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Wood, Talc and Mr. J: We never had it so good... (The Rowlings Years Book 1)



‘... We are such stuff
As dreams are made on...’

‘… stop,’ echoed the honeyed tone. ‘It’s your stop.’ For another evening it belonged to the rare attraction one seat on, in the coat – real mink from where I was sitting. Pushing thirty-five and still as sexy as Venus. As long as she parked herself upfront, so would I.

I sprang to jump the stairs before my 49 pulled away, when my rare attraction’s hand seized my hood’s furry bit, restraining me between top and bottom. She leant over the banister and thrust her glass-blue eyes into my own.

‘I smoked your cigarette,’ she said. ‘’Thought it’d be a waste hangin’ in your mouth. And one o’ these days, you must to take me to that place you dream about. Màlaga, is it?’

Màlaga? Now who was dreaming? But a “place” I frequented too often.

‘And who’s Jess?’ she wanted to know.

‘You... mean Jed?’ Though there was something else: ‘I… didn’t swear, did I?’ You never swore in public back then.
‘No,’ she said, releasing my furry bit with a smile I couldn’t quite read.

My dirty double-decker stammered away analysis-free for a more urgent concern: a stagger from bus stop to house via a near third of the estate, nights drawing in. It wasn’t Hell but a close ally. I was acquainted with Hell, I’d just spent the day there.

As one house resembled the next, I tugged at the old swathe for warmth, when from a side-street emerged an intense beam. My routine attempt at self-preservation was to prod my fingers into my ears and produce the loudest Johnny Weissmuller yodel possible – something I’d learned watching Saturday morning Tarzan films. For if ever I’d need reminding where I was and at what time of year, I could rely on one of these here indifferent machines blocking my path. Most people referred to them as ice cream vans.

Hearing its route wouldn’t be my own, I might have made a dash for it. But not on a Wednesday. The world still had it in for me on a Wednesday.

The candidate for Britain’s worst TV theme tune emanated from a house in whose privet I was now enmeshed. The digits were re-prodded.
‘I say,’ nudged some woolly-coated lady, out of the dark, ‘you’re setting my dog off. He thinks you’re crying.’

The more-wiry-than-woolly animal was hurling a distressed glare, and so I told her I’d got a bit of Curly Wurly in my pocket if she was interested, disentangling myself from the bush’s clutches and patting the dog’s head. The trouble, she said, was that the toffee tended to get stuck in his teeth, which made him panic.

I then stumbled on the notion this episode had happened to me yesterday, while I was sure they’d never air Magpie on consecutive evenings...? I hoped the answer lay with the lads leaning against a lamppost, looking every bit an ad for The Fenn Street Gang. I knew the brother of one; the other was a stranger. I approached with a nod.

The former nodded back and produced a packet of 10 Park Drive from a Birmingham Bag knee-side pocket faster than Kid Curry drew a gun, assuming I was about to request one of his short white sticks and space against their grimy-green prop. The stare was perplexed, on my enquiring which days Magpie came on. ‘Tuesdays and Fridays,’ he said.

‘I thought you said he was cool,’ spat El Gringo, as I lurched away with an unwanted truth.

However long it took from here, intuition dictating, I’d raise my head and sight her. Silhouetted by our more neighbourly streetlight, she neared the house’s side-garden gate. That figure. That indefatigable soul. A generator of the spirit vital to all working-class households – in November, November was the worst.

That’s what she was for me then: a midweek beacon in the dark.

She called round after work Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Her fiercest comment, scurrying through the kitchen, would be ‘By heck, it’s a cold un!’ Her prey would suffer a frozen-handed slap on the back of the neck, usually mine. ‘Sod off’ or ‘Git’ would be my typical, light-hearted response to her fun-loving, laddy antics. I kept my more honest sentiment for the place called Under My Breath. How else to react before the lady’s glee? She was my grandma after all.

It was a stop-off between work, bingo and home. Why then would she miss ‘nippin’ by on the way’? Even if her nippin’ bys lasted two hours and, as a rule, ended with ‘Christ, I’ll miss my tombola at this rate!’ Tuesdays and Thursdays were reserved for her other maternal duties: calling on her younger son’s family. I was thankful my dad didn’t have more siblings.

We not only met in front of the house, but, along with that younger son, worked in the same mill. The authentic satanic type. The only thing lacking was cholera, which I’d have accepted to keep me away. My grandma, or ‘grom’, never saw it like that. She was of an old breed: ‘What do you want, The Ritz? ’Should be grateful you’ve got a job...’

She’d been a truck driver in World War Two, as a transporter of steel for arms. She’d also lost my granddad to seventy-a-day forty years previous but had naturally remained faithful to his name. They said work kept her going. I’d not turned eighteen and it was killing me off.

The reason we worked in the same place but met in front of the house was down to an impasse on my part, even if she finished an hour earlier than me. There were two bus routes home: the longer, ugly one; and the shorter, uglier one. I took the former, she the latter, the one that penetrated Hell’s bowels like a lion into the night, while mine ducked and dived, helped on by a handful of trees.

I’d only once committed the gaffe of asking her to wait for me at her stop, to accompany her Chez Nous, since every evening she’d indulge in a little tripe-hunt first, hence the lost hour. I didn’t so much learn anything that day as have my worst fears confirmed.

* * * * *

Instead of waiting at the bus stop, she’d suggested for all ears that I meet her in the market, to treat me to ‘a bit o’ grub’ before home. She loved that indoor market, it was ‘buzzin’ with life’, whereas I’d have bought a plane ticket to avoid it – she’d taken me for such treats when I was a wee boy, when I had a better view than the grownups. Half of the “life” was on at least four legs.

‘Enjoy your treat,’ snorted my old boss through clouds of tin-solder smoke, as I rinsed off the Sworfega, which should have left me feeling fresh and clean…

My riposte would be eaten by the crash of the weighty door, or shared between that and the resonance of the machinery.

Clocking-out card clinked, I’d made it to the gate before the first of this evening’s assaults: a cry from across the yard, penetrating my abdomen like a sword through butter and pinning me to the wall. Its source was an ex-steel-grinding, now silver-plate-buffing workmate of my grom’s, another who’d never see sixty-five again. Bertha. ‘See you in the mornin’, duck.’

It was like they couldn’t wait.

She wouldn’t hear my colourful rejoinder either; the buffers were all ‘machine deaf’. Hood up, head down, I feigned the same ailment.
At the indoor market, I soon rooted out the old soul: the lady with the audience. She was caressing a hot tea’s pre-war mug the way I would a pint of John Smith’s.

‘’Want one, Phillip?’

I nodded like I meant it.

Parking my legs on my reserved plastic seat, opposite hers, I began to soak up the scenery. We were in the days when tattoos were not so fashionable, more skull and crossbones than Celtic love sign, and if I succeeded in deciphering the odd denizen’s neck-scrawl, it turned out to be the kind I would have preferred to be too far away to read: ‘Made in England’, ‘Kill a Greaser’ and ‘Screw me’. Scary women...

But it wasn’t like I was being rude, because my grom seldom looked into her interlocutor’s eyes, when she talked or listened – not that I’d let that fool me, she was more astute than most. She had a way of absorbing her surroundings. Or she’d appear to take a trip, as if to report back to the man she’d planned to spend her life with. And then she’d spring one on me, with a Joe Frazier-in-his-prime left-hand ‘decker’, as I thought of them.

‘That’s Bert,’ she said, and called over my shoulder: ‘’Want a tea, Bert?’ At least the name sounded like it belonged to an old man, which he turned out to be. He was in a bit of a hurry, too, was Bert, and wondered if he might take up her offer the following evening. What she forgot to tell him was, ‘By the way, Bert, This Is Your Life. But don’t you worry yourself, Bert, because I’m going to recount it all to my grandson.’ She also enlightened me on two thirds of the market: names, jobs and lack of, who’d ‘gone down’ for what, number of kids. It all had me thinking everyone was related.

‘You could write a bleedin’ book about it,’ I said, in my best Harold Steptoe imitation. She loved those.
‘Heyup, Edith,’ rang the welcome from every corner.

And if ever she got the impression I felt left out, she introduced me as her ‘Soul dancin’ grandson’. She knew how to fly my kite: ‘’Stays up all night. Wigan Pier…’

‘I bet he does, the dirty sod,’ shot one of the younger sorts, like the bullet was a bit too fat for the barrel. She stubbed out what remained of her cigarette tip into the bottom of her mug: ‘’No wonder he looks half-dead...’

My short-lived majesty deposed itself, slid under the table and scurried off to play with the four-or-more-legged creatures.

If I was amused by my grom’s fame, I was disturbed by the idea most of these people perhaps spent half their lives here. My grom was lonely enough, despite our love, but…

My mind had no sooner chugged away on another answers-to-life reconnaissance trip when it was propelled back. ‘Let’s have that treat,’ she said, wiping away tears of mirth. As much as I loved to see her laugh, even at my expense, I’d forgotten about ‘‘that treat’’. Arm in mine, her other fluttered to wholehearted cries of ‘See you tomorrow, Edith’, and had me feeling like the Queen Mum’s bodyguard.

Treat Land was known as The Fish Market, just over, this evening via the thumping bass-line of The Jam’s Down In The Tube Station At Midnight reverberating from a second-hand record booth. Rumours the place attracted a Neanderthal-type clientele were confirmed, although it wouldn’t have surprised me to learn she was acquainted with them as well. As the fishy hum grew stronger, I realised I would rather have been down in some tube station, at midnight.

She now proffered the pin-pulled grenade: ‘’Had a win this week.’

She not only spent the rest of her leisure time in the bingo halls, but had a permanent winning streak, which, in most circumstances, leaned in my favour. This wasn’t one of those circumstances. I’d be obliged to yield to her force-feeding.

Years later I’d be forced to view Sly Stallone’s First Blood, by a brother-in-law of the very Yorkshire persuasion – who’d leave my upper-arms in bruises with his How’s-it-goin’-lad greeting and my achy face feeling like the false smile had set in for good. Johnny Rambo’s ex-Vietnam guru – Colonel Sam Trautman – would describe our young muscles in a bandana as having been ‘trained to eat what would make a billy goat puke.’ In doing so, he’d half-define my doting grandmother, who’d trained herself to eat what would make Rambo puke.

‘What would you like?’ she asked me, hovering over a stall.

I faked interest in the emporium of delights, to my dad’s voice grating round my head like a steel wire against a windowpane: ‘Don’t ever let her buy you owt from that hole, there's nowt in there ever seen the sea.’

She was served her usual before we reached the counter. She then granted me a moment’s breathing space by sprinting off to another stall, where she was again catered for without reaching for her purse, as if she had some sort of season ticket. So much for the bingo win.

I requested a tray of what, for me, were still a tad too pink and measly-looking – I didn’t say as much. I also went with a rushed expression, to be served before she got back, though not too many, patting a ‘full’ belly, naughty but nice.

But my efforts proved pointless when, making to place that second crustacean between my lips, I was made to jump out of my own skin.
‘Kevin, get ’ere!’

I did, I jumped, prawns to the floor, vinegar down my trousers.

Without batting an eyelid, the man behind the counter refilled my tray with a greater quantity, while Kevin, the five or six-year-old waif, gaped up like Oliver Twist, wiping his nose on a tattered sleeve. And so I offered Kevin a prawn, two, three, more – he was doing me a favour – until Dr Marten-booted mum wrenched him to a corner among other young wretches and another post-apocalyptic-like elder of indeterminate sex.

‘This place gets worse,’ sputtered my grom, between chunks of raw sausage, like some... like an insatiate cormorant. And it was all Candid Camera rescue-free.

As she wiped herself off with a tissue no less ancient, by the looks, I compared her to the unfortunate friend I’d recently made and lost. She’d been a waif her whole life in a sense. She’d battled through two World Wars, the second one alone. For Kevin, I couldn’t fathom it, not in 1978. If there was mass unemployment, there was always social security.

‘What have I done with the thing?’ She rummaged through her shabby, taupe bag, that once endless supplier of goodies those three evenings a week, with or without a bingo win. Into its magical depths her leathery hand would slide, and out would materialize a comic. Dr Who and his war against the Daleks...

The second Doctor was my second hero when I was a lad, second to my dad. Who could forget the day Mr. Hartnell plummeted to the Tardis’ console room floor and transformed into Mr. Troughton? I was at the impressionable age of five and, like all, had never before witnessed the act of Regeneration. In later years I’d prefer to trust the programme’s opening sequence of psychedelic imagery and spaced-out music had been my main attraction, had made me hip in spite of my tender age. But it was more down to scenes as when, around Christmastime, the Cybermen were popping out of grates in central-London and one of the slinky, silvery fellows hounded my favourite Doctor down a side-street. That shot up the bum left him hopping, skipping and jumping off to the Brigadier like a secular turkey, and my sister and me rolling around the floor for the next two years.

My grom wasn’t teasing now, shattering my daydream with ‘I am a bloody fool!’ She’d since recovered the flimsy sachet housing her main dish, which had split and allowed the juice to seep havoc. She was more concerned the raw tripe would be all the tougher without its vinegar base. ‘Stand here, darlin’,’ she said, tugging at my sleeve, that I shield her from other eyes. ‘It’s already a sod for gettin’ stuck in your teeth.’

I didn’t concern myself with her next move for a looming crisis of my own. My dad’s words had turned out to be wise words.
Except my grom would jerk me back like only she could.

With thumb and middle finger, she thrust aside her cheeks, yanked out the choppers, which she slid into the sodden sack, replaced them with the offal-load, and commenced mastication, otherwise defying description. Maybe she resembled some, as yet undiscovered, deep-sea species. Or something from another solar system.

I opted for the space theme with ‘Beam me up, Scotty.’

‘I know I shouldn’t when I eat out,’ she began to explain, spitting on my coat again, ‘but my gums are harder than my teeth.’
She’d one day end up sprawled across one of these slabs, I warned, with a hook in her mouth. All it then took was my resigned ‘Bon appétit’, to catapult us to Planet Hysteria, tears driven by the day’s smoky intake, by the vinegar’s sting, by her riotous self. And maybe by a thought spared for needy little Kevin, too...

I was grateful to snatch whatever fresh air I could in the city’s centre during the rush hour, though couldn’t help noticing we had a lot of space to ourselves, in the queue and on the bus. Things became clearer when people sitting downstairs developed sudden urges to go upstairs, as if remembering they were smokers, surrendering their seats to anyone.

‘’Lights are nice,’ said my grom. ‘’Best in England, Sheffield’s lights. They come from Blackpool to see these.’

‘It’s September.’

‘It’s October turned.’

Which changed everything and implied I was being my usual humbug. I didn’t dislike Christmas just the four-month build-up, even at my green age. The faintest jingle of Wizard’s I Wish It Could Be… Everyday played like a repellent. I’d reach the shop doorway and spin on a heel, denying myself the window display shirt I’d studied for the last two months.

Famous lights behind us, our once white bus entered the once famous industrial estate on the east side, its heart not so much pumping as ticking over. The glory days were gone for our erstwhile empire-building men of steel, and while a few were throwing admirable rearguard punches, an iron lady was glaring on from the ringside. And she’d neglect the Queensbury rules…

… or so they’d say. I came to life on Fridays. And all but died on Mondays, when resumed the narcolepsy, the falling asleep standing, the reverie, the pining for Friday to work its too drawn out route round again. I suffered from an incurable disease: a fear of factories. It was hereditary. During many of his The-Fifties-were-better-than-today tirades, my dad would brag of having had sixty different jobs in a week, that you could do that then, just nip from one place to the next. He never clarified why he’d had sixty jobs. I knew why.

Our conductor proposed an assortment of coloured square tickets from his tinny machine, colours depending on the price of the journey. I paid ten pence and got a red one, which might have taken me as far as Barnsley without my grom’s guidance. She waved a free-travel pass, indicating she was retired. ‘’Somebody died on here?’ he said, handing me my ticket, other hand clasping his nostrils.

‘Nay, it’s a fact,’ added a flat-capped chap opposite. ‘’Awful, that is.’

I was less prepared for what was to come.

‘Too fuckin’ right!’ a more raucous voice resounded, belonging to someone hankering after camaraderie-type approval.

She was sitting at the back like some contender for Big Daddy this coming Saturday. A mirage: fireworks; Roman Candles ejaculating their multicoloured balls, our perennial host, Dickey Davis, sporting the blinding edge of silver-tinted tuff. That whatever-could-Grandstand-offer-you-more way of his...

No doubt aggrieved at having been forced to occupy three seats of our lower deck, the wrestler chewed on an un-tipped, un-lit cigarette.
But she’d backed a loser this time.

Vulgarity before women was unacceptable – and from women? Even the market lot only did it in print. It was the case up North in any event, if Punk was already old news. She’d never get away with it in a confined space.

Each passenger’s face displayed revulsion, arms were folded, while the conductor reared a ready-to-rebuke finger. Except my grom beat him to it. ‘Do you mind,’ she pronounced, getting to her feet, ‘there's ladies present.’

She re-sat to deafening applause of the silent variety, before re-placing her arm through her grandson’s, and leaning my way: ‘’Gettin’ worse, the foul mouthed bleeders.’

It must have depended on the particular words, I told myself.

Whatever, no-one appeared to mind us stinking like pickled onions anymore. For Madam Crudity, nothing escaped from her dynamically censured orifice until she alit, and even that was inaudible – though the two fingers she rammed against our window spoke volumes. She couldn’t have been a regular.

And so continued my white-knuckle ride, during which my escort pushed me to open my eyes, pointing out each and every hellhole. She quoted its name, depicted its speciality in bloodthirsty detail, and enlightened me on every wretched soul slaving therein, factory, after factory, after...
The district’s name was Attercliffe, from ‘At the cliff’, according to my dad. I’d half lived here as a child.

In the summer holidays, mum and dad at work, my sister and me would stay at our maternal grandparents’, but in those days it was real Coronation Street terrain, with as many un-inventible characters. A cousin and me would often be targeted by an elderly, very fit one: Batty, who’d either dye her hair a different colour every day, or all the colours in one day. We’d find her Picasso-like tints too much and yell ‘Parrot face’ each time she stepped out of her door, provided we’d not strayed too far from ours. Occasionally, she’d catch us out and the only other safe haven would be our toilet, stationed at the far end of the large communal yard. ‘Come out, you sods!’ she’d shriek, punching the door, leaving us with no option but to shed a tear. It would all finish up in a brawl between Batty and the other neighbours, allowing our naughty-if-desperate selves to sneak out and off.

Funny, how my memories of those days recur in black and white, barring Batty’s hairdos...

We’d now coughed onto the old high street, at one time unofficially known as Sheffield’s Golden Mile, for its number of pubs. Teddy boys, I was told, would place bets on who could down half a pint in each, from one end to the other, and keep on his feet. It was meant to make a man out of you.

The houses had since been reduced to rubble, as had most of the pubs, only to be unearthed one per mile if you knew where to look. Shift workers no doubt maintained the profits in most, though the prime clientele of a few were the second generation Teddy boys, who maybe felt more at home down here, and less like living anachronisms.

The real remnants of those bygone days were the factories, some so sinister-looking they gave me nightmares.
‘’Dancin’ Friday?’ my grom nudged. If I’d passed out, this was the question to revive me. I felt half-alive – hopeful. ‘Watch this old feller get on here,’ she said, the question a mere ruse to get my attention. She nodded to where he’d sit: side-seat facing the driver and they’d idly chat. She spoke of the years he’d been using this... terror truck, and praised the good Lord for keeping the ‘lucky ol’ soul’ in the same job, current work-climate and all. Before her voice, once again, waned, withered into the distance...

… except I’d not switched off this time. I aimed a careful eye. He looked somehow wiser than the other commuters, more alert, and neater, like he made a real effort. I asked whether his sandwich box was new...

‘He’s had it years.’

... and hooked a malodorous thumb between my teeth.

‘Now he takes pride in his work,’ she said. ‘That’s why he’s still…’ And then stopped, for a double-take, repeating the single instance she’d glanced my way the whole journey: ‘You’re lookin’ a bit white, ’you alright?’

It was thanks to that same younger son of hers that I’d been allotted five years to make my way in the world, with pewter – that tinny stuff – under the strictest supervision and at this time of year before sunrise and past sunset. The rest of the world, apparently, wasn’t so lucky – I’d be a craftsman one day! As per an American I met in Worksop, at a record stall…

But then who was to say yon dandy was grateful? Reconciled to his fate, did he put on a show? Or did he look just too... just too hard-nosed for…?

   Like Ebenezer Scrooge before me, all I saw at present was my ghost of the future.

And I’d make light of it the only way I knew, by badgering my grom: ‘How much is a ride on the Ghost Train these days?’
‘In Skegness? No idea.’

They could save their money on here, I said.

‘And he calls me senile…’

I flew upstairs leaving my grom to her black pudding dessert – she made a great alibi; her eating habits were a fascination for us all. I tore away every last piece of clothing and pressed them into a plastic bag, which still wouldn’t prevent their vinegary, industrial reek from uniting with the unflagging tang of my mum’s wood polish. I sank onto my bed and hauled up the black leather record box from beneath. Its contents would form my blanket, a blanket of paper and vinyl… my silver and gold. I gazed out to a dark, starless sky.

What price, my weekends? The dedicated nights. My Northern Soul...

* * * * *

That was the reason I’d never take my grom’s bus home. And why we met in front of the house. As on this Wednesday evening, as if we timed it.
‘Nice day at work?’ She wouldn’t wait for an answer: ‘Hey, it’s a…’

And I wouldn’t wait for that wintry palm of hand. I’d since darted up the path. She ran behind with that hoarse laugh of hers.
We stepped into the steamy kitchen together.

‘They’re here, the workers,’ rang my mum’s ever cheery welcome.


‘Now is the winter of our discontent made…’

I directed the parka at the cubby hole, otherwise referred to as the ‘storm cupboard’, beneath the stairs, the place my sister and me had spent many a befuddled night – because we occupied the last house on the block, my dad suffered ‘gable-end’ attacks, sparked as they were by the slightest weather rumble: ‘One strike o’ lightnin’ in the right place’, we could have ended up on the pavement nursing sore heads before the thunder had even clapped. I wedged myself between the table and wall, to my mum’s eternal amusement. I once thought of writing to Roy Castle to see if there was a record for the world’s smallest kitchen, and this was after my dad’s architectural adjustment.

* * * * *

One summer’s evening he came home from work like he knew something we didn’t, Woodbine in teeth and lump hammer in hand. A man on a mission, he swaggered through the door, glared at the pantry, and smashed it to smithereens. It was as if the old hole had been picking on him years, as if it could talk but only he could hear it.

‘’Not laughin’ now, you bastard!’ I thought I heard him think.

Millie Jackson, a Soul singer with attitude, once boasted of owning a kitchen spectacular enough to blow people’s minds. Well, ours was spectacular enough to blow my mum’s.

‘Pete,’ she ventured, ‘why didn’t you wait till I’d took the food out first?’ She wouldn’t push it. The whim had no doubt taken hold in the day and that was it...

* * * * *

I clasped my cutlery and inhaled the vapours. The pressure cooker hissed in sync with my stomach’s snarl.

My plate was under my mum’s nose by the time she completed her shrewd hint at slipping me a couple of pancakes to keep me going – my dad didn’t like anyone pigging other than himself. I submerged them in Henderson’s Relish – not unlike Lea and Perrins but unique to Sheffield: Mr. Henderson refused to sell his recipe – and wolfed them in a manner akin to my grom’s offal-gobbling, except I kept my teeth in. It was one of the reasons I took refuge in the kitchen, it being the nearest I got to a conventional starter or dining room. Though there were others.

My dad guzzled in ‘the room’, crunched up in his armchair in front of the telly. I not only rejected the simulated leather sofa but kept as far away as possible, by burying myself into my miniscule trench, as I saw it, unless I sat on the coalbunker in the yard, but that was more a summer quirk.

Although I’d not yet come to the conclusion my dad’s eating practice was an unhealthy one, I was concerned by another destructive force: Calendar. That depressing regional news programme with the depressing musical intro. Depressing presenters presenting death and job loss in depressing locations. Depressing meteorologists predicting the depressing weather, who’d slap fragments of magnetic cardboard onto the northern bit of those depressing British Isles. We’d only recently upgraded to a colour television, which somehow managed to enhance the programme’s greyness. I had a similar aversion to The Magic Roundabout. To tear onto that set and tear out Zebedee’s spring: ‘Jump now, little shit!’

Thank goodness, then, my grom provided real colour with her nippin’ bys. And from my entrenchment I held a bird’s-eye view: of the lady herself, who sat on the sofa; and of my dad opposite. My brother Sam, a ‘latecomer’, cuddled beside his grom and received the same magical goodies treatment I once had, except his thing was Marvel comics. My sister Jenny was never home these days, spending more time with the Yorkshire Rambo to-be.

While I hated teatime television, I was at least able to laugh at their reactions to it. Or more my dad’s reactions to it and my grom’s reactions to his. And I shouldn’t forget the cat. Unable to concentrate on siestas taken with her silverfish friends by the fireplace, her drowsy eyes would sway from my dad to my grom and back again – to the untrained eye, she looked like she was only lacking the umbrella and strawberries. They were more an old couple than mother and son, a genuine northern Alf Garnett and missus.

My mum interred my official pancake-serving beneath a mountain of hash – vaporised chopped-things and meat. I’d first drop in my nose, to scald my cheeks, to cleanse my mind of the day’s excrement as with some ancient Chinese remedy.

Sam leaned over the sofa without falling – his grom grasped the waistband of his pants – in response to my mum’s worry that I’d end up burning my face off. In response to my dad’s suggestion it was possible I’d gone ‘doolally’, and that that was what happened to people who didn’t sleep at night, I called him a warthog, without knowing what I meant or caring to. What I knew was that we could talk to each other like that. It was our way of dealing with the banalities of a bleak, industrial-class midweek.

But if my dad had managed to elicit my first verbal response, my mum would be the one to bring the spiritual cleansing to a close. She’d know just what to say: ‘So how was work today?’ Even my dad deemed it inappropriate, before backpedalling from her glower. My grom then had a go at him, said it was clear for anyone where I got it from.

I didn’t need to say much at all to get the ball rolling and keep it rolling. This was the deciding reason for my enduring the culinary-straightjacket. If teatime telly served as a catalyst for riot, my job would involve casting over a modest contribution, a word, a phrase – bait; like I was holding hemp above a lake of famished fish, a tad of which I’d add from time to time... feeding out my line.

The custom had developed over the last year, my having become a worker. I’d say little for an hour and focus on recovering my health.

All the same, I wouldn’t get too generous with my frugalities. For when my grom deemed it time to put me back in my place, she’d do so, often with alarming delicacy.

In the intervening moments, I’d tap my usual tap, for reinforcement. And, armed to the hilt, new comic in one hand, well-thumbed ones in the other, Sam sprang over like an Olympic athlete. As he flicked through their vibrant pages, I informed the rest of the house that if they should require my attention from here onward, then they’d do it via my ‘intermarry.’

My mum screamed in delighted horror at my semantic error, said there was little wonder I’d ‘not got no qualifications. Do you mean intermedrary?’

My dad’s correction of her linguistic boob sounded more pessimistic.

What neither of them realised was that my malapropisms were intentional. While they nourished the teatime theatre, they also kept the why-I’d-left-school-with-a-blank-sheet interrogations down to a bearable minimum – what neither of them knew also was that, even back then, I was a regular little wordsmith, albeit a very secret one. You weren’t supposed to be clever where I came from...

‘That’s Iron Man,’ Sam pointed, peeping up and down again, his finger bent back on the red and yellow fellow.

The lingering quarter of my hash and pancake mash-up had taken on an air of grout, and so I pushed it aside for a rummage through a Spider Man mag or two. What I’d be likely to marvel at was how the webbed Super Hero’s Super Villains in some way resembled a member of our family. The Lizard was a dead ringer for our grom – especially when she got caught out in Skeggy; she seemed somehow scared of sun-cream. Doctor Octopus was surely my mum’s ultimate whimsy – a duster on every arm! But then my Dad wasn’t a Super Villain for being every part The Mighty, hammer-swinging Thor. ‘The Pantry Pounder.’

I’d made these observations explicit; Sam’s reaction had been to demonstrate authentic signs of respiratory problems. And yet response from the room was inexistent. My requested, if repetitive, Clangers impression proved equally ineffective: those funny little creatures on that funny little planet. Not only were they were Sam’s favourites but they made up a minority of teatime characters I didn’t find so demoralizing – The Wacky Races generated the odd smile; Peter Perfect and Penelope Pitstop. For the impression, I held the page of a comic between my palms and blew against its edge, along to Sam’s legs swinging scissor-fashion...

My grom had only waited until I’d done playing with my little whistle. And crooned: ‘I see the trains are on strike this Friday’, transcending the realms of nonchalance.

I was grateful my mum had none of the same knack. Her nod was too considered: ‘’Don’t suppose Phillip will make Wigan this week, then, eh?’ Though she did ask Sam whether the Clanger had had enough and gone home.

‘Is it still here, Phill?’ he whispered.

I ruffled his hair, my relief as firm as the gunk in my gut – my life depended on that Friday Soul train.

Still, revenge would go for less than a song. It was a rule for some and they should have known better. You didn’t use ‘‘strike’’ as a form of attack in our house, not with my dad about.

He dropped his knife and fork onto an empty plate: ‘Wouldn’t be surprised. Bleedin’ unions.’

And if ever two words made my grom look up, those last two were they: ‘Don’t start with your “bleedin’ unions”, Peter!’

‘Union’ was indeed another of those funny, fish bait words I’d feed out: ‘Mam... you know the three pounds I borrow on Wednesdays... till Friday?’
Her eyes narrowed: ‘What about ’em?’ A purring... catfish.

‘Well, if I didn’t pay... union money, I’d never need to borrow them in the first place.’ It was a naughty thought.

My dad agreed. Why should I have to pay union money?

‘To keep his job,’ his mum scoffed, smirking at the cat.

‘They won’t keep his job,’ he said, in my defence. ‘They’ve destroyed most of ’em round here’ – he’d get all het up and yet he knew I’d have paid the union more to get rid of me.

‘Well, Jeff says…’

But she was cut off: ‘Jeff ought to know better!’ Jeff again, that younger son of hers, my dad’s brother. Mr. Chalk and Mr. Cheese – in younger days, Uncle Jeff wouldn’t eat bacon on a Sunday if Wednesday had lost and United hadn’t, it was a stripes thing. So my dad would taunt him with his extra rashers. He now reminded my grom that Jeff wasn’t so pro-union during the ‘‘Three-Day Week’, when he’d be comin’ over here wantin’ to borrow pub money. Or can’t you remember that far back?’ he said.

She put up an index, warned he wasn’t too old for a clip yet. She was always threatening to hit him.

He’d carry on regardless: ‘No coal. No electricity, no gas.’ Closing with the soft and piteous ‘nowt.’ He regretted not voting for Edward Heath.

My grom then reminded him that he’d once said he’d ‘punch the “big teethed’’ so-and-so on the jaw if ever he came to Sheffield. Or can’t you remember that far back?’

And there he appeared to drift elsewhere.

Meanwhile, my mum went puce. ‘You’re not votin’ for her, Pete,’ she part-enquired, part-ordered. ‘The cow stopped our kids’ free school milk...’

He then reminded her of the nights he’d grafted whilst the rest of the mill snoozed.

‘’Your own silly bloody fault,’ thought my grom.

‘They’d all brought their sleepin’ bags...’

He ought to have done the same, she said. He might not be such a miserable sod.

‘Whenever any got caught, that was it.’ He really did look like he was wearing blinkers at that point, refusing to acknowledge my grom’s very existence. Then came the pause, for the sake of emphasis: ‘… all-out strike.’

She couldn’t see what his problem was: ‘Jeff would’ve lent you one.’

‘Lent him what, Edith?’ asked my mum.

‘A sleeping bag.’

‘Don’t talk to me about unions. I don’t know who said the workin’ man’s his own worst enemy, but, Labour? Never again.’

To place the lid on it, she urged him to put his head in a bucket of water.

And when my mum asked me if I was proud of myself, for having ‘set him off again’, I blamed them, for bringing the subject up. Their reaction was simultaneous clamour, the one sounding like Bob’s knackered stallion down the shire, the other like Stan’s knackered Cortina four doors down, both now agape.

‘Watch out,’ cried Sam, overjoyed at the chance to use his favourite big brother-line, ‘there's a bus comin’!’

Of course, our haughtiness wouldn’t live so long. My grom didn’t settle for defeats.

Having disposed of her son with ease, not that he’d noticed, she began to fiddle with that ever captivating bag. ‘To think I’d brought you a treat,’ she said.

I looked over my shoulder. Before Sam egged me on: ‘Go and get it.’

I was led by forces recognisable – I told myself such, hoisting Sam to a shoulder; I just can’t help it, I said. And once we’d positioned ourselves at either side of our grom – my spot had a defunct towel my mum had placed in preparation – I expressed our mutual regret.

We were exonerated in no time. ‘They’re for you,’ she sighed, as if on some After Eights advert, tendering me a bag of broken biscuits from the market – I suspected she knew I wasn’t keen on broken biscuits, and that I didn’t like saying so. She just couldn’t resist...

‘Look what you nearly missed,’ my mum whistled. ‘Do you want a cup of tea with ’em?’

As a lad, one of the films they’d taken me to see at our local pictures was Billy Liar, with Tom Courtenay, about a character appearing to have created his own little world. During a scene, he stood shaving in front of a wall-mirror while his mum nagged him for what I couldn’t remember. All I’d recorded was how he turned and machine-gunned her to bits, after which ‘reality’ resumed. I’d do likewise with my mum, mostly when she questioned me about work.

This also was one of those moments.

I declined the tea and, from a second-hand paper bag, rooted out two, formerly pink, wafers, a sort no less soggy than the rest but which I could just about stomach. Sam took the fearful remains into the kitchen, acquainted as he roughly was with the ritual. I promised to feast on them later – there was more chance of my dad voting Conservative and I didn’t believe him for a minute. All the time, I couldn’t help thinking that had she spent that penny more, she might have managed a packet edible to humans.

That was my final conscious thought, for a while; the after-tea wave had drawn me under. Hardly surprising considering I hadn’t slept for the last two years, at night at any rate, and had just bolted my way through a dish fit for six pigs.

The last thing I heard was Sam’s thin voice, from a faraway kitchen: ‘Are we givin’ these biscuits to the birds like last time?’

You can buy the book by clicking on the above title or here
................................................................................ girl on scooter pic courtesy of  http://davidmarkphotography.co.uk © ................................................................................ Margaret Thatcher caricature pic courtesy of Julian Osley ©

Nancy Boy: for one year only... (The Rowlings Years Book 2)



wild horses – chevaux sauvages

To state the obvious: dreams are weird. We’re affected more by an atmosphere than anything. They can be cruel, too.
Here’s how Phillip’s more recent, recurrent rib-kicker runs:


He’s alone, outside the house where he grew up. He’s distressed, yet can’t put his finger on why – the “atmosphere”; the lack of light. All’s either black or sepia, like a sickness.

He stands at the end of the path, ready for nowhere. When a flashy-looking car begins to make its way down the street.

This is something special, he feels; his gut all but shouts it out – maybe it does shout it out, it’s a dream! Hesitant on the colour, he settles for a Rolls Royce, which comes to a halt, and out materializes Cindy Crawford, chauffeur’s cap, the full Monty.

She leans on the car door, wearing that gorgeous beam of hers, as if breathing bliss.
Yes, by now, the atmosphere’s changed.

‘He’s one great fella, this pop of yours,’ she winks. And nods back over her shoulder.

Gobsmacked, Phillip looks on as “pop” draws himself from the car’s backseat, beguiling in one of his classic three-quarter length coats; the Tony Curtis-quiff, lacquer-free…

‘Oh, I’ve still goddit, kid,’ smirks his old man – if only Phillip could buy the video; share dreams!

They read each other’s eyes, one of those father-to-son-to-father things – you may have noted Phillip mention them before. That discerning laugh…

‘Well. Aren’t they a pair, honestly!’ huffs mum, at the top of the path, by the front door, unable to keep a straight-face.
‘Aren’t you supposed to be dead, Dad?’ Phillip just about manages…


He’s woken now, in his new single bed, in his new home; in his French studio – in France, of course!

His dad’s been gone about four weeks, and were Phillip to have notched the nightly-recurrent rib-kicker on his bedpost he’d have recorded the exact number of days.

An early-November Saturday morning, he rose to the joys of spring – Phillip Rowlings, living in France! Except the “joys of spring” have come at a price; a psychological, emotional price, which has him paying out in instalments on the never-never...

We’ll get to that soon enough. I just can’t think of a better place to begin, than with those happenings four weeks ago, happenings the first half of this book ought to cover.

I’ll keep to a present tense narrative if you don’t mind, forth and back – I can see there being a lot of that: forth and back; back and forth. But then Phillip is hardly the most conventional of characters…

Four weeks ago:

* * * * *

There’s a card in his casier downstairs.

‘She can’t get enough of me,’ he groans, calm exterior, innards wriggling, recalling a French number by the name of Virginie from a couple of nights back, a student of theatre.

He takes the card outside, into the glaring light of day; the situation warrants sunspecs, à la Jean-Paul Belmondo. Save that the card isn’t from Virginie; it’s from the university, the French one, where he’s studying for a year as part of his degree course – Phillip Rowlings!

M. Rowlings, vous devez appeler l’Angleterre dès que possible; he’s to phone England immediately.

To restrain his heart’s otherwise assured somersault, ‘Anywhere in England?’ he jokes.

He should’ve known this might happen, as when he warned his sister before leaving, philosophically, à la Jean-Paul Belmondo, you know, in A bout de souffle – Breathless? The upshot being he’s to face the world again. Or another world; a world with which he’d sever all ties, putain, were he strong enough. Or bad enough.

Or as bad as they in that other world would have him.

Oh well, he can’t afford a panic-attack at present, not in the sunspecs. Nor the blue-cotton shirt, button-down collar, all the way from Next. The sockless feet, blending into tan loafers…

He’s putting this off.

For today, in the year 1994, that other world presents itself by way of a silver framed, glass-panelled phone box. Like a pedestal of molten steel moulded into its neighbour’s white-washed wall, above which a slick steel railroad runs from Paris to Strasbourg and beyond, like an old dream forever out of reach…

Phillip’s not sure he’d want to live just there, mind you; ‘I mean, if ever there were an accident…’

He clings to the “old dream” by employing the old English subjunctive.

The thing is, there’s someone using the phone, and someone else waiting. And so he waits, too.

It’s only on tasting blood that Phillip determines chewing invisible Wrigley’s hasn’t paid off. He makes a dash around the corner, down to the other cabin, which, today, also feels out of reach.

Francs at the ready, he phones Angela, the wife; squashes the still-novel silver coins into the click-tapping, slivery machine like they’re about to change currency.

His son answers. That’s all that matters.

‘Hiya, Dad,’ sighs an ever carefree James.

And the weight of the world dies a death away, for an uncountable amount of time.

‘Is that your dad?’ Phillip hears. ‘Give me the phone, sweetheart’, recognising a rare sympathy of tone, visualising the hallway he walked out of never to return. ‘I’m sorry to tell you this, there’s no other way: Your dad’s died.’

He goes down in style, Phillip, ready for anything – he’d sign on at the job centre with the same panache; ‘No need to lower your standards,’ he and his younger style-disciple, or brother-in-law on his wife’s side, would quip.

I say he goes down in style, as that’s how he sees it.

For the first time in his life, Phillip realises an out-of-phone cabin, out-of-body experience: he’s in the air, eyes-down for an unlucky dip, viewing the boy inside, the weeping boy, sunspecs clenched in a fist; the blue-cotton shirt, the button-down collar, the tan loafers, Levi’s the right fade for the time of year.

‘No, please, Angela, no!’ cries the boy.

And Phillip, again for the first time, feels sorry for him, the boy. He’s never done that before. Neither for the one nor the other.
‘Oh, Phillip…’ are the last words he deciphers from across the waves, holding the cabin door for someone without a face, as the pavement’s cracks appear all the wider.

It’s along this road-to-nowhere, this wherever-with-purpose, that Phillip learns of a great paradox in death: that, this time, there really is no going back. Phillip’s Rubicon River was the English Channel, post-a fight of fights with his old hero. Save that he deemed these things happened only to other people, chiefly in films and books. And while he’ll never succeed in putting into words his measure of heartbreak, he identifies, on some remarkably guilt-free level, a sense of overpowering… exultation.

He’s alive – he’s alive! He’s… won?

And today, just for today, the world might owe him a favour. No longer is he the foreigner in a foreign country, but, in this evermore familiar city, the king of his domain.

Just today, he fears nothing. Just today…

‘Salut, Philippe!’

He brakes at the call.

‘Ҫa va?’

And on this day of firsts, he’ll deign not to respond: what to say? Drunk on life, he’ll tap a sober tipped Marlboro Red against its pack, for no other reason than le geste; the one employed by all beneath a certain age – ’talk about doing the young American!

Whatever his endeavour to quit, today they can’t touch him.

Pity about the Catwalk Kid, nonetheless, who doesn’t play the game, of all the days. Or maybe misses the game; or shies away, when Phillip might have shared this mournful packet, pitched a bottle of Bordeaux into the moody mélange. And told his life-story at hands-off intervals, now that would have helped.

If only she’d caught on…

In however long, our king will collapse unto his throne, his favoured park bench in his favoured park: Parc de la Pépinière – Nursery Park, in the botanical sense, ’twas made for such events. By the kiosque à musique – the bandstand, construit en 1875, he recalls reading but a week gone.
Structures came never more ethereal – Qui va là? Who goes there? Renoir, you say? Waning into emerald, easel at hand…

… between trees even the English names of which Phillip isn’t yet sure, trees his old dad would have named in a heartbeat, without parks akin in their unfavoured English City of Steel.

The park. Adjacent to the world’s finest square: La Place Stanislas…


Phillip clings to his slippery seat the greater the pull. And passers-by, well, they don’t seem to notice. But go about their business. Of strolling. Of loving, les flâneurs et les amoureux; the kids, the cheeky smile, the furtive pluck at a bagged baguette’s end...

Drawing in the Red’s tipped toxin, our leading actor must yield to the years, must heed the ghosts’ appeal, the call to arms, and to the beginning of the Northern English family wars. Or Phillip’s great, un-planned plan to break free.

It looks like it’s au revoir, then, for the while, sweet Nancy, sweet city of dreams. But he’ll be back, Phillip, wild horses won’t stop him.

They’ve already tried and died…


‘I do’ – ‘Oui.’


Phillip’s read the book. His factory boss put him onto it, 1984, a year or two prior to Orwell’s imagined dystopia, he recalls, visualising another place he walked out of never to return. He read it back-to-back with The Road to Wigan Pier – Orwell wasn’t keen on Sheffield, either.

But just who, back then, among the great tribe, might have envisaged Phillip sitting here today, ten years hence? On his favoured French bench in his favoured French park? A couple of kms’ walk from his beloved French studio...

He slides the scorched-earth loafers to one side, digs the tan feet into golden leaves the size of pain complet – that’s a brown loaf, which he learned only yesterday in his favoured boulangerie. They’re ever so nice in that baker’s. The service. The babe – Phillip requires another month to cotton on to the fact that it’s (still) the French way, even regarding the “babe”. He’ll also fall as deeply in (a kind of) love with the babe serving in another boulangerie just across from the former; and a third working in Le Petit Casino (a mini-supermarket) a few strides and flick of a fag-end further on.

For obvious reasons this morning, Phillip’s senses are enhanced; he’s of an almost childlike state. If death be the end of all things, muses he, in his habitual literary-minded fashion, then it’s the opposite for those left behind.

He goes to extremes, these days, with the literary idiom. But then here, in his darling republic, he gets away with it; or rather, he reads something more positive in the furrowed brows. In point of fact, he had Céline in tears last Sunday morning, up there in Boudonville, the university hall of residence.

Doe-eyed Céline. He was showing off with The Bard’s autumnal sonnet number 73:

“That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang…”

It wasn’t that he set out to memorize it; his mind just works that way. Love, he guesses – and the French fruits of his labour, oh, it’s love alright.

He cited the jewel while staring out of the window, sort of sensitively, and only veered his eyes to hers on the rhyming couplet at the end:

“… This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.”

To witness a droplet form and fall, like from the curve of a beauty’s soul; a soul no more than moved by art – ‘What a romantic nation, though!’
His enhanced senses offer truer meaning to the words this morning, along to an ostensibly absurd, faint echo of the Rocky 2 theme tune, all part of the tug, drawing him still, in spite of his grip.

It’s not the better known piece of music, from Rocky, you know, to which Sly Stallone runs about town, and up lots of big steps, but a slower, more ghostly section, to have haunted Phillip during his more severe guilt-trips. It came over the veiled loudspeakers, as Angela floated down the aisle, back then, in ’84.

It was everything but ‘Here Comes the Bride’!

Funny, that Phillip should have cold feet even now, twiddling his toes, brushing aside the leaves. And that her approaching image should remain, gliding ever near, guided by that eternal music, from back then; a time presenting itself by its ever present tense…

’84, then. That damned church. That damned music:

* * * * *

The priest, a young Irishman who prefers to be addressed as Sean and who drinks in Phillip’s local, has chosen it for the wedding ceremony, neither Phillip nor Angela the wiser. The congregation’s taken by it.

If there weren’t tears already, there are now.

Despite the bride having all but passed out on Valium, Sean has the happy couple facing what the groom views as an audience, whereby he’s treading the boards.

But then Phillip always was a show-off.

He winks across to his young brother, Sam, whose tears today Phillip won’t wholly understand, beyond the expected, on what they call the best day of his life. Only in later years will he come to acknowledge Sam’s genuine anguish, the no-longer-so-little one’s prescience of what is to come.

Phillip’s head is by now spinning, with what has been and what should and could be, of all the bleedin’ moments, he sniggers, in the face of a blasphemous thought between so-called sacred walls. Unable to breathe, he’s developed the knack of never letting on, when having arrived at a place without his consent, without his blessing. This blessed union.

He surveys the glassy eyes of the opposing, conspiratorial beams: We did it, so should you! Look after her, she’s a lovely lass. 23 years old, what are you bloody waitin’ for?

For “what has been”, a long ago love makes her ever timely, hallucinatory entrance, if now with unprecedented weight; she who pronounced these same vows in this same spot, whilst he, Phillip, clumsily waited across the courtyard believing her to be playing the role of bridesmaid. The wrench, how his entire being crumpled to the concrete on her appearance, for having lacked the spirit to claim her when time was his. To claim her for all she represented and was; for that which she oozed: real life.

For fear alone, Phillip rejected his golden gift.

And for this electric moment, the rollercoaster freezes, as if to oil its wheels and remind him so…

‘And do you, Phillip Rowlings, take Angela O’Neal to be your lawful wedded…?’

For “what should and could be”, Phillip’s reason for escape will sit before him, clear-cut and crystalline, but for these famous fifteen or more minutes, in guise of a front-row seated, dear pregnant sister and hubby: he’ll never be more aware of what life shouldn’t be, not for him nor for any of them, but that’s their doing.

And in truth, he doesn’t give a toss about them, save his young brother.

It’s all so straightforward now.

“I do,” he replies, in passing, to Sean’s question. Actually, he almost blows a ‘Oui!’ With a theatrical twist of wrist.

What Phillip doesn’t grasp at this point, given ‘oui’ is possibly the only French he knows, is that his “unplanned plan to escape” lies in that intuitively flippant, abrupt desire…

* * * * *

– he recognises this only with his bare brown feet buried in brazen brown leaves, here on his favoured French park bench.

* * * * *

In ’84, the actor he’s become settles for the confetti.

It was, in effect, the exact way he responded to the “long ago love”, his loved-and-lost, Nathalie, the English catwalker with the French h, all those years ago, upon a hill, as they sat and mused over a Sheffield-by-winter’s-night, in reply to her Gallically-put questions, as if Phillip’s performance might fool her.

‘Not on your Eiffel Tower!’ he whispers, with an encouraging smile toward second-cousins flinging handfuls of blue, white and red petals, though who only succeed in covering themselves due to an upsurge of wind.

And there, Phillip identifies an old lady standing by the gates, a taupe shopping bag at hand, wiping her eye with a hanky; a someone he stood alongside all those years ago, as he helplessly witnessed Nathalie marry another…

‘Nathalie… with a French h.’

Angela tugs at Phillip’s arm, so to turn him around and allow everyone better odds at their confetti hitting the right spot. The tricolour enfolds them like a cape. Or a mist, petals momentarily catching Phillip’s eyes.

‘Another album dud!’ she titters. Angela Rowlings…

He doesn’t care: his mind’s already safe-guarded the important photos; they just weren’t taken today.

He reviews a foggy evening in South Devon, arm-in-arm with his future-bride.

There they were, heading back to the guesthouse, cliff-route, post-a night on the town, when the heard-but-unseen singers emerged: two French girls, also arm in arm – language-students? Marching with purpose and a haughty Marseillaise! Before playfully withering into the sea-mist…

‘They’re cool, the French!’ he recalls waxing, with a typically youthful, alcoholic, sexual yearning. But he’d be sober in the morning, he thinks. Back then…

Now, right now, he knows he should have run. The door was still open. Back then…

Mere weeks prior to the big day, post a lengthy conference with Dexy’s Midnight Runners, followed by a lengthier evening up in The Grouse, Phillip confessed to his old dad that he’d always been searching for something, though never knew what it was.

His dad, too, was always searching for something, he admitted, when he was young, except he was made to grow up; National Service sorted him out. And it might have done the same for Phillip…

Well, here today, here in this churchyard, Phillip’s door is plain to see. The swirling petals, blue, white and red, all but create the form:
France. The French. Brigitte Bardot.

And besides, if his old man were honest, even with himself, he wonders, lowering his head to slip into the love-mobile, would he confess regrets? Would ever he be so courageous?

One more photo, you two.

Phillip grins to his gums, plays the tired actor, as in respite for the reception.

At least the Deejays play it right: Okey Cokey-free…

… culminating with Good luck! ’Hope you’ll be very happy. Thank you for a beautiful wedding! And what a reception!
‘’All downhill from here!’ someone chips in, ahead of tripping to an uproar.

‘’Say that again!’ scoffs his saviour, acting as crutches…

To the bedchamber at long last, and to those not-quite so pure white suspenders, today’s sole promise to have kept our hero sane.
But then Angela cancels the meeting, in spite of Phillip’s clear grievance – if he can’t have his way on his wedding night, when can he!

Tough, it’s been too stressful a day, she maintains, without a trace of understanding – Phillip should be doing the understanding!
Besides, they have the rest of their lives.

Before long, then, her heavy breathing amounts to sleep.

And Phillip must sit alone, at the end of the marital bed – ‘Oui!’ he pronounces. With a theatrical twist of wrist…
You can buy the book by clicking on the above title or here


The All-clear: an anti-romance novella… (The Rowlings Years, book 3 – novella 1) 

Friday, March 22nd, 1996

The Learned Ladies (Les Femmes Savantes)

a French comedy (or so the story goes), by Molière

Dramatis personae:

CHRYSALE, a bourgeois man in good standing – Phillip Rowlings, hardly bourgeois, if never a more apt role he’ll play, poor sod!

PHILAMINTE, Chrysale’s wife – Paula Cherry, Francophile, & lover & persecutor of Phillip Rowlings.

ARMANDE, elder daughter of Chrysale & Philaminte – Valérie Baiser, French anglophile, & lover & persecutor of Phillip Rowlings.

HENRIETTE, younger daughter of Chrysale & Philaminte – Gillian Python, who, surname notwithstanding, happens to genuinely care for Phillip… unless she’s just… Oh, good lord!

ARISTE, brother of Chrysale – Maximus Perfect, Doctor of Arts & Humanities. The play’s official director, he also occupies the unofficial chair of Ardent Admirer of Phillip Rowlings’ Tightrope-Act, pertaining to two of the above actresses & the one just below.

BÉLISE, sister of Chrysale – Jezebel Esparanza Guapa. Your typical, hot-blooded Hispanic firebrand, Anglo/Francophile, & lover & persecutor of Phillip Rowlings.

CLITANDRE, in love with Henriette – Pierre Lefou, French, who, nationality & needy nature notwithstanding (the latter affliction manifesting itself chiefly via his application of Phillip’s make-up), happens to be hopeless vis-à-vis the opposite sex. Pity, when Phillip could do with a figurative hand…

TRISSOTIN, a wit – Jean Bourgeois (nickname John Burger), French, appositely witty, yet who yearns only, seemingly 24/7, for a Big Mac, ever fuelled by the McDonald’s burger-bar just off the university campus…

VADIUS, a learned man – Lucas Belhomme, Anglo-French &, again fittingly enough, studying for a PhD. Another living, breathing book, hardback copy, the pages of which Phillip has failed to prise open…

MARTINE, a kitchen servant – Jane Mansfield (honestly!), English, doe-eyed, with whom Phillip has yet to have an accident…

L’ÉPINE, Trissotin’s lackey, & JULIEN, Vadius’ valet – Louise Essex, English & executor of the twin male parts; blouse of pure-white silk (if a little frayed over the years) & braces of velvet rouge, both enveloped by royal blue waistcoat & cravat for the latter role. Phillip likens her to a fish & chip shop: no matter how full he is, he’ll remain forever enticed by the scent…

THE NOTARY (no idea…)…

* * * * *

(Your author’s note: as for the play itself, well, if the mood ever takes you, you can always Google it. Our story, that which concerns us, begins on the next page…)

Friday, March 22nd, 1996

The Learned Ladies m2 (or the parallel play…)

an English comedy (for some, at least…)

Randomly picked (as if) members of the audience:

Doctor DUFUSLEY (front row, seat 7), the French department’s expert in many things, while ever none bear relation to present day reality; like, say, the switching on of a light in a dark room. Having once likened Phillip Rowlings to a character in Miami Vice, she’d have done anything in her power to bar our ‘working class rebel’’s route into academia…

Professor WHALLEY (front row, seat 8), head of all things French, who, in quest of the Muse Melpomene (a tragic sort), once spent an entire year sleeping in & working from Honoré de Balzac’s bed (or that’s what he thought; as it turned out, Balzac had slept next door). He, conversely, welcomed Phillip to the department with open arms, providing our hero would fly the weary departmental tricolour by treading old Thespis’ boards. In truth, Prof. Whalley is of a rare breed: an academic with a sense of humour, & had merely jested; save that poor Phillip wasn’t to know, & so blames Doc. Dufusley for shattering his assurance if never his resolve…

EMMALINE (row 10, seat 56), Phillip Rowlings’ official psychiatrist & lover, as of his first & last official psychiatric appointment, back at her official surgery; all subsequent sessions would transpire within the steamy, more restricted confines of her Fiat 500…

SARAH (row 10, seat 57 by sheer coincidence – cough), a first year student reading for French & Italian Language & Literature, she sits in awe; how people have the courage to get up there!

American ALICE (row 10, seat 58, by no coincidence, given she’s here to support her friend Sarah), a first year student also, she claims fluency but in her native Californian drawl (& the odd Hispanic expletive). Reading for some equally useless degree, Philosophy’s her thing…

NATHALIE (row 14, seat 73), & not Natalie, no. This English Nathalie acquired a French ‘h’ at birth, the required education pursuing; except that, when Oxford & Cambridge paid the inevitable visit, she, under Phillip’s inadvertent guidance & to her parents’ dismay – horror! – decided to go local. That’s to say, in her somewhat naïve endeavour to “remain grounded”, to “keep on the front line”, she took a more hands-on approach, at Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital… Alas, despite her well-meant intentions – nay, by the benevolently veiled aid of part-time study – she gradually worked her way from some porter role or other to Assistant Chief Neurosurgeon. She’s never missed one of Phillip’s plays, though, he being none-the-wiser…

DENISE (row 14, seat 74), Nathalie’s long-time loyal & trustworthy amiga, in the unconditional sense (what family claims to be but never is). She, by contrast, with routine grace, would never hesitate when accepting her lot, & is soon to realize the role of Barrister. More importantly, she’s remained a fixed patron of Nathalie’s undying affection for Phillip Rowlings (a lawyer & hopeless romantic?)…

MRS. LENNOX – or ANNIE (row 14, seat 91), Phillip’s ex-teacher of French to A Level, who, having quit said post for never meeting his kind thereafter, had no idea he might be performing this evening, & is here by serendipity alone. She sits proudly…

LOUISE & JENNIFER (the balcony, front row, seats 103 & 104), where South East England meets South West; fourth years both in French & German. Troubled by a most common if ever confusing phase of libidinous mayhem (the ‘undergraduately’ unsure, the exploratorily curious), despite having spent a year of study abroad (together), they love Phillip Rowlings…

BEVIS SEDLEY (here, there and everywhere, for the fact the somewhat portly fellow keeps changing seats), without a word of French, he’s journeyed all the way down from Durham to surprise his son, who’ll be playing Jack Falstaff in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor next week. Oops. Oh well, when in Rome…

THE PERSON WORKING THE LIGHTS (up in his lighting-box), who’s about to suffer something of an incandescent nightmare: the light(s) before the… dark.

* * * * *

The official French comedy:

ACTE II, SCÈNES II TO VII: CHRYSALE, ARISTE (which, as already stated, is all you need to know.)
The unofficial English improvised adaptation running parallel:


LOUISE (the balcony, front row, seat 103) : Ohhh, yes please!

& JENNIFER (seat 104) : Which one?

LOUISE : Very funny!

JENNIFER : Oh, I don’t know, I actually have a thing for Maximus Perfect – It all started with his name…

LOUISE & JENNIFER : (muffled, uncontrollable laughter.)


American ALICE (row 10, seat 58) : The older guy, he’s kinda funny, right? Hey, & that’s without having a clue what he’s saying – You know what I’m saying?

SARAH (row 10, seat 57) : Oh, that’s Maximus Perfect, who’s funny off stage, too, when maybe he shouldn’t be. We call him Mad Max…

American ALICE : What, like The Road Warrior? He’s hardly Mel Gibson.

American ALICE & SARAH : (muffled, uncontrollable laughter.)

American ALICE : As for the girl, she’s kinda nutty, right? The other boy’s kinda cute, though…

SARAH : (sigh) Where’s my programme?

EMMALINE (row 10, seat 56) : His name’s Phillip Rowlings…


Professor WHALLEY  (front row, seat 8) : Hahh! Why they work rather well together, don’t you think – Hahh!

Doctor DUFUSLEY (front row, seat 7) : Yes, although we are somewhat close – Were these the only tickets available? (your author’s note: deferent tone; she is pushing for a professorship.)

Professor WHALLEY : Oh, come now, it is rather fun, don’t you think – Rather like playing a part ourselves!

Doctor DUFUSLEY (aside)

(your author’s note: “aside”, as of the regular theatrical technique) :

If I remember scene 7 correctly, that’s what I’m afraid of – & I’m watching every move you make, Phillip Rowlings; the first false one may just find you on that much sought-after arse of yours. (loud whisper, or louder than she hoped:) Sonny-fuckin’-Crockett!

(your author’s note: the television programme to which she alludes can’t have been so beneath her if she’s able to quote the characters’ names!)
Professor WHALLEY : Hahh – It is rather fun, don’t you think!


DENISE (row 14, seat 74) : What odds would you give against their being offstage lovers?

NATHALIE (row 14, seat 73) : (sigh).

DENISE : I know I say so every year, but if I’d had to choose one of them
(your author’s note: she’s alluding to both Phillip & his former blood/Soul brother – Jed? Of years gone by, and whom you may recall from the beginning of the series, The Rowlings Years, in Wood, Talc & Mr. J: We never had it so good…).

NATHALIE : You do say so every year…

DENISE : But he was the actor, & Phillip his audience…

NATHALIE : & I’ll say this again, too: You didn’t know Phillip, however ephemeral my knowing him may have been…

DENISE : (sigh). So, what odds would you give against their being offstage lovers?

(your author’s note: she teases her time-honoured friend for affection’s sake alone. & besides, Nathalie did wish to remain grounded.)

NATHALIE : (sigh).


LOUISE : Poor Chrysale – His wife & sisters are real cows!

& JENNIFER : Well, yeah! It was on the syllabus in second year…

LOUISE : Hellooo, like I read it – You wrote my essay?*

(your author’s note: I’ve placed an asterisk* here for not having as yet observed how one should depict that most deplorable, recent phenomenon pervading university parlance known as ‘southern up-speak’ – should there be a question mark?)

JENNIFER : Oh, that’s right, you didn’t like old Baldy’s lectures, as I remember…

LOUISE : No, he’s a perv!

JENNIFER : & the manner in which you repaid me wasn’t as pervy?

LOUISE : Well, you did get me a 2:1 for it…

JENNIFER (aside) : Oh, the repayment was first class…

MRS. LENNOX – or ANNIE (row 14, seat 91) : Och, I’m so proud of ya, Phillip – It’s like there’s a part of me up there with ya. Seamless…


MRS. LENNOX – or ANNIE : Go on, don’t be feart – Give it to the bitches, for Robert the Bruce!
(your author’s note: the time having approached whereby our anything-for-a-quiet-life-Chrysale’s patience is abruptly found wanting; time, then, for the grandiose, long-awaited monologue – the worm that turned! The fun so being that, in Chrysale’s endeavour to ‘re-ground’ the members of his family on the distaff side – the “bitches”, as Annie so lucidly put it, in this case Philaminte & Bélise, two of the three – Molière would have him castigate high society’s entire female population, thus rendering his protagonist equally as outrageous. But then, as far as you & I are concerned, the real fun lies in the fact that Phillip has his own axe to grind, and again not only against his family members of the fairer sex but a whole bloody entourage, onstage and off! Moreover, when stating Chrysale’s claim that it may not be right & proper that a woman should study & learn things, for a wealth of reasons, well… old Dufusley’s just sitting there begging…)

Doctor DUFUSLEY (aside, fixed smile) : Bastard – Bastard! I’ll have his guts for garters…

Professor WHALLEY : Oh, it is rather fun, don’t you think – Rather like playing a part ourselves!

SARAH (addressing American Alice) : He’s good, isn’t he! (prior to turning said smile in the opposite direction) : He’s good, isn’t he!

EMMALINE (provisional smile) : He is, indeed. (aside, resuming fixed frown) : Too good – Easy, tiger, you’ll blow a fuse! Leave her alone (Dufusley); rise above it, you’ve proven your point…

Professor WHALLEY : Hahh!

MRS. LENNOX – or ANNIE : Go on, my boy!

LOUISE : Okay, it couldn’t be clearer: I’m heterosexual!

LOUISE & JENNIFER : (more muffled, uncontrollable laughter.)

NATHALIE : Something’s wrong…

DENISE : ’Glad you’ve pointed that one out, I was beginning to think it was some kind’ absurdist rendition – With all that spinning around, I mean…

EMMALINE : Something’s wrong…

NATHALIE : Something’s wrong…

THE PERSON WORKING THE LIGHTS (up in his lighting-box) : What fuckin’ page is he on!?

EMMALINE : Something’s definitely wrong…

NATHALIE : Something’s definitely wrong…

BEVIS SEDLEY (resting upon one knee in the aisle at the time, caressing a pewter flask of Bell’s finest, who simply cannot contain his awe) : This boy’s good! Is he meant to go down like that?

DENISE : Nathalie… come back – Where are you going?

* * * * *

the finale

   I guess we can at last leave the official play there, on its literal arse, even when, soon as having regained consciousness, Phillip will stoically resume his duty, to a standing ovation (barring someone on the front row).

   For now, his world is black, respite for however long, before its inevitable reshaping in form of a crooked, cartoon smile, worn by a certain Doc. Dufusley (that’s the one), whom he blearily discerns through & between numerous legs standing above him…

   … when, ‘Have you banged your head of late, my love?’ inquires a tender voice, by his left side.

   Phillip turns, and must squeeze his eyes:

   ‘You’re an old dream. Thanks...’

   (your author’s note: as the Phillip Rowlings tradition dictates, an opening scenario lacking some sort of dream-time might have left us all wanting.)

   The old dream fades once more…

 …‘You can’t carry on, Phillip!’ Emmaline cautions. And, “aside” (as of the regular theatrical technique): ‘She seemed awfully intimate. Nurse or no nurse…’ 


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