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Jimmy W Skelly

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Two Slugs and a Satsuma
by Jimmy W Skelly   

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Category: 

Literary Fiction

Publisher:  Jimmy Skelly Type: 
Pages: 

121

Copyright:  July 7,2012
Fiction

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The story I have presented was written because of how I felt when I was visiting a great loyal friend and traveling companion in the final months of his life. I felt there had to be a reason, if nothing more than to write this.

'Two Slugs and a Satsuma' is a story reflecting back on the recollections of one of two friends while witnessing the sad and painful decline of the other. It is often sarcastic, sometimes scathing, always humorous and is also a heart rending account of the cancer wards of today, while recalling the peripatetic escapades of two itinerant youths going from bedsit to bedsit in London during the late sixties. It travels from Paris after the student unrest of sixty eight, through America during the civil unrest in the seventies and onto Hong Kong before the handover.

Excerpt
Two Slugs and a Satsuma
By Jimmy Skelly






Chapter 1



The hour of the lemming was a time considered best avoided by inner city travellers.



My excuse was that I was given less choice than most to avoid that ungodly time because of demands from texts that made their presence felt whenever I emerged from a tunnel. When I eventually reached Paddington, the forename of my recently acquired alias had gone from feckless to inconsiderate, while the last name remained the same and implied a lack of legal of parentage. I crossed Praed Street, stepping quickly between the traffic, stopping when I had to, until reaching the opposite pavement which brought me to the corner of Spring Street and to ‘The Gingle Boy’.

Sitting outside at a table on the pavement beneath an awning drawn to keep away an earlier June drizzle, Howard continued to play with his phone. He lolled in his seat, his legs sprawled before him and his feet were resting upon his large leather travelling bag which went with him everywhere. Taking one hand from his phone he reached for a partially filled glass beside an empty bottle. I felt my phone vibrate before hearing that sodding ring tone that had irritated me throughout the evening during my travels with the maniacal majority.

Howard must have heard my phone and looked up. His face; in fact his whole countenance seemed larger than it had when we last met. He was without that quizzical look which came with his head half-cocked similar to a border collie, instead he beamed, and his blue eyes lit up with devilment, an innocent with an expression of delight to see me, which suggested that he’d had far more to drink than what had been in the bottle on the table.

“You look old and tired” he said cheerily which made me think that my present state, which was brought about by the stress I’d been put through trying to meet him on time after finishing work, was making him feel young and energetic “Go and grab a couple of bottles, we’re meeting Rosemary and Chris here later.”

Rosemary was also a school teacher and a friend of Chris and Howard I’d not met before, while Chris, Howard and me went back to a time when the very act of our meeting would be fraught with incidents of varying degrees of lunacy. The solidarity we once shared kept us in contact although our reunions were usually brief and prompted either through invitation to an event, or whenever we were in the same part of the world.







I remember on one occasion, when we were still fairly new to each other, Howard had arranged to meet with some other teachers, who were also at his school, in an Israeli restaurant on the Finchley Road. He invited me along and it was to be my first meeting with Chris. A group of Israeli students were sitting at a nearby table and were celebrating the success of an offensive against their neighbouring state. Howard couldn’t sit while he listened, nor was it something he could keep quiet about. Chris, after running her finger down the menu, asked.

“What is falafel?”

“Aha!” exclaimed Howard seizing the opportunity and continued in a voice becoming louder and more bellicose. ”Falafel is an Israeli delicacy introduced into this country after being discovered by the brave troops in the Israeli armies, while taking great delight in toasting Arab babies on the end of their bayonets over the camp fires.”

The place immediately went quiet, but not for long. Howard, who was already standing, was first out the restaurant and I followed. Fortunately for me the girls in our company had the presence of mind to hinder those in pursuit at the door, giving me sufficient time to eventually join Howard on a platform in Finchley Road Station.







I stepped down from the door of ‘The Gingle boy’ with a bottle of house red and an extra glass and took them with me to sit with Howard outside. Once my annoyance, due to his persistent text messages and my frustration at not being able to arrive any sooner, had left, I was reminded of a similar occasion the previous year when I was going to meet him in Budapest. He’d had with him the same large leather travelling bag which had an ingenious brass catch mechanism that enabled it to be opened to expose all of its contents; consequently it could be packed and unpacked in seconds.







I’d not seen him since then and recall leaving the shadow of Ferihegy Airport to encounter a torpid heat. The air was still and I soon became irritated under the weight of all I’d undertaken to bring with me until boarding a coach to take me onto the metro. There was a small square outside the station were a number of gypsy beggars gathered and slept under sheets of tarpaulin, hardboard, anything lying around. But because of the heat, while travelling, I’d acquired an immense thirst and what became of more interest to me than the beggars was the small bar on the corner. I returned from the counter with a large cold beer and sat at one of the tables within the picket fence surrounding them. I wasn’t meeting Howard until three that afternoon and felt that I could relax to take in my surroundings. I counted my change to find that I had sufficient forints in coins to purchase another drink. Stuffing the notes into my pocket I left the coins on the table and I began watching the gypsies. They seemed hardly aware of each other, some were drinking and hard arsed at it, others were inhaling from paper bags. There was one sitting apart from the rest, amongst some old books, and noticing me watching them, stood and approached me. I was surprised to discover that she was a woman and probably multi lingual as she had no problem with English, which wasn’t a second language in that part of the world. She pointed to the coins and I gave them to her. Despite the heat, mittens without fingers covered her hands; her nails were ingrained with dirt and broken. She again surprised me by returning the coin of the largest denomination and left, only to return a short while afterwards with two books. When I accepted them she smiled to expose what was left of her teeth before reaching for the remaining coin. She came over to me whenever I returned from the bar and after buying several books I got to know her name, which was Edith. When she began to be abusive to one of the other gypsies and started arguing with him, I called out to her. This time it was to her surprise and I sensed her blush when she responded like a young girl, smiling and waving to assure me that everything was fine. The books I received from her were either German or Hungarian, and with no intention of ever attempting to read them, I stuffed them into my backpack before leaving.

I arrived at Deak Ferenc Ter twenty minutes before I was due to meet with Howard, which should have been time enough but for what Saint Christopher had planned. In his anarchic scheme of events, two days earlier there had been torrential rain resulting in heavy flooding and the closure of some of the other stations. The only way I knew how to get to my desired destination was via the metro after changing trains. When I got there to find that the other lines were closed, I felt abandoned and was left with that bloody meaningless question of - if only?

I took the escalator to confront the sun, which, although later in the afternoon, was no less intense. I walked around in ever increasing circles feeling that, with Edith’s contributions, the contents of my backpack could fill a charity shop window and was hoping to meet with someone with her linguistic skills. Witnessing the shaking of heads from the many trying to avoid the hour of the lemming, I realised that my pronunciation must have been confusing, which was corroborated when I met with an American, who, pronouncing it differently, felt that he knew where I was going and directed me accordingly. I hopped onto a trolley bus which was too crowded to afford me the luxury of dropping the backpack from my shoulders. When my mobile started bleeping, my backpack became a means to smash into those immediately surrounding me until I was given sufficient space to enable me to reach into my pocket for the phone. I brought up the message and it was exactly as I expected.

‘You feckless Bastard, if you’re not here soon I’m off.’

I struggled to bring up the screen and select the message, but my dexterity or knowledge of the phone wasn’t sufficient to allow me to reply, unlike some who could no doubt text midway through a bungee jump. I swayed with those surrounding me to the motions of the trolley bus until being taken by a sudden migration onto the pavement and to the terminus building. I felt that I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I clambered up the stairs and stepped out onto an open deck. There, hunched over the bar with his back to me, wearing a loose fitting, short sleeved, blue patterned holiday shirt and chinos, was Howard playing with his phone.

Later in the week, we met up with another friend and decided to travel on to Lake Balaton. It was Howard’s idea to change trains mid journey to go to the north side of the lake, to Balatonfured, where at a later date we could take the ferry across to travel by coach onto Pecs. The carriages behind the train were old and huge with large windows, and with ample space we sat at a table besides one. Phil, the friend who had recently joined us, produced a selection of cooked meats, cheeses and bread. I rummaged, taking items of clothing from my backpack in search of a couple of bottles of local wine and so did Howard. I felt totally relaxed and at peace for the first time since Phil’s arrival. I’d not met with him in a long time, when I did again it was to discover that he had grown old alone and was uncompromising. He had been grumpy since leaving the airport and held me to account for the cock up in our arrangements to meet him. I’d waited patiently at that bar before the metro for hours, drinking large cold beers, stockpiling books and watching passengers leaving the airport bus to board the metro. But not Phil, he lived beyond my means and did the one thing that I would never consider, he took a cab. He was also dissatisfied with our accommodation arrangements. Howard had commandeered the double bed in the master bedroom of one those immense eastern European flats with ceilings high enough to suggest that they were meant to accommodate practising acrobats or jugglers. I spent the first night in the single bed in the same room as Howard. The following day I decided to leave that pleasure for Phil and arranged the camp bed in the smaller room of the two we’d rented. When we went for breakfast, after spending our first night together, Phil did nothing in the way of conversation other than to bicker, some of which I could sympathise with because on the odd occasion when I awoke during the night, I could hear Howard snoring despite the wall separating us. We decided after a couple of days to travel on, to avoid the crowds that would be drawn to the grand prix that was occurring that weekend.

Following their initial spats it was good to see Phil and Howard getting on well together, sharing morsels of good food and drinking local wine. I rummaged through my backpack again pulling out odds and sods, but not Edith’s books; I’d left them back at the flat. Finding my camera I began taking photographs of Phil and Howard against the backdrop beyond the window of a slowly changing landscape. The train stopped, someone walking up and down the platform started to shout unintelligibly. ‘That’s us!’ Howard exclaimed. He downed what remained in his glass and all his possessions were stowed into that bag with the speed of a conjurer performing a trick. Phil wasn’t long in joining him. I stuffed everything back into my backpack and fell onto the platform, to see in the near distance, Howard and Phil climbing into the rear carriage of the carriages ahead. Shit!-my camera. Returning, this time with my entire luggage, I found myself alone on the platform apart from a uniformed man holding a green flag, and watched the back of the train containing Phil and Howard disappear into a shimmering haze brought about by the dry heat.

Having Missed out on the previous opportunity I needed to eat and drink, but first I had to find out when the next train to Balatonfured was. The platforms were adjoined to one another, and the foyer, via a subway. I strapped on my backpack and reached to the floor to pick up the camera by its strap before descending the stained concrete steps. I followed the subway to the last stairwell, which I felt would be the exit and where the ticket office would be. When I reached the top of the steps I was confronted by four children, the eldest seeming to be no older than her mid-teens. They talked amongst themselves and indicated to me, by reaching their fingers into their mouths, that they were hungry. The elder girl held her hand out. I reached into the top pockets of my shorts swapping the camera from hand to hand to bring out the coins that were there. I did the same after unbuttoning and lifting the flaps from over the pleated pockets on the legs. The youngest of the group, a boy, took hold of my camera. Although he made no attempt to snatch it away from me, he distracted me and held my attention until, at some signal; they all ran off together. I followed a long corridor into the foyer which was in sharp contrast to the subway. The ceiling was high and a huge chandelier hung from the centre. I crossed the floor which was tiled with small black and white squares. I was overawed by everything I saw, it seemed reasonable to assume that not a thing had changed here for the better part of a century. The period detail of the crystal cut windows in the veneered partitions above the counters and the large round wooden framed clock, seemed encapsulated in a dust of time.

At the ticket office the booking clerk couldn’t understand me, so I reached into my pocket for my ticket to explain to her. It wasn’t there. Finding that both my leg pockets were empty I thought of the children and hoped that, after removing the money, they would be considerate enough to leave my wallet somewhere where I could find it. I left my back pack after pointing to it and indicating to the booking clerk that I would be back soon. But whatever qualities I felt I saw in those children were rapidly disappearing with every platform and toilet I searched through.

Considering whether or not to report them I couldn’t see the point, in the time that it would have taken me to communicate anything to anyone of what had happened they would be far away. I returned for my luggage with just my comb and camera, and walked away dragging my back pack over the floor. I felt hollow inside with no money, no means and incommunicado so to speak, and could well imagine what texts those kids were going to receive. I went outside for a breath of fresh air and dropped the backpack against the wall. Thank God the wine wasn’t of a greater vintage. I unscrewed the top from one of the bottles, and as unreasonable as it was, I felt a great desire to crucify those kids along with Phil and Howard. I was again left with that familiar niggling, negative and self-pitying question that always comes with moments like this of, ’If only?

I sat on my backpack with my back to the wall and began swigging wine like a gypsy beggar. Recalling them I was given an idea. There was still something left of the afternoon and the more wine I drank, the more optimistic I became. I hadn’t lost everything, all I needed was a ticket to Balatonfured and I was hoping that the place wasn’t that big or that crowded. I could start selling things from my backpack and if all else failed, I could sell the camera. As it was I didn’t want to move and it struck me what comfort wine could bring to those who had nothing else. Each time I lifted the bottle to my lips something began to irritate my right nipple. I lifted my left hand inside my denim shirt to discover that there was something in the breast pocket. When I reached inside to feel what was there, I brought my head back to the wall behind me to let out a breath just short of a whistle. Whenever Howard was on a mission he’d stop for nothing and I didn’t want to be left behind, so when my debit card had been returned to me earlier in the day, I had just stuffed it into the top pocket along with the ticket and receipt. With hope restored, and dragging my rucksack behind me, I rushed to catch up with him and Phil.

There were few people on the train that I boarded, and again sitting beside another of those large windows, I again watched the countryside passing and felt more at ease.

Collecting a timetable from the station, Howard and Phil sat at a nearby bar and had, I was later to discover, found a common interest in criticising me, which I didn’t mind if it kept them both happy while they were in each other’s company. When I arrived it had been Howard’s turn to greet the train and words fail to convey my delight in seeing him there. But there was no gleam in those blue eyes, nor was his head half-cocked with the puzzled expression of a border collie. His then was more like a pit bull terrier, with its front paws raised and straining at a chain which was preventing him from getting any closer.

“You’ve kept us here all day. You really are a feckless bastard.”







In reminding him of my history of bad time-keeping and organizational cock-ups, I was trying to suggest to him that he might show a little patience, or at least some consideration to what I may have been through in my efforts to reach him. Before he could reply Chris came with Rosemary to join us and Howard stood, I must say with some difficulty, to go back inside ‘The Gingle Boy’ for more wine and glasses. Once he’d returned they all expressed how glad they were to see each other again and I was introduced to Rosemary. Then, after Howard had filled the girl’s glasses, he attracted Chris’s attention.

“Can you recall the time we got lost trying to find that party in Barnes?”

After taking a sip of her wine Chris wasn’t long in replying.

“Yes I do, Dee was with us.”

“That’s right.” Howard stopped to give Chris time to recall the incident before asking “can you remember what happened?”

Chris thought for a moment and took another sip replying with “No, no not really.”

In beginning to recall what happened I realised Howard’s intent, but before I could interject he continued with.

“Well I do; we stopped at a pub and he went inside to ask for directions. Twenty minutes I waited until I followed and found him having a pint and talking to someone at the bar while we’d been stuck outside in the cab with the clock running.”

That was thirty years ago and had been a chance meeting with someone I hadn’t seen in a while.



Chapter 2



Coming to the end of the wine, between us we were trying to decide upon a place we could go on to. Rosemary expressed a desire to see some examples of art nouveau and not far from where I lived was ‘The Greenwood Hotel’. The interior design and decor in the ballroom was a perfect example, also it was kept in good order to be used as a set for either film or television productions. To help pay for its upkeep, on a Friday night it was let to be used as a venue to tribute bands. I didn’t know who would be who that night, but the bands I’d been to see previously had all been good. I suggested that we could go onto there. They agreed to it, but walking from the wine bar Howard’s steps was becoming more laboured and he was beginning to struggle under the weight of his bag. I took it from him and was later to be proved wrong in my assumption that he was moving awkwardly because he’d had far too much to drink. With one hand to the wall he veered, as though taken by some unseen force, into an Italian restaurant. We followed him and at his insistence sat with him at a table. The meal was going to be expensive, I realised that from the small portions and how they were decoratively presented.

Howard seemed troubled and when the wine came I sampled it before taking the bottle and filling the glasses. Rosemary was wearing a red dress, which was a fortunate choice of colour, because Chris, reaching for her glass, knocked it over. The contents spilt from the glass over the table cloth onto Rosemary’s dress before she could stand to avoid it. We all stood to assist her and it seemed to me that Howard was struggling. Following the kerfuffle that brought us to the attention of the serving staff and to some of the other diners, the plates were removed. In seconds the soiled table cloth had gone and was replaced with another, giving us the merest glimpse of the rectangular chipboard table top beneath. Howard turned from the table, presumably to go to the toilet. The restaurant floor was split level with a single step down and in negotiating it Howard dropped in such a way that it appeared that his legs had suddenly collapsed beneath him. I rushed over. He was resting on his arm and hands, right side turned towards the floor, his legs buckled under him.

“I can’t use them.”

He uttered meaning his legs, which suggested to me that he couldn’t assist me in helping him to stand. I struggled to turn him until he could rest with both hands on the floor behind. A meaningful lady left her company to join us. Kneeling with one knee on the floor, she explained that she was a doctor and asked Howard if he had blood pressure? Her intrusion was something Howard didn’t welcome and he replied sarcastically.

“I certainly hope so.”

She was obviously miffed by his response and abruptly turned from him. When we stood together she asked me, “had this happened before?” That was the first time to my knowledge I thought, but in replying. “I wouldn’t know I usually precede him”. Continued with Howard’s rejection, which was something I was soon to regret. How huge Howard was I hadn’t fully realised in all the years that I’d known him until that moment. I attempted with Rosemary and Chris’s help, the impossible task of trying to raise him, with Rosemary suggesting during our endeavours to call for an ambulance. In considering this I realised what the waiting room of any A & E was like late Friday night. They were places at that time when any allegiance to the Hippocratic Oath was at breaking point. Word must have gone around amongst the staff, because it wasn’t long before someone came to assist us from the kitchen. He was also massive and stretching down he reached underneath Howard’s armpits. He leant backwards using his full body weight to raise Howard, which he struggled to do until lifting him sufficiently to enable me to place a chair beneath him. With that achieved he returned to the kitchen. Once Howard was composed, we helped to get him outside. He couldn’t move without the assistance of something or someone to help support his weight, and when trying to hail a cab, we were understandably rejected. When finally we reached the railings on the corner, which were there to prevent pedestrians from stepping out onto the road, I left Howard with the girls and went to the taxi rank outside the station, returning soon afterwards in a cab to collect them.

I went down to the conservatory the following morning to find Howard there smoking. I sat with him and telling him about the doctor, we were both amused to the point of laughter, which, although not quite the same, was reminiscent of times from a past when the pleasure we got from many an escapade was talking about it afterwards over a drink. Chris called around a little later to pick Howard up and take him on to Tilbury to see a boat he was considering purchasing on behalf of the Trinity Trust, which was a charity that Howard had established in Brixham that enabled, amongst others things, special needs children to go to sea in the tall boats belonging to the trust. Although he was still unstable, Howard was walking better.

I had just settled down to watch the start of an England qualifying game in my local when Howard text me later that day. His lameness had returned and he was waiting, with no means to get in, outside my house. I told him to wait there and rang for a cab to collect him, to bring him to where I was. He wasn’t interested in the game and consequently didn’t stay with me for long. When Chris came to collect him he went off with her and Rosemary, to meet with acquaintances of theirs unknown to me. Howard had travelled from Devon and so had Rosemary, but because Chris was local to me and had a house in West London, I didn’t expect to see any of them until the following day.

I awoke to hear the house phone above the music from the c d that I’d put on before passing out. When I stood I felt something crack or flash behind my eyes and I had to close them briefly before leaving the room to reach the phone.

“It’s Chris. Howard wants a word with you.”

And why Chris rang and not Howard, to address me in an abrupt authoritative manner, like she would to a naughty boy in her class, I could only presume later was because of the inconvenience I may put her through.

I sat on the bottom stairs and lowered my head as the weight of it seemed to be increasing and listened with a kind of numb resignation when Howard continued with.

“I got a cab back to yours last night. I could hear your music, hear the dog barking, I was banging on your door until your neighbour came out. All those coins in the front garden are mine; I was throwing them up at your bedroom window. Anyway Chris is driving me round to pick up my bag and drop me off at the station.”

I wasn’t given an opportunity to reply.

I checked the ash tray to see how much I’d smoked and went to see what was left in the bottle, returning to the front room with a medicinal coffee brandy. I felt too bad to feel bad and when Howard came to collect his bag, Chris remained beside the car. I felt that the consequence of my indulgence last night had pissed everyone off when Chris and Howard left abruptly, neither one inviting me to accompany them, nor waiting for me to offer to assist Howard with his bag.

I felt it best to leave trying to contact Howard for at least a couple of days, and later that afternoon, I went down to my local. Before I could lift a pint I doubled up in similar fashion to someone receiving a blow to his lower abdomen. Then that sickly feeling came for an instance, which always follows shock. I went outside to get a breath of fresh air and sat on the steps up to the pavement from the slip road. My forehead was clammy damp; the air felt refreshing and I inhaled it with slow deep breaths until the pain subsided. I was more afraid than hurt and after climbing the steps, I went home.

I realised that it was going to be a long night when I felt that I needed to, but couldn’t pass water. When I finally did, it wasn’t without some discomfort. Furthermore I was alarmed when I saw the colour, it was claret. Suspecting renal failure I went upstairs to lay awake and reflect upon the many things that can happen, and the changes in lifestyle that would be necessary to prevent such things from happening, in the event of my kidneys beginning to fail.

Because I hadn’t made an appointment months previously, I had to wait in the waiting room for some considerable time until the doctor was free to see me. I took the cylindrical sample jar to the toilet and inspected its content before returning it to the G. P. I didn’t see any blood, only little flecks floating about which were not dissimilar to those in snow scene paper weights you turn upside down for effect. She inspected it under some kind of scope and her prognosis was kidney stones. I was so relieved that I was heedless to what she had to say while she made hospital appointments on my behalf. Kidney stones were something; I knew this from his diaries, which Samuel Pepsys had overcome before the historic fire that had been started by some careless baker in Pudding Lane.

Once I’d returned home, and in the realisation that my condition wasn’t that threatening, I became more concerned over Howard and knew that I couldn’t wait the few days I thought was best before contacting him. I phoned him later that evening, just before retiring. Like me he’d been to see his G. P., but unlike mine, his condition was of some concern to both him and his doctor. He’d had no sensation of pain when his toes had been pricked and was consequently booked into Shiphey General Hospital for tests the following day. I’d had two previous encounters with Shiphey General; the last was when I went up to visit Howard when he had been a patient there previously and I gathered from what I was told then, that Howard’s admittance at that time had been typical of how he used to be. He’d been decorating the outside of his house and without consideration for anything apart from what he’d been focused upon, when he stepped backwards to see how successful he’d been, he fell from the platform. His descent resulted in multiple fractures.





Thinking back to that time, I remember, shortly after I’d received the news from Howard, meeting up with an old friend of ours George and while talking with him I told him about Howard’s accident. Together we recalled the time we went down to spend the weekend with him to go sailing.

Howard had somehow acquired a small sailboat with an outboard motor, which he took great pleasure from, and it was a pleasure he loved to share with those appreciative enough to want to share it with him. It was a calm summer’s evening when we decided to go fishing. Armed with an ordinance chart, string lines and traces, we set to sea after boarding ‘The Nimbus’. Watching Howard as we gently rolled with the waves never failed to impress me. He’d become well adept with his craft which in many ways was unlike him. Howard would often cut corners to avoid things of a lesser interest, which was why so many things collapsed around him.

Howard eased back the throttle and while the motor idled, we tied the traces with feathers, hooks and plumb bobs onto our lines. We sailed around in slow circles lifting the lines and dropping them until we felt the plumb bob dink upon something solid, hoping that it would be one of the wrecks on the chart. Howard opened the throttle and when we began catching fish George was delighted. We headed back just as dusk was descending listening to tales from George about the fishing trips he’d made with his father before leaving Jamaica. In recalling all of this we decided to visit Howard in hospital, and before parting, we agreed to meet at Paddington Station the following Saturday.

The journey was all too familiar to me and until reaching the South Devon coast, I paid little attention to the passing countryside. But when we came to the sea the train followed the coast for some distance passing sandstone monoliths, caves and tunnels, with shadows moving from dawn to dusk, silhouetted by the glistening reflection from the sun upon the water behind.

When we arrived at the hospital, and as pleased as Howard was to see us, it wasn’t long before he made his frustration felt in being confined to a bed. A nearby window was broken as a result of him throwing a plate to get someone’s attention. Not so much for his own good I felt, but more for the good of others, to restrict his movement a broom handle had been inserted into the plaster behind his ankle. We had to leave when the time came and Howard’s parting words to me were. ‘I’ve got to get away from here. All they talk about is football, shit and masturbation, and I don’t know a sodding thing about football.’



Two Slugs and a Satsuma
By Jimmy Skelly


Chapter 1

The hour of the lemming was a time considered best avoided by inner city travellers.

My excuse was that I was given less choice than most to avoid that ungodly time because of demands from texts that made their presence felt whenever I emerged from a tunnel. When I eventually reached Paddington, the forename of my recently acquired alias had gone from feckless to inconsiderate, while the last name remained the same and implied a lack of legal of parentage. I crossed Praed Street, stepping quickly between the traffic, stopping when I had to, until reaching the opposite pavement which brought me to the corner of Spring Street and to ‘The Gingle Boy’.
Sitting outside at a table on the pavement beneath an awning drawn to keep away an earlier June drizzle, Howard continued to play with his phone. He lolled in his seat, his legs sprawled before him and his feet were resting upon his large leather travelling bag which went with him everywhere. Taking one hand from his phone he reached for a partially filled glass beside an empty bottle. I felt my phone vibrate before hearing that sodding ring tone that had irritated me throughout the evening during my travels with the maniacal majority.
Howard must have heard my phone and looked up. His face; in fact his whole countenance seemed larger than it had when we last met. He was without that quizzical look which came with his head half-cocked similar to a border collie, instead he beamed, and his blue eyes lit up with devilment, an innocent with an expression of delight to see me, which suggested that he’d had far more to drink than what had been in the bottle on the table.
“You look old and tired” he said cheerily which made me think that my present state, which was brought about by the stress I’d been put through trying to meet him on time after finishing work, was making him feel young and energetic “Go and grab a couple of bottles, we’re meeting Rosemary and Chris here later.”
Rosemary was also a school teacher and a friend of Chris and Howard I’d not met before, while Chris, Howard and me went back to a time when the very act of our meeting would be fraught with incidents of varying degrees of lunacy. The solidarity we once shared kept us in contact although our reunions were usually brief and prompted either through invitation to an event, or whenever we were in the same part of the world.



I remember on one occasion, when we were still fairly new to each other, Howard had arranged to meet with some other teachers, who were also at his school, in an Israeli restaurant on the Finchley Road. He invited me along and it was to be my first meeting with Chris. A group of Israeli students were sitting at a nearby table and were celebrating the success of an offensive against their neighbouring state. Howard couldn’t sit while he listened, nor was it something he could keep quiet about. Chris, after running her finger down the menu, asked.
“What is falafel?”
“Aha!” exclaimed Howard seizing the opportunity and continued in a voice becoming louder and more bellicose. ”Falafel is an Israeli delicacy introduced into this country after being discovered by the brave troops in the Israeli armies, while taking great delight in toasting Arab babies on the end of their bayonets over the camp fires.”
The place immediately went quiet, but not for long. Howard, who was already standing, was first out the restaurant and I followed. Fortunately for me the girls in our company had the presence of mind to hinder those in pursuit at the door, giving me sufficient time to eventually join Howard on a platform in Finchley Road Station.

*

I stepped down from the door of ‘The Gingle boy’ with a bottle of house red and an extra glass and took them with me to sit with Howard outside. Once my annoyance, due to his persistent text messages and my frustration at not being able to arrive any sooner, had left, I was reminded of a similar occasion the previous year when I was going to meet him in Budapest. He’d had with him the same large leather travelling bag which had an ingenious brass catch mechanism that enabled it to be opened to expose all of its contents; consequently it could be packed and unpacked in seconds.



I’d not seen him since then and recall leaving the shadow of Ferihegy Airport to encounter a torpid heat. The air was still and I soon became irritated under the weight of all I’d undertaken to bring with me until boarding a coach to take me onto the metro. There was a small square outside the station were a number of gypsy beggars gathered and slept under sheets of tarpaulin, hardboard, anything lying around. But because of the heat, while travelling, I’d acquired an immense thirst and what became of more interest to me than the beggars was the small bar on the corner. I returned from the counter with a large cold beer and sat at one of the tables within the picket fence surrounding them. I wasn’t meeting Howard until three that afternoon and felt that I could relax to take in my surroundings. I counted my change to find that I had sufficient forints in coins to purchase another drink. Stuffing the notes into my pocket I left the coins on the table and I began watching the gypsies. They seemed hardly aware of each other, some were drinking and hard arsed at it, others were inhaling from paper bags. There was one sitting apart from the rest, amongst some old books, and noticing me watching them, stood and approached me. I was surprised to discover that she was a woman and probably multi lingual as she had no problem with English, which wasn’t a second language in that part of the world. She pointed to the coins and I gave them to her. Despite the heat, mittens without fingers covered her hands; her nails were ingrained with dirt and broken. She again surprised me by returning the coin of the largest denomination and left, only to return a short while afterwards with two books. When I accepted them she smiled to expose what was left of her teeth before reaching for the remaining coin. She came over to me whenever I returned from the bar and after buying several books I got to know her name, which was Edith. When she began to be abusive to one of the other gypsies and started arguing with him, I called out to her. This time it was to her surprise and I sensed her blush when she responded like a young girl, smiling and waving to assure me that everything was fine. The books I received from her were either German or Hungarian, and with no intention of ever attempting to read them, I stuffed them into my backpack before leaving.
I arrived at Deak Ferenc Ter twenty minutes before I was due to meet with Howard, which should have been time enough but for what Saint Christopher had planned. In his anarchic scheme of events, two days earlier there had been torrential rain resulting in heavy flooding and the closure of some of the other stations. The only way I knew how to get to my desired destination was via the metro after changing trains. When I got there to find that the other lines were closed, I felt abandoned and was left with that bloody meaningless question of - if only?
I took the escalator to confront the sun, which, although later in the afternoon, was no less intense. I walked around in ever increasing circles feeling that, with Edith’s contributions, the contents of my backpack could fill a charity shop window and was hoping to meet with someone with her linguistic skills. Witnessing the shaking of heads from the many trying to avoid the hour of the lemming, I realised that my pronunciation must have been confusing, which was corroborated when I met with an American, who, pronouncing it differently, felt that he knew where I was going and directed me accordingly. I hopped onto a trolley bus which was too crowded to afford me the luxury of dropping the backpack from my shoulders. When my mobile started bleeping, my backpack became a means to smash into those immediately surrounding me until I was given sufficient space to enable me to reach into my pocket for the phone. I brought up the message and it was exactly as I expected.
‘You feckless Bastard, if you’re not here soon I’m off.’
I struggled to bring up the screen and select the message, but my dexterity or knowledge of the phone wasn’t sufficient to allow me to reply, unlike some who could no doubt text midway through a bungee jump. I swayed with those surrounding me to the motions of the trolley bus until being taken by a sudden migration onto the pavement and to the terminus building. I felt that I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I clambered up the stairs and stepped out onto an open deck. There, hunched over the bar with his back to me, wearing a loose fitting, short sleeved, blue patterned holiday shirt and chinos, was Howard playing with his phone.
Later in the week, we met up with another friend and decided to travel on to Lake Balaton. It was Howard’s idea to change trains mid journey to go to the north side of the lake, to Balatonfured, where at a later date we could take the ferry across to travel by coach onto Pecs. The carriages behind the train were old and huge with large windows, and with ample space we sat at a table besides one. Phil, the friend who had recently joined us, produced a selection of cooked meats, cheeses and bread. I rummaged, taking items of clothing from my backpack in search of a couple of bottles of local wine and so did Howard. I felt totally relaxed and at peace for the first time since Phil’s arrival. I’d not met with him in a long time, when I did again it was to discover that he had grown old alone and was uncompromising. He had been grumpy since leaving the airport and held me to account for the cock up in our arrangements to meet him. I’d waited patiently at that bar before the metro for hours, drinking large cold beers, stockpiling books and watching passengers leaving the airport bus to board the metro. But not Phil, he lived beyond my means and did the one thing that I would never consider, he took a cab. He was also dissatisfied with our accommodation arrangements. Howard had commandeered the double bed in the master bedroom of one those immense eastern European flats with ceilings high enough to suggest that they were meant to accommodate practising acrobats or jugglers. I spent the first night in the single bed in the same room as Howard. The following day I decided to leave that pleasure for Phil and arranged the camp bed in the smaller room of the two we’d rented. When we went for breakfast, after spending our first night together, Phil did nothing in the way of conversation other than to bicker, some of which I could sympathise with because on the odd occasion when I awoke during the night, I could hear Howard snoring despite the wall separating us. We decided after a couple of days to travel on, to avoid the crowds that would be drawn to the grand prix that was occurring that weekend.
Following their initial spats it was good to see Phil and Howard getting on well together, sharing morsels of good food and drinking local wine. I rummaged through my backpack again pulling out odds and sods, but not Edith’s books; I’d left them back at the flat. Finding my camera I began taking photographs of Phil and Howard against the backdrop beyond the window of a slowly changing landscape. The train stopped, someone walking up and down the platform started to shout unintelligibly. ‘That’s us!’ Howard exclaimed. He downed what remained in his glass and all his possessions were stowed into that bag with the speed of a conjurer performing a trick. Phil wasn’t long in joining him. I stuffed everything back into my backpack and fell onto the platform, to see in the near distance, Howard and Phil climbing into the rear carriage of the carriages ahead. Shit!-my camera. Returning, this time with my entire luggage, I found myself alone on the platform apart from a uniformed man holding a green flag, and watched the back of the train containing Phil and Howard disappear into a shimmering haze brought about by the dry heat.
Having Missed out on the previous opportunity I needed to eat and drink, but first I had to find out when the next train to Balatonfured was. The platforms were adjoined to one another, and the foyer, via a subway. I strapped on my backpack and reached to the floor to pick up the camera by its strap before descending the stained concrete steps. I followed the subway to the last stairwell, which I felt would be the exit and where the ticket office would be. When I reached the top of the steps I was confronted by four children, the eldest seeming to be no older than her mid-teens. They talked amongst themselves and indicated to me, by reaching their fingers into their mouths, that they were hungry. The elder girl held her hand out. I reached into the top pockets of my shorts swapping the camera from hand to hand to bring out the coins that were there. I did the same after unbuttoning and lifting the flaps from over the pleated pockets on the legs. The youngest of the group, a boy, took hold of my camera. Although he made no attempt to snatch it away from me, he distracted me and held my attention until, at some signal; they all ran off together. I followed a long corridor into the foyer which was in sharp contrast to the subway. The ceiling was high and a huge chandelier hung from the centre. I crossed the floor which was tiled with small black and white squares. I was overawed by everything I saw, it seemed reasonable to assume that not a thing had changed here for the better part of a century. The period detail of the crystal cut windows in the veneered partitions above the counters and the large round wooden framed clock, seemed encapsulated in a dust of time.
At the ticket office the booking clerk couldn’t understand me, so I reached into my pocket for my ticket to explain to her. It wasn’t there. Finding that both my leg pockets were empty I thought of the children and hoped that, after removing the money, they would be considerate enough to leave my wallet somewhere where I could find it. I left my back pack after pointing to it and indicating to the booking clerk that I would be back soon. But whatever qualities I felt I saw in those children were rapidly disappearing with every platform and toilet I searched through.
Considering whether or not to report them I couldn’t see the point, in the time that it would have taken me to communicate anything to anyone of what had happened they would be far away. I returned for my luggage with just my comb and camera, and walked away dragging my back pack over the floor. I felt hollow inside with no money, no means and incommunicado so to speak, and could well imagine what texts those kids were going to receive. I went outside for a breath of fresh air and dropped the backpack against the wall. Thank God the wine wasn’t of a greater vintage. I unscrewed the top from one of the bottles, and as unreasonable as it was, I felt a great desire to crucify those kids along with Phil and Howard. I was again left with that familiar niggling, negative and self-pitying question that always comes with moments like this of, ’If only?
I sat on my backpack with my back to the wall and began swigging wine like a gypsy beggar. Recalling them I was given an idea. There was still something left of the afternoon and the more wine I drank, the more optimistic I became. I hadn’t lost everything, all I needed was a ticket to Balatonfured and I was hoping that the place wasn’t that big or that crowded. I could start selling things from my backpack and if all else failed, I could sell the camera. As it was I didn’t want to move and it struck me what comfort wine could bring to those who had nothing else. Each time I lifted the bottle to my lips something began to irritate my right nipple. I lifted my left hand inside my denim shirt to discover that there was something in the breast pocket. When I reached inside to feel what was there, I brought my head back to the wall behind me to let out a breath just short of a whistle. Whenever Howard was on a mission he’d stop for nothing and I didn’t want to be left behind, so when my debit card had been returned to me earlier in the day, I had just stuffed it into the top pocket along with the ticket and receipt. With hope restored, and dragging my rucksack behind me, I rushed to catch up with him and Phil.
There were few people on the train that I boarded, and again sitting beside another of those large windows, I again watched the countryside passing and felt more at ease.
Collecting a timetable from the station, Howard and Phil sat at a nearby bar and had, I was later to discover, found a common interest in criticising me, which I didn’t mind if it kept them both happy while they were in each other’s company. When I arrived it had been Howard’s turn to greet the train and words fail to convey my delight in seeing him there. But there was no gleam in those blue eyes, nor was his head half-cocked with the puzzled expression of a border collie. His then was more like a pit bull terrier, with its front paws raised and straining at a chain which was preventing him from getting any closer.
“You’ve kept us here all day. You really are a feckless bastard.”



In reminding him of my history of bad time-keeping and organizational cock-ups, I was trying to suggest to him that he might show a little patience, or at least some consideration to what I may have been through in my efforts to reach him. Before he could reply Chris came with Rosemary to join us and Howard stood, I must say with some difficulty, to go back inside ‘The Gingle Boy’ for more wine and glasses. Once he’d returned they all expressed how glad they were to see each other again and I was introduced to Rosemary. Then, after Howard had filled the girl’s glasses, he attracted Chris’s attention.
“Can you recall the time we got lost trying to find that party in Barnes?”
After taking a sip of her wine Chris wasn’t long in replying.
“Yes I do, Dee was with us.”
“That’s right.” Howard stopped to give Chris time to recall the incident before asking “can you remember what happened?”
Chris thought for a moment and took another sip replying with “No, no not really.”
In beginning to recall what happened I realised Howard’s intent, but before I could interject he continued with.
“Well I do; we stopped at a pub and he went inside to ask for directions. Twenty minutes I waited until I followed and found him having a pint and talking to someone at the bar while we’d been stuck outside in the cab with the clock running.”
That was thirty years ago and had been a chance meeting with someone I hadn’t seen in a while.

Chapter 2

Coming to the end of the wine, between us we were trying to decide upon a place we could go on to. Rosemary expressed a desire to see some examples of art nouveau and not far from where I lived was ‘The Greenwood Hotel’. The interior design and decor in the ballroom was a perfect example, also it was kept in good order to be used as a set for either film or television productions. To help pay for its upkeep, on a Friday night it was let to be used as a venue to tribute bands. I didn’t know who would be who that night, but the bands I’d been to see previously had all been good. I suggested that we could go onto there. They agreed to it, but walking from the wine bar Howard’s steps was becoming more laboured and he was beginning to struggle under the weight of his bag. I took it from him and was later to be proved wrong in my assumption that he was moving awkwardly because he’d had far too much to drink. With one hand to the wall he veered, as though taken by some unseen force, into an Italian restaurant. We followed him and at his insistence sat with him at a table. The meal was going to be expensive, I realised that from the small portions and how they were decoratively presented.
Howard seemed troubled and when the wine came I sampled it before taking the bottle and filling the glasses. Rosemary was wearing a red dress, which was a fortunate choice of colour, because Chris, reaching for her glass, knocked it over. The contents spilt from the glass over the table cloth onto Rosemary’s dress before she could stand to avoid it. We all stood to assist her and it seemed to me that Howard was struggling. Following the kerfuffle that brought us to the attention of the serving staff and to some of the other diners, the plates were removed. In seconds the soiled table cloth had gone and was replaced with another, giving us the merest glimpse of the rectangular chipboard table top beneath. Howard turned from the table, presumably to go to the toilet. The restaurant floor was split level with a single step down and in negotiating it Howard dropped in such a way that it appeared that his legs had suddenly collapsed beneath him. I rushed over. He was resting on his arm and hands, right side turned towards the floor, his legs buckled under him.
“I can’t use them.”
He uttered meaning his legs, which suggested to me that he couldn’t assist me in helping him to stand. I struggled to turn him until he could rest with both hands on the floor behind. A meaningful lady left her company to join us. Kneeling with one knee on the floor, she explained that she was a doctor and asked Howard if he had blood pressure? Her intrusion was something Howard didn’t welcome and he replied sarcastically.
“I certainly hope so.”
She was obviously miffed by his response and abruptly turned from him. When we stood together she asked me, “had this happened before?” That was the first time to my knowledge I thought, but in replying. “I wouldn’t know I usually precede him”. Continued with Howard’s rejection, which was something I was soon to regret. How huge Howard was I hadn’t fully realised in all the years that I’d known him until that moment. I attempted with Rosemary and Chris’s help, the impossible task of trying to raise him, with Rosemary suggesting during our endeavours to call for an ambulance. In considering this I realised what the waiting room of any A & E was like late Friday night. They were places at that time when any allegiance to the Hippocratic Oath was at breaking point. Word must have gone around amongst the staff, because it wasn’t long before someone came to assist us from the kitchen. He was also massive and stretching down he reached underneath Howard’s armpits. He leant backwards using his full body weight to raise Howard, which he struggled to do until lifting him sufficiently to enable me to place a chair beneath him. With that achieved he returned to the kitchen. Once Howard was composed, we helped to get him outside. He couldn’t move without the assistance of something or someone to help support his weight, and when trying to hail a cab, we were understandably rejected. When finally we reached the railings on the corner, which were there to prevent pedestrians from stepping out onto the road, I left Howard with the girls and went to the taxi rank outside the station, returning soon afterwards in a cab to collect them.
I went down to the conservatory the following morning to find Howard there smoking. I sat with him and telling him about the doctor, we were both amused to the point of laughter, which, although not quite the same, was reminiscent of times from a past when the pleasure we got from many an escapade was talking about it afterwards over a drink. Chris called around a little later to pick Howard up and take him on to Tilbury to see a boat he was considering purchasing on behalf of the Trinity Trust, which was a charity that Howard had established in Brixham that enabled, amongst others things, special needs children to go to sea in the tall boats belonging to the trust. Although he was still unstable, Howard was walking better.
I had just settled down to watch the start of an England qualifying game in my local when Howard text me later that day. His lameness had returned and he was waiting, with no means to get in, outside my house. I told him to wait there and rang for a cab to collect him, to bring him to where I was. He wasn’t interested in the game and consequently didn’t stay with me for long. When Chris came to collect him he went off with her and Rosemary, to meet with acquaintances of theirs unknown to me. Howard had travelled from Devon and so had Rosemary, but because Chris was local to me and had a house in West London, I didn’t expect to see any of them until the following day.
I awoke to hear the house phone above the music from the c d that I’d put on before passing out. When I stood I felt something crack or flash behind my eyes and I had to close them briefly before leaving the room to reach the phone.
“It’s Chris. Howard wants a word with you.”
And why Chris rang and not Howard, to address me in an abrupt authoritative manner, like she would to a naughty boy in her class, I could only presume later was because of the inconvenience I may put her through.
I sat on the bottom stairs and lowered my head as the weight of it seemed to be increasing and listened with a kind of numb resignation when Howard continued with.
“I got a cab back to yours last night. I could hear your music, hear the dog barking, I was banging on your door until your neighbour came out. All those coins in the front garden are mine; I was throwing them up at your bedroom window. Anyway Chris is driving me round to pick up my bag and drop me off at the station.”
I wasn’t given an opportunity to reply.
I checked the ash tray to see how much I’d smoked and went to see what was left in the bottle, returning to the front room with a medicinal coffee brandy. I felt too bad to feel bad and when Howard came to collect his bag, Chris remained beside the car. I felt that the consequence of my indulgence last night had pissed everyone off when Chris and Howard left abruptly, neither one inviting me to accompany them, nor waiting for me to offer to assist Howard with his bag.
I felt it best to leave trying to contact Howard for at least a couple of days, and later that afternoon, I went down to my local. Before I could lift a pint I doubled up in similar fashion to someone receiving a blow to his lower abdomen. Then that sickly feeling came for an instance, which always follows shock. I went outside to get a breath of fresh air and sat on the steps up to the pavement from the slip road. My forehead was clammy damp; the air felt refreshing and I inhaled it with slow deep breaths until the pain subsided. I was more afraid than hurt and after climbing the steps, I went home.
I realised that it was going to be a long night when I felt that I needed to, but couldn’t pass water. When I finally did, it wasn’t without some discomfort. Furthermore I was alarmed when I saw the colour, it was claret. Suspecting renal failure I went upstairs to lay awake and reflect upon the many things that can happen, and the changes in lifestyle that would be necessary to prevent such things from happening, in the event of my kidneys beginning to fail.
Because I hadn’t made an appointment months previously, I had to wait in the waiting room for some considerable time until the doctor was free to see me. I took the cylindrical sample jar to the toilet and inspected its content before returning it to the G. P. I didn’t see any blood, only little flecks floating about which were not dissimilar to those in snow scene paper weights you turn upside down for effect. She inspected it under some kind of scope and her prognosis was kidney stones. I was so relieved that I was heedless to what she had to say while she made hospital appointments on my behalf. Kidney stones were something; I knew this from his diaries, which Samuel Pepsys had overcome before the historic fire that had been started by some careless baker in Pudding Lane.
Once I’d returned home, and in the realisation that my condition wasn’t that threatening, I became more concerned over Howard and knew that I couldn’t wait the few days I thought was best before contacting him. I phoned him later that evening, just before retiring. Like me he’d been to see his G. P., but unlike mine, his condition was of some concern to both him and his doctor. He’d had no sensation of pain when his toes had been pricked and was consequently booked into Shiphey General Hospital for tests the following day. I’d had two previous encounters with Shiphey General; the last was when I went up to visit Howard when he had been a patient there previously and I gathered from what I was told then, that Howard’s admittance at that time had been typical of how he used to be. He’d been decorating the outside of his house and without consideration for anything apart from what he’d been focused upon, when he stepped backwards to see how successful he’d been, he fell from the platform. His descent resulted in multiple fractures.


Thinking back to that time, I remember, shortly after I’d received the news from Howard, meeting up with an old friend of ours George and while talking with him I told him about Howard’s accident. Together we recalled the time we went down to spend the weekend with him to go sailing.
Howard had somehow acquired a small sailboat with an outboard motor, which he took great pleasure from, and it was a pleasure he loved to share with those appreciative enough to want to share it with him. It was a calm summer’s evening when we decided to go fishing. Armed with an ordinance chart, string lines and traces, we set to sea after boarding ‘The Nimbus’. Watching Howard as we gently rolled with the waves never failed to impress me. He’d become well adept with his craft which in many ways was unlike him. Howard would often cut corners to avoid things of a lesser interest, which was why so many things collapsed around him.
Howard eased back the throttle and while the motor idled, we tied the traces with feathers, hooks and plumb bobs onto our lines. We sailed around in slow circles lifting the lines and dropping them until we felt the plumb bob dink upon something solid, hoping that it would be one of the wrecks on the chart. Howard opened the throttle and when we began catching fish George was delighted. We headed back just as dusk was descending listening to tales from George about the fishing trips he’d made with his father before leaving Jamaica. In recalling all of this we decided to visit Howard in hospital, and before parting, we agreed to meet at Paddington Station the following Saturday.
The journey was all too familiar to me and until reaching the South Devon coast, I paid little attention to the passing countryside. But when we came to the sea the train followed the coast for some distance passing sandstone monoliths, caves and tunnels, with shadows moving from dawn to dusk, silhouetted by the glistening reflection from the sun upon the water behind.
When we arrived at the hospital, and as pleased as Howard was to see us, it wasn’t long before he made his frustration felt in being confined to a bed. A nearby window was broken as a result of him throwing a plate to get someone’s attention. Not so much for his own good I felt, but more for the good of others, to restrict his movement a broom handle had been inserted into the plaster behind his ankle. We had to leave when the time came and Howard’s parting words to me were. ‘I’ve got to get away from here. All they talk about is football, shit and masturbation, and I don’t know a sodding thing about football.’



Chapter 1

The hour of the lemming was a time considered best avoided by inner city travellers.

My excuse was that I was given less choice than most to avoid that ungodly time because of demands from texts that made their presence felt whenever I emerged from a tunnel. When I eventually reached Paddington, the forename of my recently acquired alias had gone from feckless to inconsiderate, while the last name remained the same and implied a lack of legal of parentage. I crossed Praed Street, stepping quickly between the traffic, stopping when I had to, until reaching the opposite pavement which brought me to the corner of Spring Street and to ‘The Gingle Boy’.
Sitting outside at a table on the pavement beneath an awning drawn to keep away an earlier June drizzle, Howard continued to play with his phone. He lolled in his seat, his legs sprawled before him and his feet were resting upon his large leather travelling bag which went with him everywhere. Taking one hand from his phone he reached for a partially filled glass beside an empty bottle. I felt my phone vibrate before hearing that sodding ring tone that had irritated me throughout the evening during my travels with the maniacal majority.
Howard must have heard my phone and looked up. His face; in fact his whole countenance seemed larger than it had when we last met. He was without that quizzical look which came with his head half-cocked similar to a border collie, instead he beamed, and his blue eyes lit up with devilment, an innocent with an expression of delight to see me, which suggested that he’d had far more to drink than what had been in the bottle on the table.
“You look old and tired” he said cheerily which made me think that my present state, which was brought about by the stress I’d been put through trying to meet him on time after finishing work, was making him feel young and energetic “Go and grab a couple of bottles, we’re meeting Rosemary and Chris here later.”
Rosemary was also a school teacher and a friend of Chris and Howard I’d not met before, while Chris, Howard and me went back to a time when the very act of our meeting would be fraught with incidents of varying degrees of lunacy. The solidarity we once shared kept us in contact although our reunions were usually brief and prompted either through invitation to an event, or whenever we were in the same part of the world.

*

(I remember on one occasion, when we were still fairly new to each other, Howard had arranged to meet with some other teachers, who were also at his school, in an Israeli restaurant on the Finchley Road. He invited me along and it was to be my first meeting with Chris. A group of Israeli students were sitting at a nearby table and were celebrating the success of an offensive against their neighbouring state. Howard couldn’t sit while he listened, nor was it something he could keep quiet about. Chris, after running her finger down the menu, asked.
“What is falafel?”
“Aha!” exclaimed Howard seizing the opportunity and continued in a voice becoming louder and more bellicose. ”Falafel is an Israeli delicacy introduced into this country after being discovered by the brave troops in the Israeli armies, while taking great delight in toasting Arab babies on the end of their bayonets over the camp fires.”
The place immediately went quiet, but not for long. Howard, who was already standing, was first out the restaurant and I followed. Fortunately for me the girls in our company had the presence of mind to hinder those in pursuit at the door, giving me sufficient time to eventually join Howard on a platform in Finchley Road Station.)

*

I stepped down from the door of ‘The Gingle boy’ with a bottle of house red and an extra glass and took them with me to sit with Howard outside. Once my annoyance, due to his persistent text messages and my frustration at not being able to arrive any sooner, had left, I was reminded of a similar occasion the previous year when I was going to meet him in Budapest. He’d had with him the same large leather travelling bag which had an ingenious brass catch mechanism that enabled it to be opened to expose all of its contents; consequently it could be packed and unpacked in seconds. I’d not seen him since then and recall leaving the shadow of Ferihegy Airport to encounter a torpid heat.

*

(The air was still and I soon became irritated under the weight of all I’d undertaken to bring with me until boarding a coach to take me onto the metro. There was a small square outside the station were a number of gypsy beggars gathered and slept under sheets of tarpaulin, hardboard, anything lying around. But because of the heat, while travelling, I’d acquired an immense thirst and what became of more interest to me than the beggars was the small bar on the corner. I returned from the counter with a large cold beer and sat at one of the tables within the picket fence surrounding them. I wasn’t meeting Howard until three that afternoon and felt that I could relax to take in my surroundings. I counted my change to find that I had sufficient forints in coins to purchase another drink. Stuffing the notes into my pocket I left the coins on the table and I began watching the gypsies. They seemed hardly aware of each other, some were drinking and hard arsed at it, others were inhaling from paper bags. There was one sitting apart from the rest, amongst some old books, and noticing me watching them, stood and approached me. I was surprised to discover that she was a woman and probably multi lingual as she had no problem with English, which wasn’t a second language in that part of the world. She pointed to the coins and I gave them to her. Despite the heat, mittens without fingers covered her hands; her nails were ingrained with dirt and broken. She again surprised me by returning the coin of the largest denomination and left, only to return a short while afterwards with two books. When I accepted them she smiled to expose what was left of her teeth before reaching for the remaining coin. She came over to me whenever I returned from the bar and after buying several books I got to know her name, which was Edith. When she began to be abusive to one of the other gypsies and started arguing with him, I called out to her. This time it was to her surprise and I sensed her blush when she responded like a young girl, smiling and waving to assure me that everything was fine. The books I received from her were either German or Hungarian, and with no intention of ever attempting to read them, I stuffed them into my backpack before leaving.
I arrived at Deak Ferenc Ter twenty minutes before I was due to meet with Howard, which should have been time enough but for what Saint Christopher had planned. In his anarchic scheme of events, two days earlier there had been torrential rain resulting in heavy flooding and the closure of some of the other stations. The only way I knew how to get to my desired destination was via the metro after changing trains. When I got there to find that the other lines were closed, I felt abandoned and was left with that bloody meaningless question of - if only?
I took the escalator to confront the sun, which, although later in the afternoon, was no less intense. I walked around in ever increasing circles feeling that, with Edith’s contributions, the contents of my backpack could fill a charity shop window and was hoping to meet with someone with her linguistic skills. Witnessing the shaking of heads from the many trying to avoid the hour of the lemming, I realised that my pronunciation must have been confusing, which was corroborated when I met with an American, who, pronouncing it differently, felt that he knew where I was going and directed me accordingly. I hopped onto a trolley bus which was too crowded to afford me the luxury of dropping the backpack from my shoulders. When my mobile started bleeping, my backpack became a means to smash into those immediately surrounding me until I was given sufficient space to enable me to reach into my pocket for the phone. I brought up the message and it was exactly as I expected.
‘You feckless Bastard, if you’re not here soon I’m off.’
I struggled to bring up the screen and select the message, but my dexterity or knowledge of the phone wasn’t sufficient to allow me to reply, unlike some who could no doubt text midway through a bungee jump. I swayed with those surrounding me to the motions of the trolley bus until being taken by a sudden migration onto the pavement and to the terminus building. I felt that I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I clambered up the stairs and stepped out onto an open deck. There, hunched over the bar with his back to me, wearing a loose fitting, short sleeved, blue patterned holiday shirt and chinos, was Howard playing with his phone.
Later in the week, we met up with another friend and decided to travel on to Lake Balaton. It was Howard’s idea to change trains mid journey to go to the north side of the lake, to Balatonfured, where at a later date we could take the ferry across to travel by coach onto Pecs. The carriages behind the train were old and huge with large windows, and with ample space we sat at a table besides one. Phil, the friend who had recently joined us, produced a selection of cooked meats, cheeses and bread. I rummaged, taking items of clothing from my backpack in search of a couple of bottles of local wine and so did Howard. I felt totally relaxed and at peace for the first time since Phil’s arrival. I’d not met with him in a long time, when I did again it was to discover that he had grown old alone and was uncompromising. He had been grumpy since leaving the airport and held me to account for the cock up in our arrangements to meet him. I’d waited patiently at that bar before the metro for hours, drinking large cold beers, stockpiling books and watching passengers leaving the airport bus to board the metro. But not Phil, he lived beyond my means and did the one thing that I would never consider, he took a cab. He was also dissatisfied with our accommodation arrangements. Howard had commandeered the double bed in the master bedroom of one those immense eastern European flats with ceilings high enough to suggest that they were meant to accommodate practising acrobats or jugglers. I spent the first night in the single bed in the same room as Howard. The following day I decided to leave that pleasure for Phil and arranged the camp bed in the smaller room of the two we’d rented. When we went for breakfast, after spending our first night together, Phil did nothing in the way of conversation other than to bicker, some of which I could sympathise with because on the odd occasion when I awoke during the night, I could hear Howard snoring despite the wall separating us. We decided after a couple of days to travel on, to avoid the crowds that would be drawn to the grand prix that was occurring that weekend.
Following their initial spats it was good to see Phil and Howard getting on well together, sharing morsels of good food and drinking local wine. I rummaged through my backpack again pulling out odds and sods, but not Edith’s books; I’d left them back at the flat. Finding my camera I began taking photographs of Phil and Howard against the backdrop beyond the window of a slowly changing landscape. The train stopped, someone walking up and down the platform started to shout unintelligibly. ‘That’s us!’ Howard exclaimed. He downed what remained in his glass and all his possessions were stowed into that bag with the speed of a conjurer performing a trick. Phil wasn’t long in joining him. I stuffed everything back into my backpack and fell onto the platform, to see in the near distance, Howard and Phil climbing into the rear carriage of the carriages ahead. Shit!-my camera. Returning, this time with my entire luggage, I found myself alone on the platform apart from a uniformed man holding a green flag, and watched the back of the train containing Phil and Howard disappear into a shimmering haze brought about by the dry heat.
Having Missed out on the previous opportunity I needed to eat and drink, but first I had to find out when the next train to Balatonfured was. The platforms were adjoined to one another, and the foyer, via a subway. I strapped on my backpack and reached to the floor to pick up the camera by its strap before descending the stained concrete steps. I followed the subway to the last stairwell, which I felt would be the exit and where the ticket office would be. When I reached the top of the steps I was confronted by four children, the eldest seeming to be no older than her mid-teens. They talked amongst themselves and indicated to me, by reaching their fingers into their mouths, that they were hungry. The elder girl held her hand out. I reached into the top pockets of my shorts swapping the camera from hand to hand to bring out the coins that were there. I did the same after unbuttoning and lifting the flaps from over the pleated pockets on the legs. The youngest of the group, a boy, took hold of my camera. Although he made no attempt to snatch it away from me, he distracted me and held my attention until, at some signal; they all ran off together. I followed a long corridor into the foyer which was in sharp contrast to the subway. The ceiling was high and a huge chandelier hung from the centre. I crossed the floor which was tiled with small black and white squares. I was overawed by everything I saw, it seemed reasonable to assume that not a thing had changed here for the better part of a century. The period detail of the crystal cut windows in the veneered partitions above the counters and the large round wooden framed clock, seemed encapsulated in a dust of time.
At the ticket office the booking clerk couldn’t understand me, so I reached into my pocket for my ticket to explain to her. It wasn’t there. Finding that both my leg pockets were empty I thought of the children and hoped that, after removing the money, they would be considerate enough to leave my wallet somewhere where I could find it. I left my back pack after pointing to it and indicating to the booking clerk that I would be back soon. But whatever qualities I felt I saw in those children were rapidly disappearing with every platform and toilet I searched through.
Considering whether or not to report them I couldn’t see the point, in the time that it would have taken me to communicate anything to anyone of what had happened they would be far away. I returned for my luggage with just my comb and camera, and walked away dragging my back pack over the floor. I felt hollow inside with no money, no means and incommunicado so to speak, and could well imagine what texts those kids were going to receive. I went outside for a breath of fresh air and dropped the backpack against the wall. Thank God the wine wasn’t of a greater vintage. I unscrewed the top from one of the bottles, and as unreasonable as it was, I felt a great desire to crucify those kids along with Phil and Howard. I was again left with that familiar niggling, negative and self-pitying question that always comes with moments like this of, ’If only?
I sat on my backpack with my back to the wall and began swigging wine like a gypsy beggar. Recalling them I was given an idea. There was still something left of the afternoon and the more wine I drank, the more optimistic I became. I hadn’t lost everything, all I needed was a ticket to Balatonfured and I was hoping that the place wasn’t that big or that crowded. I could start selling things from my backpack and if all else failed, I could sell the camera. As it was I didn’t want to move and it struck me what comfort wine could bring to those who had nothing else. Each time I lifted the bottle to my lips something began to irritate my right nipple. I lifted my left hand inside my denim shirt to discover that there was something in the breast pocket. When I reached inside to feel what was there, I brought my head back to the wall behind me to let out a breath just short of a whistle. Whenever Howard was on a mission he’d stop for nothing and I didn’t want to be left behind, so when my debit card had been returned to me earlier in the day, I had just stuffed it into the top pocket along with the ticket and receipt. With hope restored, and dragging my rucksack behind me, I rushed to catch up with him and Phil.
There were few people on the train that I boarded, and again sitting beside another of those large windows, I again watched the countryside passing and felt more at ease.
Collecting a timetable from the station, Howard and Phil sat at a nearby bar and had, I was later to discover, found a common interest in criticising me, which I didn’t mind if it kept them both happy while they were in each other’s company. When I arrived it had been Howard’s turn to greet the train and words fail to convey my delight in seeing him there. But there was no gleam in those blue eyes, nor was his head half-cocked with the puzzled expression of a border collie. His then was more like a pit bull terrier, with its front paws raised and straining at a chain which was preventing him from getting any closer.
“You’ve kept us here all day. You really are a feckless bastard.”)

*

In reminding him of my history of bad time-keeping and organizational cock-ups, I was trying to suggest to him that he might show a little patience, or at least some consideration to what I may have been through in my efforts to reach him. Before he could reply Chris came with Rosemary to join us and Howard stood, I must say with some difficulty, to go back inside ‘The Gingle Boy’ for more wine and glasses. Once he’d returned they all expressed how glad they were to see each other again and I was introduced to Rosemary. Then, after Howard had filled the girl’s glasses, he attracted Chris’s attention.
“Can you recall the time we got lost trying to find that party in Barnes?”
After taking a sip of her wine Chris wasn’t long in replying.
“Yes I do, Dee was with us.”
“That’s right.” Howard stopped to give Chris time to recall the incident before asking “can you remember what happened?”
Chris thought for a moment and took another sip replying with “No, no not really.”
In beginning to recall what happened I realised Howard’s intent, but before I could interject he continued with.
“Well I do; we stopped at a pub and he went inside to ask for directions. Twenty minutes I waited until I followed and found him having a pint and talking to someone at the bar while we’d been stuck outside in the cab with the clock running.”
That was thirty years ago and had been a chance meeting with someone I hadn’t seen in a while.

Chapter 2

Coming to the end of the wine, between us we were trying to decide upon a place we could go on to. Rosemary expressed a desire to see some examples of art nouveau and not far from where I lived was ‘The Greenwood Hotel’. The interior design and decor in the ballroom was a perfect example, also it was kept in good order to be used as a set for either film or television productions. To help pay for its upkeep, on a Friday night it was let to be used as a venue to tribute bands. I didn’t know who would be who that night, but the bands I’d been to see previously had all been good. I suggested that we could go onto there. They agreed to it, but walking from the wine bar Howard’s steps was becoming more laboured and he was beginning to struggle under the weight of his bag. I took it from him and was later to be proved wrong in my assumption that he was moving awkwardly because he’d had far too much to drink. With one hand to the wall he veered, as though taken by some unseen force, into an Italian restaurant. We followed him and at his insistence sat with him at a table. The meal was going to be expensive, I realised that from the small portions and how they were decoratively presented.
Howard seemed troubled and when the wine came I sampled it before taking the bottle and filling the glasses. Rosemary was wearing a red dress, which was a fortunate choice of colour, because Chris, reaching for her glass, knocked it over. The contents spilt from the glass over the table cloth onto Rosemary’s dress before she could stand to avoid it. We all stood to assist her and it seemed to me that Howard was struggling. Following the kerfuffle that brought us to the attention of the serving staff and to some of the other diners, the plates were removed. In seconds the soiled table cloth had gone and was replaced with another, giving us the merest glimpse of the rectangular chipboard table top beneath. Howard turned from the table, presumably to go to the toilet. The restaurant floor was split level with a single step down and in negotiating it Howard dropped in such a way that it appeared that his legs had suddenly collapsed beneath him. I rushed over. He was resting on his arm and hands, right side turned towards the floor, his legs buckled under him.
“I can’t use them.”
He uttered meaning his legs, which suggested to me that he couldn’t assist me in helping him to stand. I struggled to turn him until he could rest with both hands on the floor behind. A meaningful lady left her company to join us. Kneeling with one knee on the floor, she explained that she was a doctor and asked Howard if he had blood pressure? Her intrusion was something Howard didn’t welcome and he replied sarcastically.
“I certainly hope so.”
She was obviously miffed by his response and abruptly turned from him. When we stood together she asked me, “had this happened before?” That was the first time to my knowledge I thought, but in replying. “I wouldn’t know I usually precede him”. Continued with Howard’s rejection, which was something I was soon to regret. How huge Howard was I hadn’t fully realised in all the years that I’d known him until that moment. I attempted with Rosemary and Chris’s help, the impossible task of trying to raise him, with Rosemary suggesting during our endeavours to call for an ambulance. In considering this I realised what the waiting room of any A & E was like late Friday night. They were places at that time when any allegiance to the Hippocratic Oath was at breaking point. Word must have gone around amongst the staff, because it wasn’t long before someone came to assist us from the kitchen. He was also massive and stretching down he reached underneath Howard’s armpits. He leant backwards using his full body weight to raise Howard, which he struggled to do until lifting him sufficiently to enable me to place a chair beneath him. With that achieved he returned to the kitchen. Once Howard was composed, we helped to get him outside. He couldn’t move without the assistance of something or someone to help support his weight, and when trying to hail a cab, we were understandably rejected. When finally we reached the railings on the corner, which were there to prevent pedestrians from stepping out onto the road, I left Howard with the girls and went to the taxi rank outside the station, returning soon afterwards in a cab to collect them.
I went down to the conservatory the following morning to find Howard there smoking. I sat with him and telling him about the doctor, we were both amused to the point of laughter, which, although not quite the same, was reminiscent of times from a past when the pleasure we got from many an escapade was talking about it afterwards over a drink. Chris called around a little later to pick Howard up and take him on to Tilbury to see a boat he was considering purchasing on behalf of the Trinity Trust, which was a charity that Howard had established in Brixham that enabled, amongst others things, special needs children to go to sea in the tall boats belonging to the trust. Although he was still unstable, Howard was walking better.
I had just settled down to watch the start of an England qualifying game in my local when Howard text me later that day. His lameness had returned and he was waiting, with no means to get in, outside my house. I told him to wait there and rang for a cab to collect him, to bring him to where I was. He wasn’t interested in the game and consequently didn’t stay with me for long. When Chris came to collect him he went off with her and Rosemary, to meet with acquaintances of theirs unknown to me. Howard had travelled from Devon and so had Rosemary, but because Chris was local to me and had a house in West London, I didn’t expect to see any of them until the following day.
I awoke to hear the house phone above the music from the c d that I’d put on before passing out. When I stood I felt something crack or flash behind my eyes and I had to close them briefly before leaving the room to reach the phone.
“It’s Chris. Howard wants a word with you.”
And why Chris rang and not Howard, to address me in an abrupt authoritative manner, like she would to a naughty boy in her class, I could only presume later was because of the inconvenience I may put her through.
I sat on the bottom stairs and lowered my head as the weight of it seemed to be increasing and listened with a kind of numb resignation when Howard continued with.
“I got a cab back to yours last night. I could hear your music, hear the dog barking, I was banging on your door until your neighbour came out. All those coins in the front garden are mine; I was throwing them up at your bedroom window. Anyway Chris is driving me round to pick up my bag and drop me off at the station.”
I wasn’t given an opportunity to reply.
I checked the ash tray to see how much I’d smoked and went to see what was left in the bottle, returning to the front room with a medicinal coffee brandy. I felt too bad to feel bad and when Howard came to collect his bag, Chris remained beside the car. I felt that the consequence of my indulgence last night had pissed everyone off when Chris and Howard left abruptly, neither one inviting me to accompany them, nor waiting for me to offer to assist Howard with his bag.
I felt it best to leave trying to contact Howard for at least a couple of days, and later that afternoon, I went down to my local. Before I could lift a pint I doubled up in similar fashion to someone receiving a blow to his lower abdomen. Then that sickly feeling came for an instance, which always follows shock. I went outside to get a breath of fresh air and sat on the steps up to the pavement from the slip road. My forehead was clammy damp; the air felt refreshing and I inhaled it with slow deep breaths until the pain subsided. I was more afraid than hurt and after climbing the steps, I went home.
I realised that it was going to be a long night when I felt that I needed to, but couldn’t pass water. When I finally did, it wasn’t without some discomfort. Furthermore I was alarmed when I saw the colour, it was claret. Suspecting renal failure I went upstairs to lay awake and reflect upon the many things that can happen, and the changes in lifestyle that would be necessary to prevent such things from happening, in the event of my kidneys beginning to fail.
Because I hadn’t made an appointment months previously, I had to wait in the waiting room for some considerable time until the doctor was free to see me. I took the cylindrical sample jar to the toilet and inspected its content before returning it to the G. P. I didn’t see any blood, only little flecks floating about which were not dissimilar to those in snow scene paper weights you turn upside down for effect. She inspected it under some kind of scope and her prognosis was kidney stones. I was so relieved that I was heedless to what she had to say while she made hospital appointments on my behalf. Kidney stones were something; I knew this from his diaries, which Samuel Pepsys had overcome before the historic fire that had been started by some careless baker in Pudding Lane.
Once I’d returned home, and in the realisation that my condition wasn’t that threatening, I became more concerned over Howard and knew that I couldn’t wait the few days I thought was best before contacting him. I phoned him later that evening, just before retiring. Like me he’d been to see his G. P., but unlike mine, his condition was of some concern to both him and his doctor. He’d had no sensation of pain when his toes had been pricked and was consequently booked into Shiphey General Hospital for tests the following day. I’d had two previous encounters with Shiphey General; the last was when I went up to visit Howard when he had been a patient there previously.

*

(I gathered from what I was told then, that Howard’s admittance at that had been typical of how he used to be. He’d been decorating the outside of his house and without consideration for anything apart from what he’d been focused upon, when he stepped backwards to see how successful he’d been, he fell from the platform. His descent resulted in multiple fractures.
Shortly after I’d received the news from Howard, I met up with an old friend of ours George and when I told him about Howard’s accident we recalled the time we went down to spend the weekend with him. Howard had somehow acquired a small sailboat with an outboard motor, which he took great pleasure from, and it was a pleasure he loved to share with those appreciative enough to want to share it with him. It was a calm summer’s evening when we decided to go fishing. Armed with an ordinance chart, string lines and traces, we set to sea after boarding ‘The Nimbus’. Watching Howard as we gently rolled with the waves never failed to impress me. He’d become well adept with his craft which in many ways was unlike him. Howard would often cut corners to avoid things of a lesser interest, which was why so many things collapsed around him.
Howard eased back the throttle and while the motor idled, we tied the traces with feathers, hooks and plumb bobs onto our lines. We sailed around in slow circles lifting the lines and dropping them until we felt the plumb bob dink upon something solid, hoping that it would be one of the wrecks on the chart. Howard opened the throttle and when we began catching fish George was delighted. We headed back just as dusk was descending listening to tales from George about the fishing trips he’d made with his father before leaving Jamaica. In recalling all of this we decided to visit Howard in hospital, and before parting, we agreed to meet at Paddington Station the following Saturday.
The journey was all too familiar to me and until reaching the South Devon coast, I paid little attention to the passing countryside. But when we came to the sea the train followed the coast for some distance passing sandstone monoliths, caves and tunnels, with shadows moving from dawn to dusk, silhouetted by the glistening reflection from the sun upon the water behind.
When we arrived at the hospital, and as pleased as Howard was to see us, it wasn’t long before he made his frustration felt in being confined to a bed. A nearby window was broken as a result of him throwing a plate to get someone’s attention. Not so much for his own good I felt, but more for the good of others, to restrict his movement a broom handle had been inserted into the plaster behind his ankle. We had to leave when the time came and Howard’s parting words to me were. ‘I’ve got to get away from here. All they talk about is football, shit and masturbation, and I don’t know a sodding thing about football.’)



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