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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“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….”
“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?”
“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.”