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Microsoft word - malacca wharf extracts.doc
Alfie was transfixed by the Thames flowing past his new little flat.
“ Cheers Guv. That’s the lot then?” The man-with-a-van was done; the
customer’s worldly goods unloaded and he was still parked on double yellow two floors down. But Alfie was too far into his thoughts to notice there had been a question. The driver coughed, licked some blood from his thumb and wiped it on his grubby joggers. He was keen to beat the afternoon rush, back home to Dagenham.
“The spondulicks? Ready with the Sovs?” the driver continued.
Alfie turned and nodded. “Sorry.” He pulled out some bank notes. “Straight
The sweating driver took the notes and caused a smear of claret across her
“Cheers mate. Great view. Hope you enjoy it. Can I use your toilet?”
For someone who needed a stake in the ground, a place with his name on it,
Alfie Stark would soon epitomize the new occupiers of Malacca Wharf. He felt secure for the first time since leaving the army nine uneventful years earlier; his lost years of renting indifferent bolt-holes and unfulfilling jobs. Now nearing forty he was at last a property owner, and planned to stay here longer than he could envisage. So it seemed too with other in-comers; first time buyers unloading the bric-a-brac and relics of student days and bed-sits. Unworthy for the curious was a scarred drop leaf table, gifted by a spinster aunt, a shiny array of new Ikea cutlery, a stained rug, an unreliable battery driven pepper mill, and a host of filled and numbered ex-wine boxes containing little of real value; all of it now secreted behind newly immaculate oak veneered doors.
Within three weeks all the flats were occupied; sixteen souls either filling new
kettles or opening New World wines with a virginal corkscrew.
The year was 2001 and England seemed to be on the rise after a period of
stagnation. Centennial celebrations were long forgotten and the daily rhythm of London life was back to normal. Roads were being dug up in increasing numbers so that Victorian sewers could be replaced, and water and gas companies vied with telecoms and electricity to join in to make the motorists daily commute into the new central congestion charge zone even more depressing. The new average speed had finally sunk below the two miles per hour average and the lowest since the car was invented.
The first rain for months had fallen on Malacca Wharf as Alfie moved in. It
was a small newly built block of flats that the developers had named with a brazen disregard for accuracy. They might just as well have called it Krakatoa. “Who's going to give a damn?” the head of marketing had shrugged. “It just sounds romantic. No
one has the foggiest where Malacca is.” But the small coastal port of Malacca, facing out from Malaysia towards Sumatra , had been silted up for almost a century and was no longer a romantic far away city that exported anything as exotic as nutmegs, cinnamon, rum or ivory to the old warehouses of Wapping.
Post began arriving, scattered across the entrance hall by a lazy temporary
postman. To the inquisitive, the message on a re-addressed card would have been surprising and startling.
Dear Bro’. Dad died last night. Your phone is cut off, hence card. Cremation
at 3.00pm at same place as Mum, Ruby and Nan on Thursday 11th. And don’t
wear that bloody uniform this time. Hope you are well. Pete.
Alfie read and pocketed the cheap epistle, and kicked the remaining post into
a rough heap. The post card had only arrived in the nick of time; it was Thursday already and he would have to put his dark suit in and out of the drycleaners immediately. He stood staring out into the street and thought briefly about his old man, the father whom he had hardly visited in the last five years. Alfie had become a loner by habit but hated being lonely. Coming from a not unusual East End family he grew up with a strong mother, an undemonstrative father and a younger brother who could do no wrong. Not only did young Pete go unpunished when leaving food uneaten he also had Alfie's clothes as hand-me-downs. Alfie even resented him a sweater with holes for elbows and anti-climb paint across the chest. Peter was his mother's joy and knew how to exploit her, while Alfie was his father's first born son, the receiver of a frequent cuffing, once violent enough to make his ear bleed and ring like a Town crier’s bell. Alfie was expected to be a high achiever but left the local school early. Now his long demented father, apart from Pete his last link with the past, had finally gone.
He turned towards the solitary lift and collided with a girl struggling with a
haversack. He leapt into the Cheerful Charlie mode he adopted when confronted by young women.
"Hi! I’m Alfie from upstairs. Me mum always called me Alfie, like Michael
Caine she said. Said when I popped out I was the dead spit. Must’ve been about the time of the movie." He was confiding in a fulsomely built Irish girl now crossing the entrance hall. He held out his hand. She shook her head in confusion.
"Before my time I tink." She inwardly thanked Holy Mother Mary that she
lived on the ground floor and, not ever needing to share the lift, was saved for the fine day when she would get a better offer from a good Catholic boy. But occasionally Alfie didn’t know when he was beaten.
"Wha's it all about. Al.feee.?" erupted from his throat in a strangulated East
Embarrassed, mouth as tight as a gummed envelope, the Colleen nodded and
turned into the short corridor to her flat. While walking away she crossed herself with some vigour.
Undaunted, he took the lift up to his still under-furnished flat and slipped the
key in the lock. Malacca Wharf was his new beginning. There was an excitement in
his heart and the same gut strangling anticipation he had last felt when running with the bulls in Pamplona. CHAPTER TWO Neighbours
Alfie could have been thought a predator, the only male amongst the new
residents who avidly sought out a sexual partner, someone to share his talents with. He had been bruised by two past love affairs and now lacked the self-confidence he had once displayed as a well respected sergeant amongst army comrades. He didn't like pubs, had few male friends and was more comfortable with female company. If alone, he would often lighten up on a bottle of Pino Grigio and a homemade seafood risotto. Of course he knew he had attributes that eligible women would find appealing. They would be impressed by his fondness for cooking, and he didn't regard his fixation to keep everything tidy and in a designated place a trait any woman would fault. His wardrobe was colour co-ordinated, his shoes never scuffed, his socks paired and rolled, and his underwear ironed. No, he just knew he was endowed with the very things that would please any lady, physically and verbally. He was well read, knowledgeable of world affairs, could quote extensively from old BBC comedy repeats on Radio 7, and had an extensive and eclectic taste in World Music. He even had subscriptions to The Spectator, The Week, and Antiques World.
Although Alfie could pass for damned good looking, he knew it. He could be
suave and entertaining, and really did appreciate good food. But not all his past enamorata had liked his stuffed hearts, chitterlings, succulent oxtails, or pig's trotters. His problem, so he thought, was that in the past he had had the misfortune to meet mostly stupid and unworldly women. Perhaps he was the least likely to realise that he was also loud when excited, and inadvertently browbeat or interrupted the timid.
French and nubile was his view on the next encounter, the young girl who
arrived in flat eleven. In a flurry of Gallic excitement, and with a girlfriend to help her, Claudine moved in with an indoor trampoline, a working mandolin, several battered artist's portfolios, and very few clothes. A new bed was delivered at the same time as Alfie's timely return from work and gave him an opportunity to appoint himself a one man welcoming party. The French girl accepted his enthusiastic invitation in equally enthusiastic innocence. How nice to live in apartments, she thought, where people care for each other and invite you on the first night to eat with them.
She got a buzz from his exuberance, finding him so much more extrovert than
her countrymen. Frenchmen bored her with their constant analytical pontificating. She was plied with wine and dined at a proper table in candlelight to the Gitaines influenced voice and gentle melodies of Henri Salvador, to loud music from Cuba and
some seductive Elgar. She knew she was an easy pushover for one-night stands, especially with good-looking romantics. As a new neighbour she resolved to exercise restraint, but with several harsh Spanish brandies clouding her resolve, a Viagra enhanced romp ensued and turned out to be fun for both. With Claudine talking through it all in French, Alfie rose to ever-higher levels of excitement.
'.and I almost had an orgasm.' She rattled off by Email. 'The food was some
strange part of an animal he cooked' she continued to her best friend at Montpellier University. 'He made me take a shower first, before I could get in to his bed. In the middle of the night! He says you must come for dinner in London, three of us together. But forget it Sophie. What did the American boy say? ‘These men are Cock Smith?’ He said watch out for older men who are panty bandits. Alfie is good fun, but not for the future.
The driest April on record seamlessly followed a rainless March. People
slipped in and out of the building unnoticed and several dusty second-hand cars now filled marked spaces in the underground garage.
A tall slim brunette from Flat nine parked her red Polo next to a large black
taxi that crowded her space. She was a quiet girl, with a three-novels-a-week lifestyle, and once had the potential to be become someone's life partner and mother to his children, but something had frightened her in the past and she blushed and looked away when talking to men. Inevitably she would one day meet the taxi driver and have to say hello. And today the taxi man appeared as if from nowhere.
"I'm so sorry, have I left you enough room to get in?" she apologised.
"Don’t fret yerself. I'm off out now anyway. See ya later." The chunky and
untidily dressed driver climbed aboard, stashed his moneybag, looped his badge around his neck and fired up the rattling diesel engine, producing a small cloud of brown smoke. As he sped off towards the exit gate she unloaded her weekly food shopping, barely half filling two carrier bags, and set off for the street and her front door, her comforting barrier to the outside world. But Alfie materialised from nowhere too.
"Here, let me help you with those. 'Bout time we met properly. I'm Alfie by the
way. Number thirteen. Lucky for some. You must be.?"
It took some seconds to come. "Miss Angelopolos."
"Wow, great name! You're a bubble I guess."
"My grandfather was Greek, a bubble as you say. But I'm English really." Her
face was scarlet and she stared into her shopping.
"So you have an English name too? What's your Christian name?"
She paused and nearly didn't reply. "Lorraine," she murmured in a soft voice.
Alfie, wide-eyed and beaming, grabbed her shopping from her grasp.
"Fabuloso. That's probably my favourite name and you're the first Lorraine
I've ever met. I always thought a Lorraine would have long dark wavy hair just like yours. Hey, this is truly amazing."
He led the way, jiggled his street key in the lock and let her go ahead through
"I really can manage now thank you," she mumbled, and tried unsuccessfully
"Can't let a Lorraine struggle alone. Which floor? Listen, you must come up
one evening and have a drink with me, maybe this evening? You like white or red?" She had lost some of her redness but it flooded back with his claustrophobic closeness in the lift. She smelt his expensive after-shave and felt more than a twinge of excitement.
"Champagne never hurt anyone. I'm sure you could manage just a little glass."
He was not keen to lose her company. The lift only travelled one floor and Lorraine realised she should have walked up. They arrived at her flat and she quickly opened two sets of locks, took her shopping and, without looking at him, tried to get inside. "I have a lot of ironing to do, and packing. I'm sorry."
"Another time then when you get back? I bet you're going somewhere hot and
come back with a lovely tan." His scrutiny of her was almost lascivious. He was trembling, like a dog tied up outside a butcher's shop.
Lorraine barged through the doorway and mumbled, "No. It’s Aberdeen, it's
not especially noted for sunshine." The door closed with a positive clunk.
The historically dry spring now became a rainless early summer and the
shared and private communal gardens between the flats and the river were maturing into a welcoming but still less than green oasis. Before mid-summer day, very few of the occupants had yet to venture out onto the crispy beige grass. By the third Sunday in June things changed.
Alfie's living room window overlooked the lawn area where some bodies now
lay on motley blankets and listened to music, read celebrity trash magazines, and their bottled water turned hot in the sun. He enjoyed sitting in his own private sunshine, stretched out on a cheap deckchair in his living room. Inevitably he was the first to see the Irish girl trying the garden delights. He stood by the side of the window and watched as she set up her camp. Her bravery was manifested in a pink bikini on snow-white skin that needed all the sun it could get. Alfie tried to imagine her without the bikini and resolved he needed to buy some binoculars to, of course, watch the passing boats and to maybe ensure a fuller appreciation of his neighbours. Not long after her arrival a stocky and prematurely balding man from one of the two flats on the top floor materialised, and removed his shirt to reveal the hairiest of backs. Alfie at least recognised his face. The man left again for something he had forgotten and his Sunday Telegraph was soon scattered by the gentle breeze. A tinny radio played unseen from an open window, a melancholic distant sound reminding Alfie of endlessly slow Sundays in army camps in Germany, maybe fifteen years earlier when two-way family favourites still drifted from Tannoy speakers.
And then Claudine materialised, swiftly disrobing down to a small brown and
orange bikini on her olive coloured torso. Once on her stomach she removed her
halter-top and threw it aside. Alfie, sure this was a blatant signal for him, raced through a regime of showering, plucking his nostrils, and anointing himself with fake tanning lotion. Eventually dressed in Benidorm-beach-chic and designer sunglasses he sauntered down and built his lair carefully close to his intimately friendly neighbour.
"Aha. It's my little Claudine! Bon Jour ma little cherry," he stuttered in poor
music-hall French. Unable to hear against her headphones, she failed to respond. Alfie walked closer and tried again. "Hello darlin'. Mind if I join you?" His eyes were set on her torso and willing her to sit up in response. She turned her head and recognised him. She smiled, took off her headphones and sat up, her pert and delicate breasts smaller than he remembered.
"Bon jour my cherry," he repeated with a watermelon grin.
"Non! Cheriee! We say it like the sherry you English drink." Her English was
probably as good as Alfie's and her vocabulary probably better.
"Sorry. I was crap at frog's legs at school." He looked sheepish. Claudine
"Why not say French if you mean French. What's with the stupid frogs legs?"
But they liked each other well enough to pass the rest of the sunny Sunday
afternoon together. Alfie's second bottle of wine had maintained them in a numb glow until the sun finally dipped behind the apartment building bringing a sudden chill to the air. Apart from an Indian meal for two, delivered to the gates by an Asian spaceman look-alike on a moped, they had each only left the garden once, to visit their respective bathrooms. Laughter, prodding and subtle sexual teasing had punctuated Claudine's numerous attempts at teaching French, but it was clear that Alfie, a somewhat distracted student, still had a very long way to go. They were the last to bundle up their belongings.
"I'm going to a pub that has live music tonight. You must come," he urged.
Claudine squeezed up her eyes and pondered her options. "What music?"
"Classic stuff. Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme. There's this bird who's a
great Ella Fitzgerald sound alike, and there's a brilliant guy sings just like Matt Munro. Even looks like 'im. You'll love it," he enthused.
But she pondered the question she had been waiting to ask for a while. "Why
not take a girlfriend? You must have a regular?"
He looked serious for once. "No, not now. Been on my own about four years,
too young to settle down. I'm not the parent type you see."
"What does that mean?" She looked affronted.
"Who'd want to bring a kiddie into this world. Look at it all; Global bloody
warming, Tsunamis, droughts, flooding. Epic World poverty. The Chinese killing off British industry, and the wankers in the City copping gross bonuses for ripping people off."
Claudine paused before answering carefully. "Seems you have many reasons
not to bring a kiddie into this world, except perhaps the right one. Perhaps you would
make a bad husband, and bad parents make bad children." She performed her best Gallic shrug, made an ugly pout and raised her eyebrows.
But Alfie laughed. "Old Sartré philosophy again I suppose. Look, I might make
a rubbish dad, but I know I'll make a good fella for the right girl."
"Let's hope she is soon to come around the corner for you then," she quickly
retorted. She looked at his handsome face and realised he was wounded. "OK. I will come to this pub with you, but no expectations afterwards. OK?"
He beamed. "You're a darlin'. I'll knock on your door at ten. Something nice
Claudine looked puzzled for a moment. "You mean don't show you up?" She
"No. I mean just clean and tidy. No jeans," he said. "Proper East Enders' still
"I think perhaps I have nothing right to wear. I am here studying art not
fashion. My clothes all have paint. Perhaps you go alone this time." She air kissed him on both cheeks and set off for the stairs. "Maybe a jazz cellar next time, n'est pas?"
Once the offspring had departed Lorraine's large belly she was lean once
more, although it would be some time for her stretched skin to shrink back, if it ever did, she mused. She tried every recommended exercise and cream to ensure she achieved the maximum result. She had tried suckling the infant and found it more difficult than the book had said. But, by day three it was all working fine and she enjoyed the passive relaxation and bonding. Now, six months later, she was ready to leave her parents' house and find a new home. She had no man to hold her hand or call her his sweetheart, but she had little Alfie and that was her joy. She still had the very considerable proceeds from the sale of her flat sitting in her bank account too, and her old job waiting for her. There had been no easy solution to what she could do with the baby. She had kept in touch with Rebecca, and learned that she could secure a mortgage for her if she wanted one and at a reasonable proportion of her old
salary. Six months under her mother's constant gaze had cramped her focus and she now needed to look at her future from another perspective.
Leaving the baby with her mother she took the train to London and walked
around Wapping, remembering past times, past friendships, and Alfie Stark. She had expected to feel saddened by the missing Malacca Wharf but found she didn't really feel any regrets. Curiosity perhaps and her astonishment at the large edifice that had replaced it probably swamped any pathos. She sat in the little churchyard-park across the way, on a bench speckled with dried bird droppings, and listened to the birds above. There was a male and female blackbird counter-talking from two different trees; a pair of unseen wood pigeons cooed, and several large crows mooched around on the ground like Blackfriar Monks looking for dropped coins. A small Jack Russell trotted past her, his rapid legs almost a blur. The owner, following slowly along some distance behind, said good afternoon and smiled, perhaps deliberately deflecting her attention from the small dog now making a large contribution to polluting the grass. A near-empty bus swept past beyond the wall. She could hear a small child making a fuss in an apartment in Oliver's Wharf. She gazed up as aircraft flew quite low overhead, lowering their undercarriages ready for touch down at the City Airport, barely three miles to the east. A cheer came from the nearby sports centre as someone whacked a hockey ball into the baseboard at the back of one of the goals. A chunky, pug-faced squirrel with only half a tail, ran down one of the huge plane trees, stopped to enquire what she was doing just sitting there, and scampered off to irritate the crows. Lorraine smiled inwardly. This was the kind of future she wanted. If only she could afford to return to this Inner-London village that had many happy memories for her. Her money from the sale would still buy something worthwhile in the area. A puff of light breeze disturbed her hair and she got up and walked out onto the road and to the bus stop; her lift back to Liverpool Street Station. And one more, from considerably later in the tale. The Bishop came and behaved like a six-form schoolboy let out of a monastic boarding school. It wasn’t the heady atmosphere of the welcome, the third sherry in the Masefield drawing room, or even the local primary schoolchildren singing a specially rehearsed song for him. It wasn’t even the pickled onions in the ploughman’s lunch at the New Inn that seduced him. It wasn’t too that he had never been in the village church before and was amazed by the delicate stone tracery. It was simply that he was not expecting to fall in love with Claire. He of course said nothing untoward, but he was seduced by her loveliness, her grace, her courage, and the fine and splendid dinner he enjoyed while staying overnight at Masefield House.
Bishop Swale had been a widower for almost four and half years and found
common ground with the Starks in hearing about the demise of Michael. For his wife had died of a brain tumour too, a not very frequent complaint, and he had cheerfully pretended that life was fine on his own. There were many mature ladies who
supported the church, the Bishopric, and this solitary man with the empty chasm in his otherwise busy life. None of them came close to Claire. He found nothing to complain about in his supportive women folk, all very good in their way, but un-plucked eyebrows, dry lips, and wool cardigans did little to awaken any rousing hymns in his vestments. She sensed his interest and played it gently. Alfie of course set out to get the bishop drunk and it was after Gus and his wife had departed for the vicarage and the trio were left alone that the best Port and Brandy emerged. It was almost two in the morning when Alfie helped the Bishop up to his room.
Breakfast was surprisingly jovial. The only one trying to hide a hangover
seemed to be Alfie. The Bishop was in a bubbling mood and planted a kiss on his hostesses check with aplomb.
“A really lovely evening my dear. The venison was most tender and the wine
fountain most generous. Abundant perhaps we could say.”
Alfie waved the man away, the car not taking the middle line down the drive,
sure that the eggs and bacon, together with Mr Loud’s best sausages wallowing in a sea of fried mushrooms and tomatoes from the garden, were helping to disguise the fact that the Bishop was still well over the driving limit.
“You are not seriously going to take up the man’s offer to stay with him are
you?” Claire was busy washing out the coffee percolator as Alfie returned. “The house is probably freezing and December is hardly the time to lumber him with visitors.”
“He went for you sweetheart. I though his heart would burst.”
Claire smiled. “And you almost stole the deeds for the church land from his
pockets. I doubt he’ll remember half the promises you extracted.”
It was Alfie’s turn to smile. “Tough titty. Now listen to me. I’m up for getting
all that ivy and holly and stuff again, but there’s no way I’m doing up the hall like that again. Jesus’ birthday is only seven weeks away. Perhaps we should put in a shopping trip up to town and spend a few days in the flat. What do you think? Fancy a bit of Wapping for a change?”
Claire, her hands wet and her apron greasy from the fry-up, turned and
“You are getting far too good at this Mister Stark.”
“Guessing what I’m thinking. It’s getting a bit uncanny.”
ISBN: 9781843866312 430 PAGES PAPERBACK FICTION MALACCA WHARF is now available to order from W H Smith, Waterstone’s, and other booksellers, online from Amazon.co.uk, Tesco.com, and direct from the Publishers via: pegasuspublishers.com
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