The Gathering

January 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

These little gatherings are getting rather regular recently, bit-by-bit the family come together and the conversations start to flow after hesitant starts. At the moment it’s just my youngest brother Ted, his wife June and me that are here but the others will come, they always come. Last time Phil, my oldest brother was the one who prompted a meeting like this but he won’t be joining us now.

Ted’s great, he’s just told us a funny story about the time he lost his house keys and had to get in through the window. We started laughing about him trying to get in through a window these days! Luckily it happened back in Rangoon, a long time ago when he was much more agile and security was much looser. Don’t think that any of us could climb through a window these days.

There’s a lot to discuss but nobody wants to talk about the reason we are here, I guess they’ll be plenty of time for that later. There’s no rush any more, things will happen when they are due to happen, although I do find the waiting around very difficult.

Oh here are Kenny and Carrie, poor Carrie she always looks so awkward on these occasions. Kenny just carries on as though he is on a night out with his friends, laughing and joking, telling stories about people that he should probably keep to himself. Carrie gets so cross with him. I don’t know why, if everyone were like Carrie, we would all just sit here looking at the wall, nobody saying a word. That wouldn’t help anyone would it?

There’s a table full of snacks and drinks. Fruit, vitamin water (whatever that is?), lot’s of treats from the old country that would have been eagerly devoured in the past but not now. Now they just sit there untouched and unwanted, someone will have to take them home again, still the thought was there, people trying to ease the journey.

Sometimes in the past, we have worried that we are disturbing the other people. Not all the people around us are here for the same reason, they are entitled to their rest, and so we tend to work a shift system as we gather around the person in need. Sometimes you can spend hours in the waiting area but that’s fine, everyone helps each other along and somehow the time passes.

When we gathered for Bobby, it almost turned into a party. Now that may sound odd, some would even say it’s disrespectful but Bobby loved his family and he loved a party. There was a moment late in the evening when a man’s radio started playing an old Sinatra tune. Bobby loved Sinatra; the whole family did, so when the man noticed us looking in his direction he said sorry for the noise. We told him how much we liked it and he turned up the volume a little. Then Peg and Maurice started dancing, slowly and elegantly just like they used to do after the war in the ballroom of The Strand Hotel near the Ferry terminal in Rangoon. They not have been as steady on their feet as they once were but every step they took together bought the memories of those happy days back. Bobby looked so happy.

When I look back on it now, it’s amazing to think of the upheaval that our family has seen since those nights at The Strand, all those years ago. Many of us have travelled thousands of miles as circumstances forced us away from the place that we had called home. Yet, somehow the family bonds have stayed strong and here we are, all of those that are still alive are in this room, and it’s lovely to feel the support of the next generation as well. Even though they have only really known life in this country, they show a respect for our old ways, our need to be together, which is very touching.

It’s nice here though, we have our own room, and so we can all gather in the same place. I must have dozed off for a while because now the whole family is in here. It’s lovely to see everyone and hear everyone around me. I suppose it’s inevitable that a lot of the stories refer back to the old days. The nice thing for me is that I’ve heard them all before, so when I drift away for a little while, as I do, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. I know what’s been said and I know what’s going to be said.

The talk has turned to Debbie’s wedding and it sounds like someone wanted to change the subject, thinking it was wrong to talk about something that we may all not be part of. I expect it was Milo, he is such a sensitive boy, when Freddie was going through this, it was almost like he was holding on for Milo before he let things slip away. It had been Freddie’s birthday and during the day everyone had been in to see him, no-one could tell how long Freddie was going to be in there, it could have been days or hours. Late in the day Milo arrived, he’d driven for two hours after finishing work and by that time of night you could tell the Freddie was exhausted.

When Milo came into the room, Freddie was just starting to doze, then he heard Milo say “Is Grandpa still awake” and he eyes slowly opened, he moved his face towards the sound of the voice and his face turned into a huge smile. “ Hi son, how was work? You must be tired, you didn’t need to come all this way to see me.” But you could tell that he was thrilled. Well later that night Freddie went, I guess he’d seen everyone and knew that he could just let go. The time had come, somehow Milo knew that he had to make the journey that day, there wouldn’t be another chance.

My eyes are so heavy now and my mind is tired but the talking around me is stirring memories, so many happy memories. I’ve been feeling cold most of the time recently but that’s starting to go, as I remember playing in the sun with my brothers. The smell of mother’s cooking is strong in my nose, someone is massaging my forehead now, just like mum used to do when I was a child and afraid of the dark. Well the darkness is all around me now, but with the family here I am no longer afraid. It’s time to let go. It’s time to let them all go home. Time to move on.

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The Friendly Match

August 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

Our initial problem was actually getting eleven people onto the pitch for the game. On the Thursday before the match we only had seven players and to top it all we had no goalie. However we had been assured us that it would be fine, this other lot were involved in the bottom rung of Sunday league football and from what he had heard were pretty hopeless. It was just going to a run out, a chance to see if we could form a Sunday team, it was strangely exciting.

We were asking anyone with two legs under the age of fifty that we even vaguely knew if they would play. Whilst this was going on we were also trying to borrow a full kit from someone so that we could at least look like a team. On the Friday evening we gathered as normal in The Flyer, when I arrived in the bar Trev was chatting to Phil, the landlord when I joined them it sounded like Phil had been talked into playing although he obviously still had doubts.

“Just don’t expect too much from me, it’s twenty years since I’ve played and I can’t remember the last time I moved at anything more than a stroll.”

“Don’t worry Phil, you can play at the back, you won’t need to move beyond the half way line. From what I’ve heard their forwards are rubbish, it’ll be a nice little run out for you,” replied Trev.

“OK then, I think I’ve still got my old boots somewhere, God knows what state they are though.”

“Great that’s sorted then,” says Trev. “Welcome aboard.”

Trev and I wander over to our usual corner of the bar to join Rob, Deano and Ad’s.

“How’s it going lads?” asks Rob.

“Well, I’ve finally talked Phil into it,” Replies Trev. “He’s going to play at the back, oh and I’ve got a kit sorted as well. Someone that dad knows is going to drop it round to me tomorrow morning.”

“Good man, I think that you should be the manager, you obviously have the organisational skills that we are looking for,” says Rob. “Everyone else agree?”

We all say yes, Trev raises his glass and says with a grin.

“Well it’s a great honour boys, now where do we find a keeper? ‘Cause I ain’t playing in goal that’s for sure.”

“Oh, I might have some news there,” say’s Ad’s. “Turns out Lisa’s new boyfriend used to play in goal when he was in school, she’s going to ask him tonight. They should pop in here tonight, so you can talk him into it boss.”

“That’s if your sister can keep him that long, she’s got slippery fingers that one, can’t seem to hold onto anyone for more than five minutes.”

“Talk of the devil,” says Rob.

We turn to look at the door and in walks a very odd couple. Lisa is, as ever, dressed for a Hollywood red carpet premier, all high heels and exposed flesh, everything she is actually wearing glitters and shines with garish colour, all topped off with her newly coloured mass of platinum blonde curls, which bubble excitedly as she walks towards the bar. Towering over her is someone straight from rock school central casting. Long, ruler straight hair drops down his back to the base of his perfectly distressed leather jacket, which swings open to reveal a black Motorhead T-shirt, which obviously contains a suitably muscular torso. Of course he is wearing jeans, complete with some intriguing rips around the front of his thighs and the chunkiest pair of black leather bikers boots that I have ever seen.

We all turn back to look at Ad’s.

“Is that him? Asks Trev.

“Yeah he’s called Nigel apparently,” says Ad’s laughing. “Never spoken to him myself, she’s only been seeing him for about a week.”

“Well he’s tall.” I say. “That’ll come in handy.”

“Yeah but how long will it take him to dry his hair following the after match shower? Says Trev.

“Tell him that we can’t afford to pay his shampoo bills, we’ll be bankrupt before we’ve even started.” I say.

Lisa waves at us, goes up on her tiptoes to have a word in her chaps’ ear and heads over to join us.

“Hi sis, didn’t bother getting dressed up tonight then.”

“Now then Adrian, don’t be nasty to me or I won’t let Nige help you out.”

“OK, you’re right we need him, more than I need to make cheap jokes at your expense.”

“He’s a big lad,” says Rob. “Haven’t seen him around before.”

“No he lives in Clifton.”

“Blimey, how did you manage that? I thought the council had an exclusion zone around Clifton to keep gold diggers out,” said Rob with a grin.

“Who’s a gold digger? I earn more than him you know. I’m not just a pretty face.”

“So, what does he do then?”

“Well Rob, for your information he’s an actor.”

“Been in anything we would have heard of?”

“Not yet, but he’s got some things lined up.”

“TV, films, adverts?”

“Well I’m not sure but he tells me that he’s just waiting for the right offer to come along”

Nigel is now making his way over to us, Lisa does the introductions as he grabs a stool and sits down alongside her.

“So Nige, I hear you’re up for a game on Sunday?” Says Trev.

“Yes, Shelley tells me you guys haven’t played together before, so I guess you’ve got no idea of the standard?”

“Well a few of us used to be pretty good, no idea about the opposition though,” Rob chips in. “It’s a chance to cement your place in history, to be one of the original members of the glorious team that changed the face of local football in Bristol!”

“Well Rob may be over selling it somewhat,” says Trev. “It’s just a chance to have a kick about, we will have to wait and see what happens after that. When did you last play?”

“A couple of years ago, when I was up in London. Some of my mates had a Sunday team; I played five or six games, before heading back to Bristol. I’m looking forward to a bit of a run out.”

During the course of the evening we found out that with the help of a few more friends and relations we have actually got the eleven names that we need to raise a team and we start to get quite excited about the game. I have to admit that I had a big concern about my fitness levels, the couple of training sessions in the park had helped but I was still spending more time with my hands on my hips, trying to get my breath back, than punching the air after scoring a cracking goal.

Sunday morning came dry and sunny, proper first game of the season weather and at 9:30 we were standing outside the pub, kit bags in hand and looking forward to the game. The only problem was that Rob had not showed up.

“Phil, Can we use the phone in the pub to give him a call?” Trev asked.

“Sure, come with me,” he replied.

No sooner had they gone through the main door, then Rob’s car came screaming round the corner, all the windows were down and the staccato rhythms of Blue Monday by New Order was hammering out into the previously quiet Sunday morning street.

He pulled onto the pub forecourt, almost running over Nige’s foot as he did so.

“Good job you’re in goal Nige,” Rob shouted above the music. “Your footwork was a bit slow there mate.”

“Don’t worry about me mate, I’ll be fine,” Nige replied.

I went into the pub and shouted out that Rob had arrived; I can see Trev with the phone in his hand whilst Phil knocks back what looks like the remains of a glass of whiskey.

“Just to settle the nerves,” he says to me. “Want one?”

“No thanks, not really my style,” I say as I head out to join the others. We all pile into cars and take the short journey to Vassells Park and into the changing rooms. Trev opens up the kit bag and an appalling smell engulfs us all.

“What the hell is that stench?” Ad’s says.

Trev puts his hand into the bag and brings out what should be a blue and white shirt but it’s covered in dried mud and even some green mold.

“Didn’t you check it boss? Asks Rob.

“No, it was only dropped round last night, when I was out. He told me that it hadn’t been used since last season; He didn’t say it hadn’t been washed though. Sorry guys, this is going to be pretty grim.”

I grab a shirt but decide to stick with my own socks and shorts, as I slip it over my head the smell is disgusting. “I don’t think they will want to get too close to us,” I say as I dash out of the changing room as quickly as I can in an effort to get some fresh air.

Our opponents Downend Albion are looking pretty impressive, not only do they have a nice clean kit; they also have four or five balls, which they are warming up with, and a goalkeeper who has a cap – very professional. By way of contrast, we have one ball and a ‘keeper who doesn’t even have a pair of gloves. Trev smashes the ball over to me from about twenty yards; it bounces awkwardly on the lumpy pitch and catches me in the balls with a deadening thump. All the wind leaves my body and my eyes glaze over as I desperately try to give the impression that it didn’t hurt. I summon all my strength to knock the ball back to him, and the ball trickles about ten yards in a trajectory which would have seen it going about twenty yards to his right had I connected with it properly. The signs are not good.

Looking behind the goal I notice Phil, kneeling over as he throws up in a series of noisy convulsions. Deano has forgotten his boots, so is gingerly running across the grass in a pair of trainers, with the morning dew turning the grass is something of an ice rink, it looks like Dean is going to spend of lot time on his backside. Sure enough moments later he tries to change the direction of his run and down he goes with arms and legs flailing.

“C’mon lads, let’s enjoy this,” shouts Rob. “Keep the ball down, let’s try to pass it around a bit. Stay calm and let people know what’s going on around them.”

We kick off; I don’t touch the ball for what seems like an eternity. I’m running around, but my legs appear to go at half the speed of all the Downend players. Time and again I move towards the ball, only to see it knocked away from me just before I get there.

“Jonsey, get with it man,” Shouts Trev. “Don’t back off them.”

I try to shout back that I’m trying to “get with it” but nothing comes out of my pointlessly open mouth. I’m so far off the pace that a stray pass, suddenly drops at feet, no one is with forty yards of me.

“Stay calm,” I think to myself as I move towards the ball.

A thousand voices shout at once:

“Time”, “Jonsey, knock it down the channel”, “Use Rob”, “Bring it out”.

It all merges into one huge blur of noise as I dash towards the ball. Somehow, I manage to catch my foot in the grass and the next thing I know I’m falling face down onto the ball, which catches me in the nose with enough pressure to bring tears to my eyes for the second time that morning. I can hear the laughter from the Downend players as one of their forwards makes rapid ground towards me. I try to get up but slip again and he whisks the ball away from me and heads towards our goal. Seconds later the ball is in the net we are 1-0 down and it’s all my fault.

“Sorry lads,” I mumble. “How long to half time ref, I ask the Downend sub who has taken charge of the whistle.

“How long? Seriously?”

“Yes”

“About forty minutes mate. We’ve only just started!”

Somehow I make through the next forty minutes and the frequently mentioned second wind does arrive. Fortunately it provides much more impetus than the first one, which had left me decidedly becalmed. We are, by this stage, 3-0 down.

Of course we have no water, oranges or any of the traditional half time pick me up’s, though a few of the lads are enjoying a quick fag. No-one can think of anything sensible to say, so we lie on the ground in a state of shattered silence, before we know the Downend lads are trotting back onto the pitch and off we go again.

The second half continues in the same vein, us chasing the Downed players around and only briefly coming into contact with the ball. Phil is starting to look extremely agitated, and when a Downend player knocks the ball through his legs and runs around him, it’s obviously the final straw. He takes an enormous hack at the young lad, luckily missing him by a mile. He’s not finished yet though, somehow a burst of energy sees him draw level with his nemesis but instead of trying to tackle him, Phil simply jumps on his back, dragging him to the ground followed by wave after wave of fortunately poorly aimed punches.

“Nobody takes the piss out me, you little…”

“Phil, stop it, STOP!”

Shouts Rob, who is the closest player to the action. By now the Downend player has squirmed away from Phil’s grasp and running round in circles trying to get away from him. One his colleagues though has another idea on how to end the spectacle, rushing over to kick Phil’s legs from under him then gripping him round the throat he shouts in Phil’s face.

“Stop it old man, take your sorry ass off the pitch and don’t come back, or you will have me to deal with and I won’t be so reasonable next time.”

Rob, Trev and Nige coax Phil back to his feet and persuade him that maybe it would be best if he went off.

“Yeah, think I’ve pulled a muscle anyway,” says Phil as he shuffles off, the limp strangely swapping legs as he goes.

The rest game of the game is played out in a restrained manner with everyone trying to avoid anymore explosive confrontations, not that I have anything left within me to explode. I’ve never felt so drained of energy, nothing really aches it’s just as though my body feels as though it doesn’t belong to me, it won’t follow the most basic of instructions from my brain and I’m desperate for the match to end. In the last few minutes of the game Rob, who is the only member of team who can still run at this point scores a great solo goal to make the score 9-1, we shout our well done’s to him as we are all too knackered to actually run up to him and give him a well deserved slap on the back. Then the whistle blows for full time and I sink to the ground, feeling that I may very well stay there for the rest of my life.

In the changing rooms hardly a word was spoken. How had we let ourselves become so deluded, that we actually thought that we would not only give that a lot a game but that we would beat them?

“Whose idea was that? I’ve never felt so awful, every part of aches,” moaned a weary sounding Trev.

Nobody had the energy to answer him; I just sat there staring at the cold concrete floor, trying to work out how I would find the energy to take off my boots. Even my fingers were tired, as I discovered when I tried to pull the laces open. I can’t grip the end of the lace firmly enough to pull it, what has happened? You don’t even use your fingers when playing football, if they are in this state what are my legs going to like for the rest of the week?

So I just sit there, some of the other lads had started chatting but I am unable to fully register anything that is being said. As well as my body being exhausted, my brain appeared to be a spent force as well. I lift my foot again, and with all the concentration and strength that I can muster I tug at the bootlace on my right foot and just about manager to drag it free, allowing me to slowly loosen the boot. It feels as though my foot has expanded, so even though the laces have been undone, it’s still a huge effort to remove my bruised and tender foot from the boot. Eventually I manage to ease it off my heel and the boot falls to the floor with a loud snap as the metal studs come into contact with the concrete surface. I go with through the same protracted procedure with my left boot and feel as though I have made a huge achievement. Socks, shin pads and shorts come off without too much effort; I then peel off the stinking shirt, which clings, tightly to my body. I try to throw it into the bag with the rest of the kit but as with everything I’ve attempted today, I’m hopelessly off target. With a slight shudder, I manage to stand and remove my underwear, before taking the painful walk to the shower. It’s only now that I realise how many blisters I have on my feet, forcing me into involuntary skips and jumps to avoid putting pressure on the damaged areas. I feel as though I’m walking over a bed of hot coals, although all the heat is coming from my own body rather than the cold and suddenly jagged floor. The showers are, of course, freezing cold. Each jet of water attacks my body like a thousand tiny ice shards. Again I’m forced to move more quickly than my body would wish to do as I move away from the stream of water, stubbing my toe against the wall in the process. After the briefest possible time back under the shower I head back to the bench, slowly drying myself as I go.

The atmosphere in the room has perked up; plans are being made to head back to The Flyer for a Post Mortem on the mornings events. The walk to the car is a tentative and painful one, I appear to have developed a slow motion version of the Charlie Chaplin comedy walk as I tentatively wobble from one foot to the next.

Phil is sitting behind the bar as we go in.

“Sorry about that lads, I just got frustrated, I guess that I’d be kidding myself into thinking that I could just pick up from the last time I played.”

There are a few of us like that,” Trev replied. “I just didn’t think that it could be that bad.”

Rob appears alongside us.

“Come on lads, we weren’t that bad. I know we didn’t have many chances but we kept going. It’s all about fitness and awareness, that comes from playing games. The more we play the better we will be. This is just the start.”

“Really,” I say. “I’m not sure I can do that again.”

“Why not?” Rob replies. “After your little accident with the first goal, I thought you were one of our best players,” he continues.

“Yeah Jonsey, if going to take a dive make sure that someone is within kicking distance of you, that was just embarrassing,” says Nige.

“All right, I know I was a shambles, don’t think I completed a single pass.”

“Shut up, you got some great tackles in during the second half. That was just a game to get us in the swing of things, after a few more of those you’ll be fine,” says Rob.

During the next hour or so I notice than Rob is having a similar conversation with everyone. Playing up all the good parts in peoples’ games, whilst dismissing any perceived weaknesses. He even has a good word for Phil, persuading him that anyone would have snapped in similar circumstances, I have to say that I wasn’t so sure about this line of argument. I reckon that Phil would be better pulling pints than pushing wingers.

His persuasive words must have worked on everyone, three weeks later we were at it again. The game was arranged at fairly short notice against a team of Ad’s workmates, luckily the three week gap had just about given my broken mind and body time to recover from the trauma of the first game and I was actually looking forward to putting a few things right. A few of us had been meeting for a fairly gentle run and stretching session a couple of times a week, I was starting to feel a little fitter, which I figured would give me a chance of playing at a level which I was happier with. Thankfully for all of us, Phil was going to be away at a family wedding, so any clever forwards that were due to play against us, didn’t have to worry about an eighteen stone man jumping all over them.

Without Rob’s individual pep talks, I feel pretty sure that I, and many of the other lads, would never have pulled on a pair of football boots again. He’d managed to convince us that the only thing stopping us from being good players in a good team was familiarity with playing. He was sure that we had the ability, temperament and attitude to play, we just need to give ourselves the chance to get used to playing and the rest would fall into place!

That Summer Feeling

June 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

It was the sort of summer where the evenings never started, just long afternoons that went from 2 PM to 2 AM. Languid yet never dull, the hours slipped past like Bees’ gently buzzing from plant to plant. Never really stopping, just pausing momentarily before moving onto to the next brief place of interest.

 

The four of us were constantly in each other’s company. Of course it wasn’t just us four all the time, different friends came and went. There could be five or forty people but all that summer the four of us appeared to be invisibly held together, never move than a glance away. The strands of the web that held us were gossamer thin, invisible to the eye of the others that joined us. Yet to us, stretched and tenuous though they may, they were as solid and true as anything we had ever known.

 

If I raised my head from the book I was reading, then inevitably Binks would catch my eve. If it wasn’t Binks then the same would be true for either Tommo or Jags. Dancing in a club to the song of the summer, no matter how cool and “into” the song we tried to be, we just knew it. Look up on that drum break and four pairs of eyes would make instant contact.

 

We soon realised that this was ridiculous and would unconsciously try to break the chain. Yet, it was beyond our power to do so. For that short period of time, our brains, bodies and thoughts were so finely in tune with each other that we were almost a single entity.

  

Before the summer we hadn’t known each that well. Binks had been to college with Jags. I had become friendly with Tommo through a now lapsed friendship with a mutual gig goer. Jags was in one of the local bands that Tommo and I used to go and see at Kino. The venue was so small that it was impossible not to bump into people between the sets, Jags was funny and welcoming, delighted that we enjoyed the gentle and reflective work that the band produced.

 

After a gig at the start of June, Jags mentioned that the other two in the band were heading overseas the next day for a summer of inter-railing, so a quiet summer was on the cards. Tommo suggested going to a park in town the next night as there was going to be a free music event and a bar, the weather was meant to good. It may not be Paris, Rome or Berlin but we could try to have some fun right here. Binks overheard the suggestion and was obviously keen to go. Suddenly our summer was about to begin.

 

I guess it helped that the four of us were just as happy sitting in the garden of a café or pub reading as we were going into town to watch a band. As long as we were together things were good. Nobody held a dominant position, ideas presented themselves and apparently without effort or sometimes even discussion we just followed them, wherever they would take us.

 

Tommo was the only one who had a car and when we were in the car there was only one thing that we wanted to hear. A friend of Jags worked in a record shop and had managed to secure a promo cassette of a forthcoming single from Jonathan Richman called “That Summer Feeling”. We played the song on repeat, singing, finger clicking, clapping and wahwah wooing along with the backing vocals for all our worth.

 

The fact that nobody else knew the song was maybe part of the attraction. It was our song, the most important song in the world to us, yet only the four of us knew of the beauty that it contained.

 

When out and about we used the lyrics of the song as our own coded language. Sometimes to amuse, sometimes to deliberately confuse others that were with us.

 

“Hey Jags,” I would say. “See that lawn, what you gonna do on it?”

 

“Flop down on it!” would come the reply.

 

Our small gang would whoop with joy. A joy made somehow deeper by inevitable perplexed looks on the faces of other friends. We didn’t mean to be cruel or mean to the others, it was just that we were revelling in our collective unity.

 

The endless afternoons turned into endless days, weekends then weeks. Even though some of our time would be spent in work, magically those hours disappeared and quickly we were back together. Listening to music, drinking in the sunshine, having picnics in the park, laughing and learning with each other.

 

We were always in each other’s company. I had never known a time of so many smiles from such simple pleasures. It was a partnership of equals, nobody looking for or taking the upper hand. We hung out, danced and flirted with others, It was summer, we were young, it was what we had to do. Yet the four of us always came back to each other at the end of the day, laughing on the adventures that we had enjoyed.

  

One afternoon in August, I meet with Jags after finishing work early. I thought that Tommo and Binks were going to be there as well but there was no sign of them. Jags was vague about their absence and we just made our way on foot to sit, in the by now slightly oppressive summer heat, outside The Arnolfini.

 

We sat with a drink as Jags started to explain that Tommo and Binks had decided that they wouldn’t be joining us later. At first I didn’t understand what I was being told, thinking this was odd. What would they want to do that didn’t involve Jags and I? Jags asked me if had noticed how close the other two had become over the last week or so?I hadn’t. I still couldn’t understand what I was being told.

 

Jags then went onto to say that last night after I had been dropped of at home, Tommo and Binks had taken their friendship to the next level and things were suddenly a lot more complicated.

 

My head was thrown into confusion. Why would the two of them jeopardise the friendship that we four had shared by being so selfish. We weren’t that sort of group of friends; it was never about couples and the inevitable splits that came from that. We were different, four friends just happy in each other’s company, or so I thought.

 

And that was the end of that perfect summer and the shared closeness that came with it.

What Presence?

March 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Nobody could understand what Rob was doing. He was almost eighteen, yet since the age of twelve he hadn’t posted anything. It wasn’t that he didn’t have access, he could post at anytime. They all knew that he observed items they posted, some even posted about him in the hope of provoking a reaction. Rob saw it all, they were sure of that. Yet he never responded, never instigated, he just observed. It was almost like he didn’t really exist. He had no presence.

What was considered odd as a young teenager was by now causing concern. His parents had lost count of the number of doctors, analysts, and therapists they had arranged for him to be seen by. In some cases they had even taken him to meet these experts in person, instead of the standard remote interactive assessment. They weren’t rich people, and by now Rob must have been aware of the extraordinary lengths, both physical and financial, they were going to, in an effort to help him.

Talk? Oh yes, he would quite happily talk. His parents loved the slightly old fashioned way he would he would ask them how their day had been and tell them about the things he had done whilst they had been apart. He had a small and slowly decreasing number of friends, who also liked his quirky ways.

His parents had laughed when he told them about his idea for a debating society at school. Apparently he had read about such an event taking place at Cambridge University in the time before “@FulCon”, when people would come together to discuss a topic of the day. He was completely fascinated with the idea of motions, arguments and counter arguments being put forward by people in the same room, with an audience, who were a genuine part of the event. People who listened as complex theories and feelings were discussed.

He told his parents that he loved the idea of a conversation that didn’t quickly end up in a series of insults or symbols being exchanged on a screen, be it virtual or real. He wanted everyone at the debate to be truly involved and focused on that one thing. His parents thought he was cute and that it was a quaint idea.

His parents explained that “@FulCon” had been invented to replace all that. With “@FulCon” everyone was fully connected all the time. It didn’t matter if you were in the next room or the next continent everybody could interact with anyone else via the global mirage network that “@FulCon” had developed and controlled.

He mentioned his worry, that the more voices there were in a conversation, the fewer were actually heard. He also wondered what happened to voices that fell foul of the behavioural protocol that “@FulCon” imposed. What happened to those who didn’t follow the carefully prescribed lines of thought and deed that the automatic moderation system demanded? Sure, there was an amount of dissent tolerated. In certain circumstances it was encouraged even although he couldn’t help feeling that this was to give the illusion of debate. Well he wanted something more real than that.

He had seen it happen many times when a figure such as Stephen Dry would engage in a dispute with someone like Toby Bung. The people of the globe would quickly fall behind their thought prompter of choice and ten minutes later the ritual abuse of the opposing parties would start. In a further ten minutes the topic would only be of interest to those with an interest in the rapidly homogenised world of global abuse. This was when the conversation, such as it was, would end.

The idea of a debate with real people present was confusing to his limited selection of friends. So much so, that one of them spoke to their Learning Instigator, Mr Brand about the curious suggestion. At first Mr Brand had joined in with the general hilarity about the backward looking nature of an event like this. He had though become intrigued by Robert Coles and his insistent refusal to follow the way the world operated.

He was convinced that this otherwise intelligent young man was throwing his life away. Maybe if this debate idea flopped it would finally prove to Robert that he needed to engage with the world as it was, rather than holding onto his fascination for the twentieth century. Mr Brand spoke to the Commercial Manager of the school to see if the abandoned assembly room could possibly be used for a debate.

The assembly room had been mothballed when, in line with other schools, they moved all meetings onto the “@FulCon” network. The government had covered the cost of providing “@FulCon” but were refusing to fund maintenance work on any room that held more than twenty people, so there was little point in persisting with this decaying relic of the past.

The classrooms had been adapted, housing a collection of learning pods where the students would take lessons from a central source; Teachers were reclassified as Learning Instigators and massively depleted in numbers. These days the ones that actually worked in a school were little more than glorified caretakers. Mr Brand was never the hardest working of men, so although the Learning Instigator role was poorly paid and with no social standing at all, it suited him until the time came when he would need to take a proper job.

It was agreed that the debate would take place on the first day back after the Christmas break, January 4th and Rob advised the school that the motion would be “This House thinks that “@FulCon” is not a force for good in our society.” Mr Brand told the Commercial Manager, who instantly wanted to cancel the event. Rob though had also told a bemused friend of the proposed event, his friend Chris did as everybody other than Rob would have done, he posted it on “@FulCon”.

As “@FulCon” was developed in America, it followed the American method for dating, inexplicably this still managed to cause confusion in some older people in Monarch Land (formally the United Kingdom until increasing parts of the Kingdom were lost to it), the date was mistakenly reversed and soon word spread of this very funny, upcoming April Fool event.

The people behind “@FulCon” were always keen to promote the wonderfully benign quality of their product. Their strap line was: “One system, one world, one shared understanding.” The thought went around their HQ that this would be great way to show that despite what small groups of people who misunderstood their company said, they weren’t so humourless that they didn’t get the joke. Obviously it must be a joke because to their minds “@FulCon” was a magnificent success for the shareholders and governments that had invested in their wonderfully unifying product.

When they looked up the “@FulCon” ID for Rob Coles they were confused to find that the data on his page had not been updated for six years, this was unheard of. They sent him messages but received no replies. Next they turned to the school.

The Commercial Manager of the school had half been expecting contact about the proposed debate, he wasn’t though expecting the insistence that the event must go ahead or their wish to allow Rob to publicise his views. A message was sent to Mr Brand, asking him to bring Rob into the office so that the people from “@FulCon” could talk to him and attempt to arrange an interview that could be posted.

Ten minutes later, Rob and Mr Brand were talking with a marketing person from “@FulCon” and Rob was firmly and persistently saying that he had no wish to be interviewed or post anything about the debate until the day of the event, which due to the confusion of the date format was almost four months away.

Over the forthcoming months Rob was true to his word, something that was often surprisingly difficult to achieve. “@FulCon” steadily ramped up the coverage of “The event the world won’t see.” Questioning the right of an indidual to deliberately withhold his idea’s, no matter how cranky they were, from an ever more curious world. Features were posted about the strange case of “The boy with no presence”. There were rumours that he was a Fascist or that he was part of a sinister cult. What did he have to hide? Why wouldn’t he ever post?

The school became increasing anxious about the event. They were inundated with requests for information or tickets for the debate. Nobody could have imagined how curious people were about physically being part of an event. A few months ago most people would have recoiled from the idea of spending any time in a room with a mass of people that they didn’t already know. Yet, somehow Rob had stirred a latent desire in people and by the day of the event the assembly room could have been filled several hundred times over.

Obviously Rob was to speak in favour of the motion but who would present the counter argument? Initially it was going to be another pupil at the school. However as interest in the event grew, other names were put forward. On the morning of April 1st Rob found out that he would be debating with Mr Shant Grapps, the global marketing manager for “@FulCon”. Apparently he had been flown in from the company HQ in Austin, Texas the week before and had been posting false stories during that time, so that nobody outside the company  and his family knew how seriously they were taking it.

On the afternoon of the debate there was briefly some talk of the whole thing being cancelled on safety grounds. There were worries that a huge crowd of people would try to force their way into the event. As people no longer gathered in large groups, crowd control was now such an alien concept to the security forces that they had no idea how they would deal with any potential invasion. By this time though “@FulCon” could not afford to back down so it was decided that the event would have to go ahead. Several high level posts were aired which lambasted Rob for his irresponsible approach to the safety of others. What made this person think he was so important that others people’s safety should be put at risk? He was a brat, a holigan, and an intelectual terorist. Rob quietly went about his day ingoring the ever-growing frenzy.

Then a strange thing happened. People started to post that as they could not use their visulisers to watch the debate, they should have their own versions of the event. People started to encourage each other to meet and discuss the question themselves. Word started to go out that people should all go their nearest school at 7pm. If they couldn’t get into the school they should meet outside and hold a debate there. Post after post appeared with the title “7pm School Debate”. The “@FulCon” moderation system either had to delete thousands and thousands of posts or let them run. Quick decisions had to be made.

At around 5:30pm Rob answered a call from his mum, he thought that she was a little early, they didn’t need to leave for another thirty minutes or so. She didn’t say anything when he came downstairs, just pointed at the large floating screen in the lounge. Rob took a while to take in the posts. Then the reality dawned on him. People weren’t going to listen to him talking, they were going to talk for themselves to each other, in the flesh. Maybe he would have to change the thrust of his debate, perhaps “@FulCon” could be a force for good after all, it was just that people needed to manage it, not be managed by it. As he made his way to the school, people were on the move wherever he looked. It was just before 7pm and nobody was feeling like an April Fool any more.

The Christmas Dilemma

December 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

When he was working in the lab, Dave knew how important it was to be factual and accurate in all that he did. In some jobs you can fool yourself into thinking that you are better than you really are. In the lab though it was different, any attempt at bluffing or covering the cracks as he worked his way through a process would quickly backfire.  That was why he found Christmas such a difficult time of year.

 

All around him people were busy building up a fantasy world for their children and worse still, his children. It wasn’t easy being the odd one out; in fact it was getting harder. When the twins were younger they didn’t really care where the presents came from, didn’t understand what the sudden surge of shiny new things to play with was all about. They accepted whatever was pushed in their direction. Now though, questions were starting to be asked about the man in the big red suit.

 

Last year Suzy had been able to distract the kids whenever the subject cropped up. Well that was what Dave saw anyway, but when he wasn’t around? How had the chats gone then? He knew that Suzy thought that his rigid approach to always telling the children the truth was daft.

 

“Sometimes, when your not in the lab,” she said. “You have to bend the formulas a little to make them work.”

 

He couldn’t see it though. Parenting scared him: there were two many choices, too many options when it came to moulding a life. The only thing that he could do was be completely honest with them at all times, about everything.  Magic, rumour and mysticism wasn’t for him or his kids.

 

It was December 23rd and he was having the most pointless row he had ever had. Suzy wanted the kids to put out some treats for Santa and the reindeers on the night of Christmas Eve.  Something in him just wouldn’t let it go, “no” was all that he could say.  He loved Suzy and couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t support him on this. All she would talk about was the kids being deprived of the magic that all their friends would be enjoying. She just didn’t get it. 

 

That night was a frosty one in more ways than one and, as he scrapped the ice from the car the next morning, Dave was decidedly lacking in Christmas spirit.  It was a typical Christmas Eve working day, nobody really doing any work, just idly filling time until someone from the management team had the courage to send people home. Well that time arrived just after noon, as the grey sky started to fill with white flecks. As the “Happy Christmas” farewells echoed around the lab, he grabbed his coat and bottle of screw top wine that was his Secret Santa gift and headed for his car, still unsure of what sort of welcome he would get.

 

On his drive home he decided to stop off to buy another gift for Suzy. Although convinced that his logical clear-headed approach was correct, he had come to realise that this was driving a wedge between the two of them. A wedge that was unnecessary and it was up to him to make the first move. 

 

He went to a small jeweller that he knew Suzy loved and after some help from the shop assistant; he selected a necklace that he was sure she would adore. The assistant kindly gift wrapped it for him, he hopped that Suzy would see that this was a signal that he really loved her and that their love deserved a fresh start.  He made his way back to the car, the snow was really starting to take hold and the pavement was a little tricky in places. Just as he was about to reach the car, he heard a groan from behind him, then instantly he was barged in the back and found himself knocked to the floor.

 

Turning his head, he saw a large elderly gentleman; the redness of the old mans face was highlighted by the whiteness of his beard and the snow that nestled around his prone body.  Though winded, Dave was not in any pain, so he raised himself from the ground to see if the old man was ok.  The man was full of apologies as Dave gently helped him to his feet.

 

“So sorry,” the man said. “That will teach me for trying to rush.  You know how it is everything has to be done by this evening and I suppose I was just trying to move too quickly for these ancient legs of mine.”

 

Dave remembered that he had the wine in his car and asked the man if he would like a drink to settle his nerves? The man smiled, a lovely kindly smile and said that he would be very grateful.  So they made their way to car and then spent a few minutes sitting in the vehicle, whilst the old man sipped the wine from cup of the travel flask that Dave had in the car. There were also a few mince pies that Dave had taken from work, so he offered his new friend one of those, which was gleefully eaten. Whilst they were talking, Dave introduced himself and started chatting about his difficulty with the family and the “magic” of Christmas. The man listened patiently, whilst helping himself to another cup of wine.

 

Eventually Dave asked the man if could offer him a lift anywhere?

 

“No. No, I’ll be ok. I’m meeting some of my helpers just around the corner. You’ve been very kind, especially as it was me that bumped into you.”

 

Dave helped the man from the car.

 

“Happy Christmas, young man, I’m sure that you and your family will enjoy this Christmas!” The gentleman exclaimed as he made his way around the corner from Dave and his car.

 

Dave tried to tell Suzy about his minor adventure when he got home but she wasn’t really interested in anything that he had to say. The children were excitedly running around the house and he couldn’t wait for them to go to bed, so that he could say sorry to Suzy for being such a grump. He would give her the necklace then, hopefully that would enable them to start the next day in a better frame of mind.

 

He was though, still unsure about putting out the snacks for Santa.  Suzy mentioned it and without meaning to do so, all his old thoughts came flooding back into his head and he started to say that he didn’t think it was the right lesson for the children.  Then, when they were still debating, Suzy suddenly started putting some mince pies on a plate, along with a glass of milk. She called out to the kids.

 

“Come and see the snacks that we are going to leave for Santa.”

 

The children ran excitedly into the room. Dave was furious as the children carried the plates into the front room. He could see the pleasure on their faces, normally this would make him happy as well but when the joy was based on a lie, well it just made him feel like a fraud.

 

Soon enough the kids went to bed and Suzy and him edged around each for the rest of the night. There seemed little point in giving her the necklace now, the moment had gone. Yet again his stubbornness had caused a rift between them. In virtual silence they brought the children’s presents down to put around the tree.  Eventually Suzy went to bed, leaving him to stare at the plate and glass that had been left alongside the Christmas tree.

 

He decided that he would just leave the necklace by the tree; Suzy would find it there in the morning.  He went to the hall to retrieve the small box from the pocket of his overcoat, yet when he checked the pockets, they were empty.  Maybe it had fallen out in the collision with the old man? Or maybe the whole collision had just been an elaborate set-up for the seemingly jovial fellow to steel the gift from him? What a fool he had been to take the man at face value, worse still he even given him a drink and some food. The spirit of Christmas eh! Well what a sucker he was. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was that the man had taken him for a fool.

 

He turned the lights off and made his way upstairs. Suzy was already asleep, so he slipped quietly into the bed, hoping that somehow they could make a fresh start in the morning. 

 

Of course with young children in the house, the morning came very early on Christmas Day.  Just after six, the kids were knocking on the bedroom door and asking if they could come in.  Suzy told them they could and the door burst open.  Both the kids were already in full flow.

 

“He came in the night!”

 

“Father Christmas left us presents, can we open them?”

 

“Just wait a moment. We can all go down together,” Suzy said to the kids. “Did you eat the pies and drink the milk? She silently mouthed to him, with her back to the children.

 

Dave had forgotten that he was supposed to drink the milk and eat the pies, apart from a few crumbs. His head slumped back onto the pillow; Suzy turned away and left the room without a word.

 

From downstairs he could hear the kids.

 

“Come on Dad, come and see what Father Christmas has left us.”

 

“Coming.” He shouted back and he worriedly made his way to the stairs.

 

As he entered the living room, he was just getting ready to explain to the children that Santa must have been in too much of a hurry to take the nibbles they had left him when Suzy came up to him and gave him a lovely kiss on the cheek.

 

“Look Dad, Santa left us a note.” He heard someone say. At almost the same moment he heard Suzy say, “Oh what’s this little box, with my name on it?”

 

One of the children was pointing at the plate, which apart from a few crumbs was empty and the clear glass was drained of all its milk.

 

“Can I open this?” said Suzy. She held aloft the gift-wrapped box that he had last seen in the jewellers on Christmas Eve.

 

He was very confused now but luckily Suzy and the kids were too focused on their gifts to notice.  He came to Suzy’s side just as she opened the box. 

 

“Oh, I love it,” she cried out. “Thank you darling”, then she whispered “thank you for dealing with the Santa snacks and leaving that note as well. It means so much to the kids, I know it wasn’t easy for you!”

 

He looked from her to the empty plate, then the empty glass, finally to the slightly crumpled note in his hand.

 

“Dear Dave, Suzy, Gerry and Tom. Thank you so much for looking after me on Christmas Eve when I was dashing around. I really appreciate the food and drink; it’s helps to keep me going. As you know I have a lot of houses to visit. I hope you enjoy the presents and never forget the magic of Christmas. Santa.”

The Silver Club

November 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Jean really wasn’t sure about going but Peggy just wouldn’t stop.

“Come on Jean, you’ve turned into a right old misery lately. The bus stops right outside the door, Ted and Hilda will be there. Come on love, you need to get out of this house of yours once in a while.”

Eventually Jean gave in, when Peggy was in this mood there was no arguing with her. Although the weather was warm, she made sure she had her nice new coat from BHS, well you never know if the bus will turn up, then you just need a cloud to come along and before you know it the cold is in your bones and these days it takes so long to get warm again.

Peggy had decided that they were going to a morning showing at their local cinema. They had started a weekly event called “The Silver Club” only £3.50 to get in with a free hot drink and biscuits. It’s more about silver hair than silver screen thought Jean. Hilda had told Peggy about it a couple of weeks ago and ever since then Peggy had been on at Jean constantly.

“You used to love going to the cinema, Jean,” Peggy said. “I never knew anyone who went as much as you. Most of us just went when we were courting, a cheap place to go and snuggle up with someone nice. You two though, you kept on going even after you had the children.  The rest of us grew out it, not you and Frank though, every week you were there. Still can’t work out how you managed it or why you won’t go now come to think of it. You’re a strange one, I’ll give you that.”

Well that was it really, the cinema was where she went with Frank, going without him, well it just didn’t feel right.  She always loved the way the house lights dimmed and then the curtain on the screen glided away. For the next couple of hours reality left them and hand in hand with Frank they set off around the globe and beyond. They laughed and cried together, they were the best of travel partners, communicating feelings and thoughts with a subtle movement of their fingers before suddenly and always too quickly the credits would roll, house lights come up and they would head slowly back home, thrilled with each other’s company.

Jean’s head was awash with memories during the bus journey. More than once Peggy had snapped at her for not following the conversation properly.

As they stood to leave the bus it was clear that they weren’t the only people taking advantage of free bus travel and cut price cinema. A well dressed, silver haired army, edged tentatively from the bus to the cinema. There were several faces that she recognised, a few people even came to say hello, saying how sorry they were to hear about Frank and asking how she was.  She never knew how to answer that one, it was one of the reasons that she had stopped going out.  How could she say to those kindly faces that she was desperately lonely, that she just about made it through each long and terrible day before the night came and somehow that was even worse? Then the cycle would repeat again the next day.

Peggy bustled her forwards and into the foyer of the cinema.

“There’s Hilda and Ted,” she said. “You go and chat to them I’ll get the tickets. With a nudge from Peggy, Jean found herself heading towards Hilda who unexpectedly grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her into an exuberant embrace.

“Oh Jean, we have missed you,” Hilda said. “So glad that you have come along today. ”

Well the film was nice, several times she felt her fingers twitch at a scene that Frank would have enjoyed. Obviously though, there was no response to the frail movement of her hand but the film was good enough to pull her back into this other world. Her gloom was lifted, she even laughed. Small, hesitant laughs they may have been but it was the first time that she had been able to do that since Frank had gone.

They went again the next week and the one after that. By the third week she found that she was really looking forward to going. Denzel Washington was the star of the film they were seeing that week, she loved his composed, steely grace. His was a favourite of Franks as well. One of the last films they had seen together had featured Denzel Washington and she remembered the daft conversation they had about what it would be like if he came to their place for tea one day.  It was one of those “what celebrities would you invite to diner” type chats. They had both agreed that a full evening meal would be a bit too much for them now. Afternoon tea with Denzel though, they both figured, that would a wonderful thing. The film was lovely and so was Denzel, how Frank would have enjoyed that, she thought when sat at home with a cup of tea later that day.

By now their group of film fans had expanded, it was not uncommon for Jean to find herself in a group upwards of ten people. Some were old friends, some she was meeting for the first time. There were so many people to catch up with so they had started heading to the pub across the road for some lunch and a drink after the film had finished. Jean found herself enjoying this experience. Frank had never really been a man who enjoyed pubs, never much of a drinker and certainly not a smoker he was never fully relaxed in that environment.  Of course nowadays the pubs were smoke free and Jean had the freedom to chat with the others in a relaxed atmosphere.

Though she was grateful to Peggy for introducing her to this new world, she also enjoyed getting away from her for a while and talking to some of the others. She actually found that she could relax and chat to a few of the single men in the group. Derrick, Jim and Bill were good company; Bill had something of Denzel Washington about him she thought. Elegant and courteous he was always charming and caring around her.

It was only when she got home one afternoon that she realised what a revelation this was.  She had to face facts, Frank was gone, she still loved him very much but she was still here and who knows, she could be for some while. “Try not to act old or be lonely” Frank used to say. Well what would he think of her now she wondered.

One week Peggy called to say that she would not be able to make it to the Silver Club, she had been feeling ill for a few days and her doctor had told her to stay at home. Jean was determined to go and when she stepped down from the bus she was delighted to see her group of friends were there waiting for her. One of these was the always immaculately dressed Bill and it was he who stepped forward to say hello and ask after Peggy’s whereabouts.  During the film several people had to suppress mobile phones that they had forgotten to switch off, this was not an uncommon situation so Jean, who didn’t own a mobile didn’t think much of it.  On leaving the cinema though it was clear that something was wrong when Hilda suddenly let out a large cry, before turning to Ted and saying.

“It’s Peggy, she’s gone!”

The funeral took place two weeks later, there was a good turn out which pleased Jean. As luck would have it many of them met up again the next morning for the Silver Club. There was an understandably sombre mood amongst the friends as they took their seats in the cinema. The film was a sentimental wartime story, which held no surprises for Jean.  The events of the last few weeks must have been playing on her mind though as she did find herself unexpectedly moved when the young wife opened the letter, the one that every war bride dreaded. Jean’s hand flinched and she gulped back a tear, Bill was sitting next to her and suddenly their hands were intwined.  It was a long time since she had held a mans hand so firmly and for so long. Frank wouldn’t mind though, she was sure of that.

Breakfast in Ireland

October 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

In the grey light of the morning it’s clear that The Green Lodge in Carlow has seen better days; most of the furniture is showing it’s age and the main window looking out towards the car park in front of the Hotel has a large crack running from top to bottom. The pattern of the raindrops falling down the window is violently skewed as it hits the fault line. Looking around the room I notice a bookshelf and wander over to take a look. It’s full of travel books and guides to the delights of the local area, picture after picture of hills and fields. Why do people want to go and look at countryside? I swear that I’ll never understand the attraction of a muddy field and some old tree’s. If I do change my mind though, this is obviously the place to come. The smell of frying bacon starts to drift past me, time to have a look in the dining room.

I push open the door and find a fairly dispiriting looking room, lot’s of basic looking square metal legged tables with place settings for four people and a centre piece of plastic flowers. None of the chairs appear to match, some of them are comically low, out of curiosity I stiffly edge down onto one these chairs and the find the table is roughly at chin height for me, of course at that very moment the door from the kitchen swings open and a middle aged woman comes quickly into the room.

“Good morning to you, coffee or tea?” She asks as a large grin spreads across her face.

“Oh, um, coffee please,” I say trying to rise from the chair with some degree of grace.

“I think that one’s a little on the small side for you, but I expect you worked that out for yourself there.”

“Yes, it is a little low down, I’ll, um, move, sorry.”

“Any of the others coming down?”

“Not that I know of, it sounded pretty quiet when I got up.”

“I expect they’ll be down soon, in my experience few things move young men like the smell of a cooked breakfast. I’d guess that you’ll be having some company soon.”

With that, she turns quickly on her heels and moves back to the kitchen.

The room is sparsely decorated, the only visual point of interest is a wide picture of what I think is the Forth Bridge, which is actually cut in two and displayed in a couple of adjoining frames of differing sizes. I get up from my seat to take a close look, on closer inspection it looks as though it’s not even a proper poster, it probably was taken from a broadsheet newspaper or a magazine and in places it has faded so much as to be hardly visible. I wonder what prompted someone to pluck this picture and decide that it had to be mounted so quickly that they couldn’t possibly wait until they had a frame that was the right size for the picture. No, it had to go up straight away, if that means cutting it into oddly sized segments, so be it.

Now settled in a chair that matches my build a little better, I have a clear view out to the fields behind the hotel and a very drab view it is. The fields are messy, muddy and are occasionally dotted with buildings and what I assume must be farm equipment all of which are in dilapidated state. I can never understand why older people go on about the wonders of the countryside; in my experience it’s the dullest, dirtiest most miserable place to spend anytime. If you do venture into it, the chances are that you will come home with some sort of animal crap on you after traipsing around for hours with nothing to see and no-one to talk to. It’s a place where stagnation and decay rule, I’ll take the allegedly dirty, smelly, dangerous town over the country every time.

Suddenly the door of the dinning room swings open and in walks an elderly man, vigorously shaking the rain off a small bright pink umbrella. When the umbrella drops down I can see that he is wearing a rather natty ensemble of a Manchester United bobble hat, a paisley scarf, a heavy looking brown checked dressing gown, red tracksuit trousers and a pair of working mans boots which appeared to be covered with the sort of detritus which I had just been thinking about.

“Morningyoungmanwherearemyslipperswhathasshedonewithmyslippers? Theyshouldbebythedoordon’ttellmei’mnotwelcomejustbecauseafewbritshavecomeoverforakickabout”

“Sorry?” I say, unable to keep pace with his rapid-fire delivery.

“Myslipperstheyshouldbebythedoor CLAIRE, CLAIREWHEREAREMYSLIPPERS?” He shouts toward the kitchen.

Claire comes into the room with a mug of coffee in her hand.

“Finbar McCafferty, don’t you be shouting at me like that! Look at the state of you; I thought we agreed that you were going to get dressed properly before coming in for breakfast today. I don’t want you intimidating my guests,” she turns to me. “I’m so sorry

Mr. McCafferty lives next door and we have an arrangement regarding breakfast with him, I hope you don’t mind?”

“No, no, that’s fine,” I say, taking the mug from her outstretched hand.

“Whathaveyoudonewiththem?Ican’thavebreakfastinmybootsIneedmyslipperswoman.”

“Sit down and take those filthy boots off, I put your slippers in the kitchen, give me a moment.”

Mr. McCafferty, looks around the virtually empty dining room before fixing me with a steely glare “Hmph,” he sighs before casting his eyes around the place again. Once again his visual journey around the room ends with him looking in my direction and sighing heavily.

“Oh,” I say. “Is this where you normally sit? Sorry, I’ll move.”

I start to get up from the chair, but he quickly strides towards me.

“Nonostaythereyoungfellow.SitsitI’llgonexttoyou.”

He pulls out the chair and sits down with a heavy thud.

“Pullthatoffformewillyou.”

The boot on his right foot has been lifted a couple of inches from the floor and is proffered in my direction. At some stage, I’m sure that it must have emerged, bright and shinny from a firm box, maybe with some paper carefully wrapped around it to stop it from being blemished by it’s brother or maybe sister boot. A comforting leathery smell would have gently enveloped the nostrils of the new guardian of the footwear and the beautiful relationship between man and his footwear was about to begin. Few relationships are closer than that of a man and the item that he chooses to place upon the sole of his feet.

Although women profess to love their shoes, the fickle way that they switch from pair to pair shows that the relationship is transitory, some would even say capricious. Of course they love to show off their new acquisition to friends and for a while everything is wonderful. Then one day a purchase is made, the new member of the entourage is higher, flatter, brighter, softer, firmer or whatever but it is different and suddenly more exciting that the previous model. Soon the original is featuring rather less often in footwear rota, then it’s moved from the bedroom floor to the wardrobe and it’s seldom seen again, cast to the back of the wardrobe it emerges only on those occasional tidy up days when the flame of affection is briefly rekindled without ever really catching alight with the same level intensity of those first few exciting weeks.

A man however will stick with his shoe until the poor thing has given everything for it’s master, it’s a relationship where the two parties stick together through thick and thin, literally in this case. People often say that the relationship between a man and his dog is so close that the two parties end up mirroring each other’s characteristics, though I must admit that I’m not aware of many men who have taken to cocking their leg whilst relieving themselves. The well fitting, well-worn man’s shoe, will over time reveal to the world, the true nature of the foot snugly hidden within it. The lines and contours gradually emerge to cover the previously smooth surface the shoe, creasing it in a way that mere hands could never mange to do. Eventually when the shoe has given everything for you, it is put out of its misery and thrown away, often in several parts as the sole and uppers become evermore distant friends, the increasing intrusion of water into the area reserved for socks only whenever puddles litter the pavements, mean it has to go.

The shoe is caked with all manner of unpleasantness and is being waved with ever more urgency in my direction.

“COMEON, offwithitnow, offwithit,” he demands.

Cautiously I lean forward, I notice that the laces are undone and are hanging limply down from the eyelets, at least I don’t need to worry about struggling with a difficult knot. I ease my fingers into the uppers and try to make the opening as wide as possible, in the hope that the boot will slip off without too much actual pulling on my part. Sadly there is little room for manoeuvre; I know that at some point I shall have to take hold of that filthy heel and pull. I look back to the table in the hope that there might be a napkin that I can use to provide some sort of protective layer but sadly for me it looks as though finger wiping is not a priority in these parts.

Mr. McCafferty appears to have picked up on my discomfort and train of thought.

“AH, holdonnowholdon, usethis,” he rattles off as he reaches into the pocket of his dressing gown to pull out a large and obviously very well used handkerchief along with various sweet wrappers and a couple of those stubby pens that you can only find in bookmakers.

“Thereyougoyoungfella,” he says.

“Thanks”, I mumble, appreciating his offer of help but distressed that I now have to take hold of another disgusting item to help Mr. McCafferty prepare for his breakfast.

The handkerchief is not only, obviously damp but also distressingly lumpy and in certain parts, green. It’s clear that Mr. McCafferty has used this item for most of his adult life without seeing the need to expose it to any sort of hot water and soap combination and now, generous soul that he is, he’s offering it to me.

I desperately scan the fetid piece of cloth for some dry areas, which I may be able to hold without too much fear of contamination. I find that two diagonally opposing corners are dry and rough to the touch, so gingerly taking those between my thumbs and forefingers I then try to wrap it around the heel of Mr. McCafferty’s right boot in order to pull at the hard plastic base of his footwear.

Mr. McCafferty makes no effort to pull his foot in the opposite direction of my efforts, in fact if anything he appears to just letting his leg drift around in whichever direction I am pulling it.

“Try to pull your foot out,” I say as he starts to slide off his chair and towards me. I pull again and the handkerchief slips against the surface of the boot, falls from my feeble grasp, leaving my now naked fingers holding the slimy boot in my hands.

“Oh Christ!” I yell.

“Comeonladstopmakingsuchasongdanceaboutthiswillyou. Justgetmybootoff.”

What the hell, my hands are covered with sixty years of snot and phlegm along with a sizeable amount of mud and God knows what else, I may as well just bend down, grab it fully and finish it off. So I do this.

The force of my thrust takes Mr. McCafferty by surprise, so as well as the boot departing rapidly from it’s job of enclosing his foot and flying through my slippery grip, he himself zooms forward, his foot going upward at great speed before it is stopped by the weight of my chin. Causing me to bite my lip as my glasses fly across the room. He lands with a thud on the floor, pulling the table and a shower of crockery and cutlery onto him and me as he goes.

There is a second of two of stunned silence before the door to the kitchen is thrown open.

“Mr. McCafferty that’s it!” Shouts Claire. “I asked you not to cause me a problem with these boys and here you are fighting with them in my breakfast room. Who do you think you are?”

“He wasn’t fighting,” I offer. We were just trying to get his boot off and ….well, um things went a bit wrong.”

“I’ll say they did,” she replies. Come away from there now, let me clear that mess up.”

Mr. McCafferty has now picked himself up from the floor and much to my amazement has without any apparent commotion removed his other boot.

“Did you find those slippers?” he meekly asks.