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.
Soon, far from people, Alf came across a small cattle shed that suited his needs. It sagged crookedly, abandoned and neglected. The door stuck ajar on broken hinges, and as he dragged it wide enough to squeeze in, three mice scurried out. It smelled dank, and the roof loomed open to the stars. But it offered a safe and regal haven without fear of discovery. Tonight, that was all he required.
He hung his new set of clothes over a beam in the roof and settled on a mound of old but dry straw in one corner. He couldn't have wished for a more comfortable bed. He folded his hands over his chest and sighed blissfully. If his luck held, he wouldn't regret taking time off from work.
A full moon smiled at him through the hole in the roof, and birds flitted across its face. Or were they bats? Alf couldn't tell. Either way, the effect was enchanting, spoiled only by an itch that was spreading all over his body.
To take his mind from the irritating sensation, he envisioned his next few days. This close to London, no township was far away, and the closest of them embraced the Hotel California. Tonight he would share his bed of rough straw with rodents and creeping bugs. Tomorrow night he would sleep in a king-size bed, and who knows what delights he might share it with.
When he woke the next morning, he 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, dressed 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.
In this post: Alf checks in at the Hotel California…
Confident and elegant in his new clothes, he sailed proudly to the hotel's front door. The uniformed boy held it 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 tea room from the dining room. His clumsy 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 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.
To be continued…
The real world:
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Like to know more about Alf, Bert and the rest of the gang? You can read their chaotic history in What on Earth.
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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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