Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Sex Gods from the Planet Metal - Chapter Five


When I was seven, my grandfather taught me to play chess. He was a ludicrously intelligent man, whose patience and forward thinking allowed him to beat a chess computer on the highest level. Before he died, I beat him just once, and I like to think it was on my own merit, genius obviously having bypassed my father and been downloaded straight into me. Okay, so he probably let me win, but if he did, he did it with such subtlety that I'll never know for sure. I mention this because I discovered the real joy of chess from my grandfather - the fact that the outcome depends on moves, countermoves, forward thinking and knowing your opponents strengths and weaknesses. This translated well into real life whenever I wanted to get money out of my parents. My parents, nice as they were, had wallets that were tighter than the proverbial gnat’s chuff. It was so long between openings that any moths in there would have long since died of suffocation. The case in point is a play of "Of Mice And Men" in London, which I wanted to see. Obviously, my parents were against giving me money for anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary, including food and air, so I had to use tactics, or “sneaky bastardness” as my brother succinctly put it, to achieve my aims.

Firstly, I moved my pawns, by making tentative inquiries about how much I had enjoyed reading "Of Mice And Men" in class. I’m not saying I overdid it, but if they had printed all the praise I lavished upon it on the back of the book it would have had to be about ten feet big. With very small writing. The object of this was to get my parents to agree that it's a good book, even a very good book, and worthy of study by their offspring. Next, I brought my bishops, knights and rooks (that's a castle to the uninitiated, or a “thingy” to my brother) into the fray. They formed the front line that wore my parents down, slowly chiselling away at their defences as I introduced the topic of the class trip to see the tale on stage in London. Of course, they initially said “No” (parents have to say no the first time you ask – it’s a law or something), but with skilful play I whittled down their defences and manoeuvred them into the desired "maybe" position. Every kid knows that once you've got the word No changed to Maybe then you're on the home straight. As long as you keep at it and don't let your guard down then you're in like Flynn. With this in mind, my queen started bullying her way around the board, reducing my parents arsenal to a few lowly pawns and their king, other wise known as "Money doesn't grow on trees". This is a standard argument of all parents, easily negated by the fact that money (or money that matters anyway – keep your coins, paupers!) is made of paper, and paper is made of trees, so there. I finally got them in checkmate, albeit with a pretty impressive sulk and the obligatory promise not to ask for anything “Ever again”, or “a week” as it translates, and they let me go to London, after only three days asking. My game, I think, and I apologise for all the stupid chess metaphors.

Anyone who's ever taken a coach to school will know the power of the Back Seat. It deserves its’ capital letters, as it's the seat of power on the coach. Every morning as we waited for the coach to school we were like a pack of wolves fighting over the last scrap of lost schoolchild, snarling, biting and occasionally marking our territory with a well aimed gob. The coach would pull up, the driver would open the doors and then everything would descend into chaos as all the boys tried to squeeze on first so they could sit on the Back Seat and lord it over the peasants. I managed it a few times, but never really saw it as worth the effort, settling most of the time for a seat about three quarters of the way back. Not a seat of power, but a good position to still have a laugh nonetheless. As we travelled to London on the mini coach, however, I was firmly ensconced on the Back Seat, slouched against the window, thanks to Miss Wright. She didn't actually know she was doing me a favour, but she made everyone line up alphabetically to go onto the coach, and as a Banner I was the first boy in the queue. Peter found himself fifth, so we were both able to acquire a seat of power without doing anything to actually earn it, a bit like the royal family. I felt like Ming The Merciless in the old Flash Gordon serials my Mum goes on about, sitting on my throne, cackling and plotting evil plans. Miss Wright was sat at the front, circled by creepier members of the class. I may have been good at English, and yes, I had a mad crush on the woman, but I knew full well that if I started sucking up to the teacher I'd soon lose a few rungs in the ladder of hierarchy that us kids have. Instead, I contented myself with firing off spitballs at selected students in front of me and singing borderline dirty songs with the rest of the lads at the back. All credit to Miss Wright, as she just let us get on with it, coming back only once, when Mike Parker decided to try and get everyone singing "Frigging In The Rigging", even going so far as to pass out lyric sheets, which I felt was a mark of genius. He’s an investment banker now.

After a few hours of travel, we finally started cruising through the outskirts of London, and I could feel the tension mount. I looked at Peter, ready to discuss the pluses and minuses of the sprawling metropolis, but he had his head wedged between the two seats in front of us. As those two seats contained Chloe Hamilton and Karen Thompson, I wasn’t surprised. They were the undoubted princesses of the class, being not only very pretty, but also very partial to the sort of boy who sits on the back seat. Not for them intelligence and witty conversation, the much prefer the brute force and ignorance approach. I suspect they are both married to Premiership footballers today. I knew that normally Peter wouldn't bother with them, but since we went out with Carolyn and Jane he'd been chasing girls like Benny Hill with ADHD. Personally, I hadn't tried it on with anyone, mainly because the memory of Carolyn's brothers was still all too fresh, and I didn’t fancy another helping of vomit and boot polish. I left Peter to his flirting and turned back to the window, content with watching the World go by.

I love London, and I think the affair started with that trip. It was the first time I'd been, but I was in “brilliant” mode, enthusing over everything like a rock frontman pretending that every venue and audience are the “best ever!” I could not believe I was standing in Trafalgar square, with Nelson towering above me and pigeons pecking at the food in my outstretched hands. Peter stood a few meters away, taking a photograph, whilst the rest of the class climbed on the giant lions and pretended to push each other in the fountain (This never gets old). Miss Wright kept a beady eye on everyone at the same time, occasionally stepping in to lend a hand when someone was being just that bit too much of a dick. She was being helped by Joanna, a student teacher. Normally, student teachers are fair game, but Miss Wright was very clear on what would happen to anyone who messed Joanna about. Personally, I didn't fancy missing the play to sit in the coach with the driver, so had treated Joanna like royalty, and by that I don't mean taking pictures of her when she's not looking and selling them to the papers.
When the birds had finished with me, flapping their way across the square to pick on a soon to be crying her eyes out little girl, we both went to sit by the fountain and just watch everyone else. Peter seemed to be content to stare at Chloe Hamilton, and although she had more air in her head than brains, I could see why: she was very pretty, and had got long blonde hair that seemed to defy gravity. Reason enough, in a hormonal schoolboys mind, to stare at her until your eyeballs dry up.
"You in there, then?" I said, nudging him conspiratorially.
"Nah," he admitted with uncommon honesty. "She's alright to chat to, but she won't do anything unless you play for the rugby team."
"You seemed to be getting on alright on the coach."
"I would've been chatting to you, but you just sat there looking out of the bloody window. What's up?"
"I dunno. I've just got things running through my head. Everything just seems so fucking futile. What's the point of it all?" This was a deep thought for one so shallow.
"Girls and music," Peter stated with the confidence of someone who absolutely knows that he's right. "Or music and girls for you, as you haven't even had a sniff since The Incident."
We called it 'The Incident' (remember the capitals) because I couldn’t bear to hear in any detail about what happened. I walked around in a permanent state of alert, always looking over my shoulder, always afraid that they'd come back and finish the job. I hadn't dared even speak to another girl, like there was some sort of mental block inside me. It was two months since The Incident, but whenever I closed my eyes at night I ran through the whole thing and realise what I should have done differently to affect a more satisfactory outcome (such as not puke on his shoes). I wondered if I'd ever be able to let it go.
"I just don't fancy anyone at the moment," I lied.
"Ah, you're just a wet blanket," said Peter, and made as if to push me backwards into the water, like you do.
Although he stopped at the last second, I reflexively jerked away from his hands, and suddenly found myself overbalanced and at the point of no return, like someone leaning on the back two legs of a chair who suddenly realises he is about to be very embarrassed and very on the floor very shortly. The world slowed as I toppled backwards. Peter grabbed for me when he realised what was going on, but his hands couldn’t get a secure purchase on my jacket, and I fell with great indignity into the water. The correct sound effect in the comic book of my life would definitely have been “sploosh!”
It wasn’t very deep, and I ended up for a millisecond with my head submerged and my legs sticking comically up against the edge. Immediately, I pushed my hands behind me and propelled my body up, gasping for air. Peter reached over and grabbed me, pulling me back up, and I just sat on the edge, looking like a half drowned puppy. I could not believe what had just happened. Everyone, and I mean everyone in the world, not just the class, was staring at me, most of them laughing their asses off, and not without justification. I knew full well that if I was in their place I would be pissing myself, but from where I was sitting (and dripping), it was just not funny, dammit! Why couldn't they see that? As I rubbed my hands over my face and hair, trying to wipe the excess water off, I saw Miss Wright running over. She didn't look very amused, unsurprisingly, and I thought perversely that she was the only person I'd rather have actually laughing.
"What on Earth is going on here?" she said harshly when she reached us.
"I fell in," I replied simply. "It was an accident."
"An accident?" she exclaimed incredulously. "You don't just fall backwards into a fountain by accident. You fall in a fountain because someone pushes you, and I can only see one person here who could have done that." She glared at Peter, who had the good sense to look very ashamed.
"He didn't actually push me, Miss," I said, preparing the case for the defence. "We were just messing about."
"Messing about?” She made it sound more like ‘Multiple Homicide’. “Did it not occur to you that this was a pretty stupid place to be messing about? What if you'd banged your head? What if we'd had to fish you out and take you to the hospital? Don't you think about these things?"
Teachers are great at these questions, along with parents. They can take a harmless incident and make it seem like you were trying to start World War Three. They can't just tell you off, they have to take it to the next level. I swear they're all out to get me.
"Sorry Miss," we said in unison, aware that there really was no other answer we could give. We were both painfully aware at this moment that our future hung in the balance, with Miss Wright as our judge, jury and executioner. She just stood for a few seconds, mulling over her options, as we put on the most grovellingly apologetic expressions we could find in our repertoire.
"Right," she said finally. "Peter, you stay here. David, come with me." I stood up, and she led me away.
"Take your jacket off," she ordered when we were out of earshot of the rest of the class. I obediently too it off and handed it to her. She put it in a carrier bag and we continued on to a souvenir shop. Inside, the shop was mass of Union Jacks, with 'I Heart London' plastered on everything it could possibly be plastered on. Jesus, I wondered, who actually buys this crap, and even worse, who wears it? Without a word, Miss Wright picked up a t-shirt bearing that very legend and handed over a fiver to the shop assistant.
"Right," she said when we get outside. "Take that wet shirt off."
I complied silently, still aware that she hadn't actually let me off yet. She put my shirt in the same bag as my wet jacket and handed me the souvenir shirt.
"Put this on. There's not much I can do about your trousers, but they're not all that bad. Just promise me you won't catch pneumonia, okay?"
"Yes, Miss," I replied with a smile. "Miss?" I added tentatively. "It wasn't Peter's fault really. I just fell in, that's all. Can we still see the play?" Oh please please say yes. She looked down at me and smiled. One of those God is in his heaven, angels trumpeting kind of smiles, so I knew it was going to be okay.
"I suppose so," she said. "I'm sorry I got mad, but it was a bit of a shock, seeing you sitting there all wet. To be honest, I don't know how I stopped myself from laughing, but that's between you and me, okay?"
"Okay," I promised, and we walked back over to Trafalgar square. When we got there, everyone was quiet, all wondering what Miss Wright would do to punish me and Peter. I ignored them and sat next to Peter again.
"You alright?" he asked.
"So what's happening?" He was dying to know.
"About what?" I said innocently, playing with him like he was an inquisitive kitten.
"Are we getting bollocked or what?" he hissed, exasperated.
"Nah," I said nonchalantly. "I reckon having to wear this shirt is punishment enough, don't you?"
He laughed, and we both reflected silently on how lucky we've just been. Why can't girls be more like Miss Wright? I thought to myself. On cue, she blew her whistle, the signal for us to be rounded up. It was time for the play, and not a minute too soon.

The George Theatre was a beautiful place. It was filled with schoolkids as it was a special matinee showing of the play. Miss Wright bought a programme, which was passed round once we’d taken our seats. As I read the cast list I couldn’t believe my eyes. The part of Curley, the short, terminally pissed off ranch bosses son, was being played by Christopher Ryan. Nobody else could work out why I was so worked up about this, until I explained that he's the same guy who played Mike in The Young Ones. A collective 'Aaaaahhhh...' went through the line, as everyone had seen The Young Ones, or at least pretended to, as either not watching or not enjoying it was a sure social death. As the lights darkened and the curtain went back, I was mesmerised. The first scene opened with Lenny and George by a stream, and they actually had a stream running across the front of the stage! I sat, entranced, for the first act, but halfway through the second my bladder urgently insisted I leave for a few minutes or risk my trousers becoming damp again. With great regret, I shuffled past the others and scurried to the gents, looking over my shoulder until I turned the corner and could no longer see the stage. I knew every word, or just about, but it was such a magical performance to me that I didn't want to miss any more than was completely necessary.
The theatre toilets were rather posh, with golden taps and pristine walls. I was more used to school toilets, where you don't dare touch the walls the only toilet paper is that tracing paper style medicated stuff that doesn't absorb at all, it just sort of smears the shit over as much space as possible. There were urinals, but I've never been able to go in those, still can’t, so I headed for the nearest cubicle and pushed open the door. In my hurry, I didn't see the man on the floor until I tripped over him. My arms flailed wildly, and I planted them on the cistern so I didn't brain myself on it. Then, I looked down in horror. There was a man on the floor. He was fully clothed, smartly so even, and was just lying there, motionless. I could not believe what I was seeing here, my brain resisting the urge to shout “He’s dead! He’s dead!” at me. I backed out of the cubicle and squatted down to look at his face. There was no blood or bruising to suggest he fell and knocked himself out, but there also seemed to be no sign of life. I really didn't want to touch him, but I couldn't help myself. I tentatively reached out a hand and poked him, wishing I had a stick instead. Nothing. I looked at him for a few seconds, and registered that he really didn't seem to be breathing. With a shaking hand, I checked his pulse, like my mother had shown me how. I couldn’t feel anything, and hoped beyond hope that I was incompetent, because if I was doing everything right he was definitely dead. His vein was completely empty of rhythm, like Wham. Suddenly, I was paralysed. What the heck was I supposed to do? I broke free of the fear, jumped up and shot out of the toilets. A few yards away there was an usher, who looked my way and registered surprise at my panicked expression, as well he should.
"Help!" I squeaked, stuttering slightly. "There's a dead guy. In the toilet. Quick!"
I grabbed the usher by the sleeve and draged him into the toilet to show him. He assessed the situation and got out his radio. Although I knew I'd done nothing wrong, I felt wretched. I also knew I hadn't got a hope of seeing the end of the play now. What a day.
As I get on the coach, everyone goes silent. Then, softly, the theme music from 'Fireman Sam' comes over the speakers, and one by one everyone starts to piss themselves laughing. I move down the aisle, giving each and every one of the bastards the wanker sign, and take my seat next to Simon, who is grinning like a loon.
"Well," I say deadpan. "That was hilarious."
"Oh come on mate," he says. "You can't blame them. You put on quite a show last night."
"I know, and to be honest I'd rather just forget about it. The sun's shining, we've got plenty of booze and we're on our way to Weymouth for the day - does it get any better than this?" In case you were wondering, I am very easily pleased.
"Nope," he agrees. "In fact, the only way I could be happier right now is if I was wearing Cindy Crawford like a feedbag whilst Kylie did athletic things with my nether regions."
"But failing that you're quite happy as you are?"
"Well, I'll live with it," he grins.
"Morning boys," says Irene, settling herself down in front of us.
"Morning Irene," we chorus, like two obedient schoolboys. She may be a bit batty, but we love Irene.
"Morning boys," says Sally sarcastically, sitting herself next to Irene.
"Morning lezza," we chorus, like very sarcastic but still obedient schoolboys. Sally sticks her tongue out at us and waggles it suggestively.
"Only if you bring a friend," says Simon with a leer.
"I've got a friend in my handbag, Simon," she says, reaching for it.
"NO!" I shout. "Trust me Simon, you don't want to see her friend."
"I do," says Irene. "What is it, a pet mouse or something?"
"Are you sure you want to see it, Irene?" Sally says with a mischievous glint in her eyes.
"Go on," says Irene. "Give us a look, love."
With this, Sally delves into her handbag and brings out her favourite vibrator, the green one with the interesting knobbly bits, and waves it at Simon, who sits back down in his seat like he's been shot.
"Fookin' hell!" he exclaims.
Irene, however, seems to be studying the vibrator with more than a passing interest.
"What do you think, Irene?" asks Sally.
"It's very nice, dear," says Irene. "Not as big as mine, though."
There's really nothing to say to that.

We depart the coach right on the sea front, at about five past eleven, perfectly timed for the pubs to open. I find it odd that every year we come on this trip and just spend the day drinking, something we could just as easily do at home, but without the extra costs, especially for me and Simon, as no one gives us free pints in Weymouth. This has never occurred to me before, and I've always been perfectly happy to charge around with everyone else from pub to pub, generally behaving like a tourist. I once heard that Weymouth centre has more pubs per square mile than anywhere else in Britain, and although I don't know if this is correct, I can believe it. There's absolutely loads of pubs here, from the traditional horse brasses on the wall sad old men at the bar types all the way up to the now popular cheap beer, cheap food, no atmosphere type made numerous by Wetherspoons and other offspring of the Devil. Okay, the food’s cheap, but by Christ they are soul destroying if you just want to have a laugh. Come to think of it, I think they’ve banned smoking, along with juke boxes, pool tables and excitement. We get dropped off outside McAndrews bar, a large establishment on the sea front which has plenty of room for all. Tradition has it that the landlord gets the first round in, and Harry obliges by buying twenty seven pints without a hint of animosity. Me and Simon take a seat with Sally and Irene, relishing the cold alcohol sloshing down our throats.
"What's the plan then, boys?" asks Sally.
"Drink!" shouts Simon, causing a few heads to turn.
"Drink!" I agree, though not so loudly.
"Sandcastles," says Irene, quietly between sips.
"What?" I say, puzzled.
"Sandcastles," she repeats slowly as if to a member of parliament. "Well. Sand sculptures they're called. Someone does them on the sea front. They take ages, they do. I thought I'd take a look. Who wants to spend a lovely day like this cooped up in pubs?"
"Me," says Simon with conviction.
"Yeah, me as well," agrees Sally.
I'm about to agree, when I look into Irene's eyes. They shine with a fierce intelligence that I've never seen before. I don't doubt that the old girl's senile, but today she seems to have full control of what marbles are left rattling around inside her withered skull. I feel an unspoken plea from her that matches my earlier feelings. Sod the pubs.
"Er, actually, I think I'll join Irene," I say, as if this had been my plan all along. "She's right. There's more to a day out than getting pissed."
"Who are you?" says Simon, making the sign of the cross at me. "And what have you done with the real Dave. Begone foul fiend!" With this, he starts chanting in Latin, or what he thinks Latin should sound like anyway. Sally joins in for a few seconds, then they both collapse with laughter.
“Well," says Simon, downing his pint. "Have a good time, mate. If you get bored or thirsty, just give me a call and I'll tell you where we are. Seeya."
"Bye Dave. Bye Irene. See you later," says Sally, and they troop out with the rest, in search of pastures new. I look at Irene.
"That's another fine mess you've gotten me into," I say, twiddling with an invisible tie.
"Oh shut up, David," she says, smiling. "Shall we go and explore?"
"Why not."

It really is a beautiful day. As we walk along the sea front I do the usual male thing of surreptitiously scoping out at the many scantily clad females frolicking on the beach. Irene plods along beside me, seemingly happy to just be here. We find the sand sculptures, and Irene spends ten minutes admiring them. They really are pretty good, and have been here for years, although my boredom threshold for such things is two minutes maximum. I let her have her time, though, as it would be rude not to, and there's something about Irene that just doesn't let you even consider being rude to her. I find myself wondering just what she's been though in her life. She must be eighty if she's a day, but all we really know her for is being the slightly batty old girl who lives next to the pub. There must be more to her than that.
"Oi!" she says, poking me in the ribs and bringing me out of my daydreaming.
"Sorry," I say. "I was miles off."
"Come on," she says, taking my hand like she's a mother leading a small child across the street. "Let's get a cup of tea."
Although I'd definitely prefer something stronger, I let her guide me across the road to a little tea shop, which is predictably busy. We squeeze into a small table and Irene orders a pot of tea for two and some teacakes. There's something very safe and secure about Irene today, it makes me feel like I'm out with my Gran, even though she's been dead for fifteen years now. We sit in a comfortable silence until the tea and teacakes arrive, at which point I feel I just have to say something.
"So. How old are you exactly, Irene?" I ask. It doesn't feel like a rude question, even though I know you're never supposed to ask a lady her age. I've always thought that only concerns people who might actually be offended because they still think of themselves as young. When someone reaches seventy I think they stop giving a toss who knows how old they are. On the contrary, once you start getting well into old age you become eager to let people know exactly how old you are, especially in shop queues.
"I'm eighty seven," Irene answers, with a definite hint of pride in her voice. "Eighty seven years young," she adds with a cackle.
"I don't know how to put this," I say. "But you seem very, well, lucid today. You're not normally this animated."
"I get tired in the evenings," she replies. "My head gets a bit fuzzy, but in the daytime I'm fine. You only see me when I'm a bit out of sorts, don't you, you're at work when I'm like this."
"Huh, I wish I wasn't?"
"Don't you like your job, David?"
"I can't stand my job," I say emphatically. "I go in five days a week, answer letter from idiots on behalf of other idiots, get bollocked for stuff I have no control over then get stuck in motorway traffic on the way home. What's not to like?"
"You should do something you enjoy. You like working down at the pub, don't you?"
"That's different," I say. "That's not like work, I enjoy it. In an ideal world I'd have my own pub, not working for anyone but myself."
"Would the Full Moon do?" she asks, smiling.
"Only the Moon would do." I reply sincerely. "It's my second home."
"What about your friend?" she asks. "The oversexed one?"
"Simon? Yeah, he could come in with me. I'd have to take measures to stop himself drinking himself to death, but I reckon he'd be brilliant. Never going to happen, though."
"It's nice to dream, though, isn't it?"
"Yeah, and maybe I'll get Iron Maiden to play on a Saturday as well, eh? You know, whilst we're living in fantasy land. Come on, let's talk about something else. Tell me about you."
"Ooooh, I'm pretty boring, you know. I don't get about that much now, just potter around the village and have a couple of drinks in the evening."
"Have you got any family?"
"No," she says sadly. "I'm the last one. When I'm gone there'll be no one to remember me."
"Come on," I say. "We'll all remember you."
"Oh yes, and what will you say?"
"I don't know. Probably something like 'Remember old Irene, she was brilliant, lived through the war, she did, lovely girl'. You know, something like that."
"Two wars, you mean," She says, quietly.
"I was born in 1914, so I lived through two world wars, although I don't remember anything about the first one, obviously. I remember the second one, though. That was a belter."
"What was it like?" I ask, genuinely interested.
"They used to say 'War is hell', you know, and they were right. I was in my early twenties, just got married to my Jack, and all happy. Then that Hitler went and started it all off and everything went crazy. They took Jack away from me, put a uniform on him and sent him off to fight the Germans. Seven months I'd had him for, that was all, and they took him away from me. I lived in Cleeveton even then, so we never had any problems with the bombings. We were always ready, mind. I put up an Anderson shelter in the back garden, with a little help from the neighbours, and every time we heard the planes going over we'd hide in our shelters just in case one of them thought to drop one of his bombs early. You can't imagine the terror we felt, just waiting for death to come and get us. The shelters wouldn't have stopped a direct hit, and although it would be a million to one thing, we were all afraid anyway." She stops, a faraway look in her eyes.
"Did they send evacuees here?" I asked.
"Oh yes. We had quite a few running around. They loved it here, but they were all worried about their folks back in the cities. I took in a little girl called Abigail. Pretty little thing she was, only eight when I first met her. She was one of the lucky ones, because after the war she was able to go back to both her parents, alive and well. Her dad was in the Navy, and every time we heard of a ship being sunk on the wireless she'd cry for hours, worried her dad had been on it and nobody had told her. She was alright, though, in the end. We kept in touch for years afterwards, but that tailed off, as those things do."
"What about Jack," I ask tentatively. "Did he come back?"
"No." she says simply. "Jack was killed in France. I remember getting the telegram. Of course, I knew what it was before I opened it. You didn't get telegrams from the war office for any other reason, did you? I thought I was prepared for it, because it's something you can't help thinking about. You tell yourself that if it happens, it happens, and that you'll be proud that your man gave his life defending our country from evil, but you can't really prepare for it. I never did get married again. I don't think my heart could have taken it. I would have always been afraid of losing out again, so I just sort of gave up.”
"What did you do?"
"Well, after the war I threw myself into work. There was a lot of rebuilding to do. Not just houses and things, but lives. Without Jack I couldn't function unless I was busy, so I got busy and stayed busy. I've been everywhere in my life, David, done a lot of things and made a lot of money, but I'd trade it all just to have my Jack back."
I don't know what to say. A simple chat has turned into a depressing soul bearing. Nonetheless I feel kind of privileged to be told these things. I look Irene in the eyes, and she suddenly smiles.
"What a couple of miserable old buggers eh?" she says, eyes twinkling. "Come on, David, tell me a mucky joke and cheer us up." So I do. I dredge out one of the filthiest jokes I know, and tell it to my eighty seven year old friend, who laughs like a drain.

"Come on," I say when we've finished our tea. "Let's go and find the others and have a laugh. We deserve it."
"Okay," she agrees. "But give me an hour or so to myself will you, there's some stuff I need to do. Give me your number and I'll call you when I'm ready, then you can all buy the poor old lady a drink or three."
I give her my mobile number and leave her at the table. I call Simon and make my way to the pub, realising that although it was a bit depressing, I had a good time with Irene. Who'd have thought she'd turn out to be a groovy old chick?

It's eight o'clock when we stagger off the coach outside the Full Moon, ready to round off a very drunken day with, surprise surprise, a few more drinks. The journey back was a continuous singalong, and unlike my school days, 'Frigging In The Rigging' was positively encouraged. I couldn't help but smile when I saw Irene joining in the chorus.
"You coming in, then?" I ask as I help her down the coach steps. The light in her eyes has dulled now, and I admit to myself that the confused old lady I know best has returned.
"Hmmm?," she says, looking dazedly at me. "Oh. Yes. Of course." Recognition seems to register as she peers at me. "I've just got to go home first, dear. I'll be round in a few minutes, okay?"
I watch her slowly walk into her house and, satisfied she'll be okay, join the rest in the saloon bar, which is a whirlwind of noise, mainly the clinking of glasses. I spot Morgan at a table in the corner and after collecting the pint Simon has got for me I go and sit by him.
"So what happened to you today?" I ask, knowing full well he went to a match.
"Sunday game, wasn't it?" he says.
"Really?" I say, feigning complete surprise and overacting like a Neighbours extra. "How did you get on?"
"Not too good," he admits.
"Was it..." I say, "Four nil? Just a guess, mind." Actually, I heard the score on the coach radio, and have been dying to take the piss ever since.
"Bastard," he says with feeling. "We were robbed."
"Robbed? You were robbed, fucked up the arse and tied naked to a lamp post mate. Why do you do it, Morgan? I'm sure Manchester United would welcome such a mentalist as you with open arms. Sure, you'd have to buy a new set of shirts and have a couple of very dodgy tattoos burned off, but at least you'd smile occasionally."
"I'm loyal to my local team," he says stubbornly.
"Morgan," I say slowly. "You were born in Manchester." It's true. His parents had him at home, literally a sharpened coins throw from Old Trafford.
"Yeah," he admits. "But I live here, don't I? Anyway, I'm a City fan and that's that."
"Never mind, mate," I say, standing and patting him on the back. "Your day will come." I leave him to his moping and go over to Simon, who's in full flow.
"...I'm not kidding. I would've strapped a board to me arse if I had one handy. I went down on her and there was an echo..." Everyone is laughing and having a good time, but I feel a bit out of it, probably due to all the sodding cider currently sloshing around inside me. Irene finally rejoined the group this afternoon after a couple of hours doing God knows what, probably old lady things like visiting a museum or something. We all converged on Wetherspoons for a meal, sending the staff into a minor panic, and I'd hoped that the steak and chips would sooth my guts, but they're gurgling happily like a maternity ward. I tap Simon on the shoulder.
"Have you seen Irene?" I ask. "She was supposed to be coming in."
"Nah. She probably fell asleep or something. She knocked back a fair few shorts - they've probably put her out cold."
"Yeah," I concur. "Look, I'm just going to check on her anyway, okay?"
"Sure. Careful with the old lady fixation, Dave, you could get in real trouble, especially if by some miracle she's still fertile. You'd have to marry her!" Around him, everyone hoots with laughter, although I suspect they'd laugh at anything by this point in the day.
"Bottom!" I shout, which brings a fresh round of giggling. Okay, so at least I've proved my point.

I traipse outside, revelling in the crisp air that floods through my lungs. I consider for a moment just going home and collapsing into bed, but I know that if I disappear Simon will come and drag me back, and if I go back in and tell him I feel like going home he'll call me a lightweight, tie me to a chair and force feed me alcohol until I'm so drunk I let Morgan sign me up for the Bristol City supporters club. No, I decide to just do what I came out to do, and proceed to ring Irene's doorbell. There's no answer, so I ring it again to no avail. I decide that, as Simon suspected, she must have fallen asleep, and am about to go back to the pub when I notice that the door isn't closed. My conscience wrestles with itself for a minute, trying to decide whether to just pull the door closed or to go inside and take a look around. It's a bit of a fixed fight, mind, as I'm a terminally nosy bugger, and I slip inside, reasoning to myself that It's because I want to make sure Irene's all right, and not because I want to see what her house is like. Yeah, right. I'm immediately surprised by the immaculate condition the house is in. There's a couple of beautiful original paintings in the hallway, and not a speck of dust to be seen. I surmise that she must have someone in to clean for her, as I can't see her keeping a whole house clean by herself. I open the door to the living room, and the first sight that greets me is a forty inch projection TV, which takes me back a bit. I know she told me today that she's made a lot of money, but I thought it was just the ramblings of an old lady. Obviously she wasn't shitting me. Facing the TV is a luxurious recliner chair, and sitting peacefully in it, dead to the world, is Irene. I smile, and decide that the best thing would be to wake her and see that she gets to bed, otherwise she'll wake up sore and confused in the morning - I know I have often enough.
"Irene?" I say, gently rocking her. "Time for bed Irene." I rock a little harder, and her head lolls to one side. I then notice that she doesn't seem to be breathing.

Oh Christ, not again.

I quickly check her pulse, and as I expect there's nothing. Straight away, I move her from the chair onto the floor and start mouth to mouth, praying that the air from my lungs is enough to start hers. I hammer on her chest, as if by brute force I can cajole her heart into beating again, but to no avail. After a minute I give up. I know she's long gone, that her heart has just given up after all these years, and there is nothing I can do or could have gone. I sit on the sofa, strangely squeamish about using the chair she died in, and use my mobile to call an ambulance. Then I settle down to have a cry, and to wait.

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