Glum and Glummer

(Checking through my blog, I see that I published an almost identical post around the same time in 2015. Perhaps I should have expected this.)

Tomorrow is the first of June. Flaming June, herald of the long summer to come. Lazy days spent in the garden, or exploring the countryside. Long evenings of warmth and relaxation in the open air.

Well, maybe somewhere. But not here.

Our version of this idyllic scene is to be experiencing some of the worst weather we have seen this year. Woken up in the early hours by gale-force winds driving torrential rain against the house, it took a very long time to get back to sleep. Twigs and small branches clattered to the ground, unlocked gates were slamming in nearby houses, and the constant howl of the wind sounded like something from a Norse legend.

As a consequence, I slept late. After emerging into the gloom that is passing for daylight, I was dismayed to discover a leak in the kitchen roof, dripping a small amount of water onto the floor. This is coming from where the extended section meets the main wall of the house. It was all redone not that long ago, so hopefully the guarantee will still be in effect. That won’t cover the inconvenience though, not to mention the plummeting of my mood at the same time.

I need to get up there and inspect the damage, before I contact the roofing company. Trouble is, I am reluctant to do so in the continuing high winds and heavy rain, especially adding vertigo into the mix. I will have to hope for a let-up in the weather later today, before attempting that.

After a couple of re-posts, followed by three fiction pieces, I am once again back to reporting the weather. What a joyful life I lead. I have already had enough of 2016. I would like to fast-forward to 2017 immediately, and see what that has to offer.

Barry’s big win (Part Two)

This is the conclusion of a fictional short story in two parts. It is just over 2000 words.

The people from the Lottery company checked that Barry had the ticket, which they inspected carefully. They went inside, and Mr Nisha confirmed that he had sold it. They seemed happy enough. One of them was on the ‘phone to the company, but Barry couldn’t hear what was being said. A chunky woman introduced herself as Valerie. “Call me Val.” She insisted. She told him that she was a volunteer, a previous winner who helped to guide the lucky ones through the process. “You don’t mind helping out with some publicity, do you Mr Matthews?” He shrugged in reply. “Call me Barry if you like.” After a short debate about Molly the dog being allowed in the car, Barry climbed in the back next to Val, with Molly sitting on the floor. He had told them, “Either the dog comes, or I don’t go. You can just send the money instead.”

As they drove off, the youngest one stayed behind. He said he had to get to the office, but as the car turned into the main street, he was on his mobile. “Hi, it’s Alex.” He was excited, and could hardly control the volume of his voice. “This one’s a peach. A homeless man in a shop doorway with his dog, and he wins the jackpot. It’s a genuine rags to riches story, you couldn’t make it up.”

Barry stared out of the tinted window as the car headed south over Waterloo Bridge. Val was going through what was to happen next. “You will be taken to a hotel, and meet the representatives from the organisers. They will put you up there, make sure that you get something to eat, and run through what you should be thinking about. Tomorrow, there will be a short press conference, and no doubt the TV cameras will want to be there too. You will be famous, Barry. Is that OK?” At the Elephant and Castle roundabout, the car headed south, in the direction of Kent. He suddenly realised he had to reply. “Fine by me.” About an hour later, they arrived at a smart country house hotel in the Kent countryside. Val hadn’t stopped talking, but in all honesty, Barry had to admit that he hadn’t really paid much attention to her prattling. She had spoken mostly about her own experience, and although it was too harsh to say out loud, he couldn’t really care less about her.

Val escorted him to a lovely room. “Perhaps you would like to change before the meeting.” She suggested. “Into what?” Barry replied. “This is it.” Val looked uneasy. “Well, maybe a bath, and a rest before the meeting then. Is there anything you need at the moment?” “A bowl please, so I can give Molly some water.” He pointed at the panting dog, before dropping onto the huge soft bed. He had forgotten just how soft a bed was. It was as if he had never slept in one before. Val went off to consult with the officials. “Don’t let him change, whatever you do.” She was told. “Let him freshen up, get that smell off him. He can have dinner in the room, and breakfast too for that matter. But we want him looking just like that, when the press guys come tomorrow.” Once they had brought the water bowl, Barry stripped off and ran a hot bath, using the foam and oils supplied by the hotel. He sat in that bath for a long time, using the fluffy dressing gown provided when he was out and dry. A knock on his door was followed by a waiter, with menus for food and wine. Barry could choose what to have for lunch, and it would be served in his room. He chose a steak, and ordered some chicken for Molly, who was curled up on an expensive-looking rug near the windows.

After lunch, the telephone rang. It was Val, asking him to be kind enough to meet them in the Hambledon Suite, on the ground floor. Barry rummaged through his rucksack, and found some reasonably clean socks and underwear, as well as a creased but washed shirt. Entering the conference suite, he felt decidedly under-dressed, but not too bothered about it. Val was there, with three serious-looking men. They stood up as he came in, and shook his hand in turn. They explained their roles. One was a legal adviser, another dealt with financial matters, and the third was a regional manager. “You are going to be a very wealthy man, Mr Matthews, and we regard it as our responsibility to give you the best advice on how to manage your winnings.” That was said by the manager, as the others nodded. Barry felt bold enough to ask the burning question. “Exactly how much are we talking about?” The manager smiled. “You had the only ticket to match all the winning numbers. This is the amount, I am sure you will be pleased.” As he spoke, he slid a piece of paper across the desk. It contained just one line of type, a long row of numbers. £16,683,488.42p. Barry read it twice. Over sixteen and a half million pounds. He had hoped that it might have been a couple of hundred grand, but he hadn’t expected this.

“I am sure that you will agree, Mr Matthews, a life-changing sum of money.” This from the financial expert, an older man with something of the Victorian about him.

Much of what went on after that seemed to Barry to be happening at fast-forward. He signed some papers, and agreed once again to tomorrow’s press conference. They asked for bank details, and he could only give them details of an old savings account. All the others had been closed, when he had gone bust. He was told that his bill would be covered until the following afternoon, and after that, he would be responsible. They asked him to tell Val what he wanted to say to the press, and they would check it before he spoke. He shook their hands once more, and went back to his room. Someone from the company would be back the next morning, and Val would stick around, if he wanted to talk. But he didn’t want to talk, he wanted to sleep. To sleep in that soft bed. Molly was pleased to see him when he got back, then scooted back to her comfy rug. He undressed, and slipped into the clean bedding.

The photo shoot next morning was a real set-up. Barry was dressed in his old coat and battered boots, with Molly on her washing-line lead next to him. He held up a huge fake cheque bearing the amount he had won, and shook a champagne bottle until it fizzed over everyone. He decided not to say much, just confirmed that he had been living on the streets, and agreed that the lottery would change his life. Val handed out a press release with his real name and age, as well as a romanticised version of how this street tramp had found his way back into society courtesy of a lottery ticket. By 11 am, it was all over. They left him with contact numbers for the advisers, telling him to be in touch when he had an address, or if he needed help. Barry was approached by the hotel manager, who offered to let him keep the room for now, at a preferred rate.

One lesson soon learned was that if you have enough money, people who want it will come to you. Within two days, a young man arrived from the bank where he held the savings account. He wanted to discuss investments of course, but he also arranged for Barry’s account to be reinstated, as well as the issue of bank cards and credit cards, which arrived by courier the following day. He was contacted by local tailors offering bespoke clothing services, and estate agents left messages all day, suggesting that they pick him up and show him around some very desirable properties in the area. The hotel began to receive so many calls asking for Mr Matthews, that he told them to say he had checked out, and they didn’t know where he had gone. Sacks of mail arrived too. Thousands of letters sent by people pleading for investment in wonderful inventions, asking for money to pay for expensive life-saving operations, and a hundred and one other sob stories. Many claimed to know him, and some even threatened exposure of made-up crimes, or to reveal secrets from his past if he refused to send money. Barry read a few, but soon got bored with them. He asked the hotel to get rid of them, and ordered a taxi to take him to Maidstone, the nearest large town. He asked the taxi-driver to wait for him, and told him to expect a big tip. The driver knew his story. He waited.

He left Molly in a dog-grooming parlour as he went around the busy centre. After a good haircut and shave in a trendy barber’s, he stopped off in some smart shops, buying new clothes and shoes, as well as a sharp suit. When the staff asked what they should do with the clothes he had been wearing, he told them to throw them away. He also bought a leather holdall to put everything in, and a very expensive watch. In a mobile phone shop, he paid cash for a sim-only phone, and topped it up with five hundred pounds. That should last a while, he thought. His last stop was at the office of one of the estate agents who had contacted him. With minimal fuss, he was able to rent an isolated house about ten miles away. He was assured that it was furnished tastefully, completely equipped for all his needs, and he need do nothing more than move in. He paid the six months in advance, and was handed the keys. The agent gave him the contact numbers necessary for the utility companies, and advised that he contact them that day. Barry collected Molly, who had clipped nails, a very clean coat, and looked years younger. He walked back to the spot where the taxi had dropped him off, and the smiling driver was there waiting.

After three weeks in the house, Barry had set it up well. Everything could be done on the telephone or online. You didn’t need to go out, unless you wanted to. He had soon arranged the best available Internet service, and purchased a state of the art laptop. He bought a huge TV for the bedroom, and subscribed to all the latest satellite services. Food was ordered in, as well as casual clothes, some nice bedding, and pretty much anything else he needed. Molly could wander around in the large garden. She didn’t need long walks at her age. He checked the post every day. So far, nobody had found out where he was. The letters had stopped, and he was very much yesterday’s news. Someone else would soon win another jackpot, and he could slip away into obscurity.

After six weeks had passed, he telephoned Mandy’s parents. The lady who answered told him that she had lived there for almost two years. The man who lived there before had died, and his wife had gone to live with her daughter in South Africa. She had an address somewhere, if he wanted it. Barry declined the address, and thanked her for her time. He sat and thought about the news. South Africa? What the hell were Mandy and Geri doing there? He considered the possibility of hiring a detective agency to track them down, but wondered what he would say if he found them. Perhaps his new-found wealth would lure them back to him, but he was no longer sure that was really what he wanted. He called the agent who managed the house. He wanted to rent it long-term, he told the man. A payment arrangement would be put in place, to include someone to check on the house from time to time, keep it maintained, and sort out the garden. “I am going away for a while, and I will not be able to be contacted.” Barry informed him.

The next afternoon, Barry dressed in a thick hooded sweatshirt and jogging trousers. He put on some black trainers, and unwrapped the new heavy coat from the box it had arrived in. Taking off the designer watch, he placed it in a bedside drawer, next to the switched-off mobile phone. He took some cash from the table, and put the notes into a pocket of the coat. The taxi arrived at four as arranged, and he and Molly were on the train to London within the hour.

He knew where to get the best dry cardboard, and it was still there. Three large sheets would be enough, and all he could carry anyway. Settling down in the doorway next to Mr Nisha’s shop, Molly jumped into his lap, and he stroked her head.

Barry smiled at his faithful dog as he said, “Home at last, Moll.”

Barry’s big win (Part One)

This is a fictional short-story. It is the first of two parts, and is just over 1800 words.

The date on the newspaper was the 22nd of September. Geraldine was sixteen today, and Barry had missed another birthday. She had been thirteen the last time he had seen her, and now he didn’t even know where she lived.

Barry stretched out his legs, and gave Molly a stroke. She wagged her tail and licked his hand, settling back down across his thighs. It wasn’t too cold that night, so he hadn’t used the sleeping bag. Three layers of stout cardboard were comfortable enough for now, and the rolled up bag was nice to prop himself up on, wedged against the corner of the shop doorway. People were coming and going, heading in and out of Mr Nisha’s all-night shop next door. This was one of Barry’s favourite spots, and he always tried to get there early, just after the travel agent closed. Their doorway was just big enough for shelter, but not too deep so that nobody noticed you. He adjusted the small box, making sure that the writing on it could be seen from the street. ‘PLEASE HELP’ were the only words on it. Barry liked to leave it at that. He wasn’t one of those who pestered everyone walking past, constantly repeating “Spare some change”, like a mantra. The residents of London were used to rough sleepers and beggars by now, so Barry tried to be different. He didn’t sit near a cash dispenser, or by the entrance to a station. He would set up with Molly next to Mr Nisha’s shop, out of the way and unnoticed by anyone except the shop’s customers.

A few years earlier, it had all been so different. Barry Matthews had been a man of substance, a trader in The City, known for his skill at buying stocks and shares. He had an attractive wife, Mandy, and his darling daughter, Geri. They lived in a luxurious five-bedroom house in one of the best parts of north Essex. Mandy drove to the gym in a Range Rover, and Geri had her own pony, kept at nearby stables. There was the apartment in the south of France, and a weekend lodge in Scotland. Barry worked hard, commuting into London by train before seven in the morning, and rarely getting home at night until nine. They only had the best, and only ate the best. He didn’t have to deny anything to the two women in his life. Sure, he lived on the edge, but then so did everyone else. Credit cards with huge outstanding balances, loans to cover other loans, and household bills that had to be seen to be believed. Then there was the cleaner, the gardener, the handyman, not to mention running two luxury cars. Still, Barry used to think, I earn it and I spend it. That’s life.

Life caught up with Barry one late summer morning. Arriving at work as usual, he saw Darren Healey standing outside, smoking a cigarette. He looked ill. “What’s up, Dazza?” Barry asked in a chirpy tone.
“You’ll find out mate. It’s all gone tits-up in there.” As he replied, Darren looked as if he was going to cry. Barry walked forward, but the younger man waved him away, turning to face the wall. Taking the lift to the company floor, Barry emerged into something very different from the usual office atmosphere. Some of the women were crying, and groups of men stood in corners, talking quietly. The screens were all blank, no telephones were flashing, and nobody was doing any work. He walked over to the desk of his section boss. “What’s going on, Alan?” He asked the tall man sitting there. “Gone bust, Barry mate. It’s all over. We’ve been closed down by head office, and even New York has gone west.” He pointed at some strangers by the main doors. “They have gone as far as to bring in security, to see us off the premises. Get anything personal you wouldn’t want to leave behind, before they chuck you out.”

On the train home, Barry was in a trance. A black plastic bin-bag rested on his knees, containing the few possessions he kept at work. Gym kit, a spare shirt, some toiletries, and a phone charger. There was a professionally-taken photo of Mandy in a silver frame, and another of Geri, sitting proudly on her pony. The few minutes after his short chat with Alan kept replaying in his mind. He had to hand in his key-card, lift pass, and I.D. badge. They took his work phone, his tablet computer, and his contact book. He was handed the rubbish sack to carry out his belongings, and escorted from the building like some sort of criminal. Darren Healey was no longer to be seen. He had gone.

Mandy took the news badly, as he expected she would. She was sure that he would get another job soon, but he reminded her that hundreds of people had lost their jobs in the markets, and Essex wide-boys like him were no longer flavour of the month. They were taking on all the Tristrams and Julians from the posh schools these days. Things couldn’t have been much worse. With no salary or commissions that month, he would be unable to meet any payments. He had to have four grand, before they even bought a pint of milk. His current account was almost three hundred overdrawn, and all four cards were at their limit. All they had was the fifteen quid in his wallet, and a couple of hundred that Mandy kept as folding money. His world had ended in a single morning, and he couldn’t see any way forward.

Very soon, everything got a lot worse. They managed to borrow enough for the month from Mandy’s dad, but everything had to go. When he told Geri that he would have to sell her pony, she told him she hated him, and stayed in her room for three days. Mandy wasn’t a fighter. She had stopped work as soon as they married, and had no intention of looking for a job now. With both cars returned to the leasing company, they had to run around in a ten year old Corsa, borrowed from a cousin. Barry looked for work for a while, but his connection to the failed firm was poison. No point trying to get money from the unemployment office either, that wouldn’t cover the dry cleaning bill, and he couldn’t stand the indignity. It was obvious the house would have to go. They had bought it at the peak time for prices, and it was worth less than what they owed on it. Barry seriously thought about topping himself, but didn’t want to leave Mandy and Geri in the lurch.

Mandy was less concerned about leaving him to deal with it all though. She packed her stuff, and her and Geri went off to stay with her parents in Suffolk. They couldn’t even afford a solicitor, so had no option but to let the mortgage lender take over the property, signing away everything. Barry found himself sleeping on an old friend’s couch, feeling like he was in the way. He couldn’t even offer to pay him anything, so knew it wouldn’t last too long. Mandy stopped taking his calls. Her dad said that her and Geri were too upset to talk to him, and that he should call back when he had sorted out his life. Nobody seemed to understand that none of it was down to him. Three months later, Barry found himself on the street, his worldly goods contained in four plastic carrier bags. He sold his swish mobile phone to a black guy outside a tube station. He asked for a hundred and twenty quid, but settled on eighty. With that money, he bought a cheap sleeping bag and rucksack, a large parka coat, and some boots. That night, he watched the others as they found places to sleep, got free soup from charity vans, and unwanted food thrown away by shops. He began to learn by observation, keeping himself to himself in this dangerous new world.

Three years later, and he was a veteran of the streets. He had avoided alcohol, which caused most of the others so many problems. He had adopted Molly the Staffy after her owner, Mike the Sailor, had been taken away by ambulance one night, suffering from fits. Mike never came back, so Barry hung on to the old girl. Having a nice dog was good. Not just the company, it brought in more money. People gave you something, and would say, “Get the dog some food, don’t spend it on drink.” Later that night, a young couple approached him on their way into the shop. The girl bent down and stroked Molly, who licked her hand. When they came out of the shop minutes later, the man leaned down to Barry, offering him a slip of paper. “Take this mate, you never know, it might bring you luck.” He said it with a smile, seemed like a nice bloke. It was a Lucky Dip Lottery ticket for that evening’s draw, which had cost two pounds. Barry would sooner have had the cash, but he thanked the man anyway, and put the paper into the zipped front pocket of his coat.

The next morning he counted his change, and went into the shop to buy some water, and a pouch of food for Molly. Mr Nisha was there, smiling as always. “Good morning Sir Barry” he said in his loud voice. As he was leaving with his purchases, Barry suddenly remembered. He took the ticket from his pocket, and asked Mr Nisha to check it. He checked it once, then again, and a third time to be sure. “Sir Barry, it is a winner, I’m sure. It says here that you have to telephone immediately.” Mr Nisha let Barry stand at the side of the counter, to use the shop’s phone. After pressing some buttons, a young lady came on the line. She asked for the numbers again, and for the code number on the back. She asked where he had bought the ticket, then asked him to hold the line. After a short delay, she came back. “I am pleased to tell you that you have a winning ticket sir.” Her voice was cheery. “If you will give me your address, we will send one of our representatives down to see you, before lunchtime.” Barry couldn’t think what to say, so he gave the address of the shop, and said that he would wait there. “How much have I won?” He finally thought to ask. The girl was obviously reading from a script. “That will be discussed later sir, but I am happy to advise you that it is a substantial amount.”

Four hours later, a large black people carrier turned up. Barry’s life was about to change once again.

Vera and Norman

This is a fictional short story, of just over 2000 words.

Norman pulled his car onto Vera’s drive. He knew she would be ready, she always was. He watched her lock up, placing her house keys into the zipped compartment of her handbag. He liked to look at her, even after all those years. In his opinion, she looked nothing like a woman of seventy-two. To Norman’s eyes, she was loveliness personified. Always beautifully dressed, make-up just right, and hair immaculate. He stepped around the car to open the passenger door for her. The swish of her dress as she sat down sounded like heaven to him. Closing the door, he took a moment to savour her delicate perfume, before walking back to get in and start the car. As he reversed into the lane, she was already checking her appearance in a small compact mirror. “Flawless, as always” he complimented. “Go the back way, Norman” she replied. ” You know how the traffic builds up in the high street at this time of day.”

When Vera’s husband Sidney had died, every man at the club had wanted to become her dancing partner. Few of the others matched her skill, and none her poise and elegance. But she had taken her time, watching and waiting until she found someone with a style to complement her own, without surpassing it. Norman’s main rival had been Phillip. He was known as ‘two els Phillip’, as he always introduced himself that way. Secretly, Norman knew that Phillip was the better dancer, but he had a significant disadvantage. His wife Edna was very much alive. Although she didn’t dance, she would sit in the club as her husband moved around the floor, ever-present, always watching. Unlike Norman, he wasn’t free for the practice sessions in the afternoons either, and Vera was keen to enter the annual competition.

So she chose Norman. Reliable, slightly boring, but unmarried. Everyone at the country club knew Norman, but few claimed to be his friend. He was a ‘good sort’; always around, and someone to count on to attend meetings, or when events needed to be organised. As a retired railway executive, his income was good, his house large and respectable, his politics acceptable, and he had a new car. As well as all that, he could dance, thanks to lessons he had taken as a young man.

For the last six years, Norman and Vera had won the annual ballroom dancing contest every time. This was one of the highlights of the club’s social calendar, held on the Bank Holiday weekend in August. Vera had declined to enter the year that her husband died, but she soon had Norman under her wing, training hard for the following August. The competition had started out as a casual affair, and was never really intended to become anything other than a pleasant diversion. But once Vera paired with Norman, they slowly turned it into something very different. Motions were raised at club meetings, eagerly seconded by a dutiful Norman. Dress codes became established, new rules and regulations implemented, and minimum standards applied. Before too long, this once happy-go-lucky event had taken on the appearance of a professional competition, and few of the members could be bothered to follow the new guidelines. This left less than a dozen couples in serious contention each time. That suited Vera very well. She could judge the others in advance, play on her strengths with Norman, and exploit the weaknesses of the others, by choosing the three dances for the programme.

By year three, she had raised the subject of a trophy. Nothing tacky, she had insisted, that would not be in keeping with the prestige of their club, after all. By a margin of one vote, she got the committee to agree to purchase a grand cup to be awarded to the winners, their names and date engraved on a plate at the base. For the past three years that cup had been raised by Vera, and their names engraved soon after. It had pride of place in the glass case in the entrance to the club, on a shelf above the smaller golf and tennis trophies.

Norman loved it when they won. Inside, he didn’t really care that much, but he wanted it for Vera. On those nights, he felt like they were really a couple. She would hold his hand, sit by him at the table enjoying a celebratory glass of champagne, and once even kissed him on the cheek, in full view of everyone. When he drove her home after winning, she would invite him in for coffee. He would sit in her comfortable living room, imagining himself there every day, instead of just once a year. Drinking her nightcap of malt whisky, she would chat animatedly, recalling the excellence of their dancing, and laughing at the paltry efforts of the other couples. One year he had almost ruined it, by trying to kiss her as he left. She had wagged her finger at him, and said in rebuke, ” Now now, Norman, none of that.” He apologised, and made sure never to try that again. He would bide his time, and take refuge in his fantasies instead. One day she would be his, of that he was certain.

That weekend, Vera was determined to get some dancing in. There was a good band playing at the club that night, and she had been sure to let them know the type of music required. After all, there was less than a month to go before the big night, and she wanted to keep Norman up to peak performance. They took their usual table, just at the edge of the dance floor. Norman bought some drinks, and they waited as the band set up on the stage nearby. The compere announced some club business, and ended by saying that the dancing would begin in less than two minutes. Vera checked her reflection in the mirror, in anticipation of her imminent appearance on the dance floor. Norman surreptitiously wiped his brow with a linen handkerchief. It was a hot night, and even hotter inside. Moments before the music started, a stranger approached the table. He was tall and slim, and his complexion suggested Mediterranean origins. “Good evening Miss Vera”, he said boldly. “My name is Nico, and I am new here. I wondered if I could have the honour of the first dance?” Norman was speechless. He had never seen the man before, and here he was asking Vera to dance. He obviously had no idea of the form at the club. He looked young too, probably not a day over fifty. He wore an immaculate lounge suit, and his teeth were suspiciously white. His sleek black hair was undoubtedly dyed, and the diamond-studded tie clip demonstrated that the man had no taste. And Nico, what sort of a name was that, and in Berkshire of all places.

Vera smiled and stood up. “My pleasure,” she replied. Norman couldn’t believe his ears, but stood anyway, as that was the mannered thing to do when a lady was on her feet. Nico took Vera’s outstretched hand, and led her on to the floor. He hadn’t even bothered to ask permission of her partner, or even to formally introduce himself. The cheek of the man, thought Norman, as he boiled with rage inside. As the music played, the couple effortlessly glided along, seeming to hardly touch the floor. This Nico could dance, Norman had to grudgingly admit that. When the number ended, Norman stood to await Vera’s return to the table. But incredibly, she remained in the other man’s arms, and began to swing around to the next tune. Holding his temper, Norman smiled as they passed, patting his hands together in silent appreciation of their skill. At least I know how to behave, he told himself. When they stayed together for the next dance, and the one after that, he was flummoxed. Unsure what to do, he wandered onto the now crowded dance floor, and tapped this Nico on the shoulder. “Cutting in, old man”, he said with some authority. “Sit down, Norman”, Vera snapped at him. “Don’t embarrass yourself.” Nico gave a knowing smile, and continued to whirl his captivated partner around.

Norman left the floor, but did not return to the table. Aware of the looks and whispers surrounding his departure, he headed straight for the toilets instead. Splashing water on his face, he stared at himself in the mirror. His round face was florid, the clipped moustache holding droplets of water, and a vein on his temple was pulsing uncontrollably. “How could she do this to me, after all I have put up with?” he asked his own reflection. Taking time to calm down, he returned to the table. Vera had asked for a third chair, and Nico was now sat next to her, talking close to her ear. Norman held his composure. “What do you know, Norman. Nico was a ballroom champion in London, before moving here.” Vera said this with some emphasis on the word ‘champion’. Norman got the point. He started to reply, but Vera dismissed him with a wave. “I think we need more drinks here, Nico will join me with a gin and tonic.”

So that was how it was going, Norman grumbled to himself as he approached the bar. He looked back, to see them still deep in conversation, Vera throwing back her head with a girlish laugh over something that had been said. He slipped back into the toilets, pretending to wash his hands until he was alone. Secreting something into his trouser pocket, he went back to the bar and bought the drinks, taking them back to the table on a small tray. Nico was regaling Vera with tales of past successes on the dance floor. Southern Counties champion, London Boroughs champion, even representing England against Scotland and Wales. if you believed what he said, he had done it all. Vera hung on his every word, eyes sparking, constantly giggling and nodding. It made Norman sick, to watch her falling for this oily creep. Reaching down, he pretended to tie a shoelace, sliding the small liquid soap bottle from his pocket as he did so. The main dance floor was still well illuminated, as livelier club members enjoyed a Salsa. However, the surrounding area was dimly lit, so he was able to apply the soap liberally to the edge of the dance floor, a few inches from the feet of their table. He sat up, rolling the small container under the table as he did so. Stretching out his right leg, he spread the soap around with the sole of his shoe, pretending to be moving to the sound of the Latin music. Norman looked across at the two of them, smiling benignly. Let’s see Mr Champion avoid that soap, he thought smugly.

The next dance was also up-tempo, so Vera waited until a Foxtrot was announced. “Come on Nico”, she almost squealed, “Let’s show then how it’s done.” Norman stood up as Vera did, glancing across to Nico’s feet, as he approached the soapy slime. To his horror, the man suddenly twirled Vera around as she approached him, and she walked backwards toward the dance floor. As her dance shoes made contact with the soap, both feet went out from underneath her, and as she fell onto her back, her legs flew up and made contact with the underside of the heavy table. Her piercing screams were heard by all in the club. The band stopped playing, and all the lights came on. Nico was kneeling by her side. “Someone phone for an ambulance”, he shouted. Mrs Carmody claimed to know first aid, and she bustled her way through the gathering crowd. “Don’t move her”, she bellowed, “She might have broken something.” The table was moved, and it didn’t look good. Vera was still crying in pain, her head resting on Nico’s thighs. Norman looked down at the laddered stockings, and the blood on Vera’s legs above her slim ankles. He felt very hot once again, and a little sick too.

When the ambulance arrived, the men put both of Vera’s legs into large red plastic splints, then gave her something for the pain as they lifted her onto the trolley bed. She reached her hand out, and Norman stooped to take it. But she was not looking for Norman, it was Nico’s hand that she grasped. “Don’t worry madam” the ambulanceman said, “Your friend can come with you in the ambulance.” Keen to be seen to be doing something, Norman handed their blanket to the crew. “What do you think?”, he asked the one who seemed to be in charge. “The man turned, speaking as an aside. “Both legs broken I suspect sir. Her dancing days are over.”

Going to The Pictures

This is another re-post from 2012. A long nostalgic piece about my early recollections of visiting cinemas in London. It is a personal favourite of mine, but has attracted little attention, perhaps because it is about a period decades ago, or the content is too close to my heart to be of interest to others.

In London’s working class districts, during the late 1950’s and well into the late 1960’s, you did not hear the phrase ‘going to the cinema’. It would always be ‘going to the pictures’, or the common slang term, ‘the flicks’. This was a hangover from the earliest days of silent film, when the flickering of the jerky, hand-cranked projectors, gave the experience this nick-name. My early memories of trips to the pictures date from about 1958, when I was taken to see films suitable for someone approaching their seventh birthday. By 1960, I was a veteran of hundreds of visits, and had seen all the blockbusters of the day, including ‘The Ten Commandments’, ‘Ben Hur’, and ‘Spartacus’. I had developed a love of film and cinema that stays with me to this day.

London was a grey place in those days. The swinging sixties were around the corner but there was little sign of them just yet. Post-war life was hard. The winters were cold, money short, and we were still surrounded by bomb-damaged buildings, and open flat areas known as ‘bombsites’. There was Television. It had two channels, was black and white, and finished quite early. The majority of the content was either too stuffy, or populist game shows and variety programmes. This was especially true during the working week, as all the effort to entertain seemed to be targeted at the weekend audience. Escape from this was provided by a trip to The Pictures. Cinema attendance at that time was immensely popular, and every showing seemed to be to a full auditorium. You did not have to travel far to see a film, from where we lived, at least. We were spoilt for choice , with at least five cinemas within a comfortable walking distance, as well as three more accessed by a short bus trip. There was also the West End of London within easy reach, with the biggest new films, and the most luxurious cinemas.

Those readers used to the current trend for the featureless multiplex, normally tucked away as part of a drab trading estate on the outskirts of the suburbs, can have no concept of the impact of the cinemas in London at that time. With the increasing popularity of films after 1920, most of them were built from around that date, up to the Second World War, in 1939. This meant that following the architectural fashion of the day, they were predominantly of Art Deco, or Modernist design. This was in stark contrast to the rows of Victorian and Edwardian houses where we lived. Even those destroyed by bombing would be rebuilt in a similar style, to retain their landmark features. And they were landmarks indeed. Usually on a corner plot, these cathedrals of film could be seen from a long way off. After dark, their white painted exteriors, and huge neon-lit signs, would shine like beacons, through the smog and gloom of the city. There was little else to match them, except perhaps some of the larger Department Stores, like Selfridges, or Harrods, but these were not places we commonly visited. A visit to the cinema was also comparatively cheap. With both my parents working, we could afford to go at least once every week, sometimes twice. As a treat, we would occasionally visit the West End Cinemas, to see a film in a new or different way. That could take the form of 70 mm projection, Cinerama, or early experiments in 3-D. The bigger budgets of films like ‘How the West was Won’, or ‘Spartacus’, would also justify the production and sale of souvenir brochures. These were expensive perhaps, but they were full of additional information, profiles of film stars, and stills from the making of the film. I would collect these whenever the chance presented itself, and read them over and over again. I don’t know what happened to them, and I wish I still had them today.

The experience of going to The Pictures began before you even entered the foyer. Outside, would be a uniformed commissionaire, in greatcoat and cap. his coat bearing tassels, and contrast piping. Here was someone who would not be out of place in a Ruritanian comedy, yet he would be a man of some bearing usually, perhaps with a military background. He would wear fine gloves, and give everyone a civil and deferential greeting as they passed. Posters for the film, and for the next week’s offering, would be in special frames outside the building. There might also be stills, and glossy celebrity photographs of the current film’s stars, and most exciting scenes. Thick red velvet ropes, suspended between gold-coloured posts, provided a barrier- at least a symbolic one – to wait behind, until the doors were opened. The very doors seemed like a work of art. Brass frames, flamboyant designs, so thick and heavy that it was necessary for attendants to open them , and secure them open after the audience started to file in. Then there were the names of the Cinemas. They meant little to a seven-year old Londoner like myself, but how exotic they sounded, how mighty and prepossessing, with their Greek and Latin simple nouns, or invented names, transferred to the streets of my youth. Odeon, Rex, Regal, Ritz, Gaumont, Trocadero. These names seemed to have never appeared before in my consciousness, and applied only to Cinemas. Even now, when I know their actual meanings, I still associate them with those old buildings, first and foremost.

Once inside, I felt as if I was entering a wonderland. We were greeted by uniformed usherettes, who in my young eyes, always seemed stunningly attractive, with heavy make-up, smart hair, and friendly smiles. They would inspect your ticket, advise you which entrance to take, and tear the ticket in half, so it could not be used again. As a family, we preferred to sit in the upper balcony, which was called The Circle. In the ground floor area, called The Stalls, the seats were on one level, so the sudden arrival of a heavy set, or tall man, or a lady who chose not to remove her hat, would mean that I would have to watch the entire programme though the gap in their shoulders. Upstairs, the seats were arranged in a tiered fashion, so no matter who sat in front of me, I would always be able to see. There was also a small surcharge for sitting in The Circle (unlike live theatre, where the opposite applies) , so it made you feel a little bit grander, as you made your way up the sweeping staircases.

We came from housing which was acceptable to us at that time. We did not have fitted carpets, central heating, or an inside bathroom. These commonly accepted facilities came later, when the terraced houses were mostly demolished, to make way for the new estates of maisonettes and flats that we moved into after 1960. The cinemas were a break from this. Carpet so thick, and of such quality, my small shoes sunk into it. Ornamental design on a massive scale; balustrade staircases of great width, enormous chandeliers, wall sconces to provide up-lighting, framed pictures on the walls. Even a visit to the toilets was an experience. Rows of shiny gleaming urinals, containing small blocks of sweet-smelling chemicals, lofty stalls, with locks that declared whether they were occupied, or not. Mirrored walls above large wash basins, and paper towels from chrome dispensers. They were immaculate; no vandalism was apparent then, it just wouldn’t have occurred to us.

Once through the doors into The Circle, subdued lighting provided a coloured glow to the surroundings. It felt as if you were in another country, or in a Royal Palace. More usherettes (they were always female then) waited to check tickets, and to show you to your seat, using the small torch that they carried to light the way. Once everyone was seated, overcoats folded, most hats removed, darkness would descend, along with the complete silence, punctuated by an occasional cough, that was expected of the audience. Noise was not tolerated at that time. Nobody chatted, there were no mobile ‘phones to worry us, even the cellophane packets of toffee popcorn (the only type available), or the small boxes of chocolates that we had been treated to, were opened with the silent skill of a master safe cracker, so as not to cause offence. Smoking was allowed of course, anywhere in the building, and most of the adults, and even some of the younger audience members smoked freely; not just cigarettes, pipes and cigars also. There were ashtrays on the backs of the seats in front of you, and they would have been emptied between performances. This was not at all unusual or strange to the audiences of that period, and a ban on smoking would have been unthinkable then. As a result of all this smoking, a blue haze would appear above us, reflected in the ceiling lights, and later in the beam from the projected film. I actually looked forward to this, as I regarded it to be an essential part of the experience, something like The Northern Lights, courtesy of nicotine.

I was then ready. An early type of air-conditioning, about which I knew nothing, ensured that the cinema was cool when it was hot outside, and central heating provided cosy warmth on cold days. I always felt just right in the cinema, it was my home from home, and a better home at that. Though the film had not even started, there would be music playing. In some cinemas, even then, there would be an organist to entertain the audience. He would sit at some incredible conglomeration of pipes, keyboards, and buttons, which I generically called ‘The Mighty Wurlitzer’. In more modern establishments, piped music would be played. This would usually be the soundtrack to the film that would soon be shown, and would sound very loud and dramatic. Many films had a theme tune in those days, before the addition of pop songs and rap tracks became the norm. There was another chance to buy a souvenir brochure, if it was that sort of film, or to purchase an ice cream, or drink. These were sold from deep trays, carried around the necks of yet more usherettes. Though they were probably the same ones that had taken the tickets earlier, I did not work that out for a long time. The tray’s contents were illuminated by a small light, and she would also have a small cash box. It was a portable, floodlit shop in miniature; purpose built for the venue, and to me, always fascinating. There would be a later chance to re-visit this lady if need be, during the intermission.

If a film was a large production, and lasted over two hours, it would break just over half way through. A sign on the screen would announce the interval, usually of fifteen minutes duration. People would shuffle along the long rows, mouthing their ‘excuse me’ to every neighbour, and head off to the toilets (called Lavatories of course) or to join the queue for refreshments. When less grand films were being shown, which was more usual, there would also be a break, as there would be two films in the programme, so the intermission would come after the first, less important film, and before the film called the ‘main feature’. As well as two films, there would also be Pathe News, showing world events, Royal visits, or sporting triumphs, and sometimes cartoons. So it was a full evening of entertainment, and represented excellent value. At the end of the evening’s performance, the lights would be turned up, and you would be expected to stand, for the playing of the National Anthem. This may seem archaic now, but woe betide anyone seen sneaking out before the end. It was frowned upon. Britain was still a patriotic country in every way then, with a vestige of Empire, and a flourishing and loyal Commonwealth.

I would walk home, tired but happy, chattering to my parents about the film or films we had seen, perhaps clutching my glossy brichure, and looking forward to the next time that I went to ‘The Pictures’.

Ironing

This another re-post from 2012. I wonder if you have ever seen another blog post about steam-generator irons? I doubt it.

This may seem a strange subject for a blog post. Especially from the blog of a 60 year old man with no connection to the Electrical Industry, or to retailers of electrical products. However, I felt an overwhelming need to share a top tip that may well change your life. (At least the ironing part of your life, anyway).

Like most men born in the 1950s, I really didn’t know what an iron was for, other than it was a thing that women used to make your clothes look smarter, it got hot, and had to be used on a board. At first my Mum, and later my Wife, would spend some time somewhere with this appliance, and smartly pressed shirts would appear in my wardrobe, as if by magic.

This all changed for me, sometime in 1985. My wife and I were splitting up. It suddenly dawned on me that at the age of 33, I did not know how to use an iron, or how to iron a shirt. I had to ask my departing wife to show me all the basics of ironing. I would probably have just taken all the stuff that needed ironing to my Mum, but she lived too far away. By that time, we had a steam iron. It was reminiscent of a cruise ship in miniature, and had a small reservoir at the front, that had to be filled with de-ionised water. Once the necessary heat level had been achieved, steam could be deployed, to assist with the removal of creases. The thing was heavy, unwieldy, and the steam seemed to run out after two items had been pressed. Still, it was state-of-the-art at the time, so I bought something similar, for use in my new bachelor home.

Fifteen years later, I had learned to hate ironing. The replacement for that first steam iron looked and felt exactly the same. I kept forgetting to buy distilled water, and the tap water was so hard that the limescale kept clogging up the vents. I had to set aside one day each month for the great chore of ironing, as I hated it so much, I could not bear to do a little every day. I would get the water, put on some music, prepare the hangers, and crack on with at least 30 shirts, and all the other stuff needed for that month. This would take about 6 hours, constantly re-filling the pathetic reservoir, and making sure that the iron did not get so hot, that it scorched the garments.

In 1998, I saw an advertisement for something called a ‘Steam Generator Iron’, manufactured by Tefal. This seemed to be a tiny iron, resting on a large plastic base, connected by a hose that looked like it meant business. It stated that it held enough water for a full load of ironing, used ordinary tap water, and could iron both sides of something at once. It seemed too good to be true. Also, it cost almost £100, a lot of money for an iron, when you consider that the best conventional equivalent was well under £40 at the time. I decided to try it anyway. As an ironing-hater of the first degree, I would probably have paid twice that, if the claims could be guaranteed.

I bought one the next day. It was indeed resting on its large water tank. This meant that I eventually had to purchase a longer, sturdier ironing board too. Once fired up, I hesitatingly began to iron a shirt. Revelation! The super-lightweight iron felt like it weighed a tenth of its predecessor. The constant blast of steam glided over the material, all creases banished in seconds. I turned the sleeve over, only to find it was already done. It had ironed both sides at once, as claimed. I next tried screwed up denim jeans. It was as if the iron laughed at the challenge, again dealing with both sides adequately. Soon, I was racing through half a dozen shirts in 15 minutes. Even after a full couple of hours of ironing, there was still water in the tank, so steam available. I had finally done it. I had run out of things to iron before my iron ran out of steam. I was a born-again ironer, an ironing evangelist, a convert to the way of the Steam Generator. I would almost, though not quite, iron for pleasure.

I started telling everyone I could about steam generator irons. Though my own was a Tefal, all the companies were jumping on the bandwagon. I made a handful of happy converts, even though they balked at the price.

When that original purchase finally expired, (It still worked, but the steam cord became frayed and dangerous to use.) I did not hesitate to go straight out and get the latest generation, then costing a shade under £200. It is angular, has a coloured plastic water reservoir, a new gizmo that unscrewed from the side and removed the limescale. It looks the business, though in truth, is no better than my trusty original machine. The main improvement is in the actual iron handset. New technology coating on the iron plate, lighter build, better steam control, all mean that it is faster and better than ever. Alright, it does cost a lot of money. I have seen washing machines and other large white goods for a lot less. Look at it this way. Let’s say it lasts for 10 years. That is a yearly cost of just under £20, a weekly cost of 38p. That small amount of money will literally improve your life, now isn’t that worth it?

If you are asking yourself why someone like me, with nothing to gain, would be sitting in a room in rain-swept Norfolk, on a miserable Sunday in August, writing about something as mundane as ironing, then get a steam generator iron. (Any make, doesn’t have to be a Tefal but get a good one, pay as much as you can afford) You will realise what all the fuss is about.

Recycling? My arse

This is the first in a series of re-posts of older articles and blog posts. I have gone back over three years, to a time when many of my current readers and followers did not know about me. I understand that few want to trawl through archives to look at old stuff, so I thought that I would re-visit some of the posts that I enjoyed writing some years ago. I apologise in advance to all of you who have seen them and commented before. And I also apologise for what some might consider to be unsuitable language at times.

OK, time to get on my soap box about this emotive subject. Not the sort where a neighbour gives you an old wardrobe, or someone drops off some cartons to help you with moving house. No, the big story, Council Recycling, on an industrial scale. We all know it’s rubbish don’t we? And the pun is intended. Never before have I ever witnessed a con trick and smokescreen played out on such an unimaginable scale. Brainwashing, conscience-salving, complete and utter nonsense. Before all the Greens and planet-savers head off to Beetley to lynch me from my protected oak, consider this.

When Julie had a house in Hertfordshire, before we sold up and moved here, her local council had a very progressive policy on recycling. They issued a small wheelie bin, for food and garden rubbish only. Alongside this, were three large plastic boxes, all with lids. One was for paper only, another for plastic items and bottles, and the last one for cans and glass. They were very strict. If you put stuff in the wrong box, it was not emptied; get it wrong often enough, and you got an advice letter. One day, we happened to be around when the truck came. It was a specially converted flatbed van, with a high cage all round. It made its way around the square, finally reaching Julie’s house. The men came over, and collected the three boxes, making sure to pick up each one separately. Returning to the van, they just threw the contents of each box in together, adding to the jumbled pile of stuff already collected from the other houses. It was a miracle that they were able to stifle their hoots of laughter, as they drove away.

Richmond Council, West London. They were enforcing a strict policy on waste paper collection, as well as other recycling issues. A reporter from the TV news travelled to China. Hundreds of miles from Beijing, near the south coast of that country, he found a huge pile of ‘recycled’ paper rubbish from the UK. Picking up a sheet of paper from the top, he discovered a bank statement from a house in Richmond. He took it back to the house in that area, where the owner confirmed that it was his, and that he had put it into a waste paper recycling bag, some weeks earlier. So, to make the planet greener, Richmond Council send the waste paper by boat along the Thames to the coast, where it is put into a container, then loaded onto a large ship, to make the journey of 5,800 miles by sea to China. There, it is put onto a truck, and driven a hundred more miles to a remote industrial area, that probably used to be farmland, so it can be burnt, out in the open, by Chinese workers on a starvation wage. It would have been greener to just set fire to the bin outside the house in London.

China again. The story of a plastic bottle, discarded in East London. Once more, followed along a river route to the sea, into a container, thousands of miles on a larger ship, then delivered to former agricultural workers in a remote part of China. Their job is to melt the plastic by hand, using blow-lamps and small fires. They pour the melting substance into small moulds, each about the size of a bar of chocolate. They do this squatting on the ground, for up to sixteen hours a day, for less than $1US per day. When the plastic has cooled, the moulds are knocked out, and the plastic bars stacked into boxes. Then – yes you’ve guessed it – these bars of melted goo are re-exported back to Europe, so that they can be used in the manufacture of more plastic bottles, which are later discarded everywhere, to allow the process to begin all over again.

This is not recycling, it is simple economics, and the use of cheap, near slave labour. What happened to paper bags, and returnable, strong glass bottles? They worked well for hundreds of years, but the truth is, that it is just cheaper to ‘recycle’. Don’t always believe what you are told; they will piss in your face, and tell you it is raining. Eventually, you will just say ‘thanks for letting me know’.

Make sure you look out for my forthcoming post on ‘energy saving’ light bulbs, and light pollution. It’s a cracker!