My second contribution to the RLF’s Vox audio series is now available: Life-changing Literature – the work of Joel Lane.
Related post: A Death in the Family.
I paced in the snow. The worst kind of snow. Snow that clings with miserable determination. Grey, gritty, gutter-filling slush. People hurried home to warmth and tea and evening TV as I rehearsed the words. I would say them with cool confidence and charisma. This was a done deal. I knew it could happen. I’d seen something similar in P’tang, Yang, Kipperbang.
I looked at the shop. Max’s was a boutique on Church Street owned by an Indian gentleman called Max, who had named his establishment with imaginative flair. It was patronised by young men who wore Sta Press trousers and bragged about how much they paid for haircuts. Not misfits like me. Even the mannequin in the window was intimidating.
I glanced at my Casio. Four fifty-five and twenty-three seconds. Nearly closing time. I was all paced out and freezing cold, so I ran through my lines once more, then pushed the door and went inside.
And there, bathed in the golden light of the electric bar heater above the counter, was Flick Knightley. That hair. Those eyes. Lips like sugar.
I started browsing shirts I wouldn’t wear and Sta Press trousers I couldn’t afford, feeling a bit sick and recognising the need to steel myself or stiffen my resolve or gird my loins or something. I glanced up now and then as she folded clothes. Flick was a nickname new to me. Was she magnificent at marbles? A tiddlywinks temptress? Whatever, she was like a pop star who didn’t know it yet. The kind of girl who, upon entering a juvenile discotheque, would cause the Sta Press studs to strut across the room like Tamworth’s answer to John Travolta, while the mom’s haircut crew hid behind their Vimtos and looked on in awe. All the while modest and approachable, completely unaware of her utter gorgeousness. At least, that was the story I’d made up. I’d only seen her a few times around town after all. But here I was.
Five twenty-five. Nearly closing time. This was it. Put up or shut up. Shape up or ship out. Put your money where your mouth is. Go for broke. All that.
I put down a blouse-like shirt with a pattern I’d later learn was called “paisley”, and shuffled towards the counter as if I’d soiled my trousers. Which, to be honest, was a distinct possibility. As I approached she looked up and smiled. A generous gesture towards the odd youth who’d been in the shop half an hour but clearly didn’t belong. Realising I wasn’t carrying anything to buy, a little uncertainty played across Flick’s exquisite face.
I stood at the counter.
A moment passed.
“All right?” she said.
That hair. Those eyes. Lips like sugar.
I cleared my throat.
It had sounded better in rehearsals.
She looked at me.
She raised her eyebrows. What?
“Wondered if you’d fancy going for a drink. Sometime.”
There was a long pause during which I could only assume she was visualising an evening of Malibu and coke and conversation at Corvettes wine bar, or a sophisticated meal at the Chinese restaurant in the precinct. I mean, that was where this was heading. I had it all planned.
“I’ve got a boyfriend.”
A boyfriend. Of course. I mean obviously.
In truth the prospect hasn’t crossed my mind. I’d envisaged a blush and a fluttering of eyelashes and a taken aback oh well thank you how about Friday? Easy as that. But yeah. A boyfriend. My optimistic preparations had not factored in such a possibility.
Suddenly at a dead end, I hurried towards the door.
I glanced back as its little bell rang. “Mañana,” I said, and hurried away.
I trudged home in the worst kind of snow, working hard to convince myself that despite everything this was some kind of win. She hadn’t said no, after all. Just that she’d got a boyfriend. I mean if she hadn’t… And I’d had the balls. Fair play. Nothing ventured. And I had ventured and then some.
I stayed clear of Max’s after that. Who needs Sta Press trousers, blouses and boyfriends anyway? I saw Felicity Knightley not so long ago on Dragon’s Den. She’d developed a line of ethical clothing for children. She got her investment, and launched a chain of boutiques called Flicks.
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.
I first encountered Miss Amanda Fluff in the convenience store on Monks Way. I’d popped in to buy a pair of Snickers, and saw her slip a packet of Fisherman’s Friend inside her donkey jacket. Unperturbed at my observance, she winked and promptly left without paying. Intrigued and indeed a little breathless at her audacity, I replaced my confections on the counter, and followed.
There ensued a relationship of which I was more passenger than participant. A lifelong rebel, Amanda liked nothing better than to break into the outdoor pool at Tamworth swimming baths and go skinny dipping beneath the stars on a hot summer night. It was during one such escapade that she educated me in uses for a packet of Poppets previously beyond my wildest imaginings. She was what mother would have described as “not backward in coming forward” – an assessment with which I could not have argued. I would have to admit that the prospect of mother’s disapproval contributed to my attraction to the wild Miss Fluff.
Ever the thrill-seeker, she was prone, through skilful deployment of a wire coat hanger – or, in the absence of such, an underwire extracted from her substantial brassiere – to stealing Rovers and Mini Metros and driving them into the night until they ran out of petrol. While initially thrilling, the danger in our escapades did not escape me. As a consequence, and although painful, I brought our relationship to an end after a few short but tempestuous months. The delinquent Miss Fluff begged and pleaded, but I held my ground and departed with a stiffened resolve.
With some sense of relief I thought that an end to the matter. Yet I could not help but hanker after our nights in stolen cars. Then, as I lay awake in my bed one night, I heard a vehicle idling gently outside. When I parted the curtains and saw an Austin Princess Vanden Plas bathed in the golden glow of the streetlights, I knew immediately that Miss Fluff had been up to her old tricks. My heart beat a little faster, and when she flashed her headlamps at me I was unable to resist.
We drove through the night, dizzy on the thrill of our criminality, ending our journey on the sands of Weston Super Mare as the sun rose behind Burger King. I remember the moment as we looked into each other’s eyes, sharing what remained of a sausage roll: we both knew it was finally over. I could now rest easy in my bed knowing mother was no longer at risk of being picked up by the fuzz in a dawn raid, while Miss Fluff had nothing more to prove. And so it was that we parted on good terms.
Subsequent to our relationship I heard she became involved with former Harlequins’ fly half Rusty Beaumont, who left the sport in disgrace in the 1980s following a scrummage incident involving a parsnip. I can only assume it was the considerable age difference and Beaumont’s bad boy image that attracted her to this inappropriate sportsman. As I understand it, they eventually moved to Telford, where they now run a massage parlour cum cattery.
Here’s a handy Scrivener tip if you want to include or exclude specific documents from Compile. SHIFT+click or CTRL+click to select or deselect documents in the right-hand Compile pane, then right-click and check or uncheck Include in Compile, as applicable. Saves a lot of clicking on individual documents, which I was doing up until today!
Today sees the launch of Think. Feel. Write.!
This has been inspired by my personal experiences of the therapeutic benefits of writing, and my work with the Royal Literary Fund, both as a Fellow and as part of the Social Sector Projects initiative.
Studies show that expressive or reflective writing can help us find direction, reduce stress, and have both short- and long-term health benefits. You can subscribe to site updates, read articles, try some exercises, and there’s a TFW Twitter profile. Please share with anyone you feel might be interested.
With all best wishes,
Hire great writers. If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer. It doesn’t matter if that person is a marketer, salesperson, designer, programmer, or whatever; their writing skills will pay off. That’s because being a good writer is about more than writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They know what to omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate. […] Writing is today’s currency for good ideas.
from “ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.
Get in touch to discuss a project.
I have an obsession with time and dates. It’s reflected in everything I write. If when watching telly I see a clock in the background, or can make out the face of someone’s watch, I’ll note the time. If the programme’s old I’ll check out the “first aired” date, then try to work out where I was and what I was doing. I’ll even try and work out the time of year in which a scene was shot from the weather. I do live in the past a bit. My mate Aaron wouldn’t be at all impressed. Today is 14 June 2020, and for some reason my mind’s drawn back forty years to 1980.
14 June 1980 was a Saturday. I was 12 years old. Most kids would have been at home watching The Adventure Game or Tiswas, but I was at either Tamworth or Burton market, with my dad at the former, my mom at the latter. I’d have spent the week at Rawlett High School. Mrs Pitts would have sucked all the potential for enjoyment out of English; Mr Blatch would have told us about weather fronts in geography; chemistry teacher Mr Clamp would have told me repeatedly to get my hands out of my pockets; I was not the only 12 year old getting hot under the satchel in the presence of French teacher Mrs Whitby. In Britain, Mrs Thatcher was relatively new to Number 10, and Jimmy Carter was President of the Good Ol’. Some guy in white called John Paul (the Second) was Pope.
Musically, things were very mixed. On this particular day Xanadu by Olivia Newton John was number one in the singles’ chart. Highlights of the year as a whole were anything Two Tone, Atomic and Call Me by Blondie, Going Underground and Start by The Jam, and topping it all (for me) David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes. These gems were, however, offset by Kenny Rogers’ The Coward of the County, Barbara Streisand’s Woman in Love, with the year capped off by the utterly atrocious There’s No One Quite Like fucking Grandma by St Winifred’s School choir. Geno by Dexys was okay, and they were from nearby Birmingham, but I never got the denim dungarees thing and didn’t like Kevin Rowland’s voice. Meanwhile, Don’t Stand So Close to Me was a hit for The Police: a catchy number in which Sting admits to fancying a young female pupil, and makes out his inappropriate thoughts are all her fault. I won’t mention What’s Another Year by Johnny Logan, other than to plant the seed of the song in your head so you’re humming it all next week. On Saturday 14 June 1980, we were just a month down the road from Ian Curtis’ suicide, and a few weeks away from Peter Sellers’ death. In New York, John Lennon would be seeing some places for the last time.
Approaching the end of my first year at secondary school it was becoming clear I was not academic, but I had a pristine shit brown uniform and a school bag full of other people’s hopes and expectations. Juvenile epilepsy was a relatively new cloud; formed just a year earlier, it would hang around until I was 20. I watched six hours’ worth of telly every weekday, and started my week’s homework with reluctance on a Sunday afternoon; Mrs Pitts’ 45 chapter summaries had no chance. In the end I’d usually give up, go to bed, and watch That’s Life and Hart to Hart on my black and white portable telly. Of note to me now is that this was the only period of my life during which I did not write.
I’d always written as a kid, but my secondary school years were a creative void. I had a Commodore Vic 20 computer, but no tape recorder to save anything I did on it. I had a CB radio, but hadn’t yet touched an electric guitar. Some music got me right there, but I didn’t know anyone who liked Echo & the Bunnymen. My entire childhood was full of love, and the kind of gifts that can only be bestowed with the good intentions of those who have worked their way up from nothing; but I would feel a misfit for another eight or nine years, until my creative impulse began to surface once more. Whereupon everything began to change.
So, that’s me on 14 June 1980; but where, and who, were you?