The Sofa was in shock, but the show must go on, as they say. While forensic experts were drawing a chalk outline around the prone and very stationary Ben – for it was quickly apparent that this was no natural demise – Dan pressed on, no easy task when Lizzy, Soph and Henna were sitting on the spare sofa at the back of the room, hoodies up, sniffling into their hankies like a trio of Scottish Widows. Camilla, our saucy, student Sri Lankan tweetheart, sunny of nature and heavy of bosom, emailed in to express her anguish before returning to her physics dissertation.
Harwood, standing in the doorway, immediately suggested that it must have been a gang-related killing, for these streets of Nunhead were mean, very very mean, but Ben was white, very very white and it seemed unlikely he was caught up in inner-city black-on-black gun crime.
Spitfire Sarah thought Harwood might just have had one Red Stripe too many. Henna misconstrued Harwood’s words and, wiping her tears on her I Love Henna T-shirt, took him to task for implying it might be the work of “brown” people.
The sunnily-dispositioned Spitfire Sarah, official photographer for Kent County Cricket Club and unofficial photographer for the Sofa, helpfully took a few shots of the crime scene in case it might aid the investigation. Sofa Scouser Gary asked her if she would be putting them up on her website for use in her caption competition.
Other Sofa workers tried to busy themselves, fearful that suspicion might fall on them. Miles, actor, comedian and occasional contributor, tried to steer the discussion in an entirely different direction and mostly succeeded. As England began to pile on the runs, conversation moved from random large objects that could be viewed around the globe – the World’s Greatest Ball of Twine in Kansas, the World’s Largest Cravat in Croatia (Suave’s ears pricked up at this), Camilla’s breasts – to obscure museums: the Pencil Museum in Keswick was the listeners’ favourite.
But Miles topped them all with the Museum Hotel in Wellington, which had a giant model of the New Zealand prime minister made of toast. And not just any old toast, but toast grilled to a variety of settings: there was crispy toast and soggy toast, and there was burnt toast and raw toast….
“… Isn’t raw toast just bread?” The Bear wondered aloud, sort of rhetorically. He was kind of nervous about the police presence.
What was without doubt, though, was that Ben was toast, whether of the crispy, soggy, burnt or raw variety. But who could have wanted him out of the way? Sofa-ites began to regard each other warily. It was true that Tom and Ben had not always seen eye-to-eye on business matters but did the soft and sentimental Sofa producer really have it in his bones to execute a Mafia-style hit? What about Hendo? Hendo, whose middle age was spreading itself like a rapidly replicating virus around his core, was known to be jealous of Ben’s youth, his cyclist’s thighs and the washboard stomach that barely quivered no matter how many smart restaurants he frequented during the week. He couldn’t be ruled out
And what about Soph? Had she blamed Ben for the disappearance of the bottle of vintage champagne that had gone missing from her fridge on Christmas night?
Over the next couple of days, as England built an unassailable lead at the G, the theories began to proliferate. Ben had been the victim of a professional hit ordered by Craig, the head of the Melbourne-based internet cricket betting service that sponsored us, after the banker’s canny picks had rendered him almost penniless; Ben had been the victim of Dan’s desperate attempts to ensure the Sofa’s long-term financial future after our Glorious Leader had learned of an enormous life insurance package on his head. Even Henna’s brownies and Soph’s fabada failed to escape scrutiny; they were taken away for laboratory analysis – not because the cops believed they’d been injected with deadly toxins but because they looked bloody delicious and they wanted the recipes.
J-Rod, interviewed by the Victorian police because he was in Australia, suggested the crime was sexually motivated, but with J-Rod everything was sexually motivated.
When he was briefly taken into custody, Shivam LM, the secretary of his fan club, started a protest movement to draw attention to his plight: ‘Free the Cricketwithballs One’.
Even our esteemed tweeters were put under surveillance. The ever loyal Nestlé Boy, the very first tweeter to pick up the Sofa torch and run with it after being made redundant just before the 2009 Ashes, found himself the subject of a stakeout by Epping police. He was known to do little now but lie on his own settee watching cricket, tennis and golf and listening to the Sofa. So after four days of no activity they gave up, the only flutter of excitement coming when he was forced to his feet to answer the door to a neighbour who’d brought him over his regular Sunday roast; in the quiet and reclusive existence his life had become, it might well have been the only way he knew what day it was.
Andy in Brum was next on the detectives’ radar. He had done a couple of recces from the Midlands, ostensibly to take in the Sofa atmosphere, but now we began to think he might have had a more sinister motive. Had he grown enraged by Ben’s refusal to read out all his tweets, forcing him to angrily hashtag everything #benwontreadthisout?
We even began to wonder about Pryke in Munich, the jingle-meister who had put together our popular Ben Hilfenhaus and Ravi Bopara tunes. Like Ravi Bopara, he had not been seen or heard from for some time and this was unusual. And was it not Ben who had sneaked up to the toilet cubicle in which a drunken Prykie had fallen asleep after the Sofa/Taverners match, put his mobile phone on its camera setting, held it up above the door and recorded for posterity the image of the Yorkshireman, keks around his ankles, comatose on the pot? If that wasn’t incitement to murder, what on earth was?
But the police, it transpired, were working on another, and quite frankly, rather far-fetched theory. Mistaken identity. They believed that the true target may have been Suave, hypothesizing that he had been stalked to Nunhead by a love-struck Finnish sniper he’d befriended at the end of a hard day’s work south of Helsinki. Suave was no snob when it came to drinking partners, but in the snowy wastelands of Salo – translated, the name of the Finnish town in which he was carrying out important IT improvements meant “backwoods”, and with a population density of only 27 per square kilometer it really was – you couldn’t afford to be too choosy. It emerged though that the sniper, who’d taken out 400 people with his rifle during mercenary spells in Bosnia and Iraq, was just as keen on boys as killing, and while you couldn’t blame him for his attraction to probably the most dapper IT specialist Salo had ever seen, Suave was keen on girls; when he felt a trigger-happy hand loitering around his thigh, it was time for him to make his excuses and leave.
But when we pointed out that any sniper who had mistaken the hulking shape of Ben crumpled under a duvet for that of the far more wiry Suave would struggle to get too many more commissions, the police admitted defeat and stroppily closed the investigation.
But then two strange things happened. First a man in his early twenties came forward claiming he had been held hostage by the Sofa when they were short-staffed during the India/New Zealand series, falling asleep after a few too many drinks at the Sofa’s house-warming party and waking to find himself strapped to a swivel chair and forced into a prolonged period of ball-by-ball commentary.
However, under detailed questioning from Manny, he admitted that he had returned to the address the following weekend, when there was no party. Was this the action of a man who didn’t like cricket, Manny wanted to know? Was this the action of a man forced to commentate against his will. Case dismissed.
Second, a media that had remained ambivalent about the Sofa’s minor successes – when the BBC and ITV had sent round teams to cover the reaction to England’s 2010/11 Ashes victory their footage had ended on the cutting-room floor – suddenly began to camp out on our doorstep. We supposed suspected murder had that effect. Notes were passed under doors requesting interviews with the main protagonists, but Dan and Ralphie couldn’t agree on whether we should sell our story to the Guardian or the Telegraph while Manny favoured the Times. Hendo, knowing times were tough for journalists starting out on their careers, suggested giving it to the intern at the free Peckham Rye RumourMonger (Nunhead edition).
Eventually, though, we opted to hand the exclusive to Spin magazine, which devoted a whole issue to the story. Lizzy, its new multi-media manager, alerted her 14 million twitter followers and all the nationals reproduced it as Duncan had written it, almost word for word. George sued under copyright legislation and settled out of court, keeping a third of an eye-watering payout and handing another third to the Sofa, securing the future of both enterprises for some time to come.
But while the story we gave to Spin was a good one – it wasn’t the true one. And how could it have been, for only three people knew what really happened. Only now was everyone else about to find out.
The 2014/15 Ashes had been another successful one for England, who had retained the urn for the third successive time by the time the series had got to Melbourne, and another successful one for the Sofa, now the commentary service of choice for the vast majority of cricket lovers, many of whom listened to it by way of Apple’s newly-released Eye Pod – a tiny electronic device implanted behind the retina which automatically synchronized Sky’s TV coverage with the Sofa’s words of wisdom.
The legend of the Death on the Sofa (all right, it was technically Death on the Stairs but Dan had allowed it to be termed that for publicity purposes after signing up Max Clifford) may have helped listening figures but so had the few new professional tweaks the show had been given, chief among them Aatif’s new-found mastery of English, which had opened up whole new markets.
Statistical genius Howe-Zat had become a regular at the new studio/offices, now accommodated in a suite which took up the whole of a floor at the Savoy, and acquired a cult status that Bill Frindall and Benedict on Sky could have only dreamed of.
With only Sydney to go, Dan and Tom left the show in the old hands of The Bear – with a direct line to Room Service, a happier Bear there never had been – and J-Rod, who had decided against traveling to his native land to write a fourth volume on Australia’s Ashes defeats. We thought they had gone on holiday with their long-suffering partners and looked forward to seeing them in familiar surroundings in a fortnight or so.
But the next time we saw them they were in anything but familiar surroundings. The camera bulbs flashed, the dancing girls danced and the extremely famous Bollywood singer sang. And in between them all, behind a bank of microphones detailing the various media outlets that were broadcasting this live – CNN, Zee TV, Fox Australia, CBeebies – were two bespectacled gentlemen, unmistakeable bespectacled gentlemen, with enormous grins on their faces.
The man with the most enormous of the enormous grins on his face began to speak. “It’s very bright in here,” he said, in a voice we recognized but which was not his. “Very very bright indeed.” We waited, transfixed, for more. “And it’s a very very bright future that I predict for this man….” continued Dan, for it was he in case you hadn’t guessed, as he swept his arm theatrically in the direction of the wings of the venue. The TV cameras turned, surprised, and, through the mist of dried ice, and to a great fanfare, recorded the stride of a great colossus, attired head-to-toe in the traditional male Indian dress of a dhoti in purest white silk. Many of us gasped audibly while the others broke into great, shoulder-shrugging sobs as Dan, milking the moment for all it was worth, added: “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the owner of the 24th IPL franchise, the TMSofa Samurais, Mister…..Benedict……Culllllllllleeennnnn.”
The party we had that night was something else. Catherine, Dan’s long-suffering partner, allowed us to take over the flat in Tooting Bec where it had all begun in 2009. Everyone came: Aatif, fresh from his stint as MC on Friday Night at the Apollo, Henna with an entourage of admirers, Sofa Scouser Gary after seeing off the final proofs in his new job at the London Review of Books, Soph with a platter of goodies and and Lizzy in a new pair of expensive shoes, Manny in a barrister’s wig (we’d told him it was fancy dress), Ralphie showing off his medal after coaching his coxless eight to victory at Henley, Zoob from an organ recital at the Royal Albert Hall and J-Rod from the premiere of his second zombie movie in Leicester Square, Suave from Finland, via Billericay, Liverpool Street and the Northern Line, Spitfire Sarah with her 400mm lens and endearing giggle, top Aussie techie Beggy G clutching one of Hendo’s books – for he was the only one who had ever read any of Hendo’s books – Harwood with a barrel of Red Stripe and of course, me, Hendo, to whom the real facts of Ben’s “death” – and hence this tale which I am now relating – had been confided over the phone from ICC headquarters in Dubai.
Ben, I learned from several thousand miles away, had come up with the plan himself. No stranger to the finest cuisine that London had to offer by night or day, it was hatched after a visit with some banking clients to the most expensive Japanese restaurant in the Square Mile. There, he was goaded by his companions to display his “Master of the Universe” credentials by sampling the Puffer Fish, the Russian roulette of seafood that can only be prepared by the most experienced and specially trained chefs, who know how to remove the deadly toxins the creature contains.
While Ben lived to eat another day, the experience planted in his mind a ruse to save the Sofa from ruin, while bringing forward the day when he might fulfil his stated dream to own and select his own cricket team in an IPL auction. For, the minutest dose of the Puffer Fish toxin does not kill, but merely paralyses for a couple of hours, while giving the appearance of death. Unbeknown to all but Ben, Dan and Tom, Ben had not arrived at the Sofa pissed but took on the appearance of inebriation after adding a tiny drop of the poison to one of Henna’s brownies. By the time police had completed their preliminary enquiries and Ben was delivered to the morgue, he was almost fully functioning again – and made his escape, fleeing past the refrigerated remains of many who had truly ceased to be before flying out to the Far East that very night, where he laid low for a considerable time. Of course, all the authorities involved in his safe transportation and storage were extremely embarrassed to have lost a body and the healthcare trust, in discussions with a cooperative coroner charitable chief of police, hushed it up.
But his “death” had the intended consequences. It got Test Match Sofa on the front pages, and, in the course of time, the Sofa and he benefited – for it was to him that the final third of the copyright money went thanks to the help of some creative accounting types, a couple of offshore jurisdictions and a man with a boat with a very false bottom. Ben even had enough cash to slip down to Australia for a couple of the Ashes Tests, where he mingled anonymously among the Barmy Army.
I could barely believe it when Dan provided the details. The incredulity must have sounded in my voice. But gradually, eventually, the Sofa’s Glorious Leader won my confidence over and from then on I was a bundle of impatience to get back to the party to share the story with the others. That wasn’t easy because Dan was on a roll. And when Dan’s on a roll he’s a very difficult man to bring to a halt. Eventually though, I managed to get a word in edge-ways. And as Tom had said to his verbose associate at the end of many a long Sofa day, I commented: “Don’t you think it’s about time we wrapped up?”
“OK,” he replied, finally becalmed. “But before you go, just remember one thing.”
“What’s that? I asked.
“Goodnight, God Bless, and be, be, be, be nice to everybody.”