Friday, 25 March 2016
London, Summer 1951
very loosely based on a truth....
The couple in front of him lit their cigarettes from the same match, kissed until the smoke was coming out of their noses, then each slumped into a big red balding seat ready to wallow in another Saturday night at the Regal cinema.
Ricky was his usual late self and arrived out of breath just as the rousing newsreel music was starting up.
“Hurry up and sit down”, demanded James.
“It’s always your mother, just shh...there’s something coming on that I want you to see”.
They impatiently sat through a story of the latest spring fashions for the young ladies of 1951 then a report on Tottenham Hotspur and the Arsenal football teams fighting for the top place in the English First Division - although James, with a snigger, dismissed talk of any team other than the Arsenal.
“This is it now, watch”.
The excitable announcer talked over some film of London’s Southbank. In only a few days time the Festival of Britain would open and the focal point was be the breath-taking three hundred foot structure which gave the impression of being unsupported.
“Bloody hell” James was pleased at Ricky’s reaction.
”It’s like one of those Dan Dare rocket ships...” the couple in front came up for air, told James to shut up and then just as quickly returned to kissing, “..and I am going to climb that bloody monster.” James whispered.
“Why would you ever want to do that?” asked Ricky already knowing the answer.
“Because I can”.
Yep, that was the reply Ricky was waiting for.
The guy in front, whose face was now covered in lipstick, told them if they didn’t shut up right this minute he’d hit them. Then the guy in front of him, told him also to shut up; you could be here all night with this stuff.
“Excuse me, my crazy friend but weren’t you watching? It is three hundred feet high” a fact that was worrying Ricky.
“I know, ain’t it brilliant?” this time James talked in a cheap American movie kind of way.
You see, to James everything was brilliant and brilliant acted as the base level for his life. If it wasn’t brilliant he wouldn’t give it the time of day but somehow every brilliant thing that James attempted to do would result in Ricky getting into more serious trouble.
The alternative for Ricky was not being James’ friend and that was too awful to even think about. It would mean Ricky going back to being shoved around the British Library by his parents. It would mean Ricky’s mother cleaning his face in full view of people with a handkerchief, into which she had just made him spit.
Somehow getting into trouble was his only salvation.
One Saturday, James had suggested that Richard call himself ‘Ricky’ after Bogart’s character in Casablanca. Richard hoped that James would soon tire of it but yesterday when he knocked at Richard’s front door and asked if Ricky was in, Richard’s mother belted her son’s ear.
“James is such a sweetie, why would you ever let him call you by that awful name, you wicked boy? It’s not very clever, not in any way is it clever, Richard, do you hear me?”
Ricky wasn’t listening to his mother, instead he was contemplating greater ideas such as there must be a time just before a person is born when the gods decide if you should be blamed for everything in the universe or be allowed to get off scot-free. Ricky knew that the gods had voted him into the former group and James had, most definitely, been voted into the latter; even when James blatantly lied to peoples’ faces they always ended up thanking him for something or other, Ricky knew he could never beat those odds.
On the morning of the 2nd of May, the boys boarded the London bound train weighed down with paraphernalia, most of which was a mystery to Ricky.
“I’ll explain on the way” said James and over the sandwiches that Ricky’s mother had supplied, he did just that.
For several months, working with his college and pretending to be studying architecture, James had contacted the manufacturers of the Skylon- the new name for the big rocket - and they had supplied all the specifications. So he knew it was aluminium and steel and James reckoned on two ropes and a couple of small hammers should do it.
“So you’re going to climb the thing then come down again?”
“Hell yes, but I’ll leave a souvenir at the top to let them know I was there.” James was smug.
He thought maybe a bottle of whisky but Ricky had to remind him what would happen if it fell.
“What about a flag?”
“I don’t have one”.
Then James noticed the scarf that was around
Ricky’s neck but Ricky argued that it was the college scarf and anyway it had cost three guineas and since it was the college scarf it might give the game away. James said he wanted to give the game away and blow the consequences, so Ricky reluctantly handed the scarf over. Ricky never liked blowing the consequences, he could see trouble ahead.
When they arrived at the Southbank, the workmen were still putting the finishing touches to the Festival Hall. James had reckoned this might happen and had brought working clothes for both him and Ricky. It worked as they managed to walk straight past the security man who mentioned that it was getting a bit cold and James had to agree.
“What now?” asked Ricky, still thinking about the consequences being blown.
Apparently the plan was to wait until midnight when the lights on the Skylon were switched off. Was climbing in the dark a good idea?
Ricky wondered about James, who had never actually been to America but still talked like them.
They found that they could crawl under the Pavilion and it seemed a great place to hide and was relatively warm. After a long wait and a bit of cramp, James attempted to stand up and hit a trap door with his head, this led into the Pavilion itself.
“Bloody hell” shouted Ricky. “Shh”
“But look at this place it’s got food and more food and champagne”.
James ruled that they would return to the room after he’d climbed the tower, assuming that he survived. Anyhow he had a backup plan that if things got too dangerous or the wind picked up, he’d just jump into the Thames.
“And hope you don’t drown”
No wonder Ricky’s mother hits him, thought James.
So a few minutes after midnight James got ready to start the fifty foot climb which would bring him to the bottom of the Skylon. It was all a matter of shimmying up the cables that held the tower in place. Ricky knew his friend and knew he was more scared than he was letting on, so Ricky started their game that had seen them both through troubled spots in the past.
“Who would you rather kiss Dinah Shore or Doris Day?” asked Ricky.
James opted for Doris Day, every time. Then they discussed who the better singer was between Frankie Laine and Bing Crosby, both of them opted for Bing. Ricky reminded James that he better not fall off as he still needed to go with his pal to see ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ when it came to the Regal.
Ricky then asked who was the best player between Jackie Milburn and Stanley Matthews. James knew that Milburn had scored against the Arsenal and so ignoring the question he quickly disappeared into the night.
“Be careful” whispered Ricky, to himself.
It was the most difficult climb of James’ life. The overhang was more than he expected and a couple of times he thought that his great view of Big Ben might be his last. By four am he had made the top and Ricky had been right, there was no way you could leave a bottle of whisky up here. He caught his breath, enjoyed the view for a minute then tied the scarf to the top of the Skylon.
When he’d lowered himself halfway down, he noticed the policeman standing at the bottom. Where was Ricky?
James’ options were limited, he was still high enough to jump into the river or maybe he could take his chances with the copper. It was getting light and it was cold, going down by rope was his only choice. He could easily outrun the policeman so that is what he did. As he slipped down the support cables he jumped off earlier than he or the copper had expected. Luckily nothing was broken and on a hunch he headed towards the Pavilion. Sure enough Ricky was hiding under the building and without being seen, James rolled under to join him.
“Let’s find that trapdoor” the words crept slowly out of James’ mouth.
Within ten minutes they each had a bottle of champagne to hand and were swigging it back good style; the policeman was nowhere to be seen. Without realising, both sat down behind the big fancy sofa and fell asleep.
It was Ricky who saw her first; there she was staring at him, Queen Mary as large as life. Ricky shook James awake, who grumbled all the way into consciousness. He was about to say ‘bloody hell’ but Ricky realised what was coming and slapped a large hand across James’ mouth.
“What are you boys doing here?” whispered Queen Mary.
“I’ve climbed the Skylon, your majesty” said a bit too loudly.
The smile on her face was subtle but definitely there. She nodded to the boys to look around the sofa, which they did.
“Blood....” the hand got slapped over James’ mouth again.
There was King George the 6th, Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill.
“Bloody hell” exclaimed Ricky, who couldn’t help himself and had no one to slap hand over his mouth.
An army officer came over to tell Queen Mary she was required outside whereby she smiled at the boys and left.
“Think she’ll tell?”
“Don’t know, but we don’t want to chance it”. Quickly the boys dropped through the trapdoor and stayed there until it was dark again.
The next Saturday night at the Regal cinema James and Ricky watched, from the comfort of their red balding seats, a newsreel report on the mysterious appearance of a scarf at the top of the Skylon.
They laughed and laughed until everyone in the cinema told them to shut up.
bobby stevenson 2016