My fist flamed as if I’d punched concrete. The flame took the heat from my anger, drained me of self-righteousness. I stood, arms hanging, awaiting my fate, wishing only that instead of the pounding I was about to receive, and imagining my mother’s face when I arrived home like that, the dance floor would open under my feet and I would drop between rusting ironwork and enter the black water without a splash and disappear, the end. As my fist bounced off his chin, he had turned from blur-eyed leering drunk into a focussed fighting machine, primed. He actually licked his thick lips as he said, ‘right, you little …’ as a cannonball head hit his breeze-block skull and they both went down, the ring collapsed inwards in a shouting, wrestling, punching heap, with me underneath. Flattened, I was waiting to be crushed to death when Terry’s voice shouted, ‘Alan, this way, you silly beggar, this way!’ As he wriggled, pushed and punched through the bodies, grabbed my wrist and pulled me towards him. Out of the heap, brush knees, straighten hair and tie, mine as well as his, ‘nonchalant does it, don’t look back,’ as the bouncers moved past us, first of the night, he lit a cigarette, cool as an ad, and with his hand under my elbow guided shaky-legged me up the wide curved staircase to the upper bar.
Foot on brass rail, elbow on bar, shot glass out of his top pocket, ‘whisky in there, Tommy, and a pint. And a brandy for my brother. A double. Off to the university next week.’
‘Slummin’ it, eh? You do well to get out. Grab it while you can. I wish I’d stayed in Aldershot after National Service.’
‘Not in Egypt?’
‘Beggar off. Who’s that?’ Inclining his head as he pulled the pint.
‘Wilkies and Dennisons.’
‘They’re kicking off early.’
‘You know them – they’d start a fight over whose turn it is to start it.’
‘At least it’ll get ‘em out of the way,’ as they were marched out head-locked and struggling in a flock of women screaming and hitting the bouncers with handbags.
Terry indicated a table overlooking the dance floor where a woman sat on her own. ‘Thanks, Peg. Do the same for you.’ ‘Any time, luv,’ as she clocked me, rejoined her table. ‘Grab a table early and hang onto it. Now, sip it. And breathe.’ The brandy burned my mouth, scorched my throat, ballooned in my head, calming me as the adrenalin washed away and my thumping heart slowed from gallop to trot. Terry downed his whisky in one and drank steadily from the pint, eyes unfocussed, until half was gone, wiped his mouth, put the glass down, watched the curtains slowly descend, then turned to me, looking concerned. ‘What was that about, our kid?’ I looked over the brass-railed balustrade at the polished floor below, where the whirling couples had already swirled away the disturbance. How to explain? The meat-faced man wrenching the handbag from the pale thin woman, her helpless look as his thick, nicotine-stained fingers fumbled roughly inside the soft leather of her purse, soft as my mother’s purse. My rush of anger at the unfairness. I told him to give it back, he said fuck off without even looking at me. Furious at being ignored, I punched him – I was the good guy in the Western – expecting him to collapse like a dynamited building. ‘He took her purse,’ I said lamely. ‘It’s his wife, for god’s sake! Couples do that when they’re into each other, tangled up in each other, not even knowing which bit’s who when they fight, taking chunks out of themselves as well as each other. That was her belting the bouncers with her handbag. It’s not your polite grammar school down here. Different rules. If there are any rules. More like the jungle.’
Spoken as one who, at twenty-one, was about to finish his time as an apprentice joiner, had learned how to survive, even get on, in a world he too – I suddenly realised when he showed me the panther he’d carved, shy as a schoolboy – didn’t feel he belonged in, even as he was being fitted, was fitting himself, for. A world I’d been given a ticket out of. Flattered by the praise, even respect, that came with passing the eleven-plus, and only mildly resentful at having to give up football and Saturday morning pictures, at first I’d done well at the grammar school, on careless energy and a natural ability unconstrained by home and primary school. But as I fell behind – or, rather, the others pulled ahead in remorseless progress – I realised that they weren’t enough. Rather, they were a hindrance. You needed to be suggestible, obedient, and a dogged hard worker, giving your school time, and your spare time, your life, to believing what you were told, and adapting your way of thinking to theirs. You had to believe in their goals – just as you were realising that they weren’t goals, but way-stations, steps, ever higher, ever narrower, ever more limiting. I had adapted, with much effort, and, because I was clever, I had become successful. A name for the golden honours board. While all the time moving away from what I’d come to call my natural self, even my real self.
‘So, what happened?’ I asked him. He allowed himself a chuckle at the memory. ‘I see you squaring up to Claude Wilkie – that’s who it was, who’s always in the ’papers. Maurice Dennison was passing, so I shouldered Maurice into Claude, then it was Wilkies against Dennisons, and the rest of us can get on with our lives for five minutes,’ with a laugh. Then, more quietly, ‘just hope none of ’em saw me, or I’m dead meat,’ reflective. Then looking at me, ‘anyway, no more of that, tonight. Just remember you’re Alan Brown, not Alan Ladd. You’re here for a last night, not the last rites,’ as he gripped my shoulder, looking concerned. Then looking past me his face softened, ‘ah, there they are. Hang on here a minute. And stay off that high horse of yours,’ as he got up and walked past me.
I had arrived at the dance hall feeling very superior, seeing it all through a film of Orwell and Hoggart words. Now I felt like a child who, from habitually looking from inside, out at the world, through a window covered in printed interpretations, is suddenly out in the street, the words printed on the glass no longer available to him. I had stepped through – or back? – into a world of sensory richness. That I had once – remembering how I’d felt at eleven – known how to … negotiate? No – live in. That I was now bewildered in.
Terry was at the top of the staircase talking to two young women in identical flared, petticoated, satin-bodiced dresses, one pink, one blue, white stiletto heels, with beehive hairdos, one fair, one dark. The fair one was doing all the talking as Terry shepherded them to our table. As I got up, she said, ‘a gentleman at the Pier – that must be a first,’ flashed a smile, a direct look, blue eyes, as they sat down. ‘Our kid, Alan. Off to the university next week.’ ‘You have mentioned it,’ dryly, reached a hand across, a working hand, red nails. ‘Angela. So, you’re the clever one.’ I wanted to explain that, no, it was just a matter of me doing what they said, and working hard, while Terry, the way he carved, that was clever. More than clever. But he’d already turned to the dark-haired girl. ‘You must be Brenda,’ quietly, attentively. She smiled uncertainly, as if overwhelmed by the attention. Angela interrupted, ‘mine’s a Babycham, hers is a Pony. And with cherries, too, like in the ads.’ ‘I’ll get these,’ I said, fingering the two pound notes Terry had pressed into my handkerchief pocket.
Growing anxiety at the crowded bar, futile attempts at eye contact, as I tried to make sense of where the queue was, who was next in the jostling, waving, shouting men, more and more adrift. I’d have stood there forever if an older man hadn’t caught the barman’s eye, said, ‘this lad’s next. And mine’s a pint and port and lemon,’ shrugging off my thanks. As I waited for the drinks to be set up, I looked back at the table, Brenda quiet, Tony intent, Angela talking. And I remembered the evening three months before, sitting in the blue television light, a Monitor programme on Henry Moore, my ever-commentating parents, ‘Why don’t they have faces?’ ‘Maybe he can’t do faces.’ ‘Why do they have holes?’ ‘Makes ’em easier to carry, anyway.’ I saw Terry’s hand grip, whiten, touched his arm, saw his eyes bright with concentration and wonder. He took to getting home late, to a warmed-up dinner. ‘D’you think he’s seeing someone?’ ‘Happen. He’s of an age.’ In our shared bedroom, unwrapping the cloth tenderly, apprehensively. A panther, carved wood. ‘There was an old baluster in the workshop, mahogany – who uses mahogany for balusters? – I asked Mr Bibby if I could stay on after five, carve it. “As long as it’s in your own time, and you switch off the electric when you leave.” That programme. I was seeing something I’d been waiting all my life to see, without realising it. When he talked about the figure being in there, waiting for him to find it. From Honduras, that wood, where there are panthers in the jungle, might have lain on a branch of that tree, waiting to drop on a deer.’ Eyes shining, looking at the panther cradled in his hands, still amazed by it, that he had brought it forth. ‘I’ve never felt so – alive. My mind vivid with images, possibilities, choices. And as if my fingers were the blade edge, my hands the tools, the chisel cutting into the wood, carving where I wanted, but also where it knew to go, finding its way blindly but unerringly, by touch, through he wood, to the surface of the sculpture, everything alive and working together. I could hardly wait each day till the evening, till I could uncover it, terrified it wouldn’t be there, the connection, and finding it there and working on as if there’d been no gap, then wrapping it so carefully. Cycling home, seeing the world in a new way, with a new clarity, waiting through the night, the work day, and it being there. And back into that flow of power, of infinite power, and yet every movement I made specific, and exact, the result of me being exactly there, then.’ Breathless. Then looking anxiously at me. ‘What do you reckon? Is it any good?’
I was being steeped in Abstract Expressionism at the time. But, I’d seen Hepworth’s Two Doves, read Hughes’ “Thought Fox”, Rilke’s “Panther”. And I still, just, had enough native innocence and taste to look at it naively. It took my breath away. The curved surfaces I couldn’t help following with the skin, the prints, of my fingers, the muscled limbs tensed for action, the backbone, every vertebra carved, taut as a bow, sinuous as a snake. Motion stilled, distilled, like the frame from a film, and the whole film in that frame. Trapped vitality, and yet freedom expressed. Caged ferocity and yet innocent energy. ‘All that time, in that staircase, there.’ ‘It’s beautiful. It’s – great.’
All I’d wanted to do was draw and paint. As a child, drawing hour after hour on butcher’s paper, my first small drawing a door into the world inside the paper, bringing figures, objects, shapes to the surface, absorbed in it. But interrupted by my earnest father, seeing my interest, instructing me in scale, perspective, shading, flattening the world onto paper. At the grammar school, the only time I was truly engaged, when I both lost and found myself, was in the double-period of Art each week. Others drew more accurately, illustratively than me. Yet the art teacher, perhaps taken by my concentration, quietly encouraged me. But Art was, like Woodwork, a token subsidiary, peripheral for all except the C and D streams. And as I learned to cultivate teachers’ approbation by being good at academic subjects, the imaginary shrivelled in me. Then, neatly symbolically, I had to give up Art because it clashed with O Level Latin, and I needed that for Oxford. I refocussed my attention on the acceptable Art History and Criticism. On my last day at school, the art teacher sought me out, to wish me well. Puffing on his pipe he said, ‘you liked art, didn’t you?’ ‘I loved it.’ ‘Yes,’ puff puff, ‘loved it. One of the few who did. Shame you didn’t carry on with it.’ ‘I was never that good. Not like Kenny and Frank.’ ‘Oh, they had – facility, yes. But you had – application, intelligence. And, yes, love. A powerful combination. Too few grammar school boys go to art school. A missing link. I enjoyed having you in my classes.’ The road not taken. Now, if I couldn’t be Vincent, I could be Theo.
I showed Terry the art books in the reference library, sat with him until he was comfortable being there, his hands pink from scrubbing. I ordered books from the lending library, borrowed them from the school library, from the art teacher. On Michelangelo, Rodin, Moore, Hepworth, Arp, Brancusi. Working every evening and weekend he made rapid progress. Although tired, he glowed.
He was coming to the end of his apprenticeship. Mr Bibby – Ted, now – wanted him to stay with him, expand the firm, learn pricing and book-keeping, how to build a business through contacts, maybe even marry his daughter, carry on the firm when he retired. I had other ideas. Hadn’t Joe Tilson, a time-served joiner, gone to art school at 21? Terry could do a pre-Dip at the local college, then apply to Leeds or Manchester. I explained about grants. He was uncertain, having failed education at every stage – or, rather, education having failed him. But I felt he was coming round when out of the blue, at the end of the summer, he said, ‘how about coming to the Pier with me tonight?’
Friday night was the big dance night, even though many worked on Saturday morning, because it went on until 2am, whereas the Saturday-night dances had to finish before midnight. And the Pier, at the seaside town four miles away, was the biggest. Not a place many grammar school boys went. But since I’d got my place at Oxford I’d been working on the municipal gardens, getting brown and a little – very little, I realised now – streetwise. And my brother was inviting him out with him.
We dressed in the bedroom we shared. He was always in the latest fashion, a made-to-measure, plum-coloured, Italian-style suit, three button, double vent, angled pocket flaps and velvet facings, with a pink shirt, silk tie Windsor-knotted, burgundy winkle-pickers tied at the side. My suit was dark grey, neutral, off the Hepworth peg, an interview suit, meant to last, white shirt, wool tie conventionally knotted, plain black Oxfords. He folded a white handkerchief into my breast pocket with two pound notes, ‘bonus,’ he smiled. He slipped a three-point pink false handkerchief into his top pocket, carefully combed and re-combed his oiled quiff, doused himself in Old Spice. I brushed my hair flat, either side of a parting, and relied on the long-lasting power of Lifebuoy. The odd couple as we walked to the bus station, me proud but apprehensive in case I met a grammar school pal, had to explain this flashily-dressed working man, met no one.
Off the bus, up towards the prom, past pubs and chip shops, novelty and rock shops, still noisy and busy in September because of the Illuminations. Anticipation in the tide moving towards the Pier, men nonchalant or larky, women in laughing gaggles, clocking and calculating. The evening ahead, each week the dream renewed. While my anticipation, as ever, was of my first view of the beach, the sea, of the state of the tide and the quality of light in the sunset sky and on the rippled back of the dinosaur mountains across the bay. The sky was cloudless and furnace red. As it had been the previous evening, walking with Fiona, her hand soft in mine as earnestly I declared my love for her, while explaining how necessary it was that we both be free when we went to our respective universities, to experience it to the full, and how glad I was that we had respected each other enough that, in spite of our front-room fumblings, we hadn’t gone all the way. Now I saw myself striding along the beach, head full of Stephen Daedalus thoughts, and Fiona, head down, pensive, walking towards me, and us running to each other with a wild, ‘Yes, yes!’ ‘Fine tomorrow,’ Terry, indicating the sky. ‘We’ll be back on that bastard roof,’ as we stepped onto the drumming boardwalk, were funnelled in a jostling stream past ticket booths, through turnstiles and into the vast and noisy ballroom.
As I carried the four glasses unsteadily to the table, I saw that while Angela was doing the talking, Terry’s attention was all on Brenda. I felt put out. I’d thought we’d be spending the evening together. Especially as the visiting band was one of the new Liverpool groups that Terry, and the lads on the gardens, were talking about. Music was the one thing that had kept us connected. Even though I’d strayed into jazz and folk with school friends, my guilty pleasure – and guilty it had to be at the grammar school – was rock and pop. It was the life blood of my musical life. I would listen to Terry’s 45s in a darkened room, playing them in the precise order determined by my mood, putting together the three-minute tales, mood pieces, episodes, life stories, anthems and arias into that session’s opera of love and loss, regret and fulfilment, heading unerring as Wagner towards the final disc that, as it fell onto the turntable and the needle engaged, said, at that moment, everything. Leaving me, as the needle lifted, swung back, settled on its cradle, the turntable stopped, in the dark silence, emptied and fulfilled.
After a couple of minutes of awkward talk, in which Terry drank most of his pint, he turned to me, ‘will you be alright if me and Brenda dance?’ ‘He’ll be fine,’ Angela laughed. ‘Won’t we, Alan? Beggar off and dance.’ As they hurried away, Terry’s hand both protectively and proprietorially on the tight satin back of Brenda’s dress, his legs almost lost in the froth of petticoats pushing her skirt out, Angela murmured, ‘true love ways.’ ‘Do they know each other?’ ‘Never met before tonight. Me and Bren work together. He saw her, asked me to bring her. She said he looked alright, she’d come. She usually goes to the Floral Hall. We’ll see, we’ll see.’ ‘Because – I could more see you and Terry together.’ She laughed, a lovely open laugh, her blue eyes merry then serious, ‘everyone says that. But, we never have, and we never will. We’re mates, always have been. We met at the coffee bar years ago, hit it off, knew from the start it was too important to mess up by getting … involved. And too precious to waste on marriage. Ah, there they are,’ looking down at the dance floor where they were shuffling round, heads apart, talking. ‘My, it is serious.’ Silence. Then turned to me, blue eyes all attention, ‘so, you’re the clever one he’s always praising to the skies.’ I hadn’t known that. ‘You must be dead proud of yourself.’ I’d never thought about it like that. And suddenly, having left the givens of school at Easter and worked on the gardens all summer, mowing, weeding, raking, digging, not a thought in my head except my own, of the books I was reading and the thoughts that came while cycling, feeling, for the first time, something like – free, I found myself confessing, to this woman I’d just met, yet felt so at ease with, my doubts about the future, my misgivings about the past. At having missed out on my teenage years, the friends, real friends, from primary school I hadn’t spoken to since, who’d carried on playing football, met girls in the coffee bar, started going to the pub, grown up. While I was up in my room, a perpetual schoolboy filling my head with second-hand stuff. How, having passed the eleven-plus, I’d found I could do well, was encouraged, led on, I’d responded to their praise, accepted their guidance, they’d replaced my father, I’d tried harder when I disappointed, learned how to be good at exams, graded well, was picked out at each stage, as the path got narrower and steeper there was always a goal, but each goal turned into the starting point for a new goal. ‘It’s like a steeplechase. D’you know “curriculum” means race track? Lots of us at the start but as it goes on the fences get higher, there are fewer of us left, until just the select few. To what end?’ She’d smiled amused as I’d got carried away, now looked serious, a shrug at – that’s the way the world is, said, ‘big salary, nice house in a posh part of town, nine to five not eight to six, never dirty or dog-tired, foreign holidays. For starters. I could go on.’ ‘I suppose. And the chance to do some good. Help kids as a teacher. Make the place better as a planner.’ ‘Just don’t expect any thanks. It’s them and us, and you’ll be them,’ sharply, then more sympathetically, ‘anyway, you’re bound to be unsure. It’s a big change.’ Briskly, ‘you’ll be fine when you get there, forget all about us, shake this place off your shoes,’ then looking past me, ‘and talking of shaking shoes, behold the dancers’ return,’ as Terry and Brenda appeared, looking dazed, hand in hand. ‘Now it’s our turn. Come on, they’re playing our tune!’
Angela was up and walking briskly towards the stairs before I was out of my seat. Following, I could observe, with a growing sense of revelation, her neat, defined figure. High blonde hair up from the strong slender column of her neck, vertebrae and scapulae defined above the tightly-zipped satin dress, skirt a frothy mushroom brushing the tables, alluring inch of thigh above the knee-crease, sheen of nylon on strong legs, calf muscles sculpted by stiletto heels, she was self-possessed, defined. I couldn’t wait to catch up with her. ‘A’right, Ang? See yer later, eh?’ From one of the men lounging at the bar, spoken with a leering edge. ‘In yer dreams,’ head up, back straight, but a pink tinge to her ivory neck. She waited at the top of the stairs, but withheld her hand as we descended. Only on the dance floor did she take my hand, twirl round to face me, enveloping me in a blizzard of petticoat, a wave of perfume and a dazzling smile, as we assumed the position and launched out onto the vast polished dance floor.
She was a brilliant dancer. I had learned conscientiously in the bare studio above Fifty Shilling Tailors, followed the footprints and arrows in Victor Sylvester’s book in our bedroom while holding a pillow, watched my parents practise, before the season of dinner-dances, in the living room, my father dominant and preening, a manipulating matinée idol, my mother, passive, docile. I’d even kept time for them when small – we had no record player before Terry bought one – “Jel – ousee, night and day you tor – ture me!” And I’d struggled round the scuffed parquet floor at school dances with awkward grammar-school girls as their overdeveloped thinking brains forced neglected bodies into book-correct positions.
Angela sparkled on the dance floor, as if illuminated by the spinning mirror ball, light on her lightning feet, turning and swaying in perfect balance, leading all the time while moving backwards and appearing to be led, avoiding my missteps adroitly, turning my errors into stylish moves, navigating us around the dance floor and between hesitant couples unerringly, round and round in a breathless whirl. My father fancied himself as the matador, my mother less bull than cape, to be flourished. Angela was the torero, I the bull – not to be toyed with and set up, but to be raised to a higher level in the choreography of the ring. Her attention and encouragement drew me into her realm of dance, turned be from heavy- to light-footed, raised me onto the balls of my feet, straightened my back, moved, gradually, the centre, the motor of my dance, down from my head, through shoulders and arms, touching, so briefly, my heart, to spin vibrantly in my hips. I was breathless and exhilarated as we danced through a repertoire of dances I didn’t know I had. In a slow dance she allowed her breast to rest for a moment against my chest, her head briefly on my shoulder, enveloping me in her perfume, murmured ‘green apple’, then collected herself, eased away, smiled, said, ‘you’re not a bad dancer.’ ‘A quick learner – with the right teacher.’ ‘And silver-tongued with it. That won’t work with me,’ pause, ‘but you can keep trying, I quite like it.’ The music changed again, ‘okay, let’s go for it – “it’s only tango you love!”’
As we left the floor I wanted to walk with her, hand in hand, flushed and proud, triumphant, up the stairs and along the length of the bar to our table, together. Instead she ran quickly ahead, at the top of the stairs signalled to Brenda and was gone, heading for the Ladies. Confused, I walked to the table exposed, alone.
Terry pointed to a full pint, ‘get yourself round that, our kid,’ looking down as he drew on his cigarette, then up as he blew the smoke towards the plaster angels. I sipped, then drank more. ‘Alright?’ he asked, with an anxious smile. ‘Nonplussed.’ ‘Bugger,’ to himself, then, to me, ‘sorry, it’s got complicated.’ Took another drag, blew out the smoke, leaned forward so our heads were close. I smelled his hair oil and aftershave. ‘I knew things’d be right with me and Brenda, just knew it. And I wanted you to know, about us, right from the beginning, what with the other stuff we talked about. So you’d understand. And Ang said, that’s alright, I’ll look after him. Thing is, it’s obvious you and her have a liking for each other.’ He held up a hand as I opened my mouth to speak. ‘It’s not a problem, so long as you know what’s going on. Ang is a good sort, the best. I’d trust her with my life. And with my kid brother,’ he added with a quick smile. ‘Trouble is – this,’ his hand encompassing the crowded, coarse-voiced, smoke-filled bar, the bobbing dancers on the sea of the dance floor, the figures sat at tables around the dance floor, the lounging, waiting men. ‘It’s her world. And it’s not yours. Eyes see. Voices talk. Gossip distorts. Scores are settled. She’s enough of her own woman to generate resentments. And if she got a reputation, every young bloke’d be trying it on, make her life a misery. So,’ briskly carrying on, not letting me speak, ‘we’re going to mix it up, confuse the pack so to speak. You spend time with Brenda – anyway, it’ll help you get to know her, and her you – poor girl, if she can follow a word you say,’ quick grin. ‘Ang can go see her mates, dance with a few others, lay false trails. And you and me can spend some time together. I know,’ as again I opened my mouth to speak, ‘I’m sure there’s some grammar school guff about honesty, integrity and being true to yourself. Those are luxuries here, not givens. And you’ll soon be gone. But life’ll go on, here, for her, in the unfair way it does. Now,’ getting to his feet, ‘the group’ll be on soon. Look, the lasses are down there already. Come on.’
The stage had been stripped of the bandleader’s podium and the house band’s ‘AA’ monogrammed music stands, replaced with a basic drum kit, three microphones, and a few small amplifiers. Girls had gathered, chest high to the stage, pastel flowers bunched, swaying and expectant. The young men stood behind, in dark knots, more circumspect but alert, primed by rumour and reports of those who’d seen the new groups in Manchester and Liverpool.
Music had come to me unbidden, unfiltered and uncontrolled, in fragments for me to grab out of the air and hold onto: an unexpected record on a request programme, in the air when passing an open window, intermittent through a pub’s swinging door, almost drowned-out from a juke box in a noisy café, half a record on Luxembourg, never heard again. School friends had grown up with classical and dance records on radiograms at home, had jazz and folk LPs that we played at parties and that came with narratives attached. It was only when Terry bought a record player, and began buying a 45 a week, almost two hours’ wages, that I could begin to build a structured memory-theatre of the popular music that, unknown to us, was about to unfurl through the next decade. The next forty-five minutes was a precursor, a concentrated preparation, and that evening was an atomic blast, followed by a wave of radiation through me, that winnowed me, took me apart, and put me together again reconfigured, and ready for what was to come.
They skipped onto the stage carrying their guitars, fizzing with energy, jostling each other familiarly, laughing at a private joke, while clocking us, summing us up – were we worth the effort of a real show? Three guitars, drums, the Shadows’ line-up. But, no matching suits, slick hair, eager-to-please smiles. This was an encounter. Dressed individually, different characters, unselfconsciously archetypal, expressing differences that would be concealed in the stylish and style-setting outfits that launched and helped to mythologise their breakthrough – the necessary ‘look, sound, style’ for stardom. That they would gradually discard so that they emerged as the four threads in the immaculate weave. They plugged in, one said, ‘’evening – one two three four,’ and they hit us, loud, raw, and perfectly together, with Johnny B Goode. One voice was as harsh as tearing metal while clean as a blade edge; one was choir-boy perfect and yet soulful as a Delta bluesman: together they were as tight as the Everlys, but with their own harmonies, honed to fractions of notes that locked together like the machined parts in the factory they’d worked in together. Their set ranged from raw Chicago blues to Buddy Holly lyricism, a popular show tune to the teen angst of “Endless Sleep” (I shivered at the ocean under my feet), “Twenty-Flight Rock” as a madcap novelty sung by the drummer, until the guitarist picked up a Hank Marvin lick, then twisted it into a nightmare climb up through a dangerous tower block. Unknown, to most of this audience, songs from Terry’s “London American” label collection. Every genre mined, its ore extracted, refined, and then combined into fissile and combustible material that would a month later be released in their epoch-making breakthrough. We were there at the perfect moment – each element was still visible in the wave that was rising, rising – and would be concealed when it broke. Girls screamed, men roared, a final reverberating chord, ‘tara’, and gone.
We stood, staring at the absence. What had just happened?, as the drum-kit and amplifiers were swept away and the music stands and podium brought on. We weren’t ready to react. As the white-tuxedoed house band filed quickly on, took their places, eyes on the bandleader’s raised wand of forgetting and remembering that worked, just, as it swung them into a saxophone-led quickstep, to smooth the turbulent air, soothe crackling ears, return rebellious feet to the regimen of strict-tempo. We turned and walked away in a daze. Only in retrospect, after their first single, did I begin to understand.
But maybe that night, as we walked back up to our table, silent, maybe if it’d just been the two of us, maybe we’d have started talking, and begun to reconnect. In minutes over pints, hours on walks, days on bike rides, bringing our different perspectives, we’d have put something new together. Not just in the music, but through music, into our lives. And mutually enriched them. Instead of staying either side of the divide, that was probably, yes, in our natures, but had been turned by our educations into an unbreachable barrier.
Back at the table Angela and Brenda were chattering animatedly about the group, the characteristics of each forensically examined, what each would be like to go out with, ‘he was sweet,’ ‘he’d be like an octopus, that one,’ nothing about the music, although stirred up by it, their eyes bright, their movements quick. Terry and I smiled indulgently across at each other as we sat, relaxed, allowed the music to sink into us.
Gradually the evening resumed its prescribed trajectory. Angela went to spend time with friends. I danced with Brenda. She was a decent, conventional dancer. Quiet, and quietly determined. She knew what she wanted, the husband, the kids, the house – probably knew what colour the first curtains would be – the accumulation of a life, her horizon the edge of the possible, never beyond. She and Angela worked together. ‘She taught me,’ she said, looking up, eyes bright. ‘Always looks out for me.’ They were burlers and menders: new-woven worsted always had burls (knots), snags, misweavings, tears. They worked through the wide bolt of cloth, fold after fold, repairing, disappearing the mistakes, making good. It was a skilled trade, they earned good money on piecework. ‘Who’s better, you or Angela?’ ‘Ang, when she’s on it. She’s so fast, so perfect – she has to slow herself down else they’d cut her rate. But sometimes, I don’t know, it’s as if she’s fighting the job, fighting not to be suffocated by the folds of cloth. It’s the devil in her, she says. Me, I’m steady, same money, every day, every week. Ang says you could set the sun by me,’ quietly proud.
The evening unfolded, in the way of well-established social occasions, rituals, each person, including the Dennisons and Wilkies, playing their part. People appeared at the table, were introduced, information was exchanged, jokes and anecdotes shared, rumours as they circulated hardened into truths, arrangements were made – sharing a motor bike to a football match, meeting for a bike ride, doing a private job together. Gossip, humans’ primate grooming, the social matrix. I was bad at it, had been trained for singularity, the tall poppy striving out of the wheat towards the sun. I learned, later, the middle-class version, called networking, needing it to get on, even stay in the same place, not get left behind. That evening I engaged it, working-class society, vicariously, unmeshed from the cogs of responsibility. I had a brief dance with Angela. She said again, under her breath, ‘green apple’, then decisively to herself, ‘and I’m scrumping’, squeezed me and was gone. I was intoxicated, by the alcohol, and the decoupled experiencing. Terry kept an eye on me, moved me onto shandies, wordlessly reminded me that I was freeloading, that this was a joyride, that I was a privileged, non-paying passenger.
He danced the last waltz with Angela, I with Brenda. By this time she was resting comfortably against me as we danced, as if she’d resolved enough of the unknowns to cope with me if she took Terry on. Then, as the band galloped through The Queen, ignoring the leader’s measured baton, we rushed for the cloakroom and out into the shocking night air. It was dark, the Illuminations off, the air fresh and still. Oh, how I wanted to linger, take it in, absorb in the darkness my illuminated evening! But we rushed across the echoing boardwalk, onto one of the waiting buses, up through its cold interior onto the top deck.
Things can happen on the last bus. Fifty mainly young people, mostly drunk, mostly knackered, emotions rubbed raw, crammed into a a harsh-lit tin can swaying too fast round corners and roundabouts, in a thickening fug of cigarette smoke, clashing perfumes, beery breath and sweat, sometimes, fortunately not on this one, vomit. Control of the mood depended on the conductor, his right-judged combination of cajolery and command. As soon as he’d rung the bell twice, rattling his leather money pouch and heavy rotary ticket machine, he moved down the bus through the crush, ‘alright, have your ten pences ready. And don’t try “I’ve only got a pound note”, ’cos you’ll get a hundred and twelve pennies in change. It’ll lighten my bag. Na’then, Jimmy? D’you know you’re on the first bus to Scaleforth? Good job you’ll not be driving. Wake up, pal, pay up or get off, and it’s a long walk home. This is non-stop to the depot, so if you want to get off, we’ll slow down and you can jump, just kidding, ring the bell – once! – well before your stop – and if you ring it, yer off, no messin’. Come down from up there! I can see you in the mirror, no standing on the top deck. I don’t know, yer’d think some had never been on a bus before. Awright, luv? Take care of yer mate when you get off, get her home, there’s a good lass. Fares ready, please!’
I sat with Brenda, looked around, careful not to catch eyes. The timid young couple, she plain, he dazed, practising the unfamiliar mechanics of holding, being held. The raw-boned man, clenching his anger, itching for a fight. The older couple, she snoring open mouthed against his shoulder, his eyes closed. This was it, the world I’d been helicoptered out of. Did I really miss it? And yet Terry was in it, Angela was in it. They were sitting together. A man climbed unsteadily out of his seat, a sly grin as he groped from seat to seat, thick-voiced, ‘aright, Ang? I thought you’d be cummin’ home wi’ me ternight?’ Terry put a hand on my shoulder, stood up, ‘na’then, Andy? Bloody good group, eh? Did you say your mate wanted some shelves puttin’ up? Tell him to call round – you know where I live. Good to see you, pal. Best sit down, eh?’ as the bus lurched round a corner. Andy struggled back to his seat, wondering what had just happened. Terry’s hand was still on my shoulder.
We got off with several others by the bridge. A man slouched quickly away, a woman shouting after him, ‘yer ought ter be fuckin’ ashamed of yersel, what yer did, fuckin’ ashamed!’ Hurled a pink stiletto-heeled shoe that bounced off his back, as he hurried on she limped, weeping, shoe in her hand. Angela gripped my arm.
Arm in arm the four of us walked along the path by the river, through the garden created when they’d demolished the riverside cottages and put up the flats. Wimpey’s contribution to the International Style. ‘Less is less,’ my teacher’s comment. ‘Welcome to the other side of the river,’ said Angela. ‘But you’ve a nice view of the city,’ I said brightly. ’Exactly,’ she said acidly. Aware, but not caring, when the hand dropped from my left arm, one pair of clicking heels fell away, it was just us two, her arm pressing mine against the side of her breast, me smelling her perfume and hairspray, aware of the occasional distant car, the murmuring of the river, a single bird call, the overarching silence in which our footsteps were slowing, stopped. A grass area among the bushes. Expecting a clinch and a kiss, instead, ‘back in a minute,’ shoes off, heading for the bushes. ‘And you might want to lose some of that beer.’ I peed long and pleasurably, as high up a tree as I could, telling myself, this is a different world, go with it; being drunk, but not too drunk, helped, that altered reality that at the time seems normal. She emerged from the bushes briskly, more visible as my eyes accustomed, hair down, petticoats over her arm, put them down with her handbag and shoes. Hands on my shoulders, again I expected a kiss, slipping my jacket off, laying it on the ground, lying on it, looking up at me, ‘well, green apple.’ As I knelt beside her, ‘ever the gentleman, keeping your tie on. That’d be a first. Or maybe not,’ a wicked smile, enjoying teasing me, and I was alright with that, as I pulled it off, ‘and that,’ unbuttoning my shirt, her hand stroking me, ‘mm, soft. And,’ as my shirt came off, ‘brown! You been to the Riviera with your posh pals?’ ‘Working on the gardens,’ bent down to kiss her. Expecting closed eyes and pursed lips, resistance. Instead her eyes bright, watching me down, drawing me to her, lips soft, mouth open, active tongue, hand pulling my head down, me down on her, my weight on her. Almost overload, tongue, teeth, wide mouth emptiness, taste of toothpaste, alcohol, faintly tobacco, her breath, her working lips, her body soft, moving under mine, almost overload but not, used to resistance, none, go with it. Hand on breast, no bra, soft breast, hard nipple through fabric, hand on her knee, push up, waiting for the hand to stop me, no hand, past the suspendered stocking-top, smooth thigh, waiting for knickers to stop me, no knickers, hand panicking, swallow as best I could with her tongue in my mouth, where to go, keep going, thigh, crease, hair, a sigh, her hand pressing mine between her legs, soft, wet, moving against my fingers, ‘put it in,’ roughly pulling my trousers and pants down, bum exposed, couldn’t feel it, sure its limp, felt her hand, ‘oh yes,’ pulling me in, between spread thighs, into hair and lips, parting, in, as if sucked in by a cosmic mouth, gone. My cock had vanished. Used to feeling it in my hand, against a leg, nothing. And then she moved, side to side, I felt it ringed by her flesh, staring into a vast emptiness, moving in a new way as her flesh pressed my flesh, bone against bone, a new movement, but then the tickling in my toes, the inexorable rise through me, no, please not now, hardly moving, came and came, into the vast dark emptiness, collapsed on her, panting and apologising.
Dress top down, my face on her breasts, her hand stroking my head. Aware that I should be cradling her against my manly chest, not caring, soft, safe and wrapping myself around the memory of pushing through, into her, being in her, coming in her, coming to her, and realising that wanking, my sex life for five years, short-circuits the connection, self-completes, is fantasy. ‘Well,’ her voice distant, ‘first time for both of us.’ ‘Mm?’ ‘Your first time, my first virgin.’ ‘Don’t, please.’ ‘Sorry, luv, just being realistic. Because I like it. And you’re sweet. Not that way. Sweet as a nut. Brown and sweet as a nut. Most blokes carry the sourness of the world on them. You’re like the soft meat in the middle of a hazelnut,’ voice trailing away. Rallying, ‘now, I’m going to show you something that’ll make you very popular among the professional virgin college girls. And me with it, if you get it right. Give us your hand,’ putting it between her legs. ‘Blokes usually rummage around as if they’re searching for a grommet in a tool bag. Or they push in as far as they can with as many fingers as they can, as if there’s something inside. There’s nothing in there, just an oven, warmed up and waiting. The secret’s out here, there, under there, just your fingertip, feel it? Tiny, but touch it – gently, you’re not polishing a doorknob – that’s better, and ooh, feel it, coming out to play? Yes, now, yes, more, yes,’ arms stretched above her head, eyes closed, head twisting from side to side, fists working, me touching, watching, working, she rising, rising, and coming with a long shudder, ‘now, stick it in me!’, amazed to find myself erect, and in, and then a battle, sometimes play, sometimes serious as we each tried to make the other come. Pressing her legs apart with my thighs, holding her hands above her head, my tongue deep in her mouth, she raking my sides with her nails, pulling my head back by the hair, hard, me thrusting and thrusting, she grinding and grinding, and then her brilliant, delicious winning move, her false-nail finger up my bum, deep, ‘JEEsus!’ ‘Gotcha.’ I came and came, each aimed exactly at her centre, then slowing, like a piston when an engine’s lost steam, collapsed. Wanting to pull out, lie on my back, open to the stars, she was having none of it, murmured ‘not yet,’ gripped her hands round my lower back holding me in, pushed against me, again and again, I thought she was going to break it, now tender, off at the root, at last she came, released me, ‘now’, sank into the earth with a long sigh as I lay beside her, staring up, my cock the axis of the universe. She moved to lie against my chest, small, mouse-like, then playing with my nipple and the single hair on my chest, and pulling it out. ‘Ouch!’ ‘Just don’t go to sleep. I hate that.’
Where to go? What to do? Gradually coming to, remembering our situations, dressing quietly, soberly. Standing up, aware of the flats, aware of the river, the city. I kissed her awkwardly, she responded awkwardly, then shouted over my shoulder, ‘y’aright, Bren?’ A muffled ‘fine.’ She looked at me, shrugged, ‘sorry, have to be careful, force of habit. You’d – not understand.’ Then shouted, ‘we’re off ter look a’t river,’ deliberately coarsening her accent. ‘Don’t fall in.’ An over-bright smile, ‘come on, cob nut. That’s what I’ll call you. You’re cob, and you’re a nut. I’ll think of you at Christmas.’ Hair down, stringy, and brittle with spray, makeup smeared, breasts hanging loose in her dress, shoes and trailing petticoats in her hand, hand in hand, hers a work hand, mine soft, with fresh callouses that would be gone in a month.
We stood looking at the river. Low at the end of the summer, it was running in rippling ribbons between bright gravel islands, some with vegetation that would be swept away by the first autumn storm. Soon the tide would turn, the river fill with the sea. ‘Sun’ll be up soon. You in today? Me and Bren are. And Terry. I’ll kip this afternoon.’ Silence, river murmur. ‘Me gran had one of the cottages. Just here. I loved the river. Always different. Us girls’d wade over when it was low, like now, skirts tucked in our knickers, for a dare, getting shouted at from the bridge, birds on the islands, sea birds I suppose, black and white, darting movements, long pink legs and sharp red beaks, as if they’d been rummaging in a corpse, we’d scare each other with where it was, ‘Look out! you’re goin’ to step on it!’ Next week full, like sliding lead, hardly getting under the bridge, round the bend like a racing car, carrying tree trunks like battering rams, birds perched on them, expecting to see houses, people clinging to the chimneys, ‘Help! Help!’, like at the pictures. Sometimes it’d come through her cottage, in the front, out the back, never deep, we’d sweep it through, no lino, nan quite liked it, ‘keeps the flags clean.’ Broke her heart when they “condemned” it – to get it cheaper – put her in the flats. Tenth floor. I was living with her, moved with her. She hated it, boxed in, lifts always breaking, shouting and banging from the other flats, kids hanging around the lobby, rubbers on the stairs. Didn’t live long, poor luv, just gave up. On my own at fourteen. Waking from dreams, looking out on – no, for – the river. Once, just once, in that luminous moment of just waking, caught it, full to the brim, still as mercury, in the deepest silence of the night, at the moment of its arrival at its highest point, like a breath held, before its letting go, the beginning of its long flow out. I imagined myself lying on it, looking up at the full moon, being carried along, carried away, to who knows where. Just once. Christ, I’d love a fag.’ ‘I’ve got one,’ rummaging in my pocket, one of Terry’s. ‘I thought you hated smoking? Why I’ve been off ’em all evening, apart from the odd puff.’ ‘I do, but, you – fancy one.’ ‘I do, you’re right, I fancy one, that’s me.’ Lit it, drew deeply, coughed, ‘first of the day’, offered it to me, a quick drag, tasting her lipstick, handed it back. She watched the river silently, puffing, said, not looking at me, ‘you’ll not encourage him, with this college idea, will you?’ ‘Have you seen it?’ ‘Yes, just you and me.’ ‘But it’s …’ ‘magnificent, I know. But. Two stories:
‘My uncle’s a joiner. A good one. Says Terry’s very good indeed. Carpenters, he says, think in tenths, joiners in hundredths, cabinet-makers in thousands. Of an inch, that is. Tony thinks in thousands, while producing really good joinery, to a price. Added value. The job of joinery isn’t to stand out but to fit in, to disappear. His disappears. But it makes people feel better, without them knowing why. Makes the world a better place. A precious quality.
‘Story two. When I was fifteen I started hanging round The Wheelwright – you know, the little pub where the art-school types and the cultured wish-they-weres hang out, all talk, no do. Although, in my way, blotting paper, I learned a lot from them. There was a bloke, older, painter, badly dressed, bad teeth, did a bit of teaching at the art school, usually sat in his corner wrapped around his half pint, watching with mild distaste. Every so often he’d come in with a pocket of money, throwing it around, the centre of attention, talking nineteen to the dozen, about everything, against everything, a roaring drunk. Then, next night, back in his corner. I went home with him one night. Untidy flat over a stables, his studio. Offered myself to him. ‘Thank you, but, no,’ he said, ‘I might get back a taste for it,’ polite, respectful, regretful. Asked him to show me his paintings, took me down, the studio was empty, just one painting on a paint-splattered easel. ‘Where are they?’ ‘This is it. I paint and repaint the same picture, every day, eight hours a day. Some days it’s crap. Some days it’s as near to perfect as I can do.’ ‘Aren’t you tempted, on one of those days, to take it off the easel?’ ‘Tempted, yes. But, I resist. It’s not a painting, see, it’s painting. Not making an object, but a process. And it pisses off my dealer because there’s no product. Every so often, when I’m really broke, or my nerve fails me, I do one for him. Then I feel lousy, get drunk, throw the blood money away. Blood money. Being a successful artist is about creating a market for your work. Which depends on developing a marketable persona. Some schmooze the critics, or the buyers, others épaté the poor bloody bourgeoisie. It’s a shtick. Mine, too, has become a persona, a shtick, tortured artist who destroys everything he does, just the occasional work rescued. Which is why I still sell. Added value. Blood money because the painting’s part of your blood circulation, pumping out of you, through the painting, back into you, sometimes feeding you, sometimes depleting you. But in the market place it’s pumped out through the painting, then on through critics, dealers, buyers before it returns to you, thinned, contaminated, changed, that you then have to deal with or live with, sustained only by arrogance, ambition, praise, reward, maybe a distant memory of why you painted in the first place, or booze. You soon lose your sense of what’s good in your own work, your taste distorted by the market, the taste-makers, et bloody cetera. In Paris a very popular singer told me that he was in despair – they cheer at every performance, he said, exactly the same, whether I’m good or bad – I no longer know what’s good or bad, just what sells – I’ve lost my taste. With that one picture, I don’t lose my taste.
‘The panther is part of Terry’s blood circulation, his blood’s gone out to it, enriched it, returned enriched. But, put him through art school, put him in the market … A joiner, married, a family. He might never carve another piece – but what that piece has meant to him! Or he may, once, or from time to time, on occasion, the right occasion, go into that shed and come out with, something. A joiner and a mender. Together. Making good. Not bad. Eh?
‘And you, who talk away your education, wish it hadn’t happened, or happened differently, maybe you’re wanting to live something different through him. Your dad wants to live through you what he never had, and you resent that – I know, Terry tells me. And now you … ’Nuff said. Bloody hell, it’s getting light,’ was gone, shouting, ‘come on, Bren, time to get us glad rags off and our sad rags on!’
I caught up with her at the path. Terry and Brenda were sat on the bench, looked like they’d sat there all night, probably had. Angela said, quietly, ‘yes, it is serious,’ then loudly, ‘come on our Bren, put ’im down, you don’t know where he’s bin. We’ll hardly have time to change us knickers before clockin’ on,’ the way she talked changing yet again, as it had all through the evening. She touched my cheek, ‘have a good one, cob nut. I’ll think of you at Christmas,’ and off they clacked, arm in arm, heads together, a wave from both without turning round, gone.
We walked home in silence, the sky lightening over the hills to the east of the city. This was to have been my chance, after our evening out together, to work on him to go to art school. Instead I was preoccupied with myself. Down there, my hips ached from unaccustomed movements, my penis was sore but never more alive, and both, gloriously. Up here, my head was a wild dance of sounds, images, words.
‘She’s …’ I said,
‘Yes, she is. Remarkable. Maybe I should have warned you.’
‘I’d like …’ I said,
‘I know you would. But it doesn’t work like that. Savour the experience. Value it.’
He would marry Brenda. I would make a best-man speech more appropriate to my friends than his, as if to signal the new distance, the divide that was forever uncrossable. He would put up the rail for her chosen curtains, perfectly level, and with a beautifully-carved pelmet board, if she wanted. And I …