"Ralphy..? RALPH!" Mrs Bone's voice called shrilly from the foot of the stairs where she stood wiping her hands on a towel. "Your breakfast is cold and you're going to be late for work again."
Ralph rolled over in his bed and groaned. He could hear his mother's voice somewhere through the blur. He hated mornings, they should be banned as being bad for your health. He checked the clock. 7:43. There was no way he was going to make the eight o'clock bus now. The next one was on the half-hour, the time he should be clocking in. That would be another black mark against his name. He'd already been late two times this week and it was only Thursday. This would make it three days out of four. If Jessop's dished out prizes for being late he'd win hands down.
Jim Gosling, Ralph's boss at work, would once again be reading him the riot act when he got in. What a drag this work lark was. He imagined sunning it up on some exotic island somewhere, surrounded by a bevy of beautiful girls, rubbing suntan lotion into his shoulders, feeding him Sangria or Pina Colada, all sharing in the proceeds of his newly-found fame and fortune. Which kind of reminded him he hadn't done the lottery yet for Saturday night's draw, mustn't forget that, because 'you've got to be in it to win it'.
He dressed quickly, brushed his teeth and splashed some water over his face. When he got downstairs, his mother was already in her coat, ready to go off to work at the Oakleigh Care Home.
"I don't know, Ralphy," she said, "You're going to lose that job, if you're not careful. Why don't you get up when your alarm goes off?"
"Because it doesn't always go off at the moment, Mum. It needs a new battery." He looked down at the kitchen table. "What do you call this?"
"Don't start, Ralphy! If your breakfast is spoiled it's your own stupid fault."
"It looks all greasy!"
"Well of course it does -- it's been there for a quarter of an hour. That egg and bacon was lovely when I first cooked it. I could've eaten it myself. I don't know why I bother, sometimes."
"You should've kept it warm under the grill."
"What did your last slave die of, cheeky begger? If you can't be bothered to get up in time for it, then I'm not going to bother doing it in future."
Mrs Bone finished buttoning her coat and fussed with her hair in front of the mirror, picked up her bag from the worktop and headed for the door. "You want some dinner saved this evening, Ralphy? I'm doing mince."
"Best not, Mum. It's pool night down the pub... we get a buffet -- decent grub!"
"You're treading on thin ice, my lad."
Ralph went over to give her a goodbye kiss. "See you later, Mum."
"Bye love." The door closed behind her.
Ralph looked at the food that had been left for him, the congealing egg staring back at him like an accusing eye. He prodded it with his fork, rupturing it and the cold yolk oozed. He felt his stomach do a funny flip-flop, picked up the plate and scooped the mess into the swing-bin.
He glanced at the wall clock. It was now two minutes past eight. It would have to be the eight-thirty bus now. That would mean he'd miss the clock by around 17 minutes. Why did the world seem to revolve around time all the time? Why did everything have to be done by a given hour? Why did everybody have to be somewhere at a certain time? It was just so senseless. Most people worked flexi-hours these days, but Jessop's were stuck in the dark ages. What a drag.
He drank half a cup of the by-now lukewarm tea that had been left him and shuddered. Then he tipped the rest down the sink, grimacing as he did so. He put the dishes in the sink, took his denim jacket off the hook in the hallway and went out into the morning, trying to figure out what excuse he was going to give Jim Gosling this time. He'd used just about every one in the book, and some!
"Good effort, Ralph," said Phil sarcastically, looking up from the bench where he was working. He was screwing a transformer onto an electronics chassis. "I've been waiting for you to wire this lot up. I'm stuck till you've done your bit."
Ralph huffed. "Give us a chance to get me jacket off, Phil, for crying out loud!"
"You should get here on time, Ralphy, said Dave, not looking up from the PCB he was soldering. "Gosling's gunning for you again!"
"Anyone got the kettle on?" said Ralph, showing his normal concern.
But before anyone could answer, Jim Gosling poked his head out the door of his office and said: "Ralph..? May I have a word? Now!"
"Told yer, Ralphy," said Dave. "He was doing his nut earlier when you hadn't showed up."
"Yeah, and some!" said Phil. "He's dead worried we're not going to get this order out by tomorrow, and I can't blame him."
"Wish me luck, lads." Ralph took off his jacket, put it over the back of his chair, and skulked towards Jim Gosling's office. Jim was already sitting behind his desk.
"Sit down, would you, Ralph," he said.
Ralph could tell by the look on Jim's face that he meant business, so he struck first. "I had one or two problems this morning, Mr Gosling..."
"Oh, yes? What was it this time? Or shall I take my pick? I know most of your excuses now by heart."
"I can explain, honest!"
"Don't bother, Ralph. Your talent for inventing excuses far exceeds your talent for timekeeping. I'm giving you a final warning. I cannot tolerate this lateness of yours. And your attitude and workmanship lately has been appalling. I've had at least half-a-dozen of your sub-assemblies fail inspection over the last couple of weeks."
Jim picked up a bundle of inspection reports from his desk and gave them a cursory glance, then continued: 'Dry-joints' from bad soldering mainly. That's just sloppy, Ralph. I know you can do better than this. I hope you'll excuse the pun, but it seems to me you're living up to your name -- 'Bone Idle'.
"Look, if we don't get this order for Simtec Electrical out by tomorrow afternoon, we could lose them and I don't need to tell you how important a customer they are to us.
"Can't you see that you let other people down when you're late. You're as much part of a team as anyone else. You have good ability, but you're lazy. You could achieve a lot, but you constantly fritter away your time in a daydream. I had high hopes for you when you first came to Jessop's... blah...blah...blah..."
And suddenly Ralph was on his tropical island again, a busty blonde in a bright yellow bikini was just about to pour Sangria into his mouth from a carafe, her shining suntanned breasts tipping enticingly towards him as she leaned over.
"Open wide, Ralphy, sweetie."
"Oh Miranda, I think I'd prefer a gin and—"
"What was that?" said Jim Gosling, looking perplexed.
"Huh..? Oh, I said, I'd prefer it, Jim, if—"
"And I'd prefer it if you referred to me as Mr Gosling. I believe familiarity in the workplace breeds contempt."
"Yes, Mr Gosling, sorry Mr Gosling."
"And your sarcasm is not appreciated, Ralph."
And so the sermon went on, Ralph glancing up at the clock as his boss's words went in one ear and out the other.
It was nearly nine o' clock before he emerged from Gosling's office with the beginnings of a dull headache taking hold.
"What happened, Ralphy? What did he say?" said Phil.
"Yeah," said Dave, "I bet Jim gave you a right ear-bashing."
"Well, he certainly didn't offer me a rise, that's for sure."
"I don't know, Ralphy, you'll have to pull your socks up mate," said Phil.
"Jim's really getting the arse over you, Ralph. He won't take much more, you know that, don't you?"
"Yeah. He gave me a final warning."
"Look mate, we don't want to see you given the elbow. Just make a bit of an effort, that's all you need to do."
"Look lads, give us a break."
"We're only saying for your own good, Ralph," said Dave. "I mean, what's the problem about getting here on time?"
"You lot are beginning to sound like my old mum. She gave me a right ear-bashing this morning."
Dave and Phil glared at Ralph with a look that said, "Well, what do you expect?" They actually said nothing, knowing they'd be wasting their breath.
Five o' clock couldn't come quick enough for Ralph. He managed to catch up on his work, after first sorting out his inspection failures. But his mind kept flitting off to his fantasy island, to Miranda, to Tara, to Honey and the other beauties who were attending to his every need...
"See you at the pub tonight, Ralphy?" said Phil, who was also part of the Angler's Arms pool team.
"Sure, what time you getting there?"
"About 7:30. Make sure you're there in good time so we can get the playing order sorted out. The Red Lion have some good players, so we need to match up."
The bus home was crowded and Ralph had to stand. Not that he was complaining. He found himself in rather close proximity to a shapely brunette who glared her disapproval at him when the bus pulled up suddenly and they bumped together. Before he could apologise and open a conversation, she had huffed and turned away. She looked and smelled divine and Ralph wondered what it would be like offering her a lift and taking her for a ride in his brand new Mercedes SL sports car that he'd just taken delivery of. That would impress her all right, no danger.
Thinking about his favourite car reminded him again he must get the lottery tickets for himself and his mum for Saturday's draw. 'You've got to be in it to win it.'
On the way down to the pub Ralph took a detour. He was running late as usual, but he needed to get some money from the cash machine. He punched in his PIN, selected the amount and waited for the notes to emerge from the slot. Then he tucked them safely in his wallet and headed off in the direction of The Angler's Arms in River Lane.
His route took him through part of the High Street, past Woolies and BHS, the coffee bars, bistros and restaurants, Boots the chemists and on towards the Square. He turned the corner into Duke Street, and passed another parade of shops, a butcher's and an off-licence and a ladies fashion shop -- Marilyn Fashions.
The shop window was brightly lit with various mannequins modelling the latest designs. Strategically placed spotlights showed their best features to advantage. As he walked on past he had the peculiar feeling that he was being watched. It was most odd. He stopped for a moment and peered into the shop window. Nothing untoward there, just the half-a-dozen or so models staring their cold, lifeless gazes out into the gloom.
They reminded him very much of those street entertainers that you come across in the cities, where they cover themselves in metallic paint and stand absolutely still and unblinking for ages and you are never quite sure if they're real or not. Sooner or later though, if you waited long enough, they would eventually spring into life and frighten the living daylights out of anyone who was watching, even though those same people were always half-expecting it to happen anyway.
Ralph shrugged his shoulders and began walking again. He had taken no more than half-a-dozen steps when he heard something... or rather thought he did. He stood stock still and listened for a moment, but all he could hear now was the wind gusting and an empty beer can blowing along the pavement.
Somewhere he thought he heard his name being called. It was quiet and distant, but for some reason it made him want to go back and look in the shop window. There was one mannequin that seemed quite different to the others, in more ways than one. She appeared more natural than the others, and although older looking she definitely had a lot going for her. Her curves were more full and rounded than the normal skinny ones. In fact, Ralph had to admit she was very voluptuous, sexy even. She was a sort of throw-back to the forties and fifties when an hourglass figure was the vogue. Her hair was platinum blonde and parted in a style that reminded Ralph of a certain fifties Hollywood icon whose Warholian image he'd seen staring out from the pages of various men's magazines along with those of James Dean and Jim Morrison.
She had on a low-cut, midnight-blue evening gown, seductively slit up the side to reveal a flash of thigh. My goodness, she was quite something, he thought, and for just a moment he was transfixed by her beauty. He had the feeling that if he were to stand and stare long enough, she would surely have to give in and move a facial muscle or something, or at least blink. My God, how real she looked. He allowed his eyes to drift away from her face, downwards over her generous cleavage and her flat tummy and the wide flare of her hips, all the way down to her ankles.
"You must called Marilyn," he said to himself at last, and as he said it he felt sure there was a change of expression in her face, a faint smile or a lowering of the eyelids, almost indiscernible, yet something had happened, he was sure of it. Or was it all just imagination?
Then, almost as suddenly as he'd come under the mannequin's spell, he felt totally foolish. He looked at his watch and saw that he was already fifteen minutes late. Pete Baker, the pool team captain, would have something to say about it when he eventually got to The Angler's Arms. Ah, well... too bad!
There was another gust of wind that sent the beer can clattering further down the street. He shivered and turned up his jacket collar to shut out the wind
"Ralph..." There was that voice again. He looked about him but could see nothing.
"Who's that..?" He listened again. But he only heard the church clock strike a quarter to the hour. "Bye, Marilyn," he said, and started walking.
"Ralph..? Ralph..!" There it was again. He heard footsteps coming up behind him, gathering pace. He stopped and turned around, his heart beating too fast. Then into the glow of a street lamp came a face he recognised.
"Dougie! It's you. I thought I heard somebody calling me."
"All right, Ralphy? I guess you're on your way to the pub. I thought you were in the team tonight."
"I am. Blimey, you gave me a turn."
"Well, you want to get a shift on, mate, you know what Pete's like. He'll be doing his crust."
"Yeah well, let him. They only ever put me on last, anyway. So what's with you? You been dropped this week?"
"Rested, mate... just rested. Come on, let's get going. I'm gagging for a pint."
As they headed for Wharf Street and The Angler's Arms, Ralph couldn't resist a final glance round at the shop. Marilyn was just about visible in the angle of the bay window. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but he felt sure she had raised an arm as if to wave. His stomach did that funny flip-flop again as he self-consciously waved back.
"Who's that?" said Doug,
"I thought you were waving to someone."
"Me? Nah, you're imagining things. Come on, my round." And they hurried on with Ralph feeling a strange excitement inside himself.
When they reached the pub the third frame was already under way. Pete Baker gave Ralph a disapproving glare and took him aside to have a motivational chat, and about the playing order. The match was tight with The Red Lion running out eventual winners. Ralph had handed them the match when he carelessly defaulted on the black in the final frame of the evening.
To cap a wonderfully disastrous evening, he upset Rita the barmaid by saying something inappropriate and offensive while trying to chat her up. But then that often happened when he'd had a few too many.
Doug had got fed up with waiting for Ralph to finish his pint and left before him. It was nearly half-past eleven when Ralph bounced off the doorframe and into the street. He staggered up the road, singing to himself and thinking about Rita's considerable assets.
When he reached the junction of Wharf Street and Middle Lane, he should have turned left into Middle Lane which was his normal way home, but for some inexplicable reason he felt the strange compulsion to turn right and go back towards the town the way he and Doug had come earlier in the evening. He didn't question his logic, he was too far gone for that. It would add at least ten minutes to his walk home.
When he reached Marilyn Fashions the shop was in darkness, in fact he almost passed by it without noticing. But something made him pull up. He swayed on his feet, feeling a little worse for wear. Oh God, how he wished he hadn't drunk so much.
He looked at his favourite model, Marilyn, trying to focus. It was difficult to see her in the darkness. He was about to move on when he thought he heard something, a similar sound to before, a voice calling from somewhere. He was aware of his heart racing again and his palms sweating. He clenched and unclenched his fists to relieve the tension.
He looked around him but saw nothing. All was quiet. And then the voice again, very faint, barely discernable, but there somewhere all the same.
He couldn't decide whether it was external or in his head. It was difficult to tell just what was what after a skinful. He really ought to moderate his drinking on weekdays. He was completely fuddled. He was bound to be hung-over for work in the morning, and he knew what that meant. He shook his head and tried to clear his thinking.
"Dougie?" he said. "Is that you? He looked about him frantically, hoping his friend would emerge from the shadows and reveal himself and put an end to this madness. Perhaps he'd waited for him after all.
"Ralph," said the voice again. "Don't you know it's rude to ignore a lady?"
Ralph's stomach did a backward summersault. He turned back to the shop window and narrowed his eyes at the gloom inside until they adjusted to the darkness. In a couple of seconds he was able to make out the mannequin's face, her eyes, half-closed in a kind of seductive gaze.
"Did you s-say something?" he said.
"Don't you know it's rude to keep people waiting, young man - especially a girl?"
"Oh, hang on... I'll put the lights back on."
Suddenly the pavement was flooded with a white glow and Ralph very nearly jumped out of his skin. "What the blazes..!" He saw her lips curve into an amused smile.
"What's so funny?"
"You... You're so jumpy."
"Well, so would you be if..."
Surely it must be a dream. Ralph looked around him again. Everything looked normal. He pinched himself to make sure he was actually awake, and then turned back to the mannequin. It was then that he noticed something else different about her. She was dressed ready for bed. Instead of the evening gown she had been wearing earlier, she now wore a frilly light-blue baby-doll nightie.
"You've changed... How—"
"How what? How did I get changed?"
"The same way as anybody else. What do you expect?"
"But you're a—"
"A model, yes, and in spite of what you're thinking, this is a tough job and we 'models' need our beauty sleep as much as anybody else. We need to be fresh for the morning and looking our best, particularly when you get to my age."
"Your age? And sleep?" Ralph looked incredulous.
"Of course. Everyone needs to sleep. You sleep, don't you? We're on our feet all day so we really do need a lie down after that."
Ralph found the thought vaguely amusing and if he hadn't been so bemused by events this evening he would have burst out laughing.
"Sorry about the lights. I didn't think you were going to come back after all, so I switched them off and got ready for bed. Oh, do you like what I'm wearing by the way?"
"It's nice... very nice. You look lovely... Very..."
"Hey, I mean, what's going down here. Am I dreaming this?"
"Maybe. Maybe not. Who can tell? But we're definitely talking to one another right now, aren't we?"
"I guess so. Oh, Jesus... Beam me up, Scottie."
"I'm glad you came back, Ralphy."