Butcher Boy2. Post Office Days 2.

 

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And so the journey began.

I arrived half an hour early for the course. I had no idea what to expect. But I convinced myself this was only temporary, just until the meat trade picked up and then I’d be back down Smithfield and earning shed loads of money once again.

But for now I was going to learn how to play shops! I mean, really, how hard could it be?

Sixteen of us turned up for the course. We were introduced to “Kevin”, he was our tutor. He told us the house rules.

“You must be here for 08.42, we have a quick coffee and then start promptly at 09.00. We work through till 12.30 and then have an hour for lunch. At 1.30 we start the second session and go through till we finish at 4.12. Oh and of course we have two COMFORT breaks during the day. One at 11.00 and one at 3.00.”

This was all Chinese to me. I’d never worked to “times” before. In the Butchers shop I started at 7.00am and only stopped when we got a bit quiet for a quick cup of tea or a ham sandwich. It was the same at Smithfield, we started in the early hours of the morning and kept going till we finished. There were no “lunch hours” or set times for a cup of tea, you just grabbed a cup when you could. It seemed to me that half the day was taken up with cups of coffee and lunch breaks. I didn’t care of course, I was being paid so what the hell.

We were sitting at desks that were laid out in the shape of a horseshoe. Kevin opened a large box and gave each of us a book. It was twice the thickness of an old Argos catalogue. Massive!

It was red in colour and had the words “The Complete Guide to Post Office Services.” Written in gold lettering.

Kevin continued.

“This book will become your bible. By the end of your thirteen weeks training you’ll be able to sell all eleven hundred services that we provide.”

There was a stunned silence. Most people were worried about the huge amount of products. Me? I was still wondering what the fuck a comfort break was and what the hell did 4.12 mean?

The morning continued with Kevin telling us just how important the Postal Officers role was and how over the next thirteen weeks we would all learn the skills necessary to carry out this essential service. I almost laughed out loud.

At 12.28 Kevin told us all to go for lunch. The Regional Post Office headquarters (RHQ) was just around the corner in Old Street. If we showed our new ID passes we could use all the facilities there which included a subsidised restaurant. It just kept getting better!

Remember, this is 1980. We weren’t so “PC” back then, so as we queued up for our food I noticed small bottles of wine and cans of beer on the shelves. Not only were we going to get lunch but we could get beer and wine to go with it as well. And, all a ridiculously low price.  If this was what “normal” people did, why had I been doing all that skulduggery for years with Roy?

During lunch I started chatting to a guy called Mark. He was in a similar situation to me. He’d been made redundant from a local paint factory and had been persuaded by his Uncle to try his luck with the Post Office.

After we’d finished our hearty lunch washed down with two cans of beer each we decided to have a wander around the building.  A crowd of middle aged men in suits were laughing and joking and were walking towards a room at the end of a long corridor. We followed. We entered all together. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was a bar!

Not only that, it was a fucking big bar. People were drinking and smoking, laughing and chatting. Just like a normal pub. We weren’t sure if we should be in there or not but went up to the bar anyway and ordered two pints of lager. We were served and it cost next to nothing. This was my kind of place. Then I heard two of the guys say something about a game of snooker as they walked out. Surely not. Not snooker tables as well. There were. Four full sized ones and only two of them being used. We had a game and then left for part two of the day. Slightly pissed.

Luckily the afternoon was all about listening and not doing. At one point I looked over at Mark and saw he had his eyes shut. I gave him a nudge.

At four o’clock we were all given an A4 piece of paper. At the top in big bold letters were the words Subsistence and Allowance Form.  Kevin held his up above his head.

“As this is a training course the Post office will pay for your train fares each day, just keep your tickets and attached them to this form. Hand them in to me at the end of the week. Oh and you each have a lunch allowance of £3.48 per day so that will be reimbursed at the same time.”

I could not believe what I was hearing. They were going to PAY me to get to and from work and pay for my subsided lunch as well. Surely there were no more surprises. But there was…

Kevin looked up at the clock on the wall and proclaimed that day one was over. It was EXACTLY twelve minutes past four!

 

 

Butcher Boy 2. Post Office Days.

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In 1980 I was made redundant. My job had been as an Assistant Sales Manager for a wholesale meat company in Smithfield market.

It was a fancy title for something much simpler. In reality I was a glorified “checker.” I checked thing in and I checked things out. With my dodgy background this was the perfect job. Lots of large pieces of meat left the depot without me “checking” them out. This meant that certain people were getting a lot of cheap meat.  All they had to do was meet me in the local pub on Fridays and pay me for my poor checking skills. I made a lot of money. But nothing lasts forever and for the first time in my young life I was out of work. I’d recently got married and we’d bought a house. Bills had to be paid.

Smithfield was changing and jobs were becoming scarce so getting another job in the Market was no longer an option.  I could have gone back to being a Butcher in a shop, but the pay wasn’t great and with the Supermarkets beginning to take over I had a feeling that the job might be short lived.

It was time to take a break from the trade that I loved. But what to do?

I had a good mate that was a Postman. He said that the basic wage wasn’t fantastic but there was always plenty of overtime and it was easy work. I liked the idea of working for the Post office, not for the job itself, but because I was confident there must be a way of “acquiring” loads of parcels. It would be like Christmas every day. Never knowing what was inside them till you opened them up. It seemed perfect for somebody with my particular skill set.

I was living in Romford in Essex and there was a local sorting office close by. I called them and asked what I needed to do to become a Postman. I was told they were in the middle of a recruitment campaign and that I should report to the sorting office the next morning to sit a test and attend an interview.

I turned up the next day dressed in the only suit I possessed and eager to get on with it.

I entered a room with desks and chairs neatly arranged and took a seat at one of them.

To my surprise the test was the easiest thing I’d ever done in my short life. Basic maths and an “observation” test. Every paper had to be completed in a certain time. The guy in charge had a stopwatch. He told us when to start and when to put down our pens. The observation test was so simple I actually started to laugh when I saw it. For example there were three pictures of a pushbike. One was slightly different to the other two. You had to put a line through the one that was different. One of the pushbikes had no handlebars the other two did. That’s how simple it was.

There were a dozen of us taking the test. We had to wait until the papers were marked and if we passed we would be called in for an interview. NINE people were told to leave. I could only assume they were complete morons.

My name was called and I was escorted into a room where three people sat at a large desk. This was the “interview panel.” All this for a job as a Postman.

There were two men and a woman. All in their late forties. The two men sat either side of the woman. All three smiled as I walked in. The man on the left of the three spoke first.

“Good morning. Please take a seat.”

I didn’t. I thrust out my hand over the desk and waited for him to shake it. He looked rather taken back. But he put his hand out and we shook hands. I then did the same to the other two. The woman had a cheeky smile on her face. I wondered if she had a feather in her knickers. I sat down and took a long look at all three of them.

“Nice to meet you all.”

The man on the left of the smiley woman spoke first.

“You did exceptionally well in the test. So tell me, why do you want to be a Postman?”

Was he fucking serious? Anyone with half a brain should have done well in the test and secondly IT’S A POSTMAN, not a rocket scientist! But, I played along and looked sincere.

“I got married recently and have a mortgage to pay so that’s the first reason. But also because I feel that working for the Post Office is providing a crucial service for the public. It’s important that people get their mail as quickly as possible. Oh, and I’m used to getting up very early.”

Jackpot. They all smiled and nodded their heads.

The other man spoke.

“That’s the kind of commitment we’re looking for. Now I’ve read through your application form and can see that you’ve had a lot of experience dealing with the public.”

I nodded.

“Yes, pretty much since I was fourteen.”

Now it was the woman’s turn.

“Look, can I be honest with you? With your experience I think you’d be more suited to the admin side of the business. How do you fancy sitting the test for the Counter Clerks position?”

I had no idea what she was talking about. But acted casually.

“Okay, that sounds good. But what exactly does that entail?”

He smile widened. It became a big warm cuddly and slightly flirtatious smile. Maybe it wasn’t a feather after all. Maybe it was something much more exotic.

“There are a number of sides to our business. There’s the Post and then there’s the Counters. You know when you go into a main Post office to buy stamps or pay a bill or get your car taxed?”

Again I nodded.

“Well the person that serves you is called a Counter Clerk or a Postal Officer to give them their proper title. I think you’d be perfect for that job.”

I asked the first question that came into my head.

“Is it more money?”

“Yes, quite a bit more.”

“Okay, I’ll take it.”

The decision was an easy one. Although there would be no parcels involved, these guys dealt with money and lots of it. This seemed too good to be true.

I seemed to have said something extremely funny because the woman roared with laughter. Whatever WAS in her knickers was obviously working its magic.

“It’s not quite that simple. You have to sit another test. But, judging by how well you’ve done in this one, you should fly through.”

“Great, when can I sit the test?”

“This afternoon. We’re holding them at two o’clock.”

I left and said I’d return at two. It was now midday. I had two hours to kill. There was only one place to go. The pub.

I had three or four pints and then went back to sit the “Counter Clerk” test. This time there was a room full of people, maybe twenty five or thirty. We each sat at a desk and were given test papers. They were more difficult than the Postman’s “exam”, but still just basic maths and English. I finished and waited. Within thirty minutes more than half the class were let go. They’d failed. This left about a dozen of us.

My name was called and I went in for the interview. The same three people sat there looking at me. All smiling. The woman with the secret appliance spoke.

“Welcome back. You passed.”

I sat down.

“Thanks. What happens now?”

“We’ll get you on a training course as soon as possible. Unfortunately the London one is full but there’s one in Edinburgh that starts in two weeks. You okay to travel to Edinburgh?  We pay for your travel and lodgings of course. It’s Monday to Friday so you’re home for the weekends.”

Wow, a holiday in Scotland as well. It felt like I’d won a prize in a raffle.

“Sure. How long’s the course?”

“Thirteen weeks.”

I was silent for a moment. Did she just say thirteen weeks?

“Sorry. Thirteen weeks?”

“Yes, but not all in one go. You do a couple of weeks at a time then we send you out to a Post office for some practical experience for a while. So all in all you’ll only do about six weeks at the college.”

“Okay, great.”

I left and went home to tell my wife the good news and the bad news. Good news was I got the job. Bad news, I had to go to Edinburgh for six weeks!”

But fate was on my side. Three days later I got a telegram. It said that due to illness a position on the London course had become available and I had to report to Featherstone Street in London the next day.

Great news. But all I kept thinking was “How on earth does it take thirteen weeks training just to learn how to sell stamps?”

Boy, was I in for a big surprise…

 

Drinks and Nibbles

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“It’s nearly eight o’clock love. They’ll be here in a minute!”

John shouted up the stairs to his wife Sarah. She’d been getting ready for over an hour. He heard her reply as he walked back into the kitchen. It was abrupt with a hint of sarcasm.

“Well ONE of us has to make an effort.”

He ignored it, opened up a bottle of red wine and poured himself a large glass. He downed it in one. He wasn’t looking forward to the evening. Two strangers he didn’t know coming over for drinks and nibbles. Sarah’s idea of course, she thought it would be a good idea to get to know the new neighbours at number forty seven.  They’d moved in a week ago and, according to Sarah, looked to be “up market” people, not like the “riff raff” that seemed to be all around them. He poured himself another glass of Chateauneuf Du Pape and let out a long sigh.

He heard a cough behind him. Obviously Sarah trying to get his attention. He turned to face her. His first thought was to laugh, but years of training had taught him that was a bad idea. Instead he smiled and nodded his head in approval.

She was wearing the green ball gown that he’d bought her for the Masonic Evening last year.

“Well? Don’t just stand there with that silly grin of yours. How do I look?”

He continued to smile. He looked her up and down, trying hard not to stare at the green patent four inch heels, the yards of taffeta and lace, the gold charm bracelet, the pearl neck choker and the green sapphire butterfly clip in her hair. She looked like something out of a nineteen seventies horror movie.

“Lovely. Simply lovely.”

He moved forward to give her a peck on the cheek.

“Don’t touch me. I’ve spent ages on this make up. I don’t want anything smudged.”

He backed away. His eyes were beginning to stream from the excessive amount of perfume that was offending his nostrils.

“Glass of wine, love?”

She dismissed him as though he’d said something stupid.

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve just put my lippy on!”

He poured himself another and noticed the disapproving look on her face.

“Don’t you go getting drunk John Reynolds. I’m warning you. Not tonight. Not in front of our new neighbours. Old Mrs Grant at number thirty six says they’ve got a Mercedes and that she’s seen HIM driving it dressed in a suit and tie. My guess is that he’s something big in the City. Maybe the CEO of a multinational company or something. And, if he’s a Mister Big then I expect his wife to be young and glamorous.”

Again he sighed.

“So you haven’t actually met them yet?”

She was fiddling with one of the twenty six charms on her bracelet that had got caught on a piece of lace on her sleeve.

“No need. Mrs Grant said they were nice people and that’s good enough for me. I just popped a card through their door saying John and Sarah at number fifty two would be delighted to invite you for drinks and nibbles at eight o’clock on Saturday night. Now then, have you got the drinks organised?”

He felt like screaming but just answered in his usual manner.

“Yes dear. White wine in the fridge, red wine on the table. We’ve got Gin, Vodka, Scotch, Rum, and just about every mixer under the sun.”

She turned at looked at him as though he’d just committed a major sin.

“Baileys? Tell me you haven’t forgotten the Baileys? Up market people like Baileys John. Surely even you know that?”

The thought of grabbing her firmly by the neck quickly passed. Once again he smiled.

“Of course not dear. We’ve got plenty of Baileys.”

She opened up the fridge door and took out a number of plates and bowls.

“Good. I’ve got Guacamole, Hummus, Courgette Yogurt and Spicy Bean dips. Various crackers, Spinach and Feta Mini Rolls, Bruscheta, and a bowl of Toasted Chick peas. Oh and I’ve got stuffed dates, sweet and savoury. That should show them the kind of people that we are.”

They were interrupted by the sound of the doorbell. Claire De Lune in D Major.

Sarah took control.

“Right, you go into the front room and act naturally. I’ll welcome them in.”

John did as he was told and scurried off into the front room. He waited. He heard voices from the hallway. The door opened.

A short man with bright ginger hair appeared first. He was wearing a blue T-Shirt that looked like most of his dinner had just been scraped off it, grey jogging bottoms and a pair of black Crocs, no socks. The woman behind him wasn’t dressed quite as smart. Same T-Shirt but with flip flops and leggings.

The man thrust out his hand for John to shake. A vice like grip almost broke his knuckles.

“We have got the right night haven’t we mate? I was just saying to your lovely wife that it looks like she’s just come from a wedding. Should have given me a shout. I do a bit of chauffeuring for the local mini cab company from time to time. Well, you can’t live just on dole money these days. I’d have given you lift at a reasonable rate. Now where’s the beers? We’re both gasping!”

John smiled.

“That’s very kind of you. Now, you two take a seat and make yourself comfortable. I’ll get the drinks.”

He walked passed Sarah who was just standing there mouth open and a glazed look on her face. He whispered to her.

“I’ll pop down the off licence and get some beer, crisps and peanuts. When I get back you can go upstairs and change.”

 

 

Dad was ” Old School.”

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Dad was “Old School.”

You know what I mean by that? Well, he was a man of his time. Born in the thirties, just a kid during the war, a teenager in the late forties, National Service and then marriage in the fifties.

Always lived in a “council” house. From the day he was born till the day he died. Owning your own home was for rich people.

He went to work and Mum stayed home and looked after the kids. Those were his rules.

On Fridays he would take out his pay packet and give her the weekly housekeeping money. The little that was left was his to spend on petrol for the car and a weekly flutter on the horses. Saturday mornings he would spread the Sporting Life across the kitchen table and pick out his fancies. At midday he’d sit down to watch “Grandstand” on the BBC and he wouldn’t move until after five.

He didn’t drink. Said he didn’t like the taste and that it gave him headaches. Just as well, because he couldn’t afford it.

He liked order, routine, didn’t like to try anything that was different. Things like Pizza, Curry and Pasta were all “foreign” food to him and he would turn his nose up if they were ever mentioned. A meat and two veg man was Dad and every day dinner had to be on the table at six.

Mum ran the house, that was her job. She cooked and cleaned and paid the bills and made sure that us kids were washed and dressed. Dad was out of the house at seven and back by five thirty. He’d wash his face and hands at the sink and then sit down at the table ready for his dinner. No one was allowed to speak during dinner and god forbid if we put our elbows on the table!

He wasn’t great at socialising. Wasn’t keen on getting to know the neighbours. Didn’t like people knowing his business.  If Mum had a neighbour in during the day for a cup of tea, they had to be gone by the time Dad got home. If anyone knocked on our door in the evening they would feel his wrath, unless of course it was family. Not many “door to door” salesmen came to our house. We weren’t allowed to have friends round to play. He wasn’t comfortable having strangers in the house.

Us kids were in bed by seven thirty. A kiss goodnight for mum and a handshake for dad. We never made a fuss and we NEVER came back downstairs until it was time to get up in the morning.

At around eight thirty he’d be partial to a bit of supper. He’d look at Mum and say “Bit of cheese on toast?” She’d be up in an instant and into the kitchen to make his suggestion a reality. Every meal was washed down with a cup of tea.

At ten o’clock he’s go to the sink and have a shave and a “wash down”. He’d put Brylcreem on his hair and comb it into a side parting and quiff. I asked him one day when I was much older why he made a fuss of his hair before he went to bed. His answer? “You never know who you’ll meet in your dreams.”

That was my Dad in the fifties and sixties. Hard, firm, strict, regimented and maybe, just maybe one awkward bastard.

But time changes a man.

As the seventies progressed and us kids grew into teenagers he softened. Yes he was still strict and not someone you wanted to cross, but there was a warmth and compassion in him that I’d not seen before. He had time for us, played games with us, played practical jokes on us, made us laugh constantly. He was most definitely the head of the household, but just like a mature Lion, instead of stamping his authority on us, he was now more concerned with protecting and loving his pride.

By the end of the seventies, us kids had both got married and moved away. For the first time in their lives Mum and Dad were on their own. I think he found it harder than Mum.

On the surface they were fine, but I knew there were tensions. He was often “In one of his moods” as Mum would say and she’d be walking on eggshells. The slightest thing would set him into a rage that would last for days and even weeks.

But everything changed again in the early eighties. Grandchildren came along.

This once hard, stone faced man suddenly became a child. He adored these new arrivals. He sang them songs, made up stories, performed magic tricks, got on the floor and played games with them. In fact he did all the things that he never did with us when we were their age.

That was when my Dad became the man that everyone remembers. The generous, kind, happy, delightful man that all the neighbours got to know. The popular man at work that EVERYONE knew and loved. The man on the estate that people went to if they wanted to ask a favour or borrow a tool, or need help repairing their car or advice on just about anything. The larger than life polite man that all the shop keepers knew and respected.

He was a complex character. I was well into my thirties when I found out from Mum that he’d suffered from “Nerves” back in the sixties. That’s what they called it back them. In fact he suffered from Anxiety attacks where he struggled to catch his breath and was scared to leave the house. He also had depression from time to time and the doctors gave him tablets called Roche 10 to control it. These completely wiped him out and he would walk around like a zombie for days. After one particular episode where he saw the clock on the wall start spinning around like a Catherine Wheel, he decided to throw them away and deal with the problem like a man ( his words).

He would just “pull himself together.”

Yep he was “Old School.”

He died in 2004. The funeral was massive. In two days time he would have been eighty six.

Jimmy “Kid” Taylor

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Jimmy has just lost only the second fight of his professional career. He sits alone in his dressing room contemplating his future. His Manager walks in…

 

“Look Tommy, I could have gone another two rounds. The ref stepped in too early. I…”

He was interrupted by his Manager, Tommy Seabrook. A tough east Londoner who didn’t mince his words.

“Fuck off. Don’t kid yourself Jim. He beat you. He was all over you in the ninth. The ref had to stop it. It’s over. Time to call it a day.”

The words hit him like a sledgehammer. Retirement had never been mentioned before. He came back the only way he knew. Fighting. He lunged at Tommy Seabrook and grabbed him tight by his collar and tie.

“What the fuck do you mean by that? I’m twenty nine for fucks sake. I’m in my prime. I’m three fights away from a title fight and you’ve got the balls to tell me to call it a day? Fuck off Tommy. Just fuck off!”

He let him go, moved away and sat down on an old wooden stool in the corner of the dressing room. Annoyed with himself for losing his temper.

Tommy straightened his tie. Took a deep breath. Realising that his words may have been a bit harsh. He waited for a few seconds before he spoke again. This time his voice was quiet and slow.

“Look Jim. Gonzalez beat you fair and square tonight. The ref stepped in because he was worried you were taking too many punches. No way will we get a rematch. He’s moving on. Already lined up a bout with Romero. That’s a title eliminator. He wins that and he gets his shot at Suarez for the title.”

Jimmy’s head dropped into his chest.

“Okay, okay, just line me up a couple of easy fights and I’ll bide my time till I get another chance.”

Tommy shook his head.

“Jim, listen to me. You know the rules of this game, whether it’s inside or outside the ring you never, ever, take a step backwards, you’ve always got to keep going forward. You start fighting nobodies and you become a fucking nobody.”

Jim heard Tommy’s words but was lost in his own thoughts. British Lightweight Champion at just twenty three. European Champion at twenty six. Jimmy “Kid” Taylor was the golden boy of British Boxing. Unbeaten in all amateur and professional fights. No one went more than eight rounds with Jimmy the Kid. Then he fought the world number four, a Mexican called Garcia. This guy was different to anyone he’d ever fought. His punches were accurate, crisp, sharp and everyone of them felt as though he was being pummelled with a ball hammer. He won on points, but his body was never quite the same. He pissed blood for two weeks after. The spiteful punches to the kidneys had taken their toll. The vision in his right eye was permanently blurred, something he’d never told Tommy, and he was now partially deaf in his right ear. But he won and that was all that mattered. He took ten months off hoping to fight Suarez for the World title. But Suarez was busy fighting the world ranked number two. So Tommy decided the big money fight would be a re-match with Garcia. Big mistake. This time Garcia destroyed him in three rounds. He couldn’t see Garcia’s left hand punches until it was too late because of the poor vision in his right eye. He was on the canvas six times in three rounds. He was in hospital for five days after the fight. But was training again within three months. Then tonight he’d fought Gonzalez and the ref stopped it in the ninth. He’d taken another beating and lost.

He cleared his head and looked up at Tommy. They’d been together for thirteen years. He knew exactly what buttons to press to get what he wanted.

“Yeh, I know the rules Tom and I agree. Lightweight is no good for me. But think about this just for a second. What if I put on five pounds and move up to Welterweight. THAT Division is wide open. AND there’s that new kid from Lewisham who’s knocking everyone out. How about lining up a fight for me and him. Would be a great British fight. You’d sell out Wembley for that one. Maybe even get the TV guys interested?”

He could hear the wheels going round in Tommy Seabrooks head. He’d just suggested something that could make Tommy a lot of money. He knew what the answer would be. He watched as Tommy nodded his head.

“Well, as long as you’re sure Jim. This Lewisham kid is good, hits hard, great left hand, quick, fast, accurate and agile. But he’s never fought anyone of your class before. Okay let me see what I can do.”

Tommy walked over to Jimmy and patted him on the back. He said something to Jim as he left. But Jimmy Kid Taylor never heard him. He was now completely deaf in his right ear.

 

The Sherbet Lemon Conversation.

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I’m on a flight from London Gatwick to Faro Portugal. Easyjet. No frills, no time. Just two and a half hours of boredom. I’m sipping a vodka and tonic and reading the in flight magazine. Apparently there’s a big discount on L’Oreal Mascara this week.

The middle aged woman sitting next to me smells. Not great. A mixture of cheap perfume, garlic and sweat. I’m guessing her dinner last night was chicken Kiev and because this was the first flight out this morning she didn’t have time for a shower, so just sprayed herself with the female equivalent of Lynx.

Me? I was in bed by nine and up at four. Showered and dressed by five and at the airport by six. I smelt good, Bulgari was my choice this morning and I’d eaten nothing for twenty four hours. The risk of having to take a crap in the toilet on the plane was just to gross to imagine. Once I was in my seat I wouldn’t move until we landed.

I have my headphones on and I’m listening to a new band called New Street Adventures. They’re good, soulful, a bit like Weller when he became The Style Council. I’m aware of the smelly woman nudging me. I take off my headphones and look at her. She’s offering me a sweet.

“We’ll be landing soon. Would you like a sucky sweet?”

I smile back and take something from the bag. It’s a sherbet lemon.

“Thank you. That’s very kind.”

I open the wrapper and put the sweet in my mouth hoping that the smelly woman doesn’t want to talk. I’m wrong.

“Are you going on holiday or do you have a place in Portugal?”

I decide not to be rude so I answer her question truthfully.

“I’m here on business. So only staying for a few days.”

As soon as I say the words I know it’s a mistake. This woman will want to know more.

“Business? What sort of business are you in?”

Again I’m polite and answer as best I can.

“I’m a negotiator. I’m here to negotiate a settlement for my client.”

I crunch the sherbet lemon in my mouth and taste the sharpness on my tongue. I turn away from smelly woman and attempt to put my headphones back on. But she’s having none of it. She nudges me again.

“Sounds exciting. What line of business did you say you were in?”

She’s fishing. So I give her a bite.

“Recovery.”

Now she’s intrigued. Smelly woman starts to think.

“What sort of recovery? “

Before I can answer, the pilot makes an announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen we will shortly begin our descent into Faro airport and should be on the ground in around fifteen minutes. Please take your seats and fasten your belts.”

The announcement doesn’t phase her. She asks again.

“What sort of recovery?”

I make an assessment in my mind. In less than thirty minutes I’ll be off this plane and never see this woman again. If I make something up smelly woman will keep on with the questions and I’ll run out of answers. I might as well tell her the truth.

“Money. A man in Portugal owes my client a large sum of money. I’m here to negotiate a settlement.”

Smelly woman seems excited at this news.

“Sounds very important. I suppose there will be lawyers involved, a court case maybe?”

I smile at her.

“No. The man in question doesn’t know I’m coming.”

She seems confused at my answer.

“But won’t he need time to put his affairs in order?”

I shake my head.

“The man owns two bars and a nightclub. I’m here to take possession of those assets on behalf of my client. The man only has to sign the papers that I have in my briefcase and then I can return home.”

I can hear the wheels going round in smelly womans head.

“But what if he decides not to sign? Surely the lawyers will get involved then?”

I turn to face her. I stare into her eyes and at the same time I very slowly make a cutting motion with my hand along my throat.

“He’ll sign!”

I’m aware of the sound of a bag of sweets hitting the floor…

Infinite Sky.

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The sun was shining. Not scorching, but one of those glorious hazy early summer days. Stevie picked up a patio chair and carried it to the bottom of the garden. His dad’s perfectly manicured lawn was like a cushion under his bare feet. He sat himself down under the big old chestnut tree. This was his spot, his favourite part of the garden. Far away from the house, no distractions, the perfect place to think. He craned his neck back and looked up at the blue sky. He was always overwhelmed by the vastness of it all.
He remembered back to when he was five years of age. His grandad had taken him by the hand and led him to this very spot. He could still hear the words in his head.
“Whenever you need to work things out little Stevie, this is where you should come. Just lay back, look up at that sky and think. Soon everything will fall into place.”
He didn’t understand back then what old grandad was talking about, but as he got older he realised just how wise those words were. This place inspired him and today he would need all the inspiration he could get. Today would be a turning point in his life. Today a decision had to be made.
His exam results had come through that morning and he’d got exactly what he’d expected. A 2 – 1 in Biomedical Science. He now had his degree. Not only that but he’d received the phone call he’d been waiting for. He’d just been offered a dream of a job in the laboratories at the new private hospital in East London.
All great news. But then there was the band.
The band was important. Possibly the most important thing in his life. He played lead guitar and sang lead vocals. He also wrote their songs. They were good, very good. At University they’d become quite an attraction and gained a big following. They played twice a week on campus and had a regular midweek slot in one of the nearby pubs. He was sure one day they would make it. Make it big.
But he couldn’t do both. Not a full time job and the band. One had to go. The other three band members were unanimous. They’d decided to put their careers on hold for a few years and concentrate full time on the band. Only Stevie had yet to decide.
They’d already been offered two regular gigs. Friday afternoon and Sunday evening at the Crown in Lewisham. Another pub was interested in having them on Saturday nights and there was also a chance of a Wednesday evening slot at the Lamb and Flag in Shoreditch.
No way could he work all week at the Lab and then evenings and weekends with the band. Impossible.
So the decision had to be made. Career or the band. His heart said Band but his head said Career. Jobs were scarce and he knew he’d beaten hundreds of other applicants to get the job. Starting salary was nearly thirty grand, five weeks paid holiday and private healthcare. Job of a lifetime. He’d be mad to decline it. Plus, what would Mum and Dad say?
Well, he knew what they’d say. They’d go mad. They’d supported him financially through three years at University. He couldn’t let them down, could he?
He kept staring upwards, waiting for something, anything, any kind of sign. But nothing, just lots of empty blue sky. There wasn’t even a cloud to focus on. He closed his eyes and thought of his dearly departed grandad. “Come on grandad, tell me what to do. I’m in your favourite spot at the bottom of the garden. You told me that if I looked up to the sky everything would fall into place. Please grandad, tell me what to do!”
He was brought back to reality by the sound of his mobile ringing. It was Robbie, the drummer in the band. He answered.
“Hello mate what’s happening.”
“Everything’s bloody happening that’s what. You’ve only gone and bloody done it with that song of yours.”
“Whoa, slow down Robbie, what you on about?”
“You know that song you wrote and then last week we filmed ourselves playing it and stuck it on YouTube?”
“Yeh?”
“It’s only had nearly a bloody million hits in the last forty eight hours.”
“You better not be winding me up Rob.”
“Serious man, some bloke from Gamma records has been on and wants us to meet him tomorrow. They fucking love the song Stevie, your bloody song.”
“Shit!”
“Get your skates on mate we’re all meeting in the pub in an hour, this is it Stevie. This is it.”
He hung up. He remembered writing the song in exactly the place where he was now sitting just two weeks ago. Yep “Infinite Sky” was a good tune. He smiled and shouted aloud up at the sky.
“Thank you grandad. I’m gonna be a rock star!”

That Morning.

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I got up late that morning, too late. My head was pounding like cannon balls being fired from an old galleon ship. Far too much whiskey was drunk the night before and far too much money was lost on that bloody poker game. The last hand could have been mine if it wasn’t for DAVE. I had two pairs, Aces and Queens. I was confident I’d take the pot. But DAVE with his fucking full house did me like a kipper. Over three grand in the pot and DAVE took the lot. Although Dave was my best mate, that morning I hated Dave. That morning Dave was a wanker!

But, that morning I decided to be positive. The dawn brought with it new possibilities. The papers arrived and The Racing Post would surely be my saviour. After an hour’s studying I had the day planned. Romford Dog Track would be the place to get my money back and a few extra quid on top. I got there at eleven o’clock, just in time for the first race. I didn’t bet in that race, just watched. Trap two, the favourite, led all the way and won by a distance. Today would be a day for favourites. I was sure of it.

I ordered a pint and wandered around the track hoping to see some familiar faces. I was looking for Old Charlie. He had dogs, half a dozen at least. He knew what he was talking about. If Old Charlie gave you a tip, you lumped on. Once, he gave me a tip for a dog at Catford. It pissed home at seven to one. I had five hundred quid on it and went home with over four grand that day. Yep, that morning I needed Old Charlie.

That first beer was hard to get down, but the second was smooth, hit the spot. A whisky chaser helped it on its way. I was beginning to feel human again and the headache was a distant memory. I checked what cash I had in my pocket. Six hundred and twenty quid. But I also had my emergency card. A card I’d never used. A card that would allow me to draw out up to a maximum of five hundred quid if I needed it. I was deciding whether or not to go to the cash machine when I spotted Randy Roger at the bar. He was with a gorgeous bird, at least ten years younger than him and with the best pair of tits I’d seen in a long time. Randy Roger was punching well above his weight these days. I wandered over.

“Hi Rog, any luck?

He had that smarmy grin on his face, he knew what I was thinking. Just to rub it in he kissed his dolly bird on the cheek and grabbed her arse at the same time. She giggled like a naughty schoolgirl. He turned, looked at me and winked.

“Get on the four dog in the next race. Mate of mine owns it. Says it can’t be beat.”

I walked away a happy man. Good old Randy Roger.

I put my bet on. Six hundred quid on trap four. The bell rang, the lights went down and the traps opened. The four dog came out last and that’s exactly where he finished. LAST.

I looked for Randy Roger and his tart. They were nowhere to be seen. Why did I listen to that pratt? The only thing he knew about dogs was how to shag them!

But that morning my luck was about to change. I spotted Old Charlie talking to a couple of blokes I’d never seen before. They were all huddled together. Lots of nods, winks and whispers going on. This looked promising. I waited a few minutes until they parted company. The two big strangers walked off and left Old Charlie on his own. I called over.

“Charlie. How you doing mate?”

Old Charlie came over. I was sure the man was worth a fortune, yet he dressed like a tramp. He didn’t answer my question. Just leaned into me and whispered in my ear.

“Those two guys I was just talking to have brought a young dog over from Ireland. It’s running in the next race. Trap three. Apparently over there it’s beating everything in sight. Some kind of super dog. Get on it!”

Old Charlie walked away. I loved that man. True gent.

I had five minutes before the start of the race. Time for another quick beer and a nice chaser. I went over and spoke to the spotty faced kid behind the bar.

“Pint of Stella please mate and a large Glenfiddich.”

He quickly served up the drinks and I paid with my last twenty pound note. I drank down the Scotch and took a swig of the Lager. Time to use the emergency card and get my five hundred quid. I walked over to the cash machine. I pushed the card into the slot. And THAT was the morning.

THAT was the morning…I forgot my PIN number.

 

When The Boxes Open.

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He’s seven and his young brain soaks up everything like a heavy duty kitchen cloth.
He sees things. Things he doesn’t understand. Things that go into little boxes and are tucked away in dark places inside his head.
Like his hero, his dad, getting ready to go out on a Saturday night dressed in his new made to measure suit and large black Crombie overcoat that he wears with pride. Yet Mum always gets her clothes from the local charity shop.
Like his hero’s temper that flares up when Mum asks what time he’ll be back so that she can have his supper ready. And the quickness of his hand when she says it once too often.
Like the way his hero buys him a packet of crisps and tells him to sit in the corner and be quiet while he attends to business.
Like the money his hero slips into the hand of a skinny man with tattooed arms who winks and gives him small plastic bags in return.
Like the way his hero punches a man in the face and kicks him when he’s on the floor for saying the words “ I don’t have the money tonight.”
Like his hero kissing a drunken woman outside the pub at the end of the night while Mum stays indoors with the two girls. Girls his hero calls “the bitches offspring.”
He’s now twenty four, married with a young son and the boxes have come out of the darkness and are slowly beginning to open.

The Old Couple From The Banjo.

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Ted and Florence Carter lived down the Banjo. Yep, that’s where they lived. Down the Banjo. Now some of you won’t know what a banjo is. Let me explain.

When this particular council estate was being built back in the twenties, the architects decided to be a bit clever. Street designs included cul-de-sacs that were built in a particular shape. A long open walkway with a grass verge on either side suddenly opened up into a large circle of houses. They called it a Banjo.

Ted and Florrie considered themselves lucky. They’d moved from a one bedroom flat in Bermondsey, South London to a three bedroom council house in the leafy suburbs of Dagenham. Here they survived the war, raised their five children, danced their way through the fifties, saw all of their children married in the sixties, cried with grief when they buried one of their sons, but cried with joy as they saw eleven grandchildren born in the seventies. It was now 1984.

They’d both been retired for a number of years and had settled into a daily routine. Everyone knew them as “that nice old couple who live down the banjo.”

Ted’s day was always the same. He was an early riser. At six thirty he was up, washed and shaved and taking Florrie up a nice cup of tea. Then he would walk the short distance to the paper shop where he would buy the Daily Mirror and the Sporting Life. Back indoors Florrie would serve up his breakfast of eggs and bacon at seven thirty which was washed down with two big mugs of tea. Florrie made the best tea in Dagenham. After which he would start to pick out his horses. One pound a day was his maximum bet. Yet he would pick out as many as eight horses and do them in doubles and trebles all for a few pence each. Then he’d tackle the crossword. He set himself a target of finishing it before ten o’clock. He rarely did. At ten thirty he changed into a suit with shirt and tie. He liked to look smart. He left the house and made his way to the betting shop to put on his bets. By midday he was walking through the doors of his local, The Fanshawe Tavern to have his “constitution.” His “constitution” was to stay there for two hours and have five or six pints of bitter. He met his pals here, played crib or dominoes and generally had a laugh. He was always indoors by three at the very latest. Time for a quick nap till four thirty and ready for Florrie’s delicious dinner at half past five. The old Victorian piano in the front room had also survived the decades just as they had and usually took a bashing from Ted at around seven for an hour. They’d both sit down to watch a bit of television for a while in the evening and then off to bed at ten.

Florrie’s day was slightly different.

Ted brought her up a cup of tea at six thirty. She would have preferred another hour’s sleep but when Ted was up everyone else had to be awake as well. She was also convinced that the tea was to make sure she was awake and ready to start cooking his fry up. He insisted on having his breakfast on the table at seven thirty, so she started cooking his bacon and eggs at seven fifteen. The look on his face was pure evil if god- forbid she put the plate in front of him at seven thirty five! She watched as he gambled away seven pounds a week. Money that could be better spent on house-keeping. Ted was in charge of their combined pensions and gave her what he thought she could manage the household bills with. The rest he spent on himself. Either gambling or alcohol. Besides, he never won. If he did he kept it quiet, she never saw any of his winnings. Her favourite time was when he left the house at eleven and didn’t return until three. She would sit and have tea and biscuits and watch a bit of daytime television. But not for long. There was a bed to make, suits to press, shirts to iron, washing up to do, hoover and duster to put round and of course she had to start cooking the evening meal. Ted liked the house to be spotless. Even though he’d never picked up a duster in his life. According to him that was her job. He also liked a proper cooked meal every night. Meat, potatoes, veg, gravy and a nice pudding to follow. So most afternoons were spent baking meat pies, meat puddings, jam sponges or ginger cakes. When Ted came home at three, usually a bit worse for wear, he would sit down in the armchair and fall asleep. He would then snore for the next two hours. After that the piano would feel the full force of his massive fingers as he bashed away at various notes to try to get a tune out of the old Joanna. He would sit at the dining room table at five twenty five, knife and fork in hand waiting impatiently to be fed. She would put the dinner in front of him and he would start to eat. He never said thank you. He turned on the television after dinner and HE would choose what they watched until they went to bed. She was never allowed to stay up after ten o’clock.

It was Wednesday and it was after four. Ted was late home from the pub. She was in the middle of making bread pudding in the kitchen and worrying just how drunk Ted might be when he eventually got home. What mood would he be in? Would he raise his hands or simply fall asleep in the chair? She heard a key unlock the front door.

She left the kitchen and went into the hallway. Standing there were all her grown up children. Kay, the eldest spoke quietly.

“Mum, come and sit down, we’ve got something to tell you.”

Kay took her mums hand and led her into the front room. She sat her down in Ted’s armchair. They all took their places on the sofa. Kay knelt down beside the armchair.

“Mum, it’s about dad. He felt a bit unwell in the pub today and they called for an ambulance. One of the other regulars called me at home. He had a heart attack mum. He’s gone. Dad’s gone.”

Kay squeezed her mums hand and started to cry. Florrie put her head in her hands and started to rock back and forth.

“It’s okay mum, we’re all here for you. It’s going to be okay.”

Florrie took her hands away from her face. She was smiling. She started to laugh. Uncontrollably.

Kay looked at the others who were all bemused by their mum’s reaction.

“It’s okay, someone go and put the kettle on. It’s shock. Mum’s just in shock!”