Each to his own.
‘Don’t play for too long Alfie’, she patted him gently, and left, smiling, a parting kiss blown across the crowded room. He only had eyes for his toys. Kisses were plentiful in this world; he could afford not to catch every one to hold to his heart.
The sugar bowl - 1962
He pressed himself into the doorway in an effort to become small. Smaller than he was to escape the man who stole away with children. The street was narrow and cobbled, dipping from a junction with the main road to end abruptly facing a high, featureless brick wall.
The man may have simply been away to work, shambling his way along the alleyways that connect the rows of houses from Gibbon Street to Mill Lane. But he had the look of the ‘bogey man’ about him. The one who took little people away from safety, and got them alone and all to himself, and who did things to them that big people shouldn’t do to little children. When he had finished with you he would put you under the earth alive. Or, if he caught you after dark, he would hold you tight and float you off into the night sky. Into the blackness, never to return. You were never safe, not even on your own doorstep. The man wandered about, lost inside a flock of birds.
He should be indoors anyway, but Mrs Dunne was out. Or if in, she would be drunk and asleep. So he had to fend off all the real or imaginary fears that a child of four should not be having to fend off by himself. If the man inside the flock of birds had seen him, and, rather than making his way head down along the entry, had instead turned towards the doorway and his young quarry, Mrs Dunne could end up in real trouble. Children had disappeared from round here before. Myra Hindley’s mum lived just around the corner.
‘I’ll take you out for an ice-cream Alfie’, Mrs Dunne says, pulling on a raincoat. ‘You’ll be loving an ice-cream wont yer?’
The wheezing woman and child procession ambled, hand in hand along the main road, past the pawnshop and Pram Land, until it reached the first pub.
‘Wait here lovey. I’ll see if there’s any here’. She went in through the tall, glossy painted black door, and was there for half an hour, leaving him, hands in short pants pockets to fend for himself in another doorway.
‘No’, she returned, ‘they’ve none left lovey, lets try along here eh?’
It took all night, and six pubs until the old woman finally admitted defeat. There were no ice creams to be had for any four year olds in any pubs along Ashton Old Road, Manchester that night. They drifted back to the house, in time for the old alcoholic to have the child back in his bed before his mother returned from her late shift, none the wiser for the night’s events. Instead of being tucked up in bed safe and asleep, he had spent the night standing alone, outside pubs, whilst the woman they lodged with sat drinking cider in ice-cream shops.
Ice-cream, cider, piss and damp formed the paradigm that held this child’s narrative together. The fabric of his life connected by the thread of neglect. There were two women in his life, one young and one old. At opposite ends of the female spectrum. One about to embark on her life, determined to live it, child or not, and the other at the end of hers, determined to live it out, child or not. He was sandwiched between aspects of the same character, almost as if, when his mother left the house to go to work, a fourth dimensional version of her entered to reak alcoholic vengeance on the small person who had fucked up her life for her. After the lights went out, the old woman disappeared to be replaced by her younger self, ready to torment the boy once again by her disregard.
She was there, but she was not there. In the house in body, but not in spirit. The hours spent in the house, were not hours well spent with the boy; an error, and a reminder of what she was missing out on, with the girls, and the lads. The drinking and the singing. She went to work to buy clothes to go out in, and to have money to spend on drink and lipstick.
Later, the possibility of sex. It all led to having sex. The lavatory, a depository for the rejects that these liaisons produced. The smells, the gin, the hot baths and the knitting needles formed another, more depressing scenario.
The funny woman came round, and left his mother panting, and sweating in bed for days, collecting an envelope from the tin on the dresser as she left. Leaving the boy brother or sister-less yet again. On one occasion, a tiny frog like miniature baby boy shown to him in a sugar bowl.
‘Look, you can even see his fingernails’, mother said, putting him back under the bed.
He looked next day to see, but the frog boy was gone. Never to be forgotten, a sight that his young eyes marveled at, but regretted seeing to this day. The woman, in a different guise was to appear years later. The show went on to run and run.
The absent dad rolled up twice. Once at Christmas with his gang of pub
cronies, six months after he left, a plastic trumpet borne as a gift. Little Alfie sat on his dad’s knee and made a piercing shriek of a noise that made them all laugh. Even his mother joined in with the errant dad, fancying one of his mates. Mrs Dunne, who never mentioned the ice-cream trips to other grown-ups thought it funny too. Alfie, scarlet, threw the trumpet against the wall and ran upstairs. Nobody followed him up to chastise or to comfort him. Instead the grown ups started their drinking in earnest. He fell asleep on Christmas night, at 7 o’clock, missing out on all the fun. The damp bedroom the only haven away from the din downstairs, and the sidelong glances between kids dressed up as adults. Swilling beer and smoking fags. The old woman need not trawl the pubs tonight. There was plenty of cider in big bottles lined up in the hall. Somebody yelled, ‘it’s a great night for the kids’, as his mother got fingered by his dad’s best mate in the outside lavatory.
Holding and stroking, cuddles and comfort - 1962
Mrs Dunne was flat out when she got in. A kettle was boiling itself dry on the kitchen range. The smell of the old woman’s feet had added itself to the familiar acrid harmony of gin, cider and urine, which permeated the air in the dank back room. The kid crying in the upstairs like you could put money on it. Cup of tea. She lifted the kettle, almost dry and filled it spluttering to the top. Setting it back on the heat as the old woman spoke.
“Yer early’, she sat up, the movement accompanied by an escaping fart adding the smell of Brussels sprouts to the mélange of odour.
‘This place is disgusting’. The mother attempted a concerned complaint, before sitting down, aware of wanting to do nothing about it.
‘Yer get what you pay for’. The elderly woman moved outside to the lavatory to piss in the valley of the spiders that frightened the lad even by day when you could see the scuttling things. By night they sat tight, or occasionally crept upon you while you sat there in darkness at their mercy for a change. You didn’t try to flatten them during daylight in case they had good memories. You sat there thinking of anything else but where you were, wiped your arse if there was any newspaper left, and left quickly, hoping not to transport anything with you. Although if you did they wouldn’t stand a chance against what lived in the house. If they were smart they stayed in the corners of the whitewashed lav, a smaller but manageable domain. No point taking chances.
‘I’m off to Scotland this Saturday’, tea made and shoes off.
‘Oh eye and what does that mean?’
‘Well could you have the lad until Sunday afternoon when Doris can pick him up?’
‘I was planning to go over to see Kitty’ she lied.
‘It’s worth ten bob’. She knew she was short of drink.
The bartering continuing as the lad himself cried upstairs for company. Business was concluded at a quid.
‘I’ll take him out for an ice-cream’, said the old lady.
Alfie dreamed of the same back room he wept in, but a back room full of what this room was empty of. Children’s things. Carpets, curtains, light, warmth and toys. He slipped out of bed and into slippers, fluffy and nice. He padded across the room making straight for the rocking horse. From up there, the room swayed back and forth, toys
waiting to be commandeered for soldierly campaigns. The fort bulging with battalions. The garage heaving with cars being mended, filled with petrol and driven across playmats. Time was compressed into instants, where an archer, in full armour leaned against a petrol pump waiting to ambush a German soldier, hand grenade at the ready to blow up the pirates heaving heavy chests of gold onto the forecourt.
‘Don’t scratch me car’. He spoke out of the side of his mouth hoping to give the pirates the initiative. The German scowled back. He rocked back and forth, eating a supper of cake and warm milk, left by mummy.
‘Don’t play for too long Alfie’, she patted him gently, and left, smiling, a parting kiss blown across the crowded room. He only had eyes for his toys. Kisses were plentiful in this world, he could afford not to catch every one to hold to his heart.
Like the sun going down, a shadow began to creep across the floor of the nursery. Moving slowly, it erased the carpet, the toys, the warmth and the light. He watched it all disappear from sight.
That night the ghost of nanny Betty visited. She kept him awake for hours playing. Holding and stroking. Cuddling and comforting. She would have loved to have done more, but was barred from showing the affection he needed, that they all needed from her. Her time was up as they all carried on their day to day, not thinking that one day they would be without her. Too much of a rock to them all really, because in her absence, so young to die, she would leave them all semi-formed. Like children themselves, battling and raging, always calmed by her interventions. A woman who they would all miss forever more. She would haunt their lives in one way or another, and they would never survive her passing.
She was only allowed to say goodbye to one loved one. She wept and chose Alfie instead of the love of a lifetime Billy, left in bitterness until quite soon, he himself faced the same choice. Her time was spent lighting up the empty spaces of his room, yearning to take him along. She tried to cram in all the feelings she was being denied showing to her loved ones into the short time she had. His little heart so filled up he was speechless and overwhelmed. It was all too much and he wept towards the end. As she left, she leaned closer and kissed his dry lips as he slept, for once peacefully. Her breath smelled of fish and chips.
‘Nanny came to see me’ he sighed softly as he slept.
Louis Gustav revved himself and the cars engine up in the side street. Neighbours unused to foreigners with cars swept back their nets to catch a glimpse of the bulky South African racist as he swept the mill worker and errant mother off her feet to a weekend in Scotland. He didn’t mind who or what was left behind so long as he got his way with everything. He came with the navy during the war and stayed on. More opportunity here than elsewhere, although he missed the wide-open spaces and the servitude of the blacks who polished his boots and ironed his shirts for school. Children as young as he, whose parents cooked and cleaned for his parents. Who were occasionally hung from a tree at the edge of a field to deter others with things on their minds.
He’d made his move on the mother even before the lad’s dad had left. What started as a works get together had ended in two broken homes, fights and secret beatings. Through mutual boredom, neglect and sheer spite, his mother and father had gone full tilt at pushing their luck. He went off with some woman nobody knew, and she got herself wound up with her best mates husband. The tanned foreign body, 16 years older than she, with a penchant for the open road.
When it came out, he left his wife, Bert flew the coup for good, and Mrs Dunne began her cider drinking in earnest. At this point, the boy’s real problems began. He’d be paying this one off for life. It was that simple. As an adult, he would search for years for consolation. Through deep downs and minor highs, his problems were simply born. Out of the sheer simplicity of a mother who didn’t care and a dad he never knew, his life was a disaster before he had a chance to have a decent and reasonable say so. It was scripted, done and dusted in the backs of cars, in pub doorways and filthy houses, with a cast that could have done Frank McCourt proud.
As he drove the mother away, the child left with the ice cream lady was not to know how long this man would be around, and how much he was to change his life for him, as he grew up surrounded by gaps usually filled by parental concern. Feeling his way around these gaps made him realise that there should have been something filling them up. In any normal family, it was usually some form of affection shown from a big grown up person to a smaller infant like being. Bigger people were supposed to look after the smaller ones weren’t they? Whether you liked it or not, some grown-ups just didn’t do what was expected of them. Never mind though, if he had been old enough to feel spite, he would realise that the weekend had been well and truly spoilt for them. When she got back on Monday it was round to the Co-op to sort out Betty’s funeral. How could she be laughing and drinking in bonnie Scotland now when her own mother was lying on a mortuary slab in Crumpsall Hospital?
A decisive moment - 1962
‘What are you doing Alfie?’ The old woman’s eyes roamed the dank room. He’d meant to hide the fluffy and nice slippers under the blankets in case she saw.
‘My tummy hurts’. How could he explain a tummy ache full of phantom cake and warm milk?
Minutes later the back door closes and he hears the shuffle of feet dragging themselves to the nearest outdoor beer license. For a change she could bring back a jug and drink to stupefaction by the range, content and oblivious to being in charge.
A pale and thin child loomed out of the corner at him. He threw the covers over himself and trembled. From beneath the sweaty blankets he followed the sound of the bare footsteps as they circled the bed. They clacked now and again as they stuck momentarily to the chipped lino as they moved across the room and out across the landing. He waited and he waited, praying for somebody to come back to the house he shared with pale children he didn’t know and didn’t invite to play. He peered out into the dark. The pool of light that illuminated the fluffy slippers was empty.
He awoke to pitch cold blackness. He was across the room like lightening and without a thought towards the light switch. There was only one light upstairs and that was on the landing. It offered some illumination to all three rooms that were situated off it. The bulb had gone. He wanted to pee.
Downstairs nobody stirred by the range. He did not know the time. This is what it was like to be truly alone. Half conscious, with a full bladder on your own at four years old. He dragged a chair to the edge of the sink and peed over the dirty pots. Stinging pee filled up a stale cup of tea, washing over plates crudded with dried food. An anaemic chip floating on the top. The pale child watched him from outside as she sat on the toilet roof laughing.
Doris was arguing downstairs.
‘It’s not on Joan and that’s that. He can’t be left with her any longer. When I went round last night she wasn’t in and he was upstairs on his own’.
‘How do you know?’
‘How do I bloody know? I walked in the back bloody door and saw him that’s how. How do you think he got here?’
‘That’s what I mean. You had no right to take him. He’s my son’
‘My son my arse. You didn’t even know he was here until this bloody mornin’.
‘That’s not the point. You had no right to take him. I’ve been out of my mind with worry’.
There was laugh at that.
He sat up in oversized pajamas feeling hungry and dying to pee. Auntie Dee had a bathroom that he padded to across fitted carpets. The seat was warm, fluffy and pink against his bum. He ached all over from something that could turn nasty. A lifetimes hypochondria was born in him at that moment. If memory would eventually serve him correct, now was the birth of things monumental in his mind to make adulthood unbearable and unmanageable. He had lived through absolute poverty of mind, body, and had lain in stinking isolation, wallowing in filth as part of a so-called twentieth century family, overseen by the birth of the welfare state but not yet a statistic of either the poverty that determined his physical daily existence, nor the neglect that unstable family relationships visited upon his little soul. It was all born in him on that lavatory seat on that morning.
As soon as an alternative life presented itself, with potential warmth, love and possibilities, his physical strength gave out. He became ill, and he was visited, not for the first time, by spirits.
The last words that were spoken before he passed out and fell off the toilet with an unwiped bum were soft and kind. His mother in a fit of remorse.
‘Come on love, let’s go home’.
All but the lonely - 1963
Everything was quiet and warm. He lay in a bath that wasn’t tin, and wasn’t beside the fire, roaring and turning his skin to corned beef. It was white, pristine and was filled with smells and bubbles. The wicked witch had gone away and he was safe and warm with the good fairy.
‘He’s not staying here’. Nasty uncle Jim was back.
‘I say whether he stays or not’. The good fairy.
‘The house was left to the three of us, and I say he goes home to Joan. We can’t get involved. You know what will happen if we do’.
‘What? What will happen? Go on, you tell me. You don’t even live here. You spend your bleeddin life with Bert, and look where that’s got you. You’re a pig like him. You selfish get. You’ve seen the state of that shit hole they’re living in. Joan’s out at work till all hours, and when she’s not in work, she’s bloody well off with that Louis for days at a time. He’s left with that Mrs. Dunne. When I went round Jim, he was on his own upstairs in the bloody dark. There was no heating on and the back door was wide open. Anything could have happened to the lad’.
Silence. Until a door banged. The water went cold and the sky darkened the room. There was the fluttering of wings beside him and a warm blanket enveloped his body.
It was pudding and chips with hot gravy in front of Popeye for tea. Silence had reigned since both uncles, Jim and Phil had gone out. Doris fussed and smoked, made tea and ruffled hair. She was young and happy, and she smelled of nail polish. Her best mate Mandy was coming round and they were going dancing. She hummed about the rooms, fiddling about with things as they lay waiting to be fiddled with. Like a houseful of new gadgets, the rooms contained a legacy. Lock stock and barrel was left to the kids. Apart from the dark sheep who had a kid too early on and was banished to her own devices. All families the same. Nobody is afflicted with anything remotely unusual. Petty squabbles became major wars, and people of all ages, shapes and sizes, did exactly the same things to each other day in and day out. It was one long operatic farce with nothing fit to lift it all above the squalid.
The only light came from the occasional good deed done in an occasional fit of remorse for the way they treated each other. Like a Hail Mary or two, people paid penance for a whole heap of misgivings, misjudgments and misdeeds, by small snatches of lukewarm affection. The routine was so deeply entrenched in their day to day lives that it had become second nature to avoid emitting any kind of warmth or affection to anyone. Before they had moved into the newly built estates a while ago, there was some community. Now people seemed lost, spiritless and aloof to any form of contact with their better natures. The pubs were full and the houses empty of all but the lonely.
A neighbours daughter, Barbara came in with friends to baby-sit. When Doris had gone, they brought him down and he cuddled in with her three friends and their boyfriends all scattered about the fitted carpet. He was delirious. Sweets and fizzy drinks. Bullets and arrows whizzed through the air. The Indians whooped and the central heating hummed as he fell asleep. In the darkened room, the flashing television screen illuminated laughing and kissing faces, as some watched Errol Flynn dying with his boots on.
It had been three weeks. Unsuccessful attempts at persuasion from uncle Jim had alienated some members of the family from the others. Just as Jim predicted. As it was, he felt justified in his argument, not realising that it was his persistence and not some fickle hand that had brought about the present mood in the house.
‘I told you didn’t I?’ he was pleased that it had come to this. After all he did say.
‘Oh sod off Jim. Play another bloody tune will yer? Uncle Phil was like Doris.
‘But what about Dad. It’s his bloody house an all you know’.
‘Yes but he don’t want to live here does he. How many bloody times?
Eyes raised themselves to heaven where they seemed to spend a lot of their time these days. Eyes raised and tongues tutting mixed in with the continual slamming of doors. Phil looked down at Alfie.
‘Do you know Alfie, the doors only started slamming after you arrived’. He laughed and then saw some distress. He picked the lad up.
‘Oh sorry Alfie’, he hugged his nephew close. ‘I only meant it funny’.
Time was running out. Exasperation was getting the upper hand. Like Snagglepuss, he would be exiting stage left at any time. He made the best out of the hug he could.
Superman and Green Lantern - 1970
As he turned 11, the Scottish trips became more frequent, and he was alone for longer periods of time. A regular feature of his life was being locked out of the house. A latchkey kid with a propensity for losing keys. His only way to get into number 163 Butterworth Street was through the coalhole by the front door. This entailed shimmying down the coal chute and emerging at the far end of the cellar covered in coal dust. The light switch for the cellar was at the top of the stairs. He had to move along the corridor in pitch darkness with two large cavernous rooms off to the left and right before running up the stone steps to the switch. The door was bolted from the other side, in the kitchen. To escape the cellar it took upwards of half an hour of rattling the door to shake the bolt loose. This he did, never looking over his shoulder at what may or may not be creeping up the steps towards him. He would shiver and dread thinking about this in bed when he was at his most imaginative.
When he failed to keep his imagination in order, he did look around and saw the figure of a young girl floating up the stairs towards him. In outstretched arms she held an African mask from which bulged two staring eyeballs. Scuttling behind were cockroaches being crushed underfoot by smaller children hanging onto string tied to the girls waist. This of course never failed to disturb a young mind more concerned in those days with Superman and Green Lantern than with Freud or Jung.
There were occasional visits from auntie Doris and uncle Danny to ward off the blues he felt, although Doris wasn’t the auntie of old. Five years of marriage to Danny had put paid to all that fiddly nonsense. No more ruffled hair, nail polish and dancing. Danny had had his way with her in ways that a young nephew couldn’t comprehend. The kissing, cuddles and warmth of her care seemed to be from another’s distant memory. He could not connect the haunted features of her now, with her then.
‘He hasn’t changed’ thought Doris looking at him; ‘Although things are easier now he’s older’ she was reminded by another part of herself. ‘Mmm’. She agreed.
Danny sat inches from the television set in the middle of the table and shoveled in his pie dinner. Alfie stared into space in the kitchen shaking salt and vinegar onto his fourth chippy tea of the week so far. He spent his life distracted, despite trying not to be. He wished she would go away and take her husband with her soon. The silence of Danny was something to behold, and that bothered him. Once you had beheld it you had something to base other peoples silences on. He could stay silent for a week at a stretch. No comment, no conversation at all. Just a silence. Wrapped up in a world that was never articulated. At first she felt it was simply shyness, a reticence that she could overcome with her love, and her delight at life in general.
Soon enough it took hold of her as it did him, and an acceptance took place on her behalf that they would live a soundless existence. The house of fluffy toilet sets, of telly and rhythm and blues was now a mute and suppressed hovel of dead silence, where Danny ruled unchallenged. He’d perk up when visits were unavoidable, so that nobody knew his ways. Only to make the quiet more deafening when they had gone. Alfie he treated like his wife, with a voiceless contempt. If somebody suddenly appeared in the room, he would begin talking as though in the middle of a conversation and become as animated at the next person. No wonder she was going mad. In the end, she whispered things to herself, ignoring his deaf ears.
Alfie watched the ritual unfold for the umpteenth time. The slow deliberate chewing of the chips. The silent slurp of the gravy, and the muffled crunch of the piecrust. Doris sat apart across the large back room, watching. Always watching and taking things in. A different thing between them now than then. A saviour to him many times in a time of greater need than now. Now he was older and could fend a little better for himself. As yet there wasn’t a part of him which felt the irony and the loss that she had endured. He remembered the safety of the house, and the warm baths. But the main thing remembered was the television.
A touch of reality had eventually, with time, crept into their relationship. The past bits seemed, to him, to exist in some kind of mythic land, where sodden old women who promised ice creams from pubs vied for control over his days and nights with mostly absent other women and guardian angels. Now that age and time had dimmed the dreadfulness of this, the lovely bits went too. This was how it was so easy for him to see his aunt in such a light as this. She no longer belonged to the myth that surrounded his early years, she was now simply a part of the day to day. How horrendous was her day to day he certainly did not know, and even if he did, what difference could he make? She merely drifted into his days occasionally, on shift work with his mum. The burden she dragged around sat and finished his food, and mutely took his coat and his leave of a nephew in law he neither cared about nor saw as pertinent to his life. Danny had other things going for him. Things that would be the death of her, haunting their neighbourhood in the process. But that was yet to come. Paths crossing and re-crossing over empty years for the whole family.
What amazed him the most was how he could now share something in common with his mother, and the ability to be one move apart from everybody else. He was more like her than them. The ones who cared about the little him, despaired of how similar he was becoming to her. The one they tried to shield him from, who was now his mentor.
It was in this house that he first noticed the smell had returned from long ago. It arrived one day after she had been ill for a time. He came in from school as a woman he did not know was leaving. His mother was in bed, in the day time. Not in work and not in Scotland. The man from South Africa had not been around for a while. Some form of argument. He had been replaced by a man from the North East. He had an accent that was as impenetrable as any other, and first arrived after United beat Newcastle 1-0 at Old Trafford. The place reeked of Newcastle Brown Ale and Brut aftershave. They stayed up late and he heard the bed creaking and thumping against the wall in the next room until a sticky one night stand was done. He never connected his visit with the smell and the shifty woman at first.
Instead Alfie was busy with school. Eleven plus exams came and went and he went to a secondary modern. Nobody from Princess Street Primary went anywhere else. The school years were all about equipping the children for semi-skilled lifetimes of drudgery. Nobody aspired to anything else but earning enough to perpetuate things as they had always been, and would always be in the future.
After a year, unwittingly, he began to do well, and was offered an opportunity to sit the new 13th plus exam. A trial carried out by the local authority in the sixties, to assess the worth of examining kids later rather than sooner. Four pupils thought to be bright enough to succeed were chosen from Philip’s Park Secondary, Alfie included, to be given the chance to better themselves. Go to Grammar or Technical schools if successful.
His mother was summoned to see the head teacher to ask if she could or would support him, in the event that he passed the exams, in further and possibly higher education. She was shocked, and said openly to the man behind the desk who held Alfie’s future in his hands, ‘God I thought you were going to tell me he was thick’. That when she received the letter to attend the meeting, it was to suggest a special school for stupid Alfie. She thought it funny, and the teacher thought it grim, that a mother should know so little of her son and what he had achieved despite it all. What passed for a look of resignation passed right there between teacher and pupil doing their best, shrugging their shoulders beside a careless parent for whom it was all a bit of a laugh.
The euphoria didn’t take long to pass by, when she realized that he might stay on longer at school, when A levels beckoned, and a taste of university life was possible.
‘I thought they were going to tell me he was thick’, she shrieked down the pub.
‘Oh you must be proud though Joan’. One of only four was mentioned in awed respect.
He passed and went, free school meals and free uniform, but no bus pass. Empty bottles fetching a penny apiece had to be taken back to corner shops for that. While other kids sat down to porridge for breakfast, he was scurrying from shop to shop, bottles clinking, totting up the coins for his fare. When he didn’t have enough money due to a bottle shortage he dodged the conductor on the two buses that took him from one world to the next. He had the uniform on, the only one who wore his cap with pride. And kept his top button fastened with tie in place. This was the time he came into his own. He had achieved something at last, and he would make the most of it.
There was nothing to be done for his shoes. His feet burst them apart, with stocking feet protruding from each side. His confidence shook one morning in assembly, when during a shiny shoe inspection, a teacher stopped in front of him, saw his toes on display outside the shoes, and slowly looked him up and down in disbelief. Nothing was said, but he was singled out from then on. Two of them had to respond to the call;
‘Free school meals..free school meals over on this table’, every day. Billy Kane and Alfie Bradford sat in crimson shame eating at the free school meal table, whilst all the other boys passed by laughing.
‘Where’s your dad Kane-O. Where’s he fucked off to then?’
More fights took place over absent dads than owt else. In the end, more empty bottles were needed so that he could pay for dinner tickets, even though the damage was done, and he watched Kane-O suffering the taunts, on his own at the free dinners table from then on. As time passed so did the attention of the crueler lads, so that for others he was able to invent a dad, a rough amalgam of the men now trooping through his mothers life, filling her up with their manly waste, unconcerned for the smells and the consequences they left behind for somebody else to deal with.
The opposite of him - 1973
It was a school bus-stop romance. Wendy went to the girl’s school equivalent of his, St Mary’s. As he changed from the 53 to the 163 she was always there waiting on the 92. Little smiles passed at first, then dreams of what to say to start with interrupted the general flow of his mind, at home and at his desk. The first thing he did say was unrehearsed and was out of his mouth and in the open air at a crowded bus-stop before he could help it.
‘So do you go to St Mary’s then?’ His eyes flashing across her standing there in a school uniform that had St Mary’s written all over it. She laughed out loud, with more mirth than malice.
‘Yes, St Mary’s. And she was off on the 92, smiling back from the platform. Long, lingering and making his heart ache. The snatched bits and pieces of youngsters getting to know each other went on for another few weeks, until the night they met at the youth club by The Essaldo, underneath a railway bridge, where trains thundered to and fro from Manchester to Euston.
The tentative bits were, in retrospect the best bits. The not knowing if what you were saying made the slightest bit of sense or not, and before it got serious enough to make falling out too painful. Best make all the mistakes now in other words. And for a few short weeks, that was how it went. He thought of nothing else but her. A friend he’d always wanted. The opposite of him, a girl. To say they were like brother and sister wouldn’t be too far off the mark the way they went on. Laughing and giggling at stupid things with barely a kiss in sight. It was pecks on the cheek, or, on occasion, a tight lipped split second full on the lips hurry up job someone’s looking kind of thing.
It was a time that he felt no stress about anything else to do with his life. Shimmying down the coalhole with zombies crawling towards him up the darkened steps as he rattled the bolt was effortless. He laughed off anything that was not bathed in sunshine and hope. Brushing aside the odd bloke who had popped back for seconds off his mother rarely troubled a boy in love. Wendy was simple and sweet, and to say that she existed on the highest pedestal he could find was an understatement. She was so high she had nose bleeds. School eased off too. The odd bit of bullying he dealt with in his stride. One lad, Kev Smith made playtime a misery once too often, when, after he had whipped Alfie across the legs with a length of Bunsen burner tube for the entertainment of feeble hangers on, was grabbed by his shirt front, buttons pinging off in all directions, and thrown across the physics lab table, rolling across gas taps as he went, getting the come uppance that was long over due. After that they became the best of mates. Funny that. Alfie was offered six of the best on the spot off Mr Manship, or an essay on current American strategy in Vietnam as a punishment. He chose the latter, becoming in later life, something of an expert on American foreign policy.
It was a period of time all too brief. Something was bound to step in to spoil things, and it did. One night they played and watched a table tennis tournament at the youth club, being knocked out in the first round for giggling. She took his hand and led him through the kitchen and out of the back door passed the smokers den of reprobates, and towards the embankment. On a slope beneath the railway arches she took down her knickers for him, and broke his heart. With her dress hitched up and her kisses open, hot and different, she unfastened his belt and pulled his pants half down, working his willy out into the cold night air, where admittedly, it was getting hard, so it can’t have been too much of a disappointment. He tried at first, to stuff it up her bum, but it was hard and dry, and not like where it should have gone which was a gradually getting a little bit wet.
As the trains thundered by, people going somewhere else could glance down, maybe catching a glimpse of two small figures writhing about on the embankment, their efforts illuminated by the flashing lights of their carriages. He looked up as it passed by, wondering what was going on in his life, and maybe wishing himself in the buffet car with a cup of tea and a meat pie instead. To say he didn’t want this would have been an understatement he did not have time to contemplate. Instead, he responded to her fingers twiddling his thing into something hard enough to shove inside. Eventually with some pushing, heaving, and a bit of back arching it was in. One minute it was straining and to his horror, almost snapping in half, when suddenly it shot inside. He seemed to have entered a hot, wet world of gasps, tongues and nails. Dragging them up his legs as she sucked on him, a changed person. Not the sisterly friend from the youth club knocking a ping pong ball back at him, but a panting person, biting and scratching. He felt his dick - it was no longer a willy – hardening and filling her up with a bit of width and length. Her eyes widened in response to his eyes widening, and she gasped, bit his tongue, and scratched his back and thighs with more shuddering vigour than he could cope with. He almost fell off, but she held him inside her, the opening of her cunt clenched around him, bucking and dragging every ounce of him inside until they rolled down the slope coming to a sweating halt amongst the empty cans and crisp packets that congregate by fences.
Neither smoked, so they did not indulge the post-coital ciggie. Instead, hand in hand, they silently walked the half mile to her house for a wash and a cup of tea. Her mum watched telly with the lights off. A wave from her as they went upstairs to her room, where once they listened to records and laughed about nothing in particular, with nothing more significant than a kiss or a cuddle ever took place. Once he felt a bra strap during a clinch, but his hand had moved on sharpish. Tonight he sat on the edge of the bed as she went first to the bathroom. Cleaning herself up a bit. He went in next. Before anything else, he checked himself in the mirror. He didn’t look any older, but he felt it. He didn’t expect a beard and sideburns to have grown instantly to celebrate his new manly status, but the kid who stared back at him seemed haunted and edgy. He wished it had never happened. He wished he was small again, and the experience belonged to somebody else. Somebody who could cope with it. He opened his fly and a fishy smell he recognised from home wafted up towards him. Glancing down he saw a small turd bobbing about that she had not flushed away, and which somehow seemed to make things worse. Had she not wiped her bum, or was it her mother’s not flushed properly during end of part one?
Well that was it. It was all out in the open now. There was nothing left to say or do. He was grown up like everybody else. All dirty and smelly, with all his bodily bits and functions public property. He’d have to tell everybody he’d done it. He was now like his mates, some of whom had also done it, and some of whom hadn’t. Now he would know who was who. The miserable ones were the ones who had. The cocky ‘I gave her one I can tell you’ types were lying. Or else so hardened to things that such a sudden change in their lives had little or no philosophical effect whatsoever. Poor Alfie, too sensitive for his own good, standing in a daze staring down the bog at a lonely turd with a smelly thing in his hand. Whatever may have been different about him, now evaporated. He was now also like his mum, and the men in her life. They did this all the time. How did they cope with the other feelings attached to it?
He looked at what had once been a willy, and which up until last night he used to play with looking at his mother’s underwear catalogues. What he thought about then was not about sex with the models in their Playtex bras and pants, it was simply what they looked like. He got excited at just looking. They were all pretty and remote, nothing like the women in his life, the majority of whom were too hard at work, or worrying too much about things to look or feel pretty. He was wanking over a dream, ignoring the occasional groans he knew were escaping from his mother in the room next door, as she allowed another stranger temporarily into her world. Mother and son reaching their own conclusions about pleasure in adjoining rooms.
Doing it had never entered his mind. Now, here he was, a swollen dick in his hand, struggling to get his foreskin back in its usual place, stubbornly stuck over his bell end. It was too hard to manage, and wouldn’t go down even after running it under the cold tap on tiptoe. Despite his best efforts, he went into her room with a permanent erection bulging in his pants.
Wendy was in her dressing gown. She turned around to him as he entered, and opened her robe. He looked at her body, small in every way. Lovely and perfect and young and beautiful. The bulge got bigger and painful in his pants. And before he knew it, it was out once more as she lay on her back with legs apart. He lay on top of her and fucked away for the second time in his life, his mind on the job like it wasn’t the first time. Coming almost straight away, watching her grinning in a way he had never seen before. He saw Wendy at the bus stop disappear forever, replaced by his girlfriend who from now on he would connive to fuck anywhere and everywhere the opportunity arose. Even as mum downstairs stirred her cup of tv tea, he got hard again and gave her daughter another one, the turd down the toilet a distant memory along with everything else.