Roald Dahl‘s Tales of the Unexpected stories have had a lasting effect on me since I first read them as a teenager due to their deliciously uneasy mixture of comedy and horror which creeps up on the reader. Theirs is a world which is similar to but much crueller and odder in outcome than our own in the individual lives depicted. Criminals are unpunished for their deeds (at least while we read); parents are guided by bee-keeping manuals rather than Dr. Spock.
Though long departed from this world, Dahl himself continues to be the subject of news stories centred on his anti-Semitism (most recently, his family have apologised for his personal beliefs). Britain in 2020 is now even further removed from the shut Sundays sepia which seems to cling to the stories in Tales… than when I read them in the Eighties, specifically the way that Dahl situated and centred white Anglo males within almost every story to be the be-all and end-all when it comes to importance and gravitas.
Whilst the plots unfurl with stealth and twists continue to grip, I took the liberty of updating ten of the stories for my amusement, primarily to see if changes in language, characters or relationships would alter or diminish the efficacy of Dahl’s work (the basic narrative structure is still the same however).
If anything of value still remains after this experiment of sorts, no doubt that stems from him; the slapdash and the sub-standard is mine.
Bill Tettey had missed the previous connection so was glad when his train pulled alongside the long platform at Bolton. It was a Thursday in August, early in the evening, yet he had been right to wear his best, warmest coat.
He should have driven, but then he should have a car, and should also be more than a team manager after almost four years. He had too much responsibility and none of the pay packet. So he had jumped at the opening at Watson-Fortune. I am somebody who is going somewhere at last, he thought. You had to put in the years, whoever you were; ignore the fact there weren’t any other Tetteys behind the other monitors. Believe you had a destiny which would be realised.
As he walked down the platform, Bill wished there was a B&B waiting for him. There had been little listed on-line for Bolton; each had been taken. Any port in a storm was what his pops would have said. He looked presentable so surely there would be a brother or sister or auntie who would come to his rescue tonight.
The ticket inspector was loath to give him anything more than the time of day, but had mentioned the Crown when Bill deliberately politely asked about rooms to rent. An old song of his uncle’s came to mind: ‘Sinner (Have You Been There)’. Bill sang the chorus under his breath as he picked up his pace away from the station.
His Mum had said little when he had mentioned the new post. The look in her eyes was all too familiar to him – a mixture of devotion and fear. “You are my eldest and my only one, and you have my curiosity and adventure William,” she had once said. Every young man needs both of those things, but God forbid you don’t have caution.”
The station platforms stretched out in both directions, suggesting a daily settlement of commuters each morning and evening, whilst the Crown hotel intimated people were not flocking to visit in return.
Small and squat, it had a white-washed front darkened around its single front door and two sets of windows; the curtains were partially drawn downstairs. His watch showed a little past eight however the front door was closed. Bill could not see any drinkers at the bar. Fruit machines baubled away, but nobody was feeding them as flags shifted gently below the ceiling. There was some music to be heard – guitars mainly, slashing the air – was this punk? – along with pellets of words being spoken.
As Bill turned to the door, it opened. A man quickly emerged who did not return Bill’s smile nor extend him any other welcome. He bore his shoulders, blocking any sight of the pub within, supporting his full pint glass as if a sheath across his chest whilst his other hand rooted in a pocket of his jeans. Everything about this man advertised an impending A&E visit – the belly tyre, sunken eye sockets and unhealthy look to his skin – but he was clearly fired up for something physical. Bill turned and struck out away from the pub, as the man’s chin looked to jut out further, slapping his soles onto the old smooth paving slabs and then the tarmac patches and then back again.
It was only one night and there would be somewhere else. Somewhere without its proud boys. It had not gone dark yet, but Bill pulled his coat collar nearer in response to a shiver.
Terrace houses lined each side of the street, brick sentries put on duty a long time ago. Your mills are long gone, he thought, and nothing replaced them. For a second, he felt sorry for the local stuck at the local. Few lights shone out at him as he overtook each house. The partially opened black bin bags in gardens seemed to be doubling in number as he went by. He focused on ensuring that the occasional rainbow tacked to a window made more of an impression on him, noting what were now varying shades of grey in the darkening evening. Tough times for everyone right now. There was something else advertised in some of the windows which Bill failed to notice. Its writing was too small to read however the ‘X’ through the silhouette of a mosque was evident.
Bill picked up the pace and hurried towards what he hoped was the halfway point of this long street, which was marked by an ugly, angular lamppost, a frozen iron triffid which dwelled on an earthly halo of weak, dull yellow. It was a lone bit of cheer so Bill nearly missed the sign which hung from the front downstairs window of the house.
‘Rooms available’ was written in a curly script with red flowers in two opposing corners. The house itself was lighter and cleaner than its neighbours with a hanging basket to the side of the wooden door. Stepping back to look through the terrace’s windows, the orangey-red glow of a gas fire lit up a sleeping cat which was curled on a rug. There were what his Mum called fronds falling from the sides of the small room into its centre. The cosiness caused Bill to stop clenching his hands and arms close to his body. He moved to the door to knock before stepping back automatically to look above in the hope of movement when the door opened.
An older woman with black eyes measured him up as he concentrated on giving her his broadest smile, pulling his shoulders back as well. Her blond hair was piled in a circular fashion towards the lintel whilst the jagged stripes on her dress went left and right haphazardly; meanwhile her face drank him all in.
“Good evening, I’m-”
“Looking to stay love – you’ve come to the right place, come in, come in, get out of that wind.” Bill felt the insistence of her small white hands as she guided him over the threshold.
“Hope I’m not disturbing you or stopping you going out?” he said as she expertly whirled him round in the hallway to face her.
“Not likely love. Been there, done it – and I’m not one for T-shirts.” A giggle or what sounded like one emerged. “How many nights do you want to stay love?”
“I’m not sure,” Bill admitted. “I’ve been moved by my work here so I’ll be looking for a place. Tonight and the rest of the week perhaps?”
“Whatever you want love. It’s twenty pounds a night, but if that’s too high we can sort that out later. Free wi-fi and breakfast – do you like sausages?”
“Er, yeah, thanks.” He looked down the hallway and up the green carpet of the stairs. “Do you have many other guests right now?”
“Not many cock, sorry! What am I like, Mister-?”
“Tettey, Bill Tettey.”
“Oh, that’s different. That an African name, Mister Totty?”
“Tett-AY, yes, my folks are from Ghana,” was said to her back as she led him up first one and then another flight of stairs to the front bedroom, explaining she slept on the first floor. “That’s nice. I’ll put you in Elmina, here you go love.”
His room was clean and warm, he saw. A bed and a sturdy enough wardrobe were teamed with a sink in the corner. When he sat on it, the bed was noticeably warm with the sheets and blanket turned over at one side invitingly.
“I put the electric blanket on as it’s not warm outside, is it? Are you wanting a bit of tea? It’s no trouble for me to fix something for you.”
Bill said he would be happy with a brew as he was keen to get an early night. Before she left him alone, the landlady asked him to sign her guest book downstairs before he turned in.
Faded but prominently placed pictures hung on the pink walls. The captions were of a Northern goshawk at roost with a white-tipped eagle flexing its outstretched wings in the other. They were cheap pound shop tat in this tiny terrace, and he was stuck here with them. After hanging up his suit in the wardrobe, he creaked his way down the two short flights of stairs.
Inside the front room he found a cup of tea near to the guest book on a low table. As he sipped at the tea, its nutty taste briefly registering with him, he again felt her taking him in, measuring or memorising him.
“Earl Grey love. It’s a Bolton thing,” she said with a thin laugh.
For all of the pages in the guestbook, there were few entries to be read.
“I was told to go to the Crown when my train got in.”