LOST IN ACTON

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I’m an old man now. I’ll be Eighty One in two weeks time. Still fit and healthy though. Walk to the shops everyday to get my shopping. Shoes polished, trousers pressed and always a clean shirt and tie. “Standards” as my old Mum used to say.

Mum was a stern lady. Some would say fierce. I only ever saw her cry twice and both times they were for my Dad.

I was born in 1936. I was just a baby when Dad went off to war. I remember him, but not sure if that’s from actual contact or from photographs.

We had an old dining table in our front room. It had seen better days so Mum covered it with a big table cloth that touched the floor on all four sides. It became my play tent. I would get under that table and pretend I was in a magical cave.

And that’s where I was in November 1943. Just seven years old when the man from the Army came to see Mum.  I didn’t hear all the conversation but I did hear him say “I am sorry to tell you that your husband has been lost in Acton.”

That’s when I heard Mum cry for the first time. It continued long after the Army man had left. I just sat in my tent not wanting to come out until Mum had stopped. It seemed like an age before I heard her stand up and walk into the Kitchen.

I was confused. Why was Mum so upset? We lived in Ealing and Acton was just a short bus ride away. If Dad had got himself lost then we should try to find him. Me and Mum had been there shopping loads of times. It didn’t seem like a big place so finding Dad should be easy.

The next day was a Saturday so no school. I told Mum I was going out to play with Billy Jennings from across the road. I remember her words as I opened the front door “Don’t go far and if you hear the sirens you come straight back. You hear me?”

“Yes Mum!”

Of course I had no intention of playing with Billy Jennings, the snotty nosed kid with the lazy eye from number forty six. I was going to find Dad.

When me and Mum went shopping in Acton the bus ride only took a couple of minutes so I knew it wasn’t far. The number twelve Bus took one long straight road then dropped us at Acton Station. So all I had to do was follow that same road and I’d get there.  I’d search the whole town and find Dad. I was certain of it.

It took half an hour. I walked some of it and ran the last few hundred yards. I saw the Station up ahead. I was in Acton.

I wandered around the town for hours. I looked in every shop, every store, every doorway and even every alleyway. But there was no sign of him.

Some shopkeepers asked me what I was doing. They obviously thought I was up to no good.

“Looking for my Dad!” I shouted, then ran as fast as I could into the next shop.

I was in the Butchers when I was aware of a large man in uniform standing in front of me. He reminded me of Dad. But it wasn’t him. He looked down at me and smiled.

“So young man. What are you doing here on your own? Where’s your Mum?”

“I’m looking for my Dad. He’s got himself lost. Mum’s indoors.”

He took me to the Police Station and gave me a cup of hot Bovril.

“Now then son. You tell me what’s going on.”

So I did. I told him about the man from the Army coming to see Mum and how she started crying. I told him about what the man said about Dad being lost in Acton. He came over and put his arm around me.

“Let’s get you home son. Your mum will be worried.”

He put me in an old battered car and drove me home. When we got outside our house, he turned and looked at me.

“I’m going to speak with your Mum. Tell her what’s happened. You sit there for a few minutes.”

I watched as he walked up our path and knocked at the door. I saw him talking to Mum on the doorstep. Then Mum started to run towards the car. And that was the second time I saw her cry…

 

 

Our House.

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Every word is true…

Our house had four rooms and a kitchen. Sounds grand doesn’t it. Except…

You walked in off the street into our “Front Room”. It was ten feet square with an open fire. Somehow we managed to squeeze a sideboard, armchair, coffee table and a Piano into that tiny space. This was our “Best room”. We hardly ever used it. Apart from Dad who played the piano every chance he could.

The other room downstairs was our “Living Room.” Between the two rooms were a flight of stairs that led you up to the two bedrooms.

The “Living Room” also had an open fire. In fact it was the only fire in the house that was ever lit. There were two armchairs and a settee. A black and white television that had a radio combined and another coffee table. Why it was called a “Coffee table” I’ll never know. No one in the family drank coffee except Uncle George, so Mum kept a jar of Camp Coffee just for him. The jar lasted for years.

You walked through the “Living Room” into the Kitchen. It was no bigger than six feet by four. Yet we had a small table and chairs in there and a kitchen cabinet. There was a sink which had the only tap in the house. Cold water of course. Above the sink was an “Ascot heater” which provided us with a limited amount of hot water. We all washed at the sink with a bowl and flannel. Dad shaved there every morning and once a week we all washed our hair over it. Baths were Friday nights and that’s when Dad brought the old tin bath in from the garden.

There were no “Fitted carpets”. Just rugs over floorboards and a piece of “Lino” in the Kitchen.

We had an outside toilet next to the shed. It was exactly twelve paces away from the back door. I know I counted them many times on winter nights when it was below freezing.

There was no light in there either. Pitch black it was. Making it difficult to know whether you’d wiped properly or not. Mind you the paper that we used didn’t exactly wipe or absorb, more like smeared and spread.

Upstairs were two rooms, both again with open fires that were never lit. Me and my sister shared one and Mum and Dad had the other.

In the winter it was cold. REALLY cold. We’d all huddle round the fire in the Living room watching Tele and when it was time for bed I’d have pants and vest on underneath my pyjamas and then a jumper over the top. I never went to bed without socks and knitted gloves.

Every house in our street was exactly the same. We were lucky, there were only four of us (and Butch, the dog), but some of our neighbours had six kids, so there were eight people in those tiny houses.

Now you’re probably thinking this was a hundred years ago. It was 1970…

 

He Draws Birds.

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John Patten wasn’t long out of Police Training College at Hendon. He’d been assigned a beat that took him through an affluent part of Paddington, West London. It was an area that he knew reasonably well as he’d grown up just a few postcodes away in St. Johns Wood.

A call came through on his Police radio. It was a simple enough request. Someone had reported a man hanging around in St. Pauls Park and could he investigate.  It was just before eight o’clock in the evening and the sun would soon be going down. He hoped this wouldn’t take long as his shift was due to finish at nine.

When he entered the park it was deserted apart from a man sitting on a bench about fifty feet away. As he walked closer he could see the man was staring at a large oak tree and was holding a small note pad and pencil in his hands.

In these situations he’d been taught to start off as polite as possible. No point in being aggressive and inflaming the situation.

“Hello sir. Can I ask you what brings you to the park this evening?”

The stranger looked up. He was in his thirties, greasy black hair, unshaven and with a distinctive scar above his right eye. He was dressed in blue jeans and a dark brown sweat shirt.

“The birds.”

For all the answers PC Patten could have anticipated. “The birds” wasn’t one of them.

“You’re bird watching?”

The stranger shook his head.

“No sir. I’m drawing them. I like to draw the birds.”

He handed the policeman his notepad.

John was taken aback at the quality of the artwork. Pencil drawn works of Robins, Sparrows, Blackbirds and Starlings in great detail. He smiled and handed the pad back.

“Very good. I’m impressed. You do this for a living? You an artist?”

For the first time the man smiled.

“No sir. Not me. I just like to draw them. Passes the time.”

John felt guilty but had to ask more questions. Paperwork would need to be completed once he was back at the station.

“Can you give me your name and address please sir. Just for our records.”

The man shrugged his shoulders.

“Sure. David Marshall. 62 Queen Street.”

Once again the answer wasn’t what he was expecting. He knew Queen Street very well. It was on his beat. 62 was an impressive building. Four floors of prime real estate in the heart of the City.  The street entrance was grand. Six marble steps led up to two large oak panelled front doors. The words came out of his mouth as he was thinking them.

YOU live at 62 Queen Street?”

“Yes sir.”

“Do you have any ID on you? Driving Licence or Credit Card?”

“No sir. But I’m leaving now. You’re welcome to come back with me and I can prove it then?”

John thought about it for a few seconds then decided it was a good idea. It was on his way back to the station and it meant he could draw a line under the enquiry.

“Okay. Good idea.”

They began their walk. All the time John was trying to make his mind up about David Marshall. He was obviously well off. 62 Queen Street was worth millions. Even if he didn’t own the building and was just renting, the cost would be enormous. He was polite, articulate and from the quality of the drawings, well educated. Maybe the guy was some kind of eccentric millionaire. A kind of Howard Hughes figure. He casually asked some questions.

“Lived in Queen Street long?”

“No sir. Just a short while. I’m from Nottingham originally.”

“Nottingham? What made you move to London?”

“Long story sir. Bit boring really. I left the Army and realised there was nothing left for me in Nottingham so came down to London.”

“What Regiment?”

“3rd Rifle Battalion. Did two years in Afghanistan. You probably noticed the scar?”

John lied.

“No. I didn’t notice it. How’d that happen?”

“We came under fire just a few miles outside of camp. A bullet grazed my right eye. I was one of the lucky ones. Lost some good friends that day.”

John wasn’t sure how to respond, so they walked the last few hundred yards in silence.

Once outside their destination they stopped and David Marshall spoke.

“I’ll just get my stuff.”

John expected to see the stranger walk up the stairs and enter the grand building. Instead he disappeared into a small alley way beside it. He returned a few seconds later with three flattened cardboard boxes, two blankets and a sleeping bag.  John watched as he laid out the cardboard on the top step of 62 Queen Street and then tightly wrapped the blankets around him.

Rules Are Rules.

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Our family have rules. And they’re simple rules. You hurt us and we’ll hurt you back. But double time.

You disrespect me and mine and we’ll have a problem. Call me or my family a name and I’ll break your windows, do it again and I’ll break your face.

Your kid hurts one of mine and I’ll come round and put all of yours in the hospital.

You get the picture? Don’t mess with me and mine.

But some people didn’t get it in one. They thought the rules didn’t apply to them. They were wrong. Take Mark Reynolds for example.

Mark was a big man. Stood six feet seven inches and weighed around twenty stone.  A face on the local estate. But his lad hit mine. Not just that he kicked the shit out of him when he was on the floor and busted his leg and arm. Now, my lads no angel. He probably deserved to get hit. But them aint the rules.

The rules are simple. You hurt anyone of us and we’re gonna hurt you back.

Mark came round the next day. Tears in his eyes.

“They didn’t know it was your boy. Honest. They didn’t know.”

I did the usual thing. Shook his hand. But we both knew what would happen.

His kid moved away. Went to stay with an Aunt in Liverpool. After a year he went to stay with another relation in Edinburgh. But one day he was found in a bad way. Close to death near a railway line.

I went round to Marks the next day. Shook his hand. “Even” was all I said. Mark just nodded.

So imagine my state of mind when my wife was mugged coming home one night. She’d stopped to get some money out of the cash machine at Asda’s. As she walked away two guys threw her to the floor and took her bag.

She was in hospital for three days. Cuts, bruises and a dislocated shoulder.

Word got round. The two guys realised what they’d done and gave themselves up to the police. I pretended to let it go. But everyone knew what the consequences would be.

They went to trial and got two years suspended sentence. They screamed in court. They WANTED to go away. But they were let out and back on the streets. They even asked for Police protection.

Fair play to the old bill, they ignored them. They were scum. If truth be known I think the boys in blue wanted to see them get their comeuppance.

I waited. No rush. It was eighteen months before anything happened. One of the guys had fucked off to Spain. Didn’t matter, we found him. Just by total coincidence he was also mugged, coming home late one night from a club. Nasty business, blood everywhere. They took his money but also slit his throat.

Me? I was indoors watching Strictly.

Two months later and the other one jumps from one of the Tower Blocks on the Langley Estate.  Nothing to do with me…really. He just jumped rather than wait for the inevitable.

It’s been quiet for the past few years. The rules are being adhered to.

But…last night my daughter came home in tears. She’s twenty and works for the local Building Society. She said that the Manager touched her arse as she bent over to pick up some papers.

What the fucks the matter with these people. Don’t they understand?

Rules are rules.

 

Last Train To Memphis.

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There was something about the old guy sitting at the corner table of Max’s Diner.  Something that the owner couldn’t quite put his finger on. He’d never seen him before yet he looked familiar.

He’d served him a black coffee and a slice of apple pie. The old guy looked up at him and smiled. It was a genuine look of gratitude. If a smile could say thank you, then this was THAT smile.

Max was guessing he was around eighty. Thin grey hair, quiffed and slicked back. His face was craggy and lined from too much sun but he had young eyes. Piercing blue eyes that looked as though they should belong to someone half his age. He was dressed casually yet had a certain style about him. Denim jeans and jacket and underneath a crisp white tee shirt. His body looked good for his age. Fit and trim.

He was carrying a guitar case. Nothing unusual about that. Max’s Diner was on Highway 40 just outside of Cookeville and on the road to Nashville and Memphis. Willy Nelson himself had stopped off for a bite to eat just a couple of years ago and there was a framed photo on the wall of Max with his arm around Glen Campbell.  Max had a feeling that the old guy might have played with a few of the old greats. He was anxious to find out more. He walked over. Coffee pot in hand.

“Can I getcha more coffee? It’s a free re-fill.”

The old guy nodded. And with a rich southern drawl replied.

“Sure. That’ll be great. Thank you.”

Max filled up the strangers cup. He looked at the guitar case.

“You play in a band? Sing?”

Again the stranger gave a smile.

“Used to. Long time ago. Now I just do a bit of busking here and there.”

Max was intrigued.

“Ever play with anyone famous? We’ve had some greats in here. Willy Nelson just two years ago sat at this very table. Ever play with him?”

The stranger shook his head.

“Nope don’t think I ever did.”

Then very casually he added.

“But I did play with Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash one time.”

Max sat down opposite the old guy. The man had just mentioned two of his all time heroes.

“You played with Perkins and Cash? Wow man that’s amazing. When was this?”

The stranger shrugged his shoulders.

“In the fifties. Maybe fifty five or fifty six. Jerry Lee was there too.”

Max’s jaw almost hit the table.

“You’re kidding me. Jerry Lee Lewis? You knew these guys?”

As though it was no big deal the stranger just nodded and sipped his coffee. Max was in awe.

“Look man, I don’t wanna be rude but are you famous? Should I know you?”

The old guy grinned.

“Me? No way. Just a guitar player. Look I gotta go. I can get a train from here to Memphis?”

Max was desperate for the guy to stay and talk but could see he was anxious to get going.

“Yeh. It’s a five minute walk into town. The station will be on your left. You sure I can’t get you something else? A burger? We do great cheese burgers here?”

For a moment the stranger paused as though he was about to change his mind. Then just smiled.

“Not today. But thanks. Gotta go.”

Max walked with him to the door. He wanted one last piece of information.

“Sorry, excuse my bad manners. What’s your name? You live in Memphis?”

The stranger completely ignored the first question. Just gave that warm smile.

“I used to. But that was a long, long time ago. But I’m getting old. It’s time to go home.”

He walked away, leaving Max  feeling that someone famous might have just left the building…

 

 

 

The Away Fan.

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I’ve got an itch that I can’t scratch. You know what I mean. Something that just won’t go away. It could be nothing or it might just be something.

It started on Saturday at the match. We were playing against a rival team and the banter was in full flow. Me and my mates sit directly beside the away fans. Well, apart from the stewards who TRY to keep us apart and let’s face it, these guys are on about six pounds an hour, so no way are they going to get involved if it all kicks off.

It hardly ever does by the way. It’s always handbags. Lots of shouting, swearing and finger pointing. But nothing more.

Saturday was different.

There was this guy among the away crowd. No more than twenty feet away. Just the stewards between us. They scored and did the usual thing of jumping up, pointing at us and chanting “You’re not singing anymore.”

But not this guy. This guy was different. He stood up slowly and just looked at me. Not just the crowd I was with, but me. Definitely me.

With a stare that even Hannibal Lecter would be proud of he raised his hand and pointed at ME. Yep me. Then he smiled and did that thing where you draw your hand across your neck. It means I’m gonna cut your throat, or you’re a dead man. It freaked me out.

I tried to brush it off and laughed at him. But he did it over and over again and I went a bit crazy. Called him all sorts of names and tried to get to him through the stewards. He did nothing but smile and kept pointing.

When the game finished, a draw by the way. I looked over and he was gone. I was with about ten other guys so I wasn’t worried about any “afters” outside. But nothing. He wasn’t there.

That was five days ago.

I was in Tesco’s yesterday doing the shopping and I swear I saw him. Putting tins of baked beans in his basket. It was him. I’m certain. He looked at me and just smiled.

I had the kids with me otherwise I might have confronted him. But what for? Smiling?

Then again in the afternoon at the petrol station. I started filling up the car and I think it was him again sitting in a car behind me. Just smiling.

I’ve got to put it out of my mind or I’ll go mad. So today it’s Friday and I’ve got a day off work. I’ve just had a cheese roll and poured myself a beer. Old Mrs Baxter from next door died a few months ago and her boys have sold the place. Today the new owners move in. I’ll do the good neighbour thing and give them a hand. The wife has done a basket of fruit as a nice welcome gesture.

Great. They’re here. Big van just pulled up outside. People getting out.

Oh fuck…

Holding Hands.

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My mind wanders. Is that the right word? I don’t know, perhaps I’ll ask Mary when she gets home from work.

It’s sunny outside but cold. I’m guessing it’s winter. I say that because I saw a Robin on the fence today. I also noticed that the fence has been fixed. I wonder who did that. Not me that’s for sure. Might have been Reg from next door. He’s always tinkering with something. He was in the Artillery during the war. Clever bloke is Reg.

A nice young lady came and said hello this morning. She wanted to hold my hand but I thought that was a bit much considering we’d only just met. I was polite but pulled my hand away. I could see she was upset. Had tears in her eyes. Perhaps she’d had some bad news or something. I think she’s married because she was wearing a ring on her finger. It was like the one Mary has. I bought it for her years ago. It was her Birthday or Anniversary or Christmas, anyway doesn’t matter, she’ll be home from work soon.

The television is on. I don’t know what the programme is called. It’s not Sunday Night At The London Palladium. If it was the Tiller girls would be dancing. They’re stunning those girls. Long legs and boy can they kick. So if it’s not Sunday night perhaps it’s Monday or Tuesday. I’ll ask Mary when she gets in. Shouldn’t be long now.

A hot stew would be nice for tea tonight. Ox tail done slow in the oven for hours and a good thick gravy. Mum used to do it once a month during the winter. Dad loved it and used to suck the bones. I wonder if mum and dad will be coming over for Christmas dinner this year. I’ll ask Mary.

Someone’s put a blanket over my legs! Why would they do that? A blanket’s for old people who get cold a lot more than us youngsters.

Football. That’s what I’ll do this afternoon. I’ll play football with Ian and John. We’ll beat those kids from the Langley Estate. Especially if they’ve got that kid with the wonky eye playing. No way he can ever head a ball. Misses it every time. I like football, used to play, was quite good, almost professional. Mary came to watch all the games.

“Mister Taylor?”

Why is that woman calling me by that name? I’ll ignore her and face the window.

“Mister Taylor? Do you want to come through to the sitting room and join everyone for dinner?”

I think I’m hungry. I’ll go.

“Is it Oxtail?”

“Not today Mister Taylor. Perhaps tomorrow we’ll have Oxtail. I’ll ask the cook.”

“I like Oxtail.”

“Yes, we know Mister Taylor. You’ve mentioned it once or twice before. Let’s get you up and we’ll all go through to the sitting room.”

I don’t know why this woman wants to help me stand up. I’m perfectly able to do it myself. Mind you my legs do feel a bit wobbly today. Too much football yesterday with Ian and John, that’s what’s done it.

“That’s it Mister Taylor. Nice and steady. I hear your daughter was here today. I bet that was a nice treat for you.”

She’s mad this woman is. How the hell can I have a daughter at my age? I’m not going!

“Now come along Mister Taylor. You have to eat something…Mary is waiting for you in the sitting room.”

I’ll go because I think I’m hungry. But who’s Mary? Thursday! It’s Thursday!

I know that because the man on the television dressed in a strange looking suit with a yellow tie said so. He said “Welcome to the Six O’clock News on Thursdays the first December.”

I knew I was right. It is winter.