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 further Alf 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 for 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 up, horns tooted, bicycles and kids on skateboards swished past. At each roundabout or traffic-light controlled junction he sheered this way and that, sure 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 aging 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 leave 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. "I'm in perfect health and hoping for a bit of sport."
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," he said to Alf and held his hand out for a tip.
Alf smacked it. "Low five," he said, and the manager's eyes popped wide.
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, enjoy the company of the fair sex, and play a few good rounds of poker. Not necessarily in that order."
Obviously used to eccentrics, the maid offered no comment and 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."
"Thank you," he said charmingly, gave her a thumbs up, tugged down his jacket sleeves, and closed the door behind her. So far, so good.
He dropped into a fine leather armchair and surveyed the airy room with a pleased expression. It reminded him of period plays he'd seen on television, almost Victorian in its grandeur. At long last I've found my right place in life, he thought and poured himself wine. Unused to alcohol, it warmed his insides and his toes began to tap to a silent beat. In a while, he would take a slow, luxurious bath, and later have some fun.
There came a light tap on the door. "Enter," he called.
The maid placed a tray with his sandwiches on a low table by his side. "Will there be anything else, Sir?"
"Yes. Come and share a glass of wine with me."
A look of horror spread across the maid's face. "Oh, no, Sir, I couldn't possibly. Madam Styles would give me the sack immediately."
"Bit of a dragon, is she?"
With a hurried curtsy, the maid spun and fled from the room. Alf stretched his long legs up onto a Moroccan pouf, threw one leg over the other, and leant back in the snug chair. He hoped there were some fine women staying at The Hotel California who didn't dread Madam Styles, so he could impress them with his charm. Women were the spice of life, no matter if you were poor or rich.
In this post: Ready for a beef steak, Alf makes an entrance to the restaurant…
He sat comfortably in his dreams a while longer, then drew a deep bath of steaming hot water. With the wine glass balanced on the tub's side, he soaked until his skin wrinkled. Then he jumped up and stroked the stubble on his chin. By now, it had grown long enough to hide his scars and was the perfect macho length.
Once again dressed in his fine suit, he drained the last drops of wine into his glass and swaged around his apartment. Placed at the back of the hotel, he could see a fair-sized garden from his window with plenty of trees and benches for the elderly to sit among the flowerbeds. Further away, he made out a small car park. The cars were few, but expensive.
His stomach rumbled. The wine had not only gone to his head but also made him starving. Luckily, the restaurant was now open. He hoped there was a bloody beef steak on the menu.
With his broad shoulders back, brawny chest out, and bearded chin high, he strolled down to the dining room and glanced in. Most of the dinners were old cronies, but there was also a sprinkling of beautiful women, correctly garbed, and distinguished-looking gentlemen.
Their laughter sounded pleasantly above the subdued strains of an orchestra. Many of them glanced up to regard Alf. Their eyes rested on him for that well-bred moment that marks acceptance. "One of themselves," said Alf to himself.
Well, why not? Once again he glanced at his reflection in the mirror. There might be handsomer men present in this hotel, but was there anyone who wore his clothes better? Hardly. Swinging his arms and taking wide steps to draw attention, he strutted into the room.
A meticulously dressed waitress in black and white received him and showed him to a side table. As they passed an elaborately large round table with only one woman seated there, Alf paused. She was an old bag with a hawk nose, who sat with her back to the wall and had a full view of the room. Two stout men, one on each side, stood at a respectful distance from her; bodyguards?
She reminded him of a scarecrow, but she wore flashy gold and diamond jewellery, and her perfume smelled heavenly. Alf winked playfully at her, and he caught a glimmer of interest in her eyes.
To be continued…
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A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
To save the jobs of those in the Japanese government who helped him escape, Masaji Ishikawa wrote: “…obviously I wasn’t going to start talking to the press.” Instead, he wrote this mammoth best-selling book? Sorry, but I don’t believe this man’s autobiography can be true. If it is, then he is likely responsible for the sacking of those government officials who helped his return to Japan, and worse, expose his family to torture or execution in North Korea.
It may well be that he moved to North Korea in 1960, aged thirteen, where he lived until his escape in 1996. However, I rather believe his memoir is an over dramatised collection of exaggerated incidents he picked up from others. In which case, good for him.
I hope this is the case; otherwise, he puts himself in a poor light. From his book, he already comes across as egoistic, beating up anyone who upsets him and often leaving his family to starve while he runs off to find work to feed himself.
North Korea is undoubtedly not an agreeable place to live, but propaganda and false news flourish. The story in this book is captivating and mind-bogglingly tragic, hence four stars. I just don’t accept Mr Ishikawa’s life was as awful, or maybe I don’t want to believe, as he relates.
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