_Tales of Yorkshire grit, wit, _
_and feckless folk. _
Phoenix Short Stories
[_Text copyright © 2016 Michael Powell _]
For Rupert, Vanessa and Marilyn
To the Reader
Music and Melody
Loud Organs His Glory
Lux and Flux
Semper in Excretia
We continue our selection of short tales woven around two Yorkshire cities, each located somewhere between the ‘Licorice fields’ and the `Rhubarb triangle’. Reader, before you reach for a road atlas, you will be hard pressed to find Grimford or Melcaster on any map, plan or website. As with the legendary ‘Brigadoon’, many have tried to locate the area and even Barney Pickersgill, a dedicated rambler and retired Ordinance Survey cartographer, failed in his mission. After approaching the perceived Barkston Abbas area on foot, Barney turned left at Bolton Abbey. Although he followed the River Wharfe for fifteen miles, regrettably, he was quite unable to locate the mythical Melcaster. Foot-sore and weary, he caught the bus back to Arnoldswick; it had been a long and tiring day.
To the Reader
Our earlier volume followed the individual reports of a group of young Grimfordians detailing their humble beginnings in the city’s suburb of Exelby Hill. Now, in our sequel, the most ambitious amongst them have left behind their formative backgrounds and, fired by their innate Yorkshire grit, talent and determination, they have ultimately been transported to the culturally stimulating environs of medieval Melcaster where our narrative continues.
Melcaster is a very old city of Roman and Viking origin. Its quaint tree-lined streets are a pleasing mixture of brick and timber framed houses. Capped with sloping red pantile roofs the buildings look clean and well maintained, not smoke stained and ugly like their Grimford counterparts. In the centre of the bijou city, there sits a large central square with quaint half-timbered shops on all four sides. Here, at six o’clock each evening, outside the town hall’s classical edifice, the costumed ‘Wakeman’ or town crier blows his horn. Now merely a tourist attraction, it remains an old custom signifying a curfew in former days. Ascending a steep cobbled hill leading off the main square, a series of long narrow ancient streets fan out as they lead up to the medieval cathedral. Dedicated to St Columba it was formally a Cistercian abbey of Norman foundation.
Exelby Hill church choir member, alto Basil Worsnop, had done rather well in managing to get himself a place in the prestigious Melcaster Cathedral choir where he had just passed a rigorous audition. Moving from the unprepossessing mill town of Grimford to the attractively medieval Melcaster was for him a sea-change. Basil was thrilled with his new appointment grabbing the opportunity with both hands even though the stipend for the ‘Singing-men’ at St Columbas was poor. In order to supplement his meagre income Baz came across a part-time position at the Melcaster premises of ‘Music and Melody’, purveyors of sheet music, records and instruments. This particular December day in question it was two weeks before Christmas and he was busy serving a lady customer in the shop. She wanted a copy of the latest hit ‘Stranger on the Shore’ recorded by Acker Bilk and as he got down a brown box of sheet music from a nearby shelf he noticed that the shop owner, Miss Barclay, had written ‘Strangler (sic) on the Shore’ neatly upon it in large black letters. He contemplated for a moment picturing in his mind’s eye the seaside murder scene conjured up by her spelling error and consequently had to smile to himself. Struggling to complete the transaction he quickly looked at his watch hoping to get away as soon as possible. It was now 3.45pm and getting dark outside. Basil could hear the steady mechanical peal of bells at the nearby cathedral heralding the four o’clock start of choral evensong. It was a tuneless repetitive sound, each bell pulled manually everyday by Clifton Greenwood, the tower sexton.
He was a small, bent, ugly looking man with more than a passing resemblance to Charles Laughton’s ‘Quasimodo’ or a look-a-like for Laurence Olivier in Shakespeare’s Richard III – ‘scarce half made up.’ Clifton came from old English stock, one of three Greenwood families who had worked for the Dean and Chapter for generations and quite possibly since the cathedral’s consecration in the thirteenth century; he certainly had a medieval aura about him.
Basil needed to move fast. Eventually concluding the sale he grabbed his jacket and breaking into a run headed down the ancient street dodging the random groups of browsing tourists and day-trippers who, owing to the inclement weather, had decided to terminate their trip to the coast at Melcaster. Fearing he might be late he rushed towards the towering cathedral into the close. Once across a zebra crossing he entered the now familiar south door turning left up the central tower’s spiral staircase, located just inside, and taking the steps two at a time he entered the first floor choir vestry.
Fortunately Baz had already been into blind tenor George Farmer’s room where he'd agreed to assist by indicating with a Braille tag which cassock he should wear that day. Today it was a ‘plain day’ and consequently the choir were expected to be in blue robes rather that red, the latter being reserved especially for Saint’s days. There was activity in the stone-walled choir vestry. Down one side of the room stretched a series of large open cupboards enclosing sets of cassocks and surplices hanging there in rows. Opposite was a long oak table, probably Tudor, which ran the whole length of the room. Upon it at one end were a dozen or so mis-shapen, slightly melted, ‘Toffilick’s Chocolate Oranges’ now taking on the shape of pears. These reject items were regularly brought into the choir vestry by alto Neil Hughes who was currently working on the night shift at Melcaster's Toffilick’s chocolate factory in an attempt to boost his meagre cathedral stipend. The assembled choristers thanked him, each grabbing an orange for later. Sitting at the other end of the table bathed in coloured light from the adjacent stained glass window sat the Dean and Chapter’s policeman Arthur Scruton, still in uniform. Before him was a large Ferrograph reel- to-reel tape recorder in front of which sat a microphone on a small stand. That afternoon he had, it seems, been recording yet another community audio-project account of his boyhood days growing up in the Old Bardsey Road, at that time perhaps the roughest area of the city. As the reels stopped turning the label revealed that his epic was unimaginatively titled ‘Tales of Old Bardsey Road.’ He got up to leave realising that evensong was about to begin for the singing men were all dressed and ready to assemble in the south transept, all except Martin Rotherham who, as usual, was missing.
Meanwhile, in the clergy vestry, Canon Blenkinshaw was robing for the service. He had just been informed that he was to be enthroned as the new Dean of Chichester and planned to move south in the spring. Today he was deputising for the Sub- chanter, Rev James McMillan, currently indisposed with a slipped disc. Whilst genuflecting at yesterday’s Matins, going down he couldn’t come up again.
George Blenkinshaw was just about to leave his vestry when he heard a grinding noise. To his surprise he looked up to see a keystone above the doorway has shifted slightly. He noted instinctively that after the service he must tell the Superintendent and Surveyor of the Fabric, Jolyon, yet another member of the Greenwood family. At that moment little had George realised that the cathedral’s five centuries old central tower was on the move and his observations would eventually herald the start of a massive underpinning operation that was to last over seven years; he would never see it.
The choir lined up in the south transept. Decani singers were as usual on the right and Cantoris on the left, whilst above them the organist began to play in a free modulation. Standing there, Neil Hughes had turned around to tap the glass of an antique Dutch barometer hanging behind him on the wall, it was a regular habit of his. The graduations were marked in Dutch, consequently they were totally unpronounceable. ‘Mooi Weer’ piped up Hughes giving his colleagues an approximate English translation as ‘Mucky Weather.’ Moments later the clergy appeared including the geriatric Canon Tarbuck who was deputising on this particular day for the Dean. He leaned heavily on a stick and as the clerics assembled behind the choir they heard the bidding prayer by Canon Blenkinshaw usually preceded by an unusual amount of throat clearing, sounding wildly off-key and sung in a fake basso-profondo. ‘Bawls like a Bull,’ said Hughes rather too loudly and the choirboys within hearing distance tittered at the ambiguity. It was time to process, Basil holding blind George’s arm to lead him in.
In the organ loft were Dr Alan Judson and his assistant Ralph Parkinson. Judson played tunefully as the choristers rounded the corner walking slowly in procession passing close to a line of English kings carved in stone and resplendent standing there regally and quite motionless in their own niche of the choir screen. Moving forward in an orderly fashion they walked by the deeply throbbing thirty-two foot organ stop, guaranteed to make the stoutest chest rattle beneath their cassocks. At this point alto Martin Rotherham was still missing but suddenly joined the choir from behind a convenient pillar where he had been hiding. Listening to the organ music as the choir walked they were all convinced that Dr Judson was weaving into the modulation a few bars of current hit tunes. Wasn’t that the ‘The Theme from Exodus’ and that the Beatles current hit ‘She Loves You’? Just a few tantalising notes only before a gradual change of key; our maestro it seemed was having fun.
Turning the corner sharply, the blue and white robed singers mounted the shallow steps which lead to the dimly lit choir where they reverently bowed to the altar before taking their places in the stalls. Looking round Basil could only see about four people in the congregation. ‘Hardly worth the effort,’ whispered Neil Hughes rather too loudly in his ear. Only recently, it had been explained by the Dean that evensong was not a concert but rather a solemn act of faith and irrespective of who attended, the service must take place.
At this point Baz and his fellow choristers were ready and prepared to sing the unaccompanied introit from meticulously positioned, beautifully bound, fading red copies inscribed on the binding ‘Melcaster Cathedral’ in gold embossing. These scores were laid out prior to each service by the baritone, and honorary librarian, Harold Simkins.
The autumn light was beginning to fade, it was gradually getting darker. The choir stalls were lit by four groups of meagre 40w bulbs situated two on either side; they had been previously adapted from the old gaslight fittings and merely twinkled. Bass Fred Lewis had decided to bring along a small hand torch, which he had tucked under the stall. He would bring it into play on occasions when the print was small and the lighting particularly poor. What’s more it was freezing cold. The singing men had been promised under-stall electric heaters some months before but the Dean and Chapter were still debating the expense. At that point Basil turned towards the blind tenor George Farmer and could see that he was still wearing his suit jacket underneath his cassock and furthermore the buttons are splaying. He held to his chest a dog-eared Braille copy of William Byrd’s ‘Haec Dies’ and Basil smirked to see that George was also wearing gloves without fingers as he ran his hands over the score.
Enter Ralph Parkinson, Deputy Master of the Music. He walked quickly into position between the choir stalls wearing a nervous cheesy grin on his face. On the Decani side of the choir Fred the bass-baritone was pumping a small organ console which was located next to him. On it he gave a reedy starting note for the introit which was in 'a cappella.' Having composed himself, deputy Ralph lifted up his arms to gain the full attention of the choir when, at that precise moment, a bat swooped down and with the aerial dexterity of a Red Arrows’ pilot it flew between his body and his up- raised arm. The choirboys giggled softly; then there was silence. Having heard the note, and keeping it firmly in their heads, the choir struck the first chord of the introit to begin. It sounded awful as one side sang a full third higher than the other in a random cacophony. Roland tapped his music stand for another try. But the second attempt proved to be even more discordant than the first at which the embarrassed deputy immediately retreated, head in hands. Up above, Dr Judson pulled back the organ loft curtains sharply and glared.
Canon Tarbuck was apparently completely unaware that the service was in free-fall with the choir experiencing an ecclesiastical ‘cock up’. The canon was asleep and what is more he was actually snoring. Fortunately, Canon Blenkinshaw sprung into action by sensibly deciding to move things along by announcing the psalm for the day. ‘Psalm fifty-nine,’ he announced as alto Neil Hughes prepared his regular impersonation as the singers reached the lines:
[_‘And in the evening they will return, _]
[_Grin like a dog, and will go about the city’ _]
Hughes turned to Basil showing a row of teeth whilst summoning up an almost silent chesty laugh. It was his regular party piece, though strangely, no one in the cathedral ever seemed to notice.
During the first lesson, Dr Judson was clearly keen to speak to Fred concerning the cue note responsible for the musical debacle. There was a link between the organ loft and the choir stalls and beneath Fred Lewis’ stall was sited a small telephone handset. It buzzed. ‘City desk,’ replied Fred as he began a muffled conversation. Meanwhile Martin Rotherham had gone missing again. As a bachelor he lived on Fry’s ‘Five Boys’ chocolate and ate like a sparrow. Beneath his stall, permanently installed, resided yet another Ferrograph tape deck. He had managed to persuade the cathedral electrician to wire up a thirteen-amp socket under his seat, and during one quiet afternoon he had strung up a temporary microphone on a cable stretching from one side to the other suspended high above the choir. He was now able to record the services on his reel to reel as a result of his recent technical efforts; regrettably, it also involved a degree of bobbing up and down during the service tending the Ferrograph’s control panel.
This day John had left his position in the choir stalls supposedly feeling queasy. A search party was sent out in the person of tenor Norman Harris who returned five minutes later escorting Rotherham by the arm. His surplus was noticeably covered in black marks for all to see and from the Decani stalls Fred and Neil, having witnessed this, were tut-tutting loudly. Harris later revealed that he had found John lying on the floor of the boiler room just off the north transept where, having apparently felt faint, he’d had to lie down. ‘No bloody wonder,’ Hughes uttered ‘living off bleeding chocolate.’
Canon Tarbuck, having been nudged, suddenly woke. He was about to give another of his ‘secular’ sermons though this one was somewhat brief and concerned his love of motoring around the Yorkshire Dales. He took for his text lines from ‘The Road to Emmaus’, however, strangely on this occasion the disciples were not walking but seemed to be travelling with the canon in his Humber Super-Snipe. As as sermon it was all very confusing. Hughes whispered in Basil’s ear, ‘Silly old sod, his next text will probably be ‘The sound of Moses’ Triumph could be heard abroad’, then Tarbuck will give us the low-down on his love of motorbikes.’ At this point Baz and his colleagues got the giggles and having perfected a kind of silent laughter technique, their shoulders went up and down almost in unison, un-noticed to the assembled throng of clerics.
Struggling through the set service, which on that day was ‘Wood in the Fridge,’ or be more correct ‘Wood in the Phrygian Mode,’ the choir sailed though the ‘Magnificat’ and ‘Nunc Dimittis’ without a hitch and as the anthem was reached. Martin Rotherham prepared to take the solo verse. Then the Precentor announced ‘Anthem 425’, and repeated in his clipped clerical voice;
[_‘Anthem 425 – ‘This is the Record of John’ by Orlando Gibbons.’ _]
The introductory bars were played as the singing-men counted like mad anticipating a tricky ‘Jacobean’ entry. Looking across, Rotherham had missed his cue completely having vanished from view fiddling no doubt with his under-stalls tape deck. Then Neil Hughes, in sheer disgust, was clearly contemplating taking the verse himself as Judson, the supreme ‘master of music,’ effected a beautiful modulation by repeating the few bars of the introduction once more in an attempt to save any embarrassment. With split second timing Rotherham suddenly reappeared over the choir stalls parapet and began to sing confidently on cue even though years of malnutrition and Woodbines had seriously affected his counter-tenor voice. We hear at last:
[_‘This is the record of John, _]
_When the Jews sent priests and Levites _
_From Jerusalem, from Jerusalem, _
[_To ask him, ‘Who art Thou?’ _]
At the end of the anthem, the curtains of the organ loft flew back as Dr Judson glared at Rotherham for a moment. Surely he’d be down for a grilling after the service.
Our totally un-Evensong finally ended as Basil and his colleagues processed out into the south choir aisle. Canon Blenkinshaw turned to the choir in order to sing the final response but missed the note completely. In a nervous haze he shouted the line ‘The Lord be with you,’ his wobbly voice sounding raucously off key. In a further moment of embarrassment he followed this up by addressing the whole choir loudly, ‘That’ll make the glasses rattle on the bar of the Mason’s Arms,’ his words, quite audible, echoed through the whole cathedral.
As our ensemble turned to dismiss, Dr Judson hurried around the choir screen. ‘Gentlemen, up in the vestry NOW’, he cried. Everyone realised that they were due for a bollocking as they hurried across to the choir vestry. Judson began his post mortem in a furious tone, ‘That, was by far the very worst choral evensong I can ever
remember. I will be surprised if the Dean and Chapter not only dismiss me but also my deputy along with each and every choir member.’ Turning round he singled out Rotherham saying with a firey glare, ‘Mr Rotherham please note.’ He carried on, ‘in the introit one side of the choir were singing ‘Haec Dies’ and the other side ‘Cantate Domino,’ I shall be asking Mr Simkins why he decided to put out two differing sets of music on each side of the choir; the standard of whole service was pathetic, half the time you were making it up.’
He clearly hadn’t finished his tirade at this stage but continued as the singing-men stood there speechless. ‘No wonder you couldn’t get it off the ground, as professionals you should be able to read a score. They’re not bloody tadpoles strung up on lines to dry-out you’re looking at, they’re notes – it is music. By this time he was red in the face and fuming even more, ‘all I can say is that if you screw up tomorrow when we broadcast Choral Evensong for the BBC, heads will definitely roll.’ He finally ended his swingeing attack telling the choir that he was calling an extra rehearsal in the choir school’s song room tomorrow at three o’clock and expected everyone to be there promptly.
The next day everyone, including Martin Rotherham, did his bidding and consequently rehearsed energetically in an attempt to placate themselves after yesterday’s unprofessional performance. Walking across to the vestry from the choir school after their rehearsal, the singing-men saw that the BBC control vans had already arrived and had lined up in the cathedral close. Now totally familiar and happy with the challenging repertoire, everyone appeared confident and note-perfect as they assembled in the south aisle prior to the live broadcast.
The producer suggested the choir took their places by 3.45pm, without processing, in order to allow the technicians to do a quick sound check. As requested the robed singing-men went straight to the choir stalls passing the south aisle, which was currently strewn with yards of thick black cable and equipment. They could see a team of technicians each sporting headphones and scurrying around in every direction irreligiously speaking to one another on small black walkie-talkies. Soon it was countdown with five minutes to go before choral evensong went live.
As the last of the rather larger than usual congregation were ushered in, an old lady suddenly slipped on the marble floor and with a groan laid there motionless. The head verger Geoff Tingley was conveniently on hand and swiftly rushed over, asking a colleague to phone for a doctor. The poor lady lay there quite still on the marble floor in between the choir stalls; clearly unconscious. At that point the BBC producer rushed in with two technicians but by this time the clock was ticking, two minutes to go. After an assessment of the hopeless situation the congregation heard him shout into his hand-set ‘Scramble it; run the Gloucester Cathedral stand-by tape.’ Next, two ambulance men appeared through the choir screen gates and eventually managed to stretcher the old lady away. But it was now four-fifteen, therefore everyone could only assume that Radio Three listeners were hearing an apology and subsequently were listening to a substitute choral evensong from Gloucester.
Suddenly the BBCs crew no longer appeared to be interested as the cathedral began its own ‘off-air’ Choral Evensong. The service ran until 5pm and afterwards the events of the last two days were discussed by the lay-clerks while walking back to the vestry. The BBC technicians had wasted no time; they were already dismantling their sound rigs. Grumbling together the jaded singers we’re annoyed at having lost their broadcast renumeration as well as the lucrative repeat fees all through no fault of our own.
Once back in the vestry footsteps were heard on the stone steps. Dr Judson entered the room looking a little flustered. Commiserating he said, ‘No fault on our part today gentlemen, but I still haven’t forgotten yesterday musical debacle. To be honest I’ll be glad when this flaming week is over,’ they heard him mumble as he turned to go down the spiral staircase.
Music and Melody
One Monday morning, a couple called Hugill arrived at ‘Music and Melody,’ Melcaster’s premier music establishment, to see the shop owner Jane Barclay. They brought along their son Eric, who was apparently a gifted pianist. Because of his musical talent his parents had persuaded the young man to apply for a full-time job with the company in an attempt to further his musical career. Eric had come over with his parents that very morning from Grimford for an interview. ‘I could take your son to the top of this business Mr Hugill,’ Miss Barclay was overheard to boast to the young man’s parents. Oddly enough she seemed to say that to almost every new member of staff. The only time anyone had a chance to get to the top of her business was when they were working on the fourth floor in the attic sorting out piles of uncatalogued sheet music.
Eric was duly taken on board and poor Baz Grimshaw had the misfortune of working with him. He was definitely destined to be a square peg, every member of the staff could see from the outset he was wrong for the job. He would soon prove to be ham-fisted, displaying terrible co-ordination considering he was a pianist; clumsy would be more the word. One day coming down the stairs he tripped on the carpet resulting in him being catapulted directly into the shop. He landed in a running jump crushing Jane Barclay’s reading glasses, which were laid on the floor. Not a strange place to find them; she did all her paperwork on her knees giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘shop floor worker.’ On another hilarious occasion Eric was asked by Miss Barclay to get the ‘Scheidt’ box and to her surprise he rushed back with a wastepaper basket. Missing the humour and without realising the connection Jane quickly explained to the newcomer that the music of every major composer was filed in large brown boxes located on shelving that covered the building and that Scheidt was an 18th Century German composer of organ music. Poor Eric.
Terry, the manager, a Geordie, had it in for Eric and Baz. He would make up stories and tell Miss Barclay that Basil and his colleagues had sent out the wrong sheet music or that he or she had been late for work that morning. He was a creep, everyone hated him. However, Jane wouldn’t hear a word said about Eric whom she favoured because ‘He has the gift of music in his fingers’ she was once heard to say. Terry’s aside response to that was ‘Maybe, but he’s still a dateless pillock,’ in rather broad Tyneside.
As if by, ‘Royal Decree,’ Eric was summoned regularly to the Barclay mansion in Upper Appleton where he would give a series of short recitals on her Steinway grand piano playing exclusively for Jane Barclay; he would perform to a select audience of one. These sessions with Jane were unusual because professionally she knew the name of every composer, every publisher and the title of just about every song, symphony, concerto, and cantata, but sadly she simply hadn’t much idea about the actual sound of music. Customers would come into the shop and ask for a particular piece and would occasionally ‘hum’ a few bars of this or that to Jane. ‘Eric,’ she would shout, ‘What’s this lady humming? I’m afraid I can’t hear her very well, I simply must get my ears syringed.’ Eric would tell her the name of the piece and with a mocking aside he’d say ‘she can’t tell a B Flat from a bull’s foot.’ Behind her back he was known to mimic her cruelly. The truth is, that to Jane Barclay music was simply her business, it was merely a commodity.
Meanwhile, Eric had just managed to get himself digs at 25 St Margaret’s Row, near the shop. Fortuitously, one day at work, Basil told Eric that he wanted to find a better flat and immediately Eric suggested they might share. Apparently it was a double let and Eric was actively looking for someone. Basil was pleased and thought this would be a good idea, for the repertoire at the cathedral was both extensive and musically demanding resulting in him requiring a practice accompanist. He had quite a lot of solo work to learn and his sight-reading was pretty weak and so the deal was struck, they would become flat-mates. Meanwhile Eric’s piano was to be delivered that week. The large upright was hoisted up from the street into a third floor window of the flat in a nail-biting operation which must have cost him dearly.
After a week or two Eric had been quick to notice and so became obsessed with the fact that their landlady Mrs Borcombe had quite a number of male visitors in the evenings. He convinced himself that she was a probably into prostitution even trying to share his suspicions it seems with Basil on every possible occasion. Brenda Borcombe certainly was a flirty blousy piece, that’s for sure, but most of the time Eric’s imagination was working overtime.
Basil would stay on in St. Margaret’s Row until the summer of 1962. In the meantime Eric had given up the idea of being ‘top banana’ at ‘Music and Melody’ and had enrolled himself on a student teacher course at St Jude’s College in Melcaster. His first term would start the following September, so during the summer he duly left the shop and went back to his home in Grimford.
In pre-CD days a section of the ‘Music and Melody’ shop was dedicated to the sale of vinyl records of the EP (extended play) and LP (long-play) variety which were all housed in a line of specially made wooden stands for customers to brows through. Having made a short selection they would then hand them to an assistant in order to be able to hear a track or two relayed, as if by magic, to a small booth situated in one corner of the department. Wearing a set of special headphones, securely manacled to the egg-box-lined walls, customers could listen to a sample track before making their selection.
The assistants in the record department were the adoring couple Doreen and Phil who were married, but not to each other. Flirting was the word, for it was hard to see what they were actually up to behind the counter. This was invariably cluttered with a display of upright publicity record sleeves carefully placed in the sales area in order to ensure that their antics were not noticed by Miss Barclay, or for that matter any of their customers. A lot of out-of-sight fondling went on between them as they burnished the records after they had been played.
Each day at lunchtime the staff would take their break in the basement from one o’clock until two o’clock when the shop closed. However, Doreen and Phil would usually prefer to be on their own in the stock room and goodness only knows what they got up to. Everyone had their suspicions because one day Phil emerged with a smacker of bright red lipstick on his cheek in stark contrast and immediately adjacent to his jet-black walrus moustache. Doreen followed with a matching colour on her lips that didn’t need a Dulux shade card to check if it was hers. As they were leaving, shop manager Terry quipped, ‘Doreen’s been in there playing ‘Magic Moments’ on Philip’s seven inch,’ fortunately I don’t think the lovebirds heard that. Continuing his theme and in a louder voice Terry came out with, ‘those two are in there having an ‘extended play’ again during their lunch breaks.’ The assembled staff spit their sandwiches everywhere through laughing out loud, only to be brought to heel by the sound of Miss Barclay clattering down the basement stairs calling everyone back on the shop floor. Although the establishment closed for the full hour each day the staff were only allowed a twenty-minute break. Once upstairs they would tidy the displays, Hoover the carpet and perform a host of other jobs in preparation for the afternoon opening.
At the 'Music and Melody' shop, Miss Barclay was in the habit of employing a series of un-coordinated, hapless and quite eccentric members of staff. As a lesbian, her general preference would be towards gay men with a musical bent, most of whom in those unenlightened days were unable to 'come out'. However, one afternoon, shop manager Terry, in a homophobic tantrum which today would have had the police feeling his collar, challenged the need to head up a team of gay assistants. His actual words cannot be repeated here but Miss Barclay’s response stuck in everyone's mind as she remonstrated. ‘Terry,' said Jane, 'don’t be so ridiculous, we’re none of us 100% man or 100% woman we are all capable of leaning in more than one direction, even you must have a feminine side. 'In any case,’ she went on, ‘my preference is for young men who are able to present a more sensitive approach to my customers.’ The staff stood back listening, imagining 'Geordie' Terry with a bottle of Newcastle Brown at his side carefully casting on his knitting. Jane refrained from saying what everyone thought of Terry who smoked, constantly mouthed the most dreadful obscenities and what is worse was a keen supporter of Sunderland! It’s true, a few of Jane’s recent staff, like Eric Hugill, really did have some musical talent but in the main they usually had two left feet.
Such a one was Delius (Del) Blundell, ‘Blunders’ by name and nature. Music was in his blood, or should have been, for he had an amazing pedigree. His father had played saxophone on ocean liners, whilst his mother Mona was born into one of Grimford’s most famous musical families, the ‘Earnshaws of Grimford’. Del’s grandfather was Tallis Earnshaw, who along with Arnold Dolmetsch had been a pioneer of early music. His uncles were Haydn and Elgar Earnshaw, the latter the doyen of Grimford Choral Society of which Elgar was chorus master to principal conductor Sir Malcolm Major. Uncle Haydn was lead cornet in Grimford Silver Band and was well known for his special triple-tonguing technique and lyrical arpeggios.
On the female side, having sired a girl, Tallis was short on female composers and, in a moment that would cause Mona a certain degree of ridicule in later life, he named her Mona Lisa Earnshaw. Brother Haydn, Delius’s uncle, was for a time remembered for his appearance on the radio programme ‘Have A Go’ from the Grimford Mechanic’s Institute. In fact, no one could ever forget it. Considering his musical lineage, nerves took hold and he blurted out a most unfortunate faux-pas. After an initial preamble about his musical forename he was asked by Wilfred Pickles what was his particular taste in music. Haydn responded, ‘the modern English composers. ‘Do you like Britten? said Pickles. Instead of the expected ‘Yes’ Haydn replied, ‘I do, but I prefer to go abroad for my holidays!’
Delius had left Grimford a few years earlier to become a pupil at the prestigious Melcaster Grammar School where he had been a boarder. Some years after leaving, he had miraculously managed to hold down two part-time jobs, the one as a
peripatetic teacher of the French horn, the other as shop floor assistant at ‘Music and Melody’. In tune with his musical background he had played the horn from an early age. Now, most people with that degree of dedication would, by the time they were in their late teens, be at least proficient even if not excessively gifted. Not so Delius Blundell who was capable of bringing a complete orchestra to its knees with his singular lack of technique. Alas, for members of the Yorkshire Sinfonia their former colleague had been set to make their professional lives a sheer misery. Despite his family connections, how Del managed to pass the audition for second horn so soon after leaving school is anyone’s guess, but pass he did.
Whilst still a member of this top ensemble he had persuaded his old school chum Peter Fossdyke to attend a rehearsal for a performance of ‘Handel’s Water Music,’ which contained a generous amount of French horn playing, while at the same time calling for a mature technique. Peter looked on listening carefully for at least some degree of musical finesse from the bank of three horn players. However, sitting quite close as the overture began, he noticed that Delius wasn’t even looking at the conductor, oh no; having initially struggled with his embouchure, he now had his horn in pieces on his knee and was blowing down bits of tube which covered his score in spittle. In between sections he was glared at by the first horn player who gave him a sharp nudge causing the mouthpiece to fly out of his instrument. With a metallic clunk it clattered across the floor, spiralling under the first violins only to rest at the feet of the conductor who brought the orchestra to an abrupt halt. In an exasperated tone he yelled ‘Mr Blundell, would you kindly let us know when you are ready?’
Sitting there that day, trying not to laugh, it reminded Peter of the famous tale of Sir Thomas Beecham similarly berating a wind player. He too stopped the rehearsal and shouted across the orchestra, ‘first oboe, what’s your name?’ ‘Ball’ was the reply. ‘Ball,’ said Beecham, ’how very singular’.
Having become familiar with the piece, Peter Fossdyke took a friend with him to the performance the following Saturday but, alas, Del hadn’t improved. Granted on this particular occasion his French horn was in one piece but having reached the centre section of the overture he had a small solo break; a great mistake. At that exact point in the score he cracked a series of ‘bum’ notes, which made the whole audience cringe and the conductor grimace. It was a musical ‘cock-up’, ‘Blunders’ had done it again. Yes, Delius was quite capable of bringing any musical performance to its knees, which he continued to do on more than one occasion before finally getting the push from the Yorkshire Sinfonia. Apparently, their conductor Berkeley Lennox, in a mixture of desperation and the frankest truthfulness told him that as a French horn player he had all the delicacy and finesse of a Rugby prop-forward. That of course went over Del’s head not knowing much about Rugby anyway. He insisted thereafter that he had been badly treated. Incidentally, the self-same thing was to happened to him in his following career as a peripatetic horn teacher, ‘pathetic’ would be a more accurate terminology. That particular short-lived job ended almost before it had begun, and guess what, he was to become no better as a humble shop assistant; but of course, as Del was always quick to tell everyone, none of it was really his fault.
Loud Organs His Glory
The Master of the Music at Melcaster cathedral was Dr Alan Judson F.R.C.O. and although a talented organist he was often aloof in his dealings with the singing-men. Born the son of a Yorkshire garage mechanic, Judson was tutored by the then organist of Melcaster cathedral, one Sir Arthur Barnsley. When the old man retired in 1948, young Alan took his place. However, in order to advance himself he felt a need to be rid of his local accent and consequently practised for hours in front of a mirror with speech tuition recordings. He was eventually delighted at successfully shedding his native patois, which now gave way to a suave professional identity. While longing to emulate his illustrious predecessor and mentor in every way, although succeeding musically, the years passed and Alan had still failed to receive a knighthood. This would often made him bitter towards other talented organists, for two of his recent deputies had been much more successful. Bernard Gaynes was appointed organist of Westminster Abbey and Leonard Baker had moved down to Wells cathedral; both were ultimately to receive knighthoods. This was to infuriate Judson. Jealously he would regularly refer to his two ex-pupils as Bernard ‘Bloody’ Gaynes but even worse, Leonard ‘Bastard’ Baker. Somewhere inside the sophisticated, suave, and well-spoken Dr Judson there remained a rough and jealous northern boy.
One day, alto Neil Hughes was talking to the deputy organist Ralph Parkinson, when out of the south door of the cathedral stepped the rain-coated Martin Rotherham. Fellow alto Martin had been a successful draughtsman in Huddersfield, but following a nervous breakdown and, having a small private income, decided to join the cathedral choir. Enid Clivedon, secretary to the Chapter Clerk had allocated him a small cottage in Monkman Mews which backed on to the pedestrian bridge over Eastgate. Anyone passing could see right into his bedroom and consequently he was advised by Enid to keep his curtains drawn. On this particular day Parkinson beckoned Rotherham over to join them. Turning to Hughes he said sheepishly, ‘You may have to help me out with this one.’
‘Ah, Martin,’ said Ralph, ‘this is a most delicate matter. Apparently a party of schoolgirls last week were crossing the bridge and as they walked by your house with their teacher they could see you in your bedroom.’ Parkinson went on, though rather flustered, ‘and what’s more you were walking around naked,’ Martin’s face reddened in astonishment, ‘but more shockingly still they could see your appendage.’ said the now faltering deputy organist ‘My what,’ said Rotherham, more surprised and blushing even deeper, ‘Your, you know, your, your, appendage.’ stuttered Ralph. Neil Hughes couldn’t stand it any longer and suddenly blurted ‘daft bugger, he means your Willy, your OLD MAN!’
It took mild mannered Yorkshireman Ralph Parkinson some time to get over the incident. Coming originally to Melcaster from Leeds Parish Church, he took an organ scholarship at New College, Oxford. Soon after arriving in Melcaster as deputy organist he’d married a local girl, Mary, and together they settled in a bungalow in nearby Hawthorn Green. As a Dean and Chapter employee the Ralph was hard up, so in order to supplement his income and quite unbeknown to the cathedral authorities, he secured for himself a part-time job playing the Hammond organ at the Wild Boar pub on Norton Road three nights a week.
One winter’s evening, after evensong, Basil Worsnop was in the organ loft with Ralph rehearsing a few difficult solos for a forthcoming recital. By this time, apart from a dim light over the organ keyboard, the cathedral was empty and in darkness, pitch-black and eerily silent except for the echoing footsteps of the cathedral security policeman doing his rounds. After the short rehearsal Baz turned his attention to the splendid organ and curiosity led him to ask Ralph if the organ differed fundamentally from a Hammond, Ralph’s keyboard at the Wild Boar, or even a Wurlitzer like the one in Blackpool Tower. ‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘in fact they’re practically the same, except the Wurlitzer would have additional pipes creating stops for chimes, bells, drums, whistles, cymbals and all that theatrical paraphernalia.’
Ralph swung his legs back over the organ stool and pulling out a number of organ stops on the large three-tier keyboard he launched into ‘Oh I do like to be beside the seaside,’ filling the sacred walls with a gloriously rich sound that would have made Reginald Dixon proud. Taking his hands off the keys, the last chord echoing through the darkness, they suddenly heard the sound of heavy footsteps coming up the stone steps to the loft. Silhouetted in the doorway stood the dark shape of Precentor Canon MacMillan, his face dimly lit by the organ lighting. ‘What on earth is going on here,’ he said in a harsh tone, ‘I have been at compline in the lady chapel and couldn’t believe my ears.’ As he went on his sentence rose to a clerical crescendo. ‘May I remind you, Mr Parkinson, that this is the ‘HOUSE OF GOD’ he shouted. Initially, and unusual for a Yorkshireman, Ralph was short for words, but determined to get the last one in he blurted, ‘No it isn’t, it’s Melcaster Cathedral.’
None of this went down at all well with the Dean and Chapter. Although Basil managed to get a reprieve after his perceived collaboration with the deputy organist, Ralph, under pressure, decided to move on. Some months later he finally said goodbye to cathedral music. and at first it was rumoured that he had fortuously applied for the organist vacancy at Blackpool Tower, but that was not the case. Though a little while later, his talents triumphed as he joined the Laurence Sidney Big Band on keyboards, immediately setting off on a nationwide tour.
Windows on a Medieval World
Cathedral counter-tenor Basil Worsnop eventually tired of being a lowly part-time shop assistant at ‘Music and Melody.’ One day he plucked up sufficient courage nervously to tell Jane Barclay that he had decided to move on; surprisingly she wished the lad well. When shop manager Terry left the same month to work as a regional salesman for a London music-publishing house, she banned him from ever entering her shop again and severed all connections with his new company. So it seemed Basil had managed to get out whilst still alive.
Fortuitously, about the same time, the Precentor Canon Cantor, had an immediate vacancy at the cathedral for a cleaner and general dogsbody. Albeit a modest position, having immediately applied for the post Basil hoped it might fit in nicely with his choral commitments. As it happened he was successful and so the following week he was seconded to the medieval cathedral library where he commenced his duties with enthusiastic fervour. He was provided with a brown smock along with a broom which hung at the ready in a duster cupboard, neatly concealed within a small lavatory. Baz’s kit was complete with his own set of keys hanging within; it was to become his personal and private domain.
There was a skeleton-staff in the library. Apart from sub-librarian Bernard Archer- Bradbury and Basil his ‘newly appointed cleaner’, there was Miss Brunswick, the cathedral archivist and Leonard Jopski a once-prosperous Hungarian lawyer who had fled the country with his family after the Russian invasion in 1956. Along with his poor grasp of English the transition for Leonard from a Hungarian law career to a British one was for him not a feasible option, consequently he was now tragically reduced to being a hospital porter and odd job man. Meanwhile, in the muniment room, archivist Miss Brunswick’s role was to inspect and sort the cathedral's document collection, whilst Bernard was busy compiling a complete library catalogue. Upstairs in the old galleried library Leo was treating the ancient tomes with a smelly woodworm preservative and Basil was bulling up the polished floors with an old army ‘bumper.’ In all they formed quite a busy little ensemble. During the following months at the library Baz swept, mopped and dusted, answered the telephone and made lots of tea. It was a lowly position but, in the words of poet George Herbert’s hymn, he felt that he was doing a worthwhile job:
[_A servant with this clause makes drudgery divine: _]
[_Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws, makes that and th’ action fine. _]
Compared with the hectic pace at ‘Music and Melody’ this was a doddle of a job and the pay turned out to be much better too. One day when Bernard was out Basil decided to clean the windows. In his lavatory-cum-storeroom he conveniently found a large galvanised mop-bucket; but where was the wash-leather he wondered. Sure
enough there it was draped over a heating pipe. Dropping it in the bucket to soften he set to work outside.
As he washed, the leather smelt fustier and fustier and seemed almost too thick to wring out. Even worse, it was also snagging on the leaded lights and so after a while, frustrated, Baz abandoned the operation. A couple of day’s later, late one afternoon, Bernard asked him if he had seen a skin he had left draped over the radiator pipes. He was sure he remembered leaving it somewhere in the lavatory but could be mistaken. He explained that it was the cover of a medieval book that he hoped the heat would stretch a little before sending it off to the bindery. ‘Have a look round Basil in the morning and see if you can find it,’ he said as he left to pick up his wife Mary from her hairdressing salon beneath Victoria Arch.
Baz immediately went into a state of shock thinking what Bernard might say if he knew he’d cleaned the windows with one of the library’s precious and priceless pieces of vellum binding. Of course he remembered where it was, stuffed into a bucket in the lavatory and luckily for him it was still moist. Tenderly and very carefully, Basil re-stretched the ancient leather over the heating pipes once again and said a little prayer. The next day he nervously produced the now dried and stretched piece of vellum and handed it to the librarian who congratulated him for finding it saying, ‘my memory, I simply hadn’t a clue what I’d done with it, thanks again.’ At that point Basil knew he had managed to get away with it.
The Groves of Academe
Opportunity was certainly knocking one day for former Exelby Hill’s Reg Rudge. Quite out of the blue, he saw an advertisement for a managerial post running the new Centenary Hall at Melcaster University. It was move upwards from being manager of Grimford Little Theatre and he perceived this to be the chance of a lifetime, for it involved experience in arts administration, music, theatre, fine art and cinema, all areas in which he felt confident having at least some previous experience. Whereupon he quickly applied for the post hoping at the very least for an interview.
After receiving a letter from the university one day, Reg was invited to the administration centre at Fulwood Hall to meet the selection committee and as it happened the interview went surprisingly well. He stood in front of the Bursar, David Allenson and the Registrar John West-Salmon who sat together with the slightly intimidating Anne Melville-Manners who at first seemed quite taken with him. As Reg expounded his past career in the arts he confidently managed to stand up to quite a barrage of questioning. Then they asked him to demonstrate his skills with a typewriter and fortunately his days developing a one-fingered technique at the Grimford theatre began to pay off as he managed a credible page of typescript. In the end the panel seemed to be impressed by his curriculum vitae and as Reg came away he felt sure the job was his. Rushing back home to his anxious wife he told her that the panel would let him know.
On the forthcoming Saturday morning a letter arrived from the Registrar of Melcaster University offering Reg the appointment as manager of Centenary Hall which was sited right at the centre of the campus. He was further invited to look around the building which, compared with Grimford Little Theatre, seemed about as large as the London Palladium. The following month Reg took up his position feeling more than confident that he could do the job. What’s more he had arrived to find his own office, desk, typewriter, filing cabinet, along with the ubiquitous telephone, which in the future would never stop ringing. Reg settled down, throwing himself fully into university life by joining the Chamber Choir, Film Society and going both to lectures and concerts at every opportunity. It seemed that his plans for the future had suddenly coming to fruition.
On his first day at the university, he reported to Fulwood Hall administration centre where Reg was ushered into the presence of Anne Melville-Manners. Mrs Melville- Manners was the officer responsible for the overall running of Centenary Hall and head of his department; an audience with Queen Elizabeth the First could not have been more terrifying. She was the one person on the interviewing selection committee who had been at one point set to oppose his appointment on the grounds of inexperience. Reg soon realised that his presence in front of her on that first day was clearly to lay down a few ground rules.
Now duly briefed and after having endured a formidable installation, Reg Rudge soon got the hang of things as the new manager of Centenary Hall. In his first year there seemed to be a continuing succession of portering personnel on shift duty in the compact and cosy porter’s lodge. One day a Ken Archer joined the small force moving from an adjacent college transferred after an unpleasant altercation with the Dean. Originally a retired butcher he had sold his business and chosen to work at the University in order to keep himself active. He was clearly not without money and was keen to hang on to it; tight might be a more obvious terminology. Ken claimed that he had never had cause to open any of his University pay packets and one can only assume that a huge pile of cash must have resided either underneath his bed or deposited in a Swiss bank vault or more likely in his Co-op account. A serial smoker and staunch Methodist, (not necessarily connected), Ken would shadow Reg’s every movement throughout his shift following him so closely as he walked about the theatre becoming a serious ‘space invader’. He would even shadow him into the gents toilet and leaning over his shoulder would chatter on about some redundant incident whilst curiously peering over the stalls in an attempt it seemed to check the Rudge credentials. Comparisons aside, it was common knowledge amongst his contemporaries regarding Ken’s exploits in the army when posted to Malaya. On one reported occasion he had to requisition longer shorts after an unfortunate rowing incident on the Klang River had seriously compromised him. Pulling back on the oars for a stroke his ‘willy’ apparently made an unintentional appearance, subsequently gaining him the nickname ‘Percy Long-prong’ in the army camp.
Also in the lodge was porter Terry Clarkson who, in redundancy, came to the university from the local glass works. Most readers of the Melcaster Argus had read about him and seen his picture in a recent article. A few weeks before Christmas, a lorry carrying a load of live turkeys passing through Melcaster had skidded outside the factory gates. Out shot a lone bird into the road as the truck sped off oblivious of the event. But hawk-eye Terry had spotted this while having his tea break outside. After managing to grab the unfortunate turkey he took it into the workshop where he and his colleagues religiously fed it, fattening it up just in time for a Christmas execution.
Terry was full of stories and according to Reg he was fun to be with. Before events in the hall he would stand on duty in the foyer eyeing up young women and generally eyeing up everything else as well especially if it was free gratis. One evening he and Reg were standing together in the foyer before a fashion show event attended by a whole host of smartly dressed ladies. In fairness it has to be said that some of them were seriously over-egging their fashion senses in the style of ‘Ladies Day’ at the races. As one such woman walked in Terry whispered in Reg's ear ‘LABIT’ ‘What’s that,’ he said, ‘LABIT’ he came again - ‘Looks a bugger in that,’ said Terry. Reg laughed and at the same time formed a quick-fire response, ‘she’s not the only one, in fact the whole place tonight is a virtual ‘LABIT’ warren’ The two men laughed, Terry ending up with, ‘yes, the things you see when you haven’t got your gun.’ It was only when Terry Clarkson eventually moved to another college did the Centenary Hall staff find fifteen bubbling demi-johns of wine and six large barrels of home- brew beers and lagers secreted in the scenery dock which he had been secretly tending quite unknown to anyone.
One of the regulars at Centenary Hall was Roland Fairfax, credited as one of the Yorkshire’s top flower arrangers. He was a regular because he conveniently lived nearby in Lower House Cottage, a charming property which he had rented in the village for years and had recently managed to purchase. The cottage had previously been the dower house and had formed part of the Burghray estate in the centre of which was the Elizabethan manor of Fulwood Hall where now the University’s administration offices were situated. Roland was quick to tell this story at his flower demonstrations as if it were to give him some aristocratic bearing. It has to be said that his house in the village was beautifully appointed and the gardens, which he occasionally opened to the public, were quite naturally a picture and had on more than one occasion appeared on television’s ‘Gardener’s World.’ At one pre-Christmas show the centrepiece was an elaborately constructed wreath made especially for his front door at Lower House Cottage. He explained that the wreath was precious and quite valuable resulting in his habit of taking it indoors every night as a safety measure. ‘Wreath in, cat out,’ was his maxim!
Fairfax was a tall, smart man with a most amazing line in patter. His modified Yorkshire speech belied his rather lowly West Riding of Yorkshire upbringing and attempting refinement would pronounce every ‘u’ vowel as an ‘o’. However, he was a most talented man and had both demonstrated and arranged flowers all over the world. After recently returning from the Far East Roland told his audience enthusiastically about his trip, which was apparently stunning. However, it appeared that he wasn’t particularly enamoured by the food at the banquet laid on in his honour, he said ‘There were twenty courses served, every one tasted like rubber,’ which certainly amused the audience.
Roland would claim to be distantly related to the Yorkshire Fairfax family though apparently he could never prove his provenance. As flower arrangers go he worked ‘large,’ having to climb a set of high stepladders in order to complete his wonderful arrangements on stage. They were all carefully assembled piece by piece whilst he casually delivered an amusing commentary. The flowers would be shipped into the hall early in the morning by special courier from Holland, the large brown boxes all carefully laid out in an orderly fashion backstage in rows. During the afternoon we would rehearse to Roland’s exacting standards. Over the years he had dismissed more than one lighting technician and was difficult to work with until the show itself when for some reason he was completely relaxed.
His presentations would usually be charity events and he always had a full house with people clamouring for tickets. Reg invariably had the job of introducing him on stage and Roland would ‘milk’ his entrance in true show-biz fashion. After a long pregnant pause the curtains would open and he would glide to centre stage in ‘Liberace’ fashion wearing a sickly smile whilst dressed in a velvet suit. However, during the show he was capable of creating the most stunning displays of floral art, which by the end of his demonstrations would cover the whole stage. Finally, at the very end of the show, Roland would raffle the flowers for charity and wherever possible would break down his creations into manageable arrangements.
There would be quite a jostle at the front of the stage as the lucky raffle winners assembled with their winning tickets. On one occasion, when offered a rather large display, one rather perplexed lady was overheard to say ‘Oh dear, have you got anything for bungalows.’
Mrs Melville-Manners was an upper-crust lady and wife of the retired Major Philip Melville-Manners, an old East Yorkshire army family; consequently she ran the department on strict military lines. Her staff were all required to wear suits, collars and ties and be well presented. But one day her technician Albert Deaks appeared in light trousers, a short sleeved open-necked shirt, unbuttoned almost to the waist, with a medallion around his neck, which dangled on a hairy chest. When he entered the office, Anne jumped up and screamed ‘I simply won’t allow beach-wear in my department, go home immediately and change.’ Somewhat embarrassed, a red-faced Albert shot out only later to appear in standard suit, collar and tie. Incidentally, the office dress code was obviously engendered by strict army rules for it also extended to the female staff who weren’t permitted to wear trousers in the office.
Mrs M-M, as she was always known, had two sons and two daughters. A horse-riding family they were members of the county set. Her assistant was Jenny Topham, who that year married the Professor of Chemistry, Nicholas Walmsley, who had just received a knighthood for his chemical warfare research – not the proudest of accolades! This meant that the socially aspiring Anne had to accept Lady Walmsley as her assistant and it didn’t go down at all well.
Meanwhile, Major Melville-Manners had been getting rather doddery of late, almost a walking-wounded disaster in his dotage. He would ring his wife at the office for assistance when accidents occurred at Bilton Manor or he couldn’t find or operate something within the house. It was easier for her to send new recruit Reg Rudge out on mercy missions than leave a busy office. However one summer’s afternoon it was ‘May-day-May-day’ from Bilton Manor. The major had gone for a wee, coughed, and his pipe had shot down the loo just at the point of flush. The water backed up and it wouldn’t stop, he had a flood on his hands. When Reg reached the house the water was slowly creeping across the hall and taking a hold of the ground floor, gurgling down the stone stairs. But where was Philip? There he was, sitting in the drawing room casually sipping a whisky and soda oblivious of the creeping drama. ‘Oh it’s you – er, er,’ he said, ‘I never remember names, can you sort me out old boy?’
Rudge grabbed the phone and called Anne to tell her the worst, suggesting she might get the University plumbers out there. Over in the lavatory the water was still pouring out and he made a vain attempt at finding the ball cock which, he’d already assumed, must be jammed. Reg had to hastily withdraw after the water filled his shallow work shoes.
Plumber John Cowley was quickly on the scene. He was actually playing truant when the summons came. Though technically at work, he had decided to embark on a ‘shopping trip’ in nearby Adcaster when his paging ‘bleeper’ went off. Ringing in from a phone box he was soon on the scene and quickly managed to fix the plumbing problem. Mrs Melville-Manners was eternally grateful to John and swore she would
never mention his truancy. Had she been the Queen (which often she thought she was) he would have certainly received a medal, for in the line of duty, military-style, he had managed an operation to rescue ‘the Major’, caught yet again in another distressing predicament.
New boy Reg’s sensitive handling of this incident would be recognised for he was mentioned in dispatches, he’d certainly gone up a notch. The end result was that he and she were to become close friends, though Reg would never be accepted as her social equal. Remembering that she was the one person who apparently, and quite unknown to him had been set to block his original appointment he was pleased to have gained her complete confidence even though occasionally he had to endure her sharp-tongued rebukes whilst settling into the post. On one particular day Reg found himself in disagreement on some matter and stormed out of her office. Pulling the door haphazardly to behind him it was caught by a strong draft slamming it shut with such a loud bang that lumps of plaster fell off the office wall dislodging a shelf full of files. Poor Reg was called back and made to apologise; their first row was resolved and it certainly cleared the air. He just had to get used to having a martinet for a boss.
Anne M-M had only one serious competitor whilst jockeying for a position close to Melcaster’s Vice Chancellor, Sir B. Hornett-Nettles, affectionately known, for the most obvious reasons, as ‘the Stinger’. Her senior rival, along with that of her prestigious deputy, Lady Walmsley, was the university’s Publicity and Publications Officer, one Grace Whipp, ‘Our Gracie’ to her friends and ‘Walnut’ to her enemies. Her official memorandi to students were given a special position on all campus noticeboards and once, boldly written under her name, one university wit had changed it to ‘Whipsnade’ and written ‘No respectable zoo would keep-er.’
The tall, bespectacled Grace had joined the staff after being a physical training teacher at Ripley College for Girls and closely resembled Joyce Grenfell as the sports mistress in the St Trinians films. Reg met her during his first week in order for her to approve the new concert brochure and was consequently called to her presence in Fulwood Hall. Her office suite was immaculate. In the centre, beyond a rather expensive Indian carpet, there was situated an almost clear polished desk upon which lay a small selection of administrative tools. These included a single piece of A4 paper, a rocking blotter, a fountain pen, a telephone and a framed photograph of a black Labrador dog. After a brief introduction she saw Reg looking closely at the picture, ‘That’s Ignatius,’ she said, ‘my dog, but I call him ‘Iggy’ for short.’
In her room there was not a thing out of place. it was clear to Reg Rudge that to Grace everything had to be perfect. He duly left the programme with her for proof reading and returned to the office. Once there, in uncharacteristic ‘gossip’ mode, Mrs M-M explained, with a trace of glee in her eye, why Ms Whipp appeared to be keeping rather a low profile. Apparently, one day in Fulwood Hall dining room she had slipped on the polished floor whilst carrying a full tray of plated food and cutlery from the servery. Everything, but everything, went flying all over the parquet floor. Such was her complete humiliation and embarrassment she dashed out with her head in her hands leaving everyone to clear up the mess. It was clearly a ‘fall from Grace.’
However, it appeared that wasn’t the real reason why she had been brought low. All University printed documents had to be fastidiously proof-read by Grace and that included the current University diary. However, the entry for 30 October that year read: ‘British Bummer-time (sic) ends.’ ‘Walnut’ Whipp’ had missed that one and it was to be her Armageddon, for sadly, the University Printing Unit had just completed a run of two thousand copies before anyone noticed.
Lux and Flux
Most people would hope to have the good fortune of working with friendly, interesting and stimulating colleagues. However, for some reason, Reg had to tolerate the antics of some of the strangest of life’s odd-bods during his initial term as manager of Centenary Hall. The chief of these was Ron Blakey.
Ron was a theatre technician who came originally from Leeds Opera House; so far so good. But he was a serial liar and romancer, a cross between ‘Tom Pepper’ and ‘Walter Mitty’. His dodgy stories came so thick and fast that he would often forget what tales he’d made up, singularly lacking the quick-fire brain skills required to carry his fantasies to a believable level. Consequently, this made catching him out relatively simple. His colleague was Bob Rytton, who had previously been at sea and where he seemed to remain for the next twenty years or so. He and Reg would never see eye to eye.
These lowly graded technicians had a habit of gilding their working titles in an attempt to gain some prestige within the university. On the nameplates of their workshop it would read: ‘Ron Blakey: Luminaire and Lantern Technician’ and in Bob’s case: ‘Robert Rytton: Audio-cum-Visual Facilitator.’ Both were highfaluting name-tags for workshop workers even set against a university’s academic environment. Reg Rudge preferred to call them ‘Lux’ and ‘Flux’ which seriously annoyed them both. Their technician handles were only to be outdone by the theatre’s visiting window-cleaner, whose van was lettered amazingly as follows: ‘John Graham: Visual Clarity Technician’. That one was hard to beat.
Ron, or ‘Blakey’ as he was always called in reference to the ‘On the Buses’ television character, worked high up above the theatre’s seating on a lighting gantry where he would set and adjust the ‘luminaires’ for each performance. Reg usually insisted he did this before the audience took their seats for, on one particular occasion, he dropped a spanner which fortunately hit the floor rather than someone’s head. More serious still, another time he let go an unchained theatre spotlight, which dropped and smashed to bits on the floor. Fortunately for the rest of the staff the hall was empty and Health and Safety regulations were some years ahead. ‘Take it steady Ron,’ Rudge told him on more than one occasion but, unrepentant, he seemed to think that his essential work had to proceed. Ron’s irresponsible response was to suggest that it might be more acceptable if the whole audience were issued with hard-hats at the box office just in case.
‘Blakey’ was friendly with Pete Jowett who was the fire extinguisher rep. He worked for a company called ‘Mini-Max’ a firm sharing its name with a dwarf acrobat in an Edwardian music hall sketch Reg had once seen at Grimford Little Theatre. One day the phone rang and the duty porter announced to Reg, ‘Wiggy’s here.’ This would be Jowett and it was never clear whether he had been labelled, ‘Wiggy’ after Wigton village where he lived. Being folically challenged, Jowett had some time ago decided to sport the most awful blond wig, creating a look for all the world like the scarecrow in ‘Wizard of Oz.’ So yes, it was clearly Jowett about whom the porter was referring.
‘Send him up Len,’ Reggie replied, and soon after the Mini-Max engineer entered the office. ‘My God it’s warm today,’ he said,’ do you mind if I take off my hairpiece whilst I’m servicing the fire appliances?’ In an instant he pulled off the thatch and began to peel double-sided tape from his hairless scalp which was immediately followed by a rather disgusting head stratching session. Having completed these procedures Pete Jowett drew a blue bob cap over his shiny head saying ‘Ah, that’s better,’ as he placed the monstrous wig on Bob Rytton’s desk.
Looking down on the hairy mass, Ryton and Reg were hard pressed to suppress their giggles whilst deciding upon a wheeze. Bob popped over to the kitchen area at the adjoining college and borrowed two small pullet eggs from the chef claiming that he urgently needed a prop for the theatre. On his return he and Reg placed the two eggs in the centre of the straw-like crown-topper creating what looked for all the world like an authentic bird’s nest. When Pete Jowett finally came back and saw it, and after registering some initial surprise, he fortunately saw the humour of it which eventually had him in stitches. At this point the jokers fed their final punch line, ‘Pete, with all this campus wildfowl about, in future do be careful where you leave your hairpiece. ’
As it happened Ron Blakey himself had become decidedly thin on top. In fact if the truth be known his follicles were definitely being challenged. For some reason, unknown to Reg and Bob Ryton, he was actually impressed by his friend Jowett’s weary excuse for hair. One afternoon Blakey let it be known that he had sourced a beautiful hairpiece in ‘Exchange and Mart,’ which was, of course, eBay’s early equivalent. It would arrive that week. When it was finally delivered he took it out of the box and carefully unwrapped the tissue paper lovingly examining his new purchase, which, to the rest of the staff looked more like a curled up dead cat than a wig. ‘What do you think Reg?’ Ron proudly exclaimed, ‘nice isn’t it.’ ‘Well’ was his response, ‘may I suggest you break the ‘new you’ in gradually.’ Reg told him that he thought it would perhaps be a good idea to write a preparatory memo to the office, for secretly, he feared that on first sight the female staff might go into permanent hysterics. Blakey was in total agreement thinking that to be a sensible suggestion. His memorandum went something like this:
D[_ear Colleagues, _]
[_I am planning to visit the office on Friday morning at 9.30am. The reason being, I wish to present myself to you all sporting my new hairpiece. Now it may seem a bit strange to you at first, but I know you will soon get used to it. If, in fact, should you find it amusing then please have a good laugh and get it out of your system because it represents the new me and it is here to stay.’ _]
[_Signed: Ron Blakey _]
On the following Friday morning, the mood in the office was electric as right on cue at 9.30am Blakey arrived in the management suite. Seven girls, along with Mrs Melville-Manners, assembled in anticipation as Ron slowly opened the door in order
to reveal his revised persona. Looking back, he was expecting rather too much of his colleagues to suddenly accept the contrasting appearance of a Duncan Goodhew yesterday, to a Brian May today. As anticipated, the whole office collapsed in a communal laughing fit and what’s more, as the days went by they never did get used to Ron and his crown-topper. Although he did persist with it for a short while afterwards in a vain attempt to get value for money, it wasn't long before he'd reverted to his normal ‘no hair’- cut.
Semper in Excretia
In Melcaster’s Monk’s Cloisters, an old gas-works site was being cleared in order to lay the foundations for a new superstore. This operation required that for most of the residents on the south side of the street, rear access would be temporarily closed for a six-month period whilst a new drainage system was being laid. Early excavations had already revealed under the surface a complete Roman sewer dating back to the second century A.D.
In charge of operations was a Melcaster Council ‘Effluent Operative’ with the unworldly name of Benny Benedick (alias ‘Benedictus’). Benny could be seen regularly at lunchtimes sitting at the door of his Portakabin eating sandwiches. Fresh from the sewer, his hands were dirty and clearly unwashed, even so, it didn’t seem to have the slightest affect on his health or wellbeing. ‘It might be shit to you, but it’s bread and butter to me,’ he was once heard to remark to a passer by, ‘who would want this job anyway, that’s why I’m well paid.’ He must have been because he ran a smart new top of the range Rover, which he had parked nearby; Benny was ‘affluent in effluent’ you might say.
This day the progress of his spectroscope camera was causing Benny some degree of concern. During its traverse the camera had identified a solid amount of thick plant growth down the sewer. Benny had no option but to contact his foreman for further instruction and soon after Arthur Barnsdale appeared on site to confer. ‘I told ‘im once already, that careless pillock at the flower shop,’ Benny opened up to his boss, ‘he’s been washing flaming seeds down the drain again.’ Shaking his head Benny looked more closely at the monitor as Barnsdale sucked on his pipe and nodded. ‘Them plants down there, d’ya see ‘em Arthur, them are bloody big orchids. Aye, t’warmth and fertiliser have made ‘em grow monstrous, no wonder we’ve got a blockage.’ he went on. ‘If we rod now, the buggers will only bounce back like last time, they’re like flaming rubber them are. I tell you straight Arthur, we’re severely clogged up, aye clogged up lad, that’s fer sure.’
It was clear that during its traverse of the old sewer, the camera head had become jammed in the foliage and now seemingly deemed by Benny to be un-retrievable. However, his technical summing up and acceptance of the situation amused Barnsdale. He blurted to his boss, ‘Now ‘t’ bugger’s stuck fast can’t think we’ll ever shift the sod. But the good news is,’ he went on, ‘I could mebbie sell t’ flowers back to ‘em at flower shop,’ Suddenly, a broad smile appeared on his grimy face.
Reach for the Skylight
Number 72 Monks Cloisters in Melcaster wasn’t empty for long before the Fishwicks moved in, Squadron Leader Jack Fishwick D.F.C. and his wife Sybil. One door down the street at number 74, Mark Ackroyd and his wife Janette were completely ignorant of their new neighbour’s wartime exploits as a Spitfire pilot until one day Mark had occasion to pop round in order to introduce himself formally to the couple next door.
As the door opened Mark was quick to say, ‘hello, I’m Mark your neighbour from number 74.’ Standing there in the doorway stood an old but distinguished looking man, his face covered with a pleasant grin. ‘Ah, do come in dear boy,’ he said in a friendly tone, ‘Jack Fishwick’s the name; I’m very pleased to meet you.’ ‘Me too Mr Fishwick,’ Mark responded. ‘Good lord you don’t have to call me Mr Fishwick,’ said the old man, ‘ it’s ‘Fruity’, use my old R.A.F. handle why don’t you.’
‘Fruity’ Fishwick was a tall and slim and Mark figured him to be somewhere in his mid-eighties. He appeared to be very active and still quite good looking for his age sporting a fading moustache and greying ginger hair. Passing the sitting room the two men craned round the door as Mark was introduced to his wife. ‘Meet the Air Commodore,’ he joked, ‘this is my better half Sybil, meet Mark.’ Mrs Fishwick looked up from her book and removing her half glasses said, ‘Oh hello, you must be our neighbour, so kind of you to call.’ After the introduction ‘Fruity’ led Mark upstairs to his study still showing signs of the recent removal given the number of piled up boxes in there. ‘Getting sorted’ he barked, ‘just need to commandeer yer tools for a few jobs, can’t seem to find my blighters, is that OK old chap’. Mark nodded in the affirmative.
On the wall the squadron leader had already hung an old picture of himself shaking hands with what appeared to Mark very like the former King George VI he had remembered from his childhood. Fruity told him it was indeed the King shaking his hand as he was receiving the D.F.C. for services during the last war. Not needing further prompting, he related to his neighbour how he had served on Spitfires before been allocated duties flying gliders over occupied France. The sortie was conducted during nightfall and he explained how they would silently drop commandos by parachute behind enemy lines where they would infiltrate German positions.
After a quite protracted but nevertheless interesting tale he opened a cupboard and showed Mark a string of medals in the centre of which was the ‘Distinguished Flying Cross’ which he had never seen before. ‘You must be very proud?’ Mark said, but looking away, the old man pretended not to hear. Also in the cupboard there hung a complete pilot’s suit with matching headgear, even his old intercom and goggles were in there too hanging on a hook alongside. He had kept them all those years since the last war as his own personal war museum.
Mark Ackroyd told him how fascinating his visit had been and turned to go passing a fading colour photograph of a youthful ‘Fruity’ sitting in his MG roadster in British Racing Green livery. He looked so young and handsome there sporting a large handle-bar moustache in his sky blue officer’s uniform. Not being able to resist, Mark said ‘Bet you pulled all the girls in that car.’ ‘Well, old boy,’ he chuckled with a twinkle in his old eyes, ‘why do you think they called me ‘Fruity.’
One day, back home, and not too long after their first meeting, there was an agitated knock on the front door of number 74; it was Sybil. ‘Please, can you come round right away,’ she said excitedly. ‘It’s Jack, he’s collapsed in the garage at the end of the garden.’ Responding immediately Mark and his wife shot round with her to find ‘Fruity’ laying there on the concrete floor with a swarm of wasps circling over his still body. ‘Phone for an ambulance quickly,’ Janette said, as Sybil ran to the house. ‘it looks as if he’s had an anaphylactic shock.’
Fortunately the hospital was only a stone’s throw away. Within a couple of minutes they were all relieved to have the paramedics at the scene who immediately gave ‘Fruity’ an injection. By the time they had taken him out on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance the squadron leader had begun to come round. He tried to speak to Mark in a feeble voice just as they were carrying him inside, but rather than excite him he told him he would see him after he had recovered.
Despite his age, it didn’t take long for him to get home and back to his usual self. Next day the Ackroyds saw him in the garden and over the fence were quick to enquire what exactly had occurred the previous day in the garage. ‘Well, first of all old chap, thanks again for saving me from ditching, saved my life you did, I am most grateful.’ Turning away a little for a moment he actually appeared to be embarrassed. Then he launched into his report, which began to have shades of ‘Biggles’ as he began an excited narration.
‘I went into the garage Mark to unpack some tea chests. Looking up I saw a blur of unidentified activity near the skylight. I grabbed a stick and poked a hanging mass of what seemed to me to be leaves or moss. As the sun shone down through the glass skylight I heard a loud drone above me and in an instant I was targeted by a huge swam of wasps. There seemed to be thousands of the little swines coming straight towards me but I couldn’t see them at first because of the strong sunlight. But soon they were at me, circling above my head for a second and, just like the old days in the kite, I felt I was under attack. Without any warning the blighters began circling right over me so instinctively I plucked up all my courage and tried to defend myself by flailing at them vigorously with the stick. Suddenly they were literally on my head and I felt more than one painful sting. Then I suppose that was the last I can remember until I saw you as I was going into the ambulance.’
By this time Sybil Fishwick and Janette had joined Mark in the garden. ‘Now Jack,’ she said, ‘don’t be doing too much, you’re not yet fully recovered.’ Turning to Mark and Janette she went on, ‘if it hadn’t been for your quick thinking, Jack might not have been here to tell the tale. Thank you very much for your kindness, such lovely neighbours. ‘Of course,’ she went on, ‘he really should have known better than to attack a wasps nest. He’s had anaphylactic shocks before!’
The Ackroyds were originally from Grimford moving to Melcaster when Mark took up a post as a technician at the university. He had married a local girl Janette and when their children were young Mark and Janette Ackroyd would leave Melcaster and head off to California. But this was nowhere near America. No, it was California in Norfolk which was also by the sea. They would always stay at a holiday resort called ‘Roxby Holiday Park’ established in the grounds of an Edwardian mansion whose stables and outbuildings had been converted into comfortable holiday lodges. The extensive grounds surrounding the house were laid to lawn for the children to enjoy games and what’s more there was a swimming pool and tennis courts along with a series of conservatories filled with beautiful plants; just the place to relax in whicker chairs and read. Nearby was the sea and California Beach, a lovely part of the world and it became the Ackroyd’s annual pilgrimage.
Most years, in the mid seventies, they would find the Marcus family there. They hailed from Wetwang in East Yorkshire, two kids plus Beverley, Mrs Marcus. If anything was going to go seriously wrong Dave would be right there in the centre of things, a modern day Monsieur Hulot. During their regular visits to Roxby, the Ackroyds were to see a lot of the Marcus family becoming all too familiar with Dave’s passions for boating and Morris dancing, not to mention the couple’s shoe fetish. In their chalet were lined up rows of the strangest high-heeled boots and shoes which made one wonder how on earth they ever managed to walk in them.
Dave was regularly out of sorts with his bottom and maybe walking in high-heeled cowboy boots hadn’t much helped. Confiding in Mark one day he explained how as a youth leader he’d lead many a walking expedition in the Yorkshire Dales often in inclement weather. Resting, he had chanced to sit on two many wet rocks, which over the years had resulted in a series of regular hemorrhoidal flare-ups. Mark winced at the detail, far too much information. Dave was a one-man disaster area. One of his passionate interests bordering on fanaticism was folk music and as a member of the local Morris he would practise the squeezebox outside his lodge at almost any hour of the day thereby risking intolerant remarks from other visitors. ‘Shut that thing up mate, or I’ll wrap it round your bloody neck,’ was a typical menacing threat overheard one evening. In fairness, it had to be said that a badly ‘squeezed’ rendering of ‘English Country Gardens’ was hardly an appropriate accompaniment to an early evening’s gin and tonic while watching the sun go down.
Each visit Dave would arrive with a new obsession. Their first meeting saw him with an expensive ‘Peter Powell’ kite, which, first time out, launched irretrievably into the top of a fifty-foot tree. On another occasion he decided to travel from home with a large boat strapped to the roof rack on the top of his pride and joy Morris Marina TC. The approach road to the Roxby site was rough and unmade, sure enough, the car’s front suspension collapsed. Luckily, fellow holidaymaker and Rolls Royce mechanic, Col Stansfield, was on hand that year to affect a belt and braces repair managing to once again get the Marina roadworthy.
Late one summer afternoon Mark walked with Dave a hundred yards or so to the local church, the fourteenth century St. Botolph’s, Roxby. This was the year of his brass-rubbing passion and Mark was persuaded to accompany him. He dutifully carried a large tube of paper under one arm whilst Dave gripped an old leather briefcase which presumably contained recently researched specialist equipment he had bought specifically for the task. Minutes later the two of them arrived at the church only to see a small group of mourners leaving after a funeral. An empty hearse was just disappearing into the distance along the lane. They walked through the churchyard and were fortunately just in time to catch the Rector, an old feeble looking man, still standing in the medieval doorway in his cassock and surplice. At once he reminded Mark of Alec Guinness playing the crotchety old ‘Rev Henry D’ascoyne, Rector of this Parish’, in the film ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’, maybe the site of him and the brass rubbing connection had triggered it off. Moreover, as Dave introduced the two of them to him, the old clerics voice and manner actually sounded almost identical, for as they moved inside he could well have spoken the famous lines:
[_‘The west window has all the exuberance of Chaucer _]
[_without any of the concomitant crudities of his period’. _]
They were in the presence of Rev Oliver Stancliffe, Rector of Roxby, who eventually, after some discussion and frequent whistling through his teeth as he spoke gave Dave permission. He would be permitted to brass-rub as many of the memorials as he wished provided that he left the church before it was locked at six o’clock. In addition, the Rector suggested he might put a substantial donation in the collection box.
Dave soon set to work in the chancel, and instead of doing some preliminary testing on perhaps a small plaque he went straight to the grave of a fourteenth century knight in armour, life-size at that. Spreading out what looked more like greaseproof paper he secured it with masking tape and crouching down to floor level he set to work on his latest passion. ‘I’ll leave you to it Dave,’ said Mark, and, seeing that Dave was totally engrossed, he didn’t expect a reply as he left through the half-open oak door before making his way back along the rough track to the holiday park.
Finding a suitable spot, he sat out on the lawn to read a book whilst casually looking at his watch. It was now four-thirty. Just at that precise moment, Beverley Marcus sidled over in her platform heels smiling. She asked Mark how they had got on at the church and he told her that Dave was well on the way to producing a life-size rubbing of ‘Sir Hugh de Bastwicke, knight’ and would be back with his handy-work around six when the church closed. She looked singularly unimpressed. ‘Oh God,’ she said, ‘he’ll have it on the living-room wall as soon as we get back to Wetwang’.
Half-past-six came but no Dave, and, knowing of the church curfew, Mark felt he had to see what had happened. Unknown to them all at this point, at the stroke of six
sharp, and in line with his daily routine, the verger had peered around the church door and seeing no one in there had promptly locked it. Regrettably, he had failed to notice the prostrate brass rubber Dave Marcus just executing a final rub of the knight’s sabatons well out of sight in the chancel. Dave had been locked in, suggesting the start of another ‘long (k)night.’
Mark Ackroyd approached the church and tried the door. Suddenly he heard a voice as from Heaven and, looking up, saw it was Dave peering over a parapet half way up the tower shouting hoarsely ‘Let me out, let me out.’ Having managed to make verbal contact Mark shouted up that he would fetch the sexton whom he knew lived adjacent to the church having seen him on his bike a few times. The old man came round with him shaking his head from side to side in wonder as the two of them walked quickly to the church.
Knowing he was about to be rescued Dave was waiting behind the door and, apologising, he politely thanked the sexton. Then together the two holiday-makers began to walk back to the park David explaining as they went how, after realising he was locked in, he’d simply panicked. ‘After trying every door and window in the church,’ he said, ‘I decided to climb up the tower in an attempt to call for help.’ His excited narration continued, ‘at one point I tried to ring the bell, I pulled on the rope but it lifted me a clear six feet into the air so I had to let go because I didn’t fancy being sucked up into the belfry!’ ‘Well, never mind’, Mark responded in a sympathetic tone, ‘at least Dave you managed get your ‘knight in shining armour’, out in one piece.’
Once back at his lodge he rolled out the long tube of paper across the floor to show Mark, ‘isn’t it fantastic,’ he said proudly, ‘well worth all the effort wouldn’t you agree?’ Mark didn’t agree but just nodded, in truth he thought the patchy attempt looked positively awful.
That year, the final and truly classic Dave Marcus story concerned him suddenly deciding to enter the site swimming competition. Rather than miss the chance of winning free cider for the week, he’d shot back to his lodge to change into his trunks. But sadly, poor Dave was in too much of a rush to dress properly. On his return he posed at the pool side in front of a line of fellow competitors with one hairy gonad on show, trapped outside his swimming trunks, and not the prettiest of sights. Standing there in complete oblivion it seems he hadn’t felt a thing and in an attempt to save him further embarrassment Mark Ackroyd whispered in his ear ‘Dave, dive in quickly.’ With a bigger splash than usual he disappeared into the pool. Fortunately, on his reappearance he seemed to have effected a suitably discreet underwater adjustment.
One day, back in Melcaster, Mark and Janette Ackroyd saw a small advertisement in the local shop advertising a static caravan for sale. As it happened, the people selling the van lived just across the road from them making it tempting to walk over and make an initial enquiry, which they duly did. The following weekend they were invited to view the static, finding it set in a farmer’s field on the edge of Hutton Cranwell village about five miles from the east coast. The caravan rested in an isolated position by the wall of a barn in a relatively exposed spot but the views from it were quite stunning. The sellers were currently renting the space from a farmer across the road who kept sheep and horses in the same field and on enquiring he seemed quite happy to let the arrangement continue. The children immediately loved it seeing it as a new adventure and consequently the Ackroyds decided to buy. At £600 it seemed to be a good price for their own place in the country with the added bonus of the seaside almost on the doorstep.
The day came for their first visit. Only then did they realise that drinking water would have to be carried from the farm across a field full of sheep and horses. If that wasn’t enough the contents of the chemical toilet would need to be regularly disposed of and that meant digging holes in the field often in bad weather, a loathsome task at best. However, being town dwellers at that point they’d hardly realised the real rural dangers that lurked and that some of their animal neighbours might have an agenda. In this particular case it was one horse ‘Troy’ and one ram called by the children ‘Rambo’ who would fast become their public enemies.
The van itself, although fairly old, was quite large and roomy. Inside was a comfortable sitting room containing a wood-burning stove on one wall with a pull down double-bed directly opposite. Behind a dividing bookshelf there was a small eating area which they intended to make into a ‘bistro’. Opposite was the usual kitchen sink, whilst through an adjacent door, was a bathroom and beyond that a large bedroom which as it worked out they would never actually so that became their dressing room.
The first flush of caravan life went well until on one particular visit the horse ‘Troy’ became a little too curious. He was a large black ugly looking animal, real breed unknown. The family called him their ‘pantomime’ horse for he looked for all the world like a theatrical prop. At any one time it wouldn’t have been a surprise if he’d split in half, his head coming off and his torso detached to reveal a couple of actors. There he was, all bony lumps and bumps walking with a gangling sort of amble.
One pitch dark Saturday evening inside the caravan the Ackroyds had all settled down to read when the whole contraption lurched violently to one side. It rocked back and forth for a couple of frightening minutes. Janette, Mark, and the children were wondering at this point if thieves were attempting to break in. Grabbing his powerful torch, Mark tentatively opened the door and gingerly panned round. Into the
beam came a large blurred figure and he held his breath. At that precise moment out of the darkness a black horse’s face thrust itself at him and he quickly ducked back into the caravan. Before he could shut the door ‘Troy’ had pushed his head right inside and at the same time making a loud ‘gee-gee’ whinnying sort of noise proudly showing the family a full set of yellowing teeth.
The kids were in hysterics as Mark pushed the large head back out, still struggling to close the caravan door. But the horse wasn’t planning to leave them alone just yet, deciding that if he couldn’t come in to join us he would instead lean on the van a few more times. Consequently, they had more buffeting, which continued for almost an hour during which time the family were made to endure the noise of a very long and loud ‘wee’ against the van. It would have sounded remarkably like the leak from a burst pipe had the caravan any plumbing to speak of. Then came his finale; the thunder-like noise of Troy breaking wind, which rumbled round the caravan fairly echoing through the night air. Shortly afterwards they heard him move off and everything went quiet again. How the Ackroyds managed to get off to sleep that night we’ll never know, but next morning they awoke to find Troy had eaten all the rubber from off their windscreen wipers.
The carnival of the animals was not yet over. Some while after, Mark had managed to bring along a fully charged car battery and with the skill of Heath Robinson electric lighting was soon to replace the Calor-gas mantles. This additional asset allowed the family to at last have television and they duly brought along a small portable from home. The reception was poor and after investing in an outdoor aerial one afternoon Mark managed to install it at the end of a long pole on the roof of the caravan. After a few tries and a lot of shouting they managed to get a credible picture as the antennae was permanently screwed into place.
Across the field, not a hundred yards away grazed a flock of rare breed Jacob sheep and in the middle of the cluster there was a large ram. He sported two long horns which stuck out like a ‘double unicorn’ if you’ll excuse the oxymoron. The Ackroyd children gave him the nickname ‘Rambo’ and were keen to keep out of his way. One afternoon, he’d obviously decided that the new television aerial posed some kind a threat, one can only wonder what runs through the minds of ‘silly sheep’; was this a ‘new ram in town?’ Once again the all family had settled down in the caravan for a card game played in front of the log fire when all at once ‘Bang’ and again ‘Bang’ into the side. They knew it wasn’t Troy because they could see him through the window across the field with the farmer and his wife (possibly auditioning for his next seaside pantomime). Startled, Mark looked out into the field and saw ‘Rambo’ a few yards away turning around and repositioning himself, which momentarily reminded him of Freddie Trueman preparing to hurl down a ‘Yorker’ at 90mph. The ram shot forward and with head down began ‘ramming’ the van yet again. Gingerly Mark went out to inspect the damage and he could see that already there were around half a dozen puncture wounds in the aluminium sides.
Meanwhile Rambo was still eyeing up the van for yet another thrust, the problem was how to stop him. Ready to defend himself, Mark shot across the field to an oblivious farmer Hodgkinson who was idly chatting to his wife and explained the problem, making him aware of the current attacks. ‘Daren’t tackle him myself John, have you seen his vicious horns?’ said Mark. Farmer John sucked on an old pipe while contemplating for a moment.
‘Never ‘eed ‘im lad, th’as now’t to be bovvered aboot theer,’ he retorted, spoken in his poshest Yorkshire. With that the old man strode over the field towards the ram and picking up a large stick he hit ‘Rambo’ four square on the back shouting loudly ‘be off yer bloody monkey.’ Simple, wasn’t it? It was obvious that Mark was lacking both the correct accent and technical farming now-how. After that incident peace once again returned to ‘Meadow View’.
Whilst returning from a trip to France with his family, Basil Worsnop called to see a cousin in London and somehow managed to leave his camera at her house. Normally he wouldn’t have minded but on this occasion the film contained all his holiday pictures, which he was naturally keen to have developed. Fortunately his cousin’s husband worked in the booking office at King’s Cross station. He rang Baz to say that he had found the camera and having securely packed it in a small box had put it on the afternoon train to Melcaster using British Rail’s ‘Red Star’ express parcel service, free gratis. He suggested that Basil might care to collect it later in the day at the station, which was only a short walk from his home.
On his arrival at the Red Star office he saw a van parked outside, the sides of which were intriguingly lettered ‘Granada Television.’ Inside the office, and standing at the counter in front of Baz was a man with a round plastic container on which was written in large white letters ‘B’HEAD REVISITED’. Curious, he leaned over for a closer look as the man handed it to the clerk who, after licking his pencil, looked rather quizzically at the blank page before eventually writing out a receipt. He tore it from a large pad and pushed it across the counter towards the man from Granada- land. On the receipt and clear to see was written in large capitals ‘BIRKENHEAD REVISITED’. Both the clerk and Basil Worsnop wondered why the man was laughing out loud until he explained that the box contained rushes for the new production of Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’ currently being filmed at Castle Howard, they were going by rail to Manchester for editing!
MICHAEL POWELL was born in Yorkshire in 1939. After a short career as a classical singer he spent thirty years as a university arts administrator. Married with three children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He and his wife live in retirement in rural Cheshire.
Still in a fictional region of Yorkshire we follow our young Grimfordians as they establish themselves in the cathedral city of Melcaster, having finally left for good the industrial landscape that was once their home. Many are facing new horizons, providing the reader with an additional set of anecdotal stories.