Moving on

“It was early morning yesterday,” Mike Chaikin hummed Supertramp’s ‘Goodbye Stranger’ as he lifted one denim-clad leg over the curved saddle of his red Harley Davidson. He patted the tank, “C’mon old girl, make this a clean getaway”.

It was four a.m., and the slumbering birds lining the eaves of the Georgian cul-de-sac tucked amongst the backstreets of Llandybie barely raised an eyelid as he kicked over the engine. He checked his guitar was strapped firmly to his back and rolled the machine onto the road.

“I was up before the dawn,” he sang to himself. He pulled his white silk scarf over his mouth, picked his dark glasses from his pocket and donned them, then twisted the throttle.

It had been a good gig for a small town, he reflected as he coasted through the lanes. The beer jug passed around bore enough money to pay for his petrol and a full English, his drinks came free and the divorcees were plentiful. The latter, as always, resolved itself down to the one who showed the most enthusiasm, rather than the best looker. He liked enthusiastic lovers; you can keep athleticism and pulchritude, he mused, give me a bed for the night and I will do as many encores as you desire.

“And I will go on shining, shining like brand new,” he warbled, a hidden smile creasing his mouth, provoked by the memory of the night before.

She was nice: her soft accent, ready wit, her warmth and generous spirit. He guessed he would miss her, but there would be others. There always were. His career as an itinerant musician took him the length of the country, never earning him enough to get further than the next gig and the next bed.

“I’m an early morning lover,” he jumped to his favourite bit, “And I must be moving on.”

I must be moving on. He pondered this solitary existence of his, always rootless, travelling from town to town, endless faces without names blurring into decades of peripatetic struggle. Maybe he needed a change.

“Now I believe in what you say, is the undisputed truth”, the sun rose ahead, casting long shadows as he moved smoothly past caravans of early morning trucks, “But I have to have things my own way, to keep me in my youth.”

Youth. That was gone for sure. He squandered it in pursuit of stardom. It never came and he knew it never would. He eased back on the throttle as the A48 came to an end and checked his fuel gauge. The tank was half-full, but it would do no harm to top it up, so he swung into the services. Once finished he strode towards the kiosk, outside of which stood freshly cut bunches of flowers, and a smile took hold. He found one which satisfied him, paid the bill, tucked his bouquet into a saddle-bag and with a wry grin headed back to Llandybie.

“Tried to see your point of view, hope your dreams will all come true”, he sang happily.

He really hoped they would and as he thought this he said goodbye to the stranger he had become.

Solomon’s Gold

Jason Solomon has few items eliciting appreciation from his even fewer visitors. A single brass menorah and a fine, velvet kippah alongside it on the mantel drew the eye before being wiped from that memory segment marked “fleeting”. Otherwise his apartment was plain, but noticeably clean and, unusually for a recently divorced man in his fifties, exceptionally tidy.

His cleanliness was a tribute to his thirty-eight-year career as a baker in his father’s shop, a man for whom the godliness of cleanliness was visited upon his employees with a wrath of scriptural ferocity.

Contrasting with its spotless appearance, the apartment smelled as high as a three-day old cadaver, and so it should, because Jason Solomon is dead.

He sits in his armchair facing the small window overlooking the courtyard at the back of his tenement block, eyes clenched tight in an echo of pain, a thin line of dried drool adorning his cardigan; a rivulet of impending mortality now baked hard by the streaming sunlight, the last ironic act of a life lived tidily.

“Looks like a heart attack”, said Judie Foss, after checking Solomon’s vitals. She was one of two paramedics admitted to the apartment after Solomon failed to show up for work two days running. Both of them knew what was coming before they gained entry, but they still drew an ill-advised breath at the summer sun-engendered stench coming from the room.

“Poor bugger. He’s been here a few days,” her partner, Mike Standish replied. “Open the window, Jude. I’ll phone it in.”

She reached out and pulled at the window catch, but it refused to budge, “I’ll try the kitchen window.”

Mike pulled his cellphone from his pocket and started to dial when he noticed a small, pink, slip of paper lying on the floor, just under edge of the chair. He lifted it free and folded it open. It was a lottery ticket and Mike knew with absolute certainty the cause of death. Glancing back at the kitchen door to make sure he was unobserved, he pocketed the ticket and walked over to the small hallway.

“Popping outside, Jude. I can’t get a signal in here.” Mike said as he stepped out onto the graffiti adorned landing. He took the stairs down two at a time, his heart racing with excitement and his finger stabbing feverishly at the National Lottery app on his phone. Comparing the numbers, his excitement turned to exultation. They were a match.

“Oh my God, I’m rich,” he said to himself as he stepped unseeing into the path of a speeding bread van, which lifted him clear off the ground and threw him against the far wall of the terraced street. He was dead before he hit the floor and the lottery ticket bobbed and fluttered in the sudden breeze, taking it clear of the narrow, intersecting roads of the tenement blocks, along the broad expanse of Whitechapel High Street until it settled at the feet of a young priest entering the London Hospital to dispense compassion.

Picking it up, he immediately knew in his heart it was the winning ticket and visions of affording great works of charity flashed through his mind. He barely saw the oxygen bottle falling from the fifth floor window as it hit him with the force of a pile-driver, driving his biretta through his skull and into his chest cavity.

The ticket fluttered on and on, riding the breeze like an avenging angel.

Round and round it goes, where it will stop, nobody knows.

A Christmas Tale

Jack sat in his car. His warm car. His warm, dry car, he corrected himself. Sainsbury’s carpark was the usual assortment of badly parked vehicles, but even more so now it was near the terminal end of the Christmas shopping madness. The scene through his windscreen was of hurriedly scampering shoppers clad in the regalia of winter in Wales, collars pulled tightly against gusting, rain-laden wind, shopping bags clutched possessively to their breasts, scarves knotted, beanies pulled skin-stretchingly tight against raddled cheeks and tingling ears.

He could hear the wind slapping ferociously across the undulant car-park, whipping up lake-like puddles into leg soaking spray and the intermittent huffs and puffs of passers-by as they gasped expletively at the blessing of living in the Western part of this island of ours.

Not for the first time, he doubted his rationality for returning. London would be dry now he assured himself, but as always he doubted and sought i-Confirmation from his constant companion. He examined the screen, touched an icon and there it was: five degrees, clear sky. It didn’t say “warm duvet, warmer girlfriend, hot coffee bubbling away in the kitchen”, but he thought it. The thought reminded him regretfully: “warmer girlfriend” was now a thing of the past. Instead he was living in a parent’s house, camp bed, careful with the language, no Xbox, lights out at ten, sherry trifle world, but at least it was only until Boxing Day. Then it was back to London and the emptiness of an apartment for one.

He smiled ruefully at the turn of his thoughts and added, “Damn you, Jesus. Why not July 25th?” Then prepared himself for the fray.

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The conversation piece

John sat on his square of cloth and newspaper outside the Whitechapel Art Gallery. You could find him there most days, with his big, square shoulders, knobbly nose and scruffy growth of ginger beard. I remember his coat more than anything. Brown herringbone with wide lapels; two of the four buttons missing and the other two held on with electrical wire forced through the eyes and fastened with a tail of knots that disappeared into the folds of his coat. What you could see of his eyes beneath his heavy forehead and thick, spikey eyebrows, were pale blue and as watery as his career in the merchant navy.
He sat there, hunched over his possessions in a collection of worn plastic carryalls and a naval kit bag that may have seen better days, you couldn’t tell any more. His hand extended as each passer-by passed by, mumbled words of gratitude at the chink of a coin, muttered invective at those who chose to just pass by.
I was making my way to college from East Ham, where I was living in those days, in a place called the Flying Angel – a former seaman’s mission, which had been converted into a student hall of residence. I use “converted” in the loosest possible sense, because it was little more than a lick of government issue paint and a few imported Formica topped tables type of conversion. The beds were of the same prison-type issue: metal sprung torture devices barely covered by pencil thin mattresses, adorning tiny rooms with doors that clanged shut. The Angel was not built for permanent residence; especially for John.
He was resident in his spot in Whitechapel almost every day, but I first spoke to him one spring morning right at the beginning of term. To this day I’m not sure why, but it was probably a sense of guilt, borne of a naturally charitable nature.
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Bangers and Smash

There are many ways to send a perfectly good car to an early grave, the most obvious is to give it to a company rep. Less apparent, but lots more fun is to take it to Haxenbury Airfield on the third Sunday of the month and enter it into a contest with the bargain basement Schumachers of East London. For here, on two miles of windswept concrete, the wannabe Formula One drivers of tomorrow pit their skills against each other practising the black arts of banger racing.

Haxenbury Airfield is at best a cold, desolate place. Geographically and economically juxtaposed between the burgeoning, commercial district of the Vale Enterprise Park and the old, now nearly defunct, Haxenbury Industrial Estate, it represents a sad reflection of the best hopes and worst fears of that greatest of decades, the 1950s. In the pantheon of ridiculous planning decisions, Haxenbury must rank up there with Birmingham’s spaghetti junction, Milton Keynes and the age-old decision to site the Capital City in the most vulnerable part of the UK.

Situated some fifteen miles from East London and marginally less accessible than the City of London airport, the airfield has no discernible commercial or military purpose. It must have been the fantasy of some long forgotten Alderman serving the adjacent market town of Holt-on-Corner to have an airport. Perhaps he or she believed it would enhance the status, prosperity and expectations of a town long over reliant on the twin pillars of rural life, the market and the public house. Whatever, the Alderman was wrong and Haxenbury Airfield suffered a graceless death in the early sixties, existing henceforth as a vivid concrete scar in the middle of rustic Kent’s timeless beauty. That is, until recently when some bright sparks decided to transform it into a Wide-Boy Imola with an Estuary accent.

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Merfyn the Wizard

Many years ago, when I was about fifteen years of age, I was holidaying in a small West Wales village called Rhossili. Situated some twenty miles south-west of Swansea, on the tip of the Gower Peninsula, Rhossili bay is said to be a place of magic and fable.

A few miles inland from Rhossili, on the old road that traverses the length of Cefn Bryn from Cilibion to Reynoldston is a Neolithic monument that according to those who know these things, dates back to 2500 B.C.

The rock has been known for many centuries simply as “Arthur’s Stone” or as it is called by the locals, many of whom are small, pale and furry and pronounce everything with an excess of spittle: “Maen Ceti”.

From Maen Ceti, you can see for miles across land and sea. Indeed, it is said there once stood a famous wizard who – despite being born in the nearby village of Rhossili and so lacking in physical stature – could see the shores of Ireland on a fine day. The wizard was reputedly named “Merfyn”. This grated with him a little bit, because at the same time there was a famous wizard from Wales known as “Merlyn” or as the English – who were renowned for their inability to spell anything correctly, called him – “Merlin”.

Now Merfyn was every bit as good a wizard as Merlyn, but unlike his more famous counterpart he was not tall and elegant: he was short and stumpy. Moreover, he lacked Merlyn’s long, flowing, white beard. Instead, like most of the inbred villagers, he had thick, black tufts sticking out at seemingly random angles from his face (and indeed most of his body). And unlike Merlyn, he was not blessed with a clear, ringing voice, which echoed resonantly across the valleys all the way to Camelot itself. No, Merfyn the Wizard had a speech impediment which meant every time he used a word with an “S” in it, he would dribble all over his tufty beard and pronounce it “schhs”. So “Hello sexy” became a rather less inviting, “Hello schhsexthy”.

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Service level aggravation

“I being of sound mind…” The opening lines to a new last will and testament? No, this is a service level contract. The training department has decided that they want to become a semi-autonomous organisation within the company and as such have sought to renegotiate their inter-departmental agreements.

This caught the I.T department on the hop. Jiffy, our I.T. Director quickly realised this has nothing to with golf or rock climbing so delegated it to Mungo, the User Technical Support Manager. In itself, this was a rare moment of perspicacity for a man who quite frequently scores lower in tests than the Doom artificial intelligence parser and rarer than an on time delivery from any one of the three largest PC manufacturers, but delegate it he did.

Mungo on the other hand is a thinker, although in a weasel-like-avoid-work-at-all-costs fashion admittedly. He took one long look at the draft letter and returned it to Training with a series of grammatical corrections scrawled in the margin.

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Lo Cal Pork Sandwiches

Lammas Road Trading Estate in E10 is one of those forgotten pieces of industrial detritus that litter the East-end like souvenirs from a previous economic era. It harks back to the days when someone could earn enough in a forty hour week to keep a family without supplementary benefits, a second income, a forty year mortgage, and credit cards to pay off the credit cards. Did they really exist?

You will not find a call centre anywhere near Lammas Road, neither will it ever be described as “Lammas Road Commercial Park”, but what you will find are those islands of entrepreneurial spirit that characterise the best efforts of modern Britain to earn a living as an independent spirit, free from the demands of unreasonable bosses, a cash business that fulfils the most basic of needs: the need for food. I am, of course, referring to the burger van.

There are three burger vans within walking distance of each other on the estate, but only the most centrally placed of them offers that culinary masterpiece: the hot pork sandwich, a favourite that transcends the fad diet of the moment.

If I’m hungry, and I frequently am, there is nothing more satisfying than one of Mike’s Lo Cal, hot pork sandwiches, complete with stuffing and apple sauce. He says the reason he calls it Lo Cal has nothing to do with the calorific value, but rather because it was made just around the corner, so it’s LoCal. The bread is sliced thick enough to expose the limitations of a single hinge jaw and the meat has that distinct, burger van flavour that says; “I’m extremely toxic, but anything this tasty has to be..”

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