November 07, 2023

Wasted City (CH15)

              start of  **WASTED  CITY**

👔👗The work's Christmas party was due to take place tonight; an affair of grand proportion. But to say that Neil was an ostentatious organizer of this over-the-top event was true and the opinion of some, the same said some never objected to their Christmas bonus. As well as an added lift in staff's pay-packet of a hundred pounds, they were also treated to this annual work night out. 
   The Bodden Bray hotel was its permanent venue - free bar, free buffet, free gratis all round. Not only was that for present workers but past employees (plus one) also; anyone would be a mug to miss it. Of course, this year had an added added-bonus. 
  For more than a decade, Neil attended partnerless: tonight he would be accompanied by Saskia. And if the word round the office was true, (one or two had casually met her) they were in for a treat.  But for the here and now; there was some shopping for the night ahead still to do. 

To Neil's dismay, Saskia had left it to the last minute to get kitted out for the party. A fortnight prior was the original goal, but her little cafe was doing great business with the lead up to Christmas and that saw her having to sacrifice some Sunday's too. However, this weekend was freed well in advance from cafe commitments, allowing ample time to enjoy it. And for convenience Neil booked overnight rooms for himself and Saskia in the hotel.
   Today would officially be their first proper shopping expedition together and as with most blokes; shopping with or for women always set them aquiver. The hope here was that it could all be done in the one department store; House of Fraser or Harvey Nichols usually catered to his tastes, and hopefully hers too. In, out, done. But whatever one she decided upon, quickness in satisfaction could bag them a longer lunch. 
   Before leaving his room, he stood counting a goodly sum of notes from his wallet. Usually his own spending was done via cards, but he liked to have a surplus in his wallet in case the day had any sudden change to it. Besides, he was a very generous tipper - something you can't do with plastic.
   Neil gently knocked on Saskia's door, before warily peeking his head round; God knows what state of undress she still may be in.  As he took a seat, she popped out from the bedroom with no hello, cursing that she couldn't find the earrings she had put down somewhere so went back into the bedroom for another pair, then located the desired ones in the kitchenette. She gave him a 'won't be long' promise while swapping them over. By now Neil had acquiesced himself to her last minute rushes (where she was now fixing her jeans again in a way that makes it hard not to watch - especially when she added a 'hup' to the jumping action). 
   'Just going to grab my coat, Dad...'
   God, he was weary just watching all her darting around and somehow knew this was just a little taster for how manic the day would become.  When she reappeared, he was pleased to see that she had wrapped herself up sensibly and not about to face the wind-chill factor in anything light or short. Like him, she wore a long, woollen coat (albeit mottled and boucle with nonsensical badges on the lapels) and thick bobble hat.  As much as they only planned to shop at one store, they would most likely have to walk a fair distance getting there due to dire London parking.
   'Ready?'  he asked her in a tone that indicated; are you sure about that?
   'Thought any more about what kind of dress you're going for?'  He was hoping to at least hear a colour she'd decided on.
   'Nope,' she said, pronouncing the 'p' of the word like a popgun pop. He raised - yet again - those expressive eyebrows and tutted. 
   'C'mon then... let the madness begin. Marcus is waiting outside for us.'
As expected, parking proved to be a plight, even with the addition of several extra designated zones for Christmas shoppers.  Simply finding a safe drop-off point from the chauffeur took twenty minutes and they had the comfort of calling him back to be picked up despite any time lag. But at this rate they would be lucky to fit in lunch at all; it was contingent upon her and her pernicketiness.
   Blessed with a beautiful dry sun-filled day, it had taken just ten minutes into their walk for Saskia's cheeks to be flushed with rosy winter-chill.  Her reason not to wear gloves always irked Neil, remarking that frostbite wasn't worth the risk for having a constant swiping finger at the ready. Gloves forever on, off, on, off would only risk the chance of dropping one's phone all together, she argued back. But it felt nice to feel Neil's own gloved hand unexpectedly reach to catch hers as they walked as passersby glanced in their direction. She had an innate prominence of both wanted and unwanted attention as the street thronged with swarms of Christmas shoppers. He was never fond of Saturday afternoon people with their shoulder-to-shoulder bumping and dodging, cursing and apologising as it was, never mind seasons greetings added in the mix. But... a promise was a promise.
   It helped him not, mind you, that she didn't quite stick to their plan, just having to buy a few perfect little gifts displayed in windows, for others. Rarely had she the opportunity of deep-London shopping.  While she smelled of a mix of tester perfumes, he smelled of Ultraviolet Man and growing impatience. It was time to curb it and get her own shopping done.

A floor aide, introducing herself as Sophie, greeted them.  The dress, the dress, the dreaded dress! So many hung around her that Saskia even doubted if this Sophia would know where to start. She incited Neil to sit on a luxury sofa, (while Christmas carols bleated mercilessly from hidden speakers) as Saskia was guided towards rails with attire that may suit her. Picking colours that complimented blondes, (which was seemingly the whole spectrum) eventually the selection had been whittled down to three. It was a bit of a relief for Neil to see her taking them into the fitting room. He expected to be lunch-bound within ten minutes. Mug. 
   What in God's name was taking her this long in front of a mirror? Half an hour. Half a ruddy hour and still no sign of her!  An accompanying 'victim' sat across from Neil, waiting for his missus to reappear, and they exchanged nods and witless expressions.  Both their heads whipped round at the sound of footsteps, but it was the other bloke who, at last, was granted liberation. As he made his way to the till with his wife, he threw Neil a commiserating smile. Seriously. How much longer?
   Neil started to randomly hum tunes out loud to mask the Christmas tosh surrounding him, convinced it was getting louder.  He was so fed up that he started venting his annoyance by talking at the mannequins next to him.  At this (slow) rate, there would be more chance of one talking back than Saskia having made her mind up!  But they seemed to have heard his plea. Out she comes for his opinion, wearing a very becoming lilac dress.
   Neil's face was blank. The outfit didn't quite receive the response hoped for.  
   'Well, what do you think?' she asked, while Neil's lips thinned into a grimace. 
   'It's nice, but I can't really say with the— ' he pointed, indicating the very much out of place hat on her head.
   'Just concentrate on the dress - ignore the rest of me.'
   'Kind of hard when it's staring you in the face.' The easiest thing to do was to simply say perfect - and they were out of there, ending all this festive-anguish. But when he's asked for an opinion, he delivers it.  Saskia gave a frustrated sigh.;
   'Yes, but the hairdressers not coming till five o'clock, and my hair's a mess right now, so it's staying on!'
   'You could whip it off, just for a mo—'
   'Not gonna happen'
   'And the umm.....' He then pointed to her thick, heavyset boots, which had been mostly hidden under her jeans.
   As much as 'for fuck's sake' was bouncing around in her mouth for an exit, she gave a little tense growl at his stymied attitude and constant aversion to clumpy shoes.
   Sophie was finding their exchanges amusing. Men usually gave an abrupt, agreeable opinion (when in reality they don't-give-a-shit) just to get the hell out of there, and here was a father - a man awash with gentry - in the throes of boredom and shop-weariness now seeming to be pissing her off on purpose. Still, they were rather entertaining.
   Saskia turned and took the other two contenders from Sophie, holding one up either side of her.
   'So, which one of these do you like?'
   'Which one do you like?' he said straight back at her.
   'Well them all, obviously... gimme ruddy strength!'  She turned to Sophie: 'Would it be okay to quickly try the aquamarine one again?'
   Neil's head jerked up at the word 'again'. 'No, no, I'm not hanging around any longer.'  He'd resigned himself to the fact that lunch would be well out of the question now, but a drink may not.
   'Why not?' 
   'Look, Saskia, just buy the three of them.'
   Saskia's head shot round to him, scowling doubtfully. 'Don't be ridiculous Dad, the cheapest is £300!'
   He shrugged and smiled and gestured with his hands. 'It's Christmas!  You can make your mind up at the hotel - surprise me!'
   Saskia's skilled collaborator looked at her with highly raised eyebrows, and a 'you lucky girl' smirk on her face. Time for her to capitalize further on her sales pitch with the foot factor about to butt in. 'We have the perfect shoe to match every dress?' Spoken in the form of a question.
   But before Saskia had a chance to reply, Neil stood up and took over: 'She's a size 5. Give her a pair to match each dress, just make sure it's a neat looking shoe and not a... ' Neil waved a finger at her feet, words failing him, 'bloody... chunky type thing!'
   The girls' faces exchanged mischievous delight at his comical descriptive. 
   'You mean platform, Dad.' 
   'Whatever. Just make sure they're nothing like those things you galumph about in!'
   'What the hell does galumphed even mean? Is it a Scottish word?'
   'No, it was invented just for you!'
   As much as Sophia could have listened to them for ages, she felt it was time to interject. 'So, a three inch court shoe?' she suggested correctly.
   'Yes, but I'd like the turquoise pair in metallic.' Saskia said, already having checked-out the shoes on the sly.
   A very satisfied Sophia watched in glee as a daughter's excitability near knocked her father down in thanks. That was the thing with the opulent, they easily cough up to ease their day; she made a fortune in commission through Daddy's Little Girls.  Had Saskia not disclosed the reason for the hurried dress hunt, she would have suggested chucking in accessories too, but she left some regard for their busy schedule.
He offered to carry her bags for her - which was always the gentlemanly thing to appear to do in a deluxe store after purchase. It had been her first experience of upper crust spending, whereas he had shopped there regularly, but never with a daughter, so it gave them a unique, two-way sense of importance. If happiness could jump she'd be swinging off those diamanté chandeliers right now. They said their polite farewells and he hankered even more strongly for that quick-fix drink.
   The second they were out of there she freed him of the bulge of bags on his left, latched an arm through his and he smiled fondly at the gesture.
   'Sorry that took so long...' she said, feeling she had to fit in an extra dollop of appreciation, not having expected to be coming away with three outfits.
   'No worries,' 
   'I feel quite bad now we've missed lunch.'
   'Wouldn't have missed all that indecisiveness for the world,' he replied, keeping deadpan, enjoying toying with her. 
   'Picked out a suit for tonight, then?'
   'Three weeks ago.'
   'Dicky or straight?' she inquired, referring to his neck wear.
   'Whichever one's still in the pocket, most likely.' 
   'Sure you don't want to at least get yourself a new... I dunno... aftershave or something?'
   He gave a cordial smile knowing exactly what she was doing - trying to fit him into focus (hers having been £1,500 pounds worth of focus) too.
    Stopping her suddenly in their tracks, he turned his head to look at her, 'Saskia, this was your Christmas present from me, lunch was only a possibility - we got there in the end. Let's see if there's a pub we can fit a swift one or two in before Marcus comes back for us.' 
   Jostling through London streets - her looking tawdry, him chic - was becoming one heck of a challenge and they were having no luck in finding a muted pub; his head peeking in doors, then straight back out again. To be expected really, this close to Christmas. Neil had rarely been the type that tolerated standing in places where he didn't know the clientele. No. They had no option but to make their way back to the drop off point to be picked up again, and it was during that wait that she wished she'd owned a pair of gloves.

They hit the shower at roughly the same time. His water flow was strong and cool, meant for a zing-hit, while hers was hot and steamy, meant for a pore-cleanse.
   Out first, Neil inspected his suit once again, double checking that it was stitch perfect, though he always travelled with a spare.  He'd plumped for one he'd worn only the once before; a dark greenish-grey main colour with a mild tartan through it noticeable when close up. His usually sharp mind couldn't recall exactly where or when that had been, but he was certain it was less than a year old.
   As yet he still wasn't sure what colour shirt would suffice (he had multiple to choose from with him too) as long as it was not office-white.  For round his neck, he had chosen a ribbon tie with a slightly stronger black and green tartan to it. Sorted. All he had to do now was get dressed and check up on whatever stage of preparation Saskia was at. Men usually have a headway advantage over women, but she had exactly one hour until their dinner date. 

He gave three rapid taps on her room door. 
   'S'open,' she called, 'just come in!'
   Neil entered, and Saskia greeted him towel-wrapped on both head and body. He was just about to remind her of their tight schedule until the incredulous gawp on her face kept him silent.
   'Wow, Dad!,' she scanned him head to foot. 'You look... amazing.'
   'Uh ... thank you?' he frowned, not quite thinking he deserved the laudatory reaction but he took it all the same.
   'No, I'm really impressed!' She loved the shape of his suit: jacket slim fitted with just the right amount of sleeve peeping out: trousers tapered and settling neatly on the foot.  'And you're not wearing tan or grey shoes either!'
   'Oi!' he snipped back at her. 'Where do you think I get my clothes from - Sunday magazines? I'm pretty careful in paying attention to what's happening in the world. Sometimes. Life's not just work and waste paper bins, you know!'
   Saskia smiled rather ruefully at him, then hung her head, as in shame, and this puzzled him.  
   'What's up?' he asked.
   She averted her eyes from his and swallowed, catching his look again. 'It's nothing, I just didn't mean to imply you were some kind of old fogy or anything.'
   'Don't be silly,' he dismissed her worry away with his hand, wanting to give her hug to reassure her she hadn't, the silly mare.  'Look, we've got less than an hour to get to our table. I'll pop down and see how the function room's coming along and let you get on.' 
   'Okay, the hairdresser will be here any minute anyhow. Oh, before you go, Dad, could you do me a favour?'  She picked up a plastic tube from the table and handed it to him.  'Rub some of this on my unreachables for me.'
   'Huh? '
   'It's body glitter,' she laughed at his mystified look,  'just over my back and shoulders please.' She turned round, posing like a scarecrow.  
   Slowly and somewhat reluctantly, he started to rub the squidgy stuff over whatever skin was on view, being careful not to rub too near to the towel-fold holding her decency up. God forbid that dropping down!
     'Jeeesus,' he said as he performed the grim deed, 'I'll never get this shit off my hands.'
Saskia stared into a long wardrobe mirror and was taken aback. Rarely did she look and feel so refined, until her tummy grumbled in unladylike fashion.  The very second she checked on the time, Neil knocked on her door. 
   'Coming,' a rather half-nervous, half excited Saskia called to him and he backed up a few steps, in wait of her appearance.
   On opening the door a strong waft of scent escaped (since knowing Neil, she'd sprayed perfume liberally around as if it were air freshener) and out stepped his very own starlet. With a smile unable to stretch any wider, he reached gently for her hands and spread her arms out for a better look. 'Simply beautiful.'  
   The dress that left the other two party-deprived, fit impeccably.  It carried a sweetheart neckline and a criss-cross of open panels down each side. The waist nipped in neatly and dovetailed to just under the knee in full circle. Her perfectly-matching shade of shoe, with it's metallic-look leather, saluted the subtle sheen of the dress. Opting for the aquamarine (it had a prominent advantage from the start) was the best colour to accentuate her hair. 
   'What's this?' he asked, lifting the long herringbone plait that draped over her left shoulder, falling to the front.
   'An extension the hairdresser attached for me. Looks real, doesn't it?'
   Freeing her hand, he gestured with a finger that he wanted her to twirl.  She spun a few times, the hem of her dress fully out, causing a small eddy of air around her knees from the movement, while her plait (which almost hit him) settled back in its prime position over those light scintillated shoulders once she stopped. This simple, unadorned dress was the perfect compliment to his suit. 
   'You mean the world to me, you know,' he told her in full sincerity.
   She stepped closer to him and stroked down his cheek with the back of her hand. 
   'I know. You're a sweet old thing really, aren't you?'
   Neil did not commit himself to answer her evincing sentiment and drew his gaze directly downwards, needing a second to compose himself.  After a short cough he lifted his head, then jutted his elbow out to her and she readily took it.
   'C'mon kiddo, let's go eat.' 
   Inside the lift, in a heavily accentuated Scottish accent - which he knew made her squirm - he proclaimed:
   'Don't know about you, but I intend to get blootered tonight!'
   'Scottish for getting pissed?'
   'You're getting good at this game.'
   They looked at each other, then snickered ridiculously.

                  end of  WASTED  CITY 

October 20, 2023


        start of  **IMPERFECTION**

 🎠 Saskia's Fiat was still in decent running order, and despite the rather stiff exchange they had a few months ago on replacing it, Neil still dared to ask about its performance from time to time. Nothing too intense, just a mild, usually one-off inquiry in the hope it was perchance on its way out. But part of his 'punishment' for having had that dig at her beloved car and wishing its demise, came swiftly - just a few days afterwards. 
  While driving with him in tow, at every nifty left corner she took, she would deliberately and dramatically keel over, head flopping close to his shoulder  just to unnerve him. Of course, he soon became used to it and that particular silliness dropped, only making the very occasional appearance when he wasn't expecting it; like tonight on their way home from picking up their usual bottle of wine or two.  He was in the middle of telling her how unfunny that was and she really shouldn't be such an idiot in the dark, when bright lights and movement up ahead waylaid their conversation, drawing her into even more immaturity.
   'Oh, look!' Saskia said briskly.
   'What?' Neil answered, suddenly aware of fairground lights and movements peeking over some tree tops.  Now, around two yards closer, Neil could actually feel thudding vibrations from inside this potential rust-bucket; it seemed to absorb the pounding rather than bounce it off (decision made, she was getting a new car like it or not!)  The child within her stirring, and Saskia indicated to go right, and he protested instantly.  
   'We've no time for this, I've got that lamb marinating!'
   'Oh, come on grumpy-lamb-chops, I think you'll survive being a half-hour hungrier!' 
   Neil looked at her askance, catching her determined smile in profile, sighed and succumbed, knowing he'd do anything to please her. Luckily she found a space despite the only luminosity coming from the fair itself.
   Just as they made their way over the gravel to the entrance, Neil squished a white trainer straight into that infamous muddy grass, forgetting that they were returning from a modern gallery visit, in casual clothes. As long as he didn't look down at his feet after each step, he might survive this. His presence beside her, however, came with a stipulation,  
   'I'm telling you here and now that my arse has never gone higher than the dodgems and won't be sat upon any time here!'
   'Relax, Raptor, we'll stick to the arcades.'
   Then a smell, all sweet and strawberry-like wafted toward them, and just a few yards on a strategically placed van selling candy-floss lured you over, the essence alone stopping you in your tracks. And candy-floss was no ageist but a clever temptress, as plenty of adults were walking about picking off tufts of their childhood, till only the stick was left. Watching the skilled seller twist and shape with ease, it took only ten seconds until that cloud of pink delight was in her hand.
   'Want one?' Saskia asked, genuinely considering he might. 'They have them in blue, too.'
   'Why would I want one?' he piqued, becoming a little piqued.
   She shrugged, with an expression of pure mischief that simply irked him more.
   'And you shouldn't either, you'll ruin your appetite!'
   She couldn't help but laugh at his response, he sounded soooo ridiculously parental.  
   'What am I... ten!' she scoffed. 'There's no weight to this stuff, just melts the second it's in, there'll be plenty room for that lamb-thingy you're making.'
   If things weren't sugary-bad enough for him, while merging into the thick of the fair in their search for arcades, she turned at some screams, gluing her floss to the shoulder of Neil's black leather bomber jacket; they had hardly been in the place five minutes.
   'Oh, for fuck's sake!' he said loudly, (forgetting there were kids around) and gave a loud sigh as Saskia lapsed into panic mode, feeling bad about it.
   'Hold on,' she said, rustling in her shoulder bag while the floss, still in one hand, was flitting all over the place. 'I'll get that off right away!' But the makeup wipe just stained the leather even more.
   'Och, it's in your hair too! Right... ' He snatched the pesky stick from her and chucked it out of harms way onto grass between stalls, 'that's got rid of that!' Saskia made no protest, just gave him a piteous look as he said,  'I can only imagine you were raised a very sticky child!'
Making their way through the crowd, colour jumped out at them from every near-blindingly lit stall.  Beats from typical rave-like songs thumped through their chest, while piercing screams entered Neil's head and stabbed needle-like to his ears. He didn't know why, but he felt rather nervous passing some of these huge, maniacal-looking rides - especially with the wind that whipped from them -  preferring constructions of the still and solid kind.  But Saskia knew from the arcades, juvenescence would still spread and make way for older heads when the body can't risk speed or height. 
   It took them a little while to actually locate the arcades which were sited at the far end of the ever-worsening muddy ground, and they entered the nearest one filled mostly with old-school-type entertainment. Even Neil, old as he was, felt retrospectively suited here. And Saskia jumped for joy with excitement at a vintage two-penny falls machine and cashed two pound coins into pence, leaving Neil to amuse himself at the bandits, where he eventually come across one he could more or less associate with his underage pub visits.
   After a quick £20 worth of what he called hee haw (Scottish vernacular for nothing), Neil re-emerged at Saskia's side to check up on her luck. Every so often he heard her winning coins, and was immediately rapt by the challenge before her.
   Bringing his architectural side to the fore, he carefully studied the way the coins had settled. Her monetary plight had her down to her last two coins, and the pile through the glass in front of her teetered on the brink of throwing themselves off the edge. If his calculations on the way the stud placements were fixed, she just had to drop a coin and let it land nearer the left and the forwarding slide (or slightest vibration) should do the trick.
   'Right there!' Neil tapped with his finger the slot to fire it down. It zigzagged down, landing perfectly for success, but the push bar only managed to make it ride over other coins. Now she was down to her last twopence piece. Success this time, surely? But watching it bump down with baited breath, all that resulted in was a mild shift at the front.
   'Again!' ordered Neil, 'It has to go this time.'
   'I've no more!' she screeched, frisking herself madly for a spare coin but coming up with nothing; there was no way she was leaving the win for anyone else! Neil popped his hands into his jacket pockets for a check, and while doing so she in her frenzy plunged hers into his front jeans pockets, and with blithe unconcern was brushing his penis with her fingers in her mad search to find that elusive coin! He just stared at her in disbelief and she drew them free. 
'What?! I can't leave it like this!' she squealed. 
   'Calm down, woman,' he tutted, 'there's one at your feet - look!' By Christ, the girl was irrepressible!
   She quickly picked it up, rubbed it off her lapel for luck and shoved it down the same 'winning' slot.  Even Neil's heart was in his mouth. 
   Nothing but a shuffle closer to the edge.
   'What!' he said, long and loud.  'That should have dropped... sod this!'  He twisted his head around, checking the joint out. Everyone seemed transfixed with their own battles in the arcade, so gave the unjust machine a thud with his fist.
   'There you go!'  
   A hail of twopence pieces tumbled loudly into the winning dish near her knees, and she grinned hugely at the dastardly deed. There he was, this multi-millionaire thumping a machine for a pittance so his daughter wasn't disappointedly duped.  'Bloody thing's probably fixed with magnets!'
   She scooped her 'win' into her pockets, contented enough even though she didn't even break-even. They'd go into the charity jar at the cafe.

Their venture after the arcade led only to the paltry stalls on their way out.  Feeling elated, (Saskia scored surprisingly well at the rifle range where she trounced him) she walked with a stuffed-something-or-other under her armpit for the collective price of £12.  The furry horse-like thing would no doubt have cost a pittance to manufacture, yet she still felt it money well spent.
   'What is that anyway?' Neil asked, puzzled by its appearance. 
   'It's a unicorn, got a gold horn coming out of its head - look.'
   Hmm... doesn't look much like it to me. Anyhow, you're lucky. In the seventies you won a gonk.'
   'A what?'
   'Gonk', he repeated, bringing unfortunate tubular hand movement in on his description. 'Basically it was a toilet roll tube with some fur wrapped round it and a paper face stuck to it.'  
   'What was it suppose to do?'
   'Nothing. Just stood there staring scarily at you. Think my mum eventually used it to clean her blinds.'
   Saskia smiled, enjoying these strange tales of yore. He often brought his mother up in his memories though asking of her out of the blue could noticeably upset him. With his parents splitting when he was young could upset the balance of his loyalty. Though his mother never bad-mouthed his father, nor interfered in their relationship, Neil still felt a guilt factor for ever having trusted him.

Just ahead of them while making their way back to the car (dinner would be extra-late tonight!) a woman was trying to exit the grounds with her grandson, but the boy was protesting and pleading with her to let him on this certain ride.
   'But look, Nana...'  He stood in front of a paper height gauge glued to a post. 'I'm tall enough for this one!'    
   'Yes, I see that,' she emphasised, 'but it also states that you're too young to go it alone. I really couldn't stomach going on, son, I told you that before we even come here.'  The agreement was that dear old grandma would only partake in things that didn't include velocity nor heights.
  'Please, Nana! All my friends at school have been on it.'  
   The older lady - a woman in her latter fifties - stood and watched in terror at the vicious speed and twists of these lethal-looking contraptions; even the carousel had looked too rough for her liking.
   'I'm sorry, Simon, it's not happening. Come on... let's some ice cream or rock candy.' 
    The look on the little lad's face radiated devastation, and she was sure there was going to be guilt-inducing tears to follow; sugar was no trade off, no substitute for the thrill of his life. 
   'I'll take him on!' Saskia, said with alacrity. 'Can't have him being the odd one out in class now, can we?' 
   'Oh no, really, I couldn't possibly— '
   'Nonsense,' Saskia said, taking the situation in hand by slinging her toy into Neil's chest and hanging her strapped bag over his head to hold too. Grabbing the boy by his sleeve, she led him through the barrier before his over-fussing nana could do much about it.
   'I'll have to pay for him! ' she called after them.
   'I'll get it!' Saskia called back.   
   The young lad's face lit up. Not only had he just met his own Joan-of-Arc-in-a-park, but she was a babe - the kind of girl boy's on the cusp of teenage-hood giggled senselessly over. Out came his phone for a selfie, lest his friends think he was bullshitting them! 
   'Zip that phone safely before the ride takes off - put it in your chest pocket!' The uneasy gran called out to him. Thirty seconds later they took off with a mighty whoosh!
   Neil just stood there like a lemon next to the woman, adjusting his 'handbag' to the front, an oversized smile on his face.
   'It really was nice of her to take Simon on the ride. I told him it was out of the question before we even came here and he still chanced his luck.'
   'Kid's eh, what are they like?' Neil quipped back, as if he was some sort of expert.
   'Mind you,' she continued, 'it must be a little less worrying with your granddaughter being that bit older.'
   'Oh, she's not... ' He suddenly stopped his correction, guessing the changing lights and shadows did his age no favours, '...afraid of heights in the least.' It was all he could think of to fill in with. 
   During the pleasantries with the woman, a small fountain of what looked and sounded like nails or rivets hit the barrier enclosing the ride. On further inspection, he saw it that it was a spattering of twopence pieces.  
   Coming off the ride jelly-legged and adrenaline-rushed, the beam on the contented little lad's face was well earned.  Job done, thought Saskia. The woman once again thanked her and gave Neil a fond goodbye.
   'Here...' he threw the shoddily stitched unicorn for her to catch, and as he did so she noticed a silly grin on his face. She had to ask;
   'Okay. What's the Cheshire-cat face in aid of?'
   'I'm pretty sure she was chatting me up.'
   Saskia froze to consider this, then jerked her head up to look at him.
   'Really? Mind you, you two did look cozy, even from high up. You could have been in there, Dad!'
   'Nah!' he shook his head, 'wouldn't have worked.'
   'Why not?'
   'She thought you were my granddaughter.'  
   Saskia laughed, then put on a deep voice. 'Raptor!' she teased and gave a yelp as Neil got her in a sudden headlock and knuckled her skull. It was an impulsive move on his part; quite beneath him to show such ribaldry in public. Freeing her head, he put an arm around her shoulders and walked on.      'Besides, I've no time for another woman in my life - not with you around!'
   'Phew!' She mocked swiping sweat from her forehead, not quite realising how potently he meant it.
   As for his daytime hours he seemed to be conforming, building layer after layer of the homey, unscripted life he once knew. He'd enjoyed his evening far more than he'd dreaded it and was rather sorry to be leaving all the chromatic and recrudescence behind them. Tonight was a fifty minute lesson in fun - even with her panic-stricken sexual assault on him - despite the only things he was taking home were an empty stomach and mushy-muck from his shoes and she a bout of relief.
The over-marinated lamb was too late to prepare, so The Bamboo Panda Chinese takeaway had taken over for tonight's choice of meal. The giggles were very much still with her but intensifying now as double-gauged glasses of wine were making up for lost time. Saskia sat by Neil's feet on the floor as he bent forward from the settee, laptop on the coffee table, moiling at some next-day scheduling. But nothing of interest on TV or her phone gave him the scope needed for full concentration and he had no choice but to acquit himself due to her endless chatting. 
   'Can't you amuse yourself for ten minutes?'
   'Nope. Bored. Besides, you said you didn't have any catching up to do.'
   He sighed and slowly folded down the screen. 'Old habits. But you're right. I did.' Nothing was so imperative that it couldn't wait.
   Quickly, she turned round on her knees to face him, one arm draped over his left  knee, the other sipping away at her wine. Looking up at him with those over-mascara'd big green eyes. 'You work too hard. All you'd achieve by doing that now is fitting in an extra coffee in the morning.'
   Gently he brushed a stray bit of hair from her eyes. Even yet, there were times he still couldn't believe just how radiant she looked, how mind-blowingly immersing she could be. Then he took sudden rise, giving Saskia cause to quickly swoop her wine from any spillage on the settee.
   'Wow, Dad! A little warning wouldn't have gone amiss - nearly caused a map of Bali on the couch! Hey, are you okay?'
   'Bit of a headache, actually. You know I don't mind you staying up, but I'm off to bed.'
   'Oh,' she frowned, he rarely complained of such. 'God, I hope all that fairground noise has helped do that... '
   'No, it's more likely to be the wine. We got through almost three bottles.'
   'I'll get you some paracetamol.' 
   She stood to head to a kitchen drawer, but he gently grabbed her wrist as she tried to pass. 
   'No, really,' he said, pulling her into a hug, 'it's fine, I'm fine... I'm always fine with you, you're all the medicine I need, just don't know the right dosage, I'd probably be tempted to peel the label off, - then where would we be?'
   Saskia frowned, pulling back to look at him. 'Dad... you're sounding gibberish, I don't know what on earth you're on about. Are you sure you're okay?''
   A plaintive smile crossed his face and he made a dismissive gesture.  'Ah, just ignore me. Think I might be a tad too drunk. I'll see you in the morning ... strong coffee.' He kissed her head, headed off and she watched until he slid under the sheets, making just a small bump under the spacious king size, where he lay staring at the nighttime sky. 
   Picking up the TV control, she lowered the volume and did her own staring at nothing in particular, trying to fathom out his drunken bosh. Then she shook the puzzler - and it's feeling of something left unsaid - from her mind and made a latte to take to bed. One thing was perfectly fathomable; goodnight's were getting harder.

            end of  **IMPERFECTION**

October 11, 2023


 📡 On his 56th birthday last year, he spent the whole day at work with not one iota of a hint to anyone that it was so. For his 57th this year, he decided he would push the boat out. Literally.  It seemed forever since the 'Sirena' had last passed along the Thames, and at Saskia's insistence that he had to mark the day somehow, he suggested they do just that. It had an upper function deck with room to facilitate a party of ten people, which was ideal as Neil only ever permitted the closest friends on board.  At one time he never skipped a birthday on his boat, it was a regular occasion when he was married, but despite the long absence he had it maintained and managed at a docking marina - a kind of nursing home for unwanted vessels with can't-be-arsed-with-it-now owners. He gave permission for the business to run it for engine and structure purposes four times a year, but in true probability it would be more like a dozen times.  
   So that was another money-spun buy Saskia was becoming inured to; gloriously rich people and their 'Oh, by the way, I've just remembered - I've a £100,000 boat tucked away somewhere, let's take a trip on it' - as if they'd just remembered nonchalantly that there was a packet of biscuits tucked away at the back of a cupboard.  Still, excitement loomed in a hard-to-contain fashion; this was to be his celebration, yet she was the overexcited one.  A while back she'd been perplexed; what do you buy a man who wants for nothing for his birthday?  A card, company, and the night remaining dry would be enough of a gift, he said. Nah. It needs to be stated personally too, she quietly mulled to herself.
   The part of the Thames he planned to journey along was scenic for a good few miles - his favourite sight being willow tree branches bowing down to bob on ripples, and houses along the river's edge had a glorious view of the boats that passed; a perfect accompaniment to garden Pimms and cucumber. 
   Neil also suggested to her to bring a friend for company (as he invited six of his own along), but weekday nights were unsuitable. As was she, most of her friends were at the latter side of twenty, and mostly married with children, and as she was one of the few that shuddered at the thought of babies (she'd never go gaga at all that goo-goo malarkey), so she was happy to endure a bunch of wrinklies instead of mini-shit machines for one night.  A car was to be sent to pick her up from the train station rather than straight from work (which she deemed would be 'embarrassing!), and it was only right she enjoyed a pre-drink with her father (who couldn't really wait to vaunt her off) while on board too.  A licensed driver from the marina was hired to steer the boat, allowing him to savour his night of endless champagne.

Tentatively, she climbed aboard, Neil holding her hand as he commented how fetching she looked in her flowing turquoise dress, though not quite enamoured with shoes looking unsuitable for climbing deck steps, or even dancing in. This was her first experience on a river boat, and it was less wobbly than she'd imagined. In fact, it felt comparatively as sound as solid ground. There was a mini-bar under deck and it looked relatively homely once you were down the steps. 
   Holding drinks while tagging along, he gave her a quick feel of the boat before the guests arrived - including a shot at steering, where she felt assuredly smug, borderline upper-crust almost, as she floated by feeling  - without looking -  the wishful eyes of those on the river's paths as she passed.  Another little taste of luxury that began to teach her that money can buy happiness.
They soon came to a stop at a car park by the waterside to pick up Fran and Delia. A delightful couple, but an oddly paired one. Saskia couldn't help but stare at Fran with his head looking too big for the rest of him. Barely over five feet in height, with sand coloured hair and fuzzy chin, but with, strangely, very dark eyes setting below his orange brows. Saskia couldn't help wondering if he'd just had a nice little spin on his wheel!  
   With them, an unexpected guest lingered at which Neil gave a rather deflated sigh, you've gotta be joking, playing in his head, as he forced a 'genuine smile' at the same time. Delia, his mother (a good two heads higher than her husband) was a well groomed woman forever in flat shoes and a wind-defying beehive structured meticulously on her head. She kissed Neil's cheek with fragility and made a huge fuss at her introduction to Saskia, grabbing her hands, taking one step back and ran eyes up and down her.  
   'My, my, what a young beauty you are - that dress is adorable!' She gently slipped her hands free from Saskia's, a sudden serious face near drew her eyebrows to touching point. 'I was sorry to hear of your mum's illness, but it must be a comfort to have your father in your life now.'
   Neil had filled them in on Saskia before their arrival. As Delia's manner was rather stuffy and direct, he thought it best to try pre-damage limitation so she didn't pick at Saskia with her rather luvvie- darling tone, too much. Delia was a woman often mocked at the golf club when Fran was not around, but she was an old friend's choice of wife - what could one do? 
   'Neil, honey, you don't mind us bringing Howard along, do you?' She smiled and turned round to her goof of a son and flicked him under the chin. 'His archery class was cancelled, tutor felt poorly, so he was at a bit of a loose end.'  
   'Of course not,' Neil lied, an effing big one with bells on - the boy was a posh, post-Eton nightmare!
   'Thought he might be a bit company for the lovely Saskia.'
   'I'm sure he will!'
   The flared-chino and corduroy-jacketed un-invitee briskly shook Saskia's hand (his firm grip flapping the under skin of the top half of her arm) and gave three hello's in a row. Fran, the mild mannered father was much smoother in his approach, so it was plain to see where his son's eccentricity comes from. With intro's over, they all headed for drinks, Neil exuding an apologetic grimace to Saskia in advance. 
   After two other guests, Rob and Sue, (who were blissfully down to earth) were picked up further along, and a few drinks had coloured the senses, Saskia took it upon herself to invite Howie - as he now asked to be called - up onto the main deck for a drink.  It was probably the most exciting offer he had had in years, so he readily led the way.  Once sitting down on the side bench he grinned constantly, catching her eye then looking away like a poorly controlled glove puppet. As much as his nervous manner was amusing Saskia, she thought she'd better help break the poor guy's ice as there was no way he was going to break it on his own; he'd most likely just sit there and melt. Then all it took was one question. One perfectly innocent, respectful query:
   'So, Howie, what is it you do?'
   Chuffing hell, he just galloped off, full speed ahead; she thought the bloke was never gonna take a breather. He banged on about about how he was in his last year of study in marine biology, having taken samples of seawater from all over the world and did she know that even the Thames had amazing organisms, and diapods?  All Saskia could fit in response was random: 'oh' 'yep' 'really' 'mmm' 'uh-huh'  kinds of input. When he told her he might even scoop a sample of the Thames to take home and microscope it tonight, she ashamedly pictured him falling overboard! She thought Neil was bad with hand gestures, but Howie was wildly throwing his arms during his convo - a hand even clipped her hair twice! As if things weren't bad enough, she also sat through his love of archery and a history of bow and arrows. After what felt like forever to her, he now felt satisfaction in himself that he'd 'impressed' her enough and at last directed a question her way.
   'Is it okay to ask, Saskia, - very nice name, I'm sure it's Russian - what profession are you in?'
   'Profession? Um ...  I'm kind of a, well, public server, you could say.'
   'Oh, I see, for the government?'
   'Not quite,' she gave a mild shake of her head. 'I serve tea and cakes in my mum's cafe.'
   'Oh, that's quite...' he struggled for a word to compliment this menial 'profession', '... noble.'
   Saskia curled her lips inwards, trying to ward off her desire to laugh, while Neil was hovering at the bottom of the steps, listening in on Saskia's agony. He reckoned he would give it another ten minutes before thinking up a rescue for her, but right now he was enjoying his eavesdropping.
   While the 'friendship' was forming, Howie was also getting another thrill from all the outsiders that enviously eyed the privileged boaters that passed, simply by sitting next to such an attractive girl, allowing himself the fantasy of them being perceived as an actual couple. Things were getting cringingly worse, as every time the wind blew hair around her face, he kept fishing strands from her mouth in what he considered a gallant gesture.

At long last the rest of the soiree came up the steps and joined them on the upper deck; she'd never been so relieved to hear company approach. The garrulousness of Howie was genuinely giving her a headache and she needed a break. Saskia stood as his mother stopped to smile at them both. 'And how are you two getting along? Famously, it looks like! Was he telling you about his hopes of becoming a professor soon?'
   'Mum!' he protested, giving some sort of a snort that doubled for laughter, while the boy flush furiously.
   A sudden vision of her cleaning her son's face with spit and a hankie sprung suddenly to Saskia's mind. 'Yes, he has,' she replied through curled-in lips, praying the microbe-talk was about done; she was rather brained out by his knowledge of all things boring. 'very much so.' 
   Taking a quick peek down the hatch she saw Neil staring up at her, a smirk of biting ridicule on his face. Calculating by this point that she would be in need of more alcohol, he ascended on deck to refill glasses with champagne. Delia sat down next to Howard for her top up, but a panic-stricken Saskia moved sharply, excusing herself. 
   Spending more time than necessary in the rather incapacious toilet, she tried to gear herself up for watery round two.  The boat's motion had stopped while she was sitting on the bowl as the last two of Neil's friends come aboard, so reluctantly released herself from the time-wasting latrine. Nipping a quick vodka into a glass from the drinks tray -  double; maybe even triple - she swirled the drink round in the glass, counted to three and downed it.
   Bracing herself - hoping the vodka would hit her quickly - she gingerly climbed the stairs, popping her head up like a periscope to seek out the whereabouts of Howard, relieved to see he had joined the newcomers in conversation. Neil espied the head of his daughter emerging gingerly from the hatch, walked over and reached a hand down to help her up, duly walking her over to meet Paul and Rosemary. It didn't take long for Howard to reattach himself to her and resigned herself ipso facto to it. 

Darkness was descending a few hours later and the boat's music and lights were upping the mood. The alcohol had very much soothed Saskia, and now she was up for anything. So when the mellowed birthday boy got her up to dance to a contemporary, catchy song - whose beat demanded 1950's type twirling - she did not demur. It was strange how his inhibitions and stoic manner transposed into an embarrassing-dad type, not giving a toss who was watching (or shouting to) them. After the dance, she followed her dad and they rested over the edge of the boat to catch their breath.
   'Dad, I didn't think you had all that energy in you, I could hardly keep up!'
   'Ach, there's life in the old dog yet! Has Hapless Howie asked you for a dance?'
   'Nah. I don't think dancing's ever been his niche.' Poor lad. His offbeat ways and clothes (hard to decide which was worse) didn't exactly warrant a wow. Mind you, the fascination that stemmed from a tiny sea monkey tank he got at eleven was at least assuring him a financial future; he was gregarious enough - for like-minded company.  'By the way... did he really just turn up out of the blue?'
   'Why? Did you think it was a set up, hoping you two would click?' he said with a huge grin. 'Maybe Delia did, she's been trying to marry him off for years. Quite taken by you, she was. Bet she's planning the wedding already!' 
   'Oi! I'd probably need an encyclopedia and be constantly pissed for that.'  She suddenly felt awful for mocking him, and for such an unfair appraisal of considering him a weirdo within minutes of meeting him. Howard really wasn't that bad looking, despite his sever side shed. On the whole she supposed it was down to one's upbringing. Parental infliction - especially by the mother; she felt she related a bit more there. Her own path hadn't been the one she'd pictured herself travelling along by now. How unforeseen events can muscle-in on the journey...
   Still speaking face to face, Neil noticed over Saskia's shoulder, the young man at issue approaching them. Keeping his face stiff, he spoke through clenched smiley teeth, eyebrows raised high like a ventriloquist's dummy,  'And here he comes.' But his advance was venial, he was merely over to say his goodbye's. It was now past 11' o'clock and he didn't operate as well out of routine.
   'Just to say we're off now, Mum's saying goodbye to the others. Thank you so much for such a pleasant evening, it beats archery club hands down. He shook Neil's hand and instead of shaking Saskia's, he risked leaning forward to kiss her cheek. ' Such a shame I couldn't interest you in joining, but I guess it is more of a man's thing!'  
   'I'm just not a very sporty person. Listen, Howie... how about a dance before you go? I know you said it's not quite your thing, but we could put on a slow number - no skill needed, just moving about in a circle and treading on each other's toes.'
   'Um, I don't kn—'  Not taking no for an answer, she grabbed his hand and shouted for a certain song to be played. He didn't know it, but by the end it would be the sweetest song he'd ever heard. 
   Delia walked over to Neil and watched them as they tripped their uncertain circle.  'Ah, look at them, ' she remarked,  'don't they make a lovely couple?' She gave Neil a nudge and he nodded his head in agreement, with a different answer inside it. 
       The second all the goodbye's were made, Neil turned to Saskia. 'Aah, that was really sweet of you, you'll have had his belly flipping.' He knew the dance would have meant a lot to the lad, but then spoiled the moment by adding, 'Probably the closest he'll ever be to getting laid.'
       'DAD!' she protested, giving him a light backhander to the stomach.
       'C'mon,' he smiled, 'I want to show you something.'

Leading her up to the head of the boat, he asked her,  'Can you remember that long tunnel we went through earlier on?'
   'Not really,' she answered, they all looked the same in daylight.
   'Well, we've turned and heading back to it. Don't think you'll forget it now. Look.' 
   She followed the direction of his pointed finger. Further up the river came a glow, like an orb sitting on top of the water.  'Wow!' she said, 'what's causing that light?'
   'Bit of a story to this. Apparently there used to be loads of accidents here - no person ever got hurt, but boats kept clipping the sides and fronts, causing damage. People got fed up as the tunnel lights set into the stone kept conking out, so some clever clogs came up with the idea of lighting it themselves as a kind of protest, and strung it with metres of lights. There's loads of solar panels round both the entrances. After a mention in the local paper to shame the River Trust, fellow boaters have been donating and adding lights themselves ever since. That was over fifteen years ago and it's become a kind of local tradition.' 
   'Ah... what a genius idea!' Saskia was well impressed.
   As they were almost at the entrance, Neil put a hand round her waist and pulled her closer to him.           'Here we go!'
   Weather-wise it had been glorious and the now night sky was a riot of crisp, shimmering stars, but this tunnel's lustre was made just as brilliant with reflecting lambency on the surrounding water. Caught up in the wonder of it, she pictured being in the inky sky, a star within grasping reach to put in your pocket. Such thinking one never grows out of. Barely two minutes later, however, it was over.
   'For something so simply made, that was breathtaking, Dad.'
   'I thought you'd like it. Magrette loved it too, every birthday without fail.'
   Saskia was touched to hear that, giving him a wistful smile and a sympathy nudge, resting her head on his shoulder, and he acknowledged her concern by snuggling her tighter to him with both arms.       Magrette had a tendency to linger in the depths of his mind and certain reminders of her still smarted after ten years. But despite that, he at least had re-established himself with his near-forgotten-about boat - a thing he most likely would not have done, nor even wanted to have done, had he not Saskia in his life now.

                       *                *                *               *                *                *                *

After paying the steersman of the boat firm handsomely for tonight's services, they were picked up at the closest point of the river, heading for home, and immediately changed for bed.  A rapid tiredness hit both of them, but there was as yet one thing she wanted to do, though still feeling hinky about it.  Midnight was creeping closer and in the end she decided to go for it, sitting straight across from him.
   'Think I'll be hitting the sheets in ten,' Neil announced. 
   'Yeah, me as well.'
   'Had a good time tonight, turned out to be quite entertaining!'
   'Wasn't it just! Actually dad,' Saskia leaned over the side of her chair and produced a striped navy and blue gift bag that she'd sneaked and tucked by its side earlier on, 'I've got a little something for you.'
   'Oh, kiddo, I told you there was no need.'  He was rather touched by the gesture; hadn't been given a present, nor wanted any, for years.
   'Don't get too excited, you haven't seen it yet!'
   It felt heavy and solid - a total puzzler.  
   'I decided against bringing it to the party tonight, I preferred to give it to you here.'
   Neil fished inside, pulling it out from lots of thin streamers. It was a pine and glass clock, around sixteen square inches; the wooden inner square had the face etched with numbers; encased round all the edges was three inches of thick see-through glass with a section of pure white sand laying along the bottom one.
   'I made it at woodwork class.'
   He stared at it, smiling hugely. Taking that as an obvious sign of approval, she bounded over, jumping to settle beside him. 'On the hour it rotates, and the sand falls again back into the bottom one.'  She took it from him and turned it round. 'See that little lever there?'
   'Yes?' He was even more intrigued. 
   'That has a mechanism that turns that cog to make just one square glass edge move - clock hands stay in the middle as normal - so when it hits the hour, voila - it starts making the sand fall. There's a curve of glass at each corner making sure it filters along.' 
   'Ah.' Neil clicked on, 'similar to an hourglass.'
   'Yeah,  more or less but quicker and at a right angle.'
  'Very clever.'
  'Well, I have moved on to advanced level - mechanical's, now.  Sometimes it looks like waves or a far off mountain range. Daft, really, but you can see what I mean.'
  Boy, was he touched. Bringing a lump to Neil Balfour's throat was a rarity.  'And you've been working away, making this for your old dad?'
  'Well, I noticed you didn't have one up, so... '
  He sat quietly in thought, letting the seconds pass, rubbing a thumb gently down the smooth, clear glass. 'Saskia...  I don't know what to say.'
  'Well, as long as it's not 'shit' you don't have to say anything.'
  He placed the clock carefully by his side and wrapped his arms around her, squeezing her to him. Her tummy churned unexpectedly stronger this time. But she was being engulfed in his pride, feelings heightened by alcohol and the success of her gift - that would be why. Just normal simple belly flips. 
  'Right, young lady,' he announced, unwrapping his hold and placing the clock on the spare chair. 'I'm putting this up first thing in the morning, best get off to bed.'  He kissed her head. 'Want me to dull the lights?'
   'Ah, no, it's okay, I'll put them off, I'm going to mine.'
   'Night, then.'
   She watched until he reached his bed and slid under his sheets before heading to her own. So he had been stunned into silence, and never said shit.  Now she didn't have anything to say, but the word - albeit through a different context - was bouncing like crazy in her head.


September 30, 2023

It Starts And Ends With You (CH 12)

         ** IT  STARTS  AND  ENDS  WITH  YOU **

 This would be interesting; finding out how far her natural driving range was, or if she would indeed manage contact with the ball at all.  The suggestion of a round of golf was (supposedly) thought up by Saskia her own-sweet-self, for Father's Day; although she told him that Marcus had suggested a course he'd played on only the once before, so their day wouldn't be interrupted by him bumping into others he knew.  Nonetheless, it seemed a perfect way of marking his first ever Father's Day - despite him being old enough for Granddad status. But before she was let loose in the green immensity, he was going to give her a feel for the game at the course's practice range first (and also to gauge just how much of an openness-risk she'd be) otherwise it would be one hell of a boring tag-along for her.  Regardless of how the day ticks past, the 19th hole (which she remarkably had heard of) was the ultimate ending for them both.  It had been a little while since he'd last sunk a few.
   Saskia waited at a more 'convenient' corner pick-up-place close to her home. Neil was amazed to see her standing there (as she hadn't texted him back this morning to confirm this) and gave him a quick glance through the window. Single-handedly, she continued to thumb away on her phone - without taking her eyes off the screen - and opened the back car door, plunking herself and her big heavy bag down next to him. Marcus exchanged a nod with her in his mirror and started pulling away.
   'Morning, Dad.'
   'Good morning. Nice to see you up and about this early. I'm actually amazed you made it on time.'
   She gave a mild tut of indignation. 'Who says I've been to bed?'  With sparkling eyes and neat fluffed up hair, she didn't have the appearance of having pulled an all-nighter.
   'Hmmm,' Neil considered the fact that she may not be joking.  'Anyhow ... ' a forced, asinine smile spread over his face, and he flicked the tips of his fingers quickly back at himself,  '... gimme, gimme, gimme!'
   She frowns and looks straight at him. 'What?'
   'Ah, surely you bought your old dad a card?'
   Saskia dipped down into her bag, making Neil notice her feet. 'You're wearing clumpy shoes! I told you, you can't walk on a golf course with those!'
   'Stop panicking man, I've got brought other clothes and shoes to change into! Here.'
   Neil sat back and took the envelope from her. As expected, the card was a humorous (age referral) one, but he took the slur in good grace. Under the verse inside, she had simply written:  Love you, Raptor...   
   'Uhu, that's... cheeky... but nice.' Thanking her by squeezing her hand, he put it back in its envelope and asked Marcus to place it in the glove compartment.  He would keep this £1.89 (she rarely thinks to peel the price sticker off the back) card in a safe, sentimental drawer when he got home. Fatherhood was kicking in at an enormous rate, heightening ever more with occasions like today.  

The drive through Berkshire would take roughly an hour. It had been a while since he last had a game of golf, and though this one wouldn't strictly be a challenge, it felt nice to be reacquainting himself with the old irons.  As visitors, Neil told her they would have to adhere to the etiquette of the club's rules and conditions as knew she was rather vociferous when some things frustrated her. With this prior warning, he hoped she would stick to her behavioural assurances.
   On route, Saskia did her best to keep up trivial chatter. Her phone had been snatched from her and duly chucked in her bag, as Neil was getting fed up with her being transfixed by it, it was his day after all.  But as they continued to chat over something and nothing, Neil became more aware of the surroundings as they journeyed. 
   'Are you sure this is the right way, Marcus?'  he asked.
   The driver leaned to the left to check his sat nav.  'Yes. Still on track, Sir.'
   Perhaps there was some recent diversion regarding the route, but time dictated they should be arriving shortly. At least the weather would make the course playable as it promised to be dry, if not so sunny.  But a short while later, Neil's suspicion of things not quite adding up returned, as Marcus drove through a little Tudor style village. The last time he played this course it was secluded, out of the way and with no such little town close by.  Now he was certain something odd was occurring, and round the next corner it all became clear.
   'No!' Neil groaned, 'I don't believe this- you gotta be kidding me!'
   Saskia, grabbed her bag, got out and ran round to Neil's side of the car, opening the door for him. 'Happy Father's Day!' she announced very loudly.
   The poor, deflated man crept out slowly and stared at the sight straight across from them. Mattillo's Crazy Golf  Show.  Now it made sense: the wrong route, the lack of conversation between Saskia to Marcus (they were usually quite chatty with each other, having debates, or engaging in quizzes on long journey's) and her unsuitable footwear. Even to the point of carefully stopping the Merc a (shortish) distance from the entrance. How stupid would it have looked with a chauffeur stepping out to let a man of a certain age exit in front of an amusement park - especially with an absence of young kids?  
   'You shameful, shameful child!' Neil said, looking serious, but having to give them full credit for the bluff - his actual set of golf clubs was in the boot, having been on this futile journey.  He felt his veneer of respectability slipping like a sheet of melting ice each time he was with her. Just as well he hadn't changed into his proper golfing gear beforehand. 
   'Oh, and by the way, Marcus...' he added, '... you're fired! After you come and collect us, of course.' 
   The driver winked at Saskia on the success of the ruse, he'd enjoyed being in cahoots with her. 'Good luck,' he wished her.
   'She'll need it,' Neil told him. 'Right lady... let's go. Prepare for a thrashing!'  And with that they headed for the entrance. He hadn't seen this one coming. 
Despite being this early on a Sunday morning, there was a fairly-lengthy queue for the course, and in seeing that he wasn't the only man his age made him feel a bit better.  Although most appeared to be with groups of younger children (grandchildren, presumably), everyone buzzed, geared up for fun. Crazy golf was one of life's games where the shape of youth carries it's interest on into old age.
   After collecting their clubs and scorecards from the kiosk, they entered through the gate into vast wonderment. Neil expected it to be mostly zigzags and windmills, but there were all sorts of mechanical aids, waterfalls, moving stairs and lifts, lights, animated figures lifting balls onto connecting trains, boats and tunnels. It was breathtakingly fantastical, well worth the £20 adult entrance fee.  Whomever designed and thought up such sublimity were nothing less than genius. For a few moments, Neil doubted he'd have the skill to tackle some of the challenges. 
   'Played this sort of golf before?' he asked her.
   'Yeah, of course, days out with Grampa as a kid but nothing like this, though - looks mental!'
   'Certainly looks a scary bugger... right, kiddo,' he rolled his sleeves up, 'let's go.' 

They headed towards Hole No1, beside the huge START sign (God knows where the END one was situated)!  It was a fairly simple one, a hill and a few skittles to knock down to get to the hole. In fact, the first few were nothing too complicated, a clever appetiser to get everyone into the swing of things
   'Ladies first...', Neil proffered an upturned hand out for her to begin with, and things commenced with easy success - she seemed not too bad at this.
   The guidance on the scorecard stated you should move on to the next hole after ten attempts at holing your current ball - which also helped keep the traffic of players flowing - and before long she was sucked into both the arduous and the joyous side of things; stomping when she was beaten and jumping when triumphant. All too soon the seriously testing side of competitive play started to kick in.
   At hole No.23 (a loop the loop that reminded Neil of his first Scalextric), her ball kept rimming the hole, circling then veering off, and the underdog here was starting to lose her rag - not quite in quiet defeat. Things weren't helping when wind sped round her legs, flouncing her skirt up as Neil jocosely goaded and lambasted her incompetence. But she soon cared not a jot what flapped about and sparked up a fruitless determination to at least win (or fluke) just one more hole from the remaining obstacles - but his growing score was pissing her off. He could have intentionally lost the odd one or two, but it was such a joy watching her (and five-to-eight year-old's) break into teeny tantrums. Thankfully, she kept her swear words to a mumble.
A few holes along, Neil suddenly abandoned their play to skip across to where a little lad of around six was anxiously struggling to get his ball down that hole. Feeling compelled to help out, he jumped over to him and offered to help.  Standing behind the little lad, both of them holding the club, he angled him more to the right and tried it once along with the boy, then let him take the shot himself and in two tries, succeeding. The delighted, little lad (who was accompanied by his grandma plus siblings) turned and threw Neil a big smile, then a YAY! It was the first time he'd ever high-fived a kid. 
   'Oh, my God!' Saskia whispered, ' he's absolutely loving this!'
   Watching him, she stood in quiet admiration. Neil, normally a non-shifting turgid, was growing from being ho-hum to galvanising. Studying the joy upon his face, she felt so proud with herself for arranging today. Shame that sensation didn't last long. Just a few minutes later he was having to help her in the very same way, at the very same hole, and all that got him in return was a dirty look when raising his palm for high-five number two - though her face still as pretty as a picture in a huff!
   Working throughout the colours, textures, sounds, lights and lunacy, three whole hours had passed in completing the whole thirty fourholes - of which Saskia had only won a quarter (if that) of. Handing back the clubs and their score sheets, Neil was declared the victor. 
   'Would you like a winner's badge?' he was asked. 
   'Ooooh yes!' Neil answered hyperbolically, and was handed a sticker that he stuck onto the chest of his jumper with a few securing taps.  
   Saskia was handed one too which proclaimed I'll Beat You Next Time.
   'Wha-at? No, no, no! Don't you have one that says 'Loser?' he mercilessly teased. The woman just smiled and shook her head.
   'You, young lady, have been well and truly stymied.'
   'I take it that's a Scottish word, then?'
   'Aye, an old golfing term and it suits you to a tee!'
   She gave a fond smile accepting her defeat, and started to galumph ahead, Father's Day present now over.  'Well, c'mon then, Raptor!' she called back to him once she'd sensed he wasn't by her side but taking a few still moments to marvel at his girl. Catching up, he put an arm around her shoulder, causing that pleasing flutter in her chest she was getting indescribably partial to. 

Although declared his day, Saskia convinced him to take them for a burger. It had been well over ten years - and with his stepsons - since he'd last entered such a joint (at present heavily filled with 'access day' Dads with their kids) and the smell alone evoked similar memories. Before settling upstairs with their meals, she ran out to the car with a burger for Marcus. Food was normally banned from company cars, but she wasn't leaving him out.
   She gave the straw to her milkshake the popular rip-and-blow to get the paper off, straight at Neil. 
   'God... are people still doing that?' He picked the paper from his tray, scrunched it up and threw it back at her.  Watching Neil lift that bun to his mouth for a first bite was fascinating; Mr. Gourmet-Chops lowering himself to eat with the rabble!  If he was being honest, the beef and gherkin tasted foreign but rather good - though one would hardly become a convert.
   So today had been filled with sneaky variability, yet change usually didn't sit right with him. But like the burger he was wolfing into, his day had gone down undeniably well.
   'I know things weren't quite what you expected, and I'm bailing out a bit early, but thanks for being so understanding, Dad, but it's a bath and an early night for me. I really did overdo it last night.'
   'Hmm...' he gave her that twisty-scornful-mouth thing of his, '...and here was me looking forward to the 19th hole with you.'  He continued to tease at her reneging his day, but she had work in the morning, and he had to give her credit for that. 'I'm sure I can find another abandoned father out there to share a consolation drink with this evening.'
   'It was fun, though.'
   'It was... but I think I know what you're trying to do.' He looked at her resolutely, while stuffing a few fries in his mouth.
   'And what's that?' she frowned.
   'When we decide to go out? Spending time at zoos and farms, crazy golfing, Sea-ruddy-World? It'll be Legoland next! I know I missed out on your entire childhood, but can we try 'adult' things as well?'
   Her frown deepened, Li-i-ke, what?' she said, slowly and warily. 'Hang gliding? Bungee jumps? Paintballing?'
   He gave a heavy sigh. 'Like, art galleries, cinema, exhibitions, museums, I dunno - even Madame ruddy Tussauds, or real golf courses.' 
   'Dad... ' Saskia reached over and grasped his hand,  'I'm not trying to recapture my childhood for you, really I'm not and I love you for thinking that, but we're all still teenagers at heart - well I know I am - so I might still suggest daft days out. However, I promise we'll do something eighteen-plus soon!'
   She sealed the deal by slurping a deliberate long and loud suck of milkshake through her straw, as he duly stuck the winner sticker from his jumper onto the inside of his wallet for a permanent reminder of his day. 
   Throughout the day and since their meal, she kept to herself the fact that he hadn't checked his nails. Not even once.  And she'd settled more since her flummoxing at being offered a new car from him, getting more used to his comfortable way of life, and tending now to get not too fazed by it all.   
   'Good,' he said, eloquently, 'that's that sorted,'

September 20, 2023

In My Car (CH 11)

                           **  IN  MY  CAR **

🚦 Filling up her car after they'd filled up an idle hour at a cosy little restaurant, he watched her from the passenger seat, contemplating how to run a certain something past her.  In a nutshell, he didn't like her motor but knew she adored her 'four previous owners' little Fiat.  And that level of love was shown by the pristine condition she kept it in.  In light of her lax attitude towards tidiness in general, one would half expect to be kicking empty juice bottles aside whilst seating oneself, whereas the vehicle was spotless and smelled divine. However, every time he sat in that passenger side he couldn't help but let his eyes flit all around.  Her actual driving skills posed no problem with him - it was the structure of her cherished runaround he took exception to.  This silver accident-waiting-to-happen-and-you're-buggered-if-it-does had to go, and tonight would be the night to broach the subject.  But he was sure there would be hugs of delight. 
   Unlike the usual practice of just buying a motor and jingling the keys to a used car (as most parents do in exchange for a marked birthday or reward for hard work), he felt it best to voice it over with her.  In effect, he could quite easily buy her a car that he deemed perfect, all tied up in a huge bow with a surprise key hidden in a chocolate box, but felt that a step too far.  Apart from the fact that she was twenty-seven and passed her test yonks ago, she was well passed the 'grateful for anything' stage and he figured that she'd want to discuss style, size, make and colour. 
   Catching him staring at her from the kitchen area as she was doling out the Haagen Dazs ice cream bought at the garage, she dunked the scoops noisily into their sundae glasses and frowned at him;
   'Okay, Raptor, spit it out... what's on your mind? I know there's something stirring under that silver mop of yours!'
   'Ah - is it that obvious?'
   She quickly nabbed two teaspoons out the drawer, and carried their desserts over and bounced down beside him on the settee.  Having double the amount of scoops in her glass than he did, one wouldn't think she'd not long consumed a whole sea bass and fries. He watched part-mesmerised as she polished off a whole ball in just three mouthfuls. Shaking her greed off with his head, he continued on with his quest; 
   'Well', he said deliberately slowly, 'I was just thinking that maybe you could be doing with a different car.'
   'Oh. Why?' she asked, part-confused. 'She's running okay.'
   'Just thought you'd maybe like another one.'
   'If it ain't broke, it don't need fixing, though.'
   'Aye, I know, but it'd be— '
   'A waste of money, Dad. C'mon, don't be silly.  I appreciate the thought, I really do, but she's not at the knackered stage yet. Besides,  I know my car inside out, I'm well used to her.'
   'You'd have to get used to another someday anyhow.' Saskia tutted then sighed, not wanting to think of her bitty-little car's demise. 'It could break down any minute,' he added.
   'So could yours!' Strange. This wasn't going the way Neil imagined, he thought she'd jump at the offer of new wheels. Where was the wide-eyed reaction, the open mouth, the enthusiasm? Instead, it was taking some convincing.  'Anyway, ' she continued, 'the M.O.T. is good for another three months.'    
   Neil took a moment  before speaking again, having been focused on the speed of the scoops now travelling into her mouth, but he didn't click on that that was a sign she was beginning to feel rattled.  'You can't let anything like that  hold you back, and a Fiat? Sort of a little-old-lady type car!'  He pulled what she perceived as a somewhat disrespectful look on his face toward his déclassé of her car, and she dropped the spoon noisily into her now empty glass. The ice cream may have slid down easily, but it felt as if it was beginning to stick in her throat. 
   'Look,' he harped on, 'I thought it would be nice if this Sunday we visit some showrooms. You can pick any garish coloured car you like, wheel trims, added extra's - whatever takes your fancy.  We can even go shopping afterwards for new covers and cushions - and the best scented car fresheners around.  Don't worry about it being a petrol guzzler, I'll make sure you're always well tanked up—'
   'Oh, for Christ's sake!' Saskia stood, and marched off in a strop to the kitchen, dumping her sundae glass on the counter.  'Dad, I'm not getting rid of my car and I don't know what ever gave you the idea that I'd want to!'
   Neil was stunned, addled.  She'd never raised her voice to him before, and it seemed to set him rigid in his seat,
awkwardness well and truly slapping him in the chops.  'Saskia, darling— ' he said, his Scottish accent thickening with her obduracy.
   'Look, I'm planning on running her into the ground,  however long that takes and I'll probably want a funeral for her at the scrap yard. So, until then - my car's staying put!'  
   Neil sat forward and clasped his fingers, dismayed and at what he thought would be a good deed.  'Okay, okay... I was only.—' 
   'Only assuming that I would jump at the chance of zooming around in a motor I would never normally have been able to afford! ' she snipped him off indignantly.  'And how did you picture me then? Tearing along with open windows, music blasting,  sneering at people at bus stops when I pass by? Or holding my head hoity-toitily high when carrying my shopping from Tesco and into my needlessly-roomy boot!?'
   'No, Saskia... it's not like that.' 
   No matter how rich Neil was, she couldn't see herself floating around ostentatiously in a thousands-of-pounds present when there was no need.  Despite his wealth, it didn't feel right to her.  A misty film started to coat her eyes.  'Have you any idea how long it took me to save for that car?'
   Well, of course, he didn't.  He'd long forgotten the days where he used to work his fingers and feet to the bone for a profit now the money was pouring in from his workforce's efforts.  Shamed into silence, he hung his head. He'd never consciously considered it much before but realised he probably delves in with as much subtlety as a bulldozer when relating to money.  At this particular moment he couldn't answer her.
   'No,' she sighed, 'didn't think so.'  Suddenly and validly, she stomped off in an impetuous manner, the slamming of her bedroom door putting the quietus on the situation.
   Neil headed for the toilet to dispose of his ice cream.  He felt like shit and didn't quite know where to go from here.  This ardent plan of throwing joy upon her had bombed. Big time. On the other hand; what else did he expect from someone who gives their car a gender? He gave himself a few minutes before trying the old tap-on-the door, here-comes-the-apology bit.  He knew she would be expecting it, it was just a case of how it should be delivered. All he could do was tap and see.  Listening at the door there was nothing but silence. He rapped three times.
   'Hey, kiddo. I'm sorry.  Just me and my fancy ideas. I had no right to decide what was best for you and I promise not to call the shots again. I should have taken no for an answer there...'  Still no reaction.  'For the record, though, that car still won't see you to your  little-old-lady' stage. In saying that - neither will I... think you can forgive me?'
   Her door skimmed open an inch or two and a slice of her face peeked through - his humoristic age-jibe seemed to do the trick. 
   'Want to catch a film before bed? Joint decision, of course...'
   She slid out past him with a look of reproach, giving his shoulder a fun-shove in the process and took her place on the settee. He plunked himself right beside her and put an arm around her.  A fresh, unfamiliar wave, almost like tiny-but-pleasant pinpricks, washed all over her.  Must be her body and mind's way of reassuring her that all was forgiven.  

                *                *                *                 *                *                *               *                *                *                *

   From her room, much later on once she was sure he was asleep, she called her mother, hoping she was still awake.
   'Mum? Sorry it's late but I need to let you know.'
   'What's up, baby?'
   'I don't think I can do this anymore...'
   'What do you mean?'
   'I had a bit of a row with him tonight.'
   Beverly gave an impassive sigh.  'Father's and daughter's do that, don't worry about it.'
   'I didn't like it though, it didn't seem right.'
   'To be honest I'd thought you'd have your first one a lot sooner, and I wouldn't be surprised if he feels the same.'
   'I dunno, Mum.'
   'Saskia, you know how things are right now.  You've got along okay, this far, haven't you?'
   'I felt like swearing at him, then felt like crap for thinking like that.'
   'Trust me, Saskia,' she laughed a little, 'I'm sure he'd simply think; like mother, like daughter.'  Have you made up now?'
   'Well, then... look, love, I'm in bed now.  I'll see you in the morning, okay?  Nighty night.'  And with that blunt goodbye, she ended the call.
   Saskia stared at her phone screen. 'Well thanks for asking what it was about, Mum!' she mocked, and threw her phone by her feet,  head back on her pillows.  So it was fairly late, and her mum was a bundle of worriment these days, but sometimes things needed a mother's reassurance - whatever the time of day. 
she stood fixing her jeans in a way that makes it hard not to watch... especially when she added a 'hup' to the jumping action...

                            end  of  IN  MY  CAR