To some people, gazing up at a clear night sky can be a dangerous activity. If left to ponder the wonder the of the galaxy and the endless space that exists beyond it for even a smidgen too long, their thoughts can drift away to become lost and separated from the everyday realities that fill the everyday lives of all, normal, everyday people. From their dazzled imaginations fantastic ideas and magnificent visions will rocket up into the void of space and explode like fireworks to fill the black with the colour of their dreams.
One such man with a mind vulnerable to the seductive charms of a brilliant night sky was Siavash Reginald Gianluca Rogers (formerly plain Derek John Rogers - still bumbling into middle-age, rapidly balding, as skinny as a lamp post and just as switched on for most of the time he wasn't) who, to the worry of his daughter Fairuza and son Giovanni (aged 11 and 10 respectively), was rather too fond of perusing the night sky with a jittery stare and a beguiled imagination. In fact, he cared little, if at all, for any other view, even that of a working telly, much to Giovanni's concern and confusion. But then this was a boy who firmly believed the only views that mattered were the digital ones he watched and controlled on any LCD screen
The lightness of Siavash's mind and its willingness to be pulled dreaming through space was made worse by the location and design of the house he lived in. Its exterior made him believe the house had been built to resemble, if not actually be, a ship. But not a ship to explore the waters of Earth, rather one built to chew-up the miles of intergalactic space.
To be fair, it required little imagination to look at the house and picture a ship. The walls were skimmed with smooth white plaster, and the second and third floors were just a third the length of the rectangular ground floor. To an open, child-like, mind this looked like the bridge of a ship rising above a deck below.
The house was built in the Victorian age and was a gentleman's folly: the whim of a man with too much time and money to spend. Lucky that man. Good for him. Praise be the loons. We all have a folly or two waiting to get out and frankly we should do everything we can to get these follies out even if we have to push until something embarrassing goes pop.
Set in the deepest countryside high in the Shropshire Hills, the location of the house also conspired against (farted in the face of) the everyday sanity of Siavash Rogers. At night, in cities and towns, the hazy glow of artificial light produces a sort of fog that impairs the view of the starry night sky. In rural Shropshire, however, no such fog shimmers between the ground and sky, so when the sky is free of clouds, the stars do truly dazzle.
To compound the issue even further, as the house was perched on a hillside the large widescreen window on the third floor produced a panoramic, IMAX brilliant view of the sky. The impact of this was considerable. To look through the window was to feel cast out into the sky, or at least imagine the house was floating high above the ground, or, if Siavash, flying through the Milky Way on a vital intergalactic mission.
To once again be fair to Siavash - and why not, he is, after all, something of a loon - we are all travelling through space at a quite dizzying speed. As the Earth orbits the Sun, the solar system orbits the Milky Way while the Milky Way hurtles ever on through interstellar space. Everything is on the move. Even the frailest old granny is zipping madly along, (as soon we shall see for real).
His house was a spaceship. Is that what Mr Rogers believed? Yes, although a spaceship without an engine is like a bird with unflappable or otherwise useless wings - a chicken or a turkey not an eagle or an owl.
Undaunted, he took to the garage and with a single multi-tool penknife, a roll of gaffer tape and some other bits-and-bobs including a broken vacuum cleaner and a length of leaky hose pipe built an engine that he knew would revolutionise powered space flight. All the engine lacked was a cool turbocharger and a small amount of alien technology. There were loads of turbochargers on eBay, he only lacked the cash to buy, but as for the alien know-how, he had to concoct another plan hence The Intergalactic Space Taxi Service was born. His dirt-cheap prices would pull in the alien punters. A small deposit on advance bookings would give him enough alien money to fund an alien shopping spree. Before he had a fare to honour, his award winning engine would roar into life.
"Space ace!" he cried. "Finally, it's all within my grasp! Unlimited powered space travel, and a proper, fulfilling job that pays a decent living wage."
Unfortunately, for three whole years, not a single alien booked a ride - not even for a sightseeing tour of Saturn's rings. Not that this dented the reality of Siavash's new found dream. He worked day and night to ready the ship. The engine grew to fill the garage as bits-and-bobs: a washing machine drum, a rusty old bicycle, a pair of mouldy curtains, two broken irons, various bits of wire, a bird table, and much more besides were glued, strapped and taped on to it.
The third floor room with the panoramic window, which he now consider to be the taxi's windscreen, became the Flight Deck. Originally, an old desk chair was modified to become the captain's chair. Buttons were stuck to the arms: actual buttons, those found on clothes as well as boiled sweets in a variety of colours. When pressed, none quite worked, but you got the idea. In fact, there were lots of buttons all over the walls and on various command consoles that he had made out of old bits of furniture. The navigation system consisted of twenty-four pocket calculators, which somehow he managed to get sent to him free in the post, glued together in one long row, and two old portable televisions which could no longer tune to any channel.
As the years ebbed away so did the money he had saved in the bank, that which paid the mortgage and clothed and fed Fairuza and Giovanni. He could feel his dream sinking, but a captain, he knew, never leaves his ship. So he didn't. He never once set foot outside the house. He stayed locked inside obsessed by his dream and the view from the windscreen window that took him on a journey through the galaxy every night when the sky was clear. Better to be poor than have a normal, boring job, he thought - not that his children agreed. And then, from a little £5 stash of Premium Bonds, he won £10,000 pounds. Quivering, holding the letter that told of his winning, his dream rebooted, and his destiny was reaffirmed.
"This is the boost. This is the spark that lights the fuel," he cried. "This...this...this is the work of aliens!" He gasped, shocked. "Ruddy hell, I'm live on alien TV!"
His stare settled on an imaginary camera. He smiled shyly and waved.
"Alright? I'm Siavash, and I'm moved to say, a million earthly thanks."
Embarrassed by the attention, he rushed through a door and out of the room.
"Wait!" he stopped, an idea having sprung into his mind. "It's probably an alien version of Dragons' Den. The money isn't a prize; it's an investment!"
Bursting with excitement, he ran to the Flight Deck, pressed the letter against the windscreen and screamed up at the sky.
"I'll give you five percent but not a single percent more!"
As the letter didn't vanish from his hand, he considered his offer accepted.
"It's a deal. It's done! Speak to my lawyer, I'm off to build an empire! To infinity, for a pound!"
Sunday 28th of June. Oh, what a glorious day this was going to be. Three weeks had passed since the investment was made, three weeks to plan how best to spend it. Fairuza and Giovanni, having spent two nights at their Nan's, where now due home. On their return, Siavash would reveal how he had spent the money.
The moment would be his to savour. He would smash to smithereens the dead-end that after three long years had come to block his way. His children's hearts would once again fill with hope, and their belief in him and his fantastic dream would once again be in bloom. In their eyes, he will once again stand tall and proud as a pioneer, a man on the frontier of space exploration. At their next school assembly, his son and daughter will rise from the floor and cry aloud,
"Yes, my dad drives a taxi, but it's a cool one that flies through space!"
And then, just for effect, they will turn to the teachers and moon. Once again, he will be their inspiration. They will stand before him and become dizzy with awe.
Five thousand inflated balloons filled the house. Several rooms resembled ball filled play pits and very deep ones at that. Printed on every balloon was the following promotional blurb,
'The Intergalactic Space Taxi Service. To Infinity For A Pound. 24 Hour Service. No Drunks. £50 fine for Puking.'
Using a tank of compressed helium, which came with the order, it took Siavash an entire day to inflate them all. When inflating balloon number 4998, it occurred to him the balloon factory had forgotten to print his contact details on any of the balloons. Furious, he picked up the phone, called the factory and demanded to make his complaint known.
However, due to all the helium he had inadvertently inhaled, his voice was pitched so high and sounded so squeaky (think deranged chipmunk reeling from a kick in the nuts), no one from the factory could take his complaint seriously. In fact, all who listened, the manager had put him on speaker phone, were reduced through laughter to quivering jelly-like wrecks. Siavash's only compensation was the belief that, as the laughter was so manic, several of the laughers must have wet themselves for all to see.
Of course, his rant and the laughter it inspired was recorded and uploaded to YouTube where it received over 100,000 views in less than a day.
For a brief period of time, it became quite the thing for dudes of a musical nature to sample the closing lines of his high-pitched rant and splice it into various musical forms and tracks:
"You'll be working for me one day, sonny boy. You'll be my number one. No! My number two! You'll be my number two puke cleaner. You hear that? You'll be my number two, yes my number two, you'll be my number two puke cleaner!"
When he realised why they found him so funny, he chuckled at himself and forgave them reasoning, how hard can it be for advanced alien beings to find the only Intergalactic Space Taxi available for hire on a small planet like the Earth?
He planned to release the balloons, some of which he thought would go all the way to outer space. The inspiration for this advertising campaign came from an incident from his childhood that still played vividly in his mind.
One day, aged seven years old, he stood in the road outside his house and watched a balloon fall from an otherwise empty sky directly into his outstretched hand. A small envelope was attached to the balloon on which was written, 'CONGRATULATIONS!'
He opened the envelope, and a found a card inside, which read, 'To claim your prize, call this number....'
He made the call and gave his details. Five days later, his prize arrived by post. It was an Atari video game called, 'Emergency Escape Rescue Mission. Blast Off Now!'
Now, this was an age before computer technology furnished every corner of every room. Indeed, the Rogers's home couldn't boast a toaster let alone a state-of-the-art Atari video games console, which rather made his winning prize utterly useless.
He asked his dad to buy him one, for his birthday or Christmas. But his dad didn't believe in video games.
"Play games on a television? Not on your nelly," he said. "This isn't California of the U. S of A, son. It's Preston Gubbals, of the Shropshire, England."
The fact that his dad didn't even own their television, but rather rented it, as most people did, (and only one TV per household in those days) didn't help matters at all. He said,
"The television is for television programmes only. It's too small for anything new. Look at it; there's not enough room inside there for programmes and for games. If we try, we'll break it. And who knows what then will come spilling out?"
Please note, those were the days when televisions had only three working channels and NO REMOTE CONTROL - oh, imagine the indignity!
Siavash's mum was a little more understanding and willing to help. She knew someone who had a friend who had a microwave oven, and thought, since microwave ovens were new and modern and magical, they could try the game cassette in it. Fortunately, Derek, as he was known then, declined the offer.
The game remained a mystery and a fascination to Siavash all the way to the present day. It arrived in an otherwise empty box, without any explanation to why or from who he had won it.
He always kept it, still in its box, now framed and hanging on the wall in the Control Room, and often thought about it. Years later, he bought an old Atari console from eBay, but although the console played other Atari games it wouldn't play his prize. Intrigued, he googled the game but found no information about it. It was as if the game had never existed.
Back to Siavash's glorious day of revelation, which, not untypically, wasn't going to plan. He was under siege, and his only defence was a potato gun and a clothes peg that clamped shut his nose.
Flies, oh the horror! A great swarm had invaded the house. The frequency of their collective buzz tuned into Siavash and made his whole body vibrate. Waves of painful tickles rolled through his bones and out through his skin, which felt like it was fizzing. He really didn't know whether to laugh or cry. To make matters worse, his number one enemy, Lady Mary Ball-Sitter, was charging towards the house. Needless to say, she and the flies were connected. They were all in her power; they were all but her minions.
Lady Mary wanted the house for herself. It was once part of her family's estate. The gentleman who had built it was her great-great-grandfather. He called it their watchtower for it was set high in the hills and looked down upon their many acres of land. However, her grandfather, who was a very bad man, was forced to sell it off, along with a good chunk of the family's land, in order to pay off his gambling debts and the taxman. Lady Mary thought this a great indignity. When she inherited the family estate, she vowed to take back the house even though Siavash, who had bought it years ago, was now the rightful and legal owner.
She was a fearsome woman, aged fifty, stout and uncommonly strong. To her, there were just three categories of animals: one, posh country people who owed acres of land; two, beasts; and three, filthy beasts. Siavash thought an invisible force field surrounded her. Like a boulder, she was immune to the weather. Rain, snow, sleet, the freezing cold all failed to cause her discomfort or slow her down. Whatever the weather, she could stand in a field for hours on end, her shotgun primed and ready, patiently waiting for something to kill. Dogs were her favourite, those that had come with their owners for a walk in the countryside and who had dared to run free from the leash onto her land.
Once, the school Fairuza and Giovanni attend held a fund raising event to which, and to everyone's surprise, Lady Mary donated thirty meat and gravy pies. As word spread of their delicious taste, the pies sold out in less than an hour. However, Lady Mary later revealed the meat the pies contained was roadkill - animals found dead in the road, hit by cars and other vehicles. The pies contained badger, crow, pigeon, blackbird, shrew, cat, dog and mouse. Knowing this, made the people who had eaten the pies feel rather sick and uneasy. Lady Mary laughed at their weakness and told them all that she'd never had a pet that she hadn't finished off in a pie or sandwich, even the stick insect she'd had as a child.
Her clothes, all of them, were made from tweed - a thick wool fabric beloved of country folk that is great for coats and jackets, but coarse and itchy when touching the skin - even her socks and pyjamas and knickers were made from the stuff. Not that this ever caused her skin to itch, even in the delicate places, like between the toes. Her skin was just like cowhide, thick and covered with course, bristly hair.
She considered Siavash to be a filthy beast, a foreign invader, a squatter who had defaced and vandalised something that was no mere house but rather a monument to the power and dominance of her family, the ancient and honourable Ball-Sitters.
As she owned the land that surrounded the house, she had something of an advantage. She and her family had a passion for cattle and had farmed them for hundreds of years.
"The Ball-Sitters," she would proclaim, "have cattle in their blood."
And to look at her you wouldn't disagree, hence her nickname, Lady Bull-Sitter. Her thousand plus head of cattle produced a massive amount of dung, which she dumped in great steaming mounds in the fields that surrounded Siavash's house. In the summer, the festering dung would produce a dense cloud of stink and a thick swarm of flies both of which did their very best to get inside the house.
The 28th June had burst into a brilliant hot summer's day, and with the warmth came the flies and the powerful stench of cow muck.
With a whopping great King Edward potato and his trusty twenty year old spud gun, Siavash took on the flies. The stink he blocked with the clothes peg. It was an all-out battle. Outnumbered, one against thousands. Sortie after sortie of dive-bombing fly came in to attack him. Fortunately, Siavash was a truly magnificent shot, even with fizzing skin and a vibrating body. He really could shoot flies from the sky.
An opened window had let the flies inside, but with the window closed, it took him less than an hour to win the battle and shoot them all down. But the flies were simply minions of a much greater foe, Lady Mary Ball-Sitter, who was now banging on the front door with her horsewhip demanding to speak to Siavash. She had arrived on her favourite mode of powered transport, a quad-bike. Accompanying her, as they often did, was her pack of slavishly obedient hunting hounds.
Now, Siavash was not very good with people and, as mentioned, never left the house. Lady Mary knew this, but even so, his tactic was to pretend he was out. He hid in the hallway, cowering behind the front door. The letterbox snapped open and in wafted her voice, which was strangely delicate, calm and poised.
"Ah, my hounds, come take the scent of the filthy beast within for one day soon you will hunt it from this land!"
She laughed, quite quaintly then began to address Siavash.
"Stay put you cowardly worm! I have no wish to look at you unless, of course, it is down the barrel of my most deadliest gun. But I do insist you listen to me, that you hear the voice of your superior. I hereby inform you, I have you crushed! Yes, that is correct. You are well and truly trapped! Here, the facts and figures for you to read."
A large, bloated envelope plopped through the letterbox and fell onto Siavash's lap. It was addressed to him and, in red ink, were stamped the words, 'Important Legal Documents Enclosed'. It made him recoil and shiver as if a tarantula spider had just fallen on him.
Lady Mary continued, "To summarise, it has come to my attention that, as the titled Lady of this manor, I have, by ancient law and custom, the right to charge you a fee - any fee, a thousand pounds if I so desire, and of course I do, at least - every time you or anyone else for that matter sets foot on my land in order to reach this, what you dare to call your home." Another burst of laughter, this time triumphant.
"So, you filthy beast of a man, consider yourself conquered! If only now I could give you feathers, not to let you fly away, but to allow me to pluck you while still very much alive. Oh then what a very agreeable day this would be."
The letterbox snapped shut. Siavash was stunned. He looked at the envelope and suddenly, as if flinging that poisonous spider off his lap, in one quick, frightened movement tossed it away down the hall.
Lady Mary stood astride her quad bike, as proud as a conquering general. No fly came zipping in to enter her personal space, as none had the nerve to try. She inhaled a very deep breath then proclaimed,
"Ah, the smell of dung and victory! Do you smell it?" she asked her hounds demanding to know. In unison, they nodded their heads and sniffed the air. Lady Mary continued, "Dung and victory! The very smell of the mighty Ball-Sitters!"
Siavash, who could hear Lady Mary beyond the door, continued to cower behind it. His eyes were crunched shut and his reddening cheeks fully puffed out as he strained to force a brainwave to spark in his worryingly empty head.
Lady Mary cast a scornful gaze over the large, neglected and garden, or rather land that had been left to grow wild, then turned to look at the door and spoke,
"Look at this land. My rightful property! I will clear it of all that is wild! This spilling nature, I will repair. The rabbits and squirrels, I will shoot. The children too if they get in my way. All traces of the filthy beast squatters I will erase! But while they do remain, please, my hounds feel free to foul!"
She whacked her whip against her thigh without even flinching. Commanded, the hounds set about doing what dogs do, doggy-do and doggy pee, as they tore through the garden running riot.
Siavash's eyes and mouth snapped open as a powerful thought burst into his mind - sausages. Followed by another - bombs. He scrambled to his feet and ran from the hall.
The fridge door opened. Siavash reached inside and pulled out a large packet of sausages.
Lady Mary Ball-Sitter, still standing astride her quad bike, turned to address her rioting hounds. As soon as she spoke, they all looked at her and froze - twenty cocked dog legs hung in the air.
"When you've emptied your bowls, you will follow my scent back to the kennels." Her voice became a whisper. "Last one back gets their very own pie."
A cruel burst of laughter squirmed out of her mouth. She then whacked her whip against the side of the quad-bike, as if commanding a horse to walk on, then, still standing, slowly accelerated away. No hound dared move or look away. She clicked her fingers and, behind her, the rioting commenced once more.
Siavash sprinted up the stairs, dodging balloons as he went. He hadn't neglected the garden, he had, in fact, allowed it to grow wild. It wasn't laziness or his overwhelming preference for staying indoors it was a conscious design decision. He believed his intergalactic travelling customers would prefer the wild natural look. And of course, the bugs: the slugs, snails, the crawlies and creeps that so loved the overgrown vegetation could well provide snack food his alien cliental.
Reaching a window that overlooked the garden, he opened it and lobbed out a couple of sausages, or sausage bombs as he thought them to be. Their odour transfixed the hounds, for what dog, even one under the command of a woman as fearsome as Lady Mary Ball-Sitter, can resist a sausage? One whiff is enough to break the spell of fear and training and revert such hounds back to a wilder, freer nature.
With the hounds roused and running to claim a sausage, Siavash loaded the spud gun with a bullet of sausage meat, took aim at Lady Mary and fired. Five hounds watched the bullet fly through the air. As it came hurtling towards Lady Mary, who continued to ride away with her back to the action unaware of the bullet rapidly approaching her left buttock, four hounds jumped up to try and claim the tasty treat, but all failed to pluck it from the air. The fifth, unable to resist, took his chance, as the bullet hit Lady Mary's ample, muscular left buttock, he jumped up and bit it, the bullet and her buttock. Instantly, the hound realised his mistake and became stiff with fear his mouth still clamped to her buttock. The quad bike, however, didn't stop. Lady Mary showed absolutely no reaction.
Siavash looked on amazed.
"What? No. Her bum cheeks must be calluses, like lumps of dead skin. That's quite an advantage. I could drive the taxi to Pluto and back without ever needing to stand. Or maybe they're camel humps. Mind blower! Pluto and back without needing to stand, eat or drink!"
He reloaded the spud gun and fired a second shot. The four unsuccessful hounds, still crazed by the scent of sausage, readied themselves to snatch the prize. All went for it. One was successful, but the taste of its reward was overwhelmed by the taste of Lady Mary's right buttock, and the awful taste of fear that came with it.
This time, the quad bike stopped, and Lady Mary turned calmly to look behind. As she did, all the hounds, except the two clamped to her bum, their bodies still rigid with fear, quickly recommenced the rioting and the cocking of their legs. Quickly satisfied, and without a hint of pain showing on her face, she turned to look forward then continued on her way. The riot and fouling instantly ceased as the hounds stopped to watch their master leave the garden and to ponder the fate of their two unfortunate friends who remained clamped to the two mighty shielded-like buttocks.
This moment of pause gave Siavash a chance to save his garden. To occupy the hounds for a minute or two, he lobbed the remaining sausages out through the window then sprinted to the top of the stairs where he burst through a door into the Flight Deck.
Every ship needs a fog horn, not because they are particularly useful, they aren't, and certainly not in space where sound can't travel through the vacuum, but rather every ship needs a fog horn because they are every captain's favourite toy. The reason for this is simple a fog horn blasts out a fart-like noise that can be heard for miles around.
Siavash was very fond of his own, which was, it has to be said, a monster: ten normal fog horns rigged together to form one all-powerful beast. And he knew the mammoth doom-laden sound it produced could cause trees to shed their leaves; squirrels to grab their nuts, those buried for the winter and scoff them all in one mad greedy rush; birds to fly into windows or to fly only up; the milk in cows to turn to cheese; cats to form a conscience and plead to the local wildlife for complete and total forgiveness. And hounds? Well, as Siavash found out, they all started to dig one rapidly growing hole.
Not wanting his garden to become one giant shaft to the underground, for who knows what crazy things live down there, he released the button and silenced the horn. The hounds stopped digging immediately and looked utterly lost and befuddled. But then, they sniffed the scent of their master, which, like a dung loving phantom, hung in the air to menace all who felt its presence. It yanked the hounds out of their befuddlement and reinstalled a sense of terror. A moment later, off they ran, swarming out of the garden in abject panic.
With the hounds gone, Siavash remembered the letter. He imagined it growing, feeding and breeding, becoming ever more scary and powerful. He ran into the kitchen. Balloons mobbed him. From a drawer, he took a roll of gaffer tape; from a bucket, he grabbed a soggy, dripping mop.
Back in the hall, the duel began. With the mop raised above his head, he rained the soggy mop head down on the letter once, twice and several times more. With the envelope subdued, he dived on it and wrestled it into several wraps of gaffer tape, with all the vigour and action of a man wrestling a crocodile in an effort to tape its mouth closed.
With the letter now restrained, he took it to the kitchen and fixed it to strings of twenty-four balloons. Back in the hall, he opened the front door and bundled the balloons and letter out. They shot up into the sky. He pushed the door shut and moved to a window to watch the letter disappear up into space. Bang! The sound of a gunshot. The balloons shattered, destroyed. The letter plummeted to the ground. Siavash watched, as did Lady Mary down the barrel of her second favourite gun. The letter landed in the garden, into the clutches of a large clump of giant nettles. Siavash grimaced as he imagined a thousand stings.
"Oochie woochie!" he said, before turning away from the window. "A letter? What letter? On this ship? Where? Can you see it? Here? Not here? This is the future, baby. Fax me!"
He chuckled to himself, then, suddenly remembering, looked at his watch.
"The kids!!" he cried in something of a panic. "The blighters are coming home!"