ENCOUNTERS – Spitfire Brian

Brian had a waxed handlebar moustache, exquisitely coiffured hair and a cat on a lead. He lived in a top-floor apartment in a large house opposite The Green, which he shared with a gentleman friend. On occasion he would appear at the front of said residence and admonish us kids for disturbing his Sunday afternoon, racing around on our bicycles and jumping like apprentice Evel Knievels from the ramp formed of tarmac discarded by tinkers. Not only were we making too much noise, we were ruining the grass, he said.

“You want to stay away from that woofter,” Uncle Geoff once advised me firmly. “He’s one of them. He offers you any sweets or invites you inside you come and tell me and I’ll punch his bloody lights out.”

I was unsure what this meant but would have to admit to recognising something unusual in Brian’s style and deportment. He was, perhaps, a member of some club or organisation who spent money on clothes and personal grooming, rather than beer, full English breakfasts and top-shelf magazines. I didn’t see the harm in that, but neither was I about to challenge Uncle Geoff.

Given the warnings I was relieved to see Brian in only three contexts: when issuing his Green dispersal orders, strolling with his cat, or departing with a 1500cc snort in his white Triumph Spitfire, like Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal. Then, one day in February 1975, our paths crossed unexpectedly.

I was walking home from Vale’s VG store with a medium sliced loaf and a pint of milk when Michael Best and his cronies appeared over the canal bridge. I immediately felt sick and quickened my pace, but within moments the slices of bread were scattered, the milk bottle smashed, and in a tumult of laughter and jeering I found myself destined for immersion in the canal’s murky waters.

With a concerted effort I freed myself from Besty’s clutches and ran. The youths gave chase and were gaining fast, but as I approached the main road I heard a distinctive automotive rasp, and a familiar vehicle appeared in front of me. Brian threw open the passenger door and leaned across the seat. “Get in,” he said. I hesitated, Uncle Geoff’s warning loud in my ears. But Besty was close, so I jumped inside and slammed the door. Brian gunned the engine and accelerated away.

The smell of the leather seats combined with after-shave far more sophisticated than the Brut 33 favoured by all the men I knew and the car’s engine fumes to create a heady aroma. I glanced nervously at Brian. His moustache twirled to fine points, jet black hair swept in waves, up close he looked a mature pop star or society photographer.  When I touched my nose and found bloodied fingers he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to me. He asked if I was all right.

I explained that Besty had been taking my school lunches for months, regularly stole my tuck money, had thrown my bag in the canal and ruined all my books, and generally made my life miserable. Brian asked why. “Because he says I’m a puff who draws pictures and plays the recorder and looks like a girl,” I spluttered. I couldn’t help it, I said. I kept telling them I was sorry but they just wouldn’t stop. And now mum was going to kill me because I hadn’t got the bread or milk, or the money she’d given me to buy them.

Brian glanced at me as I dabbed my nose. Then, like Tamworth’s answer to James Hunt, he took the roundabout at the end of Woodhouse Lane at such speed the tyres squealed and I was pressed hard against the passenger door. I gripped the edge of the seat as we roared back the way we’d come.

We found Besty and his mates a few minutes later near Dog Lane. Brian slammed on the brakes, got out, strode after them and shouted. I couldn’t hear what was said, but watched as Brian jabbed a threatening finger and spoke sternly, Besty and his bullyboy buddies mute and still.

A minute or so later he returned to the car. “They won’t bother you again,” he said, slamming the door and starting the engine. As Besty and his mates glared through the window as we departed, I wasn’t so sure.

Brian stopped some distance from my house. To avoid awkward questions, he said. On the way he’d stopped off at Mrs Sharrat’s shop and bought a medium sliced loaf and a bottle of milk. He handed them to me as I opened the door. “Here,” he said. “Save any trouble. Our little secret.” I thanked him and got out. He leaned forward as I stood on the pavement. “Don’t apologise for being what you are,” he said. “Just accept it. Otherwise you’ll live a lie and spend the whole time pretending and being miserable because of what others think.” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but nodded and shut the door. The Spitfire revved and snorted and sped away.

As promised, I was never again bothered by Michael Best or his gang. In fact they seemed to avoid me. Later in life Besty would go to prison following a pub brawl that resulted from a spilled pint and a man dying from a single punch. A similar fate befell Uncle Geoff, whose enthusiasm for top-shelf literature extended to unsavoury photographs of boys.

Brian died during the mid-1980s after a long illness. There was a piece in the paper about him. It turned out he was a war hero, awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Order during the Battle of Britain. He’d flown Spitfires.

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