Brian does a favour for a friend.
I was on night work at the locomotive depot on the other side of town. I hate working nights especially at weekends when I should be out with my mates. I thought about my time at Kenny's house last weekend. Kenny completely ignored my efforts to get him to fix me up with the blonde girl in the car. But I couldn't dwell on it; a train crew from Manchester brought a steam locomotive onto the shed. Their onward journey having been cancelled they were to travel back to their depot on a passenger train leaving the disposal of the stoked-up fire to the shed staff. The safety valves on top of the locomotive's boiler popped open and the noise of the high-pressure discharge was heard all over the depot and beyond. I climbed up the steps of the class eight locomotive and walked across to look into the firebox. It was, as I feared, a raging furnace.
I exposed some of the fire bars with a steel rake but because of the intense heat, the rake was soon glowing red and beginning to bend so I had to remove it from the firebox. The rag I held in my gloves smouldered and made me cough as the shaft of the rake slid through it. With a loud clang, I dropped the rake out of the cab doorway to the concrete below.
I returned to the fire and the glare dried the sweat from my face as I started to lift the fire bars with the long iron tongs, pulling four of them out onto the floor of the cab.
I heard a clunk of steel on steel and saw the handle of another rake leaning at the entry and then my friend Tommy appeared climbing the steps up to the cab. "I saw you were having trouble and brought you another rake. Let me give you a blow," he said, as he stepped into the cab.
I pulled down the wooden fireman's seat and sat down while Tommy pulled the rake on board and began to push the fire and ash out through the front of the ash pan. The cold air running through the boiler tubes was beginning to cool the water down; the steam pressure dropped and the safety valves stopped blowing.
"Do you still go to Minstrels?" Tommy asked without looking away from his task, crashing the steel rake with great strength, forcing the fire and ash through the ash pan and out into the pit below.
"Yeah, I usually go on Sunday nights. Why, do you fancy a night out?"
"Not really, but you know George has separated from his ole woman, don't you? Well he's a bit pissed off and keeps pestering me to go out for a drink, but I don't want all that now. You know what I mean?"
"Yeah I know what you mean, Tommy. You mean marriage."
Tommy laughed. "Bloody hell this is hot! This rake's started to bend as well. Good job it’s all done."
I stood up and pulled open the sprung steel door so Tommy could sling the rake outside.
Tommy pulled out the rake and dropped it down beside the other one. He looked at me and smiled the smile of someone who was about to ask a favour. "Do you think you could take him with you one night? Get him off my back."
I smiled back and gave a laugh. "Tell George to meet me in The Bells on Sunday night. We'll have a drink then go up to Barfield. And why don't you come as well for a change?"
Tommy grinned at me and shook his head. "Them days are gone, well gone." He left the engine cab as I picked up the tongs to replace the fire bars.
I knew George, but not very well. He left the gang of friends to get married not long after I started meeting up with them. It was common knowledge he was now getting divorced for messing about with his wife’s best friend. I never liked George very much. Badger liked the girls, but George’s interest seemed different. More false, devious, lecherous, and definitely not the sort of person I would take to meet my sister, girlfriend, or any other female. However, I owed Tommy many favours and would have the night out with George to give Tommy a bit of relief from George’s pestering.
Sunday night, George and I got off the bus in the neighbouring town of Barfield and walked to The Ship Inn, a small public house with two similar-sized rooms. The saloon bar housed a large serving counter and was used by older folk, the other room where the youngsters congregated had no counter but housed the jukebox. The bar was opposite Minstrels nightclub and was a busy place on club nights. I ordered the drinks through a doorway hatch in the passage; although I was only seventeen I passed for eighteen in most bars. My friends were all over eighteen so I was usually taken for one of the crowd.
As we walked into the crowded jukebox room I saw my friend Badger sitting with some friends. I walked over to join them and passed some local girls sitting at one of the tables. I knew the girls except for a dark-haired girl I had never seen before. I was immediately smitten and stopped to look at her. The profile of her face, like a heavenly goddess, was not just pretty but absolutely gorgeous. Her smile, as she spoke to her friends, captivated me. I was amazed a girl could look this beautiful. The short black and white op-art dress left her well-formed legs on display. Red calf boots matched the PVC raincoat draped over the back of her chair and the bag at her feet.
One of the girls noticed me staring and made a remark causing the girls to look over grinning at me. I was thrilled beyond belief when the dark-haired girl smiled at me. I was also a little embarrassed she caught me staring at her and after returning the smile I reluctantly walked off to join my friends. I sat with Badger and kept glancing back over towards the girl but felt disappointed because she didn't look over again.
A little later the girls got up to leave and the dark-haired girl turned to look for me. I smiled at her and she smiled back keeping eye contact for a moment before she looked away and walked from the room. I was eager to follow feeling sure the girls were going across the road to Minstrels. However, my friends were not in such a hurry and it was a while before our little gang went over to the nightclub.
As I walked into the club I looked down at my Sunday, chicken-in-the-basket, entry ticket and gave it to Badger. I tried the chicken once and had not been impressed. The club had a high ceiling and the exposed trusses resembled the roof of a church. Two mirrored globes revolved, sending little squares of light around the hall. The carpeted area ran a third of the way down the hall; the bar over on the left ran with it until it reached the dance floor. Tables and chairs sat around the edge of the floor and a few more were dotted on the carpeted area. The resident band that had been playing earlier left the stage at the far right corner of the club. It was the disc jockey's turn to do his main spot of the night and supply the music until the club closed.
We got ourselves a drink before walking over and standing at the edge of the dance floor. I looked around for the dark-haired girl. She had been continually in my mind standing out like a diamond amongst lesser jewels. I had to find her, to talk to her, and then maybe, just maybe.
I noticed her walking towards the bar with one of the girls. They would have to walk past me and I could offer to buy her a drink but I would have to buy the other girl a drink. I knew the other girl well and she always drank cider unless someone else is paying then she asks for a Brandy and Babycham. Maybe I could stop the dark-haired girl and just ignore her friend but I realised that would not give a good impression. She was getting close and I was getting nervous. What could I talk about? What could I say to a girl so stunningly attractive? Something about fashion, that's a nice trendy dress, your hair looks nice, or maybe we could talk about pop music. No, pirate radio, everyone has views on those ships that are broadcasting continual pop music from outside British waters.
She was there right in front of me and about to pass. My gaze locked onto hers and a smile teased her lips.
"Hello," I said.
"Hello," she replied and walked on past.
I watched her walking away, feeling frustrated because I lost the nerve to stop her and speak to her properly. I realised Badger was standing beside me and I turned to look at him. He was grinning at me.
"What's up?" I said.
"That was great, kid. Great chat-up line. I'll try to remember that one. How'd it go again? Oh yeah. You say hello and then you freeze with your mouth open like a codfish." Badger started laughing and I grinned back at him feeling a bit silly.
A little later, the girl walked back towards me and this time she was on her own and looking straight at me. Again I felt nervous hoping she may have been looking out for me. She stopped in front of me and gave a wonderful smile. "Would you like to dance with me?" she asked.
Would I like to dance with her? This was like a dream, no better than a dream. And I was extra thrilled because she made the first move and asked me for a dance. I had not dated many girls since my run-in with Amanda. I had only been with my first steady girlfriend for six months but we parted because she said my drinking sessions with my mates seemed to have priority over my time with her. I knew the dark-haired girl was different. I was greatly attracted to her and realised she could cause a major change to my life. I tried to act casual and passed my glass to George but my heart was racing and my mind was in a mild, but pleasant, state of shock.
I was only slightly taller than her and we looked well matched as we danced together, with my paisley shirt complementing her op-art dress. She told me her name was Helen but she already knew mine as if she had been talking to her friends about me.
The record ended and Helen seemed to stand in quiet expectation of something more from me.
"Can I take you out next Saturday?" I said, nervously. I would have to give up my Saturday night out with the boys but I thought she was well worth the extra effort.
"Saturday! Aren't you allowed out in the week then?"
"Er, course, but I'm on a funny shift next week and could finish late. I do shift work on the railway which is a bit of a nuisance sometimes."
"Right, Saturday it is then. I can meet you in here, if you like?"
"Don't come here on Saturdays," I said.
"Don't know really, we just don't."
"We! I wasn't inviting your friends along."
"I know yeah, but I thought we could meet in Locksford. We can go to the dance hall. The Hollies are on next week."
"Fantastic, I love The Hollies. I'll really look forward to that."
Her friends were dancing in a group nearby and when she looked over to them I mistakenly thought she wanted to join them. I was sure I had handled things well, but my throat was dry and George was still holding my pint of beer so I thought it time to return. "Right, I'll meet you at the bus terminus in Locksford at seven." I reached over and kissed her lips very briefly fearing , for some reason, she may not respond. After saying, "goodbye," I strolled back to my friends with my chest out and a smile on my face as if I had achieved a conquest.
"How'd you get on?" George asked.
"I've got a date with her next Saturday."
"Next Saturday," Badger said. He looked over at the girl walking back to her friends, and then back at me and shook his head. "Didn't you ask to take her home?"
"Well she's with her mates and if I took her home I'd miss the late bus."
"You could have stopped at your sister's house. She only lives round the corner."
"Yes I know but it might make me late for work tomorrow morning. Maybe next time."
George gave a laugh. "The way you walked off leaving her standing alone on the dance floor; maybe there won’t be a next time."
I thought for a moment he may be right, but dismissed the thought. Helen seemed to have been quite happy with the arrangement.