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Short stories

When I was 21 I went to my first ever strip club.  It was for a friend’s 18th birthday and everyone in the party was excited, but I was trying to play it cool.

To get in you had to go down some stairs at street level. Once underground the place was understandably dark. Understandably dark because it was below street level and also because it was a shit box.

Angel’s Paradise LTD was in a dimly lit, lengthy cellar. The plush red velvet seating around the sides of the room had grown dull and threadbare from a prolonged exposure to stale beer, damp walls and grinding knees and thighs. The gold leaf had been rubbed from the fittings long ago with the groping of sweaty palms and the gushing of unfiltered, dirty tears.

It was mid-winter and everyone in the room had goose bumps for one reason or another. I was the oldest in the group and so naturally wanted to appear un-phased by the bare, mottled flesh all around us.

The girls were no older than us. The room leaked panic. All except from the Mother Hen, she stood in the middle of the flock. A broody 40 something, legs apart, hands on hips exuding an erotic yet motherly dominance.

I swaggered to the bar, a bolshie chest, cash in a loose yet careful grip so as for it to appear a wad. A cool, crooning smile as I acknowledged the nude bar maid. Eyebrows raised and on the charm offensive. I must have looked awesome.

As I perused the bottled beers and alcopops in the display chillers I noticed a stack of McDonalds dipping sauces tucked away in the bottom corner of the furthest most fridge. My heart plummeted and then rose again just as quickly.

‘Had these girls eaten their chicken Mcnuggets and fillet o fish sandwiches before or after taking their clothes off?’

Images of the girls pushing soggy burgers into their mouths, rushed into my mind. Coupled with visions of pale, flaccid French fries dangling loosely above puckered lips.  The dancers clad only in thongs and push up bras, dropping crumbs or the odd dollop of mustard onto their bare laps quickly gave me a new burst of confidence. My nerves left me. No longer did I have to cloak my awkwardness with a trepid suave.

I was instantly turned off by the idea of lap dances for life. The thought of those cartons of sauce lying idly in wait until the next pre dance fast food feast gave me an illegitimate dose of morale conscience and an new easy feeling.

Now when my nerves go in a room full of naked people I just picture them all eating a Big Mac.

 

When I was young my granddad drove a green Nissan Datsun. It was a putrid, mint green. The interior was smoggy and relentless, as close to umber in tone as you would wish. As a complete unit it wasn’t too dissimilar looking to a chocolate lime.

The carpet, the same off brown as the seating was a thick shag pile, all gnarly and knotted holding a damp, oily mildew under the fingers. It had caught, in its web over the years rusty screws, loose change, hairpins, sweet wrappers, the sort of detritus you might expect to find rattling around in a typical, old family runner. These objects however were securely woven into the fabric creating a precise carbon dating of the vehicle for any future archeologists that might happen upon this anthropological gem.

In the school holidays I’d sit on the back seat whilst my granddad ran errands. I always thought, when he told me we were going to run an errand, of an exotic place where I would witness new and exciting landscapes but it was usually just Woodley precinct or the high rise flats where my aunty Hilda lived.

On one of these particular errands I had brought along a packet of strawberry Hubba Bubba. Upon lodging a piece into my mouth I quickly grew disappointed with the flavour and unable to stand the synthetic, saccharine burst I took the fluorescent pink wad out of my mouth.

As my granddad careered round corners and swerved up curbs in his usual fashion I struggled in the back, sliding from one side to the other. Trying to keep a grip of the seat with my childish thighs and hands I let slip a grip of my wretched blob of sticky bubble gum. It jumped across the seat and sprang forward into the matted brown jungle. In a desperate attempt of retrieval I nudged it deeper into the brown unknown. It tangled wildly and gladly into its new home. I yanked and pulled, uprooting clumps of sticky pink and brown fur, but the more I struggled the more the gum assimilated with its new environment.

From that day forward my granddad’s car had two distinct odours – the thick, comforting smell of stale cigarettes, cloaking the upfront interior with the territorial pride of a feral street cat. And in the back, the oozing sickly sweet smell of strawberry Hubba Bubba.

My granddad’s sighs could not keep my glad heart from leaping. Despite the frowns that gathered neatly above his kindly eyes, I was left with a gluttonous sense of pride. A warm feeling from the bond I believed my granddad and I now shared, represented in the mingled, wreaking odours that our bad habits had imprinted on that green Datsun forever.

We’re moving house. Crow said he’d fly over and give us a hand.

‘Really, if you had a system this whole ordeal would be a lot simpler. It’s an absolute shambles.’ Crow pecked at papers and jaunty souvenirs from a box I still hadn’t got round to unpacking from the last move. ‘I thought you were over your hoarding phase.’

‘It comes and goes.’ I said.

‘Well you might have warned me. This dust is going to play havoc in my plumage.’ Crow spread his wings and flapped erratically. ‘Here, I’ve got together all your silverware, the clean stuff anyway.’

‘You should have been a magpie Crow.’ I joked.

‘Pica pica’ Crow muttered under with his breath with disdain. ‘Bind it together with tape’ he ordered, ‘to stop it from rattling.’

‘Won’t that leave behind a sticky residue?’ I asked.

‘Don’t worry about that, Hannah can scrub it off.’ He paused for thought. ‘Although she’ll probably leave behind remnants.’ I was inclined to agree with him but refrained so as not to encourage the recent dislike he had seemed to take to her. He had told me earlier in the month that he found teachers collectively condescending and inappropriately fruity.

‘How is the rest of the band?’ Crow asked with an air of fabled nonchalance as he alphabetised a pile of utility bills. ‘Good.’ I said.

‘And morale? How’s morale?’

‘Jovial’. I said. ‘You know, Nathan’s not been on the last few dates either. They’ve been small affairs; out of the way places. We didn’t want to trouble you with the triviality.’

‘Please,’ he said, ‘it’s always more trouble than it’s worth.’ He forced a pathetic laugh. I did too.

‘How’s the Halle? Have you had many dates recently?’

‘Oh, they have a new conductor. I don’t care for him. Eastern European. Pompous old card. No I don’t travel much with them these days.’

There was silence, languid over the rummaging of boxes and papers. ‘We have three days in Helsinki next month. Perhaps you could fly over and meet us. It’s a big show. I’m sure the guys would love to see you.’

‘I don’t want to trouble you.’ He said.

‘No,’ I said, ‘it’d be great; you’ll keep our spirits up. Like in the old days.’ We continued packing in the silence.

‘Where’s the box marked Kitchenware?’ Crowd asked eventually. ‘I have some more spoons.’

Recently I’ve been too busy. There’s been no time to enjoy the simple things in life.

I found myself staring into the mirror for one hour and 45 minutes, astonished over a haircut I suffered two weeks ago. Do not worry. It’s gone away now. I’m ok.

I filled my iron with milk.

Norman backwards is NAMRON. I think this sounds like a sinister science corp. or a useless, world saving organisation. I found an old ball of bluetac and picked the bits out of it for a while.

I sanded down our kitchen table and used maple syrup to give it a rich glossy finish. I checked the GDP of several large countries against my own bank account. It turns out they are all doing much better than I am. Even the smaller ones.

I turned all the plants round in the house. I froze a shoe. I grazed my knee on purpose then did a lap of honour around the kitchen. I imagined the toughest soldier I could, qualified myself for a place on Survival Island (alongside the toughest soldier) and then melted a dead bee.

After I’d finished these chores I sent an email to Mr Motivator’s agent asking about their favourite sandwich.

By the time everyone got back from work, man was I pooped! So I took a little nap. After such a busy day I think I earned it.


We got to the venue in York and were cordially greeted by the promoter – Joe.

“Hi,” he said.  “Is that all of you now then?”                                                                                                “Yep, that’s us all” Nathan said.                                                                                                                        “Ah good” Joe said. “He said you wouldn’t be far behind.”                                                                      “Who said?” Nathan said.                                                                                                                                “The other member of your party.” Joe said.                                                                                              “There is no-one else.” Nathan said.                                                                                                          “Hey?” Joe said.  “That’s funny, he said he was with the band that were playing tonight.”                “Who said?” Nathan said.                                                                                                                               “Well come on inside, he’s just in there waiting.” Joe said.  “He did seem a little odd,” Joe added for measure as we walked down the corridor leading to the performance space. “A little” he paused. “Punctuated.”

Opening the doors at the rear of the venue we stepped into a large room fitted out with wooden chairs and tables.  The room was bordered by old, cosy looking settees.  Red brick pillars absorbed the dim yellow lights and the bar shimmered its brass fittings through shadows at the back of the room.  The place had warm memories of a bygone workingman’s club.  The Duchess it was called.  The stage rested beyond the pillars soaked in a frosty blue light.

“There he is.”  said Joe cheerfully.  “He asked if we would not disturb him till the artists got here.”

There, perched high on the blue spotlight and majestically silhouetted was Crow.

“Crow!” we all cried.  He turned around nonchalantly and greeted us with a bow, lifting a single wing into the air.  He used formality with poise.                                                                                                   “How do you do?” he said.                                                                                                                                “Oh good Crow, really good. How about you?” Nathan said.                                                                         “I have been well, very well, despite my course.” he said looking about him in disdain.                   “Crow,” said Liz. “This is Phil ‘Owley, he plays drums.  Phil this is Crow, he toured Germany with us.” “Hi” said Phil                                                                                                                                            “Delighted, I’m sure,” He turned to Liz. “Have you been breeding again Liz?”

I have to explain here that Crow does not fully grasp the concept of mammals or infact social interaction outside of the family unit.  Despite his upright education he is actually of the impression that Liz laid and hatched each member of the band.  To correct him would be to repulse him on all possible fronts.

“Well I suppose he’ll aid the time keeping.” He turned to me with a look of hopeless incorrectability. “What brings you here Crow?” I said, “I thought you’d flown back to Frankfurt.”                                       “I did,” he said “but then I discovered that you’d forgotten your waistcoat so I thought I’d better bring it to you.”                                                                                                                                                             “But I don’t have a waistcoat” I said.                                                                                                                    “I know you don’t” he said, “which is exactly why I bought you one.”                                                       “Oh well thanks Crow” I said.                                                                                                                            “It’s the least I can do to help with your stage presence.  We can work on your posture another time.” “Are you sticking around Crow?” Liz asked.                                                                                                      “I don’t think I can dear,” he said with a deep remorse. “Concert season is coming up, besides I wouldn’t know where to start in this climate.”                                                                                   “Nonsense Crow, you’d enjoy it here and we’d love to have you.”  Liz replied.

“Well if you still need me I suppose it would be wrong to neglect my duties.  Where’s my dressing room?”

Glasgow is not what it seems…

Or rather Glasgow does not live up to my preconceptions.  I have heard before now that deep fried pizza is a local speciality. It is served with chips and the pizza is wrapped around the chips and the whole thing is eaten like a sandwhich with the pizza replacing the bread.  I leave this culinary dystopian image as a shorthand testament in place of a lengthier resolve in order to save face.  My first actual experience of Glasgow was enjoying a chai-latte in the i-café.  I leave this as a shorthand testament in place of a lengthier expression of astonishment.

The day is hot and sunny.  We waltz up and down the high street popping our head into various charity shops, a Chinese chemist, a pseudo-oldy-worldy furniture shop, the Captain’s Rest.  This latter establishment is where we play.

There are pictures on the walls of the Jolly Roger, Blackbeard and Advertisements for rum. An anchor holds open the door and a life belt behind the bar will save any over zealous drinker from drowning.  The password for the Internet is Moby Dick.

The support act is a young girl called Baby Taylor.  She greets us all with hugs and asks us a barrage of questions whilst simultaneously answering them in no particular order.  I don’t think she is crazy, more she just made the most of the hot weather outside with her friends and a couple of bottles of her choice.  She is defiantly bubbly and we, as happy as we are with our surroundings for the evening are defiantly dry.  So Gus takes a trip to spar to relieve the drought.

By the end of the show we are favourably lubricated.  We say goodbye to friends, some old, some new and climb back into the van for a drive to an Ibis hotel somewhere between Scotland and Manchester for an early morning set off.  Back in the van. It is not unbearable, this time in the van; it just represents a kind of inertia so benign that you almost cease to exist. You become apart from yourself and the rigours of a jump-start, upon alighting, become more and more tiring and more and more questionable so eventually a bad mind becomes yourself.  In this instance, more than a jump-start is not enough and the resuscitation needed to fix your mind must be ritualistic.  A shower, a stretch, some breath, a walk, catch the light, have a meal, make a circle.

The dance begins again. We laugh and we cry. We hide and we seek.  We climb out and into the back of the van…

 

When we arrived back at Gus’s house from the Bristol show it was gone four in the morning.  “Take Maud’s bed.”  He said opening the door to his own rooms.  He turned back with a dejected look in his eye.

“There’s a hog in my bed” he said, “sleeping.”  He returned to the Landing with a genial smile and said that is was no mind and that he could take the settee for the night.   It can often be the case that at Iron Mountain the sleeping facilities are liberally dished out in an instance for the common good.  I could hear the hog grunting and tussling with sleep behind the door.  He sounded like a large fellow.  I thanked Gus for the hospitality and went to bed.

I woke late the next morning and pulling myself out of bed, dressed and went into the Kitchen.  There, I was confronted with a large pig, stood on his hind legs tending to a smoking pan on the oven top that hissed at intervals with alarming volatility.  He was dressed in a three-piece Harris Tweed suit although the jacket was hanging on the back of a chair.  His shirtsleeves were rolled up and over his waistcoat he wore a plastic, chince-patterned apron. I guessed the suit was tailor-made because there was a deliberate hole at the back where from his tail protruded with just cause.                  The kitchen was in chaos; dishes were piled up over and around the sink.  A blackened pan was melted into to the linoleum floor, bottles and jars filled the sideboard in a sticky, blind panic.  By the kettle eggshells created a nest for a soggy heap of watery tea bags.

“Good morning.”

“How do you do?” He said.

“Well” I said, “my name’s Sam” I said extending my hand.

“Oh do forgive me!” he said dropping the spoon and wiping his trotter on his apron.  “I’m afraid I can quite forget myself when at the stove.  Allow me to introduce myself, my name is Arnold and whom do I have the honour of addressing?”

“I’m Sam.” I said again, raising my eyebrows and dipping my head back into the conversation with a prompting gesture.

“But of course! I’m terribly sorry, you’ve already told me that, I’m afraid I can quite forget myself when at the stove.”

“No problem” I say.  “A pleasure to meet you.  Would you like some coffee?”

“Ah but relax my dear fellow you have had a long and tiring excursion as I am to take it. No, you just sit there and relax, allow me.  Coffee is on its way along with breakfast – Kippers and eggs. Sunny side up!”  The hog chuckled to himself contently.  He soon handed me a large plate of grilled kippers with two fried eggs and a slice of hot buttered soda bread.

“Bon appetite” he said with a wide brimmed smile.  His smile blanched as a look of grave apology formed when he saw me eye the disarray “Oh but I’m afraid I’m a terribly messy house guest” his countenance lightened again “but I make an excellent pot of coffee” he poured me a steaming cup fresh from the peculator.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, “I don’t think the guys will mind.”