Selective Ears

It’s been five days since the partnerships of providers who will be involved in the Oliver McGowan Mandatory Training for Autism & Learning Disability Awareness were announced. The response on social media has been intense, questioning and ongoing. I’ve tried to keep out of things because I’m acutely aware that I will never be on the receiving end of the skills/attitudes that are delivered by the training. Plenty of people who have been commenting have been on the receiving end (i.e. have been inpatients in ATUs and other hospital services) or are in fear of what might happen to them if they ever do find themselves in such an environment. These are the voices I am most interested in; not the families, or the allies or the professional organisations. These are the voices from the coal face.

Watching from the touchlines has been utterly depressing. I’ve felt shame, guilt, anger that whilst a tiny few have been engaged with, but only to criticise them for their approach, the vast majority of people who have asked questions or expressed concerns have been totally ignored. Nothing. It’s as if they hadn’t spoken. This doesn’t augur well. It feels that something is being set up from the outset that is completely at odds with the stated aim of the training project: that autistic people and people with learning disabilities will be treated with respect, humanity and as rightful individuals in their encounters with the NHS. I have seen scant evidence of that over the past few days. Quite the contrary. Questions and concerns have been dismissed as “hatred”, “vitriol”, “bullying”. One lovely chap asked a series of (in my eyes) very polite, relevant questions and suddenly found himself labelled as an abuser of women. I’m not sure what is worse: hostility or complete silence. They both give the same message though – you are not worthy enough to be engaged with.

I’ve had quite a few conversations with friends, trying to understand what is going on here. I think Sara Ryan shook the truth stick in exactly the right places in her blog on the subject and I’m not going to cover the ground that she has brilliantly covered:

‘My silly letters…’ and training turmoil

I’ve still not worked out why the defensiveness has existed and been so hostile. I’m going to go off at a tangent here because a memory from 1993 popped up last night and feels pertinent. At the time, I was the training officer within the Housing Benefits department for a local authority. One day, I was asked to run a week long course for all the clerical assistants that wanted to take part. The clerical assistants were the lowest grade workers in the department and their duties consisted mainly of filing, post linking and photocopying. The plan was to devote a week with them to teaching them the role of the Clerical Officer (one grade up from them). It was seen, I guess, as something that they might find motivational. I took the order at face value and did a truncated version of the induction course that the clerical officers would normally receive. A couple of people chose not to attend, but those that did had a whale of a time and I felt chuffed to be part of something that appeared respectful and in good faith. On the penultimate day of the course, I was surprised to be pulled out of the course for half an hour and was called into the weekly management meeting. I was informed that there were currently three clerical officer vacancies and that I was to get all the trainees to sit a test on the last day and the three who came top would be offered a temporary upgrading. There was a rub. I wasn’t allowed to tell them this until after the test. I don’t know why, but it immediately spoiled the relationship we had built up over the week. I was in the know of something crucial to them, but not permitted to let them in on it. It is to my eternal shame that I went along with what I was ordered to do. The outcome was beastly. The delegates felt let down. They felt used. They felt their usual irrelevance was further cemented. I vowed after that shitshow never to put myself in that position again.

Over the past few years, I’ve been to a handful of meetings with the great and the good: NHSE, The Department of Health, the CQC. They are not my natural arenas. In every single meeting I’ve attended either with LBBill, Rightful Lives, 7 Days of Action, we (the non professionals) are let into a secret. A big secret that will have big implications to the people we engage with. Once the secret is out, we are then told: “But if you could keep that under your hat for the time being…” Every single meeting I’ve attended, the same script has played out at some point. And inevitably, I sit there thinking, “Shit. I’ve compromised myself. I’m now expected to have conversations with friends and allies whilst knowing something crucial that they don’t.” It’s been over two years since I last put myself in that position and I’m never going to again. Things like my integrity and relationships are too important to jeopardize by being caught up in a power game.

Because that’s what it is; a power game. I think that is partly what has been played out over the past few days. Sometimes intentional, sometimes unconsciously.  I think some people have got off on it and milked it for all it’s worth; I think others have been deeply embarrassed by being caught up in it.

That’s my take, anyway. Not that it matters much, because the original issue raised in this post still glaringly and painfully exists – autistic people and those with learning disabilities are practically invisible in this process. Sadly, in some of the exchanges, it was worse than that. Real scorn and disgust was shown to people genuinely being themselves and taking the incredibly brave step of expressing their fears on a huge public platform.

I like to end posts like this with at least the sniff of a solution. This is one of those days when I haven’t got one. Except the obvious. All those people who think they have the answers and the power to step down and make way for people who will be immediately affected by the training.

Damn. I’ve just been shat on by another of those flying pigs.

 

Postscript (16.30)

Incredible. My sister has just text me. She has been blocked in the last hour on Twitter by the person who has “single handedly” led the training project. My sister isn’t autistic, but she is a concerned Aunt and lived through the experience of Steven being away, so is naturally interested in how the training is panning out. Quite a few people have reported being blocked after asking questions/raising concerns. Selective ears?

Les

After months of writing and promoting Lines, it’s nice to write a story of normal Cowley life. Where better to start than with a massive Steven Neary joke.

If you’ve seen the “Drunk” episode of Men Behaving Badly, you may get to the tag line before I do.

This morning a chap from the council visited to check out the slightly offputting crack that has appeared in the bedroom wall. He was a friendly chap, mid to late fifties, clearly fond of his fry ups and with a very sexy Bobby Charlton comb over hairstyle. Steven came to greet him in the hall:

“Hello man. What’s your name, man?”

“My name is Les.”

Steven looked at me with his wide eyes, that I know is a sign that he’s spotted something familiar and that a popular culture joke is on its way.

“Like Les in Men Behaving Badly.”

A few minutes later, Les was up the step ladder taking photos of the crack, when Steven burst into the bedroom.

“Les. I know a song that could have been written about you.”

Les didn’t quite follow this, so I had to repeat what Steven had said. Ever game, Les replied;

“What song is that, Steven?”

Steven waited until he was sure he had Les’s full attention and announced;

“Young, Gifted and Black.”

Les’s face became a picture of bemusement. He knew that he had heard Steven correctly, but.. But…

I thought I’d better step in to help him out.

“Steve. What did Martin Clunes say?”

Steven could barely say Martin’s retort for laughing;

“Les, you’re not young, gifted or black.”

Steven disappeared off to the kitchen. I gave Les a couple of minutes to reassemble his equilibrium and said,

“Now, Les. About that crack…..”

Lines – In The Shops

Drum roll.

Lines is available to buy from http://www.lulu.com from 13th July.

https://www.lulu.com/en/gb/shop/mark-neary/lines/paperback/product-mmm5wp.html

mmm5wp-front-shortedge-384

I want to thank everyone who has followed the serialisation of the book over the past few months. The feedback has been invaluable and the finished product incorporates many of the comments/suggestions that I’ve received.

The published book has four additional chapters to the blog. There is a prologue; an encounter with Louisa Paget; a catch up with Mary Culley in her 1910 lodging house and a chapter I wrote very recently during lockdown after finding a tiny photo album of my Dad’s. Many of the other chapters are longer than the blog versions.

I want to pay  tribute to Kate who was my copy editor. She handled me perfectly. I’m normally ultra sensitive to what I may perceive as criticism, but she invariably had me pissing myself laughing at her edits, such was her sensitivity and excellent sense of humour. I also want to thank my sister, Jayne and cousin, Carol who had to deal with endless phone calls as I tried to recall the name of the gentleman’s outfitters in King Street.

I can now let you into a little secret. I started writing this book in 2019 before I knew whether my cancer surgery had been successful. One day during my convalescence I watched the 1994 TV interview with Dennis Potter. It was recorded three months before he died of pancreatic cancer and he talked about his drive to write his final play before the end came. That’s how I felt about this book. I wanted a legacy, but more than that, I wanted to write a tribute to the people who have shaped me. I was lucky. The cancer was removed and I had more time than I originally feared. A couple of days before the book is published, I went for a blood test: the first hurdle to clear in this year’s check-up rigmarole. I took my draft copy of the book with me and nursed it on my lap whilst I sat in the waiting room. Whatever comes next, I’ve got more of a handle on my Lines and hopefully produced something entertaining in the process.

Writing this book and discovering the characters has been the most fun I’ve had in years. I hope that it’s as much fun to read.

Lines Chapter 26 – Lines

26. Lines

 

Wednesday

It is coming to an end. There doesn’t feel like too much left to do now. James Hamlet Daubney will be arriving early on Friday morning to collect the camper van for Mr. Vanderbilt. I keep replaying the conversations I had with James Neary, and with all the other ghosts. It feels like the lines are almost complete; or at least as complete as they will ever be.

There are two more journeys that I would like to make. Today, I have got up early to take the train to Dorset. Steven and the support workers are otherwise engaged, so I am flying solo for this one. It is strange that the first line that James mentioned was bloodlines because this trip isn’t a bloodline. It feels important, nonetheless. It feels like it shaped something for the generation immediately above me, so subsequently, shaped me. In the middle of a World War, it was a tiny tragedy that received very little attention, but in the vault of family secrets, I believe that it occupied a large space.

I arrive in Portland just before noon. I have only been here before, three times in my life. The last time was nearly twenty-five years ago, but it all feels achingly familiar. I remember the unbounded joy, as an eight-year-old, staying in a sweet shop for a week. That first day of exploring the large flat above the shop and pulling back the heavy maroon drapes in the back sitting room which revealed the stockroom. Boxes and boxes of sweets and chocolates; huge sealed jars of kola cubes and acid drops. I didn’t even want to eat them; it was enough to stare at them. To stroke the jars in much the same way that I used to stroke the books in Doctor Pragnell’s library.

I am not planning on visiting the sweet shop in Fortuneswell. In 1997, I was desperate to show Steven one of my favourite childhood haunts. We took the bus to Portland Bill, but what I didn’t know was that a one-way system had been introduced, so we didn’t see the shop until our return journey from the lighthouse. I didn’t have a specific picture of the shop stored in my head, but in 1997, it looked like any other municipal newsagent. We stayed on the bus.

I find the market square. Portland is like many coastal towns, perhaps even more so, in that its history is breathing with a fine pair of lungs and the modern, somehow, finds a place to nestle within it. The sweet shop is a perfect microcosm of this. And nothing links the past and the present better than the memorial stone that I am now looking at. A roll- call of one small branch of my family:

Farwell. Archer

Farwell. Charles W

Farwell. Charlotte M.B

Farwell. Diane

Farwell. Nellie

Farwell. Violet.

All six of them, killed on 15th April 1941 when a bomb dropped on their sweet shop. You don’t need to know the story to know who is who. You can piece things together by the generational nature of their names. Archer and Nellie were the parents. Their children were: Charles (24), Violet (19) and Charlotte (14). Diane had married one of the other Farwell sons the previous day. He only survived because he just got a twenty-four hour pass from the army and was back at his camp by the time that the bomb fell. Six people whose demise was so sad that it was locked away in the Worley safe, for at least two generations.

I leave some flowers and make a silent apology to Uncle Albert Farwell for all those times I dismissed him for being a miserable sod.

 

Thursday

I woke up this morning feeling even more resistant to today’s plan than I have been feeling for the past few days. Only, my gut is telling me that if I don’t go through with it, there will be all hell to pay. It all feels rather pointless. I did the trip before, back in 1995, to show Steven the four most important places from my childhood. Three of them had long gone, leaving not a solitary trace that they had even existed. But it feels disrespectful to argue against the will of the universe, so we cancel Steven’s water aerobics class and head off to Southall Rec for a picnic.

The recreation ground was situated at the bottom of Florence Road. As we lived at number one Florence Road, it was the length of the whole street away. The Rec acted as a short cut to most of my relative’s homes. All the Sunday afternoon visits to relations went via the Rec. For me, the Rec was a second home. Three full-sized football pitches; the tennis courts, the playground with its concrete climbing equipment. They all paled into insignificance though, as from the age of seven and throughout my teenage years, the main attraction of the Rec was the open-air, unheated swimming pool. It occupied an elevated position in the park. You had to climb a dozen steps before you reached the clanging turnstiles. If you looked back, before entering the pool, you caught a marvellous, panoramic view of the whole Rec. Once inside, you were in very much a product of its age. The heavy, metal baskets to keep your clothes in; the changing rooms with the big gaps at the top and bottom of the doors; the constant swooshing sound of the ornamental fountain. Many rites of passage for me happened at Southall swimming pool. My first cigarette, my first snog, my first proper fight. During the long summer holidays of my teenage, there was nowhere in the world that I would rather be.

Today, in its place,  is a large, steep, grassy mound. I read somewhere that they never removed the tank, so it is buried deep for archaeologists to discover in many years time. When you look at the mound today, it is impossible to imagine that the pool was even there. The space doesn’t look anywhere near big enough. A young couple in their twenties are sitting on the remains whilst absorbed in their smartphones. I am too reverential to sit on that spot, so we set up camp near to where the bowling green used to be. That, also, is now just a wide open space. We tuck into our nosh, whilst I entertain the troops with anecdotes from my formative years.

We are on the last course of cake when it begins. The ground where the pool once stood starts to violently shake. The young couple run down the small hill pretty smartish and settle besides us. It has the appearance of what a minor earthquake might look like, but the grass that we are sitting on is completely stable. As is the rest of the park. The noise starts to become deafening; a crunching, grinding, whirring sound that feels like it could shatter eardrums. A cloud of dust and dirt renders the whole space, practically invisible. But the fall-out is confined. We haven’t got a single piece of debris over our Bakewell Tart. A small crowd is beginning to gather. People are covering their ears to shield themselves from the orchestra of nature. We are frozen to our picnic blanket. What should feel like unbearable danger, doesn’t, and although we cannot see what is happening, our eyes are glued to the cloudy turbulence.

The thunderous noise continues for about fifteen minutes and then stops abruptly. We still cannot see anything because the dust clouds show no sign of settling. As loud as the noise has just been, we now stand in ghostly silence. Steven breaks the silence:

“We’d better get our trunks.”

The cloud miraculously disperses and we are gifted the majestic sight of Southall Swimming Pool in all its glory. It has risen like the Phoenix and stands proudly in its rightful place. Flocks of excited people are running towards the palace of pleasure, with their towels rolled up, under their arms. We quickly pack up the picnic gear and join in with the procession. It’s like the Pied Piper has come to Atlantis. As we reach the top of the steps, I turn back, out of habit, for a look at the park. Nothing has changed in the last twenty minutes. The bowling green is still absent. The playground is still inhabited by boringly, sensible equipment. The maypole is nowhere to be seen. I hand over my money and the turnstile clunks open. It is a music that is as resonant as Alvin Stardust singing ‘Jealous Mind.’ We go in to swim.

 

Friday.

I am on my own in the flat. The camper van was picked up at 7.30 this morning. Uncle Bob’s television torment is over. He can rest in peace. Even though our trips around the country and across time are complete, I don’t feel melancholy. I feel satisfied. I feel alone again.

I have got the last chapter of my book to write, so as usual, I lay down on the sofa and wait for the advice from the universe. I have never been surrounded by as many people as I have recently, but now I am back to that familiar state of being on my own.

The images start to appear like the pictures at the end of a child’s kaleidoscope.

I am back in the front garden at Florence Road, looking blankly at the wreaths at my mother’s funeral. My concentration is broken by a cackling laugh. Riding down Florence Road like a carnival queen is Lousia Paget, waving like Royalty to the mourners. She is standing at the stern of the Warspite. When she sees me alone in the garden, she rummages deep in her pocket and throws something in my direction. It is the broach that was given to her by the ship’s captain on the occasion of her birth:

“Go well, my little deerio,” she shouts. And with that ear-splitting laugh, she sails off towards the Rec.

I am in my seat in the High Court. We are waiting for the arrival of Justice Peter Jackson to deliver his judgement. I am so nervous, I am unable to focus on anything. I glance across to the press box and Mum and Dad signal to me, a big thumbs up. All their brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles, are sitting behind them with their arms linked like the Tiller Girls. Uncle Frank is holding up a banner which reads:

“Magna Carta and the Nearys.”

Justice Jackson enters his courtroom.

One last turn of the kaleidoscope and I see that I am in the epidural room at Hillingdon Hospital. I don’t know whether I will still be alive in four hours time. The swing door to the operating theatre opens and I catch a snatch of the four gowned and masked doctors, waiting to get started on me. For a split second, they remove their masks and I smile when I see that they are: William Culley, Charles Worley, Tom Fleetwood and James Neary.

I know that my lines are in good shape.Southall Pool

 

 

Lines Chapter 25 – Harrow

27. Harrow.
I manage to get to the pub just after midday. Although it has only been open less than ten minutes, it is already filling up. It’s a large, open-plan pub and I can see that he hasn’t arrived yet. I am feeling rather self-conscious, wearing the outfit that I have chosen for this meeting. I don’t want him to stick out like a sore thumb, so I have chosen something where his time and 2020 might meet in the middle. I can see that my appearance is attracting the occasional double-take from the market traders of Harrow. Good news: the pub has got a jukebox. I buy a lager and, never being able to resist a jukebox, I browse its selection of music. I am bowled over that in this day and age, it has a collection of Mod classics. I insert my £1 in the slot and immediately, The Four Seasons’ ‘The Night’ fills the main bar. Clutching my beer, I hide behind a pillar, so as not to draw attention to myself.

He arrives and we both notice the first joke of the day. We are dressed identically. He must have had exactly the same thought as me and gone for something that lies midway between the 1850s and the 21st century. As a pair, we look straight out of the chorus of Guys and Dolls. We shake hands and have one of those awkward, not quite a hug, more like a blokey pat on the back, moments. I break the awkwardness:

“It’s great to finally meet you. What do you want to drink?”

“I’ll have a Cinzano Bianco, please.”

“Really? A cinza…..”

“Got you there! I think I fancy a large rum.”

This is going to be a good crack. I order the rum from the bar and when I get back, he has found a table for two by the taxidermy collection. We toast our meeting, beside a stuffed badger.

“I can’t call you great-grandfather. It feels too strange. There are only a few years between us.”

I am sixty and he is seventy-six.

“‘James’ will do nicely.”

“This has been a long time coming, James. And I haven’t got the first clue what to say.”

“You’ve been on quite an adventure, haven’t you? It has been very amusing to watch, as a bystander. For a Neary, you can be dead slow on the uptake.”

“You’re telling me. Even now, I’m not sure what it has all been about. Do you want to order some food?”

“Not just yet. My sodding gut has been playing me up again this morning.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. What’s the problem? How are you, really?”

“Dead. Still, dead. Anyway, sod it. I didn’t suggest this meet-up so we could talk about our ailments. I’ll get us another drink.”

As James Neary waits at the bar, I have a good look at him. I have never seen a photo of him and the more that I have learned about him, the more my mental image of him has changed. He looks younger than his age. Most of his hair is still intact. He has a slight stoop, but there is an alertness in his posture that suggests mental strength. His face does not smile in repose, but I have never before seen a pair of eyes so alive. I try to see the signs of the fourteen-year-old powder monkey and I find him in the spirit of the man. I search for any family resemblance, but this one defeats me. Perhaps there is something in the nose, or perhaps I am clutching at straws. Maybe each generation loses something from their resembling family features. I can certainly see something of my Granddad Henry in him; less so, of my Dad. My last selection from the jukebox starts. It’s Frank Wilson. Indeed it is. I decide to stop my comparison game. After all, I no longer look like that nervously cocky young herbert from the Railway Tavern.

“Snap out of it, Neary. This is not about physical characteristics.”

James returns with the drinks. In for a penny, in for a pound:

“You didn’t get to meet my Dad, did you?”

“Nope. Fine man, though. One of the quiet ones.”

“Have you met him…..since….you know?”

“Nope. Seen him a few times, but we’ve never talked. It usually works best if the living make the introductions, like you did last night with your other great-grandfathers.”

“Wow. I hadn’t realised that is how it works. Do you want me to arrange for Dad and you…..”

“Nope. That’s what I meant about you being slow on the uptake.”

“How come?”

“Tell me. How much of this have you contrived? None of it, right?”

“I don’t think so. It’s just kinda happened. I’ve tried to not resist anything and go along with it.”

“Nothing just happens. We allow something to happen, but we don’t manipulate it into happening. You’re just a channel for the happening to take place.”

“Say more? I think I get it.”

“Do you remember that evening when I went on a fishing trip with old Victor? We talked about this shit, all those years ago. We came to the conclusion that to make something happen in your life, it requires love, and belief, and courage. You call it something else, don’t you?”

“Balls.”

“Yeah, balls. Find someone to love, find something to believe in and find the courage to live life”

“And you reckon that’s all there is? That’s all this has been about? Those three things have made this adventure happen?”

“Might be. Isn’t that enough? Who knows? Only some bugger who is cleverer than me or you.”

I look around the pub. I picture Steven and, for some reason, Justice Peter Jackson. His talk about being bold and brave comes to mind. James was, no, is, bold. I don’t know for sure, but perhaps he is being very bold today, returning to Harrow for the first time in nearly two centuries. I am reluctant to position myself in the same bold category as James and Jackson. I go to get some more drinks instead. The Mod medley has finished and some joker has replaced it with Kenneth Williams singing, ‘Oh, What a Beauty’. James rolls his eyes.

“Do you mind if I ask? What was it like leaving the Navy after all those years and starting over again in civvy street?”

“Tough. And then I met Jane. Got myself a good job. I always felt like I lived two lives. No point in comparing the two either. That only sets up bad feeling.”

“I found some old documents. Your father’s will. He didn’t leave you anything?”

“Why should he? He didn’t owe me anything. In his eyes, I rejected all that he stood for. Of course, it wasn’t really like that, but that’s how he saw it.”

“All my four great-grandfathers turned their back on what might have been expected of them. You and the grocer’s shop. William Culley left the farm to join the army. Tom Fleetwood became a lighterman instead of working in the tailor’s shop. And after several generations of builders, Charlie Worley became a publican. I admire that, more than I can say. That’s belief and balls.”

“We were lucky. We lived at a time of opportunity that was unheard of for our fathers and their fathers.”

“I think you’re being too modest. Your brothers stayed on in the shop, but something in you couldn’t settle for that.”

“Perhaps we were four dreamers? Four stubborn dreamers. What hope is there for you?”

James laughs. He knows that he is playing down his achievements.

“I’m over the moon that I’m from such stock.”

“Your mother got it spot on, that night in your flat. Only the living can tell their stories. You have to tell your tale whilst you’re living. Have to, with a capital ‘H’. That’s the time to make your mark, Mark. It’s too late, when you’re dead. Then it’s down to someone else to tell the story.”

“Like the man said, the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.”

“If you say so, clever arse. I’ve got a lot of faith in your son. He tells the stories as they ought to be told.”

“This may be bollocks, but I’m thinking of calling the book, ‘Lines’. What do you think?”

“Bloodlines?”

“Some of it. But there’s all sorts of lines, aren’t there? I dunno. How about, lines connected by values, for starters? Spiritual lines? Fate lines? And that doesn’t even touch on timelines.”

“Let’s go back to your question from before. What you said about civvy street. There were lines on board the ship in China and there were lines, walking through the park with Jane. I’m no brainbox, but I reckon that they were the same lines. And the daftest thing is, I think they are the same lines that are here, right now.”

“Connecting you and me?”

“Partly. Connecting life with life. Connecting history with the future. Connecting what really matters.”

I need a piss. At the urinal, the fog in my head starts to feel less foggy. I am starting to get a handle, some traction, on all of this. This isn’t a sentimental, nostalgic trip to the past. This is the present tense. These daft suits that James and I are both wearing are the past and the present and the lines between them are what matter the most.
I return to the bar.

“Are you getting there, young Mark?”

“Haha. Young Mark! I’m sixty! I spent a lot of time recently thinking about me at fourteen and twenty and at forty, comparing me to you at the same ages. On one level, they were similar lives. Different times with different backdrops, but you were as much of a herbert at twenty as I was, just with more responsibility. More having to grow up quickly….”

“More syphilis.”

“That too.”

“I can’t explain this very well, but I think the times when it seems impossible to compare our lives is the time when our lines are the strongest? What do you reckon?”

“Phew. That’s a tricky one. James, look. I’m out of words. This needs sleeping on. We could discuss this until the cows come home, and that would be great, but right at this minute, I just fancy hanging out for a bit.”

“That sounds right up my street. Another bevvy?”

“James, would you do me the greatest honour and accompany me to the dogs? I understand that there’s a dog track around here somewhere and I hear that you’re quite partial to a flutter.”

“I couldn’t think of anything that I would like to do more. In these suits, we will be a right couple of swells.”

We knock back the last of our drinks and step outside into Harrow’s blazing August sun.

Only, it is snowing. Huge great flakes practically cover us within seconds of stepping outside. I am not sure that we are even in Harrow.

The horses drawing the carriages clip-clop along the street. Street urchins are having a riotous time in the snow. The well-to-do locals are taking shelter in the affluent shops. Outside the pub is a newspaper vendor. The headline on his stand reads: ‘LONDON RAILWAY STRIKE NOW IN ITS THIRD DAY’. I take a look around me and know that we have walked out of the pub and smack into 1911, North Kensington. My grandfather, James’s son Henry, is probably sitting down on the tracks at Paddington Station, right at this very moment.

I turn to James to point out to him that his son has made the front pages at Fleet Street.

James has collapsed to the floor. He is shivering and struggling for breath. From somewhere deep in my memory bank, something fearful stirs. I shout out to the newspaper seller.

“Hey, mate. What’s the date today?”

“Tuesday.”

“Not the day. What’s the bloody date?”

“Calm down, soppy trousers. Don’t you get snipey with me. It’s the twenty-eigthth of January.”

“Shit. And it’s 1911, right?”

“Have you been on the sauce, old-timer? Of course it’s 1911. It’s been 1911, all month.”

I take a deep breath; the deepest breath that I can muster. I know something that my great-grandfather doesn’t know. Today is the day that James Neary dies.

I struggle to get James home. I have no idea where a hospital is, even if one exists. This is pre-NHS. Do I need to find the neighbourhood’s medicine woman with her poultices and leeches? James insists that he wants to be at home. We struggle through the slippery streets of Kensington. Eventually, I find Thorpe Mews and practically have to carry him upstairs to his flat above the stables. I get him into bed, noticing that he is still in his Sky Masterson suit. I am not sure whether he is sleeping or has slipped out of consciousness. Thankfully, the old sea dog is still breathing.

I don’t want to leave him, but I need some help. I quickly run outside and plead with a neighbour to fetch a doctor. One of the stable boys offers to go and find Jane. He believes that she is visiting her daughter, on the other side of Kensington.

When I get back to the flat, James is awake.

“This is it, Chick. It’s the end, isn’t it?”

“I think so. Yes, it’s the end.”

“One last look at the waves, eh matey? The last story.”

I hold my great-grandfather’s hand. It is stone cold and soaking with sweat.

“It’s never the last story.”

“It’s okay. I’m at peace with that. I’ve told my last story. Now it’s over to Henry to tell his. And then it will be your father’s turn. And then you. To everything there is a season, as the chaplain used to say.”

James’s breathing becomes more laboured. I can see him leading his men at Port Royal. I can see him driving his master in his coach. I can see his pride in Henry’s stand at Paddington. I can see the teenager, suffocated by the shop in Harrow. I can see the lines between him and my son. I couldn’t feel prouder in having this man as my great-grandfather.

“Will you stay with me, Mark? Until Jane gets here.”

“I’m here, Captain. I ain’t going anywhere.”

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Lines Chapter 24 – Changing Direction

  1. Changing Direction

2020.

A smaller grouping than the one that assembled at Florence Road in 1973 for Uncle Bob’s big moment, has gathered in Steven’s living room. There are Steven, Alan and me, plus William Culley, popping in after his experiences in the Boer War. Steven is in a tetchy mood. He fancies having a Beautiful South music session, but I’ve commandeered the television for my big moment. He is mildly amused by the two pigeons, bobbing their heads and cooing in a cage that is perched precariously on the window sill. He makes a joke to William about, “Two dead pigeons in the water tank. Take them out.” As William died in 1901, this Manuel joke flies straight over his head. Jayne and her partner, Wayne, arrive with Pringles. That lifts Steven’s mood greatly. The end credits of ‘Match of the Day’ start to roll. Ever loyal, Alan tries to bring the room to order and focus on the telly.

“Ssh, everyone. It’s starting.”

I know what is coming and I am nervous. It’s surprising how many cheese footballs you can absent-mindedly consume when you’ve got butterflies in your belly.

Dee dee da da da dum dum.

Dee dee da da dum dum dum.”

Oh, that theme tune takes you back. William feeds a Wotsit to the pigeons. They aren’t impressed. Steven takes his leave, muttering something about taking Paul Heaton to the bedroom.

“Good evening, and welcome to the Parkinson Show. My name is Michael Parkinson. My three guests tonight all have something in common. They have all had moments in their lives where they abruptly and unexpectedly changed direction. Later I will be talking to the tennis legend, Martina Navratilova and finally, to the author of the runaway best-selling book, ‘Lines’ – Mark Neary. But my first guest tonight is an actor, quiz show host, raconteur, keen cricketer and all-round national treasure. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome….Nicholas Parsons.”

Nicholas gingerly descends the famous long staircase and he and Parky embrace warmly.

“Nicholas, you were a marine engineer after leaving school. Tell me how you made the switch to acting…”

The doorbell rings. Alan goes to answer it.

“Well, Michael, I always had ambition towards the stage, but never knew how to get started. As a child, I was terribly precocious. At school, they used to call me ‘Shirley’, after Shirley Temple….”

Alan returns.

“It’s the delivery man. You had better come and see. I think he’s got the wrong house. He says his name is Charlie”

I go out to the hall and there is a young chap standing in the porch, with a crate of beers balanced on his knee.

“Come on, old man. Give us a hand with this lot. I’ve got another two out here…”

Alan and I help our latest guest carry the drinks through to the kitchen. I haven’t ordered a delivery. Perhaps it’s a complimentary present from Parky. He’s well known for being partial to the amber nectar, so this may be his way of saying, “Thanks.” The delivery man whips six bottles out of the crate and bolts into the living room.

“Now then, when does this party get started? Here you go, soldier boy. Get this down your neck. Budge up, Jayne. Make some room for your great-grandfather.”

Of course. Charlie is Charlie Worley, but the Charlie of his glory days in the Kings Head, twenty years old, as fit as a butcher’s dog and as full as bonhemie and zest as a Jack Russell terrier. It wasn’t the Charlie of a couple of years later: unwell, slightly punctured and back working in the brick fields like his father. He shoots a quick glance at me and for a brief moment, I think I detect something pleading in that glance. I smile at him as reassuringly as I can. Beer-bribe or not, I’m not going to shatter his front, least of all in the middle of a party. After all, I know as well than most, how important it can feel to keep up a front when you’re feeling at your most fragile. He may have lost the pub, but the way that Charlie is flirting with my sister shows that he hasn’t lost any of his Del-Boy.

Steven has returned to the room and is loving the new arrival.

“Hello, Charlie. Go up to the roof and take the two dead pigeons out of the water tank.”

Charlie gives Steven a playful punch in the belly. Wayne and William are sharing stories of how your football career can be easily curtailed by a nasty injury. Wayne sustained a career-threatening injury back in the mid 1990s, but William is always going to trump anything that Wayne can come up with. Fair play to him, he holds back on his anecdote about Albert Jackson and his missing leg.

“Thank you, Nicholas. Now, what can I say about my next guest? Nine times Wimbledon champion, the winner of seventeen grand slam titles. Ladies and gentlemen…Martina Navratilova….”

“The thing is, Jayne, I wanted more from life than being a brick labourer. I’m not knocking my old man. It served him well and he had a swell time, doing what he loved. Christ, he built the town that you grew up in. But it wasn’t for me….”

“So, Martina, how big a change was it when you moved from Czechoslovakia to America?”

“He could do things with a ball that would bring tears of admiration to your eyes…”

The doorbell rings again. I think that I have given up on Parky and my sudden change of direction into Saturday night light entertainment. Too much is going on, so I go and open the door. Standing there is a ridiculously handsome man in a bowler hat.

“Excuse me, Sir, for calling at this late hour. I just happened to be passing in my coach and I couldn’t help noticing that wonderful camper van parked outside. Is it yours? Forgive my forwardness, but I was wondering if you were prepared to sell it. Oh my goodness. Where are my manners? I haven’t introduced myself. Here is my card…”

He hands over a perfectly embossed cream card. Patrick Bateman would have to kill him out of envy. The card reads, ‘Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt’.

“Come in, Sir. We are just having a ….family get-together. Please come and join us.”

I escort Alfred into the living room, where a game of musical chairs has taken place and everyone has changed seats. Wayne is chatting to the pigeons in much the same way as he would to his own birds. Steven is showing William his photo album. Charlie has assumed the role of barman. The second crate of ale is on the dining-room table. I introduce Mr. Vanderbilt to the company. Charlie plays the host and offers him a beer.

“You’re a proper dandy, like I’ve never seen before. Terrible tragedy about you and the ship. You have my condolences.”

“William. The man with the glasses on is a man called Gilbert Best. Gilbert Best was Steven Neary’s teacher at Grangewood. Gilbert Best is wearing a red jumper and grey trousers. Julie Neary has got the camera…..”

“Coooee, Esther. You’re a beautiful, little bird, aren’t you?”

“And my final guest tonight is an unusual man. He’s the bestselling author and the ace face of the over-sixties Mod movement. Ladies and gentlemen. Mar….”

The doorbell rings. It’s Des. He’s collected cousins Jean and Hazel at the top of the road. Hazel is showing Jean that she can still kick her leg up as high as the washing line. Des has arrived for the night shift. He’s due to take over from Alan, but I’m not sure that Alan wants to clock off yet. I try to fill Des in, but don’t know where to start with the shift handover. It doesn’t matter, so I offer Des a beer, instead. Des gets the set-up in seconds.

Back in the living room, William and Jayne are chatting about stable boys and farming. Charlie and Wayne are on to the third crate. Alan and Alfred Vanderbilt are discussing Nigerian politics. Hazel and Jean are doing a jive without a musical accompaniment. Watching their jive, I’m reminded that back in the early 1970s, people used to dance with their wrists much more than they do these days. Hazel is a prime example of the decline of wrist dancing, made even more noticeable in that she has long since ditched the charm bracelet that used to jangle from her wrist. The New Year’s Eve parties were dangerous playgrounds. If you weren’t careful during ‘Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes’, Hazel could have your eye out with her lethal charms.

“Of course, my father was a farmer, as was his father before him. And, do you know, Jayne? I would have been perfectly happy to stay on the farm. But for men of my generation, the army gave us the opportunity to travel. To see the world….”

“Well, of course, Mr Alan, but we’ve got that wily old Presidential fox, Woodrow Wilson….”

“Wayne, old son. If you want to make yourself a bit of money and have a bit of a laugh in the process, get yourself a pub….”

“Mark, my final question. What do you think it is, within you, which opened the door to such a big change of direction at sixty?”

Jayne’s daughter, Jodie, is standing in the doorway, carrying a fast-asleep Henry.

“Mum! Dad! What time do you call this? I thought something…..”

Charlie grabs her by the hand and leads her in an extravagant waltz.

“You’re a cute one, aren’t you? Now tell me, Wayne. What is she to me? Great-granddaughter or great-great…..?”

Someone has opened the birdcage and Job the pigeon has just crapped over the telly. On screen, I’ve got bird poo running down my cheek.

Steven has returned, having found his Beautiful South playlist on Spotify. He is wearing Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt’s bowler hat.

“I want my sun drenched, windswept, Ingrid Bergman kiss.

Not in the next life.

I want it, in this.”

I grab Steven’s hand and we dance our little hearts out to one of Mr Heaton’s greatest moments. Hazel is leading everyone else in a can-can.

The phone rings. Des does an ‘excuse me’ and takes over dancing with Steven, whilst I go to answer the phone.

“Hello. Yes, it’s Mark. Oh, hello. I wondered if I would hear from you. Tomorrow? Yes, I can make it. Harrow? No, I’ve never been to that one. Don’t worry, I’m sure that I’ll find it. Great. See you tomorrow, at noon.”

 
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Lines: The Competition

Would you like to win a free copy of my new book, Lines?

Simply, answer the following three questions correctly, message me on either Facebook or Twitter with your answers and the first three people with all the correct answers will win a copy of the book.

All the answers have appeared in the chapters that I have been publishing since January.

Here we go:

1. What TV game show did my Uncle Bob appear on in 1973?

2. What Mod classic did I dance to in the sea at Margate during the 1979 bank holiday weekend?

3. What was the name of my great-grandfather who drowned in the Thames in 1900?

 

 

Lines Chapter 23 – The Publican

  1. The Publican

1881

It was a cheery Saturday afternoon in Southall in 1881. To say that there was a sense of expectation in the air would be putting it mildly. Four young people were preparing excitedly for their big night. Isabella Worley was giving the privy door one last coat of paint. She had dismissed the others’ concerns that the paint might not be dry in time. She pointed at the sun, flaming yellow overhead, and told them to sling their hooks. Besides, Isabella enjoyed painting. She appreciated the satisfaction of transforming something old into something that the customers would admire. The decorating also distracted Isabella from her worries about the evening ahead. At nineteen, she was old enough to be keenly aware of her responsibilities, but young enough to not be constrained by the burden of unrealistic expectations. Isabella recalled the day that she broke the news to her father that she and Charlie would be taking on the running of a public house. She still felt deeply hurt that her father refused to share her enthusiasm. In fact, he had actively discouraged her from going ahead with their project. This was so unlike him. To have her dreams dismissed as ‘a fool’s mission’ upset her greatly. She knew only too well that her father viewed Charlie as ‘a dreamer’ with ‘every new idea, as feckless as the one that came before it’. What her father was blind to, though, was Charlie’s steely determination to get ahead in life. Sometimes, it quite shook Isabella that Charlie saw hurdles only as an obstacle to be trampled down. Isabella could never expect her father to see what she saw in Charlie and she could never admit to her father that what drew them together was the thrill of living life on the edge of lawlessness. Although Charlie was not traditionally handsome, his swagger had attracted Isabella from the first time she had set eyes on him, and she had soon discovered that he could charm the birds out of the trees and herself out of her strait-laced habits. Having been brought up under a weight of Christian piety, Isabella was guiltily excited to discover that she revelled in the thrill of sneaking through the back of the Cranford estate with Charlie on rabbit-poaching expeditions. Danger was always present, but the allure of Charlie’s boldness and his eye for some easy money, outweighed the threat. She also recognised Charlie’s loyalty. When his mother lost her mind and was admitted into the lunatic asylum, Isabella saw Charlie throw a protective wing over his younger siblings. So it was that Sarah and John were here, living with them over the pub and sharing in their exciting adventure. Isabella picked up her pot of sky-blue paint and whistled a merry tune as she completed her work.

For the last five minutes, Charles had been observing Isabella from his position in the ale yard. What a proper stunner his wife was. Charles knew that all his chums back in Studds Lane had the hots for his little beauty and it pleased him no end that he had managed to catch such a filly from under their noses. One of his mates had once described Isabella as ‘a beautiful saucepot’ and Charles took great pride in the knowledge that later that day, his beautiful saucepot would be on display for the whole of Southall to see. A man could be anyone, go anywhere with such a beauty on his arm. Those nights creeping through the Cranford undergrowth, checking rabbit snares had showed Charlie that he’d picked a woman who was prepared to take life by the scruff of the neck and adept at doing so.  Even after their son had died at just four weeks old earlier that year, Isabella had quickly regained her figure and her enthusiasm for her man and for  life itself. When he compared his wife to his mad old mother, he recognised that he had landed sunny side up in bagging such an effervescent creature. When the subject of running a pub had first come up, just two weeks after the little one died, Charles knew that he could count on Isabella to stand by him and help his dream come true. Spurred on by his mixture of pride and love, Charles picked Isabella up by the waist and swung her around the yard.

“Put me down, you daft younker. I’ve got me paint going everywhere.”

This only made Charlie more cheerful and proud. He swaggered to the centre of the yard.

“Look at all of this, Bella. Our new start. Me and you.”

“It will work, won’t it, Charlie?”

“I dunno. We’ll give blood, sweat and tears to make it work and if it doesn’t, we would have had bloody good fun, giving it a go. What is life for if it’s not for having a bit of fun.”

Charles returned Isabella to the ground and they enjoyed a long, lingering kiss. Their moment of bliss was interrupted by thirteen-year-old Sarah, running excitedly into the yard.

“I’ve done it, Charlie. What do you think? Where shall I put it?”

Charles took the sheet of paper that Sarah offered to him and smiled. His sister had never been much of an artist and this effort was rudimentary at best, but she wanted to play her part in the big day. She had an unwavering belief in her brother. With pride, Charles read aloud the words on the child’s poster:

“The Kings Head, Southall. Every Saturday night. Singing. Dancing. Storytelling. Hosted by your landlords – Mr. and Mrs. Charles Worley.”

“It’s perfect, Sis. And I want it displayed in pride of place, in the centre of the front window.”

Satisfied, Sarah skipped off, delighted to display her artwork. Isabella followed her, as she only had a couple of hours to try and wash the paint out of her hair. Charles was left alone in the yard and he proudly perched himself on a barrel. He thought about his peers, giving their souls through their toil in the brick fields. At twenty, what future did they have to look forward to? Charles truly believed that he had the whole world in his twenty-year-old hands. He surveyed all around him. He swelled with pride at the sight of this grand establishment that in a few hours time would be packed with thirsty revellers. He looked across the yard to the ruddy-faced boatmen cruising past, each with an eye to his horse, lest the towlines become tangled. There were dozens of moored barges and very soon, those hard-working bargemen would be handing over their hard-earned cash and drinking the night away. Charles felt satisfied that his pub was in the perfect spot to draw in the trade even though Isabella’s father, Mr Thomas Webb, had looked down his nose when he paid a flying visit yesterday. With a contemptuous glance at the bargemen, Mr Webb had snorted, “You will be the ruin of my daughter. I don’t want her in the company of beasts like them.” If any other man had been so rude, Charles would have showed him his knuckles. He wondered whether Mr Thomas Webb had made such a success of his life at such a young age. Charles had always lived off his wits and look at what he had achieved so far having adopted that approach to life. Neither Mr Webb, nor his own father for that matter, could hold a candle to Charlie when it came to, as the old poet had said, sucking the marrow out of life.

John hobbled into the yard. Charles chuckled as he watched his fifteen-year-old brother haphazardly trying to balance a full keg on his developing shoulders. John almost fell arse over tip as he attempted to prop open the cellar door.

“Oi, little ‘un. Put your back into it.”

“Go and fluff yourself, brother. You could always give me a hand.”

“And then you’d learn nothing. Get on with it.”

Charles took out his pipe. What a time to be alive! Everything was expanding: the public houses, the music halls, the football grounds, the municipal gardens. They called them ‘Palaces of Pleasure’, and here he was, Charles Worley, in his very own palace.

Charles thought about his own father, thirty years ago, standing in those vast, empty fields of Southall and vowing to build a better world. He thought about his wretched grandfather, wrecked by poverty and destined to die in the workhouse. Was he looking down from heaven at his grandson’s success? Did his father know, in the old days, that places like the Kings Head would be the symbols of the better world that he was creating? He hoped that his father would be here tonight, to bear witness.

10 o’clock.

The evening was shaping up nicely. The local Southallians might not have approved of the hordes of rowdy men, but their inebriation was music to the ears of Charles. Old Mrs Aspen had done a sterling job playing all the old tunes on the piano and had kept the customers’ spirits high for over two hours. A fight had broken out between four young boatmen, but despite his build being slight, Charles’ demeanour was authoritative and the aggression was quickly extinguished. John spotted a woman who was trying to purchase some gin with counterfeit coins and with some firm words and a boot up her backside, dealt with the matter swiftly.  Isabella had been all for calling the rozzers, but there had been no need. Charles had never been prouder of his little brother.

One mistake that Charles had made was to underestimate the number of bar staff needed. He had anticipated that he and Isabella would work the bar between them, whilst John and Sarah tended to all the backroom jobs, but they needed more people out front. Singing and dancing can quickly build up a thirst and within the first hour, Charles had to call upon the assistance of two chums and his father, who had called by ‘to see how the land lay’. Serving drunken boatmen was not William’s idea of spending a productive Saturday night, but he rolled up his sleeves and took on the role of collecting the empty tankards. He would save his ragging of Charlie until the doors were closed.

The storytelling was well under way. Mrs Stokey recited a long, gruesome piece of poetry about the dentist, Mr Green, who had removed all of her mother’s teeth. A pretty young Miss told a long story about the correct combination of blooms to make up a lady’s wedding bouquet. She was noisily heckled by some of the boatmen and fled the stage in tears. One of the boat skippers was next up and told the ribald tale of his saucy evening spent with an Oxford farm girl. The evening was in danger of falling flat when Mr Joyce, the tobacconist, delivered a monologue about the lush terrain of the Yorkshire Moors. A young hoodlum, standing next to the raised platform, started banging the table with cries of, “Skittle ye off, old-timer!”

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For the first time that evening, Charles felt apprehensive as he mounted the platform, whilst encouraging the audience to applaud Mr Joyce for the “enlightening tales of his travels.” An awkward silence fell over the pub. Charles coughed nervously as one or two people hissed,

“Get on with it, man!”

Charles appealed for further storytellers, but none were forthcoming. Anxious that unrest might break out, Charles cleared his throat for one last time:

“Thank you. I just want to tell you a story about a very special lady…..

There was a fine girl, name of Bella

Who married a disreputable fella         (“Hoorah!”)

At the altar they stood

Before the great and the good

Praising heaven and not the devil’s cellar.”    (“Boo. Not the devil’s cellar!”)

Charles was struggling. He had turned as red as a beetroot. He had developed an unaccustomed stammer. Isabella, noticing his panic, jumped onto the platform:

“Their child, he had succumbed at 4 weeks

His constitution was sadly too meek.

His parents’ hearts felt such love

As they prayed to their ghosts up above

And they vowed that the good times, they would immediately seek.”

The customers clapped and cheered. William Worley junior stood up and shook his son’s hand. Isabella performed a saucy curtsey to the audience, leaving the hecklers red-faced. With renewed confidence, Charles announced to the drunken throng:

“That’s my missus, ladies and gentlemen. Drinks all round. Let’s drink Southall dry.”

It was 2 o’clock the following morning. The last drinker had left at ten minutes past midnight. Having run on adrenaline all day, Charles and Isabella were finding it difficult to wind down. Contentment was present, but sleep would be a long time coming. Eventually, Isabella spoke:

“You do realise that you’ve scuppered any profits we may have made with your boozy largesse tonight?”

“We’ll think about profits when we open the doors again, tomorrow. Tonight was about good sport.”

“We can’t always be relying on tomorrow, Charlie.”

“Hey. Don’t I always make things right? Whenever, I’ve been in a hole, I can always magic up a spade to dig myself out. What’s one night’s takings when we’re talking about the rest of our lives?”

“You’ve always had confidence in spades. I’ll give you that much.  That poem? Were you making it up as you went along?”

“Couldn’t you tell? Give a man six brandies and he believes that he’s Mr. Wordsworth.”

Isabella and Charles fell into each other’s arms, laughing their socks off.

Charles remembered a conversation with his grandfather just after Willam Snr. had been released from gaol. Addled by the drink and the early stages of a frightened madness, William Worley could still occasionally deliver some words of wisdom.

“If you can’t see the good days whilst they are happening, your mind will be eaten away by the bad ones.”

As Isabella drifted off to sleep, Charles repeated his grandfather’s words to a passing swan and said a silent prayer for his mother.

 

 

 

 

Lines Chapter 22 – The Wedding

Chapter 22. The Wedding.

It arrived last week. It was in amongst the leaflets touting half price kebabs and the letter from the council, advising me that it’s time to review Steven’s care package. Deep joy. The offer of a greasy slice of unidentifiable-origin meat and the annual threat that our life could be turned upside down.

Still, as the wise woman said, “In every bucket of cold sick, an oyster pearl may be found.” The third piece of correspondence was a wedding invitation. The card invited me and a guest of my choosing to a wedding on 14th March at St John’s Church, in Southall. As the nuptials were being held in our home town, I decided to ask my sister if she wanted to be the guest of my choosing. The only slight problem was that there was a nasty grease stain on the card, so it was impossible to make out the names of the bride and groom. Perhaps they were eating a kebab whilst writing it.

Thirty minutes later, Jayne phoned. She had received exactly the same invitation. She had been racking her brain for ages, as her invitation carried a matching kebab stain. We didn’t know anyone who lives in Southall anymore. If it were one of our relatives, then surely we would have heard about it. Yet Jayne’s curiosity, like mine, had been aroused and we made a pact to attend. She suggested that she bring her grandson Henry and I decided to take Steven. I thought that I had better bring two of the support workers, incognito. Jayne was a little bemused by my suggestion that perhaps we should go in period costume. Nothing definite, but I had a tiny inkling of what might be happening.

By the time we were just three days from the wedding, I was pretty sure that I knew what was going on, but although I might consider myself an old hand at this time travel business, I didn’t want to get blasé. Did I need to tip Jayne off? After all, she hadn’t been to Shoalstone Pool, or Brentford Docks, or listened to ‘Mamma Mia’ with a very special guest. I had been a bit circumspect about those encounters, because I value my liberty. On the other hand, I didn’t want Jayne to have an attack of the vapours in the middle of King Street.

The fourteenth of March arrived and we all piled into the camper van. I was nervous that we had gone a bit overboard, because Steven, Francis, Michael and I were kitted out and resembled a multi-racial Bill Haley and his Comets. Jayne had got her decades a bit mixed up, so she and Henry looked like Vera Lynn and a little waif about to be evacuated to the countryside. Because Steven had come unstuck trying to devise a wedding compilation tape and because Henry is only six, we took along a 100-Track CD of ‘Children’s Timeless Favourites’. We were quite the band of travelling minstrels, singing along to ‘The Laughing Policeman’.

I hadn’t told Jayne about my suspicions and I was feeling dead guilty. I would have been very pissed off, if the boot had been on the other foot. And what about Henry? How do you begin to explain what’s about to happen to a six-year-old? I should have realised that I didn’t need to worry. As we drove into Western Road, Steven piped up:

“Auntie Jayne! We’re going to a wedding! Like Alan and Jean in Fawlty Towers.”

“I know, sweetheart.”

“Going to a wedding. Steven Neary’s going to see Granddad John and Nanny Beryl get married.”

With the exasperation that only someone of six can carry off, Henry said, “We know that, Steven!”

We had arrived in 1953, and it was all a little overwhelming. The Comets took Steven and Henry to find a seat at the back of the church. Steven was beside himself, because he reckoned that he was about to see a recreation of the church scene from ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ and he expected everyone to enter the church to the strains of ‘I Do, I Do, I Do’. Jayne led me to a discreet spot under a tree. We were attracting quite a bit of attention from the locals. My outfit was a couple of years ahead of its time and Jayne’s ensemble hadn’t been seen around these parts since VE Day.

Jayne whispered, “They’re all here.” She was right.

Our cousins Jean and Hazel were the bridesmaids, Jean looking a picture of elegance, although to me, she was almost unrecognisable as the Jean that I grew up with during her Dusty Springfield-inspired days. Hazel was so young, but then she was a few years away from successfully auditioning for The Tiller Girls and being rewarded with a summer season with Billy Dainty. On the Neary side of the family, Uncle Stan was Dad’s best man. We never met him in the flesh, because he emigrated to Australia in 1954. He looked like he had got everything under control. He was especially keeping an eye out for Uncle Frank, who appeared happy and was trying to thread a piece of cable through his buttonhole.

What happened next was a piece of pure theatre. From the left of the church, all of Dad’s sisters appeared, arms linked. Simultaneously, from the opposite side, the Worley women made their grand entrance. All it needed was for Hazel to join them in the middle, put on a top hat, and lead them in a can-can. Auntie Phil would have been her perfect, literal sidekick for it. When I knew her, Phil had developed rheumatism and was never seen out of trousers, but she always used to bring up that she’d had lovely legs in her salad days. She wasn’t wrong. I had never seen a shapelier pair of pins.

The main car arrived and everybody started to scuttle off into the church. Jayne and I stood rooted to the spot. As I had told the Comets to get a back row seat, we could sneak in after everyone was seated. Besides, I wasn’t entirely sure that we were visible to the congregation’s naked eye.

Uncle Charlie got out of the car first. Jayne wiped away a small tear, because jointly with his brother Uncle Albert, Charlie was always her favourite. “Whacker Worley”, they called him, the boy who, when he was twelve, ran away from home to join the circus, where he performed a strongman act. The man who used to leave me awestruck when he showed off his party trick, which entailed eating a whole Granny Smith apple in one bite. The man who died, that Christmas Eve when the rest of us were holidaying in Bournemouth. Uncle Charlie had taken on the rôle of giving his sister away, as their father had passed on three years earlier.

Finally, Mum appeared from the car. I had looked through her wedding album hundreds of times. In fact it’s open on my desk now, as I write this chapter, but in none of the photos does she look as radiant as she did in the flesh. By a strange quirk of forty-year fate, she looked a tiny bit like Muriel Heslop. I was half-tempted to dash in and to warn Steven that although there was a certain receding-hairline similarity, Uncle Whacker wasn’t Bill Heslop, so he wouldn’t be saying, “She’s all yours, mate,” as he handed the bride over to Granddad John.

We slipped unnoticed into the church and it was a relief to see that Steven was lapping everything up. Most of the congregation he knew only from the collage of the family tree that I have pinned up on the living room wall, although he had met some of the guests in the mid nineties, before the sudden onslaught of deaths in the latter part of the decade drastically pruned the living branches. He still recognised everybody. He likes to quote Mrs Boynton in ‘Appointment With Death’- “Once seen, I never forget a face”– and it is absolutely true. He was calling out across the pews:

“Auntie Rose! It’s Steven Neary here! I’m a man now.”

Steven is very interested in his history and the family stories. There is a word, ‘griot’, for West African storytellers who act as their villages’ oral historians. You may recall the scene at the end of the final episode of Roots, where Alex Haley travelled to Ghana and eventually found the griot. After listening for hours, Haley started to feel impatient, but then the griot mentioned Kunta Kinte and Haley finally discovered the origins of his African ancestor, two hundred years after Kinte was kidnapped and enslaved. Being unable to read or write, Steven is the griot of the Neary/Worley/Culley/Fleetwood history. After I have told him a story from the past, I will hear Steven in bed, later that night, logging all the necessary information. “Granddad John’s daddy was a man called Henry Neary….”

“Uncle Bob! It’s Steven Neary here. We’ve got your van.”

The ceremony passed smoothly. We nipped out before the bride and groom departed the church. We had already decided not to hang about for the photos. I knew that Steven had been chatting away to everyone and they had been talking to him, but I was not sure that Jayne and I had been noticed. That was okay. It wouldn’t have felt right to be in the photos anyway. The Comets, Steven and Henry had already got into the van and Henry was trying to pick up the lyrics to ‘Right Said Fred’. Steven was explaining to him that Bernard Cribbins is also Mr Hutchinson from Fawlty Towers, who got a bit of cheese stuck in his throat. Jayne and I were just about to get in, when we heard a voice.

“Chicks?”

It was Dad. He leaned forwards to give us both a hug and accidentally dropped his buttonhole in a puddle. Uncle Frank darted forward, picked up the carnation, and tried to thread it back through Dad’s jacket with the piece of cable. The photographer called Dad away because it was time for the photo with the parents. As we drove off, he knocked on the window and mouthed, “Thanks.”

We drove to The Halfway House, where the reception was being held. As we pulled into the car park that the pub shared with Southall FC’s Western Road ground, I suddenly remembered the date. We were in 1953. I have a press cutting at home from the 1953 season that described ‘the tenacious Neary, tearing down the wing.’ Dad probably would have been on the teamsheet today, but had to channel his tenacity into getting married instead.

I could see that the floodlights at the football club were switched on. I could hear the orchestra of wooden rattles, and the familiar chant of “Up the ‘hall.” I saw Jim Humble, emptying his lawn mower into one of the industrial bins. I thought back to 1995 and the summer that we adopted Steven. I had taken him to the Halfway House, even though I had known that Southall’s ground had been bulldozed a couple of years before. I had still wanted to show Steven any remnants that there might have been of my spiritual home. There had been nothing to see except the newly-built blocks of flats.

Jayne saw me looking across at the stands and read my mind.

“What do you want to do? Do you want to go in?”

“Do you mind?”

“Of course not. Who cares if we are ridiculously overdressed for a football match, and the guys will get their nuts frozen off? Let’s go in and cheer on the 1953 version of Alan Devonshire.”

As we joined the queue at the turnstile, the wedding cars started to arrive. The thought struck me that, apart from our grandparents, Jayne and I were probably the oldest people at the wedding. Not yet born, but the most senior of the guests. How was that for a lovely headmelt?

Jayne came over and put her arm around my shoulder.

“You okay?”

“Yeah. I’m fine thanks. It’s just that it’s not our day, today. This is where we belong, but not yet. This is their time.”

Two hours later, we emerged, freezing, from the match. We had been doing the next best thing to taking Bovril intravenously, but our shivers were all of a quiver. Three-nil to the ‘hall. As we climbed into the van for our last look at Southall, until 1959 and 1966 respectively, the door of the Halfway House was flung open, and Auntie Hilda led a conga to the top of Scotts Road and back. I could hear familiar laughter and Auntie Phil’s voice purring: “What do you reckon then? Don’t you think I’ve got a lovely pair of legs?”

Henry, who had been asleep for the past fifteen minutes, sat bolt upright and started singing:

“So Charlie and me

Had another cup of tea

And then we

Went home.”

 

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Lines Chapter 21 – Forty

  1. Forty  

   

1999 was a pretty decent year, apart from Cliff Richard’s Millennium Prayer. It was the year that I turned forty. I had been a father for five years, but I hadn’t focused much on the reality of getting older. I certainly didn’t feel middle-aged. It was twenty years on from The Railway Tavern, but I still favoured a sharp-looking tonic suit and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were never too far away from my turntable.   

 Big changes were happening in 1999. On my fortieth birthday, on the 24th March, I was seven days away from leaving the job that I had been doing for the previous 12 years as a training manager in a large benefits department at Ealing Council. In December 1998, a private company based in Lancashire had won an outsourcing contract and had taken over the running of the department. They had no interest in training, so offered me a choice of redeployment to their head office in Bolton, or redundancy. With all due respect to that fine Lancashire town, I had no intention of uprooting Julie and Steven, so redundancy it was. I had loved that job, particularly over the preceding five years. A young, progressive manager had joined the council in the early nineties and encouraged me to concentrate less on the tiresome legislation training that had been my main role and instead, design some courses where the emphasis was on personal and professional development. Some of the old-school managers weren’t impressed with this new direction, but I was like the cat that had got the cream. I was in a unique position, with advantages enjoyed by no-one else within the department. I had the responsibility of teaching all the staff, but I wasn’t in a role where authority and power can lead to troublesome working relationships. I met people when they were at their best. I knew that I was respected and well-liked by the vast majority of my colleagues. Going to work never felt like a chore and at times, could be quite inspirational.   

Yet timing of the redundancy couldn’t have been more perfect, because I was in my final year of training to become a counsellor. It hadn’t been a planned career change at all. It came about during the personal development courses that I had been running. My mate, Tim, had been in one of the groups and we went for a drink during one lunch break. Extremely casually, he said to me, “You should think about becoming a counsellor, Mark. You’ve got a gift for getting people to open up and people feel safe with you.” That very same evening, I was flicking through the local paper whilst on the bus journey home and spotted an advertisement for the recruitment evening at Uxbridge College. One of the courses being promoted was their Certificate in Counselling course. The recruitment event was that evening, so I did a quick detour on the bus and signed up, there and then. I arrived home, two hours late, to inform my bewildered wife that I had just taken the first step towards a major career change. I told her not to worry, because although I had no idea of the earning potential of a counsellor, I was sure that we would still be able to afford our weekly Sunday roast at The Turk’s Head.   

In Year Two of the training, I got a student placement at a local counselling agency and was hopeful and reasonably confident that they would offer me a paid position, once I qualified. Ealing Council paid me one whole year’s gross salary as my redundancy payout, so I was able to go into my final year of training without the pressure of having to find a new job.   

Having what amounted to a gap year in my forties meant that I had plenty of time on my hands outside of the course work and the placement. One of the senior staff at the college took a shine to me and offered me some part-time teaching work there. I did two years of running their ‘Training for Trainers’ diploma. It was fun, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with my life and I needed something else, less academic and less touchy-feely, to do. I hit upon the idea of taking my bodybuilding to another level. Since my mid-twenties, I had used a bench and some free weights at home and had made some reasonable gains. All my training equipment had been set up in our spare room, but since Steven had come along, the spare room had become his room and my training had become sporadic. It was mainly down to other priorities and the sheer joy of hanging out with Steven, but it was laziness too. I could prop the bench up in our bedroom and drag it onto the landing each time I wanted to use it, but carrying the weights up from the shed every day was too tiresome. By 1999, my motivation was back with a vengeance. 

At this time, a UK bodybuilder called Dorian Yates was on an incredible run of success at the Mr Olympia competition and I found reading about his training methods inspirational. I knew that I would never achieve the size that I wanted on our landing, so I joined a gym. I completely underestimated the task ahead. On my first day at the gym, the manager showed me the ropes. I may have bigged up the training I had been doing at home, because as we were doing some lat pulldowns, he exclaimed, “Christ, Mark. You’ve got no back.” He was right. I had been limited by the equipment at home and had never really trained my back. I do thrive on a challenge, though. Over the next few months, I was determined to get those lagging areas to catch up and for the most part, I succeeded. I gave my heart and soul, twice a week, in my back workouts and true enough, my posture changed and I grew a back. The rest of me thickened out, but my weakness, then and for the next 18 years, was that I was too casual with my diet. All the good work in the gym was great, but my penchant for a Bakewell tart prevented me from becoming the next Dorian Yates. Even a very brief flirtation with steroids, despite piling on the mass, counted for little, when I would scoff a couple of doughnuts on my way home from the gym. It took me eighteen years to learn a hard lesson and then sodding cancer struck.   

  Being forty was cool. I loved being a Dad. I knew that I would make a good counsellor. I had well and truly caught the bodybuilding bug. And Cliff Richard was pipped to the Christmas number one by Westlife.   

The other good thing about being forty is that you can convince yourself that you’ve still got more than half of your life left. You can’t do that at sixty.  

   

 Meanwhile, in 1875, in Kensington, someone else was celebrating their fortieth birthday. 

 James Neary had been discharged from the navy in 1870. He had served for twenty-two years, much longer than he had expected, but being short on ideas of what he wanted to do with the second half of his life, he had repeatedly extended his service. 

After many years of silence, word had reached James that his father was in poor health. His mother had died in 1866 and the letter from his aunt had revealed that his father was not expected to see another summer. James thought about Harrow and his time working in the shop. His aunt’s letter indicated that the brotherly wrangling over the business had finally been settled. His eldest brother, George, had flown the white flag and purchased a shop of his own, further along the High Street. His youngest brother, Henry, had also pulled out of the fight and moved to Birmingham with his new wife, where he was in the process of building his own Midlands grocery empire. William Neary had been the victor. Quiet, unassuming, life-long bachelor William, who had devoted his entire adult life to being his father’s second in command, was now First Admiral of the Neary family business and most probably would be sole owner of the grocer’s shop after his father passed away. Having been absent from the shop for many years, James couldn’t feel bitter or hurt that there was no place for him at the grocer’s; he was not in the least inclined to return to his former life. “Good on them all,” was his genuine reaction. He knew that, for him, Harrow would remain consigned to history. Yet the letter turned his thoughts towards life after the end of his seafaring days.

Then one day in 1869, he woke up aboard ship with a very clear idea of what he wanted to achieve from life ashore. A wife and family were certainly top of his list. Secondly, a job that came with its own accommodation, like he’d had during his childhood in Harrow and unlike what he’d known for most of his adult life in the Navy, seemed a necessary priority. Having worked his way up to Master and a cabin, however tiny, of his own, James couldn’t abide the idea of spending the rest of his working life living and sleeping in communal quarters. Finally, James wanted work which came with some freedoms: if not as his own boss, then at least in a job that was fairly independent and didn’t require him to be answerable to long lines of superiors. If James could allow himself one more wish, it would be for a job out of doors, where he could content himself under an open sky. James was pleased with himself for devising such an orderly plan. The detail would need to be filled in later, but he knew many men who had reached the end of their naval career without the first clue of how to construct a new life. Such men had been subjected to Naval discipline, but they had never thought about how to make it work to their own advantage. James’ lessons in Naval order, method and tactics, on the other hand, had been well learned and he was determined to use them for his future benefit. When his ship reached England again, James took his discharge and travelled up to London.

An old Navy friend offered James lodgings near Billingsgate Market and for a short while he considered working in the fish warehouses, but the dank chill of the buildings and the thought of smelling the sea but not seeing it, were unappealing. Then, just two weeks after leaving the ship, a chance encounter in a public house saw James being offered the opportunity to work as a coachman for a wealthy family in North Kensington. James was initially unsure, but a job out of doors, with reasonably flexible hours and the pleasure of being able to drive around London, sealed the deal for him. He still felt his fourteen-year-old self’s antipathy towards the ‘Yes, Sir, No, Sir,’ brigade, but he was confident of managing that, after so many years in the Navy. 

On his third day in his new career, James had cause to carry some of Madam’s purchases into the main house. That was the first time that he saw his angel and he knew immediately that he was in love. The slight parlourmaid with the beautiful, peachy complexion was called Jane and they discreetly courted for many months, as a relationship between servants would have not gone down favourably with the Mistress. On their days off, they would sit in Kensington Gardens and James would enchant Jane with tales of the high seas, of Port Royal and of Victor, the king of the former slaves. It wasn’t one-sided. Jane had been brought up in Salthouse in Norfolk and narrated numerous entertaining stories of her fishing trips with her grandly-named father, Christmas Rudd. Their greatest joy was to take a small boat out on the lake and relive old memories. James Neary and Jane Rudd made a handsome couple and it was no surprise to their friends when, in the spring of 1872, they wed. 

Fearing that one or both of them would be sacked, James and Jane decided, however, to keep their union secret from their employers. They didn’t even dare tell their fellow servants in case their secret leaked out, but after a few months of marriage, their deception could no longer be sustained. Jane was expecting their first child and there was nothing to do but inform their employers of their marriage before the pregnancy became obvious. Enderby, the butler, told them that there had been quite a ding-dong upstairs. The Mistress was determined on instant dismissal for the pair of them, but the Master wouldn’t hear of it. Neary had become a valued, loyal coachman and the Master saw no reason why he should have to leave. Unusually, in matters of the household, the Master had the last word and with the infant due at any time, he set the Nearys up in a flat above the stables, in Thorpe Mews. 

It was in the Thorpe Mews flat that James Neary sat over a bowl of mutton stew, on the occasion of his fortieth birthday. It had been a rosy day. His brother, Henry, was enjoying a brief visit from Birmingham and together, they had taken little Emma Neary for a stroll along the Embankment. That evening, the Master, now widowed, had bought two tickets to the music hall for James and Jane. He had even offered the services of his old nanny, to tend to baby Emma during their absence. 

James Neary felt a warmth in his belly that was nothing to do with the steaming stew. He couldn’t wish for a more adorable, modern wife. His cheeky, adventurous daughter would keep his heart open for the rest of his life. He had work where he was trusted and a home where he was comfortable. The Navy had taught him discipline and he had developed a self-discipline that would stand him in good stead in his new role as provider for and protector of his family. 

Yet just that afternoon, when Henry had taken Emma off to buy her a cornet, James had looked out across the water and felt memories stirring. A memory of the sea. A memory of the last time he stroked Genevieve’s voluptuous contours. A memory of the last time he laid some flowers on Victor’s grave. A memory of the church choir and one last song under the Jamaica stars. James smiled. What a wonderful collection of memories to carry with him through this new chapter in his life. 

It would be quite an adventure to find out, now that he was married and living as a landlubber, whether he could he be the same man, with the same values, as the man with rank and respect who had fought so many bloody naval battles. Would he be able to find something to stir his soul to the same depth that he had felt when he faced up to those awe-inspiring Atlantic waves? He had another question that was greater than all his other concerns combined. In his shore-dweller’s middle-age, would he start settling for things, in the same way that his father and three brothers had always lived their lives in a rut? 

James chuckled. He used to rag Victor for his philosophical contemplations, but he had caught some of his old chum’s ways. As Victor had often remarked, there’s nothing like an expanse of water to encourage a man to question the meaning of his existence. That’s what an afternoon on the Embankment does for you. 

On the evening of his 40th birthday, James Neary made a vow. He would never again allow himself to be wrong-footed by philosophical gloominess. If life in the Navy had taught him anything, it was that it was a foolish occupation to keep looking backwards. It was not how he had lived his first forty years and he was not about to start now. He was blessed that he had a future.

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