For a young, handsome, modest, single fellow with oats to sew, Brighton in the summer is one heck of a place to be. The pebble beach might be crap, but, oh boy, the near-naked pulchritude that pervades the pier, the prom and the pretty passageways of town would prime the pulse of a peckerless pensioner.For once in his life my pal Buzz Malone had done a smart thing by investing in real estate here. He used the apartment as a base from which to sortie to umpteen tournaments a year around the world, earning a good living without achieving much fame. Neither of us expected him to get beyond the second round at Wimbledon, which is why I had to find a job and accommodation pretty smartly. Buzz would be back any day now, accompanied (you can bet your granny’s hat on this) by at least one representative of the afore-mentioned pulchritude, and I’d be damned if I’d lie awake on the living-room sofa listening to Buzz serve aces all night.
Returning recently from the States, I’d been very lucky to find Buzz out of town for the Northern Lawns tournament, and therefore his apartment at my disposal. In that past month I’d made a serious attempt to find work that would give me the kind of income I needed to continue living in pricey Brighton, which is how I’d come to be acquainted with Mimsie Hardwater of the JobCentre. Acquainted? We were practically engaged.
As for the Centre itself, I could recite by heart the details of every job available on display from Acrobat to Zookeeper, and had made friends with every layabout that regularly set foot in there, looking for a soft touch and a free handout.
At ten minutes to three that afternoon I repeated the routine, little realizing how very different this visit would be from all the others…
They were there in force, Flash, Hengist, Stutz and Wacker, clustered around the ‘Other Jobs’ display as though about to draw straws for such rich pickings as ‘dishwasher’ and ‘lavatory attendant’. Nice lads, but without exception they lent a new meaning to the term ‘Brain Drain’. You could see the seeping cerebellum cells lying on their shoulders like dandruff. Okay, it might have been dandruff, but I wouldn’t put money on it.
As I entered from the street, a sardonic cheer went up. ‘Hi, Russ!’
‘Wacha, lads! Anything good come in?’
‘Who the ‘ell’s looking?’ muttered Flash Gordon, whose real name is Bernard. Flash is an ardent student of horseracing. Flash has an unbeatable system. You bet on a horse, and if it loses, you double your bet on the next race. And if that loses, you double again, and keep on doubling until all your money has gone, then you wait for your next giro cheque and start all over again. Flash is a lovely guy, but if he was any more stupid, he’d have to be watered twice a week.
Flash had his nose buried in the racing form now. ‘Fancy anythin’ today, Russ?’
‘Yes, Trouser Zipper in the three o’clock – it’ll fly home.’
A curious honking noise began emanating from behind a curtain of coconut matting covering the face of Hengist Hoddle, real name Henry, but known among the lads, for obvious reasons, as Hengist the Horrible. Hengist is a troglodyte, lives in a cave somewhere off the M23, and the hairiest human being, male or female, I’ve ever encountered. Not only does the stuff completely conceal his features, it sprouts from every hole, crack, nook and cranny of his being, curling out of collar and cuffs, and thrusting out of buttonholes with the irresistible determination of pavement weeds. The only job he could possibly be looking for in here was as a pull-through for a siege cannon.
I said, ‘Hi, Hengist, that you in there?’ To the others, with a wink: ‘Has anyone ever actually seen his face?’
Wacker grimaced. ‘I did wunce – on the pier in a high wind. Not a pretty sight. He had people jumpin’ inta the sea.’ Wacker is a black Liverpudlian with a Scouse accent thicker than a Mersey oil slick. If he ever gets to sit down for a job interview, he’ll need a translator.
Hengist was honking again, a noise uncannily like an old consumptive Paris taxi. Now, there was another job he could do - strap him to the bonnet…
‘Hey, Russ – here’s a g...g…g…good one f…f…for you.’ This was Stutz, real name Arthur, a diminutive redhead with huge ears. In a stiff sea breeze he had to wear a cap or he could take off and end up in Eastbourne. Stutz, to nobody’s surprise, stutters, but only now and then. I think he does it for effect, to hold your attention. He certainly has you hanging on for his next word. He was pretending to study the Jobs board.
‘I’m all e…I’m listening,’ I said.
Wacker chuckled and Hengist got stuck in traffic again.
‘Black sheep?’ muttered Flash. ‘Of the family? Right up your street, Russ.’
‘Thanks, Flash. I’ll be right up your street in a minute.’
Stutz gave us all his pissed-off look. He does not like to be interrupted. ‘B…B…Bar…Bar…’
‘Barber!’ declared Wacker. ‘I wus a barber wunce – in a fruit shop in Liverpool. Used to shave the ‘airs off gooseberries and sell ‘em as grapes.’
Hengist was now log-jammed in Hyde Park Corner, making more noise than eighteen famished sea lions at fish time.
‘Bar…Bar…Bloody Shut Up!’ wailed Stutz. ‘…and l…l…let me get it out!
A shocked, collective intake of breath.
‘Stutz! Not in here, mate,’ protested Flash. ‘We don’t want Mimsie Hardwater running amok. Russ is going to have enough trouble with her without you stoking her furnace.’
I checked my watch; it was almost three. ‘Gotta go, fellas. Don’t think it hasn’t been uplifting. Hey – Stutz, there’s the very job for you…right there!’
He fell for it. ‘W…What is it?’
‘Sports commentator for the hundred metre dash.’
Even he had to grin. ‘Very f…f…f…humorous.’
‘Before I go’ I motioned them into a huddle. ‘I must tell you true, very sad story about a young lad who was similarly afflicted as Stutz, and whose Dad had one leg shorter than the other. And one day the kid said, “Dad, I’ve been th…th…thinking about your d…d…disability. When you w…w…walk to work, why don’t you w…w…walk with your sh…short leg on the pavement and your l…l…long leg in the gutter, to even it up?” His Dad thought this was a brilliant idea, so next day he does just that. Half-way to work, he’s going along fine when a car comes round the corner and hits him for six. He ends up in hospital with thirty-two broken bones and a badly sprained sense of humour.’
‘This is true?’ queries Wacker.
‘On my life. Anyway, some weeks later the lad goes to visit his Dad who is encased in plaster like an Egyptian mummy, except for holes for his eyes and mouth. The lad tells his Dad how sorry he is about the accident and Dad beckons him to come closer. “Son” he whispers, “while I’ve been lying here all these weeks I’ve given a lot of thought to your disability…and I think I’ve come up with a cure.’ Overjoyed, the lad asks, “W…What is it, Dad?” And his Dad shouts into his ear, “KEEP YOUR **!!++** MOUTH SHUT!’
Mimsie was there in all her three-hundred-pound glory, dressed to impress in a flame red creation that could’ve been seen from Mars.
As my Employment Service Adviser she has been employment service advising me for almost a month, and in that time I’d grown to like her very much. She is Sweetface personified, a gorgeous, helpful, homely soul inside of whom is a slender, romantic sexpot, desperate to get out.
As I approached her desk, her beautiful green eyes told me she was delighted to see me, and her long dark lashes batted so hard the breeze blew my coat open.
‘Hi, Russ! Glad you came in.’
‘Me, too. Mimsie, I’ve decided never to work again if it means separation from you.’
As I took a seat, she peered round me at the lads I’d just left. Hengist was still in full honk at the joke.
Mimsie shook her head in mock despair. ‘I’ve advised them all and I don’t think they’re going to make it. Their wheels are turning, but their hamsters are dead. I think they only come in here to get out of the sun, rain, wind, cold, snow…’
‘Mimsie…you know darned well they only come in to see you. Hengist thinks you’re wonderful.’
‘You mean the stand-in for Chewbacca? You sure he’s a fella?’
‘A very smart fella. I hear that when his I.Q. reaches forty-five he’s going to sell.’
She laughed. ‘Okay, enough of them, let’s talk about you.’ She looked very directly at me, her eyes taking on a sparkly mischief, as though she was withholding arcane surprise. ‘Your circumstances unchanged since you were here last?’
’Still need a job, accommodation?’
‘Buzz will be back any day now, and the piggy bank wouldn’t buy a pork sausage.’
‘Okay.’ She leaned forward conspiratorially, lowering her voice and inadvertently, perhaps, offering me a view of what, from satellite altitude, might have been analysed as an ICBM silo. ‘I’m going to give you two words that just might give you everything you need right now…and change the future course of your life for the better.’
I gulped. If one of those words was ‘me’, I was going to be out of the door faster than that ICBM out of its silo. ‘Oh?’
‘Cuckoo…Court,’ she all but whispered.
She frowned. ‘What what?’
‘What did it catch?’
‘Not ‘caught’…’court!’ C-o-u-r-t.’
She peered at me as at one who had never heard of Muffin the Mule. ‘You haven’t seen the ads?’
‘All over. Big hoardings. Cuckoo Court – a Whole New Dimension in Retirement living.’
Enlightenment. ‘Ah. Retirement Living. Not a subject that would instantly capture my attention.’
‘It should. Maybe.’ She seemed deadly serious.
‘They’re looking for an Assistant Manager.’
There was an extended pause. ‘And?’ I said.
‘And…I think you’d be perfect for it.’
I laughed. ‘Me? I couldn’t manage an egg-and-spoon race! I’ve never managed anything in my life. I’ve sold sewing machines, collected debts…’
Mimsie tapped my file that lay before us on the desk. ‘I know what you’ve done, Russ, it’s all in there. And one thing you have done that makes me think you can do this job is you’ve traveled…met people. As much as any other qualification, this job requires an understanding of human nature. Retired human nature. Which, as a one-time courier, you will know has special needs.’
My memory did a back-flip to the lovely Elsie Harbottle, Doris Turtle, and Mr and Mrs Randall, some of my elderly charges during my stint as courier for Ardmont Holidays in Majorca. With the odd respite for younger company and romantic interlude, I didn’t stop laughing all summer. Come to think of it, the interludes were pretty hilarious, too.
I began to thaw to the idea. ‘Okay, so I’m qualified. What’s the deal?’
Mimsie opened another file and produced paper. ‘Job description, starting salary, accommodation. Read it and tell me you don’t worship the ground I walk upon.’
I read. I looked up at her, wide-eyed. I read some more. I looked up again, even wider-eyed. ‘What’s the catch?’
‘Can’t find any. Mind you, this has only just come in, and I mean in the past hour, so nobody has been for an interview yet. But I have spoken to the Manager of Cuckoo Court, an American named Pete O’Shea, to confirm the details and requirements, just in case they’d typed too many noughts on the salary by mistake.’
‘Jesus. What did he sound like?’
‘Youngish. Loudish. Niceish. You want an interview, Tobin?’
She was reaching for the phone before I could nod. It must have rung but once before it was answered.
Mimsie winced as a voice announced, loud enough for me to hear: ‘GoodafternoonCuckooCourtPetespeakinghowcanIhelpyou?’
I grinned at her. ‘Dime to a dollar he’s from the Bronx.’
She asked, ‘Are you from the Bronx, Pete?’
‘Westchester, how in hell d’you know? Who is this?’
‘Mimsie…at the JobCentre.’
‘Oh, hi, Mimsie! How in hell d’you know?’
‘I didn’t. I’ve got a candidate for you, Russ Tobin, he said you were from the Bronx.’
‘Tell him he’s a smartass – and to get it over here right now.’
‘Don’t you want to know something about him?’
‘Hell, no. I need him. I’ve been dying for a pee for two hours.’
Laughing, she hung up. ‘You heard the man.’
‘I think,’ I said, standing, ‘that this could be ve-e-ry eeen-teresting. Mimsie, I worship the very ground you walk upon.’
‘I told you you would. Let me know how it goes.’
I blew her a kiss and made my way out past the four lads who were still pretending to look for jobs.
‘How d’it go, Russ?’ asked Wacker.
‘Ah, fellas, it appears that at last I am about to break free from the shackles of inherited working-class impoverishment, set my foot firmly on the ascending ladder of socio-economic progression, and hobnob with the power-mongering, wealth-manipulating movers and shakers of our time. I think that about covers it. Oh, and all the tea and coffee I can drink.’
‘You’re gonna be a window cleaner?’
I could still hear Hengist honking when I reached the street.