One of the managers at the small firm where I worked, way back when, I found to be a rather woeful sort of person. He was a nice enough guy, Ian, he was called, but he was really boring. We were talkative and friendly at work but when he’d tell me about what he’d get up to at the weekend, it was always around-the-house type stuff. Things like cleaning out the conservatory, watched a good film on television or maybe gave the grass a good cutting on a sunny Saturday during the summer. I don’t think he ever actually said but it was evident that he lived on his own and didn’t have any family or friends living nearby, y’know, someone that he could call on for doing outside-of-work things that you’d expect a thirty-eight-year-old single bloke would get up to. So, when I came across a coupon in the local newspaper for free entry for up to four at a nearby race course, I immediately thought of Ian and seeing if he’d be interested in attending an evening with me and Jennifer, my then girlfriend, at the greyhounds.
He agreed that it sounded like it could be fun. He also said that it was his sister’s birthday on the day before the Friday we chose to go and that, as she would be paying a visit that week, greyhound racing was the type of thing she would probably like to do as a birthday treat. I suggested we go on her actual birthday but Ian said cryptically that the Friday would be the better day.
As the weeks went on until racing night, we were our usual congenial selves at work but the subject of us getting together extracurricularly never came up. On the day of the evening we were to drive to Peterborough for the races, conversely, it was all he could talk about. I’m going to place loads of bets he’d say, followed by no, I won’t take a lot of money with me to I’ll share my winnings if I pick a good one. A bit heart-tugging, really, his excitement, but he was really looking forward to what we’d planned.
So, on the Friday when we finished work – home, shower, clean clothes and then went with Jennifer to pick Ian and his sister up from his place at six o’clock. Plenty of time to drive to Peterborough from Nottingham and be there in time for the races to start. I can’t remember Sister’s name – Samantha? Selina? It might come back to me before we reach the end of the story.
Ian gets in the back seat behind me and introduces his sister. This he says is Sarah? Sadie? It’s a good thing he remembered her name because I certainly don’t. Helen?
Well anyway, Sister, whatever she was called, was hammered. At a guess, staying at brother’s house while he’s at work, on her own, discovered the booze cabinet, I’d hazard that she popped open the first bottle that day at about noon. Maybe even earlier, I don’t think even she herself was certain.
So, as this pickle of a person collapses into the seat behind my girlfriend, her first words to us are, ‘Gin and tonic, please.’
Both Jennifer and I gave natal salutations in the most amenable way musterable but all there present, except for maybe, you know, now that I think about it, she may have actually been called Samantha, anyway, we sober ones heard between the lines and what we picked up from each other sounded very much like Oh my lord in heaven, what have we done?
As Sister slunk into her form-fitting seat and attempted to harness herself in safely, I saw that she was desperately holding on to a half-empty glass of brandy, or whatever drink it was, with the hand she should have been using to bring the seatbelt round in front to buckle in. Ian had to sort her buckling, like you would do a child in a car seat. In reality, her holding the glass was the better option, I think, because however efficient the cup holders in a late eighties Ford Escort were, they would achieve absolute bugger all in accommodating a tall stemmed glass with about two mouthfuls of cognac swirling around inside it. All I could think was if she spills that, it’s gonna stain. I would have done anything at that particular moment to swap her brandy for a gin and tonic knowing that it would be less likely to leave a discolouration on my light grey upholstery should it get dribbled about during all Sister’s fidgeting.
Securely secured - the four of us, and significantly saturated - Sister, we set off to Cambridgeshire.
The drive there was, to put a word on it, memorable. Jennifer, as well as I did, found it desperately sparsical in the car to not have the radio playing when driving, even if only for some out-of-focus background noise. I can’t remember what we were listening to, some top forty countdown selection that was normally played on the BBC as we all wound our way towards the weekend. The first part of the journey was enjoyable, relaxing even, driving down the A1 in rather surprisingly thin rush hour traffic on a late Friday afternoon in Lincolnshire. A bit of awkward but well-intentioned chit-chat among the adults while Sister attempted to catch non-existent flies in her open mouth, beckoning the little buggers into her gaping gob with an ever-so-accurate chainsaw impersonation.
This went on until about the time we got to Stamford, a small town in South Kesteven with a lovely church and the George - a cross beam that passes overhead as you drive down the main road that was employed to hang criminals from in days gone past to ward off other, living criminals. Very interesting, but I have no idea if it’s George or george when not directly preceded by Stamford.
And then, the song came on the radio. Not just any song, mind you. Sister’s favourite song. Admittedly, Sam Phillips’ One Day Late is a good song… good when Sam Phillips sings it.
No prizes for guessing what’s coming next.
Cacophony does not begin to define the sound that came from the back seat. Sister didn’t even know the lyrics. Most of the words that Sister used in accompaniment to the radio’s airing of One Day Late weren’t anything like the ones coming through the car’s speakers. An occasional match, I’m not a hundred percent sure that the rest of it was even in any known human language.
Astonishment at first. Drifting to surprise. And then to hysterical laughter.
Sister got angry but we didn’t care.
It. Was. Funny.
But in all actuality, I was more concerned at that point about the stain that I would soon be leaving on the upholstery if I kept up the laughing as I was. The stain and also the possibility of unrealisingly dropping my right hand and steering the four of us into oncoming traffic.
Ian had mentioned at a previous time that his sister had just recently come back from a three-week holiday in America.
Most people I’ve encountered, when selecting souvenirs to bring back home, choose things like a hat, a tee-shirt or maybe an exclusive electronic device. But not Shirley. Was it Shirley? Possibly. No, Ian’s sister decided to bring a colloquial phrase back to Blighty as her idiosyncratic memento of having visited New York for a few days short of a month. And that phrase was a day late and a dollar short. A funny little saying that denotes being unprepared and ill-equipped for, usually, something quite specific like, say, a party or an outing to the greyhound races. Anyway, this phrase, through the course of the song and well beyond, actually, featured regularly and overdubbed the lyrics that Sam Philips sang in the original. It was like a torturous aural onslaught that abused listeners in an extremely tiny Ford-themed prison.
Even now, many years later, when I think about Sister’s singing in the back seat of the Escort, my ears still want to bleed.
When our serenaded sojourn finally crossed the Peterborough city limits, we started talking more about what we were expecting to see and do on entering the race course – things like how busy it will be on a Friday evening, what types of food will be on offer and the like.
What we didn’t expect was to be funnelled around the streets in what looked like a restructure to the city centre. We thought that perhaps that with the recent increase of work-related traffic in the area, that they were planning to implement a one-way system to regulate all the commuters. Following an A-Z Guide of Peterborough, this was in a time before satnav or GPS or anything like that, we tried to work our way to the address where the race course was positioned on the zoomed-in page in the map book. A left then a right, a right then another left, it didn’t make any sort of sense. Roads were blocked and turn this way only signs were posted all over the place. It seemed that the proposed one-way system channelled all traffic around and away from where we wanted to be.
After about forty-five minutes of this, we finally conceded, even Sister, that we were incapable of finding where the map was showing us to go. Pulling into a petrol station, Ian says he’ll pop into the shop and ask a local the best route to travel to the greyhound racing venue. The Drugs Don’t Work had just begun to play in its position on the countdown.
He’d only been out of the car for a few moments when Sister suddenly turned all coherent and adult-like and said, ‘I worry about him, you know.’
Neither Jennifer nor I had anything to say in response to this.
‘I think the two of you are gonna be really good for him. You know, keep him on the straight and narrow. Outta trouble, like.’
Searching the recesses of my deepest soul for an honest and insightful response to her declaration, I continued staring through the windscreen and slowly opened my mouth in a sort of half-preparation to speak. But it was Jennifer, staring wide-eyed at Sister in the rearview mirror who beat me to the punch.
‘Yeeeeaaaaaaahhh.’ She said flatly. Then she began to fidget with the radio. Jennifer didn’t appreciate The Verve as much as I did.
I don’t remember Sister saying anything noteworthy after that. I didn’t look but she may have gone back to catching flies.
I watched Ian through the shop window as he consulted with the person behind the counter. The two of them spoke for a good few minutes and I saw that another person in the shop joined in their animated conversation. Then another. Then another. There were about six of them chatting in the end – smiling and laughing. I started to think that we should skip the dogs and have an impromptu social gathering in the Shell garage right in front of us. Clearly Ian was enjoying himself, maybe we should join in the fun too.
When the conversation inside concluded, Ian came out of the front door with a coffee in one hand, presumedly for his now sobering sibling, and a folded tabloid newspaper in the other. Still laughing.
He got to within inches of our car and held up the newspaper, showing us the headlines and the main photograph on the front page. He was at too much of a distance still for me to be able to read what was written but the cover photo, in glorious technicolour, captured fire engines, spraying water and flames more than a hundred feet high. This was at the dawn of the digital age and it was possible to zoom a long way into a photograph and experience only minimal pixelation in the final cropped image. And he was still laughing, near uncontrollably at this point.
'You are not going to believe this!' He said, rejoining us.
So, to get to the crux of the conundrum, the reason for all the streets being barricaded and the funneling of traffic away from a certain area of the town was that Peterborough Race Course, where our greyhound racing was to take place, had, on the Thursday night before the day we drove there, burned to the ground. There were a few minor injuries, people pushed and shoved in the rush to exit the crowded venue but generally all in last night’s attendance, even the dogs, were fine. It was deemed to have been started by faulty wiring or something like that but everyone was able to get out before the fire took hold and reduced the thing to cinders, burning well into the wee hours of pre-dawn Friday. It was probably still smouldering as Ian and I started work in the office that morning when he was telling me about what he’d do with his winnings.
We never attempted a night out again with Ian. The firm we worked for folded not long after our road trip to Peterborough and we didn’t keep in touch after they shut the doors for the final time. I think about him quite often, actually. Jennifer and I have told the story of the night at the dogs many times to our friends, and even to people we don’t know! And it always gets longer and longer with each retelling. We’ve talked about how it was probably a good thing we didn’t go on the Thursday cause dragging an inebriated sibling out of a burning building may have proved to be the death of us all. And there ya go.
I do miss working with Ian, his foibles and stories about his lawn mower.
But such is life.
What I really wonder, though, the thing that eats at me as I drift off to sleep some nights, is if his sister ever learned the proper words to her favourite song.
Celia! She was called Celia!