Unless otherwise stated, these stories are created in one to two hours, based on 20 words, a location, an occupation and a name that are given to me by others. No edits to the story are allowed after completion, except to correct spelling and grammar.
Midsummers Day 1996 had been a good one for me. The weather had been great, as it usually was on my birthday. It is one of the benefits of having a birthday that fell in the Summer. The sun had lasted well into this Saturday afternoon and as I sit in traffic along the A40 towards Aylesbury it pours into the car. I am one of those people whose mood was determined by how bright the days were. I despise the winter months, and much prefer the evenings where it was still warm well past 8pm, and I would often spend time on my favourite bench in South Park watching dogwalkers and children passing by, dragging their long shadows behind them. Although all benches were the same, my bench was at just the right angle to be able to allow the sun to hit me directly in the face. The warmth from the paving slabs on which it rested pleases my bare feet, and I always immediately feel calm as I look down the long sloping grassy hill down towards St Clements, with the spires of the city nestling behind, hiding the hills on the horizon. I was hoping I would arrive back in Oxford at a reasonable time to allow me to continue this routine tonight. Yesterday, I, Brian Matterson, turned fifty. To mark the start of my birthday celebrations, I had headed up north to spend some time with a group of friends, with whom I had once worked with in my first ever job out of college. I had trained as a furniture maker, however neither me, nor the five who I had spent time with last night, had continued to work in this trade. Most had given up once they had married, wanting a more reliable income to help support the expectant increase in the size of their family. I always thought it strange that the six of us still kept in contact as our lives were now all so different, but it was only once a year and my curiosity would always see me wanting to get the gang back together for all information on the highs and lows of their respective lives. Not only had their lives deviated from a central narrative, geographically they were scattered across all corners of England, well away from me. The annual meeting would never be confined to the same place because of this. It was last year that they had come down to Oxford for the night. After about a second of consideration, I had chosen to take them to the Port Mahon on St Clements, my local, and favourite pub. Last night it was Lancashire-based Malcolm who took turn to host. He had chosen the Old Wellington in Manchester, just a short walk from Deansgate, and even though it had been a Friday night, there was plenty of room to sit on the tables outside the front of the large timber framed establishment. Immediately it felt like the six of us had not spent a day apart.
Malcolm was probably the most adventurous out of the group. After his marriage and subsequent divorce, he developed a stronger passion for helping people. He had used to frustrate me, turning every story back to himself. Once he split from Brenda, it was as if Malcolm had somehow been tapped on the shoulder by some divine figure telling to pull his finger out. Back being newly single, he suddenly became involved in local politics and helping the community. By 1989 he had been made the mayor of his local town. It was during this time that he had met his second wife Angela, whose passion for hang gliding had somehow been transferred across to him. I listened intently at the Old Wellington to Malcolm’s stories of Kent and the South Coast, all viewed from a birds-eye perspective as part of the South Downs Hang Gliding club. He always seemed to have a different hobby, and over the years we have heard about rock climbing, potholing, fell running and kayaking. As I said, he was the adventurous one. I think the reason he has lost most of the hair on his crown is because he seems to have spent all his spare time wearing a hardhat. The only time that Malcolm wasn’t at the forefront of the conversation was when Hugh went on at length about all intricate details of wood carvings that he had seen in many parish churches. Art was a side project for Hugh in his youth, but he was the most skilled wood carver that I had ever had the pleasure to have known. It is probably a dying trade, and Hugh’s arthritis in his hands had started to restrict what he could do. It was a real shame, and we felt genuine sorrow for him not being able to have this outlet of creativity. Instead of carving wood himself though, he travelled around the Cotswolds taking photographs of beams and figures that framed the aisles and fonts in the religious buildings. I was not overly knowledgeable in this subject, but the fire in Hugh’s shamrock-green eyes was too bright for any to even think to extinguish. I listened to every word, and the four others present showed a genuine interest, asking where he was heading to next, or which church was his favourite. He told us his favourite story about the time he had been sat in a church when a Bishop had appeared. Like Hugh, the Bishop had an interest in the religiously based wood iconography and how it changes throughout different parishes, and had given Hugh an invite to join him on a guided tour of Westminster Abbey, where he could see carvings that had been created nearly seven centuries earlier. Hugh had told this story last year too, but his pleasure gave us pleasure. Even Nicky appeared to care.
From the outside, Nicky would appear to not belong to this random collective. He often got so passionate when talking about football and music that you’d expect a riot to break out if someone even tried to disagree. Even at fifty-five years old he still wore his trademark leather jacket, with his hair dyed and slicked back in a half-quiff/half-Mohican style. Last night he had arrived last, pulling his motorcycle into the car park. We even had a sweepstake on what colour his hair would be. None of us had won. He had removed his helmet to reveal a cut that was a shocking shade of pink. He was like a beacon despite the evening sunshine trying to overpower it. Nicky, or Tom Nicholls to give him his birthname, lived for his Triumph motorbike. He would never miss our meet ups, and when he realised that it clashed with his holiday in the Highlands of Scotland, he drove his bike down through the day to get there. The following morning he would rise early and ride the near three hundred and fifty miles back to Tomatin, where he had left his twin brother. Each year the pair would go to a different area of the United Kingdom and try to cover as much of the area as possible on two wheels. Nicky had put his bike helmet on the table, before spitting on it and scrubbing furiously with a tissue. He explained that he must have ‘accidentally headbutted a blackbird or summat’ and held the tissue up to show us the red stain of the removed blood. It was at this point that I had put my portion of chips to one side, feeling less hungry. Nicky was a remarkable man, back in the saddle after a serious incident two Christmases ago. He had come off his Triumph at speed as he crossed a railway track, and woke to find himself on the wrong side of a hedge. His bike suffered less damage than he did. He had spent a month in hospital, and still had a noticeable limp. He took it in good humour remarkably though, and often said he couldn’t get a round in as he now only walks in circles. He did pay for rounds though at least twice, but sent Terry to the bar to collect the drinks.
Terry was a majestic beast of man. An ex-Rugby player, he was about six and a half foot tall, and nearly the same wide. He was the ideal person to get to the front of the queue at any bar we were at. He had given up rugby a decade ago, saying that it was giving him asthma. It was more likely the fact that he smoked like a chimney, but he wasn’t having any of that. He would still often go to the rugby club, and was a regular at internationals down in Twickenham. His finest hour was being spotted on the BBC downing a pint in around five seconds during a lull in an England v Ireland Five Nations match. Not saying that where he lives is quiet, but the local paper in Shropshire even ran the story about the pint on the third page, just under a section on a man who had grown a large apple. You could even see his nicotine stained yellow fingers in the black and white picture. Remarkable really. He had bought a load of copies and posted them to all his friends. It still makes me laugh each time I look up from desk in my study to see his face gurning down at me, slightly above his beer stained top. He went to his doctor last week to have a check-up and was told in very plain terms that he needed to try a more rounded diet. “Takes the biscuit don’t it” he had said. Never one to follow orders is our Terry. Despite being a man mountain, Terry was as soft as they came. His life revolved around his two teenage daughters. He couldn’t be prouder of his eldest the day she had got into university. Those kind of things didn’t happen to his family. He teared up when describing how she had made the university’s women’s rugby team. He promised to post us a card with the articles from the university paper when she appeared in it. I know he will keep his word on this.
The last of our group is Gary Gascoigne. He’s obviously got the nickname Gazza what with Euro 96 in full swing. We tried to get him to do the famous ‘dentist chair’ celebration in the pub last night after we had got through a fair few beers. He was reluctant but did convince him to try and drink some beer that was being poured by Hugh whilst standing on the table. Due to Hugh’s shakiness and Gazza’s laughing, most of it had showered on his bald head. This just made him laugh even more and his Cornish accent wheezed out at any chance he had taken to get some air in his lungs. Gazza used to be the quietest one, partly as he was last to join us at work. Nearly a decade younger, he used to carry the wood from the yard into the workshop and must have had enough splinters in his hands to be able to start a fire each evening. After we left he had taken on one of our jobs and ended up building furniture for a good ten years. He seemed to have a permanent tan, and he often headed away to sunny climates whenever time would allow. His grand plan is to retire and then move to Benidorm to open up a bar on the seafront. A typical Brit Abroad is our Gazza. He has never had a managerial role in his life, but seems remarkably efficient when food and drink is involved. He always knows who has bought which rounds and keeps us in check. As we have all grown older, the age gap between ourselves and Gazza has become less apparent and you wouldn’t guess that we weren’t the same age. The thing which made him stand out to Brian was his occasional strange quirks. This year’s tale centred around a coffin. Not that different you might think, except he had made it for his own mother, who was currently battling through to her century. The wood had come from his Dad’s old shed. His reasoning was that it would be cheaper than buying one plus ‘he could use her old cushions to line it’ rather than throw them away. I just hope he has cleaned all the oil stains off from the inside. If there is ever a climate problem in the future then Gazza is safe from criticism as he seems to recycle everything.
The night finished just after 11pm. None of us were in a fit state to drive so all checked into our hotel rooms. I had hoped to meet up in the morning, however by the time I woke up with a pounding hangover, Nicky had already left back for Scotland. Instead of waiting at the hotel I took a walk around Manchester City Centre, sitting briefly in Piccadilly Gardens. Although nice, it couldn’t compete with South Park and a dog on a leash would not stop barking nearby. I got up and found somewhere to have a full English breakfast and a black coffee, before feeling alert enough to prepare for my trip home. Sitting in this traffic was beginning to frustrate me. I missed the start of the England v Spain quarter final hours ago. I had switched the car radio off when it had gone to penalties and I was too scared to turn it back on. We’ve lost, I just know it, and I don’t want my good mood ruined. Tomorrow I am out again with local friends for my birthday, but part of me feels sad that my two worlds of past and present never get the chance to collide. A host city or date for next year’s meet-up has yet to be decided but I kind of miss them all already. I have grown to appreciate the short amount of time we get together, as I know one day, one by one, seats at the table will become empty.