Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Pal Pot

First published 'Not One Of Us' 1993

I fell head over heels in love with her when I first saw Carmina in the supermarket. She was standing by the condiments, closely examining the label of what I could just see was a jar of lime pickle. I’ve always been shy. You can see it in my eyes if you care to look: a disfiguring shyness. But I found myself momentarily cresting a veritable up¬surge of confidence, thrust thus out of character by a girl so ideal she seemed a pure, undiluted goddess of golden sunshine shafting through the drizzly clouds of my inhibitive past.

‘Pretty hot stuff,’ I said, abruptly, pointing at the jar in her band. I jumped from my skin at the sound of my own voice. I could have bitten my tongue off.

‘Yes, I thought so, too, but it says mild in small letters under the name here.’ She pushed the jar under my nose so that I could see the word ‘mild’ in small print under LIME PICKLE.

I couldn’t bear to say any more, sensing the old ‘me’ creeping insidiously back into position just behind the eyes. I simply nodded and scuttled off with my carriage into the next aisle, hoping that the baked bean cans would collapse and create a diversionary tactic all of their own.

I despaired when she queued up immediately behind me at the checkout. I was already positioning my purchases on the moving belt, with the girl at the register bleeping them through. Eventually, I remem¬bered to place the plastic ‘next customer’ divider on the belt just behind my pot noodles. And when Carmina started to deposit her groceries on the belt, I noted, out of the corner of my eye, that the jar of lime pickle was at the front, pressed up against the plastic divider. I was all a dither, my mind racing round and round the inside of my skull like a dervish chasing an impossible dream.

Yet how did I know her name was Carmina? Well, the checkout operator (a blousy girl with nothing much to recommend her) was somehow acquainted with her and, as she continued to bleep through my solitary weekend’s tucker, she chatted over my shoulder--‘Carmina, do you know Rich is going out with Wendy?’ and ‘I sure do like your eye shadow, Carmina, where did you get it from?’ and ‘Are you going to John’s party tonight, they say your ‘ex’ will be there?’--as if any such questions could have been even slightly interesting to the likes of Carmina! Nor had I seen the evidence of make-up upon our fleeting eye-contact in the aisle.

Carmina, to her credit, did not bother to answer; merely smiled noncommittally as she laid her rather exotic purchases on the belt.

I hastily left the supermarket in a flurry of squeaky, ill-packed grocery bags that bore a name that gradually made me feel more secure, as if my way home was safe from intervention. But, when I did get home, I rested my elbows on the kitchen table and burst out into intermittent fits of uncontrollable tears. I had fallen in love with an impossible dream. However, later in the evening, I cheered myself up by enacting a marriage between my pot noodles and the jar of lime pickle that had accidently become mixed up with my shopping.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Confessions of a Householder

published 'The Banshee' 1993

It is the devil's own job to find window-cleaners, these days. There was once a time they were climbing on top of each other for your custom. But, now, nobody wants to lug round a retractable ladder, a bucket of soapy sloshy water and a prime cut of chamois leather. The ones you do see are usually teetering in precarious cradles hanging against godawful office blocks, wielding contraptions that look like car windscreen wipers and staring in at mindless clerks who have nothing better to do than stare back.

That is, until Mr Jones-Bishop came knocking on my door, looking for business. A well-spoken gentleman in his mid-fifties, at a guess, dressed methodically in navy blue dungarees and flat cap. He was obviously supplementing an income kindly granted him by the Government.

“Yes, I’ve been after one of you for ages. How much? And how regularly will you come?”

“How about ten bob for the whole house?”

I hadn’t heard the expression ‘ten bob’ for several years. Used to be a brown note, I recalled. But fifty pee seemed far too low. I didn’t question it, however — no point, I supposed, in preventing others from diddling themselves. No point at all.

“Well yes, that’s fine.”

He surveyed my semi-detached with a professional air. I assumed he had secured the business for the whole street.

“You’ll come once a month, then?”

“Once a week would be better all round.”

I nodded, non-commitally. He did come once a week. And a fine job he made of it, too. My windows sparkled even on dull days. I could see my face in them from both sides — not that I was in the habit of peering into my own house from the garden.

There was one irritating, if not disturbing fact, however. Mr Jones-Bishop did tend to be almost too attentive. I supposed it was because he thought that was the best way of obtaining a brew-up at my hands. But there is a thin borderline between attentiveness and sheer snoopiness. And many a time I caught him peering through the window of the master bedroom, hand in a salute of shade above his eyes, always it seemed at the very moment I was getting up....or going back to bed.

I doubted he could see me as well as I could see him, however. That was the saving grace.

It was only when he started turning up on a daily basis did I refer the subject to the communal street gossip. My neighbours (with whom I had only rare meetings), needless to say, were not short of a tongue or two. No holds barred, in fact, when a shot-gun wedding was afoot or when curtains seemed to be closed too often in a particular semi.

“What window-cleaner?” was the general response. In fact, my incessant questioning on this subject must have caused me to be the butt of a scandal or two. So, in the end, I gave up and determined to present Mr Jones-Bishop with the facts of the case.

Thus, when I heard the clatter of his ladder; the tell-tale phlutt of its padded top as it was tilted againist the bedroom window, followed by the gently screech screech of his suddy leather upon the glass, I knew he was on the job... .despite the curtains being closed. I vowed to await the characteristic click of my letterbox and the plop of his invoice on the bristly doormat.....and then abruptly open the front door.

“Why have you been victimising me? Mooning in at me all hours of the day?” But could I bring myself to say it? Could I even muster sufficient courage to open the door?

Imagine my surprise when I did and discovered him standing there, flanked by two of my neighbours with cocked shot-guns.

I immediately thought that Mr Jones-Bishop must have taken a shine to me.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Door Has Bolted

If one joined the highly competitive ranks of Walk Felling, then one needed to expect knocks and brickbats as well as the bouquets and fillips.

Joanna was not terribly keen, it had to be said, when Thomas suggested her enrolling in the local Walk Felling group.

This group – according to their extremely glossy brochure (so glossy it shone at night without any lights on) – had thrived in Buckminster since time’s immemorial tolling of the city’s church bells. The group’s various ‘Captains of the Trip’, as they were called, had counted Tobias Smollett and Jonathan Swift among their number, although, in those days, these two famous authors must have presided over the group from an enormous distance. Distances have indeed grown smaller as time approached our own time – mainly due to the development of transport techniques but also often due to unexpected factors such as the miles themselves becoming relatively shorter in length (incredible though it may seem that nobody has before noticed this phenomenon or remarked upon it, safe in this account).

In short, however, today’s Walk Felling Captains have an easier task to arrange and, subsequently, control the various Trips in which the Buckminster group happens to indulge.

Joanna was a burly woman, but ‘burly’ is not a feminine word and she preferred, when push came to shove, the word ‘buxom’. But Thomas loved her, he thought, and that fact made any careless use of words quite unimportant and ultra vires.

“Aren’t there any comebacks?” she asked, as Thomas passed the enrolment form towards her. She wielded the unlit cigarette in its holder as if she were conducting the conversation orchestrally.

The clock on the steadfast mantelpiece tick-tocked ponderously, while the bay window was full of a threatening sky outside. Walk Felling was more difficult in the heat. At least wet and cool dowsed the passions.

“Comebacks?” Thomas intoned. “What sort of comebacks are you referring to, dear Joanna?”

She then embarked upon a long diatribe concerning various trial Trips she had experienced as a volunteer, i.e. accompanying those people who instigated the Trips. Thomas, she saw, was not quite himself today. His smooth skin hid his thoughts whilst also belying his age – and she wondered how she could have possibly ended up with a soul-mate so distinctly unsuited to her soul - unsuited if not by age differential, certainly by temperament and quaint interests.

He was under the weather, decidedly out of salts. Take this Walk Felling as an example: the pursuit that Thomas was so crazy about. It seemed more conducive to embittered middle-aged folk like him, not for a relative youngster she felt herself to be. She discarded the unlit cigarette and its holder, despairing of its use as a stage prop.

“Well, you know.” She glanced towards the window where the weather was now disguised by a sudden blanket of fog - probably the ideal conditions for blatant Walk Felling. “It’s all well and good Walk Felling with people but when we also do it with actual parts of their living quarters and with their other belongings, then I’m sure we’re treading on too many toes…”

Thomas shrugged. Joanna turned back to the enrolment form, quizzically sucking the pen that had replaced the cigarette holder as a comforter. There was a wording in the small print she couldn’t really follow.

“What does this mean?” She points with the pen, peering over her own buxom chest with an expression fit to fell Jack and the Beanstalk’s Giant.

Thomas erected his half-glasses upon his face and studied the bit pointed at. And read it aloud with great understanding: “No winklepickers, no trailing feet, no untoward heels, no angular ankles, no misled toes … Hmmm, well, Joanna, that simply means you have to be careful where you place your feet during a Trip. The Captain will have your guts for garters, if you don’t.”

“No, not that bit, Thomas, this bit.” She pointed again, but now not allowing her own upper body to divert the direction of her pen-tip. She read it aloud herself, this time: “Doors and windows can be approached by the signatory but only with great care; I, as signatory, faithfully do testify that those labelled with a red triangle should be deemed permanent and thus effectively ‘unwalking’ features of a house and theretofore ineligible for Felling.”

Thomas frowned. He himself had never been known to hold back when approaching apparent inanimate objects during an official Trip. Everything he saw was fair game to him – and once he’d started caving things in with his metal toe-caps, he’d always claim having missed seeing the red triangle. Yet those very thoughts belied his actual thoughts.

“I can’t sign this.” Joanna sighed. “It makes me liable to counter-tripping, it seems. Even upon my own house.”


Thomas eventually convinced Joanna and they both took her enrolment form to Trip HQ where the Captain held court, as it were.

The latest Captain – in a long line of Captains – had a quizzical moustache which he constantly twirled with his yellow fingers as he read the form that Joanna, with some misgiving, had eventually signed. Each form was indeed different from all other forms. There were no standard rules of Walk Felling – in fact there was potentially an infinite number of ‘sets of rules’, in ever-increasing permutations. The Captain simply had to check what things Joanna was allowed to do and what she wasn’t allowed to do, all within the realms of reason.

Thomas looked on, beaming – proud that his lady consort of the moment was soon to be allowed entry into the ranks of Buckminster Walk Felling. Even the HQ’s inner door swung to and fro in the fresh-gusted air … creaking out its celebration of Joanna’s entry.


Her maiden Trip was to be that very afternoon. Thomas and Joanna traipsed behind the dishevelled shape of the Captain towards Buckminster Common. There, they could see the huge electricity Generators that hulked glossily on the horizon like lowered souls in prayer. These machines hummed, even at this considerable distance, giving the air – which was now generally cool and clear – the odd waft of perceptible warmth.

The Captain was smoking like a chimney. And he, together with Thomas and Joanna, and a number of other Trippers, slowed their own walk to an amble as they approached an area where already the Trip’s catharsis was primed. At least a score of strangers was seen striding vigorously in a circle, round and round an odd burial-mound that was covered with a house door. They were crooning some difficult words that were nevertheless easy to hear.

“We expectorate the Trip, we ooblivate the Trip, we stagnivate the Trip, we duminate the Trip…”

And the Captain’s group itself, whilst approaching these circling crooners, intoned their own reply: “You simply await our Trip!”

Joanna knew, by strength of the wording of the particular set of rules that she had signed with her own fair dinky scrawl upon the enrolment form, that she was the only one of the Trippers who could actually tackle this door.

The door was clearly not walking and it bore a red triangle – of sorts. So it would have been difficult to justify full-blooded Walk Felling in its own case. Except by Joanna.

She would need to swallow all compunction and simply attack the door while it was down. Meanwhile, the Captain, Thomas and the other Trippers tackled the circling crooners at mid-calf level - a surprise manoeuvre in the form of a variation upon ‘weakening ankles’, but it resulted in all participants, Trippers and Tripped alike, sprawling on the Common like dismantled beetles.

Joanna was not among them. She had been seen chasing the door into the distance, towards the horizon where the Generators moaned on and on forever – lighting up Buckminster City and all its pubs, as the place awaited the return of the excited Walk Fellers after weathering a variably hot day on the Common.

Thomas, when in his cups, wondered if he should ever see Joanna again.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Flossie's Return

Published 'Pirate Writings' 1993

In the end, Flossie had been away too long. Following the ugly divorce, she had decided to have the first ever holiday on her own and go the whole hog this time with two months outside her English homeland. To call it a Grand Tour would have been stretching it too far, but many high spots of Old Europe had been on her itinerary; those resplendent representatives of history’s old disguise where Ottoman and Holy Roman Empires were living memories. Not that she gave herself any time for meticulously planning her sudden return to England resulting in suitcases full of dirty underwear, unmemorable keepsake knickknacks and diverse hats, all being hastily thrust into the back of a taxicab at Heathrow Airport. She actually relished returning to the salubrious terraced house in Hampstead, despite the eventual necessity to get her teeth back into earning a living. And no husband. She had put him to the back of her mind. Now his image returned, the nearer she was driven towards the abode he had rudely abandoned all those months ago..

It looked at first as if things hadn’t changed, as the taxi drew up outside the familiar railings. In fact, the doorknocker seemed just as sparkling as she’d left it: which was perhaps more surprising than she realised. The road appeared narrower, but she put that down to having just been charcoal-sketching wide avenues and esplanades amid the artistic environs of what was now another world away. The people in the street with whom, only two months ago, she may well have been at least on nodding terms, were strangely scruffy; their faces swarthy and hair showing signs of concealed racial curls, eyes piercing, as they witnessed Flossie’s undignified scramble from the taxi.

“Oi, Miss, don’t furgit yer luggidge!” called the driver as she hustled up her front steps to unlock what she hoped was her front door. She had expected him to get out and tote the cases from the boot up to the door. If he expects a tip, he’d better shake a leg, she vowed to herself. The lock was well oiled and easily stirred, but the door itself was unseasonably stiff, the wood swollen in the frame, or the frame shrunk, or a combination of the two. She put a shoulder to it, causing her to unbalance into the hall, dropping the flowery hat she’d purchased in Florence.

“Oi, Miss, don’ trip up over yer own foot!” The driver laughed, if sneering could be called laughter, as he arrived at the top of the steps, lugging baggage with one hand and holding out the other like a plate of meat – as if he were a rich beggar.

“Thank you.” She hastily regained her composure, and sunk a foreign coin of high denomination into the pit of his grimy palm.

He put his nose to it, as if he eschewed testing it with his gappy teeth. “Oi, Miss, I can’t spend this ‘ere funny munny in the Dog ‘n Drake.”

“I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got till I change it back in the morning.”

“And I’m afraid I’ll ‘ave ter take yer all the way back to Heathrow where yer started off, unless yer give me proper goose for the gander.”

Flossie cringed. The gratuity had suddenly assumed a necessary purpose, an importance that her latterly foreign-steeped mind couldn’t conceptualize. She wondered about going next door, where old Mr Phipps lived. He’d lend her a few shillings, no doubt. Not that she owed the taxi-man anything beyond his fare, which she had settled with her remaining pukka English currency. It was simply that she felt more vulnerable in England than she did abroad, for some unaccountable reason. Perhaps, the more noticeable absence of her erstwhile husband. After all, he had been a dab hand at dealing with the servant class. Not that there were any servants left in England. The thoughts were a stream of consciousness, but oddly logical. Even that last one. And the next. Only loosely gratuitous. “Hold on, while I arrange something,” she said, finger in the air, as if she was conducting somebody else’s argument.

Mr Phipps must have changed his curtains … and repainted his door! Two months was an unconscionably long period to have been away. Even the echoing sound of the knocker upon the heel was more reverberant, as if the house was a louder sound-box, or as if fabrics and furniture were depleted, or perhaps both. Probably neither. Not shrunk nor swollen.

“Mr Phippsl Mr Phipps! Are you there?” she called through the letter-box, using it like an extension of her mouth. She expected to hear the soft pad of his shambling slippers as they took their customary shine along the parquet in the hall, but no such welcome sounds. She shrugged and returned to the taxi-man, who was stepping from foot to foot on the spot in an attempt to give the appearance of wasting time.

“I’m afraid you will have to take that coin today and come back tomorrow if you need it changed. I can assure you it’s probably worth far more than I would have given you, given half the change, and, after all, there is no law to say I need to give you anything....”

The man looked askance, as if to say even the long tradition of English law had been altered by an Act of Parliament, since she went away. Real politicians were on Summer recess, so anything could’ve been passed.

“I hope you don’t consider me mercenary,” said the man n a suddenly posher accent, “but I can see you are a generous lady who would sooner treat me than trick me...”

“Well, whatever, please be reasonable.”

“Me, Madam? I’m the most reasonable man you’re ever likely to meet. Reasonability, that’s my watchword.”

“In that case, can we call it a day?”

He looked up at the darkening sky. “More like the night, Miss, much more like the night, I should say.”

She did not appreciate the humour, but decided not to antagonise him further. She pulled the luggage into the hall and slammed the door behind her, the dubious coin still grasped in her sweaty palm.

Flossie stood for a few minutes in the dimness at the foot of the steep stairs. Eventually, she heard the door of the black cab slam and drive off, hopefully with the driver in it, she mused to herself.

The stairs certainly seemed steeper than she remembered them, with tall treads. She managed to drag the first item of soft baggage towards her bedroom at the back of the house. Uncharacteristically, she had forgotten to switch on the light at the bottom before grappling with the ascent. Come on, Flossie, old girl, get a grip on yourself! She gritted her teeth and after much fuss and bother, she arrived on the landing. She’d have a quick bath and change into... into what? Damn! All her clothes were stiff with European dirt – except, that was for the oddments left behind in the tallboy in her bedroom, still mixed up with her husband’s ancient cast-offs. She couldn’t think properly. That taxi-man had upset her more than she realized.

The landing was even darker than the hallway. She had always thought it best to leave all connecting doors firmly shut, whilst away, in case of fire. That would account for the darkness. Still, she had very thick navy-blue velvet curtains in the bedroom (owing to the light early mornings before her departure), and she could not recall whether these had been left undrawn.

She stood for a few seconds, regaining her breath (or what she hoped was her breath) and, as she did so, she heard a vehicle drawing up outside. Surely, it wasn’t that stuffy taxi-driver returned for his damned money. But, no, it soon drove off again, without any sound of car doors. Leaving the bulging case where it was and not bothering with the top light switch, Flossie felt her way to the bedroom door ...

....which was no longer made of the erstwhile wood, but curtain-strings of black beads that rattled like a snake as she passed through. In the room itself, the darkness bore more of a yellow tinge than the usual black or cloying grey. A group of individuals squatted where her bed used to be, sucking on long pipes that seemed to be giving off most of the darkness. They exchanged pipes. One of them crooked a finger, as if beckoning Flossie to join them. Flossie. She simply stood and stared open-mouthed, not even daring to breathe beyond a fitful respiration, which her lungs forced on her. She closed her eyes, momentarily, and, on opening them...

...she was relieved to see that the bedroom, as she recalled it, had returned, with the print curtains hanging at the open window, in that red lacy material she’d always liked as a free filter of the sun. Indeed, a low sun across the Heath threatened to dip below the horizon leaving the sky streaked with a display more fitting for some of the places she’d just visited on holiday.

She smiled. Must have been the strain. Travel was an hallucinant: made you see some things more clearly, others less so. Plumping down on the bed, she stared up at the ceiling, which her husband had once stippled. It was covered in cracks and an archipelago of foxing – more such blots and blemishes than she could recall. But, two months was a long time.

Still feeling caked in foreign filth, she gradually dozed off, in an attempt to catch up on what she considered to be her beauty sleep or, rather, English sleep. She thought she heard underchatter grunting from next door. Mr Phipps must have company. Strange, he never had people in before. She yawned. They may not be people. She laughed at the illogicality of her dozing mind and snored simultaneously. She stirred when the vehicle drew up outside, doors slamming....