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by binsie 

Posted: 12 February 2013
Word Count: 4167
Summary: Chapter 1 of a family saga I started to work on some years ago when I was a WW member under my real name.

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They had not met for ten years. Sitting on a park bench staring out over the basin of the town centre their mood matching the scenery beyond as a solid mass of low cloud caressed the distant multitude of tower blocks that were modern day slums from the time they were built in the 1960’s. The main shopping precinct, one of the first constructed in the North West, lay below in concrete tatters in stark contrast to the imposing Victorian architecture of the nearby Town Hall, Infirmary and Central Library.
Two brothers, now in their fifties and torn apart years ago by a mother whose influence would extend beyond the grave. The one, well groomed with a compact framed designer like appearance stood in stark contrast to the stick-like, unkempt other. Against the howling wind he had the collar of his navy blue Crombie overcoat pulled across a crisp white Oxford weave buttoned down collared shirt and his razor creased dark grey trousers and black semi-brogue shoes could have passed muster on a parade ground.
‘How’s it going then?’ said the younger brother, dressed in his Town Council uniform of donkey jacket, blue boiler suit and scuffed boots, steeling himself for the anticipated-barbed riposte.
‘Middling,’ was the curt reply. The older brother had not wanted to be there, thought he had seen the last of them, and yet here he was back in the town he had come to detest. Back, albeit for a few days, to a family and a way of life that had been alien to him for as long as he could remember.
‘No really, how are you Joe? We do still think about you, you know.’
With that the insidious irritation that had been festering within Joe erupted like a lanced boil. ‘So you still think about me do you? Well that is gratifying to know. How the bleeding hell am I supposed to be Andy when my so called family keep drifting in and out of my life when it suits them?’
Most of the family had had problems dealing with Joe’s belligerence over the years and Andy was probably the least equipped to handle such outbursts. ‘Look,’ said Andy rubbing the back of his neck, ‘we just thought you should know about mam. Doctor reckons this time that’s it. No chance of a recovery from this one; could go any day now.’
‘Well, there you are then’ said Joe turning to go. ‘You’ve told me. Is that it? You could’ve done that on the phone or by letter. Oh I was forgetting phone calls cost money and you lot still haven’t got the hang of writing have you?
‘Hang on Joe, don’t bugger off just like that. Christ you don’t change much do you? Always having a dig no matter what people are trying to do for you. Anyway, I did ring and it was to Italy but you weren’t in so I had to leave that message. Look I know that you and her never saw eye to eye much but she is your mother when all said and done.’
‘Aye I know; I was at the christening’ said Joe. ‘Can’t you understand Andy that for the first time in my life, I’m happy and all you’re doing is scratching old wounds? Well I’ve bled enough for her and I’ll not do it again.’
‘How’s Italy then?’ Andy asked.
‘It’s as far way from this place as I want to be.’
‘Why did you choose Italy anyway and more importantly what happened to your job? You were doing OK last we heard made director didn’t you? Don’t tell me that you were turking the bosses wife and got caught’
‘Ha, you obviously never saw her pal. And I chose to live in Italy because it’s not England, France or Spain. Because the men don’t think that a good night out is getting totally bladdered, going for a curry on the way home and hope that they’ll keep it down. Because it’s the land of Botticelli, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Puccini. Because the people are kind and caring and still keep their family bonds above all else. Pity she wasn’t Italian really, we would have all been better off for it. But I reckon this is all a bit beyond you though Andy isn’t it?
‘Botticelli, doesn’t he play for Inter Milan?’ said Andy breaking a pregnant silence
‘Oh very droll,’ said Joe, concealing a grin whilst trying hard to maintain the cantankerous mood. ‘Still with the Parks Department then, how long’s that now’?
‘Coming up to thirty five years.’
‘Jesus Andy, you don’t get thirty-five years for murder. What the hell makes you stay there?’
‘I enjoy it, always have. Plenty of fresh air and it compensates for that window box of a garden I’ve got back home. Anyway, I’m Area Supervisor now. Got four parks to look after and it’s quite a challenge what with the council budget cutbacks and all the staffing problems we have.’
‘Oh well, if it keeps you happy Andy. Who knows I’m over here anyway? Not her for sure. I don’t suppose our Irene knows either, otherwise I would be round at your place and we wouldn’t be meeting on the Red Wreck?
‘I didn’t want any bother, not at a time like this. Pat thought it would be best if we met out of the way somewhere.’
‘How is Pat, still as large as life?’
‘Yeah, dieting never was her strong point. Still she’s a good wife and mother all the same.’
‘You mean she puts up with mam’s interference?’
‘I mean she’s not like you’ said Andy, ‘she’s tolerant, patient and supportive. OK she’s kept quiet for the sake of keeping the peace but that’s a virtue.’
‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall have peace. Catholicism suits you Andy. Lets you hide behind a changing world. Pat did a good job on you there.’
They returned their stares to the town centre and after some minutes Andy broke the ensuing silence. ‘Want a roll up?’
‘Gave the ciggies up ten years ago, just after we last met.’
‘Fancy a pint then?’
‘Fiddler’s Arms’
‘No thanks I’d sooner walk round Tesco’s with a nail in my shoe than drink in there.’
‘Well we have wine bars now for the lah-de-dah’s if that’s what you want.’
‘Nah, skip it. I’ll just get back to the hotel.’
‘Will you stay around for a while?’
‘Until she snuffs it you mean? Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Mind, don’t suppose I’ll get a ringside seat will I?’
As they made their way from the heights of the Park the town opened up before them like a mouth showing a set of decaying teeth. The main through road ran parallel to the rail viaduct, taking commuters north to Manchester and south beyond the Peak District. Textile mills built around the turn of the 19th century and rehabilitated as later day museums or trading estates stood, like a form of inverted snobbery. Landmarks of the town’s industrial heritage.
To top it all off a motorway, hewn in part through a sandstone cliff cut a path east to west and back, through the town, throbbing with vehicles like a blocked artery about to rupture. The result, Joe thought, was a patchworks quilt of architectural and town planning incompetence of the highest order.
Turning to Joe Andy asked, ‘Where are you staying while you’re over here?’
‘Beechcroft Hotel, up the Queensway Road.’
‘Do you fancy coming round for tea tonight then?’
‘Still call it tea eh. Suppose you have dinner around mid-day?’
‘Aye well, if you want a bite to eat you’re welcome.’
As they approached the car park Joe asked ‘and where’s our Irene then these days?’
‘She’s on her way back to Birmingham tonight. Be back in two days, unless….’
‘So, I’m safe to come out during the day am I?’
‘Give us a call if you’re coming round Joe.’
‘You’re a good lad Andy and I don’t mean to take anything out on you. To be honest I get on my own nerves at times. It’s just that this place gives me the creeps and I have to get adjusted to it again. I will come round and see Pat. How’s your Michael by the way?’
‘He’s at college now; wants to be an architect but I doubt that he’ll make it, he could do something in quantity surveying though.’
‘He’d have bags of scope around here if he did qualify as an architect. I’ll be round about half seven OK?’
‘That’ll be fine, Pat’s doing a roast.’
‘Suppose I can handle it if I take it in small doses.’
‘She’s not the best cook in the world I’ll grant you, but me and Michael have done all right on it.’
‘That’s because a budgie eats more than you do. Look at you, I’ve seen more fat on a chip than on you lad. Do you want a lift back home?’
‘No thanks I’ll walk.’
‘Bloody hell Andy when are you going to come into the 21st Century and get a car?’
‘What do I want a car for? I’ve got everything I need on the doorstep. I live five minutes walk from town. If I need it I can get use of the works van in an emergency and we’ve got a good bus and train service. Stuff bloody cars I say, why make life more complicated?’
‘All right you Luddite,’ said Joe affectionately, ‘you might just have a point. Tell you what let’s have a quick one in The Magnet, it’s years since I’ve been in there’
‘It’s years since you’ve been in any pub around these parts pal,’ said Andy turning to conceal a smile. ‘Right then, The Maggie it is.’
The early evening pub smells of stale lunchtime beer and cigarettes and the disinfected mop-over of the floors hit them as they opened the door. The residue of earlier ashtray deposits complemented the smears of a quick once-over on the bar. Photographs of three generations of football teams were dotted around the walls, the earlier black and white ones almost sepia like against the later coloured pictures.
The vault and best room had been subject to a few licks of paint over the years although the casual visitor would never have known it, thanks largely to the effects of smoke and the dirty work clothes of the early starters who nipped in for one between work and home. Some of the hardy drinkers never made it home on Thursday pay days until after closing time and subs were arranged to pay the housekeeping after some drunken fool had lost his wages on the card tables. The dartboard, card tables and jukebox were in the same places where Joe had last seen them and to cap it all Bert Murray, one of Joe’s old pals, was now the landlord.
‘What’ll it be then?’ said Bert still coming round from the effects of an afternoon kip.
‘Two pints of bitter please, Bert’, said Joe.
Concentrating on the job in hand Bert kept his head firmly fixed on the cloud of beer coiling around the inner glass. ‘Sorry, you’ve got me there pal. Do I know you?’
‘You should do you daft bugger. We only went to school together and
we’re on a couple of them photograph’s up there. Mind you, I’ll admit the grey hairs don’t exactly flatter me these days but neither does that gut of yours. And you must be wearing that sweater for a bet.’
‘Joe? Bloody hell Joe Collier! What are you doing round these parts. How long is it ten years?’
‘Fifteen more like. I have been back before now you know.’
‘Aye but we’ve not seen much of you though. Too good for us were you, after university.’
‘Now then Bert, I’ve not come in here for all that crap. Are you having one?’
‘I will as it’s you, and this must be your Andy. You don’t change mate still like a string bean then.’
‘Cheers,’ said Andy holding up his pint glass.
‘Cheers Joe, Andy. I heard that you’d gone off to Italy Joe. What brings you round these parts now then?’
Our Flo’s on her last legs apparently and Andy wanted me to come over one last time. He still thinks there’s a chance of some sort of deathbed reconciliation between us. Always was a daft romantic bugger.
‘Did you never make up then?’
‘Nah. Tried it once back in the mid eighties. Called her to see how she was, given that we’d not spoken in five years’ went straight on the attack the old sod. Said that I’d deprived her of her grandchildren and that I was sadly mistaken if I thought that one phone call could make up for all the hurt that I had given her over the years.’
Joe’s mother’s reputation as a tyrant reminded Bert how the kids around the area rarely knocked on her door to see who was coming out to play. The only person that seemed to stand up to her was Joe and their fall-outs were legendary. ‘You didn’t start arguing again did you?’
‘Nah, no point. That would only play into her hands. You know how she loved a good barney, couldn’t stand it when people agreed with her. I found out in the end that the best way to play her was to say nothing and then ignore what she said once you’re out of sight. Made her even more argumentative but I was winning every time because I never answered back. Only person who could get away with agreeing with her was our Andy and look where it’s got him.’
‘Oh ah and where’s that then?’
‘Parks Area Supervisor, that’s where’ said Andy indignantly
‘Suppose someone’s got to do it,’ said Bert
‘Yeh, but not for thirty-five bloody years, Said Joe ‘Oh all right, it’s got nowt to do with me I know. The point is that it’s just a shame he didn’t make more of himself that’s all. Mind by the time that she’d finished wrapping him up in cotton wool he never knew what he wanted and when he got married Pat took over where Flo had left off.’
Butting in Andy said ‘You two will pardon me for being here won’t you?’
‘All right Andy, keep your hair on, well what you’ve got left anyway,’ said Joe
‘Swiftly changing the subject’ said Bert ‘I still see Sally around town though she doesn’t look too good these days.’
‘Not surprised Bert, she’s been in detox twice to my knowledge, but our Andy might know a bit more about that’, said Joe.
“Why should I know, she were your wife not mine.’
‘Shame really,’ said Bert ‘she were a good-looking girl years ago. You and her seemed right for each other when we were all going around together. What happened?’
‘God knows. Same as happened to thousands of other couples I suppose. Work, kids, paying the bills, boredom, frustration. Whatever it was she took to the booze big style, problem was that I hadn’t a clue. She kept the drinking well under wraps as most alchie’s do. If it weren’t for our Lizzie I would still be in the dark.’
‘Yeh, sorry to hear about what happened to her Joe. She was a good kid you must miss her a lot. Do you still see your Steve?’
‘Not for three years now. He went his way with his mother and I went my way. We did keep in touch for a while off and on but it seems more off now than on.’
‘Did you marry again?’
‘Aye. We divorced a few years back. Left me for a brickie in Grantham. Always was lucky in love eh? What about you and Carol Broadbent?’
‘Same as you Joe, only I stopped at one. Married to this place now.’
‘Not changed much has it?’
‘It’s how the customers want it. Gives them a feeling of continuity. Home from home really.’
‘Says a lot about where they live then. Young ones won’t be coming in though will they?’
‘They meet up here before going up town or into Manchester same as we did years ago when we used to go to Bellevue and miss the last bus home, remember? Football teams still going as you can see. Some of the lads are Grandsons of them as played in our days.’
The pub was beginning its evening trade with the early starters drifting in, Bert pulling their pints without the need for orders.
Anyway, got to be off Bert. See you around. You sure you don’t want a lift Andy?’
Yeh, I’ll probably have another here and then get off, same again Bert.’
‘There’s a darts match next Tuesday if you’re still around Joe. Sarnies and black puddings to follow. What do you say?’
‘You would not want to know Bert. All the best pal.’
Parking up later outside Andy’s house Joe took some time to take in the scenery and work out what, if anything had changed. The cobbled street had been tarmacked, a few houses, including Andy and Pat’s, had had new bay windows and an external lick of paint. Other than that it was pretty much the same as it was thirty years ago when Andy and Pat moved in. Their house was at the end of a terraced cul-de-sac behind which lay the Fiddler’s Arms complete with a lush crown green bowling lawn where Andy spent most of his summer nights.
Greeting him at the door with a broad grin and a big hug Pat was genuinely pleased to see him again. ‘Joe, how are you lad? Come on in.’
‘Not so bad Pat love, how’s yourself? Here you are brought you these.’
‘Wine and Flowers, long time since anyone did that. Come to think of it I’m not sure if Andy ever has bought a bottle of wine by himself and as for flowers, last time I got any from him was at the wedding. Anyway I can’t complain.’
‘About the wine and flowers or life in general?’
‘About anything really. Sorry our Michael’s not here to see you. He’s away on some college trip or other. He would have been pleased to see his Uncle Joe, always did like you. Reckon me him and Andy were the only ones though, apart from your Lizzie that is. Anyway take your coat off love and make yourself at home. Andy’s just having a quick swill upstairs, can I get you a drink?
‘No thanks Pat I’ve had a pint tonight and I’m driving.’
As Pat led the way along the narrow hall Joe thought that the anaglypta wallpaper had had at least one more coat of white emulsion since he was last here, though some time ago judging by its discolouration. The whiff of steaming vegetables and roast beef lingered in the air, mingling with the grease from years of fry ups. The cooking aromas seemed to permeate the very walls in the narrow confines of the diminutive two-bedroom house.
Pat ushered Joe into the front room saying, ‘Here you are sit down Joe Andy won’t be a minute. You will have some wine with your dinner though won’t you?’
The emphasis on the word dinner, confirmed to Joe that Andy had given Pat a full report of their earlier conversation. Alone in the front room he felt as though he had stepped back in time twenty years as he took in the usual mess that was at the core of Andy and Pat’s lifestyle. Pat had made an attempt at clearing up but to Joe it still constituted a shambles of some magnitude.
Piles of un-ironed clothes were heaped in washing baskets under the bay window. A sandstone brick fireplace arced down from its shoulder height mantle-piece to around three feet and extended its wings either side of a built in gas fire. It stopped at the bay window to the left and two foot short of the dining room wall to the right; its place taken over at that point by an indoor tropical fish tank complete with gurgling oxygenating equipment and plastic ornaments. Cavities of bricks missing here and there formed miniature shelves where odd bits of dust-covered ornaments were housed.
The moquette three piece suite, a wedding present from Pat’s mum and dad, was conspicuous by its threadbare arms and the dent in the settee’s lumpy seat cushions showed where Pat normally sat. Joe was sitting in Andy’s chair by the fireplace, facing the television in the opposite corner, which as usual, had been left on. Adjacent to Joe on the shelf of the fireplace was Andy’s NHS specs, tobacco tin, lighter and cigarette papers, whilst the Daily Mirror and Racing Post were stuffed between the chair arm and seat cushion.
A glass-fronted cabinet took up its position in the middle of the wall behind the settee in which were housed Andy bowls and darts trophies together with variety of bottles of sherry, port and vermouth’s that Joe guessed had been bought for his mother at Christmas. Joe spotted his 1953 Coronation mug in the bottom corner and remembered how Irene had smashed hers in a fit of temper during an argument with her mother. On top of the cabinet stood Pat and Andy’s yellowing wedding photograph behind the smaller snaps of Michael at varying ages. With the exception of his school photographs Joe noticed how many times Michael was accompanied by his grandmother in the pictures.
Joe was just about to switch the television off as Andy came in through the French doors separating the front and dining rooms. ‘You scrub up well our kid’, said Joe in a kindly way. ‘Not often you sit down at the table to dinner though is it?’
‘Aye, well, maybe we would be watching Coronation Street with our food on a tray but it is our home when all said and done.’
‘Take no notice of me. Whatever you get up to in the privacy of your own home is your business. I’ll just use the bathroom myself if that’s O.K.?’
Andy had not realised over the years just how many of his mother’s expressions he had adopted. ‘And what if it isn’t?’
Smiling out of Andy’s sight as he made his way towards the door Joe gave Pat a knowing wink. ‘I’ll still use it anyway. Won’t be a minute.’
When Joe returned to the dining table Andy was on his way in from the kitchen with the food already platted up. The only dispensing needed was the gravy that sat in a glass-measuring jug in the middle of the table, its fat globules winking in the reflection of the light bulb overhead. The dining table had been laid with plate mats, (A Present from Blackpool), a knife and fork either side, and no napkins. Wine glasses that had not seen the light of day for years had been hastily wiped and set to one side of each place.
‘Gravy Joe?’ said Pat, pouring a generous portion for herself first.
‘Just a drop Pat, thanks.’ Joe made a brief gesture of pouring before handing the gravy over to Andy who promptly drowned the contents of his plate in what was left.
‘Don’t suppose you get many roasts over in Italy do you, what with all that pasta and tomato sauce,’ said Pat solemnly.
‘Don’t think that that the Dolmio adverts are the real Italy Pat. We do know how to cook you know.’
‘Oh it’s we is it now, and how long have you been Italian then?’ Andy chimed in.
‘Actually our kid from the minute I moved in I felt that I had come home. Maybe it was the fact that I was not in England and in particular around here but I really did find it easy to settle down, probably for the first time in my life.’
‘There must be some things you miss though, what about your roots?’
‘What roots, a council house in Heaton Norris with my Nan, my siblings and parents on the other side of town and constant battles with my mother whenever we met? No love I don’t miss my roots at all’
‘It wasn’t always bad between you and Flo though was it Joe? Pat asked. ‘And what about your Nan, surely you miss her’?
‘Aye I do but I can’t bring her back can I love. Maybe there were some good times Pat. Trouble is I never really knew a time when mam and me were close. As for our father well he was an illusion for most of the time even for my brothers and sisters who lived with him. Andy wasn’t born when mam and dad got the terraced house in Hooley’s Court and moved out of Ring Avenue leaving me to stay on at Nan’s.’

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Comments by other Members

AlanH at 10:20 on 13 February 2013  Report this post
Hi binsie,

I enjoyed reading this. It's a slice of real life, and evokes family strife and disputes in an environment of urban sprawl very well. I really like some of your descriptions: concrete tatters, mouth with decaying teeth etc. The dialogue, for me, is convincing. The three scenes work well as a unit.

For what it's worth, here are my more detailed comments. These occurred to me as I was reading.

* I think some commas would help. I had to reread several sentences. This struck me as early as the 2nd sentence.

* The bitterness of Joe seemed to stop suddenly, and by the end he was relatively friendly. Was this intended? I couldn't see an actual tipping point, though. The transformation just happened and he became affectionate and kindly.

* The tolerance of Andy towards Joe is iffy, IMO. I think some curtness back to Joe would be appropriate.

* I did skim some of the 'telling' type descriptions. The string of adjectives used for Joe's shirt, for example. The pub interior didn't catch my imagination. That scene, with Bert, dragged on a bit.

* carrying on from the last comment, I would have liked more action / scene-setting to break up the dialogue, especially of the metaphore-type, which you can do, and for me are real highlights.

* Overall, I think it just needs a polish. I noticed a few punctuation errors, and two 'thats', but overall, it seems developed. The duplication may be deliberate, but if it is, I do think a comma would help. Also, tense - 'smells'.

Do get back to me if anything I've said isn't clear.

Good stuff.

binsie at 16:06 on 13 February 2013  Report this post
Hi Alan and thank you for some great feedback.

I was trying to soften Joe up using Andy’s comments about Botticelli playing for Inter Milan but it obviously needs some further elaboration. I also want Andy to be marked out as the weak character that his mother turned him into through her maternal control, although this will have to be developed as the story unfolds.

I did have my doubts about the pub scene and will bomb it and use the scene at Andy’s house to bring out some of the future issues.

Thanks again for some quality comments


AlanH at 02:15 on 14 February 2013  Report this post

Okay, I see that now - the Boticelli reference. But Joe is still ratty after that - Ex: 'No. Skip it.' in response to Andy's suggestion. But, true, he does soften a bit.

Could you suggest something of his softer attitude by his body longuage?

I wouldn't get rid of the pub scene - the Bert character is a good throwback to the younger Joe. All I'm saying is that it seemed a tad overlong.

But, overall, I thought it was a good read with convincing characters and dialogue.

Hope you get other comments.


binsie at 05:32 on 14 February 2013  Report this post
Thanks again Alan, vey helpful and motivating. Chweers

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