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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.

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.