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  • Simon Howard

MAY MORNING WITH MR UNIVERSE

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

‘You don’t think I’ve put on weight, do you?’ Oliver asks a total stranger who hurries nervously along Oxford High Street to escape him.

Oliver, six feet three and seriously concerned about his weight, stops a passing Grey Friar.

‘Do you think I’ve got too fat?’

‘Come with me to matins, my dear.’

Oliver looks alarmed and hurries to Rayburgers instead.

‘Stop nicking the Pepsis!’ he shouts at Paddy Jamal behind the counter.

‘Right, boss.’ Paddy points at the ceiling. ‘Raymond’s back.’

Oliver steps over several weeks’ worth of unopened bills on the stairs and goes up to the office. Raymond, back at his desk for the first time in four months, his feet stretched across a mound of neglected paperwork, is in a state of gloom.

‘I’ve given up believing in God,’ he says, tossing a stale orange in the air.

‘Why?’

‘Well…’ he catches the orange and inspects it. ‘Just suppose this was the world…’

Oliver gazes at the shrivelled globe.

‘…and I was God,’ continues Raymond, ‘and I wanted some market research done on its possibilities as a viable planet…’

‘Yes…?’

‘…and the market research people came back to me and said: “Well, you have an animal here…”’ He points to an imaginary dot on the orange. ‘”…who’s eaten by a bigger animal who’s then eaten by Man who then blows himself up with a nuclear bomb…”’ He replaces the orange on the desk. ‘Well, I’d ask for another report.’

Oliver looks at him.

‘And that’s why you’ve stopped believing in God?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you think I’ve put on weight?’ Suddenly Oliver notices a sad figure at the other end of the room, gazing out of the window at the bus depot below. ‘Hello, Dickie.’

‘Richard.’

‘I tried ringing you yesterday, Richard, about standing security for me…’ He watches Richard wince. ‘But your phone had been cut off.’

‘They’re digging up the road, that’s why!’ snaps Richard. ‘The workmen cut through the cable.’

‘Bollocks!’ yells Raymond. ‘It’s been off for weeks – I tried ringing you from up North.’

‘Not true,’ Richard protests weakly.

‘Dickie’s feeling very sorry for himself,’ says Raymond, ‘now that his cheques have caught up with him.’ Richard winces again. ‘By the way, Dickie, you’ll be getting a letter from the investment advisers. I told them you own a three-million quid estate in Norfolk. They were quite impressed. Can’t remember if I’ve made you a baronet or an earl this time.’

‘Aren’t I interesting enough as Mister?’

‘Owning a three million quid estate makes you interesting, doesn’t it?’

A brief pounding on the stairs, and the door flies open. In charges Matthew, a no-expenses-paid freelance photographer. He squeezes something in his hand, making his colourful bow-tie spin like a manic windmill, slapping his chin.

‘I’ve just been photographing May Morning from a two-seater plane!’ He brandishes his camera. ‘I hired it for seventy quid,’ (this is the Eighties) ‘and my fee from the Observer is a hundred.’

‘Was it worth it?’

‘Yes. I paid by cheque. Hello, Raymond – why are you back?’

‘Because I’m not an investment adviser anymore. But you’ll be getting a letter about a plantation you own in St Vincent.’

‘How did you lose the job this time?’

Raymond has been used to this question for years.

‘First they found out I wasn’t ill when I said I was…’ The other three gather round. ‘Second, they discovered I’d written my own references…’

‘Good one!’ shouts Matthew, attaching a zoom lens to his camera. ‘How did they find out?’

‘I crashed the company car on a day I was meant to be off sick. I was doing another job. They rang my uncle who was supposed to have been one of my referees. He told them he thought I was in Java – that was the excuse I’d used for not going to a family party.

Click.

‘Who was your other referee?’

‘Prince Andrew. They were very impressed by his enthusiasm.’

Click click.

‘Was the car badly damaged?’

‘Yes. And so was the one I crashed into. Unfortunately, it was full of detectives. I should be in court today but I’ve written to say I’m ill.

Click click click click.

‘Where’s the car now?’

There’s a story. Half the office turned up to reclaim it. Unfortunately it wasn’t insured. I’d persuaded them to do it through my uncle’s insurance firm…’

‘But your uncle’s an oboist.’

‘Quite.’ He looks wistful. ‘Do you know, I’m more in love with Susie than ever but I have to keep visiting a woman in London called Triple Eight. She’s a big girl. I found her advert online. She swings from the ceiling. It’s re-enforced.’

Matthew’s bow-tie twirls. He loves to hear about the seamier side of Raymond’s sex-life. (He had a fairly stormy one himself at the Jesuit prison up North, but that’s in the past.) However, he’s got another assignment to deal with now.

‘Could I borrow your car, Dickie?’

‘It’s being mended.’

‘Bollocks!’ shouts Raymond. ‘It’s been reclaimed. Am I the only one here with any sense of pride about his debts? Have the rest of you no sense of honour?’

They look at each other.

‘Mr Universe has come to town and I’m photographing him. I wanted to drive him down to the Cherwell Boat House. What about your car, Oliver?’

‘I’m off to the Cash and Carry.’

‘There’s been a lot less cash than carry while I’ve been away…’ says Raymond. ‘My real downfall was the death of the same relation twice. I was taking quite a lot of time off and I killed the same grandmother again within a week.’

‘Couldn’t you have said your other grandmother was the second one?’

‘Oh no, I had to keep one of them alive because I’d arranged for the firm to advise her on investing the millions she’d made from selling her non-existent family diamonds.’

‘What are you going to do now?’

‘I’m going to sell rechargeable batteries.’

‘What does that mean?’ (They were a novelty in the Eighties.)

‘It means people have to pay twice. Let’s go and have breakfast at Brown’s.’

‘We’ll never get in on May Morning.’

‘We’ll get in.’ Raymond puts his arm around Richard. ‘Cheer up, Dickie. Most of your creditors think you’re in the South of France.’

‘I haven’t got any creditors.’

‘There, there…’

He leads Richard down the bill-spattered stairs. Matthew turns to Oliver.

‘That’s quite a time Raymond’s been having,’ he says.

‘Certainly is.’

‘Is it all true?’

Maybe, but the time scale doesn’t fit.’

‘What do you mean?’

Oliver looks at him knowingly.

‘It happened four months ago.’

‘What’s he been doing since?’

‘He’s been in Warrington Gaol,’ says Oliver before shooting down the stairs.

Stunned, Matthew grips the banister.

‘What?’

But the staircase has become a void, except for the unopened bills, the dust and the summonses from assorted magistrates’ courts.


***


‘Paddy,’ says Oliver, ‘lend us a tenner.’

‘Right, boss.’

He hands him the ten-pound note he’s just taken from a customer.

‘Your wages should be more regular now that Raymond’s back.’

‘Yes, boss,’ says Paddy, without conviction.

Oliver joins the other two in the street. Matthew catches up as a workman revs his drill and others look on.

‘We’ll drive,’ Oliver says grandly.

Four minutes later the car pulls up outside Brown’s at the start of the Woodstock Road. A long queue of May Morning revellers is taking up much of the pavement.

‘Hello, everyone,’ says Raymond, beaming at the crowd. ‘Lovely to see you all. We’re the new owners.’

Matthew twirls his bow-tie, and they enter.

‘A table for Sir Richard, please.’

A waitress leads them across the huge restaurant to a dais in the corner.

‘Nothing too fattening for me, darling,’ Oliver says to her.

‘There’s Mr Universe!’ shouts Matthew, spotting his vast bulk across the room and leading the others towards his table.

Mr Universe is surrounded by body-builders of both sexes. He and Matthew agree to do the photo-shoot later at Magdalen Bridge.

‘We’ll call it Punting With Mr Universe, says Matthew.

‘Do you think I should worry about my figure?’ asks Oliver.

‘Yes,’ says Mr Universe.

They sit at their table on the dais.

‘Do you know,’ says Raymond, ‘once I ate some magic mushrooms, and they made me feel like I was turning into a woman. I even started to fondle myself like one. You know, breasts and things…’

‘Good God.’

‘Fuck – we’ve got to leave. Now!’

Raymond has spotted a creditor across the room. They all get up, used to this.

‘Sorry, sorry…’ Raymond says to their waitress. ‘Urgent meeting.’ They exit.

‘All going very well,’ he assures the people in the queue. ‘You’ll soon be inside.’

Four minutes later Oliver drops them outside Rayburgers and drives off to the Cash and Carry. The others are just about to enter when there’s a terrible screech of car tyres, and a large black Jaguar skids to a halt in front of their knees, pinning all three of them to the plate glass window. Two large men get out.

‘Hey, Burgerking – where the fuck do you think you’re going?’

Thinking fast, Raymond points to the workmen digging up the road.

‘I’ve come to see them, as a matter of fact. They’re going to do some work for me.’

The workmen, who have stopped drilling for the moment, look on with interest. Raymond smiles at them and nods.

‘Be with you in a minute, lads!’ he calls.

Four of the workmen start walking towards him. The two large men jump back into the Jaguar and drive off.

‘We’ll be seeing you later,’ shouts one of them through the open window.

One of the workmen calls to Raymond.

‘You’re the cunt who owes my brother two hundred quid for the work he did on your counter!’

Raymond swallows.

‘Good heavens! Didn’t my manager pay him? He’s hopeless. I’ve been away, you see… Tell you what, you’ll catch him at the Cash and Carry if you pop round there now.’

‘He’d better be there,’ says the workman.

The four of them head off in the direction of the Cash and Carry. Raymond looks relieved.

‘Let’s go and have breakfast at George’s in the Covered Market,’ He taps on the window and calls to Paddy Jamal. ‘Don’t nick anything!’

Paddy gives the thumbs-up sign as they begin their journey to the Covered Market. Raymond turns to Matthew.

‘Will they take a cheque to hire a four-seater plane?’ he asks. ‘And are you allowed to take a dog in one?’


*****


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