dubiously true stories and cartoons

Friday, October 6, 2017


I first met William ‘Dinger’ Bell in Saudi Arabia in 2009. I was part of the MOD Saudi Arabia Project and, along with the rest of the team, had just moved to the recently opened BAE super-compound just outside Al-Khobar. There wasn’t much there to begin with, but it did have something the previous compound didn’t have – bars. Bars that sold alcohol. Real alcohol. And that’s where I met Dinger, sitting on a stool at the bar of the Causeway Club. He was ex-navy, a Scotsman, and he liked a drink. He was scruffy, a little overweight, balding on top and what hair he had was straggly and unkempt. I had no idea how old he was, but he did have one quality that made you look past the first impressions you may have had of him– he was funny. He had an innate sense of humour that was refreshingly infectious. He was always happy to see everybody he met and despite recovering from a wrecked marriage I honestly can’t think of a time when I didn’t see him with a smile on his face.

I remember him being overjoyed when he was invited to sit on the top table on one of the Burns’ Nights I’d organised, even more so when he was sat next to Dai, the British Trade Officer, who had a bottle of whisky concealed under the table, which he freely shared with Dinger.

Dinger seemed to be consigned to the role of the eternal singly, forever sat at the bar in his shorts and scruffy T-shirt. But that was before he met a striking Zulu woman called Regina Thusi. Within a couple of weeks of meeting Regina he’d had his hair cut. Gone were the scruffy T-shirts, replaced by smart collared shirts. He lost weight. He looked like a new man. He looked twenty years younger. Regina was good for him and over a short time it was obvious that he was totally in love with her as she was with him. She had seen something deeper in Dinger that other people may have missed.

They were still together when I left Saudi Arabia in 2014 but I followed his new life on Facebook as he and Regina travelled to her home in Africa and she to his home in the UK. It was clear to everyone who read their posts that they were deliriously happy with each other. They were a perfect couple, ideally suited to one another.

It is with great sadness, then, that I discovered this morning that Dinger has just passed away. I can only imagine how Regina must be feeling right now. The pain of losing her soulmate must be terrible and my heart goes out to her. She has lost a wonderful, generous and caring partner.

Even though I haven’t physically seen Dinger and Regina since I left Saudi in 2014, the news of the world losing such a lovely man is still a terrible shock.

May you rest in peace, my friend.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

When William Met Edith

When Sean Edwards, William Owen and George Pickup arrived in France in the autumn of 1917, they were met by a gruff sergeant, who gave his personalised life-expectancy predictions to all the young men that joined his platoon. He delighted in watched their bum-fluffed faces drop as they realised how ephemeral their lives had become. In civilian life he'd spent much of his time at the race track, obsessively studying the form of the horses and calculating the odds that would give him the highest possible return on his stake money. He'd been very successful at this and it seemed only natural to utilise his unerring eye for winners and losers on the battlefields of France. As the war dragged on his predictions became frighteningly accurate and, by the time George, William and Sean arrived, the sergeant was able to predict, sometimes to the exact minute, when the new arrivals would be turned to mincemeat by German gunfire.
“Two weeks,” he say to Sean upon his arrival.
            “Lanky streak of piss like you. I’ll give you two weeks.”
            Sean Edwards was brought up on the cobbled streets of Warrington in a world of alcohol, violence and religion. His mother had a capacity for gin that was at odds with her slender frame and demure manner, whilst his father, in stark contrast, was a teetotaller with a religious zeal that bordered on the pyschotic. His neighbours called him ‘The Bible Basher’, and with good reason. Behind closed doors he used his fists to hammer home Christ’s teachings to his sozzled wife and terrified son in order that they might be granted eternal salvation in the kingdom of heaven. He was a lunatic, driven insane by poverty and religious obsession. At the tender age of sixteen Sean saw the war in France as his only escape from the madness he was trapped in and so, in the late spring of 1917, he enlisted into the army and was never seen by his family again.  
            The men in Sean’s platoon nicknamed him Tiny because he stood head and shoulders above the rest of them and so presented an obvious target to even the most cross-eyed of German snipers. But, as luck would have it, the sergeant's prediction about Sean’s imminent demise was embarrassingly inaccurate although, ironically, he was dead right about the two weeks.
            Fourteen days later the three friends found themselves detailed to repair and deepen a low-lying trench their platoon was manning. To avoid being caught by the occasional bursts of machine-gun fire and the ever attentive sniper the men had to stoop down whenever they went from one place to the next. This made their task all the more difficult and uncomfortable. It had rained almost every day since their arrival at the Front, miserable, driving, bitterly cold rain that turned the churned up soil into slimy mud that poured into their trenches and made moving around almost impossible. Duckboards had been laid out but they only lasted a few days before they sank into the mud. Everything sank into the mud: weapons, helmets, men, horses, even tanks, or so they’d been told. The mud was everywhere. It was in their hair, caked on their uniforms. It clogged up their rifles so they wouldn’t fire. It was in their food, even the water they drank tasted of it.
            “Bloody bastard,” said Sean, as he hoofed another shovelful of the sticky mud over his shoulder. “I hate this place. Officers, sergeants. They're all the bleeding same.”
            The three men had been given this odious task by the platoon sergeant as a punishment for not saying the word sir enough when they were questioned by their Commanding Officer during a routine kit inspection.
            “I hate that bloody sergeant and I wish he were dead,” said Sean, burying the blade of his shovel into the wet earth.
            The words tripped easily off Sean’s tongue and although he didn’t know it when he said them, they were about to become prophetically true. A few minutes later the sergeant came to check on their progress and as he stepped into the trench the blade of Sean’s shovel accidentally caught him on the shin bone. The sharp knock inflicted by the shovel's blade caused the sergeant to cry out in pain, thereby giving away his position to Corporal Klaus Weber, one of the many crack German snipers concealed two hundred yards away in the wreckage of no-man’s-land. This unfortunate accident, in itself, should not have presented a problem, but the sharp pain that careered up the sergeant's leg made his body stand involuntarily upright. At this point a well-aimed bullet from Corporal Weber's Mauser K98 penetrated his skull. The three men digging the trench were at first oblivious to what had just occurred and they just stared with curiosity at the sergeant, their minds attempting to fathom out what was so different about what was so familiar only moments earlier. The penny finally dropped when they noticed the small hole that had appeared in the sergeant's forehead. His eyes were wide open and unblinking and the three friends were rigid with fright, as he stood over them, his eyes staring at some non-existent point on the horizon before his dead body slumped forward into the trench like a sack of potatoes. They cowered, gazing in horror at the large hole where the back of the sergeant’s head should have been and then the air around them exploded with the sound of gunfire. 
            From that moment on George and William felt safe whenever they were around Sean. They regarded him as their lucky charm, staying as close to him as humanly possible without making themselves appear unmanly. They’d heard rumours about some of the Officer Corps’ unnatural sexual preferences and didn’t want their proximity to Sean to be misconstrued as something they might regret when they found themselves alone in the presence of an officer with an unhealthy interest in young men. They spent the rest of the war together and led a charmed life. Sean found it amazing that the three of them had lived through it all without so much as a scratch, whilst most of their comrades were either dead or wounded.
            Sean put his ability to survive down to one thing, and one thing only – blind luck. He’d been at the right place at the right time. Fortunately George and William had been there with him and so had been protected from harm by his invisible aura of invulnerability.
            But it was not to last. A few weeks after the Armistice, when the three men were ready for demobilisation to England an invisible enemy that had been ruthlessly wiping out troops on both sides finally caught up with them.
            It killed Sean Edwards without mercy or compassion, penetrating the cells that lined his upper air passages. There it reproduced and mutated, infecting other cells along his respiratory tract before spreading deep into his lungs. Antibodies were produced but the invader changed its chemical composition and began to affect his heart. Sean Edwards died of broncho-pneumonia two days before his eighteenth birthday.
            George and William were amongst the lucky ones that survived the ravages of the Spanish Flu and they returned to England in the February of 1919. In a rare moment of compassion, after they'd been handed their discharge papers, two military policemen drove them to the railway station where they gave them some cigarettes to share on their journey home.
            “See you, lads,” said one of the MPs. “Look after yourselves and stay out of trouble.”
            “What you going to do now, Bill?” George asked as the two men watched the vehicle drive off into the distance.
            “Haven’t got a clue,” said William, looking back at the dirty grey Railway station.
            When he enlisted into the 2nd East Lancashire Regiment during a recruitment drive in Dublin his fiercely republican father immediately ostracised him from the family for collaborating with the British and ordered him never to darken the door of the Owen family again. With the war at an end William couldn’t go home even if he wanted to.
            “Why don’t you come home with me for a while,” said George. “You know, till you find your feet. There’s plenty of room. Mam and Dad won’t mind. There’s lots of things to do in Blackpool and to be honest I’d like the company.”
            “I don’t know, George,” said William.
            “My sister’ll be there.”
            “What’s she like?”
            “How should I know? I haven’t seen her for two years.”
            William looked down the empty road, nodded and sighed. “Ah, what the hell,” he said picking up his bags, “I've got sod all better to do.”
George and William arrived in Blackpool on a cold day in the February of 1919. As the train pulled into South Shore Station George's parents were waiting for him on the heaving platform, dressed in their Sunday best clothes and waving frantically to catch his attention. When he caught sight of them George opened his arms and his mother rushed forward, elbowing her way through the crowds, and threw herself at him. He embraced his mother, breathing in her sweet perfume, and kissed her on the cheek. He could feel her sobbing. “Thank God! Thank God!” she said, as he held her tightly in his arms. His Father, never being one to display his emotions in public, simply extended his hand and said, “Welcome home, son.”
            “Where's Edith?” asked George.
            “She's at home making sandwiches for us all,” said his mother.
            William tried to keep a polite distance away from the family reunion but George would have none of it.
            “Come on, Bill, don't be a gooseberry,” George said. “Mam, Dad, this is who I wrote to you about.”
            “Pleased to meet you, Mr and Mrs Pickup,” said William offering his hand.
            “Never mind all that,” said Mrs Pickup, wrapping her arms around him. “Call us Mam and Dad. George wrote a lot about you and Tiny, so while you're here you're to look upon us as family. Alright.”
            “Alright,” said William, treating his surrogate Mother to a warm smile.
            “What a lovely smile you've got,” she said. “You'll have our Edith swooning like a schoolgirl when she sees you.”
            And Edith did swoon when she saw the handsome young soldier who spoke with a soft Irish lilt. She stood as close to him as she could, without making it look obvious, as they were eating the sandwiches she had prepared.
             Mr Pickup took a swig of tea and then slammed the cup on the table. “Bloody Hell, this calls for a real celebration,” he said, “tell you what Vera, me and these boys’re going down the pub.”
            Mrs Pickup rolled her eyes. “You’ll not be long now, will you? I don’t want you rolling home drunk at all hours.”
            “As if I would,” said Mr Pickup.
            “As if . . .” his wife echoed.
            Mr Pickup took his son and William to the Halfway House. It was his local and he was well known by the landlord as being a good customer. The landlord poured three pints and told Mr Pickup that they were on the house. George lifted his pint and said, “A toast. To Tiny. May we never forget him.”
            It was the first pint of many.
            William was tired after the long journey to Blackpool and only wanted to have a couple of pints and leave it at that, but he hadn’t counted on Mr Pickup’s persuasiveness and by closing time his vision was blurred, his speech incoherent and he could hardly stand up.
            “We’d better get you home, me lad,” said Mr Pickup, taking hold of William’s arm just as he was about to slide off the bar. “Come on George, give us a hand.”
            George and his father carried a near comatose William home and, quietly as they could (but not quietly enough), put him to bed in the spare room.
            “You bad buggers haven’t got that poor boy drunk, have you?” whispered Mrs Pickup as her husband climbed into bed.
            “Can’t take his drink,” said Mr Pickup, “but he’s a good lad all the same.”
            When William woke up the next morning his head felt like someone had been hitting it repeatedly all night long with a club. He felt sick and his mouth was as dry as a camel’s arse. He had no idea where he was at first but as the haze cleared and his memory started to return he realised that he must be in George's house. He carefully put his hands under the bedcovers and felt around and then thanked God that he hadn't pissed the bed. He looked around the room. There was an old dressing table with a mirror directly in front of him and his clothes were folded neatly over a chair in the far corner. Had he done that? He couldn't remember. The last thing he could recall was Mr Pickup buying him another drink at around eight the previous evening. Everything after that was a complete blank.
            His hazy recollections of the night before were interrupted by a soft tapping on the door, followed by a light, feminine voice. “Are you decent?” the voice said.
            He looked down at the covers to make sure nothing that shouldn't be sticking out wasn't sticking out. “Err, yeah,” he replied. “You can come in if you like.”
            He caught a whiff of perfume before Edith entered the room. “I've brought you some tea up,” she said smiling at him.
            “Thanks,” he said, taking the steaming mug of tea from Edith's tiny hands. “You don't know how much I need this.”
            “You're welcome,” she said shyly. “Oh, by the way, my name's Edith.”
            As she left the room, Edith closed the door and leant back on it. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest, her breathing was hard and fast and she felt hot and light-headed. She brought her hand up to her breast and let out a long, barely audible sigh.
            William found work as a projectionist at the Old Coliseum Picture Theatre and on the day he received his first pay packet he asked Edith if she would go out walking with him. Mr and Mrs Pickup were delighted with William’s interest in their daughter. They’d liked him from the moment they’d first set eyes on him and when he finally plucked up the courage to ask for Edith’s hand in marriage he was already regarded as a member of the Pickup family. 
            William and Edith were married a year after he became a permanent member of the Pickup household. After the wedding they went to the Tower Ballroom where the orchestra, boasting an illuminated tap drum with effects, led by J. Woolf Gagg, performed an evening’s programme of three waltzes, three lancers, a foxtrot, a two-step and three novelty dances. The newly married couple swirled around the dance floor like they were supported on air and by the end of the night they were so exhausted they collapsed on the bed in their hotel room, wrapped in each other’s arms. Sex was the farthest thing from their minds that night and the next day they caught a train to Morecambe where they spent their short honeymoon in a small hotel. William didn't much like the place, there wasn't much to occupy his mind, but he was with Edith and that more than compensated for the lack of excitement. And when they finally consummated the marriage Edith didn't, as her mother had suggested, lie back and think of England. She thought, instead, of her husband's warmth and the pitter-patter of tiny feet.

And that is the story of how my grandparents met, fell in love and got married. Well, maybe. As far as I know none of what I wrote about them actually happened. I have no idea what my grandfather did during and immediately after the First World War so I made it all up. He rarely spoke of his experiences in the two world wars he was involved in, especially the First. The trauma of it all silenced a great number of the veterans who were unfortunate enough to have suffered through it. I knew he came from Dublin and I knew one of his friends died from the Spanish Flu shortly after the war ended, but that’s about it. And my grandma was actually from Burnley but as I know next to nothing about Burnley I changed the location to Blackpool where I grew up. But that’s just the way of true stories. They are unreliable and so you can tailor them to whatever you need them to say. My grandparent’s life together may or may not have started the way I described it, but it’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I do know one thing though and that is they fell in love with each other almost immediately and they loved each other for the rest of their lives. And that’s good enough for me.