“NAAH... NAAH... NAAH... NAAH...” The small alarm clock sounded like someone had taken all the low notes out of an ambulance’s siren and parked it on Tony’s head. It had been set for ten thirty and that was no kind of challenge for something built to interrupt dreams.
“NAAH...NAAH.” It had that, ‘This ship will self destruct in T minus not-enough-seconds-to-get-out-of-here’ sense of urgency about it but Tony was a teenager and, if the world was about to end, he could think of no better place to be than in bed. He wanted to shout to his mum to let him lie-in but he knew that living independently had its downsides and having nobody to shout to was one of them. He lived alone in a single room that served as bedroom, kitchen and lounge where the piles of socks and ‘used’ hankies competed for evolutionary dominance. The bedsit was, of course, a temporary arrangement as far as Tony was concerned so it didn’t matter that the pattern in his carpet was mainly spicy beef and toe nail clippings because he wouldn’t be there long enough to have to do anything about it. Somewhere in the back of his mind was the thought that he was going to have to clean the place anyway to get his bond back when he eventually left and he was saving himself for the big day. There was still a ‘post-it’ note stuck to the floor of the single Baby Belling oven that read, “Sorry I didn’t have time to clean this, hope you enjoy the bed sit, Ralph,” which was left by the previous tenant nine months ago and Tony had yet to discover it.
The alarm went on, jabbing him in the consciousness like a bored kid with a sharp stick. He had reason to be tired, he’d been working until four in the morning at ‘The Prom’, “Blackpool’s number one night spot,” (a high accolade indeed and only shared with the other forty or so clubs in the area).
A skinny, eighteen year old hand finally crept slowly towards the snooze button on the clock which sat on the chair that acted as a bedside table. In earlier days he had launched himself at it but that would only send it spinning away across the bedsit, forcing him to leave his dream and scrabble out of bed to find the irritating little bastard amongst the laundry and turn it off properly.
A choice between five more minutes with Mandy in Ibiza and rummaging, half asleep, on your hands and knees through last weeks skiddy underwear with a hard on, was easy to make even for an angry, sleepy teenager.
Mandy was a barmaid, tall and utterly gorgeous she was a classic fifties bombshell: blonde, blue eyes and constructed entirely from nature’s secret collection of curves with the kind of firm body that’s exactly the same shape lying down as standing up. Tony knew that body intimately. He’d trekked that particular landscape many times and from many different directions.
Unfortunately it was all virtual. His Mandy was like a flight simulator, exact in every detail but no substitute for the feel of a real cockpit. Touchdown always ended with him alone, trying to tear a few sheets from a loose toilet roll with one hand.
In the real world Tony knew that if he were ever to get into Mandy’s heart and make the fantasy a reality, he would have to overcome two enormous obstacles, (the same could be said by a surgeon but that’s more of an anatomical problem). The first was her boyfriend, Hugo the twat, the second was his age and he always thought he could do something about one of them.
“Leave me alone!” Once again he reached, gingerly for the snooze button .The problem was that this was the sixth time he had done it and it was now half past eleven. His date was at twelve, and it was with Mandy.
He sat bolt upright and glared at the alarm clock, hating it for its inability to go the extra mile and physically drag him out of bed by his ear. “Shit” he said under his breath as his mind tried to simultaneously calculate the quickest combination of clothes that were cool, ironed and clean, or maybe those that were none of the above but ‘would do’. The results came back after a second or two. Nothing was cool, nothing was ironed and, well, the definition of ‘clean’ was an argument for another day. He had three minutes to get ready. He had to make an impression and he was still half asleep. His brain, still running cold, convinced him of the only logical option,
“Hey,” it said.
“It works for James Bond,” it said.
“Last night’s shirt will do,” it said.
“It’s just a matter of confidence and if it all goes tits up you can pass it off as being ‘arty’,” it said.
Ten minutes after getting up and eight after leaving the bedsit, Tony looked at himself in the shop windows as he strutted his way to the cafe. “Stay confident and look natural and before you know it birthday tuxedos will be all the rage,” he said to himself as he straightened his enormous brown bow tie.
The ‘date’ he was heading for wasn’t quite the two-way love story that dates usually promise. In fact it wasn’t a date as such, more of an innocent stalking. He knew that Mandy always stopped at a certain cafe on a Saturday afternoon after her big shopping spree. She’d be out from behind the bar and she’d be alone. Just the thought of seeing her in daylight made him salivate.
The cafe was small but very public. When Tony entered he felt obliged to offer small half waves of recognition to all the old ladies and weekend trippers that looked at him with confused smiles.
“We don’t have a piano,” said a young waitress whose face made even Tony’s crater collection look like polished glass.
“No, I’m here to meet someone,” he said, scanning the room for his prize before his gaze settled on the girl’s puss-filled features. He managed to hide the revulsion and set off to find a quiet table where he could escape the glowing yellow limelight of her acne and wait for his beloved. She followed.
“Are you getting married?” She asked in a very jolly way as though she’d just figured it out.
Tony had had enough.
“In a cafe?”
“Well, people do,” she said.
“People who like cafes?” She offered. Tony stared at her, concentrating on the eyes.
“I don’t know what kind of a person would like cafes so much they would want to get married in one, but they probably wouldn’t have enough friends to fill one this size if they did.” He wanted to shake her until a light bulb appeared over her head and she was cured but he didn’t have time and didn’t want the attention. “I’m going to sit down and would like a mug of tea please,” he said and added, “no cake.”
“It’s self service,” she said, very loudly, and moved to a pile of empty cups on a nearby table.
After about an hour or so Tony was staring at the dregs in his third cup of tea. Three small steel pots sat before him, each representing a painfully conspicuous trip to the counter and a look of rejection from ‘custard features’ as she actively ignored his filling table. In each of the pots had been enough tea for ‘one and an eighth’ cups. Tony had had time to consider the smaller things in life and came to the conclusion that this was some subtle scam to sell a single cup of tea as a ‘pot for one’ for a few pence more. This would convince the hapless tourist, or old lady, that if they bought eight pots they would be able to beat the system and get a free cup of tea. The fact that by the eighth pot the first dregs would be cold, (unlike the steaming puddle that eight consecutive cups of tea can force from the average old lady if she’s not careful) didn’t seem to matter to the owners. Judging by the constant flow of satisfied punters it didn’t seem to matter to anyone else either.
The now familiar sound of the doors opening made Tony look up in ever depleting hope, but this time the beautiful Mandy, turning to pull the last few shopping bags through the quickly closing doors, was the culprit.
He had a few fractions of a second to get his act together. It dawned on him that he could have spent the last hour practising his surprised “hello” or at least thinking of a decent reason for the tuxedo should she not find it mysterious and alluring. Instead he had spent the last hour picking at a few unripe scabs on his cheek and desperately trying to stop visualizing Mandy in the shower and remember the name of a song she’d mentioned in passing about a week ago.
Tony had a theory that he could overcome his obvious physical and financial downfalls by seeming Bohemian and arty. He’d already managed ‘funny’ but, contrary to popular opinion, humor hadn’t got him laid. It had to be managed carefully because the last thing he wanted to be seen as was the next Andy Warhol. Someone with Mandy’s view of life would see Warhol as a pervy weirdo with a can fixation and not the pervy artistic weirdo with a screen-printing fixation that was so appreciated.
He knew one thing for certain, this had to look totally accidental and as though he wasn’t the least bit excited about her sudden appearance. He watched her start to scan the room for a table. To his horror her eyes landed on a spare seat at a table for four that was currently occupied by a little old lady and two large shopping bags. She started towards the table as panic started to throb in his chest. He couldn’t believe that in all his planning the question- what if she sits somewhere else? Hadn’t been raised. She stopped and looked at the chair again. Oh Joy! The old bag has a yappy little dog! He thought as he watched from his ultra cool and totally inconspicuous pose. Mandy looked around again for another chair, she looked at the old lady who was looking directly at Tony. Result, Grandma’s on the team! He thought as he secretly complimented himself on his nonchalance and total lack of attention. Mandy’s eyes moved to the occupant of the next table who was... also looking at Tony, so was the next, and the next, and everyone in the place, Maybe it’s like one of those dream sequences you get in films where everyone in the room can sense a love that was meant to be, he thought to himself. The magic of the moment engulfed him and he half expected an orchestra and a little mood lighting. Right on cue their eyes finally met and then... was that joy or disgust on her face?
Reality set in quicker than a soap opera nightfall as Tony realised that he was stood in a cafe on a Saturday afternoon wearing a tuxedo; blood was running down his cheek; he was grinning and waiving vaguely like some Pleasure Beach automaton and, worst of all, his attempts at forgetting the shower thing had failed in a now very obvious, if unimpressive, way.
Sitting down has never happened so fast.
“Hey, Tony? What are you doing here?” Mandy had eased her way through a full cafe with what looked like four hundred bags of various sizes in about half a second. She had maintained eye contact with Tony the whole way and not put a foot wrong. Much that he wished she had had to struggle a bit to give him time to get his composure and wipe his cheek, he couldn’t release himself from her soft gaze.
“Hello Babe, what a pleasant surprise, I haven’t seen you since, ooh last night wasn’t it? You haven’t changed a bit.” Make a woman laugh and, contrary to popular opinion, it’ll definitely get you out of a hole. Mandy floated onto the chair next to his and let go one of her warm real giggles, the kind that made you feel you were just about the most naturally funny guy in the universe. Tony loved that giggle because very few people ever got to hear it, especially Hugo. Mandy had a different giggle for everyone else that you could easily just replace with a card that read, “Yeah, very funny, let me know if you ever need somebody to pay you some real attention and I’ll get my dog.” Well that’s how it seemed to Tony anyway.
“What’s the occasion?” Asked Mandy.
“There’s no occasion, I just happened to be here when you came in.”
“What?” She was looking at his clothes.
“...Oh the suit? Nothing really I just… like to dress for afternoon tea,” he giggled with her.
“So you don’t think I should dress for tea?”
“I don’t know, seems a little strange to me,” she said through the corner of her mouth while rolling her eyes like Groucho Marx.
“You know, you’re right.” He stood and raised his voice a little, “I’ll go for another pot but I’ll just get undressed first.” He started for the buckle on his belt.
“Sit down you loon!” Mandy was laughing loudly now while looking around in mock embarrassment at all the elderly folk who had suddenly found the use of their necks. She grabbed his buckle and pulled him down into his seat.
“I’m just joshing with ya sweet cheeks,” he said, while in his mind a voice cried, “please don’t move your hand any lower, the last one’s only just gone down!”
“Anyway, it looks like you’ve had enough tea to drown an Indian,” she continued, oblivious to the fact that she was only half an inch from turning Tony’s list of top ten ‘Things I want to Happen Before I die’ into a top nine. To most people her ‘Indian’ comment would sound a little strange but Tony had told her a joke ages before about a Native American Indian- “who drank fifteen cups of PG Tips and then couldn’t get the zip on his tent open. He drowned in his own tea pee.”
“OK then, how about some champagne? I put this on because I decided to marry the first beautiful girl who sat next to me and guess what Lucky lips? You just hit the jackpot!” Mandy was laughing loudly now.
“We could ask Hugo if he’d give us the club for the reception, I’m sure he’d be delighted... NOT!” She continued to laugh but the mention of that name had dampened Tony’s spirits, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he snapped out of it a bit, “Do you want a cup of tea?”
“No I just use this place as a pick up joint for smart young boys.” She was really on a roll now laughing fully with her mouth wide open.
The “young boys” comment had really twisted the knife and, although he knew she meant no harm by it, it illustrated his biggest concern, her opinion of him due to the tiny age gap between them.
“It’s just that it’s self service so I’ll just go and err, pop the kettle on.” He stood and set off towards the counter. Mandy was still laughing as he passed the scowling waitress, she just got her breath back in time to shout after him.
“I hope it fits you better than that suit.” The waitress looked to the floor and tried to hide a snigger, the effort seemed to force several involuntary eruptions around her nostrils. Tony smiled very visibly at Mandy and turned with a scowl to the counter.
This pulling session had started well but was now beginning to give at the seams. While he got the tea he cursed his age, it seemed to be the one thing that was beyond his control. He was only two and a bit years younger than Mandy but, to her, it was this big deal that couldn’t be ignored and which lumped him, in her eyes, alongside the milky bar kid and that woman who acts like a schoolboy out of the krankies, in her list of potential lovers. In fact, he thought, at least they had the sexually alluring scent of fame on their sides which, naff or not, is a powerful aphrodisiac to a girl like Mandy, and the milky bar kid’s got a whip! “Kinky bugger,” said Tony quietly to himself as he walked back to the table, passing an elderly gent within earshot who blushed and let go of his wife’s knee.
“There you are madam.” He put the pot on the table and took his seat before someone clicked their fingers or coughed in his direction. While Mandy poured herself a cup he tested the water, “so how’s your love life these days?”
“Oh, you know how it is, same old story, the doctors tell me I’ve got Mick Jagger Syndrome.” Tony looked amused and slightly puzzled, “Can’t get no satisfaction.” Mandy laughed.
“Oh, I thought you meant your lips keep getting in the way,” they both burst into smutty giggles. “No, but seriously,” Tony wanted to delve, “aren’t you happy with Captain Consideration these days? Or have you finally tired of that big, cuddly bunny we all adore?”
“Hugo’s not so bad,” said Mandy, “He’s just very busy with the club and his family and stuff.”
“THE family you mean.”
“Oh come on Mand’, they don’t call him ‘Judge killer Janus’ for nothing you know. He’s in the Mafia, he’s a name, he’s a hired contract killer, he’s ‘Don Tagliatelli’.”
“He’s Greek,” said Mandy with a smile.
“That’s what he tells you but it won’t be long before you wake up one day with horse next to you in bed.”
“Chance would be a fine thing,” she nudged him and winked.
“Next thing you know the house gets raided and you have to scarper with ten kilos of pure heroin in your knickers.”
Mandy, a sly smile on her face, was deep in thought for a moment.
“Well it makes a change from half a pound of old crack!” They both burst into laughter again but Mandy stopped abruptly as she realised she’d gone a bit too far. She sipped her tea quickly and suppressed her giggles. Tony couldn’t help perving a little at the thought of Mandy talking dirty.
“You love it really don’t you?” He said, teasing her.
“What?” Mandy was acting coy.
“The power. You’d love it if he really was in the Mafia wouldn’t you?”
“Don’t be silly, all that killing and crime, nasty business, very seedy.” She shook her golden hair in denial but carried on. “All those fast cars and sharp suits. Walking straight into clubs and restaurants without a reservation. The danger, the glamour, the respect.” She was staring into his eyes now but her mind was elsewhere. “Parties in Miami around a pool with the other gangsters and their wives.” Now she was gone, reminiscing about something that never happened the way that old people talk about getting an orange for Christmas. “Things get out of hand because someone spills a drink on my dress and they pay for it with their life. Later, of course, he tears my wet dress off and makes rough love to me on the billiard table amid the champagne glasses and guns and leaves me there panting while he goes off on his next heist.” She ran out of breath.
Tony put one hand over his ear and pinched his nose with the other.
“Hello, hello, is there any body else in Mandy’s head because she seems to have lost the controls. Just pick up the radio and I’ll try and talk you back to earth.” She punched his arm playfully and they sat smiling at each other for a moment.
Tony couldn’t believe how well this was going now. The last few minutes had turned things around completely and he was feeling more and more confident. That look in her eyes while she was talking had made him feel that she was really sharing something very intimate with him. Surely this meant something?
“You don’t love him do you?”
She was surprised by his directness, “No, but he’ll do for the time being.”
“Well, unless Robert De Niro decides to retire to Blackpool, you’re going to have to scale things down a bit.”
“Well you can’t just go giving your heart and soul, not to mention fantastic body, to someone just because he’s ‘Top Dog’ in a nightclub. And don’t try telling me there’s more to it than that because we both know that Hugo is a pompous wanker who treats you like a trophy. You’ve opted for him because he represents something a bit glamorous.” Tony was flying, foot to the floor, and, in the absence of any stop signs, decided against lifting it. “Well he may be ‘Top Dog’ at the Prom but in the real world he’s just a spoilt, precious poodle.” Mandy was sitting, open-mouthed, She looked impressed with his bold approach. He felt he was actually going to make some kind of move and she seemed to be silently urging him on.
“He comes over all smooth and important, smelling of roses but as soon as he meets a real dog in the park of life he goes scampering off back to his kennel with his tail between his legs!”
“The park of life?” Mandy didn’t have time to say much else.
“Exactly!” She was obviously with him all the way. He could hear the crowd and see the chequered flag. “I’m a dog in the park of life too!” There, he said it and she wasn’t even laughing, she was still looking at him with her mouth open.
She said ‘yeah’! Tony couldn’t believe it. That had to be confirmation, surely. Anyone could see that she was just waiting to be asked. Her open mouth looked just moments away from a pucker.
“Yeah, I’m a dog in the park of life, and I may not have a rich owner who pampers me and feeds me doggy chocs every day but I am a dog, with a dog’s needs!” He was rapidly approaching the winning line and, in a blur of metaphors, he wanted to raise a paw and howl at the crowd. He stood up, lifted her hand and said aloud, “and you’re a bitch, let me sniff your bum!”
The next three seconds were taken up with silence as Mandy’s mouth opened a little wider and Tony became aware that, once again, everybody in the place was looking at him. The silence was broken by the voice of an elderly man a few tables away.
“And he called me kinky!” He turned to his wife and placed his hand back on her knee. She looked at him and smiled.
“Well at least he hasn’t got a stiffy this time.”
Tony cut the engine and drifted silently while his world waited to either fall apart or carry him, shoulder high, to the podium.
Mandy was the first to laugh, she started it but the whole place was just a breath behind. She guided Tony back into his chair by the hand he was holding and placed her other hand over the top. She leaned into him.
“Tony, you know that I love you loads but you have to realise that, regardless of whether Hugo’s ‘Top Dog’ or not, you’re still only a puppy.”