Tag Archives: Relationships

Oh Can You Wash Your Father’s Shirt?

10 Jun

Eventually he agreed to sell the bloody piano. I never wanted it from the day it arrived. Before that even. It was bequeathed to my husband by his grandmother because he was her first grandson. She said it was to be a secret. Perhaps she thought if the others knew, they would all want one. Grandma wanted him to have it, before her departure, so the secret would not leak out. My theory? She wanted rid of it.

Summoned one evening, grandma said she had something especially for him because of his unique place in her heart. At the time, we were desperately hard up and the bills were landing on the mat with amazing frequency. As soon as one cleared another arrived. And so, hopes rising, I hastened him off to grandma then sat and waited.

It seemed like hours before he returned, the bills fanned out on the kitchen table. He wasn’t smiling when he arrived back. I fancied he was disguising a big grin but I was wrong.

‘How much?’

Considering some old people value a pound much higher than we, I was prepared for it not being a fortune, I asked again. The electricity bill, maybe or the poll tax? The poll tax, now there lies a tale for another time.

‘How much?’

‘How much? Bugger all. She’s left me the bloody piano.’


granvilleAn old upright she bought at an auction years ago. Actually she bought two and gave one away. It was riddled with woodworm, totally out of tune, marked where hot cups had been placed on the lid and cost us a damn fortune to get it from her house to ours. By the time it had been treated for infestation, polished and retuned, it cost the best part of the aforesaid electricity bill, gas bill and water rates all thrown in.

With it came a piano stool. I use the term loosely. It was more like a few bits of hardboard, nailed to four roughly hewn legs with a lid on top. Grandma had covered it with some padding and material to match the curtains. She was clever that way. Needless to say it did not match our curtains.

Then, there we were, twenty years later and one hundred miles from our original home. The piano came, of course, another utility bill left for the red one to arrive.

Raymond, my husband, bought a Piano Tutor and attempted to learn. He supports self study based on the theory that if you can read you can learn.

‘Not the piano my dear’ I told him as he approached the keyboard, fingers outstretched as if he was about to type an angry dispatch to the local paper. He challenged the piano to obey but it beat him. The lid down, it became the biggest, most cumbersome, telephone table in the area.

We decided to move again and I decided, brave move on my part, that this time the piano was not moving with us. Grandma had passed on, or over, as she preferred to say, and wouldn’t know.

With a heavy heart, Raymond put it on Ebay. Some naive young woman bought it. Five pounds fifty pence and the stool thrown in for free. In all fairness the stool was full of old sheet music which the innocent young thing may have suspected was worth something and sold on making herself a fortune. Ho hum.

Once it left the house Raymond felt bad, felt as though he had dishonoured grandma’s gift. I said nothing, thought a lot.

‘She used to play to us on Sundays, after church.’ He wailed. ‘That’s why I know all those uplifting hymns.’

Uplifting wasn’t how I would describe them. Rock of Ages, The Old Rugged Cross, Abide with me. Uplifting?

‘She would knock them out and we would all sing.’

Again I said nothing but thought a lot. I thought about the family. Grandma, in her Sunday frock, and hand knitted cardi, she was clever like that, on the piano. Grandad small build and very bossy. He was a mason, so it was, therefore, his right. Their daughter, my mother in law, an ex QA and my father in law, ex sergeant, Royal Engineers. I imagined them both standing to attention. Then of course there would be Raymond, sticky up ginger hair and pebble glasses and his younger brother Cyril, chubby and out of control. How did they keep him still? Grandad probably uttered an incantation that rendered Cyril insensible for a couple of hours? That or the threat of the strap. The notion of the tableau made me smile. Well laugh, actually. Well actually laugh a lot. Shhhh.

Anyway, the piano went, went away, went far, far away. I was so excited about how I would use the space. The parlour was now big enough for a party. Should I throw one to celebrate? Better not. The cats were already confused. The grandchildren disappointed, the husband in despair. Was I the only one jubilant, triumphant even?

It took a couple of days for us to all settle down and get back to normal. The cats stopped pacing around and found new hiding places for their forage. I can’t begin to list what they had left underneath the monster that had been masquerading as a musical instrument. The grandchildren decided that screaming the place down was a reasonable substitute for, ‘I can wash a sailor’s shirt.’ And Raymond’s mood lifted somewhat after a couple of pints and the heavy word.

Would there will be a price to pay for my heartlessness?

Saturday arrived as usual and passed without event. That is until the early hours of Sunday morning. At three o’clock, on the button, a piano thumped out, ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away.’ I poked Raymond in the ribs. He opened his eyes, said something in a foreign language and turned over. It was for me to investigate then. Slippers, dressing gown and a pick axe handle was all I needed to fight off a melodic intruder. I tiptoed down the stairs. Light was teeming under the parlour door. When I reached it I heard singing. Singing, robust and loud, ‘Oh dearly, dearly, has he loved and we must love him too’ I pushed the door, it was black and silent behind it. I closed it, ‘And trust in his redeeming blood’, opened, blackness, silence, closed, ‘And try his works to do’.

Every Sunday is the same. No longer with the pick axe handle but, compelled and without fear, I just steal down the stairs, lean against the parlour door and in vigorous voice, join in. Making my way through Hymns, Ancient and Modern It is Be thou my vision, O Lord of my Heart this week.

Raymond? He hears nothing.


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.

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.


He looked around.


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.’

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.


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.

The Phantom of Sandwood Bay

2 Dec


The voice came again.


He heard the voice often when he was little. It could have been the wind whispering through the scrub and the long grass but he knew it wasn’t. He gave the voice a name. It was The Other Hamish. The Other Hamish went away years ago. Now back, calling, beckoning.

‘Hamish, Hamish’

Hamish was a strapping young man A crofter, out in all weathers, digging and stacking peat, growing, harvesting, feeding. Feeding, him and his mother. Hardened to the harsh climate he rarely wore more than two layers. His jeans were held up by a piece of rope tied around his waist, one end hanging down, like a clamped umbilical waiting to drop off. He refused to wear a belt, maintaining that the rope may come in useful.

Hamish was brought up by his mother. His father, a fisherman, was lost at sea. His body, washed up at Sandwood Bay, was an hour’s walk from the cottage he shared with his wife, Morag, and their and young son. Morag, remote in her manner, always told him he was his father’s boy, loved by him beyond reason. She did her duty and the best she could.

‘He’d have been proud of you.’ she’d say.

Hamish took that as a sign of affection.

Hamish worked hard day after day. Digging, stacking, growing and harvesting, the piece of rope still holding his jeans up. Although he hardly remembered his father, he missed him. Hamish felt warm, when he thought of him. Warmth dredged up from the past? Hamish didn’t know, just knew he did.

One day, sitting on an upturned oil drum, eating his sandwiches, he was approached by a walker, looking for peace.

‘Plenty of peace here’ Hamish remarked, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.

‘Yeah, nothing here but ghosts.’ the man said, ‘Just gliding and floating silently here and there.’

Hamish smiled.

The walker asked if there was somewhere he could stay for a while. Hamish directed him to the local guest house.

‘Mrs McFarlane will look after you.’

The walker, who introduced himself as Robbie Logan, was researching ghost stories for a book he was compiling. Each day he sought out Hamish and they shared the oil drum. Hamish would labour his way through his doorsteps; Robbie ate the lunch more delicately prepared by Mrs McFarlane. They got on.

Hamish didn’t know much about ghosts. His mother was down to earth and didn’t believe such rubbish; she passed her cynicism onto her son. But Hamish enjoyed Robbie’s stories, vaguely wondered where he got his information from and decided it was probably from the local bar. Robbie spent his evenings there, by the fire, recovering from one of Mrs McFarlane’s famous suppers.

Hamish laughed at the thought of the regulars winding Robbie up.

‘Won’t matter whether or no.’ Morag snarled, ‘It’s all nonsense. Don’t you be taking any notice.’

Hamish thought he sensed unease in her voice. But he continued to tell Morag Robbie’s stories and snippets and although it seemed she wasn’t listening, he knew she was.

Hamish looked forward to his lunches with Robbie, disappointed when the weather was poor and he didn’t turn up. Still, after a few of those days, Robbie had a bunch of stories to tell and their break would extend into the middle of the afternoon.

This particular day, Robbie was excited.

‘Have I got a yarn for you, Hamish. The phantom fisherman of Sandwood Bay.

Hamish listened, he hadn’t heard this one before.

‘The phantom fisherman of Sandwood, who drowned off the Cape and trawls the coast to the bay searching and crying out for his little boy. They say he had tied his son to him with a piece of rope.’

Morag refused to listen when Hamish began to relate the tale.

‘Told you before, it’s all nonsense.’

Hamish persisted. As the tale unfolded, realisation overcame him. He felt light headed and ran the track though the sandhills to the beach. There he saw his father walking out of the waves towards him, arms outstretched, an umbilical made of rope dangling from his waist.

‘Hamish’ he called and then again, louder this time, ‘Hamish.’

Ruby’s Day Out

15 Nov

RUBY’S day began as usual, lifted out of bed, washed, dressed and lowered into a chair where she sat all day until she was undressed, washed and lifted back. This was the routine since she suffered a stroke five years ago. A nice man fetches her The Daily Mirror and her television is switched on.

The nursing home, a long low bungalow, is set back from the main road. Ruby liked it well enough, just. Never a good mixer, she is happy to sit in her room and watch telly. Ruby loves the dancing on Saturday night with Bruce Forsyth. She has invited him for Christmas, she expects he’ll come.

This day was a bit different. Ruby received an invite to a wedding. She was delighted. A trip, up west. Will need something new to wear. Up west? up west? She must have been watching Eastenders.

She decided against inviting her daughter, Constance, along. She would be too busy anyway. Constance was always busy. Busy, busy, busy and full of it. Far too important to take a day off work. No, she invited Hyacinth. Hyacinth, Ruby’s friend from India, kind, caring, lovely and beautiful.

Hyacinth agreed to the trip and together they started to make plans. They would take the bus from Liverpool Street, get off at Tottenham Court Road and walk all the way down Oxford Street. They would stop on the way, several times, for coffee and by the time they reached Lyons Corner House she would have a new costume, shoes, handbag and gloves.

Constance came to see Ruby that evening, after work. She was very busy. Busy, busy, busy and couldn’t stop long. However, she was stopped in her tracks when Ruby told her of her plans.


She went in search of Hyacinth. Lovely, beautiful Hyacinth who was preparing Ruby’s medication.

‘What’s going on?

‘Ruby and I are off to London tomorrow.’ Hyacinth said.


Constance was speechless. It wasn’t like her, she was usually very vocal and unrestrained.

Seeing the look of Constance’s face, ‘I know, I know.’ said Hyacinth, ‘Don’t worry she will have forgotten by the morning.’

By now Constance had recovered herself. She wasn’t happy that Ruby had been sent the invitation in the first place. It was obvious she would not be able to go. Furthermore, Hyacinth should not have played along with her plans. Constance, busy, busy Constance, told her so in no uncertain manner.

Duly chastised, a crestfallen Hyacinth, lovely and beautiful, went about her business of sorting out Ruby’s medicine.

When Hyacinth arrived to undress, wash and lift her into bed Ruby was still talking about their day out. The wedding forgotten, the trip up west, not.

Next day Hyacinth, lovely and beautiful, came to wash and dress Ruby, lower her into her chair, and turn the telly on. And the nice man brought her Daily Mirror. She ate her toast, watched the news for a while and read her paper. The TV was still blinking away in the corner. Eventually, someone wheeled Ruby into the dining room for lunch. She hated this part of the day, sitting at the table with the silly old sods who dribbled, lurched and sometimes went to sleep before getting to the pudding. She couldn’t hold a conversation with any of them, didn’t try.

Dear God, get me back to the telly there maybe some sport on.

Constance was busy, busy, busy that evening and did not call in. No matter, Ruby had a go at the crossword and at seven o’clock in came Hyacinth, lovely and beautiful, and undressed, washed and lifted Ruby back to bed.

The next morning, following the washing and dressing performance Ruby went over the previous day’s events in her mind. The train was packed. She must remember that for the future and travel earlier. She was pleased with her new outfit.

That evening, Constance found a slot in her busy, busy, busy schedule, and came to visit. Ruby told her all about her day out. Constance played along this time. She was too tired to take up the cudgels. She looked in her mum’s wardrobe, admired an imaginary costume, commented on how the shoes and bag were a perfect match and asked,

‘Are you going to wear a hat?’

‘It’s in that box on top of the wardrobe.’

Constance didn’t even look up.

As weary as she was, she collected up Ruby’s washing. Constance couldn’t trust the home’s laundry. Constance couldn’t trust anyone. She wore herself out not trusting anyone.

Emptying the pockets in her mother’s favourite cardigan, Constance found half a packet of Spangles, a day return, from Norwich to Liverpool Street, and a receipt, for a hat from Selfridges, dated the previous day.

Teapots and Riffraff

10 Nov

BETTY tipped the contents of the teapot over his head before throwing it at the wall. For a split second neither of them moved. It was as if the film had ceased to roll, then, when the projector sprung back into action, so did Betty.

She ran up the stairs to the bedroom, grabbed her jacket and headed down to the front door hoping to make her escape before the credits went up and he realised it was all over.

Betty made it into the street, heart thumping, awaiting a hurl of abuse. Mercifully, nothing. She picked up some speed and the house disappeared as she rounded the corner. Then, another stroke of luck, a 73, which would drop her at her dad’s, was waiting at the bus stop.

She hopped on and threw herself into the seat behind the driver crouching against the window. She felt hidden and safe, at least for the next half hour. The conductor didn’t come for a ticket. Maybe he sensed her distress.

Betty thought about how things had been when she first met Ralph. He was tall, good looking and a sergeant in the Army. He had a presence, a confidence that made her feel secure. He was never stimulating company, talked about himself and his achievements a lot, and was not very exciting in bed. But nonetheless, he was dependable and protective without being obsessive.

Betty had been a great responsibility for Violet, her mother. Betty, a teenager out of control, uncontrollable. Violet was sure she would become pregnant to one of that rough lot who had moved out of the East End into those new houses over the bridge.

As soon as Violet could surrender Betty to another, she did. To Ralph, the son of one of her friends at the Women’s Institute. Ralph was reliable and not just after one thing, not like that lot over there. She would nod in the direction of the bridge. Betty smiled at the memory. If only her mother knew. However, her mother believed, marrying Ralph would save her daughter from becoming pregnant to one of that riffraff .

Ralph became a prisoner of the Japanese in 1943, leaving Betty alone in her own house with no chaperone, no curfew and no limits. It was as if someone had opened her cage door and gone away. She went wild. Sometimes with riffraff and sometimes not but always with people her mother desperately disapproved of. Betty’s reputation spread.

Violet was struggling to hold her head up in public and was starting to miss meetings at the WI. She prayed for Ralph a safe return, a rapid safe return. At this rate she was going to lose her flower arranging skills. Her husband didn’t seem to mind what people thought. Betty was just like him and Violet told him so.

Betty reached her dad’s just as he was showing Florence, his new lady friend, Violet died and left him in peace in 1953, how to change the oil in a car. This involved him lying on his back, under the kitchen table with screwdriver and bucket. Florence appeared interested and only slightly amused. She had grown used to Ernie and his strange little ways. Loved him for them.

Betty stood by the table, Ernie addressed her feet and legs, ‘You left him then? This time for good? I’ll just finish this and you can tell me all about it.’

Florence saw this as an opportunity to leave. It was never her intention to change the oil in a car.

‘I threw the teapot at him, dad.’

‘Well done, did it make contact?’

‘It did, with the wall.’

‘Never mind, a lick of paint will sort it. Want a cuppa now?’

They sat for a while, Betty and her dearest dad. They drank tea and chatted about nothing in particular. She chuckled when he told her he had taken Florence for a posh meal and asked for Chicken Frickarse for two.

‘What did Florence say?’

‘Nothing, she laughed along with the waiter.’

She envied his relationship with Florence.

It had never been like that with her and Ralph. Never had time to be like that.

She remembered going to the station to meet him when he was released in 1945. Encouraged by Violet, she put on her best dress and coat, made up her face and sprayed on the last of her Evening in Paris. Violet didn’t know she had got it from an American airman, along with the nylons. She was early and apprehensive. Betty knew this was the end of the life she had enjoyed. She tried to feel guilty but couldn’t. She stood looking at her feet which would not stay still. They wanted to run.

The train chugged in. Betty painted on a smile and looked for Ralph. She wondered how she would greet him. How should she greet him? After all he was her husband. Was she expected to run into his arms squealing how she had missed him? Could she play that game? So many questions; answered when she saw him. He was in the first carriage behind the engine and emerged through the smoke. It was only when he said her name she realised it was him.

‘Hello Betty, how are you?’

She just stared at him her scarlet smile turning into a gaping red hole. She tried to speak but couldn’t. If she hugged him he might break; she had no desire to kiss him.

‘What happened?’ And trying to catch her breath, quickly, ‘I am so sorry.’

They went home and tried to settle into something resembling a normal life. Betty played the caring wife while Ralph struggled to get better. In time his outward appearance restored, he reverted to something like his former self, talking about himself a lot but leaving a big gap where 1943-1945 should be. But now there was an edge to his behaviour, hostility in his conversation. Betty felt she was living on the rim of a volcano which was about to erupt. Eventually it did, several times, smouldering in between.

Ralph’s language was spiteful and cruel. His face transformed into a mask of hatred. He lashed out at her several times. She tried to understand, all the time knowing it couldn’t go on for ever but not knowing how it would end.

And now here she was, sitting in her dad’s kitchen drinking cups of tea.

‘What’ll I do dad?’

‘Go back, get your stuff and come home.’

Home had never been with Ralph. Betty and Ralph only ever had a house and now she was out of there and coming home. Home to someone who cherished her. Spoke to her with affection. No malice, no spite, just humour and love. Home to dad.

She finished her tea.

‘I won’t be long.’

‘I will be here.’

Betty caught the same bus back to the house she had shared with Ralph. No ticket. She jumped off just before the corner. As she turned into the street she saw an ambulance outside her house. She walked cautiously towards it. Surely Ralph hadn’t killed himself; Seppuku. He was always threatening to do so, telling her how brave the Japanese were in the face of defeat. Did he believe he was defeated? Did he feel dishonoured and beaten by a woman?

There was crowd at the gate. The police were leading Ralph away. She stood back, not wanting to be seen. And then she saw. A body lying on the path being covered with a sheet. Betty gasped as she recognised herself.