I am going to be published again!!!!!

Woo hoo!!!!!!

Flash Harry has been accepted by Yours magazine, for the over 50s!! (Well I’ve always been a bit of a fogey at heart!)

The story was rejected by Take a Break a few months ago, I slightly tweaked it to focus more on Harry, the elderly marathon runner, and obviously the tweaks did the trick!! I am due to appear in a September/October edition of Yours!!!  Just goes to show not every story appeals to every fiction editor.

What a wonderful 2nd wedding anniversary present this has been!  I am on such a roll now.  Having two pieces accepted is an unbelievable boost to my confidence.

Sorry for the abundance of exclamation marks, by the way – I can’t help feeling excited.

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Happy anniversary to us…

I can’t believe Nathan and I have been married for two years today – feels more like 20!!

We got up at 6:00 this morning to open our beautiful cards. I can’t believe we have received such an abundance. It is very touching. We really didn’t expect so many after our first year.

It rained relentlessly on our wedding day, so fittingly we are flooded out now too!  We need wellies just to walk down to the car.

New chaps

You’ll see I have uploaded Chapter 1 of The Four Matthews, as well as some further chapters of my other novels.

Hope you enjoy…

Chapter 1

Julian Howard Crowfoot (born 5 May 1943 in Buxton, Derbyshire) is a chef, restaurateur and hotelier who at one stage became infamous for certain behaviour which allegedly caused a slump in Cadbury’s Wispa profits.

Career
___________________________________________________________________________
Public school educated, Crowfoot did not excel academnically and entered the catering trade at the age of 16, working his way up from washer-upper to owner of a string of restaurants. He won renown as a dessert chef, and also popularised wine tasting courses at his various establishments.

Crowfoot became a household name via his 1985 primetime BBC2 show Choc-wise with Julian Crowfoot, exploring the wonders of chocolate and its many and varied uses in cookery. An eponymous book was published to accompany the series.

A large proportion of his recipes contained alcohol. His speciality, rum and Wispa soufflé, became one of the BBC’s most requested recipes of the 1980s.

However, an infamous appearance on a 1989 edition of the chat show Wogan, during which a clearly inebriated Crowfoot repeatedly swore, despite the programme’s pre-watershed slot, and insulted his fellow guests Larry Grayson and Su Pollard, saw the demise of his terrestrial television career.

In the 1990s he acquired a short-lived presenting stint on the obscure – and now defunct – cable channel Menu TV.

After an ineffective attempt at reviving his obsolete TV career with an appearance on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me out of Here!, Crowfoot opted to bow out of the public eye altogether and throw himself into the hotel business.

He returned to his Peak District roots to purchase the historic Rosterbury Manor Hotel at Tunclough, where, although virtually teetotal these days, he runs regular wine tasting workshops and residential cookery courses.

Personal life
_______________________________________________________________________

Crowfoot’s first marriage, to teenage sweetheart Josie, the mother of his two children, collapsed at the height of his fame following his high-profile affair with the children’s TV presenter Cassie Pincher, who shortly thereafter became his second wife.

However, her affairs with two members of the Chippendales male strip troupe were exposed in the media.

In a lurid kiss-and-tell to the News of the World following their acrimonious divorce, Pincher claimed her infidelity resulted from her repulsion at Crowfoot’s preference for lolling around their house in baggy green Y-fronts, and his fetish for smearing his 18-stone body in melted Wispa and inviting her to lick it off.  Hence sales of the chocolate bar briefly dipped.

Crowfoot subsequently suffered a well-documented nervous breakdown and battled alcoholism and obesity. He was banned from driving for 18 months after pleading guilty to driving his Jaguar XJ6 at more than twice the legal alcohol limit.

Following his infamous Wogan interview, he admitted himself to the Priory rehabilitation clinic.

It was there he met his third wife Wendy, a fellow recovering alcoholic, whom he married following a whirlwind romance. That union too ended in a swift divorce, however, when it was discovered that Wendy was allergic to chocolate and thus unable to enjoy her husband’s recipes or indulge his aforementioned Wispa fetish.

References
_______________________________________________________________________

1. ^ “‘How Crowfoot’s careless Wispa made our marriage a total choc-up,’ by TV babe Cassie” News of the World, 5 August 1988.
2. ^ “‘Cooking sherry doesn’t count, sshurely,’ pleads troubled chef as magistrate imposes driving ban” Daily Mirror, 15 October 1989

External links
_______________________________________________________________________

– Rosterbury Manor official website
– Whatever Happened To…?

**********

From:  Adrian Raybould
Sent:  16 April 2010 15:53
To:   Naomi Ball
Subject: Jumping ship

Nay

Just spent my spare 10 minutes between appointments flicking through your resignation letter.

You pick your moments, girl, I’ll say that for you – sneaking that in on a day when I’m in back-to-back meetings and you’re about to escape on your jollies!

Only joking (you know my sense of humour by now), it’s just that you’re a valued employee and I can’t deny I’m gutted to lose you.

All this overtime you’ve put in to help Sian learn the ropes during her first few weeks has been immeasurably appreciated.

As you know, we work as a team here at Raybould Communications.  With Sian being relatively new to PR, and our lunchtimes currently eaten up by appointments with wedding suppliers (we intend getting spliced ASAP now Sian’s Decree Absolute is through), we have had to think outside the box for a while now.  Your continued help on these evenings and weekends is crucial.  Obviously some of it can make up for that day you had off for your uncle’s funeral.

I know you were disappointed not to get the senior marketing exec job this time around, and you must be kicking yourself for not correcting those typos in the McConnell Group press releases the other week.

I am unsure quite why you raise that matter again in your letter.  I have long since forgiven your slip-up.  Nova has repeatedly assured me that she passed you the message about the press releases requiring amendment, and I have made allowances for your undoubted distress that day following your unc’s death.  It is unfortunate that they were dished out to the newspapers containing misinformation, but these things happen.

May I beg you to, whilst slogging across the wilds of Shropshire next week, spend some time reconsidering your decision to quit?  We’ll touch base a week on Monday.

Regards.

Ade

**********


BEST FOOT FORWARD WALKING BREAKS

The Four Matthews

* 2-8 March, 19-25 April, 12-18 July, 4-10 October 2010
* 7-11 miles a day + ascents of up to 517 metres (1,696 feet)

Roam into Anglo-Saxon England on this 50-mile trek across some of the Midlands’ most fascinating yet forgotten natural landmarks.

The quartet of hills rise to varying heights at virtually equidistant intervals across the one-time Earldom of Matthew Theodoric, the 11th century Earl of Rosterbury.  The Earl (modesty never his strong point!) commissioned a marble bust of himself to crown each hill – thus they became dubbed The Four Matthews.

The ‘Matthews’ at Sneydley in south Shropshire and Tunclough in the Peak District mark the perimeters of his former land, with the two in between gracing the Staffordshire village skylines at Bhylcroft and Hisley.

The Earl’s powers were drastically curtailed during the reign of William the Conqueror, and the Earldom became obsolete.

The busts were torn down over 600 years later by rampaging anti-Royalists who opposed the Earl’s descendents’ support for the Cavaliers during the English Civil War.

Only the fragmented and centuries-ravaged head of the Bhylcroft bust remains, preserved in Manderwood Manor on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, the Jacobean manor house owned by subsequent generations of Theodorics before being acquired by the organisation History for Britain.  Earl Matthew’s ghost is a reputedly frequent visitor!

BFF will be taking groups of up to 8 on this idyllic yet testing hike.

We will stay in homely guesthouses along the route, and for our last night have negotiated a very special rate at the prestigious Rosterbury Manor Hotel, another historic Theodoric family home, now owned by famed chef Julian Crowfoot.  That evening’s activity, for those who opt to partake, will be an introductory wine tasting course.

The total cost of the break includes all bed, breakfast and evening meals, packed lunches where provided, and admission to Manderwood Manor on Day 3.  Please bring your own packed lunch for Day 1 only.  On 3 of the days there will be café or pub lunch stops, which will be payable separately.

Stout footwear is essential.  Parts of the route may be steep or muddy, and there are several stiles to negotiate.

We transport your baggage door to door between each destination, so you can enjoy the beautiful countryside unburdened by heavy cases.  Our luxury mini coach will return all participants to the Sneydley starting point on Day 7.

For full booking and costs information, see page…

**********

Monday
Sneydley – The First Matthew

Monday had a definite ‘first day of the rest of my life’ feel to it. The spring sun flooding my room seemed auspicious; the sensation of being bathed in it on that guesthouse candlewick could not help but uplift me.

The three computer printouts I’d been rereading surrounded me like dog-eared  islands.  I planned barricading my bedroom door at Julian Crowfoot’s place on Saturday, on the off chance he lapsed into infamous habits – especially since Cadbury’s recently re-launched the Wispa.  I’d printed off that Wiki entry to learn a bit about him – a decision I was now somewhat regretting.

As for Adrian stupid Raybould, about whom my dad often told me I had grounds for complaint to an employment lawyer, it was remarkable how my de-frazzled mind was already downgrading him to panto baddie status. His pudgy hands and ‘comedy’ ties might at this moment have been on another planet.

The little tosser had snubbed me for the rest of Friday, after his e-mail, which incidentally pointedly failed to address my more incriminating motives for resigning (it was understandable there were things he wouldn’t be admitting in writing).

Nova Bagnall’s family connection to the firm, for example. Adrian oh-so-earnestly denied that was an automatic basis for his accepting her word over mine (distress or no distress, I know she never passed me that message).  Then there was his hideously patronising suggestion to sharp-clawed Sian and me, who have never exactly clicked, that ‘you girlies have a bonding session sometime over a nice lunch.’

April Fools Day was the proverbial final straw the other week, though.  I tore over to the Fairlawns Hotel (yes, I was somewhat slow on the uptake that day)  to greet bemused staff who had no knowledge they were hosting any ‘urgent press conference.’  Only when the receptionist sympathetically thumbed towards her desk calendar did I twig the date.

When I returned incensed to the office, my dear boss guffawed that it was ‘just a more sophisticated version of the old “go and get a long stand” trick’ and ‘if you’re not blessed with a sense of humour I’m afraid you ain’t going to get far in this life, my wench.  No harm done, though.  Here, I think you’ve earned yourself a biccie.  You’re just in time for tea break.’  He jiggled the tin in my face but I declined, not caring to take a chance on it containing rubber biscuits, or one of those fake packets with a finger trap inside.

I now sipped tea on my bed, thinking elatedly of how I was free of the abominable Ade, for this glorious week and then shortly for good.  Any ‘touching base’ we’d be doing in a week’s time would be only for the purposes of agreeing my departure date.

I wondered whether there was any merit in lodging a complaint now I was leaving. I really hadn’t the funds for solicitors, due to my impending unemployment (temporary unemployment, I assured myself).  Dad had offered to pay for a consultation, but I refuse to leech off my parents. It’s one of my rules.  I knew I stood to inherit from Uncle Terry soon, but had no intention of dipping into that sum either.  It would be a backup, on which I would allow myself to subsist only if desperate.

I had career plans brewing, you see, and actually hoped this week would assist me in that direction.

I covered Adrian’s e-mail with the third printout on the pink bedspread, from the Best Foot Forward website, the very reason for my presence in what he called ‘the wilds of Shropshire.’  In fact Adrian’s definition of ‘the wilds’ is a location devoid of a Starbucks.  Sneydley village, according to its Wiki page, boasts a large primary school, small supermarket and post office, Chinese takeaway, Norman church – and the ‘distinguishing ratio’ of one pub to every 400 residents.

And The First Matthew (dubbed thus for our purposes – it’s the Fourth one, of course, to walkers who opt to follow the southbound route), the country peak I was to spend this afternoon scaling with seven strangers.  This was to be a gentle ascent to ease us in, with a packed lunch at the summit.

I wondered what friendships I might have forged by the time I returned to Walsall on Sunday; whose numbers I might have added to my mobile; in what ways – if I wanted to get all philosophical about it – I might have grown as a person.  What decision I might have reached regarding a prospective vocation.

I could employ any number of clichés here, about ‘finding myself’ or ‘going on a journey.’  People talk a lot these days about going on a journey, if not always a literal one.  It’s become an overused term on shows like X Factor.  Now I can’t sing (which admittedly is no hindrance to a lot of contestants on that show), but have been avid about walking ever since childhood Sundays when Mom and Dad packed my brothers and me into the Astra to Sutton Park or Kinver Edge to exert our tiny legs.

Innumerable walkathons, rambles and casual strolls later, completion of the Four Matthews path became an aspiration as I reached my twenties.  I nurtured it as my pet project – to the extent that, six years on, I had chosen to fulfil it with an organisation which promoted itself as friendly to ‘the solo traveller.’

I had Majorca to look forward to with Kathryn in September, but this week was my thing.  She and my other friends either couldn’t get the time off this week or didn’t share my passions for walking and local history.

As far as my soon-to-be-ex-workmates were concerned, though, I was with Kathryn this week too.  I’ll admit I felt silly and weak for telling a white lie, but without it I’d be labelled ‘Norma no mates’ in no time.  I was apprehensive enough as it was about taking my first solitary holiday.  The fact BFF advertised itself as ‘welcoming to the single traveller,’ therefore I was unlikely to be a Gore-Texed gooseberry, would never hinder their derision.

They thought it hilarious enough that I was ‘going to Shropshire for a holiday.’  To be fair, I suppose it could be seen as mildly amusing that I would at one point this week be about eight miles from my hometown (go on, laugh if you want to).  But then this was a specific trail I wished to follow, and I couldn’t exactly get the hills shipped to Ibiza in order to meet with Adrian Raybould’s approval.

I should stop now, as I’m sounding defensive, as though I’m justifying my actions to Ade himself.

Right, quarter-to-one.  I folded the printouts and weighted them down with my alarm clock on the bedside table.  Flipping my mobile open, I dashed off a text  to Mom – ‘Arrived safely.  Just about to go & meet the others.  Love u loads xx’ – while simultaneously draining my last slosh of tea, swilling the mug in my minuscule sink and standing it upside down next to the tub of tea bags.

The vista of sky and hill from my window was the uncompromising blue and green of a primary school painting.  The vivacious shades were so energising.  Standing up straight and determinedly, I flexed my arms into a ‘right, here we go’ kind of marching posture.  Then I zipped my rucksack and headed downstairs.

******

My first sight was of his back.  Cagoule-clad, of course, and in extremely heavy-duty hiking boots, he seemed to fill the tiny lobby of the Earlcott guesthouse (yes, the first of many Earl- or Matthew-derived place names gracing the route) where he was engrossed in the rack of leaflets.

I guessed at once this tousle-haired man was our leader.  Besides all the super kit, he had the assured, tranquil posture of an organiser. He wasn’t pacing the carpet, or compulsively checking his watch.

As soon as I approached he attentively turned, returning a Severn Valley Railway brochure to the shelf, and greeted – nay, dazzled – me with the most deliciously gregarious smile.  Now I hate to sound teenage, but this was a real ‘helll-ooo!!’ moment.  Already he was proving worth coming for, even without the walk.  I only hoped I wasn’t blushing too garishly – a tomato in Gore-Tex was never a good look.

‘Are you with Best Foot Forward, by any chance?’ Aged around thirty, he spoke with a faint Brummie accent, and his whole being seemed to exude this amazing quiet strength.  I hated to think what I was exuding, in the beam of those expressive grey eyes.

‘Yes, I’m Naomi Ball.’

‘Lyndon Hyde.’  Mmm, strong handshake.  Calm down, Nay, he’ll have women in every national park in the country, I cautioned myself, even as I was inspecting the other hand and thinking: Way hey, no wedding ring!  ‘Welcome. I shall be leading you all this week. You obviously found the place OK then?’

‘Yes, no problem.  Got a sat nav.’

‘What would we do without them?  Should be a good ’un this week.  The long range weather forecast looks promising.’

‘Yes, it does.’

‘Well it seems you’re the first, Naomi.  Oh, here’s another one.’

A spindly man, whose snug tracky bottoms revealed he’d be a frontrunner in any knobbly knees contest, materialised from a ground floor room, terminating my time alone with luscious Lyndon.  For the time being.

‘Shane Craddock,’ he declared in a Dudley twang, pushing his tiny glasses up the bridge of his nose.  His voice actually sounded remarkably similar to the Black Country one I’ve downloaded for my sat nav (instead of ‘You have reached your destination,’ he notifies the driver ‘Yow’m where you wanted to be,’ the ‘be’ phrased at a high pitch characteristic of the regional dialect, to make the statement sound like a question).

Then the rest surfaced in succession.  I fancied they’d been listening behind their doors for activity, none wishing to arrive first at the one o’clock meeting point. There were actually two couples – one fairly elderly and clad in matching khaki anoraks, one around my sort of age – plus a fun-looking lady in floral waterproofs and a ton of eyeliner. We exchanged fleeting introductions, but I hadn’t quite memorised all their names by the time we ventured outside for the afternoon.

Lyndon shepherded us into the little lounge for a brief preface.  We shyly clustered in front of the armchairs.  Nobody sat down, as though to make a point (‘We’re hardy hikers, you know – sofas are for wimps!’)

‘Now this afternoon we’re going to be climbing 506 metres, or just over 1,650 feet for those of us ot quite up to speed on the old metric system. This is the second highest of Matthew’s hills, the southernmost tip of the ancient Earldom.’

He stood in front of the fireplace, placid yet authoritative, like a favourite college lecturer.  Were abseiling a required element of this trip, I knew I could cheerily dangle off a mountain and trust him with the other end of the rope.

‘Our journey this week, as you know, will take us the entire length, bottom to top, of historic Earldom of Rosterbury, which comprised chunks of what later evolved into Shropshire and Staffordshire.  These Earldoms often encompassed numerous shires, or counties as we would now term them.  It was following the Norman Conquest that the vast Earldoms were dissolved and carved up into shires.

‘Any questions along the way, just shout, it’s what I’m here for.  We’ve got a reasonably leisurely ascent today, just to break you in for the week.  The path is nice and wide, not too craggy, and the view up there is something else, so I hope you’ve all brought your cameras. We’ll have our picnic at the top, then stroll back down in plenty of time for a cup of tea, or something stronger if you’d prefer, before we go in for dinner at half-six.  Now,’ he did a self-conscious little point in the direction of the front door, ‘let’s get going!’

******

‘To tell you the truth, bab,’ Shane Craddock was chattering, ‘I don’t know much about ’istory.  Ha, sounds like that song, dunnit?  Who was it sung that now, Marvin Gaye or someone?’

‘Sam Cooke, I believe.’  We were ten minutes along the path, comparing our motivations for taking this trip.

‘Oh ah, that’s the chap.  See, I’m no expert on ’istory but I’ve been bit by the fitness bug since me divorce.  The ex used to stuff me up with chips, y’see.  Every day.  That was all she knew how to cook.  Fish and chips, pie and chips, steak and chips, faggots and chips.  Eighteen stone I was by the time she left me last year, bab.’

Really?’ It was hard to picture scrawny Shane carrying any surplus lard.

‘I must admit I used to eat whatever was put in front of me.  I’m a binman, but I became a human dustbin.  She did all the cooking because she wanted to be an old-fashioned housewife. Her choice.’  He raised his hands, as though to fend off an onslaught from the feminist police.  He lowered his eyes.  ‘Then she ran off with her manager at Netto.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘She’d only bin working the tills three months – gone back after having the kids, like.  Got two – Bart’s me lad, named after Bart Simpson, he’s nine, and the little girl, our Myleene, is coming up to four.  I wanted to call her Beyoncé, but Debbie – that’s the missus – thought it sounded naff.  I see ’em twice a week now.  Not this week, of course, cuz I’m here.  Well anyway, it turned out this manager fella was slipping Debs a lot more than cheap groceries, if you catch my drift, bab.’

‘I do, unfortunately.’  At the head of our little convoy, I could see the female half of the younger couple simpering up to Lyndon, while her boyfriend/husband drooped silently in her wake.  I sensed somehow she could be of Debbie’s ilk.

‘Sorry to be crude, like.’  Shane turned burgundy, and toyed with his glasses again. ‘They’ve gorra fancy house together in Sedgley now and she’s fattening him up. When she left she took the chip pan, of course.  I’m sure you ladies’ll think it’s shocking that I couldn’t cook,’ he addressed myself and Floral Cagoule Lady, who had drawn level with us, in this sheepish admission, ‘but I’d lived with me mom, see, right up ’til I met Debs, which worn’t ’til I was thirty-four.  Anyway, I enrolled on a cookery course at Dudley College, learned how to do amazing things with vegetables.  I joined Slimming World, started eating salad and took up walking in a big way.  I’ve lost seven stone in a year.’

‘Wow!’  I was impressed.

‘I won Slimmer of the Year in their mag. They called me the Dieting Dustman from Dudley.  I could see me feet for the first time in
yonks.  The old gut’s as flat as a dodo now.’  He patted his diminished stomach with an expression of coy pride.

‘Bravo Shane.’  Floral Cagoule Lady actually slapped him on the back.  ‘That’s noble spirit.  Noble spirit.’  Shane ducked his head, doing that thing with his glasses again.  Noticing that the man was a touch overwhelmed by his own openness, our floral friend tactfully changed the subject, sweeping out her hand as if to embrace the boundless greenery before us.  ‘Now isn’t this all
just glorious?’

‘Idyllic,’ I agreed.  We had progressed now from meadow to the gentle gradient of Matthew number one.  We were blessed with comfortable walking weather: a resplendent sun, but its fire diluted by a jaunty breeze.

‘You don’t get scenery like this in Vietnam or Peru.’

‘You’ve done a fair bit of travelling then – sorry, what was your name?’

‘Hazel.  Boden.  And you’re Naomi, yes?  Oh Naomi, these boots have tramped across continents.  But give me the Pennine Way
any day over the Inca Trail.  There’s just something about the English countryside that calls to the heart, I find.’

Hazel Boden took an exaggeratedly hearty breath in, as though attempting to ingest Shropshire.  She had weather-beaten colouring, hair like a sooty dandelion, and an actressy manner which would probably grate on some people though I rather warmed to her.

As though shed read my mind, she said, ‘My father used to say I was probably a dandelion in a previous life. He had a quirky turn of phrase at times, bless his soul, but it’s true I do thrive outdoors.  I am not a person who can be contained within walls. Consequently I chose landscape gardening as a profession.’

‘Interesting job.  Must be so rewarding making people happy for a living. I’ve just walked out of a horrid one. PR company with a boss who’s a reptile in human form.’

‘Good for you, darling.  Life is far too short to be discontented at work.  I’m long retired now actually, hence I have so much time for rambles.  This is my fifth with BFF in the last twelve months.’

‘You rate them then,’ I had my ‘research’ hat on now, ‘as an organisation?’

‘They’re a super group to be with.  The leaders really know their stuff.’

Shane had dropped behind, and was now regaling the mousey older couple at the back with his diet history.  I decided to confide in Hazel.  That can be the beauty of groups like this. You find yourself, with no preamble, launching into confidences with strangers.  These people know nothing of your background, you are not usually likely to see them again, therefore an assumption exists that they will be non-judgmental.

‘To tell you the truth, I’m considering becoming one.  I’m finding it increasingly difficult to be contained by walls too, I suppose.
another part of my motivation for being here, to see whether I’d be suited to this kind of vocation.  I assume I could train.’

‘I suppose so.  No harm in making enquiries.  I imagine a sort of Butlins redcoat type with map and compass skills is what they’d be after.  You seem pretty passionate.  I think you ought to go for it, girl.’  Hazel’s gusto was infectious.  She was one of those women-who-won-the-war-but-still-got-home-in-time-to-make-a-nice-cup-of-tea types.

‘You do?’

‘I’m sure the good Earl himself would approve of your enterprise.’  She jabbed with her thumbstick towards the bare summit from which the marble Matthew once surveyed his subjects.  ‘Why not have a little word with that nice young man?’  She pointed towards another impressive male figure, Lyndon Hyde.

I smiled surreptitiously.  ‘Oh, I intend to.’

******

The climb was steady but energising, and by the time we sat down to eat in Earl Matthew’s spot the first layers of thermals were coming off.  Though it was reasonably breezy up there, being so exposed, there was real intensity in the sun when it burst forth.

I tethered my cagoule round me, and delved in my rucksack for the ham rolls I’d brought.  My new pal Hazel and I did the old school trip thing of comparing sandwich box contents.  She had delectable-looking slabs of rustically nutty bread, encasing tuna and lettuce.

‘Homemade?’ I enquired.

‘I bake all my own loaves.  Got a freezer full of ’em.’

‘You should go into business.’

I made ravenous inroads into my more prosaic but nonetheless delicious Tesco baps.  One thing regular walking teaches you is that the childhood cliché about food tasting better outside is so, so true.

The collage of fields and ant villages below us might have been all there was in the world at that moment, stretching into Staffordshire on the north-facing side and towards Kidderminster to the south.

‘There you go, bab, this is what I looked like.’ Shane was thrusting a photo at me. An engorged version of himself in a West Bromwich Albion top the size of a trade show gazebo. ‘I keep this on me all the while.’

‘As inspiration?’

‘Yow gorrit,’ he beamed. ‘It reminds me of what I never want to goo back to, and how much better off I am without bloody Debbie and her vegetable oil.’

‘Good on you, Shane.’  He was an open, sweet, surprisingly profound soul.  The contrast between this scarcely recognisable image and the Ryvita-crunching Shane of today was peculiarly touching.

I had a sudden vision of Adrian, Sian and the way they’d undoubtedly sneer at Shane were their paths ever to cross.  It made me feel extraordinarily protective towards this man I had just met.  More Shane Craddocks and fewer Adrian Rayboulds, that’s what the world could do with.

‘And here,’ his face glowed with love, ‘are my nippers.’

‘Aw, they look lovely.’  Bart was a mini Shane, specs and all; little Myleene dainty, with a bubble of curls.

‘Proper little bosters, they are.’

I handed his pictures back, and he showed them to the matching anorak couple – ‘There you go, Ted, Enid’ – who exchanged mutters in a low, fast, kind of animal language before returning to their forage of Tupperware salad.

Hazel produced a bag of Midget Gems from her rucksack and dispensed them among the group.

Lyndon was striding over to us.  I actually felt a blush seep up through me right from my feet. How pathetic.  Hazel winked knowingly at me.

‘Enjoying yourselves so far, ladies?’

‘Yes thank you, Lyndon,’ we chorused like schoolgirls answering the register.  Hazel thrust her sweets at him.  ‘Midget Gem?’

‘Thank you.’  He selected a red one.

‘Have another.  They’re only tiddly.’

Lyndon was clearly only circulating, to make sure none of his charges had sprained an ankle or knee, or been eaten by ferocious squirrels, but even this innocuous attention was resented by a certain faction.

Lyndon’s blonde fan was watching me, her eyes like bullets.  She had a tight cerise fleece on, strategically unzipped to allow liberal boob overspill.  Her make-up was about as subtle as a drag queen’s, she had nails that could tear out a rival’s eye if need be, wore earrings the size of toilet seats and pink boots that were pristine and impractical-looking.  The tall, timid man who accompanied her might as well have been invisible; I recognised it was Lyndon she had in her inexorable sights.

Lyndon continued, ‘I truly think this is one of the best views in Shropshire.  I was just saying to Martin and Polly over here’ – so those were their names – ‘this was reputed to be Earl Matthew’s favourite of “his” hills. Nice to have a selection at one’s disposal, eh?’

I somehow doubted Posturing Polly was enthralled by Lyndon’s views on, well, views.  I was sure Martin was the walker or history buff of the two.

My own conversation skills were hardly stunning at that moment.  ‘Quite,’ I gulped.

‘He used to relax up here, no doubt with his goblet of mead and his bag of Monster Munches, and survey his domain.’

‘Who could blame him?’  Woo, four words that time.  My voice as I chuckled at his wit sounded strained and echoing in the open air.

Polly, with her hostile eyes still on me, was now virtually fellating a Flake bar.  I felt like yelling at her: ‘Yeah OK, we get it, you’re The Sexy One!’

I met her glare with an exaggeratedly ingenuous smile which seemed to nettle her further.  Good!

Lyndon repeated his ‘Any questions, just ask’ encouragement, smiled gorgeously at me and loped away to check on Shane, Ted and Enid’s progress.

And – oh cringe! – I noticed a wodge of tomato had plopped out of my roll while he was talking to us, and landed on my lap.  I flicked it on to the grass in disgust, thinking it was no wonder he was smiling.

******

Tomato stains aside, the post-lunch descent was more successful, in terms of interaction with Lyndon.  It was Polly and Martin’s turn to be filled in on Shane’s divorce-and-diet saga, and the comical sight of bored Polly pouting as the Dieting Dustman from Dudley ploughed on obliviously about chips gave me the confidence to monopolise our leader for a while.

‘You must have done this route a few times,’ I ventured.

‘A few dozen.  It’s one I never tire of, though.  You?’

‘I’ve never done the Matthews before.’  I often giggle needlessly when I’m self-conscious. I did so now, cringing at how dippy it sounded.  ‘Well, only sections of it.  Actually this is the first time I’ll have attempted a route this length.’

‘What made you choose this one?’  He had an attentive manner that was so appealing, as though everything you said was of
real interest to him.

‘I’ve lived in the Midlands all my life, know the area well.  And history always fascinated me at school.  I loved learning about the Four Matthews, and when I found out there was a footpath across the land it became a bit of an obsession that I just had to get it out of my system before it drove me mad.’

Hazel, who had slunk diplomatically apart from us, caught my eye and grinned, as though approving that I had found my voice.

‘You’re an experienced walker then?’ Lyndon asked.

Why does the urge to spout inane one-liners strike when you’d really prefer to appear sophisticated?  I swallowed ‘Been doing it since I was a year old – I’m shattered now,’ and instead responded, ‘When I was a kid, my parents took my two brothers and me out every weekend in the summer.  Sometimes my Uncle Terry came too.  Gary and Simon used to moan and groan – they preferred to stay in and watch The Chart Show – but I always loved it.  We used to pile the bag up with cheese and tomato sandwiches and a box of Mr Kipling cakes, and play poohsticks if we happened to be near a river.’

‘Sounds very similar to my sister Caroline and myself.’

‘There just the two of you?’

‘Yeah.  She’s six years younger.  A teacher. PE teacher.’

‘Quite a sporty family then?’

‘S’pose we are really.  Going back to childhoods, I bet the sun seemed to be permanently shining on your excursions too, eh?’

‘Absolutely.’  I’d got carried away blethering about my childhood, but sod it, he seemed more interested than he had in whatever Posturing Polly was saying to him earlier. ‘Happy days.  I think we did every beauty spot within a twenty-mile radius of Walsall.  Gaz and Si grew out of picnics with the parents, and so did I eventually but I’ve always kept up with the walking.  That’s why my big brothers are lard-arses now!  No, they’re not really, it’s just that I’m the family mountain goat.  As I grew up, I progressed to longer and longer trails.’

‘You get such a buzz from pushing yourself that bit further, don’t you?  Saying that, I only have to get a couple or three miles under my belt before I feel as though I could carry on and on until I’ve reached the Equator.’

‘I know what you mean.  It’s addictive.  You know, I’ve never taken drugs in my life.  I get all the natural highs I need from the exercise and fresh air and country landscapes.  My school and college mates thought I was a bit eccentric when I used to say that. Certain people I know still do.’

‘You never need to worry about what people like that think.’  Lyndon shook his head earnestly.  I expected he’d been on the receiving end of similar digs.

‘Oh, I never have.   A simple stroll brings untold joys.  If swotting for my exams ever got too much, I used to put my boots on and after a few miles I’d walked the stress out of my system.  I do the same nowadays, when work woes start to mount up.’  I veered away from that topic, not wishing said work woes to excessively encroach on this break.  ‘The Matthews has been an ambition of mine for some time.’

‘It is such a picturesque path.  The distance between the hills is so uniform, it’s as though they’ve been carefully placed at those intervals along the edge of some colossal tape measure.  I truly believe the world has seen no greater designer than Mother Nature.’

Lyndon’s passion on the subject was so attractive. He had such a lovely easygoing manner – which made conversing with him
comfortable, once I was over my giggly, gabbly hot blush stage – but there was also vigour in those deep smoky eyes.

He had that tousled hair thing going on too, which gave him quite an arty appearance though there was nothing hippyish or unkempt about him.

‘I expect I sound a bit of a Matthew anorak,’ he chuckled apologetically.

‘Not at all.  So how long have you been with BFF?’

‘Just over a year.  After a decade of following a very different career path.’

‘Oh?’  I could picture him as a sculptor, throwing clay in a converted barn studio, or perhaps a landscape gardener like Hazel.  Nothing desk-bound.

‘Accountancy, would you believe.’

Really?

‘I’ve only let the old locks grow since those days.’  He gave his collar-length mane an exaggerated flick, chuckling at my unconcealed amazement.  The idea of him with sensible hair and a tie was way too silly.  ‘I kind of fell into the profession.  That may sound terribly pathetic and passive, but you know what schools can be like.  Exam factories, steering gullible teenagers
towards super duper careers, hyping you up to thinking you’ll be somebody if you acquire certain letters after your name.  Well I got my degree, qualified, attained these goals I thought I aspired to, then several years down the line finally woke up and twigged that it wasn’t me, you know.’

‘I understand.  Totally.’

‘I’d always had this love for the countryside too – well, affinity really – and used to escape there of a weekend.  It became a necessity, after spending Monday to Friday poring over audits.  My first step was moving out here.  I fell in love with a cottage half a mile from where we are now.’

‘Handy.’

‘Very.  When I’m on the rota for the Matthews trip at least.  It’s such a haven here.  I’m still at the stage of waking up every day feeling as though I’m on holiday.  I suppose, doing this job, I am in a manner of speaking.  Albeit other people’s holidays.  My dad first told me about the group.  He’d been on a few of these breaks.  Then I came on a couple, and was very impressed with how they ran the show. Other things had changed in my life, so I took the next plunge, quit the rat race, and here I am.’

‘Good for you.’  What ‘other things?’  I couldn’t help wondering.

‘Best thing I ever did, I tell you.  Used to be able to see the Clent Hills from my office window, well just about, on a clear day, but they seemed to tug at me.  One day – as I say, this was just over a year ago, and it was a glorious spring day – I happened to look out, and something inside me just snapped.  We were approaching the financial year end, and I thought: why the hell am I not yomping over those hills instead of being caged in this sterile office up to my neck in tax returns?’

I could have married him on the spot.  Was there ever a man who spoke to my heart so?

I opened my mouth, and would have requested an application form for BFF leader training there and then.

‘Lyndon mate, sorry to interrupt like – I was just wondering what that was up there.  That great big wheel.’  It was Shane, pointing out a monument on a distant slope.

‘A memorial, Shane,’ Lyndon flipped back into tour guide mode, ‘to the men who worked in Sneydley Pit.  This used to be a huge mining area.  Some of Earl Matthew’s descendents became wealthy mine owners, among other things.  The pit shut down in the late sixties.  It’s a country park now.  That big winding wheel was put up about ten years ago as a memorial.’

Thus ended my monopoly on conversation with Lyndon for a while.  I could hardly be irked by Shane.  He was entitled to ask questions about the local heritage, and this is what it’s like on long walks anyway.  Folks drift in and out of fluid groups, and
sights along the way spark conversation that is by its very nature spontaneous.

******

Back at the Earlcott, we dispersed to shower and change and were invited to reconvene for dinner at half-six, or in the bar from six if we wished to partake of a pre-meal drink.

I checked my texts.  There was one from Mom, in reply to mine, and one from Kathryn, to whom I rattled off an emoticon-peppered précis of our handsome walk leader.

Then I spread a few clothes on the bed, put the TV on, flicked through the early evening game shows and left Come Dine with Me on as a soundtrack while I climbed in the shower.  I wasn’t too muddy or sweaty today.  After more strenuous slogs, the anticipation of sluicing my grimy skin and throbbing joints in citrus shower gel is as much part of the experience as the walk itself.

After showering, I ran the stained square centimetre of my walking trousers under the tap, scouring at the faint tomato splodge, and draped them over the bath to dry.

Now for tonight’s attire.  On the telly (I’d seen this episode before) Rod from Keswick was bellowing bleeped-out expletives as he slopped half of his banana soufflé mix on to his kitchen tiles.  I meanwhile was cursing my lack of wardrobe foresight.  I think I’d been half hoping my splayed-out clothes might miraculously breed during my shower, to produce a week’s worth of sexy, Lyndon-wowing outfits. Nope, there was still just the one dress – Monsoon’s finest, in silvery-purple – staring back at me.

It was extremely pretty, though: a strappy mesh dress with a handkerchief hemline that hung flatteringly around my calves. It was gathered at the waist, with embroidered detail to obscure the slight bulge of tummy to which I’m irksomely prone despite all the exercise I do, while the pleating and boning at the bust accentuated me where I needed accentuating.

I had earmarked it for Saturday night at Julian Crowfoot’s, anticipating more casual nights in tops and trousers at the other boarding houses.  Not that said tops and trousers were not presentable, I just hadn’t banked on meeting a Lyndon type.  Or, for that matter, a Polly type who was bound to eclipse me in something strapless, backless and frontless.

Even as I was getting ready, a voice in my head screeched: ‘Let him take you as he finds you.  If he’ll only like you in a frock he must be shallow.  He’s already seen you in waterproofs anyway – any variation on that is going to be an improvement.  And he hardly seems the kind to judge if you wear the same thing twice!’

Obviously I could not pass up an early drink with Lyndon, so I called for Hazel and was bar-bound for six.

‘Woo, you look nice.  He’ll love it,’ she said conspiratorially, which instantly sent my self-esteem soaring.

‘You’re pretty striking yourself, Hazel.’  She was all floaty in a tangerine kaftan, the sort of garment I’d have actually put money on her possessing.  Her cloud of hair looked more windswept, her marker-pen eyeliner smudgier than ever.  It was fair to say her look would not have suited every woman.  ‘Been watching Come Dine with Me as well?’  The end credits were rolling behind her shoulder.

She zapped it off with the remote.  ‘Don’t care for television much as a rule, but that programme is rather an indulgence of mine.  That and Strictly Come Dancing.  Can’t believe the ninny with the soufflé won it, though.’

‘I know!  Gives us all hope for our culinary efforts, doesn’t it?  Shall we call for Shane on the way?  I remember which room he came out of this morning.’

‘Yes, of course.’

As we walked down, livid voices wafted through Polly and Martin’s door.  Or rather hers was livid; his more docile and placatory.

At first I couldn’t distinguish words.  Then I heard Martin mumble something like, ‘You know it was Sarah’s idea that we come on this week together.’

‘Bloody Sarah,’ Polly shrieked, ‘she’s all I hear about lately.  You’re getting quite boring on the subject, Mart.’

Hazel pulled an ‘Ooh heck!’ face at me.  Hmm, so maybe Polly’s attention to Lyndon was vengeance for Martin’s affair with sexy Sarah?  Somehow, despite apparent evidence, this was not a theory that convinced me.

Shane was already in the bar with Lyndon, as it happened.  His now familiar Dudley twang was audible as we arrived downstairs.

‘They called me the Dieting Dustman from Dudley. And this is the photo I keep on me as inspiration – ooh hello ladies.’  He stowed his now very dog-eared ‘fat’ picture back into his pocket.

Lyndon, with his wallet poised, flashed us one of his fabulous smiles.  ‘What can I get you both to drink?’

He had a black shirt on now, with dark jeans. Dark hues suited him.  I had an odd fascination with seeing these folks in ‘civvies,’ as it were, after an afternoon in fairly uniform outdoor gear. It reminded me of mufti days at school. I’m no fashion judge, never have been, it just interested me what my classmates wore in their leisure time.  Something to do with clothes revealing character.

Shane pointed to his pint.  ‘Haven’t had one of these in months.  Not since I found out how many calories are in beer.  Treating meself today, though, bab.’

‘You deserve it,’ Hazel insisted.  ‘Mine’s a Scotch and water please, Lyndon.’

‘Naomi?’

‘Red wine, please.  That’s very kind of you.’  I noticed he was drinking the same.

‘The house red all right with you?’ asked Bryony the barmaid.

‘Great, thank you.’

I was hungry, so it zoomed to my head on first sip.  But with it came that lovely softening sensation wine produces, and also a self-righteous sense that because I’d exercised today this was a glass earned. I’ve never been one to get pissed for the sake of it.  A glass of good wine is always preferable to a skinful of alcopops.

‘If you like your vino,’ Lyndon said, ‘you should enjoy Julian’s tasting course on Saturday.’

As long as his wine is all we’ll have to taste, I thought, bearing in mind the chef’s reputation.

My empty tummy chose that moment to rumble like a jet plane.  I clamped my hand over it apologetically.

‘Fancy a look at the menu?’ suggested Lyndon diplomatically.  ‘I can recommend the lamb.’

‘Think I might have that actually.’  I wasn’t saying that to ingratiate myself with Lyndon, I did genuinely favour the roast rack over the braised chicken with beans, salmon fillet or aubergine melts.  A surprisingly broad choice for a rural guesthouse.  ‘Plums baked in sloe gin – mmm, that sounds lush.  I won’t bother with a starter in that case, then I can make space for a pudding.’

My unruly belly gave another yearning roar at the thought.  I golloped some more wine, as though that would silence it.

Polly and Martin made their entrance as it approached half-past six.  While Martin appeared faintly distressed from their row, Polly shimmied in, a defiant sensation in a cerise bustier and leather leggings.  I saw Shane gulp.  I was forced to wonder what Polly lacked that the ill-famed Sarah could possibly possess.

Her standards were evidently slipping, however, as she wasn’t quite swift enough to bag a seat next to Lyndon at dinner.  I slid into one; Hazel swiped the other.  I had to stifle a smirk when Ted and Enid arrived just as we were being seated and nipped obliviously into the places opposite Lyndon and me, which left our stroppy couple at the other end, across from Hazel and Shane, who I hardly imagined were favoured company for them.

Over dinner – ‘You were right about this lamb, Lyndon, the food’s delicious here’ – I confided my new career ambitions in him.
His eyes unguardedly met mine; I could have been the only person in the room.

Happily he was receptive to my idea too.  ‘We’re always delighted to welcome new recruits. I’ll sort you out an application form. Once you’ve returned that, they invite you to go for an assessment.  That takes place over four days, usually somewhere in the Peak District.  Pretty intensive.  You’ll have to navigate a walk; they test you on the kind of scenarios you’re likely to encounter on one
of these breaks.  Once you’ve passed, they let you loose on the general public.’

‘Sounds right up my street.’

‘Once you qualify, though, you’re not on constant holiday.  We do a lot of non-residential walking days too – we take groups of students out, do corporate events, that kind of thing.  Still up for it?’

‘Absolutely.’

Hazel did a discreet thumbs-up at me.  I hid my crimson face behind my wine glass, which proved an unwise idea as it only drew
to my juddering hands.

I attempted to deflect attention from them by making conversation with Ted and Enid who, apparently unimpressed with the diverse menu, had both ordered salads.  I’m afraid to say I thereafter privately christened them the Salad Couple.

‘How’s your, er, watercress?’ I ventured.

They looked startled to be addressed.  ‘Very nice,’ Ted murmured, after peeking at Enid as though he sought permission to answer.  They then kept their eyes on their leafy plates to preclude further dialogue.

Over coffee, Lyndon said to the table at large: ‘Now I’m sure you’ve all brought your itineraries along but just to refresh you, we’ll be getting about ten miles under our belts tomorrow.  We head to Quanswood first – some interesting wildlife there – we’ll get to the village of Lower Bratchley by lunchtime, that’s in South Staffs, then we follow the canal north to Crockington, which is where we’ll be staying tomorrow night, at a delightful place called the Badger Inn. It’s a Georgian hostelry with an intriguing menu.

‘We need to leave here at nine.  Come down for breakfast when you like – it’s served from seven – as long as we’re all ready to assemble in the lobby with our cases at nine.  Clive who drives the mini bus will drop off whatever luggage we aren’t taking on the walk to the Badger.  So obviously make sure you don’t leave anything behind.  Any questions?’

‘Can you expand on the intriguing menu?’ I asked.

‘No, I won’t elaborate yet, Naomi, but I can guarantee it will be quite unlike any other you encounter this week.  Now the rest of the evening is yours to do with whatever you wish.  Anyone fancy a game of cards?  They keep a pack in here usually.’

Lyndon went over to the dresser and pulled a dog-eared pack out of a drawer, which I saw also contained chess and a tattered Guess Who game.

Hazel was up for it, so was Shane, so was I of course.  The Salad Couple conferred with one another before burbling that they would get an early night.

‘Polly?  Martin?’ Lyndon tipped the cards on to the table and started shuffling.

Polly had scowled at the rest of us like shit all night, but now that Lyndon was talking she instantly dimpled and adopted an oozy voice.  ‘Love to, but Mart and I really ought to be getting to bed’ – she emphasised the word – ‘as well.  Come on darling.  G’night everyone.’  Despite the cursory ‘everyone,’ she looked only at Lyndon.

I have to say he displayed no signs of being impressed as she floated out like a figurehead, or wildly jealous when, within minutes, ostentatious bedspring and orgasm noises filtered down from her and Martin’s room.  Evidently they were over their squabble.

I didn’t hazard eye contact with Lyndon while their showy shag was in progress.  Neither did I snigger or pull a face, because that would have seemed pitifully unsophisticated.  In fact all four of us were far too polite and British to acknowledge the shrieks in any way other than by talking over them, through an increasingly loud bout of rummy.  I was halfway through yelling ‘Jack of SPADES’ when they suddenly subsided and I found I was echoing.

Hazel proved an adroit card sharp.  She triumphed at rummy, and after a few hands we decided to disperse and retire.  ‘Naomi, dear,’ she said, ‘I’m not much of a morning person so don’t worry about calling for me – unless I still haven’t surfaced by ten-to nine.’

‘Right you are.  Well it’s been a very interesting day,’ I said woozily as I tucked my chair in.  Hazel and Shane murmured their agreement.

‘Glad you’re all liking it thus far.’  Lyndon gathered up the cards and crammed them back in the packet.  ‘I hope the rest of the week proves as enjoyable.  Naomi, I’ll sort you out that application form in the morning.’

‘Thank you Lyndon.’

‘My pleasure.’

All mine, I assure you!

I was not yet so forward as to engineer being the last one downstairs with Lyndon (I intended waiting until at least, ooh, Wednesday).  I had no idea yet whether a wife, girlfriend, or indeed boyfriend, existed on whose toes I potentially trod.

Heading for the door, flooded with lust and wine, I sneaked a last pre-bed gaze at him while he was at the dresser with his back to me.

‘Good night,’ I said.

Chapter 3

Gap Year
Chapter 3


St Matthew’s Church straddled the border between Upper and Lower Bratchley.  These twin communities – five miles north-west of Dudley, as many miles south of Wolverhampton – comprised its parish.

Veering left out of the lychgate, Church Road sloped downhill into Lower Bratchley – colloquially ‘Lower B’ to villagers.

Fields, poster-paint green and un-desecrated – as yet – by bulldozers, surrounded the village.  The Staffordshire-Worcestershire Canal, whose bridges had provided a handy canopy to many a teenage deflowering, ribboned through it.

Other Lower B features were snaky, pavementless lanes; farm shops; the Women’s Institute (whose cake and jam stall was the inevitable hit at every fete); a tiny primary school; two buses a day; a community centre whose noticeboard displayed a roster typed by an apostrophe-abuser: Wednesday’s: line dancing with Robyn, Thursday’s: WI, Friday’s: bum’s n tum’s.

A corner shop, Pyke News, stocking the full gamut from newspapers to su-doku books, fluffy hair slides, voluminous jars of sweets, out of date cup-a-soups, birthday cards that bore pastel glitter and pictures of puppies – and always a healthy top shelf of farmer-titillating porn.

Three pubs (in which, yes, horse brasses formed the prominent décor) frequented by ale-dribbling pensioners, who dealt the kind of glares that could administer curses upon newcomers who dared encroach a buttock on to ‘their seats.’

A thousand villagers, who all knew each other – be it by heart, sight or reputation.  Amongst whom it was difficult – to paraphrase a certain Emily – to keep so much as a fart secret.

Meanwhile, at Church Road’s upmarket summit, cliques did thrive but neighbours in the main scarcely knew – still less conversed with – one another.  ‘Next door’ meant the house an acre away, and a fart could waft unnoticed through one’s own kitchen. 

Youngsters here were in the main privately educated, and thus seldom interacted with their Lower B contemporaries, who bussed it daily to Edgecliff, a comprehensive in neighbouring Kinver.

Judges, surgeons, entrepreneurs like Warwick and Heidi’s fathers, and even the odd celebrity (emphasis, in some cases, on the ‘odd’) populated ‘Upper B,’ which was not really so much a village as a glorified estate. 

But what an estate.  One of the most aspired-to addresses in Staffordshire.  ‘An exclusive leafy heartland,’ according to Country Life, whose property column carried regular blurbs about colossal pads for sale there.  Its copy gushed of swimming pools, stables, six-car garages, and gated junctions to some of the more select Crescents and Drives.

Lower Bratchley residents who liked walking took frequent strolls there – strolls which gave rise to ‘If I win the Lottery, I’m buying that one’-style fantasies.

******

Lionel Chance and Ronnie Poole’s abodes were not the fruits of Lotto booty but business reapings.  The men were Rotary Club acquaintances, whose offspring had become intimate since meeting at Ronnie’s birthday party almost two years ago.

Ronnie Poole’s bashes were legendary.  This wasn’t even a landmark age – he hired Upper Bratchley Golf Club (the estate boasted golf, tennis and squash clubs) the first Saturday in every February.

‘It’s recompense,’ he would justify, in a Black Country brogue which if anything he’d broadened in correlation with his snowballing wealth, as though to bolster his Dudley-lad-made-good credentials, ‘Mom never let me have no birthday parties as a nipper.  I’d do well to gerra card out of that old cow – her wun’t have gid me the ice out of her gin glass.’

Ron coarsened his dialect when it suited him – equally, he knew when to speak like a duke – and his sob-story childhood hadn’t hampered his evolution into the steely frozen food king of the Black Country.  He was no miser, though – there was always a free bar and a charity raffle at these dos, to prove just what a magnanimous chap he was.

To Warwick, these schmooze-a-thons were annual purgatory; their guests shared so little common ground with him, beneath a superficial plane, as to compound his loneliness.  So when he encountered a tall babe in a napkin-sized lemon dress, who asked for directions to the toilets, the word ‘Bingo!’ pinged across his brain like a luminous sign.  Warwick would joke – for his sense of humour was not the sharpest – that it was ‘literally a Chance meeting.’

His conversation with Heidi advanced beyond ‘Through the double doors and turn left,’ and for once he didn’t spend the old man’s party wishing he was home, cosied up with a Jack Daniel’s and Who Wants to be a Millionaire (he’d never have applied for the show himself – he could have donated prize money – but he liked to slake his thirst for general knowledge).  This time, he had someone with whom to get soused and scoff at the black-tied arse-licking.  Or rather, now Warwick came to think of it, he did all the scoffing while Heidi contributed little beyond compliant giggles.

He was smitten, though – and not only by her two conspicuous assets.  She knew no-one there, except her parents (her dad, Lionel – ‘Chancey’ – owned Chance Autos, a sports car showroom on the way to Bridgnorth) and kid brother Dale, a gawky youth in an outsized tuxedo – and this lent her a lost quality which appealed to Warwick’s knightly side.

Though it helped too that she was very shapely and personable – and appeared not allergic to his company. 

Plus – though he was not so ungallant as to learn this on that first night – she was a proper little hotty in bed. 

Warwick’s own horizontal experience was sketchy and tame, but Heidi soon schooled him and was so gymnastically supple that he sprained muscles he’d never so much as flexed before.  He soon learned too that not every position required him to remain horizontal.

Best of all, Heidi tottered into his life when his younger brother, The Great Ben, was newly married – to Erin, a New Zealander generally acknowledged to be the embodiment of perfect womanhood – and militant pressure was on Warwick to follow suit.

There was a gloating element to their early relationship; an element of ‘I’ll show ’em, I can get a stunner too.’  In restaurants, at functions, and when Warwick introduced her as ‘My girlfriend Heidi,’ he clocked the impressed leers and was bolstered.  You’ve done well there, my son, they said – and shy Warwick was for once The Man; target of laddish envy and approval.

But now he was marrying her – and would forever associate that appalling thought with the huge photo of Rev Crisp with Bruce Forsyth, on which his eyes were currently transfixed.  Like all Ellery’s pictures, it was draped with tinsel, giving his front room a snug, twee feel that somehow heightened Warwick’s claustrophobia.

‘Yes, I won a fortnight in St Lucia on The Price is Right,’ the little vicar regaled, as though Warwick had begged him to relate the quiz-show-anecdote-behind-the-picture.  He’d followed Warwick’s gaze as he bustled back in with his diary, for which he’d just exited in quest.  Ellery now opened this diary on his knee and thumbed efficiently through to late summer.

The book, and Ellery’s pen, poised above it like the Grim Reaper’s scythe, became Warwick’s new focus.

It’s official now then, son.  Your date.  Our date.  No escape.

‘Right, so it’s the twentieth of August you want – ’ an enquiring pause, an affirmative yap from Heidi, and Ellery started to biro their details on the appropriate date – ‘at half-two?  And it’s…let me see…Warwick Ronald Poole and Heidi Estelle Chance?’

Warwick could feel Heidi’s puppy gaze on him and unromantically avoided looking at her.  His eyes rested sardonically on Ellery.

Not married yourself, are you, vicar – smart bloke!

******

Two roads away, Emily was back.  Asian scenes were fanned across the Smeed breakfast bar.  She’d fetched her eight films – and a box of Greggs cakes – that morning, the day after landing.

Mom – Thelma – wisely had the day off work.  She’d been talked through the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, up the Petronas Tower – the world’s tallest building – and was now in the unforeseen ‘Dominic’ phase.  Another hour of this, and she’d need a lie down.

‘Kris and Chantal sent their love, of course.’

‘They set a date yet?’

‘No, they’re saving like mad, planning to look at venues when they get back after the contract ends.  Chantal’s been eyeing up dresses over there on the sly, though – she’d quite like an Oriental style.  Here’s another one of Dom and me at the Botanical Gardens…oh, and this is the day we popped over to Sentosa – a gorgeous island off Singapore – they have these amazing sculptures of dragons – but to get there you have to go in a cable car – I felt ever so vulnerable, literally hanging by a thread like that and wobbling.’

Emily was close to her mother, and had envisaged more of a giggle today.  Thelma’s sole comment on the fabulous Dominic was: ‘He looks a bit older than you.  Nice eyebrows, though!’  She seemed nonplussed about the pictures, which were way off her usual ‘holiday snap’ scale, and all she could do was Ooh, Aah, or use them as tenuous cues to impart village chitchat.

‘Ooh, talking about heights – Mike the Wipe fell off his ladder the other week, while he was doing the hairdressers.  Luckily he landed on a bin bag, Geoff said, so didn’t hurt himself, just twisted his ankle a bit, but couldn’t come and do our windows for weeks.  We could hardly see out of them ’til – ’

‘Singapore’s only as big as the Isle of Wight,’ Emily bowled on, thinking the analogy with Thelma’s preferred holiday haunt might grab her, ‘but with about three million more people.  And it’s so clean, Mom, you’d love it.  No litter or graffiti, you can’t smoke or eat in public – you get an on-the-spot fine – and chewing gum is banned.’

‘Ooh, talking about the Isle of Wight – d’you remember that couple from St Matthew’s Close, the Carrolls, had a holiday cottage in Shanklin?’  Emily devoured some custard slice.  ‘Elaine – used to go to aerobics, had a tattoo on her ankle?  Well, by all accounts, she’s been – ’ Thelma mouthed, as though the house was bugged, the words ‘having an affair’ – ‘with her next door neighbour, Dennis somebody or other.  And he’s had a hip replacement!  Twice her age, he is, some bigwig businessman.  Sylv was telling me Joy Pincher saw him sneaking that Elaine into their conservatory.’

‘Really?  Now this is Dominic next to the Mer Lion, it’s the emblem of Singapore, and it’s – ’

‘What’s he do, this Dominic?’ 

‘Teacher.   Well trainee actually.  In his first year of a three-year B.Ed.’

‘So he’s a student.’  Thelma took a measured nibble of doughnut.  ‘Where at?’

‘Birmingham.’

‘University?’

‘Yes.’

‘I thought you said he was twenty-nine.’

‘He’s a mature student, Mom.’

Noodles, the family cat, chose that moment to pad in from his late-morning nap.  ‘My furry boy,’ Emily baby-talked, gratefully scooping up the tabby pom-pom, ‘I’ve missed you.’

‘He’s missed you too.’  Thelma sagely surrendered to the subject change – for now.  ‘He’s slept on your bed a lot, and kept mooching about with nobody to play with.  And I’ll tell you someone else who’ll be glad you’re home – Rob.’

‘Yeah, I know.’  Emily pulled a guilty face.  ‘It’s not always been easy to keep in touch – I sent a couple of postcards, and some e-mails – but I’m really looking forward to seeing…in fact, I’ve got a present for Rob.  I shall go round there now.’  The idea perked her back up, and she determinedly licked the final gloop of custard, still cradling Noodles in her other arm.  ‘Yes,’ she addressed the cat, ‘I shall finish my coffee and go to Rob’s.’

‘Good idea.’  Thelma smiled at her daughter’s diversion from Dominic.  ‘Fetch me a carton of semi-skimmed while you’re out, would you, bab?’

******

Warwick had drifted back into the gallery of game show hosts while Heidi listened captivated to Ellery.

Yeah, like you’re so religious!  He glowered, despising her exposed belly stud (topaz, naturally) and the cleavage holding the reverend in surreptitious but decidedly Ten Commandment-bending fascination.

The idea of a church ceremony was all hers.  Agnostic Warwick had in mind a civil do, at Alveley Manor, a lavish country hotel six miles away.  But Heidi prevailed – though she wouldn’t have known the Scriptures from the Cosmopolitan problem page.

‘The church will look prettier on the photos,’ she insisted, ‘and I’ve always wanted a choir to sing at my wedding.  Just think of it, Wozzy – a choir of angels!’

Chancey and his wife Sue, funding the nuptials, concurred with their daughter – they seldom did otherwise – though Heidi met Warwick halfway by agreeing Alveley Manor for their reception. 

Has it really been only five weeks since I wanted this wedding enough to care about its venue?  Just five weeks since the proposal?

Warwick recalled it now – unbecomingly in these holy surroundings.  For some reason, her nipples were the looming image.  He mentally bloated them to cherry-tomato dimensions, so they expunged everything else out of the memory.  Yet when they tickled his face during that last stretch of bedroom Olympics, he’d whooped ‘Marry me Heidi!’

Even as she was wriggling on top, repeating ‘Yes!’ between elated kisses, he felt he was in one of those nightmares, where you try to scream but can’t force your mouth to produce sounds.  He lay static and passive as she yattered about bridesmaid dress shades until dawn.

It was an emotional proposal, Warwick decided, borne of final passion and the hunger for a companion ‘on his side,’ so to speak, in life.  He was departing next day, for the annual Poole winter pow-wow at the family villa.  Which, by unspoken – and resented – convention, included Warwick’s sister-in-law Erin but, pointedly, not Heidi.  Any lover would be an ally in that bear pit. 

Or perhaps it was a subliminal attempt to compete with Ben?

Benedict Walter Poole: cherubic baby; dimply toddler; impish kid; school stud; college stud; dynamic.  Whom their parents had never quite forgiven Warwick for not being.

And now husband to the exquisite Erin too.  A girl whose gorgeousness was not of the cheap and cheerful variety like Heidi’s: well-to-do, designer-clad, but with hooker dress sense; all flesh and hair extensions, getting pissed on two Martinis before going home to screw like Playmate of the Month.  Erin oozed grace, understatedness – and qualifications from every orifice.  When Ben met her, during one such villa vacation, she was teaching English as a foreign language.

To be pedantic, at the precise moment of meeting she was in the Hyatt bar, sipping white wine (Erin sipped – in contrast to Heidi’s drinking technique, which had more swig-ish overtones) with some teacher friends, the focus of men’s lust and every girlfriends’ loathing. 

In an ivory trouser suit incandescent against her tan, she was the most modestly clad woman in there, but easily the sexiest.  She looked supermodel untouchable – to all except Ben, the only guy with the chutzpah to approach her that night.  He netted her with his easy humour and general Ben-ness, and two years later they were spliced in a showy Christchurch ceremony.

They’d dwelt in her homeland ever since, where Erin was now wet-dreamed about by the English Lit scholars at a boys school, and Ben – inheritor of all the Poole enterprise wanting in his brother – had opened a restaurant. 

Warwick still had to stomach him every winter, though.  So, going back to the proposal, maybe he’d just wanted an anecdote to take to the villa.  The family duty reunion, where they had to be entertained by the adventures of Ben and Erin, before squeezing five minutes for ‘So how are you getting on with that bird – Heidi, isn’t it?’

A fortnight into this latest holiday, Warwick called her.

‘Ooh, I’m so glad you’ve rung, Wozzy,’ Heidi squealed before the final syllable of ‘Hiya chick’ escaped him, ‘I couldn’t wait to tell you – I’ve booked an appointment with the vicar for the twenty-first.’

‘You’ve – what – but – ’

‘December twenty-first.  One o’clock.  At St Matt’s.  You can get an hour or so off to come over, can’t you?’

‘But – I thought you – don’t you want to wait ’til Christmas is out the way before we start making wedding plans?’

‘Not getting cold feet on me, are we,’ she tinkled obliviously, ‘we’ll have to get a wriggle on if we’re looking at next August.’

Next August?’  The date was news to Warwick.  ‘But – ’ 

‘We ought to get a photographer sorted soon as well, y’know.  This chap Daddy knows – one of his customers – says he could do it for us, with a bit of discount.’

I can’t do it to her.  Not yet.  Not over the phone.  Warwick shut his eyes and let her blather on, his mobile feeling as heavy as a cosh.

‘I hope you’re bringing me back something sparkly,’ she flirted.  This time she was not joking.

‘I don’t like to, without you here,’ Warwick hedged, ‘we really ought to shop for it together.  Don’t want to get the wrong sort, see.’

Heidi tittered, imagining him twiddling with a ring box and smirking even as he spoke.  His excuses were sappy.  He might have figured she’d want a topaz – and he even knew her ring size, L, as she told him it three times the night he proposed.

But Warwick wasn’t having her on, and Heidi was fated to be disappointed, her L-sized third finger bare.

******

After twenty-two English Decembers, Emily felt silly to be jarred by the chill as she stepped outside.  Two days ago, so acclimatised to winter Far-Eastern style, she was in denim shorts and a tie-dye crop top from a Hong Kong market.

There was one thing guaranteed to steam her.  Thumbing through her mobile as she walked, she reread his five-day-old text.

EM, MISSING YOU ALREADY.  DREAMING ABOUT OUR SINGAPORE SUNSET WALKS.  HAVE A WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS.  CAN’T WAIT TO MEET AGAIN IN NEW YEAR.  WILL CALL SOON, LOVE DOM XXX

Had Byron himself wooed via Vodafone, he could have scarcely had a soppier effect.  Emily stroked the tiny screen with her gloved thumb, cringing even as she did it.  Anyone else would have used abbreviations: ‘U’, ‘2’, ‘XMAS’, ‘LUV,’ maybe ‘GR8’ in lieu of ‘WONDERFUL.’  But even Dominic’s starchiness was sweet; the implication that textspeak was beneath him.  His way was so alien and gallant after years of pubescent testosterone. 

Corny grin restored, Emily snapped the little phone shut and stowed it in her pocket.  She swung a left out of her road, Danks Avenue, into High Street, at the point it bridged the canal. 

A disorientated duck skidded and flapped up the iced waterway.  Emily sighed, recalling the last waterway she’d crossed, Boat Quay in Singapore.  Boat Quay’s only ducks graced the menus at the string of Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indonesian, Indian and Italian restaurants that offered such romantic views across the harbour.  Emily enjoyed many an alfresco dinner there, with Kris and Chantal, and latterly Dom.

Emily muzzled her nose into her scarf – the air was acrid with oven-chip manufacture from McCain’s on Wombourne Industrial Estate, where her dad Brian worked.  Even comparing this greasy stench of home with the Singapore spice brought Dominic to mind: the proximity of their homes, yet the dreamworld in which they’d met.  Emily pondered how what they’d started might adapt and blossom in, so to speak, their real world.

For now, however, there were friendships to catch up on.  It was true she’d missed Rob, and was avid for a chinwag.  Robyn Moss was Emily’s inseparable cohort all through school.  They’d drifted slightly during Emily’s uni years, though would reunite joyously: gassing non-stop and over each other, their conversations shorthand and in-jokey the way only longstanding pals’ were.

Emily passed the row of retirement bungalows – little tableaux she took for granted, with their frosted elfin gardens – crossed the junction where High Street met Steptoe Road, and in two minutes was flitting up the flagstone steps to the shops.  No boutiques here, of course, just Hair by Geoffrey, Bostin’ Batter the chip shop, Pyke News, a Total petrol station, and Moss & Petals – the tie that precluded Robyn from being Emily’s backpack mate.  She’d been a florist since she was sixteen, a shop-owner since just eighteen – three-month holidays weren’t an option.

Emily waved to Geoff, who was perming a pensioner, and tinkled into the florists.  Jennie, one of Robyn’s numerous siblings, was on a stool and thrust her sandwiches under the counter when the door went.  Seeing it was Emily, she smiled animatedly and the girls nattered for a few minutes about her trip.  Jennie was just like her sister, quizzy and ravenous for every taste, colour and scent.

‘You just missed Rob, though, I’m afraid.  She’s gone out in the van, got quite a few deliveries so probably won’t be back for hours.’ 

‘Aw, that’s a shame.’  One day back, and Emily was impatient for a rapt confidant like Rob, who would re-animate her already melting memories.  Robyn was one of the few people with whom even Emily’s exhaustive travelogue wouldn’t pall – nor would she keep digressing to the window cleaner, or hip-replaced men having bits on the side in their conservatories.  ‘S’pose I can’t really be disappointed she’s going about her daily business.  Lower B can’t stop what it’s doing just cuz Emily’s back!’

‘She’ll be dead gutted she didn’t get to see you too, though.  We were only saying this morning how we thought as you were due home today.’

‘I got in last night.  Fourteen hours – via Frankfurt!  Oh well, I’ll catch up with Rob soon enough.  Can I just leave this for her in the meantime?’  Emily handed Jennie a carrier containing the silky skirt and beaded elephant necklace she’d bought her sister in Malaysia.

‘Course you can.  And I’ll get Rob to give yer a phone when she’s back.’

‘Cheers.  Have a good Crimbo, Jen, if I don’t see you before.’

‘You too, Em.  You’ll be over New Year though, yeah?’

‘Wouldn’t miss it for the world.’

Emily advanced to Pyke’s, in quest of milk.

Chapter 2

Gap Year
Chapter 2

‘What does a vicar want with a speedboat?’

Heidi’s question pierced the crisp peace of the December morning, in stabby rhythm with her stilettos on the vicarage pathway.

Warwick involuntarily flexed his pocketed hands into fists.  The speedboat rusting on this driveway may not have seen water in the twenty years Lower Bratchley’s man of the cloth had owned it – but Warwick detested the sentiment behind the girl’s enquiry.  Clearly rural reverends were not allowed fripperies – only Upper Bratchley millionaires, like Heidi and her family.

Like Warwick and his family.

‘He won it on Bullseye,’ he explained with patronising patience.  He looked like a huffy Gestapo officer, stomping in his long deerskin coat.

‘Bull what?’

He winced again at her naggy, yappy, Yorkshire terrier voice.  His most despised dog breed.  He despised all dogs in fact – being more a cat man – but Yorkshire terriers were particularly shitty, licky, furry, yappy little mops.

Bullseye,’ he enunciated.  ‘It was a game show in the 80s.  Sunday afternoons.  You know: darts, Jim Bowen, “Let’s have a look at what you could have won!”  The top prize was always a speedboat.  Ellery – the vicar – goes on TV quiz shows.  It’s his hobby.’

Heidi’s childlike, mobile face rucked up into an ‘Ooh, you live and learn’ expression.  ‘We always watched The Clothes Show on Sunday afternoons.’

Shame you didn’t glean any tips!  Warwick didn’t say this; he didn’t need to – the distaste was loud in the dark eyes which appraised her five-foot-nine form.

Heidi adored yellow, and routinely bedecked her surgically enhanced body in discordant shades of that colour.  She’d surpassed herself today – not much weatherproof demureness for this winter church appointment.  Egg-yolk PVC jacket, beneath which a banana cowl-neck top strained to contain her silicone bosom; mustard micro skirt; margarine stiletto Ugg boots; even her svelte legs were – according to the spray tan can – Hawaii Honey.

‘You’re grumpy today, Wozzy,’ she pouted, perceptively, tweaking his chin with canary-gloved fingers.

Warwick scowled.  He jabbed at the bell – instantly, the door to St Matthew’s vicarage was unfurled by a vision in cassock and glasses.  The vision possessed no evident neck, so his perfectly ball-shaped face – which was all but covered in a hearty smile – appeared to be dolloped on top of his dog collar.

‘Come on in,’ urged the Reverend Ellery Crisp, ‘I’ve got the kettle on – we’ll have a good old natter about your wedding arrangements.’

Chapter 1

All the Rage
Chapter 1

Kristian Savage scanned the sweaty New Year’s Eve audience – as intently as he feasibly could whilst joggling about, tooting The Muppet Show theme tune on a trumpet. 

Instinct, rather than vanity, told Chantal that he was looking for her.

Any second now, those cheeky blue eyes would shine upon her like spotlights.  Then he would indulge her with one of those secret grins that sent the friends alongside her into a Mexican wave of nudges and sniggers.

Chantal, for her part, was gazing guppy fashion at the stage, tongue prettily poised mid-lick in the rim of her Archers Aqua bottle.  By any other girl’s standards, it was a mildly suggestive pose – but it registered as ‘brassy’ on the Chantal Brown scale of flirtation.  She put that down to the alcohol, and the general festive vibes.  She was daring, willing, Kristian to look – yet knew that as soon as he did, she would turn hastily away, her face as pink as her drink.  Like a coy infant.

Or in this case a coy twenty-year-old secretary.

Not, in other words, the kind of sleek babe capable of snaring a man like Kristian Savage.

The sexy beast, she thought with rancorous lust as, true to form, he grinned, she averted her eyes, and Jess and Lindsey nudged her and one other.

Chantal’s insides were trampolining.  No man ought, by rights, to look tasty in a top hat, stripy leggings and a ringmaster’s jacket, but Kristian had the aplomb and humour to carry it off.  To put it another way, he didn’t give a shit.  None of his band did.  Colonel K’s image was the very embodiment of tongue-in-cheek.

Beneath the wacky camouflage, though, lay five passionate and extremely adroit musicians.  Little wonder they were fast becoming one of the most bookable party bands on the Black Country circuit.

Rather than be a laughing stock himself, in fact, Chantal bet wretchedly that Kris was laughing at her.  That had to be the reason his eyes sought her at every gig.  Yes, it probably fed his pop star ego to observe their effect on the dumpy little blonde who was Colonel K’s most devoted fan.

Kristian plonked aside the trumpet and started frantically tra-la-la-ing as the Muppet music segued into The Banana Splits.  The crowd erupted.  The atmosphere tonight was rapturous.

It was this quintet’s trademark to open their set with a medley of children’s TV themes.  They entered the stage to Dangermouse – having taken their name from a character in that 1980s cartoon – then Rainbow would follow, then Muppets, then Banana Splits.

This idea had been Kristian’s own and, even if he did say so himself, it was a pretty inspired one.  The other lads had taken considerable convincing, though.

‘It’s the perfect intro for us,’ he’d insisted, ‘it’ll set the tone of the show and lift everyone’s spirits.  People love being transported back to their childhood.  We’ll get them on our side straight away.’

He was right.  Just as he’d been right to suggest that surreal costumes might make a fantastic trademark.  No crowd yet had not responded to the nostalgia and lunacy of it all.

******

Chantal herself had not been the same since her first Colonel K gig six months ago, in this very room at Dilloway Social Club.  It was Fate, she decided, that had made her and her two cousins, at a loose end one Saturday night, forsake their usual bowling alley and cinema haunts, and buy spur-of-the-moment tickets for this group they’d never heard of.

The club – its name was locally abbreviated to ‘the Dill’ – was well liked by pensioners, young families sharing jumbo pork-scratching packets, and ladies who wore tiger-print blouses and too much make-up.  But one of the very few nightspots in the girls’  locale which didn’t have to be reached via a pricey taxi ride.  And the entertainment, to be fair, was usually pretty decent.

That June night, Colonel K had had nans and teenagers jigging boisterously between (or, in a few extreme cases, on) the tables.  It was literally impossible to stand still or not grin inanely in their presence.  Chantal wondered if the lads employed hypnosis techniques.  They certainly possessed the power to make feet move, seemingly of their own accord.  

The small industrial town of Willenhall had never seen anything like Kristian the sexy ringmaster; lanky, kilt-clad bassist Max Baggott; laid-back Jim Willetts, on rhythm guitar, combat gear and ponytail; shirtless drummer Jay Freeman who, with his six-pack and pornographically tight leopardskin trousers, was the stuff of orgasms; or pint-sized Elvis Bacon, inexplicably dressed as Austin Powers and thumping the daylights out of his keyboard.

They barely paused for breath amid their set list, which eclectically encompassed Madness, The Darkness and numbers from Jungle Book.

******

Chantal Brown fell in love that night.  Kristian mesmerised her.  Jay, being the more conventionally sexy, was most girls’ favourite – but then, all through life, Chantal’s tastes had rarely accorded with those of ‘most girls.’

‘There’ll be no man for me except him,’ she dramatically announced to Jess and Lindsey.  ‘I know he’s well out of my reach, but I don’t even care if I die a spinster.  I’d rather just gaze at him once a week for the rest of my life than get married to some boring welder or van driver.’

She meant it too.  She knew he was special.

It wasn’t just the poet-ish long hair, tattoos and gazelle physique (though they helped) but, as a keen singer herself, she was turned on hugely by talent and stage presence.  Kristian was born to go on stage – and what a voice he had!  He was nimbly versatile too: singing one minute, hooting a trumpet the next, then leaping into a bizarre kind of morris dance before humming an exuberant tune on the mouth organ.

Chantal’s fantasies (the cleaner ones, anyhow) involved them performing stunning duets to spellbound audiences.  This dream-duet Chantal possessed a sweet power which would complement Kristian’s husky, from-the-heart delivery.  The real Chantal imagined if she sang in front of him he’d scorn at the difference between a starstruck office girl who did the odd karaoke night and a full-time frontman who clocked up an average of four strenuous shows per week.

Chantal knew it was four because she knew Colonel K’s tour itinerary by heart.   It was Blu-Tacked over her bed and served as her social diary, for in truth she enjoyed few nights out that were not Colonel K-related.

Since that heady evening in June, she’d seen them sixteen times.  Whenever they played in Willenhall – which was her home town – or Wolverhampton, the city three miles west, she was there.  Chantal lived for those nights, when she would splurge her puny wages on gig tickets and lip-staining, vinegary wine in musty pubs.  It became her hobby.  She adored the cheesy and cheerful music Colonel K played, and found their eye-catching image fun – but of course her draw was Kristian himself. 

Her crush on him remained just the right side of obsession.  Jessica and Lindsey would remark, with rolled eyes, that she had ‘got it bad’ – little guessing the feebleness of their understatement.

Chantal had never imagined it physically possible to think about another human being continually – but he was there through every traffic jam; every sandwich; every bodily function.  She felt embarrassed and pathetic going about her secretary-ish business, while all the time picturing him doing terribly rock and roll things.

Too much of this visualising, though, hurt her.  It was masochistically easy to wonder who might be sharing Kristian’s bed on the nights when she yearned alone in hers.

Chantal disliked even knowing he had other admirers.  She wanted him to be her crush and hers alone.  The very knowledge that her feelings for Kris were not unique was a threat to her.  Her cousins thought her unworldly, with a frustrating defeatist outlook. – they were also convinced Kris reciprocated her feelings. 

‘He always makes the effort to say hi, and goes out of his way to get eye contact when he’s up there performing.’

‘Yeah!  Why don’t you talk to him?  Nothing too forward, just lead him into an opportunity to ask you out.’

Chantal was witheringly dismissive.  ‘I doubt he wants any such opportunity.  The eye contact is all to raise my hopes, lead me on, get his cheap kicks.’

In this she did her idol an injustice, but she was acting in self-preservation.  It terrified and thrilled her to picture Kris as a potential boyfriend.  It was true to say he had begun to recognise her and, of late, actually taken to acknowledging her existence.  But Chantal had always liked having her nice safe little crushes on pop stars; unattainable boys on posters, whom she would never meet.  She lived for singing and admired singers, but there was that distance there. 

She was not a risk-taker.  Pin-ups would never break her heart.

The trouble was, Kristian Savage wasn’t quite a pin-up.  He did not inhabit the pedestal to which she elevated him.  He might earn his living in music, but he was hardly a household name.  He was a Wolverhampton lad who lived with his mother, drove a rusting Datsun, and quite possibly went to the toilet occasionally.  He straddled the line between fantasy and reality.  When he talked, he ceased to be untouchable.  He became very, very touchable in fact, and this unnerved Chantal.

It was scary liking someone like him.  How on earth would a girlfriend of his be expected to conduct herself?  Fan him?  Feed him grapes?  Bow down and kiss his boat-sized feet?  Perform gymnastic groupie feats in bed, to keep him hot for her?

Oh, she couldn’t do it!  They were worlds apart.  She’d probably faint if she saw him naked.

The very thought made Chantal bury her scorching face into her pillow of a night.  She’d just have to go on pleasuring herself with her fingers.

The news, however, that Kris and his group were due back at the Dill on New Year’s Eve had actually emboldened Chantal.  It seemed like an omen.  The thirty-first of December was traditionally a night when secrets might be confided and indiscriminate kisses exchanged – then blamed on booze, if need be.  A few Archers down her neck might transform her into a brazen goddess.

Brazen enough, maybe, to put Jess’s seemingly illogical little theory to the test?

Oh, she had to risk it, she just had to – even if it meant being spurned so mortifyingly that she could never bring herself to see him again.  What was life, after all, without a little risk?  A girl had to progress beyond crushes at some point.

******

True to form, she scampered to the loos in the interval.

Daubing on fresh lipstick, Chantal cringed at the hairspray-smeared mirror, despising what she saw.

You wet bint, she thought.  So much for being a bloody goddess!  You’ve got to stop being half-hearted about this flirting lark.  In future, maintain his eye contact, make it plain you’re interested, instead of looking away like a timid little gerbil.  She tossed the lipstick into her handbag and twizzled before the mirror.  And for God’s sake pull your tummy in!  He’ll think you’re up the spout.  Though that really would be a miracle in the circumstances!

The physique of which Chantal was so self-critical was in fact stunningly curvy, and inadvertently displayed to advantage tonight.  She’d chosen this calf-length black dress for the colour’s supposed slimming quality, but it clung so close that she now felt hideously on show.

‘Bloody knockers,’ she griped, flattening the offending domes with her hands as though she could somehow squish them down into svelte A-cups.  Chantal knew girls who would die to be a 34DD, but the humungous bra size only made her feel ungainly and slutty.

In truth, she was the most elegant woman in the club (admittedly not a hard feat).  Her look made a nice understated change from the denim minis and micro boob tubes of the many fag-breathed heifers on the pull here tonight.  Such a sweet face too!  It was of a sweetness that could break hearts, framed so flatteringly by the loose blonde hair that she normally pinned into a demure French pleat for work.  Her lucid blue eyes and rosy, somewhat babyish lips lent her a vulnerable look.

Chantal had a great deal going for her; her trouble was she didn’t carry herself with the confidence that many a plainer girl possessed in spades.

‘Come on, girl – to the bar with you!’

She wasn’t pissed enough, she decided.  Like Jess and Lindsey, she was usually well gone after one Archers, but tonight required industrial strength Dutch courage.

Chantal hoisted her body erect and marched out of the toilets.  Tugging open the door, she all but collided with another girl loping in.

‘Ooh, sorry.’ 

The newcomer shot her a defensive look, but said nothing. 

Chantal was ruffled again.  She’d seen this girl before – with Kristian.  Not at every gig, but at one or two, each time nattering cosily with him or with Rose, his vivacious mom.  She looked younger than Chantal, and very pretty in a spiky kind of way, with a sylphlike body, Toblerone cheekbones and the kind of hair associated with fairy princesses: silkily flaxen and long enough to sit her tiny bottom on.

Yes, she was his type all right.  His kind of arm candy.  Gorgeous people always chose mirror image partners.  It was a narcissistic thing.

‘All right, Chantal!’

The matey Black Country greeting cut across her jealous musing.  Chantal blinked and emitted a mangled sound midway between a gulp and a seal bark.

The rangy frame of Kristian Savage was draped against the fire doors a mere foot from her.  Large as life and twice as gorgeous, smiling at her in that infectious way of his.

And speaking to her.

And addressing her by name.

Well say something back then, Chantal, you can’t stand here mute all night!  Oh, and stop blushing like the virgin you are!

‘You know my name,’ she sputtered, hopelessly red.  He was one of those towering, masculine chaps who naturally makes a petite girl like Chantal go all blushy and vulnerable.

‘Course I know it!’  He was amused at the implication that he wouldn’t.  ‘You’re our fan club – think only me mom’s seen us more times than you.’

Oh wonderful – now he thinks I’m a stalker!

‘Well you’re a great band.’

She could smell him this close!  Such an unpretentious, rugged odour: a pleasing brew of deodorant and stage-sweat.  Chantal had no truck with blokes who soused themselves in brash aftershave.  Her boss, Gary, was such a culprit – presumably to mask the scent of bullshit.

Chantal became simultaneously aware that Kristian was disconcertingly topless beneath his flamboyant jacket.  She could feel herself start to shake.  Look at his face.  His face, Chantal!

Except his face was almost as disconcerting.  Those eyes!  They were smiling down at her, as though they’d caught her out.  She blushed even hotter in their beam.  She liked it, though.  He was teasing but not, as she’d feared, in a snide, piss-takey way.

‘Me and the lads really appreciate hearing comments like that, believe me,’ he said earnestly.  ‘It’s always the way when you’m starting out, you never know how people are going to take to you, so it’s mega important to build up a loyal fan base.  It means a lot to us if we see folks coming back for more.’  And he was definitely flirting when, with a delicious twitch of the eyebrows, he added: ‘We need the likes of you.’

‘Thank you,’ she replied inadequately.

Kristian needs me, Kristian needs me!

‘Did you have a good Christmas?’ he asked.

‘It was OK, you know.  Just at home with the family.’  She shrugged carelessly, inwardly squirming at how un-rock ’n‘ roll it sounded.

‘Same here.  Can’t beat it, can you?  Are any of your folks here tonight?’

‘God, no!’  Chantal couldn’t help but snigger at the very idea of her parents staying out late, pulling party poppers or – horror of horrors – getting drunk.  ‘This would be far too lively for them.  It’ll be Jools Holland on the telly, then straight up to bed for Mom and Dad.’

Kris was unbelievably easy to talk to; to laugh with.  Even after these few minutes, Chantal was wondering how she could have been so awed by him.  Far from starry, he had a gift for putting people at their ease by discussing down to earth subjects.

‘Well I hope you’re enjoying yourself tonight, Chantal.  Amazing atmosphere, ain’t it?’

‘Yeah, it’s – ’

‘Oh Kris, that was absolutely wicked!  You’re gunna be a star, I just know it!’

Chantal stepped tactfully aside, her entire body stinging with disappointment.  The Loo Girl, Kristian’s fairy princess, had hurled herself at him in a billow of hair and kisses.

Chantal started to back away, down the corridor.  She ought to allow them their privacy – after all, she had no prior claims on Kris.  But he, seeing her reaction and keen to set the record straight, untied himself from the embrace.
‘I love you for saying so, our Kar,’ he reproved gently as though addressing a cute but disobedient child, ‘but mind your manners.  I’m talking here!’

Our Kar, whoever she was, turned to Chantal and told her in a sulkily sheepish tone that she was sorry.

Kristian gave a little terse nod of forgiveness.  ‘Anyway, I’ll introduce you properly to Chantal, who you’ve just interrupted.  Chantal, this is Kara, me sister.’

Sister!   Ah yes, it was obvious now, thinking about it.  The eyes – they were identical to his!  Or was it the nose?  Or the gangly body?  Hell, who cared what it was!  Chantal could not have felt so bubbly had she drained the bar’s entire alcopop supply dry.

She gave Kara a kilowatt smile and keenly shook her hand.  ‘Hiya Kara.  It’s really great to meet you.’

‘You too.’

Kara was still lukewarm, but Chantal wasn’t miffed anymore.  The elating news that this blonde totty was the very last person in the world who could possibly be Kristian Savage’s girlfriend qualified her for automatic best mate status.

‘She does tend to get a tad excited when she comes to our gigs, don’t you sis?’

‘I don’t blame her,’ Chantal frothed, her powers of speech and flirtation miraculously restored, ‘not when she has such a talented big brother.’

It was suddenly not so difficult to look him in the eye.  Something special was starting here, they both knew it.
And now it was Kara’s turn to play gooseberry.  Kris adored his kid sister, but there came a time when a man had to do what a man had to do…

He strategically ferreted a tenner from his pocket.  ‘Tell you what, our kid, why don’t you and Mom have yourselves a nice drink on me.  Nothing too potent for you, though, Madam!’

‘Aw, Kris, I’m eighteen,’ she pouted, but had the sense to know when she wasn’t wanted and trotted off to the bar.

‘Sorry Chantal,’ Kristian grimaced.  ‘You know, I’m that grateful to you for coming.  I had a feeling you might be here, though.  I said to the lads in the dressing room: “I bet Chantal and her mates’ll be in tonight.”’

‘They’re my cousins actually,’ she blethered irrelevantly, ‘Jess and Lindsey, Dad’s brother’s daughters, they live quite close, I see them all the time.’

At twenty-three and twenty-one, the girls had long adopted chaperone roles towards the slightly younger and much quieter Chantal, and in lieu of friends who shared her tastes were companions at these gigs.

Kris wasn’t interested in them.  ‘As soon as I come out on stage, I was looking out for you.’

Were you?’  She was fishing, for she knew full well he had been.

‘Too right I was!  Then I spotted you early on, singing along.  You always join in, don’t you?  You know all the lyrics.’

‘Oh, I love singing.’

‘Really?’  He looked interested.  Impressed even.

‘I just do a bit of karaoke, that’s all.’  She gave an apologetic flap of the hand.  ‘It’s nothing compared to what you do.’

But Kris thought she was wrong to trivialise her hobby.  ‘Karaoke’s great.  That’s how I started out.  Well, it’s sort of how the band got together really.  Me and Max used to get up and have a sing-song every week down our local – we’ve been mates since school, see – and one night, getting on for two years ago, we met Jim in there.  We all got chatting, he said he was thinking of forming a band with a couple of other lads, and would we be interested?  He was into all the disco stuff, you see – Play That Funky Music, that kinda thing – and that was what we used to like singing at the time, bit of the old party music, get the punters jiggin’ about.  Then he introduced us to Jay and Elvis, and the rest was history.  I’d like to hear you sing some day.’

‘Would you?’

Chantal’s innards did a forward roll.  But this time her fear was tinged with elation.  She found she actually wanted him to hear her.  She sensed, despite her earlier fears, that he was not the type to mock.

‘Sure!’  Again, her amazement and modesty seemed to amuse him.  ‘You’ll have to let me know when you’re next performing.  I’ll get the boys to come along too.’  He checked his watch and did a double take.  ‘Look, I’d better scoot.  I’m due back on in a sec, but it’d be nice to chat a bit more, after the gig like.  I reckon the least I can do is buy a drink for our number one fan.  How about it – d’you fancy meeting at the bar when I come off stage, in about an hour?’

‘I’d love to.’

‘Great!  It’ll be almost midnight then an’ all.  We could, er, see the new year in together?’

‘Yeah, I’d like that.’

‘I’d better go now, but I’ll be looking forward to it.’

‘And me.’

He flashed her a gusset-flipping wink and was gone.

Chantal wilted, blinking, against the wall, thinking, Did that really just happen?

******

‘You lucky bugger!’ Lindsey squealed.  ‘Mind you, didn’t we tell you all along he was interested in you?’

‘And you wouldn’t believe us!’

‘I guess you pair were right then.’  Chantal couldn’t stop her lips curling into a smirk.  This was one occasion when it didn’t gall to be proved wrong.  ‘He knew my name and everything.  It’s a real bombshell that he’d even noticed I was alive.  And better still, that girl he was with – you know, the blonde one I bitched about cuz I thought she was seeing him – Kara – she’s only his sister after all!’

‘Yeah, I thought they looked a bit alike.’

Neither Jess nor Lindsey could believe how Chantal had changed during the mere course of a loo break.  Their shy cousin had barely been out the room ten minutes, and returned fizzing with confidence.  Even the ways she spoke and stood were different.  No more stuttering or stooping; she was articulate and happy and proud to be voluptuous.

Chantal was amazed by the change herself.  A single conversation with Kristian had transformed her into a woman: flirtatious and poised.  The few boys who’d asked her out in the past all met with coy, giggly responses, never a self-assured ‘I’d love to.’  What could have got into her?

Nobody yet, she thought bawdily, but I’m hoping Kris will sooner or later!

He had touched some magic button inside her that no-one else had been able to activate.  Chantal may have been, technically, a grown-up for a couple of years already, but this was her first taste of true ‘adult’ passion.  She wanted to connect with Kris on every level.  He set her latent juices pumping.

She took a glug from the drink Jess had just bought during her round.  It seemed to flow right around her body like an extra bloodstream.  At once she was light-headed and triumphant.

‘I love New Year’s Eve,’ she declared, and toasted her Archers bottle beneath the gold tasselled banner that proclaimed MERRY XMAS & HAPPY NEW YEAR along the bar.  ‘Cheers, girls!’

‘Cheers!’

‘To Chantal and Kristian!’  They clunked bottles.

 ‘Ooh, he’s coming back on – look!’

Kris was loping back on stage, to booze-amplified cheers, and this time Chantal didn’t turn away as he grinned and winked.

‘Here’s one from Wilson Pickett,’ he announced, giving her a very naughty look, ‘it’s very appropriate for tonight actually – it’s called In the Midnight Hour!’

******

Chantal couldn’t help feeling relieved Kris had put a shirt on.  Not that a bit of masculine body hair turned her off – quite the opposite, that was the trouble.  When you were trying to concentrate on a conversation, it was just a little…distracting.  He was asking her about music – their shared pet subject – but intelligent replies would have eluded Chantal had that lean, bushy chest remained exposed.

Colonel K’s rapturous fans had reluctantly let them leave the stage at twenty-past eleven, though only after three encores.  Tonight’s show had been their best to date; a riot from start to finish.  Partygoers were always their best audiences – particularly New Year ones.  The boys had played their guts out, and were now on a total high of camaraderie and congratulations.  They were also thirsty for the free beers that in Willenhall comprised their ‘rider.’

Chantal kept an oh so casual eye on the dressing room door.  What if he doesn’t come out?  He might be hiding from me in there!  Or he could leg it out the back window while I’m standing out here like a lemon!  He could have been having me on all the time.

But before even ten minutes were up, Kris was with her at the bar as promised, sexily perspiring but modestly shirted.  He rolled his eyes apologetically when blousy ladies swamped him with kisses, congratulations and even autograph requests as he wove his way to her. 

He’s so popular, Chantal thought, everyone wants a piece of him.  But it’s me he’s coming over to see!  I must be the luckiest girl in the world.

He generously bought drinks for Jess and Lindsey too, but they by tacit consensus made themselves scarce and were last seen being chatted up by Elvis and Jay.

‘So what kind of stuff d’you like to sing, Chantal?’ Kris asked, motioning them into one of the few vacant leatherette seats that ringed the smoky dancefloor.

‘Eighties mainly,’ she shouted over the disco.  Extensive concert experience had made the pair of them proficient in the art of lip-reading.

‘Eighties?  You don’t remember that far back, surely?’  He gave her arm an embarrassed little nudge.  ‘Oops – don’t take that the wrong way, I wasn’t trying to find out your age!  I know it’s not polite to ask a lady such things.’

‘It’s OK.’  It was.  Anything was OK if it gave him an excuse to touch her.  Her bare elbow tingled hotly where his hand had made that momentary contact.  ‘And no, I don’t really remember that decade – well, only the tail end of it.  I was just born several years too late.  I don’t churn out all the usual karaoke standards – you know, your Mariah Carey, your Celine Dion.  I love electronic stuff, and ballads, something with lyrics I can actually identify with.  Something I can sing with a bit of passion.’

Kris was the one in awe now.  This was the longest sentence he’d ever heard Chantal say; she sounded so intelligent and intense.  He’d long admired this girl, by sight alone, and entertained secret hopes that tonight might be the night they would get together, or at least converse.  The fact they had more in common than he could have imagined was a fabulous bonus.

‘Actually,’ he said, studying her in an attentive way that she liked very much, ‘I’ll tell you one I can imagine you doing – Yazoo, Only You.’

She gazed at him as though he had just guessed her date of birth, told her fortune and made contact with her late grandpa.  ‘That is so spooky!  I love that track, it’s one of my favourites.  But the one I like best is actually Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Power of Love.  I guess it’s a man’s song really, but I don’t care.’

‘You shouldn’t have to think of it as “a man’s song.”  Music is universal.  What matters – even with the cheesy stuff we knock out night after night – is that it moves you, that you love it and that your audience comes away from you feeling as though they’ve been entertained.’

‘Well you certainly succeed on all those counts.  Although,’ Chantal paused slightly, pinking up, ‘can I make a suggestion?’

‘Fire away.’ 

She’s bloody adorable!  If she suggests I cut my hair, buy a rocking chair and start a Val Doonican tribute band, I think I’d agree to it.

‘I think you should do a few Adam Ant numbers.’

‘Adam Ant?’

‘He’s my hero.  I could just picture you in a pirate’s hat, belting out Stand and Deliver.’

‘You really were born too late, girl!’

‘I know, I’m a young fogey!’

He looked intent, though, like he was contemplating it.  Chantal was warming to her theme.  Little Chantal, who an hour ago had felt unfit to kiss the tails of Kris’s ringmaster jacket, was now telling him what songs to put in his set list.  It was incredible.

‘I’ve always been mad on pop music.  I could never wait to get down the newsagents on the day Smash Hits came out.  I used to blow all my pocket money on magazines, and on tapes to record the charts!  Every Sunday, religiously, I would tape the Top Forty on my little pink transistor.’

‘Naughty!’  Kris wagged a finger at her in mock reproof at her teenage piracy.  ‘So what got you into all this “fogey” music anyway?’

‘I grew up hearing my mom’s records – she liked Adam and the Ants, and also Blondie, bit of ABBA, that kind of thing – and she tells me I used to try and sing along while I was toddling round the house.’

‘So you’ve sung ever since you was a littl’un then?’

‘Yeah.  All through school, I was in the choirs and the shows.  I was dead quiet in class, but I discovered music as a way of expressing myself.  When people heard me, I think they were surprised I had a voice at all.’

Kris could marry a woman like Chantal, he decided.  She was gorgeous, but had hidden depths too.  She made a lovely change from the boob tube tribe who usually descended upon him, hopeful of a post-gig grope.  They’d stood precious little chance with him before; they stood none at all now he’d met Chantal.  The only depths those girls had were their cleavages – and they were certainly never hidden.

‘What do you do for a living, Chantal?’  He wanted to know everything about her – favourite cereal, last book she read, what she looked like when she was little – but was too much of a gent to freak her out with a questionnaire.  Mundane facts would suffice at this stage.

‘I’m a secretary at an accountancy firm.’

‘Where at?’

‘Walsall.  Sorrell & Genge, they’re called.’  She pulled another of her apologetic faces.  ‘Dead showbizzy name isn’t it?  The work’s about as exciting as it sounds.’

‘Have you been there long?’

‘Too bloody long!  Since I left school at sixteen.’

Chantal spoke unusually bluntly, for she detested her job, talking about it, and being in any way reminded that the place reopened for business again in five days time.  Christmas afforded her a lovely fortnight’s respite from the office, during which she offered up fanciful prayers that it might miraculously burn down and she would never again have to make coffee for Gary ‘The Twat’ Genge or be the butt of his acidic so-called humour.

A complete change of subject was called for. 

Chantal nodded towards Rose, a pocket-sized vision of mustard-coloured hair and jangly jewellery who was presently jiving with Max the bass player.  ‘It’s brilliant that your family are so supportive.  Your mom’s always down at the front, bopping away, isn’t she?  She seems ever so bubbly.’

‘Just a bit!’  He laughed affectionately.  ‘She’s a right little raver once you get a few gins inside her.  Do your parents go to watch you sing?’

‘They do,’ Chantal replied with a hesitant little smile, as though trying to be tactful, ‘but not because they’re particularly interested in what I do.  It’s more because they don’t like me singing in these “rough” pubs and clubs.  They’re a bit on the protective side, you see.’

‘Oh, but I’m sure they’m interested in your music as well.  Have you got brothers or sisters?’

‘Nope, there’s just me – and Arthur the budgie.’

‘Arthur?  That’s cute.’

Chantal scanned his face for evidence of piss-taking, but saw none.  He was astoundingly down to earth, despite his looks, majestic stage presence and way-out dress sense.  Even if he did attain well-deserved celebrity status, Chantal couldn’t imagine him being anything other than totally grounded.

She’d been out with a few lads before – albeit she’d never progressed beyond a bit of snogging – and it was remarkable that this nearly pop star should be the one she’d had the least difficulty conversing with.

On the dancefloor Kara, in a gale of giggles, was now being twirled about by Max.  She was not the best dancer in the world; she looked surprisingly wooden and inexperienced in a boy’s arms, and when she happened to catch Chantal’s eye she felt horribly self-conscious.  Her way of disguising this was to shoot Chantal a snotty glare and turn away.

She’s the insecure one.  All this time, I’ve been so jealous of her, because of what I thought she was – and now she resents me because she feels I’m taking her brother off her.

As though telepathic, Kristian leaned towards her and confided: ‘Don’t let Kar bother you too much.  She just gets a bit funny if she sees me getting – er – friendly with anyone.  I think she’s scared she might lose me.  I’ve kind of been the man of the house since our dad went.’

Went?’  Chantal took a puzzled sip.

‘He bogged off when I was seven, with some floozy.  Mom divorced him and we haven’t seen hide nor hair of him since.  Kar was only a bab when it happened, see, barely a year old, so she’s never known him.  I’m the only “Dad” figure she’s ever grown up with.’

His matter of fact lack of bitterness was extremely humbling.

‘That’s terrible.’  Chantal bit her lip guiltily.  ‘I feel awful now for carping on about my old man being overprotective.’

‘Don’t worry.  You weren’t to know.’  Kris snorted wryly.  ‘He’s one of those dads who’d probably come out the woodwork and suddenly get in touch if I did become famous.’

‘As I’m sure you will,’ Chantal said, keen to sidestep thorny subjects on such a special night.

‘I don’t know about that.  We’re hardly The Commitments.  Not that that matters.  I’m just loving every minute.’

‘You do loads of gigs, don’t you?’

‘Yeah, all over.  Wherever Kev – he’s our agent – sends us.’

‘Do you do it full-time?’

‘Oh yeah.  I used to work in a warehouse – dull as shit it was – I couldn’t wait to give it up when the band started to take off.’

‘I wish I was talented enough to make my living singing,’ said Chantal wistfully, diverting the subject back to her work without actually meaning to.

‘I bet you could,’ Kris said encouragingly, ‘I don’t see why you shouldn’t leave Sorry & Grunge, or whatever they’re called, if you hate it that much.  Life’s too short to do something that makes you unhappy.’

‘What – walk out of my job, you mean?’  She stared at him wide-eyed, as though she had never heard such a radical idea.

‘Why not?  You’re only young, you’ve got no mortgage to pay, no real ties.  I don’t see why you couldn’t give it a go.’

‘I feel invisible in that office,’ Chantal cried, amazed by her own openness but feeling an ease and kinship with Kris.  ‘No matter how hard I try to join in, I still feel as though I’m watching everyone through a window and am not really there, as it were.  Nothing I say is of interest to any of them.  When I do contribute something to the conversation, they look at me as if to say “Oh, what do you know?” Sometimes I wonder whether I am in fact a ghost, who nobody can see.’

‘They sound a right bunch of arse-wipes,’ Kris sympathised, though it was the sympathy of someone who has spent so long doing what they love for a living as to have only blurry memories of repellent tasks and colleagues.  ‘You’re certainly not invisible to me, Chantal – nor would you be to an audience.’

‘Thank you.’  Chantal, looking coyly down, traced her fingertip along some graffiti scratched into the tabletop which declared KEZ 4 JAMIE.  It was a flirty gesture, but also served to conceal the blushes that were glowing beneath his gaze.

‘You ought to get yourself signed up with an agent.  I’ll put you in touch with ours if you like.  Kev’s a good bloke.  He’d get you some gigs, I’m sure.  Hey, you could even be our support act!’

‘That’s one hell of a gamble, Kris.  What if it doesn’t come off?’

‘And what if it does?  Sometimes you just have to take chances in life.  It paid off for me.  I couldn’t see me doing anything else now.  When I’m eighty and toothless, I’ll most likely still be performing, probably at the Age Concern day centre or summat, waving me Zimmer frame around.’

‘With grannies chucking their bloomers at you, I bet!’

Chantal loved a man who could laugh at himself.  Kristian’s humour was so self-deprecating and warm – not of the superior, acerbic variety so beloved by her workmates and the type of guys her mom no doubt wanted for her.
Kris broodingly drained his pint and slapped the glass down with the air of a man who’d come to a decision.

‘Fancy a dance?’

Dancing would lift them on to new planes of intimacy.  But Chantal very assuredly answered ‘Yeah, all right,’ and she slunk into the pool of disco light with him.

Oh, to alcohol’s magical inhibition-shedding powers!

Kristian had to virtually bend in half to hold and look down at her.  This ought to have been ridiculous, but Chantal enjoyed being towered over; she felt protected.

I’M DANCING WITH KRISTIAN SAVAGE, voices were squealing jubilantly in her brain.  Kristian and I are having our first dance, to In Your Eyes by Kylie, which will be forever distinguished as Our Song.

Chantal always noticed music, even background CDs in restaurants.  It was a subconscious trait she’d had since she was extremely young.  Music was her stimulus in life; associating songs with events came naturally to her.  She could tell you what was playing on the radio the day her nan died; the morning she started her hateful job at Sorrell & Genge; the night of her first date with her first boyfriend Dean.

‘We’re just seconds away from that magic midnight hour,’ the DJ hollered across Kylie.  ‘Now I wanna hear everybody counting down to the new year with me!  Ten – nine – eight – ’

Is it that time already?  Chantal had been too engrossed in Kris to even peek at her watch.  Now she became all trembly and expectant.  Midnight was Kiss Time – an excuse for a mass snog if ever there was one.

Kristian, if the way he was zooming in on her mouth was anything to go by, obviously wanted to get in early – about seven seconds early, to be precise.

‘Seven – six – ’

Whoa – he’s kissing me?

‘Five – four – ’

My fantasy man and I are locked at the lips – is this real, or some alcohol-induced mirage?  If I blink now, will he disappear in a puff of smoke?

‘Three – ’

Ah sod it, girl, get stuck in!  Stop having inane conversations with your brain, and just enjoy it!

‘Two – one – HAPPY NEW YEAR!!’

Streamers unfurled, party poppers resounded like grenades, friends linked into circles for Auld Lang Syne.  At its nucleus were Chantal Brown and Kristian Savage, entwined like bonsai.  They’d flowed obliviously into it, and were now just as oblivious to the thumbs up signs being exchanged by their respective companions and boozy cheers from other onlookers.

They cleaved apart only when their suction powers gave out and oxygen became a necessity.

‘Happy new year,’ mouthed Kris.  His face, with those kiss-swollen lips, was all dreamy and soft.  Chantal sagged against him.  Kissing was such a relaxant – but then so was drink, and a combination of the two turned her muscles to rubber.

She loved this helpless, floaty feeling – yet her untypical lack of restraint scared and almost shamed her.  She’d always been Miss Tin Knickers, so wary of Giving Herself.  It was easy to blame this on her upbringing – but perhaps her exes’ hands had been so easy to slap away simply because they weren’t such attractive lads as this Kristian?  He could unleash her inner slapper. 

But before she set the whore free, Chantal still needed reassurance that she was not about to be seduced by one those ‘philanderers’ her mother warned her about.

‘Are you sure you won’t regret this when you’re sober?’ 

‘I am sober, sweetheart.’  The question might have been flippant or coquettish from another girl, and it amused Kris until he saw the self-doubt in those heartbreaking blue eyes.

His hug flowed, inevitably, into another snogathon.  This ritual went on until two o’clock: snog – and relax – and hug – and chat – and snog – and rest.  They had long ceased being aware that other people occupied the room; ceased being aware, in fact, that they were in a room, in a tinsel-strewn social club in the very early hours of January.  

 ‘What you doing tomorrow?’ Kris asked during another oxygen break.

‘Today, you mean?’

‘I s’pose it is today, yeah.’

‘Sleeping off my hangover, I expect.’

‘Fancy meeting me once you’ve woke up?’  He would much rather she slept it off with him, but knew better than to be so forward.

‘That’d be great.’  Kristian’s asked me out!  Kristian’s asked me ou-ut!!  ‘Where have you got in mind?’

‘We could go for a hair of the dog drink tomorr – I mean, this evening.  Do you live local?’

‘Just round the corner – five-minute walk from here.  How about you?’

‘Penn, the other side of Wolverhampton.  D’you know it?  We could meet halfway?  Or how about I come and pick you up?’

‘Might be a good idea – I’m bound to still be over the limit by then!  I’ve had a right skinful – by my standards in any case.  I know I’m gunna suffer for it.  In more ways than one as well – cuz me mom’s bound to give me a lecture to go with the headache.’

‘Teetotal, is she?’

‘Brandy sauce with her Christmas pudding is about as far she goes.’

‘You should introduce her to my mom – she’d soon get her out of herself!’

‘Can’t see it somehow.  But anyway, you wanna drive out somewhere tonight, do you?’

‘Yeah, maybe Walsall or Sutton Coldfield way?  I dunno.  D’you know any decent boozers round here?’

‘You should be the one to know,’ she teased, ‘you’ve played in enough of ’em!’

‘Nah, them are all grot-holes.  They must be if they have us back so often!’  He laughed in his now familiar easy, modest way.  ‘I’d like to take you somewhere a bit pleasanter, somewhere we could chat and maybe have a bite to eat too.  You probably know more places like that than I do.’

Kris’s expectant look, and implication that he thought Chantal too classy for dives, touched her.  She raked through her limited ‘decent boozers I’ve been to’ catalogue, feeling wildly important that he should leave the decision to her.
It struck Chantal that she ought to be flustered.  A girl who had been known to lose sleep wondering what colour to paint her nails should be nearing a nervous breakdown under the pressure of choosing a First Date With A Demigod venue.

But Kris was changing everything.  He made her feel so liked and interesting.  She knew she could trust him now.
‘I’ll go anywhere except the Hardwick in Streetly, cuz that’s where we have our Christmas do! Every year without fail – and it’s only because Gary the twat lives within convenient staggering distance.’

Kris grimaced sympathetically.  ‘And tough tits to everyone else who has to drive or fork out for taxis, I bet!  I know the type.  So do you know anywhere else?’

‘The Long Horn’s nice,’ she offered, in blasé, socialite tones, ‘out towards Aldridge.’  She’d been to the Long Horn once, about two years ago, on her one and only date with a mechanic by the name of Simon.  The only pubs she patronised now were Colonel K gig venues – not that told Kris that, fearing she’d sound sad.

‘We’ll go there then.  What time shall I pick you up?’

‘About seven-ish?’

‘Seven-ish it is.  Want me to fetch you from your house, or would you rather not trust a strange man with your address yet?’

‘It’s OK, I’ll scribble it on this,’ she picked a beer-sticky gig list from a table and magicked a gnawed biro out of her handbag.

‘Well done that girl!  Bet you were in the Brownies, eh?’

‘I’ll see you then – if I can last that long.’  He secreted the folded gig guide in his pocket.  ‘In the meantime,’ he reeled her pliant body back in, ‘you’d best give me another of those nice kisses to keep me warm!’

Chapter 2

Classmates
Chapter 2

I married Karl on a July afternoon when the sky really was the flawless blue and the sun really the flamboyant orange that my nursery school paintings insistently depicted. 

As I lisped my quivery vows, the crisp, salady scent of freshly mown grass wafted through the open hall doors – a summer aroma that will forever evoke scenes from that day.

Vacuum-packed into an organza frock as stiff and creamy as an Angel Delight, and clutching a posy of pink plastic roses, I bobbed from foot to jellybean sandal-clad foot and grinned with gap-toothed embarrassment behind my net curtain veil.

Fidgeting, I could see Bradley Round, the pageboy, intently picking his nose, whilst my bridesmaid, Samantha Potter, was just as becomingly absorbed, extricating her billowy petticoats from her knickers.

I swiftly pivoted back to Karl: tall, windswept of hair, snub of nose, in his waistcoat and velveteen shirt – as ever, the picture of impish self-confidence.  Nothing fazed Karl Corbett.  Absolutely nothing.

There were murmured ahs and titters from the three-hundred-strong congregation as the vicar, Shane Ashcroft, pronounced us, in broad Black County monotone, ‘mon and woyfe.’  (Although ‘Yow may now kiss the broyde’ was an entreaty mercifully omitted from Rev Ashcroft’s sermon!)

To compound the indignity of it all, one congregation member was a Dudley News photographer.  I know my mom still has his yellowing close-up of ‘the happy couple’ pasted into a dog-eared scrapbook, though I have not seen it for years as I, sadly, can recall my piteous appearance well enough without pictorial aids.  The absent front teeth; the punkish, margarine-coloured hair – so risibly incongruous with frills and posies; the chubby little body hatching a frantic bid for freedom from the chafing dress….

A confirmed tomboy, I harboured a morbid dislike of dresses – being especially averse to ill-fitting ones exhumed from the bottoms of dressing-up boxes.  I remember so sharply the wild longing to tear that cream monstrosity from my back and exchange it for my usual uniform of either dungarees or a velour tracksuit.

LESSONS IN LOVE: [croons the caption beneath our gurning fisogs] Holly Lane Primary School pupils Karl Corbett and Zoe Taylor, both aged six, in costume for their Royal Wedding project.

It was 1981.

With the nuptials of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer days away, Class 1H was in the grips of full-on, joyous, romantic, proud-to-be-British, red-and-blue-streamer, commemorative-mug-and-tea-towel fever.  It was the delightful idea of our teacher, Miss Hayes, that Karl, Shane, Sam, Brad and I should re-enact a wedding in mildewy fancy dress costumes before the whole school (sardonic, comp-bound eleven-year-olds included) on the final day of summer term.

The choice of moi for the bridal role was Miss H’s also – influenced, allegedly, by my blonde pageboy coiffure which entertained vague Diana-like pretensions.  Or rather it did until the week preceding our mock marriage, when I acquired a jagged crop decidedly not the handiwork of Hair by Geoffrey, the Gornal salon to which Mom had been taking me since the day my downy baby wisps first tickled my neck.

In fact, this was a Hair by Zoe composition.  Though it could have passed for a Hair by Worzel Gummidge one.

My poor mother’s innocuous foray to the bathroom that Sunday had yielded the grotesque discovery of me, tottering on precarious tiptoes at the mirror, studiously hewing away with her nail scissors.  A flaxen pond encircled my feet, leaving behind an elfin head crested with anarchic tufts and fronds like a very early Bart Simpson prototype.

A mangled seal-like shriek escaped Mom.

‘What – have – you – done?’

‘I thought it would look nice,’ I whinnied: contrite tears already gurgling up to mirror those dismayingly glazing her kind eyes.

If I thought my ragamuffin image might excuse me from conjugal enactments, I was mistaken – but that hideous newspaper snap proved a fantastic deterrent against DIY hairdressing.  I have never so much as lopped off a split end since.

******

‘Coming round ours after, Zo?’  My youthful groom and I, finally having shed our wedding regalia, were loping across the playground towards our moms, carefree and elated by the onset of summer holidays.

This was more like it!  Playing at Karl’s house – gambolling in his sandpit, swapping comics or just watching cartoons – was preferable any day to donning a soppy frock and marrying him.

‘Mom’s made cakes,’ he added as compelling inducement.

‘Yeah?  What sort?’

‘Chocolate cornflake.  And a lemon sponge.  With hundreds and thousands on an’ all.’

‘Bostin’!’

My tummy was already growling with yearning.  Avril Corbett was the Delia Smith of the Black Country.  My own mom, and even my dear Granny Danks, could only dream about achieving such sweetness of pastry; such dainty butteriness of sponge cake; such glorious squelchiness of jelly.

‘When d’you think yer hair’ll grow back, Zo?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Where you gooin’ on holiday this year?’

‘Weymouth again.  How about you?’

‘Tenerife.’

I scowled jealously.  My parents’ only ever voyages ‘abroad’ were to the Isle of Wight; their idea of ‘foreign food’ was French bread.  Karl’s family were so adventurous and worldly.

They resided around the corner from us, in Andrew Street.  Parents Avril and Roger, brother Stefan, aged nine, and sister Faye – at thirteen, so vastly sophisticated and glamorous to my infant mind. 

As an only child, I latched on to this vivacious tribe with mingled fascination and resentment, unkindly ashamed of my own mini unit.  How it grated when my lovely, well-meaning dad made cosy references to ‘the three of us!’  Why couldn’t we have been five, like the Corbetts?  Or six, or eight?  ‘Cliff, Val and Zoe’ sounded like a sixties folk trio.  The Taylor Trio.

Ladies and gentlemen – live at the Trumpet in Bilston…The Taylor Trio!!!

The mahogany drinks cabinet in our lounge had a glass door, with six rhomboid panes that not only exposed the whisky within but were also – if you stood at a favourable angle – dustily reflective.  In lonely moments, I would gaze raptly at my row of mirror images and pretend I was sextuplets.

I had fun ascribing a distinct personality trait to each mystical sister: one was bossy, one shy, and so on.  We would play together and sing songs: identical pigtailed heads wagging in glassy unison.  Never even to my closest friends, though, did I admit having imaginary siblings – perhaps, like alcoholics, I was ashamed that I sought succour and companionship via a drinks cabinet?

(Whatever prompted me to write about this?  I had hitherto forgotten all about my clandestine play-acting – like a deleted movie scene lost in the vaults for years but now digitally remastered and available on DVD.  This reunion invitation has kindled some unbelievable memories, suppressed in my head for decades, awaiting an occasion when they might aptly be turned into anecdotes.)

******

On days when I sought mortal playmates, I could commonly be found chez Corbett, which functioned as a kind of unofficial recreation centre for the neighbourhood kids.  The core gang comprised Karl’s cohorts Shane (alias the vicar), Gareth, Nathan and Felix, my mate Nasreen and me.  Predominantly lads, you will notice, but as I said I was a tomboy, and even at that callow age had started to perceive – and despise – the fickle cattiness inherent in many girls.

Females are pitilessly competitive creatures.  Acerbic, capricious, jealous, unforgiving, petty and ferociously territorial – I ought to know, having sporadically lapsed into such behaviour myself.  Name a woman who has not!

Don’t get me wrong: I have been gifted with some fabulously supportive, indispensable female friends – Heather and Denise topping that list.  There just happen to be traits I hate about my sex.  There are times when I have tired of the backbiting and inane gossip that pervades offices and nightclub toilets, and felt more comfortable and unguarded with men.  They can provide a gloriously uncomplicated antidote to all that miaowing.

Obviously, at six I could never have articulated such observations – all I knew was that I favoured the company of boys.  They were not yet of an age to discriminate.  I was just Zo to them.  One of the posse.  I climbed trees, did headstands and played war with the best of them.

******

Karl and I had been pals since our first day at Holly Lane a year ago.

To this day, my mother’s eyes crinkle and mist at the recollection of her bottle green-clad ‘babby’ marching off to school, satchel in hand.  Her favourite photograph, which still smiles gauchely from her dressing table, depicts me in our back garden that historic morning: all shy and ironed in my impeccable uniform; the blonde pageboy still safely unhacked.

Not being so romantically disposed, my sole abiding memory from that day is of sitting opposite a tousle-haired boy and being brazenly agog at the magnitude of his lunchbox.

Do not even think of sniggering!  The word ‘lunchbox’ had yet to acquire phallic connotations; the target of my lust was nothing more improper than my companion’s food parcel (though that doesn’t sound a fat lot better).

School canteens can be battlefields, and Nasreen and I must have looked as vulnerable as munchkins to all the ‘big children’ belching and hustling in the chip queue.

I had known Nasreen Uppal since playgroup.  We were giggling away, contented enough together amid the bedlam, when the weird thought dawned that a kind of tacit competition was unfolding between this boy and me.  We could have set it to music in parody of the old Annie Get Your Gun number – rewording it, ‘Anything you can eat, I can eat bigger.’  For as I nibbled a demure Dairylea sandwich, Brush-Head was simultaneously gnawing on a cheese cob that virtually obscured his face.  And when I unzipped my chocolate finger biscuits, he, as if in response, dipped a felt tip-daubed hand behind the lid of his Spiderman sandwich box and fished out a rock bun the size of a toilet seat.

Being schooled in basic etiquette, I knew it was rude to stare, but my eyes were jealously riveted to this mountainous cake, which my classmate – K. CORBETT, according to the marker pen inscription beneath Spiderman’s feet – was joyously devouring.

‘Are you gunna eat all that?’  The incredulous question leaked out of my mouth before I could staunch it.  I cringed, because it was one my Aunty Irene came out with on every one of her mercifully sporadic visits – followed invariably by: ‘Your eyes are bigger than your tummy.’

Rather than retort with the defensive ‘Yeh’ that I used on Aunty, the boy lavished me with a grin as wide as a banana and answered, ‘Why?  D’you want a bit?’ 

‘OK,’ I said boldly, and he broke off a sugary boulder for me.

Zoe!’  Nasreen nudged me, coyly scandalised by my audacity – then fell mute when our new friend handed her a chunk also.

‘Me mom makes ’em,’ he was explaining.  All I could do was nod, through an eruption of crumbs and currants.

As the rich, cosy, unmistakably home-made flavours filled my mouth, I was conscious of a love affair budding.  Weaned as I was on cottage pies and Arctic Roll, it was a revelation that food could be such a joy; such an adventure. 

My mom’s cuisine, though delicious, was resolutely basic and tame.  This morsel of bun gave a taste – literally – of an undiscovered kingdom.  It was magical how a few commonplace ingredients could fuse in a bowl with such an exquisite result.

My enduring passion for all things edible – and my resultant weight flux – stem directly from Avril Corbett’s rock cake on that September noon in 1980.

******

We were A Posse after that.  And didn’t Nas and I think we were It, congregating with the lads at breaktimes!  Careering about the playground impersonating superheroes: duffel coats draped around us like capes; top toggle done up, arms outstretched, free of sleeves. 

The Beano was our bible; we conversed in Dennis the Menace speak.  ‘Menacing’ was the ultimate compliment – it was our precursor to the ‘wicked’ that would resonate in playgrounds of the future – whilst ‘soppy’ (the tag Dennis levelled at his nemesis, Walter Softie) the ultimate affront.  I even cajoled my granny into knitting me a black and red striped jumper like the one sported by the comic book Menace for more than fifty years.  I adored that jumper.  I wore it until I grew so big it fitted like a threadbare bra top.

The majority of Class 1H’s female members fell into the Soppy category: playing mommy to their newborn baby dolls.  Not that I disliked dolls altogether.  Barbie and Sindy made perfect stooges for Crackerjack-inspired stunts. 

The gang were all devotees of this madcap teatime show, fronted by Stu Francis – catchphrase: ‘Ooh, I could crush a grape!’ – in which contestants little older than us competed in slapstick games, the losers being punished (or rewarded) by having buckets of neon, viscous gunge emptied over their heads.  Lucky pigs!  You could keep your Blue Peter badges; I dreamed of appearing on Crackerjack and winning a pencil.

Karl and I once amassed an illicit cache of flour, milk, tomato puree, food colouring and washing-up liquid from our respective families’ kitchens.  We tipped the lot into the first receptacle we could find (which happened to be a purple plastic jelly mould) and, utilising the handle of Dad’s toothbrush, whisked it to a soup-like texture.

Then we sadistically lined up my bevy of Barbie dolls in the sink and staged our own, low budget version of Crackerjack, cackling as we poured the gloriously revolting swill over their plastic blonde heads.  The Barbies showed no signs of objection to their mucky plight; they just went on beaming vacuously away.  Mom and Avril were livid, however, when they next visited their depleted cupboards.

‘You naughty girl!  Have you any idea how much washing-up liquid costs me?’

Well no, I hadn’t.  It is one of the blessings of childhood: to be supremely ignorant of the value of money; to have no concept of ‘wastage.’

So when parents and other moral watchdogs bemoan the pernicious power of television over youngsters’ pliant minds, I hark back to my Crackerjack phase and have no choice but to agree.

I was a true telly addict.  I simply loved to be entertained.  The ‘idiot box,’ as our sanctimonious headmaster Mr Tucker (a name with some convenient rhymes) dubbed it, enthralled me – and still does, though I am peculiarly ashamed about admitting this.  It could be that TV-viewing is perceived as a pastime of the ‘sad,’ the jobless, the housebound, or those who for some other reason enjoy no life beyond their living room.  Or perhaps it is the sense of being ‘caught out’ which has never truly left me since the day I feigned a sore throat to avoid school, and later padded out of bed to watch the kids’ programmes.

‘You can’t be very poorly if you’re sitting up glued to that thing,’ Mom commented sagely.  Whilst not quite fathoming why being unwell ought to render one incapable of operating a remote control, I felt an uncomfortable nugget of guilt forming in my stomach.  It sat there for the rest of the day, heavy and cold like an ice cube, totally expunging the fun of bunking off.

Even now, this ‘ice cube’ resurfaces if I so much as peek at Bargain Hunt during my infrequent (and legitimate, I might add) spells of sick leave.  How silly it is, the way we never quite shed the paranoia of our youth.

Stationery was another ‘thing’ of mine.  I spent hours fussily colour-coding my crayons – and, like many of my contemporaries, collected novelty rubbers (the erasing kind, you understand).

This would be an unthinkable hobby to twenty-first century kids, deleting their spidery misspellings with nice, politically correct, odourless rubbers.  All the ice cream, flower and chocolate shaped ones, which smelled so gorgeously authentic, were outlawed years ago: too many duped kiddies having choked in attempts to eat them.  It is hard to believe they were once all the rage, and the subject of some serious bartering in the Holly Lane playground.

My own favourite was a hamburger – with detachable layers of bun, onion, meat and lettuce that for some reason utterly fascinated me – which I coaxed from Felix Bennett in exchange for a car-shaped one.  I coveted this burger because its uncanny beefy reek reminded me of the best birthday party ever: Karl’s eighth, on the seventeenth of October 1982.

‘What’s McDonald’s, Karl?’ I had queried, scanning my invitation.

‘Oh, this new restaurant Stef’s been on about.  He went with the scouts.  It sounds totally menacing!  They do burgers and chips – ’cept they call ’em ‘french fries’….’

‘French fries?’

‘Yeh.  And you get ’em straight away, you don’t have to wait or anything!  An’ they do this great big massive hamburger called a Big Mac, that’s this tall – ‘  His hand hovered a good eighteen inches above the table to demonstrate.  No wonder my eyes had turned to glitterballs and my mouth was frozen in the ‘OW’ of a silent Wow.

It is years since I had a hamburger, and the only fast food I now bother with is liable to come from Pret À Manger, but I can never forget the early magic of the now ubiquitous ‘Macky D’s.’  A vivacious, slick, red and yellow slice of Stateside culture which had landed in a Black Country littered with hot pork sandwich shops.  Uninitiated Dudley kids were presented with a plethora of new choices: Eat in or takeaway?  Small or regular fries?

My birthday, four months later, was marked with a new experience too – my first outing to a cinema.  My parents escorted my knot of mates and me to the Dudley Odeon (which is now a Gala bingo hall) to see ET – the Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg’s new epic which was still luring the crowds two months into its release.

I was spellbound – and distraught.  I can remember slurping orange pop at an unladylike volume to disguise my snuffles.  Tomboys – like real boys – did not cry.  It was part of the protocol.

Karl was not hoodwinked, though he gallantly withheld my mortifying secret from the gang.  He could have easily reaped a few cheap sniggers out of a soppy sobbing girl, but chose not to.  It was an attribute I esteemed in him – he was never a bully; never a piss-taker.

Not that he didn’t land me in a scrape or two.

I was ambling through Dudley Market Place one summer Saturday in 1983, tracksuit-clad as usual, my pudgy hand clasped by the most wonderful person in the world – Mrs Marjorie Danks.

Ah, Granny Danks!  Mother to my mom and Aunty Irene, fount of innumerable sweets and owner of a fluffed-up ginger pompom of a cat called Buster.

I was her first – and, I strongly suspected, favourite – grandchild, three years older than my cousin Sasha, who lived in Gloucester.

Marge was widowed – having nursed Granddad Syd through cancer when I was regrettably too young to appreciate either his presence or her self-sacrifice – and doggedly buoyant, capable and practical.  She told jokes, wore trousers and, best of all, was not one of those kissy grandmas who clamp you in talc-scented hugs while burbling about how much you have purportedly grown since your last encounter.  She was full of humour, and singularly understanding of my dress and skirt phobia.

‘Leave the wench be, our Valerie,’ I overheard her retort to one of Mom’s hand-wringing laments on the subject of her ‘boyish’ daughter, ‘it’s a phase.  She’ll grow out of it, in time.’

It became tradition that I would spend Saturdays with Granny Danks, either at her little terrace in Netherton or trawling around the shops of Dudley.  I found the latter activity tedious, but gamely bore it because it involved catching a bus, and public transport was another thrill to die for.  Yes, really!  Despite the vomit-coloured seats, cigarette butts and obligatory wild-eyed, anoraked man muttering to himself in the back row, I felt like a princess being chauffeured around at an elevation that afforded me views into people’s gardens.

There was always edible recompense for my patience, be it a bag of Teddy Gray’s herbals or, in summer, an ice cream from the Mr Whippy van that tinkled up Granny’s road.  Then she would invariably frizzle up some fish fingers while I played with Buster in front of Jim’ll Fix It

It was under her influence that I fell in love with cats.  Their selfishness, their disdain, the way they succeed in being cuddly and adorable despite maintaining an air of classy aloofness.  Dogs are such riffy, messy, licky beasts.  Ugh!  I can’t stand them; never have.

Anyway, this was a particularly interminable shop-trawl.  Granny scrutinised every window, intermittently tempted enough to actually venture through a door.  It was a good eight years before I acquired any fervour for fashion, so the rails of clothes were mere nylon blurs to me.  When I grew up, I haughtily vowed, I would never be like these silly women clucking around me, pawing every sleeve and hem as though it were spun of gold.  What was the attraction?  Clothes, in my book, were Soppy.

I stifled a sigh and blotted a clammy palm down my velour leg, hopeful that today might be an ice cream van day.  We paused – again – outside Littlewoods, and as Granny stood riveted to a display of vests, I was sidetracked by the funky pumping beats of a ghetto blaster a little distance away.  A swelling crowd was applauding and gasping as three black kids threshed about on crash mats, with acrobatic disregard for gravity.  A head-spin here, a back-flip there.  They were amazing.

Karl and Stef Corbett evidently agreed.  There was no mistaking those rangy, tow-headed forms at the front of the pack, each astride a bike.  Karl waved.  This unforeseen diversion ousted all thoughts of Granny and her thermals from my mind, and I marched over to join them.

‘All right, Zo.  Look – it’s Felix.  Bostin’ dancer, isn’t he?’

To my astonishment, the tiniest, smiliest member of this agile trio was indeed Felix Bennett.  While the bigger lads concentrated on the more convoluted routines, he was charming the old ladies with an exaggerated cuteness very reminiscent of Michael Jackson in his Jackson Five days.  It was working.  Penny after penny clinked into the red baseball cap strategically upturned on the flagstones.

I felt poor and juvenile having no coppers of my own to donate.  This act was a colossal improvement on the doleful buskers who usually weaved about the Market Place with their squeaky fiddles and inharmonious harmonicas – often accompanied by equally sad-eyed dogs, whose roles were doubtlessly to deflect attention from their masters’ scant talent.  I could have watched these boys all day.

‘Are them his brothers?’

‘Ar.  Delroy and Gary.  I’m going to ask me mom for a pair of trainers like theirs – they’re just brill!  Who are you here with, Zo?’

‘My gran – oh God, Granny!’

My eyes and mouth dilated in alarm.  Granny didn’t know where I was!

How many times had I rolled my eyes during a parental sermon about the perils of ‘wandering off’?  How bored and patronised I used to feel, because of course I would never do anything so thoughtless!  What did Mom and Dad think I was – a kindergarten kid?

But now the sight of some breakdancers had divested my fickle young head of wisdom, with the result that I had reneged on all those sincere promises.

The old ice cube was back!  Like a spasm of indigestion, it lodged itself painfully in my abdomen.

Dad’s oft-repeated legends about his own boyhood larks, and the ‘good hidings’ they earned him, seemed suddenly less comical.  I was none too sure quite what constituted a ‘hiding’ – good or otherwise – but was certain I had just become a candidate for one.

That was supposing Granny ever found me.  For I was Lost now.  A Missing Child.  I was going to be captured in one of those enormous nets I had seen in cartoons and carted off to the human equivalent of a dog pound.  My parents would make a frantic appearance on Midlands Today, offering a bounteous reward for the safe return of their beloved only daughter.

Through the thud of music, I distinguished a sob some way behind me, followed by croaky snatches of narrative.  ‘Granddaughter – just there – I turned round – disappeared –’

Whipping around, I was aghast to witness my lovely gran being consoled and proffered tissues by a kindly looking woman with a net shopping bag.  The only adult I had seen even on the brink of tears was Mom, when I hacked my hair off.  It was unheard-of for the robust Marjorie Danks to crumple – and the recognition that I was responsible for this aberration was too much for me.  Tears of pure distress dribbled unhindered down my grubby cheeks, despite the presence of lads.

‘I’m here, Granny!’  I bowled myself at her, binding my arms around her comfortably tubby waist.  ‘I’m sorry.’

She returned my hug with passionate gratitude, dropping kiss after kiss on to my hair (for once, I took no exception to this) and muttering, ‘Oh love, oh love, thank God.’

And then, as if ashamed of her lapse into emotion, she thrust me out to arm’s length and assumed her familiar brisk tone.  ‘Don’t you ever take off like that again, Zoe Taylor, d’you hear me?  You frit me to jeth there.  There’ll be no ice cream for you today, my girl!’  Having expected a smack, I was thankful for the relative clemency of my punishment – but still involuntarily grimaced at this news.  ‘You can stop pulling faces an’ all!  Going without might teach you a lesson.  Oh hello – it’s young Karl.’

Granny was fond of Karl, who had been an enthusiastic guest at many a fish finger feast.  Now he stood flashing one of his famously winning grins at her.  Even before he opened his mouth, she was thawing.  I could tell.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs D, it was all my fault.  You mustn’t blame Zoe.  I called her over to see the breakdancers, yer see.  One of them’s in our class.’

Butter wouldn’t melt!

Granny’s shrewd but clearly amused eyes darted between his face and mine, as if to determine whether she was being made fun of.  Then she laughed. An irresistible, joyous chortle that quelled the tension.

‘You won’t tell Mom and Dad about this, will you?’ I implored cheekily, taking advantage of her augmented spirits.
‘Well I ought to, bab, but I won’t.  It’ll only worry them – and it’s not like there’s any harm done.  Just don’t yer go doin’ it again, OK?’

Karl and I exchanged conspiratorial smirks.

I got my ice cream after all.  And an extra croquette potato at dinner.

‘You kids crease me, and no mistake,’ Granny chuckled as she slid it on to my bean-laden plate.  ‘That lad hasn’t half got the gift of the gab.  He’d reduce anyone to putty in his little hands.  He’ll go far – mark my words!’

Computer crisis

Had a completely boring, frustrating day at work due to the computers going into total meltdown. 

The computer guy has been in the office all day attempting to solve the problem, and we have all had to log on and off that many times I lost count.  I was actually sent home at 4:20 because the issues were obviously not going to be resolved before 5:00 and it was so pointless me sitting there twiddling my thumbs.  Typicallythis all happened on a day when I had tons of work to do.  It was ultra annoying.

Just goes to show how dependent we have become on technology.  Computers are great when they work, but we curse them to high heaven when they pack up.

What’s the Buz

My Big Brum Buz Tour experience
Saturday 6 June 2009

The Big Brum Buz is a 90-minute open-top guided bus tour which was apparently used to run years ago and was recently resurrected in Birmingham. But no, owing to today’s dire weather, I did not avail myself of a roof seat.

The informative running commentary is aimed chiefly at tourists, but also local residents with a desire to discover more about their city. There were passengers aboard this afternoon from New York, Poland, Reading, London and, er, Castle Bromwich. Some were furiously jotting information in notebooks.

Neville, the driver, and Kay, our bubbly guide, took us through the commercial heartland of Colmore Row, past numerous examples of city’s magnificent Victorian architecture, through the famous Jewellery Quarter, along the ‘golden mile’ of Broad Street, through Edgbaston, through Digbeth and Deritend, past the Bull Ring and the more modern iconic Selfridges building, and back to our meeting point opposite St Philips Cathedral.

It can be easy to take the sights and sounds of your locale for granted, and one thing I enjoyed today was hearing the manner in which Birmingham, its landmarks and eminent residents are presented to, as it were, outsiders. Sometimes to view a place through fresh eyes can be so energising. I learned an abundance of historical facts and quirky snippets of trivia.

As I said, the weather today was vile. It has rained relentlessly all day, I got a wet Brum bum, and my fellow passengers and I collectively whiffed of musty cagoule. The dye from my jeans dripped on to my trainers, customising them with lovely blue streaks! By the time we disembarked, my teeth were chattering – in June! – from sitting still so long in a sopping cagoule.

I hadn’t travelled on any kind of bus for years, and had forgotten the mysterious water that drips from the top of the windows in every single one (actually I’m sure this phenomenon occurs even when it isn’t raining). As I shuffled into the middle of my seat to avoid the trickly window, I could have been 14 again, back on the rickety old school coach!

Not that I’m moaning, just attempting to give a flavour of my ‘buz’ experience. I would recommend this fascinating trip to anyone interested in the rich history of the second city (and numerous folks exist who are).

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