Monday, 5 August 2013

Light At The End Of The Day & The Best Of All Summers

1. Light At The End Of The Day

His nostrils filled with the November smoke from a thousand chimneys as he turned down into Byres Road. 

This being the second Wednesday in the month meant it was his turn to open up and get the heating on; it wasn’t too much to ask, but it still annoyed him. Here he was, a student at the university, the first in the family as far back as anyone could remember, but still he was expected to muck in with the ‘business’ as his father called it, or a ‘run down Glasgow cinema’ as Sandy described it to his fellow students. 

The building had started off as a glorified hut in the early 1900s holding no more than about sixteen people, although Sandy’s grandfather tended to squeeze in, with a shove, another ten on a Saturday night. At a couple of pennies a head to show some old silent fare, it was a nice way of making money. A very nice way as it turned out, and his grandfather tried to find ways to make it even nicer. 

When he heard that Roy Rogers and Trigger were in town he marched down to the Central Station with a bribe, if Roy and his horse would attend a showing of their movie at his cinema then he’d feed then fish and chips for a week. His grandfather pestered Roy’s people so much that they threw him out of the railway station without Roy ever knowing of the offer. The same thing happened with Laurel and Hardy and despite everything, the cinema still made money; tons of it. 

It was because of the Majestic cinema – a cinema by the way which was tidy, comfortable and well maintained, that the family had found the money to allow Sandy to go to university to read English in the first place. It had also bought the families plush villas in the west of the city. So to call it ‘run down’ said more about Sandy than a plain truth about the building. 

Sandy was twenty-three and a bit older than the rest of the student body in the English department. The others tended to come from families of bankers, shipbuilding and industry. Yet, despite this lucky start to their lives, not one of them could hold a candle to Sandy’s genius; a word he used as frequently as ‘run down’.

Sandy’s hands were freezing as he struggled to find the keys in his long overcoat. Once inside the cinema he was always hit in the face by the redness of the paint. No matter how many second Wednesdays he opened that door, the harshness of the decor always came as a surprise. As he told his classmates that very morning, the whole building was like a Turkish bordello and smelt worse. This had brought a pleasing chuckle from his student friends.  

Mary was the Majestic’s ‘girl Friday’ and she loved the job. It involved selling tickets, orange juice and tubs of ice cream in the foyer and the ability to walk backwards down the aisles. The family was a pleasure to work for and after all they paid her extremely well. 

Three things kept her there however, the first was that she really loved the movies, so in between her duties she could slide into a seat and get lost in the latest releases; American or British she didn’t care as long as there was a chance to laugh and moment to shed a tear.

The other two things  were the twins, Sandy and Donald. She had been in love with both of them for a very long time. Despite their similar looks they were very different people except in one respect, they both manipulated people to get what they wanted.

Sandy was the clever one; the one that everyone knew was going to go places. Donald was the physical son; the one who fought Sandy’s battles and would walk a thousand miles to protect his brother. Some people feared National Service but Donald graciously consumed everything the army threw at him. 

There was a time when Mary couldn’t wait for the second Wednesday in the month as it meant she and Sandy could be alone, but  he had changed. Ever since he had started at the university, he had become someone else. He was still a kind person but now he liked to inform you of that fact.

Sandy’s kindness grated with Mary, to be done a good deed by someone and then to be told how kind it was  - well, it somehow destroyed the act. People who told you they were kindness itself were unaware that they were the most selfish of individuals. If you didn’t accept their gifts, advice, charity then you automatically caused them hurt – there was the blackmail, there was the aggression, this was Sandy. 

Donald, on the other hand enjoyed life and living and although he was in the army, he would still refer to himself as a loner but Mary considered this just another way to manipulate people. Loners controlled situations by not being there, by removing themselves from the activity - they demanded to be noticed by their absence. 

Yet, despite everything, they were all the best of friends and she did enjoy their company. Donald was on leave from Germany and was due to arrive that evening.As she walked out from the cold night and through the doors into the ticket booth, the place was beginning to warm up. It meant Sandy was down in the cellar stacking coal for the boiler. 

The cinema was open six days a week and everyone rested on the Sabbath. This was a day for a meal with Sandy and his family which Mary was always invited to, as she no longer had anyone living. 

Every second Wednesday in the month, Nessie and Ian McLeod, the boys’ parents would take the day off for a trip away. Sometimes it was Loch Lomond, or Edinburgh for the shops, or sometimes they would just sit in the back garden and read. Those were the days when Sandy and Mary ran the cinema and as a Wednesday was half-price day for the pensioners, it tended to be busy with those who just came in for some company or to keep out of the cold. 

Today they were showing a couple of British gangster movies. Some of the older ones loved them, especially the women pensioners who seemed to like their baddies, really bad -  even if it meant they had to hide behind the popcorn from time to time. It was the coming attractions that also excited Mary, and one of those that was arriving any day now was Love Me Tender with Elvis Presley and Mary couldn’t wait. 

She could hear Sandy singing in the basement, in the last few months it was always the same song, one she had bought him earlier in the year – ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’. At least Ian, Sandy’s dad, allowed that one to be played on the family gramophone, unlike ‘Rock Around the Clock’ by Bill Haley.
“What a load of rubbish. Whatever next? Rock around the clock indeed.” was Mister McLeod’s take on it. 

She took two bottles of cola from the foyer fridge and went down to the basement. There he was, the English student, shovelling coal into the furnace and as she stood staring at him for a moment, he finished off his song. It was at times like these she was sure it was Sandy she loved. 

Mary was just about to interrupt Sandy when there was a call from upstairs.
“Are you two down there?”
It was Donald and he was early. With his usual enthusiasm, he bounded down the stairs two at a time.
“What’s all this then, you two up to no good?” 

Sandy dropped his shovel and embraced his brother who had spent three more minutes in the world than him.
"Let me give you a hand little brother, that way the three of us can get a drink sooner.” 

The final movie was ‘The Good Die Young’ with Laurence Harvey and then the old and the wrinkled were ushered out quickly. There was a young couple kissing in one of the corners but when they looked up and saw Mary, Sandy and Donald all staring back at them, it killed off their ardour and they exited into the cold night with their lips still stuck together. 

Once the theatre was checked for stragglers - as there had been folks locked in over night before - Sandy switched off the heating and shut the door.
“Where to, guys and lassie?” asked the ever energetic Donald.
Sandy wasn’t happy, “I’ll see you at the weekend brother and anyway I’ve got studies. I was going to walk Mary home, you see I’m kind that way”

“I’m only here for the night, I’m going on to a pal's wedding in the morning” said a disappointed Donald. 

"What about a quick drink at the Locarno?” asked Mary.
“Great idea” said Donald, “come on brother, what is it Granddad calls the movies?” 
“Light at the end of the day” answered Sandy. Mary liked that expression.
“And that’s what we need now. Some light. One swift one in the Locarno then you can get back to your nonsense.”

The brothers didn’t say much as they sauntered up towards Charing Cross. The doorman at the Locarno wasn’t really up for letting them in until he spotted Donald and then the three of them were waved on. 

The Locarno was half empty, or half full depending on your idea of a Wednesday night out. It was mainly full of  Italians who had closed their businesses for a half day, meaning they could stay open all day Saturday.
The Joe Loss Orchestra was the band for the evening but was clearly failing to excite the rich merchants of Glasgow. 

Over in one corner sat a small man with greasy black hair. When anyone passed his table, there were calls of ‘Good evening Giuseppe’, ‘How are you Giuseppe’ or something in Italian that Donald didn’t understand but it annoyed him anyway. This Giuseppe character seemed to be staring at Mary but she had failed to notice the man since she was so caught up in a joke with Sandy.   

It didn’t seem to matter what Donald did, he felt that he was never good enough for Mary. Oh he loved her alright, loved her big time, but he just couldn’t get her to notice. Since he couldn’t compete with his twin, he would take himself off somewhere alone, hoping that just once Mary would follow but she never did. Maybe Mary thought he was trouble. 

Giuseppe was a short man, and with short men come big grievances. The little Italian managed to bump his way all across the dance floor, and given the sparseness of the crowd it was actually very good going. He bumped into Donald which was one bump too many. It would be wonderful in this life if we knew we were about to bump once too often, but that’s a luxury we never receive. 

All six feet of Donald followed the little man into the toilet.
“Why are you staring at my friend?” asked Donald.
“Who is your-a friend?”
“The good looking girl with my brother.”
“Then maybe it’s-a your-a brother you should be having this argument with.” 

As Donald pushed Giuseppe, he knew he was probably right in what he had said but he kept pushing none the less. The little Italian backed away until there was nowhere else to go.
“Look-a I don’t want-a trouble.” Said in a thick Glasgow-Italian accent.
“So you don’t want-a trouble?” mimicked Donald.
“Please, leave me alone-a. I begga you."

All he meant to do was give him one more shove, but the floor beneath Giuseppe was wet and the little man hit his head on the edge of the sink on the way down. 

Donald felt like running but instead he stayed and told the police everything - except that he let them think that Giuseppe Aldo had started the argument. Giuseppe Aldo, husband and father to six daughters,died in hospital three days later. 

One little push, that was all, one little push that changed everything. This was 1955 and manslaughter was only admissible if it was in self-defence. The judge felt that there was reasonable doubt with regard to Donald’s story and the jury thought so too. As he had entered the toilet several witnesses reported seeing Donald in an angry mood and visibly drunk.

The Aldo mob cheered just as strongly as the McLeod clan wept when the death sentence was passed. 

Donald was hanged on July 20th, 1955, exactly a week after Ruth Ellis, the last woman in Britain to be hanged.The Majestic was sold off to some big time corporation and Donald’s parents both died of reportedly broken hearts within a few weeks of one another.

Mary was the last person to talk to Donald before he was hanged. It had been at his own request.
“Stop crying Mary, please.” Then he whispered something into her ear before kissing her goodbye.

That something is what went through her head as she stepped on to a train at Glasgow Central and left her city forever.

“There will be light at the end of the day my darling, there will be light at the end of the day." 

2. The Best Of All Summers 

Some things remain with you forever.

When I was ten years old, my father took me on a trip in an old battered car and caravan, and although I didn’t know it at the time, my father was dying. He was only forty years of age and he was dying of a brain tumour. 

What can I tell you about me back then? That I was the only son of parents who never got around to marrying? That I lived with my two sisters and a cat and that despite not having any money, we lived in a house packed to the roof with love.

Maybe that’s as good as it gets in anyone’s life. 

My father was the gentlest of hearts and the kindest of men, and I’m not just saying that because he’s gone. I’m saying it because it was true. It was his strength and his weakness. My mother watched so many people taking advantage of his goodness, that in the end she put herself in the way of anyone trying to use him. This made her seem hard but she was willing to put up with that, because that was what our family was always about – love.

My parents had decided that when school was closed for the summer, Mum and the girls would go to London for a few days to see a show, while me and Dad would go north taking his old car hooked up to Granddad’s caravan. I knew Dad was probably hoping this would be a chance for us to talk, as he was always working and I was always in my bedroom being misunderstood. Even at ten years of age I had no real idea how to enjoy myself.

On that summer, that glorious summer, school finished and my life began. Dad drove Mum and the girls to the railway station and I sat on the front steps waiting, bag ready and caravan packed.
I’ll always remember the ‘toot-toot-toot’ of my Dad on the car horn as he returned from the station, letting everyone in the street know that the boys were off on holiday. All those unused days were spread before us, waiting.

If I’d thought that it was going to be a particularly difficult time sitting in the car with my Dad, I was wrong. I had imagined him and me struggling to talk to each other and stumbling over words. I guess I’ve always made assumptions about things. I’ve worried and assumed – I suppose that’s what should be written on my headstone. There I go again.

As we drove towards the coast, I felt ashamed of myself. Here was a man who knew all about my writings and about the books I’d read. He would steal himself into my room after he came home late from work, too late to wish me goodnight but long enough to kiss me on the forehead and absorb from the room who and what I was. There was I knowing very little about him, except he was my father and he was rarely home.
I don’t recall when he stopped the car but I do remember it getting dark. I had been telling him all about the characters in some Dickens novel when I must have fallen asleep in his arms. When I awoke, it was morning and the sun was fighting the condensation on the window. Dad had placed me in the back seat and covered me with his jacket. 

The car was freezing and as I sat up, I shivered. I wiped away mist from the side window and saw, that despite the sun, the sky and the sea were a cold blue, broken up by the foamy edges of the waves.  We had parked at the edge of a cliff and Dad was sitting, staring - that was all he was doing - just staring. When I felt brave enough, I ventured outside to join him. I’ll always remember his face that day, the wind had slapped his cheeks into a Santa Claus red and his eyes were watering, stung by the sea. You could almost imagine that he had been crying, and I wonder now, from all those years away, if he had been. 

He told me to sit next to him and he put his arm around me, “You, and me, son are going on an adventure”.
Now don’t get me wrong, I liked the sound of ‘adventure’ and I loved my father and felt safe with him but there was always a part of me that wanted to return to the protection of my bedroom, pull up my arms into my sleeves and wait on the next hurtful thing. Yeah, you’re right, I was one weird kid.

As we came over the hill I could see it: Blackpool Tower. I had never seen anything so tall in all my life and was so excited that I forgot about my misgivings. The place was alive with people who were swept up with enjoying life and buzzing with laughter. There were donkey rides by the sea, the odd uncle with a handkerchief on his head to keep the sun away and people breaking their teeth on sticks of rocks, slurping ice cream and getting pieces of candy floss stuck to their noses. 

Dad and I went down on to the beach and ate our fish and chips from a newspaper. I think it was the best fish and chips I ever tasted.
“That’s better.” said Dad.
“You’re smiling, you’ve got a nice smile, you know. You should use it more often.”
“Oh Dad.”
“I’m just saying.”
And do you know what? I felt that I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Just me and my Dad on the beach at Blackpool. 

“It’s my fault.” he said, sadly.
“What is, Dad?”
“The fact that you never smile, me and your Mum left you sitting too long in that room of yours.”
“I like my room.”
“No one likes their room.”

Dad parked the caravan down some quiet side street and told me to get washed and ready as he took a walk into town. When he returned, his breath smelt of beer and his clothes of cigarettes.
“You’ll never guess what I’ve got in my pocket? Two tickets to see Arthur Askey at the Grand”
What a night that was, everyone laughing and singing along with The Bee Song. I looked over at my Dad and he was laughing so hard the tears were rolling down his face. God, I miss him.

We had ice cream topped with raspberry sauce on the way back and I never once thought about my misgivings, not once. 

The next morning after a cup of tea and a bacon roll, we left Blackpool still singing the Bee Song, just me and my Dad. 

I can’t remember who saw the old lady first. My Dad had stopped the car because I needed to pee again and I was hiding in the bushes. The woman was sitting on a bench and at first we thought she was just sleeping, but her head had rolled forwards and she was moaning. Dad put his ear close to listen to her breathing.
“This isn’t good. We’ll need to get her to hospital.”

I sat with her in the back seat of the car while she rested her head on my lap. She reminded me of my Gran, I almost said “We won’t be long now Gran” when she moaned really loudly. The nurse brought Dad and me drinks as we sat in the corridor waiting on news. It almost felt like it was my Gran.

“Are you family?”
Dad explained to the doctor that we had found her sitting by the side of the road.
“There was nothing we could do, I’m afraid. I’m sorry your trip was in vain. She passed away five minutes ago.” 

Dad got a bit annoyed but he kept it to himself until we were outside the hospital. I thought maybe he was sad about the old lady dying, but really he was a bit angry.

“Don’t you ever believe that what we did was in vain, son. Never think that. That poor lady would have died alone on that bench if we hadn’t stopped. As it is, you kept her company and there were people with her when she went. So it wasn’t in vain. Nothing is in vain. Always, always remember that. Everything matters”
I guess that’s the kind of thing that happens to a person when they come out of their room.

As Dad drove south, I had the feeling that he just wanted to keep driving but as soon as it started to get dark, we stopped. Thinking back, I guess he couldn’t see too well in the dying light, something to do with his tumour.We set the caravan down in a field that overlooked Liverpool. What a city. Looking over the way the setting sun painted the building tops, a crimson yellow. We were going into town tomorrow and Dad said he had a surprise. 

I don’t think I have ever been to a happier city than Liverpool that day. People were going to and fro but always laughing and joking. Some were singing, others whistling. I loved every minute of it; every blooming minute of it. 

“I’ve got a pal and he owes me a favour”, said Dad. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t even known that my father had any friends or who they were.
“He works at a club down Matthew Street. He says if we arrive early enough, he’ll get us in and you can hide under my coat.”
I almost had misgivings again, almost wishing I was back in my safe, warm, bedroom - almost. 

We did what Dad said and he put me under his coat and the doorman, his pal, waved us past all the people waiting to get in.
“We’ll need to keep you under cover young ‘un” said Bert, Dad’s pal, as he led me to a small room by the stairs where he gave me lemonade.
“We’ll come and get you when the band is ready” said my Dad. “I’m going to have a talk with Bert. You’ll be okay here?”
I would be. 

I had just finished my drink when there was a knock at the door, followed by it opening.
“Hey Paul, look what I’ve found, the Cavern has little people living under the stairs. What are you doing here, son?”
I told him I was waiting on the band and that my Dad was coming to get me.
“And what band would that be son?”
I shrugged and the man seemed to find that funny. His pal, Paul came over to have a look at me.
“You’re right John, that is one of the little people. You’ve got to be lucky to see them” and then he rubbed my head.
John said it was his band that was playing and I said I was sorry. He said not as sorry as he was and asked did I want to come to their dressing room?  Although on second thoughts, John said, there was probably more room under the stairs. 

So I went with John and Paul and met the other two, George and Pete. They were all fooling around and didn’t seem to be in anyway nervous. John asked me what I wanted to do “That is, when you stop being one of the little people.”
I told him I wanted to be a writer and he said that was probably the best job in the world next to being in a band, especially his band, and he went into his jacket and gave me his pen. 

“If anyone asks, tell them John Lennon gave it to you.” 

That night I watched John, Paul, George and Pete play the most wonderful music I had ever heard or will ever hear. I didn’t know it then, but a few weeks later Ringo replaced Pete. I never got to meet him. 

My Dad died, just after Christmas, that year.

He left me with the best present that I have ever received in my life. He took me out of my room and locked the door so I couldn’t go back in. So what if I got hurt? That was the price you paid for being out there, that was the price we all paid, and the other thing he gave me was the belief that nothing is ever in vain, nothing. 

On the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon’s death, I flew to New York and walked through Central Park and climbed the hill to Strawberry Fields. There was a little boy about ten and his Dad listening to the music of Lennon and I took out the pen and I handed it to them:

“John Lennon gave me this.”

Everything matters.

bobby stevenson 2013

Story included in The Boy who Told Stories (free download on three books until 9th August )

Bobby @ AMAZON.COM                                               Bobby @ AMAZON CO UK

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