Sunday, 27 May 2012

Arriving


I got off the train at Port Sunlight station in The Wirral. There was no sunlight to great me as I set foot onto the platform, only some lanky zit-faced reprobate and the grim dark northern sky above. The station was about one mile from the hotel, a location that I had to get to and prepare within the hour. As I had anticipated the hooded scally on my train had got off ahead of me, my route seemingly now blocked; the slum rat having previously clocked me more than once on the train as we ventured on the journey away from Liverpool Lime Street and under the River Mersey. But I had him immediately sussed. He was looking for a victim, some opportunist fun. Checking me out. Fancying me as a target. I am not the big lump I once was a few years back. I’m twenty now. I have shed a lot of weight since school and my cheekbones have never looked such a prominent feature. It’s no wonder I have heard it that some call me Monkey Boy. I’ve also long shed a part of me that I might have once referred to as some regular confidence. Sadly it’s only the white powder that induces such wonder in me these days. But there’s always a price to pay for that sensation. And the rush from the line done at Lime Street had faded as fast as it had arrived. Sat on the train I had begun to experience an unwelcome bout of paranoia rising. This creep definitely had done his job well; he made me feel on edge.
          No doubt me reading a book also added to the mix, made me fair game to him. A book of poetry at that; not that this thick fuck would have known it to have been a book of poetry. No, I could tell his suspicion and disgust was bonded solely by the fact it was a book. I had tried to read my book of poetry – The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire – but got constantly distracted by this prick strutting to and fro, up and down the aisle, out of the carriage and back into the carriage, always leaving the chunky carriage exit/entry doors open for the same old bald fella to have to stand, sigh and close, while the reprobate squinted at me with my cheekbones and my book. Every time he passed me by, came close enough for the tip of my elbow to brush with his thigh, I ate his thoughts regarding me, they were easy to translate; fucking cockney mummy’s boy university graduate – I can’t do the scouse accent. Yes I suppose I did look clean-cut and anything but street-wise. I had after all made an effort today. I had to make the right impression. I only had the one chance. This was it. The big one.         
          The train journey from Liverpool Lime Street to Port Sunlight took an excruciating twenty minutes and even when I had left the train he was replicating his performance as I walked behind him down the platform towards the station exit, him in a green hood, offering backward glances, firm squints, one, two, now three, all back my way. All the while I thought two things as I fumbled in my pocket for my train ticket. How he needs to get a fucking eye test pronto and how I felt certain that an ambush was around the corner. I knew that both thoughts were true and therefore I had better play things cool regarding the latter.
          In the core of the moment, this could just be all idle paranoia brought about by me having that cheeky line at Lime Street; by now well over half an hour ago and I really was well in the grips of renewed craving. But I am no fool and immediately reckoned that I was bang on about what he (and no doubt a few others) were up to – the ambush.
          On Google maps if you did a pedestrian route from Port Sunlight railway station to the hotel where my destiny was taking place, then it took you on a right turn out of the station and along a road that once round the bend guided you for a rendezvous with a blocked off private business road with definitely no access for unauthorised personnel. I found this out by dropping the yellow Google man on the map and doing a virtual walk-though. But every time I put in the Google route for walking directions it took you this flawed route every time, to arrive at a No Entry barrier, a moment in real life play where the confused become a victim in waiting, the local prey primed and ready to take advantage as they step out from the shadows.
          “You lost mate? Not from round here are ya? Come with us, we’ll help you find the hotel you’re looking for. Won’t we boys. We’ll show you the way alright.”
          But as I was a clever boy who had done his homework on Google, I knew that if I turned right upon exiting the station I would only end up coming back on myself. This was what the street urchin and his gang were no doubt anticipating. Word was out. A select few from well out of the area were in a strange new town, hearts bulging with a golden hope, the dream to permanently change their fortune in life. To be rich. To never have to worry about money. At least in the short term.
          And so there would be those waiting to provide the wrong kind of welcoming. Hooded highwaymen opportunists hoping for any kind of picking; wallets, debit/credit cards – ‘pin number cunt or we break the other arm as well’ – mobile phones, especially iphone, maybe even an ipad or two. I knew all this could be waiting for me. But I was no mug. A few years back I might even have entertained a ruck. But I rarely show the world my fists anymore. No I would turn left and walk the long way round. I would do everything to stay relaxed and avoid confrontation. I’m not a small bloke and I definitely think I have never had the victim profile. So there was no point in imaging I had one today. I could handle myself and even though I was nervous as fuck, I told myself this.
          Matthew shut the fuck up, you’re spouting bollocks.
          But that’s not entirely true.
          For when I took a left turn out of the station – instead of a doomed right – I saw this idiot and his mates were waiting across the road for me with fixed lifeless stares. There was four of them. All as I had imagined. Hooded and expectant. Standing there, so predictable. They actually looked away before I turned my head. Their attention no longer on me. The four of them disappearing in an instant. The opposite direction. The new point of opportunist focus, a small anxious man clutching a shoulder bag, looking lost as his eyes searched for street signs. He had taken a doomed right. The group of lads continued behind him, closing in. I wanted to warn this small guy. Was certain his intended destination was the same as mine. The hotel. I was also certain that he hadn’t fully investigated the Google route plan on foot with a virtual walk-through. He definitely hadn’t dropped the yellow man down into play.
          As I looked backwards one last time I guess a part of me did want to shout out, to warn him. But the last thing I needed was to get involved. A violent confrontation wouldn’t have put me in the right frame of mind to face the camera. Especially if I had facial wounds, blood all down my clothes, on my white trainers. No that wouldn’t’ve been good at all. This was a day to make the right impression not encourage negative judgement; I had had that fingered in my face all my fucking life. That’s why I buried my hands deep into the pockets of my blue parka and with my head-up, I silently wished him luck as I continued to march purposely in the opposite direction.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Peaches


As a kid I wanted to be just like the Morton-Lea’s up the road. Sarah, Dave and little Tina. They were always on TV. In adverts. And always doing a facial gesture I found danger in copying. Those big smiles. Such perfect teeth as no doubt they all still have today. Perfect TV teeth that should have won them a lifetime contract to promote toothpaste. But I suppose they always collectively got television work anyway as they went on to advertise going to a zoo and smiling, sat on an Inter-City train pointing out the window and smiling, walking about at the Tower of London and smiling, eating KFC and smiling, on some ride at Thorpe Park and smiling, fashioning clothes at Marks and Spencer and smiling, on board some canal boat and pointing at the sky and smiling, the never-ending story of a smiling childhood. How I secretly wanted to wipe them smiles clean off. What a life they had. All things that I never experienced let alone went on TV to show off about. Because all the while the Morton-Lea’s had it all I was stuck indoors, failing on all levels. For example, I often forgot about things, basic instructions, the instant I either read or was told about them; I couldn’t even make a good Pot Noodle. But I make no apologies. No point. It’s the way I was back then. A kid with nothing but an idle wind blowing between the ears.
          For someone who once couldn’t remember where a full stop should be placed in a sentence, it’s surprising I can remember right now that I always forgot how to work the video recorder. It was once always my job to record Match of the Day for Long John so he could watch it when he got in from the pub. There was a golden age when Mum and Long John never once missed the pub on a Saturday night. It was their religion. Before they departed each Saturday, Long John would show me how to hold the chunky play and record levers down at the same time. But after they had gone out, whenever I tried to record, I could never get them both locked into place and with only one lever in position the damned thing only played what was already on the tape. No matter how often I tried I simply could never master the knack of holding down the record lever at the same time as play. It just wouldn’t happen for me.
          So every week, every Saturday creeping into Sunday, Long John would arrive home first – Mum always stayed across the road with Val and Jim to allow Long John the space and comfort to watch the recorded football – always very drunk, me upstairs in bed shitting it. The video cassette would then be heard playing. But not Match of the Day; for weeks it was the same old Clint Eastwood film that Long John had tried to record all the way through on ITV – he was wanting to cut out the adverts – but he was pissed and had dozed off during one portion of break and ended up with only half a film.
          “What the fuck’s happened to Match of the Day you absolute cunt of a cunt!” he would yell against the backdrop of a spaghetti western soundtrack, me then called more names under the sun as the tape was fast-forwarded and rewound until it was established beyond all doubt that I had failed him again, YET AGAIN. As I was such a failure why not instead give up on expecting me to master the impossible? But no. Week after week it was the same routine. Up the stairs he thumped. No matter how many times he beat me, it didn’t change a thing. I would never learn how to work that fucking video machine. Eventually – after a violent month of Saturdays – the lanky coward drunken bully gave up the chase. He started to stop over the road late for extra drinks instead; lucky Mum, Val and Jim, I remember thinking. I guess he never told Mum that for a short period of time he had been returning early back to the house all in vain. That I failed every single time to record him Match of the Day. No, he never mentioned anything to Mum. That sort of information might favour the ride down a dark hidden track. Unlock the truth about the times he used to enjoy secretly beating me. And there were so many many times. But those evil punches in the balls, ribs, stomach and back of the head at least made me realise that I was alive. There was no escaping that reality. The biting awareness of being bang smack in a moment.
          I also certainly felt alive at Mum’s funeral. Which was all a surprise really. I’d felt sick all morning and hadn’t slept soundly since that dreadful moment when it happened. Me coming home from work, just after 7am, putting on the kettle and bringing her a nice cup of tea. She looked like she was made of white marble, her mouth wide-open; I will never ever lose that vision. That’s all I want to say about me finding her.
          Mandy at least did the decent thing. She called the ambulance, tried her best to console me. It was during those moments, the after-shock, that I realised I actually cared more for my Mum than I did for Mandy. It was like I wanted to lay the blame of Mum’s heart attack on her; it was a heart attack, timed at about 3.15am – while I was at lunch in the thick of night, slurping on soup, cursing my life. What little I knew back then about what true loss would be. Yes, I blamed Mandy for the stress she caused Mum. But in truth, we all know exactly who broke Mum’s heart. Long John turned up at the funeral. Many said he wouldn’t. But they were wrong. He turned up looking all grave and mock-sincere and never said a word to anyone outside the church. He stood apart, by the car park entrance and replicated the gesture once inside the church; he stayed right at the back. Never even bothered with the wake. The minute the service was over he’d fucked off out. I was hoping to have some words with him. Hear what he had to say about everything. I was stood outside the social club, searching for his arrival. 
          “Where in hell is he? Where in hell are you?”
          But what was I really expecting. That he’d turn up and verbalise his remorse over a few beers. He couldn’t even do that. Have a few beers and at the very least allow the beers to dress up his words, words that I wanted to hear from him. He never loved her. He held her in contempt. At all times. I know this.
          Long John used to have this nickname for Mum. Peaches. He said he called her Peaches for two reasons. One, her name began with P (Pauline) and two, ‘Peaches’ was his all time favourite Stranglers record. There was a faint wind of truth; he was once well known in the house to enjoy one or perhaps two singles released by The Stranglers. So calling Mum ‘Peaches’ all seemed quite plausible. Except that that there was more to this than me or Mum knew about.
          I found out by cruel accident. At my much older stepbrother Ian’s wedding. It had been a long day. A painful drawn out ceremony. Speeches that made slaves of us all that grim afternoon. Everyone had drunk heavily to accommodate the occasion. These were pre-Mandy times, and I engineered the day by sitting among others, while having no end of internal conversations with myself. I could never see myself ever getting married – at the time I truly believed my destiny was to be a loner – and not getting married seemed fine by me. And then, in the evening and well into the disco, I was up at the bar and waiting to order a lemonade and lime and I overheard Long John recount a story as he held court at the bar to some of the mates of his now married eldest son Ian Silver, how he was so happy over the years with his Treasure Island moniker, that to add a golden touch to his Treasure Islandness, my Mum was his Pieces of Eight.
          Pieces of Eight’s apparently Cockney slang for weight, as in she needs to watch her pieces of eight; yes, there was no debating that Mum did have weight issues. But he had to take it all one step further. So typical of Long John. He said the reason he called her Pieces was that his own Pieces of Eight rhyming slang translated as a right fucking state. He was happy to proclaim how his latest wife, having let herself go in recent times, was a right Pieces of Eight. Various nondescript friends of Ian Silver thought it was funny, how Long John was evil but hilarious. Many from that group seemed to then delight in repeating to both my step-brothers as they approached the bar the obscene comedy of Long John; Long John had now gone for a piss. No one had had the decency to notice my small frame standing there further down the bar. I was raging. My hands quite literally shaking. I was also gasping to breath. I had to abort the lemonade and lime and get outside.
          When I had calmed down, I at least appreaciated how I now knew the truth. That Long John actually called Mum ‘Pieces’ and not ‘Peaches’. I remember when Mum questioned him that first time it slipped out of his mouth by accident and how he delivered The Stranglers ‘Peaches’ version. Always the one, when cornered, to rise quickly on his feet even after he’d done in his knee from football all those years before. Yes he always rose freely. Not like me. Why should I suffer, feel in adequate because of how he made me feel? He had shaped me. No one but Long John. If all isn’t yet clear, he has driven me mad. He caused me to deteriorate after Mum died. He made me lose Mandy. Even worse, was this. For in the stinking madness that prevailed, Mum confessed often to like being called Peaches. How she melted in the shadow of Long John’s hot bad breath. When Long John jumped ship and set sail permanently to Ipswich, I remember her crying manically in the kitchen. It was a terrible scene for anybody to witness let alone a son and then to hear her sobbing and then exclaim the following:
          “Who is going to call me Peaches now?”
          I hadn’t the heart to tell her the truth.
          I even called Mum by that name as we buried her.
          “I will always love you Peaches,” I said as stony soil was tossed in a brutal fashion onto her coffin.
          The world’s mad but me saying that back then by her graveside clearly demonstrates how the early signs of my madness were already starting to take a firm hold.

An extract from the novel Barking Frog by Joe England

Friday, 11 May 2012

Wrong Horse



A Short Film About Killing by Krzysztof Kieslowski is probably in my Top Ten films of all time. Actually now I’m thinking about it; Top Five. A Short Film About Killing was what you might call my first true World Cinema experience. That film taught me how to read and watch and listen attentively, all at the same time. A cool trick that my school never tried to educate effectively. An eighty-one minute film versus ten years of school. No contest. I don’t know how many times I have seen the film. But more than my years at school. It’s a Polish film and I once used to have this Polish family who lived below one of my flats. I was a bit of a property tycoon during my middle years. Anyway, one of my tenants moaned no end about them, about this Polish family downstairs. They had three kids. All noisy little runts who screamed in Polish. ‘Satanski’s Children’, he always called them. The mother used to scream a great deal in Polish too. Screamed so loud it pierced your inner ear and made it ring; gave you tinnitus. So I rented out my DVD to my tenant – I think his name was Bert but it could have been Barry. I rented him my DVD copy of A Short Film About Killing by Krzysztof Kieslowski and told him to play the film loud. Not in anyway to intimidate, but to communicate a message along the neighbourly lines of: “I’m bothering to widen my mind and my vocabulary by appreciating your own particular language up here, so shut the fuck up right now down there and allow me quality time to read, watch and listen attentively to A Short Film About Killing in absolute fucking peace or they’ll most definitely be war!” A humane message from a second floor flat in Stepney Green being conveyed across the European frontier. But sadly, nothing moved forward. Even more disappointedly, Bert/Barry said he didn’t enjoy the film at all. It made him feel sick, a horrible film that gave him a headache too, he said. Bert/Barry also added how, after watching the film and getting a headache, he was certain that the relentless screaming of the damned from downstairs had increased not decreased. Like they were imagining nightly that they were about to be dragged into a gas chamber. More on gas chambers in a minute. I actually wanted the Polish geezer to come up and complain to Bert/Barry. That he’d walk through the door, and all riot would break out once I received the good news that I could get physically involved myself. I mean, it was my property and my tenant after all and this Polish guy, by all accounts, needed sorting. He was a dickhead, skinny, disposable. A weak man who couldn’t keep his family in line. She was half decent for a rake apparently. I said one time to Bert/Barry that it sounded to me like the family would tuck themselves neatly, collectively, into one coffin. Mummy, daddy, little boy and two sisters; put a lid on their big mouths. I said to Bert/Barry that we should bury our Polish problem on some windswept moor. He said that it was a sick thing for me to have said and definitely not the romantic vision I had stipulated. Perhaps I should feel rotten about such morbid ideas. But I’ve always tried to remain true to myself. I mean, when I was a small boy growing up, my life all unmapped territory, I used to be fascinated by The Final Solution. It was something so big a theme to flap around a small boy’s mind like a trapped bat. While I could understand our tiny insignificant place within the context of the Universe, I just could not fathom how it was possible to exterminate so many people, to do so, so ruthlessly mechanical. Gas chambers. I drew a picture of one when I was about nine years old.


To an onlooker my gas chamber was just a square with five stick people bent over and a lot of squiggles above them. Those five stick people I was having gassed in my drawing was a definite form of release. It was the first time I recognised that I had the talent to create and how it could help me feel comfortable about dealing with idiots. My background was pretty tough. But that’s my business. I might be able to project a tough exterior, but I’m a sensitive guy too. My gas chamber did the job. I gassed Mrs Chang, the miserable slanty-eyed midget teacher who beat me in front of the whole class for pretending to light up a cigarette and then refusing to hand over both the unlit fag and Clipper lighter; neither the cigarette or the Clipper lighter belonged to me, they were the property of Carl Richards, so not mine to give away. Anyway, it was madness. Everyone knew back then that I was crippled, held hostage by asthma, and me pretending to smoke a fag was supposed to be a liberating moment for me. But like all teachers, she completely missed the innocent importance of the gesture. While Mrs Chang beat me, I could smell her piss. It was all very unsettling for a small boy. Standing there on that hot day, choking on the stench of her piss while the back of my legs forever reddened courtesy of the hard wooden back of a chalk eraser. So I drew a gas chamber when I got home and had her gassed. For good measure and to be economical with my own free time, I also stuck the old man in there too. He liked to beat me like I was his equal weight and build when I was small and crippled by asthma while still finding my way through those vulnerable, difficult early growing years. Having gassed the old man I also added his cunt of a sick brother, my Uncle Mel. Uncle Mel always tried to stick his hands between my legs at every given opportunity; when family heads were turned elsewhere. I gassed him the slowest. As I was enjoying myself, I chucked in little Terry Coxon and his twin brother Johnny, who both made the mistake in grassing me up to Roger the Bender (our local tobacconist) for nicking a Sherbet Dip right from under his nose. I didn’t need to recreate a gas chamber a couple of years later for Brett Wilson though; even though he was a right evil fucking rotter. Brett Wilson told me a lie that I once believed. More fool me to fall for such fairytale bullshit. You see, he had prefect blonde hair, these bright blue eyes and pink lips like a doll, and he told me one day all candidly, that he was an intergalactic planetary alien sent from a superior planet called, Soror – a planet that orbited a lager Sun in a far more dynamic and evolved neighbouring Solar System. He was certainly both stunning looking and weird with it too, to carry off such a misguided claim. Brett Wilson said that if I gave him a penny every day he would eventually be able to afford on my behalf, the supernatural remedy to cure me of my asthma; I really was once a very ill child: I ended up missing a whole year off of school and when I returned I was still somewhat frail. He must have had nearly eight bob off of me. As I just said, I had been gravely ill. But when I began to get a hold of myself and then had him sussed, and asked politely for my money back, do you know what he said to me? This Brett Wilson. Pratt Wilson more like. He said, “Your tough shit, Dickie, for backing the wrong horse.” Well that was certainly a revelation. I woke up the second those words licked my face with the scent of his foul dog breath and I smacked the cunt, hit him so hard and faster than the speed of light, that not only had I knocked him out, but this beautiful young blue-eyed boy became a fantastic speechless introvert from that moment onwards, ending up overdosing on heroin before he’d gotten out of his stinking teens. And far more important than his timely and welcome exit from the planet Earth, I made sure to this day that I never backed the wrong horse ever again.


An extract from The Killing by Joe England