Phrases In Their Twilight Years
When I went into the kitchen after my Christmas Lunch I heard myself mutter "It looks like the Wreck of the Hesperus." It was an expression I hadn't used for donkey's years but something my mother always said. It's the title of a poem by Longfellow.
This started me thinking about other expressions which my generation got from our parents and grandparents and which will probably soon be extinct. I also wondered where on earth some of them came from.
When my mother or grandmother came home with lots of shopping they often said "Here comes Mrs Brown and her luggage."
It turns out that this was a popular 19th century song sung by, among others, Mr J. Francis of the Mohawk Minstrels. Another expression of my grandmother's which came from the pre-electric age was "My blood ran to lamp oil."
A tea lady at one of my first workplaces used to say "It's Casey's Court in this place." I used to think this came from a children's comic but I now find that 'Casey's Court' (a place with lots of frantic coming and going) was the name of an early 20th century music hall touring act that included lots of children.
Looking like 'The Wild Man of Borneo' was a common expression for anyone who looked dishevelled. It's a name given to the Orang Utans who live in the Borneo rainforest, but has also been used by several stage acts and musicians over the years. It was also the title of a 1941 film with Phil Silvers (Bilko), which may have popularised the phrase with my parents' generation.
Finally, I always liked my aunt's phrase to describe a strong wind: "Enough to blow the feathers off a goose."
When I went into the drawing room the following morning I was surprised to see both Lee and Carlo on the floor wrapped in my Persian rug. I tapped Carlo on the shoulder and as he turned the rug unfurled and they rolled away from each other as though emerging from a giant Christmas cracker. Carlo muttered something about Lee being cold from his escapade on the moat and I tactfully left to make some coffee.
When I returned, Lee and Carlo had gone but Sandy was leaning against the fireplace swigging from a bottle of Fernet Branca.
"Shall I ring Mrs Skidmore and cancel your talk?", I said.
"No, no. Piece of piss, Willie. This stuff will do the trick. Maria Callas used to swear by it."
"I don't recall Maria Callas ever being at lock-ins at the Rod and Mullet. Nor, for that matter, singing hits from the sixties from the middle of the moat."
"So sorry, old boy. That Leo's a nice chap but he can't hold his drink."
"Whatever", said Sandy, showing both that instant grasp of the native vernacular and the ability to blame someone else that had advanced his career in the Foreign Office.
Lee took the television and video player to the village hall in the garage truck, on the pretext of being called out to a flat battery. I followed on foot, feeling I should be there for moral support.
"Are you sure you're well enough to do this?", I said to Sandy as we had a last cigarette outside the hall.
"For Christ sake, Willie, it's only the Women's fucking Institute."
"Never underestimate that monstrous regiment of women", I said. "Look what happened to Tony Blair at the W.I. He got the slow handclap."
"But Tony Blair's a wanker."
"Exactly. That's what worries me."
I sat at the back of the hall with Lee, which was probably a mistake. I heard one old crone with a moustache like Freddie Mercury say "Is that another boy he's got living with him?", in a tone full of malicious innuendo.
Before his talk, Sandy was asked to draw the raffle. The third ticket he drew was his own which he'd paid for with a 20 Piso note, having spent all his sterling currency in the Rod and Mullet.
"No, no, I couldn't possibly", he said, which probably had less to do with honour than the sight of the packet of Mr Kipling mince pies that Mrs Skidmore was pressing into his hand.
"Before I tell you about my work in the Philippines, I'm going to show you a short video about daily life there", Sandy began. "Carlo, roll the VT, as they in television!" Sandy laughed. Nobody else did.
Carlo inserted the cassette and pressed Play. A small jungle clearing appeared on the screen with people sitting round a camp fire. There followed a disjointed sequence of clips of Brian Harvey - washing in the stream, eating fly-covered pies and farting at Janet Street-Porter. Carlo had brought the wrong tape. It was his recording of 'I'm A Celebrity.....' The ladies looked baffled. Then Ant and Dec appeared and there was a murmur of approval.
"Have you met Ant and Dec?" shouted one lady to Sandy.
"Dickhead", shouted Lee at Carlo.
"Bit of a cock up on the video front", said Sandy. "So sorry, ladies. I'll just have to paint a picture for you in words. Close your eyes and you could almost be there."
I groaned. As I knew from personal experience, these ladies needed no encouragement to close their eyes. Two of them in the second row had nodded off halfway through the raffle. Another ten minutes and it would turn into a geriatric sleepover.
I got up to go and have a cigarette. As I was leaving the hall, a small, obese woman approached me. She was wearing a pale pink sweater and black slacks. Actually, there was nothing slack about her trousers. They clung to her legs like clingfilm. Even before she spoke, I somehow knew that this was Lee's mother.
"Mr Lupin, is Lee in there?" she said, "I saw the truck outside. He could pick my shopping up from the Co-op."
Before I could reply, Arthur from the garage came running in.
"Is Lee in there?" he said but didn't wait for an answer. He stormed straight into the hall where Lee was lying across two wooden chairs.
"Get your arse back in that garage, you lazy little shit", he shouted.
Those members of the audience who were still awake and who had sufficient mobility to make 190 degree turns, swivelled round to face the back of the hall.
Sandy, like an old comic playing a midweek matinee at the Glasgow Empire, gritted his teeth and ploughed on: "Ferdinand Marcos was forced into exile in 1986......"
"Don't you swear at my son", said Lee's mother.
"He was just helping Sandy set up his equipment", I said.
"Sandy?" said Lee's mother. "Sandy!" and she ran down the aisle towards the stage. "You should be ashamed of yourself! Getting a young boy rat-arsed."
"Leave it, Mum. Stop showing me up", said Lee.
"With the greatest respect", said Sandy, "I think your justifiable anger would be better directed at public houses who serve drinks after hours. And a hefty Christmas bonus will always be a temptation to a young chap like Leo."
"Christmas bonus, my arse. That was our fucking turkey money."
The audience leaned towards the side aisle. There was a multi-tonal whistling sound, like the Dagenham Girl Pipers tuning up, as hearing aids were adjusted.
Lee's mother turned towards me. "I've no argument with you, Mr Lupin. You've always been very good to our Lee. He looks up to you like a father."
She returned to the back of the hall and said to Arthur "Can we give you a lift back to the garage? We're going that way to pick up our shopping."
I thought Arthur was going to explode.
Back on the stage, Mrs Skidmore was saying "I'm sure we'd all like to thank Mr Mannington-Preen for a lovely afternoon. It's been...........unforgettable."
I heard someone say: "Disgraceful! Ant and Dec would never say arse."
Then the old bat with the facial hair turned round and said to me "You're a dark horse. I never knew you were Lee's father."
Before I could disabuse her of this shocking idea, Mrs Skidmore's daughter Jonquil launched a full-scale attack on the ancient piano.
As we sang Jerusalem, Carlo came and stood next to me and whispered "I'm sorry."
I will not cease from mental fight
As Blake's words ended, I turned and wiped a tear from my eye. I saw Lee standing behind us.
"That sucks", he said.