Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Flowers in the Rain

I had been looking forward to the date. She looked good in her pictures and we had seemed to hit it off on the ‘phone. In fact it was the ‘phone chat that had done it. Killed the apprehension I had about internet dating. At the end of it I asked her out. For a date. In effect a blind date. Nothing overly complicated. Just a simple drink at the Dog and Sausage. So as I sat in the back of the taxi, speeding my way through the driving rain to our rendezvous, I had made my mind up to impress. I glanced at my watch. Five to six. Our date was at 6.30pm. I wanted to be early.
It was at that point that I caught sight of the florist sign through the cab’s rain spattered windows. If I hurried I would just catch it before it shut.
'Stop...just here. I need to pop into that shop,' I said to the driver as I pointed across the street. ‘I won’t be a second.’
I pulled open the door thinking that my date was bound to appreciate the effort. Outside the rain was coming in horizontal sheets, lashing the street in a flurry of wind-whipped spray. I pulled the lapels of my jacket tight around me and raced across the road.

Perhaps I should have been paying more attention but my thoughts were elsewhere. I just didn't see it. The vacuum cleaner wire was drawn tight across the floor as the assistant cleaned up before close. My foot caught the hazard and pitched me forward like a human missile. My impetus was arrested by a free standing display of pot plants and vases of flowers. As I hit the bottom of the rack, several pots and vases pitched forward straight at me. What felt like an avalanche of soil and water tipped straight over my now prone body, covering me in a glutinous muddy mix. The assistant screamed. I sat there on the floor, surrounded by splintered ceramic, in a pool of water, dazed, trying to gain some composure.
' you have any...err...roses,' I asked, as I spat a mouthful of soil and petals onto the floor.
There was no discernible, coherent response from the assistant. Well none that I could translate into a recognised world language. Her reaction was bordering on hysteria, a mix of sobs, screams and wails. She even did what appeared to be a mini two step dance, an involuntary movement born out of some sort of helpless frustration. I looked around me. Sure there was a mess. Yes, there were a lot of broken pots but I considered her response something of an overreaction. I, on the other hand had plenty to get upset about. My jacket was soaked, soil trailed down the front of my new white Paul Smith shirt, and when I glanced down at my trousers I spotted a six inch rip straight along the seam of the right leg.

I began to rise to my feet, still blowing soil out of my mouth. The assistant stopped the wailing noise she was making and began to step backwards, almost in fear of my approach.
I held out my hand in a placatory gesture.
‘It’s ok,’ I said, ‘no need to be upset. It’s only a spillage. Nobody’s died-’
‘Not yet they haven’t,’ she said.
I was taken aback by her sudden ability to speak English. My next thought was to wonder whether what she had said was a threat or a prediction.
‘Yes. My mum will go mental,’ she said as she wiped a tear from her face.
‘Mental? Err...your mum will? Why? What’s it got to do with your mum? It’s just an accident. Accidents happen.’
‘It’s her shop and it’s just my second day. She asked me tidy up and lock up at six. She has an important client coming in tomorrow. Some big contract....for a function or something. God...she will kill me.’
‘Well, can’t you call her? Tell her what’s happened. I mean, she is your mum. I’m sure she’ll understand?’
‘I can’t call her. She’s out. That’s why she left early and asked me to take care of everything.’
I wiped the soil from my hands and looked at my watch. Ten past six. I was in danger of being late for my date if I didn’t get out of the shop soon. Across the street I could just make out the flashing hazard lights of the waiting taxi through the driving rain.
‘Look, I’m really sorry about what’s happened. I just didn’t see the...the wire thing. I tripped.’ I reached into my pocket and pulled out a business card. ‘Here take this. If you need me to speak to your mum about what happened, so she won’t think it’s your fault, I am happy to do so. But you need to call her and get her to give you a hand to clear up. I’m sure she’d want that.’
She took my card, stared at it and then looked up. ‘I can’t call her. She told me not to...not to disturb her.'
‘Why? It’s an emergency.’
‘She’s on a date.’
The word focussed me on my own necessity to get out of the shop and get to my date. And then the word took on another meaning. The hairs on my neck began to prickle.
‘A date? Did you say a date?’
‘I did. Why?’
‘Err...what sort of date?’
She ran a hand through her hair and shot me a curious look. ‘A date. You know, with a bloke. She was looking forward to it. Said he seemed nice, not like the idiots that she normally ran into. So, that’s why she doesn’t want me to bother her.’
Coincidence. It had to be. ‘Erm...where is the date...,’ I asked.
‘Why do you want to know that?’
‘Err...well just out of know, in case I ever...well, wanted to go on one know, sometime. Wondered if there are any good places.’
‘I dunno...some bar or pub...the sausage dog or something.’
As she said it I just caught sight of the taxi driver walking across the road to the shop. I bent down and picked up a piece of broken plant pot. Time to impress.
‘I’ll give you a hand to clear up.’

Friday, 5 April 2013

Court in the Crossfire

Sometimes I play tennis. It's good to hit some balls and unwind. The other night I pitched up at the tennis club I play at for the weekly social tennis event. This just involves members turning up and playing, usually doubles, with whoever else shows up. I got paired up in a men’s doubles. I had never met my playing partner, Harry, before so had no idea of his standard. On the opposition I knew that one of them, Dick, was average but that his playing partner, Tom, was very good. Anyway, after a few games it was my playing partner’s service. Before he served he walked over to speak to me.
'I am going to serve this one out wide to Dick’s forehand which will take him out of court and force him to play it back towards you and you can put it away for a winner.'
His approach took me by surprise as this was nothing more than a friendly social game of doubles not the US Open, but if he wanted to do tactics that was fine by me. I took up my position at the net and tried to focus. I didn't want to disappoint. Harry served. The ball went straight into the net. He went for his second serve. If you know about tennis you will know that what you are supposed to do when serving is get the ball into that little box on your opponent’s side of the net. Well, Harry’s second service didn't do that. He actually launched it out of the premises. Right out of the club grounds into the street just missing a passing bus. To put that in perspective, that is like a bloke standing at the urinal in a pub and missing it so badly he pees in the public bar.

Harry's next serve was to the good player, Tom. I crossed over and stood at the net again and waited expectantly. The serve missed my head by about five centimetres and hit the back fence without touching the ground at any point. I swear I heard a whistling sound as it flew past my ear at something like the speed of sound. I have to say it unnerved me slightly. His second service was to come. It may have been that he was able to improve his aim, having used his first attempt as a marker, because this one now missed my head by the much narrower margin of two centimetres. I started to consider the possibility that although it may not look cool on court, a crash helmet might be a wise investment when playing with Harry, or perhaps even when playing against him. Harry’s next two serves, mercifully hit the net. Whether it was frustration on his part or a determined effort to improve, he saved his best effort to last. The serve exploded from his racket with such force that it took a horizontal flight path straight into one of the floodlights poles. It then ricocheted off the metal post like a bullet from a wayward rifle shot, flew across to an adjacent court and promptly smacked a bemused woman on the back of the head. She had just been attempting a smash when the ball made contact with her cranium and she hit the deck like a bag of cement. Fortunately she was not seriously hurt, although her mutterings thereafter about meteorites and comets suggested that the onset of concussion was not too far off. Instead of apologising to the dazed lady, Harry hurled his racket at the net in some sort of demonstration of pique. Clearly this was not his night for accuracy as the racket failed to hit the net at all and, instead, crashed hard into the net post where its lack of robustness was brutally exposed when the head completely split in two. Fortunately for Harry, but perhaps not so fortunate for local residents, public transport users and the rest of us on court, Harry had a spare racket in his bag.

The game continued. Each of us had won our particular service games and it came around to Harry’s turn to serve again. It was with some trepidation that I moved to take my place at the net. As I did so Harry stopped me.
'Right,' he said, 'what I am going to do this time when I serve to Tom, is to make it kick in towards his body as he will find it harder to cope with that.'
I was about to ask, 'How would you possibly know that, as Tom hasn’t had the opportunity to return any of your serves so far as they have not actually been anywhere within his immediate vicinity let alone on his side of the court,’ when Harry then added, 'I want you to stand nearer the middle of the net so you can pick up any balls he gets to.'
Apart from the fact that I now thought Harry was deluded and also bordering on derangement, it crossed my mind that I would sooner stand in the middle of Helmand Province wearing a pair of union jack shorts with a target painted on my chest, than stand in the path of any of Harry’s projectiles.
True to form Harry then preceded to serve up the same array of unguided ballistic missiles, not one of which managed to land within the confines of the actual court and we subsequently lost the match. I was relieved to get off the court.

As we walked off I felt Harry's hand on my arm. I turned towards him just as he said, 'We should have won that. I was a bit inconsistent tonight but I reckon we could have won.'
I stared at him for a moment trying to comprehend Harry's definition of inconsistent. The deluded sometimes need a reality check. My response began to take shape along the lines of, ‘No you weren’t inconsistent Harry. You are just totally shite at tennis,’ but it was prevented from emerging when he asked if I would like a beer. Maybe delusion is a happy existence. I left it. What I actually could have drunk to numb my senses after that exhibition was a whole gallon of aircraft fuel. However, I declined Harry's offer of a beer for fear that at some point I would have been tempted to pour the whole lot over his head.

The Battle Bus

It’s Friday night. No, it’s not. It’s now Saturday morning, 3.30am to be precise. Sure, I went out on Friday night but I’m coming home in a different time zone. I’m walking across Trafalgar Square. I know I should get a taxi but I opt for the night bus. It’s cheaper by about forty quid. Why I’m working at that kind of economic level I don’t know. After all, my night out has already cost me a hundred and fifteen quid. Maybe that’s why I’m doing it. Two pounds and forty pence on the bus; forty-five in a taxi. Seems like a good idea.

There’s a crowd round the bus stop when I get there. Some checking the timetable, some stuffing the remnants of a burger into their faces, onions and red sauce hanging off their lips. Dining out in London. Behind me there’s a guy, his shirt hanging open to reveal a scrawny white chest, singing some incoherent ditty as he pisses up against the corner of a building. You’re in London man. Lord Nelson is looking at you. You got no respect? A dark puddle forms around his trainers and trickles away into the gutter like many a night on the tiles. I turn away. Ahead of me I see the shiny bright red of a Routemaster, its headlights beaming, a yellow glow of light spilling over the passengers on both decks. The crowd moves forward. No orderly queue here. I pay my money and look for a seat. Nothing. I head upstairs.

I squeeze onto a seat in the middle of the bus, next to a guy who’s lolling in some sort of fitful twitching sleep against the window, a can of coke perched perilously on his lap. It’s the only seat left on the top deck. I got no choice. Across the aisle two girls, their skirts riding high, are giggling about their night out while it is still fresh and the adrenaline is still coursing through them. It’s the only view worth looking at. The whole top deck is a clamour of chatter, random shouts and screams, alive and bustling. The bus lurches forward and then it begins.

There’s always one. The night bus entertainer. The bus clown. He walks forward from the back seat regaling the aisles with a song. I think it’s meant to be ‘Wonderwall.’ Maybe he thinks it is too. In his right hand there’s a can of Fosters. His left hand is slapping the handrails. It’s not meant to be a percussion accompaniment. It’s just him trying to keep his balance. I just want to get home. I find myself thinking in a kind of New York trash talk. Don’t know why. I’m from Wimbledon. Must be that last JD and coke. Sit down muva. It’s hometime. We don’t need it. Party’s done here. He carries on. Clearly he doesn’t do telepathy. Some of the bus crowd are getting into it. That only encourages him. He starts to shimmy like he’s on X-factor. Maybe he should be. He’s got no talent. He does a spin at the top end of the bus and starts a return strut. He reaches the seats opposite me where the two ‘ladies’ are sitting and decides to serenade them.
    'I done bleeve dat anybahdee feels the way a do aboucha now...'

The girls are giggling. The ping of the bus bell brings the bus to a slow halt. Not slow enough for the cabaret guy. The stopping motion causes him to lurch back. He over compensates by lurching forward. His Fosters can is in perfect sync. A slop of beer pitches from the can and hits me right in the face. Surprise rather than anger causes me to jump up.
    ‘Hey, mate. Watch what you’re doing with that friggin beer will you.’
He turns towards me, his eyes trying to focus, his lips pursed in the way a drunk’s lips do when the brain is forming a sentence but the tongue is unable to articulate the thought within the same time frame.‘Whasureproblem?’ was what came out.
My problem? I had Foster’s lager trickling down my chin. I’d had that before but normally I’d paid for it first. Yeah, what is my problem I asked myself? Maybe it was the fact that I was stuck on the night bus with a crowd of people whose collective IQ had now dipped below imbecile level. Perhaps if the X-factor wannabee got off the bus at that point it may have zoomed up to moron category. Still, it was my fault. I had wanted to save forty quid and now I was getting the benefit. Cheap fares and full on, up front, participatory entertainment.
I glanced around. The ‘bus’ was looking at me. I was on Mastermind and needed to answer the question. The two girls opposite turned their painted faces in my direction. My inquisitor swayed around an upright hand rail like some nightmarish pole dancer.
     ‘My problem,’ I began, ‘is that if the round is on you, I’d sooner a JD and coke. All beered out tonight.’
Humour. Maybe that would diffuse the thing. Maybe make me look cool too. I waited. The two girls giggled. ‘Wonderwall’ screwed up his face, his eyes momentarily turning into slits. His brain had shut down several departments. The synapses that normally fire up the neurons to operate sight had bid goodnight. Instead a substitute stepped in. His brow creased several times, up and down like an accordion, until the upward motion opened the two unfocussed slits.
Who knows what his next words of wisdom were to be. The bus lurched away from the stop causing him to tilt backwards. With his hand still holding the upright rail, his impetus swung him around to face the front of the bus. As it did, his head caught the rail just above the bridge of his nose. It was the perfect knockout. He pitched forward and landed on his face, the Fosters can hitting the deck and rolling straight under his body. The two girls screamed. The rest of the bus whooped and cheered. I sat back down in my seat. Next to me my ‘travelling companion’ remained oblivious, wrapped up in the comatose sleep of a battle bus drunk.

As I slumped back into my seat and contemplated twenty five more stops to go, I began to see the value of forty quid.