That was Then

13 Feb

‘Big fight! Big fight!’

Freda took her fluffy red dressing gown from behind the bathroom door, thought it was time she bought a new one. Stiffly, she pulled it on and slid her feet into the fluffy red slippers she had bought to match.

‘Big fight! Big fight!’ The cry swam around her head; it wouldn’t go away.

She took the stairs down, one step at a time, and very, very slowly; her mind was racing backwards at a much faster pace. By the time she had reached the bend around which she required both hands to manoeuvre, she was back to 1957 and The Medda.

‘Big fight! Barney and Ubbold!’ The kids were running in all directions away from the market cross. Running home for windjammers and wellies, then out again and down to the Railway Meadow. Down to The Medda was just that. Dalton, the town in the dale where everywhere was down, except your house and then it was up! Anyway, wherever you lived, The Medda was down.

Down, down, down they ran hoping it hadn’t started before they got there. The steep, slippery, pavements glistened in late afternoon sun but the kids paid no regard. The air was cool; they didn’t notice. Loads of kids, ducking and diving their way to The Medda.

Barney. His hair was sandy and crinkly and resisted the huge amounts of Brylcreem he plastered on it to make it smooth. His eyes, turquoise, could twinkle but then could not, depending on his mood when they changed from brilliant to dark. Today they were dark. And there he stood, on The Medda, awaiting his challenger. Awaiting someone bold enough to think they could take him on and get away with it.

He was the youngest boy in a family of girls and twin to Stella. His father died when he was five. The kids brought themselves up, dragged up, some would say, their mother working where and when she could. Barney had very little schooling. Never went, said they couldn’t make him and boasted that he had never read a book in his life. But he learned, very early, how to fight. Learned to wrestle, learned to bare knuckle box. He earned himself a reputation.

Barney didn’t bother much with women which was why it was strange that he should be on The Medda awaiting an opponent who had offended the woman he loved.

He loved Freda; she lived in a village above and beyond the dale. He had never looked at anyone else. Freda, tall, and slim, with dark hair and flashing eyes. She reminded Barney of a flamenco dancer. Her full lips were painted red, her dark hair, caught up with a slide, cascaded over her white shoulders. They met on Fridays and went to the Rock ‘n’ Roll club in the Market Hall. Barney and Freda were good together on the dance floor. Barney was magic but Freda was terrific; all the boys wanted her to jibe with them; Barney had to just sit back and watch.

Albert Hubbold, known to all as Ubbold, was a great lump of a lad, an apprentice blacksmith. He looked and smelt sweaty. Ubbold was tall and fat but could dance his socks off and got in the queue for Freda every week. She couldn’t stand his closeness but could not refuse him. She would shut her eyes and let the music take her, politely thanking him when it stopped. One night he did not let her go, she felt the stickiness of his clammy hand around her wrist and although she tugged, he would not let go. The struggle brought Barney to his feet. Ubbold threatened to plant him.

‘Yer big, but not big enough.’ Barney responded; they arranged to meet on The Medda the next evening. Word got out and by the late afternoon the town was alive.

Bare knuckles had never let Barney down but Ubbold was massive and tough.

The crowd was growing, kids joined by youths, boys and girls, jostling for a good view.

‘Ubbold’ll flatten Barney’

‘Barney’ll kill Ubbold.’

‘Where is Ubbold anyway?’

Suddenly it all went quiet. The gate to The Medda swung open, all heads turned towards it. Ubbold. Barney braced himself.

It was at that point, Freda fell in love with Barney. Ubbold had lost.

Freda had been thinking about the big fight since she climbed out of bed.

‘How long ago it was, and yet like yesterday.’ She remembered. Freda was on the last few steps now, almost down.

‘Those were the days when Barney treated me like a goddess, worshipped me, fought Ubbold for me, would’ve fought anyone for me.’ She was muttering now. Freda was always muttering, couldn’t stop; she spent a lot of time muttering. Barney very rarely spoke.

‘Can’t be doing wi’ gossip. Can’t tell yer what’s in the paper, yer can read it yerself when I’ve finished.’ And if he wasn’t reading the bloody paper, which was all creased up and in a muddle when he’d finished with it, he was watching the bloody telly.

If they crossed words, Barney would never say sorry. Not like Freda would. ‘Sorry’ she’d say, ‘Sorry Barney.’ The nearest he got was when, after a row and after more than a few drinks, he sang Neil Sedaka’s, ‘Oh Carol’ to her, substituting Carol for Freda. It was a fond memory and one she conjured up occasionally.

Freda never doubted that, in a way, his own way, Barney loved her, but he never told her. Never said much at all. She often felt lonely and lonelier now she couldn’t get around. ‘Aged frailty’, they said, ‘Comes to us all.’

‘Well.’ she was muttering again, ‘Age and frailty came to Barney, years ago.’ She wasn’t being sympathetic.

By now Freda was on the bottom step, she took it gingerly. Barney was already up and dressed.

‘You’re about in good time.’ She said. ‘Never heard you get up. See you’ve got the paper, anything in it? Not got the kettle on? I’ll do it; nice cup of tea to get us started, yes?’

It was the same every day.

‘What’ll you have for your breakfast? Porridge? Toast? I’ve got bacon and egg if you fancy?’

Barney didn’t even look up, not even a glance to acknowledge she had spoken. He just sat there, his hands crossed over the paper, still unfolded on his knee. Freda thought she had better shut up otherwise he’ll be telling her.

‘Shut up woman.’ he’ll say, ‘Stop going on.’

It wasn’t like that in the old days. Barney never got fed up of her nattering, welcomed it, saw it as part of her charm. Freda was a splendid companion. When they were in company he would watch her in amazement. Marvel at her ability to chat to anyone, entertain, make small talk. Attractive, amusing, admired and his. He adored her, but that was then.

‘Familiarity,’ her mother would say, ‘breeds contempt.’

Is that what he felt for her, contempt? In amongst his own way of loving her, did he also feel contempt? Is it possible to feel those two emotions at the same time? Freda would never know because she would never ask him.

‘Stew for dinner, with dumplings? I’ll put caraway seeds in them, alright?’

She knew he liked stew with caraway dumplings but she always consulted him, always gave him the chance to change his mind. It was only right. He would sometimes respond by saying,

‘Whatever yer think, Freda, I’ll leave it all to yer.’

Today, nothing. No response, no reaction, nothing; Barney just sat there, hands still crossed over his unfolded newspaper, staring at the floor.

Freda sighed and thought she’d leave her cuppa until she was dressed. She sighed again, ‘Another long day ahead.’ She started back up the stairs at the same snail’s pace she took, coming down. At the bend, she stopped to catch her breath. She heard Barney’s chair scrape as he pushed it back on the tiled floor. He walked to the door, there was some coming and going and conversation in hushed voices. Barney went out and the door slammed shut behind him.

Freda was intrigued and made a supreme effort to haul herself up to the landing, and peer out of the window. She hid behind the curtains; he mustn’t see her nosing.

Barney got into a large black car, it looked like a hearse. Freda was surprised.

‘He never said a word about a funeral’

It moved slowly away from the front door, a wicker coffin in the back. Freda thought she would like a wicker coffin and had often said so. It was wreathed with pink tulips and blue iris, her favourite flowers, intertwined with red roses. The card read, from Barney, with love.

One of the Old School

14 Nov

By the time she had reached the top of the drive, it was dusk. Myra managed to pick out the word ‘girls’, carved into the sandstone arch above the entrance to her old school. She hauled herself up the steps and through the archway just as the sun disappeared. Where did Ruth go? Myra called her from the top step.

‘Ruth, Ruth’. Her own voice came back to her, Ruth’s did not.

The years slid away, it was like yesterday she took the steps two at a time. Only ever made register by the skin of her teeth.

The old cloakroom, still here? It was old, forty years ago, old and cold.

‘Ruth, Ruth’, again

Her shoes click clacked across the tiles as she ventured further in.

‘Brrrrr.’

The whiff of girly body odour and smelly knickers turned her nose up. She tripped over a mud caked plimsoll. Where was Ruth? Myra thought she heard something.

‘Ruth is that you?’

A gabardine mac fell from a peg onto the floor.

‘Ruth!’

And again the only voice, reverberating around the damp, peeling walls, was her own.

A tap gushed into one of the washbasins, then another and another and them all.

‘Ruth, you’re not bloody funny, turn the frigging lights on.’

Myra couldn’t remember where the switch was, couldn’t remember if the switches were accessible to the kids. She began to feel her way around the sticky walls, stumbling over the hockey sticks and netballs beneath her feet, kicking them out of her way in desperation to find the way out – the way she came in for God’s sake.

Her breathing became short and fast. Shorter and faster still when the nattering and chuckling began.

Myra was panicking now. The throbbing in her ears almost blotting out the clamour which was reaching a crescendo. Then suddenly the doorway. She fell through it, into the lobby. Then silence. No Ruth.

Crawling a few yards on her hands and knees, she reached the quadrangle before attempting to stand. There was a rail, she heaved herself up.

The Quad, a large lawn, was overlooked by a rather grand house where the caretaker lived with his wife and son Lucien. Lucien would stand at the landing window with his willy hanging out. This performance was attributed to being named Lucien.

The classrooms built around the other three sides, were still standing.

Myra moved on sensing her way around. She wished she could see properly. What with the fading day and her failing eyesight, she was struggling. Ahh, room fifteen. Was there a light? Hypnotised, she made her way towards it. Squinting through the door, she could just make out all the desks, crouched, one behind the other in four rows. It was in room fifteen that her cousin Raymond stood up and threw something at her whilst yelling,

‘Shut yer gob!’

Raymond earned himself a hundred lines for that. He hadn’t seen Totty Lawson, so called because he had a wooden leg, behind him. Totty, outraged, bellowed,

‘Manners Maketh Man, on my desk, tomorrow morning at nine!’ She smiled at the memory.

The glow which attracted Myra to the room, moved around. Up and down the aisles, in and out between desks. Up and down, in and out, around and around it went. Myra’s nose was pressed on the glass, staring, eyes like saucers. The glow, brighter now, was gravitating towards her. She went to run away. Run? Rather, move as swiftly as her hip would allow. Too late. The door to room fifteen scraped opened and then a voice, that voice, that calm, yet demeaning voice. Hushed, but not gentle. That voice which always and even now scared the hell out of her.

‘Come in Myra, you look worried.’

Worried? She thought she would faint. Wished she would. Myra didn’t faint, just stood there her mouth a gaping hole.

The glow fizzled out and instead, and with attitude, stood Zombie Banks, headmaster.

‘Come in Myra’ and again, ‘You look worried.’

Myra walked towards him, in a trance. But then that was always how she walked towards him, unless riveted to the floor, too terrified to move. He was a fearsome sight, as his name implied. Zombie held the door for her.

‘Sit down and take out your books.’

Still in a trance she walked to her usual desk and sat down. They were all there. Sandra in her red spotty dress, Julia in blue, Fred and Johnnie Lamb. No Ruth. All facing the front, books open at Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. Zombie’s favourite. Oh my god, he’s bound to ask me to recite something, he always picks on me.

By the shores of Gitche Gumme,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.

Myra found herself thinking in the present tense, wasn’t this the past? Terrified, she scanned her memory. Desperate for another verse.

Till she bore a son in sorrow,
Bore a son of love and sorrow,
Thus was born my Hiawatha

No, there was no more. It was a mile long anyway, nobody could remember it all.

Zombie turned away to write on the board. From the back, his tall frame, black gown hanging in folds, reminded Myra of a gigantic cockroach. Suddenly he turned and pointed at her his eyes ablaze.

‘Pythagoras’ theorem, word perfect, stand!’

Shaking she began, ‘In every right angled triangle’

‘Wrong, sit down. Anyone?’

Nobody moved. He began to tell a tale of when he was in the Army. He was a Warrant Officer. He had thousands of men under his command and had to train them all to be loyal, brave soldiers capable of blasting Jerry to smithereens. To hear him talk, he had won the war single handed. ‘Pity there wasn’t more men like me’ he boasted. There wasn’t a kid in the class who would argue with him.

The bell went, Myra giddy with relief headed for the door. Zombie did not call after her. Nor did her friends. But then they wouldn’t, she remembered. They were all dead, long dead.

She escaped the quad as fast as her wobbly legs allowed; her heart beating ten to the dozen, her face red and smeared with tears. Down the steps and halfway down the drive, she stopped. Hot on her heels was Ruth. Ruth with the knees, her with the hip. ‘Christ!’

Ruth and Myra, in unison, ‘Where the hell have you been?’

‘You won’t believe it.’ Myra told Ruth,’ ‘Where were you?’

‘In room fifteen with that mad bastard, Zombie.’

They limped down to the gate, holding on to each other, neither daring to look behind.

Out in the street they scanned the faces of passers by looking for other friends, long gone. But no, all appeared normal.

‘Is The Black Bull open?’

Later after a couple of gins, they calmed down and discussed their simultaneous experience, hardly believing it had taken place. Indeed wondering if it had.

‘Learn anything new?’ they asked each other.

‘Only that if you jump in a river in full combat kit, you’ll break your neck if you don’t unfasten the sodding strap that holds your steel helmet on!’

Marbles and Frogs

15 Jun

ALBERT had arranged to meet Walter down the back of Union Street, known locally as Widows Lane. Widows Lane, so called because of the number of widows who lived there. And if you were a not bereaved woman but single, you still met the criteria. The back of Widows Lane, known in the vernacular as Widders Lane, was closed off at one end by a high metal gate. A gate that screamed in protest when opened. It needed a tough person to push it. It was the nearest way into the street from the police station and usually gave Albert and Walter plenty of time to run for it should someone call the cops. Someone like old Widder King. Always out shouting the odds. Daft old cat. The other end of Widders Lane opened on to the back of Chapel Street. Chapel Street, as well as being long enough to accommodate three chapels, one of which had been converted into a fruit and vegetable warehouse, was on a hill. A steep hill, referred to as Co-op Hill, because of the jumble of Cooperative stores at the foot. Corp Hill, again in the vernacular was pronounced Corp ’ill, led up and out of town, to, well nowhere really. Just fields as far as the eye could see. The next village just a spot on the horizon and beyond that the Irish Sea. Albert and Walter were both as fit as Sid Haig’s whippets, unlike the local cops, so when chased, which they often were, they would run up the ‘ill rather than down.

Meeting for a punch-up was a habit Albert and Walter couldn’t get out of. Any minor remark from either of them to the other would spark off a punch-up. Albert, five foot eight, burly and challenging, and Walter a great lump, hard hitting and dangerous. Few would take him on. One of them was Albert. Albert was a bare knuckle fighter and when his braces were off, you’d better it. Albert could take a punch and stay upright whereas Walter, caught in the solar plexus, would hit the deck like a sack of spuds.

Albert didn’t win them all but won most. The kids loved these contests which took place with amazing regularity. They bet their marbles and frogs on the outcome. Albert was always the favourite.

The cry, ‘Fight, fight’ would echo around the amphitheatre that nestled the town and away to Widders Lane the little buggers would run, pockets jangling and croaking. Some kids, whose dads worked in the shipyard had steelies. Marbles of steel, rather than glass. They were worth more. One steelie was worth two frogs. Some kids considered it cheating.

Cheating or not, frogs were easier to find than steelies and so the gaming and trading went on. Fortunes won and lost in the blink of an eye. Future bookies in the making, future gamblers, chancers, some sloping off crestfallen, frog hunting.

Now, the contest.

Today there was a prize, bigger than the satisfaction of being the winner and chalking it up. Bigger than any title, any badge. Today, the prize was Annette. Annette had been the prettiest girl in school. All ringlets and ribbons. Prettiest girl in town even now, all grown up, pouty and backcombed. If she knew she was the trophy, she didn’t show it. Annette was the height of cool. Hot, hip and she knew it.

Lookouts in place, Albert and Walter squared up.

‘Seconds out!’

They circled each other strutting and checking that Annette was watching. Fists clenched and sparring, about to make contact. They threw a couple of blows each, neither of them hitting target, both afraid for their faces. It would be hard to grab the reward for victory for a celebratory snog, with blood and snot running out of your nose and your teeth in the gutter. And so the prancing went on. Dancing around each other, ducking and sidestepping, rising and falling. Someone had to make the first move, the crowd was growing restless. A restless crowd was likely to abandon the pitch. An abandoned pitch, empty, littered with small confused amphibians, lost and far from home. Then, a whistle. The gate groaned and silence fell. You could hear a pin drop, well almost. Then, the sound of clicking, clacking, clogs up the back street. No running. The pugilists knew better than to run this time. Rooted to the spot, riveted, arms bent and fists still clenched. Albert, his braces dangling, braced himself.

‘Albert!’ his mother screamed, ‘Get ‘ere now, before I thump yer round yer lug.’

Tail between his legs Albert followed his mother home.

Walter, ever his eye on the main chance, looked expectantly at Annette who linked her friend, walked off and glancing behind, shouted, ‘Arse hole!’

Red Sky at Night

16 Mar

He awoke to a red sky, a red sky in the morning. It had been red when he went to bed, a red sky at night. He remembered the rhyme. But sailors or shepherds, which? He kept repeating it. Sailors, shepherds, sailors, shepherds.

Without thinking of how he got dressed, or even if he was, he walked up the backstreet, turned into another backstreet and another and another. He was in a maze of grey stone walls but not lost. He turned again and was in the centre of town.

There was no one about. No buses, cars, people, the shops all closed. He did not consider this to be unusual, he did not consider it at all.

As he crossed the road to the Town Hall, the sandstone clock tower appeared like a flame exploding out of the main building. Suddenly he had the urge to run – but invisible, elastic cords were holding him back and he needed to get to the High Level Bridge.

The High Level Bridge linked the town to the island where Schneider or Ramsden, he didn’t know which, built a shipyard. Schneider or Ramsden? Sailors or shepherds? He would have to find out.

Then there it was, the bridge. He was on it, looking down into the water. Two black submarines were basking in the shadow of the cranes, the Revenge and the Dreadnought. They looked alike, he wondered which was which? His head was spinning. Opposite, a huge cargo ship with a strange sounding name, registered in a strange sounding country. The quayside was a very busy, active place, in complete contrast to the town – but he didn’t give it a thought. Stevedores, shouting to each other, were unloading fruit and vegetables, particularly bananas, hundreds of bananas. From here the carters looked like matchstick men, with yellow loads, running to and from the ship. And then he saw him, his dad. Dad wasn’t running, he was waiting, waiting for him.

The elastic cords had snapped and he jumped down the steps from the bridge to the dockside and walked towards his father, who seemed to have moved and was now standing nearer the boat. The vessel loomed larger and larger the closer he got to it. It was an immense black mass against the crimson sky and the men working on the deck, just dots. Dad was wearing his tan-coloured bib and brace, his face was ruddy and smiling and his ginger hair was poking from underneath his cap. One hand was in his pocket. He stood out a mile but no one noticed.

‘Hiya Dad, are you waiting for me?’

‘Not not this time, I’m waiting for that fella up there.’

He pointed to a dot dangling over the edge of the boat, balancing, one leg on the rail and one arm hanging on to a net of bananas, slung from a crane.

The sky turned to grey, it had become chilly and silent.

‘Okay, see you.’

Vaguely disappointed but comforted by the fact that maybe another time, he went home. It was still early, he would go back to bed.

He awoke when the cat decided it was time to get up. It was a lovely morning. Blue sky and sunshine. He loved this time of the year. The garden was at its best. He would sit outside with his coffee and decide what to do with the day. The telephone rang. It was his mother.

‘Remember old Tommy Shuttleworth, used to work down the docks when the boats came in? Lived at the bottom of Ramsden Street, or was it Schneider. In one of those old back to backs. Knew your father. You can’t have forgotten, they were always arguing. Red sky at night. If your dad said shepherd, Tommy would say sailor. Came to dad’s funeral. Well, he died in his sleep last night.’

Lamb Holm Whispers

12 Feb

Alberto walked across the island to the chapel and went in.

‘Alberto’

He looked around.

‘Alberto?’

He looked around again but could see no one.

‘Alberto, over here, come and see.’

He followed the direction of the voice and found Luigi, kneeling in the Sanctuary, gazing up at Our Lady, smiling down from the ceiling.

‘It’s finished.’

Alberto fell to his knees to thank God for the miracle. Was the miracle the ceiling or that he was kneeling next to Luigi?

Alberto and Luigi were both serving with the Italian Tenth Army in North Africa when they were captured and brought to Lamb Holm.

Lamb Holm, a small lonely island in Orkney. The surrounding sea, dark, hostile and menacing, whipped up by the ever threatening storm. The spray, biting and salty. Bitter and bleak, the surf breaking on the shores of Scapa Flow and the rusty frames of the blockships, obstructing the narrows, made this a miserable place to be. It was the perfect location for a prisoner of war camp. The Italians, captured during World War II, were brought to this desolate isle and set to build the Churchill Barriers.

Camp 60. In 1943, the camp commandant and the camp’s priest agreed that a place of worship was required. Two Nissen huts were joined together and formed a makeshift chapel.

It was constructed with whatever materials they could lay their hands on. Domenico Chiocchetti painted the sanctuary end of the chapel, his fellow prisoners decorated the entire interior.

Alberto and Luigi often came to the unfinished chapel and not wanting to disturb the angels they spoke in whispers.

Luigi: ‘How I wish it all to be over and we can go home.’

Alberto wasn’t sure.

‘To what, Luigi?’

‘To Mamma, the food, the wine, to the sun and the warm sea.’

Alberto tried to interrupt. It was futile. Luigi was in full flight. He made his homeland sound like heaven. Alberto didn’t feel he had left heaven when he was sent to North Africa. Just left one hell hole to end up in a worse one. But here, in Orkney, it was all over peace. He could live with the cold.

He didn’t pass these thoughts to Luigi. No point. He hoped when Luigi returned home, he would be made welcome. He hoped he would sit in the sun, eating pasta cooked by his madre and everything would be how he imagined.

Alberto tried to engage Luigi in conversation about the war and how lucky they were to be out of it. But Luigi was having none of it, and so it was back to the sun and the sea and the food and the wine and Mamma.

And always they had to return to their work.

At the weekends it was the chapel. It was surprising how accomplished they had both become, how they had all become, under the direction of a master. Alberto would never have believed himself to be capable of such artistry. Such creativity. Domenico stressed that imagination knows no limits.

Luigi sang as he created. He sang as loud as he could. He would sing for Mamma when he got home. His voice echoed from every corner and rebounded into the chapel. Alberto and the others, applauded the songs they all knew so well. O Sole Mio and Sorrento. Sorrento always left someone crying and they all cheered and joined in Funiculì, Funiculà.

How Luigi and Alberto had come together they could not remember but they had become friends, comrades. Comrades as different as they could possibly be. Comrades, tolerant and strong.

A comradeship that would end suddenly and dramatically.

For some reason, no one ever knew why, Luigi left the hut, where they slept, in the middle of the night. He passed the guard, unseen, and into the dark. With arms outstretched and singing, he walked into the sea. His body was found the next morning, He had been battered against the rocks and was hardly identifiable. Alberto was stunned. Stunned, shocked and distressed. His friend had given no indication he was so unhappy. They were prisoners, yes, but Luigi was always on about going home and how wonderful it would be. How he longed for home. The sun, the wine, Mamma.

Alberto reproached himself. He should have noticed something. Had his attitude to going home affected Luigi? Dashed his hopes of a happy return? Alberto wished he had kept his mouth shut but they had shared so many intimacies. It wasn’t Luigi’s fault that Alberto didn’t have an adoring Mamma who wanted to cook his favourite food, who wanted to love him and welcome him home from the war with open arms. He wept, wept for Luigi and for himself.

Alberto went into the chapel often after that. He prayed for Luigi’s tortured soul and prayed for his own forgiveness. If only he could tell Luigi he was sorry.

And so it was a miracle that he was kneeling next to Luigi now.

He didn’t have to ask. Luigi spoke first.

‘Alberto, you must not scold yourself. I am happy and with Mamma. She called me that night, she wanted me to sing and I went to her. Now we sing all the time. We eat pasta and drink wine and the sea is never cold.’

Alberto began to cry. Large tears, loud sobs.

And then a voice from nowhere. The voice of a child.

‘I heard them Daddy, there were voices, voices and sobbing. I heard them.’

Walking with Ghosts

21 Dec

‘Oh no, he’s coming over.’

He’d been watching her for quite some time. Their eyes met when they passed each other in the alley. Something drew her gaze to him and then he was gone. Lost in the crowds. But now he was here, on the square, watching her.

‘Deep breaths.’

‘Ms Foster? This way please.’ He spoke quietly. ‘I am your guide for the evening.’

Now she felt silly, embarrassed, as if he knew what she had been thinking. That he was a crank, a pervert or worse.

Stupid woman.

Julie Foster assembled her group. All first year A-level students launched from childhood to adulthood in the space of a few weeks. She always arranged excursions during their first year. Activities designed to take them out of their comfort zone, an introduction to a world of society, traditions, entertainment and culture. Enrichment Activities she called them. Trips to art galleries, museums, theatres, criminal courts. And, for fun, a ghost walk. Always a ghost walk. And always a late one. A ghost walk in the dark.

The students saw this year as a breeze, a light wind in contrast to the gales of previous years, which blasted them to the big exam. Trips out and about? A doddle. To Julie it was evaluation, these jaunts were part of that. The ghost walk was just a bit of a laugh, but it gave her some satisfaction to hear the screams and cries when spooks materialised in dark corners, jumped out of doorways with bloody aprons and severed heads on the ends of spikes, screaming and moaning from house windows and doors banging in the wind. Knocked some of the cockiness out of them.

She smiled at the man and he smiled back.

He pointed to a passageway on the far side of the square, raised his red umbrella to distinguish him from the other guides and beckoned her to follow. Julie dropped in behind him, mustered her troops, who in turn, dropped in behind her. They weaved their way in and out of the crowds and soon they were off the piazza, towards the church with the golden spires.

Zigzagging their way down a narrow street, the cobbles glistened under the Christmas lights. Julie had to keep her eyes lowered in case she landed in a puddle. She had done these tours so many times and returned with wet feet. And now it had started to snow. Why hadn’t she put her boots on? The street narrowed even more. The buildings seemed to meet overhead and form a tunnel. No lights. Julie felt she should crouch in case she hit her head. The guide, identified as Henry, kept up the historical dialogue and strode ahead without looking behind. His feet were large, his steps long. He dressed the part. A cape draped from his wide shoulders and rippled as he stirred up the air around him. He wore a dark suit with a high buttoned waistcoat and underneath a starched white shirt. It crossed Julie’s mind that he must have felt most uncomfortable. The things people do for their art. She assumed he was a resting actor. His boots shone. Henry’s stature grew and filled the space ahead.

She could hear chattering from behind and was secretly delighted that the babble would soon turn into shrieks, first of fright and then of hysteria, probably around the next corner. She wished Henry would slow down.

They left the street and crossed over a bow bridge on the edge of the city. Henry came to a stop and turned around to face them. Julie was still at the front.

He addressed the gathering.

‘The Red Lion and Lollard’s Yard and Gallows to the front.’

The Gallows had a line of four nooses and from each one a hanging female. One looked dead, eyes bulging and tongue hanging out. The other three were still kicking.

‘Hell fire.’ Julie gasped, ‘A bit realistic.’

‘Prostitutes.’

That’s all Henry said.

‘Prostitutes.’

They moved on, through the cathedral close and up the slope towards the city walls. Walls twelve feet thick and built with flint and the sweat of peasants. Henry took an abrupt left turn and walked along the wall until they reached a sort of prison. Deep recesses burrowed into the wall, open to the elements, bars from top to bottom. The floors were lined with dirty, wet straw, the smell, terrible. A huge jailer was planted without, arms folded across his chest, whip tucked into his belt. He held a huge bunch of keys and stared ahead, unblinking. Julie thought he looked like a waxwork. She almost jumped out of her skin when he turned to face her, snarled, raised his arm, stretched it towards her and shook the keys angrily, in her face. Screams filled the air around her; she was pleased she wasn’t the only one petrified.

As they skirted past, the prisoners stretched their arms, torn and bleeding arms, through the bars, grabbing and wailing, pleading to be let out. She stepped away for fear of one of them catching the hem of her coat. A skinny, scabby, slavering dog bared its teeth, barked menacingly and ran off.

Henry turned back towards the city continuing his flow of information, hardly stopping for breath. Julie was amazed by what he knew. It was unlikely her students were making notes. Before they knew it they were in a muddy lane with hovels either side. They stopped outside a dingy dwelling. By now, Julie had completely lost her bearings. Henry told the tale of a young girl who fled from the country to find her lover who had moved to the city for work. She searched and searched for him without success. Julie glanced at the house; she could see a girl’s face at the upstairs window. A white, gaunt face with tears running down her cheeks, she was sobbing. Julie could hear the sobbing. Suddenly the door opened and out ran a man, carrying a large knife, dripping blood. He was howling like a wild animal. Julie thought she would pass out with fright.

Henry continued.

‘Thinking she had been forsaken and unaware that her lover had gone back to the country to find her, the girl sought comfort with another man and moved into this house to live with him.’

Henry gestured towards the dwelling.

‘Her lover returned to the city and found her here.’

Another gesture from Henry.

‘He was so distraught and driven by jealousy and rage. He stabbed them both to death, ran out of the house, down the lane and threw himself into the river where he drowned.’

Henry pointed, with his large hands, down the lane towards the river.

Oh my God, Julie’s mind was running riot, her heart was thumping fit to burst, she felt dizzy and wondered how her students were. Before she had time to turn around to check, Henry suddenly, and without warning, set off again. Julie, taken by surprise, leapt and quickened her pace to keep up. She wondered what surprises were awaiting them around the next corner and was grateful when she saw the lights on the trees in the square and the crowds milling around. She relaxed, glad it was all over.

This was the most terrifying walk she had ever taken the kids on and a new route to her. She must talk with the agency tomorrow, the kids are only sixteen. This was a bit over the top.

Henry raised his red umbrella again and they crossed to the clock tower where he had collected them a couple of hours before. As they approached Julie checked her party. They were jostling, pushing and shoving, some shuffling from foot to foot. Others, chatting. She was glad to see they were unperturbed. The clock in the tower must have stopped, it still said eight o’clock.

Henry lowered the brolly and Julie walked past him to her charges.

‘A big thank you to Henry, I think.’

She turned but he had gone.

A young man, dressed in jeans and a tee shirt bearing the unlikely slogan, ‘I ran the World’ approached them.

‘Ms Foster? My name is Dean, I am your guide for the evening.’

Paradise and Mr Sheen

6 Dec

Feet set apart, shoes shining, jeans neatly ironed, he was feeling confident. Ronnie drew himself up to his full five foot seven and squared up to the hole in the wall. He challenged it to give him the cash.

Only want £100.Only need £100. Come on!

Ronnie was eager to be on his way. Lola would be waiting.

Questions, questions. For God’s sake. Yes, I want it in English. Yes, I want cash only. No, I don’t want to top up my mobile. Mobile? What Mobile? No I don’t want another service. I want £100 quid. Come on!

The woman, immediately behind Ronnie was sighing. Heaving, sighing and tapping her foot. She was impatient, agitated. He could tell.

Well I’m impatient and agitated too.

He could see her reflection in the glass. A tart. She smelt of cheap and nasty perfume.

No right to be impatient and agitated and tapping if you’re a tart he thought. His urgency made him spiteful.

At last the £100 arrived, in five twenties.

Damn.

He could have done with a couple of fivers. Lola charges £45 and doesn’t give change. He grabbed the notes, swivelled as best he could in the confined space and gave the tart a dirty look.

Ronnie impatiently weaved his way in and out of the shoppers and at last left the main street. He knew a back way to Lola’s. Narrow streets, no more than alleys and less chance of being followed. Not that Muriel would follow him, or have him followed. She hadn’t got the savvy. Poor Muriel, dim as a Toc H Lamp. She looked the business when he met her thirty years ago but time had not been kind. She’d let herself go, not like him, always well turned out. He didn’t fancy her anymore and that was and end to it.

Mind, what she lacked in the bedroom she made up for in the kitchen. Good cook, good housekeeper, she’d been a good mother. But no, dim as a Toc H Lamp and clueless. She’ll back there now, getting ahead of herself with the hoovering and dusting, so tomorrow she can get ahead of herself with the washing and ironing. One day, she’ll disappear up her own arse.

Nearing Lola’s place and with a few minutes to spare Ronnie looked around furtively. A sudden sharp breeze, straight off the sea, caught his hair and ruffled it up from behind. It stood on end and for a second, made him look and feel slightly ridiculous. My god, he was aggravated. Straightening it with one hand, he grabbed the door handle with the other. It was sticky. He grimaced. The paintwork was peeling, the whole building was shabby and dilapidated but once inside, yes, inside, Ronnie was in heaven. He manoeuvred his way along a black corridor until his eyes became accustomed and he reached the stairway to paradise. Music beckoned him above and he placed his hand on the banister.

Christ, this is sticky as well. Some dirty bugger’s been here before me

He reached Lola’s room, took a deep breath, rubbed his tacky hands on his jeans, smoothed his hair, just in case, and knocked. His heart skipped a beat as Lola’s honeyed voice, responded, ‘Come in.’

Lola had been awaiting her next client. She’d just said goodbye to one of her regulars. Nice enough bloke but his palms were always clammy. She hoped it was sweat refusing to allow her thoughts to wander any further.

She needed to change. This next one preferred a Spanish theme.

She chose a strapless black dress which embraced her cleavage and stayed put, more by good luck than management. It was split to the thigh. She popped a red rose into the ravine between her breasts. Her dark hair was piled up and the locks that escaped the comb hung down over one shoulder. A lace mantilla kept it all in place. Lola planned to lower her dark eyes and remove the veil very slowly as he came through the door, drawing it across her face before letting it drop and then tap, tap, tap towards him to the beat of a flamenco guitar. She must remember to get another CD, she was sick of that one. Lola hoped he wouldn’t be too excited but she needed to get him in the mood quickly or he would still be at it when the alarm went off. She never offered extra time, not since he objected when she once refused to give him change.

How dare he? Her services were like the words in a book. Priceless.

Lola thought Ronnie an upstart. A neat, tidy little upstart. Pressed and polished and clean. Clean enough to make you sick. No clammy palms and no smell of sweat, not even after the bell tolled time. He would just smooth his hair, it had a tendency to stick up at the back as if the wind had caught it, put his jacket on and leave.

Lola gathered her thoughts and put them to the back of her mind. She awaited his knock. His supreme politeness made her as sick as his supreme cleanliness. She resisted shouting ‘Come in for god’s sake and let’s get this over with.’ When it came she breathed in deeply, lowered her tone and breathed, ‘Come in.’

At home.

He’s gone. At last. I thought he’d never stop preening and prancing about in front of that mirror’

Muriel hastily wound in the cord of the hoover and stashed it away, under the stairs.

That’ll do for today.

Muriel loved her home, had worked hard to get it nice. Beavering about from room to room, duster in one hand, dragging the hoover with the other, she resented sharing it.

She despised Ronnie. Married thirty years and had despised him after that many months. But, with a mortgage and a child, she was stuck with him.

Then he retired. He was constantly under her feet, in her face. Fussing, moving things about. Whining.

‘What do you want this for? What does this do? Do you need this?’ and when the bad weather came he complained that the washing, drying in the spare room, made the house smell like a Chinese laundry.

‘What exactly is a Chinese laundry?’ she wanted to ask.

‘Mrs Wishee Washee’ he would sneer, ‘Mrs Wishee Washee.’

The words which went through Muriel’s head, and the ones which came out of her mouth, were not the same. Eventually she stopped talking to him. Just the necessary words to shut him up. She just dusted and hoovered, washed and ironed and served his dinner up between twelve and one. He was very particular about dinner time.

Her loathing grew.

Just lately he’d taken to going out on a regular basis. He thought she hadn’t noticed the money leaving the bank.

Silly sod!

Muriel wondered, vaguely, where he went, but didn’t care. It gave her a free afternoon. An afternoon without his constant twitter, whinging, nit picking and nagging. An afternoon to do as she liked. So as soon as he left the house she changed into her sexiest underwear. Stockings and suspenders seemed to be out of fashion with the youngsters, but she liked them. Then her red dress, the slinky one she kept at the back of the wardrobe. It slid over her head, and flowed down her body. She loved the feel of the fabric against the places it touched; it made her feel sensual. A light spray of No 5, and with one last look in the mirror, Muriel flicked her hair, pouted scarlet and winked. Then grabbing her Mr Sheen and her feather duster she hastened next door, where she was giving Brian an hour or two.

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