Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Walter Mitty is Alive and Well

Our delightful grandchild Tommy is picked up by dad after a day's childminding at grandma's. "I've been in the pond" he announces triumphantly to a bemused father. Ponds and four year olds don't exactly go together. A fact of which grandma is well aware, the story is a porky of the first order. "I fell downstairs, from top to bottom" was last weeks pronouncement, again a happening only in his obviously fertile imagination.
Many years ago as a full time youth leader I had the acquaintence of Dennis, a non too bright eighteen year club member. One day he regaled me in great detail regarding an accident in which he had been involved. Riding his motorcycle he had collided with a car, a Ford Consul. The driver evidently a large distinct ginger haired individual wearing a red jacket, brogues and corduroy trousers was cooperative enough and had given him a phone number to contact in order to make arrangements to mend the damage to the motor cycle. Only the phone number was non existent. I was very concerned, for Dennis could ill afford to pay for other people's damage.
I didn't see Dennis for a while until he wandered into the club a fortnight or so later. "Hello, Dennis, and how are you?" I offered. "How did you go on concerning the accident?" Dennis looked even blanker than usual. "What accident?" he replied. "Can I book the snooker table?"
As far as I can ascertain, children tell fibs and most adults either at best deal in falsehoods or simply misrepresent the truth. And dare I say it, some including the worst politicians simply lie. An inbuilt genetic trait we all possess or is it learnt behaviour than makes life more interesting. Take your pick. I wrote the following short story to pay homage to all the con artists, romancers and down right liars I have met over the years. Incredibly I am still as gullible as ever to their stories. Some of us never learn.

“Tell a lie and find the truth.”
Spanish Proverb

The old men sat around the table, pints in hand, seemingly deep in thought. The landlord stood behind the bar in close proximity. The clock struck the hour.
“He were an unusual man, were Arthur my grandfather.” Old Ernie broke the silence.
“In fact he were an unusual child. He could tie a knot in a length of string with his toes at three. At four he were playing a penny whistle with his nose. An avid reader from the age of five, a child who delighted in attention, little Arthur devoured information the way other children devoured cream cakes.
At seven he knew butterflies were once called flutterbies; that King Charles the First were only four feet seven inches tall. He knew that camelhair-brushes were invented by a Mr Camel, and of any case weren’t made from camel hair. And he knew, although he’d never been there, that Chile had no public lavatories.
At ten years of age he pondered the great philosophical questions of his day. Why does a man’s bike have a crossbar? What’s the difference between chutney and pickle? Why are dusters yellow and where does the wind go when it’s not blowing? He were before his time, were Granddad.”
Ernie lapsed back into sombre contemplation.
Silence reigned again, but not for long.
“He were a lucky man, your grandfather.” Old Michael, known as ‘Bony M’ on account of his gaunt frame, took up the challenge.
“If he’d had the start in life my grandfather had, he’d never have bothered.
Not a pretty child, the midwife took one look, stuck him under the bed and ran out of the room screaming!
Determined to do well in life, despite social and physical disadvantages, he tried hard to succeed. But the fates seem to conspire against him.
Adolph was not the best choice of names for a sensitive child. Neither was an upbringing in a family devoid of normality.
Illegitimate, his father was reputed to be the local squire and prospective Conservative candidate in forthcoming elections. His paternal grandfather had been one of the earliest persons in the area to be sentenced to penal servitude in Australia, fourteen years for arson, churches being his speciality.
His mother was well known for favours bestowed locally on dignitaries for little or no cost, no role model for an adolescent child.
His brother Deidrie grew up sexually confused. He wore a suit and tie in his job as clerk in the local railway offices; and was beautifully turned out in a dress and bonnet at church on Sundays.
Not surprisingly Adolph grew up scarred mentally. Ashamed of his background, he vowed never to reveal his families’ secrets, particularly that his father may have been a Conservative!”
Old Michael too lapsed into silence as he contemplated his lineage.
“Unlucky, unlucky, you don’t know what bad luck is.” Old Harry took his chance with enthusiasm.
“My great uncle Jake didn’t choose to be one of life’s losers, but life chose him.
All his life he suffered from ailments, imaginary and real that meant he could never participate in those pastimes others found normal.
Frequently hospitalised, he was treated for dozens of conditions previously unknown to mankind.
Sadly typical was the time he suffered peculiar thumping sensations whilst in bed. Exhausted after days without sleep, he was subjected to every conceivable test. But even the most comprehensive X-rays and electrocardiograms failed to diagnose the cause. Not surprising, since the problem was eventually found to be the thermostat on his new electric blanket!
Regular work was a rarity. So, with an income barely above subsistence level, Jake spent his time attending establishments that offered free entertainment or education. Unfortunately his luck didn’t change.
Carrying more books than was wise he fell down the stairs of the local library and was hospitalised for two weeks.
Visiting an exhibition by RoSPA in the Town Hall, he tripped over his shoelaces and collided with a table displaying items concerned with danger in the home.
Unable to keep his balance Jake hit the floor with a resounding crash, grasping the cloth from the table in a desperate attempt to lessen his demise. This in turn brought crashing down on the unfortunate Jake the items previously displayed on the table: an iron, frying pan and a canteen of cutlery; a vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, toaster and a glass fronted first aid cabinet!
This time he was hospitalised for a mere eight days.”
“Now, now, you two, your families don’t have a monopoly where bad luck is concerned. Granddad Arthur succeeded in spite of adversity.” Ernie was not one to admit defeat lightly.
“The end for Arthur’s brother alone would have destroyed lesser men than Arthur. A brewer with a Burton Brewery, he fell into a vat of beer at the height of his brewing success. Beer contains ethanol, which has a lower density than water, so not surprisingly he drowned. It is not true that he got out twice to sober up. It is true though the brewery was upset that the entire batch had to be thrown away!”
Michael seized his opportunity.
“Adolph’s brother Deidre also met an unfortunate end. Plagued by doubts concerning his sexuality, he decided to end it all. After downing a bottle of brandy he placed cushions on the floor, turned on the gas, put his head in the oven and promptly fell asleep.
Six hours later he woke with a splitting headache. Cursing the inefficiency of modern North Sea Gas, totally befuddled, he fumbled in his pockets, found what he was looking for and lit his last cigarette; in fact he lit his last anything!
The explosion destroyed Deidre’s flat, the bookies below and the chip shop next door. Deidre definitely went out with a bang.”
If these sombre observations were intended to deflect Harry from his pessimistic telling of Jake’s misfortunes it was unsuccessful. Harry continued unabashed.
“Browsing through a local antique salesroom, entrance of course free, Jake made two exciting discoveries that he hoped would change his life forever. He discovered, almost simultaneously, a violin and a painting, both so faintly signed as to be almost indecipherable.
Cunningly examined so as to avoid the attention of connoisseurs in the antiques world, he realised with mounting excitement the signatures were of immense importance. Jake had discovered a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt. His joy was boundless, for his troubles were surely over. Unfortunately not, for the painting was by Stradivarius and the violin was a Rembrandt!”
Harry shook his head at the thought of the cruel misfortunes heaped on poor Jake.
“‘All that Glitters is not Gold,’” said Ernie, “‘Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, 1615.’”
“‘Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched’. Aesop, 570AD” retorted Michael, determined not to be upstaged.
Ernie pondered the misfortunes of the illustrious Jake.
“Arthur could never be considered unfortunate, certainly where money was concerned. Niche markets were his speciality. He owned a small factory producing left handed cups that were a great success.
He bought a large consignment of contraceptives, seconds that is. He resold them to Roman Catholics with the promise that they had the blessing, so to speak, of the Pope.
He sold, by mail order, 78 records that purported to contain the entire work of Marcel Marceau.
He became a rich man. His innovative spirit knew no bounds. And he would undoubtedly have continued to prosper, had his fortune not become his misfortune, so to speak.
A rich young man who could afford any leisure activity of his choice, he was one of the earliest riders of a motorcycle in his district. Arthur was the proud owner of an AJS, named after the maker, Mr A J Stevens.
Before the age of sophisticated motorcycle clothing, any long coat sufficed, worn back to front to keep out the cold, and buttoned up before a journey by helpful friends, often of the female gender. A leather helmet and goggles, a scarf and long gauntlets completed the transformation.
Throwing caution to the wind, Arthur was often seen hurtling through the villages, drawing admiring gazes from love struck young maidens, and fearful curses galore from those aged and infirm. He had minor accidents, mishaps inevitable to so fearless a rider. And he would have no doubt continued in like vein, except for an unfortunate mistake by a pair of country bumkins, unaware of the ways of the world, the motorcycle world, that is.
Dashing down a country lane on a warm summer evening, Arthur encountered with both wheels a cowpat of particular lushness. In full view of two straw chewing yokels, seated on a farmyard gate, the out of control rider and machine flew through the air. Both cleared a stone wall with consummate ease.
The motorbike sailed into an uninviting duck pond and Arthur landed face down with no small impact on a grassy bank. Arthur stared into the ground, no doubt tasted the grass beneath him and was probably thankful to be alive. That is, until the helpful yokels arrived and viewed the prone figure. Helpful to the end, that is Arthur’s end, the two yokels, with great difficulty, but equal determination managed to realign his head!”
Ernie grimaced at the thought of Arthur’s unfortunate end.
Michael nodded in sympathy.
“Granddad Adoph had a funny life but at least he had a peaceful end.
A humble, inoffensive little man, he worked quietly, almost invisibly as a railway clerk for many years. His life was one of drudgery and utter boredom.
He did in fact marry, but it was not a success. A big, slovenly, idle woman, his wife bullied poor Adolph unmercifully. He used to tell himself, “My wife’s a light eater, as soon as it gets light she starts eating!” But he was afraid of course to make such an observation out loud.
His life was one of poverty, chastity and obedience.
But even a worm turns. A week before his thirtieth wedding anniversary, Adolph secreted a bag containing clothes under the stairs.
On the morning of the anniversary Adolph made his wife’s breakfast as always. She sat down to a full, very large meal and Adolph made his way unnoticed to the hall.
Eating greedily she addressed her subservient husband out of sight in the hall.
“Don’t think you are going to get away cheaply this anniversary,” she bawled down the hall, “I want to go somewhere I’ve never been before.”
“Try the kitchen!” came back Adolph’s reply.
They were the last words Adolph ever spoke to his wife. When she looked in the hall he was gone.
That night he settled into a new life in a Franciscan Monastery. Exchanging a life of poverty, chastity and obedience for a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Only this time he was a willing participant.”
Michael and Ernie turned to Harry inviting a response. Not one to disappoint, Harry took up the challenge.
“As Lord Byron said in 1823, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction.’
Jake continued to find life a struggle. Finance, or rather the lack of it continued to dog his very existence.
Depressed, near suicidal, Jake received news that would undoubtedly change his life forever.
A maiden aunt summoned Jake to her presence. She had, she informed him, watched his troubled existence for many years. She had the means to help solve his problems forever. Having no children, she wished to bequeath her house and considerable fortune to Jake on her death.
She asked only one thing. Having fond memories of Skegness as a child, she wished to visit one more time. On her return she would write a will, completely in Jake’s favour, finishing, at the stroke of a pen Jake’s life of hardship and toil.
Feverishly ecstatic, Jake, after a diligent search for the right vehicle, ‘borrowed’ a limousine from a nearby showroom forecourt, intending of course to return it eventually.
On a hot summer’s morning shortly afterwards, Jake lovingly, carefully placed his elderly, frail would-be benefactor into the back of the pristine limousine he had so thoughtfully acquired.
The air conditioning was magnificent; a credit to Mr Rolls and Mr Royce and the journey was uneventful.
Great Aunt Maud thoroughly enjoyed her time on Skegness beach. The sun beat down but she was oblivious. Any discomfort experienced due to two or three layers of clothing she ignored. The constant flow of ice cream, courtesy of the ever attentive Jake nectar to the euphoric Great Aunt Maud.
As the crowds drifted away at teatime, the contented, rather pink, or rather very pink Great Aunt Maud was lifted into the back of the limousine for the last time. The very last time; definitely the very last time! For as Jake checked Great Aunt Maud prior to starting the journey homeward every conceivable emotion flooded his mind: horror, disbelief and not a little fear.
It was rather obvious that Great Aunt Maud had experienced her last visit to Skegness beach. Still, quiet, silent even, open mouthed, eyes staring, Great Aunt Maud had gone to that resort in the sky where the sun always shines and the ice creams are free. She was in fact dead, very dead!
Jake glanced furtively round the car park, seeing only families hurrying home to tea, happily reliving their day on the beach. More important, everyone was obviously unaware of Jake’s problems.
Jake’s mind was racing, but, heart pounding, he adopted an air of casual normality as he eased the limousine down Skegness High Street and on towards home.
The return journey home was as uneventful as that made only hours before. Admittedly Jake’s passenger was not much company but Jake was, of any case, preoccupied.
Approaching Nottingham he still had no idea as to his next move. A large public house on the edge of the city beckoned. Jake parked up and entered, leaving Great Aunt Maud hidden from public view behind the darkened windows of the Rolls.
Jake bought himself a glass of stout and agonised over the problem of the late, Great Aunt Maud. There seemed to be two distinct choices. Ring the police and confess all. Including of course the facts concerning the ‘borrowed’ Rolls Royce and the lack of a driving licence and insurance documents. Not to mention concealing a death, an event in its own right serious enough to probably warrant incarceration at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Alternatively, take Great Aunt Maud home, somehow get her into her own bed and await discovery of the unfortunate deceased, an event hopefully unconnected to nephew Jake.
Undecided as to which course of action to follow, Jake finished his drink and returned to the car park. At this stage a bad day got decidedly worse! The limousine and its passenger were nowhere to be seen. And, put simply, that was that!
Jake never forgot that day in Skegness. Getting home was comparatively easy. Getting over the whole traumatic episode was less so. On many a cold winter’s night Jake shivered in bed and wondered whatever happened to Great Aunt Maud; and for that matter, the Rolls.
The house and fortune eventually passed to the state, for there was of course no will. But not until many years later. For no-one seemed to know where Great Aunt Maud had got to; of any case a missing person cannot be presumed dead for all of seven years.
And Jake was hardly in a position to help, was he? Poor, poor Jake!”
The clock again struck the hour. The three old men lapsed into silence.
After what seemed an eternity they looked in unison towards the landlord, who had remained nearby during the whole discourse.
He pondered for a moment, walked from behind the bar and presented Harry with a bottle of his best malt whisky.
Michael and Ernie knew that this year’s winner of Tall Story Club was undoubtedly Harry.
“Well done, old man,” said Michael graciously.
“Definitely well done.” echoed Ernie. “And what did become of poor Jake?”
“He too died,” replied Harry, “leaving his children half a million pounds.” Harry’s audience were taken by surprise.
“Where did the money come from?”
Harry anticipated the question in everyone’s mind.
“From a life insurance. Jake decided to end it all, and, at the same time, make provision for his children. A suicide note was found in his house showing his intention of drowning in the local river. Hey presto, end of Jake’s financial problems!”
Old Michael jumped to his feet as fast as an eighty-year-old can.
“Not possible,” he shouted triumphantly. “All life insurance policies have a get out clause that excludes paying out in the event of a suicide!”
“Quite correct,” said Old Harry. “But who said Jake’s death was a suicide?”
“You did,” retorted Old Ernie. “You said a suicide note from Jake indicated he was going to the river.”
Harry too rose to his feet.
“So I did.” replied the venerable Harry. “But the river was searched to no avail. Jake’s body was found, in a ditch, half a mile from the river. He had apparently tripped over the wire fence in the dark and drowned in eight inches of water. The inquest’s verdict was accidental death, not suicide!
Good night gentlemen. See you next year, God willing.”


Marian Dean said...

Really enjoyed this. Very entertaining. Where do you get the ideas from?
Got to call it a day now. Off at the crack of dawn oop north!
Be reading more on our return next week.

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