A Life Changing Interview

At the age of nineteen I had a temporary and precarious job as a backroom assistant in a bakery shop. In between heaving trays of bread I allowed myself to dream, and to aid that process, I used to scan the local paper for jobs while eating lunch. At last I spotted an ‘opening’ for, and I quote, “Office Boy and Would Be Executive,” in the jobs section of the local paper. There was a number on the bottom of the advertisement rather than an address, a deliberate ploy I later discovered, so I rang the number and a cheery confident voice answered in a rich south-London accent, “Frank Kaplan, What can I do you for?” I admit I was ‘thrown’ but determined to continue, the alternative being working as a shop assistant ‘till the end of my days,’ so I said I was ringing in answer to the advertisement. “Ave you got any experience in any office of any kind?” he said, possibly put off by my young sounding voice. “No, I said.” “How old are you?” he asked and I told him I was nineteen.

“Come tomorrow at 10.30 and we’ll have a chat” said Mr Kaplan. “I’ll see if I can get away from the shop” I said. “No probs” he replied. “Either you turn up for the interview at 10.30 tomorrow morning, or you haven’t got the job. That’s how it works round here.” That was my first introduction to Frank Kaplan, and to say he was an original character is to stretch the word ‘original’ to bursting point. Still, it is the only one I can think of.

The job interview was memorable: I was decently scrubbed up and suited. I felt I had to grab at any chance I was offered; Stacking bread in the back- room of a bakery was not on my pathway to dreams. “Come in, come in” said Frank, a fat cheery man whose trilby hat was visible on a chair near his desk. “So what makes you think you’d be any good at any job” the opening question, to which I desperately replied, “Well, I think I’d certainly be quite good anyway”. There was a pause, the fat guy started laughing. He shook around a fair bit in his chair, and then began a series of wheezes and gasps meant, I presume, to indicate the later stages of laughing hysteria.

I sat as impassively as I could through his whole performance, which ended with him looking at my CV, obviously lacking in both content and detail. “It’s the way they walk Stanley. The way they walk. Tells you all you want to know.” He explained to me later on when I asked him why he took me on, “But what about their competencies?” I might ask, and he would reply “Stuff that. You can always learn to be competent, but character is character, and that’s what I look for in a man. I’ll find the opportunities, you tidy up after me and we’ll get along just fine”. “Have I got the job then I asked nervously”. “Course you got the bloody job. Start now. “

“But what about the bakery?” I asked. “ Who gives a toss about the bakery,” he said “ I need you here” I looked at him and I thought to myself, I’ve only been there a couple of weeks and here’s a permanent job of sorts and a bit of excitement so I’d better grab it. “Okay” I said, “I shall start straight away”. “That’s what I mean” said Frank. “Character: you’ve got spades of the stuff. You just don’t know it yet” What he meant by “Character” was not yet clear and the definition of what constituted “good character” was to become an ongoing topic, made more interesting as his unusual approach to life became apparent.

He was a great respecter of the marriage state as long,  “it did not cramp his style.” He believed firmly in the payment of taxes, but not by himself, and thought  “The Truth” was a horror novel put out by some disturbed Hollywood mogul. In short he introduced me to a view of life which would have been astonished my mother. A ducker and diver to his very marrow, Frank Kaplan thought honour was the fall back position of the foolish and the timid, and in our short time together he tried to show me that “There is another way Stanley. Another way me old sport”

It was a vigorously developed philosophy explained to me during our short time together, before representatives of Her Majesties police force walked in and interrupted our Monday morning conversation. His final parting words to me, “At least I’ll see my pals again.” Good old Frank. He had friends everywhere, or so he said.

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Possibly A Step Too Far

I don’t know how long it had been, or how you would characterise it. A friendship of sorts, naturally, but what was the garnish, and was there magic in it? The question began to bother me, so one morning, as I met young Sandy on the way to collect my paper, I stopped her and said, “Do you mind if I ask you a question” and she looked up at me and smiled in that tolerant way, which makes you feel she knows you,  and said, “Of course not darling. Go on, ask away”

She calls everyone “Darling” if you really want to know, but it still gives you a bit of something. Makes you feel special, as if you’ve been selected. I always felt so. “I wondered if you’d like to run off with me and start a family,” I said, and I have to admit she looked a bit startled, stepping back a little, and sort of frowning as she did so.

“You must be joking” she said, and you note there was no “darling,” but I was not surprised really, but I was still curious. “Why not?” I asked because I like the details, the background to the answer and all that sort of thing, if you really want to know.

“Because you’re old, fat and smelly. Wait till I tell your wife.  I just  felt  sorry for you, but now I think you’re weird, you sad disgusting pervert”

“Fair enough” I say, because I was only asking, and no offence intended.  Still I thought it worth a pop. I would have spoken longer, but she walked off in a hurry, and something in her manner said I’d been a bit rude. Of course I didn’t mean to. Be rude I mean. I just thought she was pleasant, and blokes like me don’t get that much ‘pleasant,’ especially at home.

It got worse later, when my wife got back from shopping, and something in her manner suggested she’d met up with Sandy, and they’d shared a note or two. “You filthy old pervert” said my wife of thirty years, you see she’d picked the phrase up, as if she’d rediscovered who I was, and really wished she hadn’t. “I really don’t love you, you’re filthy and disgusting, and no-one round here likes you, they feel sad that I’m still with you, if you really want to know.”

“You really want to know” is my thing, my single catch phrase, part of my character, but when  I annoy her, she steals that as well. “Love’s not in the air” I ask, feeling a bit silly, but got to make the best of it, that’s always been my way. She tells me to get lost, and not for the first time, so  off I go quietly, to meet my old friend Ron. Ron’s a bit different, I’ve known him from my schooldays, and his home life is unusual: he still loves his wife. He calls her his “Dream Chicken” which I always thought was stupid, given they’re both sixty, but he doesn’t seem to care.

I tell him the whole story, and he nods his head and tells me, “I’d best speak to Carol. You’ll be staying at ours a bit” Thanks mate, I say” because I ought to, and then I ring my daughter and say, “Your mother’s had a fit” and then I hear her screaming, “I never want to see you. How could you do that to my Mum” and then the phone goes silent and I just shake my head.

She’s always had a temper, just like her mother. Try, but you can’t tell them if you really want to know. A week or two should do it, then I’ll pop round for clothing, and fix something that’s broken, and she she’ll say “I hate you” and I’ll say, “No change there then”  we’ll soon be back to normal, sitting there in silence, She likes watching dramas. The one’s you see on the telly were people fall in love.

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Is it “Van Go” or “Van Golf”

You know the situation. You’re standing there drinking a cocktail you couldn’t afford in a month of Sundays, because you’ve been shoe-horned into some corporate hospitality “Shindig” by a friend who happens to know your are “Always in need”, of cocktails at least, if not a square meal, when some dude in a suit so expensive you could have bought a small apartment for the price of it, comes up and sucks you into a conversation.

“What’s your  reason for being” he asks, which is odd given this is a party full of  Bankers, although your friend says another word but beginning with “W” if you catch my drift.

Should you tell him, “I play the harmonica in a one man street band outside  London’s premier tube station,” or would that be too odd you wonder. Clearly it would be, so you decide to lie, the fall-back strategy of the socially uneasy, and say “Administrator” and smile, hoping he won’t ask you another question.

That hope is crushed, because, unknown to you, he has designs on the girl who invited you, and so seeks to ridicule you while he can. “Almost interesting” he says, with just the right amount of dismissal implying “You just don’t cut the mustard.” Then, as your “friend” turns to notice him, he asks you, “And who is your favourite artist” and you are about to say “Van Gogh” which sounds quite near “Van Golf” when you recall some over-dressed presenter on the television referring to him as “Van Go” as though he knew something  which you didn’t. Our cocky Banker is  almost sneering at your lack of wealth and knowledge now, and Sandra, the friend of whom I speak, is beginning to be interested in your reaction to this being, who is the very picture of superiority.

“I don’t have one” you finally reply, because that just seems safer, and Mr Smug does nothing but raise an eyebrow before turning to your companion, the lovely Sandra, and saying “You do have interesting friends,” in a tone which suggests the opposite, before sliding from your company leaving her looking blank, and then she says, “They really are all tossers aren’t they. That’s why I had to bring you. At least you don’t talk garbage.”

To say you feel happy is really not to nail it, but you are grinning in a mad way when she says, “Stuff them all.  Lets get out of here” and you say, “Just a minute” and you walk up to the Smug One, tap him on the shoulder and say, as he is turning, “Van Golf, or Van Go for the pretentious, which I presume you are” before spilling your red drink by deliberate accident down the front of his shirt and saying, “I only apologise when I mean it” before walking off with Sandra.

This was her leaving party, and that was back in 2007. By 2009, your  life has moved on a bit, and you are now playing in a band with a growing reputation, and still doing “requests” outside that tube station on occasion for old times sake.  Sandra, who now works in PR, plays the banjo with you on some evenings, and you enjoy what politer society calls, “a deepening relationship.”

So there you are one evening, playing on your harmonica, and “lost in the music,” when a faintly familiar face turns up, but much more scruffily dressed and with longer hair and without delay he says, “I wanted to apologise for being a prat when we last met”  “Not a problem,” you say,  but both Sandra and you are amazed at the change in his looks and manner. Turns out he got made redundant in 2008 after the financial crash, fell into a depression and then re-invented himself as a graphic artist: crazy I know. Just goes to show we are more than our circumstances, although we are so often defined by them. He’s learning the guitar now.

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A Different Kind Of Crazy

You know the kind of girl, a wonder for a weekend, nightmare by a week. “I was her rock, her centre and her ballast” was what she called me,  within our first hour of meeting, lying in her bedroom, surrounded by a party, shortly after sex. Talk about the jackpot, had I won it ? You bet your life I had because she was so beautiful, strong and yet fragile: something out of films, or maybe an explorer, but certainly something special: unique you know.

And then she started shouting. Screaming  because I dropped the kettle. Life as we know it had ended and it was all my fault. And then she said “Sorry, I cannot help myself sometimes” and I was young and still thought I could fix some things so of course I put my arms around her and said, “I’ll love you always” which is not so good because I’m slightly north of crazy myself. Well “out there,” if you want to know, and being someone’s “rock” sounded slightly scary.

And then there were the tablets I took so we could share together and she would not be lonely, tripping out to nowhere, living in a kaleidoscope. discovering “Real” together.  Turns out to be a kind of hell, “Real” I mean. Didn’t say that in the brochure. Wish someone else had told me, but we knew too much by then. Knew everything in truth, except the need to listen.

I was in my twenties, setting off on that road, or was it a maze, leads us beyond the range of comfort, or normal or average conversations, and now I swear by nothing, because the face I see in the mirror is me turned into  Stranger. And you might help me if you’ve got a minute. Tell me where I lost myself. Could you do that ?

Am I making any sense this time, it’s just the way it sounds right, but we see what we wish to see, and then it all goes pear shape. “Ain’t that the truth,” .  The truth is all I know for now, but I’ll forget that in a minute.

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Born Surplus To Requirements

Late in September, some decades ago, a short episode of unremarkable intimacy, coloured by manners more than passion  and governed by ritual rather than appetite, ended the day of a man and wife. This infrequent coupling, occasioned by the man’s diffidently expressed appetite and the ladies “strained-against” sense of duty, was a residue of those dimly recalled times, sometime in their past  when the need to share and be all to each other was the driving force of dialogue, and being free to love their only wish.

Gone were the days when these episodes, lit by passion,  fuelled their mutual discoveries of each other. Now, years into a marriage burdened by  children, weighed down by routines and all else, they did not need another mouth to feed. Thus it was when she said some weeks later, at the breakfast table, “I’m expecting,” her husband raised his eyes to hers in shock, laced with an undiscussed apology. He knew how much she wanted the peace to dream,  and how a new mouth to feed, and sleepless nights and nappies needing changing did little to excite her imagination.” What will be will be” was all she said.

In the first flush of courtship and then marriage, the line was said in jest, part of a conspiracy in dialogue, their secret code, which marked them as a couple, but now it had iron in it’s tone and so her husband quickly drained his cup and said, “I must be off to work.” The office was his refuge now, where simpler goals could be identified and managed. Back at home, the name he gave this house, where money always seemed to be a problem, his wife,  who hated interruptions , felt the burden growing deep within her: a new demand to act as if motherhood was touched with infinite patience, unblemished by exhaustion or the need for peace.

In this house, where music once was played, although of different tastes. Where laughter could mark the passing time, the needs of faith, pride and social custom prevented them  saying singly and together, “We’re tired of this, and each other, and all we long for is some privacy, where we can think and feel and wonder, unburdened by life’s drudgeries.

Into this world I came uncelebrated, and surplus to requirements,handled with the skill of those who sought the minimum of contact, and who faced each new disruption with unease. Now, I am all I know, and that dimly, but with the knowledge gained as best I can, I launch myself at life and ask the basic question, “Can you tell me please, what love is ?”


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Age and Wisdom

Meeting Ronnie Crouch for the first time at what was to become “my local” shortly after moving into the area was an experience. He was a sprightly,  slightly elderly gentleman, with a glow and smile about him which draws the attention of those still wading through the chaos of their own making, otherwise known as middle age. Just the kind of bloke I like to get to know, so I said to him as I stood at the bar waiting to order my drink, “Well the sun seems to be shining then” and he smiled at me and raised his glass in salute.

We started chatting on this and that and nothing, as people do, and then, prompted by curiosity, and moved somehow by his unscarred optimism I asked, “What keeps you young?”. He replied, “Since I could stand on my own two feet I’ve only been interested in four things, Booze, food and sex and shelter,”

” Not too bothered,  with the ancient Egyptians or consequences of global warming then” I said. “Couldn’t care less.” he replied. I’m old enough to know that anyone who wants to run a country these days is a bit gone in the head, so after a century or ten of mankind getting it as wrong as he can. I’m  sticking to simple pleasures while they are available.”  He paused briefly and then added. ” Its a bit like giving a gun to a five year old, letting mankind manage his own affairs”

“Bloody hell” I said, “We’re going a bit deep aren’t we,” and he smiled. “When we were primitive enough to be frightened of something other than ourselves there was some hope, but now we think we know it all and can do what we like so sure enough, we are gradually messing up anything we can see, and most things we can’t” I looked at him anew then, because I could see that the “Booze, Food, Sex and Shelter” thing was more a protest statement than a philosophy I asked him , “What’s the strangest thing you’ve  done?”

“I climbed up to Machu Picchu last year” he said, “And I can tell you I was out of breath when I got there.”  I was surprised and impressed because the guy was clearly already in his seventies, and he continued . “I sat down and took  out a Big Mac and a Coke, to toast that ancient civilisation, with the cuisine of the modern age.” He  looked at me as if he was telling me something, but I’ve no idea what it was

It was time for me to go, so before left I asked him what his tip of the day was, and quick as a flash he said, “There’s no such thing as fresh wisdom.” That’s Ronnie for you, every glib aside had an aftertaste , and every casual observation was drenched in his experience . He was the most complicated man of simple tastes I ever met.

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Etiquette and Meeting A Lone Lady On A Towpath

Here I was, or there, or even here and there.  Well, OK. On a towpath, walking back quite early in the morning after sampling the local brand of fresh air, lightly seasoned with diesel fumes and a sprinkling of cement dust from some roadworks when I spot a lone lady walking towards me at a current range of approximately two-hundred yards,

I do not like this happening. In the country life is simple. As you pass her you would say, “Vegetables failing again Doris” or “Hi there, how’s your Mum” and with complete strangers a simple, “Bit chilly eh?”  and onwards you would go with, in my case, my mind firmly fixed on a plate of scrambled eggs and some decent conversation with my much loved goldfish, Jacinta. In London things are more complex.

A claxon sounds on the bridge and all senses and instincts go to action stations. “Keep it light, Keeeeep it Light, no panicking among the nerve-endings paleeeese” says our noble leader, who speaks from somewhere in the centre of the brain. Now the range is only 150 yards and you can see she is wearing a nice blue dress, tucked in at the waist with a matching belt. Some reckless molecules from the waist region suggests you say, “Lovely dress if I many say so, and worth discussing over breakfast,”  while remaining out of slapping distance in case your invitation is declined.

Ninety yards and time for sensible suggestions only if we may. Heart rate rising slightly, and a sense of unease evident in thickening neck symptoms.  “Eye contact and a brisk but courteous nod” suggests someone from the earlobes, while other canny folk say, notice something interesting on the other side of  the river and walk past without comment.

Almost too late for strategy meeting now as we approach the twenty-five yard mark. No more suggestions seem forthcoming and a glassy grin, rich in unease and discomfort floods across your face and you open and close your mouth weakly in the manner learned from Jacinta,  who has no wardrobe to speak of, the shameless hussy.

The lady looks at you and is clearly alarmed by evidence of palpitations and mouth flapping, together with some head-nodding to show that, strangers we may be, but we are all companions in the world village apart from some rough-necks on the Ukraine border, a number of folk in the middle east, and other places where head nodding may result in execution.

Still for better or worse, apart from her moving as near to the fence as possible to maximise distance, the moment is over, and a pleasing absence of humans is evident between you and the gate you are seeking. Now all that matters are the eggs and the prayer that you hope to never meet her again.Botched first meetings are always made worse by the clumsy efforts to explain them on re- meeting.

For example. You meet her three days later, and she is getting as near the fence as possible, and quickening the pace. You serve towards her and raise your arm to demonstrate there is nothing to worry about. “I say” you gush, “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you the other day, I was………” Sliding sideways she just manages to get past you and scuttles on at speed. You have managed to create an “incident” from poor planning and your clumsy efforts to put her at her ease.   There is no manual for what to do on the third meeting.

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