“A Room Full of Plesbians!”

Ex and I and a friend of his walked into a pub one night. It was not our usual pub but one of those twee, twinkling, village high street pubs – lots of brass, lots of shiny beer glasses on shiny glass shelves with wrought-iron edges – and an impressive array of spirits bottles hanging upside down in what I think they used to call “optics”. Nowadays optics seems to mean something else – the way a political move or action will look to the public – usually bad.

Anyway, it was a middle class pub full of middle class people making a lot of noise – that kind of hearty, communal chortling noise middle class people make in pubs – and as we looked around we realised from the brightly-coloured and slightly outré form of dress that we had in fact walked in on a group of amateur actors from the Little Theatre over the road, who were enjoying a post-performance snifter. They were all pretty full of themselves, and suddenly they were all turning round to look at us.

Now, Ex had many admirable qualities, including a deeply resonant, “dark brown” sort of voice. A very loud and carrying sort of voice. One of the qualities he didn’t have, unfortunately, was the kind of cringing self-consciousness that stops you from saying exactly what comes into your head.

The other unfortunate thing was that, being an almost entirely visual person, he might occasionally misinterpret something he read. I remember him requesting an Orange Gasping in a shop at the very top of a steep, cobbled hill in Clovelly when what he meant was an orange ice lolly. The tin advertising board outside had said something like: “Gasping? Come inside and buy one of our luscious orange ice lollies!”

clovelly

Clovelly, Devon, West of England

Or occasionally he might misremember a word.

“Oh look!” he boomed, as the three of us walked into that crowded bar that night: “Look at that man in the hat with the feather, and that woman in the long purple cloak! It’s a room full of PLESBIANS!”

Cor(e) Blimey

Well, I never thought I would find myself lusting after three pieces of orange neon Perspex shaped like apple-cores, but you live and learn. All over the internet are ladies commenting on quilting posts, and their universal reaction to a picture of an apple core quilt or the apple core template is “Where did you get it? I want one”.

I never learn. I’d been happily sewing squares together on the machine and waiting for my left-handed rotary cutter to arrive from America. (Left-handed rotary cutters are as scarce as the droppings of rocking horses, but right-handed ones are no good because you can’t see where you’re cutting.)  Well, happily… it was getting a bit boring. It’s OK sewing a few squares together but a whole quilt-full and it becomes like working in a Greetings Card Factory. Something I have also done. Believe me, you don’t know the meaning of tedious until you have spent the whole of July at a bench with a glue-gun attaching red glitter to luxurious padded Valentine cards.

I first saw an apple-core quilt on the internet. It was done by an Amish lady and it was utterly magical. I wanted one!  To add to the magic, it’s a template that can only be used on it’s own. It disdains to fit with anything else, like those common old squares and triangles and whatnot.

Anyway, my templates finally arrived today – all three of them, glowing a discreet orange and seductively heavy. From Poland! No wonder they took so long. In between my usual tasks – feeding, watering and mucking out after eighteen cats; doing several machine-loads of washing and so forth – I have been watching YouTube videos and experimenting.

I have watched ladies in tartan shorts sitting in rocking chairs on their back porches sewing apple-cores by hand. I have watched ladies with pearls and neat white perms sewing apple-cores by machine. I have read articles about the history of patchwork by unknown bloggers. This is the way I teach myself to do anything nowadays. I used to go and get books from the library and immediately lose interest at the sight of all those diagrams. Video tutorials are quicker and easier.

The thing with the apple-core is, it’s got a curve to it. That makes it difficult, and the more difficult the smaller the template you are working with. “It’s all right for you,” I tell the perm-and-pearls lady, “working with a template the size of a house brick”. But she does give some excellent advice, which is:

“You can’t hurry a curve.”

You can say that again. First you fold to find your centre, then you pin in an elaborate kind of way, and then you – well, then I – tack and then you run it through your sewing machine really slowly – like one of those slow bicycle races.

And then you unpick it and try again.

Eventually you get it more or less right and iron the seam flat.

Then you start again.

The thing is, if you are feeling depressed, if life has become a bit much for you, if you are harassed or in any way unhappy, I would recommend attaching one single apple core piece to another. This will take you about an hour of quiet concentration, and at the end of it you will be happy.

By the way, no British person has said Cor Blimey or its variant Gor Blimey since the 1950s. The last time I remember it was in a comic song by Lonnie Donegan entitled “My Old Man’s A Dustman”. The words went something like this:

My old man’s a dustman

He wears a dustman’s hat

He wears Gor Blimey trousers

And he lives in a council flat…

or something like that.

donegan2

Oh yes, and the Dick Van Dyke attempt whilst playing Bert the chimney-sweep in Mary Poppins, which sounded a bit like Gar Bloimey. Apparently DVD has recently apologised for his atrocious Cockney accent in that film. He said he asked a famous old English actor, then working in Hollywood, what a Cockney accent might sound like. So the famous old English actor demonstrated the accent and DVD copied it faithfully. The rest is history.

Apparently he tackled the elderly English actor about this later and the English actor said something to the effect that he never claimed to have actually met a Cockney.

No, no one much says Cor Blimey. It’s one of those phrases that went out with the Ark, like Stap Me Vitals or ‘Zounds, Sir, Have At Ye! (Both to be exclaimed by a sword-fighting nobleman in slashed knickerbockers or maybe tights, swathes of lace at his wrist and a pet monkey on his shoulder) or Avast, Ye Swabs! (Suitable for a pirate captain with a wooden leg and a parakeet on his shoulder). Or Arr, pieces of eight, pieces of eight! (Suitable only for the parakeet.)

Although I did actually sit next to an man wearing Gor Blimey trousers once, in a village pub. Ex was up at the bar getting the drinks (I just had to sit) and I was sat on this bench next to old – let’s call him Harry. And there was this smell something like the long-cooked cabbage we had for school dinners. When the opportunity presented itself I asked Ex (in a whisper, of course) what that smell was. He said it was Harry’s trousers. Innocently I enquired: But why would Harry’s trousers smell like that?

Ex explained.

(Ex, by the way, had a Lonnie Donegan blue-and-white sweater as a teenager. I believe his Mum knitted it for him.)

Fascinated

HE WAS staring at her, and furthermore he was famous.

The man she had spotted in the Private Bar was none other than Lenny Miscovich, one time lead guitarist of Yellowsnake and more recently co-presenter of Rock of Ages, a cutting-edge TV series charting the history of blues and rock. Lenny Miscovich was so cool, even now at, what would he be, about five years older than her so forty five or six? There was something ever so slightly dangerous about him still; the way his dark, slicked back hair was a little too long; the way that denim jacket was draped around his shoulders, as if at any second he might throw it off and stride out of here; that preoccupied smile playing around his lips, as if there was some secret only he and a very few other people knew.

Here was Sal Gifford, in the public bar of the down-at-heel Greenacre Hotel, Old Mereford, appearing to be listening to some joke that her husband was in the process of telling to a group of his mates, whilst stealing furtive glances at the subject of her most passionate teenage fantasies.

And there was Lenny Miscovich, large as life, in the small private bar, with only two rather scratched mahogany counters, one grumpy landlord, one barmaid, a shelf of newly-washed beer glasses and a row of optics between them.

And one husband, of course.

‘At the end of the day, football means not having to go to Sainsbury’s on a Saturday!’ Mike Gifford reached the punch line of his joke to uproarious, beer-fuelled laughter.

‘Good one, eh, Sal?’ Mike turned to her, still laughing.

‘Good one,’ she assured him. It had never struck her before how all-alike Mike and his mates were; same chain-store polo shirts; same slightly crumpled jeans; same bald spot; same suspicion of a beer belly.

‘Mike, isn’t that the rock-star, er, Lenny something?’ She asked. He followed her gaze through to the Private Bar.

‘Now that you mention it,’ he said, ‘I did hear the barmaid saying something about that when I was up getting the last round. Used to be in Yellow-something, that rock group, about twenty years back, didn’t he? He and the film crew are staying here tonight. Barmaid reckons they’re down here to do some filming out at Bree Point, some programme about British eccentrics. There’s that weirdo hermit out at Bree, isn’t there? Lives in a railway carriage and plants umbrellas in the shingle.’

‘Did you notice the Rolls-Royce parked out front, on a trailer?’ somebody piped up. ‘Apparently he’s been driving around in that for the filming. Bit baggy around the eyes, isn’t he?’

‘Who, the Bree hermit ?’

‘Nah, Miscovich. Rock ‘n Roll lifestyle catching up with him, shouldn’t wonder.’

Mike was losing interest in this Miscovich. ‘Have you heard this one, you guys? What do you get if you cross a rabbit and a spider?’

Sal Gifford couldn’t help being aware of the fact that Lenny Miscovich was still gazing at her. Fascinated, he seemed to be. It was as if that secret smile of his was intended for her alone.

‘Well hello there, gorgeous,’ it seemed to be saying.

No, it couldn’t be saying that. Get a grip, woman. What could a man like Lenny Miscovich possibly want with somebody as ordinary as her?

‘A hairnet,’ said Mike. ‘Geddit, Sal – rabbit? spider? hare? net?’

The evening wore on. Mike and his mates continued to swop bad jokes and Sal sipped at her cider and pretended to laugh along with them. For the next half an hour she made a huge effort not to check whether Lenny Miscovich was still staring at her.

Finally the suspense was too much for her. Taking a deep, steadying breath she permitted herself a casual glance in the direction of the Private Bar, only to discover that Lenny and his entourage had vanished. They must have gone upstairs to their rooms, she supposed.

At least she could relax now. She settled back into the Greenacre’s second best sofa and pictured Lenny Miscovich pausing at the turn of the stairs, gazing down at her in order to fix in his memory the petite, voluptuous blonde in the Public Bar who had been so absorbed in her husband’s conversation all evening that she hadn’t even noticed a rock legend passing within a few feet of her.

‘If only,’ the Lenny of her imagination was sighing. ‘If only things could have been different.’

‘YOU CAN put them on now, Lenny,’ murmured his PA, Chanelle, when they reached the second floor landing.’

‘Thank God for that,’ he muttered, fishing a pair of black-rimmed geek-chic glasses out of his jacket pocket. ‘Are you sure it’s safe?’

‘Yeah,’ nobody’s likely to catch sight of you up here. Your public image remains intact.’

‘My eyes are killing me. Honestly, Chan, they’re standing out on stalks. It makes you feel quite queasy after a while, hovering around in the middle of a noisy fog, trying to look as if you can see everything that’s going on. When did you say my contacts would be getting here?’

‘Tomorrow morning, early. They’re sending them up from London by courier. Serves you right for leaving your little plastic box in the bathroom, for the third time.’

‘I know, I know. But you panicked me, leaning on the horn like that.’

‘Well you were very late, sweetheart.’

‘Rock legends are supposed to be late.’

‘For rock concerts, not TV programmes.’

‘I wasn’t doing that staring thing again tonight was I?’

‘As a matter of fact you were, my dear. A blonde woman in the Public Bar.’

‘Oh God. A blonde? At least it was a blonde. Did she notice?’

‘Yes, I’m afraid she did, though she was trying her best to appear not to have; self-conscious, you know, the way they are.’

Lenny pondered on this for a moment. It was such a pain having become short-sighted and even more of a pain having to pretend he wasn’t. How much longer was he going to be able to keep this up? Another year, two if he was lucky, before what was left of the stardust wore off and the work dried up altogether.

He’d suffered a major blow to his confidence recently when they’d informed him he was sacked from Rock of Ages. Well, not sacked exactly. TV producers never employed such a distasteful word. What they had actually said was, ‘The ratings have taken a dip this series, Lenny. We think an injection of fresh blood might be required, someone more congruent with the demographic.’

‘Younger?’

‘Um, possibly. And no doubt you’ll have a thousand other projects in the pipeline.’

But the only ‘other project’ his agent had been able to dredge up for him at short notice was this one, traipsing off to some out of the way corner of East Anglia to interview a nutcase in a railway carriage for an Aussie TV-special. It was going to be called either Barmy Brits or Potty Poms, he couldn’t recall which.

And having to pretend to drive a Rolls-Royce that was being towed along on the back of a trailer; waffling to camera whilst waggling, inexpertly, the steering wheel of a car he didn’t know how to drive, because he had never learned to drive. How humiliating was that?

The one I was staring at this time, was she a Babe?‘ he queried.

Chanelle glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, seeing the man he didn’t realise she saw, on the downhill leg of his career now, and staring obscurity in the face. She had loved Lenny Miscovich for years and no doubt would continue to love him however wrinkly and un-famous he became, and even though he was never likely to love her back. With an effort she brought to mind the chubby, plain little female on the shabby black sofa, clutching her half pint of cider.

Forty, forty-one?

‘Yeah, Lenny,’ she said, ‘she was a bit of a Babe.’

The Angel

The Angel

‘You don’t have to finish it,’ said Anthony Adams. ‘Nobody’s holding a gun to your head.’

But I did, and had several more. The pub shimmered and glittered around us; people came and went, perching on stools, sliding off again, feeding coins into the square-in-the-wall jukebox, chattering. The Angel was a faded sort of place, with green flock wallpaper, torn leatherette benches and ceilings turned sepia by years of cigarette smoke. I liked it there.

There seemed no great hurry to get down to business. Anthony Adams was easy company, said little. Every so often he took out a little black book and pencilled in a name, or flipped back the pages, turned the pencil round and rubbed a name out. It had a title in gold lettering in some foreign script. I squinted sideways. Beautiful handwriting. Copperplate, maybe. Some of the names were ringed in black, and some had a kind of halo round them. Trick of the light, I thought.

‘Anthony Adams isn’t your real name, is it?’ I threw this in, conversationally.

‘What makes you say that?’

‘Alliteration. Too much alliteration, and too plain. Geoff Green, Peter Porter – same thing. You made that story up, didn’t you?’

‘Some of it. The bit about the wife and kids and the newspaper in the bath I did.’

‘And the bath-towel.’

‘That too,’ he agreed. “Can I get you another of those slimy yellow things?”

‘Snowball? Yes.’ It occurred to me that he might poison it on the way back, but no, I hadn’t given him the money yet. Tradesmen don’t work for nothing, and payment in advance would be essential for a job like this. He’d be getting cash in hand, of course. I wondered whether he would declare it to the taxman, and if so exactly what he would declare.

I hadn’t felt tipsy up to now, but this time the drink worked and I began to feel blurred and reckless, almost sexy. It made it possible for me to say what I had to say.

‘I want you to kill me, Anthony Adams: when I’m not expecting it but preferably this year.’

He sighed. ‘Yes.’

‘Yes, you will or – ?’

‘Yes, I know. You think I’m a contract killer and you have a thousand pounds in your handbag for me.’

He sounded more sad than I had ever heard anyone sound before. I looked him full in the face for the first time that evening and saw that he was deathly pale.

‘Are you feeling poorly again?’

‘Sick to death, my dear.’

I put my arms around him then, and he put his around me, right there in the pub. We were both out of practice at holding, all elbows, bumped noses and awkward pats on the back. His cheek against mine felt wet. Wet and rough. He smelt of soap and incense.

‘What is your real name?’ I asked as we separated. I wondered if my mascara had run. He told me his name was Azrael.

‘Azrael what?’ It sounded vaguely familiar.

‘Just Azrael. That’s the Arabic version of it. I’m also known as Izra’il, Rahab, Suriel, Mairya. I have many names in many different cultures, but basically I’m the Angel of Death.’

Somehow this worried me less than the idea that he might be a drink-drugger, bag-snatcher or serial rapist.

He told me a lot of things that night. What his job involved. It all sounded a bit archaic. When a soul’s time was up, he said, a leaf fell from a tree at the foot of the throne of God – a metaphorical leaf and a metaphorical tree of course. And then he, Azrael, had forty days in which to sever that person’s soul from his or her body and accompany it to heaven. Or the other place.

‘So there is another place?’

‘Yes. I can show you both places if you like, and me as I really am. I mean, obviously I have to appear in some sort of disguise. I make myself look expected, ordinary.’

I suppose it was some kind of vision. I was still there, in the Angel public house, but before me also in my mind’s eye, this scene. A gigantic creature, black-winged and fiery, a gothic version of the feathery, rosebud-mouthed angels you used to see in those little stick-on texts they used to hand out in Sunday School. It was standing on a bridge between two lands. One land, as far as I could make out, was all sunshine, green meadows and snow-capped mountains, and full of music. The other was very dark, more like Milton Keynes in November only stretching away into the distance for ever and ever. I knew that place. It was where I had been in my head ever since my babies died.

‘So my leaf has fallen?’ I asked, as the vision faded and the bell for ‘time’ and the sound of glasses being loaded into a dishwasher faded in.

‘Well no, actually, it’s still attached. Metaphorically. You see, I also come to those who long for me. And you were longing for me, weren’t you Dorothy?’

I shivered. How long since anyone had called me that? The girls at the shop where I worked invariably called me ‘Mrs Hodge’.

‘So many deaths,’ he said. ‘Oh Dorothy, I long for there to be no more deaths, for rest and sleep. I’m sick of the expressions on people’s faces. The fear, the shock, the pious acceptance, the – whatever. But Azrael will be the last to die. At the Second Trump. Judgment Day and all that.’

‘This dress is killing me,’ I said. ‘It’s far too tight and my stomach hurts from holding it in.’

‘Your place?’ he said.

And that’s how it happened, in a roundabout way, that I got laid by an Archangel, his new black brogues under the bed, waiting for morning. And how we came to be here, in Skegness, walking hand in hand along the front like an old married couple, thanks to my thousand pounds and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of angel dust. An unexpected break, or a permanent escape? Who knew? I knew I would never go back to the shoe shop and, temporarily at least, people had stopped dying; all over the world, in car crashes, hospitals and natural disasters. Sooner or later, of course, somebody would notice. I didn’t want to die right this minute. Somehow, knowing that I could, and that my dear Azrael would come to me whenever I longed for him, it no longer seemed so urgent.

We were looking out to sea one evening, leaning on the rail, as the sun drowned quietly and spectacularly in the drink. I imagined mermaids, fishes, the hissing and bubbling of the water as the sun slid into and under it. I suddenly remembered having been here before. In the early fifties, it must have been, with Mum and Dad and the dogs. Mum was happier then. She held the dogs on a lead, and Dad held my hand. A tall, dark man in a crumpled demob suit. I can’t make out his face against the sun, but I’ll be seeing him soon enough. And my precious babies.