Wednesday, 30 December 2009
Personally, I was impressed by the rooms, especially the fact that I didn’t have to share one with my Mum. Okay, so I was next door, but in my mind I was a million miles away. With Farrah Fawcett.
The best part about the whole situation was that our rooms were not in St Ives, they were not even near St Ives, and they were not even in Cornwall. How so? Well, I couldn’t have planned it better myself…
My head was still spinning as we walked out to the car after the meal. It was like being drunk, but without the utter fear of being found out afterwards. I was so confused I didn’t know what to do. I could have tried to persuade Mum to forget about St Ives and stay exactly where we were for a few days, but I knew that once she had a plan there was no deviating for silly reasons like love and happiness, oh no. The only real option I had was prayer, and I felt that God might not grant and begging petitions from yours truly due to the tiny fact that I had spent much of my life not believing in him and calling those that did utter nobheads. Sod it, I thought, and prayed anyway to a new deity I had just invented. I called him Norman, and decided he was a benevolent God who granted all sorts of wishes and the like without any need for worship or sacrifices. I liked Norman, and to this day feel there should be more Gods like him.
Okay, so there wasn’t a thunderclap or anything, but the actual noise Norman sent was a lot more welcome. It was the sound of a car engine refusing to start, like a racehorse whose back legs have gone to sleep. Mum was determined that the plan was not going to be thwarted by a mere machine, and was stubbornly trying again and again, whilst the cars weak protestations the it wasn’t at all well got steadily weaker. Finally, inevitably, it went “floot” or something like it, and was pronounced dead. Mum gave a frustrated growl and dragged me back to the pub where she called the AA, who told her that someone would be there soon. Mum, whose body language hinted strongly that she would prefer if a mechanic was beamed down Star Trek style immediately, gritted her teeth and thanked them in the way a schoolboy being caned thanks sir and asks for another. Then we went back to the car to wait.
You know that noise mechanics, plumbers and the like make when they are about to give you expensive news, when they suck air through their teeth? Well, I don’t know how to spell that, but the closest I can get is “fffffffffffffftt…”. Just so we’re clear what it means, okay?
“ffffffffffffffffft…” said the mechanic, who had arrived within five minutes from his garage up the road. “I’m not going to be able to fix this, love.”
To her credit, Mum didn’t disembowel him for calling her ‘love’.
“Well what can you do?” she asked politely. “We have to be in St Ives later.”
“Not in this, sweetheart,” he replied, as I waited anxiously for him to call her petal.
Mum still didn’t disembowel him. “How long will it take you to fix it?”
“Couple of days, I suppose. It’s the parts, you see. I’d offer you a hire car but the only one I’ve got’s out at the moment. Looks like your stuck here for the duration, Petal.”
Mum quietly digested this information, whilst I silently cheered and promised Norman I would spread his gospels far and wide. Norman, nice God that he was, said I needn’t bother.
“Fine. Is there anywhere round here we can stay. Anywhere decent, naturally.”
“To be honest, darling, you’re already there. The Winchester here’s the best in town. They got some nice rooms up top, I’m sure they’ll have a couple for you and your lad here.”
“Thank you, Mr Beard. You’ve been most helpful, and I shall be checking up on your progress. As you have been helpful to me, I shall be helpful to you and give you a bit of advice.”
He leaned towards her, like a fly drawn to a carnivorous plant.
“In future, it would probably be best if you didn’t refer to female customers as darling, flower, petal or any other such nauseating sexist twaddle. Personally, if you refer to me as anything other than Mrs Banner, or Ruth if you manage to fix my car, I will disembowel you. With a spoon.”
I knew I’d heard that before I saw Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves.
Mr Beard just smiled at her, raised his oily cap and said “Certainly Mrs Banner,” then stomped off to his tow truck.
So we were staying. What a shame.
The Winchester, as well as having good clean kitchens and pretty kitchen staff (well, at least one), had good clean pretty rooms. The pretty part was mainly because they were decorated in nice colours with lovely paintings of coastal views on the walls. Mum was totally happy with her room, which was a rarity, because she only really seemed happy when she had something to complain about, but try as she might she couldn’t find anything. After she’d found her own room to be frustratingly clean, she inspected mine, which was similarly perfect. With a sigh, she sat on the bed next to me.
“I’m sorry about this, David,” she said. “We were going to have fun, but it looks like we’ll be stuck here for a while.”
“It’s not your fault, Mum,” I said, trying to look a little downhearted for appearances sake. “We’ll be okay.”
“Why don’t we take a walk around the town, see what’s here,” she suggested.
I nodded. “Sure.” So we did.
The town, it turned out, was called Culvernay, and although it wasn’t too big, it wasn’t the ghost town I had first thought. There were plenty of craft shops to keep Mum happy, and we pottered in and out of them so she could pick things up and admire them, whilst telling me not to pick anything up as if I was five years old. I still picked things up when her back was turned, but only because in some ways I was still five years old. There were a few grubby little pubs and the promise of a market on Wednesday morning, but not really a lot else. At least the biggest of the newsagents had some super hero comics, and I got a few without having to pester too hard, Mum still feeling guilty about having to stay here. The biggest saving grace was that it had a cinema. Not much of one admittedly, but to my delight Tuesdays was reserved for showings of classic films, and that night was War Of The Worlds, my favourite film since I first saw it on television. I really wanted the opportunity to see it on a big screen, and after noting it started at seven thirty, slowly and surely I drew my plans together…
We sat in the restaurant, having just enjoyed another excellent meal. Mum seemed tired and weary from the stress of the day. So much so she didn’t even complain when she realised her soup was seventeen degrees too hot. It’s that sort of uncanny temperature measuring that always stopped me being able to fake being ill. It’s not easy having a human thermometer for a mother, or a human vegetable for a brother for that matter.
“You look tired,” I said, playing the caring son. “Do you want to go and have a lie down?”
“I could do with one, I suppose. I just feel guilty about having landed you here – there’s nothing for you to do, really.”
This was my opening. She had walked right into my trap.
“Well, I did notice the local flea pit’s showing War Of The Worlds tonight,” I said brightly, as if I had just thought of it.
She groaned. “Not that old rubbish. I swear there should be a law against Americans stealing our books to make poor films out of them. You know I hate that film, David.”
Of course I did. That was why it was so perfect.
“You don’t have to come with me Mum,” I said, the voice of reason. “It’s not like I can’t go to the cinema on my own. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll be better off just having a rest. We can go somewhere tomorrow when you’re feeling more up to it.”
“Are you sure you’ll be okay on your own?”
“Mum, I’m fifteen. This place is hardly any bigger than Hinton really. I promise everything will be fine. I mean, if I can survive an Iron Maiden concert I’m sure I can survive a sleepy Devon town.”
“I suppose it won’t do any harm,” she said, giving in gracefully. “I want your word, young man, that you won’t try anything stupid like getting served in a pub.”
“Of course not.” Who did she think I was? Oh, right – fair enough. After my drinking escapade with Nick I still hadn’t touched a drop, and had no wish to, so it was an easy promise to make. “So can I go?”
“I don’t see why not. Just don’t stay out too late, and keep away from the locals.”
Inside me, there was a whole ballroom of people doing victory waltzes, so it was easy to lie through my teeth. “Yes Mum.” I looked down, but my pants weren’t on fire, so I reckoned I’d got away with it.
As I’ve got older, wiser and lazier, I’ve realised that choosing clothes for a date is basically a piece of piss. Pick a T-shirt that hasn’t got a band name on it, some clean jeans, whichever pair of boxers makes my cock look biggest and finish off with any old socks and trainers. If the occasion is formal, such as a royal reception, then substitute the trainers for a pair of shoes, preferably slip ons. Shaving is optional, depending on whether my stubble makes me look like George Michael when all the girls fancied him, or a tramp. In the end, as long as you are comfortable, you will appear to look good. It’s your attitude and confidence that wins over the girls, not the fact that your socks match, although if they are fussy about that it’ll be too late by the time they find out.
Of course, at fifteen I had no such preconceptions, determined that what girls liked was purely on the outside, and that a good heart and soul was nothing if not accompanied by a shirt with a little crocodile on the breast. With this in mind, I spent forty five minutes trying to tart myself up as best I could with the limited resources we had brought with us. There wasn’t that much to tart up, mind you, as I was a fan of the straight and boring school of haircuts, not yet introduced to the wonder of gel. The clothes I had brought with me consisted entirely of band t-shirts, but I reasoned that this hadn’t bothered Kaz earlier and wriggled into a tightish one with the Saxon logo slashed across it. That was it for dressing, as I had one pair of jeans and one pair of trainers, so I mainly practised looking as cool as possible in the mirror, which meant trying endless different brushes of my hair, all of which were useless as it invariably slid back to its natural flop soon afterwards. I decided there and then that I would get a decent haircut at the soonest opportunity, even if it meant being a less effective headbanger. At quarter to seven I slipped into my denim jacket. Luckily I had brought the one without the patches all over it. I think some of the local old boys might have had a fit of they’d seen some of the lurid images plastered one very available inch. I went to say goodbye to Mum, but she was asleep, so I quietly closed her door, composed myself, and went to meet my date.
One thing I am not a fan of is being late. Another thing I am not a fan of is people who use the word “actually”, but that’s another story, actually. I always like to arrive on time for things, which naturally makes me a crappy party guest, as everyone else knows to arrive at least an hour after it says on the invitation, at which point they will find me and the hosts putting up decorations. At fifteen I was no better, although excitement was a big contributing factor in me being in the bar fifteen minutes before I had to. Naturally, I wiled away the time with a few blasts on the Space Invaders machine, and after a few goes noticed that Kaz was late. Ten minutes late, as it happened, and my heart sank like a sinky thing. Ten minutes may not seem like a lot, but at fifteen it basically means you’ve been stood up, so I finished up my game and decided to plod back to my room. For some reason I didn’t feel like seeing the film anymore. Just as I turned to go through the door that led to our rooms, a voice came mercifully from behind me:
“Oi! Where have you been then?”
It was Kaz, naturally. She looked great, mainly because everything she wore was tight and she had a great body. “I’ve been here. You said meet me here at seven, so I’m here. Are you grasping the concept of here yet?”
“Think back, spazbrain,” she said, looking straight into my eyes. “When I said that, where were we?”
I though back. “Um, in the restaurant?”
“Ooohhh… well done. Now, and this is the tricky one, where have I been waiting like a twat for the last fifteen minutes?”
“In the restaurant,” I said, more confident of the answer this time. “Sorry.”
“So you should be,” she said, mock pouting. “So what do you want to do? There’s not much on round here, believe it or not.”
“How about the cinema?” I suggested. “They’re showing “War Of The Worlds.”
She looked at me for a brief second as if I was totally mental, but must have decided that putting up with what I now realise is a very crap film was an acceptable evening out.
“Sure,” she replied with a nice little smile. So we linked arms and off we went. I love it when a plan comes together.
Sid was right. Osmium are pretty fucking good, and heavier than an elephant who’s just eaten his yearly bun ration in two hours. At the moment they’re playing a lovely little ditty called “Sex Gods From The Planet Metal”, which contains the charming line “Showing off our metal tits cos sex gods don’t wear bras”. They are all wearing various leather strappy things and cod pieces, and all have visible burns due to the frankly insane use of pyrotechnics on display. As the lead singer screeches like a banshee and drinks blood out of a skull I can feel myself sink lower and lower, wishing I had never agreed to this stupid bloody trip. Surely even the love of Kate isn’t worth this shit, or more accurately the shit that is due to come flying at the band and everyone who knows them after they have been stoned to death on stage.
At least Simon is happy, as the crowd are his type of people, being long of hair and not ashamed to whirl it about whilst making devil signs and playing imaginary guitars. He barely notices as I slink away out to the front bar, thankfully separate from the band area. I’ll give Sid this, he’s managed a dynamite soundproofing job, as the ear shattering metal is reduced to background squawking as I sit on a stool and bury my head in my hands like a film drunk. I know that Wayne, Neil and Marlon will be upstairs getting ready, so it’s nice to just be on my own. On my own, that is, until a tap on my shoulder causes me to start and then turn to look at Kate, who has plumped herself down on the seat next to me.
“Aren’t you going to buy a girl a drink then, Mr Grant?”
“I may as well,” I say gloomily. “After all, dead men have no use for money, do they?”
“Never say die,” she says in a booming, Brian Blessed like voice that causes a few heads to turn our way. “You never know, they might just pull it off. You have to admit, Dave, they are very good musicians.”
“So are the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, but they wouldn’t fancy following that lot.”
“Are they really that, well, metal?”
“Go and have a look,” I prompt. “Go on. I’ll save your seat and order your tombstone.”
She goes out to the main bar, reappearing a few minutes later with a rather shocked look on her face. She sits down and chucks the vodka I’ve thoughtfully got waiting for her in one.
“We,” she says slowly. “Are fucked.”
It’s nice to hear someone else admit this, as Wayne nearly had me convinced that all was going to be peachy. I start to hum the funeral march, and Kate joins in with a sombre look on her face. We lock eyes as we harmonise, until we finally reach the edge of sanity together and dissolve into snorty laughs that must make a few of the locals think there’s a Porky Pig convention in town.
“What are we going to do?” I ask.
She thinks for a few seconds. “Nothing.”
“That’s not a plan,” I say. “If anything, that’s an anti plan. A lack of a plan, if you will.”
“So why do we have to do anything?” she asks reasonably. “After all, you’re not actually their manager, are you? You didn’t lie through your teeth to get this gig.”
“Well… no, I suppose not. I just feel responsible, but I don’t know why?”
“Because you’re that sort of guy, Dave. You see someone fuck up, and you want to help. Believe me, this isn’t your fault, and if you’ve any sense you’ll keep away from it. Wayne should have known better that to come up with all that crap, and he deserves every piss filled missile that is no doubt coming to him.”
Wow, she sounds bitter. Trust me when I say that this is not the tone of a woman preparing to stand by her man, more that of one preparing to stand behind him with a bloody big carving knife in her hand.
“So, um, you’re not too happy with His Wayneness then, I take it?” I venture.
“Hmph!” she snorts. “Dave, describe Wayne to me accurately. Don’t pull punches, just say what you see, as if you were on Catchphrase in the Nineties.”
Now this is a dilemma. If she’s throwing a trick question at me, I could be rather fucked here, and also walking home. If she’s not, and I praise him to the skies, she’ll think I’m either blind or a suck up. Well, she’s the one who’s always going on about honesty, so I tell her straight.
“He’s a nice enough bloke, but he’s deluded, not averse to lying to get his way, and along with Neil is a totally sexist git. Oh yes, and he’s far too stupid to go out with you.” The last part, I admit, was me casting my line into the water to see if she would bite.
“Flatterer,” she says with a grin, taking the bait like a hungry pike. “You’re right, you know. He’s such a bullshitter. I don’t know why I’ve put up with it for this long. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve been much more interested in the contents of his trousers than the contents of his head, and I’m now convinced that the letter is probably the larger organ.”
“Thanks for sharing,” I say with a grimace. “I’ll add that information to the chart I have in my bedroom.”
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, he’d have to have a really tiny brain,” she says, her eyes twinkling.
We both laugh, and I feel the tension dropping out of me like a bomb though the bay doors, happy for it to explode on some other poor sod, because I’ve had enough of being miserable for one night. I decide that this is my time, my chance to steam in and take the girl of my dreams. Nothing can stop me now.
“Dave, you’re wanted,” says Simon, sticking his head round the door.
“Nobby and the Nobheads want you to introduce them to the baying mob. They’re setting up now.”
The correct response to this would be to tell them to fuck off, but for some reason there’s something inside me that wants to give Wayne and the boys whatever help I can before the inevitable happens.
“Tell them I’ll be there in a minute,” I say wearily, and Simon disappears with a happy grin, looking forward to the bloodletting.
“Wuss,” says Kate simply.
“I owe them this much,” I say. “God knows what’s going to happen, but I think they’ll be needing friends, even if they’re only fair weather ones. Are you going to come and watch?”
“I may as well,” she says with a sigh. “I mean, how bad can it be?”
As I stand up in front of seventy or so metalheaded lunatics I begin to regret wearing my Dave Lee Roth shirt, because Dave Lee Roth is not metal to these people. Not to many people, to be honest. Regardless, I launch into my piece, aware that Osmium were introduced by a man in a devil costume shouting “Are you ready to rock, motherfuckers!” then running off stage.
“Let’s have a big roar for the brilliant Osmium!” I shout, knowing this is a good way to get a reaction. Thankfully, the crowd cheer and whistle in appreciation of the opening act. “Okay… well, it’s not over yet, as It is my absolute pleasure to introduce to you possibly the best band in all of the street where they live, apart from Black Sabbath at number 28…” a few people laugh, which is a good thing. “Please welcome for the first time at The Plume the one, the only, Idiosyncratic Routine!!!”
As I get the hell of the stage and behind the crowd to the bar where Simon and Kate are waiting, the band strike up, surprisingly with the opening chords to Black Sabbaths “War Pigs”, not a song they are known for doing. The ponderous bassline rumbles through the bar, and when Wayne sings the opening verse it’s with passion and feeling, as well as more throatiness than I’ve ever heard him use. Amazingly, the crowd to not throw petrol bombs, they begin to shake their heads, and more amazingly so does Simon.
“What the fuck are they doing?” I ask Kate incredulously. “They’ve never played this down at The Moon.”
“I’ve never heard them play this sort of thing,” she replies, equally bemused. “Maybe this is going to turn out okay after all.”
And wouldn’t that be the most ironic thing? If all our fears came to naught and the gig was a roaring success? “Well,” I said, raising my glass. “Here’s hoping they know more numbers like this one.”
Marlon nurses a nasty gash on his head, whilst Kate dabs at it with a damp cloth. “I think I might be concussed,” he says forlornly, with the air of a man feeling very sorry for himself.
“How will we know?” I mutter, unsympathetically. “How about you, Wayne, will you be well enough for the big tour with iron Maiden?”
“Bog off,” he says miserably, all the chirpy optimism knocked out of his head with at least two of his teeth.
We’re all in the front bar, which has been closed to all others and is being used by us as a makeshift hospital, although it’s not quite up to the 4077th MASH standard, as there are no doctors making quips, just Kate and her damp cloth plus a lot of plasters.
Whilst “War Pigs” had gone down a storm, it was, sadly, the only heavy metal song the band knew. Following it with a ballad called “Be My baby Tonight” was possibly a mistake, as was following that with a cover of Slades “Coz I Luv U”. By that time the natives were definitely restless, and the spitting increased to bottle throwing. Marlon was stopped midway through the nest song (“Rock Me Baby”) by a Strongbow can to the head. This would normally not be a problem, but the assailant had neglected to drain the can of Strongnbow first, and as such Marlon got instant unconsciousness instead of instant refreshment. Wayne and Neil were their usual selves and failed to notice that they no longer had a drummer, prompting the crowd to inform them of the fact by getting onto the stage and grabbing their guitars and beating them about the head and body with them. With Marlon in the land of nod, and Wayne and Neil in sensible foetal balls, I decided it was probably a good time to call the police in case no one else had done so, but I was stopped before I could do so by a very loud bang, followed by silence only broken by the tinkling of ceiling plaster falling to the floor. At the bar was Sid, still without a shirt on, and in his hand was a gun, indeed it was the proverbial smoking gun, Sid having just emptied a live bullet into the ceiling.
“Right!” he shouted. “Anyone of you bastards left in the pub after I count to ten will get the next one in their kneecap. One…”
He only had to get to six.
The bar emptied of everyone but us and the band, and Sid casually went about locking the doors as me, Simon, Kate and Morgan helped the three twatsketeers to the front bar.
“I don’t want to be a roadie anymore,” states Morgan with finality. He escaped injury by sensibly hiding under a table and desperately peeling off his band t-shirt. The shirt was now a small pile of ashes.
“Ow,” says Neil, as he wobbles a loose tooth. “That was not a good gig.”
“Really?” I say, sarcasm mode on full. “Do you think? As your manager I would say that it was an absolute fucking disaster.”
“Do you still want to be our manager then?” says Wayne hopefully, looking for a final straw to grasp. I look at him in astonishment.
“Wayne. I just saw your band set upon by what can only be described as a hoard of metal fans who hated your music so much they would rather face a murder charge than listen to it. I think it’s safe to say that my enthusiasm for becoming a band manager has waned somewhat.”
“Oh,” he says, appropriately. “Well, thanks anyway, mate.”
“Don’t mention it,” I say, losing the will to do anything except go along with the flow. “Actually, if you want to thank anyone, thank Sid here, because without him we would be peeling you off the stage with a spatula.”
They all gracefully thank Sid for saving their lives.
“I should have let them have you, for that load of old shit you fed me,” he says, “but I’ll never get me license back if there’s another killing, so I thought I may as well step in. I can’t let you go out there now, so you can stay as planned, but I suggest an early start tomorrow so you can get away whilst all those drunken sods are still sleeping it off.”
Sid’s suggestions are taken with good grace, and I wonder where Simon has got to. On cue, he sticks his head round the door. His all is right with the world grin is still on his face, and I know he’s found the whole experience highly amusing.
“I’ve got something for you, lads,” he says, sniggering. “Do you want your guitars back?”
“Oh yeah,” says Wayne happily. “That would be great.”
“Possibly not,” says Simon, his grin wider than ever as he steps fully into the door with what remains of two guitars in his hands. He hands one each to Wayne and Neil, who couldn’t look more aghast if they’d been handed a dead puppy each. As they hold back the tears. Simon beckons to me and Kate, and we follow him into the corridor outside. Standing behind him is a very pretty girl who has obviously fallen under his evil spell.
“This is Lauren,” he says proudly. “Sid’s daughter. We’re going to retire now, but don’t fookin’ tell him or I’ll get a bullet in the arse.” He looks at Kate. “Have you finished with that donkey in there yet?” he asks her, gesturing towards the casualty ward.
“Well I haven’t told him, but yes,” she admits as my heart soars once again.
“Right. I hate people faffing around, so I’ll just tell you that Dave likes you, and if you like him give him a bloody kiss, because otherwise he’ll never get around to doing fook all about it.”
As I stand there like a startled chaffinch, Kate digests this information before turning to me.
“Is this true?” she asks. Her face is giving nothing away, but what have I got to lose?
“Yes,” I say simply, and she kisses me.
“Aw, go on, just for ten minutes.”
“I said. No. Now just shut up about it. I am not having bloody Iron Maiden songs on my car stereo. What’s wrong with Neil Diamond anyway?”
“What? Apart from the fact that he’s crap?”
“Mind your language David.”
“Sorry, I’m sure. I didn’t mean to bloody swear”
“I’ve warned you about sarcasm. If you take that tone again we’re going straight home. Understood?”
“Yeah. Sorry. You did say it first though”
“Do as I say, not as I do. Come on, David. Let’s just enjoy ourselves for a few days, shall we? Now you’ll like this one, it’s called “America”…
Sometimes, given the choice of water torture or a trip in the car with my Mum I would gladly say strap me down next to the dripping tap, as it’s a slightly preferable way to go insane than my Mum’s Neil Diamond torture, which consists of her playing the wretched mans entire back catalogue to a captive audience, getting their hopes up before each song by saying, totally incorrectly, “You’ll like this one…”
In this instance, the captive audience was me, strapped safely into the passenger seat in her car as we drove south for a “Nice, relaxing few days.” This was what my Mum had prescribed after her and Dad had a good chat about my behaviour that fateful Monday. I was extremely grateful that neither of them blamed me for what I had done, with my Dad even lamenting that I didn’t “Kick the bugger in the nuts as well” whilst I had the chance. Mind you, he had a point. They weren’t really sure what exactly should happen to me, with my Dad retreating into his traditional position of listening (or pretending to listen) to whatever my Mum said, then nodding his head and agreeing with her. She’d either never cottoned on to this, or (much more likely) she had decided that this was an ideal way to have discussions with her husband. The outcome of this one sided conversation was that Mum was going to whisk me away for a few days so we could have some fun and relax, although when she put it to me she didn’t mention the Neil Diamond torture. That was an added bonus.
So there we were, in the car, studiously pootling down to Cornwall and going exactly five miles below the speed limit on any given road. She still does this, and it’s a given that at the front of any queue of traffic is my Mum, speedometer fixed at thirty five or so, saying in a loud voice (so as to be heard over whatever Neil Diamond tape is currently slotted in) “I’m going at a legal, safe speed you know.” As the saying goes, she’s never had an accident, but she’s seen thousands.
As my Mum is the sort of person who thinks the D Day assaults were a poorly organised mess, we had an itinerary. Well, maybe not, as only Americans have itineraries (“Gee, honey – what’s next on the eye-TIN-er-ary?”). We had a plan. The plan consisted of the long, long trawl all the way to St Ives, where we would settle in at a nice bed and breakfast, go shopping and just enjoy ourselves. Now I realise this doesn’t sound much fun for me, but I had the promise of being allowed to do just about anything I wanted, including fun parks and jet skiing. It was a genuinely nice gesture on her part, I like to think, and I was prepared to put up with the aural invasion of Mr Diamond if it kept her happy. Of course, she might just have seized on the opportunity of a few days away from the rest of the family and used me as an excuse, but what sort of a son would I be if I thought that of my Mother? Okay, a realistic one, but I’ll keep my illusions, thank you.
Almost exactly half way, we stopped in a small Devon village for lunch in a pub cum restaurant called the Plough that Mum had checked out in her AA guide and was prepared to risk eating at. As we pulled up, I couldn’t help but be impressed, as the place was a large, spacious building with three different entrances and a car park that seemed to be as long as our street back home. Mum parked up and we walked up to the restaurant entrance, with me doing my best to give the impression that I wasn’t with her, of course. People who wear Iron Maiden tour shirts do not go to lunch with their mothers, I was sure of that, and I managed to get away with slouching close behind her whilst wishing I was allowed to smoke, until that is she noticed what I was doing and told me in a loud voice to pick my feet up. I don’t know why I gave a damn about what a bunch of Devon yokels thought of me, but when you’re a teenager you care about what everyone thinks, even though you will swear at gunpoint that you don’t.
Inside, we sat at a solid wooden table and I marvelled at the amount of crap on the walls. There were shelves of dusty old books, but when I examined them I didn’t recognise any of the titles, or even the authors. This wasn’t because I was not well read, but because someone somewhere supplies pubs with bucketloads of crappy old books that no one has ever read or will ever read. They, along with various farming implements that would be seriously be regretted if a coach load of football hooligans decided to have a ruck, were supposed to give the pub an ambience, and I suppose it did sort of work, but it all seemed so forced to me. I determined that if I ever ran a pub I would resist that impulse to put potentially lethal weapons and crappy books all over the place, maybe instead settling for a few Iron Maiden posters and a small lending library of Sven Hassell books. If you don’t know who Sven Hassell is, then believe me you’re quite lucky.
I ordered a nice Gammon steak, whilst Mum stuck to salad, as she refused to eat meat without first inspecting the kitchen. When she had suggested such an inspection the waiter had politely refused, then slightly less politely refused, then just said no in a grump the third time before marching off with our orders, no doubt to gob on the food.
“It’s nice here, isn’t it?” I said, trying to make conversation. It was like a bloke on a blind date trying to be polite to a woman who has just informed him that she might go home early because her balls itched.
“I shall be writing to that AA guide,” said Mum firmly. “It’s my right as a customer to ensure that the kitchens are clean before ordering.”
“It’s just a bit of food Mum,” I implored, noticing that when she’s in a stubborn mood her face looks just like an Easter Island statue.
“Just a bit of food!” she said, at a volume that caused a few heads to turn. “You tell me that when you’re writhing in agony tomorrow morning because your steak was cooked in a dustbin lid with a Bunsen burner!” More heads turned, and I tried to make myself invisible. It didn’t work, partly because I was wearing a shirt three sizes too big with a gun toting cyborg on it, but mainly because it’s impossible. I still gave it a bloody good go, though.
An official looking man came over to us, and I was convinced we were going to get thrown out, but instead he introduced himself to my Mum as the manager, and asked her what the problem was. Some English people, when asked this question, say “Oh, nothing,” and look embarrassed for causing a fuss, all because the waiter stabbed them several times with a fork. My Mum, as you may have gathered, is not most people, and unfortunately for the manager she informed him exactly what the problem was, going on to mention what a hazard the farm implements would be if a coachload of football hooligans got hold of them. Well, I knew I got it from somewhere.
To the managers credit, he didn’t laugh in her face. I was glad of this, as I didn’t want to have to visit my Mum in prison for the next twenty years as she served her sentence for impaling a bar manager with a handy farm implement. Even more amazingly, he went on to say how much he sympathised with her, as he was something of a hygiene nut himself, having worked as a kitchen inspector for some years in the past. At this point my mother was actually smiling at him, which meant that she either liked him or she was about to tear him a new arsehole. Seriously, the woman has no middle ground.
“So of course,” he concluded, “I will be happy to allow you to inspect the kitchens. Please, come with me.”
With the smug look of one who has got her own way, as usual, Mum went with him, the kitchen doors swooshing behind them, and I sat and waited, prepared for a long sit down as Mums idea of an inspection wasn’t just running her fingers along a counter looking for dust. There would be urine samples, I was sure.
Now for a teenager, sitting quietly comes as naturally as being intelligible does to a Geordie. To my credit I lasted seventeen seconds, at which point I decided I really need to go to the bog. More accurately, I needed to do something, and as I had noted the toilets were on the other side of the dining area, I could have a good nose about on my way over. I had also noticed, as all good teenagers do, the sound of a Space Invaders machine that was in the bar area. Operation ‘Not Sitting Here And Being Bored’ was underway, and I strode purposefully across the dining area, noting that not one customer was writhing about in agony after ingesting poisoned food. To be honest, though, that rarely happens except in Motorway service stations, and even then the writhing in agony is more often than not due to the customer being presented with the bill, realising that he’ll have to remortgage his house for the sake of a cup of tea, two bits of toast and some jam.
After a good slash (my definition of a good slash was now one where I didn’t find a dead body – talk about lowering your standards) I left the toilet and, noticing Mum wasn’t back at the table yet (probably still checking for nits), slipped into the main bar. The bar was still nice, like the restaurant, but with that underlying seediness that is always easily obtained by having several men slouching at the bar who look like the only reason they haven’t butchered you yet is because their pantry is full. They all looked at me as if I was some alien from another planet, the looks getting more and more severe as I dropped a coin in the machine and it started making the sort of ‘Bloop’ noises that probably made their trigger fingers itchy. Sod ‘em, I thought, and got into the game, intent on saving the human race from a bunch of badly animated aliens.
“Good shot,” said a female voice beside me as I nailed a tricky saucer a few minutes later. I quickly glanced beside me and was surprised to see a girl my own age peering at my alien zapping efforts with a knowledgeable eye. Smooth as a really smooth thing, I said “You must be Kaz,” and could almost feel the surprise.
“How do you know?” she asked as I eliminated the last invader on the screen. With a couple of seconds grace, I turned to get a good look, and was pleasantly surprised, if ‘pleasantly’ and ‘surprised’ are words you would use if you woke up one morning to find Cameron Diaz chomping down on your old man (ladies, please use your own analogy here, as I can’t be arsed to think one up).
“I just guessed,” I confessed. “It’s the name on the high score.”
“Aren’t you the clever one,” she said, and the little voice inside of me that talks bollocks screamed at me that I’m being flirted with.
“Uh, what’s it short for?” I asked, like a boy scout going for his ‘Being Crap At Talking To Girls’ badge.
“Kazza,” she replied with a cheeky grin that got wider as the new screen full of invaders dropped a missile on my last ship. I didn’t care, because my breath was definitely taken away at that point.
“So,” I said after I had told her my name and she had gloated about the fact that I hadn’t got anywhere near her high score. “What do you do?”
“I work in the kitchen,” she replied. Thought I’d escape out here cos there’s a right bloody nutter in there at the moment thinks she’s the fuckin’ health inspector or something.”
“Hmmmm,” I hmmmmed, noncommittally
I mean, I bunked off school to get a bit of extra cash, but there’s no way I’m letting that cow inspect me for nits just cos she’s got some precious little boy who might get, and this is her word mind, infected. Couldn’t see him in the restaurant, so I reckon the little twat must be in the bogs, probably trying to have a dump without touching the seat.”
She laughed, and I hmmmmed again.
Whilst I was obviously waiting for the inevitable moment when she would find out exactly who the precious little boy was, I was also enjoying the close company of a very pretty girl. If she looks like this in her work clothes, I thought, I really want to see her when she’s actually trying.
“When do you get off?” I asked, smooth bastard that I was. Okay, I knew I couldn’t actually do anything, but I just wanted to know if she would respond ina good way. I mean, how could she not?
“You chatting me up, Dave?” she replied with a cheeky grin (told you so). “Gonna take me out and whisk me off my feet?”
“Well, um…” I faltered. “I would, you know, but I’m here with my…”
“DAVID!” came the barely contained screech as my Mum burst through from the restaurant. “Where the hell have you been? Come on, your food will be ready in a minute. All things said and done it was quite a clean kitchen.”
Yeah, I know – the Universe has really good timing.
I didn’t even bother to introduce them. I just grinned helplessly at Kaz, whose mouth was open and suitably gaping, then went with my Mum back into the restaurant, where we had an admittedly fine meal. She didn’t press me on Kaz, and I didn’t venture any information, allowing her to believe that all I had been doing was playing the space invaders machine. I basically had resigned myself to never seeing her again.
Until, that is, she bought the bill over.
Whilst Mum looked at it, searching for hidden charges, Kaz leaned over to me and said:
“I get off at five. Meet me here at seven,” then gave me peck on the cheek and left.
So the good news was: I had a date with a total fox.
The bad news? I wasn’t going to be there, I was going to be in St Ives, possibly meeting a man with seven wives on the way.
“You,” I say to Simon, “are never going to get through all those in three days.”
“Whether I do or not is not the case,” he replies, stuffing another pack of condoms into his suitcase. “The point is that I am bloody well going to try.” He zips up his case, whistling a happy tune (“Killed By Death” by Motorhead), then flops back onto the sofa.
“So what’s the plan then, Davey boy?”
“Simple,” I reply, holding my hand up and ticking off the fingers. “First we pile into the minibus with the band, then we go and watch them do a few gigs in some truly skanky holes. Whilst doing this, you shag as many women as possible, and I dazzle Kate with my charm and sophistication.”
“I can go along with the first three”, he says seriously, “but I think that you should really have an alternative to option four, such as you sitting alone having a wank.”
“Duly noted,” I agree solemnly, marking off my thumb, then raising the middle finger of my now closed fist in his direction.
“What’s the time?” he asks. Simon never wears a watch, as he doesn’t live by the clock like other people. Anyway, it gives him a very simple approach with women.
“Time they were here,” I confirm, and on cue we hear a parping horn from outside. Even more embarrassing than most novelty horns, this one plays the immortal first twelve notes of “Smoke On The Water”. We brace ourselves for the worst and leave the house, which for the next three days will be occupied only by Pixel the cat and the neighbour who will be feeding her.
“Waheeeeeeeyyyyy!” is the unsurprising welcome we get from the minibus parked outside the house as we walk up the path. The whole thing is a bit of a shock.
For starters, it has been painted in a very crappy fashion by someone with the artistic talent old a four year old on day release from the School For Four Year Olds Who Are Crap At Art. The bands logo is plastered everywhere, joined by various demons, dragons and the like, all as metal and scary as a Tellytubby. The second shock is that nestled inside, drinking from a can of cider, is Morgan, wearing an Idiosyncratic Routine t-shirt over his Bristol City Top and waving like a member of the Royal Family on speed. Behind the minibus is a van for the bands equipment, driven, I am pleased to see, by Wayne, with the bands drummer Marlon sitting next to him. It will give you an idea as to Marlon’s mental capacity when I say that he is considered the stupid one in the band. The van is similarly daubed, and I dread to think of what a spectacle we will look on the way down to Cornwall in them. On the plus side, Kate is in the minibus, the only one not waving, giving us a friendly smile and drinking a can of coke.
“Fookin’ hell,” says Simon, expressing what we are both thinking. “It’s the Twatmobile.”
After lobbing our cases in the back, we climb aboard and get underway, happy to join in the general alcoholism with some Newky Brown and a few cans of cider. In the back with us are Morgan and Kate, with Neil up front driving. The car stereo is blasting out some obscure European metal band, who I am sad to say are doing a cover of “Love On The Rocks”. Some things never change.
“So what the fuck are you doing here, Morgan?” asks Simon, quite reasonably.
“I’m a roadie,” replies Morgan, with the sort of pride people normally reserve for when they win a Nobel Prize. “They asked me Saturday and I thought why not.”
“I don’t believe it,” says Simon, deadpan.
“What? That I’m a roadie?”
“No. That you thought.” We all cackle at this, and Morgan grins stupidly, as he always does when he’s the butt of a joke.
“Be fair,” interjects Kate. He’s learned his lines and everything.”
“What do you mean, his lines?” I ask.
“Show ‘em, stud,” she says, giving Morgan a nudge.
“One…” he says seriously. “One… Two…”
The rest of us clap and cheer this, because we’re going to have a good time regardless of how lame the jokes are.
An hour later, we’re rolling down the motorway, the sounds of Journey wafting out of the speakers, much to Simon’s disgust. Simon is not a big fan of keyboards. Behind us, Wayne is keeping the van close, waving like a cock at anyone who looks him in the eye from the rear of the minibus. I am glad to see that Kate doesn’t do this very often, and sit beside her whilst Simon teaches Morgan pulling techniques on another seat.
“So you came,” she says simply.
“I came,” I agree. “I will be Peter Grant to their Led Zeppellin.”
“You know I hate lies,” she says disapprovingly. “There is no way you actually want to manage them, is there.” It’s a statement, not a question.
“Well…” I hold the L for a bit too long and her brows furrow cutely. “Okay, probably not. To be absolutely honest, I quit my job today, and I need a bit of fun, and I actually quite like the lads, and you never know they might change my mind.” As well as the overuse of the word ‘and’, I carefully leave out that first and foremost I want to steal her away from her boyfriend.
“Hmmm…” she hmmms (we have so much in common). “Okay, I’ll go with that. Why did you quit your job?”
I tell her, in great and accurate detail, and she thoroughly enjoys the story, agreeing that Lindsay does sound like a bitch, and that I should have walked out ages ago. She is, I decide, a good audience.
Suddenly, she launches into song, joining in with a particularly difficult chorus that only a few women and the squeaky voiced Journey vocalist can manage. I sit there agape, and afterwards give her the obligatory slow handclap as she goes red and looks embarrassed.
“Stop it. It wasn’t that good.”
“Not that good?” I look incredulous, because I am. “That was fucking great. You, little lady, can sing.”
“No I can’t” she protests, peeking out now from between her fingers.
“Take it from a soon to be internationally renowned band manager,” I assert. “You are good. Try another one.”
And she does. The next song on is similarly awkward, but she handles it beautifully, matching the singer melody for melody, even causing Simon and Morgan to stop talking and look back.
“Hey Neil,” I ask, hoping that he doesn’t turn his head round. He doesn’t.
“How come you don’t get Kate to do a few backing vocals for you?” I deliver this quite normally, which is a feat considering Kate is whacking my arm with some force and hissing at me to shut up.
“Kate?” he says incredulously. “Kate can’t sing.” The last is delivered with utter conviction. Neil, along with Wayne, likes girlfriends to sit in a very specific box, which allows them to do girly things like giggling and shagging, possibly knitting, but nothing of any importance or artistic merit.
Kate sticks her tongue out at me in an I told you so sort of way, so I just shrug and enjoy the ride, hoping that Journey never did a cover of “I Am, I Said”.
At six we finally pull up at our destination, a battered pub called The Plume Of Feathers in some small Cornish coastal town that has definitely seen better days. The Plume itself reflects the towns attitude, being as it is a run down, no doubt rat infested dunghole. Believe me, I’m being unkind to dungholes here by including them in the comparison. The bunch of us congregate beside the minibus, Wayne and Marlon joining us, with Wayne giving Kate what I thought was a totally unnecessarily snog. Bastard. After trying to give her a tonsillectomy, he turned to me.
“Right, Dave. This is the place. The owner’s some bloke called Sid.”
“Okay,” I reply, not quite getting the gist. “And?”
“Well… give it a go. Go and tell him we’re here and stuff. That’s what managers do.”
“Is it? I thought managers sat on their arses and creamed off ten per cent.”
“Nice one,” he says, and to my horror gives me the thumbs up. Fonzie he ain’t.
“Okay…” I sigh. “I’ll go get him. By the way, where’s the guest house we’re staying in? Is it close?”
“Well, yeah,” says Neil. “We’re staying here.”
“Here?” I can feel the plague starting to kick in already. “Seriously?”
“It’s brilliant!” enthuses Wayne. “A real metal pub. We managed to get accommodation for all of us instead of being paid.”
“You really do need a manager don’t you,” I say, then walk inside, wishing I’d had my jabs before we came.
Inside, the Plume isn’t actually that bad. As Wayne said, it’s a real metal pub, with band posters and the like plastered everywhere. They have way more bands on than we do, and my eye is caught by a poster advertising tonights gig. This is what it says:
‘Heavy Metal Spectacular!! Featuring Osmium and Idiosyncratic Routine!! Come Down And BANG YOUR HEADZ’. In metal, misspelling is very important – just ask Slade.
Heavy Metal Spectacular? I think we’re in trouble, and I debate whether to just scarper when a bloke pops up behind the bar and asks me if he can help me. Sensing that he probably hasn’t got any poison, I instead ask for Sid.
“That’s me mate,” he says, smiling. He looks like a lovely, sound bloke, just your everyday Mr Normal barman. Except, of course, for the fact that he has no shirt on, the top half of his body being covered completely in tattoos. Naturally, there is one featuring a topless lady on a motorbike.
I introduce myself, trying to stop myself staring and of course failing miserably. He is obviously used to this sort of thing, and graciously stops me in my tracks to fill me in on all his body art. Once that’s done I feel a lot more relaxed, able to appreciate the gentle subtlety of a picture of a policeman with a knife through his head.
“Nice decoration,” I comment, waving a hand vaguely at all the posters.
“Ta. We used to have farm implements on the walls but a coachload of football hooligans came in and… well, you can probably guess the rest.”
God, I love being right.
“So, what are Osmium like then,” I ask innocently.
“Oh, they’re really heavy fuckers,” he replies. “They called themselves Osmium cos it’s the heaviest metal, see. They’ve played here a few times. Set the stage on fire once with all their bloody pyros and the like. Normally they’d headline, but I put your lads on the top spot as they’ve got the record deal and everything.”
“The what and which?” I reply, my head spinning.
“The Vertigo thing. You know, the five album deal and the tour with Iron Maiden.”
“Oh,” I say lamely. “That. Wayne told you did he?”
“That’s the fella. Said he’d play for accommodation, even when I offered him some cash on top.”
I sigh inwardly and bang my inner head against my inner brick wall. “That’s Wayne all right.”
“Well, glad you’re here. The bands play on the stage in the main bar. It’s not massive but it’ll do you okay. Must seem a bit of a comedown after Hammersmith, but there you go.”
“Hammersmith. Yes.” I mumble, feeling impending doom descend like a huge vulture. “I’ll get them to bring the gear in.”
“Wayne, you fucking twat!” I shout, back in the car park. “He thinks you’ve got a fucking record deal!”
“Okay, I may have exaggerated a bit, but we got the gig didn’t we?”
“He’s put you on with a really heavy metal band. You don’t play heavy metal Wayne, you play poodle rock. They’re going to kill you.” I am quite serious here, but Wayne doesn’t seem to grasp it.
“We’ll be all right,” he says calmly. “We’ll just let the music do the talking, you know.”
“That would be great, if your music didn’t say ‘Look at us! We have perms! We know about melody! Please stone us to death!’”
“I ain’t got a perm,” interjects Marlon. To illustrate this, he runs his fingers through his hair, which is so naturally curly it looks just like a perm.
“Okay, so we’ll put it on your tombstone, Marlon” I say sarcastically. “By the way, Wayne, when does the tour with Iron Maiden start?”
“Um..” he mutters, actually looking embarrassed for once.
“Oh, bollocks to it,” I say, throwing my hands up in a very stereotypical gesture of frustration. “Just get your gear in.”
As the band and Morgan lug the gear from the van to the pub, me and Simon sit and have a fag on the minibus.
“We’re gonna have to check this thing for car bombs when we come out,” he says.
“You think? What the fuck am I doing here with that bunch of idiots?”
“Well, look on the bright side,” he says cheerily.
“What fucking bright side,” I reply with a sneer.
“At least your best mate’s here to support you, watch over you and then embarrass the fuck out of you when we get home by telling everyone all about it.”
I wonder what our rooms are like.
Mondays are never great, but Mondays that come two days after you’ve found a dead body on a school trip are slightly worse, if you catch my drift. Despite two nights of pretty much sleeplessness, I had managed to actually catch some zeds on the Sunday, probably through exhaustion. Unsurprisingly, Monday morning hit me like a hammer. A big hammer. Mum had made it quite clear that if I didn't want to go to school I didn't have to. A free pass! Such a thing is rare from most parents, but my Mum was normally of the opinion that the only real reason to miss a day of school was death, and even then she’s want a second opinion.
It had been a pretty weird weekend for me, with everyone badgering me about the whole thing, when all I want to do is forget it, like I could. It seems the guy had died of a heart attack, no foul play involved, but because of the commotion the performance was halted. I knew it wasn't my fault, because he would have been found by someone else soon enough, but I still felt guilty, as well as petrified the police would bang me up for it. Like any teenager I was convinced that the police were evil, and was quite surprised when the one that chatted to me turned out to be a really nice bloke who didn’t at any point try to throw me down a set of stairs then make me sign a statement confessing to the great train robbery and the murder of Archduke Ferdinand.
I guess I've just got a naturally guilty conscience. I'm a prime target for anyone with a collecting tin, they seem to sense my weakness, like a lioness pouncing on a crippled gazelle. I try to resist, but all they have to do is show me a picture of a starving child or injured puppy and I can't shove the coins in fast enough.
We all went home in silence, the coach seeming more like a hearse, and I knew that everyone was dying to ask me about my unusual experience but they were too aware of being the First To Mention It, so all I got was continued sideways glances, even from Peter, who should have known better. Instead, he called me later that night and we have a good natter about it all. Naturally, he found it exciting, and predicted much female interest in me as a result. Every cloud and all that, but at that point I wasn’t really that cheered up for some reason. Probably the whole dead body thing. Instead of rejoicing at my probable future sex prospects, I just went to my bedroom and sighed a lot, like you do, waiting for the weekend, and wondering what Monday would bring.
There was a gentle knock on the door, and my Mum came in.
"David?" she said tentatively, as if I had a gun to my head and a mad gleam in my eyes. "Are you going to go to school?"
"I suppose so," I affirmed reluctantly. "I have to face this thing out, and get it all out of the way."
"Okay. If that's what you want, love. Breakfast in fifteen minutes, okay?"
She left, possibly on tiptoe, and I got myself washed and dressed, all the time wondering if I'd made the right decision.
Breakfast was a subdued affair. We didn't have family breakfasts at the weekends, as there was never a reason for everyone to get up at the same time. I usually languished until at least midday on Saturdays, and spent Sundays listening to music and reading. That weekend gone, however, I just couldn't relax. If at any time I started to get into my groove someone would stick their bloody head around the door to ask me if I was alright and I'd start to feel awful again, whilst assuring them that everything was fine. I thought by Monday things would start to be normal again, but even Nick refrained from bugging me, because he'd obviously been told not to. At least I knew that he'd be the first one to crack. Indeed, he was no doubt storing up in his mind a million and one cruel jibes about dead bodies to torment me with as soon as he thought he could get away with it. With this in mind, I tried to pretend it was a normal breakfast time, except that my Brother had had his mouth glued shut, which was a nice thought, and waited for my chance to escape. Finally it came, and I picked up my bag and made for the door.
"Dave?" said Nick.
“Do you want me to walk down with you today?" Oh Christ, this was just embarrassing. How feeble minded did they think I was?
"Why?" I asked pointedly. "Just because I discovered a dead body three days ago does not mean I am suddenly incapable of functioning. Just stop treating me like a little kid, both of you. I feel like the fucking Elephant Man lately!" I stopped suddenly, aware that I had broken a taboo - we did not, ever, swear in front of our parents. We may well have been foul mouthed little urchins in our own time, but not here, and not now. Nick looked at Mum, as aware as I was that a line had been crossed. At least, I thought, this might actually get a voice raised at me, a first step on the road to normality.
”Go on, David," is all she said. "I'll see you when you get home."
And that was it.
Dumbstruck, I left the house to call on Peter, who lived a couple of streets away. After I'd rung the bell his mother came to the door.
"David," she said, obviously surprised to see me. "Um, Peter's already gone to the precinct. He didn't think you'd be going in today. Are you okay?"
I gritted my teeth when I heard those very over used three words, and forced myself to be polite.
"Yes, thank you. I'll just see him down there." With that, I turned and left. It made sense that Peter would think I wasn't going in today, because I had told him that Mum said I didn't have to. To Peter, going to school when you don't have to was as bad as admitting that not only are you gay, but you fancy the Headmaster. Peter was of the firm opinion that the ultimate insult you could ever use was to accuse another boy of being gay. To be honest, I didn't understand it all myself. How could a bloke fancy other blokes when there are girls about? It beggared belief to me, but I wasn’t as obsessed about it as Peter. My Dad told me in a serious voice that his attitude meant that he was probably a latent homosexual, but despite laughing with my dad about it I figured it wouldn't be a sensible thing to say to Peter, at least not if I wanted my nose to stay where it was.
When I arrived at the precinct, I got looks. There's really no other words to describe it - I got looks. I really did feel like the Elephant Man, one of the weird movies my parents made me watch. At the time I thought it was a load of old bollocks, but standing there with all eyes on me I had the tiniest inkling of what the lumpy freak felt. I wove through the throng, all waiting for their coaches to arrive, trying not to meet anyone's eyes. To get away, I sloped into the newsagents, where the proprietor immediately eyed me like a hawk. I sympathised with the man, having a shop besieged by schoolchildren every weekday, most of them with the intent of nicking whatever they can get their grubby little paws on, but I really despised him as well. It was an odd sensation, because the rational side of my brain said I knew why he hated kids, because a lot of us are thieving scumbags, but the non rational side of my brain kept insisting that he was, in no uncertain terms, a git. To make myself feel better, I swiftly pocketed a bottle of Tippex from under his beaky nose. Not to sniff, I must point out, I just liked writing on the toilet walls with it.
When I came out of the shop, Peter was waiting for me, a confused look on his face.
"What the fuck are you doing here?" he asked, straightforward as ever.
"I'm on a pilgrimage to Mecca," I replied sarcastically. "And as you know, pilgrims need their Monster Munch. What the fuck do you think I'm doing here?"
"But... you don't have to go to school today," he said incredulously, in the same tone an archaeologist might say “It’s the holy grail.. and we found it in Ikea”.
I could see the cogs of disbelief grinding against each other in his head.
"Yeah well, I thought why not. I've got to get all the shit over with, haven't I?"
"Yeah, but you don't have to go in today," he asserted again, just in case this was a fact that had somehow escaped me.
"I know Peter," I said firmly, looking him in the eye. "I want to go in. I know it goes against all your instincts, but I actually want to go to school today."
He stared at me like one would a wolf that is foaming at the mouth and looking uncomfortably hungry with it.
"You're mad!" he exclaimed, obviously glad to have reached this conclusion and thereby explained away my mysterious actions. Maybe he was right, but there wasn’t any time for debating my sanity as our coach arrived and we joined the general crush to get on.
"'Thomas Covenant," read Miss Wright aloud, "in an attempt to stay sane, went into town and got knocked over by a car.' What is wrong with that sentence?"
This was the none too insightful book report by Big Bob Pullar, written about some fantasy nonsense he’d read but no one else would touch, a ludicrously hefty series of books that looked dull as anything. Big Bob always did his reports on this kind of book, and was rarely seen without the company of some two inch thick fantasy tome. Personally, I thought then and think now that all the wizards and warriors stuff is stupid. I refused to join the select handful of nerds who gathered at lunchtimes in a maths classroom and threw twenty sided dice around whilst pretending they were elves, wizards, plumbers or whatever. Bloody spanners the lot of them if you ask me.
Nobody seemed to have grasped the silliness of Bib Bob’s sentence, so I tentatively stuck my hand up.
"It sounds like the way he tried to stay sane was to get hit by a car," I said confidently. "What he did to stay sane was go into town, and whilst there he got hit by a car. There is definitely a lack of comma somewhere"
"Very good, David," she said with a smile, and continued with her reading.
God I was glad the day was nearly over. Once people got it in their heads that I wasn't going to crumble into dust if asked about last Friday they came out in force to quiz me about finding the body. It wasn’t too bad, I suppose, but mentally I felt like I’d played Gary Kasparov at chess. Peter stuck by me when we shared a lesson, and he'd successfully diverted a few people who got a bit morbid or pushy. Friends are important. Of course, he had a fair few questions of his own, but I didn't mind. Miss Wright let us know that the theatre had refunded our money, including travelling costs, and had also invited us all back for free near the end of the plays run. She gave everyone a week to decide what they want to do, but I was confident that most would be happy to give it another go, if only in the hopes of finding their own dead body. Several people had unsurprisingly asked me what my decision would be, mostly girls with sympathetic looks on their faces. Each time I assured them that I would be going, and that I was grateful for their concern. I suppose Peter was right, and it was a nice flip side to the morbid interest of the boys, which seemed to concentrate of exactly what the body smelled like, and whether its cock was still in its hand. Peter was now very happy that I came in, as it gave him an opportunity to reflect in my weird glory. I really wasn’t worried at all about going back, although I suppose I should have been. All that happened was a man died from natural causes and I found him. After the Carolyn Thomas experience I’d been careful not to bullshit about everything, and I told the same true story to everyone who asked, with no embellishments whatsoever. Predictably this didn’t stop other people from adding their own embellishments, and Peter faithfully reported a few interesting variations that he'd heard, including one where the guy had been savagely beaten to death, and I came out covered in his blood. Nice. Oh well, I thought, as long as I deny any of this shit I'll be happy with myself. Just Geography to go now and I can go home.
The Boomtown Rats had a big song called "I Don't Like Mondays", which you must have heard, as it’s great. It came about after a girl in America was so pissed off that she took a rifle, found herself a cosy vantage point, and proceeded to pick off her schoolmates one by one until a SWAT team finally bagged her. Bear in mind that this was way before violent video games. It may seem incredible that anyone could have such deep, powerful feelings that they'd actively put a bullet in the people they spend most days with, but standing where I was standing I really thought I knew how she felt. At that point I'd have gladly sat on top of the Admin building and taken potshots at a select few of my fellow pupils, one fuckwitted bastard in particular, and possibly the Deputy Head as well. You see, I was standing outside his office, awaiting a bollocking, as you do. Despite a reasonable start, the day had turned into a right shitter, and somewhat predictably, it was my big gobbed nemesis Carl Lewis that managed to push me over the edge.
It was in Geography, and the lesson was only about ten minutes old when he started off.
"Heard you fucked a dead guy, banner," he sneered.
"Funny man, Carl," I replied calmly, determined not to rise to his baiting. "I found a dead guy, big fucking deal. He still stood a better chance of getting laid then you do, though."
"I heard you gave him the kiss of life and tried to stick your tongue in," he said, snorting at his own comic genius. "Bet he was more receptive than Carolyn Thomas."
"Shut up, Carl," I said. He was really beginning to piss me off by this point. Okay, so I was determined not to raise to it, but you really had to be near this guy to realise what an absolute genius he was at making you want to punch him.
"Banner kissed a dead guy, Banner kissed a dead guy," he chanted softly, all the while a stupid leer on his face.
"Carl," I said. "If you don't shut the fuck up I'm going to smack you in the face." I said this in a low growl that was supposed to be menacing, and like to think I did a good job.
At the front of the class, Mr George was, as usual, droning on, lost in a world of volcanoes and different types of rock. When I was in junior school I thought Geography was all about Capital Cities, not all the bollocks it actually is about, Cumulonimbus my arse.
"You haven't got the guts, Banner," came back Carl. "All you’re good for is kissing dead guys, same as your Mum."
And that did it. What is it about guys that we can take almost any insult about ourselves, but if someone says anything slightly derogatory about our mothers we go nuts? Well, he said it, and I went nuts. I stood up, propelling my chair out behind me, then I pulled back by fist and gave Carl a thump right on the nose. Looking back, I am still proud of that punch, and still get a warm glow thinking of it. He, naturally enough, collapsed back in his chair, blood spraying from his nose. I don't think Mr George could believe his eyes. He stopped his monologue and just stared at us. I was still on my feet, fists clenched, and Carl was staggering back onto his chair, one hand on his nose and howling with pain and not a few choice swearwords. I'll tell you this much, it felt really fucking good.
Of course, It got me in the shit, as Mr George sent Carl with a chaperone to the school nurse, whilst he dragged me up to see the deputy head. As I waited outside to “think about what I had done”, Mr George was inside, no doubt explaining in gory detail what I did. I didn't really care what happened to me, because the bastard deserved what he got and I was glad I was the one to finally give it to him. It made me realise that there had been a lot of rage and frustration building up in me over the last couple of days, and by pure luck I had found a very healthy way to let it all out. I mean, I could have lamped someone who didn't really deserve it, at least this way I’d done the world a favour.
The door to the office opened and Mr George asked me to come in. I entered and sat down opposite the Deputy Head as Mr George left quietly to return to the class, most likely praying to himself that they hadn’t reverted to savagery and started worshipping a pigs head in the ten minutes he’d been gone. Some chance. We sat in silence for a minute, and I studied my opponent. Mr Maynard was not an imposing man, physically. He was stick thin and must have been sixty years old at least. His main distinguishing features were a mop of very wispy grey hair and eyes that could bore into your very soul. Those eyes were doing a very good job of tunnelling into my own soul, and I suddenly had a horrible urge to bust into tears. I swallowed very purposefully to keep them down. As if this was the sign he was waiting for, Mr Maynard finally spoke.
"What am I going to do with you, eh David?" he said. I figured it was a rhetorical question and kept silent. The only thing I could have possibly said is "Dunno, Sir," and I wasn’t going to get into that, because it reminded me too much of Grange Hill. All the kids ever seemed to say when they got a bollocking on that show was "Dunno, Sir," and I was not going to do it, no way.
"Well?" Mr Maynard pushed after a few seconds. "Any suggestions?"
”Dunno, Sir," I mumbled. Shit.
"Why did you do it David?" he asked, not unkindly. So I told him.
I didn't pull any punches, and poured it all out, like Hitler suddenly deciding that after killing millions of Jews and assorted others it's time to go to confession. He just sat there and nodded occasionally, as I told him that I was sick of being treated like a freak, that I wasn't going to take any shit from Carl Lewis. I actually said "shit", and didn’t even realise I was doing so. I told him exactly what Carl said, and he didn't bat an eyelid. When I finished, he leant back in his chair and steepled his fingers under his chin. I think he honestly didn't know what to say, and we sat again for a minute in silence as he no doubt considered what the heck to do with me.
"You know David," he said eventually. "I really do sympathise with you. I've had Carl Lewis up here far too many times than is healthy for either winding people up or bullying them. My problem is that you punched another pupil in the middle of a class. I can't let that go unpunished, no matter how much I realise why you did it. I want you to understand that I'm doing this as much for you as for appearances sake. I'm going to suspend you from school for the rest of the week."
I didn't say anything, but my mind was in a whirl – forty degree quick wash with extra powder. Suspended? Doesn't that stay on your permanent record or something? I knew my parents would go apeshit. "I'll have my secretary call your mother or father, and they can pick you up today and take you home. Who would it be best to call?"
"My mother," I said immediately. She was close, and she had a car. Unfortunately, she also had a temper that made a hurricane look fluffy.
"Okay. If you could go back outside and take a seat, I'm sure she'll be here soon. Have you got all your stuff with you?"
"Yes." Sniff. Now the tears were really getting close.
"David. Don't worry about this. It's better for all concerned that you take a few days off. Relax, read a book or two. Don't think of this as a bad thing. I know you're not a bad boy, all I ask is that you get this out of your system, and make sure it never happens again. Can you do that for me?"
"Good. Don't worry, David. I will be speaking to Carl, and I'll make it very clear that if he tries anything like this again I'll have his guts for garters. By the time you come back it will all have blown over, and that's for the best. Now go on, I'll call your mother."
"Thank you, Sir," I said, not knowing what else would be appropriate, then I went back outside, feeling like an aristo on his way to the guillotine. A few of the tears crept though, but I wiped them away with my sleeve and ordered my thoughts. I knew damn well this could have been a lot worse, and I also knew that he was telling the truth when he said that suspending me was the best thing to do. It struck me that Peter would be jealous as hell, and that thought made me smile a little. I figured that if I explained it to my Mum and dad like I did to Mr Maynard, they'd understand. Sometimes parents don’t have to be monsters, even if their children can’t help it.
“Fuck off, y’little bastards!” I shout, with passion and belief, at the two schoolkids who think that calling me gay as they pass the level crossing in front of me is the height of humour. I want to take them aside and tell them that calling someone gay is sociologically wrong, and that one day one of them may discover that he has feelings that way, and he will rue the day he once used the term as an insult. Instead, I just tell them to fuck off again, which is quicker and makes me feel like the big man.
Yes, it’s that old favourite, Monday morning, hated by Garfield and anybody who has a shit job. I faithfully count myself amongst the latter, and as I leave Mini all alone for another day (hopefully less) in the staff car park I wonder why I bother to come here five days out of seven to write letters to a load of idiots who can’t grasp the fact that if you own a car it should be serviced at least once between ice ages. The answer, of course, is money. Money allows me to buy the shiny things that make a mans life complete – I shop, therefore I work.
After flirting badly with Clare on reception, I settle at my desk at precisely one minute to nine, as I do every working day. I may not have many talents, but arriving at work on time is one of them. The worst timekeepers will arrive about twelve minutes or so early, which is too late for breakfast, but too early to sit down and start work without feeling you’re somehow being cheated. Lindsay, my fat, lazy supervisor glares at me as if I am an hour late, but them she probably glares at her husband like that when she is in the throes of the best orgasm of her life – she’s got that sort of face. We don’t, it should be said, get on. The problem is that I think she’s a fat lazy bitch, and she knows I think she’s a fat lazy bitch. So far I’ve proved to be beyond her reach, as I am an expert in knowing just how much work to do so as to allow myself ample skiving time whilst looking nicely efficient. Truth be told, I could clear twice my workload if I wanted, but there’s just no incentive, save that it would make the bitch queen look good, so I don’t.
“You like putting the tea towel in the anal tea towel holder” flashes up on my screen. I grin and quickly delete it, peering over my computer to catch the eye of Greg on the other side of the room. He smirks like a twat and flashes me the wanker sign, then ducks down to type on his keyboard.
“Well you are” flashes up on my screen.
I think one of the biggest mistakes the company made was to allow instant messages to be flashed up on staff members screens. Each member of staff can type in a message and have it appear on someone else’s screen, supposedly so that important messages can be easily relayed to several people at once. Yeah, and the Internet isn’t just a massive porn database, it’s there for research and education. Naturally, certain members of staff abuse the facility for their own amusement, and I’m one of them. Greg is another. I feel it is necessary to explain why he sends me messages of a distinctly homosexual nature, beyond the obvious reason that he’s a twat. Greg, you see, is fascinated with double entendres and the like. He was educated in a public school, miraculously emerging liking girls, but the environment still managed to twist his brain up a bit, leaving him the sort of bloke who will fall into a fit of giggles if anyone says the word “nob” too loudly. Thus, every day he tries to ensure that he finds as many ways of calling me gay as possible without actually saying the word. I, of course, am far to mature for this sort of thing. Am I bollocks.
“You like driving down the Marmite motorway” I type carefully before finding his ID and pressing send. I am rewarded with a snort of laughter from his side of the office. Job well done. Well, it makes a change from Battleships, which we usually play in the afternoon if we get really fed up of actual work, which equates to nearly every afternoon.
Speaking of work, I decide to reply to a few letters before asking for the rest of the week off. You know, show willing and all. We have what is known as a paperless office, and all letters are scanned onto computers. You just choose the type of letter you want (or have) to work on, and the nest in the queue will pop up. Great stuff, unless it’s a letter from the likes of Mr Patel. Now I don’t know Mr Patel personally, but I know his ilk. He’s a taxi driver in the Midlands, and since taking out breakdown cover three weeks ago he has required assistance six times. This generated an automatic latter telling him in no uncertain terms that we were revoking his membership because he was taking the piss. Of course, I’m reading between the lines here, and the actual letter is more like “…although we value you as a customer…” or some such bollocks. Mr Patel is not a happy bunny at this, and so writes a shitty letter because he is one of those people who thinks that customer service people just love letters that are half written in CAPITAL LETTERS. In fact, the first time a customer service person even glimpses capital letters in a missive they automatically think “wanker” – this is a scientific fact.
Mr Patel, it turns out, is a wanker. He drones on about terms and conditions (it’s in them as it happens – he just didn’t read them), fair play, and the fact that of course he’s going to break down more because he does more miles than other people. Like I said – wanker. There’s a standard reply to this sort of drivel, but I feel creative, and I’m still in a mood from yesterday, so I bash out a reply to soothe the itch in my subconscious:
Dear Mr Patel etc. Thank you for your letter, which, after it has been laughed at by the entire office, will make good, if misspelled, toilet paper. I understand your reasoning as to why I should bow down and worship the grass you float above, but I do have a few queries: If you make a living from your car, how come you don't feel the need to actually service the piece of shit every once in a while? I know that people like you think that we're here to subsidise your lack of maintenance but, and I hate to break this to you, we're not. You are a cancerous boil on the backside of my company, and I would feel better about myself if I allow you to be lanced. Go and take your rusting piece of fucking gnats piss car to another company please. I would like to take this opportunity to stress that it's not your race, religion or occupation I object to, it's just you. Now fuck off, and don't come back. Love and kisses, Dave Banner.
It is so tempting, but of course I don’t send it, I just print out a copy to show Greg later, as it should give the uphill gardener a laugh.
I quickly run off a “Thanks, but no thanks” reply to Mr Patel and a few others, and decide it’s time to chase the dragon about getting time off. I saunter over to Lindsay, who puts the phone down as I approach.
“Ah, Dave,” she says, all smiles and fluttering of eyelashes. “I was just talking about you.”
“Good things, I hope,” I say with a smile. “Actually, I was wondering if we could have a little chat. I want to ask you a favour.” All staff and immediate bosses have this little fake respect dance, because if they actually said what they really wanted to there would be bloodshed, and that’s just not a great way to run a business.
“Well,” she says, stretching the word. “I was going to ask for a meeting myself, but in a bit. Hang on.” With this, she picks up her phone again and dials an internal extension. “Hello? Yes it’s me. Look, Dave Banner has just asked me for a meeting about something or other, so are you free now for ten minutes so we can sort that other matter out? You are? Good. We’ll see you in a minute.”
Other matter? What the fuck is going on?
“We’ve just got to go and see Tina in Personnel, Dave, and we can talk about your little favour as well.”
“Why do we have to see Personnel?” I ask, quite reasonably.
“”You’ll see,” she replies happily, which is the big neon warning sign saying ‘You are in the shit and I am absolutely loving it’. “Coming?” So off we go.
We sit in one of the small offices set aside for staff meetings with Tina shuffling my personal file in front of her like a Nazi commandant. I half expect her to bend over me and shout “So! You think you can escape, pathetic Englander!” but she doesn’t, and I resolve not to read so many Commando comics.
“So,” I say, trying to break the ice. “You found the body, then.” Nobody laughs, possibly because it was a shit joke.
“I’m afraid we have something to discuss with you, David,” says Tina solemnly. She’s normally quite nice to me, so I know she’s not mucking about. I look at Lindsay, and inwardly admire her for not jumping around the room letting off fireworks.
“Go on then,” I say, half worried and half not caring. After all, it can’t be that bad or I’d remember it.
“Well,” Tina continues, “you know we allow staff to communicate via the instant messaging system?” I nod. “It has come to our attention that you have been using it to send, how shall I put it, offensive remarks.”
“Like what?” I ask, purely because I know I’m bang to rights and want to hear her say it.
“Well, there’s ‘browneye bandit’, ‘anal adventurer’ and ‘backdoor botherer’ to name a few.”
“I have a good excuse,” I say.
“What is it?”
“I thought it was funny.”
“Funny?” cuts in Lindsay. “As a gay person myself I must say I find it extremely offensive.”
“You’re not gay Lins,” I say. “You’re married.”
“It’s a loveless marriage,” she says huffily.
“I’m not bloody surprised,” I snort. This is mental.
“We’re getting a bit off topic here,” Tina interjects. “You admit to sending these messages, Dave?”
“Yes. I was having a laugh with a colleague.”
“And who would this colleague be?” asks Tina.
“Don’t you know?”
“Well, to tell the truth we haven’t set up monitoring on all the computers yet, just the ones in Lindsays team, as a test.”
“Well I’m not going to tell you if it’s gonna get him in the shit as well, am I?”
“We would be more lenient on you if you did.”
“This is like being arrested!” I exclaim. “We’ll knock twenty years off your sentence if you’ll squeal on the Godfather and all that bollocks. Look, I’m not in the mood for all this, so give me a written warning or whatever, slap me on the wrist and I’ll promise not to do it again, okay?”
“Actually, there is another thing,” says Lindsay, really working hard on the not smiling thing. She takes out a letter and hands it to Tina. “This was in our printer tray this morning.”
Oh shit. Mr Patel’s letter. I forgot to take it out of the communal printer tray, and the bitch queen got her claws on it. I watch as Tina reads it with horrified disbelief. An official letter, on official paper, with my name and computer generated signature at the bottom, telling a customer to fuck off. Whoops.
“Dave?” says Tina, aghast. “Why on earth did you write this?”
“Look,” I way reasonably. “I wasn’t going to send it. I wrote him a proper letter as well. I just wrote that to get some of the frustration out of my head. I have just had a very nasty weekend and it helped calm me down. I only printed it out to show to my mate. No harm done.”
“No harm done!” shrieks Lindsay in triumph. “Do you realise someone could have put this in the post? If the papers had got hold of it the company would face a major backlash.” I swear she couldn’t be more like a cartoon villain if she had a speech bubble coming out of the side of her head with “Bwah Ha Ha!” in it.
“Was it sent?” I asked calmly.
“Then as I said. No harm done.”
“I’m afraid that as it has been brought to my attention I have to act on it,” says Tina. “I understand why you did it, but you have to consider the potential ramifications.”
“You are in it up to your neck, Dave” says Lindsay gloatingly. To my credit, I don’t punch her, mostly because she has about ten stone on me.
And then I snapped.
“You said what?” asks Simon, wiping tears from his eyes.
“I said ‘Fuck you and fuck your job’” I reply, as if it’s something I do every day.
“Then what?” he asks.
“Then I called Lindsay a fat evil bitch, which I have wanted to do for sooo long, and I went downstairs, picked up my bag and left.”
“You my friend, have balls of steel,” he says admiringly. “But no job.”
“Yes,” I confirm. “I am unemployed, and I feel great. I’m sure when it hits me I’ll feel depressed, melancholy and even suicidal, but for now I’m going to enjoy it, and whenever I feel down I can just revisit Lindsays face in my mind and I’ll cheer up all over again. Get me a beer”
“Yes sir, Mr Unemployed Balls Of Steel Man,” he says, saluting and going to the kitchen.
It’s only been an hour since my rather sudden quitting, and Simon is enjoying my dramatic representation, which is, I would like to say, totally accurate. My phone has almost continually rung since, all workmates wanting the dirt, so I turned it off, leaving an answerphone message that says “Sorry I can’t come to the phone, but yes I did quit and yes I did call Lindsay a fat evil bitch.”. That should give them something to gossip about, if nothing else. Thoughts of my phone remind me of why I wanted the meeting in the first place, and I turn it back on as Simon comes back with a couple of beers.
“Simon?” I say, taking mine gratefully. “What are you doing this week?”
“Nothing that can’t be put off,” he replies, reading my mind as ever. “What did you have in mind?”
“Let’s go for a road trip,” I say, and dial Waynes number.
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?"
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.