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How do you know if you have achieved success? No matter how successful he becomes James doesn't feel happy. Meanwhile, his twin brother, David, seems content regardless of the dreadful, life-threatening events which afflict him year after year. The Astonishing Anniversaries of James and David is as much a nostalgic romp through 70s, 80s and 90s England as it is a shocking and occasionally tragic comedy. "Once I started, I had a hard time stopping"" I enjoyed the story very much, and I kept wondering what was coming next""This would turn into a pretty good movie.""I love how the storytelling focuses on a view of their lives through the one day - their birthday"
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The Astonishing Anniversaries of James and David, Part One
M J Dees
Published by M J Dees, 2018.
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Details can be found at the end of THE ASTONISHING ANNIVERSARIES OF JAMES AND DAVID Part One.
How do you know if you have achieved success? No matter how successful he becomes James doesn't feel happy. Meanwhile, his twin brother, David, seems content regardless of the dreadful, life threatening events which afflict him year after year. The Astonishing Anniversaries of James and David is as much a nostalgic romp through 70s, 80s and 90s England as it is a shocking and occasionally tragic comedy.
It is a sunny day in Hull, but this is doing very little to lift the spirits of Ronald. He is miffed at missing the first home game of the season between Hull City and Oxford United because his wife, Joyce, has chosen this exact moment to go into labour and he is required to look after their first born, Lisa. He waits near the telephone to find out whether the sodding thing is a boy or a girl.
Joyce couldn’t have waited until Sunday before her waters broke, or even have the decency to deliver during the depressing opening away loss to Charlton. Bob and Bill were both going, and Ronald had detected amusement in Bob's voice when he’d phoned him to explain as soon as the ambulance had left that morning.
“Oh that’s a tragedy mate,” Bob had said on hearing the news. “Never mind.
Good luck to your dear wife, pass on our regards. We’ll let you know how we get on.”
“Cheers,” Ronald mumbled, not at all impressed by the lack of disappointment in Bob’s voice.
The thing was that Bob had never forgiven Ronald for pushing Bob out of the back of a truck when the two were on National Service in Germany in 1956. Bob had landed on his knee thus putting to an abrupt end his promising career in Rugby League. At least that was Bob's story. Bob’s Rugby League potential grows every time he re-tells the story of the truck, but no-one has ever verified his actual chances of playing for Hull Kingston Rovers.
“Look, daddy,” Lisa, his two-year-old daughter is holding up what appears to be a shiny bird’s nest whose long shiny branches are trailing into the living room or the front room as they call it in Ronald’s house.
“Oh, Christ!” he says as he realised that what Lisa is holding is not a bird’s nest but a bundle of tape that Lisa has somehow managed to extract from his pride and joy, a Philips reel to reel tape recorder.
Ronald belongs to a tape club where members copy each other's record collections and where the more creative members, Ronald, Bill and Bob being among them, attempt to recreate classic moments in audio such as Goon Show episodes and or Tony Hancock sketches.
The trio had just finished recreating Peter Seller's Balham Gateway to the South, and now, there it sits in the chocolatey sticky hands of his two-year-old daughter.
“What are you doing? Give me that!” he shouts, snatching the crumpled mess from the astonished toddler who stares at the angry adult stealing her toy for a moment before bursting into noisy tears.
“This is not a plaything,” he chastises, anger still dominating any feelings of sympathy he might have for his daughter who begins screaming as he tries to collect the trail of tape and put the disheveled clump somewhere out of reach.
“Mummy, mummy,” Lisa manages to mould her cries into words.
“Mummy isn’t here,” Ronald snaps, angry that his daughter should want to turn to his wife in her moment of anguish but this encourages Lisa to scream louder in a way which is fast approaching hysteria.
Ronald looks at his daughter, still rooted to the spot where she had, moments ago, presented him with her shiny discovery just to have it ripped from her hands amidst a torrent of rage.
His mood softens.
“Come here princess,” he suggests to the weeping child who wants nothing to do with him.
Ronald kneels down in front of her, offering a hug but Lisa turns her back.
“Well I’m sorry darling,” Ronald snaps again, the anger resurfacing. “But that was Daddy’s tape. It took daddy and his friends ages to make that bloody thing.”
This latest outburst does not have the desired effect unless the desired effect is to make Lisa cry and ask for her mummy even louder which Ronald wouldn’t have thought possible a second earlier.
The telephone rings.
Ronald looks at the phone, looks at his crying daughter, then back at the ringing telephone.
“Hold on princess, I’ll be back in a second.”
Lisa ignores her father and focusses on her crying.
“Hello?” Ronald presses the receiver against his ear. “Aye, speaking...aye, is everything OK?....I’m sorry, could you say that again?...aye...I see...thank you.”
Ronald places the receiver back on the phone and sinks into an armchair.
“Christ,” he says in a tone so out of keeping with his usual countenance that even Lisa stops blubbering and turns to see what has happened. “Twins.”
Lisa stares at her dumbfounded daddy. Ronald stares back at Lisa for a moment before snapping out of his trance, offering an apologetic smile to his little girl and holding out his arms for her to run into. With tentative steps, she goes to him, and he sweeps her up in a big hug.
“You’re going to have two little brothers,” he announces.
“No!” Lisa declares as if it was a question of eating her peas.
“Aye lass, you are,” he explains to the infant’s shaking head. “Come on. You’re hungry. Shall we go and get some grub? Some chips?”
Lisa’s shaking head becomes a slow nod and Ronald gives her a bigger hug before leading her by the hand through the already open front door. Pulling it closed behind him without bothering to lock it.
The Ringtons Tea van is attempting a seven-point turn in the otherwise empty cul-de-sac. Ronald exchanges nods with the driver in a kind of ‘we both know we’re men of the world, and I’m just taking my daughter to the chip shop, and my wife’s just given birth to two more, so my penis still works’ kind of way.
Ronald calculates he can sit down to his dinner just in time to listen to the Radio commentary of the rugby if he can get to the chippy and back without bumping into any neighbours who will be bursting to know the exact weight, time of birth and names of his new offspring.
The last thought causes Ronald to check himself. He and Joyce had already agreed on Jennifer if it was a girl and James if it was a boy, but now two boys had thrown the issue wide open again. Bloody hell. It had been torturous enough arriving at the first two names. To have to agree on another one was almost more than Ronald can bear.
“Come on,” he tugs on the arm of the two-year-old whose tiny feet are moving as fast as they can, but Ronald is eager to get to the chip shop and back before any neighbours spot them.
I’ll be so lonely baby,
I’ll be so lonely baby,
I’ll be so lonely I could die
The last song he had heard on the radio is still swimming around his head, and he hums it as they crossed the road to Bottom Fisheries which stands on the corner as it has done for what seems like forever.
Lisa is intimidated by the chip shop. It isn’t the size of the hot stainless steel fryers which tower above her. Or the grease which nestles in every corner. Or the loud humour of the old man who serves the chips whom she doesn’t understand, although all of these things are enough to scare a two-year-old. It is the fibreglass likeness of a small girl with blond hair and a blue dress, clutching a fibreglass teddy bear in one arm and a collection box in the other. The girl has some contraption strapped to one leg, and she stands with her weight on her good leg, showing off the strange contraption on her other, a combination of metal bars and leather straps. Lisa’s daddy gives her a large copper disk of a two pence coin to drop in one of the two slots, there is one in the fibreglass collection box and then another, in the head of the teddy bear. She always chooses the teddy bear thinking it might make it feel a bit better and forget for a while that it has a slot in its head.
“Alright Ron?” says John the chip shop owner.
He pulls a fresh batch of chips out of the fryer and tips them out.
“And hello little lady,” he says as he leans over the counter to smile at Lisa who hides behind her father’s leg. “And how old are you now?”
“Two,” Ronald answers for her.
“Two and a half,” Lisa corrects, almost whispering.
“Sorry, two and a half,” Ronald sets the record straight.
“And how about Joyce?”
“Twins,” Ronald repeats. “She went in this morning. Just got the call.”
“Congratulations.” John wipes a greasy hand on his filthy apron and offers it to Ronald to shake. “They’ll keep you busy. When are you going to see them?”
“Tomorrow,” Ronald improvised. He hadn’t thought about it, his mind is still on the Bottom Rovers game starting soon, but he guesses he will have to leave Lisa with a neighbour while he drives the five miles to the maternity hospital to view the fruit of his loins.
“Give my love to Joyce,” says John. “What’ll it be?”
“Pattie, fish, chips and peas wrapped please John.”
“Coming right up,” says the old man.
He scoops a fish out of the fryer and setting it down for some of the excess fat to drip off.
“Fifty p please.”
Ronald hands over a collection of change and takes the parcel of newspaper which wraps his dinner.
“And here’s something to help you celebrate,” says John.
He reaches into a fridge and pulling out a can of Shandy Bass which he offers to Ronald with a big smile.
“Cheers mate,” says Ronald, thinking as he follows Lisa out of the shop that John is the last of the big spenders.
Ronald leads Lisa back towards home, eager to get there before the game starts and the chips get cold. He rounds the corner of the cul-de-sac. The coast is clear, he is into the home straight. Less than fifty yards now.
Damn. Mary, the next door neighbour. A big woman in her sixties whom Ronald wishes would mind her own business but whom he nevertheless relies on for babysitting from time to time. Mary is a bit of a chatterbox, and Ronald finds it almost impossible to extract himself from a conversation once sucked in. He was sure to miss the start of the game now.
“Mary,” Ronald forces a smile.
“I’m glad I caught you. I just wanted to find out if you’d had any news?”
“Oh, that's wonderful news. Boys or girls? When were they born?”
“Boys. This morning. I just got the call. I was going to pop round but..” he lifts the parcel of chips and nods at Lisa who is his excuse.
“So little lady,” the big woman turns her attention to the two-year-old. “You’re going to have two little brothers, and you are going to be a big sister. How does that make you feel?”
“Mary, I was hoping to ask you another favour.” Ronald already knows he is indebted to Mary for so many favours that everyone has lost count. “I don’t suppose you could keep an eye on Lisa tomorrow while I pop to see Joyce could you?”
“Of course. I’d be delighted. What time were they born?”
“I’m not sure...”
“Do you know how much they weighed?”
“Chosen names yet?”
“You know, I’ve been knitting a set of booties, but I guess I’d better get started on a second pair now.”
“Well I’m sure I’ll get some answers when I see Joyce tomorrow,” Ronald manages to get a word in edgeways.
“Yes, you must get me all the details,” Mary is picking up speed again.
“You’ll have to excuse us,” says Ronald.
He lifts the newspaper parcel once more trying to hint he has to go.
“Of course, go and get this one fed,” Mary reaches to give Lisa a loving pinch, but the little girl evades her by running around to the far side of Ronald.
“Cheers,” he waves.
He ushers Lisa through the front gate, up the garden path and pushes the front door open closing it behind himself with relief.
Ronald switches on the radio before slipping a couple of plates under the grill to warm up.
Ho chi Kaka oh coco
Ho chi kaka oh coco
Ho chi kaka oh coco
The radio springs into life once the valves have woken up.
“Dammit,” Ronald exclaims. He hates it when Joyce re-tunes the radio to Radio Two. He marched over to the set and re-tunes it to Humberside where a monotone newsreader is listing the latest troubles to beset Northern Ireland which seems to be descending into anarchy. Great, the commentary hasn’t started yet.
Ronald unwraps the fish and chips and divides the contents of the greasy paper into two very unequal portions on the two warmish plates before taking them through to the dining room where Lisa has discovered her Wendy house that her grandfather made and is busy reacquainting all the tiny wooden figures with each other.
“Come on darling, come and eat your chips,” he says, but Lisa is engrossed in her play. Ronald takes a more serious tone. “Now.”
Lisa gives a little nervous jump and then sets aside her toys and wanders over to the table.
City win 1-0, and with a full stomach Ronald is feeling much better and in the mood to celebrate. Lisa has returned to the world of her Wendy house, so Ronald decides to throw caution to the wind and open the can of Shandy Bass that John gave him.
As he sips the fizzy drink, Ronald contemplates that he will be spending the next ten days at home looking after Lisa before Joyce returns home with the twins and everything will be turned upside again. Ronald resolved to enjoy it while he could. Maybe he should call his sister and ask whether she could come and stay for a bit.
“He’s off again,” Ronald shouts down the stairs to Joyce while shielding his ears from the shrill cries of James, his eldest son by two minutes. David, his youngest son by two minutes, is sleeping in the cot next to his screaming brother, oblivious to the cacophony filling the house.
“Alright, I’ll be up in a minute. I’m just going to finish the cheese and pineapple. I have a few more sticks to go,” Joyce shouts back.
“Maybe his nappy needs changing,” Ronald suggests.
He doesn’t want to go anywhere near that end of his son.
“He’s just been changed.”
“Maybe he’s hungry.”
Joyce rolls her eyes unseen by her husband the child care expert.
“Coming,” she shouts.
She abandons the cheese and pineapple sticks.
Ronald greets her at the top of the stairs, pointing towards the red-faced bundle in the bedroom as the source of the problem.
Joyce picks up the infant whose shock of red hair is a little bit lighter than his face. Almost at once, James begins to calm down.
“There you go,” she says to her annoyed husband. “He just wanted a little bit of comfort.”
“He never does that for me,” complains Ronald.
“It’s a mother's touch,” says Joyce, eliciting a ‘humf’ from Ronald. “Where’s Lisa?”
“In her bedroom last time I looked.”
“When are you going to move her bed?”
“I’ll do it tomorrow, let’s get this party over with first. We've got the whole week remember.”
“OK, but you need to decorate her bedroom before you go back to work.”
“Yes Mein Fuhrer,” Ronald says.
He places one finger on his top lip and raises his other arm in a Nazi salute, clicking his heels together.
The doorbell chimes its ding ding.
“Who could that be?” Joyce wonders aloud.
“Whoever it is, they’re early,” says Ronald.
He heads down the stairs towards the shadows on the other side of the frosted glass door and pulls the door open to reveal three of Joyce’s aunts and two uncles.
“Come on in,” Ronald says.
He opens the door wide and allowing the gaggle of pensioners to wander in.
“Let me take your coats.”
The old people disrobe. They all have heavy coats despite the warmth of the August day, and Ronald struggles to hang them all on the end of the bannister.
“Go through to the front room,” Ronald suggests.
He tries to clear the congested hallway.
“We weren't expecting you until later.”
“We thought you might want help getting things ready,” says Margaret, the elder sister of Joyce’s father and self-appointed spokeswoman of the group.
‘Get in the way more likely,’ thinks Ronald. “That’s very kind of you, but I think I’ve done more or less everything. Can I get you a drink?”
“Well, if you’re putting the kettle on,” says Uncle Albert who has already settled his ample frame into one of the two blue fabric armchairs which, together with a matching three-seater settee, constitutes the three piece suite for which Ronald has just finished paying the instalments.
Ronald observes how Joyce’s relatives have already filled the small front room of the terrace house and wonders where all the other guests are going to go.
“I’ll make a pot,” says Ronald.
He excuses himself and leaves Joyce’s family to cast their critical eyes over the front room.
Albert’s wife, Queenie, gives her husband a backhanded slap on the arm.
“What?” Albert, the youngest brother of the elderly siblings, protests.
“If you’re putting the kettle on,” Queenie mimics. “We’re meant to be helping them not making them fetch and carry, you lazy sod.”
Albert shrugs his innocence.
“What can we do?” says Margaret.
She leads her sister, Audrey and her brother's wife, Queenie into the tiny kitchenette after Ronald thereby filling it and making it impossible for any of the four to attempt anything even if they wanted to.
“It’s fine,” says Ronald.
He is pouring water into the kettle but then finds it impossible to get the filled kettle to the stove.
“Joyce has been arranging some snacks in the back room. Perhaps you could have a look to see how she is getting on.”
Ronald’s suggestion has the desired effect, and the three aunts hurry through to the back room giving Ronald enough space to put the kettle on the stove.
“Look, Audrey, you finish sticking the cheese and pineapple on those cocktail sticks,” he can hear Margaret handing out orders in the back room.
‘Come on Joyce,’ he wills his wife down the stairs as he gets the teapot and tea out of their respective cupboards. His psychic powers seem to be working fine, or perhaps an accidental rub of the teapot has summoned a genie to grant his wish because, above his head, he can tell that Joyce is on her way downstairs and is bringing Lisa with her. That should keep the oldies occupied for a while.
Lisa, reaching the bottom of the stairs, runs into the front room only to stop in her tracks when all she discovers are two old men in suits so old, they look like they had them made when they demobbed over 25 years ago.
She runs back out and into her mother who indicates with a nod of her head that Lisa might want to try the back room. Lisa understands and launches herself through the door to find her three great aunts, on her mother's side, delighted to see her.
Joyce tackles the front room first, apologising for Lisa’s lack of manners, but the two great uncles know what three-year-olds are like.
“Which one is this one then?” says Albert.
He pushes himself out of the armchair to inspect the grumpy infant slumped over Joyce’s shoulder.
“This is James. David is still sleeping.”
“He looks like he might have got out of the wrong side of the bed,” Albert points out James’ protruding bottom lip to his brother in law, Thomas, a man of few words who makes it a policy to keep himself as far from little people as possible.
Joyce takes James next door to see his great aunts. Thomas seems relieved, and Albert slumps back in the armchair before Joyce has left the room.
“Ooh, here he is,” cooes Queenie, “Which one is he?
“James,” says Joyce.
She sets him down next to Lisa.
“Lisa, be a good girl and take James over to his toys.”
Lisa leads her brother over to an untidy collection of diecast metal and wood in the corner of the room but under the feet of the children's great aunts who are in danger of stepping on the infants with their low heeled, plain but practical shoes.
“Where’s David?” asks Margaret. She is very proud of herself for remembering the other boy's name.
“Don’t let him sleep too long,” advises Margaret. “Otherwise you’ll never get him down this evening.”
“Thanks,” says Joyce who could do without Margaret’s parenting advice right now. “We don’t tend to have that problem with David. It’s this one who gives us trouble.”
Margaret eyes James who is already doing his best to destroy a Tonka toy with a block of wood.
“Hmm, I see.”
“Who’s for a cuppa,” says Ronald.
He hovers at the door holding a large tray with a big pot of tea, several cups of saucers, a sugar bowl and a milk jug.
“I’ll take it into the front room.”
“Mind you don’t drop it,” says Joyce, rushing after him.
“I’ll manage,” says Ronald.
He bends down to place the tray on the solid wood coffee table that they had bought on their honeymoon in Denmark. Ronald’s idea. The honeymoon and the table. They had to remove the legs to get the table onto the aeroplane, and despite Ronald’s assurances that he could reattach the legs once they got the table home, somehow they had never fitted, and one would fall off at random from time to time.
“Mind the dodgy leg,” warns Joyce, too late to stop Ronald letting go of the tray whose weight causes the small table to wobble. One leg drops to the floor and the table, tray, teapot, cups, saucers, sugar and milk all lean over in slow motion in sync with the contorted faces of all the onlookers before crashing all over the carpet.
“Bloody bugger it,” Ronald exclaims before excusing himself to the ladies present
“The dodgy leg,” Joyce reminds him whose face spells out: ‘yes well I can see that now can’t I.’
“I’ll help you clean up,” says Margaret without missing a beat. Queenie and Audrey follow her out to the kitchenette like a gaggle of startled geese.
“No point crying over spilt milk,” says Albert.
He is enjoying the spectacle and observing Joyce on the edge of tears.
Ronald bends to collect the crockery back on the tray, some of which has broken.
“That was a wedding present from Dad,” says Joyce succumbing to tears. It was a couple of years since her father's death, and reminders tended to end the same way.
Ronald says nothing but just tries to pick everything up. Margaret comes back in with a cloth. Queenie holds a bucket and Audrey leads Joyce out into the back room giving Ronald a clear passage to carry what remains of the tea back into the kitchenette which he dumps onto the draining board before breathing a heavy sigh.
“I better see if David’s alright,” Joyce tells Audrey and excuses herself to go upstairs and escape everyone in the sanctuary of the boys’ room where she finds David awake and giggling at nothing that Joyce can identify. The sight of David always cheers Joyce up. He is such a mild-mannered little boy. So confident and untroubled by anything he encounters. Unlike his brother who complains about everything. Joyce knows who James takes after, but David is a mystery. Joyce prides herself on being less grumpy than her husband, but it would be stretching it to take credit for David’s laid back temperament.
Ronald must have turned on the radio downstairs, and Donny Osmond’s feminine tones drift up the stairs. Joyce takes a deep breath, picks up David out of the cot and holds him a while.
“Goodness you’re getting heavy,” she says.
She carries him downstairs and into the back room via Ronald’s apologetic glance from the kitchenette where he is preparing another batch of tea.
“Well that was worth waiting for,” says Albert.
He gulps down his cuppa in the armchair from where he had watched all the excitement with amusement. Thomas has plucked up the courage to sit on the settee at the end next to Albert. Thomas’ wife, Margaret, has joined him once she was satisfied that, with Queenie’s assistance, she had removed as much tea from the carpet as was possible and had bestowed Joyce with all the knowledge necessary to remove any possible stain.
Next to Margaret sits Audrey, enjoying the biscuit selection from the tin Joyce and Ronald have splashed out on for the occasion. It is the pink wafers she is concerned about being her favourites and the first to go.
Queenie sits next to her husband Albert on a dining chair that has been brought through from the back room to facilitate sufficient seating. She drinks her tea with her little finger pointing up into the air because she had seen it on the television once and considered it sophisticated.
Joyce and Ronald converse while sitting on two other chairs which he had brought from the back room and the children entertain themselves in the back room from which all but one chair and the table have now been removed giving them ample space to play out their fantasies.
The doorbell ding dongs. Joyce can see through the window that it’s Richard and Barbara from next door.
“It’s open,” she shouts but gets up to meet them in the hall anyway. “Come in.”
Joyce shows them into the front room where Ronald stands to let Barbara, very pregnant, have a seat.
Albert and Thomas both offer their seats but Barbara indicates that the kitchen chair will be fine.
“You’re huge,” Ronald says before realising the tactlessness of his comment. “What I mean is. You can’t be far off, can you? Erm. Richard. How are you?”
Ronald offers Richard his hand trying to distance himself from Barbara.
“Can’t complain,” says Richard.
He gives Ronald a very firm handshake.
“The builders were in over the weekend knocking the living room through to the dining room to create a through lounge. You should do it. It’ll add value to the property.”
Richard slaps his hand on the wall he has in mind for Ronald to remove.
“Cup of tea?” Ronald asks Barbara and Richard in an attempt to avoid any subject that might culminate in expenditure. “Or would you like something stronger? I’ve got Heineken in the fridge.”
“That sounds great,” says Richard.
“Just water for me,” says Barbara.
“Beer?” Ronald asks in the direction of Albert and Thomas.
“Lovely,” says Albert, ignoring a stare from Queenie.
Thomas looks at Margaret.
“Go on then, if you must,” she says.
“Three beers then. Have you met Joyce’s family?” Ronald asks Richard and Barbara.
“Yes, at the boys’ christening,” Barbara remembers.
“And Lisa’s christening,” Margaret reminds her.
“That's right. That was a terrible business with the font wasn’t it.”
“Babs!” Richard chastises his wife while everyone else, including Albert, shuffle in their seats at the mention of the incident.
“So, Barbara.” Joyce breaks the silence. “How many weeks now?”
“Just four to go,” she says. She strokes the mound under her flowery blouse.
“You must be very excited,” says Audrey and everyone turns to Audrey as if to confirm that she had spoken and they didn't imagine things.
“Yes, and a little nervous,” Barbara admits with a giggle.
There follows another awkward silence.
“Did anyone see that Rock Hudson film on the telly last night?” It’s Queenie’s turn to break the silence. “It was all about this man who was so convinced that he was going to die that he spent his last weeks finding another man for his wife and trying to get them together.”
The blank looks on all the faces in the room suggest that no-one has seen the film.
“The thing was,” Queenie laughs to herself as she recalls the film’s conclusion. “That he turned out not to be ill after all, he was just one of those hypo...hyper...what are they called...you know... people who aren’t I'll.”
“Well people,” suggests Albert.
“No,” Queenie gives him a swat on the arm with annoyance. “People who think they’re ill, but they’re not.”
“Oh I know what you mean,” says Margaret. She is excited that she knew what Queenie is talking about but frustrated that she can't think of the word either. “What’s the word now?”
“It’s hypo or hyper something,” Queenie says with conviction.
“Hyperactive,” Albert suggests, earning another slap on the arm. “Ouch, that one hurt.”
“Good,” says Queenie. “You deserved it.”
“Hyper...” repeats Margaret. She is trying it out for size but unable to find anything in her memory to fit with it.
Ronald returns carrying three cans of Heineken.
“What do you call someone who thinks they’re ill, but they’re not,” Margaret asks a confused Ronald. “Hyper something.”
“Hypermarket,” suggests Albert.
“Hypochondriac? Who’s a hypochondriac?” asks Ronald.
“Rock Hudson,” says Albert.
“Hypochondriac!” says Margaret.
“I knew it began with Hypo,” says Queenie.
“Or Hyper,” says Albert.
“Well I’m glad we got that sorted,” says Margaret.
The doorbell rings.
“I’ll get it,” says as he distributes the beers.
Ronald opens the door to Bob and Bill and breathes a sigh of relief.
“Thank God it’s you two. I was worried it might be more of Joyce's relatives.” Ronald confesses.
“Nope. Only us,” Bob laughs. “Can we come in?”
“Of course,” says Ronald.
He steps to one side to let the big man in, followed by the not so big Bill.
“They're all in the front room. Go and introduce yourselves,” suggests Ronald. “I’ll go and get you some beers.”
Bob strides into the already cramped room beginning to fill with smoke from Richard’s silk cut and Albert who has decided to light his pipe.
“Hello everyone!” Bob announces his entrance. “I think we all met at the christening. You remember Bill.”
The older women emit a quiet but clear yelp of horror at the sight of the man who had defiled the font at the christening.
“Come through to the back room,” Ronald pops his head around the door. “There’s more space in there.”
“No! The food’s in there. And the kids.” Joyce says. “Why don’t we go through and have some sandwiches. Everyone must be getting hungry by now.”
The oldies pull themselves up from their chairs and sidle past Bob and Bill whose raised eyebrows wait for Ronald to return with a couple of cans of Heineken.
“What was all that about?” asks Bob. He nods towards the crowd now cramped in the back room trying to get to sandwiches and cheese and pineapples on cocktail sticks without stepping on Lisa, the twins, or any of the toys which now cover the floor.
“They still haven't got over you throwing up in the font at Lisa’s christening,” says Ronald.
“It was something I ate,” Bob protests.
“Or drank,” Bill chips in.
“Who asked you,” Bob scowls. “Anyway, I promise nothing’ll happen at the boys’ christening.”
“Oh ey. What's this?” Bob asks.
“Well...it’s just that...”
“What? Don’t tell me.” Bob looks at Bill in disbelief.
“Joyce just felt it’d be better if...”
“Better if what?” says Bob getting agitated.
“Shh,” Ronald gestures for Bob to keep it down a bit.
“Better if you don’t invite your best friends to your sons’ christening?” Bob whispers as loud as he can. “Jesus Christ Ron. Who wears the trousers around here? When was it?”
Bob takes a swig of his beer. “December.”
“December,” Bob says. He struggles not to spit his beer all over Ron.
“Sorry,” Ronald mumbles.
“You christened your boys last December and didn’t tell me about it,” says Bob with incredulity. “It’s August.”
Bob turns to look at Bill who shifts his feet.
“Is that your machine?” Bill says. He points to the shiny Philips on the shelf in the corner.
“Yep,” says Ronald, glad for the change of subject.
“Never mind the bloody reel to reel,” says Bob who isn’t giving up that soon. “I thought we were best buddies. How could you not invite us to the christening? I’m Lisa’s godfather.”
“Joyce felt that after what happened...”
“Joyce?” Bob interrupts. “Are you a man or a mouse Ron? Oh, this is champion this is.”
“It’s only a christening,” Bill is trying to help.
“Only a christening?” Bob is on a roll, and the Heineken, which has started to enter his bloodstream, is helping. “It’s not just about a bloody christening Bill. It’s bigger than that. It’s about friendship. It’s about trust. When he pushed me out the back of that bloody van in Germany, did I turn my back on him? No, I didn’t. Even though it ruined my rugby league career.”
Ronald rolls his eyes.
“No I didn’t,” Bob continues. “I stuck by him because he’s my pal and I’ve never held it against him.”
“Never held it against me?” Ronald loses it. “You never bloody shut up about it. I’ll never hear the last of it. Your bloody rugby league career. What bloody rugby league career? There never was a bloody career.”
Bob looks astonished. Bill looks even more astonished.
“Oh I see, so that’s how it is, is it?” Bob says after letting Ronald’s words sink in. “Well, we don’t have to stand here being insulted. Come on Bill.”
“But I haven't been insulted,” objects Bill.
“Come on Bill,” Bob says with more force. He takes care to finish his can of Heineken before placing it on the sideboard and heading for the door.
“Where are we going,” asks Bill taking a last sip from his can before abandoning it to follow Bob to the front door. “See you later Ron.”
Ronald raises his eyebrows and follows them out to the front door where he watches them walk up the garden path and then off up the street before shutting the door.
“Who was that?” asks Joyce as she emerges from the back room.
“Bob and Bill leaving,” says Ronald. He turns to face her.
“Oh sorry, luv,” Joyce's apology is genuine.
“Good riddance,” Margaret’s voice wafts out of the back room
Ronald shoots a look at Joyce which seems to say: ‘If that bitch says one more word I’m going to bloody well punch her in the face.’
Joyce goes over to Ronald to apologise, but Ronald just pushes past her and heads for the kitchenette.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” he says. He leaves her alone in the hall with her mouth covering her hand to try and keep the emotion inside.
Joyce parks the pram outside the dilapidated scout hut and helps the boys out. She leads them over to the corrugated iron door whose blue paint is peeling off in chunks. She gives the door a firm pull, and though it sticks, she manages to get it open and ushers the boys up the step onto the chipboard floor.
Swinging the ill-fitting door shut behind her, she examines the interior. Tongue and groove lines the prefabricated hut, its cream gloss paint chipped.
Net curtains hang against each of the thin wooden window frames, and toys, infants and the occasional play worker litter the wooden floor.
“Can I help you?” one of them asks, shouting over to Joyce from where they sit amongst a pile of dinky cars and toddlers.
“I’m here to see Patricia,” says Joyce trying to stop the boys from attacking the toys.
“She’s in the kitchen.”
“Thanks,” says Joyce trying to steer the boys past the toys and towards the kitchen door at the side of the room.
“Patricia?” she asks poking her head in the door.
“Joyce! Come in luv. Would you like a cuppa? The kettle’s on.”
Patricia is a big woman who fills at least a quarter of the kitchen which says more about her size than that of the kitchen.
“That’d be lovely thanks,” says Joyce trying to drag the boys into the kitchen after her. “I just brought James and David down to get them signed up.”
“Oh let them play,” says Patricia. “They’ll be fine.”
Joyce lets go, and the boys hurtle back into the hall towards the toys like iron to a scrap yard magnet.
“So how are you?” Patricia says. “Long time no see. Aren’t they growing up? And where’s Lisa?”
“She’s with a neighbour,” says Joyce. “I think she’s having a love affair with their son.”
“Aren’t they funny,” Patricia laughs. “How old is she now?”
“Four. The thing is that I need to get back to work so I was wondering when you could take the boys on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Lisa starts school next month.”
“Tuesdays and Thursdays? Hmmm,’ Patricia consults a mental register. “That shouldn’t be a problem. How old are they?”
“They’re two today,” says Joyce unable to stop her pride from showing.
“Today? Doing anything special?”
“I’m just going to pop down to Skeltons to get some cakes for tea. We had a bit of a party at the weekend.”
“Nice,” says Patricia. “Well, we should have space on Tuesdays and Thursdays so they can start the first week of September if you like.”
“Oh that’s great,” says Joyce, relieved. “Thanks very much Patricia.”
“No, thank you,” Patricia stresses the words to make it clear that it is she who is thankful. “So, how’s Ron?”
“Oh, you know. He’s Ron.”
Patricia hands Joyce a tea in a thick mug, pale blue on the outside and White on the inside.
“And how about the boys?”
“Oh, they’re fine. David is a little Angel. James can be a little bugger sometimes.”
“Is it true what they say about twins?”
“What do they say?”
“You know, that they can communicate with each other. Without talking like.”
“I don’t know. When they were younger, they had their own language that they used to talk to each other. Ron and I couldn’t understand a word of it, but they seemed to understand each other.”
“So no signs of telepathy then,” Patricia joked.
“Er, no,” Joyce smiled to acknowledge the humour, but in reality, she felt knackered. Looking after three kids were taking it out of her and she was looking forward to going back to her part-time job as a receptionist at Bottom General Hospital. It wasn’t that she didn't love her children, she just needed a short break now and then, that was all.
“I shouldn't tell you this because you might change your mind about taking them but they can be real monsters sometimes,” she confided to Patricia. “The other day they managed to empty a whole lot of Ronald’s hair cream over each other and then, while I was washing it out of their hair, they managed to empty an entire tube of toothpaste into the bath.”
Patricia suppressed a giggle.
“Then they somehow managed to find a pair of nail scissors and used them to cut Lisa’s hair.”
A small giggle escaped.
“And then they tried to clean the floor with my favourite moisturiser.”
Patricia cannot hold it back anymore and a flood of laughter bursts out of her mouth.
“Sorry,” she says. “You shouldn’t laugh.”
Joyce’s face suggests that, no, you shouldn’t, but Patricia is still giggling.
“It is a little bit funny.”
Patricia’s giggles are contagious, and Joyce can’t help but smile.
“The week before they’d painted the walls with nappy cream.”
Patricia almost chokes on her tea.
“It was my fault,” Joyce explains. “I told them they couldn’t paint and that they’d have to pretend. So they did pretend, with the nappy cream, all over the walls.”
Ronald was on the 73 and 83 circular route today driving round in circles from the town centre as number 73 through the estates of slum terrace housing that Hitler had failed to raze to the ground. Round the back of the Boulevard, the Hull FC rugby league ground, across the level crossing, round the back of Boothferry Park, through the new council estate built over the ruins of the old slum terraces that Hitler had succeeded in razing to the ground. Past the park where the houses turned into the 1930s semi-detached variety, and he wound the 7 round to 8 to become the 83 before turning right into Hull Road and heading back towards town past the other end of Boothferry Park. Over another level crossing next to the cricket oval, round the other side of the Boulevard, in front of the hospital, past the tower blocks and then left past the train station and into the bus garage where his journey would begin again. Some days, for a change, he would be given the anti-clockwise route which left town via the hospital and returned via the rows of terraces with their concrete yards and stone-throwing offspring, but either way, he spent his working day going round in circles.
Today, the mental soundtrack for his journey was the Ying Tong song by the Goons which had somehow made it into the charts. Ronald had heard it on the radio this morning, and now he couldn’t get it out of his head. He’d liked the song at first, but after hearing the same section of it in his head over and over again, he was beginning to wish it could be replaced by something else.
‘Another bloody bicycle,’ Ronald comments to himself as he drives behind the offending vehicle so that he can pull into the next stop where a young girl has stuck out her arm.
“How much is it?” the young woman says once she has climbed up onto the bus. She has long black hair, an olive complexion and dark eyes which reminds Ronald of the Al Martini song, Spanish Eyes, which is making a bit of a comeback at the moment. If membership of the European Community means more passengers like this, then Ronald is all for it, Even if Ted Heath is a bit of a posh idiot.
“Where are you going?” Ronald asks the Spanish eyed woman.
“All the way there and back?” comes the suggestive reply. Ronald shifts in his seat.
“Return to town?” He tries to confirm after swallowing hard.
“I suppose so.”
Ronald takes her money, gives her some change and then watches her in the rearview mirror as she walks to the back of the bus and takes a seat. He shakes his head back to reality and pulls out of the bus stop back into Bottom Road where, in the distance, he can see that the level crossing gates have just come down and that hundreds of bicycles are already starting to queue up. The implications to his timetable send a shudder down his spine Evans the evil Welsh controller is bound to give him another dressing down if he is more than a minute late to the garage.
“Come on, come on,” Ronald muttered to himself as he watched the train pass and, soon after, the level crossing barriers lift to let the hundreds of cyclists and then, Ronald’s bus pass. He cranked the old bus up through the gears as he struggled to pick up speed in time to see the lights at the corner of the hospital turn red and beyond that a crowd of passengers waiting at the next bus stop. He slammed on the brakes to stop at the lights and elicited a series of tuts from the old ladies sat behind the luggage rack.
“Sorry luv,” he managed to apologise as he struggled to get the bus into first gear again.
All three children are in bed, and Dirk Bogarde is winning the war on the telly, but at least it is better than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on BBC Two although Ronald doesn’t share this information with Joyce in case she doesn't agree. For the moment he is safe as Joyce is in the kitchenette doing the washing up and listening to Radio 2. The melodic sounds of an orchestra are wafting through the hall. The radio is switched off, and Ronald hears Joyce’s footsteps padding closer.
“Cup of tea,” she says as she rounds the door holding a couple of mugs, one of which she holds out to Ronald.
“Cheers,” he says taking the mug.
“I’m a bit worried about David,” Joyce says as she slumps onto the settee placing her mug on the coffee table which wobbles a little but holds its own.
“I think he’s coming down with another cold.”
“Not again,” Ronald sighs.
“If he’s not better tomorrow I’ll call Dr Winterton.”
“He seemed alright.”
“Yes, he doesn’t complain, does he? Not like his brother.”
“Bloody hell, you’d think it was him who was ill.”
“Sorry, but it’s true. The way that lad goes on.”
It is Joyce's turn to sigh.
“What’s this?” she says nodding at the telly.
“Some war film with Dirk Bogarde. I think it’s almost over.”
“Mind if we see what’s on the other side?”
“Me?” Joyce complains. “I've just sat down.”
“Sorry,” he says.
He pulls himself out of the armchair and goes over to the television where he twists the dial so that static replaces Dirk Bogarde and then Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers replaced the static.
“Oh good, Fred and Ginger. I like them.”
“Did you go to the game last night?” asks Bill. “Sounds like City were lucky to get a draw. Wagstaff’s third in two games.”
“No,” says Ronald, too aware that he hasn’t been to a game since before the twins were born. In any case, he was more into rugby league. “David’s in the hospital again.”
“Jesus Ron, not again. What is it this time?”
“Pneumonia? But it’s 60 degrees. And the rest. Although, did you see the fog this morning?”
Ronald likes Bill. He’s known him since the army days. They were stationed in Germany together with Bob and Bill got Ronald the job on the buses. He likes chatting with Bill, away from Bob where Bill can get a word in edgeways.
“This must be the third time isn’t it?” asks Bill.
“Aye,” says Ronald. “They think it’s some problem with his lungs. Something called asthma. I’m going to the hospital straight after work. My sister’s over but even so. You know how it is.”
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