The hammering in George’s head would wake the dead. Just for a fleeting second, George thought that maybe he was. Dead.
He tried to shift his position, but the muscles in his legs had turned to jelly and he could not stand. The slightest movement caused his brain to throb inside his skull. His hands, tied behind his back, were numb from the lack of blood supply and he willed his brain to make his fingers wiggle. It was dark; he was cold, and the minute this registered in the deep corners of his brain his teeth chattered like a pair of castanets.
‘Damnation! Why can’t someone turn on the lights?’
Silence greeted his outburst. His mouth was dry, his tongue furred, and there was a distinct taste of stale whiskey. He tried to create some saliva smacking his lips together, but to no avail. He tried to think warm things. Hot sweet tea, a Vindaloo, the sun. He tried to think living things. Ants, bees, elephants. He tried to think of sexy things. Meg Ryan, soft silky underwear. He smiled. Penny.
The image of his fiancée revived him like a cold, wet flannel. Their wedding plans had gone on for an eternity. Lists about everything from flowers to porta-loo’s. He had wanted to whisk her away, just the two of them. He concentrated hard, forcing himself to think through the fuzziness in his head.
No, he decided, they hadn’t done the deed yet; he was sure of that.
‘Ooh,’ he drew up his knees and lowered his head. All this thinking made the incessant banging in his head even worse. He tried to refocus his vision, but still an inky, dead black. It was as if someone had switched the sky off. He blinked and felt his eyelashes brush against something soft. He concentrated hard and heard the beginnings of a dawn chorus. So why was it so dark?
It was then he heard footsteps, slow measured paces as though someone was circling him. He gulped and the hammering in his head was now his heartbeat.
‘Hello?’ George said to the darkness. ‘Anyone there?’ His voice cracked and squeaked at an octave higher than usual. He swallowed, trying to find some saliva; his throat was scratchy as though he’d been eating sand. Whoever ‘it’ was coughed, and George heard a suppressed chuckle.
‘Oh come on now, stop messing around. Where the hell am I? And who the hell are you?’
As the chuckler tugged at something around his head, light flooded George’s vision like a pyrotechnic flash, blinding him for a few moments. All he could see was whiteness, like a never-ending cloud. He wanted to rub his eyes, but he still couldn’t move his hands. Moments later the glare wore off and George stared at a pair of shiny boots. Black shiny boots. Did God wear boots, he wondered? He raised his gaze, taking in the blue-black trousers with a knife-edge crease, matching double-breasted jacket with twinkling buttons, a radio in his hand and a gun hanging from his belt. A gun! George panicked and tried to scrabble backwards. He took several deep breaths before looking again. It wasn’t a gun; it was a truncheon. He groaned.
‘Good morning, sir.’ The police officer smirked and held up a black mask, like those given out on long-haul flights, between two fingers as if it were a piece of lingerie. He couldn’t have been older than George’s youngest nephew, prepubescent at least.
‘Is it?’ George snapped. Why should he be pleasant to some spotty faced policeman?
The officer raised an eyebrow, his smile replaced with a grim stare, and tapped his black shiny toe.
‘Is it morning and is it a good morning, officer? I really have no idea.’ George wanted to bite back his words. He’d never been in trouble with the law, why start now?
He tried to stand but then realised that his hands and ankles were attached to a lamppost and he strained to look behind him. He groaned again. Handcuffs. Worse, though, pink fluffy covered handcuffs. Memories of the night before, his stag night, flooded back; beer; nightclub; whisky chasers; dance club; champagne and dancing poles. Dancing poles, handcuffs, and scantily dressed women. Uh-oh, Penny was going to eat small, significant parts of him for breakfast, parts that he’d rather keep. He cursed his mates under his breath.
‘Must have been quite a night, sir. If you don’t remember? Still, better left here than with a set of car keys, eh?’
George tried to laugh, but he sounded like a toad. He swallowed hard. ‘Don’t suppose you have the key?’
‘No sir, but I have these.’ The officer held out a pair of cutters. ‘Have you out in a jiffy. You would be amazed how many times I’ve had to do this.’
‘That’s comforting,’ muttered George.
The officer helped him to stand, and then George stared down at himself. His mouth opened and closed; eyes widened in a growing sense of horror. They, his so-called mates, had dressed him in a large pink tutu, matching Lycra top with socks as breasts – rather flat breasts – black fishnet tights and stilettos with heels that didn’t look strong enough to support a kitten.
‘What the?’ He looked around as the officer snipped at the cuffs. George rubbed at his wrists and then crossed his hands over his chest. ‘Looks like someone had a bit of fun last night at your expense, sir. Don’t worry, you aren’t the first and you won’t be the last. Just hope your good lady doesn’t hear all about this, eh? One to keep between the lads.’ The police officer smiled and touched his cap. ‘Have a good day, sir, and congratulations on your forthcoming marriage.’
‘Thank you. But wait, how am I—’ too late, his saviour had disappeared around the corner, ‘—supposed to get home?’
Then George realised he was home. Looming over him was the enormous oak tree he’d reversed the car into only last week, the red paint still visible on the sturdy trunk. He was standing right outside his front door. He looked up and down the street as he tottered through the gate. He managed three steps before abandoning the shoes and then tapped on the door. It was still early; the milkman hadn’t delivered yet. He rapped again as next door’s curtains twitched. The old girl was an early riser and an avid member of the local Neighbourhood Watch. His heart hammered in his chest and beads of sweat popped along his forehead. He opened the brightly polished letter box, leant down and shouted.
‘Pen? Penny, darling! I’ve… erm, I’ve lost my keys. Be a poppet and open the door before I catch my death.’
He heard shuffling footsteps and muttering before Penny opened the door, eyes half closed, turned back, and shuffled towards the stairs then stopped.
George fell in, slamming the door behind him with a sigh of relief.
Penny turned slowly round. Her eyes were now wide open and unblinking, her mouth agape in the shape of an O.
‘No! They promised. He promised!’ She moaned.
‘Who promised what?’ George’s ran through the options to explain his strange attire but found it difficult to break through the fog in his head. Maybe she thought she was having a dream. Maybe he could pull it off? George always had been an eternal optimist.
‘Not to go over the top at your stag do. I made them promise me. That damn Roger and your flippin’ barmy mates. Wait ‘til I see him. Wait until I tell Daphne!’ Penny tugged at her hair.
It dawned on George that he could not convince her she had been sleepwalking. She seemed to know more about his stag do than he did. Roger was his best man to be and his wife Daphne, her maid of honour.
‘You were in on this?’
‘No. Yes. No, well, only the dressing up. And the handcuffs. I thought it would be funny. Something to put in Roger’s best man speech. You know how he mutters on. I needed to give him a topic. He promised to take pictures for the tables. But not this. This is a step too far.’ Penny sat down on the bottom stair and then stood up again.
‘A step too far?’ George squeaked. ‘For heaven’s sake? You wanted me publicly humiliated and pictures for the tables?
‘Oh, don’t be so dramatic. It was only a bit of fun, that’s what a stag do is all about isn’t it? Making fools out of—’ she swallowed a smile, ‘—fools. You do have great legs, though.’
‘I’ve been tied to a lamppost all night; you call that fun?’ He scratched as his waist. ‘This damn tutu is so itchy!’
‘And you remembered every minute?’ Penny snapped and turned him to face the full-length mirror by the door. George squinted; his vision still blurry as if he were wearing someone else’s glasses. He took in his legs. Not bad, he thought, turning them to the side. Penny stabbed at his forehead with her finger.
‘What does it…?’ Penny licked her finger and rubbed furiously, swore, and ran off upstairs muttering something about hands around necks.
George turned back to the mirror. In black capital letters scrawled across his forehead were three words. In his reflection, they were backwards. It took him a moment to decipher them and he groaned and read aloud.
‘UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT.’