When I am Dictator – The Present Government


It goes without saying that, from the moment of my self-elevation to the position of absolute Dictator, and wellspring of this once-fair country’s return to its former position of pre-eminence as a really nice place to live, with decent people acting decently towards one another, those who are currrently leading us further downhill into the Age of Whiggery will be not merely deposed, but held in durance vile – and it’s going to be pretty damned vile, I can assure you of that – until such time as the manner of their disposition can be properly and aptly determined.

Given that Messrs David Cameron and Gideon Osborne, with the assistance of the cringing toad, Clegg, have acted towards this country with egotism, arrogance and a flagrantly reactionary spirit – not to mention behaving like absolute shits – something must be done to show the Bullingdon Boys, both elected and those few who will escape the cull that will inevitably follow, that their inbuilt belief that this land belongs to them alone is both ignorant, wrong and needs beating out of them with a high degree of irony, not to mention iron bars.

But the real problem exercising me lies with the fact that this Government has promoted so many selfish, self-centred, class-biassed, half-cocked and plain nasty ideas of how to punish the poor, the old and the ill for not being part of the Ruling Classes that there’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to karmically pure and utterly satisfying punishments for the evil bastards.

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When I am Dictator – Literary Necrophilia


I opened a delivery of books this morning and found, amongst other things, a book entitled Mr D’Arcy’s Great Escape, written by an American lady of the name Marsh Altman.

Yes, my friends, the literary necrophiliacs are at it again, once more disinterring the bodies of great and wonderful characters and heaving against them with their pale and spotty flanks, trying in vain to reverse Frankenstein’s gestation by dragging the spark of life out of an inanimate body.

This book is yet one more in the seemingly endless series of supposed sequels to or continuations of Pride and Prejudice. I neither know nor have the stomach to investigate how many times such a thing has been perpetrated, and will leave it to another to carry out this unpleasant and thankless task, much in the manner of the man who first came up with a comprehensive list of all the different Earths in DC Comics’ pre-Crisis Multiverse.

Looking at the blurb to this volume,I learned that Mr D’Arcy’s Great Escape offered High Adventure, Derring-Do, Unjust Imprisonments, Continent-crossing clashes and, that most Austenian of concepts, Globe-Trotting Asian Assassins.

As this is purportedly the first of a no doubt lengthy series of exploitive rip-offs lovingly constructed excursions into the beloved world of Jane Austen, I look forward to Ms Altman’s next offering, in which Mrs Elizabeth D’Arcy will undoubtedly be bitten by a radioactive spider, knit herself an immodest red and blue costume, and go swinging between the skyscrapers of the City of Bath.

When I am Dictator, there will not be such things. Any person harbouring notions such as this will be slaughtered out of hand as soon as they get within fifteen yards of a printers, and generous bounties will be disbursed upon production of the stripped-out hard drives from their laptops.

And we shall all settle down with a good book.

When I am Dictator – A Proclamation


At the peremptory need and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United Kingdoms, I, Martin Crookall, formerly of Burnage, Manchester, and now for the last 22 years and 8 months past of Reddish, Stockport, declare and proclaim my intent to appoint myself Dictator of these U. K.; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me to be vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different Kingdoms and Principalities of the Union to assemble in Edgeley Park, of this town, on the date of my ascension to be declared, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.

A list of such amendments shall be from time to time published hereunder for the greater good of these lands.

When I am Dictator, my first act will be to have Jeremy Clarkson shot at dawn. Unless I take over in the afternoon, in which case I will have him shot at tea-time.

A Literal Cliffhanger


Every year, in December, St Barnabas CofE Church, Openshaw, Manchester would hold a Bring and Buy Sale on a Saturday afternoon. As both my parents were then quite active within the Church – Dad being a sidesman, whatever one of those is – we would always be down there, with me running around checking out all the stalls and working out what I could buy with the limited funds available to me. An almost complete set of American Civil War bubble-gum cards for 3d was one coup I recall with pleasure: collecting bubble gum cards was always difficult when your parents wouldn’t give you money to buy bubble gum, and you hated the taste of it anyway.

One year, 1963 to be precise, things had entered the wind-down stage, when most of the assembled multitude had brought and bought and bought and gone, their husbands anxious for the football results. At this lethargic time, with incredible bargains available on an anything’s-better-then-nothing basis, I acquired a dozen or more copies of the Eagle.

I have the impression, vague though it is, that this wasn’t actually my idea. If it was my Dad’s inspiration, then it was a well-judged one. Even though Eagle was in definite decline from the heydays of the 50’s, when it had regularly sold 750,000 copies per week, and deserved to, it was still a cut above the run of boy’s comic: full colour, glossy paper, intelligent stories and some of the best artists Britain’s ever produced.

I tend to suspect it was a deliberate ploy on my Dad’s part to move me on to the next level of comic reading, and if so, it worked immediately. I asked for Eagle to replace the most disposable of whatever I was then reading, and from the first week of January 1964 until it’s death-by-merger into Lion in 1969, I was an avid reader.

Whether girl’s comics were cut from the same template, I wouldn’t know, but the formula for boy’s comics included the token story-without-pictures. In later years, Eagle would frequently include serialisations of the forthcoming Anthony Buckeridge Jennings book, but when I became a regular, the written slot was offering Horizon Unlimited, the adventures of a small-time charter plane outfit, working their way round the world, in three, four and five part instalments.

Immediately before Horizon Unlimited, we had had High Adventure, an eight part ghost story set in the Alps. My Treasure Trove of Bring and Buy back issues included four chapters: nos 2, 4, 6 and 7.

Cambridge scientist John Killick, run down after illness, goes on holiday to convalesce. On impulse, having recently read a library book about the incident, he goes to Chamonix in the Alps where, 70 years earlier, his grandfather Henry, a noted Victorian gentleman-climber, disappeared whilst attempting the still-unconquered North face of the Henker. Killick Senior was climbing with a fellow Englishman, Albert Blythe, a self-made businessman and ex-steeplejack: when their guides turned back in atrocious cloud conditions, Killick and Blythe went on and were never seen again, although the guides reported seeing a body fall past them as they were descending.

In Chamonix, Killick Junior is surprised to encounter an Army Sergeant of his own age, on leave. The soldier is Albert Blythe’s grandson (peculiarly, no first name is given!), drawn here himself by a press cutting about John Killick’s ‘pilgrimage’.

As the story develops, it becomes clear that, coincidentally or not, young Killick and Blythe are repeating everything their grandfathers did, culminating in an attempt on the North Face of the Henker. By now they have discovered two important facts: Henry Killick and Albert Blythe, who came from two different social classes, hated each other with a vengeance. And one killed the other.

By Chapter 7, the contemporary Killick and Blythe are climbing on alone, the guides having turned back in atrocious cloud conditions. Both are possessed by the ghosts of their grandfathers. Killick, leading, feels Blythe’s weight as a drag on the rope, threatening to pull him off the mountain to his death: on reaching a narrow ledge, he tries to cut the rope to free himself. Blythe, reaching the ledge, assumes Killick is trying to kill him and grapples with him. Blythe wins hold of the knife and Killick falls from the ledge, bringing up short at the end of the rope, twenty feet below.

The shock has driven Henry Killick out: it is John Killick, in mind as well as body, who dangles helplessly, but it is Albert Blythe who, grinning unmercifully, brings the knife towards the rope…

That was 1963.

I don’t know how often I read what parts of High Adventure I had, but each time I came to what was, after all, a very literal cliff-hanger, I would wonder how the story had come out. But there were no back-issue shops in those days, no comic book shops at all: the week after it had come out a comic was gone for good unless your mate had it and was prepared to swap. I knew I’d never finish the story.

Some time in the early 1970’s I finally disposed of my Eagle collection to a local hospital, the place all the old comics went to die. Little did I know I’d want them back some day, or how much they’d cost to replace!

But time went on. I wasn’t reading comics at all then, having outgrown them as you do, moving on to, successively, football magazines, the rock press and (rather later than you’d imagine) Mayfair. But a combination of unlikely circumstances and coincidences started me looking at the American comics again. My life has never been the same since.

In the late 70’s Roger Dean’s publishing company Dragon’s Dream, announced plans to reprint Frank Hampson’s Man from Nowhere Trilogy. The Man from Nowhere had run in the mid-50’s, and been reprinted in the late 60’s, where I’d seen the first two parts before Eagle’s demise. Naturally, I fell upon the reprints with delight, luxuriating in the quality.

Many years later, with a series of facsimile Dan Dare reprints under way from Hawk Books, I discovered that Manchester’s Central Reference Library had bound volumes of the first ten years of Eagle. This gave me the idea of writing a book about Dan Dare, an idea that was eventually still-born, although not before I’d started collecting 60’s Eagle’s, the ones Central Ref didn’t have.

It wasn’t as easy as it might have been ten years earlier, when Fantasy World in Hanley had whole years’ worth for sale as a package (didn’t have the room to keep them then, sadly). I got a fair few through a Liverpool-based dealer, who put me on to the Old Magazine Shop in Sheffield. My first visit there was in the summer of 1991.

I came back with a good run from 1963, including most (but not all) of my original Treasure Trove, and several more from the same time that hadn’t been scooped up by my Dad that Saturday afternoon. Back home, I sorted everything into chronological order, settled into the proper comics reading position – lying on your stomach – and plunged in.

After a time, I turned a page to discover a new serial, starting this week: High Adventure. I’d forgotten it ever existed, but the memories came back in a flash, including the most suddenly crucial one of all. I scrabbled for the pile I’d yet to read, counting desperately. Yes! I’d got the last part! After 28 years, almost, I was going to find out how the story finished!!

So I put the comic back and settled to finding out in good time. Checking back, I found I had the full run, all 8 chapters of the story, so even though I now remembered that cliff-hanger with such precision that I could almost have recited whole paragraphs from it, unseen, I wanted to read the full story, from the beginning, before approaching the conclusion.

It had waited 28 years, after all. Another half hour wasn’t going to kill me.

(You may, although I doubt it, wonder how Killick got out of it after dangling helpless at the end of the rope for so long. What he did was try to reach Blythe, the friendly Army Sergeant, by shouting to him in 20th Century slang, language the ghost of Albert Blythe wouldn’t understand. ‘Come on Blythe, you clot,’ he shouted, ‘Snap out of it.’ And Blythe did, threw the knife away and hauled Killick up. So they climbed a bit further, beyond the point their grandfathers had ever got, and therefore beyond the ghosts’ reach. After a bit they went on and completed the climb. So that’s all it took, calling someone a clot. I never thought of that.)

The Day I went to Worksop


The events and emotions of this story are all true.
Only the language has been enhanced for your reading pleasure.

As you may appreciate, being once upon a time a Droylsden fan took me all over the North of England, to all sorts of places you wouldn’t otherwise imagine visiting, not to mention those places where you would die of shame if you were caught dead.

In March 1997, the Bloods were playing away at Worksop Town. For the geographically uncertain among you, this is a town in North Nottinghamshire and, after due perusal of the Gazetteer, I determined that my shortest route led over Snake Pass and through Sheffield.

It being a fine day, and my having nothing of moment to do after finishing breakfast and the paper, I was under way about 10.00am. The first stage of the journey, as far as Sheffield, took its customary hour, depositing me outside the Old Magazine Shop outside Bramall Lane at 11.00am. I’ve been visiting the Old Magazine Shop in pursuit of 60’s Eagle’s since 1991, although in recent years Eagle’s have been rather thin on the market and I had to make do with a couple of old Annuals I’d not previously seen.

Adding in a quick visit to the Sheffield Space Centre (the local SF and Comics shop) plus a Diet Coke in a nearby pub as an excuse to use their Gents, it was noon before I was once more on my way. However, the second leg of the journey proved to require less time than I’d anticipated and, by 12.30pm, I was parked up, having found in turn, a) Worksop, b) the ground, c) how to get from there to the Town Centre and, more importantly, d) how to get back. I set off in search of lunch.

I shall assume an unfamiliarity with the township of Worksop in telling you that it is dominated by a single long pedestrianised shopping street that stretched gently uphill for over half a mile before reaching the Market Place. Having quickly availed myself of a baker’s for lunchtime sustenance, I sought an opportunity to dispose of the surplus paper bags before devoting myself to Worksop’s charms. However, to my surprise, though the public waste bins were copious in number, they had all been taped down, prophylactically, with black bin-liners.

This seemed unusual, not to mention counter-productive on the busiest shopping afternoon of the week and when I eventually overtook the two Council workmen who were industriously sealing all the bins as they (and I) went along, I did think to enquire, but being a stranger there I thought it not my place to interfere in civic affairs and passed on.

At a slow perambulation, I eventually reached the Market Place. I thought of indulging myself in local craft and culture, but if that Neil Young live bootleg CD proved to be faulty it was a long way to bring it back, so instead I set off back down the other side of the street.

Meaning no disrespect to Worksop but, even after a detour into the Co-op for their Gents, and the opportunity to pop in my contact lens, the truth was that by 2.00pm I had exhausted the town’s delights and was parked up opposite the ground. It being still too early to enter, I sat in the car and read until nearer half past, and then sauntered across the road.

Now in the light of what I am about to tell you, this may sound like gilding the lily but, whilst crossing their rough-made car park, I fell prey to an unusual premonition. I can only describe it by saying that it was like that moment when your new girl-friend is two minutes late for your first date and you’ve already begun to worry if a) you’ve got the right place, b) the right time, c) the right month and d) whether you’ll actually recognise her if she ever turns up.

Reduced to empirical evidence, the cause of this feeling was the absence of any sign saying Worksop Town v Droylsden (not unusual of itself), coupled with the absence of a Unibond First Division program from that morning’s Guardian. I hadn’t actually checked the calendar before leaving, but I knew where we were playing.

So I approached the turnstile, showed my Press Card, entered and bought a programme.

Like many such programmes at this level, Worksop’s consisted of a glossy cover, mass-printed at the start of the season for effective unit-pricing, with a die-cut square in the top corner through which you could see that week’s cheaper newsprint and the details of the match you were watching. And there it was: Worksop Town v Curzon Ashton.

At the risk of destroying any dramatic tension this story has, may I point out at this juncture that on Monday of that week, the League had wholly revised the fixture list, and that no-one had told me. Subsequently becoming programme editor for Droylsden proved a sovereign remedy against the risk of repetition.

However, back at Worksop, I was phlegmatic about the sudden revelation that whilst I was here, the Bloods weren’t. The most sensible course seemed to be to stay – after all, it was a bit silly, having come all that way for a football match only to turn round and go home, and besides, Curzon were a local team so, unless the Advertiser had some tame fan here, I could do a report on this game, although what sort of report it might be when I couldn’t recognise any one of the 22 players we would have to see.

It was at that moment that I recollected that there should be a First Division program printed in the programme. Hastily I thumbed and located said page, and there it was: Worksop Town v Curzon Ashton. But there it also was: Lincoln United v Droysden.

Lincoln! That was the next name on the road-signs approaching Worksop! With admirable decisiveness, I wasted barely thirty seconds before spinning on my heels, excusing myself at the turnstile, sprinting across the road, hurling my coat onto the back seat and taking off. And down on the main road, there it was: Lincoln 29 miles. The time was twenty-five to three.

Now clearly, I was not going to get there in time for kick-off. But, if I flogged it for all the car was worth, I might miss no more than 5, 10 minutes. I flogged it.

Fortunately, for most of the way from Worksop to Lincoln the road is either dual carriageway or else dead straight, which enabled me to maintain a constant speed a low double figures in excess of the officially recognised limit. The road took me through the northern outskirts of Sherwood Forest, a national landmark I’d not previously experienced, which would have been rather interesting if I’d had time to look, or if there’d been anything to actually see.

Time moved on. Lincolnshire is flat for the most part, but the City of Lincoln sits upon the brow of a hill, or rather some massive primeval landslip. The famous cathedral rises prominently above the landscape, and the sight thereof on the skyline coupled with the shrinkage of the mileposts into the low single figures alerted me to consideration of the next problem: where was Lincoln’s ground?

Now on all away trips, I carried with me the current Unibond League handbook, which amongst its many pages of essential information includes directions to each member club’s ground. The book was in its usual place, the pocket of my coat so, whilst keeping both eyes on the road ahead I carefully extracted it from the back seat with my left hand, thumbed it open and perused the directions.

These were clarity themselves: from a roundabout on the A46 Relief Road, I was to exit at a certain signpost, proceed down Skellingthorpe Road and, after a certain landmark, turn right into Ashby Avenue. Of course one had to first locate the A46 Relief Road, but as this ran on the west – or Worksop – side of Lincoln, this was not of itself a problem.

What was a problem was the signposting. The roundabout I approached offered me the A46 Relief Road North to the left, Lincoln straight ahead and the A46 Relief Road South to the right. Of the exit I wanted there was no sign. Obviously I wanted to turn along the A46 Relief Road, but in which direction?

It was one of those situations where there is a 50% chance of being right and a 100% chance of being wrong.

Acting on instinct and ancient prejudice, I turned north. At the risk again of destroying any dramatic tension this story has, I would later learn that the roundabout I wanted was the first one south.

There were no roundabouts on the northernmost section of the A46 Relief Road, not even at its far end, where I reached a T junction allowing me to go either away from or into Lincoln, but not to turn round and go back where I had came. Entering Lincoln seemed best.

By this time, it was 3.05pm. Somewhere in Lincoln there was a football match I was supposed to be attending. However, I was now officially lost.

I drove on. A signpost right offered me the chance to aim for Worksop and the A46 Relief Road again, but I rejected this on the grounds that it would involve me travelling west across the City Centre on the busiest traffic afternoon of the week, a decision whose logic appears faultless until one considers that my course of preference was to head south across the City Centre on the busiest traffic afternoon of the week.

I drove on. It was now after 3.10pm. I reasoned that I couldn’t simply keep driving aimlessly in a straight line as this was getting me nowhere, so I decided to turn right at the next set of lights, after crossing the canal. Given that this was signposted Newark (A46), this seemed a bright idea. And there on my right was a football stadium! However, this was Sincil Bank, the home of Lincoln City, a Division Three team standing three years of unrelieved promotions above us and, more importantly, not at home today.

I drove on. I had now been broadcasting telepathic signals of stress, distress and frustration for 20 minutes, long enough for every slow driving bastard in Lincoln to have jumped in his car and manoeuvred it onto the road in front of me. With admirable expedition and an attention to road safety that would have looked good on the late Ayrton Senna, I was getting past the interference, although no nearer my goal. The Radio Five Live commentary game happened to be  Everton v Manchester United although, in the circumstances, the fact that Ollie Solksjaer had just put us one up was of curiously little consolation.

It was now nearing 3.25pm. I was steadily exiting Lincoln whilst seeing no signs of anything more encouraging than Newark (A46), when ahead I saw a signpost right for Skellingthorpe. Now I assume that, like me, you have not made a study of the nomenclature of roads. However, I have often noticed the tendency to name certain roads after the place they go to. It seemed reasonable to think that if there was a place called Skellingthorpe, that Skellingthorpe Road was so named because it led there, and therefore if I found Skellingthorpe, I might just find Skellingthorpe Road.

As logic goes, this is very definitely of the order known as Clutching at Straws. However, I would proudly refer you to the fact that, after turning right at said signpost, and right at the next similar signpost, there it lay ahead: Skellingthorpe Road.

I raced along Skellingthorpe Road, conscious of the fact that my troubles were not yet over. My directions envisaged that I would be travelling down Skellingthorpe Road whereas I was actually travelling up it. The landmark that would signal the approach of Ashby Avenue would therefore be of no use to me, so I had to drive at the best speed compatible with both extreme haste and the ability to undertake a sharp left turn without somersaulting the car more than, say, twice.

Ashby Avenue came up, I turned, I pulled up outside the ground of Lincoln Cricket Club and Lincoln United Football Club, I grabbed my coat, I ran in at the gate. Of course the cricket pitch came first and I had to run round that as well. At 3.30pm, a mere one-third of the way into the game, I ran into the turnstiles.

Literally. The clang of my thighs rebounding off them alerted the gatekeeper to the arrival of no doubt his last paying customer: his hard luck as the Press Card came out again and I entered.

At that very moment, as I was buying my second programme of the day, there came from within the sound of cheering; moreover cheering of the kind that any football fan of experience will instantly recognise as indicating a goal had been scored. “What’s the score?” I asked.

Bearing in mind that, at this point, Lincoln were a runaway second in the Division and all but certain to follow Radcliffe Borough up, where as we were a piss-poor mid-table team who had been beaten 2-1 at home not three weeks earlier by our hosts, you will see that my question was a loose translation of the query, “How many have you got so far?”

The score was Lincoln United 0 Droylsden 1. I arrived at pitch-side just in time to see the lads finish congratulating Geno Ashton and return to their own half.

And the final score of this momentous game that I had worked so hard to reach?

Lincoln United 0 Droylsden 1

The events and emotions of this story are all true.
Only the language has been enhanced for your reading pleasure.

Pay For All – Chapter 1


CHAPTER ONE

Afternoon mist hung in the trees surrounding the small Chapel in the big Cemetery, dimming the air until only the absence of sodium street lights prevented the scene from resembling an October evening: not all that different from a March afternoon, then.

Inside, the Minister, his voice indelibly marked by an East European youth, looked out at the mourners, folded his hands, and began his practiced service with the words, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the life of Brian.”

Thirty faces froze into prayerful expressions, the common theme being the devout beseeching of whichever deity came to hand that no-one giggle, or I’m going to completely corpse.

Fortunately for the soul of the departed Brian Andrews, the service was in no other way memorable, leaving the mourners, Richard Worthington and his wife Judy among them, to concentrate upon a respectful send-off.

Back into the damp air, still suggesting that, at any moment, an ageing Peter Cushing would appear, pursuing a young blonde in an open-neck nightie, the Worthingtons guided their agreed posse around the corner to their parked Volvo, for the surprisingly long drive to the graveside. Richard and Judy – who had heard every joke there was, who would have positively delighted in one that hadn’t previously been used on them – were amongst the first not to refer to that dangerous moment. John Wetherall had no such inhibitions.

“Bloody typical of Brian,” he offered.

“I didn’t know where to put myself,” put in Charlie Harris.

“Not a problem Brian ever faced,” observed John. “Which, come to think of it,” he added, “has a lot to do with why we’re here today.” Richard, still tall, increasingly lean, and showing signs of growing grey around the edges, winced.

“Still,” John finished, “he’d have been the first to have laughed.”

“Thank God he wasn’t there, then,” Charlie said. “Cos if anyone of you had laughed, I’d have gone, and it wouldn’t have been a pretty sight.”

“Charlie,” said Judy Worthington – similarly tall, but of more generous build than her husband, with long fair hair that she was still trying to arrange decorously inside the collar of her best coat – “you have never been a pretty sight at the best of times.”

Three of them laughed, Richard merely adding a polite smile to the mix as he thumbed the car key to release the locks. In the years since he had drifted into Judy’s circle of friends, on his return from Chester, he had met Brian from time to time without ever really getting to know him. He was well aware that Brian was known for putting it about a bit, and from the areas of personal history that Judy still refused to share, had the benign suspicion that some of it had been put near his wife at one point. But as long as as any putting had been confined to the period between her divorce and the Christmas he’d first taken her out, his interest was no more than prurient.

The graveside ceremony, brief and simple as it was, was affecting to all of them. Brian had only been forty six, and if most of his assembled friends and colleagues were younger than that, it was not by so much that they could afford to feel proof from the winds of mortality. Richard, five years behind, seemed more affected than most. Judy, who knew it was not the prospect of death being somehow catching that was getting in her husband’s eyes, edged him forward quickly to toss a handful of token earth onto the coffin before pulling him away.

“Come on,” she said softly, “we don’t need to hang around. Brian wouldn’t have still been here if it was someone else.”

Richard smiled, though it didn’t rate the name. “Sorry,” he said, with some difficulty.

“What are you saying sorry to me for?” Judy asked. “It’s not three months since your Dad, you’re allowed, you know.”

Mike and Sally Stowell followed them away from the grave, Mike stamping his feet a little, as if to remind everyone that not only was it cold, and wet, but here was someone here with a genuine claim to be considered nearer the grave than Brian had seemed to be, and that a couple with their own transport ought to be offering to take the oldest mourner off to the pub. Especially if, now Brian was no longer supporting Mike’s profits, his bereft mates could make a fairly immediate contribution to takings by way of a wake. In these times, you took what you could get.

“You’re heading back to the Dragon, I hope?” Mike rumbled. Richard, lost in his own thoughts as he was, surfaced quickly enough for a warning look at his wife but she was already agreeing.

“If you don’t want to hang around,” Sally said, noting Richard’s expression, “could you give us a lift? We can start getting the food out.”

“Ham sandwiches?” enquired Richard, but it was under his breath and no-one except Judy was listening to him anyway. One of her feet got tangled up with his long enough for a boot-heel to do damage to whatever polish was still clinging to his instep. Richard limped ostentatiously back to the Volvo, but as he was at the back of the party, no-one was required to notice.

“Don’t forget we’re taking John back,” he warned Judy, before unlocking the doors with the fob. She stood back to usher Sally in to the back seat. Mike, breathing heavily, hung back.

“Suppose I’d better get in the front,” he suggested, pushing his ample waistband forward as justification. Richard, with a grin that could have earned Jack Nicholson an extra $5,000,000 in his next movie, shook his head.

“Spouses in the front,” he said, waving John Wetherall over.

“What? Two big fellas like us in the back?” Mike protested.

“You’ll survive,” Richard said, making sure both pushed themselves into the car’s interior before he laid the seat back against John’s knees and ushered Judy in with all the care of a dealer in Mysen China wrapping a package for a customer in the Gaza Strip.

“Thanks, pet,” she whispered, the softest of Geordie accents coming out.

“Think little or nothing of it,” he said, automatically.

“Oh, I do,” Judy offered, wide-eyed.

“Hmph. What did your last slave die of?” Richard asked.

“The same thing you will if I’ve got anything to do with it,” she said.

“That I can believe.” He rounded the car and slid awkwardly behind the wheel as he manoeuvred his head under the door frame.

They left the Cemetery. Richard turned left at the gate, and left again at the lights, onto the Parkway. The rain was now a mere scrape of the wipers and Richard turned these off. In the back, Mike grumbled at his confines, Sally told him to sit still, John asked that if they had to be crammed in like this, could Richard at least drive a bit faster, but he kept to a steady 30 all the way into Town.

By dint of being first back to the Dragon, Richard discovered he could get away with a three drink round: lager for himself, Landlord for John and a bitter lemon for Judy, who greeted it with a look of distaste. She had followed Sally to the nook at the end of the bar where, until the refurbishment five years ago, the pool table used to stand. Richard squeezed in beside his wife, bending his knees awkwardly to fit under the table and bumping her thigh as he tried to get comfortable.

“He’s not very generous, is he?” said Sally, eyeing the drink. “You want to get a gin in that after standing outside for that long.”

“Give over,” Richard said, “it wasn’t that cold.” He gave Judy a warning look that she chose to ignore.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll let you stand me one later, Sal.”

“Yes,” Sally said. “I reckon you need it on a day like this.”

Richard took a pull from his glass. Under the table, his hand found its way onto Judy’s knee. The gesture was neither sexual nor proprietorial, but familiar, or rather familial. Whilst he talked to John, Andy, Sarah and Bob arrived, to a look of delight from Mike. Judy chatted with Sally and Arthur, Mike started bringing out trays of sandwiches, which were indeed primarily ham, and the rest of the funeral party slotted in, talking at cross-purposes and cross-angles. Richard’s hand remained, a touch of security. Sometimes, when Judy turned to address someone on his left, her hand would rest on his arm for a moment, until she needed it for her drink.

Richard frowned. Waiting for a gap in two conversations, which was like trying to get onto the Mancunian Way in rush hour, he hissed in her ear, “I thought you said you wouldn’t be drinking.”

“One glass, that’s all,” Judy replied, sotto voce. “Anyway, it’s white wine, not gin.”

“Well,” Richard said, unmollified.

“I hope you’re not going to start treating me like a child,” Judy continued. “I’m not the first woman in the world who’s done this, you know, millions of us survive every year. And it’s only going to be the one.” Before Richard could mutter something unnecessary about how it had better be, she was into a conversation between Sally and Sarah about Brian’s last girlfriend, and he was being drawn back to his corner of the party, with Alec Morance asking something about how they were going to replace Brian in the Department.

If the pool table hadn’t been moved into a back room during the refurbishments, someone would undoubtedly have suggested a quick game of doubles, in honour of the deceased. If this seemed disrespectful, it could be understood in the context of Brian having been captain of the pool team at one time. This status had little to do with his often erratic cuemanship and much more with his ability to coerce people into turning up for away matches with their own transport. Of course, if Rumour – a well-informed if not always reliable fellow – had it right, the fact Brian was shagging the Landlady of the time couldn’t have hurt.

One time, Richard reflected, when his propensity for going in-off would have come in handy.

About twenty of them had come back after the funeral, hutched up on the seats or cramped in around the tables. Temporarily detached from any of the conversations, Richard tuned in idly to the buzz. For someone with Brian’s record, it was perhaps odd that only three women had turned up for the funeral, or perhaps it wasn’t odd at all when you considered that none of those present had featured in any of Rumour’s carnal bulletins.

Except, of course, for those old tales of years back that featured his own sweet, sanctified Judy, in respect of whom Richard had been industriously closing a blind ear ever since.

What were they on about now? And John was saying something to him and Richard lost the plot and the thread and slid back into another deep pool of chat.

“Go on girl, don’t think it’s a secret from me! Not the way he’s fussing over you about having a glass of wine. How far along are you?”

“About two and a half months, according to the Doctor.”

“Two months? I thought you were usually regular. Didn’t you start to worry when you missed the first one?”

“Well, yeah. Last month, when I was a week late, I made his coffee one morning and it made me feel so queasy, I threw up in the sink.”

“And that didn’t give you any clues? I mean, I know it’s your first, but it’s not like you haven’t got enough mates who’ve dropped them for you to have had a clue or two.”

“Well…”

“Go on, girl.”

“Wait a minute, wait. I don’t want him to hear any of this…  No, look, keep all of this quiet, but I was scared stiff. I didn’t want it at this time.”

“He knows, of course. I mean, it’s obvious, the way he’s been treating you all day.”

“He knows about that. I told him last night, and he’s over the moon, bless him. And don’t you go saying anything, it isn’t public knowledge yet, and it isn’t going to be for as long as I can get him to keep it our secret. I want as much time to go by as I can. He might not make the connection, but I don’t know about some of this lot…”

“You mean? God, girl! How long?”

“Long enough.”

“And is it?”

“…………………………you tell me.”

“Oh dear.”

“Exactly. Now shut up, for God’s sake, he’s turning round…”

Hoops for Hounds – Prologue


PROLOGUE

Four years passed. Not much happened.

As the days passed into weeks, and the weeks into months, and the months did their own version of the transformation of caterpillar into butterfly, without ever achieving the aesthetic effect of the lepidoptera, Richard Worthington’s memories of his Great Holiday Adventure began to dim. Not to the extent that he actually forgot anything that had happened during that extraordinarily brief time that he and Susan Westbury had been chased up hill and down dale – sometimes almost literally – but as such things always do, the recollection of the emotions, the sensations, the pains, these were gradually buried under the nacreous shell of real life and its demands.

Apart from the month in plaster, and the extremely personal questions to which his co-workers had subjected him on his eventual return to his employment, Richard had little to show for his experiences but those memories, and a fragile left ankle which would no longer stand the excesses of five-a-side football. Thankfully, it did not unduly hamper his enjoyment of the fells, though during those four years, Richard took care not to put his boots on in the immediate environs of Red Screes.

In much the same way as his memories, so too did his relationship with Susan also dim, and with about the same inevitability.

First to go was the physical side of things. True, the comrades in arms did enjoy themselves whenever they came together, but the effort of meeting – usually in Manchester, rather than Warwick – soon gave rise to excuses not to travel so far for so little. This gave way to a semi-annual exchange of vaguely informative letters, and then to the ritual of Christmas cards, though at least in this respect a certain passion remained, both Richard and Susan being so anxious to establish that their card had not been prompted by the arrival of the other’s that there was already a real risk of them posting their missives in November.

The fact that, eighteen months before this time, Susan had got married, put the final damper upon things.

Richard – with partner – had been duly invited to the wedding over the subtle but distinct protests of Mr Hubert Dean, who was, after all, responsible for the costs of the proceedings, but had been happy to discover an unimpeachable and highly convenient commitment to prevent his attendance.

It was not that he had fallen out with Susan or, as was suspected by her half-sister Daphne, that there remained any overt or even covert emotions to be abraded by the sight of his old comrade dressed in white and leaning on her father’s arm. Nor had it that much to do with Richard’s suspicion that he would be unable to get through the whole event without making some unwise reference to the fact Susan was marrying a Record Producer called Ray Charles.

Though there was some amusement to be had out of the fact that, just as Susan insisted on describing her husband by his full name of Raymond, her rise in the male-dominated world of business had led her to adopt the terser title of Sue: Richard did not find it at all easy to address his annual Christmas greeting to Mrs Sue Charles.

But no: Richard’s inability to attend the nuptials had rather more to do with one of the few things to have happened to him in the intervening period, in the shape of the delectable Jennifer.

Ms Cunningham  – a busy and progressive young woman with a career in the law at her delicate feet – had entered his life, or at any rate run her trolley into the back of his weak leg at the Deli counter in Sainsbury’s. It was to be one of the very few times Richard had seen this very self-possessed young woman look embarrassed, but as he had also seen the way her tumbling auburn hair framed her heart shaped face, the significance of her temporary confusion had been lost.

It was not that Richard was a natural at chatting up women in supermarkets, even when his ankle wasn’t giving him gyp in a manner that suggested someone with strong and sinewy hands was trying to tap a red-hot rivet through the bone. Nor that he was prone to picking up a new girlfriend before finishing with the old, in this instance a shy, quiet, Manchester United-loving blonde by the name of Lucy, who had been his semi-romantic partner for the past eight months.

But there was something irresistible about the delectable Jennifer: an air of self-confidence, a sharp suit obviously well-made and expensive, and an attention to everything he said when she bought him a consolatory coffee that led Richard, with characteristic self-deprecation, suggest the application of alcohol to numb their several pains (his leg, her guilt). From that point on, Lucy was on her way out.

As for Jennifer, she was only too pleased to find herself entrusted with the task of shaping and moulding an amiable, moderately handsome, seemingly intelligent and – above all – tall man. It is no surprise that the vast majority of bonsai growers are male, woman through the ages having had something far more practical than tiny trees to feed, water, light, shelter and – in short – train.

It wasn’t that she even had to work that hard. Richard had long since grown weary of being the butt of occasional jokes based on his notoriety as a suspected kidnapper and tabloid villain and was already conducting a prolonged review of his life and future. To that extent, the delectable Ms Cunningham was coming in at the intermission and having someone whisper the story so far to her before throwing in her lot with the leading man.

Richard had already taken as his text the words of the Bible that “When I was a child, I spoke as a child and thought as a child: now I am a man…” etc., although typically for him, he was acting on their paraphrase by the prolific Todd Rundgren.

Whatever the source, they were fine words, noble words, a testament to action! Lucy had welcomed his seriousness of purpose, encouraged his declared intention to study and retrain, and seconded his applications for fresh employment, but it was not until Jennifer Cunningham had been installed in his life in Lucy’s stead that Richard had succeeded in escaping the world of the lowly Accounts Clerk, in favour of the Motor Trade.

Not as a salesman, perish forfend, for that would have not figured in Jennifer’s life-plans, not to mention her social circle, but Richard had found himself elevated to the position of Company Secretary for a prosperous and independent car showroom in Sheffield.

Accompanying this elevation to a position of responsibility, importance and increased salary, Richard found his social circle being widened in the proper manner. As he had passed into his thirties, not having a fraction of the exercise he once had regarded as essential to a well-balanced life, he had definitely filled out. Jennifer made it her business to reintroduce Richard to the beneficial effects of sport. A keen badminton player, she teasingly converted her intended to a game that he had formerly discarded as being for girls, and had indeed put him through some frighteningly fast paces, fast enough for Richard to claim an attack of the old trouble. Her answer was to take him on as her doubles partner, where he could function well enough to climb the club ladder, not to mention derive social benefits.

Everything was on the up, yet it must be remarked that Richard had reached a point where he would not have recognised a catastrophe curve if he had found himself skiing down the far side of it, and that coins have two sides.

It was at this point that the fifth year since the Great Holiday Adventure began.

CHAPTER ONE

One minute it was the engagement party, the next it was, “You’re not serious?