Eddie Fans the Flame – Episode One

This is the outline of a theoretical first episode of a sitcom……

We meet Eddie and Gilbert sitting on the bus sharing their mid morning break, chatting.  To cheer Eddie up, Gilbert tells him how lucky he is to have Lara as his fiancé.  Eddie agrees that Lara is a very special person, although he barely understands her.  Eddie thinks this is because Lara is a Russian bricklayer.  Gilbert knows it is because Lara is far better educated than Eddie.

They try to think of an alternative career for Eddie, but every one: DJ, film director, personal trainer with his own video, all require capital.  And Eddie has no money.  He never did find out what happened to the money the Flaming Trousers must have made.  Eddie flicks idly through a newspaper someone has left on the bus.  He is surprised and initially delighted to see a photo of Sam, also formerly of the Flaming Trousers, on page 11.  His pleasure turns to jealousy when he reads that Sam is now the foremost taxidermist in Swansea.  Eddie isn’t sure what a taxidermist is, but he knows it must be good to have got Sam into the papers.  Gilbert is worried that the journalist will come to complete the ‘How far have they fallen?’ piece by searching out Eddie.

The hooting of a car horn interrupts them.  Gilbert sits up to see who is at the gate, and when he sees the people carrier come to pick up Contrary Mary, the resident girl band, he reaches up to operate the remote control to open the gates.  He and Eddie fall into their routine and count as the ancient iron gates open agonisingly slowly.

Eddie reminisces about when he was on GMTV and met Lorraine Kelly who reminded him of his Mum.  Gilbert asks to know more about his experiences on the television, but Eddie cuts him short when he remembers that his Mum had videoed over all of the tapes of the group’s TV performances.  They count again as the gates open and close slowly again as the girl group leave.

Eddie goes home at lunchtime for a nap, but is disturbed by Lara who has come to make him a healthy lunch of borsht and black bread.  They argue about Eddie’s laziness and his desire to sing.  Eddie tells her about seeing Sam in the papers.  Lara is dismissive, and enraged when she sees that Eddie has still not changed the Flaming Trousers duvet, or ‘Pants on Fire’ as she calls them.

Inspired by the methods of his heroine Christine Cagney, Gilbert maintains a special level of vigilance looking for journalists pretending to be something else.  He challenges the Cable TV installer, the gas metre reader and a woman who stops to ask directions to the Tube station.

Gilbert tells Lara about the newspaper article, and about his fears that if the journalist comes looking for Eddie it will be to humiliate him.  Lara thinks this might do Eddie some good, but Gilbert persuades her that Eddie is too naïve to cope.

Eddie tells the passengers on the bus about the article, but has only one copy of the newspaper to show them.  The passengers look half-heartedly it and pass it on as soon as politeness will allow.  Eddie finds three discarded copies of the newspaper sticking out of the bin at the Tube station.  He straightens them out, and passes them around the bus on his next round trip. He fantasises about having his own photograph published again, even though he has ‘changed a bit’ in the last couple of years. He gets angry when he senses that his passengers are mocking him.

Eddie searches the bins for more copies of the paper, collecting a pile of them in his flat.  He remembers to change the duvet, opening a packet containing a brand new Flaming Trousers set of linen; he puts the pillow case bearing his face on Lara’s side of the bed, and takes the one of Sam for his side, but turns it face down. That evening Lara complains about the piles of old newspapers in the corner of the already cluttered flat.  Lara beats him around the head with her pillow when she sees the bed.

In the morning Gilbert is surprised when a scruffy looking youth approaches and introduces himself as Terry Gross, a journalist, asking for information about Eddie.  And offering money.   Gilbert feigns ignorance, but is flustered when Eddie drives through the gate and waves to Gilbert, in full sight of Terry.   The journalist doesn’t recognise Eddie, but senses that Gilbert is trying to hide something.

Terry hangs around the gate for the next couple of days trying to get some information out of Gilbert.  He tells Gilbert about the other members of the Flaming Trousers.  Matt is a successful choreographer, Jed is dead, and he’s not found Will yet, but he’s rumoured to be running an organic smallholding somewhere.  Eddie drives past them repeatedly.

Gilbert enlists Lara’s help to try to persuade Terry he is in the wrong place.  Gilbert tutors Lara in ‘good cop, bad cop’ questioning techniques.  Lara attempts to flirt with Terry, but he is frightened, likening her to an East German swimmer before the Wall came down.   Lara is insulted to be thought a German and storms off to work.  Terry settles down on his deckchair and prepares for a nap.

Lara reappears with a wheelbarrow full of bricks and a bucket of mortar, her bricklaying tools attached to her belt.  Quietly, not waking Terry, she builds a wall around him.  She stops when the tower is chest high and Terry is entirely obscured.  Terry wakes with a cry when she pours a bucket of sand down on top of him.  Shouting, and with some difficulty, he climbs out of his temporary prison.

Finally Eddie notices Terry and asks Gilbert who he is.  Gilbert tells Eddie that Terry is a devoted fan of Contrary Mary who has to be kept out of the Manor, because no one should know where they live.  He admits that he asked Lara for her help.

Eddie decides to give Terry information about Contrary Mary.  He’s been through their rubbish.  He has stories he could tell.  They don’t deserve their fame, or their fans.  But he knows he must do it in a way which won’t get Gilbert into trouble, and he hasn’t worked out how to do that.

Lara tries to dissuade Eddie from talking to Terry at all, but Eddie resolves to talk to Terry before Gilbert’s shift is due to start.  Gilbert, however, has arrived early, and as he sees Eddie approach, he calls out to him to stop.  Terry hears the name ‘Eddie’, and stares intently at him, recognising him as the bus driver, but not able to see the younger Eddie in the fatter, unshaven face.

Just as Gilbert is about to speak, the Contrary Mary people carrier pulls up to the gate with a screech.  One of the doors opens and a girl lurches out, short skirt hitched up to reveal her knickers, blouse undone, and she vomits all over Terry’s shoes.  Terry is delighted.  ‘Now that’s a story I can print,’ he says.

Eddie Fans the Flame

A few years ago a friend of mine challenged me to write a proposal for a sitcom (taking into account my general failure to appreciate comedy).  It’s been in a drawer for a while now, but I’ve been thinking about it lately……

Here’s the basic premise, and tomorrow I’ll post the outline of Episode One.

Why can’t Eddie make a success of his life as a mini bus driver after his interlude of fame as a member of a short-lived boy band?

Eddie used to be in a boy band.

Not just any boy band.  Eddie was in ‘Flaming Trousers’, the highest selling British male act of the first six months of 1994.  But times have changed and now Eddie is working as the mini bus driver at the Manor, a gated community in North London.

He drives the residents to and from the Tube station, delivers and collects their dry cleaning, and generally tries to be helpful.   Eddie rarely gets off the bus, has put on weight, sings infrequently, and couldn’t do any of those dance routines now if his life depended on it.

Eddie knows everything that goes on at the Manor, and what he doesn’t know, he makes up.   He doesn’t know where his money went, and his greatest wish is to be back in the limelight.

He has a tiny flat on the Manor, where he lives with Lara his Russian fiancé.  Lara is unusual, but Eddie is getting used to her.  She works as a hod carrier and bricklayer on the building site over the fence from the Manor.

Eddie’s best friend Gilbert, one of the security guards and an avid fan of fictional detectives, with a particular fondness for ‘Cagney and Lacey’, was a schoolteacher at home in Africa.

Eddie is tormented daily by the sight of ‘Contrary Mary’, the five piece girl group, residents of the Manor, who were assembled on a recent television talent show, as they arrive and leave in their own chauffeur driven people carrier. His resentment of their apparent success increases every time they speed past him.

As Eddie waits for his next big break, Gilbert and Lara try to improve his education and keep him from disaster; they fend off the salacious interest of a journalist doing a ‘how far have they fallen’ series for a tabloid; they assist Eddie with surveillance of the bin sheds to find the miscreant when piles of rubbish appear beside, instead of in, the bins; they help Eddie get a part as an extra in an episode of a TV drama filmed on the edge of the Manor; they deal with the ambulance chasing lawyer who pursues Eddie after Eddie has slightly dented the bus driving into a bollard; they arbitrate in the dry cleaning wars, when Eddie switches allegiance from one shop to another; and they all manage to stay friends when Lara’s mother arrives from Volgagrad for an extended visit.

Writing Alternative Endings – Here Come the Maples

Have you ever thought about writing an alternative ending to a story you’ve just read?

It’s not something that occurs to me that often, but when I did my MA in creative writing a few years ago,we were set the task of writing alternatives for the end of ‘Here Come the Maples’, a short story by John Updike.

I’m a fan of his writing and once set the task, I enjoyed writing two short alternatives.  One would effectively finish the story about 75% way through Updike’s full version, while the second gave an alternative twist to the full length tale.

It turned out I was the only one in my class to complete the exercise; but I think about it occasionally when I’m stuck with the question of what should happen next.  I know there could be a number of options.  It could finish earlier than I had originally planned, or it could twist away from its expected course right at the end.

I wasn’t trying to imitate Updike’s style, but some of it did rub off, just a tiny bit.

For those of you not familiar with the short story, the Maples, Joan and Richard, a married couple, are driving on their way to the Court House to get divorced.  Richard recalls significant moments in his life with his wife, the early excitement followed by the dull ordinariness of life together.  The story was written in, and set in the 1960s, at a time when suburban married life was the antithesis of the apparently rebellious spirit of the times.

One

Thanks for doing this,’ she said of the ride, adding ‘I guess.’

They sat side by side in the car in silence, not looking at each other.

‘Why are we doing this?’ she asked quietly.

‘This?’ he said.

‘Divorce.  Undoing.  Stopping. This.’ She waved her hands encompassing the dashboard nearly touching his hands where they gripped the steering wheel too tightly.

‘It’s what we agreed.  As soon as the no fault rules were introduced.  We agreed,’ he paused,’ didn’t we?’

‘Yes, but it’s not too late to change our minds.’  They were silent again, both watching the car in front.    ‘I remember sitting in the bath on the day we got married talking to Mary.  I’d woken up that morning not sure I wanted to go through with it.  And she said ‘it’s not too late to change your mind’, and we laughed at the thought of all the fuss there would be.  And the more we tried to stop laughing the worse it got.’

He could see his knuckles glow white.

‘But you hadn’t changed your mind, really, had you?’

‘Only for a moment,’ she said smiling at his profile.

‘And today?’ he asked.

‘Only for a moment.’

Two

When they arrived at the courthouse Richards’s lawyer asked him for a word in private.

‘When did you get the copy of your marriage license?’

‘Last week. At the same time I swore the affidavit.  At City Hall.’

‘Well, there’s a problem with it.’

Richard felt a surge of what might have been relief.  ‘What kind of problem?  The woman there with the red hair copied it out of the ledger very carefully.  Very neat I thought.’

‘It’s not the copy.  It’s the original license that’s the problem. It seems not to have been properly witnessed at the time,’ the lawyer sighed as if at Richard’s careless oversight.’

‘The woman at City Hall didn’t say anything about that.’

‘She may not know it was necessary in 1954.  The rules changed in 1965.  She probably doesn’t get much call for copies for marriages 20 years ago.’

‘So what does this mean?’ Richard asked.

‘We need to check.  Problems with paperwork make judges nervous.  It may stop the proceedings today.’

‘Does it mean we weren’t properly married?’  Richard hadn’t noticed Joan walk up to his elbow.  ‘Imagine that.’  And she burst into that bright laughter that Richard had never been able to resist.

He smiled at his lawyer.   ‘We were a bit late and disorganised on the day.  Was it all a mistake?  he asked.

‘No nothing like that.  It just means we will need to get a couple more affidavits.  From you, and someone who was there, to confirm they witnessed it.’

Richard thought back to the photographs of them grouped together on the sidewalk.  It hadn’t been a big party.  His and Joan’s parents were all dead; the roommate, photographer, had drifted off years ago and Richard no longer even exchanged Christmas cards with him.  Joan’s cousin, perhaps, but she’d been in Mexico for the last ten years.

‘That could take us some time,’ he said.  ‘Can’t we try to bluff it out today?’

‘But if we didn’t have the right paperwork to begin with, do we need anything done today?’  Joan was enjoying this.

Richard too was excited at the thought that there had been something somehow illegal or illicit in their union, unsanctified by the correct number of signatures.  Finally it was no longer ordinary and run of the mill.

‘Maybe we should think about this again’ he said taking Joan’s arm and walking back with her down the steps and to the car.

Soul Mates

Here’s a short story from a couple of years ago…..

Soul Mates

She’ll phone today.  Today is definitely the day.  She knows he’s waiting and she’ll not want to disappoint him.

Her note started it all.  She’d known he was waiting for her to make the first move.  It was lovely when she did.

He called her yesterday.  There was a special thrill in listening to her voice as she told him about herself, the things she’s done, the places she’s been, the wine she likes.  He just loves listening to her voice.  She’s got a sense of humour too.  He likes that.  She can be very dry.  Sometimes she could be laughing at him.

His first long conversation with her was last week.  It was fantastic.  He’d been so lonely before.  He talked about Mary, and Abigail listened.  He told her about the pain of losing Mary.  It’s nearly five years now since the cancer took her.  He’d not told anyone how much he missed her before, how beautiful she’d been until the ravages of her last illness.  And Abigail understands.  He knows he can tell her anything.

He’s sure she’ll call today.

There are other things he wants to tell her.  He can call now to leave a message, and she can call back later.  He sits on the sofa and tells her about all the work he’s done on the house; what a wreck it was before he started and how 15 years of working on it at evenings and weekends has transformed it.  He never really feels the need to leave it.

He knows that Abigail loves to travel.  She’s told him about her adventures climbing mountains, trekking, riding across deserts.  She’s fire in her voice when she speaks of them.  It makes him want to follow her.  She could guide him through the strangeness of it all.

After that first call he’d worried he’d messed it up.  But when he spoke to her again, she’d listened like before.  It was so exciting to think of his words travelling down the wires, across the earth to her.  He imagines her sitting in her living room surrounded by the books he knows she loves to read, artefacts from her travels and her running gear ready by the door for her daily workout.

He’s talked about his parents.  He wants Abigail to know about them; how good his genes are.  He’s still got a full head of hair like his father and mother before him.  He’s been so long on his own he may have lost the art of talking.  And yet something in Abigail’s voice has encouraged him to keep going.

His phone bill will be huge, but it’s worth it.  She’ll call him tomorrow.  He’s certain.  He wants it so much.

Just in case he’ll leave her a message.  Really he’s not as melancholy as he sounds.  He likes the outdoors too.  A few years ago he did an outward-bound course in the Brecon Beacons.  That was fun.  He’d like to try more of that kind of thing.  He was fit when Mary was still alive.  He could train up and go with Abigail on her next trek.

He’s just remembered a story he’d like to tell her.  It was when he was in the police.  He knew lots of people then.  There was the team at the station.  They’d not always understood about his wife not wanting to go out so much, but they’d been company, and he hadn’t minded all that joking and joshing.    Well it isn’t so much a story he wants to tell, just to let Abigail know he used to be a policeman.  He’s not much good at story telling.  But he knows Abigail will understand.

She’ll call soon.

He dials and enters the box number he knows off by heart, and he relaxes as her voice washes over him.  He folds and unfolds her note in his hand.  It’s there right in the centre of the page; he’s ringed it several times in red ink.

‘Tall F, likes trekking, mountain tops, candlelight and champagne, seeks M for long walks and lively conversation.’

He’ll leave one more message today.  She’s bound to call him back.  Just to make sure there’s no mistake he recites his phone number very slowly.

‘Hello Abigail.  I know you’ve had my earlier messages, and I do enjoy talking to you.  I’m 6’4. I know you’re tall and looking for someone taller, so we’d be a good match.  I don’t think I’ve ever tasted champagne, but if you tell me it’s good I’ll give it a go.  Did I tell you I’m a smoker?  I’ll stop if you ask me to.  Mary died of a smoking related illness so you’d think I’d know better wouldn’t you?

‘You teach Spanish in Worcester don’t you?  I’m hopeless with languages.  Maybe you could teach me for when we go on a trip.  I wonder which school you work in.  There can’t be that many in Worcester.  I expect there’s a list somewhere.  I’m so looking forward to meeting you.’

She’ll definitely call today.

Or tomorrow.

He’ll be waiting.  He has so much to tell her.

Tokens

Here is a short story I wrote a couple of years ago as part of a project in the Hastings summer festival.  People were invited to take a walking tour around the town, and to pause at specific points and to listen to a story inspired by the area.

Tokens

I thought he was joking – the penny arcade: slot machines, flashing lights, stuffed toys that probably didn’t satisfy EU safety standards – there?  He wanted to go there?

‘Yes really,’ he repeated.  ‘Billy would like that too.  Wouldn’t you?’ he winked at his son, who rewarded him by jumping up and down in the apprpriate way.

It was very tempting to think that Matt could see a capacity for fun in me that no-one else had ever divined; but I could see that it was just that at the seaside he wanted to do seaside things: twirl the stand of saucy postcards, push a penny, and ride on the rollercoaster.  It didn’t occur to him to think about what I might like to do.  And so I would never have to reveal to him that I could only get on a funfair ride after I had first examined the bolts and the rust on the superstructure.

I’d not been in an arcade since I’d wandered off at Butlins in 1964.  I’d been having a splendid time pulling the levers of the one armed bandits, until I’d been arrested by the nosy woman from the chalet two along from the one reluctantly occupied by my family.  She’d taken me to the nursery for incarceration until my mother had been found and came to bail me out.  As an early memory it’s not one that inspired me much, but there was no question it was the start of a continually repeating pattern;  I was destined to be punished for even the most minor infraction.  Another person might have been led to the conclusion that it would be better to be caught doing something truly reprehensible.

If I’d really been that person I’d have booked an expensive room in a hotel somewhere and would have been drinking champagne between scarlet silk sheets with Matt, instead of standing awkwardly outside the funfair underneath a swirling ride that was at that moment sending several teenagers in screaming circles above our heads.

I’d been a tall child, and despite my extreme youth had been able to reach the shiny balls on the end of the silver levers of the betting machines.  Billy was tall too, but it probably wasn’t so bad for a boy.  Matt was tall.  It was one of the things I found attractive about him, being able to look up at his eyes.  Having a ten year old boy’s eyelevel, unwavering, at my chest, was less appealing.

Matt handed Billy a crisp five pound note.  ‘Go and get some tokens from the kiosk over there.’ He turned and pointed across the arcade.

He winked at me.  ‘It’ll be fun.  I love places like this.  Having Billy here gives me the cover I need to indulge myself.’

‘Yes,’ I said.  I was also using Billy as cover, but had no feeling of indulgence.

‘Why don’t you try one of the rides?  That spinning one,’ I pointed overhead to the source of the crescendo of squealing. ‘ Billy would like that, wouldn’t you?’

The child had run back, not wanting to miss anything, especially not the chance of more cash dropping from his father’s fingers.

Matt gave me a look that was at the same time both unbearably intimate and painfully hostile, and I had a feeling of what it might be like to be too close to him.

‘I thought it would be fun to play the arcade games,’ Matt stared down at Billy.

‘But it’s so lovely out here in the sunshine,’ I said turning my face to the sky.  ‘We could go inside later if the weather turns.  We are at the seaside after all.’

‘I want to do the ride,’ Billy wheedled, twisting from one foot to the other.

‘OK we can do one ride, and then the arcade,’ Matt said.

‘I’ll wait here and hold the coats,’ I said, holding out my arm for their jackets.

‘I thought you wanted to do the ride.’ Matt said.

‘I’m happy to wait for you,’ I smiled back at him.  ‘Look they’re letting people on now.’

I watched as Matt and Billy joined the queue and clambered into the small carriage, folding their long legs as tight as they could, and pulling down the silver bar to hold.  I knew the bar would be pressing uncomfortably into the flesh of Matt’s thigh, and that his feet would soon go numb.  They sat upright squashed side by side, their torsos swaying uncontrolled as soon as the ride started up.  I waved as they went by for the first time.  When they came around again, the speed of rotation was already pulling their necks sideways and banging their heads together.  On the third revolution Matt’s face was stony and tight; on the fourth it was green.

And each time I saw them I couldn’t stop smiling and waving.

Still Split

I couldn’t leave you wondering what happened next after the unanswered phone call at the end of yesterday’s post ….. I’m on a plane in Split when I should be in Sarajevo, where my friend L is waiting for me.

I put the phone back to my ear.  I would count another thirty rings before hanging up.  24, 25, 26

Suddenly it stopped.

‘Hello!’ An American voice, breathless.

‘Can I speak to L, please,’ my voice was uncertain.

‘Thank God!  It’s me.’  Relief.  Contact.  ‘Where are you?’

‘I’m in Split.  The airport’s closed.’

I explained the options.

‘Stay in Split.  I’ll meet you there.’ L insisted.

I heard L’s instruction, and realised that I really wanted to be looked after by Lufthansa.  My fear of getting off the plane and walking past armed soldiers into an airport that looked closed was greater than that of having to fly back to Munich.

‘I’ll meet you in the old town, stari gorod, like in Russian,’ and she gave me the name of a hotel plucked in an instant from a guidebook sitting by the phone.  ‘It should take me about 5 to 6 hours to get there.’

‘You’re not getting out here are you?’  The man sitting next to me asked.  It was just what I needed to galvanise myself.

‘Of course.  I don’t have time to go back to Munich,’ I said breezily.

I left him sitting on the plane as I joined the 20 or so other passengers on the tarmac.   Looking at them and listening I realised they were all Bosnian.  I was the only ‘foreigner’ getting off the ‘plane.

All of the baggage had been unloaded from the hold and piled nearby.  I found my bag and stood waiting for the next instruction.  One of the soldiers waved me towards the terminal building with his gun.  I walked into it slowly on my own, fearing I would be stopped at any moment.

No-one paid any attention to me.  I hesitated and then walked past empty baggage reclaim carousels towards a booth housing a uniformed border official.  He took my passport from me, stamped it vigorously and handed it back to me.  ‘Welcome to Split,’ he said.  And I was in.

The stark exterior of the building hid a brightly lit shining marble airport with clean toilets and foreign exchange counters and several taxis waiting for me outside in the sunshine.  Suddenly my confidence returned.  Despite all the appearances on the other side of the building, all the puffed chests and shouting and talk of wars, and the show of guns, I knew how things worked here.

The taxi driver spoke English, and when I told him the name of the hotel L had given me he said ‘What do you want to go there for?’ so I told him my story, and he offered to drive me to Sarajevo.  And then I knew everything was possible.

Roman remains in Split - could be Dioclesians palace

He took me to a small hotel in Split old town where my credit card secured room 101, twin beds, starched white sheets, brown and orange carpet up the walls, hot water but no plug in the sink nor bath, a view over the harbour to the sea.  And I started to enjoy myself.  The sun was shining; a row of canopied restaurants along the promenade sold big glasses of beer and black squid risotto.  All I had to do was find the other hotel and wait.

After I’d had some lunch and wandered around the market area and along the seaside promenade I found the hotel that L had suggested.  It was no more than a backpackers’ hostel.  I sat on a wall nearby to wait.  I didn’t dare move for a couple of hours in case I missed her in the maze of streets.

I spent the time imagining which direction she would come from, that every small woman I saw pass by was really her, and yet I was never more surprised to see a person as when she suddenly appeared around the corner.

We spent the next couple of days sitting in cafes in the sunshine drinking Italian wine disputing who had the more traumatic journey to this place that neither of us had ever intended seeing.

My ‘near miss’ was weighed against her tale of her first experience of driving in Europe.  She had a collision on the road leaving Sarajevo and received a traffic ticket for overtaking across a solid white line on the road through the mountains, issued by a tall blond haired young policeman who told her he had family in Denver when he saw her Colorado drivers licence.

We’d both had an adventure, and it would make a good tale which would improve in the telling.

Split not Sarajevo

In a couple of days of cheating, I am continuing the tale of my trip to Sarajevo in 2004 that I started yesterday….

After half an hour I felt the change in air pressure in my ears and sensed the plane descending.  The attendant walked through the cabin examining seat belts.  I wondered how many she would find undone.

I could see an ocean out of the window; grey in the distance becoming bluer and bluer the closer we came.  I gripped my hands into fists, tight in my lap.  As the wheels hit the ground I held my breath until I felt the brakes pull me backwards.  As the plane pulled up to taxiing speed the man beside me let out a single convulsed sob, as people behind us began clapping.

Sarajevo market

The plane stopped some distance from the airport building, a forbidding Soviet era grey block, built of browning concrete fraying at the edges, leaking rusty stripes from the three visible windows.

There was none of that activity that is usually on display at airports, no little trucks drawing baggage trailers, no petrol tankers; no men wearing ear mufflers waving orange and white table tennis bats.  Nothing.  The airport looked closed.

The engines stopped.  The silence on the plane was short lived as everyone behind me was on their feet emptying overhead lockers and pushing their way forward.

A camouflaged green and brown truck approached us.  A dozen or so soldiers, green uniforms, black boots, hard hats, and automatic weapons ready in their hands, surrounded the ‘plane.

‘It doesn’t look like we were expected,’ my neighbour said.

From my vantage point I could see the front door of the plane open and a set of steps extend to the ground.  The pilot walked down and stood at the bottom, looking around at the soldiers.  How old are you when you watch an airline pilot and wonder at his extreme youth?  I realised I had reached that age at that very moment.

A young man in a well-tailored Lufthansa pilot’s uniform, he stood beside the plane he had barely recovered from disaster less than an hour before, his hands outstretched palm upwards towards the officer in charge of the truck full of soldiers.  He took a mobile phone from his pocket and carefully dialled a number.  He concentrated intently on his conversation, his eyes on the ground, avoiding looking at the soldiers around him.  Then he climbed back into the ‘plane and stood in the aisle and made a long announcement in German.

‘What is he saying?’ the man next to me asked.  I shrugged my shoulders.

‘Speak English,’ a man shouted.

The pilot stopped abruptly.  ‘We are in Split.  We cannot land here.  We fly back to Munich and try again tomorrow.’

An immediate roar of protest erupted from the passengers, who I had now deduced to be mainly Bosnians.  One large man pressed forward and puffing himself into his chest stood only a few inches from the pilot and shouted ‘Let us off plane.  We go to Sarajevo not Munich.’

The pilot retreated until his back was against the flight deck door.

‘I cannot fly to Sarajevo from here.  We are in Split.  It is Croatia.  Croatia is a different country to Bosnia.’

The passenger let out a barking shout.  ‘We know.  We have war to prove it.’

The captain raised his hands.  ‘We have no permission to fly from Croatia to Bosnia.’

‘Impossible!’ the man shouted.  Others joined in.  Now everyone who thirty minutes before had been terrified and praying that the nerve and skill of the pilot would hold had forgotten their overwhelming feelings of relief to be safely on the ground again, and were angry and mutinous.

‘I get off plane,’ the man shoved his chest closer.

‘Wait. I call Germany again.’  The pilot walked back down the steps onto the tarmac and spoke into his phone.  He returned.

‘You can leave here.  If you want Lufthansa to care for you, you must stay in the plane and return to Germany, stay in a hotel.  Tomorrow we try again.’

My expectation of a bus ride from Split to Sarajevo courtesy of Lufthansa was dashed.  Of course, this was the Balkans, things would be different here.  A few months before this trip, a flight I had taken to Lyon had been diverted to Geneva and British Airways had provided coaches to take us back into France.  But that was ‘normal’ Europe; this was the Balkans.  Lufthansa couldn’t arrange for us to cross the border between Croatia and Bosnia.  I was reminded of that saying ‘you’d have been much better off not starting from here.’

So I had a stark choice.  Get off the plane and take my chances in an apparently closed airport with an armed welcoming committee, or fly back to Germany.  I had no idea what to do.  I had two phone numbers for L, at the office and the flat she shared with two other  students.  But I knew she would be at neither place as she would be at the airport waiting for me.

I called the office number and let it ring 20, 30 times.  Then I tried the flat number.  I couldn’t bear to listen to it ring unanswered.  I didn’t know what I would do next, so I just let it ring.

Flying to Sarajevo

I need to cheat a little bit for a couple of days, so I’m going to share bits of a piece I wrote a while ago about a trip I made to Sarajevo in 2004 (ish) to visit a friend who was working there for a few months.  It was an eventful weekend……

Sarajevo circa 2004

The plan was that I would fly to Sarajevo and my friend L would meet me at the airport, we would hire a car and drive to Dubrovnik, spend the weekend there, and then drive back to Sarajevo for one night before I flew back to London.

I flew Lufthansa from London to Sarajevo via Munich, my only anxiety over the very tight connection I had to make at Munich airport.

It was a beautiful clear day and looking out of the window of the plane I could see the runway of Sarajevo airport glinting in the sunshine, a tiny oblong plaster adhering to the green slope of the hillside.  It looked too small, at an awkward angle, across the contour of the landscape.  It was my first sight of Sarajevo.  Something shining, not the pockmarked city I had seen on the television news.  L had told me it was a brand new airport financed by European Union money.

I heard the undercarriage lock and, as the plane tilted forward, I watched the ground approach.  The view of the runway slid around out of sight as the plane lined itself up. I sat back into my seat ready for touchdown.  The engine drone heightened pitch for final descent.

Suddenly the plane lurched violently one way and then the other, juddering.  I gripped the sides of the seatback in front of me with both hands in the foolish belief that holding onto something, no matter how flimsy would make me safer.  People behind me screamed, high pitched and prolonged, as the plane bounced again and I saw green hillside directly out of the window.  White knuckles, I put my chin to my chest.  The plane pitched, bumping and shaking from side to side.  The shrill screaming intensified.

‘This is it,’ I thought, my fingers digging into the foam padding of the seat back finally finding its hard skeleton with my fingertips.  We were going to crash.  We were going to crash into the bright green hillside.

On the approach I had seen that the airstrip was in a bowl surrounded by sharp slopes.  We were jolting towards one of them.  So many of my father’s stories of his involvement in air crash investigation were of planes flying into hillsides.  Once you’re heading for the side of a hill it’s very hard to recover, I knew that much.

Did anyone apart from L know where I was?  How long would it be before my family would know what had happened to me?  There was nothing I could do to save myself.  I turned my head to look at the man sitting beside me so that at least I had looked at another person, albeit a stranger with his eyes closed, as one of my last sights, rather than the blue fabric of the seat back.

With a massive force I was thrust backwards as the plane climbed steeply, the engines screeching.  Higher.  Higher still.  Roaring in my ears, pressure in my head and chest.  Finally the screaming stopped.  I could hear the pounding of my own heart, and I released my hold on the seat, carefully, slowly, one finger at a time.  I looked out of the window again and saw the mountains a long way below us.

‘He will try again,’ the American sitting beside me nodded towards the cockpit.

‘Maybe,’ I said.  But I knew we weren’t circling.  We were very high, flying in a straight line.  ‘I think we’re going somewhere else,’ I said.  But where?  I had no idea of the geography of where we were.

‘What’s happening?’ someone shouted in heavily accented English.  It was repeated by several other voices, turning into a near chant.  ‘Tell us.’

A stewardess appeared at the front, and the PA system clicked into action.  In German.  I didn’t understand a word, but have travelled enough to recognise the life jacket instruction routine.

I began to feel sick, all relief evaporated.  We were going to crash.  In water.  It felt as if everyone apart from the man sitting beside me was shouting.  He was praying silently his hands clasped, his lips framing rapid words of supplication.

‘What’s happening?  ‘Where are we going?  Speak English’

I tried to calm myself.  We were still flying straight, high over mountains.  Slowly it dawned on me, we were going somewhere on the coast.  That was the only possible explanation for giving the life jacket explanation now.  I hadn’t paid attention at take-off, but it was obvious.  Flying from Munich to Sarajevo would not normally involve flying near a large body of water, so there would be no need for a lifejacket.  I tried to reassure myself that it was just routine.  I wanted to experience a safe landing in this aircraft.  I wanted this pilot, whoever he was, to be successful.  I sent up a prayer that he had not lost his nerve.

After a brief, shocked silence the shouting from the back started again.  The stewardess attempted another announcement in German.

‘Speak English!’

Her voice faltered.  ‘We go to Split.  We arrive in 30 minutes.’

‘Where is Split?’ the man beside me asked.

‘On the coast, I think,’ I said, already anticipating the resurgence of fear for the next landing.  And wondering how long we would have to be in Split; how far it is from Sarajevo; how I was going to contact L.  I had to breathe and swallow gently to keep the bile from the back of my throat.

‘Is this your first trip to Sarajevo?’ I asked my neighbour.

‘Yes.  You?’

‘First time too.  I’m just going for the weekend.’ I laughed.

He looked at me incredulously.  ‘Why?’

‘To visit a friend.  You?’

‘I’m going to work for a USAID programme.’  After a long pause he said ‘I can’t believe anyone would go to this place for a weekend.  What sort of protection will you have?’

‘None.  My friend says it’s safe.’

‘Not this trip,’ he said.

At the Bank

I’m looking for a short cut today…….

Here is a short story I wrote a little while ago in response to an exercise to write something using a regional voice.  It was inspired by the noise I used to hear in the background when I talked to my sister who worked in a bank in Glasgow in the 1980s.

Apologies to those who need some vocabulary hints….

‘Giro’ was a type of cheque sent to claimants of unemployment benefit

‘The Brew’ was the Department of Social Security or ‘Bureau’ that dealt with the unemployed

‘The Bar L’ is short for Barlinnie the prison in Glasgow, but also a popular if ironic name for a pub.

‘We’un’ and ‘bairn’ – small child

‘The messages’ – grocery shopping

‘Bunnet’ – a hat of any kind

At the Bank

It all kicked off that day at the bank; or mebbe it had started when the Brew had stopped sending the Giros and they’d made him open a bank account he’d no wanted.  Or mebbe it was when they bastards at the yard had sacked him.  Anyhows it had ended bad, and Morag’s eyes never lost that red look with her mouth tight like a miser’s purse strings.

But that day at the bank had been the worst.  He’d needed his money.  No question.  It had been a bad week what with the people getting so heavy about the payments on the three piece suite.  But his session with the lads on Thursday night was sacrosanct.

And he had no cash in his pocket.  He hated the bank.  He had to get cash out o one o they hole in the walls, and he’d always hated machines.  All they wee green letters danced about too much for him to be able to read them, and he ran out of time and all the people in the line behind him started having a go.

But he’d seen them right just now.  ‘No money’  ‘No withdrawal authorised’.  And he needed it but.  The boys would be waiting for him at the Bar L.

The bright lights inside the bank hurt his eyes and the noise frae the screamin bairns cut through his head like a dentists drill.  The place was full so he had nae choice but tae join the line.

‘Mornin’ Pal,’ he nodded at a wee man with a big dog on a lead.  The wee man grunted back at him pulling on the lead so the dog yelped.

‘Ma dug’s feart o they we’uns.  Shouldn’t be allowed tae brung we’uns tae a bank,’ he muttered.

The woman in front of the dog tried to shush the squalling bairn in the pushchair.

‘Could ye no have left yer dog outside?’

The wee man stared at the woman.  ‘No hen, ma dug stays wi’ me.’  He pulled it closer again.  Slaver from the dog’s open mouth spattered Billy’s trousers.  As he wiped them over he noticed the bottoms were no as clean as they should have been.  Morag would of told him if she’d been speaking to him.

‘Who’s next please?’ the teller called above the din, and everyone shuffled forward.

Billy kept his eyes on the floor.  He was too mad to talk to anyone.  Mad angry with the people stopping him getting his money.  It was his.  When he was working he’s paid his stamps regular.  He had rights.  He shuffled forward keeping a distance frae the dog.  Finally it was his turn.

‘I want my money, hen,’ he said to the young blond assistant lassie behind the counter.

‘Do you have an account with the bank, sur?’ she asked.

‘Aye hen I dae.  I’d no be asking else.  But that machine outside will ne give me ma cash.’  Billy felt his hand itch to slap her glaikit face.

‘If you give me yer card I’ll check yer account, sur,’ she said.  ‘Please enter yer PIN on that key pad there.’

He made a huge effort to control the shaking of his hand.  His fingers were too fat to for the wee buttons but he held his breath, concentrating, and slowly entered the four digits, Morag’s birthday.  He’d never forgotten it yet.  The lassie studied the screen in front of her.

‘Thanks Mr McGregor, but your account is empty.  There was a big withdrawal yesterday.’

‘What do ye mean?  A withdrawal?’

‘There was an ATM transaction last night at 10:30 which took all the money out a your account.’

‘Well it was nae me.  Give me ma money.’  Billy’s face was burning like a furnace.

‘I cannae dae that, sur.  There’s no funds in yer account.’

‘See you, the Brew telt me the money’d be there and now it’s no.’

‘Sur, there’s no need tae shout, sur, I’m no hard of hearin’’

‘But yer no listenin.’

‘I am tho but, sur.’

‘Now look hen, just give me ma money or away and fetch someone who will.’

‘You’ll need tae speak to Mr Jamison then, sur.  But I think he’s with a customer just now.’

‘I’m no gone talk tae that jumped up wee boy in a suit.  He’s no better than the rest of us.’

‘Mebbe not sur.  But he is the manager.’

‘What’s he gone dae anyways?’  Billy knew he had tae keep her talking or lose his place in the queue and be forgotten, as he was replaced by another supplicant.  So long as he stood there they’d have to do something for him.

‘Well sur he can look at the CCTV footage from last night and see who used the cash machine at 10:30.’

‘Are you accusing me of something?’

‘No sur.  But we can see if mebbe someone you know used the card without telling you.’

‘Can you no look at the TV thing without him?’

‘No sur.  Look there’s a great long queue behind you.  Can you wait for Mr Jamison, he’ll no be long?’  There’s a seat over there.’  She pointed with one hand, the finger nails bright with blue varnish chipped on her pointing finger.  That’s no a flattering look. Billy could imagine Morag’s voice, assessing the girl.  Morag was like that, sly putting down someone that was trying to humiliate him.  There’d been a lot of them lately.  But Morag wasnae there and Billy had to hold it thegether on his own.  He leant forward, but saw the lassie’s other hand was hovering at the edge of the desk near the panic button.  Billy didn’t want her to press that.  He’d seen what happened when they pressed that; the siren ripped at yer ears, everyone started shouting, they booted you out into the street and the polis came.  He leant back.

Aye, ok, aye.  I’ll wait.  Get someone tae tell yon wee guy I’m waiting.’

Billy sat nursing his resentments for an hour waiting for the manager, thinking on how he was going tae tell him just exactly how naebody messed with Billy McGregor, especially no baldy banky boy.  Finally the manager came out of his office and the teller lassie talked to him, pointing at Billy through the glass partition.

‘Morning Mr McGregor, Alison tells me there has been an unauthorised withdrawal from your account.’

‘I don’t know anything about that.  I just want my money.’

‘If you give me a few minutes I can take a look at the CCTV footage from last night.’

The boy disappeared but came back a few minutes later.

‘Would you like to come with me, sur?’  He led Billy into a small brown office.

‘This is the film of the ATM from 10:25 to 10:35 last night.’  Billy looked at a black and white wishy washy screen.  He saw himself, weaving towards the machine his arm stretched out trying a couple of times to get the card in the wee slot, and finally managing it.

‘That’s no me,’ he said.

‘Do you not think it looks a bit like you?’ the boy asked.

‘No.  That bastard’s wearin a bunnet.  I never wear a bunnet.’  Billy felt a rush of hot liquid memory.

‘Well, sur, I think it looks like you.  So I’m afraid I can’t take this any further.’

Billy sat down.  ‘It’s no me,’ he said, wondering what he would tell Morag when she asked for money for the messages.

%d bloggers like this: