Tuesday, September 9, 2014

After the Bombardment by Brooke Fieldhouse

Mefta, an Asian expelled from Uganda, battles his self-centred landlord to try and make ends meet as a pensioner in Scarborough; by Brooke Fieldhouse.

'...We expect the full report to be completed next week, but I thought you would be interested to know that the fragments of metal taken from the superstructure of your property came from a shell fired from a German warship on 16th December 1914...'

'It would appear,' says Jim, 'that we are eligible to claim compensation for war damage... plus compound interest over one hundred years,' he adds with an electrified smile.

'It could be the end of our troubles.'

Mr Mefta suddenly feels exhausted.

'It could be the beginning of them.'



Mr Mefta dreaded the Scarborough foghorn. It wasn't so much the dismal adenoidal hum which it made every few seconds; it was the silence which followed each dead note. It seemed that during the intervals between its grim dirges, everything else in the world ceased to exist.

On a clear day, he would have had a view of the harbour with its white lighthouse, would have enjoyed watching gulls soaring over fishing boats. Today he couldn't even see across the valley.

There had been heavy rain during the night, and he stared gloomily at the six inches of khaki-coloured water outside his window. It should have drained away by now, but there was nowhere for it to go. The gullies were blocked, gutters full of holes, the roof leaked, and most of the window frames were rotten.

The Local Civic Society boasted that Sitwell View had the 'finest carved Victorian bargeboards in the town.' But that was no good if every time Mefta went out, he found fragments of them - the texture of nicely soaked Weetabix - lying in the front garden. Something had to be done.

Sitwell View rose to the height of six storeys. Such was the phenomenon of houses built on the side of The Valley. Folk who didn't know - or who hadn't visited before - would approach from the top road and see what appeared to be a conventional Victorian villa of two or three storeys. Then they would peer over the railings and get a surprise. Mefta certainly had done, when he came to view the flat twenty six years ago. He was glad that he had the ground floor. There was no lift, and now he was eighty.

Mefta had three neighbours. Laura, an elderly librarian from the Local History department was on the first floor; Jim, a retired insurance underwriter lived on the second; while Atticus Strata, a geologist turned novelist - and at seventy, the youngest of the four - lived on the third floor. The rain-soaked attic and musty basement were used as stores.

At last, Mefta began to see sunlight through the fog, and he found himself contemplating that it was indeed a strange journey that he had made through life.

He had once been the owner of a thriving sugar company in Uganda, but then one night in 1972 came a hammering on the door, and the barking of a policeman. 'You've got twelve hours to leave the country, or you and your family will be interned.' He couldn't even get his money out of his bank before having to flee.

The family settled in Leicester, and with the help of sympathetic landlords they began to find their feet. While his brother struggled to set up a second hand furniture business, Mefta began to buy and sell porcelain and brassware. The move to Scarborough came with the opportunity to rent a small shop on Valley Bridge Parade, and he found sufficient interest in what locals referred to as bric-a-brac and knickknacks to make a modest living. His three children - now all married with kids of their own - welcomed a trip to the seaside, so he was still able see his family.

Nobody in Sitwell View was well off. Atticus never had two pennies to rub together, Laura lived frugally. Jim had a generous pension, but had unselfishly volunteered his entire lump sum to finance a kidney operation in America for his granddaughter. Money was a worry, and never far away was the problem of repairs to the house.



In a small village twelve miles away Dick Braggingham filled the doorway between the dining room and conservatory of his bungalow. Opposite stood his architect.

Dick had boasted that this was 'his architect', but nothing was settled yet. Why did architects always talk about 'fee proposals'? Why couldn't they just give you a bloody estimate like normal people?

'I'm an ex miner so I'm a down to earth bloke,' Dick warned the younger anorak-clad man, standing in front of him. 'Aryer a Yorkshireman?' he continued - rather matily he thought. 'Know how copper wire was invented do yer? It was a Scotsman and a Yorkshireman fighting over a penny!' The architect smiled weakly and exhaled. Dick always knew when he had won somebody over.

Last year Dick and Sireen had 'done' the PVCu conservatory. Two years ago it had been double-glazed windows, this year it was going to be a new car... and at last that loft extension. The trouble was, Dick couldn't help thinking about Sitwell View. It was like a dark Victorian Gothic cloud hanging over him, all those bloody repairs to do. He knew he'd never do them. He wanted to sell the freehold and have done with it, but Sireen wouldn't let him.

'"Dundrearie" is merely our village bungalow,' Sireen liked to tell folk. 'We also own a large property in town. It lets people know how well you've done in life,' she insisted to Dick. 'What's more, it tells those toffee-nosed tossers who live there that ordinary working-class people like us can be landlords.'

They were fuddy-duddies, thought Dick. He recalled his last visit to the house five years ago - to discuss... something or other with that coffee-coloured fella.

'Gedda life!' he'd shouted, as the door closed behind him and he leapt into the street punching the air.

Dick had inherited Sitwell View from his grandmother, who had been 'in service' there. She unexpectedly got the lot after the owner died, and his son buggered off to South Africa. Penny-pinching? She was as bad as Dick - patched it up after the First World War - kept the freehold, but sold leases on four of the floors. Ninety nine years each. That was another reason Sireen was right to hang on to it, there were only five years to run on the leases.

It was a good job that there was going to be better income from Sitwell View, all this spending was putting pressure on Dick's pension. He also worried about the constant flow into the house of creams, lotions, nourishers, serums, energizers, and salon quality shampoos.

Sireen hadn't worked since the modelling jobs dried up - apart from a recent feature for Total Tattoo. She had one on each shoulder, and a Celtic emblem on her bum. Dick had said that it 'didn't look like the Celtic strip' to him, and anyway if push had come to shove, he would have supported Rangers.

Mum and Dad had wanted her to become a nurse, but in 1965 at the age of seventeen she won the Miss Grimethorpe beauty contest. Dick had some of the magazine originals framed in the hall. Black and white of course; hot pants. Stunning or what!



'We can force Braggingham to sell the freehold.' Jim's suggestion made Mefta tremble, as he sat chairing the residents meeting. Meetings always took place in Laura's flat on the first floor, so that nobody had to do too much climbing of stairs.

House policy had always been to keep the buildings insurance and external repairs the responsibility of Braggingham, but things clearly weren't going to improve. Even a Council enforcement order failed to do the trick. Now the clock was ticking, the leases would soon expire and... goodness knows what would happen then.

It appeared that Jim had already done some work on the subject.

'Brightwells suggest we offer a figure of £60,000, that's ten per floor.' Mefta swallowed hard, fifteen each was half his total savings.

'Look,' reasoned Jim. 'If it's ours, then we can at least sell the whole house, repairs done or not. At the moment with the leases practically expired, we've nothing to offer. Mefta tried to rally himself with one of his father's sayings: 'The worst hazard in the world is to not take a risk.'



It was early morning. Dick was dressed - too nervous to go back to bed, so he sat, fidgeted, and gazed at his sleeping wife.

Her hair, still brunette after sixty five years - she never dyed it - was worn in a close crop. Folk in the village had nicknamed her 'the bulldog'. True her nose might be just a little flat, her jaw a trifle square, and her thighs solidly built, but by 'eck, she still looked cracking in a pair of hot pants. She could knock spots of that Felicity Prerequisite who ran the flower-arranging classes.

Dick could feel a sickening anxiety creeping over him. He knew he had something to discuss with Sireen, but it could wait. He wasn't going to wake her, not just yet.

His eye wandered over the encampment of bottles, tubes, and dispensers on the nightstand. He'd always been at a loss to know the difference between 'visible effects nourishment', 'firming nourishment', and 'hydro nourishment'. As far as he was concerned, nourishment was a Full English, and at least a couple of pints.

Dick had never learned to read or write. There was no point, Sireen always covered for him. He could read a bit, and as he leaned closer to the nightstand, his finger traced the words on two of the jars; Duwop Plumperazzi, and Balmbini Palette. 'Christ!' he muttered.

He felt his shaved head suddenly grow hot as he recalled the time when Sireen had sent him to Boots to pick up an order.

'Is Mrs Braggingham exfoliating at the moment?' asked the soft-spoken male assistant. Dick told him that his wife's periods were, 'None of his business.'

Dick and Sireen had no children. He'd been keen, but not her. She was always on about 'elasticity', and something that went by the rather nauseating name of 'body butter'. He sometimes felt that all these pots and tubes were the enemy of their love life. Sireen couldn't wake up without rubbing some stuff or other over her arms and legs, and even as he had brought her an early cup of tea, a hand had stretched out and grabbed the Dr Feelgood Complexion Balm.

It hadn't prevented their early morning session though. It had been short, but it had taken the edge off the nervous craving which he could feel eating away at him. Sireen was always quiet as a mouse, but Dick liked to bellow loudly as he reached his climax. It was one of the benefits of owning a detached property.

Sireen never actually talked about sex. She would boast about something called Nude Beige she was keen on. She liked the sound of Bare Minimals Ready Bronzer, and the phrase 'Naked Strangers,' was always on the tip of her tongue. A lip gloss, she said it was.

Dick reckoned that she liked his bald head - something he had sported after his blond curls began to desert him. 'From Harpo Marx to Yul Brynner - overnight,' he had bragged at the pub. 'Who do you prefer?'

She opened her eyes, began to stretch, and Dick felt his stomach turn over as he looked down at the letter he was holding.

'They want to buy the freehold,' he blurted.

'Well they can't,' she pouted, taking hold of a stick of Duwop Lip Venom.

Dick could feel drops of perspiration running into his eyebrows.

'Brightwells seem to think they can. It's the law apparently.'

'Stuff that!' The lipstick had been replaced by a cigarette paper containing half a thimble of Golden Virginia. She fidgeted it into a microscopic white tube and let it dangle from her pale pink lips, as she repeatedly snapped at the gas lighter.

'Get Sodwells on the phone and we'll see.'

Even the mention of the name plunged Dick further into despair. Sodwell, Handslip, and Trolley had been his solicitors ever since he'd been down the mines. Victor Sodwell was a rogue, grotesquely disguised as Hail Fellow Well Met.

Oh Lord! That incident five years ago, shortly after their arrival in the village! He and Sireen had been drinking at the Cormorant and Shag. It was late autumn, when Sireen - as was her wont - adopted a facial hue of something approaching bitter chocolate. A group of students from Hull University had been gathered in the snug, when Sireen thought she overheard one of them refer to her as looking, 'rather simian'. Dick didn't know what it meant.

'It means that I look like a bloody monkey, so what are you going to do about it?'

Dick pictured the ghastly scene as he escorted the reluctant undergraduate to the beer garden. Even before he'd decked the youth, he caught sight of Felicity Prerequisite, who just happened to be walking past.

The charge against Sireen, of disturbing the peace by repeatedly chanting, 'Let him have it Dick,' was dropped, but in spite of Sodwell's mitigation, Dick got four months.

'If you don't speak to Victor, then I will.' Sireen stared at Dick, and then with the artificial smile of a stand-up comic, 'Victor and I were very intimate once.'

As far as Dick was concerned, Sodwell was as queer as they come. This was a bizarre revelation, no doubt intended to goad him.



'The Bragginghams have declined our offer.' Jim's news came as some reassurance to Mefta. Of course he knew that surveyors would have to be appointed on both sides to arrive at a 'fair' value.

Jim's advice was to commission a detailed 'invasive' survey.

'The surveys for valuation are superficial,' he insisted. We need to find out exactly what we're in for, in terms of a scope of works for repairs.'

'It will be fair to both parties,' conceded Mefta.

Solicitor Simon Brightwell suggested that they ask Braggingham to contribute to the cost of the specialist survey.

'After all, it's in his interest.'

Mefta decided that rather than sending a letter, or telephoning, he would go and see Mr Braggingham himself. He had been there once before, and it wasn't a pleasant memory, but perhaps this was the last time he would need to go.

The Braggingham's bungalow was at Plumpton, a small cliff-top village twelve miles south of Scarborough. Mr Mefta no longer owned a car, but his daughter Azmena was coming to see him, and was keen to see the bird sanctuary. They would mix business with pleasure.

'E's out picking up the new Mercedes Benz!' A disembodied female voice came through the bathroom window. Mefta was sure that Mr Braggingham had said two o'clock, and he was surprised to see the bungalow covered in scaffolding.

'Just look at the length of those camera lenses!' exclaimed Mefta, as father and daughter spent an exhilarating hour in the hot sun, watching gulls and kittiwakes swooping in the warm air currents, three hundred feet above the sea. 'I've never seen so many birdwatchers.'

Back at the bungalow Mefta once again pressed the cuckoo-chime doorbell. There was still no sign of Mr Braggingham. Then he heard Mrs Braggingham's voice, this time coming from the back garden, 'It's one of your tenants Dick, that coffee-coloured one.'

As Mefta stepped back, he caught sight of Mr Braggingham on the scaffolding directly above him.

'Come and have a look at the building works,' boomed Braggingham. 'Three weeks done and three to go,' he specified, as if he was describing a prison sentence.

Surely Mr B didn't expect him to go up there? He glanced across to where Azmena was sitting in the car just out of sight. Mr B clearly wasn't coming down so up went Mefta.

'Hot, isn't it?' bellowed Braggingham as Mefta climbed gingerly. 'You'll be used to it though.'

'Hey!' whispered Braggingham conspiratorially. Mefta could feel the other man's elbow in his ribs as he was struggling to right himself on the timber planks after his climb. 'Englishman says to an Indian, "We buggered up your country for two hundred years." The Indian says, "Yes but we buggered up your language for ever!"

No offence mate,' he added with a nervous chuckle.

It was offensive, and as Mefta glanced across toward where the car was parked he was glad Azmena could not see them. All hell would have been let loose. Mr Braggingham said that he would think about the survey, and discuss it with Mrs Braggingham.

As Mefta turned to go, he could feel Braggingham's hands inexplicably marauding his shoulders. It was a strange touch, as if they were working sponge - almost sexual.

There was a lot of activity on the scaffolding, and workmen were moving to and fro, some of them singing tunelessly along to a radio. One of them was decent enough to offer Mefta a hand.

As Mefta carefully descended, his eye wandered through and beyond the rungs of the ladder. Not more than six feet away from the base of the scaffolding, and in full view of the entire workforce, stood a tangerine-coloured lounger, on which lay Mrs Braggingham. Her eyes were shaded, her body bikinied; her skin was the hue of charred walnut, and the texture of a well basted goose.



It was a shock - no doubt to all concerned, and certainly to Mefta, when the valuations for the freehold came in lower than expected. Brightwell's man had valued at £15,000, while Sodwell's surveyor had said that, 'Under the circumstances he was unable to supply a figure higher than £70,000.' The resulting agreed sum of £42,500 came as a relief to Mefta.

'Serve Braggingham right,' commented Atticus, 'he should have accepted our first offer!'

The specialist survey - which Braggingham had refused to contribute to - took two days. Test bores were dug to examine the foundations; small sections of wall were removed. There had been great excitement about the discovery of substantial shards of metal in the walls and floor cavities, particularly in Jim's flat.

A week later Mr Mefta read an email from the surveyor:

...We expect the full report to be completed next week, but I thought you would be interested to know that the fragments of metal taken from the superstructure of your property at 1st and 2nd Floor levels, came from a shell fired from a German warship on 16th December 1914...

Mefta had heard of 'the German raid on Scarborough', but knew nothing further. Atticus it appeared was an expert on the subject.

'There were three of them - battlecruisers; Derfflinger, Von der Tann, and Kolberg,' he announced. 'Two of them did the shelling, while Kolberg went to lay mines near Flamborough Head. It began just after 0800 hours and lasted an hour and a half. Then they sailed up the coast attacking Whitby, followed by Hartlepool. Over eighty seven were killed at Hartlepool, seventeen at Scarborough, plus the injured. There was panic - people were convinced they were going to land.'

'Why?' Mefta looked nonplussed at Atticus.

'The target was a wireless station which they never actually hit. Also it was strategy - trying to split the British fleet prior to the Battle of Jutland. Basically though, it was to put the fear of God into folk - and because they could.'

That evening in the warmth of the approaching dusk, Mefta felt an urge to walk down to the sea. The wind, in summer or winter was capable of howling up or down the Valley, but this late June evening was one of those rare moments when time seemed to stand still.

As he walked under Cliff Bridge onto Foreshore Road Mefta could smell the air, ozone-laden after the earthiness of the Valley. He could hear the soft incoming tide; the gentle sounds were almost like those of suckling. Was sand suckling salt water, or was water feeding off sand?

He stopped in front of the Futurist Theatre - as far as he dare go without his stick - and gazed out to sea. There were no waves. For a moment he shut his eyes, and as he listened, he felt as if he was in the presence of some large benign farm animal, quietly inhaling and exhaling.

Mefta's eyes suddenly sprung open, as he imagined he could see two towering mountains of steel, floating no more than five hundred yards from the harbour mouth, and spitting fire into the winter dawn mist. He turned and pictured the smoke and dust coming from the hits on the buildings behind him, from the several hundred shells which came walloping into the town that morning long ago. He visualised the panic as people crowded into the railway station - some carrying Christmas cake hastily crammed into tins - only to be told that there were no trains, and that they would have to flee as best they could. They were convinced that they would be bayoneted by the invading Germans.

He recollected his own fear, as his family prepared to leave Uganda that night forty two years ago, his panic at the sight of the policeman at the door of his house.

'Don't worry,' the man had reassured him, 'Amin has promised us land and property, I'm not going to shoot you. Always remember, a dog with a bone in its mouth can't bite you!'

Mefta thought about Mr Braggingham's absurd behaviour on the roof of his bungalow, his inappropriate humour - yet he too as a miner must have known fear. The man had looked so beseechingly at him; childless, friendless, and possibly even loveless.

Mefta stared toward the indefinable boundary between sea and sky, and there were tears running down his cheeks. Whether these were of joy or sorrow did not matter, for as a student of reality he knew, that there were no boundaries. Here could become 'there'; now would sooner or later turn into 'then'. Inside was out, outside was in, there was no beginning, there was no end. How could mankind expect to comprehend eternity when he was no more than a temporal being?

The long warm evenings of June and July gave way once again to the fogs of November. Completion had been achieved, the freehold was now theirs, and Jim was masterminding an insurance claim for the repairs.

'Repairs' was - as Mefta wistfully observed - a euphemism for a rebuild. The original foundations had always been inadequate, and the damage done by the German shell was insidious. The engineers report said 'no immediate danger', but recommended reconstruction within a year.

Sitting alone in his apartment Mefta was struggling to cope with the enormity of it all when there came an urgent thumping on his door. It was Atticus and Jim in a high state of excitement.

'I'll let Jim do the talking,' volunteered Atticus, 'he's done most of the work on this.'

'It would appear that we are eligible to claim compensation for war damage.'

'But it happened a hundred years ago' Mefta smiled in spite of himself.

'It doesn't matter,' said Jim. 'We've taken the liberty of talking to the Ministry of Defence, and discovered an extraordinary blip in the system. The statute talks about 'Reasonable defence measures in the face of attack by a foreign power.'

Mefta was beginning to feel like one of his walks, or even better a 'lie down'. Jim rambled on.

'If our property was in Hartlepool and we had discovered similar damage, then we wouldn't be able to claim. That's because Hartlepool was defended on the day of the attack by three six inch guns, but Scarborough was defenceless, and it seems that no one ever put a time limit on claims.'

'What does this all mean?' Mefta's legs felt like jelly. Jim sat back for a moment, so Atticus could have his turn.

'The Ministry of Defence have told us that in principle they'll support our claim, but you can bet your bottom dollar that if we're successful, then Parliament will change the statute pronto.'

'Brightwell thinks our claim could be a first,' interrupted Jim.

'...and the bombshell,' added Atticus - laughing at the irony of the phrase, 'is that the claim could be backdated - the cost of rebuild, plus internal refits at today's prices including VAT - that's £800,000, plus compound interest since 1914. That's well over a million!'

'Brightwell did use the phrase "a shot in the dark!"' added Jim.

Mefta closed his eyes; a shot in the dark? All he could see were the bursts of flame coming from the guns of Derfflinger and Von der Tann, the pistol in the holster of the Ugandan policeman, and Mr Braggingham raising the Union Jack for the topping-out ceremony at his bungalow.

Several months later, Mefta had just nicely come to after his afternoon nap, when the phone rang. It was Simon Brightwell, and he sounded ecstatic.

'You've done it! Customs & Excise have asked me to set up an account on your behalf ready for a transfer by 12 noon tomorrow. And by the way, your colleague Jim got his sums wrong; he forgot all those years we had of soaring interest rates. The payment to the four of you is a smidgeon under £5 million - less my fee of course, ha ha ha...' The phone went dead.

All Mefta could think about was Azmena, his two sons, and their children. Never again would they have to wake up in the morning and wonder, 'Can we manage till Christmas?'



Spring is here, and Dick is feeling very springlike indeed. He's spent most of the day with Gary the garage mechanic. There's been a lot of, 'You owe me, yeh, you owe me!'

Perhaps unwisely, Gary challenged Dick during a darts match at the Cormorant and Shag. As far as Dick can recall, it went something like...

'Triple top to finish mate, and I'll give your Merc a free MOT!' Dick got the 'triple top,' so apart from taking a lot of finger-poking into his ribs there wasn't much Gary could do other than put his money where his mouth was.

What a day! Fifty quid in; wait till he tells Sireen. Scampi and chips-in-a-basket all round eh!

Dick swings the Merc into the drive. Funny, seven o'clock on a March evening and the bungalow's in darkness. Power cut? Kitchen door's open.

'Fifty quid in on Gary eh!' he chants, 'Not bad?'

...Silence.

Dick enters the dining room.

Sireen's there after all, sitting at the table, staring out of the window into the evening murk. In front of her is a copy of the Scarborough Evening News, but still she does not speak.

Dick leans forward, and in the gloom, he slowly traces with his finger the headline, Scarborough Pensioners in War Damage Property Compensation Windfall. It means nothing to him.

6 comments:

  1. A fun story with well crafted characters, many of which we get a peek at the life circumstances that molded them into who they are today. I get the feeling this was either originally a longer story, many of the words left on the editing floor, or was intended to be much longer, even a book.
    Several scenes stand out - one of which say so much while at the same time enticing a smile: 'Is Mrs Braggingham exfoliating at the moment?' asked the soft-spoken male assistant. Dick told him that his wife's periods were, 'None of his business.'
    And I always like a happy ending.
    Well done.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Finely crafted characterisations, and a good tale told with humour and humanity - very enjoyable well done & thank you

    Ceinwen Haydon

    ReplyDelete
  3. this is, for me, a welcome addition to an English comedic tradition and well deserving of its place, lovely understated humour and a story where, for the underdog, all comes good in the end

    Michael McCarthy

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great counterpoint in Mefta's memories of his fears from the past and his doubts in the present. Good defining moments. Well-defined characters in a village landscape that suited them. The writing was good enough to bring the images it conjured into sharp focus, creating a feeling for the characters and a mood for the setting that didn't disappoint.

    James Shaffer

    ReplyDelete
  5. Funny and interesting too... little bits of the history we vaguely remember, Uganda and WW1, which we realise still underpin the lives of some of the ordinary folk we pass in the street every day. And the nice guys win out in this case!

    Andy B

    ReplyDelete
  6. Very strong story -- I like the change in perspective and how it all links together at the end. Also, you have a good ear for natural dialogue. Well done.

    Simon Hardy Butler

    ReplyDelete