GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY
There is a moment of time in the regular regime of a hotel in the middle of the afternoon where nothing much is happening. A moment when two young scalawags can safely adventure towards mischief. This was such a time. Having been invited back to the Hotel for tea, by the son of the owner, we wheedled our way up from the Friary, our school, to the citadel of the hotel, which crested the hill about a half mile distant. Chris, the son of the hotelier, had recently become a close bosom friend. As was the nature of schoolboy alliances, it was not a long lived dalliance, we lived too far away from each other to become regular buddies… But my butterfly nature made it difficult to maintain a regular best friend… I got bored easily! So this trip to the Cathedral Walk Hotel was a novelty, a new experience for me. At the age of twelve, this was my first visit to a hotel in this country… and only my second visit to a hotel in all my days. The first had been in Spain, where I had learned a valuable lesson… Spaniards had a penchant for cute Blond boys, I had been able to get pretty much whatever wanted from the staff, cokes, ice-creams, sweets whatever, all I had to do was smile at them and they would fawn like servants to my every need. A heady reality to a boy of six, which I had exploited for most of the fortnight we were away, until my mother discovered my sophistry, and told me firmly I was not to take treats from strangers… “But Mum, they are not strangers! It’s Pablo and Maria, they work here!”
“They are not working all these hours just to provide you with free drinks and Ice creams, young man! If you want a drink or ice cream you wait until we get you one… Don’t exploit the good nature of the staff!”
“What does exploit mean?”
“It means you are being spoilt, so stop doing it!”
This had taught me a valuable lesson… When you’ve got a good thing going don’t let your parents find out about it!
Back to the Cathedral Walk Hotel. Chris and I trudged around the back of the auspicious facade of building and entered through a side door. His mother sat in their kitchen, drinking tea and eating a large slice of Victoria Sponge. She was a rather round and squat lady, and I felt a little swamped by her mass. She was however, a very pleasant lady and smiled at us. She hugged her son to her and whispered words of endearment which I didn’t understand. She bade us sit around the table and brought out Ginger beer and sandwiches and more cake.
She left the kitchen to answer a bell, which range from the main foyer.
“What did she say? Why does she speak foreign?”
“My Mum’s Italian. She said eat my little ones, I think… I’m not totally fluent in Italian.”
“That’s so cool, I wish I had an Italian Mother!”
He ate. I ate too. He looked pleased. I had passed an unwritten test. I was not judgemental of his foreign Mother, I’d said it was cool to have an Italian Mother, and though he secretly thought so too… He would never have said it out loud. After tea,Chris had asked if we could go and play up in the unused hotel room, which he had been allowed to use as his playground. He went upstairs to the reception and brought back a big iron key. We walked up the backstairs and snuck along the corridor to the room where he played.
This room was exciting. It had a sink on one side of the large double bed, the first time I’d ever seen a sink in a bedroom. The large wardrobe housed a massive collection of toys and games.
Chris brought out a large board on to which was stuck a subbuteo felt. Subbuteo was a game which was all the rage in the seventies, it allowed boys of a certain bent to recreate the excitement of a football match in the safety of their own bedroom.
The board was set up on the top of the made-up bed and we each chose a team. He chose the blue of Chelsea and I had to make do with the Red team. He didn’t have a team in the colours of my favourite team, Aston Villa. Red would have to be Liverpool. When I told him that my Granddad had been offered professional terms for Aston Villa, before the war, and that he had won an international cap for England as an amateur… Chris had claimed an Italian Uncle who had played for Inter Milan, and been picked for Italy, this too before the war. I wasn’t sure I believed him, but when he said that his uncle had been killed in the war, just had my Grandfather had been, we saw this as a union. We had both lost our claims to fame. His Uncle had been killed in Italy, just as my Grandfather had been… But on opposite sides of the wire!
We played our game of subbuteo… Flicked our players into a stalemate. 2-2.
“Where’s the toilet?” I asked, as the ginger beer went straight through me.
“You can piss in the sink.” He pointed to the basin beside the bed. I looked at him aghast. The thought of sullying such an innovation as a sink in the bedroom, with my hot piss I felt was sacrilegious.
“In the sink?”
“Of course, that’s what I always do. Fuck it! It’s easier than walking all the way down to the back kitchen!” Strangely, this was the first time I’d ever heard anyone of our age use the word Fuck! I’d heard it frequently when listening to adults, particularly on the rugby pitch, when I used to watch my Dad playing… but in those days, certain swear words were never uttered by youths. We would certainly use Bloody, or bugger, prat or bastard, and piss was ubiquitous, but the F word was taboo, as was the C word. How time has changed!
I climbed on to the bed and undid my zip.
“I can’t do it if your watching.” I manipulated my penis ineffectually. He looked on and smiled, then when he saw my tortuous look of embarrassment, he looked pointedly out of the window.
“Ok now, you big baby?”
I answered with a splash on the porcelain.
I zipped away the appendage, and breathed a sigh of relief.
A light went on in the mind of my comrade.
“Wait I’ve got something.” He pulled across a wooden chair which lay next to the window, and pressed it close to the wardrobe. He climbed upon the seat and then carefully stood on the wooden back. He reached across to the very back of the wardrobe and pulled out his prize. It was a large flat box. It had a bow across it like a birthday present, and also had a picture of various glasses containing different coloured liquids.
“What is it?” I asked innocently.
“It’s chocolates… with booze in.”
My jaw dropped. What on earth…
“Liquor chocolates, I nicked them from my Granny at Xmas.”
“Oh.” At the age of eleven, it had never occurred to me to steal anything from anyone. I wasn’t sure I approved of such behaviour.
“Shall we eat them and get drunk?” He asked excitedly.
I looked around the room. What if we were caught?
“What if your Mum comes up?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got a plan.” I gulped. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to get drunk. I’d seen enough of people getting drunk to know that it was not always a pleasant experience.
He pulled me earnestly towards the door. He inched it open and looked around.
“Come.” He ran across the corridor. He reached a door at the far end, and put his large key into the lock. He opened the door and beckoned me in quickly. He locked the door behind him.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Where no-one can find us. Quick up the the stairs.”
We climbed the narrow set of stairs and once again he placed his key into the lock of the door at the top. The door was tightly shut and wouldn’t budge when he turned the handle.
“Give us a hand, It’s a bit stiff.” He pressed his shoulder to the door and I followed suit. It didn’t budge.We took a run up, pushed and voila… A vista opened before us. The roof. The building had two apexes and between them was a v-shaped space with duckboards. At one end was a brick wall and on the other an opening, which looked down on the houses below. In the distant the three spires of the Cathedral loomed in the sunlight, like religious icons.
“Whoa, this is amazing. Is your key magic?”
“It’s a skeleton key… It opens all the doors in the hotel.”
“I’d like a key like that… Do you think the school has a skeleton key? I’d like to get in to the staff room and see what that’s like…”
“I’m pretty sure they must have, probably kept around Miss Stones neck, the way she always pops up unexpectedly… I bet there are secret passages there, just like in this hotel.” I had images flash through my mind… Miss Stone with an old fashioned candlestick, walking through secret passages, spying on all of us boys… It would certainly explain how she always found out about all the naughty things we were up to.
We sat at the far end of the roof, away from prying eyes. He took out one of the chocolates and then offered me one. I took one shaped as a barrel. I watched as he shoved his in his mouth. He looked disgusted… like it tasted of earwax.
“Go on… Eat it.” I bit into the inoffensive chocolate, and felt the fiery liquid burning its way down my esphogus, I retched.
“Disgusting isn’t it?” Chris smiled across at me.
“Think the chocolate might be off. I think it would be better to just bit the end off them, spit the chocolate out and then just drink the liquid.” His advice seemed geometrically opposed to my own point of view… From my experience of the vile tincture, I would have said, bite the chocolate eat it then pour the liquid out and eat the rest.
However, so as not to seem a pussy, I did as instructed, each in turn pulled out a different liquor, and swallowed the tiny portion of alcoholic beverage housed within. I didn’t feel drunk at the end of the experiment, just rather sick. Chris began to act weirdly, as if he was drunk, the placebo effect I now feel, but at the time, I felt that he must be drunk, so I began to act drunk too.
Chris went to the far end of the gully and looked out across the city below…
“Of course!” He said.
“Of course?” I asked.
“Don’t look so worried, I’ve got a plan!”
Oh good, I thought, another plan. To be fair, this adventure on the roof had been exhilarating… Apart from the miniature liquors, which had been ghastly!
We made our way, silent as assassins, back down through the Hotel. We went out through the back of the Hotel into the Car Park.
“Quick, let’s get out of here, before anyone stops us.”
We ran down the road, and then he cut into a four storey building just before reaching the BP garage on the opposite side of the road. The door to the building was slightly open and he pushed his way in.
The building was unoccupied. The floors were covered in mess… Not just the mess of an empty building, not just the stale dust of un-use, but an enforced mess… like someone had deliberately been creating chaos. Bits of light fitting had been smashed to the ground, skirting boards had been jemmied from the bottom of the walls, doors had holes smashed through their panels… Intricate plaster architrave had been smashed into a fine chalk dust. Mantle places ripped off and then used to break further fixtures and fittings. This place bore all the hallmarks of acts of vandalism that the local papers had been warning of for many a year.
Chris mistook my look of horror for a look of awe.
“I did this. I did all of this. All on my own. Great isn’t it?”
“Why?” It was the only question I could think of.
“It feels great to break things, really great!”
“Why?” Again the only word I could emit.
“Because it’s against the rules, I suppose, don’t you ever get fed up of all the rules?”
“Not really. If I don’t like rules I just ignore them… I never felt the need to break anything.”
“You should try it.” He led me up the stairs to the third floor. He showed me into the bathroom. The sink was intact. The bath had been chipped but with iron at it’s core, Chris had not found a weapon strong enough to damage it further. He pointed to the porcelain sink and proffered a lump of marble from the detritus of the once perfect fire surround.
“Go on, Hit it.” He pressed the lump of marble into my hand. Not sure how to progress with the act, I flung the marble into the sink. It bounced around the bowl but did not break it.
“For God’s sake, fucking hit it hard on the edge!”
I picked up the lump again and whacked it down on the lip. The basin split without rapture, in two. The metal plug hole cover fell out and the plastic drainage pipe listed forward as if suffering from a superficial flesh wound. Chris giggled like a girl. He ran around, looking for his weapon of choice. He came back with a brick with plaster on it and a piece of electrical wire steadfastly attached to the electrical plug socket housed in the brickwork. He swung the the lump of brick around his head like a medieval flail, and brought it crashing down on the remains of the basin, it splintered into many pieces and crashed in a tumult to the ground.
“That’s how you fucking do it, you little pussy!”
All of a sudden he was a dervish, running from room to room, smashing into this and that… Clouds of ancient plaster work created a blizzard across the upper floor, and coughing like miners we ran downstairs. I looked at Chris, and saw that he looked like a ghost.
“You look like a ghost!” I said obviously.
“So do you.” I looked down at my school uniform and found that he was right. My red blazer was now white. My Grey flannels were also white. My shoes too. I was for it. If I returned home like this, I was certainly for it. Not only was I for it, I’d have to provide some valid excuse for the state I was in. That was beyond me. I couldn’t think of a single plausible reason for being covered in plaster. Maybe I’d been caught out in a board cleaner accident. I’d been asked to clean all the chalk off the school’s board rubbers and some how become covered in the resultant cloud of chalk dust? Couldn’t see my Mum buying that one…
Chris took us back up the backstairs of the Hotel, and back into his play room. Once I was inside, he nipped out across the corridor and raided the linen cupboard. He came back with a couple of large bath towels.
“Here, use one of these, wet the corner a bit, then brush the dust off your clothes… See like this.” He took his towels and put a corner under the cold tap. He wet the towel and then rung it out, so that it was only damp. Then he brushed the dust from his clothes. It worked passably.
“Don’t have it wet, whatever you do, if its wet it will just form a paste then you will never get it off.”
I looked down at the sink. I looked up at him.
“I’ve just pissed in that sink.”
“So what? I run the tap didn’t I?”
So I began the process. I ran the tap awhile, just to make sure no piss was still present, then I dampened down a corner of the towel and wiped away all the plaster dust from the front of my clothes. It looked ok, I might just get away with it if I ran straight upstairs when I got in and changed out of my uniform.
“Ok Chris I think it’s time I went home.”
“ You can’t go home yet.”
What fresh hell was he about to unleash on me?
“ Because both yours and my clothes are covered in plaster on the back.”
Good point. I’d not thought of that.
“Tell you what,”He says,”What if I do yours and you do mine?”
“Oh, Ok”. I took a fresh corner of the towel and rubbed away the offending plaster from the back of his clothes. Then he began rubbing away the dust from my clothes… He seemed to be very attentive in his ministrations, until I heard a sudden swish, and then a sting on my arse… the wet towel trick!
“Ow Pack it in!” I yelped.
I made for the door.
“You Can’t go yet.”
“What this time?” I’d had enough of his nonsense.
“You need to wash your hands and face! Look at yourself!” I looked in the mirror above the sink and saw that I still looked as ashen as a spectre.
“Go on wash your hands and face.” He pointed at the sink. The pissing sink…
I walked home in the half light of the evening dusk, and wondered what this experience had been? In the end I came up with a single word… A revelation!