I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
I re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* One exception: short stories.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

A Class Thing

Short story: The Square Peg
1650 words


“Wha’s tha’?”

Vane glanced sideways, saw it was the Glaswegian. Or was it the one from Carlisle? “A toilet bag,” Vane said.

A hand reached for one of the silver-backed brushes. Yes, it was the Glaswegian; the fingers were black-speckled from welding. He’d talked about working at the Govan yard.

“Siller?”

“I believe it is.”

“Yeer name?”

“Well, the initials.”

“Including the hyphen.”

Vane took the brush back and slipped it back under a leather retaining loop, conscious of being stared at.

When Vane returned to the billet the Glaswegian was addressing the world – or that part of it lolling on beds – about siller hairbrushes. Nobody was paying much attention and Vane stowed the toilet bag away in his bedside locker. Picked up Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour.

The billet’s inertia clearly irritated the Glaswegian. He walked over to Vane’s bed, stamping his new boots noisily. “I hae not got a hyphen, ye know.”

Vane was still standing and glad of it. He put down his book and simultaneously punched the Glaswegian full in the nose. The Glaswegian lurched away but worked his feet backwards so that he did not fall. Neat footwork, Vane thought. The other wiped his hand over his nose and inspected the blood with forensic interest. “What ye dae that for?” he asked, as if clearing up a matter of etiquette.

“I was told you chaps like to use your head. For butting.”

“You chaps?”

“Chaps from Glasgow.”

The Glaswegian laughed in acknowledgement. “Aye, weel we dae.”

The next day a three-tonner took them all to the rifle range at Cannock. To be taught the prone position, to aim .22 rifles, and to shoot at targets twenty-five yards away. Formed up, they marched to the two-hundred yard range and were handed .303 Lee Enfields.

For Vane it was like coming home. Delicately he raised the rifle’s sight, worked the bolt, breathed in and then slowly out, squeezed the trigger. Made a slight correction then squeezed off the rest of the clip. The corporal in charge used binoculars on the target but said nothing. The rest of the billet fired their clips.

The corporal handed Vane the binoculars and barked, “You, tell him what he’s doing wrong.”

Vane wished it had been the Glaswegian but it was an under-nourished  airman, probably from Essex, who seemed to find his rifle too heavy. Vane could only count four hits on the target, all widely spaced. “Basic position on the ground wrong for a start,” Vane reported, adding after an insolent pause, “Corporal.”

When they did boxing two days later no one wanted to get in the ring with Vane and the PT instructor, much irritated, pointed to the tallest. Deliberately Vane aimed his straight lefts at his opponent’s gloves, making much noise but causing no pain. Gaining confidence the lad launched a wild round-house which half hit Vane on the shoulder. Those watching applauded and Vane smiled.

The instructor, by now enraged, put on the gloves himself. Far fitter than Vane, and much faster, he nevertheless found it difficult to penetrate Vane’s defences. “Hit me,” the instructor shouted, deliberately leaving his face unprotected and Vane darted a quick but light blow to his solar plexus.

During the afternoon Vane spoke for two coherent minutes about Bertrand Russell when the camp padre, who’d earlier damned “the libertine”, asked for questions.

That evening the billet decamped to the Naafi, overrode Vane’s protests and bought him beer until the Naafi closed. Several asked him the same question in different forms. What was he looking for in the RAF?

“I mean you’re obviously a POM,” said the unhealthy Essex lad.

“What’s a POM?” asked Vane.

“Potential officer material.”

Vane frowned. “I’m not sure about that. I come from an Army family with too many officers. National service is only two years. I thought I’d try something different. God knows what.”

“But where did you learn all this stuff.”

For the first time Vane looked hesitant. “Oh, you know. At school. One of those schools you’re supposed to feel ashamed of. A school for parents, really. Parents with more money than sense. Which describes my lot.”

Walking back from the Naafi he deliberately looked for the Glaswegian, now known inevitably as Mac. “I’m surprised you didn’t have another go.”

“Fechting? Fechting’s stupid.”

Vane laughed. “Don’t tell me you haven’t used your head that way. What is it they say in your city: a mouthful of headies?”

“Moo’fu’ o haidies,” Mac corrected. “But that isna fechting.”

“What is it then?”

Mac stopped to draw on his Woodbine. “Ut’s kind of politics. One quick stroke and yee’re done. It gets everyone’s attention and no sweat. They listen and ye’ve nae trouble. Y’unnerstan?”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“Sudden and vicious. Folk are shocked. Nae need for anything mair.”

“So you were going to use it.”

“Then I was. Not after.”

“Why not?”

“Fechting’s stupid.”

The POM interview was embarrassing, the interviewer obsequious. A gnarled squadron-leader pilot, close to retirement, with a DFC among his ribbons probably won during the war. Perhaps he’d been promoted from sergeant-pilot and the class step had induced a fuller appreciation of British society’s upper echelons. Certainly his questions about Vane’s school were interminable.

“I suppose the cadet corps was inevitable given your upbringing.”

It was a word and an ethos Vane hated. “Either that or I’d have been sent to the colonies.”

The squadron-leader didn’t see the joke. “But being Honour Cadet wasn’t inevitable?”

Vane shrugged.

Disappointed the squadron-leader referred to another of his “must” points. “No need for me to talk about leadership with you.”

“I wouldn’t like to make too big a claim about the corps, sir. People joined it for all sorts of reasons. Some political, some downright despicable.”

“All the more credit you came out on top.”

Where’s the honesty in all this? Vane asked himself.

“I take it,” said the squadron-leader, “you’d want to take your commission to the top of the tree. The absolute top.”

He’s tipping me the wink. Pointing towards the Air Ministry but without actually using his finger. Vane cleared his throat. “Sir, I see the RAF as a predominantly technical force. Since national service isn’t long enough for me to become a pilot I felt I’d like to keep planes flying. That seems an honourable occupation."

The interviewer’s eyebrows arched. “You mean servicing, maintenance? Air frames, engines, avionics – that sort of thing. I think with your background you could do rather better. You’re in line for what the Army would call a staff position.”

“Look, sir, may I ask a question?”

“My dear chap, of course. This is a two-way street.”

“It’s to do with POM. The necessary qualifications.”

“A bit basic, but fire ahead.”

“May anyone apply?”

“Of course.”

“But not everyone is interviewed. Sir, may I ask the basis for - ” Vane was about to say “the first cull” but suspected it might be heard as antagonistic. “Triage” seemed neutral enough.

“Education is the primary criterion. Given the age of the applicants it’s often all we’ve got to go on.”

“So in some cases it may be nothing more than a few O-levels.”

The squadron-leader writhed slightly. “Well, not quite. I can speak man-to-man to you of course. It will come as no surprise the school itself can play a part in the decision to interview. A school with traditions, you know. Traditions which create expectations.”

“Is there no mechanism for interviewing an airman on the basis of his intelligence, sir?”

“But how would we know beforehand?”

“A verbal recommendation, say?”

“But from whom? Look it’s clear you have someone in mind. Obviously I mustn’t know his name. Obviously too I can’t promise anything but I trust your... intelligence. Give me an outline, a hint.”

Until then Vane had pursued an abstraction, a theory of social justice. Now, horribly, he faced facts. Saw Mac inspecting blood on the back of his hand. Imagined himself saying: he’s a welder at the Govan shipyard.

Vane shook his head. “You’re right, sir. It is difficult. I must leave it up to him.”

Somehow the squadron-leader contrived to un-writhe. Became all smiles. “That’s the spirit. It may not be a perfect system but we seem to get it right most of the time. I appreciate your concern but if it’s any comfort I would have no doubts...”

But Vane, involuntarily, stood up, unwilling to hear the rest of that sentence. “I’m sorry sir, I appear to have wasted your time. I apologise enormously. I think it would be better if I withdrew my application.”

“But why?”

Vane stammered, perhaps for the first time in his life. “It’s just that... I can’t be sure... I would make a good RAF officer.”

The squadron-leader may have been obsequious, well stricken in years but he could still make decisions. “In that case, airman, I suggest you leave this room forthwith.”

ON THE penultimate day of basic training they got their trade postings. Mac preferred to be taciturn but was having difficulty suppressing a smile. He showed Vane the slip. “Engine fitter, an eight-month course. The fust job I chose. Jings, I could ha’ welded my last ship’s bulkhaid. Nae more poison fumes. Have a dram with me tonight.”

“Hope I can do that, Mac. Seems my future’s on hold. I may have to rattle some cages.”

“Tonight, ye Sassenach bastard.”

Others wanted to share their good news with the billet’s popularly acclaimed leader. But it was too much. “Just got to go to the bog.”

Inside, the door bolted, he let his trousers down just to discourage anyone who got curious and peered from under. Took out his slip and read: Bedding clerk. RAF Kinloss, Moray, Scotland. One week’s training at camp.

Checked his pockets for telephone change. No point in belonging to a military family if you didn’t want levers pulled.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

See major

It's the one on the left, it works better than it looks

Monday saw the second eye op. This one was free, on the NHS. The first, due to various exigencies, cost two grand. The same consulting surgeon did both.

Car driving was out. As I taxi-ed to the hospital, I chose to be blasé: been there, done that. Hardly worth a half-post. But I was wrong.

In the waiting room they were handing out Rich Teas, quite an austere, certainly adult biscuit. Americans must Google I fear.

A nurse holds your hand, allowing you to signal if you're about to cough. Eye ops are delicate; one wouldn't wish a 0.5 mm incision to morph into one 5 mm long. I was struck by the quiet, unforced sympathy of the hand-holding nurse who prepped me. There was no way such a manner could be taught. She explained hand-holding has a secondary function - human contact for the conscious patient in the operating theatre.

During the op I sensed a mild stinging and realised it was the blade doing the cutting. The anaesthetic is local and of shortish duration.

I was required to concentrate on a pink light which ebbed and flowed. I referred to this as "psychedelic" but the surgeon misheard. "Like magic mushrooms," I explained. He complimented me on my knowledge and I said I'd got it from a friend – “a good friend”. General laughter.

That night I woke up and found vision horribly blurred in the treated eye. Knew I wouldn't be able to sleep. Got up and edited the novel, two-ish in the morning. Went back to bed after a couple of hours, fatalistic and depressed, but slept well. This time when I woke the blurring had gone. Like being reborn – as an optimist.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Mightier than the sword?

The big one carries Barcelona FC's colours. Twas a gift
Great claims were made for the ball-point pen introduced soon after WW2. A triumph of technology, they said. There was even a suggestion that it would write for ever. Father Christmas put two of them - a red and a green - into my stocking in the late forties.

Enthusiasm for ball-points died away just as rapidly as it had grown. Some schools forbade their use, saying they would corrupt calligraphic skills. There was a legal interdiction against signing certain documents with a ball-point. As a journalist  using Pitman's shorthand I found it duff given it was incapable of producing thick and thin lines. After a month or so non-drying ball-point ink started to migrate into the surrounding paper, rendering what was written illegible.

My pal Joe suffered mightily. A ball-point, stowed away in the breast pocket of his newish jacket, exploded leaving an ineradicable large blue stain. Imagining this to be a purely cosmetic defect he kept on wearing the jacket for a while. But the stain assumed the power of  a stigmata and he was forced to discard this otherwise serviceable garment.

In parallel with the ball-point's decline arose a renewed - though minor - affectation for the fountain pen. This despite the fact that it was unwise to travel far without recourse to a bottle of Quink. Some deep-seated prejudice on my part associated fountain pens with people who voted Tory.

And then the word processor was invented, granting us all legibility and an infinite ability to make corrections. A style enhancer for those who cared to see it in this light. These days I use my ball-points to sign cheques. Hallelujah.

Friday, 26 June 2015

No pic for this, alas

This mini-event is mere daydream, raw material gathered by a sex-yearning sixteen-year-old and stirred about many decades later.

We were leaving Bradford Civic cinema where I saw many foreign movies in my youth. Was it Le Salaire de la Peur? Un Condamné à Mort S’est Echappé?

Whatever. Outside, on the pavement, G uttered an unmistakable sound of approval about the movie (Whooo! Sheesh!) turned and said. “C’mon, gi me a kiss.”

Strange. She’s G but I never knew her name. She was two or three years older – a woman, virtually adult, addressing a desperate adolescent. In real life I saw her only on the bus home, always on the upper deck, often appearing grubby, staring blankly ahead, alone. She got off before me at the scruffy end of the suburb.

Her hair was memorable. Golden but lifeless, clearly lengthy but piled up into a tall crown held in place by a net. Sometimes grubbiness pervaded her heavily made-up face.

Inexplicably, we’d seen some fancy-schmanzy thing and now she was commanding me. A tense beginner I kissed her lips too hard, imagining  this might suggest the passion she was expecting. Or demanded. The excessive pressure rendered her lips as a car tyre. I was seismically aware of her full, possibly muscular body and carefully avoided contact.

Perhaps it was the grubbiness; people weren’t as obsessional about washing in the fifties. I liked her not caring about that and yet she did make-up. And yes I know what Freud says about dirt.

I used parts of G in a short story West Riding Strange, but thought she deserved this more explicit reference. Conventional teenage erotic? Perhaps. But what's conventional?

Monday, 22 June 2015

Piped anthem


Sonnet: The Pragmatist’s Prayer

Oh Lord, preserve us all from those who write,
Who glory in overt loquacity,
Whose self-abuse, hand-driven, blocks the light
That shines from plumbing's greater honesty.

Regard the waste pipe's simple unity,
See how it carries merde from here to there,
Then look at this corrupted minstrelsy
Adrift from zero on the way to – where?

Within all work syntax cannot compete
With solder’s certainty in fixing things,
Where olive joints – so apt, so neat –
Link taps to souls and gives them wings.

Stilsons as sceptres! Copper - king of life!
Tubes defeat odes in times when thirst is rife

Friday, 19 June 2015

The mussel epiphany

We were more impulsive when we lived in Kingston-upon-Thames, 12 miles SW of London.

One working weekday near Christmas we took time off and had lunch in Boulogne. Just over 100 miles but there was a snag: a blessing in 1939 - 45, less so later as Eurotunnel continued to remain a mirage. Crossing the Channel then required a 90-minute ferry ride with a further 40 minutes devoted to embarcation/disembarcation if you took your car.

But it was doable and we did it. And the event changed our lives. Younger daughter Occasional Speeder was going at a panful of mussels in a messy way. La Patronne stepped in, picked up the twin halves of a used shell (still flexibly attached to each other), and showed how, as tweezers, they could pick out the innards of a mussel yet to be consumed.

The hands in the pic are those of Ysabelle, OS's daughter, to whom this skill has been passed down.

These days Eurotunnel cuts down the crossing to about 30 minutes but Hereford to the Languedoc is nearly 900 miles and there's hard driving to be done over two days. To sustain concentration the co-passenger (who also works the satnav), unwraps sweets and feeds them into the driver's mouth in a steady stream. By now there's a consensus about which sweet works best. Chocolates and toffees are no good, they're gone in a flash. Jelly babies similarly. Werthers (a sort of hard toffee) are too frangible, quickly splintering into easily dissolved pieces. Best are hard transparent fruit drops, sort of doughnut shaped. They last and last.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Life's daily burdens

Guess who? At Mèze, Mediterranean coast

Done with Intermarché, Carrefour, Super U and Leclerc, and back to Tesco (it's a mere seven-minute walk away from our Hereford home).

Immediately we're fratching: Marmite is either in this aisle or the one adjacent, but it's in neither. "Then you'll have to ask," says VR grumpily. Strange how reluctant we are to exercise this ultimate sanction.

But I've spotted three Tesco suits engaged in an on-the-floor pow-wow. I raise my eyebrows and I become the cynosure of three pairs of ambitious eyes. "Shall I take you there?" says one suit I've seen getting out of a BMW a week or so ago. He strides off and I've difficulty keeping up. "Marmite's to be found close to the jams," he says, and I can see some spreadable logic there.

He adds, "And jams are close to sugar."  I didn't know this.  We enjoy a little amiable argy-bargy about the way Tesco re-allocates shelf space for certain items ("It keeps customers on their toes," says he. "Which is not where you want to be when you're close to eighty," I riposte.)

Back with VR I suggest Tesco might do well to publish a policy document about where things are in its stores. "Especially stuff that isn't bought frequently, like Marmite," I say. "I mean twice a year and you tend to forget."

"Twice a year!", she says, still residually grumpy. "More like once every four years. Unless Ian (our grandson) visits."

I didn't know that either.