ROUND MIDNIGHT

An excerpt from Tom Slemen's The Twelve Ghosts of Valentine's Day

One warm Friday night in July, 1982, a nurse we shall call Judy Price sat reading a slim Mills & Boon romance book near to the open window of a tiny room called the Nurse’s Station on the third floor of a certain London hospital. The time was fast approaching 11pm, and Stephen, who was watching from the open window of a neighbouring building, knew the hour because the little transistor radio on his window sill was playing Round Midnight – the theme to BBC Radio 2’s arts magazine, presented by Brian Matthew, and that show began at eleven. Stephen was a security guard, and today 2 July, 1982, had been his thirty-fifth birthday, a day of reflection on his life, and it had been a strange one, for he had felt twice his age since waking up around 2pm. Succumbing to an insidious melancholy, the result of contemplation about the mid-point of his life, he had turned the radio dial from Radio 1, where Tommy Vance had been presenting the Friday Rock Show, to the mellow sounds of Round Midnight, a radio show he had often listened to with his favourite uncle, Desmond, now gone. Desmond had been a night watchman and his sleeping patterns never changed when he was not at work, so he would stay up all night on those occasions, and Stephen would often visit him and end up staying over. Uncle and nephew would sit in the dark lounge and by the neon light filtering through the fringe of hanging multicoloured plastic strips in the kitchen doorway (a vintage way to keep flies out the kitchen), they would sip – Stephen his lager, and Des his Guinness – and they would eat crackers and tangy cheese and philosophize about the nature of the universe and the metaphysical reasons of life until four. Desmond had never married, and Stephen never asked him why, but felt the man had just never had the confidence to ask a woman out. Desmond would talk on nights like this of this world being a speck of dust in some unimaginably vast room, and sometimes he and Stephen would look out the window at the stars in their heavenly courses twinkling high over the city and they would invariably dwell on the scale and meaning of existence. Desmond would point to stars he knew as old friends and talk of the time it took the light from them to reach us, and how our lives were like sparks in comparison. Despite his good looks, Stephen lacked the confidence to ask a girl out, and Desmond knew this, and he would always say, ‘Ah, you’ll meet a girl one day and have kids, and I’ll be long gone by then, and your children will know wonders I’ll never know in the future. The big wheel of life keeps on turning.’

‘No, you’ll be best man at the wedding Uncle Desmond,’ Stephen could recall saying five years ago. Now Desmond was gone. He’d lain cold in the earth for nearly three years now, and the stars were shining on regardless tonight as Stephen glanced up at them. But then his gaze fell to that nurse by the window; she looked close enough to touch. Could she see him sitting there, listening to the radio? He wondered. There wasn’t a light on in the office except for a red bulb on a desk intercom. The door of the office was ajar by about two inches, and through that narrow gap, the only illumination filtering into the office he was sitting in came from the lights on the ceiling of the yellow-walled corridor outside. The light was refracted through the gap in the door, and cast a soft diffused ochre-tainted radiance.

Stephen stood up, deliberately trying to catch the eyes of the nurse, and pretended to yawn and stretch his arms.

She looked over, then glanced back at the book, but he had good eyesight and he could actually see that she had slyly turned her head by a fraction of an angle and seemed to be watching him out the corner of her eye.

Meanwhile, over at the Nurse’s Station, the night nurse was startled by a signal generated by the push button at the side of a patient’s bed, and so she flew out of the office and went to attend.

She returned about fifteen minutes later, and then Stephen was due to do his rounds of the building, and he had to insert cards at certain points and let a machine punch them to prove he’d done the rounds or he’d be out of a job. He returned to the office at a quarter to midnight and the nurse wasn’t there. She was attending another patient’s needs and never got back to her romance novel until half-past midnight.

Wonder if she’s spoken for? Stephen found himself thinking as he gazed over at her. Does she know I’m gawping at her, or is she really engrossed in that book? Wonder how old she is? She looks late twenties, maybe thirty.

Stephen watched her all night, and he was on duty till 8am, but the nurse vanished around six that morning and he felt so depressed by her absence. The only consolation was a childish plan. Perhaps he should just turn the light on in the office tomorrow night and wave over at her.

That morning, he received a call from his boss. He was moving Stephen to the other side of London to join a group of other security guards who were looking after a factory.

‘Well, that’s the end of that,’ Stephen thought to himself that morning as he lay in bed with the curtains pulled together tightly to block out the blazing summer sun.

On 1 February 1983, Stephen was transferred back to the office in that building facing the hospital, and he wondered if he’d see that nurse again. On the second night at the job, she appeared at the window again (but it wasn’t open on this cold February night), and once again she was reading as she sat there, but this time it looked like a magazine that she was perusing. She was also drinking from a mug, and, there was another smaller and rather skinny nurse with her; she seemed to have red hair.

Judy Price noticed Stephen, because this time he had the light on in the office, and as she gazed over at him, Stephen could see the red-headed nurse with Judy following her gaze – so all of a sudden, that second nurse was looking at him – but she was very cheeky, and she waved at him and did a “blowing kiss” gesture. Stephen could see Judy playfully hitting the nurse with her magazine. Stephen lifted his Thermos flask full of coffee and toasted them, and Judy lifted her mug in the air in response and he could see her cheekbones as she smiled. It was at that moment he sort of fell for her; something as silly as that.

At ten minutes to two that morning, Stephen opened his window, even though the night air was ice cold, and the red-headed nurse opened the window of the nurse station, and she shouted over – ‘Do you come here often?’

He couldn’t conjure up a subatomic particle of wit to come back with a clever answer, so he just hollered back: ‘Yeah, every night!’

The redhead cupped her hand to her ear, because she could not quite make out what Stephen had shouted, and then she left the window for a moment, but returned with a clipboard of some sort, which she wrote upon. Stephen watched, bemused, as the nurse took the piece of A4 paper she’d written on from the clipboard and began to fold it. Judy was shaking her head as she smiled at her friend’s ridiculous antics. The redhead folded the sheet into a paper airplane, which she launched out of the open window, aiming at Stephen, who was ready to reach out in an effort to grab the plane, but it curved upwards on the slight chilly breeze, then nosedived and spiralled all the way to the pavement some sixty feet below.

The redhead shrugged.

Stephen then heard the faint bleeps of an alarm over there, and the two nurses had to go and attend the patient who was calling for them. They were gone for some time, and Stephen had a feeling that the patient who had summoned them was either in a very bad way or had possibly died, because when he returned from his round later on, the window of the Nurse’s Station was closed and there was no sign of either nurse.

Stephen sat there around four that morning, gazing at the sky, thinking of his much-missed Uncle Desmond, who had taught him basic astronomy. There, hanging above the eastern horizon was the waning crescent of the moon, and at chimney-pot level, Stephen could easily identify the bright starlike point as the planet Jupiter. That point didn’t twinkle like a scintillating star – planets just shone steadily, as did the one to the right of the moon, and Stephen knew it was Saturn, from its position and brightness. He recalled the first time he had seen that planet through his uncle’s brass folding telescope many years ago, and how he had seen, with his own eyes, the beautiful and mysterious ring system around that distant world. He wondered what he should do about that nurse; should he visit the hospital one evening and try and find her, or would that be creepy? He thought it would be.

The next night, Stephen started work at 10pm and kept a constant, obsessive watch on the window opposite, and around 11pm, as Round Midnight started on his transistor radio, he saw the nurse he had fallen for put in an appearance – and this time there was a man with her – in a white coat – a doctor by the looks of it, and a young doctor too – perhaps in his mid-twenties. He looked a little bit too touchy-feely towards the nurse, Stephen thought, and he realised he was becoming insanely jealous about a woman he didn’t even know. Stephen turned the light off in the office and closed the door so not a photon of light could enter, and then he went to the window and kept watch. That doctor was almost pressing the nurse into what looked like a filing cabinet, and his advances were plainly being rejected by her. ‘Leave her alone, you bastard,’ Stephen muttered.

All of a sudden, the security guard heard the sound of the toilet on the floor below being flushed – which was impossible, as there wasn’t another living soul in the building. He froze, and gently closed the window to block out the faint hubbub of the distant night traffic. He heard the loud ticks of the electric wall clock.

Soft padding! He heard distinctive footsteps, muffled but definitely footsteps.

Stephen turned on the office light, picked up his heaving six-cell flashlight, and stepped out into the corridor. There was no one about. He crept in his Doc Martens down the shiny tiled corridor, and peeped round the corner; still no sign of anyone. He went down two flights of steps to the lower floor and checked the toilet. The cistern in the gentlemen’s was still filling – someone had been in here. But how? The building was fully alarmed and there were infra-red beams and magnetic reed switches on every door downstairs, so how on earth could a criminal get in here? A silly thought crossed Stephen’s mind: a ghost. But surely a ghost wouldn’t have to have a crap? He commenced a long tour of the building and by half-past-eleven he was certain that there was no one lurking about. Had there been some perfectly feasible plumbing anomaly which had caused the flushing? Stephen preferred to believe this was a possibility rather than dwell on a supernatural explanation. He returned to the office and poured a coffee from his Thermos and looked over at the window of the Nurse’s Station. Now there was only Judy sitting there, reading a book; there was no sign of the white-coated womaniser.

She looked up from the book, out the window, and now that the office was lit, she noticed him, and waved.

Stephen waved back vigorously, and his heart jumped.

She sat there for half an hour, and Stephen sat watching her, sipping all of his coffee from the flask, wondering what he should do to get her into his life. It was the perfect time for such a romantic plan with Valentine’s Day so close.

The intercom on the desk buzzed, startling the guard. Someone was at the front door of the building.

Stephen pressed the mustard-yellow button of the intercom unit. ‘Hello?’ he said into the grille of the desktop plastic box.

‘Police here, mate. Are you the only one on duty in there?’ said a deep gruff voice.

‘Why?’ Stephen asked, suspiciously, mindful of the strange goings-on tonight with the phantom toilet flusher and that.

‘You’d better come down, mate, pronto,’ the rough voice said.

Stephen rode the lift down and when he reached the lobby he could see two policemen standing in front of the glass entrance doors. They had real sour faces on them. Stephen quickly unlocked the door and admitted them.

‘Are you the only one on duty here?’ asked one of the coppers.

‘Yes, officer, why?’

‘Some dirty bastard in here threw his shit out of a window and its all over our car,’ the policeman informed Stephen, and with a curl of the index finger the policeman bid the baffled guard to follow him and his colleague. He accompanied them down three wide steps and pointed to a police car. The windshield and roof was spattered with something dark, but it was hard to make out the colour of the liquid in the amber light of the sodium street lamp. Then Stephen caught the ghastly telltale stench and he screwed up his face. ‘Yeah, it’s shit,’ the policeman said with a poker face, and his colleague looked Stephen up and down with a look of repulsion.

‘Wait a minute – you’re not implying – ‘ Stephen saw that the policeman who had addressed him was casting an accusatory glance.

‘Well who else shat out this building?’ the second policeman asked.

‘I swear before God, it wasn’t me; that – that’s disgusting,’ Stephen could see loose faecal particles on the roof of the vehicle now.

The policemen said nothing, and got back into their car, and the vehicle moved off very slowly.

Stephen glanced up and saw the nurse looking out the window. She was probably wondering why the police had called at the office block. Stephen waved up at the night nurse and she waved back, and then he turned and went back into the building, fuming at being accused of such a vile incident. He took the lift up to his floor and had only just entered the office when he definitely heard a noise outside in the corridor. He froze, then reached for the big torch he’d use as his truncheon if he had to, and stepped out into the corridor. Yes, there was someone going down the stairs; he could hear them clearly. He tiptoed to the stairwell and heard the toilet door squeaking as it was opened by the intruder. Why on earth was a burglar making continual trips to the toilet? It didn’t make sense. This time, Stephen did not go down the stairs, but waited and listened at the top of the stairwell, and after about four minutes he heard the sound of a toilet being flushed, and then shortly afterwards his ears picked up the faint squeak of the toilet door; then the sound of approaching footsteps. He hid around the corner, with the long black rubber-clad flashlight, poised to belt the intruder.

At first, the footsteps halted, and about five tense minutes passed, and Stephen wondered if the trespasser had somehow fled, but then he saw the shadow of the interloper’s head and shoulders glide silently onto the floor of the corridor.

It was a man, aged about twenty-two to twenty-five, in slate-grey skin-tight corduroy pants, Puma trainers, and a brown leather jacket. He looked small, about five feet three inches tall, and very slim.

‘Hold it there, bollocks!’ Stephen adopted his tough-sounding alter ego as he growled the words, and the young man stood stock still as a statue, then slowly turned around. He had a receding hairline and the most harmless and scared face Stephen had ever seen. He reminded the guard of someone – some actor off the telly. He was the spit of the actor who played Vila in the sci-fi serial Blake’s 7. And the weird thing was: that actor who played Vila looked like Stephen’s cousin Barry who had tragically died in a car crash a few years back.

‘Don’t clobber me with that, mate,’ the persona non grata said in a Brummie accent. ‘I’m not a fighter,’ he added, and lifted his forearm in front of his face as he eyed that big flashlight.

‘How did you get in here?’ Stephen asked – and then he became aware of a ghastly smell; it was that stench that had assaulted his nostrils in front of the cop car earlier.

‘I’ve been living in here for about a month,’ the young man replied, and he lowered his arm and grimaced as if in pain as his hands felt his stomach.

‘What do you mean? How could you have?’

‘I’ve been hiding out in that building on top of this block – the boiler room or whatever it is?’ the Brummie replied, and then his stomach started making a bubbling sound. ‘I’ve got the runs, really bad. Just take me in and get it done with; at least I’ll get medical attention.’

‘You mean the mechanical room?’ Stephen weighed up the intruder’s claim. There was a huge glorified shed on the roof of the office block – the mechanical room, they called it, full of boilers, air conditioning vents, heat exchangers and generators.

‘Well why would I make it up?’ the stranger asked, and his face became moist. ‘I have the wild shites. It was the curry I made.’

‘What’s your name?’ Stephen asked.

‘Barry Speekilly,’ he answered, then asked, ‘can I go the bog again? My belly’s on fire.’

Stephen didn’t know what to do; should he get Barry arrested or let him go the toilet. It all made sense now. ‘So it was you – you’re the one who threw the crap at the police car.’

‘I didn’t do it on purpose,’ Barry said with his eyes squeezed shut, enduring abdominal turmoil, ‘I had to go and I couldn’t use the toilet because you would have heard me. I went in an empty Cornflakes box and emptied it off the roof and the wind started blowing. I didn’t see the cop car. Now, can I go please? I’m not gonna do a runner in this state, I promise.’

‘Hurry up!’ Stephen snapped, and he happened to glance towards the doorway of his office; and through it he could see his window, and beyond the pane he saw the nurse looking over from her window. She was standing there, just gazing, on her own.

‘Ah, cheers mate,’ Barry sighed, and he hurried to the stairs. Stephen followed him closely and waited outside the toilet. He thought about the resemblance of this harmless scallywag to his late cousin – who was also named Barry, and this little coincidence struck him as odd. About six long minutes later, Barry came out and said, ‘I think that’s the last of it – ‘

‘Spare me the details, please,’ Stephen told him. ‘Have you washed your hands?’

‘Of course I did,’ Barry seemed offended at the query.

‘Why were you hiding out in this place?’ Stephen asked, prodding Barry’s back as he walked up the stairs.

‘I screwed a factory up by Battersea, and someone grassed on me. I did a runner before the trial. My first offence – straight up – and I got thirty quid from it.’

‘Couldn’t you have just got a job like the rest of us?’ Stephen asked him.

‘There are three million unemployed you know – ‘ Barry told him, and seemed genuinely hurt by the question from the security guard. ‘Look, just get me nicked,’ he advised Stephen, ‘I’d be better off in prison, I would.’

And he started to cry.

‘Oh come on, don’t – ‘ Stephen said, racked with guilt. It was like making his late cousin cry and was really unsettling.

‘My life is shit, it really is,’ Barry said, and his words were barely intelligible because he was sobbing so hard.

‘Come on, mate, come in here and sit down,’ Stephen took him into the office and located the box of Kleenex. He pinched a few sheets of tissue and thrust them in the incompetent criminal’s face, and Barry fumbled to grasp them with eyes blinded by a flood of tears.

‘Look, Barry, if I was to let you just walk out of here, but you got nicked, would you tell them I had let you off?’

Barry stopped crying and blew his nose hard into the tissues and cast a perplex pair of bloodshot eyes at the guard. ‘Of course I wouldn’t – what do you take me for? I’m not a grass.’

‘Well, if you want, you can beat it before it gets light – and look, if you did tell the police I let you go, I’d be dropped in the shit from a great height – ‘

‘I give you my word, I would never drop you in it,’ Barry said, his face full of hope now. ‘You’re a decent person, whatever your name is.’

‘Well you don’t need to know that, but Barry, try and get back on the straight and narrow somehow.’

‘Why are you being decent to me? No one ever gave me a chance before?’

Stephen shrugged and slowly shook his head. ‘You remind me of someone, that’s all – yeah, that’s all mate.’

‘You haven’t got a ciggy have you?’ Barry asked. ‘I’m gasping. I left my ‘bacca up there in the er – ‘

‘Mechanical room,’ Stephen gave the official name to Barry’s temporary rooftop shelter. ‘I don’t smoke, mate, sorry.’

‘Can I go and get my tobacco? And my stuff’s up there too, like.’ Barry gestured to the ceiling with his thumb.

‘I’ll come with you, come on,’ Stephen rose from the table and they went into the corridor and Barry Speekilly led the way. He went up five flights of stairs and then came to a door at the end of a corridor. He pushed the door open and he and Stephen climbed another short flight of steps that led to a hatch which gave access to the mechanical room, which measured about fifty feet by twenty with high bare breeze-block walls covered with snaking orange power cables and meandering, branching pipes of varying thicknesses. A soulless polycarbonate bulkhead light shone starkly on the brick wall and the low whirr of a ventilator fan became unbearable after a few minutes. There was a hammock tied between two huge foil-clad pipes, and on a cardboard box full of electrical fuses there was a little radio with an earphone, a yellow paperback called The Whole Mind Book, and a men’s magazine. On the floor next to the box were three lemonade bottles filled with tap water from the toilet, and a few opened cans of baked beans and an old basic can-opener.

‘You said you made your own curry,’ said Stephen, ‘so where did you cook it?’

‘On the roof. I made a little fire on this metal plate I found, and dangled the can over it. Only cooked at night so no one noticed the smoke, and the fire was shielded from prying eyes by this.’ The ad hoc fireguard was an old empty paint can which had had its bottom removed with the can opener.

‘Where did you get the food from?’

‘Used to sneak out of a morning and shoplift. Used to pass the receptionist and always made sure I was carrying a pipe or one of the bits of rusted machinery I found on the floor. No one ever batted an eyelid or quizzed me; they must have assumed I was just some maintenance man.’

‘Well you’ll have to find another place, mate,’ Stephen said with an iron countenance, and then he tried to smile, but couldn’t.

‘This was very homely,’ Barry said, looking about pensively. ‘Can I stay for a few days till I get myself together?’

‘I don’t know, it’s a big risk,’ Stephen shook his head. ‘I mean if someone comes up here – ‘

‘I won’t drop you in it,’ Barry reassured the compassionate guard, ‘as far as I’m concerned I’ve never set eyes on you before and you didn’t know I was up here.’

‘I mean how long will it take you to get a place?’ Stephen asked, ‘Don’t you have relatives who’ll take you in?’

Barry shook his head. ‘I just need a few days, and then I’ll sort myself out somehow, and then I’ll be out of here, I promise.’

On the following night, Stephen came into work with a white paper parcel of fish and chips, twenty Embassy Regal, and a shopping bag containing a few cartons of milk, a bottle of Coca Cola, a giant bar of Cadbury’s Fruit ‘n Nut, a toothbrush and tube of Aquafresh 3 toothpaste, a Sure deodorant spray, and a pocket comb. Another carrier bag contained a tee shirt, socks, underpants and a pair of jeans (no brand name, from the Army and Navy stores).

Stephen also gave him fifteen quid in three fivers. Barry was overwhelmed by the money and the items, and began to cry again. It was odd having company during the lonely watches of the night, and on the first night with his ‘guest’ Stephen turned the light off in the office and drew Barry’s attention to the nurse – who was sitting reading at the window again. Stephen explained how he felt towards her and told Barry how, at thirty-five, he should have long settled down with someone. ‘You don’t look thirty-five,’ Barry told his new friend, ‘you could pass for late twenties, especially if you had your hair cut a little shorter.’

'Thanks, but I am thirty-five, and I hate it,' Stephen said in a monotone voice.

‘Hey, it’s Valentine’s Day in a few days, ask her out,’ Barry suggested, and he really relished the mug of Coca Cola and his cigarette as he gazed over at the nurse.

‘I don’t even know her name,’ Stephen replied. ‘Ah, it’s probably just another pipe dream that’ll come to nothing.’

The next night, when Stephen started his shift, Barry came down from the mechanical room with a smile on his face. ‘I’ve arranged a double date for us, mate,’ he announced and glanced out the window, over at the window of the Nurse’s Station, but there was no silhouetted lady there yet.

‘You what?’ Stephen asked, even though he had understood Barry’s statement.

Barry sat at the desk and helped himself to one of Stephen’s chocolate digestives. ‘That nurse bird you have a thing for is named Judy, and her mate, a cracking little redhead, is named Tracey. We’re all going out on Sunday afternoon for dinner; I’ve made the reservations and everything. You said Sunday’s the only day you’ve got off that’s also the only the day the nurses have off so -‘

‘Wait a minute,’ Stephen fixed him with a ferocious stare, ‘you went and told that nurse what exactly? I don’t like people speaking on my behalf.’

‘Calm down, Ste, Judy’ll be chuffed when Tracey tells her you fancy her – ‘

‘Fancy her? You said that? How did you, oh – look – you better start from the beginning, Barry.’

‘Alright, here’s the gen, ‘ Barry started, ‘I sneaked over there this morning when they were knocking off, and recognised Judy from her sorta brownish blonde hair, and I gave her some flowers – and said they were from you – so remember that in case she mentions them. I told her I worked as a guard with you – so remember that as well when we get gabbing with them.’

‘You’re unbelievable, ‘ Stephen shook his head. ‘I mean, I mightn’t even like her close up. What were you thinking?’

Barry disregarded Stephen’s concerns and went on: ‘And anyway, Tracey said to me “Where’s my flowers, eh?” and I said to her: “I’ll do better than that – I’ll take you out instead if you let me,” and she smiled. She’s got a lovely smile. Dead white straight teeth.’

‘Barry, did it occur to you that these ladies might be spoken for? Might be married?’

‘I blimped Tracey’s hand and she wasn’t wearing anyone’s ring.’

‘But what about Judy? You didn’t see her hand, did you?’

‘Can't remember. God, you’re a real worrier, Ste; you’re going to turn grey as a badger the way you’re carrying on. Look, if you don’t like Judy, you don’t have to see her again; you’re not asking for her hand in marriage. Has it ever occurred to you that she might not want a serious relationship – just a bit of male company? You can suss her out over dinner.’

‘I can’t believe you’ve done this – I – I – well, I’m speechless.‘ Stephen got up off his chair, straightened himself up all tense, and looked out the window – and was relieved to see no nurse in the window opposite yet. He started regretting being a Good Samaritan to Barry; now the lad was arranging his life.

‘Calm down Ste; you said you liked Judy, and okay, I might have jumped the gun, but haven’t you ever heard of that old saying?’

‘Go on,’ Stephen said with a condescending roll of his eyes.

‘A faint heart never won a fair lady.’ Barry sat there, a bit annoyed. He thought Stephen would be chuffed with the overtures he’d made.

Stephen sighed, looked out the window at the twinkling lights of London; the amber glow-worm streetlamps and countless constellations of distant lights burning in offices just like this one, and so many lonely and estranged people in some of those lights; people living like ghosts through the night, perhaps taking the graveyard shifts to hide from problems that only seem more unbearable in the harsh light of day. ‘Where are we having this dinner then?’ Stephen asked, and forced a smirk.

‘Some French joint up in Soho – Les Car something.’

‘L’Escargot?’ Stephen wheezed, sounding as if he’d been hit hard in the solar plexus.

‘That’s it yeah, what does that mean? Is it French? Tracey suggested the place. Directory Enquiries took ages getting the number to the place – ‘

‘L’Escargot’s expensive, I think,’ Stephen surmised with a worried look.

Barry shrugged. ‘Well we can’t take them to a Wimpy Bar, now, can we?’

‘Are we supposed to meet them anywhere on the Sunday? What’s the arrangement?’

‘Tracey said we should pick her and Judy up at the Ship Tavern, over in Holborn around half-two. Do you know that boozer?’

‘Yes, it’s a good pub, real old world feel to it,’ Stephen said, and felt so nervous all of a sudden at the prospect of meeting Judy. He looked over at the hospital window and there was still no sign of her.

‘So that’s our Valentine’s Day date sorted then,’ Barry announced with a grin.

Stephen looked at the wall calendar. ‘Sunday, 13 February, near enough.’

Judy appeared at her window at last, and didn’t look over. She sat down and seemed to be perusing a newspaper. Tracey didn’t put in an appearance at all that night, much to the chagrin of Barry.

On the Saturday night, Barry stayed over at Stephen’s flat in Camden Town, and they drank a crate of Grolsch between them after Stephen had cooked an abysmal TV dinner, followed by his idea of dessert – Arctic Roll. Stephen then played his Mike Oldfield and Sky LPs, which bored Barry so much, he was snoring by 1am. Stephen threw a quilt over him and left him slumped in the armchair before going to bed.

The crisp sunny February morning soon arrived, and both men had a bit of a hangover. Stephen’s remedy was two rounds of bread each (fried with lard), black pudding, fried eggs, Cumberland sausages, back bacon and beans. Plus hot black sweet coffee. Stephen served this high-cholesterol breakfast as he made specious claims about proteins and fats feeding the brain and body, warding off the ‘cerebral and muscular discomfort’, and perhaps it was all a placebo effect, because the hangover antidote seemed to work, and Barry’s appetite returned with a vengeance. Then the two of them seemed like a bag of nerves, despite Barry’s claims the night before over the lager that he got ‘regular crumpet’.

‘Are there any chemists open on Sunday?’ Barry muttered, and sipped his coffee, and then put the mug down because it was too hot.

‘You don’t mean for – oh come on, you won’t get that lucky on a first date, mate,’ Stephen gave a false laugh. ‘God, you’re a bag of nerves, aren’t you?’ Stephen said, and he was that nervous himself he picked up Barry’s mug and went into the kitchen, where he unconsciously emptied it and rinsed it out.

‘I was drinking that,’ Barry said, looking at his rinsed mug on the drain board.

‘Barry, if Tracey asks you where you live, what are you going to say?’

‘The mechanical room on top of a tower block; what do you think I’m going to say? I’ll have to tell her a little porky and say I live with you.’

‘But this is a one-bedroom flat; she might think we’re – ‘

‘But she won’t know how many rooms there are; just stop worrying, will you? You’ve got my nerves gone. Your nervousness is contagious.’

At 2.15pm, Stephen and Barry arrived at the Ship Tavern pub and Stephen immediately got Barry a single scotch and ice and bought himself a pint of Heineken. They stood at the bar, and every time the door creaked open the two of them would twist around and expect to see their dates entering, but the ladies were late, and finally arrived at 2.40pm. Tracey came in first, and she was very pretty; about 5ft 3, quite slim, with her natural red hair piled up in a bun, fluorescent yellow hoop earrings, a huge light purple turtleneck sweater, orange leggings and red stilettos.

‘Hello there!’ Barry walked towards her with open arms and she opened her arms with a big grin on her face.

Then Stephen saw Judy.

She was not the most beautiful woman in the world, now that he had seen her in the brightness of the pub’s lights. She was pretty though, and she seemed a little self-conscious. She had sandy-coloured hair cut in a bob, and nowhere near as much make-up on her face as Tracey, and she dressed a little more conservatively, in a dark blue jacket, a pair of Levis and knee high black leather boots with thick kitten heels.

Judy went to open her arms as Stephen went to shake her hands, and then he awkwardly opened his arms as she went to shake his hands. First impressions last, Stephen thought, and she’s going to think I’m a dickhead.

Somehow they managed to coordinate a hug, and her overwhelming perfume – Charlie – coupled with her warm embrace, gave him an emotion he hadn’t had for a long time – a thrill.

Stephen went to the bar to get the round in as Barry led the ladies to a table in the corner. A pina colada for Tracey, a gin and tonic for Judy, a pint of Heineken for himself and a “perfect Martini” (made from equal amounts of sweet and dry vermouth) for Barry, who was obviously trying to appear sophisticated to Tracey. Stephen looked over his shoulder as he waited at the bar counter and smiled at the girls before glancing at the giant pub clock. The reservation at L’Escargot was for 3pm; this was cutting it short. He was going to sound like a control freak reminding them of the time.

As he plonked down the drinks on the table, Judy thanked him.

‘Those flowers were lovely – Stephen,' and there was a very noticeable pause before she said his name, as if she had suddenly remembered it. ‘Thanks.’

‘Flowers?’ Stephen didn’t recall getting her flowers.

Barry kicked his ankle under the table and said, ‘Yeah, those flowers – the ones you asked me to pass to Judy.’

That jogged Stephen’s memory. ‘Ah, yeah, - the flowers, bit corny I suppose but – ‘

‘Not corny at all, thanks.’ Judy tapped her left hand on his fist on the pub table and he looked at her fingers to see if she wore anyone’s ring. She had a strange-looking gold ring with a heart and crown on each middle finger. He’d never seen such rings before.

‘Back on duty tomorrow then eh?’ Stephen found himself saying, making small talk, but he felt as if his lips were not synchronized with his speech centre, and already he thought: what a stupid thing to start a conversation with.

‘God, they’ve only just got here, Ste,’ Barry said, smiling into Tracey’s grinning face, ‘and you’re talking about them going back to work!’

‘No, no, I was er, what I meant – ‘ Stephen struggled to justify the mindless morsel of small talk.

‘Yes, back to the grindstone tomorrow,’ Judy said, and she nodded and smiled – and grabbed the g&t.

‘Same here with me – ‘ Stephen lifted his pint.

‘And me Stephen,’ Barry gazed at his friend, almost telepathically reminding him that he was supposed be a security guard too.

‘Well, tomorrow’s another day, isn’t it? Lets enjoy this one!’ said Tracey in a squeaky voice, and she held aloft her pina colada, garnished with a maraschino cherry which had been impaled upon a cocktail stick. The other three lifted their glasses.

‘May I wish you all an early Happy Valentine’s Day?’ Barry toasted, and Tracey shrieked with unnecessary laughter.

Stephen pulled back his sleeve in an exagerrated manner and looked at his watch. ‘I don’t want to be a party pooper, but we’ve got to get to L’Escargot for 3pm and it’s ten to now.’

‘Er, Ste, I was pulling Barry’s leg when I suggested that French place,’ Tracey said, hiding her grin behind her hand.

‘Eh?’ Barry took a stunned sidelong glance at the redhead.

‘I’m allergic to shellfish and molluscs – and snails,’ Judy told Stephen and Barry. ‘It’s a running joke. Tracey thought Barry was having her on when he said he’d take her to a posh restaurant.’

‘So, you don’t want to go now?’ Stephen asked, surprised, with his raised eyebrows hiding beneath his fringe.

‘I’m allergic to French food,’ Judy told him, blushing slightly. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘No, it’s alright, I wasn’t keen on it either to tell the truth,’ Stephen reassured her, adding, ‘and er, I’m a bit relieved actually, as I can’t order in French.’

‘I’d rather go to MacDonald’s,’ Tracey admitted, and laughed.

‘I’d better go and phone the restaurant and tell them we've cancelled; in case someone wants a table,’ Stephen said, getting up from his seat.

‘No, let it go, Ste,’ Barry told him firmly, and he turned to Judy and said, ‘He’s like this all the time you know, a real worrier.’

‘Ah, he’s just considerate,’ Judy said, and she smiled at him.

Stephen sat down and an hour later they were in another pub, and then they went to MacDonald’s. They then embarked on another pub crawl and seemed to go in a circle, because by 8pm they were back in Soho, when Stephen suggested going to a club. By now there was a torrential downpour, and Stephen gallantly took off his jacket and put it over his and Judy’s head, and they laughed despite the ice-cold February night air and the heavy rain. They saw a warm, welcoming ruby red neon light glimmering through the rain in the distance, and so the hungry and cold quartet headed for this beacon, which turned out to be an Indian Restaurant, and here the foursome were so grateful to be escorted to a vacant table. This was the perfect antidote for the rainy cold night – a cuisine which dates back five thousand years – Indian food. Barry craved for nothing but chicken korma but Tracey, Judy and Stephen wanted the hottest curry available, and so they were all served Phall, the nearest equivalent to nuclear fusion in the form of food. At the restaurant, Stephen suggested going on to a club, and Barry was amused at the way the alcohol had really mellowed him down from his usual stuffy obsessive compulsive personality. In the quieter surroundings of the restaurant, Stephen was able to have a better conversation with Judy, and he talked in a very relaxed manner, and he learned that she lived on her own – well, with a cat named Toby – at a flat in Bethnal Green. She had never married – but had come close many years ago, she said, but she never said how old she was. She looked about thirty – thirty two perhaps – but Stephen didn’t want to ask, as he was a bit old-fashioned like that and had always been taught that it was rude to ask a lady her age. Tracey, on the other hand, said she had just celebrated her 21st, and was dreading reaching thirty. She had just split up with her fellah after finding him cheating with one of her mates. ‘He must have been stark raving mad to have cheated on you,’ Barry told her, and she could tell he really meant it, and thanked him with a lingering kiss which embarrassed Stephen and Judy.

Around forty minutes later they left the Indian restaurant in Soho and walked a short distance to the legendary Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club on Frith Street. Stephen paid the admission fees and also slyly slipped a twenty-pound note to skint Barry so he could get some of the rounds in. They all sat at a small round table not far from the entrance and a waiter offered them table service and on everyone’s behalf Stephen accepted as he felt too unsteady to carry drinks from the bar through a crowded room. The atmosphere was very relaxed and a solo jazz saxophonist was playing a tune that immediately caught Stephen’s ear - Round Midnight - the theme to the radio show he had heard that night when he had first set eyes on Judy in the window of the Nurse’s Station. He told her how that piece of music being played now had a special meaning to him, and she kissed him. They held hands, and facing them, Barry sat with his arm around Tracey as she lit up a cigarette. She offered her box of Embassy to Barry, and he took one. Stephen declined, as he didn’t smoke, and Tracey jokingly offered Judy a cigarette, even though she knew her friend had quit almost a year back.

Barry and Tracey whispered into each other’s ears and giggled like schoolchildren, and Stephen turned to Judy, and asked her if she was alright. She nodded and said, ‘Are you?’

‘Yeah, this is the best time I’ve had in years,’ he replied, squeezing her hand under the table. They looked into one another’s eyes, and Judy said, ‘Ah, yes, I think I recognise that piece of music now. They play it of a night on Radio Two. So from now on, that’s our signature tune, eh?’

Stephen smiled and nodded. He felt as if he was having one of those euphoric dreams where he didn’t want to wake up. Tracey and Barry cheered, startling him from his reverie as the waiter brought a tray of drinks to the table – four tall glasses of icy lager to quench the delicious fires of the Indian curry. Around 2am, Judy looked at her watch and said: ‘Well, I’d better be making tracks.’

‘Ah, do you have to go? Have another drink,’ said Stephen.

‘I know it’s silly but I worry about Toby,’ Judy said, and she yawned into her hand.

‘Ah, have another drink, Jude,’ Barry pleaded, ‘Toby’ll be alright; he’s probably having a kip.’

Tracey, who had been dozing in Barry’s arms, suddenly opened her eyes as her subconscious ears picked up on Judy’s words, and she yawned: ‘You gettin' off?’.

Judy nodded, ‘Yeah, Trace, you staying?’ she said, and then noticed Stephen was gripping her hand.

‘I think I’ll cut as well, I’m falling asleep,’ Tracey decided.

‘Well, me and Barry will get you two to a cab, come on,’ Stephen said, rising from the table feeling a little light-headed with the alcohol and the heady jazz.

Tracey made arrangements to meet Barry tomorrow afternoon at a pub she was fond of up in Finsbury, and Judy and Stephen made plans to meet at a café in Bloomsbury. Before the hackney cab took her home, Judy thanked Stephen for a ‘wonderful’ night out and kissed him.

Suddenly, Stephen and Barry were walking the night time streets of Soho, and both felt the conspicuous absence of their partners, as well as the depressive effects of the alcohol. Stephen could still hear Round Midnight being played on that alto sax in the back of his mind as he walked along with Barry.

‘Well, what do you think?’ Stephen asked, hands thrust deep in his pockets.

Barry nodded and puckered his lips as he undid his tie and sighed. ‘I think she’s really right for you; it’s like you left the old worrying version of yourself at home tonight. What do you think of Tracey?’

‘She’s really into you,’ Stephen told him, and squinted at the bright headlamps of a taxi heading his way.

‘Really? In what way?’

‘Let’s just get this cab a minute,’ Stephen hailed the hackney and it took him and Barry away from all the neon and late-night revelry. Stephen couldn’t sleep when he got back to the flat, despite all of the alcohol rushing round in his brain. He couldn’t get Judy’s face and all of the things she’d talked about out of his head, and so he let Barry sleep in the bed and he eventually slept on the sofa.

Stephen rose at 9.30am on the morning of Valentine’s Day, and while Barry was still in the Land of Nod, he went to the bank to draw out a hundred quid. He returned at 10.15am, made a full English breakfast and woke a grumpy Barry up. ‘Here’s some plop-plop fizz-fizz, mate,’ Stephen held a tumbler of water with two Alka-Seltzer tablets noisily dissolving in it under Barry’s nose. The groggy Brummie grasped the glass and gulped down the effervescent drink.

After breakfast, they talked of the night before, and Barry said he had a feeling, a hunch, that Tracey could be the girl to turn his life around, and he said he felt a fake telling her he was a security guard when in fact he was nothing but a thief who wasn’t even on benefits – and a wanted thief at that. ‘Do you think I should tell her the truth, Ste? I mean not the part where you showed your clemency and all that, but I mean – about robbing the factory?’

‘I can’t tell you what to do, Barry, but if you do level with her, it might scare her off, and not only that, Judy isn’t daft, and she’ll wonder how you know me, and put two and two together.’

‘True, true; so I have to keep up the pretence?’

‘Barry, you need to find a mundane nine till five job like the rest of the human race, because this girl you’re with now – she’s decent – and decent people are hard to come by in this world today, believe me. You’re going to be looking over your shoulder all the time though, and I don’t know how you’re going to cope with that.’

‘Looking over me shoulder?’ Barry wondered what he meant, then realised Stephen was referring to the law.

‘Maybe, if it works out, you and Tracey could move somewhere remote, or maybe the opposite – move into the middle of a metropolis, where you can lose yourself among crowds. I mean, have you told Tracey your full name?’

‘Yeah, but I don’t think she heard it properly in that pub with the jukebox blasting out. Do you think I should change my name?’

‘I can’t even remember your surname but I think it was very distinct wasn’t it?’ Stephen screwed up his eyes trying to recall the surname.

‘Speekilly,’ Barry sighed, and then grinned. ‘I think it’s Irish. My father was from Dublin, and my mum’s from Liverpool.’

‘Barry Johnson suits you better,’ Stephen decided.

‘You think?’

Stephen opened his wallet and handed Barry four five pound notes.

‘I can’t keep taking off you, Ste, I feel like a real ponce,’ Barry pushed his hand away. ‘It’s not my style.’

‘I know I can’t keep giving money mate, but for now, till you get on your feet – Mr Johnson.’

Barry smiled, and closed his eyes, and Stephen placed the four notes in his hand and closed his fingers around them.

At 1.30pm that afternoon, Barry left the flat in Camden Town and embarked on a twenty minute walk to the café in Finsbury to meet Tracey. He needed the walk through the crisp cold February air to clear his mind and put things in perspective.

By 2.15pm that same afternoon, Stephen was sitting in a café in Bloomsbury, waiting for Judy with a bouquet of roses. At precisely 2.30pm, the arranged time, Judy turned up, looking a little worse for wear after last night’s pub crawl to the jazz club. The first thing Stephen asked was: ‘Was Toby okay?’

Judy grinned and nodded. ‘Yes, and Barry was right, he was asleep when I got home.’

Stephen handed the. bouquet to Judy.

‘Oh, they’re lovely,thankyou,’ she said, and Stephen could tell she meant it.

They sat facing one another at a little table, and they talked and talked in a much quieter environment than the boozers of last night, and Judy came clean about her age: she was forty.

‘You don’t look it,’ Stephen said, taken aback by the confession.

‘I feel twice that age some days when I come home,’ Judy quipped, and the waitress appeared and said the roses looked lovely.

Stephen poured his heart out, and told Judy how much he had enjoyed her company last night, and he she asked him if he had ever married and Stephen said he hadn’t, and had only had two serious girlfriends in his life. Judy hadn’t been with anyone for seven years. She had never been wed, she told him with a grin which had sadness lurking under its veneer.

‘How come you never married?’ Stephen asked, and he was not soft-soaping her.

‘No one ever proposed,’ was her simple answer. She told Stephen how she had spent a lot of her life wallowing over the fact that she could not find anyone, and she seemed near to tears when she admitted that she had kept a diary of the long period of solitude which she had entitled Seven Years Alone. ‘I know that sounds really self-indulgent, but I had madcap ambitions of publishing the diary, but then you came along and spoiled the ending.’

‘I really lo-‘ Stephen began, but then his words became a whisper, and trailed off into nothing.

‘You really what?’

Stephen shook his head, and looked choked-up, and Judy had never seen this in a man before, certainly not a security guard, it went straight against type.

‘Stephen, are you okay?’ she asked, and leaned forward across the table and looked up at him as if she was looking under the peak of a cap.

‘I’m alright, honest,’ Stephen reassured her. ‘Think I’ve just got a bit of a hangover from last night.’

They went shopping after they left the café, and Stephen bought something which really made Judy laugh – a pair of walkie-talkies from an electronic hardware shop. ‘We can keep in touch now when we’re at work,’ Stephen said, smiling, but he was deadly serious.

‘I’ll get into trouble if they catch me rabbiting into that thing,’ Judy told him.

‘Nah, you’ll be alright, you can hide it. I won’t talk to you all the time, only when you give a special signal, a wave or something.’

And this walkie-talkie lark worked for the first three nights, but then the bloke in the white coat that Stephen had seen harassing Judy that time at the window – trainee doctor Mr Bryant – caught Tracey talking to Barry one morning at three and threatened to report her unless she got shut of the transceiver. Judy couldn’t risk jeopardising her job, so she had to comply with Bryant’s wishes.

The relationship between Stephen and Judy went from strength to strength, and on a beautiful spring morning in March, the two of them were walking through Hyde Park, feeding the squirrels with biscuits when Stephen popped the question...

To read the rest of this story and many others, click on the links below to order a Kindle or paperback version of Tom Slemen's Twelve Ghosts of Valentine's Day

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