Lines Chapter 20 – Two Men In A Boat

20. Two Men In A Boat
Two men stood on the deck of the SS Minnetonka at the Port of London. It was 23rd July, 1913. Shortly, the ship would set sail to Ellis Island, New York: a seven-day voyage and the start of a new life in America. The two men were Henry Daubney, my great uncle; and James Hamlet Daubney, his eighteen-year-old son.

The passage was difficult, but convivial. For the most part, the passengers were treated no better than the cargo. Resentment and envy dripped from every single one of the jealous crew. All the passengers were embarking on a thrilling adventure – a new beginning in the New World and the crew hated them for that. Under normal circumstances, Henry Daubney’s Irish blood would have boiled at such treatment and his fists would have been put to good use, but on this voyage, the bitterness of others mattered not one jot. The drink had been plentiful and his anticipation of what lay ahead rendered redundant any displeasure at their treatment from the crew. The same could be said for the younger man, James Hamlet Daubney. He was in good spirits. Cut from the same cloth as his father, he held no truck with men who were consumed by petty jealousies. Besides, he was thoroughly enjoying nautical life. By the evening of the second day aboard, he had successfully persuaded a gorgeous Italian serving maid, who had been flirting outrageously with him at an impromptu below-decks dance, to partner him in a private horizontal hornpipe. What man could fail to feel satisfied at such good fortune?

In the afternoon of the 26th, having tended to their toilet in their third-class cabin, Henry and son were taking some whiskey on the south deck. Henry was composing a short letter to his beloved Elizabeth, whilst James Hamlet had lost himself in daydreams of his new life ahead on Rhode Island. Neither man had noticed the middle-aged couple who had sat down beside them on rickety deckchairs. Only the perfume of some freshly opened Bourbon aroused the interest of Henry. The couple introduced themselves as Mr and Mrs Lionel Archer, from Bournemouth, England. They were travelling to visit their son, Mr Walter Archer, who had settled in America during the exceptionally cold winter of 1909. This was their first trip overseas and today was their first venture outside of their cabin, having finally found their sea legs. Mrs Lionel Archer was a martyr to her digestion and had been left prostrate for three days and three nights. Henry was particularly interested to register the news that the Archers had needed several tumblers of Dutch courage to get them this far. He anticipated a pleasurable, thirst-quenching afternoon ahead. Having read his father’s thoughts, James Hamlet smiled and poured each of his new travelling companions several fingers of Ireland’s finest. Mrs Lionel Archer affected a display of declining, but James Hamlet knew that she was playing her own little comedy and encouraged the Archers to ‘knock it back in one’. The Daubneys burst into a generous round of applause as the Archers succeeded with their challenge and Henry took this opportunity to suggest to Mr Lionel Archer that he share around his bottle of Bourbon. Mr Lionel Archer’s response couldn’t have been kinder.

Lighting his pipe, James Hamlet felt a sudden splash of water hit his back. He turned around in suspicion, to see the beautiful Italian serving girl waving impishly at him. James Hamlet had never seen a more gorgeous woman. She had a natural, confident, Mediterranean beauty that would have been unheard of in Brentford. He knew that her seniors would not permit her to join in with the passengers’ revelry. She had implored him, the night before, to keep their tryst a secret, for fear of instant dismissal. At this moment, James Hamlet was harbouring a hankering for having his horn piped again; and there would be plenty of other occasions during the passage for more communal drunkenness. He formed a plan.

“Father, I fear I may be getting a fever. I wonder whether a short nap in the cabin might revive me? I throw down a challenge to you, Father. I am sure that the superb Archers would be desirous of hearing your tales of your many adventures with Alfred the Great.”

“Alfred, the great?” enquired Mrs Lionel Archer.

James Hamlet continued his Pootering performance:

“Not any old Alfred, dear Mrs Lionel. The Alfred to whom I refer is Mr Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in all of America. It is to his palatial home that my father and I are now travelling. He and my father are bosom buddies, from way back.”

Mr Archer scoffed:

“The fever and the liquor are unhealthy bedfellows. I swear that this story is a load of old Mrs. Worthington’s grouts. Such tosh does not become you, young man.”

James Hamlet was offended and this would usually have led to a fist fight, but he could feel a pleasurable anticipation causing growth behind his fly-buttons and he was determined that his father should play along with his diversion.

“Perhaps another miniscule dram to oil my vocal cords,” suggested Henry, with a barely concealed wink.

James Hamlet smiled too. He was keenly aware that his father needed no prompting to tell the world about his friendship with the great millionaire and how he had taught the American everything he knew about getting the best out of a carriage-racing horse. James Hamlet would listen attentively for five minutes in a display of loyalty and then quietly slip away to his cabin for some sport of his own.

Henry drained the last of his drink and held out his glass towards Mr Archer for a refill. He gestured to his audience for them to draw their deckchairs closer.

“It was 1899, it was. I had been a groom and carriage-driver for many a year. I had my sweet little Elizabeth at home, looking after the three nippers, as we had at the time. We had Henry junior, young James Hamlet here, and the baby, Claude. When you’re a horseman, you have to get yourself out and about and that can be hard for the family, back home. Although I was often away for weeks at a time, there was always food on the table. I won’t hear any man say otherwise.

It’s right simple, you see. You’re either good with an ‘orse, or you ain’t. And I’ve always had a natural affinity with the ‘orses, since I was a little lad. I was better with ‘orses than I was with people, as my old mother used to say. And she was right enough. Wouldn’t give humans the shit off me shoes. If you tell an ‘orse to go left, they’ll always go left. If you tell a man or a woman to go left, they’s want to know why they’re going left. Always got a question or a reason not to do what you’re asking. Ain’t that right, James Hamlet? James? The bugger’s gone off. Can’t say that I blame him. He’s heard this tale, many a time….

When I were a nipper, my old man worked in the slaughterhouse. Many a day, he took me and my sister, Mary-Jane to work with him. She loved it; got right stuck in. Me, I hated it. I know that some sod has got to do it, but it wasn’t my idea of honest work to go about killing animals. I wasn’t soft, don’t misunderstand me, but I was more interested in what they could do when they were alive. I vowed then, that if I was going to do anything with my life, it would be about bringing out the best in an animal. I quickly learned that it was with ‘orses that I could do this best.

Anyway, there I was. One of the best judges of horseflesh in all the land. I had been working as a groom at the Albany. I was the man they called upon whenever an ‘orse got a bit uppity. ‘Where’s Henry? He’ll calm the blighter down,’ they would say. This particular day, I had been sent to some fox-hunting function, out at Syon House. I was tending to a beautiful, frisky grey, out front, whilst the nobs were having their dinner inside. And all the time that I was working, there was this grand nob, sitting on the grass, not taking his eye off me. I’d be having a little chat with this grey stunner and I’d look back around, and there he was, still watching me out. I was getting a bit narky, as it happened. A man don’t want an audience from no stuck-up nob.

So, I calls him out. Asked him what he thought he was looking at. I told him that if he didn’t mind his own business, I’d have to assist him to sling his effing hook. And do you know what the flash sod did? He laughed at me. Not a quick laugh that is over in seconds, but a bloody marathon chuckle. I was about to lamp him one, nob or no nob. But then he pulls out this hip flask from his jacket and he pours me a large one. Fills the glass to the brim. Same stuff as this. A healthy drop of Bourbon. So, I’m drinking his drink and thinking that he might not be such a bad sort after all, and he shakes my hand, and says,

‘The name is Alfred. And it’s a great honour to make your acquaintance.’

He had a funny voice. Deep, but a bit of a twang, like he was plucking a banjo. I asked whether he was from these parts and he said, no, he was from America, which explained the banjo.

Over a couple more bourbons, or five, he tells me that he is looking for a good trainer and after watching me for the past hour, he reckons that he’s found the perfect man for the job. I told him to watch his lip, but he said that if he’d learned one thing from his business travels, it was to trust his instinct. And how about it? Was I on board? Was I as good a stableman as he thought? Well, I thought, Mr American nob, you don’t have the monopoly on instinct. I’d worked out that he seemed a pretty, decent sort, and looking at the cut of his outfit, there might be a decent bit of money in it for me. So, I said, yes.

That were fourteen years ago and we’ve been inseparable ever since. Me, the Irish rogue, and him, the Yankee swell. It’s him who has paid for this journey. I’ve done the trip about five times before, but a few months back, we were in the stables and he said,

‘Henry, my old mucker. This just won’t do, any longer. How about you move out to America? Permanently. Come on your own to begin with, and if you find you can settle, bring the rest of your family out later. I’ll cover the fares and the housing for them all. The more the merrier. What do you say, old chap?’

What do you say? I was as keen as mustard, and so was James Hamlet. Where the chuffing hell has he gone? The missus wasn’t too sure at first, but she’s come round to the idea now. It’s my eldest that is full of hesitation. And I worry about my sister. She’s a widow woman after her husband drowned in the Thames, but she’s got herself a new man, so I think she will be alright. So I said yes and here we are.

All those years. He never said as much, but I swear that he saw me as his right-hand man. I would never let any scoundrel get the better of him, not that he hasn’t got the brain to spot a wrong ‘un. He spent many of his days in England. He was into his Coaching, as it is called. All the toffs and nobs, in their shiny coaches, haring it down from London Bridge to Brighton. I’ve seen some sights in those races that would make your hair curl. Of course, he had the money for the best horses. Everyone knew Mr Alfred. What with him having the best ‘orses and his money and his good looks. He could attract the women, no mistake. I’d never seen a collection of ‘orses so fine. Purebreds, every one of them. Magnificent creatures and I had the honour of looking after them. Makes a man real proud when he sees his ‘orses and his master, winning by a country mile. Yep. That nob. Alfred Vanderbilt. He’s done alright for me and my family.”

Henry had been talking for over an hour, during which several more glasses had been drunk. Mrs Lionel Archer fell off her deckchair with a resounding thud. Not many yards away, in one of the Minnetonka’s cabins, an eighteen-year-old adventurer let out a yell of immense pleasure.

Three days later, the ship docked at Ellis Island. Two men called Daubney were collected personally by Mr Alfred Vanderbilt and taken to a drinks gathering at his apartment, to celebrate their arrival. From there, sated, and full of soak, father and son retired to their new homes, in America.

Postscript

The Daubneys did settle in America. Two years later, in 1915, Henry’s wife, Elizabeth and two of their sons, Claude and Lesley, joined Henry. In 1919, Henry’s eldest son, Henry junior, completed the transition of all of Henry senior’s sons. Finally, in 1920, Henry junior’s wife, Ethel, their three children, and Ethel’s cousin, Annie, braved the journey and now the entire Daubney family were settled in America. James Hamlet married Marjorie in 1916 and they settled and raised their family in Massachusetts.

On 7th May 1915, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was travelling home from England on HMS Lusitania. Just off the coast of Ireland, the ship was torpedoed by a German U Boat. The huge liner sank within twenty minutes. Alfred Vanderbilt was preparing to escape onto a lifeboat, when he noticed a young mother carrying her baby. The woman didn’t have a lifejacket, so Alfred gave her his. Alfred Vanderbilt was not one of the survivors. He was 38.

The 1940 American census reveals that Claude Daubney, son of Henry Daubney and the younger brother of James Hamlet, was employed as a butler to the nephew of Alfred Vanderbilt.

Alfred Vanderbilt was responsible for the relocation of twenty-one members of the Daubney family to Rhode Island, America. Four generations later, the Daubney family continues to thrive in the USA.

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Lines Chapter 19 – Tom

  1. Tom

 

 

Boy, am I cheesed off. This is the fourth day of jury service and we haven’t set foot inside the courtroom yet. We haven’t been told anything about the case, or even if there is a case, but the whisper is, three of the prosecution witnesses have gone missing. The judge is prepared to give the players one more twenty-four hour deadline, before halting the trial. At least today we won’t be sitting around like lemons. We have been dismissed for the day and it is still only ten thirty. For the last three days, I have been trapped in the jury room, with nothing more than a few gardening magazines for entertainment. So I’ve been occupying myself by playing the world’s least imaginative game – where would you rather be, than here? Today, I have the chance to jump onto the train and get back home before Loose Women, but I have suddenly discovered a fancy to explore the delights of Brentford. My sole experiences of Brentford this week have been the station, the greasy spoon caff, and the County Court. Surely, Brentford has more to offer a yokel from Cowley. I have taken out one of those go-anywhere gym passes. It has been over a week since I last did a legs workout and, in my fragile bodybuilder’s eyes, my quads are shrinking fast.

I leave the courthouse and punch the postcode of the gym into Google Directions. I was a useless navigator when all we had was paper Ordnance Survey maps and I’m no better trying to read the Google version. I can see where I am and I can see where I want to be, but unless the instructions begin from the exact same paving stone that I’m standing on, I’m flummoxed. There is no point in telling me to walk four hundred yards and then to turn left into Flummoxed Street, when I can’t work out in which direction I have to walk those four hundred yards. Still, it is good to be out in the fresh air and I convince myself that the walk will be a good warm up for my hams.

Twenty five minutes later and Google is informing me that I am 1.3 miles from my desired destination. This is a pisser, because I was only 0.5 miles away when I started. It is hot and I am wearing my favourite two-tone suit. In this heat, my armpits are beginning to develop a patch. I am aware that I haven’t passed a station during my constitutional and I have started to consider giving up and going home; even if I stop off somewhere for brunch, I can still make it back to my own gym in Cowley by 2 o’clock. In the distance, I can vaguely make out a roadsign bearing a name from the past. Kew Gardens. Back in my DHSS days, I spent a month on a training course at Kew. Every day for four weeks, I set my alarm for 5.30, caught the 65 bus from Ealing Broadway and lost myself during the meandering bus journey in speculations about the horticultural treasures behind the high walls of the Garden’s boundaries. For that whole month, I never alighted the 65 to discover what lay behind those brick defences. How about I make today that day? The only problem is that the River Thames separates me from it. Like a man with a mission, I step up my pace and head on down towards the river. Perhaps my mission is to locate a bridge. I’m pretty sure that once I’m across the river and sated by Kew’s finest blooms, my historical radar will lead me to a number 65 bus stop to return home. I am almost at the river’s edge.

There is a God. I spy, with my little eye, a pub with a sign outside advertising all-day breakfasts. I increase my step. I con myself that I can burn off the fry-up in the gym and then restrict myself to a couple of whey-protein shakes for the rest of the day. I stand in the car park of the Brewery Tap and my eyes light up when I see that they have fried bread on offer as part of the Bargeman’s Bonanza Breakfast. No worries. An extra set of squats and five minutes of abdominal crunches should sweat away a single fried slice.

No way! The pub is closed for refurbishment. It reopens on 8th September, which adds salt to my wound because that is the day that I go into hospital for my preliminary cancer surgery. See Naples and die? See Brentford and starve.

With nowhere else to go, I turn left onto the Brent towpath and head downstream. If I can find the Thames, I might be able to find myself. Perhaps a swim across the Thames will dull my appetite. As well as having a hopeless sense of direction, my sense of distance is pretty poor too. As I stand on the edge of the water, I cannot get any sense at all of the distance to the other side. I’m as lost in furlongs and fathoms as I am in kilometres. Not that I am seriously planning to swim. If nothing else, I don’t want to get the Inspector Morse novel in my jacket pocket soaking wet.

I think about Auntie Hilda and that day we lost our bearings in Weymouth:

“Let’s just have a nice little sit and see in which direction, the seagulls are heading.”

I didn’t understand that forty-five years ago and I still don’t today. I gaze around for some seagulls, but all I can see are a couple of pigeons, bracing themselves for some sex.

“You be wanting on going over the river, mate?”

My pigeon voyeurism ends abruptly and I see a tall bloke, in an oil-encrusted canvas smock, standing on top of a barge. I think it is the oldest, most rusty boat I have ever seen. I know about this stuff because I live in a bachelor pad, alongside the canal. I am not sure that this stationary craft would survive moving a foot, let alone get us down the Brent and across the Thames. Yet, and I can’t quite put my finger on why, there is something okay about the bargeman. He has the air of being a good man in a crisis.

“I need to get over the river to the Gardens. I fancy taking in some greenery. Seem to remember that I can pick up the 65 bus there.”

“Well, you’d better climb on, then. I’m going that way. I’ve got a few errands to run.”

I do climb on. This is so unlike me. In no time, the boatman sets off. The first thing that feels peculiar is that the boat isn’t motor driven. He is using an implement that looks like a cross between a punt-pole and a paddle and by crikey, does he quickly build up a head of speed. He is going as fast as we might have done if the boat had an engine. I become fascinated by his dexterity with the oar. It verges on art. And then I see his arms. Huge trunks. I would have to train arms every day and take shedloads of performance enhancing substances, to get even close to that size.

“Get out of the way. Move, you fucking maniac.”

A small motor boat has come recklessly close to ours. The guy driving the boat looks coked up to his eyeballs. Despite the danger he is causing, he is finding the game hilariously funny. There is a little boy in the back of the boat. The driver is obviously taunting us. My new mate is struggling to prevent the giant oar from hitting their boat. He has to keep whipping the oar out of the water, which causes our boat to change direction abruptly. On the seventh round of Mr Cokehead’s perilous game of water bumper-cars, the inevitable happens. The two boats collide and the small boy falls into the water.

The bargeman passes me the oar.

“Here. Take this. No fancy business. Just keep rowing it in the same direction.”

He takes off his top and boots and empties his pockets onto the deck. With the oar in one hand, I try to grab him.

I know who my chauffeur is.

“Thomas! What do you think you are doing? I can’t fucking row this thing!”

He didn’t hear me. He dives in. The boy has disappeared underwater. His father is going bananas. I can’t see Thomas or the boy and I am stuck in the middle of the River fucking Thames. After what feels like forever, Thomas emerges from the brown, muddy water. He is carrying the boy aloft. The boy is out, but Thomas’s head keeps disappearing back into the sludgy flow. Surprisingly, they are only a few feet from the barge. In my shock and horror, I haven’t attempted a single stroke, but the current must have propelled the boat along.

“Mark! Bring the boat towards me! I can’t swim, with the nipper.”

I grab the oar as tightly as I can and miraculously, the barge starts moving. Just getting the oar to do one full motion takes all my strength and I vow never to wimp out during a session of arm curls, ever again. In about six strokes, I am close enough for Thomas to be able to touch the boat. I lean forward and take hold of the boy. It hasn’t occurred to me that he may be dead and, thankfully, he is breathing. There are a couple of blankets on the deck, so I remove the boy’s wet clothes and wrap him in the warm woollens. He is conscious, but obviously cold and in shock, so he doesn’t say a word. As I have been preoccupied, I haven’t noticed that Thomas has dragged himself out of the water and taken charge of the oar that I carelessly abandoned whilst looking after the boy.

“You did well, mate. And by the way, the name is Tom. People don’t call me Thomas.”

“Sorry, Tom. You did pretty good yourself, fella.”

We are back on the riverbank. A large crowd has gathered. A police officer has handcuffed Mr Cokehead. A woman summoned by the coppers announces herself to be a social worker and takes the boy from my arms. Instinctively, I kiss his head. After mooring the barge, Tom goes up and has a few words with the police officers. Rubberneckers start to disperse to post their footage on Instagram. Two policewomen lead the boy’s father to the waiting police van. As quickly as the drama unfolded, it dissipates, leaving just the two of us, sitting on the riverbank. I offer Tom a cigarette, and he takes the longest drag imaginable.

“They said we can go home. They’ll be round to take statements later.”

“Okay.”

I realise that I am trembling. I’m not cold because the sun is still blazing down. I think it is the shock. Tom is trying to wring out his trousers.

“Oh shit, Tom. I’m sorry. I gave both the blankets to the boy.”

“Don’t worry, mate. I’ve been in worse situations. I’ll dry off.”

It is time to go. Tom takes control of the oar and five minutes later, we are heading for the exact spot we started from. I have forgotten all about Kew Gardens and the number 65 bus. We travel the whole width in silence. Tom moors up and we stand on the bank, facing each other, neither of us sure what to say or do next. If only the Brewery Tap wasn’t closed. I could murder a pint.

“If you don’t mind, Mark, I’ll go home now. Need to get something dry on.”

He shakes my hand and heads off the same way that I arrived from earlier. He turns back to me, laughing. He is leaning against a bus stop.

“See this? The number 237. It’ll take you to Hounslow. You can change there for a bus to Cowley”

The bus stop is about twenty feet from the spot where I had been reading the breakfast menu.

“You knew that all along? Why did you take me out in the boat?”

“You mentioned the 65 from Kew and I fancied a little adventure. Gets mighty boring on the water, these days.”

Laughing even louder, he walks off. Goodness knows why as the joke has been at my expense, but I start to laugh too and I know that I have to know, so I run after him.

“Tom! Tom. Stop. How could you do that? I mean, dive into the water, after the kid? How could you do that, after what happened before?”

“Tsk. That was years ago. When you fall off your bike, you get straight back on.”

“But you drowned…..”

“I drowned because I let my anger get the better of me. For a foolish five minutes, I lost sight of how angry the Thames can be when you don’t respect it.”

“From what I know, you had every right to be angry. Your livelihood was at stake.”

“Bollocks. No job is worth losing your life for. I thought I owned the river. Those lads from the North were only here looking for work. Every man has the right to do that.”

“I’m really sorry. You deserved a longer life. My Nan Emma deserved having her father around longer. You did the decent thing. Like today…”

“Nobody got a medal for throwing their toys out of their pram. I broke the rules of the river. I paid my price.”

“What a price, though? You were a great lighterman, Tom Fleetwood.”

“It’s over, all that. It’s history. Now, fuck off and go the gym. You’ll never be a lighterman with arms like that.”

This time, he really does go. I am not ready to catch the bus yet. I clamber back on the barge and light another cigarette. For the first time, I notice the name of the boat. It is the ‘Life of Findlay’. Half an hour later and I am ready to move on. It will be quite a story to tell Steven. He is probably the only person that I know who will accept that I have just had the adventure of a lifetime with my great-grandfather

 

 

 

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Lines Chapter 18 – Significant Days Part Three

  1. Significant Days Part Three.

 

1976.

This is how cocooned I was. It had never occurred to me, until a week before she died, that my Mum had probably had cancer for about nine years. There is a famous family photo of us at Pontins holiday camp in 1967. My sister is in her pushchair. Dad and Mum are standing next to each other and I am kneeling down, next to Jayne. When I look at the photograph now, the first thing that I see is the small dressing on Mum’s shin. She had a wound in her leg for a long time and she would regularly have the hole scraped out by Doctor Pragnell. Nobody ever mentioned the word “cancer”, but after she died, my Dad told me that he believed that the strange mass on her leg was the beginning of her cancer journey.

In 1971, she had an operation to remove a kidney. Once again, cancer wasn’t talked about. I remember walking unannounced into her bedroom one day when she was half-dressed. She had several odd, black arrows drawn on her back. I knew that she was having radiotherapy, but had no idea why, or what that entailed. In hindsight, I can see that the arrows were the directions for the radiologist, temporarily tattooed on her back.

My first realisation that something was seriously wrong was at the tail end of the school summer holiday in 1975. We went for a family day out to the open air pool at Windsor. Mum didn’t go in the water, but stayed in the spectators’ grandstand. When I came out of the changing room, I found Dad and Jayne bending over her. She had collapsed. We had to carry her back to the station, to catch our train. The deterioration was pretty quick from that day. Within two months, she had lost the use of her legs completely and had to use a wheelchair. For months, Mum had been looking forward to Christmas, because Uncle Albert had organised a four night break for usand all the extended family, in Bournemouth. Two days before we were due to travel, Mum announced that she and Dad would be staying at home, but encouraged me and Jayne to go with the rest of the family. It seems so clear now that Mum and Dad were still desperately in love and wanted to spend one last Christmas together. On that first night in Bournemouth, as we sat eating dinner, the waiter approached Uncle Albert and informed him that he had an urgent phone call. For the few minutes that he was away, one by one, the older relatives started crying, as they feared the worst. Upon his return, Uncle Albert announced solemnly that their eldest brother, Uncle Charlie, had suffered a major heart attack in his lorry and had died. It was a double shock. Everyone expected the news to be about Mum, but any relief was lost in the awful, unexpected news about their brother, and our uncle.

In the third week of January 1976, Mamma Mia entered the UK Top 10 and Mum entered hospital. The week before she died, my Dad tried to prepare me for her passing, but in his distressed bravery, he didn’t exactly say that she was going to die; just that she wouldn’t be coming home again. For a brief few hours, I wrestled with the confused illusion of having, in several years’ time, to visit Mum in hospital on my wedding day, so that she could see me in my best suit. By the time I woke up the next morning, that fantasy had been replaced with the sadder reality.

I still couldn’t picture how we would live without her. Mum was such a significant figure in the entire family. She was the youngest of six siblings and may have been an accidental baby. There was quite a large age difference between her and her next eldest sister. In fact, she was nearer in age to her nephews and nieces than she was to most of her brothers and sisters, so she became the bridge between two generations of Worleys. Her wedding album illustrates this; of her three bridesmaids, one was her sister and the other two were her nieces. The nieces never called her “Auntie” either, but they wouldn’t have dreamed of not using that title when speaking of the other sisters: Wilky, Rose and Hilda. Her sisters didn’t mother her, though. She always seemed very much an equal.

Mum had a similar effect on Dad’s family too. Perhaps all families need one person, willing to take on the role of providing the family glue? It was certainly true that after her death, the number of family get-togethers decreased significantly. On Sundays, we had had an unofficial rota for visiting various arms of the family. Although she would never have admitted this, I’m sure that her favourite people to visit were my Dad’s sister, Auntie Eve; and Eve’s husband, Uncle Tom. In particular, she revelled in Uncle Tom’s company. I don’t think the attraction was physical, at all. Uncle Tom was a doppelganger for Charlie Hawtrey, from the Carry On films. I think the attraction was that they could make each other laugh hysterically. I liked those visits too. It took him about three years, but Uncle Tom built a model village in their back garden. It had everything: a stream, a parade of shops, a castle, even a cricket pavilion. It was a brilliant piece of design engineering.

I don’t want to paint a picture of Mum as a sickly, angel figure, because she wasn’t. As she died when I was sixteen, I only ever saw her through a child’s eyes and one of my deepest yearnings is for the adult relationship that I never got to have with her. My picture of her is naturally limited in scope and sentiment.

Mum died on a Saturday morning. This was at the time that I was working on the cooked meats counter at Fine Fare. I left for work that day with no inkling of what was to follow. The penny didn’t even drop when I came home for lunch. Auntie Wilky and Auntie Phil had arrived to cook me egg and chips, as Dad had dashed off to the hospital. When I got back to the flat that evening, Dad was home and Uncle Bob was by his side, to offer moral support. Jayne was staying with Mum’s best friend for the weekend. I can remember little from that night, or from the next few days, apart from some jigsaw pieces of sadness and bewilderment. That same Saturday evening, Dad and I went out for some fish and chips and nearly got mowed down by the heavy Western Road traffic. I remember school on the Monday morning. Mr Curtis, my English teacher, chatted to me gently in his office, whilst Mr Faure, the head of the sixth form, broke the news to my classmates. A sweet memory is of Jim Humble, the groundsman at Southall Football Club. He turned up and presented me with one of those old-fashioned wooden rattles, which had been in his family for generations. I had admired it for years and he had given it a fresh lick of red and white paint, before handing it on to me. And that’s about it for memories. I guess we just kept on keeping on.

The significant day was the funeral, the Friday after Mum’s death. I didn’t own a suit, so I wore Dad’s rather gaudy, Tony Curtis style checked jacket and a pair of brown, Crimplene slacks. I may have felt like a five year old on the inside, but on the outside, I looked like Ted Rodgers. Over the next couple of years, I was to become first a soul boy, then a punk, before finding my true spiritual identity – a mod. But on the day we said our farewells to Beryl Neary, I resembled a spunky Bobby Charlton.

The mourners were assembling in speedily increasing numbers and our small flat was starting to feel claustrophobic. Never at ease with small talk, I decided that I needed some fresh air. Our front garden was covered in flowers. I was in year one of my French A-Level and had a vocabulary book that had been written circa 1940. I loved it. The language was hilariously outdated. I used to drive Mr Hart, the French teacher, crazy by including some of the most archaic, wooden phrases into every essay. One of my favourites was, “That bed of flowers was an orgy of colour, last week.” It was the “last week” tagged on the end that creased me up, every time. For once, I could use the phrase appropriately, because our garden was an orgy of colour that day.

Whilst I was looking aimlessly at the wreaths, my cousin Carol turned up. She is ten years older than I am, so when I was growing up in the 1960s, she was off, being a teenager and doing terribly exciting teenage things. Over the previous few years, Carol and Mum had become very close, so I had started to know her better. Carol walked into our garden and, without saying anything, enveloped me in a massive bear-hug. It was the first hug I’d had since Dad had broken the news, six days earlier. I can still feel that hug. A few weeks earlier, Carol had been at the hotel in Bournemouth and it was with her, on Christmas Day, that Jayne and I had sat, to open our presents. That was a metaphorical hug; this was a real hug. It was a Worley hug.

I’ve only got one other memory of funeral day and it was pure Joe Orton comedy that Beryl Neary née Worley would have loved. We got back from the funeral and had a small wake at Auntie Rose’s. Then Uncle Albert announced that he had booked a table at The Swan and Bottle, which was a kind of Berni Inn before Berni Inns became fashionable. We split into three carloads: Uncle Albert driving one; Carol driving the second; and Kath bringing up the rear. I was in Uncle Albert’s car with Dad, Jayne and Auntie Rose. Halfway there, Uncle Albert decided that the car needed filling up. As we were exiting the petrol station, he spotted a car wash, and said:

“Ooh. Let’s wash the gloom of the day off. Just two minutes.”

He drove the car into the wash. The rollers came down. The foam started spraying and water appeared from every direction. The next thing we knew, there was an almighty clunk and the rollers dropped even further, before stopping with a thud on the car bonnet.

“Fuck,” said Uncle Albert, “We’re trapped.”

Like a mourning Greek Chorus, one by one, we started to shout, “HELP.” There were plenty of people, milling about on the forecourt, but nobody appeared to hear us. The rollers had stopped rolling, the foam had stopped foaming, but the water was still pounding the windows and the roof. And then, as casually and as authoritatively as you like, Uncle Albert wound down the window, shouted “Help, you sods,” and wound the window straight back up again. Within seconds, we were rescued.

Ten minutes later, we arrived at The Swan and Bottle. The other two cars had gone on ahead and Carol and the rest of the Worleys were already at our table, ordering the first round of drinks. As we walked in, everyone stood up and said in unison,

“Whatever has happened to you lot?”

In the few seconds that Uncle Albert had wound down the car window to summon assistance, we had all got soaked to the skin. Seated in the passenger seat, Auntie Rose had caught the worst of it and it was months before her perm recovered. I learned the painful life lesson that Crimplene is the worst material for soaking up rainwater. We all stood as Carol proposed a toast to Beryl and as we sat back down, five of us started off asymphony of squelching. Somebody said,

“Beryl would have loved to have seen you in that car wash. You’d have never heard the last of it.”

Between you and me, I think it was Beryl, up there in Heaven, who caused the rollers to get stuck. For a joke. I wouldn’t put it past her.

 

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Lines Chapter 17 – A Cheese Sandwich & A Cuppa

Chapter 17. A Cheese Sandwich & A Cuppa

September 2019

It’s been a good day. It’s been a bloody good day. But this train ride home has been taking forever and I just want to slip out of these sensible trousers and eat a box of Jaffa Cakes.

I’ve been to Nottingham to tell the Get Steven Home story at a Mental Capacity Act conference. The other speaker was Justice Peter Jackson. Yes, him. The man who saved Steven’s life, eight years ago. It feels like many lives have been lived since that day in his courtroom, when he described me as “an unusual man” and caused me to sob, uncontrollably by linking our case to the Magna Carta. What do you say to one of your heroes? I’ve got form on this. Back in 1980, Southall Football Club’s midfield playmaker, started work in the same office as me and we sat at adjoining desks. We were the same age, but it took me days before I could even acknowledge his presence. Once I dealt with my awe, we became good mates. A couple of years later, he arranged a match between our office and Ealing DHSS at Southall’s old Western Road ground. Even though I was the worst player in the team, he threw me the match ball and insisted  that I led the team onto the pitch. My hero. My mate.

“Memory.

I can smile at the old days.

I was beautiful then.”

But Justice Peter Jackson was a whole different kettle of fish. It turned out that I was his warm-up man. He was booked to speak after me and was travelling up from London on the morning. That prompted an additional anxiety. Supposing he arrived in the room at the end of my talk? When I got to the bit where I was talking about him? Was Nottingham prepared for a love fest?

After my talk, there was a coffee break and I went outside to collect my thoughts. The venue was an old school, hauntingly reminiscent of my junior school. Apart from the Mental Capacity group, the place was deserted and the eerie corridors felt populated by ghostly kids from my generation. Kids sucking on sherbet lemons. Globes with too much pink on. I got lost, and it was whilst I was walking along one of the silent passages, that the door of the gentlemen’s opened and there he was. We shook hands and stood talking on a stairwell for ages, until someone came to find him to start his talk. He went down a storm. He spoke about his job as a decision maker and about being bold and brave. He talked about some of his famous cases and the humanity of the man was powerfully moving.

There are two conversations that I’ve had in my life, that I will take to my grave. The first, was with my Dad, that day in the hospital when he had just been told that he only had a few weeks to live. The second was that day in Nottingham. Justice Jackson and I talked about Steven, of course. And me, and how our lives had changed forever on account of his ruling. We also talked about family, and courage, and where it comes from. And possibly, it was the day that the seeds of this book were planted. One of the delegates appeared and wanted to take a selfie of the three of us. I think that I upset her by declining, but I didn’t want that special moment diluted by being turned into an Instagram boast. I have the photo in my head, and my heart, anyway.

All the way home on the train, I was struck by how the encounter had turned out to be, nothing more, than just two men having a chat. No pedestals. I was in awe of him, of course, but I didn’t become tongue-tied. We had been in a school, but I hadn’t been a little boy. It had taken a long time.

It was nearly 11 o’clock before I turned the keys in my flat. I might even give the Jaffa Cakes a miss and go straight to bed. I switched on the hall lights and got a peculiar sensation, like I was back in the deserted school, from this morning. It had been raining buckets and I went into the bathroom to dry off. Being a Yul Brynner lookalike, rainwater tends to just sit on my head, but as I dried my head in the dark, I could feel hair. I switched on the bathroom light and a man with my face, my wrinkles, my liver spots, looked back at me from the mirror. Only, he had a feather cut and little droplets of rain fell from it and into the sink. I went into the bedroom, to slip into something more comfortable. I could feel the muscles that I had been so painstakingly cultivating. I could feel the foot long scar from my recent cancer operation. But outside of them, I could see a pair of high waisted flared trousers and one of my Auntie Hilda’s hand-knitted tank tops. A wolfman in Leo Sayer clothing.

This was all, rather interesting.

I went into the living room. Everything looked just as I had left it, yesterday morning. I phoned Steven for a quick chat about The Pet Shop Boys and Maltesers, and then switched on the radio. The disc jockey sounded remarkably like Emperor Rosco. “And this week’s number one is ABBA. It’s Mama Mia.” And Agnetha and Frida started singing about being cheated on from a time that they couldn’t quite put their fingers on.

I walked across to the kitchen. I put the washing up away. Next to the draining board, was a side plate with a grated cheese sandwich on. And a cup of tea. And the cup of tea had steam coming off it.

I turned around abruptly. There she was, sitting in my armchair. My Mum. My legs went wobbly. I kept looking back and forth from the radio to her. “This week’s number one!” February 1976. The month and the year that she died.

“Is it you? Shit. Is it really you?”

“Mark. Of course, it’s me. Who were you expecting? Gina Lolabrigita?”

“I dunno. Oh my. It’s bloody good to see you.”

“It’s been forty-three years.”

I looked back over to the radio. I was trying to process forty-three years. Abba faded into a commercial break. I switched the radio off and collapsed onto the sofa. I didn’t know what to say.

“Mama Mia. It was number one, the week that you died. I underlined it five times in my red It book.”

“I know. I went too soon. I never got to hear Fernando.”

She was making a joke. She was making a bloody joke.

“You didn’t miss much. Although, Dancing Queen was a classic and has really stood the test of time.”

Our first conversation in forty three years and we were discussing Abba.

“Your tea is getting cold. Steven had a great time at his water aerobics group today. He doesn’t miss you at all when you go away. I’ve never met him, but I’m so proud of him.”

Mechanically, I sipped my cuppa.

“Me too. Look, please say, if this is too much to ask… What was…Bugger… what was 1976 like? For you?”

This was coming out all wrong.

“I’m not sure that there’s too much to say. I ended. When you’re dead, your life has stopped. That’s the end of the story. Well, the end of my story. Only the living can tell their story.”

“You can tell it now. It would be good to hear.”

“That Justice Jackson is a nice man, isn’t he. Well spoken. And a cheeky glint in his eye. Reminds me of old Mr Tipper. Do you remember him?”

“Yes, of course. He taught me everything I know about slicing a quarter of a pound of tongue.”

“He always used to slip an extra slice of corned beef into my order. And then he winked.”

We both laughed. I didn’t know how long we had together. She didn’t want to talk about the end. I couldn’t blame her really.

“You’re having quite an adventure. I’ve learned such a lot about the Worleys. And my mother was always very quiet about the Fleetwoods. I never understood that when I was growing up, but you’ve helped me get more of a handle on it.”

“That seems to be a common theme through several generations of our family. The stories and the lives that were never spoken about. There are a lot of stories that I was never told. Uncle Frank. How the Farwells got bombed to death during the war. What happened to Granddad Worley. Lots of stories. Why don’t I know about any of those?”

Mum joined me on the sofa. For the first time, I noticed her familiar smell. I’d forgotten how comforting it was. She smiled.

“You’ve always had an arrogant streak in you. Do you remember that time when you organised a sports day in the back garden and Uncle Albert won the sack race? You were devastated because you’d assumed that you would win.”

I squirmed. She had always been good at telling someone a few home truths, without slicing off their balls in the process. Twitter could learn a lot from her.

“Do you tell people what your Dad said to you, that day in hospital? Do you talk about losing your baby? You’ve been very quiet about how losing me has affected your relationship with women.”

“Yeah. Don’t rub it in. I get the point. I probably won’t tell anyone about what’s happening right now…..”

“Of course you will. Because it won’t hurt you. For someone who counsels others, you can be pretty thick at times. What happened to the Farwells was a life changing tragedy. Six people, here one day, and gone, the next. You can’t blame your Uncle Albert for burying that one away. Besides, he’s not going to talk about it in the middle of the conga, on New Year’s Eve.”

I shifted my position a bit closer. I wasn’t sure whether it’s appropriate to request a hug from a ghost.

“Okay. I get all that. But what about Uncle Frank? This whole journey started with him. Why was he erased from the family memoir?”

“There you go again. Just because you didn’t know him, you’ve assumed nobody cared.”

I don’t like the feeling, but I was starting to feel pissed off. That was no answer at all. I think Mum reads my mind.

“Sorry. You’re right. I’m being unfair. In the space of five years, your Dad lost his three brothers. Reg never recovered from the war and took himself away from his family. He must have been in torment. Stan emigrated to Australia. John really looked up to him. And I don’t think the family ever got over the guilt of losing Frank. They thought he was going away to a better life.”

Bloody hell, these trousers felt tight. I looked down at my lap and I was back in my sensible trousers. The flares had gone. I touched my head. All I could feel was skin. The teenage me had gone. Mum appears to have noticed this.

“A bald head suits you. Let’s the world see your toughness. It goes well with your kind eyes.”

I hadn’t really looked at her, until now. She looked the same as the picture that I’ve kept in my head for all these years. I am sixty. She is forty two. How does that work?

“You must understand their guilt? Do you ever feel it? With Steven? Whatever you do is never quite enough.”

“Yep. I just try to do my best, but the guilt is never far away.”

“The 1950s were a different world. You were right about that home Frank went to. They tried to do their best too. For a while, everyone thought it was for the best. Until he became ill. That was a shock. He was on his own and deteriorating.  That’s when you need your family.”

“When I was in hospital, Jayne and Wayne came every day. Carol came too. And all the support workers too. They’re family.”

“We were all there. Just like everyone was there for me in 1976. It’s called family. You need love and bravery to watch the people you care about the most, dying.”

We slipped into silence. I reckon saying ‘goodbye’ requires balls whether you are there or not. We all find our own way. Dad’s brothers all said their goodbyes in different ways. Painful ways for them and for the people who loved them. I still feel uneasy that, unlike the others, Uncle Frank didn’t have a choice, but that has always been the way for people with learning disabilities. It’ll be the same for Steven. We were both aware of the harsh realities and there was nowhere else we could go with it.

“I’ll tell you what I like about my job. People think counselling is all about asking questions. It’s not. It’s two people, in a room, hanging out together. Talking about shit that matters.”

“I’ve seen some of your sessions. I don’t know how you get away with charging people £30  to sit in a room for an hour, talking about Morse.”

I spluttered my tea all over the carpet. We both dissolved into laughter.

“I should have said. I’m so sorry about Julie. That was another painful goodbye. Right.  Hanging out, you say? I was looking at your DVD collection before you got home. There’s hardly anything that I know. Do you know what? I quite fancy putting my feet up on the sofa and watching something. Just hanging out. If you’re not too tired?”

I went across to the unit that holds the pride of my living room. My DVD collection, alphabetically arranged in a sub-section within a broader classification of themes: comedy, detective drama, TV classics….

“I’ve got Crossroads. The best of Crossroads. Do you fancy…. It’s got the episode when Meg remarries. And Larry Grayson played her chauffeur.”

“Ooh. Shut that door, Everard.”

“And then the really sad episode where Meg leaves for the last time on the QE2.”

“That one was after my time.”

“Oh yes, of course. Noelle Gordon died soon after. It’s a good one though. I’ll open the Jaffa Cakes. Do you want one? Help yourself to as many as you want, whilst I go and change out of these bloody trousers.”

The familiar theme tune filled the room. Sandy appeared in the motel lobby, in his wheelchair. Vince, the postman, arrived with the mail. I looked across at Mum and speculated that if she had died twenty years later, we might be watching an episode of Gladiators now and I could have invited her grandson round to provide a running commentary.

She looked content. Just hanging out.

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Lines Chapter 16 – Love In Thorpe Mews

  1. Love In Thorpe Mews

 

Sunday afternoons in Kensington in 1908 could be tedious affairs when you are nineteen. Annie Culley had just managed to escape the house and was setting off for a little stroll. It would be an aimless stroll though. There was nobody she especially wanted to visit. In fact, she wasn’t sure if she wanted any company at all.

Annie had spent the morning, helping her mother to clean the house and two hours of leading the grate would be enough to dampen anyone’s spirits. And it was all so jolly unfair. Her mother never expected her brother to do any of these weekly chores. Her mother argued that the chores were a good rehearsal for “the big day”. Annie was shocked when her mother explained that “the big day” meant the time when Annie would be married and it would be her marital duty to black lead her own  grate. Annie believed that there was no difference between herself and her brother, William junior. They both worked all week. Why should William get such a cosy ride at weekends, compared to her.

Unfortunately, Annie knew the answer to that question. Her mother was frightened. It had been eight years since her father had been killed in that beastly war in Africa and Annie wasn’t sure whether her mother had fully recovered herself, even to this day. And then, a few months ago, William had arrived home after lying that he had been at work and announced that he had enlisted in the Royal Military Corps. Annie watched as all the colour drained out of her mother’s face and although William was still waiting for his first posting, Annie could see that there was no respite to her mother’s worries. The harsh truth was that Annie knew that she had to be the strong, dutiful daughter if her mother’s nerves were not to get the better of her.

Lost in these thoughts, Annie didn’t notice that she was approaching that dangerous pothole at the top of Thorpe Mews.

“Damn you, William Culley. I hope you get sent to the Colonies.”

Annie heard someone laugh. It was a throaty, deep laugh and she couldn’t be sure  that her petulant outburst wasn’t the cause of the man’s amusement. She had been lost in her little world of rants and jealousies and hadn’t noticed that she had very nearly stumbled into the pesky crater. She was at the corner of Thorpe Mews. It had been a marvellous blessing when her aunt and her cousin had moved to Kensington. Just five minutes’ walk from her own home, spending time with cousin Beatrice offered Annie a merciful release from her choking existence. Whilst Annie was impaired with shyness, Beatrice was a sociable girl who refused to wear the invisible chains like so many of her peers. Even Annie’s mother had been alert enough to observe, “Since you’ve chummed up with Beatrice, you’ve really come out of yourself.” This irritated Annie. She had never really been inside of herself. It was the constraints that her mother put on her that were so terribly limiting.

“Talking to yourself, are you, Miss?”

Annie had turned the corner into Thorpe Mews and almost collided head on, with the man who found her exasperation so amusing. Annie recognised him immediately. He was the son of one of the coachmen, who worked for one of the rich families in Thorpe Crescent. He was much older than most of the young men and boys who spent their spare time loitering around the cabs. Today, he was wearing only a vest above his waist and Annie was careful to avert her gaze. She was already aware that she might be blushing. Despite looking away, Annie had already seen enough to know that he must have been older than twenty to become as thick set as that. In spite of herself, she was enjoying the brief attention of this older man.

“It’s Annie, isn’t it? Billy Culley’s sister? He used to play for our football team down the park. That was before he got big ideas about the army. Has he been given his posting yet?”

“Not yet. I think he is getting a little restless.”

“Fool. He ought to count his blessings.”

Annie was perplexed. She felt that she should defend her brother’s character from the criticism of a complete stranger, but in her heart of hearts, she agreed with every word he said. Her response felt half-hearted.

“He wants to be like his father. Our father served his King and country.”

“Lots of ways you can serve your King, without getting yourself killed. My old man drove one of the princesses back to Buck Palace a few months ago. That’s service. My name is Henry Neary, by the way.”

“It’s very nice to meet you, Henry. I have seen you around. Isn’t it a bit chilly to be wearing just your…..”

Henry laughed out loud again. Annie could feel her blush returning.

“Well, you’re not backwards in coming forwards, are you? I like that in a girl. I’m painting my old man’s wheel trims and I didn’t want to get paint on my best, Sunday shirt. Hey, guess what? I’ve got a hot date later.”

Anne turned crimson. He doesn’t sound offended but had she spoken out of turn? A man’s attire was his own business. She was of half a mind to turn around and dash, straight home.

“Don’t you want to know who I’m going on a date with?”

“Not really. I don’t think that it’s my place to ask…..”

“You, my little chick. I’m going on a hot date with you. Do you fancy a walk through Kensington Gardens? It’s Sunday. There might be a band playing.”

And as cooly as you like, Henry washed his hands with a pail and a cloth, slipped his best Sunday shirt back on, threaded his arm through Annie’s and led her off in the direction of the park. All before Annie had a chance to answer.

Annie enjoyed her time with Henry immensely. The band were playing and she could see that he was impressed when she told him that she could play both the piano and the trombone. There was an awkward moment when Annie spotted cousin Beatrice taking a short cut, across the lawns. Just once, she implored Beatrice not to notice her. She didn’t. And Annie rewarded her own good fortune, by resting her head on Henry’s broad shoulder. This fleeting moment of joy made all the black leading, worthwhile.

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Fifteen months later, on the 6th December 1909, Henry Neary and Annie Culley were married at the little chapel, hidden behind the primrose trees at Notting Hill. Henry’s parents had been the life and soul of the party at the reception, making up hilarious songs about whirlwind romances. Annie found their company and the tunes, highly amusing and they provided some compensation for the sight of her tearful mother, who was trying to make herself invisible by the ladies’ powder room. Her brother, William, was absent having been posted to Burma the previous Spring. Annie was  grateful that her new in-laws were so cheerful and accepting of her, into the family. The jokes were a little near the knuckle and Henry received a fair amount of ribbing, on account of him being ten years older than his new bride.

“Oi, Henry. Thought the old arrow might never get fired before you took to your grave.”

Henry took all the mocking in good spirit. And why not? He had found the loveliest girl in the whole of London town. She had goodness, running through her veins. The wedding night beckoned and he couldn’t be happier.

For Annie, there was one small cloud that loomed over their perfect day. Following his promotion at work, Henry had been transferred to Paddington Station and the railway had found them a little two-up, two-down. It was in a place, out west, called Southall. The cloud was that Annie had yet to break the news to her mother. How would she cope with both her children leaving home, in the space of four months.

July 1911. West End Road, Southall.

A most remarkable thing had just happened. Annie had taken little Binnie to see Annie’s mother. It was quite a turnaround. Annie’s mother was positively cheerful. Shortly after the wedding, Mary Culley had given up the house in Kensington. She told her friends that it had become too big for one. She had moved to Paddington. Even more incredulously, Mary had taken over the running of a respectable boarding house. Coincidentally, the lodging house was two minutes walk from Paddington station and every Tuesday, Henry had taken on calling on his mother in law for lunch. After his first visit, he reported back to Annie:

“Your old lady has bounced back, in fine style. It’s like a different woman. And she’s got all sorts living with her. A right old motley crew. And on the throne, sits your mother. Queen of her very own castle.”

This, Annie had to see. Whilst Annie wanted to use the visit to show off her little Binnie, walking her first steps, her curiosity about her mother’s new temperament needed to be satisfied. But her mother showed little interest in little Binnie. Instead, she turned the tables and made quite a performance of introducing all the lodgers. There were the three law students: Mr Parkash, Mr Singh and Miss Nath Bose; the two electricians, the two Mr Chesher brothers; and the two widows of private means, Mrs Atkinson and Mrs Partridge. Mary Culley had been in her element. She had served up a sumptuous tea and gave a striking impersonation of the Lady of the Manor as she manoeuvred Annie round the room to engage in small talk with the repertory company of residents.

“Mr Parkash. This is my daughter, Annie. Please tell her your wonderful story about the open-air prayer meetings during the monsoon season. Oh Annie, Mr Om Parkash is a real hoot.”

It was all rather theatrical, but Annie was genuinely delighted to see her mother, so content.

Annie changed Binnie and left her to play. She could hear the noise coming from the back yard. She wanted to joke with Henry about the hotchpotch of lodgers, but Henry had been so sullen of late, she was loathe to disturb him. Annie suddenly felt very tired. She sat down and patted her bump, drifting off into a pleasing imagining that it would be nice if it were to be a little brother for Binnie to play with. Annie’s dreaming was cut short by a delivery from the postman.

By the time that she returned to the parlour, Annie had opened and read the letter. She was confused and called Henry in from the garden. He had been building a cot for the new baby, and when Henry appeared, Annie could see that he looked more relaxed than he had for several weeks. Since the start of the railway strike, Henry had been morose and distant. Annie passed her husband, the letter.

“It’s from the Railway. I don’t understand it. What is it saying you have done?”

Henry read the letter and his countenance changed. He screwed the letter into a ball and threw it at the wall.

“It’s nothing, Chick. They’re bastards. That’s all.”

Annie retrieved the letter and flattened it out.

“It says they’ve terminated your contract because you……’interfered with the company’s team, during the strike.’ What does it mean?”

“Bloody blacklegs. The company brought them in to keep the Paddington to Slough line running. Me and a couple of the lads decided we’d stop them”

“How? What did you do? Don’t tell me someone got hurt?”

“What do you take me for, Annie?”

“I don’t know, Henry. What did you do?”

“We sat down on the tracks.”

It was said, so matter of factly, Annie almost found it comical. She almost laughed, but she was worried and angry, at the same time.

“You could have been killed. History repeating itself like my father. Do all mean have to die for a cause? Do they all have to be bloody heroes? A dead hero and then where would he have been? Me, and Binnie, and this little one in here?”

“We weren’t in any danger, Annie. I ain’t no hero. There were no trains running as the coal had been delayed.”

Henry sat down next to Annie.

“The union are onto it, for us. We’ll be taken back on, within the week. Sometimes, Chick, you have to stand up for what is right. Or sit down, as we did.”

This time, Annie really did give in to the giggles.

“You’ll be the death of me, Henry Neary.”

“My old man used to tell me stories of when he was in Jamaica. He became great pals with a man called Victor. This old Victor had been a slave. He fought for years to be a free man. And in the end, he was. He stood up. These days it’s different. The bosses have got too much power. We have to fight back. It’s not just for us. They’re striking in Liverpool and Wales too.”

Annie loved this man. She was worried sick, but she couldn’t argue with his beliefs.

“Your father died in the Boer, to make the world a better place didn’t he? I may not have a rifle, or a pair of pigeons, but that’s all I’m trying to do.”

Annie got up.

“The pie should be ready. I’ll put the veg on.”

Reginald Henry Neary was born the following January. Henry Neary missed the birth. He was carrying out repairs on the Paddington to Oxford line.

 

 

 

Lines Chapter 15 -Having A Kickabout

  1. Having A Kickabout.

 

2019.

It’s been a few weeks since our trip to Shoalstone Pool and our encounter with William Worley. It feels like it’s time to take the camper van out again. I have decided not to try and contrive the swimming trunks aroma experiment again. If it’s going to happen, it will happen in it’s own time. I am aware though, that I haven’t fully heard the message that the universe is trying to send me and if one is to listen to the universe, one needs to get out into it.

I was sitting in my canal-side flat last week, eating a nonchalant digestive, when I noticed some activity on one of the barges, which was moored outside my living room window. In the six years that I have lived here, I have only seen someone emerge from that boat once. It happened on a freezing cold December morning, when a man in a string vest appeared on deck and proceeded to piss over the side of his boat. Relieved of his bladder excess, he refastened his belt and returned inside. I have never seen him since. Last week, it was a woman who popped out. Rather overdressed for a weekday morning, in a plum coloured cocktail frock, she opened the flap and started to call out, “Padraig” in a shrill Texan twang. Her calls got more frantic until, after five minutes, Padraig appeared. He was a jet black, vastly overweight, Staffordshire bull terrier. Padraig jumped onto the boat and followed his mistress inside. I continued my morning chore of dusting the skirting boards, but I couldn’t get the name, Padraig, out of my head.

It was whilst attending to the important task of critiquing Homes Under The Hammer, that it came back to me. It was Christmas Eve, 1981, and I was working on the reception desk at the Department of Health and Social Security, in Southall. It was the last day of opening, before Christmas and we were due to shut the doors at 1 o’clock. The place had been heaving all morning, but by now, at 12 o’clock, the waiting room had thinned out and the only people still remaining were those who needed an emergency giro. The main door swung open and a man walked in. He looked odd, in that he was shabbily dressed and unshaven, but he had exactly the same expertly cut, bleached blonde wedge haircut that I had also had styled, especially for the season. He didn’t look much older than me and with our matching peroxide barnets, we could have been mistaken for the two brothers from Modern Romance. He approached my booth and I affected my best, customer care greeting.

“Good morning, Sir. Compliments of the season. May I have your name, please?”

“Padraig.”

“Thank you. And what’s your surname?”

“I don’t have one.”

“Sorry? You don’t have a second name?”

“No. Everyone just calls me Padraig.” (This was pre Morse).

And that was as far as he went, namewise. He too wanted an emergency giro. His back story was that he had been invited from Ireland to spend Christmas with a friend. Unfortunately, the friend had given him the wrong address and now he was stuck, with nowhere to go and with no money. I had been working on the main counter for about nine months, so I had heard tall stories like this before. I don’t know whether it was his age, or our matching haircuts, but my instinct was to help this guy. My supervisor was having none of this and told me to send him away with a flea in his ear. After much toing and froing and with Padraig swinging between charm and threats, I gave in and gave him £20 from my own pocket. He clearly wanted more, but the security guard had arrived to lock up. Padraig came forward towards me and kissed the anti attack screen that separated us. I wished him well and hoped that he got back safely to Ireland.

An hour later, those of us civil servants who had already done their Christmas shopping and didn’t have seasonal sprouts to prepare, were having a jolly drink in The White Swan. Toyah was on the jukebox, and my two bestest mates, the two Sues were giving a formidable rendition of It’s A Mystery. It was my round and as I tried to get myself noticed at the bar, someone elbowed me in the ribs as he tried to queue jump. I didn’t recognise him at first. He was clean shaven and suited and booted in an excellent tonic suit, just like Chas Smash had worn on last night’s Top Of The Pops. I had been admiring the very same suit in the window of Edgar’s Modes and had earmarked it for my January pay packet. Another poke in the ribs and then the penny dropped. It was Padraig. He caught the barmaid’s eye immediately and ordered a Guinness and a Cinzano Bianco for the stunning redhead who was gripping onto his waistband.

“Padraig. I didn’t expect to see you……”

“You, stupid, gullible cunt.” He laughed, as he pulled out a wad of notes from his pocket to pay the barmaid and then launched into a full blown snog with the redhead.

That was Christmas finished for me. Jackie had joined the two Sues and they were now giving it large to I’m In The Mood For Dancing. Padraig was cadging a cigarette off my manager. I made an excuse about having to pick up some last minute perishables and slipped away.

WhiteSwan

Back in 2019 and I so fancy a Cinzano Bianco in The White Swan, Southall. I’m not sure whether you can still buy Cinzano Bianco, but I will settle for nothing less.

It has been years since I’ve been through Southall and I had forgotten how dreadful the traffic on the High Street can be. I took Steven, Francis and Des along for the ride and it had taken us an hour to get along the Broadway and we were stuck forever on Station Bridge. Steven was getting restless in the camper van. We had put together a “travelling” compilation tape, but there are only so many times that you can listen to King Of The Road, before the novelty wears off. Never mind. Our destination was in sight and I could see Regina Road and The White Swan in the distance. Now all we had to do was to find somewhere to park.

We were almost halfway down Clifton Road, when I noticed that something has changed. Underfoot, the road surface felt a lot less smooth. The van was juddering along and it felt like the road hadn’t been tarmacked. I glanced out of the window and saw the sign for Pearson’s Outfitters. I used to get my school uniforms from there, fifty years ago. I could have sworn that the place closed down, several years ago. By now, I was more than distracted. More people, than is fashionable, were wearing cloth caps. Our turquoise camper van was attracting a lot of attention. The baby buggies had turned into bone shaking prams. A paper boy, in a cloth cap, was whistling, “You’re The Tops”. All the brown faced pedestrians had turned white.

To our right, on the corner of Lea Road, I could see Cooper’s General Store. I had been in there many times to buy a Jubbly, whenever we visited Auntie Phil. I asked Des to jump out and buy Steven a packet of crisps, to ward off the sensory overload of the journey. And to pick up a newspaper whilst he’s there.

Des seemed a trifle ruffled on his return. He explained that the shop didn’t sell crisps, but the shopkeeper was very keen for him to try the newly launched chocolate bar, that had just been delivered that morning. An Aero. Des passed me the newspaper. It was dated 3rd March 1930.

As casually as befits a band of troubled, weary travellers, we parked up outside number 18 Lea Road and I knocked on the door. A woman in her forties answered. She had just had a shampoo and set done and was wearing a lovely, gay pinny. It was my Nan, Annie.

“Mark! Steven! Come on in. Go into the front room with Frank. I’ll put the kettle on. Henry will be home in a few minutes.”

She gave us both a sloppy, wet kiss and ushered us into the front parlour. A boy of about twelve or thirteen was sitting at the dining table, doing something with some cables. He was deeply immersed and didn’t look up. Steven goes to shake his hand.

“Hello, Uncle Frank.”

Not looking at him, Frank muttered,

“Where’s your manners, Frank Neary? Here they are. Hello, Steven Neary.”

This was going to be tricky. Steven doesn’t get on too well with other learning disabled people and Frank was deep in concentration with his cables. Steven had finished his Aero and was looking for engagement.

As luck would have it, I glanced out of the window and saw my grandfather wheeling his bike up the garden path. He had died when I was eight months old, so I have no memories of him, but I could see the man, albeit much younger, from the Leonard Cheshire photo. I could hear his key, turn in the front door.

“Hello, my darling. Got the kettle on, Annie?”

“Brew’s coming, Henry. We’ve got visitors.”

The friendly faced, prematurely grey, tall man opened the parlour door and his smile lit up the room.

“Well, I’ll go the foot of our stairs. You were the last people I expected to see today. Good afternoon, Steven. How are you, old chum?”

“I’m fine. Hello, great grandfather Henry.”

He knew!

“Do you want to come into the garden, Steven, and see my birds? Let your Dad have a gossip with his nan.”

Steven was off like a shot. He loves going to see his Uncle Wayne’s birds, so this was an invitation to heaven. I signalled to the support workers to go with them leaving me on my own with Uncle Frank.

I thought about frequencies. It seemed apt with all the cables about. I had no idea what to say, but made a couple of hideous observations that got no response. Uncle Frank hadn’t looked up once since we walked into the room.

Thankfully, my Nan pushed open the door, carrying a tray of tea things. Another kiss and we sat down. I had hundreds of questions to ask, but she was more interested in talking about me and Steven. I felt guilty as I rambled on about the trivia of our life, but she seemed that she genuinely wanted to know. Of course, my burning question was to ask her about Uncle Frank’s move to Derbyshire, but I had to remind myself that we had arrived in 1930 and it would be another 25 years before Frank’s move. I found myself staring at Uncle Frank and I realised that I was trying to locate a similarity with Steven, when he was the same age. Autism hadn’t been invented as a diagnosis in the 1930s, but Frank’s almost obsessive attention to detail with his wires had an aching familiarity about it. I thought back to the many hours of observing Steven with his 100s of Playmobile figures out on the mat. No words were ever spoken. Something very intricate and involved was taking place, but we were never party to the operation.

I was being force fed homemade scones, when Steven, my Granddad and the support workers rejoined us. I didn’t notice at first, but they’ve been followed by a small toddler, carrying a football. He kicked the ball towards me a few times and I made him laugh with my over elaborate goal keeping performance. Before we knew it, we were all having a full scale kickabout in my Nan’s front room.

For the first time since we arrived, Uncle Frank looked up from his task and spoke.

“Johnny. Where are your manners? Say hello to Mark.”

And I realised that I was playing football with my two year old Dad.

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Lines Chapter 14 – The Institution

  1. The Institution

 

I know very little about my Uncle Frank. Even though he only died two years before I was born, he was never talked about within the family. Well, not in front of me, anyway. The first time I learned of his existence was in 1997, forty years after he died. These days, Frank would be described as having a “learning disability.” The one record that I have managed to trace about Uncle Frank that refers to his disability, has him labelled as “a retard.”

One of the nagging questions for me about Uncle Frank is, why was he airbrushed from the family history? A number of people have suggested “shame” as an explanation and I accept that for people of that generation, and that class, shame about all manner of things, often hanged heavy. But shame doesn’t quite fit the bill, for me. I was told a lovely story about my parents which indicates that shame would not have been a driving factor for them. Around the time of Uncle Frank moving away from the family home in Southall, another dilemma faced the Neary family, around disability. My Dad’s sister, Auntie Phil, had two sons, who in 1950s parlance were termed as being “deaf and dumb.” The common consensus at the time was that boys like that, couldn’t live at home and in fact, would flourish in an institutional setting. There would have been a lot of pressure from the doctors and the social workers on the family to pursue that sort of arrangement. I don’t envy my Auntie Phil and Uncle Geoff having to make that decision, and they were both the type of people who would have accepted the professionals opinions as gospel. There is certainly a sense that the elder Nearys agreed with the clinicians. If there was any dissent, or at least, another perspective, that would have come from my parents. Both my mum and my dad were the youngest in their families, by a long way. They may have been afterthought, or accidental babies. Perhaps because they were from a slightly different generation, they took a different stance and put forward a case for Phillip and Gordon to say and to be educated and live in Southall. Mum and Dad even enrolled at night school to learn sign language in an attempt to show the family that communication was possible. Despite my parents’ efforts, both boys were sent to a residential school for the deaf in Margate and stayed there until they were sixteen, when they eventually returned home. Part of the ethos of the school was that the pupils would learn a trade and Gordon went on to have a successful career as a car mechanic and rally cross driver. Again, revealing an open attitude towards disability, my Dad fixed Phillip up with a job in the factory where he worked at the time. As a small boy, I would sit and watch in fascination as dad and Phillip carried out whole conversations in signing. As no words were spoken, I hadn’t a clue what they were discussing, but as they were both Arsenal supporters, I suspect that Charlie George was on the agenda. This doesn’t sound like the actions of someone who might be ashamed of having a learning disabled brother.

Perhaps, there was a difference in attitudes between learning disabilities and physical disabilities. But Phillip cut across both those areas, so I can’t see it carrying too much weight in my family.

I have one photo of Uncle Frank and it is revealing from a psychological perspective. Not his psychology: more perhaps about the family’s psychology, or even the camera man’s. The photo is of the large group assembling at my parent’s wedding. It’s obvious that the positioning of all the guests had been carefully thought out. Nearys to the left and the Worleys to the right. The front row is all the children, again positioned according to their birth tribes. The ages range from six to sixteen. Smack, bang in the middle of all the Neary children is Uncle Frank. Although he is crouched on one knee, he towers over all the other children. He must have been in his early thirties at the time. There is no way that he could have been taken physically for a child. Sixty years on, it looks offensively incongruous.

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My theory about why Uncle Frank was never talked about has less to do with shame, and more to do with death. Death was more of a taboo in my family, and causing upset to the elders by talking about death, was certainly frowned upon. Not just Uncle Frank. I was astounded a couple of years ago when I discovered the story about the Farwells. My Auntie Hilda’s husband was Albert Farwell and in 1942, six members of his family, including both his parents, were killed when a bomb fell on their house in Portland. The family had gathered for the wedding of one of the Farwell sons and the new bride was also one of the bomb’s victims. Dorset legend has it that Agatha Christie, living in nearby Devon, heard about the incident and used it as the kicking off point for her 1945 novel, “Taken At The Flood.” There is even a large memorial to the Farwell family in Portland’s main square. I came along seventeen years later, and grew up with many of the survivors of this tragedy, but it was never mentioned. Likewise, nobody ever talked about the death of Dad’s brother, Uncle Reg, apart from the occasional, reverential look at his war medals.

One last piece of evidence to support my death vs disability theory is that my nan, Emma Fleetwood/Worley had a couple of spells in St Bernards Lunatic Asylum which didn’t appear to dis arrange the family at all. It was talked about quite openly. What did disarrange the family though was that she died in St Bernards Lunatic Asylum. It was drilled into me from a very young age that mentioning Nan’s death was a complete no-no because it would be too upsetting for some of the family members. There must have been a peculiar hierarchy of taboos at the time. Being in a lunatic asylum was not to be boasted about, but it was okay to be talked about in a hushed whisper. Dying in a lunatic asylum was a total no go area and had to be preserved as a terrible family secret. I like the Alan Bennett line that all families have secrets and the secret is that their secrets are no different from any other families’ secrets.

The other question about Uncle Frank that I have sought an answer to is, why was he moved to Derby for the final two years of his life? Was the timing important? And did the move precipitate his early demise in any way? I suspect the answers are probably pragmatic. Both my Nan and Granddad were in their mid seventies at the time of Frank’s move in 1955. I imagine that caring for Uncle Frank would have required a lot of energy. Judging by the wedding photo, he was quite a big man. My Dad was the last of my grandparent’s children to leave home, when he got married in 1953 and the other son, Uncle Stan had emigrated to Australia in 1954. All of the four Neary daughters had married and were bringing up families of their own. Perhaps the responsibility had become too much in my grandparent’s old age.

Or perhaps, social services were no different then than they are these days, with their absolute certainty that learning disabled people must be living independently from their families in order to prepare them for their parent’s eventual demise. Ever since Steven was sixteen, I have had social workers badgering me that Steven should move on so that he will cope better with my death when it happens. I think it is a form of unconscious discrimination. Nobody would dream of suggesting such a thing to a non disabled person. And it is as pointless, as it is cruel. Nothing can ever prepare you for that moment when your parents die, regardless of the nature of your relationship beforehand. Perhaps my grandparents brought into that heartless theory and allowed themselves to be persuaded that it was the best thing for Uncle Frank. So, as was the case in 2010, when the council wanted to ship Steven off to Wales, in 1955, Uncle Frank was decanted from Southall to Derby.

Uncle Frank was one of the first residents when the Staunton Harold home opened in 1955. I have a photo of Leonard Cheshire giving an address from the vestibule at the grand opening, and my Granddad Henry is clearly visible in the crowd on the lawn. Up to that point, Cheshire homes had concentrated on being places for the war wounded or for ex-servicemen who had fallen on hard times. Learning disability hadn’t been on their radar before and in the records from the early years, a person’s learning disability doesn’t get a mention. By 1955, the organisation’s reputation was soaring. When you read the transcript of Leonard Cheshire’s speech at the grand opening, he comes across as sincere and well meaning, and typical of a certain type of philanthropist whose inclination was to give something back.

In 1955, institutions were not thought of as institutions. There weren’t the negative connotations attached to such vast, congregate living places, as there is in the 21st century. Like the deaf school in Margate, the ethos was worthy and the regime was heavily built around encouraging self-sufficiency. And fresh air. As workhouse children in the 19th century were sent away from London to receive the benefits of fresh air, the Leonard Cheshire homes promoted their geographical location and extolled the value of clean air. There was no condition, or ailment, that fresh air couldn’t work wonders on. In 2020, it is easy to mock such values, but they were heartfelt and, who knows, they may have worked. Southall was hardly an industrial town, but the fresher air of the Derbyshire countryside may have been beneficial for Uncle Frank. Old fashioned though it may seem nowadays, I refuse to knock the home. It had the typical workshops that you would expect to find in this kind of establishment. Carpentry and metalwork were very popular. But Staunton Harold also encouraged the president’s cultural development too. I came across a marvellous photo from around Uncle Frank’s time where the residents put on a performance of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. There was a fabulously stocked library and learning to play music was high on the daily agenda. When the 2020 idea of support is to take the person window shopping around the precinct, Cheshire must have been considered quite revolutionary. There is something, touchingly quaint about their celebrity supporters who ranged from Dame Sybil Thorndike to Hughie Green.

Was Uncle Frank happy there? Who knows? It must have been a shock to him, having lived as part of a large family with seven siblings within a small, close community for thirty eight years, to be moved halfway across the country to live with complete strangers. I don’t think contact with his family would have ceased, but it would have fractured.

Frank Neary died, aged forty, in 1957, two years after moving to Derby. If the move was to prepare him for his later life after his parents had gone, he did not have much of a later life, and passed away before them. His death certificate recorded that he died of acute cardiac failure, after acute bronchial failure, so perhaps he had been ill for some time.

Frank may not have fought in any wars. He may not have owned a chain of tailors. He may not have married and produced a Neary heir. But I know how I feel about him in my heart, so on that score alone – Frank Neary, you did leave your mark on this world.