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.
The scooter wielded even less power than Alf expected, and he kept the throttle opened at full. He'd ridden many a motorcycle, his own was a massive Harley, but none of them were as puny and light as this. But what did it matter? he consoled himself. You never know how life will turn when you have no expectations.
Potholes riddled the dirt-track road that led out of The Stables, forcing him to drive slalom. A cloud of dust followed, and a young couple holding hands almost fell into the ditch as he swerved past. "Yahoo!" shouted Alf, both legs and his free arm raised as high as he could lift them.
Driving along the highway proved much less fun. This time, it was he who almost fell into the ditch as lorries squeezed past to overtake. At the first opportunity he veered into a single-lane side road that wormed its way to a cluster of distant farmsteads.
As soon as he turned into the lane, throttle still wide open, he recognised the slim outline of a young lady ambling beside the curb, hips swaying like a pendulum. She carried a pink handbag over her slender shoulder and lugged a plastic carrier bag in one hand, swapping to the other as watched. If Alf guessed right, he reckoned a bus had dropped her off on the main road and she was walking home.
One minute later, he swished past her, skidded to a halt, stopped the little machine, and bowed his head. "Hello there," he said, presenting his friendliest Pug smile. "My name is Alf. Can I give you a lift?"
"No thanks, I don't have far to go," said the young lady, looking at him with suspicion.
But Alf, enjoying himself, couldn't let her slip away so easily. "It's a beautiful day, my darling, and you are a beautiful woman. Hop on behind and I'll take you for a spin, just for the fun of it."
The young lady screamed, dropped her carry bag, and set off running as if the devil loomed on her heels. Alf laughed out loud, swallowed his disappointment, and considered his haggard features. Baldheaded, flat-nosed, cauliflower ears, a stubble of scruffy hair on his jaw, and enough scars to make anyone think he was a veteran battlefield casualty. Who wouldn't run off?
Before he'd started his career as a street fighter, he'd been an irresistibly handsome hunk. In those days, girls threw themselves at him, and if he still had those looks the ypung lady would have gladly climbed on behind him and hugged him tightly. He clasped his hands together in his lap and stared at them; today, he couldn't think of anyone who found him attractive.
It dawned on him then that perhaps this was the reason he sought solitude: a desire to escape the lonely sadness, a need to be alone. Being in his late thirties, he was still a young man, plenty of time to find a warm companion willing to share his days. But where was she? He leant forward, elbows resting on the moped's handlebars, and stared off at nothing; one more dream he'd save for later.
Not downcast by nature, Alf set his gloom aside, stepped off the moped, and picked up the girl's carrier bag. Just as he suspected, it was full of nosh: cakes, potato crisps, and coke. With a bitter smile, he told himself off for thinking negatively. Heaven smiled on him today, and he couldn't wait to see what it had in store.
The distant clank of a tractor made him look up. Wide-open countryside surrounded him with the occasional copse of trees spread here and there, and old rotting shacks and barns forgotten in fields.
A cloud of birds followed in the tractor's wake, feasting on worms turned up by its plough. The smell of cow manure assaulted his nose. "The farmer's wife," he muttered, recalling his and his friend's retort whenever the farmers spread muck.
Another symbol of modern society invaded his awareness: the rumble of traffic on the distant main road. It triggered his sense of survival. Time to rid himself of the stolen scooter. By now, the fake Hell's Angel would have reported the theft to the police and they'd be on the lookout. Nonchalantly, he opened the luggage box to see what it contained.
Beneath a helmet and warm gloves, an expensive dress-suit met his gaze: the fake Hell's Angel's set of wedding garments. With the ease of two mated jigsaw pieces locking together, an idea slid into Alf's mind. If he were to make entry to The Hotel California he wouldn't stand a chance in his scruffy T-shirt and frayed jeans.
Ah, but with such a fine wardrobe of clothes, he reflected, tipping his head back, eyes closed to face the sun's life-giving warmth, I might just get away with it.
In this post: Alf makes a picnic of his stolen food…
The wisest move, he reckoned, was to vanish before the ruckus started. No sense chancing fate too much either. Working quickly, he donned the gloves and rubbed away any fingerprints he might have left on the stolen scooter. A short dab on the start button brought the happy little machine to life again. Alf drove back to the main road, continued along it for two-hundred yards, and parked the scooter on the grass verge.
He rolled the ill-gotten wedding garments into a thick bundle, tucked it under his arm, and stepped lightly back towards the country lane, the carrier bag of snacks swinging in his other hand. Well into the lane, he dodged into a copse of dense trees, and sat on a fallen log.
Starving, he emptied the shopping bag's contents at his feet. Four cream cakes, a bottle of his favourite coke, and a king-size packet of spicy crisps-not his usual diet of high protein nourishment. Nevertheless, what a feast!
With everything consumed, he nestled on the grass with his hands behind his head and glanced up through the green canopy of trees to the blue sky above. The day was still young, all was right with the world, and he had plenty of time to dawdle and daydream.
As he savoured the moment, a deep, satisfying sigh eased from his chest. He didn't need to worry about weight training and sparing with Bert, or his dreary work as a security guard. Instead was the promise of serenity, or making his fortune at The Hotel California's poker tables, all depending on which way fate carried him. Ah, heavens above, what a wonderful few days stretched ahead of him.
To be continued…
The real world:
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A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
At long last I got around to reading about Ove, pronounced Oover. Brilliant story: amusing, heartbreaking, and so true to life. My main problem with the book is that I think they modelled Ove on me! When my wife read it, I heard repeatedly, "That's just like you."
Minus half a star for shoddy translation in places (from Swedish).
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James at Goodreads