© Sean Palmer
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His mother would tell him stories of how, before she was married, she’d travel up to London with girlfriends, and visit the coffee-shops and picture houses, and how sometimes they’d meet men.
‘Of course, we were very innocent in those days. There was nothing – you know - untoward.’ She’d say this word with a special intonation, carefully shaping it, as though it contained a small and curious secret. He remembers the way she rounded her lips, how the thin line of her eye-brows lifted. ‘The lights on Oxford Street,’ she’d say, ‘all the shops and Piccadilly Circus. Oh, you can’t imagine. It was like being in a fairy-tale. This was before the war mind, so no rationing. I remember – oh – we found a perfect little sweet shop, with Candy Canes in the window display. A bag of Liquorice Gums you could get for a ha’penny, I think it was.’
Sometimes it seemed like she wasn’t speaking to him, at all. He’d make some small sound in his throat, or kick his heel against the foot of the bed, to remind her, to bring her back to him from her fairytale land of lights and candy.
She’d look at him and she’d say, ‘Later we’d go down the Palais here in Fulham. That’s when I met your father.’ She had a way of sighing, and folding her hands together in her lap.
He remembers one evening, sitting in his usual place on the edge of her bed. He watched her as she peered into the mirror, and touched scent to her wrists and to the spaces behind her ears.
‘Are you out tonight, Mum?’ he said.
‘Don’t you fuss,’ she said. ‘Your father’ll make sure you get some supper. Unless Ada’s round here, again.’
He pressed his fists into his armpits and sat there staring at the carpet.
She turned and grinned at him and stuck out her tongue. ‘Oh, don’t make that face, little master grumps. You know I don’t go out very often. Lord knows, I could do with a little bit of fun once in a while.’
She reached over and ruffled his hair, but he wouldn’t look at her.
‘Dearie me,’ she said. ‘We are in the dumps.’ She gave a long pretend sigh, then clapped her palms against her thighs. ‘I know. I’ve got something to show you. Something a little bit special.’
She stood up from the bed, and pulled out a drawer from the chest beneath the window. When she turned, she was holding a length of fine hazy fabric, almost transparent, it seemed. For a moment, he couldn’t think what she was showing him, or what its purpose might be.
‘Look,’ she said, her eyes very wide. ‘Italian nylon.’
She stretched the material along the length of her arm. A shadowy hazy substance against her skin. He moved his hand towards it.
‘Don’t touch,’ she said pulling back. The material seemed to float away, out of reach. ‘You with your sticky fingers. Besides, you got to be careful not to snag.’
‘Mum,’ he said, carefully. ‘Where did you get it?’
‘Never you mind,’ she said, and tapped him lightly on the nose. ‘And don’t be talking to your father, neither.’
She turned and stood smiling down into the mirror, pressing the nylon against her cheek. It seemed she’d forgotten him again.
His father would come home late from the garage, his great-coat turned up at his ears and the brim of his cap pulled down tight to his brow. His hair, peeking out at the sides, which was so sleek and black in old photographs, was now touched with grey. In memory, it seems, he was never without his cap. His fingers were thick and calloused, and there were black lines from the engine oil beneath his nails. Two fingers on his right hand were paralysed, permanently curled inwards towards the palm, as though part of his hand had been caught up into a claw. The boy recoiled at the thought of shaking this hand. His father had been called up to fight when the boy was only four, and was in the Service Corps at Dunkirk and later in Burma, and when he returned, he walked unevenly and was mostly silent.
When his mother was out, the two of them would sit down in the evening to bread and dripping, and the boy would count the squares on the table cloth, and try not to listen to the sounds his father made, slowly chewing and swallowing. The boy felt the silence in the house like a pressure behind his eyes.
Yet perhaps there were a few topics they could discuss. The boy collected cigarette cards. There was a series featuring Allied military air-craft, Spitfires and Hawkers and Hurricanes, drawn with their propellers a blur, a glint of light on the wing, and perhaps a little puff of white cloud behind.
He sat crossed-legged on the floor in the parlour, one evening after tea, and fanned out his cards in front of him. ‘Ma gave me two new cards today. Soon, I’ll have the full set.’
His father was standing by the mantelpiece. He glanced at the boy and nodded slightly. He used to wear an old frayed cardigan that came down to below his wrists. He was forever massaging his hand, rubbing the thumb backwards and forwards in the cupped palm.
The boy held up a card. ‘A Lockheed Lightning,’ he said. He stretched out his arms and made zooming noises and rocked from side to side.
His father turned away and looked down into the cold grate. He pressed his foot against the low brass rail around the hearth. His boots were scuffed and wrinkled leather.
‘A Lockheed Lightning,’ he said, slowly. ‘I had a few pals in the air-force.’
At the beginning of the war, the boy and his mother had been evacuated to the south coast, though she returned just a few months later, leaving him in the care of an elderly school-master. At the end of the war, his mother seemed changed. She wore her newly blonde hair short and swept up so that her ears showed, and smoked cigarettes with filters and read magazines with pictures of American movie stars.
‘I told Ma I was going to be a fighter pilot. She said, in a war, a pilot is the best thing you can be.’
‘Your ma gets ideas sometimes. She – well, she gets ideas.’
The boy looked down at his hands. ‘Yes, but, she said if I study hard, maybe I could get into the grammar school. And then, if there’s another war, then maybe they would train me.’
His father coughed. He took out a handkerchief to wipe his mouth.
‘You know, when I was – hit – when we were hit, me and three pals, on reconnaissance outside this little village, out in Burma, you see – well, I don’t remember feeling anything at the time. Nothing at all. Well, I suppose I must have lost consciousness straight away. And they say, when you’re unconscious, you can’t have any sense of feeling. That’s what unconscious means. That’s what they say.’
The boy waited. He kept perfectly still. His father hardly ever spoke about the war.
‘But, you see, I remembered it afterwards, this loss of feeling, this unconsciousness, as a sort of terrible sense of falling, as though there was nothing beneath me, as though the world was made of – of nothing at all that could hold me up. It’s strange. Sometimes I wake in the night with the same feeling.’
He stood there with his shoulders hunched, staring down into the fire-place. After a moment he came to the dinner table to collect the plates and cutlery, and shuffled out into the pantry.
The boy looked at his picture cards. But to think of tumbling through that vast height! To imagine this was to imagine weightlessness, borne up by the cold blue air, far beyond the pull of gravity. The Lockheed Lightning had two additional fuselages, both with their own propellers and tail fins. He decided it was his favourite.
His father’s garage was a gloomy cluttered place lit by a single bare bulb hanging from the high ceiling. On the shelves were countless boxes containing sockets and screws, and there were any number of battered tins, thick with grease around the rims. He remembers the sharp smells of petrol and white spirits, and the floor stained black in patches from the engine oil. There was an old wagon with big wooden wheels, and on the wagon were piled parts of old engines, heavy iron cylinders and rusted gears and broken pumps, much of it coated in a dark sticky gunk. On the brick wall was a placard with swirling italics: ‘Duckett and Son. Automotive Mechanics.’
The boy would come here after school, and sit up on a big old oil-drum, dangling his legs. His father wore mustard-coloured overalls with wide pockets bristling with pencils and screwdrivers, and he pushed his arms elbow-deep into old engines, or lay on the cold floor, his boots sticking out from beneath some heavy Ford or box-shaped Austin. He would pull himself to his feet, and stand, for minutes at a time, holding the lower part of his back. The boy knew, from conversations he had overheard at home, that fewer and fewer people were bringing their cars to the garage for his father to fix. No doubt, thought the boy, it was because he worked so slowly.
When there were no other cars to mend, his father would work on the Hillman Minx. The Minx had goggle-eyed headlamps and a big square cab. It had spoked wheels and wide running-boards and was painted black. The car had belonged to the boy’s dead grandfather, who ran the garage back in the twenties. It had sat for ages in a state of sad disrepair, its hood removed and its engine a mess of encrusted pistons and corroded metal wires. But his father had sanded away the rust, oiled the valves and the cylinders, and polished the chrome and head-lamps until they shined. Finally, he replaced the winged emblem above the grill, and the transformation seemed almost magical.
One late afternoon, he watched his father climb in behind the wheel and after a moment the engine coughed and caught, and the boy sat listening to its slow hum and the steady tick-tick of the fan-belt.
Afterwards, his father came and stood with the boy. His face held a smile, as if he knew a secret.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘not quite there yet. But almost. Almost.’
He blinked, and rubbed the back of his hand across his cheek, leaving a faint black smudge.
‘You could have this car, one day. If you like. When you’re old enough to drive.’
The boy tried to imagine it. Perhaps he could drive his mother up to London, and they could eat candy cane together, and see the people and the lights on Oxford Street. And yet there was something not quite right about this image.
‘Where would I drive to?’ he said.
‘Oh, I don’t know. A car like this, it could take you wherever you wanted. You could drive forever in a car like this.’
But he never did get to drive that car. He would often wonder, when he was older, what became of it.
His Aunt Ada was his father’s sister. He remembers how, often, when he passed on his way to school in the morning, he’d see her on hands and knees, with bucket and scrubbing brush, doing the steps. She lived just a few doors down, and frequently visited. She sang in the choir in the little Methodist Church on Dublin Street, and much of her conversation concerned other members of the congregation.
‘Always neatly turned out, your aunt,’ his mother would say, and the boy thought about this, and the way she said it, and he too came to dislike her thick woollen skirts without pleats, always navy-blue, and her flat-heeled shoes and the way she held her handbag with both hands, very tight against her chest. She smelled vaguely of mothballs.
She often seemed to come when his mother was out. She would remove her gloves, very carefully, and frown and touch the boy’s forehead, and after a minute, he’d hear her pottering around in their little pantry, singing a Christian hymn to herself, in her quiet steady voice. She’d bring them her Bread and Apple Pudding, which had a dense soggy texture and never enough sultanas.
She was there one evening, after tea-time, he remembers, tutting over reports in the newspaper of Chairman Mao and his famine, while his father sat with his elbows propped on the table and made small sympathetic noises from behind his hands. On his plate, the boy had lined up pieces of bread in fighter plane formation, ready for take-off.
‘Don’t play with your food,’ said Aunt Ada. ‘Think of the starving in Red China. Imagine what they’d do for a bit of bread.’
She shivered at the thought. The boy chewed, and thought about China as a gigantic red flag over which squadrons of fighter planes swarmed and buzzed.
It was then they heard the street door slam. The boy put down his spoon and swivelled around in his chair. He noticed his mother’s cheeks were flushed, and her lip-stick, a deep red, seemed a little smudged around the corner of her mouth.
‘Well,’ she said, removing her coat and pinching out the fabric of her blouse. She seemed a little out of breath. ‘Evening, Ada.’
‘Good evening,’ said Aunt Ada, very precisely, and shook out a crease in her newspaper. The boy’s father broke a piece of biscuit and watched the crumbs fall onto the plate.
The boy’s mother kept touching her clothes and glancing around the room. She seemed distracted, and he tried to think of how to get her attention.
‘Oh, look what I’ve got,’ she said to him at last, picking up her coat again. From the pocket, she pulled out a little crumpled paper bag. ‘Lemon drops.’
Aunt Ada rustled her paper, and looked at the boy’s mother out of the corner of her eye.
‘Oh, don’t look at me like that, Ada. I didn’t pinch them.’
Aunt Ada sniffed. ‘I’m sure you didn’t,’ she said.
His mother made a face behind Aunt Ada’s back. The boy grinned, and she winked at him. ‘We’ll have one later darling, shall we?’ she said. ‘Before bed-time.’
‘There’s a bit of pudding left,’ said Aunt Ada. ‘If you’re hungry.’
‘No, thanks,’ said his mother. She went to the bureau to fish out a lighter. ‘I reckon you’d want to be a bit careful with all your bread puddings, Ada. I heard bread’s going on the ration soon.’ She leant against the bureau and lit her cigarette. There was a trace of a smile behind the puff of smoke.
‘I don’t believe it,’ said Aunt Ada. ‘Anyway, I can always bake soda bread. I’m quite accustomed to thrift. Make it do, or do without. That’s always been my motto.’ She rapped her nails on the table top.
‘Mend and make do,’ said his father, quietly.
‘Hah,’ said his mother. ‘I know how that one goes. Mend and make do, and avoid buying new. Chance’d be a fine thing.’
She folded her arms, and turned to stare out the window at their little patch of garden.
Aunt Ada sighed. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘perhaps I’d better be getting along.’
‘Perhaps you could get your aunt’s coat for her,’ said his father to the boy.
‘That reminds me,’ said his mother, and there was a familiar edge to her voice now. ‘I happened to pass by that little drapery on the corner of Addison Street. Lovely little coat they’ve got in there. Second-hand, it is, but like new.’
She ground out her cigarette in the souvenir ashtray on the bureau, and came and crouched down next to the boy. A strand of hair strayed across her cheek, and she twisted her lips to blow it away. She stroked the nape of his neck and, as she spoke, he could feel her breath on the side of his cheek. ‘Leopard-print. Knee-length. A lovely silky lining. All cool and soft against your skin.’
He inhaled her scent of soap and cotton and cigarettes, and turned to press his cheek against her palm. She opened her eyes very wide. She seemed to be whispering to him. ‘Only three pound, it cost. Imagine that, darling. Imagine if you had three pound.’
His father shifted in his chair. The boy saw that when he clenched his right hand, he could not make a fist.
His mother took the boy’s face in both her hands. She smiled. ‘We know one way we could get some money, don’t we, darling? I reckon your father could get a few quid for that silly old car of his. After all, it’s not like he ever takes us anywhere in it, now, is it? I mean, he can’t afford the petrol.’
His father pushed back from the table with a scraping sound that made them all look up. He stared down at them. His face had lost some of its colour and his eyes had that dark troubled look they used to get when his back was especially painful.
‘Going somewhere, are you?’ said his mother. ‘Off to count our pennies?’
Aunt Ada blinked at them over her newspaper. ‘Speak in haste, repent at leisure,’ she said, faintly.
His father seemed on the point of saying something. There seemed to be a tiny muscle beside his mouth that twitched and struggled. But he left the room without a word, and after a moment they heard the street door bang.
Aunt Ada tilted her tea-cup to peer inside, then set it down again, very carefully. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘Least said, soonest mended.’
His mother turned to look at her. She didn’t speak, but her eyes had gone very narrow indeed.
It was his mother that sent him. He wouldn’t have been there at all that evening, not if she hadn’t insisted.
‘Run down and fetch your father,’ she said. ‘We’re going to have a nice meat stew tonight with dumplings. And I don’t want it spoiled.’
She was wearing a lovely summery blouse, he remembers, white but with little red strawberries all over. It tucked into a black belt that made her waist look very narrow. She pinched his cheek. ‘Go on then. Go and drag him out of that miserable garage.’
He grinned at her and dashed out into the street and ran as fast he could. It made him happy when she was in a good mood; she always made it feel as though something exciting was bound to happen.
The shutters were down on his father’s garage, and he was too small to lift them by himself. He banged with his fist against the metal and waited and banged again, but his father didn’t come. He remembered there was a rear entrance at the end of the alley beside the garage, where rotten old tyres were stacked up high against the wall. The back-door opened into a little dark kitchen, with a single gas-burner and a dank smelling old mop. He hurried through, and out into the main part of the garage.
‘Dad,’ he called. But there was no answer.
Up above, the bulb was burning, and everything seemed in place. If anything, the garage was tidier than usual. It seemed the floor had been swept, and a big coarse canopy had been thrown over the rubble of engine parts on the old wagon. After a moment, he noticed the Hillman Minx. The engine was running, but the tick-tick of the fan-belt was gone.
‘Dad,’ he called again, but much more quietly this time.
Something was wrong with the Minx. A long curving tube had got attached to it somehow. It snaked from the back of the car round to a gap in the rear driver-side window. It was trying to get inside.
As he approached, something moved in the front of the car and came to rest against the driver’s window. A pale shape like an oblong, but smudged and flattened against the glass. It was his father’s face. The boy took a step backwards. An eye-lid fluttered. One wide staring eye, all white.
It was because of the tube. The tube was doing something terrible to his father.
The boy threw himself at it and tugged, but it clung on, and twisted in his hands. He tried pulling at the newspaper that sealed the gap in the window, but only fragments came away in his fingers. He grabbed the door handle and jerked and twisted as hard as he could. The door flew open, and the boy staggered backwards and fell. He pushed himself up onto his elbows. As he watched, his father raised his head, and the driver’s door swung open. The boy realized, with a small shock, that he wasn’t wearing his cap. His father lifted his hand, slowly, as if he was utterly tired out. As his hand fell, he slumped forward over the steering wheel.
Now the boy was on his feet, out through the kitchen, and banging through the back door. The sky seemed somehow closer to him now, a dark presence that waited at the end of every turning and in the gaps between the houses. As he raced homeward, he could not ignore the feeling that there were many other running feet, everywhere around him, countless foot-falls ringing out, all echoing his own.
He was still battering with his fists at the front door, when his mother threw it open.
‘Why?’ she said. ‘What’s happened?’ She took a step back, and her hand went to her cheek. ‘Lord! Whatever is the matter?’
Beneath his feet, the pavement seemed to tilt and flow. He sank to his knees and looked up at the sky. Stars swirled above the roof-tops.
He got to stay up much later than usual that night. He remembers feeling hungry, and that a sweetish smell of burnt meat and onions still lingered in the parlour long after the hour they should have had their tea. Several times his mother crouched down in front of him, and seemed to be on the point of saying something, but instead she only twisted her lip between forefinger and thumb, and went to the bureau for another cigarette. There were two small scratches on her cheek; somehow she’d managed to scrape the skin with one of her long nails. There was some confusion in the boy’s mind as to whether she was upset because of what had happened at the garage, or whether it was because a nice piece of cow’s liver had been spoiled. She made him drink a tiny tot of gin mixed with water; it tasted bitter and slightly oily but it seemed to have surrounded him in a soft hazy warmth and, by the time the two policemen arrived, he was struggling to keep his eyes open.
After his mother had invited them into the parlour, one of the policemen shook the boy’s hand and winked at him. The other policeman stood in the corner of the room and didn’t say anything to anybody.
‘So, Mrs. Duckett,’ said the friendly policeman. ‘I understand an ambulance was called to your husband’s garage earlier this evening. It seems your husband was reported to have been taken bad.’
‘Yes. Yes, that’s right. He was.’
‘But when the ambulance arrived, Mr. Duckett was much better.’
‘Yes. That’s right. He’s upstairs now, lying down. His sister’s with him.’
‘And then you called the police. Now, why did you do that?’
She twisted the ring on her third finger. The top button on her blouse had come undone and the triangle of flesh beneath her throat was very flushed. The boy thought she looked lovely.
‘I told your Sergeant all about it on the telephone.’
The policeman’s shoes had very round toes and were very shiny. The boy couldn’t decide whether his trousers were black in colour, or whether they were a deep shade of navy blue. The policeman said in a quiet voice, ‘Would you mind telling me, Madam?’
His mother looked at a space above the boy’s head. Her voice seemed tight and strained. ‘I telephoned because of what my boy, here, told me.’
‘I see.’ The policeman glanced down at his notepad. ‘Your son told you that he found your husband sitting in the front seat of an automobile. He appeared to be in a semi-conscious state. There was also a hose of some description running from the rear of the car, presumably from the exhaust pipe, in through the car window. Is that right?’
‘I see.’ He glanced at the other policeman, who was tall and slim and had a pointy chin, and didn’t look very friendly at all. Then he tapped his pencil on his notepad. The boy wondered when he would start writing. ‘Just to be absolutely clear, Madam, you do realise this is a criminal offence we’re talking about now? A serious criminal offence.’
There was something odd about his mother’s face. The line of her mouth seemed unusually tight, and the skin between her eyebrows was bunched up, as though she was concentrating hard. After a moment, she said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have called you lot otherwise, would I?’
The boy thought about the expression, ‘criminal offence.’ It seemed familiar to him, but he couldn’t attach a concrete meaning to it. He said, ‘Ma, is Dad going to get in trouble?’
There was quite a long silence. The silence seemed to be shaped around his mother, as though the room itself was waiting for her to speak. She said in a quick breathless way, ‘It was his choice. His choice. He ought to know I’m bleeding sick of it, an’ all.’ She bit her lip and glanced quickly around the room, not looking at any of them.
The boy was surprised to hear her swear. It made him feel more grown up than usual.
The policeman sighed and scratched his cheek with the end of his pencil. The boy felt sorry for him, without knowing quite why.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘Just as you wish, Madam. I think it might be best if I have a word with this little chap. Just us, if you wouldn’t mind.’
The other policeman touched her elbow and held the door open for her but, before she left, she rushed back and squeezed the boy’s arm. ‘Just tell the truth,’ she said. ‘That’s what you been brought up to do. The truth can’t hurt nobody.’
The boy would wonder, later in life, whether either of these statements could be said to be entirely accurate.
The policeman tugged at the creases in his trousers and squatted down in front of the boy. He had a square friendly face with curly strips of hair at the side, and deep friendly furrows in his forehead. ‘Jimmy, isn’t it?’ said the policeman. ‘Now, Jimmy, why don’t you start from the beginning?’
And so the boy did. The friendly policeman wrote it all down. He had to use three whole pages in his notebook.
At some point over the next few weeks, the boy learned that the name of his father’s criminal offence was ‘attempted suicide.’ He learned quite a few new words, including ‘bail’ and ‘recognizances’ and ‘exhibit a’ – that was what a man in a grey suit said the hose was called. All in all, it was a busy time for the boy, and when it was all over, and another man in a grey suit had said, ‘all rise,’ the boy’s father was sent away.
At first, the boy spent quite a lot of time thinking about what had happened to his father, and about the Minx and the hose and the two policemen. He wasn’t completely sure that he understood it all. There were questions he wanted to ask, but nobody seemed to want to talk about his father anymore. He would have liked to speak to the friendly policeman about it, but after that day in court, he never saw him again. So, in quite a little while, he began to forget his father. After all, he had only returned from the war a year ago, and the boy couldn’t really remember a time before the war. So, in a way, his father’s absence was perfectly ordinary.
His mother seemed brighter now, too. It was almost as if some cloud or shadow had been removed from her life, and she breezed around the house, calling out to him in a cheery sing-song fashion. Sometimes, when she tucked him up in bed at night, she would sing to him, and her voice made the boy think of a happy bubbling stream. She had several new dresses, he noticed, including one really nice one with a green sash around the middle, which fell to just below her knees. From a hook in the hallway, hung a leopard-print coat with bristly fibres and a warm snuggly feel. On the floor underneath, shoved behind some hat-boxes, were his father’s old scuffed boots. One day, she brought home a big book about aeroplanes, with shiny pages and coloured pictures. He liked to hold it against his face and breathe in its smell of new paper. There were sweets too, and they never ran out of tea or sugar. Someone came with a new valve for his father’s RCA radio, and she found a jazz station and waltzed him around the room to the deep slow trumpet sounds. It made the boy’s head swirl and they both laughed.
[Suicide was decriminalized in 1961]