Novels and Short Stories

 

'Left of the Bridge' is set in Cardiff in 1979. 18 months after leaving Wolverhampton John Hayward, aka Johnny Wayward, lives in a cheap and cheerless house with the two members of his band and Wiganite Straight Rob.

The extract deals with events two days after the fall of Jim Callaghan, with Johnny feeling as if he has 'fallen through the glass of a pinball machine'.

     Johnny Wayward Says

(Lines from the narrator of 'Left of the Bridge')

On his 'mentor' Cathy: 'If you took away a mental grab-shot of her and got busy in a dark room you wouldn't develop anything close to the real thing.'

Musicians: 'You can't beat them when it comes to ploughing on in the face of apathy, like a man who still enjoys sex even though his wife is reading a paperback over his shoulder.'

His wildest bedroom experience: 'The others, that was like The Phoney War. This one's unleashed Blitzkrieg and I'm running headlong toDunkirk.'

His accent changing: 'Hang around here long enough and you can't help picking up a bit of the old Dylan Thomas yourself. Even Wulfrunians like me find themselves rising and falling when they used to nail in full-stops with a hammer.'

Working on the night shift: 'I knew the place from a TV advert that showed old ladies lovingly making cakes by hand. The only workers I could see were tattooed ex-dockers who smoked Park Drive with the thousand-yard stare of men who'd been given hell by the Vietcong at Khe Sahn.'

The secret of popularity with the opposite sex: 'Imagine a car that's been standing gleaming but unnoticed in the showroom for ages. Take it out and wrap it round a couple of lamp-posts and suddenly everybody wants one.'

Witnessing a parental lecture: 'All that remains is for him is to confront his daughter in the kitchen and tell her in a voice loud enough to be for our benefit, 'None of your gallivanting, young lady.'  'Gallivanting' and 'young lady'.  If he says 'P's and Q's' I'm shouting 'House'.'

A bedroom: 'Smells like the inside of a pantomime horse at curtain call.'

Siobhan's Cardiff accent: 'It's the first time I've heard that accent when it's not being used for transactional stuff like open or wrapped lovely, where to skip and who's the hard man out of you lot.'

Temporary impotence: 'I've been navigating without a compass for years and the last thing I need is the engine packing up on me.'

Events spiralling out of control: 'I feel like I've fallen through the glass of a pinball machine.'

Hearing of other people's sexual adventures: 'This gives me the same feeling as watching that Fag End of Swinging London stuff on TV - that there's a party going on somewhere and you're not invited.'

Dating etiquette: 'There's a lot of pressure to follow the girl-meets-boy-swap-star-signs-get-laid-first-night script and not everyone's cut out for that.'

Bluffing about his knowledge of London: 'You can come out with this crap even if you've only experienced a city as a top-hat or an iron going round a board.'

Taking too long to use Siobhan's number: 'By then that piece of paper felt like dead currency. I might as well have been looking at a ten-bob note or a Confederate dollar.'

Finding his friend is gay: 'I'm cringing at the memory of Bish calling Jeremy Thorpe's boyfriend Scott of the Arse Antics in front of him. Me, mincing in and out of the kitchen until we used up that bottle of Camp Coffee.'

Encountering fledgling yuppies: 'They look like bank clerks but proud of it, talking it up with their mates after probably franking the mail all day.'

Receiving rites-of-passage advice: 'No one ever told me to be myself. Be anyone but him.'

.......

 

Extract from chapter  'LAMF'.

After a lost weekend with a girl he thinks is called Caroline James Johnny ends up taking an unexpected trip up to Pontypridd with Cardiff boy TC, bass player in a funk band and the first black guy he's spoken to since he left Wolverhampton.

The Castle is rushing by on my left as TC sits behind the wheel of his red Triumph Vitesse, a Summer Holiday hat which he says you have to wear to drive the car teetering on his hair. He pushes in a cassette with one hand while the other guides us round the bend onto North Road. I recognise the first song up from my nightclub days.

'War, right?'

'That's right, Johnny. 'Me and baby brother'. You knows your stuff.'

This is the first right note I've hit since we left the bar. It makes me cringe to recall that when we stepped outside I was trying to sound a bit more street, less like a jumped-up sixth-former, but all that did was make me come across as a bit thick compared to TC. I wasn't quite sure how to act when it was down to just the two of us - If the passenger window had been open I wouldn't have put it past myself to slide into the car Dukes of Hazzard style.

It's not just the Splott address but also the black thing that's making me uncomfortable. I've hung out in the same pubs as black guys back in Wolverhampton but apart from a word when you held open the toilet door none of them ever spoke to you.

It doesn't help when your old man's always quoting Enoch Powell, even though he's cool with the black fellas he works with, or you've seen the Villa fans baiting Regis, Cunningham and Batson of The Albion only to cheer on our token black player, Ivor Linton, when he comes on as sub. Somehow it makes a casual conversation feel like a big deal.

'Reach in the glove compartment by there,' he says. 'I've got something for the trip. Light one up, will you?'

Like I said I don't really do drugs but I'm feeling a little edgy so a smoke might help.

'Go for the smaller one, not the Studio One Special,' and he gets all lyrical about the music until he pulls me up with, 'Hey, don't Bogart that joint.'

I let him do the bogarting as we head up the A470.

'Nice car, this,' I say.

'Yeah, they're alright if you can keep the sills from going rotten. I'd take it any day if it's a choice between this and any of that modern shit. All that fancy stuff you don't need.'

As I'm not yet a driver I can't comment.

'Bet you were expecting the old Black Man's Wheels,' he says.

'You what?'

'BMW.'

He's laughing and I'm squirming from hearing this stuff being tackled head-on. It strikes me is that his conversation has a different energy to the black guy talk I've eavesdropped to this point. Those fellas in Wolves never used to say much and when they did they never gave much away. TC sounds like he's trying harder.

'You been to Ponty before?' he asks.

'No. I don't know much about it apart from the rugby team and Tom Jones.'

'You wash your mouth out with soap and water mentioning that last name in my car. Only joshing. So what's your real name then, bro?'

That's an odd question. He said it back in the bar and just now. 'Johnny. Or John. Johnny.'

'What, you serious? I thought that was just a nickname. Caryl and I always called you that after that Thunders fella plays guitar with The Heartbreakers. So you're actually Johnny then.'

We pass Gabalfa Interchange which until the Bakery was the northern limit of my experience of Cardiff. He's rolled down the window and is Detroit Leaning, elbow on the door.

'So Carol called me that as well?' I ask.

'Yeah. I love the way you say Caryl. Real Burmingumm.'

'Carol.'

'Caryl.' He's not even close but he's not alone. I've never heard an outsider do decent Black Country or Brum.

'Caroloine Jaimes,' I say, broader than Noddy, Jasper or Ozzy.

'What you on about? You can't have Caryline. It's Caryl.' He repeats the name with a gesture like Manuel practising his English in Fawlty Towers. 'And it's better that I tell you first, mate, but it's Caryl Morgan. I don't know where you got the James from.'

I try to get my head round this. 'What, she's been married?'

'No, always been Morgan. Unless she's trying out a new name for her writing or something. But that's weird, that was the name of a girl in our class at school.'

The previous owner of Ziggy. 'Can I tell you something, TC? To be honest she didn't really tell me. I saw that name on one of her records.'

He splutters at this. 'Does she know your name then or did she just fluke it?'

I tell him I've never been asked and he has to make an effort to appear cool with it.

'I don't know what to make of the kids of today. You can't just go jumping each other's bones without some introduction.'

It's not until Castell Coch comes into view that I break the silence by asking, 'What's this one, TC?'

'Bit of dub reggae for ya. 'King Tubby meets Rockers Uptown'. You like it? Yeah? You got good taste.'

Thing is, I've just tickled myself with the last question, what with the four or so hits from the old joint kicking in. I ask it again as Brain, Choo Choo, Fancy, Spook and Benny the Ball and he stops me before Officer Dibble with, 'Alright, fuck's sake, give it a rest,' then adds, 'And if you wanna know, it's because my name's Terry Clark, as in Clark's Pies, and not because I've got my yurs sticking up through the brim of my hat.'

Let's spark up the Studio One Special. I'm starting to loosen up.

'No, I'm closer to Spook anyway. That cat's got to be a brother.'

I lose it for the next couple of minutes. TC's laughing too but not uncontrollably like me.

'They're playing your song, Johnny,' he says of the next one and when I draw a blank, ''Johnny too bad'. It's on 'The Harder they come'.'

'Jimmy Cliff?'

'Right again. Gotta hand it to ya. It's a rude-boy song. About a trouble-maker. Ruff-yahn. Bit like yourself. I know what you rockers are like: all those groupies and drugs, passing out in hotel rooms, TV's out the window. Live fast die young.'

I don't feel like a rude-boy, ruffian or cliched rocker. Then again three days ago I didn't think I'd be getting laid to within an inch of my life and driving up to Pontypridd with the likes of TC on a mission to do God-knows-what.

Johnny Too Bad wouldn't come out with anything as lame as my next words though.

'I know him.'

'Who's that?'

'Dai Young.'

TC is lost for words, staring out the driver's window and chuntering like he can't believe he got lumbered with this.

'Jesus. No more blow for you.'

 

 This is an extract from 'Last Time I Saw Edie', part of the 'Exile on Watling Street and other stories' collection, the 1990 section of the story of a tangled love affair revisited at ten-year intervals.

 

I rolled up at five to eight and she was there on the car park.  Only problem was she wasn't alone.  She had a friend with her, company in case I didn't appear.  I was expecting her to take her cue and drift off home. 

'Alright, Mark. This is Kerry. Is she alright to come along?'

I said no problem when I wanted to say no chance and they piled in the back.

'What's the name of this band again?' asked Kerry.

'Ride.'

'I like a bit of Ride. You can't beat a good ride.'

There was a joke in there somewhere.

They talked amongst themselves as I tried to wind the tape tighter on a cassette while still holding the steering wheel.

'This car's a bit of a tank.'

That was Kerry's idea of bringing me into the conversation.

'It's a classic.'

'Classic hunka junk.'

'What, the Ford Escort Mark One?' The 'Top Gear' voice was lost on them. 'You don't see many of these around anymore.'

'Not surprised.'

'Beats walking if you know what I mean.'

As we neared JB's I knew there was no time for the usual quick one in The Lamp first. People were swarming around outside. I cursed the band's appearance on Blink TV on the Monday night.

'Is this it?' said Edie.

JB's was never the most imposing building in the world. Still, they'd all played there. The Police, The Pretenders. Queen tried to get on, obviously way before Live Aid, but were turned down. Dire Straits did it for fifty quid, forty too much if you ask me. Even U2 in the early days, though the crowd weren't having any of that laying-on-of-hands palaver from Bono. They saw him off alright. Hasn't dared show his face since.

We had to back up and park in a side-street. It wasn't looking good. I'd never seen so much floppy hair in one place.

'This isn't Walsall, is it?' said Kerry as we joined the queue. A couple of the fringes laughed sheepishly at that.

'Doesn't look like Rock Night either,' said Edie, and this time you could feel the wind from the snorts of contempt.

JB's Sam had opened up a second venue near the motorway, Junction Ten, and that was what they had on Fridays over there. I used to say wild horses wouldn't drag me but when the line didn't move for ten minutes and the girls were chuntering I knew what was coming.

Sure enough soon we were heading back through the Black Country - factories, cemeteries, scrapyards, waste land - past The Showcase Cinema towards Junction Ten from the back end. The girls seemed less fazed than me by the motorcycle rats doing security at the door.

Inside it was wall-to-wall mullets, stone-washed and Motley Crue. I sat there in Hell while they discussed any loser who happened to pass within ten yards of us or said that some girl in spandex might as well get naked and have done with it.

It was the first time I'd heard Led Zep, that singer Robert Plant you see down the Wolves. The first time I'd sat through Aerosmith, 'Dude is like a lady'. That got the punters on the floor. The girls seemed to like it but were too self-conscious to cut a rug. There was a drinking competition on the stage. 'Where you from, mate?' 'Darlo'. A clenched fist and a few lame cheers from The Darlaston Posse. I was picturing the two Ride guitarists stomping on their effects pedals a few miles across the sprawl.

There was only Edie worth looking at in the room for me. I enjoyed watching her break into a smile, checked her out as she walked to the toilet. Kerry caught me doing that and gave me a dirty look, brought it up when they sat back down. Edie seemed to enjoy her reaction, made a point of checking me out in return. Still, I knew why I'd been invited along. Wheels.

On the way home she sat upfront but turned back to Kerry. They were laughing among themselves, coming out with stuff like 'I can see you in spandex' and 'You'd like that, wouldn't you, you lemon?' All very mature. I knew Kerry was dragging Edie down but she wasn't taking much dragging.

'Here we are, children,' I said as we rolled up at The Broadway.

In the mirror I caught the V's I received from Kerry. Edie seemed stuck for words for a change. That meant they both had to get out together and I wasn't that sorry. You wouldn't have seen it going any further.

 

This is an extract from 'Bit Part', one of the shorter stories in the collection 'Exile on Watling Street and other stories', all set in the West Midlands.

            It was a Friday night in the early 90's and Delta were playing the Jug of Ale in Moseley.  I couldn't persuade anyone else to go so I lone-wolfed it.  I was well into that scene, couldn't get over how you'd see people around who'd been in the charts: Vikki from Fuzzbox,  Jonny Brookes from The Charlatans, the Ocean Colour Scene fellas.

As a rule I didn't go around checking out the girls anymore. This wasn't some Ritzy nightclub scenario where you had to fight your way to the front of the queue and get in while you had the chance. In theory you were there to see the band not to cop off. Plenty of people did cop off though and I was one of them. In fact I was on a roll. The trick was to keep your cool and let them do the checking out.

So I didn't notice her straight away. She was behind the board doing the sound that night, only looking up towards the band. The clothes were understated - striped T-shirt, baseball boots, just-so jeans. Hair as dark as mine falling in front of her eyes as she worked the desk. The way she moved it behind an ear got my attention. I had a nice little fantasy going for a few seconds of her walking round town at my side, diving into Plastic Factory and Swordfish. I presumed I'd have to settle for that.

I got talking to the bassist after the set and came out late to find her working the combination on her push-bike lock. She started swearing like a Tourette's case and I walked over and asked if she had a puncture.

'Both tyres I don't think so.' She reached down to pick up the two caps lying on the floor. 'What do you reckon to this, Sherlock?'

'Someone's idea of a joke.' I was thinking it must be the rugger-buggers who'd been in earlier.

'Let's hope so. I wouldn't like to think it was personal.'

'You haven't got a pump then?'

She pretended to check her pockets. 'Now where did I put that?'

She told me she had to get back to Selly Oak. I was in Cotteridge. I affected a local accent by making Cot sound halfway to Cat. I told her I could help her without having to swing out too far.

'You got a car then?'

'Er, yeah, what do you think I meant? Just an Escort. Mark Two. That old nail over there.'

'Ah man, life-saver.'

We slung the bike in the back and secured the boot with string. She said that would have the coppers on my tail but I told her I'd nursed one pint all night so I'd be fine if I was stopped.

On the way we found out a few things about each other. She didn't have a day job but got by on gigs. I was at the uni, Third Year English. She said she hadn't come across many students with cars, the implication being that I was playing at it. I told her I was from Shrewsbury. She said I was a lucky boy growing up there. She'd been in the gardens down by the river on a day-trip when she was a kid.

'So you're like the original Shropshire lad then? Born and bred.'

I didn't finish it off for her. 'Strong in the arm, thick in the head'. Like a lot of students I had a downer on my hometown, thought it didn't do much for my image. I was trying to be more street - my vocabulary had actually narrowed since I'd started uni - but you were up against it when your football team played at Gay Meadow.

She was from Cannock originally but she'd been coming down to Brum for years. She was hanging out at The West End Bar when she was fifteen, digging the Chicago blues and eyeing up the fellas with the flat-tops.

I drifted off thinking about that A5 linking my town to her town, rolling on out there in the darkness beyond the flyovers and the factories that pounded out old Sabbath riffs.

We arrived at hers and I mauled the bike out of the boot. She asked me if I wanted to come in for a bit, walked the bike on its rims into the hall and stepped into the kitchen to put the kettle on. She said it was the least she could do.

She made the coffee and sat on top of the washing machine in front of me. She asked if I had many gigs on. I was a bit mystified and said there were a couple of good ones most weeks. She said oh sorry I thought you were in that band Sweet Jesus and when I said no she commented that I looked like I could be. I took it as a compliment. That lot were rock 'n' roll.

'Do you always wear your leather jacket zipped up?' she asked.

It was like a 70's bomber jacket, black, and zipped up was good enough for a few of the bands I was into.

'Pretty much all the time.'

'You don't take it off to go to bed then?'

'I make a point of leaving it on when I go to bed.'

She smiled but didn't say anything and it felt like that subject was still hanging.

She told me she shared the house with two other girls. The one, Raj, was a nurse. She was working nights up the road at the QE. The other was a Jamaican girl, Angela, dead religious, doing teacher-training at Newman College. RC. You might even say arsy. Apparently she had a way of getting on your case. I asked her if she was upstairs counting on her rosary beads and she said no she'd gone back to her folks for the weekend.

The way she looked at me when she told me that made Time slow up.

'I went to a Catholic school myself,' she said. 'Cardinal Griffin, Cannock.'

'So are you practising then?'

'Nah. I think the word is 'lapsed'.' She reached over and slid that zip down. 'Not that I was ever…you know, full-on.' Her hand was inside my T-shirt. 'Ange keeps telling me I'm going to Hell.'

I leaned into her and it got steamy for a minute before she said 'Well this isn't working' and jumped down.

We headed upstairs, the back pockets of her jeans at eye-level all the way up. She knew I was transfixed, gave it a bit of Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot. Gemini, she said, since you asked. I hadn't. Leo, I said, and my name is Larry. I was echoing one my mum's old soul records.

Into the box-bedroom. She had no posters as such, just pictures cut from magazines. Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, Iggy Pop naked...