George wafted the little model of the Eiffel Tower under the assistant’s nose and handed over the required 50p.
‘That’s a lovely little thing isn’t it?’ she said. ‘Reminds me of The Lavender Hill Mob - do you remember - that old film?’
‘Aye, it does’ said George, laughing. ‘I bought it for luck - but if it turns out it’s made of gold I’ll be quids in, won’t I?’
‘Well, I hope it does’ she said.
George left the charity shop and crossed the road but a man dashed up behind him, rather violently. He was overweight - in fact he was that fellow with the pony tail who’d elbowed George in the Oxfam shop and got in his way.
‘I ’ad me eye on that!’ the man said, pointing to the wrapped up Eiffel Tower. ‘You know I did!’
‘Well you didn’t ’ave yer ’and on it, did you?’ said George - ‘an’ that’s what counts.’
‘I wanted it right bad’ said the man.
‘Well you should’ve bought it when you had the chance…’
‘I wanted it’ said the other man ‘an’ what’s more I still do…’ and he caught George by the arm and began to wrestle the little object from his grip.
‘Hey - what’re you playing at?’
‘I need it for me collection…’
‘Get off me, you stupid bugger.’ George looked at him intently and a hardness crept over his face and the look he gave was not exactly one of love. ‘I suppose you’re gonna to keep it with that protractor you pinched off me in 1969!’ The man looked stunned. ‘Well don’t look so flippin’ surprised’ said George. ‘You’re Eddie Flange… I’d know you anywhere.’ Eddie let go his grip and stared in amazement.
‘It’s never George Priddle is it?’
‘Aye, it is. And like it or like it not - this model’s staying with me!’ Eddie looked at him.
‘What do you know about France?’ he sneered.
‘A sight more than you do, that’s for sure. At school you couldn’t speak a flippin’ word.’
‘I always wanted to go on ’oliday there’ said Eddie, rather dreamily. ‘You know - climb up Eiffel Tower an’ all that. But it just never ’appened.’
‘You were too tight to spend the money! That’ll be the truth, Eddie Flange!’
This was not the homecoming George had expected. He’d not been back to Wetherby in thirty years and it was all a bit strange. He noticed The Three Legs had turned into a smart bar. There was even a Marks and Spencer’s. Well - for heaven’s sake - a Marks an’ Sparks in Wetherby…? George couldn’t settle. It was like he was searching for something without knowing what it was. The past, maybe - or his former self. But the past, as everyone knows, is another country.
So, in the absence of any definite plan, he’d drifted along from charity shop to charity shop and got increasingly irritable - even more so when he realised he was part of a group of at least four doleful-looking middle-aged men who appeared to be traipsing from shop to shop, just as he did. There they were scanning videos, flicking through old records, picking up trinkets and putting them down again.
What a homecoming! Of all the people he could’ve met, and it had to be Eddie Flange! At school it had been the same as in the shop just now. As soon as George had shown any interest in anything there was Eddie muscling in. From pushing his way in at the dinner queue to getting the best desk by the window in Technical Drawing - there he was - Eddie bloody Flange.
Then there was Audrey. George had had a thing about Audrey. He’d created a special secret page in the back of his English book that he’d dedicated to this most perfect saint of his adolescence. ‘Audrey Phillips’ it had said, several times over, written in thick blue biro in various scripts, ornamented and emblazoned with the most tender and passionate of doodles. ‘George and Audrey’ he’d written. ‘George and Audrey’. Could there ever have been a more magical combination? In those days she’d had long blonde hair and, like other girls in the class, she routinely rolled up her skirt at the waist to show an expanse of leg that would’ve made her mother blush. There was nothing new about this - all the boys were quite used to seeing girl’s knickers. But when Audrey inadvertently flashed George could hardly look. Gussets and sainthood just didn’t go together - it wasn’t right. No. He couldn’t think of her that way. She wasn’t flesh and blood; she was too beautiful - too ethereal. Consequently he kept his love to himself. It couldn’t be put into words - making it real would’ve spoilt it somehow. He simply worshipped her from afar and maintained his little shrine.
So when he dropped his English book and it flopped open on that very page, he knew some dread mortification was on its way. George turned quickly but not so quickly as Eddie Flange.
‘Hey! Look at this!’ shouted Eddie, as he picked up the book. ‘George loves stinky Phillips! What a laugh! Ha, ha, ha!’ Suddenly George was hemmed in by the large open mouths of boys as they pressed around him, mocking him and sneering. It was a torment they carried on for weeks. ‘Stinky Phillips!’ they shouted and the pink insides of their mouths penetrated his nightmares. ‘Stinky Phillips! Stinky Phillips!’ How the word ‘stinky’ echoed through the lonely hours of night. It scarred him. How dare they use such a word about his Audrey? Was he the only one who knew what love was? Eddie Flange stopped sooner than the others, which seemed nice of him at first, but then the awful truth dawned. One night, going home, he spotted them. There was Eddie Flange - his possessive arm clamped around Audrey’s waist. George’s heart almost stopped - at best it sunk somewhere never to recover. He dropped his satchel there in the road and cried. Eddie Flange! Eddie bloody Flange! How he hated him.
Just now, the tormentor of his youth had given up his claim on the Eiffel Tower and had walked off somewhere and George did his best to push away the resurrected agonies of his adolescence. The whole episode was best forgotten. A year or so later, he’d left school and he’d gone for that engineering job over in Huddersfield. There he’d found Ruth and they’d had seventeen years of bliss until she’d him left for the gasman. The children they’d had were quite independent now and George had reached this dangerous age. It was why he’d come back to Wetherby. He was searching for something, but he didn’t know what.
At the Cheshire Home shop he almost tripped over Eddie as he made his way out down the steps.
‘There’s nowt in there!’ chuckled Eddie, smiling and triumphant. The old competition suddenly rose up between them. George was determined not to allow Eddie to get one over him. Not any more. Those days had gone. They both set off towards the bus station, bustling along, neck and neck. Cars hooting as they crossed the Market Place but they didn’t care as each struggled to reach the next shop first. At Martin House they pushed and shoved their way in. George made a play to look at the bric-a-brac but just as Eddie joined him he ducked away to look at the books. Eddie pushed in front of him again, but George turned his attention to the CDs. Eddie did his best to elbow him away, terrified he might miss something.
Neither found anything at all, so they both set off at a run - back over the road - over to the next shop - Scope or Save the Children - it didn’t really matter. George burst across the threshold, breathless, determined to get to those books before Eddie did.
‘Are you all right?’ said a voice from behind the counter, as he stumbled across the floor.
‘Aye’ said George. ‘I were just…’ But his breath gave way, and as he looked behind him he was amazed to find Eddie hadn’t come in with him. ‘Oh!’ he said, in surprise.
‘I know you!’ said the voice. ‘I’m sure I do! You’re George Priddle, aren’t you? You nearly got yourself run over, just then! All to get in my shop? That doesn’t happen much! These days men normally run the other way!’ George looked up and all the agonies of his youth suddenly focussed into a white-hot flame.
‘Audrey Phillips!’ he said, and his legs almost gave way. She shot forward, pulling out a chair.
‘’Ere, sit down before you fall’ she said. ‘You did well to give that bugger the slip.’
‘Who?’ said George, sitting down.
‘My bloody husband!’ she said. George looked up wide-eyed. ‘I’ve been Audrey Flange these thirty years - did you not know? But Eddie Flange knows better than to come ’ere - that’s for sure! Oh yes! You know, if ’e calls me ‘stinky’ one more time I’ll bash ’is lights out.’
‘Oh, Audrey!’ said George. Audrey sighed, and from the depths of her obvious un-fulfilment something welled up and she flung the great unresolved questions of her life at some blind providence that seemed to lurk somewhere in a pile of old records.
‘Is there not a single man in Wetherby with a bit o’ romance about him?’ she cried.
‘Well…’ said George.
‘Is there not one knight in shining armour in the whole of West Yorkshire?’
‘Em - well…’ he spluttered.
‘Is it not too late for some man to come in ’ere and sweep me off me feet?’ George swallowed hard.
‘No! It’s not!’ he said. And he stood up and looked Audrey in the eye.
‘You what?’ she said. The dam burst. George couldn’t hold it back any longer. More than thirty years of repressed lust and schoolboy adoration poured forth like an irresistible flood.
‘Bloody ’ell!’ said Audrey and she kissed him full on the lips and George almost died of happiness. Should he feel guilty? Could he really whisk Audrey away like this after all these years? He thought of Eddie Flange - sweating, overweight - that stupid ponytail dangling down his back. No. Why should he feel guilty? Taking Audrey away from that so-and-so would be an act of charity - no one would ever doubt it. He groped in his pockets for some gift to seal the pact. There it was - the little wrapped-up model of the Eiffel Tower. It had surely turned into gold big style! He pressed it into Audrey’s hand.
‘Here’ he said. ‘Never mind bloody West Yorkshire. We’re off to Paris!’