Ambition

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Drabble, April 10th, 2021)

Like many toddlers, John was asked what he wanted to be, when he grew up. Surprisingly, John answered that he wanted to be an Old Age Pensioner. He’d been spending time with his Grandad, who had his own shed.

In his mid-teens, John secretly decided that an ideal profession would be that of a professional sperm donor. At a student party, he told a woman that he wanted to be the person who chose the paintings for reproduction on the covers of the Penguin Modern Classics series (she was impressed).

Now he’s 66 and his world has come full circle.

The Long Shadow of the Coal Tip

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, March 30th, 2021)

There was no phone signal in that narrow valley. Three days of heavy rain had caused the river to burst its banks and flood the road, just above the bridge. The flood swept the car half off the road and into the hedge. I’m not as nimble as I used to be, but I managed to get out with nothing worse than a soaking. Fortunately, I’d remembered the torch in the glove compartment; the night was black as pitch.

Downstream, the valley broadened and there was the chance of a phone signal, but I didn’t dare to cross the old humpbacked bridge, already flooded except at its apex, and with part of its parapet swept away. Instead, I chose to struggle back up the valley road, battling against the flood, even though I couldn’t recall any houses this high up the valley.

A tree had been uprooted and had fallen obliquely across the road (it must’ve happened very soon after I’d driven past). As I struggled over it, I caught sight of a light, up above the road to the right. It was a steep climb up the bank; I broke off a dead branch to help propel me upward.

The house proved to be an old farmhouse, converted into a holiday home. As I hit the door-knocker, soaked through and shivering uncontrollably, I was conscious that I wasn’t looking my best.

The householder was a cautious, elderly party, about my age. I felt I was at my last extremity: I shouted my pleas through the closed door. It seemed an age before the door was opened, but it was probably only a minute or so. Once I was in his porch, my saviour was most apologetic, explaining (curiously) that it was the storm that concerned him, rather than the visitor. He parked me in front of the kitchen range, fetched me a towel and a whisky, and then we made plans. Owen, as he was called, had a Land Rover and offered to run me home, after the storm had blown over. We’d have to go the long way round, on the Heads of the Valleys road, because of the fallen tree.

I learned that he was a ships engineer by training, but in the 1980s he’d struck out on his own and set up an engineering workshop manufacturing components for the new Liquefied Natural Gas carriers. He’d prospered and his company now had more than a hundred employees at two sites in the South Wales Valleys. But now he was semi-retired and spent quite a bit of his time working for the local charitable trust he’d established with the company profits.


I’d been involved in the shipping industry myself and we bonded (as old men do) over the unfortunate turn of past events. In this case, it was the sad shrinkage of the once enormous British mercantile marine over the last forty years.

Emboldened by Owen’s kindliness and his whisky, I wondered how, considering his fear of storms, he ever could have gone to sea.

Owen fell silent and I felt that I had abused his hospitality. I apologised, and Owen smiled and shook his head. ‘No, no. That fear only crept up on me gradually as I got older. It’s post-traumatic shock syndrome. You see, I’m an Aberfan survivor. Like some of the other school children who survived the disaster, I only began to suffer flash-backs and panic attacks as I got older.’

Startled out of the state of numb stupefaction that I’d settled into, huddled beside Owen’s warm kitchen range, I was taken back to those dolorous black-and-white TV images from 1966. The sight of the miners from Merthyr Vale Colliery toiling away in the ruins of Pantglas Junior School, looking for the bodies of 109 of their own children. Children that were suffocated and crushed by countless tons of black slurry, when the spoil tip above the valley was swept down onto the school by torrential rains. I remembered my shock at witnessing my big, strong father’s silent tears as he listened to a Welsh Baptist minister speaking on the TV at the end of the same news item.

I saw Owen with new eyes. ‘You know, that surely makes your achievements in life all the greater… To have come through all that, built up your business, set up your trust…’

Owen shook his head again and threw a couple more lumps of birchwood into the range. ‘Did you know that Elvis had a still-born twin?’

‘No, I didn’t.’

‘Yeah. Elvis reckoned that he was living for his twin, as well as himself. He was driven.’ Owen pushed at the logs with a poker. ‘Well, that’s sort-of how I feel. I’m living for those dead children too. I need to do my best for them. That’s how I justify being a survivor.’

He walked to the window and looked out; the porch light shone in the yard. ‘The rain’s almost off. We’ll give it a couple of hours and then get you home. Meantime, how about poached eggs on toast.’

Captain Carey’s Luck

Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories, March 5th, 2021)

I came across the manuscript below in a second-hand shop in Simla, the former British hill-station in the foothills of the Himalayas, among some papers previously belonging to a Victorian military surgeon. The ms was seemingly written in Bombay (now Mumbai) and signed by Captain Jahleel Brenton Carey of the 98th Regiment of Foot (later to become the South Wales Borderers). It is dated the 23rd of February, 1883 (two days before his death, aged thirty six), and appears to be written as a kind of testament.

Carey had seen action in Honduras in 1867, where he was mentioned in dispatches, and he served with the British ambulance group in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. But he went on to achieve some notoriety in the Zulu War, by being implicated in the death in 1879 of the Prince Imperial, Eugene Louis Jean Joseph Napoleon Bonaparte, the twenty-three year-old only son and heir of the deposed Emperor of France, Napoleon III, and godson of Pope Pius IX and of Queen Victoria. The Prince Imperial, who was accompanying the British forces in the Zulu War as an observer, was slain as part of a small reconnaissance patrol attacked by a large Zulu force. Carey (a Lieutenant in 1879) escaped from the slaying on horseback with four troopers and was subsequently found guilty at a court-martial of ‘misbehaviour before the enemy’ and sent back to the UK under arrest. The guilty finding was later withdrawn on a technicality by Prince George, the Duke of Cambridge, head of the Army. Carey took the brave but quixotic action of returning to his regiment, later posted to India. However, he was shunned by many of his fellow officers. Field Marshall Wolseley’s comment may be typical: ‘he had… better… start in some line of life more congenial with his cowardly heart… the greengrocer or the undertaker calling might suit him.’

#

Some say that our war against the Zulus was blighted by devilish practices, and that the massacre the Zulus inflicted upon us at Isandlwana back in January 1879 was early evidence of a curse. It was certainly a terrible defeat of arms: it is said that more British officers perished at Isandlwana than in the entire Waterloo campaign. Indeed, our commanding officer, Colonel Glyn, has acted like one cursed ever since – like a dead man walking. At my court martial, he scarce uttered a word.

Am I also cursed? The Zulu people are said to both believe in, and practice, witchcraft. The troops, always a superstitious lot, were full of talk about Zulu witchcraft back in ’79. To my regret, I have recently spoken to the chaplain here about this. He merely snorted and twirled his moustaches. A stupid, complacent man, he has clearly been infected by the contempt and hostility directed towards me in the Officers’ Mess. How I miss the wise counsels of my dear father, no ordinary clergyman.

This pain and fever sows passing doubts in me, but I have always held hitherto that there is a clear distinction to be made between being cursed and being unlucky. And certainly I was unlucky in the Zulu campaign. Yet it did not seem so at first. I served under Colonel Harrisson, tasked with military intelligence. Harrisson, a Royal Engineer, interpreted this task as a largely that of map-making: he had little notion of reconnaissance and gave me a pretty free hand, once he found me to be a competent officer.

In May 1879 (I forget the exact date), the Prince Imperial was also assigned to our section. I discovered later that this was because on two previous occasions he had been attached to patrolling troops and, without waiting for orders, he had galloped off pursuing possible Zulu sightings. His exasperated superiors, in effect, confined him to camp, drawing maps. At the time, I thought his arrival to be a fortunate occurrence: we got on well, and I reflected that the friendship of the godson of the Queen would hardly disadvantage me in future army preferment. What’s more, I liked him: determination to distinguish one’s self on the battlefield is an attractive quality in a young officer. And I fancy he liked me: the Careys are an old Channel Islands family and, by tradition, we are educated in France rather than England; so it must have been attractive to the Prince to be able to converse freely with someone in his native tongue. Who knows what direction my career might have taken, if it had not been for the events of June 1st, 1879?

The Prince was clearly not enamoured with map-making as an occupation. He carried with him the sword that his great-uncle, Napoleon I, had carried at the Battle of Austerlitz: he saw military glory as a path to political advancement, like his great-uncle. The Bonapartist exiles in England already styled him, Napoleon IV, hoping for a triumphal return to power in France. Chafing for a chance of action, the Prince asked Colonel Harrisson if he might go out on patrol to verify some map details and select a suitable spot for a new camp. Harrisson knew that the Prince had been confined to camp for his earlier reckless behaviour and should certainly have referred the request to his own superiors. But he didn’t do so. Perhaps Harrisson too was hoping that the good opinion of the Prince would further Harrisson’s own career? Or perhaps Harrisson was simply over-awed by the Prince? If so, I can sympathise: I was over-awed myself.

I was also to take part in the reconnaissance patrol. The Prince and I were both lieutenants, but I was the senior and so the natural choice to lead the patrol. At my court-martial, Harrisson stated that I should have been in command. However, my recollection is that Harrisson told me that the patrol was at the Prince’s initiative, to select a suitable future campsite for the advancing troops, and I was not to interfere. Certainly, the Prince took charge from the outset: I only felt able to offer suggestions.

The patrol consisted of the Prince, myself, two non-commissioned officers, four troopers, and a native guide. A further six troopers were also assigned to the patrol, but mistakenly reported to the wrong tent. Eager to be away, the Prince declined to wait for the missing troopers. In fairness to the Prince, I should state that much of the ground that the patrol was to cover had previously been subject to earlier patrols. I had no misgivings at that point.

My misgivings came later: in the mid-afternoon we came upon a Zulu kraal. The huts were deserted, but showed signs of recent occupation. The Prince ordered the men to dismount, unsaddle the horses and allow them to graze. The guide was dispatched to fetch water for coffee. No guard was set, although the tall tambootie grass and a nearby deep gully might offer concealment to an enemy. But, initially uneasy, I was soon lulled by the Prince’s affable conversation. He was a young man enjoying himself, and I – only a few years his senior – was infected by his mood. I recall that we chatted amiably over coffee and tobacco about Napoleon I’s Italian campaign in 1796.

After half an hour or so, I suggested that perhaps we should saddle up. The Prince replied, ‘Just another ten minutes.’ Thereupon the guide reported that he had seen a lone Zulu on the higher ground above the kraal. The order was then immediately given to saddle up, but it took several minutes to round up the strayed horses. I had already mounted when the Prince gave the other ranks the order, ‘Prepare to mount.’

Yet before mounting could be completed, there was a fusillade of shots. The enemy were using carbines seized in their victory at Isandlwana, but not to great effect – only one of our troopers was shot. More than forty Zulus emerged from the bush, shouting their war-cry and sprinting for the patrol, whose only chance lay in flight. The Prince was a good horseman, but his was a new and nervous mount: his horse bolted, with the Prince clinging to the saddle holster. The leather of the holster tore and the Prince fell. Because of the uneven ground and tall grass, only one of the fleeing party, Corporal Grubb, saw the Prince Imperial’s last moments: seven warriors closed on the Prince, who could only fire twice before falling to the Zulu assegais – slain by an ambition which out-stripped all circumspection.

I rallied what remained of the troop some distance away. Two troopers and the guide, beside the Prince, had been slain. It was evident that the five of us would achieve nothing by turning and charging the large enemy force. I gave the order to return to camp.

We were not well received. The next day, a large column set out to recover the Prince’s body. As they departed, an enraged French journalist shouted, ‘Yesterday, the Prince left this camp with but seven companions. Today a thousand men will search for his body.’ It was plain that the deaths at the kraal would not be seen as an obscure skirmish. I was told later that the Prince’s body bore seventeen spear wounds. No one troubled to count the wounds on the bodies of our guide, or Trooper Rogers, or Trooper Abel.

It seems very possible that I will not survive this fever: I have attended the funerals of others with similar symptoms. My passing will not be mourned by my fellow-officers. When I first returned to the regiment, after the court-martial verdict was over-turned, a sarcastic Captain Llewellyn gave me a translation of the ancient Book of Aneirin, telling of how a small band of heroic Welsh horsemen rode out against the great invading Saxon horde, and charged and perished at the battle of Catraeth. I returned the translation with the comment that it may be great literature, but it was poor strategy. That was three years ago and I have found that such verbal jousts soon lost their savour. To be condemned but impenitent, disgraced but innocent, are not states that most men endure indefinitely: my life has become a burden to me. Let my stone bear this memorial: Here Lies An Unlucky Friend.

Sir Francis Bacon’s Belated Vindication

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Drabble, Feb 7th 2021)

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Lord Chancellor to James I, was a pioneer of experimental science. Yet his report of one of his most famous experiments, showing that boiling water freezes faster than cold water, was scoffed at by fellow scientists for three hundred-odd years. Bacon’s experiment was unwittingly repeated by Erasto Mpemba, a Tanzanian high school student in 1963. Publication of the ‘Mpemba Effect’ led to further controlled experiments replicating Bacon’s finding.

Sadly, I can’t wait three-hundred years for Margaret to recognise the scientific fact that twigs and small branches won’t decompose any time soon in the garden composter.

Under the Gooseberry Bush

Michael Bloor

(first published in Idle Ink, FEBRUARY 6, 2021)

April 8th, 1974. I’m setting this down on paper and placing it in a tin that I’ll be burying under one of the gooseberry bushes. If things don’t work out, I’d like there to be a proper record of what happened…

Strangely, the root cause of the fatality can be traced back to the fact that, back in the 1950s, there were two Rodger Ackroyds in Chapel Street Primary School. There was me, generally known as ‘Rodge.’ And there was him, generally known as ‘Big Ackie,’ a nasty piece of work, even when he was an eight year-old. Ackroyd isn’t an uncommon a name in the town – I remember another Rodger Ackroyd used to be the Clydesdale Bank manager in Sadlergate. But the teachers used to make lame, irritating jokes about us, and I expect that’s why Big Ackie took a particular dislike to me. All kids hate being singled (doubled in this case) out for attention, and Ackie mysteriously decided it was all my fault.

His dislike continued even after I’d passed the exams to go on to the Academy and he’d begun his irregular attendance at the High School. But things got a lot worse when we were seventeen and both going out with Fiona MacTaggart. Him and his cousin, Shuggie, beat the crap out of me in the Gents toilet at the Mecca Ballroom. But I dare say I’d have lost out in the Fiona stakes, even without the broken nose: I was still at school with only the proceedings from a paper-round to pay my way in the world, whereas Big Ackie was working in his dad’s scrap metal business and driving around in a clapped-out Ford Cortina. Just before I went away to Uni, I heard he’d got Fiona pregnant and they’d got married. Apparently, Fiona’s mum sobbed through the whole celebration.

Anyway, ten years passed by. I was back and teaching at the Academy, living in my parents’ house (both my mum and my dad having died in the interim). I’d see Ackie around the town occasionally – it’s not that big a place – but we never spoke. Then, one Sunday night there he was, at my front door:

‘Hiya Rodge. Can I come in?’ A rhetorical question.

Moments later, we were both sitting at my kitchen table with a couple of cans. Ackie didn’t look too good: still big, but flabby; grey pallor; thinning red hair. I learned later that he’d damaged his back pushing wrecked cars around the scrapyard, and that there was a court case coming up about a load of copper wire. Ackie finished pouring his can into a pint glass:

‘Got a proposition for ye, Rodge. Strange: us having the same name. It’s a sort of bond between us, d’ye no’ think?’

The stress he put on the word ‘bond,’ not a word in Ackie’s normal vocabulary except in relation to bail procedures, made me realise that this was a rehearsed speech. He gave me his good news first: he’d won the pools – eight draws when there were only nine on the whole coupon – an estimated £300,000. I tried to look pleased for him, but Ackie shook his head and wiped the beer-foam from his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘The thing is: me and Fiona are separated. She and little Kelly-Anne are back at her mum’s. We’ll be divorced eventually. An’ I wanna fresh start. I’ve met a lady in Glasgow who thinks like I do: I’m sick of the scrapyard and she’s sick of hostessing in that club. We both fancy Spain. I’ve got my eye on a bar-restaurant business there.’

‘Spain eh? Sounds good to me, Ackie. What’s the problem?’

‘The problem, Rodge, is Fiona. I need that £300,000. I don’t need Fiona taking a huge chunk of it in the divorce settlement.’

Outwardly smiling, my guts were starting to churn. Surely Ackie hadn’t forgotten that I used to be sweet on Fiona (truth to tell, I was still sweet on her)? But, like a Panzer tank in a war movie, Ackie moved relentlessly onwards, oblivious of any collateral damage. ‘So here’s the plan, Rodge. I collect the cheque from the pools company. An’ then…’ Ackie treated me to a dramatic pause. ‘An’ then, I pass it onto YOU.’

‘Eh?’

‘The cheque’s made out to “Rodger Ackroyd”. Ye deposit it in yerr “Rodger Ackroyd” bank account. An’ once the divorce is definitely settled, ye pay me back. Less a ten percent commission. Geddit?’

A tricky business. I didn’t know too much about the criminal law, but I was pretty certain that he was proposing that I be a partner in some kind of fraud – something that would certainly end my so-called career in teaching if it came to court. What’s more (and this really stuck in my craw) Ackie was proposing that we defraud Fiona – my Fiona, my teenage sweetheart. But I also knew that it was most unwise to cross Big Ackie, a man of uncertain temper… and also Shuggie’s cousin.

Weakly, I temporised: ‘Isn’t it going to look a bit suspicious? I deposit a cheque for £300,000 into an account with current assets of seventeen quid. Then a few weeks later, I write another cheque to pay Rodger Ackroyd £270,000…’

‘Nah. Keep it simple, Rodge. Tell ‘em ye won the football pools, but ye ticked the ‘no publicity’ box – ye’ll be very upset if any news leaks out via the bank. And once my divorce is settled, ye tell ‘em ye’re buying a holiday home in Spain and ye’re transferring some of yerr assets to yerr new ‘Rodger Ackroyd’ account in yerr new Spanish bank.’

It was a simpler world in those days – no money-laundering regulations for a start – and, despite myself, I was impressed: ‘You’ve certainly planned this one, Ackie.’

‘Nae me, Sunshine – Sean Bryce, the scrapyard accountant.’

I knew Sean Bryce, a weasel-faced old drunk, who could always be found in the bar of the Fife Arms Hotel. He wasn’t a qualified accountant, but he was reputed to know a lot about creative book-keeping.

By the time we’d each drained a second can, I’d capitulated. About to leave, Ackie lingered at the front door, leant towards me, and I felt his dog’s breath on my face: ‘Didna mess wi’ me Rodge. Ye’ll no’ be the winner. An’ it’s no’ easy, picking up yerr broken teeth wi’ a broken arm.’

The following day, I did something I’d never done before: I bunked off work – called in and claimed a sickie. I had to think, but I couldn’t stay in the house. At the back of my street is a patch of ground owned by the Allotment Society; my dad had been a member and I’d inherited his plot, right by the gate. That morning I had the allotments all to myself. I’ve always found the allotments a peaceful place, ever since I was a child, helping my dad and my grandad. It was a warm day of early April. A robin perched on the loganberry wires, watching me intently as I dug out the pea trench, turning over the lovely, friable loam that only a fortnight ago had been a viscous, inert slab of dirt –the annual miracle of Spring. As I turned the soil, I pondered Ackie’s proposition.

The robin suddenly darted down to my feet, hopped briskly a few inches, and seized a worm. I knew I couldn’t let Ackie cheat Fiona. By the time I’d manured and limed the pea trench, I’d got the makings of a plan. I shouldered the spade, nipped home, and phoned Fiona’s mum’s house.

When Fiona came to the phone I could hear the surprise in her voice. I dispensed with the embarrassing small talk and told her that there was something important I needed to tell her, but it was complicated – could I come round and see her that night? She hesitated but then she answered quietly: ‘Come round after nine – I’ll have got Kelly-Anne off to bed by then. My mum’ll be pleased to see you: she always liked you.’

When I rang the bell that evening, Mrs MacTaggart was indeed pleased to see me, transparently impressed that I was now an English teacher at the Academy. ‘With his own home,’ as she pointed out to Fiona as an after-thought. I could see Fiona was rather embarrassed. And her situation was made worse when Kelly-Anne (apparently awakened by my knock) came back downstairs in her pyjamas and wanted to know why her mother was wearing make-up. Fiona’s mum, surprisingly, saved the situation by saying that she’d see to Kelly-Anne, and why didn’t Fiona and I go out for a drink? Kelly-Anne was still shouting questions as we shut the front door. We looked at each other and started to laugh; it seemed natural to take Fiona’s hand as we sauntered down the road.

However, once I’d carried our drinks over to a window-seat in the King of Prussia, we had serious stuff to discuss. I had to admire the level-headed way that Fiona took the news of Ackie’s pools win and his forthcoming flight to Spain. Her plan was just to tell all to the divorce court. But I convinced her that retribution would certainly be exacted by Ackie and his friends and relations, most notably cousin Shuggie, just back from a stretch in Barlinnie after fire-bombing a rival scrapyard. She and I both remembered my Mecca-ballroom broken nose. My suggestion was that she could simply be at the marital home to intercept the post and ‘discover’ the pools cheque, as if by accident. Then it could indeed be a matter for her lawyer and the divorce court. I explained that Ackie was expecting it to arrive by registered post tomorrow (Tuesday) morning.

Fiona stared into her gin and tonic: ‘That could work, Rodge. I need to go round to the house anyway to collect the new child benefit book. The postie would let me sign for the registered letter.’

‘Yep. Best to take your mum with you – that way Ackie’s less likely to make a scene. And I’ll trail the postie, so that I can let you know when he’s nearing your house.’

‘Good idea. Me and Mum’ll be in the newsagent’s on Alma Terrace.’

‘Fine. Once I’ve alerted you that the postie’s on his way, I’ll loiter in the newsagent’s too.’

Fiona smiled a warm smile, her brown eyes shining. There was a long pause, then she touched my hand: ‘You’ll be the poorer by £30,000.’

I shrugged and smiled in return: ‘Is your mum up to playing her part, do you think?’ Fiona was sure that her mum (no fan of Ackie) would be fine. But Mrs MacTaggart did indeed prove to be the weak link in the conspiracy…

On the Tuesday morning, a day of wind and intermittent rain, I picked up the postie’s trail at the end of Balaclava Road. I hurried into the newsagent’s to inform Fiona and her mum – the cue for them to walk around the corner to the new bungalows in Reapers Rise and linger naturalistically in Ackie’s neglected front garden for the interception.

Fiona said that the postie duly arrived and of course recognised her as Mrs Ackroyd. She then signed for the registered letter, while an unsuspecting Ackie sat in the back kitchen waiting in vain for the postie to ring the bell.

So far so good, but the next scene called for some dramatic talent from Fiona and her mum. Fiona let herself and her mum in the front door with her key. She chucked the registered letter on the hall table while she put the door key back in her bag. Hearing the noise, Ackie emerged from the kitchen in time to see the precious pools envelope dropped onto the hall-table with the old letters, circulars and free newspapers.

Fiona glanced at him: ‘Oh it’s you. I thought you’d be at the scrapyard. I’m here for the child benefit book.’ She quickly picked up the pile from the hall-table and began to sort out the letters from the dross. Having done so, she started to slit open the envelopes with the paper knife on the hall-table. Ackie was momentarily non-plussed, but as Fiona started to slit open the pools envelope, he took a quick step forward: ‘Here, that’s mine!’

Nervous and disconcerted by Ackie’s sudden movement, Mrs MacTaggart stepped in front of him and blurted out, ‘No it isnae, ye dirty bugger!’ (Fiona had unwisely told her mum the unexpurgated version, including the bit about the Glasgow club hostess).

Ackie’s suspicions were definitely aroused. He brushed Fiona’s mum aside and made a lunge for the pools letter. There was a tussle between Ackie and Fiona, gamely joined by Fiona’s mum. All three over-balanced, crashed into the hall-table and fell to the floor. Fiona was up first and immediately saw the paper knife sticking out of Ackie’s twitching chest. She showed great coolness: she picked up her hyper-ventilating mum and parked her in the kitchen. She then walked swiftly down Reapers Rise and summoned me from the newsagent’s, without stepping inside (she had blood on her mac). We sped back to Ackie’s.

After that it was plain sailing – gruesome, but quite straightforward. We never considered for a moment calling the police: we couldn’t risk a court-trial, or Shuggie’s revenge. We disposed of Ackie that same evening – the allotment came in handy – and cleaned up the hallway.

All in all, Ackie’s plan seemed the best available. I deposited the cheque in my account and three days later we headed off to Spain.

The Talisman

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Jan 9th 2021)

The train pulled into Aberdeen station just after midnight; it was almost empty. As I walked along the carriage to the exit door, I noticed the bag lying on a seat: one of those re-usable bags that the supermarkets sell. Quite bulky – evidently something was inside. I took a look: there was something rigid, wrapped around with what I guessed to be linen cloths. The cloths were secured with gaffer tape, but I pulled open a corner…

Gold glinted in the carriage light.

I count myself an honest man, by normal standards. I do have one conviction, for criminal damage. But that happened when I was off my face with drink twenty years ago. And other customers agreed that the barman had been unnecessarily violent in ejecting me from the pub in question. Of course, on the present occasion, I should’ve turned the bag over to one of the station staff. And I’m sure that, under different circumstances, I would’ve done just that. But that night I was in a bad place.

I was coming home from a failed job interview with a shipping company in Glasgow. Seafaring is a fine job when you’re young and haven’t a family; I’m forty nine with a sick wife. Latterly, I’d been working as the mate on supply ships servicing the oil rigs in the North Sea, but as the oil was running out, so the jobs on the supply ships were running out. The job in Glasgow was an office job as a ships superintendent. Unemployed, with Dorothy sick and a mortgage to pay, I really wanted that job. Needless to say, I didn’t get it (wasn’t even close).

Needless also to say, I’d had a few consoling drinks in Glasgow before I caught the late train. You might say my judgement was impaired – an explanation, not an excuse.

So I picked up the bag and headed out the station. I’m not a native Aberdonian, but in my years working on the supply boats, I’ve developed a fondness for the city. Stepping out of the station, you’re only a hundred metres from the harbour, and straight away you get a lung-full of sea air. The last buses had gone and I couldn’t afford a taxi, so I was walking home. On Union Street, the main drag, I noticed that the gates to St. Nicholas’s kirkyard had been left open: they’re usually closed at night to deter underage drinkers and courting couples.

They’ve been burying folk in the kirkyard for 900 hundred years, so there’s a lot of distinguished old bones about the place. A particular favourite of mine is buried there: John Henry Anderson (1814-74), ‘The Great Wizard of the North,’ the first of the great showmen-magicians. Indeed, he was the first magician to produce a white rabbit from a hat, to the wonder of his audience. Houdini himself paid for the upkeep of the grave when it fell into disrepair. (No doubt you’ve guessed that I’m an enthusiastic amateur magician). I was burning with curiosity about the contents of the bag, so it seemed a natural thing to do: to slip into the kirkyard and, illuminated by the streetlights, examine my find beside the mortal remains of the Great Wizard.

The contents proved to be a small painting, incorporating quite a lot of gold leaf, on a rectangular wooden board. It was a very old painting, that was evident from the state of the wood. I guessed right away that it was an icon. Years ago, I served as a mate on some Greek-owned ships: each ship had a small icon on the bridge. My icon portrayed a saint in a tiny clinker-built ship, with a single sail and an expectant, bearded crew. I knew I was looking at St. Nicholas, the patron saint of seafarers, and, moreover, I was looking at him in St Nicholas’s kirkyard.

Now, I’m not religious, but I admit it: I’m superstitious. There’s good luck and there’s bad luck. Sitting there in the saint’s kirkyard, I figured my luck had turned at last. I walked on back to the flat with a very good feeling.

I let myself into the flat quietly, hoping not to disturb Dorothy: she was halfway through the chemo course, and needed her sleep. I was planning to sleep on the couch, but she heard me in the bathroom and called me through to the bedroom. Dot knew about the the job interview fiasco; I’d called her from Glasgow. I thought the icon story might cheer her up, so I carried St Nicholas through to the bedroom.

It certainly brought her fully awake. She touched it lightly as I told the story. When I finished, she asked: ‘Why didn’t you hand it in at the station?’

As soon as she asked the question, I realised I’d behaved like a drunken idiot. Again. What on earth was I planning to do with it anyway?

Dot smiled at me: ‘It’s a bit big for a good luck charm.’ I promised to hand it in at the station in the morning and got ready for bed.

* * *

The guy at the station was surprisingly friendly, taking down my details: ‘We’ve never had an icon handed in before. You came off the late train and maybe couldn’t find anyone to hand it over to, eh? Only a skeleton staff on then.’

And that was that. ‘Til three weeks later. Dot answered the phone: it was an orthodox priest in Dunblane. The wealthy old lady who’d previously donated the icon to the Dunblane church was offering a reward for it’s return. And the picture restorer in Montrose, who’d left the icon on the train, was offering a fortnight’s holiday in his holiday home in Sutherland. It had turned out to be a talisman after all: I’d pulled a white rabbit out of a supermarket bag.

Heroes

Michael Bloor

(first publication in The Drabble, DECEMBER 10, 2020)

Patrick, my friend and neighbour, and myself were arguing back and forth about our literary heroes: Is their influence always for the good? I spoke in their defense, citing Robert Burns fostering the belief of every Scot that ‘A Man’s a Man, for A’ That.’

Patrick denied that literary talent necessarily overlaps with moral courage, political acuity, or even a healthy quotum of commonsense. He instanced Conan Doyle, who believed in faeries and dodgy spiritualism, but clinched his case with Kafka’s diaries. The entry for August 2nd 1914 reads: “Germany has declared war on Russia. In the afternoon, swimming lessons.”

Witness Statement

Michael Bloor

(first published by Ink Sweat & Tears Nov 21, 2020)

Case No. 1991/203

Witness – Full Name: Ianthe Jane Frobisher-Forbes
Address: 1 Priory Lane, Old Basing, Basingstoke

I first met Jason on Johnny Antrobus’s yacht at St. Tropez  in July, 1990. I didn’t know at first that he was from the Alpha Centauri star system: he told me he was from St. Albans. Both I and my friend, Mandy, thought he was very good-looking. But I later learned that the authorities in Alpha Centauri had been monitoring Earth communications for many years and had modelled Jason’s looks on Elvis Presley, President Kennedy, and the guy that plays Indiana Jones.

On the last day of the holiday I discovered that he had very strange genitalia. When I told Mandy about it, she reckoned Jason was an alien. I thought she was jealous because Jason hadn’t got off with her. And, besides, Jason had told me that he loved me and would come and visit me in Basingstoke; he had a red MG convertible.

In the autumn, Jason gave up his job as an investment banker to work full-time for the Conservative Party. Then, in November, the party got rid of Mrs Thatcher. Jason seemed to take this very hard.

It was around this time that I noticed his addiction to wine gums, especially the black and red ones. One night he got absolutely sloshed on Esther our cook’s black currant cordial. That’s when he told me about Alpha Centauri. Apparently, they don’t have black currants there.

Anyway, it was that same night that he told me that Mrs Thatcher was also from Alpha Centauri. I didn’t take it too seriously then, as he wasn’t really making a lot of sense at the time. He spent most of the evening talking about the economics of an import business in Alpha Centauri, importing British wine gums.

Not long after that, the cook gave her notice and Jason dumped me for her. She’s 37, for Chrissakes. Something to do with her blackcurrant jam.

Mandy said I ought to come to the police station to tell you about Alpha Centauri. Mummy and Daddy won’t be very pleased. But Mandy said I should do it for England.

I believe the facts stated in this witness statement are true.
Signed: I.J. Frobisher-Forbes

Hubble, Bubble, Toilet Trouble

Michael Bloor

(first published in Idle Ink, Nov 7th 2020)

The allotments are a sociable place, especially for me because my plot is right next to the entrance. So I get to greet, and chat to, everyone coming through the gates. The conversations are kindly and cheerful, except when the subject is pigeons or cabbage root fly. So, when I greeted Billy Epps on his return from his holidays (Morecombe – two weeks), I was utterly unprepared for his bitter response:

‘Eh? How am I? How am I?? I’ll tell you how I am: I haven’t had a crap for four days!’

I’m going to summarise Billy’s story for you, as the way Billy told it, there were far too many expletives. It seemed Morecombe itself had been OK and he’d even got through to the semi-final of the Morecombe open crown-green bowls competition. The problem had arisen on the journey home. Determined to get maximum value from his B&B, Billy had opted for the Full English Breakfast each morning (trading his black pudding for an extra sausage). By late morning, on the train home, the breakfast was starting to weigh a little heavily on Billy, so he headed for the lavatory. It was one of those carriages where the lavatory door is operated electronically: you open the sliding door by pressing an external button; once you’re inside, you close it by pressing the internal ‘close’ button and then lock it by pressing the internal ‘lock’ button.

Billy retired from Greaves Castings two years ago, so now he’s accustomed to taking his time about things. Once seated comfortably on the throne, he let his mind wander, back to his near-triumph in the bowls competition. In the semi, he’d been drawn against a well-known three-times past winner from Preston, but Billy had noticed that his opponent was starting to tire. Billy’s strategy was to win the jack and then send it repeatedly from corner-to-corner, hoping that having to send his bowls for such a long distance would trigger a recurrence of the hernia that his opponent had suffered from in last year’s competition. He was re-living the match’s crucial nineteenth ‘end’, or game, when the lavatory door started to slowly slide open…

I think we can all imagine Billy’s feelings at this juncture. With his trousers and Marks-n-Sparks underpants around his ankles, he stared upwards into the eyes of an elderly lady carrying a large handbag. They gazed upon each other in silence for a moment or two, then the handbag lady let out a gargling shriek. Billy became aware that, from his vantage-point on the throne, he was able to see past the elderly lady all the way down the entire, crowded railway carriage.

And the entire, crowded carriage was, in turn, able to look past the elderly lady and study Billy’s withered shanks and grey-ish Y-fronts. Indeed, alerted by the lady’s shriek, many of his fellow-passengers were already craning their necks to get a better view.

To their credit, both Billy and the handbag lady quickly realised that the key to alleviating the situation lay with the button controls for the electronic operation of the toilet door. They both began feverishly jabbing at the buttons. Where they were perhaps at fault was in not co-ordinating their efforts (I should stress here that The Co-Ordination Failure Theory is of my own devising, Billy had an altogether darker view of the handbag lady’s behaviour).

In any case, the result of the button-jabbing was unsatisfactory. True, the door did slowly slide closed. But, unfortunately, no sooner was it closed than it immediately slid open again. It then proceeded to open and close repeatedly for a couple of minutes. A long couple of minutes.

At length, Billy was able to spot a window of opportunity. He took advantage of a brief episode of door-closure to scramble to his feet, hoist up his trousers, and scream to the handbag lady to stop pressing buttons. He then jabbed the door-lock button. He held his breath. The door stayed closed.

Billy then showed great presence-of-mind. He considered that, under the circumstances, to return to his seat in the carriage would be to subject himself to a certain amount of unwanted attention. So he stayed put, until the train drew into the next station, whereupon he briskly left the toilet, grabbed his nearby suitcase, stepped out of the carriage, walked along the platform, and got into the next-carriage-but-one.

His onward journey proceeded without further incident. Except that he found he no longer had any desire to use the toilet. Ever.

Fell at the First Fence

Michael Bloor

(first published in Ink Sweat & Tears, Sept 17th 2020)

Liam limped listlessly into the lift. It was empty. He pressed the button for the seventh floor (Safetyseal Export Sales). There was the usual hiatus, while the mechanism seemed to consider his request. Liam weighed LIFE in the balance. On the one hand, he had a steady job (Data-Processing for Safetyseal); on the other hand, the job was crap (no prospects, no interest, precious little money). Likewise, next weekend would be the Easter holiday; but today was only Monday. Again, he now had Sunday mornings free, having disgustedly given up playing for The Black Swan FC; but in the unlikely event of ever recovering from the injuries inflicted by the Centre-Back for Wilmington FC, he had no-one with whom to spend those Sunday mornings.

Then the bugle sounded. She tripped demurely into the lift, pressed the button for the sixth floor (Smellie & Thrawn, Solicitors) and turned away to face the lift door. It was HER. Small, deft, with long tumbling dark hair. He’d seen her four times before, in the lift or the offices’ entrance hall. Once he’d heard a colleague call her ‘Jenny’ or ‘Ginny’. Once also, he’d heard her laugh – a gentle, private, smoky chuckle. The lift door closed and the mechanism lurched into action.

He had seconds to act. He might never be alone with Jenny/Ginny ever again. He regretted that he wasn’t wearing his good grey suit. And he regretted that he wasn’t good at this kind of thing. He thought back to the advice his louche Uncle Dermot had given him over a drink at Cousin Mary’s wedding. Dermot was explaining that the secret of success at those dating websites was to have a profile with a good ‘hook’, a good opening line.

Writing, “Own hair and teeth” simply doesn’t cut it, Liam. Currently, my hook is: “I’m thinking of buying a horse” – not bad, eh?’ Liam had nodded slowly into his pint. He believed he saw Dermot’s point: ‘thinking of buying a horse’ was arresting and engagingly quirky, while hinting at financial resources and healthy outdoor pursuits.

OK,’ thought Liam, staring at the back of Jenny/Ginny’s head, ‘Just say something arresting and engagingly quirky.’ They were passing the third floor…

Mmm. Maybe something about a lift breakdown?? Jesus, no, that’d sound scary-creepy. What about: “Do you find elevators give you elevated thoughts?” Gotta be joking: would she want to go out to the pictures with Stephen Fry??? Mmm. Err. “I was once in a lift with Freddie Truman, the Yorkshire fast bowler” No, No, No.’ They were passing the fifth floor…

Liam knew that he must act NOW: ‘Harrumph. Harrumph. I’m thinking of buying a horse…’

The lift doors opened onto the sixth floor. She stepped out of the lift and turned to face him. He could see the brass plate of Smellie & Thrawn behind her. She gave him a considering look: ‘Well, you’ll need to take it up the stairs then.’

The lift doors closed.