Saturday, 30 July 2011

My Pal, Tommy Smithers by Bobby Stevenson

Whenever Tommy was excited or stressed, which to be honest was most days, he’d put the word ‘chuffing’ in front of everything. For instance, today was going to be a blooming chuffing day with loads of chuffing hills to cycle up and when we got to the ballyhoo top well we’d chuffing have a pick nick. 

You see what I mean?

Tommy was a good egg, a decent sort who would lift a finger to help anyone, a talented tennis player, cyclist and a very good footballer. On the other side, he was a frightful drunk, which thank goodness had only been that once, he was extremely competitive – he would bet you a farthing on who would blink first and he was useless with money. Apart from that he was the kind of gent you would be proud to call a friend.  

So come Saturday morning, Tommy and I would be on our chuffing bicycles, out of the chuffing city and heading for the chuffing countryside (I promise to limit the use of chuffing in future) and this Saturday was no exception.

Tommy knocked at my door at 5.30 (in the morning may I say – I didn’t even know there was a 5.30 in the morning, if truth be told) “Get up, you chuffing wastrel” was the morning cry of the Tommesara Smitheratist bird and it tended to waken everyone else up as well.

“Will you please tell that very stupid friend of yours that it is far too early in the morning for his buffoonery” said my rather grumpy father without opening his eyes (apparently it helped him get back to sleep quicker). Like Tommy, my father tended to hook in a word and then beat it to death with its overuse. ‘Buffoon’ and ‘buffoonery’ were both in the process of getting six shades of purple knocked out of them. Luckily he hadn’t heard Tommy’s current obsession or that would have resulted in me having to leave home and declaring myself an orphan.

“Apologies Holmes but we have the whole of the south east to explore and time is chuffing moving on.” 

Every since he’d read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I had received that name. It was better just to smile and accept my fate because he might come up with something far, far worse. On our cycling trips Tommy wanted to be known as Moriarty because he said the name felt good on his tongue. I know what you’re thinking, Tommy wasn’t the most intelligent of my friends. 

By six o’clock in the morning we were happily cycling over the Thames and heading down the Old Kent road where the world was waiting to entertain Holmes and Moriarty.

“First stop, chuffing breakers” said my pal.  
For those that don’t speak Tommyese, that meant breakfast must be had with all haste.
Toast, crumpets and coffee were the order of the day at Mrs O’Reilly’s tea room in Lewisham, a bargain at one shilling. Mrs O’Reilly had long since departed this life and gone to the big tea room in the sky. The place was actually run by a man with the name of Derek.  

“’Mrs O’Reilly’s’ sounds that bit more romantic” said a very tattooed Derek. “People knows what to expect, with that name, but Derek’s Cafe, well it just don’t sound right, do it?” 

Both I and Tommy left the premises agreeing that Derek was correct in what he had said but that we should avoid the place in future as Derek seemed to be two seagulls short of an aviary. 

Although it had been five months, Tommy still insisted that he wear a black band on his right arm as a mark of respect for the old Queen. I told him that this was a new and exciting time, that this was a new century , this was 1901, after all, and goodness knows what the next hundred years would bring. 

Tommy felt that the new century could chuffing well wait until his mourning was chuffing done. I know I promised to keep the use of ‘chuffing’ to a minimum but it seems impossible when in the company of Tommy Smithers, I will try harder – I promise. 

Just as we left Bromley, Tommy declared that the countryside had properly started and although I tried very hard to see it, I was at a loss to notice the difference. Still Tommy knows what he’s talking about or so he tells me.

After a mile or so I hinted that perhaps an ale might be the order of the day. Tommy stopped so fast that I almost ran into the back of him.
“I have a plan” he said (actually he said ‘a chuffing plan’ but I thought I would spare you that nonsense).
“And your plan is what, Tommy?” that was my contribution to the discussion.  
“I know of a little village in the Darenth Valley where the ale is like nectar.” Tommy was tasting the ale in his mind's eye.

“Why haven’t you told me of this place before?” I ask.
“Because my dear friend, it is not a place for the unwary.”
“Why is that Tommy?” I ask.
“Because my fine fellow, it is a hot bed of liberalism and creativity. People have really let things slide in this village. There are some women who are so close to looking like men, that one might wish them ‘a good morning sir’ without realising.”
“Well I never.” I declared.

“Worse still..” Tommy looks around before whispering “..there are men in this village who do not like the company of women. There I’ve said the chuffing thing. It’s too late but it’s out in the big world for all to know.”
“Don’t like the company of women?” I think I may have look perplexed.
“Really, you know what I mean, stop being an chuffing idiot. They don’t like women.”

So I had to have my say and I mentioned “I don’t know any men who don’t like women apart from Father who hasn’t spoken to Mother since she tried to fry the porridge. That must be eleven years ago, now.”
“Your mother tried to fry porridge?” says Tommy.
“She did, and Father said that any woman who was stupid enough to try and fry porridge shouldn’t expect any conversation to be thrown her way in future and that was that. He never said a bally word to her again. He said she was an imbecile, a harsh word I grant you, but I think that was his word of the week at that particular time.”

I expected Tommy to be impressed with this story but instead he said that I should stop talking chuffing rot and stop acting like an imbecile.

That is why, by the time we got to the little village, Tommy had dropped the word ‘chuffing’ in favour of the word ‘imbecile’. Why hadn’t I said that my father had called my mother ‘lovable’ or had given her money to shut her up? Maybe then Tommy would have done the same.
“Hey, ho, oft we go” shouted Tommy, adding “you imbecile.” 

I do rather make things difficult for myself when I don’t bally mean to.   

The village clock was striking one o’clock as we freewheeled our way down the hill into the centre of this dastardly liberal little village. I had to be honest with Tommy and tell him that I thought the people looked jolly normal.
“Nonsense, you imbecile” was his reply.
We parked up outside a delightful little public house called The Crown. The door was at an angle to the building and led into a small bar for gentlemen.  
“Just in case this pub is over run by liberals let me do the talking” said reliable Tommy, “just to be on the safe side.”
Now to me, the person serving behind the bar was clearly a man but Tommy insisted on calling him ‘Mam’ then winking to me in a very obvious manner followed by him touching the side of his nose with his finger.

“I didn’t want to drink in the place anyway” said a rather surprised Tommy, “the establishment looked totally unsavoury. We are well shot of it.”At least the barman only asked me to leave whereas he caught Tommy by the collar and threw him out of the door. 
 Tommy said that he was right about the place all along, it was a den of liberal minded imbeciles and he would be writing to his Member of Parliament just as soon as he returned from the country. 

We tried to gain access at the next pub, the Two Brewers but apparently Tommy had been there before and was no longer welcome. I didn’t realise that you could use so many cursing words in one sentence but the manager of The Two Brewers must have broken a record.
“Another den of imbeciles?” I asked.
“Just so.” 

That is why we came to be sitting outside the Kings Arms drinking two of the most wonderful glasses of ale. Apparently this was not a den of imbeciles and the prices were exceedingly fair.
Having slaked our thirst we mounted our trusted bicycles and headed towards the large town which sat at the top of the hill, above the village. 

About one third of the way up the hill, Tommy suggested that we dismount and push our bicycles up the rest of the way. Apparently it didn’t do the bicycles much good to be treated to a hill in the manner we were riding them. To be honest I thought maybe Tommy found the hill a little too steep but in fear of being called an imbecile, I refrained.

The climb was worth the effort and the view over the North Downs was spell binding. 

Why people steal bicycles is beyond me, and two of them at the same time. You have to ask yourself - was the thief a member of some circus troupe? However the dasterdly deed was done and it meant that cycling back to London was now out of the question. A train was called for and a train it would be. 

Tommy suggested that we travel back by First Class and that I should foot the bill seeing as I was the last one to see the bally bicycles. I actually think the last time I saw them, I said “Tommy, do you think the bicycles are safe by that public house? ” Whereupon Tommy called me an imbecile and told me in no uncertain terms that if I was worried about people stealing our property, well that sort of thing just didn’t happen in the countryside. Then he said “Grow up man.” The next time I looked the bicycles were gone. 

In the railway carriage, on the way back to the city, a rather plump man and his rather plump wife were playing cards. The husband seemed to have won a round as he let out the most frightening cry of ‘Ballyhoo’. 

I could see the glimmer in Tommy’s eyes as he tried the word ‘Ballyhoo’ out on his tongue. 

The word was not found wanting.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Man Who Never Was by Bobby Stevenson

"For my friend with dementia......" 

What was I, a throwback to another age or a sign of what was to come? 

Perhaps I brought all this on myself by staying away from the others, by hiding in my room and dealing with my own struggles rather than being a part of everyone and everything else. 

Maybe this is a punishment or perhaps it was justified karma?

The process started just like it did when I began to lose my hair. I had looked in the mirror one day and there was a freckle on my head that I had not remembered seeing before. It wasn’t that it had suddenly presented itself but that the hair had begun to fall away and expose it. It said ‘things are changing’ but I also remember walking away from the mirror and telling myself I would leave that thought for another time. Yet delay doesn’t keep change at bay, you should know that by now. We should all know that by now.   

It was snowing the first time I noticed, really noticed that is. I thought that the reflected light from the outside had somehow diluted my skin and that the usual healthy glow was there to be rediscovered in a warmer light. But alas it wasn’t - the paleness was me. 

I sneaked into her room and stole some of the powder that she kept on her bed-side table. It shimmered a rusty brown colour that made my face look as if I were whole again. I was me, once more, and apart from the odd comment about how well I was looking, no one noticed nor cared. 

By the second week, my pallor had grown fainter still, so I searched the room for that lotion that gave the glow of a healthy sun tan. This, I spread over all my body, my hands, my feet and my head. Whenever I left the house people would stare at me, and rightly so, it was the cold depth of winter and I looked orange. Better they stare at my orange-ness than what I had become. 

There was no sense to any of this but denial does not stop the illness nor does it ward off the disease. This thing wasn’t just happening to me, it had become me. I was defined by it and would soon be known by it. 

By the end of the second week I lifted my hand to stop the sun blinding me and it had little effect. 

By the middle of week three, I could no longer deny its existence, I was ill and it showed. Friends tried not to stare at it but in the end couldn’t help themselves. As I walked towards some colleagues I heard them mention ‘tracing paper boy’ and I knew immediately they meant me. I had become a joke. If not me, what would have I made of the situation? Would I have wanted to work with a freak? Would I have been his confidant? Or rejected him? 

Three days later and I could no longer see my hands, two days after that my arms went the same way. My family tried to make life continue as if everything was normal but I could see the sadness in my brother’s eyes as he watched me disappear. 

By the start of week five people would only know me by my shadows. 

You cannot see me anymore as I am not there, but once in a while you may catch a movement from the corner of your eye. 

That is me. Think of me.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Great Chaos by Bobby Stevenson

That summer, that glorious glorious summer, sat on the shoulder hills of the little village and warmed the hearts of its inhabitants. 

The heat had slowed everything and everyone down to a more comfortable life, more in tune with that of the eighteenth century than today’s horrors. This suited perfectly Miss Sligerhorn, the village spinster – a role, by the way, that she had been born to play. No harsh word would leave her mouth regarding the heat wave, not for her the fast and furious lifestyles of some of her more racy neighbours; no, Miss Sligerhorn was definitely in her comfort zone. 

Each morning at precisely 5.52am the Colonel, a strange fruit indeed, would cross Miss Sligerhorn’s path and they would greet each other in a polite and courteous manner. Yet an outsider would probably sense an underlying hostility to the proceedings. There had been talk, and I emphasise that it was only talk, that Miss Sligerhorn had been left at the altar by the Colonel; a most distressing state of affairs.

Every day, pleasantries met, exchanged and forgotten, Miss Sligerhorn would continue on her way to the cake shop which she had inherited from her mother. A mother who deserves a story unto herself but we will put that excitement aside for another time when the days are shorter and we can rest by a large fire.

Miss Sligerhorn was the gentlest of all creatures and considered most men to be brutes. The Colonel, on the other hand, was a brute and considered most women to be useless. 

They lived in the little village of Wetherby-by-Soot which had one pub, where the men would congregate and quaff ales, and Miss Sligerhorn’s cake shop, where the women would meet to discuss in great detail the men that they had unfortunately married. All of them had entered matrimony with careless haste and all of them were now regretting their actions at leisure. This had been the way of things since the dawn of time but things, as we shall see, were about to change. 

In London Town life was increasingly fraught and was made all the worse by the heightened temperatures. It would be a truth to say that living and working in the city was far from a pleasant experience.
Especially for the great and good who ran the country. 

For several years now there had been an increasing criticism of the politicians who controlled the purse strings, who made the laws and fiddled the expenses. Greed was the order of the day and such were the financial cutbacks that if one were to be a politician nowadays it would have to be for the love of the job rather than the benefits.  

In the current dog days love was a very rare thing, a very rare thing indeed. So one bright Friday afternoon the Prime Minster and the rest of the blameless walked out of Parliament and closed the store, as they say. They shut up shop and refused to return until the people of the land came to their senses and saw what a spectacular job they all had been doing - which was never going to happen, if we’re being honest. 

So there we have the situation, a Mexican standoff where neither party is going to back down causing the world around them to begin sinking into the mire.
Some of the local authorities attempted to collect rubbish, clean the streets and keep the services rattling on even as the money ran out.
“Look chaps, we’re looking for volunteers this weekend to clean the sewerage system. So if you could raise your hands to show interest that would be truly marvellous; what, no one, no one at all?”

So not only did the heat wave cause the country to revert to eighteenth century travel, the simmering politics caused the villages and towns to close in on themselves and each little hamlet became judge, jury and council for all of its inhabitants. 

Wetherby-by-Soot was no exception but I guess you knew that. If it had been possible to build a castle keep around this village then they would have done so, but time and money constraints put paid to that idea.
The good folks of Wetherby didn’t want the scoundrels from Axton-under-Soot, the neighbouring village, to come looking for those things that were in short supply in Axton. This was a time for fortitude, for kindness, for mercy, for every village looking after itself and to hang with the rest. 

Wetherby-by-Soot had two streets: Church Street and High Street. They were laid out in a letter ‘T’, meaning there were three entrances to and from the little haven that had to be manned and guarded. The fact that anyone could freely drive through the lanes that criss-crossed the fields did not appear to come into the equation. Defence was more a matter of visibility than practicality, it was a Maginot line populated by Miss Marples and Colonel Blimps.

The kids of the village ignored the gates as if they didn’t exist and when the ‘Gate Controller’ (the Colonel’s idea) asked ‘Who goes there?’ – the kids would just stare at the questioner, utter ‘like, whatever’ and walk on.  

This whole indiscipline issue was beginning to annoy the Colonel, so much so, that he’d teamed up with Roger Hartness – agreed by all, to be the angriest man in the village. Roger was known to shout at cats that’d peed anywhere other than their own gardens. He had photographs in his study of which animals belonged to which property. Roger was married which came as a shock to most people when they first found out. His wife, Tina, was the gentlest soul in the universe, perhaps she had to be – two angry people in the one house would have been difficult to maintain. 

“Curfew!” that was Roger’s summation of the problem. “The oldies are always in bed relatively early, so the only folks to be upset with the curfew would be the youngsters. I propose a village wide curfew of say, 9pm.”

To enforce the curfew Roger and 'friends' would patrol the streets after that time and ‘encourage’ the stragglers to get home as quickly as possible. Naturally there would be shift workers, but as long as they registered with Ground Control (Roger’s idea that one) things would go smoothly or ‘tickety boo’ as Roger liked to say. 

Now this is where things get a little sticky – the Colonel, Roger and 'friends’ controlled the south gate, at the bottom of Church Street. Miss Sligerhorn and her posse controlled the High Street and the two exits involved with that road. Since the Colonel suggested a curfew and patrol then you can bet your sweet bippies that Miss Sligerhorn went out of her way to avoid such an action. 

There was a de-militarized zone at the junction of the High Street and Church Street which had to be crossed frequently by the drinkers of the former due to the fact that the Pub was in Church Street and therefore under the jurisdiction of the Colonel.The cake shop and tea rooms, on the other hand, sat on the High Street and were under the patronage of Team Sligerhorn. 

A meeting had to be set up between the parties and the Village Hall was proposed. However it was found to be situated too deep into the Sligerhorn camp to be considered a neutral venue.
Outside the village, and on the main city road, stood a burger van which sold coffee, burgers and onions with fries at very reasonable prices (their slogan). So this was to be the setting for the summit. 

Miss Sligerhorn and her followers turned up first and were heard to say ‘typical’ quite a few times under their breaths, even although they had just passed through the Colonel’s territory and saw that his team were still in the stages of getting ready. Thirty minutes later and all in red berets, the Colonel’s Church Street gang arrived.
Miss Sligerhorn had done much ‘tutting’ over the last half hour not just because of the lateness of the other lot but also because of the prices the burger van man was charging. 

“We’re in the middle of the Great Chaos or hadn’t you heard Miss Prim and Proper” said the burger van owner with a hint of disgust.
“And that means you can charge what you like, does it?” asked an angry Miss Sligerhorn, who turned away from the van without waiting for an answer. 

It didn’t stop the burger van man shouting after her “I’ve got overheads to consider. I’ve got to go and collect the burgers me self, thanks for asking” but she wasn’t asking, she was already drinking tea from a flask she had brought herself. She then turned to Irene, her Lieutenant, and issued a statement “Irene, fifteen pence on all our buns. Make a note of it, if you please.” Irene scribbled the message with a large butcher’s pencil and her tongue hanging out.
“Fifteen pence on buns” said a self-satisfied Irene as she hit the note book with the lead end of her big pencil.
“And twenty pence on fondant fancies” shouted Miss Sligerhorn causing Irene to bring out her large butcher’s pencil and tongue once again.  

When the meeting began Miss Sligerhorn was the first to speak “We are not at war, Colonel” she said, suddenly realising there was a double meaning to her statement.
“So why the need for a curfew?” asked the lady who he may have jilted at the marriage altar (or not).    
“Because we are in the midst of the Great Chaos” shouted the burger van owner who had obviously heard that phrase from one of the more down market newspapers. 

The Colonel stood up to show off his very impressive 6 foot 4 inches of height and demanded a hush from the throng.
“Dear, dear lady I am not the power hungry mad man that your people are putting about the cake shop, I am just a concerned citizen that worries about the youth of this nation, the youth of this country - after all these people are our future, our investment, as it were” and the Colonel started to hit his palm with his fist as if this was the culmination of a lifetime of struggle, until someone shouted “Sit down you old fart, you’re ruining my business” and as you may have guessed, it was the burger van man. 

A vote was eventually taken and the Colonel’s people voted, not surprisingly, for a curfew and all the Sligerhorn gang voted against a curfew. Someone mentioned that the Sligerhorn part of the village was in the more posh area and that votes should count double over there but that lady was told to take a walk, by someone from the Colonel’s team who also said they would punch her on the nose if she didn’t shut up this minute. 

So nothing was decided that day and the village grew, sadly, a little further apart as a result. 

On the Church Street side were the village tennis courts, available for hire at subsidised rates. They were now no longer in use, that is, until the Colonel came up with an idea. 

The courts had a wire mesh surrounding them up to a good height of 12 feet, this allowed the balls to avoid hitting the nice people of Wetherby-by-Soot. The fence would be hard to scale and that is why the by the following morning most of the curfew breakers who attempted to enter the village by the Church Street entrance were now being held prisoner in the tennis courts. 

“We’ll hold them until they’ve learnt their lesson” decreed the Colonel. Standing at each corner on step ladders were men holding buckets full of tennis balls. If any of the curfew breakers had dared to move, one of the men would throw a tennis ball to deter them. However being British and in charge of a tennis ball meant that not one curfew breaker ever got hit; a very sad but true fact. 

The Colonel had attempted to curtail visiting times to deprive the youngsters of family support but it had a limited effect as the families just sat on the hill above the courts throwing chocolate bars and packets of crisps in to the ‘prison’. 

By Saturday the whole of the youth of the village, including those that lived in High Street had been imprisoned. If we are really being honest most of the parents were enjoying the break. They knew where their kids were, that they were being looked after and couldn’t get into trouble. 

“Let the Colonel sort them out. See how he likes it” was the common response and to be honest the Colonel was at his wit’s end. 

He had attempted to keep the kids entertained by playing something called a ‘record player’ and music by people called ‘The Beatles’ – but none of the kids seemed that interested until he threatened to take away their phones and music players if they didn’t listen. 

A child without a phone is a child ready to start a revolution.
The Colonel sent in his men with berets to take away the kid’s phones and pods. Apparently asking them to hand them over hadn’t been a huge success, so forced removal seemed the only option. The team was to be led by Angry Roger, who as it happens had found himself not to be as angry as the Colonel and was more of a slightly miffed Roger.

As soon as the team entered the compound (the Colonel’s description) they were surrounded, stripped naked and tied to the fences. Within fifteen minutes the kids had walked out of the tennis courts free as the day they were born and still in possession of their phones.  

But they didn’t stop there, the Colonel was dragged outside his home and a rope tied around his ankles, then hung upside down from a lamppost. Even though he kept shouting that the blood was running to his head, no one paid the slightest bit of attention to him. In fact later in the day, the kids started to play a game where they used the upside down Colonel to play a kind of skittles. Large plastic bottles were stood on end and the Colonel was swung around to see how many he could knock down. Miss Sligerhorn and her team took on the village teenagers and did themselves proud by winning after a tie break. 

The following Monday the ‘Great Chaos’ was over as the politicians had had enough of sitting at home; the Government returned to making laws and fiddling expenses, Miss Sligerhorn had a re-launch of her cake shop but, like the burger van man, refused to reduce her prices to pre-Chaos levels, especially on those fondant fancies. 

Without much ado, the world returned to where it had been before, that is in a much bigger mess but with people talking to each other. 

By Tuesday of the following week Miss Sligerhorn and the Colonel were wishing each other a ‘good morning’ with the usual unspoken reservations at 5.52am.

All was right with the world.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The American Friend by Bobby Stevenson

She loved him. 

That much of the story is true. I know that because it’s written in green ink in her diary. Why else would I be taking her ashes half way across the world?

She, Sarah my mother, met him, Donald the American, early in 1965. In those days the national anthem 'God Save the Queen' was played at the end of a movie. Apart from the odd soldier or war veteran, most people used the opportunity to run for the last bus home or to get to the head of the fish and chip queue at Greasy Annie’s next door to the cinema.

The Regal, the local flea pit, was the only cinema in the little town in the West Highlands. It closed early on a Saturday night to allow the projectionist and the ice cream lady to get home in order to prepare for Church the next day. 

Sarah didn’t stand up for the anthem, she didn’t believe in it, but she wasn’t in a hurry to leave either. It was then she saw him standing with his hand over his heart, she had never seen that before. Sarah watched with wonder as the man attempted to mouth the words of 'God Save the Queen' when most people couldn’t navigate their way past the first verse.

She had enjoyed ‘My Fair Lady’ and she imagined she would sing a couple of the songs as she walked home on that wet Saturday night. If she liked the movie she always replayed it in her head, that way the road back was never as lonely. 

“Did you enjoy the movie Miss?” 
For a second Sarah felt as if a movie star had spoken to her, surely the rich deep American voice couldn’t be coming from that man?
“The name’s Donald, Don mostly. And you are?”
“Sarah. You’re American?”
“Sure am, Pennsylvania born and bred Mam, prettier than New Jersey and bigger than Ohio. The State Mam, not me.”
“I’ve never been.”
“To Pennsylvania or to the States?”
“That’s a pity Miss that truly is a pity. It is God’s own country although yours does come close.”

That is how they met and that is why Sarah, my mother, records in her usual green ink that they shared fish and chips on the walk home.

He was Donald McInnis and his family had been thrown out of Scotland with the Highland Clearances. Those were the days when the landlords found sheep more profitable than people. His ancestors had settled in Pittsburgh and that was, as they say, that.
“So why come back?”
“My wife died in ’63 and as we had no kids, and I had no other family to speak of, it seemed only right to return to my own home”.
“I’m sorry”
“No need Sarah. No need whatsoever”

For the record, my mother Sarah was twenty years of age and still a virgin according to her diary. So let’s just say for the sake of argument that she was telling the truth (which she was) and that Don was the man who showed her the ways of the world. Whatever occurred, she fell in love so hard that it must have been recorded on a Richter scale somewhere. She didn’t just need him; this was life support on a grand design.
The green ink betrayed it all: Don said this; Don said that, Don took my photo with a Polaroid camera...Don...Don...Don. 

If you read the diaries carefully, as I have done countless times since my mother’s death, there is one thing that you will notice – nowhere up to this point, apart from what I have told you above, does it mention anything about who Don really is, or was. Don’s life appears to have been invisible. 

I asked Don about his parents last night, he got very cross, told me to change the tune and he went for a walk. 

If what I learned later is true, then Don had a very good reason to be secretive about where he came from and who he was.

My mother never actually moved in with The American Friend, that would have brought her shame in 1965, instead she kept house for him and went home to her family in the evenings. 

Don was reluctant to go to the shops or even show his face in the village, this was all due to suffering from depression following his wife’s death (apparently). It was on one of those shopping trips, while my mother was standing in a queue at the butchers that she noticed, through the window, a little man watching people as they went about their business. He was leaning against the drapery store window while smoking a cigarette. He had a hat pulled down over his face. 

She thought nothing more about it at the time. The following day when she was in the library getting the latest Ian Fleming for Don,  he was there again. This time he wasn’t watching anyone in particular, rather he was taking an unusual amount of interest in the local newspaper and was curiously using a magnifying glass. Two swallows really don’t make a summer and so the incidents went to the back of Sarah’s mind. 

About a week or so later, Sarah was walking her cousin Pauline’s dog on the beach. It was something she did to get out of the house, especially when Don was going through one of his darker periods – periods which were becoming more frequent. At the far end of the beach she sat watching a small yacht fight with the elements, she could hear what she thought was probably a father and son arguing on board.

“I love sailing” said a voice behind her.

She shivered slightly as she couldn’t recall anyone being that close to her on the beach. She turned to see the little man from the butcher’s and the library standing behind her.
“Sorry?” said Sarah.
“Just commenting on my love of sailing that’s all and may I say what a lovely, lovely dog you have.”
It was hard for Sarah to pin down exactly where his accent came from but it did sound faintly European, English even. The way he said ‘lovely’ gave Sarah goose bumps - there was a cold strangeness to him. 

“My name is Reinhardt, young lady, although I don’t suppose you get to meet too many foreigners around this way, yes?”
“I suppose” said Sarah.
“You do or you don’t?”
“No, we don’t.” 
For a tourist, he seemed a bit pushy, thought Sarah.
“Would the lovely people....” there was that word again “..know if there was a stranger in their midst?”
“You mean like you? Listen I don’t want to be rude but what is it....”
Sarah turned her head just in time to see the funny little man hurriedly walk away and disappear behind a sand dune. 

All the way home she had an uncomfortable, creepy, claustrophobic feeling. She wanted to tell Don all about it but when she got back the place was dead, Don was taking one of his afternoon naps. This, at least, would allow Sarah time to get the evening meal ready. 

Don came down at six and the meal was on the table ten minutes later. 
“Thank you darling” said Don, placing the longest kiss on Sarah’s lips. 

“You’re always energetic after a nap, I’ll give you that.”
“And hungry, what have we got love?”
They sat down to potatoes, carrots and minced beef – some might say a delicacy from this part of Scotland. 

She waited until they had finished before she mentioned the man. 
“Can you remember what he looked like?”
“Just a funny little man, nothing special” said Sarah, noticing how agitated Don was becoming.  
“I’m just saying he must have been special for you to mention it.”
“He gave me the creeps that’s all”. By now Sarah wished she hadn’t mentioned any of it.
“What did he say?” Now Don was starting look worried and that worried Sarah. 

I think it was at that point I realised that whatever this little nervous man meant to Don, it was something serious. Perhaps he owed him money. Now as I write this, I wish that is all it had been. 

The house was getting swallowed by the dusk, so Sarah decided to light one of the oil lamps.Don knocked the lamp from Sarah’s hand, letting it smash on to the floor. 
“No lights. He’s probably watching the place.”
“Who?” Sarah started to feel as if this was somehow all a little unreal.
“The man..the man...the one you were talking to.” 

She didn’t like Don behaving this way and at this moment he was far from being the man who made her feel safe. This Don was angry and scared and that made her feel the same way. What had she gotten herself into?
He whispered, “Sit here with me on the sofa. Just do it.”

So Sarah felt her way in the blackness of the room and sat beside her man.
“Don’t make a sound. Do as I do and sit still.”
“Or else?” Sarah wasn’t looking forward to the answer.
“Or else, he’ll kill you.” 

That brought the conversation to a stop. Actually it brought everything to a stop. She had a million questions to ask her American friend and yet at this point she couldn’t think of one. 

The two of them must have fallen asleep because she heard the old clock by the fire chime three. That was three A.M. and she needed to go to the bathroom. She wriggled around and freed herself from the weight of Don’s arm, placing it on the back of the sofa, then ever so gently she felt her way towards what she guessed was the hall. 

She had only unbuttoned her dress and sat on the toilet when she saw him standing above her. Sarah didn’t have time to scream before his gloved hand was over her mouth and the creepy little man had her trapped.
She couldn’t breathe and the last thing she thought of was that Don would take care of this little man and then she passed out. 

When she came to, she was lying on her side with her hands at her back and tied to a wooden pole. She might be able to get up and run but she certainly couldn’t go anywhere, not without the pole hitting a door or a window frame. When she looked across at Don, he was coming to and there was blood running through his hair and eyebrows, and dripping off the corner of his chin. 

“You know I would find you” said the strange little man. ”It was only a matter of time. Now had you tried Antarctica, well you might have stood a chance. But Europe?  Very naughty Mister Trench, very naughty indeed.” 

“Who’s Mister Trench?” came slipping out of Sarah’s mouth.
The creepy little man turns and faces Sarah. He picks up Don’s bloodied head by the hairs and talks straight into his face.
“This, young lady, is Steven Trench, he has probably told you he is someone else and you have believed him. You may have even thought you were going to marry him but you see, he had a job to do and he failed me. Luckily someone else also took the job on and succeeded, although he himself is now how you say – dead.”

Sarah asks the little man who he is but he feels that Sarah doesn’t qualify to know, not just yet. She should just be satisfied that he didn’t kill her when he had the chance.
“Little men” says Sarah under her breath. 

“Are what?” asks the man as he becomes more agitated. He drags Don, who also has his hands tied, on to the floor, rolls him on his back then sticks a boot in Don’s chest. 

“Are in charge” says the man proudly. 

The little man forces his heel further into Don’s ribs.
“I have to admit, it’s taken me some time to track you down Trench. I never thought of Scotland. Nice move but not good enough. You are a very stupid man - all you had to do was fire the gun, drop it and run. We would have taken care of the rest.” 
“Like you did with the other guy?” asks Don.

The man puts further pressure on Don’s chest.
“I didn’t ask you to speak. Did I ask him to speak young lady?”
Sarah shakes her head. 

“Has he told you who he is? Sorry I didn’t catch your name?”
“Sarah, my name’s Sarah”
“Well Sarah this is the man who ran, it’s as simple as that; we had Oswald on the sixth floor and your boyfriend here as insurance. He was to stand on the grassy knoll and ensure that Kennedy died. But he ran. Ain’t that right Trench? You ran, you’re a coward and now I’m here to clean things up. Loose ends and all that jazz, that’s what you are Sarah, a loose end - sorry”

I don’t remember where the bird came from, my mother wrote in her diary, but I’m almost sure it flew out of the chimney. They did that some times and the bird flew straight into the face of the funny little man. He bent over screaming and Don kicked the man’s legs away from under him. Without missing a beat, Don untied me and we were both out of that door and running down the valley with no looking back. 

My mother and Don moved as far and as fast from the West of Scotland as they could. They settled in the South Island of New Zealand and that was where I was born. My parents always had one eye on the door just in case they came again, but they never did.

My mother never returned for the funerals of her parents.

I know what you’re thinking - you’re thinking what a crock the story is, but I swear to you it’s true. Least, according to my mother and I never knew her to tell a lie. The name of Steve Trench was never mentioned  but once, when we went as a family to watch the movie “J.F.K.”, my dad said a strange thing, he said ‘I didn’t see me up there’. That was all he said and it stuck with me, I had no idea what he meant back then.

My dad died a few years ago and now I’m taking both their ashes back to the west coast of Scotland where they met and I’ll scatter them near the top of a hill called Corlic where my mother used to sit as a kid. 

The other thing about going to the cinema in New Zealand with my mother and father was the habit my father had of standing at the end of the movie and humming ‘God Save the Queen’ while my mother would watch. 

It always made me smile.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Sad Valley by Bobby Stevenson


Tommy was tired of waiting for his life to start. 

He had given it more than enough chances in his nineteen short years, thank you very much, and still there was nothing to get excited about. So Tommy thought he might as well begin his life without any help from anyone.

His current dream was to watch the World Cup football final at Wembley and if something was going to happen, it was going to happen there. After all that was London, it was 1966 and it was most certainly the place to be. 

Tommy had made a list of some of the people he would probably meet: Julie Christie, Mick Jagger, Jean Shrimpton and Terence Stamp for starters. He’d seen all of them in newspapers and all of them seemed to like walking down King’s Road, Chelsea on a Saturday.

There was just the small matter of earning enough money to get him south and the small matter of keeping a roof over his head when he got there. 

After his Grandfather had passed away, Tommy was given the choice of any piece in the old house. He settled on a small, beautifully carved, wooden box that once held his Grandfather’s pipe tobacco and a watercolour of the hills above the village, painted in his Grandfather’s own hand. These would be the two possession he would take with him to start his life.

To raise the cash, Tommy worked on Sid’s farm from sun-up until dusk, then at Bella’s cafe until nine at night, followed by the Climber’s bar until one in the morning. When he had finished, he would deposit all of his day’s earning in the beautifully carved tobacco box and collapse onto the bed. By the morning, he was like a new man and would be itching to start all over again.  

The day he left, was just like any other one, he awoke with the sun rise and decided to slip away before the rest of the family rose. It was easier that way. He lifted his rucksack and prepared to walk the twelve miles to the railway station.

The weather was kind and he arrived with plenty of time to spare. Tommy decided to spend a couple of his hard earned pennies on a cup of tea but anything as frivolous as a cake was not to be entertained.  He reached into his sack and discovered that his mother had packed several sandwiches in a brown bag. He smiled to himself. They were his favourites – all filled with cheese and onion, and as he lifted one out to take with his cup of tea, a note fell from the brown paper bag.
It said “You can’t start a life on an empty stomach. Love Mum”

There were enough sandwiches to feed a small army and would easily keep Tommy satisfied on the journey south. He couldn’t remember mentioning he was going to start his life to his Mum but that was mothers for you. They knew everything, sometimes before you even knew them yourself.

The journey was perfect as he sat eating his sandwiches and watching the well remembered hills getting swallowed by the distance. 

The train whisked through towns with black smoke and cities with grey people but the nearer he got to London, the more excited he became. He knew he was going to start a life and that made him happier than anything else he could imagine, even more than the inflatable Yogi Bear he had received on his fifth birthday.  

When he opened the train door he could actually smell London and it spoke of streets of dreams, and hopes and people that would become his friends. He felt as if he already belonged, and although there was no one there to meet him, it seemed as if everyone was there to meet everyone else. What a place to start a life and what a place to call home. 

He spent the first night in a small hotel near Victoria station. It was run by an old woman, of maybe forty years of age, according to Tommy. She insisted that he call her ‘Twiggy’. He’d never seen such an old woman wear such a small revealing dress. 

“We calls it a mini skirt in these parts, young man”  

Tommy thought it was a very fitting name for such a short skirt. He mentioned to the old woman that he was in London to get his life started and all Twiggy would say was “Fancy that”.

At Breakfast, Twiggy was wearing an even shorter skirt than the night before and there were several business men in the lounge who kept dropping knives and forks so that Twiggy would bend over.
Tommy asked some of the men if they knew where he could get a ticket for the final of the World Cup. All of them, without exception, started laughing. “Oh, that’s a good one”, “That’ll keep me chuckling all day. Thanks lad”, “Aye, thanks”. 

The door closed behind him asTommy stepped into the London street still hearing  the laughter from the Breakfast room. What was so funny about what he had asked? 

There was now two days until the Final; surely someone was willing to sell him a ticket? To be honest he didn’t really know where Wembley Stadium was. “Somewhere in the north of the city, or the west” was how his brother had described it. So Tommy started walking. He felt it was best to avoid buses and The Underground until he knew London better.  

Within an hour, he’d arrived at Camden Lock and this place was alive with music and flags and laughter. It appeared to be the centre of the world for celebrating England qualifying for the Final. There were parties in windows above him, people on roofs dancing. A conga line made up of a dozen or so very happy people came out of a bar, slithered its way across the road and into a bar opposite. All these people, thought Tommy, had already started their lives and this made him grow even more excited to start his.

As he neared Kentish Town, he noticed a small cafe on his left. The place smelt of coffee, looked as if it was in Morocco and had the mellow sounds of jazz drifting out through the door. This was heaven. 

When the waitress served him his coffee, he thought he had been given the wrong cup, “Excuse me, but I think someone may have already drunk from this”
There was only the smallest amount of coffee at the bottom of a very tiny cup. The waitress smiled and moved on. Tommy noticed people piling sugar on top of the coffee and so he did the same. He shouldn’t have swallowed all the contents at once; he realised that the moment he went dizzy,  

“You okay man? Like, are you cool?”
The question came from Herbert, who spoke with an American accent but really came from the east end of London.
“Here, try one of these” said Herbert “Just call me Herbie, all my friends do” and he handed Tommy a French cigarette.
“I don’t smoke” said Tommy. “This ain’t smoking, this is living” said an agreeable Herbie. So if it meant his life would start sooner rather than later, Tommy decided to smoke a cigarette. 

Before he knew it, Tommy was lying on the floor - apparently in a room above the cafe.
“We carried you up after you passed out” said the ever present Herbie. “I guess the cigarette was too much man and maybe the coffee, man. You got to take that coffee wisely, man. It can floor a buffalo” 

Tommy wasn’t sure if his life had now officially started, or he had just pulled into the side of the road to let the rest of the traffic go past.
“Where’s my bags?”
“What bags?”
“I didn’t see no bags, man. Too many people carrying too many bags in this life”  

Tommy shot woozily out of the room and down a very narrow staircase before slipping the last few steps into the bar and crashing on to the floor.
He could hear a girl in the corner say “That’s the second time that man has landed on the floor, what do they put in the coffee here?”

By the time Tommy got back up to the room, Herbie was dancing naked on the kitchen table to Highway 61 Revisited. Tommy’s bags had been stolen along with his money and his chance of ever seeing the World Cup final at Wembley.
Naked Herbie asked Tommy “What World Cup Final, man?”
So Tommy and Herbie became the best of pals. Tommy stayed in Herbie’s room but kept his clothes on at all times, unlike a lot of Herbie’s other friends; Herbie’s room seemed to be the place to get naked in Camden. 

England won the World Cup and that made Tommy happy. Herbie gave Tommy some of his shifts in the Cafe downstairs which let Tommy start to save some money again. 

One evening in October, after Tommy had just finished working twelve hours in the cafe, he heard a sobbing from the room, when he entered there was Herbie crying his heart out. 

Tommy put his arms around Herbie and held him. Maybe it was one of his family that had died but Tommy had never heard Herbie this upset before, even the day he’d cooked the breakfast naked.
“It’s this, man” and he showed Tommy the newspaper. “All those beautiful children”

In the Green Hollow Valley in Wales, a mountain of coal mining waste had slipped in the heavy rain and covered a primary school.“We got to go man. You and me, we got to help those people. Those children” and Tommy sat beside Herbie and they both sobbed into each other’s arms. 

Tommy had saved enough money to get him and Herbie as far as Merthyr Tydfil and then they would have to walk the rest. It was dark by the time they reached the village, but there were lights everywhere, all the way up the mountainside. No matter how tired they felt they got to work right away, digging the slurry that covered the school and the little ones. 

Sometimes you give up on the world, believing that everything is greed and bad but now and again you can see the best of people even in the worst of situations. 

At least several hundred children, teachers and parents were missing. The slurry had slipped across the school and into the houses opposite. Tommy was digging between the houses and the school and as he looked up he saw Herbie carrying a child with a cover over the body. Herbie looked at Tommy and his eyes spoke of a million things he had seen that evening. 

Important people came and went; The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh and The Prime Minster but Tommy and Herbie never once wavered from the digging. A couple of times Herbie fell asleep but Tommy would notice and waken him up again. 

This is not to say that the boys were heroes, everyone was a hero that weekend. Everyone pushed themselves beyond what they thought they were capable of, to release the little bodies. Herbie was told to take a break and he reluctantly did so. He went over to Tommy and shared a French cigarette and Tommy smoked it with him. 

“I don’t think I can cry anymore” said Herbie.  

A bearded man stopped and asked if he could possibly have a cigarette and Herbie invited him to sit. The man told them that his child had been ill that day and had stayed at home with his wife. His other child had gone to school and he had survived but the slurry had taken his home with his two darlings.
“How does that happen?” he asked them, how indeed.

It had been a long time since any child, or anyone for that matter, had been brought out alive and although Herbie and Tommy believed they could hear shouts for help, it was only the tiredness calling.
By the following morning 120 bodies had been recovered but many loved ones were still waiting to be found and brought home. 

There are times in your life when you know that something you have taken part in or witnessed will change your soul. Tommy knew it. It didn’t make him bitter, it just made him realise that we are each other’s keepers and we are all in this together. Good and bad times.

On the Monday morning Herbie, dirty and exhausted, felt it was time they returned to the cafe.
“Who’s gonna make the coffee, man, eh?”

Tommy tiredly agreed and they started off hitch-hiking back towards Merthyr. 
There were so many cars, ambulances and trucks transporting everything back and forth that getting a lift wasn’t so easy.  Tommy decided the best thing to do was split up and meet back at the railway station.
“I’ll have a Frenchie cigarette waiting on you man” was the last he heard of Herbie. 

Tommy sat at the station for several hours before he felt that something was wrong. He tried the Merthyr Tydfil police station to see if maybe Herbie had hitched naked and been arrested. It was just a thought to cheer himself up. The policeman informed him that they were too busy and that all missing reports were being centralised in Cardiff. He would be better going there. 

It was Tuesday before he found Herbie’s body lying in the morgue. It seemed one of the trucks taking slurry from the school hadn’t seen him in the lashing rain. He had been hit and died instantly.
Tommy got back to the room above the cafe on the Thursday and only then did he weep. He wept for the children and for the parents and for his friend, Herbie. 

And that is when he realised that you don’t ever wait to start your life. It begins the very first day you are born. Tommy was living when he was at home, he was alive when he was in the room above the cafe and he was most certainly living when he was with his best friend Herbie. Tommy had been alive all his life, he just hadn’t realised it. 

So Tommy did something he’d never done before, he took off all of his clothes in Herbie’s room and stood naked.
“This is for you, my pal”
And somewhere out there, he was sure he could hear Herbie laughing.