Never Ripe Short Stories & Rhythmic Writings
John Owen Smith

Cover of Never Ripe ISBN 1-873855-37-0

Twenty-four pieces in 100 pages

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Paperback - 100 pages
John Owen Smith; ISBN: 1-873855-37-0; March 2002


Back Cover . Contents . Excerpts . About the Author . About the Publisher . Further information . Audio version


Back Cover

You want to buy this book.
What makes you think that?
Well, you've got as far as reading the back cover.
So?
So, you read. That's a good start.
Hmm. I think I'll put you back on the shelf.
No, please don't do that. Buy me instead!
Give me a good reason and you've got five seconds.
Because you enjoy a good read.
Four.
Because I'm very reasonably priced.
Three.
Because you like the cover picture.
Wrong. Two.
Because the title intrigues you.
One.
Becauselet's face ityou've managed to read this far, and now you'd like to know if the inside's as good.
Oh, just this once then. But don't try to pull this chatty-cover lark on me again.
I won't, I promise. Now, the cash desk is just over there

Contents

 1. Serried Rows
 2. Gael Force
 3. Down the Tubes
 4. Spotter Jack
 5. Batting Safe
 6. Away from the Coast
 7. Juno Beach and Beyond
 8. Winding Point
 9. Crime Doesn't Pay
10. Wild Dogs
11. Deep Wells
12. The Alice Effect
13. The Beautiful Game
14. That's what Friends are for
15. Ghost in the Machine
16. Jobsworth
17. Sweet Fanny Adams
18. The Fifth Mary
19. Marzipal
20. Slim Jim
21. Sylvie
22. Presume Nothing
23. Twelfth Night - Act VI
24. I Survived in Grayshott

Excerpts

Serried Rows

How best should I, whose only weapon's wit,
Confront the challenge of these changing days?
Beneath the thin veneer of culture's skin
Lie deep unyielding roots and custom'd ways.
I'll use what sense I have to understand,
Within the province of my nature's skills,
Such base dynamics bred into the bone
As manifest themselves in stubborn wills.
Though never ripe, my fruit must now be picked;
My thoughts, transferred through keyboard into prose,
Must advertise themselves for your delight
Like plums on mongers' stalls in serried rows.
And who can tell what treasures you might find
Inside such fruit, to fill the eager mind?

Winding Point

I'd done it without thinking. As soon as I read that note on the table, I'd run for cover. Spontaneous reaction. Familiar territory—my territory—and all the seclusion I needed.

And I did need seclusion. No nosy neighbours to offer me their ritual sympathy in return for the chance of some juicy gossip. Sheila was gone—how should I react? Funny. Even at that moment, I was more concerned about how I should look to the outside world than how I should cope without her. Pride, I suppose, plus a typical Englishman's reserve.

Burbage was on the water at her summer moorings. Three hours later I was at her helm, weekend case stowed below, and the sedge grass dipping and rising to my passage down the cut. With the throttle at tickover, life slowed down to a walking pace. Time to ponder. Time to think of an answer. Time to…

Four miles an hour is not fast, but bends and blind bridges can come upon you suddenly on a canal. Though I knew this stretch well, my mind was elsewhere, and the prow appearing through the narrow brick arch ahead caught me unawares. I threw the engine hard into reverse, and predictably began to veer across the channel. When the other helmsman caught sight of me some five seconds later, I was pretty well touching both banks at once.

Burbage is made of quarter-inch steel plate up to cabin level, reinforced with steel rubbing bars fore and aft. She is designed for a rough life, and canal work is never a contact-free operation. But to have her struck amidships with a similarly solid bow and the momentum of seventy-two feet of steel plate behind it—this was not something I wished to witness, far less participate in. Dear reader, at that moment I prayed—and the God of travellers and fishermen, or whoever was on duty that day, saw to it that the smallest of gaps opened up between Burbage and the bank. The oncoming boat found its way through this and did a slow motion 'wall of death' climb onto the muddy shallows. There was much revving of engine and levering with barge-poles until it slid slowly back into the deeper water behind me and carried on its way, leaving the water brown and turbulent with excitement. And not a word was spoken between the crews.

This, I reflected, was the aspect of canal boating not mentioned in the brochures. Lose concentration at the helm, and four miles an hour seems like seventy. Perhaps that was why Sheila would never… I stopped short in my thoughts. Sheila.

What had the note said? In my rush to be away I'd left it behind. 'Arrogant' was a word that sprang to mind. She found me arrogant. Me. That was the last thing I was. What about her—always wanting her own way? Where did we go on holidays?—where she wanted. Where did we go to eat?—where she wanted. Where did we…? Well, yes, that too—where and when she wanted. How come it was me that was arrogant then?

'Uncaring' too. Same thing, I suppose. Arrogant means uncaring, doesn't it? Well, near as. 'Arrogant and uncaring.' Doesn't that simply mean I like to get my own way from time to time? Don't we all? We can't all be 'arrogant and uncaring' just because we like to have it our own way on occasions. Must be more to it than that.

The fishermen lining the bank raised their rods one after the other in sullen salute as Burbage passed by, then re-baited the water and cast again until the next uncaring boater might arrive to spoil their idyll. We were sharing the same water, both with the best of motives, but each with different objectives. Rather like life in general, really. Relationships—partnerships—differences of opinion—compromise—tolerance. Sheila….

I found myself returning quickly to the 'here and now' as the first lock appeared round a bend in the distance, white balance beams reflected in still water, and a cluster of craft moored along the towpath below. It says something about my state of mind. Experienced canal-user that I was, I hadn't thought of the problem of locking single-handed until then. 'Jump on the boat, run it up and down the canal a bit until I feel I've sorted myself out, then go back home'—if I'd had a plan at all, that would just about express it. A solitary coming to terms with… whatever it was that had to be come to terms with. But operating a lock was different—it had always been a joint effort.

As we'd approach, perhaps from a quarter of a mile or so away, Sheila would jump on shore with the handle and run ahead to prepare the chamber. I always tried to slow the boat down so I could steer straight in through the open gates without mooring. She'd close the gates behind me and open up the sluices, while I played around with the engine to keep Burbage clear of sills and ledges until the water found its new level. Then as gates opened in front of me, I'd emerge slowly for her to jump on board again, and we'd head off towards pastures new, and probably thoughts of lunch at the next pub.

I was quarter of a mile away now, and no Sheila. I tried to remember where I'd put the mooring spikes and malletit would be just my luck to find no rings on the bank here—and I hoped I'd stowed the ropes neatly enough to be able to get at them quickly. There was a breeze blowing off the towpath shore too, and I'd rather not end up with Burbage wedged across the cut again.

It was a long three minutes. The black gate came nearer and I began to search for a space to pull in. There was less room than I'd have liked, and in the end I had to make do with a gap between two moored boats where the towpath had fallen away. Slowly I edged the nose to the bank, then pushed the tiller hard over to bring the stern in. Nothing doing. It was obvious now why nobody else was there—too shallow. I'd have to try again further up. Select reverse. Still nothing doingI was stuck.

Now the art of using the proverbial ten-foot barge-pole to lever a boat off mud is not too difficult, provided you have a firm footing on the boat and a reasonably solid bank on which to push. I had both of these, and with a only modicum of grinding Burbage began to move sideways into deeper water. Unfortunately, this happened to coincide with the sudden opening of the lock gate sluices for a boat coming down, and before I knew it I was effectively white-water rafting across the canal at an unseemly rate.

My first thought was to get back to the controls with all speed, my second was to wish goodbye to the barge pole as it dropped into the maelstrom in my haste, and my third was to curse my mobile phone for starting to ring now of all times. The sound of china smashing in the galley below indicated that we had made the equivalent of an emergency stopin this case against the opposite bank. I had braced myself, but even so found one or other of Newton's laws was determined to demonstrate itself by hurling me into the water.

The phone was still chirruping as I waded round the hull of the now beached Burbage, up to my waist in green slime and puddle clay, and dragged myself up through a crop of luxuriant nettles to lie on the dry earth beyond. I reached in my jacket to see who was calling. As I did so, the cause of my predicament emerged from the lock. I answered the phone just as the name of the boat came into view—Sheila.

"Pardon?"

"It's Sheila. Look—I said I'm sorry."

"You're…"

"Will you be coming home now?"

It so happened that the point on the canal where I'd been washed up was wide enough to turn a boat the length of Burbage—a winding point in fact. I stretched out on my back and suddenly the world was wonderful.

"Yes, I'm coming home just as fast as Burbage can make base."

"Burbage? You're on Burbage?"

I'd forgotten, of course, that she hadn't known where in the world I was. "Well not exactly on her at the moment, but we're by the first lock and…"

"Don't move then—I'm coming to you!"

So she came to me, at the winding point. And later that evening, at a more isolated mooring, Burbage rocked to the gentle rhythm of reconciliation.

And you want a moral to this story? Sorry—apparently I'm still too uncaring and arrogant to be interested. Go fish for a ten-foot barge-pole!

Shortlisted by 'Writers News', April 1997

The Beautiful Game

The way I see it,
Brian,
at the end of the day,
Life's a game of two halves.
First you go out there all fresh,
eager to make your mark,
please the crowd,
show off your ball skills—know what I mean?
Get stuck into the opposition,
score with a few,
try not to pick up too many yellow cards.
Then comes the turn-round—half time—
married,
get a lecture from the boss
on tactics, and especially
ball control.
Second half—different game—
you've one or two in the net yourself,
so no more thoughts of scoring now,
don't argue with the ref,
protect your goal,
and keep that work-rate up.
You've got to feed the others,
move the action up to them—
it's their turn now
to try and sneak one in.
And at the final whistle,
when you leave that pitch,
Brian,
you hope the manager has seen enough
to keep your name on his list
and pick you for the team next week.
You know what I mean?
It's a funny old game, Life.

First published in 'Weyfarers', Issue 76, 1996

Slim Jim

That photo? It's of me, before I met Millie. You'd bet how much? Don't, you'd lose it. Listen—if you've got a moment I'll tell you the story. It was Millie that did it to me—her with legs like Twiglets and a figure like a tube of Smarties, as we used to say. And one day there she was.

I hardly knew her name—she was just one of the girls who seemed to hang around in the village at the time—but she came up to me there in the street, bold as you like, and asked if I was coming for a work-out. You what? I said. To the aerobics along with me mates, she said, looks like you could do with it. Someone had put her up to it, that's for sure—I never did find out who. You must be joking, I said. I wasn't going to go showing my body off in front of that lot. You could have hidden the whole giggling bunch of them behind a few bamboo poles, and I told her so.

Very funny I don't think, she says—what you need, Jim Jones, is some self-denial.

Now I know I'm not the smartest pig in the pen, but this self-denial bit wasn't anything they'd taught us at school—or if it was, I hadn't been listening at the time. What's that? I said. It's thinking about what you'd like to do and then not doing it, she said. Doesn't sound like much fun, I said. It's not supposed to be, she said, but it makes you feel good. Unlikely, I thought. But there's no arguing with some people—they'll always manage to get the last word in. So off she flounced with her gang of matchstick friends, and I thought that was the end of it.
Funny, I didn't think of myself as fat then—a bit horizontally challenged perhaps. That's what they call it these days, isn't it? And I felt I ought to get sympathy for that, not stick, if you'll pardon the pun. Also, this self-denial didn't seem to be my scene somehow. But as it happened, I did get the chance to try it out that very afternoon—self-denial I mean.

It was like this. I used to drink down the Fox and Pelican at lunchtimes, and I'm just on my way there when I see old widow Hunt coming up the road towards me. Now she's been asking me to do this job for her for, oh for months now—and fair enough, a bloke's got to make a living, but mending her fence isn't my idea of an easy earner, particularly when she owns the biggest Alsatian dog around and lets him run loose in the garden. She's also a stickler for having a job done properly—it might be adequate, but it's not good enough for me—that's her favourite expression, and I'd heard it more times than I cared to remember.

Anyway there I am, wondering which way to turn to miss her, when round the corner comes Scraper—that's 'Skyscraper' Jeffs, all six foot six of him and skinny as an eel. Bingo, says I to myself—I need the money as much as he does, but let's try a bit of self-denial. How does it go?: I think I'd like to earn money—in fact I know I'd like to earn money—but today I shall resist the temptation and let Scraper earn the money. Millie was right—just thinking about it made me feel good.

So I let him catch up with me, and all the time there's Mrs Hunt bearing down on us. Scraper, says I, it's your lucky day—and I explain to him the best bits of the job she wants doing. What's in it for you, says he, suspicious as ever. Got too much on already, says I. Truthful, I thought, if you took Millie's view of me. He's still not sure though, even when Mrs H arrives, but I make a quick sales pitch on his behalf, and he gets given the job then and there. What a prince, I think to myself feeling a bit of pride in what I'd done. But then it dawns on me that the job he's got isn't the one I wanted to lose.

You'll manage it easily enough being so tall Mr Jeffs, she tells him, and it needs a slim man to get into the space there. She's given him an indoor job, fixing pesky cupboard shelves in an attic, the lucky bleeder. Then she turns to me. Don't feel neglected Mr Jones, there's still the garden fence to be mended.

The fence again! It's November, it's cold, it's wet, and it starts to get dark before a man's had a chance to put down a couple of decent lunchtime pints and finish his game of darts. Why me? Why can't I get the warm, dry, cushy jobs? There ought to be a law against it, I thought—it's discrimination. I mutter a 'thank you' between my teeth and tell her I'll start some time round about the middle of next week. Got a lot on at the moment, I say. She throws me a glance that would have frozen the equator, and moves on up the road without saying another word. Scraper offers to buy the first round at the Fox. So he ought. Some consolation, says I.

But on the way there, who do we meet but Millie and her friends coming back from their class. She gives me another holier-than-thou look, just like Mrs H did. Not going in for more beer are you? she says. What if I am, says I. One of these days you'll not get out of the door again, she says—you'll get stuck like Pooh Bear. It was my turn to say, very funny I don't think. But she went on: they had to starve him for days to get him out—now if only he'd been doing his aerobics…

She's nothing if not persistent, I had to give her that. OK, I get the message, says I. And I did too, but it wasn't so much her nagging, it was more losing that indoor job to Scraper Jeffs. So next week, I find myself down the village hall in my old shorts and singlet, doing musical step-ups surrounded by bean-poles dressed in flashy leotards. I'm the only bloke there—and feeling a right Walter, I can tell you. But with Millie behind me, and the Dragon in front screaming orders like some demented drill sergeant, there wasn't much chance of escaping once I was in.

How did it go, Scraper asked me next day. Bloody shattering mate, I said. So you won't be going again then, he said. And he had a grin so wide I swear you could see which of his teeth were real and which weren't. Not if you paid me, I said—and thought I meant it. We said 'Cheers,' and I remember the beer tasted exceptionally good that day.

So how come I found myself at it again the following week? And the week after that. Millie had this theory that there was a skinny person inside me fighting to get out. Didn't see him on my last X-ray, says I. That's not what I meant and you know it, says she. She tells me about Nigel Lawson—and if he can do it so can you, she says. That didn't mean a lot to me at the time, but she explained. Apparently he slimmed so successfully that he didn't need a front-door key any more—he just slid in through the key-hole!

Well anyway, that's what I told Scraper when we met in the Fox next day. Couldn't stop him laughing, not till I mentioned it was his round and mine was a soda and bitters thank you. Soda & bitter? says he. Is that like a bitter shandy? No, I said, it's some drops of red stuff in a glass of soda water. Looks like dentist's mouthwash and doesn't taste much better. Why drink it then? he says. Because I'm blowed if I'm going to flog my guts out doing physical jerks one day and then undo it all drinking beer the next, says I. Well at that he gives me another one of his big cheesy grins. Got you then has she? he says. No she has not—it's my choice, says I. And at the time I still thought it was.

Mrs Hunt noticed though. A few weeks later she was watching me struggle into her garden with a six-foot square fencing panel. My, Mr Jones, you're looking fitter these days, she said. I grunted something tactful in reply. It's that young lady of yours, she said, getting you in trim at last. Lady of mine? I'm young, free and single, I said, and intend to remain so. I see, says she, but for how long I wonder? And off she goes into the house to make a pot of tea, leaving me wondering too.

Well we've been married a few years now, Millie and me. She's not such a skinny waif these days of course—a couple of kids have seen to that—but she can still show the younger girls a thing or two in the training gym we run. Yes, we run. You're talking to Mr Fitness himself now—well, you can see that can't you. So if I book you in on this course you're asking about, you'd better watch it. I'll guarantee you'll come out slimmer, but I can't promise you'll come out single.

First published in 'Writers News', March 1997

I Survived in Grayshott

I'm sure we all know at least one place where the Highway Code seems to be a foreign document.
Grayshott is a lovely place, but…

I've travelled over all this sceptred isle
From John o' Groats to Lands End, and the way's not
Notable for trouble or delay
Unless, that is, you're coming back through Grayshott.

When driving homeward, mile on solid mile
From Lord knows where, I find the thing I pray's not,
"Let there be no freezing rain today",
But, "Let there be no silly bods in Grayshott".

Grayshott grew from gorse and heather,
Snug by Hindhead and built for humanity;
Yet it somehow altogether
Lacks a sense of Highway Code sanity.

So, stuck in jams or crawling single file
Through contraflows near Leeds, I know my day's not
Reached its nadir till I've joined the fray
To drive the last frustrating mile through Grayshott.

Then, safely home, in celebration I'll
Consume a calming toast; and though today's not
Likely to be famed in any other way,
To me it's something—I survived in Grayshott!


Audio Version

Some of the stories and verses in this book have been recorded, and are available from Tell You a Tale


About the Author/Publisher

John Owen Smith was born in 1942 and trained as a Chemical Engineer at London University, but spent most of his working life designing commercial Information Systems for the paper-making industry. Following redundancy, he 'fell' into researching and recording the local history of east Hampshire, where he now lives. His own output of historical community plays, lectures, articles and books includes:

The pieces included in Never Ripe were written over a period of twelve years or so, and come from a variety of inspirations. The majority are short stories written for recreation and entered in competitions run by Writers News magazine. One (Jobsworth) is adapted from the first in a series of six radio plays written by the author about the mythical life of a caretaker. Marzipal is an outrageous fiction from a mundane real-life event. And others entries are verses written at different times and on various themes.


Please feel free to contact me if you would like to share information on the contents of this book. See address details on Home Page