A.J. Walker


The Vicarious Nicky Redbourne

The Vicarious Nicky Redbourne

Everyone in town knew Nicky, he had an engaging way about him; his smile, his laugh and… those eyes. He’d talk to anyone when he was out and about in the cafes and pubs, the parks, or on the bus. And his smile, his laugh: and those eyes. People invariably got pulled in by the whole package of Nicky Redbourne. If he’d designed his persona and practiced it then he was a unadulterated genius. If it was just what he was born with then he’d won the “everybody’s friend” lottery at birth.

Speaking to his “regulars”, and strangers alike he just seemed to pull out interesting story after story from them. Information was never delivered back the other way. He was a data black hole. Bar staff who knew him from many central pubs said he lived vicariously off the life that others had lived. He’d never been seen eating. Never been seen with a partner. It was assumed that Nicky lived alone, loved no one, ate nothing, did nothing. He simply lived and breathed the stories of strangers.

He was seen time and again coming out of the bus station by many people who recognised him. They’d say he was friendly, that he enjoyed their company, that they loved talking to him. But no-one could be sure they could truly call him a friend. They knew his face. But not one jot about him. When caught leaving the bus station he always said he’d caught one of the buses from a not very salubrious area of town. The kind of place that when it wasn’t being quiet it meant there had been serious trouble. Not retelling stories from the area he’d come from seemed a reasonable response to what he must live with. Who wants to bathe in the negativity of daily life when there’s no light to go with the dark? To live vicariously was a reasonable answer to the problems of living a life that no-one should accept.

That’s what people thought.

When the proverbial hit the fast spinning thing in June 2023 though the press and the rumour mill had some meaty morsels to get stuck into. The town was abuzz with all things Nicky. Posters went up from the police: “Do you know this man? Any information at all please call Crime Stoppers at the number below. All information treated in strictest confidence.” There were two pictures on the poster. Once was the Nicky everyone knew. One was a photo-fit of what Nicky looked like apparently in his other non-town centre life. He looked completely different. It was amazing what people don’t see in front of them sometimes. And then there was the name which the police indicated was “the suspect’s” real one: Colin Fellowes.

Looking at the two pictures everyone struggled to see Nicky as a Colin, but the photo-fit definitely looked like a Colin. Initially everyone in ttown were adamant that Nicky and Colin were not one and the same. It was could only be a cock-up by the police.

But then time did its magical thing. Nicky had almost daily been out and about after his bus into town. Yet since the initial police enquiries and request for information about the vicarious one he wasn’t seen on the buses, in the park, in the cafes. At first people thought that maybe he’d gone to ground after the enquiries through embarrassment. Or maybe he’d just gone away for a week. But as the days were ticked off it became clear that something was up. He’d never been away from town that long.

Neal Aston, the landlord at the Farmer’s Arms, one of Nicky’s regular haunts, was quoted in the local rag about being worried how Nicky must be coping without his daily intake of stories. “That’s his daily bread. I can’t see him sat at home without that sustenance.” Meanwhile journalists, police and the keyboard Sherlock’s alike were struggling with the question of where in fact his home was. The police had been led via everyone’s knowledge that he got one of two buses from the north east side of town to look at video after video of bus footage from these buses. There was not one sighting of Nicky on any of them - or of Colin if he travelled in one appearance and changed into the other at the bus station. In any case there was nowhere to change there in the years since the toilets were dismantled. Police Detective Don McDermott who was leading the investigation eventually announced to the general public that there were no records of a Nicky Redbourne living in the town and also that the commonly held view that the man with those eyes and that smile did not fact use buses at all. “It was all a ruse. Part of his disguise.” Privately McDermott said that he couldn’t fail to be impressed by the man - whoever he was.

Everyone knew Nicky, but no-one
knew Nicky. As for Colin everyone struggled to get to grips with the information available on him. There was some data on credit cards and a Driving Licence. But these were no longer in use and hadn’t been for years. It had been a paper licence too, so there wasn’t even a photo available to assist the story. The story; Nicky would have loved its telling. After a couple of months with the trail cold they stopped requesting information on Colin. It was evidently part of a smokescreen that Nicky - or whoever he was - had concocted.

But where had he gone? And what had he done? No one in the town knew what the police were looking into. They were playing their cards close to their chest. Bryan Deakes from the Times started penning scathing pieces on the investigations asking how much money had been spent on the investigations, and asked what the purpose was. McDermott was not telling the public why they were looking for the man. It could have been an unpaid parking ticket, or perhaps he’d flashed himself on a bus, or maybe he’d killed a cat. Deakes suggested the cards were being hidden as all those involved were clueless and indeed playing different card games.

The council leader poured McDermott another whisky. “I think we have to leave it now. The man’s gone. The money’s gone for good. The state have written off the debt for us as they don’t want to be brought into all this. We’ve been told some specialist PR guys that help out Whitehall from time to time - which I suspect means regularly - will concoct the cover story for us. The council will be kept out of it and you guys will have a plausible story to tell.’

‘Perhaps Nicky would like to hear it? I’d certainly like to tell him myself.’

‘Aye. You and me both. But I think drawing a line under all of this is the best thing for everybody.’

The nodded into their glasses. Conscious that it was best in particular for Simon England the former council accountant. His name had never been released to the general public for it would be too easy to pull on that thread and find out some highly embarrassing information for a lot of influential people. McDermott could hardly believe that it was the same man. He was evidently a master of disguise, as sly as hell and yet so quiet and unassuming at work - as he squirrelled away his millions.

In Costa Rica Bernie Willis lay by the pool at his apartment wondering what to do next. He’d heard that El Niño was potentially going to spoil his summer and wondered whether he should get on a plane to Malaysia to go to his house in Penang, or maybe to his place in Sri Lanka. Decisions, decisions. At 34 he was enjoying his early retirement. He didn’t miss his accountancy job or council officials, but he was thankful for their ineptitude. He wasn’t missing Colin’s apartment in the docks either. But he did miss the Nicky persona. His decision to hide in plain sight by apparently living vicariously from the efforts of others was his best decision ever. Listening to stories from everybody’s lives was compelling entertainment and the focus was on the teller not the listener. Who needs to binge watch TV series when you can binge real life without a license fee? Bernie decided that before travelling to Asia he’d have a few days in San Jose to trawl the bars for new storytellers. He just needed to pick a new name and a different wardrobe. Nicky Redbourne was no more, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t continue to live vicariously.

McDermott sat in his office staring considering the millions that someone had stolen from the council. The man had got away with it and the council and State had shrugged it off and said nothing. His team’s efforts in finding the man or the money had not got off the ground; they hadn’t even got the real name of the perpetrator. He knocked back another whisky and looked out the window considering his career choices. He was definitely in the wrong job. Still, he'd have a good story to tell one day.

Flawed Witnesses of Unhappenings

Flawed Witnesess of Unhappenings

It is man’s belief in himself as a witness which is an inherently flawed concept, said Nico Blueberry. I was lucky enough to meet the philosopher on several occasions, including to that famous “Flawed Witnesses” lecture. Usually we met in various states of sobriety. We managed to take it in turns to be the drunker or the more sober one. It was never a good idea to meet him when he was completely sober, and I found similarly it was a good idea to have had a couple of drinks myself before venturing down some conversational alleyway with the prodigious polymath. It was dangerous to follow him when there are no maps available. He had a habit of leading you off into somewhere you had no intention of going to; often somewhere dark and dangerous.

It helped me that I was a vehement atheist and indeed I eventually got to call Nico a friend - insomuch as he had friends. He found religiosity the most profound waste of time invented by man. He hated most that it was money conned from the poorest peoples of the world that was used to build such grand elaborately gilded palaces; and the bank balances of the obscene. He’d kicked himself terribly (metaphorically; in reality he just got drunk quicker) whenever he found himself guilty of being impressed by any of the buildings or art works within them. But these inanimate boxes frequently fought him into a less than quiet rage with the knowledge they were built with the precious pennies the poor should be keeping; “stolen through ridiculous fictions to by those who knew better”. Nico’s view was that religion was an institutionally acceptable pyramid scheme (sic), endorsed by the State. People were groomed from birth and frightened into paying for a better life: next time. They had to pay their insurance in this world.

He famously said in one of his books that many religions could out-mafia the most obscene and cruel criminal enterprises out there. And whilst the leaders didn’t often take out rival gangs in the style of a Valentine’s Day Massacre he reasoned many a war was caused - and continued to be - by religion. And that was worse. The collateral damage from these “state supported mafiosa” was much greater than that from any battling city gangs.

In his books, papers, lectures, and editorial newspaper pieces he would sound reasonable and considered in matters from politics, crime, arts, the environment - even sport - but getting him on the subject of gods and “their pedlars” was risking a localised explosion if he was not in the mood for it.

I well remember a lecture he gave to some university students when he’d arranged for someone to steal his bag from the desk behind him in front of all the attendees. He then asked people to describe what had happened and who had stolen it. The range of heights, hair colours and clothes the single guy was described with was incredible, even the direction the man came from (one person said it was a tall blonde lady, but I think that may have been wishful thinking). I can tell you he was 5”9’, wearing black leather boots, in black trousers, white shirt, a dark (once black) blazer, no tie, and with a short back and sides. I know this because it was me who Nico had asked to undertake ‘the robbery’.

As the differences snowballed and no consensus was agreed the audience lapped it up. Then he went into his pet subject. You guys couldn’t tell me what happened just now in front of your eyes. What about these texts that are read at home and in those consecrated golden boxes? These ancient texts not told as seen, but through eyes, memories, and imaginations, not from today, not from not last week, but sometimes millennia ago. These fictions have been passed verbally from person to person. Each with their own inflections, their own colour. Their own politics. These stories are just that; stories. Not fact. Fictions. And yet you are asked to believe in them. Stories told by strangers over a thousand years ago. By people who didn’t even have writing to pass them on until recently. And you guys couldn’t even tell me definitively whether it was even a man who stole my bag.

The palaces built on these cons tower above the slums and lives aborted by the implied need to look after your next life. Life, said Nico, was to be lived in this one world - this one time - you have. If you must invest in anything, he said, it should be in hospitals, schools and libraries - or maybe on a nice watch. Not spent on gilding some lily on the whim of a fancy-robed charlatan.

I know the truth behind his recent passing and I have been sworn to secrecy about it, for reasons I cannot divulge (I can do in twenty years). It’s a story though. Some of the outlandish ideas being dreamed up, repeated, embellished, polished and retold are a case in point of his view on peoples’ inability to be trusted with truth and knowledge. He’d both love and hate it. They say a lie can encircle the earth before the truth has had time to get its boots on. He would say flat Earthers would disagree. Then again, maybe in the next twenty years there will be a religion built up around Nico’s past and beliefs. I can confirm that he hadn’t converted into religion before he passed (I enjoyed the rumour about him not dying but going to Tibet to find himself). So please buy that watch or donate to your local hospital or library. There need be no golden memorial to Nico, indeed there cannot be. If you want to memorialise him, just don’t reward stupidity or those fancy-robed conmen. Just live your life. This life.

The Old Ways, Seven Streets and Seven Years

The Old Ways, Seven Streets, and Seven Years

They say this town was built along seven streets. Just seven. Of course there must have been one first then a second. So which of the seven was the first? And what of the eighth? Of course these may be reasonable questions and there may be answers out there for you. But maybe you are not asking the right question. What of the days before the seven streets - or the one - what came before?

There were the ‘Old Ways’ before there was a city here, before there was a village. And some may be coincident at least partly with the famous streets we now call the first of our city. There were old ways here long before the first people stopped and built here. These were paths taken between places before we became a place - to live and to dream in, to become a destination at all.

These were the questions asked - and at least partly answered - by the famous local historian, Hugo Skully who mysteriously disappeared (at the age of 63) seven years ago. The coroner yesterday issued the Declaration of Presumed Death. The fact that the law is that seven years is taken by the authorities would no doubt be seen as apt by Hugo with his wry sense of humour and his love of the city - and its seven streets. His quest to build on the history with his studies and conjectures was famous in and beyond the city. His talks and tours were always informative and fun - and extremely well attended.

He said there were good paths, and barely used ways across the grasses, the sands and the stones of the county - long before there were such human constructs as borders and taxation. Hugo would often be seen out on the beaches, the farms and the river banks with his bulky knapsack full of maps, notebooks and pens as he mapped and remapped our past. In the most recent years he was mapping what he saw as barely used paths, wrong paths and plain evil ways used by our forbears and peoples long forgotten. I wonder which of these ways should we know about, and remember - and which should be lost forever? Perhaps he was lost on one of the evil ways best forgotten. Or perhaps he found the route of some infinite path too compelling not to follow and he’s walking still. Maybe he’ll turn up in a year’s time. He did always have a fondness for the number 8; and the dramatic. And I’d love to see Hugo and his famous knapsack - which was never found - silhouetted on the skyline above a farmer's field once more.

Rest in Peace if you must, Hugo. But better still, we’ll see you next year if your path brings you back.

The Golden Harvest

A Golden Harvest in Yucatan

Kaax considered himself blessed in the balmy heat and bountiful climate of the Yucatan. His land provided the best beans and cacao for many miles, and together his beautiful wife, Akna, they had a wonderful, loving home. He felt he earned more than he deserved. As the years past by though Akna grew despondent as the farm’s bounty failed to be matched in their life. She lost three children before ever getting to meet them. Sadness engulfed her like sinking sand. Kaax was at his wits end not knowing what to do. He’d told Akna he’d be happy to live without a child if the gods were so inclined. She didn’t believe him, or didn’t care. She wanted a child - or her life would not be complete.

His mother said that maybe there was a way. She told him of the Golden Cenote two days trek to the west of their village. And that a gift of gold there to Ixchel - the fertility god - may be all that was needed to bless the family. Kaax laughed at first - he’d always believed most in hard work not prayers. In any case his farm was productive, but the village was poor. What gold did he have to give the gods? ‘But your bees?’ said his mother. ‘Honey. Give the gods your honey. What could be more golden?’

And so he collected a precious urn from his mother’s and over the summer proceded to fill it. It would be a product of hard work: and prayers. He didn’t tell Akna of his plans. He didn’t want her to know, to believe, to throw more hope her way - lest it be dashed.

Later in the year he rode two days on his brother’s donkey to the Golden Cenote in hope, not expectation. He prayed at the edge of the deep drop into the watery cave below the forest before finally presenting the urn to the gods. He threw it into the depths and quickly turned away before the return journey home to his beloved wife. Nine months later their life was complete beyond all hope when Yolotli arrived.

Within the community it was observed that Kaax became more of a believer in the gods after the birth of their daughter - and he always sings to the bees.

Happy Birthday, Ratty

Happy Birthday, Ratty

Tunnel Vis500

That most infamous and random of city papers - The Tunnel Vision - is, somewhat remarkably, celebrating its seventieth birthday this week. You may not have noticed it much in recent years with its erratic publication days (usually twice a week currently), its slim build, and its limited run. I still always try and get a copy when I can, but incredibly even for a journalist in the city like me I can find it difficult to get hold of (it’s surely not helped by the publication days no longer being set in stone. It can be hard to know when to look out for it - and consequently easy to miss). It still has some top drawer journalism and commentators submitting interesting and challenging pieces, which makes it attractive to those who like the challenge; and enjoy interesting prose too. Talking of prose, who can forget last year Irving Gentry’s ‘Ode to An Age That Never Happened’ juxtaposed with Catherine Berger’s poem ‘Parallel Universes Exist: So Get Me A Ticket Out of This One’? Both so different and both an absolute joy to read. These eminent choice writers, who seemed to have come out of nowhere, were the talk of the town for weeks, but were just the latest in a long line of poets and authors who’ve loved to get involved in the paper, even during this most erratic of times.

The paper was born out of the city doldrums of ‘53 when the twins, Joe & William Riley, and their impressively driven and oh so eloquent sister, Taylor, set up the small but perfectly formed - if unlikely - press in a dark, narrow, and dank tunnel - which had reportedly been used by smugglers and some less than savoury local characters, down near the docks. It quickly became the unofficial “
voice of the workers” and the put upon peoples of the city. The name of Tunnel Vision was much debated early on. Those involved in the initial issues were attracted to the name due to its quirky location, but several contributors were unhappy with the idea of them not being thought to have at least a little peripheral vision. They needn’t have worried as the city chose their name for it themselves: they simply referred to it as The Rat with their own take on the dock tunnels: problem solved. The constant cacophony of the docks together with the depth and heavy stone structure of the tunnel meant the noise of the press never found its way outside of the tunnel. When the Rat railed against the local government of the day in the run up to the elections of ‘56 the authorities tried hard to find the press - and we can assume find some spurious reason, or just wanton illegality, to close it down - but they failed. Many knew exactly where it was, but as they were fighting the good fight in their corner no one ever told those that would stand against it. William Riley said in a rare interview in the early 60s that giving them up would have been like ‘Turkeys voting for Christmas’ after all.

It has always seemed to go through nothing less than interesting times, though ownership battles has never been one: it’s still run by the children and grandchildren of the Rileys. It has survived legal challenges aplenty giving the owners and editors nothing but smiles on their faces; never a punch seems to land. The reticence of city politicians to take on board many - if any - of their chosen campaigns is unfortunately a sign that although they may feel they do an important job for the people of the city they have really not managed to substantially change the city at all. It may have right on its side, but we know on a local, national and international level how often right is the one thing that seems often to be the hardest thing to achieve. It always has stories and views written from interesting angles to the prevailing media direction (some would say that much of the media is exactly that: directed.
The Rat has never been accused of that).

To this day the place where the
Rat is published is not known. But I doubt any old tunnels are involved these days. Technologies have changed a lot in recent times, so it need not take up much room or use noisy plant at all. Truth be told while they are punching so rarely theses days, unlike the old days, they don’t even need to fly below the radar as they have sadly become peripheral to the general political discourse. But who’s to say that this will remain the case? There’s rumours of a soon to come reboot for the paper, including some interesting political commentators and the return of Lexus, the infamous cartoonist. If these changes are true (and it can sort out its publication issues) then maybe the Rat will bounce back. Does a rat have nine lives, or will the rat suffer from a dead rat bounce?

I truly hope that
The Rat will survive its current difficulties and return to its former glories. Peak Rat was something to behold and I for one wish to see its life be rekindled. What a wonderful present that would be. Happy 70th Ratty!