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.



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.


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.



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                                                   


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