Category Archives: Short stories/Flash fiction

some of my stories

The strange case of the chef and the newspaper critic

What  I am about to relate to you is one of the strangest stories I encountered during my time as a journalist of more than 30 years. In that period I encountered many strange people and events. I have been chased by Rottweilers owned by the Yorkshire Ripper’s psychiatrist, cursed by a witch, assaulted in a courtroom and once had dinner at the home of Nasser Hindawi –  an outwardly pleasant chap who later planted a bomb on his pregnant Irish wife in an attempt to blow up an Israeli airplane.

I often related these various amusing tales at speaking engagements at writers’ forums and women’s institute gatherings. On one occasion I was invited to address a meeting of aspiring crime writers.

As was unusual, I moulded the audience, leading them through the creative processes, adding a pinch of anecdote and ended by inviting a sprinkling of questions.

I told them I had just a few minutes because there was a train to catch but one query stopped that planned journey in its tracks. A bespectacled man in his early fifties asked me what was the strangest crime story I had ever come across. I had numerous tales to tell and was reminded of my old chum Will, a crime correspondent at the Liverpool Echo who was so terrorised by the gangsters he wrote about that he ended up in an asylum. But there was another event, that although I never wrote about, was something that, to this day, fills me with dread. I told the audience about the chef.

I had met Jean-Paul in my early twenties when I spent six months on a short term contract working for a newspaper in London. One day a colleague asked me to a dinner party; persuasively he said I might find the chef for the evening quite entertaining. Jean-Paul was taking his first steps in the profession under a famously brash and flamboyant Michelin star cook.

Already some of his mentor’s less sociable habits had begun to influence him. As we slipped sauvignon blanc in the dining room we could hear a string of expletives from the kitchen, apparently aimed at an unfortunate assistant.

Those gathered around the table found it amusing enough but I was less comfortable with the situation. However the food was as good as had been promised.

Later in the evening I was speaking to the fiery Frenchman himself and mentioned to him my interest in cooking. His returning look said pah but he was kind enough to humour me. Our paths didn’t cross again and I moved back to the North West.

It must have been a decade later that I was invited to a new restaurant opening close to my home in Liverpool. It was with some surprise that I discovered Jean-Paul was running what was a trendy waterside eaterie. Clearly he had progressed from those early days in London and when I introduced myself he remained puzzled. However he was all Gallic charm and extended an invitation to return for a meal. I gave him my business card which contained my number and address,

Under deadline pressure I was unable to take up his offer immediately and months drifted by. Then, one evening, I was working late in my study listening to the wind howling outside and watching rain drumming a beat on the patio doors.

It was December so the coal-effect fire was casting shadows in the corners of the book-lined room. I was swirling a glass of wine and was ready to call it a night when the solitude and silence was interrupted by a knock at the door. I answered it to find Jean-Paul, dripping wet, edgy, with hands as if in prayer in classic latin imploring pose. I let him into the house and led him into the study where he began babbling. I told him to calm down and offered a brandy.

Jean-Paul’s breath was wheezy as if he has been exerting himself and he spoke quickly, too quickly, so I asked him to slow down and collect his thoughts.

It transpired that all those years ago while working for the famously belligerent chef he had eventually worked his way up to become his close assistant, although both being rather volatile they had threatened to part on numerous occasions.

One evening he was left in charge of the kitchen and unknown to himself a well known and influential food critic had been served while something of a crisis had taken place. It was one of those things that do happen in the best of kitchens but some weeks later the critic delighted in panning the restaurant and it’s staff. Naturally the head chef was furious and naturally Jean-Paul got the blame and resigned.

This turned into a difficult period because when it comes to the restaurant industry London is very much like a village with gossip and tittle-tattle helping to make or break reputations. He decided to remove himself from the goldfish bowl of the capital and moved to the West country. where he found a benefactor in the form of a wealthy builder’s merchant who desperately wanted his own successful eating house.

This was an opportunity Jean-Paul relished and he shaped and formed the new restaurant just how he wanted it. It was a great hit and not only for the food; our friend had developed his furious-genius approach into something akin to cabaret. Diners would gather to hear his tirades of abuse towards staff echoing from the kitchen.

Business was good and although he was pleased to be recognised as a creative chef his burning desire was to own his own restaurant. He campaigned relentlessly with the owner of the restaurant for the chance to open a second outlet on a shared partnership basis. There was a certain reluctance but eventually Jean-Paul won the day and began searching for the location he wanted.

He borrowed heavily from the bank and other investors to match the money being provided by his partner. This was a real risk but also exciting as he imagined finding a city or town to match his aspirations and talents. That city turned out to be Liverpool and the location was the waterfront. The ingredients were just right as Jean-Paul set about creating a restaurant unique to the region and one that would command respect and recognition.

Jean-Paul was fired with enthusiasm but conscious that this was also a business with his own livelihood as stake. Nevertheless he did not play it safe but created an exciting concept that captured the imagination of visitors.

The response following that opening night that I attended was very enthusiastic not least because the city did not have the greatest reputation for fine food. Everything seemed to be going well until a familiar face returned to the scene.

This is what Jean-Paul told me in his own words. The reader must imagine his broken English: “I was very happy with the restaurant, of course it was a dream come true, everything I had wished for. You know I had gone through a very dark period after leaving monsieur Vincent and truthfully it could have finished me. Luck and hard work made life worth living again and branching out on my own was very special. We soon built a good clientele and I discovered Liverpool took to something new and exciting even though people had mocked my plan to come here at first.

“Saturday night was very busy, we had a number of large parties in. I didn’t disappoint them of course and let them hear my screams of frustration from the kitchen but really I had never felt better. I went out into the restaurant to ask customers if they were enjoying the food when a face caught my eye. I knew him vaguely but couldn’t quite place him.

“ He saw me staring at him and smiled broadly. I continued doing my round when suddenly I realised who it was, I felt a surge of panic. It was the critic Mr White. After he had ruined my reputation I found things out about him and had seen him on food programmes. I did not feel good, I thought he had come to do it again to me.

“My mind was turmoil, my plans and desires rushed through my mind as I saw them crumbling in rolled newsprint.  You must understand this went beyond anxiety, I was struggling to breathe and open a bottle of wine in the kitchen. This is something I absolutely forbid so you can imagine how puzzled my staff were. I quickly swallowed a few mouthfuls to try and gain some control but I felt my heart beating fast and my hands were becoming moist with sweat.

“ I asked the waiter how Mr White’s meal was and before he could answer I found myself screaming abuse at him and told him not to make any effing mistakes. He looked a bit ashamed and admitted he taken the wrong first course. My heart sank and my legs nearly buckled and I knew it was all over.

“I then found my mind racing. How could I get out of this situation? I knew there could only be one solution; I had to do anything I could to prevent his review devastating my business. I asked one of the waiters to ask him if he was enjoying his meal and to try and find out some information about his movements.

“The waiter asked if he required a taxi at the end of the meal but he said his hotel was within walking distance. It could only have been the Plaza so I rang them and asked to be put through to Mr White in room 105. I was told he was in 326 but was not in at the moment. I waited until after he had left and took a knife from the kitchen and made my way to the hotel.”

Jean-Paul was still agitated and I noticed for the first time that his right hand was clutching something tightly in his coat pocket. He then continued his narration as I too became anxious, realising that I did not like where this particular story was going. Sure enough he went to the hotel and to the critic’s room where Jean-Paul, unsure of what to do, had accused the critic of trying to ruin him. He tells me that, as White tried to bundle him out of the room, the knife suddenly lodged itself in his chest. The poor man apparently lay dying as Jean-Paul fled the scene.

I was unsure of how to react. It seemed to be something farcical, as if from a TV comedy drama. Jean-Paul slowly  brought his hand out of his pocket and held both the weapon and a crumpled piece of newsprint. It was from the morning newspaper:

Panoramic Restaurant review

By Michael White

“Rarely have I been to such a badly organised restaurant; a kitchen occupied by a foul mouthed dervish, waiting staff who seem to revel in spilling food and meals of such dull greyness that it rather spoiled my appetite. The whole business seemed to be based on Fawlty Towers.

“Actually that was what I wrote about a restaurant many years ago. The chef, Jean-Paul Blanchard, was clearly in the early part of a drastic learning curve. “Now he has clearly completed his culinary education. His new restaurant in Liverpool is a delight and the food cooked by hands touched by angels….”

I looked at Jean-Paul and he said; ” Yes he had already written and sent his review praising me from his room by computer by  the time I reached him.”

Of course Jean-Paul was locked away but anytime I think of acting in haste over something serious or even trivial,  I remember the strange case of Jean-Paul Blanchard.

 

War of the Worlds

BBC production 2017

Adaption Melissa Murray

Director Marc Beeby

Actors: Blake Ritson

 

 

This is the third BBC radio version of the Science Fiction classic although the 1950 production has been destroyed like so many of the corporation’s early dramas.

Of course the one that still resonates down the years is the Orson Wells American airing in 1938 that scared the pants of listeners thinking it was a real-life Martian invasion.

What was particularly interesting for me is that I was reading David Lodge’s fictionalised account of HG Wells life while this was being aired. Quite a contrast. While his books are full of clean-cut leading characters the man himself was a salacious sexual predator.

It’s amusing in a way, he was a small tubby man with unremarkable looks but clearly wealth and position were as much a magnet to some ladies then as they are today.

Wells’ first marriage to Isobel was a letdown for him – his voracious lust was not matched by his wife who lay back and thought of England rather than enjoying the physical side of their relationship.

Robert, our hero in this story, seems to have a somewhat sterile relationship with his wife Margaret. When the pair meet up at the end after both thinking the other had perished at the tentacles of the Alien invaders, it was an oh-so-English how-do-you-do and shall-we-have –a-cup-of-tea.

The production is strong on soundscape as you would expect from the BBC with eerie mechanical clanking denoting the presence of the Martians. Sticks pretty faithfully to the book.

 

7/10

The Curious Case of #TheManWhoMistookHisWifeForAHat

A recent series of curious but unremarkable events led me to remember a slim volume sitting in the lower-reaches of one of my bookshelves. On the cover is an illustration; in the palm of a hand are three dominoes and in the night sky above is the constellation of Orion. The dots on the dominoes resemble the pattern of stars above. The book by Arthur Koestler is titled ‘The Roots of Coincidence’.

I leafed through it, reminding myself of its contents and in particular the theories of biologist Paul Kammerer who contends that events in the universe are connected by waves of seriality.

Carl Jung also coined the term synchronicity when pondering what appear to be random coincidences.

Events had unfolded a few days previously. It was a dark and threatening Sunday afternoon, rain in the air and a breeze whipping up from the river. Going to watch cricket or to take a cycle ride held little appeal.

I peeled  spuds and parsnips, simmered a few bones and left some brisket of beef in the slow-cooker. Not much sport on the box and  the internet red light was blinking on the router so Amazon Prime was not available. Terrestrial TV it was.

What a choice; The Simpsons,  showjumping, an American crime forensics drama and an old movie. I switched to the film which had just started. Awakenings. Robert de Niro and Robin Williams in a slow-paced drama about hospital patients in a long state of catatonia being awakened by a drug usually used for Parkinson’s. The effect is temporary however and the patients’ lapse back into their previous state but not before enjoying the bitter-sweet experience that is life for one last time. Most movies I watch these days I reference via the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) on my mobile phone.

I switched the phone from wi-fi to mobile data and scanned the available information on Awakenings. Adapted from the book by Oliver Sacks. Hmmm that rang a bell. I looked him up. A British neurologist working in the Bronx who had administered large doses of the drug Levodopa  and brought patients suffering from encephalitis lethargica, or sleepy sickness,  back to life. So it was a true story.

It seems Sacks specialised in writing about his clinical experiences. The reason I vaguely knew his name was due to his most celebrated work:      

‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’. This referred to another medical syndrome involving recognition.

The name of that book had somehow embedded itself into my brain cells at one time or another.

I made a note on Google Keep on my phone where I keep a list of books to buy or borrow from the library. I also awarded the movie 6/10 on my IMDB scoring list. I have never found out why you can’t award fractions such as 6.4.

Outside, drumbeat patterns of rain rattled the windows for most of the afternoon and my newly-planted spring flowers looked  sodden and forlorn. I moved the lettuce container into the leaky garden shed which was already dripping over the plastic covering cardboxes of old books, CDs and VHS tapes.

In the kitchen I used the bone broth and brisket juices to make a rich gravy while the meat rested. I plated up and poured a small glass of Shiraz while listening to the cricket – apparently it was sunny at Trent Bridge – and watched droplets meander down my kitchen window.

That evening I tuned into the Radio 3 drama slot to see what was being aired. It was My Own Life which included a piece read by Joss Ackland on the final words written by….Oliver Sacks.

A few days later I was in one of the three or four local libraries I regularly visit. I returned Richard ll and Hilary Mantel and scouted for any of  Sacks works, unsuccessfully. I had been attending a weekly course on creative writing and was expected to produce a short story during or at the end of the six week programme.

I had read Mantel’s ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’, a collection of short stories, that were, nothing short of tedious. It was interesting to read the comments on

Goodreads, another Amazon site dedicated to book lovers.  Clearly devoted fans,  absolutely effusive. I left a few negative replies, my main point musing how enthusiastic the response would be if these stories were read as if from an unknown writer.

I returned  the book via the automatic machine now installed in some libraries, presumably part of the unrelenting campaign to oust people from their jobs. Mind you, in this part of town at least they have to employ a security guard. The baldy bouncer is none too friendly though. The other week I left my laptop momentarily in the computer suite as I searched for a book next door and he collared me, eyes popping, loudly berating me for enticing thieves; ‘they’ll rob you as soon as look at you round here’.

As I was dispatching Mantel into the letter-box mouth of the machine and marvelling that for the first time the patio doors were open into a garden area, I was touched on the elbow. A chap was in my face, carrying books under an arm, round-faced with glasses, straggly grey-hair.

‘Look at this’, he said, gazing about,  ‘It’s not like Liverpool is it?’. No, I agreed. How could it be? Liverpool’s jewel of a library has had £50m lavished on it. He seemed vaguely familiar. I noticed the shaking hand and recalled I had sat next to him at the medical centre some time ago. I didn’t mention it, no point encouraging him and off he went.

I thought it might be an idea to try another volume of short stories and went to the section where they are all kept. I toyed with Julian Barnes,  Ali Smith and JG Ballard. I like Ballard but his unremittingly bleak vision of an apocalyptic future sometimes needs light relief. Of course his vivid and imaginative prose is sublime but impossible to replicate.

I decided on Chekov. I’d never read any of his short stories but he was reputed to be a master of the art. I do like Russian literature but I realised that much of my experience had come from listening to BBC radio dramas and adaptions rather than actually reading the works. I mean, how many of us have time to trudge through ‘War and Peace’. However you can notice with some long and complex works that abridged versions cannot give you the full flavour of the text.

Not like say a Pinter play which is the same on the page as it is on the stage or to the ear.

I borrowed a book called ‘The Undiscovered Checkov’, so called because many of his earlier stories in Russian had not been translated into English before.

The young master, who came from poor stock, was a prolific writer. In his early days he bashed out the stuff  like crazy just to bring some cash in. You think of him as a genius but even he would pay friends and family to come up with ideas, even plots.

One very short story is about when the American actress Sarah Bernhard visited Moscow. A simple but brilliant idea – actually ideal for social media now – involved different views of her put forward by people telegramming each other.

You can easily imagine doing this using Twitter of Facebook but Chekov came up with this more than 130 years ago (check).

I think magazine subscribers at the time found him readable as he was full of observations and vignettes rather than producing simple stories with a start, middle and end.

During the days following my visit to the library I was busy with one thing and another. One evening, I dined late and watched Newsnight. Donald Trump in hot water again, this time for yet another conspiracy involving Russians. Clearly his intention to ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington had incited the swamp-dwellers to get in a few shots. I wondered how long he would last.

I went off to bed and decided on a few pages of Chekov. I read the story about Sarah Bernhard and another set on a train. I then backpedalled to the introduction page, penned by an American actor.

I hadn’t heard of the guy, an American with a distinctive name called Spalding Gray. I Googled him on my phone. It’s always a bit uneasy when you read words that appear in your head immediately and then learn the writer died soon after penning them.

Gray had suffered injuries in a road accident while visiting Ireland in 2001. He suffered a broken hip and fractured skull which left him with a huge scar on his head. But just as damaging was the depression he sunk into. Gray’s work was personal, he liked to bare his soul in monologues. Later he struggled to come to term with his injuries.

One night in January 2004 he took his children to see Tim Burton’s Big Fish, a fantasy movie about a dying father and his son. It ends with the line: ‘A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way he is immortal’.

After seeing the movie Gray disappeared. Two months later his body was dragged from the East River and it was assumed he had probably thrown himself off the Staten Island ferry.

Gray had sought medical help following the accident. His neurologist later said that his patient seemed to crave some sort of creative suicide. The neurologist was Oliver Sacks.