery he dispenses to all the boys. Then, cheer as one of his victims takes revenge. Take a trip to a prep school in a time when kids built tree houses, danced and swung on Tarzan ropes!

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