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Have you ever read that book by Arthur C Clarke, ‘The Lost Worlds of 2001′? It’s a great book and from a writers point of view a great idea. What Clarke does is take all the unused and discarded material from his book 2001 A Space Odyssey and put it into this book. It shows you the development of the story, how it evolved, the input from Stanley Kubrick, the director of the movie version, and he shows us the different directions the book could have taken and all the avenues that were removed from the finished book. It’s a great idea for a writer because all that work on all those unused pages can now be used. On top of that it shows others how a story evolves, especially when working with someone like Kubrick who had ideas he wanted to incorporate into his film.
In writing Floating In Space I also had a considerable stack of pages I didn’t use. Here’s something that took the main character, Stuart, away from life as a bus driver and went on to see him as a cigarette vending machine man.
I have never understood what people see in cigarettes or what people want from them. Imagine it’s hot, and you’ve been on a long walk or stuck in an over heated car and you’re dying, yes literally dying for a drink and as the cool, cold, liquid; water, beer, or fizzy pop or whatever pours into your mouth the relief flows over you like, well like water. Yes, I get that. I understand it I, but people who tell me they are dying for a ciggy, well, I just don’t get that at all. Those who suck on the noxious fumes of a cigarette and draw them in deeply, well, I suppose it must give them some sort of relief or comfort but am I missing something? Especially when those same fumes can actually kill you? I mean have you ever looked at a packet of cigarettes? I mean really looked? Tobacco contains diesel fumes and other chemicals. Your sperm count may be affected? Incredible that these white sticks of death are so sought after in this society, and also that of course, I sell them.
My phone is ringing for the second time today. It’s the girl from the Bulls Head, a pub set in the country, not that far in the country but far enough for the landlady, a heavy smoker who relentlessly uses the ciggy machine despite the incredible prices it demands, to go into a near fit when the machine conks out.
Betty has left two messages already about her machine not working and she knows I get the messages but she needs reassurance that help, and nicotine is on the way.
“Betty, Stuart here, the ciggy man-”
“Stuart, where are you? The machine conked out last night and I need it fixing. You know there’s no shops around here and now the garage has shut down we can’t get any ciggys!”
“Relax Betty, I’ll be there tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow! Tomorrow! Stuart we can’t wait that long. You know what the customers are like. Stuart you have got to be here today. You’ve got to!”
“All right Betty, relax, relax, I’ll be there later don’t worry.”
“Well, what time? What time Stuart?”
“Betty, I’ve got to go, I’ve got another call coming in. See you later!”
And I’m gone. I have to give her the chop because otherwise I’d be there all day. And I’ve got more machines to fill, more sticks of death to give out because that’s me, that’s what I do –I’m the ciggy man.
They recently changed my van, a Ford Transit to a Mercedes Sprinter. It’s not great but it’s fast and comfy and I like the air conditioning that keeps me cool. I’ve just done three calls fast and furious. Shoot in, count the machine, shove in a load of ciggys, take out the cash and I’m gone but now I’m ready for a break. I know I’m on for a brew at the Stanley but I’ll just stop in here in the Lodge and hope the manageress is in instead of her miserable husband the manager and no I won’t get a brew but the manageress is so gorgeous that I like to make time to talk to her.
Inside through the main entrance, a quick hello to the girl on reception “Hi” I say easily.
“Any freebies?” Asks the young girl with a friendly smile.
“Next week,” I say and she laughs and says I always say that -because I do and I never give her any but then I’ve no intentions of doing that, not when every loss, even one packet goes out of my wages.
I go through into the pub and it’s just the bar maid who’s a bit of a misery and never has much to say but after a moment when I’m engrossed in counting the machine and entering the figures on to the hand held computer I carry, I suddenly smell that lovely perfume of Jan the manageress and here she is coming over to see me.
“Hi, not seen you for ages how are you?”
“All the better for seeing you. Nine thirty in the morning and you look so gorgeous. I can’t believe it.”
“Gorgeous? I’m a wreck. Look at the bags under my eyes!”
Now she’s mentioned the bags under her eyes to me a hundred times before and it’s obviously some sort of an issue with her. Perhaps that misery of a husband has mentioned it to her and now she’s getting paranoid about it because that’s what women do. They focus on some small insignificant thing and let it ruin their lives. I went out with one girl years ago and she was obsessed with her bum. Always checking it in the mirror, always worrying about it and yet, her behind was a lovely curved behind that worked well with her legs and all her other bits and pieces.
Jan is tall, about thirty-five, fortyish: Lovely thick brown hair all flowing and slightly curly. The sort of hair that you’d love to put your hands through. She’s always well dressed, today wearing a loose shirt with a sort of floral design and a matching knee length skirt, not flowery but with the same sort of purply colours.
“Bags? What bags? What bags are you on about? You’d have bags if you had a job like this, running around with a shed load of cash and cigarettes worrying about all the villains in Liverpool who are probably lying in wait for me somewhere.”
She laughs and it’s a nice warm laugh and I think she was going to run off after a quick word but I’ve got her now. She’s got lovely eyes and I wonder what she’s doing with that misery of a husband she’s got. Have I mentioned him? A right misery.
“Where’s your husband?” I ask. “I haven’t seen him for a while.”
She smiles and says “Tony? He’s my partner not my husband.”
“Your partner? You’re not married?” Well, this is news to me, in fact the best news I’ve had this week. My mobile phone is ringing and I take a quick glance and see it’s the Bulls Head again and I just reject the call quickly and Jan says “you should have taken that, don’t mind me,” but I do mind her and the news about Tony is good news.
I hang on to her for a while but then she’s off and I fill up the machine, take out the cash, and I’m ready to go. “Put plenty of Marlboro lights in,” she had said because that’s what she smokes which is a shame because I hate women who smoke but as it’s her I’m going to make an exception and yes, I did put in more Marlboro Lights, the sticks of death she prefers.
As I drove away I caught her eye as she signed for some delivery on the steps of reception and she smiled and I thought about how much I liked her and desired her and yet I’d just delivered her drugs of choice.
Round the corner at the Stanley it was time for a brew. The landlady was a young girl called Julie and she was nice, in fact she was very fit indeed. She did a lot of jogging and it was nice to watch her when she filled in for the cleaners on their holidays and she did the hoovering wearing a tee shirt and no bra and it was lovely to watch but she didn’t have the ‘oomph’ factor if you know what I mean.
On the other hand there’s this cleaner there, Marge, who’s in her mid to late fifties and she is so gorgeous it’s not true. Did I say fifties? Me, fancying a woman in her fifties? I can’t believe it myself sometimes but all I do in here is chat and sup tea and eventually Julie who must be watching on cameras or something will come down and we’ll have to get a move on and break up the party. I’m always sorry to say good-bye to Marge. She has the trim figure of a girl in her teens, a lovely warm inviting smile and all she really needs to look a million dollars is for someone to sort out her mop of untidy hair and give her some exciting clothes. Still, she’s a cleaner and she not likely to wear her best outfit for cleaning is she? When I’m ready to leave we stand at the door for a couple of minutes of last minute chit chat and when she’s in close it’s all I can do to stop putting my arms around her and holding her. She’s always on about her partner so I don’t think for a minute she’d be interested in me but the thought is always there and it’s a nice thought. A nice thought to hold on to when you’re feeling lonely and unloved as I sometimes do.
Anyway I go on and on, filling the ciggy machines, having a chat here and there and having a brew here and there. Some pubs you can’t wait to get out of and others I could stay all day.
I pulled the van out of Prescot and cantered up the short stretch of motorway to the Bulls Head. The Bulls Head is in the country; well, in a way but it’s in the start of the country, ten minutes from the M62 motorway, ten minutes’ walk from a small row of shops where you can buy cigarettes; full packets of cigarettes not vending machine packs with sixteen or eighteen cigarettes but no, this customer wanted my cigarettes, my overpriced and under packed cigarettes.
I was listening to Perry Como on my van’s tape deck. Perry Como? I can hear you say, well, I like everything musical except for rap and opera. Sometimes I play rock, hard or soft, sometimes soul, sometimes dance. Sometimes I even play classical stuff like Handel and Strauss.
Just as I pulled up to the Bulls Head I could see Betty waiting. She opened up the emergency exit meaning I wouldn’t have to go all the way round and as I stepped in with my keys and tool box she had the £5.20 in her hands for a packet of Lambert and Butler.
“I though you’d be here ages ago,” She said, anxiously.
“Wasn’t in the area Betty. I had to finish me work in Prescot then drive over.”
“I’ve been in all day. You could’ve come any time.”
“Don’t worry. I’m here now.”
You’d think it was the doctor, coming to see a sick child or something. Instead it’s me. Here to fix the ciggy machine.
The minute I had the locks off and the door of the machine open she was over with her money.
“Here. Twenty Lambert.”
I took the money and slipped her a packet of the life givers.
“Eighteen Lambert,” I corrected her.
“Eighteen,” she muttered as she slit the cellophane with her fingernail and took out a cigarette. “Robbin’ bastards. At least its eighteen. Most packets in that machine you only get sixteen! Why don’t you get twenty? Why can’t they put twenty in? I wouldn’t mind paying five pound twenty for twenty but eighteen! -Robbin’ gets!”
She stuck the cigarette between her lips and lit it quickly in one smooth action slipping the lighter from her hand and back and into her jeans pocket while she breathed in the life giving aroma. The white stick nestled in between her fingers and made the natural trip to her lips frequently. She cradled the white stick feeling it’s warmth, watching it settle in her fingers and develop its comforting grey ash.
It seemed to me that many smokers take on the pallor of ash. Their skin becoming grey, ashen and wasted and people like me could spot them a mile away.
Betty had a nice figure and wore a denim shirt and denim pants. She had big round eyes and with a bit of effort she could be nice. I often wondered what he would be like dressed up for a night out. Not that I could really stand to be near her as she smoked ciggy after ciggy.
“We need a new machine in here you know. If that one’s gonna start packing in like this every five minutes. We’re out in the middle of nowhere here you know. No shops. No nothing.”
What she would have done if she were living in the real middle of nowhere, somewhere like the highlands of Scotland I do not know but already the tobacco was doing it’s work calming her, easing her. She came and leant on the bar folding her arms and watching the workings of the machine with her warm round eyes.
“Look,” I said. “Torn up beer mat. Some plonker’s torn up a beer mat and stuffed it down the coin chute. Probably kids. Do you let kids in here at the weekends?”
“Little bastard! I know who it was. I’ll kill the little toe rag and his Mum when they come in tonight! No ciggys since Sunday afternoon!”
“It’ll be good for you. A break from the ciggys for a while. Do a bit of joggin’, get some nice clean air in your lungs. Come back here for a few carrot sticks and a low fat dip. You should think about you health more.”
Betty laughed and told me the story she had told me a hundred times before about all the people who smoked in her family, like her grandad who lived to be 86 and her dad who’s as fit as a fiddle and how they all smoke non stop.
“Are you rushing off or do you want a brew?”
Now take tea, there’s something that’s good for you, something worth waiting for. I never say no to a brew.
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In my book ‘Floating in Space,’ available now as a paperback or a kindle e-book from amazon.co.uk, all the action takes place in Manchester in the north west of England in 1977. All the venues are authentic, all actual Manchester pubs or bars. here’s an excerpt about a bar called the ‘Playground’ which used to be on Oxford Road.
Saturday night was in a lot of ways the culmination of the weekend. I always preferred it to Friday nights because things were more relaxed, there was no rushing home from work, no rushing to get your tea down your neck so you can get changed, then leg it out for the bus. Saturday, you could take your time and leisurely work up to things. Sometimes I would go out shopping and buy myself something new to wear for that evening, a shirt, or perhaps even a new pair of trousers. Then later I would have a long relaxed soak in the bath, and dress unhurriedly in my room to the tune of my favourite music. In 1977 my favourite album was still Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick road’, and as I dressed I would mimic Nigel Olsson’s measured and rhythmic drumming to ‘The Ballad of Danny Bailey’, or ‘Candle in the Wind’.
There was something about Saturday nights in Manchester. Some quality of security, of expectancy, a feeling that the night and the future were going to be good. A feeling that you might just ‘get off’ with some gorgeous girl and that even if you didn’t it didn’t really matter because there was always the excitement of the people, the music, the drink, and everything else that made up the evening. And then there was always the expectancy of the next night, and the next, and on and on into the future. The past building up inside you like a great data bank, reminding you, reassuring you, like a light burning in some empty room in the corner of your mind.
The main venue that night, and on many other Saturday nights like it, was the ‘Playground’, a small disco bar on Oxford Rd in the town centre. Flickering multi- coloured spotlights rotated across the red carpeted room, which, on Fridays and Saturdays was generally packed. It had a small dance floor sunk low like a pit, where people up on the raised bar level could look down at the gyrating girls, and where also, on week day lunchtimes, a topless dancer appeared at the stroke of one o’clock to translate the soul and disco music of the time into pulsating physical motion, the eyes of jaded office workers glued to her as she did so.
My friend ‘Matty’ Edwards and I used to meet up in the Salisbury, by Oxford Rd station, have a few pints and a bit of a natter to any Regal Insurance cronies who we might find there, then make the short walk to the Playground. There was a paltry fifty pence charge to get in, the solitary bouncer was silent, but not unpleasant, and the DJ, who always began the night with ‘Loves Theme’ by the Love Unlimited Orchestra, played alternate sessions of rock, disco, and chart music. We were both mad about Jenny, the barmaid. She was lovely. She had a kind of round, open face, framed by thick blonde hair and her skin was a creamy white. She served us Worthington ‘E’ and we melted into the hubbub of people on their Saturday night out while the music of the seventies drifted through us.
Matty was tall, he had lazy, rather hayfevered eyes, and a biggish nose over thin lips. His brown hair was short and untidy and he was smart, but had a sort of ‘middle of the road’ taste in clothes.
“Jenny’s looking gorgeous tonight” he told me over his pint of Worthington’s.
We were propped up at the bar at a convenient spot where we could eye up any possible female talent, and cast a fond eye over Jenny’s appealing form.
“You’re not wrong mate” I agreed. “I wouldn’t mind getting a grip of that myself.”
I caught Jenny’s eye and ordered two more pints of Worthington ‘E’. It wasn’t a great drink but we were tuned into now for the rest of the evening, and anyway, I hadn’t as yet developed any clearly defined tastes in beer. The first pint I ever ordered myself was a pint of mild, and that was because I had nervously entered a Cheshire country pub after a long cycle ride and hesitatingly asked for a pint of ‘beer’.
“A beer?” asked the barmaid.
“Yes,” I replied, “A pint, please.”
“A pint of what?”
I realised, uncomfortably, that something more was required. I had thought that ‘a pint of beer’ would have been enough, but what the barmaid wanted to know was did I want bitter, or mild, or lager even? My first tentative forays into the world of the alcoholic drink were with my friend Mike Larini and it was always he who had done the ordering. What did he ask for, I thought? I couldn’t remember but down the bar the faint voice of an old man asking for half of mild drifted along to me, and so I went on to drink mild. Later I changed to bitter, and even now I was currently considering another change as someone had given me the cheerful news that bitter ‘rots your guts’. Perhaps it had been that eternal pessimist Matty Edwards with his inside knowledge of beer. His father was a Didsbury publican, and Matty’s drink changed from pub to pub. Sometimes it was lager, sometimes bitter, but here, in the Playground, it was that now long departed brew, Worthington ‘E’.
I passed over Matty’s pint and we both took deep draughts. Worthington’s was never a great ale but it was good enough, and the first taste of a fresh pint is always the best. I looked into the deep mahogany of the beer and thought about the things you can see through the bottom of a glass. Could I see Spain, there, in the distance? Could I really do it? Pack in my job and go to Spain in search of sun, sea, sand, and girls?
Somebody bumped into me from behind and a gruff voice said “sorry mate” and shouted up four pints of lager.
“Busy in here tonight” I said to Matty.
“Its Saturday night isn’t it? It’s always busy.”
“Yes, but it seems to be mostly lads. Was there a match on today or something?”
“Of course. City and United. Still, it was at Maine Rd so I wouldn’t have expected a load of hooligans in town.”
“Keep it down,” I said quietly. “You know what these football fans are like. Look at them the wrong way and they’ll have you.”
A girl in short black outfit caught my eye across the other side of the room and as Matty and I nattered on I would occasionally glance over and make eye contact. Matty soon noticed me and asked who I was eyeing up, and I told him and of course he had to gawp over at her despite me asking him to be discreet.
I thought about going over to chat to her but the usual fear crept up on me. What could I say? Suppose she wasn’t even interested in me? Sometimes I had found myself eyeing up someone I later found I wasn’t really interested in, it was just that the invisible thread that bound you across the room wasn’t all that easy to break. You would find yourself turning again to meet those same eyes, attracted to each other purely by the link that held you.
“Are you getting them in or what?” I said to Matty.
“Just waiting till Jenny comes this way.”
“Shout up the other barmaid. She’s over this side,” I told him, impatiently.
“You shout her up if you want. I want Jenny. Look at that; gorgeous.”
We spent a few moments discussing the merits of Jenny. Her eyes, her lips, her hair. She was lovely. Matty finally caught her attention and she filled up our pint pots. Matty bought her a drink and they exchanged some pleasantries before she moved on to the next customer. Matty came closer and quietly told me about the letter he was thinking of sending to her, telling her how he felt about her, but what did I think? Was it a good idea?
“What, a letter?” I shook my head. “No, why don’t you get her alone on a quiet night, give her some chat? Ask her out or something?”
“I don’t know. What about a card though, instead. I could send her a nice card asking for a date.”
Matty was as shy as I was in some ways, but his ideas of writing to a girl were always a mistake. If the girl did like him, and wanted to go out, then he would be actually asking her to ask him out. He would be transferring the responsibility of the whole thing on to her. No, we’re all shy to varying degrees, but things like this are a part of life that we have to face up to. We have to rise to the occasion and take on the challenge. Perhaps that sounds a bit dramatic but, getting involved with the opposite sex is a normal part of life, its just that anything new is hard at first, and all of us are conscious of our feelings, especially where sexuality is concerned.
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