Rich Pickings

Gerald had no idea Ritchie had just been released from prison. Ritchie didn’t mention it when they met on the High Street, which meandered through the town down to the docks. Instead he just said, Gerry, mate! It’s you, isn’t it?
Gerald, turning from the bookshop window, squinted in the sunlight. He hadn’t seen Ritchie since they left university. They weren’t mates then, and he didn’t feel the love now. He pasted a quick smile on and said, Hi Ritchie, long time no see!. The son of a village pub owner, he had been trained in the art of faux bonhomie.
Twelve years. I hear you work on a cruise liner?
Gerald raised an eyebrows like a surprised question mark. Who told you that?
Someone, said Ritchie, forefinger tapping the side of his nose. You’re a croupier? Too many graduates with math degrees, I suppose.
My dad? Gerald asked, his eyes slits. He’s the ‘someone’?
Ritchie grinned. Yeah. Dropped in at his pub the other day.
So, what are you up to? You won’t have found it easy.
Ritchie’s face darkened. You mean being chucked out of uni? The stolen money? It was a misunderstanding. Listen, let’s have a drink and you can tell me about cruising.
Draining his fourth pint, Gerald thought Ritchie better company than expected: a bit of a lad but a laugh. Gerald enjoyed life working on a cruise ship, didn’t need coaxing to talk. He talked about the crew, the wealthy passengers, and the places he’d visited: Miami, the Bahamas, Rio, Buenos Aires, Cape Town —
Wow, Gerry! Me? I’ve only been to Magaluf and Benidorm, said Ritchie. You know this cruise ship of yours —
Snot mine, Gerald said slurring his words. Wish it wash.
Ritchie laughed. Yeah, right? They got any jobs? I’ve got experience in catering. In the Public Sector. Public Sector? Gerald repeated, not hearing the echo of Ritchie’s laugh descend deep into his chest. Government canteens, restaurants, explained Ritchie, skipping over it was in Wormwood Scrubs kitchens, where he had learned the tricks of the trade.
With Covid, they’re short of staff, said Gerald. I’ll introduce you to the Purser.

*

You bastard, Ritchie! Gerald shouted. You thieving bastard!
It was two weeks into the cruise and, approaching the next port of call, the Table Mountain was on the horizon. Or would have been if the bank of fog had not rolled in. Gerald had entered the cabin unannounced to see jewellery spilled from a bag, sparkling on the bedcover. Ritchie turned from examining a necklace, one Gerald had seen a punter wearing at the roulette table.
Come on Gerry. Rich people can afford to lose this stuff, said Ritchie his face contorted, not quite contrite. It’s all insured.
Its still theft! Gerald said. Snatching the bag, he scooped the loot into it, and thrust it under his jacket and stared into Richie’s eyes. I’m going to give this to the Purser. Slamming the door, he turned the key and sagged against the corridor wall, listening to the drum beat of fists on the door.
What happen next was a jumble in his mind: a tremendous clang like a bell; being thrown across the corridor; a wailing siren; the crew rushing to emergency stations like a tidal wave sweeping him along.

From the lifeboat Gerald stared at the container ship, its bow crumpled, ghostly in the retreating fog, and the cruise liner sinking into the grey sea. He knew some passengers from the casino: the retired teacher who enjoyed a modest punt; the footballer and his WAG, and the car dealer’s wife sat opposite. He felt the stab of her jewellery in his ribs. Maybe Ritchie was right. She could afford to lose what was worth a couple of years of his wages. As if conjured by this thought his mobile vibrated in his pocket.
What’s happening, mate? Ritchie said in his ear, his voice urgent. Please let me out… waters pissing in the porthole! Unlock the —
Dropping the phone over the side, Gerald beamed a reassuring smile at the car dealer’s wife..

Not that Bradford


‘Say that again, Darren.’ Sheena switched her mobile to her other ear, as if what her youngest son had said would alter. ‘No, don’t, just don’t. I heard the first time. You’re saying you’ve lost Kevin. Where?’

‘Schitol?’

‘Oh, right. Schiphol. The airport at Amsterdam.’

‘You think? What do you mean “you think”? Is he on a flight to New York or not?’

‘Someone saw him? How did they know it was him? He’s hardly Tom Cruise.’

‘Batman? He’s dressed as Batman?’

‘Oh, I see. Fancy dress. Has he been sniffing?‘

‘He has? Bloody hell, Darren. You were supposed to keep your brother clean.’

‘Okay, okay. Yes, I know you can’t stand in a cubicle with him. Yes, I’ll let you know if he calls.’

Sheena laid her mobile face down on the table and glanced at her husband. ‘You heard all that? They’ve gone and lost Kevin. Vanished from the bar when they were waiting to board. Drunk, and high as a kite.’
Bernard looked over the rim of his cup. ‘I won’t say “I told you so”—‘
‘But you will.’
‘Well, Love. A stag-do, just days before a wedding? Leaves no time to sort this sort of thing out, does it?’
‘I just knew it would go tits-up. He’s still using. A stag weekend in Amsterdam? It’s like taking an alci to a beer festival.’
‘What was that about Batman?’
‘It’s like a theme, you know, Superheroes. Kevin’s dressed as Batman. Darren’s Robin.’
A teaspoon rattled in a saucer as Sheena’s mobile danced on the Formica tabletop. She snatched it up, cutting off the Mamma Mia ringtone.
‘Kevin? Thank God! You do know you’re getting married this afternoon?’

‘No, we haven’t told Chantelle. Where are you?’

‘A café in Bradford Airport? Right, stay where you are. Your dad’ll pick you —‘

‘What do you mean “not that Bradford”?’

‘Pennsylvania?’

 

Voyage into the Past


A faded image. A fragile memory.
A cobbled raft of rope bound
planks and metal drums.
With sun-warmed backs
and brine-glazed skin
my brother and I, pretend
pirate or conquistadors,
sail across imagined oceans.
Standing at the shoreline
Our father, camera to eye,
captures our boyhood moment.
Preserves this memory for us.

Travel-weary ancient mariners
we have washed up here,
this beach of memories. Stand
listening to faint echoes of the past.
Voices, laughter, the shutters click.
Then silence as our familial shades
watch us walk away, our shadows
long and dark, consuming us.

Tideline

A sweeping arc of human flotsam
entwined with leavings of nature
abandoned by the ebbing sea.
The immutable, the perishable.

A vivid tapestry of nylon netting,
orange, blue, green. A corked
ocean bottle bearing tidings
of past victories, or defeats.
A plastic bottle, a portent
of future unseen catastrophes
Fragile shells, carapace of crab.
Sea scoured root and branch
washed from African shores
Feathered wing, storm-ripped
on a futile sea crossing.

The immutable, the perishable.
The pulse line of a dying planet.

 

Death By Chocolate

Baron Feldmann’s skill as a chocolatier was not common knowledge, but amongst the aristocracy, he was renowned. It was, of course, not a trade of manufacture and sale, but a pastime. No society dinner party was complete without a box of his exquisite confections, and though he existed in the lower echelons of nobility, the Baron’s attendance at such soirees was almost obligatory: no Baron, no chocolates.

This access to social functions attended by the good and the great made the Baron a convenient assassin.
Sitting at his desk he decoded the couriered instruction: a name, a flavour. He watched flames consume the flimsy paper in the ashtray, and smiled.
*
Me? I am merely an observer, a spy dressed in servant’s livery, who will report back to my masters that the Countess Petrov’s flame has been extinguished. The elegant dining room has brimmed with the chink of cutlery on fine china and gossip, as the twelve guests around the small oval table enjoy a convivial evening. The meal now complete, I give the Baron a servile bow and hand him the chocolate box, which is as elaborate as the confections within, each in a twist of coloured foil denoting the flavour. The Countess, sat next to Baron Feldmann, gives a dull clap of gloved hands.
‘How delightful!’ she cries.
Stagily he peels away the pretty wrappings and opens the box. The Countess eyes the contents hungrily, but the Baron must offer it to the guest on his left, a person of Royal birth, and therefore of far greater importance than the Countess on his right.
I follow the anti-clockwise handing of the box. Those present know the Countess prefers the chocolate with the orange filling and fortuitously, or perhaps purposely, it is passed over by the other diners.
Why fortuitous? Within the orange cream filling resides a slow-acting poison, its tangy taste indistinguishable from that of the fruit of Seville. The Countess will leave the Château feeling in fine fettle, but later, when the coachman opens the carriage door, he will find her sprawled lifeless.
Ah, I see the box has arrived in the delicate hands of the Countess. Her eyes flick between the faces of her fellow guests and the remaining two chocolates.
‘The Seville orange remains, my Lady,’ the Baron says in an alluring tone
‘Perhaps My Lord, but tonight I do believe I will have the lime flavour,’ she says, plucking the chocolate from the box.
Standing dutifully by the window, I note the pallor of the Baron’s face. He has no option but to select and consume the poisoned chocolate. Savouring the lime cream filling the Countess casts him the smile of one who has circumvented his scheme.
Later, walking down the corridor towards the stable yard I hear the Baron retching in the privy as he purges himself of the toxin.

The Singing Bowl

Bodashka had been crossing the Plaza when the first salvo of shells arrived, shrieking through the air to explode amongst the people running for shelter. Left standing on his own, and deafened by the reverberating noise, he sprinted up the shallow steps and into the tall shadowy entrance of the museum. Inside, he skidded on the smooth marble floor to fall behind the stone sarcophagus displayed in the main hall. In the thrumming silence he watched shards of glass tumble, sparkling in the air, and fragments of stone ricochet off the walls. His only sign that more shells had fallen.
Near to him a tall display case soundlessly disintegrated, the glass falling to splinter like sheets of thin ice. Porcelain vases, ceramic bowls, delicate figurines slid from shelves to shatter on the floor, and a brass bowl bounced and spun: a golden orb in the gloom.
The bowl settled, and a wooden baton rolled to rest against his hand. On a school visit last year his class, sitting cross-legged in a circle, watched a curator use the baton to make the bowl sing. The old man had said it was a Tibetan Singing Bowl.
Bodashka picked up the baton and tapped the side of the bowl. It chimed, the shimmering note penetrating his dulled hearing. As the sound faded, a man appeared, his orange robe vivid in the billowing white dust and flecks of snow blowing in through the windows. Bodashka cowered in fright at the wraith-like figure.
The monk smiled down at him. ‘Every century, the bowl grants three wishes. Life, wealth, and death.’
Bodashka thought of the dead sprawled in the plaza. ‘May I give someone life…?’
‘The life wish was spent many years ago. Wealth too, I’m afraid… you recall the curator Shevchenko and his change in fortunes? You may wish a death. Who do you wish to die?’
The Buddhist monk bent to listen to Bodashka whispering his request.
‘A wise choice.’
Bodashka felt his hand move. The baton slid around the rim of the bowl in slow circles, creating a sound which resonated in his head. Above the mesmerising tone, he could hear the monk chant. The room shifted and dissolved…
***
Reading documents in his enormous bed, the man heard the strange undulating, almost hypnotic cadences. His hard eyes flitted around the opulent room, seeking the source. There was a shimmer in the air at the end of his bed and he stared in disbelief as a tall man in an orange cloak appeared standing next to a grubby urchin holding a bowl.
He drew his pistol from beneath the soft down pillows. ‘Guards! Intruders!’ he screamed.
Two men in uniform threw the doors wide, the muzzles of their machine guns following the sweep of their eyes. Pulling the curtains apart, one guard glanced at the other, and shrugged.
The guard standing behind the smiling monk looked into the dark eyes. ‘There is nobody here, your Excellency!’
‘There, you imbecile!’ Putin fired at the apparition, the boom echoing in the room.
The soldier crumpled to his knees. In his spasm of death, his trigger finger tightened, and his machine gun spat an arc of bullets across the room. Still gripping the drapes, his comrade stared at the bloodstains on the President’s white nightshirt: pink blossoms in a cloud of duck down. The noise of the gunfire died, and he heard the urgent drum of running feet in the corridor.
***
Bodashka saw the wreckage of the museum take shape and solidify. Saw the filth of war: ash, charred window frames; ruined display cases; shattered china and glass littering the floor. He realised there was an absence of noise, a sense of peace.
‘Now I must leave you.’
‘But…?’
‘Yes, Bodashka, you have a question?’
‘Mr Shevchenko. He told us Buddhists do not kill.’
‘Did I kill anyone, Bodashka?‘

 

Guernica

Ramón stared towards the Laguna Rosa, where the flamingos dipped their heads into the lagoon for the shrimps which would tint their feathers pink. The colour of the lagoon reminded him of the water in the enamelled basin, the médico had squeezed his cloth in, as he cleaned his wounds. Ramón removed his spectacles, held them on his lap,  and closed his eyes.

‘Mamá, Josefina and I walked from our home to the market. Little Josefina, trying to look important, carried a woven basket over her arm, and I clutched a toy car Papa made. It was a late April afternoon. The sky was cloudless, a delicate blue.’ Ramón released a soft laugh. ‘In Spain it always is, no?’

Seb remained silent, not wishing to interrupt the flow of his narrative.

‘A loud thrumming sound echoed around the street. Everyone looked around, expecting the approach of a vehicle, a large truck or some such thing. Then following in the noise’s wake: Bang! Boom!… Bang! Now everyone is looking into the sky. Of course, I saw nothing. I was a small child hemmed in by the legs of the adults. My abiding memory of that moment is the smell of oranges.’

‘Oranges?’

‘Yes, oranges. A bomb exploded nearby. The surrounding air quivered, and I felt the ground tremble under me. Mamá, holding Josefina close to her breast, turned away, and I hid behind the thin fabric of her skirt. The noise was dreadful: thunderclaps; screams; shouts. Dust and grit and slivers of glass rushed between legs to sting and cut skin. A woman nearer to the blast, her face a mask of blood, floundered, upending the merchant’s table. With wide eyes, I watched as oranges cascaded to the ground. They bounced and rolled through the shadows and the segments of bright sunlight, until crushed to pulp under the espadrilles of the scattering people. Mamá, with Josefina still in her arms, grabbed my wrist and we ran into a passageway where we crouched against the stone wall. Mamá muttered prayers to the Virgin Mary. Pressed into me she smelled of…’

The words trailed away as Ramón sucked in a deep breath. Seb reached through the silent void to touch his grandfather’s hand. He cleared his throat and continued in a whisper.

‘Huddled in that dark passageway, I could smell the soap on Mamá’s skin and in her hair. It was strange, amid the stench of smoke, of fire, of cordite, to smell lavender. Soon, the bombing seemed more distant and Mamá decided we would leave our shelter to return home. She explained how we would cross the wide boulevard, run past the wreckage of the market stalls, the bodies, and the splintered trees, and into the narrow street opposite. Holding Josefina with one hand and me with the other, she led us across the rubble and glass strewn road. In the hazy sky, I could see the grey cruciforms of the sluggish bombers. Then a darker, more threatening shape flitted through the swirling smoke. The menacing roar was so loud! I heard my mother scream we must run. Even now I hear her voice,  “¡Rápido!…¡Rápido!” Then … then my precious toy car slipped from my fingers…’

Hearing his grandfather falter, Seb pressed the fingertips of one hand against his forehead, his stomach clenched with the fear of knowing.

‘All that cold night I sat in the narrow passage, our sanctuary from the bombs, staring at the tattered remains of my mother and my sister in the middle of the road. Watching the hem of Mamá’s dress flutter in the breeze, I relived the moment I pulled my hand from my mother’s grasp: running back to pick up my toy; Mamá stopping, shouting; a dragon spitting fire; the heavy chatter of machine guns; violent puffs of dust stalking along the road towards Mamá and Josefina. I was left standing, listening as silence swallowed the dying sound of the departing Messerschmitt, the jubilant pilot dipping its wings.’

An ill wind

It all happened in a breath. When he came to, Nigel tried to separate the sequence in his mind: a wailing creak; a pistol shot crack; the brittle breaking of glass; splintering wood; curtains snapping in the rush of wind. He stared at the bright glass shards littering his chest, then up at Celia. A shattered branch had stabbed her through the back, severing her spinal column before puncturing her sternum to emerge between her breasts. Nigel dragged his eyes away from the bloody, jagged protrusion to look into her face. Her blank eyes and crimson lips were wide open in surprise.

‘Celia! Are you alright, Celia?’

She wasn’t. She was dead. Her skewered limp torso suspended astride Nigel, her lifeblood dribbling down her pale skin to pool on his stomach. The cat’s cradle of branches behind her creaked as the furious gale renewed its assault, gusting through the shattered windows, spraying Nigel with a chill, silvery rain. He gasped. Wriggling from under her, he felt the glossy red nails of her lifeless splayed fingers, scrape down his chest. The siren of an arriving fire engine drowned his squeal of horror. Then, as blue light flickered across the ceiling, his mobile vibrated on the bedside cabinet. The handcuff Celia had used to secure him to the tubular brass bedhead clinked as he painfully stretched for the phone. The screen lit up his wild-eyed face. Jane!

‘Jane, darling! Not at work?’

‘Ah, of course, the storm.’

‘Yes, I arrived safely.’

‘Am I at the conference centre now? Yes, I’m in the café.’

‘Looks bad on television? Yes, it is. A shocker!’

‘What? …You can see my car!… On Sky News… where?’

‘Parked in the drive of a house?’

‘A tree’s fallen onto it? Em… Jane, listen, I can expl…’

 

Power of a Dog

Caught in the headlamps, the high-viz jacket dazzled in the gloom. Evie watched the man wearing it wave her dad on, then just as it seemed they would bump the car in front, his hand flicked palm up. She was restless with excitement. It was the first time she had been on a proper ship. Her mother, freshening her lipstick, smiled red at her in the vanity mirror

‘Is Lexi coming with you?’

She glanced at the space between her and Jack. ‘Lexi, you want to come with me?’ She smiled back at her mother’s reflection. ‘Yes, she wagged her tail.’

Her older brother unbuckling his seat belt rolled his eyes. ‘Don’t encourage her, mum.’ His eight-year-old sister’s invisible best friend bored him.

Evie climbed out of the car into a cacophony of slamming doors and raised voices, then a loud clang as the bow doors closed. Trailing behind her parents, she weaved between cars to join the crowd waiting to climb the stairs to the upper decks. Leaving their overnight bags in their cabin, Jack and Evie joined their parents to lean on the guardrail.  The warm air smelled strange, and she could taste salt on her lips. As they passed the naval dockyards, their dad pointed to grey warships, and then at an ancient ship with tall masts. All around were yachts, their white sails yellowed by the late afternoon sun.

After the evening meal, Jack and Evie went out onto the deck to play. Looking up between the looming shapes of the lifeboats, Evie could see stars sparkling in the inky sky.

Grinning, Jack pushed her playfully. ‘Let’s play hide and seek. You hide and I’ll find you.’

Evie felt the ferry gently rise and fall beneath her. The pools of light and the dark shadows, and the ghostly shapes of the passengers strolling along the deck, made her shiver. ‘No. Lexi doesn’t want to!’

Jack shook his head. ‘Would she like me to hide?’

Evie turned to Lexi, then back to her brother.‘Yes, you hide and we’ll look for you.’

‘I’ll hide between here and the stern.’

‘What’s the stern?’

Jack laughed. ‘The back end, stupid.’

Evie glared at him, then turned to lean on the rail with her eyes squeeze shut, and started to count. When she reached fifty, she walked along the deck, peering into the dark recesses and corners. Then, arriving at the stern deck, she gasped. Running to the taffrail, she stared wide eyed at the churning white water trailing behind the ship into the darkness.

‘Look at that Lexi!’

But Lexi swung the other way and snarled.

‘Hello, what’s your name?’

Hearing the voice, Evie turned and raised her eyes. A man in a pale blue suit looked down at her. He had a winning smile, but cold eyes.

She frowned. ‘I’ve got to get back to my brother.’

The man with the cold eyes gripped her arm. ‘Not yet. I want to show you something.’

Evie tried to wriggle free. ‘You’re hurting! Let me go…!’

The man’s screams severed her words. He had climbed on the taffrail, lashing out with his feet. ‘Get off me… ! Get off me!’

She watched him lose his grip, toppled then disappear, his shriek drowned out as the door to the theatre swung open, releasing a high note from the Shirley Bassey tribute act. Seeing her mother hurrying towards her, Evie gulped in a breath of relief.

‘Evie, Jack lost you! We’ve been looking all over the ship!’

Tutting, her mother kicked away the shred of pale blue fabric snagging her stiletto heel, then clasped Evie’s hand to walk back towards the music. Lexi looked down through the guardrail as the water churned by the propellors bloomed pink, then scampered after them.

 

Lost in Translation: a memoir

For a while, I worked with a Spanish builder called Jaime or, as he was known in the British community, Jimmy. Jimmy’s main line of work was villa renovation and swimming pool installations. He introduced me to his unsuspecting clients as his Arquitecto. On the Spanish Costas, like in the Wild West, you could claim to be anything or anybody, so Jimmy elevated me from Interior Designer to Architect.

Jimmy was popular in the ex-pat community: he had lived in the UK, spoke faultless English. His son, Giuseppe, not having the advantage of living in Britain, had a passable grasp of English.

One day my mobile rang. It was Jimmy. Could I meet with clients wanting to refurbish a bar in Guadamar? He couldn’t go with me, but Giuseppe would pick me up in his van in the morning.

The last time I endured a journey in Giuseppe’s rattletrap it stank of fish. This morning, melons rumble about behind us. ‘A truck, it fall over at Crevillente roundabout,’ he shouts over the clattering engine. They had filled the van before the police arrived, he explains. With the tin box on wheels like a sauna, I was relieved when we parked to walk through the maze of narrow streets.

Two men were loitering in the pub doorway dressed in Newcastle United shirts, their exposed, sun burned arms, displaying sleeves of menacing tattoos. Giuseppe, born and reared in Naples growled. ‘I tell them fuck off’: an English phrase he knew well. ‘No,’ I said alarmed. ‘Don’t tell football fans to fuck off.’ Fortunately he listened to my advice. The Alan Shearer and Peter Beardsley tribute act were the clients.

Keys rattled, and we stepped into the gloomy interior, and the sour stink of stale lager. The decomposing corpse smell turned out to be the drains. It had already been converted into a bar, one that had gone bust, another victim of the lapping waves of the looming financial crash. The job was to make it presentable.

Giuseppe stood with his notebook at the ready, pencil poised.

‘Wid leek t’ booar to be coot back t’ aboot ‘eer, leek, man,’ said Alan Shearer pointing to where the bar was to be ‘coot’ back to.

‘Coot back aboot fooooar fit, leek moan.‘ Beardsley, his striking partner said providing the measurement.

Booar? Coot? Leek? Giuseppe looked sideways at me. ‘¿Que?’

Realising the Newcastle accent had thrown Giuseppe, I quickly stepped in to translate.

‘They would like the bar to be cut back by 120 centimetres, to about here,’ I said, slowly unravelling the sentences …‘Like, man.’

Giuseppe glanced at me with narrowed eyes..

‘¿Comprende?’ I asked.

‘Sí, sí. Vale! Claro!’ Giuseppe said with a broad smile. Back in the loop he started to scribble.

Shearer and Beardsley exchanged looks, obviously wondering why I was repeating, in English, everything they had just said … in English.

I felt like Igor Korchilov translating for Gorbachev, as we walked, shoes slurping on the tacky floor, discussing stinking urinals, nicotine stained ceiling, and worn upholstery.

Eventually the meeting ended and the Torrevieja battalion of the Toon Army wandered off in search of a bar still actually trading.

As they disappeared into the heat haze Giuseppe turned to me, a puzzled look on his face.

‘Sandy, mi amigo. What you English say? You are … un caballo oscuro!’

‘What do you mean, a dark horse?’

‘I not know you speak Swedish!’