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SATURDAY SHORT STORY; No Competition By Steve Middleton.

Byline: Steve Middleton

onestly Julie, I'm so bored I'd give anything for a bit of... I dunno, excitement, something new, anything." Penny files her nail viciously and pouts.

"Is it your new job at the abattoir? I thought those cheeky wagon drivers would have put a smile on your face. What's the matter, pet, is that fella of yours not showing you a good time?" "Our Gordon? A good time? Last I heard, his idea of a good time was an extra inch on his tape measure round that blessed pumpkin of his!" "Oh I know, my Brian's just the same with his carrots. But boys need their hobbies, don't they, or they get... well, all unnecessar y."

"Well, I'm sick of it. Can't bear the thought of another Saturday night down the club talking fertilisers and selective weedkillers."

*** Thick cigarette smoke mingles with warm perfume as it wafts round the dim wall lights in the main clubroom.

Big Gordon sits resting his tattooed forearms on the table, his massive hands dwarfing his pint.

"I've got great hopes for this year, Alfie. If she keeps on growing at this rate she's going to be massive, truly massive."

"Well, if you win again this year it'll be five years on the trot and you get to keep the trophy."

"Don't I know it, lad? It's as good as mine, I reckon."

Listening quietly at the bar is a newcomer, short and slim but well-built nonetheless. Danny has the look of a southerner about him. Out of place up here in the northern club, his sharp haircut and eyebrow ring making him stand out. He queues beside Penny at the bar. "Hello darlin', whatchoo 'aving, then?" Penny is nonplussed, unused to being chatted up for the last two years. Everyone knows she belongs to Gordon. "It's all right, thanks. That's my boyfriend over there." She nods towards Gordon holding forth to his audience on the importance of nitrogen feeds.

"Oh, him. Knows a lot about what pumpkins need, doesn't he?" His negative jibe is not lost on her and his wicked little smile and blue, blue eyes make her smile back at his cheek. Undaunted, he tries again. "You wanna Harvey Wallbanger?" She does a slight double take, not sure if it's a drink she hasn't heard of or if he's just talking dirty. She plumps for the drink. "Yeah, go on then." She knows she's taking a risk but Gordon seems engrossed in his latest subject, clubroot solutions for brassicas.

They move away from the light of the bar to a corner table. "You new up here then?" she asks. "Yeah, just three months up from the smoke. Lambeth, south of the river." "Not many allotments there, then?" "Nope, but I didn't let that stop me. I can grow anything I like in containers, me - even pumpkins. I never bother with all this filthy manure nonsense. Gimme Growmore from ICI every time. I bet I could beat old muscles over there any day. I sowed mine a month ago and they're coming on a treat. Bet they're bigger than his already."

"You'd better get a heave on, then. Entries for the big cup competition close tonight. Get yourself a form off the bar if you're up for it." Ee, he's a right cocky Cockney, this one, she thinks. Might spice up the action a bit, though. Danny swaggers up to the bar and gets another round in, picking up a beer-ringed entry form up on his way back. "No probs," he says, thinking: What the heck have I let myself in for? Typical of you, Danny boy, all mouth and no trousers. Gonna have to think on your feet this time, that's for sure. *** Gordon, having finished his latest pontification on root crops, scans the room for his girlfriend. Penny sees him before he sees her and drags Danny between the tables to meet him. "Gordon, love, this is Danny. He's just come up from London and fancies a go at the competition. I've been telling him all about you," she lies. "Evening," grunts Gordon, firmly crunching Danny's hand. "All right," winces Danny, counting his fingers.

"So what category d'you fancy, then?" "Oh, I thought I'd have a go at the pumpkin class," says Danny with a little smile. "Used to do quite well with my pumpkins down south." "Champion. Grand," says Gordon. "Just what we need, a bit of competition and new blood." *** Next day the cold realisation of the enormity of his boast hits home on Danny. His rapidly growing pumpkins grow only in his imagination and right now they're withering before him. But I don't half fancy that Penny, he thinks. Dunno what she sees in that boring so-and-so. Oh Gawd, I just remembered she's supposed to be coming round to take a look at my plants today. Must have been off my rocker last night. *** "Didn't think much of that bloke Danny last night. Struck me as a bit of a wide boy," Gordon sniffs. "Gordon, man, give him a chance.

He's new up here and he knows nobody. I was just being friendly." Penny is picturing his sharp London looks and lack of paunch. "Well, I'm just saying I don't trust him, that's all." They walk on in silence, Penny thinking volumes but saying nowt. It just wasn't worth it. *** "Sorry, darlin', something's come up. A job interview... yep... could be good.... but I couldmanage a drink later, say half eight." His tone sounds urgent, like he's balancing on a wire. Penny thinks - Monday night, eight thirty. Gordon will be in the committee meeting till gone 10. "OK then, eight thirty in the King's Head, lounge bar mind." He's late, a good 10 minutes. Ten minutes for Penny to think: What am I doing here? I must be mad. Luckily it's not a pub frequented by any of the gardening set, but still, it's a small town.

Danny's on edge from the start. He leans towards her over the little drinks table. "Look, Pen, I need your help," he says. "Don't ask me how I got in this state, but I really fell for you last night, head over heels and splat, flat on my face today." Penny giggles. "Don't laugh, I'm serious," he frowns. "Look, I really want you to be my girl but I really want to beat old Gordon on his own turf as well." Penny fleetingly wonders which is the more important to him but his blue eyes win hands down. "What do you want me to do?" "Well, I've had a terrible day. I didn't get the job for a start and then I come home to find all me crop ruined, pots all broke and the pumpkins pulled up and slashed to pieces." "But who would have done that? I mean, it's not like you're a well known contender are you?" "I got my suspicions, all right." "What, Gordon! Never, surely?" "He recognised a winner when he saw one.

I didn't tell no-one else I was even entering, did I?" "Well... I suppose not." "Look, all I'm asking is for you to slip me the keys to the allotment padlock for a couple of hours... that's all. If I can just nick one of his pumpkins - doesn't have to be the biggest or anything - I could work my magic on it till competition day. Then we'll see who's the tops, eh?" Penny has never been fought over before, not by knights in shining armour or even pumpkin fanatics. Still, she thinks, maybe Gordon has had it his own way for long enough and perhaps it is time for a challenge... and if he really did do a mean thing, he deserves whatever comes. "All right, I'll do it."

"That's my girl," smiles Danny and gives her a kiss. She feels a bit jumbly and confused inside, but giving marks out of ten she definitely rates it higher than Gordon's rather slobbery snogs. *** It's so dark in the back lane Danny walks into a dustbin and only just manages to catch the lid in time. He hears an irritable tom hiss and arch it's back as he goes past. Reaching the mesh fence he works his way round to the locked gate. He's seen it by day and the whole set-up reminds him of the old council tennis courts in Lambeth. Gawd, these northerners don't half take their veggies serious. Pencil torch out, he tries the first of the six keys on the ring Penny gave him. Third key lucky and the gate creaks open. Slowly does it! Down the path past Alfie's patch, then left past Bert's and bingo. There's George's plot in front of him.

Stone me, he's got a metal fruit cage over the whole pumpkin patch! Danny looks through the wires and sees half a dozen massive pumpkins, pale yellow in his torchlight like little fat Buddhas made of gold. Key ring out again and it's the very last one that fits the hefty padlock. Open swings the cage gate, well oiled and silent, and in he goes. It's so spooky in here, they're all looking at me. At the back of the cage there's an old barrow with a wonky wheel. It'll have to do. Every moment he feels more panic and, holding his torch in his mouth, he almost steers off the path in his haste. He chooses the biggest pumpkin. No point in muckin' about. He upends the barrow and levers the yellow monster half on to it. With an almighty push down on the handles he lifts it up and it rolls into the well of the barrow.

Flash! Two arc lights pinion him front and back, brighter than Al Jolson on at the Palladium. At the same moment both forearms contract in spasms as 250 volts shoot up through the handles. Danny is thrown, back arching, on to the soil and the barrow catapults in the opposite direction, returning the pumpkin to its nest with the stalk undamaged. His torch falls out of his mouth as a huge shadow blocks out the dazzle of the arc lamp. Gordon picks him up by the lapels and drops him into the empty barrow, wheels him like a scarecrow out of the cage and stops. He bends down, his face inches from Danny's, his breath steaming in the night air. "You can try and steal my girlfriend if you think you're man enough, kid. "Nobody steals my pumpkin."
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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