Synchronised Bowling

The glass doors of SolaBowl swished aside as the magnificent six stormed into the warmth inside. Confidence was higher than a hundred and twenty milligrams per hundred millilitres as they strode past guys and gals drinking at the bar. They stopped at the shoe station. Edwin pulled a box from his duffle bag, removed the lid and carefully pulled back the tissue to reveal bright red bowling shoes. He presented them for inspection. Five sniggered. The assistant raised his eyebrows and smirked.

‘You old tart Edwin!,’ Zak remarked.

The others hired shoes, changed, then passed roaring lanes to lane eight. Clifford, red faced and puffing was the last to get there. Best man Pete was already setting up the scoreboard.

‘Finger out, Cliffy. Simon, your last night of freedom – you can go first. Then alphabetical. OK, Zak?’

Nobody argued. Rog and Zak went to the bar and returned with drinks. They were just getting settled when there was a burst of laughter from the lane next door.

‘Get a load of that, lads,’ Simon nudged Pete who was still fiddling with the scoreboard.

All eyes swung toward six girls whose costumes screamed hen party. When the wolf whistles subsided, Simon leaned across the barrier and addressed an inviting cleavage.

‘Get lost!’ said the owner.

Simon turned to the others, ‘We’re in here, lads!’

Edwin told Clifford to limber up, having him stretch to each bent knee and to try to touch his toes.

‘It’s not the bloody world cup Edwin! Right lads, game on,’ declared Pete.

Simon’s ferocious bowl sent ten pins clattering.

‘Easy boy! Save some for Annette on the wedding night,’ said Zak.

Simon gave a smug smile. Clifford picked up a bowl and immediately dropped it on his foot. He hopped around shoeless. Pete examined the injury.

‘Nothing broken Cliffy, you’ll survive.’ Clifford limped barefoot to the seating area.

‘Where’s Edwin?’ asked Pete.

‘Slash!’ was the united reply.

‘Why on earth did you invite him, Simon? Not a bloody word all night, now he’s pissing every five minutes,’ said Pete.

‘Here comes the nancy now.’

‘Sorry lads, my go?’

‘Take your time Edwin,’ Pete said, looking at his watch.

Edwin postured and bowled a strike with an effortless, gentle precision. He followed through with a regal twirl of the hand.

‘Hey dude, dark horse,’ said Zak.

Edwin grinned like the top of his head would unzip, replayed the action and told Clifford the secret of his technique. Clifford seemed more interested in his foot.

Pete ran up to the mark. At the same time a girl next door slid to the line on her knees sending a cracking shot, scoring a strike with the pins and with Pete. She got up with a victory wiggle to clapping and shouting. He stood and admired her white tutu over red tights, flashing devil’s horn headband and bride’s veil. She threw a glance which said ‘Beat that’. He returned to his mark, fingers sweating. He rubbed them on his jeans to improve the grip.

‘No pressure then!’ said Zak.

All eyes from both lanes were on Pete. He gripped the bowl and ran to the line, putting every ounce of muscle into the swing. His fingers slipped and the bowl flew upwards, cleared the barrier and clattered the deck of the girls’ lane.

‘Nil point,’ Simon said, in an accent he’d heard on the Eurovision Song Contest.

Pete blushed. Tutu smiled. ‘Do you always go bowling up the wrong alley?’

‘Er, not usually. Are you the bride to be then?’

‘Well, Einstein? I mean, white dress and veil?’

Pete gulped. The game paled and he melted, he couldn’t stop staring into Tutu’s blue eyes.

‘You look stunning. He’s a very lucky guy.’

‘Corny! But thanks anyway.’

‘Fancy a set of mixed doubles?’ Pete suggested trying to cling on to a thread of a chance. Zak earwigged and muscled in, looking at Tutu.

‘Yeh, great idea. Bags I partner you.’

‘Piss off Zak, I was here first.’

‘Language boys! I’ll ask,’ said Tutu. Zak weighed up the other talent.

‘I’m not having the fat one,’ he moaned.

‘Pete?’ Simon called, ‘Are you playing? It’s your bowl.’

Pete downed eight pins and forgot his second go.

‘What planet are you on?’ said Edwin, who was into the game like no one else. Old Clifford was sitting barefoot in the corner talking into his beer glass. Edwin was taking his turns as well as his own.

‘You’re on boys! Girls pick partners, boys buy drinks. Deal?’

‘Wa- hey! Cummon Rog. Let’s see what the girls are drinking. Clifford? The fat one’s yours,’ said Zak.

‘What about finishing this game first?’ Edwin protested.

‘Bugger that. Let’s have a real game.’

Rog and Zak came back with two trays of drinks. One had a jug of beer, the other shorts and mixers and a pile of crisps.

‘Right girls! Pick-your-drinks-and-pick-your-heroes,’ said Simon, doing his best dance floor walk.

Tutu picked Pete. Simon got the cleavage. The fifth girl up was Stella. She moaned that there wasn’t any choice with only Edwin and Clifford left. She took Edwin, sneering at his bowling shoes. The fat girl sat next to Clifford, who had dozed off. She looked at his bare foot which had turned a delicate shade of crimson and kicked off her own bowling shoes. She downed a pint and started on three bags of crisps, different flavours.

‘You’d better leave Sandra out, she looks like she’s had enough,’ said Stella.

Ten crammed the lane and feral bowls rolled around in a mix of random bowling and exhibition pieces. Simon’s ‘two at a time’ scored a strike and a warning from the supervisor. Zak almost topped it with three in a roll down. Rog soaked himself trying to bowl while downing a pint. More trays of drinks came. Nobody was scoring. There was nothing to score except for Edwin, who kept his tally in a diary. Stella, his partner, had long gone to chat up a hunk in the next lane.

Simon nudged Pete. Sandra was snogging Clifford.

‘Do you think he’s awake?’ asked Pete.

Simon smiled. ‘I bloody well hope not. Come on lads, let’s liven it up! How about synchronised bowling?’

‘Yeh, great!’ said Zak, ‘What is it?’

‘Count me out,’ said Edwin. ‘And us,’ said Tutu, ‘we’ll watch. Go for it lads!’

Edwin disappeared to the toilets. Clifford was still blotto, with fat Sandra. Pete, Zak, Simon and Rog lined up with a bowl each. ‘Four-bowl,’ announced Simon. The pins were up. The girls cheered and clapped. Simon counted down. ‘Three, two, one, blast off!’ and they each ran forward, bowled and peeled away. Three bowls rolled down the lane in succession. As Simon turned, Rog clumped him in the wedding tackle with his bowl. The pair of them collapsed and slithered down the lane.

‘You tosser!’ said Simon, clutching his groin as they rolled around in the lane.

The air was rent with a loud whistle blast, followed by the manager and two security staff sprinting across the lanes. The security boys hauled them up. Simon was red faced and stooping. A scream and a loud slap came from the seating area. ‘Get off, you old pervert!’ Clifford had seemingly come to and ventured a hand up Sandra’s skirt. She made no attempt to push him away.

‘Right you lot!’ boomed the manager, ‘Out!’

Silence fell upon lanes seven and eight. The roar of bowls on the other lanes restarted and the musical tinkling of crashing pins continued, as Pete walked Tutu to the shoe station. They checked out together and he held her to one side.

‘I really like you,’ he said, ‘and I’ve had a great time. I don’t suppose…’

She placed a finger on his lips then kissed him on the cheek.

‘That was fun, but you shouldn’t forget that ring you’re wearing.’

Pete glanced at his wedding ring. He leaned forward and surprised Tutu with a kiss on the lips. She jerked away.

‘Woa boy! Don’t spoil it by bowling down the wrong lane again!’

She left him standing alone. He stood watching as she walked away, the hen party singing and giggling, leaning on one another. He twisted the wedding ring on his finger, feeling an itch beneath it, as she faded into the distance. Just before she disappeared from view, Tutu looked over her shoulder and her glance caught his. In his mind, that fraction of a second meant something, something to be kept and treasured.

His heart skipped a beat as he realised what it was.

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Wheels on Fire (1964)

(From ‘An Estate Boy’, boy growing up on a council housing estate in the 1950s and 60s)
At sixteen I craved a motor cycle. My mother saw them as death traps associated with undesirable low life, which she summed up as greasy, long haired riff raff. For her, the leather jacket was a symbol of delinquency. She wanted to protect me from this. To protect me, as all mothers do with their children. The protectionism held out for quite a while but eventually after I’d saved enough from a part time job filling shelves at the food market, she caved in. I was allowed to buy a secondhand BSA Bantam. As the top speed was only about 30 mph when new, the only death likely to result from riding it was shame as rockers whistled past on their 650s.

Still, it was a start.

The bike was a lemon. A bitter one at that. After polishing the tank and mudguards with furniture polish, it kick started and I attempted riding it up and down the garden path. It would tick over but as soon as given throttle it stalled. I did all the usual things like changing the spark plug to no avail. Surprisingly, my mother offered to ask Billy Smith next door to see if he could fix it. She went round and knocked on their back door. Billy was always working on motor cycles and seemed to be permanently covered in oil and striking things incessantly with a large hammer. He wore his black hair slicked back and he had the habit of flattening it with his hand which added to the impression of oiliness and matched perfectly mother’s stereotype. The pair spoke quietly so I couldn’t hear. Billy glanced in my direction and nodded. He came round with an adjustable spanner, screw driver and that large hammer. I watched as he poked and banged around, shaking his head. Finally he slicked back that hair.

Sorry Patrick, this one’s got me beat.

Mum came out with a cup of tea.

Thanks for looking anyway, Billy.

Dad took the lemon back for a refund the next day. He got most of the money back but not all. The guy said he would not refund full price the bike was non-runner and he needed some compensation for time wasting. My dad was not pushy so he cut my losses. With it went my dreams of Colleen, a girl I fancied, riding pillion as we cruised into the country for a picnic, her arms tightly around my waist. It was a ridiculous dream anyway. Colleen wouldn’t sit on anything smaller than 650.

Besides, the Bantam was a single seater. Later I realised I had been the victim of a conspiracy.

My friend Binny who lived at the top of our street invited me round his house to cheer me up. He had a couple of Buddy Holly records he wanted me to hear. I’d never been round his house before. It was a dump, but in the lounge he had a speaker the size of a wardrobe, a record deck and a large amplifier, which consisted of an aluminium chassis, a row of faintly glowing valves, beautiful copper coils and lines of resistors. He put on Peggy Sue and I could hear it mainly in my chest which was vibrating along with everything else in the room. He turned it down.

Sound’s not quite right, he said picking up a long screwdriver, needs a little trim. Best do it while the system’s hot.

I was impressed that Binny seemed classically trained in the art of tinkering with electronics.

Hot? I asked.

Live, the reply.

But…….

And before I could complete the sentence, which would have said isn’t that a bit dangerous, there was a blinding flash, bang and the screwdriver hit the ceiling. Binny fell back against the wall. The set up which hitherto was giving an acceptable rendition of pretty, pretty, pretty, Peggy Sue now garbled in a fashion that sounded like broad Dalek. Binny was white faced and wide eyed. He pulled the plug on the amp and put his record away.

Best we scarper before my brother gets back, he’s just spent three months building the thing. Fancy a burn up?

You bet I did. Binny’s bike was a Triumph Bonneville, he’d only had it a couple of weeks. Binny himself was quite a diminutive lad, so short his feet could barely touch the floor from the bike seat. With drop bars fitted, he would lay flat on the tank and it almost seemed no one was driving it. He donned his leather jacket, crash helmet and goggles.

What about me? I asked

You’ll be ok this time, just tuck your shirt in.

The bike roared into life and I climbed nervously onto the pillion seat. It was surprisingly comfortable as we tootled around the estate roads, and I felt a sense of pride as the kids watched us pass. Between gear changes he would flick the throttle and the roar of the twin cylinders sent shivers through my groin. I could understand why Colleen liked the big bikes.

Once on the open road Binny opened the throttle and went through the gears in seconds. With that devastating acceleration the whole complexion of motor cycling changed for me. Sitting upright, with Binny laying flat in front of me, I was catching the full force of the passing air. My shirt flapped so much it stung and I clung on to the back of the seat for dear life. In those few minutes I promised god if he spared me, I would never masturbate again. We soon ran out of road and he braked so hard I thought I would leapfrog him.

Hundred and five he pronounced with obvious pride. How about another?

He must have seen my frozen expression.

OK, we’ll just poodle back then.

And so I was completely cured of the lust for motor cycling.

Two weeks later I amended my godly promise to include the caveat ‘on Sundays’. I still doodled pictures of super bikes in the margins of my schoolbooks, but a year on these were replaced by the repeated initials of a girl I had met and fallen in love with. I had learned that reality does not always turn out to be as you might imagine.

Footnotes

Wheels on fire by Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity, was released in 1968 and later with Adrian Edmondson used as the theme music for Absolutely Fabulous.

Peggy Sue by Buddy Holly and the Crickets was released in 1957. Along with Eddy Cochran’s Summertime Blues, these records could be frequently heard booming out from juke boxes in coffee bars frequented by bikers (rockers). Buddy Holly sadly died in a plane crash in 1959. He would have gone on to be an icon of the rock era.

The 1960s was a proud era of the British motorcycle industry, with some of two of the fastest production bikes on the market. They were the Triumph Bonneville and BSA Lightning, both capable of speeds in excess of 100 mph. Not much could touch them. Not for me however.

Crash helmets became compulsory in 1973. Surprisingly, there was some resistance getting the law passed by parliament as it was seen as an infringement of individuals rights.

Lists

 

I love to write a list
1. And prioritise.
2. Do the easy first and
3. Take satisfaction at the ticks

Completed growing,
Growing till a sudden STOP.
A hurdle, just too high,
Too high to see beyond.

1. So write another list,
2. prioritise,
3. Do the easy first,
4. …….

Until….
Another list,
And never get beyond the foothills.

The Brazen Head Bookshop

 

image

Earlier this year, I walked into the Brazen Head bookshop looking for an old book titled The Art of Coarse Sailing, out of print since the 1960s. The shop was stuffed with shelves sagging under the weight of words and stories, each crying out to be heard. Without knowing where to start my quest in such an apparent confusion, I approached the proprietor who was looking at the screen of an old pc in a corner of the counter. I asked if he had a database of all the titles in the shop. He passed a withering look which made me feel quite the fool. No! What are you looking for? he asked. I told him my title and without disengaging his stare, said up stairs, room on the left, third set of shelves, under nautical. Amazingly, as if guided by the force of all those titles, I went straight to it. I enjoyed the book, in fact it transported me back to my childhood on the Norfolk Broads with an amazing brightness and clarity. Some days later I felt compelled to return it for someone else to discover. I was greeted by an elderly lady in the shop and I asked after the gentleman who originally served me. She gave me a quizzical look and replied that only she worked there and that most of the books, just like mine, had a habit of returning. It was then I realised the distinction between fact and fiction can become blurred, especially in the company of such a wealth of old stories, all clamouring to be heard.

Toothache

 

I’ve never seen my dentist’s teeth. Or her nose come to that. They are always hidden behind a pure white clinical face mask. Her eyes are beautiful with a classic black eyeliner, which extends alluringly beyond the corners, suggesting there is beauty hidden behind the mask. Somehow pain is all that more bearable when inflicted by a pretty woman called Kataryna. It reminds me of what I read about early eighteenth century dentistry. The patient would be filled with brandy and a naked woman paraded in front of them. I’m not sure what they did if there was a woman in the chair. The theory was this took the mind off pain. I prefer a more modern anaesthetic although I don’t mind having a probably attractive dentist carrying out the work.

She has an accent which I have never worked out. It could be Polish, Swedish or Latvian. As I have difficulty in understanding even her routine businesslike conversation through the medical niqab, I never dared ask.

Helloooow Mr Lamport. How you are? Any change to medical from last visit? No? Just sign here please. You have checkup and clean with me. Do you have problem since last visit?

Nothing that a handful of Nurofen didn’t cure.

That good. Put these glasses please. Open wide.

She pokes around with a metal spike, stretching my mouth beyond elastic limits, and recites a confusion of numbers and things to the dental assistant like 6th occlusal cavity watch, left 6 upper missing. Over the years missing has increased and it is the only one of two dental terms I fully understand. I flinch with a sharp pain.

Apology Mr Lamport. I think we must fix this one now. OK?

I think Nurofen worked last time but I try to say yes with wide open mouth which comes out like

Hearsh.

Mr Lamport, you feel leetle preek now.

Which is the other dental term I fully understand as a giant needle ahead of a frighteningly large syringe enters my mouth. She once asked if I would rather not have the injection as it was only a small filling. I told her I’d rather have a little prick thank you very much.

I used to be scared of the dentist’s hypodermic. What cured me was gas. Nitrous oxide or laughing gas, administered for the extraction of a wisdom tooth. I had never realised that counting to ten with a stainless steel rubrics cube clamped between your jaws could be that hilarious. I giggled about as far as four or five and found myself falling down a well into complete blackness. The odd thing about a general anaesthetic is that it’s not like sleep. It actually feels like a small part of your life has gone missing. I’ve never noticed the time just before going under and have always been too groggy to do so when coming round, so the amount lost is always a mystery.

The strange thing about coming round is that I felt as if falling down a well towards light, leaving me totally disorientated. I remember the dentist, anaesthetist and nurse all laughing as I came back to the world. Maybe I’d farted, said something rude while under, or perhaps the nurse had given me a poke in the genitals to revive me. They didn’t laugh for long. The nurse told me to rinse and spit. As I leaned over the stainless steel cup my stomach gave a great heave. It seems as well as foregoing breakfast, I now had to forego last night’s dinner, retrospectively. The next thing I remember is waking up again in an ante room with the nurse holding a cold compress on my brow. The experience completely cured my fear of the needle.

Fillings today are nothing like they used to be. Great balls of mercury amalgam forced into a gaping cavity, nicely pre-drilled out. One rinsed and spat shrapnel into the spittoon. Those metal masterpieces lasted for decades, and when they eventually fell out they made a significant clink as they hit the dinner plate, leaving you in shock with a crater in your mouth the size of Vesuvius for your tongue to explore. I never could understand why people with interesting dental histories did not die of mercury poisoning. Mercury is highly toxic after all*. You have probably heard of the expression ‘mad as a hatter’. This comes from the time when felt hats were treated with mercury salts as a preservative. Exposure made the hatters teeth actually drop out. Rather ironic as now it was helping to keep them in. It also caused the shakes and symptoms of madness. Nevertheless, I seem to have escaped with the fillings that I had, as do most people with proud lines of silver fillings.

*For those who want confirmation of the potency of mercury as a toxin read the story of methyl mercury pollution in Minimata Bay, Japan. A tragic story dating back to 1956, where organisations failed to respond to one of the worst ever cases of mercury pollution. The situation was either misunderstood or swept under the carpet for many years resulting in untold death and suffering. The sea borne pollution entered the food chain via fish and shellfish, a large staple of the Japanese diet. It also killed thousands of cats and dogs, and became known as dancing cat disease as the cats went mad and danced around before dying. Metallic mercury, the stuff we used to stick our fingers in at school while the teacher wasn’t looking, has a highly toxic vapour. The dentists assistant has to be very careful when mixing liquid mercury with the amalgam powder which contains silver and tin, amongst other things. Once this has set solid in your cavity it is claimed to be entirely safe. For many fillings these days plastics are used but there are some situations where only the strength of an amalgam will suffice.

I always arrange the earliest appointments. This avoids the delays that occur as the day grows longer. I’m usually waiting in the empty car park behind the surgery at ten to eight. The staff car park is already full with BMWs and Audis, along with what I assume are the nurses cars. They unlock the doors at eight sharp and I’m the first in the waiting room. They used to have a nice tank of tropical fish to watch, but that has been replaced by a TV screen which shows a loop of adverts for cosmetic dentistry, porcelain caps and the like, even teeth that screw into little sockets in your jaw, and what the early and final stages of oral cancer look like and why you should not smoke.

I preferred the tropical fish.

It is now quarter past eight and the waiting room is filling up. Each new addition suffers intense scrutiny from those already present and you can see they are uncomfortable as they take a seat. Nobody talks and neither do they seem to look at each other, as if there is some disgrace in being at the dentist, like you haven’t been looking after your teeth properly. I wonder who all these people are? I have never in my life seen anyone I know at the dentist. Perhaps all my friends have electric toothbrushes. I’m not into them. Seems too much like sticking something from Anne Summers into your mouth. I prefer my trusty Oral B manual brush which has served me well for many years.

Before too long those unknown identities are revealed.

Bing bong. Anne Catchpenny, surgery one please

Bing bong. Nicholas Prat, surgery three please.

The mental sniggers at his name can almost be sensed. If it was me I’d change it. As everyone leaves they suffer the same scrutiny as when they arrived, but in reverse. By now I’m getting anxious that I’ve been forgotten when

Bing bong. Norman Lamport surgery nine please

makes me jump from seat, spilling the Cosmopolitan I’d been glancing though onto the floor, spoiling a cool exit. Unfortunately, surgery nine is at the end of a long corridor and involves walking past open doors letting out the horrible drilling noise that is enough to make you want to run for it. The door to surgery nine is closed. I knock.

Please come in, come in, come in…….

Inside I am greeted with firm handshake from an Indian looking gentleman. He isn’t wearing a mask and his teeth are unbelievably white. Eventually he lets my hand go.

Good morning Mr Lamport. Ms Kataryna has gone home to work in Poland. My name is Satchim Patel. I, with your excellent approval, will continue to be your dentist from this day.

I can just make out what he is saying, although subtitles would be a help. Eventually he lets go of my hand.

Now Mr Lamport, just a check up today. Any change to medical history since the last visit? No? Excellent, excellent.

And that’s where I came in, except at the end he hands me a leaflet.

You may like to try one of these Mr Lamport, to get to those difficult little places?

It’s all about those bloody electric toothbrushes.

 

 

 

 

Turf Wars

 

I haven’t spoken to my neighbour in fifteen years. You’re probably thinking he bedded my wife Lynne or something similar. Unlikely, as she’s not keen on sex. Her most used bedtime catchphrase is

Just turn over and go to sleep.

No, it wasn’t sexual impropriety, something far worse. He left his wheelie bin in front of my half of the fence. Unbelievable, but true. When I spotted it there I moved it back to his side. Half an hour later it was there again. I moved it. He moved it back. Then I told my wife. She went out and started to move it back. Maurice came out and they had a tug of war with the wheelie bin until the handle snapped off. I was watching from the kitchen as she’s a northerner able to look after herself. I decided things were going too far when the handle broke so I went out. The first thing I heard as I rounded the corner was

Fuck off!

in a Rochdale accent. Maurice stormed off with his bin and a message in his ear

We won’t ever speak to you again.

Ditto said Maurice.

At least the bins won’t ever get mixed up. His has the black gaffer tape on the handle.

From then on there were two small areas of Coventry* either side of my fence. It was a two rail fence dividing the properties. Maurice and I used to chat with our elbows on it when we took a break from mowing our lawns. Sometimes we’d share a beer. The laughter would attract Lynda, his wife. She could hit the ground running in any conversation. In spite of having a bypass, new valves, pacemaker, in fact everything that could be done to a heart except sage and onion stuffing and gas mark 4 for two hours, she always had a glass of wine in her hand. I was beginning to wonder if white wine was the essential treatment post open heart surgery. And talk, boy could she talk. Anything from the cheese and lettuce sandwich she had in Versailles to, well anything. My wife Lynne would hear the chatter and come to find out why the lawnmower was silent then join in. When it comes to chin wagging those two women would take the biscuit. Maurice and I would get back to work as it was pointless waiting for a pause. After a few minutes Maurice would frogmarch Lynda away asking hadn’t she better finish something or other leaving Lynne in mid sentence. This scenario played out many times until the wheelie bin came along.

*’To send to Coventry’ was a phrase which originated in the Civil war and later became used within the trades union movement, particularly in British Leyland in the mid 20th century. The punishment for members who crossed picket lines during strikes (blacklegs) was never to speak them again, or to send them to Coventry. They were so intent on punishing those who wanted to work that the car industry went bust. Perhaps not; anyone remember the Morris Marina?

When it came to holidays our neighbours immediately became very secretive. Before we all went to Coventry they would trip over themselves to tell us where they were going. Lynda often went indoors fetching a brochure to the fence. Now they would load up the car while we were out or leave in the early hours so the first you knew they were on holiday was when they came back. Maurice would strut about the garden in tee shirt with the most recent destination on the front. Places like Bermuda, Florida, the Rockies or Acapulco. I couldn’t be doing anything like that. A tee shirt with Lake District on it didn’t somehow seem to have the same impact. Besides, it would be the same one every year and for the last twenty five of them. There was no point in being secretive either. The hour and a half load up was impossible to disguise. Bike carrier, mountain bikes, hiking boots, water proofs, sticks, complete set of Wainwright Guides, electric fire, freezer box and essentials like the crate of beer told their own story.

In the absence of the spoken word, we began to communicate in other ways. Gardening for instance, and lawns in particular. If I cut mine, Maurice would start raking his as if he was trying to tell me he’d already thought about doing it. When March came around, it was a question of who would get the first cut in. Timing was essential. Too early and the frosts would do untold damage. Too late and you’d come second. Tension would mount. One year I checked the forecast and there was a week of frosts ahead. I got my lawnmower out, serviced the engine and ran it up. Maurice got his out and cut the lawns as quick as you like. I put mine away until the week after next.

In addition to holidays he also became very secretive about lawn treatments. I never saw him do anything yet his grass would turn greener than mine. I refused to be so petty as to to wait until he was out so I just put my lawn treatments in a white plastic bag. I discovered iron sulphate which would green up the grass wonderfully and also killed the moss. Maurice retaliated by watering his day and night. It got paler and paler. I checked over the fence and got out my lawn book. Fusarium patch fungus through over watering. I rushed in to tell Lynne the good news.

You won’t believe this, but Maurice has got fusarium patch.

Wash your hands love, it’s lunch time.

The week after, we went to the lakes. When we came back my grass had fusarium patch too, especially badly along the fence. I looked closely and found yellow clippings. Maurice and Lynda took one of their secret holidays shortly after. He arrived home sporting an ‘I’ve been to Venice’ tee shirt and discovered slugs had eaten his hostas. I saw him crouching and checking the few remaining leaves. He threw a glance my way. I got my box of lawn fungicide and stood it on the picnic table so he could see it and know exactly what the cause of the problems were.

I decided to put up a six foot fence along the lawn area so there wouldn’t be any more misunderstandings. Communication by gardens is after all, notoriously difficult. Being a good neighbour, I put a note through Maurice’s door the day before the erection. Brian turned up as arranged on Sunday morning at seven o’clock. He had the old fence down in no time using his concrete breaking hammer drill. I took him a cup of tea and noticed the bedroom curtains twitching next door.

Ta muchly. Which way round do you want these panels, guv?

I thought that was a silly question. I’m paying two grand for the fence and had no intention of looking at the flip side.

Best side facing please, Brian.

Right you are guv.

The first panel went up. There was a commotion next door. Lynda appeared in her Jim-jams. Brian stood astride the boundary holding the panel in place. He became the conduit of communication, his head was going from left to right like a tennis umpire.

Left. You can’t put it in like that.

Right. I’m bloody well paying for it, so it goes in like that.

Left. We’ll see about that. MAURICE?

Right. Carry on Brian.

Maurice appeared on the scene with a mobile phone. I knew he would be talking to his son who is a solicitor.

Left. It’s illegal.

Right. Bollicks!

Left. We have to have the best side or we’ll take you court.

Right. Brian, fit it the other way round.

Game, set and match.

 

A week later I bought a load of feather edge board and nailed it* neatly to my side. I painted it Burma Teak to match the rest of my fences. I decided to leave Maurice’s side natural and let it blend in and weather over the subsequent years. After about five it had gained a nice green algal patina.

*Tip: if you try this at home, pre-drill the boards using a template board and a drill slightly smaller that the galvanised nail to be used. This ensures the boards won’t crack, all the nails will be nicely lined up and in the right position to hit the cross rail.

When it came to entertaining, Lynda and Maurice were supremos. Lynda ensured the conversation and wine flowed, whilst Maurice bedecked in his apron and baseball cap commanded the barbecue. His sausage was almost as legendary as Lynda’s multi tasking. She could keep the guests topped up, sip wine, toss salad all at the same time as wheeling out stories. For big events they erected a small marquee. The sit down time at these would be my cue to cut the lawn. I have never forgotten the time my family were round and soon as our barbecue was ready Maurice decided to clean his cement mixer by turning it on full of gravel and banging the drum with a rubber mallet. Ever since, the timing of my lawn cutting has been very precise.

As the years rolled by, I noticed the attendance at the events was dwindling. I repainted the top rail of the fence or cleaned the roof of our summerhouse to check on the gathering. I could see the guests sitting with a glazed look and rictus grin, twiddling the stems of their wine goblets. Lynda was still croaking out the same old stories. God knows how many times I’d heard the cheese sandwich in Versailles one. Maurice had long since given up on conversation. He would either be poking sausages on the griddle or sitting in the background with a glass of wine, picking his feet or scratching his head. One time I smelled the barbecue and set up my mower as usual, then sat on a deck chair behind the fence, waiting. The cooking was well under way, when I heard Lynda croak from the patio doors.

What time did you arrange with them, Maurice?

But I thought……

The patio doors slammed shut. The barbecue lid crashed down. I took a peek over the fence and there was nobody there, but I mowed the lawn anyway. About mid way through black smoke was drifting over the fence, with the distinctive odour of an incinerator.

Let me bring you up to date. I’m not sure when or if anyone will be reading this, but for completeness it is now 2018. The constant bickering via turf, flowers and the like, has resulted in the two best gardens on the road. People in cars slow down to take a look. Sometimes they even take photographs. Over the years we have been neck and neck, occasionally one or the other just edging it. Then out of the blue Maurice started putting flowering plants in all over the place. He constantly attended his lawns, even on hands and knees removing individual weeds. For God’s sake, he even pressure washed his paths and patios and put a coat of paint on the front window frames. I felt threatened for the first time in fifteen years. Something needed doing. I searched Gardening World for inspiration. At last I found it. An Allett Classic electric cylinder mower. What sold it to me was this:

If you want an area of cut grass, use a rotary mower. If you want a fine cut, striped LAWN use an Allett cylinder mower.

Wow, that was it! Perfect stripes would sprint ahead of Maurice. It turned out to be a bit of an expensive beast but I bought one. In fact it was so heavy it was like pushing a dead pig with handles around the lawn. The motor turned the cutting blades but forward propulsion was human. No pain without gain I told myself as perspiration ran down my forehead. It was worth it. Within a couple of weeks my lawns had turned into bowling greens. While I was admiring my stripes, a smartly dressed young woman with a camera turned up next door, and started taking photos of Maurice’s garden. I went to the front fence to try to gain some more information, but Maurice glanced my way and then ushered her indoors. I knew immediately what it was. The cunning old fox had entered the Britain in Bloom contest. I waited around and caught the young woman’s attention as she left the house. She smiled but of course I hadn’t filled in the application forms. Maurice quickly ushered back into her car and spoke in those just tangible inaudible tones he had developed over the years.

A week later, I seriously injured my back lifting the Allett up three steps to my lawns while distracted as a sign was being nailed up next door.

FOR SALE – WILLIAM H BROWN – ESTATE AGENTS

My back didn’t hurt at first and I was too busy thinking about Maurice moving to let it, but by the time I’d finished mowing I realised there was no way I could lift the mower down again. I parked it and slumped on the garden seat and shouted for my wife.

Codeine love. Have you seen the sign next door?

Good riddance. You can check on the iPad later to see what it’s like inside and how much they’re asking.

She went off to make a cup of tea and to look for the codeine.

While I sat there admiring my beautiful stripes and wincing with pain I contemplated my time living next to Maurice. In the last fifteen years we had grown old together. We were now in our mid seventies and the time in Coventry had just flown by. No wonder he was moving, nobody could keep this up forever. I felt a wince of pain in my chest and in my back. A tear welled up in the corners of my my eyes.

I am so sorry Maurice.

Perhaps I should go round and shake his hand and share a farewell beer with him. Except I couldn’t move with the pain. It had probably been too long anyway.

Lynne arrived with the tea and codeine. She never could make a decent cup. For once she looked sympathetically at my drizzling face.

Is it really that painful love?

She pulled a brochure from under her elbow.

Someone put this through our letterbox.

It was a glossy booklet. Carlton Grange – luxury retirement apartments in ten acres of woodland and fine managed gardens.

Perhaps it’s time love? she asked.

I shuddered with pain and realisation. It most certainly was time.

 

 

 

 

 

Three Almost Men in a Boat

We were different as chalk and two cheeses. Chris was the chalk. A bricklayer, who even at his young age had acquired great skill. With flamboyant arrogance he would pick up a brick, toss it in his hand and with a lightning trowel, double dab, place it along the line with an educated tap, scrape and it was in position for eternity. In the early 1960s extensive building of council estates meant good money was to be earned. In spite of we three being almost the same age, Chris was already driving a green Hillman Super Minx while John Martin and I were wrestling with Latin verbs and eating Mars bars with our third of a pint of milk at grammar school.

I couldn’t possibly be objective in the description of myself back then, save to say I’m a typical Pisces. Dreamer, romantic, introvert or put more succinctly in my case, just plain lazy. John Martin modelled himself on Elvis. He manicured his quiff constantly with a comb, drawn with a flourish from his back jeans pocket. He always managed to get on the school bus in front of me, nab the window seat and now, as we rowed the length of Oulton Broad to the North Bay, one on each oar, he constantly out-pulled me and the boat kept slewing off course to my side.

“For Christ-sakes John, do you have to keep proving a point. Ease off for a couple of strokes so I can catch up.”

Chris sprawled across the stern, gasping on a roll up, flicking the ash over the side and smiling at the competition being played out in front of him.

“Now, now children. Keep the toys in the pram.”

It was his day off and to quote him, doing FA today except driving there and back. That was exactly what he was doing, nothing, although somehow managing to keep a sort of order on the ship.

The boat rammed into the reeds at North Bay.

Mr Collins, the boat owner, told us to bring back Number 6 looking as we found it. No groundbait over the floorboards or seats. Mud weights clean. No fag burns on the woodwork. Four pm, no later. And don’t piss in the bilges. Use the tin. Chris suggested to keep the boat clean we should push the oars into the mire and tie up to them, instead of using the mud weights, which usually came back up with half the riverbed on them slurping all over the floor. The oars would wash clean as we rowed home.

We set up and fished. And fished. The sun beat down without mercy on our shadeless habitat. The fish were having a day off. Chris seemed to find it impossible to have a day off from his building site banter. He told us that with two mates from the site they built a garage for this toff on a Sunday. They started at 6 am and by mid afternoon the three walls were finished. They knocked on the door for the money, agreed as cash in hand. He said he’d give them half as they’d been too quick. They argued, then took the money. While they cleared up the toff came out of the house with his caddie and clubs.

“Just make sure you clear up properly lads. ”

When he’d gone around the corner in his Jag, they took three sledge hammers from the van and knocked down a half of each wall.

We lived on the same street on the council estate. Queens Crescent. The estate was built on land purchased by the council from Oxford university and the streets were all named after the Oxbridge colleges. Chris and myself lived the bottom of the hill in the thick of the estate. John’s house backed onto the first row of the private houses. Our parents got on together, but the Martins projected an air of being a slight cut above the other four. Mary Martin in particular used words we hadn’t heard before, rolled out like fine juicy plums.

Throughout the day holiday cruisers passed us, often with bikini girls on board. Why is it people on boats always wave? Do they feel self conscious under scrutiny as they pass by slowly? Chris would nod back sagely. John Martin would get his comb out and I would return a half hearted slightly embarrassed wave. I noticed if there were no girls on board, the comb would stay in the pocket.

Sometimes a vision comes you can never forget. Chris painted this one. He and his labourer picked up two nymphs at the Pleasure Beach in Great Yarmouth. After a ride on the Big Dipper, the four of them went for another ride in the sand dunes behind it. When they’d finished, the girls pulled up their pants, straightened their skirts and with a ‘see ya around’ were on their way as if nothing had happened. Chris and his mate walked briskly back to the Hillman, where they took a bottle of Dettol from the glove compartment, and each tipped half the bottle over their John Thomas.

We all sat in silence. Chris took a puff on his cigarette and shrugged his shoulders.

“Well you can’t be too careful, can you?”

After a few seconds all three of us were consumed by uncontrollable laughter. Friendship, what a wonderful thing when it sings.

Back in town there were two main hangouts, coincidentally opposite each other on England’s Lane. The Chalet was a coffee bar with private cubicles and floral hanging baskets around the door. This was John Martin’s haunt. Opposite was the Durban, which had a plate glass shop front, usually with a few Nortons and Triumphs parked on the pavement outside. The leather clad bikers sprawled at the Formica tables around the room, such that just six of them seemed to fill it. The juke box played endless Eddie Cochran. Chris and I would make a beeline for the pinball machine and play until Madge the cafe owner called time on us. The object was to get five numbers in a row, easing the silver balls home with calculated nudges, without tilting the machine and forfeiting the game. We shot alternate balls and on just one occasion got the five. The machine went into overdrive clicking up replays and Madge paid us for them before resetting it. She was a generous girl, serving rolls with doorsteps of cheese and coffee that knocked your socks off, but the highlight were her Cokes. She kept the bottles in an ice cream fridge and they froze to a mush popping the caps with the pressure, with a little plug of ice sticking from the neck. There was nothing better on a hot day than coaxing one of these back to life and sipping the just thawed cola. Sometimes one of the bikers would go out the back with Madge for a few minutes. I never thought too much about this, but Chris said she had to make ends meet.

I thought I could do with one those Cokes there and then. Chris checked his watch.

“Last cast chaps, five minutes to packing up.”

He inspected his hook and cast out. I’m sure it was the same maggot he’d been using for the last hour. Most of the others in the tin had made a dubious escape into the bilge water and I couldn’t help wondering what the smell would be like in a couple of days of this heat. John Martin loaded so many of the larvae onto his hook they were wiggling up the line two inches above the hook. He stood up, presumably for a better cast. On the backswing I noticed from the corner of my eye Chris giving a little double thrust of his hips, enough to rock the boat. John Martin dropped his rod and fell backwards, initially saving himself by grabbing the end of the oar. Chris and I moved over to the other side to counterbalance the weight, otherwise we would have capsized. Things thereafter seemed to proceed in a slow, but inevitable fashion. The oar sunk more deeply into the mud. The securing ropes unraveled until John Martin was leaning backwards horizontally like a yachtsman on a trapeze. We could not move to help him or the boat would have lurched over. Finally the oar snapped and John Martin became one with the muddy water and ooze.

As we paddled back, the plan was to quietly tie up and slip away. I don’t know what exactly attracted Mr Collins to the end of his landing stage. He was standing as close as possible to the end with his legs apart and his arms folded. As we approached he became somewhat more animated. Maybe it was the fact we had gone over the hire time, but more likely it was the sight of Number 6 zig zagging down the broad, with one oar being passed through the air from one side to the other. John Martin was snatching the oar from me and muttering about his ruined jeans and lost comb. The stern was awash with mud and water from where he had been hauled back into the boat. Chris sat in the bow humming a hornpipe.

“Hooray and up she rises. Uh-oh lads, there may be trouble ahead.”

 

“What time do you call this? What’s happened to the other oar? Look at the state of my boat. Have you bastards been swimming?”

So many questions. We tied up letting the tirade pass overhead. Eventually Chris appointed himself spokesman as he unloaded the gear.

“The oar broke and he fell in (which was ostensibly true). It must have been rotten.”

“Rotten my arse. That was a new oar. You hooligans have been skylarking. I’m calling the police. You’ll have to pay for it.”

I nudged Chris and nodded towards the mud weights which were sitting pristine, black and shiny in the bow of the boat. We walked toward the Hillman, gathering pace and I noticed in front of me Chris’s shoulders rising and falling sharply. Mr Collin’s rant was becoming fainter.

“I’ve got your number, lad. It’s no laughing matter. And don’t you come back here ever again…..”

We never did. A few weeks later Chris bought his own boat and trailer, just big enough for two. Friendships continued for a year or so, then we went our own ways.

 

Some forty years on, Chris turned up at my father’s funeral looking fit and well and none the worse for laying bricks in all that time. He crushed my hand as I shook his.

“I thought I’d find you here,” he said.

He was with Sal, his sister, and John Martin’s mother, Mary, who looked frail but was still sharp in her mind. Mary told me John had moved to the south coast and made a fortune as an estate agent. She hadn’t seen him in years and it was Sal who now cared for her. Sal, the girl next door who I paid no attention to had grown into a beautiful and considerate woman. I felt sorry for Mary, being the last surviving member of the group of parents. How exposed that must have felt. The four of us entered that bubble of reminiscence and I was transported back to the 1960s, so much so that I forgot that this was my father’s wake. I realised I had been laughing and joking with them which must have seemed worse than inappropriate to the rest of the gathering.

I made no arrangements to meet with Chris again. It was a moment in time not to be repeated, as was that boat trip at Oulton Broad. We were three almost men in a boat, now on the threshold of old age. I know my father would not have minded our get together at his funeral. On the way home, I found myself humming his favourite song, played at the cremation, “there may be trouble ahead, let’s face the music and dance.” God rest his soul.

And God bless all friendships, be they old or new.