Reduced in circumstance he wouldn’t be ‘Stick Man’ if it wasn’t for the financial need to continue his profession. The public seem to perceive those working in the super powers industry live the executive lifestyle and fraternise with long-legged models and celebrities. It may be true for those whose lives are documented and fictionalised by the producers of comic books and film. But not for those at the opposite end of the superhero spectrum. When his license as ‘Super Stealth’ was revoked due to ‘operational failings’ caused by the need for a hip replacement and the removal of a cataract in his left eye, it began a spiral of downsizing. The invisibility-shielded silver Stealthmobile was taken from him without notice and replaced by an ivory handled walking cane that doubles as a sword-stick. A crime fighting weapon of ingenuity in the days of Sherlock Holmes but as good as useless to the superhero who on occasion finds himself confronted by a yob armed with a laser pen. They also reduced his salary, necessitating a move to a much smaller house out on the moors, many miles from the nearest chemist, doctor and supermarket, the essential amenities for someone of his age. Sometimes he cannot help but think the Commissioners at the League of Superheroes wish him to die before he can draw his pension.
“Did you remember the spinach?”
“Of course. Who do you think I am? ‘Forgetful Man’?”
“Fancy you remembering ‘Forgetful Man’. No one ever remembers him these days.” Vera smiles as she takes the package from him, her smile one of her own more subtle superpowers. “These days it is a red letter day when you remember where the perimeters of the toilet bowl are.”
Old age is the bane of every old man’s life. For a Superhero it is a bane crossed with a Machiavellian trickster. Not so long ago when he was ‘Super Stealth’, defender of the sick, the vulnerable and the victims of crime, he walked with a spring in his step and a theme tune in his wake. He was someone. His pride only matched by his humility. Now he is reduced to being ‘Stick Man’, doing what he can, when he feels up to it. The spinach is to boost his iron intake. His wife, too, is grasping at straws.
“Anything to enter in the report diary?” she asks, taking his hat and coat and plumping the cushions in the armchair by the window. “Only blue tits on the feeder today.”
“I rescued a black cat from a tree.”
“No wonder you look exhausted. I’ll make you some cocoa.”
He likes cocoa, though whether superheroes should indulge in milky chocolate drinks is a question that can cause his conscience at times to bring on a bout of dyspepsia. “I used the power of my eye to visualise him to the ground. I couldn’t have climbed up to him. Not at --.” Not that age should be a matter of concern for superheroes.
“I’ll record it. It’ll help toward your pension.” Superheroes do not contribute financially toward their pension pot; it is a points based system, superheroes gaining points for missions successfully accomplished, much in the way primary school kids get gold stars for getting their arithmetic right.
If it wasn’t for Vera the paperwork would never be filed and e-mailed to head office. As old age is now, paperwork has always been a bane to him, both as ‘Stealth Man’ and now as ‘Stick Man’. He was always a man of derring-do, a man of action; his mind is just not cut out for the penmanship end of the job.
“You never see Wonder Man with a pen in his hand,” Vera muses. “Mind, he can afford an accountant, can’t he? You didn’t stroke the cat, did you? You know how cat hairs bring you out in hives.” Living with a superhero is one worry after another after a whole lot more.
This is another grievance for superheroes such as Stick Man, or Albert Spurrier as he is known by those who ‘know’ him. Stanley Life, the insurers and pension providers for superheroes around the world, is being investigated by the regulators of the industry, with rumours of fraud surrounding its president, ‘The Green Champion’, a squeaky clean character who nowadays teaches the benefits of recycling to school children. A cushy number if there ever was one. Even if he does out-wit the efforts of the commissioners and lives to see retirement, will there be a pension for him to receive?
When he first realised he possessed super powers and signed along the dotted line there was no age restraint to when a superhero could retire. Now they have imposed a new rule that two doctors must declare a superhero no longer fit for purpose before the retirement clause in the contract is invoked and even then, as colleagues write in the trade paper, there can be a long delay before the first cheque arrives through the letterbox. If only a spark of super power remains within a super hero he must continue to work. Which is why Albert, or ‘Stick Man’, must rescue cats from trees, slow traffic to help the elderly cross the road and do all the trivial superhero stuff the big boys like Superman and Spider Man would never consider their business. He doesn’t even have a body-suit provided and must make do with his worsted three-piece that in winter lets in the cold and brings on his rheumatics.
His enjoyment of the cocoa and his view of the bird feeder is interrupted by the ring of the big red phone that is another bug-bear of his life. In the age of the information super highway, he, an indispensable member of the rescue services, must rely of the technology of yesteryear because the roll-out of ‘cutting edge interconnectedness of superheroes wherever they reside’ is yet to roll anywhere close to North Devon, especially since he has had to move to the moors where broadband is barely 3G, let alone 4G. Even the ‘Red Dragon’, the superhero of the Welsh Valleys, and as meek and mild a character as any fire-breathing superhero can be, was moved to write to the ‘The Caped Crusader’, the trade newspaper, with a tirade of complaints about having to operate a rescue service with the tools of the ‘Dark Ages’, only to receive a censure for his lack of loyalty from the Head Commissioner at the League of Superheroes and forced to attend a two-week disciplinary course.
Vera hands him the phone. “If you’re going to be late home nip in the chip shop and get yourself a fish supper. I can’t cook two meals, not at my age.” Vera could never have imagined that marriage to a superhero could ever be the way it has turned out and must look away whenever she sees someone wearing a Superman t-shirt, envious of the royalties Superman must be earning from the image rights.
The glamour of being married to a freak of nature went with the onset of the menopause. As ‘Stick Man’ she now has to help tie his shoes and make sure his bow tie is straight. If he had been home more and a little less dedicated she might have had a family, perhaps an heir to inherit the powers of the father. But ‘Super Stealth’ never passed on his genes as his father had done and as ‘Stick Man’ it would be a miracle of procreation unseen since the days of Abraham for a family to come along now. She supposes it is a sadness borne by every woman married to a superhero.
It is high summer and in North Devon that means heavy traffic on roads designed for coach and horses. It is also the favourite time of year for road-mending and for farmers to take their tractors and trailers for a runout, so by the time he found his way to the old woman’s cottage, the fire brigade had beaten him to it and put out the pan fire. Next to a ride in the Air Ambulance there is no better kudos than to be rescued from a burning building by a superhero and the old woman gave him a witches stare as the medics helped her into the ambulance. It was hard to determine who was the most humiliated.
“Not my fault. Got there as quick as I could.” It is a pain without medical relief to be a shadow of the former self. It’s just not what being a superhero is about; letting people down, having to apologise and to stand back to allow ordinary humans accept glory he should have earned.
“They shouldn’t have revoked your license to fly,” Vera reaffirms for the umpteenth time since the letter informing him of the ban arrived. She, too, is hurt by her husband’s inability to be the man he once used to be; to have him under her feet when he could be flying like a bird. Or at least at the helm of an invisible super car. “Who has ever heard of a superhero losing their false teeth in flight?”
The legislative body of the League of Superheroes responsible for issuing licenses to fly, citing Health and Safety regulations and the prohibitive cost of public liability insurance, have banned from the sky anyone who wears spectacles, false teeth or hearing aids, anyone who uses a walking stick or Zimmer frame, and those who have need of prosthetics, though disability charities are fighting in the High Court to have the ban on the limbless annulled as it is in clear breach of work-place discrimination laws.
“As if I would drop my stick. I’m not ‘Super Idiot’.”
“He’s still allowed to fly, I see. What’s the sense in that?”
Nobody would think to see him nodding off in the armchair by the window that this slightly flabby, balding, old man, when in the guise of ‘Super Stealth’, was responsible for saving thousands of people from certain death: pulling the half-drowned from upturned cars in frozen rivers, carrying the unconscious from burning buildings, plucking children from the wheels of juggernauts. Unseen work by many; unaccredited, his valour picked over by assessors who from behind mahogany desks suggest methods for improving his technique. Never once, as it is with the superstars of the superpowers industry, issuing him with a citation or word of congratulations and as ‘Stick Man’ it is his fate to never match the exploits of his former self.
His snooze is ended by the soft touch of his wife’s hand on his shoulder. “Dear, there’s a man from a newspaper at the door. Shall I let him in?”
For a moment he fishes down the side of the chair for his stick, in want of standing to greet his visitor. But then a suspicion enters his head. “What does he want?”
“He said he wants to talk to you, dear. He’s very young.”
Superheroes do not give interviews. Anonymity is the first or second requirement of a superhero. In the job description it is the first requirement, though pedants will argue that having a super power is the foremost requirement. If he should be unmasked as ‘Stick Man’ he will lose his pension rights. It is a sticky corner his wife has not recognised.
“Well, shall I let him in?”
“No, tell him I’m not in.” But of course this also breaks a superhero regulation: adherence to truthfulness. “No, tell him I’m tired. That’s true whatever time of day it is.”
He settles back in his chair to return to memories of his glory days. Yet within a few minutes his palate is itching: someone is in trouble and his extrasensory perception tells him the accident is close by. As ‘Super Stealth’ he would be on his feet and ready to fly in a second, as ‘Stick Man’ it takes a little longer, with his wife having to help him to his feet and set his clothes straight.
Down the lane, where the bridge over the stream narrows to a single carriageway, a car has ploughed through the barbed wire and gone down into the stream. It is not a swollen, savage stream as it would be if Wonder Man or Wonder Woman were involved but water is water and a man can drown in an inch of the stuff. So summoning every wattage of the energy the stick empowers him with, he is at the car reasonably quickly and without adherence to the wholly ridiculous recommendation to carry out a general risk assessment before attempting rescue, he opens the driver door, releases the driver from the seat belt and carries him in slip-shod fashion up the bank to lay him on the road in a manner that suggests he thought he was hauling potatoes. His technique these days does lacks finesse but he remains willing and that is a prime requirement of a superhero.
He is pleased with himself. It is his most satisfying rescue of recent years. The man did not even gash his head when he dropped him. But as the young man opens his eyes the suspicion returns that all is not as it should be. “Did you just knock on my door?”
“Not that it got me past the doorman.”
Nick Duke, it turns out, is not a newspaper reporter but the British representative of the League of Superheroes. “It’s taken all of my super powers to track you down, Mr.Spurrier.” No one ever laughs at the much-rehearsed witticism but he perseveres, hoping one day to find a superhero with a sense of humour.
Albert is taken aback to hear himself addressed by his proper name by someone from the head office of the League. In the paperwork Vera submits on his behalf it is required to only use his epithet.
“You said you were from the papers,” Vera argues, upset that her offer of tea and home-made scones was refused with so much haste she is convinced Nick Duke must have heard of the unfortunate incident at the Woman’s Institute when old Mrs.Pagley choked on one of her scones and Albert had to perform the Heimlich procedure on her.
“No, Mrs.Spurrier, I said I had come with papers for your husband to sign. He is now of pensionable age and if he wishes to retire from active service we can put in place the procedures required for him to do so.” He produces a sheaf of papers from his briefcase and hands them to Vera. “What was your super power, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Invisibility, mind manipulation and quietness.”
“That was as ‘Stealth Man’? And now?”
“The power of visualisation. I can sort of distort gravity. It’s waning, though. I blame it on having my cataracts done.”
“You have the stick we sent you?”
He fishes for the stick, his aid for getting about without falling over. “What about it?”
“You fly with it, I take it?”
Albert and Vera are puzzled. “But he’s had his license to fly revoked. When he had his hip done.”
“That was unaided flying. The ‘is it a plane, is it a bird’ sort of flying. The stick, if you set the control, works like an old fashioned broomstick. It was the inspiration, I believe, for the game of quidditch.”
“Control. What control?” Albert is beginning to sense that he might have missed something of importance.
It seems Albert, as is his habit when it comes to paperwork, did not bother to read the instruction leaflet that came with the stick, thinking, upon seeing the artist’s impression on the box, that its only aids were the sword-tip that popped out of the ferrule when he pressed the right eye of the horse-head handle and the boost of energy it gave him when he twiddled the left ear.
“But there is already a Wizard Man. If he zoomed around like a witch on a stick wouldn’t Albert be infringing ‘Wizard Man’s’ image rights?” Vera asks Nick Duke as he gets up to leave, the paperwork unsigned. “It seems very unsafe, what with his artificial hip.”
Nick Duke smiles. As Health and Safety representative he could quote chapter and verse from the code of practise but the tow-truck is waiting and he is not allowed to advise superheroes on whether they should retire or not, even though it would make his life a whole lot easier if he continued on active service as superheroes are as hard to find these days as pearl-divers and if Albert does retire it will mean another vacancy that will go unfilled.
Though as Albert soars over the chimney, holding on to the horse’s head as if jumping Becher’s Brook on a Shetland pony, the smile on his face suggests to Vera that he will not be retiring any day soon.