Friday, 15 June 2012

Novel Thoughts: The Making of Miss B

Our B could be Brighton, it could be Bexhill-on-Sea, Or it could be Bognor Regis or it could be Bournemouth. We’ll just call it B, a jewel of a resort on the south coast of England. And its beauty queen is Miss B. And this is her story, or rather, the story of the making of Miss B.
A long time ago, before I was born, it all started by the ornamental swimming pool, where gals in modest one-piece post-war swimsuits and multiple hairstyles inspired by Veronica Lake, Rosalind Russell and a young Elizabeth Taylor shyly gathered to have their beauty graded by chaps in blazers and white ducks with moustaches and matronly spinsters from the local school of deportment. This was the time of popular end-of-the-pier jokes about beauty contestants and their embonpoint. Then came the sixties with the advent of the bikini, and the hot foreign bodies, from Brigitte Bardot, to Elke Sommer, to Britt Eklund. But it was the Bardot blonde, the sulky, cigarette-smoking girl of the Midi who changed the look and feel of these contests forever.
Before too long, however, the feminists came on the scene, at about the same time as me, to burn their bras if not their bikini tops and the beauty world seemed passé and very much part of the male dominance of society, where a woman was judged solely on her looks, even if the look of these looks changed not only with the dictates of fashion but also with social conventions. By the end of the century the beauty business was in decline with television marginalising the competitions and the competitors still an easy target for ridicule with their protestations for world peace.
But then the world of celebrity and reality shows changed all that in the new millennium. Suddenly every girl wanted to be a beauty and even the most provincial of contests was oversubscribed with hopefuls, coiffed apurpose, batting false eyelashes and sporting talons of animal length and aesthetic artistry.
I remember my first day as editor of the Guardian, B’s local newspaper. I was called in to the publisher’s office to witness him sending off the incumbent Miss B. Already four months pregnant. She had come to the town for her tertiary education at the revamped poly, now dubbed laughingly a university, in media studies. It appeared she had decided to keep the baby but had yet to inform her parents. Kirk, the middle-aged publisher, wrung his hands and lamented her position. So she was packed back off up north.
When she had left he pointedly remarked to me that he did not want another outsider crowned as Miss B, nor did he expect my management of the competion to be as flawed as that of my predecessor. Certainly there was no way I would be able to get any of the contestants pregnant! I think he was relieved at that. It was a start. Little had I known this would be part of my job desciption. Managing a beauty pageant.
‘Miss B is not just about a pretty face. The search is on to find a young lady with that special spark to represent our town in the national competition later in the summer, and, who knows, if she wins that she would go on to compete in Miss Galaxy.’
This was the dream, then. The reality was rather different. The town had never won the national competition, only getting as close one year as third runner-up, a giant of a girl, model potential if she could have lost some weight, who declared in her semi-final stage speech, that she was only doing the competition to give her a leg up in the music business. You can imagine how that went down with the judges. These days she was seen from time to time fronting a distinctly amateur band playing some of the seedier pubs on a Friday night in the bad part of town.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

A Football First (the pre-game show) ~ New York Stories 3

They say that American football is a metaphor for US foreign policy. It’s the only contact sport where you can hit everyone and anyone even when they don’t have the ball.  All in the objective of protecting or annihilating the quarterback, a presidential figure who calls the plays from huddle to huddle. Of course, it’s convenient to forget about that mayhem on ice I prefer, of which the peace-loving Canadians and the vodka-soused Russians are traditionally the most accomplished practitioners. 
I, however, had an altogether different mind-set about the pigskin parties so much a feature of the American fall. Columbia University, not recognised as an Ivy League sports powerhouse such as The Crimson Tide, The Bulldogs or indeed the Big Red C in upstate New York, I eschewed for my first glimpse face to face of the game at the professional level when my godfather, who had seen Joe Willie lead the New York Jets to Superbowl triumph, told me he would organise a trip for me to the Meadowlands, their out of state home shared with the New York Giants in New Jersey. Confused? I was. I had hoped to go to Shea Stadium where the Jets had played when the Beatles performed there too. Besides, I would then be able to boast “Samantha does Shea” just like Debbie did Dallas in a famous film of yore. Nevertheless, easily impressed by a man who would openly admit to watching a Joe Willie perform in public I leapt at the opportunity.
On the appointed Sunday, a brisk, fresh, sunny, autumnal day, a limousine drew up outside my ob/gyn’s house in Riverdale and whisked me away to cross the Hudson River. Inside, cocooned in the comfort of his custom Cadillac, was a well-groomed man of average height in a well-tailored suit, well-polished shoes and well–knotted tie. He introduced himself as Teddy and told me he had represented my godfather for many years.
Now I, of course, had a teddy when I was little but it hardly crossed my mind that I would think about having one then. My rather short, green (I had done my research), A-line skirt rode up high on my thighs as I sat next to him in the back of the Caddy and I saw out of the corner of my eye that Teddy did not miss a trick. Well he was a lawyer after all. He closed the screen between his driver and our pleasurable tête-à-tête and offered me a glass of champagne.
He quickly plumbed the shallows of my ignorance of the sporting spectacle in which we were about to participate. I countered with a bold interrogation of his antecedents. His family were certainly of establishment New England stock. They had a summer house on Cape Cod which he casually invited me to visit. He had gone to Yale as an undergraduate and later to law school at Harvard. I don’t know why but the thought of Mary Jo Kopechne crossed my mind and I squeezed my ass tighter into the opulent leather seat as we crossed the Hudson. A reflex action I suppose. Somehow I felt safe as long as Teddy had his tie on. In any case the driver managed the car professionally smoothly, I ne’er spilled a drop of my champagne, when we took the George Washington Bridge. And with the Martha Washington supporting from below, like a good Tory squirearchy wife should, there was not much chance of us ending up in the drink.
I began to feel rather hot in the confines of the heated limousine and moved to pull my figure-hugging, black, cashmere sweater over my head. In so doing I snapped the thread that held my string of South Sea island natural pearls, a gift from my ob/gyn. They scattered on the floor and not waiting for any move from Teddy I swooped down to gather them up, dropping them one by one into my darling black Chanel purse.
Teddy seemed to be genuinely sympathetic to my plight although I found his amusement at the relative position of my head to his knees disconcerting. As  I leaned forward trying to pick a pearl from a join in the lush carpet he seized the moment, another legal trait, exploiting the opportunity. He commanded me to adopt the position. This certainly confused me. It was way too soon for any of that.
Obeying his instructions I crouched down facing the front of the car, one hand clutching my purse, acting as the pigskin, set in a transverse position on the sward. He explained he was demonstrating the snap, the action that commenced every scrimmage, the holding position and the holding stance of the line. From behind me his voice calmly issued clear guidance on how I should kneel on one knee.
Now I had every reason to be alarmed as the word snap in my limited experience always preceded the word garter and I hoped that my suspenders supporting my fine denier, semi-nude, black stockings would be sufficiently elastic to resist any of the stretching that I was being put through. He continued to explain the role of the centre, the position I was playing, asking me to bob up as he delicately lifted my skirt and almost reverently inserted his hands between my spread legs. This was no grope, you understand, only the gentlest of contact with the bare skin above my stocking from the back of his hand as on the third “hut” of the count he asked me to hike the purse back to him. After a couple of attempts in slow motion we did it at full speed and I thought I was getting the hang of it. He showed me how the position was designed to be stable by seizing my ass and pressing it down and swaying me from side to side.
All this exertion and excitement made me thirsty so I resumed my seat and asked for another glass of champagne. While Teddy poured I examined my legs, seeing a ladder in one of my stockings. This would never do. I murmured something about roughing the snapper. It seemed appropriate. In my preparation for the day I had read about penalties for roughing the kicker and roughing the quarterback. Teddy admitted that there was in fact a rarely used penalty to protect the centre as well, but that it was used against the opposition not one’s own QB. I gave him my best sardonic look as, always the practical one, I dived into my purse and retrieved a spare stocking, neatly removed the damaged article and secured the replacement.
Ever the gentleman Teddy reached over to pick up the discarded stocking and slid it into his pocket. I so liked a neat and tidy man at the time. I suppose I still do. As we approached the stadium I finished my champagne, put on my cashmere sweater, shook my hair into place and applied a quick covering of lip gloss with the aid of my compact. Teddy looked on seemingly very pleased with himself. My exposure to American football had begun in earnest.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Up on the Roof (New York Stories 2)

   The best place to be in Manhattan, just as the song says, is up on the roof. Unless of course one lives in the Chrysler building, in which case you need Clark Kent’s number. I had my first experience of it at a party I was taken to by my ob/gyn’s son.
   Michael felt he owed it me because I had been so nice to his girlfriend Phyllis. He was a freshman wrestler. I know lots of girls have met fresh men with an eagerness to wrestle, but this was the real thing, Olympic sport, heavy work in an overheated gym to get the weight down, lots of ripped muscle and the unmistakeable odour of locker room liniment. I would have quite liked it myself but I have a preponderance to nosebleeds when my face hits the rubber (I’ll explain that sometime). 
   I accompanied Phyllis to visit Michael in hospital. She was in her senior year at Riverdale High. They were very much an Archie and Veronica couple if you know the cartoon. Michael was having his nose fixed. It wasn’t a cosmetic job, simply that the medics had to scrape away a lot of gristle from way up in his nostrils from a couple of previous breaks he’d had in the ring at high school. Lovely! Apparently the scar tissue was impeding his breathing.
   When we saw him she collapsed in tears. He looked like he’d been through ten rounds with Mike Tyson.  There was massive bruising, anything from purple to green to orange, from ear to ear, both eyes nearly shut and what we could see was bloodshot. The nose was wrapped for protection. It seemed the medics couldn’t re-break his nose to begin the op. So they had to keep banging away at him with a large rubber hammer.
   Michael was in an agony of pain, which his meds were doing little to alleviate, trying to put a brave face on it. His girlfriend didn’t stick around but retreated to the corridor. She could not even look at him! I chatted with him for some minutes, trying to cheer him up, but then he thought it best if I could spend the time with his girlfriend.
   The party, by way of a thank you, was at his shrink’s place in Greenwich Village, a dark and mysterious townhouse with the Rolling Stones playing on the sound system. Well at least it wasn’t The Kinks. In the smoke-filled gloom it was difficult at first to differentiate between the patients, the practitioner psychiatrists, the academics and ordinary peeps like me. The academics and the practitioners clung to each other in a peer group in the centre of the room seated around a long wooden coffee table strewn with bottles of red wine, overflowing ashtrays and an assortment of dildos, with the host’s large armchair presiding over one end. The patients and assorted hangers-on, glasses in hand, were relegated to stand up groupings around the periphery. But not me!  
After the introductions our host plied me with a stiff vodka and orange and insisted I sit by his side on the arm of his chair to share the experience. Occasionally his arm nonchalantly brushed against my thigh as he leaned forwards to concentrate on the arguments about gestalt therapy and electro-shock treatment. The practitioners spoke quietly, with authority, into their beards, while the be-spectacled academics pontificated more loudly as if they were showing off. It was a warm September night and I had chosen a tiny fuchsia tunic dress which I wore over a barely-there pair of shorts and flip-flops. My skin had benefitted from a few weekends of exposure in the Hamptons. I am sure the contact was as accidental as it was irregular.    
   I did enjoy the chat we had about onanism. I hadn’t realised men could be so profligate. I guess I was such a tidy, tidy type at the time. These days I don’t care where the sticky stuff goes as long as it doesn’t get lodged in my jacksie. A girl can’t be too careful! But at this party I was clearly an object of delight for the assembled guests and Michael beamed at me encouragingly from the far end of the room where he had engaged another recent arrival. I concluded that Biblical references had set the solace of masturbation back for centuries. And how, of course, the Puritan strain had held back from releasing the pleasure principle. It seemed the psychiatrists and academics were hell-bent on a massive cultural correction, not so much beating their breasts in enthusiasm as beating the, er, ecclesiastical member. I wondered out loud where that left women, so to speak. They were interested to know if I had experimented, and I assured them, trying my best not to blush, that I was with them in spirit if not fully hands on as it were. This seemed to amuse them and diverted their attention to hormone imbalance. Perched on the cushioned arm of the chair, with my legs demurely crossed and my host’s hand surreptitiously exploring the upper contours of my arse, I felt all too balanced myself, with little effort, and began to be bored with the assembly.
   My rescue was brought about by Michael and his friend, who it turned out was the flamboyant son of the British Ambassador to the UN, yet another patient.  He was tall, well built and garrulous, his hair flipped back in a matinee idol fold, which kept insisting that he run his hand playfully through it to keep it in position. He re-filled my glass and with barely a look at our host, pulled me up by the hand. A murmur of disappointment went through the assembly but he held up his other hand clutching a pack of Cool cigarettes, to insist on their complicit silence. He followed Michael, not letting go of me, to a door cut into a set of bookshelves and we were led to a narrow set of stairs which took us up to the roof. I was pleased to get away, to hear Mick Jagger a little less loud.
   The roof space was tiny between the tiles and we sat, the three of us, cosily close together, aware of the proximity of each other’s flesh, the darkness beyond, the still warm late summer night, and the sound of the city that never sleeps. There was not only the background white noise, the gentle on-going roar of distant traffic, but also the occasional spike of decibels with a trash can knocked over in a nearby alley, the odd uproar from a neighbourhood restaurant, and the insistent wail of police sirens. 
   The matinee idol offered me a cigarette which I refused and he laughed, suggesting I might want to smoke something a little more exotic. He nodded to Michael who waved a plastic bag in one hand and revealed a bottle of vodka in his other. They were well provisioned. From a cubbyhole he produced plastic cups and poured us neat vodkas while the son of the British Ambassador rolled a joint and expounded on the virtues of Jamaican weed. Ganga! His father’s previous posting had been Kingston where his son had been initiated into the twin pleasures of Bob Marley and the local cash crop. Here in New York it was easy for him to infiltrate the Jamaican locals via their UN delegation to procure some of their best homeland product.
   They insisted I try it and, after a couple of refusals, I thought what the hell and took a drag. Unlike Bill Clinton I inhaled and coughed so hard I spilt my vodka, an alcoholic onanism that Michael could not resist commenting on. The matinee idol patted me on the back while the wrestler refilled my cup. But between them they would not let go of the theme. After a second roll-up they both dropped their pants and, unaided by me, commenced jacking off over the parapet into the New York night sky, continuing a ludicrous character assassination of the party guests. Oh, yes, up on the roof, was where it all happened. Slurping my vodka I got to witness a healthy pair of cocks doing what came all too naturally, with the night music of New York City beamed up to us from beneath and Jagger’s murmurings insinuating from below. 

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Berkshire Flash

To pay my respects to National Flash Fiction Day the Berkshire suite of three pieces from my Work in Progress, American Daughters: Advent, can be read individually or in a continuum. The time is December, 2001. Enjoy these glimpses of West Berkshire with me!

John turned off the M4 on to the A34 to go south on the Newbury by-pass, telling his daughters of the local struggles against it and the nearby American base. They were sympathetic to the diehard female protesters who had refused to be cowed by the police in their on-going protest. At least this interest seemed to their father the smallest of victories. Three cheers for the women of Greenham Common, he silently offered up as he took them off on the by-roads north of Whitchurch where the story of Watership Down commenced. 
They drew up on the outskirts of Overton so that they could inspect the River Test where the rabbits had made their escape from General Woundwort’s troops by boat. The girls looked bemused at the narrow, manicured trout stream, its banks fortified with planks and the chalky almost weed-free bottom.
‘I hadn’t imagined it would be like this,’ Robin murmured, barely concealing her disappointment.
‘It’s not very big, is it?’ John had observed. ‘The scale is almost a miniature of what I’m sure you were expecting. However, the Downs are something else.’
He took them up on to the top of Watership Down and they went into a ploughed field to view the distant horizons shrunk closer by the grey sky. The wind was more powerful here on the exposed expanse and reminded them it was very much winter. Robin tramped off a couple of hundred yards in her new green wellies and purple Burberry beanie, a now much appreciated welcoming present from Livia. She stood looking south to the farm where the dog had been awakened to divert the attackers at the warren. Hilary helped her search for rabbit holes while John leaned against the Freelander and watched their every move.
He had to admit to himself a profound regret, that things had come to this pass with his daughters. He had seen it coming but not like this, not so soon. He felt the ground had been taken from beneath his feet. He needed to find a way to reach them but every avenue seemed closed. They flared up at the least provocation and he could not determine how to pass through the minefield unscathed. He further recognised that he did not deserve to pass through heart whole. At least they were civil to Livia and had seemed to respond to her surprisingly well. That was so much of a relief to him.
They came tramping back, their Hunters well baptised with the mud of England.
‘It’s not pretty up here, hadn’t seen it as quite this barren.’
‘Well it’s not Death Valley, Hilary. But for the south of England it can be pretty bleak at this time of year.


Hilary and Robin did not need goading up the steep hillside. It was just the walk to stretch them after their flight. They pushed on determinedly for the top with John initially leading but then a few steps behind as they got nearer to the summit. They had been partially sheltered on the path going up the east side of the Beacon, but once at the top the full strength of the wind, which seemed to have increased to near gale force, drove them to a stop. They looked down the north side to a small herd of bedraggled sheep sheltering disconsolately in the lee of what John informed them was an Iron Age hill fort. He was not to be deterred, however, and pushed on a little way down the exposed west side side on the scrubby, uncared-for grass, weaving between the dried stalks of dead thistles under the darkening sky, until he reached an isolated grave  surrounded by tall, solid iron railings. 
‘What is it?’ Hilary asked
Robin stared uneasily, then switched her gaze to look more hopefully at the well-tended farm below and the small village further to the west.
‘It’s a tomb. It’s the resting place of Lord Carnarvon.’
‘The discoverer of Tutankhamen?’ Robin asked.
‘The same.’
‘I thought Howard Carter made the discovery,’ Hilary interjected.
‘Well, yes. You’re right. But Carnarvon financed the expedition. He was an amateur enthusiast. Carter was the professional.’
The blackened railings held off the curious or the vandalous at a safe distance. But the lichened catafalque seemed monstrously neglected.
‘That village below was part of the family seat. That’s the stately pile of Highclere Castle over there to the north you can just see through the trees. And he asked to be buried up here. To avoid bringing any evil down on his family. His life was not a happy one.’
‘The curse?’ Robin looked at her father expectantly.
‘Yes. Cursed by his findings. He was dead within two months of the opening of the inner tomb.’
‘I don’t believe any of that.’ Hilary poured scorn on his assessment. ‘I read that he died of pneumonia following blood poisoning from an insect bite that became infected.’
‘Then how does it feel to you up here?’
‘Cold, windy, isolated, for sure.’
‘Not forlorn?’
‘I’m not sure about that,’ she continued, ‘not the way I see it. He wanted to be up here, didn’t he?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘There’s something else up here, though, Lar,’ Robin countered. ‘I think there is a weirdness. I don’t like it. It’s creepy. I wouldn’t want to be up here at night. It would give me the shivers.’
She walked solemnly all the way round the tomb of the forgotten explorer, as if marking the narrow perimeter of his abandonment, watched by her father and sister. Then they returned to the Freelander.


The welcome warmth of the log fire was echoed by a huge black Labrador that lumbered to its feet and planted its muzzle unerringly and indecorously into Robin’s groin, while John looked for a table. It brought a smile to her lips as she gently but firmly stroked its head behind the ears and pulled it back. The pub was busy as many of the weekenders in the village and surrounding area were already in situ, getting an early start to the holidays on this last Friday before Christmas, catching up with the locals and the rural gossip. At a table near the bar a couple of pretty, dark-haired girls nearly the same age as Hilary and Robin were snorting stertorously, engrossed in some private joke over their bottle of white wine. From their Sloaney accents and smart country garb John guessed they were either senior students at Marlborough or some other similar institution or freshers at one of the posher universities. 
An inviting smell from the kitchen wafted towards them, encouraging them to look forward to choosing something from the specials on the chalk board, as Hilary and Robin stripped off their parkas and sat down. John ordered drinks after playing hide and seek with the barman behind the red brick centrepiece that divided the bar, and was relieved to hear they could still be served at the late hour if they ordered right away. Robin wanted a pint of diet Coke, John had the same, while Hilary expressed an interest in trying a local brew. After a brief discussion on the merits of the West Berkshire ales John accepted the barman’s recommendation. Hilary and Robin were talking about Carnarvon by the time John handed them their glasses.
‘So are you trying to say you’re cursed too?’ Hilary looked up at him.
‘Accursed? I don’t know. Somehow I should be feeling blessed but . . .’
‘So you should. Your life has worked out.’
‘And yours?’
‘It’s getting there. I’m still trying to figure out if I’m cut out for scientific research.’
‘Well, science runs in the family. My grandfather was a pharmacist, you know. My Dad should have been one too by all accounts but he left his schooling to go out to work as his Dad died in his early teens and his Mum when he was seventeen.’
‘And you?’
‘I was never going to be interested in pharmacology. But I did have a fascination with forensics which I applied to both archaeology and anthropology.’
‘Me too,’ Robin chipped in. ‘I’m interested in forensics. I’ve been thinking of working for the FBI when I leave college.’
‘That would be a waste.’
‘Would it? I don’t know. It seems we always need to solve problems.’
‘Robin’s also got the idea that big government is a solution to problems,’ Hilary added helpfully. ‘Not me, though. I’m all for little government.’
‘I’d have to agree with you, there,’ John added. ‘That leaves you as the odd one out, I’m afraid, Robin.’
She shrugged and half-smiled to herself.
‘Have a look at this government we’ve got here as a good example. They’re making laws for fun. The statute books have doubled in size, and they’ve brought in so many regulations to amend the laws when they’ve got them wrong the only people benefiting are the lawyers.’  
Hilary had picked up the menu and focused her attention on choosing her lunch. John directed them to the specials board near the open fire, which was burning cheerfully. Perhaps, he thought, he would be able to ride out the solstice after all. He sustained this hope with an ample ploughman’s lunch while Hilary chose the bangers and mash in onion gravy and Robin took the game pie.
By the time they left the Old Boot the afternoon had darkened with heavy clouds threatening the onset of an early winter night. The village street was deserted. As they got in the Freelander they heard a distinctly tinny peal of bells brought down the wind. John thought the word tintinnabulation highly appropriate for this knell of parting day.
‘That’s probably from the bell tower of the Stanford Dingley parish church of St Denys. Or St Denis as they say en Paris. Very old. A twelfth century rebuild surrounds the remains of a Saxon site of worship which would, of course, have been made of wood.’ He thought it appropriately symbolic. After all St Denis had had his head removed after an invasion and warbled on walking for several miles with his head in his hands.
‘That’s impossible,’ Hilary retorted after hearing the legend. ‘No scientist would accept that.’
‘I know what you mean. But miracles do happen.’ Please god, yes, he prayed silently, though his faith in south-east England manifesting a magic realism was sorely tried. What next, one of the Sloanes in the pub would be wooed by a Prince Charming?