More angst at the checkout. The queue of impatient pensioners was building up behind me, the tuts almost audible, as they diligently fought over the placement of territorial dividers. Clearly, they had far less time on their hands than I. As my stuff piled up I noticed a hole in my BAg for Life, out of which potatoes were tumbling. The kind assistant said she would replace it for free. ‘Thanks,’ I said, ‘but this is a sad moment for me. And I will need to change my will.’ She was sympathetic but obdurate, explaining that I could not keep my original damaged but much cherished bag, even if we had been through a lot together. It was not policy. I conducted a small but poignant ceremony of parting. Once the bag was filled up, she asked if I had a nectar card. I explained with sorrow that I do not keep bees. She shared with me the fact that she did not like bees either, but even less so wasps. I felt the need to share that I love bees, but do keep them, lacking a hive. This conversation was developing nicely, breaking through the transactional to the relational level. By this time the trollied crowd were surging forward, practically pushing me out of the door. After a long conversation about the fact that I did not need school vouchers – as I did not at this point plan to open a school – I bade her a fond farewell as I waved my shiny new born-again bag, while wishing all my fellow shoppers a human interaction-free day, tripping over the piles of pumpkins and Christmas chocolates on my way out.
This piece was written as a provocation to a creative writing teacher who said there was no such thing as non-fiction. It got me in deep trouble that I never really got out of . I still do not know what it means.
The familiar susurrus of entering classmates sharing rehearsed excuses for imperfect completion of this week’s homework assignment fills the cavernous lecture room. Out-of-date invites to counselling training sessions remain layered in dog-eared abandonment on the ignored notice board. Dominic enters the room, noticing something that causes him to pause by his teacher’s desk, where she sits in concentration, head down, scanning the register, deftly arranging handouts for this evening’s exercises.
He watches quietly while she sorts copies of what he recognizes as an extract from ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ the scene where the drunken couple quarrel in a high tension power game over the distinction between ‘truth and illusion.’ ‘Sorry to interrupt’ he says, in a vaguely conspiratorial tone, penetrating the invisible cordon sanitaire that usually protects preparing teachers from student invasion, “But if I may be as bold as to say, it is great to see you in that shirt again, it really suits you. It stopped me in my tracks, seeing you wearing that.’
‘Well thanks,’ she acknowledges, absently, brushing the dense mane of dark curls from her face in that familiar reflexive gesture. ‘I just threw it on after the gym … but wait, you think you’ve seen this shirt before?’ He moves a little closer. ‘Oh, I can assure you that I absolutely have. I have a good eye for such things, and a photographic memory. In fact I remember every detail, the subtle check patterning, the way the two buttons are unfastened at the neck, the collar cut just so, the cuffs hanging loosely …..’
She holds up an adamant hand, interrupting his flow. ‘I very much doubt that you have seen this before, but glad you like it. I retrieved it from my sisters only last week. It has been there for a long time, stuffed in her laundry basket, long before these classes started.’ ‘But it is vivid in my memory,’ he protests. ‘I have categorically seen you in this before, in different circumstances. In fact… yes! That’s right; you entered a dream of mine last night, wearing exactly that shirt. You’ve broken my dream.’ ‘Impossible,’ she repeats, flustered, returning to her register, then pausing … ‘Unless, unless … ahhhhh you rogue! Now I know. You only recognize this shirt from my description of it in my short story, the one … ‘ ‘Oh yes …… now I think I recall the story, wasn’t that the one with the scene where you seduce your sister’s ….’
‘Wait a minute. How could you suggest that it was me that seduced or whatever, just because my shirt featured. You cannot infer that.’ ‘How do I know that it was not you, or a description of a………?’ ‘Because I am telling you that it wasn’t,’ she hisses. She notices to her visible annoyance that the class has long since given up pretence of symmetrically lining up their water bottles and bananas, guiltily rapt as they are in collective voyeurism of this escalating drama.
Her scolding upward glance returns them to displacement activity, witnessing much self-conscious paper shuffling and pen arranging. Dominic relishes the tension of this moment, particularly when he and teacher have uneasy witnesses who really should be occupied with something else. The pendulum is poised, he could swing it either way, he is in charge, free to push it further, or to back off. As he dwells in this moment of choice, the boom of the University bell sounds six o’clock, signaling the time for life writing. Dominic returns to his seat, heart racing, savouring the crackle of static between them both still.
He checks, satisfied that he has not gone too far this time around, just far enough to destabilize things, but not too far, not like the time when his interruptions became too insistent, too obvious, too personal. Teacher’s public expulsion of him from class that time was exquisitely memorable, the frisson of triumphant humiliation with him still. That banishment was the ultimate sensation for them both, but the endgame meant a death also.
This time around they need to keep it close to the edge and no further; they cannot afford to lose each other again, not like that. Last nights dream pervades his mood with aftershocks, the flash backs irrepressible.
She was wearing that self same checked shirt again, distributing remaindered copies of her novel to the whole class. She had copies of the DVD version of the book on display too, though we had to pay for these. Each DVD came with plastic figurines of the main characters taped to the box. One of the figurines wore that shirt too. I tried to steal a DVD, but she confronted me, standing over me demanding that I paid. I said “ I never pay for it,” and with that we were suddenly locked together, my fingers gripped in her hair, pulling her towards me, tumbling towards the floor, lips bruising, fists pummeling, figurines scattering everywhere, landing in improbable juxtapositions ….’
She composes herself, absently playing with a button on her shirt while reminding the class by way of introduction of the workshopping rules forbidding questioning of the verisimilitude of each others’ related life stories. Dominic feels a rush to challenge these strictures, but holds back, wary as Jim the Brixham trawler man sitting directly across the U-shaped classroom stares him down. Jim bristles with protective hostility, feeling secure in the praise that is heaped upon him by teacher for the ‘ refreshing primitivism’ of his tales of fishy-do upon the not quite so high seas, buoyed by the suggestion of publication, and the implicit promise of closeness to his Siren’s heart.
He has ceased apologizing for his lack of letters, exhibiting instead pride in his singular expression .He words his world with the vocabulary and rhythms of the sea, and of seafarers. She begins class with a reading from an anonymous student’s work, an extract illustrating how to draw upon personal experience to enliven the description of fictional characters inner emotions. Today’s emotion is jealousy, jealousy to the point of possession.
Dominic’s attention is far away, locked into an alternative narrative concerning a literary fight to the death between two quite opposite scribbling protagonists. The rules are quite strict, the prize being … he cannot quite divine the prize. A shift in the cadence, in the intimacy of her recital draws him back to the present …. ‘He could not remove his gaze from her face across the dinner table. After all these years, all these long years ago, since she had released him, since she and she alone had helped him find his voice. And now here they are, together at last, but she blanking him utterly or so it seemed in public. In private she would no doubt scornfully acknowledge him again, reminding him of her surrender, of his betrayal, then of his cowardly fleeing. A
nd while she told her everyday tale to her fellow guests, her hand casually found that of her partner, fingers entwined, her diamonds twinkling in the candle night, as her lover indulges her with that possessive smile that says money can buy whatever you want after all, once a heart is broken.’ Dominic is transported , with wincing immediacy, to the pain of that time when he invited and deserved betrayal,, understanding all over again the price he has had to pay for his tricksiness, how from now on all else about the relationship must be consigned forever to secrecy and ambivalence, to illusions and shadows. How could she choose to read this now, when she so surely knows what it will release? She has taken this too far this time, jeopardizing everything.
This is no random reading, no anonymous student …. Jim’s soft whistle of recognition breaks the class’s contemplative silence, catching teacher’s attention. ‘Jim, you first. What do you make of that reading, in terms of emotional resonance?’ She sweeps the hair from her eyes, shoots her checked cuffs while leaning forwards, the arched eyebrows demand nothing less than sincerity. ‘Well, Miss, to be quite honest with you, I don’t know nothing about emotional resonance, whatever that is, we don’t have no meter to measure that in our engine room, but it was well put, I must say that, it was well put. But I hope it never happens to me. I just hope it never happens to me.’
Toast to the Bs – ‘Bees on Toast’ Bs dinner 9thMay 2014 – last call for Sunbury. The invitation to speak at the diner looked innocent enough at first of course but then all first approaches from the shadowy Bs organisation are unusually cloaked with benign intent, while under that surface dark energies ripple. This latest approach came from Bryan Murphy, asking if I would toast the Bs at the dinner in May. I sighed inwardly, rehearsing excuses but knowing in my heart that there was in truth no escape.
I realized that my best course of action would be simply to resign myself to my fate, knowing that resistance would be futile. As an exercise in damage limitation I asked Kitty Murphy how long he would require me to endure this trial, how long would I have to be facing the derision of the assembled mob. He was typically evasive on this subject, taking the usual Bs get out that he would need to consult ‘the others.’
Well. we all know that there is no recognizable governance within the Bs, There are only these ‘ others’, picked or more likely imagined to suit the occasion, where the wishes of the individual are crushed in the name of supposed consensus. He refused to specify the duration so I was left alone to ponder the possible solutions to the question ‘how long is a Bs dinner speech?’
Even in the Zen state gained through watching the semi finals of the Eurovision song contest in George’s old pub while waiting for the ordeal that was the dinner to commence this question defied an answer. As easy to ask the question ‘How long is a Bs anecdote?’ or ‘how long is the career of a B?’ These are the imponderables of the ages. A Bs speech could not be the aggregation of all of the Bs anecdotes ever told, that would represent infinity.
It might attempt to be a highlights passage, one story from each tour maybe, but the attempt to balance ancient and freshly minted contemporary tales would never be achieved to the satisfaction of both the ancients and the moderns. The main peril would be in deciding who to mention and who to leave out. The peril lies in the knowledge that while those mentioned would bask in momentary glow of recognition, those ignored would gain longer lasting satisfaction from parading this slight and the associated mortification over pint after pint to any B who would be prepared to listen. Which would be everyone as all Bs worth their salt bask in vicarious scandal and personal injury, while feigning to be above such gossip.
The bald truth is that deep down not only did I never want to have to make this speech: deep down I never wanted to become a B. Back in the early eighties I was happy enough poddling along in the lower reaches of the As enjoying a quiet enough life in Sunbury, having quiet pints in the Hansom Cab with the lads after, until an innocuous invite to join the Bs on a trip to Paris in 1982 resulted in the subsequent wreckage of my life as I knew it. Now I know there are those sat here even now playing for other LIRFC teams who are seduced by the Bs craic and are perhaps thinking of making what looks like the easy and probably reversible transit to the Bs. Be warned from my story – do not do it! There is no way back. Your career rugby and otherwise will soon be over.
Stop listening to that wreck of a man on your left whispering sweet stories in your cauliflowered ear of the easy life: playing powder-puff opposition and slipping into long languorous evenings of bonhomous chatter and enlivening song. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I try to hack out this speech I am forced into an awful revisiting of archaic hurts and damage that I thought well buried as I pressed ahead with my new life in foreign lands, trying to rebuild the pieces far far away from Sunbury. I have no recent memory of the Bs since my Bs time largely encompassed the life defining eighties and what memory that remains is blurred by the awful damage inflicted by those endless sessions in brown bars far from home and from sanctuary of any kind.
Most of you here would not recognise the names I would like to mention from those times, decent lads, the unknown soldiers whose sterling deeds are long forgotten; while the recognizable names I could recite to you would be those of the crusty survivors many of whom are here tonight still running things behind the scenes. They say that history is written by the victors and this was never more true than in the case of the Bs.
Take the case of that first tour of mine to Paris in 1982. It was not only my first time, it was Bootsies also, both Bs virgins and in awe of what was unfolding before us. As we found our way from a brown bar in the Place de Vosges to the airport, rumours flew that one of our number had collapsed and died on the travellator, none other than my local landlord from the Hansom Cab. In the ensuing melee of conjecture and rehearsal of tragedy I retreated for a review of the tour with Bootsie over a beer at the airport.
It was then that he confided in me that he saw the Bs as a way to meet his ambition to become President of LIRFC in thirty years time. It was chilling to witness naked ambition at such close quarters, never mind to see it so fully realized as we now know it to be. Every step of the way he has been lifted and maneuvered by Gerry the duvet dancer and Murphy himself not to mention Bart. These are dangerous men to know, make no bones about it.
What is frightening for me looking back at my bizarre existence within this covert cult mascarading as healthy improving sport in the spirit of Thomas Arnold was the ease with which the Bs normalized into the fabric of my life, only by degrees to take it over. At that time I was a student oif the mysruic William Blake himself a London man – who would surely have joined the Bs had they been formed at the time – who wrote in songs of experience ‘What is the price of experience? Is it bought for song or a dance in the street? No is bought with the price of all that a man hath – his house his wife his children. ‘ And so it felt for me this passage with the Bs with its requirement for complete self-abasement.
It was during one of the endless Bs power struggles in the ealry nineties amid a major blood letting that I managed to escape, where my absence went unnoticed. I forged a new life far far away from Sunbury, left only with an tattered honours tie, a pair of socks and a long bar bill at the Antelope. As I gradually rebuilt my broken existence I discovered in that far away places and at world cup venues I would accidentlybump into a few fellow Bs exiles. Thereafter we would meet from time to time, thinking of times gone by, recounting some of the horrors that were inflicted upon us, and gaining strength from each other to resist the temptation to relapse back into Bs hell. We resolved to beat this Bs thing one day at a time, vigilant ever in the face of our powerlessness.
We knew from our time in the eighties that the Bs had within itself the seeds of its own destruction – O’Hara – drawing on the work of Chomsky, and supported by selected dirges – helpfully pointing out to the ever belligerent Newberry that the Bs suffered from the same internal contradictions as late stage capitalism. All the talk was of the aging population with no new talent coming through; of the likelihood of selling the ground; the impending onset of professionalism – we knew the Bs were even then in a late maturity crisis. And then when news filtered through of the sad death of Des Egan then we knew that that was pretty much that for the Bs.
We relaxed in our various lairs thinking the fatwa was now over; like Rushdie at the same time but with shorter beards, we could come out now knowing the threat had gone – we could even relax in nostalgic glow For twenty two years then my heroic campaign of Bs resistance and withdrawal had paid dividends, I was clean I was safe .. or so I thought … that is until until one auspicious day at the 2012 Olympics I felt compelled to follow two titanic Czech pole vaulters with endless legs into a pub just outside of the stadium, wishing to know more of their technique and of their national culture.
It was in this unguarded moment that I fell into a deep deep trap for there at the TV screen was none other than the remains of Bootsie, agog at the sight of the innocent Tom Daley wearing only budgie smugglers while throwing himself into the pool. Despite myself I found myself saying to him ‘I did not know you liked young boys Bootsie!” and in that moment of weakness I had taken my first step back into that toxic culture known as the Bs. He told me of his inevitable rise to a position of highest power, and invited me to a number of games that were to be played in the West Country, near my exiled hideaway. Then he explained that not only was the amateur side going strong but the Bs along with it were still in existence. This was the worst news I had heard in many a year.
The Brixham game proved a real delight but a personal dissever as I met you new Bs and realized how seductive the Bs culture remains. It equally amazed me how easily I collapsed back into it again, as a gazed with some envy upon the pitch at that glistening pile of man flesh before me. Listening to the banter in the bar after seemed unsettlingly familiar. Asking myself if it really had been the same for us too, I decided to dig out the last movie my video company made, the one that broke the company , namely the Bees on Toast.
This movie was shot over the course of 1986, including the tour to Madrid when Dublin Jim set the bulls loose from the corrida on the Matto Grosso (which Joy thought was a local Rose.) Impressed by the fact that there was indeed a remarkable correspondence between our experience then and what was being enacted now on playing fields throughout Europe, I felt impulsed to send this this movie out intact by way of warning to those who were now joining but not too far into the indoctrination process; just to let them know how far this could go, and to help them seek a way out. I also knew from those I had met that some of them were too far gone for any kind of help.
The specters that were Dean and Brian in particular sprung to mind: it was clear that they had supped too far and too deep even to want to be rescued. One early passage of this movie stuck me as particularly prescience. It was that of Des Egan the self-styled founder of the Bs reflecting on his initial inspiration for the team. LIRFC historians an researchers of course have since long debated Des’s version of events, while tracing the influence of others who have mysteriously disappeared without trace, despite the best efforts of the RUC and the Met to trace them. (We should not be surprised at this as Gerry and George were both serving officers at the time in the Met, in the hayday of its lawlessness, when it was institutionally anti – institutions – you can see the Bs influence here.)
The passage I refer to was Egan saying ‘When i first thought of forming the B’s i was not thinking about creating a rugby side. i was more interested in forming a circus… I wanted performers, singers, dancers … that is what makes it go … I did not purposefully sit down to write a list of names … it was just that over the years – we attracted the right kinds of heads in that sense – and it growed i suppose ..’ It is chilling in retrospect to allow the full resonance of this to sink in, in the light of what we now know. Note the dissembling around never writing down a list of names when in fact the names of the future power brokers were already well known. I invite you also to review in a fresh light the search for ‘singers and dancers’ when Egan as a self confessed scholar of the mystical Blake knew full well that experience was not bought ‘for a song or a dance alone but will all that man hath ..”
This was clearly a Da Vinci code type cryptic message to let us all know that the means by which he would seduce, ensnare then slowly ruin us all. Perhaps he knew that only beyond the grave would we ever truly comprehend his intent. The release of the video did trigger quite a flow of reminiscence as well as recognition of the fate of Bs victims. We were now better enlightened as to what was truly going on. Unlike the Boston College research, our video was withheld until the main witnesses and former captains Des, Tommy and Brendan were sadly dead I was also to grow to learn that the power of the Bs moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.
I thought once the movie was up on Youtube then that would be it; those had wanted to would go looking and that no one else would go looking. But how wrong I was. A few weeks ago out of the blue I received an email from a Declan Joy, a name unknown to me saying he was Tommy’s son, that he had come across the movie and could he have a copy. I had no idea Tommy had a son and ensuing correspondence revealed that he had only been with his father towards the end, and that he was so pleased to see this film of him in his all his extravagant pomp. Now the spooky part is that when I asked him how he came across the movie he let me know it was a complete coincidence .
A friend came across it casually and suddenly there on the screen was his dad. Einstein once said that “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” True or not what I do know is that I was deeply moved by this. I said to Declan that I too had a lost son – or lost for now – and I could not imagine how it might be for him for to trip across such a record, randomly, of his dad in his prime, after he was dead. And I speculate that I might not be the only B or the son of the same facing this predicament, the puzzle this pain beyond the merriment that carries us all along. Ollie once taught me in a quiet moment in Amsterdam about remorse and the pain of it. It is a long way down he said, and he was right. No B worthy of his salt would have truly lived without having touched deep remorse at some point. The Bs do have ways of finding us and our families, lost and found well beyond the grave. That knowledge is both consolation and burden to know that what goes on tour might one day be on indelible public record.
The London Irish Bs vets team at Brixham …
Tom Daley it was who brought me back to the Bs – no not some gnarled old prop that you are struggling to pretend you remember from yesteryear. Rather I am meaning the precocious young Olympic diver with the pet budgie down his trunks who could not conceivably be further away from the stereotypic B if he tried. But this young Tom it was who after all this long time away brought me back to the B’s so he did. in case you are interested this momentous reunification happened in that pub the Cow at Stratford’s shiny Olympic Park, by Boris’s orbit. Now a stranger pub for a reunion with the B’s it would be hard to credit, unsaturated as this callow pub is in tradition; and anathema to any right drinking B with all its faux rustic airs, when any B worth his Guinness would crave the fastness of wee brown bars, especially on sunny summer days.
It all came about because i had been refused entry to the 2012 English Games on the fatuous grounds that i had no ticket. I was too weak to argue the toss with G4S heavies at their most ferocious so sat there in pub minding me own while watching the throng get over exuberant about sports that never usually stir the slightest passion on these shores – or I would think on any other. It was at that exact moment of feeling a reassuring rush of detached superiority – glad that i nothing in common with these Coe inoculated sheep – that i thought i recognised the back of a head straining towards the TV screen. It was a tight curly press of a barnet nicely backcombed and only minorly streaked with grey. ‘Come on Tom’ bellowed the as yet unseen face hollering in basso profondo Waterford.
This hair and voice combo could only belong to the remains of Bootise Walsh, improbable as this locale would seem. And so indeed it proved to be the very same Bootise that lived and breathed. i approached him cautiously at first not wanting to shock him with my miraculous state of preserved handsomeness – in unrelieved contrast to his clearly near terminal decline. I was of course pleased when he recognised me not as a fellow diving fan but as a true green B. As we chatted much was learned: not least the incredible but true fact that he is now President of the whole club while the B are going strong in the absence not only of me but of many others long gone ago. Ohhh and while being reminded that i live in the wild West Country he let me know that the Geese play Brixham and Exmouth near me in their new league.
Bootsie said to keep in touch. and to bring Peter Morgan from our era along for us all to meet at these games. Enlivened by this encounter i rang Morgan only to find that he had booked a golf holiday in Turkey at the same time – so we settled instead for second best which was to meet at his posh restaurant inTorquay. There we reminisced about all things B’s; but actually about the B’s set in aspic as between us we had no real recent memories of the team. Instead we were living on the memories of memories that we each rework when we meet. Among there reminiscences the Museum of Ham in Lisbon features prominently; as does a vision of Big John Barbieri being perpetually carried down the spiral stairs of some in a elegant cafe somewhere, the memories satisfyingly blurring into a unifying narrative.
This sepia toned nostalgia fest does little to prepare me for the reality that dawns on that portentous day when memory was to meet current reality. Typically Bootsie failed to mention that the Bs themselves are playing as the the warm up event that day at Brixham, As a result i miss the B’s in action but on the touch line watching the main event I find a character replete in LIRFC blazer and honours tie surrounded by others less well outfitted, He recognises my honours tie and we fall into conversation. It turns out that this cove goes under the name Dean and that we have a few things in common – like both living in Cape Town at the time of 1997 Lions and being at same Stellenbosch game together in honour gf Robert Jones – in fact Dean played, while Thompson, Brian Little and others watched.
As Dean name checks me I go through the litany of those with whom i played. Oh, those golden boys of the Bs generation Mc Devitt’s, McCarthy’s, Johnston’s, Douglas’s all … McLarnon Thompson Bootsie O’Hara, the Mouse, Gerry, Kitty Murphy, Lowe. As I go on to recite the names of captains i served under – Egan, Healy, Tommy Joy – I catch myself short to allow the lump in my throat to rise as I realise that ‘my’ captains are all now dead. As I cough on this realisation Dean says “I guess this is not time to tell you that Dermot Hogan is dead – taken suddenly from us. I suppose you knew Dermot ..’ I shudder .. how could Dertmotty the life and soul of so many parties now be mentioned in the past tense? I croak ‘Ohhh do i know – sorry did I know – Dermot ! and what a fine man he was.’ I explain that he used to come visit me in Edinburgh; ‘such times we had such times such times.
Dermot was the spirit of affability alway a permanent grin and a good word for all souls which is unusual in a B -how in the name of god could such an friend be taken from us?’ Dean has no answer as these imitations of mortality gather.
Once the mist clears I muse on exactly what generation of B’s i belong to now, after many years away. I think that because I joined at about the same time as Bootise – in time to catch the comet’s tail of Egan’s unparalleled reign – then I saw myself then as a ‘young B.’ Then i remember over the course of the Eighties graduating to become a B B, a normal B , a medium B. And now without realising it I am in the eyes of these lads on the touch line a ghost B, a lucky to still be here B, a has B (een), And in my eyes these lads are barely protean B’s, zygote B’s, unformed and unfamiliar. Still scratching my memory for some recall that might me seem more current I venture to say “I think Gerry Ryan was my last captain .. yeh he ushered in a coup to oust Tommy Joy, stabbing him the back in the dead of some Parisienne night.’
They seemed relieved to hear me mention someone living. ‘Ahh yeah- Gerry is still alive and kicking in fact he has scarily stopped playing and is here at the ground, just along the touch line, .’ All this is recounted as the players in the fog on that high hill thud into each other – while reassuringly familiar smart alec remarks about the flaws of mighty Geese sneak out from these young Bs. But are they really young Bs? Do they see themselves as such? Do they know the legacy they carry? Well if they do not know the legacy then they certainly perpetuate the banter of old, the self deprecating mockery that kept us anciens alive through dark passages in the past.
I am asked by someone called Pav for my email and willing surrender it, little knowing what i might be letting myself in for, or of what might be landing in my inbox now. With a parting thump on the back from Dean I make my way along the crowded touchline in search of Bootsie.
Never hard to find, he is on his feet bellowing at the Geese who have by no means won the match yet; while silent brother Frank lets Bootsie do the hollering. As the Geese sense danger and begin to gain control Bootsie tells me of fine times recently had in Edinburgh, mostly spent in Kays bar. `Now that bar was a place where i practically lived for a while and had met Hogan and also Thompson and O’Hara there too – all those criss-crossing threads that rugby and life weave. As we chat a a figure looms up out of the fog, a battle-scared face sporting dark inense eyes beneath beetle brows.
‘So do you remember me?’ this face growls in challenge. I reply ‘Of course it is you Gerry Ryan long lost captain of mine!’ It is a thrill to see him still in one piece. ‘Well he said ‘I would have recognised you walking down the street Blocker without being told it was you – but would you have recognised me?’ Without knowing where this perverse challenge was going i had to say out of context i could not be sure – he nods as if i have under interrogation admitted some unpalatable truth that he had long suspected.
Meanwhile back on the increasingly fog bound pitch the life goes out of the stout Brixham resistance while LIRFC continue their inexorable trip to promotion. At one level this promotion makes me sad as it means the B’s will not visit Brixham again just when i had grown to like the idea. Is this anyones’ idea of progress? Inside the bar things are nicely chaotic. Gerry introduces me to current Bs not yet met, some of whom are curious to know who i am, this stranger in the long back coat blazer white shirt and honours tie.
Apparently one rumour says I am a rich backer of the club or possibly the chairman. Though charmed by these delusions, I am just about to explain who i really am and what i am doing here when Gerry helpfully interjects to say that i am an old B; that I was on the run then put into witness protection under an assumed name in the West Country years ago: and that I can only really come out now and then only for limited periods.
He explains that i should be rights be behind bars rather then be protected, and that i was not to be trusted around women. Not finding the energy to deconstruct this emerging narrative i go with it instead and begin to enjoy becoming the international man of mystery. The remains of the once vaunted ‘table-cloth man’ reduced to this, a fugitive from justice.
All too soon it is time to beat a reluctant retreat from these revolving absurdist conversations. Bootise bids me a truly warm goodbye. I say that I am reminded that the B’s still palpably live, and that this a great little club within a club will persist long after concrete stadiums in Reading and their bourgeois occupants are totally forgotten. He said – while chocking me in a headlock – ‘If the B’s are still a fine team then you Blocker have been a part of making it what it is.’ That sentiment gave me a real warm glow.
And since that encounter with Pav the emails flow and i am feeling a part of it all once more. I am wanting to know more of these new Bs but also happy to build my own fantasy B team based on these snippets of banter that come through the interweb. And it is also consoling to be reminded that despite electronic gadgetry that the Old Paulians still persistently cancel; and that the Heavies remain the implacable enemy and never really beat us, just score more points.
If you want to know more of the Old B’s then my video company through Tom Touhey and Ian Black (now also dead) made a fine movie “B’s on Toast’ in 1985 which i will put up on Youtube on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URmwsqz1UgQ&feature=youtu.be– being uploaded as we speak so be patent if you cannot find it
Bob Dylan decides to step outside of the Sheraton downtown Saigon prior to his ground breaking gig there. This occasion marks his first time ever performing there and Vietnam’s second only rock concertHe is immediately approached by man who seems to materialize from nowhere out of the evening shadows – beating off several other equally invisible competitors by a hairs breath.Mr Fixer: ‘Hey papa where you come from?’ this opening rarely fails to secure the initial contact in his experience.Bob: ‘Wisconsin’.
Mr Fixer: Ohhhhhhh where that? Sound like very important place very busy with many many people.States. Bob gazes up into the night skyMr Fixer :What you looking for papa?
BD: Uhh .. I saw a shooting star tonight and I thought …
Mr Fixer: No mista I meant what you looking for? Girls? I have many many girls beautiful girls – inside girls not outside girls – get on my motorbike I show you many many girls…..
BD: Look I really can’t come with you I have a concert tonight.
Mr Fixer: Ohhhh very nice you here business or holiday?BD: taking care of some unfinished businessMr Fixer: Oh you no come here during American war? You look like maybe you are veteran American war? Many come back sort things out in the head
BD: No I don’t like war.Mr Fixer: No one like war. Only obeying orders stuff. So why you wear uniform? You look very handsome in uniform – great hat. Love feather nice touch. So maybe you have job in security, that why you wear nice uniform with stripe down leg. Many many people here work in security. Security very popular in communist countryBD Well in a way I this is my uniform I am a musician
Mr Fixer: Oh maybe you play in marching brass band? With nice young lady in tight shorts cheerleader? Maybe you like young lady? I have many many young lady beautiful …
BD: .. look nice to be chatting and I am learning a lot but I need to be getting ready …
Mr Fixer: No no rush things always late Vietnam and big big traffic tonight for big famous star he play rock concert tonight maybe you should go you learn something…. Maybe take lady I have lady …Bob gazes skyward
Mr Fixer:Don’t worry clear sky tonight, tomorrow maybe hurricane but tonight okay for concert
BD: A hard rains gonna fall tomorrow? Not tonight you sure?
Mr Fixer: Maybe tomollow not tonight, tonight moonlight fall on youMr Fixer:What your name?
Bob .. hesitation … Bob Zimmerman
Mr Fixer: Very nice to meet you mista Zimmerframe this my lucky day meet you we go many many places. What you looking for? I help you find what you look for. I ready to go anywhere … what you looking for?Bob: Good question … there must be some kind of way out of here
Mr Fixer: OHHHH not long now papa need to find you nice lady take your mind off things you need to relax work too hard all your life.
BD: You might just be right .. time to kick back …
MF: Many many lady they like your nice hat and stripy trousers. Here I Show you picture on my cell phone nice lady I bring her to you on motorbike no ploblem. Go on take look her name Sara many many men like her but she just for you
BD: Did you say sara?Yes methat right sara she has beautiful shape eyes Vietnam eyes, eye shape from the delta from the low lands not the mountain people
BD: Looks a little sad to me, sad eyed.
MF: No sir she not sad she a jewe. You like cigarette mista zimmerframe?
BD: No thanks think I will go back inside have one more up of coffee before I go
MF: Good you no smoke your voice sound quite rough already. Very manly voice. What song you sing?
MF: You like Leo Sayer? Many many people love Leo Sayer here in Vietnam.
BD: Well I think Leo is great too though bit of a one man band. I sing my own songs mainly.
Mr Fixer: Ohh that good like Leo you write five or six famous songs maybe?
Bob: mentally counting on fingers ..Well no I have written six hundred songs.
Mr Fixer: Ohh that a lot – maybe one become hit. I wish you get lucky. You get someone without gruff voice they maybe make your song sound nice do good job. Get Filipino backing band they very good
Bob: Look great chatting to you and thanks for the advice and all but I need to get to the venue get sound checked.
Mr Fixer: Why you do only one venue?
BD: Excuse me?
Mr Fixer: Well here in Saigon we invent rotating singer system, great system many many people like system. Each club have house Filipino band and singers come by cab sing two song then go to next club, while next singer come by cab go on stage.
BD: Now that is an interesting ideaMr Fixer: best idea ever glad you like you should try it audience no get bored work very well. Work for everyone audience no get bored with same voice singer always sings best two songs time after time cab driver like ….. you can choose your best two songs! But you have 600 songs like juke box … sing me number 235
BD: Sooner or later one of us must know # 235
Mr Fixer:No up to you, name song please I beg you choose surely you know
BD: Like a rolling stoneMr Fixer:
No no cover Jagger here skinny hips like Vietnamese girl and big lips, you sing own song your song your two song very goodLook nice talking but I gotta goSure you no like lady many many nice lady …. Likr lay lady?
BD: Lay lady lay lady. Wont you come and see my queen jane?
MFI m not following this any more
BD: Thanks but not thanks for offer of lady it is never that simple for me I get emotionally involved all tangled up ….
MF: You very complicated man mista Zimmerman cant figure you out at all. You should get that throat seen to though. It is like you not here.
BD: Well my best friends the doctor and he can’t even tell me what it is that I got.
MF: So what you looking for?
BD: Nothing really just got an attack of those homesick blues.
Mr Fixer: Subteranean?
BD: I don’t mind if `I do./
My gaze is outward. My book has fallen into my lap. It rests rather heavily, as, watching through the window I see the young mother push her baby up the hill. She stops, though in truth she was walking so slowly that the process of stopping was imperceptible. She crushes the butt of her cigarette beneath her half booted heel, wearily exhaling the final cloud of smoke as she absently inspects her child. She tugs the hood further over the child’s face, as if to hide it, then proceeds up the hill, her sense of burden manifest.
I continue to contemplate the blank space left on the pavement long after she has gone. My book falls now to the floor with a thud, the bookmark making a bid for freedom. It hardly matters; I will not lose my place. The book is a familiar friend, a reliable fantasy that has transported me from this world to a parallel place since I was a child. Nonetheless, I pick up the book and carefully replace the bookmark, quietly nuzzling the pages to inhale the reassuring musk of its so often turned pages.
Tonight, I ‘go down the pub.’ Imagine that, it is Tuesday and I ‘go down the pub!’, quite as usual. Well not quite as usual. This pub has stood on my corner all the time I have lived here, quite unregarded by me except as a local landmark. Nine months ago, my Tuesday evenings were occupied with salsa classes in the church hall besides the pub. These were strange affairs, quite rum indeed. I joined, I suppose for the company, and company it was for a while, and the pulsating music rarely failed to brighten my mood.
However, the imbalance of women over men was acute, and I found myself ungenerously questioning why this queue of men had to move in quite so closely, the collective impact of their aftershaves growing suffocating as the effort of gently but insistently pushing them away to a place where our bodily contact was purely dance related became more and more bothersome. Three months ago I replaced the dancing with a local reading group, where I found that the imbalance between men and women was quite the reverse of the dancing class.
Naively assuming that this group would share my passion for books, I was soon to discover that in the main my fellow readers had done little more than skim through the fortnightly work, the conversation arresting around the obvious vagaries of plot and superficialities of character. The gossip around the margins was initially quite comradely and fun, but in the end far too prone to descend to inconsequential chat around TV soaps that I had never watched but felt compelled to share a view on. The jolly invite in the pub window seemed, by contrast to be something that might fall between these two experiences, and was at least worth a try … ‘Roll up, Roll up. Pub Quiz open to everyone, make new friends, win fine prizes!’
I was trepidatious of course when I first pushed that solid mahogany door open for the first time to release the tobacco fumes, you know how it is. But I was quickly reassured by the warmth of the welcome, the explanation of the team system, and by my ready adoption by Heather and her husband Frank, who enlisted me into their team ‘Heather’s Hopefuls.’ I was quick to apologise in advance for my sublime ignorance with regard to all matters sporting and popular, including pop music and most of reality shows and serials on TV. My mind was put to rest by Heather’s explanation that most contemporary culture topics were well covered by she and frank, and that where they were weak was in literature, history, politics and the arts, where they just knew that I would make a great contribution. I surprised myself at how quickly I left behind any feelings of not belonging, or of living up to this high expectation, to become absorbed in the quiz process, to really enjoy the whispered conspiracy as our team huddled together to bat around possible answers as the pregnant question hung in the pub’s fug.
I was relieved to find that the history and arts questions were indeed well within my compass, to the extent that ‘my’ points were the difference between we the ‘Hopefuls’ winning rather than losing. Heather was quick to open one of the bottles of red wine that we won as first prize. I felt a slightly giddy sensation as the warm cloying wine lubricated our celebration. Heather was animatedly orchestrating our campaign for the next weeks quiz. There was no dubiety as to whether I would be included in the team. I readily agreed that I would read the broadsheet dailies in some detail that week, adding current affairs to my growing list of specialised subjects.
I lay tucked up in bed happily that evening, feeling more content and more full of life that I had felt for a while. Quiz night had far exceeded my expectations. It had proved to be a good combination of the suspense and vitality of the salsa, without the unwanted intimacy; and the intellectual stimulus of the reading group, without the rather claustrophobic, mildly despairing climate of the reading group. And then there was Simon, the final member of our team. Like me, he did not seem like a regular pub person, yet he clearly was, as they all seemed to know him well. There was a slightly studious air about him, something in the way his brow furrowed over each question, giving each his fullest attention – whether it be celebrity trivia, or an inquiry into the origin of life – that attracted me towards him. Last week – the third week of our victorious run – Simon and I were left with a bottle of wine between us, Heather and Frank having somewhat hurriedly announced their departure then scampered off with their booty.
Simon and I sit together in silence, both focused on the bottle in front of us. Simon breaks the silence first, timidly suggesting that he and I might share the bottle some evening, away from the pub, maybe over a meal. My heart skipped, on impulse I wanted to say ‘yes, let us share it now, let us share us now.’ But of course I held back, you know me well enough by now to know I would. I did say, though, that that would be very nice, and why didn’t he hang on to it, then we could enjoy it together some time. Then I muttered some excuse and left, half tripping over a stool as I made for the door.
He has been on my mind this week. I notice that whenever I enter the pub for the quiz, he is already there. As I walked past the pub each evening last week, I noticed his graying head framed through the yellowed window as he sat at the bar. Tonight, I determine that I will arrive earlier, to allow us to get to know each other a little better, away from the urgency of the quiz. I return my book to the table, a faithful friend left to conduct her patient vigil while I adventure abroad.
This evening I have already decided that I will look a little less like the local librarian, and to wear that red frock that I recklessly bought in the January sales, then saved for a special occasion. I have now declared that tonight will be that occasion. I prepare then eat a light supper of white fish, which I absently eat while studying the Daily Telegraph for tit bits of current affairs that might prove useful during tonight’s interrogation. The fish should provide ballast enough to absorb the wine , should we win again, as we customarily do. I drop the final morsel in the cats bowl.
She seems nowhere to be seen, I suspect still canoodling on the rooftops with the newly arrived tom from downstairs. I swing open the pub door in confident and bright expectation, to reveal as ever a smiling Heather, alone, but no sign of Simon. Heather compliments me on my dress, then proffers me a drink. Noticing me looking around, clearly distracted from our casual chat, she drops her tone to a conspiratorial one, to assure me that I should not fear; that Simon will turn up, he never misses.
Without further encouragement, she starts to tell me what she knows of Simon, which it transpires is not a great deal. He lives alone, just around the corner, and his job is something to do with antiquarian books. He may well have been married at some time, but he has never mentioned an ex, and certainly never in that scornful, ‘you know what its like, feel sorry for me’ tone that so many men automatically adopt when referring to past wives. She has never heard him refer to children, or indeed to other family. I mumble that he seems very nice, very gentlemanly, and she readily concurs. She giggles with a sisterly wink that he hasn’t fail to notice me either; and that his interest is undoubtedly more that just that of valuing the contribution of an accomplished team mate. I demure, pleased at that moment to be rescued by the arrival of Frank from this somewhat intrusive and disquiteingly accurate interest in my hitherto private deliberations.
The quiz master clears his throat and taps his microphone. Heather indicates that the three of us must proceed alone, accommodating Simon when he eventually arrives, which he surely will at any moment now. In the event, we are now deep into round three, my recent specialty, ‘Current Affairs,’ and still no sign of Simon. I mutter my way through the answers, but his absence is palpable, and my attention entirely elsewhere. I feel awkward, somewhat exposed in my dress, feel silly that I should have assumed that tonight would somehow deliver to the unreal expectations I have stupidly and without evidence attached to it.
Come the half time break, I cough a little on my sausage roll, resigned now to the fact that he will not turn up tonight, and perhaps never again. Maybe I purely dreamed him, for no one else seems to notice his absence. I stand at the bar, more conscious than ever of my incongruous dress, as I fight for space among the throng to buy drinks for my teammates. I am never sure at busy bars if I should produce money first and wave it , as some do, or if that is rude, or whether I should instead be told how much it will cost before I find the money. Either way, it will probably cost more than I can afford. All at once, I feel alien . I know in a heartbeat and with a certainty that I was never meant to be in places such as this. I just don’t fit. To compound my discomfort, I feel a light touch from behind of hands on my hips. I shuffle slightly forward, turning to glance behind to discourage my unwanted assailant.
To my relief then delight, I see a smiling Simon, innocently asking if he can help me to ‘get them in.’ I smile, then nod eagerly, keen for assistance in this profoundly male task. We are crushed together, really quite close, as he leans over me to attract the barmaid’s attention. I grin idiotically, brushing sausage roll crumbs from my lips as I allow him to squeeze alongside me. Emboldened, perhaps, by the enforced intimacy of the situation, he remarks enthusiastically as to how pretty my dress it, and how it suits me. I blush, then swallow my normal reflex to discount a compliment, instead saying simply ‘thank you, I hoped people might like it.’
As the drinks slowly arrive, he explains that he was delayed at work. Amid the fall out from a house clearance, he had discovered an exceptionally rare book. Indeed, so rare that the mere faxing of a copy of the inside page of this first edition had magicked up in their small shop a full blown Sotheby’s valuer who wasted little time in confirming its progeny, and it extreme value. He bubbles with excitement as he confides that his find is now under lock and key in London, in the British Museum, the most significant find in the hundred year history of their modest shop.
We return with the drinks to share ‘our’ good news, for so it seems with the other Hopefuls. Buoyed by a spirit of confidence and good fortune, our team sweeps through the second half despite the distraction of the book find, and cruises to a record breaking fourth consecutive win. Amid good-natured boo’s and groans from the defeated teams, Heather announces that they need to get back home early this evening. Without further do, she gathers up her prizes and her reluctant husband, and fights her way to the door past cries of ‘fix’ and ‘ringers.’
Simon and I are once more alone, although this time gazing into each other eyes rather than at the bottle. He grins widely, surrendering to any attempt to control his excitement over the revelations of his day. He tells me the whole story all over again, in every detail. We are closer than ever, oblivious to the diminishing crowd around us. I slip my hand over his, and squeeze it by way of encouragement of him to savour every nuance of his story. My squeeze is easily returned, as he presses a little closer, our thighs touching.
Then it begins to happen. Those tears again. I want to choke on then to shoo them away. I inwardly curse them, but still they inevitably well, hot like coals behind my eyelids. I have no idea where they come from, or why they uniquely blight me so. All my life I have fought to control them, but now, even at this crucial moment in my journey, they conspire to undo me. I feel pathetic, ashamed, desperate that Simon should not notice. He does but his reaction, far from being to laugh at my silliness, is to apologise for his inconsideration that he should be so preoccupied with his day that he should fail to ask how mine had been, when clearly it had been distressing. He asks me immediately to share what is wrong.
I feel sillier than ever and stutter that in fact nothing has gone wrong, it has been a perfectly normal day. And that I very much looked forward to this evening. It is just… well just these tears. I tear my handkerchief between my fingers, wring it out as I gaze glumly at my feet. He gently places his arm around my shoulder, removing my hankie as he takes both my hands in his. I melt a little inside. Through gulps, big gulps I ask in a small voice if he doesn’t mind the tears? He whispers no, that in point of fact he finds them quite touching, and adorable. I ask him if he would escort me home, as I feel rather exposed here in public. He says of course.
It feels so good to walk the pavement with this man. The tears now flow, but now I am beyond caring, even enjoying sharing them with him. At the front door we both know that there is no need to put ourselves through the ‘any one for coffee’ ritual. Once inside he places the wine on the table beside my reliable book. Oh my God, he will find my book choice childish, then the spell will be broken. But the spell endures. He strokes my friends spine, opens her up, and compliments me on the edition and condition. We move together by the window. As I look to the space where the mother was this afternoon, I feel his breath on my neck. I pull him close, closer into my closed world. I kiss him at last by the window, glad that I removed the net curtains when I first moved in.
The Undivided Trinity.
“The time of my departure is approaching.
Nigh is the hurricane that will scatter my leaves.
Tomorrow, perhaps, the wanderer will appear –
His eye will search for me round every spot,
And will, – not find me.”
Thomas Chatterton, quoted in ‘Chatterton’, Peter Ackroyd, 1987.
The evening sky casts its spell over a desolate Millennium Square as three bronze statues, one modern two ancient stir slowly as their shadows lengthen. Cary Grant checks his multiple reflection in the chrome plated Imaginarium, then adjusts his cummerbund to languidly stroll over to the seated William Tyndall, still arthritically hunched over his James the First Bible.
The urbane Cary good-naturedly teases William, while William in turn wearily berates Cary for the shallowness and ease of his previous existence, compared to the seriousness of his purpose in Bible translation, a passion that resulted in his being burnt at the stake. Despite their habitual banter, and their gulfs in background, they recognize that they are in this together. Cary helps William to his feet, shaking off the leaves as they proceed to an adjoining bench where upon sits Thomas Chatterton, eyes absently gazing into the middle distance, forlornly seeking inspiration from the tradesman’s entrance of the LloydsTsb Amphitheatre. He joins their conversation on the frustrations of another interminable day of inanimation.
His muse has been blighted today by a photo-shoot promoting Bristol tourism. He has endured a supermodel being draped over him all day; she oblivious to his suspended animation and without a care as to the effects of her feigned intimacy upon his hormonal system. Cary bemoans the fact that whereas in Hollywood he could control his contact with fans – staging the apparent naturalness of those encounters for the lens of sympathetic cameramen – now it seems that anyone who feels so inclined can assume familiarity, sticky fingers everywhere, posing suggestively for their clumsy amateur snaps. William laments that the visitors have no idea that his sacrifice was made to popularise the word of God. They venerate the photographic image, but are quite lost to the Word.
Our unlikely triumvirate shuffle across the Square, to conduct their evening ritual. They pass through the space in the iridescent wall of mirrored water, where a mysterious process transforms their carapaces of bronze into the resplendent hues of their original clothing, their countenances assuming a pale but human pallor. Thus attired, they are prepared for their self-appointed evening task of posing as Council sponsored historical animations. They head across Anchor Square with trepidation, anxious as always lest the gigantic black beetle, ever menacing on its plinth, should learn their trick of transubstantiation.
Safely delivered to the strip of Waterfront bars, Cary, ever the leader selects for their cocktail hour the cool Californian minimalism of the Pitcher and Piano. By the door they spy a man wearing a Superman outfit. He appears quite crestfallen, as if he had fallen rather than glided from the Bristol and West Building. Tables proving scarce in this popular bar, they join our fallen hero. He shifts along the table with a grunt, hoisting his belt under his ample belly, barely noticing in his self-absorption their antiquated garb, contrasting as it does with his iconic modernism. William, ever concerned, inquires as to his disposition.
Grudgingly pleased at the opportunity to share his misfortune, he explains that he is one of the founders of Fathers4Justice, now a nationwide movement which all began in Bristol. Today he was badly let down by so called co-conspirators while planning to scale the Council House and hang a banner. When he tried to contact them, the new leaders from ‘Up North’ told him that he was now banished from their number. They gave no reason, had not even been man enough to tell him face to face, merely dumping him by text message. He growls that, though gutted, he will fight on, start up a splinter group, recover the loss of his children and his protest movement. Single handedly if need be.
Enlivened by this show of defiance, and appreciative of their sympathetic witness, he finishes his pint, wipes his hand across his mouth, and offers them a drink. All three eagerly assent, although Tom’s attention has drifted towards the group of young tourists sat at the adjoining table. These visitors have clocked our incongruous threesome, an American among them loudly conjecturing that the guy in the bow tie may be playing Cary Grant. This flicker of attention is the signal for our costumed ones to move into their practiced routine. Charismatic Cary leads, happily acknowledging the recognition.
He tells them of his realisation of the American dream, from his unpromising beginnings in Bristol. He introduces William, whose life story arouses pity and respect, while a thumbnail outline of Tom’s short life captures the imagination of an otherwise bored Goth girl among the tourist party. She pushes Tom for details of his death, but beyond acknowledging that it may have been caused by suicide, or drug overdose, or a broken heart, he coyly refuses to elucidate the mystery further. She declares that he reminds her of the cool singer Pete Doherty, due in her view to die some day soon through excess, though commenting that despite his disreputable behaviour, he has attracted one of the worlds most beautiful supermodels. Tom’s imagination runs riot, thinking that if only he could break out of this daytime statue routine, then his talent for tragic romanticism could lead him into the arms of a vision of loveliness such as the model sat on his paralysed lap today.
This girl feels emboldened to share her newfound insight that the threesome are in fact ‘celebs’ of yesteryear. William demurs at this sobriquet, raising a crusty eyebrow to explain that while they may correctly be described as celebrated Bristolians, their fame is based upon substantial achievement in life, rather than the pursuit of fame as an end in itself. Cary kicks him under the table, anxious lest their source of another drink evaporate under this withering rant. In the event, they are about to lose their audience anyway, as the tourists explain with regret that they need to split, if they are to catch ‘Beauty and the Beast’ at the Hippodrome. Cary dreams wistfully of the time when he was centre stage there, performing in gripping murder mysteries, not in the phoney regurgitation of Disney cartoons. He feels immeasurably saddened that Bristolians taste in popular culture might have come to this.
As the tourists take their final snapshot – obediently put change into William’s insistently upheld mortarboard – then depart, our Trinity’s conversation turns to their favorite subject. Escape. As they warm to the prospect, reciting how weary they are of this routine of endlessly relating their narratives in response to the tourists’ predictable questioning, our Caped Crusader returns at last with his tray of beers, proffering an alcopop to young Tom. They are defensive at first that should Superman – or Clark as he says he prefers to be called – know the full story he might blow their cover and consign them permanently to brass. However, the loosening powers of the drink, and Clark’s obvious relishing of conversational conspiracy in any form, encourages them to take him into their secret, and into the dilemmas they face.
His fascination grows as he hears of their painful conflict between the attractions of escape from the ignominy of permanent fossilization in place and time, abandoned in that forsaken Square, measured against the dangers attendant on their breaking out. Their principal fear and superstition of escape is that they if they do not pass through the wall of mirrored water before midnight, their self designated witching hour, then they will never again be able to enjoy all of the nightly pleasures of miraculous resurrection. A secondary but significant worry is that while they nightly grump about how comparatively easy life is for everyone in this twenty first century – and how soft its ungrateful inhabitants have become – the reality is that they do not have the resources or the wherewithal between them to survive for the first few weeks of their release.
Clark, all his life preferring reckless action to reflective caution, impulsively offers our vacillating captives the use of his house in Montpelier while they sort themselves out. He explains that his wife left him with the house and the huge mortgage months ago to run off to Spain with the kids to join her new ‘partner.’ With this unimagined opportunity of shelter and support, a new mood is suddenly upon them. In a heartbeat, our trio breaks out of their habitual defeatist conversation and begin to talk excitedly about new possibilities. Mobilising themselves before they can change their minds, they pick up Wills takings and scurry out behind Clark, fleeing over the Piro Bridge towards Christmas Steps, up and over towards their fate in Montpelier.
Clark’s surprisingly capacious terraced house is all they could have asked for, situated in an anonymous street up a hill where none would think to find them. The hour before midnight passes painfully slowly. Clarke whiles away the time by telling tales, showing photos of his deeds of derring do during his Fathers4Justice days. They are impressed by a press cutting of his defiant stand atop the Clifton Suspension Bridge, feeling inwardly somewhat ashamed of their own cowardly fears of mortality. After all, they had each faced painful death before, and knew through this strange reincarnation that there was the possibility of life beyond.
As the mantelpiece clock strikes twelve, they regard each other in wonder, realising that they still here, on this twenty-first century earth, vibrantly and palpably alive. Clarke beams as they ecstatically clap his back, delighted that he has eventually effected liberation for someone after the entire frustrating impasse of Fathers4Justice. As the excitement subsides, he adopts a practical stance, proposing that tomorrow he will make a plan to ensure that they become happily assimilated townspeople, their statuesque identities eradicated.
The next morning, Cary throws open his curtains, seeing a building that looks somehow familiar. Of course, it is his old school, Fairfield, a place of painful memory. He can only hope that the new building he sees by the highway might be a replacement for this monument to childhood oppression. The smell of bacon lures him downstairs, where Clarke is showcasing the clothes he bought during his early morning foray to the St Peter’s Hospice shop on Cotham Hill. They giggle as they try on this miscellaneous garb. Clark then lines them up for the mandatory hair dye procedure in the shower. Tom chooses black with a crimson streak, offset by a hoody top to complete his fashionable disguise. William looks forward to his new pair of spectacles.
Over breakfast, they discuss their plans for the day. Tom is directed towards Cotham Porter Stores cider house, where Clarke has a Fathers4Justice contact that will provide them with fresh identities. Mulling over new names, Tom goes for Tom Rowley, after the medieval poet he so imaginatively created long ago; Will chooses the name Martin Luther, a modernizing reformer whom he met and much admired; Grant plumps for Cary Leach, to his ear a pleasing amalgam of his old and new identities.
They alight the pavement with a happy tread, delighting in the freshness of their first morning of freedom. Armed with a Bristol map, they roll down the hill, seeking their way across Stokes Croft towards the Porter Stores. Walking the streets they are astonished by the diversity of people they encounter. Tentatively inquiring in the pub where they might find their contact, named simply Len, Tom is directed towards a table down the far end of the bar. He explains his purpose to Len, to be told that business can indeed be done, but only if he removes his hood. Cary and William snigger a little at this, leaving him to his nefarious transactions, while they head for Whiteladies Road, a thoroughfare holding fond memories for them both.
William points to the rash of Charity Shops at the bottom of Cotham Hill, surprised yet pleased that modern commerce seems geared mainly around giving. Cary enviously eyes a dinner suit in the window of one, anticipating the joys of sartorial freedom. Meandering past the BBC building, Cary reads a sign inviting citizens to audition for a reality show called ‘Escape Bristol.’ He gently explains to William that the temptation is irresistible, he simply must go inside. William is in fact pleased to have some time alone, to meditate on what purpose he might bring to his new life.
He pauses outside the University Tower on Queens Road, standing out among the throng of smoking students, while he reflects on whether the academic pursuit of ancient languages and history might make a welcome respite from Christian followership. And yet, and yet, despite all the pain that was inflicted upon him by fellow Christians, the tug of the Church remains compelling. With a sigh for the scholarly fascinations that might have been, he shuffles down Park Street, squinting at its incongruous mix of Indie music, high fashion and straight laced religious stores, past the windowless Masonic Hall towards the Cathedral, which is set back off the refreshing greensward of College Green.
A board outside proclaims ‘The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.’ He is dismayed at this continuing promulgation of impenetrable liturgical nonsense when what the Church has always needed is to reach out, as he once put it, to ‘every ploughman in the land.’ Hesitating before entering, fearful lest he discover more of this alienating, superior language within, a young black woman with a beatific smile approaches. Confidently, eagerly she invites him to join him in the Elim Church celebrations, whose joyous mission is to ‘make the Bible relevant.’ She quotes Mandela’s Inaugural Speech from the Church’s colourful values statement:
‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually who are you not to be? You are a child of God.’
She directs him towards a marquee on the Green that spontaneously erupts to the sound of glorious Gospel song, filling the air with foot tapping invitation. William knows he has met his Damascene moment. He struggles with his resistance, then surrenders to her beckoning, as they walk side by side towards the marquee.
Two months later, all three keep their Sunday lunchtime appointment at the Coronation Tap in Clifton to celebrate their benefactor, Clark’s, birthday. Keith Warmington of Radio Bristol is playing some redemptive live Blues, amid a warm and friendly atmosphere. Over a glass of Exhibition Cider, cautiously supped, they share their recent adventures. Cary preens himself, telling of how he sailed through his audition, despite the yellow hair and fake glasses, and will be on a TV near you soon, his ultimate ambition to become a film critic.
He has made the Pineapple pub his local, he says because of the quality of the pasties there. Tom is eager to relay how his trip to the Porter Stores yielded not only passports, but also a lead to Christchurch Studios, situated next door to the Tap, where Massive Attack record. Len introduced him to a Goth band, formerly known as ‘Lupine Howl’, which is now enjoying reformation – as all good bands and faiths do – under the name ‘Marvelous Boy,’ with Tom as lyricist. And no, he hadn’t met any supermodels yet, but he is dating a comely hairdresser from Guy Henri whom he is sure will become one.
William rhapsodises on his discovering of evangelism, his happy smile reflecting an inner radiance that takes years off his previously burdened features. Clark, happily acknowledging their birthday felicitations, sheepishly confides that when passing through Stokes Croft, he bumped into William outside his Elim Chapel. Reluctant at first to accept the inward invitation, he was now a regular visitor, considering – to his own amazement – involvement in the children’s Sunday School. He had talked to both his children this morning, hearing them giggle their way through ‘Happy Birthday’, and his heart is glad. He muses that he feels a different person from the embittered protestor of two months ago.
Keith plays a poignant song with the chorus ‘I feel like a worn out engine, I have lost my driving wheel.’ Cary sings along, then declares that far from losing their driving wheels, he feels that this merry band has found theirs anew, after a long directionless period in the wilderness. They look back on their previous existence, fondly remembering those antiquated celebrities arrested in time, a bizarre juxtaposition of characters separated by centuries while tantalisingly trapped in a new one, yet quite unable to fully engage with all it had to offer. Clark pulls out a copy of the Evening Post, pointing to the headline.
‘MILLENNIUM STATUE THEFT RIDDLE REMAINS UNSOLVED. NEW CASTINGS COMMISSIONED BY COUNCIL.’
The byline tells of the police abandoning hope of finding them, believing that a private collector commissioned this audacious theft. The outcry over their disappearance means that the statues will be replaced, only this time around increased security would include the placement of cameras. Cary chortles that his second reincarnation would not know whether to laugh or cry at being permanently on camera; or know what to think when the bronze was poured once more into the central casting. None of them could predict whether the fountain’s magic would continue to work, or if their successors would come alive every evening, as had happened to then so miraculously since their first day of installation. William sits bolt upright, dumbstruck by a flashback from those earliest times. Finding the words to speak, he whispers that at that moment of installation, he heard the sound of gospel singing from the nearby Anchor Square. It floated through the gap in the fountain, as it eased their transit into this new era.
To John Buckley……….. 6/ 03/ 1992.
It was a perfect autumn morning, near my birthday time. I was luxuriating in a rare day away from client work. Making a desultory attempt at clearing my desk. I was enjoying the peace of alone; I was also expecting a visit from my friend John. I use the word ‘expect’ in the loosest sense, as you never really knew when to expect John, or what to expect of him on arrival. I was half heartedly assembling a list of people to ring, compiled from several other dog eared, half crossed out lists, when the naff door bell chime sounded at the Mill house door. I recognised the outline of John through the frosted door.
‘Good morning, Mr Freidland,’ beamed John, throwing himself towards me in a half intimate, half clumsy, reticent hug. John had been calling me Mr Freidland since he first arrived at my new Dorset house, when I had as yet failed to replace the door bells manufacturers name on the plastic bell push with my own. With john, I enjoyed being Mr Freidland. It felt exotic and strange. I believe that the world often looked exotic and strange through John’s lens on the world, and I felt honoured to be dignified by a different name from my own, his special name.
John was a regular visitor last year. Our house was en route to a number of client assignments that he had down the Dorset coast – or at least he said it was en route, though I imagined that it involved a detour. I eased my discomfort at the thought of him putting himself out by reminding myself that John’s life seemed full of extravagant and often enjoyable detours. Part of my guilt around his irregularly regular visitations was that I had only once visited him and his family at his home. I remember on that occasion regretting telling him that I would find difficulty following his detailed instructions through that particularly complex patch of English countryside. On the journey there, passing a pub, the last given landmark two miles from his house, I began to see notices stuck to trees at each minor junction. The notes read, ‘Dan – john’s house this way.’ Not many people would do that for you.
I ushered him into my kitchen, where we shared our work and family agonies and absurdities over a cup of coffee and a cigarette. John had a strong sense of the absurd, and I always felt, if encouragement were needed, to enrich my client stories with a tinge of the ridiculous, as I recounted them to John. His animated listening encouraged further flights of fantasy.
As I looked back, it seemed that whenever John and I planned to spend time together exploring the meaning of the recent past, we instead spent most of our time together uncovering future possibilities. And that whenever the future was on our planned agenda, then the past would become compellingly captivating. It didn’t really seem to matter. It was how we spent our time.
I really enjoyed playing with the little boy in John. That perfect autumn’s day, we drove through the leaf strewn lanes in my newly acquired 1959 sports car, to an intimate pub in the middle of nowhere, run by a friend of mine. John revelled in the car, enjoying in particular the surge of power that kicked in when I knocked off the overdrive. He determined that he would get himself one. He had driven all the way down to me in his modern lilac open top, but there was a simple primitivism about the triumph that really appealed to him.
Over lunch, we drank some beers, and I shared some writing that I had been doing on reviewing my life’s direction. Much of what I had written, john related to. We talked in particular about the need for, and the difficulty in expressing creativity in a world that demands explanation and predictable solutions. We talked of the loneliness and demands of the consulting life, and reflected on the energy that it takes to stay inspirational among resistance and mediocrity, and among people who settle for less.
John was particularly struck by one line I wrote… ‘ I do not want it written on my gravestone that ‘ he really advanced.’ We spent some time dwelling on that one. The joys of the material life seemed to both attract and repulse John. He certainly could advance, had advanced; but did he really need to?
The Triumph transported us home. We drank some more coffee. John expressed how important our times together were for him, how they helped him contextualise his struggles and triumphs. I felt vaguely discomfited. I never really knew what it was he wanted, always seemed that there was something else there, some blazing need that remained unexpressed. I felt at once encouraged to touch but also warned off from getting too close tot hat secret place. There were tears there.
It was getting close opt the time for John to go. My telephone was becoming too persistent to ignore. I was not quite sure where nod when we would meet again, only I was confident that we would. The closeness was there, and the possibilities seemed limitless, if ill defined, as they often did with John. That didn’t really matter to me. It was part of the charm of being a friend of John’s.
Another hug and he was back inside his open top car the interior of which was beginning to resemble an inner city skip. John took off his new half rim spectacles. I was not sure whether he needed them. They were identical to mine. John reversed out of the driveway with a wry smile and an accompanying ‘Bye Bye Mr Freidland. Love to Mrs Freidland.’
That was the last time I was to see John. And today we bury him. But hopefully not all of those possibilities.’