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Chapter 1     Chapter 2    Chapter 3   Chapter 4   Chapter 5   Chapter 6   Chapter 7   Chapter 8   Chapter 9   Chapter 10    Chapter 11   Chapter 12   Chapter 13   Chapter 14

Chapter 12

The next few weeks passed in a haze of congratulations. Everyone seemed to be happy for us, although Shad Greene's good wishes were tempered with doubt when Louise announced that she was thinking of giving up journalism. He probably still remembered the problem he had last time a member of staff left.

Nevertheless he eventually came round to our way of thinking and one day called me aside.

"Listen lad if you and Louise are half as happy as me and my missus you won't go far wrong."

I appreciated the sentiments. After all I was still a novice at this relationship thing.

Working in the same office as my fiancee did prove quite difficult, although we agreed to leave our personal lives at home and behave professionally when in the office. We decided that when we got married we would re-assess the whole working thing.

We decided on at least a six month engagement with a wedding at the parish church in September.

In my present happy state of euphoria I had no time to think of negative things. I put my concerns about Martin to the back of my mind and as nobody had seen or heard anything more from him, I began to feel that he too had moved on with his life. Everything in my world took a back seat as the preparations for our very special day began. Robin tried to give me advice on several things matrimonial, but he was of little help. Violet fussed around like a Mother Hen.

"I should look upon this as gaining a daughter," she said. "It's almost as exciting as going into hospital to have another clean out.

Everything went smoothly. We bought rings and negotiated for a small house on the outskirts of the town. Something that we could just about afford with both of us earning a reasonable wage. Gradually we began to plan for the big day.

Of course work had to go on and I began to look at life through a rose coloured pair of glasses. Yes life was good. I enjoyed my job and I was in love. Magistrates' court and council chambers were now happy places and even Sundays on duty had their own allure. Everything in the garden was rosy.

With all the arrangements for the wedding made I tried to put it to the back of my mind and get on with my work - but it wasn't easy.

Nevertheless the everyday bits and pieces had to continue and Louise was making a very big effort to go on as normal. She certainly had no second thoughts about getting married and neither did I although one court case made me rather sit up and think.

It had been a long morning at Magistrates court and I was hanging on for one particular case. The magistrates, in their wisdom, decided to take a matrimonial case in between others. I wasn't the slightest bit interested in reporting this and so just sat back, put my pen down and listened and it turned out to be rather interesting.

A man dressed in rather ragged clothes and with holes in his jacket came into the court to  plead for a cut in the maintenance money being paid to his wife and child, He said that 5 a week was more than he could afford.

"Honest your judgeship I am a poor man. Look at my clothes. You know this is my best jacket," he pointed at the holes in the sleeves and then stepped from behind the witness box to show off his trousers which were full of patches.

"Not much more than a tramp now. That's what I am - a tramp. No good to anyone."

He gave details of his earnings and outgoings which included the payment of fines for motoring offences.

"I just can't afford to go on paying the fines and the maintenance, it's just too much," he grabbed hold of the witness box as if to stop himself keeling over.

"Honest your worship I'm near the end of me tether."

He certainly cut a sorrowful and pathetic figure and I am sure that had his former wife been there, even she would have been somewhat moved.

"Would you like to take a seat. Usher bring in a glass of water," the lady chairman was obviously feeling sorry for him by now.

He gulped down the water and steadied himself.

"I'll be okay now. Thanking you for your kindness," he said.

Eventually the bench retired to consider their verdict and came back with the decision that the maintenance should be cut from 5 to 3.

"Bless you M'lady. Bless you," he said as he left the witness box. "Thank you, you've been so kind."

He was ushered out the door.

It turned out that the case I had been waiting for was postponed until the following week and so I was able to make my own getaway. Outside I was accosted by the untidy maintenance man.

"Bit of luck in there weren't it matey," he said in an altogether different accent to that used in court.

"You look as if you could do with a spot of lunch," I said.

"How do you mean?"

"Well your clothes. Anybody would have felt sorry for you in there."

"Do you really think so?" By this time there was a broad grin on his face.

"That's good 'cos these are my old gardening clothes."

"Old gardening clothes," I echoed. "You mean you have others?"

"Cos I have. You don't think I go round in these all day do you. I've wardrobes full of decent clothes at home."

"Then you lied to the court."

"Of course I did."

"But why?"

"Well it sabed me 3 a week didn't it?"

"But you were under oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

"The truth is different things to different people. Anyway I don't believe in all that mumbo jumbo. To me anybody who appears in court on a criminal charge and pleads not guilty and is found guilty could be said to be lying. Anyway I must get back to work, it's been nice chatting with you."

"You mean you work as well?"

"Yep I'm an actor, couldn't you tell?"

I suppose that incident set me thinking about marriage, but not for any great length of time. After all everybody is an individual. Just because thousands of marriages  end in divorce each year it doesn't mean mine would go the same way. Myself and Louise are far too intelligent to allow that to happen. So I put any nasty thoughts out of my head and my relationship with Louise continued to blossom.

Probably the most enchanting group of people I met during my years on the Journal all materialised on the same day in three different jobs that were very different. The first was a dear old man who had survived the rat race to reach his 103rd birthday. The second were a couple in their seventies who had cycled round Britain and the third featured the reunion of some local people with Australian relatives who had emigrated 50 years previously. All these stories made extremely good weekly paper fodder and gave me considerable satisfaction.

Norman Dobson was a sweet old man. He was living with his granddaughter, a most overpowering woman. Nevertheless he had still managed to reach his 103rd birthday and looked remarkably well. In fact he could easily have passed for somebody in their eighties. He still took a stroll in the garden, watched television and could hold a very reasonable conversation which was something many centenarians had trouble in doing. He told me with a glint in his eye that he was upset that he wouldn't ever be able to play football again.

The only problem with the interview was that most of my questions were answered by the granddaughter and that made it difficult to get hold of quotes to use in the paper.

When I asked him to what he attributed his long life, she replied

"I don't allow him to stay up too late but he enjoys a glass of Guinness."

The poor old guy scarcely got a word in edgeways until he decided to put his foot down firmly.

"Doris go and make the gentleman a cuppa. I'm sure he needs one and wile you're away we'll have a nice chat."

"Okay gramps," she replied and disappeared immediately into the kitchen.

"How do you like your tea?" she shouted back

"White with two sugars please," I replied.

"Don't take any notice of my granddaughter, she's a bit of a battle axe on the surface but underneath it all there's a kind heart. She's nice really" he said.

Nice was one of Mr Dobson's words. He used it virtually every sentence. Apart from some difficulty in hearing he had no problems answering my questions. We got along well until Doris re-entered the room.

"Here's a nice cup of tea love and here's one of our nice chocolate biscuits," she seemed to have picked up the niceness thing from him.

"These chocolate biscuits are his favourites, aren't they gramps?"

"Doris you know I can't stand them."

"But you always eat them and say how nice they are."

"That's not true Doris. You always make me eat them and tell me how nice they are."

"Well gramps this is a nice how do you do with this nice gentleman here to see you."

"Yes Doris he's here to see me. That's what this nice gentleman has come here for - to see me."

"Well that's nice that is," Doris said proving that the word nice can be used in many different contexts and in many different ways. So saying she stormed out of the room.

At least it gave us another chance to talk about memories of the two World Wars and a whole host of other things. He really did have a remarkable memory.

Eventually I felt I had outstayed my meeting.

"Well it's been very enjoyable meeting you," I said as I got up to leave.

"Yes it's made a nice change," he replied.

As I was on my way out Doris caught me by the arm.

"Sorry about the family argument dear. He can't help it you know, it's his age. He's getting a bit senile you know."

I couldn't help thinking that if there was anybody in that house going senile it wasn't gramps.

When I got back to the office Robin threw me some post: "How was the old duffer?" he inquired.

"Very nice," I replied "A very nice man."

My day continued with a visit to the Clarence Street cyclists. May and Bill Barrowbridge had just toured England on cycles. It had taken them three months and when I arrived they had been back for just three days.

Bill sat with his feet in a bowl of steaming water.

"Thousands of miles we travelled during those months. Absolutely thousands. No injuries to either of us apart from the expected stiffness at the beginning. Do you know I cycled down to the paper shop this morning. That's about half a mile and I ended up with a blister on my left foot."

Well there immediately was the introduction to my story. I could see it now. Seasoned cyclist 75-year-old Bill Barrowbridge returned home after a 2,000 plus trip the length and breadth of the country only to get blisters cycling to his local shop and back.

It was a natural - I might even be able to flog it to the nationals as a fun story.

"Isn't cycling all that distance rather an energetic thing for an elderly couple to do?" I asked.

"Good Lord no. We climbed to Everest base camp three years ago and two years before that we walked from Lands End to John O' Groats. This cycling is the easiest trip we've had for years. More like a rest really. Trouble with youngsters today is they take the car everywhere. I suppose you have a car and you came here in it."

"Yes I did."

"Well get rid of it. Buy yourself a bike and pedal your way to fitness. Never done us any harm."

The couple told me how they had cycled through the country, existing on just a few pounds a day, plotting a course that would allow them, wherever possible to stay with friends they had made over the years in different parts of the country.

"We made so many friends on our previous tours that we were able to plot our journey and overnight stays. There was only one night we failed to make it to a friend's house and that night we slept in a field," Mr Barrowbridge added.

"That was luckily the warmest night of all," said his wife.

"Don't you think you're getting rather old for this kind of thing," it was a question I felt I had to ask.

"Old don't be silly. We're only 75. You're never too old. Never too young and never too old, especially where cycling is concerned. Next year we're going to cycle France.

"Yep he's upset we have to cross the sea by boat. Given half the chance he'd try and cycle across the water as well," added Mrs Barrowbridge.

By the end of the interview I was absolutely enchanted by the Barrowbridges and their positive attitude to everything they did. They certainly lived for the moment. As I got to the door Mr Barrowbridge asked me a strange question.

"You married son?"

"No engaged."

"You make sure your wife to be rides a bike. Otherwise don't marry her," he said.

When I got back to the office just before lunch Louise was rather mystified by my questioning approach.

"Louise can you ride a bike?"

"No why?"

"Well I'm sorry in that case I will have to call our engagement off."

So saying I left the office leaving Louise and Robin staring after me.

"Sorry old girl he's finally flipped," Robin said.

As for me I was off to my third job of the day.

That evening I came clean to Louise. Told her about the reason for my stupid question and all about the centenarian and the mad Aussies I had met.

The mad Aussies were my third and final job of the day. Another good local story about a local couple. The husband's sister had emigrated with their parents at the age of 10, leaving behind the brother who was some years older and capable of fending for himself and who had made it obvious that he didn't want to move to the next town let along 12,000 miles away. Now with the parents long gone, the sister was returning to England for the first time in 50 years with her Australian husband. When I got there they had only arrived a few hours previously and the two couples were still trying to get to know each other and deal with the emormity of the situation.

The English couple - the Jacksons - seemed very subdued. The Australian couple - The Ross's - were anything but subdued, particularly Diana Ross who was once of England but who now spoke with a Broad Sydney accent.

"You've picked up the Aussie accent then?" I said.

You must be joking mate. It may sound Aussie to you but it still sounds pommie to that lot over there. They still refer to me as the mad English woman."

I could see why. Diana Ross was rather large in anything but height. Every time she talked her face lit up into a gigantic smile and at the end of virtually every sentence she had a fit of the giggles that was more the country of a 14-year-old than a middle aged woman. She was certainly a larger than life character.

"Bet with my name you thought I would be that black American singer, her with the Supremes." She said.

Sometimes as a reporter there are things you think but don't say. The only difference between this Diana Ross and the American singer was about 30 years in age, skin colour and about six stone in weight! I sadi nothing.

Diana Ross' husband in contrast seemed embarrassed by the whole performance. He sat in the corner giving as lie to the fact that all Aussies are outgoing extroverts who talk in loud voices and insult every passing Englishman and woman.

Nevertheless after virtually every sentence Diana would turn to her husband and say "isn't that so Joss."

It took me a little while to realise that this guy's name was Joss Ross. That probably accounted for much of his awkwardness. He had probably suffered years of verbal abuse over his name.

The chat with them took a long time because everytime I asked either the Jacksons or Joss Ross a question Diana Ross would interrupt. It was rather like the situation with Doris earlier in the day. I n fact I tried to imagine Diana and Doris together - one continually using the word nice and the other continually saying isn't that so. The mid boggled. I could see them fronting a pop group called the Double Ds - what a horrid thought.

By the time I left them my head was spinning and I was glad to get home to have a rest and a cup of coffee. Then it was off to a good solid science fiction movie with Louise. It was my choice this particular week.

They say that bad pennies always turn up. I'm not saying that Tony Willson was a particularly bad penny but he certainly turned up.

One day he phoned the office to invite myself and Robin down to London for the weekend. As Louise was going home to see some friends I decided I could afford to be parted with her for a short while and agreed to motor down the weekend after next.

The two of us left on the Friday evening to avoid driving through London at rush hour and we arrived at Tony's quite palatial flat at 10 p.m.

We were met by a ravishing looking woman who smiled sweetly.

"Hi you must be Robin and Eric," she spoke with a Scandanavian accent.

"Must be the Swedish au pair," whispered Robin.

"Yes and what a pair," I replied equally quietly.

"Now now lad we didn't come here for smut," Robin replied in a strange Swedish accent."

"Quite but it looks as if Willson did," I replied.

Willson came into the room with a broad smile on his face.

"Hey you two great to see you. Come on in. Make yourself comfortable and I'll get you some tea. Eva will mix you a cocktail."

Eva mixed some kind of strong potion that contained goodness knows what and indicated another room where there was a mass of sofas.

"I hope its to your liking," said Eva without stating whether she was referring to the drinks, the sofa, the room or herself.

"Oh very much," said Robin without stating whether she was referring to the drinks, the sofa, the room or Eva, although it didn't take a genius to work out which of the possibilities he was referring to.

A few minutes later Willson arrived with plates of omelettes and chips.

"Here you are, fodder for the troops," he said.

We gratefully accepted the food.

"Like the new addition?" Willson said pointing to Eva.

"Yes very decorative. What happened to forthcoming wife number five?" asked Robin.

"Oh she was a silly cow. I chucked her out."

"What before you were married?"

"Yep, I would have made a big mistake there."

"What like the four times before," Robin asked.

"They weren't mistakes old son just experiences. Anyway Eva's much better. No ties there. She's only over from Sweden for a year. Working on the old magazine you know. She looks after all my needs and when I say all my needs I mean all my needs."

"How's the magazine going?" I asked more out of wanting to enter the conversation than to really know how it was going.

"Oh not bad. Trouble is it's getting a bit boring. Once you've seen one naked model and read one true life confession you've pretty much read and seen the lot. I'm thinking of getting another job. In fact I'm thinking of changing jobs as often as changing wives. Anyway we can't remain around here when the whole of London remains to be conquered. Hurry up and eat and I'll take you to a rather nice pub."

The "rather nice pub" turned out to be a seedy dive in the West End where the music was loud and the barmaids were louder. This was obviously the territory that Willson now inhabited.

"Better than back home aint it. I picked Eva up here you know. She was a belly dancer. I explained the error of her ways and asked he do do some photo shoots for the magazine and of course she agreed. besides she can earn three times what I do. Once she appeared in the magazine every fellow in Lodon would be wanting her as an escort."

"You're a mercenary sod aren't you. Money and opportunism are the only two things you think about."

"Well mate I have to think of ways of getting money. I've four ex-wives to keep in the manner they are accustomed to," he replied. Neither of us knew whether he was joking.

I have to say that the evening went off surprisingly well. Willson almost behaved himself and we all had plenty to drink. Nevertheless Willson insisted on driving home despite Robin's suggestion that we should get a taxi.

"You know my driving," Willson said.

"Yeah xactly. That's why we should get a cab," Robin replied. "Nonsense fit as a fiddle and sober as a judge, although some of the judges I know aren't quite as sober as you think and I'm not talking about drink if you know what I mean."

And Willson certainly wasn't as fit as a fiddle. On the way home we had quite an argument with Marble Arch. Marble was a good name for it as it was certainly harder than Tony's car. He still claims that the Triumph was heading straight for him and he just avoided it. We still claim there wasn't a car within a hundred yards. But for whatever reason he turned into the left side of the arch and bent the front of the car and then insisted driving home once he established that neither of us were hurt apart from being shaken up and the car was still drivable.

"Don't you think you'd better stop?" asked Robin.

"Not likely. If we stop in the middle of London at this time of night we'll have a van load of coppers here before you can say Bob's your uncle. The last time I was stopped it cost me a five year free subscription to the mag to bribe the officer. This time I might not be so lucky and of course there's the small matter of being already banned from driving anyway."

Robin and I just shut our eyes. Eventually when we opened them we  noted that we went through three sets of traffic lights on red, turned four corners on the wrong side of the road and made two emergency stops without another car in sight.

Willson's last act was to drive straight past his road, jam on the brakes and reverse for about a quarter of a mile right up to his front door.

"Too drunk to turn the old girl around," were his last words before he  went to put his left foot on the brake ( and not his right as anybody else would have used), hit the accelerator instead and went straight into his garage door. He then staggered into the house and collapse on a sofa seeming completely oblivious to the fact that he had just about totalled his car.

Our nerves were in shreds and we were both in a state of shock.

Willson lurched upwards from his position on the sofa.

"Well it's been a bloody good night. Come on sexy to bed," he said just as Eva came into the room to see what all the noise was about. So saying he dragged her off and left us sitting in the lounge still shaking.

Luckily the remainder of the weekend went more smoothly. Not surprisingly Willson felt ill the next day and stayed in bed until 3 p.m, getting up to make the occasional visit to the bath room.

Much of  Sunday was spent playing cards and after dinner we set off for the peace and quiet of our seaside town. Just before we left Willson had some words of advice for us."

"'Bout time you layabouts got married and settled down. Do you the world of good."

We didn't answer and so he changed the subject.

"Give my regards to all at the office. Put some arsenic in Shad's tea, give Birkett a kcik up the arse and tell sweet little Louise that I'm ready and waiting for her."

I refrained from making any remark. Telling Willson that Louise and I were on the verge of getting married would only complicate matters.

On the way home Robin summed up the feelings of both of us.

"I'm glad it's back to work in the morning. I need a bloody rest after that."

From that point on my life was once again filled with plans for the wedding. Deciding on a guest list and various other dull things and of course booking the honeymoon. We decided on a quiet British Rail holiday on the North French coast because British Rail promised us a carefree holiday in which they took the worry away. Good old British Rail - wrong as usual.

I still remember two incidents connected with my forthcoming marriage. Both were fairly light moments and the kind of thing you remember when bad images are erased from the mind.

The first came the week before the wedding. Over the past year every Friday I had driven to a town nine miles away for the sitting of the magistrates' court. It was a chore that had to be done although the court was gradually being phased out and scarcely veer went on beyond 11.30 a.m. Nevertheless it was a pleasant country drive and a simple enough task.

On this particular Friday it was rather a sad occasion. The re-organisation of the courts system had centralised much of the work and was on the point of closing this one. Nevertheless they were going out in style on the final sitting and had asked the local council to attend the meeting to take sherry with them afterwards.

Birkett could see the irony of the final act being the chairman of the parish council responding to a speech from the chair of magistrates whilst standing in the dock where the accused usually stood.

So at the appointed time I took up my place on the Press table and waited for events to begin. It was as dull as usual - one minor theft, three motoring offences, a dangerous dog offence and a garage owner accused of having a dangerous work bay. I took little notice of the charge sheet as the Magistrates took the cases in order and I only referred to the list to check names when they came up.

Finally we came to the garage owner and the call went out - Edward James Sharp. A silver haired gentleman with a gold chain round his neck stepped up from the front spectators' bench and walked into the dock. It was the chairman of the parish council.

"Oh this is rather embarrassing," said the chairman of the magistrates who had the attributes of all good magistrates in the fact that he was almost stone deaf.

"Edward James Sharp you are charged that between August 1st and August 18th you did keep a loading bay at 13 Queen's Street in a disorderly condition, that is to say the aforementioned bay was in a dangerous condition," said the clerk to the magistrates. "How do you plead?"

"Guilty," came the one word reply.

Slowly the case was outlined. It concerned a workman who had fallen over some bricks left around. He had broken his left leg.

"Mr Sharp it is perhaps rather ironic that you should be the last person to appear before this court. I am afraid we will have to fine you 50. You may step down."

"Excuse me sir but wouldn't it save time if I stayed here," replied the chairman of the town council and the court's final ever defendant.

"Oh yes Teddy and we can drop the formalities now that you have been dealt with."

"Okay Frank"

There followed a very friendly exchange where the chairman of magistrates praised the chairman of the parish council and the chairman of the parish council praised the magistrates. I was busy taking notes when the chairman of the bench began concluding his remarks.

"And of course we are grateful to the gentleman of the press who has always reported our affairs fairly and wisely and a little bird has told me that he is getting married next week so I think we might give him a glass of sherry and include him in the toast as well."

Needless to say the deaf chair of magistrates ended up a rather inebriated deaf chair of magistrates. The story about the last person to appear before the court made many of the national newspapers although, of course, I had no idea how it got to them!

The second event involved the local parish council whose meetings I had been covering for about six months. Just three days before my coming wedding they had a meeting scheduled and I attended as usual. Instead of timing my entrance for just after the start in order to miss the opening prayers which tended to go on for some time as the local ractor was council vice-chairman. I found on this particular evening they were runing slightly late.

As I opened the door the chairman sprung out from behind it and grabbed my arm and lead me to the front of the room.

"We thought you might need some assistance. We realise these are trying times for getting married and so you need to take things easy," he said.

I appreciated the light hearted start to the meeting and the small joke at my expense but I really fell for what came next. The rector started speaking.

"Our wedding present to you Eric is something very special. I have noticed over the past few months how you always manage to turn up after my opening prayers. Now I'm not suggesting that you deliberately try to miss them. Tonight, however, we have awaited your arrival and I have composed a masterpiece for you."

The "masterpiece" lasted eight minutes and contained a number of humorous comments about myself and Louise, many of which have featured in my experiences on these pages.

I wondered afterwards how these groups had got to know about my wedding. I have always blamed Robin although, to this day, I can't be sure.

I seem to remember that was the same day that Robin made an idiot of himself and almost brought about the first argument between myself and Louise.

She had decided to take a few days off to prepare for the wedding and on this particular day had gone to London to look for a wedding dress - talk about leaving things to the last moment.

It was about 1 p.m when she phoned me. This was afatal time as it was about 15 minutes before Robin took his lunch break. Usually by that time he had run out of work for the morning session and feeling hungry he would just set about annoying everyone. On this particular day he was in a very annoying mood. He realised I was talking to Louise and came and stood by my shoulder.

"Have you got a dress then," I asked Louise.

"Not really I've seen a couple I like but they are far too expensive. At least I've got this afternoon to look round and there's at least a dozen shops I haven't tried yet."

I winced. Perhaps my offer to pay for the wedding dress had been a mistake in the first place.

It was at that point that Robin made a revolting hissing sound into the telephone which he had grabbed from me. I grabbed it back.

"What was that?" asked Louise.

"Oh it's only Robin messing about," I replied.

Robin pulled the phone away again and whispered into it in a high pitched voice.

"Come on darling."

Then in an equally low pitch voice and imitating my accent he said:

"No stop it."

"What's going on. Who have you got there," asked Louise sounding slightly annoyed.

"Come on darling we haven't got much time," said Robin in a high pitched voice.

"I know you've got somebody there Eric who is it," Louise said.

"It's nobody darling. I told you it was Robin."

"It's not Robin it's a female voice,"

"No it isn't." By now I was getting quite annoyed.

"Well there's no need to lose your temper if you have nothing to hide," said Louise.

"I'm not losing my temper," I replied, quite obviously showing plainly that I was.

It took a change of style from Robin to ease the situation. He had got me into this mess and it was up to him to get me out of it.

"Bonjour mon Cherie," he said in the now recognisable high pitched voice but with a terrible French accent. Then he said "It's only me Robin" in the low voice.

It still took a few minutes to convince Louise but she eventually realised it was just Robin being Robi.

"I'm going now Eric. When I see you tonight I shall expect 50p from Robin. That's how much this stupidity has cost me."

I had to think of something to say quickly.

"Darling why don't you buy a new dress to go with the wedding dress. I'll buy that for you as well."

"Oh really darling do you mean it/"

"You bugger," I said to Robin "you've just cost me 15 for a new dress."

"Shouldn't have such a guilty conscience. Besides you shouldn't give in to women. It'll be just like that after you're married. Give them an inch and they'll take a mile. She'll expect you to buy her something expensive every time you have an argument."

"I've got an answer to that," I replied.

"Oh yes what?"

"I just won't get involved in any arguments.

"Yeah, famous last words."

"No I shall make sure we don't argue".

"Listen mate women were born to spark arguments. It's what they do. She'll work it out. Every time she needs new shoes or a new handbag she'll just pick a disagreement."

"You sound experienced in these matters."

"You bet. Why do you think I'm a confirmed bachelor. Come on I'll buy you lunch. You see it's expensive being a practical joker as well."

Every year it appeared Robin took three weeks off at the same time to go to Cornwall. The reason for his visits was always kept secret and it was an unwritten office law not to ask him about where he went and what he did there.

"I go to visit me rich widow," he once told me but refused to elaborate on the matter. That year he took his mystical holiday six months before our wedding and the night before leaving he was eating bacon and eggs for tea when he asked me a question.

"Not bad eggs these. Straight from the farm, not like those old ones you get at the grocers. Eric when I go on holiday would you mind a mate having my room for three weeks?"

"No why should I? I don't mind as long as Violet is okay with it."

"Oh no she couldn't care less. She never asks us for any rent whilst we are away so having somebody else in brings her more cash. Anyway this chap's been turfed out of his lodgings. The landlady was neurotic or something. So he's stuck for somewhere to go. So I said he could have my room until I return. That will give him a chance to look for somewhere else."

"Okay Robin it's fine with me."

"Thanks mate. And I'm sorry about the trick I played on you and Louise. I owe you one, particularly as you will be putting up with Jim for three weeks."

"That's okay but what's wrong with this Jim?" I inquired.

"Oh nothing." The answer came out too quickly to be convincing.

"Sorry Eric I suppose I do owe you an explanation. You're to promise not to talk to anybody about this. Hold on a minute," Robin said.

He left the room and returned a few minutes later with a sports bag.

"This is why I go down to Cornwall every year."

He pulled out a handful of miniature soldiers.

"It's my secret passion. There's 30 of us from all over the country. We re-enact famous battles and campaigns for three weeks. Each of us has different troops and divisions and the whole thing gets very involved. This year we are doing Bannockburn and Waterloo."

"Why do you keep it so quiet," I asked.

"Come on Eric. I'm always ribbing people about things. If they found out that I play with model soldiers I would be the laughing stock. It would just give everyone a good laugh at my expense. I don't mind dishing out the jokes but I don't want to be the centre of the, I don't mind people laughing with me but I don't want them laughing at me."

"Your secret is safe with me as long as you stop playing bloody practical jokes on me and Louise."

"Okay mate it's a deal."

Jim arrived the day after Robin departed.

"It's good of you to take me in. I suppose Robin told you what he told Violet."

"No," I said sounding genuinely surprised.

"Oh he's told her that I'm your brother. All we have to do is act as if we have been brought up together."

"That's not going to be easy as I'm an only one," I replied not really taking to the idea anyway.

"Never mind. I've had plenty of experience. I've got eight brothers and sisters. Anyway it's only when the old girls around.

I wasn't sure whether I liked this new resident and I'm not sure that Violet took to him either as he seemed to continually poke fun at her.

"He's not a lot like you considering he's your brother. In fact he's quite rude. Do you know what he said when I asked him how old he thought I was. He said about 92. I thought you told me when you first came here that you were an only child."

"Oh dddid I," I was beginning to feel rather flushed and embarrassed. "What I meant to say was that I'm the only one of my father and mother. My father was married before so Jim is my half brother."

"Oh that's strange. I thought Jim said he came from a large family."

"Yeah that's right my dad's 18 stone and my mum's 14 stone."

"Good Lord what happened to you then."

I looked down at my thin 10 stone frame.

"I went on a crash diet during my teenage years."

"I didn't know about the diet but it certainly looks like you've crashed," she said.

Violet seemed to find this hysterically funny and she giggled away for what seemed like minutes. At least it prevented her from asking other awkward questions about my ancestry.

I had a lot to talk to Robin about when he returned from playing soldiers in Cornwall.

Jim seemed a strange kettle of fish. Sometimes he was talkative, sometimes quiet, sometimes secretive and sometimes morose. His only consistent feature was going out at 8 p.m every night and coming in at about 2 a.m the next morning. He refused to talk about any kind of work and in the remainder of his spare time seemed to sit in his room listening to strange sounding noises coming from his record player. Unlike Robin he didn't fancy bacon and eggs but was a regular customer in the local fish and chip shop.

About the only chat we had in the three weeks he was at Violets took place midway through his second week and it surrounded the mysterious reasons he left his previous digs.

"Bloody divorced nymphomaniac. That's what Vera was. In her early thirties, she had a number of boyfriends, not to mention two kinds. They were little brutes. The little boy was four and the little girl six. Every night they had a bath at the same time and they would sit there as quiet as mice until you went to the bathroom. Then they would squirt you with water from a detergent bottle. The number of times I've had to change a shirt just before going out.

"Anyway Vera or Toulouse as I called her, threw me out. She said I was a disruptive influence just because I threatened to hit one of her boyfriends when I came in one night. Hardly my fault if I'd had a few and he was in an aggressive mood."

"Why did you call her Toulouse? Did she paint?" I was showing my naivity by imagining that this Vera was nicknamed after Toulouse Letrec. Of course it was nothing as straightforward or simple as that.

"Na nothing like that. It's all pretty involved. While I was there she had two boyfriends. Both were called John. One was married and quite a slob. The other was single and a reasonable chap. Anyway the children were always confused about which John she was talking about especially as she had warned them that they were never to talk about the second John when in the company of the first and vice versa.

"So we referred to them as John Mark One and John Mark Two and that's where the nickname came from. A John is another word for a toilet which is also called a loo. Two John's became Toulouse."

"What happened to the two Johns then?" I should have known better than to have asked.

"Well one day John Mark Two, the unmarried one, was on the phone to Vera when the little boy asked who she was speaking to. 'It's John' replied Vera. Would you like to speak to him while I see if tea is ready.

"The little boy picked up the receiver and said 'hello which John is that - mark one or two?

"Vera rushed into the kitchen, having obviously heard this, and slammed the phone down, hit the little kid round the head and sent him to bed as if it was his fault that she was screwing two Johns at the same time. She sent his sister straight to bed as well. She said she hadn't done anything but was ignored."

Jim continued his story: "Anyway a few weeks later the matter came to a head. John Mark Two asked who John Mark One was and insisted on being told the truth. He called on John Mark One when he found out where he lived and informed his wife of where her husband spent many of his evenings. That evening both Johns arrived at Vera's house within half an hour of each other. The confrontation was something to behold. They started by shouting and then came to blows. John Mark One ended with two broken ribs and John Mark Two with two broken teeth. The contest was declared a draw. Both John's called Vera a slag and then strangely went off to the pub together to get pissed and talk about what a close call they had both had.

"I really think it was about this time Vera started to turn sour towards me. I suppose she saw me as a representative of the male sex which she obviously had a huge dislike of. Mind you I don't think the party helped much."

"The party?" I inquired.

"Yeah. Me and a couple of mates decided we were going to hold a party and I asked Vera if we could have it at her place. She agreed and even said she would take the kids to stay at a friends for the night to give us plenty of space. The party was quite a success and people were surprisingly well behaved until we were infiltrated by the local Hell's Angel chapter. Most of them were okay apart from this Stuart guy. Bloody big chap. He must have been 6ft 3 and dressed in all leather gear with numerous chains around his neck and arms. He insisted in strutting around the house with a steak beater and every so often he would hit somebody with it.

"Then he decided to write his initials on all the cabinets - in blood. It took ages for us to get rid of him and we had to give him the address of a fictitious overnight party and hope that he was sufficiently inebriated to prevent him finding his way back again. Perhaps he could find another party to gatecrash. He must have done that because we didn't see him any more. Before he left he managed to work his way through a costly chandelier with the steak beater.

"When Vera got back the next day she found the shattered chandelier and the bloody initials which we had forgotten to scrub off. It cost me a lot of money to buy another chandelier and I got turfed out two weeks later and here I am."

Soon after I found out just why Jim had been thrown out of his former digs. The story about threatening Vera's boyfriends was probably made up. It seemed that when Jim got entrenched anywhere he ended up making himself totally at home and ended up doing exactly what he wanted which meant leaving food everywhere, not to mention chucking his clothes all over the place.

He would also play extremely loud music at 2 a.m and this was something he began to introduce into our place much to Violet's annoyance. Violet caught me at breakfast one morning.

"Eric what was that ghastly noise I heard early this morning. You weren't strangling Jim were you?"

"I don't know I never heard anything. Mind you I can sleep through anything. I'll try and find out for you."

So that night I made a point of staying awake in my room until I heard Jim come in. Firstly he went to the kitchen and then the bathroom and finally made it to his bedroom.

A few minutes later the most horrible screeching noise came from his room. I decided to investigate and so knocked on his door. Receiving no response I walked in.

Jim was sitting with a common or garden saw perched between his knees. The blade was bent outwards and he had a violin bow in his right hand. As he pushed the bow across the quivering instrument it let out a high pitched whine.

"Hello Eric. Caught me at it haven't you?"

"Jim it's two in the morning."

"Yeah best time for this kind of thing."

"What are you doing?" It seemed a silly question but at two in the morning it's quite difficult to say anything intelligent.

"Oh it's a little group I'm helping to form. It's called the Odd Music Ensemble. We play saws, garden hoses, kitchen sinks and just about anything else we can get our hands on."

"Yeah but don't you think it's rather late to be practising?"

"Eric how can it be too late to make music?"

"Yeah but Violet's been complaining. She obviously can hear this whilst I'll sleep through anything."

"Oh take no notice of her. I'm only here for another week or so until Robin gets back."

"I still don't think she'll put up with it that long. You need to watch your step."

"Look Eric I've got a flat to go to in two weeks' time. I intend staying here until that time and there's bugger all Violet can do about it."

I felt the conversation was going nowhere and so decided I would have to put up with what turned out to be one-quarter of the Odd Music Ensemble. Matters got worse about half an hour later when a horrible sickly smell wafted into my room. I recognised it immediately from my days at college. Jim was smoking pot.

From that point I largely ignored him and his anti-social behaviour. Short of calling in the police and getting Violet into trouble there was little I could do. So I just counted down the days until Jim left. When Robin returned from playing soldiers he must have wondered what had hit him.

Violet met him with open arms and hugged him and kept welcoming him back. It looked for all the world as if Robin was her own son.

Robin just stood there with his suitcase and a bemused expression on his face.

Later that night when Violet had gone out he asked me the obvious question.

"What was all that fuss about"

"She's glad to see you and have her little duo back together again. Anyway I've got a bone to pick with you. I don't like being used."

"Being used what do you mean?"

"You know very well what I mean. Passing that anti-social slob off as my brother. He almost got both of us thrown out. Violet expected me to have some kind of control over him as a member of the same family. I'm not in her best books at the moment thanks to you."

I then told Robin exactly what had happened and at the end the look of surprise on his face seemed genuine.

"I'm sorry Eric. I honestly didn't know he smoked that kind of stuff or did weird things late at night."

"Early in the morning," I corrected.

"Yeah whatever. Anyway I'm sorry."

"I suggest you have a word with Violet about it because I don't want her continuing to think that he's part of my family."

That evening I had to almost push him into Violet's room and I listened outside the door as he stumbled out some pathetic excuse to cover up for Jim's behaviour. He explained that he had been under the impression that Jim was my brother but due to a mix-up of some kind this wasn't true. None of what I heard seemed to make any sense but Violet seemed to accept what she was told. I think she was just glad to get the whole incident over and have her home back to normal - or as normal as it could be with two young journalists living there.

We never mentioned Jim again.

One of the main differences between Robin and myself was that he was by nature an extrovert, whereas I was more introverted. He loved to be the centre of attention and fancied himself as something of a comedian. He often insisted on telling us a string of jokes and I have to say he did have a skill in telling them.

So one day amongst the mail, Robin found a poster advertising a talent competition at the local theatre. It was open to anyone resident in the area who was not a professional performer.

Robin needed little encouragement to enter and he marked his entry - comedian. The organisers soon worked out that by giving Robin a chance they would automatically get more publicity for the event and so decided to put him straight into the final despite never having heard or seen him. All the other contestants had to fight their way through preliminary rounds. Journalists seemed wither to be hated or lauded.

The night of the finals arrived and the line-up consisted of Robin, two male singers, one female singer, a folk group and a bloke playing the saw. Thankfully it turned out not to be Jim. The idea of providing music in this manner must have been the in thing at the time.

"I shouldn't have any problem with this lot," said Robin confidently. "I've been spying on tem at the heats and they are a right load of rubbish. It will make a good story for the paper when I win."

"Some people might say that you are rubbish as well," I said.

"True but I've got some special jokes for this performance and the ultimate ending. I'm going to play the harmonica."

I feared the worst. Robin seemed so confident even to the extent of being cocky.

On the night, however, he was a bundle of nerves. Unluckily he was drawn fifth in the running order and so had to sit through four acts before it was his turn.

When I say sit through four acts I am slightly wrong. It was three really. Robin managed to watch the folk group and two male singers before being completely overtaken by nerves and rushing out to the toilet. This was his biggest mistake.

"Aren't you going to watch the girl singer?" I asked as he moved his chair back.

"No seen her before. She's no good and I must go to the loo."

I wasn't surprised as through the evening Robin had been developing a twitch in his right eye. Was this the same supremely confident young man who bored everyone with his jokes in the office and who had so quickly filled in the application form?

I was becoming concerned that he would miss his cue and not having taken part in the preliminary rounds might be his undoing.

The girl singer started with "Roses are Blooming in Picardy. As Robin had commented her voice was very ordinary and she simply missed some of the higher notes. But she did have a secret weapon. Just when she appeared to be losing the audience's attention she began to strip. Firstly her jacket came off, then her blouse and very soon she was standing on stage in just bra and pants. The small orchestra who had been accompanying her burst into the opening bars of The Stripper music. The organisers were going bright red on the sidelines. They didn't know whether to show themselves up by mounting a cover-up operation or to let it continue. Certainly the audience were waking up. Two rather portly gentlemen at the back were on their feet clapping and shouting.

The contestant, egged on by this, was beginning to finger the straps of her bra when the Theatre Manager decided that enough was enough and discretion was the best part of valour and rushed onto the stage with a blanket which he wrapped round her just as the bra dropped to the floor.

This brought a rather hostile reaction from the audience. The man was dragging the girl away towards the ladies room, but stopped when he heard the response and was forced to turn round and address the audience whilst the contestant squirmed in an attempt to get free.

"Ladies and Gentlemen please settle down and welcome our next contestant. There were cat calls from the audience.

"What about letting the last one finish," shouted one of the old boys from the back.

"Ladies and Gentlemen please. Miss Martin's act has stopped because it has run well over the five minute maximum and it would have been quite unfair to give her extra time. The rules state clearly that each contestant should have no more than five minutes."

"Rules be buggered. We wanted to see her tits," shouted the same man from the back. A gentleman in the front row showed his annoyance by fishing with his fingers in his wife's drink and hurling her sticky slice of lemon at the manager who took it on his nose.

"Ladies and gentlemen please, We are all civilised people. Under the circumstances it would be very unfair to expect our next contestant to compete immediately. So we will have a 15 minute break."

"Why not let the last act finish. She might want to do an encore," came the cry from the audience.

At this point the squirming Miss Martin managed to break away from the manager's grip. She immediately dropped the modesty blanket and ran topless through the theatre amongst much cheering.

Eventually things began to quieten down. The audience realised Miss Martin had peeked and her act was now over. They would now have to put up with Robin's jokes. He emerged from the back of the hall.

"Told you she was no good. I could hear the cat calls and boos in the loo," he said.

I didn't have the heart to tell him the truth or just what he would be following.

"What do you think of my chances, " he inquired.

"Well Robin you can only do your best but I don't think you'll have as much front as the last contestant."

"Well I reckon my best will be more than good enough. I didn't expect an interval at this point though."

"Well they obviously recognise you as the star of the show and realise that people need to be ready for a legend of the future." I was of course being facetious but Robin didn't seem to realise.

"Yep I suppose you're right and I am rather worth waiting for."

Robin eventually took to the stage. The nerves seemed to have settled and he was determined to "knock em out." The main problem was his complete ignorance of what had just gone on.

His first joke was met with polite applause.

Second up was one of his all time favourites that just wasn't funny - never had been and never will be.

"If a 12 inch nail goes to a restaurant would it be asked to foot the bill?" This one went down like a stone.

By the time he had finished, Robin was totally disillusioned with show business. Even his harmonica playing was met pretty much with silence and he couldn't understand why certain female members of the audience kept shouting "get em off."

"I didn't think I was that bad," he said to me afterwards.

"You weren't mate. You should have seen what was on before you."

"Why was she worse?"

"No not exactly."

It came as a great surprise therefore a few minutes later when Robin was awarded first prize after Miss Martin was disqualified on the grounds that she had not provided family entertainment.

"She can entertain my family any day of the week. We're all over 65," said one of the old boys on the way out.

Robin never summoned up the courage to take part in another talent contest. He called it resting on his laurels. When he found out what had happened he did laugh. The problem was Robin continued telling jokes in the office. He had also perfected a song called Ancient Wode which he sang to the tune of Men of Harlech. Everybody hated it and it became a standing office joke. Robin always thought people were laughing with him. Sadly they were laughing at him!