John Palooka saw a man in a chip shop, pouring vinegar over curry and chips and stopped.
He stared into the window, which steamed up. The man inside was short and fat with blue overalls, ginger hair and a bright red face. He looked very happy with his chips.
He looked round upon hearing a tapping at the window. He saw a youngish-looking plump figure wearing a white shell suit with a broad gold chain around his neck, smiling oafishly at him and gesturing for him to wipe away the condensation so that he could peer in properly.
“Does he know you?” asked the assistant. She had bright auburn hair under a white cap.
He didn't have time to answer, for the fellow came barging in.
“Hey, mister, that looks tasty. 'Gis a chip!” he shouted.
“Buy some!” the workman shouted back, turning toward the assistant, who turned away.
“I think I will. A carton of chips, please,” said the buffoon. “A carton of chips, please. I'm John Palooka. Pleased to meet you.” He extended his hand to the workman, who just carried on eating.
The woman behind the shiny counter turned to him with, “ We don't do chips”.
“Then what's he eating?”
“Curry and chips,” she said, at last, giving him a stare as though he were stupid.
“I just want the chips,” said John.
“You want the chips without the curry?” she said at last.
“That's one curry and chips without the curry?” she asked.
“Yes. Just chips.”
“We don't do just chips, but you can have curry and chips, without the curry if you like.”
“Okay, then. I'll have that. I'm starving,” he smiled toothlessly, patting his pot belly.
Just then, a woman in a raincoat and white beehive hair appeared in the doorway, looking disgruntled.
“There you are! Where did you get to? I just looked at something in a shop and when I turned round, you'd gone.”
“I'm having chips, Ma.”
“No, you're not! The concert is in fifteen minutes. We won't get in if we're late.” Him offering little resistance, she dragged him out of the shop.
“But Ma, I don't like opera. I'd rather go to a pop concert. Can I just stay here and have some chips?”
“Not a chance! You're coming with me. I'm going to get you cultured if it's the last thing I do! I'm not having them calling you a dunce.”
The workman shrugged to the assistant. “I guess I'll have his chips, Brenda,” he told her when John had left.
She shrugged. “We've just got curry and chips, but we've run out of chips. Do you just want curry?”
“Aye, that'll do,” he said, shrugging. “The curry and chips is a bit dry on its own.”
John and his mother settled in the front row, at John's insistence, of the main concert hall. He was the youngest there, the rest being around his mother's age and over.
John turned to his mother. “Where are their instruments?”
“It's not that kind of a concert,” she replied, trying to hang her long raincoat over the back of the short chair she was sitting on, but it draped over the knees of the woman behind her.
The lights were dimmed, instilling a reverent hush as the velvet curtain lifted, revealing beautifully subtly illuminated crimson plush, but just a bare black stage.
All there was in front was a banner reading, “Swirl Radio” with a black ball beside it.
“What's that?” asked John, too loudly.
At that moment a tall man with a lantern jaw dressed entirely in black walked onto the stage, carrying a black balloon in one hand and an orange balloon in the other by bits of string.
“That's the famous poet, Flanahan O'Flaherty,” whispered his mother. “He's doing the prelude.”
She wished she'd never met John's dad.
“Who? Never heard of him.”
He began to twirl round on the stage, dragging the balloons with him.
“The colours swirl,
“The colours of Swirl,
“Black and orange will invite,
“Orange the sunset,
“Black is the night.
“A broken zip cannot be mended,
“Though Mr. Rahman is far,
“He speaks to us from a yellow jar.”
“He's making it up as he goes along,” whispered John.
Like a magician, he stopped swirling and came to a halt, letting go of the balloons before pulling out of his pocket a yellow jar.
“Orange and black go,
“Yellow is in.”
He waved the jar, then unscrewed the cap, then began to sniff it.
A mobile phone rang and he froze, pointing an accusing finger towards his mouth.
It came from the stage. It just kept ringing and ringing.
O'Flaherty walked off the stage. Still the phone kept ringing.
John looked at his mother. “Should I answer it?” he asked her.
She grabbed hold of his arm. “Don't you dare! I hope you've remembered to switch off yours.”
“If he can have his ringing, why can't I?”
“Because he's a world famous poet, that's why!” came the rapport. “Besides, it's all part of the act and it's going out live on Swirl Radio.”
John just smiled docilely.
After a while, O'Flaherty returned to the stage carrying an old-fashioned wooden chair, which he put centre stage and sat on. He took out a pen knife and stuck it into one of the legs of the chair. The phone stopped ringing.
“What is the answer?” he said, before and after a silence long enough to cause the audience to realize it was profound enough to warrant applause.
“What's the question?” John shouted out.
Ignoring him with a frown, O'Flaherty went on: “Now I wonder why no one answered it? It could have been anybody, even an emergency, but now we'll never know, as nobody took the trouble to find out.” He raised a eyebrow and paused significantly at the audience. “Still, I can tell you it was my good friend Kermit Mc.Dermott. He'll ring back.”
“Kermit Mc.Dermott's been the poet laureate at Swirl for the past ten years,” John's mother impressed him with a nudge.
“Has he? Then his friend should have spoken to him.”
“Let's just see if he rings back,” said O'Flaherty.
They waited for a couple of minutes. Each second ticked by in expectant silence. The only sounds were the odd cough and shuffling. There were the usual throat-clearers, of course, who just wanted to be heard on the radio.
All this time, John was intently examining the shoe of Flanahan O'Flaherty that was crossed over his leg, hanging like lazy ripe fruit. It was broad and flat like him. He could make out every groove in the moulded black plastic sole. It was hypnotizing him.
That shoe would be worth something, he thought, belonging to someone as famous as it did. He bet it was worth even more than the most expensive trainers. It was attached to something that was being heard by several million people. The shoe was famous. He wanted it.
At that moment, the phone started ringing again. O'Flaherty was ready to launch into his next cue. He wasn't much to look at. He saw dozens of shabby old men like him every day in the library reading the papers to keep warm. So what was so special about him?
“Someone answer it,” O'Flaherty said.
Seizing the moment, John launched forward. He jumped up onto the stage, but there was no phone there.
O'Flaherty was just beginning to look smug, when John dove at his foot, grabbing hold of his shoe, biting at it like a mad dog as O'Flaherty tried to grab hold of it and both men rolled onto the floor of the stage. After a brief tussle, John yanked it off his foot and ran back stage with it, through a fire exit and out. He heard the audience clapping wildly, thinking it was part of the act.
He ran back down the High Street to the chip shop, which was by this time full of football supporters coming from the match. He ran into them, screaming, “I've got O'Flaherty's shoe. Does anybody want to buy it?”
Several of them looked nonplussed. “What's he saying?” they asked one another.
“He says he's got O'Finnegan's shoe and want to know if we'll buy it off him.”
“Tell him we'll buy O'Finnegan's boot witout O'Finnegan but only witout him and nobody else,” shouted an Irishman in thick drunken brogue.
Just then, John's mother could be heard screaming to someone at the chip shop door: “I've told you no and that's that. Now please leave me alone. No son of mine is going to show himself up on the Jeremy Kyle Show, hotel or not.”
John's ears pricked up at that.
You're at the bottom!