1. To Catch A Warm Wind
So you’re asking me what’s the story of this photograph, and I’m saying to you, just relax and I’ll tell you.
In the old days, and by that she meant the old Savannah days, her Grandma would sit Alice on her knee and sing her a song that came from long, long before her Grandma Catherine was born. The family couldn’t remember from where it came, just that it was their song and it had been passed down through the generations.
On quiet nights, Alice could still hear her Grandma sing:
“Nothing will make you smile my love, or make your heart shine happy, until you ship is headed home, until your sail has caught a warm wind”
If Alice was being truthful, she’d have to say that she only married him because she’d thought she’d run out of options. After all, it was getting to the end of the War and she hadn’t heard from Harry in many months. It was the same story all over Washington, folks had promised each other that they’d stay faithful until the war was over, then the boy would go and get himself killed in a foreign town with a name that no one could pronounce. Putting all your eggs (or love) in one basket wasn’t the way to live in these cold days.
She’d also seen some of her neighbors settling for second, or even third best, just so as not to be left like an old maid.
Alice had moved to DC in the first days that Woodrow Wilson had become President. Now she had seen him leave and a new man, President Harding had just taken the seat in the Oval Office. It was Washington, D.C. in the year of 1921 and the world was about to change, at least for Alice.
His name was Spike, at least that’s what he told folks. Yet when they got married, Alice found out it that his real name was Cuthbert and she felt that she would probably be happier married to a Spike than to a Cuthbert; no offence to any Cuthberts out there. Spike always seemed to have money, and plenty of it to spend on his friends. One moment she had been thinking about Harry and the next, Spike was in her life without any warning.
He was the kind of person that people were attracted to, a kind of magnet. Some folks are born with magnetism and some just have to work at it. Spike didn’t have to work at anything social. People loved to see Spike come their way, with his ‘How ya doing, Fred’ or ‘Looking well, Annie’. That’s what got Alice interested, he was just plain nice. Harry was still her first love, but if she was being honest he could be hard work at times. Harry had his moods which always seemed to be at odds with hers. Whereas Spike was always in a good way and if Alice was feeling low, for any reason, he’d make sure she’d snap out of it.
Some nights they do real daring things like head to a club somewhere sassy. It was on one of those nights when they drove in an automobile, which Spike had seemed to have acquired , to a joint near the shore in Virginia. She could hear the music with its trumpets and drums long before she saw the club, and there was the smell of a sweet tobacco in the air. The people inside were partying like it was the end of the world. At least that’s the way Alice felt.
Prohibition had been going for over a year by then and Alice wondered if maybe things just took their time to get going away from the big cities. Folks were drinking like it was going away for good (maybe it was) and the music was way, way louder than she had ever hear before.
Everyone seemed to know Spike in the club, but then didn’t they know him everywhere? They sat at the best table and were served what looked to Alice like champagne. She’d never drunk it before and given the way things worked these days she didn’t expect to at all.One glass became two and soon she started to feel mellow and the music kind of bubbled through her body like moonshine warmth – that was the way her Grandma talked.
It must have been around two in the morning when she realised she’d fallen asleep. When she awoke Spike was nowhere to be seen yet the club was still really busy.
Alice staggered to a little room at the back of the club that was used by men and women. She’d never seen the like before. When she came out of the cubicle, a man was waiting to use the same place. She kind of nodded to the guy, smiled to herself and walked back into the club. It was then that she spotted Spike, talking to a little fat guy in the corner.
“Honey..,” Spike shouted over to her. “Come and meet, Mr Capone.”
Spike never called anyone ‘mister’, so either he was trying to impress the guy or he was scared of him.
“So this is your gal, Spike? He never stops talking about you…”
He rolled his hand as if he was asking a question and she was to answer him.
“Nice name, nice legs,Alice. I can see what you see in this gal, Spike.”
And with a slap on Spike’s back, he was gone – but not out of their lives.
Alice found out that Mr Al Capone was the man who was going to supply the booze down the East Coast and Spike was going to be his runner, whatever that meant.
“Things are kind of difficult these days, you know how it is? A man needs a drink, Mr Capone supplies a need. It’s a simple as that.”
Alice wondered how Spike was going to be of use to the little fat man.
“How are WE going to be of use, Alice my love, my treasure.”
And with that, a cold chill ran down Alice’s neck.
Love, or at least what Alice thought was love, does stupid things to your head. It laces the blood with a drug so you don’t see what you’re looking at too closely.
Spike’s plan was simple, all Alice had to do was drive to some point, pick up the boxes (they’d be someone there to help her) and then drive her little automobile back to the club.
“It ain’t gonna cost you anything, gorgeous.” Was Spike’s final word on the subject.
But what if she got caught?
“What? What’s to worry. We’ve got every cop between here and DC in our payroll.”
So why was she needed? She wanted to say to Spike but she decided against it.
So she drove the car because that’s what people in love do. They take actions that only later seem like a form of madness. She was stopped one night by the cops but she noticed the taller one, the one with the dark hair, recognize the car and the two of them backed off. If it was this easy why didn’t Spike drive?
So she asked him that question and do you know what he did? Do you know what that dirty stinking no good rat did? He slapped her across the face so hard that her head hit off a wall.
“Now you understand, honey? You do as I say or there will be worse, much worse. Mister Capone wouldn’t like it and Mister Capone is the boss.” So all the time he’d only wanted her as a patsy.
It was then that a funny thing happened. Her mother got in touch. She’d managed to trace Alice all the way from Savannah. It was a just a note which said:
And she decided there and then that she’d had enough of Spike and his life and Alice decided she’d try and catch a warm wind. She couldn’t take the car, ‘cause they’d trace where she was and she guessed that she knew too much. So Alice did one last run for Spike but instead of heading for the club, she drove into the center of DC and ran the car into a railing.
Then she walked away and headed home to Savannah, where the warm winds blow.
And that’s the story - honest.
2. Jumping From A Train
The clanking of the train as it went over the gaps in the rail made him think of home. If he closed his eyes, he could still hear the horse and carts passing outside the family home in the west of town.
Oh, those days of endless sunshine and hope. Everyone was friendly.
Everyone shared. Everyone was in and out of each other’s homes. My son did this, my daughter has achieved that – my, hasn’t your youngest grown. They were the best of days.
He would come home from school and there was his mother sitting at the table, smiling, as only she could. No matter how bad the day had been, that smile would melt away any pain and discomfort. Those were the best of times. No doubt about it.
His father had taught him to help those who needed it, without complaint.
“And I want you, my boy, to do a good deed each and every day without telling anyone about it. Promise?”
And he crossed his heart and hoped to die that he would do it – and he had, as best he could. There was no point in thinking of them all over again – for that would be praising himself for his good deeds.
So why was what he was about to do the most selfish thing he had ever done in his life? How had he got to this point?
Perhaps in every good deed is the seed of its own destruction.
He had seen the boy from across the street many times. Now and again he had nodded or even, on occasion, said good morning. The boy and his family had intrigued him greatly. Although they seemed to be very well off for this part of town, they never ever smiled. It had taken him a while to work out what it was that had bothered him about the boy and his people. They didn’t laugh. How strange, he thought. Perhaps, money doesn’t make you happy after all.
Then one night as he as staring through the window, he saw that the boy was being whipped by his father. It was severe, but as far as he could see, the boy did not appear to show any pain on his face. He just held the side of the kitchen table tightly and gritted his teeth.
He saw the boy the next evening, standing alone watching the carriages pass by and for the first time he spoke properly to him.
“Would you care for a chocolate?”
The boy looked at him suspiciously, then smiled and said thank you. And as quick as the smile came, it went in again and the boy’s face grew dark. It wasn’t until a week later that he saw the boy standing on the corner of the street and he was sobbing. He said good afternoon to him but the boy turned his face away. He asked the boy how he was doing and the boy grunted that he was okay but could he go away and leave him alone. However this was his good deed for the day and he wanted to help the boy. He gave him his handkerchief that his mother ironed for him every day. The boy eventually took it and wiped the blood from the mark on his face. The boy said thank you then wandered off home.
The next day the boy’s father, the one who liked to hit his son, came to his door to return the handkerchief. The man looked at the signs on the wall and said:
“You are…..?” Then the father spat on the ground and ripped the handkerchief up.
In the middle of the night they came for his mother, his father and himself. As they led them away, he could see the boy’s father looking from the window and smiling.
They had been on the train about two days when the wooden slat had opened up at the side. It was only big enough for him to get through, no matter how hard he wished it, his mother and father could never squeeze through that hole.
They told him he had to go and that he had to go as soon as the train slowed. His father pushed his son through the hole.
And that is why he jumped from the train - leaving everyone he loved aboard and on their way to Auschwitz.
3. The Day The Queen Came To Tea
3. The Day The Queen Came To Tea
I was clearing out his old wooden garage on that last warm Sunday, and when I say garage, I don’t think he ever actually kept a car in there. It was used as his den where he built and invented contraptions, and where strange noises would escape out into the street scaring the Old Francis’ Twins at number 17. This was in the days of the science fiction movies at the Palace Picture House and the neighbours were convinced that he was in cahoots with spacemen.
My great uncle had been an engineer and probably much, much more - but his finest achievement, as far as the street was concerned, was the day he built a television out of an old oscilloscope.
My great uncle’s name was Tony and he loved tinkering with machines, and ballroom dancing with my great aunt, Sadie. If he wasn’t in his den, he was up at the Paris Palais skipping the light fantastic: Tony and Sadie, the best couple at foxtrot this side of the Black Hills. The cups and medals in their little lounge told a million stories of hours practised, and feet taped up and hurting.
But that day in 1953 was the pinnacle of his weird science. It had been announced that Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation was to be shown on television - and you have to remember that this was a small town on the coast and no one had a television in those days. So my great uncle Tony decided to build one from the junk he had lying about his den. If anyone could do it, uncle Tony could.
Sammy’s Old Emporium at the top of Easter Street used to sell all the junk that would keep a man who liked to mess with things, really happy. It was a gold mine for my uncle. If he were missing, you knew where to look, and you could always hear my great aunt Sadie shouting:
“Can someone run down Sammy’s and drag that man of mine out? Tell him his flaming dinner is ready.”
It wasn’t unusual for my wonderful great aunt to go marching down to Sammy’s Old Emporium with a plate of food, which she’d slam down, on the table and tell my uncle that if he loved the shop so much, well then he could just stay there.
But that day in June, my aunt forgave him everything.
He had started working on the project, as it was known, right after New Year’s Day. He was to be found searching for this and that in the garage before the sun even came up. By the time I went around to his house, I could smell the whiff of burning Bakelite drifting down the street. I knew he was off and running.
He wasn’t just my great uncle; he was my pal, he was my best friend. For a few years now, my dad had lain in a field in France and Uncle Tony had stepped into his shoes. I always loved working with him in his den; he was one of those people who made you feel better. I’d leave his house, always in better mood than when I’d got there. I guess something like that is a gift, and thank the lord for it.
By Easter of 1953, he had managed to blow up early versions of the television and set fire to the Den on more than one occasion. It happened so often that when my Aunt Sadie looked over at the wooden garage to see smoke bellowing out, she’d just shrug her shoulders and continue beating the carpet that she had hung over the clothes-line. Perhaps she beat it just a little bit harder.
Sometime in May, Uncle Tony and me were down Sammy’s looking for an old tube to act as the screen. Sammy was my Uncle Tony’s best pal from school and he should have retired a long time ago but, as Sammy said:
“There is something addictive about junk shops that gets into your blood. You never know the treasures you’ve got under your roof.”
Then he’d spit on the floor. When Sammy felt he had said something important or clever he’d spit right in front of you. Sometimes you had to duck or weave to avoid being hit.
“I’ve got this old oscilloscope,” said Sammy. “Might just be the thing, you’re looking for Tone.”
I had to ask what a mosillyskope was. Uncle Tony said that was an easy question:
“Why it’s the answer to all out problems.” Then both my uncle and Sammy spat on the floor. I tried, but my mouth was a bit dry, so Tony just ruffled my hair and said:
When it looked as if we really would have a television ready for the Coronation (albeit a green and white picture – well we had nothing to judge it against), my Aunt Sadie issued invitations to all our friends and neighbours.
“Your presence is requested at the Coronation of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second accompanied by her husband, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. On June 2nd, 1953.
Tea and cakes will be provided.
Yours, Anthony and Sadie Blest”.
Aunt Sadie made it seem that the Queen would be present for tea and cakes, herself. You see no one was really sure what having the television meant, so perhaps it was just like having the Royal family in your front room after all.
It was my job to deliver the invitations to all the houses down the far end of the street. Everywhere I called, someone would ask if I would like to come in for a cup of tea – by the end of the street, I was almost ready to burst. I had one more house to go to and it belonged to Fancy Freddie He was named this on account (apparently) of the clothes he used to wear in his younger days. Since his wife died, his only companion was Winston the dog and that dog was legendary in the street.
He wasn’t a bad dog, you understand, just a bit lively when it came to chasing things or stealing things – a bit like Fancy Freddie in his younger days. I was just about to put an invitation into Freddie’s place when Winston jumped on me, made me drop the invites and ran off with the lot of them.
According to Freddie, when I saw him later, he said that Winston had buried all the invitations somewhere in his large garden.
On the morning of the Coronation, the tea was made, the cakes were brought in from all over the street and everyone sat down to their first television programme.
Uncle Tony was still having teething problems with the picture on the screen as the friends and neighbours arrived.
The old lady from next door kept mentioning about the picture being in green, she said “I didn’t realise the Queen was green in real life.”
Her daughter had to keep telling her that it was Tony’s funny television and that it made everyone that way.
Just as everything looked ready, the picture went black. The old lady from next-door wondered if the Abbey had fallen down. Actually it was Winston, Fancy Freddie’s dog, who had grabbed the end of my uncle’s makeshift aerial and was running around the garden with the end of it between its teeth.
The aerial had been fixed to the side of the house and it would take too long to get it back in place. The wire had to be stretched out as far as possible, so the solution, although not the greatest, was that everyone watching the television should stand out in the garden holding a piece of the aerial. Then each person would have five minutes of watching the Coronation before they were back out in the garden on aerial duty. The old lady from next door was exempt, and then Fancy Freddie, whose dog had caused all the trouble, refused to help and left the house in a mood. My auntie caught him looking at the television in through the window. So she shut the curtains.
The rest of us got to see a few minutes every so often and I have to say it was well worth the trouble. The fun was finished with tea and cakes and a new Queen.
That warm day, all those years later, when I cleared out my great Uncle Tony’s garage, I found the television set. Yes it was a bit dusty, but it looked just as it had been all those years ago.
And so I spat on the floor.“That’s for you, great Uncle Tony.”
4. The Ape Who Sang To The Moon
By the time that Christopher had reached the grand old age of twenty seven, he had already completed sixty eight of the things he wanted to do with his life before he was thirty.
Sky-diving and swimming with sharks had all been ticked off from the list, but the one he’d shied away from , the one that would take everything that he had - was to cycle across Asia on a push-bike; if he was to complete it by his thirtieth birthday then he was going to have to get a move on.
Christopher had compiled the list on his twenty-first birthday and that evening when he’d finished writing the last thing to do, he’d assumed that there would be all the time in the world to complete them but as we mere mortals already know, life always seems to get in the way.
So with over thirty of the more difficult activities to arrange and still accomplish, and with less than three years to do it in, Christopher was starting to get anxious. Apart from his trip into Space, the Asia journey was the next biggest activity which he could take part in.
He managed to get himself a summer job in a hotel in the Scottish Highlands and he spent the warm days working very hard from early mornings to late afternoons, the rest of the time he spent cycling up and down the glens. They were tough climbs but after several weeks he began to eat up the roads and miles as if none of them mattered.
His plan for the trip was to start in South East Asia after the September monsoons had drifted. He had considered all the safety aspects - although he was going to cycle several thousand miles alone so maybe safety was not a word to bandy about.
His bought a ticket on one of the cheaper airlines and to him that was all part of the experience, and by the start of October he would be in Thailand.
It was too expensive to take a bike over there but he’d found an old ex-pat on the ‘Net who was willing to trade his bicycle for some British cigarettes and a few quid.The bicycle was older and more damaged than the photograph had shown.
Christopher spent a couple of days in a very plain but clean hostel to get his energy back and to sleep off the jet lag, it also allowed him time to get the bike into a decent shape. By the Friday he was ready for the off and by the time he had arrived at the outskirts of the city, his adrenaline was pumping at the speed of light.
The smells, the heat, the trees and the people all gave the trip a feeling that he was moving in another world. He was in love with a country and she was going to be difficult to shake off.
His plan was to travel to the north and then take a train into China. He hadn't planned to cycle the whole of Asia as that would take several lifetimes and besides, he still had thirty one activities to finish in the next three years.
On the fourth day, he stayed in a small hut which he shared with a young couple from Glasgow. They told him about the Ape Trail, a path about ten miles to the east that they had said had been their most magical part of the holiday so far.
“Apes” her boyfriend corrected her.
“Really tame as well, they’ll eat out of your hand.”
So that night Christopher went to sleep, deciding that he was going to make the detour and go and see the apes the next morning. After all, this is what the trip (and life) was all about.
He’d cycled longer than he’d wanted to down the path realising the couple had forgotten to tell him just how muddy the whole place was. Eventually he’d got off the bicycle and walked several more miles without setting eyes on any apes.
The road, if that is what it could be called, narrowed at points until it was only wide enough to let one set of feet walk at a time. Christopher was struggling to keep his balance and once or twice grabbed out for a muddy wall to keep upright. It was on third time of doing so that he grabbed a lump of mud which caused a large hole to form in the embankment and send tons of mud above to slide down on top of him and his bike.
Both he and the bike tumbled down into the darkness.He sometimes lost consciousness with the lack of oxygen and then the next minute he would shoot into the air, it was at these moments he would inhale with everything he had. The bicycle hit him several times, once almost breaking his back.
When Christopher came to rest, he was on the floor of a forgotten valley. Luckily for him, the mud had allowed one of his nostrils to peak through and although he was unconscious, he was still able to breathe. He had survived.
There was no telling how many times the sun had come and gone before he came to . The mud had begun to dry and had caused a crust to form around his body but it had also soaked up the blood from a large wound on his head. It was the thumping of the ape on the mud that brought him into the sunlight and into a new life.
He had no idea who or where he was.
His friend, the hairy one with the long arms, and another pulled him clear of the mountain of mud and as he lay looking at the sky and wondering why it was that colour, he saw a large shiny thing shoot past his face ridden by another of the hairy men.
The apes had found Christopher’s bike and were fighting each other for the chance to push it forward and then attempt to sit on the cross bar. The apes had seen the men from the mountains ride them before but never had a man made his way into their midst with one of them.
High Hands, the chief of the valley apes, had intervened between two of the lower cast apes who had wanted to smash the human to death. They had seen many of their family die at the hands of men.
But High Hands had seen that the man was injured and the family law did not allow injured beasts to be beaten to death within the camp. He was to be cleaned of the mud and helped to a better health. That was the law as written by the elders since the time before time.
High Hands had expected that more of the men would come looking for their own but it had not been so. Two cycles of the sun earlier, a large shiny eagle had passed which made the noise of the gods and had scared the younger apes. High Hands had seen it all before and stood firm.
Perhaps the man was an outcast, he had seen such men in his younger days but whatever his story he was to be cared for as if he was one of High Hands own family.
One morning the man felt some warmth and strength in his arms. His arms were not as hairy or as strong as the rest of the family - perhaps he was a weakling of the tribe? He could not remember. One of the elders had given him two small rocks and when they were referring to him they would place the two rocks in the sand and point. The man guessed that his name must be Two Rocks and so he called himself such.
As he was recovering, the family had washed him and given him water to slake his thirst and each time he had awoken from his fever, he could recall terrible pictures in his head. Yet there was always one of the elders sitting by him to watch over and protect him.
The dreams were strange. Thoughts of large structures that reached into the sky, shiny boxes that went faster than High Hands could run, metal birds that flew and contained others like himself, (those with less hair than his family).
After one moon had passed, the man was able to use signs to talk to his family. Two Rocks could ask for food and drink, he could understand that the borders by the large trees were not for the likes of him - for that was where death lay waiting.
Then one night a strange thing happened. It was a night when the moon, the god of the sky, was shinning brighter than usual, that the man went to the highest of the hills located within their territory and he opened his mouth and made a noise.
“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday ....”
He had no idea what the sounds meant but they were pleasing and they made him feel calm. Down below some of the family were concerned and said as much to High Hands, but High Hands knew that men had to make such noises. It was the way they were made by the Sky God.
Each night as the sun cycle came to a close, the man would climb the hill and make the same noise. High Hands had told Two Rocks that the Sky Gods were happy with the noises.
As Christopher sang to the moon some tourists had heard the song and on their return from the mountains had told the local police. They said it was the apes, they made noises at night that sounded like a human singing. So no one came looking.
But when the second moon had come and gone, something peculiar happened to the man. He felt something in his heart, he felt an ache and he felt the loneliness. He knew that his family, for all he wanted to be with them, was not enough.
It was something to do with his dreams and the singing. None of the other family members sang and when he would come down off the mountain, they would all keep their distance and try to avoid him.
So one night, after the third moon had come, he went up the mountain and sang his song.
“Happy Birthday to you....”
When he had finished, he wept and wept and wept.
He looked back at the family but instead of returning down the mountain he walked away to the trees where death waited. He wasn’t afraid, he was more afraid of staying with the family and feeling the loneliness again.
So he walked down the other side of the mountain and decided to take his chance with the forest.
5. 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.”
“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.”
Thanks to Stephen Fry for tweeting this story to the world. Much appreciated.
bobby stevenson 2014