Brief Encounter – The Story of Ann and Me

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Grand Hotel, Scarborough – “She once was a true love of mine

After my warm welcome chez Stuart and Rachel I headed north to Scarborough feeling much brighter.  I even murdered Are you Going to Scarborough Fair as I drove.  I like to sing and drive, and I like to improvise silly songs of my own… as you’ll see if you read on.

Made a bit of a balls of the parking issue – I remembered side streets where free parking was on offer but didn’t remember their being so far away from the sea front!  So I walked the mile or so to town, where I thought I’d treat myself to a bacon butty and a cup of coffee somewhere.

On the steep way down towards the Grand Hotel I encountered a lady who seemed to be struggling with her shopping.  It’s not so easy these days to be gentlemanly, it can be misconstrued as patronising or sexist (as once happened to me in WHSmiths when I held the door open for a woman… then wished I’d let it go in her face) but intuition told me this would be appropriate and not unwelcome.  So I offered to help with her bags.

The reaction took me quite by surprise.  No she didn’t call me patronising or sexist, she thanked me profusely and burst into tears.  Seeing she was distressed, I guided her to a seat where she sunk down with her hands over her face.  This would be where Trevor Howard would proffer Celia Johnson a kerchief, but I only had a clump of kitchen roll in my pocket and couldn’t guarantee it hadn’t been used.  I apologised for this but she wouldn’t hear of it, I’d been kind enough already to help.

“I haven’t done anything,” I protested.

“Yes you have,” she countered, “the very fact that you offered.”

As she rummaged in her bag for a tissue she began to shake with laughter, saying she was such a fool for crying, what must I think?

I make three admissions; 1) the mercenary in me felt this might be a story, 2) the suspicious in me thought she might be mad, and 3) how could I not have noticed till now that she was extremely attractive?

She had long, blonde, curly hair and pale complexion, a pert little nose and blue eyes.  She was tall and slim, and the tight maxi-dress she wore showed off her neat, elegant figure.  Over the dress she wore a trendy denim jacket and she sported matching beaded necklace and earrings.  It’s always the ears that get me and I loved the way she looped her hair back so I could get a glimpse (by the way, I’m not saying she did this deliberately, but wish I could!)

I said I didn’t think anything bad of her for crying, and added that I wouldn’t pry but I’m a good listener if she needed to get something off her chest… which she did, with only the slightest hint of a Geordie accent:

Ann was born in Newcastle and lived with her parents till aged 21 when she married Andrew, whom she’d met at college.  They were happily married and over the next twenty years they build up a waste-recycling business, he as director and she as company secretary.  The demands of business were harsh, especially as they produced six kids (which astonished me) along the way.  With the financial rewards for all the toil they enjoyed family holidays abroad, a luxury home in Dalton and a villa in Spain.  She had everything.  They had everything.

Three months ago she was about to celebrate her 50th and a big family party was organised; outside caterers, marquee, flowers, the works; no expense spared for the 100 guests.  It was going to be the happiest day of her life, but it was also going to be the day that Andrew told her he had someone else.

At first Ann thought he was kidding – “But who the fuck would joke about something like that?”  Then came the shock, the anger, the heartbreak, the massive row, the horrible questions: Who?  How long?  Did he love her?  Did she love him?  With the answer to these last two being “yes”, Ann knew (or at least would know in time) it was no use fighting, not for him, not for her and certainly not for the kids’ sakes, they deserved better.  The fallout would obviously be huge (both emotionally and materially) but for that day, Ann found the courage and the strength and the dignity to gain control:

“I remember saying ‘You’ve done this to me, you’ve broken my heart and you’ve ruined my big day.  You don’t get to ruin everyone else’s.  We’re having this fucking party Andrew, and you’re going to be the host and fucking well look like you’re enjoying it!'”

I only hope I’ve done justice to Ann’s tale, I mean obviously I wasn’t taking notes.  Frankly the scale of her heartbreak is massive and these words or any might not cut it.  I was a little embarrassed that she’d told me, a complete stranger, then touched when she apologised for doing so.  But I shrugged off her apology and repeated that I’m a good listener and I hope it helped to get it said.  I was sorry for her plight and wanted to say that Andrew’s an utter prick, but didn’t.  Instead I asked what now?

“Meeting an old friend for lunch,” she said, “and a good old chat.”

“I guess it’ll be one of those all-men-are-bastards chats?” I laughed.

She laughed too, and it made her face beautiful.  “I’ve bought her some presents and I’m going to give them to her.  I’m spending as much of the bastard’s money as I can.”

She apologised for swearing, saying she doesn’t much.  I said she should do it more often, it helps.  Not everybody likes swearing, but I do.  Some people have complained about swear words on my blog, I said, but I don’t give a shit.  Sometimes when I’m angry at people or the world I drive along and make up angry or stupid songs.  She asked what I sing and I very reluctantly told her that this one’s to the tune of These Are a Few of My Favourite Things:

“Arseholes and bastards and fuckwits and wankers

Dickheads and tossers and bent merchant bankers,

Tossers and fuckers and shit-heads and turds,

These are a few of my favourite words.”

She laughed and said she loved it, and I said I’d teach her the words.  We chatted for maybe forty-five minutes, an hour tops, and I filled her in on my journeys.  She said the idea was cool and she sometimes thinks about just getting into her car and driving…  I knew what she meant but said she’d be OK, she’s got her kids (who incidentally all agree that Andrew is a prick and his girlfriend is a tart) and she’s still got her parents.  Plus she’s got 100 friends.

“101,” she said, and I’ll never forget it.  But then it was time for her to go.  I didn’t want to let her go but of course I must; what kind of deluded idiot was I to think this was going to end any other way?  So I rose to help her gather her “retail therapy” and bid her goodbye and good luck, and she gave me a kiss on the cheek and thanked me for being such a kind man.

“One day you’ll be rewarded,” she said, “Don’t let the arseholes and bastards and fuckwits and tossers get you down.”

“Wankers,” I corrected.

I was going in the same direction as her, down the hill for my bacon butty, but felt reluctant to walk with her; I had to let her go.  So I hung back on the seat and rolled a cigarette.  When I finally ventured onto the prom I hoped to glimpse her again, with her friend, but I didn’t.

Many years ago we played a story on Coronation Street which was pitched as a “Brief Encounter” for Sally Webster.  I was in charge of that story and for research I watched the video, though I’d obviously seen it before a dozen times.  And loved it.  In the end of course, Sally Webster slept with her amour, because the soap gods say no subtlety!  The audience wants a shag and we shall deliver a shag.  Well personally I think we should be irreverent to the gods.

But anyway there was my real-life Brief Encounter.  I was Trevor Howard, Ann was Celia Johnson – for me at any rate a 60 minute romance.  With no exchange of numbers and no shag of course.  A shag would’ve made it 62, but I shouldn’t sully the memory.

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Best of Both Worlds – The Dubious Art of Finding a Story

ITV STORYTELLING EVENT MAXUS

It’s not so straightforward to approach people these days.  I’m not saying folk are unfriendly, by and large the world turns around because most of us are law-abiding, decent and civil.  But with the increase of crime comes the rise of suspicion, so when you make a beeline for a complete stranger in a pub, deep down you might expect the cold shoulder, a mouthful of abuse or even a smack in the mouth.  So you’d think I’d be cautious, but to be honest I’m not.  Not entirely.

All those years ago when I was interviewed by Health Unlimited for the job in Rwanda I was asked how I’d cope in a dangerous place and/or situation, and I used the analogy that as a writer I see two pubs in the town square – one looks quiet, the other sounds rowdy.  I choose the rowdy one because that could be more interesting; I might get a story and a character with my pint.  And that was the case in Leeds recently.  The story I found isn’t the greatest ever told but I’ll use it to illustrate my point.

But first, you don’t find stories sitting on your arse, and I’m not a great fan of researching on the internet, which to me is the last resort.  You have to market yourself and I find the pub has the best footfall in terms of setting out my stall.  And there I will feed carrots to the horses and get the stories from their mouths.

So I’m in a rough pub in Leeds, where I order a pint and casually take in the customers.  There’s a ladies’ darts match on and I note the tattoos, the hairdos or attempts thereof, the cleavage, the banter and frankly the admirable ability to find the treble twenty.  It’s a weekly event they practise for, dress up for, then look forward to post-match drinks, fags and trays of meat paste sandwiches and limp lettuce.  But that’s not all.  In a corner there’s a couple of fellas playing ukelele and banjo, singing folk songs.  In another there’s an elderly couple mouthing the words, probably inaccurately, between sips.  At the bar there’s a passionate debate happening for three tough-looking guys, the crux of which sounds like would Leeds go up this season and would re-ownership of Elland Road bode well?  I feel like adding my views but resist temptation because I’ve seen someone to pick on – the biggest and roughest-looking man of the considerable bunch of clientele.

He’s on his own right now but I sense he’s waiting for someone or something to happen.  He’s a big guy looking 50 but probably younger, covered in body art.  One of the tattoos, a serpent, coils around his neck and into his bald head, finishing at the fontanelle.  In his nose he wears a ring and in his ears are those big holey things I don’t know the name of but remind me of the Maasai I’ve seen in Kenya and Tanzania. His considerable torso is covered with a denim jacket with the sleeves ripped off, showing his impressively-painted guns.  I ask if this seat is spare and he just nods.

After a few slurps of my Timothy Taylor I finally manage to get a word.  Riskily I tell him I’m not a local and he tells me he knows, he has me down as a traveller.  He’s clocked my bag, he’s clocked me scraping together shrapnel at the bar and he’s figured I’m on my uppers.  I confirm this, and tell him I’m living in a van.  He seems to relax now, and even commends my story, saying he’s done most of the UK and Europe on his motorbike, a Harley.  I know nothing about bikes but explain my brother had one, and he’s impressed until I add that it was a Suzuki 250.  Sensing there’s not much mileage in my brother’s bike I push it maybe and ask if he’s a Hell’s Angel.  He shakes his head, insisting he just likes bikes and he also likes free-living and having sex, and with a tap of his nose he adds that he doesn’t work.  His name is Craig but people call him Bex.  I want to push further and ask why Bex, and how he makes his living, but he begins his story so I hang fire…

He’s waiting for his wife.  Well, she isn’t his wife, not any more, she’s his first wife and now his mistress, his current wife is playing darts.  She knows he’s having an affair with his ex, and his ex knows he’s got a wife at home, and knows that she knows.  It’s all hunky dory for Bex, he’s got the best of both worlds.  At this point he asks if I want another and I decline, saying I’m driving, but he insists that if I refuse he will finish up falling out with me.  It’s the first hint of aggression and I realise this could go either way.  When he returns with three pints (one for his mistress who he says has just texted to say she’s on her way) he tells me more about both his worlds: the bikes, the bike crashes, the metal pin in his left leg thanks to some knob-head in a BMW on Snake Pass, the brawls, the women, the sex.  There’s still an edge to his pitch and I kind of hope his mistress would turn up and change the dynamic.  Then he asks if I’m married, so I tell him separated, and he asks how I go on for sex?

Sometimes in unpredictable situations I find self-deprecation can help – it can throw the the other person, surprise them into submission, make them see you’re no threat, or even make them laugh.  So I go for telling him I don’t get lucky, and even if I did I’m not sure I’d be any good at it anymore – I’d have to pretend that were someone else.  The gag is not mine it belongs to the Bob Monkhouse estate, and Bex laughs so I’m cool with robbing a dead man if it achieves the change of gear I’m after.  But lurking beneath the laughter and testosterone and clouding the beer I sense another story, if I dare ask.  Because there’s a sadness in his worlds and a depression in his eyes that I can see; it takes one to know one…

… Bex was born Craig B (name withheld) in Scarborough, where his father was a fisherman his mother a seamstress.  It wasn’t a happy marriage.  His father was a chronic drunk; when he wasn’t at sea he was in the pub and when he wasn’t slurping pints he was beating his wife.  One night the beatings got out of hand and his mother lashed out in self-defence, but this only provoked his fury and he clouted her over the head with the coal shovel, killing her… and into that beautiful world was born Craig.  As his father did time and subsequently died inside, Craig was brought up by his Aunty and abused for years by his Uncle.  Then at the age of fifteen he ran away and never went back.  To this day he won’t go near Scarborough.  He’ll travel the world, but not there – too many haunting memories…

I’ve summarised the story but you get the picture – this gargantuan man, looking for all the world the toughest you’d encounter, reduced to near-tears as he unburdens to me, a complete stranger he’s only met one pint ago.  And I don’t really know how I’ve done it, how I’ve managed to get him to offload.  Or maybe it isn’t me at all, maybe I’ve just picked on someone who really needs to tell?   Anyway, not abruptly, after a bit more chat (you can’t just jump up and leave when someone’s borne his soul) I say it’s nice to talk to him but I really must get off and find somewhere to stealth-camp.  And thankfully he’s fine with that, so I wonder if he’s had his fill of emptying his closet of skeletons.

As I empty my bladder before heading out, I ponder his story and its ratio of fact to fiction.  Did his father really kill his mother while she was carrying him?  Did he ever meet his father, look into the eyes of his mother’s slaughterer?  Was it really a coal shovel?  Does he really own a Harley?  Is his left leg really made of metal thanks to the knob-head in a BMW?  Is his wife really throwing arrows in the bar?  Does the first-wife-cum-mistress exist and is she really on her way?

Then as I head for the exit I look back to our corner.  And there is Bex grinning over at me and waving, and at his side is a very attractive blonde, sipping her pint, smiling and also giving a wave.  Whether she’s his wife or ex-wife-cum-mistress I’ll never know.  But I leave it to my imagination as I head for my van, passing a beautiful gleaming Harley Davidson on the way.