Just over two weeks until the publication of Roxanne Riding Hood and Other Dubious Tales on January 28th, and it’s time for the preview of the book to move back to the opening stories. I will say again that the list of stories is randomly chosen and there is any lessening of the quality as the book goes on; it’s a book that goes on giving all the way through.
Having covered the first three, the fourth one up is a tale inspired by ‘speed dating’, when people are given a usually ridiculously short period of time to talk to prospective dates before having to move on to the next person. Pharmacist Anne and young reporter Ian find themselves suddenly trying to make sensible conversation, with a certain sense of awkwardness on both sides and a kind of clumsiness derived from both of them having friends who delight in telling them what to do and think. Anne has her friend Kate, who has persuaded her that speed dating is the ‘now’ thing to do; Ian has his mate Steve, who is supposedly an acknowledged expert on making it with the ladies.
Anne and Steve nevertheless manage to see something of interest in each other, and as Anne reflects that her friend Kate might just be anxious to do what everyone thinks she should do rather than what she really wants to do herself – ‘ I wonder whether when Kate talks about now, what she actually means is that everyone else is doing something and she just hasn’t got the gumption to disagree’ – while Ian remembers that Steve, the so-called ladies’ man, never seems to manage to hang on to them for more than a few weeks – ‘maybe basing your woman knowledge on Steve is actually a bit like taking hairdressing lessons from Sweeney Todd’.
Both of them get something out of their speed-dating, even if it ultimately means disobeying the rules.
Number five is ‘The Scheme of Things’ and amounts to a day in the life of Joan Jephson, a primary school teacher who has to cope not only with the antics of her young pupils, but also both her teaching colleagues and the dinner ladies – ‘our “lovely ladies”, as Rachel calls them, though Josie believes them to be “subversive, letting the kids tittle tattle on to them when we’re not there”’.
An awkward morning is followed by a trip to the pub with colleague Megan – ‘she is better company on her own; in the company of Rachel or Josie, or almost anyone else, for that matter, she comes over as the Welsh Philosopher Queen’. Megan has opinions relating to males in general – ‘in days gone by, women knew how to deal with the Scheme of Things, at least as far as schools were concerned. As soon as males are something like sentient and continent, pack them off to schools of their own, to be looked after by their own, running and jumping and swearing and beating the living oo-jahs out of each other’. Joan compares this to a male interpretation she heard on a residential course – ‘you feminists will be so totally in control of all the primaries shortly….that most kids aren’t even going to see a man in their classroom until they’re at least twelve, and all the boys will get to adulthood having more or less already lost the will to live and feeling morally committed to spending all their leisure hours making effing cushions and pressing effing flowers.’
Joan sticks to her moderate guns and makes her way through the day in spite of further upsets and mishaps – ‘Joey Clarkson farted during Dance Time again, clearing the customary circle for him to operate more freely, though I suspect his outbursts have less to do with Discontented Masculinity than the hard little apples his mother insists on putting in his lunch box’.
Sixth in line is ‘At The End of The Day’, involving a young accountant, Simon Forshaw, going in to see ‘Sir William “call me Bill” Dugdale, legendary local businessman and entrepreneur but still, basically and bluffly, one of the lads, even though he’s been at the helm of This Great Club for so long he’s an institution in himself’. The football club chairman has been used to dealing with Simon’s father, or more accurately, taking advantage of Simon’s father’s ill health to get away with various dubious financial practices. In the background, the football pundits are keeping up a running commentary on the meeting between the young outsider and the hot favourite – ‘He’d doing his best to look like he’s up for it, Gary, but I think he’s secretly bricking it, to be fair. Does he have the experience and class to make it at this level?’
‘Good point, Alan. No, I really don’t think he has.’
Against the odds, young Simon eventually brings off a remarkable victory, thanks to his recorder and his carefully compiled dossier on the club chairman’s activities. ‘At the end of the day, the fat lady sings, and she’s sung a sweet song of youth on this day!’
‘Drama, spectacle, competition, artistry, Gary, all together if possible. That’s what we’re all looking for. At the end of the day.’