Short stories

I love listening to audio stories. I love the way a story can leap from the page. Aided by strong coffee and a good lunch (no little deception), I invited Regine Candler to the studio to record a couple of my stories. She has spent a great deal of her working life recording voice-over, stories for children, poetry and I am so pleased she took the time to bring my words to life.

The Rollerskate’ was written in Paris and the shop exists on the hill leading to Montmartre. The interior is in my head but exactly as I wanted it to be.

I like to think “Lost For Words” is a very English look at writing group, book club, church hall committee, you name it….anywhere we’re gathered together with an agenda.

 

Waiting For Six

Women with pushchairs, dangling toddlers; old people wandering the aisles. I hate shopping. I mean it, I really hate shopping. And she knows it, lets me off gently, though I don’t deserve it.
‘Why don’t you just go and get a coffee? Meet you in the café, just give me twenty minutes, okay?’
I mumble agreement. I can never find what I’m looking for anyway, even if I actually want anything. The escalator pitches me into the lingerie department, acres of nylon bras and huge posters of uplifts and frilly knickers.  Men’s Fashion in beige – New Men with cheery, self-satisfied grins and full heads of hair, dressed like they’re off to dinner on the boss’ yacht. But, look around, if you want a pair of elasticated trousers, you’re in the right place.  It occurs to me I need a new pair of slippers. Dislocation.
            ‘You could make more of an effort, couldn’t you?  You could just try and pretend to enjoy it at least. Treat it like a day out – ‘
‘What, like Alton Towers or the zoo?’  I snap back. Unreasonable or unresponsive – which is it to be? ‘I’m having fun – no, honest, I am!’  Spiteful and brittle.
I’m an unbeliever in the temple of the godless. And I’m going to pick away at the pieces. Bit by bit, like a kid worrying at a scabbed knee. We both know that I’m not going to let it go, not till I’ve done some real damage.  My father’s son.
‘I sometimes think you do this on purpose,’ she says quietly while I stir my coffee, knowing it will never, ever taste any better.
‘Think what you like,’  I say, but she already has, probably in a previous lifetime. Her mother’s daughter.
In the precinct, the polished shine of marble floor leads to the Exit, where the High Street clings to the grey of the late afternoon. I see our reflections in shop front windows, but it’s another, uncertain couple who stare back, adrift in an unknown world of their own making.  The traffic’s at a standstill and I’m two yards behind her, trying to avoid the cracks in the pavement.
A  red car has stopped in the entrance to the car park, just yards from the barrier, a  woman sitting in the driver’s seat. The woman’s reading a book, but it’s none of our business. I carry the bags toward the car: push change at the ticket machine, load the backseat, try to leave the sinking feeling behind, but it’s lodged tight inside, immoveable.
‘What’s she doing?’
I turn around, half in, half out of the car. ‘Nothing, just sitting there.’
Two more vehicles have pulled up behind the red car, but it still doesn’t move forward.
‘Do you think she’s alright?’
‘ Looked okay to me. She was reading.’
A lady gets out of the car behind. It’s blocking the yellow, criss-crossed grid and she can’t move forward or back. I momentarily lose sight of her behind the ticket machine as a first, few, small drops of rain begin, almost delicately, to fall.
‘What’s going on now?’
I don’t reply, but I’m curious, a bystander. I can hear the shouting, see the arms waving, but I feel curiously detached, distanced, like I’m watching a play at the theatre. A comedy of errors. The red car finally lurches through the barrier.
The second lady’s furious: sees us watching.
‘She was waiting for six. Can you believe it? Six o’clock. Trying to save money, waiting for the evening rate.’  Shakes her head, gets back in her car. We look at each other and I look at my watch.
‘5.58.’  We both laugh and the tension releases like air from a valve and we grasp at this unexpected reprise. But it’s short-lived.
‘You do that, you know,’  she says as she pulls out on to the main road.
‘Do what?’  I know what’s coming.
‘You know, find some stupid, forgotten principal and hang on for grim death.’
I glance sideways; she’s smiling, but it’s loaded. I don’t want to answer, because there’s no point really. She’s right after all. She always is. Here we go.
‘ I can’t help myself.’
‘Try occasionally. You might feel better.’
‘Don’t bank on it – ‘
She can read me like a book. And she reaches down inside and tears the page a little more.
‘You do it over and over, don’t you? You’re not content to let anything lie, are you?’
‘Not really, no – ‘
‘It’s a game to you isn’t it? And  I can’t play it any more. You just keep on pulling everything apart. Again and again, three, four, five times.’  She looks at me, hands gripping the wheel, joints whitening. ‘What are you doing now?’
I’m staring straight ahead. The windscreen wipers click and scrape at the drizzle. We’ve reached some kind of crossroads.
‘Waiting for six.’  I say and close my eyes.

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

 

The Cloth We’re Cut From       

If we’d been busier, I’d never have met him. Jozef Bronowski. Which is kind of funny really, as the reason we weren’t busy in the first place was because of him. At least, that’s the way I was looking at things.

I’d grown up in the restaurant trade and it’s never been an easy life. The family’s always lived in London, has always been in the business. Even as a kid, my father had me washing up evenings and weekends, never mind whether I had homework to do or not. He was a great fan of hard work, my father. Right up to having a heart attack: that slowed him down a bit. God’s way of handing him his retirement notice. Afterwards, the restaurant had been sold. I wasn’t old enough to take it on and it was hard for him to accept things. Funnily enough though, it was Mum who went first: Dad hung on long enough to see me and Maria start this place up. He never admitted it, but I think he was very proud of us. No flags or banners though, that was never his way.

Anyway, Jozef: he’d been out there four days in a row, maybe for a half hour each day, maybe an hour. Just standing there, sometimes peering in the window, or sometimes eating his sandwiches, sitting on the kerb. London has a lot of people who don’t seem to have anything much to do. Same with all cities: you get used to seeing people in shop doorways or on street corners – it goes with the territory. But you don’t want that kind of thing outside your restaurant do you?  Especially as we’d only been open a couple of months. It’s difficult enough at the best of times.

I told Maria I’d just have a little word – nothing nasty of course, he wasn’t doing any harm. She was handling things, we didn’t have many in, so I could spare a minute or two. I reckoned he was putting the customers off, the lunchtime crowd, the suits and the girls from over the road. It’s okay in front of the Pizza Hut, fair enough, but not here. He wasn’t exactly the image I was trying to portray to my clientele!

I hadn’t really thought about what I was going to say. He was a lot older than I’d realised, dressed in a crumpled, brown suit and a faded overcoat. I thought I should probably give him a few quid for a cup of tea. A cup of tea somewhere else, of course – but as I got out of the door, he took a boiled egg out of a little Tupperware tub and popped it in his mouth whole! I was pretty impressed by this, but I still asked him really nicely if he’d mind eating his lunch somewhere else, not hanging around right outside my window. And all the time he’s chewing, bits are flying out and landing on his coat and his scarf like little, rubbery flakes of snow. Then he said – and I’ll always remember his words – he said, “She was so beautiful.”  Just that. “She was so beautiful.”

I must have looked a bit taken aback and, before I could say anything else, he held his hand out to me and said, “My name’s Jozef Bronowski. I am Polish. I came to London on the Hildeburg from Bremerhaven in 1947. She was a beautiful ship. How she had stayed so beautiful in that dockyard was a miracle, a miracle amidst the snow and the rubble. I will never forget her.”

I didn’t need his life story, I had seven plates of culinary excellence to attend to, but he’s telling me all this and there was something about him that made me listen. He went on, “There have been just the three beautiful things in my life. This beautiful city, the beautiful Hildeburg that carried me here and my beloved Irena.” And he pointed up to our sign over the front window.

It’s safe to say I’m not the sharpest tool in the box, but I got there. The sound of pennies dropping!  My Mum was a lovely lady – Greek, not Polish, my Mum and Maria and I named the restaurant after her: Irena. I couldn’t help but smile.

He had lunch on the house that day. Maria’s face was a picture, but it’s what Mum would have done. You don’t get the measure of a man in a couple of hours, but sometimes paths can cross in the least expected ways. Jozef had been transported from Leszno to the labour camp at Mittelbau, where he had met Irena Tcherzin. They had never married. Although the camp had been liberated by the Americans in 1945, Irena’s health had never recovered and she had died the following year. Jozef had no surviving family and came to London before he was even twenty, getting work on the Hildeburg to pay his passage.

That was sixty-six years and a lifetime ago. Now he was a little old man, with a penchant for boiled eggs. A man whose future had been shaped and decided by the actions of others and the events of history. I pray that my children don’t have to deal with that, so they can be free to make their own decisions and free to make their own mistakes.

He doesn’t come that often now. We see him outside on the odd occasion and give him a wave and Maria will always ask him in for a coffee whenever he’s there. It’s not an easy life running a restaurant, but you can give a little back now and again can’t you? Because one day, he won’t be standing outside, will he?  And we’re all waiting on God’s retirement plan.

 

Crescendo

Concert halls breathe, they resonate intractably to airwaves and atmospheric pressure so that the silence comes alive. I can close my eyes and feel it. I hear the rustle of clothing, the gentle whisper of breath, an occasional tap of bow on bridge, on taut string, the faint turn of page and creak of floor. And beyond, far beyond, a distant hum of traffic, people and a world in motion. Behind my headphones, a rhythmic pulse and fade.

Sixty-five aluminium tripods, extended arms at forty-five degrees, hold the Sennheiser microphones. Sixty-five music stands, pages of yellowing scores, sixty-five cushioned seats in rows: a semi-circular framework of metal and wood. I’ve set them all – every stand, every microphone, every seat. I’ve run the cables, uncoiling in lines across floor and stage. I’ve taped the “Recording In Progress” signs to outer doors, doors held tight with intricately-cast, bronzed catches. The Free Trade Hall in Manchester, with its high ceiling, polished wooden floors and panelled walls of oak, sycamore and walnut, is an Italian-style palazzo, with stone balustrades and balconies, paired Ionic columns and colonnaded arches. Carved figures decorate the friezes and ornamental cornices and from tall, rectangular windows, the watery sunlight and gentle blue of the early day fills the hall with a growing definition. The air breathes the memory of Kathleen Ferrier and, when it plays this summer morning, the sound of the orchestra will reach to the heavens like the very music of God.

“We enjoy the heavenly pleasures, so can dispense with earthly things” – the celestial song of the final movement, ‘Das Himmlische Leben,’ – the words lifted and carried by the voice of the soprano. The three of us, huddled over blinking lights and red-crossed score, recorders and mixing desk, forget the drowsiness of an early start, the bacon rolls for breakfast, the already endless cups of coffee. In a small room, halfway down a whitewashed corridor, we forget the mundane, the ordinary, the commonplace and enjoy these heavenly pleasures.

I sit beneath the headphones and listen beyond the sound, beyond the notes, beyond the beauty of Mahler’s Fourth. I simply listen for extraneous noise, the unbidden disturbance or wayward intruder into our world, into Mahler’s world. And I concentrate on the two, flickering dials of the VDU meters as they twitch and jerk, in the red but never held with any constancy: no overloading, no distortion. In a world of my own.

So, when it comes, it takes a full eight, ten, twelve seconds to register. A distant, growling rumble, growing in intensity and volume, then a dull roar that reaches inside my headphones, deep within my head. And, for seconds that seem like a lifetime, my lifetime, the sound reverberates with a violence beyond comprehension. I tear the phones from my head, but it has followed me through plastic and wire into this little room where we sit, the three of us, behind our recorders, dials and coloured buttons. And the beauty of Mahler, of music, of God and Love, is shaken, dispelled and lost.

“We enjoy the heavenly pleasures, so can dispense with earthly things. No wordly turmoil can be heard in heaven…”

And at this exact, precise moment, we are not to know it. 11.17 a.m. on the 15th June, 1996. The Arndale Centre.

 

 

Copyright owned by Nicholas John                                                   

 

Comments
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