Listen to Gerry Gaffney read this story. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify

Published: 14 February 2024.

by Gerry Gaffney

This story contains swearing and drug references.

Line drawing of a toaster

Jimmy was strolling through the market stalls on Portobello Rd when he first saw Albert. Albert was elderly and well-dressed, and in conversation with a stall-holder about a toaster. He was concerned about whether it was in working condition.

The stall-holder had a strong Cockney accent. ‘It’s “as is” mate, that’s what it says on my shingle. No skin off my nose if you buy it or not. Great British brand, bargain price, working or not.’

‘Yes, I’ve always liked the Dualit,’ said Albert. ‘But I need it to actually work. I mean I want it to be able to make toast.’

‘Technically,’ replied the Cockney, ‘you don’t make toast. Toast is just heated bread. You toast bread. Hello sir, are you actually looking to buy something?' This he addressed to Jimmy who had stopped to witness the interaction. ‘Unlike our friend here who apparently only wants to handle the merchandise.’

Jimmy turned to the man he later knew as Albert. ‘These are pretty reliable, not much to go wrong with them, easy to fix.’

‘There you go,’ said the stall-holder, ‘Paddy here says he can fix it. He can probably use the timer for a bomb or something. Only joshing, mate,’ he added to Jimmy. ‘Anyway, just buy it or bugger off,’ he said to Albert. ‘I’ve got loads of other customers lining up to spend their cash on my quality products.’ This was clearly untrue.

‘If it doesn’t work, can I bring it back?’ he asked.

‘You’re taking the piss now,’ said the stall-holder.

After a little more hesitation and haggling, Albert handed over 5 pounds.

Albert turned to Jimmy. ‘You said you can fix these?’

‘Well, I said they’re easy to fix.’

‘My flat’s just around the corner. Can you come and test it out? I’ll give you a glass of good whiskey.’

‘Look at that,’ said the stall-holder, ‘the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’

Which turned out to be true.

At Albert’s flat, Jimmy examined the toaster in the tiny kitchen area, turning it upside down over the sink and emptying out some detritus. ‘Before you plug it in we should have a look inside to see if there’s a short.’

‘I don’t know what a short is,’ replied Albert, ‘but please feel free to proceed.’

‘Can I have a Philips screwdriver? Asked Jimmy.

Albert produced a small box of tools from the back of a drawer.

Jimmy looked at the tools. ‘This is a pretty poofy toolkit,’ he said with some disdain.

Albert raised an eyebrow. Jimmy blushed.

‘No offence,’ he said.

A pause.

‘None taken.’

Once Jimmy had examined the toaster, he cleaned and reassembled it.

‘Time for the toast test.’

A few minutes later Jimmy and Albert sat opposite each other, each with a slice of toast and marmalade and a glass of whiskey.

When Jimmy had finished his drink and snack, he said his goodbye and left.


A few days later, Albert answered a knock at the door of his flat.

Jimmy was there.

‘I came across a nice little toolkit,’ he said, and handed it to Albert.

‘How much?’

‘No, no, it’s a present. It’s kind of, sorry.’

‘Sorry for what?’

‘The poof thing.’

Albert laughed.

‘Well, thank you very much! I was just about to have a cup of tea. Join me.’

The friendship between Jimmy and Albert seemed unlikely. The difference in age, education, sexual orientation and social background meant they had little common ground. Albert had no apparent means of income, and Jimmy worked as a casual labourer on building sites.

But somehow they had a connection that made the differences either entertaining or irrelevant. Jimmy became a frequent visitor, and occasional provider of maintenance services to the more cerebral Albert. Jimmy seemed to be able to fix anything electrical or mechanical, or advise when things had gone past the point of rescue.

A few months after they met, Jimmy mentioned to Albert that he was moving. He was living in a share house, but his fellow tenants were moving north and he couldn’t afford to keep it on alone. Nor did he want to look for new tenants, so he’d decided to look for a small flat to rent.

‘You can stay here for a few weeks while you’re looking, if you want,’ Albert offered. ‘The spare room is lying idle.’

Jimmy didn’t think he’d need to take Albert up on the offer, but it turned out that getting a flat was more time-consuming than he’d expected, and he was glad to be able to move in while he continued his search.

Albert told Jimmy he had one rule - ‘No drugs.’ He was very emphatic.

Although they hadn’t previously discussed it, he probably knew that Jimmy moved in circles where drugs were commonplace.

Jimmy agreed to the rule.

The two weeks turned into four, and the pair came to an agreement on rent. Albert had found Jimmy a remarkably trouble-free guest. He was clean and quiet, considerate when he arrived home late or left early. And he could cook and fix things. He became a de facto maintenance man for the block of flats. He took cash payments from those who could afford it, and built up a reserve of goodwill among those who could not.

One evening Albert invited Jimmy to go to The Queens Arms to meet some friends.

‘Where’s that?’

‘Ladbroke Grove.’

‘There’s no Queens Arms there. Do you mean The Kings Arms?’

Albert laughed. ‘We call it The Queens.’

Albert’s friends were an entertaining group of six people. The youngest was in his fifties. All were men and all, it soon became apparent, were gay.

Albert’s friends seemed wary of Jimmy at first, and quite protective of Albert. One of them, Dominic, pulled a seat up next to him while Albert was at the bar. ‘Are you Albert’s boyfriend? I hope you’re not using him.’

Jimmy was annoyed but Albert returned before he had a chance to reply. Guessing what was happening, Albert turned to the table and said, ‘Let me clarify the situation in regard to my young friend here. He’s renting my spare room. He’s completely without ill intent. He is a wizard with all things mechanical and electrical. He’s also off limits to you old reprobates.’

‘Oh!’ said Jimmy, ‘I’ve just figured out why you call it The Queens Arms.’

‘Buy that lad a drink,’ said Albert.

Jimmy visited The Queens Arms from time to time with Albert, but they both had separate social lives that didn’t intersect. The crew at The Queens Arms accepted Jimmy, although Dominic maintained his distance.


As winter approached, Jimmy and Albert ended up in the flat together more frequently. Albert read in the evenings, and Jimmy tended to tinker with whatever appliance or gadget he was currently fixing or reassembling.

Albert had a large collection of books. One evening he asked Jimmy if he’d read ‘A Christmas Carol.’

‘No,’ said Jimmy.

‘How about Alexandre Dumas?’

‘No.’ He paused and then said, ‘To be honest, I can’t read well. I never did well in school at reading and writing.’

‘Oh, that’s a pity.’

‘Maybe, I’ve never really noticed it.’

‘I think I’d miss stories,’ said Albert.

‘Yeah, I like stories. And films.’

‘If you like, we can pick a book and I can read for say 15 minutes a few times a week.’

Jimmy looked hesitant.

‘I’m happy for you to say No. It’s just a thought, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll just quit.’


Albert picked out ‘The Wind in the Willows.’

‘That looks like a kids’ book,’ said Jimmy.

Yes, I think it’s supposed to be, but it’s a great story. Definitely wasted on snivelling brats.’

They kept up the reading, usually several times a week. Albert enjoyed the methodical slowness of reading aloud, and Jimmy was completely caught up in the story and the characters.

The shared activity was an intimacy and led to other conversations. But Albert was never forthcoming about his family and background. His father, he told Jimmy, had disowned and disinherited him when he found out his son was homosexual.

‘I thought half of the British upper classes were homosexual.’ said Jimmy.

‘Well, maybe, but only to a certain level of gayness. I was always 100%. Anyway, no point dwelling on the past.’


Jimmy continued to comply with the ‘no drugs’ rule and never brought anything home. In any case his use was limited to the occasional spliff with friends.

One day however a workmate offered him a bulk discount on several ounces of hash. This was much more than he would personally use. But it was a once-off opportunity, and he could make an easy profit of a few hundred pounds if he sold it at one the West End pubs he frequented on the weekends.

‘Listen. Don’t get busted,’ said his workmate. That’s a commercial quality, not just a possession charge. If you’re selling any, only have a few grams with you at any time.’

Jimmy agreed. But he made the mistake of visiting a pub on his way home, where he got chatting with a friendly young couple. Jimmy offered to sell them some hash.

The couple turned out to be plain-clothes police. He was arrested and charged with possessing and selling commercial quantities of a prohibited substance.

While they were questioning Jimmy at the station they told him they’d also searched Albert’s flat. Jimmy’s heart sank. Albert would be angry with Jimmy for breaking his promise. This was confirmed by one of the cops: ‘Your boyfriend wasn’t happy.’


Prison suited Jimmy. He’d always found it easy to get on with people.

He also enjoyed a certain amused notoriety for having tried to sell drugs to the police.

At the end of his first week inside, Jimmy wrote a letter to Albert. Writing was difficult, but he felt a keen need to say ‘Sorry.’

Dear Albert,

You know that I messed up and this letter is from prison.

This letter is to say I’m sorry that I broke my promise.

I hope you are well.

Sorry again,


He was hopeful of a reply, but none arrived.

He was put to work in the prison kitchen, and attended numeracy and literacy classes. Although a poor student as a child, he now found he had an enthusiasm for learning.

Jimmy wrote to Albert every week during his six months in prison, but never received a reply. He didn’t know whether Albert bothered to read them. In fact he didn’t know for sure that they were ever mailed. But in any case it was an opportunity to reflect and to practice his writing as well as, in a way, a penance.

As the weeks went past the writing became easier and he was better able to express himself.

Dear Albert,

It’s hard to believe it, but next week I am being released.

I have halfway house accommodation lined up in Hammersmith, and I’m expected to spend a month or so there while I find work. I don’t think this will be a problem, despite my record.

I understand that you may not want to see me or talk to me. I aim to come by your flat on Saturday 17th around 5pm to say hello. But if there is no answer, I’ll understand.

Thanks for lending me an ear - whether in reality or only in my imagination - during my time inside.




On Saturday 17th Jimmy went to Albert’s flat. He was carrying a gift of a small wooden jewellery box he’d made.

He knocked on the door tentatively.

Dominic answered. He looked pale and tired.

‘Hi Dominic,’ said Jimmy, ‘I was hoping to say hello to Albert.’

Dominic hesitated.

‘Jimmy, Albert died last month. I’m so sorry.’

Jimmy felt the world close around him.

‘Come in, come in, I’ll make some tea.’

It took Jimmy a few minutes to compose himself enough for Dominic to tell him what had happened.

Albert had had a heart attack at the Queens Arms and was dead on arrival at hospital. The funeral had been held on Thursday.

Dominic was his executor, and was in the flat cataloguing Albert’s possessions to distribute among his friends.

Jimmy told Dominic about how he’d written to Albert every week without a response, and how he had hoped to have one more chance to meet him.

‘He left a shoe box with your name on it,’ said Dominic.

In the box, Jimmy found all his letters, neatly arranged in chronological order. Each had been opened. Between each letter and the next were Albert’s replies, written and placed in envelopes but never sent. Some replies were multiple pages, some only one. Jimmy sat down heavily.

‘Time for a whiskey, I think,’ said Dominic.

With Dominic beside him, Jimmy opened up each letter in turn, and read the story of his friend’s life.

Copyright © Gerry Gaffney 2023

If you enjoyed this story, please consider leaving a positive review wherever you accessed it, or recommending it to others.