My life growing up in the late 60s and early 70s England
My LIFE AND OTHER STUFF
by NICK HUGHES
1 The Crispy Bacon Incident
2 The early Years
3 Jacquline ............My Sister
4 Shoplifting As A Sport
5 The Beating Up Of Dartford Grammar
6 We Were Bang To Rights
7 The Letter Home
8 Parkins Comes Up Trumps
9 Gone To The Dogs
10 He Flew Through The Air With The Greatest Of Ease
11 Arsenal For a Day
12 Charlton Athletic
13 If You All Hate Chelsea Clap Your Hands
14 I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles
15 Bunking Off
16 Life in the street.............Mischief and Mayhem
17 November The Fifth
18 Knock Down Ginger
19 The Day The Coal Bunker Blew Up
20 New Beginnings
21 Seven Go To Corfu
22 Butchered At The Dentist
23 Church Towers And Chopsticks
24 Ladies And Catholics
25 The Catholic Club................Julie
28 The Tenants From Hell
29 The Co-op At The End Of The Line
30 Four Ounces Of Mince And A Slice Of Ham Please Butcher
31 One Guard Two Ambulance Men And An Embarrassed Builder
32 Going Home
I was in the library the other day, and it suddenly struck me at the actual number of books that were sitting neatly on the shelves, patiently waiting to be picked up, and browsed. And if they were lucky enough, checked out, taken home, and eagerly read from cover to cover.
Imagine, in the whole world, there must be millions of books. I don't mean copies of the same book. I mean millions of individual books, every single one written by somebody. Thousands of hours spent doubled up over a laptop, typewriter, fountain pen, or quill. Even a blood soaked finger tip, for that matter.
All the books, on every shelf, in all the world's bookshops and libraries have one thing in common. That is, they've all been published. Yes, they've made the grade, they're in, they've succeeded where all others have failed. Millions have gone before me and millions will follow me. So, I'm attempting to join the masses, huddled together on the book shelves of the world.
Let's just make this quite clear from the off, I'm a nobody. I have no claim to fame, and I've led a fairly ordinary life so far. But, I do believe the old clichthat everyone has a story to tell and everyone has at least one book in them. Well, at least everyone that can read and write. Actually based on the amount of books written by the never ending stream of Z list, semi literate celebrities that manage to get on the best sellers lists every Christmas, this would at first glance seem quite an easy task. But of course they don't actually have to write a word, they only have to learn to write their name in time for the book signing tour that follows the ghost writers epic toils.
I'm going to tell you all about my life. The boy growing up in 1960's and 1970's suburban London. The life of a fifty two year old nobody. A slice of life, the good, the bad and all the rest.
When I say nobody, I'm not some middle aged depressive waiting for the knackers yard. I just mean I'm not famous. But I am just about conceited enough to believe that a few people out there may find what I have to say interesting, or amusing, or a bit of both, hopefully.
I'm no academic, I'm actually a builder. I've been in construction for twenty odd years, before that I was a butcher.
So! Why bother? Well, that's just it, many have gone before me, I'm not the first and I wont be the last. As I've not written more than my name on a cheque stub since leaving school, aged sixteen, my task appears quite epic. Anyway, I've managed to convince myself that it's a task, well worth the enormous time and effort.
Frank Skinner, the well known comedian, said in his autobiography that if an author could get him past the first couple of paragraphs when he picked a book off the shelf in a bookshop, then they usually had him. He also said that he would have to mix up the bits about his celebrity life with the other bits so his readers wouldn't get bored because we're all only waiting for the tales of stardom. Well I agree with the first statement, but he is wrong on the second.
I'm an avid reader of biographies and memoirs, and I must admit that I do read my fair share of celebrity books, but it's never for what they're doing now because most of a celebrity's life is pretty well documented anyway. I want to know, how they got there? And where they came from? And what they were like before they were famous? If their star is on the wane, I want to know what they are up to now? And how are they coping with life out of the limelight? So my interest is for the bits that are not shining brightly for the whole world to see. I want the dark shadowy bits, the fight to the top. I want to read about what makes them human? What makes them just like you and me.
So what you get here is all of that, but with none of the "And Then I became Famous," bit. I am however, going to mix some old and some newer stuff, just for a bit of diversity I suppose. So I'm not taking you from birth to present in one straight line, we'll be jumping back and forth. I do promise I'll get you there in the end.
It has been said more than once I might add that I've got no hook, no catch, like a fisherman without a lure, I cast my line and wait in vain. Anyway, Frank said two paragraphs and you're his. Well, if you're still here, by his reckoning you're mine. So welcome to my world, I'm glad you could join me.
The Crispy Bacon Incident.
I was fifteen years old, outside of the house I was relatively happy, but indoors was another story. On this particular day, if I'd known he was going to come home I wouldn't have bothered. But just before I'd left for school that morning, I had caught the end of a conversation he was having with my mother. He was saying something about a client he was going to visit, but that he should be home in time for dinner that evening. Now to me all this meant was the possibility of an empty house and maybe bunking off. Anyway with this in mind, I set off for school.
Whilst at school that morning, after the first ten minutes of maths I'd made up my mind, I'd stick it out till lunch, then go and tell Mr Potts my form teacher that I had a migraine and needed to go home. Then I could spend the afternoon with my feet up watching the telly before work at the dog track later that evening, great plan!
So the morning dragged, but eventually 12 (O'clock) arrived. I made my way across the playground towards the English block, and an Oscar winning performance of. "Man with a sore head." In actual fact, this wasn't so difficult for me because I did get the occasional migraine, so I knew all of the right symptoms to describe. When I arrived, I had to wait outside for a moment because he was only just letting his last class go. I pushed past the exiting throng of hungry third years and made my way over to his desk.
"Nick," he said, in recognition of my arrival. "Make it quick because I've got a meeting to get to."
Yer, a meeting with Miss Smith, the music teacher, and a pint of Best Bitter, up the pub. I thought.
"I don't feel well sir,"I said in my please feel sorry for me because I'm really ill voice. "I've got a migraine and I feel sick, I'm going to go home, sir." I thought I'd better make it quite clear that I was going home, or he might have sent me to the sick bay.
"You don't look to good, will you be OK getting home on your own?" He replied.
"Yes sir," I said as if I was about to burst into tears at any moment.
"Go on then, get yourself off."
I didn't need telling twice, I turned and left.
Strolling along Iron Mill Lane heading towards home, I lit a celebratory cigarette, took a deep drag and had a little giggle to myself. I always knew I was far smarter than that lot. I arrived home and went round the back to the garage, got the key to the kitchen door from the workbench where the last one out of the house always left it. No one in our family could be trusted with their own key. I let myself in. Great! All's well, empty house. I went to my room, dropped my bag to the floor and flung my coat on the bed, I then had a quick scout around just to double check that I was alone.
Right first things first. I'll go and see what's in the fridge cos I'm starving and make myself some lunch.
So two minutes later I had six rashers of best Danish greenback under the grill, four slices of white bread patiently waiting to be turned into toast and a kettle of water just coming to the boil. When all of a sudden this scene of domestic bliss was rudely interrupted by the sound of a key turning in the front door.
Fucking hell he's home already! I thought to myself.
I knew it was him without actually seeing him because he was the only one in our family who had a key to that door and so he was the only one who came and went that way, the rest of us plebs used the kitchen door to the side.
OK, I thought. "Don't panic, stay calm, you've not done anything wrong yet. After all, it's still lunch time. He's not a bloody mind reader, he doesn't know that I am planning an afternoon with my feet up in front of the telly.
So I carried on making the tea. He passed by where I was standing in the kitchen, totally ignored me and went into his office, which in the evening doubled up as the dining room. We were never a dinner on your lap kind of family, it was always dinner at the table or no dinner at all. The fact that he had ignored me was nothing unusual. There was no rhyme nor reason for that man having one child, let alone four because I swear to god he hated us all. Anyway, so this is the situation, I'm in the kitchen wishing I'd stayed at school, and he was skulking in the office just so he wouldn't have to speak to me.
So, I thought, I'll get this down my neck as quick as possible and go out somewhere for the afternoon.
By now my bacon was cooked, the bread was all golden brown and standing to attention in the toaster. I pulled the bacon from under the grill and was tossing it from the grill pan onto the kitchen counter behind me. I suddenly became aware of him standing in the doorway, all six foot four and eighteen stone of him completely filling my escape route. I could always tell when he had the hump about something because his face would go bright red, and his head would look like it was about to explode, and boy was his face red now.
"Why are you putting that bacon on the worktop? You'll mark it, put it on the cutting board," he barked.
Now the content of what he said was probably quite right, but his reaction to my reply was slightly over the top, to say the least. Now the cutting board as he called it, was a piece of wood about twelve inches by eight inches, that was inlaid into the work surface. As I turned to face him, I said
"Can't be much of a worktop if that's the only bit of it you can use."
He didn't reply to my witty retort, he lunged at me, taking me completely by surprise. His left fist caught me in the stomach, while the right followed into my mouth. As I doubled up and went to the floor, he kicked me in the face.
I was used to his regular beatings, and I'd suffered far more prolonged attacks than this one, but what made this one worse was that he had used his fist, and even worse he'd kicked me. He'd never done that before. In the past, it was always the flat of his hand that did the damage. As I bent over clutching my face, he grabbed me by the hair and ran me out of the kitchen and into the living room. Halfway across he let go, so with my momentum in the right direction I carried on out of the living room and ran up the stairs to my bedroom. I slammed the door behind me and dived on the bed, curled up in a ball and waited for the real onslaught, but it never came. After a couple of minutes, I got off the bed and went into the bathroom to inspect the damage.
I peered into the bathroom mirror, I could see the right side of my bottom lip had swollen up like a semi inflated water filled balloon. I prodded it with my finger, I could feel the blood sloshing around under the skin. I couldn't put up with this for much longer. I went back into the bedroom, sat on the bed for a minute, got myself together, then I got my coat on and picked up my bag.
Now at this point I can't remember if I knew what I was going to do or not. So anyway, I left my room, made my way down the stairs and entered the living room. Now if he'd been in the office I may well have bottled it and gone straight out of the kitchen door, but he wasn't, he was sitting in an armchair reading the newspaper.
He didn't move or acknowledge my existence for the second time that day. As I passed the newspaper his great bulbous head came into view, I lent in towards him, my swollen lip almost touching his ear, and I whispered.
"If you ever touch me again, you fucking piece of shit, I'm going to kill you. Got it?"
He didn't move, he didn't even blink an eyelid, he just kept staring blankly into his paper. I don't know what kind of reaction I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't that, I didn't want to push my luck, so I straightened up and left.
I don't know if it was my words of wisdom or whether he realized that he'd gone too far, but from that day on he didn't touch me again. He didn't speak to me either. We went about our business, ignoring each other until the day that I left
The Early Years
October the eighth 1960, the day of my birth. We lived in Islington, North London. I don't actually have any memories of the place as I moved to Crayford at the ripe old age of two. That sounds like I left home when I was two. No, not quite that young. That sweet relief would take another fourteen years. So the first time I moved, they all came with me. However, until then I'm reliably informed that we lived in a two bedroomed flat in Muswell Hill. Like lots of working class areas in the 1960s, it has since become gentrified, frequented by the nouveau riche of the film and media industries, bankers, city traders and such the like. Then it was the first stepping stone to getting out of the city for good. The lure of suburbia, the spread of the masses ever outwards.
After completing his national service in Malaysia, my father worked as an auditor for a firm of accountants in the city, this is where he met my mother, a filing clerk, eight years his junior.
Mum was eighteen and dad twenty-six when they married. A year later my sister Jacqueline was born, and sixteen months after that I came along. After a two year gap, my brother John was born, and five years after him Elizabeth arrived. I think they thought they were done having children at John, and so Liz was somewhat unexpected. So that's the six of us. Nothing very remarkable there, just an average 1960's suburban family.
I started school in September 1965. The first few months of school for me were horrendous. I couldn't settle in, I dreaded going, on the short walk to school the tension would build. By the time, we reached the school gates I would be dragging my heels, and my mother would be pulling me along by my wrist. John would have been in the pushchair as he was only three. She would have to push him with one hand and drag me screaming and kicking with the other.
Eventually, she'd make it to the school gates. It usually took so long to get there that we were late. School would have already started for the day, I remember how eerily quiet it was. This made it seem even more intimidating to me, and I became even more determined not to go in. By now I would be kicking and screaming and dragging my heels for all I was worth. But it was a waste of time. I was going in, whatever protests I made.
From the gate, there was a small garden in front of the school building, and to the right hand side a wall ran all the way to the fence at the back of the playground. The wall separated the school from the houses next door and created a short alleyway between it and the school. This alley was the way in, and in my head I knew that it was the point of no return. Once she'd managed to drag me through there, I would be incarcerated for the rest of the day. Even worse she might never come back for me.
On one, occasion, I'd been putting up a pretty damn good fight, when, from the alleyway, strolling towards me appeared Mr Reece, the head master. He looked like he was a hundred years old. He was tall, about six feet, and very thin, with a bald head and a bright red wrinkled face. He was also the owner of a very stern voice. He reached the gate, where my mother had all but given up the fight, took my wrist from her grasp, told her to go, and just dragged me in. He dragged me down the alley, round the back of the school, into the main school house entrance, down the corridor, through my classroom door, got to my desk, dragged the chair from underneath and forced me to sit in it by pushing down on my head.
"Stay there and don't move," he said, in his scariest voice as he made his way from the room.
He'd obviously underestimated my need not to be there because the second I saw him go out through the door I was out of that chair and making a mad dash for freedom. I ran back the way I'd just been dragged. Out of the door, down the corridor, out the front door, round the building to the alley, down the alley to the front gate and out of the front gate into Iron Mill Lane. And that's where I stopped dead in my tracks. I couldn't be sure of the way home and my hesitation had allowed the chasing pack to catch up. My teacher, Mrs James got to me before Mr Reece. Her cajoling words of encouragement and the fact that my mother was nowhere to be seen made me give up the fight. I allowed her to take my hand and lead me back to my desk and all the other kids who were happily getting on with their work.
To this day I still don't know why I was so against the idea of going to school. Once I was there and settled in for the day I quite liked it. I got on well with the other kids and all the teachers. I think it was that I couldn't stand the thought of being separated from my mother.
Teachers and anyone else for that matter, in those days, had far more authority over their charges than the poor overstretched powerless crop that inhabit the school halls today. There were rules that had to be obeyed and woe betide anyone that thought they were above them.
Lunch time and the dreaded school dinner was just as bound in the traditions and rules as any other part of the school day.
If you stayed for a school dinner, there was no choice in the food that you ate. It was a two course meal consisting of a dinner and a dessert. I actually quite liked the dinners. However, it was at school and to be more precise in the school canteen that I discovered that I didn't have a sweet tooth
On this particular day, I'd eaten my dinner, I can't remember what it was, so I won't pretend that I do. Anyway, I was patiently waiting in line, to get my afters. I started to catch the aroma of the most vile and toxic substance known to man. Just the smell of it made me retch. I arrived at the service hatch, and there it was laying in wait on a massive metal tray. A great slab of jam sponge, topped off with grated coconut, accompanied by a giant ladle of lemon sauce.
I knew there wasn't going to be a cat in hells chance of me eating this most vile of concoctions. It's recipe must have been thought up by the food devils living in some twilight world, with the power to make a small boy's life miserable. For some unknown reason, I can't eat coconut. The slightest whiff and I'm heaving. This wasn't some childish fad because it's still true to this day.
I turned to Mrs Sturton, who was actually the school's secretary, she also doubled up as a dinner monitor. I'm not sure why it is, but I'm remembering everyone from that school as being ancient. She was a short, stout woman, I'm guessing that she was in her late fifties, but at the time I thought she was probably about a hundred and two or so. She was standing guard over the queue, waiting to pounce on any wayward child, who forgot momentarily that speaking in line was strictly forbidden. You also had to stand directly behind the person in front. If you deviated from this in the slightest most teachers, would give you a first warning. "Hughes, get back in line and shut up," would usually suffice.
Mrs Sturton, however, had her own well tested methods. She would select for herself a slightly wet, but well used dishcloth, wrap one end around her hand and then stand with both hands behind her back in wait. Any offending child would suddenly get swiped round the back of the head with the mucky dish cloth and be left with a damp patch on their neck with bits of mashed potato and rapidly drying custard sticking to it
"I can't eat that, Miss," I said pointing at the offensive tray of food.
"Have you brought a letter from your mother telling me that you're excused from eating your food?"
"Then pick up the bowl and your spoon," she was pointing at the mountain of white bowls stacked to the side of the serving hatch, "Get your pudding and go and sit back down and eat it."
"But, Miss, I can't eat it, I.... Whack! I'd just had my first taste of dirty dish cloth. "Get the pudding, get sat down and get eating or you'll get another," She shouted.
This time I obeyed, I got the offending substance and went and sat back at my table. The problem I had was that I just couldn't bring this stuff to my lips, without getting an urgent need to throw up.
I sat on the bench with the coconut sponge before me and stared at it. I thought she would relent and let me go at the end of the lunch break. Surely she wouldn't keep me here all afternoon.
At the end of dinner, Mrs Sturton stood in front of the hall, said Grace and then dismissed everyone. As everyone started to file out.
"Not you," She bellowed from the front. She was pointing directly at me."You can go when you've eaten that food."
I sat down and went back to staring at the bowl. By now it's contents were cold, and the lemon sauce had congealed into a thick glutinous substance.
The canteen was empty except for the dinner ladies cleaning tables, I could hear the clatter of pots and pans being washed up. I sat and stared.
She came up behind me, "You won't be leaving here until that," pointing at the bowl, "has been completely eaten. I've got the whole afternoon." Whack!
The dirty dish cloth had started to dry out, and as I felt it's sting for the second time, I felt a strange stickiness on my neck, I longed to wipe my hand across it and wipe away the bits of mash and custard, but I daren't, for fear of getting another helping.
I heard the bell ring for the beginning of afternoon break that meant I had been sitting in front of my dessert for an hour.
"You don't have to worry about that," she said. "No playtime until that's gone," still pointing at the vileness.
The bell sounded for the end of afternoon break, one more hour, and they would all be going home. I think I was too young to know that she would have to let me go by three thirty. I started to entertain the possibility of still being sat in front of my dessert for the rest of my life.
I grabbed hold of the spoon and shovelled as much of the sponge onto it as I could and rammed it into my mouth. I shut my eyes, clenched my fist and chewed for all I was worth, swallowing and fighting. There was hardly anything left in the bowl, but she wanted total victory.
"Finish it all."
I scraped my spoon round the edge of the bowl gathering any last remnants of pudding. I knew this would have to be the last spoon, or I would be sick. I rammed it in and swallowed as hard as I could
This woman was so determined that I would follow the rules and eat my food that she was prepared to waste her whole afternoon just to get her way. If she had done that to a child nowadays she wouldn't only lose her job, they would lock her up and throw away the key. Times were different then. They had the authority to basically do as the wished for the time that you were in their care.
"Ok", she said. "Get to your class"
I was already on my way. I ran to the door and out into the empty playground, where I was violently sick. She marched past me heading for the main building, two minutes later she was back by my side with a bucket of steaming hot water, filled with bleach and a mop.
"Get that cleaned up before you go in," she said, without the slightest care for my plight.
By the time I had finished being ill and got the mess cleaned, the last bell had gone. Everyone was leaving for the day. So I emptied the bucket in some bushes, dropped the mop to the floor and went home.
When my mother asked about my day, I don't remember even mentioning this incident. I can't think why I wouldn't have said something, only that parents believed that whatever they did to you at school you must have deserved it. So your word as a child counted for very little.
Most of my primary school life passed without incident, from what I can remember, apart from the odd episode, I enjoyed life at school.
The school was actually tiny. It only had five classrooms, and roughly a hundred pupils attended. So depending on your abilities each child spent one year in some classes and two years in others.
The building was old and decrepit, and there were air raid shelters under the playground that were still there left from the second world war. There were two of them, one on either side of a netball court. Of course, they had been covered over. What you could actually see was a raised concrete border, about 8ft by 4ft square, that stood about 6 inches off the ground. It had steel railings embedded in it on three sides and the centre part had planks of wood that laid flush to the concrete surround.
So the railings became the ropes of a make believe wrestling ring, and many a bout was fought there. It was so dangerous, children were forever bashing their heads on them. I'll always remember the day one boy, Michael Wheeler, he chased a ball straight into the railings and ended up having fourteen stitches to close up the gaping wound on his forehead. No way would they have allowed them to have stayed there nowadays. Not with health and safety the way it is, the claim for everything and blame anyone but yourself society that we now live in.
The air raid shelters were on the top part of the playground, that bit was concreted over, and the lines of a netball court were painted on it. The other half was a piece of rough stone covered dirt with a huge Horse Chestnut tree and a tree stump that was good for climbing on stuck right in the middle.
Every break time most of the junior boys would be playing football on the netball court while the rest of the school, the girls and all the infants were confined to the rough, or round the peripheries. Even as a five year old I knew that I wanted to be part of that, playing football, it looked so exciting. I would stand on the sidelines and obediently go and fetch the ball whenever it was kicked off, with never so much as a thank you. I just hoped that one day I'd run and get it and someone would say
"Come on Nick, come and have a game." But of course that would probably never happened. Junior boys never played with the younger kids, it just wasn't cool.
I used to play football in the street at home with all the other kids that moved in. Our road was newly built in 1962. It consisted of two rows of neat little semi-detached houses on either side of the road, and a block of maisonettes at the far end. Strange that they named it Claremont Crescent, considering that it was completely straight. It's actually a cul-de-sac, lined with trees and on the right side between the pavement and the road there is a strip of grass about twenty feet wide. That is broken into precise little rectangles by the concrete driveways that intersected it. It was on these patches of grass that we'd play. All the new house proud residents hated us playing on those lawns, spoiling them. Worse still, when our balls dared to stray from the public lawns across the pavement and onto their own little bits of lovingly manicured grass all hell was let loose. You'd have thought we had committed some kind of heinous crime instead of just running onto their little bits of heaven.
It seemed that every other household contained a couple of kids, so there was a never ending stream of budding footballers to play with. But I wanted to play at school because they played proper matches there. So by the time I was in my second year edging ever closer to being a junior I got my big break.
I was just settling into life as a junior in Mrs Sterling's class and wasn't expecting my call up quite so soon. I always had my football boots with me in hope more than anything else really. The time was about 3 o'clock, and there was only another half an hour until the last bell and home time. The classroom door opened, and in walked Mr Dane, he taught class one, the eldest kids. But more importantly he was the football team manager.
He walked up to Mrs Stirling, had a brief word with her and then turned to me, and uttered the words I'd been longing to hear for so long.
"First eleven football practice starts in five minutes," he said. "If you want to play in the match on Friday, you had better come now." I had my boots on and was out of the classroom door be
3 Jaqueline...My Sister
When Jack was born she was a sickly child, she was in hospital with pneumonia, and consequently my mother stayed with her day and night until she was well enough to go home.
Obviously these are stories that have been related to me, and the rest of us as I was still a year or so away from this life. What with mum being so young they had formed a very strong bond, and as my father couldn't bond with a tube of Evo-stick, by the time that I arrived eighteen months later, my new big sister Jacqueline must have been totally outraged at this interloper who had taken her position at the centre of her cosy universe.
Every opportunity that she got she would launch an attack. At no time could I be safely left alone in her company, my mother couldn't even turn her back for a second or she'd pounce. Usually scratching my face or pinching me, until I screamed and someone would have to drag her off.
Of course, I knew none of this, and I imagine that a lot of first born children react to the coming of the second child in exactly the same way. But what was odd about Jack was that she never grew out of this pure unadulterated hatred of me.
I do believe that boys shouldn't hit girls, having said that, of course there are always exceptions to every rule. I bet you're thinking. "Oh no, there aren't." But there are! What else was I supposed to do?
I was walking along Iron Mill Lane one afternoon after school. I can't remember exactly how old I was, but I was at Crayford Secondary so I must have been around twelve, or just a bit older maybe. My sister who was two years above me at school was with a couple of friends, she was walking about two hundred yards in front of me. She did make the odd friend from time to time, but god only knows how!
Anyway, I was alone and found myself slowly catching them up. I was trying to walk as slowly as I possibly could. However, there's definitely some scientific equation that states that three fourteen year old schoolgirls, deep in conversation, can't walk any faster than a one legged snail being chased by a French man, waving a frying pan.
Mill Lane. It was one straight road about a mile long. Where we lived you had to walk from one end to the other to get to and from school. I had caught sight of them at about the halfway point, so unless I turned and walked back to school I would have caught her up long before we got home.
"So what?" I hear you say.
Well, I didn't want to catch them up because we had got to a point in our lives where we were embarrassed in front of outsiders. Embarrassed by how bad our relationship actually was. The fact that her friends would know me, and she would want to ignore me. I in turn would want to ignore her. She might then tell them that I fancied one of them. They might laugh at me. I would then have to give her a smack. And then everybody would know that I hit girls. It would all go miserably wrong, and our lives would be much worse than they already were, and so on and so forth.
Anyway, by now I was only a few yards behind them, but they hadn't noticed me, they were far too busy chatting. We were only about a hundred yards from the end of the road, so I decided to make a dash for it. I stepped off the pavement on to the road so that I would have a clear run and off I set. As I passed them I heard them taking the piss, but I just kept on. I ran home and went straight to my room as usual.
Now, what happened next is a fine example of how truly odd she was. I was in my room with the door closed, but I heard her come in from school just a minute or so after me. When she arrived at the top of the stairs she opened the door to my room, stuck her head round the door and said
"I saw you smoking on the way home, and I'm going to tell them." Meaning our parents.
With that, she closed the door and went to her room, leaving me to puzzle that one out.
First of all let me say this, I might have only been twelve years old, but I did smoke. Everybody in my group of friends smoked. But on this occasion she hadn't seen me smoking, because I hadn't been smoking. I knew this, she knew this, her two mates knew this, but my father didn't. To be honest, I don't think that he could have cared less that I smoked. But he would never have wanted to miss out on the opportunity to dish out a good hiding. The thing is, I knew that just like me, he didn't talk to her, and she didn't talk to him. So it would have been highly unlikely that she would have just strolled back down the stairs and struck up a conversation, where after a few minutes of idle chit chat she suddenly dropped her little fib into the mix. So I didn't really take all that much notice.
Anyway, slowly the rest of the family arrived home from their days endeavours. As usual mum had cooked dinner, and so we all met up round the table for the daily routine of face to face ignoring of each other. To be fair, it was only the three of us who actually ignored each other. I talked to the others and so did she. We just didn't talk to each other, or dad, and he didn't engage in conversation with anyone. He would eat his dinner in silence, then leave the table the moment he was done and go and stick his nose back in the particular book that he was reading at the time. He lived most of his waking home life with his nose stuck in one book or another, and disturbing him from this obsessive hobby was a very unwise thing to do indeed.
Dad had just about finished eating when right out of the blue and completely out of context of any conversation that any of the others were having, she just said it. She didn't say it to anyone in particular. She just spoke out loud, knowing full well what the consequences of her words would be.
"He was smoking on the way home from school today, all my friends saw him."
All her friends. I thought. She's only got two looser friends, and they wouldn't like her if they knew what she was really like.
She was looking at me with a great big smirk on her face.
"She's lying, I didn't even see her on the way home," I lied myself.
Trying to make her look ridiculous. But it was too late, the message had registered.
He's done wrong, I'm allowed to go into attack mode, must have been what went on in his head.
As he started to raise his arm, I knew what was coming. He lunged across the table in a vain attempt at hitting me round the head, but I had preempted the strike and forced my chair backwards away from the table causing him to miss completely.
Now, if I'd given this any thought, I could have worked out that if I'd let him connect with his first attempt, then that most probably would have been the end of the matter. After all, he would look a bit silly continually hitting me round the head while we were all still sitting at the dinner table. But the old fight or flight instinct kicked in, and as obviously fight wasn't even a remote option, I legged it. I ran from the dining room through the kitchen and out of the door. Once outside, I stopped to see if he'd bothered to follow, and sure enough the door opened. He stood in the doorway and shouted at me.
"Get in here now"
I wasn't falling for that old chestnut.
"Get in here now, or you'll really be for it, " he raged at me.
I knew that he wouldn't dare venture further than the door because he had absolutely no chance of catching me, and he wouldn't have wanted to look like a complete twat chasing me round the street in front of all the nosy neighbours. So after a few more threats he went back inside to sit and stew over what he would do once he finally caught up with me. Most normal people calm down after a while and so wouldn't feel so inclined to go on the attack after a few hours had passed. But not him, no I knew exactly what he was doing. He was sitting in that chair, his nose stuck into his latest crime thriller, but without actually reading a single word, no not a single word. He would be festering, and bubbling, and seething. Sometimes separately, and sometimes all three together.
Meanwhile, on this particular occasion no one was about in the street. So I sat on the front doorstep and pondered my options alone. Go in now and get it over. Go away and never come back, or sit here until he's gone to bed. I knew that I couldn't run away, I didn't quite have the nerve for that yet. If I waited for him to go to bed, he would just lock me out, and I'd end up spending the whole night sitting on the doorstep. So ultimately I knew that I had to go back in and face the music. I also knew that the sooner the better. The only problem now was getting up enough nerve to actually do it.
I'd been sitting on the step for about three hours, and it was beginning to get dark. It was summer, and I was only wearing shorts and a tee shirt. As night approached, I was starting to get cold. So the moment had arrived.
If I walk as quickly as possible and go straight to my room he might not even notice me. I thought to myself, knowing full well that was never going to be the case. But I had no choice, it was now or never. I approached the door as slowly as I could. When I arrived, I pulled the door handle down really gently, trying to make as little noise a possible, in the vain hope that he was sleeping. I didn't want to take the chance of disturbing him. The door creaked as I pushed it open.
Why couldn't he fix that bloody door? I thought to myself.
As I walked into the kitchen, I realised that there was no point in trying to be quiet that door had blown my cover completely.
I stopped momentarily at the entrance to the living room, took a deep breath, then marched straight through. Everyone was sitting engrossed in the TV, and for one brief moment I thought that I'd made it through unscathed. That feeling was short lived. As I reached the foot of the stairs, my presence had finally registered with him.
"Come here now," he bellowed. He started to get up from his nice comfy chair.
I wasn't going to just hang around and take the beating, the old fight or flight instinct had kicked in yet again, and we all knew which one I opted for. Before he could catch up to me, I had legged it up the stairs and locked myself in the bathroom. Now, the lock on the bathroom door was only a flimsy little bolt, he could open that just by leaning on it. So as quickly as I could, I flung myself to the floor, put my back up against the door and wedged my feet against the toilet bowl.
He reached the door.
"Open this door now," he was rattling the handle.
I remained silent.
"Open the door." I carried on ignoring him.
"If you don't open it, I'll break it down"
He gave a gentle shove. I think he thought that the door would just pop open like it had in the past. He hadn't realised that I had wedged myself in, and when the door didn't budge, his temper immediately went up a notch or two.
"You're really going to get it now, .open this door," he screamed at me.
I felt an almighty crash as he hit the door with all his weight.
Fuck, he's almost broken my back I thought to myself. I'm going to have to get out of the way.
The problem was that he was shoving against the door with all his weight, and I was completely stuck. So unless he released the pressure on the door, I couldn't get out of the way, even if I had wanted to. I was wedged.
Suddenly he must have taken a run up at it. He crashed into the door, my legs gave way and slid either side of the toilet bowl, and I head butted the front of the pan. Where I'd slid forward, this had allowed enough room for the door to open just wide enough for him to squeeze himself in. He grabbed me by my hair and lifted me to my feet. In the same movement, he threw me towards the bath. My legs hit the side of the bath, but he had thrown me with such force that my head smacked into the tiled wall on the other side. I felt a blow come down across my back, and then he grabbed my hair again. He pulled me backwards away from the bath. He must have seen the blood running down my face from the cut on my forehead because he then just let go of me and walked back down the stairs. I got myself to my feet, went into my room, got in the bed and pulled the covers up over my head. I always did this when I had got a beating, it was the only place where you could feel that you were truly alone in a small house with five other occupants.
I'd been under the covers for about half an hour, and was just about ready to stop feeling sorry for myself, when I heard the bedroom door open. I remained under the covers momentarily just waiting to hear a voice so that I would know if it was friend or foe.
All of a sudden I could hear the mocking laughter of my sister. It was Jacqueline. I threw the covers back and turned my head toward the door. There she was, pointing at me and pretend laughing.
"Ha ha ha ha ha ha"
Before she had a chance to react I flung the covers right off the bed and leapt out. I didn't stop to have an argument with her, or to ask her what she was playing at. No, I leapt from the bed and punched her right in the mouth. She let out a funny little squeal and immediately went to her room. I could hear her sobbing into her pillow.
Great she's finally got a taste of her own medicine . I thought.
I'd also learnt a valuable lesson. When ever she causes me to be hit by him, I'll hit her. That way she'll know what it feels like and maybe she would stop doing it.
From what I can remember, I think I only had to hit her a couple more times before she finally made the connection.
I get him into trouble, he gets hit, I get hit. Oh yes, that's how it works.
So she stopped deliberately getting me into trouble, I stopped hitting her, and we both stopped communicating with each other completely. When she was about sixteen she had a complete mental breakdown and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She has suffered with this horrible illness ever since. Many years later, we all had professional counselling as a family. But what I could never get past was that everything that she ever did was instantly put down to her being ill. And therefore, she had no control over it, and so she has never had to take responsibility for her actions.
My mother pretends that none of this is true. She cannot bear the thought that she stood by and let all this go on. Occasionally I have questioned my sanity, have I made all this up. Was this actually a figment of my overactive imagination. Fortunately for me my brother John was able to confirm everything that I said, as being correct. He became a social worker and has worked extensively within the mental health service. So I'm fairly certain that I can trust his word.
4 Shoplifting as a Sport and Getting Caught.
I was around about ten or eleven, when my brother, the boys from our street and yours truly started to shoplift. I don't know why, except that it was incredibly exciting. We would go to the corner shop and steal sweets. This was before the days when shopkeepers had got wise to loads of marauding school kids sweeping their stock laden shelves like plagues of hungry locust, and put signs up saying.
"No more than two school children allowed inside at once," so we'd all pile in.
We had developed some well choreographed routines and one method went something like this. Two of us would walk into the shop, go past the sweet counter to the shelves stocked with other goodies such as cakes and biscuits. Two more would go in, walk to the same end of the shop, but further down to the left where the bottles and cans of fizzy drinks were to be found. Once everyone was in position pretending to peruse the shelves, normally the shopkeeper would make his way from behind his counter over to where we were, to see if he could help. We all really knew it was to make sure," those thieving little bastards didn't bankrupt him." That was part one.
Part two went like this. The last two of us would walk into the shop, head straight for the sweet counter. Then fill our pockets with whatever we could, while Mr shopkeepers back was turned dealing with the other four reprobates. One of us would then call out to the shopkeeper.
"Two six penny mixes please Mister."
"OK lads," he would say as he turned and walked back behind the counter, the lure of a sale to great to resist. The minute he turned his back the other four had about three seconds to fill their pockets. We would all then usually buy one thing each, a Wagon Wheel or can of pop. This was to make us look like authentic customers, after all we didn't want him to think we were thieves, now, did we? We would then say our goodbyes, all very polite and leave.
Once safely outside We'd all then run up the road to the park and sit in a big circle. We'd then toss the stolen booty in the middle, to see who had got the most, and who'd got what. We'd then sit around eating the sweets and biscuits and swigging on the cans of fizzy drink. Once we'd had our fill we'd throw everything else around the place. You see we couldn't possibly eat everything we took, and we certainly couldn't take it home. Imagine that.
Hi mum, I've bought you five packets of chocolate digestives and seven Mars bars.
Oh thanks son put them in the cupboard, and we'll eat them later.
By the time, we were twelve and had started secondary school, we had progressed from stealing sweets from the corner shop to stealing from Woolworth's, and the co-op, and any other shop in the high street. But what never changed was that whatever we took, if we couldn't eat it we threw it away. It became a sport, we'd play football on Saturday morning, then we'd all go shoplifting. When we were in Woolies on a Saturday morning after football, I swear to god there were more people in there shoplifting than actual paying customers. It seemed to me that whatever sport you played and whatever school you went to that it always culminated in a bout of stealing for fun.
But it wouldn't be long before the day came when we were caught red handed. My brother John, some of the boys from our road and myself found ourselves incarcerated in the cells of Bexleyheath police station waiting for our parents to arrive so that we could make our confessions
It was the first day of the summer holidays, we'd been in the fields all morning playing football, and we were now back in the street kicking our heels, and itching to get up to some mischief. It was odd really! It was only the first day of the holidays, and we were about to claim boredom as some kind of a defence. Anyway, we decided to jump on a bus, and head for Bexleyheath to the well known branch of shoplifters are us, or Woolworth's to you and me.
Our usual gang was one down as my best mate and top shoplifter Cliff couldn't make it. I think he'd had a bust up with his old man and was languishing in his very own little cell. That was the beginning of our downfall, if he'd been there we wouldn't have ever allowed ourselves to have got in that position in the first place, hindsight and all that! Ah.
So there was Steven Lea, only child from no 11, Doug Moss, son of the vicar's house keeper from no 1, Ian and Andrew Philips, from no 13, those two were our weak links. They didn't usually hang around with Cliff and myself, we were far to rough for those boys. They hung out with my brother John, but as he was with us today, so were they.
I'd better explain, we didn't actually get caught shoplifting, no, we were far too good for that as it turned out. Also, the Philip's boys were far too scared to take anything. So what happened was the stealing bit was actually highly successful.
We used to wear anoraks, and later on parkas with nylon linings, in which we would make six inch slits just below each arm hole inside. This created one massive pocket allowing enough room to get all the stolen goods in. All the coats apart from two were full to bursting. The six of us were standing on the pavement outside Woolies, completely hyped on the adrenaline buzz. Now! Where to go and sort out all the ill gotten gains?
I had wanted to go back to our usual spot behind the pavilion in the sports field to the rear of our houses. But oh no, they couldn't wait that long, no they were all far too excited. Now if Cliff had been there both our voices would have carried away for sure, but he wasn't, so we ended up in the car park at the back of the Co-op.
Where we were situated there was a row of private garages with a gap between them that formed an alleyway. The alley lead back on to the Broadway. We sat in a parking bay with everything we had stolen in a great big pile in the middle. Now, the alley was a good thirty yards from where we were, but as I looked up from our great mountain of unusable junk, piles of pic-n-mix, tubes of glue, felt tipped pens, Biro's, cheap plastic jewellery, batteries all manner of stuff, I spotted two coppers, one male, one female, emerge from the alley between the garages.
Cool as a cucumber, I jumped to my feet and hastily started refilling my pockets. I couldn't get it in quick enough. The others soon caught on, so it became a mass scramble to get our pockets filled with what had now become the incriminating evidence. While, the two police officers slowly strolled towards us blissfully unaware of what we were up to.
Except that is for Ian. He stood up, momentarily froze to the spot, then promptly started throwing up. My first instinct was to run for it. The other three veteran thieves would be sure to follow. But I knew Andy wouldn't desert his brother and neither of them were street smart enough to keep their mouths shut when questioned by the old bill. So I just stopped what I was doing and stood with him, the others soon realized the game was up, we were caught, we were bang to rights.
By the time, the officers had reached us they knew something was up. They weren't stupid, they'd obviously seen it all before. There we were six youths stood in a car park on a boiling summers day, wearing anoraks done up to our necks, pockets bulging, and with one of the parties throwing up. Yes, very suspicious.
Male officer," what you lot up to then?"
"Nothing," we replied in unison.
"Then why did your mate start throwing up the minute he spotted us?"
"Dunno," I said.
"What's in your pockets?" He inquired.
"Nothing," I said, trying to stay as cool as possible.
The female officer interrupted, "right, you go and stand over by that wall," she said, pointing at me.
I walked over to the wall, she beckoned for me to turn and face it, I did as she said. It was the old divide and rule trick. Before we could concoct a story we were all split up, we were lined up against the wall and one at a time they called us over to the garages for a brief grilling. The sick boy Philips went first. They made him turn out his pockets even though they were empty, he was too busy being sick to pick anything up, we were done for.
So with one eye on our inquisitors Steven, Doug, and myself, were busily emptying the contents of our pockets over the wall that we were standing in front of, Straight into the back gardens beyond. John, my brother and Andy, Ian's brother were still stood rooted to the spot. So the game was up, Ian had confessed all and the two brothers still had their pockets stuffed with incriminating Woolworth's junk. So ten minutes later we were sitting in the back of a police van on our way to the nick.
All the parents arrived two at a time over the next hour, the only one that didn't come was our father. My mother walked in alone looking in equal portions shocked and disappointed, so now that everyone was present, we were taken one at a time to an interview room where we duly made full and frank confessions.
I was really hoping the old man would have come to the police station as he wouldn't have been able to kill us there and chances are he might have calmed down a tad by the time we all got home. But what actually happened came as quite a shock. After we'd all given our statements we were released with a formal police caution and then a right good telling off by the desk sergeant. But as the Hughes boys well Knew, the real punishment still lay in wait, or so we thought.
When we got home, he wasn't in, so we were sent to our rooms in shame, to wait for the inevitable. I'd fallen asleep on the bed, when I was awoken by the sound of the front door opening.
Brace yourself, I thought.
I could hear the muffled voice of my mother obviously giving him full chapter and verse and after a short while she stopped talking. The living room door opened, and the creaking stairs were giving him away.
I was now on full alert. When the blows come try to stay relaxed and don't give him any back chat, I thought to myself
But the trouble was I rarely heeded my own advice. So the door opened and as he stood all his six feet four and eighteen stone filling the doorway, I readied myself. He was looking at me, but he called out to my brother in the other room.
"Come in here," he shouted at the other bedroom door.
As the door opened out came my brother, no longer shouting he said quite calmly.
"Go and sit next to him on the bed," he was pointing at me.
He did as he was told and came and sat beside me on my bed. My father then closed the door behind him.
Oh my god he's gonna finish us both off in one go. I thought.
But no! He coolly and calmly began by saying that he wasn't going to hit us, now, I knew that couldn't be true. Was this the man who had not three weeks earlier beaten me senseless for kicking the football against the side of the house? No, it must come at some point. But it didn't.
He went on to say that we were now known to the police and that if we didn't mend our ways we'd both end up in prison. The lecture went on and on, but I had zoned out. I was just occasionally nodding or shaking my head in time to my brother's movements. Once I had fully appreciated that this non-violent course of action was for real.
I just thought, what a complete mug, he must have lost his balls somewhere on his way home.
You might think that a bit odd of me, but I was so used to the violence that anything else was hard to accept.
So we were left in our rooms for the night, baffled, but bruise free, and for the rest of the holidays we were confined to the boundaries of the street. Of course, this act of baffling non aggression didn't last past that one time, but it certainly was a refreshing change.
5 The Basketball Bother
I was in my second year at Crayford secondary so I must have been thirteen or so when this shameful event unfolded.
It was a bit odd how this all came about, considering that one evening after school we had a basketball match arranged against Dartford Grammar School, and as was usually the case we had won very easily. So you would have thought that we would have all gone home, happily basking in the warm glow of sweet victory. But oh! how wrong could you be.
After the game, we were all in the changing rooms larking around as thirteen year old boys tend to do. When Larry Breeds came out of the showers and declared.
"We're gonna get those fuckers, and give 'em a good kicking."
The mood changed instantly, we had turned into a pack of blood lusting animals. Actually that's a bit unfair because animals only tear things apart they're going to eat, and what we were about to do was for fun, or at least it was for Larry. I don't think with hindsight the rest of us had the slightest clue what was about to happen.
As we left our changing room, the Dartford lads were slowly milling out of theirs. Larry was definitely our leader, at least for this particular event. We held back, allowing them to leave the school grounds without raising any suspicions. As they exited the front gates there were six of them and five of us, but once they were all out of the gate they momentarily stopped. They were saying their goodbyes to each other, and with that, three went to the left, and three went to the right. Now I knew which way I was going to go, right may not have been on my side that night, but it was certainly on my way home. Strange though, Larry also went to the right, even though to go to his house he should have turned left. He obviously wanted the pack to stick together, and I was no follower. So the fate of the Dartford boys who turned to the right was sealed.
I'm going to try to explain to you what happened next, as a series of factual events, I can't explain why it happened, and I might not be able to convey the utter shame that it did happen, but this is it.
We were walking along Iron Mill Lane so close to the Dartford trio that they knew something was amiss. At first they tried walking quicker, but we just kept up with them. Then as the boy in the middle turned and started to say, "what do you want?"
Larry took a short run up and drop kicked him clean in the back. As he went sprawling to the floor all the contents of his bag came tumbling out, there was sports kit and books flying everywhere. As he started to pick himself up, the other two lads were attempting to pick his stuff up. But they too were then punched to the ground, and their bags were emptied, and the contents kicked all over the road.
Who did what and to whom has been lost with the passing of time, suffices to say that we were all equally guilty. All three slowly got to their feet, however if they thought it was all over then they were sorely mistaken. We forced them to start running, but they were reluctant to leave their gear behind at first. But we gave them no choice. After a few more punches and a few more kicks, they started to run. We ran behind them spitting kicking and punching them all the way into town, that's about half a mile or twenty minutes worth. They were only spared because the town was busy and us brave lads didn't fancy getting caught. So I made my way home and didn't give it another thought, not for now anyway
6 We Were Bang To Rights.
About a month had passed since the infamous night of the basketball beatings, and the brave boys of Crayford were going about their daily routines of lessons, sport, lunch, lessons, sport, a bit of shoplifting, and home.
It was a Wednesday morning, I was quietly sitting minding my own business in second period history. When some little squirt of a first year, that's about a year eleven for those of you to young to remember, came in and handed Mr Evans teacher of history since 1700, a note. I'd better explain that one, he hadn't been teaching history since 170O, no he wasn't that old. He taught all his lessons from the same book "A History Since 1700." Anyway, he unfolded the piece of paper, glanced at it and read out two names, " Martin Harris and Nicholas Hughes, leave all your stuff where it is and go straight to the sports hall."
Now at this point alarm bells certainly weren't ringing for me. If it was trouble usually you'd be sent to one of the offices, and after all we hadn't done anything bad for ages. So we trotted off chatting away to each other without a care in the world.
As we arrived at the sports hall, there was a row of boys lined up against the wall, and three PE teachers, plus Mr Potts my form teacher, stood about three yards away, facing them.
"You two get in line and shut up." Mr Potts shouted at us.
As we entered the vast space the atmosphere was tense, to say the least, we did as we were told. There were still a few fourth year girls clearing up volleyball equipment, but Mr Tappin (head of PE) 's patience had run out.
"Leave all that, ladies, please, and clear off, " he bellowed at them.
They didn't need telling twice, and as the last one approached the door, "and close the door thank you," he finished with.
As the door slid shut there was a momentary silence, this was one of those one second lifetimes. It was broken by the calm voice of Mr Potts, head of English.
"Right, you lot listen very carefully. I've received a letter from the head of Dartford Grammar. He says that, after last month's basketball match, three of their boys were attacked on their way home, their books and clothes were destroyed. He says that he's waited this long to inform us because he wants to lessen the impact it would have on the lives of the guilty."
I bet those bashed up boys wouldn't have been quite so compassionate if they'd been given the choice. I thought to myself.
" Right, first of all," he said.
He read out four names and asked them in turn if they were involved, and one by one they nodded their guilt. Now to this day I've no idea how they knew who was involved. I think that it probably was just an educated guess based on past performance. But none of the shame faced four tried to deny anything.
" You four go and stand over there," he pointed to the adjacent wall. They slowly made their way over, heads bowed.
Now, my name wasn't called, was I free? Was I in the clear? That feeling lasted all of about two seconds. He then turned his attention back from the guilty row to the innocent
"Anybody else involved, had better own up now, because if we find out later, it won't be me that you're dealing with, it'll be the police."
I had to make a quick decision. That lot were bound to grass, and if the police were told then they'd definitely tell my old man, and that couldn't happen, no that certainly couldn't happen. So reluctantly I raised my hand.
"Go stand over there," pointing to the wall of shame.
I made the short journey while he released the innocent.
Once the sports hall door had slid shut for the second time all hell was let loose. All I remember about this was that all four of them (teachers) were screaming at us all at once. About how we had shamed the whole school, every last pupil and every teacher. How the grammar boys and their masters had shown such great compassion for us scum in not going to the police. How lucky we were because it had happened outside of school and so they couldn't expel us. This tirade seemed to be never ending. In fact, it went on for about five minutes, then as quickly as it had started, quiet returned, the tsunami had passed. We stood completely stunned by their unbridled wrath. They stood a moment and composed themselves.
"Right." Said Mr Potts. "This is what's going to happen. Tomorrow before registration you'll go to Mrs Wakerels office (head mistress), and you'll each get six strokes of the cane. A letter will be sent to your parents, and their head has requested that you replace all the lost property, so a bill will be included in the letter. You are all on report for two months. Now get out of here."
As we filed out from the hall the enormity of what had just gone down was beginning to percolate through. First of all, being caned, no one cared about that, if anything that would just add to our notoriety. No, for most, it was being on report. Aside from having to take a bit of paper with you everywhere you went and continually get it signed, you were barred from representing the school at anything. No sports, no choir, no chess, nothing. Now not to put too finer point on it, us five were the backbone of every boys sports team of our year, they couldn't possibly allow this. This seemed to be the main topic of conversation of the other boys. But for me all that was ringing in my ears was.
Letter home, letter home, leeeettteeerr hooooome. Oh my god if he finds out I won't have to worry about playing football, cos I'll be dead.
So the next day we all got caned, we all went on report, and we all became local heroes. And I put my very cunning plan into operation.
7 The Letter Home
It's vitally important that when this letter arrives that I intercept it. But why? you may well ask. Well first of all my father was the biggest nastiest bastard in the world, and if he'd found out what we'd done to the Dartford boys, he wouldn't have just beat me, he'd probably do me in once and for all. So this is what happened. From the time, we were disciplined at school I had to get to the post before he did. So began my daily routine, and it went something like this. The postman arrived every day at approximately 7.45am, and I had a paper round that took, depending on what day of the week it was and how heavy the bag was between an hour and a half to two hours. This meant I had to be up and out every day by 5.45am. This was a massive ask for a lazy teenager who usually had to be dragged out of his pit every morning, but this was definitely an emergency.
So anyway, I would arrive back at the house in time to watch him start posting the letters, every last one of them with the potential to cause me great pain and anguish. I would be sitting on the front doorstep with my dirty ink stained bag clasped tightly round my neck waiting and watching, like a leopard waits on its prey. Waiting until he reached the house next door. Then I would quickly and as calmly as a thirteen year old could ever be with a death sentence hanging over him, get up and walk in through the kitchen door, I'd walk through the living room, where if they were up, that is to say if mum and dad were up, meet the postman, who by now would be on the other side of the door. As he drew back the letter box and pushed the mail through, I would take it with one hand whilst placing the forefinger of the other hand in the letterbox hole, so that when the knocker came crashing down it would hit my finger silently. I would then drop any letters into the paper sack. At this point, I would get the customary shout from the living room.
"Don't take that filthy bag upstairs, put it in the garage."
That was my cue, I'd go out of the front door, walk up the drive and into the side door of the garage. Once in the garage I would slump down onto one of the deck chairs that were strewn around the place, amongst all the other junk that had accumulated over the years. The adrenaline would be pumping through me, but the hardest part of the day was over.
I would then, with one eye on the window, light a cigarette, take a couple of deep drags, and turn my attention to the business at hand, the mail. My father was an accountant, and he worked from an office at the back of the house. What this meant was that every day amongst the usual household stuff, (bills etc.) would arrive about twenty or so letters from the Inland Revenue. They were always in brown envelopes with "INLAND REVENUE" marked on the front. After I'd opened a couple of these in error and the penny had dropped, it was easy to quickly scan through them, dropping them back into the sack one by one. I'd then be left with domestic stuff they were easy, the utilities always have their names on the front e.g. British gas or BT. Over the course of the next three weeks, this scenario took place every day.
After the mail was checked, I'd put the unopened stuff under my coat and quickly walk to the front door, post it with a nice loud knock and return inside through the kitchen door, just in time to see the old man scraping the letters off the mat. On the odd occasion that I had opened a letter, I just stuffed it in my pocket and stuck it down a drain on the way to school.
As I said, this went on for about three weeks and then the great day finally arrived. It was a posh white envelope, it actually had N.W.K. Schools stamped across the top (North West Kent Schools). It couldn't have been easier. I went through the usual routine, except this time I didn't stick it down a drain, I kept it. It was a souvenir, a testament to my skill and persistence and proof that I'd dodged the bullet. The only problem I had now was that contained amongst the description of what we had done to those boys was a request for a payment of twenty-five pounds to replace the uniforms we had so callously ripped from their backs. Twenty-five pounds! Where the hell was I going to get that from. My paper round only paid one pound twelve and a half pence a week. The money was to be paid within the week, and any questions don't hesitate to contact Miss Wakrel head mistress. Oh my god! seven effing days and twenty-five quid. But lets look on the bright side, for now I was safe. I couldn't wait to get to school.
8 Parkins Comes Up Trumps
As soon as I ran into Larry, he was stood there waving his letter, the sweet grin of success plastered across his face.
"You got it then," I said.
"Yer," he smirked.
"I've got mine too," I said." But what you gonna do about the money?"
"I've almost got mine," he said.
The feeling of camaraderie was instantly replaced by one of pure loneliness.
"Oh you have," I said slightly disbelievingly.
"Yer," he said. "I've been robbing my old man, a few bob here and there for ages, I'll just give 'em that."
"Great," I said. " But what am I supposed to do?"
"Dunno," he replied as he walked away still smirking.
What the hell, something will come up. I thought as I turned and headed for class, and as luck would have it, I didn't have to wait too long for that something.
I was sitting in fifth period geography that afternoon, relating my problem to Andy Parkins, good friend and school lunatic, when he said.
"I'll get it for ya."
"How?" I said, somewhat disbelievingly.
" We'll have a collection round school tomorrow lunch time.
Great, I thought, I've just got away with G.B.H, and now I was gonna get done for demanding money with menaces.
"Don't worry," he said. " I'll do it, and anything over the top I'll keep for myself.
"OK," I said. "Seems fair enough to me."
So straight away he set to work, he spent the afternoon break spreading the word that it would be in everyone's interests to pay up, if you know what I mean. He would give them until break tomorrow morning. They had the night to panic, and the morning to get the cash.
The following day I thought it best to lay low and so after my paper round, instead of heading to school I got on a bus and went to Woolwich on a solo shoplifting trip. But by midday curiosity had got the better of me and so I hopped back on the bus and headed for school.
On my arrival, I scribbled my dads signature on my report card and went to my registration room. Mr Potts was sitting at his desk.
"You're a bit late aren't you," he said, without the slightest hint of irony in his voice.
"Yes, sorry sir, I've been to the dentist, can you sign my card?" I lied.
"Give it here," he said, barely looking up from the books that he was marking.
I slid the dog-eared piece of card under his nose, he signed it and slid it back. I swear, I could have got him to sign anything. Anyhow, I picked it up and left.
Now where to find Parkins?
I walked down the stairs of the English block and out into the crowded lunchtime playground. There, he was with a group of quivering first years concluding the last of his business. As I strolled over he turned to me with the grin of success plastered across his face,
"How'd it go," I proffered.
"Great," he said, jangling his change laden pockets.
"We'll have a sort out at break, it's too late now."
So an hour passed, and we meet on the top playing field. It was far enough away from the classrooms so that you could smoke without being seen. We both sat down on the grassy bank, but he seemed reluctant to hand over the proceeds of his mornings work.
"I've had a count up in maths," he said.
I bet he never got the irony of that statement," I thought to myself. "He's never counted anything in his life let alone in a maths lesson,
"I've got about twenty-seven, fifty," he said.
I understood immediately. Two pounds, fifty for him, wasn't gonna do it. So before we came to blows, I said.
"Look Andy, give me twenty quid and you can have this stuff."
I showed him the contents of my bag. It was stuffed with a mixture of sweets biscuits and all sorts of miscellaneous pens and other junk from my mornings work in Woolwich. This seemed to do the trick. So the deal was done, I'd easily make the other fiver up by selling more stolen goods.
Once I'd collected the rest of the cash I took all the change into Barclays bank and came out clutching two crisp new notes. I now knew how Andy Parkins felt, it seemed such a waste having to hand over all that cash, but that afternoon that's
exactly what I did.
9 Gone To The Dogs
When I was about fifteen, I started a part time job at the Crayford stadium, as part of the track staff. Originally Cliff's eldest brother Clive worked there, and he got Colin, the middle brother in when someone else left. When Clive left to join the police, Cliff filled his shoes. So now they had run out of brothers, and a vacancy had arisen, so being Cliff's best mate he got me in.
Even though Cliff and I had been best friends since we were six, after the shoplifting incident while some of us had got caught, he had been confined to the house. Because his father was in the police force, he didn't want any of his boys mixing with the criminal elements of the street, even though unbeknown to his father Cliff was considered one of the best shoplifters around. So he was banned from mixing with the riff raff from the street, and as nobody had explained any of this to us we all thought that he was just ignoring everybody. He probably thought that he was too good for us, now that he was at the catholic school, and we were at Crayford secondary. So something that would have blown over by the end of the summer holidays if the so called adults had bothered talking to us, had escalated into a full blown cold war that would last for the next two years.
At first this was awful, he was my best mate, what could I have possibly done to have caused this. He never came out into the street if any of us were there, and he would leave the moment I walked outside. I took this, being snubbed quite badly. All the others, even though we all hung round in a big group had their best friends, but my oppo was gone, and that hurt. As the months drifted by I put it to the back of my mind. I do remember how strangely put out I felt when Crayford secondary played St Columbus at football. We both played for our school teams so he should have been there, but he wasn't, there was no sign of him. How dare he? I don't know what I thought would have happened, most likely we would of just ignored each other as usual, but, he was supposed to be there and he wasn't, and I was oddly put out by this.
So, the months slipped into years, I had more or less given up on us ever being friends again. Until one Sunday afternoon, when half the street were in Bakers field, playing cricket, over he came, he could get into the field from his back garden. His head popped up from the long grass that formed the bank that separated the field from the gardens, and over he came as if nothing had happened, the last two years hadn't existed.
Neither of us spoke that day about what had happened or what had been so unique about this particular Sunday. Why, after all this time we were back in favour. No, we just played cricket and took the piss out of everyone else, just like the old days. Many years later I found out that the crowd he had got in with at school had lead him astray in far worse ways than any of us ever could. After running away with a boy from school, who sexually assaulted him, his father had allowed him to come back to us, the better of two evils, I suppose he thought.
So on a Saturday morning it became my job along with Cliff and his brother Colin to clear the speedway track, and the centre fountains of all the debris that was left from banger racing on the Friday night. The speedway circuit and the two fountains formed a figure of eight that we had to, as meticulously as possible, walk round like the police do when they're searching for evidence walking together side by side. We had to pick up any nuts and bolts and all the tiny bits of chewed up metal. The little bits that were always missed by the banger racing clean up squad, who just picked up the big pieces of scrap that fell off the bent up old cars from the previous nights meeting.
It was like forensic work, every last minuscule pin had to be retrieved from this metaphoric haystack, the safety of the speedway riders being paramount. That was the easy bit after the pickup was completed to Colin's satisfaction, he was our self appointed boss as he'd been there longest and took his work very seriously. Unlike Cliff and I who would wander round chatting and smoking Bensons one after the other.
Then we had to sweep the muck and dirt from the fountains and red concrete that formed the inner part of the track. I should point out that the fountains were emptied and dried before bangers started. They didn't have to drive through great clouds of water spray. Actually it might have been more exciting had it been like that.
Now on the face of it this seemed like a nice little job to while away a few hours on a Saturday morning, but oh no!. Standing in the dust filled bowl, that was not so long ago awash with clean blue water, looking over to the empty stands we were totally dwarfed by the scale of the job. They were like two giant eyes the size of football pitches, waiting to be freed from the grit that covered them, and it was our job to free them. We used brooms that were about three feet wide and used anywhere else would have looked abnormally large, but out in the centre of the stadium it was like trying to clean your carpets with a toothbrush. The first time I did it my hands were covered in blisters and my back ached like it had never ached before. But I did it without moaning, couldn't be seen to be weak. Anyway I was used to a bit of pain, at least somebody was paying me for this, but like most things you soon get used to it.
The part of that Saturday morning I liked least wasn't the fountain clean up, no, it was break time. I know what you're thinking, break time? Break time's only beaten by home time, I know. But for me it was the first time in my life I'd experienced bullying outside of the house and to be honest I never thought of my father as bullying anyway. He didn't do what he did for fun, no, he was forced to be that way to try and crush my constant bad behaviour. That was his excuse anyway.
I've just had a thought, some of you may not know what banger racing and speedway racing are, and I've told you this is a story about the dogs. We'll get to that a bit later. So, where was I. Bangers are just as they sound, old cars that just before they go off to the scrap man to get crushed are stripped of everything, windows, doors, lights, seats. They are then painted in garish colours and sent out on to the track to be smashed up by their fellow competitors. The last car still moving being the winner. I never got that one really quite pointless.
Speedway, on the other hand, is a much more refined sport. It involves motorcycles racing in groups of six for three laps of the outer dirt track at high speed. A competition between two or three teams scoring points for a win takes place. Now to me this was much more exciting, it was a proper sport.
At about half past, ten everybody stopped what they were doing and headed for the tea hut. The tea hut as it was known was just a big shed with a kettle some benches and a dart board. When we arrive the full time track staff would usually already be inside eating breakfast or playing darts.
There was Pete Bussy the ground staff manager and two full time staff, Charley and Paul. They were both about eighteen or nineteen, must have done well at school to have secured two such prestigious jobs, shovelling dog shit for a living. For whatever reason I don't know, except that I was the new boy and quite shy I suppose. I'd walk in with Cliff and Colin and it would be.
"All right Cliff, who's your new girlfriend then?"
Cliff would reply, "his name's Nick."
"Come and sit down next to us Nicky boy," they would say in faux camp voices.
At first I just tried to ignore them, but they persisted.
"Come and sit down here," they said, slightly more aggressively.
I was on my own now, no one was coming to rescue me. So reluctantly I sat down between the two of them while they continued to embarrass me. They would ask me personal questions about my sex life and sexual preferences while all the time rubbing my leg or hugging me. These actions by them were never in reality meant to be sexual, and they were never violent. They were passed off as harmless fun, "a bit of banter." But the fact was that they were designed to cause me as much humiliation as possible while giving their humdrum little lives a bit of a lift. Anyway I was fifteen and didn't have a sex life, which they probably knew, but still revelled in my embarrassment. I think that in hindsight if I'd stood up to them on that first morning they wouldn't have bothered with me anymore. But unfortunately I didn't,, so they did.
After a month of Saturday mornings, one of the evening track hands left, and Pete Bussy had asked me if I wanted the job. Cliff and Colin already worked the dog meetings, and I would be working with them. So even though I knew I'd probably have to put up with the two bullies I said yes.
The job entailed raking one of the bends of the track. There were four of us and each person started at about ten yards into the straight and worked backwards round the bend until they got to the centre point of the curve. When the dogs ran on the soft peat track their feet would create massive holes, so it was important to get them smoothed over before the next lot went hurtling round.
In those days, a meeting only consisted of seven races at half hour intervals. So after each race we had approximately twenty minutes to get the bend raked before the start of the next one. Nowadays there are thirteen races and a tractor does it in about two minutes flat, that's progress I suppose.
Colin was his usual meticulous self and always took the full twenty minutes, taking care to cover every last inch of ground. The other guy, Gerry I think his name was, was just as slow. In contrast Cliff and I would race each other to see who could get back into the hut first.
The hut was just like the tea shed except Charlie and Paul my Saturday tormentors rarely went in there. Their job entailed loading the dogs into the traps and setting the hare, this kept them at the other end of the stadium most of the time. I used to get a bit of stick pre-meeting in the changing room next to the press box. Everybody used to wear a white coat the ones like doctors or butchers wear, so we all had to go up there to get changed. I couldn't avoid this, but I would get in and out as quickly as I could.
The great attraction of the hut for Cliff and me was that not only was it not frequented by any low life's, but also the kennel maids used to sit in there between races if they didn't have a dog running. They were all attractive young ladies who seemed much more exotic than the lot from school. I suppose most of them would have been a least a couple of years older than us as they were in full time employment. The girls were all very friendly with us, and they had all experienced Paul and Charlie's sexist humour. They all in turn, had to meet them by the traps before each race and listen to the non-stop drivel about whether it would be them or the dog that was going to be loaded into the trap, and stuff of a similar vein. Yes, hilarious I know.
On this particular evening, Cliff and I were in the hut listening to two of the girls Sarah and Lou going on about what horrible bastards those two were, and how they made all the girls lives miserable. On hearing, this Cliff piped up about how they were mercilessly teasing me. Personally I had always fought my own battles, I learnt from an early age that it was futile to go moaning about anything to anyone because I usually came off worse. Their reaction was only marginal less embarrassing than being sat between Charlie and Paul, except it was meant to make me feel better.
The pair of them came and sat on my lap and were hugging me and kissing my bright red cheeks, and telling me not to take any notice. I tried to stay cool and after what seemed like an age they slid from my lap back to the wooden bench, but remained tightly clasping my hands one on either side. The moment was only broken when Cliff got out the cigarettes and offered them round.
For some reason, Charlie was up by the trip. This was twenty yards past the finish line, and where the hare that the dogs chased on the wire loop that encircled the track was ejected. It was supposed to come flying off when triggered. This is what brought the speeding dogs to an instant halt.
The hare which in reality was nothing like a hare. It was more like a big stuffed sausage that was slid over a spring loaded steel arm. In turn, this was attached to the travelling wire. It had failed to work properly and resulted in four of the dogs doing two or three extra laps before they ran out of steam and gave themselves up.
Anyway Charlie had sorted out the problem and had decided to pay us all a visit in the hut. By the time he had finished his work, there were about six kennel maids and Cliff, Colin, Gerry and I all crammed in the hut. When in he walked, full of bravado. Him and Paul thought they owned the place. He came over to me sat himself on my lap thinking it would get a laugh. He had forgotten that his sidekick wasn't there, no he was alone and a second after sitting down he realised his mistake, but was trapped. He couldn't back off because he'd started.
So one by one, they turned on him.
"What are you doing sitting on his knee? You must really like him," Lou said.
" What do you mean?" He replied.
She didn't answer his question, she was so enraged, her pretty face contorted.
"Get off him you fucker, you and your arse of a mate are a pair of fucked up bullies, leave him alone, go on you prick, get off him."
It suddenly became a free for all with all the girls joining in the chorus of abuse.
Now, when all this was going on Charlie had become riveted to my knee. So with my new found backup I decided to get brave. From my sitting position, I placed my arm under his bent knees and stood up, his arm instinctively wrapped itself around my neck so that he wouldn't fall to the floor. I stood up and carrying him like you would carry a five year old up to bed maybe, I walked to the door and threw him to the ground. I didn't go back into the hut because I thought that once he had picked himself up he would be wanting to fight me. With hindsight, I realise that he would never have hit me because it was never about that. It was about feeling in control of something, anything. Controlling how other people feel from fine too embarrassed from just OK to humiliated from happy to sad. It was a little piece of control, it helped them get through their pathetic lives. But to hit me, no, they would have been instantly sacked, and it might have been a crap job but at least it was a job. Also by fifteen I was six foot four and Charlie wasn't. He had confided in Cliff months later that he had been quite shocked at how strong I was and how easily I had picked him up and discarded him like so much nothing.
After this incident, I had gained slightly in confidence and even though they carried on trying to bully me I had realised that if you want to be a victim you can, but it's a state of mind. If you don't give them permission to get inside your head, then they have no other way in. There's always someone else for them to pick on.
I stayed at the dog track until I left school. I was the last one out of our little lot to move on. Colin, like his brother, left to join the police, and Cliff left school when he was barely sixteen. Charlie and Paul were long gone too.
The last time I went to the track was on my eighteenth birthday. I was well into my butchery apprenticeship with the co-op by then, and Cliff had a series of dead end jobs. I think his first job was washing up in a works canteen in Northfleet. By now we were both fast becoming hardened drinkers.
Being in the meat trade I always worked on Saturday, but Cliff had his weekends free. He was a bit pissed when we met up in the pub that evening. That was at six O'clock as soon as it had opened for the evening session. God knows where he'd been till then cos the pubs used to close at half past two after lunch, and he was drunk three and a half hours later.
So we had been in the Bell, our local for about an hour and were getting itchy feet. We'd been reminiscing about the old days, the good old days when we worked at the track. God! we must have sounded like a couple of old men talking about donkeys years ago, but I suppose when you're young a year or so seems like a lifetime.
Anyway we decided to pay them all a visit. I should have known this wouldn't of been a good idea considering the state Cliff was already in. He was a law unto himself at the best of times, but when he was drunk he was a complete nightmare, but what did I know.!
After a long staggering walk weaving our way down the hill past the shops, we made it to the turn-stiles. We had no intention of paying to get in, so we went to the staff entrance. This was a door at the end of the row of pay booths that when you opened it there was yet another turnstile, but this one was activated by the clocking in cards. So we picked two random cards and clocked ourselves in.
The place was absolutely packed to the rafters. I knew he would never make it through the bar area without causing a major upset of some sort, bashing into people knocking drinks over, you know the sort of thing. So I told him to go through the stands to the other end, (less people holding pints of beer for him to bump into that way) and I would go and get the drinks and meet him at the hut. So off I went.
It took me about fifteen minutes to get us a couple of pints of lager and gingerly push my way through the crowded bar without spilling it all. Eventually I arrived at the doors at the far end, but as I passed through them I couldn't believe my eyes. It was cliff, he had somehow already got hold of a drink and was drunkenly staggering towards me, pint in one hand roll-up in the other lurching from side to side.
Now that wasn't so unusual, he did that a lot, except the reason I could see him so clearly through the sea of eager punters was that this time he was walking down the middle of the dog track itself. He had somehow managed to get from the stand over the fence and onto the track carrying a pint of stolen lager without being stopped. He appeared oblivious to the hundreds of angry people who were all shouting and jeering at him as he was holding up the start of the next race. He just made it to the finish line when two men in white coats that I didn't recognise, it had all changed by then, came and escorted him off the track and straight out of the stadium via the back gates and into the car park outside.
As quickly as I could I drank down the two pints, well I wasn't going to waste them now was I, and followed them through the kennels and out the back way. I found him sitting in a parking space half asleep still with his bent up roll-up in his mouth. We never did get to meet up with any of our old friends from the track that night, but from what I did see I suspect that none of them were there anymore anyway. People never stay long in those types of jobs, kennel maids and track hands were coming and going all the time. A few years after that they pulled down the old stadium to make way for a supermarket and built a new soulless little track at the other end of the car- park. Quite sad really.
10 He Flew Through The Air With The Greatest Of Ease
Anyway, I eventually got him to his feet, and we headed off back into town
Although it was my eighteenth birthday I was no stranger to the inside of all the hostelries in town. The pair of us had been regulars since we were both fifteen. As I was now legal, we decided to go and celebrate by visiting all the pubs in Crayford and letting everybody know that it was my birthday, even though Cliff was already extremely drunk and I was fast catching him up.
Anyhow as you may well imagine it wasn't long before I was as drunk as Cliff, and so to try and combat the effects of the alcohol we decided to go and get something to eat. So we left the pub and went to the chippie. As it was my birthday treat I bought us both double saveloy and large chips. We covered them all in salt and vinegar and set off for our next port of call winding our way up through the high street munching through the giant portions. Now this in itself isn't that memorable, I know, but what happened next was plain mad.
Just over the road from the One Bell pub, our next designated stopping off point, there was a very busy steakhouse called The Monte Carlo, and on a Saturday night it was always packed to the rafters. Now for some reason that has been lost to me with the passing of time we decided that we would go into this restaurant for a T-bone steak, forgetting that we were still holding the remains of our last meal. The Turkish owner of the restaurant not wanting to turn away any business said that we could get our steaks so long as we handed over the food we already had and that we would have to eat our new meal upstairs away from the civilised people. Now the upstairs part of this place was where people went for a drink while they waited for a table to become free, but we were relegated to having to eat our meal there.
The tables were covered in cheap plastic table cloths, and the general ambiance of the place was to say the least, shabby. This was in stark contrast to the fine white linen that adorned the tables downstairs. Anyway we accepted all the conditions and got shown to the table of shame. We somehow managed to eat our steaks and washed them down with even more beer and spirits.
I personally couldn't have cared less that we had to eat our meal hidden away from all the other diners but, unfortunately my old mate Cliff had taken umbrage at this perceived slight.
Our personal waiter who had obviously been delegated to keep an eye on us had vanished back to the downstairs throng and so it was now that Cliff hatched his very cunning plan. Unfortunately, he had forgotten to fill me in. So after a quick trip to the loo I was met with the sight of the back of Cliff's head exiting the building via the window at the top of the stairs. It's amazing how your short term memory works after a load of alcohol. What had happened was that he had decided that he was going to leave without paying, this is commonly known as "doing a runner." The only problem was that Cliff had momentarily forgotten that we were not on the ground floor, but twenty feet higher up and he only realised his mistake when he hit the pavement with such a thud that the whole contents of his stomach were deposited round where he lay.
I rushed down the stairs and out of the front door hotly pursued by a line of disgruntled waiters who thought that it was me doing the runner. Cliff got himself to his feet, and he appeared to be shaken up but not too seriously damaged, he was so drunk that he had fallen like a sack of spuds. The thing I remember most was the owner of the restaurant poking his head out of the upstairs window and instead of enquiring as to Cliff's welfare, he said in a really polite manner, "excuse me sir, but I believe that you've forgotten your bill," and with that he dropped the piece of paper out of the window.
Oh to be eighteen again!
11 Arsenal for The Day.
I've always followed Tottenham Hotspurs FC.
My parents lived in Islington, in north London, for most of their lives. All the men in the family, uncles and cousins etc. supported Arsenal, which was just up the road. Anyway, the time came when my father promised to take my brother and I to our first match. I was nine and John would have been seven, so we were understandably excited. We had been counting down the days, just like Christmas until at last it finally arrived.
We boarded the train for Charing Cross then walked round to Leicester square to catch the tube to Highbury. Just outside the station we met up with our cousin Ray. He was the son of my mother's sister and was in his early twenties I suppose. So the four of us travelled the last bit of our journey together.
As we got closer to the ground more people boarded the train wearing the red and white scarves that identified them as "Arsenal." This was in the days before replica shirts become the accepted dress code. Finally, we arrived at Highbury. As the tube doors slid open thousands of people spilled out onto the narrow platform. There were hoards of baton wielding police lining the route, funnelling the massive crowd towards the exit gates. Thousands of grown men chanting and shouting. The noise that was reverberating around the station was both really exciting and quite intimidating at the same time.
My brother and I were wedged together as we followed Ray and my father as closely as we could, for fear of being left behind. Once outside we could hear the noise of the crowd coming from the ground. As we approached the mob from the tube station, had swollen to an almighty throng. Suddenly we turned the corner and there before us was the most awesome, breathtaking thing I'd ever seen in my entire nine years. It was totally dwarfing the little terraced houses that it nestled amongst. It was the stadium. Never in my short life had I seen such a massive building looming over everything. The closer we got the louder it got.
It took about twenty minutes to get from the station to the turn-stiles. Eventually, we got through and made our way to the foot of the steps that would lead us to our seats and our first sight of the pitch. The tension and sense of excitement that hung in the air was palpable.
We nosed our way up the concrete stairs heading towards daylight at the top, we passed through the gap and out into the bright autumn sunshine. It was then that I knew that this was the game for me. The sight of the grass immaculately cut into perfect stripes and so green. Broken only by the perfectly straight crisp white lines that marked out the playing field. The hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention.
We found our seats and impatiently waited for the two teams to appear from the tunnel on the opposite side of the ground. Fortunately we didn't have to wait too long. After a few minutes, an almighty roar shook the rafters. It seemed like every last person in the place was shouting and cheering as one. The noise was deafening and slightly overwhelming for two first timers like us. 48.000 people, it was just amazing! The players were on the pitch. It soon settled down, and the referee's whistle got the game under way.
I'd only ever seen professional football on the television in black and white. (That is to say if he was in a good mood.) Well, it was 1968 you know. All they showed was the highlights of each game on "Match of the day" on Saturday night. So this was going to be exceptional.
It was probably a little nae of me to have expected the ebb and flow of the game to have been just like it was on TV. Clearly they only pick out the good bits on a highlights show, but this! Had we travelled all this way, had all this build up, all this expectation, all this pre-match excitement only to be served up with this. It was boring. Both teams were playing a tactical defensive game. By the end, they had played out a sterile 0-0 draw. Now I certainly wasn't old enough to have appreciated that. So when the final whistle blew it was a relief to get up off the hard plastic seats that we had been glued to for the past two hours and make our way out of the ground.
As we headed back to get the tube, Ray and my father were busy analysing the game. Lamenting Arsenal's missed chances and how they could have so easily have won, if Everton weren't so damned lucky. Out of the blue my father turned to us and asked our opinion.
"What did you think boys?" He said, in quite a friendly way.
Now, even at the age of nine I fully appreciated that it certainly wasn't his idea to take us to football. He'd been going for years and never taken us before. This had my mothers stamp all over it, he'd probably done it under suffrage. I hadn't realised he was only being friendly for appearances sake in front of Ray. I thought he really wanted an opinion.
"It was a bit boring really, not as good as on Match Of The Day," I said.
I hardly had time to get my last word out when I knew I had completely misread the situation. Wallop! I felt his hand crack me round the back of the head, the force sent me flying into the people in front of us. I think that they must have thought that I'd just run straight into them. He apologised on my behalf and shouted at me to, "get over here and walk properly."
I did as I was told. I think Ray was a bit shocked because he placed his arm round my shoulder as we walked and whispered," you all right?"
I looked up at him and nodded. The atmosphere had been crushed. One wrong move, one word out of place and the whole day was ruined. Ray left us at Leicester Square, and the three of us travelled home in silence.
And so it was that on the train heading home, whilst nursing a sore head, and feeling rather sorry for myself, I made up my mind. From now on I'm going to support Tottenham, Arsenal's North London neighbours and hated rivals. Stuff boring Arsenal. That should really piss him off. I thought to myself.
And to this day that is still true. I support Spurs, and he's still pissed off.
After the Highbury experience, I didn't go to another game until I was thirteen, when I was considered old enough to travel into town alone. My father wasn't going to take me, he'd done his duty in that department. The only problem I had now was that I wanted to go with my best friend from school Andy Parkins. His mother wasn't going to allow him to travel all the way over to north London to watch Tottenham. And I don't think he even explored with her the possibility of going up north to see his side, Manchester United play. Anyway we finally managed to settle on a compromise.
The team that was closest to where we lived was Charlton Athletic. Their ground is a mile or so up the road from Woolwich in south east London. We could get there easily enough on a double decker bus. So when we started to go and watch Charlton, they played their football in the third division. It was the 1972-73 season, and they had been relegated out of the second division the previous year, and supporters were deserting in their droves.
It used to cost us thirty-five pence to get into the ground, a match programme was ten pence and the bus fare was two and a half pence on each bus. Most of the time we would walk from Woolwich to Charlton and back at the end to save on the fares. That way we had more to spend in MacDonald's on the way home. Woolwich had the dubious accolade of being host to Britain's first ever McDonald's and so we would never miss out on an opportunity to visit there.
This particular game was played on a Friday night. After the match as usual, we walked back into Woolwich. Because we both got paid from our respective jobs on Saturdays, we were a bit short of funds. We only had our bus fare and a couple of pence over. So it was one chocolate shake and a small fries and a very long walk, or be sensible and go straight to the bus stop. Well no one ever accused us two of being sensible. It was 10 O'clock at night, and half a shake and a few greasy chips seemed like the best option. That was until the shake was drunk and the chips long gone and we had only made it as far as Plumstead. What is it that happens to children when they turn into teenagers? They seem to leave their brains and any common sense at the door whenever they're let out alone. That walk home took us over three hours. I wasn't that bothered myself, I thought my parents would have gone to bed long before I got home, so they'd have no idea what time I got in. But what I hadn't bargained for was that Andy's mother always waited up for him and had started panicking ages ago. So the first thing she did was phone my mother.
By the time, we reached home our parents were on the verge of calling the police and reporting us as missing. Once my mother had got off the phone to Mrs Parkins all hell was let loose, and it would be a good few months before I was trusted to go to football. Eventually, they relented, and every other Saturday afternoon was spent on the terraces at Charlton Athletic
It was great, we used to watch the games from the back of the stand right on the halfway line. The ground was so big and the attendance so small that it was possible to sit on the wall right at the back and still have a perfect view of the game. No need to pay for a seat, and if you got tired of sitting, there was plenty of room to get up and have a wander round.
We liked to get to the games quite early so that we wouldn't miss any of the fighting that was always a precursor to the start of every game. Hooliganism was part and parcel of football in the seventies, and although Andy and I liked to watch them all going at it, we never actually got involved ourselves. But we did have a very close shave one Easter bank holiday afternoon.
If You All Hate Chelsea Clap Your Hands.
It was Good Friday 1973. Charlton, who were about half way in the third division, had been drawn to play Chelsea, mid table in the first division. It was the fifth round of the FA cup. Now this was a game we definitely weren't going to miss. It was our chance to see one of the top clubs in action. Even if it was against Charlton, the atmosphere would be great. It would be the first time that we'd see the ground with more than a few thousand in it.
There was a young lad, Mark Stringer, who lived a couple of doors up from me, and knew that I would be going to the game. He followed Chelsea and was desperate to go with us as no one in his family was into sport, and it would be his only chance to see Chelsea play for years.
As is typical for any teenager, it wasn't to cool to be seen with an eleven year old trailing in your wake. Every time he saw me in the street he would be nagging me to take him. So eventually, thinking that he wasn't going to be allowed to go whatever I said, and to get him off my back, I said that he could come with us. But I also said, as long as he got the OK from his mother. You've never seen anyone move so quick. He shot indoors, and less than a minute later he was back out with his mother closely following behind.
She started quizzing me about making sure that I looked after him, and didn't let him out of my sight, not for one second. She also wanted to know about how safe it was going to be. Even people who had absolutely no interest in football whatsoever were fully aware of the hooligan problem in Britain then because it was all over the news every Saturday night. But instead of saying that I didn't feel responsible enough to look after him all on my own, I heard myself saying.
"Yes of course he'll be fine, we'll both look after him, there's no need to worry, it's really safe at Charlton."
I'd used those very words on my own mother not so long ago. Anyway she agreed to let him go, and I was left standing there completely stunned by what I had just said.
I'd told to him on the evening before the game. "Make sure you're ready, cos I'm not hanging round for you."
When I arrived at his house on the day of the match, his front door opened before I could get half way up the drive. I think he'd got ready the night before and spent the rest of the time staring out of the window, waiting for my arrival. He was wearing his Chelsea scarf tied round his wrist as was the way.
So, just before she let him out of her sight, we both got our final pep talk. It was something about looking after him blah blah blah. I really wasn't taking a blind bit of notice. As it turned out I was never so glad to be doing someone a favour, when she reached into her purse and produced two nice crisp new pound notes, and handed them to me. At first the significance of this didn't register, I thought she was handing me the money to pay for Mark. But when she turned to him and said.
"You've got your money in your wallet, haven't you? Don't lose it."
I realised the two quid she'd given me was meant for me, I couldn't believe my luck. So I was stood on the doorstep still clutching the money waiting for confirmation. I think she noticed my predicament and said.
"Yes that's for you put it in your pocket."
We met up with Andy at the bus stop, where together we gave Mark our own version of a pep talk. Basically, it was just a threat to keep his mouth shut about anything that he sees or hears today. Not that we were planning to get up to anything, we just always worked on the, better safe than sorry policy. He was no problem, he was too excited about seeing Chelsea. So we boarded the bus and made our way to the game.
The match passed without too much trouble, just the usual skirmishes before the start. We had taken up our usual positions at the halfway line, only this time there was no way we would be able to see if we sat on the wall at the back. So we had pushed our way right to the front and watched the whole game from there.
Chelsea won comfortably, Mark was happy, and as we didn't really support Charlton, we couldn't have cared less. We made our way out of the ground, and even though we had plenty of money for the bus we made the decision to walk back to Woolwich to see if there was any trouble anywhere.
The Charlton ground is known as "The Valley." That is because it sits in a valley and all roads out are uphill. So our route back to Woolwich took us through Charlton park. It was the quickest way to get on to the Woolwich road. We had barely got into the park when right at the top of the steep hill, between the two rows of silver birch trees we saw a group of about thirty or so young men. They were all approximately between seventeen and twenty-five years old, and they were heading towards us. As they got closer, it was clear that they were carrying weapons, not knives or guns but big lumps of wood and bricks. They must have torn a wall down and smashed someone's fence up on their way to the park.
It was obvious what their game was. They had left the ground early and gone the long way round so that they could enter the park from the top end. Doing that they would then have the advantage of the upper ground when they met the enemy coming the other way up the hill and by the looks of things they thought that was us.
Now at this point we didn't know if they were Charlton or Chelsea. Football hooligans didn't wear team colours, but we could see that they looked pretty angry. If we turned and ran, we wouldn't have stood a chance. Andy would have got away, he was the schools cross country champion, but Mark and me, we'd both be dead.
"Keep walking they won't be bothered with us," I said, not really believing my own words.
At about fifty yards away they started chanting.
"Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea."
Well at least we knew who we were dealing with now. We suddenly became two of Chelsea newest supporters. As they met with us head on they stopped and before we had a chance to blink they had us surrounded, and it was now that the most surreal, ridiculous and frightening game of "A question of sport" took place. Their leader or "Question master" stepped forward, and so began the bizarre questioning.
"Who you lot with? "
"Chelsea," replied Andy. One out of one.
"We think your Charlton"
"No, we're Chelsea mate, honest," Andy answered again.
"Right then, who's the manager?"
"Dave Sexton," he answered.
Now while Andy was busily answering one stupid question after another, I was relieved that his encyclopaedic knowledge of football was at last being put to some good use. I would have been useless, I knew all about Tottenham and nothing about everything else. I happened to glance across at Mark, and there it was, salvation. Hanging from his wrist was a blue scarf with the last bit of the word Chelsea, the S. E. A. in white capitals was clearly visible. I grabbed his wrist and raised his arm like a referee to a champion boxer.
"Look mate, we're Chelsea." I spoke for the first time.
He looked at the scarf dangling in front of him, that was enough, we were a waste of their precious fighting time. So without another word they carried on their journey down the hill.
The three of us just stood, stunned, watching them disappear down the hill. But Andrew Parkins couldn't leave it at that. Oh no! He physically turned Mark round pointed him up the hill and told him to start running. Mark didn't understand the instruction at first, but I realised what we were about to do. So I encouraged him.
"Go on Mark run I said it with a bit of urgency in my voice.
He listened to me and set off up the hill. We gave him a slow count of ten then turned back down the hill and started shouting at the tops of our voices
" Charlton, Charlton, Charlton."
Finally, from the bottom of the hill they heard. They all came to a shuddering halt and turned to see me and Parkins jumping up and down and waving our arms while shouting, swearing, and chanting.
"If you all hate Chelsea clap your hands," over and over again.
Now there was no way they were going to take that, they'd been made fools of. They started to charge back up the hill, and this is when I made my exit. I turned and started sprinting, concentrating on catching up with Mark. Andy was more confident in his athletic skills, wanted to give them hope that they might catch up, stayed until they were just in brick throwing distance, when he turned and left them all for dead. He was so quick up that hill that he arrived before both me and Mark and by the time we got to the gate at the top he was stood facing down the hill laughing his head off. The Chelsea mob had all given up and were sprawled out on the grass trying to catch their breath. So we strolled back into Woolwich and celebrated with "Big Mac and Fries all round.
Mark never came to football with us again, I think he probably revealed too much to his mother. But I for one was certainly glad that he came with us on that day.
I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles.
We continued going to Charlton for a year or two, but we were growing up, and the need to go further afield led us to West Ham. They were a first division side, and they played their football in east London, at a ground called The Anne Boleyn, better known as Upton Park.
Both Andy and I by now had part time jobs, him in a greengrocers and me at the dog track, so we had plenty of spare cash to indulge ourselves. Although I didn't know it at the time, I was earning more money at the dogs part time than I would get in my first year as an apprentice butcher and no silly expenses like mothers house keeping. So the excitement of top class football beckoned.
I'd still not seen Spurs play and he still hadn't seen Manchester united. That was until, checking the fixture list in the newspaper that morning before school, I'd noticed that this coming Saturday West Ham United were to play Manchester United in a first division clash, (now the premier league). We'd already been over to the hammers once at the beginning of the season, and so he'd definitely be up for this one. So at school that day I suggested it to him.
On the Saturday morning of the game, we played, ourselves for the school. The match was over by twelve, but it was still going to be a mad dash to get to West Ham for a three O'clock kick off. We managed to catch the bus for Woolwich by one, and so everything was looking good. We eventually got to the ground by half past two.
There were thousands of people still queuing at the turn-stiles, and the atmosphere was very hostile, to say the least. There was a row of policemen on horseback, facing the queues at about ten yards from the entrances. They were letting ten or twenty through at once, very slowly. We all knew that, at this rate most of us out here would miss the kick off. With about five minutes to go before the start, it had all kicked off inside the ground. The Tannoy system was loud, and we could clearly hear it repeatedly calling for calm. We later found out that a mass brawl had broken out on one of the stands and it had spilled onto the pitch and the game was in jeopardy of not taking place at all.
From where we were it sounded like a full scale war was taking place inside, and outside the atmosphere was turning decidedly hostile. We had just reached the front of the queue when they announced
"The gates were now closed due to the disturbance, no more people will be let into the ground. Please disburse in an orderly manner."
That didn't look like it was about to happen any time soon.
Suddenly from behind us there was a massive surge, and I ended up kneeling underneath the police horse, that a second before had been blocking my path to the turn-stiles. I tried to crawl out from under, but the copper leant down and told me to keep still. I did as I was told, I didn't fancy getting trampled by half a ton of horse. So from my viewpoint all I could see was the policeman's shiny black boots as they gently nudged the horse's sides, and just like magic the horse carefully sidestepped over me, allowing me to get back to my feet unscathed. So well trained it was incredible.
In the time, it took me to get to my feet a full-scale riot had broken out. There were people trying to smash their way into the ground while others were engaged in pitched battles with the police. There was no sign of crowd on crowd violence, it appeared that both sides were united against the police. This was getting out of hand, it was actually quite frightening. We forced our way through the heaving mob and as soon as there was enough room to move we started to run. We ran all the way back to East Ham without stopping or looking back once.
That game did get under way eventually, but not with us present, we had got home long before it finished.
15 Bunking Off
I appear to be using the term "bunking off" quite a lot as we meander through my school days. Bunking off, simply means playing truant. The problem there, is that when lots of separate occasions of playing truant are all packaged together, it might appear that my friends and I were hardly ever at school. Well the truth is that I rarely ever truanted because every time I did, it always ended up in some kind of trouble and let's be honest about this, that's the only reason you would read a non-celebrity book. There's no," the torture before I made it big bit" or, "my troubled journey to fame and fortune." That's just not going to happen, so the good bits for you the reader are generally speaking, the bad bits for me. So most of the time we were to be found the right side of the school gates. But here is the odd occasion when the gates just weren't strong enough to hold us back.
I started at Crayford Secondary in the September of 1972 and before my twelfth birthday in October I was already on report for playing truant, or more to the point for getting caught playing truant.
I can't actually remember the exact circumstances of why we decided to take the afternoon off, but I hadn't made any real friends yet. I was hanging round with two of the boys I knew from primary school and I didn't want to be seen to be a wimp in our new "grown up" surroundings. It was one of those things that, when we left school that afternoon to go to my house for lunch, it just sort of evolved from there.
This all happened before my father started spending his days working from home, so as both my parents were at work it was decided that we'd all go to my house. There was Julian Smith, Stuart Nichols and myself. I'd made us all a sandwich and during our lunch, and without any planning or forethought we decided to bunk the afternoon off.
" It would be a laugh," I heard someone say.
With the benefit of hindsight I would have known that three eleven year olds weren't going to sit still and play nicely for four hours, and once it was too late to go back to school, we quickly became bored. It was suggested by one of the others that we should go to London for the afternoon. Although we lived in a London borough, it was still about forty minutes into central London by train, and there was no way any of our parents would have allowed that.
Even though I was earning money from my paper round, on this particular day I was broke. I think I was rather hoping that my lack of funds would get me off the hook, but it wasn't to be.
Stuart's parents ran the Bear and Ragged Staff, which is a big old pub in Crayford, and although I didn't know this at the time Stuart had a habit of stealing money from the pub safe. He used to steal change, not hundreds of pounds, you understand. Just enough so that it wouldn't be noticed by his parents, or so he thought. But it was a lot for an eleven year old to be carrying round with him.
So the first mission would be to go to the Bear and get some train fare and spending money without getting caught.
"My parents will be busy in the bar and the safe is upstairs in the office, so all we've got to do is get up stairs and we're home and dry," he said.
"So how are we gonna do that then?" I replied, somewhat derisively.
"We'll get in through my bedroom window, up there," he pointed upwards towards an open window.
His window was at the back of the pub on the first floor. So like three intrepid mountaineers, off we set. There was a wall that separated the pub car park from the garden. The wall was about twelve feet high, and we had to get on this via the garage that was right at the end of the car park, and about eighty feet from the bedroom window. We climbed on the garage, one at a time and then shimmied up on to the wall. That was the easy bit. Once we had all scaled the wall we had to walk along its entire length to the open window.
Now it was obvious that Stuart wasn't doing this for the first time. He sauntered down the entire length of the wall as if he was on a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park. Julian was behind him walking as if he was on a high wire a thousand feet above the Grand Canyon, arms stretched out to the sides. I Wasn't quite as bad as that, but tentatively we both edged our way down the length of the wall to where Stuart was standing, laughing at the pair of us.
The wall wasn't attached to the pub, but ran along side it. This formed an ally and the window was at ninety degrees and a three foot leap of faith away. Stuart leapt from the wall onto the window ledge and dived head first through the open window, all in one agile movement. He immediately poked his head back out and was trying to encourage us off the wall. Because I was behind Julian I had no choice but to wait while he got his nerve up and all the time Stuart was coaxing him like he was trying to get a stranded cat out of a tree. I only think he jumped in the end because he couldn't face the long walk back to the garage.
I jumped across, onto the ledge and in one movement I was in. The landing on the other side was not as expected, because he had his bed positioned directly under the window. Of course he knew this all along, that's why he wasn't afraid to go straight through. It was a half roll over the soft mattress and a gentle drop onto the carpeted floor. Stuart had already been to the safe and got what he wanted and was ready to make his getaway by the time we had got ourselves straightened out.
We watched in disbelief as he climbed back out through the window onto the wall, and then straight off to the car park below. Again he got to his feet and beckoned for us to follow. I did as ordered, when I Jumped I instantly realised, that there was not a cat in hells chance of landing on the wall and staying there. My feet hit the top and I made a half arsed attempt at sitting down, but my backside landed with a wallop on the wall, and my momentum carried me right back off, and straight to the ground below. As I got to my feet I looked up, and there before my very eyes stood Julian.
"How did you do that?" I said, still quite bewildered.
"Simple," he replied. "I Walked down the stairs and out of the back door, no way was I gonna do that again."
It had finally dawned on me, this had been a test. A test to see if I had the bottle to go along with them and to make sure that I was sufficiently involved so that I couldn't grass on them. I never would have anyway. It was so obvious Stuart didn't need either of us to help him do something he had already done alone hundreds of times before. So anyway I had passed the test and we were on our way to London.
On the way to the station we stopped off at the newsagents to stock up on goodies for the journey, and it was there that I saw exactly what Stuart had taken. He spent loads on sweets and cigarettes for all of us, and then he pulled two ten pound notes from his pocket. I couldn't believe my eyes. To put it in perspective twenty pounds was about half a weeks wages for the average working man in 1972, and he'd stolen it, and Julian and I were the willing accomplices. I might have been easily lead, but I wasn't stupid. I knew that amount of money wouldn't go unnoticed and that we'd cop for it later. But for now I couldn't do anything, so I took my share of the sweets and cigarettes and kept my mouth shut.
We eventually arrived at Crayford station, where Stuart purchased three return tickets to Charing Cross, and after a short wait we boarded the train.
As an adult I have caught this train many thousands of times and like everybody else on commuter trains going into London every day, I do it on autopilot. No thinking, or wanting to communicate with anyone, just get on, get there and get off.
But like the first time for everything it seemed so exciting, a great big adventure was about to unfold. We'd got on the train at the first carriage that had pulled up in front of us, but it was occupied and non-smoking. We wanted to be alone to muck about and smoke without being hassled. On those old style trains it wasn't possible to pass through from one carriage to the next, not like on the modern trains. So at the next stop we got off and ran down the platform for as long as we dared, then jumped back on board before it pulled away. We had done this three more times, without finding the perfect carriage. Finally a single compartment without a "no smoking" sign stuck across the window appeared. We dived in and as we passed round the cigarettes, Julian was busily climbing up on to the luggage racks that were above the seats, when the carriage door opened. It was the guard and he seemed really pissed off.
"The next time you get off this train will be the last time, stop getting on and off, sit in the seats properly and put those cigarettes out at once, and why aren't you lot in school?"
He bellowed this out all in one breath, then without waiting for a reply, he slammed the door shut, the train pulled away and we carried on without taking a blind bit of notice. We soon tired of clambering over the furniture and settled down to staring aimlessly out of the window, until we arrived at Charing Cross.
We left the train and made our way out through the station and on to the Strand. Where we were instantly stopped by a policeman, who wanted to know what we were doing and why weren't we in school. Julian told him that we had to go and meet his father at the office where he worked, and that he was going to show us round as part of a project we were doing at school. Brilliant one, he bought it hook line and sinker. So he let us go and we wandered away laughing our heads off.
We made our way to Trafalgar Square and hung out there for the next couple of hours, climbing on the lion statues and feeding the pigeons. Before we knew it, a few hours had slipped by and we would have to get a move on if we wanted to get home before any parents became suspicious.
We'd taken off our school jackets and ties so we wouldn't look like little school boys wandering around London. The settee in the living room had a storage compartment under the seat, so before we had left my house I stashed all the clothes and book bags in there. The problem that had just dawned on me now was that if we didn't get home in time, the rest of my family would be sitting on all their stuff and I wasn't going to be able to get it back without explaining why it was in there in the first place. So we rushed back to the station and made our way home.
We didn't get back to Crayford until gone five, so it was decided that we'd leave all the stuff where it was and I'd bring it all to school in the morning.
When I got in my mother stopped me in my tracks and the first thing my she said was.
"Have you been to school today?"
"Yes of course I have, where do you think I've been?" I replied somewhat indignantly.
" Well where's your jacket and bag then?"
I tried to look surprised and I said. "Oh I've been round to Stuarts, I forgot and left it all there. I lied. "I'll go and pick it up tomorrow." She seemed to buy it and she let me pass.
As I approached the school gates the following morning, laden down with three school bags stuffed with the other two's clothes, I knew we had been rumbled. And after I'd been so careful getting it all out without getting caught. Getting up extra early and moving their gear from the settee to the garage, before any of my lot got up and sat their fat arses back on it all.
I knew we'd been rumbled, because Stuart was standing by the gates with his father by his side. He would never of allowed one of his parents to take him to school under normal circumstances. He would never of heard the last of it. So you see I just knew. I thought about turning round and heading back the way I had just come. But that would have been a waste of time, they'd just come and get me. So I braced myself and carried on to meet my fate.
Before I could get through the gates Stuart's dad stopped me.
"Give him his jacket and tie back and wait here, we're all going in together."
The tone of his voice was so stern, and Stuart was so subdued that I knew we were in really deep shit. So I did exactly as ordered. I pulled his crumpled jacket and tie from his bag, handed them to him and stood in silence by his side while he hastily put them on. He looked like he'd spent the night sleeping under a hedge and we would have surely laughed about it, had the situation not been so dire. By the time he had got himself dressed Julian had come into view. He stood out a mile. Everyone else was dressed in the correct school uniform, but he was ambling along without a care in the world, also with no tie, no jacket, and no heavy book bag to weigh him down. The moment he caught sight of us three, his demeanour changed, the penny had dropped for him too.
By the time he reached us he had removed his hands from his pockets and was ready to receive his stuff. I had already taken it from his bag in anticipation of his arrival. He took it from me and put it on without saying a word and straight away we followed Mr Nichols through the gates, like three obedient sheep.
He lead us right to the headmistress, Ms. Wakrel's office. He knocked on the door with one loud rap and without waiting for a reply went straight in. We all trailed in behind him and lined up in front of her desk.
It had come to pass that the second Stuart had got home from his London away day, his father was waiting to confront him about the stolen cash. As it appeared he was as scared of his father as I was of mine, he'd spilled the beans completely. He'd told him everything, about the money, playing truant, going to London, the lot. His father had only phoned the school because he wouldn't tell him where we lived and he didn't have a clue.
Ms Wakrel was already up to speed with the story and she was busily encouraging Mr. Nichols To call the police.
"You do realise this is to serious a matter for the school to deal with," she said to him, without so much as a glance in our direction.
He was nodding his head in agreement.
I thought. That's it, I've had it, I've already been done for shoplifting at the beginning of the summer. I'm definitely going get put away for this . Even though he was nodding his head the words that came out of his mouth were such a relief.
"No police," he said. "I've dealt with him about the stealing." He was pointing at Stuart. "And he won't be doing that again. I just wanted these two here." Pointing at me and Julian. "I want to make sure that their parents know exactly what they've been up to."
So it turned out that tough old Stuart wasn't so tough after all, and his father was a bit of a softy too. Didn't want to see his precious little boy in trouble with the police. To be fair to Stuart he'd kept us out of the stealing bit as much as he could, and so when the school phoned my mother, they only told her about the playing truant part and about going to London.
So as it turned out in the end, we got the kudos of being the first in our year to get the cane and the first in our year to go on report, and at home I got a good hiding from my father, but as that happened every other day once more was neither here nor there to me. Shortly after this Stuart, Julian and I seemed to go our separate ways. We each made new friends and we mixed in different circles
16 Life in the street.............Mischief and Mayhem.
Where we lived, was a great place for a boy to be growing up in the 60's and early 70's. We were surrounded by sports fields to play football and cricket in, woods and farms to have exciting adventures in and there was even an orchard to go scrumping in. We weren't hampered or held back like the overprotected children of today. There were no Xboxes and Playstations, no DVDs, Videos, or IPods. There were only three TV channels, and they only broadcast children's programmes for a couple of hours a day. So you see! no reason to stay indoor.
From as young as five years, if ever you uttered that agelessly over used phrase, "I'm bored, what can I do?"
Nowadays, I suspect that the stock answer given by most exasperated parents is,"go and play something in your room."
But then it was, "why don't you go outside and play?"
This didn't only come from my parents I suspect, but was the catchphrase for the generation. We lived most of our waking lives out of view from grown ups and authority.
Behind our back garden beyond the 6ft high wire fence was a small wood, it was part of the land where once stood a big house. Now all that was left were two stables and above them a hay loft. Even though they were really ramshackle, the stables were still home to two horses, Copper and Sprite. They were kept there by an elderly couple I assumed that was all they could afford at the time, the horses didn't seem to mind though.
We weren't supposed to go there and were forever getting caught by the old boy and his Mrs, but that just made it better for us, mucking about in the woods and not getting caught was half the fun.
One Saturday morning Cliff, Steve and myself had all been getting up to mischief. We'd been down in the orchard that was behind the garages at the end of the road. We had developed a fascination with lighting fires, we weren't arsonists you understand, we just liked building bonfires. We did get the odd occasion when one or two got slightly bigger than we would have liked, but that was part of the excitement of it all, I suppose.
The red tilley lamps that they used to hang round the barriers of road works were filled with paraffin and we would steal a bit from any that we came across. We used to pour it into a big metal jug that Steve had borrowed from his father's garage. I realise how stupid doing that was now, but never gave a thought to it then. I don't think we were the cause of any road traffic accidents, but I can't be sure of that. I'm just starting to get sidetracked here, so I'll return to the scene of the fires later.
We'd just managed to bring our latest inferno under control and had made a hasty retreat out of the orchard, just in case someone had seen all the smoke and called the fire brigade. We ran from the orchard out of the far end and into the corn field. From there, you could get into Gateway's sports field and across the football pitches and over the fence to safety in Iron Mill Lane. From where, looking back over the fields, we could see the plumes of smoke rising above the trees in the distance. Iron Mill Lane runs parallel to our back gardens, and the wood is what separated the two streets. When they finally pulled down the old primary school, they built the new one on this site.
Anyway we decided to go through the woods and through my back garden to the street. We had climbed over the wall and were making our way through the trees, being careful to keep away from the track that lead from the road to the stables. Whenever we got caught by Naomi and George, I only found out their names much later on, at the time we used to call them "the old whingers" instead of just throwing us out, we always got along lecture about it not being a playground blah blah blah. So when we made it to the stables and noticed that their old Land Rover wasn't in its usual spot we decided to stay there for a while.
We were on the lookout for suitable tree branches for making catapults with. It had become a bit of a craze with all of us, we were forever arguing about who's was best. What you had to do first was spot a suitable branch, it had to have a nice thick stem and two forks growing in equal thickness to each other but slightly thinner than the shaft. Quite simply we looked for a nicely symmetrical letter Y. Once the desired candidate had been selected, we climbed the tree and hacked the entire limb off. We used an old axe that Cliff had relieved from his father a few weeks before, we kept it hidden in a plastic bag that went in a hole in the ground, all very clandestine.
We'd drag the branch from the woods to Steve's garage. His father was a great bloke, and his garage was chock-a -block with wood working tools. He was always in either the garage or the garden because he was building a boat in his spare time. He would gladly help us to saw the branch to the right size. I was always a bit jealous of the relationship Steve had with his father. He was an only child and was clearly doted on. He loved showing the three of us how to do stuff, and it was he who had shown us how to make the catapults, not the chopping down of tree's bit you understand,
Once it was cut to size and stripped of bark we would chuck them on one of the bonfires for a few minutes to dry them out. We would buy a yard of quarter inch cat elastic from Gentries the sports shop and cut notches in the top of the two forks. We would then cut the elastic in half and force one end of each piece into the notched ends of the wood. Then we'd bind them together with a wire that we had stolen from an electrical shop in Bexleyheath. The other ends of the elastic were then attached to a square of leather using more wire. When Steve's dad had made the first one he had bought a piece of leather especially for the job. Cliff and me didn't have such luxuries, so we just cut the tongues out of our shoes, they were perfect for the job.
So we're back in the woods, and we had come across this tree that was about 30 feet tall but very thin. It had loads of spindly branches on it, nothing suitable for us, but Cliff had decided to try to climb it. He had only got about halfway when the tree started to bow. He was only about seven stone wet, but even his weight was too much for the puny tree. Suddenly it bowed over and brought Cliff back to within a couple of feet of the ground. When he let go he more or less just stepped off, but the tree whipped back upright a lightening speed. If anyone had been in its way they would most certainly have been killed, but I think all three of us had the same idea at the exact same time.
We immediately set to work, the mission was to strip the whole tree of all it's branches, this took us hours. I still to this day can't believe that we were so dedicated to one bit of mischief. We took it in turns to shimmy up the tree, hacking off all the limbs as we went. We had to return to finish the job the next day because it had got too dark to continue, and it was a bit scary in those woods at night.
So it was Sunday afternoon when finally the last branch had been removed, and the top ten feet cut off. So basically what we were left with was a 20 foot pole. Have you worked out where I'm going with this yet, no? Then I'll continue. We were almost ready, we went back into the street and collected half a dozen milk bottles off some random doorsteps and a sledge hammer from Cliff's. I got a massive steel spike that was about three feet long and had stood against the wall from my garage, it had been there for so long that no one knew how it got there or what it was originally for. But finally we had found a use for it.
So about fifteen minutes later and we rendezvoused back at the pole. We hammered the spike into the soft ground with the sledge hammer. That was the hardest part of all. Cliff had insisted on doing this because the hammer was his, but the trouble was the bloody hammer was almost as big as him. He could hardly swing it and when he did manage to lift it above his head the weight of it dragged him over. Anyway eventually between us we got it hammered in so that there was about six inches sticking out of the ground. Next I climbed the pole until it bent over enough for the other two to grab it. Then with all three of us hanging onto the end we secured it with a length of rope to the spike in the ground.
Great! It was finally ready. We stuck one of the milk bottles onto the end of the pole and stood back to admire our weekends work. I think that if it hadn't taken so long to get to this point we might have had second thoughts about doing this, but we had come to far to turn back now.
Using the axe I chopped through the rope, it went in one because it was under so much strain already I suppose. I think we all thought the bottle would probably fly straight up into the air, and we would get loads of fun doing this over and over. What actually happened was the milk bottle got launched up into the stratosphere. We didn't even see it leave the end of the tree, it couldn't have stayed within the woods. We didn't see it leave, and it wouldn't have been possible to see it land because it must have flown out of the woods, across the road, over the school on the other side and carried on straight into town.
Of course, we did what we always did when we came face to face with our own stupidity, we ran. We legged it out of the woods and went home. We stayed out of those woods for at least a couple of weeks, and when we did venture back in all our handy work had been removed. The old boy must have come across it, he cut down the stripped tree and pulled up the spike. I think we were secretly pleased, all the evidence was gone, and there had been no reports on the news about anyone being killed by a mysterious flying milk bottle, so we had got away with it.
Years later, when Cliff and I were in the pub chatting to anyone who would listen, he always included that story, and the more he drank the further that bottle went
17 November The 5th
Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night, Guy Fawkes Night. There might be loads of names for it, but sadly nowadays everybody is relegated to watching their firework displays from the safety of publicly organised events that you have to pay for the privilege of attending. The American tradition on Halloween of trick or treat seems to be replacing it. That seems such a shame to me. They are welcome to their traditions, but we should not jump on board something that is completely meaningless in the British conscience.
Whatever became of the tradition of Penny for the guy. Children would make an effigy of Guy Fawkes and wheel him to the nearest street corner in an old pram or pushchair. Or if you were one of those kids that had fathers or big brothers that made stuff for you, you'd be able to wheel it round in your go-cart.
Once in position, any passers by were met by the same chant every time "Penny for the guy, Penny for the Guy." On hearing that, they were supposed to throw some loose change into the Guy's hat. By now it would have been removed from his, stocking stuffed with old newspapers, head, and strategically placed on the pavement in a prominent position. The money that was collected was then used to purchase the fireworks for the big night.
So who the hell was this Guy Fawkes character and why was half of Britain setting him ablaze on such a regular basis. What everyone does know is that he was the bloke who tried to blow up the houses of parliament about a gazillion years ago and failed miserably and so now he is condemned to burn on the fires of damnation for all eternity.
When they executed the poor man, what they actually did seemed slightly more barbaric than merely tying him to a stake, throwing some dead tree branches round his feet and setting him alight. No, they were far more inventive than that. They hung him by the neck until he was nearly dead, but definitely still alive. Then they literally cut him down from the point where he was hanging and from his chin to his navel. After which they pulled his inner contents out, before finally chopping him into four and removing the body parts to the four corners of the kingdom, whatever that meant, have you seen the shape of Britain. They were then placed on display as a warning to others not to try and blow up the government. I reckon they should do that today to some of that lot that actually work in parliament they might try a bit harder on all of our behalves instead of lining their own pockets and those of their cronies, still I digress.
The thing that has always confused me is, why do we burn his effigy? I understand that the fireworks represent the gunpowder plot, so the exploding fireworks are what the skies may well have looked like had he succeeded. That's easy enough, but setting the poor man alight every year! Well he literally has burnt on the fires of damnation for hundreds of years. That is until the health and safety Gestapo put a stop to it all. Anyway that's the history lesson over with.
Doing Penny for the Guy was seen as a bit of a nerdish thing to do. I can't think of a word to describe it that fits in with the era because I'm sure that the word nerd didn't exist then and by the way my spell checker device is furiously underlining it with a red squiggly line, I'm not sure that it even exists today. Maybe I've made it up and didn't even realise it.
So making and burning poor old Mr Fawkes wasn't for us. What we actually did was walk round the neighbourhood and anybody that looked a bit vulnerable had the proceeds of their begging mercilessly relieved from them. In those days, I felt more at ease with stealing than begging.
Fireworks magically started to appear in the shops about a month before the big night, and as we were already expert bonfire makers we weren't going to wait for the actual night before we let ours off. We were never interested in anything other than bangers. We used to buy a box each and then take them to the orchard, build a fire and then proceed to do everything that the man on the TV said not to do. We'd light them and throw them at each other, or throw them straight into the burning fire. We even tried opening one or two up and pouring the contents from one to another, to make an even bigger blast. From what I can remember although the theory may have been correct in practice it never seemed to work. Once you had opened one they went off with a disappointing pop instead of an ear shattering bang.
It was while throwing these fireworks at each other that I found out how really dangerous they could be. As I was running through the woods trying to escape from the fully armed enemy, a lit banger happened to hit me clean in the back and drop to my feet fizzing and hissing with a stream of red and blue sparks pouring from one end of the cardboard tube. Steve clearly had his eye in that day. The firework hit me and bounced down to the floor, I turned, saw it, looked up, caught sight of Cliff and Steve Making their getaway, and without giving it a second thought bent down a picked up the lit firework. The moment that I straightened up it exploded. I didn't have a chance to react I was just left their completely stunned holding the bottom half of a smouldering cardboard tube.
Fortunately I wasn't to badly hurt. The ends of all four fingers on my left hand had massive blisters on them, and the palm of my hand had a black gunpowder mark on it that remained there for a good few months and was a fairly sobering reminder of our stupidity and to how lucky I had been.
But as was usual in these circumstances because what we were doing was wrong anything less than blowing your hand clean of it's wrist just had to be kept quiet. There was never any notion of going and showing the injuries to a parent or a doctor. When my two mates finally caught up with me and saw me bent over clutching my smouldering fingers, their concern lasted less than thirty seconds.
"What happened, you all right?" that was the concern part over. Next thing I know, two morelit bangers, are fizzing at my feet.
18 Knock Down Ginger
Have you ever read a book or watched a film where a character is desperately trying to get away from someone? They are running as fast as they can, but each time they stop and look back, the dark shadowy figure is still following them. For some inexplicable reason, the one following doesn't have to run like the wind to keep up--they're just there. The fleeing character then stops at a crossroads, trying to make their mind up as to the direction to take, and a quick glance behind reveals the ominous figure still slowly walking towards them: unceasing, relentless, frightening.
Every kid has at some time in their life played a game called "Knock Down Ginger." It probably goes by many other names, but that's what it was called round these parts. Basically, you knock on a stranger's door and the second they answer, you run away. The whole idea being to cause annoyance. I know it works because it's a game that still seems to cause great amusement and annoyance in equal measure. I've been on both sides of that particular equation on more than one occasion, and I know how infuriating it is when you're called to the front door from the comfort of your nice snug armchair, only to see a posse of laughing school kids disappearing in the distance.
I was walking along Old Road with Cliff and Steve, my two best mates from our street. We must have been about ten or eleven. At least, I'm going to settle for ten or eleven because I sincerely hope we weren't still doing this when we were older.
Anyway, Old Road is about a five minute walk from the street where we all lived. There was a row of neat little houses with nicely manicured lawns, and next door was Vicars Sports and Social Club, to the front of which was a ten foot high brick wall.
I can't remember which one of us actually did the door knocking itself, but that's of no relevance. One of us did the deed, and then all three of us ran past the social club entrance and stood huddled together against the wall. We were hoping that the angle from the front door would be great enough so that we couldn't be seen.
We giggled to ourselves while waiting in anticipation, pushing and shoving each other and watching for the disgruntled occupant to reveal themselves.
Finally, the door opened and standing there was a woman. To us she looked like a little old lady, but all adults look old to young kids. She was wearing a fluffy pair of pink carpet slippers, a matching pink apron, and a tea towel slung over her shoulder. She looked like she had just come from the kitchen, probably in the middle of cooking the old man's dinner. In hindsight, I suspect she wasn't really all that old. I'm basing my assumption on what followed next.
When she realised that she had been the victim of our very hilarious practical joke, instead of just going back inside and moaning her head off, she stepped out from her open door onto the pathway. Immediately, she could see the three of us huddled against the wall.
"Come here you little sods! Wait 'til I get my hands on you!"
She sounded really annoyed, so we ran to the far end of the wall where we stopped to see if she had followed. To our surprise, she had.
She had left the comfort of her own property and, still dressed in her slippers and piny, and made it to the other end of the wall, the spot we had just vacated. She looked quite determined, and was now gesturing at us to come back and face her wrath. Well, there was no chance of that.
At this point in time, we still thought all of this was funny. It was hilarious that this little old lady was chasing after us, dressed in her carpet slippers.
We turned, and this time ran to the end of the road and around the corner. We stopped again and glanced back up the street. There she was, still following with determination. She didn't seem to know when to give up. We stayed cowering round the corner for as long as we dared, but she was closing in on us, so we headed off towards the church yard.
The church and all it's grounds were bounded by a wall about four feet high. We made our way to it and dived over, huddling behind it. Slowly, we dared to peer over the top. To our utter dismay, she had made it to the end of Old Road and was now heading straight towards us!
How the hell did she know where we were hiding? She must have X-ray vision, or she might have been a witch or something.
Well, she'd definitely seen us. In truth, I think we were just really useless at hiding and, more to the point, even worse at keeping quiet. She was still gesturing at us, now waving the tea towel that had been slung over her shoulder. She was relentless. The joke was over, and we weren't laughing any more.
We ran right through the graveyard, which was about two hundred yards from one side to the other, out through the gate on the other side, and hid behind the wall. This time we were on the outside and in sight of our own street and the safety of our own houses.
"We can't go down there," Steve said. "She'll follow us, and then she'll know where we live!"
I hadn't thought of that, so we ran past the end of our road down Perry Street and made it to the playing fields. The fields were encompassed by an eight foot wire fence; surely she couldn't get over that? All three of us scrambled up the fence and flung ourselves over the top. We landed on the soft grass. Up the road, there she was, those pink slippers endlessly padding towards us with the tea towel swinging above her head. This was really scary.
We ran across the field towards the pavilion and our next point of cover. She had obviously seen us climb the fence, but surely she would be thwarted by this obstacle.
I swear to God that when she reached the point where we had entered the field, she stopped momentarily and thought about climbing it. That was a bit too much, but she hadn't given up yet.The main gate was another two hundred yards further down the road, and she was making a last ditch attempt at catching us.
What we knew (but she obviously didn't), was that the gates to these fields were always kept padlocked when not in use. So when she arrived at the gate and realised she couldn't get in, she just stood there rattling them and shouting abuse at us.
Finally, she gave up. We came from behind our hiding place, standing clearly in sight, and gave her a little wave. Still, we couldn't return the way we had come because she had become rooted to the spot
The whole of that area was our playground; we knew all the routes to and from the street. We left the field via the farm and into the orchard that backed onto Claremont Crescent. Once we were on safe ground, we didn't hang around. All three of us went straight home.
I spent the rest of that evening on tender hooks, waiting for a knock on the door and the sight of those pink slippers.
19 The Day The Coal Bunker Blew Up
It was a Saturday afternoon, we'd been hanging round in the street, and as usual we were a little bored, I suppose.
Cliff's father had been in the police force, but I'd never bothered to ask what kind of cop he was. I couldn't have cared less. Now if he'd been a footballer, I might have taken a keener interest in his chosen profession. Anyway, he'd retired on medical grounds, I think he had some kind of mental breakdown.
Cliff started telling us about his dad that when he was in the police he used to carry a gun.
Nowadays I suspect that the majority of them are armed considering the amount of people they shoot, back then it was quite rare. Of course at the first mention of a gun, we suddenly perked up.
"So he used to kill people for a living then?" Steve said mockingly while pretending to shoot Cliff in the head with an invisible gun.
"No, he didn't kill people," Cliff replied slightly perturbed. " But he did have a gun, and I can prove it, cos he's still got it. He keeps it locked in the bureau in the dining room."
"So can we see it then? Go on, go and get it." I was saying, trying to goad him into doing what we wanted. At first he resisted the temptation, but after a little more vigorous persuasion he cracked.
"OK," he said. "We'll go and look at it if I can find the key to his desk."
Now, I knew that Cliff knew where that key was because he knew that the gun existed, and his father would never have told him that in a million years. So he must have been nosing in his dad's bureau before.
Cliff's mother was a bit religious and was always in the church doing some good deed or another. We'd seen her leave half an hour before. She'd given us a little wave on her way out.
Anyway, Margaret's up the church and Des, Cliff's dad is languishing in his bed with some strange melancholia, so it was safe for the three of us to go in and make ourselves at home. We entered through the back door and went, myself and Steve, straight to the dining room where the writing bureau was. Cliff had a quick scout round making sure that we were alone. Two seconds later and he was back with us.
"All's clear," he said, "but first of all listen to me," he spoke in his, "I really mean this voice." "We're not going to take it out of the house. Do you two understand?"
"Of course not." We both replied in unison, whilst at the same time giving each other little knowing glances.
The writing bureau looked like a really expensive piece of furniture, all mahogany and rosewood marquetry. But to us it was just the big bit of furniture with the gun inside. Cliff had got the key from the top of a row of shelves that was straining under the weight of lots of books and placed it in the lock. He stopped momentarily to give us a final warning about not grabbing it and running off with it. We were eagerly nodding our agreement when the key clicked.
We stood back and took a slight intake of breath. This was it, it was like waiting for the big boulder to be rolled from the front of a tomb to reveal the mountains of gold coins and diamonds hidden within.
The bureau had a roller shutter on it, and as Cliff slowly pulled it up the desk appeared to unfold before us. Inside there were all manner of draws and compartments. As he opened them one at a time, all they revealed was piles of paperwork. Then suddenly a draw slid open and laying on it's side was a big shiny black gun. Beside the gun lay an equally black and shiny magazine. But what was even more impressive than that was that the magazine appeared to have real bullets in it. Cliff picked it up and quite carefully handed it to me. I took hold of it and was instantly shocked by how heavy it was. I was caught off guard slightly, it hit home that this wasn't some child's toy, it was real, it was everything and more.
After a minute or two of passing it back and forth and pointing it at one another and pretending to shoot each others brains out, we got bored. After all a real gun's not much use without the bullets. But just hang on there a minute, we had the bullets, and now all Steve and me had to do was convince Cliff that it would be a good idea if we were to take the gun over the woods and fire it.
He was having none of that. "No, no no no no, he'll know that it's been fired, and he'll kill me. "
"He just will, and we're not taking it, and that's the end of it, put it back, we're leaving."
He was so emphatic, and it was clear that he had lost his bottle that we did as ordered. I placed the gun back on its side in as close a position as we had found it. Cliff quickly pulled the bureau shutter down locked it and placed the key back on the shelf.
We left by the back door and walked over to our usual spot by the big tree outside of my house. The row of trees that were on my side of the road were surrounded with what looked like concrete paving slabs that were stood on their sides. These formed four little walls round the base of each tree. They were about 18 inches high and the centre part was filled with earth, with the tree rising from the centre. So when we weren't kicking a ball about we could use these tree surrounds as somewhere to sit and chat.
Anyway, we'd been sitting by the tree for a couple of minutes. Suddenly, Steve gives me a gentle nudge in the ribs. At first I ignored him. We were always pushing and shoving and hitting each other, and usually if someone gives you a gentle nudge in the side you get the real thing when you respond. For instance, I tap you on the shoulder, and when you turn to see what I want my colleague gives you a massive dead leg from the other side and then everyone falls about laughing. Except for you of course, who's left rolling around on the floor in agony. So the secret was not to respond to anything to quickly and ready yourself at all times. So when the second gentle tap arrives a moment later I turned to see what he wanted. I was sitting in between Steve and Cliff, and as I looked down at the fist that was nudging me in the side he opened his hand and there nestling in his palm was a shiny copper coloured bullet.
While I was mucking around with the gun, Cliff was too busy keeping an eye on me to have noticed that Steven had taken the opportunity to relieve his dad of one of his highly prized bullets. I was impressed, I turned to Cliff.
"Ave you seen what he's got?" I said with a great big grin on my face. Now, the pair of us were laughing like a couple of naughty schoolboys, which is exactly what we were I suppose.
"What's he got then?" Cliff replied.
Steve raised his open palm from his side. The moment Cliff caught sight of the shiny object he lunged across me desperately grabbing for the bullet. I intercepted the grasping hand while Steve jumped to his feet and ran a few yards away before turning. Now holding the bullet above his head like a champion sportsman holds his trophy aloft. He was running around the tree with Cliff chasing after him. I think that Cliff knew he'd never get the bullet back because he gave up the chase quite quickly, we all sat back down. Now that we had won Cliff over all we had to do was to figure out away of firing the bullet without the aid of a gun.
We went into Steve's back garden and found a couple of house bricks. Taking it in turns we started bashing the bullet between them. This proved to be a completely futile exercise. All three of us were totally knackered, and the bullet looked just as bright and shiny as before we started attacking it.
When the houses down our street were originally built, outside of the back door of each house there stood a coal bunker. Every house had one as they all had coal fired heating and water. They were made of orange concrete. They were basically just a concrete box about four feet high by three feet wide and two feet deep. On the top, there were two slabs of the same material that slid apart to reveal the place where the coal went in, and there were two more concrete sliding doors to the front a ground level where you loaded your scuttle with a little shovel that hung from a hook to the side. In Steve's garden, his father had moved the coal bunker from the back of the house and put it at the rear of the garage. It must have been a nightmare getting coal from there what with the boat he was building filling the rest of the garden but what did we know?
Anyway, after the two bricks had failed miserably we had found ourselves behind the garage, and I had a brainwave.
"We can stand the bullet up by wedging it between the two concrete lids of the coal bunker and then we'll have both hands free to hit it harder." I said as if it was some great discovery.
At first we were still using the bricks, but slowly they were breaking up and becoming useless. Once the last bit of brick had crumbled to nothing and the bullet was no closer to exploding it was Cliff's turn for the bright idea. He suddenly turned to Steve and said.
"Go and get a hammer, that'll be better than bricks."
Two seconds later Steve was back brandishing a vicious looking claw hammer. I quickly re-secured the bullet between the bunker lids. It was Steve's hammer, so he got first bash. As he connected with the top of the bullet, a spark flew off it, yes! That's definite progress. He handed the hammer to Cliff. Cliff raised it above his head and brought it crashing down on top of the bullet. It made contact and instantly the bullet exploded. There was a great white arc of light and an ear shattering explosion. The blast blew all three of us off our feet. The hammer had flown out of Cliff's hand and gone flying over the neighbours fence. We were all left sitting on the floor with hundreds of tiny slithers of bullet in our hands and arms and we couldn't hear a thing except ringing in our ears. We really needed to go to hospital, but we couldn't because we couldn't tell anybody what we'd done. So we sat behind the garage picking metal shards out of our hands for about an hour.
Finally, we had done as much as we could. As we got to our feet Steve, went to inspect the black charred mark that was the only evidence left of the bullet on the top of the coal bunker. As he touched it a significant split appeared from under the dust, it ran right across the top and down the back. Cliff jumped to his feet and gave the forlorn coal bunker a gentle shove and to Steve's utter dismay it obediently fell in half right down the middle.
Anyway, not wanting to state the obvious I uttered the immortal words.
"Fucking hell Steve, he's blown up the coal bunker."
It took about three weeks before the ringing in my ears stopped, and all the wounds had healed. Steve told his father that I had caused the coal bunker to break in two by jumping off the garage roof onto it, and as his dad didn't report me to my father I soon forgave him. I don't think Cliff's dad ever realised he'd lost a bullet, I think that he'd already lost his marbles by then.
20 New Beginnings.
The balance between being homeless and living your life at the mercy of others, or having a home and living one of relative comfort and security hangs on such a thin thread. If people ever stopped to analyse this they would spend most of their lives in a state of near panic.
I've never had the misfortune to have actually lived on the streets, but that isn't due to my own skill and fortitude. The generosity and sheer kind heartedness of humanity has certainly shone through for me in my hours of need.
Notice I said hours of need and not hour of need, that's because I've found myself without a roof over my head on more than one occasion.
The first time was when I finally plucked up enough courage to leave the nutty dysfunctional house that I called home.
It was 1977, I had left school in the summer and was just starting to settle into my apprenticeship at the Co-op. My father had stopped beating me about a year earlier after I had threatened to kill him. He had given me a particularly nasty hiding for using the wrong piece of the work surface in the kitchen that I had put some hot bacon on. But the mental stress of living in a house with one parent that pretended that you didn't exist and a sister that I pretended didn't exist was just too great.
I spent most of my time either at work or in the Catholic club drinking with my friends. I would get home from work get a shower, change my clothes that would be reeking of stale meat by the time that I got in, then go straight to the club. I would stay there until I was sure that everyone was safely tucked up in bed before I even thought about going home.
My father had a strange habit of going to bed at half past ten every single night, come hell or high water. At least that is every night since I could remember. Nothing wrong with that I suppose. What I did find odd about it was that it didn't matter what he was doing, if he was watching a TV show for instance that finished at twenty five to eleven he would rather miss the last five minutes of it than miss his bedtime.
Anyway even though I thought this odd at least I could guarantee that whenever I got home he would be safely tucked up in his bed. I could then usually eat the dinner that my mother always left out for me in peace. I'd watch a little television squinting through one eye due to the four hours spent in the bar and then get myself off to bed. The next day the whole scenario, would be repeated. Only Sunday's were any different, instead of going to work I had a lay in and then went to football.
From playing football, it was straight to the Catholic club until about three. I'd then have nowhere to go because everywhere shut then, we even got chucked out of the club by three if the committee person wanted to get home for his dinner. So I would reluctantly go home. I would go straight to my bed and sleep off the afternoon's beer before getting back to the club when it reopened at eight.
On this particular night something had gone terribly awry, because as I approached the house I noticed that the lights were all on downstairs. Occasionally my sister Jackie would be up, but just like me she spent most of her time at home in her room, so it was unlikely to be her.
As I entered the house I could hear him chatting away to my mother in an animated jovial manner, he was drunk. I couldn't for the life of me fathom out the sequence of events that had lead to him and my mother sitting up late and having a drink and chatting because he very rarely drank. He could never blame his violent outrages on the booze because they were always committed in a state of total sobriety. As I walked through the living room I thought I'd just go straight on up to bed, but my mother made the mistake of asking me if I wanted my dinner and that she would heat it up If I liked. And I had made the mistake of declining her kind offer.
Well now! for someone that hadn't bothered speaking to me for the past year, he suddenly became incredibly vocal.
"That's it, you leave it, it doesn't matter that your mother has cooked a meal for you and you couldn't even be bothered to turn up for it on time, now you want to waste it. I don't know why we even bother with you, you treat this house like a hotel, coming and going as you please."
The drink had brought him out of his shell, and now everything that he was thinking was just pouring from his mouth. It was so clear that he resented us (the children). We were the reason he had to work so hard to keep a roof over our ungrateful heads, and It was me who especially took my mother and him for granted. I was a waste of space and lazy. I hadn't bothered to work at school, and now I was stuck in a worthless job.
What a cheek, I thought, he was a lot of things, but I hadn't had him down as a snob. He had come from working class roots himself and just because he was now a chartered accountant didn't give him the right to slag me off for working as a butcher.
Up until that point I had held my tongue. But a combination of my own alcohol intake and a rising hatred of all this crap that he was spouting, just because for the first time in his life and for god only knows what reason he had been brave enough to sit up past his bedtime.
If they had only left me to pass through and go about my business none of this, would be happening.
One minute I'm standing in front of him listening to his epic rant the next I just exploded. The only thing that I remember was thinking. I'm not taking any more of this from that @#@#
"I might have done a bit better at school if I hadn't had you as a father you piece of shit, this fucking house is a complete nightmare, I can't stand it anymore." I screamed in his face.
"If it's such a terrible place you might as well go, no one wants you round here anyway."
Wow! that one hurt.
I know kids say things like "I'm leaving I can't stand it anymore" and don't really mean it, but for me this moment was like an awakening. A bolt of lightning had stuck me, and a moment of utter clarity was seen through my beer soaked eyes.
"You're fucking right I don't have to be here, I'm off"
I left them to it and went to my room, well I've definitely burnt my bridges now, I thought to myself, but I wasn't scared. For once the reality of my life was crystal clear.
Whatever awaits me when I leave here has got to be better than this.
I didn't even pack a bag, I still had my coat on from getting in from the club and so I simply walked down the stairs and let myself out of the front door.
I'm never going to be able to express adequately in words the sheer relief. The absolute belief that I would never set foot in that house again, it was almost euphoric. The fact that I didn't have the faintest idea what I was going to do or where I was going to live, I didn't even know where I was going to stay that night. I think that I've said this before somewhere, but this was the first time that I realised that something always happens for the better to me and that there's no point in dwelling on the past, when something's over, it's over.
So I thought that I would go back to the club to see if anyone was still there. Often people would stay after closing time drinking into the early hours. So as I set off, who should I see walking towards me but Mrs Barnes, Cliff's mum.
What's she doing out at this time of night? I remember thinking to myself.
But I knew that if she stopped to talk to me I'd never have the nerve to actually ask her. Anyway as our paths crossed she stopped and immediately started quizzing me.
"Nicky" She always called me that. Even though I hated being called Nicky when she said it, it seemed OK. "Nicky where are you off to, it's nearly midnight"
"Hi Mrs Barns I've just left home, my dad's kicked me out" I remember saying that in such a matter of fact sort of way as if I left home every other day, and it was no big deal.
"Yes, but where are you going now?" She enquired.
I cracked, the tears started flowing, and it was like the gates to a great dam opening.
"I don't know where I'm going" I sobbed "I'm not going back there, but I've nowhere else to go."
I hadn't cried in years. You get so used to bottling up all your emotions and protecting yourself by building a wall round them. But now in the space of five minutes of leaving home the dam had been well and truly bridged, the water was flowing and it seemed as there was no holding it back now.
Cliff's mum tried to comfort me, she stretched her arms out in an attempt to put them round me, but my inability to be in any intimate situations and the fact that she was only about five feet tall, and I was over six feet made this feel like the most awkward encounter ever.
I backed away and through the yards of snot gushing from my nose and the salty tears flowing from my eyes I said that I had to go now.
"Don't be so ridiculous," she said in her Southern Irish brogue. She had returned to the no nonsense woman that I knew. "Don't be so ridiculous you're coming home with me," she repeated. "You can stay the night, things won't seem so bad in the morning, have you eaten anything today?"
I shook my head, my tears were now starting to subside, and a high wave of embarrassment was starting to wash over me.
It's strange the things that pass through your mind in times of crisis, I remember thinking, god I hope she doesn't make me an Irish stew, I'll never be able to eat that, my stomach's in knots at the moment.
The fact that it was about midnight by now and Mrs Barnes certainly wasn't planning to spend the next three hours cooking for me hadn't crossed my mind.
She stopped trying to hug me and took my hand, "come on Nick lets go home."
She led me back to the house just opposite the one that I had walked out of ten minutes earlier, and we went inside. The house was quiet, the rest of the Barns household were all tucked up in their beds. Margaret went and made me a sandwich and a cup of tea, she brought some blankets down from upstairs and laid them out on the settee in the living room, she mouthed "goodnight" to me and off she went to bed. Leaving me in Cliff's front room all alone but with a sense of excitement, excitement for the future. My life was about to begin, and although I didn't have the faintest idea what I was going to do, I was free.
I drank my tea and forced myself to eat the sandwich for fear of being thought rude and I settled myself down on the settee. There was no sleeping that night. My mind was veering from one thing to another in between having to stifle little laughs at the thought that I'd finally left home, but I'd only managed to cross the road. The laugh would then be met head on with a sudden wave of panic.
I can't stay here even if there was the room, which there wasn't, that lot over the road would be laughing their heads off at that one.
Look at Nick the big man's left home and managed to get all the way over to the other side of the road, all by himself.
No, I had to get as far from all that poison as I could.
In the morning, I was up and out of there before anyone else was about. I had to catch my bus by half past six to make it to work on time and on that particular day I was unusually early. All morning I had my head full with what I was going to do when I finished work, but none of my scenarios ended with me tucked up in a bed somewhere nice and safe. Anyway as I've said all along something was sure to turn up.
It was about midday when my manager game over to where I was working and informed me that there was a phone call for me and that I could take it in his office.
Who in gods name would be calling me now, I thought to myself, If it's my mother I'm just going to hang up, I'm done with that lot.
When I picked up the receiver and heard Cliff's voice I was slightly taken aback. We had been friends for at least a dozen years now and not once had either of us had an occasion to use the telephone to communicate with each other.
"You all right Nick, mum said you stayed at ours last night."
Wow he actually had genuine concern in his voice. While we for the most part, had been great friends, you'd never have believed it by the way, we treated each other.
"Yes, I've left home, and I can't go back there," I said
" So what are you going to do then?" he enquired.
"Cliff, at this moment in time I haven't got a clue, mate," I replied.
Although it was nice to hear a friendly voice, I think I was half hoping that some mysterious person had heard about my predicament and was calling with a solution. But of course in reality that was never going to happen and anyway the most unlikely solutions come out of the blue from the most unlikely of sources sometimes.
"Meet me in the Bell after work, I might be able to sort something out," he said.
Now if you'd known Cliff for as long as I had you'd know that he wasn't the most reliable or even helpful sort of characters you could ever meet, but as I had nowhere else to be straight after work I agreed.
"Yeah OK then I'll see you later," I said and placed the receiver back down.
I wonder what he's planning, I thought to myself as I strolled back to my work station.
I finished work at half past four, and it took me about an hour to get home on the bus. But for the first time in my ever so short working life I felt a slight reluctance on finishing for the day. Usually I couldn't get out of that place quick enough, but on this evening what lay ahead of me was weighing quite heavily and I felt a reluctance to go and meet my future.
I arrived at the pub at about half past five and had to endure the embarrassment of waiting outside until it opened at six. I used to pass the pub on my way home and often thought that the few people that were always waiting outside for the doors to open must be desperate alcoholics, and just look at me now, I was one of them.
Anyway eventually the doors opened, and we entered. I got myself a pint of lager and was idly playing the fruit machine while awaiting Cliff's arrival. I was starting to get a little worried because he still hadn't arrived by seven and I needed to get something sorted before it was too late. I was just about to leave when in he walked. He was accompanied by a chap that I had seen before in the pub but didn't really know.
"Nick this is Ray" Cliff introduced us.
"Hello Ray," I said somewhat bemused.
"Nick I hear your homeless?" I nodded
"I've got a room if you want it, it's not very big, it's the box room, there's another guy who lodges with me, he's got the second bedroom, but you're welcome to come and have a look"
Come and have a look! I couldn't of cared less how small the room was, I had a room.
Ray had his car parked outside, "come on then the quicker we get you sorted the quicker we can get back here."
Well I didn't need telling twice, a couple of minutes later we were pulling up outside a nice looking terraced house that looked just perfect to me.
Ray showed me in and then up the stairs to my new home. He wasn't lying when he said that the room was small, it was tiny. There was just enough room to get a single bed in and a wardrobe, and that was it.
I wouldn't have cared if the man was showing me a rabbit hutch. It was a room, and it was my room.
"So when were you thinking of moving in," he said, with a wry old smile on his face.
He knew my circumstances, Cliff had already filled him in.
"Right now, if that's OK with you" I replied, suddenly panicking that he might have meant that I could have the room in two months or something ridiculous like that.
"Where's your stuff then?"
It was only when he said that, I realised I hadn't given my belongings a thought. I would have to go back, just for one last time. This time it would be different, it wouldn't matter what anyone said or did now.
"Come on then, I'll take you in the car, save you lugging a load of gear on foot."
What a great bloke, this was turning out to be so much easier than I had imagined.
When I arrived home it was as if they hadn't even realised that I had gone, I suppose that with me hardly ever being there and my clothes still Strewn all over the place, it was understandable.
Cliff and Ray waited by the car outside while I hurriedly grabbed a roll of black bin bags from the kitchen. I then went to my room and without a care for the clothes, began stuffing everything into the bags. I actually had a lot more stuff than I thought. It didn't take long to empty the contents of the wardrobe, but because I knew I wouldn't be returning I made a quick decision.
I'm only taking the clothes, all my other possessions can stay, they're all part of the old life I don't want any of it.
I started to throw the bin bags down the stairs. Finally, someone had come to see what I was up to. It was my mother.
"What are you doing?" she enquired
"You can see what I'm doing, can't you?" I responded. "I'm off"
I opened the front door, threw the black bags on to the lawn and stepped outside, shutting the door behind me. I didn't say goodbye or even look back at her.
I didn't set eyes on my mother again for the next seventeen years.
21 Seven Go To Corfu
So let me see, this is the tale of a holiday that I took in the late summer of 1985. Myself, with six friends, from our local pub, in Crayford. Peter, Geoff, Barry, Pat, Kevin, Richard and not forgetting me. We got on a plane and flew to the sunny island of Corfu, for a fortnight of sun, sea, and sex. In truth, it turned out to be two weeks of sun, sea, and lots of lager, but with very little sex.
Our expectations took a bit of a dive, when we landed at Corfu airport. (I'm not actually sure you're supposed to call it "Corfu airport," after all we don't say "England" airport do we?) Anyway that's what I'm calling it. As we made our way down the rain lashed steps off the plane, it was bleak. Just like the place we had jetted away from, dark clouds, gale force winds, and driving rain, what a total let down, this was
At first glance, our home for the next two weeks looked nice. It was a two storey, Swiss chalet style building. It was made up of about twenty self contained apartments, with a swimming pool to the rear. The only draw back that I could see was that it was at the top of a very steep hill. And the only road appeared to be a sea of mud, that was slowly making its own way back into town as I looked at it.
It was about 11:p.m. No time to waste then. The rooms got allocated. Pete and Geoff in bedroom one, Barry and Rich next door and Pat, Kev, and myself in the third bedroom. There was actually a fourth bedroom, but when we looked inside, it was completely devoid of a bed, any furniture and there was a light sprinkling of broken glass all over the pine striped floor. We'd leave that one in case someone got lucky.
So that was that. We dumped our suitcases on our respective beds and headed off down the muddy track into town. The resort was called Gouvia. As I spent most of the holiday in a drunken stupor, my memory of it has no doubt got a bit skewed over the years. Anyway, it was just a bog standard holiday resort town. It was full of bars and restaurants catering for hoards of thirsty young Brits and Germans that arrived every week. So that's where we found ourselves, six of us, stood at a bar drinking lager, with Geoff stood in one of the giant flower pots in the corner with his trousers round his ankles, taking a piss. It must be some kind of record, ten minutes in and we're already being told by the kind Greek man, to go and fetch our friend with his trousers round his ankles, standing in the flower pot, and leave.
The next two days passed by with us playing cards and drinking in the apartment, accompanied by the sound of the rain lashing down outside. We did venture out in the evenings, when the rain seemed to ease off just enough to allow us to surf down the muddy track into town.
On the third morning of our trip to the well known monsoon region of the Mediterranean sea, shock and horror, the sun was shining. It was streaming through every window, bathing the whole place in blinding light, our eyes only used to the dull bleakness of the past few days. We warily ventured outside. The place was already rapidly losing its water drenched coat. The wet patches on the paving slabs round the pool were giving way to dry, and the road into town had stopped trying to slide there on its own and was turning back to dust.
Our first morning at the beach, there was a rumour circulating that there was to be a two day strike. Every business would be shut all day on Thursday and Friday. I don't think any of us believed it, or if we did that it wouldn't affect us. Anyway, on the Thursday evening I certainly found out that it would affect my stomach.
It was around 10:p.m. and the seven of us were all seated round a dinner table in a nice little restaurant in the middle of town. My fourth steak, chips and Greek salad with feta cheese of the week had just been placed in front of me. All of a sudden the lights went out and the waiters were hastily running round the place drawing the curtains. The atmosphere, that two seconds earlier, had been full of the banter and piss taking that always ensued, and the general hubbub of the restaurant had turned. I could've cut through the tension with my Greek steak knife. That's if I could find it. The whole place had been plunged into darkness. It was absolutely pitch black in there.
What actually happened was, the planned strike had gone ahead. Despite this, our restaurant had chanced it's arm and opened anyway. Unfortunately, they had been caught out. Gathering outside was an angry mob of loyal Greek pickets. They were chanting for the death of the cheating Greek scabs. Well, that's what they may have been chanting if I could understand them, but it was all Greek to me.
After a minute or two in the dark, the waiters had managed to light some candles, so it wasn't quite so gloomy. I could just about see my Greek salad with feta cheese wilting on the plate. The owner went outside to appease the baying mob. It was quite clear upon his return that the seven of us weren't getting any dinner that night. The little fat Greek man, after his very important meeting, returned and announced that he was very sorry, but we would all have to leave immediately as he had to close before the...... I was going to say before the hungry mob burnt him down, but sod them, we were the hungry mob. A minute later we found ourselves back on the street, our steaks cooling on the table and any sympathy for the strikers cause, cooling alongside them.
As the days drifted past, we spent our mornings on the beach. We'd have an hour recovering on the sun loungers from the past nights beer. Then we'd set off to find some excitement. We all had an attempt at water skiing, from what I can remember Barry and Geoff were the only ones that actually made it to their feet for more than two seconds. The skies didn't fit correctly on my size twelve plates, so I bailed out after one attempt. But poor old Pat, he was the star of this show. Before we got in the water we had a quick tutorial from our instructor, he had talked us through the essential techniques, the do's and the don'ts, the this's, and the that's. It all went in one ear and out of the other, except for the bit when he said.
"When you fall over, your instinct will be to cling on to the rope. WELL DONT!"
Anyway, as our turns all came and went we duly heeded this advice, except that is for Pat. Yes, poor old Pat. As the speedboat eased away, the slack rope became taut, and his sunburnt body emerged from under the glistening blue Mediterranean sea. For all of two seconds, he was bolt upright, then as quick as he'd got up he was back down. Only this time it was face first with arms stretched out in front of him, the backs of his skis pointing to the sky. His head below the surface, as if he was on a days snorkelling trip but, he'd forgotten his snorkel, and he was rapidly gathering speed. Now obviously the speed boat driver hadn't noticed Pats dilemma, or if he had, he was pissed off with him for not listening to the fine lesson he had given, not ten minutes earlier. Pat was now travelling at about 30mph like a jet propelled walrus, his fat belly bouncing and skimming the surface. Of course, he eventually let go, the penny finally dropped, or more likely he just ran out of breath. The boat circled round, and they dragged his weary body out of the sea and back to the laughing crowd that had gathered to watch his antics.
We appeared to be gaining a bit of a following. I suppose people see us all having a laugh and enjoying ourselves without getting into any real bother, or causing any grief and they wanted to be part of it. But on this particular day we left all our new found friends in Gouvia and headed off across the island to a place called Ipsos. We were going to try to rendezvous with Pete's mate Buck. He was staying there with his Mrs and two of their friends.
We'd been to the hire shop the evening before and rented a seven seater van. We didn't actually set eyes on it until the next day. I think if we had, we'd never have bothered. I can't remember what make it was, but I for one hadn't seen anything like it before. I don't think you could have got one in England, it was tiny. It was a little red box sitting on four wheels, with three rows of rock hard bench seats inside. Anyhow, we all piled in, Peter holding the steering wheel and six back seat drivers.
Assuming Peter knew where he was going, I soon switched off and was taking in the stunning scenery. The green of the olive groves set against the sun kissed blue Mediterranean sky. As we weaved our way up through the ever steeper mountain roads, our hearts in our mouths at every hairpin bend. You could see a row of cars on the road far below us, from where we had been, not five minutes since. They were like a line of soldier ants meandering slowly up a jungle path. So an hour later we pulled up outside the Metaxas bar in Ipsos town.
We got ourselves seated outside the bar and ordered seven cold lagers, superb! They went down a treat, so we had seven more. But before we could get settled in for a session we set off down to the beach and met up with Buck and his family. We spent the next few hours swimming through the caves that pierced the cliffs on either side of the sandy lagoon. By mid afternoon, we were back in our little red van, en route to Boxing Glove bay.
Yes, "boxing glove bay." A nudist beach, that apparently wasn't too far away, or, so we thought. Of course, it wasn't really called Boxing Glove Bay. Kevin came up with that one. We didn't actually know what it was called. A bit silly when you think about it. It was hard enough trying to follow the Greek signposts, but we all knew, "Boxing Glove Bay," wasn't going to be found in any A to Z, let alone on a signpost on the side of a mountain on Corfu.
We realised we were never going to find it, when after what seemed like an eternity, we drove straight through a village we had been through an hour earlier. It was about now that it dawned on us that we were lost. So for the next few hours we drove up and down ever steeper, dusty dirt tracks that lead to dead ends, or even worse, the edges of cliffs. Some of these roads were becoming so steep that the little van, once we had got to the bottom of a cul- de- sac, couldn't make it back up with the weight of all of us inside. So we'd drive down a hill and under the scorching Greek sun have to push it back to the top. Now some of us were fitter than others, and it soon took its toll. Once again poor old Pat looked like he was about to take his last breath. So he and Richard, who was also on his last legs got back on board and acted as ballast, sitting at the back while Pete drove. The rest of us, who were now quite relieved at the diminutive size of our transport, pushed.
As the sun began to set, thoughts of spending a night stranded in the hills without any beer spurred us on. Eventually, after a lot more pushing, we found our way back onto the main road. Those dodgy hairpin bends that, in the morning had seemed so impossible, were now reassuringly beckoning us home. Eventually, the seven of us returned to our apartment looking like we had spent the day climbing Everest.
On the journey back, we'd spotted a Chinese restaurant set into the side of a hill, just outside town. So we decided that to make a change from steak and Greek salad with feta cheese, we'd get a takeaway. Later that night, Barry, Kevin, and I set off in the van for dinner. Upon arrival at the restaurant we were informed that they didn't do takeaway, we would have to return with the others on another night. As we pulled out of their car-park, Barry was driving, I was sitting next to him in the front, with Kevin to the rear. When Barry, instead of crossing the dual carriageway, then turning left into the right hand lane, turned directly left into the oncoming traffic. I realised what he'd done momentarily before him and screamed his name, "BARRRRYYYYYYY." By now I'd got my eyes firmly shut, bracing myself for the inevitable impact. It's not true you know, what they say about your whole life flashing before your eyes just before certain death. No, all I thought was.
Fuck it! I've survived an entire day on the verge of flying of the side of a mountain, only to be meeting my maker the wrong way up a bloody dual carriageway.
Anyway, the impact accompanied by certain death never arrived, your average Greek road user being quite used to us Brits trying to drive on the left when we were supposed to be on the right. They were skilfully swerving round us, horns blasting out from everywhere. Meanwhile, Barry was hastily trying to find a reverse gear to get us out of the way.
The next day we returned our faithful little van to the hire shop. The guy behind the counter couldn't quite believe his eyes when he came outside to check the mileage.
"My god," he exclaimed. " Where have you been in this, Athens?"
"No," piped up Barry, quick as a flash, "we popped back to London for the evening!"
Over the next few days, we stayed in Gouvia jet skiing, parascending, and all manner of other water based activities. We were such regulars that when we informed the guy running the "Banana." For those that haven't had the pleasure, the "Banana" is a long, obviously yellow, rubber inflatable. As many people as possible sit on it, while being pulled behind a speed boat. The driver's job is to do his best to get you off, by making sharp changes of direction as fast as he possibly can. That we were going to do a run backwards, yes, backwards. He seemed more up for it than we were. Word quickly went round, so later on that afternoon we found ourselves hurtling at about 50mph backwards along the length of the beach while a massive crowd of onlookers stood by cheering us on. Actually they might have been jeering, I'm not sure about that one.
Halfway through the second week, Greece was bracing itself for part two of the general strike. This time we were a little better prepared,, and as we'd been told nothing at all would be allowed to open, we had bought some supplies the day before, so at least we wouldn't go hungry.
Laying on the beach on the morning of strike day three, news had reached us that right round the other side of the bay past the tall cliffs to the left, there was a hotel beach bar, and yes, it was open. Well what had we to lose, after all it was desolate round here, no bars, caf, most of the sea sports apart from the pedalo man, god knows how he got away with it, were shut. They had all gone off to form picket lines elsewhere. So Barry and Geoff hired a pedalo and set off to investigate. Half an hour later they returned confirming the good news, the bar was open.
By now it was lunch time, and the thought of not even getting a bottle of water drove us to make the epic journey, four on the pedalo, with Pat and myself swimming alongside. Kevin was going to join us later, he'd become too attached to his sun-bed. Actually he was nursing a giant hangover and couldn't be bothered to move. As we walked up on to the beach, it was clear the word hadn't spread very far. The bar was deserted and the beach only had a few groups of people dotted about. Anyway, what started out as swift beer before lunch, turned into a five hour bender. By the time, the bar was shutting our party had swollen to about fourteen. Us seven, Kevin joined us later that afternoon. There was the honeymooning couple, they spent more time in our company than alone, who knows! There were the three girls from Norwich, and not forgetting the two Swedish girls. So picture this, fourteen really pissed people all trying to stay on board one, two seater pedalo. Once we had set sail it was mayhem, there were tits and bums flying everywhere, people falling off while others clambered back on. Eventually, we made it back to Gouvia beach in one piece. The pedalo man looked pleased to see us. I think he thought his pedalo was gone for good as he hadn't seen it for such a long time.
With his arms raised to the sky, he exclaimed, "where have you been?"
So Barry replied with his well used joke. "Sorry we're late back, mate, we've been to England, and due to the strike this old boat was our only means of transport."
He stared back at us completely nonplussed. I don't think many foreigners get British humour, but what the hell, we laughed.
We spent that evening drinking in Denis's nightclub (another strike dodger), which by this time had turned into our local. We spent most nights in there, but the following evening even Denis (good Greek name) was to shut.
Anyway, this particular night had started on a bit of a downer, but it certainly picked up towards the end. Sometime in the day we had run into our rep, and she'd told us that, as nothing would be open that night, we could get dinner in the hotel at the bottom of our road. So the plan was to eat in the hotel, and if nothing else really was open just stay put at the bar.
Getting out of our apartment was a nightmare, seven blokes all trying to get shit, shaved and showered, seemed to take forever. As people were ready they would go, and we'd all eventual meet up in a pre-arranged spot, usually the first bar at the bottom of the hill. But this night it was Hobson's choice, the hotel was the only show in town.
By the time, I'd got in and out of the shower Pat was just getting his shoes on. We were the last, so he sat on the balcony smoking a cigarette while I hurriedly got dressed, and we made the short journey down the hill together. When we arrived at the hotel, the others were nicely settled at the bar, and couldn't wait to tell us the good news. The time now was ten twenty five, and in exactly thirty five minutes this bar, the only bar open for miles around would be shutting. Yes, out at half past ten and home by eleven. We both swallowed our beers and ordered another in a vain attempt at playing catch up. As the devastating news slowly sunk in the owner of the hotel had come over to chat with us, to try to explain his position. He had no choice, his hands were tied, blah, blah, blah.
As the minutes ticked by to the end, like seven men on death row, waiting for that last minute reprieve, but looking less and less likely as every agonising second ticked by. Suddenly like a bolt from the blue, salvation, it arrived, a plan had fallen at our feet. Looking back I can't quite believe why it was so important to us that we spent every single night getting pissed. I suppose it's the culture, it's what every young Brit went away for. To get away from the everyday tedium of work and life back home. A fortnight of complete freedom, freedom to forget. Nowadays I would gladly of had my dinner, a couple of pints and an early night, but that's now and this was then,
Anyway, Nickel the owner had an idea. He said, "if I give you boys all the drink you can carry, you can go back to the apartment and party. That's the best I can do."
Now this seemed like a plan. I think that he thought that we'd go home, have a quiet drink and an early night, but oh, how wrong could one little Greek guy be.
As much as we enjoyed each others company, a whole night of us lot alone just wouldn't cut it, so armed with as much booze as we could carry, we set off back up the hill.
The people in the other apartments hadn't been blessed with our good fortune. It appeared that they had taken to their beds, en masse, because when we arrived the place seemed unusually quiet. So as Barry sorted out the music, Kevin and Geoff went to every other apartment and woke them up and extended an invitation to our first ever Greek house party. Now, most of them had only gone to bed because there was nothing else for them to do. So when the offer of a party with free booze arrived, they couldn't get there quick enough. Five minutes after arriving at the apartment, it was heaving. It was suddenly the hottest place in town. Even the honeymooning couple came. Our party was turning out to be a great success. It wasn't long before, what seemed like half of Corfu island was crammed in. They must have been drawn by the music. They even helped themselves to all our emergency food rations, still, it was a party after all!
Now, we all know that when you're a little tipsy, you tend to act, let's just say slightly out of character. It's possible to do things, that sober you wouldn't dream of. Well, where shall I begin? It was about 5:a.m. and most people had crashed in our apartment, or left for their own. The only people left awake were Kevin, Jill, the female half of the honeymoon couple, and me. We were sitting in the kitchen chatting and sharing the last dregs of a disgusting bottle of red wine. Suddenly out of the blue Kevin picked up a fork from the table and threw it at the half open window above the sink. It missed the window, bounced off the wall and landed in the sink. Without batting an eye, I reached for a spoon and launched it at the window. It hit the corner of the opened window frame and ricochet on to the floor. Jill's go. She picked up the salt and pepper pots off the table and took two goes. The salt pot hit the window and landed in the sink. The pepper pot went straight out of the window, one nil to Jill. Not wanting to be beaten by a girl I sent the rest of the cutlery hurtling towards the window, some going out, some staying in. In the meantime, Kevin and Jill were fighting over the contents of the fridge, half eaten packs of ham, cheese, butter, eggs and the milk all ended up spread down the outside stairs or gently cooking on the patio by the pool. Finally the great big pot of beef and potato stew Richard had made that afternoon, so those horrible Greek strikers wouldn't get the better of us, went out, pot and all
We went to bed that morning laughing our heads off. Still arguing about the finer points of the new sport we'd just invented. If a knife or a fork is worth one point, then half a pound of butter must be worth at least ten. The next day standing in the midday heat, scrubbing the steps of stew and getting the contents of our kitchen from the bottom of the swimming pool. (Someone else's little joke I suppose) It had lost some of its allure. But anyway, once everything was back shipshape the others did start to see the funny side.
So the Corfu adventure was coming to an end. But it wasn't quite over just yet. No, not quite. We still had to get home.
Our flight was supposed to be at 3pm. The coach was to pick us up at 1pm. So we were all packed and ready to go by 11am. That is ready to go down the hill to the hotel pool bar.
Two hours later when we saw our coach, fly past us, heading up the hill towards our apartment, Kevin, Geoff, Peter and the honeymoon couple (yes they even came to see us off) were all still in the swimming pool. We had to make a mad dash up the hill, some still dripping wet, just in time to grab our cases and dive on board.
Upon arrival at the airport, it was absolute mayhem, thousands of people, and no sign of any planes, and no idea why they'd all gone missing. Corfu airport consisted of one great big hanger with a little bar in one corner, a few shops and one cesspit of a toilet. We queued up for about twenty minutes with a few hundred other stranded tourist, to get ourselves a tin of slightly warm lager. After one bout of queuing and two minutes of drinking something had to be done. So we had a whip round, and I got back in the queue with Peter, and yet another twenty or so minutes pass by. This time when we got back to the lads instead of seven cans we had seven cases of lager. Yes, that's more like it. 168 cans ensured that we wouldn't be in that queue again in a hurry.
So a few hours passed, and although the departure lounge had thinned out a little we didn't seem to be any closer to our flight, and someone had turned kevin's volume control, right up. He had started a football match with a beach ball and about twenty little kids. By the time, he was bored with that he busied himself by stacking the remains of our lager in a baggage trolley and dishing it out to anybody thirsty enough not to care that it was warmer than dog piss.
The hours passed, and night had fallen, but we were still no closer to going home. For us it didn't really matter, once you're on the piss it doesn't matter where you are, you're on the piss. You had to feel sorry for some of the families with young kids though, trapped at the airport in stifling heat with very little or no spending money left. But I suppose looking on the bright side at least Kevin, the new self appointed entertainments manager had kept their little angels amused long enough for them to drink their warm lager.
The boredom of being stuck in one spot was starting to show, people were wandering off hoping to find some unexplored nooks and crannies. Desperately seeking some light relief from warm lager and baggage trolleys. So we found ourselves on an outside veranda watching planes taking off and landing, it didn't take long to grow weary of this. Once you've seen one plane taking off you've seen them all. So Geoff, leading with his trusty guitar, decided to have a sing song. And for fifteen brief minutes, on a cooling Greek night, on a veranda at Corfu airport, we experienced what it might be like to be in a famous band. I suppose driven by the boredom of the long day, crowds of people were coming from inside to the balcony. Soon there were hundreds outside clapping and cheering as we sang along. Our new found fame came to a crushing end when out off the blue our flight was called, and as quick as it had begun it was all over. Before we knew it we were thirty thousand feet above the Greek islands, Peter was soundly sleeping while Kevin ate his in-flight meal, (all hell would be unleashed for that one later)
There's been many a great holiday taken since Corfu, but never that same group all together. I suppose that's why it's still talked about today. It's a memory we all share, it's what binds people together, their shared experiences. The lives we have with our friends and families is ultimately what shapes us all.
22 Butchered at the Dentist
In the 1960's, the National Health service was fully functioning and providing the public with a level of care never before seen in England. It's reputation as the "world's best," healthcare service was fast becoming established.
I thought I'd better make that statement before I embark on my little tale, or a whole bunch of legal beagles will be queueing at my front door quicker than snow turns to water on a sunny day.
I was working for the Co-op, at their main meat processing plant near Northfleet in Kent. Everyday lorries would be queuing outside by the time we arrived there for the start of our shifts at 7:30a.m.
As apprentices, the first job, every day was to get all the meat offloaded, and safely stored in the giant fridges, and freezers that lined the cutting room.
Every Monday morning a lorry pulled up packed with about two hundred pigs. They were all dangling upside down, an S hook through their right Achilles tendon securing them to the overhead rails. As they hung there in neat rows, they had what looked like great big grins on their faces. I always imagined that they must have been telling each other jokes on the way over from the slaughter house, by the way, they were all smiling at each other, just to pass the time I suppose.
Anyway, the object of the exercise was to get those piggies from the back of the lorry to the fridge as quickly as our little trotters could carry them. The way we did that was like this. The lorry driver would get up amongst the pigs and slide them one at a time along the rail to meet one of us, standing with his back to the open doors at the rear of the lorry. The driver then swing the pig forward so that it's front trotters landed over your shoulder. Once you'd steadied yourself, ready to take the weight, the driver would unhook the porker from the rail. Then all in one movement you had to let the pig slide across your shoulder until it reached the balancing point. You then clamped your arm around his middle to stop him from falling. You then legged it from the back of the lorry to the fridge. Waiting inside would be another unfortunate, standing there with a box of hooks to secure Mr piggy to his new rail.
I say unfortunate because I hated that job. On the face of it, it seemed like the easy option. That is until you've tried standing in a room that's a dogs breath above freezing point for about an hour and a half. No, I much preferred running backwards and forwards with a 150 lbs of pork bouncing up and down on my shoulder, sweating my nuts off, any day.
Anyone that's ever cooked a piece of pork with the rind on will know what I mean. Part of the slaughterhouse process is the removal of all it's hair. In Britain, we like to eat the rind.
"Anyone for crackling," can be heard in millions of households every Sunday, and no one wants to end up with piggies short and curlies stuck between their teeth, now, do they? The problem is that whatever it is that they do to achieve this, it's never a total success, there's always some stubborn bristly ones left in place.
I got up one morning, and was busily doing my ablutions in the bathroom, when I noticed that the left side of my face was slightly swollen. As there was no pain I did what I always did in circumstances requiring medical attention, I ignored it. I thought that if it didn't hurt that it probably wasn't dangerous, and would go away on its own when it was good and ready. So I banished it from my mind and went to work.
The next day was the same scenario, get up, get ready, check the expanding carbuncle on the side of my face, ignore it, go to work. This sequence of events continued for a week or two, the facial mound slowly expanding. Suddenly and without warning, one night, I was rudely awoken from my slumber by the most horrendous and unrelenting pain in my jaw. It was one of those pains that have a pulse, pounding away hour after miserable hour. I'd got up about three times during the night to take copious handfuls of paracetamol, but nothing hit the spot. There was the odd hour when it calmed down slightly, but it always returned with renewed viciousness. By the time morning arrived I couldn't tell if the pain was in my jaw, my neck if it was earache, toothache, migraine, or any other pain that you can get in the side of your head. The unrelenting pulse started in my neck and finished on top of my head. It had become so exquisite that it almost felt like it had a life of its own and was possessing me.
I hadn't seen a doctor for years. I was twenty one years old, and the last time I'd been to the quacks was when I was nine. I had run in front of someone on a rope swing that had been suspended from a tree in the woods at the back of our gardens. The log of wood that they were using as a seat clipped me in the ear and perforated my ear drum. But that pain was nothing compared to this.
I made an appointment to see Dr Mitchell. She had been my doctor since we moved to Crayford all those years ago. Although I hadn't seen her for ages, I remembered her well. She scared the shit out of me. She was the most dominant, say it how it is, straight talking kind of woman you could ever have the misfortune to meet. You certainly wouldn't want to run into her down a dark alley on a wet Wednesday. But I had no choice, it was too late to change doctors now.
"Nicholas Hughes to room four, Nicholas Hughes to room four"
I walked from the waiting area, which was full of noisy children, and screaming babies, into the relative quietness of the corridor, with its white painted walls and white doors and smell of antiseptic everywhere. The pulse that was raging in my face was now being matched by one in my chest.
My god if I wasn't in so much bloody pain I would turn round, and get the hell out of here. I thought to myself. But I couldn't, so when I reached the door with the silver number four on it I gave it a pathetic little knock.
"Come," boomed the voice from the other side of the door. Dr. Mitchell was sitting behind what looked like a very expensive oak desk. She was wearing a dark blue jacket, I couldn't see below the desk, but it was most likely the top half of a suit. She had two rows of quite elegant little pearls dangling from her scrawny neck, and a pair of black round wire rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose. She had short dark curly hair that was slightly greying because she definitely wouldn't see fifty again. She glanced up from what she had been reading, I presumed it was my notes, but it could have been last months copy of Cosmopolitan for all I knew.
"Nicholas, take a seat, what can I do for you?" Her features reminded me a bit of Margaret Thatcher, her voice was slightly deeper, but just as dominant. I sat down and began my sorry tale.
The moment I told her that my facial carbuncle was over two weeks old, she began a lecture about the stupidity of men who leave things for too long. She said that she could refuse to treat me, but I was no longer listening. I couldn't concentrate on anything except the marching band entombed in my head. She didn't seem to have one iota of sympathy for my plight, but I had all but given up. My head was bowed, and I was staring aimlessly at the floor. Suddenly I felt a hand touch the side of my face. She had got up from behind the desk and while I wasn't looking walked round to me. Her touch wasn't gentle or caring, it was more pressing and probing.
"You've got a severe infection," she barked "it feels like it's deep inside your jaw, I'm very concerned about it."
Shit if she's concerned it must be serious, I thought to myself.
"I'm going to phone Guys and get you an appointment, now will you go?" I nodded my agreement.
She continued, "I'll give you something for the pain, but you must go to the hospital," again I nodded.
Now under normal circumstances I would have run a mile at the sight of a needle with a point that was heading in my direction, but this one was different. Like a heroin addict who had gone too long between fixes, I couldn't wait to get that damn needle stuck in my vein and feel the sweet juice of relief pumping through my body. She stuck it in my arm, popped a little plaster on the minute wound and promptly went back behind her desk, leaving me to get dressed.
Once settled she picked up the phone that was perched on the corner of the desk and had a brief conversation, her tone had changed completely, it was obvious that she was talking to the receptionist and was familiar and friendly with her.
"Hi Jill, could you get hold of Mr Said at Guys for me please...... lovely thank you," she said. She placed the receiver down and without looking up or acknowledging my existence she began writing.
A few minutes had passed with her furiously writing a letter while I went back to staring at my shoes, when the phone rang, she stopped writing and picked up the receiver. She began a conversation that wasn't quite so familiar as the last one. It was the Guys hospital consultant. She was polite but slightly formal, and it was obvious she was talking to a fellow doctor because after the, "hello" part I didn't understand a word of it until the,"thank you and good day," part.
She neatly folded the letter put it in an envelope and sealed it with a damp sponge.
Too posh to lick it, I thought.
"Hand this in when you arrive, your appointment is at 1.30pm this afternoon. It's important that you go, you're a couple of days away from losing your jaw, do you understand?"
I nodded, took the newly sealed envelope from her outstretched hand, got to my feet, gave a slightly half-hearted "thanks doctor" and left the room. I walked back out through the busy waiting area, past reception and out of the building to the car-park beyond.
The car-park was bounded by a low brick wall, and it was on this that I sat to consider my options. It was here that it suddenly dawned on me that the pain that had been torturing me all night had all but vanished. Beaten by a tiny prick in the arm.
I'd the first appointment at nine o'clock, and it was now barely 9:30a.m. I should have gone to work for a couple of hours, but I wasn't that conscientious and I'd already phoned in sick. So I lit a cigarette and tried to think of something better to do, anything so that I wouldn't have to make that journey. I know people think I'm must be mad, but I just hated the thought of being touched and I knew that I'd be prodded and poked at the hospital. I'd only gone to see the doctor, driven there by the devil living in my face. It would have been far better if I'd been a bit braver and rejected the injection, but I wasn't, so I folded the letter up, stuck it in my pocket and made my way home.
I'd been home for a couple of hours, I'd eaten breakfast and was busily wasting my day watching the telly. Suddenly just like a torch, you flick the switch and there it is a room full to the brim with light. Well that was it, one second I'm happily watching the TV, someone pressed the wrong button and the four horsemen of the apocalypse came riding in through my ear, round my cheek, and skidded to an abrupt halt on my jaw, where they dismounted and spread out.
I handed over the now slightly dog eared envelope to the woman behind the desk. She took it from me, gave it a cursory glance, swivelled in her chair, and promptly stuck it in one of the pigeonholes that she had her back to. She turned back to face me and to my amazement a section of the little square holes that my letter went in suddenly disappeared up through the ceiling. Now that is clever, I thought.
She gave me a cursory little smile, the compulsory one that they have to do a thousand times a day, and told me to go to the seventh floor waiting room.
I got out of the lift and found Mr Said's waiting room. I was quite relieved to see that there were only two others before me. I took a seat and waited, bent over my elbows on my knees and my head resting in the palms of my hands, counting the throbbing pulses as they marched through.
"Nicholas Hughes," the name didn't register at first I was lost inside myself.
"Nicholas Hughes," I looked up. An unusually tall Asian man, Indian I think was gesturing me to follow him.
"How do you do Mr Hughes, please take a seat." He had a very cultured Indian accent and was wearing a really expensive charcoal grey suit, with a white shirt and a maroon silk tie. Despite his look of wealth and importance, I immediately felt at ease. He had a friendly affable manner, he was the absolute polar opposite of my doctor.
He had already read Dr Mitchell's letter before I had entered his office because he didn't begin with the usual barrage of questions. He felt the side of my face, I could sense the heat permeating from my burning cheek, radiating into his hand. He then took a quick look in my mouth and then back to my cheek.
" You've got a little infection there Mr Hughes. There's no sign of any tooth decay or gum disease. I think it's a bacterial infection. Something's got inside there while you weren't looking Mr Hughes," he said.
I thought, Oh there's me sitting here in agony and he's making jokes.
But it had just dawned on me, It was carrying those bloody pigs. If you didn't put a rag between your face and the side of the porkers belly as it slid from the lorry driver's grip on to your shoulder, occasionally it would scuff the side of your face causing a slight irritation. It was a bit like shaving rash, and this had happened to me a few weeks ago, but I'd made no connection at all. It was something that had happened loads of times and not only to me to everyone.
I told Mr Said about carrying the pigs and he agreed.
"Yes," he said. "That's more than likely, and if a pork hair had got in there, it most certainly would have caused this level of infection."
So without any real proof, it was decided that the pigs were guilty. Anyway, it didn't really matter how it had got there, it just mattered that it was gone before my aching jaw was.
I got sent for x-rays, and they took my blood for analysis and an hour or so later I was back sat in front of Mr Said the consultant.
"The infection is eating a hole in your jaw. We need to get at it as quickly as possible. I'm suggesting that if we remove the tooth above the site, we'll be able to drain off all the fluid. Then we'll be able to clean it out and put you on a course of powerful antibiotics. You should be fine"
Wow! I wasn't expecting that. I hated the dentist more than the doctors, but it had to be sorted.
I'd never seen a dentistry department like it. Guys is a teaching hospital and so every doctor that you visited was accompanied by a gaggle of fresh-faced medico's, eager to learn. The dentistry department was set up just for that. Instead of entering a room with a single chair, there was a whole row of them, it was like a dentists production line. Six patients at a time were seated, and the dentist inspected the mouth, decided on a course of action and then moved on to the next leaving one of the students to carry out the work.
When it was my turn the dentist called all the students over, they surrounded my chair while the dentist explained to them what was going to happen. I supposed that it wouldn't be too often in their careers when they would be called upon to pull out a perfectly healthy tooth, but only one of them could win the jackpot.
It was just my luck that the job of pulling out a really well rooted tooth from its point of anchorage was a little Chinese girl. She could have only weighed about four and a half stone, and she looked like she was yet to celebrate her twelfth birthday. She actually looked more nervous than me, and that was saying something because I was shitting myself. Anyway I thought that she must know what she's doing.
I'll just lay back here and bear it, it'll be all over soon enough, I thought.
She prepared the injection and quite nervously stuck it in my gum, instantly all the feeling disappeared from my face as the Novocaine took hold. It was actually quite nice because it gave me relief from my demon pain. But it soon became evident to me that she had overdone it a tad. I could no longer feel my head at all, and my left shoulder was numb, but I allowed her to carry on.
Now I was fully desensitized she set to work. Clearly I couldn't see what the poor girl was up to, but I felt a strange crunching sensation. I couldn't exactly feel it, it was more like I could hear it inside my head. She had attached an instrument to the tooth and was having an almighty battle with it, but the tooth was winning. All of a sudden I heard a little pop, and she stopped. I didn't know it at the time, but the little pop was the sound of the pus from inside my cheek bursting through my skin and running down my chin. She had applied too much pressure.
They may as well have drained the poison from the side of my face in the first place. I think the idea was that going the tooth route meant that I wouldn't be left with a scar. Now I had half a tooth and a hole in the side of my face instead.
My diminutive Chinese butcher sheepishly said that she couldn't do it, and scurried off to get the real dentist. When she returned he was with her, and he set to work on the tooth, straight away. He finished removing the broken bits, stuffed the hole with cotton wool, wiped the muck from my face, let me rinse out my mouth, stuck a plaster on the side of my face and let me get up out of the chair. It was as if he couldn't get me out of there quick enough. He handed me the prescription for the antibiotics that the consultant had prescribed earlier. He then handed me a leaflet on taking care after an extraction and said that I was free to go.
Two minutes later I was stood on the pavement outside the hospital in the middle of London, it was a dark November evening, and I was totally disorientated. I still had no feeling in my head, and shoulder, and I couldn't think for the life of me where the station was. So for the second time that day I found a wall to perch on, and attempted to light a cigarette, but it was impossible to smoke. I couldn't tell if I was putting it in my mouth, my ear, or my eye for that matter.
Eventually, I managed somehow to get my faculties together. I found the station and got myself on to a train and home. The trauma of the day and the previous night's lack of sleep had left me totally exhausted. I fell into bed and slept like a baby.
The next morning when I awoke I couldn't quite tell if the events of the previous day had been an awful nightmare and that I had dreamt it all. But I quickly came to my senses when my tongue, which had completely, regained its feeling ran across the big wad of cotton wool wedged in the hole that this time yesterday was a nice healthy molar.
I hopped out of bed and went into the bathroom to inspect the damage. Once in front of the mirror I peeled the plaster off and attempted to pull the blood soaked cotton wool from my mouth, but oddly it wouldn't come. Now, obviously if I'd yanked at it, it would have come out easily, but my mouth was sore and I was being really careful with it, gingerly giving gentle little tugs. As I was doing this, I noticed that each time I pulled on the cotton wool, there was a tiny piece of flesh on the wound on the outside of my face that moved in time to my tugs. So I pinched it between my thumb and forefinger and pulled on the other end. To my horror I realised what was going on. What I had between my thumb and finger wasn't me, it was the other end of the blood soaked cotton wool. It had worked its way from my gum through my jaw and out of the side of my face.
My god they've mutilated me. I thought.
I managed to get all the wadding out of my mouth and soaked some clean cotton wool in TCP and re-plugged the hole. I stuck a clean plaster on my face and got back into bed and slept for the rest of the day.
Before that day, even though I intensely disliked going to the dentist, I did make the effort and go for check-ups every six months. I haven't been once in the last thirty years and I've no intention of going either. I've been really lucky with my teeth all things considered, and I've not had a single filling in thirty years.
It did all heal up eventually. I was left with a dimple shaped scar on the side of my face and a real phobia of dentists, especially little Chinese ones.
23 Church Towers and Chopsticks.
By 1982 my best mate Cliff and I weren't children any more, but we certainly showed the potential to act like them. When we were growing up we got up to loads of mischief, some illegal some dangerous some things just plain stupid, but we always had the excuse of youth on our side.
So, on this particular Saturday evening we were at the Catholic club as usual and had ended up getting slightly the worse for wear if you know what I mean. Anyway, normally on Saturdays the place stayed open well into the early hours. But on this particular night I think the committee man on duty must have had enough by the time last orders were called. He couldn't wait to get rid of the drunken mob that was filling the place.
If this had been someone's private business they would have been over the moon to be able to carry on serving a massive crowd way on into the early hours, out of sight of the law and under the protection of the church below. Anyway, it was only about midnight and the pair of us had found ourselves standing in the cold night air trying to think of somewhere we could go to get another beer. Unfortunately we had drawn a blank. There were plenty of places that were still open but we stood no chance of getting served anywhere in our state and we knew it.
We decided to cut our losses and go and get some food and have an early night. Before we could do any of this we had to sit on the church car-park wall while Cliff rolled a cigarette. While there we had a long in depth discussion about the meaning of life, more likely a deep discussion about what we were about to get to eat.
As we sat smoking our cigarettes you could see across the green to the church tower of St Paulinus. It was completely entombed from top to bottom in scaffolding. It was clear that the renovations to the church were well under way.
Right out of the blue Cliff said "I'll race you to the top of the tower, loser pays for the food"
I was quite taken aback by this because Cliff was shit scared of heights. I wasn't great but he was just plain petrified. So him suggesting as race up the tower was quite simply nuts. Unfortunately the gauntlet had been thrown so there was no going back. Nether one of us would ever back down from a dare and if there was a bet involved then it would have been virtually impossible to have backed out.
The church tower is easily a hundred feet high. It was built by the Romans out of big lumps of stone and had been looking a bit shabby for years, so it wasn't before time that it was getting itself a nice new face lift. The church as usual was expecting it's parishioners to meet the bill for all the work. They had erected a massive cardboard thermometer thing that had all the numbers up the side and every time the poor saps managed to raise a few thousand quid they moved the needle up the side a little bit more . You'd never imagine that the church of England was one of the wealthiest organisations in the world and that they own more land than some small countries, by the way that they milk their poor sheep.
So we entered the graveyard and across the pathway to base camp at the foot of the scaffold.
Nowadays all scaffolding is cloaked in a really strong green netting that protects the public from anything the accidentally falls off on to their heads. It also acts as a deterrent to prevent easy access to drunken idiots attempting to scale the cold steel.
"On your marks, set, go" Cliff gave the signal and we set off like a pair of demented rats up a drainpipe.
At ground level that evening the weather wasn't too bad, it seemed quite calm and although it was a bit chilly it certainly wasn't icy cold. At about the halfway point I could feel the wind pick up. It was gusting round the tower and making a shrill whistling sound as it passed through the cold steel tubes.
There was no turning back now. I looked down towards the ground and could see the headstones on the graves shrinking into postage stamps. It wasn't long before I could see right out of the yard and down the road into town. The road was fast retreating into a little winding track, the street lights plotting it's course all the way to the next town. I could clearly make out the roof tops of all the shops and across the way was the pub. It was like looking down on toy town.
I was steadily and carefully making my way up the tower. After the first few lifts I had forgotten that I was in a race and was more intent on getting to the top in one piece.
I glanced over my shoulder to my right and to my amazement Cliff was just at the point of overtaking me. He looked like he had managed to overcome his fear of heights and was definitely after the win. I wasn't about to let that happen I would never have heard the last of it beaten to the top of the tower by someone who's afraid of heights. He appeared to have his eyes shut and was gritting his teeth. He was definitely in the zone as they say.
I quickened my pace just edging in front looking across to the mad ferret on the scaffold next to me. Our eyes met and the determination in his face far out weighed the fear. He was pushing me all the way to the finish line.
The worst part was fast approaching. The winner was the first person on to the tower. When we reached the top of the scaffold we had to cross it and climb over the wall. As we were climbing up the outside, the scaffold was approximately five feet deep and it didn't quite go all the way to the top of the tower, it finished about four feet short. We both climbed on to the very top of the scaffolding at the same time. We legged it across the top and dived over the wall landing in two thousand years of pigeon droppings that were about a foot thick on the floor.
If we had a referee he may well have been able to decide on a winner, but as we were alone we spent the next ten minutes arguing about it whilst laughing and at the same time trying to get our breaths back. We lit a couple of cigarettes and stood up to admire the view and I must say it was pretty special. From our vantage point we could see the whole town set out before us in miniature. In the distance the lights of the greyhound stadium clearly marked out the oval track and all the street lights leading there picking out the winding roads like the branches of a Christmas tree.
After the cigarettes were finished the realization of what we had just done dawned. The wind was howling round the top of the tower, the tree tops that were now beneath us were swaying back and forth and the gravestones were looking perilously dangerous. If we fell on one there'd be no need to dig the hole.
So now not quite so inebriated we started to tentatively make our way back to terra firma . The descent was far more terrifying than the ascent. Luckily we made it in one piece. Our feet touched ground about fifteen minutes after leaving the summit. We sat a minute on the damp grass, wind swept and exhausted. The pair of us lay there in the middle of the graveyard catching our breath and just relaxing in the sheer relief that we had made it back in one piece. As the adrenaline began to subside, our thoughts returned to our stomachs. We were not going to be able to celebrate our great adventure with a drink anytime soon so we wandered down into town and went into Mings the Chinese takeaway.
As we propped up the counter perusing a menu each, Mr Wong the owner must have thought we were taking the piss out of him and his fellow countrymen because before he served us he gave me the strangest of looks and then he turned to Cliff and said "What have you two been up to you look like you've been fighting in a bucket of rust". Sorry I can't do a Chinese accent.
I glanced up from the menu and for the first time saw Cliff in the light of the restaurant and he had turned a rusty yellow colour. We both looked at each other and burst out laughing. We looked like we had just emerged from an eight hour shift down a tin mine.
Mr Min served us our food and we left clutching the brown paper bags that they used to put the boxes with the silver foil lids in before they all changed over to white plastic ones. Strange how every Chinese takeaway in the country uses the same packaging and even when that packaging changes they all change enmass. The problem with the old style paper bags was that if on your journey home the bottom of the bag got slightly greasy it was in danger of splitting.
Half way up the high street Cliff was stopped dead in his tracks a pile of special chop suey steaming away on the pavement and him stood there clutching an empty brown paper bag with a gaping hole in the bottom and looking like he was about to cry.
There was nothing for it he was my mate and mates stick together. I opened my own brown paper bag took out the two boxes and emptied the contents on top of the steaming pile already in place on the pavement. We then sat down cross legged with the meal in the middle and tucked in using the lids as spoons. There was only one passer by at that time of night and he took one look at us and gave us a really wide birth. I bet when he got home and told the wife that he had just seen two rusty looking men eating a Chinese takeaway off the pavement she sent him straight to bed thinking he had partaken in one too many.
24 Ladies and Catholics
The Youth Club.
I'm not a Catholic, I'm not actually a practising anything. I was christened in the Methodist Church. I then attended the Church of England primary school and went to their church. Although I'm not a Catholic, I've had a long association with the Catholic church. Well, not actually the church itself, more like the bar that they stuck above the church when they rebuilt the place.
What a great idea that was. Build a new church, then build a den of iniquity above the place to help pay for it. The Catholics seem to take their drinking much more seriously than the protestants.
The best you get in the Church of England on a Sunday is a sip of watered down altar wine during the service and then a glass of sherry with the parish priest in the church hall afterwards, that's if you're lucky.
Now, the Catholic church have got it right. They finish mass on a Sunday at exactly midday, coincidentally this was the exact time the pubs and bars open their doors on Sundays in those days. So the service would finish, and everybody would adjourn to the bar upstairs. However, my journey to drinking in that place wasn't quite like that.
I've told you all about Cliff and myself not speaking for two years, well, by now we had firmly put that behind us. We were fifteen years old, and both of us were making money at the stadium. Anyway, Cliff's mother was a good Irish Catholic and, so she had made sure that all her brood were brought up in the faith. Cliff attended the Catholic School and dutifully went to church on Sundays, even though he'd rather have been playing football.
It was while he was there that he had found out about the youth club that was held every Thursday evening in the church hall. As there were no dog meetings on Thursdays, he wanted us both to go. Now I don't mind telling you this took a fair bit of persuasion on his part. I'd never been much of a "club" kind of person, oh! except for Phoenix. Phoenix was the football team that I played for. I didn't fancy the idea of hanging round with a load of Catholic bible bashers. Anyway, due to Cliff's amazing powers of persuasion he managed to talk me into going.
" If I go with you I wont stay if it's a load of rubbish." I ended up saying.
So at seven (O'clock) one Thursday evening in 1976, I walked into the Catholic church building for the first time. At first glance, it seemed very different from what I had been expecting. My preconceived ideas were quite wrong. First of all it was nothing like St. Paulinus, the C of E church. That was ancient, probably a thousand years old. The original part of it was built by the Saxons, then the Romans built the tower, and it's been getting little add-ons ever since, and it looks like a typical English church.
Now the catholic church, on the other hand, was brand new. Inside it was nothing like the stereotypical churches that I had in my mind. First of all there were no pews, they put out, and put away hundreds of chairs for every mass. There was a giant concertina screen that went from floor to ceiling, and from one side of the room to the other. This could be pulled across the room to completely conceal the altar and all the business end of the church. What you were left with was a very utilitarian space. They could very cleverly turn church into the church hall in one sweeping movement. It was used for dances, fetes, jumble sales, mothers meetings, and oh of course I almost forgot, youth club.
We walked from the foyer, through the double doors and into the hall. It was full of kids all about our age, all engaged in different activities. Badminton, table tennis, crafts, but mainly it was just lots of little cliques of five or six kids standing around chatting, whilst at the same time eyeing each other up. There were lots of groups of girls, but they were all separated from the boys, in little cliques of their own.
So we had arrived, what to do next? Cliff started to make his way across the crowded hall, he appeared to be looking for somebody. He walked straight across the badminton court interrupting the game that was taking place. They stopped playing and waited for him to cross without saying a word
Well! The lad carries a bit of sway round these parts. I thought to myself
There was a group of four boys standing in the far corner, Cliff saw them and made his way over.
I thought that I'd better follow him just in case he needed some backup. He had a habit of wading into trouble and then coming off worse. The four lads turned towards Cliff, and it was all smiles.
Thank god for that. I thought to myself.
I didn't fancy getting involved in a fight on my first visit to the Catholic church, I mean whatever would they have thought of me! The lads were friends from school, he introduced me to them.
"Hello boys, this is my mate Nick, he goes to Crayford." (Crayford secondary school.)
I'm not to sure why, but that was how we introduced strangers in those days. It was always your name first followed by the school that you attended as if that would have made any difference to anything. Subconsciously it let people know where you fitted in the hierarchy, and Crayford was firmly at the top.
He pointed at them one at a time and said their names.
"Dave." I nodded in Dave's direction. "Paul, Steve, Rich." I nodded at each one in turn.
As soon as the introductions were over, and with Cliff, not being one to beat about the bush, he immediately demanded that Dave hand out his cigarettes.
"Flash the ash." Was his favourite saying. Actually that saying would have usually been topped off with some kind of expletive, like "flash the ash you fucker"
Straight away he did as he was told and produced a packet of twenty Mayfair. Well now! I was impressed, they were the most expensive cigarettes you could buy.
"What's he then?" I said to my new found friend Rich, "a millionaire."
I was quite shocked by his answer and couldn't quite work out if he was joking or not because he replied.
"No, he's not a millionaire, he's having it off with my mother, and she gives him all his cigarettes."
Right, OK then, I didn't really know how to react to that one. So I just said, "oh."
We each took a cigarette and then walked out of the hall and into the car-park, where Dave produced a lighter from his pocket and offered it round. We lit our cigarettes, and I sat on the wall while they quizzed me about life at Crayford secondary. You see, it had a terrible reputation and the teachers a St Columbus would use being sent there as a threat.
"If you lot don't behave yourselves you'll end up at Crayford secondary" It was meant to scare them. I suppose a few believed it, but as Cliff had always wanted to go to Crayford, this wasn't much of a deterrent for him.
Cliff had said a long time before this that kids from the other local schools feared the place. Of course in reality, it was no better or worse than any other school. But going to a school with a bad reputation wasn't necessarily a bad thing for a kid then anyway.
We had finished smoking the cigarettes and Dave had said that he wasn't going back into the youth club but that he was going upstairs.
"What's upstairs then," I said.
"It's the club," replied Cliff.
25 The Catholic Club.
While we had been sitting on the wall I had noticed a steady stream of people passing us and going into the church building, but I hadn't given it much thought.
"There's a bar upstairs, that's where that lot are all going. He's allowed because he's eighteen, and a member." Cliff was pointing at Dave.
Dave's eighteen. At least that explained how he could be seeing Richard's mother and not visiting her in prison.
Straight away I said. "Come on then, let's all go with him. How do they know how old we are? He's eighteen and goes to the youth club, then I could just as easily be eighteen and be going too. And if he's a member up there." I was pointing to the upstairs windows, "he can sign us all in, can't he?" This great plan obviously hadn't occurred to them, or maybe they just didn't want to go.
Anyway, Dave had finished his cigarette and was making his way to the entrance. I got to my feet pushed past the other three and followed him in. We went through the foyer and past the doors where all the other kids were still happily playing and eyeing each other up, and over to a door in the corner, and up the stairs.
I felt a strange sense of excitement, I actually thought that once I was stopped at the door I would be turned away. I could have then gone back to the others, and they would have all thought that I was a bit of a lad really for trying. Now, what actually happened was that when we got to the top of the stairs, I had momentarily looked behind me and saw that the others had followed me. So we were all stood at the top of the stairs outside the club entrance like so many naughty schoolboys.
"Look natural, and I'll sign you all in." Dave said slightly hesitantly.
He opened the door, but there was no one there on the other side waiting to greet us, so we just walked straight in. As we entered I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. It was a pub, just like all the others in town, only this one was like a big secret, hidden away above the church. As we crossed the threshold and entered the smoky atmosphere, I couldn't possibly have known what a massive part this place would come to play in my life.
Over the next few months, I got into the habit of going to youth club on Thursdays for all of about ten minutes, then just wandering off upstairs to the club. I liked it in there, not only because I could get a beer without being hassled, but I found that I enjoyed the company of older people more than that of my peers. The people that I had started to mix with, weren't exactly old you understand, but, when you're fifteen, twenty is positively ancient. I had met a guy called Paul and we got on like a house on fire. He was a really funny man. He was a great big fat bloke, but he didn't give a shit. God only knows why he appeared to like me. He possessed one of those larger than life personalities, and everybody liked him. So when I first set eyes on his girlfriend Julie, it came as no surprise to me that she was absolutely stunning. I was in love.
The singer Kate Bush was at the height of her fame, and so like most young men of my age, I had a great big crush on her. So when I set eyes on Julie the impossible suddenly became possible. She could easily have passed for Kate's twin sister except that Kate Bush was a good few years older. Julie was a very mature sixteen year old, she was full of the knowledge of her own attractiveness, she oozed the charm and confidence of a woman of much greater years.
Although I had a massive crush on her and I thought that she liked me too because we got on so well. I would never have acted on it, not as long as she was with Paul. I'd have to be patient and bide my time.
I walked into the club one evening a few months later, and Paul was propping up the bar nursing a pint of lager and looking like he had the worries of the world on his shoulders.
"Alright mate, what's up with you. You look like shit." I said. Totally unaware of his misfortune.
"It's Julie," He said. "We've split up, she's given me the elbow. I'm gutted"
Now it's really difficult to sound sincere, when the words that come out of your mouth are.
"Oh, sorry about that mate, I thought you two would last"
When inside your head all you can here is the chorus of a great male voice choir singing.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
I had to bite my lip to stop myself from breaking into a massive grin. Eventually, I could contain myself no longer. I turned and left the room. I went into the toilets and did a little dance punched the air, grinned my face off, got it all out of my system and two minutes later returned to the bar and continued consoling Paul in the appropriate manner. By the end of that evening we were both as drunk as skunks, Paul was slagging poor Julie off big time and talking about someone else he had his eye on.
Jesus! He got over her quick enough. I thought to myself. I needed a plan.
The next time she came into the club I made sure that I spent the whole evening drinking and chatting with her. As soon as she was ready to leave I immediately offered to walk her home, and it was on this journey that I asked her out.
We went out together for about six months I think, but it fizzled out soon enough. The strange thing was that a week or so after we had split up she started going out with Cliff. He couldn't wait to fill my shoes. I suppose that's how Paul must have felt six months prior, when I casually stepped into his.
On Thursday nights, I used to work behind the bar in the catholic club. I didn't do it for the money, you understand, because all the bar staff were volunteers. For each session, there was a committee member and one bar staff. We did it on a rota, and my night was a Thursday.
I was eighteen years old and only just old enough to drink legally. But, in fact, I had been drinking in the club for three years by then. I was well known to all the members. Everybody knew that our little crowd were all under age, but no one seemed to care.
I remember when Cliff was still at school, he was due to sit one of his final exams, but we had been drinking in the club for half the previous night and he couldn't get out of bed in the morning. Eventually, his mother had forced him up and out. Once he had made it to school he was immediately sent home because he stank of stale beer, and couldn't keep his eyes open. Needless to say, he didn't do too well in any of his exams. But that had nothing to do with the catholic club or drinking for that matter. He was certainly bright enough. I think that deep down he was just basically a lazy little sod, who couldn't be bothered with academia or anything resembling it. He left school at the first possible opportunity and got himself a nice little dead end job that I think he hated just as much as school itself.
Anyway, it was an unusually quiet night, the place was more or less empty. I had brought one of the bar stools that were meant for the customers, round to my side of the bar. I was sitting down idly chatting to the committee guy Peter, who was as equally bored as me.
He was a bank manager by day and so he spent most of his time sitting down at work and didn't feel the urge to be seated, no, he was wandering round the club mindlessly polishing tables as he tried to explain to me how important it was that I saved some of my wages each week and got myself on the mortgage ladder. I don't think he had the slightest idea what an apprentice butcher actually earned and that also I didn't live at home with my parents. I had rent to pay, and food to buy. A mortgage was the furthest thing from my mind at that time. After all my expenses, I would spend every other penny socialising.
I lived in a little bedsit but hated spending time alone there. At first it was great, I had managed to get myself away from the dysfunction of my parents, life seemed a whole lot rosier. But after the initial honeymoon period the novelty had started to wear a bit thin. I had lived most of my home life in my bedroom alone, and now I was doing the same thing, only this time I had the pleasure of paying through the nose for it. When I was originally asked to work behind the bar, I jumped at the opportunity. It meant a whole night out of my room, a nice drink, a bit of company and all for free. Well! you did have to serve a few people, but I did that all day anyway, so I was good at it
. Everybody that worked in the club was allowed to have the occasional drink while they were on duty. I managed to take this to the extreme. I most certainly got my monies worth. It would have probably been cheaper if they had paid me an hourly wage. Most people knew that we were volunteers and would more often than not offer to buy you a drink whenever you served them. Now, with this came the opportunity to make a little cash. There was no point in taking a drink from someone when you got yours for free anyway. So I used to say.
"Thanks, I'll take for half a lager if you don't mind."
I would then ring the price of their drinks into the till, but put the price of my half a lager in a beer glass and then say that I'd have it later. At the end of the night, we would share whatever we had earned out. This sounds slightly underhand to me now, but I certainly didn't see it like that then, and nor did Paul, and he was a bank manager for Christ's sake. The drinks that I was bought I took as cash instead, just like tips, and the drinks that I drunk were my wages. There you go, I've managed to convince myself.
So we were in the middle of a really quiet night, no extra cash for me tonight, when the door opened and in walked two young women. One tall with red hair and quite skinny, She had the look of a model. The other was much shorter in comparison, but both were quite attractive and had obviously been sent here by the good lord himself just to brighten up what was rapidly becoming a very tedious night, what with the lecture about mortgages still rattling on.
I got off my stool and readied myself to serve them. I'd obviously been sitting on the hard wooden seat a tad too long, because as I got to my feet my backside and the tops of my legs were completely numb. As I went to say, "what can I get you, ladies?" Both my legs buckled under my weight and my hand reached behind me fishing for the stool to steady myself against. But I only managed to clip the stool sending it skidding across the bar and promptly found myself sitting on the floor with Paul and the two girls laughing out loud. I got to my feet and slightly red faced served them with two cokes, by the time I'd got myself composed enough to start a conversation with them they had picked up their drinks and gone and sat down at a table on the other side of the room. I went and picked the stool up and placed it back where it belonged the right side of the bar. It was safer for me to stay on my feet.
About half an hour passed and I'd been watching Paul waste his money in the fruit machine, when I realised that the two girls sitting chatting in the corner were more than likely broke. They were still nursing the same cokes that I had served them with half an hour ago.
"Have you ever served those two before" I enquired to Paul.
"Yes, once or twice maybe. Why?" He said.
"So what were they drinking then?" I quizzed him.
"The ginger one was on Bacardi and coke, and the other one had a Vodka and lemonade If I can remember." He replied.
Great that's all I needed to know. I went back behind the bar and prepared the drinks, and then as nonchalantly as I could after making a complete tit of myself earlier, strolled over, placed the drinks on their table, sat myself next to the ginger one and introduced myself.
"Hi I'm Nick, hope you enjoyed the floor show earlier"
They both took their drinks and smiled broadly.
"Yes, Cheers for that, it was hilarious." The shorter girl spoke. I'm Victoria, and she's Louise.
"So what are you doing up here then?" I replied.
What a stupid question, they're up here having a drink, you idiot! Quickly say something sensible or get up and leave them alone.
Victoria spoke, " we were at the youth club downstairs, but it's full of kids and we wanted to have a chat. She's just been dumped" Pointing at Louise. "And we just wanted somewhere to talk that's a bit quieter."
"Oh yes, the youth club, I remember it well, I used to go there when I was a kid."
That's not going to help, now they think that you think they're little kids.
"So you need to chat then, I'll leave you to it," I said, desperately trying to ease myself out of the awkward situation that I had so effortlessly concocted.
"No, you're all right, we don't mind you being there, do we Lou?" Victoria gave her mate a cursory glance. Louise returned a half smile and picked up her drink and through gritted teeth she spoke for the first time. "No, of course not."
Great, they can't think I'm too much of a prat then.
The trouble was, it was obvious, Victoria was interested in me, I was interested in Louise and Louise was still interested in the mad boyfriend who had just dumped her. So this conversation was going nowhere.
"I'd love to sit and chat, but I'm supposed to be working, I'd better get back behind the bar."
Oh great, another ridiculous statement, they're the only two customers in here, and I'm too busy to talk to them.
"Enjoy the drinks, see you later" I stood up and went back behind the bar.
Paul, who had given up wasting his money in the fruit machine and was now leaning with his elbows on the bar laughing at my feeble attempts and chatting up the ladies.
"How'd it go?" He said, with a grin on his face as wide as a Cheshire cat.
"Great," I replied. "I'm taking them both out next week." He ignored my sarcasm and carried on grinning.
I think he was slightly jealous of my youthful fearlessness. He was in his forties with a wife and children and a mortgage and responsibilities. I'm quite sure that, at the end of the day, he wouldn't have swapped any of that for all the tea in China. But as I well know now, a man is perfectly entitled to remember the freedoms of his youth. I think that what we all tend to forget is the self doubt and insecurity that goes hand in hand with being young.
The girls finished their drinks and started to make their way out of the room.
Quick, say something.
" See you later girls. Come in tomorrow night, I'm not working then, and we can have a proper chat."
When I said that, although I didn't aim my words at any one of them specifically, I looked straight at Louise, and to my amazement she smiled back and said.
"OK, see you tomorrow."
Friday in the butchery department in the Co-op's biggest store was normally such a busy day that it flashed past in the blink of an eye, but this Friday seemed unusually long. Eventually, six o'clock arrived and I couldn't get out of the place quick enough. We all used to go across the road to the pub for an hour after work on Fridays, but tonight I had bigger fish to fry.
I went straight home and got myself showered and changed as quickly as I could. Now, I didn't need to be in any great hurry to get to the catholic club because for one, it didn't open until eight and even then I didn't know for sure if Louise would even be going there. And if perchance she did happen to venture in that direction, I didn't want to appear overly keen.
It would be much better if she was already there when I walk in. I reasoned to myself.
On the other hand, what if she walks in and sees that I'm not there and walks straight back out.
Oh, the dilemmas of youth. Anyway, it was barely seven, and I was heading for the One Bell Public House, that was just down the road from the club.
I'll get a nice few down first, just to oil the wheels of conversation later.
By about eight thirty, I'd downed a few pints and was feeling suitably erudite, I made the short journey up the hill towards the church and hopefully Louise.
As soon as I entered the club I saw that she had come. She was sitting at a table on her own. She had already got herself a drink and was nervously fiddling with the glass. I walked over to the table, smiled at her and Said. "You came then, I wasn't sure if you would."
Her reply wasn't all that I had hoped for.
"I've been sitting here on my own for twenty minutes now. As soon as I've finished this drink I'm off," she sounded really pissed off. I knew that she was going nowhere, she would never have sat there all alone for twenty minutes just to tell me that. No, she would have just turned round and left straight away.
I shrugged my shoulders and said "suit yourself," then turned and headed for the bar. I ordered my usual pint of lager and deliberately engaged the barman in conversation. I didn't look back over in Lou's direction once. I held my nerve, it was like playing a hand of poker. I couldn't stay at the bar for too long, or she'd definitely go, but I didn't have to worry, she had cracked. The sound of a glass being placed on the bar beside me caused me to look round, it was her.
"So you're going to ignore me now, are you. And after I've made all this effort to get here just to see you." She spoke with a smile on her face and irony in her voice.
"Of course I'm not ignoring you. I was just getting a drink, and Ron was asking me about the butchery." I lied. " I was going to come over and sit with you now."
The ice had been broken, we walked back to the table and spent the evening chatting and laughing together. At the end of the night I walked her home, we kissed on the doorstep, and she went inside.
For one brief moment in my eighteen short years, I was happy. We quickly became inseparable, we went everywhere and did everything together. Until that is, I pressed the self destruct button.
I don't know, but I did discover a trait in me that's not very nice, it's something that I've never managed to grow out of. I see something that I want, I do everything in my power to get it. Once I've got it, I lose interest almost immediately. I then do everything in my power to lose it. Once it's lost the regrets start and want it back. Now that doesn't make much sense, surely if I'm aware of what I'm doing, why not just stop doing it? Well who knows? If I could bottle and sell hindsight, I'd probably be a very rich man.
Anyway, I'm just trying to make excuses for the way that I treated Lou. I let her down at every possible opportunity. Once I knew that I had "got" her if I wanted to do something or go somewhere, and I didn't want her with me if she put up the slightest argument I would just finish with her. I'd then do whatever it was that I was so desperate to do, it would usually be at the weekend and then on the Monday or Tuesday evening after work when I was bored, and no one was about and there might have been the slightest possibility that I would have to spend the night in my room on my own, I would phone her and be really contrite and apologetic. I seemed to know all the right platitudes to say. I even knew that the first call, she would be full of hate, and I'd say things like "you're quite right," and "I don't blame you." I'd then say good bye before she could finish
I'd leave her thinking that she'd gone to far. An hour or so would pass and right on cue the phone would ring, and it would be her.
"Hello Nick sorry about earlier I was a bit off with you, you upset me a bit, but I'm all right now, are you OK?"
"Yer I'm sorry too, do you want me to come round? I haven't seen you for ages."
I hadn't seen her for ages! But who's fault was that then? Do you know what? Until I had started writing this, I'd never really given the things that I said to that girl a lot of thought. I'm trying to think of a suitable excuse for my actions but, I'm truly stumped. Being abused didn't give me a licence to become an abuser myself. And while I knew for one hundred percent that my sister was the last female that I would ever hit. I don't think that I was even aware of how hurtful my actions were. If it had ended with that alone, then it might not have seemed quite so bad. But it didn't.
After we had been going out for about six months, I had finally decided to let her go for good. Quite simply I'd got bored and felt like a change. Although I messed her about terribly I was never a cheat, I had my own set of moral values and cheating was a no no. Messing with people's feelings and endlessly mucking them about so that they didn't know if they were coming or going was OK, but cheating no not that.
Anyway, we had been separated for a week or so when the phone rang, and it was Lou, she sounded a little upset, and she asked if we could meet up right away. She had something important to tell me, and she didn't want to say it on the phone. All I can remember saying was that if she couldn't tell me over the phone then I didn't want to know. After she had pleaded with me for a couple more minutes, she gave up and just blurted it out.
"Nick I'm pregnant, I'm having a baby."
"A baby, how?"
"I don't know, we were always careful, We need to talk, Can we meet?"
I hung up the phone and immediately set off in the direction of her house. All the time I was walking I was trying to fathom a way out of this mess. I didn't want to be a father, I was only eighteen, and I could barely look after myself. She was a year younger than me, and she wasn't exactly the maturest seventeen year old.
As I neared her house I could see her approaching from the opposite direction. She was walking quite purposefully. When we had met like this in the past as her features became clear she would always have a beautiful smile on her face, to welcome my arrival. This time though she looked so worried she had the look of a lost child all alone in the world.
When we finally met it was so awkward. We used to meet each other halfway, it would always be with a big hug and a kiss. She didn't wait to swap any pleasantries. We turned and started to walk in the direction that I had just come from. She immediately reiterated that she was pregnant, she wanted to be sure the information had fully sunk in. She then asked what I thought about it. Now, this was the part I was dreading. What am I supposed to say? I needed to know what she was thinking. I didn't want a child. I didn't even want her, but I wasn't going to be the one to say get rid of it. I was far too much of a coward for that. I passed the question back.
"Look, it doesn't really matter what I think because at the end of the day it's you who's pregnant, and it's you who will have to bring it into this world and look after it." I said
"I'm not keeping it," she said, " I just thought you should know that I've got an appointment at the Brook for a termination next week."
"Oh, OK then, " I replied. I was glad that it had all been sorted, and I didn't even bother to ask her if she wanted me to go with her. I was just happy to walk her back home and get away from there as quickly as I possibly could.
Louise attended the Brook hospital for her termination the following week, I wasn't there. She may have had to go through that alone for all I knew. As it turned out she had her mother with her.
A few days later I met her just by chance actually. She was walking home from the station after work. She didn't look to good, and she seemed really depressed. She was really pissed off with me for the way that I had treated her, and let's face it she was quite within her rights to be ever so slightly more than pissed off, I suppose.
Her father couldn't get over the shame of having a seventeen year old daughter who had a sex life let alone one that had got pregnant. Their relationship had broken down completely, and now she was looking for a flat to rent because he didn't want her under his roof.
I bet she rued the day she ever met me.
Shortly after moving from the comfort of the parental home into a shared high rise flat on a horrible concrete jungle of a housing estate in South East London. The depression and worry of having to look after herself lead her to taking an overdose. I'm not sure if she meant to kill herself or if it was a cry for help, but thankfully she recovered. It was at this time that I finally got a conscience.
I brought this on that girl and walked away scot free.
But with my guilt came a promise to myself. If anything like this ever happened again, however, bad or inconvenient it was for me, I would never treat anyone that appallingly again. I think that I was probably starting to grow up myself. It was too late for me and Lou, but I would hold that thought for a very long time
I always remained friends with Lou's friend Vicky. She was the one that had kept me informed about Louise, and although it was Lou that I was first attracted to, Vicky was more on my wavelength, we shared the same sense of humour and were always laughing and joking about the same things. The problem was she was one of my best mates, and I didn't want to mess it all up by starting a relationship with her that would probably only last a couple of months. So I put any feeling that I had for her aside. I couldn't have know that years later everything would change.
I was in the bar one Friday evening and all the crowd were in, except for Vic. I knew that she had been seeing someone, but I hadn't realised that it was serious. Until the pair of them walked in through the door hand in hand and promptly announced to us all that they were engaged. I should have been happy for the pair of them. After all, I had never intimated that I wanted anything like that with her. I wasn't happy at all. The only words that come to mind now to describe how I felt about Victoria and Frank getting married was raging jealousy and utter dismay. Of course, I didn't show any of that, I was a past master at hiding my feelings. So instead I went to the bar and bought the whole table a drink.
That was basically the end of my time in the catholic club. I didn't want to see her with him and so I stopped going in there. Cliff was a regular fixture in the One Bell, and although it was him who had introduced me to the club some years earlier, he didn't go in there that much himself. So I started drinking in the Bell and eventually stopped going to the club altogether. By the time Vicky and Frank got married I didn't even get an invitation, It was a case of out of sight out of mind I suppose.
I put her to the back of my mind and moved on. I was in my early thirties when I next saw Victoria. I was in another pub in Crayford, The Duke of Wellington and I happened to notice her sitting in a quiet corner in deep conversation with her sister Tracy. She hadn't changed in all those years, and I was slightly uncertain whether I should go over to them and say hello. Anyway, for whatever reason, I chose not to. I still hadn't forgiven her for not inviting me to the wedding.
I was with the usual crowd, standing at the bar, and I think that every one of them had asked me if I had noticed that Vicky and Tracy were in the corner.
"For fucks sake, yes!" I said for the umpteenth time.
It wasn't until the evening was almost over and the Sisters were leaving that Vic came over. She said that she'd been waiting for me to come and say hi, I made out that I hadn't noticed them. I was a little off with her and then she said that she had split up with Frank and had to move back in with her parents because she couldn't afford her mortgage and Frank had gone and wasn't contributing anything.
I suddenly heard myself saying, "do you fancy getting a coffee or something"
"Yes, OK," she replied.
"And you Trace, " I said, knowing full well that she wouldn't come with us. She never used to want to go anywhere with the rest of us, and she was now married to one of the lads from the Catholic club, oh yes! that was another wedding that I didn't get an invitation to.
"No, I can't Nick," she replied." I've got to get home."
"I'm living at the other end of town," I said, "I'll get us all a taxi, and we can drop you off first."
So we dropped Tracy at her house, but to tell the truth when I said that we'd drop her off I hadn't remembered that she didn't live with her parents anymore, she had been married for years. So when we jumped in the cab, and she told the driver to head for the next town, I wished that I hadn't bothered. Anyway, we got her home safely and returned to my place. That night felt so strange having Vicky sitting in my living room. I hadn't seen her for fifteen years, and, now we were sitting around drinking coffee and chatting just like the old days.(Not the drinking coffee part, strictly alcohol for both of us then.)
The feelings that I had for her, and had suppressed for so long were flooding back. I needed to say something now, or the moment might pass again. She might walk into another bar hand in hand with some bloke who was totally wrong for her and she would be gone again for another fifteen years.
She told me all about Frank, how he cheated on her with some trollop who lived in a caravan. Anyway, he'd gone off with caravan girl and she hadn't been able to contact him. Although she had a good job, she had worked for a bank since leaving school, she hadn't been able to keep on top of her mortgage payments. Instead of losing the house she let it out and reluctantly moved home to her parents.
After what seemed like hours had passed I was continuously turning over in my mind how to word what I was about to say. In the end, I thought it best to just test the water before diving headlong in.
"You know that I always liked you, don't you," I said.
"I always liked you too Nick," she replied, slightly bemused. I think she must have been wondering where this was leading.
"No, I mean, really liked you."
"Yes Nick and I really liked you," she said it again.
She's making this hard work, either that or she's stupid, I thought. Sod it I'll just have to go for it.
"I was in love with you. I think that I've always been in love with you"
"Why didn't you say something, then?" She said.
"I didn't want to spoil our friendship for a short term relationship, then you went off and got married before I came to my senses. After that, it was too late" I blurted it all out.
We chatted right through the night, it was only when the light of the morning dawn started breaking up the cosiness of our surroundings that she said she'd better leave. I phoned for a taxi, and we parted. In the cold light of day as usual, I started to have doubts.
Christ! I've actually told her that I love her. Now I was committed.
My timing was all wrong, on the Saturday I was due to fly off on a two week holiday round the Greek islands. So it wasn't even possible to make a date with the woman that I had just professed my undying love for.
I won't go, I can't go. I don't want to be on a two week drinking binge to Greece with all this going on. I thought to myself.
By the time I arrived back from my travels, the night of my confession seemed like a distant memory. I hadn't seen or heard from Victoria and for whatever reason I just don't know I decided not to get back in touch. After a couple of days passed and I was getting back into the old routine, I received a call from Vic and boy was she pissed off with me.
"If you think you can muck me about like all the rest you've got another thing coming, What's the matter with you? You gave me all that crap about always loving me, you then fuck off on some jaunt round Greece, you get back and nothing. What are you playing at? She screamed her tirade down the phone and then along awkward silence. She was patiently waiting for my response.
"I did mean every word of what I said, you know me I'm easily scared, I overanalyze everything"
I replied, "but if you're in, then I'm in, I promise you, I'm all in."
"God almighty Nick it's taken us Sixteen years to get to this point lets not waste any more time."
Over the next couple of months, we had become pretty much inseparable, and so the time that I walked her home from the pub after an evening of her drinking nothing stronger than orange juice, it came as no surprise when she whispered in my ear that she was pregnant.
This time was so different from the last, I already knew that I was ready to be a father, and she seemed so happy. There was never even the slightest thought of us not keeping the baby.
28 The Tenants From Hell
Vicky had the house, and it had a nice big back garden, so it would be the obvious place to live. I would sell my flat, and when the last tenants moved out we would make it our family home. It wouldn't do for our first born to be stuck in a flat with no access to a garden and a bit of fresh air once in a while.
The house was a small two bedroom terrace in Dartford. Even though I had grown quite attached to my bachelor pad, I knew it was the right thing to do. By now Vic was seven months gone, and suddenly out of the blue I got a buyer for my place. It all went through a lot quicker than I had anticipated. Just as the flat was sold, the tenants living in Vic's house informed us that they wouldn't be moving out on their allotted date. We had given them all the required notices, but this appeared to be of no relevance to them.
It's always the way, you want something to happen quickly, and it takes forever, you're in no particular hurry, and it happens right away. That's exactly what happened when I wanted to learn to drive. All my mates were taking lessons and putting in for their tests. The test dates they were getting back were months into the future. There was a massive waiting list for driving tests at the time. So me thinking, I'd be clever about it went and booked my test before I'd even had my first lesson. As sod's law would have it I got my test date back, and I only had two weeks in which to learn to drive.
Luckily for me even though I wasn't in contact with my parents, every year on my birthday I got a card with a cheque in it, delivered to me by my sister Liz. She did a shift in a pub in Crayford, and I would go in there occasionally when she was working just for a chat and a catch up really. She always delivered the family news and mail, and on my birthday she brought the cards and stuff. No one except Liz knew where I was, and she wasn't about to tell them. She knew I would have cut my ties with her just as easily if she had betrayed me. I always felt pretty certain that she wouldn't do that. It wouldn't have really mattered if she had, I just had this irrational need for them not to be able to find me. I was never too proud to accept free money though. I was fortunate enough to be able to use the cash to buy an intensive driving course. I managed to take that test and passed it by the skin of my teeth.
I'd managed to keep a roof over my head for years and now after all that time and at the ripe old age of thirty-two I was in great danger of finding myself out on the streets. Victoria lived with her parents. Their house was big enough so that she could have her own living space. So moving back in with them wasn't quite as bad as she had first made out. Anyway, we used to spend our evenings watching the TV in her sitting room, and I would feel really awkward that we weren't interacting with her mum and dad. However, this situation was nothing like the relationship I had with my parents. We weren't being ignored or trying to ignore them. They were just trying to give us our space, which was really good of them I suppose. Anyway, I stayed over one weekend and just sort of never left.
By now the flat was sold, and I was sleeping on the settee at Victoria's parents house. It was then that I arrived home from work one evening to be informed by Vic that her tenants wouldn't be moving out on their due day. They hadn't managed to find anywhere else to live. The woman, who appeared to be their leader knew all her rights, basically there was nothing we could do about it. Or so she thought.
"Nothing we can do," I raged. "Who the fuck does she think she is? She's living in our house, she's had notice to quit, and she's telling us that she isn't going because her and her cronies haven't got anywhere else to go. Well hard fucking luck. For all, she knows you're homeless, and she certainly knows you're pregnant. She doesn't give a shit about our situation." I was furious, "I'm going up there, I'll let that fat bitch know who she's dealing with."
I jumped in the car, but before I could speed off Vic said that she would come with me. She knew I wouldn't do anything silly if she was there. We made our way to the house and knocked on the front door. As the door opened, I cast my eyes on the site that stood before me. Were met by A giant she-devil of a woman. She was about six feet tall and only marginally less wide. She had long greasy black hair scraped back into a ponytail As she started to speak I noticed that her top two front teeth were missing. She was instantly pissed off that we had the temerity to call at her home without giving twenty four hours notice.
"I've already explained to Mrs Smith (Victoria) that we will move out as soon as we've found somewhere else to live and it won't help matters if you are constantly harassing us." Her voice didn't match her look in the slightest. She was well spoken and sounded educated.
She started to tell us that we would have to get a court order to evict them and that they could ignore the first order, and we would have to do it all again. Only then would they have to leave. She said that she didn't have to let us in. She only had to let the management agents in after due notice. And we should go away and leave them in peace.
Well I don't mind telling you I stood on the doorstep listening to this load of claptrap. She obviously had never frequented the world I had come from. The world where you sort out your own problems first. You only went to the law if someone had committed a murder and then only if it was your mother who had been killed.
She had only opened the door about two inches wide, and she was happily giving her legal advice through this gap, that alone was seriously pissing me off.
I suddenly, taking her by surprise shoved the door, and as she stepped back with the force, I stepped straight in. Vic followed and I found myself seeing my new home for the first time, full of strange people.
The tenancy agreement was for three people: the she devil, her partner and a third guy who was supposedly a friend of there's, and that was it. When I entered the living room there, were about eight people sitting on the floor all very bohemian. Now, I didn't know if they were all living there, but they certainly looked like they had made themselves at home if you know what I mean. They weren't the types to want a confrontation, in fact, they all looked petrified. It was obvious why Miss Know It All was their leader. She was the only one with a pair of balls between them all, and that included the four quivering men in the room.
I think the fact that an exceedingly pregnant woman had followed me in kind of took the edge off the fear factor I was trying to generate. To be honest I would never have done anything other than threaten them, but they didn't know that. I just wanted them to know that they were no longer dealing with a vulnerable pregnant woman.
As I walked from the living room to the kitchen, I noticed that the wallpaper was hanging down off the walls, and there was a strong musty smell. Now you wouldn't have to know Victoria half as well as I did to know that she would rather have died than let people into a property that she owned in that state. So I knew they had caused all off this. I didn't need to look at her for confirmation.
I walked into the kitchen and noticed that the window in there looked like it had been painted green until it dawned on me that it was the garden. It was so overgrown it was like a jungle, and the lawn had become an eight foot high mass of tangled grass and triffid like weeds. They were pressed up against the glass blocking out all the natural light.
They hadn't set foot out there in a year. They hadn't opened a window in all that time either. They had generated a really damp atmosphere. The agent should have picked up on this, but clearly hadn't been doing his job properly. They let the property and then sat back and took their cut without lifting a finger. You would have had to have been a blind man with a serious smell impairment not to have known things weren't as they should have been. Or more likely, he just never bothered with the three monthly checks that were part of the package that Victoria had been paying for.
I turned to go back into the living room and confront them, but my eye was caught by the sight to the left of the chimney breast. In the alcove that this recess created was a stack of bookshelves. There were about five in total, and there were books on all but the middle shelf. Sitting quite comfortably on the book-less shelf was a great big white rabbit snuggled upon a big bed of straw. It had all the usual accoutrements that you would expect to find in a rabbit hutch: feeding bowl, water bottle, toys, you know the sort of stuff. Only this wasn't a rabbit hutch it was a rabbit shelf. It suddenly occurred to me the poor rabbit must have thought it had set up camp on the side of a cliff face. He must have spent his days staring over the precipice wondering when the mountain rescue team were going to arrive and lift him to safety.
"You've got no tenancy agreement because it's expired if it hadn't expired you still wouldn't have a valid agreement because you're keeping a pet. You've not maintained the property, and you've clearly sublet it to five unauthorised people. You've got forty-eight hours to get out or trust me on this one, I'll be back, and I'll personally move you out myself. Do you lot understand what I've just said?"
I looked round the room, and the fear had returned to their eyes. They were nodding in my direction, but none of them actually spoke. "Right then I'll be back in two days make sure you're all gone" With that we both marched straight out. When we got back in the car Victoria, burst into slightly hysterical laughter. When she had finally composed herself, she said " Did you see their faces? When I saw you looking at that rabbit I had to bite my lip because I thought you were going to grab it straight off the shelf. And what about the garden? We'll have to employ a jungle guide before we can set foot out there."
We both started to laugh again, but I knew she was laughing because the only other alternative was to cry, at the sight of what these people had managed to do to her precious home in one short year.
"Don't worry about any of that in there, it's all superficial, once they've gone I'll hire a skip and clear the garden, and we'll redecorate in no time." I said trying to make light of the mountain of work that lay before me and the little time I had left to do it before the big day.
When I got home from work the following day Vic said that she had a call from the tenant from hell and that they would be moving out on Saturday. Well that was more than forty eight hours and Don Corleone's boys definitely wouldn't have stood for that, but we'd let this go this time. They were on their way, and we could start thinking about moving.
By the Saturday Morning relations had thawed slightly between us and the tenants. Victoria had a few friendlier conversations with her in the week. By Saturday, I had found myself offering my services if they needed any help with moving, but I think they were still a little wary of me as my kind offer of assistance was refused. So the next time, I saw the place was on the Sunday morning, and it was empty.
The agent met Victoria at the house the day before, and they had all taken part in some kind of "Mexican standoff." The agent had the tenant's security deposit, the she-devil had Vic's rent cheque and Vic had me waiting on a leash in the car, ready to pounce like a rabid dog. The agent wanted his cut from the rent, but legally he couldn't take it out of the security money. He was duty bound to hand that back to the tenant, or to Vic in payment for all the damage. Although the agent had obviously been negligent in his duties, it was easier for all concerned just to let him have his money and get rid of him for good. Once he was sorted, miss know it all handed over the rent arrears and Vic gave her the deposit cheque back, even though they clearly didn't deserve it. With that she left.
We were alone in our new place for the first time, and my god it was a slum. The carpets were ruined, the walls we so damp that I managed to pull all the wallpaper off all the walls in every room in about five minutes. We opened all the windows and turned the heating on, by the end of that day the dampness that felt like it had permeated everything for good was gone, but the vile smell was proving more stubborn to shift.
It was obvious that we couldn't move in right away put we had a few weeks left to get the place ready and at least now I knew for sure we wouldn't be homeless.
I used to get up every morning and head off to work like most people do. My problem was that I took the first job that I was offered. After all I had no choice, I needed the cash to survive, and I couldn't live in the house of dysfunction. By the time, I did leave home I was working for the Co-op as an apprentice butcher, and they had very kindly sent me to the college for the distributive trades in Faringdon near Smithfield meat market in London to learn the ancient art of butchery. At the time, this was OK because it was all new and I was still adjusting to life on my own and learning something different seemed like the right way to go. But after a couple of years I hated every minute of it.
I was totally overwhelmed by the sheer tediousness of it all. Getting out of bed every morning come rain or shine to cut up dead animals just didn't suit me.
I'd been a thief and many other things besides while I was growing up. The thing is, by the time I left home at sixteen I was all crimed out. I was never really a proper criminal, it was all more about childish pranks and a need for adventure and excitement. I went to work paid my way and got on with my life.
Now what happened at the Co-op and my reasons for leaving were all wrapped up in the culture of stealing and not caring about the consequences. The Only thing was that this time it wasn't me who was the culprit, no on this occasion I was the victim. And I can tell you I didn't like it, no I didn't like it one little bit.
I'd been at the Co-op for five years and had completed my apprenticeship two years previous and was now working as a relief manager. My job was to provide cover for all the butchery departments on the chain. If any other manager was off sick or on holiday, I would go and run their department until they returned. This quite suited me at first because I got bored stuck in the same place for more than a couple of weeks at a time. Anyway if there was no sickness or holidays to cover I used to work at the main branch in Dartford. Although I was a manager I had no authority while I worked there, so I just got on with my butchery work and minded my own business.
Although I had worked there on and off for many years since first starting work, it had been a while since I had been there and most of the staff had changed. The manager John Smith had retired, and a new young bloke was in charge. There were six apprentices, four shop-man cutters and twelve women packers, the manager Bill and me, when I had nowhere else to go.
Next door to the cutting room was the vast warehouse that stored all the produce for the supermarket. The shop itself was actually a department store it sold everything from TVs beds furniture most department stores including this one are are long gone, replaced by the out of town shopping malls that have all but killed off the high streets.
Every Thursday was payday and as with most businesses in the seventies and eighties we still got paid in cash. On Thursday at about half eleven the call would come in that told Bill the manager that the wages had arrived and that he could go and pick them up from the cash office. Everybody waited with baited breath for that call as most people lived from hand to mouth.
People working part time in shop packing departments weren't by any means well off. Women earning a pittance to help subsidise the piss poor wages the husband was getting on some god forsaken building site or factory floor somewhere else. Or the middle-aged butchers who didn't possess the get up and go for whatever reason who were still working in low paid shop work years after most of their peers had gone on to bigger and better things. They now found themselves institutionalised, unable to improve their lot and unable to move on. Many would dream of the day they left knowing full well it was never going to happen. Not until they were made redundant and thrown on to the scrap-heap.
So on this particular Thursday Bill arrived back at the butchery and had completed his walk round dishing out the little brown envelopes and for a couple of minutes the whole room came to a standstill while everybody eagerly ripped open the packets and counted the contents. Each trying to make sense of the numbers on the long white slip that the cash was entwined in.
There was always the odd person moaning about something or other, a couple of hours overtime had been forgotten about or they'd been over taxed. No one ever got overpaid or no one ever owned up to being overpaid. The truth is the wages department was very rarely wrong. Normally it was just that they had misread the pay slip or imagined that the little bit of over time they had done on the previous week was worth a hell of a lot more than in reality.
I was good at deciphering wage slips and after pointing out that you still had to pay tax on overtime or that national insurance contributions were deducted at source regardless of what their old man says. And after a couple of minutes from when the golden eagle finally shat through the eye of a needle everything settled back down and work continued.
I had taken my wage packet and before I had time to open it I found myself dealing with a disappointed packer who thought she was due more than she had actually got. I pointed out that she had been off sick for most of last week, and sick pay was paid at the basic minimum rate and so her money was in fact, correct. Anyway, after I had put her straight, I went back to my block and carried on working, forgetting about my own money.
Fifteen minutes later it was my lunch break, and as it was pay day most of the butchers went to the pub. We didn't all go together, we had to do it in shifts. I always went first because the twelve o'clock break was the one no one wanted, it made the afternoon shift seem really long. As I wasn't there all the time and people got used to their particular breaks I went first.
One of the regular butchers and two apprentices came with me, and we headed across the road to the pub. On arrival, I suddenly remembered that I had left my wages in the pocket of my white butcher's coat that was hanging in the cloakroom. At this time, I wasn't to bothered about this.
I said to Gary the butcher, "I've left my money upstairs, lend me a fiver until we get back."
Now I could have gone straight away and got the money it was only a two minute walk back to the butchery, but I had no reason to worry. Gary lent me the money and we spent the next hour playing darts.
We never bothered eating anything until we went back to work because once Bill went home for his lunch and the rest of the staff went off, me and the skeleton staff that were left all sat around eating lunch then while Val one of the packers made us all tea. It was a bit cheeky, but Bill always made sure the shelves in the shop were fully stocked before he left, so there was never that much to do anyway.
I went into the cloakroom, stuck my coat on, and immediately I put both my hands into the pockets a sudden sickening feeling washed over me. The brown envelope wasn't there. Of course, you do all the usual things, at first I went through all my pockets, my white coat, my trouser pockets, my outdoor coat, my shirt pocket, nothing, empty. I went through all the pockets of all the white coats that were hanging up just in case I had done something absent-mindedly like putting my money in someone else's coat and leaving for lunch. Yes, I know totally ridiculous.
Now everyone that was back at work had been with me all lunch, so I knew none of them had it. I had to wait for a whole hour until the rest came back and I could confront them one at a time. In reality, this was a total waste of time. I mean who's going to own up to stealing a whole weeks wages from the biggest bloke they had ever seen who used a twelve inch steak knife to earn his living. It was futile. I did ask everybody but, everyone appeared to be equally as shocked as me, and obviously the thief's feigning shock was good enough to fool me. I was never going to get to the bottom of this, and I didn't really want to report it to any authorities it wasn't my way. Bill the manager took that out of my hands
" If there's a thief among us I'll have to wheedle them out, we're a tight little team, and we can't have that," he said.
He called the head of security and told him what had happened. The head of security was an ex copper retired. I knew him quite well because he used to come into the butchery every Saturday afternoon, when the old manager John Smith was still there and get his meat for the weekend. There was never any suggestion that he paid for it. So I knew he was corrupt. He'd spend all week prosecuting shoplifters and then on Saturday he turned into one himself. He was a big fat balding middle aged red faced loud mouthed pig of a man, you can tell I liked him then. Everyone was interviewed in Bill's little office one at a time. But he got no more out of them than I did, and all this served to do was make me look like I'd brought this suspicion down on all of them.
There were a couple of apprentices who had taken to subsidising their meagre wages by stealing boxes of sweets from the warehouse and selling the bars of chocolate to all the kids off the housing estates where they lived. They couldn't have been making much from this little enterprise, and although we all knew what they were up to everyone turned a blind eye to it after all the Co-op was hardly going to go broke over a few missing Mars bars.
The problem for these two boys was that someone was asked by the security man who they thought could have stolen my wages, and they took this opportunity to drop them right in the poo.
I now know who the grass was because a few months later she stood up in court and gave the evidence that sent this young lad to prison for three months. At the time, the whole place felt like it was imploding. As soon as Mr security got wind that stealing was going on from his precious warehouse he couldn't have cared less about my missing wages. He was vigorously pursuing these allegations, again everyone was questioned alone. I too got questioned, but I said nothing and as far as I was concerned the matter was over. Anyway I left work that evening, but only after Bill had given me a sub from the petty cash. I had to accompany him to the cash office and sign my life away just to get my hands on a few quid to see me through the week.
I tend to do things on impulse and the second I got home I found a pen and a sheet of note paper and scribbled out my resignation. I was on a weekly wage so I was only duty bound to serve a weeks notice but, I didn't really want to go back there at all.
The next day was Friday, and when I arrived Bill was in a meeting with the area manager Mike Ward. I went straight into the office and handed Bill the piece of paper. While he looked over my short speech Mike who had been brought in to oversee the enquiry asked me what the problem was,
He knew I'd had my wages stolen, but he was shocked when I told him that I was leaving. The thing is I was one of their few success stories. I actually completed my apprenticeship and was one of only a handful of people that actually did achieved that. I was one of an elite set that was qualified to the job. He didn't want me to leave.
"Nick," he said "you can go to the factory at Northfleet and work out of there you never have to come back here again, I promise you that. I'll sort you out some extra money, and I can't say that I'll be able to make up your lost wages, but we'll sort something out, maybe an extra weeks holiday next year."
At that moment, it would have been so easy to have agreed his terms and gone home for the weekend with my job still intact, but I had made up my mind, and there was no going back from that.
"I want to go now" I said, "I can't work he with this load of thieves and back stabbers"
Mike Ward, realising that I wasn't about to change my mind suddenly changed tack
"You'll have to work today Mark and Simon (the two apprentices) have been suspended until we can get to the bottom of all this and Bill will be with me all day, so we're short and we need you to stay"
In truth, It was quite flattering to be really needed for once, so I agreed to stay for the rest of the day. That was a really tense day, the chat and banter that was part of daily life in the cutting room had given way to a slightly hostile atmosphere. No one quite sure what anyone else had said to the fat security man and an atmosphere that you could cut with a two pound meat cleaver.
Six (o'clock) finally arrived, and I let everyone go home and then sat alone in the office just waiting for Bill to return from his day playing detective's lackey for Mike and Mr Blobby the bent guard. I only wanted to say good bye as I wasn't planning on ever returning.
"Glad you're still here Nick," he said You need to be here at nine in the morning the police are coming for a chat with everyone."
"OK then I'll see you in the morning" I wasn't bothered by this in the slightest I hadn't stolen the chocolate, and I was the victim of the other crime that no one cared about now. At least I could go out on a Friday night for once and not have to worry about getting up at an ungodly hour. Nine o'clock seemed quite civilised. So that was that.
When I arrived at nine on the dotted the next day, there was no work going on in the butchery. The day usually started a seven, but we had all been called in at nine. Everyone was milling around in their outdoor coats. There were three police officers in Bill's office, with Rose one of the part time packers and when they all emerged I got quite a shock because they arrested Mark and the other apprentice. That was what was expected but then they arrested two of the butchers and finally, and this was the real shocker they arrested me.
"Nicholas Hughes I'm arresting you on suspicion of theft from these premises. You don't have to say anything, but anything you do say will be taken down in evidence and may be used against you in court. Do you understand?"
"Yes I understand the statement, but I don't understand why your nicking me," I said.
The arresting officer wasn't about to have a discussion with me and he more or less ignored my protestations. One at a time we were handcuffed and lead out of the cutting room and down in the lift. They didn't even have the grace to take us out through the loading bay to the rear of the shop. They marched us in a single file right through the shop itself past all the hoards of nosey Saturday morning shoppers and out of the front doors to a waiting police van.
This wasn't my first time travelling free courtesy of the metropolitan police, and it wouldn't be the first time that I'd been incarcerated in the cells at a police station, but what was a first was that this time I was an innocent man. The other times were all about thinking up suitable excuses for why something had happened, but this time the feeling of injustice and betrayal was enormous. I had been stitched up, and I had no idea why.
After a really short journey to the police station, honestly it would have been easier and quicker if they had just told us to meet there in the morning instead of trying to humiliate us all. It was only a stones throw away across town, but the black maria had to make it's way right round the one way system in the Saturday morning traffic. And contrary to popular belief they don't drive everywhere at ninety miles an hour with their lights flashing and sirens blazing. That only happens at the end of their shift when they want to get to the pub in a hurry.
We were unceremoniously unloaded from the van and led still handcuffed into the station where we were processed at the front desk and then locked separately in our own little cells to await interrogation.
I'd been left for what seemed like hours without so much as a cup of tea and was beginning to get a bit pissed off about the whole situation. All of a sudden my cell door was unlocked, and a Wpc stuck her head round the door and said, " come on out of there, you're free to go."
What on earth was that all about then, they didn't even show me the courtesy of explaining why I had been arrested in the first place.
Four Ounces Of Mince and A Slice Of Ham Please.
How many times do you have to hear those words before you go completely insane?
Little old ladies all alone in the world after lifetimes of marriage and family rearing consigned to shopping for one. Just because the old man was so selfish, he had to die before her just so he wouldn't have to cook his own bloody dinner.
After I had left the Co-op in a fit of anger and disappointment, I worked for an independent butcher in a small, backwater, called Albany Park. It was a tiny place a mile or so up the road from where I was living at the time, but it was slowly driving me round the twist. The routine of shop life was so dull, the same people coming in everyday, same faces, same moans, same, same, same.
The year that I went on holiday to Corfu I left the meat industry behind for good. Just like when I left my parents, there was no planning or forethought. I went away for two weeks and never returned, I just couldn't face going back there. Don't get me wrong the people that I worked with there Mike the owner and Connie on the deli and Jamie the Saturday boy, we all got on really well. When the shop was busy on Friday, and Saturday the atmosphere was great everything was buzzing, and the day flashed past in the blink of an eye.
Monday through Thursday was like torture for me, Mick, Connie and myself each had our little bits of work to be getting on with, but the problem for me was that there just wasn't enough to go round. Connie set up the deli counter every morning while the pair of us cut all the meat for the window display that took a couple of hours from about seven to nine and then Connie spent every last second she wasn't serving customers cleaning. My god could that woman clean the worktops the walls the counters all the tools trays dishes you name it she polished it. So she passed her time cleaning and chatting
Mike would just wander off. He spent most of his time wandering around the other shops chatting with all the other board shop owners. Or over the road in the pub. He owned the place so he could do what he wanted. The problem with these small town businesses is that whilst they are extremely profitable the trade isn't spread out evenly over the week, but you have to be open all the time or risk customers going off somewhere else. So Mike could do what he liked because he was the boss, Connie had a cleaning compulsion that she could satisfy to her hearts content and I was left restless and bored
Looking back the problem with me was that I was an impatient youth and the other two were both middle age and I suspect they enjoyed the slower pace of life in a quiet backwater. My mind was on other things all the time. Anyway I'd been looking forward to going to Corfu with some of my mates from the pub and eventually the day arrived but the whole time that I was away I was dreading returning.
I just remembered one of those " My god it's a really small world" kind of moments.
Our shop being where it was, we didn't get any passing trade. Albany Park is an odd little place in the shape of a horseshoe. You can drive off the main road pass through the village and get back on to the main road about two hundred yards further down. But there was no real reason to drive down either of these roads unless you lived there, so you see no passing trade. What this meant was that in a very short space of time I had got to know nearly all our customers by name and the ones whose names I didn't know I most certainly recognised their faces. Anyway I'm not too sure if at the time you're reading this you already know all about Corfu or not because I'm still not sure of the running order for any of this yet if you don't and you manage to stay with me then trust me you will know about Corfu.
So I'm on holiday with a bunch of the boys from the pub, we've hired a van and travelled across the island, and now we're just relaxing on this beach about fifty miles from Gouvia the resort we were staying in and about two thousand miles from Albany Park and the shop I worked in. When I noticed this woman stretched out on the beach. She was about forty and very attractive. She had long dark hair and even longer deep tanned legs. But her beauty wasn't the reason she had caught my eye, no it was because I swear she was one of my customers from the shop. This woman used to come in the shop straight off the train from work and was always really smartly dressed in the typical city uniform of dark suit and white blouse. She always had her long auburn hair scraped back off her face and tied in a ponytail at the back, but now all she was wearing was the bottom half of a very skimpy black bikini, a pair of oversized sunglasses and a big smile. As I'd never seen her in this state of undress, I was now thinking that the sun had got to me, and I had started seeing things as the shop and what to do about it was weighing quite heavily. But the more I looked the surer I felt that this was the same lady. Anyway she didn't want the embarrassment of running into her butcher while sunning herself two thousand miles from home. So as she was a fair way off I didn't think that she would notice me, and I certainly wasn't going to approach her, so I shut my eyes and carried on fretting about my job.
A few minutes had passed when I got a nudge in the ribs from one of the lads When I opened my eyes there she was standing in front of me bold as brass. It's odd how we imagine people that we don't really know to be. I always thought she was a bit stuck up with her high powered job and slightly rushed put polite enough manner.
As I opened my eyes, the sun had momentarily blinded me but blinking through the pain I could see it was her.
She smiled and spoke as if we were old friends
"I thought it was you" she said, "I just said to my sister, see that bloke over there, that's Nick my butcher I'm sure it is". She wasn't the slightest bit embarrassed or reserved or shy or any of the things I had imagined her to be. If anything it was me who was embarrassed by the situation.
"Oh hi there it's Mrs Peterson isn't it?" I just managed to blurt out.
Trying to act as if I chatted to all my customers while they were stood in front of me half naked. I sat myself up and was waiting for her to order two fillet steaks and half a pound of best ham off the bone.
"Yes," she said, "Jane". I'd never known her first name because whilst I was on first name terms with many of our customers unless they offered you their name we still remained fairly formal. Can I help you madam? Or sir for the first time customers which usually lead to what can I do for you today Mrs smith, which then lead to hello Joan what are you having today. But I hadn't got past the Mrs Peterson one, and she'd never offered her first name. Until now, that is. I asked her to sit a minute and so she perched herself on the end of my sun lounger, and we chatted like old friends. She was really nice a warm friendly lady who obviously didn't have any inhibitions as I had first thought.
Anyway all my mates were impressed, but, unfortunately we, couldn't stay because we had other plans so, that was it some stuck up customer from the shop bumps into me on a beach two thousand miles from home and turns out to be completely the opposite.
I often wondered what she must of thought had happened to me because as I never went back to the shop I never saw her again. The sight of her in her black bikini bottoms and sunglasses had scared me off for good. The truth is she probably didn't even give me a second thought. Who knows?
As the holiday was drawing to a close, I too had come to a conclusion. I was far too young to be wasting my life in a sleepy backwater spending my days chatting with old dears who were a stones throw from the graveyard. We arrived back in England on Sunday Evening, and I called Mike immediately and told him that I wasn't very happy and that I was thinking of leaving. Of all the reactions that I thought I would get this wasn't one that I had played over and over in my mind. Don't go Nick Please don't leave the shop can't survive without you I'll be out of business in a month if you go. These were my favourites. What he actually said was.
"Yes Nick I think it's for the best. I'll drop your wages off, and anything you're owed after I shut tomorrow, keep in touch see ya," and with that he hung up.
The next day he came round as promised but he didn't knock as I had expected. I think I thought we could have had a chat, and I could have gone back there and worked at my leisure until I found something more suitable. But he was having none of it he didn't knock he just posted a brown envelope through my letter box and left. I had heard his car pull up outside and watched him come up the drive. I was all ready to tell him about the holiday and seeing Mrs Peterson almost naked and knowing how jealous he would have been.
Mike was one of those men who while he was in his fifties he had never actually left home he had never married. He was what they call a confirmed bachelor. He did live alone now but only because both his parents were dead.
He once told me something that I found really hard to accept and understand. One day he told me that he wouldn't be coming in the next day because he had a funeral to organise. It was the funeral of an old Aunt that he hadn't seen since he was a child but it was he who would be organising her funeral because he was the last man standing so to speak. His whole family every relative that had ever lived was now dead. His heraldic line finished with him.
I'm not a hundred percent sure why I found this so strange, maybe it was the sheer loneliness of the thought. I literally had hundreds of relatives, and apart from my sister Liz I couldn't have cared less about any one of them. At that time, I think I was more alone in the world than he was. Loneliness is a feeling a sense. They say that it's possible to be totally alone in a crowded room, and I know that feeling well.
I never really worked him out. He wasn't some shy retiring type. He was a short fat man with a shiny bald head, but he had a crescent of dark brown hair stretching from the back of one ear and reaching round to the other. He looked like friar tuck in all those stereotypical images you see of robin hood and his band of merry men. If Mike ever did go bust, he would have had a seasonal job for the rest of his life in pantomime every Christmas.
Anyway I must have pissed him off because he didn't even want me to serve notice.
I opened the brown envelope and stared at the big wad of cash nestling inside. He had been more than generous, I don't think I was owed more than a weeks money and a couple of weeks outstanding holiday pay, but he had given me at least two months wages.
At least I had the rent covered now cos I was ever so slightly broke after my Greek odyssey He had given me some breathing space so with a pocket full of cash I strolled to the pub.
been arrested in the first place. Obviously my name had been mentioned back at the butchery, and everyone who's name got a mention got arrested. But I suppose, and I can only suppose because I never saw anyone from the Co-op again as people were interviewed they were either charged or freed and no one had implicated me in anything, so they didn't even speak to me.
We had all been set free at different times, so I left the police station alone and that concluded my last day working for the Co-op.
The first five years of my working life and it all came to an end on this sour note.
One Guard Two Ambulance Men And An Embarrassed Builder
It was decided that the house was in such a state we wouldn't move in straight away. Each night after work I would go there and get on with the really exciting job of decorating. We thought it best to start on the baby's room first just in case it arrived early, and the poor sods first few nights on this planet would be spent in a two up two down slum straight out of a dickens novel. Even though I had been in the building trade for a good few years by now, I had never actually done any decorating I was actually a specialist dry liner, so it was all new to me. I did the room in a white wall paper with teddy bear motifs on it and the skirting boards, window frame and door in a matching lemon. I don't mind telling you it might have taken me the whole week to complete it but, I was more proud of that room than of any of the iconic buildings that I had worked on in the city.
The fourth of October 1993 was Vic's due date. It came and went without so much as a twinge and the next day and the day after that. Whilst the anxiety levels in the pair of us were rising by the minute there seemed to be more chance of catching a British Rail train on a winters morning than this baby arriving. The only advantage that I could see was that it gave me more breathing space to get on with the house. A week had passed, and Vic had been to see the doctor who seemed very blasabout the whole thing he had obviously seen it all a thousand times before
" We'll wait another week, and if nothing happens by then we'll get you in and see what we can do"
So off we went, Vic back to her parents to be waited on hand and foot like a little princess and me back to nine hours at the Millwall football stadium where I was in the middle of building their executive boxes. That always amused me I could never imagine anyone wanting to pay executive prices to go and watch Millwall play football. And then back to the house for about seven for another three hours of decorating and then on to the in-laws to be, for a quick bath something to eat and then collapse on the put-you-up in the living room before repeating the whole exercise the next day.
Most of the house was finished by the time we were due in the hospital, and as I wasn't working now due to my back injury. I'd been working on the "New Den" for about three months when my worst fear came to fruition the problem with being self employed is that you might get the freedom of being your own boss but in reality that's a load of rubbish you end up working for a contractor who isn't obliged to give you holiday pay, sick pay or any other benefits that are enjoyed by the masses on P.A.Y.E and when something happens that renders you incapable of working you are let go without so much as a backwards glance some other mug fills your steel toe capped boots before you have time to get your poor broken body off the site and into the accident and emergency department of your local hospital.
I'd been suspending a ceiling to the outside verandas of the executive boxes and, the material that we were using wasn't your bog standard plasterboard. Because this was outside exposed to the elements this stuff was like granite, and it weighed a ton, and I mean it literally weighed a ton.
I had done the metal grid work that the boards were to be screwed to and myself and the guy I was working with at the time, Paul had just started fixing these all weather boards. A scaffold platform had been erected along the entire length of the stand to enable us to have a level surface to work off. It would have been impossible to do the job off the concrete steps that formed the terrace. Now the problem I had was that the distance between the ceiling and the platform was only about five and a half feet and as I am considerably taller than that I had been working hunched over for about a fortnight
We picked a sheet up Paul could just about straighten up with the board on his head, but I had to let the weight rest on my back whilst trying to get enough screws in so we could get from under the board and take a breather before it came crashing down
Anyway as I said we had only got a couple of boards up when something in my back just seemed to pop. I got massive shooting pains running through my spine every time I tried to move, it was like being electrocuted with a cattle prod. I fell to the floor in agony and Paul followed with this horrible piece of godforsaken material smashing into about ten pieces across our legs.
We both laid quite still for what seemed like ages but, in fact, was no more than a few seconds I saw Paul emerge from under the pieces of broken fibreboard, he slowly got to his feet, and while he was a bit shook up he seemed to be injury free.
"What the fuck happened there?" He said with the dust still covering his face.
"It's my back, it's gone some things gone in my back, I'm fucked," the shooting pains were still firing round me like bolts of lightning flashing across the night sky.
"Get this shit off me and pull me up," I said. I still had about a hundred pounds of broken board laying across my legs. It was no good, Paul stood me up, but I was bent over double and every time I tried to straighten up the pain caused me to collapse to the floor again.
"Just leave me here for a bit, I'll be alright in a minute, " I said. I didn't even manage to convince myself let alone Paul who was just at the point of calling for an ambulance.
"Don't bother," I protested. "I'm alright, look." I forced myself to my feet and took a few steps to show him how well I had recovered.
"I think I might have to go home and rest for the afternoon." I must have been in denial because inside I knew this wasn't like the other times my back had gone. Apparently most humans over six feet tall suffer with their backs, the spine was never designed to be erect. I was in agony, but Paul said that he would get all my tools and equipment away and drive me the short distance to the station.
The walk to the other side of the stadium and out into the car-park felt like the longest walk of my life. The lightning bolts going off at every other step causing me to let out little squeals, it all seemed so surreal, eventually we made it to the car. The next hurdle was how to get myself into the car. I could not for the life of me work out how to get through that open door. In the end Paul opened the back door and I stood with my back to it, and he just pushed me over and I fell backwards onto the seat whilst letting out another squeal and nearly passing out. At the station, he dragged me out by my wrists and stood me upright.
"Are you sure you're going to be all right doing this I could drive you home."
"No, I'll be OK you get back to work" It was bad enough that I would lose a days pay, but I didn't want Paul to lose out too.
"OK then give me a call later and let me know how you're doing," he said as he pulled away.
I was standing outside the Millwall station looking up at the mountain of steps that I had to climb to get across the bridge and on to the platform that would lead me to the comfort and safety of my own bed.
Eventually, I had managed to get myself onto a train and successfully made the first part of the journey to London bridge Once at the station I went into Boots and got some painkillers and then sat in the cafwhere I took all the tablets on the strip and drank a coffee in the vain hope that I could muster the strength to make the final part of my epic journey.
I had been sitting in the same spot for about half an hour, and the electric shocks appeared to have subsided somewhat probably due to the eight paracetamol that was by now coursing through my veins. I decided it was time to make the monumental effort. As I started to rise from my chair I realised that I had seized up, and I could barely straighten myself up, but it couldn't be seen walking through the station bent over double like one of those mad people that you see bent over and talking in strange voices. Anyway I forced myself upright and got a renewed bout of electric shock treatment for my troubles. I leant against the table until it passed and then tentatively set off for the train.
Ten minutes later I was sitting on the Dartford bound train thinking that my ordeal was nearly at an end. I breathed a sigh of relief and closed my eyes. I drifted off into that half sleep, forced there by the pain inflicted exhaustion.
The journey took forty minutes of fitful broken sleep interrupted by the ceaseless stopping and starting of the train. It was only about midday, and all the stations were strangely deserted devoid of the thousands of commuters that were usually waiting at all the stops in the evening.
The train pulled out of Erith station, and the next stop was me. I woke myself up properly and started to prepare for the final ascent. The long walk up the hill and home. As I started to get to my feet, I realised that, in the short time that I had been seated, I had completely seized up. I was stuck. I couldn't stand, I could barely move, I sat back in the seat. What was I going to do? I couldn't spend the rest of my life travelling up and down on the Dartford via Slade Green loop line. I was fast running out of time. The train was slowing down on it's approach, the platform came into view. If someone had been in this carriage I could have asked for help, some kind soul was sure to drag me from my seat. Unfortunately, I was alone.
A few years later and I would have been able to call for assistance on my mobile phone, but I didn't have one yet.
The train came to a halt, I managed to lean across. I pulled on the handle and the door swung open
The train won't move with the door wide open, and a guard will come by to close it, and he'll pull me off, sorted.
A few years later and the train wouldn't have had manually operated doors. I could have been stranded travelling hour after hour up and down to London and back the doors opening and closing all by themselves and nothing I could do about it.
I waited, the train waited, and I could hear people in the other carriages impatiently waiting and muttering. Eventually, a uniformed man appeared and just as he went to slam the door I called out
"Guard, Guard, help"
Thank God for that, he heard, he stuck his head through the open door.
"Yes sir" were his only words.
"Can you pull me up my back has gone, I've seized up," I pleaded.
"Oh no, I can't, sorry I can't do that. If you're hurt I'll call an ambulance sir, but I can't move you myself."
"I don't want an ambulance thanks, I just need you to pull me from this seat and push me out of this door thank you very much." I was starting to get annoyed
"Sorry sir but I can't do that if you can't move yourself I'll call an ambulance." He reiterated.
I was getting nowhere, I could see this jobs-worth wasn't budging, and so it appeared, nor was I.
"OK," I sat back in the seat and resigned myself to the embarrassment that awaited me. He went off to make the call. The train just sat at the platform with the door wide open so the build up of afternoon commuters could see where the exact source of their hold up was emanating from. I could hear all the impatient travellers getting restless. The partitions were quite thin between compartments and in the relative quiet of early afternoon station life voices were clearly audible
The guard obviously hadn't told the ambulance controller that this was an emergency. That there was a thirty three year old male about to die of embarrassment if they didn't get a move on. So we waited for what seemed like an eternity. People were getting off and transferring to other trains that were coming and going from the other platforms. Twenty minutes later and the ambulance arrived. I knew it was just outside the station because even though they had taken their time to get there they actually had the cheek to arrive with their siren wailing and even though I couldn't see it I guessed their lights were flashing too.
Two ambulance men arrived at my door with a stretcher in tow and the station guard bringing up the rear.
The lead ambulance man stuck his head through the door, "hello sir what seems to be the problem?"
"I can't move, my back's seized up"
"OK sir, and when did it happen?"
" Look mate just pull me up and get me off this bleedin train, and I'll be fine, once I'm up I'll be able to get home."
"OK sir, but if you could just answer a few questions first, then we'll be able to decide what's what."
I was starting to get severely pissed off, "get me off, and I'll answer all your questions," I was fast losing the will to live. I gave in, it was futile to try and resist. I sat and answered all his inane questions and then the pair of them boarded the train and laid the stretcher out in the isle. They eased me from the seat that had become my prison for the past hour and gently laid me on the floor. They then covered me with one of those bright red blankets that tell the world an idiot with a bad back is on his way and wheeled me off the train and along the platform. The only part of me that wasn't covered with the blanket was my head, and that was the only bit of me that I truly wished was covered.
The platform that was relatively empty when the train had pulled in now had a fairly healthy number of rubbernecking delayed passengers all staring at the poor dope on the stretcher.
At last they got me into the back of the ambulance and whisked me up the road to the hospital. The irony of that was that they had to drive past my house to get to there, but as I had given up the ghost a while back I just laid still and kept my mouth shut.
They wheeled me into A and E checked me in where they promptly retrieved their stretcher from under me and left. It was here that I was left to languish on a hospital trolley for the next three hours. Eventually, I saw a doctor and after X-rays and much prodding and poking I was diagnosed with a ruptured disc. As there appeared to be no known cure for this ailment, and I knew Victoria would be home from work by now, I phoned home explained what had happened and by the time she arrived at the hospital I had signed all the discharge papers and was waiting in a wheelchair at the front entrance.
After one final tumultuous effort, I collapsed into my own bed, and that is where I lingered for the next three weeks
32 Going Home
I had always kept in touch with my sister Liz. She had a part time job working behind the bar in a pub, in town, and I would go there occasionally for a chat. She wanted me to get back in touch with mum and dad, but I had always refused. I had no interest in going back there. Those people weren't part of my life and hadn't been for eighteen years now. My daughter Lauren had been born in the October and Vic had planned for us to go to her parents for Christmas day.
Anyhow at the pub that evening Liz had said that mum really wanted to see the baby and that we were all invited for Christmas day or any other day they we chose. I told her to stop nagging me about it and that I would never go there again, so she might as well stop going on. I don't think she really knew what went on in that house properly because my parents worshipped the ground she walked on. She was the youngest by five or so years, and so was the baby of the family all her life. My father didn't treat her the way he treated the rest of us, he must have got the hang of it by the fourth.
That night when I got in I was telling Vic about Liz nagging me to go and see mum and dad and to my amazement she agreed. Now she knew my story, she knew all of it. You can't know someone for as long as I'd known her, spend long nights talking about things you wouldn't tell anyone else and not have her know all your darkest secrets. So you see, she didn't agree with Liz lightly or on a whim.
"You should go and see them, it's time. You have a daughter, and she has grandparents, they should know each other, and that can't happen unless you make a move. It'll all be on your terms." Well I wasn't expecting that.
"Not you as well" I exclaimed," just forget it, I wouldn't know what to say to them anyway, it would be far too awkward "
We didn't talk about it again that evening but somehow she had sown the seed.
Maybe I could go and see them It couldn't be that bad. He's an old man now, and I would be in total control of the situation.
About a week before Christmas day, I had made up my mind.
" I'm going to mum and dads on Christmas day," I blurted out to Vic. " But I think I'll go on my own, I'll join you and Lauren at your parents in the afternoon and if it's alright they can see Lauren some other time, but for now I'm going on my own"
"Good," She replied, "you've made the right decision, go and get it sorted out, and we'll be waiting for you.
Once the decision had been made, and I had phoned Liz and told her to let them know there would be one extra for lunch on the 25th the nerves started to kick in. I think I must have changed my mind a dozen times in the week leading up to that day.
I knew that I wasn't going to turn up there empty handed so although Vic was very organised with the Christmas shopping and was usually done by the first week in December we found ourselves back at the shops on Christmas eve buying presents for all the family. The family I hadn't set eyes on for the best part of twenty years. It wasn't only my parents I hadn't seen my sister Jack or my nan and my auntie Vera my father's mother and sister. While I hadn't fallen out with any of them I just never felt the need the see them I don't really know why only that they were related to my father, so they were out.
So Christmas morning arrived and after a hectic time unwrapping the massive pile of presents (not mine, they were all for the baby I promise) and then seeing them off to Vic's parents, I was left on my own. The butterflies in my stomach had turned into a stampede of angry elephants, and I was beginning to feel a strong wave of nausea wash over me.
I can't do this, I can't put myself through all this, I'll get the cab to the in-laws, sod it. No, you've said you're going now go. But I don't want to go, just go.
It was like the old clich image I had the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, go, don't go, go, don't go. I suddenly reverted to type, I got in the cab.
"The One Bell Crayford please driver." I was on my way to the pub, nice and safe with all my mates.
A few beers before lunch will help me make up my mind I thought. Really I was just trying to delay the final decision for as long as possible.
I must have had an inkling that I might end up at my parents because I still brought the massive bag of presents that we had rushed out to buy the night before and then spent hours wrapping.
So armed with a bin liner full of pressies and a belly full of knots I entered the pub. I was now only a stones throw away from that dark place.
The pub on Christmas day was never my favourite place to be, it was filled to bursting point. There was hardly enough space to swing a cat. I never really understood why anyone would want to swing a cat to check for the suitability of a room's dimensions, anyway I digress. What you had on Christmas lunch time was all the once a year drinkers muscling in on our territory with their ridiculous Christmas jumpers fresh from the unwrapping ceremony that morning. They would be sipping on half a bitter shandy while puffing on a hamlet cigar. Strolling round shaking hands with everybody and looking for all intents and purposes as if they owned the place.
Through the haze of cigar smoke and Santa swathed pullovers I made my way over to the bar got a large vodka dumped the bin liner under the coat stand and finally made it to the corner where all the lads had gathered to moan about the Q.P.Rs that invaded their space every year.
"Fuck me Nick where you off to with that lot?" was the greeting I got on my arrival
"I'm supposed to be going to the parents for dinner, but I'm not so sure now," I replied hoping for a bit of moral support.
Peter and Cliff said in unison "Yer you are going, drink that," pointing at the large glass of vodka and get going." Now it was quite unusual for those two to be so adamant that I was to leave the pub usually it was the other way round " come on one more no more was the usual cry. But the pair of them knew what this was all about, and they genuinely wanted me to find some resolution to this. We may have appeared quite hard on each other to outsiders, but we all shared the knowledge that underneath we all cared for and looked out for each other. If any of them ever read this, I'll never hear the last of it.
"One more of these" pointing at the glass "and I'll go." I said, " I need some Dutch courage for this."
Pete got the refill and soon enough the second glass was empty.
I picked up the bag from the corner and shook the hands of about twenty strangers and made my way the short distance up the hill to Claremont Crescent
It looked exactly the same, the trees were all still in the same place, none of the houses had moved, god what was I expecting that they'd knocked everything down and rebuilt it in my absence.
I made my way down the road, all the memories of times me and Steve and cliff had sat around that tree and talked rubbish for hours. All the mischief that had gone on. The catapults, the fires, the shoplifting, Steve running around the tree with Cliff in hot pursuit the shiny bullet clasped in his hand. It all flooded back. I reached the front door of number fourteen, it used to be white, and now it was blue. I stood on the step and was again that twelve year old standing there for three hours waiting for the courage to go inside and get my punishment. I took a deep breath and rang the bell. After a second or two a little old lady answered the door.
" Hello mum."