However much you thought you knew J. Alfred Bloggs there would always be something that would surprise you. Even his fellow travellers on the mighty chariot that was the Barnsley dustcart, a strange and wonderful conveyance, were regularly coming across things about Mr Bloggs that were Not Generally Known. For instance the fact that he was the district 50 metre free-style swimming champion (over 55 class) had only lately been revealed. As well as that was his skill at sewing sequins on to Mrs Bloggs’s ballroom dancing costume. She and Mr Bloggs were enthusiastic attenders at the Barnsley Palais de Dance – a very sophisticated name for a converted bus shed. They could do a mean fox-trot though Mr Bloggs never attempted the twiddly bits with his feet when they had to turn a corner for fear of wrapping his legs together in an inextricable knot. They restricted themselves to the fox-trot and the quickstep, avoiding the waltz because that involved lots of stuff with feathers and they never dared the Latin-American. Privately Mr Bloggs rather hankered after those shiny, dark, tight-fitting suits that went with the aficionados of the rumba or the cha-cha-cha. Indeed in his most bizarre moments he imagined Mrs Bloggs dancing in six inch high heels in one of those costumes that looked as if it had been sprayed on from a can, leaving little to the imagination and, in Mrs Bloggs’s case, lots that needed no imagining. No, he thought, dustmen should stick to the old familiars. Not for us the dizzy excitement of throbbing rhythms and wild contortions. But then … it would have been nice. He cast the thought from his mind and returned to the task of sewing on sequins. It was a long, laborious endeavour and, what with the gentle purring of the cat and the hissing of the gas stove, he began to feel very soporific. He slipped into a brief snooze, dreaming of appearing as a celebrity item on Come Dancing. When he awoke he remembered that Come Dancing was no longer on the telly. Perhaps he should have a go at Pop Idol instead. You will have gathered by now that J. Alfred Bloggs was an eternal optimist.
Mrs Bloggs called from the kitchen where she had been baking a cake. A large fruit cake which she was going to ice for Alfred’s sixtieth birthday the following week.
“Alfred! Do you want a custard tart?” A custard tart. He began to get a bit excited. A custard tart, that would fill the space between tea and bed in a way that no other comestible could.
He had always loved custard tarts. He and Mrs Bloggs (well, of course, she wasn’t Mrs Bloggs in those days of which I speak, she was Miss Crumple) – he and Miss Crumple were eating custard tarts when Mr Bloggs had proposed to her. He had finished his tart first, always getting his priorities right, and had turned to his intended
“Will you marry me?”
“Oh my God!” squeaked the future Mrs B. and she dropped her custard tart on to her plate, quite overcome in a mixture of tears and laughter. Eventually she agreed. Mr Bloggs had an impassive look on his face,
“Are you going to finish that tart ‘cos if not, can I have it?”. The future Mrs Bloggs could see the way things were going to go.
Putting aside the dress and the sequins he tucked into the custard tart. Just how he liked them, slightly crumbly pastry and firm custard that wobbled in a way that vaguely reminded him of something but he couldn’t think what.
The next day his workmates, including his best friend Tubby Scruton, seemed a bit secretive. They were always going off into corners and muttering to each other. He wondered whether Tubby was trying to convert them to his love of philosophy, Schopenhauer was his current favourite, but that seemed unlikely in the extreme. When he approached the huddle they would break up with cheery waves, “How ye doing, Alfred old mate?” but they never gave away what they had been up to. Alfred collared Tubby during their lunch break. They were both sitting on empty dustbins.
“What’s going on, Tubby? I can’t make it out.”
“Do you mean ‘what’s going on’ in the existential sense or rather in an ontologically didactic discourse?” Mr Bloggs could see that he was going to get nowhere with Tubby.
Now I expect that you have probably worked it out already. You have probably guessed what was going on but if you haven’ t may I remind you that J. Alfred Bloggs’s sixtieth birthday was imminent, in fact it was on the following Tuesday. I think we can assume that Tubby and the boys were hatching something.
No, not a chicken. They had a plan for Mr Bloggs’s birthday. An elaborate, even exotic, plan.
Well now, the day of Mr Bloggs’s birthday arrived, on Tuesday as I think I told you.
“Happy Birthday, Alfred!” said Mrs Bloggs as she planted a kiss on his cheek at breakfast. She seems peculiarly exuberant for what is nothing special, he thought, just my sixtieth birthday. He opened his present from her, a book of timetables for the railway from Vienna to Ravenna, a particular interest of his.
“Well, thank you dear. How did you know I wanted this?” Mrs Bloggs just smiled.
His workmates were very cheery too. Best wishes flowed in great profusion. Mrs Bloggs had brought the iced fruit cake down to the depot for lunchtime so they all had a satisfactorily thick wedge of that. Just as she was leaving Mrs Bloggs collared her husband, “Don’t forget, we’re to go to Hilda’s for tea.” This was the first that Mr Bloggs had heard of such an invitation; Hilda was an emaciated cousin of his who made it her life’s work to find something wrong with everything. Her pinched face and grumbling speech war guaranteed to give Mr Bloggs a headache in less than ten minutes. Hilda, on his birthday. Oh no!
He didn’t say anything.
At the end of the working day he made his way back home to No.47, Venetia Villas. Mrs Bloggs was not at home when he got there. He had a wash and, with a heavy heart, put on his best suit.
There was a bang on the door which made his old dog bark. It was Tubby Scruton looking very scrubbed-up and smart in a pale grey suit with a red tie that said ‘Kant for King’.
“‘ello, Alfred. Message from your missus. She’s gone on ahead so I’ll take you round.” This was strange. Was Tubby going to Hilda’s? He wondered how her perpetual disapproval would deal with Nietzsche. The two men ambled along the streets in the directions of Hilda’s uninviting house. As it happened their path took them past the converted bus shed that was the Barnsley Palais de Dance. At that point Tubby, without a word, steered his friend up the steps of the Palais. In a moment they were through the swing doors and into the hall.
“‘ere, hang on Tubby. We’re expected at Hilda’s.” This was met with nothing more than an enigmatic smile from the rotund philosopher. He was good at enigmatic smiles, they came in useful when debating philosophical conundrums (no, they’re not boiled sweets, ask your parents).
And then Mr Bloggs saw what was going on. The whole hall was full of balloons, tables of food, a band, crowds of people (all of whom Mr Bloggs knew) and a big banner across the entire hall that declaimed ‘Happy Birthday, Alfred. Sixty today!’ The band struck up and everybody started to sing
“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you …” Mr Bloggs was overcome with emotion. His eyes filled with tears as he stared at the array before him.
With hardly a break the band struck up again only this time they were playing the Paso Doble. The rhythms throbbed, the saxophones howled, everybody jigged about until something truly amazing happened.
The lights went down except for a pink spotlight in the centre of the hall. The band continued to play as four people pushed on a trolley on which was placed the most enormous custard tart that you are ever likely to see. It was immense. It looked as if it would feed half of Barnsley and still leave enough for seconds. Mr Bloggs’s jaw dropped in amazement but that was not the end of it, there was more to come. The band stopped abruptly and a compère at the microphone called
“Come forward, J. Alfred Bloggs, and be the first to taste your birthday tart.” Shyly Mr Bloggs came forward. There was a flash, a huge chord from the band and who should emerge from the giant custard tart but Mrs Bloggs, dressed in a Latin-American costume that left nothing to the imagination.
“Happy Birthday, Alfred” she called before stepping out of the tart, bits of custard slipping from her ample frame.
“Well I’m bothered” was all that her amazed husband could say. She minced down to him on heels twice as high as she had ever worn in her life and planted a big kiss on his lips. She tasted of custard.
Kisses and custard. Not a bad combination thought Mr Bloggs.