Trials and tribulations
You might think it’s easy running a daily blog, but spare a thought. Some poor devil has to find new material every 24 hours to fill the void. So the blog duty editor is on call Friday night and there’s nothing for the Saturday edition. He’s searched the files high and low and there’s nothing he can use. But just as he’s about to despair, in a cupboard close to where they keep the bleach and other cleaning fluids, he comes across a plastic bag full of mouldy old papers and he takes a look and he discovers a couple of typed sheets with the heading “Jonah hits memory lane”. Someone has used a red felt tip pen to scrawl B-I-N in huge letters across both pages. Nevertheless, he starts to read the piece and only a few seconds in, thinks to himself, God, this is real drivel, I’ll never get away with putting this online, the boss’ll sack me the moment he sobers up on Monday morning. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, so he puts the sheets to one side and continues to hunt for material. About three hours later, he’s still looking and getting more and more exasperated; he’s found absolutely nothing and what’s left of his mind has gone completely blank. He picks up the Jonah story and thinks, Well maybe a change would be good for me. New job, new faces. . . you never know! And he takes the plunge! But you have been warned and you may well want to skip this post.
Jonah hits memory lane
Jonah is sitting at a desk in the Humanities 1 Reading Room of the British Library, gazing at the spring sunshine streaming through the dusty transom windows and scratching his head. At fifty-eight he still has a good head of hair, but if he keeps on scratching he’s going to wear a patch in it. Next to his beaten-up laptop is a copy of Murphy, Samuel Beckett’s first novel, published in 1938. To his right, an elderly Indian woman has just put down a book called Astrology, why I believe. Jonah smiles to himself. Personally he’s not a believer. Coming up on the train from Dartford, out of idle curiosity he’d looked at the stars in the Metro free newspaper. Jonah is a Sagittarian by birth, a merchant seaman (retired) by trade, an agnostic by nature, and spent almost half his adult life overseas. But he’s been back in London for the past eighteen months having barely survived his most recent shipwreck off the coast of Brazil.
Just outside London Bridge Station he’d noticed that someone had painted #surviville in huge bright green letters on the walls of a rooftop, and that was just about how he felt now he was back in London, a survivor. However, his stars for that day couldn’t have been more confusing. His horoscope read as follows:
You may be suffering from some major delusion, so watch your step and if the going gets too rough, seek professional help pronto. On the other hand you could be on the brink of a financial or emotional breakthrough, so whatever project you have on the go, money or romance, don’t give up too soon, hang in there at least till the fat lady starts to sing.
Fat lady, indeed, Jonah muttered to himself. He’d never liked opera, never would! Without ceremony, he’d screwed the newspaper up into a ball and tossed it into the bin.
Then there was Anna-Belle. Son-of-a-bitch! Anna-Belle O’Malley! He hadn’t stopped thinking about her since the previous day in Old Bexley. Anna-Belle O’Malley, after all those years. What goes around comes around, he chuckled to himself. He hadn’t been down to the medieval village of Old Bexley in decades, but reckoned it was high time he made his peace with his kid brother, Malachy. Malachy could be a bit tetchy, he being of the quick to anger, slow to forgive type, and they’d almost come to blows the last time they met ten years ago, so you can understand Jonah being a bit wary. Which explains why, upon leaving the railway station in the village he’d decided to pop into the old King’s Head for a couple of pints, to steady his nerves.
It was just after midday. A laconic sun hung lazily in the sky and a chill wind was blowing up from the south. Anyway, Jonah pushed open the door to the saloon bar and there she was in her vintage Laura Ashley pinafore dress, sitting all alone like a displaced duchess, in the alcove by the fake leaded window, deeply engrossed in a paperback as thick as a brick. She had a gin and tonic on the go which looked as though she’d barely touched it. But maybe it’s not her first, Jonah thought, she’s never been averse to the odd tipple. He’d recognised her immediately. The unforgettable autumnal hues of her bubble-cut hair, cute curls framing a cute little face. And to cap it all, the old dear was even wearing a pair of sensible pumps, just visible under the table. Gone were the days, so it seemed, of stilettos that could pierce a man’s heart!
First time Jonah had ever really got to know Anna-Belle was about four decades ago in the Freemantle, a large function hall little more than a llama spit from the King’s Head. It was an eighteenth for one of Paddy Delaney’s girls, Julie or Josephine or Jennifer, or Jane. . . what the hell. . . and there she was, Anna-Belle O’Malley, herself just turned sweet sixteen. How well he remembered that do!
In those days Anna-Belle was one of God’s greatest creations, a little wisp of Jewish thrown in with the usual Anglo-Irish mix, had created something of a blueprint for female beauty. Petite at five foot two out of her plimsolls, she had the sort of endearingly deep ocean blue eyes you could drown in for hours, as long as there was oxygen in your tanks. And she was perky. Boy she had attitude and devilment all rolled into one: in short, she was fun!
That night there’d been a long line of lads snaking out the door waiting to say hello to her and get on her dance card, and her brother Jeremy was puffing and panting, barely able to keep order amongst them. But Jonah didn’t wait in line; he just sauntered up to her, cock-of-the-walk, took her pale lily-white hand into his own, and bent over and whispered “Pleasure,” in her ear. She gave him a cold, hard smile, whispered something like “bastard” under her breath and directed the daggers of her eyes at Jeremy, as if to say: “For the love of God, can you get rid of this creep!”
But she and Jonah, they’d had a history, a secret history. And that first meeting was not, truth be known, the first; nor was it the last, no sir. Now after all those years and the separate lives they’d led, there she was again. Anna-Belle O’Malley. Jonah ordered his pint and when it was ready he sidled over to her table with a sneaky grin on his face.
“Mind if I join you, ma’am?”
“’S a free country,” she said, not taking her eyes from her novel.
Jonah caught the title. She was reading War and Peace!
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
She raised her frosty eyes and examined his features closely, hesitated, and then it hit her.
“Jonah,” she said, “Jesus Christ, Jonah, what the. . . !”
And her mouth dropped and she said nothing else.
“Damn right,” he said, “been a long time, Anna-Belle. Too long?”
She caught the hint but did not react: picking up her glass, she took a gulp of her gin and tonic, spluttered some of it over her novel and set the glass down again, before slowly running her tongue over her lips. Jonah admired her small trembling hands and the manicured nails as she did so.
“Too long,” he said again. “So good to see you. How you been?”
“O,” she said cautiously, “I been. You?”
“O I been too. I been, all right. Plenty to tell if you have the time.”
And he paused and looked her over again. And they both just sat staring into each other’s eyes like two dredgers working the Thames and let the silence and dust of all those years wash over them.
“You’re looking so well,” Jonah said eventually. “By God, all those years and you’re looking so damn well.”
“Diet,” she said. “Melon and salad, and the odd bagel from time to time, can’t beat it. Plus I keep myself busy. Hard work, you ever heard of that?”
But for the merest flicker of a smile, Jonah let the shot pass over his bow without rising to the bait. Sharpest tack in the box as always, he thought to himself. Some things change, some people don’t. And she ain’t changed.
“Still teaching dance?”
Jonah raised his glass in a toast.
“Well, here’s to you, babe. Anna-Belle O’Malley, son-of-a bitch. Here’s to you. No, here’s to us and to God knows what the future holds. Son-of-a-bitch!”
Editor’s note: This is not to be continued, under any circumstances.