Chris Sample set off for church at quarter past six as usual. It was February
and chilly so he wore his dark overcoat, as he always did when it was cold.
Beneath was his blue serge suit, which he always wore to church. He’d eaten a
tea of tinned salmon and salad, which his mother always prepared on Sundays. He
gave out hymn books on the door to the small congregation, as ever; and he sat
on the back row on the left, where he’d sat every Sunday for years. But this
week, something was different: the girl who sat beside him had never been there
"Hello," she said, as she sat down.
She was very slim, her hair was light brown, short and shone from brushing.
He noticed she was flat-chested. But she was pretty and nicely self-contained,
chirpy and confident. She sang very sweetly too.When they left, Sample was on
his way to the pub.
"I’m Carol, by the way," she said and held out her hand.
Her skin was beautifully soft and in spite of the weather she was warm.
"Are you walking home ?"
"I’m heading to Cop Lane."
"Oh. Well, I’ll walk with you. If that’s okay."
"That’s nice of you."
He was taken aback by the generosity of her compliment. She turned to him
with a friendly smile. Nice teeth . And her eyes were blue and wide. There
flashed into his mind the picture of those soft, warm hands stroking his hard
She lived in one of those small, three-bedroomed semis built between the
wars, all almost identical and facing one another across a narrow road. This was
the territory that depressed him. He preferred even the terraced streets of the
town. These were the prissy dwellings of the dull-witted, nine-to-five Tory
voters that made his blood run cold.
"This is mine," she said.
"Not very nice, really is it ?
"Yes, I suppose it’s okay. It’s a place to live. If you can call it living. I
can’t invite you in."
"My dad’s very strict."
"He used to be a policeman."
"Did he ? What does he do now ?"
"He has half shares in a pub. With my uncle. He lives there. My dad helps him
run it and takes a cut of the profits."
"My mum’d let you in."
He looked at her. She was leaning against the gatepost. She reached down and
scratched her calf , still looking into his eyes. He resisted shifting his gaze
to her leg.
"We can sneak round the side if we’re quiet."
"Can we ?"
"They won’t see us. They’ll be in the back room watching telly. They’ve just
got colour. My dad thinks it’s a miracle."
"Well, science is pretty amazing."
"Come on !"
She went on tiptoe down the path and unlatched the gate between the house and
garage. He came through and she closed it after him. She put her finger to her
lips and went delicately along the flagstones that led round the back of the
prefabricated concrete building. It was quite dark.
"Bit nippy, isn’t it ?"`she said.
She leant back against the garage wall and smiled at him. How sweet she was !
He put his hand on her waist.
"You don’t mind, do you," she said, "not being able to go inside ?"
Her lips were very warm and soft, like her hands and she kissed very gently,
very responsively. After half an hour she said:
"I’d better go in. They’ll be wondering where I’ve got to."
"Do you want to go for a drink ?"
"I’m not allowed."
"My mother’s a Methodist. She doesn’t approve of drinking."
"But your dad runs a pub !"
"I know. She’s disgusted. You should hear her go on."
"You’re old enough to make up your own mind."
"Oh, I do. But they don’t know that. I try to keep them happy. That way they
stay off my back."
She led him to the front gate, pecked him on the lips.
"See you next Sunday."
When Sample got to the pub, his mates were about to leave.
"Where’ve you been ?"
"Just got held up a bit."
Sunday became their regular thing. They sang hymns, prayed then snogged
behind her garage. But the evenings were getting lighter. It wasn’t possible to
sneak round the back. Carol took him into the house.
"This is Chris, I met him in church."
Carol’s dad was a caricature of an ex-copper. He was huge. His hands hung at
sides as if his fingers were filled with uranium. His chest could have housed
the Liverpool Phil. He had a black goatee streaked with grey and his head was
cocked back slightly as if he was ready for a fight.
"About time you got a haircut, isn’t it lad ?" he said.
"I had a trim last week."
"Trim ? Short back and sides is what it needs."
"Would you like a coffee ?" said Carol.
"Tea, please. Black. No sugar."
"And what do you do with yourself, young man ?" asked her dad.
"I’m a clerk for the Transport and General Workers’ Union."
"My God, mother, our Carol’s brought home a communist !"
"He’s a Christian, dad. How can he be a communist ?"
"There’s no lengths they won’t go to infiltrate. Tell me straight lad, are
you a member of the Communist Party ?"
Sample had never been a member of anything, except the cubs, and they
expelled him for insubordination.
"As a matter of fact," he said as Carol handed him his mug, "I used to be but
they kicked me out."
"What for ?"
"I was too left wing."
Carol’s dad stared at him for a moment.
"Put that mug down and leave my house."
"Walter, you can’t kick the boy out !" said Carol’s mum.
"Why can’t I ? It’s my house."
Sample put the mug down on the table.
"Goodbye Mrs Nobbs."
Carol followed him out and to the gate.
"Don’t worry, my mother will talk him round."
"He doesn’t mean anything by it, he’s just insecure."
"That’s what they said about Hitler."
"I can get out on Wednesday."
"You make it sound like prison. Does he give you remission for good behaviour
"I’m only seventeen. He thinks I’m still his little girl."
"Wednesday ? We could go to the flicks if you like."
That week, Sample found the address of the Communist Party and wrote for
details. When the package arrived, he applied for membership of the Young
Communist League. At work he asked one of the old hands where he could find out
"Read Marx, lad. Horse’s mouth."
He went to the library and got a copy of The Communist Manifesto. It
didn’t make much sense on the first reading but he went through it several times
and it began to come into focus. One evening he was watching the news and Harold
"We can’t take lectures from people who don’t do a hand’s turn.."
and something fell into place in his head.
He met Carol more often. Whenever she could get out they’d find somewhere
quiet. All through the summer they snogged behind trees, round the back of
shops, in empty bus shelters and through her thin dresses and skirts and blouses
he got to know the distant territory of her lovely body. He took her home to
meet his mother who gave them tinned salmon and salad for Sunday tea. Mrs Sample
thought her a grand lass, especially as her mother was a non-conformist.
"Why don’t we go back to my house ? My mother’ll be in bed at half past
"Why not ?"
"I don’t know. I don’t like to."
The autumn came round again and winter closed in. They were behind her garage
after church. She took his hand and pressed it to her crotch, so he worked up
her skirt and slipped into her knickers. When his finger went in she let out a
"You okay ?"
"Yes. Go on."
Her excitement rose in little gasps and squeals until she clung to him and
went taut. As he walked home, the picture of her sweet cunt was in his head. He
was very pleased and proud. In bed he read a few pages of The Acquisitive
Society. The words swam in his head but little by little they were coming to
create a pattern. The old bloke at work was feeding titles to him, lending him
paperbacks from his collection. He was starting to like two things above all:
Carol’s body and reading.
In church they sat together on the back row. It was a plain,
Congregationalist chapel, whose straightforwardness he liked. There was no pomp
or elaborate ritual and the vicar was a literary man who made reference to
Shakespeare, Hazlitt, Chaucer, Goldsmith, Eliot, Lamb, Crabbe and a Frenchman
called Sartre. Each week, Sample made a note of the names and went to the
library to find their books. There were three second-hand dealers in the town.
Every Saturday he went to browse and began to build his own modest collection.
When he read Existentialism is a Humanism, he wondered why a vicar should
admire Sartre. God, who had been a presence in his life since he mother gave him
an illustrated bible for Christmas when he was six, evaporated like an early
mist on an April day.
But he kept going to church. He liked it. It was a little hour of asylum. He
enjoyed the singing even though some of the hymns were foot-dragging dirges. He
knew all the people and the vicar was feeding him new literary names week by
week. In any case, it was pleasant to sit and listen to a sermon about a god in
which he didn’t believe. A lot of it became ludicrously hilarious. And, of
course, there was Carol.
One Sunday, behind the garage, she lifted her skirt and stepped out of her
knickers. He began the usual, delightful stimulation of her gorgeous cunt.
Previously, she’d run her hand over his hard cock through his bulging trousers.
Now, she unfastened them, pulled them down and caressed his erection and his
balls. He was amazed that in spite of the near freezing weather, her hand was
beautifully warm. She wrapped her fingers round and moved rhythmically back and
forward till he spurted against the garage.
"Here," she said, handing him a tissue.
When he was all fastened up again and she had her skirt pulled down and her
knickers in her bag, they kissed.
"For next week," she said, "why don’t you buy some condoms ?"
He thought of getting some from the barbers, but he didn’t want a haircut and
the thought of walking in, picking up a pack of three and paying with all eyes
on him, and maybe little kids there, and maybe even a little kid with his mum,
and maybe some little kid he knew and whose mother knew him ! He pondered. Then
he remembered Phil Carter who was reputed to have done it with Diane Slinger,
the ugliest, dirtiest, most vulgar girl in the fifth form. He’d said you could
get them from the Surgical Stores by the station.
He went after work on Thursday.
The woman behind the counter was about forty. Short, fat, dark-haired and
pillow-busted she ogled him through her glasses as if he were a specimen.
"Hello luv !"
"Hello," he said.
"What can I get for you, luv ?"
"Would you have a pack of three ?"
His politeness sounded absurd and he blushed.
"Gossamer or Fetherlite ?"
Before he could think he blurted:
"What’s the difference ?"
"None as a can tell, dear. They all feel the same to me, but it’s you who’ll
be wearin’ em."
"I’ll have the Fetherlite," he said definitively.
"You’re probably right, luv. Probably give you more sensation."
She handed them over and he paid with a ten bob note and had to wait about
three weeks for her to find the change.
"There you go, sweetheart. Enjoy yourself."
He went out into the street and to the bus-stop with the little packet tucked
in the palm of his hand shoved in his trouser pocket. Into his mind came the
picture of Carol, her face in pleasure, her little squeaky sounds of ecstasy and
he felt very proud and inordinately excited in expectation of Sunday.
As they stood up for the first hymn ( The Day Thou Gavest Lord Is
Ended) she whispered:
"Did you get some ?"
"How many ?"
"That won’t last us long."
"They come in packs of three."
"They must come in bigger packs than that ! People are doing it all the time.
They’d have to go to the chemists five times a week."
"Hardly anybody does it fifteen times a week !"
"Just you wait !"
He looked at her and she smiled as she opened her mouth to sing: "Thy
praise shall sanctify….
Behind the garage he pulled the rubber on and awkwardly positioned himself to
slip in. It was lovely but over too soon. They tried various strategies till
finally Carol turned to the wall, put her palms against it and bent double. He
slid into her with ease he couldn’t have imagined and rocked backwards and
forwards as her hips swayed like the tide coming in at Blackpool on a calm day
"Oh, that was it," she said afterwards, " that was just right."
The previous Saturday afternoon, Sample had found a copy of Britain For
The British by Robert Blatchford. The title made him suspect something
reactionary but scanning a page or two he was taken by the writing and ideas. He
read it in two sittings and all the half-formed ideas floating in his mind came
together. "I’m a socialist," he said to himself.
The winter of behind-the-garage sex was coming to an end and they were going
to have to find new venues.
"We can go to my house," said Sample. "My mum’s always in bed by ten."
"No. I don’t want to."
"It’ll be warm."
"That doesn’t bother me."
"We can’t go on having sex outside for ever."
"Can’t we ?"
He looked at her. She smiled in her charming, innocent way.
They had sex in the woods, in the bandstand on the park, in the beer garden
behind The Brown Cow after closing time. Sample was puzzled by Carol’s
reluctance to go indoors but he was more worried about how he was going to tell
her he’d become an atheist. One Sunday, on the way to the woods he said:
"You know, I don’t believe in god any more."
"Nor do I," she said.
He turned to her in surprise.
"So why do you go to church ?"
"Why do you ?"
"Habit. And I enjoy it. It’s a social occasion. I know everyone. I like to
say hello. I don’t know. I like just to sit there and let it wash over me."
"But why did you start coming ?"
"Oh, you never know who you might meet on the back row."
He went quiet for a few minutes. Had she known he would be there ? But how ?
Had she come to church just to meet him ? He was amazed.
"I’ve been doing some reading lately," he said.
"I read this great book called Britain For The British."
"You should lend it my dad."
"No, it’s about socialism. It’s great. I’m a socialist."
He thought she might react negatively but she said:
"Do you know what socialism is ?" he said.
"No idea. Except my dad doesn’t like it."
Little by little their social life become more open and regular. They went to
the pictures, to the pub, they got well in with the young crowd in The Brown
Cow and invites to parties became frequent. Sample didn’t like parties:
people just stood around, got drunk, showed off, got aggressive, tried to get
off with someone. But there was usually an opportunity for intimacy. Once, they
went to a do at the house of lad whose dad ran a building firm. It was a huge,
seven-bedroomed place with a swimming pool. People were making use of the space
"Come on," he said.
"Why not ?"
"Let’s go outside."
"Outside ? We can be warm and comfortable."
"I like it outside. There’s bags of room."
So they went out under the clear sky full of cold stars and a nearly full
moon and found a space behind the double garage.
"This is nice," she said.
"Come on. Let me warm you up."
The more Sample listened to Harold Wilson, the more he doubted the leader’s
"We want a society where people can get on," the Prime Minister said, drawing
on his pipe.
Where people can get on ? Didn’t he just mean where people could make money ?
He wasn’t sure what was wrong with that, but it troubled him. He ran it through
his mind all the time: on the bus, in the office, in the pub having a pint with
his mates, behind the garage with Carol. He liked the idea of getting on
himself. Wouldn’t he like to have money and be important ? But in his little
thought experiment where he imagined himself well-off and examined his feelings,
they disappointed him. He was turning in on himself. There was no thought for
what was beyond him. In a flurry of happy brain activity he saw that it was
getting on together that was really exciting. It was making a better
society which made him feel good.
"Would you like to be rich ?" he said to Carol.
"Why not ?"
"Because of what you have to do to get rich."
"You could win the pools. That would be easy."
"Yeah, but just as bad."
"But you could do what you liked. We could have a garage of our own."
"It’s the way we trick ourselves," he said. "We think life would be wonderful
if we had money, but it’s not money we want, it’s a wonderful life."
"Can’t we have money and a wonderful life ?"
"I don’t think so, because one person’s wealth is another person’s poverty
and you can’t have a wonderful life against other people."
They were behind the garage when they heard a noise. Sample yanked up his
pants and Carol smoothed down her skirt. When her dad appeared they were fully
"Get inside, Carol," he said.
"Carol ! I’m telling you ! Get indoors."
"You go home," he said to Sample.
"I’ll come with you," said Carol.
"You won’t, my girl."
"I’m not your girl, dad."
"Aren’t you ?"
"Not in the way you mean. I’m grown up."
Mr Nobbs snorted.
"But I can think for myself."
"Think for yourself when you’ve left my house."
She looked at him.
"Come on, Chris."
Mr Nobbs lowered over them as they edged past him. Carol walked briskly.
"Where the hell are we going ?"
"Can I sleep at your mum’s ?"
"On the sofa."
"For a night. What then ?"
"We’ll have to get our own place."
"We earn enough. Just about. We’ll get a little flat. Maybe
we can even find one with its own garage."
"But I earn hardly anything !"
"There we are. We’ll never be rich. But maybe we can have a wonderful life."
"You’re mad !"
"Am I ? Is there room behind your mum’s garage ?"
She strode away. He hurried to catch up with her.
"Anyway, you’ve always avoided coming to my mother’s."
"No, I’ve avoided making love to you at your mother’s."
She hurried on.
Mrs Sample was watching the telly.
"Mum, Carol’s dad’s kicked her out."
She took her glasses off and looked at the pair of them.
"Hello, Carol luv. Why’s he done that ?"
"He doesn’t like me. He wants us to split up," said Sample.
"So what do you want to do ?"
"Can Carol stay here tonight ? She can have my bed. I’ll sleep down here."
"There’s a mattress under my bed. Put it in the spare room. I’ll get you some
sheets. But Carol’s got to tell her parents where she is."
Carol stayed at Sample’s mum’s for seven months. The lad whose dad had a
building firm went round in a little Bedford van and picked up her stuff for
her. Sample’s mum grew very fond of her and they hit it off like kids at a
birthday party. Carol was diplomatic and polite. She made herself useful about
the house but never imposed. She was like a daughter to the widow whose own
daughter was grown, married and gone. Nor did Mrs Sample need to worry about
shenanigans under her roof: when she was in bed, the couple sneaked out of the
back door and squeezed between the garage and the shed.
They found a tiny flat over a bank. Mrs Sample was sorry to see them go. She
went round and cleaned everywhere, scrubbing the tiles of the little kitchen on
her hands and knees. There was a living-room, a box of a bedroom, a bathroom
with a shower but no bath, and the diminutive kitchen where they bumped into one
another as they cooked. And also a fire escape leading down to a secluded little
yard, which was the next best thing to a garage.
Carol’s father didn’t visit but her mother came round secretly with a
casserole or an apple crumble and was glad to see her daughter happy, even in a
tiny flat over a bank, even working as a poorly paid clerk in a travel agency,
even living over the brush with a young man of dubious convictions.
Ivy Lodge was attached to the school, on
its eastern flank, and had its private garden with a neat square of lawn, tall
privet hedges, a flowering cherry and borders tended by the groundsman. Beyond
the hedges, further east and south, the broad, long school lawns dotted with
crooked little apple trees ran towards the sports fields and the meadows where
Merrick Smallhart was fond of walking his terrier. The governors hadn’t wanted
to let him have it. They felt it anachronistic in 1980. It could be used for
teaching. Money could be raised. It could be converted. But they had needed to
advertise twice. The application wasn’t strong. Smallhart pressed his case and
they gave in. He had a six-bedroomed house rent free. There were no neighbours
of course, so his wife was isolated. But the church was a mere two miles away.
She could get to know people there. Smallhart felt at home. The Head of his own
public school had lived on the grounds. This may be a Voluntary Aided county
maintained school, but he needed the reassurance of a few private sector
As far as he could, he ran the place on
public school lines. Yes, he believed in free schooling for all. Yes, he was
sympathetic to the comprehensive idea. But he wasn’t going to let go of the
side and swim for his life in the deep-end of the public sector pool. Not with
so many of the lower orders sharing the water. So he established himself as the
chief of his little fiefdom. He played the governors off against the staff, the
staff against the governors, the school against the county, the parents against
the trustees and the trustees against the parents, till he was able to make all
the decisions himself. As for the unions, which he insisted on calling the
associations, to distance them from the working-class, he listened
attentively to the reps and sent them away with: “Thank you very much for
bringing that to my attention. I shall give it due consideration.” And did
Things rolled along swimmingly. At
ten-thirty, when the boys were bent over their book or causing mayhem for some
poor devil of a low-grade teacher, Smallhart could be seen leaving the grounds
by the back gate, his little brown and white terrier on its lead trotting
charmingly beside him. When the bell rang for lunch, before the pupils had
packed away their books, he was locking his study door and heading for Ivy House
where Ona had a three-course meal waiting. On a Friday afternoon, a member of
staff would come looking for him only to notice his car and caravan had gone
from their parking spot. Every September the staff returned to find their
timetables still not ready. Smallhart was in charge and did things in his own
way and time.
But Stanalee Grammar couldn’t buck the
trends. It might have retained its name and its Latin motto, but it was a comp.
It had held out till the late seventies, but in the final wave of egalitarian
elevation of the secondaries, the choice had been stark: go private or
comprehensive. The Head and governors had explored every means of independent
viability, but finally it was clear. The money couldn’t be raised to buy out the
county. They bit their lips and accepted the encroachment of despised social
democracy. When local management of schools arrived, however, the finances took
a nose-dive. Smallhart played poker. He robbed Peter to pay Paul. He hid money
in an array of accounts. He spent the same money twice. It was no good. The
school was quickly half a million in debt and the county closed in. Matters had
to be set to rights.
For two years, as things had got worse and
worse and he had concealed his creative accounting from everyone, Smallhart had
appeased his staff: “Don’t you worry about the budget. You carry on with your
teaching. Leave the rest to me.”
Touchingly naïve in their trust, the majority of staff had placed absolute
confidence in their leader. But Stander wasn’t convinced.
“What’s the bugger up to ?” he would say to some colleague in the gents.
“Oh, he’ll pull us through. He’s always done right by us so far.”
Aye, Stander would think, done right by you,
mate. He was disaffected. Seventeen years in the school and denied promotion
within or without it, he had experienced the slyness of Smallhart and didn’t
trust him in the least. They came from different worlds. They might have come
from different planets. Stander had been born in the mean streets of the little,
northern working-class town to a Methodist mother from the proletarian
aristocracy of hard-working, self-educated, self-improving trade unionists, who
had made a bad marriage to an orphan brought up by dipsomaniac grandparents
whose fantasies of himself as a go-getting entrepreneur led him from one
disastrous business venture to another. Blenching from his father’s waywardness,
the lad had found refuge in the solid principles of trade union collectivism.
Bright and musically gifted he had fought through to a degree and had landed at
Stanalee as a stop-gap, broke and needing to earn. Seventeen years later he
seethed with frustration and bitterness at the way Smallhart had thwarted him.
“That stiff-necked, toffee-nosed bastard !” he would rant in the kitchen to his
“Calm down,” she’d say “ you’ll give yourself a bloody seizure !”
But he was right. Smallhart came from a
culture of deference and expected due obsequiousness. Stander came from a
culture of vertical invasion and despised deference of all kinds. People,
Smallhart believed, were made by and for institutions. Institutions, Stander
believed, were made by and for people. Between these two views there could be no
peace. But Smallhart had power and he used it.
When the doddery Head of Music dropped dead
of a stroke and Stander, twelve years in the school, applied for the job,
Smallhart, exulting in his ability to put the upstart in his place, refused him
“You have neither been given nor have you assumed responsibility,” he told him,
the corners of his mouth turning down with disdain. “ In any case, everything’s
done entirely professionally, I wouldn’t want anyone to more diminished at the
end of the process than they were at the beginning.”
“Diminished !” Stander railed wide-eyed. “ The precious little public school
“There’s nothing you can do,” observed his wife. “He’s screwed you good and
So when Smallhart announced there were to be
redundancies, when he sat before the staff and told them they must live in
the real world, Stander, the NUT rep, went straight to the phone and
alerted Regional Office. Smallhart knew their was a statutory process of
consultation but he had grown so used to having his own way, he had managed to
duck and weave so successfully , and apart from one perilous run-in with a group
of discontented governors, incensed at not being consulted over crucial
decisions, had always got away with it so easily, he imagined he would simply
brush the trade unions aside and sweep majestically on to make redundant those
teachers he most wanted to be rid of, including Stander.
At ten-thirty, he could still be seen
heading for the meadows with his cute little pet. An hour before the first
consultation, Stander met the union delegation in The Hand And Dagger.
The lunch was on them, but true to his strict principles of the common good
before private advantage, he had a modest tuna sandwich and coffee. Lawrence
Rise, the Regional Officer, ordered lasagne, salad, garlic bread, raspberries
and ice-cream and a cafetiere. Tall, with a heavily pock-marked skin and round,
gold-rimmed glasses he was constantly pushing up his nose, he was brisk and
“I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s made his choices. He thinks he can get
rid of whoever he likes.”
He held papers in one hand as he forked lasagne into his mouth with the other.
“Where the hell has all this money gone, Dan ?”
Dan Fernick was the figures man. Whenever jobs were threatened, he went through
the books with forensic attention.
“Beats me. These aren’t accounts, they’re fiction. He should be given the Booker
“Does he pay rent for his house ?” Rise asked Stander, pushing his glasses up
with his forefinger.
“No idea,” replied the other, feeling a little out of his depth among these
people whose daily bread was unceremonious bouncing of recalcitrant and
“He didn’t want to hand anything over to me,” added Jenny Fine, the
“How has he managed to get away with it for so long?” complained Fernick. “Seven
years accounts and not a clue to how the school has ended up half a million in
Rise shook his head as he scanned the
“We’ll call for an adjournment. He’s got to do this properly. He selects any NUT
member for redundancy and he’s down the road.”
Stander sipped his coffee and looked hard at Rise. He envied him. He wished he
had had the wit to earn his living by taking on the stuffed shirts he so
disdained and despised. And his spirits rose. Smallhart was about to run up
against the kind of principled opposition he should have met years ago. His days
of behaving like Lord of the Manor were soon to be ended.
Smallhart and his little delegation were
last to arrive. Around the table were the union people, being kept waiting. When
he entered, Smallhart was careful not to make eye contact. His secretary sat
beside him, a middle-aged woman, thin and hesitant, dressed in a smart suit for
the occasion and carrying a bundle of papers under her right arm. The two dark
suited men from the county were to his right and a clergyman and teacher
governor to his left. The secretary began, as if from a script:
“Good afternoon everyone. If we can move immediately to the first item on the
agenda. You’ve all had time to consider Mr Smallhart’s proposals so I suggest we
quickly accept them and then we can proceed to hear the representations from
“Before we go any further, Chair,” began Rise confidently. He pushed his glasses
up his nose as he lifted Smallhart’s document aloft. “This is a consultation
document. Am I right ?”
The instantly flustered secretary and Chair turned to Smallhart who gave a
barely perceptible nod.
“That’s right Mr…..”
“Rise. NUT Regional Officer. As a consultation document everything in here is up
for grabs. Is that so ?”
The same little routine between the Chair and Smallhart.
“In that case, any member of staff is, in theory, a possible candidate for
Once again the nervous secretary sought confirmation from her superior.
“Then why, may I ask, do we have a teacher-governor in the room ? Does that
mean, by some decision taken prior to this meeting, he has been exempted from
Squirming a little in his seat, the obese vicar on whose bald head beads of
sweat were visible, interjected:
“I think it’s up to the gentleman concerned to decide whether he should be here
“He can stay,” declared Rise, “but under no circumstances am I accepting that
certain members of staff have been spared from the process before consultation
has begun. Further, can you tell me Mr Smallhart why, according to the county’s
figures, seven redundancies are required and you are suggesting seven point five
“Well,” murmured Smallhart, half-audible. “It’s only point five.”
“ I request an adjournment, ” uttered Rise.
Smallhart flushed. He looked to the county officials one of whom smiled palely
and nodded, at which Smallhart rose and exited, his little troop following him
as obediently as his dog. The county men went too and as soon as they were gone
an excited hubbub of chatter arose among the union folk.
Presently, the county suits returned. Trevor
Grubb, the Advisor and the more senior of the two, smiled complaisantly as at
the wedding of a long-lost relative. They sat down.
“We need to take your views back to the Head,” he began emolliently.
“If one of my members, Trevor, who was a Head of Department, had made as big a
mess of running his or her department as this Head has of running this school,
I’d be sitting in a room with you fighting for his or her job, wouldn’t I ?”
“You would,” agreed Grubb his fixed smile as broad as ever.
“If any NUT member in this school is selected for redundancy, I’m going to the
Chief Education Officer to ask for Smallhart to go. No NUT member bears any
responsibility for the financial mess in this school and none shall pay the
“Can I say,” piped up the NASUWT officer, a rather chetif looking little
man who until then had remained silent and somewhat overawed, “I wish to be
associated with that remark.”
There followed what is usually known as a
frank exchange of views but Rise had the better of the argument and
the county men could only nod and smile and make tentative little objections.
They left to convey the news to Smallhart. Coffee and biscuits appeared as out
of nowhere, on trays carrying delicate little flower-patterned china cups and
saucers normally reserved for the visits of Bishops or MPs or officials from the
Forty-five minutes later, an abashed
Smallhart returned. His dutiful delegation sat down and silence slowly followed.
“Of course,” he began, taking over for the apologetic Chair, “I shall do
everything I can to avoid compulsory redundancies.”
Rise bit into a custard cream and raised his cup to his lips.
“We must find a way to make these savings without forcing anyone from their job.
I shall immediately seek candidates for severance or voluntary redundancy. I’m
sure if staff are willing to be flexible, there shall be no need for anyone to
be selected for compulsory termination of their contract.”
Rise helped himself to another custard cream.
“I’d be grateful,” he said holding the biscuit aside, “if all the details of
what you do can be given to my colleague, Jenny Fine, the District Secretary. We
shall be watching how things develop very carefully. But I’m pleased with Mr
Jenny Fine smiled at Smallhart who was bent
over his papers. He made an effort to reciprocate but his face contorted into a
sad and ugly grimace. He wanted to insult Rise as he had insulted Stander. He
wanted to say something demeaning, humiliating. He wanted to hide behind his
status and put him in his place. He was being told what to do in his own school
by a trade unionist ! He was Headmaster after all ! He’d been educated at
Westminster and Balliol ! He looked across the table at the man who was chewing
on his custard cream as he talked to his colleague and he saw how confident he
was, how secure, how he had won a fine little victory and he hated him. At that
moment his hatred was pure because he felt thoroughly humiliated. Grubb had told
him: he couldn’t select whom he liked for redundancy or Rise would have him
sacked. Smallhart resented to his very marrow that he had ever entered the
public sector. He wished he had stayed in the private-school arena he knew. He
despised these people, he despised them thoroughly. They were his inferiors.
In the event, seven members of staff took
severance or voluntary redundancy. Stander was closely involved in the
negotiations. From Rise he learned the county had offered Smallhart a package
but he refused to go. The scandal of a sacking was a step too far, so he hung
on. For five more years. As he put it to the staff, to see this process
The loss of staff, the increase in class
sizes, the make-do-and-mend of herding boys of widely varying abilities into
cramped classrooms with poor resources made life hard . More and more Smallhart
remained apart. At ten-thirty he could still be seen setting off towards the
meadows with his faithful dog. If rain threatened, he’d be wearing the waxed
jacket, tweed cap and superior green wellingtons which made him look one of the
country set. When staff knocked on his door the red engaged light
would appear. The office staff would convey that he was working at home.
He began to absent himself from parents’ evenings. He sent his apologies to
staff meetings. He was rarely seen around the school. A pupil was heard to
comment, leaving an assembly: “Who was that man on the stage ?” Heads of
department would recount with a groan to their colleagues in the staff-room that
money for new equipment had gone begging because Smallhart had failed to do the
paperwork on time. And when he finally retired and gave his farewell address to
the assembled school, boasting that in his career he had produced twenty-nine
timetables; when his rotary mower leaving gift was presented at his valedictory
dinner which twenty-two members of staff and their spouses failed to attend;
when his card circulated for signing and Stander didn’t bother; when his job had
to be advertised twice and one of the candidates turned down first time was
subsequently appointed even though he had told the appointment panel on the
first occasion he thought the school stuck in the past and felt the job
probably beyond my capacities because of years of mismanagement ;
it was discovered he’d had one of the electrical sockets in Ivy House connected
to the school’s supply and no-one, not even the county auditors, ever got to the
bottom of just what had happened to the money.
Gordon Snipe had always
believed illness was something to be ashamed of. Not that he’d ever consciously
thought the idea through: it was an unacknowledged assumption. So when his wife
was diagnosed with cancer he was confused by his own reaction.
“You must take things easy, Janet. Rest. Leave matters to me. Don’t worry.”
No husband could have been more
attentive or concerned. Yet he couldn’t help feeling let down. The notion came
to him that Janet was from inferior stock. He had chosen carefully. He would
never have considered a wife from the lower orders. She was resolutely upper
middle class. Perhaps he should have married into the aristocracy. At Oxford he
had known the daughter of a baronet whose striking good looks had made her
sought after. But she had gone into the theatre which seemed disreputable and
perilous. Weren’t actors notoriously promiscuous ? Janet’s father was a banker
who at seventy-six still played golf three times a week. Her mother was forever
busy with church matters. Her three brothers were in robust health. How could
cancer grow in his wife ? She didn’t smoke, she ate well, her drinking was no
more than two glasses of white wine a week. How could God allow it ? He realised
he had always believed his faith would protect him. Yes, God’s ways were beyond
human comprehension. He could even send cancer into the guts of a devout and
obedient woman as part of his plan. Or was it the work of the Devil ? Yes,
sometimes the Devil could get the upper hand. He turned to his theology : didn’t
Julian of Norwich write of a sickness sent by God? Might it not be a sign of
election rather than shame that his wife was ill ? Didn’t Thomas a Kempis
write of the value of adversity ? Perhaps this was a test of his faith.
Then something amazing
He received an application for
the vacant post in P.E. from a young man in remission from leukaemia ! Surely it
was a sign ! Before the interview-letters were posted, he decided he would
There were four interviewees.
Three of them seemed poor to
Snipe at first sight. They were young men who bristled with energy. Their faces
had that clean, tight, gleaming look characteristic of athletes. They filled
their dark jackets and trousers like risen dough fits a tin. Their short necks
were fastened tight in their crisp collars. They exuded military obedience. But
when Snipe looked at Christopher John, he experienced a sense of revelation. He
was short, dark and hirsute. His hair was close cropped and his brown eyes had a
fierce intensity. He was from the north-east, his Geordie accent almost
incomprehensible to the Home Counties Snipe. Yet surely he was God’s emissary !
And his name, bearer of Christ !
Before his wife’s illness,
Snipe would have refused to interview a candidate who had been seriously ill.
“Of course, “ he would have said, “my sympathy goes out to him. My prayers are
with him. But I’ve got a school to run. I can’t employ someone who may be absent
frequently or long term.”
He would have justified his decision by quietly admitting to himself that
illness was a sign of weakness. In God’s universe, wasn’t weakness tantamount to
punishment ? Wasn’t sickness close to sin ? Of course, a Christian’s duty was
compassion. Nor should a Christian judge. But a Christian must also give the
Devil a wide berth, and wasn’t sickness perhaps his work ?
Now, however, Christopher’s
illness seemed to pick him out positively. God was sending a message: show
compassion to the sick candidate and your wife too may be spared ! What had once
seemed a deficit now appeared an advantage.
“I think Christopher is clearly the best candidate,” he said.
The Head of P.E. looked surprised.
“He’s got qualities, but I thought Mr Cork interviewed well and his sporting
record is remarkable.”
Snipe looked up at his colleague and smiled benignly. His face had the bland,
sickly beneficence of a perfunctory clergyman.
“I don’t disagree , but I’ve been involved in appointments for more than twenty
years. The best policy is to make choices on subjective grounds. Believe me, I
can tell Christopher is right for us.”
The Head of P.E. wasn’t sure what “subjective” meant. He thought it might have
something to do with philosophy, but he wasn’t going to argue with a man
educated at Oxford who used words that bamboozled him.
But between Christopher’s
appointment and the start of term, he suffered a relapse. Snipe rang him
frequently. He spoke to his parents. He prayed for him daily. And he held the
post open for him.
“Do we know he’ll be well by September ?” asked the Head of P.E.
“Shouldn’t we think about appointing someone else. I know it’s tough, but we’re
struggling with supply.”
“We must pray for him and hope he’ll be better. I think he’s right for the
school. He’ll make his career here. It’s worth the wait for a man who may give
us thirty years.”
His confidence was rewarded:
Christopher pulled through. He was well enough to start at the beginning of the
next school year.
Snipe took the first assembly.
There were three new teachers.
“We have a special new member
of staff starting today. Mr John has had a serious illness. But he has
recovered. He is in remission, which means there is no sign of the illness in
him any more. We held the job here open for him for a year. That’s how much we
value him. I’m sure he will be a great asset to the school and that you will
soon appreciate his outstanding qualities. We are all praying that his illness
will not reappear.”
All the same, Janet
deteriorated. They operated and removed most of her bowel. She came home weak
and incapable which made Snipe ever more careful of her. He did all the cooking.
He employed a cleaner. When his children were back from university they were
fastidious. And the rest, the care, the good food improved her. After a few
months, she was able to walk to the corner shop. They went to Scotland for a
fortnight. She was stable. But she was an invalid and Snipe’s sex life was over.
He accepted the inevitable with
Christian resignation. Yet he felt the unfairness of it. After all, he
was still healthy. He wasn’t yet fifty. Most men of his age could look forward
to years of sexual activity. But it didn’t matter. Janet was his wife, the
mother of his children, his life-long companion. They had been joined in the
sight of God for better or worse. But this was worse than he could have
imagined. It wasn’t supposed to happen to people like him. He began to notice
the young women teachers. The sway of a pair of hips, the heaviness of breasts
in a tight blouse, the thick health of auburn hair falling onto white shoulders.
One day, in town, he found himself in Addison’s Court, an alley known to be
frequented by prostitutes. He had no idea why he’d taken that route. He told
himself it was a short cut. He walked slowly carrying the bags of shopping from
Marks and Spencer. Janet had sent him on the errand. He was attracted and
appalled by the atmosphere of the scruffy little passageway: all backs, the
unseen, uncared-for underbelly of commercial glitz. There were strange little
recesses, odd nooks. In a doorway a brazen young woman in a red skirt and white
stilettos was smoking. He looked away.
Nevertheless, he went back.
Once, when it was dusk he slipped between the narrow walls. The cobbles were
greasy and a curious, unfamiliar odour of staleness, brick and traffic made him
uneasy. In a dark corner of a garage without doors a couple were having sex. She
was panting and squealing. He hurried on, disgusted. That was his last short
Janet needed more chemotherapy
which made her violently ill. It was mortifying to see his wife so reduced. She
vomited for hours and the indignity of her skinny body hanging out of the bed to
be sick into a bowl, her head collapsing onto her pillow as she groaned with
pain almost made him question his faith.
In assemblies he would refer to
“We are all very glad that Mr John is in good health. As you know, he went
through a serious illness. He had to undergo a course of chemotherapy. That is a
very distressing treatment. Can you imagine the courage it needed for him to put
up with it. We must never forget how lucky we are that Mr John is with us today
and we must all pray he stays fit and well.”
Janet seemed to be slipping
away. The doctors told him they held out very little hope. Occasionally, there
might be spontaneous remission, but it was rare. Snipe began to think it was
God’s will. In a matter of months she might be gone. Then he would be free. It
was no sin to take a second wife. The thought of it cheered him a little up in
the midst of his bitterness, anguish and melancholy. Then one day he had a visit
from a County Hall official. There were new accounting regulations and she was
to explain them. He dreaded it, but when she arrived he was delighted to find a
pretty woman in her early forties, neat and quick, very courteous with bright
eyes and a quick smile.
“I’ll order some coffee shall I ? Might as well have some enjoyment in the
valley of the shadow of budgetary regulations.”
She laughed and he felt pleased. He found her company delightful, this pert,
“Have you worked for the County long ?”
“Oh no, I don’t like to get stale in a job. I get bored easily I’m afraid. I’ve
only been there three years. I was with a firm of solicitors before. But I find
a change does me good. I’ve always been like that.”
Such flightiness shocked him. He felt it a moral failing. But she smiled so as
she spoke and her blue eyes narrowed charmingly until she was altogether such a
little bundle of pleasantness that he couldn’t but forgive her. He made the task
“I think I’d better go,” she said. “It’s almost half past four.”
“Really ! Time has passed quickly. There’s more to get to grips with than
I thought. Shall we arrange another visit?”
“I’ll have to ring.”
The atmosphere in the house
was terrible. They were waiting for death. Janet never mentioned it nor did she
complain. She endured all the suffering and the animal humiliation without ever
losing control. But sometimes the pain was so bad her face was contorted, all
the restraint gone, the gentle traits of the middle-class woman who took the
Christian injunction to love your neighbour as yourself seriously, twisted out
of recognition as the raw fact of encroaching, agonising death took over. Then
Snipe couldn’t sleep. He paced the house. He read St Augustine but found no
comfort. He turned to the Bible. What good was it ? He dropped the black book
onto his chair, got down on his knees and prayed but his prayers turned into
sobs and once in desperation he said: “Damn you, God ! Damn you for letting my
wife suffer like this !”
It took him a long time to get
over his blasphemy. He couldn’t come to terms with the emptiness of his feeling:
it was completely new. The universe had always seemed to be organised for his
success and contentment. Now it delivered nothing but upset. He had to accept
that somehow it all fitted God’s plan.
Christopher was doing well.
Every time Snipe ran into him he stopped to speak. He invited him into his study
and ordered coffee.
“Are you feeling quite well now ?”
“Aye, never better.”
“Good, good. It’s a terrible thing, of course, cancer.”
“Aye, but I’m young, like. You know, I think I was lucky. Being fit,like. I
could fight it.”
But Snipe was thinking of his wife. She wasn’t young or fit. She had shrunk to
seven stone. She was so weak he was surprised she got through each day.
“It must take enormous courage to go through the treatments.”
“Aye, but y’have to like. It’s that or death. No choice, like.”
“Well, I think you’re a remarkable young man, Christopher, and anything I can do
to help, just ask.”
Then came the complaint.
The pupils had got hold of that
prevalent idea let loose into the education system by a punitive inspection
regime, that teachers had little power, and they were running with it. Parents
backed them up. Christopher gave a boy detention for failing to bring his kit
three lessons in a row. The mother wrote to complain: her boy couldn’t stay
after school. He lived two and a half miles away. If he wasn’t on the school bus
he’d have a long wait. She wouldn’t agree to him doing the detention unless
Christopher was willing to give him a lift home. And anyway, why couldn’t he do
it at lunchtime? Christopher put the boy in lunchtime detention. He failed to
arrive. When he was challenged he became truculent.
“You little wanker !” said Christopher.
With any other teacher, Snipe
would have issued a formal warning. He met the mother and apologised: teaching
was a stressful job these days; sometimes a teacher could forget himself; the
member of staff concerned was young and inexperienced; he would be warned. When
he spoke to Christopher, however, he was as complaisant' as possible.
He knew the illness was to blame. It was a moment’s lapse. He was doing a good
job. The incident would be forgotten.
In fact, Christopher was in the
habit of swearing at pupils. He was short-tempered and still had some playground
bravura about him. Knowing that Snipe was on his side made him more reckless.
When a pupil called his first name in a mocking tone behind his back, he turned
quickly, spotted the boy, ran after him as he fled and took him into an empty
classroom. He closed the door.
“What did you call me ?”
“You can’t call me a liar.”
“No, I won’t call you a liar. I’ll call you a fucking little liar.”
“I’ll tell my dad.”
“Tell him what ?”
“You called me a fucking liar.”
“Don’t you use that language with me, lad , or I’ll have you in the Head’s
office before your feet touch the ground.”
He stood very close to the boy and pushed his face to within an inch. The lad
lowered his eyes.
“Not so fucking cocky now are you, sunshine ? Call my name again I’ll put my
knee in your bollocks you little twat!”
There was another complaint but
Christopher denied everything. The lad had made it up. Snipe wrote to the
parents explaining their son had been caught after insulting a member of staff;
he was trying to compensate for his guilt. Mr John was an excellent teacher who
maintained the highest standards of behaviour. The pupil could produce no
witnesses. The matter was closed.
It was just at this time that
Janet’s health began suddenly to improve. Her appetite returned bit by bit and
as she ate more she grew stronger. The disturbed sleep that kept her shifting
and fidgeting faded away and she was able to go to bed at ten and get up at
eight, refreshed and able to face the morning. Each day she went for a walk, a
little further every time. She took up reading once more and went through the
whole of Jane Austen in a fortnight. The doctors were amazed. But Snipe knew the
answer. He felt very pleased with himself for having read the signs correctly.
God had spoken to him and he had known how to respond.
The woman from the County made
more visits. Snipe still had no sex life. Janet’s recovery didn’t go that far.
He had allowed himself to think this woman might one day be the second Mrs
Snipe. Was she married ? She wore no ring. But sitting alone in his draughty
living-room while Janet lay dying upstairs he had allowed his fantasies to bring
him comfort: such a pretty, sweet little woman ! Imagine her busying herself
around the house. Imagine that charming face and that chirping little voice
across the table every day. Imagine her in bed, that energetic body yielding.
Now he looked at her and realised it couldn’t be. It almost made him regret
The cancer was in remission.
Janet still tired easily. She needed to be carefully looked after. But she could
live a normal life, almost. Snipe sometimes still wondered how it all fitted
God’s scheme of things. But he knew it was useless to speculate: God’s will was
inscrutable and feeble human understanding mustn’t presume to understand. What
he did understand, though, was that it was no coincidence that Christopher had
come into his life. Suppose he had turned him down ? Suppose he hadn’t forgiven
his small mistake of swearing at a pupil ? Janet might now be dead. He might now
be married to the gorgeous little woman from accounts. But his wife was saved.
That was what God had wanted.
After just four terms,
Christopher handed in his notice. He had been offered a job in a private school
in Cumbria. His father was an old friend of the Head. Snipe had felt sure he
would stay. He looked at Janet who was reading A Pair Of Blue Eyes and
felt a twinge of concern: with Christopher gone, what would he do if she had a
relapse ? She looked up and smiled. The agony had vanished. It was the face of
an intelligent, kind, upper-middle-class, Christian woman. His wife.
MADDY ABERCROMBIE’S CLITORIS
Abercrombie was convinced Bechara was having sex with his
wife. He wasn’t interested in having sex with her himself, but she was his wife,
after all. He had long since substituted the beer bottle for the vagina and
thought a day when he didn’t get legless a waste. Maddy had put behind her the
humiliation of trying to stimulate his reluctant cock. If it did rise, like the
stock market, it fell in no time. Night after night he drank himself into a
stupor and collapsed on the sofa or into the bed. When she met Bechara, she
couldn’t wait to get her legs round him. He hardly drank. His cock stayed hard
for an hour at a time. He was halfway good-looking. She was having all the sex
with him she could.
“What are you doing this afternoon?” asked Abercrombie.
“Oh, just walking the dog, getting some food ready. Why?”
He put down his wine glass and looked at her over his
specs. She wasn’t going to tell him, was she? She wasn’t going to say: ‘I’m
going round to Bechara’s and he’s going to lick my clitoris for twenty minutes.’
He wanted to throw his glass at her. The bitch! She was his wife, after all.
“I was thinking we could do something together.”
“Together? Like what? Me watching you get pissed?”
“We could go for a walk.”
“To the Black Horse?
“By the river. We haven’t walked down the river for ages.”
“You haven’t walked down the river for ten years, George.
You’d probably fall in. I walk by the river every day.”
“I’m not drunk yet.”
“It’s ten past eleven.”
“Well then what?”
“We’ve got plenty of time for a walk.”
“Okay. Okay, George. We’ll go for a walk. Are you ready?”
“What’s wrong with now?”
“I’m not ready.”
“What do you have to do, finish the bottle?”
“I was thinking we could walk this afternoon.”
“So we wait till one minute past twelve?”
“About two. Have a bite to eat. Go out about two.”
“Fine, George. What d’you want to eat?”
Maddy busied herself in the kitchen. Her Dalmatian lay in
his basket by the door.
“George is coming with us today, Legs. That’ll be fun.
He’ll be rat-arsed, of course, and he’ll have a bottle in his pocket. We’ll
probably have to fish him out of the river, or leave him there? What d’you
When she finished she went through to the lounge with a
plate of food. The wine bottle was empty. George was snoring on the sofa.
“For fuck’s sake!”
She left the plate on the coffee table and went with Legs
to Bechara’s. Ten minutes later she was naked in his armchair with her thighs
open as he licked her clitoris.
“Do you want me to leave?” she said.
“No, it’s okay.”
“How will you explain me away?”
“I’ll say you’re a married woman whose husband is an
alcoholic and we give one another comfort.”
“Is that what you call it!”
Bechara was tidying the small living-room. There were books
piled here and there and newspapers strewn.
“My dad’s very tidy. Broad-minded but tidy.”
“He must be used to you.”
“Aye, but best not make him feel uncomfortable. He doesn’t
“Perhaps I should go.”
“No, stay. He’ll be glad to meet you. He likes meeting
Bechara had been briefly married to a childhood
sweetheart. They conducted an on and off relationship from the age of
sixteen and, suddenly, when she hit twenty, she decided she was on and wanted
marriage and children. Six months after the ceremony, she changed her mind as
rapidly and decisively, walking out to live with a self-made bricklayer who had
just built himself a six-bedroomed house. Dismayed and disoriented, Bechara
found refuge in science. At least the universe was predictable, to an extent.
He’d drifted out of school at sixteen and had a string of unsatisfactory jobs
but always hankered after doing a degree. He studied night and day and was
accepted on a Physics course in Manchester. Now he was teaching A Level in a
local college and feeling things were drifting again: changes crashed in like
meteorites, initiatives fired off like rockets on 5th November: so
many mirrors in which politicians and bureaucrats could preen. Meanwhile the
students complained, this is too hard!, and demanded good grades. When he
tangentially mentioned Relativity and told them nothing can travel faster than
light, one student protested, I don’t agree with that! He and Maddy met
through the Labour Party. They both joined in 1979. They both had the feeling
the achievements of the 1945 lot, and even of the sixties lot, were about to be
overturned. They saw a very nasty, greedy form of capitalism waiting in the
wings and they wanted to bring down the curtain before its entrance. Instead,
they ended up in bed together.
Bechara’s dad was about to arrive and he was a sick man.
He’d been a sick man for years and Bechara had expected him to die any time. But
he clung on. His legs were done for and he shuffled along on sticks. His lungs
were in tatters. But he still fancied himself. He’d once had a reputation with
women. Only death would convince him it was finished.
He arrived in a taxi. Bechara and Maddy helped him into the
“Thank you! Thank you! Agh!” he gave a little gasp of pain
as he sat down. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Maddy. Good that this long streak
of piss I call my son has found himself a real woman at last.”
“Can I get you a drink?”
“Yes, my dear. That’s very kind of you. Tea. Milk, no
sugar. That’ll be wonderful.”
They talked about his ailments. He still had his deep,
rolling voice full of backstreet chutzpah. Bechara listened with a mixture of
pity, contempt and amusement to this old man he’d never really known who’d grown
in poverty in the rough part of town, brought up by neglectful, hard-drinking
parents and so was an opportunist through and through, grabbing what life had
denied him. And what he loved to grab most of all was women. He couldn’t help
but show off in front of them. Once handsome, he was now shrunken and weak. His
silver hair was combed forward and when he smiled he showed the gaps where his
fine, white teeth had been, gaps as dark as the grave. His hand trembled a
little as he lifted his cup but his blue eyes flashed desire each time he looked
“My legs, you see. My legs are the worst. Yes, I was so
quick on my pins. I was a good sportsman. But the pain. It brings it home to
you, what physical creatures we are.”
There were things Bechara had to buy if he was going to
“I’ll nip into town. You two will be all right for an hour
He was glad to get away. He strode towards town, following
the river. When the tide was low it gave off an unpleasant, rotting smell. On
the other side of the road he noticed someone dodging behind a tree. He knew at
once it was Abercrombie. Should he cross? Should he greet him with an easy smile
and ask him what he was up to? Maybe that wasn’t wise given he’d just been
inside his wife. He walked on. As he turned to cross the road, he saw
Abercrombie ducking behind a nearer tree. Surely he wasn’t going to follow him?
And supposing he went to his house? He’d find Maddy and his dad. What would he
make of that?
When Bechara returned, Abercrombie was still there. He was
leaning against the thick trunk of a horse chestnut smoking; as soon as Bechara
turned the corner, he hid himself.
Into Bechara’s mind drifted the previous Tuesday when
they’d been at a Branch meeting . The General Election was approaching. There
was no doubt they’d hold the constituency, this was Labour territory; Kier
Hardie had stood in the early years of the twentieth century; the sitting member
was on the left; she criticised the armaments industry on which thousands of
local jobs depended; but it was solid. The question, then, was where to devote
their energies. They all knew Michael Foot couldn’t win but they hoped for a
miracle. In those brief few weeks of flux when a parliament has been dissolved
and another not yet elected, there is something akin to real possibility. In
theory, anything could happen. If the right people stay at home. If the swing is
unpredictable in key constituencies. They clung to the fantasy that something
might save them from a drubbing because if they’d admitted what was ahead, they
wouldn’t have had the stomach to keep working.
They decided to leaflet their ward once and get the vote
out on the day. The rest of the time they’d work in the neighbouring Tory held
After the meeting, they went, as usual, to the pub.
Abercrombie began pouring beer down his throat.
“Let’s go,” whispered Maddy.
“Come on! I want to suck your cock.”
“People will suspect!”
They were a dozen. They sat around two little, circular
tables talking politics.
“Massive public spending!” said Abercrombie.
“Nationalise the commanding heights,” said a union man,
pot-bellied and bearded whose consumption was matching Abercrombie’s, pint for
“It’s the fucking Tory press. How many papers are against
us?” said another as he counted them on his fingers. “Not to mention all the
local rags and the tv. We’ll never win till we get democratic media.”
“But we’ll win here,” said Bechara. “Why? People are made
by their conditions. It’s as precise as calculus.”
Abercrombie went to the bar.
“Come on,” whispered Maddy.
Bechara left first, claiming work to prepare. Maddy gave
him ten minutes. She arrived at his house with the dog, took her lover straight
upstairs and threw off her clothes.
Bechara arrived with the shopping to find Maddy
cross-legged on the rug in front of the fire and his dad holding forth about
the old days.
“We didn’t have the opportunities, you see. Seventeen I
signed up. It was that or conscription and I wasn’t going to be cannon fodder. I
got into the RAF because I was bright, but they never made use of me. I wanted
to learn languages. They taught me to type.”
“Oh,” she looked up at Bechara with eyes as sad and
pleading as her dog’s.
Bechara prepared simple food: baked potatoes and salad and
the three of them ate with plates on their knees. The old man lived alone and
cooked for himself, but it was such a task he’d often make do with a ham
sandwich or a few slices of toast. Bechara’s mother had divorced him when she
found him in bed with the sixteen year-old from next door. He’d never remarried
and had slipped into lazy, bachelor habits. To sit with his son and eat a meal
made for him, to have the company, to be in a warm house, to be able to
reminisce, made him feel almost as if life might spark up in him again.
“So what’s going to happen in the election?” he asked.
“We’ll win the constituency. Things don’t look good
nationally,” said Maddy.
“A thrashing,” said Bechara.
“I don’t understand it,” said his father. “What do people
“They don’t know what they want, that’s the problem,” said
“Surely they can see where their interests lie?”
“It’s no easier than seeing that mass and energy are the
“You know, I remember when they built the council houses in
Flett St. We were amazed. They had bathrooms! People were open-mouthed.
Bathrooms. Now they’re sellin’em off.”
“Well, I have a mortgage. You own your own house.
Everybody’s out for a bit of property.”
“Yeah, but not against other people,” said Maddy.
“No-one think it’s against anyone,” said Bechara. “That’s
the trick of the propaganda. Just look after yourself. The propaganda denies
that we’re social. Bevan should have nationalised the housing stock.”
“I’m going to die in a country where the rich are richer
than ever and the poor getting poorer. I never thought I’d see it. Shame for old
Footy. He’s a good man.”
Bechara liked Foot too. He was a good man, as men go. But
was his father? Hadn’t he got into bed with any woman he could lay hands on?
Hadn’t he made a woman twenty years younger pregnant and left her to bring up
the child? Hadn’t he run his little businesses, shops, cafes, in the hope of
making his fortune? As for Maddy, hadn’t she modelled when she was a teenager.
Demure stuff, but all the same, making money from her pretty face and her slim
waist. And himself? Didn’t he wish he was a professor of Physics with a nice big
house and enough money in the bank not to worry?
“Ah,” sighed the old man, “this country needs a bloody
When the dark settled, after they’d finished their food and
their cups of tea and the conversation was waning, Bechara called for a taxi. He
didn’t run a car, as a way of economising, and cycling and walking kept him fit.
They helped the old man into the back seat, told him he was welcome any time.
Indoors, Maddy took off her clothes and lay on the rug.
“Oh, it’s so good to be here, to be naked, to be warm, to
be with you.”
He looked down at her long white body. She rocked her bent
“Make love to me, Becha. Come inside me.”
She clung to him and kissed him frantically and her hips
rocked like cams. It was unnerving the way she threw herself at him. She was
like a Labrador puppy that leaps up and licks your face and won’t stop. Nice in
its way, but in the end you want to push the little thing away. Wasn’t she just
on the run from Abercrombie? He pictured him ducking behind the trees. Maybe he
was there now, waiting to see her leave. Perhaps he was propping up a tree,
pissed, dragging on a fag watching for evidence that she was getting into his
bed every time she could.
“Oh Becha! Yes, Becha! Darling!”
A week or so later he was leafleting with Abercrombie. They
hurried up and down the terraced streets. When their hands were empty, they
headed back to the committee rooms.
“I could do with a drink,” said Abercrombie.
“When we’ve finished I’ll buy you a pint.”
“You’re not a drinker yourself.”
“What are you?”
“I mean, what are you. Really. You’re a bit of a mystery to
“Yes, you’re a bit of an enigma. I mean, what makes you
“I’m a physicist. That’s my passion.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I don’t see how anyone could get passionate about bloody
Physics. But that’s my artistic bent I suppose.”
“Maybe. How’s the work coming along?”
“The work is fucked.”
“Really? Why’s that?”
“Because I’m never sober long enough to do any bloody
research. The university’s cut off the funding.”
“That’s a shame.”
“It is for you, I guess.”
“Frankly, I don’t give a toss. Who wants to read a thesis
on Louis fucking Zukofsky anyway?”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Drink. My lovely wife will teach and bring home the bacon
and I’ll go to the pub and get pissed. There’s a marriage for you.”
“Well, if it works.”
“If it works!” Abercrombie laughed raucously. “What about
you?” he said.
“Yes, what do you do with your sexuality?”
Bechara turned to him. Behind his glasses his narrow, dark
eyes were hard.
“At the moment, nothing.”
“At the moment? You mean, you’re in sort of semi-retirement
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“What would you say?”
“I’d say I’m just unattached at the moment.”
“Unattached! Oh, come on! You can do better than that. When
did you last have a good shag?”
Bechara looked at him again.
“About an hour and a half ago.”
“Christ! Who was the lucky girl?”
“A gentleman doesn’t betray a lady’s secrets.”
“What kind of bourgeois fucking crap is that! Spill the
beans. A good fuck is she? Someone I know?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
“Why the big secret? Who is it? Does she suck your cock for
They were outside the terraced house that served as
“Yes, she does. She does it very nicely, actually.”
“Well, actually, does she take it up the arse?”
Bechara went indoors.
When the job was over and they’d been to the pub and
Abercrombie had staggered home and collapsed on the sofa, Maddy was in Bechara’s
bed, the duvet pulled up to her chin.
“I wish I was as slim as you,” she said.
As he came over to the bed she reached out and felt the
muscles in his thighs.
“Those muscles! So hard!”
“They’re not hard. They’re just ordinary thigh muscles.”
“No, they’re hard. Like your cock.”
Bechara was glad she liked his thighs and his cock but he
wondered how long this rhapsodising could last.
At midnight she was getting dressed to leave.
“No, he doesn’t.”
“He does, Maddy. He spoke to me tonight.”
“What? He said he knew.”
“What did he say?”
“He asked me what I do with my sexuality.”
“He was pissed.”
“No. While we were leafleting.”
“Well, what does it matter?”
“He’s your husband.”
“He’s not married to me, Becha. He’s married to booze and
“But he still thinks of you as his wife.”
“Let him think. I’m tired of him. He’s a baby.”
“It’s getting to him.”
“That you’re having sex with me.”
“George can’t have sex with anyone. He can’t get a hard-on,
Becha. It’s pathetic.”
“Maybe we should cool off for a bit.”
She stopped and fixed him.
“Till his suspicions die down.”
“I don’t give a fuck about his suspicions!”
“Just a short time.”
“Do you think I want to stay married to him, Becha? That
miserable little soak!”
“Okay. Okay. But let’s just be careful for a while.”
At six in the morning Bechara got a call from the hospital.
By the time he’d cycled there, the screens were round his father’s bed. A young
doctor, slim, calm, with a very intelligent face assumed a demeanour of dignity
as she approached him.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
It was an expert professional apology.
For the next few days he scurried round arranging the
funeral, getting documents to the solicitor, clearing his father’s house. He
avoided Maddy. When the funeral was over he got a sicknote, packed a bag and
took the train to Munich. He wanted to the visit Einstein’s childhood house.
From there he wrote to Maddy.
Hope all’s well with you and that George isn’t too much of
a pain in the arse. I’m okay here. It’s good to be away. I don’t think I can
come back. My dad’s death has changed things. I don’t know why, but I don’t
belong in the old place any more. When the house is sold I’ll have a small
inheritance, probably more money in one go than I’ll ever see again. I’m going
to make the best of it, sell up and find myself a university job somewhere in
Europe. Physics is international. We can talk it over when I’m back, but my
mind’s made up. I can’t stay.
When he got home, Maddy was sitting on his sofa.
“How did you get in?”
She held up a key.
She flew at him with an anger even more overwhelming than
her passion. He was destroying her. What was she to do? Did he expect her to go
back to Abercrombie? Did he really think he could live without her? Legs got up
from the floor and came to stand by her. Was she just someone who came and went?
A passing thing? It was outrageous!
She stormed out with the dog.
He couldn’t face work so he disappeared. In London he
stayed in a cheap hotel near Euston. From there he went to Maidstone to visit an
old university friend. Then he jumped on a ferry and wound up in Paris where he
slipped into the role of flaneur, stayed in cheap room in the Quartier
Latin and ate on the streets. He came back to England two days before the
election, didn’t take part, but stayed up to watch the results. At three in the
morning there was a knock on the door. He let her in and she handed over the
“What a disaster!”
“It was inevitable.”
“What’s going to happen?”
“Who can say? There’s an evil mood in the air. It’ll live
“Is that it? It’ll live itself out. Isn’t there anything we
“Nothing we do will change much. We’re a minority. People
have chosen to foul their own nest. We’re like Galileo: we may be right but the
world is against us.”
“But everyone accepts Galileo now.”
“Most people have never heard of him.”
She sat on the sofa. There was a brief shot of Michael Foot
looking tired and defeated on the screen, quickly replaced by the triumphal
celebration of the remarkable victory.
“ I’m scared, Becha.”
“Fear is their weapon. The war of each against all. Don’t
expect the rest of your life to be lived in pleasant social conditions. Where’s
“Unconscious on the sofa. He predicted a hung parliament.”
“I predict a hangover.”
“I’m kicking him out. Tomorrow. Enough is enough.”
The next day, Bechara put his house on the market. He went
off again, visiting friends here and there and, once both houses were sold, he
rented flats and moved from town to town picking up stupid work: sitting on the
tills in supermarkets, driving little delivery vans, serving behind bars. All
the time he was hoping something was going to change. Finally, he found a job
teaching physics and maths in a school in South London. There was big sixth-form
so he thought it wouldn’t be too difficult. But the pupils didn’t want to learn.
The daily battle defeated him. Kids of perfectly average intelligence would
wilfully resist understanding the difference between parallel and series. He
gave up and simply went through the motions. The years went by and things got
worse and worse and more and more he wracked his brains to think of a way out, a
means of taking cover till the social madness had receded. Then one day an angry
parent demanded to see the Head and once in her office, drew a Sabatier and
stabbed her in the heart. His son had been suspended for extortion.
Bechara handed in his notice. He moved back to the north
and bought a tiny house in a collapsing town in East Lancashire. When he
introduced himself to his neighbours, the husband said:
“Not a bad street this. No pakis.”
Bechara took out a subscription to Searchlight.
Sir Stephen Gibley already had
control of three Academies. There’d been some fuss, of course, over his
fundamentalist views. An Oxford professor of biology had written to The
Guardian, which Gibley viewed as a communistic journal. But for a mere six
million, most of which he hadn’t even yet handed over, he’d appointed the
governors and the staff and set the curriculum in all three. In his less
restrained moments, he imagined his reach extending over the entire school
system. In the foyer of Queens, his first acquisition, was a commemorative stone
on which was carved in gold letters: Established to the greater glory of God and
opened by Tony Blair. He was on the verge of endowing his fourth but the parents
were resisting. He’d met the Prime Minister who’d said: “Don’t worry. We know
how to bully people into accepting these things.” But the campaign hadn’t
evaporated. Behind it were two women, one who worked in a Welfare Rights office,
the other in a supermarket. The kind of people Gibley would sack and send on
their way without a qualm. He was beginning to get frustrated.
There was to be a consultation but the rules were tight: one question only per
person, no follow up. On the ground, Councillor Barry McNeely, Cabinet Member
for education, was doing the work of countering the parents’ campaign. He’d
declared at once that the Academy was: The best thing ever to happen to
education in this town. He was hoping for a parliamentary seat and had exchanged
letters with two Secretaries of State for Education. On his mantelpiece was a
framed, signed photo of him shaking hands with the Prime Minister. Though he had
met him only once he was fond of declaiming: As Tony Blair said to me…His father
had been a coal miner and McNeely had supported the NUM in 1984. His dad was
arrested on a picket line, convicted of affray, sacked, and because of that,
lost his pension rights. He was forty-seven at the time of the strike and had
lived on benefits ever since. He still talked socialism, which NcNeely found
embarrassing. In the disorientation of the 80s, a young man who had embraced a
fervent but ill-thought- through radicalism, McNeely had been unable to reshape
his socialism. The terrible humiliation of successive defeats, even though he
won and retained his council seat, made him easy prey to success at any
cost and he swung behind the New Labour project, casting aside his old rhetoric
of equality and the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy.
His party was in power. They had won three elections. They still had Labour in
their name. He was heading for parliament. He might end up a junior minister. He
might own a Jag. His visited his father as little as possible.
“Why can’t we shut these troublemakers up ?” said Gibley as the waiter took away
his soup plate.
“We’re trying,” said McNeely. “They’ve got the majority of parents on their
“Then the majority of parents are idiots !” said Gibley.
“What’s in our favour is they get a new school. A lot of parents want that.
We’ve got to convince them it’s the best for their kids. If we do that, we can
head them off.”
“I don’t like this business of convincing. I prefer to tell people what I expect
“Well, Sir Stephen, the problem is, in a democratic society…”
“I’m getting tired of hearing that word. It seems to mean that low-grade social
workers and uneducated shelf-fillers can tell me what to do with my money. Well
I’ve made my money through hard work and if I want to buy schools, I’ll buy
“Yeah, but if the parents aren’t behind it, it isn’t going to work.”
“In my view, the parents have no right to stop it. The government wants it. I
want it. The council wants it. In any case, it’s these two women. What are they
“Jackie Cooke and Viv Whillock.”
“A pair of common street women holding the whole show up. Can’t we just get ‘em
out of the picture ?”
“I’m a businessman, Barry. Determination has its price.”
“No. You won’t buy off Jackie Cooke. She’s a socialist.”
“That’s what’s wrong with this country. People who’ve worked hard and made their
money have to put up with envious little nobodies who want to bring ‘em down.
She must have skeletons in her cupboard.”
“She’s divorced, bringing up two kids on her own. But there’s nothing else. I’ve
known her for years. Her dad worked with mine in the pit. Straight as a die.
She’s the same. She makes Robespierre look purchasable.”
Gibley looked askance at McNeely.
“The bottom line is, Councillor, I’m putting up two million of my money. If I
spend my money, I expect something in return and what I want out of this is a
school that’s run as I say it shall be run.”
“Of course. But they’re onto the religious angle. If we could tone that down a
bit it might be easier.”
“Tone it down ? It’s my faith.”
“I know, but the matter of teaching Creationism in science lessons…”
“Children have to be told the truth.”
“The thing is, if it was taught in RE lessons. It’s causing a lot of trouble.
Jackie’s saying the kids are going to be indoctrinated. She’s got a girl in the
school who’s a real brainbox. You see, for someone like Jackie Cooke, education
is the way out for her kids. She left school at sixteen. It was what
working-class lasses did. Southbank works for her daughter. She wants to go into
law. She’ll probably get to Oxford. So Jackie’s saying, what do I want my
daughter being taught Creationism for ? She sees it as a trick. And people
listen to her. She’s bright and straightforward and they all trust her. And
she’s saying Creationism isn’t science so why teach it in science lessons ? It’s
a scam. So the parents have got the idea that the whole scheme is a scam. What I
think is, if we drop the Creationist thing. Put it in with RE. Then we’ll take
away a big part of their campaign.”
“And I’ll have egg all over my face.”
“We can find a way of spinning it so you don’t look silly.”
“We don’t need to spin anything, Barry. And I won’t look silly. I’m the man with
the money, either they do what I want or I take my money away and if I do that,
there’s no school.”
NcNeeny had always known the rich were selfish and ruthless. His dad still said,
a person is made by circumstance and the circumstance of the rich is that
they’ll do anything to hang onto control of their wealth, even when they’re
giving it away. He was staring at Gibley. He was overweight, balding and his
face betrayed his vulgarity. It was true, if he had to choose between Gibley and
Jackie Cooke as human beings, there was no difficulty. She lived in social
housing and earned next to nothing, but she was impossible to dislike. Gibley
brimmed with arrogance. He really did believe his money made him superior and
could anything be more laughable ? McNeeny realised he was trapped. Gibley
on the one hand, Jackie on the other. The Academy was his chance. It could make
his career. If it failed, who’d take an interest in him ? Lord Adonis had
written to him wishing him well. If the thing fell flat, he’d be seen as a
duffer. And Jackie was right, thirty-three million of the money for the school
was public. Why shouldn’t the public have control ? As she said to him: “What’s
wrong with democracy ?” In that instant, McNeeny hated Gibley. He would have
liked to tell him to stuff his money. He would have liked to have been able to
talk like a socialist, to throw in his face the fact that the public sector was
entirely the creation of democracy. If only democratic socialism had won out and
he didn’t have to kiss the arse of a man like this, a man who had inherited his
fortune, who would sell child pornography on Monday and preach Creationsim on
Sunday if it was the only way he could be rich. He felt suddenly utterly flat.
“That would be the worst outcome of all.”
“Not for me it wouldn’t, Councillor.”
“But for the kids. A new school for the kids. Isn’t that what we all want ?”
“Not if I can’t control it. Two million is two million. These people need to
learn a little respect for money.”
“It’s not good for either of us if the scheme fails.”
“Don’t worry about me, Barry. I can take my money elsewhere. There’ll be
Academies all over this country with my name on ‘em and they’ll all teach the
truth of the Bible in science lessons, whether parents like it or not.”
McNeeny arranged a meeting with Jackie Cooke. She made him more nervous
than Gibley’s money and power. She was a warm and easy-going woman but there was
something as hard and polished as stainless steel at the heart of her and a
nuclear warhead wouldn’t have diverted her from what she thought to be right.
“What you ‘avin, Jackie ?”
“Half a lager.”
“Not fancy a gin and tonic.”
“Are you tryin’ to get me drunk ?”
“I’d know better.”
“So you should.”
He sat down with the drinks. They were in the Mitre, a place built in the
sixties to serve the estate and now very down-at-heel and dingy. Drug pushers
had colonised it in the nineties and they had to close it for a while. The new
landlord tried food to bring in families and change the atmosphere, but the
clientele were still mostly male, mostly idle or up to no good, mostly young and
loud with that disturbing, ape-like grunting in their communication and the
swagger of the defeated in their demeanour. Jackie watched these young men
strutting round the pool table and knew what she wanted above all was for her
daughters to escape this place. Once, there had been a sturdiness and hope here.
People worked and did their best and wanted the general condition to improve.
Now there was nothing but a vicious survival and an implosion into day-to-day
living with everyone watching their backs. She still had her old belief: work
had to serve the common good rather than private profit for this all this to be
swept away. But for the time being, she just wanted her kids to get out of it.
“How’s things ?”
“Marvellous, Barry. Just bought myself a new Rolls and I’m off to Barbados on
the private yacht at Easter.”
“Kids okay ?”
She looked him in the eye as she sipped her drink.
“Your Sarah still set on being a lawyer ?”
“Aimin’ high, eh ?”
“She’s got a good brain and she wants to do something with it. Human rights law.
Better than Woolworth’s innit ?”
“She needs the best education she can get then.”
“She’s doin’ fine at Southbank, Barry. It’s a good school, in spite of what
“It’s a failing school, Jackie.”
“It wasn’t till they wanted to make it an Academy. They failed it on purpose and
you know it.”
“Ofsted’s independent, Jackie. You’re getting paranoid.”
“Independent my arse, Barry. Think I was born yesterday ? Politicians’ll poison
the water to get their own way. This school’s been set up, and it’s my kids
they’re experimentin’ with.”
McNeeny pulled a bundle of papers from his briefcase and set it on the table.
Jackie looked at him, at the bundle and shook her head.
“It’s objective evidence, Jackie. Kids do better in Academies.”
“About as objective as the tipster in the Sun ! I’ll give you some objective
evidence, Barry. Look round this town. You live in the leafy suburbs you’ve got
a choice of schools all doing miles better than average. You live on this
estate, you go to Southbank. It’s simple. Being poor makes kids fail. We don’t
need a bloody Academy, we need some money in our pockets.”
“You always did simplify.”
“It is simple. The rich know how simple it is. They live in the good areas, they
get their kids into schools full of other kids from families with money. If
isn’t simple, Barry, why do they do that ? Why do the middle-classes move house
to get their kids into good schools ? Because it’s bloody simple.”
“Yeah, and you’ve got a chance of a good school ! Thirty-five million quid,
Jackie ! Are you going to deny that to the kids round here ? This’ll be the
poshest school for miles.”
“A posh school full of poor kids and run by a barmy businessman who thinks the
world’s six thousand years old. I left school at sixteen, Barry, but I can read.
The earth is three and half billion years old. I read that in Sarah’s GCSE
physics book. I want my daughters educated not fed religious hocus-pocus. And I
want to vote for the folk who run my kids’ school. Democracy’s the only hope the
poor have, Barry. I’m not sittin’ back and seein’ my local school put into the
hands of a fat-cat brewer who makes his money selling booze to lap-dancing
“Calm down. You’re exaggerating.”
“I am calm. We’re gonna win this, Barry. The parents want the school but they
don’t want Gibley. I want the school. I want the public money. Thirty-three
million from the taxpayer, we’ll have it. Tell Gibley to stuff his measly two.”
“Without his money the thing fails, Jackie. You don’t have a choice.”
“If it’s a choice between his religious dogma and control or Southbank, I’ll
stick with Southbank.”
“Even though it’s failing ?”
“It isn’t failing, Barry. The teachers work hard. The parents are behind ‘em.
47% with five A to Cs. That’s bloody brilliant, Barry, when you look at the
backgrounds of these kids ! And it’s a happy place. How do you measure that ? We
pull together to make it work. It’s a real place not a bloody showcase for Tony
Blair’s crackpot ideas.”
“Are you gonna turn down thirty-five million, Jackie ?”
“No, give us the money. Give me the money, Barry, and just watch me ! But our
kids are being used. I want schools in the public sector. That’s what I believe
in. Hand ‘em over to the likes of Gibley and where are we in twenty, thirty,
fifty years ?”
“We’re all dead, Jackie.”
She was silenced. She stared into his eyes and shook her head slowly.
“I didn’t think you’d got quite so cynical. It’s the future I’m interested in.
My children’s grandchildren might still live round her and if they don’t some
other bugger’s will. I want a good school for them. I want a good society for
them, Barry. Not this silly Ideal Home Exhibition mentality.”
McNeeny left the pub feeling a mixture of admiration and derision for Jackie. In
a way, he wished he could be part of her campaign. Maybe he should have stayed
at the grassroots and taken up every cause that advanced democracy and equality.
But with the first step into power came the need to compromise and with the
first compromise came the ditching of principle. If he criticised the
Academy programme, he was finished. Jackie was right, of course, who needs two
million from a capitalist when there’s thirty-three million from the public
purse ? It was a trick, but it kept the Tories quiet because it gave power to
business. It was shabby, but he went along with it because he had to if he
wanted to go to parliament. That was politics.
Gibley hadn’t attended the three previous consultations. He viewed them as
rubber-stamping . This time he wanted to be present. He believed the parents
would be intimidated. The hall was already full when he took his seat. He
surveyed the motley constituency ? Were these the people who were trying to
stand in his way ? They were dross. He disliked them instinctively. The only
thing to do with such people was to manipulate them. Did they deserve a
new school ? He would have liked to tell them they didn’t.
“Are the two women here ?” he said to McNeeny.
“Can’t see ‘em, but they will be.”
“Let’s get this over quickly and send them on their way.”
McNeeny chaired the meeting. Before him sat his electors. He owed them. But he
wished he could cut them adrift. It was men like Gibley he needed to cultivate.
Meeting him for dinner in The Oaks, getting a lift home in his chauffeured
Mercedes – it was a different world. These people caught the bus and had Chinese
take-aways on Friday. He represented them but he wanted to be free of them.
Already, a mere County Councillor he’d experienced the lift of power: the fine
old rooms of County Hall at his disposal, the deference of the council’s
employees, the toadying of people wanting favours, rubbing shoulders with some
of the richest people in the county. But this was a mere prelude. Once at
Westminster he would rise far above these people. He would come back every
weekend to hold his surgeries of course. But that was simple expediency. The
voters had to be kept sweet but he knew they were ignorant. How many of them
could even tell him what responsibilities the County Council fulfilled ? They
were innocent children led astray by the offer of a treat from a sinister
stranger hiding his motivation behind a wide, fixed smile. And didn’t they
deserve to be abused ? Weren’t they dull, stupid, feckless. There was
Jimmy Golden, his dad’s old mate. Once a proud miner he now filled shelves in
B&Q for five pounds fifty an hour. His grandson was sitting next to him. What
future did they have, these people ? They wouldn’t rise up and take what was
theirs so they were used. And in the contest between the used and the users, he
wanted to be one of the latter.
The meeting began. The first questions were benign but the radicals were biding
their time. It was easy to field poorly expressed questions about the cogs and
springs of the scheme. Gibley began to relax.
“This will be a walk-over,” he whispered to McNeeny.
“Don’t let your guard down. There’ll be some tricky questions in a minute.”
A man of forty-five or so, dressed in jeans and an anorak put his hand up:
“I’d like to know, if you get me meanin’, this money like, I mean it’s a lot
o’brass. To folk like us. So, what I was meanin’ was, who gets the decision like
? On how it’s spent, sort o’ thing ? Is it the council or……well, who is it ?”
“No need to worry your head about that,” declared Gibley. “The money’s in safe
hands. I’m a businessman. I’m used to making decisions involving tens of
millions of pounds. Just trust me, I know what I’m doing. Next.”
“Some consultation,” said Jackie to her friend Viv.
“They’re stitchin’ us up. Same old story. Give someone a bit o’ power and they
Then one of the teachers raised his hand. Lawrie Edge was a physicist who taught
all three sciences and was known for his willingness to speak up. The management
was wary of him and would have liked to see him go. He was the only gay member
of staff, or at least the only one to admit it.
“Given your literal interpretation of the Bible, Sir Stephen, I’d like to know
what attitude you propose the governing body should adopt regarding the sexual
orientation of teachers and pupils in the new Academy.”
McNeeny cast a nervous glance at Gibley.
“The Bible is the word of God,” began Gibley. “I think any fair-minded person
would agree that the scriptures make clear homosexuality is a sin. We will
promote Christian values and uphold the Christian family. That’s the responsible
position. Next, please.”
Another teacher got to her feet.
“Given your previous answer, how do you intend to look after the well-being of
homosexual pupils in the school ? Will the Academy have an anti-bullying policy
for example, as required by law ? And will that policy make clear that bullying
on grounds of sexual orientation is unacceptable ?”
“Of course the school will abide by the law. Of course there will be an
anti-bullying policy. But will abide also by the word of the Lord. And the
law of God over-rides mere human law. We won’t tolerate sexual immorality of any
Another female teacher.
“Is it true, Sir Stephen, that your brewery supplies alcohol to a club in this
town called Excite, and isn’t that a lap-dancing club ? How do you square what
you’ve just said with making money from venues where women have to strip off and
perform degrading dances for money?”
McNeeny tried to intervene but Gibley insisted on giving his response.
“I’m not here to answer questions about my business interests. My company
operates within the law. It responds to the demands of the market like any
company and it does very well. I’m not taking lectures on business ethics from
“They’ve set this up !” McNeeny whispered to him. “Almost all the staff are
Another teacher was up and speaking.
“Is it the case then, Sir Stephen, given the answers you’ve provided so far,
that you think homosexuals should be punished for what they do in private but
public displays of female flesh for men’s lecherous pleasure are somehow in
keeping with your fundamentalist Christianity?”
“That’s enough from the teachers !” called Gibley.
There was a howl of protest.
“Let’s hear from the parents. Let’s hear from the people. We can’t have the
teachers holding the floor with these peripheral issues.”
Jackie attracted his attention.
“Yes, the lady in the blue top.”
“That’s Jackie Cooke !” McNeeny said to him.
“I’ve two daughters at Southbank,” she began, “very different girls but both
happy there. I’m not a religious person. I never go to church, nor do my
children. Why should they have to take in all this dogma of yours ? And what
guarantee do I have that my girls aren’t going to face prejudice because of
their attitude to religion ? I want my kids educated. Why can’t religion be left
as a private matter ?”
“Because it isn’t a private matter. God is everywhere and we must all
acknowledge him. Next. Yes, the gentleman…”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“Sit down, please madam or the stewards will have to eject you. Now…”
“Let ‘em try ! Answer my question ! This is our school. We paid for it out of
our taxes. We worked for it. We voted for it. Don’t talk to me like I’m one of
your employees. You can’t sack me. I want an answer. What’s wrong with democracy
? Why do we need your money ? Two million against thirty-three and you get
control. It’s a scandal. It’s a scam. It’s educational gangsterism…”
Two stewards, burly men in short, black zipper jackets took hold of her arms and
pulled her towards the exit.
“You’ll have to throw us all out, Gibley ! We don’t want your money. We want a
school under democratic control….”
She tripped and the stewards yanked her to her feet and marched her out.
“Get your fuckin’ hands off me you pair o’ wankers !”
She looked up into the face of one of the men as they let go of her outside. It
was bland with the thoughtlessness of the hired, the recruited, the obedient.
“Where’d you get your education,” she called after him as he strode back towards
the hall with his mate, “Broadmoor ?”
Inside, the meeting was as disorderly as a bottom set French lesson on Friday
afternoon. Gibley was vainly trying to being things under control. He walked off
the stage and left the matter to McNeeny who raised his voice as impotently as a
teacher before a recalcitrant, unruly class. People began to leave. He knew it
was a disaster. As he watched the number of empty seats increase, he saw his
dream of a parliamentary career retreat.
Within a week, Gibley had withdrawn his support. The Prime Minister was quoted
in the local press: “This is a sad day for education in this town. It is the
children who have lost out and that is very regrettable. But the Academy
programme marches on. It will go from strength to strength. Private and public
together we will build a bright new future for our children.”
“Have you told your girls they’re not getting a new school ?” McNeeny asked
Jackie when he bumped into her in the supermarket.
“I’ve told them we’ve got the school we want. One we can control by voting.
That’s democracy, Barry. That’s how you got on the council.”
Pushing his trolley along the aisles, McNeeny felt real hatred for Jackie. He
knew he would never leave now. He would be associated with failure, like his
father, like the miners. He was doomed to remain a local councillor in this
small-minded place and would he ever again ride in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes
alongside a rich mover and shaker like Sir Stephen Gibley ? The thought came to
him that in a few years Sarah Cooke might be taking her place at Oxford. Maybe
she’d go on to work in a London chambers. Perhaps she’d become a silk. The
thought of it made him nauseous. He would almost be glad if she failed.
“Morning, councillor !”
He nodded but didn’t recognise his interlocutor. One of the nobodies of this
town. A constituent. A vote.
He threw a pepperoni pizza on top of his shopping and pushed on to the checkout.
ANN LEAKEY’S ROLLS-ROYCE
were arriving by car, bus and train, lugging heavy suitcases, wheeling
trunks on battered, tilting, squeaking trolleys ; there were rucksacks,
holdalls, shoulder bags, carrier bags, Gladstones, clydes. The campus swarmed.
Concerned parents followed their offspring across the square and into halls:
brick-built, three-storey blocks, mostly, where ten students shared a floor. Mrs
Treanor was following her son who was six inches taller and whose stride was
long and swift. She’d expected him to go to Oxbridge, or at least Durham . Being
married to a minor diplomat, her children were educated in private schools at
the expense of the taxpayer, an arrangement she thought excellent. That the
children of the working-class were educated at university by the same means, she
thought of as Bolshevism. Still, here they were, in Lancaster. It was a
university, apparently. As she entered her son’s college, she crossed paths with
a startlingly good-looking girl. At once it struck her that her son might soon
be in bed with such a young woman. Or even that very one! This was 1972 after
all. The sexual revolution had happened. He was no longer in the exclusive
atmosphere of a public school. And this was the north! He might mix with all
kinds of riff-raff.
riff-raff in question was Ann Leakey and John Treanor did end up in bed with
both studying French and Russian. Ann was the outstanding beauty of her year.
Slim and dark with wide blue eyes she looked lovely in the downbeat clothes she
usually wore. She was also stunningly intelligent and whipped through Proust as
if it were the Daily Mail, while her fellow students struggled, looking
up every tenth word. Boys were after her, as they’d been for years. Most of
them bored her. She was looking for something different, though she didn’t know
what. She just had a sense, like someone who has grown bored of a repetitive
diet, that something unusual was necessary. John had noticed her on the first
day. When she’d appeared in the lecture theatre for the talk on Charles Peguy,
his heart quickened. He got to know girls on her floor. He was in their kitchen
with a bottle of Sauternes when she came in. She was unobtrusive but unmissable.
She went to her cupboard and took out her mug.
hoping my father would get posted to Paris,” he said loudly. “I’d love to live
in Paris. Madrid is fine, of course, but I adore Paris.”
quietly made a cup of coffee. One of the girls asked her what she was up to and
she said she was translating.
love translating!” said John. “I was always the best in my class. But I agree
with Voltaire about translations, don’t you?”
disappeared. As she went down the corridor, she could hear John’s loud, annoying
voice. He was tall and strong and intelligent looking. But his loud, intrusive
arrogance put her off.
days later she was buying a TLS when someone hissed. She turned round. It was
him. He stood over her with a big smile, as if he were posing for a camera.
looked at the paper.
laughed loudly and nervously.
going to the disco tonight?” he asked.
Or maybe I’ll finish L’existentialisme est un humanisme.”
laughed loudly again.
I prefer a disco to Sartre!”
I’m still trying to decide.”
I’ve paid for this. I’m not shoplifting.”
guffawed. “I’ll wait outside.”
joined the queue. She wished one of her friends would appear. She’d met two or
three girls she got on with brilliantly. Like her, they were from unpretentious
families. If only one of them would arrive now and they could walk back
way,” said John as she came out of the shop, “you wouldn’t have a clothes brush
I could borrow would you?”
clothes brush?” she put her change in her purse wondering if she should lie.
jacket got amazingly dusty in the bar last night. Things got a bit hectic and my
jacket fell off the chair and everyone walked over it. It’s a real mess!”
glanced up at him. He was one of those fine specimens the English public schools
turn out: tall, clean, smooth and lacking in character like a newly-built house.
Without knowing it, she dropped her guard a little. She found herself thinking
he was a buffoon, but harmless, and her natural generosity took hold. She was
like a boy who ventures out onto a frozen pond , and has no idea how it might
feel to be in the chill water, beneath the ice.
matter of fact, I have. But it’ll cost you.”
don’t worry about that,” he said loudly, “I’m loaded.”
him wait outside while she searched. He tried to peep through the door left
ajar. She remained inside and held the brush out to him. The electric light
caught her eyes and made them shine bright blue. He stared at her.
hope it does the trick.”
it from her and stood awkwardly.
fancy the disco tonight?”
the big smile again and his eyes were wide. She looked up at him and blenched a
little as she might from a garish neon sign.
matter of fact, I fancy Jean-Paul Sartre. He’s gorgeous.”
luck with the jacket.”
same, she turned up. She was with her friends, the girls he’d got to know. The
disco was in a college bar and the place was packed, noisy, drunken and reeked
of alcohol. John had drunk a bottle of Sauternes and was loud and staggering. He
watched Ann as she danced with her friends. A boy moved in and tried to talk to
her as he jigged to the repetitive beat. When the song ended, she walked away.
He lost sight of her and pushed through the crowd to find her.
that Ann Leakey’s here!” one of his mates shouted into his ear.
wouldn’t climb over her to get to you!”
rocked with laughter. Where was she? He tried to keep her in his view and to
summon up courage. Each time he caught sight of her his heart raced. She seemed
different from minute to minute. He couldn’t look at her enough. Her beauty
defeated looking. At last, he approached her.
thought you were reading Sartre!” he shouted.
with laughter again.
want to dance?”
want to elaborate my own project.”
pissed. I’ve drunk a whole bottle of Sauternes.”
obviously have refined tastes.”
“Dandelion and burdock.”
her back. Outside her room he tried to kiss her. She allowed him a peck on the
cheek and disappeared. He knocked on her door.
to go to?”
course not. I’ve got Jean-Paul Sartre naked in here.”
going to bed, Ann decided to keep her distance. He was handsome enough, but
empty, and something about his behaviour disturbed her, like an alarm heard
faintly which keeps sounding through the night. She turned out the lamp and was
of her resolution, he seemed more present than ever. He was always in the
kitchen, talking loudly and laughing in his embarrassing, raucous way. The more
time she spent in his company, the more her original irritation and
defensiveness waned. Like a bad smell which strikes you when you enter a room
but which fades as you get used to it, his intrusive, insensitive manner became
less noticeable. And he pursued her. The phone rang: it was John wanting to know
if she’d done the Russian assignment. There was a knock at her door: could she
help him translate a difficult sentence into French? In her easy-going way, at
first she thought these requests were genuine. When she realised their ulterior
motive she pulled up short with a little shock. The lads she’d known at home
were more plain-dealing.
mother has just got a new Mercedes for going shopping,” John said.
sitting at the table by the kitchen window, his long legs outstretched.
goes on the bus,” said Ann, “ it’s too difficult to park the Rolls near the
don’t you come and visit us in the vacation? You’d like Godalming.”
But Godalming might not like me.
looked at him. He really was a buffoon. His mind was as flat and clear as the
Antarctic wastes. The blind whiteness of snow stretched endlessly and the
certainties were thrown off harshly. It made her wince, that public-school
assumption and arrogance, that psychological and emotional tundra so typical of
the English upper classes. She was used to the relaxed warmth of a working-class
home. Her people had no opportunity to think of themselves as superior. They got
by as they could and valued closeness and friendship. And as insult usually drew
a sharp response and unpleasant consequences, they avoided it. Her father was a
common northern joiner, but his manners were impeccable.
fit their circumstances and my circumstances don’t fit with Godalming.”
all socialists where I come from.”
should talk to my father . He’d straighten you out. He says five million on the
dole would teach the unions a thing or two.”
should patent that theory. He could make a fortune.”
thing is,” he intoned, “only the Conservatives can run the economy. You see,
they’re the people who understand about money.”
understand that all right.”
the rich, no-one would work. They organise things, you see. They’re the movers
and shakers. It’s just ingratitude that makes the workers bolshie. And envy.”
original mind you have,” she said.
really think she could envy him? Did he imagine he was remotely the man her
father and brother were? She looked at him as if he were an exotic creature,
some anthropological discovery.
started Germinal? she asked.
finished it. You’ll love it. It’s all about the movers and shakers.”
that, she decided to have nothing to do with him. They came from different
planets. But he stuck. She came out of a lecture on Stendhal and he was waiting.
Fancy a coffee?”
she accept? They sat in the crowded college bar. She loved the activity and the
people. She was at home with the coming and going of crowds. As a child she’d
watched the men streaming from the factory round the corner at five. It was
life. People together, working or enjoying themselves. John talked loudly about
himself. But he couldn’t reduce her mood. What a fool he was! What a harmless,
purblind fool. In this mood, her fondness and generosity overcame her.
and weeks went by and John was always there. He bought her coffee and beer. She
explained the origins of the French Revolution. They went to the cinema together
to see Last Tango In Paris. During the sex scenes he froze.
raunchy,” she said as they left.
evening when she’d had too much to drink and he walked her back from a disco,
she found herself kissing him. In spite of herself, she enjoyed the closeness.
He was heavy on top of her. His kissing was clumsy but she hadn’t kissed for
months. When he tried to unhook her bra she said:
you like me to do that?”
the warmth of intimacy swept away superficial differences. As their love-making
continued, she grew more relaxed. She laughed at his blundering ways and his
blimpish opinions. She was enjoying herself in that untroubled way she’d learned
in the streets, the back-alleys and the woods across the river, when parents
were far away and freedom seemed endless.
evening he was supposed to arrive at seven and didn’t turn up. She fretted. At
ten she went to see if the light was on in his room.
your watch?” she said when he opened the door.
“ A la
recherché du temps perdu. About three hours in fact.”
should see a psychologist about that complaint.”
you going to let me in?”
murder a cup of coffee,” and she pushed the door quickly and slid past him.
of a hand-written letter lay on his desk. He gathered them hurriedly and pushed
them in his drawer.
and sit in the kitchen.”
let’s not. It’s much nicer here. I’ll wait while you brew.”
the pages from the drawer, folded them into an envelope and sealed it.
the kitchen while I make the coffee.”
comfy now. I’ll stay here. Off you go.”
stiffly, with sullen obedience.
looked around the neat room. On the bookshelf was a row of swimming trophies.
She imagined him diving like a gannet, powering the lengths. She saw the smirk
of self-satisfaction on his lips when the cup was handed to him. There was a
framed picture of his class. All the boys had that air of assumption
public-school pupils can never shake off. She got up and took the envelope out
of the drawer, turning it in her hands, feeling its small weight as enormously
significant. She almost felt she had the right to open it. Her heart raced and
she wanted to go. She put it back, closed the drawer and sat down. John appeared
with two steaming mugs.
absent-mindedness run in your family?” she said.
his back to her, looking out over the quad.
think it’s genetic or a product of your upbringing?”
let it drop?”
to her and she saw the shadow of an ugly expression in his eyes and on his
Letting it drop sounds a good idea to me.”
the mug on the floor, got up and went.
closed the door of her room behind her in a rage of self-accusation. Still, that
was that. The fact that it was over meant she could pull herself up from the
humiliation. But each time she thought of it, she was angry and ashamed. How
could she have been such a fool? All the same, there was no doubt she’d revelled
in the intimacy. She couldn’t sleep and curled in her armchair with Le Neveu
de Rameau. Every time her thoughts began to drift, she forced her attention
back to the book and the good intellectual effort calmed her down.
rapping on her door woke her up. For a few seconds she was disoriented. Where
was she? What day was it? Who was knocking? Then all at once her full
consciousness returned, she got up throwing the blanket she’d had round her
shoulders on the bed, put the book on her desk, and quickly straightening her
hair in mirror, opened the door.
surprised you can remember where I live.”
prepared for the seminar on Rimbaud?”
seminar is elsewhere.”
your letter writing?”
in the chair and he perched on the bed.
course. Who was it to?”
Writing nothing to no-one. You could be the next Samuel Beckett.”
was to my ex-girlfriend.”
no-one, of course. What’s no-one’s name?”
quite a name.”
thought we could keep it going but it’s no good.”
for telling me.”
she felt a twinge of regret. Why was she asking him to be considerate? He made
an apology of sorts and came over to her. She went stiff and cold enough to keep
him at a distance. He sat on the bed again and they talked till two. He was
restrained and quiet but she wouldn’t relent. When he left, she went to bed
resolved to keep him at a distance.
day he came striding up as she was leaving a lecture on Les Contemplations.
He was full of that intrusive, toothy cheeriness which made her cringe and laugh
at the same time.
Ann!” he called. “I haven’t seen you for ages!”
me on Tuesday.”
“ Do you
suffer from juvenile dementia?”
“ Oh yes,
I remember. We talked in the library didn’t we.”
Libraries being ideal places for conversation.”
should try a variation on that line?”
“Actually, I’m just going to meet a couple of girls in Bowland bar.”
I tag along?”
stared at him. He stood tall and a little gangly, his big white teeth on
display. There was something too present about him. In fact, everything he did
was an exaggeration. He couldn’t lift a cup without looking as if he was acting
out, as if he’d just read a book entitled How To Lift A Cup In Polite Society
So As To Reveal Your Class Origins And Intrinsic Superiority. She was
in the far corner of the busy bar, their cheap white mugs and saucers on the low
table. The girls chatted away inconsequentially with that female genius for
emotional communication which leaves men bemused.
haven’t even learnt all my lines yet!” said one of them who was playing Martha
in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.
Hamlet in the sixth-form,” John interrupted. “I was pretty good, actually. I
learnt the lines in bed.”
suppose it whiles away the time when you’ve nothing better to do there,” said
“Actually, I thought I might try my luck on the boards once over.”
tried to imagine him on stage. All they could see was a wooden,
amateur-dramatics ham. They smiled indulgently but he didn’t get it.
it about anyway, this play you’re in?”
began the girl, “it’s not easy to say…”
poisonous centre of the sugary delicacy known as The American Dream,” said Ann.
problem with America, of course, is its lack of tradition,” said John.
lack of socialists,” said Ann.
great country, but they need to learn how to be less vulgar,” said John.
hard not be vulgar when your existence revolves around making money,” said Ann.
of real class have money without making a fuss about it,” said John. “It’s only
the nouveaux riches who need to be ostentatious.”
don’t know,” said Ann, “Buckingham Palace is hardly a paradigm of modesty.”
waxed on about the responsibilities of wealth and how the country would go to
the dogs if people who didn’t understand the value of money were allowed to have
influence. The girls ignored him and drifted back to their light-hearted
chatter, so seemingly trivial, so actually vital. They ignored him and he sat
aside trying now and again to find a foothold in the conversation but failing
because he didn’t grasp that conversation isn’t a philosophy seminar.
pleased he’d been discomfited. In her room she sat at her little portable
Remington to bash out an essay on portraiture from David to Delacroix. She
enjoyed work. The research could be tedious but the challenge of writing she
relished. It was a great feeling to get to the end of a five thousand word
essay, re-read it, re-work it and hand it in. So she liked these hours alone
with words and she disliked being disturbed.
as she heard the knock, she knew it was him.
disturbing you am I?”
wanted to talk.”
writing an essay.”
mildly irritated at herself for giving way, but he looked so pathetic, like a
boy who’s lost his mummy at the fairground, and in truth she was ready for a
break, having hammered away for two hours or so. She made coffee and sat on the
bed propped by her pillows while he sat in the chair.
to say sorry,” he said.
been a bit of a cad.”
almost laughed out loud. A what? He talked as if he was straight from the pages
of Billy Bunter! His ridiculousness made him unthreatening and she felt
herself relax. She was trusting and easy-going because it was the way among her
people. The old cliché was true, in the street where she grew up people did
leave their front doors unlocked. Kids were always out skipping, playing
hopscotch or Queenie-o-coco. Adults were always keeping an eye. Everyone
watched out for everyone.
worry, we know how to cope with cads in the north.”
hoping we could have another go.”
know, start again.”
so preposterous she wanted to bustle him out of the door. But she let him stay
and the time ran on. They went out to eat in the refectory, bought a bottle of
Bordeaux on the way back and tired, tipsy, full of her native generosity, she
let him into her bed.
things ran along quite well for a few weeks. Gradually, she was teaching him how
to be in less of a panicky hurry in bed, though he couldn’t yet satisfy her. He
would roll off , blow a great phew from his pursed lips and say:
fantastic, wasn’t it?”
wasn’t too bad,” she’d say.
didn’t really know where this was going, but for the moment she didn’t worry.
She felt she had the measure of him and without being fully aware of it. She
believed she could chip away at his ludicrous upper-middle-class assumptions and
postures and make a straightforward human being of him.
Easter holidays came round.
give you a ring,” she said
don’t do that.”
sitting in the bar that was already sparse. It was the last day of term and
those who could had escaped early. She looked at him. He was staring blankly
not be at home.”
it, emergency surgery?”
might not be at home, that’s all.”
petulance and distance disturbed her. Like a lone yachtsman who senses a
dangerous change in the wind and tacks for the shore, she should have made for
safe ground; but she was too at ease. She dismissed her fretfulness.
write to me though,” he said.
through the Easter holiday she was on edge. She took a job in a café and had a
great laugh with the other waitresses. The work was tedious - serving, wiping,
collecting, - but they joked their way through the days making quiet fun of the
customers. There was a man who came in every day, bought a small coffee and sat
at the same corner table to read the paper for an hour. They invented an
elaborate, mysterious, sinister or romantic life for him.
coffee?” one of the girls would say as he came to the counter and the others
would hide their suppressed giggles by bowing their heads and looking busy.
she was alone her doubts gnawed away at her until she sat down and wrote a brief
note. She didn’t like him being incommunicado. What did he have to hide? In any
case, they belonged in different worlds. Forget it. A reply came by return:
Ann, you bugger. Nothing’s going on. I’ll see you back on campus….
suddenly unfair and silly. Too willing to give others the benefit of the doubt,
she left herself exposed and accused herself of hurt to others when she was
merely engaged in justified defence of her own feelings. In her relief, she
expanded into wild affection. She was desperate for the start of term.
first day, she was delighted to meet all her friends and to chat away. But where
was John? She knocked on his door. She went to the bar. Then on her way to the
library she spotted him striding across Alexandra Square. She smiled at his
ludicrous purposiveness. He walked as if he was on his way into battle to save
the world from aliens. She went towards him but as he spotted her he veered away
and then walked straight past her as if she didn’t exist. She stopped and
turned, watching him stride on, amongst the students milling in their appalling
ordinariness. She went to the library and sat down with Les Illusions Perdues
but the surging of her emotion, the pounding of her heart, the humiliating image
of him powering past her as if a complete stranger, melted her concentration.
She sat and stared. Then she jumped up, stuffed the book in her bag and in a
white, eyeless rage went straight to his room. His door was open. She heard
voices and laughter. He was playing cards with a trio of his rugby pals.
All right, Ann?”
You’ll need a straight face not to be fleeced with a hand like that,” she said
to John, standing behind him.
an expert. Bluff and counter bluff. I can take John to the cleaners any time I
I’ve got more important games to play. So, how was your holiday, John?”
three mates exchanged looks.
“Excellent. How was yours?”
“Wonderful. I was just wondering about the deterioration in your psychological
on, play!” said John.
come on, play. There’s a game on here all right and someone’s going to lose
their shirt! You should get to the medical centre as soon as you can, John. I
mean it’s only four weeks and you’ve completely lost any memory of me
whatsoever. A degenerative loss like that at your age! You need acute
stopped. One of the lads put down his cards.
better be off. I’ve to see my tutor about missed essays.”
a problem,” said Ann, “but it’s nothing compared to John’s deficiency. He could
be utterly gaga in a fortnight.”
other two lads stood up.
better make tracks too, mate.”
no need to go,” said John.
at all,” said Ann. “Take a ringside seat. Seconds out.”
no right..” he began.
walk past me as if I’m a piece of furniture and then start talking about
up and turned away from her, making as if he needed to tidy.
where did you spend your holiday? On top of She’s-at-Oxford?”
my business when I write to you telling you things are over and you reply like
lover-boy of the century!”
get out of my room.”
get out of my life.”
round suddenly and grabbed her by the wrist. She was stunned by his cowardice.
His face was contorted into an ugly sneer. Behind the guffawing, socially gauche
public schoolboy was this vicious, spoilt, violent little boy who must have his
own way in all things.
poking your nose into my affairs,” he said his gleaming teeth clenched.
yanked her arm away and strode out. There were red marks on her wrist. She
rubbed them as if they were poison. In her room she closed the curtains, slumped
in her chair and sobbed.
weeks later, on a Wednesday, at six in the evening, she walked into the porter’s
bother you, Bob, but I’ve left my file in my boyfriend’s room and I need to get
on with an essay. I don’t suppose there’s any chance you could come and open his
door for me?”
can’t leave the lodge, luv. If you can wait till eight Tom’ll be here to start
his shift and I can go with you then.”
just need to get stuck into this work.”
very fond of Ann. She was down-to-earth and often made him a brew on nights when
he was on patrol duty. He’d sit in the kitchen with her and she’d ask him about
his family and his hobbies and had a way of listening that cheered him up.
couldn’t…Look, it’s my boyfriend’s room. I’m in there all the time. God knows
where he’s gone. If I could just have the key…”
luv. I’m not allowed.”
not. But am I going to tell? It’s B53. I’ll be there and back in less then a
minute. I wouldn’t ask, but I just have to get this work done and there’s my
file, I can picture it, sitting on the desk, with all my beautifully written
tilted her head like an inquisitive pigeon and smiled.
anyone asks you…..”
reached behind him and took the key from the hook.
luv, Bob, I’ll remember you in my will.”
sprinted across the quad to B block and panted up the stairs. Pulling open the
right-hand drawer of his desk, she saw the little stack of envelopes. She took
hold of the first one and pulled out its two-page contents. It was a
conventional love-letter signed Marie-Eve. She memorised the address, shoved it
back and rifled through the rest. She found one that contained the lines: and
now you say you’re drifting away from me, John. And for who, for a bitch of a
student, a working-class slut…..A sudden calm came over her and a clear
resolution. She put everything away, closed the door behind her, scooted to her
room to pick up her file and back to the porter’s lodge.
Bob! You’ve saved my life, again! No-one spotted me. Your secret goes to the
grave with my corpse.”
too young to think about such things!”
her room she sat quietly at her desk. She had a fountain pen and a pad of good
quality note-paper which she kept for official letters. She wrote her address
and the date in the top corner. Then she began: Dear Marie-Eve, and paused.
There were so many things she could say, but she wanted one sentence that could
say everything. Finally she put down: I’m enclosing a letter John Treanor sent
me during the Easter holidays. I thought you might find it of interest. She put
the two letters in the little blue envelope, sealed it and wrote on the front
the address she’d had no difficulty remembering.
morning she took it to the post-office and then went to the library where she
read Balzac intently for four hours.
almost a week before the knock came on her door. She opened and stood back. He
was in the corridor with the envelope and letters in his hand. She looked into
his eyes and saw the anguish. He was about to cry.
you get her address?”
in your drawer, John. All her letters are in your drawer.”
you get into my room?”
me in. Don’t you remember? We beguiled a few vagrant hours in bed together. You
were clumsy but you can’t be blamed for that. A public school education is a
poor start in life.”
wants to finish with me now!” he roared.
lurched into the room and threw himself down in her chair.
bitch! She wants to finish with me!”
pulled down at the corners and she saw his bottom lip quiver.
her, John. Say something like, Marie-Eve, you bugger…”
from the chair and grabbed the mug from the edge of her desk raising his long,
swimmer’s arm in the same action and swinging it down to try to smash into her
head. She flung herself onto the bed and the mug crashed onto her bedside table
leaving him holding the handle in his fingers.
better get out of here before I call the police,” she said.
standing over her, the tears squeezing from his eyes, his mouth like a
distressed baby’s, his chest starting to heave, the letters in one hand, the
little china handle in the other. Slowly he turned and dragged out, slumped like
a man whose entire life is bereft. She closed the door behind him.
“Buffoon!” she said to herself. “What a complete buffoon!”
Hal Boston’s life revolved
around sport. From his earliest years he was never without a ball and he brimmed
with energy he needed to work off on a field, in a game, in competition. At
primary school there was no-one to touch him for enthusiasm in anything
physical. He passed the 11-plus, went to the grammar school, was picked at once
for the first teams in rugby, football, and when the spring arrived, cricket. He
played for the county’s first fifteen and first eleven and football clubs took
an interest. At fifteen he had trials for Chester and was offered terms. But
rugby was his first love he turned it down. His father was pleased.
“Do what you believe in lad,
don’t just go after the money.”
His parents were Labour folk.
They had that ingrained disdain of cheap go-getting that was so common among the
northern working-class in the post-war years and which the young today find
incomprehensible. They watched their lad thrive during the peaceful 1950’s when
weariness with war and the disciplines of rationing made people truly grateful
for peace and relative plenty. In the sixities he grew his hair and listened to
The Beatles. They indulged him: these were harmless, passing fads. He did well
enough at school and went to university to train as a town planner. But at
nineteen his girlfriend got pregnant. They married and struggled through. For a
time, they came to live with Hal’s parents who made a great fuss of the little
boy. At length the young parents could afford their own house, in the suburbs,
not far from the child’s grandparents. Everything settled down. Another child
was born, a girl this time who looked just like her father who was doing well in
his job with a local authority only twenty minutes drive from home. Sally found
part-time work in administration in a local college. And Hal played on. Football
and rugby and cricket and tennis and badminton and table tennis. He was small
and muscular, like a terrier, and he ran at life with the same kind of gusto.
Always at the peak of fitness he prided himself on being able to drink eight
pints on a Friday and run himself breathless for ninety minutes on Saturday
They had two more children,
both boys. Hal couldn’t have been more content. He’d always known how to get his
satisfaction from life, had barely lived through a miserable day and if he did
feel low or at a loose end, there was always sport. If all else failed he would
go for a run or get out his bike and honk over a few big hills.
But when his third child was
eighteen months , something went wrong which he struggled to understand and
which changed his life forever.
“I’m not going to work today,”
He was standing naked at the
foot of the bed after his shower drying himself on a white bathsheet as big as a
sail. She looked at him. He was vigorous and without an ounce of fat. His black
beard was thick and heavy and the black hair grew profusely on his chest and
belly and legs and arms. She looked at his flaccid cock and the dense, black
pubic mass. His masculinity disgusted her.
"I can’t stand it,” she said.
“What d’you mean?”
He was genuinely puzzled and
didn’t intend to goad. He really didn’t understand how she couldn’t get through
the day. He attacked work like he attacked a ball. Nothing got on top of him.
“I mean I can’t stand it. Don’t
you understand English.”
“So you’re giving it up?”
“What about the money?”
“Well, I don’t think they’ll go
on paying me when I don’t work for them any more.”
He paused a second.
“No, I mean what will we
do about the money?”
“We’ll have to cope.”
“But we only just get by from
month to month now.”
“You work it out.”
She took the babies to her
in-laws as usual, came home and collapsed in front of the television. The
emptiness of the programmes was what she needed. The dross washed over her and
she switched off. While she followed the game-shows and the chat-shows and the
adverts her mind was relieved of the necessity to struggle with her
difficulties. She made herself a cheese sandwich and a cup of tea for lunch,
went round to the Spar to buy a few things and watched the television till it
was time to pick up the children. The few hours between collecting them, the
return of the other two from school, and Hal getting back from work were
terrible. She’d lost interest in her children. They seemed to her impossibly and
endlessly demanding. On her own with the four of them she feared being
overwhelmed. There was no joy any longer (what was it like, that joy?) in simply
being with them, in the daily task of seeing to their needs, in the exhausting
round of constant attention. Worst of all was her third child, Sam. The youngest
was like his father, energetic and independent. If he had something to play with
he could keep himself intensely focused for an hour at a time. But Sam was a
clinging boy who wanted her always to be with him, always talking to him, who
seemed never to be able to go away into his own child’s world and leave her be.
“Go and play, Sam,” she said as
he tried to climb up next to her on the sofa and she pushed him away.
He fell onto his backside and
began to wail which she ignored in the hope he’d go and find comfort from his
sister and brothers. He looked up at her, crying and crying to the point of
hysterical distress. She pressed the button on the remote to turn up the volume.
At length the child crawled away to find his siblings and she heard with relief
his sobs retreating down the hallway. When Hal came home the children assailed
him and he rushed around making food, tidying up, getting them bathed, settled
and into bed. Once the house was quiet, all four asleep, he came downstairs.
“Are we going to eat?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Have you had something?”
“I had a sandwich at lunchtime.”
There were three crisp packets
on the floor.
“I thought you might have made
“I’ve told you, I’m not hungry.”
“Sal, I’ve done a day’s work,
come home to find the kids neglected and fractious. I’ve sorted them out, tidied
up. It’s half past eight. Couldn’t you have made some bloody tea?”
“Stop going on at me !” she
“Going on? What do you expect me
“I don’t expect you to say
anything. Just stop having a go at me.”
“All I’m saying…..”
“I hear what you’re saying. Make
you own fucking tea. Why should I do it? Am I your servant?”
“For fuck’s sake….”
She turned up the volume so it
“I’m trying to watch the
television. Can’t you leave me in peace?”
He went into the kitchen and
prepared himself a lonely meal. Sitting by himself in the dining-room with a
plate of pasta and tomato sauce , he scanned the years of his marriage and
courtship, searching for a pattern or a clue. Little by little it came to him.
There had always been a reluctance, a slight distancing and holding back; but in
his headlong approach to life he’d failed to respond. That was Sal. It didn’t
bother him. It hadn’t even bothered him on their first night that after he’d
worked away on top of her for twenty minutes and she’d then climbed on top of
him, she fell onto the mattress beside him and complained:
Now he saw the scene clearly,
and looking on it as an observer, seeing her on her belly, her head turned to
the wall and himself lying next to her still with an iron hard-on, he realised
what it meant. At the time, he’d taken her at her word. She was exhausted. Now,
in a sudden, terrible insight he knew the truth. As he washed up and tidied, he
ransacked his memories and one by one the awful recollections shocked his brain
and sent his heart thumping heavily. Wiping his hands, he looked out of the
window onto his garden, the long lawn with the swing at the end, the lilacs and
rhododendrons before the tall privet hedge. He liked living here. It was
pleasant to have a decent-sized house and a bit of space. But if it hadn’t been
for the four children upstairs he would have walked out there and then.
Sally retreated more and more
into her television world. The idea of missing an episode of Neighbours
or Coronation St made her anxious. She had little desire to go out. Now
and again she would go to a quiz night at the pub with two or three friends, but
all the while she was thinking of what she was missing on t.v.. She began to
drink at home and the combination of sinking into the warm and comfortable sofa,
of leaving behind her own life with its demands and problems and entering wholly
into the world of vivid images on the screen, together with the cosy glow of the
first effects of the wine or vodka and the ultimate oblivion of unconsciousness
as the bottles were emptied, provided her with just the relief she needed. She
couldn’t drag herself out of bed in the morning. Hal’s mother came to see to the
children. Every evening he came home and picked up the pieces. What was to be
“She needs professional help,”
said his mother.
“She won’t listen,” he replied.
It was true. To every offer of
help she replied:
“Stop having a go at me. What
are you picking on me for? Leave me alone.”
The weeks and months went by
until one night the ambulance had to be called. Her stomach was pumped. She was
referred to a psychiatrist and diagnosed an alcoholic. She was given medication
and took part in group therapy. For a month or two she didn’t drink and seemed
almost to be returning to the family. Once or twice she showed a remotely
motherly interest in her children. The one day she said:
“This therapy isn’t doing me any
“Why not?” said Hal.
“It’s crap. Sitting around
talking. Anyway, I’m not drinking.”
“But maybe it’s best to go
through with it in any case.”
“No, I’m not going any more. And
if you don’t buy any booze, I can’t drink, can I?”
She returned to her long days on
the sofa. It was as if the house and the people around her didn’t exist. She
never made a meal or tidied up. She was interested only in that other world
which the machine in the corner delivered to her endlessly, that better world,
that world of good-looking, happy people where there either were no problems or
they were solved as in a dream. Then one day, Hal’s mother brought the children
home after school to find two empty vodka bottles on the carpet and Sally
unconscious before the blaring television.
It was hopeless. The marriage
had to end. The divorce was protracted, messy and bitter. Sally was given
Hal got a mortgage on a little
terraced house close to an established area of expensive semis and detached
places, near the river, away from the estates with their reputations for drugs,
crime and violence. Sally moved in with one of her friends, a divorcee with no
children. Hal’s mother still helped with the children and he saw them every
weekend. Often three of them would stay in his little house on Friday or
Saturday night. But never Sam. In spite of everything, three of them seemed to
be coming through. Hal was relieved every time his kids just behaved like kids.
When they were lost in play, unselfconscious and happy he felt the disaster he’d
feared wasn’t going to happen. Except for Sam.
Sometimes he took him out on his
own and because sport had made him so absorbed and happy as a boy, because all
he’d needed was jumpers for goalposts, a plastic ball and a couple of mates and
blissful hours could go by, he thought Sam might be the same. He took him to the
“Three an’ in ! Come on, I’m
The lad made half-hearted
attempts to score and in the end Hal let the weak shots roll over the line and
“Goal ! Brilliant. Your turn.”
Or he set up the stumps and
bowled slow, easy deliveries for his son to thrash around the park. Instead he
poked at them unwillingly and the energy ebbed away.
“Fancy a cornet, Sam?”
They walked to the town’s oldest
café where the Italian owner made his own ice-cream. Hal put his arm around his
“Fantastic isn’t it, Sam? Never
The lad licked in silence and
walked along with a dragging gait.
One day, coming back from the
park, a jay winged noisily out of a tree and flew ahead.
“What kind o’bird’s that, dad?”
It was the first time Sam had
shown a spontaneous interest in anything. Hal took him off to the woods, showed
him how to climb trees, made a rope swing over the stream and flew out on the
end in a great, slow arc, running madly with small steps to stop himself when
he hit the steep, clay bank.
“Are you havin’ a go?”
The boy shook his head.
He found a blackbird’s nest and
pulled aside the branches so the child could see three blue eggs nestling in the
“Put your fingers in. They’re
Gingerly, Sam felt the eggs then
turned away and sat on a fallen tree trunk, silent and disconsolate. Hal sat
“Hey,” he said, “the fair’ll be
coming soon. Fancy goin’?”
They sat next to one another,
the boy looking at his shoes on the grey, dry earth. Hal felt a terrible
distance from his own child, the distance that had come between him and his wife
and which, with anguish, he’d realised had always been there.
“What d’you like doin’ best,
Sam?” he said.
“What d’you like best about
The shock that ran through Hal
silenced him. They sat on for five minutes while the father struggled
desperately to find what to say.
“Come on then, let’s get home
As they walked, Hal was turning
over in his mind the idea that he was to blame. Was it his aggression the child
had picked up on? Was it a bad example to be the scrappy, fighting little
footballer and rugby player he was? Surely not. This boy he’d brought into the
world seemed to have no connection with him. There seemed to be no point at
which he could engage him. It couldn’t be the child’s fault and he was
tormented by the thought he’d let him down.
From his first days in school,
Sam brought complaints and concern from the teachers. He’d hit one child, kicked
another. Then he bit the teacher and had to be kept at home for the rest of the
week. Hal went in to talk to them.
“He’s very sullen, Mr Boston. We
find it hard to get him to take an interest in anything. Except fighting.”
“I know. You’re right. He’s the
same with me. I’m not making excuses. I apologise for his behaviour. Biting a
teacher and hitting other children are unacceptable. You have my full support.
But Sam seems to have been hit hard by his mother’s problems.”
“Yes. And the others are such
It sent a jolt through Hal that
Sam could be compared to his brothers and sister in this way. He was his lad. He
loved him as he did the others. He rejected his behaviour but not his son.
Sam was referred to the
Educational Psychologist, then to a child psychiatrist. He calmed down for a
short while but one day, when he was in Year 6 and had developed the same
strong, tight frame as his dad, the teacher kept him behind at break and asked
him why he hadn’t done his work. He picked up her heavy, wooden chair and swung
it fiercely into the side of her head. As she staggered and fell she saw his
eyes widen with a delight he’d never shown before and a little smile of
childlike joy play on his lips.
He was taken out of school and
sent to a unit where he had one to one contact. Forced to work he made some
progress and was endlessly praised. They told Hal he was clearly a bright boy
who was deliberately and perversely holding himself back. He remained gloomy and
uncommunicative but one day when the teacher was pressing him to try harder at
his arithmetic he said:
“Why don’t you leave me alone
you fucking cunt?”
Hal made one of his infrequent
visits to Sally.
“Do you know what he said?”
“Is it my fault if the teachers
can’t control him?”
“I’m not blamin’ anybody.”
“Yes you are. You’re on my
fuckin’ back as usual.”
“I haven’t been here for months
“So much the better.”
“He’s your child, Sally. You’re
“Oh yeah, that’s you every time
isn’t it, Hal? I’m responsible. Leave the kid alone. He doesn’t give me any
“That’s because you pay no
attention to him.”
“Maybe he’s happy having no
attention paid to him. Just get off his back.”
Because Hal had been a pupil
there and his elder brother was on the roll, Sam went to the ex-grammar at
eleven. Hal hoped the place might change him. Above all, he hoped the sporting
excellence might lift him, if only he could get a place on a school side. He
went to the first rugby turn-out and was chosen.
“Brilliant !” said Hal. “You’ll
love it, and you’ll make some good pals.”
But on the Saturday morning when
Hal arrived to pick him up, he was still in bed.
“Get him up quickly !” said Hal
“He doesn’t want to get up.”
“For fuck’s sake, get him out of
bed ! This could be the making of him !”
“Rugby? Just ‘cause you’re a
Hal pushed past and bounded up
the stairs. Sam was curled beneath his duvet on a mattress on the floor strewn
with clothes, empty cans, half empty glasses.
“Get up, Sam ! Come on, we can
still make the kick off. I’ll buy you a drink and a chocolate bar on the way.”
There was no answer nor any
“For god’s sake get up !”
He yanked back the duvet. The
naked lad grabbed it and tried to wrap himself. Hal took hold with both hands
and pulled it away. The boy tucked his knees up to his belly and buried his head
in the pillow.
“Sam, people are waiting for
you. People are relying on you. Show a bit of spine. You want to be a man you’ve
got to learn not to let people down. Come on.”
He reached down and took hold of
his arm at which the boy sprang up like a cornered viper and swung a fine right
hook. Hal danced out of the way and stood with his back to the wall. His naked
son was facing him looking like an ambitious young aspirant to a title, his left
foot forward, his guard up, his fists tight and ready, his chin down, his eyes
fixed on his opponent.
“Maybe you should take up
The lad didn’t move.
Hal drove to the school. The
teams were warming up . They were just kids, hardly able yet to master the
rudiments of the game, but to see them running and passing brought the old
thrill. He saw himself as he was at eleven, the small, strong, energetic
scrum-half for whom happiness was a clean pass or a swift run. Then the thought
of what had just happened brought tears to his eyes.
“All right, Hal?”
“All right, Mick?”
“Where’s your lad?”
“Ill. I’ve just been to pick him
up. He’s bad. Sick all night.”
“That’s a bugger. First match
Sam went to no more turn-outs.
Nor did he appear for the football matches with the local team. His first high
school report was restrained but negative. All those telling little phrases by
which teachers indicate serious problems on the way – he’s not as attentive
as he could be, sometimes he lacks focus, on occasion he has been
oppositional – flattened Hal’s expectations. He put the booklet on the
little table which sat by the sofa and looked out of the bay window of his
small, two-bedroomed terrace. It caught the morning light and he enjoyed sitting
with a book or the paper when that soft, honeyed sunshine of the early day began
to warm the room. He thought of his own school reports. They were always good.
He was solid all round. Even in French and Latin, which he hated, he came
through with decent marks and positive comments. As for P.E., he was always
excellent: Hal is a first-rate sportsman who makes a splendid
contribution to school teams. Those comments had lifted and sustained him,
term in term out. Everything was okay. The way he saw himself, what he felt good
about tallied with what the school admired. He realised that in spite of all the
ribbing of teachers he and his mates had gone in for, his school years had been
blithe. What had he ever had to worry about? Now and again he missed a homework
and got detention. Once or twice he was caned for a bit of unruliness. But he
had friends, he was learning, he was excellent at sport, he could feel good
So how had this happened?
His mind went blank and tears
came to his eyes. Somehow, he’d imagined the world wouldn’t change. His children
would grow up just as he’d done, with parents who quietly did what they had to,
didn’t fuss or push, with a school that taught trig and geog and biol and even
French grammar and his kids would find their niche. But his son was out on a
limb, nothing about him corresponded to anything society saw as positive. He was
at a loss to understand. Sure, Sally’s breakdown, or whatever it was, her
drinking, had done him harm. But it seemed to go beyond that. Somehow, the
ground on which Hal had always walked had crumbled. How had it happened?
He was overcome by a sense of
dread. How would his life ever again be carefree and easy?
Sam’s first suspension came for
selling cigarettes to other boys, his second for telling his music teacher to
fuck off, his third for putting his hand down his trousers during a maths lesson
taken by a female supply teacher and saying: Do we have sex in heaven? Towards
the end of year nine, however, things took a step upwards: a teacher found him
selling something in the toilets, took the packet from him and Sam attacked him
breaking his nose and knocking out a tooth. He would have been permanently
excluded but the Head wanted to keep it quiet. The school relied for its intake
on its reputation for academic achievement and good discipline. Though the
latter was breaking down, the name of the game was to underplay the decline to
avoid giving an advantage to neighbouring schools. The teacher agreed to take no
legal action. Hal met him and apologised abjectly.
But Sam couldn’t make it through
to his GCSEs. He skipped lessons, then whole days, did no work in class, no
coursework, no homework and when he beat up a prefect for sending him out of the
building, he was put on extended study leave so as not to become an
“You’re going to have to find
yourself a job,” said Hal.
“What d’you mean why? How do you
think we live?”
“I don’t want a job. Working’s
“Maybe, but it’s not as crap as
living on the dole.”
Sam switched channels. Hal stood
by the mantelpiece wondering what he could say to make contact.
“What you need is a skill. Get a
skill and you can earn decent money.”
Sam made no acknowledgement. Hal
looked at the screen. It was some American series whose name he didn’t know. The
accents and the obviousness of the dialogue irritated him. He suddenly recalled
some of the things he’d watched as a child. Robin Hood with Richard
Greene, William Tell, Dan Dare and he remembered a serialisation
of Kim which he’d followed with delight until one Friday at seven thirty
he’d turned on to find an episode of Coronation St. How could they
replace his charming programme with this? He recalled how he’d stopped dead with
a little shock. Why did his children now watch American programmes day and
night? They were steeped in a culture which was alien to him and which left him
feeling lonely and excluded. Sam especially withdrew into a private space built
from the cheap, crass images of popular culture.
“I could ask Howard if he’d take
you on. Get trained as a lecky, you’ll be fine.”
Sam didn’t respond.
All the same, Hal had a word
with his mate and Sam was taken on as an apprentice electrician. It was good to
see him out of bed at seven. When he came home grubby and exhausted and fell
asleep on the sofa, Hal felt he was maybe on his way to a life with a bit of
toughness. Was he right to be glad of that? Or was it a failure in him that he
celebrated that kind of challenge he’d loved in sport? He worried that he was
imposing his own preferences on his son but finally, seeing him pick up his
canvas bag and go out of the front door with a piece of toast in his hand, he
knew he was right. Things settled down for a while. Sam, it seemed, was a good
worker. He was learning quickly and had an easy aptitude. Hal began to think
that school had simply been wrong for him. Who was to say all kids should adapt
to school’s demands? Maybe the discipline of work and the business of struggling
with inert physicality - chasing out brick, prising up floorboards, stripping
wires rapidly with side-cutters – was exactly what he’d needed. He saw Sam
turning into a responsible tradesman, setting up his own business, making his
way, finding a wife. Ahead stretched long, steady years of effort and success.
He would be proud of him. He imagined turning up at Sam’s big house. He would
have renovated it himself and built a fine extension. Surrounded by neat lawns
and flower beds full of colour, the house was warm and lived-in.Three or four
children ran in and out with their friends while he, getting on now, sat on the
sofa with a cup of tea made by Sam’s down-to-earth wife, watching the cricket or
Then one evening he opened the
door to a policeman.
“That’s right .”
“We’ve got your son at the
Sam had been found in possession
of a kilo of cannabis.
“What’s wrong with it?” he said
once they were home.
“It’s against the bloody law.”
“So you get caught they’ll send
you to prison.”
“Stupid. You buy booze. What’s
“Stupid. What harm does it do?”
“What do you know about how much
harm it does?”
“What d’you know about booze?”
In truth, the father didn’t
disagree with his son. In an academic argument he’d say too that booze is just
as harmful. But this wasn’t pointing up contradictions in order to score
intellectual points, this was life in the raw: police, courts, a prison cell.
“Using the stuff is one thing,
dealing it is another. If you’d been caught with an ounce you’d’ve got a
"Someone has to sell it.”
“Leave it to the bloody
“Yeah, they make all the money.”
Hal stopped pacing and turned to
Sam who slouched on the sofa. The boy looked up at him with that curiously empty
gaze which made him wince.
“You’ll be lucky if they don’t
send you to prison.”
“What do I care? You can do lots
o’drugs in prison.”
He was given a suspended
He moved in with Hal, went on
working and stayed out of trouble for six months then Hal came home after work
to find he’d gone. He’d left no address or note. Hal rang his ex-wife.
“Do you know where Sam is?”
"He’s not moving back in with
you, is he?”
“Not as far as I know.”
Hal went to call on all of Sam’s
pals. One after another said they’d neither seen him nor heard from him. He knew
he should report it to the police. What if the lad had crossed some psychopathic
drug dealer? What if he was lying dead somewhere? But he dismissed these
thoughts as melodramatic. One Saturday evening he settled down with a beer to
watch Match of the Day. Once, it had made him happy. The weekend. The
kids in bed. His wife beside him on the sofa. A hard fought match on the t.v..
Having played so much himself , he was intuitively responsive to the moves, the
tackles, the shots. It was as if he could feel the weight of the ball on his
foot or smell the damp grass as he slid into a tackle. But now, even his beloved
sport let him down. His thoughts kept swinging back to Sam and little surges of
worry ran through his veins and made his heart race. He jumped up, switched off
the t.v and got in his car. Where did the junkies hang out? Oddly, he wasn’t
afraid as he walked down the unlit, damp Bashful Alley. He still had the
physical courage that had made him such a good scrum-half and opening batsman.
He was still strong and muscular and didn’t carry an ounce of fat. He would
still have fancied himself in any scrap.
In a doorway was a lad about
Sam’s age drawing on a spliff.
“I’m looking for Sam Boston,”
said Hal. “D’you know him?”
“Fuck off !”
Hal grabbed the lad’s clothes
at the throat and pushed him hard against the wall.
“Just tell me if you know where
he is, you little cunt !”
“Awright ! Awright !”
Hal let him go.
“You’re fuckin’ dangerous you
are, man. You’re a fuckin’ psycho.”
“ Where is he?”
The lad was pointing to the
derelict building on the opposite side of the alley.
“How do I get in.”
“Climb up the fuckin’
Hal grabbed the spliff, threw
it to the floor and twisted his foot on it.
“You bastard !”
“Yeah, I’m a bastard and a
psycho. Now how do I get in there? You tell me or I’ll put you under my foot.”
“Door down the end,” the lad
held out a skinny finger.
Hal headed away.
“I’ll get you, mate. You watch
it. I’ll fuckin’ have you.”
He didn’t look back.
The door was locked. He stood
back and kicked against the lock with the flat of his right foot. It shook but
didn’t give. He kicked again and again and a voice called:
“Okay ! Okay !”
When the door opened Hal pushed
past and sprang up the stairs. The junkies were congregated on the first floor.
The place was a mess of mattresses, sleeping bags, discarded food, bodies,
cups, bottles, cans, plates, clothes. The demented chemistry of preparation was
taking place around a candle in the middle of the room. Hal went from one body
to another. Hal was curled in a grubby sleeping bag in a corner. He pulled the
bag from him, dragged him to his feet.
“Hey, man, what the fuck you
doin’?” called one of the spectres from the middle.
Hal ignored him. He threw his
inert, heavy son over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift and went down the stairs.
In spite of the awkward weight, he could do it without difficulty. His legs were
strong. His heart and lungs were still good and fit. When he lay Sam on the back
seat of his car, he felt a curious sense of achievement, as if he’d just scored
a try or a stunning goal. He drove home, packed a holdall threw it in the boot
and headed north. By the time Sam came round, they’d just passed Dumfries.
“Where the fuck are we?”
“Shit ! What’re we doin’ up
“We’re going for a holiday.”
“I don’t need a holiday.”
“Well, you’re gettin’ one
“It’s February. It’s fuckin’
freezin’ in Scotland.”
“We’ll keep warm.”
“I wanna go back.”
“It’s a long walk.”
“You can’t take me away. It’s
“Yeah, report me to Interpol.”
Hal’s problem was where to stop.
He need to book somewhere but he didn’t dare leave Sam alone. He parked up.
“I’m stayin’ in’t car.”
He opened the rear door. Sam
refused to move so he grabbed his feet and dragged him out. The son put up a bit
of a struggle but Hal overwhelmed him and pinning him down on the car park said:
“You’ll do as I say. Just as I
say. Get it?”
“You don’t know what you’re doin’,
“And you do?”
They went to the little Tourist
Information Office and Hal asked if there was a cottage they might book,
somewhere remote, somewhere they could walk and be lost in nature. They put him
in touch with the owner of a place north of Ullapool. He booked it for two
“Two weeks !” said Sam on the
way back to the car. “Where’m I gonna get me fuckin’ gear?”
“You’re going to climb a
thousand foot peak every day before breakfast and for that you’ll get two
paracetamol. Then you’ll jog five miles before lunch and for that you’ll get two
more. The you’ll chop wood for an hour before tea and for that you’ll get
another two. The only drugs you’re gonna see for two weeks are pain killers.”
“Your fuckin’ nuts. I’ll die.”
“If you do I’ll give you a good
They stopped at a little
roadside store and bought bread, potatoes, carrots, turnip, peas, tomatoes,
rice, oil, tea, coffee, sugar, oats, honey, milk and painkillers. The cottage
was truly remote. The nearest village was fifteen miles. There was no
television. The back door was dead-locked and Hal had the key under his pillow.
He moved his bed and slept hard up against the front door. There were the
windows, but upstairs was pretty impossible and if he came down and tried he was
sure he would wake.
Hal had to phone work and tell
them he wouldn’t be in for a while. Family crisis. Two weeks would take some
explaining. He may face a disciplinary, but they wouldn’t sack him.
The first morning he was up at
five. It was utterly dark and stark cold. He’d never experienced darkness like
it. It made him realize how the town never has a night. He went outside. There
was not a glimmer anywhere. He brought in wood and lit the fire and made a big
pan of steaming porridge.
“Come on, breakfast’s ready.”
Sam was huddled beneath his
“What time is it?”
“Fuckin’ hell !”
“Come on, get up.”
He pulled the covers away.
“What’s the point of getting up
"That’s when the day starts.”
“It’s the middle of the fuckin’
“Okay, but that’s breakfast time
in this hotel, so get up and eat it now or you go without food till lunch.”
Sam came down in the only
clothes he had. He was slow, limp and slovenly.
“Here,” said Hal, “put these
on,” and he handed him a thick, long-sleeved vest and a heavy sweater.
At the table, Sam prodded his
food and turned down the corners of his mouth.
“I can’t eat this crap.”
“Here, stir some honey into it.
It makes it sweet and it’ll give you energy.”
“I need gear, not fuckin’
“Porridge is your gear. Get it
down your neck or you’re gonna be really knackered climbing that hill out
“I’m not climbin’ no hill !”
“Tomorrow you’re gonna climb it
before your porridge. Today I’m being soft. Eat.”
It was one of those February
days when the clouds promise a bit of relief from the cold but a vicious north
wind cuts through the thickest layers and it seems impossible to believe in the
warmth of spring or the scorching suns of August. Hal set the pace to produce a
bit of animal heat but Sam was sluggish and reluctant. Panting after a stiff
push up a steep part of the lower slopes, Hal stopped and looked down. Sam was
taking slow strides, his shoulders hunched. His feet couldn’t seem to find their
hold. He stumbled, put his hand out to save himself and found it sliding into
mud. He stopped, wiping himself clean on the rough grass. Hal looked at his son
and felt disappointment and disgust. He was just so lacking. Life itself
seemed to have failed in him and he dragged himself through the world like a
sick animal looking for a quiet corner in which to lay down and die. He had
brought this child into the world and expected he would grow happy, healthy and
vigorous. How had this happened? He felt injured in the essence of his being. It
suddenly struck him that being a husband and father had been the most important
things in his life. What was a job compared to fatherhood? What was a career
compared to living successfully with a woman? Yet he’d failed. With his wife and
this child he’d failed utterly.
“Come on ! You’ll freeze if you
don’t get some pace up !”
“I’m going back.”
“You can’t get in the place.
You’ll be starved. Get up this hill and you’ll work up some heat and get tired.
When we get back, you can sit by the fire. You’ll feel much better. Make your
mind up. I’m going to the top.”
He turned his back on Sam and
pressed on. Was he following? It was impossibly cold. Maybe this was mad. Was
his son in any sort of condition for a thousand foot climb in such bitter
weather? His thighs tightened and hurt as he quickened. He felt that delicious
strain he’d always enjoyed in physical effort. He liked pushing to the limit of
his power and stamina. Once he’d recuperated, his body was flushed with a sense
of strength and well-being. Was this just cruelty? Had he any idea what he was
doing? He went on, up and up, feeling his calves clench, his breathing getting
shorter and shorter, till he was at the top. Only then did he look back and see
Sam half way up, struggling, weak, buffeted, lost in this remote and unforgiving
environment. He sat down and waited, but his son was so slow he began to feel a
chill creep up his spine. He went down to meet him, took his hand and hauled him
along. He was a father. He was helping his son. He was strong enough for the two
of them. He dragged him to the summit.
“You made it ! Well done !” he
put his arm around his shoulders.
Next day, he made him climb the
peak before breakfast. In the afternoon, they went jogging and before tea, they
chopped wood together, sharing the axe. As he handed it over, Hal had a moment’s
hesitation. He looked his son in the eye:
“Work. It’ll do you good.”
“I feel lousy.”
“You’re bound to, but your body
will fight back. Once you’re over the worst, you’ll start to feel great.”
That night, Sam was violently
sick and ran a raging temperature. He was rambling and hallucinating and Hal
pinned him to the bed and fought to restrain him for hours. In the morning, he
was calm but washed out.
“I’m going to die,” he said.
“Stop feeling sorry for
yourself. Eat your porridge.”
But he couldn’t eat.
Hal made him climb, but at two
hundred feet he collapsed. Carrying him down over his shoulder, Hal was
tormented by the fear he would die. He would have killed his own son. The tears
flowed warm and unstoppable down his cheeks. A welter of ideas: police, courts,
coroners, press reports, tv news, undertakers, coffins, graveyards, ran through
his head. But he calmed himself. If Sam died, it was better to die like this
than of an overdose on a dirty mattress in a derelict building. He put him to
bed but the lad shivered uncontrollably. He filled the bath with hot water,
lifted him from bed, stripped him and lowered him into the water. He relaxed,
but he didn’t seem to know where he was. Hal kept the water hot and let him soak
for half an hour then he pulled the plug, lifted him out, rubbed him roughly
with a heavy bathsheet, dressed him in the warmest clothes he could find , put
him on the rug in front of the fire covered by two duvets. His face was white.
His teeth chattered. He trembled. Hal wondered if he should call for an
ambulance but an idea restrained him: it was the wider world that had ruined his
son. Something evil in the general run of things was destroying him. He was
going to fight it and he was going to fight alone. It could be done only by
standing up to the way of things, by resisting the present.
There followed three terrible
Sam became weaker and more
inert. When Hal tried to take his pulse, he couldn’t find it. He ate and drank
nothing. He was cold and clammy.
But on the fourth day he got to
He looked terrible, gaunt and
ashen and his eyes seemed to be seeing the world for the first time. He began
to find his appetite and he slept well. A few days later, he climbed the
thousand feet before breakfast. The two of them stood on the summit. Hal’s heart
beat with effort and relief and happiness. His son was back and he was going to
“Fancy some porridge?”
By the time they set off home,
Sam could get through the day without pain killers. A sense of alertness was
beginning to return to his body.
“Get back to work, make some
money. You know what you should do? Buy yourself a house. Little terrace needs
doing up. Fettle it yourself. You’ll enjoy it and independence will make you
Hal turned to see if Sam was
taking any notice but his face was averted. He was looking out of the window and
his expression contained the boredom and sullenness which always switched on a
little current of fear in his father.
All the same, he went back to
work. He was up at seven every morning and came home dirty and exhausted. Hal
bought fewer cans of lager when he noticed how many Sam was drinking as he
flopped in front of the t.v. and he cooked him healthy food in great platefuls
to build him up.
“What you need now,” he said “is
some exercise. Something really tough. You were doing great up that hill by the
time we left. You should do something to push up your fitness.”
“I’m too knackered. Work is
“My work is knackering and I’m
nearly fifty. The point about excerise is it perks you up, even when you’re
knackered from work.”
“It perks you up. You’re
addicted to it.”
“You’re an exercise addict. You
always have been.”
“I like sport, that’s all.
There’s no need for amateur psychology.”
“Sport is all crap.”
“Oh, come on ! You used to like
it. You could play a good game of rugger.”
“I didn’t like it. I hated it.
Being put under pressure and all that shit about being an ambassador for the
school. They were just using us. They don’t care about us having fun. They just
want the school to look good.”
“Bollocks ! Sport is great fun.
You’ve just got to take it the right way.”
“You can’t anymore. This isn’t
the nineteen fuckin’ fifties. Evrything’s about money and winning. There is no
sport anymore. It’s just a fuckin’ war.”
“Well, do something on your own.
Go for a run. Get your bike out. It doesn’t have to be a competition. Just enjoy
it. It gives you a great lift.”
“It always was a competition for
you. You were as aggressive as hell on the field.”
“You know you were, dad. You
broke people’s legs.”
“I tackled hard. That’s the
game, Sam. I never intended to hurt anyone.”
“It’s all gone to fuck. A simple
thing like football. It’s all screwed because they can’t leave it alone. It has
to be about money and glory and little kids have their parents on the touchline
shouting them on to play dirty. No-one plays by the rules and what happens to a
game if you break the rules? Everyone just wants to win. It’s fucked up. It’s
completely fucked up.”
“Like I say, forget competitive
sport. Just get off your arse and go and do something hard. It’ll make you feel
“No it won’t. I don’t feel great
about feeling great. You don’t get it do you, dad? I don’t want to feel great.
Not like you.”
“How do you want to feel?”
“Out of it.”
“Out of what?”
Hal went into the kitchen in
bewilderment. Was it true that sport was a mess? He couldn’t see it because for
him there had been too many fine moments over the long years of playing
virtually every day. Was he a cheat? No. Maybe he’d pulled a shirt once or twice
but he wasn’t systematically dirty. He did play by the rules. And was he
aggressive? Yes, but in the right way. Wasn’t that what sport was for? It was a
game, it was outside the serious business of life, so you could throw yourself
into it, lose yourself. Yes, he was aggressive in that sense. But he couldn’t
understand what was in Sam’s head. It was true, there was too much money in
football. He had no truck with the wheeling and dealing. But rugby wasn’t like
that. And wasn’t cricket pretty clean? And wasn’t it just so much joy ! That’s
what it was to him. Tying his boots and running onto the pitch was meeting joy
and freedom. He was stunned at Sam’s attitude. He had no idea how to connect
A few weeks later, on a Friday,
Sam didn’t come home . Hal told himself it was nothing . He was off drugs. He
was working. He’d probably just gone out drinking with his mates. But by Sunday
night he was worried. The days went by. Sally didn’t know where he was. Hal
asked for a couple of days off work but they refused. His fortnight away had
been accepted, given Sam’s problems, but enough was enough. It was three weeks
before he heard from him. The phone rang at eight on a Thursday.
“Where the hell are you?”
“What’re you doin’ there?”
“I’m with some mates.”
“I didn’t ask who you were with,
I asked what you’re doin’.”
“I’m just chillin’.”
“You’ve just thrown away your
fuckin’ job !”
“I need some money.”
“I’ll pay your train fare.”
“I can’t. Just send me some
“I’m not sending money. Get
The line went dead.
The next time Hal saw him, he
was in police cell in Camberwell. He’d got into a taxi, ridden to his
destination then mugged the driver. The poor bloke had a broken jaw and two
“And you say I’m aggressive.”
He was sentenced to six months,
of which he served three. Hal visited him every weekend.
“Are you doing drugs?”
“What else is there to do in
Hal got his solicitor to protest
to the prison authorities. Nothing happened. When Sam was released, he came
home. After three days he stole Hal’s credit card, cheque book, two hundred quid
and disappeared. The next Hal heard, he’d been arrested for mugging an old woman
on the street. She was seventy-four. Her skull was fractured.
He’d never imagined he could
feel so ashamed.
He went to prison for two years.
Every weekend Hal drove the hundred and twenty miles to see him. Now and again
he took his mother. She wept all through the visit.
“I don’t understand it, Hal,”
she’d say on the drive back. “He didn’t want for anything.”
“I don’t understand it either.”
Throughout the two years, he
hoped something might change. He was getting older. Maybe he could put this
dark period behind him. Maybe he could have his son back. But on his release he
disappeared. Months went by and nothing was heard of him. Finally, the call came
from the police. Sam had turned up at his mother’s, beaten her unconscious and
stolen everything in the house he could sell for a few quid. Hal pulled on his
jacket and picked up his car keys. Man United were on the television, winning
one nil. What had happened to the life when watching a match was enough to make
him forget his petty worries? He switched off the set. He would have to tell his
mother and father and his other kids. He left the hall light burning and went
out to his car. A group of young lads, their hoodies covering their heads were
drifting sloppily and noisily down the street. One of them grabbed the daffodils
that had just begun to flower in the small front garden of a house across the
road, yanked them out and strew them across the road. About to open his car
door, Hal almost intervened, but his spirit sank. He started the car and pulled
away. Had he become a coward? Was he afraid of a few cocky kids showing off? Why
could they get away with that stuff? It was trivial but typical. Shouldn’t he
have given them a tongue lashing and sent them on their way? Turning a corner he
came across a couple of kids kicking a ball around. He slowed down and they
moved out of the way. He acknowledged them as he drove past. Sam had never done
that, never even kicked a ball about under a street lamp for a bit of fun. Hal
realised with a terrible sense of heavy fate that for the rest of his life he
was going to be hiring solicitors, turning up at police stations, appearing in
court, making prison visits. He had wanted to be an ordinary father, like his
dad had been to him. Just a dad. But something evil was abroad. He didn’t know
what. How had this happened?
He turned on the radio. Man
United had won, two nil.
THE BRITISH AMBASSADOR
The future British Ambassador to Spain and Italy was kicking a ball around with
a bunch of Secondary Modern lads on the fields behind the school one balmy
evening in June 1964. He was there because he knew Billy Kendal. They’d been at
primary school together before the 11-plus separated them and Billy came to this
low, long set of buildings representative of the late fifties; a place that
seemed to have sprung out of the earth overnight, like the pupils, beneficiaries
of 1944, kids who before the war would have been in the factory, the office or
the shop at fourteen. The Ambassador, on the other hand, went to the old,
established town Grammar, housed in imposing grandeur that seemed to have been
in existence forever. His father was Head of Maths, so the son got a place even
though he lived outside the borough. The Ambassador was an impossible brainbox.
He didn’t normally mix with this lot, unlike Billy who was out all the time and
luxuriated in the gorgeous warmth of untroubled adolescent friendship. His
intelligence was out of the ordinary too, but he didn’t know it. He came from
the back streets, his parents had no education and his mother, who had the real
influence in these matters, believed children shouldn’t be pushed. She thought
it unnatural that a lad of fourteen would be indoors slaving over algebra or
Latin when he could be out with his mates learning life’s important lessons. So
Billy was a blithe child of nature, untroubled until his parents split up when
he was eleven. Worried and isolated, one day at school, thinking that David,
being so clever, might know how to respond, he said to him:
“My parents are getting divorced.”
“Really,” said the other, turning away with a look of slightly shocked and
amused interest which left Billy more alone than ever.
All the same, in the first year at secondary he was top in everything and
was offered a transfer to the suburban Grammar. But it was too sniffy a place:
prefects flying round in gowns and beating younger boys; notoriously paedophile
masters; rugby but no football, platitudinous mottos in Latin and Greek. He’d
made friends. He liked the girls. And he was top in everything. He stayed where
David Johnson, on the other hand, was destined for great things. To the age of
eleven he’d been left alone at least a little, but once in the forcing house of
the Grammar and with his ambitious mother behind him, the expectations of the
world closed in. He was one of those pupils who learn languages like learning to
ride a bike. He relished Latin and Greek and was the best in his year by
miraculous percentages. At maths and science he was simply clever. The
Headmaster, of course, marinated in tradition and snobbery saw Greats at Oxford
as inevitable. Had David chosen to study French at Manchester, the shock would
have killed him. It would have been too humiliating. So the school took hold of
the boy and his mother shoved from behind and his destiny was decided. As for
David himself, what he could he do? He was a child. The adult world was
conveying every day the tacit message that he was different. He was special. He
was going to achieve extraordinary things. He was going to exceed all his peers.
What could he do but submit?
So David wouldn’t have been allowed to live like the free and easy Billy.
Homework first! His mother feared the influence of Secondary School boys. They
were unruly. They were always out on their bikes or climbing trees. They would
work in factories. And they liked girls. David’s mother believed in the adage everything in its own good time
as if it were a scientific principle. Girls were
a terrible distraction from the straight and narrow of academic distinction. The
violent disturbance of a premature and misplaced passion could turn her son from
ablative absolutes and Homer and lead him down tempting by-ways of the delicious
but temporary insanity of love, which, she knew, was always a dead-end. His
father, on the other hand, had been inspired by the idealism of 1945. Nye Bevan
especially had seized his imagination. Here was a poorly schooled lad from a
straitened home in the Welsh valleys who had more or less educated himself and
who could get to his feet and speak like a poet. Johnson pere believed the great
task of his age was to heal the wounds of inequality so he disliked his wife’s
rather cold pushiness. It ground away like rusty, unoiled gears and grated badly
on his nerves. She, on the other hand, resented that her husband, who she knew
to be her intellectual inferior, had a career while she stayed at home with the
boys. Hers was a classic case. That her success would be vicarious made her no
less steely and unflinching in its pursuit.
On this particular evening, Billy and David (it was always David, the diminutive
being thought vulgar by Mrs Jackson) had played tennis together at
Scordale Methodist Tennis Club.
“What you doing now?” asked Billy as they padlocked the gate.
“I’ve got homework to finish. What are you doing?”
“Goin’ on’t school field. There’ll be a game o’ cricket and stuff.”
“Oh. What time?”
“Half an hour. I’ll just ‘ave me tea.”
“Are you cycling?”
“Should I call for you?”
David spoke to his mother as he washed his hands for tea.
“Can I go and play cricket with Billy Kendal?”
“What, just the two of you?”
“No, with some of his friends.”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know any of them?”
“Where are they playing?”
“On the school field.”
“Are they allowed?”
“I don’t know. But Billy’s going.”
“He’s no doubt used to being in trouble.”
“I don’t think he gets in trouble.”
“Has he no homework to do?”
“I don’t know?”
“Do you want to go on your own with a crowd of secondary school boys you don’t
know? They might be rough.”
“Let him go,” interjected Mr Johnson. “He’ll be all right. Billy Kendal’s a
quiet lad. He’s not rough at all.”
“But he goes to the secondary modern and some of his friends might be.”
“They’re not rough kids round here, Margaret. And it’s not their fault they’re
in a secondary modern. They’re processed by the system. They’re just kids having
a game of cricket.”
“How are you getting there?” asked the mother with a new hint of anxiety in her
“On our bikes.”
“You’ll have to be back before it’s dark. You’ve no lights.”
“It’s June, Margaret. It’s almost light at midnight.”
“You can go, David, but if there’s trouble you must come home.”
As David set off, his mother at the back door calling:
“Aren’t you going to put a jacket on?”
Billy was picking up his bat and heading out of the always unlocked front door:
“Am off out, mum!”
The secondary modern sat next to two primary schools, one secular, one Catholic,
and the fields of the three schools blended into one another so there was a huge
expanse of lush, cropped green. Beyond the running track and the cricket square,
there was a little, two-foot cliff- face of grass after which the lower field
ran away to the privet hedges of the back gardens behind the little three-bedroomed
semis of Laurel Grove. This was the field that attracted the swifts, dozens of
them which seemed to swoop and rise just for pleasure. To the right was Parry’s
Wood, so called because of the farmhouse which used to nestle among the oaks and
sycamores of its far end. The farming family grazed sheep on the little hills
that climbed away to the fields which eventually brought you to the estuary and
where the cattle lived out their slow, peaceable days. Unable to keep pace with
mechanised methods, they’d had to abandon the farm and for a while the great,
old house was left empty. The kids soon colonized it and Billy enjoyed many an
evening running up the bare stairs and climbing up into the dark attic. Then
once as it was turning dusk, old Parry arrived to check on his land and
property. He had his shotgun broken over his right arm. The boys spotted him and
went silent. They sneaked out of the back door and were creeping through the
garden towards the woods when he came round the corner of the house. They pelted
for their lives. Billy caught his jumper on the barbed wire of a fence and
struggling to untangle himself snagged his lower leg on another barb which
gouged a two-inch slit in his flesh just as two loud shots from the gun
resounded through the woods, sending all the birds out of the trees. Every time
he looked at the scar he wondered if that old, mad farmer really would have shot
When Billy and David arrived, a boy was standing on the little cliff, picking
small stones from a cap on the ground and trying vainly to hit the swifts in
“There’s Marek!” said Billy.
“Marek Jazinski. He’s a great batsman.”
They cycled over and dropped their bikes. Billy went and stood by his friend. He
could see he was in one of those moods when he seemed capable of shutting out
the entire world. Marek was an extraordinarily good-looking lad and accustomed
to making a remarkable impression on girls. It gave him an uncommon assurance.
He was so used to girls going doe-eyed and limp in his presence that he’d
already, at the age of fourteen, developed that modest and subtle way of dealing
with them which preserved their dignity and kept him from unwanted
entanglements. As a matter of fact, there was no particular girl he was
interested in; a more or less inevitable consequence of their tendency to swoon
at him: a swooning girl whose head has deserted her tends to run for shelter if
the object of her melting infatuation actually makes a move.
Billy and David stood beside him as he went on hurling stones at the birds,
intent on his activity in spite of its hopelessness. It was some minutes before
he gave up, picked up the cap and turned to his mate.
“We playin’ cricket then?”
Two sides were quickly picked. David went in to bat. He opened for the school
and was proud of his prowess. He took it for granted that grammar-school boys
were better at cricket then secondary boys, just like they were better at
everything. Just like they were better. So when Marek knocked out his middle
stump first ball, with a delivery he didn’t even see, he was humiliated and
angry. Later, he got a chance to bowl, but didn’t claim a wicket. Then the game
broke up as half a dozen girls arrived and they all went off into the woods.
They mooched through the rhododendrons, lazed on the fallen tree across the
stream, joked and insulted one another like adolescents always have and all the
while the girls were paying attention to Marek and trying to catch his eye.
David was at a loss. No-one here knew he was a genius at Latin and Greek.
It cut no ice that he was top of the year. The girls paid no attention to him.
And to the lads who’d never met him, he was just a newcomer who’d been dismissed
for a duck. He was used to being treated as special. He’d never strayed from
that restricted world where his academic talent made him centre of attention. He
didn’t know what to say. The lads were quick-tongued and made the girls laugh
and they shot back with their own down-to-earth irreverence.
At length the girls drifted off home and the boys went back to the field. They
talked about football and someone mentioned Scratch, a tall gangly lad, and his
amazing slide tackles.
“He’s probably got telescopic legs!” said David.
But he was the only one who laughed at his attempt at a joke. He wished he
hadn’t come and he began to say to himself that these lads were too stupid to
appreciate him. Then as they began a last desultory kick-about in the dusk
and the ball came to Marek, David shouted to him:
“Pass it to me, Mussolini!”
He’d no idea why he chose to insult him, but he laughed. He felt at once as if
restored. Marek trapped the ball and looked across the circle of lads.
“What did you call me?”
“Mussolini. Don’t you like it?”
The rest stood around, quiet, wondering what the newcomer thought he was
“My name isn’t Mussolini.”
“I thought it was. I thought that’s what you called yourself. Mussolini. Ha!”
Marek walked over.
“Don’t call me Mussolini,” he said.
“Why not? Don’t you like it. Mussolini! Mussolini!”
They looked on and wondered if the scrap was about to start. But Billy knew Marek. He was too easy-going to begin a fight; he’d stand his ground; he’d
defend himself with his tongue; but he wouldn’t hit first. And he knew that
David had never been in a scrap. He didn’t know much about the world. He was
just pushing his luck. Billy recalled a time they’d played tennis on a Saturday
morning. He’d arrived first to open the courts and in the corner, at the back,
close to the pavilion, was a discarded sanitary towel. The door to the courts
was always locked, but you could squeeze through the hedge, and the pavilion
veranda was dark, quiet and secluded. During their game David had called to
“What’s that in the corner?”
Driven by his unsatisfied curiosity he went into the corner and moved it around
with his racket.
“Some kind of bandage,” he said.
Marek looked hard into the stranger’s eye.
“Don’t call me that,” he said . “Just fuck off.”
He turned and walked away, picked up his cap and headed for the woods. The rest
of the boys were on his side. He’d been provoked, he’d stood up for himself and
walked away. They admired him. They thought him the victor. David had made a
fool of himself. He was showing off and everyone thought it stupid. He’d had a
chance to make a few new friends and he’d thrown it away. It was over.
But David suddenly charged after Marek.
“Hey, Mussolini! Where are you going? Back to Italy?”
Marek paid no attention but kept on walking purposefully, his head slightly
bowed, towards the woods he would cut through to get home. David caught up with
him and the others followed. At his side, the tormentor pushed his face
close to Marek’s and mocked:
“What’s the matter, Mussolini? Cat got your tongue?”
Marek stopped and faced the other lad. His expression was firm, serious and
grown-up. Billy hoped he was about to smack Johnson in the mouth. He knew if he
were challenged he would crumple and cry and run off home. And Marek could scrap
all right. He was the oldest of three brothers and Billy had seen them go at one
another when their tempers were frayed. Marek was quick and handy with his fists
and Billy had been surprised by the ferocity of the attack he’d once seen him
launch on his brother, driving him to curl up on the sofa as the elder brother
launched himself at him knees first. But that was between brothers. When it came
to other boys, Marek restrained himself. One of their mutual, passing mates was
an unpleasant bully called Mark Timpson, a miserable crawl of a coward who
picked on younger, smaller kids. He was one of those boys who are always
bragging and showing off and Marek and Billy despised him. On one occasion when
he’d thrown his weight around with Marek, the Polish lad had gone for him and
Timpson had run home with Marek on his heels.
“I wouldn’t’ve hit him,” Marek said to Billy, “he’s not worth
David was squaring up to Marek but he looked as if was about to burst into
tears. He was trying to smile but the corners of his mouth were turning down.
And he was taunting, taunting: “Mussolini! Mussolini!” Billy was amazed at the
stupidity of his behaviour. He was making a complete fool of himself. There were
six others who were all up for Marek. Did he really think because he could
conjugate Latin verbs he’d get away with throwing his weight around here?
“What’s you name, lad?” said Marek.
“None of your business, Mussolini.”
“What school d’you go to?”
“Not yours that’s for sure, Mussolini.”
Billy was watching Marek closely and saw his expression change minutely. He knew
this kid was out of his depth. He could see he didn’t know how to handle
himself. He felt sorry for him. He’d failed to be accepted on his first attempt
by a bunch of lads who could smell bullshit a mile away and disdained pretension
and snobbery. The girls had ignored him and even at cricket, his favourite and
strongest sport, he’d lost badly. In this situation, Marek was his superior by
“Don’t come round here any more, lad.”
“Are you going to stop me, Mussolini?”
“You come here and call me that name again, I’ll bruise your fuckin’ ribs for
“Mussolini! Mussolini! Mussolini!”
David was almost hysterical. His face was distorted by his effort to hold back
his tears and pretend to smile. He was standing two inches from Marek. The
Polish lad turned away and took a couple of steps. David moved after him but at
once Marek swung back, looked and pointed into the distance behind David and
“Hey you! Come ‘ere!”
When David turned his head Marek swiftly put his right leg behind David’s and
pushed him hard in the chest with both hands so that he fell clumsily and
hopelessly into a rhododendron. At once, Marek sprinted off along the dry, clay
paths of the woods he knew so well. By the time David got to his feet,
he’d disappeared into the bushes and trees like Robin Hood into Sherwood.
“Mussolini! Mussolini!” called David impotently.
The others stood around, embarrassed and dismayed. David headed off alone
towards the field and his bike.
“I’d better go with him,” said Billy.
He caught up and walked beside him but David didn’t acknowledge him. They picked
up their bikes and rode across the fields. David was closed in on himself. He
couldn’t look at Billy or speak to him. Billy thought he saw him wipe away a
tear. They went two abreast the short mile and a half home. When they got to
Billy’s house he stopped, but David said nothing. He pedalled on and Billy
watched him go and turn the corner.
He didn’t see him for weeks. Then one Saturday when he’d gone to the tennis club
with another mate, David turned up and they let him join them for a knock. After
half an hour he said:
“I’ll take on the two of you.”
But he never came out again with the lads on the field or in the woods and his
mother’s patient ambition was finally fulfilled when, a First in Greats behind
him, after twenty-seven years of obedient service, he was appointed British
Ambassador to Spain.
IS THAT YOU, MR CLOONEY ?
At twenty-five, Liz Loveland had married the only boy who
had ever shown an interest in her and it had failed. She had two children
within two years, named them after Catholic saints, and watched as the once
devoted Simon, the big, gangly, slabbering lad who had been so puppy-dog eager,
grew cold and distant till he told her bluntly he loved someone else, and walked
out. The suburban four-bedroomed had to be sold; the dreams of ever-increasing
prosperity, of a new car every two years, of ever more frequent and exotic
holidays shrivelled; she decamped with the children to a modest semi on the edge
of a not-too-undesirable area.
That was that. Life had to go on, if you could call it a
life. But she went on as she always had: she did what she was supposed to do.
The long days came and went. The exhausting weeks at school. The weekly
confession: Forgive me Father, for I have.. She trawled the internet for
lovers; she joined a singles network; she tried speed-dating. No good. Her heart
remained cold. She put on low-cut dresses to reveal her small breasts; she had
her hair dyed black and crimped; she bought thongs and fishnet stockings but
took them off alone. Nothing happened. She had run aground. She had always
done what she was supposed to do and she had no idea what she was supposed to do
When Longshaft moved in next door, she smelt the
opportunity in seconds.
The house had been empty for months. Its widowed old owner
had lived alone for her slow-dying years and had let the place decline with
her. The gutters spat great stuttering waterfalls, slates slipped revealing the
woodwork beneath and cocky pigeons flew in and perched on the upstairs
windowsills; the unpainted woodwork fell away in chunks. But Longshaft was
handy. He was one of those men who demolish physical work like a plate of
chips. It was play; climbing a ladder to strip a patch of slates; laying a
block-paving driveway; building a tidy little garden wall topped by neat white
coping stones. He threw himself at work and loved it. He liked the sense of
command. And the feeling of getting something done. The satisfaction of an
He was there as she came in and out but too absorbed to
take much notice . She watched him. He was quick. He knew what he was doing.
She thought he looked a cut above the average builder. Perhaps he was the
self-improving type. But now and again she spotted him scratching his backside
or his crotch. Once he had a Daily Mirror sticking out of the back pocket
of his jeans. She watched him roughly throwing rubble into a skip. And he
smoked. Little cigars. She saw him through the bedroom window. He was taking a
break, his mug of tea steaming on the unfinished gate-post. He was leaning
against it and dragging on the Hamlet. He spotted her and waved. She did
the same hastily, and pulled back. Then she was in the bedroom when he was up a
ladder. Something fell to the ground with a crash. “Oh for fuck’s sake. You
clumsy bastard!” he shouted. The first time he spoke to her she was shocked by
“Hello !” he called, and came over to the dividing wall.
He held out his hand but she hesitated.
“Oh, sorry,” he laughed, “I didn’t think about t’muck.”
“No, not at all,” she said and put on her best smile
which pulled her mouth into an ugly shape.
He looked away.
Indoors she was agitated. The way he looked at me ! God, he
was looking right into me, right into me ! He might as well have been inside me
! The cheek ! Him! Nothing but a hairy-arsed builder ! And she went banging
about the kitchen getting the tea ready, snapping at the children for getting in
Next day there was an awful Year 9 lesson which left her
nerves frazzled. That evening she fussed around putting the house to rights but
nothing settled her and she was short and complaining with the children, who
stayed out of her way. She went into her front garden with a glass of red and
began pulling the dead heads from her rose bushes. She tugged and the bushes
stretched and shook. There was one she couldn’t reach. It got to her. It had to
be done. She believed if it wasn’t, there’d be no flower next year. She thought
of asking him. By her door was a honeysuckle she’d planted in the first year of
her marriage. In the evening air its scent was spreading. She sipped her wine.
It was pleasant to be among the plants, but she was always at them. She feared
them growing wild. She had an itching need to tame her garden and the sight of
the slightly overgrown lawn-edges drove her for the strimmer. She wielded it
like a weapon. A few unruly leaves in the hedge and she assaulted them with the
clippers. A stray weed in the flower-bed, she attacked it with the spade. The
anxiety was always at the back of her mind that things were about to run amok.
She heard a sound from the house next door. Longshaft came
out followed by a young woman. She was small, athletic and pert. Her face was
framed by her short, straight auburn hair. She smiled. On her upper arm was
tattooed a large C. She wore a short white skirt and was balanced on flimsy
white heels. Her legs were bare.
“Hello there !” called Longshaft with a wave as he headed
for the gate.
The woman raised her right hand and wiggled her fingers.
Liz managed a delayed, half-hearted “Hi”. She went indoors. Had she given
“Mum, Henry won’t let me watch Big Brother !”
“Oh, don’t bother me ! Switch it off. I’m sick of it. You
do nothing but bicker over it !”
And she rushed to the set and pulled the plug.
“I was watching that !” called the outraged Henry.
“Get to bed !”
“ But it’s only…”
“Get to bed !”
Once the children were settled, she went to bed herself. It
was a warm night and she lay naked on the mattress. At least the fresh cotton
sheets felt cool . She picked up her book, Birdsong, but the words didn’t
hold her attention. She was reading it because she thought she should. Everyone
was. But it didn’t appeal . It was just words. Why was it so popular? She took
up her glass. She sniffed the wine as she’d seen them do on the tv. She thought
it might have a hint of gooseberries. She swilled it round the glass to see if
it had legs. But she couldn’t honestly tell. She ran her hand across her
belly and between her thighs. Then she heard the click and slam of Longshaft’s
front door. So he was back ! Vaguely, she discerned footsteps on the stairs. He
mustn’t have fitted a carpet yet. Then voices in the bedroom - muffled and
distant – and now and again the spurt of feminine laughter. She sat on the
edge of the bed. Quiet. Getting up she pressed her ear to the wall and could
make out, barely, the inarticulate, helpless sounds of a woman’s pleasure. The
randy little bitch ! Her heart beat heavily. She listened. At moments there was
a sharp rise in the tight little gasps. She padded downstairs and returned with
a glass. Pressing it to the wall she could hear more clearly yet still as if
far away, through an ocean. Not only the woman’s pleasure but Longshaft’s grunts
. It seemed to go on for hours. For god’s sake ! The little slut ! She stayed
with her ear pinned. The woman’s cries got piercing and more frequent until the
final exclamations dying into a whimper. She drew away looking at the wall. In
her mind’s eye she could see what was on the other side. She imagined Longshaft
naked; saw him standing up from the bed, his body taut and full of energy; saw
his limp cock that had given such pleasure to that common little woman and she
sat down on the bed then sprang up and put on her clothes. She hurried down to
the kitchen, filled her glass and went into the front garden, pretending to busy
herself inspecting her plants. She had no idea how much time went by. The night
began to close in. She shivered in the chill.
At last she heard them approaching. She glanced at the
door. The woman came out first. Liz looked intently at her face. The woman gave
a little shrug of her shoulders and smiled widely. She seemed to want to make
herself insignificant. And shouldn’t she, after that performance ! It’s a wonder
the whole street didn’t hear ! Longshaft followed. He was toying with his car
keys. She noticed his wide shoulders and slim waist. He was what she lacked. She
felt his masculinity was a signal.
“Bit late for gardening !” he called with a smile.
She hesitated. She almost wanted to reply “Not too late for
screwing though !”
“Got to fit it in while I can !”
As he went through the gate, she glanced at his buttocks.
His car pulled away. She went indoors.
That night she dreamed George Clooney came into her house.
He was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and he carried a clawhammer. He climbed a
step-ladder and started banging in nails. She lay naked on the bed but he
ignored her. He stood by the window and smoked a cigar. She had her legs wide
open but he didn’t even glance. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she called out. “You
clumsy bastard !” He didn’t hear. He was drinking tea from a mug. He took a copy
of The Sun from his back pocket and began to read.
The following weekend Longshaft was busy. His torso bare he
was in and out of the house and up and down ladders with the energy of a boy.
She loitered in the garden once more.
“Must be hot work,” she called
“Aye, but I’m used to it.”
“Yes, I can see you know how to go at it hammer and
“I am. It’s all I’m good for !” and he laughed in a way
which made her bristle.
“Would you like a cup of tea. I’m just putting the kettle
“Aye, I’d love one !” he called. “I’m always at t’tap in
this weather. White, no sugar.”
In the kitchen she grabbed her mobile.
“Ted ? Could you have the kids for an hour I’ve just got
something on ? Would you ? I’ll send them round. They’ll be there in two
minutes. Watch for them will you ?”
She sent the children off to uncle Ted’s with the excuse
that she had to nip to the supermarket. Upstairs she stepped into a black thong
and a short red skirt, took off her bra and pulled on a thin sleeveless white
top. She spread on bright red lipstick and sprayed herself with the Chanel her
mother had bought her for Christmas. As she made the mugs of tea in the
kitchen, she watched herself in the mirror and hurriedly applied more make-up.
Outside, mugs in her hand, she was all cool composure. Longshaft came to the low
wall. He’d put on a loose green t-shirt.
“Aye, that’s grand. Very good of you. Spike Longshaft by
the way,” and he held out his hand .
She shook it. So strong and warm ! It was rough from work
which made her recoil slightly. She tried to convince herself he was good
looking. Perhaps he had a hint of George Clooney around the eyes.
“Liz Loveland. You’re coming along amazingly with the
He went on in his deep voice and his drawling intonation
about all he’d done and what still remained and she feigned interest in the
details of roofing, flooring and rebuilding chimney breasts. She noticed how he
looked at her, as simply as he might look at a nail or a hammer ! What kind of
brute was he ! No wonder that little woman was nearly cracking the windows !
“Why don’t you come round for a minute. We can sit in the
“I wouldn’t want to push in, like. And I’m still in me
“Oh, it’s no intrusion. I’m on my own for an hour. The
children have nipped to my brother’s. They can’t stay away, he spoils them to
death. And look at me ! Not exactly Posh am I ?”
“Aye, okay then. ”
He cocked his leg over the wall and followed her . She was
aware of her hips and buttocks. She felt his eyes on her. How did she compare
to Carol ? Was he watching her sway ? Was he noticing the rise and fall? She
exaggerated her movement. She still had a neat figure. She could wear a tiny
skirt as well as the next woman. She led him to the tidy patio. There was a
little white metal table in the centre and a brightly striped canvas chair
“You’re private here all right,” he said looking her in
the eye and smiling broadly as he sat down . “Aye, you could do as you like in
this little spot.”
“Yes, I am. It is. It’s perfectly private, actually. I like
my little garden. I don’t have time to do enough. I’m a teacher. Quite boring
really. Boring life I lead, lesson preparation and marking books till all hours.
I’d like to do more. I’d like to plant more. You know, so that I’d get the
colours all seasons….”
He sat and listened as she rattled on. She talked and
talked for fear of a silence. What did she think he might say if she stopped ?
She fired away as he responded with little nods and smiles and polite little
laughs at her jokes. She was watching him. What was he looking at ? Had he
noticed she wasn’t wearing a bra ? Why didn’t he stare ? He looked straight
into her eyes. She put down her cup and leant deliberately forward so that her
loose top fell away and her breasts were on show . She seemed to hold her pose
for a week. Surely he was looking now! Yet, she could always claim it was
nothing. She leant forward, that was all. These days women show their breasts
all over the place and no-one bats an eye. She glanced to see if he had a
hard-on. Her little breasts were hanging free and visible, the nipples quite
hard. She almost wanted him to reach out and grab them.
When she sat back she looked straight into his eyes. Her
nipples were still erect. He looked back into her stare, as calm as you like.
She went on talking, and as she did so she touched her breast with her
fingertips and then stroked her thigh. When he said something mildly funny she
threw back her head so her streaked black hair hung over the chair and her
throat was stretched. She let her knees fall apart so that a glimpse of her
black thong was visible. She noticed something caught in the privet hedge, a
wrapper which must have blown in. She got up and bent over the flower bed to
reach it and her little skirt rode up so that her white buttocks were revealed
with the thin black strap between them. When she sat down again her heart was
racing so madly she thought she might faint and when he said he must go and
finish off, she wanted to open her legs wide and pull off her thong. She wanted
to be as crude as possible. As available as a woman can be. Would he be able to
resist? Would he have any defence ? Would he want to go back to that little chav?
She wanted to say something crude. She wanted to provoke him beyond his limits.
That would settle the matter.
All the same, politely, he went.
Later, she heard him leave. She lay on the bed, waiting.
Sure enough, after an agony of anticipation, he came back. She heard the voices
outside. She went to the wall with the glass. She heard their conversation,
barely. The little female fireworks of laughter. The silence. Then the same
sounds. The mounting pleasure. On and on. Was she insatiable ? Did he have no
taste ! It seemed to last forever. Finally, the peak and then the odd murmur of
That night she couldn’t sleep.
At work, things went very badly. Her classes seemed more
oppositional then ever. Her patience ran out in minutes. She forgot to take
photocopies or books to her lessons. She lost the thread of what she was doing.
She set the class a task they had no interest in and found herself gazing
dreamily out of the window.
For a week or two she spoke to Longshaft only as they came
and went. And three or four nights a week she had her glass to the wall
listening to what drove her mad. She took the glass downstairs and put it back
in the cupboard. But hearing a small disturbance she flew down and retrieved it,
pinned it to the wall. In her dreams, Clooney returned. He filled the room with
the smell of his cigars. He pulled off the skirting boards, ripped up the floor,
sawed, hammered, planed but paid no attention to her. He was a builder intent
on his work. “Look at me, George ! Look at me !” she called. But he went on
Finally, it was Saturday morning and she was tending her
roses. Longshaft came round the side of his house carrying off-cuts of clean
“Hello !” she called. “How are you ?”
“I’m fine. You okay?”
“Oh, sort of,” and she felt herself ignite at her boldness
as she perched on the wall, one leg either side.
Longshaft laughed. It made her stiffen the way he laughed.
It was almost an intrusion.
“Only sort of ? Why ? What’s up ?”
She looked at him with all the frankness she could muster.
“Is it your wife I’ve seen coming and going ?”
“ Wife ?” he laughed again and looked at her through his
narrowed eyes. “No, I’m not wed. Divorced,like. No, she’s just a friend, Carol.
Just a friend of mine.”
“Oh, I see. I thought she might be your wife, keeping an
eye on how things are coming along here.”
“No, I’m my own man. I’ll be living alone. Once bitten
twice shy, sort o’thing. That wife of mine was real cow. My children’ll visit.
Otherwise I’d’ve bought summat smaller.”
“Yes. Is she coming tonight, your friend, Carol ?”
“Tonight ? No, we’ve not fixed owt yet.”
“Only I’m free. My kids are with their dad. Every three
weeks they go. He lives in Yorkshire, you see. On the coast. It’s a trek. He
picks them up. Last night he came for them. So I’m on my own till Sunday. I was
going to have a barbecue but the forecast said maybe thunder. And I’m in a
cooking mood. I could cook for you. If you’re free. If Carol isn’t coming, that
is. If you dare risk my food !”
She laughed and he smiled . He lowered his eyes. Could he
say no? Could he prefer that vulgar woman ? What if he turned her down ? Her
mind raced to think how she would play it if he refused. He looked up. She was
trying to read his eyes.
“Aye, sounds fine. As we’re to be neighbours, like. We
should get to know one another, sort o’ thing. What time?”
“Oh, say seven-thirty or eight ?”
“Reet. Till later, then.”
And he went slowly round the side of his house to get on.
All day Liz worked frantically at her cooking and cleaning
and making the house and herself perfect. Every time she looked at the clock
another two hours had disappeared. It seemed to her as seven thirty threatened,
the place was in chaos. Nothing was right ! Least of all herself! Still, she had
her best, burgundgy cotton sheets on the bed, and perfumed candles to be lit.
And flavoured condoms in the bedside table. Longshaft arrived at a few minutes
past eight, when she had despaired of him, a bottle of Dog’s Bollocks in
one hand, a six pack of lager in the other. He was clean and neat and casual
.She wanted to lead him straight upstairs.
She fussed and chattered compulsively through the
watercress soup, the halloumi and vegetable kebabs, the salmon in a parcel, the
juicy raspberry tart. Longshaft ate heartily and was full of compliments. He
asked which was the right spoon for the soup. He dipped his walnut bread and
tipped the dish towards him. He asked if she had any white sliced. Between the
first and second courses he said: “I’ll just go and empty me clog.” He picked
up the raspberry tart in his fingers. He drank a glass of red in one gulp then
wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. They went to the living-room for
coffee. They’d finished two bottles of red and Longshaft had drunk four lagers.
He was happy with the cans but she insisted on a glass. He put it aside and
drank from the can. She spread herself on the long, pale sofa.
“Oh, it’s lovely to be able to relax in your own home !”
“Aye,” he said. “I’ll be glad when I move in. I’m sick of
livin’ in a bloody caravan. I’m beginnin’ to feel like a gypsy.”
“When will you ?”
“Oh, I’m near finished. Come on, I’ll show you round, if
He put his empty cup on the coffee table. She was suddenly
flustered but she couldn’t find a way to refuse. His house ! But she’d
got the bedroom all set up !
“Are you sure ? So late ?”
“It’s only next door !”
So she went. Now it was his turn to talk. He showed her the
laminated floors which she thought cheap. Why hadn’t he stripped and varnished
? He told her where he’d had to rebuild walls which she found as interesting as
a lecture on cement mixing. He’d built his own kitchen units. She found them
ugly and tasteless. He was proud but she found the place ludicrous. The walls
were freshly painted but the colours ! He’d put in a pair of plastic
French windows ! The living room fireplace was fake marble surrounded by a
cheap MDF mantle. She’d change everything.
Then they went upstairs.
“Which is the bathroom ?” she cried, not wanting her desire
for the bedroom to be obvious.
There was a bath and a separate shower and black slate
tiles on the floor and a wash basin and bidet and the walls to the ceiling tiled
in white with a little silver border half way to break the effect. She thought
it lacked imagination. On the washbasin sat a tin of Swarfega. A dirty
towel was crumpled on the floor. He’d kept the old central heating radiator
which he’d painted. Her heart sank.
“ Well, it’s big, isn’t it ?”.
“Aye, for’t kids. They need t’space.”
At last they arrived in his room. She tried not to appear
too eager. It was unfinished. The walls were lined but not yet painted. There
was a pine double bed spread with a red duvet and a pine chest of drawers, a
little bedside table on which were a packet of Hamlet , a can of lager
and a tube of Anusol . An opened bag of plaster sat in the corner and a
little heap of its contents had spilled. There was a carburettor on the window
ledge. So this was it ! Not exactly inspiring surroundings ! His clothes were
strewn about. A pair of dirty boots sat by the bed. She looked at the bright
red duvet which she felt belonged in a child’s room. Into her mind came the
little cries and the image of herself holding the glass against the wall. Well,
at least her bedroom was decorated ! She turned to look at the point on the wall
where she would have been, two brick widths away. If this was their privacy,
they deserved to have it invaded! Longshaft had moved to one of the two tall
windows which looked out onto the avenue. She turned to look at him. There he
was, George Clooney. She went dizzy and sat on the end of the bed. She looked
at him and felt a faint disgust, as at a bad smell. Her face was blank. He
closed the curtains at both windows. He came over to her and kissed her mouth.
She could taste tobacco and lager. He pulled off her flimsy top by the hem. She
wondered if he was comparing her to Carol. He unbuttoned and yanked down her
skirt and dragged her red thong down to her feet and off. She lay back on the
duvet, just like the other woman must have. He took off his clothes quickly. He
was strong and muscular all right and fully erect. There it was, proud as the
Mayor of Blackpool in his chains. No wonder that greedy bitch was as noisy as a
cow in labour! She let her knees fall wide apart. He fixed his gaze. What did he
think of her ? Was she more tempting than Carol ? He pushed his finger in and
she let out a long groan of pleasure. Then he was on top of her. She ran her
fingers through his cropped hair and her nails down his strong back and across
his tight buttocks. She dug them in. She wanted him to be marked. How would he
explain that to Carol ! And when he was inside her working, back and forth, as
if he was sawing timber ,she heard herself imitating the sounds Carol had made.
Yes, just like her. Was she as loud ? She increased the volume. “George !” she
cried. Longshaft kept going. A new image came into her head: Carol on the other
side of the wall, her ear to a glass. Carol listening for every sigh, every
gasp. Carol standing seemingly for hours, on and on listening. She smiled. Even
in her intense pleasure she found the means to smile at the discomfiture of her
rival. She imagined her anguish growing with every small sound of mounting
At the moment of her climax, she saw Clooney’s face, huge,
floating above her, but his features suddenly transformed into Longshaft’s. And
then she could have sworn she heard the click of Longshaft’s front door. She
“Aw reet now,” he said, “or just sort of ?”
“No, much better.”
“I’ll be moving in soon,” he said.
“Oh that’s nice,” she replied. “It’ll be good to have a
neighbour, at last.”
“Aye, and I’ll have plenty to keep me busy !”
“Oh, yes. You will. You will.”
Mrs Green was national President of the Max Bygraves fan club from 1962 to her
death in 1990. Her little corner bungalow in Beech Drive was a shrine to the
great man: smiling pictures looked out at the family from the mantelpiece.
Posters, tickets, all manner of tacky memorabilia had been framed and hung in
every room. Her three sons might have believed Max was their father. From their
true father, who laboured modestly as the manager of a gents’ outfitters and
drank immodestly nightly in The Cock and Bottle, all three had inherited
intelligence as surely as from their mother they had acquired self-regard. But
it was her second son who followed her example in being awe-struck by celebrity.
He was twelve when The Beatles released Love Me Do. He wrote to George Harrison.
When he got a one-line reply, he framed it and hung it on his wall. He wrote to
John Lennon and then Paul McCartney but the replies were official. He sent a
birthday card to Mick Jagger and a Christmas card to Ray Davies. He wanted to
join them, so he bought an acoustic guitar with his paper-round money but
forming the chord shapes made his fingers hurt and he couldn’t master the simple
progressions. He got to know the school’s best guitar player, a folkie who
played Woody Guthrie songs and admired Pete Seeger. Colin was bemused. All the
same, the folkie could play the instrument. He slid lavishly up and down the
fretboard holding down firm barre chords and could play astonishing licks.
Colin’s heart sank. He hid the guitar in his wardrobe. In the Sunday papers he
read about Brian Epstein. He was inspired. It was a matter simply of discovering
a band. He could be a millionaire and ride the wave of vicarious fame. He
decided that management, not music, was his destiny, and he launched his career
by knocking on Fred Camm’s front door feeling full of go-getting bravado and
“Hi, Fred,” he called when the door opened, “ how are things, mate ?”
Fred’s real name was Geoff and no-one knew why he was never called by the
latter. He was dark and small with dull, brown eyes and a lugubrious manner
which belied his constant talk of fame, riches and sexual exploits. As the
shortest way to all three in the minds of the gullible young, sold exorbitant
pop fantasies by clever and cynical marketing men, was by forming a band and
becoming top of the pops , Fred had bought a drum kit and started a group called
The Cockroaches. The four members had struggled for weeks to find a name and
finally settled on this because of its association with the most famous band of
all and, as Fred had put it: “You can’t get rid of fuckin’ cockroaches, can ya?”
It had taken him a while to work out which was the bass and which the snare.
He’d tried to follow a simple drum tutor, but the words swam in his head. He
threw it aside and thrashed away, banging, thumping, crashing. It made a
terrific din and he declared: “Drummin’s easy. Learnt it in two weeks.”
“ Business proposition for you, pal,” said Colin. “You got a manager yet
“No,” replied Fred his rising at the idea that his band was important enough to
have a manager, even though they hadn’t yet played a gig.
“Manager’s what you need, matey. Think of the big bands. Stones, Beatles, Kinks.
Have they got managers ?”
“Course they have.”
“That’s why they’re famous. You wanna get to the top you need a businessman
behind you. Music’s a business. You’ve got to be able to cut a deal. You’ve got
to know the ins and outs. You guys, you’re musicians. That’s what you’re good
at. Me, I’ve got the business brain. It’s in the family. Did I tell you what my
dad does ?”
“He’s a businessman. He’s big in clothing.”
Fred had seen Colin’s dad staggering home from the Cock, tottering into hedges,
struggling to light his fag as he swayed dangerously, chatting up sixteen
year-old girls at the bus-stop, coughing and spitting into the gutter and he
couldn’t believe he was big in anything but hangovers. All the same, he didn’t
want the flattering idea of being managed to evaporate, so he ignored his own
“Now, if I take you on, and I may not because I’m busy. I’ve already got five
bands on my books,” he lied. “But if I do, the deal is that I’m in charge. You
just play the music. Everything else is up to me. What d’you think ?”
“I’ll have to talk to the others.”
“Sure. But who’s band is it ? Who set it up ? Who’s the leader ?”
“I set it up, but we don’t have a leader.”
“That’s a big mistake. Every successful enterprise, no matter how small, has a
leader. Think about it, Fred. Leadership and success go hand in hand. Name me a
“Yeah, well, he was a success in his own way, wasn’t he ? He ran Germany. That’s
a big country. You can’t have just anybody running a country. Hitler must have
had something. He made mistakes, but he must have had leadership potential.
That’s the point I’m making. You need someone with leadership qualities in
charge of a band. Someone like yourself, mate.”
“Well, I suppose so.”
Fred was mightily flattered that Colin, who he thought of as a brainy kid
because he was at the grammar school and was probably going to university,
judged he had leadership qualities.
“I mean,” Colin went on, “who’s leader of The Beatles.”
“John Lennon,” offered Fred.
“Naw, that’s just to fool the public. McCartney, mate. He’s the brains behind
the outfit. He’s the operator. If he hadn’t been a musician, he’d’ve been a
businessman. Matter of fact, he is a businessman and his business is pop
records. See what I mean ? You’ve got that edge. You wanna get on. You wanna be
somebody. You’re a born leader, Fred.”
“Tell the others I’ll be in charge. Anything you earn, I get twenty percent.
“How much have you earned so far ?”
“We haven’t had a gig yet.”
“Don’t worry. The Stones couldn’t get gigs when they started out. It’s the sign
of genius. People take time to get used to it you see, Fred ? I’ll book the
gigs. You’ll be playing five nights a week.”
“We’ll need transport.”
“Hasn’t your dad got a car, Fred ?”
“My dad’s buggered off.”
“Don’t worry. I know someone with a van,” he lied again. “’Course, you’ll have
to sign a contract.”
Colin typed up the document on his father’s portable Remington. It was full of
phrases like in consideration of which, should the parties fail to agree and
full and final payment which he felt conveyed the appropriate legal objectivity.
He even threw in mens rea which he’d found in the dictionary and whose meaning
kept slipping out of his mind. It was now simply a question of launching his
band on the world. There was to be a dance at Loud Bridge village hall. A local
established group, The Bobcats, were to play. Colin pleaded with the youth
leader who was organising the affair to let The Cockroaches play as support.
They got their start but there was no payment.
“That’s how all bands begin, pal. The Beatles played for nothing all round
Liverpool. Once you get your name known, then the dosh starts rollin’ in.
Believe me, we’ll be coinin’ it in six months.”
Colin had never taken the trouble to listen to his band rehearse. The question
of musical competence seemed irrelevant. He assumed they could get a noise of
some kind out of their instruments and they’d be able to play songs the kids
would recognise. His own ability to appreciate music was minimal. He found all
classical composers boring and incomprehensible. It went on too long, there were
no lyrics and you couldn’t whistle to it. Jazz was something ageing weirdos
listened to and had no relevance to the modern world. Colin believed in
progress. Mozart was old-fashioned. He’d heard Paul McCartney say the pop music
of today is the classical music of tomorrow, and he believed it. What mattered
was selling your product. You need something new. A gimmick. Hadn’t Epstein
dressed The Beatles in uniforms and made them style their hair idenitcally ?
If you could sell an image, the music didn’t matter too much. And once you were
launched, you could start merchandising: he imagined a local Cockroach fan club
with its own magazine, Cockroach t-shirts, badges, and, of course, a Cockroach
style all the kids would want to imitate.
The fateful Saturday arrived. By half past seven there were seventy teenagers in
the village hall. Those who tried to sneak booze were sent on their way by the
bouncers. Round the back was a little smokers’ club where lads exchanged
Woodbines and No6. Three of The Cockroaches arrived on the bus. Fred came by
taxi with the gear. Colin was backstage telling them this was their big break.
Their first number was Gloria, which every pub band in the land played at every
gig. Colin stood at the back of the hall feeling like Brian Epstein in The
Cavern. The lads started and the tune was definitely recognisable but Fred was a
beat behind the bass guitarist who wasn’t at all sure what the lead guitarist
was doing and the rhythm guitarist just ignored the other three and strummed the
only four chords he knew. By the time they began their second number, House Of
The Rising Sun, all but half a dozen kids had drifted outside. They played two
more, I Wanna Be Your Man and Slow Down and by then were coming to the end of
“Hey, that was fantastic !” said Colin as they sat outside with their guitars
and amps waiting for the taxi. “Bit more practice and we’ll be looking for a
They played two more gigs for which they weren’t paid then they split up because
the bass guitarist punched the lead guitarist in the mouth for saying he
“couldn’t play Happy Fucking Birthday without the music” and the rhythm
guitarist got a girlfriend and couldn’t come to practice any more. As for Fred,
he turned his attention from drums to motorbikes, bought a BSA Bantam as soon as
he was old enough, ran into the back of a bus and had a steel plate screwed into
his fractured skull.
Colin tried to persuade other bands to let him manage them, but none took him
up. His failure with The Cockroaches was well known. He got on with his dreary
school work, passed eight O levels, three A levels and applied to do English at
Reading. Just how he was going to pursue his career as an impresario, he didn’t
know, but as soon as he arrived at university the revelation hit him like a
tornado on the coast of Florida. There were gigs every weekend ! The Students’
Union organised them ! It was there for the taking. He put it about that he’d
already had great success managing a band in his home town up north. He
volunteered to help out at every SU entertainment event. He ingratiated himself
with the Entertainments Officer and he even stood up in a Union meeting and
spoke in support of the International Socialists, whose politics he despised,
because he knew that as a lefty he was more likely to get elected. When the poll
arrived, he put posters up all over the university buildings saying:
for seriously great entertainment.
He was the only candidate.
In a matter of days he was on the phone to the agents of fabulously wealthy and
inordinately famous stars. He went to London to the offices of CBS in an attempt
to book Bob Dylan, all at the union’s expense. The first band he hired was
Hawkwind then Free. The concerts were sell-outs and money rolled in with the
ease of the tide in St Ives. All the events were subsidised to keep them well
within the budget of the students, but all the same, a good gig could make
thousands. One day, talking to the agent of a rising but minor support band he
“Hey, what if you pay in cash !”
The line went quiet and he knew he’d given himself away.
“No, no,” he protested in answer to the agent’s quiet refusal, “I was just
thinking about making the whole thing easier. You know, I could pay it straight
into the union’s account, no cheques and so on.”
He never used the agent again.
Entertainments Officer wasn’t a sabbatical post, but he was so taken with the
role he left his studies aside altogether, at the end of the year failed all his
exams, had to re-sit, failed again and was sent down. It was exactly the
opportunity he needed. As a matter of fact, studying German grammar, learning
the difficult art of translation, wrestling with Goethe and Schiller and Brecht
seemed intrinsically useless. It was remote from that world of glamour and
razzamatazz which meant so much to his mother and which had always seemed to him
like a promise of home and belonging. What was the point, after all, of this
study ? Where did it lead ? How many people, of their own free will, read Thomas
Mann or Gottfried Benn ? Did these people write just to be studied in
universities ? Was it all a game for the benefit of professors ? In any case,
released from it he felt liberated. He went to London and put himself about. An
agent he knew took him on. Within a year he was running the office. He travelled
to Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, Dublin, Rome, Geneva; he stayed in the best hotels
and being with the band, always found willing girls. Also, he watched fabulous
amounts of money change hands. For a single concert an act would suck in tens of
thousands. And most of the pop stars, major or minor, had little sense with
money. They left it all in the hands of accountants, managers, agents. Sometimes
he sat back and saw the opportunities and the excitement was almost terrifying.
In his little office near Oxford St he felt on the edge of greatness. His small
town, northern origins were, of course, an embarrassment. He assumed a slight
Cockney twang; it gave him the right wide-boy allure. When people asked where he
came from he said Liverpool. Like everyone from Liverpool, naturally, he’d met
the Fab Four. It wasn’t always an easy lie to maintain because, inevitably,
someone would know the city well and ask him the simplest questions which
quickly exhausted his knowledge. All the same, he thrived. He developed that
defect indispensable to all salesmen and promoters: plausibility. Even when he
had no band booked, he would hire a venue on the basis that some group currently
having knickers thrown at them from Newcastle to Novisibirsk, were already
secured. Even when he had no venue, he would tell the bands he was booking
they’d be playing the Albert Hall. His boss was delighted. His salary went up
and up. Soon he was spending five thousand a month. He was on the verge of
joining the super-rich super-stars.
His mother preened.
But he was dissatisfied. He was running an agency, meeting famous pop stars who
lived in mansions; spent more in a day than most people earn in a year; jetted
around the world as if the very force of gravity was theirs to command; had sex
with people whose names they never knew; took hard drugs as casually as a cow
chews grass and when it all fell apart, when their addictions got the better of
them, when their minds and bodies cracked, bought the very expensive services of
very dubious analysts, booked themselves into clinics where they were treated
like children and blamed the pressure of the media spotlight for their downfall.
Agency managers, however, didn’t win a place in the biographies. Had Epstein
been a mere agency manager, who would have heard of him ? No, what he needed was
an act to manage. An out-of-the-ordinary act. Something new, something he could
make his own.
One day, it walked into his office.
Calvin Harding was born into the American middle-class. His father was a banker,
they had the biggest pool in the neighbourhood, he was educated privately. But
in one of those quirks by which the most diligently conservative parents try to
form their offspring in their image and fail hopelessly, Calvin had grown up
subversive. Not that he espoused any political creed. On the contrary, he
thought all politics superficial, pompous and humourless and all politicians
about as convincing as the notion of virgin birth. He was far more subversive
than any mere New England socialist. He thought his society utterly laughable
and he wrote songs which poked bitter and merciless fun at the organised
stupidity which he felt had nothing to do with him. He was quirky. He was odd.
He was tall and gangly. He was marketable.
“How much you grossin’ per annum ?” said Colin.
“Oh, I do okay,man. You know, touring. They like me in the little venues. All
over. And the acne song made me, you know a fortune. I’ll be livin’ on that when
Calvin had hit the American pop charts with an unlikely song about his teenage
affliction. For a few brief weeks he’d been on tv, as if he were any regular,
fame-hungry guitar-thrasher, but his next song, which made scurrilous fun of the
religious right, was banned by most stations and he was back to playing before
sixty people in dingy cellars.
“What you need is a good manager.”
“What I need is a good meal. I’m hungry, man.”
Colin took him to one his favourite Italian places. Calvin swilled the
Peroni,glugged the Sauvignon Blanc and chomped on garlic bread and calzone.
“It’s all a question of image,” said Colin.
“Fuck that,” said Calvin through a mouthful of dough.
“You want people to listen to your music, don’t you ?”
“Well, I’m the man to get you an audience. You see Calvin, you’ve got to
compromise with the system. At least a little bit. You’ve gotta give people what
“People don’t know what the fuck they want. People are made stupid by
advertising, television and politics. You can sell ‘em anything.”
“Exactly ! We can even sell ‘em you. You’ve already had a hit. That’s something
to work on. Fame generates fame. It doesn’t matter what you’re famous for. Look
at the Great Train Robbers. They’re some of the most famous people in the world.
You see ? Once you’re famous everyone wants to know about you. People will buy
your stuff just because you’re a name. That’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to
get you a gimmick and make you a name.”
“Fuck that. Just get me some gigs, man. That’s what I want. I just want someone
to tell me where to go at what time and to put the money in my bank. I hate
business. I hate everything to do with business. I just wanna play my songs,
“That’s why you and me make a perfect partnership. I’m the business brains. You
just get up and do the act. Believe me, we’ll be millionaires.”
“Fuck the money !” and Calvin swigged another glass of white.
For a few months, Colin used the agency for his work managing Calvin but once
he’d enough in the bank, he found a little office of his own, near Denmark St.
He worked hard getting gigs and they travelled Europe and America. Calvin
recorded a couple of albums that sold enough copies to keep the executives
interested. Colin got him on the radio all over the place and even on the
television now and again. And the money rolled in. Even a modest concert in
Amsterdam, with an audience of no more than three hundred brought in, with
merchandising, three thousand clear. Some weeks, Calvin would play five such
concerts. Most of the money had to be accounted for, but now and again a little
extra gig would come along and Colin would say:
“Look, I know it’s irregular, but if you could pay me in cash. Calvin gets
whacked for tax and we’ve expenses to meet day to day. A bit of back-pocket
money would be really handy.”
Usually it worked. A grand here. Five hundred there. He put it in his wallet and
said nothing. Why shouldn’t he ? Where would Calvin be without him ? And anyway,
didn’t the fool disdain money ? Wasn’t he careless about it like all these pop
folk ? In any case, it was small beer.
Calvin was grateful for Colin’s work. He disliked having to organize things.
Booking a hotel room or a flight distracted him from practice or writing a new
song. Colin took on all those niggling tasks and Calvin enjoyed himself on
stage, in the bar, in the hotel room or during the few weeks a year he would
spend at home in New York with the children from his disastrous and short-lived
marriage. When he discovered that the busy little manager who goaded, insulted
and cajoled him to keep him working and the money flowing had been paid cash for
some gigs, he laughed to himself. It was slightly disappointing but he really
didn’t care. He was as rich as a minor Texas oil-man. And Colin worked hard. All
the same, he said to him:
“You know,man, in your position a lot of folk would be tempted to take
“What d’you mean ?”
“All that money, and I never even look at a bank statement.”
“I wouldn’t steal from you, Calvin.”
The singer let out a great, ironic, bitter laugh.
“Well, that’s good to know, man!”
A few weeks later, Colin, tipped off by an old university acquaintance, went to
see a bad at a pub gig in Soho. They were fronted by a girl from Basingstoke who
had been educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and in a frenzy of adolescent
kicking against the pricks of parental ambition had adopted a wild persona,
learnt to thrash out a few chords , turned her long, dark mane into a spiky mess
that made Einstein look well-coiffured, dressed in a tight, black leather suit
with the jacket unzipped to her navel so her pert little breasts threatened to
bob out any second and belted out a manic falsetto of would-be provocative
lyrics which, in truth, wouldn’t have raised the heartbeat of a liberal
grandmother by a beat. Not only did he lust after her madly, with all the
pathetic eagerness of an older man besotted with a younger girl, but he
understood at once the appeal of such factitious revolt to teenagers with a
grudge against dull, stupid parents and a school system rigid enough to reduce
Procrustes to tears. The three guys behind her could play, by pop standards.
They were tight. But above all they were commercial. In the interval, he
“Before I managed Calvin I worked for John Draycott, you know, the agency ?”
“I’ve handled some of the biggest bands in the world. Believe me, I know the
business. You can be big. You’ve got the image. But you’ll never make it without
a manager. Music is a business and it’s cut-throat.”
Eighteen and from a narrow, protected milieu, behind her rebellious façade, Liz
Newman was a naïve, vulnerable, ambitious, confused kid like millions of others.
She was quite overawed by this little, dapper, glib-tongued man who had met some
of the stars she revered and whose wealth and fame she wanted to emulate;
sufficiently overawed in fact to accept his invitation to go back to his place
for a few drinks. His three-storey house in Islington, big enough to house a
family of six, had a baby grand in the upstairs living-room. He had lavished
money on the place because he understood the investment value of property. Also,
it impressed girls. Liz felt herself falling into an abyss of foolish
admiration. Her own semi in Fulham was as modest and ordinary as grass. Wasn’t
this kind of exaggerated luxury exactly what she longed for? Was this man going
to lift her into this kind of life ? She wandered from room to room. She smiled.
But when he tried to kiss her she pulled away and went for a taxi.
Caught between greed for money and lust for Liz and knowing the indulgence of
the latter would prevent him attaining the former, Colin restrained himself and
became manager of Lizzie and the Harpies. They quickly attained a London
following and when Liz wrote a catchy three-chord, three-minute song called
Sycorax’s Sister, Colin landed them a recording deal and the release was in the
top ten in days. Colin dropped Calvin like a woman drops a man with syphilis.
“I thought we had a contract, man,” drawled the lugubrious American.
But Colin dismissed him as disdainfully as he’d sack a less than compliant
secretary. Lizzie and the Harpies could be big ! Big was a word which evoked a
particular reaction in Colin. It touched everything positive as surely as it
excluded everything weak. He had finally arrived ! This was a band that could
make millions and he could share the luxury and the inordinate and undeserved
fame which falls to the musically illiterate who offer an image of power to the
musically uneducated immature. He lived each day in nervous excitement. He
worked very hard from six in the morning to midnight. He used every contact,
pulled every ruse and this little quartet of naïve kids who’d started rehearsing
in a garage in the hope that the extraordinary benefits of pop stardom might
come their way, rose effortlessly into the firmament of adulated icons and once
arrived found themselves disorientated, exhausted, pursued, harassed to perform
more and more, to record more and more, to tour more and more, to be
photographed more and more, to be interviewed more and more until their lives
seemed to have been taken from them and they lived out their fantasy roles of
leaders of their generation so completely they no longer knew who they were.
They were dutiful workers in the entertainment mill. Like all workers, they were
required not to think. They must simply produce. And produce they did, night
after night, day after day, on stage, in the studio. When they weren’t on an
aeroplane, they were on a coach. When they weren’t in a studio, they were in a
dressing-room. When they weren’t on tv, they were being interviewed by
journalists. In no time at all they became fabulously rich and manically
overactive. They drank. They smoked dope. They took slimming pills to stay awake
and sleeping pills to snatch a few hours. They tried LSD, speed and cocaine. And
finally relief arrived. Liz found it first. It was offered by a charming,
handsome promoter she met and went to bed with in New York. At first she smoked
it, but when the need became so insistent she would have killed her mother for a
fix, she injected it. It was the only thing that brought her peace.
She was hooked.
Colin had long been an advocate of the benefits of cannabis and he had felt it
de rigueur to try most of the other drugs which proliferated among pop stars,
but when his protégés began to turn up to recording sessions looking like
ill-fed city pigeons, when they failed to turn up at all, when they played
listless gigs because they their minds were on their next fix and the audience
seemed worthless, he began to panic about his profits, like any businessman.
“For fuck’s sake, Liz. Look at you !”
“Don’t talk like my fuckin’ mother.”
“You’ve gotta get off that stuff.”
“That stuff is all that keeps me going. I get off it, who’s gonna pay your
“You can get clean. We can book you into a clinic. Couple o’ months you’ll be
“Couple o’ months we’ll be broke.”
“Come on ! You’ve got millions !”
“I had millions.”
“What’ve you done with it ?”
“Who cares !”
They wasted hours of studio time doing drugs until Colin had to intervene like
an authoritarian headteacher.
“No drugs during recording sessions !”
“Fuck you, Colin.”
“No ! Fuck you ! Do you know how much it costs to hire a studio ?”
“And who makes the money ? We pay your fuckin’salary, Colin and we wanna do
drugs we’ll do drugs. Fuck the cost. Fuck the studio time.”
It offended deeply Colin’s reverence for money and all its works but there was
nothing he could do. He saw the band as his product and he was taking them to
the market just as calculatingly as any manufacturer of soap powder. It was a
question of finding the niche and exploiting it ruthlessly. The competition must
be beaten. Costs must be kept low and profits high. Yet here they were, four
self-indulgent children who had been turned into a commodity so popular they
were mobbed if recognised on the street, and wallowing in this unwonted
adulation they untied every knot of self-restraint and sank into a dream of
immediate fulfilment of every whim and desire. It made him fiercely angry and he
almost wanted to disown them. Yet their albums sold millions, their tours
attracted tens of thousands who fought one another for tickets at inflated
prices. Their tawdry,gew-gaw merchandise was itself enough to sustain them in
lavish lifestyles. They laughed, they flopped, they drank and smoked and
injected themselves as if immortal. They had come to understand their fame
was self-defining. Now they were famous, the kids would buy their records
however bad they were. All they had to do was thrash out twelve new songs in a
studio and millions rolled in. It was a dream. It wasn’t real. For such
inordinate wealth to fall into their hands for so little! It was a joke. And the
joke, of course, was on the fans.
“Who are the cunts who buy this stuff ?” one of the band would say.
“Who gives a fuck,” Liz would reply, “as long as they don’t stop.”
They began to call themselves rock royalty and they believed they deserved to be
treated like monarchs. Liz got into the habit of eating in expensive
restaurants, running up a bill of hundreds and after she’d settled it, ordering
brandies all round, then walking out without paying. No-one ever came after her.
No-one ever called the police. She was rock royalty and the world could go to
Colin had believed that so long as the money came in, nothing would bother him.
He was a millionaire thanks to Lizzie. But little by little he began to hate her
because she wasted lucrative opportunities. The bills for studio time broke his
heart. If they could learn a bit of discipline he would earn so much more. Why
shouldn’t he, then, take what belonged to him ? Without him, they would fall to
pieces. They couldn’t even book a hotel. They were hopeless junkies who needed
him as much as a baby needs a parent. It was easy to filch their money. And if
he hadn’t taken it, they’d’ve spent it on stuff. But the more of their money he
sifted away, the more he feared them finding out and the more he tried to behave
like them. He lounged around smoking weed during recording sessions, he dropped
acid after concerts and one night in her hotel room, Liz said to him:
“Do you want to fuck me, Colin.”
He was struck dumb. The lust he had first felt for her when she was eighteen and
he nearly thirty sprang alive in spite of their ten year familiarity. True, she
had beded dozens of men in the meantime: rock stars, promoters, roadies even a
politician, but he was still overawed by the offer. She was, after all, one of
the richest and most famous women in the world.
“First, we’ve gotta shoot up. You wanna fuck me, Colin, you’ve gotta shoot up.”
It was a challenge and he saw the maliciousness in her eyes. A schoolboy game of
chicken, like being dared to walk the narrow ledge of the railway bridge over
the swelling river when he was fourteen. And at the back of his mind was the
terrible fear that she knew.
Once hooked, he was dismayed at how the habit clawed at his money. A hundred,
two hundred pounds a day.
“You’re one of us now !” crowed Liz and the band laughed like witches as Colin
smiled wanly and tried to conceal his fury.
All the same, so long as he got his gear, he could function. On the tube, in a
taxi, in a meeting with accountants, no-one would have suspected. His man was
reliable, but the price kept climbing. Always cash. His accounts were depleting.
But he was a trusted manager. He knew everyone of any importance. He could swing
things. He got the band a gig at a weekend concert at Alexander Palace and
persuaded the promoter to pay him cash:
“Look, Keith, you know what they’re like. It all goes on drugs. The studio time
is crippling us. A bit of cash makes all the difference.”
So the ten grand came straight to him in used notes.
Remarkably, he found he could easily nudge people into making cheques payable to
him. There was so much money swilling around the pop industry and so many of the
people receiving or handling it were no more than enthusiastic amateurs, it was
childsplay to divert huge sums into his personal accounts. Some of it went
abroad to avoid tax. Colin began to believe he might even end up richer than
Liz. And why not? Wasn’t he smarter than her ? Didn’t he work harder ? He was at
the pinnacle of his belief in himself when the inevitable happened. The
accountants began to ask a few awkward questions: why was the income falling ?
Where were the receipts? A few phone calls and they found out.
“Fuck off !” said Liz when the dull, staid young man in a suit sat before her
and spelled it out.
“I’m afraid so, Miss Newman.”
“Don’t call me that ! Shit ! Colin ! I can’t believe it.”
“It’s true. He’s already taken hundreds of thousands. We must go to the police.”
“I’m afraid it’s my professional duty.”
“Screw your professional duty ! Who pays you ? You’re working for me and I say
no coppers. I’ll sort it out.”
By the time she’d gathered the other three to talk it over, Colin had
“Must have been the junk.”
“Sure, but if he needed money for junk, why didn’t he ask me?”
“He was takin’ it before he was on junk.”
“And I trusted that little guy,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I loved the
Colin had nowhere to run but home. He turned up at his sister’s at eleven
on a Sunday night carrying a small holdall.
“We’ve no spare room. You’ll have to sleep on the sofa.”
Having a junkie in the house was not ideal with three young children to take
“I can’t kick him out,” said Ruth to her husband, “he’s my brother.”
“Yeah, and he’s a druggie and a criminal. That’s his mess, not ours.”
“I’ll have to get him some help.”
“And who’s going to pay ?”
“He says he’s got money.”
But he hadn’t. His accounts were frozen. He feared any day the police would be
at the door. The thought of prison scared him so much he shook and left the
house, wandering alone for hours, wishing he could become invisible. He thought
of killing himself. An overdose or jumping from a high building. But the days
came and went and he survived. The police didn’t arrive. His sister took out a
bank loan to pay for his detox and once out of the clinic, he found a job
unloading lorries at Sainsbury’s. The wage was measly and the work dull, routine
and demeaning. Still, it allowed him to rent a flat and escape his
brother-in-law’s brisk disdain. He was clean. He was working. He had his own
Once he’d been home for a year, he realised Liz wasn’t going to send the police.
In a rush of tender gratitude he dreamed of a reconciliation. Should he get the
train to London ? Should he beg her forgiveness ? Would she take him back ?
Could he be a millionaire again? But he knew it was hopeless. He thought of his
lovely house in Islington, now repossessed as if he were one of the poor, a
failure. He had been one of the richest men in Britain, up in the top five
percent. Wasn’t that where he belonged ? As fear of the law, the courts,
prison and shame diminished, as he felt safer and safer, he began to feel
aggrieved. He was working with morons. One night he said to the bloke unloading
lorries alongside him:
“I used to be a millionaire, you know ?”
“Yeah, and I used to be President of the United States, mate. Get a move on or
we’ll be here till lunchtime.”
On his long walks around the tree-lined avenues of houses hemmed by
neatly-trimmed privet hedges, he would pass his mother’s corner bungalow where
the fountain still sprang from the mouth of a stone nymph in the ornamental
pond. One evening it struck him that he’d never been happy there. Life had never
been in that place, amongst his family, but located somewhere else, in some
distant locale to be aspired to, an arena of money, glamour and fame exempt from
pettiness, difficulty, hard choices and tragedy. Wasn’t that where he’d been ?
Wasn’t that his rightful place ?
Day in day out he began to hatch schemes of escape, ways of climbing back to the
top. He went to hear a few bands in local pubs. Useless. They’d never be
anything but local groups and anyway, London was closed to him as far as
that was concerned. Then one night, alone in his little flat in one of the
town’s down-at-heel areas, he was watching a Tom Cruise film and slowly emptying
a bottle of Sauvignon when it occurred to him that acting was easy. What was so
special about Tom Cruise ? He could do that. He was a decent looking bloke,
after all. And didn’t Cruise get millions for every film ? In his excitement he
rang his sister:
“Hey listen, I’ve had a great idea……”
He enrolled for an acting course at a local college and in spite of the fact
that the other students were all duffers and the teacher mediocre, he was sure
this was the first step to stardom.
Soon he would be more famous and richer than Max Bygraves.
Mrs Hill, who had kept her married name though she’d been
divorced for twenty-seven years, was pushing her granddaughter through the
centre of town on a bright Wednesday morning in May, when she spotted Guy Baines
crossing the road and was whisked back forty years. He’d looked after himself.
He was still trim and quick and with his grey hair and mature demeanour made her
feel regretful. When she’d met him he was a beautiful but callow little boy. Too
innocent. Too good. She knew well enough how women despise good men.
Nothing pleases a woman more than feeling she’s brought a wayward man to heel.
At least, that was her perception. That’s why she’d shunned Guy and gone after
Gary Gilkes, who went off to sea, had women all over the world, got a dose of
syphilis, fought with knives in seedy dives and threatened to black her eye when
she sent him packing. After, that she’d flitted from boy to disappointing boy
and had one or two perilously wayward lovers before settling on the moody and
taciturn Rob Kempster who forever had his nose in The Sporting Life, was
anxious if he was more than a hundred yards from a bookies and drank himself
senseless every night in the Green Dragon or the Malt Shovels. She
married him at twenty, went to live with her ever-fighting in-laws, had two
children and sank into tedium. One Friday evening bumping into Guy in a pub, she
threw herself at him, got him to walk her home and on the park, on the damp
grass which muddied her white blouse, began the brief and desperate affair which
remained the best of her love life.
How strange that now at fifty-four she could encounter such
a vivid part of her past so the intervening years could telescope and in a
second she was fifteen again and seeing the gorgeous boy for the first time.
Could she be back in the youth club again, could she be looking into his big
brown eyes, could she have the chance to dismiss all other possibilities and
hang herself on him, she would. But life had tossed her around all right. The
bitter divorce. The years on her own. The struggle to make ends meet. The sorry
affairs. And finally the polite and perfectly friendly arrangement with Rick.
She liked him. They got on well. The sex was okay. But she wasn’t taken out of
herself. That was all in the past. How could she have let that go ?
She went on walking, the child happily twittering in the
push chair, but in her head she was a teenager again, with all the marvellous,
terrifying and bewildering possibilities of life ahead of her.
She left school at fifteen in 1966 and, like all girls of
her kind, northern secondary modern failures taught that education wasn’t for
them, made to feel inferior to their grammar school peers, she took whatever job
came along, went looking for a good time and vaguely believed marriage and
children would come along and make her happy. The offices of
Worldwide Shopping Orders were in a seven storey oblong, planning permission
for which was granted by the far-sighted, imaginative luminaries of the Labour
Council in the interests of bringing employment and prosperity to the town. It
took on three hundred, almost all girls aged from fifteen to twenty-five, though
all the managers were men and made fine profits for its directors and
shareholders most of whom weren’t sure where in the curious region known as
the north it was. The work was impossibly routine and boring, even for
girls. Even for secondary school girls. Even for girls with no O Levels. Not
even the collusion of the entire education system in the lie that eighty percent
of the population are congenitally stupid and capable of nothing more than
repetitive tasks that would make a gorilla weep, could conceal the fragmentation
of this work into operations unfit for human execution. Linda couldn’t take it
seriously. She lived for the laugh with the girls, for the breaks,
lunchtimes, evenings, weekends, holidays and, of course, in hope of love.
It was a long bus ride into town. It gave her time to
think. She sat upstairs and lit a cigarette. The morning was so mild, the sun
promising a continental afternoon, she felt flat at the thought of the office.
She didn’t know why the idea of Guy came into her head but suddenly she was
thinking of him with a slow, soft, stirring interest. What would he be doing ?
She realised he’d be free. He’d finished his exams. Someone had told her he was
starting work in September. She got off the bus at her usual stop but instead of
heading towards Enlightenment House, she went to the nearest phone box.
“Hi Guy, it’s Linda.”
There was a little pause.
“Hello. Are you okay ?”
“Yeah. I didn’t get you out of bed did I ?”
“No,” he lied. “I was up.”
“Are you doing anything this afternoon ?”
“This afternoon ? Aren’t you at work ?”
“Oh, I should be, but you know. I can’t be bothered. Work.
I like to take an afternoon off now and again, just so I don’t feel too much
like a slave.”
Another little pause.
“Yeah. Where shall we meet?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I’m in town now.”
“Yeah, well I got the bus. I was going to go to work but,
it’s such a nice day and I thought…..”
“Okay. It’ll take me a bit. Where shall we meet ?”
“The kiosk, in the arcade. I can kill an hour.”
“See you there, then.”
As soon as she stepped out of the booth, she wondered if
she’d made a mistake. For a second she thought she’d stand him up. She crushed
her cigarette-end under her purple shoe. People were hurrying across the square
on their way to work. She liked the scene, but only because she wasn’t part of
it. The thought of work ! It struck her as bizarre, all these people pressing on
to dull, boring jobs. The heaviness of life ! She craved lightness. The sunlight
was so sweet. There was a quietness to the start of the day. She felt fleetingly
happy, easy and she didn’t understand why life didn’t respond to her mood. She
had the confidence of the outsider. Her society had defined her. She was a
failure. Her father drove a bus, her mother was a school cleaner. What was she ?
She knew with absolute certainty what she didn’t want: this mad routine of work.
She wandered a little. Most shops weren’t yet open but she found a newsagent and
stood perusing the magazines for a few minutes. They all seemed meaningless.
Where did this odd mood come from all of a sudden, this sense of distance from
ordinary life which made her want to revolt? She was seized by a momentary
anxiety which sent her out onto the street. It almost made her panic, this
curious sense of lostness which was at once so full of possibility and terror.
She walked through the shopping centre and back to the square where an old woman
was feeding seed to the great flock of grey, nodding pigeons. She sat on a bench
and lit a cigarette. Almost, she began to cry. She was at a loss to know why.
Something was terrible about this beautiful morning. She needed something
she could rely on, something on which she could lean and know it would be
absolutely certain, yet everything seemed insubstantial, as if the very
buildings might melt. Her heart was beating too fast and too heavily. If she had
known where to go, she would have fled but all destinations were as alien as the
present. Perhaps she should have gone to work after all. Maybe its very dullness
gave her surety.
It was a long hour till she made her way to the kiosk.
She arrived late, of course, and he was loitering with his
hand in the pockets of his cords as she approached. She noticed how her mood
changed as soon as she saw him, this dark slender boy who was so strange, so
much a law to himself and who made her feel at home.
“Hi ! Been here long ? I’ve just been looking in the shops.
I lost track of time. Did you get the bus ?”
“Isn’t it lovely today? Too nice to be working. I believe
you’ve got a job. Is it September you start ?”
Without deciding, they wandered off and as they went she
chatted, throwing out this battery of words behind which she felt safe. Words
that meant nothing. Mostly he was quiet. He listened. He nodded. He turned to
look into her eyes. He smiled in his small, quiet, crooked way. They went into
the Kardomah and sat at a dark, wooden table for two in the corner. She
stirred her coffee and rambled away, feeling all the time that the words in
their banality kept her safe. She wasn’t making contact. But every time he
looked into her eyes, her defences faltered and some spirit of surrender ran
through her which made her talk all the more while he nodded and smiled and
sipped and made the occasional comment. The coffees finished they walked through
the town, gliding into shops, flicking through records together and she at
dresses and tops.
“Oh, that’s nice ! What do you think ?”
In this way, they wasted the morning. But it was hard work,
much harder than the stupid things she had to do for Worldwide Shopping
Orders. This was life ! At last. And he was so good. The way he let her
talk and talk. His sweet little smiles. This was work for which she was properly
rewarded. Yet, just the two of them, the intensity of spending hours with him,
it was beginning to exhaust her. She felt herself running out of talk, which was
of course impossible. All else failing, she would have talked about her verrucas.
They bought a sandwich each and as they ate them in the
little cobbled side street he said:
“Fancy wandering down to the river ?”
She could have thrown her arms around his neck but she
“Yeah, I don’t mind.”
There was a park, endowed by a nineteenth century
philanthropist which sloped steeply down to the dirty river polluted by the
industry which had made the nineteenth century capitalist’s money and permitted
him to endow the town with the oasis of green in the midst of industrial black.
They had it almost to themselves. The very sight of the trees swaying sensuously
in the warm breeze made her want to take off her clothes. The idea of nature
seized hold of her. Wasn’t nature true and good ? But then she thought of the
town, so close, of Enlightenment House and all the girls working away at
idiotic tasks and her mind swam with confusion. All the same, she was here. The
park was lovely and Guy was gorgeous, sweet, funny and hers.
They lay on the steep river bank of coarse grass. What was
she doing here ? Shouldn’t she be at work ? She wondered at herself that she
could be so coolly bold to sneak the day off and then find herself anxious at
doing so. Where did that anxiety come from ?
“I love it here,” she said.
“Don’t you ?”
“Sure. It’s fine.”
“I’d like to live in the country. I almost do. We’re quite
far out. My house is down a little lane. But I’d like to live properly in the
“I don’t know.”
“Why not ?”
“I guess I would. I like the countryside. But I don’t
belong there. I feel at home in the town.”
“Do you ? But isn’t it dirty and scummy ?”
“Some of it. That’s what we’ve got to change. I’ve got a
nagging feeling about changing things.”
He was sitting up, his arms hooked round his knees
stripping long grasses with his thumbnail. She had a sudden fear that she didn’t
know him at all. What was it he wanted to change ?
He turned to pay attention to her, supporting himself on
his elbow, looking into her eyes. She was at once lifted out of her doubt but
another fear ensued. His effect on her was too swift and deep. It robbed her of
control and made her fight to regain it which gave her voice and manner a sharp
edge she didn’t intend.
“Why did you nick off work today ?” he asked.
“I get bored.”
“What with ?”
“Everything. Work is a joke. You just do the same thing
over and over and the supervisors are always on at you. I nip to the toilet for
a fag whenever I can. It’s stupid. Sometimes I just get this feeling that I
could drop everything and go off. Go off for good.”
“Go off where ?”
“God knows ! Blackpool.”
She laughed, that deep, gritty rolling laugh which he liked
because it seemed to stop at nothing.
“Wouldn’t you like to just go off ?” she said.
“Not to Blackpool.”
“St Ives,” she said. “I believe it’s great down there.”
“Have you been ?”
“No but I believe it’s great. In the summer. Lots of young
people, you know. You can get a little job and a room and enjoy the beach and
the….life. I could fancy that.”
“What about the winter ?”
“Don’t be so pessimistic.”
He was close to her and she wanted him to kiss her, but at
the same time she didn’t and when he did she was glad, yet she wondered if she
should be glad. Still, how pleasant it all was: the sunshine, the warmth, the
quiet park, the lazy day, Guy and his gentle kissing. She could have let go and
gone on falling forever, except, if you let go, where do you land? His hand was
on the meander of her waist and she liked the sense of her flesh being taken
from her. It was just the lightness she craved.
“Come on let’s walk for a bit,” she said.
They followed the disused railway line now overgrown and
bordered by wild shrubs and unruly trees. She liked it. It chimed with her
feelings. He put his arm around her waist and periodically they stopped to kiss.
She liked pressing herself against him and being held. She liked the whole
experience so much she could almost have handed herself over to him for good.
“Why did they shut this railway line ?” she said idly.
“It was Beeching.”
“Dr Beeching. They want everything on the roads.”
“Do they ?” she asked as if she cared.
“Railways are quick and safe but they don’t like them
‘cause they’re nationalised.”
“What’s that mean ?”
“The government owns them.”
“What’s wrong with that ?”
“Politics gives me a headache,” she said.
He didn’t reply and she felt his silence as a rebuke. What
was he thinking ? She was always wondering what he was thinking. It disturbed
her that he seemed to have something on his mind all the time, some secret ideas
which were forever turning over in his brain. She didn’t know anyone else like
that. Everybody was just what they were. It was odd, this quietness about him
that was remote and this thinking which he didn’t put into words, or seemed not
“You’re quiet aren’t you ?”
As soon as she’d said it she felt it was too direct. He
gave her a sideways look and smiled.
“Am I ?”
“Everybody says you are.”
“Do they ?”
She couldn’t tell if it bothered him, which infuriated her.
“We’d better go back.”
“We can carry on this way and do a loop.”
“No, it’s too far. I’m not used to walking.”
They turned their steps around and as they walked and he
put his arm round her and they kissed, she began to feel more and more flat. The
magic of the day had disappeared like a tiny puddle in the blazing midday. As
they neared the town and she heard the traffic, a heaviness of familiarity and
routine descended on her. She had a sudden desire to walk away from him, to
leave without a word but she had no idea why. Once they arrived amid the
afternoon bustle, she’d had enough. What did she want to do ? If only she knew.
She needed a fag. She wanted a drink. She would have liked to get into
bed with Guy. But he wasn’t going to do that, was he ? He wasn’t even going to
try. In that lack of eagerness she sensed an assumption. Did he think he had a
right to her ? That she was to be his for the long haul ? Why didn’t he
just try to get his hand up her skirt like other boys ? At least they weren’t
wanting to tie her down.
“What shall we do now ?” he asked.
“I’m going home,” she said bluntly. “Gonna get the bus.”
“Okay. Doing anything tomorrow night ?”
“No thanks,” she said. “I don’t want to get tied down.”
And she strode away unceremoniously.
All the way home she seethed. She hated Guy. Why ? She
didn’t know but she didn’t want to see him again. She wanted to do something
reckless. In the house she was as restless as a nest of wasps. She had to sit at
the eternal kitchen table and eat fish and chips with her mother, father and
“Pass the ketchup.”
“Get it yourself.”
She was dressed, made up and out by six thirty.
She called on her friend and they wandered to the park
where the lads hung out. Gary Gilkes was there, smoking and strutting in his
denim jacket and jeans.
“Hi Gary !”
Her merciless flirting brought sideways glances from the
other girls. She didn’t care. As a matter of fact, she didn’t care about a
thing. All she wanted was to fly in the face of everyone and everything and do
what the hell she liked. It took no more than an hour to peel Gary away from the
rest and the two of them went from the park into the dense little wood, over the
stream, into the dark mass of rhododendrons where they found a little, secluded
clearing. He stubbed his cigarette out underfoot.
“Don’t start a fire !”
“Why not ? I like starting fires.”
“Do you ? You’re bad.”
“I am bad.”
His kissed her roughly, pushing her head back as if he were
trying to break her neck.
He pulled her to the ground and within seconds was on top
of her, his hands inside her blouse and fumbling to get up her skirt.
“No ! No !”
“Why not ?”
She found it funny, his mad but incompetent rush. It was
flattering, in a crude way, and so much easier to deal with than the contained
inscrutability of Guy. Boys like Gary were as predictable as the phases of the
moon. It allowed her to fall back into a sense of control, while Guy unnerved
her and made her wonder. It was even easy to hold Gary at arm’s length. In
truth, he was a baby. A pushover.
She shoved him off, stood up and straightened herself,
feeling a little pleased with herself at her own recklessness. Defeated in what
he took to be his masculinity, Gary tried to look sure of himself and in
command. She found it inwardly hilarious but at the same time disappointing. Was
Gary, or a boy like him, her fate ? It seemed so. She wanted her fate to be
realised. If that was what had to be, let it come. Let her find out what it all
“Come on,” she said, “let’s go back to the others.”
She took Gary’s arm and began to chatter inconsequentially.
When she looked up at him she could see he was discomfited and she relished it.
But later, at home, the flatness came over her once more and she had a terrible
desire to rush at life, to have everything over with in a flurry, as if life
could be lived in the way she talked. In bed, in the few minutes before she fell
asleep, Gary seemed foolish and inadequate and she wished she’d stayed away from
Soon she was going out with him but her feelings
were always up and down. The one good thing was the sex but between one bout and
the next she was tormented by negative thoughts. And so she went on for nearly
two years till she ran into Rob Kempster and was taken by his quiet sullenness,
his curious ability to be elsewhere and his apparent undemandingness. Within a
year, she was married. Within two, she had a pair of children. She paused to
take stock. How had she got here ? Why was she married to this man ? She had a
horrible feeling she was living someone else’s life.
In this mood she went out. It was Friday. She always met
the same two friends. They crowded into The Fighting Cock and the
crack was fine. She smoked and drank and laughed till her mind switched
off, which was just the oblivion she needed. But when Guy came in, her mood
suddenly switched. She found herself intensely focused on him. The girls no
longer mattered. She hadn’t seen him for so long ! She couldn’t let this go. She
had no idea why.
In the most casual way, as if just going to the bar, she
spoke to him. Her mind raced with the new information. He was studying English
in Manchester. He was hoping to lecture. Out of these snippets she built the
picture of his life. It appealed to her. The high seriousness of his reading.
The quiet application. The remoteness from vulgarity. She decided she was going
to seduce him.
Although she was very nearly wide-eyed and legless,
as she liked to say, she composed herself. She struggled to keep her speech
clear and steady. She tried not to sway or stagger.
“I’m bored in here now,” she said.
“Are you ?”
“Yeah, I think I’ll go home. You wouldn’t walk me to the
taxi rank would you ?”
Once outside she quickly began to be suggestive enough to
leave him in no doubt.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to walk by the river now,” and she
hoped he’d remember the day.
So they did. They stood side by side on the narrow
footbridge and heard the swirling river below. They walked the paths they’d
walked before she was married. They held hands. He put his arm round her waist.
They kissed. And finally she was on her back, her skirt bunched up round her
midriff, her white knickers hanging from her left ankle while he made hurried
love to her in fear of being disturbed. There followed months of frenzied
deception, rushed encounters, desperate pledges, tormented farewells, ecstatic
love-making, convoluted scheming, terrible frozen hours at home in the presence
of the bemused Rob who saw what he had taken for granted disappearing for no
reason he could understand, searing rows which created an atmosphere so
potentially murderous no tender reconciliation could ensue, and finally a sense
of decline and defeat as she and Guy realised their lives were heading in
She caught the train to Manchester one evening and they met
in the Sawyers Arms. Usually, they would go straight to his room.
“Are we staying here then ?” she asked.
“I think so.”
It was awful to think of the journey home alone on the
train but far worse to imagine entering the house, closing the door and knowing
never again would she hurriedly leave, almost run to the station and get on the
train to love, away from boredom, flatness and passionless routine.
Those things we really need to say require such discipline
of expression they are seldom said, so they talked in desultory, meaningless
circles for a hour.
“Shall I come on Friday ?”
“I think it’d be better if you didn’t.”
“Do you not want me to come any more, then ?”
The question was so direct and naïve, he couldn’t reply. On
the train home, she had to hide her tears.
She embarked on an odd phase of chasing men, as if the very
machinations of adultery were enough to provoke love. But it got her nothing but
inadequate affairs and humiliation. She had to make her peace with Rob, to keep
going as best she could, until they were unable to share the same house and she
took the children to her mother’s. It was very strange to be home after
such a short, hectic, confusing emotional journey.
Now, she was a grandmother and her daughter was divorced.
She had just seen the man whom, she felt, might have been the husband she should
have had, cross the road as casually as a cloud crosses the sky and disappear
into Marks and Spencer. She was pushing her granddaughter through the
streets and the thought came to her that this child might also grow up to
experience divorce, strife and confusion.
She went into her favourite café.
The child was happy with an ice-cream float. Linda
lit a cigarette. She must give up. She had given up so many times. She was a
grandmother the wrong side of fifty and a part of her past had just risen from
out of nowhere and overturned her feelings. She had that old, odd sense that she
was living out someone else’s experience. Alice was making a glorious mess.
“Oh, look at you ! Let grandma give you a wipe.”
Everyone said the child looked just like her grandmother,
and it was true. There was something solid, something real, something
that, surely, was meant to be. Was it all meant to be ? Could it have been
different ? She had a moment of panic which she calmed by fussing over the
child. She drew on her cigarette. Surely it could have been otherwise? She could
have seen the real value in Guy. She could have stayed with him, married him,
she could have been his lifelong wife. The idea sustained her, for a few
seconds. Then at once, on it heels, came the question: why hadn’t she ? If she
could go back, wouldn’t she just do exactly the same again ? Wasn’t that the
awful truth ? Wasn’t that the terrible truth of life ?
“Goodness, Alice ! What a sight ! Come on, let’s go and
wash those hands.”
She walked the child to the ladies, ran the water over her
sticky fingers, washed the sugary residue away from her mouth.
“Come on, sweetheart, time to go !”
She walked briskly through the familiar town. This was her
life. This tiny, brief spell of unavoidable mistakes. If only she could explain
to her grandchild. If only the young could experience life like the ageing. If
only the old could relive their youth. But it was all impossible and awful. She
been driven though her own life as if a hand placed between her shoulder blades
had pushed her every inch of the way. She strode on, determined, wanting to make
a difference, hoping that any second she might bump into Guy.
Politics had never been of much
interest to Bill Gowdy. Brought up in a Tory household, educated at Ampleforth,
he found no reason to put the beliefs that sustained his privilege and
pre-eminence in question. But at the age of fourteen his father, an energetic
and thrusting little barrister with a thick head of dark hair, the fixed eyes of
a fanatic, an almost permanent little smile and a sharp impatience with people
who didn’t take their opportunities and get on in life, had a heart attack. For
twenty-four hours it looked as if he wouldn’t come through. What would happen ?
There was insurance of course, but the family prepared for the worst. His wife
had no career or training. There would have to be restraint. The big house would
have to be sold. Bill would have to be taken out of school. It sent a terrible
shock through the boy who had always believed such tragedies happened to
other people. He felt somewhat guilty and ashamed to have a sick father. His
rational mind told him anyone can get sick, but it made no difference. He had a
horrible fear he was going to fall among the poor. It took hold of his thoughts
and grew into exaggerated fantasies of rented accommodation where the water ran
down the peeling flower-patterned wallpaper chosen by the sneering landlord who
stood in the darkness on the step, a cigarette hanging from his lips demanding
the arrears; of a school full of roughnecks who would taunt him for being a toff;
of holidays in cheap resorts where tattooed, hard-drinking fathers lay on the
sands reading The Daily Mirror, their huge beer bellies bulging
threateningly above their cheap trunks. He couldn’t stop his mind. His thoughts
raced away and he woke in the night, his heart like a mad, trapped bird in his
chest. He prayed for his father to pull through. And god must have been
All the same, there was to be
serious and dangerous surgery.
The private health insurance
didn’t cover it and “Foxy” Gowry had to fall back on the NHS. The first time
Bill went to visit his father in the public hospital, he expected the worst: a
dirty, smelly place where coughing, wheezing sickly people, the unclean and
nasty poor of his fervid imagination were living out their last, sad and
worthless days. When he found it to be modern, efficient and the staff friendly,
brisk and hard-working he underwent one of those small adjustments in thinking
which neurotics always take for spectacular conversions. Coming at that time
when intelligent young people start to ask questions about the world about them,
it jolted him into finding out why the society outside his own, narrow, private
enclave proved to be much less threatening and vile than he’d thought. He found
out about the NHS and was thrown into confusion: it had been established by
socialists ! This was a discovery as overwhelming as a child’s first
intimations of the dark world of sexuality. Vaguely, he had imagined socialists
to be vicious, wicked people, no better than thieves, underhand, sly, wretched
people whose business it was to pillage the wealth of hard-working, respectable
men like his father. But they had created the National Health Service !
They had built hospitals ! And without those hospitals, what would have happened
to his father ? It was terrible ! The world had exceeded his conception of it
and his brain was thrown into turmoil. As his father slowly recovered and was
able to walk a few steps, as his strength increased by minute degrees daily, as
he became capable of eating with a little relish and was, eventually, able to
potter around the garden and pull up the odd weed, Bill strained his entire
mental capacity to comprehend what he’d discovered, to find a way of
accommodating these unruly facts to his neat conceptions.
He was watching, on Top of the
Pops, a recording of The Beatles playing I Feel Fine, which
had just hit number one, when the revelation came to him: weren’t The Beatles
from modest backgrounds in Liverpool, after all ? And wasn’t Liverpool full of
the poor ? And weren’t they now amazingly rich ! That was it ! That was
how the circle could be squared ! There was no contradiction ! The
socialists had been right to build hospitals, but what were the hospitals for
? They were to help people get on in the world. They were to keep people
healthy so they could get on with making money ! It calmed his troubled
thoughts as surely as any tranquiliser. It no longer seemed terrible that the
socialists had created a publicly funded health system. They were wrong. They
thought they were building a new world. They thought business and social
provision were at odds. But Bill had worked out that social provision needed to
be run on business lines. Its purpose, after all, was to make business more
The following term ( his family
having scraped together the money to keep him there) there was a mock election
at school. He stood as the Tory candidate and argued till it made him sweat the
obvious case for public services run as businesses. He won magnificently.
It was pleasant to be a school
celebrity but his interest in politics evaporated as rapidly as it had arisen.
The earth had resumed its steady course through the heavens after his
reconciliation of the claims of money and justice. What truly interested him was
Hollywood. He was a great fan of Rock Hudson who embodied for him the
possibility of inordinate fame on the basis of minimal talent and moderate
effort. He auditioned for the part of Hamlet in the school play but was given
the role of Laertes. He dried twice and complained the role was too petty for
“I was bored, I mean, Hamlet, you
can get your teeth into. You’ve got to know your lines. But Laertes,
well, who’s going to notice ?”
“Well, I noticed, Bill,” replied
“The point is, you know, if you’re
the star you’ve got to perform !”
He joined an amateur group when he
was at home during the holidays, but was wooden and unable to get into
character. Like all people who are stupid about theatre, or performance of any
kind, he thought acting was merely showing off, an activity for thoughtless
extroverts, and in every role, was unable to conceal his personality. It
convinced him he should be a film actor. He’d read an interview with a
minor English cinema star who’d said working in films wasn’t really acting, more
a form of behaviour. The problem was how to break in.
Inevitably he went to Oxford and
inevitably he studied Law. For a dangerous moment he thought of taking English
so he could get to know the history of the theatre, but what if he didn’t make
it in films ? At least as a barrister he could earn plenty, even if fame avoided
him. These two sirens, money and fame, drew him with their seductive music and
he was helpless, but like an alcoholic enslaved by the bottle he strongly
protested his freedom of choice and was convinced that what ensnared him was his
liberation. So, driven by compulsions he had no insight about, he sought out
students who were into film. There was a funny, dark-haired, bespectacled
little guy from Manchester who wanted to imitate the social realism of
Saturday Night And Sunday Morning and A Taste Of Honey. He’d hustled
money, made a few shorts and told everyone he was going to be a new Tony
“Hey, Gary, if you’re looking for
actors, I’m your man !” said Bill smiling widely as he always did without
“Can you act ?” said Gary
furrowing his brow and pushing his glasses up his nose.
Bill despised him instinctively
and felt, therefore, all the more comfortable about making use of him.
“Sure, I’ve acted in all kinds of
“Such as ?” said Gary, screwing up
his face a little and pushing the big, black heavy glasses once more.
“Well, I’ve done Hamlet for
example. And comedy. I was in The Way Of The World.”
“Did you play Hamlet ?”
Bill was about to tell the truth
but realised it would show him in a poor light. What did it matter ? He was
convinced he could play the role. To tell the truth would diminish his
opportunities, which was a guileless attitude to life. Everyone had to present
themselves as best they could. That wasn’t really lying. It was the way life
“Of course !” and he smiled that
big, empty smile which was the shield behind which into he went into battle.
On the basis of this interview,
Gary gave him a part. He’d written a script about a hard-drinking, Labour
backbencher trapped between his socialist principles and his ambition who has to
condemn a strike by low-paid, female workers in his constituency in order to
retain a chance of promotion. Bill was to play the owner of the small business,
a jumped-up, self-made man who plies the collapsing MP with food and
drink. He was useless. Gary emerged from behind the camera.
“Don’t look at the lens, Bill.”
“You keep looking right at the
lens. It’s fundamental. Get into character and stay in character.”
Bill had no idea how to get
into character. He just spoke the lines as he thought the factory owner
might, and hoped for the best. He wanted to be a star, and the essence of
stardom was, of course, empty adulation. What did the masses know about acting ?
They loved Rock Hudson because he was handsome, enviable, rich and smooth. Bill
wanted to be loved in the same way. He craved the fawning admiration of
millions, of those ill-educated, easily-duped hordes whose emotions could be
engaged in support of almost any delusion if they were expertly flattered and
cajoled. If he’d had the least talent for music, he would have become a pop
star. But even three-chord, three-minute nursery rhymes defeated his tin ear.
“Can you stop smiling, Bill,” said
Gary in exasperation.
“You’re smiling. That huge smile.
It’s just getting in the way.”
“But don’t you think I’d be
smiling ? I’m a successful man.”
“You’re a bastard, Bill.” Gary
very much enjoyed speaking those words.
The filming went on for seven
weeks at odd moments caught between lectures and supervisions. When Gary ran the
cuts, he held his head in his hands.
“He can’t act to save his bloody
“Didn’t you know ?” asked his
He turned to look at her.
“He told me he’d done lots of
stage work. Hamlet and all sorts of stuff.”
“He’d say anything to get what he
“The little cunt,” said Gary
watching the passing frames of his ruined film.
He stopped them and ran them
again. There was something about Bill that fascinated him. He was appalled by
his own fascination but he couldn’t stop watching him.
“Who does he remind me of ?” he
wondered out loud.
“John Wayne ?” said Annie.
“John Wayne could act, at least a
“Yeah, but he was always John
“No, it’s not an actor,” said
Gary. “Look, that gesture, and the way he can’t stop preening. Look how he holds
his arms slightly out from his body and puffs up his chest. See ! He
deliberately gives himself an athletic demeanour. But it’s entirely phoney.”
He ran the film back again.
“Did you see that ? Look how he
raises his chin, as if he’s looking into far distances. As if he’s addressing a
“Nuremburg,” she said with a
He stopped on a frame showing Bill
with his chest raised and his head aloft like a well-fed Trafalgar Square
“I’ve got it !” he said.
They ran through the frames over
and over and stopped on those which revealed Bill in his clearest pose.
“Amazing !” she said.
“Power,” said Gary, “that’s what
he’s interested in. He hasn’t got the faintest notion about acting.”
Gary was so fascinated by the
similarity, he found stills of the strutting fascist to compare. He even managed
to get hold of some old footage.
“So, how’s the editing coming
along ?” said Bill with a big smile.
“The editing’s had it,” said Gary.
“Why’s that ?”
“Useless. The whole thing’s
“Are we going to do something else
“What makes you think you’re an
actor ?” said Gary looking him in the eye and taking a swig of his beer.
“Hollywood is the great love of my
life ! Films mean everything to me.”
“You know what Brando said about
“That it has no hold over him
because it runs on fear and love of money and he doesn’t love money and isn’t
afraid of anyone.”
“That’s great !” said Bill,
“It takes a long time to learn to
act,” said Gary with a hint of dismissiveness in his voice.
“I know. I’m on a learning curve,”
“I’m not doing anything in the
near future that’ll have a part for you,” said Gary.
“Okay. That’s okay.”
It was anything but. Bill couldn’t
find his way into anything other than petty roles. At auditions he was offered
walk-on parts which he refused on the grounds they wouldn’t teach him anything.
He was beginning to feel he might have to give up his ambition when he realised
his mistake. What he needed was control. He needed to be in power. If he ran his
own film-making company, he could take the plum roles for himself. He applied
for every penny of available funding and got together just over two thousand. It
was barely enough to make a start but his break came when he met Elliot Day.
Tall and gangly with a little Trotsky beard, a hangover from his fervent
sixth-form Marxism, long, blonde hair in a pony tail and an odd, convoluted way
of talking which made it difficult for him to finish a sentence, Day was the son
of a tycoon who’d made his fortune in holiday camps and cheap flights. Even
among the privileged of Oxford, he was exceptionally rich. Like Bill, he’d tried
acting and found himself hopeless, but fascinated by performance and stardom saw
himself as an impresario.
“Hey, listen, I’ve got this idea
for a movie,” Bill felt that movie gave more of an authentic feel to the
project. “It’s about a guy who has a heart attack in his mid-forties and is on
the verge of losing his career but who climbs back and makes it to the top of
“What is his profession ?” said
“I haven’t decided that yet. But,
you know, it’s a typically British story. Coming through against all the odds.
It’s full of British values which should make it a big hit.”
“Yeah, but how do we….I was
thinking….you know casting and…..well there’s a lot…..it’s not easy….at least I
“Don’t worry, I’ve got lots of
experience,” said Bill.
He appeared so confident and
knowledgeable, Elliot was convinced. He might have been convinced by the fairy
from the top of the Christmas tree, so urgent was his desire to make a start.
He lavished money on the project
from the account provided him by his father. Bill cast himself as the star and
director. Having no idea how to make a film, he relied on the cameraman, a
diligent and competent chemist whose obsession was photography and who kept
things going when the cast were at loggerheads, the script passing through its
thirtieth re-write and Bill strutting round the set as if he was about to
conquer Asia. The grandiosity of the scheme together with the hopelessness of
its conception, ensured it absorbed money like a neophyte assimilates dogma. But
as the conviction of the economically naïve is that whatever requires great
expenditure must be of great value, they pressed on in the firm belief that
Eisenstein himself had never done better. Day hired a cinema. They pitched the
price of the tickets at the market rate. Thirty three people turned up in
addition to those whose arms had been twisted. Seventeen of them walked out
before the end.
“The problem is, people have no
appreciation of art !” said Bill.
“We should make a blockbuster,”
So they did.
It cost Day £237,000. Its
box-office came to £684.70.
He moved his money out of film and
The failure threw Bill into a
gloomy mood, for ten minutes. Then he realised it was a sign ! He’d always
believed God moved in mysterious ways. It wasn’t that he’d failed. He
hadn’t misconceived the project and overestimated his abilities.
No, it was that God needed him elsewhere. The thought cheered him and raised him
to that level of invincible elation which made him so charming, so plausible and
so dangerous. He went about with a sense of absence: he was called but he didn’t
know the purpose. All the same, it was reassuring to know he was chosen.
As soon as he’d graduated he found
himself chambers. His father, now fully recovered and earning well was
delighted to fund his pupillage. Bill forged ahead with his career, imitating
his father’s bluster, pushing aside all difficulties like a snowplough. Was he
going to spend his life as a barrister ? Despite the theatricality of the
courtroom, he felt disappointed at the thought. He could make himself rich but
he would never be famous outside the narrow circle of his profession. The
nagging sense of being summoned by God only to spend his days as an obscure
advocate left him with a feeling of waste. It seemed to him the world was
divided between the big people and the little people. The big people were made
for the big things and the little people for the little things. In his innermost
thoughts, he couldn’t help despising the little people. They had to exist, of
course, more or less. And they had to get on with their little lives, but they
were impossible to admire. Only the few big people with money and power were
truly worthy of admiration. He was tormenting himself with thoughts of how he
might become one of the truly big people when he met Aimee.
What appealed to him when he first
spoke to her was her curious smile. It was most definitely not a smile of
happiness. On the contrary, it seemed distorted and concealing, as if behind it
was a disdain for people altogether. Her father was a minor rock star who’d
lived the requisite chaotic life, recovered from an addiction or two and
fathered eight children, none of whom he’d raised. Bill thought this glamorous.
“Hey, why don’t we have a bit of
lunch together today?”
He took her to a pub where the
chef knew Mick Jagger. In the hubbub of the business lunchtime, Bill felt at the
centre of things. This was London. These were people who worked in the City.
This was where money was moved around and the world shaped like a vase in a
potter’s hands. He loved the feeling of being among the people who matter just
as he feared the world of the little people, those insignificant lives that
brought him a feeling of faint disgust.
“So it must have been exciting
growing up with a famous dad !”
“Not really. I hardly ever saw
him. I was brought up by my mum.”
“What did she do ?”
“She was a school cleaner.”
Bill almost choked on his filet
“That must’ve been hard,” he said,
“We lived in a flat over a
bookmakers. It was grotty as hell. But my dad paid the fees for me to go to
private school. That was the only good part of my life.”
“That’s great ! He did the right
thing. Which school was it?”
“St Agnes’s Catholic School For
She looked up from her smoked
salmon and he raised his eyebrows and smiled in spite of his disappointment that
she’d been to a non-descript place.
“I thrived there,” she went on,
“because I was clever, but they hated me for my socialism.”
Bill concentrated on his steak.
“Yes, I suppose they would,” he
“We were poor as buggery and
poverty makes you feel lousy. My mother did her bit for the Labour Party so I
joined as soon as I was old enough.”
“Yeah, that’s great.”
“What about you ?”
“I went to Ampleforth,” he
She looked at him blankly and he
felt de trop.
“I was nearly expelled for ragging
the teachers !” he blurted.
“Were you ?” she said palely.
The more they got to know one
another the more Bill felt they would make a fine couple. The problem of her
socialism disturbed him for a few months but then it dawned on him it might
provide just the opportunity he needed. She was eager to stand for parliament,
having a barrister’s easy way in advocacy, but Bill could see her old-style
Labourism was impotent against rampant Thatcherism. He admired Thatcher. Wasn’t
she right after all that unions were malevolent organisations? Bill couldn’t see
trade union leaders as other than stupid. The way forward was to bring the
dynamism of the business world into the public sector. The notion of a struggle
of contending class interests seemed to him absurd. There were little people and
big people and workers were obviously little people. To try to behave like big
people was to subvert the natural order. He despised unions and the idea of
workers’ struggle. All that was needed was a sensible framework of rights. That
workers should stand up for themselves was madness. All the paraphernalia of
banners and galas and sentimental solidarity made him sick. People must get on
as individuals not huddle together for protection. Getting on as an individual,
he believed, was the best way to help the community. But Aimee still talked the
old socialism. He felt his opportunity lay in the gap in the political market: a
new brand, a politics in tune with people’s desire to make their own
choices in the market, a politics that would make the public services function
like a supermarket, a recognition, finally, that capitalism is the natural order
to which everyone must submit.
So he joined The Labour Party
because he despised it and he worked hard to secure a parliamentary seat because
he wanted to wipe socialism off the political agenda.
Meanwhile, he and Aimee grew
closer and spent more and more time together. Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts came
to their wedding, invited by Aimee’s father and Bill, who couldn’t keep away
from anyone famous, was almost more thrilled by this than by the fact of being
While Michael Foot, a civilized
literary intellectual at sea in the maelstrom of the vicious, gutter politics of
the early eighties, fought to keep the Labour Party from disintegration, Bill
and Aimee each contested a by-election in a no-hope constituency. Though he
hated canvassing for his wife, Bill loathed much more the humiliation of
failure. He received two thousand four hundred and seven votes out of nearly
“But we have to stand in these
seat,” said Aimee. “We must have a national presence.”
“Of course !” said Bill with a big
smile. “But once is enough. Next time I’m going for a safe seat.”
He didn’t agree that a presence in
every seat was important. Those old ideas about giving all Labour supporters a
chance to vote struck him as foolish and sentimental. What appealed to him was
electoral arithmetic. Most votes made no difference. In particular most
Labour votes made no difference. He looked on the old Labour heartlands
where millions cast their votes almost in their sleep with a slight sneer, as at
a bad smell. What mattered were the few votes in the small cluster of seats
whose results settle elections, and these were predominantly middle-class . The
road to power lay in skewing every policy towards the interests of the
comfortable. When he told his wife this she said:
“But what about the traditional
Labour supporters ?”
With a slight curl of the lip he
“They’ve no-one else to vote for.”
Being an Oxford graduate and a
barrister, he found it easy to get his name on the list of favoured candidates.
The Labour Party, supposedly committed to bringing to parliament men and women
from the least economically favoured sections of society, was in thrall to the
quasi-mystical overtones of the resonant names of private schools and Oxbridge
colleges. Above all, Bill understood, it believed in ability. In the dull
branch and district and constituency meetings he attended to try to convince
people he supported party democracy, he was astonished at how often local
councillors or petty party officials would raise the issue of ability. With his
vulgar capacity for exploitation of common ignorance, he saw this as an
opportunity: because Labour Party members and supporters understood the
tightness of the political struggle, they sensibly wanted competent people as
leaders; but this tipped into a fond over-estimation of those who could talk
glibly and strut with confidence. These people were easy meat. Not to take
advantage of them would be a crime.
“What do you do?” he asked a young
woman during a gathering in the pub after a branch meeting.
“I’m a nurse,” she said.
He looked into her face that was
lifted towards him and without thinking he said:
“Isn’t that very badly paid ?”
“I don’t do it for the money.”
“Of course not !” and his face
broke into its usual
wide, unconvincing smile. “Excuse
It baffled him how people lived on
such low incomes. What was wrong with them ? He had difficulty imagining them
constrained by circumstances they hadn’t created. Their low economic status
was their identity. Could it be anything but fixed and necessary ? This idea
wouldn’t let go of him. It must be true that society is a sorting
mechanism which allots people to their rightful place. How else could the
gradations, the inequalities, the huge discrepancies be accounted for ? But what
then was the meaning of justice ? It could only be to give everyone a chance and
to allow the strong to prevail. As for the weak, he wasn’t opposed to preventing
them falling into destitution, but the idea of equality was alien to him. He
relished inequality. It provided the incentive to the big people, to people like
himself. He wanted to be a millionaire, to own a fine house in one of the select
areas of London, to be forever in the company of the famous and powerful. Wasn’t
that what everyone wanted and wasn’t talk of equality mere sour grapes ? He was
overwhelmed by a desire to press ahead. He felt himself chosen. He had the
feeling there was nothing he couldn’t do.
When a safe constituency in the
north became available, he felt fate was calling him.
There was a democratic rigmarole.
“Why do we have to waste so much
time on this nonsense,” he said to Aimee.
“Things have to be done properly,
Bill. People have a right to their say.”
“I know, I know.”
But it frustrated him terribly.
At the first branch meeting there
were seven members: a councillor in her seventies who had held her seat, despite
reorganisation and redrawn boundaries, since 1945, who had met Nye Bevan and
whose husband was a cousin of Mannie Shinwell; a local official of ASLEF who was
in the chair, one of those salt of the earth Trade Unionists who left
school at fifteen and had found in the Labour movement a chance for
responsibility denied him elsewhere; a middle-class, professional couple in
their thirties who felt embarrassed by their parents socialism but couldn’t
quite bring themselves to leave the Party and were hoping for a new settlement
in which their vulgar materialism wouldn’t be disdained; a somewhat demented
looking man of about fifty with wild hair and foam at the corners of his mouth
who twitched like a sparrow and raised constant points of order until the
chairman threatened to have him removed; a fresh-faced girl of about seventeen,
full of idealism and enthusiasm and still naïve enough to imagine the world
would thank her for it; and a quiet, thoughtful, intellectual-looking man of
thirty who unnerved Bill immediately by his poise and self-possession.
He had to introduce himself and
put his case. These people would decide the nomination and the more branches
behind him, the better his chances. He shook hands, he smiled broadly, he
explained why he wanted to stand:
“I wasn’t born in the Labour
Party,” he said, “I chose it.”
He thought this a clever and
“What I believe in,” he insisted,
pressing his four fingers against the pad of this thumb and forcing his hand
forward, “is community. A community that is strong and supports the individual.
You see, there’s no contradiction between the two. We must promote the
individual by building strong communities.”
The elderly councillor nodded
sagely, the professional couple smiled complaisantly, the wild man took notes,
the young girl batted her eyelashes and the intellectual fixed Bill with his
clear stare. When it came to questions, they were feeble and undemanding and he
rose to the full heights of his barrister’s glib eloquence which cost him so
little and behind which there was neither thought nor conviction. Until the
“Mr Gowdy, I look at your CV. You
were educated in an expensive private school, you went to Oxford, you became a
barrister. We’re socialists here. What does socialism mean to you ?”
“Well !” said Bill smiling widely.
The intellectual looked at him
“You see,” said the candidate
“it’s the social in socialism that means something to me. Community.
Strong. Strong communities, strong individuals.”
“Sure,” interrupted the
intellectual, “but your private school was a community, and no doubt a strong
one. What it did was to turn out people who believe it’s their right to rule the
world. Just evoking community doesn’t get us very far. The people who vote
Labour in this town don’t send their kids to fancy schools. Most of their kids
won’t get near a university. Average earnings here are below the national level.
Unemployment is high. What are you going to do, Mr Gowdy, to help the folk at
the bottom ? You’re a clever man. You’re a lawyer. No doubt you see yourself in
government. Well, what would you do in a practical way to help the poorest
people in this town ?”
“Look,” said Bill, “I’m a straight
kind of guy. We’ve got to win elections. You can’t win elections by representing
the poor. There aren’t enough of them. You’ve got to….”
“You don’t need to patronise us,
Mr Gowdy. We know how hard it is to win elections. We’re the foot soldiers. We
knock on the doors. We turn the vote out for local by-elections on rainy nights
in February. But we win elections for a reason. Because we’re socialists. We
believe in equality. Equality isn’t without its costs, but we believe it’s
essential. People are made by their circumstances. All ideas and values are
social. Inequality is social and because it’s socially created it can be
socially cured. We think it needs to be cured because inequality humiliates
people. What we want to know is what you will do to promote equality and
democracy because those are the things we believe in.”
“I don’t,” piped the professional
woman. “I mean, I do but only to an extent. I want a society where people can
“That’s right !” said Bill.
“People have got to get on. We don’t want destitution, but we’ve got to embrace
“What’s wrong with the aspiration
to equality ?” asked the intellectual.
“We don’t want the Soviet Union,”
responded the professional woman.
“You see, it’s not our business to
punish the rich…”
“It’s a matter of arithmetic, Mr
Gowdy,” interrupted the intellectual. “This is a wealthy country but if some
folk have hundreds of millions, others will be lucky to have a hundred a week.
It’s just arithmetic.”
“But if people have worked for
their money,” said the professional woman.
The spat ran on for a few minutes
until the chairman moved progress. There were four other candidates. The
nomination went to Bill, four in favour and three against.
He had to go through eleven of
these tediums and at each one his sense that these people were easy to
manipulate grew. It seemed progressively more absurd to him that anyone could
imagine them capable of taking, or being involved in, decisions of any
magnitude. What democracy meant was merely their right elect those better than
themselves, who should make such decisions; but then it seemed to him hardly
worth the trouble. As they must inevitably be ruled by their betters did it
really matter which ? Wouldn’t the outcome be more or less the same if their
betters were left to get on with things ? He realised this was the genius of
democracy as he and his kind practised it: the masses were provided the illusion
of participation, while in fact the big people ran the world as they liked.
Eight of the eleven branches
nominated him. He was a private school toff with virtually nothing in common
with these people. They lived little lives in small places. Their existence was
defined by insignificance. Yet, overwhelmingly they had chosen him to go
forward. Wasn’t that proof enough of the inevitable, the eternal, the natural
election of his kind ? In addition, one of the branch secretaries had
volunteered to be his agent if he won the final nomination. David Collier joined
the Party at sixteen. Coming from a mining family and winning a place a Grammar
School, he’d gone to training college and become a woodwork teacher. It was
bliss to him to be in the workshop with the lads and later, the girls. He loved
their skill and their simple enthusiasm. To teach a rough lad who was forever in
trouble to make a neat dovetail joint seemed to him a form of redemption and
many of his pupils had gone on to be hard-working highly trained men and women
and responsible, happy parents. This was his vision of socialism. It was a form
of love. The vicious power struggle of politics was alien to his nature. With
enough goodwill the world could be made beautiful and the most recalcitrant
character turned to generosity and beneficence. He was impatient with theory,
had never been able to read more than a few paragraphs of Marx, but he knew that
poverty and exclusion hurt his people and like a good child who brings a posy of
flowers to his upset mother, he wanted to heal the grievance.
“The Party has to change,” Bill
said to him. “Militant must be expelled and people must be made to see what the
real choices are.”
“That’s right,” replied David.
“We’ve had enough of that nonsense in Liverpool.”
To him, Bill seemed
straightforward. He was clever and affable and full of thrusting energy.
“You’ll be lucky though,” he said.
“We don’t elect posh folk up here. All our candidates are working lads and
lasses. We like trade unionists and people who know what it’s like to struggle
through from week to week.”
“Well, I’ll need your help then !”
and Bill broke into that wide, toothy smile which had always been his defence
At the constituency meeting to
make the final selection there were four candidates. Apart from Bill they were
local, working-class and convinced a Labour government must tax the rich more,
spend more on public services, strengthen the influence of trade unions, extend
democracy, negotiate nuclear weapons out of existence and make aid and
development the cornerstones of foreign policy. Bill believed the rich should be
left alone, public services must prove their worth, the trade unions must be
shuned, democracy is a simple convenience, nuclear weapons keep the west safe
and Britain must fall in line with the USA in order to maintain its global
influence. If he spoke his mind plainly, he didn’t have a chance.
“Change !” he declared. “We must
have change. Strong communities, strong individuals. The majority not the few.
Efficient, modern public services.”
David Collier counted heads. He
knew every member and how they would vote and he knew his man was doomed unless
he could sway them. He sat in the middle of the hall on an uncomfortable plastic
chair. Around him were people he’d known all his life. He liked all of them,
even those he knew to be unpleasant. These were his people. He wanted to do the
best for them. Was it the best to select Bill ? He had a moment of mental agony
when he wondered if he was giving his support to a shallow opportunist; but it
dissipated quickly as he imagined his man taking his place in government.
Wouldn’t that be good for these people ? Didn’t they deserve an M.P. with real
influence ? Wouldn’t it raise their self-esteem to know their man was in the
Cabinet ? Looking to his left he met the eyes of Liam Higham. He’d heard about
the awkward questions he’d put to Bill at his branch. Liam was straight and a
clear thinker. David trusted and admired him, but this time he thought he was
wrong because the choice was the same old rhetoric and electoral failure or
something new and catchy and electoral success. What was the point of all this
effort if power wasn’t the result ? He’d been humiliated by 1979 and he knew an
even deeper humiliation was on the way. The only thing that mattered was to win.
The only unforgivable thing was defeat. Was he betraying his people ? Part of
him felt it was terrible to support a slick, private-school outsider whose
vocabulary simply didn’t include socialism or equality; but a greater part of
him wanted victory so badly, wanted merely to see Downing St occupied by someone
associated with Labour that he would have renounced his own faith in socialism
to achieve it. He stood up.
“Friends ! We have a momentous
decision to make today. A decision which may have implications far wider than
this constituency. I believe today we can change the course of our party’s
history. We have a candidate who can be much more than just our M.P.. I have
here a note,” and he waved a paper, Chamberlain-like, “ a note from Michael
Foot. Don’t we all trust him ? Don’t we all admire him ? Isn’t he a man of
principle ? Don’t we have faith in his honesty and his judgement? Well, this is
what he says: I believe Bill Gowdy should play a major role in the future of
the Labour Party. Friends, if Michael Foot puts his faith in Bill Gowdy,
shouldn’t we ? Let’s look a little further than our own back yard. Let’s choose
the man who can take his place on the Labour front bench. I urge you, vote for
He sat down, his heart pounding.
He knew from the attentiveness of the faces turned towards him he’d done enough.
He looked down at the note Michael Foot had penned. It read: I believe Bill
Gowdy could be an asset to the Party.
His man won the nomination by two
Outside, in the chilly dark Bill
shook his hand vigorously.
“Thanks for that, David. That was
“Forget it. But just make sure you
help us back to power.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t let you
down,” said Bill. “And did Michael Foot really write that about me?”
“More or less,” said David
screwing up the note in his pocket.
Bill’s taxi arrived to take him to
the railway station and back to London where his future lay. He shook David’s
“We’ve a long journey ahead,” he
“Aye, and let the destination be
Bill slammed the door and sat back
in the leather seat of the old black cab. He was glowing inwardly with the sense
of his own success. Once more he felt justified in his conviction that the
destiny of the world should be in the hands of the few like himself. The big
people. His thoughts ran ahead of him. He was sure of a seat in parliament, now
he needed to hustle for a shadow cabinet job. Perhaps, in the long run, with a
bit of luck, he could bid for the leadership and turn the Labour Party once and
for all away from socialism and its delusion of equality. He felt inordinately
sure of himself, capable of almost anything, and as the cab sped on through the
insignificant streets, was without the least inkling of the cataclysm that lay
THANK GOD FOR AMERICA
When the Americans invaded Vietnam, John Shelley felt
immensely relieved. He was twenty-three and in the first year of his study for a
Phd in Physics. Spending long hours in the laboratory and slaving over
calculations which made his head ache ( like Einstein, he wasn’t particularly
gifted at maths), puzzling away at the behaviour of electrons, he found escape
in his fervent religion. He was a Congregationalist because that was the
denomination he’d been raised in. As a matter of fact, his mother was a
Methodist, but as there was no church close to home, she took her son to the
next best. When he was six she bought him an illustrated Bible on the flyleaf of
which she wrote in biro : To John, with love from Mummy, March 1947.
It sat on his shelf among his impossibly difficult Physics books. Now and again
he would take it down, look at the pictures, remembering how the vivid colours
and simple shapes had appealed to him as a boy, read a verse or two, scan the
inscription and return it with a lump in his throat. It reminded him of how
simple and clean the world had once been. Now the free world, the Christian
world, was fighting for its survival against atheisitic communism. Thank God, he
said to himself, for America.
“You know,” he said to his girlfriend Diane, “we should try
to get bibles to those poor communists.”
“Which poor communists ?”
“All communists, I suppose. But I was thinking of the
communists in Vietnam. They’ve been brain-washed. If only we could get Bibles to
them, they would see the light and lay down their arms.”
“Well, they might. But how do we get bibles to Vietnam?
It’s a long way from Manchester, John.”
But John wasn’t going to be defeated by mere distance. He
was a Physicist, after all. He was used to dealing in unconscionable figures. A
few thousand miles were easily traversed thanks to modern technology. It was
merely a matter of having the will. He put it to the members of his
little bible group who met every Thursday evening at St Ann’s.
“We need to raise the money to buy bibles. In bulk they’ll
be cheap. Then all we need is a contact group in South Vietnam and we can fly
them out there.”
“But how do we know they’ll get to the North ?”
“We have to put our faith in the people at the other end.
If they’re devout Christians, they’ll find a way.”
“But you know there’s religious intolerance in the South.
The Buddhists have a hard time.”
“What’s that to do with us ?” said John.
“Well, we’re for religious tolerance aren’t we ?”
“Yes,” said John. “But we’re Christians.”
“We don’t want to see Buddhists persecuted do we ?”
“Of course not, but Buddhism isn’t going to save the world
“Is that the brief of Christianity ?”
“Communists are atheists. If they take over the world, the
Devil will have won.”
“They aren’t going to take over the world, John. Not even
Stalin believed he could do that.”
“It’s the domino theory. One country falls and many others
follow. It’s our duty to stop them.”
“Well, I think this is getting paranoid. Really.”
“They’re trying to take over Vietnam !” declared John.
“But look at the history. Vietnam has been under foreign
rule for centuries. And the French treated the Vietnamese appallingly. You can’t
blame them for wanting independence.”
“They’re not fighting for independence. They’re fighting
“That’s what the propaganda tells you, John, but my guess
is, you let them have independence and they’ll settle down to looking after
their own affairs. I don’t think they’re going to be steaming up the M6 in tanks
in six months time. Anyway, count me out. Bibles for communists isn’t my
The dissenter got up and left.
John was glad to see him go. Though he came regularly to
the bible group and was a genuine Christian, he supported the Labour Party,
which John saw as dangerously close to communism. And it was known that he slept
with his girlfriend and had had others before her.
Under John’s guidance, the group worked intelligently and
energetically and soon thousands of bibles had been flown to their contact in
Vietnam. Girded by this success, John drove them on to greater fund-raising.
They ran jumble sales, coffee mornings, they made and sold jam and cakes, they
organised raffles and discos and bibles flew off to Moscow, Prague, Budapest,
Warsaw, Bucharest, Sarajevo, Berlin and Peking. John imagined benighted
communists in their chilly flats, reading the gospels by dim light during cold
winter nights and undergoing sudden conversion to the Truth which he had always
known. It gave him a good feeling as he walked down Deansgate, it lifted his
morale when his calculations went wrong, and it helped to overcome his intense
sexual frustration as his eternal engagement to Diane dragged on, awaiting the
award of his doctorate and his first university post so they could afford to get
But things didn’t turn out so well. He was awarded his Phd
but his work was second-rate. Five universities turned him down. In
disappointment, he applied for a job teaching Physics in a grammar school and
though it was hard to turn his back on the idea of a professorship, it permitted
them to set up home as man and wife, and being a Church of England school, he
felt at home and was soon running the Junior and Senior Christian Union.
More than anything, it was his intense Christianity which
won him promotion. He wasn’t more than an average teacher and, in truth, was
bored by having to teach boys the difference between series and parallel. On the
other hand, when the Head asked him to take an assembly, he was thrilled and
spoke to the school about bibles for communists, and the terrible threat of
encroaching left-wing atheism. It went down very well, with the hierarchy. John
was made Head of Year which meant he had to deliver an assembly every week and
never a Thursday went by without a prayer for the poor communists, brain-washed
into believing in materialism, and in need of Christian enlightenment. Being
efficient and diligent, John was soon advanced to Deputy Head. He was nominally
in charge of curriculum development, but the curriculum took care of itself , so
he concentrated on his everyday little responsibilities like looking after
cover, did his ten hours a week of teaching and felt, after all, things had
worked out very nicely.
Diane too had fallen lucky and found herself a job teaching
English in an all-girls, private school. They bought a comfortable three-bedroomed
semi, took pride in decorating and furnishing, were happy in one another’s
company; their sex life rolled along pleasantly (though both of them secretly
wondered what all the fuss had been about), and after eighteen months, Diane
discovered, with delight, that she was to be a mother.
It was a girl and they called her Mary Diane. Two more
children followed in the next five years, both boys. John wrote a textbook for
GCE Physics as a substitute for publishing in scholarly journals and it sold in
tens of thousands which allowed them to build a two-storey extension. And all
the while, bibles were being shipped to communists in the benighted parts of the
globe and John was delivering his assemblies on the evils of materialism and the
wickedness of equality.
In 1973, he watched the images from Chile as the Allende
regime was removed by the CIA. He heard Henry Kissinger declare: You can’t
let a country go communist just because of the irresponsibility of its people.
“He’s right, of course,” he said to Diane.
“But wasn’t Allende elected ?” she said.
“Of course,” said John, “but that’s Kissinger’s point.
Those people have been brain-washed. They aren’t responsible. You can’t let
atheism take over. It’s a Christian responsibility to intervene.”
Nevertheless, at home there was a Labour government, which
made him fret, and every time he saw Tony Benn on television he feared the
arrival of the Anti-Christ. He was sympathetic, all the same, to policies of
social justice and would happily have voted Labour if the moderate, Christian
voices could have prevailed; but Benn, the trade unions, strikes, militancy, all
these were the work of the Devil and must be stopped. Not wanting, however, to
appear reactionary and being genuinely sorry for the poor, he placed himself
firmly in the middle and gave his support to the Liberals. He was sure for the
most part they must be Christians and they had the irresistible attraction of
being unable to win power, so he would never see the policies he had voted for
traduced in government.
Though he didn’t like her, thinking her strident and
lacking modulation, John was glad when Mrs Thatcher came to power. He was
convinced the unions had gone too far. Once, of course, they had been necessary.
They were a force for good in Victorian times. They helped to shorten the
working day and improve factory conditions. But all that was gone. What role did
they play now ? Wasn’t Thatcher right that they were merely wreckers ?
They’d got too big for their boots and needed putting in their place. It seemed
to him that with a few minor adjustments, Britain could be, like the porridge in
the fairly tale, just right. Above all, middle-class life struck him as beyond
question, or his own, middle-class life. As for the lower orders, they
should accept their lot. Yes, it was right to keep them from destitution, but
someone had to do the menial work and menial work could attract only poor pay.
That was a simple law of economics. A law which the socialists, in their
materialist lunacy, wanted to overturn.
It was shortly after Thatcher’s first victory that Max
Stein was appointed to teach Physics. He was the only candidate with a degree in
the subject so, despite the Head’s reservations, despite his thick, untrimmed
black beard, despite wearing a CND symbol in his lapel at the interview, he was
given the job. John disliked him at once, in a personal way. He was one of those
people who seem to brim with life, which unnerved John in his reliance on
convention. And he spoke his mind. In his very first staff meeting, when it was
pointed out that boys were starting to sport badges of various kinds and the
practice should be curtailed, he asked if that included the little Christian
fish symbols. It was discovered he was a member of the Labour Party. He took
over as union rep ( because no-one else wanted the role). Above his desk in the
science workroom he pinned a picture of Karl Marx beneath which was the
quotation: Personally, I’m not a Marxist.
“It’s not appropriate in a Church of England School,” John
said to the Head.
“No, I agree, John. But he’s got a contract and unless he
does something unprofessional, there’s nothing I can do.”
Edwin Nightingale was part of that generation which was at
university in the sixties, and though his background was thoroughly
conservative, including a prestigious private school and one of the better
Oxford colleges, the atmosphere of those times had nudged him in a liberal
direction and he prided himself on his sang-froid before labour agitation
and socialist rhetoric. He believed Britain’s old, established institutions were
too entrenched to be shaken by a few proletarian agitators and speeches full of
sound and fury. Of course, he had never had any contact with the working-class,
never met an agitator in the flesh, never had to negotiate with an astute and
determined trade unionist and had really no idea of what the rhetoric of
equality meant to the natives who lived in the terraced streets. But in his
little enclave, in this fiefdom where he was lord, he had nothing to fear and
could dispense liberality like awards on prize day. All the same, it registered
that Stein should be watched. In a brief conversation at the Head’s annual start
of term gathering, when the staff sipped cheap wine and nibbled robust cheese on
cocktail sticks, he had told him his father had been on the last train out of
Czechoslovakia when the Nazis arrived. Though Edwin could appreciate this was an
unpleasant experience, he saw no reason to recount it in polite company.
One day, when Stein had been working in the school for six
months or so and was proving himself a perfectly competent teacher, John was
rushing from the staffroom, talking to a colleague who was sitting at one of the
tables and pestering him about some exam matter for the thirteenth time as he
went, and the younger man happened to be in his way. Without thinking, he put
his hand in the middle of Stein’s back, between the shoulder blades, and pushed
him aside. He bumped into a chair and stumbled as John rushed out of the door,
heedless. Stein steadied himself and looked round. There were three or four
teachers in the room. They looked away.
Two days later, Stein came to see John in his office.
“You owe me an apology, Dr Shelley.”
“I’m sorry ?”
“You pushed me.”
“You pushed me out of the way in the staffroom. You put
your hand on my back and you pushed me. I stumbled into a chair and almost fell
“Did I ?”
“You don’t remember ?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Well you did, and there were three or four people in the
room at the time who must have seen.”
“I’m sorry,” John laughed, “but I find this a bit silly.”
“Dr Shelley, you pushed me. You used physical force. You
put your hand on me and shoved me out of the way. What right do you have to do
“I don’t believe I did.”
“Well, why would I lie about it ?”
“I’m not saying you’re lying.”
“But would I come here and say this if it wasn’t true?”
“No, I don’t suppose you would. But I think you must be
“How could I be mistaken ?”
“I may have bumped into you, accidentally. You know what a
crush there is in the staffroom at break time. If I did, I apologise
unreservedly. But I wouldn’t push you deliberately. That’s not the kind of thing
“But it’s exactly what you in fact did.”
“I can see you’re upset,” said John. “I apologise. If I
bumped into you or if I inadvertently made physical contact with you, of course
that’s the wrong way to behave. My sincere apologies, Max. I assure you I didn’t
intend to cause any offence.”
“Apology accepted, but it’s hard to believe it was
inadvertent. You put your hand on my back and pushed.”
“Well, I suppose we’ll have to see it as a matter of
intention and perception, Max. My apologies once more.”
Driving home that afternoon, John strained to recall the
incident. It hadn’t cost him much to apologise to Max. As a matter of fact,
seeing him sitting in his office, clearly hurt and fighting for his dignity had
given him a certain satisfaction. He felt, barely without knowing it, that Max
was an affront to the school. He knew that a contract of employment is exactly
that and the school had no right to demand that its staff hold particular views
or have particular character traits; but though he knew this consciously, though
he agreed with it intellectually, another part of his mind fought violently
against it. Yes, Max had a degree in Physics. Yes, he knew his subject well. In
fact, he’d corrected John when he was talking about matrix mechanics and had
made a mistake in an equation. Yes, he was a good teacher and the pupils seemed
to respond well to him. But he just wasn’t right for the school. If there
had been an easy way to get rid of him, John would have been in favour. He could
go and teach in a working-class school, after all. A state school with no
religious affiliation. Wasn’t that where he belonged ? He knew, all the same,
that he was qualified and competent and therefore, had a right to teach in the
Grammar, even if he was a leftie atheist. But it just wasn’t right. John’s final
feeling was that the school should be able to exclude those who didn’t subscribe
to its views.
Try as he might, though, he couldn’t bring to mind the
event in the staffroom.
“You know,” he said to Diane when they were relaxing in the
living-room after their evening meal, “a very funny thing happened today.”
“What’s that ?”
“Max Stein came and complained about me.”
“What’s he got to complain about ?”
“He claims I pushed him.”
“Yes,” John laughed. “He says I pushed him out of the way
in the staffroom.”
“You can’t let him get away with that !”
“Oh, I’m not going to make anything of it. I don’t believe
I did push him, of course. That’s not how I behave. I’ve never laid hands on
anyone in my life. And I just don’t remember the incident at all. But he was
clearly very upset.”
“So what did you do ?”
“I explained that I didn’t think he was right, that it must
be a misunderstanding. Maybe I bumped into him in the break-time melee. It’s
always like Piccadilly station when everyone’s rushing for their coffee and so
on. So I said I was sorry if….”
“You shouldn’t’ve done that.”
“No, I may have knocked into him. It happens. But you just
don’t notice or remember, especially when you’re in a hurry. But I apologised,
in case. Funny though, he obviously thought I meant it, that there was malice
behind it. As if I’m that kind of person.”
The following day, John noticed a change in Max. There was
a closed, silent quality about him. He went about his work but he was on guard.
Nor did it relent. They spoke when they needed to for professional reasons,
otherwise Max said nothing. Also, he began to turn up in John’s assemblies
though he wasn’t required to be there as he wasn’t a form tutor. He stood at the
back, in the corner, leaning against the wall, his hands in his pockets, his
head cocked slightly backwards as John talked about bibles for communists.
“In the communist countries,” he said, “ people aren’t
allowed to think what they like. Imagine that. Here, we are free to have our own
opinions. No-one comes knocking on your door at three in the morning and takes
you away to prison if you criticize the government. We have freedom of speech
because we are a democracy. And you know, democracy is a Christian value. Now,
in the Soviet Union, you’re not allowed to read the Bible. People aren’t allowed
to worship as they wish. The government wants to control everything. It tries to
make people think only what it wants them to think. People are brain-washed.
This is very hard for us to understand because we give people their freedom. We
let people work out their beliefs for themselves and we don’t punish them if
they don’t believe the same things as us. That’s why we send bibles to communist
countries, so people can discover the truth of Christianity. You can’t buy a
bible in the communist countries. You can’t read it in a library. This very week
we have sent three hundred bibles to Yugoslavia to bring light to souls darkened
by materialism. Let us pray….”
A few weeks later, Max came to him as he was marking books
in the workroom.
“I’m applying for a job,” he said.
“Oh, really. Where’s that ?”
“Darkinson High. Second in department. Can I ask you for a
“Of course, of course,” said John.
At first he was glad, but little by little doubts began to
burrow into his mind. Darkinson was a middle-class school, after all. True, it
wasn’t a church school, but all the same, it served a very well-heeled area. Why
didn’t Max go and teach in some run-down place where he couldn’t do any harm ?
Darkinson was one of the best schools in the county and sent almost all its
sixth-formers to university. It seemed to John that if Max were teaching pupils
who were going to work in factories, on building sites or drive buses, it didn’t
matter so much that he was a socialist and an atheist. But to have such a person
teaching young people who were going to have influential jobs. It wasn’t right.
Not in a Christian democracy.
“I don’t think he’s ready to be second in department,” he
said to Edwin Nightingale.
“Nor do I.”
“He’ll only have been teaching a year. It’s not enough.”
“Exactly, I think you’re right, John. I’ll put a caveat in
the reference. They won’t interview him.”
At once John realised the problem in hobbling Max.
“The problem is…” he said.
“Spit it out.”
“Well, we’re stuck with him.”
“Isn’t he doing his job ?”
“Oh, he’s a good teacher, but he’s just not right for the
“Well, I’ll speak to him when I explain the reference.
Obliquely, of course. I’ll see if I can do enough to make him understand.”
“Yes, he’d be better off teaching in Salford or a rough
part of Liverpool or somewhere.”
“I couldn’t agree more, John. It would suit his
John felt very satisfied with his action. It was for the
best. He really didn’t want Max to stay. After all, he was a young man; if he
got comfortable he could be there for decades. He felt he’d done the good thing,
the moral thing. Christianity, after all, was under attack across the globe. The
forces of communism, of materialism, the vulgar popularisers of Darwin were
making fun of revealed Truth. His genuine feeling was that Max should never have
been appointed, but the school had been in a corner. Physicists weren’t easy to
come by and Max was well-qualified. He didn’t like this feeling, the sense of
weakness that went along with it. He didn’t like it at all that the school had
more or less had to give Max the job. Still, that could be rectified by
making him move on. It was fair. He was just the wrong type. It was as
simple as that.
The following day, Max was summoned to the Head.
“Come in, Max,” said Nightingale. “Sit down.”
Max perched awkwardly on the stiff chair pushed hard up
against the wall. He hated these set-piece, formal occasions. The artificiality
of it made his pulse race. In this little room, in this little school he was
Nightingale’s inferior. But, change places and handy-dandy: the lines
from King Lear drifted into his mind. His girl-friend had taken him to
see it in Stratford and encountering it for the first time, he’d been struck by
how its sensibility touched something essential in his own:
There thou mayest behold the great image of
A dog’s obeyed in office.
There was Nightingale, the dog in office and Max must obey.
It was really too ridiculous. Why continue with this preposterous dumb-show ?
Sometimes, like Lear, he felt he was losing his mind. The established relations
of power seemed to him obviously empty. Yet, we must all behave as if men
like Nightingale had a right to their power. What was it, the divine right of
management ? It seemed to Max medieval and quite out of touch with his feelings.
There was nothing Nightingale could understand that he couldn’t. As a matter of
fact, the reverse was true. Nightingale’s degree was in Theology. He would have
been lost amongst the complex equations of Max’s beloved Physics. Yet, here Max
must sit, a supplicant. And opposite him, the man, the mere man, granted power
over him in this setting. He felt his shirt sticking to his armpits.
“Darkinson have taken up your references,” said
He peered over his spectacles and thrust his face forward.
“That’s good,” said Max.
“Yes, that’s good. But I wonder, have you thought about
this job ?”
Max felt his heart give a surge.
“How do you mean, exactly ?”
“Well, it’s a second in department and this is your first
year in teaching.”
“But they know that.”
“Of course they do. But it’s my responsibility to ensure
that people move on when they’re ready. A second in department job isn’t a
Max felt his pulse beat more heavily.
“I didn’t imagine I was applying for a sinecure, Mr
Nightingale. I’m applying for a job.”
“Yes, but a second in department is an important
Nightingale leaned back in his chair, stuck his thumbs in
the band of his trousers and swivelled a little, like an oil magnate
contemplating his profits.
“It takes experience to be able to run a department…”
“I won’t be running it, I’ll be second.”
“And if the Head of Department is away ?”
Nightingale leaned forward again with an expression of
revelation on his face as if he’d just solved Unified Field Theory. Max paused.
“What are you getting at ?” he said flatly.
“Don’t you think you might be more suited to a school in
one of the less salubrious parts of Liverpool ?” said Nightingale.
Max’s overwhelming desire was to fly at him with his fists.
“I’m sorry ?”
“This is your first year of teaching. You’ve made a good
start but it’s only a start. I think you need experience in helping to run
things before you take on a responsibility like second in department. You see,
management is a skill and it has to be learned…”
“But Mr Nightingale, they know that and they still want to
interview me. Isn’t it your responsibility to give me the best reference you can
Nightingale stiffened, the corners of his mouth pulled down
slightly, his eyes widened.
“No. No, my responsibility is to ensure only the right
people get promoted.”
“Darkinson are relying on me. They don’t know you. It’s up
to me to make sure they get a proper and full picture of the sort of person you
“The sort of person I am ?”
“What I mean by that is the kind of teacher you are.
Teaching, as you know, has this special arrangement. You aren’t free simply to
apply for whatever post you like, you have to get the support of your Head. The
purpose of that is to ensure that only the best people are picked out.”
“Are you saying I’m not one of the best people ?”
“I’m saying you need experience. I, myself…”
“But if we look at this objectively, Mr Nightingale,
Darkinson are interested in me. They’ve got my application. They know this is my
first year. All you need to tell them is whether I’ve been any good here and
objectively, what reservations can you have ?”
Nightingale narrowed his eyes and leant forward.
“I make decisions about appointments and promotions on
subjective grounds. We aren’t a factory turning out screws and washers.”
Max paused. He almost couldn’t reply.
“So will you support me ?”
“I’ll have to put a caveat in your reference.”
“But you know that means they won’t interview me.”
Nightingale sat back slowly and swivelled, like a child
trying an executive chair for the first time. Max sat and stared at him,
overcome by a sense of impotence. Nightingale continued to swivel slightly and
then looked away to the picture window beyond which was a lawn and tall fir
trees swaying gently. Max knew there was nothing he wanted say that he could
say. He wouldn’t be interviewed. Did that mean at least another term here ?
Another two ? Another year ? Or if he found something else , would Nightingale
find some reason not to support him ? And suddenly he thought of John. He must
have talked it over with Nightingale.
“Thank you,” he said, and walked out.
The following day he was marking books in the workroom when
John breezed in.
“Morning !” he called.
“Morning,” said Max, “how are you ?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine, thanks.”
Max stopped and pushed the open exercise book away from
him, like a plate of unappetising food.
“I spoke to the Head about the Darkinson job yesterday.”
John stood a few yards from Max, his back to the door. His
face betrayed nothing. His demeanour was that of an obedient schoolboy. He had
about him that dangerous lack of self-awareness of people who take their tone
entirely from the institutions that form them. He had never put in serious
question any of the assumptions with which he’d been raised.
“Did you speak to him ?” said Max.
“Yes, we had a chat.”
“A chat ?”
“Yes, we discussed it.”
“Can I ask you what you said ?”
“What I said ?”
“Yes. What you said. About me. About the job.”
“I supported you.”
“You did ?”
“I said you were doing a good job.”
“Only the Head isn’t supporting me ?”
“Isn’t he ?”
“No. He thinks I lack experience.”
“Does he ?”
“Yes. Do you think that ?”
“But did you say so ?”
“Did I say so ?”
“Yes, to the Head. Did you say I lacked experience ?”
“No, I didn’t say that.”
“Did you express any reservations ?”
“About you ?”
“What else ?”
“No, I don’t think I did.”
“Don’t you remember ?”
“Yes, I remember. I said you were a good teacher. I
definitely said that.”
“You didn’t say I should be teaching in Liverpool ?”
“That’s what the Head said. He said it would be more my
line. A rough school in Liverpool.”
“Did he ?”
“That’s what he said.”
“Well, if that’s his opinion.”
“It’s his opinion. But his opinion is one thing, his
“So I’ll be staying here, for a little while.”
“Unless I can find something else.”
“Well, you should look. For promotion, I mean.”
“Yes, when I’ve got a bit of experience.”
That evening, John was making notes for his next assembly.
He had to announce that a thousand bibles were on their way to Leningrad.
Christianity, he wrote, is founded on respect for
the individual while communism values only the collective. In this country,
thanks to our Christian way of life, people have opportunity. In the Soviet
Union the State decides where you will work, where you will live. Communism is a
threat to our way of life and to our belief in God. But while we go on sending
bibles to those poor people whose freedom has been taken from them, there is
hope. We are the lucky ones and we must do all we can to help those who don’t
enjoy our freedom and our opportunities. Let us pray.
“Do you want a cup of tea ?” asked Diane.
“Yes, please dear.”
He put his papers aside. Another day was coming to an end.
The conversation with Max played itself over in his mind. He understood his
sense of grievance, but the world was as it was. He had quickened too many
pulses with his unapologetic atheism and his easy-going leftism. It was out of
place in the Grammar as it would have been in Darkinson. He took off his reading
glasses and put them in their case which closed with a reassuring click. It was
for the best, he was sure of that. It was certainly for the best.
LEGGIT’S LEGITIMATE INTEREST
Gordon Leggit was a big fan of
globalization, though he wasn’t sure what it meant. He liked it because the
rich and famous made a fuss about it. It was the new thing, the modern thing,
and above all Leggit wanted to be new and modern. What he feared most was being
left behind. That was why he’d tried to make himself a computer expert. He’d
failed. He didn’t have a technical brain. He bought himself an early Amstrad
and read the manual in bed. He believed Alan Sugar was a genius. When
Amstrads became obsolete he bought a state-of-the-art model. He was
always buying state-of-the-art. He would have bought state-of-the-art
eggs if he could have. He read so much about computers, he believed he knew
all about them, though he knew nothing of Alan Turing. If it had been suggested
to him that Alan Sugar was a vulgar money-grubber and Turing a real genius, he
would have been speechless. Who was Turing ? Was he a millionaire ? Was he a
businessman ? Leggit read the Daily Mail from cover to cover and he’d
never come across a word about Turing. But he believed he knew how to build a
computer. When his neighbour’s 486 went on the blink, he offered his services:
“I’ll rebuild it for you. Be good
as new in no time.”
He took it home and dismantled it.
It was as easy as boasting. Yet when he tried to replace the mother-board and to
spark the thing up, it was as inert as money without a market. The screen stayed
determinedly blank. The machine was as silent as a Trappist. Every day his
neighbour asked him how things were coming along and every day he reassured her:
“Fine. Fine. Just one or two minor
problems to finesse. It’s very technical. I won’t try to explain.”
He became more and more desperate.
Finally, he took it to a computer shop.
“I’m having a little problem with
this,” he said. “A friend of mine put a new mother-board in it and now it
doesn’t respond at all.”
They kept it. Two days later they
“About your computer.”
“Some idiot’s made a real mess of
“Can you get it going ?”
“Oh, we can get it going all
right. But it’ll cost you.”
“How much ?”
“About six hundred quid.”
He retrieved it. Six hundred
pounds was out of the question. He carried round to his neighbour and lowered it
onto the kitchen table.
“Bad news, I’m afraid.”
“What’s the matter ?”
“Well, I thought it was just the
mother-board. That’s usually what it is with this kind of problem.
Unfortunately, in your case, someone has been abusing this machine.”
“No-one’s used it except me !”
“Are you sure ?”
“Of course I’m sure ! What do you
mean by abuse ?”
“Well, modern computers are very
complex. There are only a few of us in the world who really understand how they
work. That’s why Bill Gates is so rich, you see. Now, it’s easy with such a
complicated machine, in the hands of someone with no technical expertise, for
the thing to be asked to do things it just isn’t capable of.”
“I’ve only used it for
“I know. I know. It’s hard for
someone like yourself to understand, but believe me. This machine is ruined.”
“But you said you could fix it.”
“Sharon, Steve Jobs himself
couldn’t fix this. Trust me. Buy yourself a new one. Get something
“That cost me five hundred quid !
I can’t afford another.”
“Well, all you’ve got there,
Sharon, is a very expensive paperweight.”
After that, Leggit gave up trying
to build computers. All the same, he prided himself on being able to use
a computer more efficiently than anyone he knew. He tried to build a website for
his business, but it looked appallingly amateurish, so he paid two thousand to
have one professionally done, and told everyone he’d done it himself. Leggit was
trying to break into the big time. He ran a corner shop selling vegetables,
groceries, newspapers and wine which he imported himself from France. Every few
weeks, he said goodbye to his wife and daughter and drove to Calais in his
Transit, filled it with a selection of reds, whites and roses and came back
to offer wine tastings and to sell what he’d bought cheap at great profit.
“The secret of business,” he said
to Caroline, “lies in domination.”
“Make us a brew, will ya ?” she
said, and rolled over.
“Who else round here imports their
own wine ? That’s what gives me the edge in the local market, you see. And if
you’ve got the edge in the local market, there’s no reason why you can’t have
the edge in the global market !”
He loved the word global.
As often as he could, he’d use the term globalization in his conversation.
“Have you got any Cox’s Pippins ?”
a pensioner would ask.
“Not today,” he’d say. “I’m having
trouble with the deliveries. It’ll all be different once globalization has
“I say, globalization will make
things more efficient.”
“Efficient ? There’s nowt bloody
efficient these days. And shall I tell ya why ? Too much sex on the television.
It’s addled the brains of the young. This country’s going to pot.”
“The free market will sort it out,
mark my words. Let business flourish and everyone will be better off.”
“Business in’t for’t likes of me,”
said the pensioner, shuffling away empty-handed.
Leggit’s problem was that a corner
shop couldn’t easily become part of the global market. There was always the
chance he might become the next Lady Porter , but it could take a very long
time. What he needed was an idea ! He needed something he could put into
the market and which would take off like a Harry Potter wizard. He needed
something that would allow him to dominate the market and to eliminate
his rivals. Didn’t the Americans talk about full spectrum dominance
and weren’t they the richest nation on earth ? He wracked his brains.
“What I need,” he said to
Caroline, “is a killer idea!”
“Pass us the tin opener, chuck,”
He handed it to her. It was one of
those very simple tin openers you can buy for fifty pence in Wilkos.
“What happened to that
state-of-the-art tin opener I bought ?” he asked.
“Broke ? That cost me ten quid !”
“They saw you comin’, luv.”
“Well, where is it ?”
“In the bin.”
“You didn’t chuck it, Caroline ! I
might’ve been able to fix that.”
“I don’t think so. It was about as
much use as a concrete mattress. They make ‘em to break, that’s how they get
“That was a Conran. I bet David
Beckham opens his beans with one of those.”
“He’ll go bloody hungry, then.
Fill the kettle will ya, chuck ?”
Leggit was surprised at how gloomy
the broken tin opener made him. It was the second state-of-the-art model
he’d bought in six months and its failure rocked his faith in the absolute
superiority of everything technically advanced and expensive. He concluded that
Caroline, being only a woman and unable to understand the intricacies of
mechanical things, had broken it through misuse. The idea was a sedative to his
fraught nerves. It brought him back to his obsession: his need for an idea which
could launch him onto the global scene. He was watching a report from Iraq where
yet another car bomb planted by mad, ungrateful insurgents (what exactly was an
insurgent ?) had ripped bodies to pieces, created widows, orphans, distraught
grandmothers, heartbroken fathers and left human flesh on the street, like so
much litter after a busy Saturday in town, when a flash of inspiration came to
him. Shock and awe ! That was the stuff ! Weren’t those Asians round the corner
up to something fishy ? How come they managed to sell their veg so cheap ? They
must have some dodgy supplier, while he, the upright, straight, clean,
Anglo-Saxon, free-market, free-world, self-made-man had to buy from the regular
wholesaler and couldn’t make a profit at their prices. They were distorting
the market. As a matter of fact, they were probably simply crooked,
part of the Asian mafia. And were they Muslims ? He had no idea. What was a
Muslim ? Were all Asians Muslims ? In any case, the old guy wore a long white
dress and had a beard like Bin Laden, so it was a fair guess they were Muslims.
They might even be terrorists. After all, it’s a small step from selling
cut price veg to blowing up trains and buses.
“I’ve got it !” he said to
“Is there any tomato puree in that
“It’s the Muslims !”
“What’s the Muslims ?”
“The Muslims are holding me back.”
“Don’t talk soft. Have you found
“Think about it !”
“Think about what ?”
“How do they sell their veg so
“Maybe they grow it themselves.”
“Don’t be ridiculous ! It’s
“What’s obvious ?”
“They’re criminals !”
“Are they buggery. They run a
bloody corner shop, Gordon, like you. Just find the tomato puree will ya!”
“They’ve got an illegal supply,
that’s how they do it.”
“I don’t think so, Gordon. They
just stay open twenty-four hours, seven days a week and all the Asians shop
there. They work bloody hard. You shut up and go to watch the football every
second Saturday. You’re never gonna beat Sainsbury’s with that strategy.”
“Football’s important to me.”
“Why not pay someone to mind the
“I can’t afford it.”
“Then accept your situation.
Parekh Stores is open longer hours, that’s how they make more money. Have
you bloody found it ?”
“It’s not in here.”
“Get out the way !”
Caroline reached into the cupboard
and pulled out the tube.
“Scotch mist ?” she said.
“I know what I’m talking about,”
“Good. Tea’ll be ready in ten
minutes. Go next door and fetch Laura.”
On his way, Leggit dismissed his
wife’s objections. She was just a woman, after all. And she was naïve, an
idealist. She always tried to think well of people and give them the benefit of
the doubt. What way was that to get on in the world ? She understood nothing of
the ways of power and business, while he, being a cut-throat businessman
himself, knowing the sharp tricks and the sly ways, as a matter of fact,
admiring a businessman for his ability to get one over on his rivals,
well, he could see as clear as ugliness what those Asian terrorists were up to.
Laura was playing with Pragna in
the little walled garden in front of her house. The two were inseparable, at
school and out. Leggit looked at the lithe Asian child with her long, sleek,
black hair, her wide brown eyes and her slightly crooked white teeth that always
seemed to be on show as she hardly ever stopped smiling. Was she a Muslim ?
He’d never been curious to find out about his neighbours’ beliefs. Her dad,
Bhavik, was a bus driver. He was friendly enough but didn’t drink and had no
interest in football, so aroused no fellow-feeling in Leggit who liked a man who
could swill six or seven and shout obscenities at a referee.
“Laura, your tea’s ready !”
“Just a minute, dad !”
“Never mind just a minute. Your
tea’ll be getting cold.”
Bhavik came out of the front door,
yawning. He was wearing sloppy black trousers and a crumpled green shirt.
“Just been napping, you know.
Napping. Sat down to watch the news and fell asleep. Early shift today, you see.
“Yeah?” said Leggit.
“How are things down the shop ?”
“Brilliant, mate. Fantastic.
Couldn’t be better. I’m expanding, you know what I mean ? Taking advantage of
“Globalization ? That’s a lot of
crap, innit ?”
“Crap, mate ? It’s the future.
Markets. It’s about a world market, and those who get in on the ground floor are
gonna make it big, pal. And when I say big I mean big, you know what I mean ?”
“It’s just America, innit ? They
want to rule the world. All this war in Iraq an’ that . They just want the oil,
innit? That’s what I think, you know. It’s George Bush, innit ? All for the rich
“There’s no resistin’ it, mate.
It’s the comin’ thing, you know what I mean ? When somethin’ takes off you’ve
gotta go with the flow or get left behind. Look at Harry Potter. It’s a big
thing. You can’t hold it back. I’m gonna be part of it, mate.”
Bhavik was stretching sleepily and
rubbing his eyes. Leggit wondered if he might have some useful information.
“Hey, you know Parekh’s Stores
“Are they Muslims ?”
“Muslims? I don’t know. I don’t
Leggit was surprised. He thought,
somehow, all Asians must know one another.
“Come on, Laura, tea-time !”
The child skipped along with her
“What’s for tea, dad ?”
But Leggit didn’t heed her
question. His mind was thickened with thoughts of how to eliminate his rivals.
He sat down opposite Laura who was twisting spaghetti around her fork.
“Mmm, pasta ! I love it, do you,
There was no doubt Parekh’s
Stores was his main rival, and if they were undercutting him by illegal
means, didn’t he have the right to retaliate ? The idea seemed wonderfully
simple and Leggit craved simplicity. Sometimes, when he heard talk of
globalization and inward investment in developing economies and so on, he felt
very small and weak. There were people out there who knew the game. They
were the wizards who controlled the world. Wizards ? Harry Potter ! Yes, it all
fitted together. No wonder the book was such a success. It was true, life for
most people was dull and drab. People had no control over anything; they just
went about doing what they were supposed to do, doing, in fact, the bidding of
the wizards who run the world. It depressed him to think he was one of the weak
people, the people with no influence. It was terrible to spend your life not
understanding how the world was run, not controlling anything. He wanted
to be a wizard. He wanted to make things happen. But he was thwarted. He’d
worked in his corner shop for eleven years and all he did was make enough to
keep the family ticking over. He’d dreamed of expansion. One store can easily
become two and two four and four eight. Isn’t that how Sainsbury’s became
so big ? What was the secret ? Wasn’t it only that something was standing in his
way ? He seemed to be getting nowhere. He was a businessman. He was prepared to
be ruthless. He wanted money, big money. And yet it didn’t happen. Wasn’t it
supposed to fall into place ? Wasn’t this supposed to be a society of
opportunity ? Something was wrong. He’d heard Tony Blair on the television
saying terrorists were trying to destroy our way of life. There were evil forces
out there and he felt they were restricting him. As a matter of fact, they were
out to destroy him. At this very moment those terrorists from Parekh’s
Stores might be plotting to set fire to his shop. Who knows what weapons
they might have ? Maybe they had a direct line to Osama Bin Laden himself.
Supposing al-Qaida was plotting to take over all the corner shops in Britain.
Imagine that ! Weren’t most of them run by Asians anyway ? Maybe the whole
corner shop culture among the Asians was nothing but an Islamic fundamentalist
front. Sooner or later they would own all the supermarkets and they’d be selling
the Koran and prohibiting wine. Wine ! Yes, that’s what they’d do. They’d
close down his little sideline and he’d lose his neat income. Blair was right !
These people were trying to destroy his way of life. This was a fight to the
death. There could be no compromise with these fanatics. They were irrational.
They didn’t think like us. No, it was victory or death. What would the world be
like if these people won ? Life wouldn’t be worth living. That was the point. It
was a simple choice: our way of life or no life at all !
“What’s for afters !” said Laura.
“Rice pudding,” replied her
“Yummy ! My favourite. Is it your
favourite, dad ?”
“Yes,” he mumbled through a
mouthful of pasta.
After tea, Leggit took a little
walk. He went past Parekh’s Stores. It was open, as ever. Didn’t those
people ever sleep ? Didn’t they ever have a holiday ? No, of course they didn’t.
Terrorists never sleep! He retraced his steps and went in. The tiny shop
was packed with produce. By the little counter were boxes full of vegetables:
sweet potatoes, okra, aubergines, carrots, cabbages, cauliflowers. There were
yams and mangoes. At the back of the store, great bulging sacks of rice were
piled to the ceiling. There were industrial tins of tomatoes or curry sauce,
five litre tubs of natural yoghurt, huge misshapen chunks of ginger, fat bunches
of garlic, taut plastic packets of turmeric, rust-coloured curry power and
paprika. But what interested him was the rear door. He could see it wasn’t too
robust. He bought a lemon from the old guy at the counter who spoke virtually no
English, and left.
As he was about to fall asleep,
Caroline beside him already breathing rhythmically in her doze, an idea shook
him awake. Into his head came the image of himself and his mates, aged fourteen,
climbing into the toilets on Wolsley Park, planting the little homemade device,
lighting the fuse and running for it to hide behind trees as the green door blew
off and smoke billowed out into the dusk. It was a stupid act, but they were
young. The important thing was the bomb. Simplicity itself: a length of copper
pipe, weedkiller and sugar. The next day he searched in the shed and ferreted
out a good length of copper pipe which he cut down to size with a hacksaw. He
closed the shop at twelve and, saying nothing to Caroline, nipped into town for
weedkiller. The sugar he took from his own shelves. In the little yard behind
the shop he hammered closed one end of the pipe, mixed the two chemicals ( he
tried to remember the bit of chemistry he’d learned at school but all that would
come back to him was something about hydrogen having one proton or neutron or
nucleus or something ) poured them with great care into the pipe, fearing that
any moment they might react and blow off his hand, fitted a length of string
soaked in petrol as a fuse and hammered closed the other end. Perfect ! The neat
little bomb rested gently in his palm. He was proud of his handiwork. It made
him think of the great days of British rule when, by virtue of superiority in
skill, invention and firepower, Englishmen had dominated the globe. He felt
himself to be one of them, those great men of bygone times who had made England
rich and powerful. It was only a small, homemade bomb, but with it he could
fight back against the incursion of terrorism. He knew that taking the law into
his own hands was a dangerous course, but weren’t we at war, after all ? Didn’t
he hear everyday on the t.v. of the war on terror ? And were the
Americans playing by the rules in Iraq ? You can’t trust people like Bin Laden
to fight fair so you’ve got to fight dirty before they get the chance to do you
real harm. It was true he might set their shop alight and people could be
killed, but was it possible to stand for the free market, for our way of life,
without being willing to kill people for the greater good ? Leggit had
been a good citizen all his adult life. He’d worked, taken his family to church,
voted in every election, and where had it got him ? There were drug dealers in
his area driving round in BMW convertibles. It was an insult. What was it all
about ? Why get up every day and do your job and try to be responsible when
criminals get rich overnight ? And now there was the Taliban and Bin Laden and
thousands of Islamic terrorists and we were having to fight for our survival.
Those Islamists round the corner were preventing him from expanding, they were
standing in the way of his full spectrum dominance. If Parekh’s Stores
closed down, their business would come his way. That would be a lot of people.
It was simple economics. The Americans needed oil to protect their way of life
and Leggit needed customers.
At two in the morning he pulled
back the duvet with surgical precision.
“Where you going ?” said Caroline.
He crept along the landing, looked
at himself in the mirror and flushed the toilet. He would have to go back to
bed. At the head of the stairs he hesitated, then he padded quickly down,
grabbed a pair of jeans and a t-shirt from the wash basket in the kitchen,
pulled on his trainers and his outdoor jacket, grabbed his keys and left by the
back door. It was quite warm under the cloudy sky. The street was as quiet as a
spider. He liked being out while everyone was in bed. It reminded of his paper
round as a teenager. It always gave him a feeling of power, being on the street
before the day had started. He went quickly to the shop and picked up the bomb,
slipping it inside his coat. Turning the corner into Stefano St he was amazed to
see the lights on in Parekh’s Stores ! Did they really stay open twenty
fours hours a day? He pulled up his hood and went quickly past. The old guy was
behind the counter. He could nip round the back, light the fuse and skedaddle.
But the codger would ring the police and the car might be there in minutes and
if they passed him running down Mill Hill ……
He took the bomb back to the shop
and jogged home.
“Where’ve you bin ?”
“I thought I heard somethin’.”
“Heard what ?”
“I dunno. Someone creeping round
“A cat, you fool. What took you so
“I thought I’d have a look down
the street, see if I could see anyone.”
“Who were you expectin’, the
Easter bunny ?”
“Better safe then sorry.”
“Better asleep than playing cops
and robbers at two o’clock in the mornin’.”
The next day, business was slow.
It was one of those Thursdays when a bloke nips in for a Daily Mirror and
doesn’t buy any fags, a woman comes in for a pint of semi-skimmed, talks for
twenty minutes and ignores her child’s insistent demands for chocolate. He
locked up and went round the corner. A huddle of Asian women were chatting
outside Parekh’s . He walked past and looking in the window could see at
least half a dozen customers. Was that unfair competition ? They were keeping
their prices low till he was out of business, then they’d shove them up. People
would be sorry when his shop closed. But that was human nature. When though,
would he get a chance to plant the bomb ?
He went back to his shop and made
himself a cup of tea. He was drinking it and idly scanning a piece in the Sun
about how Muslims hate the British police, when he remembered the cellar. He put
down his cup, turned the key in the creaking white door, flicked on the neon
light that spluttered like a heart about to fibrillate and kicked in brightly,
and went quickly down the stone steps. Because the cellars were prone to
flooding, the Victorians had built little trap-door outlets that gave onto a
trench about three feet deep which carried the water away. He pulled open the
iron door that weighed more than guilt, crouched down and squeezed himself
through. There was a trickle of nasty-smelling water in the trench. He ignored
it and went on his hands and knees into the darkness. He wondered for a second
if he should go back for a torch, but his excitement was too much. He shuffled
along, panting, catching his head on the bricks above him, his trousers soaking.
At length he heard voices above. Asians ! This was the spot. He needed to leave
something to remind him. He could barely get his hands in his pockets, but they
were empty anyway. There was nothing else for it. With his right foot he worked
loose his left shoe. It was impossible for him to turn round, so he went in
reverse. It was terribly difficult and at moments he wondered if he hadn’t
strayed along a branching track. His heart beat madly. But eventually he backed
into his own cellar to hear a voice calling:
“Shop ! Hello ! Are you open !”
He hobbled up the stairs and
emerged into the light, one shoe on and one shoe off, like in the nursery rhyme,
his trousers dripping, his hands and face black, and blood trickling down his
left cheek from a scratch on his head.
“Good God !” said the customer, an
old guy who came in now and again for a tin of beans “Have you been robbed ?”
“Robbed ? No, I’ve just been
looking for something in the cellar.”
“You’re bleeding !”
“Aye, caught me head on the door
frame. What can I get for you ?”
“You’d better take care of
yourself, mate. You’ve only got one shoe.”
“Have I ?” said Leggit, looking
down at his feet, “that’s funny.”
When he looked up the customer had
gone. He went to the cubby-hole washroom and cleaned himself up. He found a pair
old trainers he’d been meaning to throw away, blew off the cobwebs and put
them on. Back in the shop with another cup of tea he waited for customers. After
half an hour, a woman came in, talking to herself.
“Bastards, fucking bastards,
bastards !” she was saying.
“Can I ‘elp ya, luv ?” he asked.
“I ‘ear you’ve been burgled.”
“No, no ! Nothing’s happened ‘ere.
I just ‘ad a bit of a problem in’t cellar.”
“It’ll be those bastards !” she
said. “I can’t get ‘em out of my house !”
She walked around the shop for ten
minutes cursing and imploring unseen forces, before leaving having bought
Ten minutes later two young boys
“What can we buy for ten p ?” one
of them asked.
“Ten p each ?” said Leggit.
“No, ten p.”
“Not much. Can’t you ask your mum
for a bit more ?”
“Can I have a packet of crisps ?”
“They’re thirty-eight p !”
“I’ll bring ya twenty-eight p
“No, go and get it now…..”
The kid grabbed the packet,
slapped the coin down on the counter and the two of them sprinted out and down
the street at Olympic pace. Leggit went impotently after them shouting:
“I’ll call the police !”
Back inside he reflected that
inviting the police onto the premises wasn’t a good idea. But was he doing
anything wrong ? It was against the law, sure. So what ? Weren’t they
saying the Iraq war was illegal ? The point was, he had legitimate interests
to defend, just like the Americans. Who could argue against that ? When it came
down to it, everything was a matter of superior force. The strong rule the world
and the strong always win. That was simple. But he realised that one bomb
wouldn’t be enough. Planted outside their back door, it might blow it off its
hinges and start a nice little fire that would quickly catch, but down there it
would need a good explosion to blast the floor away and turn their shop into
rubble. He’d need maybe six, eight or perhaps a dozen devices. He bought copper
pipe from the plumbers’ merchant, stocked up with weedkiller and discreetly
assembled ten sturdy, impressive explosives. He felt he was part of something
much grander than a mere scheme to blow up a corner shop. Like those American
troops in Iraq, powering through the streets in their Humvees, fearsome
as charging rhinos, dressed in their combats and wearing shades like Hollywood
stars, he was fighting for justice, democracy and freedom for our way of life
! It brought a feeling of humility: to be a player in something so important was
He went home for his tea.
Sitting at the table with Caroline
and Laura, eating, for the second time that week, baked potato, cheese and beans
it seemed heroic that he had to keep his secret from them. Of course, he was
doing it for his family. He imagined customers streaming through his door,
queuing to be served while he chivvied his staff to be more efficient. Little by
little, his lines would become more varied and adventurous; the fame of his
modest store would spread through the town and people from the well-heeled
suburbs would arrive in the BMWs and Mercedes to buy his wines or the curious
delicacies he would import from Turkey or Madagascar. He would buy the house
next door and expand but soon he would be forced to open another shop and
another and before long he’d commission a supermarket made to his own design, on
a site with plenty of room for parking and open aspects, so once their shopping
was done people could take a walk in a little corner of nature. He would
specialize in fresh local produce and this, combined with his judicious imports,
would win him an enviable reputation. In expensive restaurants, over lunches
lasting till four, he would discuss with venture capitalists the investment
needed for the expansion of his empire. Twenty stores across the region would
see him living in a big house in the country. He’d buy a farm, have all the
buildings demolished and erect one of those red-brick palaces with white pillars
at the front door and a sweeping drive down to the electronically operated gates
guarded by two fierce, well-fed Rottweillers. There’d be a horse and stables
for Laura, of course, an indoor pool and a full-sized football pitch where
Rooney and Ronaldo would have a kick around after a summer barbecue. In the
double garage there’d be a Rolls, a Mercedes for Caroline and enough room to
tuck in an Audi A2 as a runabout for Laura as soon as she turned seventeen. When
his stores moved south, colonizing the old industrial areas of the Black
Country; springing up in the relaxed suburbs where young entrepreneurs of the
communication revolution moved to get their children into the best schools;
eventually arriving in London where he would provide swish convenience outlets
off Oxford St or The Strand frequented by busy, important people
who would relish his range of sandwiches and snacks; then he’d float on the
Stock Exchange and, retaining a majority holding, would see his fortune swell
like a force-fed goose until an aggressive bid would be made and he’d sell for
two, three, four, five, who could say how many billion, buy himself an island,
invite Richard Branson for his holidays and basking in the sun, a bottle of
Bollinger leaning cheekily against the side of the ice-bucket, Laura and her
friends from the best private schools frolicking in the pool and Caroline
ordering furnishings from around the globe on her mobile, would consider moving
into airlines, or banking or perhaps would buy up steel mills or mines in China.
“Can I have some pop, dad ?” said
“You can have all the pop you
like,” he replied.
At four in the morning he got up.
“Where you going now ?”
“I thought I heard something.”
“You’re hallucinating. Get back
into bed you silly bugger.”
“I’ll just check.”
He pulled on an old track suit
which he hadn’t worn since the time he’d trained for the London marathon and
given himself a rupture, slipped out of the back door and ran to his shop. The
copper pipes with fuses already fitted were piled behind the cellar door. He
tucked them under his arm, checked he’d got matches and went down. Dragging
through the trench with the weight of the bombs under one arm was a painful
struggle, but the dream of his future and the righteousness of his cause drove
him forward. The stone hurt his knees and he wished he’d thought to put on pads.
Where was the shoe he’d left as a marker ? He seemed to have been squeezing
along for hours. He could see nothing. He had to feel every inch of the way.
Just when he was almost convinced the shoe must have been taken away by a rat,
he felt it beneath his hand. He stopped and let his breathing calm. Not a sound.
Was the old man up there, sitting behind the scruffy counter pulling at his
white beard ? What did it matter ? So much the better if the building fell and
crushed him. These people were criminals. They were terrorists. He had the
evidence: they undercut him on almost every product. It was a disgrace the
police hadn’t shut them down. But he was justified. All across the world
Islamists were planting bombs. On the t.v. every day you saw some new atrocity.
They were ruthless and vicious people and they were here. They were
running corner shops and planning to take over the world .
He lay the explosives cross-wise
over the little stream of damp. But how to light the fuses ? By the time he lit
the last, the first might have burnt down and he would take the blast full in
the face. He arranged the petrol-soaked strings so they converged at their end
and squeezed them between his thumb and forefinger. He’d brought a box of long
matches which he wrestled from his pocket. As he was about to drag the sulphured
end along the sandpaper, he realized the momentousness of his action. He could
still stop. He could go home to bed. He could get on with his little life as
shopkeeper, father and husband and let the wizards rule the world. But why
should he ? Why shouldn’t he do something historical ? Why should he be a nobody
living out a life of no significance? He struck the match. It gave enough light
for him at last to be able to use his eyes. He set the flame to the fuse ends.
They took and at once he realised that he’d got to get our fast. He began
shuffling madly backwards. He clonked his head and scraped his elbows and knees.
He could see the fire rapidly eating away the inflammable rats-tail fuses. He
worked frantically to get himself away. In which direction would the blast fire
? He’d no idea. Would it bring down the building above or would it shoot along
the trench and set him alight ? He began to panic. Sweat broke out all over him
and he couldn’t hold back little whimpering cries which surprised and alarmed
him. He pushed harder and harder but his progress seemed to slow. Then the
blasts went off, one after another. He heard each one distinctly though there
was no more than a second or so between each. The force knocked him flat and the
smoke choked him. The skin of his face and hands was burning. He began to sob.
For a few moments he thought he was going to die, down there, alone, his wife a
widow, his daughter fatherless. The fumes were tightening his chest. But he
fought to keep going and inched his way back till the light from the trap-door
gave him relief. He dragged himself up into the cellar. Someone was banging. The
door. Was it the police ? He saw himself hauled off to the station, the
headlines in the Evening News, the shameful trial, the long prison
sentence. What had he done ? Distraught, he clambered the stairs. He was
coughing and retching. He needed fresh air. He yanked open the shop door and
stumbled into the street and there, his face alive with dismay, was the old guy
from Parekh’s. There were two younger men with him, in their night
“What happened ?” one of them
“Gas,” said Leggit, not knowing
where the words came from. “Gas explosion in the cellar.”
“We’d better call the police.”
“No !” protested Leggit “No,
unsafe premises. They might close me down. Please. Keep it quiet. I’ll get it
“You should go to the hospital.
Look at your hands.”
Leggit looked down at his parched,
“It’s nothin’,” he muttered.
“Thanks for your help. I’ll be okay. Honest. I’ll be fine.”
“Come round the corner to our
shop. We’ll clean you up.”
Leggit locked his door and went
unwillingly. They sat him in their little kitchen lit by an unshaded 60 watt and
bathed his hands and face in cool water. They made him a cup of tea and asked if
they should ring his family. Their kind attentiveness made him sob. He hung his
head on his chest and cried uncontrollably. After an hour, they helped him into
their battered old Honda and drove him home.
“Where the hell have you been !”
“At the shop.”
“What for ?”
“I was checking.”
“Why did you come home by car ?”
“There’s been a bit of a mishap.”
“What kind of mishap ?”
“Have you called the police ?”
“Well don’t you think you should
“Not unless you want to visit me
in Wormwood Scrubs.”
“I’ll tell ya tomorra.”
He climbed into bed and curled up,
his back to her. His face and hands were still stinging. The tears welled. His
bottom lip trembled. He fell asleep at six.
When he woke up, Caroline had
gone. He rushed into his clothes and went downstairs but she wasn’t there.
Looking in the mirror, he saw his reddened face, as if he’d been under a
sun-lamp too long. He hurried to the shop. Caroline was serving a young woman.
“Have you been in the cellar ?” he
“You should’ve left it to me.”
“The trap door’s still open. It
He went down and poked his head
through the trap door. The stench of smoke, fire and chemicals was awful. He
closed it up and went back upstairs. The shop was empty.
“You go home, I’ll look after
things,” he said.
“What the hell have you been doin’
“Nothin’. It was gas. I’ll get it
looked at. Best keep it quiet. Don’t want any trouble.”
“Best seal that trap-door up if
you ask me.”
She picked up her bag, gave him a
look and left.
Leggit rang one of his mates, an
electrician who could turn his hand to anything practical.
“You couldn’t give us a hand could
you, Bill ? Bit of a problem at’t shop.”
The next day, Bill tore off the
cast-iron trap-door and bricked up the aperture.
“Smells like the old weedkiller
and sugar bombs down there !” he said.
“Yeah,” said Leggit, “I was messin’
around, remindin’ meself of the old days. Say nowt to Caroline. She thinks it
A week later, Leggit went round to
Parekh’s with a big box of Milk Tray and a card.
“Thanks for you ‘elp,” he said.
“Best keep the matter quiet though. Know what I mean ?”
They smiled, shook his hand and
graciously accepted his gift and on his way home Leggit reflected that they
weren’t bad folk after all, even if they were criminals and terrorists.