THE BEAT YEARS
The most trivial encounter I had
with Vic Denby was on the first day at my new school. My father had insisted on
accompanying me despite my protests, for not only did he constantly embarrass me
when out with him by telling me to pull my shoulders back and to breathe deeply
- a leftover from his army days, the only cockney in a Yorkshire regiment
serving in Delhi when he was seventeen - but seeming to wait purposely till we
were in earshot of a dozen people. It was 1960, I was thirteen and going to the
Nearing our destination, a twenty
minute walk from home, isolated groups of boys in the silence of newness were
standing around outside a wide, sloping incline leading to the main doors of the
building. Not one of them had their fathers with them.
As I walked towards them, looking
down and away from my father, there were the tinkling sounds of giggling and a
barely controlled snigger. Glancing up, I saw a big, dark haired boy with a
rough, pitted face looking from side to side at his newly found cronies and then
pointedly at my father and me. I looked straight at him, his lips twisting in an
exaggerated sneer of contempt. I turned away, unable to hold his eyes. I looked
up at my father, willing him to return home. He was looking around him with a
self-satisfied air, rocking slowly backwards and forwards on his heels with his
hands held loosely behind him and repeatedly pushing his shoulders back,
vigorously sniffing and nodding his head in approval as if in the middle of the
countryside admiring the scenic beauty spread before him.
‘Yes, it looks a nice school, son.
They seem to be decent boys. I think you’ll be okay here.’
He probably said it quietly, but
it seemed to bellow out, echoing around the forecourt. The sound of a bell came
from somewhere and we all moved towards the entrance.
‘You’ll be alright then, son?’
I gritted my teeth and momentarily
closed my eyes, ’Yes, dad’ He looked uncomfortable then and said
hesitantly, ‘Well, cheerio son.’ and walked away. I saw Vic for a second turning
for a final sneer, then went into the building.
morning we were told that for the first of the three years there we would be
taught the usual academic subjects; after that, one day a week would be spent
getting acquainted with the basic principles of the building trades and at the
end of that period would be expected to choose the one we intended to specialise
in, the remaining time almost singularly devoted to it. There were, after a
while, a few extra-curricular activities not mentioned then that were to lighten
the class and workshop rituals; one such created by an English teacher who
decided that if we were at the School of Building, then, by definition, we must
be louts and in an attempt to civilise us he taught, in the main hall and after
hurriedly scoffed meals in the lunch hour, ballroom dancing.
in retrospect, quite bizarre to watch boys, some with cement or paint-spattered
overalls, dancing with each other - the ones who had to play the woman’s role
gritting their teeth in a howl of sarcastic comments. One particularly small lad
was made to stand on the teacher’s shoes and be whirled around as a teaching
aid, like a puppet at a seaside fairground.
I realised after very few weeks
that I had little interest or ability in any of the trades except the more
artistic elements of decorating, and it was in this workshop a year or so later
that Vic’s contempt for me came into the open.
He had quickly established himself
as one of the dominant personalities of the class and gathered around him the
majority of the rougher lads. He attempted to prove his physical superiority on
every possible occasion. If there was any furniture moving or desk arranging to
be done he would be the first to get up and push and carry, his expression meant
to convey that he was only toying with small pieces of wood, mere child’s play,
and after sliding a desk recklessly across the room would spread out his hands
and curve his arms up over his head in an exaggerated follow-through. If there
was cement to be made up in a brickwork lesson his hands were the first to grab
a shovel, picking up wads of ‘muck’ and holding them up as high and for as long
as he could before dropping them back on the mortar boards and, often
unnecessarily, stacking a large load of bricks into a hod and carrying it
around, depositing them in piles in front of the small walls the other students
Vic had a native shrewdness and an
aptitude for quickly grasping a practical subject and - considering the finer
points of communication superfluous - was basic and direct.
In one decorating lesson we were
all, either in pairs or singly, painting murals on the workshop walls. My
associate for this was a normally quiet boy whose father, it was rumoured, had
his own decorating business.
The particular creation we had
evolved was a six feet square relief map of the Bay of Biscay and part of Spain,
the land mass being formed by a stippler, made of short lengths of rubber strips
placed at right angles to each other, being repeatedly pressed onto a thick
layer of alabaster. This, when hardened, rubbed down and shaded in various tones
of brown and green was a reasonable topographical representation of hilly,
wooded land. The trade teacher, seeing that his class was absorbed in its work,
was indulging in one of his periodic absences from the room.
We had been working silently for a
while and I mentioned to my colleague something about Dali’s moustache dropping
off if he could see the misshapen mess we were making of his country, and in a
slow, scholarly manner, he surprisingly began to tell what he knew of the
artist’s life. He rolled out a string of interesting facts and observations and
as I aired my meagre knowledge of the subject, I became more absorbed in our
conversation, was stimulated, loquacious.
‘What you on about, Bowes?’
I felt myself flush even before I
turned and saw Vic looking down at me from across the room, He was standing on a
pair of steps from which he was working on a version of the mailed fist and
motto of the Tank Corps. He leisurely swivelled round, leant his back on the
steps, drew one leg up a couple of treads higher than the other, rested his
elbow on a knee and cupped the side of his face in a hand. He sat smirking and
closing his eyes in an affected manner of nonchalant superiority, and thrusting
his head forward said condescendingly,
‘What is it this time then, your
artistic appreciation? He carefully emphasised the last two words as if they
were foreign to him.
‘Why ain’t you like Jim and Lofty
and the uvvers, Bowes?’ he asked, narrowing his eyes. ‘We’re gonna get motor
bikes when we can. Get the gels, too.’ he grinned, looking around at the others.
The largest of his sycophants
looked up and sniggered. ‘You don’t wanna know nuffin’ about art,’ he said with
infinite conviction, his eyes moving from side to side as if he was thinking of
a significant sequel to his statement. He looked down at his board again,
shaking his head and saying almost absently,
Vic, turning the steps towards
us, was using them as a pulpit now, leaning his folded arms comfortably on top
‘You wanna watch wrestlin’, he
said, holding his arms up like a weightlifter. ‘Strength.’ he shouted,
Somehow he represented the whole
world, and I felt that familiar, panicky isolation.
‘Muscles,’ Vic was saying. ‘What
yer wanna do, is –‘
‘The biggest muscle you’ve got is
between your ears.’ I blurted out angrily in a sudden flash of bravery. The
silence made the words seem even more inadequate and stupid. A few of the boys
who had heard them laughed in a preoccupied way for they were, in varying
degrees, enjoying what they were doing and there was nothing hostile in their
amusement. I sensed that Vic had failed to see this and he glared around
challengingly, his lips tightened in anger.
Nobody looked at him and if they
had would probably have been surprised to see him so annoyed. His eyes caught
mine in the second before he turned away. I stood tensely, trying to
concentrate on my mural, wanting Vic to do the same with his.
No one was speaking. A few boys
were humming or whistling quietly. I relaxed a little. Then a slipping,
juddering sound, wooden clatter, heavy thump. I spun round. Vic was laying
spread eagled on his back with the head of the steps across his legs and red
paint, like blood, spattered over the floor around him, his paint can describing
an arc in the air, its curve decreasing as it slowed. There was a momentary
stillness, and then the sound.
They were pointing down at him,
shrieking, mouths wide open, lips stretched back over teeth. One boy abruptly
sat on the floor, head dropping back loosely and then whipping it up again to
stare incredulously, his eyes moist, laughing hugely and soundlessly. I was
watching Vic closely as he viciously kicked the steps away and clambered to his
feet. His white face was expressionless as he calmly and methodically brushed
himself down, hands slapping over his shoulders and the back of his thighs, eyes
The room had quietened a little,
then without warning he strode across to me. I pushed my arm up defensively and
pressed back against the wall, but Vic’s fist chopped it down with such force
that I slid to the floor, cradling my arm to my chest. Vic then knelt in front
of me, his back upright and erect, hands tightly clenched. He was quite still. I
stared back at him, gaping. Nobody was laughing now. There was no noise at all.
He raised his fists high above his
head and swung them down onto my shoulders, one at a time, as one came down the
other would go up as if he were ringing imaginary church bells. Strangely, there
was no force behind them they just lightly touched me. I was holding my hands
palms upwards in front of my face, turning away in anticipation of heavier blows
and catching short glimpses of Vic looking unblinkingly at a point above his
head, detached, yet frightened and frowning hard as if he were desperately
trying to remember something or grasp the reality of his actions. Slowly and, at
first, almost inaudibly he choked hoarsely,
‘I hate you, I hate you,’ and then
quickening until he was screaming it into a high-pitched rhythm of, ‘aitchew,
aithchew, aitchew,’ over and over.
A few of the bigger boys pulled
him away from me and as soon as he was on his feet he shook himself from them
and with head hanging walked limply back to the fallen steps, pushed them
upright and slowly looked around him for something to clean the paint up, none
of which had touched anyone’s work. Someone tentatively offered him a piece of
rag then wandered back to where he had been working. The others returned to
their places, also, some looking over at me and shrugging their shoulders, but
shock showing in their eyes. Vic was kneeling on the floor, body stretched
forward, rubbing the bunched-up rag in wide ineffectual movements, his shoulders
spasmodically jerking. He was crying. The class then helped clear up the mess. I
Vic was quieter and less
aggressive for a while afterwards, but not for long. His strident voice could
soon be heard again and he seemed the same old Vic, except that he never spoke
to me at all and when he eventually did it was only at moments when he more or
less had to.
Eighteen months later and just
prior to leaving I had an interview with a large City and West End painting
contractors and a month afterwards started work.
A pressure on my shoulder. A rocking
motion, gentle, rhythmic, my arm firmly gripped, the rocking more vigorous, my
head lolling loosely about. My name was being called, gently, insistently. I
opened my eyes and stared at my mother who was telling me that there was a cup
of tea on the bedside table and not to knock it over and don’t be too long
getting up. I nodded slowly, feeling sleep clamping my eyelids tighter and was
only barely aware of the door closing, and then the slow realisation that it was
Monday morning, my first day at work. I hung my head over the side of the bed
and stared at the ceiling.
Images of myself travelling to
work drifted into my head and concreted themselves in movie form: a
straightforward shot leaving the house wearing a grey, black-flecked sports
jacket, neat, wool tie and worsted trousers. The camera pans towards me as I
walk quickly along the street showing a back view with head bent forward on
stooping shoulders, then a dramatic close-up, the camera on its trolley twelve
inches from my bobbing face, minute particles of sleep in the corner of an eye,
off-white filling in a front tooth and the pallor of the smooth skin.
The houses in the background are
seen as the camera moves away, travelling faster than I’m walking. The corner of
the road, a blank wall, a dog trots past, then I appear again, turning quickly,
flashing from left to right of the screen. A side view this time as I begin
running to catch a bus pulling away from the stop, a slowing down and then a
casual leap onto the platform with an aerial shot looking almost directly down
at me swinging around the pole with one hand and instantly disappearing into the
interior. The blue-grey acrid air of the crowded top deck, a low shot showing
boots, black shiny casuals, corduroys and a pair of brown suede shoes. Stark
close-ups of men with a day’s growth of beard and the just shaven ones putting
home-rolled or factory made cigarettes between their lips. Faces with closed
eyes endeavouring to finish off harshly interrupted sleep, faces with eyes
narrowed reading the pages of the Daily Mirror or Reveille, faces with mouths
open, panting with the effort of the double exertion of having run for the bus
and coughing from a too-early fag.
The vehicle slows and just when it
has almost stopped starts away again. An early morning office girl climbs the
stairs and looks around her with distaste. Nobody stands, and leaning against
the side at the top of the stairs, brushes imaginary smuts from her crisp, clean
dress with the back of a gloved hand and stares fixedly out of a window. The bus
slackens its bouncing, rolling speed, the camera points away through a window
and in the natural frame lorries and cars, motorbikes and cycles sweep across
the lens which tilts upwards showing a wasteland of dust and bricks, squashed
drink cartons, remnants of bonfires, old newspapers and the frame of a bicycle
sticking up like a scalene triangle. The rectangle is then filled with tall,
shabby Victorian houses, then a shot from the top of the steep, curved stairs as
bodies helter-skelter down and as they jump off the bus, the majority before it
has stopped, into the grimy entrance of the station, makes them look like
squat-bodied giants with huge feet.
My gaze strayed from the ceiling
to the underneath of a saucer rim protruding from the top of my bedside table
and in a moment of full wakefulness I lifted myself from the bed in pleasant
anticipation of the hot sweet tea. Ten rushed minutes later I was on my way to
the bus stop. There were no cameras.
I was to report at eight o’clock
to the foreman painter, Mister Fox, at a building in Finsbury Circus. I was
carrying a small case containing shiny, newly purchased tools and a packet of
sandwiches. Walking from the station I swung this about disdainfully in an
effort to hide from the world that this little lad, who I was sure it was
looking at with comforting smiles and women with inclinations of heads and looks
in their eyes which suggested an inwardly exclaimed ‘Aaaah’ of pity, was not
really going off to work for the first time, but had, in fact, started years ago
and was now accepted as one of the men. Squaring my shoulders, an old habit, I
crossed the road to the entrance.
A staircase with a rail supported
by iron balustrades wrought in heavily ornate designs spiralled upwards. I
climbed carefully, passing floors with metal partitions, false ceilings,
plastered walls and new window frames in the process of erection and men just
starting work for the day, slow moving and reluctant. One of them told me where
the paint shop was and I found the foreman there who, when informed timorously
that I was the new apprentice, gave me a look of disapproval, a paint kettle
full of pink priming and led me along the large, semi-partitioned floor to the
windows at the end and told me he wanted ten completed that day. Half way across
were pairs of trestles, scaffold boards stretched between them, and working in
pairs on them were six painters, their brushes casually pounding the ceiling
with hollow flip flops of sound. I hoped that, in time, I could pick up their
They were laughing, voices and
guffaws echoing around and one of them, with quick glances at an immaculately
dressed man sporting dustless brogues, looking irritated and flicking a steel
tape measure from hand to hand, was making a gesture towards his workmates by
gripping an arm above the elbow and, still holding his brush, swinging it with
tightly clenched fist mock-furiously up and down, lips curled back over gritted
teeth - a universal gesture unknown to me at the time.
There was a cliquishness in such
incidents, an unconscious knowledge of the right things to say and do, the
correct responses, the right feelings. These things were seemingly a natural
part of them, unthinking, unforced.
I walked over to a window which
seemed to soar above me, the others vanishing into a pinpoint of perspective. In
my brand new white bib and brace I began searching anxiously for a pair of
steps. I explored the floors above and below and the only pair that weren’t
being used were painted brown and an electrician, before grabbing them back from
me, stuck his face through their inverted ‘V’ into mine and with patronising
mock severity as if he had just caught his youngest child sticking a finger into
a pot of jam, slowly and deliberately shook his head then burst into laughter
while I stared with fascination at the small dots of amalgam in his mouth
glistening with spittle.
I returned to the floor where I
was supposed to be working and heard the foreman sarcastically say to one of the
men, ‘If you can’t finish it till the first coat’s dry, stand there and blow on
He turned to me.’ Haven’t you
Then, ‘Anyway, we’re off to tea
now, they’ve got a big area down there and they’ll have a long run till dinner.’
I sat in the café, the other
boiler-suited or bib-and-braced painters laughing easily, ordering food - ‘two
airships on a cloud, darlin’…’ babies on a raft, luv’ .for sausages and mash, or
beans on toast - and then, swaggering in, shoulders rolling, long hair slicked
down, was Vic Denby. He sat down in the corner, had a quiet chuckle with a
couple of painters, looked at me, gave a slight nod, then turned his head away.
I had no idea that he had come to this firm, was working on this job.
I only seemed to see Vic in the
café, it was a big job, painters, mostly in twos, were spread out on various
floors. He never spoke to me, never gestured. On the third day Charlie Fox took
me to the main entrance ceiling - someone had mentioned that it was the biggest
in London - and scaffold-boarded about eight feet below its surface where men
were brushing cream eggshell onto it, finishing it with large, fine hair
stipplers. He pointed up through the gap where the ladder entered through the
boards to a large, elaborate Adam ceiling rose.
‘You been to Buildin’ School ain’t
yer? Well, pick that out, the swags in red and the egg and arrers in white; do
the round rim in blue. Ted’s got the colours, get ’em from the paint shop.’
This was more like it. I had a
sudden urge to ask for the boards to be raised so I could lie on my back to
paint and pretend it was the Sistine Chapel. I carried three paint kettles and
brushes up with me in one go, then went down for the turps and rag. I started
enjoying myself immediately; standing on an old stool, cutting in the Roman
swags with a large chisel-edged sable, pushing the white into the tongue and
dart with an inch tool. Time was irrelevant.
I stepped back. There was nothing
there. My shoulder blades hit the metal edge of a board as I fell, I seemed to
bounce away and then my buttocks were hitting rungs, then the back of my head
hitting them as I fell, strangely upright. I landed vertically, also. I glanced
down at a shoe. It was hanging off, almost broken in half. I looked around
dizzily, perhaps for the brushes, the kettles…I don’t know.
I just stood there, alone. None of
the painters on the boards above me seemed to have noticed. One was singing in a
casual voice about a country girl, I could hear his foot tap quietly to the
rhythm of the song, and his brush. And then I looked to the corner of this big,
dust-sheeted area and there was Vic, ten yards away. In a moment of schizoid
irrelevance I noticed he had cut his initials into the handle of a filling knife
he was holding. He was smiling, almost likeably, a forefinger lightly tapping
the side of his nose. He stopped, nodded his head slowly up and down, still
smiling. I looked away. On the sheets around my feet were spatterings of red.
Six months before I first saw him I was in a shed on Wanstead Flats sitting a
test determining whether I went into the Army or Air Force for my
National Service. It was 1960, I was eighteen, and had just broken the terms of
a four year bricklaying apprenticeship. Though I’d liked the solid, tactile
pleasure of laying bricks, after two years of working in and around London,
mostly on new-builds with their bland, yellow and grey slabs, often on
scaffolding and too regularly scraping ice from spirit levels and trowels, and
knowing I had to do National Service anyway, decided to do it at the age most
lads did. In the shed I and twenty other youths had to answer questions such as:
to start a car do you, a) press the accelerator, b) turn the ignition, or c)
depress the clutch. I had no idea about this one; driving cars was for the big
boys. The price of failure was the Army. A few weeks later I found myself at an
RAF Reception Camp in Cardington, South Wales.
Here we were given haircuts that exposed parts of our heads we never knew
existed and were kitted out and given service numbers in a futile attempt to
make us look part of an efficient fighting machine. I was dismayed at how
ridiculous I looked in a new beret until I learnt to razor edge it down the side
of my face like the three-year Regulars, most of whom rarely acknowledged
conscripts, thinking they were a nuisance and the latter considering them
‘thick’ for the obvious reason that they had voluntarily signed on for that
period of time.
After a week we were sent to a square-bashing camp outside Liverpool where
we were despatched from wagons, herded into a vast echoing hangar and were
screamed at. We were screamed at most of the time by little corporals who all
seemed to originate from the Gorbals.
We were yelled at in frightening, almost indecipherable terms, to stand to
attention, at ease, about turn, fire rifles - not ‘guns’ - and given orders for
every, often pointless, activity that could be thought of for six long weeks
There was, of course, method in their madness; to dehumanise us, objectify
us. The thinking serviceman is as useful to the military as throwing a drowning
man both ends of a rope.
Orwell’s 1984 had recently been dramatised on television and at our
passing out parade two months later, marching dead in line and performing tricks
with rifles, we saw, painted on the side of the hangar in ten foot letters, BIG
BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU! I felt an unusual feeling of belonging and, despite my
cynicism, a small moment of something approaching happiness.
The next move was to a radio training school in Wiltshire where we were given
a choice of learning either radio operating or working a teleprinter. Having
heard stories of the relentless di-di-di-dah, di-di-di-dah of Morse code sending
operators mad, I chose the latter. I was taught to touch-type, to read Murray
code - a series of dots, each combination representing letters and figures - and
to understand the general procedures for sending and receiving signals.
During our last week we were suddenly transported to a thousand foot ‘hill’
in Snowdonia where we camped out on six inches of solid ice for two nights. Some
of the men were crying. This was an ‘acclimatisation’ exercise for our permanent
camp. Six days later, in the ninety degrees humidity of Singapore, I was trying
Flying in a BOAC turboprop Argonaut, it took us four days to reach RAF Changi
during which we had overnight stops at Karachi and Calcutta, being entertained
during the former in a nightclub by a cabaret singer who asked the audience to
give a big welcome to ‘the boys in blue.’ I wasn’t sure how he knew who we were.
We were in civilian clothes and had been since leaving England.
The first few nights were spent in a windowless transit block holding eighty
men laying on pillows with brown sweat stains from the hundred of heads that had
rested on them before our own and staring at chitchat lizards criss-crossing the
ceiling. There were tanned Adonises everywhere, grinning at us and calling us
‘moon men.’ A few weeks later, turning brown after hours spent lying on our
backs on the buoyant, salty water of the Straits in a fenced-off area to protect
bathers from sharks, the new boys, too, were calling fresh arrivals, ‘moon men.’
Moving into our permanent billet, I noticed inside the entrance a tall, dark
skinned man standing very still, looking silently down. He had a sweep of black
hair, small moustache and was wearing what looked like a grey sari, plus the
inevitable flip flops. It was the nearest I had ever been to a ‘native’.
Subliminal Raj words arose instantly: ‘swarthy’, ‘cunning’, even ‘shifty’. He
was our dohbi wallah who would take our washing to be done, sweep the three
concrete floors of our billet and generally tidy up. He was an Indian Malay we
called Buntah. I don’t know how long he’d been there. He was just there.
I didn’t really talk to him, didn’t think of it. The first time he took my
washing I was standing on the balcony. He looked at me shyly and said,
‘You Johnny big bollock.’
was wearing, above woollen socks and polished boots, a rather short pair of
khaki shorts. A sliver of scrotum was showing beneath one leg. I smiled back at
The first night on duty in the signals section, in the clacking of
teleprinters spewing out tape and paper, and a temperature and lack of air I had
never experienced before, I quietly panicked and tore ten operational immediate
signals from a receiver and then started, with growing efficiency, to log the
rest. I was found out, but was lucky, the duty sergeant merely reminding me that
we were fighting the ‘Forgotten War’ and in mainland Malaya - as it was then
called - people were getting killed. I was reminded again of this from time to
time when receiving signals reading typically, ‘Found in jungle
clearing: packet of unopened corn flakes, one knife, one fork, 202 rifle, no
ammunition, decapitated head…’
There were other memory aids. We were told to ‘defend’ the local military
telephone exchange from a Scottish army battalion that was going to cross the
Straits to ‘occupy’ it. We stood or sat around, blanks in rifles, bored and
impatient, when we were surrounded suddenly by soldiers in jungle green
uniforms. Taffy, who I’d known since Cardington, immediately shot at an officer
from six feet away. He could have blinded him. He mumbled apologies and after a
little fuss it was forgotten, though he did gain some notoriety.
I did too, in a much lesser way. Falling asleep in the rest room at 4am.on
duty in the section the sergeant shook me awake and called me a bastard; two
signals had come in on my machine. One of the many barrack room lawyers told me
that I could get the sergeant into trouble for using that sort of language to a
National Serviceman. I didn’t really believe him, and my accuser wouldn’t do
anything about the situation anyway, having been stationed in the Far East for
too many years, being perpetually half-pissed in the section and knowing that we
There were further incidents that contained elements of farce, as when the
section personnel were split into opposing Red and Blue groups, their members
told secretly what groups they were in. As I was about to start the evening
shift on this day, an airman who I had worked with for some months suddenly
announced that he was a member of Red group, knew that I was in Blue and that
the section, and now myself, had been ‘captured.’
And on the way to the NAAFI one lunch time, the most memorable constituents
of the meal being rubber eggs and salt tablets - we sweated all the time - I
passed a female officer, pretending I hadn’t noticed her.
I ignored her.
‘What do you do when you see an officer?’
I slowly and reluctantly turned towards her before answering.
‘Do so, then.’
I hated to be told what to do by a woman. This wasn’t just a result of my
class culture - my mother’s punishing hands had planted the seeds of an unaware
misogyny long ago.
I about-turned in my crisp, starched, khaki shirt and shorts, woollen socks
around my ankles, exaggeratedly stamping a foot down and, forgetting that I was
holding a knife, fork and enamel mug, clipped a hand smartly against the side of
my head. I felt blood start to trickle down my temple. She was tall, attractive,
groomed and looked like a forties’s recruitment poster. She gazed at me for a
full minute without expression and marched away. Suddenly Buntah was there,
grinning, his usual suspicious, mildly defensive look gone, as had the young boy
he sometimes had with him and who I assumed was his son. I had rarely seen him
outside of the billet before. He offered me a handkerchief to wipe my face.
I saw him again outside of the billet when I was on 24 hour duty guarding the
’secret’ ammo dump, sitting on the grass sweating in secondary jungle as smiling
kids came by and said hello. Buntah passed too, smiling again, his tiny
moustache and large teeth making him look like an Asian Chaplin as he picked up
my rifle, pretended to shoot me, gave it back and left.
Travelling up-country for a fortnight’s annual leave to Penang Island, the
presence of terrorist activity was again made, almost, clear to us. We were in a
train, standing by the windows with loaded rifles. I asked an officer why we had
to carry them when there was, apparently, little threat.
‘To prevent armaments from being stolen.’
‘The rifles and ammunition we are carrying.’
‘So, we are carrying arms in order to guard the arms we are carrying.’
‘Yes,’ said the officer and unaware of the tautology continued along the
This seemed to confirm to me the consensus that ‘military intelligence’ was
indeed an oxymoron.
There were some good things I did that helped nurture my sanity.
Occasionally, a few of us we would spend our leisure time around a cove on the
Straits acting out the scenes we could remember from current films: ‘On the
Waterfront,’ ‘Bad Day at Black Rock,’ ‘Duel in the Sun,’ and which we shot black
and white stills of with a newly acquired bellows camera. Buntah used to watch
us. He seemed to be there every time. Taffy asked him if he’d like to play a
role, but he shook his head and continued frowning, concentrating hard on what
we were doing. I never questioned why he’d walk a mile from the billet to do so.
Perhaps he lived nearby.
There were other things, too: the solid feel of cylindrical packets of Pall
Mall cigarettes, the delicious aesthetic of drops of ice-cold water running down
the sides of bottles of still orange, the sitting in an air-conditioned bar
every pay day simply because it was air-conditioned, and cold Tiger beer.
Some time after Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’, a film that apparently
required the Singapore police forming a cordon around the cinema to prevent
teenagers ‘rioting’, real riots took place along with the increasing clamour
for merdeka - freedom. In the early hours one morning an irate sergeant
shook each of us awake and told us to get into waiting lorries which would take
us to the city centre to quell the ‘gangs of vicious thugs’ breaking a recently
imposed curfew and damaging property. We were to be given truncheons.
The word quickly spread through the darkened billet that conscripts couldn’t
be forced into this extra-curricular activity, and one by one most of us turned
over and went to sleep again. Why would we want to hit over the head with
sticks, polite, well-mannered and generally well-behaved citizens who wanted
independence from imperialist rule?
Two days later, Taffy told me that a few of the airmen had gone, not with the
intention of using their truncheons, but to see what was happening. One of them
told him he thought he’d seen Buntah with a crowd of younger Malays, that he’d
been shouting and yelling along with the others, holding a stick, and that the
police had charged at them, digging their batons into them and hitting those
they could get to across their heads. The observer had been ordered back on the
truck and returned to camp, and had seen no more. I realised then that I hadn’t
seem Buntah for a while. I found a copy of the Straits Times soon after which
mentioned that several rioters had been killed. The police were hardly
For a few days the most significant thing about his absence seemed to be that
we had to clean the place ourselves - someone tried to get a rota system in
place, but it didn’t work - and that we had to walk a hundred yards to take our
washing to be done. Then an elderly Chinese woman came and silently took over
I was on duty when the signal came through for my demob. It was an operational
immediate and my name was the last one on the passenger list. On the truck into
Changi Airport I was sitting behind the tailboard staring at palms, the
ubiquitous banana trees, roadside bars, one with a giant fake bottle of Tiger
beer in its front garden, and crossing the road behind us was Buntah’s boy
turning to look at us. I’d forgotten about him. I stood up and waved He looked
sad. He gave a little smile and a gesture of a wave back.
We arrived in England - returning in a civilian aircraft and although taking
a different route, also taking four days - and found the hut we were given had
no coal. It was November. We started breaking up the furniture for the fire. We
weren’t yobs, we were cold.
When those from London and points south were dropped off at Waterloo Station
we said hurried goodbyes and then I was on an Underground train. Despite the
strangeness, the feeling of not belonging - or perhaps because of it - I thought
of Buntah; his silent, unexpected appearances, his walking past the foot of my
bed swivelling his skinny legs, pumping his elbows, singing ‘gonna rocking
around clock…’ his strangely patronising giggle when he thought I’d done
something silly and the day before he disappeared, shouting at him when I found
that while tidying my bed space for an inspection he’d thrown away a sketch of a
sniper in a tree I’d taken nine hours to draw. He’d looked so hurt
I wondered what was going to happen when I got home, what I would do for a
living, Then, for the last time for a long while, I thought of Buntah again;
mostly about his smiling testicular reference, ‘You Johnny big bollock.’
I’d seen him around the college, he
worked in Business Studies; big man, late fifties, intense, almost marched
along, tweed jacket, un-pressed worsted trousers, the sort of face you wouldn’t
want peering through the playground railings of your child’s school.
He had read my parody of Edu-biz
buzzwords and phrases in the house magazine…proactive encouragement of
student-centred assimilation of conceptual bridges to facilitate
non-arbitrary criteria of recourse-based parameters for …etc. and, literally
bumping into me in the foyer, had told me how much he’d enjoyed it. I was mildly
pleased; he may well have been the only reader not to take it seriously.
Though I had never spoken to him,
he obviously knew of me and perhaps knowing I taught an art course to mature
students at the same college, and had done so for the last ten years, told me he
bought paintings, mainly Victorian, mostly at auctions and would I like to see
them. He owned a large detached house in a Victorian estate in East London and
lived on his own, as did I, in a small, rather minimalist flat near my
afternoon I went to see him. He lived on a street with an abundance of
established trees in front gardens hanging over walls of London brick - the same
as the houses, though some of these had been rendered and painted.
was large and unprepossessing; scruffy, uncared for, shallow pediments above
pseudo Georgian windows - I again wondered why Victorian architects, with the
embellishments of colonial masturbation, had enjoyed destroying the perfect
proportions of a twelve-paned box sash - and a roll of barbed wire across the
top of the castellated garage. It was a sunny day, though the porch was dark,
unlit and the maroon door had paint over the original glass from badly cut-in
glazing bars. The bell didn’t work. There was no knocker. I tapped lightly on a
muntin and the door opened immediately as if he had been standing behind it. He
smiled me in with a weary gesture.
the kitchen I noticed first; handle less cups on a dark wooden table, ketchup
spotted floor, oil bound distemper peeling off walls, the smell of gas and a
butler’s sink that was so full of pots and pans and bacon rind that I felt even
he wouldn’t piss in. I followed him up the stairs; railings missing from
banisters, Napoleonic grotesque glimpsed through a dusty bead curtain, sofa, the
back of a headboard, a mahogany mirrored wardrobe perhaps tired of his naked
reflections, walls of stripes and roses, a patterned pub carpet, the tinkling
crystals of a chandelier.
paintings were in crude wooden racks in the loft, possibly fifty or more, their
frames dust covered. He began pulling them out, looking at each one with a sort
of apprehensive wistfulness before replacing it. There were cottages, fields,
sheep, town hall faces, smug eyes, snug waistcoats, mayoral chains, nearly all
covered in heavy varnish. A canvas fell to the floor, he stared at the back of
it, then looking above my head - he had rarely looked at my face since I’d been
in his home - muttered nervously that he wasn’t well. He started to stutter.
‘Th-there’s a lot here, they’ll take them. They’ll take them.’
They’ll get in, they’ll take all of them.’
straight at me. ‘B-Belmayes, I have to go to Belmayes.’
to press my knuckles into my ears, pretend he hadn’t said those words.
said them, exactly as before, but whispering. Then, louder, ‘Take me there,
please, I’m ill.’ He said this last very quickly.
scuttled down the stairs through the kitchen and into the long back garden. I
followed. The door slammed behind me. He asked if I liked his ‘little plot’ and
apologised for it being overgrown. He strode towards the back door of the
kitchen, tried to open it and announced it had locked
the f-front door’s open.’ he said. ‘There’s a ladder here.’
pointed to a few rungs showing through the long grass. I pulled the ladder up
and leant it against the back of the garage; climbed up, and realising I
couldn’t drop down from the front because of the wire, dragged it across the
roof and slid it down the front of the garage. Awkwardly stepping over the
coiled wire I came down and went to the front door again. It was open. I went
into the kitchen, unlatched the back door and, following him again, went through
the hall, out and around the side of the house where there was an old Citroen,
the grass partly hiding its hubcaps. Opening the passenger door he slumped into
the seat and beckoned me with a flippant wave to sit behind a mould-splotched
steering wheel and drive.
inside was foul, but surprisingly the car started first time. I bumped and
stalled along for a while before I could control the vehicle adequately enough
to trust myself on the main road. He sat there like a silent scream. I passed my
own street ten minutes later; it looked darkly unreal. Two miles or so further
on was the familiar chimney in the grounds of Belmayes Hospital. It wasn’t just
the chimney that was familiar - that was a local landmark.
been in Belmayes as a young man and didn’t expect, nor wish, to return for
whatever reason. It was the local Bedlam. I’d stayed months; needle-pierced in
early dawns, drifting into insulin-deep sleeps because they didn’t drop you into
cold baths any more and playing football by order with a sugar water bottle in
my fist, defying instant comas and watching a crazed goalkeeper stopping shots
with his face. I dug the hospital allotment without knowing why, watched someone
from Ward 4 scrape a pick across a long-stay’s scalp, blood covering his smiling
teeth, and the stiff dances in F Ward with glazed-eyed girls were no incentive
to leave my glass-walled mind.
yards inside the gate now I stopped in a small, asphalted space outside an
incongruous glass door at the bottom of what could have been a medieval keep and
looked across at him. He was frowning and nodding rhythmically. This went on
silently for minutes. Quietly I asked him what he wanted to do. He glanced at
me, clambered out the car and walked hastily towards turreted psychiatry.
him in I saw a stocky Jamaican behind a counter asking if he could help.
to see a doctor. Could I see him now, please?’
no desperation, he had asked his question almost apologetically. He seemed to
have stopped stuttering.
told to wait. I think he was crying, his hands rigidly flat on the top of his
legs. Quietly he told me to go. He’d be alright, he said.
put a phone down and said someone would be with him soon. I didn’t know what to
do or say. Tentatively I put my arm around his shoulders, not really wanting to
touch him. Then a young doctor appeared, gently took the elbow of his potential
patient and both turned into a narrow corridor and were out of sight.
back I wondered why he hadn’t packed a bag with some washing stuff, toothbrush,
pyjamas, for surely he wore those. I put the car in his garden, churning the
grass. For a while I sat, noticed there was still a small patch of mould on the
wheel, then looked down between my legs and saw a smear of blood on my sock. The
barbed wire must have cut me. Sunset suddenly silhouetted the house. I got out
of the car and walked quickly away, as if fleeing childhood.
day he rang me in the staff room. He was speaking from home. He wanted to sell
his paintings and wished me to be executor. There were forms to sign.
around the room, usually a chattering chorus of pedagogy, a communion of roles
across coffee spilt desks. At this moment there were only three of us; Chris,
lording it over his empire of three desks, grin legitimating his loveable
crassness, Durham accent ruling okay as he gleefully repeated how lucky we were
that evolution had got it right by giving us thumbnails so we could scratch our
arses, and Alan, head of our department, provincial man, established victim,
cold wife, colder kids, a Co-op ceilidh the highlight of his month. It was
ordinary, familiar, almost incestuously so. Now, here was this strangely
authoritative voice telling me that I must take official responsibility for the
sale of an art collection
him that I had no classes and could get to him about two. I’d mentioned
yesterday to no one.
off a bus and turning into the long street I could see a cream coloured
pantechnicon parked some two hundred yards away. I slowed, almost stopped, and
then thought of him a few hours ago inside that square half mile of Neo-Gothic
more purposefully along the street and getting nearer to the vehicle outside his
house I saw two men in brown smocks leaning paintings against the rear nearside
wheel, then returning to the house again to get more. On the side of the van was
written John Baines, Art Auctioneers, Cotteshall, Essex. The front
door was wide open and a dustsheet thrown over the porch step and part of the
hall. I went inside the house a little way and waited hesitantly. One of the men
came down carrying a large painting of several sheep in the lea of a hill, the
burnished gold on the tops of their heads and backs shouting second-rate
Pre-Raphaelite. I asked if the owner was in the attic and receiving an
affirmative nod went up the stairs, the second man passing me on his way down.
looking at me through the open loft door, his eyes wide, greying hair sticking
up as if it was gelled.
think they’ll take them to Baines’s? They could take them somewhere else,
couldn’t they? They could take them to another auctioneers and do some sort of
fiddle.’ He seemed frightened.
him if he had spoken to the firm’s office, he said he had, and I tried to
reassure him that his paintings would get there. I didn’t inquire about the
gestured to him that I’d help take some of the paintings down. He pointed to a
few of the smaller ones. I took them outside and leant them against the others.
After bringing a few more down and realising how hungry I was - lecturing, or
rather the way I proselytised, burnt up a lot of energy - I asked him if he’d
mind if I went to a café somewhere for a quick bite. I didn’t want to eat where
I was. Nodding, he said,
to the other end of the street to the main road, but didn’t see any cafes. I
wandered around asking people. Someone told me of a place near the Flats where I
used to play as a child. I found it, ordered something. It took a long while to
get to me. I ate it quickly, had a coffee.
back along his road, looking at privet hedges, scrolled gates, the black and
white diamond tiles of front paths, and then looked up. There was no van. I
stopped, feeling self-conscious. I wanted to run to the house, but couldn’t. I
stood outside; doors and windows shut, the long grass, the car at the side where
I’d parked it and the ladder still against the front of the garage where it had
been all night. Neither of us had noticed it. I laid it alongside the car, went
to the front door, knocked tentatively on one of the coloured glass panes, then
harder. There was no sound from inside. I waited ten minutes or so, not knowing
what to do. Remembering I had a class that evening I walked slowly back to the
bus stop. Looking back along the street the air seemed dense and hard. I didn’t
phone him. I think I was frightened to.
wondered about him for a week or so. Had he gone with the men in the van? Had
he decided to
trust them and, maybe, gone back to the hospital again? Was he strong enough to
get well in that place? Where were the forms for me to sign, did they exist?
interest in answering these questions gradually waned and after a while the
episode faded away.
ago in a café opposite Liverpool Street Station I saw him. He was munching a
meal and staring steadily at a far point just above my head. I had been there,
eating and reading, for at least twenty minutes and hadn’t noticed him. I also
hadn’t realised just how big he was. He looked well, was wearing a raincoat, tie
and was well groomed. I was tempted to speak to him, give him a casual grin and
ask coyly if he remembered me. Instead, I got quietly up, walked past him and
crossed the road to the station.
the train before my usual stop I went to his street and stood outside the house.
I wasn’t quite sure at first if it was his - it had been four years - until I
saw the rusting barbed wire.
I sat on
his front wall, my back to the road. I started swinging my heels rhythmically
into the bricks, felt bits of pointing crumble away, kicked harder, wanted to
smash the wall down, to pull the gate off its hinges, rip the grass from the
garden, kick the side of his car in - though it wasn’t there anymore - wanted to
put my foot through the front door, rip the wire away until my hands and arms
bled. I don’t know why. I walked quickly along the road, started running, fists
clenched, till I felt my fingertips would push through the palms of my hands. I
leaning against the back wall of the class room, hands in pockets, body arched
forward a little, right leg bent, heel resting on top of the skirting and head
cocked slightly to one side like his childhood photos; hiding a sulk, a shyness.
A ‘little camp’ was the description offered by one student. She, herself, so
debilitated by her family she had succeeded at nothing, was getting through the
course because he was writing virtually half of her work for her.
brother, who had abused her as a child, had burnt himself to death in his car by
throwing petrol over the inside and igniting it. She, too, had attempted
suicide, driving her car at speed into a lamppost. The vehicle had split almost
in two, she had stepped out with a grazed face. Her sibling she’d seen as
selfish, there being nothing left for her to remember him by.
students, generally, had many problems, especially women. The majority on this
course were females and half of them were starting the long road to economic
independence and, for some, hoped-for single parenthood. Their male partners
were largely unsupportive, insecure and suspicious of those who were helping
their women stretch to new vistas; a colleague had recently seen one of them
standing in the car park looking grimly up at the staff room windows. Fresh
bruises seemed a weekly occurrence. The younger girls, minimum age twenty, were
months he had been lecturing this group in both the sociology of deviance and of
medicine. Most would go on to a nursing or social work degree. Two hundred
students were split into groups called ‘cohorts’ by management. He’d told the
latter that as a cohort referred to a tenth of a Roman Legion and he hadn’t seen
a toga or a sandal since he’d been there, the term was inappropriate.
disliked management and their sycophants; their eager grabbing of Edu-biz buzz
words and throwing them into the air like linguistic status symbols at staff
meetings, at the end of which, having remained silent throughout, he would
quietly place a scribbled list of code words in front of the frowning Chair.
students he saw as ‘his,’ as he did the subject he taught, and was aware that
this proprietorial urge was a vestige of a working class background; his father,
a caretaker, owning nothing, would claim psychological ownership of ‘his’
building, his mother, a cleaner, ‘her’ bank.
doing role-plays with them and had suggested a scenario or two; the Jehovah’s
Witness parents of a young injured child who were refusing to allow a
life-saving blood transfusion - what would, could, the medical team do? A
similar question was posed by an extremely sick menstruating woman being treated
by Orthodox Jewish doctors. It was a delight to watch two Yoruba Nigerian women
and a Kenyan man play the doctors.
encouragement they’d create their own situations and act out one or two a
lesson. They particularly liked making up narratives that enabled them to dress
up - tongue in cheek he’d suggest nurses uniforms with fishnet stockings and
stiletto heels would be appreciated - and, if they justified it in the context
of a genuine ethical dilemma, to use music. The head of school would look
through the door and frown perplexedly at them. Once, she had marched into the
classroom and demanded they changed rooms, this one having been overbooked. He’d
told the class not to leave.
can’t treat them like this.’ he’d said to her.
hate the way you behave towards me in front of students,’ she’d hissed angrily,
and using her authority had had her way. He wondered if she’d have acted thus if
most of the students had been white.
Mnede was delivering a baby - a large black doll - from a fair-haired Spanish
student, slightly shorter than the doll, lying on his desk surrounded by other
‘medical staff’ who were laughing and screaming with delight. He liked the
innocence, the ingenuous nature of African women, except when it came to
them of European oppression and control through Christianity, that god was a
construct, all predictably met with surprise, anger and, sometimes, pity. God
was involved with the things that they wrote, their essays and research projects
- particularly the latter where, in their acknowledgements, they would thank
various organisations and individuals who had helped them, often including god.
He’d suggest they put him higher on the list than god. Some took him seriously.
chair across he sat down, watching them. Maria was holding her new- born tightly
and miming breast-feeding while Charity, the youngest in the class and wearing a
stars and stripes headscarf, was jumping up and down with glee. It was she who,
after he’d told them that sepia photos of ringed female necks a foot long and
‘savages’ with bones through their noses had been part of his early upbringing,
had insisted to the group that the bones were fashion statements. On her mobile
he knew that it permanently said, ‘I love Jesus and Jesus loves me.’
was enjoying herself, grinning at him. She was tall, slim, with short frizzy
hair, almond-shaped eyes and that slightly jutting curve at the top of her
buttocks. He was seeing her that evening.
she’d been passing the staff room and he’d beckoned her in and asked what work
she did. Most of the women had caring jobs outside college; she was looking
after adolescent boys. He offered to help her with her project questionnaire and
handed her a sheet of paper which asked if she fancied a drink one evening,
under which he’d drawn a large square with a ‘yes’ under it and a small one with
a tiny ‘no. ‘Please tick appropriate box.’ it said.
folded it in quarters slowly and perfectly and in her slightly brittle Zulu
accent had said, ‘Why didn’t you ask me before? I knew you wanted me as soon as
you walked into the classroom.’
have been too early then, I may have frightened you off.’ he’d explained.
Disdainfully she’d lifted her head and walked away.
been rather different in the early days when she’d been with other students
chattering eagerly around his table waiting for their marks and calling him,
in a pub near where she lived, he arriving before her as intended. It was a
dismal place; flock wallpaper, match boarded dado, fifties lampshades and a
tattered, miss spelt notice stating that there were rooms to let. When Thandi
came in he gestured at it and said that the landlady would probably have told
any potential guests that she couldn’t shake their hands, she’d just finished
putting lard on the cat’s boil. She looked bemused.
down opposite him and with her Nefertiti head inquiringly angled she said,
are you bisexual?’
if it was the earring - he wore a small gold one. Pints were pulled and a darts
matched ended before she told him it was because he wore tight jeans. He
jokingly sneered at her African stereotypes, until she reminded him that he’d
told them that sociology was a generalising enterprise and not to apologise for
couldn’t stay long; she had a shift to do, and briefly told him about herself.
Brought up outside Johannesburg in a large, extended family - he envied aspects
of African culture; babies huddled in slings between their mother’s breasts,
having lots of ‘mothers’, what could create more security? - she’d managed a
restaurant before coming to London and its gold-paved streets. She was single,
had a son Nono - pronounced with clicks after the consonants - and was thinking
of adopting Tshepiso, her absent brother’s teenage child who he had ill-treated
from an early age.
to show her and teach her love.’ she said.
evenings later he was quickly shaking hands with other household members, an
aunt, uncle, two cousins, a half-sister and a sister who she shared a room and a
bed with. She gave him a glimpse of the room; a few African carvings, bright
traditional dresses inside an opened wardrobe door, a photo of herself in a
Diana Ross wig taken on the sea front at Clacton when she’d first come to
Britain four years before.
train on their way to see ’Umoja’ she wore a black velvet hat and, picking up a
newspaper from a seat, started reading. He asked her if her not talking to him
was an African thing.
show love or hold hands.’ she said, and enquired if his son was well. He was
divorced, as he told his classes in response to their questioning, and his young
son stayed with him some weekends. Later he was to find that she revelled in
disinterest; not asking who he’d seen a film with, but where, not who had
accompanied him to a gallery, but merely a polite raising of an eyebrow.
her why she had worn her hat in the theatre and hadn’t clapped and sung as many
in the audience had.
our hats inside. And I didn’t want to make a noise because I could see the way
you looked at people when they were unwrapping sweets. But I told the people
behind you are my teacher and to take no notice.’
a smile in her eyes, but he felt frustrated that she hadn’t expressed herself,
she acted as if they hadn’t been out together. Occasionally he rang her at her
work place, she always seemed to be working and could rarely talk for long. She
called him ‘darling’ on the phone and he noticed she greeted her student friends
in the same manner. Childishly, he felt annoyed.
Sunday she rang to ask him to help her with a communications essay, the title of
which she’d been allowed to choose herself. Despite precise instructions she got
hopelessly lost. He drove to where she was parked and led her back to his flat.
by his side while he looked at her work and wearing salwar kameez trousers
around her head, braided extensions pluming above them, she looked utterly
looking up he asked her quietly when she was going to sleep with him. She pushed
him playfully to the floor and stood astride him, eyes black and still. But it
was church day and she had to leave and, holding her folder, walked to the gate
while he returned to the screen where her essay title still read, ‘’Thou shalt
lie only with whom thou love.’ Discuss.’ He wondered if she recognised the
to the Passion play, ‘The Mysteries.’ Knowing his views on organised religion
she was surprised at his choice. How many times had he told them of social
inequality being legitimised by hymnal lines such as, ‘The rich man at his
castle, the poor man at his gate, all creatures high and lowly, god ordered
director had encouraged members of the South African cast to act in their own
languages. She casually said she could speak five of them. On the way back he
mentioned that the lead black singer, the best voice on stage, should have
played Eve. She made no comment, just shrugged. He tried to get her interested
in the songs, the humour, the scant, but effective scenery; like the stockade
made of Peter Stuyvesant cartons in which a near naked group had sung, ‘You Are
My Sunshine.’ and received a standing ovation. She shrugged again, then said,
stay with you tonight, then.’
her home. In his bedroom she began undressing quickly, a sudden dark shape
slipping under the duvet. After telling him that it was too early for them to
make love, she added disinterestedly that she would still satisfy him. He
delivered a short lecture on the myth of joyless servicing, but gave in to her
plea that she never slept naked by letting her wear him for most of the night.
morning she made herself breakfast with food she’d brought with her, picking up
pieces of cornmeal to soak up her thin stew, lips making soft smacking sounds
and occasionally smiling. Unravelling her cornrows into a tightly curled wedge
and rubbing in sulphur cream, ‘Because this is what they do back home.’ she
transformed his kitchen by putting dishes away as if she had lived there forever
instead of staying a night. Looking briefly around his minimalist home she
announced she’d be late for college and that when he took her class he mustn’t
anger the women again by jeering that infibulation was about male control and
that they didn’t have to lie back and think of Africa.
started the engine of her car, barefoot on the pavement he anguished his
frustration through the car window.
made you cum.’ she frowned and drove away.
the summer he saw her only once. She had passed the course and was beginning a
nursing degree at university and was working nearly all of the time, mostly with
the boys. On most days he rang her and if there was more than a three-day gap
between calls she would ring to remind him of ‘the contract,’ referring to a
promise he’d made to phone her regularly.
evening she asked him to meet her at the street where he’d picked her up when
she’d got lost. When he crossed the road to her, she wound down the side window
and gently took his hands and pulled them inside the car and pressed them to her
breasts. He felt awkward, like a teenager, and wanted to take her home. Grinning
at him she said she had to go back, and drove off. Always she seemed to be
been at university a month before he saw her again; for the first and only time
she’d arranged for someone to stand in for her at work. She walked in with a
parcel of fish heads and yams began washing up while they warmed and noisily
sucked one of the eyes while he opened the wine, though she rarely touched
alcohol. He found it pleasurable to watch her eat with her fingers.
hadn’t spoken since coming in, then, with eyes darker than her lashes and
blacker than her fountained braids, looked up at him and said, in long,
continuous sentences and barely pausing for breath,
mimic me your accent is too strong, I am Zulu not Afrikaans, and when you come
home with me at Christmas it will be very hot, but you must wear a suit to show
respect for my mother and you cannot sleep with me.’ She carried on eating for a
while. ‘I am beautiful inside as well as out, and if I were a virgin you would
pay a thousand pounds for me, and when I go back I even give them my panties
because we are poor and when I was a child my uncle said I was spoilt because I
didn’t sweep the yard and cook tomatoes in the big pot like the other children
and I walked like an old woman, but I hold my shoulders back for you because I
am glad you took me out, though I don’t think you will come home with me at
looked down at her plate again. He didn’t know what to say.
up and began swaying with the music he’d put on, a languorous wisdom inhabiting
every glance, then, moving nothing except her wrists, bending them rhythmically
downwards, she was nonchalantly clutching all the sex in the world.
a familiarity about the bedroom struggle to remove her clothes, until she
clamped his wrist and he noticed the rag tied around her waist, which she’d said
she wore for fasting. This meant that nothing was to enter her body except sips
down with her back to him, braided hair now in a loose knot on her shoulder
before flowing down almost to her hip.
‘I am a
wounded soldier making love on the battlefield.’ she whispered, and went to
woke she was parading naked around his bedroom, buttocks clenching Zulu style
and intently mirror-gazing. She murmured repetitive ‘mmms?’ to his
thick-throated questions about when he would see her again, and her bumping into
a stool, hair extensions loosening, did not interrupt her delighted solipsism.
After she had gone he could still hear her sharp vowels telling him she was
leaving, and lay still on the bed as he scrawled on the calendar an imaginary
cross for some day next month.
started work-placement at a local hospital, after which she came to tell him
that as her family had moved to Nottingham, and she had flown back to her
childhood home to bring Nono back with her as well as adopting Tshepiso, she now
had nowhere to live.
now been seeing a man for some while.’ she added, with that slight irregularity
of English use he usually found endearing, ‘He is not African, but he will
provide a home for us.’ Her eyes were sad, and also asking him to offer her his
hurt and confused him. The flat was not large enough, his son still stayed with
him, though less often, and he wasn’t sure he could cope with her two children.
He felt weakened, told her he couldn’t have her, was sorry
the end of her first year at university, instead of the dutiful relationship she
had with god being little more than a socialized response, she really did find
him to come to church with her and listen to her testimony. He hadn’t been to a
church since a child. It was a Victorian building whose builders would never
have envisaged the nature of this congregation. There were many people present,
mostly ethnics, the majority Africans. The pastor, white, tanned, grey hair,
tailored sports jacket, briefly shook his hand.
David.’ he drawled in an American accent, and moved into the hall.
‘Hi, I’m a
sceptic.’ Steve said under his breath as he climbed to the back of the balcony.
He stood watching the keyboard player hitting the chords with a gospel band and,
pointing to the hymn-filled screen above the stage and telling them that this
was their god for the morning, he led the congregation into their devotional
karaoke. Matrons sang, clapped and swayed and towards the far side of the
balcony he saw two students he’d taught the previous year looking across at him,
eyes wide in surprise. He exaggeratedly raised his shoulders and gestured with
open hands to them.
arrived late, African time, shook his hand - he fondled hers - and introduced
him to her lover, a protestant chill momentarily freezing the music. He was a
pleasant looking Afro-Caribbean who welcomed him warmly and asked him to sit
with them. He stayed where he was. After a sermon and further hymns it was time
for her testimony. Standing in front of the audience she told them how she had
come to god.
recited it very quickly and emotionally and he could understand little. After
she had finished, with more clapping and singing from the now packed church, she
came up to the balcony and gently squeezed his arm and asked him to take her
back to the flat so she could tell him what had really happened. Her partner
would take the children home.
at his table with him, she held his hands tightly together as if he were praying
and, with her eyes closed, told him that when she was seventeen her ancestors
had occupied her spirit and told her to remain chaste - a command manifested in
the white rag appearing around her waist - and when it was time for her to work
for them she would be told. She assumed that, like chosen others in her country,
she would ‘go away’ for two years then return as a healer.
ago the ancestral spirits had demanded that she walk into the sea and there
would be a crocodile waiting for her with open mouth into which she would climb.
There would be snakes, a festive party and great happiness inside the creature.
There she was to stay until ready to heal the sick.
told him this she spoke rapidly, became excited; several times he gently slowed
her down. She became more agitated, almost frantic, when she announced that she
had, wearing the rag, white knickers and white dressing gown, set out to obey
these wishes two weeks ago at Southend-on-Sea while her younger sister and her
boy friend had watched from the beach.
explaining the phallic symbolism of the snakes, he imagined her, oblivious to
the sounds of boy racers, the pier train, the fun fair, go-karts, the smell of
vinegar and chips, moving deeper and deeper into the sea.
him wanted to laugh, almost hysterically, at the sheer incongruity of the town
she’d chosen, but he believed her; believed her when she told him that as her
head was going under water, god had exploded inside of her and told her to
renounce what she was doing and to do His work, and only His.
waded back to her sister and pleaded with her to find a priest. They’d driven
back and found the church - the one she had been speaking in an hour before -
and she’d told David what had happened. This had been her first visit since
to cry. Releasing his hands he gripped hers. She opened her eyes; they shone
with excitement. This was a different reality for him, a spiritual universe he
couldn’t enter, and didn’t wish to. He wanted to tell her that many frigid women
who gave themselves to Jesus could do so in the knowledge that they didn’t have
to make love to him. She would, her humour and patience jettisoned, have cried
out that it was profane, an insult. She wasn’t in the classroom; he wasn’t
teaching her. He held her tightly for a long while before she left.
to church with her once more. It was the last time he saw her.
picked him up at his home and drove northwards. In the car Tshepiso ate greens
with her fingers while Beauty threw them around back streets telling him that
the preachers used private jets, while he proselytised about ruling classes and
god until they arrived.
hangar on Hackney wasteland gantry cameras arced over them like crows, people
waved at screens, puzzled they were in profile, and envelopes for Jesus
magically appeared. Outside, he’d noticed how permanent the fast-track buildings
were, how organised it was. As well as hot food and drinks there were all the
cogs of capitalism; stalls housing loan firms, insurance companies, mortgage and
investment brokers, banks, estate agents, a funeral director, even an adoption
agency. And inside, a bass voiced pastor was telling the congregation that all
that they looked upon is all they may have.
those who had nothing, he stood up, squeezed past Thandi with a tight smile and
walked towards an exit, remembering irrelevantly the gifts she’d brought him
every time she came to see him; the lemons he never ate, the popcorn he never
made, the t-shirt he never wore.
door he turned; saw her head with its short tufts of hair, Tshepiso and Nono
grinning back at him, and under the starry night ceiling of the stage, standing
in a lake of lilies, the wild hair of a singer hitting Whitney Houston notes.
Turning sixties pop into gospel, Jackson Five look-alikes strutted to the front
and a thousand believers raised their hands.
like Sean Connery,’ she said, dropping potatoes onto her plate. She glittered a
frank look at him and grinned. ‘Well, maybe David Niven.’
into the refectory, he’d seen at the counter a tall, pale, dark haired woman
with large black eyes, full lips and, though only afterwards did he articulate
this, a vulnerable exoticism.
‘Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m
Mister Right,’ he said casually, with what he hoped was a trifling amusement
playing around his mouth. As ever, the internal split between the ‘I’ and the
‘me’ was active, knowing instantly the impression he was, or thought he was,
creating. He asked her what she was doing here. She told him she’d just begun a
coffee on her tray she looked at him candidly and said,
forty five.’ He paused - silence is assent. ‘And you are thirty one.’ he said.
know that?’ she asked with a delight that was almost childlike; an
expression, an attitude he came to know well and was constantly affected by and
nearly always with an undertow of sadness. He let her think, as he supposed she
still did, that this ageing Bond was fourteen years older than her instead of
the twenty four he actually was.
him where he was sitting and he nodded towards the table just inside the door
where a student was waiting for him. He wanted to finish his rant against the
pernicious weltenshaung of political correctness he’d begun as they left
the classroom. One of the bonuses of lecturing to mature students was that they
tended to listen to lecturers both inside and outside of class. He was up to
’…is the most fascistic and repressive form of ideological, social, linguistic
and economic control since Stalin. It engenders fear, distorts reality, forfeits
the counter, she asked him his name. ‘Chris,’ he said, hers was Mercia. The
canteen was filling. She sat down with her meal and occasionally glanced across
to him. His companion didn’t seem to notice. He’d taken her that morning to a
local social care office where she was prescribed methadone to help her come off
heroin. She lived on her own in a banjo shaped cul-de-sac in the mean maze of
an east end council estate and was getting through his social work course with
more help from him than he should have given.
to her half-heartedly. Usually, in spite of twelve years of teaching, he tended
to proselytize as much outside of timetabled hours as within them, but he was
looking at Mercia’s table, some admin. staff were sitting there, a man grinned
at her, she smiled back. He felt jealousy, it was quite strong, thus blanketing
his ability to instantly analyse it.
class, he left before her. She glanced up at him, He shrugged, smiled, noticed
his student frowning at her as he closed the door.
had a relationship with someone he wasn’t teaching for many years, though there
always seemed to be some kind of offers from female students to lecturers.
a virgin till he was twenty six. If he hadn’t had a need for what he felt he’d
missed, or had been more cleverly disingenuous, perhaps he’d have still been
young, he’d wondered what on earth, or in bed, it was really like and sated
himself on mind flicks of skinny Iris at number twelve or the silken, misty
space inside the thighs of principal boys his dad took him to see at Lyceum
pantos, and since then a host of encounters: like ginger Elaine, ward of an
elderly communist with an Essex farmhouse that had Karma Sutra carvings around
the hall and who had wanted them to do it in front of him because he couldn’t
any more, though his Scrooged nightshirt still hung from the bedpost in her
from Ghana, who had made it to the local university, with her two a.m. calls
about clinical psychology, dragging him from pumping gyms to thumping night
clubs and, when drunk, screeching that he should go back to his ‘own colour,’
her ex-lover once following him to work and staring up at the staff room window.
And there was Charity, a Ugandan who had been sexually abused by her older
brother and the ubiquitous uncle.
in the canteen he saw her again. They sat down together where she told him about
her course with wide, enthusiastic eyes. The place was almost empty, yet this
particular table was psychologically owned by the Humanities Department, the
staff of which sat down noisily around them. He could really only play the
supportive teacher role, encouraging, informing, smiling, but scrawled a note on
a napkin as she got up to leave, asking her if she’d like a drink one evening.
the college the same afternoon to tell him that she had a ten-year old son with
hydrocephalus whom she lived for, and didn’t want to worry about or hurt someone
else and was nervous about a teacher-student relationship. He liked her saying
the last. Some mature female students, if they fancied a lecturer, often overtly
showed it, sometimes bragging to classmates if they’d been successful. He had
never made an approach to one of his own students.
we should start off as friends,’ she said, in a rather prim, sensible way.
He took a call from her the day
after in the small lecturers union office in the corner of the staff room that
he soon came to monopolise - playing the ‘who’s going to put the phone down
first’ game with her that, in retrospect, always seemed pleasantly juvenile. She
gave him a potted history of herself.
Born and raised in St. Lucia with
two sisters and two brothers she’d spent a lot of time as a child sitting
outside her father’s bar acquainting herself with masculine cursing. She and her
siblings were part Norwegian, French, and Carob Indian, whose maternal great
grandfather had owned slaves on his sugar plantation, a portion of which was
occupied by a large house built by the married eldest sister. When Mercia had
visited her siblings recently she had been spat at. The Sanliquot name was not
popular amongst indigenous Islanders.
At nineteen she’d married a St
Lucian whom she met in England and who had returned to the Caribbean shortly
after their son had been born. Chris asked what her first memories of England
were. She told him how excited she’d been on a school trip as a newly-arrived
twelve year old when informed they were going to the sea, and then seeing that
flat grey line for the first time and crying with disappointment. He asked her
why she hadn’t returned home with her husband.
‘He would have treated me as a
Caribbean wife.’ she said. She was quiet for a while, then, ‘I used to lie next
to him for months knowing he was seeing other women, but couldn’t break free. It
was like a chick wanting to get out of an egg and then when it has can only lay
beside the broken shell, for comfort, reassurance.’
She was in her bath eating an ice
cream when he rang her that evening. Laughing, she asked if he’d like her to eat
it or do other things with it. He began to suggest something, then, as if
remembering her mother’s behavioural instructions to her regarding relationships
with males as she reached puberty said, ‘Oh, I’m propositioning you, aren’t I.’
He could see a long leg raised, ice cream balanced on the knee, widened eyes,
slightly pouting lips.
She told him about her course; the
Rogerian approach to clients, its emphasis on ‘the now ‘and, so far, no Freud,
and about Dan, who ran it, calling her ‘my dear lady’ as if he was about to kiss
her hand, and who would tell the students they shared that sociology wasn’t a
‘proper subject’ but not to tell ‘the tall guy,’ meaning Chris, who imagined
Dan’s eternal bow tie spinning as he said it, like a music hall comedian.
It was Easter, he was decorating
his flat, she was at the hospital where her boy was having his annual tests for
his medical condition, and they spoke only briefly. He then rang to ask her to
come out with him. She insisted they mustn’t be back late, her younger sister
would baby sit.
As he arrived outside a Victorian
terraced house she was leaning against a large Citroen talking with a slight,
Afro Caribbean girl. He could hear their animated patois as he parked and which
continued as he got out and stood quietly next to them, feeling excluded.
In a local bar she told him that
she didn’t feel she was attractive. He told her how ludicrous her statement was.
He wanted her advice on some
curtain material. She went back with him, admired the Egyptian mural he’d
painted on a living room wall, disagreed with his choice of cloth and said she
had to go. As he braked outside her home she said rather archly ‘I don’t think
the evening finished as you’d have preferred it.’ Again, the slight arrogance
and the vulnerability.
She said things that evening which
she would occasionally repeat; that she didn’t know much about him, that he
intrigued her, that he touched people with his eyes, that he was passionate, and
how two people in a relationship should become part of each other. She wanted
someone to understand her needs without stating them - she was like a demanding
child, she would loved him to have told her that her command was his wish - and
that people saw her as ‘a prize vase that was unobtainable.’
In the coming months she would
enjoy smugly quoting her favourite brother’s opinion that she was an ‘ice
maiden’ - her actions belying it.
Phoning him the following day she
told him she’d been thinking of him most of the night. But, there was a caveat.
‘I’m warning you. You’ll fall in
love with me. I don’t want you to for your sake.’ He believed her, didn’t
recognise it as projection, a defence. This was, of course, precisely when he
fell in love with her. He felt the fear, familiar, yet new. We tend not to
remember past pain clearly.
‘I’ve always been a sex object to
men since I’ve been on my own,’ she said. He could almost see the smiling
Calling him next day she
announced firmly that she was ‘self sufficient’ and repeatedly asked if he’d
been thinking of her. ‘I just know you have,’ she preened. He pictured her with
chin raised, lashes lowered, could feel the adolescent narcissism.
A week and many phone
conversations later she asked him to her home. He met her son, Julius, was
naively surprised at how dark-skinned he was. He was well built, tall, handsome,
and with a shy smile. He had just finished a lesson with his tutor who, complete
with tweed jacket, elbow patches and old world courtesy, was saying goodbye to
his mother. It was obvious he fancied her, most men appeared to. She would say
to Chris with a big grin,
‘I was shopping today and two men
looked round at me and stared, then looked at each other and said, ‘Fucking
She was familiar with using men to
get what she wanted, once demonstrating in Chris’s garden how she’d got a
mechanic to top up her car radiator. Crossing her hands above her breasts, heels
raised together, legs looking even longer, eyes wide, she simpered,
‘Me? Oh, I don’t know how to do
things like that. Couldn’t you do it for me?’ Then a plaintiff,
She’d come round that day for help
with her college work. He’d gritted his teeth at the statistics-based research
she had to comment on, but was happy to help with her mild dyslexia. She left,
telling him she’d been fantasising about them in an art gallery, hands in the
back pockets of each other’s jeans, laughing, sharing, oblivious to people and
paintings, then, almost instantly turning around and saying, before getting into
her car, ‘I don’t want to see you for a while. I can’t do my work with you in
the same building.’
Next day she rang and said she’d
started waiting by the phone, missing his voice.
She went on work placement for a
week and he didn’t see her, but she rang constantly. ‘It would be fantastic to
make love’ she’d say, ‘but you’d want more, want commitment, and I couldn’t give
it.’ And, without it feeling at all hackneyed, ‘You are my soul.’ Next time it
was, ‘I don’t want to share you with anyone, wherever I am I want you to be
there,’ and, ‘This is too intense, I’m so scared, I keep wanting to tell you I
won’t see you again,’ and, ‘I’m unhappy when I’m not with you, I can’t breath.’
Calling him in the early hours, she
said, ‘I don’t want to put you on the list of people I’ve hurt.’ Then, with
exaggerated huskiness, ‘Make love to me gently tonight, tell me what to do.’ He
did, as if she was in his bed or he in hers. These calls went on. She appeared
to be playing at it all, wishing it were real.
Wanting some photos of her he
arranged a session with the photography lecturer. He watched from an unobtrusive
distance, not wanting to distract her. She posed easily, sexily, There was
something in her posing - her clothes, a slightly dated glamour, that reminded
him of front covers of Picture post he remembered as a teenager. The
photographer asked her if she would pose for the students. She refused.
She told him she would come into
his class one day and kiss him. She did. As she left the room he said flippantly
to sixteen surprised women that although she’d said she’d do it, he never
believed her. A moment later one of the admin. staff pushed the classroom door
further open and with concerned voice told him that a young woman was just down
the corridor looking distressed. Mercia had heard him. He left the class,
apologised to her, and told her to wait in her car for him. He’d never seen her
look so hurt.
She came one evening, unarranged,
insisting she undress in the spare room. He lay on his bed. Half prancing, half
mincing, she Marks and Spencered into the bedroom, pale skin, pink lacy
underwear, hands on waist, wetting her lips, as if saying,
‘Look at me, what a prize And it’s
for you!’ He told her to relax, take her time.
’But, I want to please you,
tell me what I have to do.’
But, he couldn’t do it, couldn’t
penetrate her. Her shiny-eyed, demanding eagerness to please elicited merely a
tense exhaustion. When she left, briskly dressing, she said, ‘I’m disappointed,’
and after a pause, ‘It doesn’t matter, it won’t affect our relationship.’
Then, when again he’d failed to
make love to her, ‘I feel cheated. Why can’t I arouse you? You’d do it with a
one-night stand, why not me? Am I too prudish, too young for you? I don’t want
to lose you. I’m so jealous.’ She cried, stopped, then, her voice rising, ‘If
you don’t break your brick walls I’ll run away and hide behind mine.’
They had sex, of course, but not
the final giving, the resolution of love, of lust. Then, after some weeks, he
suggested they go away for a weekend. He rented a cottage in Norfolk, her sister
looked after Julius. It was small, thatched, with rose covered porch.
She didn’t think it would ever
happen, but it did. He’d told her with half-joking bravado before they came that
she wouldn’t be able to keep up with him and as the East Anglia dawn lightened
the curtains after their first night together, she’d whispered,
‘Okay, you win, you win.’
They went to a nearby pub, she
announcing that she would love to walk into a place where every man’s eyes would
be on her. As they entered, every woman’s eyes were, too.
One afternoon during the following
week, and smoothing her love-tumbled hair as she got dressed in the front room
of the flat, she said,
‘It’s too much, it’s all too soon.
I haven’t been with anyone for seven years. When I sit with you while you
correct my work, it’s like sitting on a volcano. I can never give a man love. I
have to protect myself, wrap my child around me.’ .
He felt at times as if he was
struggling with her to keep any rationality, any semblance of emotional
intelligence. As when he’d taken her to Brighton to meet his son who was playing
trumpet in a band that played Brazilian street music. She saw his son step out
of the group to put an arm around a girl walking alongside and then shortly
afterward, marking time till a fellow band member came level with him, and
kissing her affectionately. ‘I don’t like the way he treats women,’ she’d said,
and wouldn’t speak to Chris on the train back to London, as if his son’s
behaviour, whatever it signified to her, was either a genetic trait or learnt,
and was his father’s fault anyway.
And when she said, rather angrily,
‘I’ve been looking for someone to understand me since a child and now I’ve found
you, and you live in a cocoon,’ He hadn’t the strength to answer. Nor had he
when, a few days after first meeting her, she’d said matter-of-factly, ‘You live
in your head, you surprise me.’
She moved house a week after this,
not giving him the address, and a few days later rang to say that she would
always be grateful to him for helping her.
‘Forget you ever met me,’ she said,
in that imperious tone she faked so unconvincingly. And then told him that she
was thinking of fostering a child and that a Care Visitor may wish to see him
for a reference.
‘Don’t tell her that I’m the bitch
that broke your heart.’ she said.
A month ago, and four years after
first meeting her, he was leaning back against a pavement barrier outside the
local train station waiting for friends to see a football match, when she
appeared suddenly in front of him, seeming taller than ever.
She had a low cut top, her skin
the colour of honey. She’d been to St. Lucia. He asked her casually if she was
shopping in the nearby market and whether she was a counsellor yet. She was a
drug abuse team leader now she told him, barely concealing her pride. She seemed
restless, said she had to go.
For the briefest moment as she
turned to leave there was hurt and resigned sadness in her eyes. Then her
younger sister, who he hadn’t noticed was with her, said impatiently and in
’Come on, let’s see ‘im indoors,
Dan, Dan, the teacher man.’ Her voice trailed away.
Who was ‘Dan?’ her psychology
lecturer? Wasn’t it a Daniel who used to teach Julius? Was she living with one
Then her sister was standing
directly in front of him, small, thin, looking up with baleful eyes.
‘Julius is dead.’ she said
quietly. ‘He died.’
She scampered away. He looked at
her back, above her head, could just see Mercia further on, peering closely into
a shop window with a characteristic frown.
‘What had happened? Had Julius’s
shunt failed? Had…
His friends came laughing out of
the station. He walked with them down the slight hill. Pictures, images, that
had been lying still, whirled around, released: her trying on tailor-made
dresses in her bedroom, the small waist he could almost get his hands around,
the full hips, posing in the solipsistic mirror, back arched, looking at every
inch of herself; she, in a department store, disappearing, and him, unguarded,
panicking, intellectually knowing that it was the child in him being left by
mummy - no emotions are new; her phoning him from a shoe shop, tears in her
voice, saying that they wouldn’t give back her money for a pair of shoes that
had broken after a week and, in frustration, tipping a rack over, cascading
footwear over the floor; during the college fire drill, wearing a black cape in
the quadrangle slightly apart from her new classmates, looking for him, head
high, as if uncaring, and him not walking the few yards to her, not knowing why.
And the whole litany of
contradictions: the need, the almost fierce independence, arrogance,
possessiveness, wanting to give herself, then vanishing into her keep, peering
at him through its tiny window; telling him that when they first met me she saw
so much sadness behind his eyes she had to turn away. And saying almost
disinterestedly as she passed him in a corridor outside the art room,
‘Pull me back if I walk away.’ He
And he never moved towards her
now, couldn’t see her, so many shops, doors, market stalls, people.
He moved along, his pals hopping
into the kerb and back again to give themselves room in the crowds, smelt the
sharp sweetness of chips and vinegar and the musky cloud of cheap corn oil. He
felt for a nanosecond the prick of a tear, then the detachment, the
intellectualising, chopping into him like the rigid hands of a masseur on the
back of a client.
He silently named the type faces
on the shop fascias, observed, as ever, the unnecessary apostrophes, the pvc
windows aesthetically corrupting Edwardian houses in a side street, wondered why
the mock castles at the sides of the main entrance to the stadium were painted
cream, as if Mickey Mouse was going to skip out of this tiny Disneyland and give
every fan a hug.
A last image got through; Mercia in
St Lucia after being spat upon, head held back at a slight, proud angle, looking
defiantly down at the perpetrator, not bothering to wipe the spittle off.
Then he was looking at his match
ticket, reading every little word and number on it, noticing the police and
behind them a yellow tape, thinking - and wanting to laugh hysterically - that
it said polite notice and do not be cross.
The same battleground. Smells of
cooking fat, polish, disinfectant, oven heat and new coconut matting filled the
cramped scullery and pushed their way around the living room. The sounds of
slippered feet, a moist hand agitatedly brushing a brow, then the same hand
using an apron as a towel, the squeal of a fork inside a saucepan, the knocking
of crockery, all became a whole, unutterably familiar.
My mother, tall, angular and in
her mid-forties, with a thin face, long nose, worried eyes, and clothes which in
spite of their obvious age still retained a neat, well pressed appearance,
scuffled from the kitchen with two laden plates and placed them hurriedly on the
tablecloth, almost dropping them. She drew her breath sharply and putting a hand
to her mouth urgently sucked her fingers.
Shaking her hands quickly she
wiped them heavily down the front of her apron, went back to the kitchen again,
reached up and pulled the window sash down. She returned and seated herself and
with quick nervous gestures patted her black, greying hair.
Sitting opposite her was my
father. His eyes were small but rather bulbous, his nose creased, causing his
upper lip to bare an expanse of gum and a ragged line of nicotine-stained teeth.
He looked like an angry rabbit eating cabbage.
‘Len, must you make so much
She tried to ask the question
pleasantly, only a glimmer of disapproval showing. She waited for a response and
when none came she leaned forward with her wrists resting on the edge of the
table and her knife and fork raised at the same angle as her body leaning toward
‘Must you make so much noise?’
A disinterested mumble came from
under his nose at this carefully enounced repetition and the munching noise
increased. She leaned back with a sigh of fatalistic acceptance and began
It did not then occur to me that
she was an unwilling captive. It was 1958. I was seventeen years old.
My father was a caretaker at a
local factory, my mother a cleaner at a city bank. They were both proprietorial;
it was ‘his’ factory, just as it was ‘her’ bank.
He had one of the previous
Sunday’s papers spread out on the table to the side of him and in between
scooping large mouthfuls of food into himself he inclined his head to one side
and read the cartoon page slowly and carefully, his cheeks bulging and lips
silently forming the captions. Occasionally he stopped chewing and frowned, his
mouth hanging open. Understanding would come and with an infantile, sucking
laugh he shook his head, tutting with pleasure as he looked down at his plate,
flicking small particles of food from his bottom lip and, sticking a fork
through a new potato and a cube of meat, would guide the heaped piece of cutlery
into his mouth as he turned his attention to the paper again.
After a few minutes his head
jerked up and he frowned once more, looking across the space between them.
‘What’s the matter with him,
then?’ he asked, jerking a thumb towards me.
Observing this nightly enacted
scene from an armchair, I continued staring at the earthenware butler sink six
yards away while their meal was finished in silence. I leant forward and pushed
a hand under the cushion I was sitting on and pulled out the book both Tony and
I had bought copies of the day before. It was Jack Kerouac’s ’On The Road.’
I slumped back and with aggressive interest began to read.
My mother cleared the table,
opened the door on the side of the scullery and through the net curtains I saw
her open the outside lavatory door. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my father
lean across to the television. I tensed. The quick look at me before flicking
the switch told me the mood he was already in or which I had unknowingly put
Drawing my breath, I run a
forefinger down the centre page, opened the book out either side, determined to
concentrate wholly on reading it. He gripped the underneath of his chair and
half-sitting turned it and himself around to face the set no more than three
feet away and stared blankly at it. The room lightened as the blue-grey glow
appeared. Despite myself I looked across and saw a detailed close-up of a small,
fat, hand with tiny tapering fingers. A smooth voice explained that it was a
detail from, ‘…one of his greatest works, ‘Madonna And Child.’’ I didn’t know
who ‘his’ was, but certainly wanted to find out.
The hand disappeared into the
bottom of the set and the finely executed folds of a garment with minute cracks
interlacing the whole area slowly followed. The curved, unblemished chin and the
small thin lips of a woman slid into view and then the buttons underneath were
suddenly pushed in and snapped out again and there was the noise of cheering and
applause as a bulky woman announced in a proud and jovial voice that she came
from Manchester, at which the tall, lean-faced man hovering restlessly above her
laughed wildly and shouted,
‘Has anyone got an umbrella?
The unseen audience cackled
uproariously. The man held his hands in front of him and waved them up and down
and when the noise trailed away pulled grinning, giggly faces at the camera,
repeatedly crossing one knee over the other and asking her what prize she had in
mind. It seemed she was going to win something simply by living in Manchester.
Straining to speak as gently and
as pleasantly as I could, I asked him why he had switched channels, why he had
‘turned it over.’
‘Wha’? Oh, it was only talkin’,’
he answered quickly and grinned with delight as the fat woman complained
jokingly that if she didn’t win, her husband would divorce her.
I looked at him; his thin,
uncombed mousy hair hanging loosely from a barely discernible parting, the weak,
stubbly chin, the watery eyes and that complacent grin. I turned back to my book
and the meaningless words. I stared at ‘Moriarty’ and kept repeating it quietly,
over and over - like ‘ever’ which I said endlessly as I tried to sleep at night
and to grasp the concept with a final ‘ever’ - the same word, until it was just
an absurd sound, and felt the loneliness, the anger again.
Turning my face to him, voice
quivering, I stammered, ‘Do you know, you put that thing on regardless of…of
what’s on, what time it’s on, you watch…inane, trivial…anything that makes you
think, challenges you…you…’
I was clenching my fists on my
‘Look’, he bellowed, standing up,
hands tightened on either side of his thighs,
‘What about you and your bloody
books? Read, read, bloody read!’
He grabbed the paperback from my
hands and threw it at the wall behind me. It seemed to float before it hit and
in a moment of schizoid irrelevance I wondered what pages it would lay open at
as it landed
I saw my surroundings with
frightening clarity; my mother, returned from the lavatory, bending over the
sink, her blotchy arms, the speckled grey gas cooker, the tiny living room, the
grey fireplace with its stepped sides, the worn floral mat raggedly spread thin
on the linoleum, the dingy passage, seen through the distorting frosted glass
panels in the door. And like a final perception, the claustrophobic
inevitability of it all. It wasn’t the only time it had happened. I was eleven
when he first did it, but now the shock wasn’t quite as great.
At least I could tell Tony about
I’d known Tony since we’d started
at the local Tech. in the East End four years before where we’d learnt the
rudiments of the building trades and had both opted for painting and decorating.
(‘Get a trade in yer ‘ands, son’ was the stereotypical advice from my father).
We’d seen each other virtually every day since. He had come across to me, all
blonde hair and blue eyes, while I was nervously waiting outside the main
entrance on the first day with scores of other boys. He told me a joke.
‘This bloke told his friend that
he’d made an awful Freudian slip the other evening. ‘What was it then?’ asked
his friend. ’Well, I was having dinner with my mother and meant to say, ’Would
you pass the butter please?’ But it came out as, ‘you fuckin’ bitch, you fuckin’
ruined my fuckin’ life.’ I liked him immediately
He took to me, he once said,
because although I played football I looked as if I wrote poetry as well.
Tony had a younger sister with
dark hair and eyes who looked rather Latin and
who he occasionally and affectionately
called ‘kid’, much to her fifteen year old annoyance.
It was she who opened the door to
me, Tony was behind her, but she obviously hadn’t seen him. Then she turned,
jumped up and put her arms around him, her legs for a second kicking back behind
his waist and nearly pulling him over.
‘Tone-eee’, you’re back, you’re
already home.’ she shrilled as if he’d been away for a month instead of
returning from a building site, then playfully biting his ear, said a quick
hello to me and ran, giggling, through to the kitchen before coming back again.
‘Just a minute, hold on.’ said
Tony, ’Is that lipstick you’re wearing?’
‘Yes, it is lipstick, I’m
wearing it because I want to, I’m going out in it and I intend to
continue to wear it.’ She puckered her face.
‘Quite satisfied?’ She looked very
‘Thank you,’ she said
sarcastically, taking silence as assent. The front door opened and shut quickly,
the sound of her hurrying heels could just about be heard.
‘She’s gorgeous,’ said Tony
warmly, taking a tobacco tin from his pocket and rolling a cigarette. He didn’t
roll it very successfully. He never did.
I liked the feel of that house,
solid, but light, and envied him his relationships, especially with his mother,
who I could hear moving around upstairs. His father had left soon after his
sister had been born. He never spoke about it.
It was raining. The colours of
streets and buildings were washed away and a steady drizzle dropped flimsy
layers of cool wind and a fine blurred greyness around people hurrying along. We
walked quickly, sometimes with one leg in the gutter, playing a game with
ourselves, trying to maintain a steady speed without leaving the pavement
completely and having to admit failure as we gave wide berths to groups of
teenage girls leaving the local cosmetic factory, mincing along in their tight
skirts, their umbrellas held in a raggedly line above their bouncing, giggling
Tony liked the rain, it sent peace
down to him, he said, and he could wander about and look at people in their
self-sufficient little worlds and stand on corners and gaze at the cars as they
waited for the spots of colour to give them the right of way. He thought that in
the rain things in cities became themselves and were nearer to their own
particular truth. They were alone then, virtually ignored by people whose
dominant perceptions of them were as shelters of some kind, not as aesthetic
objects, part of our designed material world, rising, sometimes awkwardly but
firmly in the rain.
We marched down the street, the
rain heavier, blowing into our faces, Tony’s jacket flapping behind him, the
front of his shirt turning into a clinging brown. I didn’t know where we were
going, it somehow didn’t matter with Tony, but I guessed it was Lou’s. He
stopped and took his jacket off, putting it over his head and clenching the
bottom of the lapels around his neck, looking suddenly feminine, like a factory
worker with a thick headscarf tied under her chin.
There was a bus shelter further
down the road, the rain splattering from its roof in the red neon glow from the
fascia of a late-opening pie and eel shop. I ran towards it. Leaning over a
tubular bar, getting my breath back, I saw Tony standing in the middle of the
road, cars splashing past him, putting a foot tentatively forward each time tail
lights went by. It was fascinating to watch. It was like a slow motion film
sequence of a dancer stranded from the chorus and uncertain of her routine. But
whatever he did, and he did sometimes look a little unsure, unknowing, it was,
Seeming to guess the picture in
my mind he flung his arms rhythmically in the air and as a gap in the line of
cars appeared he made swimming motions, pawing his arms through the air to the
shelter. He leant against the inside, took deep breaths, patting his chest. Then
‘Is that vinegar?’
He looked across to the pie and
eel shop and screwed up his face in pain, his full, blue eyes blinking. Some
people have an allergy to pollen, some to cats. Tony’s was vinegar. He suddenly
looked pathetic, didn’t appreciate my laughter.
‘Do you know what that brown stuff
is?’ He pointed to the shop. ‘It’s evil, intellect shattering, it’s… I can’t
breath, can’t think. I’d like to write an advert.’ He moved his hand across in
front of him, thumb and forefinger curled, shaping the words, ‘’Do you want to
be a moron? Have plans to be a cretin? Then buy our vinegar’ Let’s go to Lou’s.’
‘Intellect’ was a word Tony used
and alluded to a lot. We would debate, argue, discuss, were opinionated and
often uninformed. I would cross the park to Tony’s house, his mother usually
letting me in, and he would be pacing around the living room agitatedly.
‘Don’t you see? its a con,’ he would say, ‘we’re tied to
our behaviour by a piece
of metaphysical string, always being
pulled back to actions, intentions, attitudes.’
talking ‘conscience’ here?’ I’d ask.
He’d spin round. ‘Yes, yes, but
where does that come from? Is it innate? Internalised from the world around us?
And it’s all about control, isn’t it.’ he’d say excitedly. ’You could perm all
of our values and behaviour with programmed and learnt behaviour - there’s so
many options - but whatever’s doing the asking, ‘conscience’ as you call it,
it’s socially controlling us and…’
And so he’d go on and I’d go on; at
his house, at my house - our respective mothers hesitantly bringing us cups of
tea in the front rooms - walking around the local streets, the parks, sitting in
cafes, especially these, talking, babbling, gesticulating into the night,
feeling that there should be people flocking around us with gold pens glinting
in the street lights, writing down everything we were saying.
Of course, nothing we were saying
was new. There were bits of Marx, Freud, existentialism, psychology, sociology,
philosophy, and a lot of what we said was probably sheer nonsense. We weren’t
aware. What did we know?
Lou was leaning across his counter,
elbows on a newspaper spread between milk and sugar filled cups and, for once,
was not telling anyone who would listen that he could have been a ‘coifurer’
because in Italy his father had been a hairdresser and he was to follow in his
footsteps, never explaining why he hadn’t. The café’s steamy, sour warmth,
tobacco smoke, damp clothes hanging from the brass hooks of the clothes stand
was a familiar, welcoming cavern.
We hung up our soaking jackets,
Tony wiped his face vigorously with a handkerchief, his shirt dark and
saturated. His sucked his tea noisily and put it down again on the chipped
marble topped table.
‘I want to get away.’ he said,
He glanced up at me, waiting for
it to sink in. I couldn’t quite understand what he meant.
‘Get away? Where?’ Get away and do
He tutted impatiently. ‘Just get
away, somewhere, anywhere.’
‘What about your job? Your
apprenticeship? You can’t just pack it in.’
‘’course I can, I can always go
back there if I want, and there’s less reasons stopping you than there are me.
You’re not exactly in a state of bliss at home, are you.’
I incongruously giggled, stopping
myself instantly, unsure of what was underneath it, what sounds and turmoil it
would turn into.
He stretched back in his chair,
smugly, as if he’d proved a point. He was so sure of himself. I felt annoyed. I
didn’t know why.
He leant forward eagerly.
‘Don’t you see, it’s simple, really, it is.’
‘I know it seems like it, but…’
I didn’t know what I wanted to
say. I rubbed my hands over my face, like a child might; pushing its nose up and
pulling its eyes down to look like an ogre.
‘Well, are you coming with me?’
I felt more annoyed. I criss-crossed a pool of spilt tea with a finger and
flicked little splashes of it away from me.
‘I’m still going.’ He said quietly.
I could see Lou amongst his
crockery reading his paper and I wondered how he could stick inside this place
all day with its stained ceiling and walls and the, ‘two airships on a cloud,
mate.’ and ‘babies on a raft, Lou.’ for sausages and mash and beans on toast,
and while mechanistically producing them, thinking, perhaps, of pleasant banter
as he trimmed people’s hair back home in the sun.
‘I’m going tomorrow.’
‘Tomorrow?’ I asked incredulously.
He leant closer to me, ‘I’m going
to get the tube, and the nearest main line station it takes me to, I’m…’ he
‘There are only two lines you can
get from our station.’
‘Don’t tell me; don’t tell me, I’m just going to go. Anywhere. I don’t want
to plan anything, just go. I’m taking fifty quid with me, that’ll do, should be
enough. I’ll take my chances with digs and things.’
‘That sounds all right sitting
He held his hands up in front of
him, ‘I’ll be okay.’
I stared down at the table, the
spilt tea about to drip between my knees.
‘You’re not sure, are you,’ he
‘I can’t.’ I almost shouted.’ I
He said nothing. He sipped his
tea, eyes looking at me over the cup. ‘I’ll send some money home to help them
out, of course,’ he said.
‘I don’t suppose I’ll be coming,
He slowly got up. ‘Okay.’ he said
‘Ta-ta boys,’ said Lou as we went
out, not looking up, still smiling.
I sat in the bus absently
counting the fag ends and matches in the channels of the wooden floor, with Tony
bending his head back and looking into the night through a condensation-free
patch on the window that he’d wiped with the side of his fist.
‘What’s you mum going to say?’
He looked blankly in front of him
and shrugged, as if he hadn’t grasped the question.
‘I don’t know where I’m going to
go. I’m fed up with streets, though,’ He waved his arms expansively. ’Still, if
I land up in streets, well…’ He shrugged again.
‘I want to do things I’ll
remember. Do you understand?’
I didn’t answer. Neither of us
said anything until we got off the bus and walked the short distance to his
home. He asked me in, I declined.
‘Come with me.’
‘Drop me a line,’ I said, forcing
a grin and playfully punching his arm. I walked away, not looking back As I
turned the corner I kicked a stone viciously along the road, it ricocheted and
clinked into the base of a lamppost. Behind it, a dog, resenting the
interruption to its ablutions, barked at the dingy world around it and trotted
I tried to finish the last few
pages of Kerouac’s book that night lying in bed, and realised I hadn’t talked
about it with Tony. There hadn’t been time. I’d imagined us sitting in Lou’s
bursting with it; its energy, rawness, poetry, the adventure, the colours, all
of it, talking about it until Lou started putting the chairs on the tables and
still continuing outside long after hearing him bolt his door.
I didn’t sleep, I wondered where
he was going, would he actually go? I imagined him
wandering around somewhere on his own, stopping someone and saying,
‘Tell me about things.’
This could have meant anything,
but they were really feelings; feelings from bits of wood, a doorknocker,
clouds, from an old woman, the silhouette of a child playing around a lamppost,
an articulated lorry, the smell of paint, of hotdogs at half-time at Upton Park.
Tony had an almost psychotic obsession at times to become other people, not just
those that were obviously different, anyone; it was a rampant empathy. He
wanted, when the mood took him, to become even programmed creatures. I had seen
him sit on his haunches for half an hour staring at his sister’s kitten, hardly
moving, saying nothing, like a method actor performing in abstract for his
introvert audience of one. He would talk to, or merely observe, a stranger and
barely out of earshot, say,
‘I know that person, I know
And his intellectualising. We
would, perhaps, be walking silently in a park, and he would jump on a bench, an
imaginary lectern in front of him, frown down at someone in an imaginary front
row and say gravely,
‘There must be no ‘your’ truth,
but a whole truth, there can be only one; an unfeeling intellect devoid of
everything except that intellect. Even the most unemotional intelligence
distorts the object of knowledge. We need an…untouched ‘isness’ - I like that,
sounds like a virgin Greek goddess - an intellectual god, some sort of
mythological machine, and if the work gets too much for it - and don’t forget,
there is one whole complex truth in every square millimetre of everything - it
should have a whole group of these machine-like gods to help it, an
authoritative intellectual body, an AIB, without emotions…human character.
Nothing must distort clarity.’
He’d scythe his hand as if he were
decapitating his audience, which would consist of me, and possibly a pigeon
strutting disinterestedly in front of him. He’d look down at me, shrug his
shoulders dejectedly and ask me what truth was, as if I had known the answer all
the time and had purposely withheld it from him to make him miserable.
I couldn’t picture him away from
England, I couldn’t see him in scenes of rural wilderness, endless deserts, the
hot, orange-groved landscapes of California, wearing a T-shirt and not his tie
- the mark of the skilled artisan however paint spotted it might be - putting
beer before food, he was too young to legally drink alcohol anyway, and instead
of coffee and benzedrine it would be weak tea and lemonade, and it wouldn’t be
jazz, sex and aimless driving sitting next to Sal Paradise gazing out of a car
window at the continuous road - perhaps it was me who wanted to be
sitting there - nor LSD, mescalin and free love, rather Wills Woodbines, and
sketching from the black and white photos of happy, healthy looking women with
their brushed out private parts from Health and Efficiency magazines, rubbing a
pencil line on cartridge paper with his finger to emphasise the curve of a
There would be no New York jazz
joint or Mexican whore house, his would be no tale of chill dawns and madness, I
couldn’t see him being a ‘western kinsman of the sun’ couldn’t imagine him
seeing San Fransisco, ‘stretched out ahead the fabulous white city on her eleven
mystic hills.’ Perhaps didn’t want to.
I think I cried that night
When my father died some years
later I didn’t cry, though I tried to, but was reminded of both him and Tony
when, clearing out my life shortly afterwards before moving from the East End, I
found Kerouac’s story, dog-eared and torn, at the back of a bookshelf. A week
later, in the early morning mist by my father’s grave, I laid it carefully on
the wet grass like a book of remembrance.
Twelve years after this I heard
Tony had been living in Liverpool and was now back in London. He’d never
communicated with me. I wondered if a city in the north west of England had been
his ‘search for the edge.’ I was given his address, it wasn’t far away from
where I was living.
I never went to see him - twelve
years was a long time, at least it felt like it then. What had happened to him?
How long had he stayed in Liverpool? Had a nasal twang replaced his posh
cockney? Had he married? Obvious questions. I let them lie unanswered. I did see
him once more, though.
A few months ago I was coming out
of a shop in Carnaby Street - I was working nearby, still decorating - when a
tall, very slim, rather exotic looking woman brushed by me, giving me a quick
smile, drawling, in what sounded like an American accent, ‘Hey, excuse me,’ and
ran across the road to a smartly dressed man half turning away from her as she
put her arm in his. Twenty yards further on he opened the nearside door of a
sports car and she slipped casually in. It moved away, the man driving. It was
Resting against the whiteboard he
looked across to the empty chair on his left where Marci had always sat, until a
year ago when her estranged husband’s jealousy had finally won and she’d left
the course. He knew nothing of her and David, her lecturer, he was jealous of
It was a common story amongst
mature female students. Men, feeling inadequate and frightened that their
partners or wives were stretching towards new horizons - and wondering who was
helping them get there - would occasionally come to the college and demand to
know where their women were. When he asked for ideas for research projects a
third of the females would opt for something to do with domestic violence, which
he would turn into a working hypothesis that they could test.
Hope was such a one. She would sit
next to him when discussing her work with heavy bruising under her eye. She was
twenty, the youngest in a class of thirty.
deserve this, do I.’ she’d say.
used to sit there wearing a tracksuit, her braided extensions rising above a
headband, gazing at him with Bambi eyes and a knowing mouth, and occasionally
sipping brandy from a plastic bottle. He thought it was mineral water.
been a frenetic time. He’d been to a gym with her, seen the frown under the
darktight nest of hair to ward off posing machos, the burnt umber skin,
ear-to-ear grin, watched her puffing out her pain in press-ups, drowning her
sadness in saunas, lifted weights with her, and attempted ungainly to keep time
with her aerobics group. He’d held her up in a nightclub, rushed to her bedside
in a local hospital because she’d collapsed, gazed at the zigzagging, merging
colours on the screen whilst her liver was being scanned, and after being
dragged for a sunset ride on the Barracuda at Southend, lying next to her
on his bed like a contortionist dying in his own arms.
tables and chairs he’d arranged in a three-sided rectangle, for many mature
students had had bad educative experiences when young and, especially at the
beginning of an academic year, desks set out in well remembered rows would
trigger the same fears. Most of the people on this course were from ethnic
minorities, mainly African females, and nearly all went on to university.
devil’s advocate. When he first met them he would explain that under the guise
of an evangelical mission Europeans had introduced Christianity to Africa for
the purposes of social and economic control of half a continent - the more
politically aware would nod wisely - and that God hadn’t created us, but we,
him; the real question being, why?
The classroom would glow with
outrage and anger and, often, pity. He wanted to shock their mindset, to create
a sliver of a chance that he just could be right, thus helping them to detach,
to step back. They were then halfway to a sociological view of the world, and
that’s what he was teaching. There were always some female students who would
say to him on their way out after the first lecture, lightly touching his
shoulder as he sat at his desk, ‘We’ll pray for you.’ He was sure they did.
He’d begun the sociology of
deviance the previous year at the beginning of term two and started on the
semiotics part the day before Marci had left. He’d suggested that the police
worked within the class structure, had pre-existing concepts, ‘pictures in their
heads’, of what criminality was and ‘criminals’ were like. He’d asked them for
the signs the Bill pounced on.
The two Dagenham lads, who’d always
sat together, immediately and in concert had said, ‘Workin’ class, innit.’
protecting the bourgeoisie from the proles.’ Abosede had shouted, her
Catholicism weakening after a month of Marx.
asked for the signals that would suggest ’working classness.’ Pam, the
Afro-Caribbean had suggested it was the walk; another that it was the Sun
stuck in back pockets of jeans. He’d then turned his back to them, bouncing on
his heels, squaring his shoulders and asked for, ‘Two lagers, John.’
this every year, ‘the calf muscle move.’ He’d then ask if they thought he was
mimicking the son of an Emeritus Professor of Literature at Kings College,
Cambridge - a cheap laugh, but it made the point. One of several Nigerians had
said a car was an obvious clue, another, leisure activities and musical tastes,
a usually silent Somalian suggested that accent and appearance were the obvious
signals and, rather late, someone had suggested race. And so they’d gone on,
most of them saying something and in the end creating a comprehensive coverage
of perceived clues.
ever, had said nothing, merely looking at him steadily. He’d hinted strongly
that there would be questions on this at the end of term and suggested a
mnemonic to help them. Their answers came back like drumbeats, and they’d made
up a little chant:
dreadlocks, hip-hop, beemer, mean,
tattoos, skins, hard, obscene
them had left the classroom happily singing it - possibly because they were
going home to change for a birthday party for the twin girls in the class. He’d
reminded them, tongue in cheek, they were to turn up in English time, not
let this evening class go early. His car had been stored in the nearby motor
vehicle buildings - and probably used for teaching - for the length of his drink
and driving ban, and he was wondering how it would feel when he drove it for the
first time in a year. Marci, a lot noisier then than when she’d occasionally
slipped into the staff room, unheard and unseen, and put a sandwich - and even
an apple - on his desk, had been involved in that, too.
been decided that they’d go to a local East End pub for the party. He rarely
drank, often being mocked by fellow brickies on the sites he’d worked on as an
apprentice years before. The class had settled in well in the three months they
had been together and most wanted to go. Marci he’d known outside the classroom
since she had tearfully pleaded that her essay had been worth more than the
grade he had given it because she had worked so hard; perhaps he should have
realised then that she had emotional problems. He mumbled about professional
integrity and encouraged her to work harder. He didn’t give in. He hadn’t the
year before when a student who had done a lot of research on prostitution and,
accompanied by her tough-looking CID husband and pitiful lame child - a
two-pronged emotional attack - had harangued him in front of other staff to give
her the Distinction she thought her work was worth. But, he rarely failed any
day Marci had rung him in the staff room and asked if he wanted to go to a bar
that evening with her and some friends; he’d thanked her and declined. Later
that night, with tears in her voice, she’d rang and asked for his address. A
little afterwards he’d seen her walking up a garden path some houses away
peering short-sightedly at the number on the front door, a manoeuvre she
repeated on the next one. Taking her hand he’d gently guided her to his flat.
drove to the pub late and on the way he’d made the mistake of mentioning the
class flirt whom, apparently, he spent more time talking to in class than the
others. The car stiffened; he was scared. She had this effect on him and however
he analysed it, couldn’t prevent. She was out of the car before he’d stopped,
towing his fear to the pub. Ignoring wondering classmates she pushed straight
through to the bar and ordered a double brandy,
a small stage to the side and on it was the girl who had organised this
get-together and who was groining her mini-skirted thighs around and pushing
them out at everybody standing around. The swot whose name he could never
remember was next to her wearing a blonde wig and rhythmically lifting up a
kilt, showing his briefs. The two Ugandans, looking like bouncers, were
chuckling deeply and the Nigerian women, gold bangles and ear rings glittering,
were quietly smiling, their Victorian values not far away; not for them the two
inch band of flesh at their waists, tops of knickers showing. He noticed the
Ghanaian women were wearing traditional dress, which seemed to glow, as did
their smooth skins and saw the Romford Marxist leaning against the flock-papered
wall frowning disapprovingly. Most of them looked very different from the way
they did in class, and seemed genuinely glad to see him.
circulated, drank some wine - someone seemed to keep filling his glass - learnt
more about Robert Gabriel Mugabe from an extrovert Zimbabwean student, and one
of the older women came over to talk to him about social work. Then Marci was by
his side, eyes narrowed. She turned and minced to the stage, jumped up and
started dancing about in a clumsy, clattering way in front of a track-suited
skinhead, repeatedly pressing herself against him. As she briefly pulled away
there was a noticeable bulge in his crotch. She looked round at David and
grinned. He strode across and pulled her off the stage. He could hardly see
through the noise.
‘Get off, get off, get off!’ she
shouted. ‘Let me go!’
to pull her hand away, he gripped harder, dragged her across to the door, and in
a tiny chip of cold detachment saw them performing some exotic dance where the
man strides smoothly across the dance floor dragging his sylph-like partner
horizontally behind him. He was angry and as he pulled the door open glimpsed
one of the Dagenham students hiding under a table. She continued to shout at him
to let her go as he hurried her to the car parked across the road. He held her
against the passenger door for a few seconds then ran around to open the
driving-side door. She kicked the side of the car and continued doing so as he
got in. He leant across to open the door for her and saw two women run from the
pub towards her. He didn’t know them.
tutor, he’s abusing her.’ one shrilled. ‘He’s using his authority.’
the distancing irrelevance as he thought that this could be a cue for a lecture
on perceptions of power. In the wing mirror he saw some men hastily cross
towards him. He’d left the window down; the other woman pushed her arm in and
grabbed his hand as it turned the ignition.
with me.’ he said, as calmly as he could,’ I brought her here, she’s - ‘
not!’ Marci screamed.’ I’m not with him, I’m not, I’m not!’ and then she began
crying. He pushed the hand away and drove off.
stopped after a hundred yards or so and then went around the block to go back to
see if she was okay. Slowly he passed the pub, a group of women were comforting
her. He could hear her sobbing. He drove homewards. Nobody with her had noticed
minutes later he was driving the wrong way down a one-way street and realised he
was drunk. He stopped the car; it just happened to be outside of a small police
station. A constable told him to get out. He did so and irrelevantly emptied his
pockets, placing their contents on the roof of the car. He heard himself
giggling as they slid slowly down.
leaning against the porch when he got back. He opened the door and closed it
behind them. She followed him to the bedroom. He let out a tortuous explosion of
the evening’s emotions.
could have got me lynched.’ he yelled. ‘Why did you lie? Why?’
suddenly slid down the wall and knelt on the floor. He picked her up and gently
laid her on the bed. She slept instantly in his arms. He hadn’t mentioned the
breathalysing. He held her tightly throughout the night.
of them left the classroom - Hope remarking facetiously that she’d seen a
squirrel in the college earlier and wanted to know if it was deviant - and just
to make sure that the motor vehicle lecturer had got his message he glanced out
the window to see if the car was outside the workshops. It was. He hurried down
the stairs, wondering why he felt such anticipation at driving again, something
quite ordinary, mundane even. He’d got used to buses.
immediately familiar. Driving slowly out the gate he turned westward, overtook
two lorries and accelerated towards a main junction a mile away. As he neared it
he became gradually aware that what was irritatingly taking his attention were
flashing blue lights hitting the driving mirror. Their significance escaped him
- he even flicked the mirror up to dull the flashes - until he heard the siren
and saw the panda car suddenly behind him. The traffic lights in front were red.
He slowed and stopped. Turning in his seat he saw two policemen step out from
either side of their car, their movements synchronised.
He’d taught for nine hours in a
twelve-hour day and was tired; he assumed he’d been speeding. He remembered the
last time police had approached his car; the unbelieving shake of the head from
the older one, the embarrassed grin from the other - who he hadn’t noticed at
first - as he’d picked up his wallet, small change and comb from the roadside,
and thought of Marci with her bloodshot beautiful eyes telling him the following
morning that her husband was coming back and she wouldn’t be able to see him
again. He thought also of the last lesson she’d had with him, what they’d all
been discussing, and the little chant.
he pulled two paperbacks from the glove compartment; Sociology and
Philosophical Theory, and dropped them face upwards on the passenger seat.
And as the two uniformed figures looked in at him from both sides of the car he
lowered the window and raised the volume on Classic FM.
There is, of
course, no beginning; attempts to find one being merely arbitrary. The aetiology
would involve too many variables; the infinite regresses of their permutations
neither known nor knowable.
after an amicable divorce and several years after finishing a degree in
sociology at a sixties plate glass University, Mark Talbot began lecturing at
various colleges in and around East London.
Immediately after graduating he’d been invited to take seminars in an annexe of
a local poly-soon-to-be-university. This had been his old junior school. Sitting
in the main hall and looking up at the oriole window of the headmaster’s office
was a disquieting experience, as had been the voices of schoolboy friends and
foes he thought he could hear swirling around the staircases when, as an
ineffectual monitor and telling the noise makers to be quiet, he’d be answered
with, ‘You ain’t nuffin’ Talbot.’ ‘’ere, ‘e’s tryin’ to tell us wot to do.’
‘Teacher’s pet, an’ ‘e.’ And looking out of a first floor window thinking he
could see the girls doing handstands against the carpentry shop wall, skirts
falling over their faces and knowingly showing their knickers.
the colleges was in Hoveing, Essex, where he had a one year full time contract
which included a Friday evening class for mature students. Most of the people
sitting in the classroom - he saw it proprietarily as his - were indigenous
working class pupils and recently arrived Africans, all wanting to get to Higher
as usual, came in late, swinging her hips in a yellow and green Cameroonian
football shirt - this being a world cup year - and yet again, Prudence, one of
the older women, was frowning at him while his eyes unavoidably followed her
sister African to her seat. Matronly Prudence had transferred from a day class
because, as she’d whispered tearfully to him in an empty staffroom, one of the
female students had called her, unjustifiably, a ’prostitute’; an unintentional
irony and the ultimate African slur.
end of the first month he was finishing theory with a quick round up of post
modern meta-narrative - implying, self stultifyingly, that there is no such
thing as a meta-narrative - when he noticed Elaine raising her hand at the back.
She self consciously put it down as he looked at her.
post modernism such a small part of the syllabus?’
just given you one reason. Why d’you ask?’
wondered if you favoured Marxism, because post modernism would invalidate that
and - ’
I were, you thought I might be getting my own back?’
any proponent of an established, overarching sociological theory, including
right wing ones, would dislike a scattered string of opinion and conjecture that
emphasises an individualistic subjectivity and denies social class and….do you
know any Marxists then, Elaine?’
only the second time he had spoken to her in class, the first being to call the
register on starting day. She was rather mournful looking, sad, tall, with a
model’s shoulders and something quietly deliberate about her.
…guardian is.’ She looked briefly awkward and shy. There was a little pause in
the class and he carried on in his often proselytising manner. When they’d
finished, he briefly answered someone’s question about an essay he had set then
left the room. Elaine was just in front of him, awkwardly putting on her coat.
On impulse he pulled the collar up at the back for her. She smiled a little
shyly and said thanks. He guessed she was about thirty four, the same age as
going pretty well isn’t it.’ she said
eight miles or so. I live just down the road really, but I’m staying with a
in silence through the main doors.
him what you’re teaching. He’s…suspicious.’
being a Marxist, he - ‘
guardian?’ He smiled at her.
He’ll be happy about your demolition job on post modernism, though.’
It was her
slight, friendly awkwardness - and her wide smile with those slightly protruding
front teeth - that tipped the words out; ‘Maybe I could meet him sometime.’ He
was walking through the car park with her.
she said with a dull pragmatism, and as she got into her car added, ‘Oh, did you
know that Annie, the dark haired lady who sits next to me, is a niece of Gramsci?’
She smiled and drove out the college grounds. He’d mentioned the uncle in class,
but nothing more than the name, aware of how little historical knowledge he had
of Italian political activists.
didn’t turn up the next week, but the week after as they reached her car at the
far end of the car park he asked her if she fancied a drink one evening. ‘Yes,’
she said simply, as if she’d been expecting him to ask
her in a pub near the college a few nights afterwards. She was little different
from her student role he thought, as if her ability to express, the glints in
her eyes were dulled by a reluctantly enforced stoicism. She told him she had a
ten year old son whose father had left them both years ago. They then talked
generally, her saying that the class had gelled well, had a good camaraderie,
that she was enjoying the subject, but wouldn’t tell him why she had become
someone’s ward. She did tell him that it had occurred when she was sixteen and
that George, her guardian, was now eighty. Mark calculated that he was about
sixty when he entered her life He was a ‘well known communist’ she said with a
seeming indifference, but quiet pride.
left Oxford, she said, half way through his degree to join a merchant ship that
was gun-running for the Republicans in the Spanish civil war. He was eventually
torpedoed. All this delivered, again, with a matter of fact casualness as if,
somehow, everything that she’d experienced had happened to her,
unavoidable, outside of her own volition; she looked out at a world she expected
would treat her dispassionately and a little unkindly.
after this they slept together at her flat on the top floor of a converted
ex-council house. For a while they saw some films, went to alternative comedy
venues - small rooms above pubs, working men’s clubs - the occasional
restaurant, a play, and then, after the last evening class of term, she
suggested they pay a quick visit to the farmhouse. ‘Just to meet George,’ she
said, ‘we won’t stay.’
drove. He sat silently next to her, a little unsure of how he should feel, as if
he was about to meet the father of his ‘intended,’ about to ask George’s
permission for her hand, to seek his approval of him, of his abilities as a
teacher, of his knowledge of, and perhaps even commitment to, Marx or Marxism
and to test his knowledge of political history, political ideas; a sort of
box-ticking exercise. Would he, Mark wondered, want to know what he knew of the
Second Spanish Republic, whether he favoured anarchism or Trotsky, what
knowledge he had of the Basques, Colonel Beorlegui, of the siege of Madrid. The
generic answer would have been, very little.
wasn’t in love with George’s ‘daughter.’ There was a quiet practicality about
her that he liked, she was pale, leggy, with a gauche artlessness; she had an
honesty, a consistency, and was, he felt, beginning to fall in love with him. He
didn’t want to hurt her, but sensed she knew this.
walked towards the house through a small, lit, apple orchard, the lights under
the symmetrically planted trees making them look like enchanted fans, the dark
bulk of the building looming in the background. There was a porch lamp above a
narrow door at the side of the black painted barn-like house. She put her key in
the lock, reminding him of the neighbours in his childhood terrace street who
would ‘let themselves in,’ nearly all, it seemed, having keys to each others
George was some sort of absolute certainty in Elaine’s life; there was a shut
off implacability, a fatalistic acceptance when Mark thought of her in relation
to George - as if he was a symbol of some authoritative atheistic deity.
entered, George was looking down at them from a balcony. He was tall with long
grey hair, leaning slightly forward, fingers casually curled on the wooden
handrail in front of him. He looked from Mark to Elaine, nodded, turned and
walked towards the top of the narrow staircase. Mark looked quickly around:
grey-blue walls, high pitched cream ceiling with oak joists, the doors of the
rooms off the balcony in the same dark, polished wood as the handrail all the
way around the four sided gallery, beneath which weren’t turned spindles or
metal rods, but wooden carvings from the Karma Sutra of women being penetrated
by men in a variety of acquiescent positions. One of these was a female with
puffed cheeks kneeling behind a priapic male figure and holding one end of a
straw to her lips, the other just behind his testicles. He wondered detachedly
if this was the origin of ‘blow job.’
came down the last step and walked towards him, deep set eyes, hair swept back
from a lined, tanned face, a full, trimmed moustache, and dressed in dark grey
almost completely. An ideologue, and a seemingly rich one, thought Mark.
shook hands, a tiny smile in George’s eyes, a casual, but almost formal grip.
‘Come through,’ he said. Mark followed him into a large kitchen, noted the
eclectic mix of the new and old: two small windows with leaded panes, a slatted
blind, a long kitchen range, oak table, modern blender and coffee grinder,
copper kettle and an incongruous thirties cloud-back chair.
want a drink?’ He had a rather curt, deep, voice. There was the sound of a
flushing cistern, quick, light feet, and a boy of about ten with blue eyes and
wide, thin-lipped mouth was looking up at him. Elaine, who was filling the
kettle, without looking round, said, ‘Richard, this is Mark, my friend.’ Richard
nodded at him then threw his arms around George’s thigh and squeezed. George
lightly touched the child’s hair.
tells me she’s enjoying her subject, and the class are too it would seem.’
seem keen, though it’s a little difficult to get one or two away from god and to
politicise them. I shouldn’t be doing that, of course, but detachment’s
grinned, ‘It wouldn’t matter much if you rammed Marx down their throats would
it? The system can take it, can it not? Bourgeoise accommodationism I believe
feeling challenged, though knew what had been said was correct. He told George
that though he’d once been called an auto-didactic secular preacher, he was more
interested in the analysis of class society than revolutionary Marxism. George
frowned slightly, forced a grin and asked again if he wanted a drink. Mark told
him he was driving and George then, with surprising nimbleness, picked Richard
up, dropped him over a shoulder and said, ‘Well, I’m gonna put this little toe
rag to bed, and then I have things to do. Hope to see you again.’ He said this
without looking at anyone and went out the room. Mark expected Elaine to follow
him so she could say good night to her son, but she handed him a coffee and
after a few silent minutes beckoned him to follow her as she started walking
back through the apple trees as if, somehow, she wasn’t allowed to tuck Richard
in when George was putting him to bed. She drove them back in silence to the
college car park.
was…interesting,’ Mark said, ‘You going back there now?’
flat.’ She drove away.
back a few weeks later - again in the evening - for Elaine to pick something up.
George was away at a council meeting. Mark hadn’t known he was a councillor.
While she was upstairs he wandered around, looked in the large through-lounge
with its oriental rugs, sixties three piece suite, Art Deco cocktail cabinet and
coffee table - a half drunk cup of coffee on a hardback copy of Debord’s
Society as Spectacle on the latter - and a book-lined end wall. But he was
taken by the paintings. There were vividly coloured scenes of street markets,
fountains on a Madrid boulevard, and a stark black and white photo of a vertical
half of a pension, the other half just chunks of rubble. There was also a
crayon sketch hung in the centre of the wall of a girl in her late teens with
large, dark eyes, impish grin, and an energy in her that made the rest of the
room seem almost lifeless.
walked up the stairs, along the balcony, stopped at an open door. Elaine was
putting what looked like a skirt into a bag. She gave a hesitant smile as she
came out the room and closed the door, but not before he’d seen a four poster
bed complete with canopy and a nightshirt hanging from the dark headboard. As
they went out he asked her if it was a painting that he could see at the back of
the open garage.
it’s a Braque. I don’t know much about art.’
He went in
and turned it round. He knew little of the artist’s work, but recognised the
original,’ she said, ‘can we go, I’m getting cold.’
It was this
almost dismissive casualness, a gentle flippancy that both simultaneously
intrigued him and pushed him away.
night at her flat he asked who the face in the sketch belonged to. She became
immediately animated. ‘Oh, that was Maria. She was lovely. George met her when
he was in Spain, she was about sixteen then. It was the paseos he called
them, executions, both sides were doing it. Her husband was a Republican and
they shot him. They came after Maria too, and George hid her. He and a group of
others lived in the hills and she stayed with them. She used to come over and
stay at the farm, every other year really, and George would sometimes go to her
in Spain. She died last year. He was very upset and so was I. She had a little
boy, but he died when he was two. She loved Richard. She used to get so excited
around him. She would grip his hands and swing him around, and shout,
Ricardo,‘eres un chico encantador y tu papa es magnifico!’ She was
lovely.’ He asked what it meant. ‘Doesn’t matter,’ she said, ‘I miss her.’
the end of the academic year - they’d seen much less of each other, though he
wasn’t sure why, but she was an ever-present in class - a full time job came up
at the college. The evening Access class was the only sociology teaching he
had, the rest of his timetable consisting of Communications. This job entailed
mostly his subject. The opening had arisen because a lecturer had been sacked.
He, David, was a little younger than Mark, short, stocky, ginger haired and
quietly intense. He didn’t know him that well, he was relatively new there, but
liked him. He always seemed to be surrounded by young females both in class and
the staff room. They were obviously fond of him and Mark felt there was a
political - and politicising - element in their relationship.
was that he was an ‘anarchist,’ a ‘trouble maker,’ and that management had got
rid of him by sending a lackey to keep tabs on him, He was seen going into his
class ten minutes late. That, apparently, was all that was needed. Whilst
feeling sorry for him and disliking management - in particular and in general -
Mark needed the job and applied for it. Three of his fellow Communications
lecturers said they would see the Vice Principal and suggest strongly that they
wanted him on the staff.
surprised and disappointed when told he wouldn’t be short-listed. He had a
meeting with the Vice Principal and asked him why. ‘I do not,’ he was answered
patronisingly, ‘want a communist cell in the college.’ Mark felt he was the sort
of man who thought a communist meant someone who shopped at the Co-op. He was
rendered inarticulate, all he could think of saying was an almost choked, ‘But,
that’s ridiculous,’ before the Principal entered the room on ‘urgent business’
and he left.
Elaine. She seemed surprised. The next day she showed him a letter she had
written to the Head of the college in which she talked of the difficulty of the
subject, the teacher making it such a pleasure for the class and her amazement
that a competent teacher of such an important discipline would not be at the
college next year. ‘I do not look forward,’ she wrote, ‘to having a teacher
perhaps unqualified in sociological understanding and am thus thinking twice
about continuing my studies.’ It was gratifying, but Mark wanted her to
continue. She’d been working as a temp at an IT recruitment firm for the last
year and had an ambition to do a social work degree.
days afterwards she showed him a copy of the letter George had sent to the Chief
Education Officer of the borough in his role as shadow chairman on Further
Education for the County Council. ‘Whilst I must stress that your selection
standards are nothing of my business, apart from their bearing on my daughter’s
education, I must state that I am disagreeably surprised a to find her progress
threatened.’ It was signed George Mills, and had the Great Mitchams, East Ockden
didn’t see her over the two week Whitsun period - ‘I have things to do at
George’s’ - but was in the library preparing a letter to circulate around
colleges and to see what teaching jobs, if any, were being offered, when he
thought of the charcoal drawing. He wasn’t far from the language section and
took a book of Spanish-English back to his table. For someone whose knowledge of
Spanish began and ended with dos decaffeinado con leche por favor, it
took him a while to find and interpret what Maria supposedly and ritualistically
had said to Richard whenever she’d seen him. He could imagine her, then about
seventy he supposed, but still vivacious and strong, swirling around the boy,
dancing with him. It seemed obvious suddenly that she had been George’s lover
for many years .Mark didn’t know why he had remembered her words, but he had.
Apparently in English it was, ‘You are a lovely boy and your daddy is
was something else so obvious he’d missed it. It reminded him of when he’d stood
on the observation floor of the Empire State at night a few years before and,
looking at the Chrysler, the Woolworth building and Times Square, had wondered
for a second why he couldn’t see the Empire State. Richard’s father was George.
there thinking of him; someone who had risked his life for something he
believed, had saved lives, been, perhaps, responsible for taking them. The
nearest Mark had got to any sort of cause was walking half a mile around a
university town with a CND banner and once, as an apprentice joiner, had been
part of a building site go-slow. He felt admiration, respect, but then
remembered what Elaine had said to him one evening a few weeks before; something
else he had pushed away, deflected, sidelined. Lying on the bed she’d said
casually, as he got dressed to go home, ‘Oh, George wants us to do it in front
of him ‘cos he can’t any more.’ He hadn’t replied.
there was a memory of a glimpse of a crumpled nightshirt dropped in the corner
of her bedroom when she’d first invited him into it. Was George, he thought,
still sleeping with her, here and at the farm? There was another question: had
Maria’s child been George’s too?
grown fond of Elaine, but realised he’d felt somewhat dispirited when with her,
experiences were somehow blunted, any sharing - of humour, situations, of giving
emotionally - diluted, impoverished. He tried to categorize it as an
interesting, but disappointing episode for he knew he wouldn’t be seeing her
again and intuitively felt she knew this, too. The only stimulus, other than in
her bed, had been the teaching. He could give something to her then; she was
intelligent, though carefully, methodically so, as if her intellect was in
abeyance, and her identity, the sixteen year old self, had no real expression
except through or with George.
wanted to teach, encourage, preach - he had a picture of George nodding in
approval as he thought this. Mark had met him just once, but could feel how
Elaine had been influenced, invaded, taken over by him.
applied for some philosophy lecturing, wanting to deal with the empirical, a
posteriori synthetic truths, people as Durkheimian things, to escape
into a more intellectualised, understandable world.
didn’t see Elaine again, but did hear her voice. He’d just got home from a class
at a college where he had a full time job, when the phone rang. It was Elaine
telling him that George had died in Spain - for a moment he felt trapped in a
ghost story in which he couldn’t actually have met someone because they had died
many years before. He remembered what she said almost verbatim. ‘…he hadn’t
been back there for a few years and wanted to meet up with Maria’s younger
brother who he’d helped to get to Catalonia. Apparently he was away on holiday,
so George went on his own to the hills in Miranda de Ebro, near a monastery by
the river, Our Lady of the Wheel it’s called - I remember these places because
he often told stories about them, Richard used to be fascinated. It was where
he’d hid Maria.…’ She stopped speaking.
okay. It seems he was walking around the bottom of a hill - a couple from the
village were picnicking there and saw him. He kept stopping to look up, probably
trying to find the caves they’d stayed in.’ In answer to his unspoken question
she said, ‘I was his next of kin, so a policeman rang me from Madrid and told
me all this. George was wearing his black cap, he wore it nearly every time he
went out. He called it his ‘comrades cap.’ They found it near his body. He was
climbing up a slope. Perhaps he didn’t know the caves had been filled in. He
slipped and slid down. Not far, but both his legs were broken.’ A silence again.
‘He was eighty two, you know.’ I heard a whimper, and could feel the effort it
took for her to stop it.
the funeral, Elaine?’
it’s gone. I didn’t know what to do. I thought he might want to be buried there,
near Maria. I know where’s she’s buried, he told me. So…he’s buried in the next
grave to hers. I went over there, and Manuel and his wife were there. They were
didn’t you…’ He was about to ask, in a moment of childlike arrogance, why she
hadn’t told him before and perhaps asked him to go with her, but he didn’t. He
wondered if she felt that she had no right to bring George back and bury him;
maybe in the churchyard near the farm
her he was sorry about George and, as he said it, felt regret at only seeing him
the once, at not making efforts to get to know him, to see if he could have
pierced that teak-like exterior, that hard, selfish toughness he seemed to carry
with him. He asked her what she was going to do.
going to sell the farm.’ At least, she had that, he thought. ‘I shall move
somewhere I suppose.’
wanted to say, ‘Find something for yourself, Elaine, find what you want,
convince yourself you can, you’re allowed to.’ Instead, he asked about
okay. He’s sad, but he’s alright.’
asked what he was doing, was he teaching. He mumbled something. She said,
all the best then, Mark.’ and hung up.
on the A13 he took a detour to drive past the farm house, which he hadn’t seen
for a year. The orchard was no longer there, it was now a paved area with
barbecue equipment scattered about, and where all the latticed windows had been
were pvc mock Georgian glazing bars. The subtle carriage lamp on the side door
had turned into a crass mock-up of an early Victorian lamp, and though the
outside was still in East Anglian black, it had now been glossed. It looked
rather cheap. The chimney stack, in its crumbling authenticity, was still there.
didn’t stop. He had to get to work - finish off Marx’s theory of economic
determinism. He felt that George, in a narrow eyed, cautious way, would be quite
happy with that, even if conditionally.
started driving back to the college. He was feeling empty, specious, he was
missing George. He couldn’t understand this. He knew of him rather than
knew him. Perhaps he had become, unknowingly, a talisman, perhaps a figure to be
emulated, someone mature, solid, complete. But Mark instantly knew he couldn’t
do this. He had to become whoever he was, was going to be. He drove a little
faster, wanting to get back to the students. To the beginning.