The Four Matthews

I have finished Chapter 2 – or Tuesday for the purposes of the fictitious walking break schedule – of The Four Matthews and uploaded it here.

I always think my writing is rubbish, then I reread a chapter when I’ve completed it and suddenly – without boasting – it doesn’t seem such drivel after all.

I love writing this novel.  I feel so much more relaxed with it than my previous efforts.  I have lived and breathed it for the last few weeks.  I am quite proud of it thus far.

Chapter 2

Tuesday
Sneydley to Crockington

The sun hugged me awake before my half-seven alarm.  I lay cosily for a few minutes, enjoying that ‘not having to get up yet’ sensation, until the lure of the day proved overwhelming.

It was one of those April mornings that make you think, if this is only spring then summer holds exciting promise.  I like getting up early anyway, swotty as it sounds, and days like that are a crime to waste.

Downstairs, though, I felt like a layabout in comparison with Shane, the reformed couch potato.

‘Y’allright bab,’ he beamed, already exiting the dining room, ‘just going for a little stroll in the village before we set off.’  He wore a sweatshirt with Cookie Monster from Sesame Street on.

‘Apparently he did fifty sit-ups before breakfast as well,’ said Lyndon, who was buttering a perfect isosceles triangle of that brittle toast which exists nowhere but in hotels.

I helped myself to a box of Rice Krispies from the parade of mini Kellogg’s boxes on the sideboard.  Yes, I am twenty-six years old and have a childlike love of Rice Krispies and their ‘snap crackle pop’ sound.  I joined Lyndon at his table opposite Ted and Enid, the Salad Couple, who were gobbling scrambled eggs – presumably because salad wasn’t on the breakfast menu.  I greeted them, to which they muttered something that sounded like ‘Good morning’ with the vowels removed.

‘How did you sleep, Naomi?’ asked Lyndon.

‘Beautifully, thank you.’  I reddened pathetically at the mention of sleep and the filthy word association game my brain started to play: sleep – bed – sex – bluush!  It was a relief to be diverted by Bryony, on waitress duty, taking my order for coffee and more toast.

Lyndon, meanwhile, slid a folded piece of paper towards me.  Your phone number?  Why Lyndon, this is so sudden!  Oh, it’s the application form!  ‘Thank you so much.  I shall have a good study of this later.’

‘You might want to wait ’til this week’s finished, make sure I haven’t put you off completely.’

No chance of that.  ‘Are there any particular qualifications I’d need?’

‘Not as such.  Plenty of walking experience, obviously.  They prefer if you know your way round a map and compass too, but BFF run navigation courses if you need to brush up your skills.  If so, you’d need to do that before taking your assessment.  They also provide first aid training.’

I hoped Lyndon would teach me the mouth-to-mouth technique.  Mind you, even spending my days in the wilds giving the kiss of life to halitosis-ridden geography teachers with beards full of Rice Krispies was going to be preferable to working at Raybould Communications.

‘It sounds brilliant.  I’m definitely going to go for this, Lyndon.’

‘Good.’  He beamed with what looked like genuine pleasure at this news.  ‘The other prerequisite I forgot to mention is strong interpersonal skills.  Obviously you’re on pretty much permanent duty for a day or weekend or week at a time, interacting with folks.  I don’t think you’ll have any problems in that department, though.  You seem very confident and personable.’

Confident and personable!  He might as well have said I had a great arse, judging by my reaction.  My heart was flipping like a salmon at the compliment.  Although, continuing the fish theme, I was certain my gaping expression must be reminding Lyndon of a guppy.

******

Later, when we were all there – Shane refreshed from his pre-walk walk; Hazel looking bleary and bed-haired; Polly bursting out of something purple, glowering because I was sitting next to Lyndon again – we were invited to each compile a packed lunch for the excursion.

‘We won’t have this every day,’ Lyndon explained as Bryony started to load the sideboard with homemade rolls (or ‘cobs,’ as they call them in the West Midlands), crisps, cereal bars, fruit and Buxton spring water.  ‘There’ll be pub stops on some of our routes.  Help yourselves now, there’s enough for a couple of cobs apiece, a bottle of water and whatever snacky things you fancy.  Mix and match as you please.’

It was a generous array.  I opted for a pair of cheese rolls, water, an apple and a bag of Quavers.  Polly made a beeline for the bananas, and – unless my imagination was in overdrive – I swear she stroked the one she picked.  I could see a pattern forming: she favoured phallic foods.  And Ted and Enid favoured salad rolls.

We then carted our overnight cases down and lined them in the lobby for their somewhat smoother journey, by minibus, to the Badger Inn at Crockington.  And off we set.

******

‘Lyndon says I’m confident and personable,’ I divulged to Hazel, exultant schoolgirl-like, as though teacher had just awarded me an A.  ‘Get me, eh!’  I licked my finger and made a mock ‘one point to me’ gesture on an imaginary blackboard.

‘Get you indeed.  You’ve obviously made a speedy impression there.’

‘It’s a start, I suppose.  He thinks I’m cut out to join the ranks of BFF anyway.  I could be seeing a lot more of him in the future.  Unless I get posted to take charge of the Outer Hebrides treks.’

‘You could always become pen pals.  Or internet buddies, I suppose it would be nowadays.’

‘And write passionate e-mails?  Why have those two brought their suitcase, by the way?’ I whispered, nodding towards the Salad Couple, who wore no backpacks and were cutely but bafflingly carrying between them a brown suitcase of the variety prevalent among wartime evacuees.

We were approaching a stile, which they negotiated by passing the impractical trunk to one another while conferring in their secret dialect.  Lyndon offered to hold it for them while they climbed, but Ted Salad clasped it to his weedy frame with a defensive ‘No.’

‘Perhaps they’ve got surveillance equipment in there,’ Hazel suggested.  ‘They could be gathering intelligence and reporting our whereabouts to Al Qaeda.’

‘They didn’t wanna put any of their stuff on the minibus, apparently, bab,’ Shane clarified.  ‘Ted was telling me as they’d had luggage go missing before, so they don’t wanna take no chances now, like.’

‘Oh right.’  I was more amazed by Shane’s ability to extract so many words out of the man than by his explanation.

Once we were all over the stile, we crossed a little lane and scaled another stile on to a hedged footpath.

‘This area is known as Quanswood,’ Lyndon intoned as we veered right into a woodland.  Oh, and he had the perfect voice for such a setting.  Were I hearing him on radio, I swear I’d have conjured up images just like those I was seeing now.  I mentioned earlier the childlike colours of the view from my window.  Similarly, Quanswood possessed the uncomplicated beauty of a storybook scene.

Never had I experienced such a sense of utter peace as I did canopied by those beech and chestnut trees.  It was one of those terribly uncool moments when nature spellbinds and humbles me.  I actually started to well up.  As you can imagine, I seldom admit these emotions, or at least only to fellow walkers who can relate to my love of the outside and the country’s diverse geography.

I entertained romantic visions of Lyndon and me returning one day with a wicker picnic hamper and a red and white gingham blankets (those items only seem to exist in story illustrations too).  It could become Our Place; our haven when the daily slog of leading walks just became too much for us.  We would sip champagne and nibble smoked salmon on melba toast and reminisce about ‘that day we first came here.’

He was talking again.  ‘We’re just approaching to St Botolph’s Church – rather out-the-way location for a church, I know – which has become famous round here for housing the proverbial bats in its belfry.  There’s a colony been making themselves at home in there for a number of years.’

‘What species?’ Hazel asked.

‘The brown long-eared variety, Hazel.’

‘Bit like this one then.’  She fished a gold chain out of her T-shirt and flashed the bat pendant like a talisman.  ‘I’m secretary of the Bat Protection League back home in Ledbury.  Mad about the creatures.’

‘As you’d know then, of course, they’re protected so their roosts can’t be disturbed.  The local churchgoers – not that there are all that many – are pretty accustomed to their nocturnal visitors by now.  I doubt we’ll be lucky enough to spot any today.  They’ll just be coming out of hibernation about now.  If you like visiting churches, though, I’m afraid this one has to be kept locked because it’s so secluded.  Another sad sign of our times, I suppose.’

I am not religious, never have been, but it was a cute little setting.  St Botolph’s is a miniature stone structure, like a dolls church, only its bell tower – home to the cosseted bats – distinguishing it from the rustic cottages nearby.  Most of us reached for our cameras.

‘Now even though I’m not religious,’ Lyndon said, echoing my thoughts, ‘I never fail to be moved by this place.  There’s something so enchanted about it.’

I wanted, not for the first or last time that week, to squeal with joy.  I was out in the English countryside with a gorgeous man and a group which included a couple who lugged their suitcase with them on a cross-country hike and a lady who helped run a bat preservation group.  And I had the prospect of doing this for a living, as my days churning out press releases for Adrian Raybould’s smarmy clients were numbered.

******

‘Well this sure beats work,’ I declared happily to Hazel on that theme, as we resumed walking, having photographed the woodland dolly church from every angle.

‘You say you’re in public relations at the moment?  And your boss is a reptile?’

‘The worst.  Backstabbing little bastard – excuse the French.  As good as promised me a promotion, then brought his vile fiancée in and installed her in the job, despite her having no PR experience.  Her bloody aunty’s already been working there as secretary for the last year, so it has started to feel like an invasion.’

‘Hateful thing, nepotism,’ Hazel tutted.

‘Oh, but while I’m apparently not good enough for the job, my experience is conveniently valuable enough that I have been bullied into doing stacks of overtime to help the malevolent bimbo learn the ropes.  Learn how to turn a computer on, wipe her own bum, that sort of thing.’

‘Comfort yourself with the idea that they’ll probably divorce, he’ll end up replacing her with his next bit of fluff and this current gal will sue him for unfair dismissal.  Or else her lack of nous will cause her to make a major booboob, which will result in a client suing the company.’

Hazel made me smile.  I hadn’t heard the word ‘booboob’ for years.  I hadn’t known her twenty-four hours, but I already sensed this woman, with her flyaway hair and her bat necklace, would remain a friend for life.

‘There might be less call for the overtime,’ I said, ‘if she made more than a cameo appearance in the office occasionally.  But if she’s not off having manicures, she’s seeing caterers and wedding stationers and what have you.  I’ve been promised an invitation to their nuptials, by the way – me and half the West Midlands, I think.’

‘Let me guess – you’ll be washing your hair that day?’

‘How uncanny!  She was still married to some other poor guy when she met Adrian, that’s the slimeball boss, so for months he’d be on the phone arranging assignations and returning from “extended lunch breaks” looking flushed.  Now we have to put up with them being gooey with each other in the office.  Not sure which is worse.’

‘I can certainly see why you’re leaving.’

‘It’s surprising how detached I feel now, talking like this about it all, Hazel.  It’s as though the whole nightmare happened to somebody else.’

‘You’re moving on.  That’s positive.’

‘Onwards and ever upwards.  Marketing was all I wanted to do at one time.  I still enjoy the social aspect of PR, the interaction with people.  I admit I did pin too many hopes on getting Senior Marketing Executive on my CV.  Ade likes to rub salt in the wound by earnestly denying ever raising my hopes in that direction – obviously it was all my imagination and ego – and I’ve now opened my eyes to the fact that without the promotion prospects there is absolutely no incentive for me remain with that company.’

‘Are you totally sure your misgivings are not simply with the company rather than PR as a career?’

‘Yes,’ I said unhesitatingly and with a conviction that was comforting.  ‘The office life is not for me after all.  I identify with what Lyndon said yesterday, about the outdoors having a pull on you.’

‘That’s certainly true.  How long have you worked at that place?’

‘Nearly three years.  I moved there from a much smaller firm, thinking it would be a wise career move.  PR is quite a small world and Adrian has a good reputation in it, believe it or not, bearing in mind he behaves like he’s twelve.  He’s the type who thinks it’s hilarious to play practical jokes on his staff.’

‘And don’t tell me – if you fail to be amused by his infantile pranks he accuses you of being humourless.’

‘Absolutely.’

I related the April Fools Day incident, the fictitious ‘urgent press conference,’ the needless journey there and back that set me behind schedule with my mountainous workload, on a day when I was still so not-with-it after Uncle Terry’s passing that I didn’t even cotton on to the joke when Adrian gave me the name of the guy allegedly hosting the event – Drew Peacock (think about it).

‘Have you complained?’

‘I expressed my lack of amusement in my resignation letter, which I handed in on Friday.  He studiously ignored that issue in his reply, of course, but I will pursue it when I get back.’

‘Good for you.’

‘It’s not always easy knowing what to do for the best, though.  In an office team environment there can be a fine line between airing grievances and being seen as The Colleague with No Sense of Humour.’

‘You air those grievances, girl.  He sounds a proper little David Brent.’

‘I tell you, Ricky Gervais had it spot-on with that sitcom.  Adrian can barely speak unless it’s in a string of corporate buzz phrases.’

‘He tells you to think outside the box, go forward, sing from the same hymn sheet, that type of thing?’

‘At the end of the day – that’s another one he uses – yes!’

‘I am sorry about your uncle, though.’

‘Uncle Terry, my mom’s younger brother, never married or had a family of his own so was always close to my brothers and me.  He used to come on a lot of walks with us.’

‘He’d be proud of you for doing this one then.’

I was incapable of speaking for a few moments.  Hazel gave my shoulder a fleeting squeeze, supportive without being mawkish.  ‘Yes, he would,’ I responded in a bold voice.  I hadn’t come on this break to dwell on morbid concerns.  ‘I’m looking forward to working outdoors.  Even when it’s bucketing down with rain and I’m saturated on a rock in the Peak District, I won’t miss Adrian.  Honestly Hazel, I could tell you tales about that man all the way from here up to Tunclough.’

My work woes had already taken us to Camp Hill Common, a heathery beauty spot four miles from the Earlcott.  There was plenty more I wouldn’t bore Hazel with.

As I beheld the unbound and beautiful landscape around me, it was hard not to feel smug imagining Adrian, shallow Sian and noxious Nova sweating it in that 80s throwback office.  This sweat always made its mark on Adrian’s Matalan shirts.  He would lounge back in his tycoon padded swivel chair, his small legs dangling off the floor, hands behind head to afford us an enchanting view of his sodden underarms.

Sian, apparently oblivious to that, was no doubt now cooing at him, texting, shopping on Amazon, or buffing her dagger-like nails.

The lax approach to work clearly ran in the family.  Gossiping was the favoured office pastime of Nova Bagnall, Sian’s two-faced aunty, she of the inability to relay messages.  She would react, if asked to do something so onerous as type a letter, as though she’d been ordered to perform open heart surgery.

Nova (‘Nova?’ Hazel exclaimed.  ‘Who’s her sister – Corsa?’) naturally watched her step in the presence of her future nephew-in-law.  In conversation with Adrian she was all ‘love’ this, ‘sweetheart’ that.  She just about stopped short of ruffling his hair and cutting his Marmite sandwiches into triangles.  Only out of his sight came the passive aggressive huffs, slamming down of files or banging of doors.  She was more openly contemptuous of my requests for letters, which hovered at the permanen bottom of her priority pile.

‘Right, we’ll have a pit stop here.’  Lyndon was gathering us around.  ‘This is Camp Hill Common, which I’m sure some of you are familiar with.  Bit early for lunch, but we can have a snack and a rest before continuing with the next couple of miles to Lower Bratchley.  There are loos here too, if you need.’

I needed.  Hazel and I then sat together on the scratchy grass to have our apples and water.

I stretched indulgently in the sun and gnawed at my Golden Delicious.  ‘I haven’t been here for years.’

‘Another of your childhood haunts?’

I nodded.  ‘My brother Simon used to fly his model aeroplanes.’  A miniature Spitfire was whirring overhead as we spoke.  ‘They still have the red and blue routes, I see.’  The colour coded signposts denoted walks of varying lengths around the common.

I saw Posturing Polly strip open her banana and whisper something to Martin with a salacious look in her eyes.  He looked perplexed and replied, ‘We haven’t got a dog,’ to which she rolled said eyes.  She was a walking innuendo; like a bored housewife from some cheesy 1970s sex comedy.

Poor Martin.  Polly’s suggestion referred, I would wager, to Camp Hill Common’s current regrettable reputation for dogging: group sex and voyeurism in secluded car parks.

Perhaps ‘red route’ had a different meaning these days too?

******

‘Tell me about the bats of Herefordshire then,’ I urged Hazel when we resumed walking.  I had bent her ear enough this morning and was interested in her life.

‘Horribly misunderstood creatures, bats.’  Her voice was robust and passionate, and with every step she jabbed her stick into the ground for emphasis.  She was not a woman I could ever imagine being half-hearted about anything.  ‘Play such a vital role in nature, yet to too many folks they are still saddled with this ludicrous Dracula image.’

‘Protected species, though, aren’t they?’

‘You bet, and rightly so.  Their natural habitats have dwindled so much, what with the old buildings and hedgerows that have been lopped down.  You disturb a bat, you’re walloped with a fine.  I’ve been with the Protection League best part of twenty years.’

She spoke passionately about bats for twenty minutes.  She had me virtually signed up to her campaign by the time we descended along Rumbold Lane into the village of Lower Bratchley.

The tiny lanes from the common, along which we were single file, yelling ‘Car alert!’ to one another when an intermittent Land Rover or tractor obliged us to hug the hedge, opened out into this long wide slope.  Rumbold Lane’s summit afforded a splendid panorama of infinite fields and villages.  The Clent Hills in Worcestershire, so enticingly viewed from Lyndon’s former workplace, were a smudge on the horizon.  There is purportedly no higher land between them and the Ural Mountains in Russia – although I am aware other English hill ranges lay claim to this statistic.

‘I’m also a would-be apiculturist,’ Hazel declared with pride.

‘Come again?’

‘Apiculturist.  Beekeeper.  I’m starting a beekeeping course next month at my local college.’

We approached the village now, and had to huddle closer to Lyndon (never a hardship) to hear his introduction.

‘We’re coming into Lower Bratchley, or “Lower B,” as it’s colloquially known.  Actually there are two villages that make up this parish.  We’ll skirt through Upper B – that’s known round here as “the posh end” – after lunch, along the canal towpath.  More about that in due course.  Lower B has a little school, four shops, a church and three pubs.  Population about 1,300.

‘The history buffs amongst you might be aware of the English Civil War connection to this place.  Charles I famously had his sword sharpened here, at the ironworks which existed from the 1550s right up to 1976.  Earl Matthew’s descendents – who had long since lost their titles and were now the plain old Theodoric family – were firmly on the side of the Cavaliers during the war.  A mob of Oliver Cromwell’s Roundhead allies ran riot and tore down the busts of the old Earl from the four hilltops.  You’ll hear more about that tomorrow, when we visit Manderwood Manor.

‘In the 1980s the Lower B ironworks was knocked down and a housing estate built on the site.  All that remains is the former works canteen, which has been the village community centre for a number of years now.  Getting a new roof by the look of it.’  He indicated the scaffolding which was obscuring the hall.

A sunny day in a leafy country village really does elevate the spirits.  I liked the look of Lower B.  We trooped down High Street, the long straight thoroughfare, off which branched lanes consisting of older housing and the aforementioned modern estate that had replaced the Stuart King’s favourite ironworks.  On the corner of one side lane stood a pub called The Bargeman, outside which a chalkboard declared, with flagrant disregard for the apostrophe rule, that ‘sandwich’s’ were ‘available 12 til 2.’  Not that we’d be partaking.

The village was quiet, save for a wiry little man with long grey hair wrenched back into ponytail, who looked eighty if he was a day, jogging towards us wearing (no joke) an Eminem T-shirt.  With a cheery ‘Y’all right,’ he zoomed past us, his little knees clipping up and down. We literally turned in unison and stared at him in silent awe.

‘I feel unfit just looking at him,’ I said to Hazel.

I can smell chips,’ Shane observed.  I thought at first his marriage had left him oversensitive to the odour, but actually he was right.

‘That’ll be the McCain factory,’ Lyndon clarified.  ‘There’s one on the industrial estate over there,’ he waved to the left, ‘and when it’s blowing in the right direction there is a greasy reek in the air.  We’ll be following the smell in fact, as we pass the oven chip factory on the canalside.  Now we swing a left here.  This is the Grand Midland Canal – the cut, as it’s known in these parts.’

We joined the towpath from High Street, which formed a bridge over the waterway.  I had traversed sections of this canal before, north of here, closer to Wolverhampton, but never as far down as this.

There is a lovely serenity about being on a canal bank; a sense that you could be anywhere.  It’s a slow world of ducks and fishermen and gaudily painted narrowboats.  Canals cleave through towns and sites of active industry – that was the purpose of them in the first place – but cars and roads might as well be on a distant planet.  Urban life is reduced to a distant thrum that, while reassuring by reminding you it’s there, does not infringe on this waterside respite.

‘Now this canal was completed in 1771 and it stretches from north Worcestershire up to north Staffs.’

‘Yow ever walked the whole of it, Lyndon?’ asked Shane.

‘Last year, over the course of two days.  It was a sponsored walk for Finchton Hospice in Wolverhampton.  The cut’s forty-six miles altogether.  We’ll be on it for just over three today, as far up as Crockington.’

A vicar – either that or a man en route to a lunchtime fancy dress do – was gliding towards us as though there were castors beneath his cassock rather than feet.  He wore huge glasses, and possessed no evident neck, so his perfectly ball-shaped face appeared to be dolloped on top of his dog collar.

‘Afternoon.’  Had he a hat, I got the impression he’d have doffed it.  He smiled cordially, apparently used to the sight of hiking herds.

Shane, to my surprise, approached him.  ‘Hey, ain’t I seen you on telly, reverend?  You’re Ellery Crisp.’

‘The very same.’  The vicar grinned modestly, as though trying not to look too chuffed at being recognised.  ‘This is my parish.’
Hazel and I exchanged mystified looks.

‘How many game shows is it you been on now?’ Shane asked his new ministerial mate.

‘Eighteen.’

‘Got any more coming up?’

‘Still trying for Millionaire,’ Rev Crisp tapped the cover of the puzzle book under his arm, ‘that’s the big goal.  Just have to keep phoning, and swotting.’

‘I seen your episode of Bullseye again the other week actually.  They been showing the repeats on Freeview.  You still got the speedboat?’

Rev Crisp nodded.

‘Never!’

‘Had it twenty years now.  It’s sort of emblematic,’ he explained to the group at large.  ‘I’m living proof of the cliché about the Bullseye speedboat always being won by West Midlands contestants.  I can’t exactly race it up the cut, I just love the idea of having an exhibit from TV history in the village.  It’s such a talking point.’

The rest of us laughed uncertainly.  This, it has to be said, was fairly surreal.

Lyndon, obviously mindful of Shane’s capacity for nattering, edged away, indicating that, much as he’d love to spend all day hearing clerical anecdotes about points meaning prizes and keeping out of the black and in the red, we had to press on. Shane thankfully took the hint.  ‘Best be getting going.  Super to meet you, reverend.’  He shook the celebrity cleric’s hand in both of his, like he was touching Gandhi.

‘Likewise.  Good day to you all.’  Ellery Crisp did a little wave, as though doffing the imaginary hat again.  ‘Safe journey.’

******

A couple of locks along, we veered off into a tiny picnic site for our lunch.  There was only one small picnic bench.  It didn’t matter too much to Hazel and me, as we were more than content with the grass.

As I withdrew my cheese rolls, my rucksack buzzed to announce I was in receipt of a text.  Two, in fact.  ‘Ade,’ I grimaced at Hazel.  ‘Believe me, I’m changing my number as soon as he no longer needs it for work purposes.’

‘Yo Nay!  Rubbing 2 sticks 2gether for your lunch?  LOL!!  Sian & I have decided to take a leaf out of yr bk & spend our honeymoon at a Travelodge nr Dudley.  Any you can recommend?  C ya – wouldn’t wanna b ya!!’

Ha bloody ha, Ade.  And has anyone else in the world said ‘Yo’ since about 1990?

I showed it to Hazel, explaining the ‘Travelodge near Dudley’ reference.  ‘He thinks it’s hilarious that I’m on a holiday so close to home.’

Hazel had left her reading glasses in her suitcase, so had to lean about three feet back to see the tiny screen.  ‘Who’s Lol?’

‘It’s an abbreviation.  Means Laughing Out Loud.  Textspeak.’

Her look spoke volumes.  ‘And how much longer do you have left to work with this incisive humorist?’

‘Four weeks,’ I answered happily.

‘And how many minutes?  Blimey, I’d be counting them down with a stopwatch if I were in your shoes.’

My thumb prodded the delete button.

My second text was another from Mom, bless her, checking I had slept well and was still enjoying myself.

‘You live at home?’ Hazel asked as I keyed a reply.

‘No,’ I swallowed a mouthful of cheese roll, ‘bought my flat a couple of years ago.  I’m only five minutes from my folks, though.’

‘No boyfriend, I take it?’  She slid a look towards Lyndon.

‘No.  I am currently without a significant other, as they say these days.  Yourself?’

‘Good grief, no.  Not had a whiff for years.  No, it’s just me and the picture of Anton Du Beke I’ve taped to my fridge.  Ah, that man can foxtrot like nobody else!’  She had a salt and vinegar Hula Hoop on each fingertip and bit them off one by one, the way a schoolkid might.  ‘I did live with a Druid for a number of years, but that crashed and burned.’

‘A Druid?’

‘Mmm, met him in a tai chi class.  Ken, his name was.’

Ken?’  I thought Druids had names like Merlin and Culpeper.  ‘Did he attend Summer Solstice?’

‘Darling, I never wish to see Stonehenge again as long as I live!  He left me for a witch in the end.’

‘At the risk of sounding like a parrot – a witch?’

‘Oh yes, proper Wiccan.  She initiated Ken into her coven.’

‘Maybe she’s turned him into a frog by now.’

Hazel’s laugh was wicked and dry.  ‘What do you mean, turned him into one?’

******

After lunch Hazel handed round the Midget Gems again, and then Lyndon resumed his commentary.

‘We’ll be heading up to – you’ve guessed it – Upper B shortly.  This is one of the most highly sought-after estates in the region, even home to one or two celebs.’

‘How will we cope?’  Hazel affected a starstruck swoon.  ‘I’m in need of a lie down after meeting the Reverend Ellery Crisp!’

‘Quite,’ Lyndon laughed.  ‘Not sure if we’ll spot any famous faces today – more famous faces, should I say – but I suppose you never know who might be creosoting the fence or having a cup of tea on their lawn when we happen to pass.’

‘Doesn’t Melba Most live there?’ I asked.

‘I believe so.  A few Premiership footballers too, apparently – not that I think I’d know any of them if they hit me.’

‘Not a footie fan, Lyndon?’ asked Shane.

‘I’m afraid when it comes to soccer I’m afflicted by DFS syndrome – no interest whatsoever!’  We groaned amiably at the pun.

Melba Most, by the way, AKA Melvyn Corns, is the Black Country’s answer to Lily Savage.  As Paul O’Grady famously based Lily on harridans from his Scouse childhood, Melvyn likewise drew inspiration from Dudley wenches for his alter-ego.  He apparently worked the local spit ‘n’ sawdust circuit for years before earning TV success on The Big Big Talent Show in the 1990s.

I met Melba/Melvyn once, through work, at a fundraiser at the Merry Hill Centre.  He was a scream, a genuinely warm person, and a generous benefactor of charities.

I knew of Upper B.  Country Life’s property column carries regular blurbs about colossal pads for sale there.  We keep copies in our reception, and I’ve flipped through a few during rare lunch hours.  The fawning copy gushes of swimming pools, stables, six-car garages, and gated junctions to some of the more select Crescents, Parks and Drives.

‘We’re parallel with Bratchley Road now,’ Lyndon went on, ‘which is the main road up from Lower B to Upper, through to the next village, which is Swinley.  Bit of an infamous rat-run, that one.  Good job we’re sticking to this path.  The estate itself backs on to the towpath and is coming up on your left.  You might be able to spot a roof or two – the residents tend to favour walls of Berlin proportions to guard their privacy.’

There was little to see of Upper B really – as Lyndon said, just tips of roofs protruding over lofty hedgerows and doubtlessly CCTV-rigged walls.  They soon gave way to the more open landscape of Swinley Industrial Estate and aforementioned McCain factory.  With that behind us, we escaped the chippy whiffs that wafted south.

The trading estate in turn segued into a sprawl of 1980s housing.  Swinley is a greatly built-up village.  According to Lyndon, it was a medieval settlement, originally agricultural in nature, which evolved commercially and residentially in the latter part of the twentieth century.

The landscape then changed again to open countryside as we filtered through Swinley’s heart out towards the less populated Crockington.  The scenery from a canal towpath is similar to that seen through a train window; it’s like looking at pictures of life sideways on.

It was a beautiful day.  Fishermen, cyclists and the occasional celebrity cleric aside, the towpath was quiet.

Shane the quiz show buff was still agog about his encounter with this vicar who was apparently well-known for being a prolific contestant.  ‘I never met anyone off the telly before,’ he rattled on, ‘though my ex-brother-in-law once stood behind Lenny Henry in Smith’s.’

‘Couple of rather fascinating buildings at this lock,’ Lyndon jumped in, as though keen for the diversion.  ‘The tollhouse, as you can see, is octagonal.  And there’s a pumping station over to your right that resembles Dracula’s castle.  See the turrets there.  You can see it’s very ornate for a functional building.  The Victorians did like to go to town on their architecture.’

It was another reach-for-the-camera moment.  The pumping station was indeed highly elaborate and spooky-looking, a testament to Victorian grandiosity.  I could imagine its spires, which rocketed out of the trees, illuminated by thunderclap-accompanied lightning in a clichéd horror film scene.

Further on, a life-sized flowerpot man fishing on a garden veranda proved also photogenic.  Bill or Ben sported a straw hat, and a fishing rod was propped between his terracotta hands.

‘His owners apparently change his clothes and props every day,’ Lyndon told us.  ‘There was an article in the Express & Star a few months back.  They’ve had him about ten years, apparently, he’s quite a local talking point.  They’ve turned down hundreds of offers to sell him.  He’s been stolen twice, though, but returned each time, after being photographed in some unusual places.  I once brought a group down here when the World Cup was on.  Even I knew enough about football to see he was togged up in an England shirt.’

******

The waterside phase of our journey came to an end a further mile on, when we took the slip path on to Radford Bridge at Crockington and traversed another snaky lane towards the main A454.

Such a zooming carriageway jolted us into reality somewhat after a day of virtually empty country lanes and canal towpaths.  The way of the walkers knows no impediment here, though.

As the A-road bisects a designated footpath, namely the official Four Matthews path, and said path predated the highway, the road planners were obliged to stick a stile in the middle of the central reservation.  It literally bestrides the crash barrier.  I had never climbed over a stile with traffic whooshing past either side of me before.  We crossed the road with great caution, although most of us paused in the middle to photograph this bizarre landmark.

‘I’ve gorra stitch,’ Posturing Polly bleated when we reached the opposite pavement, ‘rub it better for us, will you Mart.’

While the acquiescent Martin was massaging her ribcage, she threw a suggestive look towards Lyndon as if by the power of imagination she could transpose Martin’s hands for his.

‘Only another mile to go, Polly,’ said Lyndon heartily, marching on.  I found his ‘chop chop’ tone cheering.  I liked to think he was saying he had no time for laggers and was not susceptible to her ‘come hither’ signals.

‘At least we’re close to the hotel then.  I left me fags in the suitcase and I could murder one now.’

Fags!  No wonder the girl was puffing.  The considerably senior Salad Couple, by contrast, had managed to lug a suitcase the best part of ten miles without a wheeze.  A bit odd, granted, but from a fitness point of view fair play to them: they both must have been over seventy and that case looked leaden.

Crockington,’ Lyndon shouted over the traffic, ‘is a very ancient village, dating back to the Saxon era of our friend Earl Matthew.  His family maintained a lot of links to the area, owning substantial pockets of land over successive centuries.

‘These days the population is just over 1,100.  Like Lower B, there’s a little church and school here, few pubs, corner shop.  I’m sure you can see, though, Crockington is rather more agricultural in nature.  The housing is less densely distributed.  We’re on the Staffordshire/Shropshire border, six miles from Wolverhampton, about ten in the opposite direction from the town of Bridgnorth. ‘I think – hope anyway – that you’ll find the Badger, where we’re staying, a very interesting place.  This was originally a toll road and the Badger was built as a coaching inn in 1812, by yet another of Matthew’s descendents, the Right Honourable Guy Theodoric.

‘Various tenants leased it over the years, until the Hodgetts Brewery purchased it from the Theodoric family in the early Edwardian era.  In recent years it’s gone gastro-pubby.  Now, as I hinted before, Roberta, the new landlady, has introduced a rather unusual menu.  I just hope you all like zebra.’

******

Zebra!

‘I thought you were joking,’ I said to Lyndon as we were presented with our evening menus which did indeed offer zebra steaks – in addition to ostrich, kangaroo, crocodile, venison and something called impala.

He grinned.  ‘I’m not a leg-puller.  I can recommend it, in fact.  It’s quite beef-like.’

Shane chortled.  ‘Is it stripy steak?’

‘The kangaroo is appealing to me actually,’ I said.

‘Is the zebra stripy steak?’ Shane repeated, his question evidently not rhetorical.

‘No, Shane, it isn’t,’ replied Lyndon solemnly.

‘Good job there’s no bat on the menu, eh, Hazel?’  Shane again.

‘It’s an offence to slaughter a bat,’ she retorted, more curtly than I’d have expected – but then I suppose she was akin to a cat owner not seeing the funny side of devouring their beloved Fluffy with curly fries and a grilled tomato.

‘What’s impala?’  I had to ask.

‘A type of antelope,’ Lyndon answered.  ‘Very tasty too.’

Just like you, sweetie!  ‘Think I’ll stick with the roo.’

‘Think I will too.’  He smiled decisively at me.  My heart did another pathetic salmon-flip.  This was the second night we’d had the same meal.  I could have read a lot into that.

The kangaroo turned out to be gorgeous, its soft red meat reminiscent of beef brisket we used to have at home often as kids.
Hazel – perhaps the bat talk had put her off game – went veggie for the evening.  Her chickpea, celery and coriander chilli in fact looked delectable.

I had figured Ted and Enid were vegetarians, but even the Badger’s extensive meat-free selection failed to tempt their lettuce-loving palates.  They chose the inevitable salad.

Shane opted for the crocodile – purely, I think, so he could use the ‘and make it snappy’ line.  Which he did.  Three times.

Martin had the croc too, and Polly Pocket the ostrich.  Nobody chose the zebra in the end.  Perhaps the animal’s ‘horse in pyjamas’ image made it a touch too cuddly to contemplate on a plate.

‘I always remember,’ I found myself sharing, ‘our Creative Writing tutor at uni telling us we should never turn down the opportunity to try new and unusual foods, as we should think of the good story it could one day make.’

Lyndon was drinking cider tonight.  He took a meditative sip, nodding along as though I was imparting the teachings of the Dalai Lama.

‘Profound advice.’  Then his face, so introspective one minute, erupted into one of his gorgeously eager smiles.  He literally seemed to shine with inspiration.  ‘On that theme then, why don’t we each come up with one word to describe what we’re eating?  Only one allowed apiece, to sum up what’s on your plate.  We’ll go round – let’s start with you, Naomi.’

I flushed at being placed on the spot, like a schoolgirl who’s been asked to read out her homework essay.  ‘Succulent,’ I sputtered, wishing to kick myself because it sounded so trite.  I could imagine people thinking, ‘And she’s an English graduate?!’  Bloody succulent indeed!

Hazel’s adjective was ‘Sizzling.’

Shane (he was really labouring that pun now): ‘Snappy.’

Martin: ‘Erm, chicken-like.’

Polly had adopted an elbows-on-table-chin-in-hand posture to display her general contempt for the idea.  ‘Dunno, I’m no good with words.’  She sounded proud of that, and made a sort of wiggling motion as though to display where her assets did lie. Martin gave her an encouraging nudge, and she pouted an insolent, not-even-a-word ‘Ostrichy.’

A housing estate could have been constructed in the time Ted and Enid took to confer over their inevitably joint choice.  Just as the pause was becoming embarrassing, they mumbled in chorus: ‘Salad.’

‘What’s yours then, Lyndon?’  An expert in body language – or in fact a novice in it – would have described the way I leaned towards him, cupping my wine glass, as ‘flirtatious,’ but I was too tipsy and happy to care about coming across as obvious. I was exhilarated from a day’s walking and enjoying a wonderful meal, accompanied by equally wonderful wine, in shadowy, characterful surroundings, in company that was – in the main – delightful.  The Badger was a lovely old coaching inn with oak beams and gothiccy ambient candle lighting.  I could just imagine Dick Turpin plotting in a nook.  The place was heaving; according to Lyndon it always was.

I may not have been dressed like one of the Pussycat Dolls, as Polly was, but I had got over my nothing-to-wear calamity of last night.  I had no more dresses – and could hardly start requesting that we detour off the Matthews path via River Island so I could get some new ones – and tonight had teamed brown linen trousers with my favourite scarlet top.  I decided I was feeling pretty good.

I actually held my breath as Lyndon pondered his gastronomic adjective.  He maintained prolonged eye contact as he answered, ‘My word would be succulent too.’

‘Would it?’ I drooled inanely.

‘Yes,’ those eyes beamed tellingly at me, ‘it would.’

The restaurant might at that moment have been empty of all but Lyndon and me and the in-no-way-phallically-symbolic pink candle dripping down an old wine bottle between us.

Only when a hesitant ‘Would anyone like to see the dessert menu?’ from the young waiter broke the trance did my breathing resume its usual tempo.  It was as though the chatter and general restaurant hubbub had stopped too, and now began swelling around us again like someone had pressed play after jamming the pause button for too long.

The puddings were as fabulous as the main courses, though we were not invited to critique them.  I chose the banana flambé.  I focused on its voluptuous scorched sweetness to divert me from ‘the Lyndon moment,’ which had most definitely passed.

While Martin was in the loo at one point, I saw Polly giggle filthily over a text message then stab a reply with her huge false nails.  The little ‘message sent’ jingle dinged just in time for Martin’s return.  Polly happened to catch my eye as she stuffed the phone into her handbag.

‘Who was that, petal?’  Martin slid his arm around her.

‘Aunty Maureen.’  She kissed him and shot me a ‘you dare say a word, I’ll flambé your face’ look.  I wasn’t about to say a word.  As long as Martin seemed convinced by petal’s explanation, what did my speculations matter?

‘Again?  She called you yesterday, bless her.’

My heart could have broken for the bloke.

******

Post-dinner, Roberta the landlady brought us complimentary coffee and liqueurs.  We thereafter withdrew to the busy lounge, with the exception of the Salad Couple who made their usual scuttle up to bed.  I had hoped to return Lyndon’s first-night favour of a drink but unfortunately, as my breath was not the only thing I’d been holding in, my need for the loo surpassed that hope.
I returned to find Shane had collared Lyndon at the bar for another saga, Polly and Martin were eating each other on an armchair, and Hazel had saved the only unoccupied seats for herself and me.  She had bought me a wine too.

I toasted her with it.  ‘Thank you for listening today, Hazel.’

‘No problem, dear.  We all have our moments when we need to offload.’  She sat back, circling her whisky glass.  ‘You know, I could people-watch for hours.  It keeps me occupied just observing their interactions and mannerisms.’

‘Me too.  Fascinating creatures, people.’

Our group certainly were.  Polly’s handbag buzzed intermittently, presumably with texts from her convivial aunty.  Shane and Lyndon became intermittently lost amid the swarms of locals who bunched around the bar.

‘Apparently there’s a disco at tomorrow night’s place,’ Hazel confided.  ‘Perhaps you might be able to corner him in a conga.’

‘A disco?  Blimey.’

‘The Wednesday grab-a-granny night, by all accounts.  Never know your luck!’

‘Nor yours, come to that.’

‘No, I suppose I can live in hope I might bag a blind old goat one day.’

I caught half a conversation in which Shane lamented, ‘Hurts, doe it?’ in a tone that suggested he was not referring to a bunion.
To which Lyndon intriguingly responded, ‘My ex-wife left me for a bloke she met at a breakfast seminar.’

Ex-wife, ex-wife, ex-wife?

Were I a cartoon character, my ear would at this point have been zooming out on a ludicrously long stalk and suckering itself to the bar.

I heard Shane’s facetious riposte, ‘My Debbie would have enjoyed that, if it involved fried egg and bacon butties’ (Aaarggh, did he have to mention her fondness for food at every opportunity?), but their further chat was swallowed by the babble around them.

So Lyndon had an adulterous ex-wife.  The bitch!  It was hard to suppress the instinct to offer my services as mender of his broken heart.

The reference to a breakfast seminar in fact went ‘ding dong’ with me.  I just as quickly dispelled my inkling, however.  Plenty of affairs must blossom between attendees at business breakfast seminars.  I took a deep slug of wine and told myself to stop being silly.

Chapter 4

Gap Year
Chapter 4

Robyn vaulted from the Berlingo outside Church View Court, and tugged out a bouquet the size of a rainforest.  She adored creating the wild designs favoured by her present lavish crop of customers.  They were welcome blasts of colour in this endless holly-and-ivy season. 

Robyn was not enamoured with wreaths, which tended to put her in mind of funerals, preferring the jazzier spring stock to these spiky monsters festooning doors this time of year.  Still, the general public’s diverse floral tastes had earned her a fair living for four years.

At least this was her last delivery, and in ten minutes she’d be defrosting her fingers around a voluminous mug of tea.  Also, her best mate Emily was finally home – three months of postcards and e-mails having proved no compensation for their all-night chat-and-chickflick marathons.

Robyn pinged the bell to Apartment 5.  ‘Gloria – it’s Robyn.  More flowers for you, love.’

‘Ooh, smashing.  Come on up, bab.’

The old lady buzzed her in, and Robyn lugged her rainforest to the second floor of this new luxury block next to St Matthew’s.  Even the lobby, carpeted and light, reminded her of a hotel.  Each call this last fortnight had fired her aspirations to move here.  In fact she was saving, in the hope of renting her own place out and upgrading herself here. 

Gloria Corns, all twinkly in bunny slippers, was already in her doorway.  Apartment 5 was a reluctantly-accepted gift from her only son.  Home prior to that was the old family terrace in Dudley, and for years pride thwarted Melvyn’s efforts to re-house her.  He wanted to set Mom up in an Upper B palace, near his, but she scoffed that she’d ‘rattle in anything that vast.  One of them could billet a family of thirty.  Don’t you gooo a-spending on me, our Mel, it gives me more pleasure to see you doing so well.’

‘Someone’s popular,’ Robyn said now.  This was her fourth order this week from a well-known sender for Mrs Corns, who was convalescing from a gall bladder op.  ‘You’re causing quite a stir in the shop, you know.’ 

‘That lovely Richard and Judy,’ the old lady murmured, reading the card.  ‘Our Mel’s mates are so generous.  He only has to tell ’em I’ve been poorly, and they’re all for turning me flat into Kew Gardens.  What’s these ones?’  She inhaled the flamboyant scarlet scent.

‘Amaryllis.  These take quite some looking after, y’know.  You’re s’posed to keep the stems full of water – pour some in when you change your vase water and pop a little cotton wall ball in the end to stop it trickling back out.’

‘Ever so technical, int they?  I thought flowers was just flowers.  None of those adorable kiddies with you today?  That little girl yesterday was a poppet and a half, eh?’

‘Our Nigella?  Mom’s got her back today.’

‘I don’t know how you do it – running a business and caring for such a big family.  Does your hubby help out much?’

‘Oh, the littl’uns aren’t mine,’ Robyn chuckled at the very idea she looked old enough to have a ‘hubby’ let alone have spawned the brood her parents, Eileen and Neville, had, ‘they’re my brothers and sisters.  Me and our Jennie, who helps me out in the shop, look after them quite a bit, to help Mom and Dad out.’

‘I’m that sorry, bab,’ Gloria tittered at her error, ‘bet you think I’m awful.  They’re a credit, though, to whosever they are.  Bet it’s cosy in your house!’

‘I moved out when I was eighteen – got the flat above the shop, see.  And our Rowan’s in his own place down Bowen Road.  That still leaves five at home, though.  Christmases are a laugh!’

‘And I hope you all have a smashin’ one.’

‘You too.  Not off on a cruise this time, I take it?’

‘Nah, got no truck with all that snooty nosh.  I’ve insisted on cooking for me boy this year.  Besides, he’s got the panto, so we’re having to stick close to home anyway.’

‘I’m taking the kids to see it.  S’pose you’ll be there on the front row?’

‘Every night.  I saved you that article I was on about, by the way.’  She handed Robyn a What’s On guide, whose cover star was her son in Widow Twankey drag.  ‘Keep it – I’ve got ten.  Now watch how you go, young Robyn.’

Robyn resisted the banister as a means of transport, though childishly jumped the bottom two stairs, impatient for that tea.  Zapping her key to unlock the van, she became aware of an odd sound, midway between sobbing and a seal bark, outside Church View Court’s fence.  Since the region boasted few seals outside Dudley Zoo, she surmised either a grizzly child or a wounded dog must be its source.

A village girl through and through, there was no way Robyn could stroll indifferently away.  Prudently relocking her van, she headed off for a recce up Church Road.  Scouring instinctively downwards, for canines or tiny folk, she encountered Ugg boots and a pair of svelte orange legs.  Their owner, the seal impersonator, was perched (she had to perch – sitting fully would have hitched her skirt to a height providing fatal distraction to passing drivers) on the little church wall.  Robyn thought she had never seen anyone so stunning or so mournful.

‘Hey what’s up, lovey, don’t cry.’  Robyn, so long the big sister, was in awe of no-one.  Not even this stranger, who was of unmistakable Upper B stock.  Aside from the mere fact she was a stranger to Robyn, the girl had that general gloss about her – and then there was the way she stared.  Not snobbishly exactly, but with faintly sniffy curiosity, as though she’d never seen an anorak before.  Or certainly never been comforted and offered a tissue by a girl wearing one.

‘Thanks.’  She accepted the Kleenex graciously enough and blew her nose with inelegant force, buffing away patches in her rind of make-up. 

Robyn drew no glee from this wealthy babe mewling like a six-year-old – despite last summer witnessing how vile her ilk could be.  The two braying bitches at that gymkhana had smirked on the other side of their haughty, inbred faces when Robyn’s sister Siobhan and her ‘mangy old nag,’ Merit, vaulted their way to first prize.  Robyn couldn’t quite picture this girl on horseback, though.  She seemed more the party type; she’d be the one howling in the toilets at two in the morning – legless without dignity.

She was squeaking some baloney now that appeared to contain the words ‘ozzy’ ‘dumped’ and ‘weddingoff.’

‘What’s that you’re saying, my love?  Take a deep a breath, it can’t be all that bad.’

It was pretty dismal, Robyn had to concede once she’d heard the whole, intelligible version.  ‘What a shit, doing that to you at Christmas.’

‘My heart’s trashed to bits.’

‘Still, perhaps it’s for the best.  Better to split now than after the honeymoon.  You’ll move on from this and meet someone worthier of your wedding ring.’

‘Ring!’  The girl’s voice was of the type Robyn’s mother would say ‘went right through her.’  She produced a tiny bag from her pocket and flipped open the box within.  ‘I bought him his Christmas pressie this morning.’ 

Robyn goggled.  The onyx knuckleduster – which she estimated would have cost her a month’s takings – was set in a diamond bed whose dazzle was hazardous to the naked eye.

‘Had he seen it yet?’ Robyn asked politely.  It would take a devout fiancé to sport that thing in public.

Heidi shook her head; earrings swished.  ‘It was his surprise.  I was hoping for one too.  Not much chance of that now.’  She clapped the box to with saddening finality.

Hope you kept the receipt, Robyn nearly said.

‘He fancies his sister-in-law, you know.’

‘Come again?’ 

‘She’s his brother’s wife, but him and his folks are always banging on about her, especially the dad.  “Erin’s our angel, our princess, our number one; she wears such stunning clothes, she’s got a fantastic degree, she and Ben had the most spectacular wedding, no other daughter-in-law could ever match up.”  I’ve never met the girl, and I already felt like chicken-shit alongside her.’

A dart of wind nipped at Robyn’s face, and suddenly this weather and tea-deprivation was too much for her. 

‘Look – sorry, what’s your name?’

‘Heidi.’

‘And I’m Robyn.  Look, Heidi, I’ve got to get back to work – the florists – why don’t you come with me, I’ll make you a cuppa and we can have a little chat.  Unless you need to get off, er, anywhere?’  It didn’t seem likely this yellow vision would have a job.  Not with those nails. 

‘Yes, that’s very kind of you, Robyn.  Hey, I know him,’ Heidi pointed at Melba Most on the What’s On cover, ‘or her!  He’s my next door neighbour.’

‘Wow!  You live in Abbiss Cross then?  Very nice!’  Abbiss Cross was a gated cul-de-sac of only four homes, which sloped off Bratchley Road towards the canal.  ‘His place has got a massive wall round, hasn’t it?  Saw a photo in the Sun once.  I’ve just delivered some flowers to his mom, would you believe.  Lovely old duck, she is.’

‘Really?  I did hear she’d got a flat here actually.  I don’t see much of Mel – Daddy doesn’t exactly hang out with drag queens – though he did speak to me once.  He said: “Heidi was my first stage name – I used to call myself Heidi Sausage!”  I don’t get what he meant, though.’

No, Robyn thought wryly, you wouldn’t.  ‘Still, even that’s a tad more glam than his real name – Melvyn Corns!  He’s mates with the vicar, isn’t he?  They were at school – oops, sorry, guess you don’t want to talk about the vicar right now?’

Then Heidi mewled afresh, prompted of another link to her now ex.  ‘Gloria Corns used to be Ronnie’s boss.  At Teddy Gray’s – y’know, the sweet factory in Dudley.  That was his first job.’

‘Ronnie?’

‘Wozzy’s dad.  Before he made his money.’

‘Really?  Anyhow, come on,’ she shooed Heidi off the wall, ‘I’m dying for that of thirst here.’

‘You’re a bossy one, aren’t you?’  Heidi’s tone wasn’t sharp, though – she rather enjoyed the ‘mothered’ feeling.

‘I’ve got six brothers and sisters, run my own business – guess I’m just used to being in control.  Wanna lift down in the van?’

‘No thanks, I’ll be OK driving.’  Heidi nodded to her car.  Even that – a Mazda MX5 – was a virulent shade of custard.  It had scorched Robyn’s eyes when she turned up Church Road earlier.

‘You sure?’  In heels like that, never mind with tears in your eyes.

‘Yeah.  Only about half a mile, isn’t it?’

‘If that.  See you there then.’

Heidi was nonplussed by her own ready assent to tea in a flower shop backroom, which was hardly her typical lunch engagement.  She had intended calling one of her pack this afternoon.  She’d parted from many a man before – a bawl with the girls and a gallon of sweet wine had always put her right.  Yet something told her that this girl with a chap’s name and fingerless gloves would be a more consoling presence at present.

Warwick used to grouse about her friends, with references she couldn’t follow, about how her ‘lost’ quality vanished in their company.  ‘Those cackling cows are the ultimate fair-weather mates, and their boyfriends are every bit as insufferable.  Posey wankers who descend on the squash club every Friday night without ever picking up a racquet.’
For the first time, it occurred that he might have a point.  She couldn’t somehow see Cassie and Zara and the rest offering her a shoulder pad to cry on.

They’d certainly seemed disappointed she hadn’t turned up modelling a rock the size of Ayres when she first squealed her engagement news to them.  Not like Zara, whose own showstopping nuptials were next June.  With no ring to corroborate Wozzy’s love, their initial faff of congratulations had fizzled out.

They wouldn’t understand.  I don’t think they’re convinced we were truly engaged.  In fact, now I’m not sure I am either. 

Heidi scraped away fresh tears and zapped her car open to follow Robyn.

Chapter 4

Classmates
Chapter 4

 

‘Hi handsome,’ breathed the girl before me in the queue, batting brittly mascarad lashes and swooning against the wall to let a sixteen-year-old hunk pass by.  The poor lad blushed and virtually ran into the sixth form common room, leaving the girl and her pair of mates to giggle mercilessly at his discomfort.

I couldn’t help laughing too – an incredulous laugh.  Why was I not born brazen and daring, like my new friend Tina?  Most of us were as timid as rabbits on this, our first day at high school, but not her.  She started as she quite evidently meant to go on.

I had noticed this vision of bird’s nest hair and garish pout as we Capewell newcomers bustled into the lecture theatre at nine, where the headmaster, Mr Moss, divided us off into forms. 

I was glad to be allotted to Mr Spencer (nickname, predictably, Frank); I liked the look of this shy young art teacher.  ‘Frank’ was by far the youngest in a staff predominantly middle-aged, fond of dun corduroy and dreaming of retirement, and it is soberingly bizarre to think that my form tutor was in fact younger than I am now.

I was thankful to be in the same class as Nas and Karl, and harboured no envy for Felix and Gareth, assigned to the fearsome-looking Mrs Slattery – who, I was not delighted to hear, taught PE, my least favourite subject in the world ever.  Her new charges scuttled after her like particularly terrified lambs to a particularly brutal slaughter.

We Spencerites trooped to the art room which was to be our form’s home for the next five years, jostled en route by gigantic fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds, with their angry zits, skinny ties and sports bags the size of cars.  I had never felt so little and intimidated, and glued myself to Karl’s side for protection.  These upper-school giants jeered at our voluminous black blazers and unfeasibly neat blue jumpers – the branding that advertised us as first years.

Bird’s Nest and her cohorts, however, managed to sport their uniforms with a cool, Grange Hill air more befitting to the fourth year.  Whilst the rest of us tottered mutely, imbibing our convoluted surroundings, she strutted without care, alternately blowing huge strawberry gum bubbles and singing tuneless snatches of Five Star’s new single, Rain or Shine.

There was the usual scramble for tables, and then Mr Spencer called the register.  All but she trilled a courteous ‘Yes.’  Her response to the call of ‘Tina Skidmore’ was an impudent ‘Ar,’ the Black Country version of the affirmative.  Amid nervous snickers at her audacity, Tina basked in clearly familiar attention, and Frank’s grimace showed he knew full well he was in for nothing but trouble from this particular pupil.

Our timetables, dimly daisywheeled on to computer paper thinner than bog roll, announced English to be our first lesson in this new school.  Ah, my best subject.  A favourable omen.  So I thought.

Nasreen and I, tussled to the back of the crocodile, found ourselves losers in the great table scramble.

‘Oops, we seem to have run out of chairs,’ trilled Miss Joyce, a fun-looking muddle of zany waistcoat, cobalt eyeshadow and green-framed glasses, ‘would you two like to go and grab a couple of spare ones from the library.  It’s just down there – that’s it, my dears, down the corridor, turn left, by the sick room.’

Locating it was straightforward enough.  We slunk in, helped ourselves to a plastic chair apiece and slunk back out, ignoring the sardonic stares of the aged A-level students hunched over their Shakespeare texts.  At least the library’s compulsory hush precluded them shooting any teasing comments in our direction.

But the route back, like the homeward car journey after a holiday, looked completely different.  Somewhere in the web of corridors, we took the wrong junction.  Laden with our chairs, and thus looking tremendously silly and clumsy, we tramped the entire length of the second floor in our increasingly flustered quest for our class.

‘I’m sure it was this way,’ Nas said optimistically – and promptly steered us into a warren of science labs.  ‘Oh, Zo, we’re gonna get a right bollocking for this!’

‘Are you young ladies a little lost, perchance?’

The voice came from the doorway of one such laboratory – CHEMISTRY, according to the stencilled sign.  Its owner was all anarchic hair, white coat, fey smile and manic verve, like a camp version of Rik Mayall.

‘We’re looking for Miss Joyce’s room,’ I peeped, relief at encountering a teacher – albeit a wacky one – lending a helpless pitch to my already wobbly voice.

‘Then that’s this-a-way!’  He led us on a long-limbed stride to the arms – metaphorical ones – of our waiting English mistress.

‘A couple of your young scholars, who came adrift from the party, I fear – but now delivered safely unto you, Miss Joyce.’  And with that, ‘Rik’ bowed, in a fashion that was very in keeping with his peculiar, hey-nonnny-no vocabulary, and swept back on his way. 

‘Thank you, Mr Sullivan.  Don’t worry, girls.  It happens to us all on our first day.  This building must be at least twice the size of your old school.  At least you’ve got something to sit on now.  That’s it – if you park your chairs there, we can make a start.’

‘Yer saft buggers!’ Tina hissed at us, grinning.

I found myself grinning back, aflame though I was from both the exertion of heaving a chair through miles of maze, and the shame of having done something so pitifully first-yearish as get lost.  There was no explicit malice in her manner.  Nas and I were ‘the girls who got lost’ for the rest of term – but the tag didn’t irk me.  The girl was laughing with rather than at me at that stage.

I knew I was honoured to be so much as addressed by the great Tina Skidmore.  To go unnoticed by her altogether identified you as a Nobody.

******

Virtually every teacher – including such incongruous ones as maths and music – set us the classic icebreaker ‘write an essay about yourself’ task.  Miss Joyce at least lent a vaguely inventive slant to the idea.

‘I’d like you to each list five facts about yourself, and then read them out to the class.’

I don’t even remember my five – banal as they doubtlessly were: ‘I’m an only child’; ‘I like cooking’ – but distinctly recall that one of Tina’s was ‘I’m brilliant.’  And judging by her expression, which was just too self-satisfied to be ironic, she clearly believed it.  Cue more nervous laughter; more conjecture at what this funny, unpredictable daredevil would do next.

On that first day alone, Tina sat in the back row, swore, chewed gum in class, even wore make-up – all hallmarks of A Rebel.  And now, in the lunch queue, here she was flirting with a sixth form god, showing airy disregard for her lowly first year status.  No ‘big kids’ were ever going to dare push in front of her.

It is difficult to appreciate in this contemporary climate quite how outrageous Tina seemed to our callow sensibilities.  She would probably be deemed tame by today’s pubescents – if the harpies who eff and blind outside my local Dillons are anything to go by.  The pursuit of my Sunday paper has of late become an obstacle course through their upturned bikes, dog-ends and kohl-framed glares.

Stop me now, please, before I turn into my mother!  They say it’s a sign of growing old when you disgorge tirades of the ‘kids today…’ variety that so infuriated you when you were a kid.

Anyway, Tina paid for her chips, flourishing a fiver between fingers fettered with gaudy rings, and at last it was my turn at the hatch.  What a revelation – could this really be a school canteen?  The array of meals and snacks actually looked, well – nice.  And gorgeously stodge-drenched.

Accustomed to a primary school menu uniformly steak and kidney- and mash potato-based, the combination of a mouthwatering spread, and the knowledge I had a pound in my skirt pocket to purchase whichever bit of it I desired, was a heady one.

‘Beefburger and chips, please,’ I heard myself request, ‘and a piece of chocolate cornflake cake.’ 

Well of course I wasn’t going to opt for one of the limp and limited fruit or salad offerings that sagged against the jugs of beans.  I was only human after all.  Nowadays I’d go for the salad every time, but eleven-year-olds do not exactly worry themselves about eventualities like weight gain and heartburn.

We zigzagged through the swarming canteen to Karl and Felix’s table.

‘What d’you think of it so far then?’

‘S’all right.’

‘I bloody hate that Slattery,’ Felix whinged, ferociously stabbing the little straw into his blackcurrant juice carton, ‘why did I have to end up with her?  Our Gary told me she was a right old troll when he was here.’

‘Mr Spencer’s nice, though.’  I chomped back a hunk of burger.  ‘I think he looks like Phillip Schofield.’

‘Gordon the Gopher, more like!’ Karl chuckled.  He paused mid-chip, to stare at Tina’s triumvirate, cussing and belching on the next table.  He nodded subtly towards its peachy-faced, blonde member – Hayley Jasper, her name was.  ‘She’s not bad, though.’ 

I observed an extraordinary light in Karl’s ocean-green eyes, and my self-esteem promptly took a plummet through the floorboards.  The delectable fried junk I had been devouring with immense ease found its progress obstructed through a suddenly dry, lump-choked throat.

What was this all about then?  I’d really thought I was over this silliness.  No more shark-themed dreams had plagued my sleep since February – and I had put that one down to illness.  I’d been back to normal since my birthday.  Back to my old tree-climbing, tracksuit-wearing, Barbie-gunging self. 

But those disconcerting feelings I imagined were vanquished had been merely lying dormant, waiting for such a moment as this when, like blackheads, they might rudely surface.

I looked across at Hayley with hatred – but then at my ungainly reflection in the window behind her with even greater hatred.  It was small wonder, I thought with a sigh, that he preferred her – any boy would.  I was whey and goofy; she looked like one of those girls who always got picked to be carnival princess.

Hayley was the only beauty in the trio.  Her fellow Tina-worshipper, Jodie Glover, half concealed her malevolent smiles and eyes behind heavy, luggy hair and librarian-ish glasses, and Tina herself had presence rather than true good looks.

‘Hey, look who we’ve got next.’  Nas, uncrumpling her timetable, was nudging me out of my maudlin reverie.  ‘That Mr Sullivan, for science.’

‘No trouble finding your way this time, ladies?’ our rangy rescuer asked – predictably, perhaps, but not with the irksome sarcasm I learned to expect from certain other teachers.

‘Sully’ Sullivan was to become one of my favourites – even though I never achieved more than fair to middling results in his subject.  (Karl, on the other hand, was his star scholar.)  Sully was bonkers, there were no two ways about it, but got away with it because of the kindly, Willy Wonka quality he also possessed in vat-loads.  Sympathetic and witty, he was unique in enjoying almost universal hero-worship.

That reminds me: I actually bumped into Sully in Rackhams in Birmingham about three years ago.  He had lately retired but was as gangly and manic as ever, if somewhat balder.  We were both Christmas shopping: I for Neil; he for an unspecified somebody of unspecified gender – his debatable sexuality having been the subject of much wicked playground innuendo.

He remembered me, which was a flattering surprise after such a long time – but rather marred the effect by adding, ‘You were Karl Corbett’s pal, weren’t you?’

I must have answered ‘That’s right’ in a particularly taut, telling way, for he smoothly changed the subject and began bemoaning the price of Christmas cards.

I wished on that excruciating September afternoon in his lab that I could have changed subjects.  Even double PE would be preferable to this crash course in the features and functions of the Bunsen burner.

For though Sully’s humour elevated my spirits initially, I nose-dived back into wretchedness when he paired us off to boil a beaker of water.  Karl, to his undisguised delight, was partnered with Hayley.  It pained to watch him getting so famously along with the class princess while I was lumped with this awful dork called Simon Floyd, a pale, thin, intelligent, sensible boy who took the experiment priggishly seriously.

Poor Simon.  He ill deserved all these scathing adjectives, but then young girls are cruel, particularly to lads whom they consider more wet and square than a swimming pool.

I watched the water simmering away over the Bunsen, and knew how it felt – my emotions were similarly bubbling and raging in the beaker that was my body.  Hey, just call me Pyrex Girl!

******

I was soon acclimatised to Capewell life – though at some point since leaving Holly Lane I had progressed from quite liking school to considering it a necessary evil and living for the holidays. A reason could have been that while junior school was effectively a continuation of playtime, comp was a tough place; a microcosm of the so-called big, bad world.

I adored my bed and sullenly begrudged having to heave myself out of it on perishing mornings – especially perishing mornings when I had hockey first period.  When the Pink Panther blared to life at the cruel hour of eight o’clock (an hour I would be only too grateful to spend in bed nowadays), I rebelliously buried myself even deeper into the sandwich of sheets and fell back to sleep.  Mom nearly always had to wake me, with a swift shake that was greeted by growls of protest.

‘Come on, our Zo – you never used to be like this.’

After a cursory catlick (that’s Black Country for a hasty, lacklustre wash) I would sling my uniform on, devour my breakfast and be out the door.  With such inattention to my appearance, it was hardly extraordinary that no boys fancied me.

In raw weather, my huge anorak was scant armour as I tramped the short school route.  I used to imagine my body was outlined by a red halo like the kid in the Ready Brek commercial.  I knew I would never acquire such luminescence, though – I detested Ready Brek. 

I adored the weekends and holidays, when I would hibernate until mid-afternoon, and see daylight so rarely it was a wonder the effect did not transform me into a werewolf or something.

The school day tired me out more now, and my leisure time was condensed, which gave rise to many martyr-ish bleatings about my loss of freedom.  Evenings were taken up less with playing and more with that vile novelty, homework, or tasks such as covering my many textbooks with wrapping paper and posters.

School reports were another novelty.  My parents were now walloped with termly spiels from each teacher, appraising my effort and progress in their particular subject.  Elusive A grades earned me rewards – of the monetary or chocolate variety – and cheesy praise from Dad.

‘We’re that proud of you, bab,’ he would beam, squeezing my hand, ‘no-one in our family has ever got an A before.’

I cringed at the time, horribly self-conscious and gruffly unsentimental, but now hold dear these snapshots of unconditional parental love.  My marks, while respectable, were rarely stunning – but this mattered not to Dad.  He couldn’t have been any prouder if I was one of the class eggheads; the kids whose parents berated them if they ‘only’ managed a B.  My parents even clemently overlooked my vindictive string of Ds from Mrs Slattery, and celebrated my every small accomplishment.

The sporadic As I amassed were invariably for English and home economics – (save for one I scraped in art, when my pastel sketch of a Marathon – as they were then called, before all this ‘Snickers’ baloney – particularly impressed Frank).  I discovered a latent forte for writing, which the feisty Miss Joyce encouraged.  English at Holly Lane was all dry comprehension and tuition in how to use a dictionary, but she taught me to love words; to animate them.  I found a blissful escapism through whimsical stories.  One or two even showed up in the Capewell Journal.  I would read these school mags a thousand times, thrilling at the sight of my name in print.  Naïve little pieces though they may have been, it was a start. 

Under the exuberant tutelage of one Mrs Longman, I also blossomed in home economics (‘which used to be called cookery in my day,’ as Mom was annoyingly fond of tutting).  I adored the Wednesday ritual of stomping to school bearing a basket of ingredients and stomping back at half-past three with the same basket weighed down by the Taylor family’s tea.  Wednesday was the only day I gladly vacated my bed without maternal assistance.

Soups, risottos, coleslaws…all manner of lavish fare graced our kitchen table in consequent years – besides the plainer, Dad-pleasing dishes like apple crumble.

I have never lost the rewarding glow that comes from buying raw provisions and whisking them into something wonderful.  I pity the lazy workmates I have who claim to virtually survive on oven-ready crap.  I have had appalling experiences with frozen fish pies that required blowtorch treatment to heat evenly through.  When they were finally ready, I could smell and taste the E-numbers in every latexy mouthful.  Yuck!

Call me old-fashioned, but home cooking just does it for me every time!

My tone is strong here because I speak with familiarity of an overindulgence in processed food – which, for all my culinary leanings, I possessed an unhealthy love for at twelve.

School dinners and Mrs Longman’s lessons were my only motivations through the school week.  I dined in the canteen every day, eschewing Mom’s offers of packed lunches.  Who wanted egg and cress rolls when there were hot dogs and pizzas going begging?  Besides, it was more mature, I told her airily, to queue and purchase one’s own lunch.  Only the dweeby kids who nobody wanted to be like – the Simon Floyds of this world – sat nibbling on little crustless sandwiches and satsumas.

I was not so much a kid in a sweet shop as a kid in a chip shop.  Foods which once were luxuries were now daily available, and I hedonistically indulged.

The tummy briefly shrivelled by illness bulged again with cholesterol overload, my skin erupted into pimples and my boobs swelled to more fleshy, slatternly proportions than ever.

Defeated by gravity, and taunted by boys about my jiggling ‘melons,’ I finally bowed to the inevitable.

******

‘I need a bra, Granny.’

Granny Danks nodded knowingly.  It was the Easter holidays of 1987.  We were shopping together for the first time in months, our once weekly ritual having long lapsed like so many other childhood practices. 

Granny and her shopping trolley had by now defected from Dudley Market Place to the new Merry Hill Centre three miles away.  Merry Hill, built on land in Brierley Hill once occupied by a steelworks, mushroomed colossally over the ensuing decade – divesting Dudley of big-name retailers in the process.

I am old enough to remember the town boasting a Marks and Spencer, a Sainsbury’s, a BHS…and the outcry when they progressively shut down and relocated to Merry Hill.

In our teenage years, this vast mall became a hub where my friends and I would congregate with blasé regularity to spend our parents’ money, slurp fizzy drinks and partake in our new hobby, ‘chap-hunting’ – but in 1987 the place was still a mesmeric novelty.

My first visit was on this day with Granny Danks.  It was a treat, she said, ‘to tog yer out with some new clobber.’  I rather suspect Mom primed her as to my pathetic lack of clothes now that I was ‘getting a big girl’ – knowing full well I would never, as a matter of stubborn principle, sport any of the cutesy dresses and blouses Mom herself chose for me.

Granny, despite being a further generation removed, was more attuned to my fashion tastes (which still extended little further than jogging suits and leggings).  I accepted advice more graciously from Granny than from Mom, whose vain efforts to ‘dress me like a girl’ merely rubbed me up the wrong way.

Discussing undergarments with my mother – who had taken to teasing me about ‘turning into Samantha Fox’ – was far too squirmy to contemplate.  Granny’s approach was, in this as in everything else, swiftly practical.  No song and dance scenes or digs about Page Three wenches.  She merely guided me to the racks of training bras and watched from a diplomatic distance while I selected my first two sexless white boulder-holders.  They would match the thousands of identical, windsock-sized pants I possessed.

I put one on back at her house in Netherton.  My fingers shook as I wedged my pasty udders into the nylon cones and swivelled before the bathroom mirror.  Instead of lolloping in opposite directions as they usually did, they travelled with me, immobile in their scratchy harness.  They felt horribly tight and pulled in.  Ooh, I didn’t like this at all!

I then pulled on my sweater and was absolutely freaked by the mountainous, grown-up shape beneath it.  Those brazen projectiles seemed so poignantly, pervily incongruous with such a cosy, childish garment.  It was like dressing a teddy bear in suspenders, or seeing strippers on children’s BBC.  I detested the way I looked and felt in this nasty bra, and longed to tear it from my body and burst out sobbing…

‘Tea’s ready, love!’

But Granny’s friendly yell thwarted any such tantrum.  Awaiting me downstairs was the reassuring tableau of croquette potatoes on a formica table.  Granny tactfully made no mention of my distended chest (though she can’t have failed to notice it), but just switched on her museum-piece TV, like I was still eight.

‘That new Australian programme everyone’s raving about is on.’  She clouted the decrepit set, demisting the grainy screen enough to reveal a tender scene between a good-looking boy with shuttlecock-shaped hair and a pretty, dungaree-clad girl with a leonine perm.  ‘Her’s that wench with the funny name – Highly Sinogue, or summat.’

‘Oh right.’

‘How’s that young Karl these days?’ Granny, apropos of nothing, enquired.  ‘Haven’t seen him about lately.’

Nor have I, was the wounded rejoinder I bit back, loath to advertise just how sorely I missed his droll company, or how the mere mention of his name stung me in places I never knew were stingable.  I prayed that the blush I felt searing my face was not giving the game away entirely.

‘He’s OK,’ was all I said, in as light and evasive a tone as I was capable of.

Oh, Karl was more than OK, I was sure!

I wished I could blot out yesterday’s distressing call to the Corbett door.

Faye had taken an unfeasibly long time to answer the bell – and did so wearing an inside-out nightie, her titian perm witchily tousled.  A skinny youth sporting a footballer’s bouffant, presumably Dean the mechanic’s replacement, hovered behind her in Hong Kong Phooey boxer shorts.

‘No, Karl’s not in, love,’ Faye replied in a peculiar, languid sort of pant, ‘no-one’s here at the moment.’  (Well that was evident!)  ‘Karl said something about going round Hayley’s, helping her with her homework.’

‘Oh.  Right.  Tell him I called.  Won’t you?’

But the door was already clanking to, shutting me out of the adult world that lay beyond it.

I shambled blindly home, feeling like a hobnail boot-clad foot had just delivered a sharp kick to the area of my chest that housed my heart.  I had a mountain of homework myself – French verbs and a history essay on Dudley Castle – could I expect any help from Karl with that? I wondered. 

No chance, I thought rancorously, kicking away a pebble that had dared appear in my path.  He wasn’t interested in assisting his loyal, pudgy friends anymore.  One flash of baby blue eyes and svelte calves and he was off.

I only hoped his ideas about what ‘homework’ constituted were not quite the same as his sister’s.

******

Boys were lined up on one wall of the gym; girls on the other, cherryade cans clasped for protection against low-flying testosterone.  Gyrating lights cast rainbow streaks across the high ceiling.  Deflating balloons flopped around the doorframes.  Pork pie wedges and ham sandwiches drooped neglected on a trestle table. 

Yup, the Capewell summer disco was in full swing!

‘Let’s get boogying,’ Frank cluelessly encouraged from his corner alcove.  He was officiating as DJ – the only teacher young enough to avoid looking granddadishly laughable behind a turntable.  He was patently uncomfortable in the role, though – I’m sure he would rather have been tucked up with a mug of hot chocolate and Blackadder.

One or two girls were actually motivated enough to brave the dancefloor – but not Nasreen, Debbie and me, who tapped our toes self-consciously, drippily promising to ‘get up for the next song.’

Debbie was a shaggy-permed redhead whom Nas had recently taken up with.  As a trio, we got along ostensibly well, though in truth my nose was pushed increasingly out of joint by their cliquey twitterings.  They had – unconsciously, I think – adopted a kind of patronising, ‘I suppose we’ll let you tag along with us’ attitude, which made me feel more like an interloper with each day that passed in this miserable school.

What was it with my friends lately?  I’d started wearing deodorant months ago, but was beginning to wonder if it was working, such was the rate with which I appeared to be repelling people.  Slouching with these two now was painfully awkward.  I just let them talk.

‘Look at that stupid Samantha – fancy wearing dungarees to a disco!’

‘And she’s got foundation on – she’s all orange, look’

‘So do you think Sean fancies me then?’

‘Dunno, Deb.  What about Marcus?  He keeps lookin’ over at me.  Is he doing it now?  Don’t look, don’t look!  I’m trynna play hard to get.’

‘Who’ve yow got your eye on tonight, Zo?’

I gazed sadly at Karl, a pre-teen Don Johnson in jeans and a turquoise jacket with those curious elbow-length sleeves that were then in fashion.  He caught my eye and gave me a half-grin so civil and distant that I felt snubbed rather than acknowledged. 

‘Oh, no-one.’

Be like that then, Karl!  I swished my head away from him in what I imagined was a haughty, indifferent fashion.  I was wearing my straw-like hair up, for once, in a side ponytail tied with a bobble shaped like a fried egg.  It was a very swishy style.  I liked the feel of it, bobbing against my neck.

It was hard to be haughty in a bogey-green boiler suit, though.  Self-conscious as ever, I had hidden my burgeoning body inside a garment which caused Dad to comment, ten years later when hooting over a photo album, ‘Yow look like a mechanic there, me wench’ – and was now rather regretting my choice on such a muggy night.

Eventually, the torment of standing in close proximity to an untouched buffet could be borne no longer.

‘Come on, let’s go grab some eats.’

Food cheered me up – that was the reason my weight was in double figures.  As I loaded my plate with crinkle-cut crisps, I felt happy and giddy and mad.  I was afflicted by what I now recognise to be an addiction; a fixation.  Food was my drug.

‘Hey, look – it’s the Incredible Hulk!’

I laughed, in an ‘I might have expected that’ kind of way – my stock response whenever Tina made one of her ‘cracks.’  She rarely meant anything by them.  The girl just happened to possess a stinging wit, an artless lack of tact and a big, dirty mouth. 

Not a sole was immune.  Tina simply had to have something to say about everything and everybody.  I was large, I was wearing green – inevitably, tonight, Matthew, I was going to be the Incredible Hulk.  (I had certainly evolved a long way from Medusa.)

I turned from the crisp bowl, expecting to be grinned at, but instead found myself flinching from six eyes luminous with eyeshadow and malice.  Tina, Jodie and Hayley could have been triplets, with their co-ordinating puffball dresses, hair sprayed to candyfloss consistency, sneering lips painted brothel pink and legs as thin as crayons.
They assumed the scowling, akimbo posture they reserved for real enemies, as opposed to those individuals they merely took the piss out of. 

I was in trouble.

Tina, leader and mouthpiece, stood her traditional two paces in front of the girls, her glare loaded with a thousand curses.

‘I seen yer gawpin’ at Karl.’

Only grave offences against the posse warranted this kind of revulsion.  And gawping at a posse member’s would-be boyfriend was about as offensive as it got.

‘I ain’t been.’  Casual denial was the instinctive, if not the best, approach.  But I was far too flushed and defensive to convince as a liar.

‘Yeah you have.  And you’d best keep yer dirty maulers off him, ’cos he’s Hayley’s now.’

‘Ar, that’s right, he is,’ Hayley piped up.  She and Jodie seldom fought their own battles.  Their role was to dispense glares and the odd interjection into Tina’s tirade.

‘He’d never go out with a fat cow like yow anyway.  You look like Dolly Parton with them tits.  Workin’ nine to fiiive…’  Tina mimicked, in an exaggerated country whinny, jostling past me, pouting and shimmying her own spiky chest in a manner I would have found hilarious had her prey been anyone but me.

The sniggering melted into the music behind me, and now I was quite alone.  Deb and Nas had disloyally backed away at the first sign of peril, but I couldn’t care less about them now.  I found their spinelessness strangely empowering.  An incentive to seek out other girls, fresh companions, whose friendship would not be of the fair-weather variety.

‘Come on, Hayls, it’s the Beastie Boys!’

It was hard to say what winded me more: the sight of Karl hooking his arm around Hayley’s twiggy waist as he led her off to dance, or the knowledge he had just listened impassively as she and her bloody friends ripped me to rags.  He was close enough to have heard every vile word – yet had done nothing.

Eighteen months ago, in a slate mine somewhere beneath Wales, Karl Corbett had defended me against a bully.  Boldly, nobly, loyally.  Our friendship was all to him then.

But then Darren Fisher did not have tits.

Boys could square up to one another, but they stayed well out of catfights.  Everyone knew girl bullies were a more fearsome force than their male counterparts – and ones who looked like Hayley Jasper always got away with murder.  I knew I had never been A Girl to Karl, not in the leggy, eyelashy, saucy, teasy way she was.

To boys, ‘bullying’ meant scrapping and menace – but a girl could insult or cut you dead and it would wound as badly as a punch.  The lads’ way of resolving discord struck me, if anything, as healthier.  Two antagonists might vent their rage with a quick scuffle in the playground and be mates again by the end of lunch.

Female grudges, conversely, could be borne for years, fuelled by two-faced gossip and hissy insults about dress sense.  Chaps could never hate girls half as much as girls often hated one another.

Wary of being caught ‘gawping’ again, I averted my eyes back to the plate I was still inelegantly balancing in my greasy palm.  I no longer had any appetite for its contents, but picked at a few crisps to keep my hands active.  It was like munching on glass shards.

It’s funny, even in my wretched state it occurred that none of my fellow discoers appeared to have availed themselves of the refreshments.  This made me feel guilty, like a child caught robbing a larder.

I was a child really, stooping there all apologetic in my oversized romper suit.  Biologically, I was now a woman – those scary periods I’d read about in Mizz having become a lumpy, crampy reality in May – but I felt too blundering and unsophisticated to class myself as one.  Stuffing oneself was clearly a terribly gauche thing to do at a party – that’s why the buffet was rebuffed.  One was supposed to admire the food but not actually eat it.  Eating was for the weak and hideous. Everyone but me was in on this secret. 

‘Take your partners, boys and girls, it’s time for Starship!’

A slowie.  Great. 

I had heard of, though not actually seen Mannequin, and was aware Nothing’s Gonna Stop us Now was its big finale, happy-ever-after power ballad.  Treacly lyrics and bash-the-dashboard guitar solos were king in the 80s.

I have hated that song ever since.  I associate it with rejection; with confirmation of my wallflower status; with trying to dissolve into the wall, pretending I was so riveted by a chicken leg that I didn’t even notice dancers coupling around me.  Smitten kids who would go home happy after a smooch and a three-minute bum grope.  No boy had arms long enough to even encircle my bum.

I will not look at Karl and Hayley.

I.  Will.  Not.  Look.  At.  Karl.  And.  Hayley.

I will NOT look at – oh God, I looked!

Like a car crash or Trisha, I couldn’t help it.

The first verse barely done, and there they were – lips locked in a manoeuvre apparently known as a Frenchie; her arms laced round his neck, his fingers drumming up and down her polka dotted back.  Others were voyeuristically cheering them on.

It was too much for me.

I slapped my still laden plate on to the table, sloped out of the gym and ran home, brushing furious tears away with my fists. 

I was twelve and a half, and my heart was broken.

Chapter 3

Classmates
Chapter 3

 

‘Who’s that girl?’ I asked, prophetically enough, my dilated ten-year-old eyes captivated by the wavy-haired singer whirling a tambourine around the Philadelphia stage. 

Darren Fisher glanced up from Connect 4 long enough to answer, ‘It’s Madonna,’ in a sneering tone which made it clear I was piteously ignorant.  I disliked Darren Fisher.  He had appended himself to Karl’s gang of late: an oiky boy with a large mole below his left eye, and a dark, swotty prettiness that verged on girlish and beguiled teachers.

‘She’s terrific!  I love this song – dance into the groove, boy you’ve gotta prove….’

‘She’s a prat,’ Darren snorted, pulling a rancorous little face as Stefan clunked another yellow disc down to make it four in a row.  I have never encountered a less gracious loser.  ‘Girls can’t sing anyhow.  Queen were the best today.’

‘Not as good as Wham!’

‘My dad says Wham are a couple of jessies!’

‘Look, Daz, she’s got a big black spot just like yours!’ Karl lampooned, jabbing at the screen.

We all joyously giggled at this observation, yet my participation alone appeared to pique Darren.

‘Stop laughing, Taylor.  I hope you choke on your jam tart, you greedy fart!’

His insipid, unintentionally rhyming gibe provoked no effect besides further hilarity at his own expense.  I defiantly bit into Avril’s glorious jam tart, which had remained poised in my fingers midway between duvet and mouth as I knelt on Faye’s bed agog at Madonna.

We kids spent this historic July day bunched around the telly in Faye’s usually off-limits bedroom.  Karl swore he glimpsed his big sister on said telly, during a fleeting pan across the Wembley multitude, but I was unconvinced.

Boyfriends were Soppy, of course, but when Faye announced that her present one – a mechanic from Wolverhampton called Dean – had bagged a pair of Live Aid tickets, it occurred that they possibly had uses after all.

I’d idolised Faye since she chaperoned her brothers and me to see Frankie Goes to Hollywood at the Birmingham Odeon a few months back – but she had forgotten us today, which I considered decidedly unfair.

Nasreen and I spent the bulk of the day cross-legged on the bed, singing along with the stars in London and Philly; infected by the joyful atmosphere of a truly global party.  The lads, less riveted as the long afternoon segued into evening, were variously playing board games or sniggering over the problem pages in Faye’s Just Seventeen heap and yelling questions like ‘What’s an applicator?’

‘Hey, Taylor,’ Darren mocked at one point, nastily throwing a magazine at me, ‘there’s an article in here about diets – you ought to read it!’

I was now officially Fat, you see – because, while pop star love was ephemeral, food was my constant passion.  Chocolate, potatoes, fruit, cheese, yogurt, cereals, salads, bread, ice cream, eggs, roasts – there was virtually nothing I shunned, and I possessed a wolflike appetite.

There was more to me than gluttony, though.  I was an enthusiastic chef; I loved eating, so loving cooking seemed a natural consequence.  I spent hours in the kitchen attempting replicas of luscious recipes I pestered Avril for.  Mom heedfully supervised, and both she and Dad made suitably appreciative sounds when I dished up cup cakes or casseroles to their table.

My favourites to make were simple classics.  Good old British comfort food.  Sausage baps oozing brown sauce, or beans on toast with streaky bacon striped across the top.  My dad loved them.  Cowboy breakfasts, he called them.  ‘You gunna make us another cowboy breakfast this morning, our kid?  And I tell you what – I couldn’t half bost a cup o’ tay!’

(The latter part of his order was Black Country for ‘I would really rather like a cup of tea.’)

‘So strong yer could stand the spoon up in it?’ 

‘Ar!  Now you’m talking!’

I loved these little routines.  My dad was ace.

Our class once made bread – my favourite lesson in thirteen years of schooling.  Some kids found this exercise dreary beyond belief – they whined how they would rather be doing PE – but I was euphoric, wrist-deep in dough and bound into a flour-spattered apron.

I can still taste that brown loaf – all crusty and rustic, fresh-from-the-oven warm and smeared with silken butter.  I still do taste similar ones from time to time.  Neil’s final birthday present to me was a breadmaker, and the thick sliced supermarket alternative, I am afraid, just doesn’t come close!

Unfortunately, I learned too late that there existed a direct, merciless correlation between magnitude of meal and magnitude of belly.  By fourth-year juniors, acres of tummy protruded grotesquely beneath my T-shirts, my chest had sprouted what looked like a pair of water balloons, and Mom had begun making alarming remarks about ‘needing a bra.’

By while her observations were well intentioned, a certain Darren Fisher’s were decidedly not.  Following Live Aid, this pin-nosed prig became a kind of one-boy Blubber Patrol.  His mission: to punish me for being a ‘pig,’ by stamping on my toes in country dancing, stealing my pens (oh, my precious stationery), flicking up my skirt or hiding my lunch. 

He had subtler, but no less cutting, methods of conveying his distaste – such as his glares across the classroom or playground which suggested I was a leper encrusted with a particularly abhorrent crop of boils.  If I greeted or addressed him in company, he rudely looked away or cut me down to size with the curtest possible reply.

What began as innocuous teasing had escalated to major bullying.  Being a sly sort, Darren was careful to hiss and torment well outside the view and earshot of his greatest fans – the teachers. 

Little prick!  I’m sorry – just picturing that priggish, moley face makes me want to kick things even now.  Wherever he works these days, I bet he’s the company toady: the one whose head is jammed so far up the MD’s bum as to be tickling his liver; the one upon whom his colleagues joke that The Office’s Gareth must have been based.

I pinpoint 1985 as the year I first hated school.  I was in an alien situation: Victim was not a role in which I had ever been cast during my hitherto painless life.  I make no claims to be invincible, but neither was I one of the mousy kids upon whom Holly Lane’s bully population traditionally preyed.

Darren soon widened the scope of his scorn to include my looks as a whole rather than my weight specifically.

One Greek Mythology lesson, our textbooks were propped open at a page bearing Medusa’s petrifying likeness.  I sat up sharply as something serrated lanced me in the spine.  It was him, prodding me with his protractor.

‘She looks like you,’ he jeered, ‘only not quite so ugly!’

Laugh it off, that was what Dad advised.  But why did woundingly witty replies have a habit of eluding me at crucial moments?

A falsely offhand ‘I don’t reckon she does – I ain’t got snakes for hair!’ was the best I could do.

Now Darren had learned the name Medusa, it became his new nickname for me.  A nickname devised to not only cause maximum hurt but also demonstrate what an erudite swot he was.  He was clever like that, was our Darren.  (Though I had to admit ‘Medusa’ was a vague improvement on ‘pig.’)

I became wretchedly conscious of my looks; conscious that mirrors served other purposes than aiding my meticulous mimicry of Madonna’s dance routines.  I started using the one on my dressing table to daily inspect every square centimetre of face and body for vestiges of resemblance to mythological harridans.

I had never even regarded myself as plump or plain, let alone the Gorgon of Darren’s vision – yet now I felt repugnant.  I was once such a sociable little thing, but playing held dwindling interest for me now Darren had encroached the sacred posse.  The wild scurry out of my uniform to congregate in Andrew Street straight from school was replaced by a dawdle out of my uniform to read on my bed, or practice my cooking, or merely sit with Mom and Dad in the lounge.

My parents – who were mystified by this atypical clinginess – represented something so dependable in this suddenly unfriendly world.

Loved as I was at home, outside it my self-esteem shrivelled like a dying daffodil.  I like to think I was never an arrogant kid, rather that I possessed the kind of buoyant self-assurance inherent in childhood.  This now suffered its first dents – and seldom had ebbs been lower than in North Wales three weeks before my eleventh birthday.

 

 

 

‘You’ve lost your torch?’ Mr Bateman yapped, dousing my face in halitosis.  ‘Now that was a really intelligent thing to do before a trip underground, wasn’t it!’

I wagged my head, my smarting eyes resolutely averted from Darren, who I knew would be glaring smugly, daring me to grass him up. 

‘Well, was it?’

‘No, sir.’

‘No siree!  Honestly, you are getting yourself into rather a pickle this week, aren’t you!  Well there aren’t any spare ones, so you’ll just have to share with one of your less absent-minded classmates.  Karl Corbett – you can partner Miss Taylor and light her merry way.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Good.  Now slate, as I was saying, has been mined in this region since 18….’

‘Are you OK?’ Karl whispered, through Bateman’s droning narration.  

I nodded ambiguously, flushing from his caring gaze, and thinking with an indignant pang of the smart torch jangling about in Darren Fisher’s cagoule pocket.  My dad bought it from Milletts especially – he knew how keen I was about this annual fourth year Residential. 

The Resi!  The winter week that made younger Holly Laners impatient to reach the top class.  Five whole days free of parental intervention.  Canoeing, cycling, orienteering, midnight feasting in the dormitories….

‘I can’t wait for this,’ Karl had grinned, rubbing his hands with boy scout-like glee as, accoutred with packed lunches and sleeping bags, we loaded up the coach on that bracing February Monday, ‘we’re gunna have some bostin’ fun!’

It was ages since we had conversed to any great depth; Karl’s overture now restored a flash of my old confidence.  I was utterly dismayed, though, to find myself blushing.

‘Yeah!  I feel like one of the Famous Five.’

‘Which one – Timmy the dog?’ Darren heckled.

‘Where’s Nas got to?’ I wondered, ignoring him.  ‘She’s gunna miss the coach if she’s not careful.’

‘Miss Uppal has flu.’  A Yorkshire-accented snap announced the arrival of our dear Mr Bateman.  ‘Her mother has just telephoned to say she is too unwell to be joining us in Wales.  Come on – chop chop!  We should have left by now.’

‘Aw, what a shame.  I won’t have a partner,’ I pouted with real disappointment.  Not only was Nasreen was my sole true girl-friend, but there were few school stigmas worse than being On Your Own when everyone else was paired up.  ‘I hope she’ll be OK.’

‘Come on, Miss Taylor, and stop your chuntering!’

‘Sorry, sir.’

With a very dejected air, I deposited my ruck-sack in the boot, clambered aboard the bus and slunk into a lonely seat near the back.

‘Ah, poor fat Medusa’ll be all on her lickle lonesome.’

I feigned indifferent deafness to Darren’s taunt – whilst at the same time recognising the bleak truth of it.

I’d entertained this perception of myself as popular and boisterous, but in fact being so matey with lads was going to be little use in the unavoidably single-sex environment of a dormitory. 

Save for Nas and Faye, I never at that stage had much time for female peers – and I could tell by their private giggles and occasional pitying glances across the aisle that the feeling was mutual.  I may as well have sported a T-shirt imprinted ‘Norma No-Mates.’  I was actually shy around them; unable to be myself.  For the first time, I regretted my lack of affinity with own gender.  I wished I could bond with these girls, even to say hello would have been a start – but I, shamefully, had no idea how to.

There was one person here today whom I held in lofty esteem – and he was in the hallowed back seat, reciting jokes to a rapt bunch of boys, our brief discourse of moments ago forgotten.  I knew without looking that nasty little Darren would be part of the audience: all enraptured and sycophantic, ready to wet himself when Karl delivered the punchline.  I tried not to listen, unbearably jealous as I was of Darren and the others who were being thus lavished.

Why did his attention uniquely make me so strong and joyous inside?  As though nobody else mattered and nothing could wound me?  And why did I wither without it?

I slumped back in the coach seat, wishing it could camouflage me like a chameleon.  After months of looking forward to a sensational adventure, I would now have cheerfully swapped places with Nasreen, all swaddled and snotty in her sick bed.

 

The outdoor education centre was a purgatory of spider-riddled dormitories, shiny bog roll, temperamental showers, and food Granny wouldn’t have put down for Buster without risking a visit from the RSPCA.  The weather was vile also, even by February standards.  Sleety rain fell in bathloads virtually all week, accompanied by a vicious wind that seemed to slice at my body. 

None of these factors perturbed me in isolation; I would have laughed them off, had Nas been with me and had Darren’s clandestine hate campaign not curdled my sense of humour.

As it was, they merely aggravated my homesickness.  I longed for the nights, when I could coil up on the top bunk that should have been Nasreen’s, and sob yearningly into the clammy, anorakish material of my sleeping bag.  The yearning was for Mom’s homely smile; my snug bed; a tonic for my aching throat….

Whilst hill-walking on the Tuesday, my tormentor tripped me with his spiky boot, sending me spattering into a mud puddle.  Bateman, hiking on ahead in cosy conversation with Miss Evans, the jolly-hockey-sticks centre instructor, for whom he quite obviously had the hots, conveniently saw nothing.  He deigned, however, to halt upon hearing my yelp as I belly-flopped.

‘Tripped over our shoelaces, have we, Miss Taylor?’ he barked, seizing my fingers in his steak-sized hand and hoicking me upright.  ‘About time your mother taught you to how tie them, methinks!’

‘But – ’

‘No buts!  Your classmates and I would prefer to enjoy the remainder of this walk in peace.  All you have to do is place one foot in front of the other.  You sure you can manage that now?  Honestly!’  He stomped tutting back to Miss Evans at the head of the crocodile, no doubt pissed off by the interruption in their wax-jacketed tête à tête.  The woman clearly possessed no sense of smell, if she could stand being breathed over by his rancid maw.

I continued the ramble in fuming muteness: gloved fists clenching themselves into discreet V-signs at my sides; body stinging with both the force of the fall and acrid hatred towards Darren and Bateman.  Rage at the injustice of it all washed over me in torrents.  All this ‘your classmates’ business galled me – he loved to play us off against one another: me versus the form.

‘Bit of a clumsy cow, aren’t you?’ came a simper at my shoulder.

‘Why don’t you just sod off, Fisher?’

‘Ooh – naughty words!’

With a surreptitious kick to my already grazed shin, he galloped to catch up with Karl and the rest of the gang in which he had supplanted me.  Maudlin desperation to sob gnawed as I watched them all together.  Only visions of charging at Darren and smearing his smug pixie face in sludge whilst hollering from this Welsh hilltop about what a bullying little shit the class creep really was curbed my sobs.

A curious unwillingness to disillusion Karl was all that stood between me and doing just that.  To try and turn him against a friend would be unfair and underhand.

Moreover, it might backfire; Karl might disbelieve me and turn against me instead.  Which was too, too distressing to envisage. 

But why was it?  At what point had I turned into this martyr who readily placed a boy’s happiness above my own?

 

Thursday was our penultimate, most punishing day.  A disused slate mine was today’s destination – hence the need for torches.  Except Darren half-inched mine on the coach when all eyes were diverted.  I dropped it as I rose to dismount the vehicle.  The little lamp went trundling across the aisle; before I could retrieve it, his pin-like fingers snatched it and zipped it away.

‘Oy, that’s mine!’

‘You can have it back for a fiver, butterfingers,’ he spat, knowing I had no such fortune to my name, ‘and you’d better not tell old Bateman about this.  He’d never believe you anyway.’

This, I was wretchedly aware, was true.  Not that I’d have ever told in any event.  Telling was Not The Done Thing.  Such an action condemned one to a lifetime of being labelled a Grasser.  Thus when Bateman, inspecting us, queried my torchless status, I muttered evasively that I had ‘lost it, sir.’

What was happening to me?  The old Zoe could hold her own against any lad, but now there were all these inhibitions and limp stories.  My heart drooped with excruciating sadness as I imagined Dad; his poor disappointed face when I confessed his gift was gone.

Entry to the mud-mired mine was via a minuscule orifice, the size, shape and dampness of which invited crude comparisons I was too naive to make then.  The roof of this entrance was so low as to render even crouching impossible; there was no option but to slither in prone through the clotted sludge.  It was like sliding into a nose.

Once inside the pit, a labyrinthine tunnel complex was our thoroughfare across it.  One such tunnel was dubbed the ‘Corkscrew.’  Its structure resembled one of those tube slides found at water parks, only it was as narrow and fetid as a gutter, with a balaclava blackness that seemed to drown me.

This was not the most pleasant way of discovering I was claustrophobic.  I baulk now, just visualising how I wriggled, crying, down that interminable spiral.

‘Mind you don’t get your gut stuck in there, Medusa,’ came a hiss behind as we queued as though for a theme park ride, awaiting our turn – as it were – through the Corkscrew, ‘miners have died down here – maybe you will too!  You won’t be able to see without your precious torch, and you’ll sink in a massive mud pool!  That’ll teach you to be so clums– ’

Darren’s threat tapered feebly off.  A sinewy hand was pinching his skinny shoulder.  On the end of this hand was, as you might expect, an arm.  On the end of this arm was Karl Corbett.

‘Leave my friend alone, Fisher.’

‘You what?’

‘Leave her alone.  You’re always mythering her.’

‘I was only joking around.  She knows I don’t mean it, don’t you, Med– I mean, Zoe?’  His soft, girl’s lips formed a contrite, sham smile, but his disdain had vanished.

I couldn’t even reply intelligibly.  I was jibbering with colliding emotions – the dominant one of which was in fact joy.  I was Karl’s friend!  He said so.  The likes of Darren mattered not.  Darren was pathetic; beyond disdain.  With Karl on my side, I was as powerful as She-Ra.

‘Where’s her torch, Fisher?’

‘She lost it,’ he sulked, ‘you heard her.  Oooww!  OK, it’s in my pocket.  I nicked it.  Now can you let go, Corbett – you’re hurting me!’

‘He blackmailed me,’ I sniffed, impressing Karl with a new word I’d heard, ‘he told me I could only have me torch back if I paid him five pounds.’

‘Give it her back now, or I’ll flush yer head down the bog when we get back to our dormitory!’

Darren unzipped his waterproof pocket and tossed the torch to me in a defeated, babyish gesture. 

 

‘Why didn’t you tell me he was picking on yer?’ Karl asked on the coach back to the West Midlands next day. 

‘I thought he was your mate – Aatchoo!

‘No way!  You got a cold?’

‘Mmmfh.’  It was my fifth sneeze of the journey – and we were only in Llangollen.  I was gloriously happy, though, reinstated to the back row.  Darren, relieved of his position as the gang’s new prince, was relegated to a front seat, near Bateman and his tuna sandwich breath.

I sneezed again, and clamped a sodden hanky over my raw nose.  ‘Oh Karl, I feel proper poorly.  I think I’ve caught Nasreen’s bug.’

 

Karl Corbett might be the most powerful swimmer in our class, but he was no match for either the squally current that was flushing me progressively further out to sea, or the shark whose gargantuan mantrap jaws were snatching ravenously at my ankles.

I bobbed through the merciless ocean, my flaxen head barely breaking the surface as tide and then jaws sucked me down.

Kaaarl!

My feeble scream was swallowed by the wind, but his stricken wail of ‘No, Zo – you can’t die!’ was extraordinarily audible.

The beast opened wide to devour me.  The world turned black and I became aware of a heavy feeling, pinning me down…but it was just the duvet, and Mom’s soft palm brushing across my damp forehead.  She smelt of hand cream; her smile was just as soothing.

‘You’ve been zonked out for hours, sweetheart.  You’re ever so hot.’

I blinked dozy eyes at the Pink Panther alarm clock.  His scrawny feline arms were contorted in the nine o’clock position. 

‘Is it morning or night?’

Ooh – where was my voice?  This phlegmy rasp didn’t sound a bit like me.

‘Morning.  You’ve been asleep since seven last night, my little Rip van Winkle.  You dropped off straight after your tea.  Mind, you looked dead beat when you got home from Wales yesterday.’

‘I was having a nightmare,’ I wheezed.

‘Try not to speak just yet.  Drink this – I’ve made you a Lemsip.’

She gently levered the pillow behind me so I could sit up against it.  I found this simple movement shockingly strenuous.  Not only was I full of cold, there was now a feeble sensation in my bones. 

‘Fancy a bit of breakfast?’

Between snivels, and warming blackcurrant sips, I shook my head.

‘You sure?’  She sounded as surprised as I felt.  ‘I can boil you an egg, or make you a bowl of porridge.  Something nice and easy to eat.’

‘No thanks, Mom.’  For possibly the first time in my life, my appetite had deserted me.  ‘I had a nightmare,’ I continued, ‘about being eaten by a shark.’

Karl’s role in this dream was secret – I couldn’t explain why, it just was – so I made no mention of his ill-fated rescue endeavours.

I couldn’t have even if I wanted to, for I at that moment dissolved into a coughing fit.  The dynamic barks forced themselves up through my scratchy throat, leaving my little body pummelled and exhausted.

Mom swiftly relieved me of the jerking mug and administered a couple of neat pats to my back.

‘I expect going down that mine sent all kinds of bugs whizzing round your system,’ she said, ‘I don’t know what them teachers were thinking of, making you go through all that.  Come on, bab, let’s tuck you in.  I’ll get Dr Dunn out.  You know, when you were a tot you used to have nightmares about the man from the R. Whites advert hiding in our fridge, stealing all the lemonade.’

Despite feeling limp, I giggled.  Mom’s fussing could grate, but a week away from it had taught me just how wonderful it was to be petted.  During that gruelling Welsh odyssey, I’d made several mental notes never to take my parents for granted again.

‘I don’t remember that.’

‘You did.  You could never go to the fridge on your own in case the secret lemonade drinker jumped out in his pyjamas and started singing.’

‘How odd!’  I was startled by the lofty tone I adopted, as though it was years and years since I’d been ‘a tot.’  Whilst part of me was babyishly loving the nuzzly warmth of my soft little bed, the other part felt so terribly grown-up all of a sudden.  No doubt my week of challenges and independence was accountable – but I also sensed it had an awful lot to do with that dream featuring Karl and a shark.

‘You get some rest now,’ Mom clucked, jolting me back into childhood, ‘just shout if you need any more drinks, or books or anything.  Do you want the telly on?’

(So now I was genuinely poorly, she was encouraging me to watch the ‘idiot box.’  Adults could be most fickle!)

‘As long as that advert doesn’t come on!’ 

‘You can always turn it over if it does,’ she chuckled, laying the remote control on top of my blanket and dropping a kiss on to my chapped cheek.  ‘I’ll look in on you later, OK?’

All through Wacaday, I thought of Karl.  My eyes were focused on Timmy Mallett whacking kids with a giant foam mallet while being very raucous in a Hawaiian shirt, but my mind was on him, and the bizarre emotions he was starting to induce.

Dreams enthral me.  My shark epic was what I now recognise as my first vaguely sexual fantasy (quite literally, a wet dream).  Though I had not the vocabulary to express this at the time, it represented not – as might be expected from me – a tomboyish hunger for adventure in lethal seas, but a peculiarly feminine need to be rescued and protected.

After standing up to Darren for me in the mine (‘standing’ not being the operative word in that narrow chasm), Karl, my partner in crime, fellow tree-climber and gunge-mixer, took on a new, heroic mantle.  I relived that rather ludicrous underground scene a thousand times, until his masterfulness reached Greek god proportions in my mind.  Karl was just four months older than me, yet the manner in which he’d threatened to flush Darren’s pretty head down the loo was so dauntlessly adult.  Like a man – or a teenager at the very least.

To think I’d suffered in silence all those months, under the misapprehension that the Fisher dork was his new best friend!  When it came to the proverbial crunch, Karl took my side without question.  How could I help but admire and be grateful to him?

But was gratitude all I felt?

Had gratitude bred the flock of butterflies that appeared to have set up home inside my stomach?

Was gratitude the reason my face was blazing from merely thinking about him?  Even accounting for my current fluey temperature, I was disturbingly crimson.

A handful of the more mature girls in my year were ‘going out’ with boys: a practice which appeared to involve a good deal of hand-holding and sporadic, most unsavoury-looking kissing.  The girls who had yet to attain this worldly status spent their time mooning over lads and pop stars. 

I remained stubbornly immune to this Soppy epidemic that seemed to have struck down every other eleven-year-old in Sedgley.  Boys, as I explained previously, were playmates to me – nothing more.  I was never going to snog, or have boyfriends, or get married.  Neither was I ever going to wear skirts – except for school, where they were a compulsory component of our evil uniform.  Skirts and dresses were the preserve of the ‘pretty’ – and as the girls who were thus labelled tended to be the ones with boyfriends, I never wanted to be pretty either.

So there!

But beneath lurked a suspicion I might be developing – what was that awful term I heard Mom use…a squash?  No – a crush!  When she was not much older than me, she had one on somebody called Billy Fury. 

A crush!  It sounded like a sickly kind of orange drink.  I didn’t like it one little bit – and every nerve in my obstinate body was going to fight it.

Thus was I resolved as I sank into yet another sleep.  A tranquil, sharkless sleep this time.  I awoke to find Karl sitting on the edge of my bed.

‘Look who’s come to visit you,’ Mom was saying, from somewhere.

I was looking.  To the extent that I saw nothing else, not even Mom.  My flu-gummed eyes were fixed on him.  Perched on the bed in his West Bromwich Albion shirt, balancing a hoard of comics on his knee.  His grin was winningly cheeky, yet his gaze just as winningly kind – in short, all a girl could want in one face.

‘I’ve come to see how you are.  I thought you might like summat to read.  In case you get bored, like.’

I became shamefully conscious of my sexless cotton pyjamas and snotty face.  Things I would never have minded Karl seeing before The Shark Dream changed everything.  I chastely yanked my covers up until nothing below my nose was visible.

‘Ta, Karl,’ I coughed through the sheets.

‘I’ll leave you pair alone for a minute,’ came Mom’s voice from the door, ‘the doc should be here soon.’

All was silent for a stilted eternity.  Not a mutual silence between two mates, but a bashful pause between a Boy and a Girl.

‘Thanks for Thursday, Karl,’ I spluttered, better late than never, ‘you know, Darren and – ’

‘That’s OK.’  Unusually, he seemed embarrassed, modest.  ‘He was gerrin on me nerves.  Ha, did you see his face, though – how terrified he looked?’

‘He went white!’

‘And his little voice went all squeaky.  Oooww, you’re hurting me!  What a wet!  He can’t pick on anyone his own size, can he?’

I was sniggering devilishly along with Karl now.  His humour was more infectious than my germs, and good for thawing tension.

‘But I thought you were mates with him,’ I resumed my earlier theme.

‘He started hanging round with Shane a few months back – they live in the same street, see – then he kind of wormed his way into the gang.  I’ve never really liked him.  He’s a right little creep, always sucking up to the teachers.  But I didn’t know he teased you.  I thought you’d just stopped coming out ’cos you was bored with us, like.’

‘Nah!  It was ’cos of him.’

‘Well from now on, you’ve got to tell us if anyone starts mythering you.  Me and the lads’ll sort ’em out!’

‘Will yer?’  My lips couldn’t help stretching into a grin.  It was undeniably flattering to know a lad would cheerfully duff up a bully on one’s behalf.  ‘You’d do that for me?’

‘You’m one of me best mates, Zo.’

Am I?’

‘Yeh.  You’re a good laugh.  We’ve all missed yer.’

A lovely warmth swelled inside me like a rising cake.

Karl had missed me! 

I was one of his best mates, and he’d missed me!

I knew even then I would remember that moment for the rest of my life.

It was interrupted by Mom, with Dr Dunn the family GP, in tow, sporting his customary uniform of grave face and stethoscope.

‘You don’t have to go yet, Karl.’  There was a faint note of panic in my voice as he stood up.

‘I’ll come back tomorrow, mate.  Dad wants me to help him wash the car in a bit.  For extra pocket money, like.  Hope you enjoy the comics.’

 

I lived in bed for a further fortnight.  Getting up was barely an option.  It was all I could do to hoist my heavy head from the pillow.  After five days of scrambling over rocks and wading through pits, simple missions to the bathroom zapped me of the little energy I possessed. 

The doctor ambiguously diagnosed a ‘viral infection.’  Whatever it was, it knocked me about.  Every cough and sneeze was an effort, and sounded pathetically spluttery, like I was auditioning to be an orphan in Oliver.  I had never been so achy and lethargic – and, touch wood, never have since.

When I slept, which I did virtually continuously, I dreamed of him; when I awoke, I was capable of virtually nothing bar flicking through the TV channels or flipping through the Beanos Karl brought daily.

During the second week, a Mizz of Faye’s inadvertently found its way into this comic stockpile.  Not surprisingly, I had never read one before.  Though tomboyish pride barred me from admitting such a thing, I was fascinated.

Its pastel pages bore jaunty articles about acne, bras, diets, A-Ha and periods.  Ah, periods – they were those things we’d had a talk on last term.  A tall, horsy girl in my class by the name of Philippa Brown was known to have Started, and managed to wag PE once a month by virtue of being On.

This magazine was an education.  I acquired some worthy life skills – for example, that a pencil placed beneath one’s breast could determine whether one required a brassiere.

If the pencil stays in place, yes you do need one.  If it does not, you can go braless for a little bit longer.

Feeling strangely dirty and furtive, I slithered out of bed, stripped off my pyjama top and stood ceremoniously before the mirror to try the experiment.  A purple Berol was employed for the task, in the immediate absence of a pencil.

Despondently guessing my fat young boobs would be prime candidates for a heavy-duty support garment, I was amazed when the pen rolled down my ribs and landed, with a little somersault, on the carpet.

Where had my chest gone?

And where, I wondered, gaping at the withered waif in the mirror, was my tummy?  The potbelly that provided Darren Fisher with so many feeder lines was virtually concave.  Now I didn’t merely sound like an Oliver chorus member.

That reflection couldn’t possibly be me.  That little girl was scraggy and lanky, whereas I was the class colossus; an ungainly lump.

But come to think of it, I had taken virtually nil by mouth for weeks.  The meals in Wales were barely digestible – by turns charred, raw, stringy and pappy – then the illness rendered me too tired and tender to eat.  Only in the last few days had I progressed to the slurping-Complan-through-a-straw stage.  Even Avril’s ‘get well’ present, the bowl of ethereal-looking meringues she sent Karl round with on Monday, had proved an ordeal.

In that case then, it was not amazing at all that I should have so dramatically shed my body lagging.  No wonder either, I thought as I urgently pulled my top back on, that I was freezing.  Darren couldn’t call me pig anymore, that was for sure.

Darren wouldn’t be calling me anything for much longer – as I learned during one of Karl’s daily pilgrimages to my sick bed.

These pilgrimages – sometimes with Shane, or the recently recovered Nasreen, but mostly alone – intensified my secret hero-worship.  It is hardly surprising Karl lives in my heart to this day (albeit a hitherto sealed chamber of my heart) – he really was an absolute poppet. 

‘I’ve got some good news about Daz Fisher,’ he announced.  I was much better by now; still drowsy, but well enough to dress (today in jeans and a Garfield sweatshirt), eat solids and advance from my bed downstairs to the sofa.  ‘He won’t be coming up to Capewell with us lot in September.’

‘No?’

‘He’s going to The Beeches, you know, that snobby school in Wolverhampton.  His mommy wanted to get him away from us rough kids.’

Us rough?  He’s the spiteful little brat, more like!’

‘I know, but mommykins thinks the sun shines out of his…oh well, good riddance to bad rubbish, I say.’

‘Too right!  Er…Karl, it’s me birthday on Wednesday.’  Between all my dozing and sneezing, it had in fact escaped my mind that this was the case until Dad had asked how I might like to celebrate it.  ‘Me, Mom, Dad and Granny are going to a restaurant.  They said I could…er…bring a friend.  Wanna come?’

‘Yeah, all right.  Going for a Big Mac, are we?’

‘No, this is a proper restaurant.  It’s a Little Chef near Bridgnorth.’  Big Macs indeed!  McDonald’s parties were so 1982 – sophisticated eleven-year-olds went to Little Chefs and dined on cherry pancakes with ice cream.

It was a very no-frills meal, but my first for a fortnight that consisted of neither Complan nor soup, and for that reason I remember it as a feast.  My appetite restored, I devoured every last chip and cherry.  Granny Danks, noticeably distraught at the sight of my gaunt body, tipped her leftovers on to my plate also, whispering with a wink that I ‘needed fattening back up.’

School life took a marked upturn after my recovery.  I was the centre of attention on my first day back, with everyone – even girls – showing solicitous concern for my health, and astonishment at my dramatic weight loss.  A gruff ‘Are you better?’ even passed nasty old Bateman’s lips. 

Darren Fisher never so much as spoke to me again – for which I was highly grateful – though I suspected this resulted more from his awe of Karl than my having discarded the lard he’d spent so long deriding.  Since word had got around that Fisher did not exactly live up to his Blue Peter image, the class had ostracised him.  I now pitied rather than feared him, seeing him for what he was: a pathetic milksop who picked fights with girls.  He looked so lonely and shrunken in the front row desk, with his beauty spot and his neat rows of pencils.

My final term at Holly Lane Primary School was as carefree and placid as befitted my youth – all thanks to a certain boy.

He and I remained inseparable through a wonderful summer – at the end of which lay untold fun, games and dangers, as we made the transition to ‘big school.’

Strictly B-list

So this year’s Strictly couples have been announced.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/strictlycomedancing/couples/

To be honest, I’m a bit ‘hmm?’ about this line-up.  I had to look up who some of these people are.  Is Ronnie Wood’s ex-wife actually famous for anything other than being ditched by a Rolling Stone?  I actually think the professional dancers are more well-known.

These celebs seem a bit ‘ITV’ – more like the calibre of contestants you’re more likely to see on Dancing on Ice (a show I also enjoy and am not slagging off).  Perhaps due to the credit crunch the Beeb can’t afford anyone A-list?

I am sure they will grow on me, though.  And I know, whatever I say about the celebs, and about the fact that the wonderful acerbic Arlene has been sacked as a judge in favour of Alesha Dixon, that I will not miss a minute of the series, which starts on 18th September.  It is still my favourite programme by a mile.

We Wuz Rocked

Yesterday I saw the wonderful We Will Rock You at the Birmingham Hippodrome. It was truly spectacular – probably, I would say, better than the London production we caught back in 2005.

This touring production stars Kevin Kennedy, alias Curly Watts of Corrie fame, who does a great job as the old hippie Pop, former X Factor finalist Brenda Edwards, who has such unbelievable energy, as the Killer Queen, and Jonathan Wilkes, famous among other things for being Robbie Williams’ best mate, as the evil Khashoggi who wears sunglasses indoors and sports a Hitler Youth-blond quiff.

The two leads, Alex Gaumond as Galileo and Amy Hathaway – who, unbelievably, was actually the understudy – as Scaramouche, demonstrated incredible gusto, as did Wayne A. Robinson as the incongruously named tough guy Britney Spears and Georgina Hagen as Meat (as in Loaf).

The storyline – though derided by critics as silly – is a satirical dig at the increasingly ‘manufactured’ nature of modern music and the consequent dearth of ‘real’ music featuring instruments, and features plenty of typical Ben Elton humour.

A vast number of songs – to name but a few, Radio Ga Ga, Killer Queen, Under Pressure, A Kind of Magic, Headlong, One Vision, Who Wants to Live Forever, These Are the Days of Our Lives and, of course, We Will Rock You – are woven into the story in a skilful, non-cheesy way.

This show is so much more than a musical. The experience is more comparable really to a gig. The fans are encouraged to clap and sing along. Yesterday’s matinee crowd were really up for it, and gave three standing ovations.

I’ve said it before, but the theatre provides a truly addictive buzz for me. I would go and see a show every week if I could. For uplifting escapism the experience cannot be beaten.

WWRY

I am addicted…

…to Harlan Coben novels.  The American crime writer piles twist upon increasingly dark twist, while also raising many a wry smile with his use of plentiful gallows (pun intended) humour in his witty thrillers.

The one I have on the go at present is The Woods, but I have read about seven of his books back-to-back in the last couple of months.  The stories just suck you in.  I adore the way he writes.  It’s so inspiring.  I would love even a quarter of his success in the literary field.

Girlie Weekend

I am delighted to say I finally have a publication date for TV Spa-Dom!!! It is going in the 17th October edition of My Weekly magazine and is being renamed Girlie Weekend!!

I will have a good week that week, as by coincidence Flash Harry is going into Yours magazine on 20th October! The dates are on the calendar. This news has cheered me up, especially after I received another rejection letter from Take a Break yesterday. Apparently Heather’s Headache is not suitable for their requirements. Nice to know I am not totally worthless.

As far as my novel is concerned, I am still greatly enjoying working on The Four Matthews. Writing gives me such a high.  Creating characters and situations is so wonderful.  It makes me feel as though I have such power at my fingertips.

Magnalonga

Mum and I had a wonderful day today at Magnalonga, the annual seven-mile walk around the gorgeous town of Ludlow in Shropshire which offers participants, at each stage along the route, a five-course meal of locally produced ingredients. 

We were unbelievably lucky with the weather. It has been one of the nicest days of the year. If we’d been caught in heavy rain, the like of we have seen a lot of lately, it would have been dreadful.

To summarise, these were the courses we had and the stops we made along the seven-mile course:

1. Snack: bag of Tyrrells sweet chilli and red pepper crisps and bottle of water to get us going from Dinham Bridge. We were provided with a souvenir glass for our drinks along the way. A group of young violin players were performing at the start point.

2. Starter: cheese, tomato and pesto quiche, washed down with ‘Andromeda’ organic Herefordshire cider, in the back garden of a house, kindly donated for the day by a Mr and Mrs Moore, at Priors Halton. A nice jazz trio provided the music here.

3. Main course: sausage and leek hash, with Oliver’s pear cider, at Ludlow Food Centre on the A49.

4. Dessert: scrummy yummy chocolate pots, with Ludlow Brewing Company beer (don’t like beer so didn’t partake), at Felton Farm. Music was provided here by a young girl playing the violin.

5. My fave course (as you might imagine) – yummy cheeses with oatmeal biscuits in the grounds of Elm Lodge Hotel, washed down with Ludlow Festival Cider, which was pressed at last year’s Ludlow Food Festival. The cheeses were Ludlow Blue, Oakly Park Cheddar and ‘The Cheese With No Name,’ so called because a competition was run to find a name for this new local cheese but none of the entries were up to scratch, hence the name stuck! This latter one, which was quite similar to Brie, was actually my favourite cheese. Music came courtesy of an Indian guy playing a flute.

6. Finally a wee sloe gin was served at the finish point, back at Dinham Bridge.

It was a brilliant day with a lovely friendly, community atmosphere. We saw some picturesque scenery and met some nice people. I will definitely be back.

Ludlow9

Ludlow5