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Thursday 31 October 2013

Oughties. Worth a damn? 5

Love in Sheffield
Shortish short story (989 words)

OVER the hob the sleeve of his dressing gown caught the flame and the synthetic material flared. He smothered the threat with a quick dish-cloth, pleased by his calmness.

Tea mashed in the brown pot. An egg crisping round the edges, fried bread ready to be turned. Beyond the kitchen, the newspaper dropped – plok! – on the hall linoleum and he went to pick it up. To place it at the end of the table with the muesli and the peppermint tea bags. Where it would lie unviolated, ready for her to read.

Now quick-stepping heels rapped in the hall. She stopped at the kitchen door, shining with make-up, sniffing. “What’s burning?”

“Dressing gown caught the gas ring. No problem.”

Plugging in the electric kettle she said, “You should be more careful. I can’t think why you wear that shabby old thing.”

“It was a present from Ma. Aren’t mornings the right time?”

“A dressing gown. I don’t know. It seems defeatist.”

Ignoring the muesli she sipped aromatic, nearly colourless liquid from a china cup, flipping through the Mail for the columnist she approved of.

Forewarned he laid the egg on the fried bread to cut through both in one pass. Thus the yolk became a form of glue and prevented hard, friable corners from flying off, who knew where. Ma had said it was ignorant to read at table (“You wouldn’t want to be a scruff.”) so he concentrated on the soft waves his wife had imposed on her brown hair, bent over the newspaper. Elegant, seductive even, but oh the time it took. She rose almost an hour before him.

Mint tea finished, she dropped the paper as if impatient with it. “I must be off. We’ll meet at Morrisons. Six. Sharp. Give us a kiss.”

Forewarned again he wiped his eggy mouth with a paper napkin, one of her earliest rules. Kissed her sharply outlined lips. Given the risks to her make-up he’d been surprised she still insisted. Then realised it was mark of office: she was a wife and wives were kissed. For his own part he was grateful. Old Adam stirred.

Stirred again as she seemed disposed to linger, her arms still round his neck. “What will you do today, you poor thing?”

“First stop, the library. The Intelligencer comes out on Fridays.”

“We aren’t that poor. We could have it delivered.”

Meaning, of course, she wasn’t that poor. He said, “The library helps break up the day.”

“I suppose so. And after that?”

“Over to the park. Watch the bowls.” He pronounced it bowels.

“Bowls!” It was almost a cry. “Oh Dek, it’s all so bloody unfair.” And now her lips were pressing firmly, her breasts easing left to right. Would the whole sequence of her departure dissipate in wild undressing? Followed by a phone call from him, implying women’s trouble.

“Kell, Kell. You’d better go. Shit.”

He sat down at the table to the sounds of the car inexpertly reversed down the driveway. Looked at the remaining fragments of egg and fried bread. Ate them cold. Mashed a new pot of tea. Wondered what were the signs; when might one neglect the rules of employment? Give in. Live privately and illicitly for half a day.

MORRISONS was an early evening maelstrom of couples - customers returning from work, snatching at groceries, waiting angrily in blocked aisles, twisting at their trolley handles. She was unrecognisable from this morning; flushed, hair awry, unable to make quick decisions. He bore her growing anger, thinking she at least was adding to the country’s GDP. But she wore him down and he started shouting back. At the check-out they avoided each other’s faces. In the car park he took the keys, saying her bad temper put the car at risk; then he scraped a bollard.

They returned home with the monthly big buy and an hour passed before the freezer drawers were satisfactorily packed. Exhausted they heated a made-up lasagne, had a bottle sparsely labelled Chilean Red. Together on the couch, listening to a Radio 4 adaptation of an old Eric Ambler novel, their hands touched accidentally and they drew together, awkward in their movements nevertheless.

They made love as mutual apology but the awkwardness between them continued. At one in the morning he woke to hear her quietly sobbing. Held her and listened. There’d been a meeting to prepare her department for redundancies; the fear in her body was palpable.

On Saturday morning he urged her to lie in, saying he would bring her breakfast in bed. In the kitchen he could still smell burnt dressing gown. He sat down and considered the task he faced.

Ma had warned him. “She’ll never amount to ‘owt.”

Yet Kelly had all the gifts, a better education, solid middle-class parents, looks that caused jealousy. A better job, too, as deputy head of borough planning while he had managed a foundry chronically short of investment. Despite all this his mother’s prediction had started to come true. Kelly lacked confidence - pathologically; they never invited anyone to dinner, children were unthinkable, holidays were spent at home, driving lessons terrified her. Two years of incomplete marriage.

And then a miracle, eight months ago. Since then she’d got her licence and they’d holidayed in Devon. Now she read the Mail, took up strange diets, and booked the salon. Silencing Ma with her radiance.

When he lost his job he lost authority; it's what happens up north. Taking over terrified her at first but then she started financing the decisions. Pork not beef ("too dear"). Then, not always pork; why not a veggie? A bloody revolution.

He agreed. He too could adapt. He deliberately free-wheeled through an interview then told her he hadn't got the job. Go straight to bed, she said. Adding mischievously: I'll join you in a minute. Perhaps she knew or perhaps she didn't. Never mind, he knew. That he, unemployed, had added value.

A foundry wasn’t a vocation.

He filled the electric kettle and remembered her quiet sobs. Knew he’d do anything for her. Borrow from Ma and cede the high ground. Keep his mouth shut. Watch bowls until eternity. Anything.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Nose doesn't blow it

Although I've never seen Shostakovich's opera The Nose before it's difficult to imagine better direction than yesterday's live NY Met transmission in a Hereford cinema. This bitter, uproarious Gogol satire has a simple theme: man wakes up, his nose lost, pursues it through a Russian city as it  follows its own aspirations - to become a flaneur, a member of high society, praying in a cathedral. "Not a likely story" self-mocks the chorus but by then  I found myself thinking: "I'm not so sure..."

Mostly the nose is a silhouetted larger-than-life shape attached to a dancer's body projected on to a screen. Its movements are persuasive, eloquent and touching. Initially the music is hard to take (I nodded off frequently) but then it matches the pell-mell action and could easily be Mozart, Well, almost. Better than Tosca or, God forbid, Downton Abbey.

SILENT JAWS The Montalban Sicilian cop series, available in a two-hour chunk on Saturday evenings, has never reached the popularity of its Scandinavian predecessors like The Killing but has its moments. Commissario Montalban prefers not to talk during his lavish fish lunches, drives a Fiat Punto, and many Sicilians, it seems, live in palazzi. The sun shines a lot. Escapist.

GASTRONOMIC TIP Scatter dried onion flakes on tuna paté, preferably smeared on Polish bread.

WIP Second Hand (43,277 words)
FROM THE fourteenth floor the south-western suburbs were a worn carpet. At first glance an impressive expanse but in the end just an area, lacking any natural or architectural identity. The city twelve miles away was a hazy blur on the horizon.

He noticed her staring and said, amused, “Monarch of all I survey. But not much of a kingdom, not much of a king. More a district manager.”

He was young but then they were all young.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Stitches in time - and space

Others besides Lucy are into knitting. At Christmas these three mice won't be carolling round the astrolabe. There's a brazier and a hand lantern yet to be fashioned. I simply drove VR to the craft emporium to buy the wool. Once VR might have knitted such items from leftover scraps. This time there was a concept and random colours weren’t acceptable
From following Lucy's blog and watching VR I am encouraged to put in my two pennorth.
TECHNOID Once knitting begins, the knitter ceases to have access to either end of the wool. One end is tied into the baseline, the other is buried in the ball. This means conventional knotting (with its inherent security) is impossible. Instead loops are pulled through loops and the resultant material exists in a state of impermanence until it is finally tied off. This impermanence - the possibility of ending up with nought but a length of disentangled wool - always left me nervous, reducing my output to a single baby's sock.
WRONG WAY? US knitters, and possibly those on the Continong, use their needles back to front or upside-down. VR who knits like a detached humanoid machine may have opined, I’m not entirely sure, that this approach ultimately limits speed. I have no view on this.
GIANT KNOBBLY Preggers with our first daughter in 1962 VR took her knitting with her to the obstetrics ward, aiming to create a giant knobbly pullover for me. And I mean giant – requiring 40 oz of wool. It filled a whole suitcase when I took it home. Later I wore it in the USA.
SOCK TUBES Does anyone knit adult socks these days? My mother and grandmother did. Three (was it four?) needles, without terminal knobs, allowed continuous circular action. Oh, and endless chat.

Thursday 24 October 2013

More from the spinning wheel

Just reached page 100 (that's WfW pages) with the novel and it's going well. Hemingway says that's exactly the moment to break off - when what lies ahead is clear. Dangerous territory, he says. Well, a hundred's a round number.

I seem to have recycled more personal material  than ever before. I've just evoked a flat we used to occupy in north London, transposing it south of the river. One of my Second Hand extracts here in TD briefly mentions an odd occupation within the medical profession; a person so employed really exists and Sir Hugh recognised him. A press trip I made many years ago has been re-shaped into a seminal event in Francine's life.

These are legitimate practices, I think. Where else might I find persuasive raw material? Google? Sterile stuff indeed.

What I can't understand are established writers who lift real-life people, with all their impedimenta, and plonk them down - often only thinly disguised - as the spinal column of their novel. Sometimes womb-to-tomb accounts of a real individual, occasionally a relation. Where's the fun in that? Fiction is an opportunity for invention. A chance to tell a story you've dreamed up. Otherwise why bother? These transplantations seem perilously close to the processes our boroughs and towns set in motion at the local dump.

Even as I write, certain exceptions arise. Nothing's for sure, is it?

WIP Second Hand (42,240 words)
expected her father to respond but it was her mother who spoke first. Her voice was softer. “I couldn’t guide you. Not for a moment. This is a leap into the dark and you only do those yourself. But that may be part of what you need. Something exhilarating. Something that shakes off the past. Something with an unusual goal. Almost a mystical goal.”

“Mystical?” Tom Embery roared with laughter. “Why not hallucinogenic? Are we encouraging our daughter to take drugs? Damnit, I can’t not say yes. ”

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Getting drunk on Onegin

Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin is a gift for those who like showing off.

Care to guess how you pronounce the title? I'll put you out of your misery - it's Oy-gainie O-nyay-gin. That last g is hard, as in garage, not as in martini (dry).

Until last year I'd never seen (heard?) the opera and was unfamiliar with its origins - a long poem by a poet with the least poetic of surnames: Pushkin. Now I've seen it thrice and I'm an expert.

A quite modern plot. A clever-clogs whose arrogance causes him to kill his best friend and whose love for a woman leads to agonies which will last for eternity. Nobody gets cut up and put in a bag.

Avoid the Solti/Covent Garden DVD. It is A FILM. Which means the soloists (some no doubt portly) only lend their voices; their visible bodies are replaced by dashing and handsome young people who dub the sound-track. Very strange. Off-putting in fact.

We also saw versions by Glyndebourne and, very recently, the Met. The former was also strange. A moving aria about an older man's love for his young wife appeared after the final action instead of before. Imagine Mercutio getting stabbed after R&J lie lifeless. As Americans say (it's a form of words I envy): go figure.

Hot tip: Soprano should always be Russian.

WIP Second Hand. (41,568 words)
(Francine's mother said) “Mrs Trotter said he was always nervy – whatever that means. Finally he had a nervous breakdown. Couldn’t stand the pressures of working in the hospital. They’d seen it coming for ages. Six months’ sick leave and he’s recovered. Sort of, says Mrs Trotter. What’s he going to do for a living? Acted as a locum at a medical centre and found even that too much of a strain. Finally found the perfect job.”
“A company that makes prosthetics for amputees...” 

Monday 21 October 2013

A mysterious tendency

In a long relationship conversation evolves. Especially default conversation between a couple at dinner.

I find myself asking VR detail questions about cooking.

I have cooked for her but not now. Instead I wash up, attend to the garbage, replace bulbs, shift heavy things, feed clothes to the machine, enter the attic when required, commune with the plumber, drive the car. Undemanding work and not a fair exchange.

The first time, I asked why she seared meat prior to casseroling it. A non-intuitive process, quite awkward if the cut is large and irregular.

Recently she started adding chillis to various meaty sauces - typically bolognese. Just how much chilli? I asked.

I confirmed she still preferred to use inexpensive vermouth instead of white wine in recipes. She told me why.

It's hard to remember these questions since they arrive randomly and are often quite obscure. Is the sludgy white liquid that accompanies tinned flageolets edible? It isn't.

The questions really aren't all that important. I'm more interested in where the impulse comes from and why it continues.

Novel writing requires me to put many questions, especially about women's clothes, make-up, assessments of men, etc. But these are all targeted. The cooking questions don't relate to any specific need. A novel about a woman chef? It simply doesn't appeal.

WIP Second Hand (41,441 words)
As her mother hurried away from the counter bound for the toilet Francine stepped forward and took over. A youth in a thick-knitted khaki beanie received his Fosters and whispered slyly, “Wanna share it with me?”

More out of politeness, than expectation she felt. “It’s not my brand,” she said. “I go for the original Budweiser. Brewed in the Czech Republic.”

He sucked in breath noisily. “Pricey.”

“That’s the kind of girl I am.”

Saturday 19 October 2013

Inescapable genes

Way back, long before I showed any interest, my mother wrote poetry. Had it published in Books of the Month, John O'London's Weekly, Outposts. Here's the start of her short poem, Mastoid Operation:

"Wait here."
Yet there
The white lights glare,
Masked faces stare
In pinpoint honeycomb
Poison beads bone,
Bites chisel as on stone.

"Wait here."

I'd forgotten that one. It concerns someone I know, and evokes a dark night. I am impossibly young, uncertain, close to terror.

Later, on one of my lonely holidays in London, I bought my mother a paperback of John Donne's love poems. For me it was just a book, a gift, the contents meant nothing.

My mother knew poetry didn't interest me and there were no attempts at proselytising. But she sang hymns round the house and occasionally drew my attention to some of the better lines:

There is the throne of David
And there from care released
The shout of them that triumph
The song of them that feast

In my seventies, and for no particular reason, I started fashioning verse, most pretty clumsy. My mother died forty years ago but if she'd been around she'd have found something encouraging to say about my efforts, however half-formed. Of that I am certain. The connection between her stuff and mine is tenuous but it exists. Genes, we're told, are inescapable.

WIP Second Hand (40,017 words)

(Francine) brought them cups of tea which they pecked at hurriedly as they handed out six-packs of Carling. At least the flow of determined teenagers was holding tripartite conversation at bay and she was left to guess at the reasons for her parents’ reactions. They had not contributed to the costs of her education – would have been incapable of doing so – and could hardly accuse her of being profligate with their earnings. That left future expectations. Were they expecting her to support them in their old age? She’d always been prepared to do what was necessary but being obliged to was different.

Friday 18 October 2013

Keeping the sand at bay

Yesterday I broke one of the Robinson Family's iron-clad rules - never venture abroad without something to read. 'twas a small matter concerning a car light-bulb and I didn't expect to languish. Nevertheless I spent 15 min. alone in the intellectual desert of a car dealer's showroom.

Not even an outlet for Skodas (my car) but for Mitsubishis. One Mitsu is called a Shogun and that's plainly ridiculous.

New cars smell mainly of tyres. Acrid and quite strong. With an admixture of coffee since I was close to an operative percolator. But I'd just had my daily intake at home.

Adjacent was a Mitsu SUV and the French windows through which it had passed. Get that small journey wrong and it would cost you; the cack-handed employeee would surely be fired.
The SUV was inhumanly clean; once sold it would never be that clean again. A sort of automotive virginity. Yet such cleanliness was of course essential: for it to be indoors was parodoxical, to be dirty as well would offend decency.

Let into the showroom floor was the Mitsu logo - three lozenges forming an inverted Y. Clever but somehow unsettling, the hint of an optical illusion. I looked instead at my hands and decided for the thousandth time they were not those of an artisan.

Ah! My keys!

WIP Second Hand (38,860 words)

Until then (Balogun had) been genial and authoritative. Attentive to his guest. Composed. Now his shoulders slumped and his shaven cannonball of a head bent forward, hiding his face. Francine heard a tiny whimper. Then he straightened up.

“Easier for me. My father took the greater risk.” He laughed unconvincingly. “All these reminiscences. You must think I’m very self-centred. But there is a reason. You are that reason.”

Monday 14 October 2013

Oughties. Worth a damn? No. 4

Called her  rozkoszny
Shortish short-story (905 words)   

Waddington’s so-called driveway was nearly a mile long, zig-zagging up through farmland, the surface so potholed Elsie was forced to wear flatties. Not that Waddington ever noticed when she arrived, sore-footed and perspiring. Once, when her normal bus was cancelled, he tapped with his pen for a humiliating ten seconds, still not looking up. She stayed on that evening to complete a tender document but still had two hours’ pay deducted.

“Tell Wladislaw to see me,” he said.

Wladislaw’s nominal job was chauffeur, covering Waddington’s six-month ban for drunk-driving. But his remit had expanded and he could be anywhere on the converted thirty-acre farm.

She found Wladislaw using twine on the rusted hinges of a paddock gate. He smiled, “You must find stronger shoes. I tried ride bike but had – what is word? - rupture.”

“He wants to see you.”

“God sake stay. He won’t know. Perhaps I am in the woods. Have a cigarette.”

Working for Rattray’s, the builders, she’d smoked because the subbies liked her for that. When Rattray’s folded she stopped. “Better not,” she said leaning against the wall. “I like your gate hinges.”

“Not bad for geologist. But why you slave here? You could do better.”

“A deal with Rattray’s accountants. Waddington threw money into the pot and got me cheap. Very cheap. I hoped some cash might end up in the subbies’ empty pockets. It didn’t of course.”

He took out a Marlboro packet and gestured, urging her again. But she doubted his welcome. He was maintaining a family in Katowice and his talk tended to relate to money. Also he had to be ten years her junior. Nevertheless she took a cigarette. The wind blew out his lighter flame and so he cupped his hand over hers. She inhaled deeply – Why had she ever stopped? – and his hand remained there. He bent closer.

“You’re not that desperate, are you?” But she let him kiss her.

“You are kusicielski. I don’t know word. Like magnet.”


They walked down together, the wind tearing skeins of smoke from her lips. Near the house he took her hand but she pulled away. “No, I can’t afford you.”

He looked hurt.

“My husband is back. His girl-friend gave him glandular fever then threw him out. He is tired: cannot work.”

“But you do not…?”

“No, I don’t. But,” she shrugged, “I must care for him. There is no money for anything else.”

At her desk she reached for a pile of documents and started adding the notes Waddington had provided. An elaborate system of alibis which Waddington’s clients would almost certainly fail to check; proof of authorisation if his architectural work ended up in dispute. Presently half a dozen county court judgments were outstanding against him.

Through the walls came the sound of Waddington and Wladislaw arguing. Soon the Pole burst in, his face tense with anger.

“What is cash flow?”

She explained.

“Bastard says cash flow bad. Will pay me week later. He bastard. I get him.”

Elsie put a finger to her lips. “Wait until his cheque clears,” she whispered.

He paused in his anger, smiled. “You think well, Elsie. And you are rozkoszny.”

At twelve prompt Waddington left his drawing board for what he called lunch, in fact communion with a whisky bottle. He was back at three, hand on her left shoulder, arm heavy across her back, a purple crackled cheek almost touching hers. “You’re good at progress reports.”

“Is that what they’re called?”

“The client won’t bother reading them. Want to take a drive?”

“You’re banned, remember.”

He laughed flammably. “Having the Pole drive would hinder things. What did he want before lunch?”

“What does ‘cash flow’ mean?”

“Uppity twerp.”

Impulsive as ever the Pole didn’t wait out the cheque. He stole sugar from the kitchen and poured it into the Jaguar’s fuel tank. No taxi driver was prepared to risk Waddington’s driveway and he missed his cheap reservation to New York. Comforted himself with whisky.

Elsie stood away from the house, smoking, occasionally looking out towards the Black Mountains, more often at the zig-zag through the trees down which Wladislaw had ridden his bike, hooting defiantly. She recalled his angled Slavic face and wondered – briefly – if it might have concealed an age closer to hers. Today there was no wind and the blue cigarette smoke hung in the air.

A plumber, one of the Rattray subbies, had rung that morning and asked if she would help him and the others compile evidence that would send Waddington to court. They’d scraped a little money together and she said she’d be pleased to co-operate. It was a triumph of sorts.

But her mind was on the Pole. The way he’d held her hand up on the hill, recommended stronger shoes, called her rozkoszny. A word she’d Googled and the meaning had warmed her.

In the house Waddington was stirring. She dropped her cigarette and stood on it. With her flatties. As she walked back to the office she remembered yesterday’s TV news. The usual. A fifteen-year-old girl, wearing a corset of explosive, had killed seven fledgling policemen in Kabul. Moved by another type of passion. She tried to imagine Waddington’s look of outrage – a split-second of sobriety – before she scattered his drunken slyness over the woods. But it didn’t fit. More formal opposition  would occur in the county court. By definition, women who had their hair permed avoided Semtex.  

Sunday 13 October 2013

Refusing to be stoic

When I started work in the USA (1966) I was paid the same as a first-year secretary. Seemed like millions - four times my pay in London. Renting a flat (centrally heated!) cost less in real terms, as did booze, cars, and white goods.

My employer moved from Pittsburgh to Philly and VR complained the humidity was making life unbearable. I worked in an air-conditioned office so pooh-poohed this. Within two days of holiday I bought an AC. Stuck it through a downstairs window, plugged it in, and lo! - coolth.

Later we moved back to Pittsburgh and I had to modify a window to install the AC. The landlord agreed. Pausing on the stairs ensured a curious sensation: legs and derrière in the coolth, head and trunk in the warmth. In the bedrooms we had huge fans.

We re-emigrated in 1972 (Brits have a bad tendency to do this in the US) and I sold the AC to a man who wanted to cultivate mushrooms.

Years ago we had a hot summer here and I bought a free-standing AC which cost a fortune. Used with a free-standing fan it just about cooled the downstairs. Since then it has lain idle. Serves me right, you all say. End of story

WIP Second Hand (38,342 words)

(Moses Balogun said) "I set my sights higher. Features for the nationals, then the weeklies. Economics to begin with, then African politics, then whatever I chose. In the year and a half left at LSE I had about sixty articles published. However I have to confess:  I wasn’t selling my writing style, rather my sources..."

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Way out west


Horticulture. Planted 100 daff and 20 snowdrop bulbs at the weekend. Just for once my reality meshed with the fantasies of Gardeners World.  Soft fibrous ersatz earth (in tubs) instead of an inch of dirt over a fathom of builder's rubble. Index finger worked well as a dibber. Not much to see at moment.

Kindness of Strangers. Yesterday VR had a hospital appointment. In order to escape the tsunami created by our cleaning ladies we made a bolt for Waitrose (the swanky supermarket) in Abergavenny and the appointment got overlooked. VR, a former state registered nurse, gets angry with herself and (by extension) me. Rings the hospital this morning to apologise, giving it the full culpa mea. Greets me all smiles, the direct result of the hospital's comforting response.

Two Sorts Of Mobility. Our estate is bisected by the Withy Brook where I noted four supermarket trolleys. I wumphed, middle-class fashion. Then I reflected. Many of Tesco's patrons  are elderly, seemingly poverty-stricken, frequently overweight ladies with hip problems who not only collect their groceries into the trolleys but use them as mobile Zimmer frames. Leaning painfully over the handlebars. No I don't think the two phenomena are linked. My reflections don't always connect.

I Wish I Had a Brass Neck. Am paying the osteopath visits (£55/30 min) hoping he can get my neck turning again. For long periods nothing much happens; prone on his couch I watch the blades of his east-of-Suez fan rotate, drop into a doze, and wake when I start to snore. Occasionally he kneads my shoulder muscles with powerful fingers and I speculate on which sport such fingers could best be employed. Archery perhaps. I suggest this, he laughs, and I write out another cheque. Arriving at T-junctions in the car continues to worry me.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Oughties. Worth a damn? No. 3

Beautiful Game Brought Low
Short short-story (983 words)

When United gave away the second goal Taylor’s treble voice died away and enthusiasm turned to fractiousness. He kicked the seat in front – happily unoccupied – and looked away from the pitch. She’d have bought him a burger if the price hadn’t been beyond her. At half-time Tom Ablett, ghosting for United’s recently fired manager, stood up and stretched. Called to her, “Eigh up, Dainty. At least you're seeing it from t’alfway line.”

“Employee’s privilege,” she said, glancing along the empty rows.

After the game Taylor wanted to be away, leaving the sadness behind. But the takings had to be counted and signed for. While he sat writhing on the other chair in her tiny office she did the paperwork. Handling twenty-pound notes was ironic: just one of them – a fraction of what she was owed - would have transformed the rest of her week-end. But the visiting accountant had been strict: “You more than anyone should understand, Mrs Palfrey.”

Understand about administration, of course. She’d been the only one left capable of abiding by the rules. Tom Ablett, thirty years ago a player and now an odd-job man, had simply scratched his head. Thus she, Dainty Palfrey, would ensure the HMRC got whatever was left of United’s carcase. While she…

It was dark when she locked the outside door but Kendrick was waiting patiently, sitting in his aged TVR. Knowing it would be a blank evening for him but that a car ride would smooth out her awkward journey home via the bank.

“Let the bairn sit in front,” he said as she opened the door. Proof that Kendrick’s feelings for her were often expressed in different ways.

In the passenger’s seat Taylor’s moodiness vanished; Kendrick belonged to United’s glory days, the year they’d just failed to rise from the second to the first division. Everyone agreed: the one player who’d worked his damndest to prevent the slow slide into the Conference. Taylor’s hero.

“A puir wee game,” Kendrick said.

“You stuffed their striker,” said Taylor.

Kendrick laughed. “For half a game mayhap. Second half was something else. Age twenty-one outrunning age thirty-eight.”

The centre of town was deserted and Kendrick stopped the car close to the bank. Dainty slid the satchel down the deposit chute then squeezed herself back into the shelf-like rear seat, her face a mere foot behind his close-cut crinkly hair. Ah the maleness of it.

“It’ll be just cheese and toast if you…”

“That’s awfu’ kind, Dainty,” he said. “But A’m promised to a bunch of low-lifes at The Baron of Beef.”

Untrue of course. And he must have known she knew. United’s books had him playing for expenses only. Sharing a bed-sitter with the goalie. Now saving her two rounds of cheese and toast.

Only as they said good-night did the jaunty Borders accent flag. “Ye’ll be in the office next week, A’ take it?”

“Where else?”

“Ye need another job. Ye canna live on air. You and the bairn.”

“The funny thing is I don’t really care for football. Yet after three years there’s this strange loyalty. And there’s Taylor. It’s one thing he can boast about – his mum works for United.”

Why was she explaining? Keeping him standing here? Both of them near outcasts.

With Taylor in bed she watched an Italian film about a single mother trying to stay afloat in Naples. The emphasis was on squalor, the woman’s hair greasy and unkempt. Was this a measure of poverty? The point at which one ceased to wash one’s hair? When a blue-jawed lorry driver entered the story Dainty switched off. The man carried a knife and there could only be one ending.

On Tuesday she received the modest monthly cheque from her ex. Mid-morning she walked out of the office and on to the pitch where Kendrick and half a dozen unpaid others were engaged in desultory training. “Let’s have dinner out,” she said, explaining the cheque. “You know the town better than I do. Pick a place.” His face seemed blank.

He was waiting outside M&S and escorted her to the town’s only touristy pub; dark wooden panelling and a plaid carpet. There’d be no dinner she realised. Disappointed she sought minor revenge by ordering an unsociable Coke. Saw that this had registered.

The large circular table divided them, made them look like strangers, casually met. But he was no stranger. “Ye’re a lovely girl,” he said abruptly.

A girl at thirty-two? She said nothing.

“But ye dinna trust me.”

“I’d trust you… with my life. With Taylor, even.”

“Aye, maybe. But not with the future.”

She waited.

“A’m a futba player. Soon I won’t be. And that’s what ye fear.”

Fear? Something echoed. “What do I fear?”

“A’ played for the school at Hawick. Later Kilmarnock, Dundee. Other teams now forgotten. A’m thirty-eight and United is the finish of it all. A’m not well-known, no more jobs in futba. A’ must look outside.”

She nodded.

“No education.” He grinned fleetingly. “Terrible for a Scot. Terrible for you.”

“I don’t understand,” she said. But she did.

“You think: how can he live without futba? His life. A year on you fancy you see me sad, depressed. Drinking. A Scot’s solution. Is that not true?”

She tried not to move.

“Ye silly lass. Do A’ not know you? The loyalty and a’ that with no pay. And do ye not know me – Dainty Palfrey?”

“I know you, Alan.”

“Aye. That A’d be happy stacking shelves to be with ye and the bairn. Happy, ye understand. Ye’re golden. Forget dinner; hoard your bawbees. Go home with my blessing.”

Outside she laughed. “I booked a babysitter.”

He reached for his wallet and took out a fiver, the last note he had. “Use this.”

She smiled and shook her head. Felt hair swing, shampooed that evening. Keeping squalor at bay.

Walked home. Thought about risks taken with men, risks avoided. Lovely, he’d said. Nice. 

Thursday 3 October 2013

Four holiday snaps

Despite the pic posted in June (taken covertly at an outdoor dinner in France) I rarely smile at cameras. My smiles come out as smirks and simpers which, I insist, "aren't me". This is untrue. What I mean (secretly) is I don't look imposing enough. Instead I scowl which makes me childish and petulant.

The photo now heading my blog was taken by my brother, Sir Hugh, as I sat on the Bowder Stone a boulder the size of  two-storey house adjacent to Buttermere in the Lake District. Detached from the human subject I find the photo sweetly composed. It has also profited from judicious cropping.

I'm pleased with the result. An "honest" portrait, I tell myself, given the well-defined turkey wattles, the leathery cheeks, the way the glasses partially obscure the eyes, and the slight sacklessness of my open mouth. The shirt - an old favourite - helps.  Not pretty, not over-dignified but in no way a cliché. A man with a history slightly more interesting than the one I have actually endured.

Two days ago Sir Hugh took the pair of us on a Lake District tour that sought to avoid tourist parts. Above are three places we saw.

(Top pic) Once, when I was much younger, I jumped naked from this bridge, a drop of about fifteen feet into the mercifully deep river below.

 (Middle pic) The misty skyline here is that of the Sellafield spent nuclear fuel plant on the Lake District coast.

(Lower pic)
Dead centre in this interaction of contours is Great Gable. A mountain.