The Cheeky Chappie
The Jubilee Theatre, Bournehurst served a small, prosperous commuter town in the Surrey-Sussex border country. This expression of civic pride had been built in 1935 in celebration of King George V's twenty-five-year reign. A 1977 addition in the Stalinist-Brutalist style prevalent in those times commemorated the matching achievement of Queen Elizabeth II and contained a small studio theatre, complementing the auditorium in the main Neo-Classical buildings that formed the Civic Centre and council offices.
These theatres provided venues for all sorts of cultural activities by performers ranging from professional touring companies to local am-dram groups and schools. Jubilee One had an air of faded grandeur but was comfortable in the manner of an old pair of slippers. Jubilee Two was stark, functional and furnished with award-winning seating that gave its patrons backache.
Nobody really knew much about him, except that he could be found most evenings in the bar of Jubilee One, not as a patron but as a waiter. Unofficially, that is, for Bournehurst Council did not employ waiters among the theatre staff. Old George had been around for years, longer than anyone could say with certainty. Probably in his seventies, he supplemented his pension by taking orders for drinks from the patrons who used the bar as a pre-performance meeting place and for their refreshment during the intervals.
Some of the older, long-standing residents of Bournehurst might have remembered a George Palmer who had been the manager of the Majestic Cinema that faced the Civic Centre across the square. Built a few years before its entertainment rival, the Majestic resembled a 1930s radiogram with the classical-influenced styling typical of Amalgamated Cinemas in the heyday of the silver screen.
Sad to say, the Majestic had fallen upon hard times. The regular full houses of the depression and the war years continued into the early 1950s but the appearance of television sets in almost every home began to kill the cinema visiting habit. By the mid-60s the ticket receipts did not cover the running costs, let alone make a profit. Amalgamated first converted the Majestic into a tenpin bowling alley and the novelty brought improved its fortunes for a while. When interest in bowling waned, Amalgamated converted the building again, this time into a bingo club.
George Palmer survived the changes. He never had any enthusiasm for tenpin bowling – there was no respect for his position from the largely teens and twenties set who patronised the bowl for the short time before they discovered the next craze. Bingo was different – its mainly female, middle-aged clientele was right up George's street. No more hiding away in his office, George was centre-stage, in the limelight, making announcements and presiding over the proceedings. His failed marriage in the dim and distant past, George took full advantage of the opportunities for female friendship that were his for the asking. His easy manner and innuendo-filled suggestive banter earned him the nickname of "the cheeky chappie".
An enjoyable job, a comfortable salary and all the women he could bed – what could go wrong? Nothing, he thought, until the day that Amalgamated's MD and Personnel Manager arrived unannounced and told George that he was being replaced. A younger man, they said, someone with energy who could grow the business. George argued that that was just what he'd done but they'd made up their mind, he was out. What he didn't know was that one of his amoureuses happened to be the wife of a major shareholder in Amalgamated, one that couldn't be offended or ignored. Instead of confronting George about his behaviour, the man had played the long game and used his influence to secure George's dismissal.
Unceremoniously and with half an hour to clear his desk, George was dismissed. He found himself wandering the High Street in a daze. Regular bingo players greeted him, not knowing the fate that had befallen him, their greetings unreturned, unnoticed even. He must have walked for hours, an incongruous sight in his dinner suit and bow tie.
In all his years with Amalgamated, he'd never set foot inside the Civic Centre or its theatres, not wishing to patronise or be seen to give support to what he'd always regarded as a rival for his customers' money. He needn't have worried – his clients would no more have crossed the square to attend the Bournehurst G&S Society's latest production than its loyal fans would have been found "eyes down" over a bingo card. So he was quite surprised to find himself in the foyer of Jubilee One and to have a glass of champagne thrust into his hand.
The mayor was holding a black tie reception that evening and George was perfectly dressed for the occasion. The young attendant had mistaken him for one of His Worship's guests and given him a glass of bubbly. Never one to pass up a free drink, George stayed on, chatting to all and sundry until the end of the reception. With nothing and nobody to go home to, George drifted into the bar where he had a couple more drinks. Slowly, the afternoon's disastrous events came back to his mind and he started to feel sorry for himself. Having decided that he'd had enough, he stood up and started to walk towards the exit.
The evening's performance had reached the interval and theatregoers were filling the hitherto sparsely populated bar. A hand reached out to him and touched his arm. "Two gin-and-tonics, please!" a voice called and George, somewhat taken aback, found himself up at the bar, getting the order. He took the drinks back to where the couple were seated and was surprised to have a five-pound note thrust into his hand. "Keep the change," the man said, turning back to his pretty companion.
Cheeky bastard, George fumed, he thinks I'm a waiter! When his indignation subsided he began to see the funny side of it. Apart from civic reception guests, dance bands and bingo club managers, nobody wore dinner suits and bow ties anymore; the man's mistake was understandable. Firmly making his way through the crowds, George left the bar and returned to the foyer. He spent some time looking at the billboards listing the forthcoming attractions. He'd always worked evenings so he'd had no time to attend the theatre, even had he been so inclined.
"Some of this stuff's not bad," he mused as he went out into the street and walked back to his flat above the main shopping parade. A waiter! He laughed out loud, startling a passing dog-walker. But as he climbed the stairs and put his key in the lock, a plan was taking shape in his mind.
For a time George lived on his small savings. He'd once had a house and wished he still did, but his wife had got that in their divorce settlement. As a clerk at a legal firm, she'd had the benefit of all the advice her boss could give. Female solicitors went for the jugular when representing a woman and George was lucky to get out of the marriage with the clothes on his back.
He'd got used to seeing his ex-wife around town, in the bank, the supermarket and the High Street. Why she'd turned vicious he'd never know. After all, it hadn't been his first affair with an usherette – it was what cinema managers did. She'd been happy to oblige when she'd been one, and she was married to her first husband at the time. Whenever they met, Mavis always took the opportunity to make some barbed comment about his appearance, his job or whatever else didn't meet her approval.
When she heard about his dismissal she had a field day, causing heads to turn in the Post Office queue when she mocked George in an over-loud voice. "I'll be back on top," he retorted but he knew it was only bravado, wishful thinking on his part. His savings were nearly gone and he was already considerably overdrawn at the bank. He'd have to get a job.
The problem was that George had spent years being in charge and taking instructions didn't come easily to him. There weren't many jobs suitable for a man with few qualifications and those available were quite poorly paid. He didn't expect his cinema manager's salary but some of the wages on offer were a joke. His tendency to make his opinions known frequently led to his dismissal and he collected more P45s than the average man sees in a lifetime.
He tried mini-cabbing but there were complaints from female passengers whom he'd propositioned. The cab firm ran a courier service and he escaped the sack by offering to transfer to the vans. These weren't as popular with the drivers because there were few tips to be had from the parcels work. The downside was that George, always a night owl, had to start getting up early. He settled into the work and the complaints were forgotten.
With hours alone in his van to think, George set about taking revenge on the authors of his misfortune. First, he anonymously passed information to the Inland Revenue about Amalgamated's Managing Director, blowing the whistle on a scam that he'd been operating for years. As a result the man was convicted of fraud and jailed for six months.
The Personnel Manager was the next to suffer. One of George's old flames was by then the Personnel Manager's secretary. She told George how she'd walked into his office and found him surfing the Internet for child pornography. She'd said nothing and he'd thought she hadn't noticed. A tip-off to the Police led to a raid of the man's house and the discovery of a hoard of indecent pictures. George considered the attendant publicity, the ruin of the man's reputation and his prison sentence to be fair exchange for the part he'd played in George's loss of office.
Finally he set his mind to engineering his ex-wife's downfall but it wasn't going to be easy. He came up with a few fanciful plans, none of them practicable, but was saved the trouble when Mavis accepted a lift home from a country pub by the man she'd been flirting with all evening. Well over the drink-drive limit, he'd lost control and the car had left the road and hit a tree head on. Her neck had snapped neatly, putting an end to her 53-year scheming existence. George was invited to her funeral but took great pleasure in declining, saying he had to go to the launderette.
George was a people person and badly missed the interaction with staff and patrons at the Majestic. His job as a courier involved only the briefest of contacts at his base and at the drop and he longed for some social contact. Paul, one of his fellow drivers, suggested George should join the singles club of which he was an active member.
George agreed to go and that evening spent an hour peering at the contents of his small wardrobe for something to wear, not that he had much choice. Most of his clothes were dinner suits, six of them to be precise, plus the accompanying dress shirts and bow ties. He'd rarely, if ever, taken time off from the Majestic so he'd not had much use for casual clothing. He selected a pair of grey slacks and a button-fronted cardigan that must have dated from the 1950s. He'd really have to do something about getting some new clothes.
The prospect of company, preferably female, had put George in a good mood so he was taken aback by Paul's comments about his attire. "Where d'you get the gear, granddad?" he mocked when George opened the door to his flat. Paul was in his forties, considerably younger than George, and did his best to appear younger still.
"I haven't got many clothes, never needed them when I had a proper job," George retorted, making his drop in employment status clear to his colleague. He considered himself a cut above the other drivers; a bunch of tattooed, ear-ringed layabouts with horizons no wider than the tabloids, football and the TV soaps. "Obviously, from now on I'll be going out more so it'll be worth my while to buy some new stuff."
"Well, don't take too long about it, people'll think you're my dad," Paul said with a laugh. They went in his car rather than George's van, in case they "pulled", Paul said. George was looking forward to the prospect - celibacy didn't suit him.
They arrived at a large 1930s roadhouse pub on a by-pass about ten minutes' drive from Bournehurst. As they entered the saloon bar, Paul introduced George to Jim, the manager. Though married, Jim was an unofficial member of the club by virtue of hosting it. However, any opportunities for extramarital activity were firmly denied by his wife Pat who watched her husband like a hawk.
George was surprised and pleased to recognise a couple of his old regulars from the Majestic, not bad-looking ones either. His pleasure was short-lived as neither was in the slightest interested in him. Without his position and the uniform, George had no pulling power whatsoever. The two women who showed any interest at all were even older than him, for goodness sake! He was dependent on Paul for the lift home so he politely nursed his Scotch and made noncommittal conversation until it was time to go. He never went to the singles club again and Paul didn't press him. Taking George home that night had ruined his chance of a sleeping partner.
After his visit to the Jubilee and the "waiter" incident, George had been back twice; once to see a rock 'n' roll revival show, the other time for the Bournehurst Players' version of "Oklahoma!" He loved all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and had seen the film versions of them countless times at the Majestic. In fact he unselfconsciously sang along with the numbers, causing much amusement to those patrons sitting near him.
He realised he was nothing without a bit of status and a uniform and he had to get them back. Thus, with his collection of dinner suits, George Palmer became a freelance waiter.
George began spending most evenings in the bar of Jubilee One, whatever was showing. There were performances most nights and the bar was open even when the theatre was "dark". He got to know the staff; the box-office girls, the ushers, the stagehands, in fact everyone connected with the theatre. The formality of his dress in an age of increasing casualness marked him out but everyone liked him and enjoyed passing the time with the "cheeky chappie". Some of his remarks were outrageous but people weren't offended. Many of his suggestions would have been met with a slap on the face, had a younger man made them.
He got to know the patrons too. Bournehurst was a prosperous area, in stockbroker country as it used to be known before "Big Bang", when equity trading became a twenty-four hour activity for Essex boys and girls. George cultivated the acquaintance of several influential people. Surprisingly few knew of his previous existence at the Majestic and this proved to be a distinct advantage.
One evening, on the opening night of a performance of "Carmen" by a national touring company, George took the plunge and approached an opulently dressed party who had just arrived. He'd armed himself with a waiter's duplicate book and a pencil as his memory was no longer to be trusted with complicated drinks orders.
Looking what appeared to be the party leader in the eye, he said, "May I take your order, sir?" The man was slightly taken aback but quickly asked the gathering what drinks they wanted. George went to the bar and got the order. He returned to the party with the tray of drinks and placed a glass on the table in front of each person.
"That'll be nine pounds, sir" George said to the man-in-charge who took out his wallet, withdrew a ten-pound note and placed it on the tray. "Get one for yourself," he said, turning back to a middle-aged woman wearing too much make-up and a dress in a style more appropriate for a woman twenty years younger. "Thank you, sir," George replied and walked away.
So far, so good - when he'd planned his venture he decided not to "load" the drinks prices. It was status he required from the operation, not money, although that wouldn't be unwelcome. George had figured (rightly, it turned out) that most people would give him a tip of some sort for the service he performed for them. If they didn't it would be no big deal.
The bar filled up and George repeated the exercise another six times before the announcement was made and people left to take up their seats in the theatre. He went up to the bar and ordered a gin-and-tonic. "Keeping yourself busy I see," said Brenda, a motherly forty-something woman who amply filled the regulation white blouses and black skirts issued for her job behind the bar.
"Yes," replied George, "it keeps me off the street corners, as my mother used to say." They laughed and Brenda walked away to serve another customer. A tap on his shoulder announced the presence of Marjorie, one of the ushers. "There's a spare seat at the back if you'd like to watch the show," she said. "Just come and see me when you've finished your drink but make sure the manager isn't around." "Thanks," George said, "I will," smiling at her. He was already having the desired effect on women and was feeling much better as a result.
George knew Adrian, the manager, and got on well with him. Still, the Jubilee didn't exist to admit people free so there was no point in him knowing. He watched Adrian climb the stairs to the balcony and slipped over to the door where Marjorie let him in, hissed "over there" and shone her torch to the empty seat. He'd never seen an opera before but there was a first time for everything. He'd not felt this good for years.
The weeks went by and the patrons of Jubilee One's bar got used to George's waiting activities. There were few nights when he didn't take home twenty pounds or so, plus have a few drinks bought for him. Brenda set up an unofficial waiter station at the end of the long bar where George could attract her attention and get served quickly. In return, he was helping her with the interval drinks orders that had to be set out ready for the patrons prior to the performance breaks.
One evening, as he arrived in the foyer, Adrian Burrows walked up to him. "Can you spare me a minute, George, in my office?" the Manager asked, steering him to the administration area behind the box office. They entered a room and Adrian pointed George to a seat. Dropping into a leather swivel armchair, he came straight to the point.
"What exactly's going on?" he said in a quizzical tone. "First, I get people congratulating me on the new waiter service and I'm made to look an idiot because I know nothing about it. I thought they were confusing the Jubilee with the Playhouse over at Hayfield. They've opened a restaurant in their monster of a building, run by the catering school to give the students some work experience. Then Councillor Buggins rang to ask where I'd got the budget to employ a waiter. George, what are you up to?"
George decided to level with Adrian. The man was no fool and he must be wondering why anyone would want to work in his theatre for nothing. "Until a few weeks ago I'd never been in this building. To be honest, I love everything about it - the atmosphere, the staff, the patrons and the entertainment. I used to work in the business and I miss it terribly."
"I know," said Adrian. "I was a cinemagoer and signed the petition against the conversion more years ago than I care to remember. I'm afraid there's no money for more staff, otherwise I'd see what I could do."
"Oh, I'm not looking for a job. I've got one already, adequate but unexciting. I just want to be part of the action, if that's not too much trouble."
"Not at all," replied Adrian, "no trouble at all. The bar takings are up about thirty percent since you started this caper. We can't afford to employ more than one barperson per shift and it's amazing what having someone to queue at the bar for you does for people's thirsts!"
"So I can continue?" asked George, looking somewhat relieved.
"Of course," replied Adrian, rising and leading George to the door. Smiling, he said "By the way, keep the free admissions to yourself, I don't want that getting around!"
6. THE FINAL CURTAIN
The years passed and old George entered the folklore of the Jubilee complex. One by one, his dinner suits became threadbare and this had to be pointed out to him, his eyesight having become too poor to notice. Still, there were always plenty of replacements to be had from the charity shops of a prosperous town like Bournehurst.
His attendances became less regular as George, a lifelong smoker, began suffering bouts of bronchitis, especially in the winter months. However, he always bounced back after a course of antibiotics with a promise to give up the weed, something that nobody believed would happen.
Big changes were taking place in Bournehurst. The Majestic was forced to close without notice when routine repairs revealed the presence of blue asbestos. Some, including George, suspected that Amalgamated Cinemas had known about it for years but nothing could be proved.
But every cloud has a silver lining. Bournehurst Borough Council received a planning application from the Merryworth supermarket chain to build a new superstore on the site of the Majestic. Seeking to kill two birds with one stone, the planning officers recommended approval on the condition that Merryworth withdrew its application for an out-of-town store on the bypass. Unsurprisingly, the council approved the application.
Having long ago retired from his driving job, George had taken to sitting on one of the benches in front of the Civic Centre in all weathers, watching the world go by. Across the square, the Majestic was being stripped of its contents. Ornate plush seating, fixtures and fittings were unceremoniously being dumped in a succession of skips to be removed by a continuous stream of lorries. It was an awful waste but what could you do with the contents of an old cinema? The eve of D-Day – demolition day – arrived and George was helping Brenda clear up after the last of the post-performance customers had left. He still retained a soft spot for the old Majestic, even though it had served him so ill all those years ago. "I never thought I'd see the day when the old place was pulled down," he said as he and Brenda partook of a nightcap.
"Good riddance to bad rubbish," retorted Brenda, sipping her drink. "I won't miss it, gloomy old place. It's about time we had a decent supermarket in this town."
George didn't appear the next evening or even ring Brenda to let her know. They'd become good friends over the years, even though George's hope of a physical relationship with her failed to materialise. He'd considered proposing marriage but the bad memories of his previous attempt stopped him. The widow and the divorcee would have made a lovely couple – everyone thought so – but they remained apart, living in two small flats a few streets from each other.
After her shift, Brenda went round to the flat above Central Parade where George had lived since time immemorial. Long ago, when he'd had designs on her, he'd given her a key but she'd never used it. In fact, she'd never even been in the flat. Turning the key in the lock, Brenda entered the small hallway and was struck by the shabbiness of everything. Typical bachelor place, she thought, probably hadn't seen a lick of paint since he'd moved in. She called his name but received no answer. Peering through each door in turn, she found the bedroom and, entering it, saw the sleeping figure in the light that entered through the gap in the curtains. She touched his shoulder and was struck by its coldness.
Brenda called the police who called the Forensic Medical Examiner. The police doctor couldn't be sure but George appeared to have been dead for about twelve hours or so. What the woman didn't know was that his heart had declared its innings just as the demolition ball made its first contact with the empty shell of the Majestic.
The following evening as Brenda was leaving George’s flat, a car pulled into the service area and a smartly dressed thirty-something man got out. James Firman was an estate agent with an eye to acquiring properties on his own account and selling or letting them according to circumstances. Jubilee Parade with Jubilee Court atop was yet another commemoration of the old king’s twenty-five-year reign. Once part of a thriving High Street, the property had clearly seen better days.
The previous owner had died eight years before and her children were happy to accept James’s offer for the dilapidated block of six shops and twelve flats. Two of the shops had been empty and the rest were trading precariously. Three of the flats were derelict, another four were occupied by elderly tenants and the remaining five were on short lets to DSS claimants. James used his contacts to get the empty premises restored to letting condition and the regeneration process was under way. At ground level a mobile phone shop had been joined by a bistro/wine bar and the flats above were already being filled with commuting couples.
"Hello, you must be Brenda,” he said breezily with little regard for the circumstances of her loss. Brenda smiled weakly. She’d have known he was an estate agent anywhere - who else would reek of aftershave at five in the afternoon? They spoke for a while. George had no known next of kin so James was happy for her to deal with his late tenant’s effects, meagre though they were. As soon as the flat had been cleared, he could get on with redecorating it and letting it to a new tenant. When elderly residents such as George relinquished the flats for one reason or another, James soon re-let them at vastly increased rents. There was a general shortage of rented accommodation in areas such as Bournehurst with its fast train services to London.
Almost as an afterthought, James said, “Did you know there is a Will? George asked my handyman and me to witness it for him, must have been about three years back.” Brenda didn’t know, she never thought she’d find herself in the position to be concerned.
She returned on Saturday morning, armed with black plastic refuse sacks and cleaning materials. The landlord’s men frequently had to deal with all sorts of remains in the flats of deceased tenants but there was no way Brenda would have “her” George’s memory sullied by a mess. She methodically worked her way through the premises, leaving them cleaner than they’d been for years. George’s effects went either into bags destined for a charity shop or for the large refuse skip in the service area below. Not surprisingly, the latter outnumbered the former. As she stripped the bedclothes from the iron single bedstead her feet hit something underneath. She withdrew two cardboard shoeboxes and took them through to the small dining table.
The first contained a pathetic collection of souvenirs from George’s life - his birth and marriage certificates, his divorce papers and his confirmation certificate. Old photographs of a couple in 1920s clothes Brenda took to be his parents. She smiled at a studio portrait of a tastefully arranged baby lying naked on a fur rug. Neither parent nor photographer would dare risk such a pose nowadays. Other photos included schoolboys of various ages and soldiers in battledress, presumably all of George, plus seaside snaps of young women in mid-fifties summer dresses.
The second box provided Brenda with a succession of surprises. First was a Building Society passbook showing a balance of a little over four thousand pounds, George’s life savings. Next came a Will, written on a standard form bought from a stationer’s. Brenda got the shock of her life when she read that she was George’s sole beneficiary. Even after his funeral expenses had been met there should still be enough for her to enjoy the holiday she’d dreamt of for years.
The bombshell came in the form of a black leather bound book with gilt-edged pages and an alphabetical index down the side. The flyleaf was inscribed “To George from Mother, Christmas 1948”. Whether Mother would have approved of the use her present was put to is open to doubt.
George had meticulously entered in it the details of his encounters with women from his teens onwards. Early entries in a youthful but precise hand in blue-black ink gave way to details hastily written when opportunity appeared to have knocked on George’s door with great regularity. Brenda was amused but not surprised to find entries written only weeks previously. “The old devil!” she said to herself, “so much for his insistence that I was his only girlfriend.”
As well as entering names, addresses and phone numbers, George had used a system to record the degree of success with his conquests. However, it didn’t take Brenda long to crack the adolescent codes with their scales of nought to ten. Curiosity led her to her own surname letter. There she was, an entry written in an elderly person’s unsteady hand. At least the entry was honest - George hadn’t exaggerated the extent of their intimacy.
Her cleaning routine well and truly broken, Brenda decided to take a break and put the kettle on. With a cup of tea and a packet of digestives, she sat in the uncomfortable old armchair by the gas fire and settled down with the black book. Here and there she recognised a name; someone from the Majestic, a barmaid or two from local pubs, even a sprinkling of her colleagues at the Jubilee. Seeing the name of the projectionist at Jubilee Two, an unfeminine woman popularly believed to be a lesbian, she laughed out loud. If Brenda’s code cracking was right, George had scored a “home run” with the woman. Knowing George as well as she had, she thought he’d probably viewed the exercise as a challenge.
She caught her breath when she saw the name of Lucinda Elmbridge, the Chairwoman of Bournehurst Council’s Arts and Entertainments Committee. It appeared that George had been conducting a relationship with her for the past four years. Councillor Elmbridge was a regular at the Jubilee complex; she might even have ordered drinks from George. This book was dynamite!
The coup de grace came with the name of Sally Burrows, Adrian the Manager’s wife. Sally was an attractive blonde in her late thirties whose slender figure showed no signs of the three children she’d borne. What on earth could she have seen in George? Adrian was known to be very proud and jealous of her. Maybe this was her way of cocking a snook at her over-protective husband.
Brenda resolved to destroy the book and save the reputations of Bournehurst’s womanhood. She resumed her cleaning but couldn’t put the matter out of her mind. That the flat was small and sparsely furnished is demonstrated by the fact that she’d finished her chores a little after 1pm.
She decided to leave the sack destined for St Hilda’s Hospice Shop until another day. There was the matter of George’s funeral to think about - after all, nobody else would arrange it. She gathered her things together in one hand and clutched the three black sacks of rubbish in the other. One of them contained the infamous black book.
Descending the staircase, she walked over to the refuse skip. With an effort she swung the sacks into its yawning mouth and turned away. She only took five steps before she stopped. Turning, she walked back to the skip and rummaged inside until she found the sack she wanted. Withdrawing the black book, she placed it inside her large handbag. Anyone looking in her direction would have noticed the broad grin on her face and the firmness of her stride as she made her way jauntily back home.
© Brian Smith 2002
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