Home Up

SIX OF ONE AND HALF A DOZEN OF THE OTHER

Dave Birstwistle

I thought this piece too long and perhaps too slow and originally commented as follows:

I thought the idea was good Ė rich git struggles on holiday in a foreign shithole while his impoverished house sitter has his best fortnight ever. Funny and, no doubt, not uncommon. 

I can just about see the point of the long descriptions of plentiful luxury and if I were a Martian or a member of the Ituri pygmy tribe I might even find them interesting but I guess most Oik readers know all about bacon and sausage barms, comfy sofas, cans of beer and HD TV. To say it once is enough I think. I hope, therefore, youíll agree that cutting out these thickets of descriptive prose reveals more clearly the basic good idea.  

It has been cut down from 3200 words to about 1400. But itís not a question of space Ė itís more about pace. In my opinion itís always better to give a few hints and have the reader fill in the details than to flatten him with a descriptive barrage which holds up the action. 

Iím returning your typescript along with my reduced version. I still have copies of both so if you can let Bob know if the slimmed down text is OK I think it could well be in Oik 3.

Dave decided to write something else - but I think the original, inflated version is mad enough to warrant inclusion here. Are we crazy oiks or not?

 


 

Six of One and Half a Dozen of the Other.

David Birtwistle 

The call came out of the blue. Henry had spent the past few weeks watching his bank balance slowly dwindle and painfully tightening the notches on his ample belt. His pension gave him a bare subsistence, if that. If he stayed in and avoided anything at all that hinted at minor luxuries he could just about get by. If he wanted to live as he was accustomed, go out to the pub, put on the odd bet, eat a few take-aways, then he'd have to find a job and in this financial climate that was a near impossibility. For three weeks out of four he had to chill out, or doss about and fester and vegetate as he used to call it, but it wasn't ideal. So when Mike phoned him up with a proposal he had his complete attention.

"Look, I've got a proposition. Say 'No' if you want, but just hear me out. Our Mathew's got a new job. In fact it's a serious promotion. He's spotted a special deal, a holiday, on line. Two weeks in Dubrovnik with tours of the Dalmatian coast and Montenegro for half price. He thought that to celebrate he'd take me and Sheila with him and his missus. Are you with me so far? That's flights, hotel, transfers, a tour guide, a really good deal. Too good to miss, in fact. So here's the point. Would you be willing to house-sit for two weeks so that we don't have to put the new dog in kennels? You'd live here, stay in the guest room, there's the big TV, Sky sports the lot. We'd leave food in the freezer and stock up on beer and wine. You'd be house-sitting for two weeks, you'd have very little to do, just keep an eye on things whilst we're away and feed the dog. Sheila would feel a lot better about going away knowing you were here."

The dog was a golden Labrador pup. It was small but Henry knew it would get bigger and grow into a daft, fat lump of blubber but it was no problem to him. Mike had bought it for Sheila after their youngest left home. He said 'Yes' almost without thinking because he knew, instinctively, it was just what the doctor ordered. It was a sign that his luck was changing. Two weeks free board and booze, five minutes from the shops and the pub.' You can't get better than that,' he thought. 'Yes. That's fine. I can handle that.' 'Good. I'm making out a list as we speak. Everything you need to know. Alarm code. Emergency numbers. Neighbours. Which shops to use if you need them. Which pubs are which. And I'll come and pick you up and I'll drop you off at home when we get back. Our flight's at six.

He'd been to Mike and Sheila's a couple of times but he'd never stayed over. It was very neat and tidy from what he remembered. Not very big but compact and set into a quiet road a quarter of a mile from the shops. One of the first things Mike had said when he moved there, years ago, was that he could come home on a Friday night, park up and not need to use the car again all weekend. Everything he needed was within walking distance. Things had changed a bit since then, supermarkets had seen to that but basically the house and the location were the same. The only thing that had really changed in a slow, subtle way was that Mike had developed an obsession for leaving this comfortable and ideally placed home base at every opportunity he could find and would go off gallivanting all over the place on so called 'holidays'. So obsessive was he that it seemed as though he had a Book of Destinations and loved nothing more than going through it frantically, page by page, ticking places off. And when he got back he would talk endlessly about the airport, the cost of tickets, the flight, the delays, the hotel room, the en suite, and never mention the place itself. Still, thought Henry, 'Whilst the cat's away...... .........'

It started off well and got better. The first day there he quietly sussed the place out, checked the dog and then let himself into the cushioned folds of the sofa and flicked through the channels on the large, high-definition TV and practised getting used to the zapper. The only thing that puzzled him slightly was the front room. Henry thought of the front room as a parlour but this one had had a polished table with a bunch of artificial gladioli in a glass vase and six chairs pushed under it. It reminded him of one of those Morecambe tea-rooms but there were no table cloths or doilies on it. He thought they must play cards on it although a baize top would be much better than the deep polish. He wasn't really into art but some of the paintings on the wall he'd seen before in WH Smiths or that stall on Stockport market. They were scenes of exotic places or imaginary landscapes. He didn't pay much attention to them but he did like some of the ceramic dogs on the shelf above the picture rail. On the opposite wall were Toby jugs, plates with paintings on them and memorial cups and mugs.

The odd thing was that apart from the parlour, the 'Snap and Happy Families' room as he called it, everywhere was comfortable but spare, without any form of decoration other that wallpaper. Everything was subordinated to comfort. In the small breakfast bar in the kitchen, the stools had soft, foamy tops you could sink into and the small downstairs loo which he could only just squeeze into had a fluffy pink cover on the seat. This made it warm to sit on but he would have to remember to raise the seat when he was standing in front of it, he didn't want an accident. And that reminded him that when he got comfortable in front of the television with a crate of beer and a pizza, he'd use the plastic bucket he'd seen when he first tried to go to the loo and ended up in the scullery.

He felt light-headed already. The joy inside him stemmed from being in peaceful, cosy surroundings in a house he couldn't afford himself. Even the air in the room seemed like light pillows stuffed with Turkish Delight. He sat on the sofa, stretched out and felt the cushions yield beneath him. He unbuttoned his shirt, which to be fair was bursting against his front and he unbuckled his belt. Then he took off his socks and eased himself into place. With a minimal, effortless movement he pressed the remote control. In these surroundings he could happily watch anything. It suddenly struck him that not only was this a huge TV taking up as much room as a fireplace but it had channels he had never seen before. 'I wonder,' he thought. Pressing the next button he moved through virtual world after world until he stopped at Sky Sports. The England world cup qualifier against Uzbekistan was tomorrow. Today he'd be in clover with cricket, boxing and speedway, and tomorrow....... ...... With High Definition you thought you were there. He could be here as comfortable as he'd ever been in his life and he could be somewhere else at the same time!

On the worktop of the breakfast bar were three dozen cans of Boddington's bitter, a dozen cans of Carlsberg, a wine rack with six bottles of red and six of white and a bottle of gin. He thought to himself, 'A bottle of tonic is less than a quid. I can't grumble at that.' Stuck to the orange tiles with Blutack was a list of phone numbers catering for every emergency. Henry cracked a can and began looking for the food. An extra large casserole dish on top of the microwave had a note selfataped to it. 'Hot pot. All yours, Henry. Son appetit. Everything else is in the freezer in the garage and labelled with instructions. Just help yourself.' He lifted the lid and sniffed. It was rich and herby. 'Gosh. There's enough here for a family of eight,' he thought and slipped it into the oven and set it on high for five minutes.

Opening a can of dog food he felt in charge, almost like the master of the house. He spooned half of it into the right hand plastic dish and filled the other side with water. He certainly knew how to look after a dog. It came and went inside its own time zone and being small used the cat flap in and out of the back garden. As the oven heated his meal and a rich aroma scented the kitchen air he sat on one of the bar stools, drank contentedly from a can of lager and looked around the kitchen. At first he couldn't see any plates, knives and forks, dishes, bottles, jars, washing up equipment, towels or anything at all. He was puzzled and began opening cupboard doors. What he found astonished him. Precision stacking. Things were stowed away tighter than on board ship. Spices, chutneys, pickles and sauces in one, pasta, rice, pulses and noodles in another, a whole dinner service incredibly interlocked in another. 'If I got one out I wouldn't know how to put it back' he thought. 'I'd better get some paper plates. How they do all this is beyond me. And another thing. Where's all the clutter? Surely they keep all the jumble and all their old paraphernalia somewhere? Where's the stuff they don't use but never throw out? It must be somewhere.' A thought descended on him and a light lit up. Perhaps that's why they're building the extension!' And a new sense of understanding entered his being. That's what extensions are for!

Henry woke up with a jolt. He was flat out on the sofa with an empty wine glass in his hand and the TV still on. He had decided that the double bed in the guest room was too pristine and he didn't want to sully it. It was so warm downstairs that he had slept comfortably in just his vest and underpants. \and, like the true Englishman he was, he kept his socks on. He checked the carpet. For a second his heart missed a beat. But no, no mess or stains, no wine or food had dripped onto anything obvious. After two helpings of hotpot and a bottle of red he'd slept like a log. He smiled to himself. What joy, what heaven.

He didn't want to use the immaculately clean grill pan he'd seen stacked behind the plates so he decided to go for a leisurely stroll and see what he could find. It was a clear, mild morning, the leaves were out on the trees, the birds were singing, the bees were buzzing around the flowers and when he turned into the high street the small shops and banks and post office and cafes seemed to reverberate with life's small excitements. It felt just like a holiday and it was beginning to completely reinvigorate him. He stopped by the hole in the wall, put in his card and withdrew £50 hoping this would last him. He picked up a Daily Mirror, called at the bakers and bought a bacon and two sausage barm and sauntered around chewing mouthfuls of true nourishing goodness. The sun smiled gently on him and reinforced his sense of well-being. 'This is better than Benidorm' he thought and it made him think of places he had visited. 'It beats Blackpool hands down. Better than Turkey, better than Crete. Sun but not too hot. No flies, no insect bites, real ale and bacon butties that taste right.' He took the last third of his sandwich into Ladbroke's betting shop. He cast his eyes round the walls and the banks of television sets tuned in to the day's racing. There were only two other people there. He sat at a table, checked the odds, wrote out a betting slip and backed two horses one in the 2.15 at Kempton and one in the 3.30 at Ayr. 'Would you like coffee?' asked the nice young lady behind the till. 'No thank you very much. That's very good of you but I've a nice home to go back to.' Filled with warmth he went back walking on air. The butchers shop he passed looked really good, the vegetable and flower shop a delight to behold, the aromas coming out of the cafes were enticing, and passing the coffee shop almost made him swoon. By the time he reached home he had redefined the world around him and his place in it. Here was the very centre of the universe. There was everything anyone could possibly ever need, the sun shone and he hadn't a care in the world.

That evening as his second day's helping of hotpot warmed in the oven he settled on the sofa and flicked through the channels until he found Sky Sports 2. Watching David Beckham return imperiously to the national side and stroke the ball gloriously around the park and Grouchy nodding in a beauty and Roonie work like a Trojan, running back to tackle, probing forward, out wide to assist and then taking a run at goal himself, Henry felt proud to be English and that night he slept the sleep of the gods.

The next morning he decided not to shave in case he left his whiskers in the highly polished bowl. So he straightened himself up to his full height and went out to seek the shops by a different route. This time he turned right after the school, past the old church and down a cobbled street with cottages. A fresh smell of strong sweet coffee hung in the air as he looked into the art shop full of framed watercolours of local scenes which he liked but couldn't afford. Then he looked into the new and antiquarian bookseller's and browsed among the volumes of local history, two of which he promised himself he'd buy when he got some pennies and his new spectacles. He was in a gentle, timeless backwater with another small, snug cafe and a pub The Nag's Head at the end on the corner. To Henry the whole ambience reminded him of a picture he'd once seen on a nineteenth century calendar, the England they now market to tourists. He called in Ladbroke's and collected £26 of winnings. He decided to invest in two well done double bacon and sausage barms with brown sauce and buy a few vanilla slices for his lunch. The rest of the money he would save for a rainy day. Today was sunny and he was on a roll.

After that his only expenses were at breakfast time. Each day he would wander at a leisurely pace around the shops, greet fellow passers-by with a cheery 'Good morning,' buy a paper and stroll about like a man of means. By the end of the first week he'd met the dog twice, decided 5 nights on the run with hotpot was enough and lobbed the remainder in the bin along with the paper plates, pulled out two smaller freezer tubs marked 'Corned beef hash' and ' Toad in the hole' and left them on the windowsill to thaw out. He'd seen some form of football nearly every day, watched the darts, the cycling and the golf, seen the odd game show, enjoyed a documentary on Measuring your own carbon footprint and he'd spent some time sitting looking out of the window feeling pleased with himself.

The second week he discovered another bakery a few yards past the wine merchant. He thought the pies were the best he'd ever had. His task for the week was to sample everything they had on offer. Steak and Ale was an instant hit and so difficult to resist he decided he'd eat them in tandem, a steak and ale plus.. ...The first day he'd had two steak and ale with a tub of mushy peas, the second day steak and ale with a meat and potato pie, the third day with a Cornish pasty, the fourth with cheese and onion, the fifth with steak and kidney pudding and on Saturday to celebrate he had two steak and ale, three sausage rolls, a cold pork pie with mustard and a tub of hot baked beans. Lunches were blissful and he'd had a full bacon breakfast to set him up for the day and an evening meal out of the freezer to look forward to.

It was Sunday and they were due to return. Henry went round the house with a fine tooth comb although in truth there was no need since he'd hardly touched a thing. He opened the loo

window and really scrubbed at the wash basin with his discarded socks after giving in and having a shave. It was raining gently but still warm and the dog came inside for the first time. It sat in its fluffy cot its eye on the food tray and its ear cocked to the cat flap. There seemed to be a certain understanding between man and beast. At 10.30 the phone rang for the first time in two weeks.

'We're at the airport and we'll be there within the hour,'

'Have you had a good time?' asked Henry.

'Yes but the flight was late and we had to hang about at the

airport. The hotel was so-so, the en-suite helped. Tell you when I see you.'

An hour later Mike and Sheila arrived to find the house and the dog looking remarkably as they had left it.

'Dog no trouble?'

'He's been fine.'

'Find the food alright?'

'Yes thanks. How was the trip?'

'Well, the hotel, we had the en-suite but if we'd had to pay.......

Thank God we had the en-suite that's all I can say. I tell you what, I tried my debit card, I tried my credit card, I tried my visa, I tried my American Express. If it wasn't......

'What on earth's he blathering about? He's just had a holiday. He should be over the moon.' thought Henry. 'I ask you. Chip and PIN. Anyway on the flight back we tried to get an upgrade, but this hostess, flight crew, call 'em what you will, she wasn't having any..........'

They must have seen something of interest in a fortnight.

'And another thing. Waiting in the airport coming back. That was a nightmare. Some sort of electrical storm and air traffic control.........'

For the past two weeks this house has been perfect. I could retire here.

'So, where was I? Anyway. I turned round to this cabin crew, air hostess, call her what you will and I said to her........'

ĎIíll see you next time you go away' said Henry and pulled the door gently behind him.

'There could be anything up to half a dozen holidays in the pipeline here' he thought.