SHINDIG by Letty Butler (1st place, Apr21)


Ursula is in her usual fireside spot languishing in her own flesh, whilst reading an old Argos catalogue aloud to Boggo. He can’t hear her because he’s in the galley doing something revolting. She squints at the silver clock and wishes she could tell the time – she wants to know how long it will be before her guests arrive.

‘Boggo?’

He doesn’t respond, which is completely normal. She decides to sit tight so she doesn’t have to mess about with the skateboard. But Boggo’s busy. He’s so stressed, he’s sexually assaulting yesterday’s Fray Bentos in the galley kitchen.

‘Boggo?’

He hunches further over the knackered pie, hating himself more with every lack-lustre thrust. He can hear her shuffling about in the cabin next door. It’s very off-putting. Boggo knows he’s about to lose his temper. He can feel it brewing.

‘BOGGO!’

‘What? What is it you want from me?’ which sounds a bit over the top, even to him.

He can hear the rusty wheels of the skateboard as they creak across the warped wood next door. He extracts himself from the pie and flings it in the general direction of the sink. It misses and slides down the front of the cupboard, leaving gravy skid marks on the cheap veneer.

Ursula stops in the doorway and stares up at Boggo’s hunched back. He can feel her podgy eyes on his dowager’s hump and doesn’t like it one jot. He angles his face towards her, simultaneously trying to conceal his pastry-flecked appendage. She’s there, straddling the skateboard, inexplicably brandishing an aubergine. Boggo thinks she looks a bit put out but he likes what she’s done with her hair.

‘Boggo, I fink it’s a lil bit too much to be ignoring me on ma birfday’ says Ursula. She has an unusual way of conversing owing to a combination of her harelip and the fact she’s completely self taught. It doesn’t really matter because she’s never spoken to anyone other than Boggo and he understands her perfectly.

‘Oh sorry Ursula!’ he shouts. The outburst makes him feel better so he carries on. ‘I’m just so sorry for trying to give you the best birthday party anyone’s ever had.’

‘Boggo, sometimes ven you say you is sorry it semz to me vat you don’ really mean it.’

Boggo hears the melancholy in her voice and tries to remain calm. ‘I do mean it. It’s just that I’m under pressure here, so do please forgive me if I can’t answer you immediately when you come in here with your aubergine, ok?’

‘Okey pokey Boggo. I was jus wantin’ to know ven de people is comin’ dass all’ she says quietly and wheels herself back into the cabin.

Boggo suddenly feels ashamed of himself. He puts his finger into a candle until it really hurts which makes him feel better. Then he thinks of all the work he has put into the party and that helps too. He hand-wrote every invitation to all of Ursula’s favourites: Jamie Cullum, Sally Gunnell and Ian McShane. It had taken him weeks what with his arthritis but he’d persevered because he loves Ursula more than anything. Even counting.

Next door, Ursula feels slightly mistreated and rather cross but the feeling is short lived. She gazes at the candlelit cabin and is overcome with gratitude. All 137 wicks have been lit and the banqueting table is laid with their best array of Spode. The assorted fish knives are glinting in the firelight and the goblets shine like fairytale coins. As Ursula begins to hum the theme tune to Lovejoy, her cheeks flush a girlish pink. She looks at the tiny keyboard in the corner and can’t believe Jamie Cullum will be playing it later. Perhaps Sally Gunnel will dance?

Back in the galley, Boggo’s morale is through the roof, until he remembers he’s forgotten to check the nets. He considers punching himself in the face but he’s low on time as it is. Instead, he hobbles towards the deck door, cursing his gnarled stump with every slow step.

He finally makes it out onto the deck and sweats his way across the slippery wooden slats. The dock air is greasy against his papery skin. It reeks of shit and cockles. With death-yellow hands, he hoists the decaying nets. They are promisingly heavy which bodes well for tonight’s ambitious menu: Carp Carpaccio followed by Eel Surprise. All washed down with hot pink gin.

*

Boggo contemplates the disastrous haul: one water-logged wellington, a bloated octopus and a tractor tyre. He tries to kick the tyre but can’t quite manoeuvre his stump into the right position. He eyes the rotting octopus, wondering how long it’s been dead and whether or not it would stretch to calamares. It’s a fleeting thought – in his heart of hearts he knows he’s blown it. Boggo punches himself in the face, hears the satisfying thwack of his head against the deck and smiles.

*

Boggo looks at Ursula’s vast back as she tinkers on the keyboard and notices she’s wearing her favourite tin foil crown. The sight of it is excruciating. He can’t bear the thought of disappointing her again, not tonight. Ursula starts to sing. It sounds like cats fighting.

‘I do love it when you sing, Darling.’

She twists her corpulent body to face him. The crown, now lopsided, brings out her grey eyes and a threatening lump in Boggo’s throat. Ursula’s joyful, crooked smile transforms into an ‘o’ as she registers his distress. ‘Boggo?’ she says and he starts to cry.

‘Boggy-woggy! Wass de matter? Is you not ‘avin too much fun in da kitchen?’

Boggo can’t speak but manages to shake his little bald head. He hates the sound of his sobs – cow-like and vaguely feminine but it does occur to him that it feels exquisite and he perhaps ought to do it more often. Ursula holds out her arms and Boggo hobbles over. He lays his head on her lap and explains the situation.

‘Boggo. I am knowing vat everyfing’s gonna be fine ok?’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah! You is tellin’ me vat ve only fing we has got in va cupboard is bredd for de toast. Isn’t it dat everybody does love de toast?’

‘Well, yes, I suppose they do.’

‘And we has got de tuna paste also?’

Boggo recalls that they do in fact have several tins of tuna paste. Things are looking up.

‘And don’ you be forgettin’ de aubergine I got.’

Boggo had indeed forgotten all about the aubergine. Baba Ganoush calls. He gazes into her curranty eyes and falls in love with her all over again.

*

It is 10.43pm and the candles are down to the quick. Only three stubby-nubs remain lit. The tuna paste toasts are curling on their platters. Boggo is pacing the cabin, as quickly and crossly as his stump will allow. His cheeks are tumour-red, a combination of gin and fury. Clear tears dribble down Ursula’s pock-marked cheeks. Her shoulders shudder with every soundless sob. In the last of the candlelight, she looks so sad and so beautiful, Boggo is sure he can feel his heart breaking. It is like a tiny sparrow being stamped on.

‘I can’t understand it’ he says, again. Ursula doesn’t speak because she can’t. ‘It’s ludicrous!’ he adds and punches the keyboard.

‘Don’ be too much plezze Boggo,’ says Ursula, which tips him over the edge.

‘Sorry Ursula but I’m not being too much actually! People should bloody well turn up if they’ve been invited to a party! Bloody Jamie Cullum. Who does he think he is? I don’t care how good he is on the piano. It’s rude not to come. Bloody rude!’

Outside a seagull squawks.

When all is quiet, Boggo says in a small, grave voice ‘Actually it’s worse than rude Ursula; it’s cruel.’ He looks at her and feels truly calm for the first time all year. Finally, he exhales.

‘I’m ready for bed now Boggo.’

Boggo retrieves the skateboard from the corner of the cabin and drags it over to her by its frayed rope. It takes them a while to manoeuvre her body off the throne, which they do in silence. She throws her arms around Boggo’s shrivelled neck, her stomach flows either side of his hump as she piggy-backs him. He resembles a slender snail, with a dangerously large shell.

Once her legs are astride the skateboard, the long drag to the bedroom commences. Once inside, Boggo kisses her and she cries herself to sleep. He hobbles back into the cabin. The room is filled with the scent of burnt toast and woodsmoke. The undisturbed banqueting table looks painfully hopeful. Just before he snubs out the last candle, he sees Ursula’s crown crushed on the floor. He picks it up, closes his eyes and holds it to his cheek.

Suddenly, the doorbell.

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