Passengers talked, clicked and tapped mobile phones, worked computers, listened to music, and slept. The train slowed and a synthetic voice announced the next station. John was tired from a day full of meetings, and six hours of train travel.
A large man, flopped into the seat opposite. He smiled and breathed heavily at John through beads of perspiration that gathered on his chin and threatened to drip onto his newspaper. The hand holding the newspaper was soft and pudgy, its featureless landscape broken only by a thin band of gold on the wedding finger.
John smiled briefly and looked away not wanting to engage. The man opened his paper and started scribbling. He got off leaving his paper on the table. John picked it up noticing it was open at the personal columns. Unusually, and because of tiredness and boredom he started scanning the lonely-hearts section. His attention was drawn to an item circled in blue ink. It read:
“To the man I kissed at the funeral. I said it was a case of mistaken identity. Not true. If you want to know more, contact Tsichia 456921”
John started back in surprise. He remembered last week when he had attended a work colleague’s funeral, not because he was a close friend, but more out of duty. He didn’t know anyone at the ceremony and was surprised, to say the least, when a very attractive woman had kissed him on the lips. She had said to him:
‘Just in case of any embarrassment later when we try to remember who we are. My name is Tschia’
John remembered her sweet breath and full lips on his. He had smiled at her despite his discomfiture and had felt some regret that he was not invited to the wake where he might get to know her better. Before leaving, she had apologised saying that she thought he was a relative she had not seen for a long time. It had to be the same person who had made this lonely-hearts entry.
It was with some trepidation and no less curiosity that John arrived at Casey’s, an unassuming restaurant in Regent Street. He was about a quarter of an hour early and looked around at the seated customers in casual dress.
He saw Tsichia arrive in a black dress that accentuated the curves of her tall slim figure. The shape of her mouth, blue eyes and pale skin suggested to John an eastern European ancestry. She glanced around the restaurant, saw John and moved gracefully over to where he had risen from his chair to greet her.
‘Hello John, we are so glad you could make it.’
John looked at her quizzically, surprised at the strange turn of phrase. She smiled and ordered herself a black coffee.
‘So, what’s this all about?’ said John. ‘How did you know I would read your message?’
‘All your questions will be answered soon, John. Let’s have some lunch.’
Tsichia ordered a niçoise salad and a glass of Chablis. John had the steak with sparkling water. They chatted inconsequentially throughout the meal. Despite his impatience, John found this relaxing and pleasant. Tsichia was very good company, her eyes sparkled, and her laughter was contagious. John found himself drawn towards her deep red lips contrasting her white teeth, pale complexion, and dark hair. The meal finished and it seemed natural to hold her hand across the table and lose himself in her deep blue eyes.
‘How old are you John?’
John was brought back to reality with the directness of the question. ‘I’m around forty.’
‘You’re looking very good for around forty. No grey hairs or wrinkles, or middle age spread. How do you keep yourself so fit?’
‘I don’t really. I guess I’m lucky. Soon my trim figure will explode into corpulence I suppose.’ He smiled at the thought.
‘When were you last ill?’
‘Are you my doctor or something?’, said John uneasily. ‘If you must know, I can’t remember ever being ill although I’ve faked it once or twice to get off work.’
Didn’t you get ill as a child?
‘I don’t remember a lot about my childhood.’
‘I think there’s a lot you don’t remember John,’ Tsichia said softly. ‘Wake up John, this life of yours is a dream. Try to remember that we have forever been as garlic and sapphires in the mud.’
John was shaking. He got to his feet unsteadily and ran out of the restaurant. Tsichia sat in silence, tears filling her eyes. She was joined by a large man who signed for the bill with a soft pudgy hand, its featureless landscape broken only by a thin band of gold on the wedding finger.
The Place of Dreams
Islands of light twinkled below. Distant fairground sounds washed over us fading in and out in the warm summer breeze. We seemed to float down the hill attracted to the light like moths to a candle flame. At the entrance our senses were saturated by sounds of screeching machinery and howls of excitement from their human cargo as they were swung, dropped and lifted this way and that. Smells of fried food and candyfloss and the flashing of neon lights caused an adrenalin rush reminding me of the hallucinogens I once enjoyed taking.
We walked past stalls enticing us to shoot metal ducks on a conveyor, to throw rings around prizes, to take a chance at the pig in a poke. I smiled at my companion but her attention was fixed on a sign outside a tent bearing the legend, ‘The Place of Dreams.’
She turned to me, nodded, and squeezed my hand tightly.
‘Our place of refuge,’ she said, her lips close to my ear. From there, we can observe without being observed.’
I followed her to the tent. An elderly man with a thin face opened the flap and gestured us in. He pointed to a bank of consoles with TV monitors showing the fairground activity in real time. We sat down and began our search.
I marvelled at the verisimilitude of the scenes in the monitors. In our world Tsichia and I were sleeping, our minds merged into one consciousness, dreaming the fairground into reality. I saw Tsichia lean forward. She turned towards me pointing excitedly at one of the screens.
‘There he is. Look at him, he’s in the boxing ring. Isn’t that typical of him!’
John sat in his corner of the ring. His second fanned him with a white towel. His chest rose and fell deeply and slowly while sweat trickled down his muscled torso. The master of ceremonies called to the crowd.
‘I will give one hundred pounds to anyone who can stay in the ring with my fighter, The Human Destroyer, for one round without being knocked down. Two hundred to the man who can stay on his feet for two rounds and three hundred for three rounds. I have one thousand pounds here in cash for the man who can defeat the Human Destroyer. Don’t be shy. I can see some strong young men in the audience. Are any of you brave enough to live with the Human Destroyer? Marquis of Queensbury rules apply’
A tall thin man climbed into the ring waving to his mates who cheered him on loudly.
After he had signed a waiver and his gloves were being put on, the master of ceremonies said, much to the amusement of the audience, that he hoped the young man had life insurance and had made his last will and testament.
The ringside bell rang. The young man moved sure footedly around his opponent and landed some blows to the body and the head. His friends cheered wildly shaking their cans of beer in the air. The Human Destroyer seemed heavy on his feet and ponderous in his movements but connoisseurs of boxing might have noticed that his opponent’s blows were mostly blocked and those that landed had no great power.
With thirty seconds to go the young man sensed he could survive the first round. He moved in to attack and was caught by a right uppercut to the solar plexus and a left hook to the jaw. He dropped to the floor gasping for breath. The Human Destroyer helped him to his feet and held his arm aloft as the crowd cheered in appreciation. He returned to his friends who clapped him on the back and gave him a can of beer.
By this time, I had arrived at the ringside and at the next call for opponents climbed into the ring. The audience went quiet except for a few titters at the sight of me, a fat middle-aged man perspiring in the warm summer night.
The master of ceremonies asked me quietly if I was sure of what I had let myself in for. I nodded and with a shrug he announced the next bout. I removed the thin band of gold from my pudgy finger, gloved up, and at the sound of the bell moved to the centre of the ring.
John, the Human Destroyer, danced towards me on nimble feet expecting to finish me quickly. I feigned a right cross and caught him with two quick left jabs to the head. As he came for me again, I changed my stance to southpaw, caught him with a right jab, this time to the face and then with a flurry of powerful punches to the body.
As we circled each other, I saw the pain and surprise in John’s face. The audience was now interested, sensing an upset.
I said, ‘Come on John, you can do better than this. All you have to do is realise this is a dream. I can’t hurt you then. Wake up and come with Tsichia and me.’
John rushed at me with fear in his eyes. I easily side-stepped his crude attack and stood waiting for him to attack me again.
We clinched and I said to John I’d throw the match if he agreed to meet with Tsichia and me.
The bell sounded the end of the first round.
Word had spread that something unusual was happening in the boxing ring and the crowd had grown to several hundred. I looked over at John who was talking animatedly to the master of ceremonies.
The master of ceremonies took the centre of the ring and announced:
‘The Human Destroyer had been taken ill and under the conditions of combat, this makes the current match null and void. I apologise for any inconvenience caused. ‘
The audience shouted its disapproval and began chanting, ‘Fix, fix, fix.’
With a backwards glance at John I left the ring hurriedly and made my way back to the tent and Tsichia.
She said, ‘Not a complete failure this time. He will remember this in the morning. We’d better be ready in case he comes for us.
The Boy With Golden Tears
Tsichia looked at me, a worried frown nestling like a snake on her forehead.
‘It’s from John.’
The envelope lay innocently on the welcome mat beneath the letter-box. The neat, almost copperplate font suggested the sender was John, but the clincher was the title ‘To Tsichia and Joachim’ crafted in that beautiful writing.
I opened the envelope and pulled out two tickets and club enclosure passes for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
‘We’ve been invited to the races. Our comrade John wants to treat us to a day of boozing, horses, and gambling. May the goddess Felicitas be with us.’
‘So, he remembers at last. Do you think we should go Joachim? It will be dangerous.’
‘It will be more dangerous to ignore the invitation. He clearly knows where we’re staying and could attack us in our sleep here. The fact he hasn’t yet means he may want to talk.’
Tsichia said half to herself, ‘Why Cheltenham?’
‘Why not? I must find my tweeds.’
The Cheltenham Festival takes place during Saint Patrick’s week. The racesare made up of mainly Irish, English and French horses and culminate in the Gold Cup, the most prestigious of all National Hunt events. Such is the popularity of this meet that hotels are booked and tours organised from hundreds of miles away. Accommodation in Cheltenham at this time is as rare and expensive as gold dust.
‘John must have pulled some strings to get us booked in here,’ said Tschia as we approached the entrance to the Queen’s Hotel.
‘No expense spared,’ said I. ‘Just like the generous John of old.’
Tsichia’s strained expression belied my forced cheerfulness.
A comfortable night spent at the hotel; a full English breakfast for me, and smoked salmon for Tsichia fuelled us for the forty-five-minute walk to the racecourse. The only feasible alternative to walking was to go by helicopter, but John’s hospitality had not extended that far. The last half mile sloped gently uphill, was rammed with racegoers, and muddy underfoot, mirroring the soft to heavy going for the horses today. Touts quietly bought and sold tickets from the thronging masses passing by, garish yellow ‘Betfair’ scarves were handed out, and race-cards were sold for half price. Spirits were high and friendly, and it was clear that many racegoers were already at least half-way to getting drunk.
Bags were checked, and tickets examined by humans and machines before entry was allowed to the attractively modern racecourse area. Several vantage points were occupied by heavily armed police; a sign of the times. We weaved and pressed our way through the crowd to the club area and stood by the winning post. An hour remained before the first race, by which time the place we occupied would be packed with cheering fans, and inaccessible.
A few drinks later, bets placed, we decided to hang out around the parade area where we could see the horses close-up. A large monitor was placed conveniently nearby for following the races. The build-up to the first race, to be run over two miles and one furlong, had started and the horses paraded by below us accompanied by their entourage of owners, trainers, stable lads, and of course the jockeys in bright colours.
Tsichia pointed excitedly to her horse, Roliat, a chestnut filly, running number fourteen under its distinctive owner’s colours, purple with white stars.
‘Not a chance Tsichia on its current form,’ I said. ‘You should have picked one like mine. Look, here it comes.’
Golden Tears certainly looked impressive and drew admiring looks from the audience. A tall dappled grey horse, not blinkered, who seemed to be taking an interest in the crowd and its admiration for him as he passed. The atmosphere was electric.
‘Now, that’s what I call a horse,’ I exclaimed. ‘It’s tipped as a contender for next year’s Gold Cup. I think it will completely outclass the runners in this race.’
I watched as Tsichia stiffened and following her pointed finger I saw a familiar figure in the guise of a stable boy leading Golden Tears through the parade area. It was John. As though feeling our attention, he looked up, smiled and waved. He then motioned for us to look around. We turned and saw to our horror, an armed policeman pointing his automatic weapon at us looking like he was about to pull the trigger. We froze as sweat started pouring down the policeman’s forehead and into his eyes. Suddenly, his demeanour changed, and he looked around confused.
Tsichia moved forward swiftly to cover his movements.
‘Are you ok?’ she asked.
‘I think so. I came over a bit queasy for a while. I’ll be fine now.’
We left the area and fought our way through the crowds, making for the exit. As we approached the exit, we heard the cheers and applause for Golden Tears who had come in first at six to one.