Dirty Work

no more of this…

I am proud to announce that I have achieved another personal best: wearing the same shirt daily for nine days without washing, largely unstained and all but odourless. Previously I’d regularly managed four and half weekdays only changing into something fresh and uncreased towards the end of the fifth day for my traditional Friday night libation crawl. With the radio and press full of water shortage stories I decided to push the envelope and guided only by frequent sniffing and the occasional damp sponge wipe to remove spots of food (!) I saw out nine full days in the same indigo Ralph Lauren button down. Aired on a clothes hanger each night and smelling if not quite like a spring day and more like a warm damp autumn dusk it could have gone on longer were I not committed to attend a sad event and so changed it for a freshly laundered other (also dark blue) out of respect. 

Washing my clothes as seldom as possible is not a new phenomenon (aka hobby). I have suits bought in he the early 2000s that have never, not once, been dry cleaned and that look and smell as good today as the day they were bought. The same goes for several pairs of trousers that only require sponge wiping and pressing to sharpen up.

For a brief period – pre-decimalisation (look it up) – my classmates and I were entertained by a shaggy haired geography teacher who when asked why he always wore a dark blue shirt instead of a traditional white one replied “it needs less washing because it doesn’t show the dirt.” It’s funny how some things stay with you. 

What I hadn’t anticipated was a growing movement actively opposed to over washing. Among them designer Stella McCartney who vocally discourages people from washing their clothes unnecessarily: for the negative impact on the world and wasteful damage to the actual garments.  McCartney, who learnt her craft in Savile Row is “not a fan” of cleaning clothes. She says you should never clean a bespoke suit. Simply leave any mark (usually food) to dry before simply brushing if off. 

In an interview with The Guardian the designer, who admits to being incredibly hygienic, went on to say ”I don’t just chuck stuff in the washing machine because it’s been worn.” 

Like me she’s an advocate for placing niffy items in the freezer rather than washing them.  I started doing that some time ago to get on top of a moth situation that was eating away at my suits. But it works equally well for killing the bacteria that make clothes pong. If you put a worn jumper, shirt or denim back in the drawer it can resurface weeks later with a distinctly vomit odour. That’s when to shove it in the freezer. 

Obviously there are exceptions. Few would or should keep wearing the same undies (unless you’re French where it’s a cultural thing). Socks are best changed regularly too.

The facts speak for themselves. Even a new high tech washing machine uses upwards of 30 gallons of water in addition to around 500 watts of electricity. It’s reckoned 17% of domestic water usage is in washing machines. And as for tumble dryers they belch out nearly half a kilogram of CO2 per load. Trying thinking about the ice-cap next time you’re in a hurry to find something clean something to wear. 

Kim and I don’t have a lot of synthetic fabric fast fashion items. I buy natural fibres which may explain why I’m wearing cardigans, jumpers and shirts  bought in the 90s. They may cost more but they last longer. Washed cheap stuff sheds micro-plastics, infinitesimal specs of plastic that fish eat and which, don’t ask me how, end up in 83% of our drinking water as well as our food. I recall worries in the 80s that plastic drinks bottles leach chemicals that increase the risk of infertility. 

Of course washing and the impact it has especially on cheaply manufactured garments is a major reason why shoppers lap up more and more cheap stuff. Frequent washing fades colour and degrades fabric. So you’re not just cleaning your clothes by chucking them in the washer after you’ve worn them you’re destroying them too. 

According to Fashion Revolution that among many cultural, economic and environmental aims wants ‘an end to throwaway culture and shift to a system where materials are used for much longer and nothing goes to waste’  “nine out of ten pieces ends up in landfill because over washing has degraded the material and colour has faded.”

That was a lesson I learnt years ago with denim jeans. I’m one of those who prefers dark indigo to the washed out faded variety. When I read that jeans should be worn for a minimum of six months prior to any form of washing in order to build up natural oils in the denim I knew what I had to do.  This really only applies to classic heavy duty denim 12oz in weight or more and I found myself explaining this to the customer of a men’s store in Richmond-Upon-Thames earlier in the year. He was buying a pair of jeans and was concerned about colour loss. Being the good busybody I stepped in and explained the Edwins I had on that day have only been washed once since they were bought six years ago. He and his daughter looked aghast as the salesman nodded approvingly before admitting the Edwins did look rather good for unwashing. 

I read somewhere the CEO of Levis hasn’t washed his jeans in 10 years. Hans Ates head of Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, manufacturers of fine but pricey jeans says: “If you buy good quality denim jeans you could wear them for maybe ten, twenty years if you know how to look after them, wash and care for them, they could live with you forever.”

This could catch on. There are now clothing companies treating items made with recycled fabrics with a variety of natural oils to maintain freshness longer. How about that – a future in which fashion brands sell their garments as much on looks as the need not to wash them. 

US merino wool manufacturer Wool&Prince is one of this new breed. In addition to pointing out that most of us don’t wear 80% of the clothes we own (oops)…”washing and drying account for a surprisingly high percentage of a garments carbon footprint. And all this washing isn’t easy on clothing either. Cleaning often breaks down a garment just as much, if not more than actual use. We encourage you to wear more wash less…”Going on to point out that body sweat is actually ‘clean’. It only goes off when bacteria gets a hold. That’s when you stick whatever it is in the freezer. 

In closing I can announce another record smashed. The freshly laundered short I put on for that sad occasion is still on my back – 14 days later! No wonder the man at South West Water told me on the telephone that Kim and I use well below the national average for water consumption. Around 11 cubic metres a month instead of the more normal 15. 

All I need now is an excuse to put on another clean shirt.

Posted in health, shopping, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Too Old To Care

After a lot of thought I have come to realise the point of young people is they’re who I/we turn to when we can’t fathom how to master the simplest high tech, internet call it what you like electrical thingamajig. I came to this conclusion after repeatedly being asked by neighbours to perform the sort of digital task most ten year olds do in their sleep, between buying Bitcoin and watching streamed pornography films on their phone (nobody does video anymore). We’re not talking advanced cybernetic algorithms or tracking viral DNA code here. The assistance I’ve been able to provide to people even older than me is – accessing their bank account online, and buying a airline tickets. I printed an online map for another who needed to get to a hospital miles away and who was so thrilled I thought he’d hug me to death.  Yes I know they’re the easiest things any any primate with a tablet can accomplish but believe me when you’ve spent your life opening the mail (anyone?) and popping down the bank (remember them) the new other way of doing things is, well – off putting to say the least. 

Infact I came to this realisation much earlier, some time in the 90s while struggling with another Baby Boomer to programme a VHS recorder (you know – a box that was plugged into the television  to record programmes and used large plastic boxed video tapes and was controlled by a timer); a sort of forerunner of the DVD recorder. Anyway neither of us could make head nor tail of the instructions and were only able to record yours truly on an island in the Pacific Ocean for the BBC thanks to the deft ability of my friend’s six year old Millennial son who I seem to recall completed the operation single handed while simultaneously channel hopping with the remote control.  

Two of my neighbours have mobile phones reminiscent of those old fashioned pocket calculators; about the size of a packet of fags with screens the size of matchboxes. They’re called dumb phones by the modern generation despite the fact that they are anything but dumb; people, usually older,  sometimes talk on them. I only mention them because on more than one occasion both phones have erupted with deafening ring tones striking up like exuberant cabaret dance bands. Upon asking each how they did that both confessed (with pride) it was their grandchildren who configured their phones to be so annoying. 

Another has a smart speaker in the dining room that yells “gin and tonic o’clock” every day at 5.30pm. A useful reminder programmed not by her but her Generation Y daughter.

I bought a new old car three years ago and it’s taken me that long to figure out how the music system works. It does accept compact discs, but who buys them anymore? Link it to your phone advised my mechanic. Fine if I’d figured out how to download music on to my not so smart as some phone. As I understand it there aren’t CD players in the newest vehicles which by my reckoning will translate into a lot of head scratching or employment opportunities for Generation Alphas. (Look it up).  I sat in a Tesla recently and listened to the owner ask the car to run the windscreen wipers and switch on the radio.

Ironically the smarter phones become the less people speak on them. Anybody, everybody, persons who can’t write a sentence for toffee, haven’t written a letter since being forced to pen Christmas and birthday thank you letters as a child, would rather text, email or What’sUp than talk. My friends always answer with a hi Johnny whereupon  when I inquire how they know it’s me their reply is you’re the only person who calls. So that’s nearly £1000 for an iPhone you don’t talk on.

Infact I need a new phone and I’m shopping around for a Generation Z-er to advise me. My current one the Vodafone salesperson said was ideal for me, his mother has the same model. The model he pulled out his jeans made me gasp. I’ve had drinks and au d’oeuvres served to me on smaller things. 

I’ll admit I’m not comfortable with the demise of high street banks, post offices, shops, anything useful being replaced by online or call centre communications. Barclaycard texts me with payment reminders that begin hi or heads up. Heads up? It’s a bank and we’re talking money (infact, that’s the issue – we’re not talking). I’m that person who doesn’t speak when spoken to by a digital voice prompt. I’ll press keys on command but I draw the line at having a conversation with it. I ignore them when in tech speak they suggest that I say things like, resisting the temptation to shout bollocks. I always wait and eventually someone in a living room in a different time zone picks up. We’ll finish our conversation with them suggesting an app or a bot or a chat, or all three. I say I would never do that as they’d be out of a job.

All this digital malarky is so convenient. That’s what the pretty young thing at a wedding I attended said referring to an online retailer – whose name I can’t bring myself to mention -that gets to know the sort of tunes she likes to hear online and suggesting others. Because it’s convenient. When people use the ‘c’ word I automatically think of public lavatories and nerds. I associate it with salad rinsers, electric trousers presses, Roladex filing systems and electric hair dryer stands

Yes, I know I can have an app (!) for all essential services on my not so smart as some phone. Both my regular supermarkets encourage me to have theirs and we all know people who use apps to check-in for flights and trains. That said the three recent and longest hold-ups I’ve experienced at a supermarket check-out was when customers, again, even older than me, attempted to app pay for their groceries. All three failed and needed the sales assistant (much younger, probably early Generation Z-ers) to do whatever it takes to help people who ought to know better to join the 21st century. 

In a few short years whatever it is that Generation Zs and Alphas are doing faster and better than me will be struggling to keep up with what’s coming down the line. Because what’s so new today will be gone tomorrow. Floppy or laser discs anyone? Four track tapes and mini discs, or those Apple spectacles with computer screens on the insides? History is full of redundant break throughs. Encyclopedias? No, Wikipedia and Google are so much more convenient, especially at pub quizzes.  And what about the typewriter; I recently bought to avoid distraction from the convenient internet? Somehow in the course of a conversation with a young woman at my opticians she confessed she didn’t know what a typewriter is? Which is funny because they and vinyl records and books are all making admittedly limited comebacks. 

If I were e of those Z-ers wearing ear pods with my phone glued to my hand at all times I’d think seriously about moving to Norfolk. According to an article in The Guardian there are more over 65 year olds there than in any other county in the UK. And why not, it’s the centre of the universe if you want tea rooms and flat easy walking. Sounds good, and the beer is tasty too. I’ll bet digital trauma is a pandemic there with thousands of bald heads being scratched daily until they bleed. Maybe a new frontier for career minded young people who think the cheque book is travel guide from from eastern Europe. 

Posted in health, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Freedom From Flavours

Epiphany is probably too strong a word. Stepping back a shade it’s enough to state that yesterday I had a Cornish pasty for lunch. I know what you’re thinking, in this neck of the woods there are more pasties than you shake a surfboard at. And that would be correct. The difference yesterday, and the reason I almost went all the way and called it an epiphany is this particular pasty wasn’t your classic meat and bits of veg, nor even the growing in popularity cheese ’n onion. My pasty of choice, primarily because it was on sale at the reduced price of 74p not having sold at the previously discounted price of £1.50, was a vegan quorn pasty – arguably the most right on pasty not very much money can buy. 

For those unfamiliar with quorn it’s a microfungus – fusarium venenatum – that was discovered somewhere in south east England in the 1980s and thence incorporated as a meat substitute. Sound tasty? No, it doesn’t do much for me either. Vegan was the word that  resonated for me. The knowledge that nothing previously scampering around an intensive livestock farm had been slaughtered to satiate my appetite. A warm glow of culinary pride passing through me as I slipped the the pasty into a reusable carrier bag. 

A golden puffed up pastry case with a thick crimp along one side emanating an aroma during its 20 minutes in the oven filling my olfactory glands with eager anticipation. Having shifted my infrequent pasty consumption to the vegetarian option some time ago, being especially partial to a Rowe’s pasty made with feta cheese, I was ready to take the next step toward saving the planet and eliminate animals and animal by-products altogether. In other words – go vegan.

And that’s when it struck me – vegan food doesn’t taste, of anything. That vegan quorn pasty was the most tasteless bland thing ever to pass my lips. I’ve eaten meals that were downright dull until being lathered with anything from Branston Pickle to Encona very hot sauce. Even the most insipid plateful can be made into something notionally edible with the culinary equivalent of a spicy defribillator. Believe me – not this vegan quorn pasty. It was way beyond saving. The contents looked good. Bits of green and orangey vegetable and saucy looking moistness giving it an acceptable texture. But bite it and – urgh. I’ve seen more tantalising party political broadcasts. 

But perhaps that is the point. To be vegan is to make a pact with our senses to renounce the decadence of flavour and taste. Veganism isn’t about exciting our taste buds it’s about providing the maximum amount of nutrition without slaughter or sensory indulgence. It’s practical, and there is a lot to be said for that – just not flavour. 

The argument for going tasteless is persuasive. Food production creates some 17.3 billion metric tonnes of greenhouses gases annually, of which 57% comes from meat production. Then factor in the methane gas, more deadly than carbon dioxide, caused by millions of cows burping and farting. In fact there are climate change scientists who assess that meat eating has a  more detrimental effect on global warming than car driving. 

So how about it? Remove fashion and style and shifting seasons from our daily dress sense and think instead purely about modesty and warmth and keeping dry. Then apply this rule to food. It’s simple. Not as much fun perhaps but better both for our health and the planet. 

There’s been a steady drift towards tastelessness. It hit home in Lewis, in West Sussex a couple of years ago when Kim and I were sat with Asta at a coffee shop just off the high street. We’d ordered coffees (opting for oat milk because they didn’t serve dairy milk ought to have raised the alarm). And because Asta has a thing about croissants we ordered one of those to share. Asta developed her taste for French patisserie when she was a puppy en France to the extent that I buy one for her whenever we have them. She can smell them warming in the oven, it being the only occasion she rises up to join of us for breakfast. 

But something was wrong. She sniffed the hunk of croissant Kim offered and turned the other cheek. Kim tried again with another piece. Asta looked like she’s rather be anywhere but there. I tried and she turned away and lay on the floor. 

I knew a bit about gluten free baking – another aspect of the vegan/vegetarian experience – due to a growing number of friends having given up gluten on health grounds. It’s a protein found in most grains that helps with ‘structure’ during baking, I think. Anyway, our croissant we later learnt upon inspection of the menu was gluten free. 

Being something of a past the sell by date bargain shopper I bought a Pizza Express American Hot. Only something wasn’t right. It didn’t taste of much – least of all an American Hot. That’s when I noticed the small print on the box in the bin – gluten free. A pattern is emerging. 

Fast forward to the holiday apartment downstairs at The Red House. An artist friend who has stayed there more than any other left some Linda McCartney soya mince in the fridge. Unbeknown to me spiced up with Worcestershire Sauce and seasoning Kim produced a very tasty Shepherd’s Pie – or at east I thought so. She didn’t fool Asta though. We got the same reaction from her to the Shepherds Pie as she given to the croissant in Lewis. A major paws down!

Cutting to the chase almost any vegan, gluten free, quorn, soya what you will dish can be made munchable with a generous dollop of spice. It won’t taste of anything but chillie and that’s fine if you like hot food that doesn’t taste of anything but chillie. But if chillie isn’t your thing and you plan on saving the planet and animals bring on the bland. Embrace a food that does nothing but fill you up and provide enough vitamins and roughage to keep you going.  Freedom from flavours.

Posted in Dogs, health, shopping, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

For Sonia


I can see her over 20 years ago when she will have been younger than I am now in a black one piece swimming costume, slender and erect. The waist of a model and the shoulders of an athlete stepping over the pebbles towards the waves breaking upon an empty Cornish beach. Watched only by her two black Labradors on the foreshore and my wife and I, unseen on the path leading from the town. 

She cut a lonely figure that flinty spring morning slipping through the spine tingling elements of sea and sand and sky. Years later she told me she’d found that swimming costume on that very beach. She has a wardrobe full of hats, shoes, sun tops, sweaters and scarves, all saved from a watery grave. One day I expect I’ll see her in the Ralph Lauren baseball cap that went overboard on one of my infrequent sailing days around the estuary. She’ll look better in it than me.

She was there every day on that holiday, impervious to the icy cold of the north Atlantic, swimming slowly but strongly against the current for never longer than two minutes. A gamine head of nickel hair protruding above the water like the prow of a ship.

Asking around I learnt that this siren of the seas wasn’t ‘local’ – in the strictest sense of the word. She’d arrived from the other side of the country several decades ago ruffling the senses of the people along this barren stretch of the north coast with her easy laughter, her Jean Muir dresses and Afghan coats, and her and her late husband’s predilection for the sort of British sports cars favoured by sixties rock stars and secret agents. They’d arrived at a time when many hereabouts boasted they’d never ever left the town. In a region popular with retirees whose sole purpose appears to be sitting in a window in zip up fleeces gazing upon an indistinct horizon, until the day their daily nip of sherry misses their lips and the dribbles begin, this pair of boho immigrants, with a dash of rock ’n roll had sought a new beginning. Not for them a death by a thousand dribbles. They’d arrived at a place to feel alive, to sharpen their senses and be seduced by the elements. She’d sought a place to walk her Labradors, where the reflections of the sky upon the ocean are never the same two hours later never mind two days. 

“If the weather is bad, just wait an hour,” she says accepting her daily meteorological challenges with relish and widening her radiant blue eyes with a flash of anticipation. 

Her name, for the sake of discretion, is Monica and she is sat opposite me in a room that I always imagined Dickens depicted Miss Haversham in. With brass and wood adornments, garnitures, brocade drapes and stout curtain poles, hessian baskets and small shrines to lives past, everything connected by gossamer cobwebs and “provenance”. Her home is a townhouse where centuries past there lived a certain Dr.Marley whose surname Dickens, believed to have been an acquaintance, purloined for A Christmas Carol. The house is no brighter behind the shuttered sash windows now than it was in the 19th century. There are stout iron fireplaces at each end but a fire in only one. There are alcoves of leather bound volumes. Heavy gilt picture frames and hefty settees with heavily pressed cushions like body moulds (“I like to see the impression of where people they have sat,” she says eagerly). There is a softly tapping grandfather clock, a demi lune bearing ornate crystal glass, chandeliers, the satisfying scent of old dog, wood smoke and elegant neglect. We are a long way from the blue and white china factory prints of fishing boats, and table lamps made from pebbles that feature in many of the cheerily gentrified homes nearby. Monica has no need for furniture purporting to be contrived from driftwood (arriving in a cardboard box with a label that states made in China). No faux fishing village paraphernalia here. This is the richly embellished domain of one who values provenance above all else. Point to any artefact and be lost in its story.

She’d grown up during the Second World War on the other side of the country in a place where a brown sea washes against a barren hinterland. Not far from where our own puppy comes from. I remember the breeder deriding the eastern wind that each sweeps across that vulnerable landscape; exposed, cold and treeless. It’s a description that could just as easily apply to the place Monica found herself in a generation later. Except here there is soft sand and the bluest sea. 

She’s had Labradors by her side since being a child, and for a while was accompanied by a young pigeon she’d nurtured back to health whom she named Andrew and who perched upon her hat as she cycled across the fens to school. She married young but years later fell for another, also married, and the pair, with her children, ran away to set up home in former railway station in Sussex. She remembers evenings on the roof gazing at the stars and soirees going on for days. Despite, or perhaps because of the parties, the cars, the friends, the eccentricities others can only imagine, she sought out the far west for her holidays moving here permanently in the 1970s.

“I don’t think Richard particularly wanted to be here but he agreed because I wanted to. Like he used to say, ‘Monica, if you want it – you can have it’.” With an attitude like that, and an Aston Martin, is it any wonder she fell for him?

Monica is a woman of contradictions, one moment gregarious and witty the next distant and aloof. Small wonder many around here keep their distance, especially those intimidated by a natural beauty, her a fondness for acidic one-liners and a predilection for Proust and champagne. 

“Quelle bliss,” she muses.

“That there Monica Flemming,” to some, while others, acknowledging the sparkle in her eyes and the glamour in her clothes, encouraged a rumour that she was a former Tiller Girl from the London Palladium. She was and remains an enigma in a town she’s called home for over 40 years.

Monica and I were on courteous nods, no more, when one lunchtime Kim and I chanced upon her and Richard outside a pub a couple of miles out of town. Their grey coupe parked across the way. We drank there infrequently owing to the landlord being a curmudgeonly type. Tall, dark with the demeanour of a resentful headmaster and an axe to grind. Nevertheless the pub has a pleasantly bucolic outlook with fields and an ancient church across the way. 

“Oh you’ve found us,” she bridled, with merely a hint of cordiality.  Another time when she and Richard were walking to a garden party at the local stately home I fancy I made her colour a little. She was wearing a long gown and he full black-tie. She blushed when I told them they were the best dressed couple in town. She reasserted her composure and graciously accepting the compliment pressed on.

I can’t recall how we came to know each other. It was long after Richard’s death and doubtless had something to do with dogs. In my limited experience there are two social lubricants; subjects that will get almost anyone talking. One is football that I have had success with in taxis, bars and many times abroad, especially for some reason  in Turkey and Spain. Except Monica loathes football, almost as much as she loathes people using smart phones in her company or peering through her windows when the nights draw in and her living room is alight with a flickering glow. So it had to be the other, dogs. Kim has made many friends here and elsewhere among the dog walking community.  But it wasn’t out walking, it was our dog and the daughter of a friend depicted in a photograph taken outside Monica’s home. It’s one of those charming depictions of childhood innocence that could feature in a travel article, in which terraces of slate grey roofs and pastel painted cottages tumble to a harbour. In the foreground a scene of unbridled companionship; a young girl in a sunhat with a dog skipping along. The girl’s mother took the photograph and sent us a copy as a memento of a happy holiday. After some discussion (after all, Monica was just as much a ‘that there Monica’ to me as others) I decided to have it framed and took it around hoping she’d accept a gift from an occasional neighbour and dog walker who lived on and off (a second home owner then) a  few yards down the road. She was delighted and instantly hung it on the fireplace wall where we can all enjoy it whenever we share an open fire and a bottle. During one such evening she told us she chose this treeless stretch of Cornwall’s north coast over the “whimsy, flimsy, wooded” south of the county for its big skies (perhaps recalling those of her native East Anglia). And for the moon, in its lucent brilliance, that illuminates our lambent estuary. For the magenta sunrises and the waves pummelling Pentire Point. For the feral deer, the falcons, the egrets, and kingfishers, the curlews, gulls and buzzards. For the restless Atlantic forging new contours and revealing sunken booty. Fast forward two decades and its Kim’s turn to scour that beach for lumps of coal for Monica’s fire, welcome bounty from a cargo ship sunk off Gull Rock back along. There is a map inside a book by Brian French that  charts the dozens of ships that went down here in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The timbers and maybe some old bones remain there to this day. Years ago the black gold was washed up in lumps the size of hearth rugs. Today Kim is lucky to retrieve a piece as big as a fist. 

Much is made both here and beyond of genuine locals; the descendants of people born and raised upon the land on which their ancestors toiled. Such  connection instills status in a small community, and no small degree of social one-upmanship. By way of contrast I admire the peripatetic itinerants, the wonderers whose destiny is elsewhere for the making. Those who choose to live many many miles from where they grew up. They who have grabbed their lives by the jugular and Banking over the north east wind arrived where the wind suits their clothes:The Australians and New Zealanders who worked in the local newspaper industry where I trained in North West London; those Windrush children who worked alongside me in the music business; pals raised in neglected parts of Liverpool and Glasgow coming south for the opportunities London promised; people just like Monica, unsatisfied and thirsty for improvement. Of course, many don’t have a choice. They up-sticks and move for work, or war or famine. Others, like myself and Monica, step out of the car and straighten our clothes for no other reason than to be somewhere that satisfies our senses. Far enough away to be other worldly. Somewhere to be forgotten in. A place where clifftop walks are treacherous and exhausting but which nourish the soul in a way the even the best martini cocktail fails to. Alright, a great vodka martini with a twist does have an edge, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. 

This town is peppered with Monicas. Not as modish and sophisticated perhaps, but all from very different backgrounds lured by the freshness of the saline air and the shifting sands, and formerly and the affordability of the property.

Benjamin was stationed oversees when he asked his wife Celia to find them somewhere to live. She found a former bank with the vault still intact in the basement and a hallway large enough to host five-a-side football. 

The building leans towards the sea with every piece of furniture in the south facing extension maintained on an even keel with graded blocks of wood; Vida moved down shortly after Monica finding many suitors when her husband passed away. Husband number two passed away too leaving her alone with her beauty and terriers; John from Portsmouth fell in love with a Cornish maid; Jenny, a cardiologist, hailing from a stucco mansion in Belgravia keeps house for the local gentry in a pile that dates from the 16th century. For a time she lived in a former coffin store off a ginnel running beneath and between ancient homes. (There are many narrow, subterranean thoroughfares hereabouts.) Jenny was drawn to the endless beach and the sky but misses those essential decadences on sale in London’s Jermyn Street. I’ll wager her’s is the only coffin store on the planet with a bathroom decked out by Czech and Speake; Tamsin, divorced, followed her son here, who has been hooked on surfing since his early holidays on the north coast in the 90s. He works as a coastguard and among Tamsin’s multifarious activities hereabouts is running film club from her front room. She lives next door to a tall man from Philadelphia who, when he is not dreaming about plastic surgery, writes articles for students in another country and quaffs Pinot Grigio and irks local restaurateurs (the way all Americans do) by redesigning to his own exacting standards the simplest meal. I’ve yet to meet an American who can accept even something as undemanding as a sandwich on face value;  Simon was a journalist, and by all accounts a bit of a bon viveur. Someone said he wrote about fashion which is believable as he cuts a dapper figure in a town where with only a few exceptions, Monica and Avril among them, style is a term used only for interior decorating. As far as I know Simon is the only resident to possess an overcoat and a hat with the snap brim. His wife is an artist and sells in a local gallery. Her works depict the joys of beach life; then there’s the local musician and raconteur Christopher, from Liverpool, who hosts a Friday night shindig in a bar overlooking the quay. He plays the bars and restaurants along the coast in a number of musical configurations. Sometimes with his son on jazz vocals, and other times with Little Phil or The Lost Causes; there are teachers, and lorry drivers, publicans and retired accountants.  A raft of people who have settled here for all manner of reasons, many enjoying  a cliquey network of clubs, societies and charities. But not Monica. She’s a woman who values distance, the space between her and the outside world. She didn’t move here to make friends despite there being a great many desirous to befriend her.  When I think about it she must have given those muddy farm boys in East Anglia sleepless nights. Whenever I see her I hear Dave Rawlings’ ‘Short Haired Woman Blues’. She’s never worked and by all accounts never given it much thought. 

“They say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day,” she says quoting Winnie the Pooh, then casting her mind to the precise location in her of that tome? “Beneath the second wardrobe in bedroom three on the first floor. No, sorry. On the stairs, four steps up by the garden window.” 

Monica’s been too busy being a beautiful mother, reading and walking her black Labradors to do anything so plebeian as work. While Richard took a sledgehammer to the house, reconfiguring a warren of Marley’s rooms into something unstable but with more grandeur Monica read everything she could get her decorous hands on. There are books everywhere in her shadowy home of bitter sweet memories. They line the stairs and fill the alcoves. Others in a bookshelf integral to a standard lamp with a tasselled shade. There are many more, boasts this nocturnal reader, beneath her mahogany four poster bed where at night the red and golden illuminations of a dredger in the estuary shines “Christmas lights” on her ceiling. “Quelle bliss,” she says in her favoured Franglais, revelling in the perfection of her maritime twilight show

Monica prefers biographies, poetry and history. She enjoys The Daily Telegraph and The New Yorker and reads fashion magazines, Vogue and Harpers & Queen. She steered me towards Lauren Bacall’s autobiography after something I said about Bogart, and thence to a book about clouds: I now sit in my kitchen and stare at the alto cumulous Stradivarius that interlock like celestial chainmail, and monitor the nimbus clouds soaking Rough Tor and Brown Willy on the eastern horizon. She insisted I read Nana, Emile Zola’s study of prostitution and despair in 18th century Paris, and her favourite book, The Rings Of Saturn, by the German writer WG Sebald, because it chronicles an immigrant’s odyssey through the county towns and coastline of her youth in East Anglia. It contains  a passage from Thomas Browne’s Hydrotaphia she is especially fond of.

…there is no antidote against the opium of time. The winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash, how soon night enfolds us. Hour upon hour is added to the sum. Time itself grows old. Not even those who have found a place amidst the heavenly constellations have perpetuated their names: Nimrod is lost in Orion and Osiris in the Dog Star. Indeed, old families last not three oaks. To set one’s name to a work gives no one a title to be remembered, for who knows how many of the best of men have gone without a trace? The iniquity of oblivion blindly scatters her poppyseed and when wretchedness falls upon us one summer’s day like snow, all we wish for is to be forgotten… 

Sebald, himself an immigrant, a German scholar who taught in Norwich, walked the coast from Great Yarmouth to Southwold, dwelling upon a number of places I have visited over the years. I was especially drawn to the segment in Southwold’s Seaman’s Mission and another describing a long gone former palace near Lowestoft. His previous book, The Emigrants, published three years earlier in 1992 (ironically a gift from the American who exchanged Pennsylvania for Cornwall) recounts the experiences of four characters who have left their native Germany for new lives in this country and the United States. Whenever I think of it I can hear Carole King lamenting nobody staying in one place anymore?

Monica is alone much of the time.  Both her children taken much too soon. Richard’s Moulton bicycle unridden for over a decade is chained to the front railings. The frame and wheels encrusted with rust and there is moss on the saddle. It has the aura of something recovered from an architectural dig. Two French youths were photographing it when Monica appeared at a first floor window directly above them.

“What are you doing,” she wanted to know?

They were polite and respectful and inquired why it was there, and in such a state?

“It’s a monument,” was all she said.

Could they photograph it? “Yes,” she replied, evidently softened by their courtesy. 

Monica isn’t enjoying her advancing years very much despite being sharper, better dressed and with more recall than those a quarter of her age. In moments of exultant exuberance we three put her demeanour and well being down to “vanity and alcohol”. Whereupon we raise our glasses with the easy conversation veering off to some other overlooked but essential decadence..

For much of the winter she remains indoors. She has an Aga upon which she dries the logs for her fire, and bakes jacket potatoes. In the summer she moves outside, her  garden a verdant jewell in a cramped town where every available square foot is built upon. A serpentine path and screens of foliage twist and turn revealing hidden enclosures and romantic perspectives. It is overgrown in a controlled sort of way thanks to Monica’s daughter-in-law who strives to keep it in check. In it Monica can follow the courtship of the randy sparrows going about their noisy seduction within an ivy that is silently wrenching the stained glass mullioned porch away from the rest of the house. Or she can sit in her summer house and marvel at the blooms that burst in spectacular profusion from the vast and magnificent magnolia grandiflora.

Without her dogs mostly it’s just her now, her photographs and books. She seldom if ever leaves the house she says with pride is falling apart around her. Her only company for much of the time her daughter-in-law who lives next door and who cleans and shops and manages Monica’s affair. Monica no longer enjoys impromptu tete a tetes and has been known to remain unseen, concealed beneath piles of sofa throws and blankets to avoid visitors. Her stringently enforced isolation only interrupted by bi-annual soirees: hot ticket events every spring and autumn equinox. Within the town’s expat community these are not to be missed. On a table spanning the entire length of the lounge are savouries to satisfy the most discerning gourmand and all the wine anyone, even Monica on a roll, could want. We’ll sit together, her in something floor length and body hugging with long silver earrings glistening in the firelight, while at the other end of the room guests in fleeces and unspeakably bad footwear enjoy their time at the ‘go to’ party of the season. That’s when she’ll lean over to me and quietly inquire who half of them are? It’s then she’ll stand erect, a glass of sauvignon blanc in her hand and work the room with her seamless social repartee.

That’s when I am reminded why I love her.

“So, precisely how many husbands have you had?” asked a guest bearing the expression of unbridled earnestness, dressed as though he might just have stepped off a rubber dingy. 

“It was perfect,” Monica told me later. “Peggy Guggenheim’s retort was there for the saying. 

“I asked him, do you mean mine or other women’s? Quelle bliss.”

How could it be anything else?

Sonia Morgan April 25, 1930 – February 28, 2022

Posted in Dogs, gone west, Seashores, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Taking To The Hills – Malvern


…from British Camp Hill Fort

The most significant change to my life since being dumped from The Sunday Times by a man with a name synonymous with lavatory cleaning is no longer automatically being shown the best room in the hotel. Nowadays I must dig my heels in to be guaranteed anything comfortable and convenient enough in which to swing a couple of very large cats.

Such was the case in Malvern a few days ago when Kim and Asta and I were directed to a double room in what felt like an entire time zone distant from the reception, along ever narrower corridors towards the back of the Abbey Hotel. In the centre of town, adjacent to the estimable museum and in the shadow of The Malvern Hills, the hotel is a grey-stone marvel of crenellations and mullion windows draped in Virginia creeper, with a magnificent carved central staircase of the kind you imagine Bette Davis gliding down. 

Our room in the modern wing was quite adequate, with all the necessities for a brief stay, yet not good enough if the three of us were to spend a lot of time there. Thus I called reception to request something larger in the old building and closer to the entrance. Bingo. For a modest supplement we switched to a room with a bay window below the hotel sign. Ceilings in the clouds, a window seat bigger than most sofas, a dressing room, a decent size bathroom, and chairs and an occasional table where the three of us could enjoy breakfast croissants.

I have become rather partial to Malvern in the past 18 months, just inside Worcestershire and very nearly within Herefordshire and Shropshire too: A vast sway of grey green and tawny landscape stretching from the Shropshire Hills to the Brecon Beacons and Gloucester. The town clings to the dawn side of the Malvern Hills from the tops of which the aforementioned are visible in breathtaking clarity. Our first glimpses approaching junction eight on the M5, passing through boaty Upton Upon Severn, loomed larger and more wondrous by the mile. They are what Edward Elgar marvelled at growing up on the outskirts of Worcester moving to Malvern Link where between walking the hills and cycling steep wooded lanes he composed many of his greatest works, among them the Enigma Variations one of only a small handful of classical discs in my collection.

To get our bearings, and see if Asta has a taste for vertginous open terrain, we took the advice of some dog walkers (always reliable sources of information) and followed the A449 a couple of miles south along the eastern fringe of the hills to British Camp Hill Fort an Iron Age site close to the village of Colwall. The car park charge  £4.30 for a full day and across the road a popular cafe called Sally’s Place serves date flapjacks and sloe gin and lime and coconut liqueur ice creams. Around back the public loos boast some of the best views in the region.

a bit of a climb but worth it

Faced with two paths to the top Kim chose the steepest, a flight of steps that soon had me feeling my age. Happily it doesn’t take long to get above the tree line to be met with a panorama to rival those we’d found in the Sierra Nevadas. Miles of landscape beneath a shifting mackerel sky blown alternatively grey and azure by a chilly northern wind. We were around 300 metres above sea level, practically alone except for a handful of photographers and some sheep behind an electrified fence. Below us the more popular and less arduous path we were to follow back to the car.  

Strolling around the precipitous Great Malvern, Malvern’s opulent heart with shops, a theatre, museums and railway station, I was struck first by the sheer scale and number of manicured palatial buildings, some commercial premises but many more grandiose homes towering over peaceful verdant avenues. In a range of architectural styles from Victorian Gothic to Edwardian and Regency. Ornate glazed towers and orangeries, elaborate porticoes shaded by cedars of Lebanon and towering sequoia. Indeed this is a town of trees. I am no botanist but among them copper beeches, hornbeam, oaks, field elms and varieties of spruce planted by health conscious Victorians who flocked to the town for the efficacious qualities of the natural spring waters.  In the first half of the 19th century the town’s water was considered curative for eye disorders, ulcers, digestive problems and blood circulation. There is a Malvina Spring drinking fountain half way up the steps to Bellevue Terrace. A number of people were having a sup but Asta wasn’t sure. 

Another pooch walking tip directed us to Malvern Common a huge tract of gently undulating openland to the south sandwiched betwen the mainline railway and A449. On one side miore fabulous homes and on the other the ground works for a more affordable estate of homes. Cutting through the grounds of Malvern College the common extends to Worcestershire Golf Club and The Three Counties Showground.  

I don’t think Malvernites will object to me describing them as a bit posh. Women in knee high leather and fabric ‘country boots’, leggings and bum freezer quilted jackets and the men nearly all beneath flat caps. As if further proof of Malvern’s exaulted status is required there is a Waitrose supermarket although I was informed by one suspicious local that some aspirational shoppers stock up at Lidl before transferring their items into Waitrose carrier bags for their journeys home. Imagine?

The second thing that struck us about Malvern was how slim and trim its residents are, perhaps a result of the steepness of the high street and the walks nearby. The simple fact is you cannot get anywhere in this town without working those glutes. 

A young estate agent called Sam suggested that for lunch with Asta in tow we might enjoy Faun, a deli/cafe at the top of Great Malvern with views over Worcestershire. Good call. It’s run by a woman from London who told us many city folk are moving to the town for the quality of life, the prices of properties and the road and rail transport links: London in two and a half hours by rail, or Bristol on the M5 in 40 minutes.

a very tasty eccles cake

One of the waitresses provided Asta with biscuits and water while I enjoyed the best eggs on toast of my life. Made with rich yolky cacklebean eggs (from Stow-On-The-Wold), hazelnut dukkah bread, with seeds and other garnishes. Kim opted for the caramelised onion and cheddar tart with winter leaves and apple and golden beetroot slaw. Best of all were the made on the premises eccles cakes, which as the few readers of this site will attest I have a weakness for. Three inches in diameter and an inch and a half high, crunchy and golden on the outside and packed with fruit and a hint of cinnamon within. I took two home with us.

If the town has a downside – it is its dark side. Situated on the eastern side of very sheer and tall hills the sun disappears quite early depending on the time of year. It’s why West Malvern, where sunsets last long into the night and the distance is considered the fashionable spot with the cool crowd. It’s where the principal road follows the contours of the hills passing splendid 19th century homes built by well watered and well heeled incomers. 

We’d planned our last night meal at The Red Lion pub a steep five minute walk from our hotel. The night before there we’d had halloumi fries, and burgers that were so good we three complimented the chef who I think was the first person we’d spoken to with anything resembling a midlands accent. “Get that dog out of here,” was the abrupt end to our return visit. Thence our final dinner a Chinese takeaway in our upgraded suite, the magnificent Malvern Hills looming large in the darkness. 

Posted in Dogs, gone west, health, travel, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A bigger SPLASH


The most important thing for Kim and I to remember today (November 5) is to empty the bath. It remains half full or thereabouts for much of the week and sometimes longer, depending on how infrequently either of us actually take the plunge. But it is absolutely essential that on this one day of the year one of us pulls the plug. 

It wasn’t always a priority. Indeed I think it true to report that for most of my life baths, either full or empty, were the last things on my mind come November 5.

That date, a Friday this year, has always enjoyed  a particular resonance within the Futrell household as it was my father’s birthday. While we all take pity on those with birthdays on December 25 for having their one big day subsumed by a much greater and significant event November 5 was all the excuse anyone needed to go big time on gunpowder displays. We could see neighbouring bonfires from my bedroom window and brother weren’t they pathetic. I’ve smoked cigars that gave off more heat than those bonfires. As for fireworks, as a rule just those bargain basement mixed assortment boxes you bought in the sweet shop comprising a couple of Catherine wheels, some crackerjacks, maybe a Roman candle if you were lucky and rockets that would be lucky to make it beyond the garden fence. 

That wasn’t for us. Dad would be collecting firewood for weeks stacking it into a giant pyramid at the bottom of the garden upon what was called the compost heap. With trees and fences on two sides, a leaning pyracantha on another and the greenhouse located at the other (ideal for keeping the fireworks away from the flames) it had the feel of secret grotto the flickering orange glow reflected in the glass. 

Dad didn’t skimp when it came to the fireworks either. He got things off to a spectacular star with the biggest Catherine wheel in the shop. It comprised a wooden frame with two tubes of gunpowder at either end with hole in the middle where dad fastened it to a fence post with a nail the size of a finger. There were bangers and sparklers and firecrackers and air bombs that had to be plugged securely into the soil that hurled something invisible and explosive and very loud into the adjoining garden, and rockets launched from copper tubes fixed into the handle of a garden shovel spraying the night sky with golden tinsel.

Mother produced trays of roasted chipolatas and bacon rolls on sticks and there were jacket potatoes wrapped in silver foil in the embers around the edge of the fire. 

The tradition was maintained for years after father’s death only dwindling with significance when Kim came on to the scene with a succession of dogs, Karla, Fozzie Bear and Tashi Delek non of whom appreciated unforeseen explosions just feet away. To make matters worse many Londoners didn’t stick to the November 5 only rule, especially of the big day was in the middle of the week. That meant fireworks and explosions and strange fizzing sounds for a week or longer either side of the fifth. 

Asta was different – at first at least. I well remember while living in Islington, and her just five months old, walking out with her on Highbury Fields whereupon the still early November autumnal tranquility was shattered by the succession of the sort of explosive fireworks you’d expect to illuminate The Thames on New Year’s Eve – not a day or two before Firework Night in an otherwise quiet residential area. Asta? She didn’t bat a furry eyelid. Infact, I don’t recall her showing any reaction whatsoever. Whereas I nearly keeled over with cardiac arrest. I think that was the moment my hair started falling out and I never wanted to see another firework as long as I lived. Meanwhile Little Asta was home bound, tail erect and a bounce in her trot. 

Domestic firework displays are few and far between today. A combination of health and safety, political correctness, shops restricting who they sell fireworks to and of course Covid-19 mean more of us look to local councils to light the blue touch paper. On the bright side we now get fewer household displays although conversely it means those we do have are bigger and much noisier. Like the council one here  three years ago. With The Camel aglow Kim shouted if I’d seen Asta? She had to shout because to deaden the impact of the display we had Exile On Main St quite loud on the deck. I yelled back, no idea. 

Turning down The Rolling Stones in order to hear each other we became aware of a splashing sound somewhere in the distance. 

“The bath,” shrieked Kim on her way through the living room door. Sure enough, it was Asta. Up to her tummy in freezing cold dirty bath water, shaking and sending a spray all over the room. It wasn’t a complete surprise. She’d jumped into an empty bath in our last place in Duke Street; once on Bonfire Night and another time when someone was using a chainsaw a few doors away. But that was before Kim’s mission to save the planet by saving bathwater. I often wonder what was worse for our pup? The temperature of the water or the explosions outside?

I think I’d better stop here – and empty the bath lest I forget. 


Posted in Dogs, gone west, London, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

no goodbyes

Friends and those on the fringes of friendship don’t walk out on you overnight, they just sort of fade away, like sunsets. Okay, there’s a handful of I would and have crossed to the other side of the street to avoid. But thankfully they’ve been few and far between. Most friends, loved ones and people I’ve known without ever really liking, whether from school, work, next door, down the pub, or in bed – simply vanish. One day they’re there and a decade later they’re just a bystander in a frayed photograph. I’ve heard about old chums and lovers reuniting on websites and social media platforms sharing intimate details of what they had for dinner in addition to more serious issues like maybe becoming an item. But you know what, I would rather let bygones be bygones. When the drink has gone it’s gone. Until that day when, by chance, my past catches up with me. Sometimes it’s good, surprising even, but not always.

Like that time a couple of years ago, over a coffee with the daughter of a former school friend, giving her tips on how to break into journalism, she’d slipped into the conversation that her father and the boy (now a man) whom I’d never taken to at school, wanted us to have lunch together. What the..? But he’s a di…Oh, sorry I shouldn’t have said.

Lunch happened some months later and after a tricky start, not having a clue what to talk about, it was suggested, due to our mutual friend having been forced to cancel at the eleventh hour, that I may want to leave. He knew, and it took something to say as much. So I stayed and you know what, we enjoyed a very agreeable lunch. So agreeable in fact he, the man I’d have put close to the top of the list of people I never wanted to share so much as a snack with invited me to join him at one of the Eden Sessions to watch Kylie Minogue on stage. I resisted telling him I’d sat next to the Australian chanteuse at a Chinese restaurant in Camden Town. And in case you’re wondering we talked about Minis, the cars not the skirts, she planning to buy one. 

Then there’s the time I’m strolling along my local high street when glancing inside a popular greasy spoon I saw to my amazement one of my oldest and closest friends seated at a table with people I didn’t recognise. We’d been inseparable but had drifted apart the way you do when you get a job and a wife and a home and the future looks different from the past. We’d never exchanged birthdays and Christmas cards, not that the absence of cultural formalities mattered as on the rare occasions our paths did cross (very rarely) we’d pick up from where we’d left off; somewhere around Electric Ladyland. He’d appeared hesitant as I waltzed through the door and called his name: “Whit-ney!” Not his real name and the reason nobody else looked in my direction. He seemed uncomfortable, ill at ease, swivelling in his seat and looking at the others across from him and those behind. I could sense I wasn’t welcome. It seems I’d stumbled upon some sort of therapy session for unhappy people, he telling me as much minutes later when he breathlessly caught up with me on the high street. Others have cropped up: A woman I can’t remember if we did or didn’t do the thing (thankfully I don’t think she could remember either); someone I knew as a child who somehow obtained my address and has been corresponding for several years, now a dear friend I didn’t know I had; and a keen but struggling young writer I once tried to encourage by handing him a Thesaurus which, believe me, turned out to be a big mistake. Imagine The Good Old Days’ Leonard Sachs reviewing reggae releases. He was on the pavement at a shop opening event and impressed that upon seeing him after an absence of maybe 15 years I’d abandoned my car, engine on, at the traffic lights in order to rush across the pavement and heartily embrace him. Weeks later he sent me a monogrammed chessboard and pieces. All those years editing out splendacious and rhapsodic I hadn’t known writing was a second string and that his first passion and principle sources of income were fine carpentry and marquetry. And you think you know people.

Something similar happened a sunny morning in Soho. Those were high powered expense account times and stepping on to the street with a suitcase in my hand, after one of those number crunching meetings that amount to nothing, I was headed for Victoria Station to catch the Gatwick Express bound for New York and another meeting that could just as easily have taken place on the phone; with the added attraction of a five star hotel, a limo and all the scallops I could eat. The black cab that pulled up was shiny with a scent of pine and the driver, beneath one of those buzz cuts favoured by the prematurely balding, kept tilting his head toward the gap in the flex-i-glass screen that could have done with a wipe. Pulling out into the westerly carriageway of Oxford Street, passing a jingly jangly group of chanting Hari Krishna disciples I caught him glancing at me in the rear view mirror. Our eyes met causing him to jerk his gaze away. Approaching Beauchamp Place at a snail’s pace behind a convoy of red buses he tilted his head toward the Flexi glass opening and inquired if it was me?


“You know.”

No. Who?

“The Great Mephisto. You are The Great Mephisto, aren’t you?”

I dare say sporting a black goatee beard with an incipient handlebar moustache and a double breasted grey herringbone Crombie overcoat with a black velvet collar (located at a vintage clothing store in Stoke Newington) I may have appeared a shade, how to put it, pretentious? If so believe me it was unintentional. I’d spent a little too long around over dressed pop stars and flamboyant nightclubbers and some of that beau monde silliness had rubbed off. So I could see how someone might be confused and mistake me for a thespian, or at the very least someone hoping to look like one. 

I ummed and erred a bit before offering “sorry, not me.” At which point the cab came to an abrupt stop behind a number 7 and my driver spinning around to face me proclaimed “I know you’re not The Great Mephisto and you want to know how I know? Because you’re Jonathan Futrell…” Only he pronounced my surname the way my parents had done making a sort of ‘trull’ as in ‘full’ sound at the end of the second syllable, at the point where the tongue gets tangled up in the bottom lip. As opposed to the easier to pronounce ‘trell’ ending I’d introduced some years back. I sometimes correct those who continue with the trickier traditional pronunciation but thought better of it. Who the hell was it? I edged forward to get a better look. It didn’t help.

“I didn’t think you’d recognised me – although that would be you through and through,” he added laughing, a but to too cynically.

“Colin, Colin Daniels Hanworth Sec. You beat the crap out if my mate Stu because he was even shorter than you. Remember now?”

Of course. How could I ever forget Colin and Stu? Peas in a pod. Little and Large and completely inseparable.  Colin tall for his age and slim and freckly with a tidy basin cut and always immaculate. Indisputably the best dressed pupil at Hanworth Sec, and smooth with it too. And his best friend Stuart Overin, short, dark, equine features but just as mod cool, and always sniggering in an unctuous irritating way and disliked by just about everyone at the school except for the man in front of me. 

I thought I’d be surprised, but I wasn’t. Colin Daniels  a cabbie and still as cheeky and impudent as ever – it made sense.

“Didn’t you go to some private school after Hanworth, not good enough for you were we? And then,” he continued up a key “I heard you were in newspapers or something.” He leant around a bit further and failed somewhere between the steering wheel, seat belt and the flex-i-glass partition. I told him he seemed to know as much about me as me. He didn’t laugh and then said he’d got my paper round whenever it was I quit. 

 Did he stay in touch with Stuart?

“Who Stu? So you remember him? You really worked him over. remember that. Stu did. Bloody killed him. ‘’Scuse my French. ” 

For a moment I considered reminding him that I only threw two punches, one to the chin and the other to the gut. He’d gone down on the second conveniently slumped in a sitting position on the changing room bench, framed by an assortment of duffle bags and school blazers, moaning a bit but otherwise fine. To tell you the truth I didn’t hang around to see if he was ok. I grabbed my gear and legged it in case Martin and the B stream hard-nuts returned from the gym and found his best pal bent double. I thought better of it.

It’s not easy making idle conversation with someone you haven’t seen for the best part of 25 years especially one who you’d gone out your way to avoid wherever possible. But I gave it a shot, maybe not my best shot, but I was intrigued. How did he like being a black cab driver and was he married and where did he live? I fished around my pockets for my passport and airline tickets and the schedule Jody had handed me as I’d left the office. He was talking, to me or maybe it was cabbie stuff on his shortwave radio? He tilted his head to his left shoulder, the way we anchor phones to leave our hands free, a vein the size of a robusto cigar standing up on the right side of his neck.

“And up yours too sunshine,” barking at a cyclist giving us the finger.

“No insurance, no road tax, and no effing road sense.” That vein even bigger now. I’d never taken Colin for a tough guy. Too dapper and cynical for that; all mouth and finely creased trousers without the punch. Clever answers but always on the back foot. Being tough had come later. At school I remember he was more the quietly sarcastic type. Always a cute excuse but never threatening like some. He could knot a tie though. Indeed both he and Overin always wore relaxed full Windsors, forever making minor adjustments in any available mirror or window. 

I’d met then on my first day at my new junior school, as they was known then. There’d been a sort of welcome assembly/roll call in the school hall. A stage at one end a number of teachers sat upon straight back chairs, each holding a sheaf of paper, and to our left floor to ceiling windows overlooking a tall manicured hedge.  I didn’t know anybody and nobody seemed to know what was going on. The pupils, maybe 200 or so I didn’t count were split up into four groups for reasons that were not apparent at the time but which would become clearer later. They began with what was deemed by the head master, a cherubic looking man with a pink face and thinning hair, D Stream working backwards to A into which I was allocated. Nobody actually said the pupils assigned to D were the no-hopers or that those like me in A were the goodie-two-shoes because the four categories could just as easily have been based on some sort of dress code. Except that that wouldn’t have held up to scrutiny because while the pupils in D were unquestionably the scruffiest, few even in the school’s black and white uniform, nobody could dispute that the B Streamers were by far the best turned out. Looking at them I recall experiencing what I came to understand was my first  ever pang of style envy. Needless to say Martin Daniels and Stuart Collier were both assigned to B the coolest collection of 11 going on 12 year olds I’d ever seen while I’d been grouped with what could best be described as the Young Fogies Stream; appropriate school wear worn with a collective awkwardness. My parents would be pleased I was in the A, I having missed out on either of the two local grammar schools that a number of my more studious primary school colleagues were to be enrolled in, although I’d have accepted a demotion to B in a heartbeat. I can remember looking at them, their ties slightly loose and cocked irreverently to one side and haircuts like the dancers on Top Of The Pops. If Daniels had said his night job was in Herman’s Hermits I’d have believed him. 

“So where you headed for?” He’d flicked a switch and his crisp west London accent, midway between Estuary English and Home Counties coming over loud and clear on some sort of PA system. It made me jump but I could hear the advantages. It meant Martin didn’t have to turn and inflate that robusto vein. 

I told him it was work. A string of meetings and some contracts to be signed.

“Expense account piss up then. I’d always fancied a job like that but with one girl after another in the family way I learnt early on to ditch any ambition of a life on Easy Street and to get on and earn some dough.” His eyes filled the rear view mirror. 

His dad had got him work with a plumber looking to train a youngster. He didn’t like it. Then retail, which made a sort of sense and finally with the council on some truck or other. 

“Didn’t like taking orders. Cabbies are their own boss.

“Stuart always said you’d do ok for yourself. Dad was some kind of journalist or something weren’t he?”

Daily Mirror.

All-Right. Big stuff. You still in that game?”

I told him not anymore and he nodded and ummed approvingly when I explained that these days I was in the music business.

“So freebies up to your ears. I picked up some fella in a bomber jacket with some group’s name I’d never heard of on the back. He handed me a bunch of 12 inch singles when he got out. Load of crap. Gave ‘em away. Nice enough fella though. Tip an’ all. 

“You meet any famous people? I’ve had a few in my cab,” turning and laughing again. “Yeah yeah, I know, we all say that.” And turning a bit further and pumping up that robusto, “ I could say I had the Great Mephisto in mine. The Great Tough Mephisto.” 

Our drive continued like this for a while; at a standstill by Selfridges, left at Marble Arch, stopping for someone holding a sign on a stick guiding two lines of children across the road, and down Park Lane amber in the autumn sunshine passing a woman in a fascinator disembarking outside The Dorchester. I asked him why he didn’t have a white taxi too. Something a bit different for a man of style like him. 

Slowing to a standstill to allow traffic flowing in from Hyde Park he swivelled in his seat and with his left hand holding back the flex-i-glass grinned and replied, “it’d be like driving with me bollocks out.” I could see his point.

That first year at junior school my father died suddenly from something nobody new quite what for certain. My sister and I often didn’t see him from one weekend to the next what with him staying late to see the paper ‘to bed’ and all that beer to be drunk after. The first time I knew he was ill was the morning I learnt he had died and it’s times like these you learn how childish children can be. 

“Lost your dad? Don’t you remember where you left him?” Overin wasn’t the only one to find it funny but he just happened to be no bigger than me and alone in the changing room when I got even. 

Did he see much of Overin?

“You mean Stu? Oh you remember him. You really worked him over. For a split second I thought about reminding him that it was only the two punches; one to the chin and another to the gut. He’d slumped back on to a bench moaning some but otherwise fine. I don’t recall him missing any school time. I think some of the others thought I’d done them a favour. 

“He died. Some intestinal complication, internal bleeding that sort if thing. I don’t know the proper medical term but I think he was in pain for years. Had to watch what he ate and drank.” 

He glared bug eyed into the rear view mirror and I wanted to be somewhere else. Thankfully not much further.

The conversation had come to a stop. No more wisecracks or cabbie anecdotes. Just a pair of old acquaintances with an ocean of distrust and resentment between them. Proof, were any needed, that the past should remain in the past. 

Stepping on to the pavement I asked how much? He looked at me and pulled that toothless grin I’d seen countless times at school. The fare. How much?

“I’n not going to charge the Great Mephisto. This one’s one me.”

Come on.

“No. My pleasure. Say it’s for old time’s sake.

Oh, and Stu – he’s fine. You never could take a joke. Have a good flight mate.” And with that he was gone. 

Posted in London, travel, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Pub On The Road To Nowhere In Particular


My favourite pub isn’t on the way to anywhere in particular. It’s off-the-beaten-track, its isolation playing a key part in why I rate it so highly after just two visits. I clearly recall departing on both occasions with little more than a couple of beers inside me to inflame my good opinion that this is the pub I’ve wanted – down my road – for years. Infact, since the last time I had a favourite pub, a long time ago now. 

This pub, my new undisputed favourite, is so off-the-beaten-track that I’d never have known about it or gone there had not a friend mentioned some years ago that he intended having a landmark birthday there. One of those birthdays when people give zimmer frames and walking sticks.

All my life friends have claimed their pub, curry house, and takeaway is best there is. I even went so far as to have a ‘pizza challenge’ with friends who in blind loyalty claimed their local pizzeria in Muswell Hill was  better than ours in Camden Town. I mean, who in their right mind would think of ordering anything Italian in N10? But I had a hunch the man who introduced me to my new favourite pub, a motorcyclist, with an ear for Dave Rawlins and an eye for a well cut denim jacket, knew what he was talking about. He didn’t disappoint. At the end of a chain of narrow lanes with more passing points than there are roundabouts in the county, on a verdant green with only grey stone cottages and a church for company, the pub wears its skills for beer, pub grub and conversation lightly. 

On our first visit, winter some time ago, we sat in the L shaped bar beneath a timber ceiling festooned with I don’t know perhaps as many as 200 porcelain tankards and just as many beer mats. There were eight ale pumps and the sort of dark wood furniture that nobody wants anymore, unless you own a classic pub and value authenticity. Many of the pubs I used to frequent don’t know if they’re a pub, a wine bar, an airport waiting room, a restaurant or a creche having replaced anything that could be mistaken for being pub like with IKEA spartan. There is a pool room to the rear and a bar maid who likes to banter with the customers and doesn’t need telling when a barrel needs changing. 

The local bitter is golden – almost a lager in colour, but without bubbles, and packed with hops and £3.80 a pint. Others are darker and stronger. Better still among the bar snacks in jars below the spirits optics was pickled eggs. I thought I’d be pushing it to ask if they also had pickled walnuts as well.

Heading toward the door on the way out a group of whom I took to be locals and or regulars asked about Asta, and then where we were from? You’ll be glad to be here then said one and the beer’s cheaper too said another and you’ve got somewhere to park the next, the laughter as intoxicating as the ale. See you soon then they chimed as we stepped through the draught excluder curtain onto a chilly and seductive nowhere in particular and a still you could wear. 

Little had changed when we returned for lunch except except for two signs hanging from a shelf behind the bar, one advertising olives and scotch eggs and the other declaring my new favourite pub to be a ‘Wi-Fi Free Zone’.

“We want people to talk not look at their phones,” said the barmaid. I heard a cheers to that somewhere in the dimness. 

There is a dining room to the right as you enter the pub but with the rain indecisive we agreed to enjoy some of that fecund Cornish autumn air and relish the silence that still shrouds off-the-beaten-track villages. I bit into my pickled egg, took a long slow gulp of beer and left my senses to do the rest. 

Soon we were chatting with a woman of indeterminate age but profound fitness who had been walking since crack of dawn. Seeing Asta she told us of an Airedale Terrier that donated its blood to a poorly dog  that would surely have died without the transfusion. Kim spoke to a man heavily tattooed about a pair of Patterdale Terriers sat at the table with him and a couple two tables along let it be known their admiration for Asta. 

What I hadn’t realised until we got there is that only pre-booked lunchesget the full choice of traditional Sunday roasts: beef, chicken, lamb or pork. Served with roasties, broccoli, carrots Yorkshire pudding and gravy. Some friends turned up unexpectedly and whilst unable to have roasts (just enough bought in to accommodate those who had booked) there was however a selection of homemade fish cakes, fish ’n chips and looking across at a table nearby mackerel ploughman’s that I’ve earmarked for our next visit. I probably shouldn’t have ordered a pud but who could possibly turn down bananas and custard crumble? 

My Favourite Pub, Halfway Along A Winding Lane To Nowhere In Particular.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ever been to south west London

…the riverbanks, avenues and playing fields, beat clubs and bars and clothes shops that were the architecture of my first twenty or so years; the first three in Manchester notwithstanding. An adolescence upon a  stretch of Thames that winds south and west from gentrified Brentford to Teddington, the television studios and the limit of tidal Thames. Passing the London Apprentice at Isleworth and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Syon Park and on to the treeless expanse of Old Deer Park and another bend in the river. My father was fond of this stretch of the verdant towpath in the shadow of Twickenham Bridge, no more than a couple of hundred yards. No pubs or shops, just the kind of homes we aspired to and the five green iron arches of the lock and weir. It was nearly always dark when we arrived, passing brash clusters of evening newspaper billboards, dozens of them, tied to the garden fences on every corner fanning out from Twickenham Rugby Ground. We’d step out of our grey Austin Cambridge with its red leather upholstery into the chilly Thames air dimly lit by Gothic electric lanterns on the road bridge. In the far distance Richmond Athletic Club on the eastern edge of flat and mostly treeless park. Rebadged the Crawdaddy it’s where one misty winter night I caught a bus from Ealing to watch Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac at the height of the late sixties blues revival. Long hair, rugby shirts and leather jackets essential kit. An Easter fun fair still sets out its coconuts and dodgems and helter skelter on the strip of land between the A316 and the railway linking the south west with Waterloo. This strip of arterial road a blaze of pink and white cherry blossom every spring.

From here the still tidal river ebbs and flows beneath the 18th century Richmond Bridge where years ago, starboard side, there stood an ice rink popular with teenagers aiming to make out on Saturday night and the first place I was punched unconscious. On the bright side spinning hopelessly on the ice worked well as a babe(s) magnet. The Odeon cinema stands central atop the bridge on the Surrey high street side facing St.Margarets where The Beatles shot that memorable four front door scene at the start of Help. Next to the cinema the sixties hippie hang out L’Auberge and next to that the greatest menswear shop in London, J.Simons, a shrine to mod casual wear, presently ‘up west’ in Marylebone. I  still wear the triple welt brogues owner John Simons sold me nearly over 30 years ago. 

During my winter as a minicab driver I’d park my white Vauxhall Victor close to the house once lived in by Keith Richards, up Richmond Hill and along from The Star and Garter Hotel, once a war veterans retirement home a stone’s throw from a Poppy Factory today transformed in modern times into smart apartments. From up here you can watch airliners make their descent across Hounslow to Heathrow and follow the river between Ham Fields and Marble Hill Park to Eel Pie Island. Nearby is the entrance to Richmond Park that bucolic deer trodden manicured wilderness linking Richmond with Kingston, Roehampton and Barnes. Turn east through the gates and you can clearly see the capital some 15 miles away; the London Eye on Southbank and the BT Tower close to my former home at Mornington Crescent. 

Neither London nor the countryside, this is the epicentre of the much maligned suburbs at its most verdant. An urban soundtrack of sirens, aircraft and airbrakes with a rural palette. Avenues of London 30s semi detached homes with leaded lights and manicured front gardens. Plane trees with  blotchy trunks and parks of hawthorn, silver maple, oak, and horse chestnut. Bushy Park, Richmond Green, Barnes Common close to where Marc Bolan met his end (there are bunches of flowers left there to this day), Twickenham Green, Kew Green, Orleans Gardens, Crane Park, and Radnor Gardens, 

Our journey passes the the Slug & Lettuce where drinkers dangle their feet above the water on the embankment near Richmond Bridge, although my choice of watering hole was The Waterman’s Arms a short ways up Water Lane towards the hight street. Gentrified and foodie now and no bigger than a front room it was the roughest pub in town then. There are rowing boats for hire close to the bridge and  swans. Further on the river turns west where steel hawsers support a black walnut tree thought to be over 200 years old. Nearby The Crown, a Youngs pub and my local for three or four years where I was attacked for being Jewish; something to do with black hair and big hooter. Petersham Fields on our left and on the right, close to the ferry slipway, The White Swan, known to us as ‘the pig pub’ due to the sheer quantity of its porcine photographs. And finally ‘Twickers’ and Eel Pie Island the hotel that burned to the ground some years ago,  once the location of another rock venue boasting a residency by The Rolling Stones. Manfred Mann, The Yardbirds, and Long John Baldrey with a young Rod Stewart on backing vocals trod those boards. My mate’s band PC Kent played the Eel Pie Island Hotel too less acclaim. 

The open air Twickenham Baths is where I developed a appetite for pretty young things, hot Bovril and Wagon Wheels. Pete Townsend lived in a tall clapperboard house nearby and during summer lunchtime sessions at the Barmy Arms we’d listen to Keith Moon bashing the skins in the back garden.  The Barmy Arms was originally named The Queens Head but renamed following a refit upon which the sign was put back upside down

Through a gate and behind a tall wall and close to a small pedestrian bridge is York House Gardens and a water fountain of white horses and eight life size naked nymphs in various degrees of ecstasy.  Oceanides from Greek mythology brought to Twickenham by a subsequently disgraced financier in 1904. 

My mother lived a few yards away, just far enough to spare her stilettos from the tidal flood waters that wash these cobbled streets to this day. Her ashes spread upon the river from the slipway there. Her funeral was in the Mortlake Crematorium some miles away coincidentally where a service was held for Trevor Bayliss OBE who lived on Eel Pie Island and where I interviewed him for The Sunday Times about the wind-up radio he’d invented with isolated communities in remote parts of sub-Saharan Africa at the forefront of his mind. I liked him and liked him even more when he was awarded the title 2010 Pipe Smoker Of The Year. I often think about the island and the narrow footbridge connecting it with the town and The Balmy Arms where I throw back a large JD every February in remembrance of mum. She wasn’t much of a drinker and would probably prefer if I downed  Danish pastries instead. 

Stately homes abound. Syon House and Marble Hill House and Petersham House, Orleans House and York House and other fine homes long gone. Among them Popes Grotto built in the early 18th century when Twickenham was a bit of tourist destination. Owner Alexander Pope built a tunnel to it beneath a road and in so doing created a grotto decorated with stalactites, crystals, marbe and Cornish diamonds. Some of the grotto remains beneath the school that stands there today. Popesgrove was our telephone prefix.

For all the good it did me I took judo classes at St.Mary’s University and a little further on at Teddington, around and about the toy shop on the bridge that for a sixpence operated a small shop window minature railway, my driving test. I made the hash of the hill start blaming it on the slippery leaves on the road. 

There are a lot of leaves around here, and a lot to think about too. 

Posted in gone west, London, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Passenger On Board

The first four hours are the toughest. Traffic from the West End to, well, wherever? People, hordes of them, with one aim – to escape, to get to the pub, to see the kids, to watch television, to kiss the wife. And him at the centre of it. The driver. The enabler. A working night beginning when their working days are ending. A race he’ll never win is on.

It’s slow. That’s the nature of rush-hour. A febrile, anxious, fretful world of hurried slowness, culminating in the final puffy eyed ready-for-bed hours at the end of a shift as another dawn infuses the verdant stillness of south west London with an iridescent glow. Even then, after seven hours behind the wheel and umpteen espressos, he can do Richmond to Kings Cross in 40 minutes, without thinking, probably without opening his eyes? Heathrow even quicker, unless Al Qaida has been active and the army is on the perimeter.  It was the IRA in the 70s said Maxie. It could take hour, maybe more then; passengers threatening legal action if their flights were missed. In the first four hours of the night shift, the five thirty to nine thirty Wacky Races, it can take twice that nowadays.  It’s insane. He dreams of tail lights. Yet no matter how hard he pressed the accelerator in the car or in his dreams he never got any closer, to anywhere. That’s the taxi driver syndrome he was fond of saying to nobody but himself. Like trousers smudged with chocolate and aching clutch ankle. A real ‘nowhere man’. Some tune that. His dad had played it every Sunday while carving the roast. The next car will be an automatic, something he can tailgate in for hundreds of miles with a hand free for a drink. It improves around ten, before the theatre curtains came down and the pubs and bars tip out. Time to catch a breath after the long haul tide of two million people going, just going. What was that Carol King tune?  Time to snatch a coffee and a smoke before the wide eyed dizzy out-of-their-heads club crowd return to reality. 

Michael Marshall, Micky to everyone except his mother, didn’t like his job but he liked the independence. He liked being awake while the world slept. He worked nights and enjoyed his own company.

“Rayburn 43, clear. Rayburn 43 to control, clear I repeat clear  – over.” 

He wiped the dashboard with his handkerchief and switched on the evening news. It was already dark, the time of year when the long umber lull of autumn gives way to endless dark. Chilly too. He sorted the loose change out on the passenger seat and turned on the GPS. A woman spoke with a voice like the one at his bank or was it the phone company? Maybe it was the same voice, the one that said she didn’t catch that and could he say it another way? She said hello and asked him to tap in the destination. “Coming Suzie,” he said checking his quiff in the rear view mirror and laughing at his own banality. Could use a dash more gel he surmised as he spat on his hands and ran them across his head. 

“OK Rayburn 43, I know your there,” said a voice distorted with the sound of chewing. “Don’t get all pushy. There’s a lot going going and roadworks on the 316 aren’t helping. Wait your turn. Over.” He reached below the seat, adjusted the squelch and increased the volume. The voice was clearer then handing out jobs to other drivers.

‘That’s 32 Grange Park Rayburn 36 – outward and return. Over. Confirm 18. Over.” 

It’s one way traffic on the RT. He could hear control, a south London accent without the humour of a Cockney. Featureless and flat. London without extended vowels. 

“Thank you Rayburn 18, you will wait.” He’s eating again. “ The client has agreed a price. Over.” Silence.

“Then wait around the corner where the nasty warden can’t bother you. Over.” Silence.

“You too 32, leave the onions. Over.” 

They were discussing dinner. He looked in the mirror again, tilting his face to one side. A pallid  reflection, the look of a man who hasn’t seen more than a handful of daylight hours in a week. A 747 on a path into Heathrow, its tail lights blinking in the deepening twilight. Ham Fields below, the lambent Thames twisting west past Eel Pie Island towards Teddington and tide’s end. It’s a wait he looked forward to. Watching the river and listening to control, a man called Harold with a comb over and a dislike of young people. A barathea blazer with brass buttons, food stains and two metal badges; regimental? Who knows? Sat in a green leather swivel chair behind a smudged glass screen with a flask of tea. He could see him there now picking his nose and wiping his finger under the desk. Bursts of activity followed by a brooding silence. He doesn’t know how many drivers there are? Maybe twenty, more during rush hour. And though the night a dozen maybe; loners like him; malcontents;  men without families; men like 32, real name Maxie, and, Eric, dour and teacherly, control’s nearest and dearests. That pair get the jobs that pay the best, always clear of rush hour and late night long hauls. He’d listen to Harold cajole and pamper them. For his favourites the sweet runs, over and done in half an hour. Traffic tips and gossip, and always what they’re going to eat next in the nine o’clock lull, the late night snack, and breakfast. Do they drive for food? Then there’s 15, Jake, a thick necked Australian with mean streak and a nose that looks like it’s been stolen from a cartoon rabbit. Deeply tanned inside suits that shine and fit like cling film. Jake doesn’t like anyone. He doesn’t talk to anyone. He just drives.

“Rayburn 18. Rayburn 18 over.” Silence.

“Rayburn 18. 12 Popes Grotto for Putney Bridge. Name of Patterson. I think you know the score, over.” Silence.

“In a moment Rayburn 19. The same for you Rayburn 27. That sort of language isn’t going to do you any favours Rayburn 27, over.” Silence.

“Rayburn 19. Correct. Mrs Patterson. She asked for you. The smart one with the gold rimmed glasses and tie. You get the prize for driver of the month, over.” Silence.

“You too Rayburn 32. You can share it with Rayburn 19. Now both of you, on your ways. Next time I hear from you 32 it’ll be to say you’re DoB. Over.” Silence. 

That’s nice, dinner on board. How about a bit of work on board?

“43, you still there, over?’

At last. “A little trip out to the airport. An account job with the name of Jeffries, Lincoln Avenue. Near Crane Park. Terminal 1. Over.”

Been fine if there’d been a return, but he doubted it. Up and running at last. Across Richmond Bridge to St.Margarets , Marble Hill Park and Twickenham. Past the Green, up The Meadway to Lincoln Road. Nothing exceptional. A world of paved over front gardens and PVC windows. Dull, monotonous and half a million.

“Affirmative Rayburn 43. Call when PoB. Over”

Jeffries was looking out the window as he pulled up. In his forties with an anorak over a suit. He kissed a women and then knelt down. Maybe a pet or a child? Maybe a brief case. The middle ranking executive type that’s all expenses and poor salary. When he finally emerged he had a suitcase. Terminal 1, flying intercontinental. A cut above the average. A tipper, maybe? Micky stepped out of the car and flipped the boot while Jeffries settled into the back. 

“Rayburn 43 PoB. Over.”

Whitton, Hounslow West, industrial estates and two story homes with roof extensions. The Skyline Hotel and into the Tunnel. He’d done this run fifty, sixty, maybe more times and didn’t need to think, watching the thin band of orange on the horizon dissolve into black. Then BANG! A motorcycle overtaking on the wrong side of Hanwell railway bridge making the sort of noise the Citroen made that time he hit a speed hump and the exhaust had snapped. The biker was upright. His arms at shoulder height and the tips of a long beard wrapped around his neck. BANG again, then pause and another BANG, even louder. Was that legal?

“My god,” said the fare. “I was nodding off until that thing.”

“”Me too,” replied Micky. “No, only joking.” It’s not good to banter with clients, especially account ones. It always found a way back to the Major.  

What do you know, no tip. Must have been that quip about nodding off? 

“We live in a contactless world of plastic,” Jeffries said, with a weak, thin, apologetic smile.

“Roger that sir. Not a problem. All discretionary.” Adding, “have a great flight.”

Moments later he was  following a convoy of Ubers through the airport tunnel. Another passed him on the inside. An E-Class with tinted windows. That’ll be him in six months. Albert Cars couldn’t compete with Uber. Who could? It’s only old school clients and long term customers slow or resistant to adapt to the apps revolution that were keeping Albert Cars afloat. He’d refused to ride in an Uber until the tube he and Penny were on ground to a standstill on their way to the cinema. Penny had punched something into her phone and within what had seemed like no time at all a five series Beemer had pulled up opposite Putney underground station with a dolorous Ukrainian behind the wheel. No money changed hands and Penny said the fare was half of what Micky would have charged. It’s a different world and it was getting more different by the hour. He felt the stubble on his chin and freed a piece of kebab lodged in the corner of his mouth. The traffic was lighter against the rush hour torrent flowing west. 

“Rayburn 43 pickup 12 Dene Court Mansions for Kings Cross. You read? Over.”

He knew the address. It’s a woman who wears a lot of perfume and talked on her mobile the whole time. Her name was Harper, Claudine Harper, and he liked her. She was in the lobby when he arrived, drop dead gorgeous, bathed in a camel coat and cream scarf. Could be a Burberry judging by the check pattern. She smiled and slipped onto the backseat like a feather blown in on a silent breeze. He could have watched her do that all night. They exchanged greetings and for the umpteenth time he felt, well, if you really want to know, a bit special. Micky was her driver.  She’d said as much and they travelled all over London – and often. Been awhile though. She’d been away she said, “family business”. Back now and said she was looking forward to getting back to work, “with my favourite car service.”  He felt himself redden as he placed her Louis Vuitton spinner in the boot. She was wearing that perfume again. Sweet, with a hint of some dry and exotic spice. “Cabochard,” she’d said, with surprise the time he’d mentioned it. He liked to savour it the way he’d been taught to enjoy wine; slowly, internally, long after the passing. It’s from the 30s and not so fashionable now she’d told him in an offhand way as though she’d been asked many times. Her aunt bought it for her, adding, with a hint of intimacy and puckering her cabernet lips, “I’m glad you like it.” Then puncturing the flirtatious veil of familiarity with an attenuated giggle and a “don’t want you gasping for air behind the wheel do we now.” Brother, she knew how to hit the launch button.

After asking how long he thought the journey would take she was back on the phone, her one true companion, wedged between her neck and a raised shoulder, an intimacy he could barely imagine. He liked her style. Lean and gamine, a bit French. The broad shoulders of a swimmer and erect stroll of a catwalk model. She was talking softly while looking out the offside window. He saw a low hoop earing resting on on the iPhone. He asked her if he could turn the radio on, down low? Looking into his eyes in the rear view mirror she said fine. Smiling small pleats fanned out from the sides of her mouth and he wondered if she was older than he thought? Maybe 40? Beautiful in that moneyed, manicured, sophisticated way. He tapped a preset button to ditch the drive-time news, something to do with European finance, in favour of a MoR station with non-stop oldies. Sheryl Crow was singing about a freeway. It felt right. The rhythm in time with the motion of the car, taking some of the sting out of the stop-start of rush hour traffic. He thought about his passenger. Her life. Her friends. Her lovers. He hated them all.

He’d picked Claudine Harper up many times, mostly from her apartment a red brick block with bay trees in tall galvanised metal pots either side of crittal doors. She’d usually be alone except for that time he’d collected her from a do in Notting Hill. She’d been with a posh boy in a suit and one of those shirts in which the chest and collar are different colours.  The guy had come on to her on the back seat.  There’d been a tussle and she’d pulled herself together pushing the posho off far enough and for long enough for her to give Micky his destination instructions. Not her place another, probably his, but in the same neck of the woods. The two colour shirt jerk had missed the body language and continued nuzzling her neck and doing something out of sight with his free arm.

“Freddy,” she’d yelled, straightening herself and shifting to the opposite side of the seat. “Stop it,” then looking up to the driver’s mirror, perhaps for approval? Freddy wasn’t impressed. In a high falutin accent, although maybe it wasn’t some theatrical mock and is actually the way he speaks, he insisted that she wasn’t normally this reserved. Quite the opposite in fact, reminding her of the last time they’d enjoyed an evening of martinis.

She caught Micky’s eye. 

“You were more discreet then when there wasn’t a bloody audience. For fuck’s sake Claudine it’s only the sodding driver.”

Micky had jumped on the brakes sprang out and pulled open the rear door with such speed Freddie almost tumbled out onto the pavement. It had the desired outcome too. The alcohol coursing Freddie’s dilated veins was then having the opposite effect to that for which he’d consumed it. In a heartbeat he’d sobered. He mumbled apologies and how he’d been out of order an how he was on medication that doesn’t mix with booze and that he hadn’t been thinking, and…whatever said Micky.

“And of course you’re much bigger than me so why don’t we just have a nice drive home and listen to the radio.” He’d shuffled uneasily. She’d laughed and agreed.

Freddie barely spoke for the next 25 minutes and when he did it was in an indecipherable mumble. He lived in one of the apartment blocks leading up to Richmond Park. One of those faceless steel and glass and always ‘luxury’ blocks that are going up all over the country with tacked on hearth rug balconies and are so cramped inside every window space resembles the inside of a cupboard cluttered with clothes and bicycles and modern paraphernalia. The sort of apartment that Penny said she wanted but which Micky could neither afford nor aspire too. 

Claudine had asked him to wait while she walked Freddie to the door. She kissed him on the cheek and after whispering something returned to the cab. She apologised and said he’s the nicest person on the planet, most of the time, but pour a few drinks inside him and he turns into an octopus, like most of the guys in her line of work. 

“Hands everywhere.”

Micky agreed Freddie had been out of line and that it wasn’t his place to intimidate passengers.

She shook her head and filling the car with Cabouchard disagreed saying he’d been a godsend. 

“Please, I really appreciate what you did. Don’t feel bad. Freddie needs reminding how to behave from time to time.” Her mobile played the opening bars to Boogie Wonderland. She pulled a face and Micky guessed it was Freddie. Stepping out into the warm night air she’d turned and asked for his name?

“Thank you Micky, for being my Galahad.”

“Company policy maam,” he’d replied with a theatrical bow.

She’d never mentioned that episode with Freddie again and he sensed she was reassured that the man behind the wheel was on her side. Then to his surprise she’d bought him a drink one morning on a Gatwick run. Other drivers were always bragging about this or that client buying them gifts, but not him, he’d never accepted anything – until that morning. She’d made up some story about getting the departure time wrong and going without breakfast. She wanted to stop and wanted company. She was coming on to him, that much was clear. She’d been wearing a two piece check suit in beige with epaulets and a green silk scarf tied around her neck like a choker and had said she knew this hotel on the outskirts of Crawley that does a great breakfast. She talked up the homemade marmalade and coffee like it mattered. The place empty but for a woman with silver hair and a small terrier to match. As the waitress approached Claudine announced she wasn’t hungry making a pitch for what she said were killer Bloody Marys instead. 

“With horseradish and a real kick. Whaddya say?”

He looked at his watch. It was probably the last job of the morning, so what the heck? They were sat next to each other in a red leatherette booth with an ornate gilt and glass art nouveau lamp on the table, by a bay window with intercontinental jets disappearing into a platinum stratus. She with her back to the window silhouetted in the grey light and him to her side marvelling her jaw line; a nose that lifted imperceptibly at the end and eyebrows as dark and glossy as her gamine bob. She could be a model and she knew a thing or two about Bloody Marys. 

She talked a lot and had said she’d grown up not far from where there. Her father had worked in airport security until he’d died of lung cancer when she was 10. Her mother was a nurse,  and her younger sister a teacher. She said she’d wanted something more exciting. Travel and entertaining, a bit of glamour. Public relations for a hedge fund (he didn’t like to ask what in hell that is?) was the perfect solution to a suburban girl looking to step out. 

“And you?” 

He told her he shared her passion for travel. He’d been a photographer with a local newspaper but like her wanted something, more. She smiled and raised her glass.  She drank like someone used to working a room and clinked her empty glass against his as if to say, another?

“I’m sorry, you’re driving, I shouldn’t encourage you. It’s just…well, to tell you the truth I haven’t felt this relaxed in a long while.” 

He wanted to kiss her  “I’ll drink to that,” said Micky poking his eye with the celery stalk.” She laughed then seeing his pained expression suppressed it. Time to go. She was still giggling when they stepped into the car.  She didn’t invite him for drinks after that leaving him to wonder  if he should have given her some sort of encouragement.

It was raining when they pulled up opposite the black cab rank at Kings Cross. Like all minicab drivers he knew never to trespass on their sacred strip of tarmac but nevertheless felt angry eyes on him. There was a policeman looking at him too. What’s the big deal? Everyone’s got to make a living. He helped Claudine with her case shifting awkwardly  and looking into her eyes as she stuffed a note into his breast pocket. Some woman he mused slipping back behind the wheel as a policeman in a high viz jacket approached the near side and gestured for him to pull away, pointing pendulously along the double yellow line, the taxi only loading bay. Remonstrating was out of the question. The near side front tyre was worn below the point at which it should have been replaced and he wasn’t too confident with the off-side either. Once you set those fellas off there’d be other misdemeanours. Best skedaddle and as me dear old gran used to say, “keep smiling.”

The Citroen wasn’t old. It’d only just come up for its first MoT, sailing through but for the near side stop light and the wear on that tyre. He’d bought it because it was cheap, very cheap owing to its high mileage and he’d liked it immediately. With He liked the way the hydropneumatic suspension sailed over speed humps at any speed and sound proofing that filtered all internal and external noises to a warm whooshing, seducing clients into feeling that they were riding in something prestigious. The Major, Rayburn’s boss, had liked it too and after a trial week, during which Micky’d done nothing but pub and nightclub runs, clearing gum and vomit off the tan leather, promoted the newby to account jobs.

“Rayburn 43 cleared, over,”. He slipped a CD into the player and slumped back into the driver’s seat as Maxwell’s whine took him back to a room and a girl long ago. Strange he thought, you don’t notice the traffic after a while. It’s just there, like the weather.

“43, it’s your lucky day. Evershalt Street, steps of Euston Station 19.00 hrs for Sandycombe Lane. Name of Joyce. Over.” 

That was more like it. And it’s cash. Slow along the Marylebone Road, and around Shepherds Bush, but who cares when you’re being paid for a return? And they were on time. An elderly couple, nice coats and shiny shoes, with old fashioned suitcases you need two hands to lift into the boot. The type without wheels and with sticker pennants stating where in the world they’d been, and, as it turned out, as good as gold. Been to stay with their son in Manchester. He’s some sort of producer whose wife had recently given birth to their first grandchild. The husband held up an iPhone with photographs of a baby. They smiled and chatted and talked all the way to Kew about how well their son is doing and the house their daughter-in-law is restoring in a neighbourhood that’s a bit down-at-heel but which everyone agrees is on the up. They spoke a lot about the personalities their son works with, names Micky had never heard of. He didn’t let on he wasn’t impressed. He didn’t want to burst their bubble. She rummaged around in a shiny handbag with a metal clasp that she clipped and unclipped and offered him a sweet, one of those parma violets his grandmother loved. He didn’t  take his hand off the wheel so she leant forward and dropped it into his mouth.  They were so nice they didn’t want him to get out when they arrived at their quiet street with tall hedges. When he revealed that he’d been born in Manchester the wife gasped and her husband squeezed her shoulder. “Like we were meant to be friends,” he said.

Next a short run from Mortlake High Street to Richmond, back to Mortlake for Richmond Station and then up to town for a pick up at The Connaught Rooms, destination Barnes Common. Lucky again.  Another cash job and the client, a penguin (one of Maxie’s terms for passengers in black tie). The name of Ingleby, a jolly man with a florid face, curly fair hair, and eyebrows that stood proud of an extended forehead like stickleback fins. He laughed a lot, too much, and said he owned a chain of launderettes. 

“You live around Richmond you may have washed your socks in one of my machines,” said the penguin in a voice more refined than he appeared. Upon which the woman with a voice of cigarettes and costermongering said he ought wash some of his own. The penguin scowled and dropped a business card on the passenger seat landing face down on a the remains of Micky’s egg mayonnaise sandwich. He talked, about the economy mostly, and the lack of get up and go in young people. Mickey wanted to concentrate on the drive but the penguin was leaning on the back of the passenger seat and spitting into his ear. He tried to focus on the neon world ahead of them; tale lights of the jets at roof height over Hounslow; tessellated patchworks of lights and lives in illuminated rooms unaware of inquisitive eyes; the grey blue flickering of televisions, and the ceaseless amber lit road. He’d heard a story once, he doesn’t know if it’s true but he likes it all the same, of a driver who simply couldn’t stop. He’d driven PoB until the fuel had run out, somewhere near Bristol, and even then he’d than remained in the car, the fare asleep beside him.

The penguin tipped well. A Jane Austen, folded in half with another business card inside. Micky left them in the driveway of a detached Edwardian house pulling away across the common to where Marc Bolan had been killed, jaded bouquets and wreaths tied to the chain link fence.

He’d been listening to Harold handing out jobs to Rayburns 32 and 18. Three for each of them for every one for other drivers. Reaching below his seat to turn up the volume heard his own call sign. 

“Go on 43, have a break, you’ve earned it. Got you down for Sheen Court to Notting Hill at ten Lover Boy. Name of a Caring. Over.” 

He’s lived with so many nicknames, what’s one more? His mother used to say, “don’t knock it, it means they’re talking about you. Better than than being forgotten.” Did she have a point? Some names are better than others. He earned his latest after a spate of bookings came in asking for him specifically,  and all of them women. It was his birthday, “and you’re not 30 every day” said Maxie who’d coined the name. Some call in and request Lover Boy which is fine except on those occasions when the pick-up is a couple and the boyfriend wants to now why his other half is so familiar with the driver? At best it’s a laugh, at worst a challenge.

Some drivers took their breaks at Rayburn’s offices above a former stables. But Micky didn’t like to spend too much time there. It’s a mess, rank with odour of cigarettes, food and unhygienic men. One of those smells that gets inside your nose and stays. An ochre lit pit where Dave, an affable Cornishman on the day shift, told him you have to remember to wipe your feet as your leave for fear of carrying something contagious with you. Maxie and Harold were eating kebabs when Micky entered.

“Whoa, Lover Boy. To what do we owe this honour?” Maxie threw him one of his cheesy grins whilst wiping bits of lettuce and chillie sauce from his chin. 

“Shouldn’t you be out spreading love and affection to all the lonely ladies of west London?”

Micky told him they’d have to wait. It’s wet and he needed some caffeine.

“Just don’t leave it too long. Yours is a civic duty.”

Harold made a noise that could be mistaken for a laugh. 

“Look at that,” said Maxie, “you’ve got Harold all worked up.”

Harold made another noise, louder and more unusual than the first. Two other drivers, whom Micky didn’t recognise, joined in the mirth. Maxie was on a roll, revelling at being the centre of attention. One of his favourite routines involved farting, then stopping mid-sentence and demanding to know what the noise was? The other drivers cracked-up every time.  He did it again interrupting a story the day driver, an Asian looking man with black hair and a goatee, had heard from a friend working for another minicab outfit in the east end. There had been some exchanges with black cab drivers at a drive-thru McDonalds and the police had been called. The black cabbies saying the minicabs were uninsured and were a risk to the public. There were no arrests and it all blew over until some weeks later a minicab was called to a pick-up in Soho Square at gone midnight. Within seconds he’d been surrounded by black cab drivers who flipped the Sierra over onto its roof with the driver inside.

“Like, was it a personal thing?” asked Harold.

Maxie laid the remains of his kebab on the radiator. “Yeah, like they were all personally pissed off with minicabs. What do you think you moron.” Harold looked hurt. “They think, and maybe with some reason, that we’re stealing their trade.”

Micky said they could also have been thinking they’d spent five years on The Knowledge and we roll in with hire and reward cover, and a GPS and we’re off.”

“Whose effing side are you on?” spat Jake.

“He’s on our side you wallaby. He’s pointing out, if you’ve got the time to listen, it’s the number one reason lardy arsed black cab drivers are pissed off with us.” Harold liked lardie arsed repeating it several times until Maxie threw him a look and a strip of  lettuce hung.

There’d been other attacks. Dog excrement on windscreens, tyres deflated and what a lot of drivers believed was an orchestrated  campaign of bilking; passengers doing runners at their destination without paying. Micky had had a couple. Initially friendly types, asking him all kinds of chummy questions about the life of a nighttime minicab driver  before skedaddling with a parting “fuck you”. 

If Micky had done his sums right he’d have enough for an E Class by the summer. And that’s when the big money’d roll in. He could break with Rayburn and either join one of the limo firms or go it alone. It’s why there was a photo of Jamie Foxx from Collateral on the inside of the sunshade. Less miles for more money. Evenings in the back seat watching Strictly while the penguins are getting fat. Then there’s the perks. Big ticket clients like to feather their fanbase. Micky had heard of a C-Class driver getting a case of Bollinger. Now it was his turn for some reward. “A man needs deserves some of that prestige action,” he said looking at himself in the mirror. Running a hand through his wavy hair and a finger across the bottom of his nose.  

He’d got six six texts since he last looked; two from his credit card company, another from the phone company, and two, the second a reminder with a quizzical emoji, from Penny asking him to drop by for breakfast. The last was from Annie calling him an “arsehole”; that’d be for calling her Penny in a reply. Disorientation is another part of the job? When will they ever learn? Two five ’til nine nights  one week and five one-after-the-others the next. This was one of the five nights straight and calling Annie ‘Penny’ hadn’t been his only mistake. He’d been counting his takings on the front seat and forgotten he was in gear. The Citroen lurched forward and punched a hole the size of a fist in back of a Smart car. A bony man with a high forehead and expensive spectacles took him for two hundred cash there and then to settle it. A night’s takings gone in a moment of madness. There’d been a mystery overcharging too. It was the first time he’d seen the Major since his interview six months ago. He was accused of overcharging some Dutchman, who he’d charged £50 for a £25 pound job. He’d thought it’d been odd the next day. The drunken idiot had paid so what was the big deal? The Major accepted the Dutchman was drunk, “he’d said as much in his letter. But he’d been expecting some change.”

Penny was in bed when Micky threw the car keys on to the draining board and poured the remains of the Rioja into a teacup. A studio with a bed just three strides from the kitchen appliances. She’d fixed it up well in a hippy dippy kind of way with rugs and antimacassars, William Morris wallpaper with peacocks and swirls, a dream catcher in the window, and bunches dead roses hanging from the bookshelves. He liked it, cocooned in Penny’s mystical world just yards from Richmond Park at the top of stuccoed Regency house with a monkey puzzle tree in the garden. He undressed in the grey half light and climbed in next to her. The bed creaked and Penny  silently drew him closer. Without speaking she rolled to her side and placed him inside her. In the morning he’d found a note about croissants in the bread-bin and fresh orange juice in the fridge.

The pick up at Sheen Court was to Epsom so next to no chance of a return. With the park closing at sunset it meant a run out to Ham and through to Kingston. The GPS pointed him to Surbiton and Ewell. Harold interrupted the Delphonics with something about a police checkpoint at the foot of Kingston Hill. Have to be Hook then, and then cut back.

“Where are you going,” barked the client. “This isn’t the way.” He was indignant. Hadn’t he hear the RT? His anger subsided. A burst water main at Surbiton and a tailback? Of course he hadn’t heard, he’d been on the phone.  Micky assured him it was the same price. When the company quotes it sticks to it. Client indignation goes with the job. There’s always a better, faster and cheaper route. Micky didn’t mind. He liked the quiet life. It’s why he always explained his route before setting off. If they knew a better one, fine. And when theirs backfired, which it frequently did, he’d be in the clear. 

It was gone midnight when Harold sent him back to Twickenham, for the fourth time. A wait and return to Hampton Court, the client paying £30 an hour waiting time. Would have been cheaper to call for another cab. The pick up was at one of those tall terraced 1970s homes with a garage next to the front door. There were German cars on every drive except those with Range Rovers.  The client was around his age, maybe in her early 30s. Nice looking by the name of Gittings. Shoulder length blonde hair with highlights. She was wearing a short checked overcoat with a high collar. Petite, even with heels like skewers. She didn’t smile and didn’t look at him. Sniffy bitch then.

“Sandringham Avenue, wait and return.” Nothing about the weather or the traffic or how it’s a funny time of night to be making house calls. A baby sitter maybe, or a carer? No, non of those. She was way too angry with a face that said she’d belt anyone who spoke out of turn. And then there’s the wait. So, she’s coming back. Hey. Who cares? She was cute, she had money to burn, and this was his favourite time of the shift; gone midnight when the traffic was light and the feeling of desolation comforting for a man who liked to be alone. His mobile buzzed in his pocket. It was Penny wanting to know if he’d be calling in for breakfast? He’d been there four or five times for breakfast now and hadn’t eaten a thing. The passenger was motionless, staring at the back of his headrest, sparkly blue and red maquillage delineating the outline of her cheekbones. To break the ice he said it wasn’t long now. No reaction.

Of course he’d known where they were headed the second Suzie had instructed him to turn left in 400 yards, and to “keep right”. This would normally be about the time the Cabouchard stirred in the back; his class act gathering her phone and papers, ready to flash him that smile. He’d tapped in Sandringham Avenue without giving it a second thought. Why hadn’t Harold said Dene Court Mansions? He’d have got there on autopilot. He could smell the citrus and spice and have killed for another shot at those Bloody Marys. There’s another bay tree and a new lamp above the door and no concierge.

“You know why we’re here, don’t you? No of course you don’t. But you’ll find out sooner or later though so I might as well tell you.” She swallowed like someone whose bitten off more than they can chew. Nervous? No, it’s more than that, she’s set to blow. He shifted around in his seat to face her but she was staring out of the nearside window towards the block.

“We are here…because my husband is in there.”

Was he expecting her he asked thinly? She snorted. “No way. He and his bitch are about to get the surprise of their lives.” And with that she’s out the door and through the wrought iron gate. Turning she snapped, “you don’t move, that’s the deal. You stay.” Micky nodded, then lowering the driver’s window called out, “you sure you want to do this?”  No response. 

He didn’t like it one bit. They’d been mulling over a similar situation at the office just that week, and that one had ended badly. Like tonight the husband had been fooling around, the only difference being that when the wife got out the Rayburn she went to work on the girlfriend’s Audi with a screwdriver. With the car alarm in full swing her hubby was outside before she could complete etching ‘fucking sla…’ on the bonnet.

“Control, Rayburn 43 this Dene Court wait and return can I have some clarity? Over.” Silence, but for the scream of a fox in the rank darkness. Nothing from control. A curtain moved on the first floor and a shaft of light silhouetted an inquisitive occupant illuminating the path to the door. He looked up and the curtain swung back. Something wasn’t right. It had to be more than a coincidence that this was Claudine’s address.

Thinking on his feet was never one of Micky’s strong points. He was more the sort to meander around a situation rather than jump in feet first. Penny used to say he didn’t do spontaneity; she’d order for him in restaurants. What if all hell broke loose and Claudine saw him waiting in the car? He should get the hell out of there, it’s what Maxie would do. It’s what any sensible person would do. Walk away from something that didn’t concern them. But there’s the problem “it does concern me” he whispered as he unclipped the seatbelt and stepped out into the charged night air. He could smell the Cabouchard. A man in a hat with a small dog were leaving as he stepped up to the door. Catching it just as it was about to click shut he thanked the dog walker and was inside before the man had time to ask him what he was doing? If he’d been asked he wouldn’t have known how to answer. He didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing? He called Rayburn again. The brass letter boxes bore apartment numbers not names.  Harold’d sent him here enough times he must know which is Claudine’s flat? He span him some yarn about how the passenger was visiting their account client and had left a package on the back seat. Maxie would have put to and two together but Harold bought it. “You ok 43? Been running?”

Micky said he should quit the fags. “Roger that 43. Third floor,  number 17.” No time for the lift. He ran six flights and felt his chest about to explode. He leant on the doorbell and thumped with his fists. 

Freddie answered bare chested with a towel around his waist. A voice somewhere, Claudine, asked who it was? 

“It’s your taxi driver, and by the look of him I think he wants a duel.

“Is that it cabbie? Guns at dawn?”

Micky couldn’t speak. After 84 steps, and slipping and falling and hitting his head on the polished brass banister he could barely breathe. And here was that posho again, here in Claudine’s apartment looking as smug as a man who’s ship has just come in with a cargo containing the most attractive woman in west London. He should have flattened him when he had the chance. Instead of now feeling the lifeblood drain out of him. 

“Is she alright?” He couldn’t help himself. He could see what it looked like yet despite himself, and having good idea how all of this must have looked to the bare chested Cheshire cat in front of him, he needed to know Claudine was safe. Was there someone there called Gittings. He started to describe his passenger that only had the effect of making Freddie laugh even louder. He tried to look past him but every time he leant this way or that Freddie moved to block his view.

“Ole,” yelled Freddie each time he tilted to block Micky’s view. So, had she called a cab? No, he didn’t think so, calling over his bare shoulder into the dimly lit hall with picture frames on both sides the length of it. A muffled ‘no’ and something he couldn’t discern. Freddie said not to worry and then turned back to face Micky who was starting to regain his composure. “So unless you’ve got a pair of loaded pistols with you I suggest you fuck off.” With that the door slammed shut.

Passing through the lobby the man with the dog said something about it being a private block and something else about turning his back on him. He wasn’t bothered. He needed to be outside in the calm of the night. There was a quarter of Glenmorangie in the glove compartment. There was something else too, the glib, colourless repetition of his call sign on the RT: 43, 43; Rayburn 43; 43, where are you 43? He found the bottle behind his AtoZ and with his other hand swung the Citroen on a short circuit of the cul-de-sac heading back to the main road just as his passenger stepped out into the road with an undisguised expression of defiance. He pulled up along side and lowered the passenger side window. They weren’t at home she said sounding disappointed, “and where were you? I’ve been here for five minutes.” He apologised telling her he’d gone for a smoke.

There it was again, like a pic he couldn’t shake off. Rayburn 43, Rayburn 43 what was his situation? Over.

“POB Twickenham. Over.”

“Sounds like Lover Boy sorted it out. Over.”

“Rayburn 43. Something like that. Over.”

By the early hours the smell of cigarettes and body odour at Rayburn  is overwhelming. There are four bunks in the corner furthest from the glass screened office and every one was occupied by men in crumpled suits, and all but Micky had their shoes and socks on the floor by the only window which was shut  tight and sealed with parcel tape, because it was December and cold outside. The air was sour and the noise an insomniac’s cocktail of muffled RT chatter and the wheezy breathing of men who work long hours and smoked too much. It was impossible to sleep drifting fitfully in and out of consciousness. He thought about the house where he grew up in Suffolk and summers on the beach wind surfing and getting laid in the dunes. He felt a warm sensation and thought of something less erotic. His mobile vibrated in his pocket. She missed him, and he missed her, but only for the thing he is trying not to think about. The phone vibrated again: “bring some bubble bath and I’ll blow your bubbles.” He smiled and rolled over.

It was nearly four when Maxi, prodding his arm with his mobile phone, snapped him out of a dream about a journey he can’t get back from. In it he has to leave friends he doesn’t recognise and return home, but each way he turns is narrower or lower or more precipitous than before. Maxi jabs him harder as he is pushing through a crowd. His legs are moving but he doesn’t make any progress.

“You’re on Lover Boy. Lil wants her  fags, and it’s your turn.”

Lil’s real name is Mary and she is the sister of a singer who had some hits when he was a boy. His parents used to play one, a 45 they’d called it. He could see the red paper sleeve it came in with a hole in the centre.  He doesn’t know what Mary, maybe in her 70s, does, only that she likes to buy her cigarettes  in the early hours of the morning at a 24 hour service station ten minutes on foot from her home.  Some of the other drivers say Mary had come on to them. Maxie even hinted that he’d seen some action there. But that’s Maxie, and whatever he says needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. He isn’t concerned with gossip, he likes her. So what if she’s lost in the past? He couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t bragged about the parties she and her sister had been to, or the headlines, or the phone calls from movie stars he’d never heard of. But that’s ok. He liked her enthusiasm, her fur coats, and heavy makeup, and in a funny sort of way he empathised with her feeling of uselessness. She just liked to break up the loneliness of sleepless nights. He’d said this to Control and Maxie after one such dead of night cigarette run. Their response had been howls of laughter, and more Lover Boy jibes.

“She’s harmless.”

“And so are you,” said Maxie, to hoots of approval.

It was still dark and more than usual because the light beneath the office was out. He pressed the ignition fob so he could be guided by the car’s but doing so he walked full square into an iron staircase that  ceased being  useful years ago. He stumbled back in a heap hitting his head on one of the other cars smelling the blood in his nose and the crack on his forehead. He felt sick. The car lights were on a timer and quickly dimmed into darkness. He pressed the fob again and found the strength to stand and get in behind the wheel. Drawing down the eyeshade and looking in the mirror his injuries were less than he expected. Some grazing and blood hanging from his nose.

Mary didn’t notice the bloodied tissues on the passenger seat, nor his pallor,  talking incessantly about Lily all the way to the service station. There was a comeback tour being mooted and she’d be in charge of the wardrobe. He nodded in an interested way and she was still talking about necklines and shoes long after they’d pulled up in the deserted forecourt. A youth behind the glass looked up from his phone and acknowledged two of his regulars. Micky nodded back and tilted his head towards Mary who was in full flight about an awards show she and Lily were at in the 70s. He’d told his mother about the little woman who does her shopping in the middle of the night, who’d unearthed, from somewhere in a cupboard sealed up for years a record Lily had charted when she was a girl. 

Mary didn’t just want cigarettes. From where Micky was parked it looked like she was doing a major shop the youth tooing and froing between the shelves and the pay window. Holding items up and Mary nodding or shaking her head. Finally he met her at the door and handed her two full carrier bags. She was still talking as the young salesman backed away from the door. Micky papped the horn. She turned towards the car with a smile; a little old lady with two bags and a lot of class. He fished around in the glove compartment and popped another paracetamol. 

Minutes later Mary waved him off. “Rayburn 43, cleared, over.” 

There was a early morning glow to the east, the stuff of postcards. Sheen to the Cross. Victoria to Kew. Twickenham to Terminal 2, and then the cherry of them all, Terminal 2 to Banbury. A pair of Dutch businessmen, on account, handing him a bag of croissants talking a lot about someone called Robin van Persie. He felt good. Clearer than he had for a while. His mobile vibrated. Penny again. He turned it off and followed the GPS’s instructions to a small modern office block on the outskirts of Banbury.  It’d taken an hour, and by then in broad daylight.

“Rayburn 43, Cleared. Over.” What are the chance of a return fare? Slim, but he is feeling lucky and calls again. Still nothing. The paracetamols are wearing off. He reaches into the glove compartment for some more and recalls he’d taken the last. His head hurts now, in a deep, dull, throbbing sort of way, and the smell of blood is back. 

“Rayburn 43. Cleared. Over.” 

Posted in London, Uncategorized | Leave a comment