If you like a good chuckle, dim-witted heroes, and larger-than-life villains, then you'll love this fascinating series. On Wednesdays and Sundays, I’m blogging nibble-sized chunks of new ‘Life in the Clouds’ stories. You can check in regularly and read them for free, or wait to buy the entire story when published.
#3: Gamblers who Cheat ® James Field.
When Alf woke the next morning, he wrinkled his nose and realised he needed a thorough wash. If he was to act the gentleman, he couldn't walk around stinking like a tramp. Luckily, a meagre stream trickled past the hut, but with barely enough water to sop his face and armpits.
On the other side of the stream, flanking a field of yellow rape, lavender plants and colourful tulips grew wild in a tangle of blackberry thorns. Alf remembered his parents telling him that before the war, farmers cultivated commercial flowers in their fields. These scraggy examples were all that remained.
Praising his luck, Alf stripped off and rubbed handfuls of lavender leaves over every inch of his body. The feminine scent didn't match his macho physic, but it masked his stench of decay. Soon, in his hotel room, he'd take a proper bath with soap, shampoo, and a good drenching of Old Spice aftershave.
Twenty minutes later, adorned in the suit, Alf stared at himself in a cracked and tarnished mirror that hung on a wall. Silk socks, heavy and gleaming, snugly encased his ankles, and the reflection in his shoes almost outdid the mirror. That the trousers were a wee bit short mattered little. If he danced, by chance, trousers shouldn't be too long.
The plaited whiteness of the shirt enthralled him; as he breathed, the soft material gave freely, comfortably. Its collar strangled him though, and he had to retie the knot in his tie seven times before satisfied.
The waistcoat stretched tight across his chest and flapped loosely around his waist, but not a poor fit. And the coat accentuated his already broad shoulders, offsetting the trousers lack of length. He carried the suit straight as a penguin. "Lord Alf," he muttered. "Welcome to the world."
Cheerfully, he donned his bowler, swung his cane, and strolled off across the countryside. All he desired now was a substantial breakfast, but his motto had always been not to worry about the future. And that was looking rosy.
The longer he strutted, the hungrier he became. If the heavens didn't soon give him nourishment, it would go out over his health. On a normal morning by this time he would have been for a long jog, pumped a mass of iron, and eaten one of Sibyl's huge breakfasts in the Cloud mansion's kitchen.
But he didn't miss any of that, not today, and he put a spring in his step. He'd kept to the country lanes, but now the town drew near. Cracked footpaths appeared on each side of the road. Traffic signs warned of a low speed limit, faded markings in the road defined lanes and parking rules. A building site on his left displayed massive posters of a new housing estate; lorries and bulldozers chugged in and out, raising a choking dust.
The first buildings consisted mainly of shabby terraced houses, with front doors opening straight onto the pavement. Traffic built, horns tooted, bicycles and kids on skateboards swished past. He sheered this way and that at each roundabout or traffic-light controlled junction, confident of his destination.
But he didn't need to reach the town's centre and remained on the outskirts. Just past a busy petrol station and at the end of a tree-lined side avenue, he spotted The Hotel California.
The hotel was a miserable, square, brick building, its drab walls rising straight from a broad forecourt. Regularly placed windows, four on each side of the entrance, five on the three floors above, glared at him. Like sunken black eyes, blank and impersonal, they spied on him with bemused curiosity.
A black Daimler glided to a stop in front of the hotel and a uniformed doorman threw open the limousine door. An elderly gentleman stepped out and the doorman handed him a ticket. Alf heard him say, "Number of you car, Sir."
The gentleman slipped a coin into the doorman's outstretched hand. Then the doorman swung the hotel door wide open and bowed as the gentleman staggered through.
Bert brushed himself down, stretched to his full height, stroked the stubble on his chin, and strolled to the front door. He didn't know how the doorman would react when he arrived on foot, but now he needed to behave like a lord, because for the next few days he planned to live like one.
Confident and elegant in his new clothes, he sailed boldly across the hotel's cobbled forecourt. The uniformed boy held the door open for him without a hint of questioning. A girl behind a reception desk smiled as pleasantly and impersonally at him as she did to the whiskered, fine-looking old gentleman who had arrived just before him.
"I say young chap," he said to Bert. "Your tie is a trifle loose."
Bert strolled to a big mirror that stood beyond the desk on a wall that separated the tearoom from the dining room. Again his calloused fingers found difficulty with the tie. The fine-looking old gentleman, adjusting his own tie, stepped closer.
"Beg pardon, Sir. May I assist you?"
Bert smiled grateful consent.
The old gentleman fumbled a moment with the tie. "I think that's better," he said. He bowed as one man of the world might to another and turned away.
It was then Bert noticed a short, portly fellow standing at a respectful distance behind his shoulder. His dark suit was crisp but worn; his hair well combed but thin.
"I am the manager, Sir. At your service."
"Ah, excellent," said Bert, trying to speak posh but not fully succeeding. It sounded more like his native cockney, spoken with a mouth full of marbles. "My name is Lord Ponsenby, recently returned from the colonies, and would like to spend a few days here. The airport lost my luggage, but they'll be along with it shortly."
"You walked here, Sir?"
"Not all the way from the airport, no, but I told the taxi-driver to drop me off some way away. I'm a firm believer in exercise." He patted the side of his battered nose and lowered his voice. "I understand you run an excellent game of poker here."
"Hotel California is a home for the elderly, Sir. Most of the residence check in for life; and the only way they can check out again is in a coffin." He patted the side of his own nose. "If you know what I mean."
"I only require a room for a few days," said Alf. "And I'm in perfect health."
The manager smiled at him politely. "Yes, we have a suite vacant." He waved to one of his staff, a pretty young maid dressed in a smart uniform. "Show this gentleman to suite number three," he instructed. "One of our finest," and held his hand out for a tip.
Alf smacked it. "Low five," he said, and the manager's eyes popped wide.
In this post: Alf orders a feast…
The young maid set off past the reception desk, and Alf followed, taking more notice now of his surroundings. He saw dark panelled walls, a massive grandfather clock, rough oak floorboards, giant vases full of pampas grass and pots full of cheese plants. The air reeked of old people and their half rotting bodies, blended with the stink of stale cigar smoke and furniture wax.
"My bags were delayed at the airport," he said to the maid. "Probably because of the elephant rifle. I wish to spend a few days roaming in England's magnificent nature and playing a few good rounds of poker."
Without comment, obviously used to eccentrics, the maid skipped up a short flight of deeply carpeted stairs. When they reached number three, she opened the door and curtsied. "Here we are, sir. If there's anything you need, just ring down to reception."
"Thank you, young lady," he said and stroked her fatherly on the chin. "I would like a bottle of your best red wine and a large plate full of crunchy peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches. I'm thirsty and hungry after my long journey, so make the sandwiches thick."
The maid curtsied again and returned with the bottle almost immediately. "Dinner is served from eight in the dining room," she said, "and the tearoom is open until four. Breakfast from six in the morning in the tearoom. I'll be right back with the sandwiches."
Alf gave her a thumbs up, tugged down his jacket sleeves, and closed the door behind her. So far, so good.
To be continued…
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