Ronnie Crouch


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 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 the 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 still 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 so 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 experience . He was the most complicated man of simple tastes I ever met.           

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A Timeless Union


One afternoon my Grandad said to me, “Son, to men, women always remain a mysterious entity while to women, men become a flawed utility.” He made the comment with a chuckle and it made me smile because I remember Grandma telling grandad time and again that “You never load the dishwasher correctly,” or saying to any one present “He never puts things back in the right place,” which was possibly a little harsh.  There were other observations of a similar nature but the irony was, if anyone else but her was forward enough to criticise him, she would launch herself at them with one or two of those pithy observations for which she was famous.

Of course, from a woman’s point of view I can see that my grandfather could be exasperating. Part of him was over- detached and, I suspect, if he was watching his house burn down he might well turn to me and say, “Son, do you notice how every flame that rises is unique. Looked at selflessly, there is a miracle in everything you see” which might be true, but the need to act is sometimes more urgent than the ability to observe: a factor he could overlook. 

He was a teacher of English at the local institute and his reluctance to prioritise was a source of wonder or irritation to many, but probably not central to his occupation. I once raised the subject of men who were violent or without conscience and he nodded. “There is an example for anything you want to imagine in life, sad as that is, but I am what is called a domesticated male and grinning weakly is my last retort.” He was the least self-important man I knew and somehow the most inspiring.

On the subject of my grandma most of my grandad’s remarks were made by means of eyebrow movements but even in their eighties I remember him saying of her, “When your grandma walks she is the picture of grace: do you know that” and I did because he said the same thing about her regularly. She was an ice skater of some note in her youth and that innate sense of balance and poise remained present in her movements.

He was capable of wearing out her patience with an unbroken supply of good humour until she would just shake her head and retire behind her knitting. I remember him saying on another occasion, “When God created men and women a passing angel said, “If they don’t kill each other they’ll have to learn to live together” and I agree with that.

At the end of his life, he contracted pneumonia, born with his customary good grace and she nursed him tirelessly while criticising him for going out in the rain in the first place. At the heart of their relationship, it seemed to me, was her belief that, hopeless as he was, he reminded her of the possibility of “Good” and she protected that in him every day.

As fate would have it, the strain of caring for him in those last days caused her to have a heart attack and she actually died two days before him. I remember being astonished by the news and thinking there must be some mistake, but there wasn’t. 

They were buried on the same day, and lie in death, as they did for fifty-three years in life, together and in the same bed. “Life is a mystery son” he said to me, “But an engrossing one” and in all my days their marriage was the finest example of a life well lived I ever saw: their union gave a purpose to his days and my grandma the freedom to be herself

Hidden behind her irritation was the knowledge that beyond him lay wilderness, from which his love protected her, and in her cherishing of him their world became civilised. I shall miss them dearly.

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My Life In Residence


My name is Stanley Castle, which is the name I prefer, although the familiar, “We’re all friends now” people insist on calling me “Stan.” I am a man who relishes order and formalities and excessive familiarity unsettles me: it has always done so.

 I live at the Bramley Home for the Elderly ,by-line,  “We Bring Compassion to Understanding” where the levels of absent-minded neglect, and even cruelty, remind me of my childhood. Life may indeed go full circle, and so, emotionally, I am back where I started as a burden too far for staff whose minds are on other things and who wish to be in other places. 

Thus it is that the cruellest among the nurses are baffled that I smile at their conduct, which brings back fond memories of my mother, a haughty, fastidious lady who aspired to an aristocratic heritage founded on some baseless rumour later laid to rest; as I shall be in due course.

I sit now, silent among a circle of faces,  staring at the television and discover the clock to be the most animated presence in the room. Sometimes there is a flurry of activity and some relative comes in to visit someone else and says something like “ How’s it going Gran?” as if all  the residents are having fun, and  have just finished a meal of oysters and  champagne. No one comes to party here in the Waiting Room for Death but this truth remains unspoken,  The lunch recently served under the title “Shepherd’s pie with peas” may have contained  nutrients, but flavour had been exiled to make way for them.

Do I sound bitter? Who cares, bitterness is free, and I won’t last long enough to suffer the consequences so I make a point of glaring at anyone lucky enough to have a visitor and make them feel as uncomfortable as possible. It has not made me friends, but it has given me the energy that anger brings, and that is something I will treasure until I cease to breath and they can fold me up and bury me out of harm’s way.

 It was not always so.

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A Question Of Pronunciation


It was my father who told me once, that if I wanted to enjoy a sensible conversation with my mother it was important to catch her attention before noon. As he said, “She does not object to swallowing but will not suffer the drudgery of chewing too early in the day,” by which he meant all her nutrients, up to that hour, were taken in liquid form, normally stiffened by a decent supply of Vodka.  Her conduct became increasingly ‘random’ as the day progressed, possibly helping her express her “Inner Calling,” as a Conceptual Artist: no I don’t know what that means either.

I tell you this because it makes some things clearer: my mother, in lucid moments, and perhaps more vocally in her,  “Charismatic Interludes” was a fanatical fan of Winston Churchill. When I also mention that she went to the town hall at three-thirty in the afternoon to register my name, following a celebratory luncheon with some of the town’s finest, you may now understand why my first name is “Winsome,” which is probably as near as she could get to her intended target after a bottle of the sacred fluid.

“Winsome Green”  does not carry the weight  our famous statesman enjoyed, but it still raised eyebrows in a variety of venues as I progressed towards adulthood.  My mother’s brittle and inflexible grasp of what she considered to be “the facts” meant that no one, including my father, had the nerve to suggest she had made an error.

Being a  “Conceptual Artist” meant she was called on to behave oddly, and strike up strange and often embarrassing poses in the most unfortunate places, sometimes using what we might call “A minimalist wardrobe.” 

She was arrested for her art on a number of occasions by men in blue who insensitively called her performances , “Drunk and Disorderly Conduct.” I’m not sure if this calling ever involved the transfer of monies into her bank account, but, to quote her; “Uninspired realities should not influence the life of the Gifted!” 

My father, who used to refer to his marriage as “ hanging on to a barrage balloon in a gale” left her when I was fourteen years old  and ran or rode off with a traffic warden after a brief courtship originating, most unusually, in a disagreement over parking bays. However odd that may sound, I can tell you that they are still together and show every sign of being a devoted couple. When I asked my father what the secret of his happy marriage to his second wife was, he replied, “Memories of my first:” some people may understand his point of view.

Needless to say, following his departure, my remaining childhood was spent in exploring the opportunities for under-achievement in various schools and colleges before I entered working life as a trainee bicycle engineer.

None of this is relevant except, following my interesting childhood, I met up with a girl who was a cycling enthusiast and, for undisclosed reasons, she appears to love me. Indeed she told me once that what drew her to me was “I could take all the love she could give” which tells you quite a lot about her character and my history I suspect.

I am pleased to announce that we are now expecting our first child, but must also tell you that my mother is coming over for a celebratory luncheon to discuss possible names for the unborn infant. I shall be attempting to keep her away from the town-hall during any official ceremonies. Her new hero is Roald Dahl: try saying that after a bottle or two of something challenging. “What was that name again!?”

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The Cost Of Love


He loved her but it didn’t show:gave her protection from a distance and  understanding without a sense of intimacy. Just some guy in a cubicle crunching numbers through the working day: it wasn’t climbing Everest but it paid the bills.

“Hey Bill” she’d call, asking for advice, given, always, without a comment. Some years before, and in another place, he had been king of the track and a man of influence but that was then. Now wheel- chair bound after some horrific accident he kept his glories to himself, and ambitions in his memory. The evenings were never short: unfilled hours, stacked upon themselves, brought no relief from his reflective solitude.

Pride is the last refuge of the unfortunate; spectators of the happy story, a background presence on the road to glory. He loved her but it wouldn’t show.

Now the day had come. Her smiling lit-up face telling everyone the news: the diamond on her finger, the crowd of workers circling her desk , asking for the details. Without access, his chair was poor in crowds, he worked as if no news could touch him. Before him the numbers queued up on the page, commanding attention: patient, ordered, logical.

Desire was the gate to pain, wanting placed you in a desert, silence was his dearest friend. Why should he embarrass the girl he most adored?  Some awkward guy, buckled in his chariot, quick of mind but lacking feet: young but now without his youth.

“Hey Bill” she said, moving over and standing by his chair, fingers extended in that glowing way. Sadness surfaced briefly in his eyes,telling  the unspoken truth that his heart was now an orphanage for dreams. “I’m very pleased for you Sarah,” he spoke in monotone. Caught off-guard she stared into his eyes , now restored to ordered symmetry. “I wish you joy.”

Not all we feel is for consumption. not all mountains can be climbed. For some, he thought, love must remain impersonal.

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The Other Side Of Life


She was a woman of significant achievement,  pursuing  a successful career in the legal profession who enjoyed everything a person could wish for apart from empathy  and a friendship of trusted intimacy, while he was a man of little perceptible professional or material value apart from an enhanced sensibility which often added texture to a situation and depth to a conversation: more than that, perhaps, he was kind, because kindness to others was the foundation of his beliefs and the secret behind his poverty: he never placed his needs before another’s, and always said his wish was to understand and discover rather than own: a point of view which irritated many people, including his father.

As a result of conversations held at a cocktail party hosted by his cousin, more prosperous, more “realistic” if we can use that word, than him, they had become acquainted and he had asked her to dine with him and, she, moved by a sensibility seldom encountered in her professional life, had decided  to accept. After all, what could be harmful in a few words exchanged over a convivial meal?

In fact what happened was he opened the curtains of her mind and pointed out the carpet of stars above, visible to those not obsessed by material concerns. She found herself moved by his words as little else had done: life became a timeless place, where love-minded souls gathered round the fire of experience and shared their dreams.

Everything her life had taught her told her he was not a man to become involved with but her private soul, which looked out on life and asked the question “Why?” could imagine nothing more precious. Was she privileged to know him or a hostage to her needs ? Only time would tell.

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A Gift Too Far


Mark Flatterby, a man in his late fifties, lived moderately, surrounding himself with colleagues, friends of respectable character, a wife and two children. All good on the Flatterby front then until a certain Maureen Cartwright turned up to work as an intern in his department: she was a student at the local university, yet seemed to have a character unsuited to scholarly pursuits.

What is of interest is that she had a flighty way with her and a manner of ducking her head to the left and smiling at you as if she and you had discovered a special connection. She had a “look” which I understand could slip the moorings of the most grounded man.

It seems the solid dependable Mark had taken young Maureen out to lunch to discuss her future, after purchasing a significantly expensive diamond and ruby necklace which he said would remind her of the glorious times they had shared during the course of her summer job, which in reality meant no more than the odd coffee in the canteen and quick remarks shared by the water fountain. Needless to say, she accepted the necklace without hesitation and took to wearing it at work and rewarding her gallant superior with more coy head movements and a small helping of shy and bashful simpering.

The necklace was followed by a matching bracelet because, as Mark had told her, it seemed a bit half-hearted not to give her the whole set, and so it might have continued had his wife not allowed her eyes to stray across her dull husbands credit card statement where she spotted two items amounting to four and a half thousand pounds with the name Buttermere jewellery against them. Not having received any surprise gifts in the last thirty-four years her suspicions were aroused.

Following a short conversation on his return from work he could be seen leaving the house, suitcase packed, and with his ears still ringing from his wife’s choicer observations about his character, also including “incidents” from their distant past, kept in her mental “trophy cabinet” where all the details of his previous crimes were preserved in undimmed glory.

That’s where I enter the story: after a phone call outlining the situation, I had gone to the bar of the Railway Hotel to find Mark holding up a glass of wine, clearly not his first, and smiling at me with a mixture of hope and resignation.

“Come with me Nige” said Mark and his vocal chords slid around the “G”  in a  way suggesting it was no longer safe for him to drive. “Where are we going?” I asked and he told me, “I‘ve burnt my boats and now I must propose to Maureen.” He had decided to throw himself at the mercy of Adventure; a goddess of uncertain character. “Is that wise?” I said but he told me that he had discovered his inner fire: love had called from the shadows and he must visit her and other nonsense believed by those who think fate might save us from our character.

A ring had been purchased, at Buttermere Jewellers of course, and we were set to travel to Maureen’s home, with me providing the gallant romantic with a steady supply of Dutch courage. When we arrived I settled discreetly out of sight but near enough to hear the speech we had rehearsed on our brief dream-filled journey.

After peeking indiscreetly round the corner I saw a guy open the door. He was built like a rugby player come boxer, who it quickly transpired was her current fiancé: he made his displeasure felt by means of a short but pointed demonstration of fist flexibility, after which Mark and I returned to his new abode.

Not all was lost, because Mrs Flatterby always believed that if you are going to marry a fool, you might as well stick with the fool you know. Apparently, love can survive the impact of an occasional reckless impulse and I am pleased to say that, following further purchases of jewellery and a “surprise” holiday for two in the Caribbean, he was allowed back inside the marital home, whilst this most grievous and recent crime took pride of place in his good ladies trophy cabinet, ready to be exhibited at the first sign of a transgression: let us hope that never happens

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A Fly In The Appointment


Simon Warmsley- Maddock, ( his mother had added the ‘Warmsley’ in a fit of vanity), when a boy of six, was a smooth cheeked young lad whose complexion was eased towards his parent’s idea of perfection by a diet of chocolate,  doughnuts and a light sprinkling of multi- vitamin tablets.. He had little to offer the world except unbreakable self confidence and thus, over a  career spanning thirty years,  morphed into Major-General Sir Simon Warmsley- Maddock, Chief of Staff at the army’s Department of Hygiene and  Deportment .

This crucial role, which developed in importance with the growth of television and multimedia, led him to engage in periods of public speaking when the mysteries of his role could be revealed before a sleeping audience. In a hall outside Exeter in the County of Devon, where at least twenty people had gathered  to hear his address, Major General Warmsley- Maddock , in a languid imitation of  discrete ability, rose to engage the silent crowd.

The para-normal seldom makes itself known to us, but a well-trained and vigorous fruit fly, who had been a classmate of Simon’s in a previous life was in the room plotting his revenge. An unforgiven  scone-theft made by the glorious general when the fly was still  in our dimension was the cause of the vendetta.  The flies early death and transformation to another species had been unfortunate, but the bitterness of some crimes lives beyond a single lifespan, and so it was for that boy, now buzzing before the fearless General.

As the speech began, the well-trained fly landed on his nose and tickled him gloriously. Warmsley- Maddock moved to wave him off, but the  smart fly remembered the General’s strategems and ducked neatly to the left before fluttering its wings over Simon’s eyebrows. The physical dialogue continued with growing energy, until the audience realised they were in danger of being entertained: video’s were made.

“Get off me you stupid bugger” screamed the General to the delight of various You Tube enthusiasts until, at last, the fly retired for a rest. The General, now not completely smart, searched for his notes which had fallen under the reading stand. Dignity forgotten, he crawled on his knees to retrieve them, thus revealing a pair of the  pink panties which gave him  comfort on formal occasions. 

Within days, he was a star on many computer screens, and was shifted to a new department, with less damaging public repercussions,  as Head of National Security: a role where competence was less required.

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Conditioning


We were as different as two people can be, with different approaches to life, culture and religion but at the centre of it I felt you would always be true to me, and so I opened the door to my heart and let you in. Love can be like burglars don’t you think? It can steal up on you and possess you without a sound; presence unnoticed until you discover happiness is no longer possible on your own.

We were chaste, because you said it must be so: in your culture, you told me, a girl cannot be familiar with a man before marriage and it was a formality I was happy to respect and understand. I loved the courtly sense of life it echoed but some consequences of this custom I did not understand.

It seems you were already engaged to be married to a man you had met only once in your mid-teens and this voyage through university was your parent’s concession to modernity. They would trust you to maintain your innocence until your studies were completed when you would fly home and marry your betrothed, according to their wishes.

It was your custom and your culture that this would be so and you made it plain that respecting the wishes of your parents was more important than any private dream or urgency. In a sense with me, unconsciously I’m sure, you were displaying what could not be offered, and I was banging on the shop door with a currency which would not be accepted.

Neither of us were especially religious, but I discovered that custom and expectations can hold you to a behaviour as much as any faith, and disappointing your parents was not in your lexicon of conduct: your choice could not be personal.

As what you meant to me became clearer and more urgent, you shared the sadness we both felt, but I could only watch you board a plane and take my grief at your parting as the price of past happiness until, bruised it must be said, I realised that “Life, humorous and pitiless,” had played a trick on me and I must move on if I were ever to breathe again and so I did.

Two children and a lifetime later I saw you on some Indian TV channel, rounder and more solid, can I say, but clearly still quite beautiful. “Our Political Correspondent” the words read on the screen, and I wondered how “My Meera” had become so serious. When young, what we cared about was literature, and “inner meaning” and integrity and other vapourisms with which students fill their intellects.

I wrote to you, care of your TV station saying,

“Darling Meera,

I do not wish to interrupt your life, but we are both old enough, are we not, to recognise everything our parents told us was genuinely felt but not necessarily right, and the feelings I had and have for you are both true and real, and would have value in any culture in any era. Contact me please and save me from myself”

I have not received a reply.

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Mr Cummings


Mr Cummings, who taught me English at school was considered an “Odd Man.” You could see even then, and I was about eleven when he taught me, that most of his conversations were with himself, which he involved you in if you were in the room or class, but they were not quiet conversations: he was always urgent, engaged, non-conformist and anxious not to waste a breath on just getting by. “Live it” he used to say about almost everything and being young boys, we laughed at him behind his back, and sometimes to his face, but he never seemed upset or distracted by our callow behaviour.

Gradually we understood he was about values, and caring, and looking for the details most of other people miss. He was as urgently alive as anyone I’ve met, and behind that mad eccentric engagement was the most “knowing” person I knew, although there was another side to him, perhaps a darker side. He had an empathy with souls who were suffering: if your life had plunged into shadows or you had been overpowered by grief he was the man you looked at and knew he understood where you were. He didn’t talk in platitudes; he talked in experience and his compassion was beautifully constrained.

Years later I heard he took his own life using alcohol and pills, and the outpouring of love for him at his passing told you so much about his life. I realised, as well as telling us about the possibilities and beauty in our lives, he was also trying to protect us from those ghosts which haunted him with powerful stealth.

He made me realise that troubled people are often the bravest, most determined people you will meet. That for them to wake up and live an unexceptional day takes a level of courage and will-power few of us will ever have to demonstrate. He was the kindest and bravest man I met, who fought against demons all his life, and never lost that compassion which suffering may give to us.

Many of us don’t know what we mean to those around us. How our thoughts and routines form part of a pattern that sustains them in their lives, but for Mr Cummings, the whole world was his neighbour, and taking out their trash and passing the time of day with anyone he came across was the simplest expression of humanity. He never married and had no children but those of us who knew him feel like orphans at his passing.

Posted in character, creative writing, Fiction, Humanity, Peter Wells | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments