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Alan and Robin Meet the Ghost in the Machine

“What shall we do to celebrate your birthday?” asked Robin.

“Let's go out for dinner,” I suggested.

And so that's exactly what we did. We booked a table at our favourite restaurant and we invited several close friends to help us celebrate.

When the great day arrived, Robin and I got dressed in our very best clothes, none of which had any significant pockets because they were our very best clothes. People put things in pockets and the pockets bulge. That destroys the sleek and sexy outline that a body dressed in its very best clothes presents to the world. And therefore, because I was lacking in significant pockets, I loaded my man bag up with tissues, my mobile phone, my wallet and my keys. Then we threw the cats out of the lounge, closed all the doors, turned the burglar alarm on and got ready to leave the house. Robin, who was driving, held her keys in her hand as we left the house. She opened the garage door, turned off the burglar alarm and pressed the magic gadget on her key ring to unlock the car. We got in and made ourselves comfortable. I opened the garage door with the garage door opener gadget, and Robin drove the car out of the garage and into the street.

We drove down the street, chatting of this and that. Robin signalled a left turn.

“Did you know that in English a double negative actually means a positive rather than a negative?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Robin. “When Mick Jagger sang that he couldn't get no satisfaction, grammatically speaking he was boasting about the number of his conquests even though idiomatically he was complaining about how he hardly ever managed to get his end away.”

“That's right,” I agreed. “Apparently it's quite a common construction in a lot of languages. But the interesting thing, according to this article I read, is that the reverse isn't true. There are no languages, absolutely none at all, where a double positive actually means a negative. Isn't that fascinating?”

“Yeah, right,” said Robin.

No sooner had the words left her mouth than the locks on all the doors slammed shut and the hazard lights started to flash. The God of Travel, it seemed, did not approve of linguistic discussions.

“Expletive deleted,” said Robin and she pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. She turned the engine off, but the hazard lights continued to flash and the doors remained locked. Robin played with the lock and unlock buttons on her magic gadget and eventually normality returned.

“That was a bit worrying,” she said. “I hate problems with a car's electronics. They are always so hard to track down and repair. I hope this isn't serious – I'd hate to get stranded in the middle of nowhere on the way to the restaurant. We might actually starve to death!”

“Fingers crossed that it doesn't happen again,” I said. “Perhaps it's just a one off.”

Robin started the car and, signalling right, pulled out into the stream of traffic. Soon we were cruising happily at exactly the speed limit. Angry drivers roared past us, furious that we were travelling so slowly.

“How many Freudian psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?” I asked Robin, hoping to distract her with humour.

“I don't know,” said Robin, playing the game. “How many Freudian psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Two,” I explained. “One to change the bulb and one to hold the penis... I mean the stepladder.”

Robin laughed, and the door locks slammed shut and the hazard lights started to flash again. Obviously the God of Travel didn't like willy jokes either. There was a large and empty car park just to our left. “Pull in there,” I suggested.

Once we'd safely stopped, I took my keys out of my bag and we both manipulated our gadgets until the doors unlocked and the hazard lights stopped flashing. We got out and walked round the car, peering suspiciously here and there. Neither of us could see anything obviously wrong, though neither of us had any idea what we were looking for. But there were no dangling wires and no obviously missing bits.

“You drive around the car park,” said Robin, “and I'll watch and we'll see if we can make it happen again.”

To hear is to obey. I drove around the car park for a while but absolutely nothing out of the normal happened. “Try going a bit faster,” suggested Robin, “and slam on the brakes – see if that jogs anything loose.”

I drove faster. I braked hard. Nothing happened. I put my keys back in my bag and settled down in the passenger seat. Robin started the car and pulled out into the traffic again. Third time lucky.

“Have you heard about Bobby Fischer?” I asked Robin.

“You mean the man who was the eleventh world chess champion?” asked Robin.

“Yes, that's him,” I said. “He was really dedicated to chess. There seemed to be very little room in his world for anything except the game. Anyway, one day he was being interviewed by a reporter who was intrigued by Fischer's monomaniacal obsession. The reporter asked him if he'd rather play chess or have sex.”

“That's quite a question,” observed Robin. “How did Fischer answer it?”

“He thought carefully for a while and then he said, 'It depends on the position...'”

“Why is that car flashing its lights at us?” asked Robin.

“I don't know,” I said. And even as the words left my lips another car travelling in the opposite direction to us, flashed its lights. So did the next car. And the next...

“I'm not speeding,” said Robin, “and I've got my lights on. What else can it possibly be?”

“Perhaps there's something showing on the front of our car,” I suggested. “It might be something connected with the problems we were having earlier? Maybe we're about to lock the doors and flash the hazard light again. Perhaps the God of Travel doesn't like chess jokes either?”

“Should I pull over so we can check the car again?” asked Robin.

I was about to say yes, when we turned a corner and all was revealed. The police had set up a check point and they were breath testing all the drivers. Witch hat traffic cones constrained the traffic to one lane and a long queue of policeman made vague gestures at us.

“What are they wanting me to do?” asked Robin, confused. “Should I stop? Should I slow down and drive to the front of the line?”

“I don't know,” I said, equally confused by the long line of wobbly policemen.

Robin slowed down and the policemen speeded up, arms waving in a semaphore of incomprehensible instructions. Eventually we reached the very last policeman. He was standing stock still in the middle of the road holding up his right hand. “I think I'll stop here,” said Robin. “I don't want to run him over.”

She opened her window and the policeman came over to us. “Good evening, madam,” he said.

“Hello,” said Robin. “I wondered why all the cars were flashing their lights at me. Now I know.”

“Quite,” said the policeman dryly. He presented a small black box. “Please count down from ten into this device.”

“Ten,” said Robin. “Nine. Eight...”

When she reached zero I half expected the policeman to zoom up into the sky on jets of fire. But instead, he simply frowned at his device for a while, then he turned it round so that Robin could see the screen. “NO ALCOHOL” it said.

“Thank you madam,” said the policeman. “Have a good evening.” He waved us on and turned his attention to the car behind us.

“Well, that was fun,” said Robin as we drove away.

“I'm surprised he made you count,” I said. “Every time I've been stopped at these checkpoints I've had to say my name and address.”

“Perhaps it's a test of brainpower as well as a test of sobriety,” suggested Robin. “I was half tempted to count inside out for him. I'm sure that would have impressed the socks off him!”

“What's counting inside out?” I asked. “I've never heard of that.”

“Really?” said Robin, surprised. And then she counted to ten inside out. “Five, six, four, seven, three, eight, two, nine, one, ten.”

“Wow!” I said. “That's impressive.”

“I can count inside out to twenty as well,” said Robin smugly. “Would you like to hear me?”

“No,” said. “We've arrived at the restaurant.”

“Pity,” said Robin as she parked the car. “It's really difficult to count inside out when the numbers get large.”

“I imagine it is,” I said. “What's the largest number you've ever done?”

“I think I managed fifty once. But I had to concentrate really hard.”

She turned the car off and took the keys out of the ignition. I leaned forward and picked up my bag from the floor. The locks slammed shut and the hazard lights started to flash. We stared at each other in wild surmise.

“You've got your keys in your bag, haven't you?” Robin asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“And your key ring has the car locking gadget on it, doesn't it?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Something in your bag is pressing against the gadget, and that's what caused all our problems as we drove here,” she said.

“Yes,” I said.

We got the car settled down and then we went into the restaurant.

“After all I've been through tonight,” said Robin, “I think I deserve extra chocolate for dessert.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Happy birthday,” said Robin.

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