Monthly Archives: January 2015

Nice

The Story of Our Five Days in Nice (France).

We flew to the South of France on an Easyjet Boeing 737. The desperate shuffling of passengers to get to the front as the ground staff announce the start of boarding has always baffled me. I think it’s the English urge to get “settled”. Why rush to get on? They wont leave without you.

Anyway, after shouting at Sarah to hurry, I was pleased to find us at the front of the queue (Well, I like to get comfy you see).

Our seats were at the rear of the plane. I read somewhere that the back of an aircraft was the safest place to be (apparently, planes don’t reverse into mountains).
As our fellow travellers boarded, my breathing became shallower, my hands felt clammy, my heart began to race. But it wasn’t the terror of being entombed in a silver tube burning gallons of kerosene in an illogical attempt to defy gravity, rather it was the fear of my ultimate flying phobia – a brat in the seat behind me.

Sarah was settled in next to me debating which variety of microwaved toasty she would like to scald her mouth on as I fidgeted and craned my neck to scan for the dreaded infant. She bid me to remain still.
“Tom, just relax. We will be off in a minute.”
“Look, there’s one coming now, it’s getting nearer.”
“Tom, just calm down, they look a perfectly nice family.”
“The parents seem ok, it’s the red faced urchin I don’t like the look of.”
The smiling thirty-somethings parents scanned the row numbers as they squeezed themselves inexorably nearer. Twenty eight, twenty nine….thirty two, thirty….three – there, perfect. And where do you think they ended up? You know it sister.

The smiling cabin crew snapped the overheads shut and fussed everyone into their places as the Irish burr of the pilot reassuringly purred our route over the PA system.

I closed my eyes. Maybe the kid with the E numbers smeared over his sticky intemperate mush would be perfectly behaved, maybe he would just nod off in his mummy’s arms? What did it matter that he was directly behind my head? The flight was short, it didn’t – thump! Oh god, we hadn’t even taken off and it had started. Thump!

It isn’t the actual kick that drives you insane, it’s the anticipation of the tiny toes tapping the back of your seat that’s unbearable.
“Tom, just ignore it, we’ll be there before you know it, read your guide to Nice.”
“I am trying to ignore it (thump), but it’s not easy when you’ve got parents who can’t control their bloody kids (thump).”
“Tom! shush, they’ll hear you!”
“Good! “(thump).
As the big tin bird eased herself into the stratosphere, the blonde terror behind succumbed to fatigue and fell into a fitful slumber. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. Unfortunately, the racket from the fat lady to my left shattered my attempted cat nap. Her vast paw swirled inside her plastic cashew tub, like Trevor Brooking choosing the FA Cup quarter finalists.

After a moment or two, the pasty white claw pulled another catch of nuts out of the tub, her elbows nudging me with each swirl like a JCB digger excavating a drain. The chubby old dear then daintily threw them into her pie hole with the skill of a serial grazer. This might not have been so bad if she hadn’t been forced by some unknown sinus condition to to breath exclusively through her mouth.
This dual use of her gob meant her mastications were amplified by fifty percent.
I leaned over to Sarah and whispered
“Do you think she’s coming to Nice to sample the gastronomy?”
“Shush Tom, she’ll hear you.”
“Good!” (Nudge)
To make a point I put my fingers dramatically in my ears . Sarah dragged them back out.

Then thankfully, my ears did some popping as our pilot pointed the nose towards the Med and we began our descent. The aircraft banked steeply to the left and, just above stalling speed dropped altitude in ever greater increments until tarmac began rushing past my window.
Do you hold your breath just before the undercarriage smacks onto the blackstuff? There is always that two second moment when I think – is he going to make it? then there is the bang! another smaller bump then a final little skip before the anti locks and reverse thrust decelerate us into taxi speed. And there we were – Nice.
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The Clairvoyant Chapter X

It was the scruffy trainers that gave away his identity, as the acrid smoke hid his face, all I could make out were the hands scrabbling with the rope and the dirty white footwear.

Dragging me outside into the garden, my saviour collapsed at my side. Both coughing and spluttering, I looked up, first to see the black smoke billowing out of the back door, then towards my rescuer, who I half seemed to recognise. A wild unkept ginger beard, a shock of white hair, broken yellow teeth and the unmistakable sweet-sickly aroma of a tramp – was this wild-man one of Joyce’s secret beneficiaries?

“Well, first thing we wanna do here Tom, is put out that blaze.”

Wondering how he knew my name, I jumped up and followed the Vagrant back inside. The fire was spreading, but it hadn’t yet caught hold. Taking the hose from the scullery (Joyce used it to wash down the stone floor in the kitchen) he turned it on full and attacked the base of the fire. Soon the flames relented. The place was a mess, but we had saved the cottage.
I watched as this strange, heavily built man, wearing layers of odd clothes, cleaned up as best he could. Eventually, he stopped and attempted to make good the window that he smashed to gain access.

“Listen, thanks for saving my life, but how do you know my name?”

“Because you know mine Tom, don’t you?”

I stared hard at his face. Then it hit me.

“Jesus Christ, Is that you? Big Pete?”
The toothless grin spread wider. It was him, my nemesis from my school days was standing here in front of me.
Grabbing me in an unwelcome bear hug, his vast frame enveloped me like some large smelly Grizzly. Standing back to look at me he said,

“I suppose I better tell you my story…”

After the curse you put on me, I never had no more luck. I know you said you lifted it after I give you that money but I never felt right after it. I left school and went to London, but I got no luck there, so I went travelling. Spain Italy, Greece, I went all over. I was happy in them places, But when I got home, that feeling, that feeling of things not being right, well that comes back, doesn’t it? Anyway, I falls in with a bad lot and I goes to prison, doesn’t I? It don’t matter why. Ok I’ll tell you. I was doing some check book fraud, pension book stuff too, you know, cashing in stolen pensions and the like. Don’t look at me like that, I knows it was bad. Anyways, I got out with no money, no home, no family, nothing. Then I gets to thinking, if it’s that curse that’s not gone, maybe, if I find the old bag what did it, maybe she can get rid of it for good, and maybe I can get everything back on track, so to speak.
Anyway, In my hostel in Liverpool, I heard off this tramp about this lady in Wales who his mother used to swear by, that she guided her and she was proper good. Now, I remember us laughing at you about you going to Wales to see Joyce and I guessed it was the same old bint.
Well I gets there and of course it is her. I explains my plight and she proper laughs, I mean proper chuckles – you can see her doing it can’t you, Tom? Anyway, she takes me into her confidences, gives me money and sends me back to Liverpool to keep an eye on you, doesn’t she? Anyways, she takes ill and I’m beside myself. You didn’t see me at the Church, did you? I was hiding, made sure you never seen me.
Any how, I don’t think her lifting the curse did me no good, cos I’m still a bit of a mess, ain’t I? But things are gonna change from now on.

I looked at Pete, one of the many lost souls who slip through the grid of life and descend into the darkness of sub-existence, the underground. But he was still smiling, still happy.
“How are things going to change Pete?”
“You know that letter she left in her will? The one that was addressed to you? Well she left me one too. But I was not to tell a soul. Apart from you of course. You know she mentioned taking as much rhubarb as you wanted? Well she told me the same. Here, grab this.”

Pete handed me a shovel. We walked over to the rhubarb patch. He started digging and I followed his lead. After half an hour I hit on something hard and metallic, buried about four-foot down. Pushing me out of the way, Pete lifted out a battered old black metal box.

Cleaving off the lock with his spade, he wiped his hands down his old tatty jacket and slowly lifted the lid. Inside, wrapped in neat plastic bundles, were packets of cash, I reckoned there was about five grand in each package. Pete started to stuff them about his person, looking around him all the time, as though there might be eyes on him in this deserted spot in the middle of nowhere. After he had emptied around half of the tin, he began throwing the remaining bundles at me.
“Pete, is this-”
“Frank’s money? Oh yes. You better believe it matey. Now fair’sfair, halves each, like I promised Joyce.”
“But how did you know it was here?”

” ‘take as much rhubarb as you want’ ? ” What did you think she meant? You didn’t think Joyce would just let all that money go back to that thieving bastard did you ? How did you think he got all this in the first place? He’s a bigger thief than You, me and Joyce all put together.”

“Listen Pete, I’m not a thief, and neither is Joyce.”
Pete stopped throwing the money at me.

“Ok then, give me back them bundles and I’ll keep them, or maybe you wanna ring Frank and let him have it? Joyce wasn’t a thief? Did she not tell you how she done it? All that cold reading and stuff? Listen, there’s one thing Joyce loved more than her cottage and her garden, and that my friend, was money. Now, do you want this Wonga or not?”

I said goodbye to Pete at the bus stop. I reckoned he had about fifty thousand pounds on him. I wished him luck and hoped he would make good use of it, but feared that maybe it would do him no good at all.
Before I left, I went up to my tiny room, where I found an old rucksack into which I placed the last of my belongings.
On the train back to Liverpool, I fingered the rucksack nervously, hoping that Frank wasn’t waiting for me at the station.

That tramp by the Duck pond near the hospital, that must have been Pete. He was there keeping an eye on us. Such loyalty, but was he just about the money? The big pay day? No, I reckoned on him loving Joyce as much as I did, don’t you?

**********

Now, today, you find me happy in my own house (with no mortgage on it, thankfully).
I work from home now, my clients come and see me in my front parlour, where I dispense tea and sympathy. Mrs Parker is due in at half past, she is desperate for news of her Mother, who I believe, sadly passed away not three months previously….

The End

The Clairvoyant Chapter IX

We drove down the Welsh coast in silence. There was no need to ask where we were going. We bumped up onto the kerb by the bus stop to walk the last four hundred yards to the cottage. The path, long overgrown, dipped and yawed so violently only the hardiest land rover would attempt to navigate.

Frank turned to face me from the front seat. “Don’t even think about doing a runner.”
“Frank, I’ve no idea where your stash is.”
It was all I could do to stop myself fingering the Mr Goldstein’s letter hidden in my pocket.
“I know you don’t lad. Because if you did you would have said. You’re not stupid.”

Frank’s barrel chested Goon sitting next to him looked disappointed, like he was looking forward to beating me up.

“So if you know I don’t know, which I don’t – why are we here?”
I decided that if things got out of hand I would show Frank the letter and let him take the money – if that’s what it revealed. But of course it could mean something else completely, I had no idea.

The path, pebbly and overgrown, wound it’s way through the woods until the cottage came into view.
Although I had visited not three weeks previously, Joyce’s home of forty years was unrecognisable. Overgrown gardens, dusty windows, rubbish in the porch, free newspapers half-shoved in the letterbox. But there was no time to clean up, Frank was in a hurry. He got my attention with a shove.
“How do we get in?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t a key.”
The cold slap warmed my Cheek.
“Don’t fuck with me. I know you know.”
Miserably, I led them round to the side of the house where I lifted the latch on the side frosted side window and hopped up. I was in.
The house smelt damp and spicey. Aromas filled the hallway. The stuffed Pine Martin stared down from the plate shelf. Kicking away the pile of junk mail from the thick wooden door, I pulled the latch and let them in.

Frank pushed past and with a nod to his fat-faced accomplice, began to ransack the place. Tables cupboards, draws, desks, shelves – all cleared, upturned or emptied.
“What the hell do you think you are doing? You have no right!”
Frank pushed past. He was like a demon, possessed by some wild spirit. He stopped in mid ransack and turned to me, his face contorted with rage.
“You better hope I find the cash, or else it’s your head on the block next.”

The turmoil continued. Of course, Frank found nothing. In a rage, he grabbed me, sat me down on the chair in the hallway while his accomplice produced some rope and tied me down into the seat. Next, Frank grabbed the newspapers lying in the hallway, scooped them up in a pile and produced a lighter from his pocket.

“Now, either you tell me where the money is, or I’ll set fire to this place and burn it down with you in it!”
The life drained from me. I knew this was it. There was nothing else to do.
“Ok, ok. Untie me and I’ll tell you what she said.”
Frank loosened the rope and I dug around in my pocket and produced the letter.
Before I could open it Frank grabbed the letter and tore it open. The paper stretched and tore in his hand as his knuckles went white. He flung the paper at me. I scanned the words, desperately trying to make sense of what it said.
Below the usual dry solicitor instructions was a letter from Joyce.

My Dear Tom.
Unfortunately, I have nothing to leave you. The house I have left to the Welsh people as a thank you for the wonderful years that I have spent at the foot of this ancient Celtic mountain.
I know Frank has been giving you a hard time about the money I hid for him, but that has gone too. I either spent it or gave it away to the tramps and vagrants who live in Colwyn Bay. Their need is greater than mine, or yours (or Frank’s!).
So there we have it. I don’t want you to feel disappointed, because we both know I have given you something more precious than money or objects. Take care Tom and be careful of what you wish for!

Joyce.

Ps If you want, you can take all the rhubarb. You know how to make the pie by now, you watched me enough times!

“What the fuck does that mean? She’s given it away to the tramps?”
I shrugged my shoulders, that was news to me too. More importantly, I felt relief that I didn’t have any of Frank’s cursed money. I was free now to go. I had nothing more to give him. But I was wrong, dead wrong.
“Tie him back down.”
I was back in the chair, only this time the knots were tighter. They burned my wrists.
“I’ll tell you something Tom, you don’t know where my money is? That’s fine, you can go and see Joyce and see if she’s telling the truth!”

Frank’s sidekick grabbed all the newspapers, put them into a heap, then from the kitchen produced some paraffin oil, poured it on the papers and set light to them. In no time the acrid smoke filled the hall. Frank called out through the smoke as he exited the front door.
“Say hello to Joyce for me!”
The flames quickly took hold, they spread up the dry walls, licking up towards the plaster work. The ancient wiring began to spark and catch fire. I tried to bump myself along in the chair to smother the flames but the chair was too heavy and the bounds too tight.

The coughing began. At first it was a sweet sickly taste at the back of my throat, then as the flames increased, I wretched and swung violently about, like a condemned man in the execution chair.
I couldn’t see a thing. It was unbearable, the heat scalded may hair and choked my throat. I cursed Joyce, I cursed my own greed, I cursed the cottage. This was it, my last day on earth. Sat in an old horsehair chair, choking to death.

It was then I heard it. The sound of smashing glass. Had Frank got second thoughts? Was he fearful of a murder charge?
But it wasn’t Frank. It was someone else. Someone who was there to save my life and in doing so, change theirs forever.

The Clairvoyant Chapter VIII

In the year Joyce died, the year I was twenty five, there were no mobiles, no internet, no wifi, nothing. So on the morning of Joyce’s funeral, I wondered at just how many of her old clients knew to turn up at the church to say goodbye.

Martin and Greta followed Joyce through the wide double doors. Although in her final years I was the closest to her, I merged into the throngs of women dressed in black to become just another face in the pews.

When the Priest (who Joyce never met) stood to deliver the eulogy, I wondered what this cold draughty building and this fat red-faced man dressed in White had to do with Joyce and her life.

He droned on about God’s comforting arms and paused more than once before saying her name to look down at a card. As the service drew to a close I realised that no one was going to speak about this remarkable old woman. I wanted to stand up and announce that she had duped everyone sat there in the church and they had all been fools for believing her. And that what she had given me was more real than any tarot card rubbish. That she had freed me from bullies and given me the confidence to live my own life. But I didn’t. I bowed my head to pray to the fat priest’s imaginary god and kept my mouth shut.

As we all trooped out to shake the priest’s clammy hand and make our way to the crematorium, I spotted Frank amongst the mourners, he didn’t say hello, he just stared.

One week later, I received a letter in the post from a firm of solicitors. There was to be a reading of Joyce’s will and I was to make my way down to Water Street in Liverpool on Monday morning at ten am sharp.

From the town hall, Water street drops down to the Liver Buildings that stand next to the Mersey. Full of beautiful grade I listed banking halls and solicitors chambers, it is the heart of Liverpool’s commercial district. The offices of Goldsmith and Kettle were in a building called West Africa House, no doubt named after Liverpool’s dubious links to the slave trade.

Clutching my letter, I sat in reception and was soon joined by Martin and Greta. They glared at me as they muttered to themselves socco voce. Just before the awkward silence became unbearable, a tall middle aged man with curly grey receding hair and glasses perched on his forehead appeared and led us to a side room.

We sat awkwardly on mismatched chairs as the gangly man folded himself behind his desk and produced a thin buff file wrapped in purple ribbon.

“Now, I am Mr Goldstein and we are here to witness the reading of the last will and testament of Joyce. Your mother I believe?”
I shook my head. Mr Goldsmith ignored me and looked down to begin the reading. As he did so his glasses swung forwards from the top of his forehead to land perfectly on the bridge of his nose.
Greta and Martin leaned forward together, their eyes locked on Goldsmith. This is what he read.

This is the last will and testament of me Joyce Katrina Millicent Joan Pryce. I direct my executors to dispose of my estate in the following way. Any money in any bank accounts held by me at the time of my death I leave to the North Wales wildlife trust charity number 334433.”

I leave my cottage, The Windy Gables, old colliery road Colwyn Bay to…..”
At this point, I thought the twins were about to faint with expectation.
To….the….

Mr Goldsmith paused. He looked up at the twins. Steeling himself, he pressed on.

To….the Welsh National Trust, charity number 3445-

Martin jumped up. “Come with me Greta. We must listen to no more of this tomfoolery! And as for you Goldsmith , you can swing for your bill!”

“But what is this idiot going to get off her?” Greta pointed at me.
“What the hell do we care?”
Mr Goldsmith held up his hands. “Please, Mr Pryce. I have not finished.
To my children I leave – “

The twins paused. They leaned forward. Maybe mother had left them something really good –
“…My collection of pipes”

I tried to hide my sniggers. I looked at Mr Goldsmith. His deadpan expression was unchanged.

The twins fumed in silence. Linking arms, they stormed out. I never saw them again. Mr Goldsmith waited until he was sure the twins were out of the building. Only then did he turn his attention to me.

“Now, Mr Hughes. Joyce didn’t mention you in her will I’m afraid. But she did ask me to give you this.”
The solicitor leant forward and handed me a sealed buff envelope. “I have no idea what it contains, but she said you would understand.”
I looked at the envelope. On the front it just said ‘To My Tom.’

“Is that it ?”
“Yes that is it. ”

I shook his hand and made my way back out to Water Street.
Outside the Grey Mersey moved swiftly past behind the imposing Liver Buildings.

What was in this envelope ? Wary of onlookers, I secreted it in a secret pocket inside the lining of my jacket.
Just then I heard a screech of tyres, I turned round. It was Frank.
“Get in.”

The Clairvoyant Chapter VII

Joyce’s last day on earth began with an almighty row. Frank, frustrated with my reticence to press her further on the location of his cash, dragged me back to his yard.
“Where the fuck is my stash?”
“Frank, shouting at me won’t help matters.” My cheek felt as though I had just returned from the dentists. Raw and tender, gingerly I fingered the contusion.
“Do you want another one? No? Well get back to the hospital and quiz her some more. Now go!”
Examining my face in the window of a parked car, I reckoned that a trip to hospital might actually have a duel benefit.
The curtains were around Joyce’s bed.
“Excuse me, but is Joyce ok? ” the nurse looked up from her desk.
“Who put the screens around?” She said. I followed her as she walked briskly to Joyce’s bed.
“Can I help you ?”

Jumping back from the bed, Martin and Greta attempted a smile. The nurse, eyeing the unwelcome visitors suspiciously, pushed past them to examine Joyce.

“Who has messed with this drip?
“We’ll see you soon Mother. Take care.”
The two dumpy siblings retreated, scowling as they shuffled past. The Nurse fussed around as Joyce tried unsuccessfully to sit upright.
“Those two ungrateful buggers wanted me to sign this.”
Joyce held up sheaves of yellow paper. “It’s a new will, leaving everything to them. When I wouldn’t sign they got angry. I’m glad you’re here Tom.”
Using the unsigned document to wave away the nurse, Joyce beckoned me closer.

“I feel it draining out of me.”
“What’s draining out of you?”
“Life. It’s ebbing away. I can feel it.”
“You’ll outlive us all Auntie -”
“Don’t say foolish things Tom!”
Her outburst seemed to tire her further. She looked up at the red mark on my face.
“You tell Frank if he lays one more finger on you I’ll haunt him from the grave.”
She touched my cheek. “And he can whistle for his cash.”

“But it is his money, Auntie Joyce. And anyway, I thought you said -”
“Never mind what I said. He is a thief and a crook. Anyway I have plans for it. The money is -”
But before Joyce could continue, she was overtaken by an horrendous coughing fit. The nurses rushed over and told me to leave.
Sat in the corridor, I watched the business of the hospital pass by in front of me. Chattering Nurses wearing little blue cloaks, porters idling along pushing hospital beds containing grey looking patients. The same Porters returning with their beds empty. Visitors holding flowers. Eventually, I was allowed back in.
“Goodbye Tom. Bugger. So much to do, so little time.”
She was fading fast. I placed my ear to her mouth. She whispered something indistinct. A doctor raced towards us. I had seconds left.
“Auntie Joyce. If you pass over before I can speak. Give me a sign from the other side.”
Joyce shook her head. But the nurse and the doctors surrounded her. It was pointless. The heart monitor raced to 140, then 180, then 34. Soon all the machines gave off warning beeps, like the instrument panel of a stalling aircraft.

Her life flashed in front of me. Joyce and my Nan laughing. Sitting in her kitchen watching her gut rabbits. The pigs head, the spells, the old dears handing over money. The memories intensifying as life dribbled out of her body.
Eventually, the nurses turned off the machines, their frantic buzzing now redundant. Only the heart monitor remained, silently calling out random numbers, like some morbid lottery contraption. 28, 39, 70….then, nothing.
Almost immediately her face fell in on itself and turned a dark shade of brown. Then her lips went black. It was as though some invisible spiritual make up artist was preparing her for the trip up to heaven, or the crossing of the Styx.
Her offspring, despite their skepticism over her powers, used some of their own to magically re-appear just as their Mother breathed her last.
“You here again? You have no business here.”
“Here.” I shoved the unsigned testament back into Martin’s hand. “You might as well have this back.”
A doctor approached. “Who is next of kin ?”
“We are!”
“Ok if you come with me I can complete the paperwork and release the body to the undertakers. Have you contacted anyone?”
They looked at each other. Undertakers. That meant final expenses and Money. Muted sullen nods followed by a shuffling away to an office.
Now I had to report back to Frank. I turned my collar to the wind and pressed on into the night.