The Gown

I knew from Sarah’s desperate call that the situation was urgent.
“Tom, has it arrived or not?”
“Yes, the courier’s just been.”
“Right, let’s just hope it fits. We have to be there for seven!”
The Chairman’s annual dinner dance is the highlight of our social calendar (the other important dates being Christmas and my Mum coming for Sunday tea) so what to wear is a stress known only to the fairer sex. I on the other hand have no such conundrum, needing only to dust down my penguin suit (Although sometimes the previous twelve month’s over-indulgence can result in a fight to the death with the trousers).
So my problems were as nothing compared to Sarah’s. Rushing in from work, she ran upstairs to our bedroom, where on the bed lay her nemesis – the ball gown. I was half way up the stairs when an ear-piercing scream froze me to the spot.
I burst in to see my beloved stuck inside an oversized merengue.
“They’ve sent the wrong dress!”
Immediately I went into damage limitation mode. “It’s not too bad. Here, can I pin it?”
“Since when did you become a seamstress? It’s ok, I’ll just wear the black one. Thank goodness you never stuck it on eBay.”
My grimace gave it away. “…Tom?”
“If it’s any consolation, My feedback score is excellent.”
Right well that’s it. I’m not going. I can’t go.”
“I’ll tell you what, let’s ask our daughter.”
I shouted Hannah, our sassy, fifteen year old fashionista. My eyes bored into her as I nodded furiously and said,
“Doesn’t that dress look lovely on your Mum?”
Hannah, glancing up momentarily from her smart phone, took one look at her Mother and said, “Have you not got anything else? What about that black one?”
Dragging the Apple of my Eye out onto the landing I said,
“Word of advice, don’t ever apply to be a diplomat, will you?”
As Hannah rolled her eyes I heard Sarah call from the bedroom. “Right that’s it. I’m not going, you can go on your own.”
Disaster loomed. I had to think quick.
“Look, let’s see what Debi says.”
Debi was Sarah’s best friend and my last hope. Hurriedly, I took some pictures.
“You could at least smile darling.”
“Listen David Bailey, there isn’t time.”
With Sarah in the bathroom, I seized my chance as Debi’s messages pinged through. “Sorry hon, that dress is awful!” (delete) “Is there nothing else? What about that gorgeous black -” (delete).
Beep! The taxi arrived. Bustling Sarah into the back of the cab, I handed over her phone.
“Debi hasn’t replied, but I’m sure she loved it.”
Outside the hotel, Sarah made a final adjustment to her dress as she looked me up and down.
“Have those trousers shrunk or something?”
“Let’s just go in shall we?”
Shuffling into the lobby, we were greeted by a glitter ball on legs – The Chairman’s Wife.
“Mrs Hughes, don’t you look…nice?”
“There you go, she loves it.” I whispered through my fixed grin.
“You’ve a lot to learn about women.” Replied Sarah through gritted teeth.
The night wore on. We danced and drank our way through it. Eventually it was late enough to make our excuses and leave. Sarah poured me into the taxi and we headed home.
“Be honest. Do I really look nice?”
“You look absolootelee dee-vine dahling (hic!) and I down care what Debi said.”
“Why, what did she say? You said she didn’t reply. Tom?”
Then, our chauffeur, a skinny young man with a pierced nose decided to chip in with his two penneth. “Take no notice love, my wife has the exact same dress and it looks great on her. Mind you, hers isn’t white, it’s bla-”
“Just here thank you!” Testily, I cut him dead.
Sipping coffee in the kitchen, I saw Sarah busy on my phone.
“What are you doing?”
Im just ordering myself a new LBD online. It’s a bargain, only £200. And isn’t PayPal so convenient?”
“But you haven’t got a PayPal account.”
“I know. But you have.”
And so, the wheels of married life turn endlessly onwards….

How Not To Recycle

Last Tuesday morning I drew back our bedroom curtains and watched bleary-eyed as the summer wind sent plastic bottles, newspapers and Dominos pizza cartons swirling into my neighbour’s gardens. Cursing the litter louts who had blighted the Avenue, I turned to my slumbering beloved and said,
“Sarah, what’s with all the rubbish outside? Should I ring the council?”
From under the duvet came the muffled reply, “What day is it?”
“Tuesday. Why?”
My Dearly Beloved suddenly sprang from the matrimonial divan and stood frozen on our 80% wool twist, deep in thought.
“Yesterday was a bank holiday…Tom, is Mrs Murphy on her front? ”
“Yes, why?”
The look of horror on Sarah’s face said it all. Clasping our hands to our faces, we both screamed together –
“The bins!”
Time was of the absolute essence.
“Tom, what are you doing ?”
“I’m er, looking for my other sock.”
“Never mind socks, just go down as you are! There isn’t time !”
“In my jim jams? Why can’t I get dressed?”
“Because… you are a man, you don’t care what people think. Now go! And don’t wake your little Nephew.”
Heartened that my sartorial insouciance gave me licence to roam the streets half-naked, I leapt quietly down the stairs, through the kitchen and out onto the patio where lay the dreaded recycling receptacles. Dropping the waste food bin (eugh) onto the cardboard bin, I stuck the one for plastic bottles under my arm and ran towards the front door.
I made it just in time to see the pink recycle lorry meandering away down The Avenue. Oh well, maybe we could just wait until next week? A bang from the window above told me that I’d better get a move on.

Along the road I limped, hitching the boxes up onto my shoulders as bottles and tins clattered down around me.
“Mr Hughes? You’ve dropped something!”
Mrs Murphy, aggressively sweeping her designated part of the pavement shook her head as I staggered on, cursing my burden of domestic detritus.
Up ahead a swarm of tattooed bin men swung plastic boxes in and out of the open-sided van. Eventually, I caught up with the happy band of council employees at the end of The Avenue. Triumphantly, I dropped my containers at one of the Recycle Operative’s feet. Ignoring me completely, he joined up with his pals as the lorry trundled out of my road. And there I remained, standing in my pyjamas, on the corner of The Avenue and Harrington Drive, smelling of stale milk.

Undeterred I pressed on, managing to barge my way past the lorry to dump my bins at the feet of a tattooed Hell’s Angel in a hi-viz vest.
“Can you empty my bins, please?”
Giant Haystack’s surly half-brother gave me a stare and then with his massive paw began lifting up my receptacles. Thank goodness for that, now I could end this nightmare, go home and tweezer the gravel out of my feet. Wrong!
The black bin crashed an inch away from my foot, un-emptied.
“What’s the matter?”
“There’s a tin can in your cardboard box bin.”
“Did you know that in China, a new coal-fired power station comes online every six months, so I don’t think one tin – ”
“Sorry sir, I can’t take your bin now, I’ve put a sticker on it.”
I looked down. On the side of the container was now stuck a bright yellow note – incorrectly packed bin. Giant Haystacks shrugged his shoulders as he and his lorry rolled down Harrington
The sky darkened, commuters stared. There was nothing left for it. The walk of shame awaited. I carried my still-full bins back home.
Mrs Murphy shook her head as Sarah opened the door, took one look at my burden, then turned on her heel and went back inside. We didn’t speak until lunch.
Billy, my little nephew, was sat at the kitchen table mashing his eggy soldiers as I shuffled mournfully towards the patio.
“Uncle Tom, when I grow up I want to be a bin man.”
“Why on earth would you want to be a bin man?”
“Well, you get to wear a cool hi-viz jacket, you get a good pension, and you only have to work one day a week….”


The Intervention

For husband and father Tom Hughes, last Sunday morning began like any other. Hot Tea and warm toast to the ready, I sauntered into the lounge looking forward to a double helping of Broadchurch on catch up only to discover my dear wife Sarah and my teenage daughters Hannah and Emily sat in wait. Wearing a benevolent, concerned expression on her face, Sarah gently relieved me of my steaming mug and buttered Hovis, sat me down and said,

“Tom, What we are about to say is said out of love and concern, nothing else.”
Then I realised what was happening, it was a family intervention! But an intervention about what? Was my customary Friday night pint of mild down the Paraffin Lamp getting out of hand? Was my chocolate habit becoming a cause for concern? What could it be? I decided to confront the issue head on.
“Listen, if anyone is wondering why all the cream eggs keep disappearing, I want you all to know that from now on I promise to share the value pack with everyone else.
A confused silence descended. My three precious girls all stared at each other. Chocolate Eggs it seemed, were not the issue. Sarah pressed on.
“We are gathered here today Tom to tell you that, well, you are a bit of a scruff.”
“A what?”
Next to pipe up was Hannah.
“Yes Dad, look at that jumper, look at those jeans?”
“What’s wrong with them? ”
“Dad, who wears hiking socks, walking shoes and a snood to the gym?
“Yes Tom, the girls are embarrassed. Their friends are talking. You need a new wardrobe, urgently.” Said Sarah.
“Well ok, I’ll go through my stuff and – ”
“Too late we’ve done it for you.” Then, to my dismay, Sarah produced a black bin liner full of my precious old clothes. My sweatshirts, my jeans and – horror of horrors- my Bruce Springsteen 2005 tour t-shirt.
“Not the Boss ! Please?”
“No Tom this lot is off to the charity shop in the precinct. Now, grab your coat and let’s go shopping! Er, on second thoughts, leave the coat, let’s just go.”
In the vast Outlet clothes store I wandered aimlessly around, fingering the rails without a clue what I was doing. Eventually I held up a pair of jeans with the pleasing price tag of £24.99.
“Sarah, what about them?”
Sarah examined my choice suspiciously.
“You haven’t just grabbed the cheapest have you?”
“Not at all I-”
“Right put them back and go try on these.”
I examined the pair picked by Sarah. To my untrained eye, they looked identical to the jeans I had just chosen. Identical that is, except for the price. Sarah’s were fifty pounds dearer .
“Why would I pay seventy-five pounds for something I can get for twenty-five, I don’t- ”
Grabbing the seat of the expensive jeans, Sarah pointed to a yellow logo stitched onto the rear pocket.
“Look! That’s why. They are designer!”
“So, they sew a little squiggle onto the pocket and they charge you treble the price? Are you being serious?”
The look from Sarah told me that yes, she was indeed being deadly serious. She picked out a second pair from the rack, handed both of them over and pointed in the direction of the changing rooms. I sloped away to the curtained off area where a glum-faced child gave me an orange circle on which was printed the number two.
I battled with the first pair for what seemed like an age. Eventually I gave up, deciding that, in the words of my Auntie Joyce they “wouldn’t go near me.” The second pair I actually managed to heave myself into. And a more uncomfortable pair of pants I couldn’t imagine. Baggy round the crotch and barely covering my posterior – clearly this particular “Designer”, in his hurry to stitch on the magic money squiggle had stamped them with the wrong size.
Outside I informed Sarah of the manufacturer’s error.
Sarah shook her head in defeat and flung back at me the cheap pair I had originally chosen. I tried them on. Of course, they fitted perfectly.
The next day Sarah arriving home from work, found me sat in my new jeans and sporting another, different purchase.
“Tom! What are you doing wearing that tatty old Bruce Springsteen t shirt? I thought I gave that away?”
“It’s very simple darling, yesterday afternoon, decided to go and do my bit for cancer research…”

Nice VII

And so after dinner at The Windsor hotel we strolled for the last time along the Promenade des Anglais towards the venue of our final night in Nice – the Casino Ruhl.
Sarah, excited to be stepping foot inside a gambling house for the first time, examined my denims.

“Tom, do you think you’re dressed appropriately? Don’t you need a tie at least?”
“As long as I’m not naked and I have some cash, they’ll let me in, don’t worry.”
If the gaudy lights and red carpet outside the Casino Ruhl were an attempt at sophistication and glamour, they failed. The Casino’s facade was tack, brash, at odds with the rest of the City. It was as though, half apologetically, the casino was trying to ape its natural counterparts in Las Vegas. Up close, the red carpet and decorations had a tired, end of the pier look, as though the casino was saying, ok we know the whole thing is seedy, but come in any way and hand over your money.


At the kiosk we showed our passports ( a sop to money laundering) and headed to the bar.
My first surprise was the cost of the drinks. Not only were they not free (ok I’m no high roller) – they were eye-wateringly expensive.
We sauntered past the slot machines – big heavy-duty machines each with their own leather chair bolted to the floor – and headed for the tables for a game of 21.

I slipped into a seat next to a leathery looking man in his sixties. The croupier wordlessly slipped him two cards. Lifting the corners, he glanced at their value and tossed a couple of chips at the dealer. A sour faced woman in her early thirties, dressed entirely in black, she wordlessly tidied his stake and awaited instructions.

With a micro tap of his index finger the man requested another card. The croupier snapped a card on top of the existing hand, this time face up. A pause, then with a tiny shake of the head he indicated that he was happy with his position. The croupier then turned over her own two cards. A Jack and a two. Without hesitating she slipped a third card from her shoe and snapped it perfectly on-top of her existing pair. Seven of hearts. So to beat the house our friend with the grey slicked back hair and gnarled fingers needed twenty or twenty-one. He flung his hand away and cursed under his breath while the croupier scooped the chips into a round little hole to her left, a hopper containing the broken dreams of a thousand gamblers.

The next hand began. Now as well as the two cards dealt to my friend on my right, I was given my own pair. Mimicking the pro, I lifted the corners. An ace and a three! Immediately I panicked, whenever I played pontoon at home on the carpet in front of the fire with my older brother (the last time I’d actually played the game) an Ace had the twin values of either eleven or one. The embarrassment of ploughing on with card after card when I was already bust was terrifying. What should I do? Sarah, toying with her hair and looking around to see if anyone had noticed that she was hanging round with the Cincinnati Kid, waited for my shrewd gambling decision. I nodded for another card. The croupier turned over a three. So now I had seventeen (or possibly seven).
I decided to stick, as did my fellow player. The croupier flipped over her hand – a five and a ten. She flipped over another – a nine. She was bust! My ten euros were now twenty! I was a winner, I was a success! I turned to my comrade in arms, hoping for a high-five of victory, but he didn’t look up, instead he growled the same curse that he had uttered when he lost the previous hand.

Flushed with success I decided to transfer my fantastic winning streak to the roulette table. This time the table was surrounded by punters. We bought twenty Euros of single white chips and played red or black. At one point I had doubled my money. My head told me to walk away. But of course I didn’t. Six minute later I was five euros down. We decided to play on the numbers part of the baize. Casually, I threw a chip onto number 33, I reckoned that one last throw might bring us a jackpot.
Sarah shrugged her shoulders, assuming that I knew what I was doing. The croupier, a young man with a thick-set forehead and sallow cheeks watched me place my bet, then disdainfully throwing my stake back at me!
Sarah whispered, “Why is he doing that?”

To which I replied. “I’ve got no fucking idea.”
Obviously there was some unknown gambling protocol that I had failed to adhere to.
Realising that really, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, we decided to people watch.
The pontoon guy had sauntered over to the roulette table. He was doing his same stern-faced curse at the result of every spin. Then I spotted a very glamorous lady playing the wheel.

Around forty, she wore an expensive, multi coloured blouse and white designer jeans. I deferred to Sarah for an estimation of the quality. She confirmed that they were very expensive clothes. Then the ice. She wore three diamond rings, the most impressive of which was on her engagement finger, a luminescent stone with an internal fire that shone even in the subdued lighting of the casino. Wearing the same surly look as my pontoon friend, she peeled off one €50 note after another from an ever reducing wad as she gambled bigger and bigger. The croupier relieved her of her money by placing it over a slot in the table and pushing it down with a clear plastic cleaver, consigning the note to its fate with a sharp snap of his wrist.
After a while Sarah whispered to me, “Theres something about this place I don’t like. What is it?”

“It’s obvious. Have you noticed something ? Nobody talks and everybody looks so serious? There’s one simple explanation. We are on a room full of addicts.”
Sarah looked around. Of course, that’s why everyone looked so miserable, they were all feeding an addiction. That’s why victory and defeat were greeted in the same desperate, slightly aggressive manner – they didn’t care if they won or lost, they just wanted the buzz of the bet.

We left shortly afterwards, breathing in the cool fresh air of the Mediterranean that crashed up onto the pebbles on the other side of the road.

Nice VI


The next morning we awoke to the sound of mopeds buzzing along the streets below. Opening the white shutters I stood for a moment to consider early morning Nice.
Bread vans, stylish ladies in rain macs, cafés taking their first customers of the day. A busy town, but not Manchester or Liverpool busy (endless car jams, miserable crammed busses) rather bustling thoroughfares mainly – like Italy – revolving around food and cafés. Everything is centred around the commercial concerns of eating and drinking.

We ventured into the vieux ville, the oldest quarter of Nice. Terracotta and orange buildings jammed along old narrow streets, most of the shops selling in one way or another things to do with the consumption of food and wine.
The local delicacy is Socca – a pancake served with coffee or, if it’s not too early (for a weary English palate at least) wine.

We wandered down the alleys, weaving in and out of the queues for Socca and other local delights. Then it struck me – where were the supermarkets? Where were the fast food outlets? The Tesco Expresses ? The Mc Donald’s ? (I think one British chain tried to expand into France and were given short shrift) There were big stores out of town (Carrefour) but they don’t get a look-in in Nice town centre. At the edges of the old town we sat at one of the many cafés that borders one of the many squares in Nice. Then a busker arrived. I like buskers – not the annoying sponsored musos that stand on corporate logos in London tube stations- I prefer the impromptu, talented performers that invite you to appreciate their talent.


That morning, Nice didn’t disappoint. Instead of a bearded student strumming a badly tuned guitar we got an opera singer, with her own accompaniment ! She belted out O Ma Babbina Caro , seemingly indifferent to the occasional clink of cents into her cup.

After our restorative cappuccino we wandered off to the largest open space in Nice, the Place Massena. A vast open area bordered by pink civic buildings with a long double tram line bisecting the open civic space.


By this time it was near enough to lunch as to make no difference, so we decided on a light repast (how I never came back the size of De Nero’s corpulent Jake la Motta I don’t know).

I plumped for a salad together with a slug of the house white. A word to the wise, don’t bother getting anything but the house grog in Nice – it’s always vastly superior to any screw top bottle of vinegar peddled by Supermarkets back home. The wine in Nice is invariably clean, rounded, with fragrant bouquets (that’s enough wine wanking. Ed.) and is invariably a perfect accompaniments to most dishes.

I can do that, honest!

I can do that, honest!

After our lunch we chanced upon some more street performers. This time it was a group of lads throwing themselves up in the air propelled by what seemed to be secret spring hidden under the stone slabs.

Perfectly in synch and full of youthful exuberance, I was reluctant to dawdle lest Sarah spent too long comparing these boys abs to my own poor excuse for a wall of iron, but captivated as we were by the athleticism and joy de vivre of the performance, we dawdled a few moments longer.


Our final experience of impromptu street theatre was back on the Promenade de Anglais, where roller bladers slalomed up and down the walkway.

Then it was time to head off back to our hotel to ready ourselves for Sarah’s initiation into the glamorous world of the casino…

Nice V

The train ride along the Riviera coast is one of the most beautiful in the world. Hugging the very edge of France, the route forces you to look out to sea and then down at the surf breaking on the light grey rocks below.

Fauna of all types and varieties skim past, as do many hues of blue – the sky, the sea and the flowers – a riot of colour and gorgeousness. Of course, more interesting than the vista outside are the passengers, forced to endure this quotidian exposure to paradise as they commute to work.
The stick-thin hotel maid nursing her chubby baby, the fat businessman clutching his battered briefcase, the ground- worker; his ochre, Auden-lined face glumly staring at the scratched gun metal bulwark of the carriage, whilst to his right Nirvana flashes by. No matter, it will still be there tomorrow for him to ignore all over again.

The gaggle of young italian students – backpacks, sunglasses, bright orange skinny jeans; all falling over themselves to chatter the loudest. One buck-toothed ingenue stares up at the line of stops, simultaneously gossiping with a friend whilst tugging at the shirt of another as she realises that they have missed their station. As the cacophony of their voices rattle along, the realisation that they have overshot their target is firstly met with carefree indifference, then nervous hilarity (hands over mouths in mock horror) followed by mock scolding, until finally hugs of instinctive, platonic affection spread amongst the group.

They all stream out at the next platform, their volume fading as they exit the carriage, accompanied by the ground worker with the sun-ravaged face, who does that universal pause/push-past that commuters do when negotiating infernal, dawdling tourists.
Finally, the long TGV train pulls into Ventimiglia Italy. If pristine Monte Carlo is for millionaires, then Ventimiglia is for ordinary normal Italians. Down at heel, tatty and unkempt, Ventimiglia feels relaxed, at ease with itself. We took a stroll down one of the roads. I began to wonder if I was an Italian and I didn’t own a cafe or restaurant or a little fashion shop, what on earth would I do? Food and clothes. There didn’t seem to be anything else to sell or do in this sleepy coastal town.

We strolled down to the scruffy beach, the dust from the pebbles throwing a haze into the late afternoon sun.
Then I saw some nuns skimming stones. Dressed in black habits with a white band above the head, they stood in the early evening sun laughing and joking.
The elder nuns took photographs as their postulant charges skimmed pebbles across the waves.
After the excesses of Monte Carlo, the contrast between the two communities could not have been greater. What must it be like to eschew material possessions, have no money, no love or physical contact with the opposite sex? But then I stopped thinking about my first marriage and went back to contemplating the nuns.

Dusk began to fall and so we headed back to the train station, said goodbye to Italy and sped towards Nice. The next day would be our final 24 hours on the Riviera.