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.
Of course, Alf knew his cockney accent would give him away, but then again, not all toffs spoke like the royal family. Posture and bearing were more important, and the confidence to pose as an eccentric millionaire. He'd need to concoct a believable background history too, but he had all night, and by the morning he'd be ready.
One thing was clear; if he were to feign his way into The Hotel California, and have them accept him as an eccentric millionaire, then he would need luck on his side. In his experience, luck was with you, or against you, and the difference either made you or broke you. Some people relied on their horoscope to tell their future, others on signs like finding a four-leaf clover, but Alf preferred to go by the trend.
As a test of his luck, he sneaked back to the main road where he'd abandoned the stolen scooter on the grass verge. There was little traffic this late in the evening and it rushed past smoothly. Sure enough, the scooter had vanished, relieving him of the original theft.
With his tummy full, providence on his side, and somebody else to take the blame for stealing the scooter, Alf strutted back to his den. Now, if his good fortune held, he didn't doubt he'd soon make a killing at the hotel's poker tables, and his heart raced with anticipation.
But as the sun dipped below the treetops and darkness fell, he set off to wander again. Somewhere or another he needed to find a roof over his head for the night. If worse came to the worse, he'd break into a barn someplace and sleep in the hay: one final night of blissful serenity.
Soon, far from people, he 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 his skin that had begun to itch.
To take his mind from the irritating sensation of something crawling over his skin, he envisioned his future situation. 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 covered 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; the soft material gave freely, comfortably, as he breathed. Its collar strangled him though, and he had to retie the knot in his cravat seven times before satisfied.
The waistcoat stretched tight across the chest and flapped loosely around his waist, but not a poor fit. And the coat accentuated his already broad shoulders, offsetting the trouser's lack of length. He carried the suit straight as a penguine. "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.
In this post: Alf arrives at his hotel by foot, buy wished it were by liousine...
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.
He'd kept to the country lanes, but now the town drew near. Cracked footpaths started 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 remained on the town's outskirts and didn't need to reach the centre. 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 the pavement. 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 and 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.
To be continued…
The real world:
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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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