Friday, 11 April 2014

A Trader Among Us


Spring is here, and for me at least that also means the start of the show season, after my long winter’s nap. I was at my first wargame show of the year only last weekend. Perhaps you were there too and we chatted, but quite possibly not, as I fall into that peculiar category of Non-Male Gamer.

To spare blushes all round, let’s call this particular show Fracas ’14, following the tried and trusted formula of ‘something fighty + the year’ (which raises the dire spectre of a show called Combat 18 in four years’ time). If there really is a Fracas wargames show somewhere in the world, please let me apologise now. At any rate, this show took place in a school or sports centre somewhere in the UK, and I was there in my official capacity of ‘trader’s hanger-on’. This means I get the tea and bacon sandwiches, bang on endlessly about Doctor Who, and occasionally hand small metal figures over to customers in return for money. My time as anything remotely resembling a booth babe are sadly several years, and pounds, behind me.

The first thing that happens as I walk into the show hall is that the folks on the entrance table won’t let me pay. It’s under a fiver, but they tell me women and children go free. Try as I might, the ticket chaps won’t take my money and just wave me inside. Why complain about that, you may well ask? You just got in free – surely that’s a result. Yes, true, but I really would like to pay my way. I’m not in financial difficulty and I don’t need ‘ladies night’ style inducements to come into this predominantly male domain. I know about pillboxes and tanks, for goodness’ sake! I know sculptors and painters and scenery designers. I’ve written combat rules and can measure the blast radius of a mortar attack in inches at a glance. I’ve even read Anthony Beevor’s phone book-sized Stalingrad from cover to cover and only very occasionally nodded off.

What I’m trying to say - with possibly a hint of stereotypical hysterics - is that it is conceivably possible for persons of the female persuasion to actually want to come to a games show. Not all women are there simply to be dragged around a hall full of demo games and trade stands on a Sunday afternoon by their husband/boyfriend/sons, helpfully carrying a large bag full of recently-purchased polystyrene scenery while their menfolk root around the bring and buy for an old box of Descent On Crete. Some, like me, might want to be there in their own right.

But here’s the really funny thing about going to a show that I’ve noticed. Women develop the super-power of invisibility the moment they walk into the hall. Other women can see each other - they wave hello from behind trade stands to familiar faces in a ‘fancy seeing you here again isn’t it a bit chilly’ sort of way. But for many men, women are evidently invisible or see-through or, I don’t know, cloaked like the Predator. I know this is true because I’ve experienced it on countless occasions myself.

I’ll be stood there behind the trade stand with my male chum, playing the delicate cat-and-mouse game of customer engagement: say hello too briskly and you may spook them off, say nothing and they may drift away unloved and unenhanced by our fine products. It’s like fishing for skittish human beings. One or two chaps are loitering around the stand, eyeing the goods in a potentially purchasey manner. One of them is already talking to my chum, possibly asking him when we’re bringing out a heavy weapons crew for our range or asking for a rules clarification. And I’ll be stood there right next him, trying to catch the eye of one of the other guys on the other side of the table, giving the half-smile and raised eyebrows of the time-honoured non-verbal ‘can I help you’ opening.

But do they notice? Do they make eye contact? Do we chat about release schedules and rule supplements and ranged attacks? No, not very often, to be honest. I’m knocking on six foot tall and  wearing my ‘hello my name is Helena please talk to me’ t-shirt, which I got specially made as an ice-breaker, so by all rights, they should be able to see me. But apparently not. They would rather mill around waiting for their chance to talk to the chap next to me, so I can only conclude that my mysterious invisibility powers - which would be frankly awesome if they worked at any other time - have kicked in once again.

Now, I’ve exaggerated for comic effect of course. But not by much. Some guys will quite happily come over and engage with me. Some will converse about the agony of dry-brushing Skaven fur or the relative merits of the Liberator vs Scorpio. Some offer me fudge. And a few have been hilariously unable to raise their gaze from a point approximately twelve inches below my eyes. But hey, at least they can see me, or at least a part of me.

This sounds like a big long whine, but it’s really not intended as such. I’m just saying: do come over if you see me behind the stand. I’m the tall strangely-shaped one. Do not be afraid. Talk to me. I will talk back to you. Perhaps you will buy something from me and we will emerge from our brief encounter satisfied (you) and enriched (me). At the very least I will know that I’m no longer invisible.

But you know the best bit about being a woman at a games show? The loos. They’re always empty! I was talking to another woman after Colours at Newbury racecourse last year and we realised that we practically had the ladies to ourselves for the entire weekend. She had all the ones on the left, I had all the ones on the right. Luxury.

An edited version of this article first appeared in Miniature Wargames #372, March 2014

Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Night My Parents Came To Kill Me


Here’s something I wrote for a creative course a few years ago. The assignment’s brief was something that deeply affected me. Do read on.

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I did try to think of some nice incidents in my life to talk about, honest I did. It’s not that there haven’t been any beautiful moments; there have. But I think I’m a bit embarrassed when it comes to the mushy stuff. Now, funny, embarrassing and/or terrifying moments from my personal history, those I can do. So this is about the night my parents came to kill me.

It must have been sometime around 1982, which would have made me twelve or thirteen years old. I was at the age where my parents had begun to let me stay up quite late to watch television. My brother, two years younger, would have been packed off to bed an hour or two before me, so I was able to enjoy one of those great privileges of being the older child. I could watch things he couldn’t, and then tell him about them in the morning, mainly to show off. I loved it.

Sometimes I saw some real gems of the early 80’s, like Soap, which spoofed American daytime dramas I had never seen. It was this funny programme about two feuding families, but here’s the weird thing, and just goes to show how the age of the viewer totally affects how they experience something. For about four episodes, Soap terrified me. It was a subplot about a baby being possessed by the Devil. It boiled down to this one scene: a lavish child’s bedroom, with a cot in the centre. The child itself is unseen, the crib facing away from the audience. The lights in the bedroom flash on and off spastically, the windows at the back blow in from a sudden gale, and all the toys start to fly about. The worst bit by far was the baby’s voice. This deep man’s voice laughing like the Devil. Now, more than two decades on, I can laugh at the silly voice and talk about how it’s just a spoof of Rosemary’s Baby. But at my tender pre-teen age, it scared the life out of me.

I must have hidden my fear well though, because my parents continued to let me stay up late and watch all sorts of things that, in retrospect, were quite unsuitable. I think I saw more horror films before the age of thirteen than anyone else at my school. My dad was a bit of a horror film fan, and had often regaled us all with his renditions of masterpieces like Les Diaboliques, Onibaba and Das Totenschiff. Looking back on that list now, I think it’s just as likely that he was into foreign films, some of which inevitably happened to be horror. But it was the spooky stuff he told us about, and infected us with. He certainly never let me stay up late to watch Jules et Jim.

So horror films were a fixture in my young life. I loved those nights when I was getting ready for bed just as something good was starting on the TV. In my mind, I see myself looking intently at the screen over my shoulder as I take my sweet time getting up off the sofa and inching towards the stairs, hoping that Mum or Dad would get the message and let me stay.

On this one particular night, there was a new film on BBC1. It was Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. I’d heard of it already, because there was had been an advert for the film on the back of the American comics I collected. The picture hadn’t given much away, but the fact that it had been advertised on the back of an issue of the Fantastic Four and was now here on British telly was good enough for me. I had to see it. This was the 1979 version of the film, by the way, not the black and white original with, crucially, the slightly upbeat ending tagged on. This was the bleak remake with Donald Sutherland. If you’ve not seen it, look away now, because I’m about to spoil the end scene.

Previously, a handful of men and women have discovered that people are being replaced by alien pod-creatures as soon as they fall asleep, and so are forced to spend a terrifying night on the run from the increasing numbers of body snatchers as they are gradually whittled down one by one. In the last scene it is finally dawn and one of the survivors, a woman, stumbles down a city street trying not to betray herself to the emotionless clone-people walking by her. She sees a fellow survivor, played by Donald Sutherland, and staggers over to him, gratefully blurting out her story. He stares back at her impassively, then raising an accusing finger, lets out the trademark howl of the body snatchers, alerting his fellow pod people to her presence. And that’s the end of the movie. The pod creatures take over the world and everybody dies.

Hell of an ending.

I was shaking in my pyjamas. This was much worse than Forbidden Planet or any of the Hammerish horror films I’d seen, even the one about the zombies on the trans-Siberian express. As the man from the BBC announced closedown and the national anthem started to roll, Mum sent me upstairs to brush my teeth and go to bed. And this is where it gets really scary.

We lived in a big detached house in the woods. A great place in daytime, with a massive garden to play in and a tree house down the bottom. But at night, it felt different. There were no street lights outside. The other houses were hidden from view by screens of trees and thick sprawling rhododendrons. Inside was little better. My parents, ever conscious of the electric bill, insisted on lighting being kept to a minimum at night. So there would be one 40-watt bulb for the upstairs hallway, just enough to get you from your bedroom at one end to the bathroom at the other. And there was another problem; there was another floor above ours. The stairs leading up there were curtained off by a thick blanket, mainly to keep the heat in, but it also meant that there was this concealing but all-too flimsy screen that I would have to navigate past if I was to make it to the bathroom and back.

So that was the situation: gone midnight, post-Body Snatchers, I was stood at the top of the stairs, the reassuring lights of the living room below terminating at my feet. Ahead was the dimly lit hallway, with the spooky blanket hanging down halfway along. At the end was the bathroom, and beyond, my parents’ bedroom. They were still downstairs, doing all the ritual locking-up tasks my dad insisted on every night. My brother was already safely asleep in his bedroom at my back. If the body snatchers got him now, he’d never know about it.

I trotted quickly to the bathroom, the left side of my body tingling in anticipation of something jumping out from behind the blanket. It hadn’t happened so far, but every night the danger was there. Having reached the bathroom, all I had to do was brush my teeth and I’d be halfway done. I stood at the sink, one eye on the mirror so I could see the open doorway behind me. The fact that this precaution would be no good against a vampire was ever present in my mind. And still is, if I’m honest, every time I look in the rear-view mirror of my car at night. I hadn’t closed the door; the reasoning being that I preferred to see monsters coming, rather than opening the door and having them right there in my face. I suppose I feared surprises just a little bit more than any actual creature.

Unmolested by vampires, I finished my teeth and stood at the bathroom doorway, one hand on the light switch, as it was forbidden to leave extra lights on. All that was left now was to get back down the hallway and jump into bed, where I had my own bedside light and a massive torch from Tandy’s that doubled as a deadly club. It was at this point that my parents came up the stairs to kill me.

Just like in a classic horror film, I first saw the elongated shadows coming up the stairs, accompanied by a dreadful creaking beneath their feet. I was frozen at the bathroom door as my mum and dad marched slowly upstairs and turned woodenly toward me. And then I saw what they were carrying. It was a pod. One of the long green marrow type things that the body snatchers used to shrivel you up and grow an alien replacement that would howl. They stepped toward me.

Almost exactly like this. But in colour.

I think I slammed and locked the bathroom door on them. Thank God that this was the only room upstairs with a lock, ever since my second cousin Marcus had come to visit and been funny about using a toilet you couldn’t lock. I backed away from the door as far as I could. Not like in those films where they put their face right up against the door so the monster could just stick its clawed fist straight through and rip their face off. My body had gone all hot and cold at the same time, and the skin on my shoulders, neck and head felt funny. This was it. In the time it had taken for me to brush my teeth, my parents had been taken over by the body snatchers and now they’d come for me. I would eventually fall asleep in the bath and be shrivelled up.

It probably took my mum about ten minutes to convince me it was all a joke. I think I looked through the keyhole to make sure, which is when I saw that the ‘pod’ was in fact my brother’s toy marrow, a big plastic vegetable with a friendly smiley face and antennae. They didn’t sound all that emotionless, so I eventually relented and unlocked the bathroom door, wiping snot and tears with my sleeve, and trying to make out that of course I wasn’t scared. I thought they were burglars; that’s what it was. Not body snatchers, that was stupid.

They did then start to feel a bit bad. Possibly they saw through my fa├žade of coolness and suspected that perhaps I was still a bit too young for that sort of film, or at least too young for a practical joke about them being taken over by alien pod people and then coming for me. I think that was the last horror film they let me watch for a while.

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