Writer, journalist, teacher

Category: short stories (Page 2 of 4)

Madame Sossi

Renowned Soho clairvoyante Madame Sossi reflects on her glittering career, reaching beyond the veil for a variety of London’s glitterati…

Story by Jeremy Worman. Madame Sossi played by William Wyld. Buy the book now at Amazon, Swimming with Diana Dors. You can read the whole short story below.

(Published in Pen Pusher, Summer 2008)
I was doing a little shopping in Berwick Street market. Bobby, who sells exotic fruits, called out, ‘Madame Sossi, where’s that blonde bombshell you promised me last week?’ ‘Be patient,’ I said, ‘wait for Jupiter to enter Capricorn next week, that’ll do the trick.’

Scallops for my supper tonight. Of course, I’m long retired, though I still do a few séances for favoured clients, but it’s only pocket money. I’m well provided for. But Soho isn’t what it was.

Last week, who should I see in the mirror but Dylan, Dylan Thomas. He’s always sober these days, radiant: ‘Hello, my petalled rosebud’ (what a voice); ‘How is my angel of the eternal valleys?’

Poor Dylan, he was up here in January 1953. I was at my peak then, ‘Mademoiselle Sossi Predicts’ had just begun in the Daily Sketch, lovely figure, auburn hair, long Diana Dors dresses, a bust that hypnotized. I said to Dylan, we’d all been out to dinner at the Eiffel Tower, ‘Don’t go to America, Dylan, don’t go!’ He roared, ‘Will it be my ruin, you mermaid of the deeps?’ His hands lurched round me, ‘Give me the strength, you lissom temptress. You are my ruin, you, you – come to me!’

I never…with Dylan. You wouldn’t have known where he’d been. He had a place in Redcliffe Street then, Earls Court, but he stayed with anyone who would accommodate him, and many did. Poor Dylan. I couldn’t sleep while he was in America. My calling is not an easy one.

I was born in Ladbroke Grove in 1925, if you can believe it, and “ruined” in 1941 on a summer’s day in a boat on the Thames at Cookham. It was the making of me. My mother, Betty Turpin, was red with rage. She knew the moment I walked in: ‘You bloody trollop, who you been with?’ I licked my lips.

On the boat with Luigi I saw an aura round his head like flowing silk scarves. I had been touched by the gift. Luigi encouraged my calling. He had a revue bar in Brewer Street and gave me a job as a receptionist, as well as finding me a flat at the top of a house near Golden Square.

The mirror is going misty, always a sign I’ll be visited later.

I moved in to Golden Square on 17 April 1942. There was an old medium and astrologer living in Lexington Street, Miss Veronica Hanson, she’d been a friend of Annie Besant (I’ll put those scallops in the frying-pan, with a little oil, lemon, parsley). I studied with ‘Miss Veronica’ for two years. One day she said, ‘You need a name, darling – “Rosie Turpin” lacks refinement perhaps? – and El-o-Cu-Tion lessons. Does bloody wonders for business.’

Luigi arranged for Sybil Merchant to give me voice lessons. I love the smell of scallops cooking, and the colour, like eating jewels of the sea. Luigi was so kind and I called myself ‘Mademoiselle Sossi’ (It was the Daily Sketch that introduced the ‘Madame’). He was Luigi Rossi but his wife would have been unhappy if I’d called myself ‘Rossi’. One of my early clients, a Polish cavalry officer, used to say to me, ‘My special angel, my darling, you’re so saucy, saucy,’ which sounded like ‘sossi’. So Sossi it was.

As my voice became more refined it was marvellous not sounding like mother. But she found out where I was living. One evening she waited until Luigi arrived, then jumped on him, kicking and screaming wildly. It was very bad for business.

Darling Luigi had troubles with the taxman and a gang of Maltese thugs – he fled home to Sicily with his wife and children. That was in January 1944. I never heard from him again. There have been no sightings from the other side.

These scallops are gorgeous, and with a little green salad, rye bread. Soho is not what it was though – lots of young men with firm bottoms and girls with badly applied make-up. As my old friend Don Lawson used to say, ‘They’re just designer bohos, sweetie.’ I won’t bother with the curlers tonight.

One night, towards the end of the war, December 1944, mother stood drunk outside my flat for three hours. I pretended I wasn’t in. All associations between us were over. She was shouting some quite horrible things about poor Luigi, and what a slut I was. I’d had enough. The next morning an old acquaintance gave me an introduction to a disciple of Aleister Crowley.

So, in January 1945, I travelled into deepest Surrey to meet one of Mr Crowley’s protégés. I handed him a large fee and a brooch of mother’s that she’d given me years ago. We went into the woods and in a most potent ceremony a curse was placed on mother. A tension began to leave me at once.

On 21 February 1945 a handsome policeman came to my flat and told me that mother had dropped dead waiting for the 43 bus (they found my address in her handbag). I could have kissed him.

It’s lovely lying in bed, watching telly. I’m never lonely. Jeffrey Bernard still visits me, ‘Hello, lover, time for a vodka?’ – and could he drink vodka! I hope you’re happy on the astral plane, Jeffrey. He gave me a tip last week, ‘Running Wild’, in the 2.30 at Catterick – came in last. Some things never change.

I think I’ll go to sleep in a minute. General de Gaulle loved Soho, virtually set up his headquarters at the French Pub – a most attractive man considering he was so ugly. I did his astrological chart – but I mustn’t go into this, I’m probably still bound by the Official Secrets Act. I love these soft pillows. Never economize on pillows.

And duck feather duvets, what an invention! I never married, not that I was short of offers. It’s funny being so popular at my age…

Cobblers for the revolution!

I read a bit out loud each morning to inspire me. Ivan Illich is my new guru: ‘Vehicles have created more distances than they helped to bridge.’ He wrote that in Tools for Conviviality. If I’m still down I roll myself a one-skinner, always does the trick.

Traffic pounds above my head. And the Big-Brother helicopter is always in the sky, charting the street life of Hackney. ‘Down the stairs and down the years,’ that’s how I feel as I step into my basement shoemaker’s workshop. The world is going mad but I feel safe down here – this house was built at the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

The green revolution could be here now if people made their own shoes and if we travelled only as far as our shoe leather would allow – it would bring us back to our roots. The quality of life would return, we should have time for things. Illich put it well: ‘Development must be in terms of low and not high energy use’.

I like sitting at my bench, working at this gentle art of last and awl, threading and stitching. I make handmade shoes for the wealthy – these Oxford brogues are for an old customer. Those rich buggers don’t deserve such perfection, but some of them really appreciate it, I have to say.

Mind you, it’s just as bad that most of Hackney is walking around in mass-produced trainers, all that sweatiness and petrochemicals. Then they chuck them away, never nurtured, never loved. Of course, everyone recycles tins and bottles with evangelical fervour, we all eat our organic carrots and stuff our faces with muesli. That’s fine, but it’s only scratching the surface.

Don’t they realise! If they made their own shoes, and saw the limits of their walking potential as the limits of their world, then a real sense of community would begin. There’s a lot of bollocks in Green politics these days, it’s run by politically-correct boy scouts and girl guides.I made a poster for my wall, yes you guessed it, a slogan from my guru:

TRANSPORTATION BEYOND BICYCLE SPEEDS DEMANDS POWER INPUTS FROM THE ENVIRONMENT

You’ve got it, Ivan! Those speeds are destroying our planet and the pleasure of our life. Okay, I’m going on, my sister is always telling me that, but when you live in a world that’s crazy but pretends it’s sane, the way to be truly sane is not to be afraid to be crazy. I was trying to get that across to an attractive woman at a party last week. Well, I can see it wasn’t the best chat-up line. Didn’t get anywhere. Pity, she was very fit, as they say.

A good shoe should last for fifteen years. Making a shoe is like a history lesson, but all the kids seem to live in a vacuum of designer logos and fast food. They connect to nothing.

Jesus, I sound sad. But here’s another example. At the party last week, they held it at the top of the Samuel Pepys, the pub attached to the Hackney Empire. Well, there was really crappy music coming out of the crap Big Screens. Then they showed a baseball match, then some twenty-twenty cricket where none of the players look like cricketers. There was no English draught beer on tap, it was mostly lagers from America and Poland and Holland, all with silly names and prices. There should have been a local band playing in the corner.

Buses, cars, motorbikes, all those planes scarring the sky. The planet is dying from our hysteria of movement. Tapping away at the shoes on my bench, turning, kneading, reading the stresses and strains of the leather makes me still. Shoes are like my prayer books, my litany of living. If I believed in God I should be a shoe-making monk. We should all give up our obsessions with goods and with speed. As always, Ivan has a phrase for it: ‘Joyful Renunciation’. What is the worst thing the modern world has done?: taken away people’s power to dream, to use their own imaginations…Getting carried away again. I love the history of footwear: ‘Wellington’, now that was a good boot, though there were some awful ones around in those days – the poor old soldiers suffered from their job-lot boots.

I was born in this house, Dad was a factory inspector, Mum was a district nurse. I went to an old-fashioned grammar school, then did the hippy thing, and after that a degree in philosophy at Swansea, then Cordwainer’s for shoemaking. If you were born in Hackney everyone thinks you must be a yob. Actually, I taught in a secondary school before getting into shoes.

Both my parents are dead now, buried near Worthing, where they had a bungalow. My sister and me, Lucy, we split up the house, she’s in the top, I’ve got the bottom two floors.

Life’s all right. Used to be in a local rock group, used to be married too, but I think I was more in love with my shoes. Anyway, my wife went off with her acupuncturist. We got married too young. They’re living in Bristol now.

The smell of good leather matures, becomes alive under the touch of a finger. Connecting the shoe together – the welt and throat and top edge, the waist and the sole – until you have made something almost as complete as a person, and far less quarrelsome. The trainer-footed world has turned its back on this inheritance that could save it.

Must put on a jumper. Hackney begins to feels cleaner in November, and the basement colder. The ghosts in this house prefer the softness of autumn, as if summer bleaches them out of existence…

I love the beauty of boots most. I collect them. Those Nazi Jackboots are always at the top of the stairs, they’re authentic. When I imagine them pounding down on their heavy soles I am reminded of the fascist state just under the surface of things. Today, the shoes may be softer, and the surveillance more subtle, but it means the same thing: the state can get you when it wants to.

Anyway, consider marching boots, well, it’s a whole way of telling history: all the places those boots have trod, the routes they took, the importance of the army cobblers who kept the footwear together. In the First World War it was the ordinary soldier who suffered from trench foot, the water and mud squelching through the lace holes. Of course the British army boot came out of the Blucher boot. The officers had their top boots, much better.

Cavalry boots are the most beautiful, with their bucket tops, I made a pair in college, still got them, half way up the stairs. Cromwell’s people knew a thing or two about boots, so do the Americans, credit where credit is due – those cowboy boots at the bottom of the stairs, amazing tooling, superb leather, got those from a bootmaker in Texas ten years ago.

If people wore proper leather shoes and boots, the level of consciousness, I mean that in the Marxist sense, would rise dramatically. Ban superstores, ban trainers, stop fast movement, and people will reconnect. You think that’s mad? Not as mad as what goes on up there, is it? Anyway, I’m off to Budapest on a cheap flight for a long weekend with an old mate. Don’t look at me like that, you can’t help a few contradictions.

Late Love

(Published in World Wide Writers, Winter 1998)

BETSY FLUSKIE took the mugs from the huge oak welsh-dresser, checked that her hair, white going auburn, was holding at the back, smiled into the small mahogany mirror and did not feel 67 years old at all. She tied the cord around her silk dressing-gown and patted herself as if she were a warm spring egg about to hatch. The house gently rattled when the 7.20 a.m. express from Brighton to Waterloo slowed for Clapham Junction.

Upstairs, it jigged Charlie Finnegan’s soapy shaving brush on this bright May day. He smiled benevolently at the old bathroom that had faded with him over the last forty years. At twenty-nine, as foreman in a Clapham metal works, he moved his lodgings from a dingy Islington basement to the Fluskie’s top floor in Cranleigh Road, Clapham. He heard the breakfast sounds from the kitchen and thought of Betsy with a soft feeling that was new to him.
Albert Fluskie had bought the bomb damaged house in 1953. He and Betsy, his wife, had worked hard to restore the gloomy building. They decided to let the top floor. Charlie was their first and only lodger. Albert had died from a coronary and Betsy and Charlie continued the rhythm of their own distinct lives.
Charlie massaged his face with satisfaction and tapped on his favourite aftershave. His six foot frame was bent only slightly with age and the upper body retained the tone of a strong, confident and handsome man. He heard the rattle of cups and plates from the kitchen as he swept back his thick black-grey hair on either side of the crisp parting.
The spring light halted as Charlie shut the bathroom door and walked slowly down the corridor towards his bedroom. “Hmm.” He focused on the letter by the bedside table he knew to be from Dr Slattery. “Time I opened the bloody thing.”
Betsy put the bread under the grill and turned to the enormous gilt-framed fashion mirror that Alfred Cluskie had salvaged from a corsetry shop in Stoke Newington in the early sixties. “Not bad, not bad at all.” Her hands rose behind her head as they had done when she was a girl in Kilburn. Skipping lightly in front of the stained and pitted mirror she could see her parents dance all those years ago and quite forgot the toast.
She heard Charlie’s heavy footsteps on the stairs and her heart flipped a little, anticipating something she could not express.
“Morning, Betsy.”
“Morning, Charlie, the Sporting Life’s under the jumper over there.”
“Okay.”
”You sound low, Charlie.”
”A little stiff in the back, nothing some bacon wouldn’t comfort.”
He put his hand on her shoulder.
“Of course Charlie, how many rashers will you have? It’s not like you.”
She sensed so much about him. He was impressed inside her and onto the patterns of china jugs on the shelf, glazed into the surface of the cream kitchen walls.
“What’s that letter, Charlie?” He didn’t know he was holding it.
“Oh nothing, nothing really.”
“Charlie!” She took it from his shaking fingers, read it slowly, read it again, sat down.
“Oh Charlie, my dear Charlie!”
Without thinking she walked over to him, put both arms around his shoulders and squeezed his cold, sweaty hand. He snatched back the letter which then slipped from his grasp. He kicked it under the table.
“It’s just an operation, Charlie, and you’re fit as a … ”
“It’s a tumour, Betsy, in my head … ”
“It only says … ” A few days in hospital for further tests”, and Dr Slattery has already talked to you about that. These days, Charlie … ”
“Oh Jesus Christ, Jesus bloody Christ … ”
His broad shoulders flopped onto the table, he cupped his head in his large hands and cried like a baby.
“There, Charlie, there,” she massaged his shoulders, “we’ll fight this together.”
After all these years, she thought, we are together, and the idea was a huge shock, like a large wave breaking over a sea front.
She watched Charlie settle, dry his eyes. He took a gulp of strong tea. She loved the way his shoulders loosened when he sat and expanded like cliffs as he got up.
She stood by the sink drying a cup over and over, “Oh we’re like brother and sister” they would tell their friends. She put down the cup with a little crack. But how could poor Charlie feel the new closeness she now felt? How could she be so selfish? …
”A tumour, a bloody great tumour! How shall I spend my money if I’m going to die, Betsy, you know I’ve got a tidy sum.”
The Sporting Life crackled dryly between his fingers. Sullivan and Curlie’s, a Builders Contractors, had grown and his capacity for figures led to him helping with the accounts and studying book-keeping at night-school until he became the company secretary. Now the firm (specialising in a huge range of bricks) was one of the largest of its kind in London. He owned a small farm outside Ennistimon in County Clare and was planning to move ‘home’ soon.
”Ah, I won’t die, Betsy, I never have done yet!” Tears came to his eyes in a strange revelry. He looked at the photograph of a jockey thrown from his horse in yesterday’s 3.30 at Uttoxeter.
”Any good ones?,” she turned three thick rashers. He stared transfIxed at the fate of the jockey. “Charlie, Charlie.”
“You’re a good one, Betsy and there’s no mistaking that.”
He got up, stretched and put his arms round her as she turned the bacon.
After breakfast Charlie went for a walk on his own in Falcon Park. The horror of the news returned, sealing him from the blithe air in a vacuum of damp sweat. He was angry with the little birds, babies, children, flowers, young grass. He imagined the tumour growing like a fungus in his head. Angry too with himself, with his big ego, so self contained that he and Betsy never ‘got involved’; studying art history with the Open University (Rembrandt and Goya were his loves). But all for what? He kicked away some litter.
Betsy moved the daffodils from the window ledge to the kitchen table. And there was Charlie in dazzling light. ”You fanciful old woman!” She patted her hair into place and felt a throb in her neck. Then the awful truth returned and she felt doubly guilty because it was too late for such things, and too wicked to even entertain them.
The next day Charlie went to Minogues, an Irish pub in Islington, to have lunch with some of his old pals. The boozy session fortifIed him and he took a taxi back to Clapham. He ignored the ‘Thank You for Not Smoking’ and belched fumes over the surly driver who promptly shut the dividing window.
”Why be a taxi-driver if you don’t like cigarettes?” He clawed at the petition, ‘Well, don’t expect a tip from me, that’s all I can say!”
He then sat back and explored his head for growths, confirming the taxi-driver’s worst fears of drunken Irishmen.
Betsy had an egg sandwich for lunch and tried to read but could not concentrate. She caught sight of the picture on the mantelpiece of her only child, Heather, who lived in Ontario and had her own family now. They wrote to each other at Christmas.
“Betsy!,” Charlie called out as he came in, “let’s have a proper chat, make us a coffee, will you?” He went up to her by the cooker. “Here are some daffodils for you.”
“Charlie!”
They sat in the old living-room that hadn’t altered for decades. “Those pains in my head, Betsy, they come and go, you know.”
“You must go into the hospital, you’ll be all right. You know I’m always here … ”
“Betsy, old thing, what a couple of fools!” “Fools, Charlie?”
“Fools, Betsy. Did we think we’d never die, that any day we could collect all our feelings together and make something of them … ?”
“I want to help all I can.”
“I want to spend some money and have good times – with you Betsy!”
Their coffee cups chinked on the table.
“But why now, Charlie, is it just death making you afraid? … Oh, I’m so sorry … ”
“No, Betsy, you’re not out of order. I am afraid and I want to live.
But let’s just have a bit of fun for Christ’s sake!”
“But you will still … ”
“I’ll go and have more tests on my poor old head, you can be bloody sure of that!”
The afternoon light deepened the cream walls.
Over the next days Charlie made many phone-calls, to family in Ireland and old friends, telling them what was happening and adding unselfconsciously at the end of the conversation, that “We plan to go away for a few days” and “tonight we’ve got tickets for a musical in the West End.”
Charlie made an appointment with the hospital for early next month. Time quickened. They were surprised by how much could be lived in a day, an hour, a look.
One afternoon Charlie had gone to see the bank manager. Betsy sat in the kitchen with a pot of tea and a digestive biscuit. The light was soft as it touched the daffodils in the brown jug on the table. Thinking of Charlie she felt a glow, from his voice, the smell of his room, his crinkled blue eyed smile.
One of Charlie’s art books lay open on the table. She envied the Rembrandt girls their eternal beauty. Her own stomach and breast pulsed with new life. She imagined Charlie drying her rose-fresh body.
“Is that you, Charlie?”
“It’s me.” He gave her a bunch of red roses. “Charlie!”
“I know how you like them, I was passing the new florists … ”
“You shouldn’t.”
“Oh sure I should.” He raised his hands in a wide arc like Father Findlay used to do when he was celebrating the Eucharist in Charlie’s Childhood.
“Tea?”
“Lovely.”
“Fruit cake?”
The taste of rich currants lingered on his tongue. “We’ve not been out for a few days, shall we go somewhere a bit swish for dinner tomorrow?”
“I’d love too.”
Charlie had not had any pain in his head for a few days. He’d been praying to the Virgin Mary each night and yesterday had lit candles in St. Dominic’s.
“That was a lovely dinner, Charlie.” She took off her shoes with a feeling of delicious relief
“It was Betsy, it really was, and you look so wonderful tonight, like a film-star you know.”
“Flatterer!”
”And did you see the men look around when we came in, well it wasn’t me they were gawping, was it now?”
“Charlie!”
“Clear the floor,” Charlie said, “let’s put on some waltz music and have a little dance.”
”You’re a devil of a charmer,” she rested her lips on his neck. They kissed with a force that shocked them both. “Good God what is happening to us?” She felt like a Rembrandt girl. In the bedroom she undressed with pride in front of him. “You’re still quite a man, Charlie!”
“Thank God for oysters!”

She poured him his first cup of the day. “It was lovely, wasn’t it?” “It was fantastic, bloody fantastic, we should write an article, “Hot Sex for the Over Sixties. We might even get on the telly!”
“Do you think we love each other then?”
“There’s a question!”
“I think we do, but we shouldn’t live together or marry or anything.” Betsy puckered her lips.
“And why not?”
“Because everything would change, we’re not made like that.” When she woke, with Charlie gently snoring beside her, her heart leapt a little each morning as she thought of this luck.
The scan clearly showed a growth, towards the front of Charlie’s brain, but the specialist, a bluff Yorkshireman, was optimistic. As spring turned to summer they spent a July week in a good hotel in Brighton. Charlie noticed all things with a new clarity: birds sang, trees shook, waves broke with fresh power. He especially loved all sea foods for some eternal sense they gave him. And Betsy was a bright torch in all the cobwebbed areas of his heart.
He went to a faith healer and a homeopath. Dr Slattery visited him twice. Betsy knew that the pain was sometimes excruciating. There were good days and bad, when he slept or dosed himself with painkillers. As the late summer days spread shadows in Falcon Park they were hardly apart.
“Charlie, what’s wrong with you?” she asked one morning as he sat quiet and ashen.
“It was bad last night, I’m afraid now about going to the hospital.” In the middle of September Betsy helped to pack his case, pyjamas, toiletries, a new silk dressing-gown, shoes, a shirt for coming home. No, that could wait she thought, I’ll take a fresh one in two weeks, that’s all it was, two weeks, and then, recovering, nursing him, loving him, a long holiday, they’d spoken of a cruise …

He said he could not bear it if she went with him to the hospital.
She cried on his shoulder and noticed leaves fall in the garden. She waved to the taxi and said she would come and see him tomorrow.
She sat in the kitchen and felt a lump behind the cushion of the chair. She pulled out a little round box and undid it to find a beautiful ruby ring which she held so tight her knuckles went white.

It was an evening in October. The swallows had left for the winter. The doctors had done everything. He had never fully regained consciousness. But she held his hand each day and the ruby on her finger seemed to deepen as they touched.

It was January in Betsy’s kitchen and the solid fuel fire was turned to high. She had arranged Charlie’s wake and funeral as he wished.
He had left her over £150,000 and given the farm in Ennistimon to his nephew.
She went out infrequently. The noisy pavements, the changes in the neighbourhood, the teeming world, interested her less and less. She was happy in her place. She read and drew and made teas for friends.
Charlie was often in her thoughts. He was a beacon. She heard the rhythm of a train. It was the express from Waterloo going south. She listened to the trumm-trumm of the wheels until they reached their vanishing point in her memory. She sensed the presence of Charlie all round her. She knew now she could wait happily until she followed him on the long train south.

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