Above The Call

A waiter slops asparagus soup over my mum’s posh top, spits on my steak tartare and asks my dad if that’s a wig he’s wearing – which it isn’t. He now presents the bill for around £80 and asks dad if everything has been to his liking.

‘Splendid, thank you,’ says dad, making out a cheque for £90.

I witnessed this scenario hundreds of times during dad’s life. A routine addition of about ten per cent, rounded up, regardless of the experience.

‘It’s for the service,’ he would explain.

‘But what if that’s not very good?’ I’d say, trying to fathom it out. ‘And isn’t cooking the food and bringing it to the table what you’re already paying for?’

waiterThere seemed a touch of master-servant about the whole thing, a leftover from Victorian times – doffing the hat and placing a penny in the palm.

Dad’s benevolence especially showed at Christmas. People you never normally saw would knock at the door. The dustman (as he was then affectionately known) touched his forelock and dad handed him a small brown envelope; the milkman would find something similar in an empty milk bottle; and it was the only time the postman actually took an envelope away with him.

Tipping in taxis was also de rigueur. Failure to do so might mean the driver retracing his route a mile before letting dad out. Ten per cent to the hairdresser prevented an unwanted bald patch. And generosity towards chambermaids and bar staff during a hotel stay guaranteed clean beds and proper whisky measures.

While all this was going on, the doctor’s receptionist, sales assistant, bus conductor, deck chair attendant, train driver, signalman, street sweeper, telesales operator, left luggage handler, airline pilot, local government officer, hospital porter, travelling salesman, car mechanic, farmer, footballer, formula one driver, lifeguard, gardener, soldier, gravedigger and balloonist, and many, many others simply had to get by on basic wages, since their services were clearly of less importance.

Class distinctions are increasingly blurred. Christmas door-knocking is no longer fashionable. But tipping in the traditional trades continues, more under the guise of mock friendship than master-servant, but with scant regard for what it really means. Clearly, it’s not in the interest of those sectors to disavow people of the custom.

When I was younger I found myself following dad’s ‘easy route’, expressing gratitude and adding percentages regardless of the circumstances – a comfortable way out, making me feel kind of important and stupid at the same time. Annual Christmas cards from the Indian Restaurant (address written at their request on an Excel sheet during a November visit) reassured me that a lasting friendship had indeed been forged.

But as social rebellion kicked in I steeled myself to experiment with paying the asking price only. I was terrified that abandoning tips would mean losing these friendships. I expected the chef to come running from the kitchen with a machete, or the manager to ban me from his establishment. I waited for the taxi man to warn other drivers by radio. I feared a Sweeney Todd incident at the barbers.

barber Instead I was offered a loyalty card by the barber, placed on the priority list by the taxi firm and welcomed back to the curry house with open arms. I realised it was my continuing custom and that of my entourage they wanted, not the small change in my pocket. We remained friends.So, although tipping is still widely practised, in my world the random and pointless custom ended years ago. But I still feel bad about all those who remain tipless while the same old people cream off the ten-percentages. And I’m trying to do something about it.

At Greggs yesterday a woman passed me my 85p sausage roll, asking if I wanted anything else and wishing me a nice rest of the day.

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘I must say this is the most exquisitely wrapped sausage roll I’ve ever had. You presented it with utter professionalism and a beautiful smile – more than I could possibly have asked for. Here’s a pound, and I want you to keep the change.’

As I left the bakers, trying not to catch the eye of the homeless people blocking my exit, it was ample reward hearing the woman enthusiastically recount our conversation to the girl on doughnuts.

Back at home, concluding a telephone conversation with the MakerMint Water Company, I said to the assistant, Trudy:

‘Frankly, I’ve never known someone handle a direct debit application with such grace and aplomb, offering me all the information I could possibly want, and making the experience so enjoyable. Trudy, you have performed over and above the call of duty. Please give me your BACS details immediately and I shall place £5 in your bank account.’

And on the London train today, when I’d felt compelled to mention the state of the toilet to the train manager, and he’d apologised profusely before single-handedly restoring the cubicle to its pristine condition, I said as he called me to inspect his work:

‘Young man. I know you didn’t make this mess yourself, but you stepped up to the bowl and took full responsibility. Watching you don those Marigolds and plunge wholeheartedly into the matter of the moment has restored my faith in young people and in the entire railway industry. I paid £29 for this journey. Here – take this additional £2.90 to spend as you wish.’

So far, so good. And three new friends already!

Next week: Part 2. Fly Tipping – What To Give Bluebottles.

Copyright © Paul Costello January 2017

http://www.paulcostello.me

Being Alan Bennett

Me as Alan Bennett

Me as Alan Bennett

This morning I became Alan Bennett. It wasn’t a chance event but a mystery prize from one of those television game shows where the right answer sets off a klaxon and you win a pampering weekend for two in a Nottinghamshire spa – or in my case A Day as Alan Bennett.

The activating pill which lasts twenty four hours looked much like a paracetamol but with an A on it, and a smaller one with B would deactivate the process should I want to call it off.

It’s not every day one expects to behave in ways other than those one has grown used to and are comfortable with, and my new persona was soon put to the test by our postman Richard who has delivered to the neighbourhood for as long as I remember, his youthful appearance suggesting he can barely have been out of shorts when he first started, if indeed he ever has been, going by the Post Office variety he wears come snow or shine.

‘Sign there please,’ he said, holding out the electronic gadget.

‘Just here?’ I asked.

It must have been the soft Yorkshire accent that triggered his reaction, the bundle of letters destined for numbers seven to fifteen and neatly secured with a strong elastic band falling from his grasp.

‘You’re, you’re …’ he spluttered.

Not wishing to disappoint him one way or the other I nodded reassuringly and invited him to have as good a day as he’d offered me. It seemed only polite to linger on the doorstep and reciprocate his thumbs-up gesture as he turned from time to time to catch a further glance before disappearing round the corner eager no doubt to tell others of his discovery.

Keen to exploit my new identity I thought it a good idea to travel into town to show myself off, as it were. Walking to the bus stop into low winter sun reminded me of the West End stage or playing a Talking Head under the bright lights of a BBC studio. I found passers-by staring at me for longer than one normally dares, and if I looked round after they’d gone by they too were glancing back, much as you do if you like the look of a person and want a further viewing without being too apparent.

The bus driver too seemed baffled, happy that the photograph on my pass matched the face in front of him but unable I imagine to read the name without glasses.

‘Mind if I join you?’ I asked an elderly lady with a kind face and blue hair.

The intake of breath down the bus would have graced a reputable community choir such was its exact unison, and the usual hubbub of unintentionally malicious gossip and exchanges of medical diagnosis quickly died down. The lady with whom I’d sat went into a sort of trance, like a pheasant in front of a moving vehicle unsure where to go or what to do, her eyes glossing over and protruding in a way they might not have done since her more productive days.

‘Aren’t you, aren’t you …’ she stammered.

I nodded.

From across the aisle and two rows back another woman who apparently thought she knew better called out,

‘You’re whatisname, aren’t you? On the telly.’

I glanced round with a celebrity smile.

‘Alan Partridge!’ a man shouted from one of the rear seats in a way that, were one to have a conversation with him, there might be many points of disagreement. I nodded and shook my head like a toy dog on the back shelf of a car, neither denying nor acknowledging his claim. No-one was quite able to put their finger on who I was despite the bold initials A.B. on the cover of the notebook in which I jotted reminders.

Once inside the bus terminus it was no easy matter forcing my way through huddles of mesmerized shoppers.

‘I don’t think it is Alan Partridge,’ said one voice.

‘Sugar,’ said another.

‘Shall we follow him?’ said what sounded like the man from the back of the bus, upon which I scurried through the exit thinking it imprudent to encourage stalking even though it might provide handy material for a play.

With the novelty of celebrity wearing off I bought a woollen hat, rendering the stallholder unusually speechless, and with the removal of my spectacles and a large upturned collar thereby gained some degree of anonymity.

Browsing Waterstones shelves, my appearance provoking sideways glances as if I were a commercial spy for a rival book chain or was about to pocket some paperbacks, I became curious about a panting noise beside me, and found a young woman barely four foot in height jumping up and down, hands above her head as if performing a fitness exercise. Had she not been gasping I’d have had little notion she was there.

‘Are you all right?’ I asked, causing the usual turn of heads.

‘I’m trying to reach that book,’ she said, pointing to a shelf at least twice her height. ‘The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.’

‘Good choice,’ I said, feeling somewhat relieved that the book appeared more important than any hunch that the author was present. Much as I was tempted to offer my signature I decided there was more to be had from staying incognito and watching her pore over the sleeve, and that to sign it on the premise of a one-day passport would not in any case be quite in the spirit of the arrangement.

With the books shelved alphabetically from the top and Bennett positioned poorly out of reach, I wondered if I should stay on to help others of this height who might call in for my books between now and closing, which would in turn help towards my royalties – at least mine for the time being.

In the event I found a quiet bench by the river to review my notes, before ordering a much needed hot chocolate in a side street cafe offering sufficient privacy for me to remove my hat and coat. Perched at a narrow eating bar the kind of which is widely used by cafes to make the best of their seating and which usually offer a view of the street or occasionally a wall with local paintings for sale I was disturbed by a lady whose debilitated state reminded me of Miss Shepherd, the lady in the van.

‘Have you been waiting long?’ she said, presumably meaning the hot chocolate that hadn’t yet arrived.

Mindful of Miss Shepherd it looked as though this lady, who’d levered herself onto the stool next to me, did not herself have long to wait, leading me perhaps unfairly to reply,

‘Eighty-one years. How about you?’

‘That’s a long time for a drink and a biscuit, dear,’ she said, playing me at my own game. ‘You’re Alan Bennett aren’t you?’

‘Only for the day,’ I said, ‘but I’m really enjoying it.’

‘Oh that’s good dear. It’s nice being someone else sometimes.’

Late in the evening with my story almost complete and bed looming I considered staying as Alan Bennett overnight since the prize had been for a full day. The thought of delving into his dreams and learning his night customs was tempting, but in the event I felt it more respectful to leave that side of things for him alone to know. I finished writing while the A was still working, swallowed the B and went to bed.

*

Me

Me

 

I bumped into the postman on his rounds earlier today.

‘Hello Richard – nice and mild.’

‘Morning Paul,’ he called out cheerfully – as he went on his way.

 

 

Copyright © Paul Costello December 2015

Paul Costello – Writer       Website: www.paulcostello.me       Twitter: @PaulCostello8

 

 

 

Postcardd ffrom Llanelli

Hiya Holly!

Guess what – I’m in Doctor Who territory! Having trundled along from Cardiff, my Arriva two-coacher dropped me off at Llanelli and disappeared round the bend towards Camarthen, hooting happily like Gordon the Big Blue Engine. And under a perfect holiday sky, I headed for the sea.

Ood

Ood

‘But, hm, where is it?’ I thought, following signs for ‘the beach’. 100_2438Sand and mud stretched for miles, and barren mud gullies, dressed with Asda trollies and bike tyres, reached towards the town like the tentacles of an Ood.

I had to wait till teatime for water briefly to invade the flats – before nothingness returned. And apart from the ubiquitous seagulls, there was little evidence of estuary birds. It’s as if water and waders took one look and decided: ‘Hm – perhaps some other time.’

Alongside the railway and mudflats runs the tundra-like Millennium Coastal Park, its Tarmac trails and rough-cropped grass affording little shade and few benches on which to sit and ponder the mud. A solitary ship-shaped building, the Coastal Park Discovery Centre, offers basic comforts, including a smart cafe and balcony with elevated views of perhaps an extra mile of mud. In the shop, you can buy fluffy green and red dragons, plastic green and red rugby balls with dragons on, and knitted green and red tea cosies (dragons optional), all from a trestle table laid out first thing and cleared away at 4 o’clock sharp. Outside, an overflowing litter bin is clearly popular for burger boxes and nappies.

But what may pass for a lack of imagination is more than made up for by friendly people. And they speak English. In the cafe, I overheard a woman with a strong Welsh accent explaining to her friend how nothing was more annoying than people talking Welsh as you entered the room. I nodded across, smiling!

The Welsh language is distinctive. Lots of ddouble lletters – hard if you have a stutter, llethal with ffalse teeth! And there’s a ‘y’ in every other word, and ‘w’ insteadd of ‘u’, like bws (bus) or Millenniwm (Millennium). The strangest I’ve heardd is a place name on Anglesey starting Fanfare something and endding God God God. Perhaps it’s a religious thing – you know, a call to God? I mean, they do have llots of chapels here.

I’m staying at the Coastal Grill with Accommodation. It seems the ffashion to call places: ‘Bistro with Accommodation’ or ‘Restaurant with Rooms’. Posh soundding – until you step inside and ffind they’re just orddinary B&Bs!

100_2454

Tardis shower

The shower in my room (Nwmber 15) is llike the control console of the Tardis. There are no instrwctions, and the llist on the outside wall talks more of llifestyle than knob control:100_2458

–  Immediately shower after strenuous exercise inadvisable.

–  Leave at once if feel uncomfortable when                                                taking steambath.

Llike David Tennant, I push at the bank of bwttons andd pull at chrome llevers wntil smoke and steam gwshes from every spout and the capsule shwdders as transportation begins. This morning I found myself being llathered ddown by Miss Llanelli 1957 – how I llove that abillity to ddrop in anywhere, anytime!  But it was a sharp awakening as the air cleared to a washbasin with no pllwg, a benddy, plastic toilet seat that ddoesn’t stay wp, and a wardrobe door that swings open when people go in and out of Nwmber 16 – handy when I want a clean shirt.

Each morning, the llandlord, who is also cook, greets people and takes their breakffast ordder. His ddaily pleasure is itemising the Ffull Welsh – never the same two ddays rwnning.

‘Today’s Full Welsh is bacon, sausage, fried egg, half a grilled tomato, baked beans, button mushrooms and a hash brown,’ he said enthusiastically on my ffirst morning.

On the secondd morning, I eagerly awaited the new menu.

‘Today’s Full Welsh is bacon, sausage, fried egg, baked beans, button mushrooms, hash brown, and this morning,’ he added prouddly with ddramatic pause, ‘it’s tinned tomato.’

Tinned tomato! Mmm!

The third dday was like the ffirst bwt with halff a fflat mwshroom insteadd of bwttons. Then, somewhat bizarrely, he added, ‘Or kippers with butter,’ which seemed as incongruous as the Tardis in the beddroom and as unlikely as ffindding ffreshly picked, pimento-stufffed olives in Lidl.

100_2481

Theatre Elli

100_2498

Council garddens

In empathy with its mwddy estuary, Llanelli town has an iddentity crisis. The main shops have moved out, the theatre (Theatr Elli) has closed andd the cinema converted to a Wetherspoons. Home Bargain Stores, Cash Generators and charity shops dominate the centre. Bwt in the middst of this plainness, set out serenely behindd the imposing Victorian Town Hall, lie the beautiffully manicured Council garddens, with colourfful beds, comffortable benches and a grand banddstand lladen with plwsh hanging baskets.

And the llong rows of terraced houses, tidily painted in neat pastels, with satellite ddishes 100_2486pointing symetrically to the heavens llistening for the Doctor’s return, are testimony to the undderlying vibrance of the community. Street names llike Great Western Crescent (Gilgant Great Western), Railway Terrace (Teras y Rheilfordd) andd Railway Place (Fford y Wagen) hint at the extensive railway network servicing the coal, steel andd tin inddustries in Llanelli’s heydday. Only the pretty, toytown coastal lline remains.

Time ffor reffreshment. The delightfful llandllady of the one surviving tradditional town centre pwb, the Double Dragon, ddeffies ddesigner bars like Stamps andd The Met – offering great beer, andd ddarts matches five ddays a week. Andd twcked between the kebab take-aways and overbearing Asda, the Bengal Lancer serves a cracking Prawn Methi andd Aloo Sag. A handdwritten notice promotes ‘Potion of Chips’ for £2.50. But no need for strange brews – ffive pints of Felinfoel and a curry brings on slleep soon enough!

Any llwck with a job yet? I know it’s not easy for gradduates these ddays …

Llove Paul

Paul Costello © August 2013

UTTERLY UNDISCOVERED by Paul Costello

cropped-paul-and-book-7-13-3.jpg

Available through bookshops (ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2) or direct from Fineleaf Editions

www.fineleaf.co.uk/titles/utterlyundiscove.html

A fabulous holiday read!

www.paulcostello.me

@PaulCostello8

Postcard from Torquay

Dear Uncle Harry.

I’m on a short break in the English Riviera – a grand name embracing the likes of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham.

And what better way to spend my first day than a boat trip from Torquay? With the weather set fair, mackerel fishing seemed a good idea, and from the fierce competition for a two-hour trip I picked a vessel called Wave Rider – rather romantic I thought.

A mile out, my suspicions were aroused when the captain – called Ahab according to the name emblazoned across his stained tee shirt – began layering up with woolly sweaters and oilskins and removing the component parts of what looked like harpoon equipment from a box near the bow.

‘Are we looking for giant octopus too?’ I asked, feigning interest.

‘No-o mate,’ he said, with gnarly know-how. ‘Whales – if we can find the migration path.’

‘Oh,’ I said, going along with a joke that was clearly part of his patter, especially for soft southern targets like me. ‘That’s all right then.’

I looked around at the twenty or so other passengers. Worryingly, half of them were now also kitted out with cold weather gear and heavy duty waterproofs, while the rest of us were in flimsy summer clothes, skin gleaming with Factor 50 Nivea Sun Lotion to protect against the strong midday sun and brisk sea air.

‘How about some coloured feathers to catch the mackerel?’ I said, uncertain of my ground and aware that my short shorts and white Matalan tee shirt with “COOL AT 65” on the back might be inadequate for whaling on the high seas.

‘Aa-rr, this is all you need,’ said Ahab, tapping the harpoon affectionately. ‘People don’t read the small print, you see. It’s Silver Flash for mackerel. This is Wave Rider – we’re whaling.’

Other mackerel fishers overheard our conversation, some vigorously contesting the legality of the small print, others cowering on their slatted seats, muttering about never seeing their loved-ones again.

‘Don’t worry,’ Ahab said, after keeping us on tenterhooks another hour. ‘A mackerel relief boat will be along later.’

By the time the mackerel transfer arrived, Wave Rider was plunging into the troughs and surging to the peaks of a strong Atlantic swell. Land had long since disappeared and Ahab’s assistant, Ishmael, was in a raised basket on top of the cabin looking out to sea with a brass telescope.

From time to time he’d cry, ‘Thar she blows!’ making us rush to one side before he invariably added, ‘Sorry, just an iceberg,’ or, ‘Only kidding,’ staring at us madly with what we later found out was a glass eye – which being the one he used for the telescope didn’t bode well for serious whale catching at the business end of the trip.

Back on the quayside, having finally tamed a few mackerel, I was ready for supper and a pint of Doombar. Set on the harbour front, Wetherspoons seemed a good bet. Outside, all seemed well as I passed the cordoned area where people were tucking into spicy chicken wings and breaded Camembert bites washed down with, perhaps, San Miguel or spritzer.

Inside was different. Unlike the usual dominant clusters of men with thinning hair and agitated stammering, I found the entire seating and bar areas occupied by stocky, bearded gentlemen in yellow oilskins and black sou’westers.

‘Aa-rr, DOOMbaa-rr!’ went the call down the length of a bar where staff must have had the dickens of a job remembering who they were serving.

‘Aa-rr, DOOmbaa-rr!’ echoed the seated many, as they clinked pints to celebrate another day at sea. ‘Aa-rr DOOMbaa-rr!’

Having bought a pint of the pub’s favourite beer and ordered a Right Whale Fillet with Seaweed Sauce I sat in the corner, feeling underdressed yet fascinated by what I saw unfolding. Several yellow people stood up alongside each other forming a line with outstretched arms resting on their neighbours’ shoulders. Others joined in, pushing back chairs to make space, and eventually there were forty in the row, with the men at the two extremities stretching out their free arm in an exaggerated fashion. Then at a given signal, in unison, the forty shouted:

‘And it was THIS long!’

No wonder Wetherspoon’s Tim Martin, ever the man to spot a perfect tag, had called this former trading exchange The Giant Sperm!

Now, back in the B&B, I’m planning the rest of my stay. I might try Paignton Pier tomorrow. According to the leaflet, this was once popular with anglers, but with local Councils seeking to increase revenue, fishing was banned and the staging at the end adapted for carrying out sentences imposed by local magistrates. Apparently, for minor offences a lesser sentence of being strapped to the stanchions at low tide and freed when the sea reaches neck height is common; whilst for more serious cases there are boards that extend over the sea electronically at high tide, with individuals ‘walking the plank’ or, for gang crimes, several villains jumping at the same time – a sort of synchronised sentencing. Hopefully there are still tickets on sale for the ten o’clock (high tide) sitting. I’m told the two grandstands fill quite quickly.

And on Friday I shall check out the Golden Hind in Brixham harbour. Whereas this replica of Sir Francis Drake’s galleon was once at a fixed mooring for day trippers to pore over, it now offers full day excursions to the French coastline, where passengers in period costume can fire live ammo from the ship’s refurbished cannons, and give the residents of Brest and St Malo something to think about. I really fancy this! It sounds so much more hands-on (and probably warmer!) than the whaling trip I got caught up in.

Uncle, I’m SO impressed by the locals’ willingness to diversify, and make use of the rich maritime resources that endow this area. It’s the kind of initiative the Tory government would be proud of in these troubled times. But sadly, I fear it won’t live up to some of your tales about the merchant navy!

Best wishes – Paul

UTTERLY UNDISCOVERED by Paul Costello

Utterly front cover - final 30.5.13

Available through bookshops (ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2) or direct from Fineleaf Editions

www.fineleaf.co.uk/titles/utterlyundiscove.html

A fabulous holiday read!

www.paulcostello.me

@PaulCostello8

My No-Frills Life

The Herefordshire border sign proudly says: you can.

But apparently we can’t.

Herefordshire Road SignMay 2013 – my local Council declares that libraries, museums and theatres are no longer important, and that the staff toilets in Thorntons chocolate shops and Thomas Cook travel agents must now be used in the absence of public ones.

Having buried its rustic head in the Herefordshire hop fields since Camshaft and Clogg said public services should be taken over by The Big Society – my mum at 92 quickly stepped in to run Brighton and Hove Libraries on her own – Herefordshire Council now finds it has run out of money and needs to take more drastic action than if it had spent the last three years making a plan.

But I’m okay with this. The removal of services called “inessential”, but which can enrich people’s lives and offer a social focus for communities (I wasn’t thinking of the toilets), will simply add to my no-frills existence. I’m used to it.

And, being only human, Thorntons counter assistants will appreciate the public’s dilemma.

‘Morning, sir. A 200gm assortment box? Mix of Soft Centres and Chocolate Truffles, gift-wrapped for the lady?’

‘No thanks, luv. Just the lav today.’

‘Thank you, sir. Straight through there. Enjoy.’

Until recently, I’d only associated “no-frills” with air travel. I’d thought Ryanair was the pinnacle (sorry trough) of this, as wonderfully expounded in the song Cheap Flights by Fascinating Aida. That is, until I came across Air Explore. In 2012, this Slovak airline was hired by Monarch when they couldn’t meet demand with their own fleet. It was a mistake. Amidst unsettling stories from fellow travellers with prior knowledge of Air Explore, we’d sat for an hour in the stuffy atmosphere of a 737 on Birmingham apron while security officials dealt with the captain who’d allegedly failed a breathalyser, only to be sent back to the terminal until a replacement plane was found after another hour.

Out and return, shortage of legroom forced passengers to wrap knees round chins, uncomfortable for older people and unseemly for those in skimpy clothing for Albufeira. Consuming the soggy cheese melt and cold mock-coffee was awkward, though being bandy I had a natural gap through which my friend could feed me succulent tit-bits and run a straw.

Air Explore

In the likely event of an emergency landing, we were at least in a brace position, albeit upright. Not that we’d have understood what this meant had we been first-time flyers. An expressionless, disembodied voice guided us through the safety instructions:

‘Lifebel-iz-under-sit-and-ossigin-iz-above-and-fall-down, own-first-then-children-iz-order, and-no-smoke-in-lavatory-haz-alarm.’

‘What-that-sound-from-speaker-iz-above?’ my friend asked me.

‘Iz-procedure-for-likely-event-emergency,’ I explained. ‘Iz-we-die-when-seatbelt-snap-and-plane-plunging-and-no-ossigin.’

‘Thank-you-iz-understand-now.’

So – “no-frills” is relative. Air Explore made easyJet look like the saints of the skies, though even it must think we’ve got it too easy as it announces a 64% reduction in the permitted size for hand luggage. No coincidence that it’s just taken over CabinBaguette, a manufacturer whose speciality is cabin baggage for short-haul travel. Buy shares now! And Ryanair, on a further cost offensive, still vies for bottom spot, announcing that from 2014, without payment of a fee, engines will be reined back at 30,000 feet and passengers must flap madly through aircraft windows while a whip-wielding cabin crew patrols the aisle like Vikings in a longship.

Back home, and Herefordshire Council mounts a further challenge in the no-frills race. My car already baulks at entering petrol stations:

‘Not at that price,’ it tells me. ‘We’ll just go out occasionally.’

And so it sits outside my house except for a weekly trip round the block to keep itself happy, when, to avoid Council-sponsored potholes the size of Vesuvius it veers wildly from side to side, dodging mobility scooters which navigate straight up and down the deep craters, looking from above like rows of egg-carrying ants.

Then I hear the Council might only collect my rubbish fortnightly, meaning the front of our neat terrace goes to back-alley squalor as wheelie bins overflow and black sack mountains attract foraging cats and rats.

But my bus pass is free. And while Council subsidies are fast disappearing, there’s still a good service to Hereford on top-range buses and a no-frills service to Gloucester on a shaking, breaking fleet with bold notices saying:Stagecoach

Stagecoach advises that passengers may experience upset stomach, severe nausea, giddiness, hearing problems, tremor and total breakdown. Please tell us any other side-effects, so we can add them to the list.

As my income is ever pinched by Camshaft, Clogg and Council, I plumb the depths of no-frills shopping, embracing Peacocks for underwear at a penny, Greggs whose Fatty Melts™ fill me for a quid, and Lidl where I can joust with other shoppers for the last box of Class 5 strawberries, nibbling quickly at the edges before white fur encases the fruit.

At home, I pamper myself in a bubble-bath of Strippit™ from the 99p Store, on offer at 20p when purchased with Skinright™, a soothing balm for burnt skin.100_21571.jpg And afterwards, my treat – a Special House Chow Mein from my Chinese takeaway, Wing On, cheaper than I could make it, and with ambience and service that leaves Air Explore looking classy.

Sadly, holidays are a thing of the past, though an occasional overnight at a Travelodge is affordable. The youthful receptionist at a pasting table babbles about breakfast packs and points you in the general direction of a bare-walled room, with its bathroom door that doesn’t quite shut, and its small balsa bed which, as you turn at night, moves in circles away from the wall, leaving you disorientated when you get up to look for the one-cup kettle that’s no longer provided.

But in one vital way, life is rich. My girlfriend, happy to share my no-frills existence, is first-class. Unlike an early girlfriend, Nancy Everett, who dressed plainly, had a figure like a plank and spoke in a muttered monotone. No-Frills Nancy, she was known as. She killed our relationship by yanking off the tabs on my long socks one day when it was Cubs after school. Which made me cry.

Paul Costello ©  May 2013

Utterly Undiscovered – comic Bed & Breakfast Memoir by Paul Costello.

Utterly front cover - final Illustrated by Emma Hames.      

Publication:  spring 2013.    

Fineleaf Editions  http://www.fineleaf.co.uk

ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2

www.paulcostello.me

@PaulCostello8

Utterly Undiscovered – Talking to Yourself

Mmm, juicy king prawns …

I’d managed to get away with just buying a prawn mayo on wheat germ, despite the Greggs assistant’s relentless pitch for me to add ‘anything else’.

On a bench by the grand, soon-to-be-opened Birmingham Library, a young woman sharing the seat looked along and said:

‘You sure that’s good for you?’

‘Hm,’ I said, pausing to consider the well-worthiness of the sandwich, and glancing between it and the woman. Before I could come up with something more original, she looked me straight in the eyes and said:

‘As long as you’re okay.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I’m fine.’

The young woman smiled and turned away. As I homed in on the juicy prawns in the centre, which like the icing on a chocolate cupcake I’d held back for the grand finale, I sensed from her muttering that she might be unwell.

‘Do you know where they come from?’ she then asked.

‘Haven’t the faintest,’ I said, wiping away a run of Marie Rose from my chin and licking my hand. ‘The sea?’

‘Ha ha!’ she said, grinning.

‘Don’t you like prawns?’ I asked.

‘What?’ she said, tensing across to check my question.

‘Not even the giant ones?  Mmm, juicy,’ I mused.

The woman shouldered her bag and stood up. As she walked past, throwing me a measured look, she lowered her head and I heard her mutter, ‘Some old bloke on a bench … no, I’ve just left,’ the wire trailing from her left ear, previously unseen like a newscaster’s, the only clue as to what had just happened.

*

Disjointed conversations were also commonplace in my Bed and Breakfast, visitors rarely getting to hear what I was actually thinking. In this part of my new book, Utterly Undiscovered, my alter ego (My Basil) gets to work as I check with four fat Americans that they’re happy with their rooms:

‘Is everything all right for you?’ I ask.

‘Rooms are a bit small, but they’ll do,’ says the fatter of the two men.

‘I think you’ll find it’s your obesity and the cases.’

‘Tell me, do you get hot water around here?’   copy-cropped-cropped-utterly-front-cover-jpg1.jpg

‘The tap marked “H”, dickhead.’

‘It may take a minute to come through,’ I say, trying not to give away too much disdain; I’d like to hold some back for later.

Paul Costello © April 2013

Utterly Undiscovered – comic Bed & Breakfast Memoir by Paul Costello.

Illustrated by Emma Hames.      

Publication:  spring 2013.    Fineleaf Editions  http://www.fineleaf.co.uk 

ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2

www.paulcostello.me

@PaulCostello8

 

Programme Notes from Les Miserables

Look down, look down,

Don’t look ’em in the eye.

By the time Jean Valjean and his fellow convicts had hauled in the French Man O’ War, the couple to my left had nodded off – the man’s head tilted back against the wall, jaw loose,  the woman’s body twisted awkwardly over his chest.

Little surprise considering the intense heat laid on for matineés and the draining events of Les Misthe previous half hour. I’d counted sixteen of us filling the back row when the doors  opened and, in our early 60s, my friend and I were clearly the youngsters of the party. Outer clothes had been quickly discarded, and with the screen curtains still shut, a buzz of anticipation had filtered along the row as film reviews were shared and medical matters dissected.

‘I’ve heard it’s not as good as the stage version,’ the woman by my friend said, loudly. ‘But I’ll give it a chance’

‘Very noble of you,’ my friend replied.

‘Javert’s got a kidney stone. They take it out later,’ I thought I heard a woman say, although I doubted the stage show had been tampered with to that extent. Perhaps she meant someone else.

We’d hardly settled when a young usher came in.

‘Anyone dropped a Bus Pass?’ he called out. ‘Sorry, can’t give the name – Data Protection. But we’ve put it behind the hot chocolate counter.’

At this, the women of the row emptied purses of cards used for this, that and the other, whilst men checked front, back and side pockets of coats and trousers. To echoes of, ‘I know it’s in here somewhere,’ sixteen Bus Passes were eventually accounted for, and the usher had unwittingly added to our camaraderie.

But then the mood changed. A string of men in track suits came through the swing doors and took up the row in front of us. Word went round that they were basketball players from Bucharest at a tournament in Gloucester that evening. With their average height of six foot eleven and the cinema’s mean seating rake, we had a problem.

Taking the initiative, and not without a good deal of tutting and muttering, the couple at the end of our row moved into seats in front of the Romanians, encouraging others to follow, until we were all neatly ensconced in the third row from the back.

But to our surprise, in what seemed an intuitive counter-attack, the basketball team moved purposefully from their seats, once again lining up in front of us. Some people saw this as Les Misdecidedly anti-British. I heard mention of the European Community and unfounded comment on cultural differences, the net result of which was our second, more boisterous shift into the seats below the Romanians, followed by a bilingual exchange of views about what was right and who was entitled to what in Europe and in Cineworld.

It had become a grudge match. With the temperature rising in every sense, the Romanians took no time at all in re-establishing a positional advantage, and as the screen came to life and lights dimmed, so the battle between sixteen lanky basketball players and sixteen people of leisure, tumbling in childlike fashion down the centre stalls of Screen 6, had continued until the Romanians reached the front row.

The ignominy of defeat hung heavily over us. But we were not finished. Hushed tactics passed along the line, and at a signal from a man with a tartan cravat and navy Pringle sweater, we crept, under cover of a booming trailer for Red Dawn with which our rivals seemed pre-occupied, back up to the seats we’d started off in. The next few minutes, in which we sat tight-lipped, anticipating a re-run of the ten minute charade, passed peacefully. The Romanians seemed happy having extra leg room and  no-one in front of them, and we’d restored our viewing advantage.

‘Marvellous how they’ve designed a car that doesn’t need a driver,’ said the man next to me, as a slinky, red Golf drove itself across the screen.

‘No point advertising if it doesn’t need one,’ I suggested, wondering why in this heat he was still wearing his narrow-rimmed, check trilby.

With fifteen minutes to go, a mouth-watering advertisement had then informed us:

‘There’s still time to collect your refreshing Werther’s Original from the foyer – and, gentlemen, why not take the opportunity to make yourselves comfortable while you can.’

Announcement of this intermission, tailored for matineés, led to evacuation of the back row, but not before we’d possessively laid cardigans and cagoules across seats to discourage trespass. Outside, the eight women formed an orderly queue at the sweet counter while we men split into two groups, one taking up the four Gents urinal spaces while the other four of us chatted for five minutes about sundry coach trips until it was our turn.

Armed with various sized tubs of freshly-produced Werther’s Original, we headed back in, relieved to find the Romanians still at the front. As the familiar Werther’s crunch rattled through the air, a screen message beseeched us not to spoil others’ enjoyment by leaving mobiles on. Women foraged deep in handbags and men in pockets to retrieve phones.

‘It’s that silver knob on the side,’ said one woman, as her companion tried switching off his mobile, only to get successive, tinny renditions of Beethoven’s Fifth. I could see the light on another man’s phone coming back on as quickly as he turned it off, whilst the woman next to my friend was using a key-fob torch to browse an instruction booklet before poking randomly at a screen with a life of its own.

Now, with the movie taking hold, a glance along the row showed people at various angles Les Misof repose.The couple next to me were already away; the Family Bucket of Werther’s was sliding off my friend’s lap; and my eyes too were growing heavy. By the time a cropped Fantine was ‘dreaming her dream’, I barely noticed what must have been a minibus outing of Marge Simpson look-alikes slip silently into the row in front of us.

Paul Costello © March 2013

The story of how I can fall asleep anywhere is told in:

Utterly Undiscovered – comic Bed & Breakfast Memoir by Paul Costello.

Illustrated by Emma Hames.  Header image above from chapter titled: Caught Napping    

Publication:  spring 2013.    Fineleaf Editions  http://www.fineleaf.co.uk 

ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2

www.paulcostello.me

@PaulCostello8