Storyline - 27: I'll Tell You a Funny Story - Well, Not so Much Funny as Downright Odd
It's only odd, really, inasmuch as it shouldn't have happened at all but for...
I'll let the story unravel on its own and you can make up your own mind.
One fine October day, a Saturday as it happened, me and a friend were on our way home from a football match that went belly-up for our lot. Jack, not his real name, wasn't looking where he was going as usual. He was too full of himself as he'd won on an accumulator, the fifth and final result on his ticket.
"Hey Spider", he called me that on account of my long legs and thin frame, "It's all fallen together. We can take Liz and Annie for a slap-up dinner at the Chinese next Saturday when 'Boro's away!"
"Oh aye?" I made out this was new to me but he was wise to that by now. I just didn't see why he should spend his gains on Liz and me as well as himself and his girlfriend Annie.
"Come on, own up Spider. You're as tickled as me!"
"If you say so", I answered half-heartedly. He'd won his money on our team losing. That rankled. It shouldn't have done but I'm like that. I won't win money on our lads losing, not to anyone, even another North-eastern side. He slapped a big hand on my right shoulder,
"You won;t be huffed at our lads losing once you've had a couple of drinks on the way home. We can watch the Premiership games in the Albion down there, on the dock road".
"Ah well, now you're talking. When do you mean to pick up your winnings, by the way? The sooner the better". I looked sidelong at him. He needed reining in when he was flush, alweays going on about buying a car to take Annie out to the country to eat and drink with the toffs. It wouldn't last, his winnings gone and he'll be skint again. Long-suffering Annie won't say a word as usual, but I know she despairs of his generosity. She just wishes he'd keep his good luck to himself for a change. But that's a pipe dream. He'll never get his car and they'll keep joining Liz and me for a Chinese. Maybe it's the manager, Lo-Hung's slender daughter Si-Ping that's the draw. Annie is about the same size and build as her, but she hasn't got the exotic Eastern appeal, even when she wears her slit skirt with her hair slicked back. Liz is all right in her way, but Annie can turn heads anywhere she goes. She's wasted on Jack-the-lad with his beer belly, and he's not out of his thirties yet.
"Come on then, Spider", he held the Albion's saloon bar door open for me. "Anyone would think you were in to drown your sorrows!"
"I am though, Jack", i answered, perking up all of a sudden. I could see my favourite barmaid, Audrey with her low-cut top and bright red lip gloss. She'd cheer anyone up, even the suicidal depressive the police couldn't coax down off the dock crane jib. Then Jack had the bright idea of bringing her out for him to see. He was down like a flash and before long he was supping a pint with his eyes out on stalks, staring down her front. She was used to it and just smiled brightly. That was until her husband Arthur, the landlord, had words with him. We had trouble talking him out of throwing himself off the quayside. Last we saw he was at the Exchange bus station before he went home, eyes glazed over after another couple of pints and a couple of whiskies.
Where was I? Oh, Audrey winked at me and set about drawing two pints at the pump. Before she could finish asking "who's paying?" he'd slapped a twenty pound note down on the wet counter. As she shook it dry before laying it in the till she eyed him up and asked,
"Oh, flush tonight, are we?" She looked at me and jerked her head sidelong his way. That read as "We've got a flash sort here". Instead she said, "And that's even when 'Boro lost to United?"
Jack was about to come out about his good luck with the bookies when I elbowed him and grinned at Audrey as I steered him away. He'd only just snatched his pint as I led to a window table far from the bar.
"What was that about, Spider?" He looked angry for the first time since we left the ground.
"Sorry Jack", I lied. I just didn't want him to spread his luck too thinly. All the drinkers - and there must have been around a score of them - were local supporters as I knew. They might not have damaged his good looks too much, aside from rearranging his jaw and leaving him face down in a back alley.
"Why the sudden -" he began to ask before looking around and sheepishly followed me. He took a couple of mouthfuls along the way to minimise spills. He passed 'Tiny' Jordan at the snooker table. He wouldn't want to drip any on Tiny's size thirteen work boots.
We sat down and all eyes went finally to the giant screen over the back wall. I sat in the window, to look out onto the street that now shone under the few street lights from the sudden easterly gust of rain that chased inland from the sea beyond Teesmouth.
"Don't say it's started again", I heard Jack groan. Somehow he was suddenly depressed, which was maybe a good thing in the circumstances. I didn't want him full of beans, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about his lucky streak. Resentment had built up in the area about job losses, and it was as well the other football highlights were on. I noticed Tiny tear up a betting slip as the results came up. Did Jack notice? He must have done, and seemed about to upset the apple-cart when I stood up and told him,
"We;ve only just got sat down", Jack blurted and grabbed his glass, ready to guzzle it down before announcing his good luck to all and sundry.
"We can have a drink closer to home", I dragged him away to the door, lying, "The rain's stopped".
"Are you sure it's stopped?"
"Come on", I strode out onto the pavement, headed for the Exchange to catch a bus. "Come on, it's not much more than i sea fret", I cajoled.
"What, four miles inland?" Jack pouted but followed all the same.
We walked at a quickening pace and I looked back. I heard footsteps echo in the narrow, boarded up empty street. They died almost as soon as we stopped.
"What?" Jack looked at me and back to where the pub lights shone onto the damp tarmac. It was some way off now and we turned a corner. This empty street led back to the busy part of town, away from the dead dockland area, where only the front walls of terraces were left before the developers moved in. Only the occasional leaning timber struts held up the wall, boarding blanked off the void beyond. Broken, dirty glass lay scattered on the old pavement, close to where boards had been prised away by druggies in the hope of finding somewhere to sleep off their 'shoot-ups' in the blackness. They'd have been bitterly disappointed...
Dark autumn streets... Leading to bright shopping lights
We meanwhile had to make a move on. The echoes of footfalls behind sounded closer now.
We were still half a long street's length away from the buzz and lights in the town centre. Jack paused to look at his reflection in an empty, dusty shop window.
"Oi, Jack, we're being followed, remember?"
"Are we? Why - what've we done?" He looked around. It was then he saw the bulk of Tiny about a hundred yards back. He stopped in his tracks and called out, "Hey, Tiny, are you going into town as well?"
I yanked Jack into movement, telling him,
"Tiny's not exactly coming along to be social with us, and he's got mates". I showed Jack the two others, one with a short handled hammer., the other carrying a jemmy iron, and it wasn't to prise boards away from window frames!
"Jeez, aye! Come on then, what're you waiting for?!" He was fifty yards up the street before I caught up with him, a hundred yards or so back from the traffic lights at the 'T'-junction. We'd gone another few yards when someone stepped out from a shop doorway almost hidden by fly posters advertising personal services for visiting seamen.
"'Ello lads. What's the rush - you didn't finish your drink, Jack", with that the man pulled out a glass from within the blackness of his Navy greatcoat. "Get tour money's worth, I say".
"Hello Big Sam", Jack reached after the glass. I had other ideas. I could smell Tiny only feet away over one shoulder. It was like being at a fish warehouse.
I grabbed Jack by his right shoulder and frog-marched him out of their clutches, swide of 'Big Sam', wider than he was tall was only about five foot in his boots.
"Hey, Spider", Big Sam.snarled when we were well clear. He'd stuck one foot out to catch me by my ankles but I didn't have to try too hard to sidestep him. He had to grab hold of the shop window frame to stop himself from falling over. We strode on purposefully past the lights, beeped at by an irate van driver for jay walking. A two finger salute from Jack had him snapping like a terrier but he could do nothing and drove on with a fist on the horn.
Tiny and his helpers stood behind 'Big Sam' at the lights as we melted into the shopping crowd. We were still not in the clear. I could see trouble ahead.
"Quick Jack, in here!" I pulled him after me into the big branch of Marks & Spencer in the shopping centre.
"Trouble, that's what".
"Trouble? What kind of trouble?"
"The too-many-for-us-to-get-away-from kind of trouble", I told him, watching one of the store security men. From the corner of one eye I saw 'trouble' enter the store with three of his cronies.
"Jack, when you put your bet, who else was in the bookies' shop?"
"I dunno... There was Guy Stapleton -"
"That's who's in here, and I think he's looking for you. 'Big Sam' must've got him on his mobile, knowing he was looking for you. Somebody with Guy sazw us come in here - here", I stuffed a packet of sweets into his right coal pocket, another in my left. I pulled him towards the main door and a security guard stepped in our way.
"Would you come with us to the manager's office, Sir?" He said the 'Sir' as if he'd swallowed something that didn't agree with him.
Who was 'us'? I found out when I made a lunge for the door and his colleague pulled me back. Jack and I were unceremoniously pushed along in front of shoppers, including Guy and his cronies, to the manager's office. Guy demonstrated his usual sour sneer at the sight of us in the company of security. There was nothing he could do. We, meanwhile, had some explaining to do.
"You were seen leaving with a packwet each of sweets from the Food Hall", the manager was at her desk, a petite brunette with dark, horn-rimmed glasses. I'd seen her before but couldn't figure out where. "What have you to say for yourselves? Over-riding sweet tooth?"
"It was my fault, Miss", I told her berfore Jack could open his mouth. "We were being followed by people we knew and wouldn't want to meet on a dark night".
She fixed me with a frown and asked,
"Why steal from my store?"
"So they'd see us being led here by your efficient security to where they couldn't get at us".
"They're that bad?"
"Jack here had an accumulator at the bookies'. It was worth a fortune when the last result came in. Guy Stapleton's lads were -"
"Guy Stapleton is in this store?" She seemed almost happy at the mention of his name. We were in hot water now!. I answered warily,
"I don't know if he still is. Probably not now we've been pulled for theft. Anyway Guy was at the bookies' when Jack got his betting slip, probably knew how much it was worth if it all came in. He must've put word out he wanted it. We were at 'The Anchor' on Dock Road when I realised Jack was going to be rolled over for his ticket".
One of the security guards was told to check in the CCTV room, to look for Guy in the store. He wasn't.
"He was told not to come in here any more, after threatening one of the customers at the checkout", the manageress told us. "He's not a savoury character, I agree. Is that the only way you could get my attention?"
"I figured otherwise you would have pooh-poohed our story and sent us packing, straight into the arms of our ever-loving friend Guy -"
"Don't I know you?" She took off her glasses to look at me, or was it to make it easier for me to recognise her?
"Is that Joyce - Joyce Casey! You've come up in the world, eh/ Manageress at Marks & Sparks?"
"The title is 'manager', Charlie Hobbs2, she put me right in a cool, off-hand way. "It's the modern p.c. unisex thing".
What did you say to that? She went on, the frown becoming a lazy smile. "And no, I'm not married".
"What was that?" I must have looked dumb-struck.
"It was your next question, wasn't it? I'm available since splitting with my boyfriend last month".
"You're kidding! Who'd willingly split with you?" I was stupefied again.
"That's nice of you, Charlie. What are you doing with yourself these days?"
"Oh, this and that. I started at a garage last month. The pay's rubbish but we live in hope. Not as well as you, though. You've landed on your feet, Joyce. Who was idiot boyfriend, by the way - do I know him?"
"Guy Stapleton. I would have been Mrs. Stapleton by next Thursday. I saw some of his victims, aside from the old man at the checkout. That was after he;d bragged about how he had them 'done over'. I suppose he lost his temper when I told him it was off. My fault -"
"Not your fault, Joyce", I smiled, trying to reassure her. I also smiled inwardly. I was cock-a-hoop. All the same, the job I did was accident-prone what with the boss being a cousin of Guy's... although they didn't get on. Guy's cronies were always around the garage, nosing about like flies on a s*** heap. If word got out I was dating his ex-, girlfriend, fiance or whatever.
Things were to take a turn for the better...
Saviour in a black pinstripe suit
She asked out of the blue, "You're a motor mechanic, then?"
"Well, I've passed a couple of levels. There's still a way to go", I saw Jack size me up from the corner of one eye.
"We have a vacancy in the area for an up-and-coming pair of hands", I heard Joyce tell me. Was she flirting? 'Up-and-coming pair of hands'? This was a new chat-up line, no mistake."Will you think it over? It's across the river at the Bridge Street depot".
"Doesn't bear thinking about, Joyce -"
She frowned, and put her hands to her mouth when I added,
"I'll put my notice in on Monday morning".
That meant there was still a fortnight for Guy to get at me in the garage. He wouldn't do it himself, being far too fly to get his hands dirty. He'd have one of his monkeys do the job for him. In and out under some pretence.
"I'd be available to start next month to start", I told her before leaving.
"Which workshop is that?" Joyce asked.
"Pearson's, at the back of Corporation Road"
"I'll have a word with Harry", Joyce gave me a crafty smile. "Maybe he;ll let you go a week earlier".
"Are you that desperate to get me started?" I joked and scratched my itching jaw. I hadn't shaved in days. God knows what she saw in me.
"They are. They're fed up with compulsory overtime at weekends to get the vans ready for Monday.morning. If I can get you started beginning week after next maybe they'll give me a medal", she grinned cheesily.
"I'd pin a medal on you", I told her, emboldened now. She'd given the security guards leave to go back to the floor and we were alone - well, almost except for Jack.
"You'd better take him for a drink", Joyce made to go back to her chair and waited for Jack to clear her office. He'd probably felt like the sixth wheel on a car and shuffled out to wait for me. "And I'll see you for one tomorrow evening at the Cross Keys".
She caught me as I made to leave, pulled my head to hers and kissed me full on the mouth. Jack was open-mouthed, looking back through the door. His girlfriend Liz was never as forward as that.
"Come on, Jack. You heard what the boss said", I ushered him down the back stairs and out through the Cleveland Centre, in the opposite direction to that taken by Guy's monkeys. They were all local lads who'd have had a job in the docks ten years ago, but that's what containerisation does for you. The shopping centre had its own security guards, ex-Bobbies from Middlesbrough's Constabulary, all over six foot tall. Guy's monkeys wouldn't mess with gorillas!
"You've come up smelling of roses", Jack said as we settled to a pint at the shopping centre pub. "Does this mean our pub rambles are over?"
"No weay, lad! We'll always be mates. We can make a foursome with Joyce somewhere -"
"Somewhere posh, probably", Jack put in. "What about Annie. Her and Liz are mates as well, remember".
"Annie'll find someone. She's always grumbled about me having no direction. So I'll find my bearings with Joyce. She might slum it with us. After all, we went to the same school, the five of us".
"So did Guy Stapleton", Jack sniffed and raised his glass. "Anyway, here's to you, your new job and your new lass".
"I have to survive another week at Pearson's".
"You'll do it standing on your hands", Jack laughed, then coughed. Some of his drink had gone down the wrong way so I slapped his back.
"As long as nobody else does", I muttered.
"As long as nobody else does what?" Jack was mystified.
"Just get your drink down. It's your round". He shook his back and stood to go to the bar.
"What?" I asked.
"One of Guy's monkeys is at the bar".
"Oh well, let's be off somewhere else before the rest turn up with their organ grinder".
He laughed and we left without the monkey even knowing. None of his mates was visible as we reached the bus stop and caught one out of town. We'd go somewhere they didn't know, like the Ship Inn at Eston where we met up with mates.
I had reason to be wary. One of Guy's monkeys came into the workshop with a Merc to be looked at, so he said. Whilst everyone's eyes were under the bonnet the monkey picked up a wrench and came up behind me on my left.
"Oi, you. I need that tool!" Harry Pearson called out. "When you've finished with it. You're one of Guy's horrible little tribe, aren't you?"
All eyes were now on the monkey, who darted back to the Merc, dived into the driving seat and spun away, almost hitting a Roller that was being driven in.
"And don't come back again!" Harry yelled after him.
"Lunatic!" the Roller driver swore.
"Aye, some folk... Sorry, Sir", Harry winked at me. "It won't happen again".
It didn't, and i was given a generous bonus on leaving.
"If you should ever need a good job one day", Harry took me to one side. "When you're fed up of the sight of M&S vans you can come back here with a raise, and that's a promise"
"Thanks, Harry", I took his hand and left by the main road.
Another of Guy's monkeys stood on the opposite corner. As I passed he shouted out,
"We know where you live -"
"If you're in touch with the spirit world, maybe you will do", I cackled. He plainly didn't understand that one. An aged uncle had left me his terraced house across the river near Stockton, well away from Stapleton's territory. It would come in handy for the M&S van depot. .
The backstreet motor workshop Spider would leave behind
© 2017 Alan R Lancaster