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Wednesday 26 May 2021

Still working

Hereford has a cathedral so it’s a city, but it isn’t all that big. Even so it seemed whimsical to drive from one side to the other to spend eight quid. And what’s so great about a de-rusting agent and a light lubricant?

Because the two, used together, transformed opening my up-and-over garage door from a burden into to a featherweight finger-tip operation. Also because one’s called WD-40, the other Three-in-One, and all three of us are about the same age. I’m guessing.


A novel, 2189 words, so far 

Mrs Rashid had arrived home early with time to enjoy a quick bath, switch her business suit for a kimono, add new make-up and welcome her daughter and Gladys in polished hostess style. “I have green tea and – if you’re worn out – half a carton of sak√©.”

The Japanese garment and drink seemed mildly out-of-place in a living room furnished in Indian restaurant style. But then the husband who might have resisted these Far Eastern incursions had been dead for almost a decade and Gladys couldn’t help thinking Mrs Rashid had taken full advantage of the shift in responsibility. 

The late Mr Rashid was rarely mentioned in conversation and then only laughingly with reference to his Islamic severity. It seemed doubtful he would have approved of his wife’s current employment which often involved evening visits to single male drivers who had misused their flash sports cars. And by this time Nasrin would surely have been married to a mosque-goer ten years older. Various odd details Gladys had picked up over the months implied Mr Rashid had foreseen his death and tried, with growing desperation, to force his wife into a second marriage with a gloomy corner-shop owner three doors down. Not a hope.


Saturday 22 May 2021

The curse of the green

It’s poetic justice, I suppose. As to gardens, I deserve this turn of the wheel.

Readers of Tone Deaf and, before that, Works Well, will be wearied by my anti-garden threnodies. I hate digging, planting, weeding and all the rest of the seasonal labours even if I do enjoy sitting with VR on the patio, drinking an expensive  Rhone Valley white and contemplating my shabby horticultural empire.

We’ve paid gardeners (very well by Hereford standards) but for one reason or another they’ve fallen by the wayside. Recently we thought Paradise had descended when Barry and his grandson spent two days tidying up out back. Good grief, it actually looked like a garden, even if my criteria are modest.

But Barry should never have done it. A self-admitted perpetual-motion machine he’d just had his knee replaced and by attending to us he aggravated the healing process. This week he re-entered hospital and I’ve yet to hear the outcome.

Before he did he bestowed twenty marigold plantlings on me. Wouldn’t accept cash. Then give it to charity, I urged. Rumbling somewhat he admitted he and his wife supported the Cat’s Defence League. No, ten quid was far far too much. A fiver then.

A dozen plantlings occupy the two troughs at the front. The casual sticks you see are from rose trees and their spines – ironically – keep cats out of their chosen lavatory. Thus begins the paranoia. Frost might have happened but didn’t. But the wind was strong enough to shift the troughs never mind the piteous green shoots. They survived. We now need hanging lobelias and they may not be so lucky. Worry, worry, worry. I did once raise the subject of silk flowers. But that, I’m told, would be cheating.

The new novel waits, lusciously.

Thursday 20 May 2021

Could it work 3? First steps


Roderick Robinson

Her factory coat hung on a hook; no clothes lockers at Robertson’s, management thought they encouraged theft.

There it drooped. A true factory coat for which, it seems, there is no other word or phrase: dark beige, down to the knees, a breast pocket for ball-points, patch pockets at the sides, ludicrously out-of- date lapels. Lapels! Who wears a rose to work?

Manual workers these days wear sleeker one-piece garments, once referred to as boiler suits, now known universally as overalls. Less likely to snag on whirling machinery but you have to wriggle into them. Rained on, they grip like lobsters

It’s said factory coats are hard to find, that there’s no market for them. Perhaps because they are so durable. The fabric is uncomfortably stiff, more akin to canvas. Gladys had worn hers since starting with Robertson’s three years ago; it was grubbier now but that was the only hint that time had passed. She had no affection for it, convinced it made her look socially downtrodden. But regarded it with a certain wryness. So typical of the company that employed her.

Haseen had worn a loose-fitting artificial silk blouse to interview her. A cartoon red dragon on a green background, the cuffs secured with links that dangled silver discs the size of saucers.  His moustache upswept and piratical. He shook her hand which was unexpected and his teeth shone brilliantly white against his dark skin when he smiled. Which he did a lot.

“Miss Ashworth – such a rhapsodical name. Though they say it’s quite common in this part of Lancashire.”

His smile was infectious. “Common as muck?”

“Good gracious, not at all. But my family name – Mohiuddin – might so be described in Islamabad. But tell me, Miss Ashworth, were you surprised that a company called Robertson is run by a family of Pakis?”

It sounded like a trap. “I don’t care for that abbreviation. I associate it with racists. But to answer your question. I suspect there may be marketing reasons. I’ve seen your clothing brochure and it’s clear your customers are not limited to Asians. You’ve crossed national boundaries.”

His laugh was falsetto. “How shrewd of you to notice. Perhaps I should be interviewing you for my job. But the classified asked for a packaging operative and we mean what we say. Someone who understands the mechanics of protecting goods in transit and can come up with safe solutions.”

Gladys realised one of her trainer laces had untied itself. To bend down and interrupt the dialogue? To leave it be and risk being typed a slut? Decisions, decisions. “I wouldn’t want to doom the interview but I’m not sure…”

“We’re not expecting immediate skills. You’re here for three reasons: your grade 8 GCSE maths, the fact that you run middle-distance races, and that you are a woman. Take that last point first; there seems to be a tradition that packaging systems in Asian retail suppliers are served by women. And only women.

Gladys nodded. Haseen continued. “Packaging is vital to nationwide distribution. Amazon spends millions on just that aspect of their business. Dozens if not hundreds of carton designs covering all sorts and sizes.” He spread his hands in mock humility. “We are not Amazon. The economics of pre-buying all those packaging designs – in bulk – would bankrupt us. We decided on ad hoc solutions, with you, or some other woman at the heart of it. Do you understand?”

Gladys frowned. “Many patterns – designs as you say – would recur. “

“They are stored on a stamping machine and accessed according to need. We buy cardboard and plastic for sleeving in huge rolls. I’m hoping your Grade 8 maths will help you see the goods and their dimensions in terms of solid geometry and you call up or design a slightly oversize container. You’ll be slow to begin with but will speed up as more and more standard patterns accumulate. Your female colleagues down the line will assemble the cardboard flats into cartons.”

“And my middle-distance running?”

“You’ll need to be fit for this work, As will your colleagues. Any questions?”

Gladys shook her head. But she had her doubts. During college holidays she’d done intern work with manufacturers and gained an inkling of the equations that square labour needs with investments. Maseen would need more than one woman with a knowledge of advanced maths and fit legs. So it turned out although by then the cost of two more stamping machines had changed the basic premise and the accountants were called in to fudge the figures.

She reached for her drooping factory coat and slipped it on. Robertson’s had probably realised such coats would last for ever. But failed to see they belonged to the post-war forties and were depressing to look at. Especially if you came to work in artificial-silk blouses. Luckily for Haseen, he held shares.

Gladys had wondered whether Muslim women working the packaging line might envy her as the only whitey. One had eventually tested her with quotes from the Koran but by then Gladys had become popular; a whistle was blown and the offender was transferred to marketing support. Does this mailer go into that size of envelope? That sort of thing.

More important she’d gained a friend.  Nasrin was about the same age but came from a home with slightly fewer faith-driven restrictions. Her mother, widowed early, had fallen back on her A-levels and found reasonably well-paid work as a loss assessor with an insurance company. Often she was away in the evenings and Nasrin, the eldest child, became her surrogate. Even to the point of being allowed to join the local ADS and indulge her enthusiasm for the stage. A chance remark about Pinter, within Gladys’s hearing, brought the two of them together and the relationship had blossomed into sotto-voce, giggly conversations during lunch breaksabout the shortcomings of Robertson, Gateway to Eastern Splendour, as the website said. Within a month Gladys had also joined the ADS.

They were an odd looking pair – Gladys, tall, muscular, irregularly dyed hair swept up into a crown that frequently required attention, Nasrin, a mere five feet, delicate cheekbones and eyes like a gazelle. But friends, definitely friends, capable of lending each other tenners and not falling out. Sharing laughter. Dining at each other’s homes.

Sunday 16 May 2021

Could it work 2? Well let's see

A plot would be much more detailed. This is a mere skeleton covering the initial section where the three main characters (Gladys, nearly 6 ft; Elsie, “shrill” and Sarn, “the fella”) are introduced and touch gently on each other’s worlds. All are from lower middle-class backgrounds; none has much money. The location is an unnamed Lancashire town. The time is the present.

Part one. Gladys. Gladys works in the packing department of a Pakistani online clothes and accessories operation. Her friend, Nasrin, is the oldest daughter of a Muslim family. Both long to be actresses and are members of a local ADS. Both face problems which are detailed. They set out together for a weekend at a Rural Acting School (ie, lessons in tents). Their lives unroll as they travel (by bus). During one session the audio system is at fault and, Sarn, the resident AV engineer is called in. Sarn and Gladys talk briefly and decorously. Gladys admits she is “too tall” to be an actress. Sarn says “concentrate on your voice”

Part two. Sarn. The job at the Rural Acting School pays peanuts, the equipment is aged and unreliable and Sarn is continuously busy into the night. But he’s happy to be away from his two-room flat in the unnamed town. More particularly to be away from his perpetually angry father a disappointed trade unionist who disapproves of Sarn’s freelance, non-unionised life.

Part three. Elsie. Her boss decides, ill-advisedly, to create a company video. But on the cheap and this becomes Elsie’s responsibility. Prices are way beyond her budget and the only solution is under-qualified Sarn who will also act – reluctantly – as director. The project is doomed but staggers on. Elsie blames Sarn but he absorbs her criticism amiably. The boss insists on speaking the narrative and makes a pig's ear of it. Desperate, but with no money to spend, Sarn asks Gladys to do a freebie.

Tuesday 11 May 2021

Could it work?

I’m toying with a triangle.

Many novels are based on triangular plots but in most the three characters are at each other throats. Mine would be different: not only does the male character feel deep affection for the two women, the women also get on with each other. At least for a large part of the story because that’s the bit that fascinates me. Could it be realistic? There will eventually be conflict because fiction demands it. Otherwise it’s over-sweetened porridge.

Novels also depend on progress but this plot – at the moment – stands still. How can immobility generate narrative tension? – ie, become a page-turner? I don’t know, but the idea is not yet a day old.

The guy’s a cypher but that’s OK, he’ll become a product of the women and that’ll be fun to fashion.

The two women exist – existed (?) – in reality. But only physically, I’ll decide what they think and do. The first dates back to the mid-fifties when she would have been in her late teens: nearly six feet tall, working in a job that leaves her grubby at the end of the day, sharing a tiny terrace house with her mother. Financial privations have left her face impassive. Her hair style is elaborate, swept up into a veritable tower.

The other, mid-forties, has a low-level, poorly paid management position handling the books in a small fabrication shop. The male boss gets her to do the unpleasant stuff, chasing up bad time-keeping, sloppy work, and this has made her shrill. Both she and her husband lost interest in each other a decade ago. Her only luxury is a monthly perm: tight black curls resembling a blackberry.

Bringing them all together will need imagination. If I’ve got any.

Tuesday 4 May 2021

Uniting the news

In extreme old age one has often learned to bear the bigger burdens; it’s the little things which cause paroxysms. A fragment of shell when you’re eating a boiled egg. An overused sliver of soap slips from your hands. Someone you loathe appears briefly on telly.

If your mind is still working (no guarantees of course) you acknowledge such mini-problems may be solved: a closer inspection of the boiled egg, discard the soap sliver for a new bar of Palmolive, mute the telly. But rage may delay such solutions.

Newspapers are on the way out, I won’t go into the reasons. To save money most UK newspapers took on the smaller – tabloid – format. Newspaper-lovers could bear this, but The Guardian went further. They did away with staples that hold the pages of the main section together. VR gets to read this section first (my treat) and through no fault of hers I inherit it in a crumpled and separated state. A small matter but infuriating.

It took me at least eighteen months (mostly lockdown) to realise I needed a stapler. I’m a tidy person – mostly – and I have had one throughout my adult life. But this needed to be different, a long-arm stapler capable of arching over a whole newspaper page to reach the centre of a two-page spread.

Deploying the long-arm stapler takes care. Misalign the staples and the pages don’t turn properly. A large unimpeded work surface is essential. The whole process takes about a minute and I’m occasionally self-conscious. Am I being too anal?

Sometimes I’m distracted and forget. VR never grumbles. It’s a solution but not exactly a comfort. The stapler cost £12. Plus a ridiculously excessive £4.50 p&p. Which… irritates me.