It was Friday evening, just before seven-thirty, and I was in the Trafalgar Room, the poshest bar of the Lord Nelson Hotel, drinking a half of overpriced bitter. The beer was alright, not my first choice - left to me, we'd have met in The Duke's Head, and I'd have had a pint of my usual local ale in my hand - but I had been bribed to be in the Nelson and it mattered – oh yes, it certainly mattered. It hadn't been said, but I knew what was expected of me. Best bib and tucker, an evening shave – now that is a bit of a rarity for me – and be on my best behaviour. There was a lot at stake. Too much to lose. They reckon we all have our price, and Algy knew mine.
A ticket in Block 3, Row G - that's as good as you can get without having shares in the club - and there's no way I'm in that bracket. Or ever will either. And for the match a week on Sunday, The biggest game of the season at home. Seat just about halfway, high enough up to see the entire width of the pitch. It's like Christmas Day coming early. Just a single, not two, so I can't take one of the blokes I normally stand with. No man with blood the colour of a United shirt in his veins could have resisted an inducement like that, could he? Come on now - be fair. Could you? There must be blokes around who would have jumped at the chance and made a few quid by selling 'em on, but not me. Anyway, there might be more tickets in the future, and I don't want to miss out. Tonight? Who knows. I might find myself with a cracker – or I might want to go home inside the first ten minutes.
A quick look at my watch confirmed what I already knew. I'd come too early. Another ten minutes, at least before the others arrived. Be sensible, Matty, pace yourself. Don't get another drink just yet. I know Algy isn't much of a drinker, and these two women – well, I haven't a clue about them. I'll find out later what I'm in for. Come to think of it, I've never noticed Algy showing much interest in women. Not even Kimberley, that cracking blonde in C Section on the first floor. He must have noticed her at the office Christmas party. Others certainly did, though. Not only me.
These two blokes each thought he'd fixed it to see her home. Fred Morgan, who lost, didn't hang around much longer. Now working over at the big call centre in town, I'm told. From what I hear about the place, I don't think I'd fancy working there myself.
To be honest, it's all a bit weird. I'm making up a foursome as a favour for this chap I hardly know. Yes, me, Matthew Perkins, a bloke who's been round the block a few times, loser in a disastrous marriage, something that has converted me to being a passionate believer in the life of a singleton male. Not that I've anything against women – I love 'em - when I can, and they want to - it's just that in the future, it'll be on my terms. Like only playing all your matches at home.
Algy, the bloke I'm helping out tonight - isn't really a close mate. My mind drifted off to about three months before: the first time I'd met him. The head clowns down in Whitehall or Downing Street or somewhere, who seem to be making a mess running the country, were in a campaign to shift some government departments away from the south-east to other parts of the U.K. 'Redistribution' or 'Levelling up' were the slogans they used. One term they did use initially - and very quickly dropped - was 'Out to the provinces'. When it seemed that anyone north of Potters Bar found it insulting and said so, it stopped being used.
Anyroad, this minor Ministry came up to our neck of the woods, then found, to no one's surprise, that many of their number, the bosses especially, didn't want to venture to places they'd never heard of. And, as for living up there – 'you must be joking'. These individuals dug in, they got away with it, and so there were vacancies to fill. So predictable, but as a result, that meant that Algy and I started in the same office on the same day, thus beginning our lives as sprog civil servants.
Yes, we were bottom of the pecking order – but still a key element, however small, contributing to the "Smooth Running of our country. Without your efforts, much would grind to a painful halt. The smallest cog in the wheel must function for the Machine of Government to serve the Nation." That was stressed to us, very forcibly, during the Induction Seminar specially set up for our new group. I reckon the chap reading from the clipboard had Capital Letters everywhere on his script and had clear instructions on how to stress them. It could have been a talking clock standing there,
The big day came when some guy from H R took us along to our new office, He was weird. He came up to us with some paperwork in his hand, looked at our name badges, and with a curt 'Follow me' walked away with the two of us of a couple of paces behind. Our new home was on the second floor. This gave him the chance to speak. Just one word 'Lift'. Out of the lift, we turned right. The second door down the passage had a single-word notice on it. I couldn't miss a chance like that could I? 'Toilets', He glared at me. Clearly, I was wrong. The correction came. 'Gents.' I think I lost that brief battle of wills.
He handed us over to Mr. Smithson, our new boss. His briefest of introductions before H.R. disappeared from our lives managed to get our two names mixed up.
I remembered an old codger I had a chat with once, telling me that when he started work, there was a Welfare Department, then it became the Personnel Department, and just before he retired, it began to call itself Human Resources. According to this chap, they lived in some sort of parallel universe, and those of us in the real world played by different rules. Thinking about this later, perhaps this oddball I'd met on Day 1 in Latymer Buildings was a member of an alien species. This old man had never worked out what their job involved – not in any of their three existences. But he did say there seemed to be more of them as year followed year.
That's when I first heard Algy's surname. 'Montacute-Foster'. This was before double-barrelled names became such an everyday thing that I feel quite deprived by not having one. Please don't get me going on that subject. Anyone with a hyphen dressed as smartly as he was, in an office full of lower-level clerks – and in a traditionally labour supporting, northern town too - was going to get some ribbing. So, when he spoke in his normal cultured voice, with its southern accent and use of 'larst, parst and barth''- Very Daily Telegraph" or "Sounds like Radio 3" were just a couple of the descriptions used. And they didn't even know his full moniker back then, either. When he told me, sometime later, what it was, I promised never to let anyone else from the office learn it from me. Poor sod. I've kept my word, and I'll only tell you because you don't know Algy.
Algernon Herbert de Verne Montacute-Foster. Thirty-seven letters and a hyphen. You have to feel sorry for the bloke. Remember, you didn't hear it from me.
Like many offices, there was a ritual on Friday evenings when, before going home, some people liked to close the working week across the road in the Swan. Not that we'd been overworked, or slave-driven, Discipline was relaxed, and the quick one – or more for some - was just the start of their normal weekend pattern. I went along most weeks, and that is how I got to know Algy.
I felt sorry for the guy. Everyone else having a good old natter, catching up on the latest gossip, about who was doing what and with or to whom, and enjoying a grumble about whichever of the various section leaders was the target this week.
There he was, was, on the fringe of the group, a half-empty glass in his hand – just not involved. Actually, his glass was nearly full, but 'half-empty' seemed to suit him. I went over and joined him – something that seemed to take him by surprise. We chatted, nothing momentous, but he seemed to me like a chap who had some sound opinions and nobody's fool.
I used the old phrase about, "Thank God it's Friday", and his reaction surprised me. He said he'd never known what TGIF had meant until he heard me say it. Strange world, Isn't it? So we had a drink – he was on a shandy, by the way – then home for him, a meal, and then out to see some pals for me. A normal Friday.
I'd know that voice anywhere. Even if I go deaf, I think I'll confound the experts and find myself a headline in the Lancet, the medic's trade paper. Anonymously, of course, as I read somewhere once, that's how they refer to the cases. 'Patient X continues to hear ex-wife's voice after being totally deaf for years."
Option 1 – and favourite. She'd seen me and clearly hadn't a clue I was going to be there.
Option 2. Algy, a man I'd never seen do or say anything remotely offensive, a man whose manners were as near perfect as I could ever judge, had dropped a clanger. A big one. A very big one. And it wasn't his fault. Nor mine either.
I think for just a few minutes there, and then, my IQ must have gone off the scale. I astounded myself by how quickly I read the situation. And all from a single noise from a woman. If you had ever heard Sheila, my ex, at full throttle, you'd never forget it. Never, ever.
I'd heard it many times, and it still surprises me. If Sheila could sing, take my word for it - she can't, I've heard her - she could have out-belted any other Brunnhilde or Isolde. I'm a Wagner buff, and I wouldn't let her within a mile of an opera house.
No, with my deerstalker on, it was an easy situation to recognise. Dealing with it might be impossible with Sheila there. Then what would happen to the ticket I'd been promised?
Confirmation came from a white-faced Algy. Yes, it was Sheila, and no way was she going to spend an evening as partner, consort, date, or whatever you want to call it, with 'that man'. Despite Marilyn doing what she'd done to her, she still wanted to be her friend – but that person – no way. I gathered that this was the cleaned-up version. I don't think Algy approves of bad language. He also told me that Marilyn had never even asked who the blind-dater was when it was first mentioned. I'll be generous and say that was a bit remiss of her, to say the least, but I kept quiet. My aim for the night was the ticket. That was why I was here, after all. And I kept my view to myself.
I had already decided that the best thing for me to do was nothing. I stayed where I'd been waiting, and the two women, or lady and witch - as perhaps they should have been thought of, went and sat in the opposite corner. Sheila made it clear what my position was and ignored me. Her friend nodded and gave me a half smile. Obviously, her date with Algy was likely to be ruined, but full marks to her for her attitude – so far.
Algy was doing his best to rescue the evening. He bought drinks for us all, then whispered to Marilyn, who then went off and spoke to Sheila. She came back and whispered to Algy, and then they went through the same performance again. There was a lot of head shaking from one of the trio – go on, have a guess. Sheila never stopped glaring at me.
Finally, there was a nodding of heads. Algy came over and sat next to me. Clearly, he'd been out of his depth. Sheila is Premier League when it comes to a squabble -and Algy – well, he's Algy. He's not a man used to dealing with the 'gentle sex' – certainly not one like Sheila.
"Matty. I'm sorry it's turned out like this, but the girls have come up with what might be the solution. But it all depends on you. I'll put it to you, and I'd personally be very grateful to you if you went along with it. If you do agree, we can all go and eat and have a pleasant evening - or what's left of it."
I'm no Einstein, but it was easy to work out what Plan B was. Ordinary folks – normal people, that is – would have sorted it within minutes. With the big prize still not clinched, I didn't want to put a foot wrong with the guy, so I kept my thoughts to myself.
So, I agreed to partner Marilyn for the evening while 'The Witch' would ignore me. For the record, those two words never crossed my lips – not once, honest. I'll be polite and call her Sheila. Not a civil word to me all evening from her, just a mumble as I got a round in. She was all over Algy, though. I think the posh voice and accent turned her on. She'd always been a bit of a snob anyway. I remember she never liked people learning that her folks ran a market stall for years.
"So, that was my blind date with my ex. Different, wasn't it?
The match? Don't talk about it. Got the ticket, great seat, bad result. Lost 3-2. I reckon they'd brought their own referee along on the coach. He gave 'em a penalty right at the end. Never a foul in a million tears.
Nice to see you again, Dave. Been a while, hasn't it?
Algy? Lost touch with him since he moved. His poshness might have helped a bit, but he got promoted, and he's now in Harrogate or somewhere. He's married now, and she's expecting, I hear. Sheila, 'The Witch'. That's right. She really got her claws into him that night.
Me? Yes, I'm a dad now. Little lad. He's a smasher. Yes. Marilyn and me. She's lovely. He's lovely. We're very happy.
Cheers, then, all the best, Dave. Look after yourself."