A few years ago I wrote a little sing-song story that I thought I'd share here as it seems very appropriate...
This is a story about a young man named Artimus Lamb. Artimus was a very average 5’ 10” and weighed a quite ordinary 11 stone. He had his hair cut into a conservative short back and sides, and was considered by most to be neither ugly nor attractive but to have a countenance that fell neatly in between. His wardrobe drew no looks of admiration nor gasps of horror, but simply allowed him to blend nicely into the background. His IQ was an unexceptional 111, and he had one original thought a year - ever so slightly above average, but you can’t have everything. In fact, it could be said Artimus was remarkably unremarkable. He lived in the simple little terraced house his parents had bequeathed him in a tidy looking street in the picturesque village of Little Tiddlington, which was set in the heart of England’s green and pleasant land. He worked at the village general store where he found simple delight in providing his friends and neighbours with their daily groceries and requirements of a general persuasion. In his spare time Artimus would tend to his chickens, play chess and visit friends. Yes, Artimus was indeed remarkably unremarkable in every way except one. He could walk through walls.
I know, I know, you’re probably thinking I might have made mention of such a thing from the start, but Artimus never thought of it as anything particularly special and certainly nothing one could class as a Super Power. No, Artimus was no Superman. Besides, the people of Little Tiddlington certainly wouldn’t stand for any ‘pants over your tights and big flowing, but completely impractical cape’ type of nonsense. Not that kind of village, you see. Besides Artimus had absolutely no control over the phenomenon, which would make him a pretty crap superhero, now wouldn’t it? You see, the (definitely not super-) hero of our story never knew when he was going to walk through a wall, it just kinda happened, and often when he was least expecting it. He’d be ambling along with his head in the clouds considering his next move in the chess game he was playing, contemplating the merits of his favourite cheeses (Gorgonzola and Edam), or composing an amusing little ditty, when he’d find himself in the cricket clubs locked toilet or, rather more alarmingly, the bank vault. Fortunately for Artimus he no longer had to sit it out on these occasions crossing his legs until someone noticed he was missing because on his 21st birthday the citizens of Little Tiddlington presented him with his very own skeleton key. You might think that quite a temptation for a young man and fairly naive of the village folk, but everyone knew Artimus could be trusted. And he could. Artimus was a simple and gentle soul and the thought of using his key for nefarious gains never crossed his mind. No, finding our hero letting himself out of a locked building at all hours was such a common occurrence no one in the village took any notice any more and Artimus himself would, when quizzed, say it’s “nothing special.”
Our story begins at a time when all was well in Little Tiddlington. It had been a spring to remember and the summer was set to be one of the best on record. There had been no daytime rainfall to speak of for 6 weeks (don’t we all wish it only rained at night in the summer?), the village cricket team were top of the local league and looking good for their first trophy in 20 years, and the village pond was producing big fat carp for those of a piscatorial persuasion. Air quality was outstanding, meaning hayfever sufferers could breathe easily. The farmers were looking forward to some of the best growing conditions in living memory and Artimus’s chickens were producing eggs of the like not often tasted in these parts.
Yes, everyone was happy. The village was content. Nothing could spoil it at all, at all. And then Artimus’s next door neighbour, Roger, died. Roger was 96 and had spent his entire life in Little Tiddlington. He was born in number 25 Leary Drive and had lived there for the past 70 years with his dear wife, Clarissa, who sadly passed away just a few months before. He was like an uncle to our hero and a dear friend to his parents. Roger had no next of kin so Artimus acted on behalf of his estate and arranged the funeral. It was a chance for everyone in the village to pay their respects. The funeral was well attended and everyone in the village said a little something at the wake about what a top chap Roger was and how he’d be missed. Then they got ridiculously drunk on homemade wine and something quite evil Versuvius the Postman made out of tea bags and old fish bones, danced and laughed until they dropped. “I’ warsh wha’ he woo’ ‘ave wannid,” They all said. And they were right. Once the booze ran out they wobbled their respective ways back home to ZzzZZZzzzZZZzzz….parp…ZZzzzZzz the night away with scant regard for the cranium numbing toxic shock hangover they were going to have to deal with in the morning. And that wasn’t all they were going to have to deal with. Things were about to change in Little Tiddlington…
Artimus awoke to find his brain had been replaced by a seething mass of nastiness intent on killing him every time he tried to think, move, breathe, or his current choice, cry, and that one of his chickens appeared to have used his mouth as a bathroom. Artimus was hungover. Now whilst his chickens hadn’t mistaken his mouth for a toilet, of course, the thought (which hurt) did remind him he needed to extract his sorry self from his bed and go feed them. So saying a silent prayer for Roger and a slightly less silent curse for Versuvius the Postman he got up. For Artimus loved his chickens and even the hangover from hell wasn’t going to stop him treating them with the tender loving care befitting a mans best friends. Artimus’s parents had always told him if he started his day with an egg or two for breakfast he’d be ready for anything. Nothing every happened in Little Tiddlington, but Artimus always listened to his parents and reasoned being prepared was better than not. So eggs it was. Poached, fried, boiled, scrambled. It didn’t matter to Artimus – he loved them every which way.
After breakfast, and feeling slightly more human, Artimus had a good stretch and considered how to spend his Saturday. He decided a stroll through the village might be a good place to start, so grabbing a bag of stale bread he set off to feed the ducks on the village pond. Artimus came across several of his fellow villagers on his walk, all wearing their hangovers with pride. Jenny, the bakers’ daughter, asked if she might accompany Artimus to the pond and of course he was delighted to acquiesce.
Jenny and Artimus were happily skimming stones and feeding the ducks (but being careful not to confuse the two activities) when the sound of a very powerful engine and squealing tires disturbed them. They turned to see a bloody great big red beast of a car throbbing through the village on a beeline for Leary Drive. Now the villagers of Little Tiddlington weren’t complete Luddites, but they did consider cars with more engine than the average tractor to be nothing short of the work of Beelzebub. And they may have been right.
Jenny looked at Artimus. Artimus looked at Jenny. They were both wearing frowns of a large nature.
“You’d better go see what’s occurring, Arty,” suggested the frowning Jenny. “This doesn’t look good at all.”
Artimus agreed and set off at double time with a worried look on his face to see who this stranger was. He had a bad feeling about this…
When Artimus arrived home it was to see a SOLD sign on the front of Roger’s house and the frankly ridiculous car pulling away at a rate of knots. Artimus was getting new neighbours and they didn’t look like locals.
Tony Virila worked in The Big City and worshiped the almighty dollar, pound and yen. Tony was a stockbroker, a high flier, an entrepreneur and all round Big Cheese. He was incredibly successful, had a 2 million pound house in Kensington and three hand-made supercars that made his neighbours Ferrari look like a Ford Focus. Tony’s sole purpose in life was to acquire more, and he didn’t give a toss who he had to walk over to get it. Unfortunately 20 years of this lifestyle had left his obscenely expensive Harley Street doctor no choice but to warn him that to keep up his obsessive drive for another year would leave him gaining nothing more than a Very Big Heart Attack. Tony had a choice - slow down or stop permanently.
Now Tony may have been obsessive, driven and a bit of a bastard on the quiet, but he was far from stupid. He figured that if he was going to pay Dr Incendiary’s exorbitant fees he may as well listen to him. So he stopped. He sat around his expensive pad and twiddled his thumbs. He went on foreign holidays and relaxed by pools. He took up yoga and meditation. He did this and much more, but the trouble was as soon as he was back in London his Inner Businessman cried to be back in the thick of things. He saw opportunity for a fast million bucks everywhere. In short he was hopelessly addicted to the buzz of the city. He had to get away. He had to downsize.
So Artimus had a new neighbour and Tony had escaped the clutches of The Big City. Despite Tony being a bit of a shock to the Little Tiddlington system with his loud music, louder car and shockingly 80’s ponytail and sunglasses Artimus did his best to make him feel at home. He offered him some of his eggs, but Tony refused (too much cholesterol); he suggested a game of chess sometime, but Tony wasn’t interested in board games. He even invited him to dinner, but he didn’t seem very interested in getting to know Artimus or anyone else in the village. That all changed when Artimus appeared in Tony’s lounge one Saturday evening whilst he was enjoying a tofu salad and watching X-Factor…
“Ah, Tony, my apologies. I seem to have inadvertently walked through the wall. Don’t worry, it happens all the time. Hope I didn't disturb you. Don’t get up, I’ll let myself out.” Said Artimus, in a completely matter of fact manner while Tony stared open-mouthed at him, his forkful of tofu suspended midway between plate and face. Like most of us Tony had never witnessed anything as remarkable as this, but to his credit he pulled himself together pretty damn quickly. Well, I say he, but it was more his Inner Businessman who did the pulling. If Artimus had bothered to look closely at Tony’s eyes he would have seen little dollar signs had briefly replaced his eyeballs. Yes, Tony was now very interested in Artimus indeed, for he no longer saw him as the simple fool next door. No, he now saw standing before him a Billion Dollar Opportunity. But Tony didn't say any of this to Artimus. What he said was.
“No problem at all, chap! I’m sure this kind of thing is very common! Happens all the time, eh? Of course it does! Well, well…Ok, yes, don’t mind me. Let yourself out, eh? No problem! Perhaps you might like to pop round for a spot of dinner tomorrow night? About time we got to know each other a bit better, don’t you think? ”
“That’s most kind of you, Tony. Don’t mind if I do,” said Artimus. “About 6?”
“Yes! Great! Just knock and come in…unless, of course, you, um, how shall we say? Choose a more unconventional means of entry!” said Tony, realising he was losing it a bit.
He ferried our hero to the front door and with a big beaming smile said his goodbyes. He had a lot of thinking to do before tomorrow night.
John Blandi is a man secure in the knowledge he knows everything. Of course, he wouldn't say this in public, but in the safety of his mind he regularly congratulates himself on his surety. You see, John Blandi thinks of himself as a skeptic, or in his more deluded moments a true zetetic, but, in fact, he is nothing more than a fundamentalist materialist and a pseudoskeptic. Blandi believes he is a Knight on a Holy Quest to protect us from pseudo-science, irrationality, magic and general pocus of the hocus variety. He believes that he believes in science, but because he fails to acknowledge the crucial element of scientific enquiry – an open mind – what he in fact practices is the Idolatry of the “One True Religion” – Science.
In a previous incarnation John Blandi was a stage magician known throughout the world as The Astounding Blandi. He had charm and charisma to burn and wowed audiences from Rome to Cairo and from Paris to New York with his incredible slight of hand, his powerful illusions, his skill at misdirection and so much more. His audiences wanted magic and Blandi delivered in spades. But then a guy named Purey Sweller burst onto the scene with a show that far superseded John’s. For Purey claimed to be able to bend spoons and fix watches with just the power of his mind. The world was transfixed! John Blandi, however, was seething with rage and indignation for he “knew” all magic was smoke and mirrors and therefore Sweller was a charlatan (the jury is still out on this one). He then swore to make it his life work to expose Sweller and anyone else who claimed to have extraordinary powers. He wished to save the world from spurious claims of ESP, telekinesis and psychic powers of all kinds, and his cast iron belief in Science would be his flaming sword of Truth.
Now this may sound to you like a noble and righteous thing to do, but there was one snag to Blandi’s absolutism and it was this...
Because a seemingly extraordinary event can be faked with smoke and mirrors it doesn’t necessarily hold that that event couldn’t occur by some other truly extraordinary means.
Blandi was so completely sure he had the universe all worked out, so completely deluded by what he believed was scientific method, that he’d set a challenge; anyone who could prove beyond doubt they had abilities beyond the ordinary could claim a prize of 1 million pounds. Yes, that’s right! You’d think psychics all over the world would be beating a speedy path to his door, wouldn’t you? Yet in the 40 years the challenge has been up and running no one has successfully met the criteria Blandi’s foundation has set down to even take the test. Some might suggest this is because it’s in John’s best interests to continue to be proved correct in his beliefs. It’s certainly the case that both parties involved – the tester and testee – have to agree completely on all aspects of the test. If they don’t they simply mutually agree to call it off. A very clever ploy by Blandi?
Meanwhile, back in Little Tiddlington, Artimus, who had never heard of this challenge, was enjoying a pleasant dinner with Tony, who most definitely had.
“This is delicious, Tony,” said Artimus, as he relaxed on the sofa and tucked into his prawn curry. “My culinary skills rarely stretch much further than an omelette. You’ll have to show me how this is done.”
“Of course, my good friend, it’ll be a pleasure!” exclaimed Tony.
They ate in silence for a few moments, after which Tony cleared his throat to speak.
“Arty, I was wondering if I could have a word with you about your extraordinary ability. I find it simply fascinating, you see.”
“Ability? Not sure I follow you, mate”
“Yes. That little episode yesterday…the walking through the wall thing.” said Tony, trying to keep his voice level. “Well, I know of a man in The City who’d be prepared to pay us £1,000,000 to see what you do…”
Tony left this last statement hanging. After all, what normal person could fail to be tempted by such an offer?
“Really?” said Artimus. “That’s crazy! But it’s really nothing special at all! It just kinda happens.”
“Nonsense, my friend, I think you may well be the most remarkable person in the world, and with my business acumen you could be wealthy beyond your wildest dreams! This £1,000,000 prize would be just the start! Imagine. Touring the world together…The Most Amazing Man Who Ever Lived!
Artimus looked Tony briefly in the eye then averted his gaze allowing it to rest on the carpet which sported an intriguing pattern reminiscent of a depiction of Quetzecoatl he’d seen in National Geographic. It gave Artimus a headache. Tony, unaware of this rather non-linear line of thought, was desperately trying to gauge Arty’s response.
“It’s a lot to take in, I know. Perhaps you need some time to mull it over?” offered Tony.
“Tony, it’s very kind of you to think of me like this, but it really is nothing special… and I’m certainly not the type to seek fortune and fame. What would I do with a million pounds? I mean, I love Little Tiddlington. Why would I want to leave? Everyone I care about is here. I have my chickens to consider. Oh, and I’m involved in quite a tricky chess match right now…”
“A Chess match! Chickens! Arty, you could buy all the chickens in the world! Play chess with the grandmasters! Don’t you see? You could do anything your heart desires!”
Tony was sweating now and his heart was racing. Remembering his pranayama training he took some deep cleansing breaths and tried to compose himself. He’d never lost it like this in The City. He was steely-eyed and hard-nosed. He was a predator. He was King. But here, in this tiny village, in this little house, sat before him an opportunity he could never have imagined and he was in danger of blowing it because this moron wanted to play chess with his chickens, or something.
Artimus, being the kind of guy he was, was finding Tony’s agitation discomforting. Seeing a friend of his, however new, so distressed was a novel experience for our hero and he didn’t like it one bit. The folks of Little Tiddlington were a content and peaceful bunch on the whole who rarely felt or expressed anything other than gratitude for the simple but idyllic life they’d built. So Artimus decided there and then to do whatever he could to make his friend happy.
“Okay, Tony, I’ll do it on one condition. I don’t want any publicity.”
“Great! I knew you’d see sense, Arty... Er, did you say…no publicity?” Tony was on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster right now.
“Yes, that’s right. I like my quiet life. I don’t see why we can’t do this without everyone knowing who I am.”
Tony took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a few seconds. He had him! He was back in the loop. This pathetic little half-wit had no idea what he was worth. Okay, he was planning on blazing him all over the papers, but this no publicity angle could work too. He could be the star of the show instead. Like Bubbles was to Michael Jackson. Okay, he was going against doctors orders, but this was an opportunity no one could refuse. He was sure his heart would understand.
“Hey, no problem! If that’s how you want it, buddy, that’s how we’ll play it.” He said. “We could have you in a mask – totally anonymous – no one need ever know.”
So this is exactly what they decided to do.
Tony spent the next few days on the phone to agents, journalists, television companies and, most importantly, Blandi’s foundation. It was decided the test would take place in The Big City the following Wednesday at noon. Because of Tony’s connections and high-flying reputation he was taken a lot more seriously than most. Not just anyone could get away with styling Artimus as The Most Amazing Man Who Ever Lived, but Tony was a promotional genius. He’d whipped the media up into a frenzy - especially as he refused to reveal the identity of this mysterious man who could apparently walk through walls. The tabloid rags ran stories every day pleading with the public to reveal anything they knew about this mystery man. The broadsheets laughed it off as an obvious publicity grabbing hoax, and trashy TV shows discussed the subject day and night. But not one journalist thought to travel to Little Tiddlington and ask around the village. You see, no one would entertain the thought that The Most amazing Man… could possibly hail from such an insignificant place. Of course, none of Artimus’s friends would have revealed a thing even if they had. Not that kind of village, you see. But then you already knew that.
Artimus, for his part, spent the lead up to the Big Day exactly as he would any other week. He mucked out his chickens, got down to some serious chess, painted a beautiful landscape as a present for Regina the hairdresser, and lovingly served his friends in the general store. Bert Borstal the store owner, drafted in his son, Bart, to cover Arty’s shifts for a couple of days and Versuvius the Postie promised to feed his chickens after his round. Everything was sorted.
The big day soon arrived and we find Tony holding court on the steps outside Blandi’s foundation surrounded by a throng of journalists and TV cameras. Artimus is standing beside him utterly bemused by the attention, but praising his foresight in wishing to remain anonymous. Okay, he’d really rather not be wearing the mask, which had been hastily, but expertly, fashioned by a designer girlfriend of Tony’s from a deep purple satin finished with a big yellow question mark on the forehead, but at least Tony hadn’t insisted on a purple suit to complete the ensemble. The last couple of days had been a strange and intriguing departure but he was missing his normal life back in Little Tiddlington. He couldn’t see the appeal of The Big City at all. It was loud, smelly and invasive, and everyone seemed to be one step away from either suicide or homicide. Tony, however, was absolutely in his element. He felt like a king again, and he knew the world was his for the taking.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the press,” exclaimed Tony, “it is fills me with excitement and delight to present to you The Most Amazing Man Who Ever Lived! I know many of you have doubted His astonishing ability – I would too if I hadn’t witnessed it with my own two eyes - but today we will prove it beyond doubt! This incredible individual will literally walk through walls to claim the £1,000,000 prize offered up by Blandi’s foundation and at the same time prove to him, and you, the astounding is not just possible, but standing before you right now! From this day forward the world will never be the same and you, good people, will be here to witness it!”
At this point, and amidst a clamour of questions, John Blandi emerged from solid oak doors of his foundation building with a look of hastily concealed contempt upon his face. He made a point of shaking both Artimus and Tony’s hands before turning to face the press. Frankie Fabricator, The correspondent from leading tabloid newspaper The Chump said, “Mr Blandi, you’ve had many folks claiming extraordinary powers pass through your doors. Not one of them passed your initial test. Do you think this man beside you will be any different? Do you think your money is under threat?”
Blandi let out a little laugh and replied, “Of course not. Nobody can walk through walls. It’s utterly preposterous! I can assure you my £1,000,000 is very safe.”
At this Blandi turned dramatically and offered the open door to Tony and Artimus.
“Shall we go inside and get this over with?” he said.
“Why of course, John. The world awaits, after all!” replied an ebullient Tony.
Once inside the foundation Blandi turned and said,” Follow me, Mystery Man,” as he’d taken to referring to Arty. “And do try to keep up!”
He strode confidently down a long silent corridor with Tony matching him stride for stride. Artimus ambled along behind seemingly without a care in the world. The foundation was previously a mental institution and Blandi had seen no reason to brighten the place up. It was a place of serious work, after all, and, in his opinion, most of the people he saw here would have been candidates for a long stay in its previous capacity. The corridor was lined with a succession of serious looking, and very definitely closed, doors. They passed a number of serious closed looking people too. People who seemed to radiate a “you may be wearing a purple mask with a ridiculous yellow question mark emblazoned on your forehead, but I’m far too serious and important to take any notice of such foolishness” type of aura. Artimus wasn’t really taking any of this in as his mind had wandered off to the chess match he was playing back in the village. He’d just realised his opponent had made a crucial error and if he played queen to bishop four he’d have checkmate. As often happens when our Hero gets distracted, he quite accidentally walked through a partitioning wall - a wall Tony and Blandi had just taken the conventional route around. He did consider mentioning it, but as they were both ignoring him and concentrating on out striding each other he decided to let it go. Why ruin their fun? Anyway, it seemed that they had arrived at their destination.
“Okay, Mystery Man, the test is simple,” said Blandi, after he’d shown them into a room exactly like all those they’d passed. “All you have to do to claim the prize is walk through that 12 inch thick concrete wall in front of you into the next room. We have teams of researchers, video, infra-red and PK detectors in both rooms to record the results. When I’m proven correct again and absolutely nothing happens I’ll be happy to kick…sorry, I mean escort you out personally.”
“Ha! No problem for The Most Amazing Man Who Ever Lived!” exclaimed Tony. “Right, buddy?”
“Well…” started Artimus.
Tony cut in. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes, Blandi. Just you have that cash ready!”
“Yes. Quite…So we’re agreed? Mystery Man here walks through the wall right now or it’s all off.”
“Absolutely,” grinned Tony, and they both looked expectantly at Artimus.
Artimus couldn’t walk through the wall. He tried valiantly and a chuckling Blandi even let him have a couple of goes, but it didn’t matter how many attempts he had it wasn’t going to happen. Of course, you and I both know – as did Artimus and everyone else in Little Tiddlington - he had no control over the phenomenon. Tony, who didn’t know this because he’d not listened to a damn word our hero had said for three days, was apoplectic. He screamed at Artimus to get his stupid dumb arse into gear and walk through the blank wall, but funnily enough that wasn’t the motivating factor he’d hoped it would be. No, Artimus wasn’t going to be walking through any walls on demand today or any other day.
Back outside John Blandi revelled in telling the press that he was, of course, vindicated, and his million pounds were not going anywhere today. The press couldn’t wait to question Tony, who was in a state of extreme hypertension. He tried to avoid them, but, well, you know the press. He’d been made to look a damn fool and they love nothing more. Fortunately for Artimus no one was really bothered too much about him. He’s taken his mask off in the confusion and blended unremarkably into the background. The Most Amazing Man Who Ever Lived was no more. Besides, once Tony’s heart gave out on him, requiring immediate assistance from the police and ambulance men who were on duty, there were far more pressing stories to write. So Artimus left Tony to the professionals (he’d now realised he wasn’t exactly the friend he’d made out to be) and made his way to the station to buy a ticket home. He’d had more than enough of this little adventure, thank you very much, and longed for some semblance of normality.
Returning to Little Tiddlington Artimus found everything was exactly as he had left it. Well, almost everything. Versuvius had cared well for Arty’s chickens and Bart had enjoyed his stint in the store. Regina had given the painting Arty did for he birthday pride of place in her salon for everyone to enjoy and the cricket team were ever closer to winning the league. Everyone was glad he was home and no one seemed particularly anxious to hear about his trip. They quite correctly intuited that nothing that happened in The Big City was going to enrich their already perfect life - which was just how Artimus wanted it. Everybody, however, were very pleased to see a For Sale sign go up outside number 25 Leary Street. Dr Incendiary had taken control and admitted Tony to a nice little nursing home where he could be watched properly. His entrepreneurial days were over. Next door at number 23 Artimus settled down by the fire and played the killer checkmate move he’d thought of in The City.
“I do believe that’s checkmate,” he said with some satisfaction.
His opponent, who just happened to be the ghost of his long dead father, smiled in a resigned but accepting fashion and congratulated him on a game well played.
“I taught you too well, lad. I’ll be dead a long time before I get the beating of you again!”
His spectral mother looked proudly down on him from the ceiling and said,” Well done, my boy! Set ‘em up again and I’ll show you how it’s done!”
Of course, to anyone outside Little Tiddlington this might be considered a quite extraordinary scene, but to Artimus, of course, it was nothing special.