Tales Tall and True
I can sit around for hours on end, just fiddling with bits of paper and jotting random ideas down. I am developing a real non-style here. No worries. But no words either. Sometimes, I think the whole process is beyond me and it’s going to drive me round the twist. But, you know, it’s strange…….something does just kinda happen (usually very late at night or in the early hours: my favourite time!), something just starts to slowly reveal itself from the confused mass of my thoughts. I don’t seem to have much control over this, and sometimes the more I try to pat things into shape, the more the ideas act on their own.
Is this the creative process? Frustrating, bloody-minded, difficult and often long-winded, it can take you places where you don’t want to go, up one side of the street and back down again, into a cul-de-sac. No matter, follow it, because it might just be all we have.
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.
Thanks Regine…. and thanks to David Pick at FFG Studios for engineering the project.
‘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.
And here are four tales for you to read:
Old Chippy must have been seventy if he was a day, a grimy terrier of a man. He was all creaking senility when he first walked through the doors of 3C, as wrinkled as a walnut, hands that shook and a voice that rasped like the sandpaper we’d soon be scraping across wood.
‘Chippy’ Armstrong. Bless his callous, empty heart. Fashioned from some godforsaken grammar in a bleak northern town, grey with coal dust, a product of a world war and an empire no longer needed: like Old Chippy himself, who knew that his time was up. We were lost in growing pains and December weather – our very own winter of discontent – power cuts, strikes and litter in the streets. Heath and Wilson battling left and right with the cloth-capped unions and the soul of what was left of our little island fortress.
Some kids liked the lessons: the ones who’ve graduated to a workbench in the shed. I didn’t get it myself – I was never going to make a table, I was going to buy one from MFI. Why make a boat if you’re never going to sea?
Old Chippy had us constructing dovetail joints for chairs that would never exist. Mortise and tenon, tongue and groove, it doesn’t matter now. We could have put a stool together, or a coffee table, or something even remotely useful, joint by miserable joint – at least there would have been something to show for all the chiselling, sanding and gluing. No such vaunted ambition; just pegs for your tent and wedges for your door.
The Stanley sanding plane was Chippy’s pride and joy. He’d caress it like it lived and breathed, gently smoothing it along the grain like it was his hand on a woman’s back. We’d snigger and he’d shout, jabbing his finger and woe betide if you left it flat on a workbench to snag and blunt the blade. He’d hold your blazer collar and shake you, his bony hand gnarled, his face mottled, sweat beading on his forehead. Put it back in the rack properly! Put it back in the rack!
Rumour had it he’d been at Dunkirk. That should’ve earned him our respect but we were too lost in our selfish concerns and teenage pre-occupations. Fight them on the
beaches. Fight them in the classrooms, never surrender. It wouldn’t have bothered me if he’d fought them single-handedly all the way to Berlin – just him, his Lee Enfield and his sanding plane.
They tell you that your schooldays are the best days of your life. I tell them that they never met Chippy Armstrong. And as I take my boy to the Open Day at the school where I spent the best days of my life, I walk the echoing corridors hand in hand with my memories. Matt has the unquenchable vigour of all eleven year olds and I’m as protective and encouraging as I can be, but it’s hard when every step brings the old disillusionments seeping back. Where was the kid who graced these tiled floors? What did he become after the confidence and optimism had drained away? And what does he tell his little boy? I don’t feel equipped somehow. When Matt asks to see the Woodwork room (they call it “Resistant Materials” now) – the room where I spent so many fruitless hours – I harden my heart to a familiar deep-rooted feeling. The workbenches are the same. Scarred and worn, etched with the marks of a thousand chisels. For thirty years, education cuts have spared these aged, wooden monoliths for future generations, for Matt to scratch and scrape where I had. Tent pegs and door wedges and me and Chippy, his face inches from mine, still a mottled hue.
The view from the window is the same too, though the grey slab of concrete playground is now black tarmac. The fluorescent strip of classroom light throws my reflection onto the glass, silhouetting it against the backdrop of early evening. I’m half in the present, half in the past and I’m not sure which I’m running from.
Matt’s off somewhere and I’m not ready to lay the ghosts just yet, but as I turn to leave, my attention’s drawn to a glass-fronted display case on the far wall. The three, small wooden bears in the case are lovingly carved from single, individual pieces of mahogany.
The maternal look in the mother’s eyes is exquisite, delicate, sad, while the cubs’
expressions hold the sheer joy and inquisitiveness of youth. The younger of the two rears on his back legs, front paws clasped together as if in prayer. I open one sliding, glass door and gently take the second cub from the case. The wood is smooth, the intricacy of the work extraordinary, tiny chisel-marks and fine cuts giving the impression of textured fur. And I notice the tiny, brass plague on the front of the case and I already think I know what it says:
Presented to St. Michael’s Grammar School by Donald Ewan Armstrong
Woodwork teacher at this school: 1969-1981
I want to tell him that this doesn’t change anything, that I’ll always remember him as a miserable old sod. That the reason I hadn’t made anything, learned anything, was his fault, not mine. But I’m wrong about one thing. His heart wasn’t empty after all. It was just filled with a different kind of love.
I place the wooden bear back in the case. Matt’s calling me from the doorway, something about music and learning the violin and I know that this is his time and I mustn’t taint it for him. I can’t carry my son’s burdens, whatever they turn out to be, just to appease my own.
There’s a Stanley sanding plane lying flat on the workbench, so I pick it up and place it in its rack.
TO MY BROTHER, THE SPOILS
From the boats that lie at rest, nets furled for morning light, I cast as I have so many times. I pull hard on the oars, muscle and sinew aflame with effort, my boat too heavy for one man alone, yet she carries on the ebbing tide, drawn from a greying shore. I cannot raise my hand against him, but jealousy is alive within me and I cannot turn aside either.
In the dark, the sail fills with the westward wind, taking me clear of land. My boat rises and dips on the white-capped swell and it’s my own voice that fills my ears, as if I were still shouting at the heavens. The lights of the village are as distant as the stars that guide me, as insignificant as the words I left behind. Even now, the lantern in my father’s hand will pierce the shadows and find me gone.
Love for a brother cannot be taken by sword or circumstance. But I choose to disown it freely. I choose not to carry that love any longer. A brother revered by parents blinded by bright-eyed wonder, yet born a second son, Heraclides will be all that he aspires to be – all that my mother and father wish in dotage – from childhood till death. And have I not always desired to please, to make them proud? From father to son, the way is set, ordained not by human hand – and I was true – yet he lives by the designs of men, of building and council, a stranger to his calling, unafraid to walk his own path, unafraid to challenge and to defy the gods! Let them decide his fate but I cannot call him brother.
In truth, I have wished for more. To wonder at the cities of white marble, the paved streets and decorated columns. To see the armies of Alexander march across the northern plains, to hear tales of conquest and war. But this was not to be my choice. From childhood at my father’s knee, my place was by his side, weighting the nets and hauling them in, eyes to the sun and head to the wind. And this I have done without complaint, without bitterness, and yet this love has foundered on the rocks of my brother’s ambition and his success has turned their hearts. My obedience opened paths for him, as surely as it closed them for me.
The wind is rising now. I catch one last sight of the darkened strip of shore that I will never return to and then it is swallowed between the jaws of sea and sky. Thetis and her nymphs are at play, driving the waves, and the pale glimmer of the stars is lost under scudding cloud. My strength is failing but still I hold to my course. It is not in my hands any more. I am driven by powers unknown and I will surrender to that which I cannot – nor wish to fight. It is not my hand on the tiller. The rains come, beating on the wooden boards and I am helpless, lost to wind and water, pitching and turning in the confused seas.
The sail tears and rents asunder and my father’s boat, our boat, turns broadside to the furious waves and tips and slides into the waiting arms of Poseidon.
To my brother, the spoils. To me, the sea.
SWEETHEART LIKE YOU
Like any English seaside town, Scarborough closed its eyes for the winter as the last tourists dribbled away at the end of September. ‘Out of Season.’ Restaurants closed at nine, some only opened at the weekend, and the summer attractions shut their doors and spent the winter months in hibernation, waiting for the Easter holidays.
Moira hated the winter. It was cold and damp and when she walked to work, the wind whipping in from the sea was biting, kicking the litter in dizzying little whirlwinds and filling the shop doorways with piles of rubbish. Straight off the North Sea, the gale would make her struggle for breath and bring salty tears to her eyes. Her shift at Harbour Fish & Chips started at four and it was very nearly dark before she even got to work. In the summer, even on the way home, she could take the footpath up and over the Castle headland and back onto the north side, but once the clocks went back, she had to walk through the town for half an hour or catch the bus from Dean Road, which wasn’t that much quicker, but kept her dry.
‘Er, haddock and a small chips please.’ The voice startled her. She looked up from her magazine. He was gangly, with a mop of tousled brown hair and a baggy jacket.
‘It’ll be a few minutes, the haddock. I need to put a fresh one in. That OK?’
‘It’s quite late,’ Moira looked at the clock on the wall. It was her turn to lock-up tonight. ‘We fry things to order after eight.’
‘No, that’s fine. I’ll wait.’ He shook the rain from his jacket.
‘You’re not local…..’ She’d caught his accent; not a born and bred Yorkshireman.
‘No, just some old ties. I had family up here, but only a few cousins dotted around now. My gran lived here for over thirty years.’
‘You’re visiting?’ Moira raised her voice over the hissing of the deep-fat fryer.
‘My aunt’s funeral today, up at St.Mary’s, you know? ‘
‘Aye, I know it. I sometimes come that way past the church to get here. You know Anne Bronte is buried there?’
‘I couldn’t find her headstone. I tried today, but maybe I need to get a guide book…’
‘She’s away in the top end, nearest to the Castle. You have to cross Church Lane – she’s laid in a separate part of the churchyard.’
He laughed, ‘They don’t exactly advertise that do they?’
‘No, we like to keep visitors on their toes!’ She grinned at him.’You should come up earlier in the year, as soon as September’s over it’s like a ghost town up here. Everything closes early, till the Christmas rush starts.’
‘I used to come up for a week every summer, school holidays, but I’ve not been back for about fifteen years.’
‘Where’re you from?’
‘Just outside Oxford…….’
‘Studying the great authors of English literature then?’
‘No, I work in a bookshop – no chance of me gracing the halls of academia!’
‘But you know which shelf to put ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’ on though?’
‘B for Bronte, C for Classics! You’re wasted in here, you should get a job taking the tourists round town!’
Moira pulled a face.’Yeah, of course! They’d be back across the Pennines faster than the coaches got them here! There, your haddock’s done. Want your chips in with it?’
‘Thanks. How much do I owe you?’
‘£5-30. Where’re you staying?’
‘B & B off the Prospect Road. Near where we used to stay when I was a kid. Scarborough doesn’t seem to have changed much…..’
‘You’d be surprised. Half the Old Town’s gone now, just charity shops and stuff for the visitors. OK if you’re on holiday, but not if you’re living here. There’s your change,
£4-70, but you won’t find anywhere much to spend it on tonight!’
‘Well, thanks for having my best interests at heart!’ He laughed, pocketing the coins and picked up the well-wrapped fish and chips. They warmed his hands. He hesitated at the door, looking tentatively out through the steamed-up glass at the driving rain.
She called out to him.’You can eat them in here if you like. Just till I close up.’
‘Thanks, it’s chucking it down outside….’
‘It never rains in the city of dreaming spires?’
‘Not like this it doesn’t!’
‘Have a wooden fork,’ Moira pointed to a box on the counter. ‘What’s your name?’
‘I’m Moira – ‘
‘Your accent’s a dead giveaway – ‘
‘Aye, I moved south to fulfil my dreams and work in a fish and chip shop…’
‘Ouch…..’ He held a hand up apologetically, but sat down at a table in the corner. The door opened and a man in a baseball cap came in, head down against the wind. Moira served him and watched him disappear into the darkness outside, then went to the door and switched the plastic sign that hung there to ‘Closed.’
‘Is your fish OK?’
Davey nodded, ‘Good, thanks.’
‘I’ve got to do the fryers and clean the vents, then lock up. You’ll have to go then.’
‘Friday night in Scarborough and the best fish and chips this side of Harry Ramsden’s. What more could a man want?’
‘You must be easily pleased then, Davey.’ She turned the last fryer off and scraped the remnants of left-over fish into a large metal bin. The air steamed and Davey heard the extraction fans being turned off, one by one. He jabbed at chips that were already turning cold and the rain rattled hard against the windows.
* * * * *
Moira would finish work, take the bus home and shower the taste and the smell of batter and fish away, before some TV and bed. But tonight she lay awake a little longer than usual: he’d been nice, that lad who’d come into the shop. She turned her thoughts to Christmas and groaned softly. She hated the build-up to the 25th: the endless queues of traffic going nowhere, the shop windows filled with meaningless fripperies. She sent a few cards early, bought her Mam a present, but that was it. And, tomorrow, the last Saturday before Christmas, would be the worst; the shops heaving and sweating, the precinct near the station desperate with the joyless pull of last-gasp present-buying.
She was down for lunch and the afternoon tomorrow and would spend all day shovelling chips for kids with pocket money to burn, but at least she’d be out before the evening trade. Moira rubbed her eyes in the dark and tried to get to sleep.
She lived on Moorland Road, in a flat above a florists. She was ‘north side.’ The town was divided into ‘north’ and ‘south’: the North and South Bays being separated by the bulk of the headland cliffs, with the imposing ruins of the Castle watching over both. The North Bay had Peasholm Park, the boating lake and the miniature railway, but the South Bay had the Grand Hotel, the harbour and the arcades. North Bay was rock pools and bracing walks, the South was candyfloss and donkey rides…
But not in winter. Nothing like that now. Just the wind whipping up the waves offshore and the sand wet and grey like mud, and people scurrying home along the prom. And even in the week before Christmas, the sleeping summer giant barely stirred: if you discounted the hurly-burly of late-night shopping, there was only Dick Whittington at the Stephen Joseph Theatre or the odd film to tempt you out under the leaden December skies. Like a sleepy hedgehog, Scarborough hung on in grim determination, longing for and dreaming of, spring.
* * * * *
‘You lot can clear off right now! Billy Joiner, I know your mother! Out you go!’
The Saturday kids laughed and ran from the shop and down the road, scattering chips across the pavement. Moira grinned, they were all right – and she’d always give them plenty of extra chips, so long as they paid for at least a couple of bags.
‘Debbie, I’m off in twenty minutes. You’ll be OK if Kiddo comes in late? He was going to the football at Leeds.’
She called to her friend who was having a quick cigarette, leaning out of the back door. It was getting on for six-thirty, she was tired and it had been non-stop all day. She needed a bath, some food that hadn’t begun life in an ocean somewhere and an evening spent flicking channels in search of something worthwhile, though that would be hard on a Saturday night.
‘You were right. £4-70 got me nowhere at all.’
She looked up, he was resting his elbows on the glass counter-top. She smiled, ‘Well I did warn you didn’t I?’
‘I did find Anne Bronte’s headstone though, so you saved me buying that book. And I admired your magnificent castle, though only from the outside as it closed at four. It also rained most of the day….’
‘One definite advantage of standing over a hot fryer for six hours then – ‘
‘You might even get a sun tan. Scottish girls can look awfully pale at times.’
‘So, if it’s not literature, you must be studying comedy at Oxford? ‘
He grinned and she pushed back a strand of dark hair that had fallen down across her face.’Did you like my haddock so much you came back for more?’
‘Sort of. I was kind of passing and I wondered if you’d like a bite to eat later? I mean, whenever you finish, if you’re not on chip duty all night? If you’re done here before the rest of Scarborough closes down?’
‘So in return for a safe haven from the rain, the North Sea’s finest haddock and directions to the last resting-place of one of Yorkshire’s finest authors, I get what precisely?’
‘Pub, pizza or a curry?’
Moira studied the ceiling in mock deliberation. ‘Hmm, I think I’ll hang on for Jamie Oliver. He’ll be along in a minute.’ Then she was grinning back at him. She glanced at the clock. ‘Have a chip. I’m off in ten minutes and we can talk about it then. Now, I’ve got some other customers…’
Davey sat down at an empty table and Moira served the first evening early-birds. He read a local paper while she finished her shift: as she took her apron off, she looked at him, lost inside that baggy jacket, under that mess of hair. She went out back and washed her face, hands and arms and felt a little more alive.
‘I’m off then Debs. See you Monday. Don’t leave your shopping too late.’ She came round the counter and he looked up at her.
‘I really want to go home and get changed, Davey. I’m kind of too tired to be much company…’
‘I’ve still got that four quid – ‘
‘That’d buy a girl, even a pale Scots one, a half of lager I s’pose….’
He stood up. ‘I think I can just about run to two halves of lager. We can worry about the culinary options later…..’
‘Alright, but fish and chips is off the menu.’
He held the door open and they walked out into the chilly evening air. The rain had finally stopped and it had grown noticeably colder. The street was full of shoppers carrying all manner of bags and packages and the gaudy decorations of the shop fronts hid the bleached-grey facades Moira was used to. She looked up: in the yellow wash of the streetlights, the first few, spidery flakes of watery snow fell earthwards, landing on the pavement, the cars and her upturned face.
‘Are you coming then?’ He was a few yards away, holding the car door open for her.
She looked at the snow melting on the sleeve of her coat.
‘Aye, I am.’ She got in and pulled her seat belt on, as he climbed in beside her.
‘Where shall we go then? What does the guide book recommend?’
‘Guide book closes at half six. Your call.’
He pulled away from the kerb and joined the early-evening stream of traffic. Dylan’s ‘Sweetheart Like You’ hissed from the stereo and the wiper blades swished and clicked rhythmically, brushing away the thickening snowflakes. She didn’t say anything else. As they crossed Valley Bridge, she twisted in her seat and could just make out the shadow of the castle in the darkness, silhouetted on the hill.
Moira smiled. It would soon be Christmas.
On a clear night, the bells of the little church of Manston Byford could be heard for miles around. The good folk of this part of Norfolk set their watches by them and marked their daily routines to the chimes of the bells of St. Stephen’s. The clarity and punctuality of their strike was well-regarded by the villagers, just as the doleful echo of Big Ben is revered by Londoners.
On this particular evening however, the peals drawing the faithful to Evensong were muffled by the softly falling snow. If the snowflakes had landed on your upturned face you would barely have felt them, so soft their touch, yet they covered everything in a gentle, white shroud. The roof and gables of St. Stephen’s, the moss-covered walls surrounding the church, the uneven ground, even the tumbled gravestones and stone crosses that marked the departed. It fell slowly and silently, carpeting the ground and quietly invading even the most-hidden corners of the tiny churchyard.
And Franklin sensed this. He felt uncertain, as if somehow the world was changing imperceptibly around him, whilst he stood still, unwilling or unable to move. The faint glimmers of light from the church windows cast shafts of yellow across the white carpet (already deepening as the snow fell thicker and faster), but the pale illumination couldn’t break the shadows in which he stood motionless. Voices came to him from inside the church, but they seemed far removed, as if he was only half-hearing a radio from the next room. They were not unfriendly, but he felt no part of them, no need to enter, no need for greeting or welcome.
Franklin shivered slightly, not with any sense of cold, but with anticipation, a tingle of expectancy. He half-smiled, ‘the spirits were a-foot tonight.’ And then, with a rush, the feeling passed and he at once felt drained and suddenly older, older than he had ever, ever felt before. ‘I should be at home’ he muttered, ‘what kind of old fool stands an hour in a freezing churchyard?’
Yet still he remained, his slightly-stooped figure melting into the blackness near the church wall. He had lived in Manston Byford all his life, indeed had worshipped within these very walls for nigh on three-quarters of a century. But he knew something had changed, something altered, something that could not be turned back. Something had passed, and again he felt the spirits, dancing and whirling among the falling snowflakes.
And then, as before, they were gone and he was alone, just an old man standing in a deserted churchyard.
* * * * *
The last flakes drifted earthwards, gently floating feathers, and at the same time the dozen or so voices brought the last hymn to its uneven conclusion, hopelessly adrift of the organ’s final chord. The Blessing was mercifully brief, the small congregation all wished for a hasty return to warm houses and warmer firesides. The oaken door of St. Stephen’s swung back and, in an instant, bright, yellow light flooded the churchyard, falling across the jumbled headstones, some smooth, some worn, all crested with an inch of white. It fell sharply on the nearest – new, bright, shiny marble, the surface untroubled by snow:
Franklin W. Amos
My Good And Faithful Servant
Born 17th. May 1924,
The heavy door of St. Stephen’s closed as the hurrying parishioners scurried through the
snow. The light in the churchyard was extinguished. Of the good and faithful servant there was no sign.
Copyright owned by Nicholas John 2015
PS Please respect my copyright.