The Miracle Worker
By Roy Stannard
We often wonder what we would do if we met an angel – what if that angel were us?
‘Oh heavens, how I long for just a little ordinary enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm, that’s all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out hallelujah! Hallelujah! I’m alive!
Jimmy Porter – in ‘Look Back in Anger’ by John Osborne May 1956.
‘For a few days, true Englishmen were able to look the whole world in the face. Is this the last time that true Englishmen will have that privilege, my Lords?’
Lord Gilbey – on Suez, in ‘Corridors of Power’ by C.P. Snow.
Agnes Day lay on an unforgiving maternity bed looking at the North Star which seemed close enough to touch outside the ward window. For a moment it gleamed a little brighter and then settled back into the hazy firmament above.
The act of birth was shielded from her by a large funnel-shaped birthing canopy that pointed to a place deep inside her.
Instead of the reassuring fixtures of home the birth was taking place in hospital. The emerging scrap of humanity had grown tired of its domicile and was struggling to get into the world early.
The Midwife, with sleeves rolled up, brandished the baby for a second and then wrapped it tightly in swaddling and moved across the antiseptic room to make the child’s first bonding experience a strangely wet one.
A staff nurse, her nursing bonnet flapping, concentrated on delivering the afterbirth, helping it into a bedpan and scurrying away with it as if it were faecal not foetal.
“It’s a boy,” the Midwife announced with a grim satisfaction.
“Hallelujah,” breathed Agnes and collapsed into sleep.
The baby’s head was observed at 2.43am, Sunday November 4th 1956.
Exactly a month premature.
Hands grasped its fragile skull and assisted its downward momentum, causing its head to have a pear-shaped appearance for the first few hours of life.
The Midwife, who was ready to explain this phenomenon, noted with a ‘tut-tut’ that mother was asleep, unreceptive to reassuring words about the absolute normality of the baby’s misshapen features.
“Clean up, Nurse. I’ll go and inform Father.”
Rochford Hospital, the scene of this unremarkable drama, was, and still is, a functional repository of births, deaths and most afflictions in between.
Built in the late Victorian era when the tiny Essex town of Rochford still eclipsed its meretricious neighbour, Southend-on-Sea, its drab design clearly stated its founders’ belief that there was nothing frivolous about the business of remedying the ailments of the working classes. Its bleak walls, uniform corridors and rectangular order shouted paternalism.
Ironic, then, that a tiny part of the expanding south-east Essex birthrate of the increasingly affluent fifties was being realised in the emergency wing of this institution.
In the small hours of Sunday morning, 4th November 1956, however, a population boom was not very much in evidence. Rochford Hospital’s belching furnace chimney and the isolated, flickering lights in nursing stations were the only proof that this building was the doorway to life itself.
In the fifties Britain could still describe itself as a Christian nation, although this was more true in theory than practice.
In the morning many of Southend’s solid citizens would rise and go to more than 50 churches in the district.
A majority, however, would not.
This dormitory town on the northern elbow of the Thames Estuary, where salt water pours relentlessly through in search of fresh over vast mattresses of mud, was the source of shoals of London commuters who jumped upstream daily with difficulty on slow-moving locomotives.
For these, getting up on Sundays was no longer a religious imperative.
Derek Day, who had been sitting in discomfort, both mentally and physically, in the cheerless waiting room for four and a half hours, had excused himself chapel attendance in less than six hours time.
There was a hangnail of residual guilt, nevertheless.
“Father may see baby now,” the Midwife informed him with a critical look at his working overalls and unbuttoned shirt. She wheeled round and marched back along the corridor, brooking no discussion.
The baby was sniffing the air with suspicion, his face oddly bunched as if someone had squashed its pink cheeks between their palms.
The room smelled of iodine and fresh cotton. Agnes Day was asleep on her side and a primitive white cot held the baby in front of walls that, in common with every other ward in the hospital, were painted olive green from floor to half-way, and cream to the ceiling.
A bare light bulb offered spectral illumination.
Beyond the window the mechanical action of the furnace boilers churned in metronomic weariness.
The Midwife stood at the head of the cot with arms crossed over her starched, crisp bosom. Two flecks of blood on her shoulder might have come from a cut finger.
Derek peered down at his son. The boy mewed and blew bubbles, poking the tip of his tiny tongue between his lips.
“May I hold him?”
“Certainly not. We don’t want to disturb the child, do we, Mr Day..”
Derek stepped closer to the cot and looked at the boy, who squirmed in discomfort under scrutiny. Derek’s hand moved as if to touch the child, then retreated to his side.
Becoming a father was a curious process. Apart from an air of barely subdued panic you looked the same, you didn’t speak differently, or display any visible evidence of metamorphosis. Yet the whole world had shifted on its axis. A few hours ago he had walked into the hospital a fully mature, responsible adult. Now he had somehow regressed into a bumbling simpleton, a moronic ham-fisted hooligan who must be treated with the utmost disdain.
The world had changed. The infant’s presence in this room meant that everything outside had a deeper, clearer resonance.
Matters, that hitherto had been of academic interest, now assumed life and death importance. The pure, vast potential of his son now connected him permanently to the human odyssey. If it faltered, so did he.
“Go home and get some sleep. Visiting time in the morning starts at ten sharp. Mother and baby will be ready to receive visitors then.”
The Midwife smiled a wintry smile in dismissal.
Derek glanced up at the Smith’s clock on the wall. Its plain dial indicated 4.05am – an hour or so before his usual time of rising the other six days a week. Shirley still lay asleep. He desperately wanted to hold her and tell her how thankful he was for the miracle of their son. The world had changed, and was still changing.
Did his life extend beyond this room? The Midwife thought so and obviously wanted him to return to it.
He worked as Foreman and Trade Union Convenor for Marchants, the local electrical components factory. The company responsible for a good proportion of the country’s radio circuits and for many of the valves in the six million television sets that had appeared in the Nation’s living rooms since 1950.
As Derek left the room with a last lingering look at his new family to retrace his steps down the tunnel of the hospital corridor, he knew that the baby was the latest, and largest, influence on a life that was being shaped by bigger forces than he had control over.
Logie Baird, Marconi and post-war affluence had conspired to distil the universe into a compact flickering square with an on/off switch.
The arrival of commercial television the previous September had convinced Derek that he should own one of the finished fruits of his labours. Over a three month period he had collected discarded parts, acquired an empty television shell made by Bush and had cannibalised a working set, together with a separate tuning box that enabled him to receive the infant ITV service during the few hours in which it was allowed to operate.
This, his Daily Mirror and an occasional copy of Picture Post kept him abreast of events, and had populated his otherwise nondescript cycle rides to and from the factory.
Television, for Derek and millions like him, had shone a torch into the corners of British life that he had scarcely been aware of.
Reading about inequality was one thing, seeing it was quite another.
Too young to vote in 1945, he had filed through the voting booth in 1950 for Clement Attlee and had watched, without undue alarm, Churchill return to claim his inheritance in 1951.
The Eden victory in April 1955, however, had smacked too much of a dynasty nominating its successor for his liking. The ensuing tax increases on the working man had confirmed this disquiet.
Unlocking the chain that secured his bike to the railing, Derek swung his wiry body over the crossbar and launched himself into motion, checking that the silver dynamo that span on his rear wheel was giving off light.
He’d been collecting responsibility recently.
Elected by an apathetic factory floor to union convenor for the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) the previous July, Derek had attempted to fill the gaps in his knowledge of the world around him by attending a number of weekend educational seminars organised by the Union’s Communist and evangelically-minded leadership.
Whilst troubled by the questionable methods used by the Stalinist minority at the top of the Union to retain power, Derek had enjoyed making sense of Britain’s world role through the lens of empiricism rather than empire.
Like Britain, he enjoyed little or no power, but at least he now understood why.
As Derek rode down Sutton Road in the first glimmerings of dawn, passing fields on either side, past the Municipal cemetery and the Jones Memorial Ground, a park given to the Town’s youth in 1913 by a local councillor and benefactor, his thoughts pushed forward as fast as his legs. Taking him past two other parks strangely situated within yards of each other at Southend’s northern perimeter, over Prittlewell Hill, the oldest part of Southend – and down a long path alongside the railway, emerging the other end into an industrial estate where even on a Sunday the strong stench of molten plastic still lingered.
From here it was a few minutes to the house bought for £400 four years ago, with help from Agnes’s father.
As he pushed down on the pedals, his exhilaration at being a father was slowly tempered by a concern that many were feeling that day.
Two events running their course in early November 1956 seemed to possess an immutable, but quite illogical momentum of their own.
Russia’s decision to invade Hungary seven days previously in order to topple the pro-democracy Nagy regime had stunned those people sympathetic to the ideals of Communism.
Whilst no Communist, Derek was saddened by the loss of life and realistic enough to see that the cause of Socialism had been wounded.
It hadn’t helped, of course, that the damned Tories had whistled into the wind at the United Nations for the past week.
The wheels span round as Derek channeled his disdain into his pedalling.
Of course, Britain had its own crisis to worry about.
The Government was committing its own private act of insanity in the Middle East.
Until now Egypt had conjured up images of pyramids and papyrus, mummies and mufti. The Port Said invasion by Anglo-French paratroopers in collusion with the Israeli Army in order to recover the recently nationalised Suez Canal had inspired other images.
The jingoistic fervour seen on the dockside of Portsmouth as HMS Thesius departed with its warrior cargo of Red Devils and the 16th Paratroop Group was something that jarred with Derek, the apprentice father.
Was it really his Britain, who, as founder member of the United Nations was now using its right of veto cynically to prevent outright censure. There had been no public discussion of whether Britain should invade. Indeed, the meeting with French and Israeli counterparts had occurred in secret.
What right had Eden , Selwyn Lloyd and their cohorts to drag Britain into a Twentieth Century crusade against the modern infidel, Nasser?
The saddle creaked with the effort Derek was pouring into cycling. He was determined that his son would never feel as impotent as he did in the face of events.
Eden’s decision to break a promise to finance the Aswan Dam project because Egypt had flirted with Russia had been a childish act.
But plotting behind the scenes with France and Israel in order to put on the garb of international policeman after Israel’s invasion of Egypt on the 29th October was pure self-interest. Even the Americans had been too ashamed to condone it. Aggression had been justified on the dubious premise that, as Britain had built the Suez Canal in the first place, it now had the right to take it back by force of arms.
This was the politics of the playground bully.
Like millions of others, Derek Day was incensed that Britain was going to war in his name, but without his support.
Doubly so in his case. His son deserved better.
The ETU had asked him to attend the protest rally in Trafalgar Square that afternoon, due to be addressed by Ernest Bevan and other prominent opponents of the Suez policy.
It was his plan to grab a few hours sleep, return to the hospital and then catch the midday train to Liverpool Street from Rochford Station.
Turning into Stadium Road where he owned his three-up, three-down terrace in the shadow of the greyhound stadium, Derek slowed down to pass a bright new white Singer Gazelle parked ostentatiously in a road largely free of cars. The street was still and empty.
Arthur Cummings, the jobbing carpenter who lived three doors up at number 20 had bought the Singer with the money he had amassed from working on the new council housing projects that were springing up around the town. A skilled craftsman in 1956 was a member of the new artisan aristocracy, working six days a week with as much overtime as he liked. Arthur had proudly offered to take Derek for a ride along the Arterial Road to demonstrate the Singer’s ability to ‘do a ton’. Derek had declined, despite being tempted.
He gripped the rubber handle grips tightly and steered the bike towards home. A car was out of the question now the baby had arrived.
Conscious that it was not yet 5am, Derek free-wheeled the remaining few yards to his front gate, lifted the latch silently and pushed his bike into its customary position by the side fence.
It was strange to be coming home to an empty house. Agnes’s mother had offered to come and cook for him whilst her daughter was in hospital, but Derek had managed to deflect the offer by suggesting that he call into his in-laws for evening meals. He threw his donkey jacket onto the bannister, pulled off his overalls and looped them over the nail in the cupboard under the stairs. Padding up the stairs in his stockinged feet so as not to disturb the Wilsons sleeping at number 22 the other side of the wall, he dragged his shirt over his head and collapsed into bed.
Six hours later Derek woke with a start as a motor cycle, a BMA from the throaty sound of it, backfired outside.
Shirley always set the alarm, of course. Cursing to himself, he pulled his Sunday best outfit from the wardrobe and jumped into it.
There wasn’t time to heat water so a cold shave sufficed. Checking that he had sufficient money to cover the cost of a ticket to London, he scrambled downstairs in time to hear the large clock on the mantlepiece in the front room chime 11 o’clock. He was already an hour late for visiting and it was a thirty minute ride to Rochford.
Making several decisions at once as he pulled the front door shut, he strode three doors up to number 20.
The door opened to reveal Arthur Cummings’ wife Dora. Her dyed blonde hair retained some of yesterday’s curls and her pink nylon negligee most of the previous night’s creases. The Players cigarette held in her right hand was brought up to her mouth at the same time as she spoke as if she were puffing words through it and not smoke.
“Hello Derek, had any news yet?”
“Yes, it’s a boy, born at nearly 3 o’clock last night. Four weeks early. He caught us all out. Is Arthur about, I need to ask him a favour.”
“Yes love, he’s out the back fixing something in the yard. I’ll fetch him for you. A boy, that’s terrific. How’s Agnes?”
Derek spoke at the retreating puffs of smoke, “Fine, I think. She was asleep when they let me in to see her. I wanted to stay longer, but the Midwife wasn’t the sort you argue with.”
After the longest five minutes Derek had ever experienced, Arthur emerged from the bowels of the house, wiping his hands with a rag.
“Congratulations, old son. You know your troubles have really started now, don’t you. Why aren’t you at the hospital?”
“Well, that’s why I’m here. I wondered if I could call in that offer of a drive you promised – to the hospital now. Only I overslept, and visiting hours started over an hour ago. Agnes’ll never forgive me.”
Arthur looked abashed. “Normally I’d be delighted, Derek, only I spent my petrol money in the boozer last night and it’s running on empty at the moment. I’m sorry..”
Derek felt the money reserved for his ticket to London tucked deep into the pocket of his suit trousers.
“Listen Arthur, I’m desperate. I’ve some money for petrol. Have you got enough to get us to the nearest garage?”
Arthur’s face lit up. As a pleasurable experience, driving his car at his own expense could only be bettered by driving it at someone else’s.
“Come on, let’s go.” He shouted, “Dora, love, I’ve got to drive Derek to the hospital, won’t be long.”
Derek sat in the car and watched Arthur show the garage attendant around the car. A gallon of petrol was more than 5 shillings because of the closure of the Suez Canal. He idly registered the nozzle of the petrol pump being inserted and the ratchet click of the mechanical pump as the young attendant filled the tank, a look of homage on his face.
“Derek, I’m awfully sorry. I’m afraid I forgot you were paying and let the lad here put three gallons in before I remembered. Have you got enough? I’ll repay you when I’m flush again.”
With nearly 15 shillings gone from his London ticket money, Derek did not arrive at the hospital in the best of moods.
He waved Arthur goodbye, noticing that the car turned left at the gates in the opposite direction to the route back to Southend. The Essex countryside was going to get a whiff of Arthur’s new car and his unexpected petrol windfall.
Rain was weeping from the swollen black clouds and had begun to blotch Derek’s iron grey woollen suit.
He broke into a run, the wide legged turn-ups of his trousers flapping around his ankles. Throwing the main entrance door open, he burst through into the hospital interior, smoothing his rebellious black hair back into place.
He gingerly felt the place where he had cut himself in the process of his cold water shave, the blood had congealed, adding to his general feeling of discomfort.
A teddy boy with a resplendent duck-tail hairstyle looked at him in pity and pulled a comb out to dress his brylcreemed locks in order to reinforce the contrast in their appearances. He was only a year or two younger than Derek, but they could have been of different generations.
Derek plunged on into the deep recess of the hospital main corridor, his feet tapping on the parquet floor, turned left into the maternity ward and announced himself at the desk.
The Ward Sister looked at her fob watch in a manner that signalled to Derek that he had sinned in arriving with under ten minutes to go before the end of the morning’s visiting period.
“I’m sorry, I had some difficulty in getting here.. Is it possible to see my wife..I mean, Mrs Day?”
The Sister pursed her lips, took stock of all the reasons why she could say no, then acquiesced in the manner of a dowager duchess dealing with a tradesman.
“Second bed on the left, and please be quiet. Some of the mothers are resting.”
Conscious of his damp appearance, and the oversight of not having a bunch of flowers in his hand, Derek approached the bed.
Shirley was looking exhausted and radiant all at once, sitting up amongst the pillows cradling the baby boy.
“Derek, where have you been? I’ve worried about you. Come and say hello to your son.”
The boy was fast asleep, his miniature hand thrust into his mouth which issued tiny blowing sounds as he breathed in and out.
His forehead was creased with lines leading up to the margin of his wisp of hair that perched comically on top of a still pointed head.
He was very pink, almost red in fact, contrasting strongly with the pure whiteness of the muslin in which he was wrapped.
“How much does he weigh?” Derek asked.
“Four pounds, ten ounces,” Agnes replied, “just a morsel, but he’s going to be alright.”
Derek bent over the bed to carefully hold one of the small hands and marvel like all new fathers at the minute physical detail that babies bring with them into the world.
“What are we going to call him?”
“I’ve been thinking, Derek, I’d really like to name him after my uncle Joe. When he died in the war my mum was ever so upset. It would mean a lot to her.”
Derek, who had been trying hundreds of names for size over the past few hours, was secretly relieved that Agnes knew her own mind on the matter.
Of course, he would be ribbed mercilessly at work by mates who would accuse him of giving the boy Stalin’s name, in memory of the other ‘Uncle Joe’.
But Joseph Day did have a ring to it.
“Joseph..William – after my father,” Derek proposed, aware that this was a decision he would have to live with for a very long time.
Agnes smiled and pulled his hand to her. “Joseph William Day it is, then.” She held the boy up to her face to see if there was any infant sign of recognition. There was none. The acquisition of an identity had not stirred young Joseph’s soul. He gurgled, and a rivulet of saliva snaked down his chin, Shirley dabbed at it solicitously.
Her action reminded Derek that the painful experience of the birth was still only a few hours old.
“How about you, love? How are you feeling now?”
“A bit sore – young Joseph certainly knows how to make an entrance, but now it’s all over I’m feeling on top of the world. It’s true what they say – during the birth you vow never to go through the ordeal again. I was cursing you, the baby, all the nurses; absolutely sure that when the baby arrived I’d hate it for all the agony it was causing. Now he’s arrived, I’d go through it all another time if it meant the difference between losing and keeping him.”
“I wish I could have done more,” Derek said ruefully, “the old battleaxe of a midwife banished me to the waiting room until it was all over. You’d never think that the baby belonged to me as well.”
He looked across the ward, which was mercifully clear of battleaxes.
Nervous, over-attentive mothers were busy tucking, wiping, dabbing or rocking their new charges, most of whom had been born prematurely.
The exception was a teenage girl two beds up who was devoting herself instead to varnishing her finger nails. Her baby was squirming silently in a cot next to the bed, blissfully unaware of his ten cuticled rivals. The young mother had made a brave attempt to preserve the infrastructure of a gravity-defying beehive hairdo.
The appearance of non-conformity was reinforced by another oddity. Instead of a picture of her husband on the bedside cabinet, there was a framed picture of a squirrel-faced, pleased-looking Liberace.
Derek remembered seeing news footage of the pianist, a brilliant self-publicist, when the ‘all-round entertainer’ had disembarked from the Queen Mary at Southampton at the start of his English tour in September. There had been crowds to greet him at the dockside. Liberace had talked unctuously to camera about giving the masses a taste for classical music. Derek wondered whether the same crowd had been at the quayside to wave off the invasion force on its way to Egypt.
“What are you thinking about, Derek?” Agnes asked, nudging him in the ribs.
“That young girl over there – is her fellow a young tear-away with enough brylcreem on his hair to solve the petrol shortage?”
“Yes, how did you know?”
“We exchanged tips on hair care on my way in – the way chaps do..”
“Get on with you – what kept you anyway? Visiting hours started at ten. You’re nearly two hours late.”
Derek explained about the alarm and Arthur’s less than generous offer of a lift.
“I’m supposed to be in Trafalgar Square in two hours. The ETU want me to represent them at the anti-Suez rally. They’re expecting anything up to 100,000 people. Mind you, it’s about time this damned government understood that people don’t want their loved ones fighting in Egypt over a short cut through a desert. Nasser isn’t Hitler and Eden certainly isn’t Churchill.”
Derek glanced at Agnes’s Picture Post which lay open on the bed. The spread showed Miss World finalists in one-piece swimming costumes filing past a stony-faced panel of judges.
“Lady Eden should stick to judging beauty contests and her husband should start worrying about things close to home rather than our status as a superpower abroad.”
“Miss Germany did deserve to win, though, didn’t she,” Agnes observed in the way she did when Derek was boring her.
“Anyway,” Derek sighed, “I had to give Arthur the best part of my train fare to London. I can’t go without it.”
“I’m glad. We want you to stay here with us, don’t we Joe?”
Agnes cradled the baby and made cow eyes at Derek.
At the next bed along a bear-shaped, barrel-chested man in grease stained overalls with a pair of gloves in his back pocket was growling his goodbyes in Essex guttural, although the words used were soft and caring.
“Bye love, this delivery to Southwark shouldn’t take more than two or three hours, so I’ll see you back here this evening. Try and get some rest.”
The wife, who looked as if she needed the rest badly, nodded absently and waved her husband goodbye as her eyes were closing. The lorry driver pulled the sheet up over her chest, stole one last look at the baby and walked past Derek towards the door.
For a moment Derek considered asking him for a lift to London, but the sight of his nine hour old son opening his eyes and staring with intensity at the fascinating phenomenon that was his father persuaded him otherwise.
Even the intimidating presence of the ward sister, who had descended on Derek in order to evict him, failed to dampen his spirits.
“When does visiting start this afternoon?”
“3pm, sharp.” The sister informed him, with a warning glint in her eye.
Ignoring this implied criticism of his timekeeping, Derek rose from the chair, kissed Agnes and waggled the tiny index finger that reached out to him from the muslin.
“I’m off down the pub, then. One way or another today seems like a good day to get drunk..”
Derek walked away, past the clucking, cooing mothers, past the stern ward sister, past the nursing station – towards his immediate destiny that involved a deep pint jug, and towards his larger destiny as the father of Joseph Day.
There was even the hint of a swagger in his step.
Derek walked past the edge of the hospital bed, his trousers still unpleasantly damp from the rain shower. His attention was still captured entirely by his baby son Joe, who lay cupped in his mother’s arms. A perfectly formed miniature hand held his wife’s little finger tightly. He glanced at the clock on the wall, two minutes to go before the end of visiting time. He kissed Agnes and quietly left – he didn’t really have enough money for the pub but was sure some mates would treat the new father. As he left through the ward exit, the burly lorry driver brushed past muttering something about forgetting his keys. Derek quietly debated whether he should ask for a lift to London even at this late stage. He no longer had the full fare, but on the other hand he had given his word that he would attend the demonstration, and he did feel very strongly about the potential catastrophe the Government had conjured up over Suez.
The driver’s deep coarse voice broke into this internal dialectic.
“See you later, love, I’m off to Southwark – see you tomorrow evening.”
A few seconds earlier, or later, and Derek might have made a different choice. Joe’s hand had let go of his mother’s finger and he had fallen into a deep and self-contained sleep. Agnes had let her tired eyes droop. This was 1956 and perhaps the incentive to go to the pub and celebrate the birth of a son was not so acute as it might have been before the Suez situation. It may have been that Derek’s chain of thought had been interrupted at a point when he was feeling less than charitable towards the political Brahmin who had decided in favour of war.
He tapped the lorry driver’s arm as they walked together towards the exit.
“I wonder, is there any chance of a lift to London? Only I need to get up there for an important meeting this afternoon, and I’ve lost most of my rail fare.”
The driver smiled complicitly, perhaps suspecting that this was a fellow refugee from the starched and prim world of the hospital.
“Of course, mate. I can take you as far as the Embankment, if that’s any use?”
Derek turned back to Agnes and their baby son. Both were now asleep. He had a sudden urge to change his mind, to go to the pub and return at 3 o’clock.
“Are you coming then?”
The driver had stopped and was staring at him. “They’ll be here when you get back.”
Derek sighed, leant over the bed and kissed both members of his family tenderly, and followed the other man out of the ward.
“I had to park the lorry down the road, they wouldn’t let me bring it inside the hospital gates. I’ve got to pick up the load from Tilbury Docks and then go onto Southwark. It’s a timber shipment for some of those new homes they’re building. The carpenters will be wanting to get onto it in the morning so Charlie here has to work on a Sunday, not just any Sunday mind, but the day my son arrives.”
Derek nodded sympathetically, feeling vaguely guilty that he did not have to be going to London. Still, it was too late now.
“Congratulations on your son, have you got a name for him yet?”
“Yes..he would have been our second.” The unspoken implication of tragedy hung heavy in the air. “We decided on George, in honour of the late King – maybe some of that breeding’ll rub off.”
They climbed into the cab, each nursing their thoughts.
The driver, who introduced himself as ‘Donald, but Don is fine’, settled himself into the driver’s seat and embarked on a pre-drive check of essential items around him that was obviously a well-worn ritual. Finally he pulled the ignition key from a pocket and brought the vehicle to life. With a groan and a swarm of squeaks from the rear axle region, the lorry juddered forward and was soon travelling at 40 miles an hour along the road that overlooked Southend’s Municipal Airport. The squeaks had subsided into a bad tempered grumbling from the rear suspension, occasionally provoked into a cry of pain when a bump in the road was encountered.
After a few miles on the Arterial Road, Don crossed country to meet up with the A13 London Road that followed the estuary and would eventually lead them to Tilbury Docks.
The ruins of Hadleigh Castle, the bare flat marshlands of Pitsea and, across the water, the forbidding inlets of Canvey Island engaged Derek’s incurious stare out of the nearside window as the lorry rumbled onwards. The road was relatively empty, a pair of Sunday cyclists, a family in a Morris 1000 and the occasional throaty roar of a motorcycle seeking something to burn up, was the total inventory of half an hour’s driving.
Like many of the working people of Britain, Don was in favour of Eden’s intervention in the Middle East. Although the country’s bankruptcy as a result of the war had been largely kept from the public, it had not escaped the majority’s attention that Britain was now a spent force.
Its reliance on the patronage of the USA was a particular source of national aggrievement.
Whilst Hollywood had provided a much needed escape from the privations of the late forties and early fifties, the cinemascope proof that life was much better in Ike’s America had created a certain resentment in a population that had been told they had saved the world from Hitler during the Battle of Britain.
Don was in no doubt that Nasser was a darker skinned Hitler, and had forgotten that more British soldiers had been killed since the war in Palestine by Irgun and other Zionist groups, than by all the Arab states combined.
For Don and many others, the surrender of Palestine and the potential loss of the Suez Canal was linked in what he called ‘the country’s loss of spine’.
The Mau Mau uprising in Kenya and Archbishop Mykarios in Cyprus tweaking the tail of the British lion at around the same time had contributed to a feeling that nobody was taking us seriously any more.
Going against the advice of our American allies and flouting world opinion to do what the Russians had just done with impunity in Hungary appealed to a great many senses of injustice on an Autumn day in 1956.
The belligerent front page headlines of papers like the Daily Sketch had found a willing audience in Don and others like him. Seizing on an enemy that was less well equipped, untried in modern warfare and, better still, safely situated a continent away, to vilify.
Admitting that he was on his way to an anti-Suez rally, and then talking about Britain’s actual rather than her perceived importance on the world stage to someone like Don was like holding up a torn red Empire rag to a bull.
“Why are we one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, then?” Don retorted querulously. “Why do we still have the third largest navy in the world?” “Why are there still more than a hundred and forty countries in the British Commonwealth?” “Who was it that divided up the world after the Second World War – Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill..” The rhetorical questions were fired ruthlessly into Derek’s right ear. Don, it transpired, had fought in the fall of Tobruck and if he worshipped one man more than Churchill, it was Field Marshall Montgomery.
“If Monty had been leading the country for the past ten years like he did the Eighth Army in North Africa, then we would be the superpower now, not the Yanks.”
Eisenhower’s seamless transition from conquering wartime general to President of the United States had provided ample ammunition for this school of thinking.
As the hunched Essex marshes gradually gave way to the first warehouses of Tilbury, Derek thought it was time to call a truce.
“Can I give you a hand loading up?”
Don, who obviously did not bear political grudges, slapped Derek on the arm in gratitude and said he could help get the tail end of the lorry down.
He parked the lorry alongside a warehouse with timber stacked to the rafters, pulled a docket from his jacket and went in search of the payload.
Derek walked to the back of the lorry, avoiding the tar-rich puddles, and started to draw back the holding bolts in order to release the rear loading gate.
A team of burly stevedores appeared and commenced loading. Don took the opportunity to light up a Capstan and smoked it contentedly whilst goading the dockers with taunts about their strength.
“Never mind, boys, the next shipment’s balsa wood.” he grinned at them.
After the loaders had finished, Derek helped Don lift the tailgate back into position. Don then guided the lorry round in a 180 degree turn in what seemed to be an impossibly tight space. As they drove through the grey terraced streets adjoining the dockside, Derek pointed to tidemarks that ran at five or six feet above ground level along some of the houses.
“They must be the high water points from the 1953 floods,” he observed, imagining the road they were driving along as a tidal river.
The gears crashed and the lorry lurched forward unexpectedly. Derek glanced across at Don. The driver’s hands were holding the steering wheel tightly, his knuckles white with the force of his grip.
Don’s mouth was set, his lips clenched against his teeth.
As they drove westwards and the height above sea level rose, so the occasional tide mark etched on a house wall dropped closer to the ground.
Don was still silent, driving alone with his thoughts, his face ashen.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Derek asked.
Don tried to smile, but the effect was tragic.
“I’m sorry, but today has brought it all back. Seeing my baby boy for the first time, driving past Canvey Island and seeing those water marks on the houses..”
“Were you in the flood?” Derek asked quietly.
“Yes..” The lines on Don’s face gathered, clenched and then relaxed.
“It was a Saturday night, January 31st I think. We’d been for a drink at the Red Cow and were on our way back to Eileen’s mother’s place at Newlands on Canvey Island – we lived there then – to pick up our little boy, Kenny.
He was just coming up to 18 months.
It was a horrible night, 90 mile an hour winds, driving rain and everyone wondering whether the sea defences on the north of the Island would hold. The rain was so strong the car’s wipers couldn’t deal with it. I first realised we were in for trouble when I saw people putting old sandbags they’d kept from the War outside their front doors to keep the water out.
When we got to Newlands I realised that the Tewkes Creek defences on the north side had gone down. Between the houses and Hadleigh Castle and the water tower at Benfleet there was a sheet of water.
Protruding from it we could see the tops of houses and bungalows sticking up like islands. Loads of stuff was floating by us in the current – furniture, boxes, even animals.
I couldn’t take the car any further so I parked and told Eileen to walk back in the other direction and get help while I tried to get through to find Kenny.
I walked at first, but then the current got too strong so I had to swim, from one tree to the next, grabbing at anything to get a foothold.
After an hour or so I got to the bungalow. The garden had disappeared and there were no lights. There were no lights anywhere, except in the distance at Benfleet. All I could hear were shouts and screams from people trapped in their houses, calling for help. It was all so sudden, the police and others hadn’t arrived yet.
The smell was dreadful. Everywhere reeked of foul water. We only had chemical closets on the Island then and all the sewage had been flushed out into the open.
I called out to Barbara, my mother-in-law, and Kenny – but there was no reply. It took me ages just to get the front door open. The force of the water was so strong.
When I got inside it was as if someone had deliberately smashed everything in sight and then thrown it in the water.
Everything was broken and bits of furniture, pictures and photographs, all ruined, were floating about on the surface.
Even worse, the level was still rising. I waded through the front room, into the lounge, through the kitchen and out to the back of the house. From the bedroom I heard a cry. Inside I saw Barbara clutching Kenny to her chest.
She’d climbed on top of the wardrobe, about two feet above the water.
I’ll never forget what I saw. She was in her nightdress, moaning.
I could tell from across the room that Kenny was dead. She was holding him like a rag doll. I took him from her and tried to give him the kiss of life, but it was too late. The water was already up to my chest. I climbed on top of the wardrobe with Kenny. The storm was at its worst, it must have been about 1 o’clock in the morning.
I held Barbara tight to stop her being swept away, clutching Kenny with my other hand.
The worst thing of all was, as I got colder and colder, my arms went numb. Without realising it, I let Kenny go. There was nothing I could do to stop him floating away with the rubbish from the house.
It was so dark. At that point I didn’t care if I died. Barbara and I clung to each other for hours. I don’t know how long, except that dawn had broken before the first shouts came from outside.
Volunteers in a dinghy had moored alongside the bungalow and were calling for any survivors.
I had given up, happy to die, but Barbara called out and they brought us out in the boat. 58 people died in Canvey that night.
All the bodies were recovered except Kenny’s.”
Derek put his hand on Don’s arm. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise.”
“It’s strange, today’s the first time I’ve been able to talk about it. George arriving has let me face that night 3 years ago without breaking down. I feel that I’ve started again.
But I’ll always wonder what might have happened if we hadn’t gone to the pub that night.
Kenny was our future. We had so much planned for him. Sometimes I think he’s out there somewhere, living in another world.
Make the most of your little boy, Derek. You’re a lucky man. We only get one chance in life.”
They drove on in silence. each embracing their own thoughts. Dagenham gave way to Barking, East Ham, Plaistow, Canning Town, Poplar. On through Stepney and Whitechapel, into the City, a Sunday ghost town, the financial institutions silent and wary. Coiled in anticipation of the swarm of humanity that would flow in and out of them the next day.
Don guided the lorry along Leadenhall Street into Cornhill, past the Mansion House, emerging into Poultry before turning left into Queen Street, making for Southwark Bridge. The Thames responded to the darts of sunlight thrown into it with disdain, absorbing the rays deep into its belly without compromising the iron green scales of its back.
Up river, the twin towers of Tower Bridge maintained their argus vigil on either bank of the river, reminding Derek of past treacheries in the perfidious story of Albion, reinforcing his resolve to attend the rally that afternoon.
After delivering the wood at Southwark Dock at the end of Cathedral Street, Don gestured to Derek to climb back into the cab.
“Come on, you can buy me a drink before you join your fellow revolutionaries.”
They motored on through Southwark, past Waterloo Station into Lambeth Palace Road, eventually arriving in the Albert Embankment. Don parked with alarming confidence in a frugal space in a little side turning off Salamanca Street and they walked the short distance back to the river in search of the Crown Inn.
Derek ordered a brace of mild and bitters and a round of cheese and pickle sandwiches and brought them back to Don who was nursing a Players in the corner.
“Why don’t you come to the rally and see what it’s all about?” Said Derek, in search of a conversion.
Don pulled on his cigarette, eyed Derek with an amused expression and exhaled noisily.
“Look mate, becoming fathers on the same day has given us something in common, and I’ve enjoyed having you on board for the journey, but unless you fought in the last lot you won’t understand why I could never join the pacifists.” Derek made as if to interrupt.
“I know, I know, you’ll say that you’re not a pacifist, but a climb down today will lead to a total K.O. for the country tomorrow. We’ve already had one or two nutters telling us to ‘Ban the Bomb’. Soon we’ll be no more than a sand bag for the Yanks when they come to fight the Russians.”
The mention of sandbags caused Don to fall silent for a moment, recalling his last encounter with them.
Derek knew when to keep his own counsel. They ate and drank without comment for a few minutes and then left the pub.
The two men shook hands warmly as Don walked back in the direction of the lorry and Derek turned towards Lambeth Bridge. It was now nearly 3 o’clock.
He strode purposefully along Millbank, past the Victoria Tower Gardens and on beneath the mullioned windows, latticed stonework and dour grey impassivity of Westminster Hall, theatre of some of the greatest and worst decisions of the last 500 years.
As he left Parliament Square for the more business-like Whitehall, Derek took in the entrance to Downing Street
and further down, the great bureaucratic institutions, the Ministry of Defence, the War Office and the Admiralty where lights flickered in windows. Behind them clerks monitored progress in their masters’ latest adventure, writing painstaking memos, greasing the execution of policy, fighting war with razor sharp pencils. Derek dully contemplated this white collar mummery as he walked on towards Trafalgar Square, joined now by other protesters united in a determination to drive some sense into the heads of the civil servants, the military, the political C-in-Cs plotting a dangerous war in defence of Britain’s self-esteem.
Trafalgar Square is not the most appropriate setting for demonstrations of peace. Named after Nelson’s victory over the French in 1805, the column in the centre of the Square climbs 170 feet into the air in celebration of one of Britain’s greatest military strategists for whom blood was the currency of victory, and gladly paid.
Around the Square are buildings which act as symbols of the disparate elements of the national character.
Art is represented by the National Gallery on the north-west side, the National Portrait Gallery standing loyally, if modestly behind it. In the north-east corner, the church of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields is testament to the Nation’s faith, itself schizophrenic, with Anglican lords in the Upper House baying for the blood of the infidel, and gentle Methodists turned Christian soldiers fighting for peace in the Square. On the east side, the London offices of the South African government, acting as a goad to those tempted to think that the battle for inter-racial equality had been won.
On the west aspect of the Square the Canadian Embassy and the Royal College of Physicians represented the new worlds of opportunity and health. To the south, the magnificent view down Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament reminded the crowd in the amphitheatre that they and the sentinel lions on their pedestals were ultimately at the mercy of the distant Westminster emperors in their palace.
On a stage framed either side by the imperial lions a succession of speakers stood and articulated the crowd’s anger at Eden’s policy on Suez.
This anger was fuelled by the fact that the Cabinet’s Egypt Committee was busy making plans for the next stage of the Campaign, even as the speeches echoed bitterly around the Square.
At around 6.30pm Ernest Bevan took the platform and spoke in his impassioned yet controlled way, completely destroying the heart of the Government’s logic.
As point after point was made the bubbling support in the crowd burst into cheering loud enough, it was said, to be audible inside the cabinet room itself.
The full Cabinet had assembled at Number Ten and was debating which one of three options they would follow.
The first was to proceed with the first stage of occupation and insist on Franco-Anglo involvement in any UN force sent in to take over. The second course was to suspend parachute landings for 24 hours to give Egypt and Israel the chance to accept a ceasefire and a UN Expeditionary Force. The third, a complete military stand down.
As Bevan’s speech reached its climax, the Cabinet moved fatally towards the first of the three options.
At 8pm, the speeches concluded and the more vociferous elements in the crowd argued in favour of marching up Whitehall to Downing Street in order to provide a warm reception for the departing members of the Cabinet.
Kept at bay by a phalanx of policemen, Derek and a vanguard of protestors gathered across the road from the Prime Minister’s residence, content to stand quietly for the most part, bursting into chant periodically to maintain morale.
At 9pm the front door of Number Ten opened and Selwyn Lloyd, the Foreign Secretary, strode out looking distracted, and climbed into a car waiting to take him back to Number One Carlton Gardens, his London home.
Other Cabinet members also left without speaking. Francis Monckton, the sole echo in Cabinet of the crowd’s displeasure, left in a conspicuous cloud of anger.
Finally, Anthony Eden emerged, accompanied by his Private Secretary and a sober suited civil servant. He appeared pale and tired – acutely aware that the first parachute drops would take place the following morning at first light, 7.15am Egyptian time; 5.15am GMT.
He stood for a moment in the full glare of the popping camera bulbs, momentarily intimidated by the thirsty microphones. A shake of his head indicated he did not want to comment as he looked imperiously at the dissidents gathered across the street.
As he turned to make for the security of his car Derek saw his chance. A gap had appeared in the line of policemen standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of his section of the crowd.
On reflection later, Derek couldn’t decide what impulses had propelled him through the line and towards the Prime Minister.
The birth of Joe; the catharsis of becoming a father; the lunchtime beer; the added intoxication of the Trafalgar crowd; the persuasive Welsh tones of Bevan.
Perhaps all of these.
Before he knew it, he was standing in front of Eden.
Looking back, all he could recall was Eden’s moustache and his eyes. The moustache, grey, but beautifully clipped, bristled in distaste as Derek walked in front of him.
His brown eyes registered a brief moment of fear, then darkened into anger as he realised that Derek was not a madman, nor an assassin, but a mere opponent of his policy.
Derek’s arrival in front of him didn’t warrant any comment. His eyes dismissed the ordinary man standing there as he strode around him.
Instinctively, Derek cried at him, “You are a murderer and a coward, Sir.”
Although the aristocratic head didn’t turn and there was no verbal acknowledgement, a tick of anger passed across his finely chiselled cheekbones. He gestured to his aid to open the car door and in an instant was sitting down inside it, safe from the random molotovs of verbal abuse hurled outside.
Two days later, on Tuesday November 6, Eden found himself under increasing pressure to announce a cease fire despite a brilliant military assault rolling inland from Port Said.
The United Nations Security Council had condemned the action, the Soviets had threatened to intervene, there was opposition in the Conservative Party in Parliament and in the country.
The fighting between the Egyptian army and the Israelis had terminated as a result of the invasion, and, most important of all, the Treasury in the form of Harold Macmillan was opposed to continuing after George Humphries, his American counterpart had obstructed British withdrawals from the International Monetary Fund.
This could only have occurred with the cognizance of the President, Eisenhower.
The withdrawal was needed to protect Sterling from speculation against it, the author of which was almost certainly the US Treasury.
The French Prime Minister, Guy Mollet was in favour of pulling out, despite implacable opponents in the shape of Cabinet colleagues Pireau and Bourges-Maunoury.
A civilised, if ignominious withdrawal was the logical course.
Eden called a cease fire.
At 5pm on 6th November the order was given to General Keightley to withdraw from engagement that had withdrawn to Cairo – and to pluck defeat from almost certain victory.
The war was over.
A tripartite alliance of British, French and Israeli forces were in disarray.
The fleeting, angry tick on Eden’s cheekbone caused by an impetuous young man insulting the honour of a proud statesman had revealed more than irritation.
Its implications were to last a lot longer.
Eden had succumbed to international pressure. The British lion’s bloodied paw lay limp and lifeless on the still breathing heart of Egypt.
Meanwhile, Joe Day and his mother Agnes were on their way back to Stadium Road. An anxious Derek following behind, checking his pockets to make sure he had enough money to pay for the taxi-fare home.
The Union Jacks were lying in the gutter.
THE PARTING OF THE RED SEA
‘American Imperialism had every interest in a conflict in the Middle East in order to detract attention from Vietnam – and Soviet imperialism had every interest in a defeat for the Arab states – a defeat that they knew was absolutely certain – in order to be able to fulfil the old dream of the Czars of having warm water bases.’
Arturo Schwartz – from an interview with Jean-Paul Sartre in ‘New Outlook’ Vol. 12 No. 3 1968
‘I told you so..’
Moshe Dayan – from the foreword to his ‘Diary of the Sinai Campaign 1956’ June 1967
‘There were two boys qualified to go to Grammar School who chose the Technical Secondary School instead. These were in effect refusals of Grammar School places.’
Brian Jackson & Dennis Marsden ‘Education and the Working Class’ Revised Edition 1965 (Appendix I)
“Every Communist must grasp the truth – ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’.”
Mao Tse-Tung ‘The Political Thought of Mao Tse-Tung’
Stuart R. Schram. New York 1969.
June 6, 1967.
Despite it only being seven am, the sun was already strong enough for the large green overhang of the Greyhound Stadium to cast a deep shadow across the street. The sun was not, however, dispensing heat. Even out of the shadows a breeze with icy bristles was briskly shooing empty bubblegum wrappers and discarded betting slips along the gutter towards paper slag heaps accumulating at the end of the road.
The postman was efficiently creating other small piles of paper on domestic doormats. At number 23 just one ominous brown envelope fell silently onto the mat and lay there, daring the recipient to open it.
C4-sized, obviously official, with Mr and Mrs D. Day typed neatly with a civil servant’s precision in the centre, the envelope was the only one of its kind to be delivered in the street.
Joe Day, wearing his first pair of long grey terylene school trousers, clattered downstairs on the off chance that his Shoot football magazine had been delivered early.
The brown envelope was a poor substitute.
His daily, unvarying breakfast was waiting for him on the kitchen table. Steaming hot Readybrek and a glass of equally hot Ribena.
He threw the deadly dull envelope onto the table in disgust and began to pour a penumbra of milk around the edge of the porridge.
Agnes, his mother, tugged a sprig of Joe’s errant hair playfully. “Hurry up and eat your breakfast Donald Duck – or you’ll be late for school.”
She pulled a flannel out of a drawer, wetted it and smoothed down the rebel hair, causing an unpleasant squirt of moisture to run down Joe’s neck as she did so.
“Mum!” Joe exclaimed, gulping down a spoonful of firey hot porridge by mistake and feeling his eyes water. Breakfast could be a hazardous business. And the envelope hadn’t been opened yet.
“There’s a letter for you and Dad,” Joe gasped, not sure if he was feeling hot or cold. Agnes stopped cleaning the oven which she had owned since her marriage and which would last her another ten years. Like Joe it was punished for getting dirty and rigorously scrubbed and wiped until immaculate again.
Joe wolfed down his breakfast.
He liked to be out of the house at 8am in order to get to school – a 15 minute walk away in Bournmouth Park Road – in good time to play half an hour’s frenetic football in the playground before registration. As a member of the school’s first eleven it was a matter of honour for him to captain a scratch side, score at least 5 goals and take two layers of dubbin off his Clarke’s Pathfinder shoes before reluctantly tramping inside.
As he belted up his dark blue mackintosh (the forecast was patchy) and swung his satchell over his head, he noticed his mother standing in the middle of the kitchen with a look of disbelief on her face.
“What is it, Mum?” he called out, mildly impatient to be running up Redstock Hill and into The Tuck Box for a tube of Sherbert Delight.
Agnes was leaning against the sliding kitchen door, unaware that as the door moved sideways her angle of upright elevation was becoming more oblique.
She had opened the brown envelope and was reading a single sheet of closely typed official correspondence.
Looking pale, and with a slightly shaking hand, she intoned, “Dear Mr and Mrs Day, we are delighted to notify you that your son, Joseph Day, has successfully completed the Eleven Plus examination and is therefore eligible to attend Southend High School for Boys in September.”
Joe’s interest in the academic implications of this despatch was non-existent. His concern was concentrated entirely on the implications it held for his sporting career.
The nucleus of the Bournmouth Park First Eleven football team was confident enough of its collective aversion to educational achievement to be talking about resuming its winning ways in the Autumn term under the banner of Wentworth Road Secondary Modern.
In the wake of a highly successful season which had seen Bournmouth Park win the Borough Under-12 League and only narrowly beaten in the final of the Essex Junior Schools Cup, Joe and his team mates had set up their own club of codes, passwords and advanced soccer tactics. England’s triumph in the World Cup had increased this fervour to fever pitch.
Going to Southend High School would be like being asked to play for West Germany.
“I’m not going, Mum.”
Shaking her head, Agnes looked grimly at her son, “I’ll go and see the headmaster this morning, there’s probably been a mistake anyway.”
“I’m not going to the High School, Mum, tell him that.”
“We won’t be able to afford for you to go in any case, Joe. The School has enclosed a list of all the uniform and sports kit items you will be expected to have for September. It will cost over £50. Your Dad will go up the wall.”
“Just say I’m not going. All my friends are going to Wentworth – and so am I.”
With that, Joe ran out of the door, across the street and up the hill that led to the main Sutton Road.
As he flew inside The Tuck Shop he vaguely registered the Daily Mirror poster outside which declaimed, ‘Dayan Does it Again’, and wondered what it was he had done the first time.
Dipping his liquorice stick into his yellow Sherbert Surprise tube, Joe agonised about what he would tell Phil, Greg and Woody about his unwanted transfer.
He decided to keep the news to himself until after his Mother’s visit to the School. In the meantime other more pressing matters demanded his attention. He ran across the playground to the spot just beneath the metal stanchions holding the wire mesh that protected the classroom windows. The metal uprights made excellent goalposts, and boys who wanted to play in the scratch game before school congregated there every morning.
Joe was a few minutes late, and his choice of players was less promising than it would be normally. Hiding his distaste, he picked Heinz the German who wore lederhosen and sported an en bross haircut that reinforced all the boyish prejudices about the losers of the Second World War and the 1966 World Cup Final.
Nick, Alan, Snoddy, Masher. It was going to be a tough game.
His counterpart, Woody, had picked all the best players. The result would be down to him.
Telling his substandard squad to defend to the death, Joe attacked both the tennis ball and the other team’s goal with ferocious determination, scoring three brilliant individual goals, two of them from the kick-off.
All the pent-up tension relating to his academic future was channeled into his feet. Even the normally disinterested girls in the playground turned to watch the phenomenon.
The whistle blew for registration and Joe kicked the ball wildly in disgust, causing it to rise from the ground and arc like a mortar into the back of Mr Woolly’s head. The Deputy Headmaster was not known for his sense of humour. Mr Woolly liked to start the day with unvarying iron efficiency with the children filing indoors in regimented class order. The impact was explosive.
He turned around, gingerly feeling the base of the rear of his head.
His face was coloured, and his eyes were pistols firing sparks of fire.
“Who did that?” The playground fell silent.
“Come along, own up, who was it?”
Joe was no teacher’s pet, but he was honest.
“It was me Sir.” He stepped towards the glowering master, who grabbed him roughly by the scruff of the neck and propelled him indoors.
“Stand outside the Headmaster’s door until I return.”
Mr Woolly strode off, still rubbing the back of his head.
Joe stared miserably at the scuffed and discoloured parquet flooring outside Mr Everett’s office. His face felt hot and he decided that already this had been the worst day of his life.
He felt completely alone.
More alone than Francis Chichester sailing homewards on Gypsy Moth II. As desperate as the Russian Cosmonaut Komarev the month before, knowing he was going to die on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.
He consoled himself by pretending he was Bobby Moore, waiting to walk up the Wembley steps to collect the World Cup.
He smoothed back his hair and brushed an imaginary moustache, just as Graham Hill would if he were standing there now.
The thought of racing cars, speed and breaking records caused his mind to U-turn back to February when another of his heroes, Don Campbell, died, hopping, skipping and jumping to oblivion in Bluebird on Lake Coniston Water.
This memory, and his present situation, induced tears to prick at the corners of his eyes, making him feel slightly heroic himself – almost as if his present tribulation was in Don Campbell’s honour.
The door opened and Mrs Stubbs, the prim Headmaster’s Secretary strode out clutching several files. It was rumoured that she and Mr Woolly were having a love affair – a suggestion fuelled by their shared love of country dancing. This joint interest was inflicted on all Third and Forth Year pupils every Wednesday afternoon with the aid of an ancient record player and scratched recordings.
An artist on the football pitch, Joe developed dyslexia of the feet when given a female partner and the gimlet eye by Mr Woolly.
This, perhaps, explained why Mrs Stubbs tut-tutted at him when she passed.
The amiable, if vague Mr Everett peered myopically down the corridor from the door of his office. Famous for not remembering any of the names of his charges and few of his staff’s, he gestured at Joe.
“You, er boy, what are you doing standing there? Why aren’t you in registration?”
“Mr Woolly sent me Sir.”
“Why, may I ask?”
“I kicked a ball in the playground and it accidentally hit the back of his head, Sir.”
Evereet, who secretly despised his officious, self-important Deputy, felt a smile form on his face and quickly suppressed it.
“It’s Day, isn’t it?”
Joe nodded in amazement. For Everett to recall his name was unprecedented.
“Have you received some good news this morning?”
Joe wracked his brain but couldn’t think of any news that could be construed as good.
“Your mother has just rung me to make an appointment later this morning to talk about the contents of a letter she received today concerning your secondary education. Excellent work Day. Bournmouth Park is proud of you – I will be delighted to congratulate your mother in person.”
Joe stared at him incredulously. He obviously didn’t realise that this meant that the best under-12 soccer team in the Borough was going to be broken up.
However, as Mr Everett was obviously in a forgiving frame of mind, this was not the moment to elucidate on this.
“Well run along then, we’ll overlook the ball incident on this occasion, if you assure me it was an accident.”
“Yes Sir, thank you Sir.”
As fate would have it, his first lesson was in Room 12, Maths with Mr Woolly – his worst teacher and worst subject painfully combined.
The lesson was already in progress.
Joe knocked at the door and waited for the sharp, “Come.”
He entered. Mr Woolly was striding about the front of the class holding what he called his ‘yardstick of good behaviour’ – a three foot wooden ruler.
Mr Woolly disliked Joe who he saw as quite able, but insolent and lazy. He was convinced that the ball incident had been no accident.
“Ah, the miscreant Day, what did Mr Everett have to say about your wanton attack on a member of staff?”
“He asked whether it was an accident, Sir.”
Mr Woolly swung the ruler into the palm of his hand in threatening fashion. “And you, of course, said it was..”
“Yes Sir, it was Sir.”
“So Mr Everett allowed you to depart unadmonished and unpunished, did he?”
“Yes Sir, but it was an accident.”
“Don’t be impudent boy. Come here, hold out your hand.”
Joe approached him warily. The entire class had stopped work and was watching, sorry for Joe, but glad of the excuse to down pens.
“Hold out your hand.”
Joe stretched out his hand reluctantly. As the ruler came down with a swish he twisted his hand round involuntarily, a reflex action.
The ruler caught him on the knuckles, making a cracking sound.
Blood started to trickle down Joe’s hand. The numbing effect of shock meant that the pain was bearable at first.
He put his knuckles in his mouth, and when Mr Woolly appeared in front of him as if through a sheet of water, he realised he was crying.
“You stupid boy, why did you move?”
Joe was now sobbing with fear, still rooted to the spot.
The teacher looked alarmed. He pointed at Vanessa Yaletree in the front row and told her to find Mrs Stubbs.
Joe nursed his still bleeding hand. Images of Cassius Clay winning the world heavyweght title against Sonny Liston and more recently refusing to go and fight in Vietnam flashed through his mind.
He was conscious that something strange had happened.
At the point at which the ruler had made contact, Joe felt no pain because he hadn’t been the recipient of it.
He had been an observer.
The ruler had come down and he had noted the arc it made in the air, felt revulsion at the violence being enacted. But this coarse, brutal act hadn’t connected with him. The deep identification, the anger at the injustice, the nausea at the point of contact. These were real feelings, but the experience was someone else’s.
Somehow, the conviction that this could never happen to someone like him had transported him away.
The moment occurred and passed in the time it took for the ruler to crack one of his knuckle bones.
Then the pain roared up Joe’s arm and out through his mouth.
Mrs Stubbs inspected Joe’s hand. The violent swelling and immediate bruising convinced her that a visit to the hospital was needed.
The Days were not on the phone. Agnes had gone to the public box in Sutton Road earlier to call Mr Everett.
Upon arriving at the scene the Headmaster had decided to take Joe to hospital himself, calling at Stadium Road on the way to collect Shirley.
Before he left he told Mr Woolly that he wanted to see him in his office upon his return as a matter of urgency.
The look he gave his Deputy indicated that it would not be a meeting to relish.
As his hand was now throbbing at a bearable intensity, Joe was able to appreciate, if not enjoy, the novelty of being chauffeured by the Headmaster.
At Number 23 Stadium Road, Agnes was flustered by a ring at the door as she was preparing for her important visit to the School, only the second time ever that she had been there.
When she opened the door and saw Mr Everett she did not recognise him at first, assuming that the Prudential had changed her regular insurance man.
“But I’ve paid this month already,” she exclaimed.
“Mrs Day, I’m Everett, your son’s Headmaster – I’m afraid he’s been hurt at School. I’m taking him to hospital. I thought you would want to accompany him. He’s in the car outside. I’m sorry to say a member of my staff was a little profligate in administering punishment to the lad, and cracked one of his knuckles.”
Agnes stared in disbelief at the Headmaster.
Amazed that such an important personage should call at her front door, and disoriented to find that instead of the School her immediate destination was now to be the hospital.
“Where is Joe, I must see him, is he alright?”
She hurriedly pulled her coat from the bannister, picked up her handbag and followed Everett to the car.
Joe looked at his mother nervously, still unsure whether he was hero or villain. His hand had been bound with bandages and Agnes gave a little gasp of horror when she saw traces of blood through the muslin.
Mr Everett guided his Wolsley over the Southend-to-Liverpool Street railway bridge in East Street, past the Railway Inn, turned right at the Blue Boar into Victoria Avenue, then left at the bottom of St Mary’s Hill into Prittlewell Chase.
This was the well-bred bungalow hinterland of grammarian and rotarian success. The immaculately kept front gardens were rank-codes that belonged to bank managers and the growing number of civil servants absorbed into the bureaucratic mushroom spreading from office to office in Southend’s business quarter of Victoria Avenue.
In the centre of this suburban Ultima Thule nestled Southend-High-School-For-Boys. Its mock Georgian frontage and verdant playing fields a shrine for the aspirational middle-classes.
The ugly concrete sprawl of the General Hospital almost next door was in strong contrast and a warning to those whose standards, whether educational, social or medical, slipped.
The sight of boys in yellow and blue house shirts playing hockey with curved sticks and tiny goal nets caused Joe increasing consternation as the Wolsley passed the School.
“You’ve got this to look forward to, Joe.” Mr Everett said, nodding at the stately facade of the Grammar School.
Joe grunted non-commitedly. He had no intention of joining the green-blazered, be-capped snobs who he sometimes saw cycling past in Sutton Road as he walked to school.
The car turned down Hobleythick Lane and made for the rear of the hospital where it was easier to park.
The walk to Casualty made Joe feel quite important. People turned to stare at the boy accompanied by his mother, but also by a slightly dishevelled, yet distinguished man in his late fifties.
A consultant, perhaps.
A rare or complicated illness was still a social virtue in the mid-sixties.
At Out-Patients, the trio were asked to sit and wait until the Duty Doctor could see Joe.
Three-quarters of an hour later, they were summoned to a cubicle and Joe was asked to lie down on a trolley-bed.
A brisk dark-haired man with aquiline features and a flapping white coat burst in and asked whether Joe had been in the wars.
Joe nodded shyly. An uncomfortable Mr Everett explained the circumstances behind the accident.
As the doctor unwrapped the bandages his expression grew more stern.
“This is a serious injury. If we don’t act quickly this boy could end up with a disfigured hand.”
He inspected the damaged knuckle and asked the attendant nurse to gently bathe it.
“The bone is cracked, we’ll have to put it in plaster to ensure that it re-sets correctly.”
He grimaced. “Whoever dealt the blow used quite disproportionate force. Most unfortunate.”
With his hand plastered and bandaged, Joe imagined he was Henry Cooper preparing for a big fight. He could use bubble gum as a gum shield. In the car, Agnes turned to Mr Everett. “I don’t want Joe to go to the High School..”
The Wolsley performed a sort of side-jig as Everett looked at Agnes in alarm. Was this some sort of petulant reaction to the boy’s injury?
“But Mrs Day, a place at the Grammar School is a precious opportunity for the lad..and..”
He was about to say, “.. and a rare occurrence for a boy from his background.”
Instead he asked, “Why are you opposed to him taking up the place?”
Agnes cleared her throat nervously, “Joe’s family on both sides are working class – ordinary people. None of us have been to the High School, and we don’t want Joe getting ideas above his station. Besides, the uniform alone will cost over £50. Joe himself says he doesn’t want to go and be separated from his friends. He won’t know a soul at the Grammar School.”
The Headmaster stole a glance at the determined woman sitting next to him. It was clear she had made up her mind on the matter, although the nervously held handle of her handbag betrayed an in-bred deference to authority and the realisation that in some way she was being insubordinate.
Although the teacher didn’t know it, there was also an undercurrent of doubt. The ambitious side of Agnes Day didn’t want Joe to set off too early on the predictable route to the factory or builder’s yard.
Several generations of artisans were more than a match for this germ of white collar ambition, however.
“He wouldn’t fit in – and if he did then he wouldn’t want anything to do with us anymore..”
Everett looked again at the implacable Agnes and felt his shoulders droop in acquiescence.
Lord Plowden’s Report on primary education might be full of fine sentiments, but if the working classes didn’t want to avail themselves of the education on offer then there was nothing to be done.
“Obviously, Mrs Day it is you and your family’s prerogative to accept or decline Joe’s Grammar School place. All I can do is advise you to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity.”
Everett looked as if he were about to burst into tears.
Joe had registered the first part of the conversation and, satisfied that his mother was not putting his footballing future in jeopardy, allowed himself the luxury of replaying some of the key moments of the recent first ever League Cup Final in which Third Division heroes QPR had fought a hard won 3-2 victory against their First Division opponents West Bromwich Albion.
The tabloids were speculating on which QPR players were going to be poached by richer clubs. Joe was determined not to permit a similar diaspora of talent to occur with the Bournmouth Park Team.
It now looked as if lynchpin Day was staying at the club.
The day was beginning to improve considerably
Especially as Everett had said that Joe could stay at home for the rest of the week.
The pair fell out of the Wolsley gratefully as it parked in front of the green painted terrace in Stadium Road.
Agnes opened a tin of spam, placed some chips in the frying pan and heated a saucepan of frozen peas. She worked in the afternoons and Derek Day expected his dinner to be ready when he arrived back at 12.30pm. Joe was despatched to lay the table, a difficult task one-handed.
Agnes briefly summarised the morning’s events when Derek arrived.
He sat at the dinner table, trouser cuffs clenched at the ankles by cycle clips that stayed in position throughout the lunch hour.
Derek was jealous of every minute of his dinner break, finishing his meal quickly so as to grab ten minutes in an armchair with his Daily Mirror.
In consequence, he was slightly annoyed to find that his habitual lunchtime sequence was being disturbed. By instinct anti-authority, Derek quickly forgave Joe his injured hand, dismissing Mr Woolly as a vicious-minded dictator. When told of the letter from the Council, however, and Shirley’s decision to reject it, witnessed by his son’s headmaster, Derek went unusually thoughtful.
Although cynical about the airs and graces retailed by the Grammar School, Derek was enough of a Marxist to enjoy seeing some of the wealth of the education economy being re-distributed.
“What does the boy want?” he eventually asked.
“He would rather die than be split up from his mates.” Agnes replied with feeling.
“Is that right, Son?” Derek looked at Joe closely.
“Yes Dad, I want to go to Wentworth. It’s where you went, isn’t it?”
Derek grunted. He didn’t remember the patchwork schooling he received there due to the War with any affection.
Still, school was a place that taught you all the things that you then unlearned when you entered the real world.
By that definition five years at Wentworth would be less of an encumbrance in later life.
“Ok, that’s that then.” With a sigh Derek sat back in his armchair and picked up his paper.
Joe’s future had been decided.
After Derek and Agnes had left for work, Joe read the football transfer news at the back of the paper and felt vaguely guilty about not being in the School playground to pick his lunchtime team.
Captaincy, like popularity, was an elusive, fleeting state.
If neglected, it would slip like a wet ball through his grasp.
He went out into the garden and kicked his plastic World Cup 1966 football against the conservatory wall for half an hour.
The week yawned ahead of him.
Finding a spare tank of energy, Joe jinked the ball past two burly defenders using the same body swerve that George Best had patented to unlock hostile penalty areas, kicked the black and white ball fiercely against the far end of the conservatory and headed it neatly into the toybox on the rebound.
Honour satisfied, he carefully closed the conservatory door and hid the key under the loose brick in the coal bunker.
The alleyway that ran between the back gardens of the houses in Stadium and Stanfield Roads was a kind of no man’s land in territorial terms, falling beyond the jurisdiction of any one property to maintain.
The result was pleasing for a child. A profusion of weeds, nettles, long grass and bushes to act as cover in the more predatory games. For ten minutes Joe pretended he was Albert Desalvo, the Boston Strangler, on the run from the asylum.
He darted from cover point to point, looking for potential victims, staring with crazed eyes through cracks in back garden fences.
Nursing his plastered forearm and hand, he broke free of the alley undergrowth and emerged into Grainger Road. At 3.30pm the road was deserted, the only sound disturbing the dusty tranquillity was the thump, thump of the moulding presses in the plastics factory at the end of the road, beyond the entrance to the industrial estate.
Joe resisted the temptation to explore this forbidden territory and instead followed Grainger Road round to Maldon Road, at the end of which lay Prittlewell Path – a long walkway running alongside the railway towards the town centre.
The path was off-limits to Joe because of its reputation for attracting disreputable old men who would offer sweets to children in the hope that the kids would agree to unwrap other more sordid items.
Shirley warned Joe to always take the main road into town.
This made Prittlewell Path irresistible.
The path was also, by Joe’s calculation, at least twice as fast as the alternative, with the added bonus that it led directly into Bradley Street and the back of Broadway Market. There was no more exciting route into Victoria Circus and the bustling heart of Southend.
The path was about a quarter of a mile long, dead straight, and in the heat people at one end appeared fluid and insubstantial like mirages to those at the other. No-one ever just stood on the path.
It was a trunk route. If people paused it was because they were trainspotters or perverts. Both were to be avoided.
This was ordinarily simple to do, although inconvenient, as the entire length of the path was visible from either end. Today, however, something odd took place.
The path was clear of people as Joe started to walk from the north end. It was still empty as Joe turned to engage in a minor skirmish involving a brick and a clump of discarded oil barrels in the unkempt hinterland on the east side of the railway line.
When he turned back to the path, however, he was no longer its sole occupant. About a hundred yards away a tall, gloomy figure, hunched into a long trenchcoat despite the hot day, stood motionless, staring through the wire mesh fence at the non-view.
His position on the path was impossible given the short time that Joe had been distracted.
Joe looked back the way he had come. It would be a long detour to retrace his steps. The man seemed immersed totally in whatever he was peering at through the fence.
Probably a dedicated trainspotter, Joe rationalised, he wouldn’t even notice if he ran past.
Joe gathered all his courage like a pile of football kit and began to trot, hopefully at a rate that seemed purposeful not panic-stricken.
Close-up, the man was old. Grey hair tumbled down into a Noah’s beard, contrasting with coal black eyebrows that arched above brilliant blue eyes. The collar of his trenchcoat was turned up, even though the temperature in the alleyway was in the high seventies. He was panting slightly, swallowing air like a fish out of water.
Joe eyed him cautiously.
The afternoon sunrays picked up the old man’s shadow and pinned it against the red brick wall that ran the length of the alleyway’s east side. Transfigured, the man looked huge, imposing, impassable.
Without realising it, Joe had slowed his pace down to a nervous sidle.
Inconspicuously, or so he hoped, Joe began to edge pass the old man.
The heat now felt sub-tropical, all pretence of a breeze had collapsed and the afternoon was still. When Joe looked down he noticed that the absence of motion had extended to his own legs.
Slowly, the old man turned around. Not merely to look at Joe, but to regard him, hold him in his gaze, survey him.
In contrast to his face, the old man’s eyes were pure anthracite, motion power in a Jurassic face. They turned on Joe.
“Even as we speak the sons of Judah are marching south into the Promised Land, overturning the Lord’s enemies and fulfilling the written prophecies. They march into Luxar and Ras Banas, they reach into Sinai, they flow into the Tigris and Euphrates delta plains, they march across the west bank of the mighty Jordan and occupy the Golan Heights. The ancient lands of Samaria fall to them and along the banks of the holy river Jordan they hold the lost tribes in their thrall like trapped locusts.
Those who the Lord has anointed, let no man plot against them. In 6 days the battle will be over and the chosen sons of Judah will stand triumphant.”
At that moment the old man was not staring across waste ground towards railway flotsam, but gazing instead into a distant land of milk and honey, and focusing on its jewel, Jerusalem.
Joe turned his head upwards to follow the old man’s line of vision.
The burnished disc of gold that was the afternoon sun temporarily blinded him. He raised a hand to his eyes and peered through the venetian blind of his fingers.
Next to him, the old man’s face was in rapture. Despite the blinding glare he was staring into the sun’s centre. His eyes were wide open, registering something that Joe couldn’t see.
The patrician head moved slowly up and down.
Then the sun was doused by a cloud. A light switched off in the old man’s eyes. Passion was replaced by pain. The pain felt by someone who has overstayed their time in order to execute one last important task. His face muscles slackened, the whole jaw cage weakened and his eyes became translucent. The ancient powers of concentration re-grouped to fight with each other in one last apocalyptic battle.
His gaze arrowed in on Joe.
“I have lived for more than four score years on this earth.
My destiny has been a simple one: To remain alive long enough to deliver a single message. Many miraculous events occurred to enable me to do this one thing. In 1944 a man died screaming ‘Why?’ as he took a bullet meant for me. Around me fires have raged, cancers flourished, thunderbolts struck, waters fizzed. Always I have walked between them. The message I have for you was given to me by my father on his death bed.
The same message was given to him by his father, and his father before him.
The old man gulped air and placed one trembling hand on Joe’s shoulder.
“At its top and at its base the world is one
But its girth has many tendrils
Each of these snakes bends and hisses the way it wishes
Reaching for its own destiny
Centuries will pass without the power
To grasp the heads of the serpents together
But a man will rise with the rib of woman
To fulfil the prophecies.
Whatever they say you are, you are not
Do not listen to the charlatans, scribes and seers
For your words will eclipse all theirs’.
However dry the plain around you, your gift
Will pour open like the plume of a peacock
And although you will walk a lonely path
You will never be truly alone
For, to make the earth whole again
The many must be made two
And then like two eyes blinking
Reawaken as one.”
The weight of his hand on Joe’s shoulder bore down on him. The old man was exhausted. With an effort, he straightened and stood in front of the boy.
“One last thing. To commence your journey you must go to the market in the heart of the town. In Talza’s Arcade there is a place called Milo’s Music. Milo is expecting you. Go there now. My task is now over. Goodbye, and may the Lord bless you.”
The sun dropped through the floor of the cloud and Joe blinked as the light dazzled him again.
When his vision returned he was alone on the pathway.
On one side, the long industrial wall trailed into the hazy distance. Inside the building, just visible through tiny windows at knee-height that dribbled sunlight into the interior gloom, women mechanically assembled electrical circuits and talked stridently above the robotic chatter of machinery.
On the other side of the path a train was pulling away from its sidings, with incurious faces in dark windows forming a series of white human full-stops.
Of the old man there was no trace.
The encounter might never have happened, except that Joe could remember, without effort, every word the old man had uttered.
He jumped as a mongrel scampered past, tongue unrolled, in pursuit of a morsel that might also disappear if it were not pounced on.
In a daze, Joe continued his journey into town. The path emerged at the confluence of Bradley Street and the Broadway Market. Joe walked oblivious to his surroundings, past the Coal Offices towards Victoria Circus. At the Circus, the usual scrapbook of humanity was on show.
News vendors, taxi drivers stopping for a smoke, shop girls taking late tea breaks and street jockeys passing the time between the last race at the bookies and the first race to the public bar in the Victoria Hotel.
Joe crossed Southchurch Road and walked towards the entrance to the Talza Arcade.
This was a favourite haunt, containing Bobbins the bookshop, Prices the toyshop, the potential treasure trove of Badgers Antiques – and a petshop where Joe bought his goldfish and the occasional white mouse.
The Arcade was always packed, clogged with browsers and bruisers, tentatively buying and aggressively selling. Nestling at the rear of the Arcade, ignored by most because it usually appeared closed, was Milo’s Music.
The windows were dusty. An ancient trombone lay in its case, looking as if the window display had grouped itself around it. Yellowing sheets of popular songs from the forties and fifties reclined on subfusc felt. A couple of records by Art Pepper and Louis Armstrong stood nonchalantly to one side, as if waiting to be invited to play. Faded cardboard notes had been badly stuck to the inside of the window. A mouth organ and a chipped violin with a string missing kept the trombone company. Soundless, yet hopeful of purchase.
Joe could not remember ever hearing music from inside the shop.
He peered in through the door. There were no lights and no movement. The black and white lino tiled floor disappeared into blackness half way into the shop. The outline of the counter could just be perceived as Joe’s eyes adjusted to the gloom.
Suddenly, the door opened. Joe looked up into the face of a man with the longest hair he had ever seen.
Held back by a black Alice band, it cascaded down to his waist like a Sioux warrior’s. Otherwise, he was conventional. A black suit, white shirt and striped tie created the impression of an accountant who had been awakened from a hundred year slumber.
“Are you looking for anything in particular?” The tone was kindly, if a trifle bored. Ten year olds are not good customers, generally.
“Er, I was told to come here..”
“By whom, may I ask?”
“By..Oh, I don’t know his name. An old man on Prittlewell Path. He said Milo would be expecting me..” The unlikely nature of what he was saying caused Joe to peter out.
However, his words had the opposite effect. Curtains of hair shivered as the shop owner twitched his head back, pulled Joe into the shop and closed the door, locking it behind him.
The ‘Open’ sign was reversed and Joe propelled into a chair.
“I’m Milo. So, you’re the one. What have you done to your hand?”
“My teacher broke a knuckle – it was a punishment.”
“But you’re not left-handed are you?”
“No, I can still write with my right hand.”
“..And play, of course.”
“This, young man..”
Milo pulled a guitar case from behind the counter, wiped it with a handkerchief and carefully released the two clasps.
Inside lay an exquisite Spanish guitar, of classical vintage but in perfect condition. Its varnished casework glowed, even in the half-light of the shop and the metal frets gleamed. The steel strings were taut and silver like telegraph wires on a moonlit night.
Milo picked it up gingerly, lifting it from its case like a father lifting a baby from its cradle.
“It’s yours.” He offered it to Joe with reverence.
“But I can’t play the guitar..”
“You will come here every Wednesday afternoon after school for two hours. I will teach you.”
Joe’s face fell. Another boring lesson. Besides, Wednesdays was football practice.”
“I can’t, I’ve got football..”
“You have played your last football match. There are more important things to attend to. You will come here every Wednesday at 4.15pm and I will fulfil my obligation.
Now, take that plaster and bandage off, your hand is healed.”
Joe stood helpless as Milo expertly unwound the bandage, revealing the plaster cast around the knuckle. Taking a multi-purpose scout’s knife from his pocket and sweeping his hair back over his shoulder, Milo carefully cut away the plaster.
Inside, the skin had gone white and puffy. The swelling had gone, however.
“Flex your fingers.”
Joe did as he was told.
His fingers were moving freely. There was no pain. Milo put the guitar back into its case and handed it to Joe.
“Bring yourself and this guitar to me here next Wednesday.” He commanded. Joe ran out of the shop and into the failing sunlight of Victoria Circus. He looked down and saw with surprise that he was holding the guitar case with his injured hand.
The discovery made him feel better.
Unconsciously, he started to hum a tune. A tune that, had he stopped to think about it, would have puzzled him.
It was a song that had not, as yet, been written.
October 10th 1967.
Joe awoke, stretched in a vaguely feline manner and regarded the green Grammar School uniform hanging on his wardrobe door with some distaste. Since the encounter in Milo’s, he had lived and breathed the guitar. Football had been pushed into touch and the progress made on the classical guitar remarkable in a short space of time. The assiduous Mr Everitt had noticed this about turn and had talked Joe’s parents into taking up the Grammar School place with the promise that the music teaching at the school was far in advance of anything else available locally. The Grammar School, made aware of this latent talent in the working class lad, was relieved to discover that the 11 Plus threw up the odd bit scrap of talent from the wrong side of town.
Earning the right to wear the serge trousers and starched shirt had been relatively easy; getting out of bed now and darting across the room in the freezing cold in order to put it on was a more difficult proposition.
He squirmed, larvae-like, in the protective bed clothes, hoping that a butterfly would magically emerge, washed, brushed and ready for the outside world.
Beyond his bedroom window a November-wracked Southend gritted its teeth and rattled glass panes, pleading to be allowed in.
A morning that promised double maths followed by double chemistry did not inspire any movement towards metamorphosis inside the cocoon.
In inverse proportion to the lack of movement inside the sheets, the hands of the Noddy alarm clock (outgrown, but still cute) were flying around its face. Joe’s mother, Agnes had moved into 3 minute warning mode at the bottom of the stairs.
With a groan Joe leaped out of bed and in the same movement switched on the small electric fire built into the bedroom wall.
Within its faltering halo of warmth he proceeded to don the green and grey sensibleness that was the crest (‘never call it a badge, boy’) of Grammar School status.
The last couple of years had been kind to the country, to Southend and to the Day family. The disillusionment felt towards the Harold Macmillan Government had carried Wilson’s Labour Party to a narrow 4 seat majority election victory in 1964 and a wider margin in 1966 although the town was not a natural Labour stronghold, the climate seemed to be improving for the growing estuary town and had filtered through to expand the pool of Grammar School places in the Borough.
Britain’s embracing of ‘Scientific Socialism’ had ensured that resources were available to trickle into that final tributary of gross domestic product, the Education System.
10% more 11 year olds in the Town were admitted to the four grammar schools in 1967 compared with eleven years earlier. This instilled in the population the agreeable feeling that their offspring were becoming more intelligent. Good social engineering. Excellent politics.
Nearby Tilbury had also passed muster and become a major trade terminal, with armadas of tankers moving slowly up the Thames estuary.
In consequence, Southend had feasted on the London overflow of wealth that had descended on the Essex marshes.
Derek had set up a new TV sales and rental retail shop on a wing and a prayer to take advantage of the new demand for home entertainment when it became clear that every home in the country would eventually switch on, tune in and drop into an armchair.
Owning two, even three TVs in Southend was not uncommon.
Derek had forgotten where he had lost his lapsed Union ticket. Owning a house and a small business had made Derek, on paper, a member of the class he had despised in 1956.
Japanese-style production methods and industrial relations had rendered all such alignments and affiliations obsolescent. Pockets of social unrest flared like acne from time to time but were assuaged by the cream of a GDP surplus.
The Days moved from Stadium Road to a 4-bedroom detached house overlooking the Estuary in Thorpe Bay Esplanade. This seemed more befitting a business owner – albeit a small one.
The country’s conspicuous consumption enabled the purchase of a conspicuous address.
The neighbours were accountants, doctors and solicitors, never short of a fee, with waiting lists as long as their driveways.
The currency of status could be counted in cars, boats and uninterrupted views of the sea.
The presence of a bicycle in the Day’s drive was evidence of a soft-pedalling fitness campaign. The bicycle clips had remained in Stadium Road.
In 1967, Derek picked up the keys to his Company van in the morning. An impressive jangling collection which lay next to Agnes’s. Her set provided access to a new red Mini that she used to convey her into the retail paradise of Southend Central.
Derek rationalised his emerging success by coining his own theory of Fountainhead Economics. The more wealth generated at source, the more enjoyed by those in the pool below as it flowed downwards.
The grace and favour Conservative Party of Earl Home and Harold MacMillan had gone forever, replaced by the ostensibly more meritocratic party of Wilson.
The Harold Wilson Government by fighting the strike action of the National Union of Seamen seemed to be leading the banner of R&D-led growth into a new age of prosperity.
The truth, as Derek saw it, was that people wanted to work hard and reap the rewards of their endeavour. Even the poor wanted to claw their way out of poverty by their own efforts, not be rescued by a paternalistic state.
England’s victory in the 1966 World Cup final, Doctor Christian Barnard’s decision to re-locate his pioneering heart transplant research to Guy’s in London, the abolition of the antiquated Censorship laws in the Theatre, the lifting of the ban on ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and the reform of the Abortion Law via David Steele’s private member’s bill, all suggested that Britain was entering an exciting new era.
The ordinary person was even more sanguine.
Francis Chichester’s single-handed circumnavigation of the globe in Gypsy Moth II seemed to be an emblem of the times. An Englishman armed with courage and ingenuity could still conquer the world. The blood-line from Francis Drake to the sons of Albion of the present flowed in an unbroken stream as another Queen Elizabeth waited at Chiswick to bestow a knighthood. The nation applauded, watching proudly on British-made televisions.
With the ironic handclap of his mother echoing in his ear as he finally fell out of the front door, Joe swung his satchell over his shoulder and ran to the bus stop in Thorpe Esplanade, hoping that those idiots Ian and Gavin weren’t watching. It was de trop to be seen hurrying for a bus.
He wrapped his green and white scarf more tightly around his neck. The early morning air seemed cold enough to crack.
Joe’s breath created a moving cloud a few inches in front of his face. Below, the ground was thickly spread with frost. Joe’s thoughts were racing ahead to the Maths lesson that awaited. He had mislaid his book of logarithms and Mr Beeston (‘Beastly’ to his charges) had an unerring radar for such things.
He wished he were going to one of Miss Lockyer’s English lessons. They were spent in a rarefied atmosphere of contemplation of Austen, Hardy and Shakespeare, with the opportunity of really saying what you felt about the books in an atmosphere of literary fan worship.
The very first lesson that term had started with Miss Lockyer slipping into the austere classroom like a butterfly, defying autumn. Her golden hair, worn fashionably long, fell forward over her granny glasses and was flicked back every few minutes, absently and whimsically. Cornflower blue eyes, large and constant behind the lens, gave her the appearance of a bookish Julie Christie – a favourite actress of Joe since seeing her in ‘Dr Zhivago’. Magnified by the spectacles, they conveyed an impression of perpetual discovery, of mild surprise that so much treasure lay between book covers.
Her mouth was full, with lips that could convey a hundred moods simply by being moistened, by pursing, breaking into a smile, tut-tutting.
Inside the mouth lay the single flaw which, illogically, sealed her beauty. A top right incisor was missing, and when concentrating, her tongue would slip unconsciously into the gap.
Her wardrobe consisted of long flowing skirts, flat ballet pumps and generous cardigans and waistcoats.
This contrasted strongly with the sensible court shoes, suits and twin-sets of the other teachers.
Miss Lockyer lived for literature and loved proselytising her obsession.
In that first lesson she announced at the outset that English was never, ever to be a chore, duty or a punishment. Reading would never be something imposed as a corrective force in her lessons. The punishment – the greatest punishment – is to take books away, to burn them, to suppress.
For the boys, who had quickly grown accustomed to fairly brutish regime of force-fed learning, with more of the same in detention and for homework, this was both exhilarating and disorienting.
As was being given a book each, a non-school book at that, and being told to do nothing but read for the next lesson.
“On Thursday,” Miss Lockyer said, “I want you all to come back having read the first chapter, ready to stand up if asked, to tell the class about it.”
As Joe had risen in the second lesson to deliver his summary of the opening pages of ‘Sense and Sensibility’, he had experienced the first sensation of being in control of his destiny. A feeling that would re-occur in later life.
The rapt silence, the approval of Miss Lockyer, the laughter at his carefully prepared joke, convinced Joe that this, or something very similar, was what he was destined to do. Some of the things he had said had not even been in his head when he had risen to speak.
When he sat down, Miss Lockyer’s eyes remained on him.
Lingering, even when another boy had started, haltingly, to speak.
Later, in the library, the teacher had made a point of stopping at Joe’s table, much to the ill-disguised amusement of the other boys, to leave a word in Joe’s ear. So quiet that no-one else heard it.
“Thankyou,” she whispered.
Joe stepped into the road, thinking about the invitation that Miss Lockyer had given him to stop by the staffroom and select one of the teacher’s own large collection of novels.
He would finish lunch early and go before the start of afternoon school.
It may have been the fact that Joe’s scarf was wrapped around his neck higher and more tightly than usual.
It may have been due to his thoughts being firmly lodged elsewhere.
When Joe looked back at the incident later, he couldn’t really understand how he had missed the Ford Anglia.
The car driver, a civilian worker employed at the Army’s firing range at Shoebury, late for work and not really fully awake, did not expect to see a young lad walking off the pavement and into his path. There was no time to brake or swerve. He closed his eyes, resigned to hearing the dull thud of body on bumper.
The impact, when it came, was overwhelming.
The shock, though large, did not last long. He was thrown over the steering wheel into the windscreen, losing consciousness and the better part of his face.
The car collided with a lamp post, the driver ending up half-way out of the front of the car, like a tongue lolling from a mouth.
The Anglia hissed menacingly. Behind it, a body lay on the ground. Crumpled, tragic and quite dead.
But it was not Joe.
Joe stood crying on the kerb, knowing he should be dead, knowing the accident was his fault, knowing that at the last moment a man had jumped from nowhere to push him out of the way. That man now lay in the road.
His saviour lay quite still and broken, an untidy hillock in the gutter. Blood was seeping from under the grey haired head onto the road.
The long overcoat was being pulled up over his body to cover the damaged head. The sight that remained with Joe was of her rescuer’s eyes. Deep, bright and blue, set in a face that was almost entirely annexed by a sprawling white beard.
The sort of beard that artists always gave to Old Testament prophets.
There was no shock on the still face; rather an expression of triumph, of something at last resolved. Pain was not the last thing he had experienced.
Joe wondered where he had come from. There had been no sign of him as he prepared to cross the road.
But then, he hadn’t seen the car either.
The small crowd that had gathered were not concerned with such niceties. An old woman wearing what looked like a tea cosy, turned her gaze from the body in the road and cried at Joe, “Oh God, he’s dead – he ran in front of the car to save you.”
The old lady looked at the inert body of the driver being gently extracted from amongst the shards of glass that were fingering his face that lay smashed on the bonnet of the Anglia. She pulled out a handkerchief, started to shake violently and was then comprehensively sick, adding unusual new colours to the red of the gutter.
An ambulance pulled up and spewed men out of its rear.
The cleaning-up operation began. Joe had a rug placed around his shoulders by a kindly, ageing ambulance driver. “Come on lad, let’s get you to hospital.”
In the ambulance, Joe couldn’t bear to look at the physiognomic collapse of the Anglia driver’s face. Although wrapped in bandages, blood was already seeping through. A nurse was busying herself around him, attaching a saline drip to his upper arm, applying a poultice of palliative words, her mouth close to his face, the gauze a kind of confessional curtain.
The old man had been taken in another ambulance. There was less urgency for him. The task was now one of codification, indexing, boxing up.
Joe’s ambulance arrived at the entrance of the Accident and Emergency department at Southend General Hospital, pulling up outside with an important flourish that the driver hoped wasn’t lost on the line of hospital staff waiting for the incoming patients.
It was still very cold and Joe shivered inside his blanket as he was led inside.
A young nurse satisfied that something interesting had happened to irrigate the desert of her morning, sat down with Joe and started to complete a form so that the incident could exist bureaucratically. The Days’ home phone number was passed hurriedly to the Ward Sister who summoned Agnes to the hospital with some reassuring words about Joe’s condition.
Suffering from shock, Joe allowed himself to be efficiently undressed, put into a capacious hospital gown and tucked into crisp, white sheets.
Agnes arrived, rushing into the ward and throwing herself on Joe, uncertain whether to laugh with relief that her son appeared unscathed, or cry with the emotion of it all. A near hysteria was fomenting in her, enriched by the knowledge that whilst Joe had escaped serious harm, her fellow players in the tragedy had not.
A few minutes later Derek burst into the room, armed only with a second-hand message that had been passed to him at the shop, that his son had been involved in a road accident. Seeing him intact and conscious had a cathartic effect. He broke down and disguised his tears of relief by holding Joe very close.
This led to a family sob, interrupted only when a harassed looking detective constable called Jones asked whether Joe was ready to answer some important questions.
Derek inquired after the Anglia driver.
“He’s in a poor condition, with serious injuries to his face and sternum. They think he’ll pull through, but he won’t look the same after this.
Joe, can you tell me what happened?”
Joe told his side of the story falteringly, unclear as to why he hadn’t seen or heard the car as he stepped off the kerb into the road; equally bemused by the sudden appearance of the old man and his heroic intervention.
The DC scribbled patiently into his little black notepad, nodding every now and then as Joe paused to think.
When he had finished, Derek asked the policeman about the old man.
DC Jones looked uneasy. “No-one knows who he is. I’ve asked all the residents in that area and all the people at the scene. He might as well have dropped in by parachute.”
Derek grimaced, he didn’t like loose threads.
“He must have been carrying some means of identification, don’t you even have a name?”
“I’m afraid not, unless someone comes forward to identify the body we’ll have to rely on Missing Persons flagging up a disappearance, and that could take weeks. With some of these old folk, there are no next of kin, no local relatives. It can be months before we find out who they are. A sad indictment of our society, don’t you think?” Derek nodded. “Didn’t he have anything on his person?”
A rustle of notebook pages. “Just one item, a pocket version of the Bible, with several passages underlined in Revelations. Perhaps he was a holy roller – a Seventh Day Adventist or a member of the end of the world club. No name in the flyleaf, unfortunately.”
“Whoever he was, he was a brave man.” Derek looked at his son, whose eyelids were drooping. He had been given a sedative to make him sleep, the best medicine.
DC Jones stood up, tucking his notebook away in an inside pocket. “Your son is a lucky boy. If someone without this gentleman’s religious convictions had been passing at that moment who knows what state he’d be in now. Greater love hath no man..”
The detective left the room. Derek noticed that he had longish hair for a policeman. Black hanks of it fell over his collar, giving him the aesthetic of a polytechnic tutor rather than a guardian of law and order.
He turned back to Joe. He was now fast asleep, a grazed hand the sum of his injuries.
“I’d better get back to work, Agnes.
There’s an urgent order going through today. I think he’s better off sleeping. I’ll come back this afternoon, perhaps they’ll let him come home then.”
Agnes nodded. “I’ll stay with him until he wakes up. Can you ring the school to let them know what’s happened?”
Derek kissed his wife, allowed himself a last look at the miracle of his son alive and asleep, and departed.
When Joe awoke it was lunch time. Her mother gently pulled his hair off his face and stroked his forehead.
“How are you feeling, darling?”
Joe remembered the awful sound of car bumper on bone and started to cry.
“There, there, it’s alright. You’re safe love. Try not to think about it. Would you like a cup of tea?”
Joe nodded tearfully. Agnes left the room in search of a nurse.
There was a knock on the door. Miss Lockyer appeared, pulling a curtain of long blonde hair back behind her ear, her large blue eyes full of concern.
Joe’s heart leapt, he was important enough for the one person he admired above everyone else to take the trouble to come to the hospital.
Miss Lockyer stepped into the room, her long peasant’s skirt rustling as she sat on the bed and picked up Joe’s hand.
“I came as soon as I could. I was so worried about you. The Headmistress told me about your accident at break time.
I couldn’t desert my class, but I dashed over as soon as the dinner bell went. It must have been awful for you.”
Joe looked up into his teacher’s eyes. They were more luminous than usual behind her bookish spectacles. He had never seen eyes so blue. There was nothing really to say, he was content to lie on his pillow and allow himself to be absorbed whole by those aquamarine pools rippling with concern, a concern that rose from the depths and moored itself directly to Joe’s eyes and beyond to his soul.
Miss Lockyer picked up Joe’s hand and started to stroke it, gently, still without speaking. The warm, rhythmic sensation of her fingers, caressing, soothing, conveyed as much beneath the skin as above it. Joe allowed his eyes to close. He was, he knew, had always known, special.
The love he felt oozing through his pores from Miss Lockyer was only a little disorientating. He was used to being loved. His parents doted on him, his friends adored him, an old man had died to save him. He loved in return, even those when after he had read their faces, he knew that they were not on his side.
Although not old enough to realise it yet, he was beautiful, a quality that inspired unconditional love in many and destructive envy in a few. Beauty, of course, is always dangerous.
On the pretext of bringing his school work, Miss Lockyer visited every day at the same time after school. As the piles of textbooks, exercises and writing paper mounted, Joe almost wished he were still at school. Daily red cross parcels of learning took the edge off reclining in bed and being ministered to by anxious relatives.
The doctor had insisted that he spend another week in bed, convalescing, to allow the shock to irradiate from his body. In a room that looked like a florists’ convention, Joe sat up in bed reading desultorily his prescribed books and letting his mind freewheel.
Occasionally he would switch on his new transistor radio, a present in compensation from his father, whose company had a supplier of inexpensive transistor radios on the Prittlewell Industrial Estate. The transistor factory was devoted to radio assembly, assuaging the demand that the successful campaign for deregulation of the airwaves had created. A last ditch attempt to talk the Bill out in the Commons by the Opposition Spokesman for Trade and Industry, Tony Benn, had failed and every teenager’s bedroom and satchel was now home to one of the compact triumphs of precision solid state electronics.
Off-shore radio stations like Radio London and Caroline had been awarded licences and were now competing for the juvenile ear of the nation with Luxembourg and the newly created Radio One.
David ‘Kid’ Jensen was letting his Canadian drawl fill the gap between ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ and ‘My White Bicycle’ on Luxembourg, using the theme of whiteness to lead imaginatively into a commercial for detergent.
Joe was debating whether to sacrifice musical content for uninterrupted listening by re-tuning to Radio One when there was a knock on the bedroom door.
“Come in.” It was 4.15pm. The time meant it was either Miss Lockyer or a friend from school. Joe hoped it was Gavin; he could be relied upon to have the fruitiest gossip.
Miss Lockyer came diffidently into the room.
“I hope you don’t mind, your mum said come up; I’ve some things for you..”
Joe inwardly groaned, more work and goodbye ‘Kid’.
To his surprise, what emerged from Miss Lockyer’s raffia bag was not homework but a sheaf of handwritten papers.
Joe turned the ratchet-edged volume dial of the transistor down until it clicked off.
Downstairs, the unfamiliar rumble of his mother’s new Electrolux combined washing machine and spindrier reached fever pitch and then whined down to silence.
Miss Lockyer sat on the bed and picked up one of Joe’s hands.
“This may not make a lot of sense to you, but I want to say it anyway. You’ll have realised probably that there is a closer bond between us than between other teachers and pupils. In class you somehow seem to pick up what I’m putting over faster than anyone else. I see a look of recognition in you when around you there is a sea of incomprehension. Your work displays a maturity of thought beyond your years.. an understanding of the concepts of human passion and frailty that seem beyond everyone else. It’s you, Joe, that makes coming into teach all those tedious classes worthwhile. I’ve never encountered that sense of shared understanding in someone so young before.
You see, you are able to devote all your thoughts, all your energy to what the writer is trying to say – a clarity of vision undiluted by concerns of girlfriends, clothes and discos. You have the perception of an adult and the enthusiasm of a child.”
Joe’s finger lingered on the serrated edge of the transistor on/off switch.
“I’ve brought some pieces with me that I have written. No-one else has seen them, no-one else deserves to. One or two of them are addressed to you, so it’s only right that you should be the first to read them. But you must promise that you won’t tell a living soul. Peoples’ imaginations are puny. They would think the worst, and fail completely to understand the special relationship that we have.”
Joe felt his cheeks go red as Miss Lockyer extracted a sheet from the bundle and started to read its contents in a quiet, almost devotional tone.
Words lie inanimate on lonely beaches
Until someone picks them up
And turns them into diamonds.
I feel like the ocean, flowing over pebbles
And pulling back a million words,
Rearranging a few, polishing others
But never finding a gem
Amongst the shingle.
Until one day
A tiny jewel throws itself
Into my foaming, desperate currents
And says ‘Be still, stop searching,
All beachcombers know
That the object you are seeking,
That most desirable thing,
The life-changing Star of India in twilight surf
Never agrees to be found.
It nominates you, its discoverer,
It chooses you, its disciple’.
Miss Lockyer looked up from reading the poem.
“I flatter myself that I am your discoverer..” she said and pulled Joe’s hand forward to rest on one perfectly formed and un-corseted breast.
As Joe felt his teacher’s breath catch in faster, more urgent bursts, he sat up pushed the woman away and without realising why or how put one hand in the air and said ‘Go’. Outside, a peal of Autumnal thunder rolled along the Estuary and out to sea.
Joe, with absolute authority, guided the teacher back to the firm dry land of a dull Monday afternoon in late October. Miss Lockyer stood up with a look of rapt fear on her face and backed away, unable to take her eyes away from Joe’s until she left the room.
The Cusp of Change
‘I can’t understand people who feel guilty about the working classes. People will always be different, even if everyone has the same houses and the same money. We would always be richer in our minds than the working classes, just by reading books.’
Anon. from Jane Deverson & Katherine Lindsay ‘Voices from the Middle Classes’ 1975
November 20th 1976.
Wai-Moon Kung was Vietnamese, a refugee from the last Vietcong offensive on Saigon in 1971. A burst of automatic rifle fire had severed both her legs a mini skirt’s length below her groin. She had been rescued by a US helicopter gunship, spent a year in hospital in Minnesota before graduating High School comfortably ahead of the rest of her year to take a place at the University of Chicago to study Sociology. By now she was known as Oona.
A research grant had enabled her to come over to London in September 1976 for an eight month exchange at the Polytechnic of the South Bank.
Her thesis on ‘The Structural Disfunction of a Class-based Society’ required her to observe football hooligans, the striking working classes and suede-headed followers of the British Movement in locations like Dagenham, East Ham and Millwall.
“Some of the guys got to go to the Left Bank, I get the North Bank at Arsenal.” She joked.
Oona was quite beautiful, with two raven wings of glossy hair, an alabaster complexion and the ability to talk latrine American with a disarming oriental lilt.
She propelled herself furiously along the smooth, antiseptic corridors of the South Bank, smiling angelically whilst aiming expletives at anyone daring to impede her progress.
In the evenings she was a regular face at the Union events that proliferated in the bars. It was at one of these that she had first encountered the life-inverting phenomenon that was Joe Day, fronting his anarcho-punk band, ‘Kensington Zoo’.
Joe had completed his degree in Commercial Art the previous June, securing a respectable 2/2 largely on the basis of his final year project – a brilliant situationist campaign devised to persuade more people to use rail transport.
His ‘It’s faster by road’ exhibition had been acclaimed by a fortuitously progressive element on the Faculty. Visitors had to stumble through a room filled with theatrical smoke (real carbon monoxide had been vetoed on safety grounds), to be greeted at the exit with the legend ‘It’s Faster to Die by Road’. This naive, but effective piece of experiential protest art had compensated for three years of non-appearances at tutorials and lectures.
Joe’s other talent was as a musician. Musicians sleep late.
He had formed ‘Kensington Zoo’ in his last year, catching the vanguard of the punk explosion, combining acerbic lyrics and blatantly off-key, but violently compelling music, with an artist’s understanding of visual performance.
Oona had been present at the first flawed, but unforgettable gig, when the band had played their instruments soundlessly for the longest minute of their lives before the backline amplification had jumped into action and the number had crashed into existence mid-chord. ‘You don’t Listen, You can’t Hear’ had been a memorable occasion for the twenty or so students present in the West Bar. The dumbshow was later incorporated into the set and called performance art. A loose connection made all the right connections with the audience. At least five of them had pogoed, one of them even spitting tentatively in Joe’s direction.
His spiked hair, inverted peace symbol painted on his forehead and heavy chain, linking belt with ankle, failed to camouflage Joe’s good looks. The strong jawline, angular cheekbones and clear, blue angry eyes would have stood out anywhere. His lithe, six foot swagger to the bar at the end of the set dared anyone to misunderstand or impede his ferocity of purpose.
Oona, sitting at a table near the bar drinking a Tequila Dry, felt several drops of liquid fall on her head. Joe’s Guinness was being sprinkled liberally around him as he forced home a point with Bezzle, the bass player.
“My, my, it’s raining Guinness,” Oona said, “There is a God after all – and he’s Irish.”
“Be thankful it’s good clean Guinness,” Joe retorted, wiping saliva stains off his jacket ruefully. He pushed back a chair and sat down at her table. Bezzle sauntered off to join some friends at the bar.
“So, what did you think?” Joe asked, licking white foam from his lips in what he hoped was a cool way.
“Well, it certainly wasn’t The Quicksilver Messenger Service – I guess you could say it struck a chord, again and again and again..”
“Yeah, yeah, but did you get off on it?” Joe demanded, oblivious to the irony.
“To get off something, don’t you first need to get on it..?” Oona enquired laconically, allowing her glance to run smoothly down Joe’s tightly denimed hips. She smiled. It was enjoyable to shock. As enjoyable in its own way as Joe’s stance on-stage – calculated to get a reaction. Sitting in front of her was a young man obviously used to playing the part of the rebel. All the mannerisms were in place, the struck poses, the attitude.
All that was missing was real anger, a genuine reason to rebel. She enjoyed the look of discomfort on his face as she frisked his groin with her eyes.
“Isn’t it a problem actually being able to play the guitar?” She asked, “I mean, someone, somewhere has taught you to play for real. It must be kinda difficult to act the guitar primitive.”
A body blow followed by a mind blow. Joe realised that this was no ordinary girl sitting across from him. He sipped his beer to give himself time to think, the usual cynical responses were not going to do.
“What’s your name?”
“Wai-Moon Kung, but call me Oona, it’s more friendly. Didn’t I see you a month ago at the ICA for the Clash gig – you were at the front just behind Shane and Jane. They were both pissed and lying on the front of the stage. Jane was writing on Shane’s face in blood with a piece of broken glass – I think she was saying she loved him. I noticed you looking, but you weren’t enjoying the spectacle. It was if she was cutting you too.
It was true. Whilst Joe loved the music and his fingers were forming the same chords as Mick Jones as the Clash speedballed through ‘London’s Burning’, he didn’t enjoy the pain. Somehow, the closer he got to someone’s pain, the more he could feel it. Whilst there was great music that night, there was rage too. He felt it as Strummer hollered “I run through the empty stone because I’m all alone.” He felt it again now, from this girl.
“So, what’s on your set list for tonight, honey?” Her jet black hair, curtains of it, flew backwards exposing her pure white face, red lipstick caging sharp, closely set teeth. She smiled angrily at him, licking her lips like a wound. Joe felt the scream of it in his mind, jolting around his skull, ricocheting off the sides.
“Wow”, he murmured, “Who hurt you?”