A Place that was Ours: Chapter Three. A Beautiful Game

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Bill Shankly

Bill Shankly, one of the great football managers, once said that some people regarded football as a matter of life or death.  He expressed his deep disappointment with their attitude, adding:   “I can assure you football is much, much more important than that.”

If, like me, you were a kid growing up in our town of Casterley in the nineteen-eighties, you cared a lot about sport.   If you didn’t there were very few places you could put yourself on a weekend without risk of being battered by a ball, whether hard or soft.   You learned quickly if you were good at sports, without having to resort to self-criticism: others told you readily enough.  If you were good you played, if you were bad you watched.

Cricket?  That was the nobs’ game,  played on an immaculately manicured pitch behind their big semi-detached houses on the hill, and Casterley being a northern town, played mostly in the rain.   To join the cricket club, all you had to do was knock on the pavilion door (it was a shed, really, though adorned with some beautifully painted signs) and show interest.  Then they’d look at you to see if you were wearing whites, ask where you lived, and put you to work cleaning kit.

Football was a lot more democratic.  Jack Masters, who was the physical education teacher at our school, also coached Casterley Town Juniors, and he didn’t mind what you wore or where you lived as long as you could play.  There may not have been any match fixtures in summer, but that didn’t stop Jack.   He held his ‘training’ sessions or Five-a-Side games at the Club ground from May to August, when anyone who was interested came along.

Sun or rain, on ground that was iron hard or quagmire soft, I unfailingly turned up for those Saturday afternoons with however much kit I could afford, and Jack would be there.  Tall, broad shouldered,  his black curly hair an unkempt mop, always with a football under his right arm and a crutch under his left elbow, he never smiled.  He got angry, he got tired, he shouted and he cursed, but anyone who loved their football loved Jack.  So, an hour after parting from Sue, that was where Jonna and I could be found.  We joined a score of other lads on the Town’s pitch, all eager to benefit from Jack’s pearls of wisdom.

I confess even in those days I got a little buzz from the experience of walking out between the football ground’s spectator stands.  They were rickety and they were bare of paint, but they were our club’s stands, and just being there was enough to make my chest swell with pride.  Sue’s elder brother Dave and her classroom distraction Jess Abbott had already arrived, along with several others of our friends, John Hargreave excepted.  Jonna commented:  “No stickability, that lad.”  referring to Greavesies’ decIared interest at a few sessions earlier in the year.

I felt that was a little unfair.  “I think he tried.  Jazzer was picking on ‘im, a bit, wasn’t he?”

“Why, that makes ‘im a bit o’ a Jessie, then, don’t it?  Silly bugger should pick back.  All he’d ’ave to do to crush Jazzer is sit on ‘im.  ”

It was true; Jess Abbott always looked underfed to me.  “I see Sarah’s here again.”  I nodded towards the East Stand, where Sarah Coldbatch and a couple of her mates had set up camp.  “Reckon she’s after you, Jonna!”

Jonna shuddered.  “Nah!   Affer you, more like.  Oh, I forgot!  You’re spoken fer, aren’t yer?”

 

Jack had spotted us.  “Where’ve you been?  Get over here, Chas; five-a-side – you’re playing!  John Sutley, you work with Mark Higgins on those short passes, lad; I want to see you keeping your heads up, both of you!  I’ll put you on for the second half, all right?”

As a match it was unremarkable.  I scored three before the sides changed ends, and missed two more.  Jack pulled me off at half-time to give Jonna and Mark Phelps a game.

As he passed me, Jonna nodded towards a tall figure engaged in conversation with Jack.  “He’d be worth robbing.”

I had noticed the man earlier, a portly, middle-aged figure with thin hair and the cleanest, sleekest suede jacket I had ever seen.  He was a stranger, and strangers, coat notwithstanding, always aroused suspicion amongst us lads.  He was also clearly packing a well-stuffed wallet, something he would need to protect if he planned upon leaving Casterley with it still in his possession.

Jack called me over.   “Chas, this is Allen Ranton.”

Ranton grinned at me so broadly his mouth nearly reached his ears.  “Hello, Chas.  You got two good goals today, didn’t you?”

When he spoke he leaned over me (I had a bit of growing still to do) so his face was just inches from my own.  Since I’d scored three times, I wondered which goal he considered to be of less merit.  “There was no-one stopping me.”  I said.

Ranton appeared to consider this for a moment.  “You step into your tackles a bit, don’t you?”

“I know which of us has got the ball.”  I said.

Ranton nodded.  Then he asked: “How old are you?”

I told him I was nearly fifteen.  “Dangerous age, eh?”

And that was it.  He turned to address our coach:  “Well, Jack…”

“Aye.”   Jack seemed ready to resume the conversation I had interrupted, so I turned away.  “Hang on, Chas.   I need to show you what to practice.  Come here.”

Our beautifully upholstered visitor backed off so Jack could set me up for some sprints.   “Here to the corner marker, all right?  Then back to here.  Standing start and as fast as you can.”

I enjoyed running when I was fourteen, not merely for the rush of wind to my face, but for the science I was just beginning to learn:  to reach for each stride, use the spring of my feet, to command legs which were no longer just a windmill of motion below me, but instruments of power.  So I ran.    I was still practising when the call came up for a return Five-a-Side match, mixing up the teams to make things more equal.  Without effect – my team still won.

Only at tea time as Jonna and I were leaving did we notice that Ranton had gone.

“Opportunity missed there, I reckon.”  Jonna commented.  “Us could have boned and rolled him properly, ah’m thinkin’.”

Jonna was fond of inflammatory comments.  “You’ll get yourself in trouble saying things like that, young Sutley!”  I warned him.

Jonna laughed:  “Get us in trouble, aren’t y’sayin’?  D’yer think I’d leave you out o’ it, man?”

I cocked a lip back at him.  “When did he leave?”

“Just a bit after Jack put yer on those sprints, I think.  A bit weird, like.  He watched you down the field a couple o’ times – d’er think he fancied you?”

“Dunno.  I’m pretty, there’s no denying that.”

When I got home there was tea on the table, and Ma and Da’ were pretending they were friends.  After the events of a week that had shaken my world it seemed like the tremors had ceased.  On Sunday I helped Da’ resurrect our kitchen worktop with a new leg, a process which stretched his temper, and expanded my swearword vocabulary.   Us kids, we were resilient enough; it was easy to forget, to pretend we had forgotten, to believe in everything returning to normal.  Normal service is resumed; isn’t that how we say it?  After all, I had only one version of ‘normal’ to draw upon, then.  I had much to learn.

With the turn of the summer, I turned fifteen.  My Da’ gave me another bike for my birthday, which wasn’t exactly new, but it had twelve gears, so I thought it was really special.

“Good bike, that, lad.  Keep it in our shed when yer not usin’ it.  Don’t want t’get it stole.”

I had a bike again!  It was my getaway vehicle, a further means to outwit and outdistance Trevor Bull, who had a score to settle with me ever since I worsted him that afternoon on the Addisons Estate.  What was more, a bike meant freedom.  It was a ticket to faraway places, to the homes of friends whose good fortune was not to be domiciled amidst the maze of Casterley’s squalid streets.   August was a month of distractions, when the open road, with Sue cycling beside me if her parents allowed, first introduced the conflicting loyalties that would dog our teenage years.   Those stamping grounds of our childhood, the riverside haunt beside the old jetty, the playground on Bread Street, the town park, became neglected as our friendships drifted: not apart, not yet, but falling into imperfect orbit.  The unquestioning cohesion of childhood was no more.

Summer became Autumn.   With September the football season began, and the hallowed turf of our home ground, though scarcely worthy of worship, drew its congregation nonetheless.  Every home game, a masochistic gaggle of five hundred or so faithful supporters watched as it was churned to mud beneath a motley assortment of boots.  Rain or shine we came, our hopeful eyes devouring a succession of ritual humiliations, because Casterley Town Football Club was not from the top drawer, but rather from the bargain bucket.  Our centre half was forty-four years old, and nobody knew the goal-keeper’s age, or why he kept turning up.  If he dived to make a save the move was greeted by ironic applause, because he spent the majority of his time watching the ball go past him.

We turned up, and we cheered.  We cursed, threatened, or derided the visiting teams, and we went home in a sort of ritual depression.

“We’ll be going down this year, certain.”

“We’ve got Radley North End next week.  They’ll slaughter us!”

Was it that other Liverpool hero John Toshack who likened a football team to a piano, because it took eight men to carry it and three who could play?  ‘Town’ in my growing years not only lacked piano players, it had nobody strong enough to lift the piano.

Football was surely more vital than life itself to me, then  Jonna and I, we spent long hours watching, discussing, arguing about the ‘beautiful game’.  I would have given much for a father who would stand beside his son on the terraces, but my Da’ didn’t share my enthusiasm.  “Ah’ve no time for it, lad.  No time and no munny.”

Instead, my father was given to following the horses, which rarely had the courtesy to compensate him for his interest.  I knew better than to suggest that Casterley Town’s very reasonable gate prices offered a cheaper Saturday afternoon than those he spent in the Bookmakers.  Our relationship was never that close.

Did I really know him at all?

Throughout the summer he worked away from home, returning only at weekends.  Then, one Friday night in late November his supper stayed on the stove.  I remember that night; I remember my Ma moving like a ghost through the house, tidying, dusting, adjusting; going to the window to gaze out, unfocussed, at the darkness.  I remember the silence.

When Saturday morning was well advanced with still no word of my father, my Ma put on her outdoor coat and set off for the ‘phone box at the top of the street.  She was not gone for long.  I watched her return past our window, her face set in stone.  I met her in the hall as she closed the front door on the outer world, and I saw the tears come.   I had never seen my Ma cry like that, or had to listen to her sobs as she told me my father would never live with us again, and it was a surprise to me – a shock.  Where was he?

“Never you bloody mind!  Listen you!  If he comes back here again, you don’t let him in, you hear?”

“Ma, he’s got a key!”

“I’m changing the bloody locks!  You don’t let that fornicating bloody bastard in here, in my house, wi’ my things…”

Did I lament the loss of a father and a friend?  No, not as I thought I should.  Not immediately.  I blamed him.  He shouldn’t have left us.  He shouldn’t have caused my mother pain; but I was more confused than angry – I didn’t understand why he had chosen the woman in whose house he had stayed on weekdays over us.  We were his family, Ma and me.  It made no sense.

From that sad weekend, the bedrock of family was irrevocably lost to me.  Everything changed.

My mother took a job minding the phones for a local taxi company, which meant I got my own house key. I was to tell nobody she was working, because she was being paid ‘on the knock’ and if ‘Social’ found out she would lose her benefits.  The work kept her late some evenings, so I found myself learning to cook, and taking some share of household chores.  I minded neither of those things, quite enjoying the sense of responsibility they gave me.   And if Christmas that year brought less of the plunder I was accustomed to expect, well, I was prepared to be forgiving in a cause.  The one thing I could not forgive was my inclusion in that most onerous of lists, the recipients of free school meals.

The content of the meals was unchanged.  I was fed neither differently, nor less.  My social status, however, nose-dived.  In those days, ‘benefits’ kids had no cloak of anonymity, and the Monday register lit us up like beacons for the whole class to see.  Those whose parents paid for their meals began to subtly distance themselves – the more worthy and wealthy gave me looks that suggested I might have lice, and even my friends could be caught occasionally pretending they would rather be talking to someone else.  Of all the things I have never forgiven my father for, stiff as the competition was, that was the most heinous.

I was only saved from total ostracism by football.   In January, Jack Masters made it clear he wanted me to play for the school team as a forward, or striker.  The mob of kids who gave me the silent treatment every other day of the week dropped their animosity if I played well in school matches and cheered me instead.  I think I dealt with their duplicity amicably enough, although my last year at school was also the year I lost many of my friends.   The orbit had finally decayed, and a lot of my belief was falling to earth.

My last year?  Yes, I was determined that was how it would be.  I wanted to leave school in the summer of ’86.  If I was good at football I was talentless in most other subjects and realistic enough to know it.

Sue tried to change my mind.  “You could do a sports degree, couldn’t you?  Physical Education?  You’d be excellent!”

But no; I had been poor too long.  I needed work, I needed to have money to spend, and to get out into the world.  More than anything, I had a point or two to prove.  And a tiny fire in my stomach told me my course must be different.  When I said this to Sue she flicked her hair back from her face, smiled sadly, and patted my hand.

“Then all you have to do is find out what that course is, yeah?  Shouldn’t be hard.  Eventually you’ve got to get to a place where you can see everything clearly, though.  You won’t be happy until you do.  That might take longer.”

“A place that’s mine.”

“If you like.”

Sometimes it was difficult to acknowledge that Sue, with all her maturity of wisdom, was actually younger than me, but at the time of this conversation she had passed her fifteenth birthday too.  The grown-up world loomed large for both of us.  For her, it meant study, university and a life given to a career.  For me…?

I was still thinking about Sue’s words on a Sunday in March, when I heard that ‘Spirit of Lübeck’, a four-masted schooner, had docked in Bedeport for fitting out before she joined in the Tall Ships Race later in the year.   Had I some vague idea of joining the crew of one of those impressive vessels?  I don’t know.  Anyway, under rain-laden skies I decided to take my bike and ride down to Bedeport to see her.  It was a journey I would do alone, because Jonna did not possess a bike that could be trusted over distance, and Sue’s parents would forbid her going on such an adventure.

The rain began when I was still some miles from the port, and it got very heavy, very quickly.  In water-saturated sweater and jeans I had no choice but to keep going.  The road that followed the river from Casterley down to the coast was an old one, always busy with heavy traffic which churned the surface water into a mist.  Unthinking, teeth firmly clenched, I kept my rhythm.   The rain became a curtain through which vehicle after vehicle dashed down upon me, headlights blazing.  I did not see the one that hit me:  I just felt the sideways blow.

My eyes opened first.  I spent a few moments wondering why I was looking at a white ceiling.   Then everything fell quite rapidly into place, as I recognised I was in a hospital, and the pain in my side told me why.

“Hello, lad.”  He wore a police uniform.  He was sitting beside my gurney.  “We have to find out who you are…”

A nice man, I thought, a man with an open face, a family man of a nature that would make him a better father than mine.  I couldn’t be in trouble, not from a man like that. Maybe he had rescued me from whatever it was that had brought me there.  I told him who I was.

He mulled my name over to himself:  “Charles, eh, lad?  Chas.”

“What happened?” I asked him; because at that point, I really didn’t know.

The nice man smiled generously.  “You came off your bike, lad.  Got knocked off it, likely.  No lights?”

“Am I bad?”

“Hurt, you mean?  No, no.  You’ll be all right.  A cracked rib or two, most likely.   It was no weather to be riding without lights, Chas.  Where did you get that bike?”

I frowned.  My memory still wasn’t perfect.  “My Da gave it me.”

“Did he now?  Well, we’ll be wanting to talk to your Dad then, Chas.   Because that bike…”  The nice man drew breath, whistling as he sucked the air between pursed lips; “That bike has an identity stamp on it, you see.  It was reported stolen last August.”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Alphabet : R for Roy Orbison (Pretty Paper)

One of Tom Hickey’s great posts, this one about an artist I have always admired and who pop culture dearly misses. I can’t believe I never heard this song until now!

The Immortal Jukebox

London 1963.

Roy Orbison was far from his Texas Home and assailed by a raging fever.

He was in Britain following a successful tour supported by a new Beat Group, The Beatles, who really seemed to be tearing up the place.

They were nice guys.

Every night they stood on the side of the stage to watch Roy – open mouthed as he effortlessly hit operatic notes and held the crowd, frantic when they’d performed, spellbound without moving a muscle.

Though the thermometer showed 102 and rising Roy had a job to do.

His producer and mentor Fred Foster had found a Christmas song from a fellow Texan, Willie Nelson, called, ‘Pretty Paper’ that might just give Roy another big fat hit.

No one could write a better heart tugging song than Willie and damn sure No One, absolutely No One, could sing such a song to rival The Big…

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Just a quick word….

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Populism.

Dictionary definition:  ‘Support for the concerns of ordinary people’.

Simple.

When Time Magazine and the Economist attempt to add a political connotation to this word they are forced into three or more pedantic paragraphs.  All political language suffers that distortion – think of ‘Labour’ or the ‘Party System’; but at the moment ‘populism’ is a special case.  Why?  Politicians are like that; if they sense danger in something they seek to discredit it; to lend it a sinister twist, a savour of the dark side.

Oh, yes; and they tend to use it – a lot.   It is lampooned, denounced, aligned with extremism to the political left or right.  It is a synonym for Nazism, Leninism, Marxism, any ism they can think of that will make it seem abhorrent.  While all it really means is ‘Support for the concerns of ordinary people’.

Isn’t that what politicians are elected to do, support the concerns of ordinary people?  Then why is it they feel somehow divorced from the will of the electorate, as though their success at the hustings (which really only amounts to an ability to sound convincing, enhanced by liberal sprinklings of cash) endows them with a patrician superiority, some sort of moral standing that places them above the electorate?

Although Britain still suffers from delusions of Monarchy, the parliamentary system of government is not feudal.  Whether or not they like it, or are aware of it, the elected representatives of the people are mandated to represent ALL of the people, and they should not disregard the openly expressed views upon which they were elected, not least because those views contain an element so tragically absent from their own thinking; namely common sense.  Instead of making an enemy of populism they should espouse it, and listen to its concerns, then act on those concerns.

Otherwise, they risk the rattle of sabres at their doors, against which a pseudo-intellectual bubble is a poor defence.

 

A Place That Was Ours Chapter Two. The Bridge

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I was staring down into the deep fissure formed by the banks where the town had met the river, long ago.  The water’s knife was blunted now, with neither fervour nor edge to cut its valley deeper, but the once-upon-a-time was easy to imagine…

When coal mines prospered, the river’s shore was called ‘The Fellings’, a vibrant pile of warehouses and small works stacked against the side of the valley, so tightly clustered the streets between were no more than alleys, narrow conduits leading down to the quay.  The river was a proper waterway in those days, a navigation for barges taking coal down to Bedeport, bound for steamers waiting to transport it to Europe and the world.  Days long gone.

The mines closed, one by one.  As trade diminished, so the river was neglected, until, in the early nineteen-sixties, they made a dam twelve miles upstream for a reservoir on Raddon Moor.   That was the end of the navigable water, and the end of industry on ‘The Fellings’.  Gradually those old thrown-together buildings tumbled, their windows boarded, their roofs caved.  The cobbled alleys that had rattled to a cacophony of iron wheel-rims and echoed to carters’ curses, now choked beneath the weight of lorries and cars.  Trains, like the coal, no longer came, so engineers widened an old viaduct that once used to carry the railway high across the valley, and they made it into a road bridge.   It was given a name, I suppose, but we never heard it:  we just called it ‘The Bridge’.

The Bridge was where Sue and I ended up, leaning on the stone parapet, after school that Summer Thursday. Hungry or not (a jam sandwich and a school dinner were all I had eaten in thirty-six hours) I didn’t want to go home.

I told Sue about Ma and our broken kitchen.    She nodded sombrely as I related the diary of my week, staring down at the ruined pile of The Fellings, and the river, so far below us.

“I shouldn’t worry.”  She said.  “She had a bit of a fit I reckon.  My mam throws things at my dad quite a lot.  They have a shout, she chucks a plate or two at him, then they go upstairs.”

“What, you mean like…..?”

Sue glared at me as if I was being deliberately obtuse.  “Yeah; well, they’re married, aren’t they?”

“But my Da’ wasn’t home.”  I pointed out.

“She was on her own?”

“Yes.”

Sue pondered this.   “She’s a manic oppressive, then.”  She diagnosed.  “I still shouldn’t worry.  She can get pills for it.”

“How long are they upstairs for?”

Sue giggled, nudging my ribs.   “Hours, sometimes.”

We parted, Sue to her tea and I to whatever awaited me behind a front door which, in a peculiar kind of way, no longer seemed to be mine.  I remember how long a walk it was that evening, across the town centre by the new road and through Addison’s Estate.   If I had known Trevor Bull would be out by the garages there I might have taken an even longer way.

A football smacked against my head, knocking me sideways.  As my vision cleared, it focussed on Trevor, who was leering at me.  Trevor was large and basic.  He had lips like cohabiting slugs.  “Hey, Spakker!  What’r you doin’ out?”

“Slumming, Trev.  Just slumming.”

“Oh yeah?  Get the ball for us, then.  Yeah?  Did y’hear what I say?  Get the ball for us, Spakker.”

A pair of Trevor’s hangers-on sidled into view from a burned-out garage, guffawing at what must have seemed a major diversion in their lives.  I was never able to attach names to Trevor’s sidekicks because they never went to school.  Trevor himself would visit there occasionally, usually after his da’ had been visited by the school inspectors.

The odds were three-and-a-half to one.  I retrieved the ball.  “Where d’you want it?”

“Don’t get lippy wi’ us, yer little frigger!  You got any money then?  Has mummy gived yer yer sweeties money, yeah?”

I had no cash to boost Trevor’s meagre income, and no inclination to donate if I had; the alternative, though, was to be ‘frisked’ by having my pockets torn off.  A quick calculation was necessary.   “Here.  Here’s your frigging ball!”

I punted the ball on my good foot, my right foot, with all the punch I would have used if a goal was open and Trevor was the goalkeeper.  Like a missile it flashed past his left hand to hit the side wall of one of the garages at his back.  Enough rebound remained to whack against Trevor’s calves, then pinball between his two sidekicks a few times: sufficient to afford a moment of confusion and space for me to sprint away, out of the Addison estate and back into the comparative civilisation of the South Town.  He was big and he was ugly, but I had one advantage over Trevor.  I was quicker – much quicker.  His ringing threats dwindled into distance behind me.  I was pursued for no more than a couple of streets.

Finding the front door of our house unlocked I went through all the rooms in search of Ma’.  There was no sign of her.  A five pound note on the table in the back room was accompanied by a scrap of a note in her scrawl;

‘Get your tea out’

I went to MacDonald’s – they had just opened then – and stuffed myself sick.

Our kitchen remained in wrecked condition for a couple more days, my Mam for about the same length of time.   She did reappear downstairs on Friday morning with a warning to “Say nowt to your Da’; understand?”  I got some tea that night, baked beans with egg, sausage and bacon, so I knew there had to be money in the house.   This fry-up was my favourite food in those days; a sort of apology from Ma’, though I knew the wrong that lurked in the still corners of the house had not been righted – would probably never be righted.    But I kept my side of the bargain by keeping my story from Da’, even agreeing with Ma’s explanation that she had just ‘leaned on the worktop a bit too hard’.

That Saturday the rain relinquished its hold for long enough to allow a morning stroll with Sue in bright sunshine along Rob Bentley Way to The Bridge.  I suppose I was too young to dwell on it at the time but thinking back I can see how changes were happening in my life.  A summer since I would not have dreamed that Sue Crabtree and I would be walking with one another on The Bridge. – Jonna had always been my companion then:  throughout our growing years we were sworn friends; amigos, inseparable.   Girls?  Well, girls were all right, but they had their own world, their own society.   Suddenly, though, the lines were becoming fudged, the divisions not so clear.

Sue in her shorts and a green halter top, me in a white t-shirt and jeans that had seen better days, we stopped to gaze down at the black lizard of river far below.

“It’s that high up, this!  It makes me giddy!”  Sue said.  “How can they do it?  I couldn’t, Chas.  I really couldn’t.”

“Maybe they sort of have to.  Like there’s no other way, or something?”

There was an expression in our town, known to us all.   To go ‘down The Bridge’ spoke of a final solution for some who had ended themselves by climbing over that parapet and leaping to the stony waters far below.  In our town, everyone knew someone who had gone that way.  With time and legend, the numbers had grown.

We walked on.  I was anxious not to stay.   No-one tarried longer than they had to on that bridge unless a memory drove them there, or for other, darker reasons.   Being even a distant cousin to someone who had taken the leap was sufficient to taint your name, and the memory of two unfortunate relatives blighted our family.  The association made us different in a sad, almost morbid way.  We became the earthly ghosts of those departed, the pale faces staring in at the window.

Sue said:  “Didn’t your Aunty May…”

And I cut her off.  “Yeah.  Yeah that’s right.  But I never knew her much.”

A half hour from town we left the footpath to trudge through long grass beside a farmer’s hedge, eyed as we passed by speculative sheep.   A small woodland of oak and beech led us back down to the river.  Here, where the sun could find us, in shelter from the wind, we could sit and talk about weighty things, or not talk about still more weighty things, and the time would melt away.

This was the river above the town, wooded on both sides; skittish from a playful squeeze between obdurate whinstone cliffs.  The water was deep and black and sometimes, when the hills were laden with rain it became a red roaring fury, jostling and barging through rocks which braced themselves grimly against the onslaught.  On such days it was dangerous to cross – you could stand just toe-deep in the current and the pull on your foot could make you slip   Even today, with the flow still bloated after a week of rain, the wisest thing would be to remain on the northern bank: but we were young; we were not wise.   And Sue, so nimble, leapt from stone to stone like the young deer she was.   I could only admire and follow.

“It’s wrong, you know.”   Sue stretched her shoulders.   “They don’t move.”

We had found a patch of shorter grass already drying in fierce sun.  Side by side, we sat staring at the rush of water.

“How d’you mean?”  Sue’s top exposed more of her flesh than I was used to seeing, and I was distracted by a tiny mole on her right shoulder.  “You’re not going to go on about your stick again, are you?”

Years ago, when she first came to this place – long before I knew of its existence – Sue told me she had pushed a stick into the soft ground on the higher riverbank;  just beyond reach of the water.  By standing in a certain place, her back to a certain tree, she could line the stick up with a tree on the other side of the river, her idea being to track any movement of the larger boulders on the river bed.

“They tell us how the river carries stones and rocks downstream.  They’re wrong; it doesn’t.”

“Suppose someone moved your stick?”

Sue shook her head.   “I’d know.  I think the water only moves the smaller stones.  Glaciers have to do the big stuff.”

“That’s no good, then, is it?  We haven’t had a glacier down here in years.”

Without thinking, I had let my fingertips explore Sue’s skin around that mole, intrigued, I suppose, by its slight imperfection.  My absent, soporific expression gave me away.  She flashed me a quirky smile.

“You’re not going to start getting funny, are you?”

I felt my colour rising.  What had I done?  “Funny?  Nah!”

I grasped my hands around my knees, wrapping them almost convulsively to my chest, and stared hard at the river.  And even though I knew when Sue’s hand softly brushed my neck, and I heard her say gently:  “It’s all right, Chas.”  I held myself rigid.

They kept happening!  I didn’t like them, those awkward, clumsy moments; like an afternoon by the old jetty two weeks before when Sue had planted a spontaneous kiss on my cheek, in front of our sniggering friends.

“Careful!  You’ll get him going!”  Sarah Coldbatch had warned.   She didn’t really know what she meant, of course, and neither did I, but she made it sound like kick-starting a motorbike.

“I’d better get back.”  I said, when I dared scramble to my feet.

Sue agreed.  “Yeah.”

“I’m going to football this afternoon.”

“With Jonna?”

“Yeah.”

Few words were exchanged as we walked back to the town.  Yet, if we seemed awkward, tongue-tied, there was nothing broken, or even bruised between us, and I remember Sue’s hand finding mine, and how I clasped it with new-found meaning.  No, we were faster, deeper friends.  We had simply found a new level, one which was confusing to us both.  It was something we had to work out.

As we crossed The Bridge we came upon John Hargreave, elbows resting on the same parapet that had supported us, an hour before.  John’s chin rested on his hands, and his eyes looked empty and remote, intent upon something in the far distance.

“Now then, John!”  I said. Sue joined in with my greeting.

John responded slowly.  “Chas; Susan.”  He did not turn, or acknowledge us in any other way.  Somehow, we knew he did not want our company, and we walked by.

Sue glanced back over her shoulder.  “Is he all right, do you think?”  She was concerned.

“It’s just Greavesie,” I said. “He’s deep, yeah?”  But I worried, nonetheless.

John Hargreave, the quiet, thoughtful one; whose thoughts were never spoken, but kept hidden somewhere inside him until a time of his choosing.  John Hargreave was the clever one in our little group, and we were friends, but always somehow at arms’ length.  No-one I knew had or would get close to John.

I said goodbye to Sue at the corner of Ox Terrace.  We faced each other with the same awkwardness we had felt after that moment at the river bank, filled with an emotion new to us, feeling more than a little frightened.  I thought she would just walk away, was not ready for her quick kiss on my cheek, or the squeeze of my hand.  Then she was gone.  I watched her easy, swinging gait until she was lost to view.

My birthday was still a month away, and it was suddenly important to me.  I could not wait to be fifteen.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

It’s no use calling, Pandora – they won’t come back

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Inappropriate Touching? And who da kid in da Tree?

It was at Sunday School that someone told me either Adam or Eve (I don’t remember which) invented Original Sin, which I eventually understood to mean anything involving two bodies getting within touching distance of one another; especially if a certain kind of touching was involved. Superficially, I took in old, cracked oil paintings of unclothed Eve chastely holding hands with unclothed Adam, or of the chilly pair an olive tree’s width apart, their dignity preserved by gravity-defying fig leaves.  I didn’t really absorb the lessons of those early days, so I did not question them – only later, when things were beginning to happen to my own body, did I pause to wonder why my school lessons in Religious Instruction slipped deftly past the ‘virgin birth’ – ‘Jesus Bar Joseph’? – and wonder why an elderly Jewish carpenter would give his only son a Greek name?  Original Sin.   Ah, yes, of course!

I came late to my sex education, partly because I was shy as a child and did not share in some of my less inhibited friends’ experiments, and partly because my angelic pipes were insufficiently tuneful to place me in the church choir, so I never got to wear one of those convenient cassocks wherewith Father Flannigan demonstrated his personal immunity to Sin.  Weekday school playground was rich in anecdotes of choristers, both boys and girls, who learned to hit the especially high notes with the good Father’s able help, while those with artistic flair illustrated his endeavours on the school toilet walls. I had to make do with hearsay.

This is not to suggest I missed out on that essential ingredient of childhood in any way.  I had my share of experiences with ‘kiddy fiddlers’, from the sad, bent little man in the public toilets to the frustrated, lonely mother of one of my friends in my teenage years.  I will not elaborate too much, other than to say I was exposed to minor encounters in which neither birds nor bees played any poetic part, long before I became ‘of age’; and I gained from those experiences, rather than anything I was taught in a classroom.

In more adult years I would all too briefly brush with actors and actresses, an altogether more sensitized and tactile world of shared art and shared misfortune.  There is a phrase from the conclusion of Arthur Wing Pinero’s play ‘Trelawney of the Wells’ when Rose Trelawney realizes that, as an actor, her lifestyle sets her apart:   she describes her Company as “Splendid gipsies.”  Despite the play’s undeniable vintage, that description remains steadfastly true.   Joining a community of artists, as I was privileged to do, is gaining membership of a society with limitless generosity and untrammelled freedom of expression.  It also possesses an extremely healthy Bush Telegraph impregnated with a wealth of tales.  You could not pass a single beer-sodden Green Room evening without learning who was ‘a bit strange’ and who was not; whom to love, whom to indulge for their eccentricities, and whom to avoid.   The director who was ‘a bit affectionate, but an absolute darling to work with’, or the famous and immensely talented female singer with a very aggressive sexuality:  ‘don’t get caught backstage with her, sweetie’.  (A warning to other females, not males, BTW).

There were no victims in those Green Room discussions.  A fairly balanced distribution of ages and members of both sexes, yes, and true, there was always alcohol and usually an element of fatigue, but if you were seeking an ingénue, you were in the wrong place.  All were professionals, and I would say all knew exactly how far they would be prepared to go to secure a prestigious role.   I recall particularly an aspiring actress’s assessment of a director with whom she was due to audition:  “Darling, the job’s absolutely mine.  I can play him like a fish!”  (which proved to be right).

For myself, I emerged from those days with a palette rich in colour and a wealth of education about human diversity and resilience.   Experience, that which the academically imbued choose to rather patronizingly label ‘The School of Life’, taught me tolerance of others, their personal tragedies, their insecurities, often, and their perpetual alone-ness.  I learned to be at home with their differences, and where there were lines, personal lines, I needed to draw.  My real qualifications for life were gained in that Green Room, or from Father Flannigan’s choir practice, in that bar, or on that street.

I guess my education was no different from those of others, so I wonder at the apparent epidemic of outraged innocence that pervades everything media at this time concerning ‘inappropriate touching’ or minor assault.  We do not arrive at the essential signposts in our lives without having first learned how to read a map.  So ‘the rules have changed’.  No.  ‘Rules’, if we insist upon calling them such, must at least be written down; otherwise they are not rules, they are fashion.  Similarly, offences, if they are to be called such, must be proven.  Otherwise they are hearsay, otherwise they are gossip, otherwise they are anger, or envy, or greed.  If someone’s entire life is to be ruined, their career ended, their achievements set at nought, the very least requirement should be proof.  It should not depend upon an etiquette of constantly-evolving signals that are too easily misunderstood.

The truth?  Most of us, male or female, are touched inappropriately, spoken to suggestively, or affronted clumsily in some way, several times in our lives.  That does not make us victims.  That does not make us lose sleep at nights, throw ourselves into lives of addiction or quake every time a member of the opposite sex comes near us.   If it does, that says more about our own mental stability than anything else and yes, there will be the odd few to whom this will happen.  But most us could – should – simply smile, write it down to experience, and move on.

I used to be an advocate of the world-wide-web.  I gladly espoused its freedoms, joyfully joined in its crusades against corruption and falsehood.  I still do, but my mind is beginning to change.  I see how the distribution of power is beginning to be reversed; how easily those in positions of responsibility can become prey.  In the absence of a moral code, this medium, and its instigator, the gutter press, must exercise restraint or be restrained.   If moral democracy cannot survive, moral dictatorship will take its place.

The corollary to this is, of course, to say that there are a number of genuine cases of assault which are serious in nature, proven and should face a court of law, especially where the offence involves a child.  Whether names should be released before a trial is another issue, but there is a danger that these cases can suffer if a welter of copycat accusations follow each one.

Now, I will conclude with a slightly sideways shift – I ask you to please consider this.

A few years ago the town of Middlesbrough, here in England, was visited by a doctor claiming to have evolved an entirely new way (known as the ‘anal dilation method’ – need I elaborate?) for proving child abuse.   Within a couple of weeks, during which children under scrutiny were hauled about like chickens, two hundred – yes, two hundred – children were adjudged to have been subjected to severe abuse.   Two hundred parents (mostly fathers) were placed under investigation, public hysteria spread and court lists began mounting up, before somebody had the presence of mind to stand back and question this sudden epidemic.  The cases were reviewed and the doctor concerned was ‘moved away’ to a practice where she was not directly involved with children’s backsides.

Shortly afterwards, social services in Scotland tried to prove that an entire Scottish island was a nest of paedophiles.  This was unfounded, too, but not before the island’s people were exposed to the attentions of the media pack.

It does seem to me that quite intelligent people can be subject to zeitgeist in such a way that they lose all sense of proportion; maybe in a hunt for publicity, or reward?  I don’t know.  But that might be food for educators who are ever more intent upon narrowing and focusing the business of learning.  Maybe the fetters of specialisation are not a good thing.  Maybe we should distance ourselves from rampant progress and just take our time.

 

 

 

 

A Place That Was Ours

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“History,”  Jonna once said to me,  “Is all about Christmases.”   

I might have raised an eyebrow at that, but he insisted.  “Think back on it, Chas.  Like, nineteen-eighty-one:  what do you remember about that year?””

“I got a bike.”

“Aye, and when did you get it?”

“Christmas.”

“There y’are then!”  Said Jonna, his case proven.

“I’ll tell you about hist’ry.  Nineteen eighty-three was the goal I scored against St. Luke’s!  That’s hist’ry!”

“Aye, but what got you started with the football?”

I had to admit it.  “I got a ball for Christmas.”

“See?   Last year was the exams, but no-one wants to remember them!   The computer under the tree on Christmas morning – that’s what they want to remember.   History!”

“You getting a computer this year then?”

“Aye, likely.”

It was lunchtime, so we slid down from the wall at the corner of Ox Terrace, plodding homeward up the grey street which wound like a discarded snake-skin through the houses on the hill.    Perhaps I might have raised objections to Jonna’s simplistic reasoning, but I was only thirteen, and I was hungry.   He had a point.   There were many reasons to remember Christmases in our family; many more than that pine needle quilted pile of presents beneath the tree on the day itself.

The lines for battle would be drawn long before November’s foggy end.   It would be at the breakfast bar when I might first burble something over my bowl of Coco-Pops, like:    “Can I have an Amstrad for Christmas, Ma?”   Although I raised the subject as a request it was not a question.

My mother’s face would darken, and had I paid more attention I would have seen the slight droop of her shoulders, the way she had of becoming smaller as each blow struck.  She was smaller with the years – there had been a lot of blows.  “I dunno, Chas, they’re too expensive for us, pet.”

Five or six years earlier I might have thrown a sullen fit, or bashed my cereal into volcanic eruption with my spoon;  nowadays I was  a lot more subtle:    “Jonna’s Ma’s getting him one.   He says they’re really cheap down Argos.”

Of course I knew how envious my mother was of Jonna Sutley’s family.

“Well, I’ll have a look.”

“I need a new bike an’ all.  Mine’s too small now.”

That was the beginning of a process as irreversible as Advent.   Over the weeks that followed, always at breakfast, I would open another small door:  the Manchester United shirt, the puzzle game, fishing rod, Tonka truck.

“Jonna’s Ma’s getting him one.”

The list grew; my mother shrank; and though I knew the pain I was causing I could never desist.    My Da’  only learned about it in the evening, after each new demand had a day to settle.   If I thought he was going to shout I’d be well away, playing with Jonna down the recreation, or over at the halls with Sue and the girls. I’d hear them shout at night, though, he and Ma, and I’d hear Ma crying sometimes.

On Christmas morning that heap of gaily wrapped boxes harboured more guilt and despair than anything in Isaiah’s most desperate moments.

“Aye, give him his presents.”  There would be a bitter edge in Da’s voice, even though he’d started on the beer an hour earlier.

I opened each gift with savagery, and the only element of surprise was in guessing which demand each packet would satisfy, and the overwhelming disappointment at those which remained unmet.

“The bike’ll have to wait another year, son.  We can’t afford it, we really can’t.”

“What’s a lad need a bloody computer for, anyways?”

No thanks, no shining faces; by Christmas dinner our sitting room was Hiroshima after the bomb:   by five o’clock all but maybe one or two of the gifts would be forgotten.  Amid the snores of evening I would plot my appearance on the street the next day.  Which of these should I take out with me – which could I claim proudly:  what presents had the others, Jonna and the lads, been given that would outmatch mine?

The gifts of Christmas were good for a week – the boxes they came in often hung around the place much longer.   It took three days for me to get Da’ to set up the computer, and I played with it almost obsessively for five.  Ten days into the New Year a brand new bike stood waiting in the back shed when I got home from my football.  Ma was watching from the kitchen when I discovered it, so she heard my crow of delight.  Nor did she miss the crisp punch at the air – my expression of victory.

“I borrowed off the Provvy.”  She said.  She was wringing her hands together in a way I had not seen before.  Did I thank her?  I don’t remember.

That was the way the fire curtain dropped on Christmas nineteen eighty five.   The repercussions would last all year.

Da’ lost his car in the spring.   A repo. van came for it when he was down the Waggoner’s.    It wasn’t a very good car, Da’ said; which was right, because it was always breaking down, but I saw his face when Ma told him it had gone.  From then on he had to start for work even earlier in the morning, getting a lift from Jamie Hicks down the South Side.

It was the beginning of my fourteenth year, a year when meanings began to change for me and new emotions needed explanation.   As Spring sun bathed our grey slate roofs I found myself more frequently in the company of Dave Crabtree and the girls, and especially deepening my friendship with Sue Crabtree.   Just as Dave was a little older than me, his sister was a little younger, a sprightly girl whose raven curls bounced across her pale face as she ran, so that she was forever brushing them back:  the hand movement was habitual:  once when we were talking I sat in front of her, mimicking each pass and she stared at me for a full minute before she understood.    One afternoon, sitting by the river, she asked me:

“Do you want to be my boyfriend, then?”

“Nah, no time for that!”  I said it dismissively, but it still didn’t come out right.  Sue was not deceived.

Words like ‘boyfriend’ and ‘lover’ had been common parlance between us for years – they were without interpretation – just things we said because they existed everywhere in the world around us; we had no idea of their significance.  Now the curtains were drawing back.   Sarah Coldbatch, a stubby, hearty girl of my own age, always wore dresses of gingham.  She possessed knickers in as many colours as my socks, and since her speciality was handstands we knew Sarah’s knickers almost as familiarly as I knew my own socks, and  it never worried any of us.  Then one day the handstands stopped.   Suddenly, for no apparent reason I could see, even a brief revelation of those gaily coloured undergarments would bring a flush of embarrassment to Sarah’s apple cheeks.

“You can stop starin’, John Hargreave!”

Jonna, not to be outfaced, would counter with:  “I would if you’d stop  flashin’ em at me.  Same pair as last week, I see.”

We spent a lot of time by the river that year.  There was a place that was ours, down the wooden steps behind the Rugby Club – a wide, stony stretch of placid water that rattled with shiny black pebbles and accompanied our games and songs and conversations with an orchestral murmur to rival any piped music.   Here was a bend in the river, where it gently nosed its way around Burdlehope Hill, beneath the old brewery walls which still clung to the slope, though roof and windows were long gone; and once, before they dammed them up in the hills, the waters here would have been much deeper.  A concrete jetty, chewed by neglectful years, pointed out across the stream, in memory of times when boats would navigate all the way from the sea.    It stood eight feet above stony scree:  the shoreline did not even reach it anymore.

Beyond the jetty a patch of level grass rich with buttercups was wide enough for play, hidden enough to pretend secrecy.   There, upon a sunny afternoon in May, Sue and I shared our first kiss.   It was an inelegant affair, a mixture of nervous peck and film star tonsillectomy that brought none of the thrilling sensations my television-based sexual education promised.

“Do you want to kiss me, then?”  Sue had stumbled as we clambered down from the jetty.  I had caught her and our faces were suddenly inches apart.   I was taken completely by surprise; such a thing had never occurred to me – but I was a man, wasn’t I?  So I tried.   I snapped turtle-like at her lips:  they were cold and thin – our teeth banged together.  She grabbed my head and moved her mouth around mine, convulsively grinding until my own lips felt as though they had been minced.   I prayed for it to end.   At last she stepped back.

“You’re not a very good kisser, are you Chas?”

For the rest of the afternoon she and her companions kept catching me with covert glances, giggling conspiratorially as though I had something stuck on the end of my nose.    I was far too naïve to understand the rules of the game:  I was plunged into fathomless humiliation, a perpetual blush which stayed with me through all the hours to sunset.  By the time the others had begun to drift homewards I had resolved to restore my tattered reputation, and when Sue made to leave I grabbed her wrist:

“Stay a bit?”

I had expected Sarah Coldbatch’s disparaging laugh; been afraid Sue would do the same:  she didn’t.

“Alright then, Chas.”

We sat watching for fish in the water, catching the subliminal rubies of red sunset in the ripples.  We talked; about what I don’t know, now, but I know they were adult things:  how I worried for my Ma now Da’ was away at work all the time, and how Sue wanted to move to another desk at school, because Jess Abbott was a distraction.  She wanted to work, she said, so when she left school she could go to university and become a nurse, or a teacher – she couldn’t decide which.  There were other things, but, as I say, I can’t remember what they were.

Nor can I remember exactly when I put my arm around her shoulders, or when I drew her to me.  But her lips were warm, their touch soft.  I know we got it right that time, both of us, obeying rules neither of us understood.  We were learning though.  From then on, everything was changed.

It would have been the end of June:  rain had been falling for days; cold rain that got under my collar so that I ran home from school to be away from it – rain that kept me in my room after tea, wiling away the hours with comic books or my Amstrad.   It was a Wednesday.

The front door was open, yawning an invitation to the street.  Seeing this from several doors away, I thought I would find Ma and Mrs. Potter or someone inside out of the weather, wrapped in one of those conversations neighbours seem to have about nothing in particular; but the house was silent.

I took off my shoes as I always did, adding them to the scruffy little pile of footwear behind the door.   Then – I don’t know why because I was never this careful – I closed the street door behind me.  The doormat was soaking wet.    Maybe something – some quiet voice – was reminding me that this was my home and it was precious to me:  that same quiet voice told me something was different, something was wrong.

I went through to the kitchen.   We had blue plastic worktops in there that Da’ had bought from the Auctioneers one week when he was flush.  I helped him put them in:  I held his tools, I even drove in some of the screws, turning them so hard my hands were red raw and my fingers hurt for days afterwards.  Looking back, those tops were crudely assembled and probably not very strong, but at the time I was proud of them:  I had helped to make them – they were partly my own work.  So seeing how one of them had collapsed, breaking the spindly leg supporting it and tipping the toaster, a pot of the raspberry jam I liked and the last of a loaf of bread onto the lino floor affected me more profoundly than it should.  There were other things scattered about, too.  A saucepan from the stove by the door to the back yard, my Da’s weekend jacket ripped from its peg with a big tear in the sleeve, some recipes Ma had cut from her magazines in a heap at the end of the surviving worktop.

“Ma?”  I called out.  I was seriously worried now and half-way to tears.   “Ma?”

My Da’ should have been there then.  He should have led the way up the stairs to search each room and make things right.  But he worked away these days – he wouldn’t return until Friday night, or sometimes even Saturday.  There was only me:  I had to climb those narrow twilight stairs one by one, listening to my own breath as it followed me.   I wanted to go straight to my room; to hide there, to wait for whatever was baleful and angry in this cold place to leave; but I could not.  At the head of the stairs I turned the knob on the big bedroom door.

“Mam?”

She was lying on the bed.  At first I could barely recognise her because I was seeing another person in my mother’s body and her head was turned away from me towards the window.   I had seen her in a slip before, though never this slip:  never this lilac thing with purple lace.  Bras and knickers were not new to me either, they were the stuff of sniggers when she came down half-dressed to make breakfast, sometimes inadvertently letting the coat she wore as a dressing gown peep open to reveal the forbidden things beneath.  But they were never carelessly uncovered; never displayed  as openly to my sight as these.    She lay very still.

“Mam, wake up, please?”

For an age she didn’t move.  Then, so, so slowly my mother turned her head to me. A clown face of thick make-up and cheap mascara smeared by weeping said, in a stranger’s voice:

“What do you want?”

When I could find no words to answer her she repeated it in a shout:  “What do you want?”

Closing the door on her, I went to my bedroom and sat on my bed, staring at my wall with the picture of Mick Jagger on it, as if he might provide a solution.  I stared for an hour before I heard the light switch on the landing and her footsteps on the stair.  I cringed inside as her feet approached my door, shrank back as the latch turned.  And there she was, standing in front of me with a different, alien smell about her; her open dressing gown exposing that lilac slip, and a plate in her hand.

“Your bike’s gone.  I sold it. You’ll have to have this.  There’s no tea.”

She closed the door.  A moment after, I heard the door of her own room close.

I ate the bread and jam she had slapped together in a sandwich for me, carefully picking off the bits of dirt from the kitchen floor.   A shard of glass in the jam cut my gum.   It hurt for days.

This piece feels as if it should be the start of a book.  Maybe I’ll work on more episodes to feed into the blog, if anyone wants them.  It’s an idea to explore, anyway.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

La La La La La….

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I finally got to watch ‘La La Land’ (courtesy of Netflix) last night.

No, I have no ambitions to be a film critic, and no, I do not normally write this type of comment, do I?  So why, this time?

Two reasons.  The first concerns my personal balloon, and the puncturing thereof; the second, a strange reluctance to dispose of the deflated remains.  I am normally a tidy person, so hanging onto a useless balloon is very odd.

I am a romantic:  I favour boy-meets-girl comedies over action movies.  Little Tom Cruise cavorting with women twice his size and swinging from long bits of rope bores me.  I have space in my imagination for the wizardry of ‘Industrial Light and Magic’, less patience with a power-mad pyrotechnics team and cars that explode for no apparent reason.   Musicals?  I was raised on them.  My early diet comprised lengthy thirty-years-old doses of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire and…Fred Astaire.  I even enjoyed the work of Gene Kelly, despite a truck driver look to his dancing which made him extremely hazardous to small insects.

‘La La Land’, I was told, was a determined effort to resurrect the golden age of the musical; so I should have loved it.   Having successfully carried my enjoyment of the musical – ‘Cabaret’, ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘The Glums’ (sorry, ‘Les Miserables’) into adulthood, I should have celebrated a lavishly presented American return to the genre, and yet…

Was it the plot?   That piquant homage to predecessors like ‘Once’ or ‘Parapluies De Cherbourg’ is notoriously difficult to replicate musically and impossible to disguise once it starts to roll out; so anyone could guess the ending after the first reel.   Was it the production – that famous and lavish flyover scene in which I spent less time watching the dancing and more harbouring an evil hope that someone might actually jump the wrong way and fall off?  Or was it the lack of a memorable theme that sticks in my mind and makes me hum it for days, weeks, even years afterwards?   A theme like ‘Falling Slowly’, ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’, or ‘I Will Wait For You’?

I was left disappointingly dry-eyed at the end of the movie, wondering if it would have been better filmed in monochrome, or maybe divorced from its obsession with car parks.  I couldn’t empathise with the characters, or the fog that surrounded them – Ryan who did not look remotely like a ‘Sebastian’, or advocate such passion for Jazz as might have made me feel betrayed when he underwent his conversion.

Anyway, I know I’m a year after the event, that everybody who could possibly want to has seen the film, but that is where I strike up against my second reason:  exactly why I have chosen to make ‘La La Land’ my subject here.   You see, I am wondering what it is that is preventing me from trashing that punctured balloon?   Why can’t I walk away from it, and what strange compulsion makes me want to watch the blessed thing again?    Why am I confident I will remember it six months from now, when I cannot even recollect the music?

And I wonder – am I the only one with this odd malady?

Home Life

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It’s here again.   Morning darkness engaged in battle with a weakening sun and winning, little by little; the sycamore branch that scratches at my window in the gale, peevishly demanding the return of its clothes.  A dog with ears pinned back against the roar, a helpless waste bin, lid flapping in panic, bowling by.  I’ve missed it, the winter, but in ways somewhat different this year.  Why?  What has changed?

“Is she here?”   A querulous voice – somewhere above my head, in the general direction of the curtains.

Photo by Alex Keda on Unsplash

I say:  “No.  She won’t be up for an hour yet.”

“Ah.”  My focus is drawn to a tiny leg emerging from amongst the drapes, and the rest of the spider follows, eye-stalks anxiously twitching hither and thither as if she mistrusts my reassurance.  All seems clear – as indeed it is – but she is wary, and pauses.  “You don’t know.  You don’t know what she can be like.”

“My wife?  I thought I knew her pretty well.”   After all, it’s been much more than thirty years since we shared our first spider together.

“It was the vacuum, last week.   Nine of us, she took.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“She brings it out specially.  They’re still in the dust bag.  They don’t die, you know.  Go to the downstairs cupboard – you can hear them crying for help.  Cruel, that is.  Cruel.”

“I’m sorry, I’ll empty the bag later.  Anyway, you’re in the clear now.  Where are you going, exactly?”

“The skirting.  The one next to the kitchen.  Good house in there.  Warm.”   The spider suddenly makes a sprint down the curtain to the edge of my desk, stops.  “Still clear?”

“Yes.”

“Much obliged!”  She races across my desktop, disappearing over the end within a scarce breath, to reappear on the woollen carpeted floor.  “You haven’t seen my husband, have you?  I know I left him somewhere, but I can’t think…”

“Didn’t you have an argument?”

“Did we?”

“You see, I think you may have eaten him.”

“Eaten him?  Are you sure?  That was awfully careless of me.  You’ve still got the carpet.  Have you thought of replacing it, maybe with some wooden flooring, or something?  Wading through all this wool is just exhausting!”

“We like the carpet.”

“Well I don’t.  My feet get caught all the time.  Dreadful.”

“Why don’t you run round the skirting?”

She pauses, number two leg poised in a moment of indecision.

“Good idea!”   Two rapid sprints ensue, the first across my cloying turf of carpet, the next along the skirting rim to a crack in the corner, a gap almost too small to imagine.  She is gone.

The silence that follows is not silent, but punctuated by the background buffeting of the wind; a rhythm of gusts like waves on a beach; four gentle, one fierce.  I settle back in my chair to contemplate my arachnid encounter, and the sea washes over me, nudging me gently up the beach into the warm sand of sleep.

“Did I hear a spider?”  A voice, dark, deep and rasping, jerks me awake.    A nervous glance around the room yields nothing.  “I said – look, it was a perfectly civil question, wannit- was that a spider?”

Why do I suddenly feel so defensive.  “Who wants to know?”

“Never mind who wants to know.  Answer the question.  Was that a…”

“Yes!”  I snap back at the voice.  “You want to eat her, don’t you?”

This provokes an evil chuckle.  “Not partic’lar, really.  Not exactly haute cuisine, if you take my meaning.  A bit dry, usually.”

“Well, she’s gone now.  You’ve missed her.  Anyway, if you don’t want to eat her, what do you want with her?”

“Oh, I’ll eat her, all right.  I eat anything.”

“Okay.  If I see her again, I’ll be sure to warn ..tell her you were looking for her.  Who shall I say?”

“Tell her Benjamin.  Benjamin wanted to see her.”

From the first to the last of this conversation, Benjamin has been invisible, and though I scrutinize every inch of my room, he remains so.  Perhaps I hear, above the wind, the faintest scratching from somewhere far below.  Otherwise, nothing.

Henceforth, sleep will evade me. Reluctantly I concede to wakefulness and set about the business of morning, so I rise from my chair, and remembering my obligation to the spider, negotiate landing and stairs to the narrow little cupboard where the vacuum cleaner is stored.  I pause, listening, by the opened cupboard door.  Why?  Do I really expect to hear those plaintive cries?  Is there some sound, however small, that makes me doubt?  Whatever my excuse, I elect to take the vacuum cleaner dust bag straight to an outdoor bin, so I extricate the machine from amidst a forest of brushes and mops.  It is a clamorous business and it causes offence.

Do you mind?”   The demand is high-pitched but strident. “I said, DO YOU MIND?”

Another disembodied voice, this time from the recesses at the back of the cupboard.  “What?”  I respond, irritably.  “What’s your problem?”  I am blinking owlishly into the darkness.

“Problem?  Oh, problem!    No, no problem!  No problem I just got the kids down, and you come stamping in here throwing everything around.  As if I haven’t got enough to do, finding more paper, gathering flour from under that stupid bread-making thing of yours.  Why do you do that to wheat, anyway?  It tastes much better on the husk.”

“Wait a minute!  More paper?  Just what are you doing back there?  Who are you?”  (And why am I whispering?)

An old carpet sweeper that stands at attention behind the gas meter quivers slightly as a minute creature appears from behind it, and having appeared, sits up on its hinder legs, whiskers a-quiver.

“Goodness, you know us, dear, don’t you?  Grandfather brought my mother and me to stay with you last November.  We always come here for our winter holidays.”

“You’re a blessed wood mouse!”

“There is no need to get personal!”

Oh, yes there is!  You’re here again!  It’s the same every autumn.  You spend summer in the dry stone wall at the bottom of the vegetable garden, don’t you?  I’ve seen you there.  Then as soon as the weather gets cold you come in the house, thousands of you!”

The wood mouse (for so she is) shifts herself uncomfortably.  “Not exactly thousands, dear.”

“Well, hundreds, then.”

“We are quite a large family, it’s true.”

“Yes, and a very intrusive one.  I don’t know how many of you died under the bathroom floor last Christmas, but the stench of rotting mouse stayed with us for months!”

“If you are referring to dear departed Uncle Vernon…”

“That’s the fella!”

“And poor Grandma Maisie…”

“Stank the place out!”

“That’s an unkind way to speak of the dead.  It’s quite upsetting!”  The woodmouse wipes her whiskers sorrowfully.  “Uncle Vernon, tragically he got himself stuck under one of your hot pipes.  It was awful!  Don’t think me ungrateful, because we so enjoy your gifts of pierced cheese, but pushing those big wooden sleds is so difficult; it got too close to your central heating armature?  Uncle couldn’t remove your gift from the spike, you see?  He was pinned there.”

I catch up.  “Pierced cheese?  On a spike?  I’m not feeding you, you disgusting little creature; I’m exterminating you – or trying to.  I wondered what happened to those traps!”

Sniffling, the wood mouse musters as much offended dignity as she can fit into her pin-points of eyes.  “Well, once more I must rebuke you.  Anyone would think we were house mice.   We are country creatures, with sensibilities, you know.  I won’t hold it against you, though, dear.  I am aware I am a guest here.”

So unexpectedly I almost jump out of my skin, Benjamin’s scraping tones grind out from the darkness.  “Traps, eh!  You’re a trapper!  You’re a trapper, mate.  Thanks for the warning, yeah?   Thanks for the warning.  Oh, and Mildred…”  He seems to be addressing the mouse…”I’ll be seeing you, sweetheart, won’t I?  Dunno why I bovver, you’re not worth two bites, are yer?”

“That’s Benjamin.” The mouse informs me, helpfully.  “Don’t take any notice of him, dear.  He soon goes away.”

“What is he?  Come to think of it, where is he?  I can never make out quite where he comes from.”

“Benjy?  He’s a rat.  He’s outside, by those dreadful plasticky waste containers?   That’s how Grandma Maisie became ill; she got her teeth gummed up trying to chew through one of those.”

“She should have stuck to acorns.”  I say unsympathetically. “Benjy doesn’t sound like he’s outside…”

This remark delights Mildred, who hops from foot to foot in a passable imitation of a Cha-Cha-Cha.    “Yes, oh, yes!  He’s found a way of speaking through the drains, so it sounds as if he’s absolutely everywhere.  Simply terrif!    But don’t worry, dear, he can’t get in:  he’s too fat.  We come in through the kitchen airbrick, you see.  Benjy can’t squeeze through there.  So he has to talk to us from outside.  I think he must get terribly cold, sometimes.”

“He probably works out by chewing through our bin,”  I suggest sardonically.  “He’s quite scary, isn’t he?”

“Benjy?  He likes to show off his muscles a bit, but he’s an old softie.  His wife’s quite nice, actually.  I met her at a church social…”

Thoroughly bemused, I take the vacuum cleaner out into the light, and with a parting word or two after the fashion of ‘I must get on’ I close the cupboard door.  The dust bag’s contents, stirred and shaken by a mischievous gust of wind, I mostly empty into a waste bin in the yard, leaving me to wonder how the tiny migrants it contained will manage in their new lives, or if, now liberated, they will simply return to vex my wife a second time.   I watch anxiously for a quick shadow that might be Benjamin’s, but he doesn’t show himself.  Out of respect for Mildred’s unseen sleeping ‘kids’ I leave the cleaner out on the kitchen floor.  I rather hope my wife will return it to the cupboard later, on my behalf.

In the meantime, I need to return to my work.  I need to open drapes, raise blinds.  I need to let in the gathering day.  Instead I stand for minutes of time, aimless; searching for something.  And though I do not rightly know what it is I seek, it nevertheless comes to me.   Miniscule movements, barely audible, high-pitched sounds, furtive scraping, gentle stirrings of the air.   All around me is life – in the reveal behind one of the kitchen worktops three silverfish are engaged in earnest conversation, below them in the damp invisible zones woodlice work, solemnly chomping at the detritus of our lives.

Across the floor a devil’s coachman scurries, tail half-raised and fearful of exposure, dashing for safety and the dark.  Against the window pane a small unglamorous fly is clawing pointlessly, weeping for its freedom.  Although the room is still, there is everything within it moving, a constant wheel of existence, a changing of generations, a cycle of light and darkness.

It is hard to leave, but leave it I must.  On the stairs a portly black beetle struggles, pausing to salute me as I pass.  In my room I feel the carpet dragging at my feet, taking my thoughts back to my widowed spider, cosy in her skirting board home.  Soon a host of her children will tread the path their mother trod before them, and the wheel will have turned again.  I know I have a duty to lay the floor to boards, if only for their sake.

At last it has been revealed to me, the difference of the year – what is odd, what is changed.  I understand, at last, what I am.  I see my place in all the life around me, my function in this small universe and the sum of all my gifts.   Here I am no greater or higher than any of these little ones, but in fellowship with them.  They are my company on my journey into dust.   My last gift to them shall be – myself.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

Torn down by the Mob

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For those so far uninformed, I have this footnote to add to my post of two days ago. ‘The Public are Cautioned not to Feed the Sharks by Hand’.

Welsh Labour Minister Carl Sargeant, who was suspended last week for ‘personal conduct’ (the exact nature of which was never disclosed to him) has been found dead.

I wonder which part, which limb, or which fragment of someone’s sacred dignity he allegedly so offended that it carried the penalty of death without trial?   I wonder who, at the hub of this vicious, unfeeling, mindless rumour mill might have a little trouble in sleeping tonight?

I find myself helpless in fury, because no matter what the circumstances of his demise may be, there can be no doubt the heartless way he was treated must have played a major part.

My respects and condolences to Mr. Sargeant’s family.  May they find peace.

The Public are cautioned not to feed the Sharks by Hand

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Scandals pepper our history.  Those in public life daily run a gauntlet of falsely conceived accusations of impropriety, as well as some genuine ones.   The media, or hitherto the gutter press, has feasted eagerly on the carcasses of the luckless and the guilty, while those most adroit in the art of escapology survive.

Bad news, people.  We are all ‘The Media’ now.  Escapology is a science of the past.

A couple of centuries ago, the old lady who made the blacksmith ill by concocting the wrong herbal remedy would once have been able to start afresh in another village;  now she faces a lynch mob of millions.

There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.  The internet has given the vultures wings, and no crevasse, no shield of politics or faith can hide you from the rip and tear of their beaks.

Lynch mob?   Witch hunters?  Whatever soubriquet you give to those who get ghoulish pleasure from seeing their quarry squirm, they are very much among us.  And the severity of the crime or the reliability of the evidence is of no concern to them, when it is set against the warped satisfaction of bringing their victim to ruin, without ever really questioning either the morality or the dire consequences of what they do.

I think the trouble started when it was deemed appropriate to include certain offences under the law that do not need corroboration.  I am not saying this is wrong, although it is a very difficult area and one which should be applied with extreme care.  The problem, though, is compounded by the inadequacy of the law in dealing with libel, still less with slander.  Accusations that fall within that category, the more lurid the better, can be offered up to the hanging jury of Facebook without fear of redress.  Are you a journalist in search of your Big Story? Have you an old score to settle?  Do you personally dislike someone in the public eye, or are you simply hoping to make some money?  Then start a rumour, begin the daisy chain of innuendo that will bring the object of your jealousy down.

I have always been uneasy with this situation because there is no proportionality.  By aligning a minor transgression, a naïve or foolish misunderstanding with a real crime, some angry or lascivious act which inspires real fear or creates a scar, we demean those who are true victims – even discourage them from coming forward, because genuine people are naturally shy of administering such blatant excoriation.  It is an erosion of free speech, and it is a breakdown in the rule of law.

This week a senior politician resigned from his position as Minister of Defence because he had to admit to patting a journalist’s knee ten years ago.  To the tuneless thunder of other journalists’ feet as they jumped on the bandwagon, allusions to ‘other offences’ have been made, though lacking proof.  Notwithstanding my personal view that any accusation made by a journalist should be discounted, or at least subjected to very close examination, there can be no doubt the man has shown fallibility.  He has been, at the least, clumsy.  But where once there might have been an acceptance that the ‘rules’ have changed in the last decade or so, an apology made and admonition given (even the journalist herself commented that she did not feel threatened and she thought the resignation ‘absurd’), that will no longer satisfy the ravening horde.  Now it must be ostracism and ruin for a very talented man in fields where sexual ineptitude are irrelevant, and who might have had much to contribute.   And now, of course, the pack is loose.

Any politician in the UK Parliament now has to walk in fear, lest a friendly pat or a playful remark made a generation since is brought from its closet and shaken out in the light of this burgeoning set of new ‘rules’ which the feminist movement is writing down as fast as it can think them up.  Many are being accused who haven’t transgressed but that doesn’t matter.  This thinly clothed hatred of the male sex is glaring out from under every stone and it does not care who it hurts, or how.  Our political balance is at a very crucial point.   When this kind of hysteria infects the slow-witted and the fast-persuaded it can have consequences that are extreme.

Meanwhile, the BBC played host on national television this week to a senior female politician from Her Majesty’s Opposition – a party aggressively seeking power – who told a very insensitive anti-Semitic joke.

I have always admired the Jewish community’s sense of humour, especially when they happily direct jokes against themselves; but I do not think any Jewish person I have known would have enjoyed this particular example (and no, I won’t repeat it, although ‘Harriet Harman’ on YouTube will produce what you need, if you must witness it).  Yet there has been no further coverage of the incident on the BBC or, as far as I know, any other channel, despite concerns over the growth of anti-Semitism on the ‘Left’ of Ms. Harman’s political party.  Ample grounds, certainly, to fuel another witch hunt if you have the taste for it – strangely though, no-one has.

So, where are we?   Has the state of the world so altered that a few injudicious sexist remarks or examples of the latest regime of ‘inappropriate touching’ can bring down a government, altering the future for us all, and promoting to power a zealous party of neo-Marxists with an unhealthy hotbed of racism seething beneath?  Is that really where we are?

Look, there are genuine cases – of course there are.  I have been lied about – we all of us experience that from time to time.  I have also been assaulted, compromised, victimised, and so on.  But I am not scarred, not by any of these things.  My scars have more to do with the viciousness of the mob, and its constant attacks on my freedom.  I was once proud of my nation.  Now?  I’m not so sure.

I am beginning to wonder; if I were young and unattached again, how would I set about forging a relationship with the opposite sex?

The answer is, I think, only in the presence of witnesses.