This is a story of life in the 1970’s, and my reason for writing it, is that although it remains real to people of my age, to many of the younger age groups, it is as remote to them as the the first world war was to me as a child. The only reason I have some understanding of the early 20th century is that I had elder relatives to tell me stories of their youth. Even though I struggle to write long stories these days, I feel it is important to share them as much as I can…
LIKE A SORE THUMB
FRIDAY 16th June 1978
I had to catch the train into work that Friday. I normally got a lift into work with my Dad, but the rest of my nuclear family had gone away the night before on their family holiday. At 18, I was considered too old to want to go away to Italy with my parents. I didn’t really consider myself too old, but as I wasn’t asked, I accepted the situation. So I had gone to work in Birmingham, with my weekend bag, ready to go straight to Banbury after work. Banbury was where my fiancee lived with her maternal Grandmother. We had a long distance relationship, she would come to my house one weekend, I would go to her’s on the other weekend. It was not ideal, but such was infatuation.
Friday was a good day in the Jewellery Quarter in 1978, We all got paid weekly, with real cash in a wage packet. The calculations were obvious, all details on the outside of the packet. Wages would arrive at 12.45, and then we would go to lunch in the pub. Friday was an early finish, we were allowed to leave at three, after doing resets and specials.
Friday, we would go to the pub from 12.45 until 2.00 pm. Then we would pop back to work for an hour and then the weekend was our own! I planned to go straight down to Banbury, to Kate’s, get changed then get back out on the beer.
At 10.00 am I got a phone call. There was a shared phone in the workshop. You didn’t really want to receive personal calls on this phone, as the rest of the workshop would listen in and basically take the piss out of you.
” Can you not come down this weekend?”
” Er, okay, Why?”
” My Nan’s ill.”
“Oh. What’s wrong with her?”
” Oh just the flu or something.”
“Do you want to come up to me? I’ve got the house to myself…”
“No. She needs me here.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll give you a call back later.”
Odd. She didn’t sound like her normal self. She usually insisted on long protracted “no you hang up ” rigmarole, and protestations of undying love, which usually led to ribald piss taking from my workmates.
The Friday lunch time session came and went, and after four or five pints, the summer sun outside hit you like a physical blow when you came out of the pub. I went back to do the least amount of work possible for an hour, then left to catch the bus into Birmingham and then the train to Lichfield. By the time I was on the train, the beer had taken it’s toll, and I fell asleep before we even got to Vauxhall… The first station on the route to Lichfield. I awoke as the train left Shenstone, the last station before arriving at Lichfield…
Did I awake with my head and drool on someone’s shoulder? I can’t remember, but it wouldn’t have been the first time if I had.
I got off the train at Lichfield City train station, and immediately went to the Telephone box out side the station, to find out what was wrong with Kate.
The phone was answered by her Nan. She didn’t sound ill. She said that Kate was out and wouldn’t be back until late. Where had she gone, I asked. Her Nan had answered cryptically that she thought Kate should tell me that.
That did not sound good. I thought of getting back on the train and going down to have it out with Kate. However, The drink I’d had at lunch time, was still swilling through my veins… So I thought Fuck That!
The only problem with the family home was that it was a good mile and a half from the train station. I could, of course just go over the road and get on a bus… BUT… Between the family home and the train station were approximately 52 pubs. I had money in my pocket, beer in my belly, which was fast wearing off. I decided, Chips first, to line my stomach and then a crawl home visiting as many pubs as humanly possible. By 5 p.m. I had 6 more pints in my belly, and I was literally crawling down the back lanes, known as the windings, back home. The journey had taken on the epic nature of the Odyssey… I had been thrown out of two pubs; had an argument with an old school friend about football, been threatened by a couple of drunks, who to be fair were in a worse state than I was… I do not know how I got home but the next thing I knew, it was Saturday and my bedroom floor was covered in sick.
SATURDAY 17TH 1978
There is a false dawn when you wake up on a sunny morning after a skinful of beer the night before… It comes just before you move a muscle. You eyes open on to the bright sunlight which is streaming through your window, and you feel great, how good it is to be alive! This feeling lasts a nano second, because you then make the mistake of moving your head. Big mistake! The room, you discover, is still defying the laws of physics, and spinning around in a crazy Alice in wonderland way. So you shut your eyes again… Another rookie mistake! It is not the room doing somersaults, it is your brain! Your cerebral cortex is completing a spin cycle you didn’t even know you’d started.
Then your stomach joins in. You start those hiccuping movements… like a dog with a bit of bone stuck in the back of the throat… And you know you are going to be sick. The next question is: can you reach the bathroom in time. You jump out of bed…(big mistake – you left your brain in idle mode), step in the sick on the floor from the previous night, slip and fall. And as you fall, you spray the wall with an arc of vomit, reminiscent of Jackson Pollack. Then you just lie there. Sick everywhere, dry retching on your back like a perch that has just been pulled from the river… One hand on your head, the other on your stomach. Under normal circumstances your mum would usually be beneficial at this point. she would hear your plight, would bring a cup of coffee, alka seltzer, a towel… an argument or admonishment… But not on this day, on this day she is 3000 miles away in Italy with the rest of your family and you are quite alone. Alone and safe to wallow in the detritus of your stomach and your life.
I’d like to say that having been sick, this early version of me, immediately got up, cleaned up and generally took care of business… Like to, but can’t. This version of me, poor sad young fool, promptly fell back to sleep, right there on the floor, in a fetal position, only occasionally grunting as a movement brought more pressure on his solar plexus to emit more contents from his stomach.
So, two hours later, when the urgent sun had slipped over the roof and away from my window, I awoke again, on the floor, this time with the pressing need to evacuate my bladder. This time, I made it to the bathroom. Having Peed, I made the mistake of looking in the shaving mirror over the sink. I looked like I felt. I dipped my head under the cold tap and swallowed a gallon of good cold water. I gingerly lapped some of the water over my face. I was alive, in a fashion, and had an endless lonely weekend stretching before me. No Kate, no family, no work, no sport, it being summer, and no thoughts on how I would spend the next 48 hours. Obviously, I was never going to drink again, that was a given.
It is amazing how big the house suddenly feels when you are alone in it. With the sudden crush of parents and brother are removed, it feels like a big aching chasm with nothing to fill it. It doesn’t matter where you place yourself, you just don’t seem to fill the void.
The obvious place to occupy would be my bedroom, I could listen to music, play my albums, on my space age music centre, bought in a moment of inebriation, from a work colleague, renowned as the local Shylock, who happened to catch me at a moment of weakness, and offered exorbitant h.p. rates on a 2nd hand radiogram at shop prices.Money management was never a strong point! I ate some food. Hastily scrambled egg on toast, which of course made me feel sick again. I drank coffee. I drank some more coffee. I went upstairs with a cloth and a bowl and tried to clear up the sick. I don’t really do sick. In effect cleaning up sick makes me sick. I cleaned, I gagged, I cleaned, I retched. I ran to the bathroom and deposited my breakfast back into the toilet. I took a towel. I wiped up the remainder with the towel. Then I shoved the towel in the washing machine. I drank more coffee. I noticed a letter on the door mat. It wouldn’t be for me, I guessed. I didn’t get mail. I hadn’t had mail since 1969, when I had a penpal from Leeds. I went to see who it was for anyway. My heart sunk. The letter was in a hand I recognised.
Dear John, blah blah blah.
Upshot. Don’t want you any more.
I was angry. Upset? No angry… mostly.
I went upstairs to my old Imperial typewriter. I had wanted to be a writer since I was 11, and my dad on had bought me the typewriter for Christmas in 1974.
I tried to compose a pithy letter back to Kate. The anger and the tears, ok, yes there were tears, made typing difficult. I was smashing down the keys with heavy thuds until the inevitable happened, the keys got jammed. I tried to disentangle the keys which had jammed in my ham-fisted angry way and promptly sliced the top of my right thumb off. Joy of joys.
Blood now gushed forth. What to do, what to do? The A&E dept was a mile away on the other side of town. There were no Doctors open, it was the weekend… Band-aids. I found gauze and band-aids ( plasters). I wrapped up the injured digit as tightly as I could, and looked for another towel to clean up the blood. It found it’s way into the washer. One day on my own, and two towels down already! As the family had taken most of the towels away on holiday with them, I would have to be careful with the thread-bare towels now left in the airing cupboard. Use them Judiciously, or face the wrath of the washing machine. This was a taboo implement which no man had,at that time, ever encountered. No, I would use the rest more sparingly.
(to be Continued)
SATURDAY 17TH JUNE 1978 4 PM
Many a slip tween cut and lint. Given that the cutting of the thumb occurred at 10 a.m., and the temporary remedial lint and band aid assembly took around an hour to come up with, after dancing around as if attacked by a wasp nest and showering blood across a large area of my bedroom… so recently sullied by voluminous amounts of vomit, and then hastily cleaned by two moth-eaten towels… Now languishing in the darkest depths of the taboo washing machine, which no man should ever use.
With this state of play, the letter in response to Kate’s Dear John missive, was put largely on a back burner… As by this time it had ceased to be of paramount importance. Of paramount importance at this time, was to anaesthetise the throbbing pain of my thumb. Given that the primary anaesthetic I had access to was paracetamol, whisky and coke, the cola variety not the nose candy, I took 4 tablets and half a pint of whisky and coke.
I sat in front of the tedious Test match between Pakistan and England on the T.V. In the late 1970’s television consisted of three channels. BBC1 BBC2 and ITV were the full smorgasbord of our in house entertainment. BBC2 had a wide selection of talking beards on open university, and ITV offered the british version of WWF wrestling, which involved fat man rubbing bellies together, the cricket was the only game in town.
I lay on the couch, drunk my medicinal whisky, and fell asleep.
At four, there was a knock on the door. I woke and jumped up. I grabbed the lounge door, with my right hand and screamed. The knock at the door became more insistent.
I opened the door with my left hand. There stood my soul mate. Mary.
“Are you ok?”
I tried to smile.
“Given that I yelping like a beaten dog, and my thumb is the size of a belisha beacon, (in the UK) an orange ball containing a flashing light, mounted on a striped post on the pavement at each end of a zebra crossing. ) I think we can safely say, I’m not at my best”.
“Can I come in?”
She came in. I shut the door. She hugged me. I hugged her as best I could. I smelt her hair. Is that weird?
“Did you just smell my hair?”
“Because it smells nice?”
“Still weird then?”
“So it would appear… You still beautiful then?”
“What do you think?”
“You know I think your beautiful.”
“Ok, getting way too earnest already…”
” Would you like a cup of tea? Is that more formal?”
“Yes. I would love a cup of tea.”
“Please do come in sit down, I will make you a cup of tea.”
She sat down. I went into the kitchen and put on the kettle. I got cups out, then realised there was no tea. We, as a family, drank coffee.
“I’m sorry we don’t appear to have any tea. Do you want a coffee”
“No, a bit early for whisky.”
” I’m sorry I’m all out of small talk. What do I owe this pleasure?”
“Just an off chance really.”
” An off chance?”
” Yes, on the off-chance that you still have the acoustic guitar I bought you for christmas.”
Tricky. I did still have the acoustic guitar, but it only had three strings. I cannot begin to tell you what happened to the other strings, suffice to say, they were stretched across a wicker work clothes basket, in a vain attempt to create a bass sound for my musical creations. I was in the process of becoming a rock star. With two tape decks, an electric guitar and amp, a bass made as above mentioned and a drum made from an oil can and spoons… The acoustic guitar with three remaining strings, I bowed with a metal coat hanger. In my defence, I was a fucking idiot and 18, not necessarily in that order.
Did I tell Mary that? No. This is what I told Mary.
” I’ve got the acoustic guitar, but three of the strings were broke by my little brother when he was using it as a bow for his arrows. Little bastard!”
“Oh, that’s disappointing.”
“I wanted to teach my flatmate how to play acoustic guitar, so we could go out busking together…”
“Who is he?”
“Not a he, a she, she is called Deborah.”
“So not a man then?”
“No. Not a man. I’m Married.”
“You’re fucking what now?”
“I got married!”
“You are married? You can’t be married.”
ok. The back story. I knew Mary was my soul mate. Mary knew I was her soul mate… The reason we were not still together… Fucking hormones! I was besotted with her, but I was a teenage boy… And I couldn’t resist temptation… Ever! Not even when my life depended on it. And boy did I have time to repent at leisure!
“It’s no big deal. I got married so that I couldn’t be asked to give evidence against him in court.”
“Seems a pretty big deal to me… So where is your husband now?”
“In jail. They had enough evidence to convict him without my evidence being required.”
“Seems an awful big commitment to me. So what happens now?”
“I wait til he gets out of jail then get an annulment.”
“Is that even a thing?”
“Yeah my solicitors says should be fine, he got sent down the day after we married, so now chance of consummation. So, providing he agrees we should be able to get the marriage annulled.”
“You don’t love him then?”
“God no, he’s my fucking dealer!”
“Your Dealer? What you on smack now?”
“injecting? You fucking hate needles!”
“Don’t be daft, I’d never inject, just chasing the dragon, a few times.”
“And this is what?”
“Just inhaling the smoke.”
“Oh right, nothing serious then.”
“No, nothing serious.”
” But worth getting hitched to a junkie dealer for?”
“He’s not a junkie.”
“Well that’s a relief. And you accuse me of making bad choices…”
“You, my love, are led by your dick, you have a good mind but you never use it because your cock is in control… I am led by the desire to experience everything… This is why we are not together. We are bad for each other. You know that, I know that. But you are still my best friend. I love you.”
” And I dream of a day when you have experienced all you need and I have fucked all I need to fuck, and finally, we can settle down together.”
“Chances are fairly remote.”
“Mary, I know the day will come.”
“Ok. I wanted the guitar to sell. How nice am I now?”
“What did you hope to get for it?”
“£20. I hoped too get £20, just enough to get some food for the next week.”
” I can give you a fiver.”
“You can… Why? Why would you give me a fiver?”
“I feel bad I ruined the guitar. I wouldn’t want you to starve.”
“Bless you. You are such a sweetie.”
“What you doing tonight?”
“Oh um… I’ve got a date, But Debs is at a lose end, would you like to take her out for me?”
“Really? You want me to go out with your flatmate?”
” As a favour? She has massive tits…”
” Oh please, that’s your thing not mine!”
” I know. I’ve already seen them!”
“So your fucking your flatmate too?”
“Don’t you find that exciting?”
“Ok. Maybe. Are we normal?”
“Who the fuck wants to be normal?”
“Good point. What chance did we ever have of being normal?”
“We are what we are. So if you come to the flat, sixth floor of Bosworth House, about six, then you can meet Debs, and take her out for a while.”
“Ok. I’ve got nothing better to do.”
“Just one thing…”
“Don’t mention that we’ve been together to her, she doesn’t want any one to think she’s a dyke.”
“About that fiver”
“Could you make it a tenner?”
So I had a date. My only interest,the fact that she may or may not have slept with Mary.
So I had a date. A date with someone I’d never met. Someone called Deborah. Deborah. Ok, so I walked the half mile between my house and the flat where Mary and Deborah lived, with the earworm of Debora by T.rex ripping through my mind.
It didn’t auger well, oh Debora you look like a zebra… It wasn’t a look I could get behind.
I knocked on the door. Mary opened it.
” Oh you came.”She walked away from the door as if my following her in was a given.
Two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a toilet, were passed down a dark corridor, at the end of which was a door. Through the door was a large living room and a kitchenette. The view through the french window was exciting. It was six floors up. There was a small balcony. The prospect of standing on the balcony terrified me. The urge to jump from the said balcony would be great. I did not have a fear of heights, I had a fear that the urge to jump would overwhelm me. In the middle of this living area, Mary had stuck a double bed. Handy. I looked around and saw no evidence of a Deborah.
“Handy place to keep your bed.” Mary looked as if she might bridle at my comment. Then she thought better of it.
“It wouldn’t fit in the bedroom. Plus I like to lie here and look at the sky.”
A plausible explanation.
“Where is Deborah?” Mary looked a bit vague.
“She went out. She will be back soon…”
Mary started looking for something.
“What are you looking for?”
“So true… it’s what we are all looking for isn’t it?”
“Don’t be a prick, my cat, Loki, I’m terrified he will get himself out on to the balcony…”
“That would not be Lucknow would it.”
“Loki not Lucky, you knob.”
So humour was not making this any easier… The cat, Loki not Lucky, was sat on the kitchenette worktop, licking his arse. Nice.
“He’s there.” I pointed. Mary picked him up. She snuggled him up to her neck.
The front door opened, and a shout rang out.
“Only got some weed, nobody’s got anything else.”
I looked at Mary. She’d spent the money I’d given her on Dope. Perfect.
“We’re in here Debs.”
Debs said no more. Both cats were out of the bag.
“This is Dale.I told you about him.”
“Hi.” She said and then crashed into the one chair next to the double bed.
She had acne on her face, and mousy shoulder length hair. She was not a beauty, but had the advantage of not looking like a zebra. She also had a very prominent pair of breasts. In this age before implants, breasts that big were only dreamt of. I tried to talk to her, but she seemed not to be interested in me.
“Shall I skin up?” She spoke to Mary. Mary looked at me.
“You want a joint?”
I shrugged. Alcohol was my poison. Drugs had weird effects on me. Cannabis fucked my head up and not in a good way. I became a spastic in time. Literally. Time ceased to have any linear projection. A second would last for hours and hours would pass in a nano second. A lucky accident. The most prevalent drug of the seventies did not chill me out, but thanks to a freakish chemical imbalance in my brain, it freaked me out instead. I don’t know if this a common effect on other people, I’ve only ever been inside my own head, but being lost in time and space is not much fun, in certain circumstances it becomes a nightmare which you feel is never going to end.
So after the communal toking on the joint, of which I willingly partook, because why the fuck not when it was my money that paid for it, the narrative became somewhat blurred and dream-like.
We talked and laughed, we smoked and talked and laughed some more. At some point in the proceedings Mary got up and went into the bathroom. She was in there for an indeterminable length of time… It could have been hours, it could have been minutes, but when she came out she was made up, unruly hair calmed and straightened, and she was dressed to the nines.
“He’ll be here in a minute, best you two kids disappear to the pub.” She shooed us out.
I looked at Deborah as we ran down the stairs,or walked, or flew, as I say I wasn’t really in the moment, and I thought… Nothing. She was not of any interest to me. Not very bright, not very pretty… Not my type. I’m sure she grew up to be a perfectly respectable person, but at that time and on that night, she was just a fucked-up kid, led by others. If I try to picture her now all I get is a benign Susan Atkins aka sexy Sadie (Charlie Manson acolyte)… A follower.
We went into town. We drank at the pub which had the vaguest concept of under-age drinking. I was of age, she was not, she was sixteen. She had very little conversation. I drank a lot. She couldn’t keep up. We left after an hour and a half. Walking her back to the flat, a distance of about a mile, was not a merry stroll. She was sick twice. Time began to return to me, and it turned out I wasn’t having a good one. I thought, as I walked the unsteady Debs back, typical fucking Mary! Playing fucked-up games with me.
We entered the flat. The door to the lounge at the top of the hall was open. A naked Mary, bouncing energetically up and down on a blissful crew-cut soldier. She looked at me and winked. Winked. I grabbed Debs by the arm and led her into her bedroom. I stripped her off.
“Oh right.” She mumbled and lay on her bed. Her large breasts collapsed back into her chest and under her arms, like an under-cooked souffle. I felt repulsed. This is not what I want I thought. I would like to say that I pulled the covers over the poor girl, and left the building. I’d like to say that, but it wouldn’t be true. I had sex with her. Out of anger. Not violently, because violence is not n my nature, but in a perfunctory way. She moaned and held me tight, like a lover… and when I stopped, she was snoring. I dressed. I walked out of the room, out of the flat, without looking around to Mary. I went home.
this is the first episode of this story which is not accurate to fact. A lot of different experiences have been conflated, just to give the atmosphere of the time. In reality nobody was drunk, stoned or fucked without given consent.
To be continued.
11 P.M. 17TH NOVEMBER 1978
You know when you get morose drunk? When you have left your friends on the route home, and suddenly thought, I don’t want to go home? That’s the sort of feeling that gets you into trouble. So it’s 11 p.m., and I’m sitting on the stairs one floor above Mary’s flat. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her. In fact the last time I saw her was the wink. As a consequence of that little dalliance, I had caught scabies, and had suffered agonies because the doctor had not told me that I only had to paint the ointment on my skin once. I had put it on every day for a week, with the unforeseen occurrence, that I looked as if I’d been flayed. When I presented my skin for the doctor’s perusal a week later, he thought I was a complete idiot. You only use it once, no wonder you look like a lobster.
Luckily, the skin settled down relatively quickly once a curative balm had been administered. However, since that fateful night, I had decided to stay clear of my Mary, as she wasn’t particularly good for my health. Well, when I say I stayed away… this wasn’t the first time I’d been sat sitting on the stairs above her floor, waiting to see if she came home alone. I had sat there maybe three of four times before, but as she had a guy, probably the army guy with her, I’d hid above and listened to see if he went in. He did, and I went home.
So this stalking behaviour had become a habit. What did I want? I wanted to make everything and everybody else just disappear. I wanted her to be with me forever. I think I wanted to make one last effort. I had a dream that if she knew how I felt, she would see what I could see, we were made to be together. I know a facile thought, but I was 18 and I loved her. I knew she loved me too. So why not?
I heard steps coming from below. No voices. A good sign. It was a long wait. 12 series of stairs take a while, even when you are young and fit. I looked over the parapet and saw her mop of crazy black hair below. She was alone. As she pulled on the fire door to her floor, I stood up. She stopped stark still, as if frozen in time.
“Hello” I said.
She looked down the stairs to see if anyone was there.
“Come in quick”. She looked afraid.
She shepherded me into her flat.
“You shouldn’t come here.”
“He’s out on Monday.”
“Who’s out on Monday?”
“My husband. He gets out of prison on Monday. You need not to be here.Seriously.”
“It’s Friday, I think it’s safe.”
” He has people watching me. He wrote me a letter, saying if I didn’t ditch the squaddie (english slang for soldier), then he would.”
“He would what?”
“Put him in a ditch. He would do it too, you don’t know the people he goes around with.”
“How did he find out about soldier boy?”
“I told you he has people watching me.”
“For fuck’s sake Mary, why don’t you just leave? You don’t need to be around this creep.”
“I can’t. He’d find me. You don’t know what he’s like.”
I hugged her. She didn’t push me away. She was shaking inside. I pressed my head to hers and felt the tumult inside her mind. We had that kind of connection, we could feel each others emotions. She hugged me so tight, we felt like siamese twins. I stroked her hair. We sat on the side of her bed… still in the living room.
“I’m here, I will always be here.” I said.
She sobbed heavily.
“That’s just it you can’t be here, I can’t bear you being here, don’t you understand?” I held her tighter and kissed her eyes.
“I love you, Mary, you know that, why not just come with me, I will look after you.” She looked into my eyes. I knew she felt the same, how could she not? We had been through so many other lifetimes together… (but that’s for another story)
“He will, kill you. You are still a boy.”
“I know people…”
“You don’t even know how to tie your shoes, my beautiful boy. You are my dream, my hope of happiness. I got myself into this shit, I will get myself out of it. You will go and have a happy life without me.”
An air of finality. She hugged me. I hugged her. I cried. I cried a lot. We undressed. We held each other into the night. We never let go of each other. It was a pure moment, a pure moment in a lifetime of madness. We relished it until finally we fell asleep.
I awoke about eight. My leg across her legs, my arms around her waist, my nose engulfed in the mass of her hair. I wanted to sneeze. I didn’t want to sneeze, I needed to sneeze. I wanted not to sneeze. I wanted the moment to last forever. The watery sun burst through the window, casting her long legs in light and shade… Always with Mary, the light and the shade! She was the most beautiful intelligent woman I had ever met, she was love personified, yet always she brought in the shade… The dark moods, the drugs, the ridiculous lack of faith in me… warranted I grant you, to some extent. She at that age had taken me to heaven and hell. And the men and women she paraded in front of me.
But as always, I wanted to scoop her into my arms and take her away. To look after her all my life. I wanted to protect her. Yet, she insisted on protecting me. I stroked her perfect skin, I held her perfect breast. I tried to slip my hand inside her knickers.
She grabbed my hand.
“No. None of that. Time for you to go now.”
I got up. I got dressed. I had tears again, I tried to hide them.
I waved to her prostrate form as I made for the door.
“Dale. Don’t I get a kiss.” She leaned on a elbow. I lent over and kissed her on the lips.
“I love you with all my heart, Mary, won’t you come with me?”
“I love you with all my heart, Dale, I can’t come with you. I have to sort my life out, and you do too. Please don’t come around again, he will seriously fuck you up.”
I walked out of her life.
For 33 years.
It’s a funny way to live don’t you think.