Lines Chapter 10: Louisa Paget

10. Louisa Paget

 

Louisa Paget is my great-great-great grandmother.

All throughout her life, Louisa Paget had been the source of other people’s disbelief. The family that she married into, the Fleetwoods, would whisper their doubts behind Louisa’s back. Nobody was brave enough to challenge the feisty Louisa to her face, but she knew what they were saying. And as far as she was concerned, they could all do a flying jump off London’s tallest building. A formidable, successful business woman, Louisa refused to be cowed by the lack of imagination of those naysayers who couldn’t begin to comprehend the type of world that Louisa was born into in 1811. More fool them, she often thought to herself. She knew where she came from and was proud of it. She remembered the story that her parents had told her many times and was keen that her vast family would learn about Louisa’s first days in the world. It would take more than the raised eyebrow of a nuisance census taker, to dissuade her from her belief in her history.

It was early 1811 and Moses and Anne Paget were returning to England from an arduous, and frankly, unrewarding trip to Southern Europe. The journey had been meant to boost the trade that Moses and Anne had committed themselves to, since the early days of their marriage. Mr Paget knew that the trip had carried grave risks, not only financially. The passage had necessitated leaving his three small children with Anne’s family for four months. There was also the additional hinderance of the imminent arrival of their fourth child and the inherent problems of a heavily pregnant woman taking part in such a hazardous sea passage.

Not that Anne Paget would have expected, or wanted mollycoddling. Both she and Moses Paget were fortunate to be instilled with a self-belief that saw mainly positives, in a fragile, unequal world. Moses was no Icarus however, and was acutely aware of the value his wife brought to the opening stages in a blossoming trading relationship. In other times, Anne Paget would have been lauded for her astute business brain. She was a numbers woman. Moses relied on his charisma and his admirable work ethic, but he was humble enough to acknowledge, privately that Anne was the power behind the throne. On a purely pragmatic level, if your trade is in silk stockings, the input of a wise woman, should not be dismissed.

And so it was, during the blistering hot, Mediterranean Spring of 1811, the Pagets found themselves on a commercial boat, along with sixty of their trading contemporaries, exhausted from their individual excursions, but relieved that their journey was on its last leg and home beckoned. Anne supressed a growing disquiet about the risk of so many passengers being packed like sardines onto such a small boat.

At this same time, the British Naval ship, HMS Warspite was stationed at the neck of the Strait of Gibraltar. For once, the crew were not centrally involved in any battles. Their presence in Gibraltar, amounted to nothing more than providing assistance to the Spanish and Portuguese fleets, as they tried to repel the invasion of the French Empire. It was a novel role for the officers and crew of the Warspite and, if truth be told, they were all silently relishing their supporting role in this bloodiest of conflicts. The Peninsular War was now in its fourth year and the English bystander might have believed that the war’s conclusion was as far away today, as it was the day hostilities started. Historians would later describe these hostilities as one of the first wars of large scale guerilla warfare, but from their position at the outside of the Strait, this analysis would have been lost on the English. To many of them, this mission was viewed as nothing more than an unexpected, extended holiday.

Rounding the bend, with the aim of entering the Gibraltar Strait, the small commercial boat, at first, missed the imposing French galleon that loomed menacingly, not many furlongs away. Moses and Anne Paget emerged from their afternoon slumbers, out onto the poop deck. They were both looking forward to dining well later, on the rich seafood that the men had caught that morning. The couple shared their plans for the future, revisiting their decision to move home to Wiltshire. Moses had heard good stories of this upcoming county and was feeling hopeful of the prosperity that Sherston Magna promised. As they shared an early evening rum, the Pagets felt satisfied that their decision had been a wise one and that they would soon be in an area of England that offered more opportunities of good fortune and health for their three children and the baby whose arrival was imminent.

BOOM.

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Anne Paget awoke. She was in unfamiliar surroundings. Unfamiliar faces stared back at her, from her bedside. It took several minutes for Anne to rouse herself enough to collect her bearings. She became aware of the bandages, covering her arms and upper regions. She felt her stomach and an awful realisation brought herself to a scream:

“Where am I? Where is my husband? What has happened to my child?”

A tall man, dressed in high ranking English naval uniform, stepped forward from the observing throng and took hold of Anne’s hand.

“Do not distress yourself Madam. You took a formidable battering. You are being treated for your injuries on the English warship, Warspite. Your boat was attacked by Napoleon’s ungallant peasants. We believe that only eleven people survived, although we have no idea how many passengers the boat was carr….”

“Moses. My husband. And…… I was with child. God, help me.”

“Madam. Your husband survived. With narily a graze on him. He is helping my crew to clean the Hold, as way of earning his passage back to England. I will ask one of my officers to bring him to us.”

Anne could feel her countenance becoming disarranged. She didn’t expect to keep her tremors at bay.

“And my child? I cannot bear to ask.”

“That, Madam, is truly a miracle. You have been drifting in and out of consciousness for three days and nights. Late into the first night, the sailor in your attendance, noticed a change in your condition. Inexperienced and unfamiliar with the nature of womanhood, it was not in his mind that your baby’s arrival into the world was imminent. And then he noticed her head….”

“Her head! I had a daughter?” Anne’s emotions collapsed.

“Madam. Please stop interrupting me. I am a senior officer on this ship. Please respect my rank. You have a daughter, Madam. She is a bonny one…..

“I have no recollection of any of this….”

“I believe that the shock of, firstly, the bombing of the boat, and then the incredible fortitude you showed in giving birth despite your injuries, took away all your resources for the past 48 hours…..”

“I have been unconscious for 48 hours?…”

“43 hours and 45 minutes to be precise. You were awake for as long as it took for your daughter to arrive in this world. Your bravery in the face of such pain was highly commendable. Forgive my presumptions, Madam, but fearful of your demise, I urged your husband to name your daughter. Madam, you have a daughter by the name of Louisa. We are all very taken with her.”

The crew parted, and through an almost ceremonial opening, Anne saw her beloved husband, Moses, walking towards her. He was carrying a small bundle, wrapped in the finest silk stockings. Anne finally succumbed to her emotional state. A few men cheered. The tall, commanding officer patted his eye.

Sixty-two years later, in 1873, a woman stood proudly in her newly opened tailor’s shop. She surveyed the fruits of her long, successful career. She remembered how her blissful childhood in Wiltshire ended so abruptly on that fateful day when her father fell from the roof. She remembered the abject poverty and the humiliation of those several spells in the workhouse with her proud mother and invalid father. She remembered her vow to never inflict the same shame on her children, if she should be so blessed. She remembered the early days of her marriage to the giant, Reuben, and how blasted history repeated itself and they were forced to throw themselves on the mercy of the Parish workhouse. From the workhouse, there followed many years of travelling the country, in search of work; from London to Ireland, and from Nottingham to Lancashire. It was only when they arrived in Brentford, that their luck started to change.

Louisa Paget’s bosom swelled with pride. She was standing in the third, yes, the third tailor’s and outfitters shop in Brentford that she and Reuben had opened over the past twenty years. Never truly satisfied with her lot, Louisa had ambitions that before long, Brentford High Street would be resplendent with a whole chain of Fleetwood stores. This latest one was managed by herself and her sturdy daughter-in-law, Emma. Abandoned by Louisa’s feckless son, Reuben Junior and with five young children to raise, the fortitude of Emma was greatly admired by Louisa. And although, not a blood Fleetwood, Louisa held no qualms in entrusting this latest part of her empire to her reliable daughter-in-law.

Louisa settled her pride aside, satisfied that she had raised a family of shrewd survivors, in her own image.

Louisa Fleetwood/Paget allowed herself a throaty chuckle. It was a laugh that was familiar to all her family and customers, as was the story that Louisa had told, many times about how she had inherited such a deep, rasping laugh. She claimed, and nobody over a yard of ale would dare challenge her, that her vocal chords had been damaged by breathing in an excess of salty sea air in the first, four weeks of her life.

“Scoff all you like, my little deerios. What an introduction to this wonderful world.”

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Lines Chapter 9: Jimmy Fontana

9. Jimmy Fontana

I have three records in my collection that have the name “Carol Worley” written on a sticky label, and stuck on the paper sleeve. Carol Worley is my Cousin. She is ten years older than me. Back in the day, when I was struggling to get the world to acknowledge my superior reggae dancing, Carol epitomised everything that was cool, to me. In the sixties, I had her pegged as a Sandie Shaw character. The jet black hair, the mini skirts; I could easily imagine her singing barefoot on Top Of The Pops. She could possibly have been a modette, if I understood that cultural reference at my young age. We would often go and visit Carol’s parents, Uncle Albert and Auntie Peg, for Sunday tea, but Carol was invariably absent. I had visions of her gadding about in Carnaby Street and having a banana longboat in a Wimpey, whilst I was stuck with dressed crab and melon balls in Hayes. Whatever she was doing, I always assumed that it was a damn sight more interesting than I was doing. It wasn’t jealousy on my part; it was pure awe and admiration.

The three records were: In The Bad Bad Old Days by The Foundations; Lady Willpower by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, and El Mundo by Jimmy Fontana. Nearly fifty years on, those three dynamite pieces of vinyl still feature heavily in my Top One Hundred songs of all time. How they appeared in my record collection is hazy, but I probably nicked them at one of our family New Year’s Eve parties that I used to look forward to each year. I appointed myself as the disc jockey, and everyone would bring their favourite records along, to help the party go with a swing. Auntie Wilky would bring along her Englebert Humperdinck’s and her Vince Hill’s. Auntie Hilda would proudly offer her vast collection of Mrs Mills’ long players. My contributions were more up to date and straight out of the hit parade, but no matter what latest trend I had bought into, Carol would always trump everyone for sublime cool.

In 1970, we went to a Pontin’s holiday camp at Bracklesham Bay in Sussex. It was World Cup year, and all the happy campers had gathered in the ballroom to watch the Brazil vs England big match. Geoff Hurst on the pitch and Brian Clough in the studio. The anticipation was huge. Back in the ballroom, it was all very polite, and the campers showed impeccable manners. There was no shouting or cheering. Definitely no swearing. We clapped politely when Gordon Banks made his incredible save from Pele. There was no rowdy behaviour when the final whistle blew, and England lost. We obligingly trooped off in a line to the pool, and assembled for the weekly beauty contest; the swimsuit round. Needless to say, my holiday song from 1970 was ‘Back Home’ by the England Football squad, and I am sure I would have made it the big number at the 1970 New Year’s Eve party. “Come on, Uncle Bob. It’s Back Home. Shake your tail feather.”

By 1970, Uncle Albert and Auntie Peg had fully embraced the package holiday and took a fortnight in Majorca. Whilst I was hero worshipping Gary Puckett, Uncle Albert was lobbying for a knighthood for Freddie Laker. Looking at this time through 2020 eyes, it seems almost hideous, but we looked upon Uncle Albert and Auntie Peg as the total adventurers. I did a school project on Captain Cook, and I held Uncle Albert in similar esteem. The shine went off slightly after I watched ‘Carry on Abroad’ and was shocked to realise that places like Hotel Els Bells weren’t quite as glamourous and sophisticated as Judith Chalmers had led us to believe. Despite my lowering of the package holiday ranking, Carol scored several cool points by returning home with ‘El Mundo’ by Jimmy Fontana. A massive continental hit from Majorca definitely outstripped ‘Back Home’, purchased from the Bracklesham Bay branch of Rumbelows.

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I learned all the words to El Mundo. If I had been brave enough, I would have performed it at the 1971 Pontins, Bracklesham Bay Junior Talent Contest. My Mum would have been as pleased as punch, if my outstanding vocal ability had won us a free, return holiday in September, to take part in the Grand Finals. Unfortunately, my vocal chords were weak, and my backbone was weaker still, so the Sussex holidaymakers were spared my Jimmy Fontana tribute act. The closest we ever came to winning a free September holiday was when my Dad won the underwater swimming competition. Every spectator in the grandstand held their breath as Dad completed his winning, one length and three quarters. Unfortunately, Dad only got two weeks off work each year, so we had to decline the autumn invitation.

Although I was word perfect at El Mundo, I had no idea what the actual words meant. It was several decades later, and the introduction of Google translation, that I put the lyrics through the translating mincer. The words instantly lost all their appeal. I studied French for A Level, and the greatest appeal of French to me was the sound of the language. In Spanish, the sound of the lyrics, sounded what I imagined beautiful, but dirty sex to sound like. El Mundo in its native tongue takes me floating high above the mountains, before dropping spectacularly into the crystal blue sea. It has me emerging from the sea, more swarthy than Daniel Craig, whilst scores of senoritas swoon at my knees. El Mundo, translated into English, conjures up images of Charles Hawtrey, lying pissed, on a sun lounger, at Pinewood.

El Mundo has helped me through life. It can disappear off my radar for years, but like a faithful Spanish hound, it always returns. I have it on a loop on my Spotify, as I write this chapter. For me, it is part dreamy fantasy: and part Schoppenhaeur. It is beauty and ugliness. It is love and pain. As the chorus builds, I am transported back to my French A Level course and Voltaire’s ‘Candide’. Jimmy Fontana could be Doctor Pangloss delivering his final line, where he announces that he’s seen all the horrors of the world, and now he’s off to cultivate his own garden.

On the Costa Del Sol, El Mundo  is like breathing in exquisite air. On the front at Camber Sands, it’s a bloody soppy song, strangled by its own sentimentality. How can you be part of a greater whole, whilst keeping hold of yourself, is a question raised by El Mundo that can cause restlessness in the face of your internal calm. And it’s sung with a Spanish swish that appeals to me as much as a man in his sixties, as it did to the eleven year-old me. The boy who was trying to match his cousin for cool, by apeing the vocal dynamics of Bobby Charlton.

“El Mundo.
No se la parado ni un momento.
La noche le sigue al dia.
Y el dia vendra.

Esta noche amor, no he pensado mas.
En ti,
En ti.”

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The funny thing was, that Uncle Albert, Auntie Peg and Carol were not the first members of the Worley family to travel to Spain, although they were probably the first Worleys to know all the words to the second verse of Y Viva Espana.

It was one fine April morning in 1811, that Moses and Anne Paget dragged their cumbersome crates and battered trunks along the dockside at the Port of Barossa. What little money they had left after two weeks of bartering for stockings in the Spanish markets, had to be spent sparingly. There was still the matter of the cost of sailing home to be negotiated, so a cart to carry the luggage was out of the question.

Moses looked at his wife with a mixture of pride, and not a little guilt. Three weeks away from her expected date of confinement, Anne displayed her customary pluck, and ignored the danger that carrying two heavy cases might pose for a woman in her condition. It was in the Spanish mercados that Anne truly came alive. Not for her, the drudgery of the life of a working class mother in England. To observe Anne, bartering loudly and with broad humour, was to see a woman, unafraid to mix in the rough, male world of  stocking trading. Moses blessed his good fortune, in choosing his lifelong companion, so well.

Finally, the Pagets found their boat. They had already paid a large deposit for their passage, and Anne had been silently fretting that the captain of the boat had been no such thing and, like a scoundrel, had departed with their money. Her anxiety was unfounded as the ruddy faced skipper relieved her of her load, and offered his arm to help her board. No such assistance was offered to Moses who was left to hurl his own boxes onto the deck.

The captain’s wife came out from her quarters, with a plentiful tray of bread and fruits. Within minutes of departing, the motley passengers were replenished and enjoying themselves with a raucous chorus of sea shanties. Anne had her own bawdy repertoire which she bellowed out as the small boat ploughed its way through the ocean.

Moses, in utter contentment, stroked his wife’s round belly, and waited expectantly for the scorching sun of the Gibraltar Straits……….

Lines Chapter 8: Significant Days Part One

8: Significant Days Part One

 

There is a theory that you don’t notice the most significant days of your life whilst they are actually happening. We only notice them, come the final day of reckoning.  Even then, most of us aren’t given the time for much self-reflection in that big moment. I think I’ve finally found a purpose for my green It book. It could come in very handy to make a record of my most significant days. Being the list anorak that I am, I would like to think that I could come up with my Top Ten list of most significant days, but to prevent this book from turning into an autobiography, I’m going to focus on three. The reason of them being significant will become clearer.

It is 10am on Monday 4th January 2019. I am in a gown and paper pants. I am in the hands of the anaesthetist. She’s nice. Reassuring and knowledgeable in equal measures. What more could I ask? She encourages me to talk about myself, and I tell her that today my new book is being published. I had left home before my complimentary copies had arrived, so, I will have to wait a whole week before I will be able to hold a physical manifestation of my endeavours. The anaesthetist is interested and my vanity carries me through the next ten minutes as I describe the contents of the book and the process of putting the whole thing together. We even laugh. The fact that she is fitting me up with an epidural, prior to having a small -melon-sized tumour and a third of my bladder removed, becomes irrelevant.

A swing door opens and we are joined by another anaesthetist; this one will be attending to me during the surgery. As the door opens, I catch a fleeting glimpse of the operating theatre on the other side. A quartet of indistinguishable figures in blue gowns and masks and hairnets are looking busy in anticipation of my arrival. The door closes. I forget about the book. I am quite alone.

Five hours later, I wake up in the intensive care ward. I have been pre-warned that I would wake up in the intensive care ward, so it isn’t a shock. But it is shocking. I am in a bed at the far end of the ward. I am at right angles to all the other beds, so I’ve got a good view of several other patients in varying states of pre-death. I don’t feel in a state of impending death. I feel alert and even, perky. I can’t feel any pain. A nurse speaks to me, welcoming me onto the ward and I find that I can string a coherent sentence together. I start to take in my body and notice how wired up I am. I can’t quite see it in its full glory, but I am aware of the catheter bag, dangling over the side of the bed. I nervously pull back the sheet to see where the other end of the catheter is going. Another big bag at the side of the bed reveals that I am being flushed out. That bag is directly plugged into my bladder. There is a morphine drip that I don’t appear to be attached to. I wonder how problematic it may be to readjust my position and whilst I am pondering the predicament, a nurse appears and says: “Let’s move you up a bit.” Elevated, I have got a better view of the ward. Compared to my intensive-care neighbours, I am in the Upper Circle whilst they are flat out in the stalls. I am not quite so alone.

There is an almost-silent hustle and bustle about the ward. Everyone is attending to something life or death, but there are no discernible noises. People talk quietly, like they are in church. Even the beeps from the myriad machines seem muted. It might feel like a respectful preparation for an anticipated death, but curiously, it feels very alive at the same time. Staff smile. Staff have time. I haven’t seen the doctor yet, but I know that I am not dying.

Six months earlier, I was alone in a Torquay hotel bedroom and feeling that I might be dying. It was the night of England’s World Cup semi-final game against Croatia, but I had spent most of the match in agony, on the toilet. I tried to reassure myself that I had eaten something that had disagreed with me (“No you haven’t”) and I kept checking myself in the mirror. I was a bodybuilder and after a year of absolutely nailing my training and my diet, I was looking extremely hench. The idea that something might be terribly wrong with me internally didn’t square with the buff figure looking back at me. So, I didn’t square it and the next day, despite feeling like my guts were rotting away, I was back in the hotel gym. No pain, no gain, eh?

Over the next few weeks, I affected an unconcerned blindness. I mistake my jaundice for the remnants of my Torquay tan. I explained my dramatic weight loss with the certainty that my diet and supplementation programme was doing its job. I even reassured myself that despite my stools having turned a pale grey, my body was still adjusting itself to my new, healthy, food intake. Excusing away the pain was less easy though. I shut myself away. I could manage this all alone.

It took two months for the CT appointment to come through. Three days before the scan, the unbearable pain in my gut, stopped. Suddenly, like it had never been. My normal colour returned. My motions started to look like shit again. I was tempted to cancel the CT appointment.

“You have a large, a sizeable, cancerous tumour in your urachus. The good news is we believe that the cancer is contained within your urachus, so removal will be straightforward. It has been growing for many years and unfortunately, the weight and pressure of the tumour has damaged a significant section of your bladder. But don’t worry, we’ll be able to remove the damaged area.”

You don’t forget statements like that. Like you never forget the lyrics of Squeeze’s ‘Up The Junction.’ I can remember the diagnosis word for word. The words were delivered after the CT scan, after an exploratory operation, and after the very unexpected heart attack that I had four days after the exploratory operation. I recovered speedily from those annoying interruptions to my usual life, and although the word ‘cancer’ had been hanging in the air for three months, it wasn’t my main pre-occupation after hearing the (potentially) life-changing diagnosis. My first thought was: “Shit. That puts the mockers on the competition next Spring.” I was due to turn sixty in March 2019, and my planning and focus for the previous years, was that I would be eligible to compete in the ‘Seniors’ class at my first bodybuilding competition. Ten years earlier, I had planned to make my competitive debut in the Over 50s class, but once again, pesky life got in the way, and my posing trunks gathered dust in my chest of drawers for a whole decade. I was furious that the cancer was preventing that dream from happening for a second time. My therapist termed my fury,  ‘displacement activity’, but she had never witnessed my magnificent double lat spread pose, so what did she know?

I wasn’t interested in the cancer. I’m still not. I don’t have any interest in telling a cancer story. I don’t like all the ‘hero’ and ‘battle’ language associated with cancer stories. My great friend, Shelley, wrote an incredible blog during her cancer experience and titled it, ‘Tangling With Cancer.’ That is the way to do it. The only time that I became disturbed by the diagnosis was over the Christmas holiday, two weeks before my tangle with the anaesthetist. It was the only time that I cried over those few months. I cried on Christmas Day when the thought hit me that it might be my very last Christmas with Steven. Every tub of Cheeselets and every new Paul Heaton CD felt like a punch in my stomach. But I wasn’t alone.

After three days in intensive care, I was ‘stepped down’ to a regular ward, and then the full degradation of my predicament came home to roost. Despite witnessing several deaths whilst I was on the intensive care ward, the humanity and professionalism of the staff had cocooned me from certain realities about my current condition. I had only moved six floors up the hospital complex, but it was another universe, in terms of safety and kindness. I learned what it was like to be truly vulnerable. I understood what it was like to be seen as just a case.  I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. In a crowded, bustling ward, I had never felt so alone.

The three days on Tudor Ward had humiliations in hourly doses. Being scolded because my urine bag had overfilled. Being scolded because I had emptied my urine bag without informing a nurse. Shitting on the floor because I wasn’t sufficiently fit  to run the length of the ward, to the toilet, in time. Being encouraged to get dressed, but being unable to bend down deeply enough to put my socks on, as the thirty-nine staples in my gut were restricting my ability to achieve a solitary sit-up. Gagging uncontrollably at the sight and the smell of a sausage hot-pot. It was a succession of indignities that my twenty-first-century male pride found impossible to handle.

When I come to write my final story, I am sure that the fifteen minutes in the anaesthetist’s chamber will feature in the ten most significant moments of my life. I think I know why. My Dad died in January and my Mum died in February, so that time of the year carries an extra emotional punch. I moved away from Southall in 1983, but remained registered with the same doctors and dentists, well into the nineties. Such is the power of the subconscious that for many years, during January or February, I would feel ill or have teeth problems. This would, of course, give me cause to return to Southall to visit one of the practices. It took me a long time to understand that I was doing this, in a perverse way to try and stay close to my parents. I no longer contrive a winter visit to Southall but there is a part of me that still cannot quite let go. That showed up around the operation. I am sure that my lack of fear about the cancer and the heart attack comes from that drive to still be with them. To put it bluntly, that reunion with my parents could only be achieved through my death. And sod those that are living, who care about me. Thankfully, there is another part of me that took precedent in January 2019.

I see myself as quite practical and being alive feels better than being dead. And, going back to the It book days, I am quite an expert in being alone. This goes way beyond introversion. I have a tenuous grasp of phenomenological philosophy and know that ‘aloneness’ is one of  the four givens of existence. Prior to January 2019, I had read about it, debated it, even lectured on the subject, but a heart attack and a melon-sized tumour brings it perilously close. I have always noticed that ‘life goes on’ aspect of funerals. I’ve buried my parents, my wife and my baby and I am always struck that during the journey to the crematorium, the world is populated by people going about their daily business. When the hospital visitors go home and the nightshift staff clock on, you come face to face with aloneness in its most raw.

During one of the long evenings in hospital, I thought about my great-grandfather, William Culley. Did he have time to muster any final thoughts that afternoon, as he released Job and Esther into the sky, one final time? Did he look to the sky as they took flight? What did the sky look like as the gunfire started? How did he assemble those last few minutes before his death came?

William Culley was wounded at Diamond Hill, but, six months later, he was back in action, in a new unit. I am now cancer-free but my abdominal wall didn’t repair successfully after the surgery and I’ve been left with a huge, unsightly hernia. It requires another operation. There is a long waiting list.

I do like to entertain the notion though, that my eventual introduction to the world of bodybuilding competition (Senior Class) could still happen when I am sixty-five.

I am thinking of Linda, and her closing scene in Blood Brothers:

“Her dreams were not forgotten.

Just wrapped and packed away.

In the hope that she could take them down.

And dust them off, one day”.

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It’s impossible to feel alone when you’ve got the Blood Brothers soundtrack in your CD collection.

Lines Chapter 7: The Pigeon Man

Chapter 7: The Pigeon Man

Exhibit label, attached to Exhibit 212, from the Military Intelligence Museum, Shefford.

Letter found amongst the kit of Private William Culley, Cape Cycling Corps, after he was killed in action on 18th April 1901.

Private Culley (1867 to 1901) was born in Ditchingham, Norfolk and married Mary White in 1866. They had two children: William Junior and Annie.

Private Culley was a career soldier. He saw two spells of action in the second Boer War. He was wounded in June 1900 at Diamond Hill whilst serving with the 10th Hussars. On recovering, he was transferred to the Cape Colony Cycling Corps in January 1901.

As can be gathered from Pte. Culley’s letter, the Cycling Corps was a vital part of the British Army’s developing Military Intelligence network. Due to the sensitive military nature of some of the content, the letter was retained in Intelligence archives and Private Culley’s wife never received or read it. 

 

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19th March 1901

My Dearest Mary,

How are you, my sweet Wife? I am so sorry that it has been over a month since my last letter, but it has been a particularly trying time here at Orange River (more of that anon).

What marvellous news you spoke of in your last letter about my darling little Annie. Although, I suspect she is not so little anymore. Curse this war for preventing me from seeing both my children grow up. My heart took kindly to the notion of my little girl learning to play the piano. Where does she get that rare talent from? I certainly cannot recall any person in my family having such a gift. In the dank, black nights here, I like to imagine Annie playing a soft melody to me when I eventually return home.

I was less overjoyed at the mention of Annie and young Billy spending time with the stable boys in the mews. These boys can be very rough, both in their actions and in their language, and I would hope that Billy is taking his responsibilities as the elder Brother with all the seriousness that we have tried to instill in him. I suppose it is the fecklessness of their age that sees them both drawn to the rougher parts of Kensington. Do you remember your Mother, boasting quite shamelessly to her neighbours when we first got our London home? I can hear her saying, “My Mary is going up in the world and no Cockney ragamuffin will ever sully her life”. I am chuckling as I write these words. Your family embraced our London move whilst my family feared that it would lead to us getting ideas above our station. How little do they understand you, my precious one?

What a stroke of good fortune it was for your Cousin to get that small flat in Thorpe Mews. It will mean good company for you. I hardly need to state the obvious, but I saw so little of our new London home before my posting, but I do believe that I remember Thorpe Mews. I have a remembrance of walking the children to the park one Sunday afternoon whilst you were ailing, and I was amused at little Annie’s questioning stares at the maidservants and the grooms, taking their Sunday constitutionals. And there, my dearest, is the essence of our new life. If we are to have the smart grooms; then we must also have the stable boys.

Oh Mary. I yearn to stroll with you along by the nice houses. Our hands held tightly together. Those thoughts can raise my spirits during this bleak, bloody war in Africa, where one day unfolds as tortuous as all the previous ones, as will surely do, the next.

I try, my darling, to keep my correspondence to you, light and positive. I do not want to fret you as I know how hard it is to be on your own with only your imagination raising terrible pictures of your husband’s war, many thousands of miles away.

Sometimes, my mood is very low, but I am cheered on a daily basis by the pigeons. Have you given any more thought to my suggestion of breeding pigeons when I return to London? It would be no trouble at all to build a small loft in the back yard. And I would tend to their every need, with no call upon your time for assistance.

You asked why the carrier pigeons have become the responsibility of the cycling corps, as it appears so unlikely. I jest not, Mary, but the answer is simple. The horses are intolerant of the pigeons and do not take kindly to their noise or movement whilst being carried on the saddle. So, transporting them between stations can be dangerous to the birds and can only be performed on bicycle. I am sure that Billy and Annie will be greatly amused by that piece of war news. It takes time for the pigeons to be ready to serve King and country, so it has become the job of Archie Anderson and I to train and tend to the birds before they commence active service.

Here is my little secret, Mary. I have taken a particular shine to two of the pigeons, who I have christened Job, after your admirable Father, and Esther, after my poor, late Sister. They make quite a pair, I can tell you. They have opened my eyes to the skies again. Much of the time at wartime, you are either looking straight down or straight ahead. Both in full concentration for any danger. One has no need to look up, so you don’t. But watching these two doughty birds as they take flight, my heart takes flight too and before I know it, my mind is back on the farm in Ditchingham and I can temporarily imagine that this blasted war is over. Excuse my coarse language, Mary. I must sound like one of the stable boys in Thorpe Mews. Archie jokes that I am better suited to the asylum than the bunker, because I like to talk to Job and Esther. I’ve told them about you, my precious dear, and I like to pretend that one day, I will set them free, and they will take the long journey to Kensington, carrying my love back to you. Do I sound the fool, Mary? When Archie is engaged with his ablutions and out of earshot, I like to tell the pigeons about my dreams for the future. I do not want anyone to hear what those dreams are, even you, dear Mary, because my greatest fear is that I will not live to see them being realised. I trust the birds though, and it is some comfort that there is someone that I can release the burden to.

Besides tending to the pigeons, our other main duty is to service and repair the bicycles. My goodness, Mary, you would not believe the toll this African terrain takes on the old bicycles. I had to cycle with a message to the Corporal’s base last week. It could have been no more than forty miles. I half expected never to arrive as the wretched bicycle kept buckling and falling into disrepair. For the final, couple of miles, I ended up carrying the thing, instead of it carrying me. With the bike, my kit and my weapons, I was weighed down a ton. My back was playing me up so much; I must have looked like I walk as an ostrich does. To make our tasks even harder, the tools we have been equipped with to carry out the repairs are of very poor quality. If I was a betting man, I would be loath to gamble the odds on what might fail the troops first: the bicycle frame or the spanners needed to repair the frames.

Whilst cycling to Calvinia last week, I was bolstered heartily by a fond memory. It was a memory I hadn’t recalled for many years. I presume that it was the bicycle, the vast open spaces and the roasting sun, but I was taken back to the time when I was stationed in Dorchester. Those many times that I would cycle with as much vigour as I could muster, along the coastal roads, to spend a precious Sunday afternoon with you in Kilmington. The ride never took any physical toll, because I always had the joy of your beautiful face with its crown of shining, black hair to look forward to. The anticipation of seeing you, dearest Mary, was all the energy a man needed to undertake such a rambling journey. I must remember to use that same energy to boost me the next time I am given a mission to bicycle the pigeons across the fields to base.

I have some sad news to report. You may recall in one of my earlier letters to you, I told you about the wonderful cakes that young Albert Jackson used to receive from home. Like a lot of Albert’s, he was referred to as Nobby, and what a card he was. He had high hopes of making his living as a footballer when this war is over, and in my humble, and probably ignorant opinion, I am sure that he would have succeeded. When we had an occasional kick about, there was not a single soldier in the corps who could get the ball off him. You would have sworn that he had magnets in his boots. To be frank, it became quite tiresome after a while, but it wasn’t just me who could see that Nobby had potential. He had some stories of his life back in Newcastle that would have us clutching our sides with laughter. Archie never found them funny and would call them “tall stories”, but Nobby had a way about him, that you never really bothered whether the tales were true or not. The reward was in the laughter.

Anyway, the sad news is that Nobby died last Thursday. He set out with a couple of the other lads to provide cover for the medical corps. There had been several injuries during the last push and Nobby was amongst those sent to their aid. I was excused for the day as I had work to do with Esther. From the stories that I’ve heard, Nobby became separated from the rest of the boys. They found him three hours later. He was barely conscious and one of his legs was missing. But do you know, Mary? The cheeky bounder survived for another four days. The pain must have been excruciating. It was the fever that got him in the end. One sees life very differently out here, Mary. Not so long ago, I would have been saddened beyond words by such a happening to one of my friends. I still feel sad for Nobby, and his poor mother but I feel cheered too. It was for the best that the tropics did for him in the final count. He wouldn’t have liked not being able to play football anymore. A man must be able to have his dreams. Taking those dreams away is cruelty itself.

We have got a few more days here and then we are being moved to Pretoria to provide reinforcements to protect the railway line. I know that you find this hard to hear, my wonderful wife, but I am pleased that we will finally be seeing some proper action, after such a long spell of never-ending boredom. To fight, was the reason that I signed up all those years ago and every one of us men relishes the day when we put everything on the line for victory. I pray to God that Job and Esther are ready for their part in the action before we have to leave. I could not bear to have to wring their necks if the officers deem them to be unready.

I will sign off now, my sweet. Give Annie a big soldier hug from me. And try your hardest to persuade Billy to reconsider his ambition to follow in his father’s footsteps. After this war, the world will open up for young men like Billy and he won’t need the army to give him his sense of purpose. I want both my children to live long, happy lives, without the sword of war hanging over them.

Do not worry Mary. I will be home in your arms before you know it. My army days will soon be over and we can look forward to our golden future, with or without a pigeon loft. I trust you’ll appreciate my little joke to end on. It is a poor substitute for the kiss that I so want to give you.

Yours, today and forever.

Private William Culley (23899)

Cycling-Soldiers

Continue reading “Lines Chapter 7: The Pigeon Man”

Lines Chapter 6: Fourteen

6. Fourteen 

 

I became 14 years old in March 1973. My great-grandfather, James Neary, turned 14 in November 1848.

I can remember quite vividly my preoccupations as a fourteen-year-old. Would The Sweet be able to follow up their number one success with ‘Blockbuster’, with their next single, ‘Hell Raiser’? Would Southall Football Club be able to hang on to the mercurial Alan Devonshire long enough to launch a concerted promotion push before he could be gobbled up by a professional team? Would I be taken on as a Saturday boy at Fine Fare, the Grocers? Would Auntie Hilda knit me another garish, nipple chafing tank top for my birthday?

The outcomes of those preoccupations were:

1. No.

Hell Raiser started an agonising run of form that saw The Sweet’s next three singles stall frustratingly at number two. I met Steve Priest in 1974, although “met” might be a bit of an exaggeration. It was my first trip out after a nasty bout of chicken pox. I had popped into Hayes to buy, (surprise surprise), Teenage Rampage.  I was waiting at the bus stop to come home, when a chauffeur-driven Jaguar pulled up outside the café opposite. The driver got out, unfurled an umbrella and escorted Steve Priest inside for a Full English. I followed him in and from what was left of my pocket money, I purchased a warm Panda Cola. I’d like to report that I engaged Steve in a debate about great guitar riffs and the easiest way to apply mascara. I didn’t. I was a demure little flower at fourteen.

2. Yes & No.

We held on to Alan Devonshire for our promotion season, sold him to West Ham and promptly got relegated. Such was life as a Southall supporter. Gordon Hill, Chris Hutchings and Les Ferdinand went exactly the same way; a fleeting moment of success whilst they were in our ranks, followed by season after season of crashing demotions after they left.

3. Yes.

It was the start of a wonderful four years of slicing luncheon meat with an egg in the middle and overcoming my distrust of the rollmop herring. The shop was run mainly by women with Alan Bennett names like Nellie, Marjorie, and Glad. Under the watchful eye of Mr. Ernest Tipper, I learned the ropes on the cooked meats counter and after a very brief apprenticeship, I was trusted to work the ham slicer. Mr Tipper used to boil the hams on the premises and that pungent smell stuck to my Levis for days.

I wasn’t too enamoured of Marjorie. Every Saturday, before we opened, Marjorie would wait until Mr. Tipper was otherwise engaged and demand that I did her, “Half a pound of the scrag ends of ham and slip a couple of nice slices in the middle”. It was fraud, pure and simple. The scrag ends sold for next to nothing, whilst Mr. Tipper’s speciality hams were the most expensive item on the counter. One week, Marjorie came round and asked for her usual order to be upped to a whole pound of scrag ends with three slices of the best stuff thrown in the middle, because she was “entertaining Jim’s manager from Wycombe for tea on Sunday”. I flipped. She could have got me into serious bother. When she came to collect her order at closing time, she hadn’t noticed that I had served up exactly what she had asked for, but I had also given her a bonus by slipping a rollmop herring in the middle. Explain that to Jim’s manager.

4. Yes.

A purple/yellow/lime one. The upside was, that this one was only three sizes too small.

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One hundred and twenty five years earlier, my great-grandfather, James Neary had also celebrated his 14th birthday. For the first thirteen years of his life, he had passed his birthday in Harrow High Street, at the grocers’ shop where he lived with his parents and his three brothers. From about the age of eight, he had been expected to help out in his father’s shop and most of his birthdays were marked by a celebratory tea of sausages and rollmop herrings;  but only after he had worked his eight-hour shift.  Working in the shop was not what made his young heart sing though. The tedium of the shop was only broken on Tuesday mornings. His father supplied the groceries for the nearby Harrow Public School and James enjoyed the opportunity to be outside,  pulling the heavy cart up the hill to the school. If he was very lucky, he might even be rewarded with a penny tip from the lovely housekeeper. On his fourteenth birthday, however,  James was many miles away from serving the housewives of Pinner or dragging the grocery cart up the Peterborough Road.

A few weeks before turning fourteen, James had enlisted in the Royal Navy. He remembered breaking the news to his family. His mother cried for three days and his father, quite literally, turned his back on him. They were never to speak again. Nobody came to see him off and he looked a forlorn figure as he begged travellers for a ride on their carts to Portsea. However, before the journey was half complete, James felt his mood lift and he realised that he now had the freedom to dream.

James Neary adjusted quickly and happily to his new surroundings aboard ship.  Training, what there was of it, was on the job, so to speak, so he set sail on his first assignment within days of signing up. If there had been fourteen birthday candles to be extinguished, they would have been lit on board HMS Camus, early into its 102 day passage to China and the Navy’s participation in the China opium wars.

The journey was long, tortuous and fraught with unexpected danger. James had never seen waves in the water before and nothing in his imagination could have prepared him for waves that were taller than the ship itself. In those very early days of his naval career, James had the ranking of “Boy” in the second regiment class. Most of the other boys hid in the lower decks whenever mountainous waves loomed, but James found them exhilarating and he truly understood the meaning of being alive as  viscous spray nearly washed him overboard. He faced the birch on his third night at sea after an officer found James with his shirt off, arms outstretched, revelling in the waves on the poop deck. When James was seven, the circus had came to Harrow and he had witnessed a neighbour, who had volunteered to put his head inside a tiger’s mouth, being mauled to death by the creature. That was danger, in James’s eyes, not feeling the full force of an Atlantic wave. He had not considered that exposing himself to the elements might not only be endangering his own life, but the lives of his fellows, by adding his jobs to their workloads. Duty, in Her Majesty’s services, James learned, was the sternest of taskmasters.

James had never known pain like the birching. His back was still bleeding, three days later. But not even the pain and humiliation could quench James’s fascination with and admiration for the sixty-foot rollers. The officers observing him might  have believed that his subsequent caution was a sign of a lesson having been learned. Inwardly, James smiled. He had learned an important lesson, just not the one the officers were expecting. He learned that you had to know how to play the game and he was grateful that the officers couldn’t look inside him and see his dancing soul.

Being one of the youngest on the sloop, James’ daily tasks were pretty menial and he spent much of his days as a powder monkey, cleaning and maintaining the gun deck with its small arsenal of eighteen guns. James was one of the fittest of the boys and enjoyed the challenge of carrying the gunpowder from the Hold to the artillery deck, several times a day.  The other boys laughed at his eagerness for any task, but James knew that he was in the Navy for the long haul and was keen to learn everything there was to know about military duty.

There were many dark times during that first three-month journey. There were sporadic skirmishes with enemy ships and James quickly became accustomed to the  sea burials of his friends and commanding officers. Men, who one day would be laughing and joking about the weevily biscuits, and then the next day, their ending was being marked with a prayer and a splash. Horrendous injuries to his colleagues became a daily pattern and James needed a strong stomach to tend to their wounds. James was frequently mocked or reminded that he was ‘just a boy’, but when the battles were heated, the ages of the crew became irrelevant. James, at fourteen, could have been as heroic, or as dead, as the ship’s captain, thirty years his senior.

The night of his birthday, James would continue his work alone, standing watch on A deck. Everybody else, not on watch,  had turned in for the evening, but James was in the habit of minding his business whilst staring into the vast, menacing expanse. He celebrated the man that he was becoming. He fancied that he could see Harrow on the distant horizon and a much older version of James Neary, in his blue apron,  patting great slabs of butter into saleable shapes. He could see his father, getting older, but still greeting his customers with a cheery joke. He celebrated that arduous journey to Portsea where he had found a small package his mother had packed into his bag. The package contained some food from the shop and his grandmother’s broach.

“Neary. Get to your hammock.”

James obeyed for fear of another punishment, but he knew that he had exercised  wisdom in choosing this life change. In just one month, the rolling sea had opened his eyes and the stars at night had opened his heart.

The only thing missing was someone who could say, “Happy birthday, James”.

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Lines Chapter 5: Frequencies

5. Frequencies

I remember just two things from the time spent, studying physics in my first two years at senior school. I am from that generation who, come the third year of their secondary education, dropped several subjects from their curriculum to concentrate on the subjects that we liked, were good at and were going to pursue up to O-level. Physics was the first on my list to receive the heave-ho.

My first memory is of “a force”. The physics teacher was a Mr Clark, affectionately known as Nobby Clark, but not to his face. He was a very tall man. And very wide. And very deep, but only in physical stature. One morning he chose six of us from the class and instructed us to form a line at one end of the classroom with arms linked as if we were about to perform a rendition of Auld Lang Syne.  Taking off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves, Nobby walked to the other end of the classroom. Positioning himself as if he were in the starting blocks for an Olympic 110 metres hurdles final, Nobby announced:

“I am Newton. You are six atoms. This experiment will show what happens, I say, what happens to atoms, when they come into contact with a force. I am a force.”

I forgot to mention that he had the same repetitive speech pattern as Fred Elliott from  Coronation Street. With that, he sprang from his blocks and hurtled towards us tiny atoms with his massive belly bouncing like a trampolining Old English Sheepdog. The force got to within two inches of the atoms when we quite reasonably broke our link and scarpered. Nobby careered headlong into the blackboard whilst we atoms shook in a combination of relief, and fear of the retribution heading our way. 

Nobby was furious and threatened a week-long detention for any atom that carried on ‘behaving like a pathetic weakling.’ Back into his starting blocks he went and once again he delivered his script: “I am Newton etc etc…”, and once again as he got to within inches of us, instinct took over and for the second time we broke ranks. Crash. The blackboard easel went for a Burton. Nobby was so angry that snot shot from his nostril. Fair play to his creativity, and his determination not to be outdone, Nobby thought of a different way in which to teach us about forces hitting atoms and got us all to bend over. His slipper became the force and our bottoms became the atoms. Thank you, Mr Newton. 

My second memory of Mr Clark’s physics lessons is even patchier. I do remember that it took several weeks of setting up the experiment and that we were meant to learn something about frequencies. Nearly fifty years later, my knowledge of this vital area of physics is pitiful. I do recall having to construct a Heath Robinson circuit board jobbie. There was a maze of wires that connected a series of knobs that ran around the outside of the board. Once our contraption was complete, our pathway to understanding frequencies should have been clear. We were expected to work out why it was that when you pressed the knob with the sticky label “E” attached, the bulb with the sticky label “H” lit up, whilst the bulbs with the sticky labels “G”, “I” and “J” remained dimmed. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. Apparently, Nobby reassured us, it was all down to conductors operating on a different frequency. This could have prompted one of the class wags to come out with an Andre Previn joke, but as we had learned from the Newton lesson, Nobby had little capacity for humour when such life-enhancing learning objectives were on the line.  One of the girls stuck up her hand and asked why her bulb with the sticky label “C” had lit up and she was sent out to walk around the playground five times. Let’s just say, Mr Clark and his young band of atoms were on different frequencies back in 1971 and probably still are in 2019. I know that I am.

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Something did register though and I’ve often found myself pondering questions of frequencies in the years since Featherstone High School. In my professional counselling work, I have seen many people who have been propelled into therapy because they are clearly on a different frequency from the loved one, they have chosen to live their life with. It’s what keeps Relate in business. I’ve encountered many people who glaze over when I press my E knob in an attempt to explain why Sparks were the most underrated band of the Seventies. I have not accept that, not only have I completely missed their H bulb, but every other bulb in their circuit. It’s irritating, but I can’t really attribute any blame to them. If they don’t appreciate the Mael brothers, I know which one of us is losing out. A walk around the playground for you, chum. 

My counselling tutor had many mantras. One that has stuck with me is, “There is no place for humour in the counselling room”. At the time he said it, I had never been in a counselling room as the therapist, but I was suspicious of his reasoning. Actually, he didn’t give any reasoning, which further aroused my suspicions that he was incorrect. Laughter is one circuit board where we quickly learn about each other’s frequencies. You either find Billy Connolly funny, or you don’t. The bulb lights up, or it stays dark. There is never any midway flickering. In my work, I can turn up the empathy to maximum volume, but if you’re on alien frequencies, you ain’t going to hear a single word.

It’s always been a fascination, but has never been as tested to its limits as it was until after Steven came along. When you find someone whom you love more than your heart can reasonably manage, you expect your frequencies to click like a beginner’s jigsaw puzzle. Steven was transparently on a different frequency. Not just from me, but, it seemed at first, from the whole world. It never appeared to bother him, though. Quite the contrary, he was completely at home on his frequency. I learned very early on that there was no point waiting for Steven to join me on my frequency. That wasn’t going to happen. I needed to build a whole new circuit board of relating, and then hope, just hope, that I could occasionally light up his bulb. 

I don’t know how many years I’ve got left on this mortal frequency, but I’m pretty sure that whenever my final day comes, my greatest source of pride will be the same as it is today. Steven and I have found a frequency that we can connect on; mainly through music, comedy and our shared history. If truth be told, that’s how my frequency connects with most people, but with Steven, it’s been a magical miracle. And my goodness, am I protective of it. I will fight any person who tries (usually inadvertently) to scramble our frequency. 

I wish I were on the same frequency as Steven full-time. I prefer his to mine. It’s direct and uncomplicated. It’s honest and real. It feels like it comes from a different time, a different age. And it’s powerfully intuitive. Mine gets too easily clogged up or diverted off to lesser, insignificant bulbs. It’s no coincidence that Steven spotted William Worley before I did. His pathway is unfettered and more open to receiving magic. 

In 1879, someone else was struggling with her frequencies. Mary Ann Holloway, for that is what she demanded to be called in those days, had been an in-patient at Hanwell Lunatic Asylum since 1875. In fact the date of admission had been 11th September 1875. The observant doctors had not missed the fact that her arrival at the asylum had been twenty years to the day since she married.

To the doctors and staff, Mary Ann was a source of great puzzlement. What was clearly a case of a mild malaise four years ago had now reached a point where the poor woman was now in the grip of extreme insanity. Brief moments of lucidity had long since passed; the doctors had abandoned any attempt at treatment and were offering nothing more than containment, until her eventual demise. This could not come soon enough, as her increasing acts of violence towards herself and others threatened the efficient running of the hospital. The doctors had discouraged the family from visiting, as a means of alleviating both the patient’s and the family’s distress; and for everyone’s safety Mary Ann was confined to a solitary cell. 

Back in 1875, it had all been so different. Mrs Mary Ann Worley, as she was then known and which was her conventional title, had seemed troubled and of a highly nervous state, but she cooperated with the treatment and spoke freely about her life. Slowly, and by careful listening, the ward matron built up an understanding of Mary Ann’s malaise, but was perturbed that the telling of her story and the prescribed water treatment only seemed to accelerate her mental decline. That went against all modern thinking and it needed to be considered that perhaps Mary Ann may have been cultivating her nerves. At thirty six years of age, one would have anticipated a full recovery, but Mrs Worley remained a strain on the public purse.

These days, the slightest mention of her home life caused Mary Ann to commit extreme acts of unbecoming aggression. Food was thrown, clothes were torn whenever the family entered the conversation. Mary Ann spent most of her days praying that the good Lord would end her misery as soon as he saw fit.

Mary Ann’s life, prior to the asylum, appeared full of contentment. She was married at sixteen to  a brick labourer from the neighbouring village. His name was William Worley Junior. Their attraction to each other was simple: Mary Ann adored William’s reliability and optimism; William loved Mary Ann’s beauty and her commitment to building a loving home. William had big plans, that were slowly forming and of which, he thought it best if he didn’t yet speak. He had become tired of working in the brick fields of Seer Green, and wanted to broaden his horizons. He had heard the stories about the new towns, springing up all around London, and he wanted to be part of this excitement. He loved the village that he had grown up in, but if a man is to make his mark on the world, he needs to aim higher than the relative comfort that he already knows. Mary Ann had listened attentively to William’s dreams of a better life, but felt torn. She wanted, so much to spend the rest of her days with William; bringing up their children, but why couldn’t he be happy with what he had already got? Mary Ann chided herself. They weren’t planning on moving to the other side of the world. She would still be able to see her dear mother. If only she could silence these misgivings and share her husband’s enthusiasm.

Motherhood proved to be a trying time for Mary Ann. Whilst William pursued his big dreams, Mary Ann struggled to devote herself to her eight children. They were good children, but demanding nonetheless. She lost three other infants and buried her pain with the babies.  After her mother passed over, she realised that she had nobody else in the world with  whom she could share her sadness. It was during this time of so many losses that Mary Ann began to fully understand what feeling lonely, really meant. As the years passed, Mary Ann lost all interest in herself, her children, her husband, and her home. Her mind became consumed with tormenting thoughts of how she could escape from it all.

There was one day that would be forever locked in Mary Ann’s mind, as the day when the world that she knew, ended. And she knew, with bitter irony, that William looked upon the same day, as the day when his new world began. William, full of anticipation, had taken Mary Ann on a short trip where he planned to reveal his big secret.  For a brief couple of hours, as they rode through the familiar lanes of Buckinghamshire, Mary Ann even shared in her husband’s excitement. As the journey progressed, the landscape started to feel bigger. It was less homely, and more daunting. Eventually, they arrived in the wide open fields of Southall and Heston. The wide-eyed William helped Mary Ann from the cart, and holding her hand firmly, he escorted her out into the middle of the field. With each faltering step, Mary Ann felt the knot in her heart tighten. Oblivious, William picked up handfuls of soil and smeared it into his face, laughing at his own mischievous game. Mary Ann felt like she was in the company of a boy, younger even than her own sons.

“We are going to build Southall, my love. We are going to build this town, with homes and places where people can work. We are going to build something that will provide a better life for our children.”

Mary Ann tried to hide an escaping tear. She knew that there was no going back, but that was precisely what she wanted to do. To jump onto the cart, and drive away from this nightmare, as fast as the nag would pull her. She hated her husband for taking her away from all that was dear to her. She hated herself for not being able to share William’s joy. She also knew that once the children saw this new space, they would fall in love with its potential and she would be left quite alone. William pulled her close, to plant a kiss on her cheek, but she was repulsed by the soil on his face and all that it stood for. William let go of her hand, and started a playful dance by himself, across the field. It was at, that point, that Mary Ann could no longer conceal her tears, and she felt her heart starting to break. William didn’t notice. He was talking enthusiastically to another happy young couple about the possibilities of building a pub on the very spot on which they stood.

“I think The Jolly Cricketers would be a most apt name for such an establishment.”

Mary Ann Worley died in Hanwell Lunatic Asylum on 1st October 1879.

William Worley Junior and Mary Ann were the first Worleys to be connected with, and to settle in Southall. I grew up in the town that William helped build.

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Lines Chapter Four: Shoalstone Pool

  1. Shoalstone Pool, Brixham, Devon

 

2019

“Echo Beach, far away in time.

Echo Beach, far away in time”.

Oh Martha and the Muffins. Thank you. You have been a staple of our holiday compilation cassette tapes since our first family holiday with Steven in 1997. Compilation cassette tapes may seem a bit passé in these days of streaming and Spotify, but Steven being Steven, if we do something once that floats his boat, he has an expectation that we do exactly the same thing forever more. Twenty-two years on from Burnham on Sea and it’s bloody difficult to find a hire vehicle that has a built-in cassette player; but to get around that modern extinction we have one of the support workers allocated to nurse a ghetto blaster on his lap for the entire journey. We have some Boney M, some Bay City Rollers and some Lyte Funky Ones, but Martha, your anthem is the one sure-fire hit record to get a camper van full of Cowley men singing at the tops of their voices.

Only today, we are not going on holiday. Three years ago, Steven announced that he didn’t want to go on holidays anymore. His reasoning – “Holidays get a bit busy.” I’m dead proud of him for spotting that and being able to verbalise it. I’m sad, of course, because it has meant the end of an annual family holiday, but am chuffed at the same time that he has worked out a way to articulate something that he has found problematic. As a little kid, he always enjoyed a caravan holiday in a Haven/Hoseseasons/Pontins type of site. But the very nature of a holiday park meant that the risk of sensory overload followed by an overwhelming meltdown was always present. It took twenty-six years but Steven eventually worked out an explanation for his distress whilst on holidays and I like how ‘a bit busy’ sums it up quite succinctly.

So, it is not a full-on, seven days’ holiday. Instead, we are having an overnight stay in Paignton and tomorrow morning we will take the camper van on a little run out to Shoalstone open air pool. To sniff trunks. This will be our third visit to the glorious old pool that is cut into the sea at Brixham. The first time was in 1998 and contained a physical shock that I had long forgotten, that happens when your body reacts in bewilderment to being plunged into freezing cold water. Steven and I had held hands and jumped in. It had been several minutes before we had found the breath to speak.

We tried to recapture the experience in 2015 when we hired a cottage in Torquay, but Steven was much wiser this time and his wincing descent into the water took forever. Our team of Nigerian support workers had never known such cold before, but manfully waded out to neck height in an attempt to be encouraging. It did prompt a mini meltdown though:

“Dad. My willy’s gone. Steven Neary’s willy hasn’t gone forever and ever?”

Steven always talks about himself in the third person, but in this instance he could have been expressing the fear of the whole group. Half an hour later, after getting changed, we were still having to reassure Steven Neary, in a packed ice cream parlour, that his willy hasn’t gone forever and ever. Our platitudes were not really working, because Steven Neary’s willy, like everyone else’s willies, still hadn’t come back yet.

As Martha and the Muffins fade out and Katrina and the Waves kick in, I realise that we have all slipped into silence. Steven has polished off a packet of salt and vinegar Chipsticks. The guys have stopped arguing about the political situation back in Nigeria. I have stopped worrying about the possibility of the hotel breakfast not serving fried bread. And nobody is fretting about their willies disappearing. We have nothing to say. It is heaven. Steven breaks the quiet:

“Hello man. What’s your name, man? You’re a man called?”

He mutters something to himself that sounds like “willing”, and grinning broadly, returns his attention to accompanying Katrina on the vocals:

“I’m walking on sunshine and don’t it feel good. Hey.”

We all turn around.

“Who was he talking to?”

“Must have been another driver, passing us.”

“I feel alive. I feel the love. I feel alive. That’s really rich,”

We have arrived. Paignton. Steven Neary announces that he is very happy. Sybil Fawlty used to pop over to Paignton for a round of golf with the girls. Steven likes the affirmation of knowing that other people have done things that he does.

Shit. No fried bread. Bloody hash browns.

“We can do you extra mushrooms.”

“No thanks. But you could stick a slice of bread in the frying pan? I’ll pay extra.”

“Sorry. It’s not on the menu.”

This is one of those days when it doesn’t feel appropriate to challenge an establishment about their reasonable adjustments policy for disabled customers.  Michael swaps Steven’s hash brown for a rasher of his own bacon. Teamwork. That’s reasonable adjustments.

Shoalstone Pool today feels more like 1998 than 2015. The sun has only just come out for the day. Perhaps we are all in a brave mood. We walk. An army of five soldiers, down the slippery slope into the shallow end. We stop briefly to say goodbye to our willies. We march on, up to our knees. We stop. We look at each other. We are tempting. And goading. Des, who has been holding back slightly, splashes water over our backs. We yelp. We instinctively move backwards until only our ankles are submerged. We stop. Somebody half-heartedly sings Echo Beach. This will not do. How am I going to smell our trunks when we haven’t even got them wet yet? I take a run up and throw myself into the water. Michael follows suit. Then the rest of the lemmings hurl themselves to their arctic doom. Even Steven. Once in, you are in and the thought of getting out vanishes. We swim. We jump. We lounge. Steven sings a Steps medley. We have the whole pool to ourselves. We have arrived even before the lifeguards.

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After a few minutes we hold a competition – who can swim the furthest underwater? Steven goes first and manages about half a width. We all clap and sing ‘We Are The Champions.’ Resurfacing, Steven turns to deliver us a thumbs up and says:

“Hello William.”

We turn around and notice a strangely-dressed gentleman in his fifties, sitting on the bench behind us. I hadn’t spotted him there when we first arrived. He is overdressed for a day on the beach. He’s in a suit that has seen better days. He looks as if he got pissed the night before and slept it off at the back of a building site. I want to check if the Paignton Players are putting on Oliver, because he would make the perfect Bill Sykes. But he seems affable enough and returns Steven’s greeting by name. He lights up an old clay pipe, rebelling against the many no smoking signs that are dotted around the pool perimeter. Thank goodness the lifeguards aren’t on duty yet.

After half an hour and with our willies invisible, we decide that we have had enough. I am first out of the changing room and spot the man with the pipe, who is now sitting on the wall outside the cafeteria.

“Good morning”, he beckons.

Knowing that Steven will probably want a hot dog and a Bovril, I walk across and sit down next to him on the wall.

“Good morning. You not going for a swim yet?”

“Too cold, Mark. And I wasn’t expecting to swim today.”

I am not sure how to respond to this. Perhaps he was on his morning constitutional and settled here for the spectator sport of watching six Cowley nincompoops lose their crown jewels. So, I set about squeezing my towel and trunks into my backpack.

“You’ve got a good lad there.”

“I think so.”

“He was very amiable to me yesterday.”

“Yesterday? Oh, are you staying at the same hotel as us? Did you see him there? Isn’t it a bugger about the fried bread?”

“The Hotel? No, it was in your van. He asked me my name.”

“The van? Where were you then? On the motorway?”

“Have you lost your marbles? I was in your van. Bloody terrible music.”

This feels like an episode of Fawlty Towers with Basil talking completely at cross purposes with one of the guests. I fall into silence again, because frankly, I am not sure whether he is still drunk from the night before. I can’t smell drink but you never know.

Steven and the guys emerge from the changing rooms and come and join us. The man with the pipe offers Steven a mint. As is his won’t, Steven takes the whole packet.

“Thank you William.”

I am struggling to tune in.

“You were in the van with us?”

“I was. Sitting next to that chap with spectacles.”

I turn to look at Alan but he isn’t paying attention, on account of cleaning the sand off his spectacles.

“And what did you say your name was?”

“William. William Worley.”

Chris honks the horn on the camper van and Steven and the support workers get up and amble over. William Worley starts to follow them. I remain rooted to the wall. William Worley notices this and comes back to join me.

“You know who I am?”

“I think so. Yes, I do know who you are. Sorry, it’s a bit of a shock.”

“Don’t see why”.

I feel I can start to move my legs again, so we catch up with the rest of the party.

“You wouldn’t be going near Seer Green, I suppose? There’s a few things, a few people that I would like to see.”

“Erm, sure. We can drop you off along the way. If you don’t mind, I’ll sit in the back with you. There’s a lot I’d like to talk to you about.”

“Never been much of a talker, me. Rather I’ll just come along for the ride.”

And we drive off. And we don’t say a word to each other during the whole of the four-hour journey. Michael tries to engage him in a conversation about Brexit but he is true to his word and isn’t much of a talker. His only response to Michael was:

“You’d better talk to the boy there when you get home” and he gestures towards me.

Chris gets into a bit of a pickle locating Seer Green on the sat nav but eventually we arrive. Steven has been moaning because in the shock of this morning’s unusual reunion, we’ve forgotten to pick up a hot dog from the cafeteria. We pull up in the car park of the Jolly Cricketers, and I get out to let William Worley out by the back door. But when I open the door, he has already left. Without a word.

I have never been to Seer Green before. I had read about it a few years ago when I had been researching my family tree and I guess that in my mind, I had locked the village into the times when the Worley family reigned supreme in the area. Today, the place looks like any other small, affluent village. A classy cafeteria. A Conservative Club. Four estate agents.

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No orchard and no well.

I fancy an early night. I cannot escape the thought that perhaps I had been asleep all day, even though I know that I haven’t. It had all happened. As I unpack my bag, my trunks are still wet and Steven is polishing off the last of the mints he had been given by his great-great-great-great-grandfather.

Michael, who was the last man standing to do the night shift has said that he would organise Steven’s bath if I wanted to get some shut eye.

“You never said. Who was the man at the pool?”

“The man in the van? Oh, just my great-great-great-grandfather.”

“Cool.”

I like Michael. He can take throwaway remarks like that completely in his stride.

That was about 9 o’clock. It is 3 o’clock before I start to feel even the remotest bit tired.

My last thought before finally dropping off to sleep is:

“Shit. I forgot to do the smelling of the trunks experiment”.

That had been the whole point of the day.