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A Man of Few Words - by Swan Morrison

The Helpline

Flames roared, and thick, black smoke billowed from the upper windows. Ron Andrews reached the public telephone box, breathless from his desperate run. He frantically dialled ‘999’.

‘Which service do you require: police, fire, ambulance, crisps, peanuts, twiglets...?’

The part of Ron’s mind screaming urgently of the nearby conflagration watched helplessly as that part responsible for speech was pressganged by curiosity. ‘Crisps?’

‘Er...yes. This is the Civil Emergencies and Snack Foods Helpline.’

Ron could not stop himself, ‘Snack Foods?’

‘That’s right. You must have seen the 24 hour helpline numbers on packets of snacks?’

‘I sometimes wonder if anyone rings them.’

‘That was the problem. I worked for a crisps helpline for five years, and only got ten calls - four of those were wrong numbers.’

‘Why didn’t they scrap the helpline?’

‘The company thought it important for public relations. Also, they’d invested thousands in my training. Of course, I used my own time and money studying their crisps too. There’s nothing I don’t know about their manufacture and distribution - from when they are first synthesised at the petrochemical plant, to when they arrive in the shops. My employer’s crisps were my whole life.’

‘So, what happened?’

‘Well, helplines for other snack foods were having the same problem. Also, with the cutbacks in public expenditure, the ‘999’ service needed sponsorship, so all were combined. Anyway, what was it you were ringing about?’

‘Oh God, yes!!! The big warehouse in Waterford Lane is on fire.’

‘No, no!!! That’s the main crisps depot. The snacks will be destroyed!!! Whatever are we going to do!!!?’

‘Try not to panic, man....Can’t you call-out the fire brigade?’

‘Oh yes...Good thinking. No, that’s no good, they’ll get them wet. Has the fire spread to the building with the red doors?’

Ron peered through the smoke towards the compound. ‘Not yet, but it’s close.’

‘The ‘Cheddar Cheese with Spring Onion’ flavour are in there. You’ve got to get them out!’

Somehow, despite the searing heat and choking fumes, Ron rolled back the lorry-bay doors to reveal one hundred cardboard boxes. He could only lift five each time, but managed the twenty trips before finally collapsing and loosing consciousness.

When Ron awoke, there was a stranger by his hospital bedside.

‘Well done, Ron,’ said the stranger, ‘I’m Martin Wittless, the ‘999’ operator. I wanted to be the first to let you know that all two thousand bags of the crisps you rescued are safe and undamaged. I don’t know how I can ever thank you.’

Ron noticed the two policemen standing behind his visitor. ‘Why the police?’ he enquired.

‘They have to be with me whenever I leave the psychiatric hospital,’ replied Martin. ‘They say I did a very bad thing getting you to save those crisps, and especially not telling the fire brigade about the fire. It grew, unchecked, for another hour and finally gutted the whole of Southampton City centre. We saved those crisps though, Ron,’ Martin smiled vacantly, his eyes glazed and distant, ‘and that’s the important thing.’