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Thursday, 23 June 2011


Jonathan decided to squeeze in an hour at the gym before the party.  He found the whole process a struggle but he had to be true to his ambitions to be a fit and healthy oldie rather than a couch potato.  In the changing rooms, he picked out a vacant locker and began to undress.  As ever, there was a mixed cocktail of aromas in the room, sweat mixed with chlorine, a hint of disinfectant and the occasional waft of aftershave or deodorant.  He could not decide whether or not he liked the smell, but he supposed that fitness needed some identifiable fragrance to make people feel that they were doing something noble and worthwhile.  It always reminded him of that Bonnie Tyler song about needing a hero “fresh from the fight”, all moist and glistening.  There was always a light, misty steam, condensation on the frosted windows and a wet floor.  It was what it was, a sanctum for sweaty people to feel good about themselves.
Jonathan was very self-conscious in the gym itself, the workout room, amongst die-hard muscle men and women who seemed to know all about the equipment, how it worked, what the digital screens were flashing, speed settings for treadmills and tension settings for rowing and stretching.  He felt inadequate, even clumsy, but always tried to act as if he knew what he was doing.  He would follow a routine of warming up by observing others with their lunges and posturing and doing his best to imitate when they weren’t looking at him.  The gym walls were mostly mirrors and Jonathan knew he had to be careful where he looked and for how long and with what kind of expression on his face.  He didn’t want to accused of gawping.  He was careful enough with his sideways glancing and acute timing, anticipating when someone might look at him and averting his eyes just at the right moment.  He had a brief stint on a rowing machine, ten minutes on the cycling equipment and a good thirty minutes walking, jogging, running, then walking again to ease down on a treadmill.  It suited him fine.  Others, particularly but not exclusively, men were pushing themselves to limits that Jonathan would never experience.  He told himself he was for toning not torture.
As he worked the treadmill, he thought about Sophie and decided to accelerate his moves to find her accommodation somewhere else.  He thought about Dot and her blatant idea that they would soon be a couple.  He pictured Annie, or Angelica as she preferred these days, and wondered why she had moved back to Maple Court.  There were plenty of other flats and houses she could have chosen.  What was she up to?  He concentrated a little more on Molly and their book collaboration that was going slowly but well enough.  He wished that his life was or would finally be as interesting as hers.  Perhaps the book would be his ticket to more and more contacts, and a new network of friends and acquaintances, media exposure and all that jazz.  But, as ever, when he had these flights of fancy, Jonathan drew back and looked at himself in the mirror for a quick physical appraisal.  His red face and sweat-stained tee-shirt brought him back to Earth. 
After the session, he walked back to the changing room.  Apart from a rather overweight man in the far corner, he was on his own.  The fat man was naked, fresh from the shower, and Jonathan eyed him as an educational lesson not to ever, ever, ever get into a condition like that.  He was gasping rather than breathing and trying to dry himself with a towel that was far too small for his physical expanse.  Jonathan unlocked his locker to get a bottle of shampoo.  Just as he reached in, he heard a crash.  He looked round and saw the fat man lying on the floor, his face a deep red and his huge chest pumping out then sucking in.  Jonathan opened the changing room door and shouted for help down the corridor before rushing over to the naked man.  He hadn’t a clue what to do, no first aid training to call upon, no natural instincts or inclination in medical matters.
“I’ve called for help,” he said to the man whose eyes were bulging as if trying to escape from his head.  “Try to breath slower.”  The man either ignored this request or was incapable of controlling his bodily functions.  Then, suddenly, he stopped moving, stopped breathing and lay still.  Jonathan felt panic.  He shouted again for help and before long an attendant arrived, assessed the situation and began to administer the kiss of life.  After several frantic minutes, the attendant leaned back, wiped his mouth and looked at Jonathan.  The shake of his head was enough of a signal that the man was dead.  Jonathan sat on a bench and looked at the body.  He felt utterly useless and helpless.
“If I had known about the kiss of life or a bit of first aid,” he asked the attendant, “would a few minutes have made all the difference?”  The attendant looked at him.
“Don’t beat yourself up, mate.  Who knows?  It happened and no amount of analyzing will change things.  It was his time.”  Jonathan wasn’t sure whether he agreed with the comment and he sat for a while with his head in his hands wondering about this man’s fate.
“You’ll need to stay to give the police a statement,” said the attendant.
“Of course,” replied Jonathan in a half-daze.  He sat and looked in the direction of the dead man’s body, now covered with a sheet and gulped in a sob.  How quickly things can end, how out of control we are to fate and how little we really value our time and what we do with it.  It took the experience of watching a man die to shake Jonathan into a more organized way of living.  He was determined to be more decisive to get things done and vowed on that gym bench, with death adding to the atmosphere to spur him into a new, more alert approach to life and living.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011


It was mid-afternoon, only hours before the party at Jennifer and Tom’s place and Dot was in a foul mood.  She was in the deli and serving customers with none of usual bonhomie and chatter.  Jonathan dropped in to buy some fruit.
“Are these apples fresh today, Dot?” he asked in a jokey way, knowing that Dot was a stickler for fresh food deliveries.  Dot looked around at the few browsing customers and waited until they left.  She squared up to Jonathan.  He noticed that her face with rigid with anger.  Her lips were tight and when she spoke it seemed to him that there was only the slimmest of gaps between her teeth.  He braced himself for something unpleasant.
“How dare you!  How bloody dare you call my apples into question.  Mister apple expert!” she spat back, “Do you think I waste my time here selling bad food to people?  I have built my reputation on freshness and quality, guaranteed.  If it isn’t fresh to me on the back of the van, I don’t accept it, ever.  So, yes, those apples, like everything else in this shop, are top quality.”  Jonathan stared back at her in amazement at the tirade.
“Dot, it was only a bit of banter, for God’s sake,” he said.  “What’s the matter?”
Dot was pacing back and forward behind the meat counter.  The shop had no other customers which gave her additional freedom to bang tongs against the chopping board and vent her anger by opening and closing the sliding door to the chiller cabinet.  After a few minutes of activity, she marched out in front of the counter, put her hands on her hips and addressed the ceiling.
“I do my best to run a business.  I try to be nice, friendly and supportive to the people I serve, including my neighbours.  I have lost count of how many times I have stepped in when friends and family have needed help.  I think I am basically a good person.”  She stopped, aware that she might shed some tears but a long, slow, deep breath corrected her emotions.  She continued.
“I don’t preach about all of this much because I like to help without shouting about it.  But, every now and again, I expect something in return.”  She lowered her eyes from the ceiling and looked at Jonathan.  He was aghast but transfixed.
“Dot,” he stammered, “if this is anything to do with last night, or to do with us as, well as an item, I mean a relationship, then I’m not sure a discussion in the shop is going to resolve it.”  Dot screwed her face in puzzlement.
“What the hell are you talking about?”  She was back to shouting form.
“Look,” he ventured again, “I really do like you a lot and I think we can have a wonderful friendship without any complications but, right now, for reasons I can’t explain, because I don’t know myself, it just doesn’t seem to be the right time to commit to anything or anyone.  Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”  Dot eyed him, her brow furrowed and her mouth twisted.
“I’m not talking about relationships or commitment or anything to do with last night or us or the man in the moon.”  Jonathan could feel the surge of a massive blushing fit.
“Oh, oh, Dot, what are you going on about then?  Dot took another deep breath and relaxed her shoulders.
“It’s them,” she said, pointing upwards.
“Who?” said a perplexed Jonathan.
“The honeymooners upstairs, the couple throwing the party tonight,” said Dot with a sneer.
“What’s wrong with them.  Have they upset you?”
“Upset me!  Upset me!  Here we are with only a few hours to their little soiree and no one has been down here to order any food for a buffet.  I mean, I assume that there will be food at this do.  But no one seems to think about supporting their local business and their neighbour by ordering from the local deli.  I’m on their doorstep but, oh no, they will probably get their stuff from Tesco or Marks and Spencer.  Sod the little guy.”  Jonathan had rarely seen Dot so animated.
“Maybe it was more convenient for them to buy the stuff near where they work,” proposed Jonathan, realizing that as soon as he had expressed his opinion, Dot would flare up again.
“How much more bloody convenient is it to be living on top of a fresh food shop where the helpful and friendly owner could put a buffet together and even deliver the food and even lay it out on the table and even provide serviettes as a nice gesture free of charge.  How much more convenient, eh?  Answer me that.  Go on, answer me that.”  Jonathan walked over to Dot and took her in his arms for a hug.  He hugged gently.  Her hug increased in tightness and intensity for a few seconds, before letting go of each other.
“You fancy me, don’t you?” said Dot, much calmer and resorting to her slinky Eartha Kitt, purring cat routine.  “Don’t deny it because if you do, I won’t believe it anyway.”  Jonathan raised his eyebrows and shook his head from side to side.
“Dot, you are priceless,” he said, “and a force to be reckoned with.  I assume you are still going to the party.”
“Oh, I’ll be going,” said Dot, “ if only to compare the food on offer to the wonderful offerings they could have had.”  Jonathan repeated his raised eyebrows and head shaking routine.
“Try not to cause trouble.  They are trying to be nice and they might not have thought the food thing through properly.  Try to have fun.”  Jonathan had now clasped his hands together as if in prayer.
“Hmmm,” said Dot as Eartha Kitt, “I’m just an old-fashioned girl and if I do something for a man, I expect the man to do something in return, if you know what I mean.”  Jonathan grabbed three apples, handed them to Dot to bag up, paid her and left the shop with a half-smile and a wave.
“See you later, madam,” he said.  Dot blew him a kiss just as a vicar entered, causing her to begin a short cackling session.  The vicar looked perplexed as he asked for a tub of coleslaw and six slices of salami.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011


Maxine put a bowl of food on the kitchen floor for the dog.  She had christened him Billy Bob.  The dog, hearing the metal dish touch the floor, scuttled in from the lounge and immediately stuck his head into the bowl, wolfing down the contents as if it was the last meal on Earth.  Maxine watched Billy Bob and smiled, giggling occasionally at the slopping and slurping noises.  She loved him so much and even more so now that she knew the identity of the man who nearly killed him.  She branded Sophie’s father as an animal assassin and vowed to find a way, even a tiny, little way, to get revenge.  She was not malicious enough to do anything drastic but she would find a way to irritate or embarrass him before too long.
“Hi Max,” said Matt.  “I see the mutt is still in residence.”
“He’s not a mutt, he’s a proper dog and his name is Billy Bob.”  Maxine looked annoyed.
“What’s the difference between a mutt and a proper dog anyway and why would anyone in their right mind call a dog Billy Bob?”
“Oh, you’re just being awkward today, Matt.  Anyone can call a pet anything they like.  It’s a free country.”
“I think you’ll find that it is almost a free country,” said Matt pursing his lips in an authoritarian way and pointing a dictatorial finger in her direction.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with Rover.”
“It’s my dog and its name is my business, okay?”  Maxine changed from annoyed to angry.
“Calm down, Max, I’m only teasing you, but you know the arrangement.  The dog is here only as a temporary resident.  Have you thought what you will do with it?”
“It’s a he, not an it and, no, I haven’t figured out what I’ll do with him.  My heart wants to keep him forever but my head knows that he is on borrowed time here.”  Maxine’s eyes started to water and Max moved closer to comfort her.  They hugged and the dog growled loudly before biting Matt’s trouser leg.  Matt stepped back from Maxine and started shaking his leg to dislodge the dog.  Maxine began to shout.
“Stop it, stop it,” she bawled, “stop shaking your leg or you’ll hurt the dog.”
“Sod the bloody dog, “ cried Max in a slight panic, voice raised to an abnormal pitch for him, “this monster is trying to chew my leg off.”  He was kicking his leg more vigorously and every now and then the dog would fly off the ground in a crazy swinging game.  With one final thrust, Matt shot his leg out with all the force he could muster and Billy Bob suddenly let go, flying across the kitchen before hitting the fridge, eventually scurrying back into the lounge.
“You animal,” screamed Maxine, “you’re no better that Sophie’s father, mean, cruel and heartless.”  Matt was aware that his lower jaw had slackened in disbelief at Maxine’s fury.  She rushed out of the kitchen, into the lounge and found the dog hiding behind an armchair.  Matt checked for teeth marks and rips in his jeans before walking into the lounge.  He saw Maxine cuddling a shivering dog.
“Max,” Matt ventured, ”none of this was my fault.  It was….”  He was cut off in mid-explanation.
“Not your fault, not your fault!  You kicked this poor little dog against the fridge door and it’s not your fault.  Pah!”  She spat the last word and cuddled the dog even more.
“But it attacked me, I mean he attacked me.”  Matt was looking dejected, convinced that whatever he said he was guilty in the eyes of Maxine.  “What can I do to make it up to you?”
Maxine looked away for a few seconds and said: “There are two things that would make a difference.  Firstly, I want you to apologise to Billy Bob and kiss him on the nose.  Come on then.”  Matt looked horrified but in the interests of future peace he walked over to the sofa.  He knelt down, looked at Maxine and then at Billy Bob.
“Billy Bob, I am very sorry.”  He moved towards the dog, apprehensively, and kissed it on its cold, wet nose.  The dog gave out a tiny yelp of approval.  “And the second thing?”
“I want you to promise that you will support me when I try to convince Cass to agree that Billy Bob can stay in the flat for the foreseeable future.”  Maxine looked straight into Matt’s eyes.  He stood up and paced around a little.
“Wow, isn’t kissing a dog’s nose and apologising enough of a humiliation?  Cass can be very stroppy about things like this.  She’s not happy about the dog being here in the first place.”  Matt paused, hoping that Maxine would relent and withdraw her proposal.  But she remained silent but kept her eyes fixed on him.
“Okay, okay,” Matt sighed, “you win but that’s it.  If anything else happens, all promises and bets are off.  The dog has to behave.”
Maxine got up from the sofa, dog in her arms, and moved to kiss Matt on the cheek.  The dog barked, Matt stepped away, gave a little wave and Maxine smiled the broadest smile of her life.
Matt returned to the kitchen to make a sandwich.  He noticed that his hands were shaking but took a deep breath and steadied himself.  He had never liked dogs and had come to the conclusion that there was only one degree of separation between pet and pest.  He had a puppy once but a bully had drowned it in front of him and a few of his friends.  It was a sad incident but Matt vowed in his young head not to bother with the practicalities and emotions associated with dog ownership.  Besides, he was annoyed with himself at being weak, manipulated into agreeing something he didn’t really agree with.  Apart from kissing a dog on the nose, he had spoken to the beast as if it was human.  It was shameful and he had little doubt that Maxine would use this altercation in future moves to get him to comply with her little schemes.

Monday, 20 June 2011


“I thought I heard someone outside the door early this morning,” said Chico.  He was shaving while Annie was soaking in the bath.  Annie flicked some soap suds in his direction.
“Oh this old building is so full of moans and groans, it could tell a few tales with all the comings and goings.  Now there’s an idea for your film producer friend.  A racy soap opera called Tales From Maple Court.”  Annie laughed.
“Do you think I’m putting on weight, darling?  I mean around my face and on my waist.  Chico was swaying and posing, looking at his bare torso in the mirror.
“Chico, cheeky, cheeky, cheeky, cheeky Chico, you are the perfect specimen in my heart and in my bed,” said Annie, blowing him a kiss.  Annie could have completed her appraisal by saying that he was a little lacking in the brains department but she liked Chico because he was young, carefree, uninhibited and he made her feel exactly the same way.  She could tolerate his lack of stimulating conversation in favour of his other talents.
Chico walked over to the bath, bent down and kissed Annie fully on the lips.  “I love you, darling.  You enjoy your bath.  I’ve got to get dressed and head over to the wine bar.  Thank goodness I remembered to change my shift for the party across the way.”
“Do you ever think about opening your own wine bar?” asked Annie.
“It is my second dream,” said Chico, “because you, my darling, were my first dream, to meet and fall in love with a beautiful woman.”
“Get out of here, you gorgeous charmer before I lose control again.”  Annie threw a snowball-size clump of bubbles at Chico who ran from the bathroom.  He was a bartender but she still insisted in introducing him to other people as a life coach.  It was more stylish, she thought.  She lay there soaking for a while thinking about her life and the price she had decided to pay for her freedom.  She was surprised at how easy it was to leave Jonathan but her conscience nagged her about Sophie.  Her daughter was very precious top her but Annie concluded that in this one life chance given to all human beings, each person had seventy or eighty years to survive, not a lot of time in the great scheme of things and certainly it was silly to waste any of it.  Family life was the thing she craved when she was a young girl and on into her teenage years.  But once she had it, she struggled to accept that her biggest wish had come true when she still had decades in front of her.  It was a ruthless decision but she had made it after finding fun and laughter again with Chico.  He was a bit of a dunce at times but he cared for her and made her feel good physically and emotionally.  She reckoned that the angst of cutting her daughter was an expensive price worth paying.  It seemed to her that it was a clear choice of growing into a frumpy old mother and wife or taking a leap of faith out into the world of freedom and pleasure.
At the dressing table, she took great care and plenty of time to apply her make-up.  She had no reason to rush and she found the procedure very relaxing and, eventually, rewarding, as she transformed the plain looking woman fresh from her bath into an attractive lady.  Chico said he loved to look at her face, and other parts of her body too of course, but he said she had hypnotic eyes, classic cheekbones and beautiful lips that produced a smile to intoxicate and then melt the hearts of men.  Chico was indeed a romantic but in his own clumsy, cheesy way, he was sincere about it.
Annie’s plan in returning to Maple Court was to find a way to get a share of Jonathan’s savings and investments, a settlement of some kind, even though she had walked away without notice and without much of an explanation.  Her own finances were dwindling slowly and, although it was her decision not to work, she couldn’t see how Chico’s barman wages could keep them in a reasonable lifestyle in the long term.  She had ambitions to find enough money to buy a wine bar, partly a jokey thing between her and Chico, but a serious enough aspiration in her own mind.  She would own it, Chico would run it and it seemed as good a dream as any to ponder.  But she had to find a way to get the money and she didn’t want to borrow from the banks and she reckoned that Jonathan would be a soft touch, especially after some manipulation. She had gone to the toilet in the early hours and on her way back to bed, she heard noises in the street.  Looking out the window, she saw Jonathan and Dot stumbling about, with Dot cackling away at something or other.  Later, she was aware of floorboards creaking outside her door and she knew that someone, probably Jonathan, had stopped outside.  She reckoned he was a bit jealous of her relationship with Chico and that his ear to the door indicated that there was still a spark of interest in his wife.  Annie was confident she could use such a spark, as well as Jonathan’s relationship with their daughter and his dalliance with Dot, to her advantage.  She was aware also of his visits to Mrs Kingston across the hall.  The party at the new couple’s apartment later would be a good place to observe everyone in the same room.  The whole thing was destined to be monumentally boring and dull, but making new friends and reacquainting with old neighbours were both steps towards a lucrative end.
Annie performed a final check of her appearance in the long mirror by the door before going shopping.  She liked what she saw.  She was back in the game.  She was determined to do whatever it took to succeed, even if eventually it meant dumping Chico in the process.  She didn’t want to do that but she would even sacrifice him to get her way.

Sunday, 19 June 2011


“What a wonderful meal and a wonderful evening.  Thank you Dot.  I really enjoyed it,” said Jonathan, after paying the taxi driver.  They were standing on the pavement outside Maple Court in the drizzle.  Dot walked over to have a look through her shop window to make sure everything was secure.
“Do you enjoy running the deli, Dot?” asked Jonathan, turning up his jacket lapels against the rain.
“It’s my life now.  I’m used to it.  It suits me,” she said in a fairly non-committal way before stepping back and stumbling.  Jonathan caught her before she fell.
“Are you alright?” he asked as she steadied herself.
“I think I’m a bit tiddly, Jonathan, but in a very, very nice way.  Would you like to come in for a drink?”  Before Jonathan could answer, Dot lunged at him in a clumsy attempt to make lip contact but Jonathan turned away and only suffered a lipstick smear on his cheek.  Dot had no idea how clownish she looked with her smudged mouth.  Jonathan stifled a laugh.
“Pardon you, have you got wind?” asked Dot, mistaking Jonathan’s muffled noises for something else entirely.  “If you have, I’ll buy you a kite.”  With that little joke, Dot nearly collapsed in a cackling fit of the giggles. 
“I’ll come in and make us a coffee,” said Jonathan, taking Dot by the arm and leading her into the building.
Jonathan couldn’t remember the last time he was in Dot’s flat but on opening the door, he noticed the smell of stale cigarettes but he wasn’t aware that Dot smoked.  At the restaurant, she was not one of the ebb and flow crowd moving to and from tables to front entrance to light up.  Dot flopped onto the sofa and Jonathan went to the kitchen to make some coffee.
“I’ll get us two large brandies,” shouted Dot.
“Just a small one for me, Dot,” responded Jonathan, as he returned to the lounge carrying two mugs. He stopped in mid-step as he watched at Dot, now barefoot, at the drinks cabinet.  She was still a little unsteady as she poured the drinks, spilling a little on the floor.  From her mouth, a Gitane cigarette dangled, making her look both chic and shambolic.  Jonathan noticed a blob of ash falling into one of the glasses.
“I didn’t know you smoked, Dot,” said Jonathan as they both sat down on the sofa.
“You’re not going to give me a health lecture, are you?”  Dot was staring at Jonathan in a rather serious way.
“Oh no.  It was just an observation.  I’ve not seen you smoking before, that’s all.”
Dot put the brandy glass to her lips and despite Jonathan’s attempts to point out the floating ash, she downed the drink in one gulp.  “The reason I smoke, if you must know, is out of protest.  For years, my once darling Bill insisted that I did not smoke in his company, especially in the apartment.  He got so angry on one occasion that he smashed an ashtray against a wall.  So now that the bastard has gone, I smoke in this flat and only in this flat as my little way of sticking two fingers up at him.  Could you get me another brandy, please and don’t tell me that I’ve had enough?”
“I wouldn’t dare,” thought Jonathan to himself.
“Do you do any little protest things since your wife left you, Jonathan?”
“Hmmm, let me think, I suppose it’s stuff that I don’t really think about.  I mean I leave the washing up longer that I used to and I leave the newspapers in a mess, especially after I have cut out all the bits I save to read later and I watch The Rockford Files instead of having to pretend to watch and enjoy the soaps.  We used to do that together with our dinners on our laps.  Daft stuff like that, inconsequential, trivial and, probably selfish.” 
Jonathan handed Dot her brandy.  Her hand touched his and she looked at him with wide, almost pathetic eyes.  Jonathan pulled a slightly puzzled face.
“Jonathan,” said Dot with a mild slur, “would you sleep with me tonight?”
Jonathan changed from puzzled to surprised.  “Now, now Dot, what are you saying?”
“Well, if you wouldn’t sleep with me tonight, do you think I’m an attractive enough woman to share a bed with?”  Dot looked at Jonathan, her eyes blinking rapidly in an attempt to make her look more sober than she actually was.
“Dot, you are a very attractive lady and you would be a great catch for any man, but I don’t think it’s right for us to be discussing something like this whilst we’re under the influence of wine and brandy.  This is the kind of talk that causes regrets the next morning.  Besides, I’m up for building a wonderful friendly relationship but I am not inclined to consider a long-term commitment, not just to you but to anyone, at least for the moment.  Am I making sense?”  Jonathan turned round and looked at a sleeping Dot, brandy glass titled in a risky spilling position.  He walked over, took the glass from her.  She opened her eyes and smiled a sleepy smile.
“Let’s get you to bed,” said Jonathan.  He took her hand and helped her up.
“You are a very confused man, Mister Jonathan,” whispered Dot, “and I will get you one day.”
Dot flopped on the bed and Jonathan pulled the duvet over her.  Now she was fast asleep.  He kissed her on the forehead, turned out the lights and tiptoed out of her apartment.
On his way upstairs, he looked over to the second floor flat where his wife was living with Chico.  He stopped for a moment and put his ear to the door.  He had no idea what he thought he might hear, talking perhaps, arguing, music, lovemaking, but all he heard was silence.  He jerked his head back a little and whispered aloud, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
He carried on upstairs, wondering if he should have accepted Dot’s bedroom invitation and trying to analyse why he had stuck his ear to Annie’s door.  He ignored the whining dog noise as he walked into his own apartment.  Before he closed his eyes to sleep, he lay in bed and concluded that, in a world of unwelcome and unexpected complications, it was impossible for anyone to live a simple life.


“That’s all the party invitations delivered.  Let’s see how many of our neighbours RSVP,” said Tom.
“I’m confident it will be a good turnout.  I’ve never known the chance of free booze and food not to be taken up,” replied Jennifer, as she chopped an onion.
“Hmmm, that smells good,” said Tom, sidling over to give his wife a squeeze, “and so do you.  New perfume?” 
“Just a spray from a sample bottle in the department store.  It’s £60 a bottle, so a complimentary spray is better than nothing.”  Jennifer sighed and Tom detected from her tense body that something was not right.
“What’s up, Jen?” said Tom as he turned his wife round to face him.  She did not make eye contact immediately but he held her chin gently and coaxed her to look at him.  She was not crying but she seemed to be close to doing so.
“You know we promised to be totally honest with each other in our marriage, no matter how difficult it is to say things,” said Jennifer, her gaze drifting away from Tom, “well, I need to tell you how I feel about something.”  Tom backed away from his wife, uncertain about what he was about to hear.
“Jen, you’re scaring me a bit.  What’s the matter?”
Jennifer walked to the sink to get some water.  She sipped a little, put the glass on the draining board and turned to Tom.
“I’m not sure I want to be married,” she said quickly, “there I’ve said it.”  She put her hands up to her mouth as if to stop any more words from tumbling out.  Tom looked horrified.
“Jen, we’re a newly married couple.  There is still some confetti in our suitcases.  What’s brought this on?  Is there, is there someone…….?”
“No, no, it’s nothing like that.  There’s no one else.  It’s just a feeling I had last night, this morning, on the way to work, at work, at lunchtime, on the way home, right now in our kitchen making this spaghetti bolognese and I just can’t shake it off.  It’s not about you.  I adore you.  It’s about marriage.  The whole thing, the years, the decades ahead, I can’t get my head round losing the freedom to do what I want with my life.  I can’t see how it is right for me, and you for that matter, to have to compromise on nearly everything we do.”  Jennifer fished a tissue from the box and wiped some moisture from her eyes.  Tom’s jaw had dropped and his brow was furrowed with surprise, no shock, at what he was hearing.
“For God’s sake, we’ve only been married a week.  The wedding day, the reception was fantastic.  I’ve never seen you so happy.  You were, I mean you are beautiful.  Is it the postponed honeymoon?  I know money’s a bit tight what with getting this flat and all but we will get away later in the year.  We’ve talked about that.  We agreed.”
“Tom, it’s not about any of that,” said Jennifer as she moved towards him, holding out her hand.  Tom backed away.  He was staring at her outstretched hand and her wedding ring.
“What about all that ‘til death do us part stuff?  What about all the things we said to each other about love and the future and kids?    Was that all meaningless?”  Tom was becoming agitated.  Jennifer grabbed him by the shoulders and gradually moved her hands to his face to caress him.
“Tom, it’s about how I feel.  I want to be honest with you but the truth hurts.  I loved the wedding day and all the celebrations and seeing our family and friends there, but even amongst all that joy, every now and then I had these nagging thoughts in my head. I thought they would pass but they haven’t.  I’m sorry but now I’ve said how I feel, I need to think things through a bit more realistically.  Just be patient with me.  Give me a couple of days to get my head round all of this but please don’t pressure me.  I know it’s a horrible thing to ask.”  She kissed him on the lips.
Tom poured himself some red wine.  He gestured to Jennifer but she held up her glass of water.
“What about the party?  Shall we cancel?” asked Tom in a whisper as he looked out of the window.
“I think we should carry on with it.  I’m not saying anything’s over Tom. I just need to work this out.  In the meantime, we should carry on as normal, at least as far as the neighbours are concerned.  What do you think?”  Tom turned to look at his wife.
“I suppose if we can play happy families at our wedding, doing it again at a party is no big deal,” said Tom, tight-lipped and clearly upset.
“I have no right to say don’t be like that, have I after what I have just blurted out,” said Jennifer.
Tom walked out of the kitchen and sat down in the lounge.
“Do you want parmesan or cheddar with the spaghetti?” shouted Jennifer.
“I’m not that hungry,” answered Tom.  You have yours. I might have some later for supper, if I feel like it.”
Jennifer gripped the worktop and took a deep breath.  She wasn’t hungry either.  She had dropped a bombshell and caused more damage than she realized.  She rattled many thoughts around in her head and concluded that honesty is perhaps not always the best policy, even though people think it is, even though she and Tom had spent hours during their engagement talking about loyalty, fidelity and complete and utter trust in their relationship, even though it might destroy their relationship.
They slept in the same bed but that night, unlike the previous nights in their short marriage, there was space between them.  Whatever happened beyond this day in their lives, things could never be the same again.  It would be trust up to a point followed by suspicion that they would withhold some degree of truth from each other.  Tom was fairly comfortable with the thought of compromising to keep the peace in his marriage but Jennifer, lying awake for most of the night, could feel the urge to walk away much more strongly than the desire to stay for the sake of Tom and the expected conventions of matrimony.

Saturday, 18 June 2011


“That student girl - Marilyn is it? – gave me a very funny look this morning,” said Jonathan as he handed Sophie a pack of roast chicken and stuffing sandwiches.  Jonathan had invited his daughter to lunch in the park, as it was such a lovely day.  He had told her that he thought they didn’t do enough socializing together.  She had rolled her eyes and agreed with a small degree of reluctance.  She agreed with him.  Now that her mother had left them, she felt that she needed to spend more time looking after and enjoying her father.  Jonathan had nipped to Marks and Spencer and loaded up with sandwiches, crisps, chocolate and drinks.  But inviting Sophie to neutral ground in the beautiful open space of the local park had nothing to do with the coincidental nice weather.
“Maxine, it’s Maxine,” corrected Sophie.  “What did she say?”
“Nothing at all.  I was on the mobile and she pulled this awful face as I tried to say hello.  Strange girl.”  Jonathan wiped mayonnaise off his lips.
“She’s okay.  They are all okay.  Well, this is nice, Daddy, can I go on the swings after lunch.”  Sophie laughed and Jonathan joined in.  The he composed himself to tell her about Annie and Chico.  What a double whammy of trouble to explain that her mother was back in Maple Court and that Chico was the live-in lover.
“Sophie,” Jonathan said slowly, wincing as if he was walking on broken glass, “I have something to tell you.”
Sophie dropped her sandwich into the plastic container.  “Oh my God, you’re getting married to the deli dragon.  Tell me it’s not that.”
“No it’s not that.  It’s your mother.”
“Not something trivial like a fatal accident,”  Sophie threw in sarcastically.
“It could be worse than that.  She’s back.  In Maple Court.  In the second floor flat,” said Jonathan in staccato mode.  A short distance away from them, children were enjoying the playground, birds were twittering in the trees, an aeroplane was flying overhead and the sound of road traffic hummed from the road.  But the silence from Sophie was deafening.  Then she exploded.
“Are you telling me that, that, that cow is back?  She’s back?  She’s back living under the same roof as us?  As me?   When?  How?”  Sophie was animated.  “Wait a minute.  She’s in the second floor flat.  That’s where Chico lives.  Oh my God.  That cow has moved in with him and she’s back to rub our noses in it.  Well she’s in for one hell of a catfight.  How could you let this happen?”  Sophie was staring hard at her father, her eyes fixed unblinking on his.  He was blinking like a madman because of embarrassment, nervousness and just being plain uncomfortable.
“Sophie, I have been agonizing about how to break this to you.  It’s not great for me either.  I thought she’d gone for good but obviously not.”
Sophie stood up and in a rage that he father had not seen since the tantrums of his two-year old daughter, she flung her sandwich with all the power and might of an Olympic shot-putter.  No sooner had it hit the ground that several birds swooped down to fight over it.  A woman, passing by with a Chihuahua on a lead, stopped and glared at Sophie. “Excuse me,” she shouted in a Lady Bracknell way, with that slight yodel noise at the back of her throat, “littering is not something a young lady should be doing.  Think of the other park users.”
Sophie walked a few paces towards the woman and screamed at the top of her voice: ‘Mind your own bloody business, you interfering old goat.  I was feeding the flipping birds, if you must know.  You should go to Specsavers and take your little rat with you for company.”
Jonathan was trying to hide his face and turned sideways on the bench in a bid to distance himself from the scene.
“Can’t you keep your grandchild under control?”  said the woman to Jonathan.  He stood up and walked over to join his daughter. 
“You don’t know what you’re talking about you blind old bat,” shouted Jonathan.  “Watch out or the birds will have that piece of scrag end on the lead when they’ve finished their sandwich.  Clear off.”  The woman looked shocked.  She bent down and picked up the Chihuahua before storming off, a red mist like Ready-Brek seemed to envelope her.
Jonathan and Sophie looked at each other, their serious faces melting into smirks, then huge smiles before both clutching each other in fits of belly-aching laughter.
“I have never been so rude in my life,” said Jonathan in a more composed moment.  “And I have not seen you in a temper like that since you were a toddler.”
“I am so embarrassed.  We’d better get out of here.  She might have called the police,” said Sophie as they packed the picnic things into a carrier bag.
“Come on, granddad,” giggled Sophie, “we have to put on a united front to sort things out with Chico and the Cow.  We don’t want them messing up our lives.  She’s tried to do it once and she must have some ulterior motive to come back again to Maple Court.  As for him, well you can’t judge a book by its cover.  What a loser if he’s shacked up with her.”
Jonathan agreed in principle, if not in the use of language.  “We need to get to the bottom of this, but we must do it carefully to avoid any unnecessary grief, at least for the two of us.  In the meantime, my girl, we’ll have less of the granddad.  By the way, did you remember I’m out tonight with Dot?”
Sophie gave him a raised eyebrow look and an “hmmm’ noise before kissing her father on the cheek and she then went back to work.  Jonathan returned to the flat.  He decided not to take the lift, in the interests of good health and exercise.  On the way up stairs, he overtook Maxine who seemed to be struggling with a large sports bag.
“Would you like some help?” asked Jonathan.
“Oh, no, I’m fine, thank you,” said Maxine, a little red-faced and puffing slightly.  
Jonathan walked on, unaware that Maxine was sticking her tongue out at him.  She wasn’t really struggling with the bag but the dog inside was struggling to get out.
As Jonathan turned the key in his front door lock, he could have sworn he heard a yelp from somewhere close-by.

Thursday, 16 June 2011


The living room in the students’ flat was a tip, a mess of gargantuan proportions with a carpet begging to be vacuumed, windows desperate for the loving touch of a chamois leather, and piles of books, magazines, newspapers and take-away menus strewn on the furniture and the floor.  The furniture itself would have provoked a coronary in the Llewellyn-Bowen household, as it was a mixture of styles, designs, conditions and prices.  With three students bringing their own contribution, the living area looked like the afternoon after the morning after the night before when the domestic chores were consigned to last place on the day’s necessities whilst the residents fought off the last pains of their hangovers.  Domesticity was definitely not high on the agenda for the three academics.
It seemed that each had chosen a wall for their pictures and other stuff they wanted to display.  Matt had a giant poster of the Rat Pack in the centre of his space, with the super-cool images of Sinatra, Martin and Davis Jnr exuding their bizarrely powerful Las Vegas aura across the room from all those decades ago.  It never crossed his mind that boozing, smoking and gambling, popular in the 1960s, were the trio of social devils to a growing majority in the 21st century.  He just liked the swagger.  On the left, he had stuck the iconic picture of Steve McQueen as Hiltz on his motorcycle contemplating how best to jump that barb-wire fence in his great escape attempt.  On the right hand side, Matt had taped another movie poster, this time showing the airport farewell scene from Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart, bedecked in trilby and trench coat, and Ingrid Bergman, beautiful and dewy-eyed under a wide-brimmed hat.  The girls thought it was a novelty at first but it soon became very annoying when Matt walked passed the poster he would touch it and say in a bad Bogey impression: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”  It was clear that Matt liked stylish cool.
Maxine’s wall was a gallery of front covers from Your Dog magazine.  She never read newspapers or other magazines and, as a result of her concentration on canines, she had developed an encyclopedic knowledge of dogs.  The wall had room for about four years worth of monthly covers and it was just over half-full.  Her favourite picture was of an old English sheepdog, but she was affectionate towards all of them, the Sealyham terrier, the sad-eyed miniature poodle, the cute King Charles spaniel, the loose-skinned jowly Neapolitan Mastiff and the ugly mug of the pug.  The gallery was neat and tidy with every cover placed and stuck perfectly.  Maxine often said that if she had the money, she would have liked the whole collection framed, but at the moment she reckoned that would not be deemed as a good use of her student loan.
Cass had pinned three large flip-chart pages to her wall.  One was headed “LIKES”, another “CONCERNS” and the third “SUGGESTIONS” and she used them to jot down how she felt about the world, society and life in general.  Anyone looking would see that she liked good manners, frosty mornings, salt and vinegar Pringles and red apples.  She was concerned about the environment, crime, people in power who lie and the seemingly unstoppable growth of the rat population.  Her suggestions read rather like the Advertising Standards Authority handbook in that she just wanted people as a minimum to act legally, decently, honestly and truthfully.
The flat, despite its untidiness, was warm and comfortable.  The three students had been sharing for about nine months and, by and large, they got on well together with only the usual moments of friction about who was doing the washing up and how long the bathroom was being hogged.  But the arrival of the fox terrier, no matter how transient an arrangement , was about to add new tensions to their relationships.
It was a few days before the arrival of the dog from the vet’s but Maxine was getting a little incensed as she read Cass’s flip-charts.  “I like the thought of looking after a poor, unfortunate animal,” declared the “LIKES” chart, “it feels such a humane thing to do.”  Moving on, Maxine read the “CONCERNS”, “I am afraid of the unpredictability of all animals and worry that this seemingly innocent dog will attack one or all of us, or get us thrown out of the flat for breaking the rules.”  Cass’s “SUGGESTIONS” included the thought: “Even if it hurt’s M’s feelings, I feel that she needs some straight-talking sometimes.” 
Maxine could feel herself bristling but she decided to keep quiet as Cass emerged, wrapped in a towel, from the bathroom.
Hi Max,” she almost sang in a jolly voice, “I’ve got the morning off and I am going to do some shopping.  What about you?”
“I’m just leaving.   I’ve got a lecture to endure, and then I can pick up the dog. Maxine bit her lip and waited or Cass to react.
“Bit sooner than expected, but whatever,” shouted Cass as she went into her bedroom.
“Are you sure you don’t mind?”  ventured Maxine.  There was silence and then Cass stuck her head round the door.
“Well, a part of me minds, you know that part that doesn’t like dogs, but another part nags me into taking a more relaxed, humanitarian view.  Anyway, if it breaks the rules, it’ll have to go, that’s the deal.”  Cass winked at Maxine.
Maxine put on her coat, grabbed her bag and a couple of folders, shouted goodbye to Cass and left the flat.  As she waited for the lift she wondered why in this crazy world that it was quite difficult to be a warm, loving human being.  Caring for something or someone should be a piece of cake but instead of simplicity being divinity, complications always seemed to set in.
As she walked out of the lift on the ground floor, she saw Sophie’s dad.  He had his back to her and was talking on his mobile phone.
“I couldn’t believe how clumsy I was.  One minute, head in the air, minding my own business and the next minute, crash, bang, wallop, fell over something, nearly demolished a cafĂ© and almost killed a stupid dog.  Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,” Jonathan was saying and laughing loudly.
As she passed, Jonathan turned and gave Maxine a wave.  Her sneer back at him was the sneer of an assassin.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011


“What a hunk!  I mean what a fit-looking hunk of manhood,” said Sophie in a kind of drool.  Jonathan kept reading the paper.
“Hello, hello, Houston is anybody there?”  Sophie was staring at her Dad.  After a few moments, Jonathan looked up.  He could see that his daughter wanted some attention, but he knew that already.  He was enjoying having a little fun.
“I’ve never heard you use that expression before, darling daughter,” he said, poshing up his voice for effect.  “Who, pray, is this dashing hunk?”
Sophie sat down on the sofa and swung her legs up to get more comfortable.  She grabbed a cushion and cuddled it in front of her.  “He’s our new neighbour.  The one who’s just moved in to the second floor flat.”
Jonathan gasped, took off his glasses in a clumsy way and juggled them for a few seconds as if they were red hot.
“Steady on, Papa,” chuckled Sophie, “I’m the one who’s feeling a bit giddy, unless you’ve been at the claret.  Anyway, he was coming into the building at the same time as me and he held the door open and he smiled a wicked smile and he shook my hand as he said, “Hi, my name’s Chico and I’m new on floor two.”  We both couldn’t control our laughing.  He’s so funny and so gorgeous but I couldn’t work out if he’s living on his own or whether he’s with someone.  Still, there’s time to find all of that out.  He’s worth watching.  What muscles, what a waist and in the jeans department, he seems to have the full package front and back.  What’s up, Dad, your jaw looks as if it might hit the carpet at any moment?”
Jonathan’s head was racing in a giddy grand prix.  He wanted to prepare Sophie for the moment when he would reveal to her that Annie was living in that apartment and that Chico was her lover.  But panic was setting in, his heart was racing, he could feel the sweat in his armpits and on his brow.
“I met him earlier when he was moving in and I thought he was a bit of a plonker, you know, all ciao baby and a rather camp strictly come dancing way of running up the stairs.”  Jonathan cleared some phlegm from his drying throat.
“Oh God, I never thought of that.  He might be gay and spoken for, or he might be gay and alone.  Either way, he wouldn’t be interested in me.  But we don’t know that of course.”  Sophie, still hugging the cushion, gave out a little girlie squeal.  “I hope he’s available and interested.  It could be love at first sight and I think he likes me.  I saw a twinkle in his eyes.  You wouldn’t understand.  It’s a woman’s instinct.”
“Sophie,” said Jonathan in a kind of a confused authoritative whisper, “I don’t think his type is the right kind for a beautiful young girl like you.  He comes across as a flashy ego and, well, a bit shallow.  You deserve someone better.”
“Hang on a minute.  Why are you reacting like this?”  Sophie jumped off the sofa and flung the cushion on the floor.  “He’s my business not yours.  I was just trying to include you in my happiness by telling you about him, yet you look as if he is Jack the Ripper’s long lost love child.  I haven’t forgotten that you have some scheme going on to get me out of this flat, you know.  If things click with Chico, then I could see myself moving into the flat with him.  What do you think of that for a plan?
“Sophie, you’ve only just met the guy for a few minutes in the lobby.  You don’t know him from a bar of soap.  He could be anything, anyone and he could be sorted and settled in his domestic life.  Just calm down a bit and take things slowly.”  Jonathan stood up and walked over to cuddle is daughter.  She responded and the two of them hugged for a couple of minutes.
“I can be a silly mare sometimes, Dad,” but I can window shop for romance, can’t I?”
“Of course you can, sweetheart,” sighed Jonathan, “you are a great catch and it’s a father’s job, no matter how stroppy his daughter becomes, to act as guide, mentor and protector forever.”  He gave her a tight squeeze and let her go.  Simultaneously, a bolt of guilt shot through him.  He had to tell her.  She had to hear it from him.  What if she bumped into her mother on the stairs or the lift doors opened and there they were facing each other in some kind of standoff before the catfight.  This was not going to be easy but it had to be done.
“Sophie, I need to talk to you.” Jonathan was aware of a nervous tremor in his voice.
“What about?” shouted Sophie from the kitchen.  “Do you want a cup of tea?”
“Eh, no tea thanks.  Look, about Chico……,” Jonathan was cut off before he could finish.
Sophie stick her head round the kitchen door.  “Dad, let’s park Chico in a lay-by for the time being.  I’ll find out what I can about him and if he’s off limits, then I’m big and beautiful enough to let it go.  But if I’m on to a winner, whey hey!”  She went back to making herself a drink and giggled for a few minutes.
Jonathan sat down in an armchair and looked everywhere and anywhere around the room for an answer.  This was a sticky situation and he was certainly stuck for a way through it.  There would be blood, sweat and tears before it all settled down.  He was no Winston Churchill but somehow he needed to find the courage and decisiveness of the great man to sort out this mess.  His head was spinning.
“Sophie,” he whimpered, “you could get me a glass of water and an aspirin.  I’ve got a thumping headache.”

Tuesday, 14 June 2011


“They were the household celebrities of their day,” said Molly to Jonathan, “troupers, all of them hard working acts, entertaining millions of people up and down the country. 
I told you about Charlie Chester, Tessie O”Shea and Max Miller, but I was also on the bill with the likes of Rob Wilton, he was funny, and Jimmy Clitheroe, with his schoolboy voice.  You’d have heard him on the radio, Sunday lunchtimes years ago.”  Molly was gazing at nothing in particular. She was looking at a distant time, lovingly blurred by nostalgia, and she was smiling as she talked.  Jonathan could see that she was enjoying her reminiscences.
Molly liked to talk.  All Jonathan had to do it seemed was to ask a few questions at the beginning of their sessions and a switch clicked in the showgirl’s head and off she went.  In this interview, she remembered some shows at the famous, but to some terrifying, Glasgow Empire.  “Most of the acts would take any booking that came along, including Glasgow, but you could see as the night of the show came closer, that they would be dreading it.  The thought of it made some of them sick, literally.  Others seemed to have an extra scotch to normal at lunchtime on the day of the show.  Comics, in particular, would break out in cold sweats because there is nothing worse to a comedian than silence after he’s told a joke.  They used to call it walking off the stage to the sound of your own footsteps.  It was torture, absolute torture.  Dancers like me could get away without much trouble, one because we were girls and the men in the audience would call out to us, the cheeky monkeys, and two because the band always kept playing until we were off the stage.  But comics had the toughest job of the lot.  One of the stage managers at the Empire once said: ‘If they like you, you’ll live.”
One of the double acts, Manny and Mitch I think it was, were on one night and their act was going down the drain.  At the end of their half hour they trudged off the stage, hearing just one person in the audience tittering.  As they came off, one of the stagehands walked up to them and said: “Do you know, I think they’re warming to you?” Manny caught Mitch’s arm inches before his planned punch on the man’s nose.  As the years went by and the veterans got the hang of the Glasgow Empire, some of them would stitch signs on the backs of their jackets with messages to the audience.  In the unlikely event that the performance went down well, the acts always sidled off stage without turning round.  But if, as predicted, the audience failed to clap or make any noise in appreciation, some of the bravest troupers would turn their backs and show off the signs.  Some of them were very rude and insulting.  I remember one of the clean ones but the comedian still had to run for his life.  On his back was a sign that said: “You can always tell a Scotsman but you can’t tell him much.”  Molly sat back and laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks.
Jonathan kept listening with one eye on his tape recorder to ensure he didn’t miss a word and occasionally scribbling something on his note pad.  When Molly had finished laughing, she dabbed her eyes with a tissue and Jonathan saw that suddenly her mood had changed.  The tears were still there but this time there was sadness in her face.
“Molly,” said Jonathan reaching out to touch her arm, “what’s the matter?”
“Oh, I’m just being a silly old woman.  All this talk of the old days has so many stories running through my head.  I just remembered that Glasgow was where I met my first true love, not Herbert, but a young lad who played the trumpet in one of the bands.  He was called Johnny.  We went out a few times, to pubs and cafes and had the odd little kiss and cuddle now and again, nothing more than that, but he was lovely to me.  Sometimes being on the road, even when you’re in with a group of other performers on buses and trains, you can still get a bit lonely.  Some turn to drink, some get about a bit in the bedroom department and others, like me, just tried to get on with the work, read books, go for walks and stuff like that.  But Johnny was my companion for about three weeks.  We could have made a great couple.”  Molly looked at Jonathan with eyes that only minutes before had sparkled with joy but now looked empty of delight, yet full of sorrow.
“What happened?” asked Jonathan gently squeezing Molly’s arm.
“He was killed in a car accident.  He had run across the road to get us ice creams and on the way back, the ice cream dropped out of one of the cones.  He was distracted and the car hit him.  He was killed in front of my eyes.  It wasn’t the driver’s fault.  It was nobody’s fault.  But my Johnny was gone forever.”
Jonathan moved over and cuddled Molly.  “Molly,” said Jonathan, “if all of this is too painful for you, we can stop it now.  The last thing I want to do is to upset you.”
Molly drew away from him.  “Oh no, it’s time all of this came out.  If I’m going to tell my story, I want it to be the complete story, the good and the bad, otherwise what’s the point.”
“Only if you’re sure,” said Jonathan.
“Oh I’m very sure.  It is like my own personal MOT.  I want to see if I still have all my faculties, can use all my senses, laugh, cry, get annoyed, talk for England, you know, to see if there’s life in this old girl yet.”  Molly was laughing again and Jonathan was glad to see it.  This book project was proving to be an emotional task.
“I’ll just wash my face and tidy myself up after that blubbing,” said Molly walking toward the bathroom.  “Do you know, you’re the first man to cuddle me since Herbert passed away.  It was nice, very, very nice.”
Jonathan felt a little uncomfortable with that remark but he laughed to be polite.  He realized that for the first time in years, this fifty-four year old man was blushing.