Breaking up at 30,000ft


DOING my time in godforsaken Blackburn (1977 to 1980) I lived in a council flat not far from a huge warehouse known as Tommy Ball’s. This former cotton mill was an outlet for footwear, often of surprisingly good provenance and always at a rock-bottom price.

Shoes, boots and slippers resided on shelves with each pair joined by a piece of string via holes at the rear (there used to be a joke about an Irishman who took back a pair of wellingtons and asked for a longer string). Anyway, you could always tell a pair of Tommy Ball’s by those little holes.

Tommy himself was an incredibly popular bloke around the area because he was so free with his money. He used to drink at Little Harwood Conservative Club and, when he emerged in the late afternoon, the local ruffians would be waiting for him. He’d reach into his jacket pocket, pull out a handful of fivers and tenners, and throw them in the air for the kids to fight for. 

On extended pub crawls, he would give everyone in the house free drinks when he came through the door. It never ceased to amaze me how regulars in my local, the Globe Inn, who would normally drink halves of mild, suddenly developed a taste for double brandies when Mr Ball was in residence.

(A brief aside. My cousin’s husband Eric, sadly no longer with us, would always delightedly quote a note I left on my door in my absence saying: ‘I am roamin’ in the Globe Inn.’

On one of my visits to Tommy Ball’s I noticed a vast consignment of blue leather shoes with a Levi’s label. There were hundreds of them, presumably a cancelled order, and a snip at £12.50 a pair.

Bear with me, for I’ll get to the point eventually.

I have already shared with you my excruciating experience on the Greek island of Andros, when I found myself in a loo with no paper. As I said then, I had met a toothsome bird on the ferry from Piraeus, and the relationship continued after the holiday in October 1980.

I visited her in Gants Hill, Essex, where I stayed in a hotel, and she journeyed north to my then home in Ramsbottom, always concealing from her religious parents the fact that she was engaging in carnal relations with a member of the opposite sex.

Keen to supplement such encounters, I suggested that we went on holiday together in December. She agreed, but insisted that she pay for herself. It turned out that all she could afford was a week in Tunisia, half-board in a three-star hotel, costing £89.99 including flight. I pleaded with her to let me pay the difference and go somewhere civilised, but she was adamant. She told her parents that she was going away with two nice girls she had met in Andros.

Although she was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and her conversation hardly scintillating, I consoled myself that I would be spending a whole week playing hide-the-sausage with a half-Burmese beauty who looked like one of those dusky maidens formerly used to advertise Manikin cigars.

Our flight from Manchester was on December 17 and I picked her up at the city’s main bus station in Chorlton Street the night before. The atmosphere was strangely fraught and I should have realised trouble was afoot at the hotel when she said: ‘Not tonight, Josephine.’

In the taxi to the airport she was resolutely taciturn. And on the near-empty plane, she began sobbing. ‘What’s the matter?’ I enquired. She replied: ‘I can’t possibly enjoy this holiday when I’m deceiving my parents so badly.’

Patience is a virtue which escaped me at that juncture.

‘Well why the f**k didn’t you say that before we got on to the flight to this sh*thole?’ I put it to her.

That, dear reader, was the end of the relationship. I apologised but to no avail. And t’trouble were, as Joe Gladwin would say, we still had a holiday to get through.

She spent the rest of the flight stretched out on three seats ten rows away from me. We arrived at the crappy hotel where she announced: ‘I can’t bear for you to be near me.’

The food was dire. The weather was worse – waiters assured me that hailstones had never been seen in Tunisia before. I suggested that we spent our days separately but she protested: ‘You can’t leave a girl on her own in a strange Arab country.’ On the one day the storm abated to let us on to the beach we were swamped by men trying to sell us ‘silver’ filigree jewellery. One of them would start out demanding one dinar (about £1.25) for this desirable artefact and, after we maintained that we did not want it at any price, by a lengthy process reduced it to half a dinar. When we still said No, he would slink off to be replaced by another Tunisian, selling the same rubbish at the same price.

Worst of all were a gang of giant German lads who, observing the antipathy between me and the totty and thinking they might be in with a chance, shadowed us wherever we went. Thankfully they never made a move – I wouldn’t have fancied my chances defending her honour against half a dozen hulking Huns, or even one for that matter.

On one overcast day I went to buy some drinks from the bar and found on my return that a creepy type perhaps ten years my senior had moved into the chair adjacent to Miss Essex.

He was chatting her up in an obviously false American accent and the silly baggage was lapping it up. ‘Yeah,’ he drawled, ‘Noo Orlans is a great place to be. You should come out thar. Ah could show you a good tahm.’

I looked down at his feet and spotted blue Levi’s shoes, with those tell-tale holes in the back.

‘Tell me,’ I said. ‘Do they have a Tommy Ball’s in New Orleans?’

He burst out laughing and admitted he was from not Louisiana but Lancashire, specifically Darwen, the next town to Blackburn.

A small victory in a week of frustration.

A fortnight after our return the lass phoned me and had the temerity to ask: ‘Do you miss me?’

‘Like I miss having toothache,’ I replied, replacing the receiver with a crash.

Some years ago, idly wondering what had happened to her, I did a search on the office computer and discovered that she lived alone in North London, still under her maiden name. Not surprising, really.

Old jokes’ home

Two from the great Peter Kay, to be read in a Bolton accent.

Bloke walks into casualty with a steering wheel down the front of his underpants and complains: ‘It’s drivin’ me nuts!’

I rang the Indian takeaway and asked: ‘Do you deliver?’ ‘No,’ came the reply, ‘we do chicken, lamb and prawns.’

A PS from PG

We exchanged a meaning glance. Or, rather, two meaning glances, I giving him one and he giving me the other.

PG Wodehouse: Joy in the Morning


2 Replies to “Breaking up at 30,000ft”

  1. Tommy Ball’s, that’s a name from the past. I never went but I remember the adverts on TV and radio from the time, along with Winfield’s of Haslingden – another big name in cheap shoes.

  2. P.S. I am currently on holiday in darkest rural Lincolnshire.

    The people around here are very cruel. I keep seeing signs by the sides of the roads saying “CAT’S EYES REMOVED”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *