From the book Almost Dead in Suburbia, by Douglas Pearce.
Published by P’kaboo publishers. http://www.pkaboo.net/bookshop.html#almostdead
I don’t know about other writers but some of the things I write makes me laugh like a drain. This scene from Almost Dead is one of my favorite as it recalls memories of small towns in England, and there are glimpses of the town of Ramsey, where I lived for a few years while my father was in the RAF.
Some context is required….
Ralph is a sort of ghost regarded by those ‘upstairs’ as Dead not really. It is a state of transition. Ralph wasn’t due to die and is desperately trying to get his body back. Hendrix the cat is a spirit guide who is trying to help him. Fred is Ralph’s elderly neighbour who did die but due to a mix up was sent back and he found himself in Ralph’s body. Only Fred can see and hear Ralph and the cat.
Ralph only has two weeks to persuade Fred to give his body back otherwise he will have to ‘go’ for real.
In this scene the three of them are on their way to apologise to one of Fred’s former girlfriends.
Hope it brings a smile….
Fred, Ralph, and Hendrix arrived at Corlington Station just before 5:30 a.m.
The station was empty of people save for a few railway staff, an elderly couple sitting in the small waiting room, and a large, extremely fluffy ginger tom that was fast asleep on a wooden crate next to the ticket office.
As the three travellers reached the office window, the sleeping cat began to wake up. It stretched sinuously, yawned, and suddenly froze. All its fur stood on end, its ears flattened against its head and it hissed. Then it yowled, while glaring at a point close to the floor between Ralph’s feet, right where Hendrix stood.
Ralph, Fred and the ticket clerk looked at the cat, and followed its glare.
‘Nice kitty,’ Fred said in an unconvincing voice.
This appeared to be the trigger for the riled up ginger tom to leap off the box towards Ralph’s feet. On instinct, Ralph hopped to one side.
‘Whoa!’ he exclaimed
Hendrix remained motionless, and seemed very calm.
The cat’s dive ended with it almost knocking itself out on the floor as it passed straight through Hendrix.
As the dazed feline struggled to regain its feet, or rather paws, it took a couple of half-hearted swats at Hendrix, who appeared to smirk, then it turned tail and skulked off behind the ticket office from where it could be heard mewling loudly.
‘What the ‘ell was all that about?’ the ticket clerk wondered aloud. He was leaning through the window of the office to see where the cat had disappeared to. ‘I never seen it be’ave like that in all the years we’ve ‘ad it, daft thing.’
‘Perhaps it awoke from a nightmare, or something?’ Fred suggested.
‘Hmmm, you might be right,’ the ticket clerk agreed. ‘Well sir, what can I do for you this morning?’ he said brightly.
‘Morning, Wilfred,’ Fred said in belated greeting
The elderly clerk, who was bald except for a thin band of grey hair at the temples, and had a grey, bushy moustache and rimless spectacles that perched halfway down his nose, frowned.
Fred knew the old man quite well. They had both grown up in Wiggleswood, and had attended the same school.
‘Do we know each other, sir?’ he asked politely. ‘The old memory’s not what it was y’see, an’ I meet quite a lot of people.’
‘Oh bloody marvellous,’ Ralph interrupted sarcastically. ‘Yes actually, we do know each other, or did. You see, I’m dead, as it happens.’
Hendrix took a swipe at Ralph’s leg.
Fred grimaced slightly and began to go red. But he recovered from his gaffe quickly and controlled himself enough not to glance at Ralph.
‘The badge,’ Fred tapped his chest indicating the oblong object pinned to Wilfred’s breast pocket.
‘Ah! Of course. The badge. Keen eyesight there. More’n I can say for myself these days. So, where are we going today, sir?’
‘Two— one first-class return to Chester, please,’ Fred asked, almost slipping up again.
‘Return to Chester. Right you are. You’ll be changing at Kings Cross and again at Crewe.’
He entered the details on a keyboard and issued the ticket, handing it across the counter to Fred.
‘That’ll be one hundred and forty seven pounds ninety pence, please.’
Fred placed two one-hundred pound notes on the counter. Wilfred took them and handed back Fred his change.
‘Much obliged, sir. Visiting family are we?’
‘Old friend, actually,’ Fred replied, trying his best to sound casual. Ralph didn’t help matters by leaning on the counter and chipping in.
‘How about discussing the perishing weather while you’re at it, why don’t you?’
‘Looks like we are in for a couple of days of fine weather. If you can believe the weatherman, that is.’ Wilfred said.
‘Oh look, a mind-reader!’
‘Let’s hope so. The train leaves at seven, is that right?’ Fred asked, desperate to get away from this aging chatterbox.
‘Not today, sir, I’m afraid. Bit of an accident there was.’
‘Accident?’ Fred asked. Oh no, he thought.
‘Yes, sir. Fowl, so I ‘eard,’ Wilfred said.
‘Foul? Foul what? Foul play, foul weather or foul language?’
Wilfred tilted his head and cocked an eyebrow. He was not sure if this fella was making fun of him. He decided the man was joking so he smiled and wagged a finger.
‘Ah, I get you sir! No, when I said fowl I meant fowl, as in a chicken sir.’
‘You’re having me on, right? The train’s delayed because of a chicken?’ Fred was sure he was having his leg pulled. This must be a new slant on ‘why did the chicken cross the road?’ and any second now, Wilfred was going to deliver the punch-line.
‘No, sir. Farmer bringing his load in for market day it was. Lorry full o’ chickens. One of ‘em got loose in the back of the lorry and all that flappin’ and squawkin’ distracted the driver. He lost control and drove down the embankment. Ended up on the line, ‘e did. Lorry’s doors burst open and all them chickens took flight, if you get my meanin’? They’s definitely free-range now, that’s for sure!’ He chuckled.
‘So when, do you think, is the train due to leave?’ Fred asked.
‘Couldn’t say for sure, sir. Depends on the tractors, you see,’ Wilfred explained.
‘I hate to ask but . . .’ Fred began.
‘Oh, no problem, sir. I reckon I’ll be tellin’ this story more’n once this mornin’.’
He looked positively pleased at the prospect.
‘The embankment’s not steep, you see. So they’ve sent two Massey Fergusons up there and they’re going to hitch ‘em up to the lorry and drag it off the track.’
Fred sighed. There was nothing he could do but wait.
‘How’s the driver?’ he asked. ‘Not hurt, I hope?’
‘Oh, no, sir, he’s all right. Had his feathers ruffled a bit I ‘spect?’ and laughed once more at his own wit.
A flustered-looking official was approaching the ticket office almost at a run.
‘Oh, look. ‘Ere we are, then. Stationmaster’s arrived. Some news no doubt. ’ He nodded in the direction of the official. ‘Mornin’, Mister Pertwee,’ Wilfred said. ‘I was just this moment telling this nice gentleman about the accident.’
Mister Pertwee threw a fleeting smile at Fred, then disappeared around the back of the office. A door opened and Mister Pertwee reappeared at Wilfred’s side. There was a hurried, whispered conversation that included phrases such as ‘Hmm, I see,’ and ‘Well I never!’, and then Mister Pertwee left the office in the same manner as he had arrived.
Wilfred shook his head and addressed Fred . ‘Oh dear, sir, looks like more delays, I’m afraid,’ Wilfred apologised, his face a study in concern.
‘What now: cows, pigs, sheep?’ Fred asked.
Wilfred chuckled. ‘Now, now, sir. You’ll be suggesting the farmers are thinking they’ve found a new parking spot on the line next. No sir, it’s the badgers.’
‘The badgers?’ Fred looked incredulous.
‘Yes, sir, badgers. The sett, to be more precise,’ Wilfred explained.
‘A set of badgers?’ You mean, as in a collection?’ Fred said, unable to resist the sarcasm.
Wilfred had wised up and wasn’t having any of Fred’s nonsense. He smiled.
‘There you go again, sir. Must remember that one. No sir, not a set of badgers. A badger’s sett. Its ‘ome.’
Ralph gave up. He sat on the floor, his back up against the ticket office. Hendrix jumped lightly onto his lap, circled twice then curled up, closed his eyes and began to purr.
‘Seems that as they was reversing one of the tractors down the embankment they disturbed the badger’s sett. Proper annoyed she was.’
‘Who, the driver?’
‘No, sir, the badger,’ Wilfred explained. He was beginning to believe this passenger really was as daft as he sounded.
‘Had little ‘uns too. Well, we’re not ‘ome wreckers are we? They had to drive the tractors a mile and a half down to Cowey Bridge and come back on the other side of the track.’
‘So . . .’ Fred began cautiously.
‘Well, sir, the thing of it is, they don’t reckon they’ll be ready to get the train out ‘afore ten at the earliest. Mister Pertwee has decided to set departure at eleven, just t’be on the safe side.’
‘Eleven,’ Fred repeated.
‘Yes, sir; eleven,’ Wilfred confirmed.
Five hours, or thereabouts, Fred realised.
Ralph got to his feet, dislodging the cat from his lap.
‘Hey!’ Hendrix protested.
‘Let’s leave it,’ Ralph suggested.
Fred was careful not to answer. Checking that the ticket was safely in his pocket, he thanked Wilfred and told him he would be back later.
‘Right you are, sir,’ Wilfred acknowledged.
The three of them moved out of earshot to the newsagent stand before Fred spoke again.
‘We can’t leave it. This train only runs three times a week, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. If I don’t go today I won’t be back in time for my own funeral. It’s ironic that a corny old phrase might turn out to be literal.’
Ralph shrugged. ‘Well, we’ve got five hours.. What do you want to do?’
‘Might as well take a walk into town. I could do with some breakfast. Oh, and I’ll pop into Pickering’s, while we’re there.’
‘Pickering’s?’ Ralph asked.
‘It’s a small bookstore just off Hastings Street. I was in the shop a few weeks ago. There’s a book I want to buy. I’m sure she’ll like it,’ Fred said.
‘She? Oooh, a lady friend, is it? Now I think I’m getting the picture. Nod’s as good as a wink and all that,’ Ralph teased.
‘It’s not what you think at all!’ Fred snapped.
‘Touchy, touchy. Well excuse me. It’s just that if you’re planning something I might like to know what’s in store for my body.’
‘I suggest you zip it, Ralph,’ Hendrix cautioned as he circled Fred’s legs stroking them with his tail in a calming gesture.
‘All I was saying was . . .’ he persisted.
‘Okay, okay. You win. My mistake. I apologise.’
‘Apology accepted. Now let’s go, shall we?’ Fred suggested.
They headed for the exit, Fred giving a brief wave to Wilfred indicating, ‘See you a bit later.’
Wilfred acknowledged the wave with one of his own and a smile.
As they left the station, Wilfred, who had noticed Fred apparently talking to himself, addressed the station cat, which had calmed down and resumed its place on the crate.
‘You see, Ginge, not only us oldies who go a bit soft in the ‘ead talking to ourselves an’ what ‘ave you. At least I talk to a cat most of the time, eh?’
‘Meow,’ replied Ginger.
‘Couldn’t agree with you more,’ Wilfred said.
Picking up his morning paper he turned to the sports page. Almost as an afterthought, he squinted down at the badge pinned to his breast pocket. Printed onto the dark blue background in gold letters was the word Corlington.
‘Well I’ll be . . .’