Portsmouth Short Story competition winner: More than a lark! by Dave Flint

On Thursday 11th February 2016 Portsmouth BookFest launch event announced the winner of the first Portsmouth Short Story Competition. We were delighted to announce that Dave Flint’s story ‘More than a lark!’ was the winner. The competition was launched in August 2015 and invited writers aged 16+ with a PO1-PO6 postcode to submit a story of up to 4,000 words on the theme of Portsmouth . We received some wonderful stories of high quality. Dave’s story looks back to Portsmouth’s history with a tale about mudlarkers that has a gripping climax. It is reproduced here for all to enjoy!

More than a lark!

          ‘Come on Toffee.’ I shout watching the horse win at fifty-to-one as the telly commentator explodes with enthusiasm with the result. Toffee, now there’s a name I haven’t heard of in years. If I’d known it was running I would have probably had a bet.

    I hit the remote and switch the screen off and struggling up from the armchair, I walk out into the communal garden where the boys are. Boys I think and chuckle to myself, I’m seventy eight and they’re a bit older than me. I push the door open and hold it with my walking stick until I know I’m through, and there dozing in their comfortable chairs out of the afternoon sun, are my old mates.

    Crossing towards them I give Mick a prod in the shoulder with my stick as he lay there with his eyes shut, dribbling down his chin. ‘Wake up you old fool, I’ve got something to tell you.’ He opens his rheumy eyes and looks at me.

    ‘What’s up Johnny?’

    ‘I’ll tell you in a minute, let me wake Stan first.’ I walk around him to the smartly dressed individual with a trilby placed over his face, laid out on a garden-chair beside him. ‘Are you still with us Stan?’

    Suddenly a blast of wind whistles from his trousers and one eye opens as he lifts his hat from his face.

    ‘I’m none too sure after that.’ He chuckles to himself.

    Mick leans away from him, ‘you dirty bugger,’ and waves a newspaper at him.

    I find myself another chair and sit down with them. ‘Guess what I just heard on the telly, they’re racing at Kempton today and one of the winner’s was a horse called Toffee.’

    Mick sat up wiping his sore eyes in his handkerchief. ‘Blimey Johnny, I’ve not heard that name for some time.’

    Placing his hat back on his head Stan sits up. ‘Now there’s a name we won’t forget, sweet toothed Toffee Maguire, was he a wild one or what?’

    Putting our heads together, we recall the old days in Portsea trying to make a few bob, and calling out to the punters down at the harbour in all kinds of weather.

    Mick picks up Stan’s drink and takes a sip much to his annoyance. Then I say to them. ‘Remember the summer of forty-five?’

   Both Stan and Mick nod their heads thinking back as I continue.

    ‘We were always being chucked out in the holidays to earn some extra money.’

    Mick smiled and spoke. ‘And Toffee Maguire was caught kissing Nelly Dillon behind the lav with his hand inside her dress.’

    Stan let another ripper off and chuckled to himself again. ‘Sorry, I’ve told them not to give me that chilli-con-carne stuff for dinner.’ Then he settled back in the chair again.

    Mick threw the newspaper at him. ‘Are you going to keep that up or what? That’s horrible!’

    ‘It’s not my fault. They insist on giving it to me.’

    ‘You’re like a couple of kids at times, now listen.’ I begin again. ‘Toffee was behind the lav with big Nelly when her old man came looking for her – I can see it now – we were up on the roof opposite looking in the wholesalers yard for anything we could have, when she screamed as her old man came past and poor old Toffee got the biggest clump we ever saw. Then he ran up that lav wall like a rat in a fix with Nelly’s old man threatening him and warning him off.’

    We all laughed at the thought of it as Toffee ran across those roofs straight towards us, slipping and sliding across the unstable out-buildings.

    Mick wiped a tear away. ‘And then the roof he was stood on collapsed under him, and he landed on top of the wholesaler’s missus who was doing something she shouldn’t with the grocer boy from next door, and all hell let loose when her old man came out his door to see what the noise was and found them.’

    Stan slapped Mick on the shoulder as he doubled up in fits and continued his version. ‘And then Toffee did a scamper up the wall again and we pulled him over. If anything was going to happen, Toffee had to be involved.’

    Mick wiped his eyes again and shook his head unable to let go of the vision in his head before carrying on. ‘Poor old Toffee, his old woman hardly fed him you know. He had to look after himself in all manner of ways in that part of the neighbourhood; I know he swiped sugar lumps and sweets from the shop next door, that’s how he got his name.’

    Stan fanned his hat in front of his face trying to cool himself down. ‘It’s a wonder he never got caught at that.’

     Mick agreed. ‘And it’s a good job he had excellent reflexes, especially when he pick-pocketed from some of his old woman’s clients. He told me once that one bloke caught him and chucked him out the window.’

    I looked at Mick in astonishment. ‘I never heard that one, but didn’t he live on the first floor?’

    ‘He did, but he was like a two legged moggy and always landed on his feet.’

    Stan interrupted Mick. ‘The best one I heard was down on the Hard, his old lady was having a couple of pints in the pub with one of her customers when Toffee walked in telling her he was hungry, hoping her bloke would pass him a coin or two.’

    Mick went to take another sip from Stan’s glass but he got there too late and Stan picked it up and glared at him before continuing.

    ‘Well this geezer was a foreigner and didn’t speak a lot of English and he thought Toffee was trying to thieve something seeing he was stood alongside his lady friend – which he would have given a chance – anyway this foreigner lunged across the table at him grabbing him by the collar and lifted him off his feet before taking him outside. Toffee told me this geezer was built like a brick you-know-what and once outside he stuffed him head first into a drain hole after taking the cover off. It took four blokes from the pub to get him out and he was covered in allsorts, and his old lady never knew a thing.’

    I couldn’t believe it as I imagined poor old Toffee struggling like mad upside down in the gutter.

    Suddenly there was a rumpus as two youngsters came through the door into our mist. Stan looked up and watched as these two children about five or six ran around the garden shouting at one another. He stood up on his not too strong legs and called them over. They stopped and looked at him as he spoke to them. ‘Make any more of that noise and I’ll eat the pair of yeh.’ The children stood there another moment before running back inside the building.

    I shook my head. ‘Nice way with kids Stan, like always.’

    ‘We’re in an old folks home for Christ sake, it’s not Billy Manning’s fun-fair?’

    Mick nodded his head with Stan’s answer and watched the two women inside the building with the children stare out at them.

    Stan spoke up as he sat down again. ‘She can take them over to the park if they want to run around and shout at one another.’

    Then the memories came again as the three of us settled down with each of us thinking of Toffee.

    I recalled that day knowing I’ll never forget. It was a Saturday just before half past nine in the morning with the sun blazing and the four of us walked down to the harbour messing around as always and on the lookout for something or other that might be worth borrowing to make a quick profit.

    The tide was nearly out that day and the harbour was busy with people catching ferries either over to the Isle of Wight or across the harbour. There were plenty of matelots about using the bridge and seeing it was summer, ordinary people were beginning to get out and about now that they had a bit more money – or at least some of them were.

    Crossing the road at the end of Queen Street we called out to the Old Bill on the dockyard gate and gave him a bit of banter as he stood there with his pompous poise and pressed uniform, while his beady eyes stayed on us as we larked about. Then Toffee called out. ‘And we love you too sergeant major.’ Before giving him the finger as we ran down under the bridge walk.

    Taking our well worn shoes and tops off – although Toffee ran around in bare feet anyway – we placed them up under the girders out of the way, then tucking our well patched short trousers up as high as possible, we clambered around the mixture of old rowing boats and fishing craft laid there out on the mud.

    I remembered the three of us having a feeling that morning, that the day was going to be different in some way. No particular reason to say why, but we were sure something was going to happen, probably because Toffee was with us.

    Soon we were up to our knees in the thick solidifying mud, as the punters walking above on the bridge looked over as we began calling out. ‘Come on mister chuck us a penny or two, or, over here gov – give us a coin,’ as we squelched about trying to attract attention to ourselves. I can see Toffee’s face now with that cheeky smile and his mischievous ways.

    ‘Mud larking, you’re thinking about that day right?’ Stan looked at me. ‘I can read your face.’

    I looked up at him and nodded before sinking back in thought again.

    We all continued to sit there remembering that morning, with no one interrupting each other as recollections replayed that day’s events.

    As time went backwards, I recalled Toffee being in his element shouting up for someone to throw a coin over the rail and the nearest of us watched as it slid into the mud before digging it out, while unpleasant smells and smacking sounds of the thick mud reverberated around our legs.

    Plunging a hand in looking for the thrown coin, people watched and supported us pointing to where they thought it went in, shouting down and laughing while the others continued to call up encouraging the next punter to throw some more change their way.

    Sometimes we’d get lucky and someone would drop the wrong coin over and shout for us to find it and throw it back, of course we never found that particular coin as it slid into someone’s pocket, mud and all.

    Mick suddenly recalled one of Toffee’s antics that day. ‘Remember that geezer’s trilby when it blew off his bonce and Toffee did a twist in the mud, catching it on his head and everyone cheered and threw the odd three-penny-bit  down and the bloke whose titfer it was gave him a tanner seeing he kept it clean.’

    We all smiled at that one as we continued to reminisce.

    We’d been mud-larking for a good couple of hours that day and the tide had gone right out, so we spaced ourselves out a bit alongside the bridge. I remember Toffee saying he’d go on the outside as he was the lightest and could dip in and out of the mud the easiest that far out.

    We had made a good couple of bob that morning with a couple of decent drops when those toffs came along. Obviously they’d never seen anything like us before clambering around in the mud and they stood there watching the occasional person throw a coin down.

    Then this snotty nosed sort of geezer amongst them looked at us like we were something the tide had washed in, and perhaps we were but we were earning money in our own way, he probably had an easy life looking at him and had never worked or knew what money was like having to be earned. Anyway he decided to be cocky and lifted a two bob piece up and called out, I can see and hear him now.

    ‘This coin is for the one of you who can find it.’ Then he threw it far out into the mud as far as he could near the waters edge. We all saw it go in and knew it was dangerous to go out that far but Toffee being Toffee, decided he was going to make a go of it. Everyone watched him move off and we shouted for him to leave it, but two bob was two bob, and to Toffee that meant not having to worry about filling his belly for a while.

    The three of us just stood there as he crawled and slid over the soft mud. He had to hold onto his pants as the sucking mud tried to pull them off him. We kept calling and calling him but he was so near where the coin went in that we guessed he was going to make it and he did. His hand went down and down until his face was covered in the brown stuff and then with a shout he brought it out lifting it above his head and with a smile that said it all.

    People on the bridge walk cheered with him realising he was going to be all right. We looked up at the git who threw it out that far and gave him a few choice words, then he walked off with his nose in the air. But Toffee was brilliant, he was way out and the tide was starting to come in again as the water edged its way towards him, seeing it, he made his way back by a different route keeping to higher mud deposits and out of the channels and then it happened.

    He stepped onto an unexploded bomb under the mud and somehow triggered it. We all dived into the mud and people on the bridge ducked for cover as the explosion lifted Toffee into the air. Stan got hit by a couple of bits of metal that caught him in the side, but he was OK. Mick and me, we were lucky that day as the blast went away from us otherwise the outcome would have been different. The explosion wasn’t a big one, but it took Toffee away from us.

    I wondered what would have happened to Toffee if things had turned out different that day, but with his luck, I expect he would have ended up in some tangle or another. Then Stan stood up and on his shaky legs, shaking the newspaper and spoke to us as we had all been lost in thought for some time.

    ‘Do you realise if Toffee was with us, it would have been his big day today!’

    Mick looked up at him stood there wobbling a bit. ‘What you talking about?’

    ‘It would have been today, this date seventy years ago when it happened.’

    Then Stan lifted his vest and shirt up exposing the side of his aging body and revealing the half dozen faded scars there.

    ‘I was lucky that day.’ He looked down at one particular scar. ‘See this one?’ he pointed to a little dark indentation, this will always be Toffee’s.’

    We both looked at him wondering what he was going on about, then he took off his hat and fumbling about with the ribbon around it took something out from inside. It was a two bob piece with the kings head on.

    Mick looked at me not believing what Stan was showing us, so I asked. ‘Are you showing us what I think that is?’

    Stan stood there with the coin in his hands. ‘Johnny, Mick, this was Toffee’s that he found that day, it caught me there.’ He fingered the scar again. ‘I’ve had it all the while – it’s his.’

    ‘Why didn’t you ever say anything to us?’

    ‘It was as though he threw it at me that day after what happened, if you knew I had it you’d have wanted to spend it – I couldn’t do that.’

    We both looked at the coin in Stan’s hand knowing he had kept it all these years. I think we both felt a little humble with him doing that. Then one of the carers from the home came out bringing us a cup of tea and telling us we ought to behave ourselves and not be the rascals we used to be. With that remark we all looked at each other with a melancholy smile and raised our cups toasting our old mate: Toffee.