The funeral of James Martin Roberts took place at St Thomas’s Church last Thursday.
After the ceremony, mourners were invited to partake of ‘light refreshments’ in the first floor ‘Meeting Room’ at the Bushel and Strike public house.
The Wake started sedately enough with the consumption of buffet sandwiches, quiches and sausage rolls, but soon descended into a booze fuelled party.
I descended to the deserted Public Bar below. I sat in my usual seat at the table to the left of the fireplace, acknowledged the now empty chair on the other side of the table, and reached automatically for the box of bones, as we called the dominoes.
I had known Jimmy all my life, we were born within days of each other, we lived only three doors apart, we went to the same schools, we were constant companions, but I don’t think we were ever really friends. We were more like rivals or competitors.
As children we wrestled and fought, like the male fox cubs in the field behind our cottages. Our parents dismissed our brawls as a natural part of boys growing up, even when the result was tears or a bloody nose.
The real rivalry started one Christmas when we were about six or seven – I’m not sure. I know it was just before the outbreak of World War 2.
Father Christmas had brought me a set of cardboard dominoes.
Jimmy and I quickly picked up the rules and became obsessed with the game; here at last was real competition without the risk of bloodshed. We were pretty evenly matched and we played nearly every day for the rest of that winter.
On Jimmy’s birthday, three days before mine, he received a set of wooden dominoes as a present. I can’t remember what present I got on my birthday, but what ever it was it could not match Jimmy’s. He now had the upper hand and could dictate where and when we played.
A few years later I inherited a set of bone tiles from my Granddad and I could call the tune.
And so the competition continued throughout our childhood and into our teens.
When we reached the age of eighteen, we were legally allowed to enter the ‘Bushel and Strike’ have a drink and, more importantly, play dominoes against the resident old-boys. We were not welcomed and very soon found that no-one would play against either of us, we could only play each other.
This didn’t bother us. Let’s face it, it is what we had been doing for the past decade. Our flamboyant style of play attracted spectators, including some very pretty young ladies. Life was good.
Suddenly, disaster struck, in the form of National Service, we had to join the Army.
After initial training, Jimmy was sent to Germany to tinker with tank engines, and I got posted to Cyprus. It seemed that I had won this round, basking on a Mediterranean island, but trouble was brewing and it was not unknown for British soldiers to be sniped at.
We both returned home unscathed, a couple of years older and hopefully a little wiser.
Hostilities resumed at the domino table, but still we were evenly matched.
We had both learned different variations of the game in foreign parts, but preferred to play our basic Blocking game. As we were both working, we would meet on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and sometimes on Sunday lunchtime to try to demolish each other. Our audience had increased in number and I believe there was some illegal betting on the outcome of our games.
But then there was Rita.
Rita was the new barmaid; she was young, beautiful and rather exotic. Along with all the other men in the bar, Jimmy and I fell madly in love with her.
Our domino playing became more intensely competitive, we were like knights jousting for the lady’s favour. I hit a bad patch, Jimmy beat me at every game for some weeks and not only did I lose at dominoes, I lost the lady’s hand.
Jimmy and Rita were married. I was not asked to be his Best Man.
That was it, the end of the domino wars; Jimmy and his new wife moved away from the village. I married Wendy, a little, soft, kindly girl, who was intent on looking after me. We were happy and within a year we had a little boy called Martin.
I became a loving husband and father, but I sometimes missed the domino games. Wendy, intuitively knew what was wrong, and encouraged me to go to the pub and play a few games with the locals. I did this, and found that I had lost my touch; the competitive fire was no longer there. I realised that I missed the rivalry; I realised that I missed Jimmy.
A couple of years later Jimmy returned to the village, a broken man, a sad version of his former self. Rita had left him and had run off with a businessman who had a sports car and a villa in Spain.
Wendy and I gradually revived him and convinced him that life was worth living. Eventually I persuaded him to come to the pub with me and play a game of dominoes. Initially he was reluctant but soon realised that he had to take up the gauntlet and before long we were back to our old rivalry. He eventually returned to his old self, and started romancing one of Wendy’s friends, Judy. This time I was asked to be Best Man at his wedding.
And so it continued for nearly half a century, Jimmy and I had our separate lives with our families, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays we would meet in the pub and play dominoes with the same intense competitiveness.
Now our story is over. On reflection despite, or perhaps because of, the domino rivalry, I think Jimmy and I were, sort of, friends
Aida didn’t think of dirt as her enemy.
She was a cleaner and considered herself to be a professional. She was like a professional sportsman, but in the cleaning game, dirt was the only opponent, and it was her job to beat it and win. These thoughts rarely came to mind, perhaps once when she was younger, but now there was no time for thinking, there was work to be done and little time in which to do it.
It was still dark when Aida left her little house to catch the early morning bus.
She liked to arrive at the doctor’s surgery by seven, which gave her an hour and a half to clean the doctors’ consulting rooms, the kitchen, toilets, waiting room and reception area before the receptionists arrived. Now that she was getting older she often found it hard to meet the deadline.
Having finished at the Surgery, Aida made her way across town to what she called the ‘posh’ streets and to the large house that was her next challenge. The owners were rarely at home when she arrived, if the lady of the house had any specific requirements she would leave a note on a little yellow sticky piece of paper. The place was always a mess; the owners didn’t seem to have any concept of tidiness. As a result, Aida spent, or in her opinion wasted, a lot of time just picking things up and returning them to their rightful places. It was only then that she could start cleaning.
Her next job was in the same street, another large house but this had been converted into flats, her client owned the ground floor apartment. He was a nice enough old boy, but he did like to chat. Aida had no time for conversation, so without being too rude she would carry on cleaning and he would follow her around, in his wheelchair, talking.
When she had finished her morning’s work she caught the bus home. She was always disgusted at the state of the lunchtime buses; they were filthy. The early morning busses had just left the depot and someone had made an overnight effort to clean them but by midday the travelling public, school kids, commuters, mums with babies and shoppers had sullied these vehicles beyond recognition. Aida knew that their condition would be even worse when she travelled to her evening office cleaning job.
When she got home, Aida had a light lunch (cup of tea and a slice of toast) and set about cleaning her own house, which had not been cleaned since yesterday.
She started with the bathroom which was downstairs at the rear of the house. She washed the tiled floor then the wall tiles; she scrubbed the bath, sink and toilet and poured generous amounts of bleach into each. Next the kitchen, a similar process, floor, walls, bleach in the sink, wash down the work surface and hob, she even wiped round the inside of the oven, despite the fact that it had not been used for months.
The sitting room was her next target, which she thought would be buried beneath a layer of filth, as it had been twenty-four hours since she had cleaned it last.
She set to with feather duster and yellow duster, polished all flat surfaces and plumped up cushions. She dragged out her ancient vacuum cleaner from the cupboard under the stairs and struggled to insert the plug into the wall socket. People had told her that she should have the house re-wired because the electrics were probably more than fifty-years old. Aida could not see why it was necessary and anyway she couldn’t afford it.
She was still wriggling the plug around and trying to force the pins into the socket when she thought someone had kicked her. After that she felt a terrible tingling spread up her arm across her chest and through her body. Then everything went dark.
When the light came on again, Aida was surprised to find that she was no longer in her sitting room but in a slightly sloping corridor, in one direction she could see a light, in the other an eerie blackness. She set off up the slope towards the light. As she walked she cast a professional eye over the corridor floor and walls, they were not exactly spotless.
When she reached the end of the corridor she found the light was shining brightly through a rather ornate gate. In front of the gate there was a couple dressed in impeccable white. They welcomed her and the gentleman politely asked her name and date of birth. He ran his finger down a list and said ‘Ah! Aida you are a cleaner, is that correct?’
‘Yes,’ Aida responded with pride.
‘Good. We have been waiting for you.’ He nodded to the white clad lady, who opened the gate and ushered Aida through.
After a few paces the lady opened another door and entered. Aida followed and found herself in a small room that seemed to her to be an Aladdin’s Cave. The room was full of brooms, brushes, mops, cleaning products of all descriptions, a state-of-the art vacuum cleaner and even a power floor polisher.
‘This is all yours, Aida. Do you like it?’
‘It’s wonderful,’ said Aida.
‘Good. Follow me,’ said the lady as she opened another door.
Aida stepped inside and found herself facing her life-long opponent, Dirt. The room in which she stood was absolutely filthy and it stretched as far as she could see.
‘Do you think you can clean this?’
‘Oh yes! of course I can. What a fabulous challenge. I am so happy. It might take some time.’
‘There is no time limit.’
‘Oh! This is the best thing that has ever happened to me. To me this is heaven.’
The lady in white smiled.
Bella had always loved music.
At a very early age she was able to pick out a tune on a plastic keyboard or xylophone.
For her seventh birthday, after much pleading, her parents bought her a basic electronic keyboard, and within a couple of weeks she was able to play most of the pop songs she heard on the radio.
Her parents should have realised that their daughter was a genius, but they had their problems and didn’t notice what Bella was doing.
Her Mum was going to have a baby but it (Bella thought it would be a baby brother) never arrived and after that, her Mum seemed very sad and sat at home all day drinking, what she called, her medicine.
Bella thought that her Mum didn’t love her any more and she didn’t like the way her Mum behaved. Her Dad would talk to her and hug her but he wasn’t around much. Most nights she heard her Mum and Dad shouting after she had gone to bed.
Her Dad had something to do with building things, which meant that they travelled around a lot. Bella was never in one school for more than a few months, so she didn’t have any close friends
When Bella was twelve her Dad bought her a second-hand guitar and a book with diagrams of all the guitar chords. As usual it was not long before she was strumming like a professional. She could mimic all the current hits and even had a go at writing some songs herself.
It was about this time that her Dad changed his job and was able to spend more time at home and they no longer had to move. Mum still wasn’t right but she was much better than she had been.
By the time Bella was fourteen she had been at the same school for two years.
After so many years of being friendless she still found it hard to make friends, but she did get on with some of the girls in the music classes, others ignored her.
There was one group of older girls, who sneered at the way she dressed and called her Frump.
These girls thought they were brilliant because they had formed a girl band called the ‘Fox Kittens’; they had performed at some of the school functions and had also done some gigs outside of school, friend’s weddings, parent’s parties, kid’s discos, that sort of thing.
They were quite popular locally and were so convinced that they were good they acquired a ‘manager’, a smarmy chancer, who told them he could get them to the top and make them famous. Admittedly he did get them some work in local pubs and a small festival, but they didn’t make any money and the ‘manager’ spent most of his time patting the girl’s bottoms.
Bella thought the ‘Fox Kittens’ were pretty ordinary, lacking flair, and talent.
One day Bella was amazed to hear that the ‘Fox Kittens’ manager had actually got them a real gig, as one of the back-up bands for ‘Southern Lightning’ who were to play at the local college’s End of Term Ball.
‘Southern Lightning’ was an up and coming band who had an album in the charts and a single at number seven. Their lead singer and guitarist was Jason Argon, the heart-throb of most teenage girls.
Bella liked him because she recognised that he was a real musician. She would really like to get into the Ball to hear him play, but knew it would be impossible.
A few days before the Big Night tragedy struck the ‘Fox Kittens’, Courtney, their bass guitarist tripped up a kerb and broke her wrist; she turned up to rehearsal with a plaster on her arm and was devastated to find that there was no way she could play.
This was their big break and it seemed to be slipping through their fingers. The girls panicked and started bickering, the ‘manager’ phoned his limited contacts without success. The only bass guitarist he knew of was a fella called Rodney but he was playing at a festival in Holland. The girls spent half an hour screaming at each other and blaming poor Courtney for their complete downfall.
Courtney was in tears and about to leave when she suddenly shouted “what about the Frump from school? I’ve seen her play the guitar and the ’cello so she could probably play the bass.”
“No way,” was the girls reaction. “Have you seen the way she dresses? She would ruin our image.”
The ‘manager’ said, “I don’t think we have an option If Courtney thinks she is ‘a possible’, we have to give it a try.”
After more grumbling the girls reluctantly agreed.
“What’s her number?”
“I don’t know I don’t even know her name”
“Where does she live?”
“We will have to go down to the school and get her details from the office”
They all bundled into the ‘managers’ car. Courtney stayed behind as she was in pain.
At the school they found they were in luck. Bella was in the music room practicing a ’cello piece for the school orchestra. They explained the situation and implored Bella to come to the rehearsal room and try the bass guitar. Bella resisted for show, but inwardly she was thinking ‘Yes! My chance to see Jason Argon.’
Again they squeezed into the car, which gave the ‘manager’ more opportunity to touch the girl’s legs.
Back at the rehearsal hall Courtney showed Bella the pedals and amplifier controls. Bella tested the guitar with a few chords. The ‘Fox Kittens’ were not impressed. After a little more strumming Bella remembered a bass guitar riff she had heard on a heavy metal album. She played. The sound reverberated round the room and when she finished the ‘Fox Kittens’ and their ‘manager’ just sat in stunned silence
“You’ve got the job Can you make 6:30 on Saturday at the College?”
“I’ll check my diary,” said Bella, joking.
The rest of the evening was taken up with rehearsing the set that they would play on Saturday. They gave Bella the chord sequences, but they were so obvious she soon abandoned them. In a couple of the songs she was given the opportunity to improvise a solo, which she did, to applause from Courtney.
Saturday went without a hitch. Following an indifferent boy band, the ‘Fox Kittens’ received enthusiastic applause. Then the magic began. ‘Southern Lightning’ lit up the stage, wowed the audience and finished with three encores. Jason was incredible, the complete showman and the object of most women’s desires. After the show the organisers, the College bosses and the support bands were invited to join ‘Southern Lightning’ for refreshments.
Everyone gathered around Jason Argon, who was charming, signed autographs and submitted to selfie photos. Bella was happy just to be with so many musicians. She was absolutely amazed when Jason walked up to her and said “Hello, What’s your name?”
“Bella,” she said, and almost added ‘sir’
“I loved your solo in that second number, I particularly liked the way you bent those minor chords.”
“Thank you,” she said again almost adding ‘sir’. She was amazed at his recall and musical knowledge.
“How long have you been playing bass?”
“I’m sorry, how long?”
“Three days, I was standing in for their injured bass guitar player, I usually play ’cello or acoustic guitar or keyboard, and I have tried flute, saxophone and clarinet with only little success.”
“That is amazing. I realised I was talking to a talented musician, but now I know I’m in the company of a super genius musician. How old are you?”
Bella blushed, not used to compliments. “A gentleman never asks a lady’s age”
“Whoops, sorry. That puts me in my place. By the way I like your style. That retro look is really cool. We have one more concert on this tour. It’s in a town not far from here. I would be pleased if you could come along. Martin,” He summoned his PA. “Arrange for Bella, here, to be picked up from the address she will give you and get her to Wednesday’s concert and home again. Supply her with tickets and back-stage passes. How many tickets do you want?”
“Oh! Just the one, thank you… No, could you make it two, I would like to have my friend Courtney with me.”
“OK that’s arranged. After that we are taking a few weeks off, but in November we will be in the studio in London. We are going to experiment with some new sounds.
I would like you to be there. I think you could contribute a lot. Martin will arrange transport, accommodation etc. Is that OK?”
“That is amazing…. I am nearly fifteen.”
“No! That is amazing; so talented and so young. The world is waiting for you. Martin will have to talk to your parents.”
Bella got home bubbling with excitement, she tried to tell her Mum and Dad what had happened but they were more interested in watching the telly. At least they weren’t shouting at each other; they seemed happy.
Perhaps they would be even happier when they saw their daughter on one of their TV shows.