"Once or Twice Upon a Time" is a home for stories longer than is usual for blogposts. Some have been previously published in hardback. These are indicated (p) along with the year of publication. Word counts (2500 etc) let you estimate how long a read will take.

February 6, 2015


(February 2014.   3400 words)

    I get quite a few books from Charity Shops and over the years I've come across surprising bookmarks  - iced-lolly sticks, Tesco receipts, a beer mat, a shoelace tied in a bow, love letters with and without tear stains.  What was the story behind them, I always wondered.
    Most recently - in "Ideas in Mathematics"- a photograph of a girl, teenager by the look of. A grayscale photo, the reverse inscribed - "Spud, July 1968." Surely by a brother? Only a brother could dump that nickname on this face?  Pretty? Attractive? Pert? Trusting? Guileless? None of these makes proper tribute to Spud. The vast vocabulary of our language fails her. Better to bang your forehead repeatedly on the desk and utter "Where were you, Spud, when I was looking for someone like you?" and hope the desk doesn't think you mean glam or sexy or coquettish or the toe-curling bubbly.  You get the picture? I've scanned it for my desk-top. Boot up and Spud smiles out at me, head half turned, straight nose, straight teeth, hair you could lose your fingers in, that you want to lose your fingers in, that you ache to . .  never mind, you know the kind of hair I mean. You can't describe someone so the reader sees that someone as you do. The best you can do is state their attributes and let the reader create their own Spud; let them find their own Spud bookmark; let them scan her and boot her up each morning. Let them imagine they've fallen in love. Or would have, years ago. 
  In 1968 she was seventeen maybe. 1968 - when we headed for San Francisco, flower bedecked, wooden beads rattling, or hurled around in Minis wearing psychedelic mini dresses and faux animal skins, brushing aside our hair so we could see the gentle people there . .  July 1968! She's in her sixties now, this gentle person, this gentle Spud. But where is she?  Any clues in the book?
    I turned to the front cover and saw it had been a library book.  There was a Libraries Department stamp, the sheet for recording the return dates, the last entry four years ago. And the bar code that identifies the book, that gets scanned along with the borrower's card every time the book is taken out. Spud came a step closer, or I took a step towards Spud, and by this time I'd stopped asking myself what I wanted, what I thought I might be letting myself in for, with disappointment top of the list. So Spud borrowed a maths book. So is she a mathematician, a blue-stocking, a rocket scientist, stratospherically smarter than me, solving differential equations in her sleep?  Or does she gaze sleepless from her bedroom window, wondering where life had gone? We're all in the play together, Spud, and it ain't the dress rehearsal.

    "Can you tell me anything about this?"
    I was in the branch library whose imprint was in the book's cover.  I could see the young man at the check-out would be helpful because he wore a bow tie.  I handed him the book.
     "This was one of yours."
     He looked inside the cover. "So it was. You found it?"
    "In an Oxfam shop."
    He scanned the barcode, looked at the computer monitor.  "Yes. Here it is. We gave it to Oxfam around four years ago."
      "So you have detailed records?" I said. "Can you tell me who last borrowed it?"
      "Can I ask why you want to know? You're not police, are you?"
      "At my age?"
      "Ah  . . apologies." A pause.
    "I found a photograph in the book.  I'm guessing - I mean, I'm hoping the last person who borrowed the book used the photo for a bookmark."
      "And that the photo is the same person who borrowed the book?"
      "And you want to know who that person is? So you can return the photograph?"
     I could hardly say, "No, young man! As I head for my mid-seventies I've taken to stalking seventeen year olds. That's why I need to know who she is." Sounds suspicious put like that, doesn't it? Particularly as Spud's seventeen summers have grown to sixty-something. Maybe she's a headmistress approaching retirement, married with three kids and enough grandkids for seven-a-side footie.  Maybe divorced. A drunk. A screaming termagant.  Put like that, I'm mad, deserving of all I get.  But it's Spud - a close relative of the angels - we're talking about here.
     "It's got 'Find the Lady' written on the back," I lied. "Now there's a challenge."
     He looked at me square.  "A lady, eh? A challenge? Or an invitation?"
     "I could be so lucky."
    "I have the borrower's name on the screen. I can tell you it's an address not  far from the  library here.  Unfortunately the information is confidential to library staff.  I'm really sorry. But you'll appreciate we need  . . ."
      " . . . to exercise due caution when geriatric serial killers come rampaging through the library needing help finding their next target before beating them to death with a zimmer frame."
     We laughed, and then he said "Any clues in the photograph?"
    "Not really. There's just a young woman by a window. I suppose I could print off hundreds of copies and stick them on lamp posts and community message boards in arcades and supermarkets? 'Have you seen this woman? Photo is as recent as 1968.' "
    Now he sounded interested. "Better if you scanned the photo and posted it to Facebook or Twitter. Or Flikr.  Millions would see it. Hundreds might recognise her. She could well see it herself if she's a silver surfer."
   "You're talking from the wrong side of the generation gap."  I took the photo from my inside pocket, showed it to him. "This is her."
   He looked at the photo a long time and I wondered if he was thinking of needles in haystacks. Or maybe just 'What a funny old chap,' but when he answered he said "So would I."
   "So would you what?"
   "Look for her. But 1968? She might be . . "
   I said it for him. "Dead?  Or not.  In 1968 she looks about seventeen, right? So she's not ancient. I mean - no more ancient than me. And I want to find her.  Easier if you just tell me the address? Could be an old man's last chance."
  "No can do, sorry." There was another pause while he regarded me and I sensed a doubt resolved. I got the feeling he was on-side.  He said - I think without irony or sarcasm - "We have stories on our 'Romantic' shelves less romantic than this."
   I said, "And Detective Fiction cases that are trickier?"
  "Very likely." He stopped, then said "Suddenly I find I need the Little Boys' Room and if you wouldn't mind sort of watching the desk for me till I get back - " he paused.  He actually cocked an eyebrow, he actually did.
   "Have one for me too, Champ," I said as he headed off.
   When he came back he made an aghast noise and struck his forehead with a flat palm. "Horrors! Did I carelessly leave the computer on?  I do hope you didn't . .  ?"
   "Wouldn't have even dreamed of it.  Could have got you - both of us - into serious trouble . . "
   "Good luck!" he said.


      It's one thing having information, it's quite another knowing how best to use it.  Finding Spud had been a doddle so far. Thanks to the librarian I had a name - Sandra Hardman (Mrs.), an address and phone number, which might or might not lead me to Spud, up here into the West End where the curtains are lace and the window boxes are well tended, and the streets are Avenues, Quadrants, Circuses all with many trees.  The address was a four storey red sandstone tenement, one of a crescent curving round a "Residents Only" garden where daffodils nodded in the April sunshine. A gardener was raking last Autumn from the smooth lawns. The eight flats on the tenement stair each had an entry bell set in a polished brass plate on the security door. The door was five steps up from pavement level. The plate advised me to "Ring and await reply." There was an intercom speaker. And here was Problem One. No residents' names on the plate, only the flat numbers - 1/Left, 1/Right and so on, plus the "Services" bell.  What to do now?  Guess which bell? Start at the bottom and work up till someone answers? Climb the stair and thrust Spud's photo at whoever opens whichever door and say to a total stranger "Do you know this person? The picture was taken about fifty years ago. She probably didn't live here then." Or, "Sorry to bother you. Did your brother call you Spud?" Fat chance. Lack of resolve got the better of me. Or cold feet. I retreated, leaned against the garden railings and stared up at the flat windows. Nothing moved, not even a lace curtain.
   O.K. The address comprised eight households, the phone number was unique. I thumbed the digits on the mobile I rarely use.  The call was answered by a recording thanking me for calling our voicemail service but the person can't take the call just now and leave a message after the tone. Good! Because I hadn't begun to think what I would say if the person who might once have been called Spud had answered. "Oh, never mind," I said, then realised I hadn't cut the call. I cut the call. "Brilliant!" I said. I prepared convincing voicemails in my head. "Oh hello. Yes. You don't know me but I'd like to know you." Or, "I'm leaving my number. Would you call me back when you've a minute. It's about a library book."  Really, it's no fun being hopeless. With the ladies, I mean. Librarians with bow ties eat out of my hand.

   I made a circuit of the garden and then another and then I had an idea. Try the "Services" bell. These time-limited bells open tenement entry doors to anyone - postmen, meter-readers and so on, burglars, repo men, Spud hunters. Once inside  I could tour the stairs and landings and locate Mrs. Sandra Spud-Hardman from the name plates on the flats' front doors and - Gotcha! My phone told me it was a few minutes past midday.  I pressed "Services". The door stayed closed. I'd missed the get-inside-free window. There might well be another window mid to late afternoon. I would return.
   I did - at four o'clock.  The door remained steadfast to my request for admission. "This could go on for a long time," I thought, and was on the point of giving up until the next day. But when I turned to go back down the steps a man wearing yellow Hi-Vis and plastic ID came up behind me, grunted briefly, pressed the service bell, waited, pressed again. The door opened. As he passed me and went into the close I called "Just a minute! Is that how you do it?" He turned back, stared and said "You don't know how to work a Services, Jimmy, you best not try gettin' in."
   "I - " But I didn't get far into my explanation.
   "Wait a minute. Yous was hangin' around the gardens this morning?"
   I tried to salvage something.  "And you are?"
  "Look after the gardens, me. Not that it's your bizz, Jimmy. Nice folk around here. Good customers. This is me pickin' up me money. Why not push off?" He was a big, solid bloke. He gave me a look that suggested he looked after the nice folk themselves as well as their gardens.  I pushed off. But now I thought I knew how to gain entry. Press. Wait. Press. Open Sesame! I'd wait till the Neighbourhood Watch gardener who called me Jimmy was away.  I'd wait till next day.

    At ten next morning I pressed, waited, pressed. The door swung open. Success! Game on again! I went into the close. The nameplate on the door of flat ground floor (right) was "Hoyle." The ground floor (left) flat was occupied by  T.Hardman.  T, not S. A trip to the upper landings seemed a good idea. One up, Left "Smithson", right "Renkovich." No initials. And when I'd completed my ascent of Red Sandstone Gully I knew why "T.Hardman" needed an initial - because top floor right was "A.Hardman." I went down the stair devising a strategy for finding out which of these Hardmen, if either, might be Spud, for the choice didn't include an "S for Sandra Hardman".  Then I thought, why should it? She's a Mrs. So "A" or "T" is Mr. Hardman. Did this mean it was time to go home? Didn't I say disappointment might be top of the list? I thought "How do you get to my age and still be a self-deluding dork?" I let myself out. Three policemen were coming up the steps. Their vehicle was at the kerb. I moved to let them pass into the close. They didn't. They stopped me getting out.
   "A word, if you don't mind, sir."
   "Yes, sir. We've had reports of a prowler hereabouts  - "
   "The gardener!"
   "No sir. He's no prowler. He's one of the callers who reported an elderly gentleman - "
   "One of the - ?"
   "Yes, sir. Several of the residents as well as Fergus have seen suspicious - "
   "The gardener, sir."
   "What elderly? I haven't seen any gently eldermen the two or three times I've been in the Crescent." The situation was unnerving me.  The Law in triplicate was not good news.
   "Precisely, sir. Two or three times. Could even be you, sir." He consulted a notebook. His colleagues looked on, impassive, while he read. "Smart. Elderly. Upright but not too tall.  Well trimmed beard almost white. Brown trilby.  Dead giveaway, that, sir. Very few men wear trilbies these days. Brown car coat but seemingly no car. Ancient mobile phone. Stares up at the windows. Leans on the garden railings. One resident on this stair reported a strange voicemail yesterday. Highly skilled - the Neighbourhood Watch around here, sir. Pros they are. Don't miss much."
   "If it's me you think's been prowling, I can explain."
   "Please do, sir. Could save a trip to the station."
   I explained. The impassive pair seemed to get interested. Every so often I reminded them they could check with the Library, hoping they wouldn't in case Bow Tie got dragged into the mess. When I had finished I expected "A likely story." Instead Lead Cop asked to see the photo. I gave it to him. He looked at it, showed it to the other two, they all looked at me.
   "It was more than fifty years ago," I said.
   "That's what puzzles me."
   "Doesn't puzzle me, " Impassive One said, reminding me of Bow Tie saying "So would I."
   Impassive One drew Lead Cop aside. They conversed quietly.  Then Lead Cop said "Constable Hughes wonders, sir, if you wait in the car, we'll check with the person you're stalk - erm - interested in. We'll need the photo."
   "That seems very reasonable."  Impassive Two led me to the car. We sat in the back seat.  "Don't know what to make of all this." he said.  "Bet you wish you could turn the clock back a bit?"
    "Not really, officer. She's always been my age if you think about it."
    "Ah! See what you mean, mate."  Mate. Less ominous that the underlined "Sir."
    Not many minutes passed before Lead Cop and his colleague came back and asked me to step out of the car.  He looked dubious but he said "Mrs. Hardman - the lady in the top floor right asked me to say - to you, sir, 'Please ask the gentleman to come up. Spud is just going to put the kettle on.' "   How to raise a loud hurrah without three policemen hearing?


  Lead Cop insisted on going up with me; fair enough in the circumstances, I suppose. He rang the bell - Spud's bell! - and Westminster chimes sounded and the door opened and I looked at her and the years fell away and the snowy hair, the rimless glasses made no matter, made no difference. She smiled and said "Welcome. Do come in," her voice deeper but as gentle as I had expected. Through my trance I heard Lead Cop saying "You're sure this is alright, Mrs. Hardman? We could stay outside in the car a while . . "  She smiled a dismissal and closed her door and went ahead of me through her hall into her sitting room, or work room, for there was a computer on a desk next to a printer-scanner. Against one wall, a full 7 octave digital piano. There was a dressmaker's dummy, a sewing machine on a broad table with paper patterns laid out. There were skeins of wool in many colours, balls of wool, a narrow glass jar holding knitting needles.  She invited me to sit, moving a pile of sheet music from one half of a settee so she could sit next to me.
   "One thing," she said without preamble, "we don't talk about the photograph."
   "Mrs. Hardman, but for the photograph I wouldn't be here."
   "No, you wouldn't. But I'm happy you are. And it's Sandra. Alexandra.  Mrs. A, you see." she said, resolving one small puzzle. So we introduced ourselves and talked. We talked until the window framed the setting April sun and I learned that Mr. Hardman was dead, that the marriage had been - to use her phrase - rather unsatisfactory. I told her that I'd never had the courage, at which point she laid her hand on mine and said, "A pity. Yes, a great pity."

  It wasn't long before we were - you could say - courting.  Less coy and more honest to say we discovered together joys we had never till then known,  in places we had never visited. In one of these, breathless, clinging together she said in answer to my question, "Don't be silly! Of course I didn't think I was too old."
   "You are - were - a good deal older than in the photo."
    "I said we weren't to talk about it."
    "That was a while ago.  And you might remember us vowing there'd be no secrets. So?"
    She heaved an actressy sigh. "Who would have come looking for me if it had been a recent photo."
   "It's pretty faces turn heads, m'dear. Not an old biddy with hair gone white and weightier than she should be."
    "I book-marked dozens once I'd got over my husband's death and got lonely. My daughter wanted me to sign up for one of those, what d'you call them - on-line dating sites, but mostly they looked pretty unsavoury. So - every time I borrowed a book I popped in a picture. I borrowed all kinds of books - biogs, thrillers, science, maths. The ones you big boys would likely borrow - "
     "Just a minute. The bookmark was a bait?" Now I was annoyed. "I wouldn't have thought this of you, Alexandra.  So  - am I just one of your catch?  Suddenly I don't think I know you."
      She wriggled closer to me. "Hush! Just hold me while I tell you this. Not only were you the first, you were the one-and-only. That's why I let you in when the police came and showed me the photo. Do you know how I danced around the flat while they brought you up the stair? I knew that a man mad enough to track down a girl in a fifty year old photo was mad enough for the girl grown up - "
     "Huh!" I said.  "Suppose I'd been like you in the photo."
     "You mean if you'd been a female?"
     "No. I mean if I'd been seventeen."
      Spud or Sandra or Alexandra has a trick for luring me out of conversations, a trick I always fall for. She used it.
     "You are seventeen," she said, softly, close to my ear. "And I think you always will be."

* * *