Lines Chapter 13 – Significant Days Part Two

13. Significant Days: Part Two

 

9th June 2011. The Royal Courts of Justice. The last stop of a long, eighteen month journey and the day that would start another change in my life direction.

On 30th December 2009, I arranged for Steven to spend three nights at this respite centre, as I was struggling with a nasty bout of flu. It didn’t feel like a big deal at the time. Steven had been going to the centre for over a year and was fairly tolerant of the place. It was an arrangement that social services had repeatedly encouraged me to do. The following day, the social worker moved Steven to an assessment and treatment unit and kept him there for the next 359 days. The council’s plan, as the year progressed, was to never let him come back home, but to move him even further away, to a long stay hospital in Wales. Their reasoning was that his behaviour was too challenging to be cared for at home. This is what happens regularly to people with learning disabilities. There is a huge industry invested in making money and taking control over the lives of learning disabled people. Steven was (and,is) just one of many thousands of people for whom the State and the private care system only see the person as a commodity.

We hit an intransigent obstacle from the second day of Steven being away. He didn’t react very well to the move. This should have come as no surprise to anyone. His distress and confusion manifested in the type of behaviour that shocked anyone who knew him on a day to day basis. The poor guy was frightened. The council used his distressed behaviour as their reason why he must not be allowed to return home. My argument was that his behaviour was a sign of his distress; let him come home and the behaviour will cease. That stalemate lasted for the best part of a year. That’s how we treat human beings in the 21st century.

The council spent the whole of 2010, compiling their case. There was no assessment. There was no treatment apart from introducing Steven to a life-threatening medication regime that he didn’t need. They framed all their reports and logs to present Steven as a dangerous individual, whilst refusing to acknowledge their role in turning him into the person they were seeing through their risk averse and very blinkered spectacles. They refused to see Steven as a human being. He has a wonderful talent that he draws upon when he realises that he is not being able to make himself understood, verbally. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of music and he will find a song that he hopes will best communicate his message. Everyday, when the manager of the unit arrived for work, Steven would shake his hand and sing to him, the Queen song, “I Want To Break Free.” The staff resolutely refused to acknowledge the message in the song and dismissed it as a sign of “autistic echolalia.”

One major stumbling block, throughout the year, was my pride in Steven’s stoicism and invention. That seriously pissed the professionals off. On the night that one of Steven’s favourite bands, Take That, reunited with Robbie Williams on the X Factor, Steven saw a small window of opportunity, and escaped. He was in his pyjamas and ran barefoot, for over a mile. He got to within spitting distance of his mother’s home when he was found. The following day, he told me what his plan had been:

“Steven Neary was going to Julie Neary’s house. Julie Neary will speak to Mark Neary on the phone. Mark Neary will come in the car and take Steven Neary back home.”

It was a great plan and nearly succeeded. And I was in awe at his invention and courage. The professionals were on the back foot and furious, because their whole plan was built on their assertion that Steven lacks mental capacity. He played a blinder in driving a huge hole through their pet theory.

We nervously launched the “Get Steven Home” campaign. It led to a lot of press and media attention and our case, quickly developed a public profile. Social media was, by and large, on Steven’s side and there is no doubt that the scrutiny applied by the BBC, The Independent, The Times and many others, put a renewed pressure on the council. Inevitably, they pushed back, painting a very unfair, and untrue picture of Steven, but it was inkeeping with their preoccupation of seeing him as an object.

Our first appearance in the High Court was in December 2010 and the hearing lasted, just three hours. I was in the witness box for less than thirty minutes and one question from the judge made me sob:

“Mr Neary. If I let Steven come home today, tell me what his life would be like.”

I cried because it was the first time in a whole year that anyone had been interested enough in Steven, to see him as a man with a life worth living. It took the judge no time at all to make his ruling: Steven could return home immediately.

Six months later, we were back in the same courtroom, this time under Justice Peter Jackson. Steven’s barrister had pushed for the legality of the year long detention to be examined and this necessitated a week long hearing in May 2010. Steven was legally represented, but I wasn’t, so I had to present my own case and cross examine all the witnesses. It was nerve wracking, but I had to keep reminding myself that the pressure was off me and Steven. The spotlight was off us, but firmly on the council and I had an important role to play in exposing their duplicity. There is something inherently theatrical about the High Court and it would have been easy to put on my Henry Fonda costume, but I think I did okay.

On a blistering hot day in June, we reconvened for Justice Jackson’s ruling. The council had used a little known piece of legislation called the deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS) to keep Steven in the unit, and the judge ruled that all four DoLS that the council had served on Steven throughout 2010 had been unlawful. He also judged that the council had breached Steven’s article five and article eight rights, under the Human Rights Act. The council couldn’t have got things more wrong. It was a bittersweet victory.

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In his judgment, Justice Jackson turned his attention onto me. He described me as “an unusual man” who “can be proud of the way in which he stood up for his son’s interests.” He also said that, “with a lesser parent, Steven would have faced a life in public care that he did not want, and does not need.” He was right. I am proud of that. But much more so, I am proud of Steven. I am proud of the way that he was able to withstand the distress of a year of being kept away from everything he knows. All his anchors were snatched away, but he survived. And in the years that have followed, I am proud that he has had the courage and the imagination to build a new life for himself. A life that gives him meaning and keeps him safe. I marvel at his fortitude and get a lot of strength from his strength.

At one point during his judgment, Justice Jackson referred to Magna Carta. As he explained the relevance of this piece of law from 1297, he cut through all the defenses that I had constructed over the difficult, preceeding eighteen months. When history, your history as part of humankind is presented to you at such close hand, the impact is very powerful. Well, it was to me. I felt viscerally, the timeline, my timeline, going back eight hundred years. I had been feeling quite alone that day, but now I wasn’t. Steven Neary and Mark Neary were living descendants of Magna Carta.

I had no idea, as I stood on the steps of the High Court being interviewed by the press and the television crews, how much my life would change that day. I knew that the judgment had been launched into the universe and I would never know how many people’s lives might be changed by it. Quite quickly, I became “a voice.” I have spent the past ten years, speaking at all manner of public events. Initially, I was booked to tell the Get Steven Home story, but more recently, the subject matter has shifted and it seems like the small world of social care believes that I have something worth saying.

And I belatedly became a writer. Friends encouraged me to write a book about the year. It was well received and I’ve since gone on to write another four books. My blog has a loyal band of followers.

In 1976, I was doing my A-Levels and my plan was to go to university, which would hopefully lead to a career in journalism. In the February of that year, my mother died and I believed that my place was at home with my family. I don’t regret that decision. It only took another thirty five years to become a writer.

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Lines Chapter 12 – Twenty

  1. Twenty

 

1979

The Railway Tavern, Southall. Me, Murphy and Jaz are in with the in crowd.

“Found myself in a strange town.

Though I’ve only been here for three weeks now.

I’ve got blisters on my feet.

Trying to find a friend in Oxford Street.”

It’s Paul Weller, man. The sixth lager. It’s sweaty. Jaz has been caning the blues and announces that he’s going to dive off the roof of the Kings Hall. He’s been into Bruce Lee for over a year. Immortality is for pussies. I’m looking at Murphy. Murphy is due a slap. I’ve been scrutinising his Parka and he’s amassed two more badges than me. Murphy is telling Jaz that we’ve got his back. If the Hamboro Tavern crew turn up, we’ve got his back. I agree that we’ve got his back, but I don’t want any shit to go down before Margate. I’m no Bruce Lee. I like to think that I’m Jimmy from Quadrophenia. Paul Weller is getting louder. Jaz is telling us that he’s going to do it, guys. We start chanting that Jaz is a flying machine.

Paul Weller stops. Bernie, the landlord, yells out, “Haven’t you lot got any fucking homes to go to?” He rings the bell. We all jeer. Frank Wilson blasts out of the jukebox. We all cheer.

“Do I love you?

Do I love you?

Indeed, I do.”

Murphy and I go the gents to polish off the last of his goodies bag. Frank Wilson is a heaven sent angel. I want to be Frank Wilson. Last night, I wanted to be Jackie Wilson. Murphy has got his arm around my shoulder and telling everyone that I am his best mate, as God is his witness. “Do I love you, Marky Mark? Indeed, I do.” I piss myself, literally, with laughter. Murphy is doing his little cool dance and looks like a fucking superstar. I try to copy him, but I ain’t got the moves. Bernie picks up a snooker cue. He wants his bed. The amateur. Murphy grabs the hood on my Parka. “Where’s Jaz gone?” We leg it outside. Yelling his name. We both look up and scan the roof of the Kings Hall. Nowhere. Nobody. Murphy is shouting that we need to phone the Old Bill. Mrs Sidhu pulls up in her car. Jaz, smiling like a bastard, gets in. “See you two in Margate, my little grasshoppers.” We rag him about needing his mother to take him home. Mrs Sidhu smiles, nervously. We’ve only got one mother between the three of us. Murphy and I haven’t got a mother anymore. Frank Wilson has stopped. Indeed he has. We try to get back in the pub. Bernie has locked the door. The lightweight.

Three months later.

August bank holiday weekend. The only positive thing about being a bank clerk, which I am, is that the bank holiday was invented for us. I’ve been getting everything sorted for Margate since that night at the Railway. New tassels ? Tick. A pair of blue/grey two tone sta-press? Tick. A haircut by Alessandro? Tick. It’s going to be ace. All the faces will be there. I’m not quite a face, but I’m moving up the ranks. Need to be alert to doing something eye catching in Margate. I’m not too keen on the violence. For me, this weekend is about the music and the clothes. And being seen. And being part of this fucking awesome Mod family. Jaz has only gone and got himself a scooter. That’s what comes when both your parents are maths teachers. He will be one of the faces. Bruce Lee on a Lambretta. Me and Murphy will be getting the train. Murphy has got a pocketful of entertainment and the plan is that we’ll be racing, before we even set foot on the front. I’ve done a compilation tape for the journey. I’m going to fill our compartment with some Iain Page. Here we go, Faces. Time for some action.

3pm. Bank holiday Sunday. I’m pacing the hospital corridor. I’m travelling too fast to sit down like all the other worried people in the waiting room. Murphy has gone outside for a fag. I need to keep my eye out for him. My lovely, quiet, charismatic Irish friend is after blood. Five minutes earlier, he was screaming in my face, “They didn’t go for him because he was a Mod. They went for him because he’s black.” He was right. We hadn’t seen a single Rocker since we arrived, yesterday. The word hadn’t got out that the West London Mods would be in Margate. Catching the BBC News in the Radio Rentals window, it was clear that all the Faces had gone to Brighton. Then, the Rockers pitched up. In Brighton. An absolute bloodbath. Secretly, I was relieved, but joined in with the others, mocking the Rockers for going yellow belly on some Margate action. I was relieved, because without the violence, it left the weekend for the music, and the pills, and the laughs. I would have expected Murphy to see it the same way, but he was on a short fuse. One of his best mates had just been lamped.

Last night, we slept on the beach. We set up a two hour rota, so that one of us would be awake and spot if we were being washed out to sea. Or if any trouble might creep up on us whilst we were kipping. I woke up this morning, frozen to the marrow and soaking wet. The tide had started to come in. Murphy informed me that Jaz had gone off to get some bacon sandwiches, so we passed the time, arguing who was the best singer: Steve Ellis or Steve Marriott? I didn’t know much about bliss, but if it exists, this must be what bliss feels like. Frankie Valli came on the compilation tape, singing, “The night begins to turn your head around.” I couldn’t make my feet behave. I’d been practising Murphy’s cool dance moves and by the time of the second verse, we were both giving it large, in the sea. For three minutes and twenty seconds, Murphy and I were the faces. We got a round of applause. Jaz returned. Blood everywhere. This was our kung-fu king, but he’d been jumped by half a dozen locals, as he came out of the cafe. He tried to laugh it off, bragging how the scabby locals are looking worse than him, but he kept drifting away. An old fella, walking his dog, told us that he’d fetch his car and drive us to the hospital.

Two days later. The first day back at work since Margate. I was printing cheque books and my ear was sore. Jaz was fine. Heavily bandaged, ego bruised, but fine. Fourteen knife cuts to his body. That’ll increase his status, no end. Murphy drove Jaz’s scooter back to Southall, whilst I became Jaz’s nurse cum bodyguard on the train. Phil Daniels would have gone back, but I was knackered. All I wanted to do was sleep and rehydrate.

That afternoon, I was called into the manager’s office. Apparently, one of the customers had complained about my earring. The three of us had our ears pierced in Margate in a Three Musketeers type of gesture. Mr Price told me that if I didn’t take the earring out immediately, he would have to consider my position. He went on to say that, thinking about it, moving on, might be the best thing for me. The last thing he said as I walked backwards, out of the room was, “Let’s face it, Neary. With you, we’ve been trying to fit a square peg, into a round hole.” He meant it as an insult, but it was the best compliment I could have received. I didn’t want to be in a fucking round hole. I had to play it sweet, though. I had already been interviewed for a new job in the civil service and didn’t want to screw up my reference. Sometimes in playing the long game, a face has to play it neat.

To get the stench of Mr Price’s appalling bad breath out of my nostrils, I went to Southall market and brought myself a pork pie hat, and a copy of Interloop by The Tymes.

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1855.

Port Royal, Jamaica. The second master of HMS Castor, twenty year-old James Neary, was waking up after the night before. And what a swell night it had been. Home was usually a long way from James’s thoughts but today, he considered his three brothers, back in the grocers shop. It had been five years since he had had any contact with home and James wondered which of the three brothers was currently winning the feud, over who was to succeed their father, in running the shop. Not usually a man of smugness, James lay back down and thought that not one of his brothers could possibly imagine the life he was living now.

Port Royal had a chequered history. In the mid to late seventeenth century, the island was booming. It was an unlikely centre for much of the world’s trade. The island was also a mecca for piracy and had earned itself, the dubious, but catchy title of “The sin capital of the world.” Every third building was a drinking palace and every street had, at least one whorehouse. Then, in 1692, an earthquake struck and a third of the island disappeared into the sea, forever. Of the surviving population, by the end of the year, 60% of them had died from typhoid or other diseases, caused by the fallout of the earthquake. For the whole of the eighteenth century, a war was fought between the ruling British, aided by the local Jamaican government and nature. And every time, nature won. Each time, over the course of the century, the island was rebuilt, and then along came nature, in the form of further earthquakes, tsunamis and fires, and each time, the island was wiped out again.

By the time of James Neary’s arrival in 1855, the island of Port Royal had stabilised to a large extent. The British government publicly promoted the island as having left its debauched history behind, and was now a haven of legitimate trade in a place of God fearing, Christian values. In private, however, they had an enormous investment in restoring the island to its dark trade and lewd preoccupations. There were incredible bootys for the British to be had, from a pirate’s heaven and if that meant sacrificing the peace of the local inhabitants, then, so be it.

This was the landscape in which James Neary had celebrated his twentieth birthday. Rank and seniority had necessitated a certain distance between James and his men, when it came to social gallivanting. James hadn’t yet held his rank long enough to be fully accepted into the Masters’ club, that played by different rules to the lower orders. It could have led to a rather lonely celebration, but James was well respected by the small crew under his command. Any indiscretion on James’s part would have been tolerated, covered, and even admired by his loyal men. And so it was, that on 30th November 1855, James Neary, six of his crew and two newly enlisted Boys, could be found in a small gin palace, far enough away from the main port, to avoid unwelcome eyes.

Unlike several of his older shipmen, James was still a bachelor and wasn’t encumbered with having to send the majority of his earnings, back home to England. Money was plentiful and the men knew that they would enjoy a bountiful night on shore. The majority of the island’s slaves had been freed at the beginning of the century. Most of them had moved to the mainland, but several of the more hardy souls had stayed and by 1855, ran most of Port Royal’s drinking dens. James had spent many a night, playing cards with one of the oldest ex-slaves, Victor, and a mutual friendship had grown. It was perfectly natural that James would want to frequent Victor’s establishment on this special occasion.

Victor was the perfect host. The rum never stopped flowing. The host organised a fun evening of chicken fighting in the yard, and much hard-earned cash was lost in the proceedings. James was not a gambling man, but it cheered his heart to see his men so happy and content. James took charge when one of the new recruits, no more than thirteen years of age, engineered a fight between himself and the local undertaker. James was an able man to have in a fight, but on this occasion, like on many others’, it was his tongue of authority and good humour that prevented any further trouble. The boy was dispatched to the market square to be flogged and the party continued.

As the rum and other liquors took their hold, Victor summoned his daughter to the inn. Genevieve was the mistress of the main street’s whorehouse and she discussed with her father, the best way to entertain the party guests. James felt cautious, but anticipatory. Many of the crew were presently being treated for syphilis. In fact, the fatalities from this foul affliction during his six years of service had been shockingly high. At the same time, James did not want to be prescriptive and wanted to respect the agency that the men held, on their night off from action. He would take his own responsibility.

And so it was, on the morning after his twentieth birthday, that James turned over in the bed. Genevieve smiled at him and gently stroked his forehead. James planted a grateful kiss on her cheek and attended to his toilet. As Genevieve prepared a restoring breakfast, James sat on the porch and let his thoughts wander, as he gazed out to sea.

One day, in the not too distant future, James would enjoy a wife. His life in the navy had made a man out of him and he anticipated the many battles that awaited him  in the long years still remaining of his service. He thought of Harrow and the life that he might be living now. He was mightily satisfied with the choices he had made. He knew that his life was devoted to serving Queen and country for at least the next ten years, and his overriding feeling was one of excitement. But he yearned for a woman. He had a heart to share and he feared that his heart might decay and die with all the death and violence he encountered, before he could open his heart to a wife.

James recalled a night, several months ago, spent with Victor. They had taken a small boat out for a fishing trip. James’s companion, fifty years his senior, had a wisdom that James could only aspire to. After a night of rich pickings, James talked to Victor about matters of the heart and his fears of his heart becoming a wrinkled shell by the time that he was forty. Victor put his arms around James’s shoulder and gently said:

“Our lives is a risk. To be a man of rich, filled heart or to be a man with a broken, withered shell has always been the choice, even since the good Lord walked this earth. You are a good man, Mr Neary. You will make the right choice for you.”

As the sun went down, the two close friends cooked their crayfish over the fire and reflected on matters of love, and belief, and courage.

Jamaica before 1900 (23)

 

 

 

Lines Chapter 11 – The Lighterman

  1. The Lighterman

 

1873.

A tailors shop in Brentford. Louisa Fleetwood had locked up the premises for the day and retired to the nearby public house. As she stood and admired the fruits of several decade’s labours, she failed to notice the five year old boy, lurking in the shadows of the gentlemen’s overcoats. Once she had left, and with the shop to himself, the boy emerged from the shadows.

He loved this shop. He liked to smell the freshly pressed gowns. He enjoyed touching the cold, soft silks. He was fascinated by the elaborate stitching of the heavy capes. It reminded him of the many hours he had spent with his mother and grandmother, watching them attentively, as they painstakingly taught him this intricate skill. His grandmother had a most flamboyant style as she sewed. It was a talent that had been passed down, through several generations of his family. He was a boy, rich in imagination and he amused himself by standing on a crate behind the deep mahogany counters. He pretended to courteously serve the passing Dukes and Duchesses, who held his grandparent’s wares in such high regard.

He seldom gave his father’s absence a moment’s thought. In spite of the considerable worldly knowledge he had amassed in his five years, he remained confused about his family’s relationship with his father. He would disappear for months at a time, but his eventual returns to Brentford were always received like the welcome homecoming of a war hero. And yet, the boy knew that his father had not been absent in the course of war action. The family would gather in The Brewery Tap and listen with good humour, as his father took centre stage and recounted his latest adventures. His grandmother, especially, would consume too much ale and slap her thigh vigorously as his father told his latest tall tale. But the boy wasn’t taken in. Although he hadn’t yet achieved the wisdom to be able to name it, he was aware of a knot of resentment that would tighten, as his father launched into another fantastical story. The boy got into the habit of slipping out of the back of the public house and watched in awe as the boatman jostled for a clear position along the River Thames. The boy was unable to read as yet, but had a strong memory and would mentally catalogue each vessel, according to the the striking combinations of colours of the boats. Once seen, he never forgot any of the boats and he could retrieve any barge from his mental log at a moment’s notice. Alongside the colours, the boy would register the state of disrepair of each boat and these features would be added to his formidable taxonomy.

The boy already had the unfocused seeds of a plan, growing in his head. An ancient lighterman by the name of Findlay would regularly wave to the boy whenever he sat in the yard of The Brewery Tap. In the boy’s mind, Findlay must have been at least one hundred years old. His face was battered by a hundred year’s worth of working in all weathers and raw sewage. However, Findlay’s arms retained their youth and the boy had never seen a thicker, stronger pair of arms. They looked as solid, and as wide as the chestnut tree on the Green at the top of the High Street. The boy knew that, one day soon, he would find the courage to leave his position on the yard wall, head down to the riverbank and strike up a conversation with the ancient lighterman. Perhaps the next time that his father visited and the family would be distracted for several hours, the boy could make his escape. He laughed to himself because he knew, with all his heart, that he had the disposition to make this idea come true.

The boy left his position on the crate and said his farewells to the imaginary duchesses. He stood in the centre of the shop with his arms stretched wide. As the eldest son, he was heir apparent to this tailoring kingdom and he was starting to feel pride in this responsibility. Two years earlier, he had been summoned to his grandfather’s deathbed and he remembered the gravity of being placed on his grandfather’s lap, as all the adults assembled around the bed. As he grew in years, the boy recognised the significance of this event. It was the beginning of the succession. A communication to the other sons and daughters, where the future laid. The boy felt pride that day and he felt pride this day. And there was something else, that the boy was unable to distinguish. He skipped to the double window, at the front of the shop. He saw a busy High Street, with ladies shopping, the elegant coachmen going about their business and children playing. And in the distance, he saw the purple and orange of the Majestic Mary, moored for all eternity. If the boy had been able to identify that something else, he might have been shocked to know that it was restlessness.

1881.

A tailors shop in Brentford. 13 year-old Thomas Fleetwood stood in boredom at the worn mahogany counter. He had been standing in exactly the same position for an hour and he hadn’t seen a single customer. It was Saturday morning and outside, the High Street was as busy as ever. But not in the shop. Thomas longed for the moment when the church clock struck one o’clock and his Aunt Eliza would arrive to relieve him of his interminable duty. The smells of the shop had long since, ceased to excite him. Now, there was only one smell that invaded every corner of this cell – the stench of death. The death of his grandmother Louisa, three years ago, started the decline of the shop. The death of his father, two months ago, was followed by the grotesque pantomime of Reuben Fleetwood Junior being laid out in his coffin, in the middle of the shop floor, for three days. Laying in State, was how the idiot aunts described the spectacle.

Thomas’s mother was another cause of his disquiet. Giving birth to her sixth, surviving child, just seven weeks before his father’s death, had given his mother a clear invitation to neglect her duties within the shop. Aunts, and uncles, and cousins, came and went, but none of them seemed to share any enthusiasm for the business that his grandmother had given her life to. They may have had enthusiasm for the shop’s takings, but as the stock dwindled, so did the shop’s reputation. The other thing that was seriously dwindling was Thomas’s commitment to restoring Fleetwood’s to its former glory.

At twenty five minutes past one, Thomas had changed out of his formal work clothes and was running expectantly towards the river. This was his first visit to the river since his father’s wake, and he had an unfamiliar uncertainty about him. Trapped within the prison of the shop for over eight weeks, Thomas fretted that he had forgotten everything he had learned over the past seven years. Trying in vain to remember even the most basic of skills, he became even more frit. Solidly built for his thirteen years, he even imagined that he had lost a considerable amount of strength, during the official period of mourning. He had half a mind to turn turtle and return to the tailors. His mother would have been delighted, and his aunt would have been off like a whippet to join the rest of the family in the alehouse. “Keep going, Thomas. Keep going.” In the distance, he could see Findlay working hard on the deck. Thomas kept going.

Thomas was keen to set to work, but Findlay was in the mood for some lunch. He offered Thomas some bread and some ale, and together they sat in silence, save for the noise of the pigeons who had suddenly appeared in the expectation of some crusts. They had chosen the wrong barge. Thomas was ravenous and he had never seen Findlay waste a morsel, in the course of their acquaintance.

“Sorry to hear about your Pa.”

Thomas nodded. He didn’t want to talk about his father. The minute that he had just set foot on the boat, a preposterous idea had occured to him. Sweating with the excitement of his idea, he wondered how, or whether, he would be able to put the idea into words. Thomas needed help, but Findlay’s next utterance proved that he would have to be very courageous.

“Expect you’ve been proper busy in the shop? Great responsibility on your shoulders now, lad.”

Thomas could feel a lump in his throat. He got up and walked to the stern of the boat. For a brief moment, he wondered if he had gone deaf. The traffic on the river was as boisterous as ever, but all Thomas could hear was silence. He couldn’t understand the evidence of his own eyes because the only vessel he could see out on the water, was a solitary warship, docked on the opposite bank. A man and a woman waved to him and through squinted eyes, Thomas could see that the man was carrying a small baby. For a moment, Thomas suspected that there had been something untoward in his ale, because he would have sworn on the bible that the baby was his grandmother, Louisa. Thomas remembered the family stories about his grandmother having been born on a warship, but this was the makings of lunacy.

Thomas’s musings were cut short by a loud splash and a chorus of effing and jeffing. Three familiar lightermen, all wretchedly drunk, were trying to drag a fourth man from the brown, muddy water. After a few minutes in which Findlay had joined in the rescue, the man was pulled out, onto the bank and he immediately started at fisticuffs with his three rescuers.

“Chuck him back in,” laughed Findlay, as he reboarded his barge.

All his fears evaporated and Thomas leapt across the boat, grabbing Findlay by his arm.

“Findlay. I want to start my apprenticeship straightaway. Tomorrow. Please, Findlay. I have never been more certain of anything in my life.”

“But what about the tailors shop, Boy? Your mother will be expecting big things from you. You’ve got duties.”

“I’m not a tailor. I never have been and I never will be.”

Thomas looked back across the Thames, but the warship had disappeared whilst he had been watching the fracas.

“Please, Findlay. I was meant to be on the water. That is in my blood too.”

Findlay looked angry. In fact, he looked very angry. Thomas continued his pleading.

“If I’m going to start my apprenticeship to become a lighterman, I can think of no better teacher than you.”

Findlay threw a loading crate into the water. Thomas became fearful that he may try to flog him. Findlay finished off the last of his ale, in one swallow. He looked at Thomas, and Thomas thought that he detected a wry smile.

“Tomorrow morning. 7 o’clock. Be late, and that’s the end of my time.”

Findlay strode off the boat and into the public house. Thomas fished the crate from the water, dried it off and sat down on it. He remained deep in concentration, until his thoughts were interrupted by the warm rain. He smiled a deep smile to himself.

“I had better finish off the rest of this ale before I break the news to Mother that I am now a lighterman.”

1900.

It was late afternoon in a comfortable riverside cottage in Brentford. Mary Fleetwood was having a little sit down, after preparing the stew for this evening’s supper. Her precious daughter, Emma, had not long come home from school and was entertaining herself, making some jewellery out of some tin that her father had collected from work.

Mary had a lot to occupy her thoughts. Earlier that afternoon, her brother Henry had paid a surprise visit. Against her better judgment, Mary held a true affection for her brother. He could be the complete rogue, but as everyone knew, his charm and humour had got him out of many scrapes. This was the second time that Henry had visited in as many weeks; a rarity, but a sign of his persistence whenever he gets a bee in his bonnet. For the second time, Henry had made his proposal that was so ridiculous, so impossible that Mary wanted to laugh him out onto the street. But she hadn’t, because something had been stirred. For the past few years, Henry had been doing some work for an American, a Mr Vanderbilt. Henry’s tales often had to be taken with a pinch of salt, but this one appeared to be true. The story went that Mr Alfred Vanderbilt was one of the richest men in America and Henry first encountered him when the American visited England, with the intention of initiating the London to Brighton coach rallies. Mary couldn’t deny that her brother was an expert horseman and groom, and it seemed that Mr Vanderbilt recognised the value of Henry’s knowledge and took him on the payroll. Henry had already visited Americs twice and now, Mr Vanderbilt was offering to fund the whole Daubney family to relocate to New York. Henry was not a man to take no for an answer and Mary could feel her resistance to the plan, weakening. Henry left her with the firm ultimatum that she had to come to a decision by the weekend. The ship to Ellis Island sails a fortnight, today.

How could Mary broach the subject with Thomas? She was absolutely sure that he would say “no”, but her greatest fear was that he might say “yes”. Despite the interference from his family, they had a good marriage and Mary was not sufficiently henpecked that she had to defer all the major decisions to him. Yet, just this once, she wished that that was the case because she couldn’t bear the burden of forcing her husband to chose.

They had a good life together. Mary wished that they had been blessed with more children, but Emma was a good girl, and the apple of her father’s eye. Thomas was an excellent provider and they never went without. He had proved the doubting Fleetwoods wrong and his decision to take to the water as a lighterman had long since been vindicated.

After the death of old Findlay in 1895, Thomas had taken sole ownership of the barge and brought in the kind of business that Findlay would never have imagined possible. Thomas was well trusted and his reliability, and adeptness on the water, was well recognised by the many traders who sought him out whenever their commerce brought them to London. Just in the last year, he had taken on three lightermen apprentices from the workhouse and he had confided in Mary, that once the three boys achieved their licenses, Thomas fully intended to purchase a second barge. “If my grandparents could build up three tailors shops in ten years, there is no reason why I cannot achieve three boats in the same time.” And Mary knew that Thomas would make good of his word.

What perturbed Mary was that Thomas was now thirty two. He had been working on the river for the best part of twenty years. He had expressed no desire for change, quite the contrary, but a man can become restless, especially when presented with new opportunities. Mary knew little of America, but Henry’s accounts had painted a picture of America, where everything was bigger than England. She imagined bigger rivers, with bigger boats. Bigger pay packets to buy bigger homes. She knew that it would be hard for Thomas to refuse such adventure.

Mary’s thoughts were interrupted by a loud knock on the door. Emma dashed into the room, but her mother was already in the hall. Emma took the lid off the stewing pan and sniffed the pungent aroma. She was hungry. Disconcerted, she thought that she heard a scream from the hall, followed by the sound of something heavy being dropped.

Suddenly, the parlour door opened and a man entered, carrying Mary in his arms. Frozen in fear, Emma relaxed as she recognised the man who she had seen playing cards with her father in the yard of The Brewery Tap.

“Don’t be afraid, Emma. My name is Walter. Your mother has had a terrible shock.”

At this point, Mary regained consciousness. She looked deathly pale and as if, she might collapse again. She seemed to have forgotten that Emma was in the room.

“How, Wally? How could he have drowned?”

“We don’t know for sure, pet. There’s been some boats, down all week from the North. Muscling in. No respect for us men who have been working the river, for years. They were getting Tommy’s gander up. Anyway, this morning, Tommy and a couple of the other lightermen decided to row out and have it out with them….:

Both Mary and Walter appeared startled to suddenly hear Emma’s voice.

“Mummy. Has something happened to Daddy?”

Mary took Emma in her arms.

“I’m afraid so, darling. Daddy has had a horrid accident. Please, Wally. Do go on.”

“Well, that’s about as much as we know, for sure. Our men tried to talk to their men, who thought it was all a joke. I could see Tommy rowing back, in a rare old temper. Cussing and kicking the side of his boat. And when I looked back again, he was gone. His boat was empty. Two of the lads dived in, but the tide made it treacherous and they had to stop. They thought the world of your Tommy, giving them a job. They’re proper broken up about it. Anyways, his body washed up, not an hour since. I’m so very sorry, Mary.”

That was that. Mary thought that her heart would stay broken forever. Emma disappeared into herself. Of course, America was now out of the question. What would people say? And there was an inquest to be had. Mary knew that her place was in Brentford.

Findings of an inquest held on 1st March 1900:

Thomas Fleetwood, aged 31 and a lighterman from 35 Grosvenor Road, Brentford, died at Brentford Docks on 26th February 1900.

The cause of death: Accidental drowning.

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Lines Chapter 10: Louisa Paget

  1. Louisa Paget

 

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.

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 multiple 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

  1. 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.”

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……….

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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”.

20190418_182841

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

Lines Chapter 7: The Pigeon Man

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. 

 

areyoufondofcycling

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

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