SHORT STORY FOR THE WEEKEND: Albert Strump

Portsea was just too cramped and smoggy for an 'Ampshire 'Og. Picture: costen.co.uk
Portsea was just too cramped and smoggy for an 'Ampshire 'Og. Picture: costen.co.uk
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Here is the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers’ Hub.

Kate Rawding is the editor of Portsmouth in Print and has self-published The Unlikely Rescuers – the first book of a trilogy.

You can find out more information about Kate by visiting kjrawding.com or facebook.com/katerawding.co.uk.

At the funeral the extended family had made Peter Deek out to be a good man, and that he would be sorely missed. But Dan and his five brothers knew their father was a drunk and handy with his fists, regularly getting into brawls and giving the boys a good hiding.

He couldn’t keep a job as he kept turning up to work still inebriated from the night before, so money was tight, and the debt collectors soon arrived and took everything of value.

The Deeks had to move from their run-down cottage in Chalton, to a terraced house in Queen Street, Portsmouth, where Dan’s three elder brothers found work in the dockyard to support their mother.

Dan hated Portsmouth and yearned to be back in the countryside. School was no better, with his Hampshire accent the boys at St Luke’s called him ‘Ampshire Og’ or ‘Deeky’, which meant dusty boy, or servant.

His dad couldn’t even get that right; he wished he had a name like Albert Strump, the owner of the Royal Beach Hotel right on the seafront, close to Southsea Common.

Dan would walk past and see the red carpet and the giant glass doors that sparkled without a single smear; he dreamt of one day staying there. He would see Mr Strump in his Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith limousine, wearing a long black coat whatever the weather and carrying a thin black cane.

One freezing November day, as Mr Strump gracefully exited his car, via the door held open by Walter the chauffeur, he slipped on an icy patch and lost his balance, his foot shot forward and he started reeling backwards.

Without thinking about being toppled by this burly six foot man, Dan stepped to the side of him and grabbed his arm, steadying him just before he fell.

‘A street urchin’, he had first thought, but then the boy said ‘good day sir’ and tipped his cap. He did not talk like the beggars, he had a country lilt and he looked much healthier than the other sallow-faced boys.

‘What is your name?’ Mr Strump asked in a strange accent that Dan did not recognise.

‘Dan Deek, sir.’

‘Well, Master Deek, one favour deserves another, so what would you like in return?’

Without hesitation he replied: ‘To walk on your red carpet sir. I will take my shoes off.’

Albert smiled: ‘Go on then.’

Just like that, he got to take his shoes off and go through those flawless gold-handled doors held open by the doorman with the braided hat. Very slowly, he placed his grubby foot on the carpet and felt it disappear into the thick pile.

A spotty-faced porter came over and started to grapple with Dan’s collar. But one look from Mr Strump was enough, so he removed himself and apologised, several times.

After that Dan would hang around waiting for Mr Strump. Sometimes receiving a smile, other days he’d look straight through him. Almost a year later Dan was waiting, drenched by an autumn shower. Mr Strump just about managed a nod of the head. He looked pale, dark under the eyes and much thinner in the face.

The doorman strutted over. Dan was waiting for a polite ‘bugger off’ or a clip around the ear, but today he beckoned him inside. Dan caught sight of himself in the giant mirror, his red hair was stuck flat to his face and his freckles seemed to shine.

‘Mr Strump has requested your company. God knows why, but you’d better behave yourself,’ the doorman continued.

Dan dripped his way into the lobby, staring up at the grand chandelier that he thought looked too heavy to stay up, then he made his way to the desk where the receptionist showed him to a private sitting room. Gilded framed pictures of a beautiful woman adorned the walls.

Mr Strump arrived. ‘Now tell me boy, why do you keep hanging round my hotel?’ Amusement filtered through his voice.

He told Albert his life story, only taking a breath so he could devour the fresh cream cake offered to him, followed by a glass of cloudy lemonade, before stating that he wanted to return to the country because it was too cramped and smoggy to live in Portsmouth.

Albert said nothing, but, after a long pause, he stood up. ‘Well, shall we go for a drive? Get some decent air, and you can show me your cottage.’

‘Really sir? That would be the best thing ever.’

The kids always ran up and looked at the Rolls, leaving grimy little hand prints on the glass. Now Dan was actually sitting on the leather seats, albeit on a fluffy white towel. This was the happiest memory of his childhood.

He can still remember the smell of the beeswax polish and Albert’s cigar smoke, and visualise the half-hour journey where he sat in silence, watching people watching him, and took in the beautiful colours of the autumn trees.

Albert talked about his wife Nira, the woman in the portraits who died at the age of 22. They never had children and he never got over the death of his one true love.

‘I was an only child and, with no relatives left, you are the closest thing I have to a son… I do look forward to hearing about the mischief you and your brothers get into.’

Dan smiled and felt really sorry for him. Even though he hated sharing his room with all his brothers, he couldn’t ever imagine being alone.

They arrived at the cottage and Albert looked disappointed.

‘It’s better inside… come on, I’ll show you the river where I’m the champion at Pooh sticks.’

‘Pooh sticks?’

‘You’ve never played?’

Dan fetched a handful of twigs and broke them roughly into the same length and they walked to the bridge.

‘Ready… steady... throw! Whichever one gets to the other side first, wins.’

Albert’s stick’s got stuck on a small rock. Dan’s sped ahead. They carried on playing until they ran out of sticks. Albert pushed his sleeves up and Dan caught sight of the numbers 98988 on his arm.

‘What are they for?’

‘A reminder.’

‘Of what?’

‘My heritage.’

Dan didn’t have a clue what he meant. ‘I know it’s not much to look at, but you can hear the owls at night and we roasted chestnuts over the fire and scrumped the best apples you ever tasted… I’ll get you one if you like?’

‘Thank you.’

Albert lowered himself on to the side of the bank, watching the skinny boy quickly scale the tree, shaking the heavy-laden branch. They walked beside the meadow and Dan talked about the Woolly Pigs with marbled meat that he was going to have on his farm.

‘I’ve never eaten pork,’ Albert said.

‘You’ve never tried bacon?’

‘It’s not kosher.’

‘I don’t know what that means, but you will have to try my sausages one day… they’ll be the tastiest ever.’

Albert laughed.

The next day Dan ran to Southsea to find the hotel closed. Never in all his days had the hotel been closed. The flags, a Union Jack and the one he didn’t recognise with a blue star and blue lines at the top and bottom, were both flying at half-mast.

Dan knocked on the glass door; the spotty porter came along. His coat wasn’t even buttoned up to the top.

‘What’s going on? Why are you shut?’ Dan asked.

‘He’s dead… Mr Strump’s dead.’

Dan couldn’t help bursting into tears. ‘How? I mean, I was with him yesterday. He was fine.’

‘He wasn’t fine, he was in the last few weeks of his life. Lung cancer.’

Dan got on with his life, but he would not go back to the Royal as he couldn’t bear to see it closed and he missed Albert so much.

There was a knock at the door at Queen Street, and Walter the chauffeur was standing there. ‘It took me ages to track you down. I’ve got a letter for you from Mr Strump, you might want your mum to read it.’

‘I can read!’

‘I mean that it’s important. You have to come with me to hear the will being read. He left you something.’

‘I’ll get my cap.’

Official-looking people stood around at the hearing. No-one looked sad except Dan and Walter. Mother was trying to smooth down her ruffled dress and push her lank waves into place.

A solicitor in a suit opened Albert’s last will and testament. He started reading: ‘My Rolls-Royce I bequeath to Walter Sutton, my trusted chauffeur and friend.’ Walter fell back into his seat, his mouth agape, flabbergasted.

‘Wow... you lucky bugger,’ Dan thought. ‘I hope I get the chandelier or maybe some of the red carpet, I could put it by the fire and we could all sit on it.’

‘Daniel Deek,’ the solicitor said, ‘I hereby bequeath to you the Royal Hotel and all his assets which having been calculated by Blare & Son’s accountants as in the region of a quarter of a million pounds.’

Mother fainted and everyone was looking at Dan, stood knock-kneed with his cloth cap in hand.

Dan fulfilled his dream of the farm, and he and the wife stay at the Royal every autumn where their cases are carried for them, and the door is opened by a young, spotty doorman – all thanks to Albert Strump whose flag still flies at half-mast as a sign of respect.

•Send your short story to the Portsmouth Literature Worker, Tessa Ditner at tessa@newwritingsouth.com. For more information check out the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub on Facebook