Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A Million Other Things by Bobby Stevenson





He sat at the bar cradling his beer and wondering why the jukebox had more friends than he did.

If he was really being honest with himself, he was never, what you’d call, a popular guy; an acquaintance here or a guy you nodded to there, was probably the best way to describe his socialising strengths.

People respected him, he didn’t doubt that fact, but he couldn’t see respect bringing that many to his funeral, not that he planned on dying, no sir, not for a very long time, but still the hurt did go deep.


When did all this other craziness start? 
He had been going over that thought again and again until he was beginning to drive himself crazy. Had there been signs sitting right out there in plain sight with no one even seeing them?


He could feel through the beer glass it all starting again, the vibrations; small waves on top of the beer causing it to foam up, as if a half mile long train full of cargo was passing just outside the bar. But there wasn’t a rail track for miles and the road only saw one or two cars an hour, if that.


So he held the glass tight. 

“Jeez, Jethro are you okay? You’re gripping that beer like your life depended on it.” 

Jethro loosened his grip and smiled back at the barman.

“Guess you’re right Dan. Just thinking, that’s all.”


He left a tip on the counter, threw his jacket over his shoulder and walked out into the evening heat. It was growing dark as he drove onto his driveway where he failed to notice the flickering street light swinging above him. When Jethro entered the house, all the commotion stopped.


He walked down the hallway just as the telephone started ringing but something told him it was a cold call from an east coast building company, so he just plain ignored it. The little thoughts helped him at times. Like last Easter when he was driving through that blind junction on Madison Street and something told him to press the brake. He had no idea why he stopped but just then some old Chevy came blasting out of Jefferson Lane and it would have split Jethro’s car in two if had he driven straight on.

Now Jethro was never a religious creature you understand, but he always had a hankering that there was 
something else out there, some truth to the whole universe that kept folks in check.But all these things that were happening to him were unsettling, especially since he didn't  go out looking for them. “Just getting by” was his way in life and had anyone bothered to be his friend, well they would have known that too.


These days he had trouble sleeping and not just with the usual bad thoughts that crawled around in most men’s minds. Things happened to him in the night, strange things, like at 1am every morning the telephone would ring and when he answered it, no one would be there. Right after he put the ‘phone down , the smoke detector, that lay on the floor, would start beeping until he picked it up. The thing didn't have any power for crying out loud.

Now don’t get him wrong, these weren't ghosts or any kind of haunting. Jethro didn’t believe in such things. No, if someone worked that hard at life ( and Jethro felt everyone should  get an award for just getting through a single day) then they weren’t going to hang around afterwards, not when they’d just been promoted - so ghosts were definitely out of the question.


One night he had this thought about an airport and so he switched on his computer. He looked at the flight arrivals and noticed that one of them from South America was delayed and he knew right there and then that the flight was never going to land. Not ever. Some technical fault over Brazil had been the reason for the crash.

On Saturday nights if he didn't go down to the bar, he’d sit and watch the lottery show on the television. Without thinking he’d say a number out loud  and what do you know? That number would be chosen. If he tried to concentrate on it, it never happened. 


So one Saturday towards the end of the month, when his funds were getting real low, he put on a lottery ticket - he chose only four of the numbers he could hear in his head - well he didn’t want to peak too early, you know how it is? 

He won a couple of hundred, just enough to pay one or two bills and get by until his next pay day. At least that was the plan, but by Wednesday he was already thinking about the next lottery draw. So even although he still had money in the house, he put on five winning numbers and this time it was several hundred thousand he won. He called the lottery people direct so that no one local would find out.


He drove into the big city to pick up the money but somewhere at the back of his mind he was wishing that he had got the numbers wrong. Jethro decided that the money wasn’t his to keep, it had only been an experiment after all, a successful one nonetheless, but he’d proved a point.


He got the bank clerk to put the cash into two bags – half the amount in each – and decided the first place to start was the Church half way along Main Street.


A pleasant middle-aged woman let him in. 

“I’ll just tell the Reverend you're here. Have a seat please. Can I get you something to drink? Coffee? Tea?”


“Coffee is good.” Jethro was slightly nervous.

The woman smiled and left Jethro with the thought that this was probably the Reverend's wife. The room was in the process of being dragged from one century to another. There was garish pink flock wallpaper in a room of furniture that spoke of a more modern taste.


So two things startled Jethro that afternoon, the woman brought a large pot of coffee, two cups and a plate of cakes. She placed them on the table and sat beside him.

“So how can I help you?”

“I’d rather wait for the Reverend, if it’s all the same.”

“I’m she, the Reverend.”

“But you said....”

“That I’d tell the Reverend you were here? I was just trying to stop you running.”

“A lot do that?” asked Jethro.

“Enough.”   


So they talked, in fact they talked for a good two hours and Jethro told Maureen, the Reverend’s name, all about the strange things that were happening to him.

“You’re not stressed in anyway?” she asked.


He wasn’t and the question annoyed him. How could she dismiss his strangeness, yet spend her life promoting a strangeness of her own. He was sure his experiences were nearer to religion than she was willing to accept.

He left her the money but she needed convincing that he wasn’t a dealer, or a robber or insane. This he did.


“It could be lots of things causing this” said Maureen. “It could be weather conditions or it could be something electrical in you. It might even be God working in a mysterious way as he’s want to do. It could be a million other things as well.”


And  that was really all she had to say on the subject. Except when Jethro mentioned that she might use some of the money to fix the room up. She said the money would be put to good use as the flock wallpaper was expensive and so she was decorating real slowly. She couldn’t wait to get rid of all that modern furniture. That was the second thing that surprised him that day, she was transforming the room back the way. His power, whatever it was, wasn’t infallible. 


He walked along University Street with the second bag of cash but was hesitant about who he should talk to. He read off the different faculties, some he dismissed immediately, some he played with in his head for a while. In the end it came down to Philosophy, Physics or Mathematics and as the first department that he approached was Mathematics, he settled on them.

He told the receptionist that he wanted to make a donation and within five minutes he had been whisked into the Dean’s office and another cup of coffee pushed in front of his face. He explained that although he was happy to donate to the faculty, he wanted to talk to someone about a problem he had.


As the Dean removed the bag and the cash and placed it in a safe, he called in his secretary to contact whomever Jethro wanted to talk to. It made Jethro smile that in the university no one was bothered if he was a robber or a dealer.


In the end he was given time with a Nobel Prize winning professor who seemed a kindly man and who asked Jethro straight away how he could help him.

When Jethro had told him of the flickering and the vibrations and the lottery numbers, he seemed bemused.

“So you think that you have some extraordinary powers, am I correct?”


And Jethro had to agree that he’d got the problem down in one. The kindly man suggested that Jethro take some notes as the professor tended to ramble on and it might be a bit difficult for him to follow. So Jethro took a pad from the professor’s desk and started writing. Words like ‘Chaos Theory’ kept coming up again and again.


“So if I get this" said Jethro "and I’m still not sure that I have, you are saying Prof, that in the universe, no matter how sure that something is meant to happen or is due to happen, it might not happen because of Chaos Theory? And that means that anything could happen?”

“Exactly my boy, wonderfully put.”

“So I’m a chaotic interruption in an otherwise ordered universe?”

“Just so”

“Doesn’t that make me a freak?”

“Never young man. Now, I really must dash.”


Jethro drove home after spending a large amount of money on advice that he could have got off of a television talk show, but he felt that they had both meant well.

As he approached his house, several of the street lights began to flicker and swing and as he said out loud “this problem isn’t getting any better”. 


He stayed in all weekend and drank a few beers and this seemed to keep the thoughts at bay for a while - it even managed to stop the lights flickering in the house.

By the Tuesday he took a walk into town and as he rounded the corner he literally bumped into a neighbour, Tomas Saltz.

“I’m sorry to hear about your wife's passing” he said sympathetically to Tomas.

“How did you know? I have only come from the hospital, she died this afternoon. Who told you?”

Jethro left the poor man crying in the street as he ran off into Center City. The rules had changed again, this chaos, whatever it was, had surprised him once again.


So Jethro sat in the bar with his hands clasped around a glass of beer and purposely ignoring the vibrations on top of his drink. Danny the barman gave him his usual look.

“You alright, Jethro?”

“Sure Danny.”


Danny went back to cleaning the glasses.

“Danny?”

“Yup?”

“Can I tell you something?”

“Shoot.”

And Jethro told Danny about all the strange things that had been happening to him and how it might be one of a million other things, but then again he might just be a freak.


Danny assured Jethro that there was no such thing as a freak and that we all fitted into the universe in our own way. He also hoped that Jethro didn’t think Danny was a hippy or anything, but  if Jethro was made the way the universe wanted him to be, then that was all there was to it.


Jethro said he was sorry that he didn’t have any money to give him right there and then, but come Saturday he could give Danny as much as he wanted.


Danny said he wasn’t interested in Jethro’s money. Wasn’t he a friend and wasn’t that what friends did for one another? Friends listened and they helped each other, they cared.

Danny handed Jethro a fresh beer. “On the house pal”


And then they shook hands and that was when Jethro knew everything was going to be alright. In an instance, he saw Danny in the years ahead with a wife, kids and in a poor but happy life. He also saw a photo with
 Jethro as a godparent holding one of Danny’s children.


And he knew things were going to be alright for him too. So what if he was the exception, so what if he didn’t have too many friends? He had one and that was enough for him, and he had a gift that not too many people had and he knew that he had to use it for better things than lottery wins. 


After all, this was a big, big universe and everything and anything was possible.





Thursday, 25 August 2011

Light At The End Of The Day by Bobby Stevenson




His nostrils filled with the November smoke from a thousand chimneys as he turned down into Byres Road. 

This being the second Wednesday in the month meant it was his turn to open up and get the heating on; it wasn’t too much to ask, but it still annoyed him. Here he was, a student at the university, the first in the family as far back as anyone could remember, but still he was expected to muck in with the ‘business’ as his father called it, or a ‘run down Glasgow cinema’ as Sandy described it to his fellow students. 

The building had started off as a glorified hut in the early 1900s holding no more than about sixteen people, although Sandy’s grandfather tended to squeeze in, with a shove, another ten on a Saturday night. At a couple of pennies a head to show some old silent fare, it was a nice way of making money. A very nice way as it turned out, and his grandfather tried to find ways to make it even nicer. 

When he heard that Roy Rogers and Trigger were in town he marched down to the Central Station with a bribe, if Roy and his horse would attend a showing of their movie at his cinema then he’d feed then fish and chips for a week. His grandfather pestered Roy’s people so much that they threw him out of the railway station without Roy ever knowing of the offer. The same thing happened with Laurel and Hardy and despite everything, the cinema still made money; tons of it. 

It was because of the Majestic cinema – a cinema by the way which was tidy, comfortable and well maintained, that the family had found the money to allow Sandy to go to university to read English in the first place. It had also bought the families plush villas in the west of the city. So to call it ‘run down’ said more about Sandy than a plain truth about the building. 

Sandy was twenty-three and a bit older than the rest of the student body in the English department. The others tended to come from families of bankers, shipbuilding and industry. Yet, despite this lucky start to their lives, not one of them could hold a candle to Sandy’s genius; a word he used as frequently as ‘run down’.

Sandy’s hands were freezing as he struggled to find the keys in his long overcoat. Once inside the cinema he was always hit in the face by the redness of the paint. No matter how many second Wednesdays he opened that door, the harshness of the decor always came as a surprise. As he told his classmates that very morning, the whole building was like a Turkish bordello and smelt worse. This had brought a pleasing chuckle from his student friends.  

Mary was the Majestic’s ‘girl Friday’ and she loved the job. It involved selling tickets, orange juice and tubs of ice cream in the foyer and the ability to walk backwards down the aisles. The family was a pleasure to work for and after all they paid her extremely well. 

Three things kept her there however, the first was that she really loved the movies, so in between her duties she could slide into a seat and get lost in the latest releases; American or British she didn’t care as long as there was a chance to laugh and moment to shed a tear.

The other two things  were the twins, Sandy and Donald. She had been in love with both of them for a very long time. Despite their similar looks they were very different people except in one respect, they both manipulated people to get what they wanted.

Sandy was the clever one; the one that everyone knew was going to go places. Donald was the physical son; the one who fought Sandy’s battles and would walk a thousand miles to protect his brother. Some people feared National Service but Donald graciously consumed everything the army threw at him. 

There was a time when Mary couldn’t wait for the second Wednesday in the month as it meant she and Sandy could be alone, but  he had changed. Ever since he had started at the university, he had become someone else. He was still a kind person but now he liked to inform you of that fact.

Sandy’s kindness grated with Mary, to be done a good deed by someone and then to be told how kind it was  - well, it somehow destroyed the act. People who told you they were kindness itself were unaware that they were the most selfish of individuals. If you didn’t accept their gifts, advice, charity then you automatically caused them hurt – there was the blackmail, there was the aggression, this was Sandy. 

Donald, on the other hand enjoyed life and living and although he was in the army, he would still refer to himself as a loner but Mary considered this just another way to manipulate people. Loners controlled situations by not being there, by removing themselves from the activity - they demanded to be noticed by their absence. 

Yet, despite everything, they were all the best of friends and she did enjoy their company. Donald was on leave from Germany and was due to arrive that evening.As she walked out from the cold night and through the doors into the ticket booth, the place was beginning to warm up. It meant Sandy was down in the cellar stacking coal for the boiler. 

The cinema was open six days a week and everyone rested on the Sabbath. This was a day for a meal with Sandy and his family which Mary was always invited to, as she no longer had anyone living. 

Every second Wednesday in the month, Nessie and Ian McLeod, the boys’ parents would take the day off for a trip away. Sometimes it was Loch Lomond, or Edinburgh for the shops, or sometimes they would just sit in the back garden and read. Those were the days when Sandy and Mary ran the cinema and as a Wednesday was half-price day for the pensioners, it tended to be busy with those who just came in for some company or to keep out of the cold. 

Today they were showing a couple of British gangster movies. Some of the older ones loved them, especially the women pensioners who seemed to like their baddies, really bad -  even if it meant they had to hide behind the popcorn from time to time. It was the coming attractions that also excited Mary, and one of those that was arriving any day now was Love Me Tender with Elvis Presley and Mary couldn’t wait. 

She could hear Sandy singing in the basement, in the last few months it was always the same song, one she had bought him earlier in the year – ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’. At least Ian, Sandy’s dad, allowed that one to be played on the family gramophone, unlike ‘Rock Around the Clock’ by Bill Haley.
“What a load of rubbish. Whatever next? Rock around the clock indeed.” was Mister McLeod’s take on it. 

She took two bottles of cola from the foyer fridge and went down to the basement. There he was, the English student, shovelling coal into the furnace and as she stood staring at him for a moment, he finished off his song. It was at times like these she was sure it was Sandy she loved. 

Mary was just about to interrupt Sandy when there was a call from upstairs.
“Are you two down there?”
It was Donald and he was early. With his usual enthusiasm, he bounded down the stairs two at a time.
“What’s all this then, you two up to no good?” 

Sandy dropped his shovel and embraced his brother who had spent three more minutes in the world than him.
"Let me give you a hand little brother, that way the three of us can get a drink sooner.” 

The final movie was ‘The Good Die Young’ with Laurence Harvey and then the old and the wrinkled were ushered out quickly. There was a young couple kissing in one of the corners but when they looked up and saw Mary, Sandy and Donald all staring back at them, it killed off their ardour and they exited into the cold night with their lips still stuck together. 

Once the theatre was checked for stragglers - as there had been folks locked in over night before - Sandy switched off the heating and shut the door.
“Where to, guys and lassie?” asked the ever energetic Donald.
Sandy wasn’t happy, “I’ll see you at the weekend brother and anyway I’ve got studies. I was going to walk Mary home, you see I’m kind that way”

“I’m only here for the night, I’m going on to a pal's wedding in the morning” said a disappointed Donald. 

"What about a quick drink at the Locarno?” asked Mary.
“Great idea” said Donald, “come on brother, what is it Granddad calls the movies?” 
“Light at the end of the day” answered Sandy. Mary liked that expression.
“And that’s what we need now. Some light. One swift one in the Locarno then you can get back to your nonsense.”

The brothers didn’t say much as they sauntered up towards Charing Cross. The doorman at the Locarno wasn’t really up for letting them in until he spotted Donald and then the three of them were waved on. 

The Locarno was half empty, or half full depending on your idea of a Wednesday night out. It was mainly full of  Italians who had closed their businesses for a half day, meaning they could stay open all day Saturday.
The Joe Loss Orchestra was the band for the evening but was clearly failing to excite the rich merchants of Glasgow. 

Over in one corner sat a small man with greasy black hair. When anyone passed his table, there were calls of ‘Good evening Giuseppe’, ‘How are you Giuseppe’ or something in Italian that Donald didn’t understand but it annoyed him anyway. This Giuseppe character seemed to be staring at Mary but she had failed to notice the man since she was so caught up in a joke with Sandy.   

It didn’t seem to matter what Donald did, he felt that he was never good enough for Mary. Oh he loved her alright, loved her big time, but he just couldn’t get her to notice. Since he couldn’t compete with his twin, he would take himself off somewhere alone, hoping that just once Mary would follow but she never did. Maybe Mary thought he was trouble. 

Giuseppe was a short man, and with short men come big grievances. The little Italian managed to bump his way all across the dance floor, and given the sparseness of the crowd it was actually very good going. He bumped into Donald which was one bump too many. It would be wonderful in this life if we knew we were about to bump once too often, but that’s a luxury we never receive. 

All six feet of Donald followed the little man into the toilet.
“Why are you staring at my friend?” asked Donald.
“Who is your-a friend?”
“The good looking girl with my brother.”
“Then maybe it’s-a your-a brother you should be having this argument with.” 

As Donald pushed Giuseppe, he knew he was probably right in what he had said but he kept pushing none the less. The little Italian backed away until there was nowhere else to go.
“Look-a I don’t want-a trouble.” Said in a thick Glasgow-Italian accent.
“So you don’t want-a trouble?” mimicked Donald.
“Please, leave me alone-a. I begga you."

All he meant to do was give him one more shove, but the floor beneath Giuseppe was wet and the little man hit his head on the edge of the sink on the way down. 

Donald felt like running but instead he stayed and told the police everything - except that he let them think that Giuseppe Aldo had started the argument. Giuseppe Aldo, husband and father to six daughters,died in hospital three days later. 

One little push, that was all, one little push that changed everything. This was 1955 and manslaughter was only admissible if it was in self-defence. The judge felt that there was reasonable doubt with regard to Donald’s story and the jury thought so too. As he had entered the toilet several witnesses reported seeing Donald in an angry mood and visibly drunk.

The Aldo mob cheered just as strongly as the McLeod clan wept when the death sentence was passed. 

Donald was hanged on July 20th, 1955, exactly a week after Ruth Ellis, the last woman in Britain to be hanged.The Majestic was sold off to some big time corporation and Donald’s parents both died of reportedly broken hearts within a few weeks of one another.

Mary was the last person to talk to Donald before he was hanged. It had been at his own request.
“Stop crying Mary, please.” Then he whispered something into her ear before kissing her goodbye.

That something is what went through her head as she stepped on to a train at Glasgow Central and left her city forever.

“There will be light at the end of the day my darling, there will be light at the end of the day."

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Empire Cafe by Bobby Stevenson




As a haven for the unloved, the eccentric and the lost,  the Empire Cafe was perfectly situated in a little corner of Soho. It also prided itself as a home for those on their way up and a passing place for those on the way down. 

It had been known over the years by several different names, some of which you most definitely would have read about, but its charm was in the fact that it had served coffee, and later tea, from the same premises for over three hundred years. There is a signature carved into the wood that suggests Benjamin Franklin had happily visited the place and it is known that Samuel Pepys mentioned the Cafe in his diaries.


If you’ve ever been to London and drifted around that part of town then I know you must have passed it. Perhaps you drank in it and were unaware of where you were. Perhaps you hadn't see the Cafe because you were looking up at some other building or maybe you had just been checking your appearance in the reflection of the Cafe’s window; but the place is there, I promise you.

One sunny afternoon, just after I returned home from a bad war in North Africa, I walked through its doors and never really left. I sometimes feel the place had been waiting on me. 

It was run by Mister Chestnut and he was never referred to as Andrew Chestnut, or even Andy. He was just Mister Chestnut, plain and simple, and when he and his Father both ran the place, then he was simply known as Junior. 

In the mid 1700s, it was rumoured that the Hellfire Club met in secret at the coffee shop and that one night it was lost on the turn of a card. One of Mister Chestnut’s ancestors was asked to hold on to the property until the rightful owner came to claim it. He never did, and there was talk that the owner had been killed in a duel. So through this one act of God, the Chestnuts became part of the Soho establishment. 

I was taken on in 1946 as chief dishwasher and toilet cleaner and I loved it, every grimy second of it. Those who used the place were a who’s who of all the movers and shakers of their day. In the late evening, when we closed up shop and over a hot cup of Java, my employer would tell me stories of the past, those he had witnessed and those he had been told about by his Father and his Grandfather; all the wonderfulness that had been passed down through the family.

Regardless of claims by other establishments and by other people, Grandfather Chestnut swore that he had watched Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels spend most of their days in the corner table furthest from the door, writing the Communist Manifesto.
“Always with the one coffee between them” his Grandfather had told him, “one coffee for the whole day”, he added, then he would let out an eruption of a laugh. 

Mister Chestnut told me of  the “saddest man who ever walked through those doors”.
“Must have been February, yes it was, it was February..”
“What year?” I asked him.
“Let me think. 1895, as sure as eggs is eggs, ‘cause it was just after my fourteenth birthday. In he came, all broken. He sat down over there and I asked him if he wanted something to drink. ’Hemlock, dear boy, hemlock' . I asked my Father for hemlock and he clipped me around the ear. ’Don’t be so bleeding stupid’ said my Father, ‘You must have misheard him.’ So I walked back towards the table when I spotted that he was sitting with a young man, older than me but younger than him and get this, they were holding hands. The young man read from a card that the older man has passed to him ’For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite – Good God Oscar, my father can’t even spell. The ignorant beast.’

“I only saw the older man once again when he came in a few weeks later. He had aged so much in that short time, and as he sat down all the rest of the people in the cafe got up and left. Apparently he went to prison  not long afterwards."

 "But there was a more curious one than that” said Mister Chestnut, “just let me put on another pot of coffee as I think you may need it.”
When the coffee had been brewed and we were both sitting comfortably once more, the storyteller continued. 

“He was a little man, spoke with a German accent. Now I know what you are thinking young man, you are saying to yourself that the description would fit many people. And you would be correct to make that assumption, except I remember him for something he said. He shouted at me that I was to bring him a coffee and that is what I did. As I approached the table I could hear him laughing, so I smiled back at him. A happy customer is a returning customer and I was just about to tell him to recommend us to all his friends when I saw what he was so happy about, on a newspaper sitting on his table were the headlines ‘Over fifteen hundred sank to death with giant White Star steamer Titanic’. “Bloody rich Jews” he said, “best place for them”

“To say I was shocked, disgusted even, that a man like this could say such evil things about other human beings. I was about to ask him to leave when a second man came in, his brother Alois, I had seen him in the cafe before. If I remember correctly, he and his brother Adolf had lived in Liverpool for a while to avoid conscription to the Austrian Army.”
“Not Adolf Hitler?”I asked.
“The very same.” Came his reply. 


Mister Chestnut kept me on for most of ’46 and ’47 washing and cleaning until one day he took me into his office. I had been there for two years and this was my first visit to the inner sanctum. It smelt of liquorice and tobacco and looked as if it was decorated for a fortune teller rather than a cafe manager. 

“I want to promote you, my boy. Enrique is old and leaving at the end of the month and I will need a waiter. Of course it will mean more money for you and also the Olympics will be here soon. I will need a much younger man to deal with all our visitors and friends."


So that was that, I had a few more shillings in my pockets and no more cleaning of the toilets. I handed over my brushes to the new boy, donned my waiter’s apron and started whistling.


He was correct, was Mister Chestnut, the year of the Olympics was the busiest I could remember.We worked every day from sunrise to almost sunrise the following day. Naps had to be taken, when and where we could find the time. There was a little store room out the back where I managed to take forty winks now and again. 

I remember one night I had just splashed water on my face to waken me up when this very distinguished gentleman entered with a young blond girl in tow. The two of them asked for the quietest table, which was always the one at the back next to the toilets. Now I tell you this dear friends, I will go to my grave believing that it was the Queen’s husband whom I served that night and the blond woman was not his wife. This is not the place to tell such a story since he is not able to defend himself but I promise you - if it was not Philip Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh then I will eat my hat. I looked over at Mister Chestnut and I know he recognised the man because he put his finger to his lips to warn me to say nothing.

On Christmas Eve 1950 I asked Maria, the most beautiful girl who worked in the restaurant next door, to marry me. She accepted and we got married in the New Year holding the reception at the Empire Cafe. We invited all the regulars. It was a night I shall never forget.

One day in 1951, Mister Chestnut took me into his office for only the second time and told me that it was all mine. “The time has come - you have a family to consider” he said “I will be seventy this year and enough is enough.” There was no son to pass his business on to, "God's will", he would say. So he considered me the nearest thing he had to a son and the Cafe was to be my inheritance. He slapped the keys in the palm of my hand, put on his big overcoat and never crossed the threshold again. 

My neighbours were actors, jazz musicians and more recently Chinese. After Limehouse had been bombed in the war, the Chinese had begun to move into Gerard Street and the areas surrounding it. This brought with them, the Chinese gangsters - as if there weren’t enough British ones in Soho. 

Talking of gangsters, the first time I saw one of the Kray brothers he was sitting having a coffee, minding his own business when the coppers  rushed in and dragged him out of my cafe. He had apparently deserted from national service in the army for the fourth time.
 
What I also remember about the Fifties was the music. Now there are some who will tell you that the birth of British Rock and Roll started in the 2I’s coffee bar in Old Compton Street, but I say it was at the Empire Cafe. On Saturday nights we would have Tommy Steele, Wee Willie Harris, Cliff Richard and Hank Marvin. The Cafe was always crowded at weekends, so much so that some of those that couldn’t get in, moved to the 2I’s, which was a bigger venue. Perhaps that is why they claim to be the birthplace but I know the truth, we were first.


As for the gangs, the Krays had always stayed up east and the Richardsons to the south of the river. One night the Kray twins came in and took a table from a couple who were already sitting at it. The boyfriend got up to challenge them and Reggie Kray slapped the boy and threw him and his girlfriend through the door. I was about to say something  when Ronnie Kray told me that if I knew what was good for me, I would get them coffees and leave them alone. 
I learned that night, if you wanted to stay in business in Soho then you had to see nothing and say even less.

Luckily my wife, Maria, didn’t see any of this as she was now at home looking after our two sons, James and Robert. I have a photo on the Cafe wall of  James with Bobby Moore when he and his wife came to the Cafe just before he flew to Mexico for the World Cup. 

As the Sixties turned into the Seventies, Robert began to take on more of the responsibility for running the cafe. James had decided to work in computers and had joined an IT company over in Putney. He and his wife moved into a flat in Chelsea and very rarely ventured into the West End.

In 1976 I became a grandfather for the very first time and Maria suggested that I took more of a back seat in the business. We stayed in Dulwich for a while but I still insisted on visiting the Cafe three or four times a week.
In 1980 we moved to Deal by the sea; it was  Maria’s idea and was probably helped by Robert who may have felt that I was interfering too much in his business.


There are so many stories about the Empire Cafe that I want to tell you. Ones concerning prime ministers and princesses, rich men and poor women,  writers and painters, musicians and kings. All of them true and all of them from the Empire Cafe. 

I will, one day, I promise.
  
I am well into my eighties now and the Cafe is run by Robert's own daughters and sons. It’s been years since I last laid eyes on the place, but if you happen to be passing then why don’t you pop in for a coffee and ask them for a story? 
 
Tell them I sent you.

Monday, 8 August 2011

No Second Chance by Bobby Stevenson



I guess you never really know when your own will start but in hindsight I know his began on Friday February the 11th at 10.23pm.
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Ronnie was 19 and clever. He had worked hard to get to college and study a subject he loved - chemistry. Now I know what some of you may be thinking but that was what set Ronnie’s pulse racing. It was the movement of electrons and the swish of the molecules that set his heart on fire; none of us are the same, we just do what we do.  
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The university was one of the old Scottish traditional types situated on a hill and established five hundred long years before. Going here had made his family proud. Not only was their son going to a good university, but he was going to be a chemist.
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Ronnie was one of those lucky ones, always in the top percentile of a class, happy, smiling and always popular. It’s a gift that not many of us taste.
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It was called Higher Ordinary, the class. It was second year for those that had survived the trench warfare of the year before. In their first year lectures were mobbed and seats were filled, five hundred in the morning and another five hundred in the afternoon. This was a long time ago when science was popular and before everyone wanted to be on television. Now in the second year things were quieter and although there were still several hundred students, everyone knew everyone else.
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The week always finished with a Friday afternoon of laboratory work which some found exciting and just as many thought of as a chore. Ronnie loved this class, it meant he was either going home to the South West to see his family, or he was staying at college to enjoy a weekend of work and socialising.
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Although Saint Valentine’s day was on the following Monday, the college were holding a dance in the Men’s union on the night of Saturday the 12th. Ronnie was determined he was going to go to that, it was a party and half the chemistry class would be there.
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The Chemistry mob had their own social club called the Alchemists. It was fun in the later years, but for the new starts with their wide eyes and innocence it was a club to be looked down upon and derided. A behaviour that was perpetuated by those who been spurned in their initial year. They took their revenge from the dizzy heights of second and third years.
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Many of the Alchemist Society were going to the dance and so it seemed stupid for young Ronnie not to go. He wore the only real suit he had, one he would hope to use for interviews when his course was over. He really should have been studying that weekend but he was very clever and fast in the take up and he would get by.He always did.
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Although he was popular, he was always a boy that liked his own independence, so he never arranged to meet anyone there – the chances are, he always did. He would travel to the dances on his own and depending on his luck, he would either walk home alone or with a friend.
9,231
He got ready for the dance early that Saturday night as he’d stayed in the evening before to save money, meaning he could enjoy himself without the usual guilt. It was still light when he headed over by the Cross and into University Avenue and as was always the way of things, he met a couple of the guys from class, me included.
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Eight pm and we entered the bar at the Men’s union. In those days the University had a ‘men only’ bar and a ‘men only’ union. The girls had their own union but apart from certain rooms, theirs tended to be mixed.  
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Nine pm and we all headed upstairs to the dance hall (that’s what we called it  back then) and the place was beginning to get busy with the St. Valentine’s crowd.
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Ten pm and Ronnie decided he wanted to get back and do some work, we had a large exam coming up the following Tuesday. We said goodbye and Ronnie walked up over University Avenue.
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As he was crossing the road, he was bumped by a man coming the other way.
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The man had broken into a butcher’s shop a little way up the street and stolen a knife.
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He stabbed the first person he met, this happened to be Ronnie.
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No one noticed Ronnie lying on the street at first. He just looked like another drunk, in a city of drunks.
540
When the passerby saw the amount of blood coming from under Ronnie’s arm, he ran to the nearest telephone and called an ambulance.
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A woman came over and held his head. She noted that all he did was moan.
240
Ronnie’s breathing became more erratic.
120
The ambulance arrived and the paramedics checked for life signs. Ronnie’s pulse was weakening.
60
Ronnie stopped breathing.
0

There are 86,400 seconds in a day.
This is a true story.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Rockets by Bobby Stevenson



My name is Annie and when I was nine I didn’t have too many friends except my Grandmother who always wanted to be an astronaut. 

She said that my Mother had come along and put an end to that dream, thank you very much for asking - but I hadn’t asked.

I didn’t quite understand how or why my Mother had stopped her being an astronaut but my Grandmother was not one to talk crazy like, so I went along with her story. It had something to do with my Granddad turning my Grandmother’s head with all that kissing nonsense and such like and her being in the family way, thank you very much. 

It didn’t stop me and her always talking about being astronauts and we would look at the maps of the sky and choose which of the planets we would visit first. My Grandmother was going to Jupiter and I was very definitely a Saturn girl.

When I was nine I used to think that my Grandmother smelt a bit funny which I thought was because she was in training and eating special astronaut food. 

One evening, when I was safely sitting on her knee and after she had put a large log on the fire, she told me how she had always dreamed of going to the stars. 
“One November afternoon my parents, your great Grandparents Annie, took my brother and me to see a film at a little tea room down Duchess Street, mind you that street’s all gone now, got bombed in the war and they had to pull the whole lot down.

“By day it sold the most wonderful cakes in the world but in the evening, well then it became a wonderland. Mister Guitolli would hang a white sheet on the wall and then show films from a projector which he turned by hand. He never charged anyone a farthing but at the interval Mrs Guitolli would sell some of that day’s stale cakes for a half penny each. 

“Sometimes, if he had had a hard day, he would turn the projector very slowly and every one would stamp their feet to get him to speed up. Sometimes he would just fall asleep and the film would stop, then smoke would start rising from the projector and people would run out of the cake shop, screaming. They knew it wasn’t a real fire but to us it was the only chance we ever got to scream in front of grown-ups.

“On the days that Mrs Guitolli was in a good mood and kissed Mister Guitolli on the cheek in front of everyone, well those were the days that the people in the films would move very fast as Mister Guitolli wanted to finish early. My Mother never did tell me why he was in so much of a hurry.” Then my Grandmother coughed, cleared her throat and continued.

“One day Annie I saw the most marvellous film, The Journey to The Moon, the one where the rocket lands right in the eye of the Moon’s face. Everyone was laughing but I felt sorry for the Moon and made up my mind that I would go there and apologise for what had happened to his eye.” 

Sadly nothing much happened to my Grandmother and her dream for many, many years, not until the very day of her fiftieth birthday on April the 12th, 1961 when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.

My Grandmother decided two things that day: 1 – fifty was no age, no age at all, and fifty year old people could still go to the Moon and 2 – if anything happened to Granddad, God forbid, she would marry Yuri. There was a time when she more inclined to John Glenn, the first American in space than Yuri, but in the end the Russian won her heart. He was her first Cosmonaut and that was that.

My Grandmother said that every day she would check the newspapers looking for an advert that would state ‘Have you ever considered being an Astronaut or Cosmonaut? Then telephone the following number .....” but she never did find it, “Must have been on one of the days I didn’t buy a newspaper.”  she said.

She always wondered, considering the amount of people she had told about her dream, why the rocket folks hadn’t actually contacted her. “I mean”, she said “wouldn’t it be better having a really enthusiastic astronaut than a reluctant one?” 

She even wrote to the Russian Embassy who invited her to tea one afternoon and told her that the waiting list to be a cosmonaut was so long that she would be a hundred and twenty years old by the time they got to her. She had to agree that one hundred and twenty was a good age but mentioned that if her name did come up, then could they contact her anyway? The man said he’d put her name down on the list straight away and sent her home with a signed photo of Yuri that said ‘To my comrade’.

Apollo eight was the next big milestone in my Grandmother’s life and that was the one that got me interested.
In March of ’68 Yuri died in a tragic accident and my Grandmother went into a mild sort of mourning. Other people were twisting to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones but my Grandmother had all the heroes she needed in one man and now he was gone. My Grandfather used to be jealous of a person he had never met and would refer to him as ‘that bloody communist’ but after Yuri Gagarin’s death, and I’m ashamed to say it, my Grandfather started to whistle. It led me to wonder if he hadn’t had Yuri bumped off.  

My Grandmother gave me a poster of the crew of Apollo Eight to hang on my wall, I still remember their names: the commander was Frank F Borman the 2nd, James A Lovell Junior was the Command Module Pilot and William A Anders, the Lunar Module Pilot. 

I always wondered what happened to Frank Borman, the 1st and James Lovell Senior, were they lost in space somewhere?  

In those days, the launching of a rocket was the most important thing in the world – at least to me. Every television channel would cover it and very clever people with extremely large foreheads would discuss it for hours on end. We would sit with bowls of popcorn and devour every delicious second of the programmes and when the talking got boring, Grandmother would test me on all the people who had ever been in space. 

We had a happy Christmas and we made it extra so, because my Father was off to Singapore in the New Year to work for several months. My Mother and I moved in with Grandmother in order to provide company for us all and I was more than delighted. 

Apollo 9 was a bit of a strange one and never really went anywhere, there was lots of talk of trying out modules but to be really cross-my-heart-honest, I found it boring. 

The next trip was really exciting, the guys were going to go to the Moon and try everything except land. I thought it was a shame and so did my Grandmother “Why couldn’t they just let them land on the Moon for five minutes?” she said, but it wasn’t to be and they all had to come home again. 

In July 1969, me, my Mother and my Grandmother all went out to Singapore to see my Father and we had the best time ever. It was a truly amazing place and it was there we got to see Neil Armstrong on television, not just land on the Moon but actually walk on it. It was brilliant. 

My Grandmother and I sat there holding our breaths as Commander Neil put his foot on the Moon’s surface. My Father said he thought that his foot would go right through and he’d get stuck but then I caught him winking at my Mother - my Father, not Neil Armstrong. 

I remember the day I asked my Grandmother who the first man to walk on the Moon was and she said “where dear?” and I have to tell you, I thought that was a funny thing to say. “Too late” I said, “It was Neil Armstrong”.
“Who dear?” 

Then I heard she’d fallen down the stairs which I was sure was due to her Astronaut training. She was very hard on herself. 

She never did tell me she was going to Astronaut Training Camp, my Father did. I asked him whether my Grandmother had found the advert in the paper and he said that she had and that they had accepted her. So I was pleased but I really wished she had told me herself.

Then one day my Father looked really sad and told me that I had to be brave and I said I was. He said that his Mother, my Grandmother, had gone to live on the Moon and I said stop talking crazy like as Apollo Twelve wasn’t due to take off for some months. He told me that she had been sent on a secret mission and that I was to tell no one. I never did. 

When I was nine years of age my Grandmother went to the Moon and didn’t come back.

She will soon and I bet she’s building a rocket even now.



For Ruth, as a thank you for her book.