7. The Press

As morning wore on, they crawled along the riverbank on frozen knees, with frozen rubber-tipped fingers rooting among the grass and the briars and the tangled knots of nettles. Eyes bent to the ground, labouring under the lightening sky and the scudding clouds – hoping that the clouds wouldn’t hold true to their threat. Rain meant wet, glistening mud and destruction of evidence, and further cold. Rain meant the loss of precious hours. Rain. The enemy.

Sura watched on, occasionally checking her watch. A press conference at 11 meant pulling together a picture of what was known and what wasn’t – looking to create a sense of urgency (“we need to identify this woman as quickly as possible, please help us”) without creating an unhelpful media storm (“Police Seek Sex Pervert Murderer”). In truth though, not much was known. Until the full details of the autopsy, mostly everything fell into the ‘not known’ category.

She couldn’t hang around here much longer if she was going to make the conference and – truth be told – she wasn’t adding anything to the efforts, other than to be a focal point for information; and that could be done remotely. Still, as lead investigator, it was important that her face was seen and known and that she set the tone for the investigation. Her briefing had been crisp, sombre. For a few of the younger beat coppers, this was their first murder scene search and she wanted to instill in them the need for thoroughness and respect. Too often when she had first joined the force uniform would joke their way through a search. She understood the need for a certain strain of black humour, but it could wait for the station canteen. The current crop of young officers though looked suitably serious. Training was better now. Everything was better.

She pulled D.S. Mallaby over to her.

“Right – I’d better get off. Press conference so I need to make myself look…” she looked down at her boots and muddied overshoes,”… even more glam. Call if anything turns up.” Mallaby nodded a thin-faced nod, and she climbed back in the car.

The drive back out of the country to town was fairly pleasant now that the rush hour traffic was beginning to die off and she soon shook of the sombre feeling that had pooled in the back of her thoughts since being hauled out of bed at six. Which reminded her…

She fingered the bluetooth and dialled.

“Oh hello – how’s work then?” Umesh cheerfully answered, fully accustomed to the demands of her job. By now he would have got the kids packed off to school and be sat at his laptop, comfortably doing whatever it was that he did. Something digital. It had long been their custom that they didn’t talk too much about work: her because of conventions of the job allied to the utterly alien nature of the world she lived in, and he because as soon as he opened his mouth to talk about his work Sura fell asleep.

She finally felt the heat from the car reaching her toes and wiggled them pleasurably in her boots. Tights and socks tomorrow if there was any fieldwork.

“Oh you know. Classified. A murder though, so I wouldn’t worry about putting anything on for tea.” For these first days – and very possibly the next few weeks – she would be keeping unusual hours, and living on tea and takeaways and canteen food and her nerves most of all. Unless there was some kind of early break, it could last for a long time. The signs of this lifestyle were beginning to take a toll on her body as she entered the second half of her forties, and she caught the site of her hairline in the mirror as a reminder – threaded with grey roots and with a gloss born of grease rather than expensive products made with oils from exotic fruits. As they chatted, their voices still sounded the same, but she could feel the years in the soft fold of fat around her waist, and the tightness of her wedding ring, and the still faint but definitely visible laughter (was it laughter?) lines around her eyes.

They talked for a little while and by the time she hung up she was pulling into the car park of what uniform had wittily titled the ‘Duplo Block’ – a big police building at the Northern outskirts of the city that had been clad in red and blue and yellow rainscreen cladding during the brief spell when money was awash for anything ‘modern’. For a few shining moments, it had been hailed as part of the new face of public policing, with eager young journalists invited to see the state-of-the-art facilities, but then like most public buildings had settled unhappily into middle age, the atmosphere of the grim proceedings inside leaking into its walls, tired paint reflecting tired faces, carpets worn thin.

Most of the cops she’d learned under had started leaving then – taking with them some of the practices and prejudices of the past – followed by a certain generation of journalists, who also smoke and drank and made free with their hands around the lasses in the typing pool. The times had always been a-changin’ – and never more so than now that the press barely existed at all, except in a loose network of cynicism and bad writing, chasing clicks instead of the truth. That’s what it looked like from the other side of the cameras anyway.

Inside, she stopped in the toilets to make herself look a little more presentable. The story wasn’t yet national – and might never be – but there was always a chance she’d make the local TV news if there weren’t any bad traffic jams or a big football signing to fill the airtime.

The force’s PR officer popped her head into the toilet as Sura fretfully plucked loose strands from her hairline.

“Got the script ready if you’re ready?”

“Yeah OK. This haircut’s a dead loss anyway.”

In the corridor, they chatted. Liz Grattan was a good PR. She understood the force’s needs, and wasn’t given to writing hysterical prose. Some forces had dabbled with trying to make their ‘content’ more ‘engaging’ but at a training session, Liz had cheerfully pointed out ‘well fuck that‘ to the trainer and that had been an end to the matter. Her press briefings were as they should be: concise, factual, and unemotional.

What was needed now was facts, attention, and help. Emotion was a card kept back in the hand, to be played if the leads ran dry. Sura read the briefing and nodded to herself while Grattan talked her through it.

“…and anyway,” Grattan concluded with a shrug, “we know fuck all, really.” Sura laughed. Grattan’s long years in the local press had given her as black a sense of humour as any beat copper.

“Well thanks for that summary, Liz. I’ll be sure to tell the Observer.” She straightened her skirt one last time and walked with Grattan to the press briefing. Show time.

 

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Local Girl

harper

The bad news, Mrs Harper
Is we’ve found your daughter, dead.
The good news is…
We’ve got your milk and bread!”

A brutal, black punchline
From the mouths of babes
On a playground
In the lost England
Of 1986

A local girl
From local streets
Who wore white socks
And played like us
In sandstone streets
Skipping between
Hot cars under white sun
3-6-9
The goose drank wine
Cat’s cradle and
Tig

A local girl
A simple errand
(The kind we all ran)
Milk and bread
Waved off by mum
At the kitchen door
Just five minutes
A hundred yards
Milk and bread
A penny chew
A lifetime

A local girl
From local streets
Who would not be seen
In sandstone streets
Or skipping between
Hot cars under white sun
3-6-9
The goose drank wine
Cat’s cradle and
Tig

But
Who was, as we giggled,
Clutched by dark fronds
In the distant Trent
Green waters swirling
Around black deeds
Whispered secrets
Carried to the sea

Brother

rich.jpg

I don’t think of you as often as I should. In fact I’m not even sure when it was you died, and the memories I do have of you are mostly about you dying. I can picture us running on a beach one day, in the false sepia tone of a memory I feel I must have taken from a photograph… but mostly you have gone – an odd, blank void in a memory that I’ve otherwise packed full of colour, and happy days that my memory has probably trickily stitched together from disparate moments of childish bliss.

But I do remember long hot summer afternoons watching motes dance in the sun that came in shafts through the window of the bedroom we shared – you on the bottom bunk, me on the top (I was the eldest, after all). You would have been sleeping on your side, as you often did during what I imagine was your last year, and I would have been sitting with my back to the wardrobe, listless, probably bored. Wishing you would get up and do something with me. I don’t know whether you ever even managed to ride a bike without stabilisers or learn to swim.

And of course, you couldn’t get up. You were always dying – for as long as I knew you. Sometimes weeks would pass when you were away, in hospital somewhere. I’m sure you were sent to London as our parents sought ever more desperately for options to save you. I remember something about your spleen in particular being a big deal for everybody. Perhaps that was a last, desperate roll of the die for you.

I know you were away a lot, because I was often at Flea’s house, under the watch of Flea’s fat, fussy mother and her huge, beaming face. She’s still alive and looks more like Tom Bombadil with every passing day, but Flea’s dad died suddenly a couple of years ago, and he himself has had a minor stroke. As if by some piece of circular logic, his kids now go to school with your nephew and niece.

We stayed up late to watch Live and Let Die in front of their fire during the Spleen Incident and it was a happy time for me, but I’ve seen the photographs of you in hospital beds – smiling even though the beds look uncomfortable with their thin mattresses and tangled sheets and white, tubular frames. I can imagine exactly what it would sound like to rap a coin on those frames – a hollow musical ‘thunk’ – but I can’t imagine at all what it would have been like for you to lie there for days at a time drinking lukewarm orange juice from the plastic jug on the table next to you in those photographs.

Perhaps I don’t want to imagine. I’ve never known whether you were in pain, or whether it was all just a minor inconvenience to you until the end at least – like a broken leg that nagged because you wanted to be up and about and playing football like the rest of us; chasing 99p ‘flyaway’ plastic footballs laughingly down the fields.

I think, though, that you were probably were in pain. How could you not have been? Leukaemia is an ugly word and sometimes I go to read about it on the internet, but it is full of long, equally ugly words about failing organs and bleeding, and a gamut of infections and painful overgrowths. I suspect I actively avoid it.

Today, the survival rates still aren’t particularly great – and I can only think they’d have been worse in the early 1980s. Mum and Dad must have known what was coming, but I imagine they would have kept it from you because they were great at shielding us all from pain. I had a brain tumour almost 6 years ago now. It must have been growing for a decade before that because of its size. It made me behave in odd ways and brought a lot of trouble for me because of my behaviour during that time, but the thing that stands out most from that time is that mum almost collapsed when she heard the diagnosis. She and Dad must really carry that burden deep. As a parent, I can’t even imagine what it would have been like for her

On the night you died, Grandma and Grandad D were babysitting me. I was making them watch Knight Rider. I remember Grandad was smoking a lot, and there had a huge wooden bowl full of nuts in to which he would reach, and pull out one to crack with a great metal nutcracker that otherwise only ever came out at Christmas.  I remember in particular because the smoke and the nut dust kept irritating my eyes (remember how bad my nut allergy was back then?) Mum and Dad came in and at first I thought they were laughing. I think even asked what was so funny.

But then one of them – I think Mum – said “Richard’s dead” through her tears. I remember how the words echoed in my head, and being hugged and cuddled, but also watching Knight Rider through my tears over someone’s shoulder (it was a particularly great episode). I guess I was somehow short-circuited. Or maybe just too young to really understand the finality of death.

And then I remember being asked if I wanted to go to your funeral and saying ‘no’. Everyone came to the house, dressed in black coats, with polished shoes, and great hats with black gauze that fell over the ladies’ faces. Mostly aunts and uncles I imagine – but I’ll never know now. I hazily recollect an awful tension before everyone left, and that Gran C stayed behind with me, and she and I watched television together while they were burying you up at the churchyard – in one of the newer plots at the far end, and not amongst the crazily-angled and briar-tangled headstones of Victorian vintage nearer the church.

I guess everyone went back to the church hall afterward and the women would have busied themselves with the buffet while the men stood and smoked in the kitchen, clutching dimpled pint pots full of dark, foamy beer, and eventually the mood would have lifted from sombre reflection to the ritual exchanging of memories – handed from one to another like highly polished artifacts. I imagine that perhaps Uncle Dave or Uncle Ian would have been the first to raise a laugh, and eventually Dad would have joined in.

One of my strongest memories is after you were gone. Christmas Day. Santa Claus bought me a Raleigh Grifter – a huge, bronze bike that seemed to weigh a million tonnes. I knew that it was a hand-me-down from our Andy because we couldn’t afford a new one and the wear and tear was obvious. But I hid all that to make sure that Mum and Dad knew I was delighted with it anyway and that I’d never actually wanted a Mongoose or a PK Ripper. But then, I heard Mum crying in the kitchen and Dad comforting her.

Stupidly, I thought it was because they were ashamed to have only been able to give me a second hand bike, and ran in to reassure them that it was the greatest bike ever. And of course, they smiled and tousled my hair and said they were glad.

And of course, with the hindsight of years, I now know that they were crying because you weren’t there – and that Christmas was, and is, the time they miss you the most. A constant, nagging hole that I can’t even imagine contemplating as a parent.

But time moves ever onward.

You have a nephew and niece now, and I talk to them sometimes about you. I’ve even promised that they can come with the graveyard with me one day to visit you. You have two sisters too – and through one of them you have another couple of nieces. Neither of them has any recollection of you at all. The eldest of yours sister was only a few months old when you died, and the youngest probably 10 years after that.

In fact, the number of people who do remember you is dwindling steadily year by year. Grandad D died almost around the same time as you (poor Mum)… followed by Gran C, Grandad C and, finally, Gran D just the other year.

I look at our parents now and while they are still incredibly active and alive, at some point in the next 15-20 years they will likely be gone – as will our uncles and aunts. Already there are little intimations of frailty – Auntie M’s ceaseless back problems… Uncle D’s legs… the visits lessening in frequency… the years measured in sagging pockets of thinning skin and clouds of greying hair. None of them smoke any more (but Auntie M’s trifle is still made with a good pint or so of sherry).

And so I hope one day to sit down with Mum and Dad and get a more concrete sense of your life before it is too late. They seem to be at peace with your memory these days.

And after that? There may well only be me left with any direct memories of you at all. And those mainly from a handful of photographs and those fragmentary recollections of fleeting moments with you from 35 years ago or more.

Until then, you are still remembered. You come up in conversation every Christmas, and there are three photo albums that get passed around. One of them is stuffed full of clippings from the paper when Mum was still collecting for leukemia charities. Another contains a yellowing note from the school newsletter – they used to give out an award in your name every year to a child who’d shown great bravery (I used to hope I’d get the award one year, but I never did anything particularly brave).

There are pictures of you in an Easter bonnet, with a ridiculous grin spread across your face. The pair of us sat on a concrete wall with Dad that looks a lot like a penguin enclosure at a zoo (zoos have changed a lot since your day). Me as a toddler holding you as a baby on the ludicrously-patterned car rug that apparently accompanied us on every family trip between 1975 and 2002. Even on the one photograph of you in hospital, you are grinning. Whatever the sad, painful moments you endured, the images of you that remain reflect one thing: happiness.

Anyway. I hope this missive finds you well. I just wanted you to know that you are still remembered and still loved.

Lost and Found

She was never the same after he died. It had come suddenly. Unexpectedly. One day he was there – sharing her bed… breathing her air… sitting opposite her at the breakfast table… harrumphing at Facebook… setting his vast, bare, white belly at the sun in the heat-stunned summer garden… and then he wasn’t any of those things; just 18 stone of cold, pale flesh, spread out across the kitchen floor, the soles of his socks pointed at the ceiling, twisted oddly, a pool of saliva coalescing around his chin as she stood numbly looking down, not even feeling the hot cup burning her fingertips.

It had always been a possibility, she was later informed by a sympathetic doctor as she sat staring numbly at her lap through a kaleidoscope of tears. Aneurysms often go undetected. All those years by his side and she’d never known that somewhere in the back of his school was a bomb, waiting to detonate at any moment and take him from her with the suddenness of a bursting balloon.

The inquest pointlessly confirmed all of those things, and she was plunged into a world of bureaucratic chill, forced to prove that he was dead – as though the evidence of her eyes wasn’t enough to be trusted. She’d seen him. Felt him. Sat first in the ambulance and then by his bed, but the mobile phone company wanted more. They wanted evidentiary proof, and so she’d had to visit a shop with official confirmation folded carefully in her handbag so that a Nice Young Man with a light fuzz of beard and sculpted hair could stare at it, trying to segue from “Hello Madam” to “I’m so sorry” but lacking the guile. And she in turn had tried not to be cold, but found herself incapable, and her lips had hardened into a thin, impatient line as she sat on the chair while he tapped urgently on the computer, trying to get her and the death that tainted her out of the shop.

And then, on the bus home afterward, hating him for having made her do that. And then herself for not having any compassion for what was surely an awkward, fraught moment for him too. And then at him for dying in the first place. The stupid fucking bastard. She’d searched for him for years. And against all the odds found him, and carved out a tentative new life of choosing furniture and fending off an ex-wife and meeting his sullen children, only for him to choose that moment to exit her life. Over and over again; a cycle of first self-recrimination, then bitterness, then hopelessness, then an odd week of determination, all waiting to be punctured by another letter from some utility company or other demanding that she proved all this was real and not just a devious attempt to save £28 a month.

And so the tears came. On buses, and in shops. And on the phone and in the office. And worst of all in the bed she didn’t share with him any more, and the silence that he didn’t fill with his snoring.

But, although she was never the same, the world didn’t change a lick. She still had to go to work with the same people, and catch the same bus up the same road to get there. Her emails didn’t get any less urgent, and she didn’t stop gaining weight, inch by soft inch. It was all the same outside the window and the spells of this or that weather passed, and the flecks of grey grew in her hair more frequently.

People grew less wary of her as she adjusted. That was one small thing. For days… weeks… months… people were afraid of her – as though she were accompanied by the very spirit death at her shoulder. After the outpouring of hugs in the immediate aftermath, people grew wary of speaking to her in case they inadvertently brought forth the tears. But time slowly eroded their wariness and normal words began to flow – a steady pitter-patter of office small talk and little rearrangements of alliances and friendships.

As she thought of all this, she was sitting staring out of the sea front cafe with a mug of tea (milk, no sugar thanks – watching my waist!) The sea was in – just beyond the sea wall, lapping cautiously at it, tasting the land with long, salty licks. In winter, it would bite, but for now it was content to play around under serene blue skies, glittering the sun from its surface.

This was another of their places. They’d come here in their early days together, for dirty weekends of sheet-rumpled, laughing, drunken sex and hangovers – locked arm in arm against the winds that blew from the sea as though either one of them might be whisked away at any moment, leaning in to each as they ducked through doorways for a bite to eat or to drop coins into a chiming, ringing machine. They used to come here – to this very cafe. A panini for him, jacket potato for her.

She smiled at the memory. Yes. Smiled. No longer a smile of bitterness, but a smile of happiness. Those days might be over, but at least they had once been, and even if he wasn’t there in person, he would always be there in the secret fastness of her heart.

She drained her cup and looked out at the great bowl of sky, and the couples passing happily by the window, with kids trailing fishing nets behind them and exasperated mothers mouthing at their husbands’ backs. All life moved on in the end and here was the proof. He would have enjoyed this day. A day of careless nothings under an indulgent sun. But even though he wasn’t there, she would enjoy it too. She popped the cup down with a small smile of happy recognition. A gull keened greedily from the railings along the front.

Yes, she thought, she would live.

Seafront

The old pier still stood there – more or less as I remembered it. A thousand black, sandpiper stilts sunk into the wet sands, holding aloft ten thousand boards and a building of ugly planks that once shone in blinding white under summer suns, but now flapped with peeling paint as the February winds fretted and fussed around them.

I knew that if I walked down the beach and walked in its shadows the air would be as dank with salt and cold barnacles as it ever was, the sounds of the beach somehow deadened – an inverse childhood fairy tale; where the world on the other side of the secret door was wreathed in unknowable silence, hinting at the coming of dark tides that would return to swirl and sloosh vengefully around the ironwork and drag unwary children to their deaths. That was the lore handed to you as you stood there asking for permission to go under the pier, solemnly clutching your red plastic bucket and looking up from under the brim of your sun hat into your dad’s eyes: “the tide’s quick here, see?” and you would nod and run off to collect empty-shelled mussels and translucent dead crabs with flapping carapaces, while constantly looking over your shoulder for the water surging suddenly up to grab you by the ankle.

And it was true. This wasn’t the sea, per se, but rather an estuary; a long, featureless mouth opening the land to the sea. The beach, long and flat and always wet, leading outwards to a thin smear of water on the horizon and the shrouded shapes of container ships sulking as they waited for the tide to turn. And the tides did suddenly advance in uncoiling black rivulets – until before you knew it your ankle-deep pool was suddenly knee-deep and your dad was stood by one of the pier legs shaking his “I thought I told you?” head at you in remonstrance.

I squinted against the wind at the pier. The building was now a ‘restaurant’, as before it had been a ‘party bar.’ The former on the strength of selling toasties (with, no doubt, a garnish of cress, diced red pepper, iceberg lettuce and single red arc of sliced onion) the latter on the strength of selling gassy lager in plastic pint glasses. How strange to look at it now and think of Edwardian men with their Edwardian wives, arms linked, taking a restorative stroll alongside pumping steam organs and bowler-hatted vendors proferring painted wooden toys for thruppence or tu’pennies or brass farthings.

Or perhaps that world had never really existed, and the pier had always been a gathering place for crowds of rootless young men with pallid skin stretched over nobbly bones, livening their days with small acts of lively boorishness, waiting for a war or a vessel or a woman to gather them up and give them purpose.

I took my elbows from the railing and stood up, giving a little sigh at the pleasurably middle-aged twang of back pain. Further along the front – past the bins overflowing with chip wrappers and abandoned sandals, blissfully wasp-free at this time of year. There, the front proper began: a half circle of low, 1970s brick – home to a clutch of businesses.

A seaside shop of the usual seaside knick-knacks – little plastic windmills flurrying in faded colours alongside wicker beach mats and a carousel of postcards depicting happier, sunnier days. A mobility shop – the owner standing outside having a fag alongside his collection of maroon scooters. The Hawaii Cafe, with its incongruously-painted sign of palm trees silhouetted against an orange sun. Toasties: £2 (cheese) or £2.50 (cheese and tuna). Hot dogs: £2. Westler’s Hot Dogs: £2.50 (the power of brand!) Tea: £1. Coffee: £1.20. Jacket potatoes with every conceivable combination of cheese, beans and tuna.

Beyond, to the crazy golf: nine holes of concrete traps and tin windmills and a water hazard with a bottom painted sky blue, but filled with brackish water, dead leaves and a single cigarette butt pirouetting uncertainly in the wind. In the little booth, a tiny, sand-blasted woman huffing on a cigarette, bunched up in an untidy grey cardigan, pen pressed thoughtfully against a crossword clue.

Across the road to the station. How tall the clock tower seemed when I was a boy, and how small it seemed now. That clock! The sight of it a totem of youth. Notice of arrival. A psychological landmark as potent to the mind as Emley Moor Mast spied from the M1, or the Little Chef with the swooping parabolic roof somewhere on the long, hot summer drive on the A1 towards Cambridge, or the black wire sculpture of a rearing horse stood at the foot of the impossibly polished granite of the Lloyds building in Leeds. A hodge-podge of identifiable structures. Part of a mental map of the country that, like the London Underground map, somehow didn’t reflect real geography, but conspired to make a reality all of its own.

The clock. Its gold, iron hands and fussily filigreed casing almost camp in their exuberance. Something of Florence or medieval Hamburg, or a piece of sugar work in a cake shop window. Or perhaps it had been lifted from the pages of Willy Wonka and left here to be marooned on the cold Western edge of the North Sea. How incongruous to find it standing erect over the dismal grey steel roof of the station proper, zig-zagging across the sight lines of the clock since its erection in the 70s, visual absurdity on visual absurdity.

And – on the corner – another signifier. The glorious sweep of curved glass of that fish shop, where I used to sit perched on a high chair by the window – that window with its fine tracery of wrought iron, that had miraculously never rotted away under the fine mists of sea-spray, or been torn down by the same kind of careless act of municipal vandalism that had laid waste to all manner of fondly-remembered buildings in favour of barely- stomached replacements across the country that now themselves faced destruction in turn.

It was too early for it to be open, but if I closed my eyes I could smell the vinegar on the air and see my grandma’s green, floral print dress and her grey sandals, fattened into ovals by heavy feet, and old lady toes peeking out through a gauzy mesh of tan tights as she clambered onto a stool and unwrapped her chips, with the sun on her smiling face. Back when I was small and the chips seemed impossibly large and golden and hot, and the atmosphere was thick with Yorkshire voices and the smell of hot dripping.

Past the chip shop, the decay was unavoidable: the vast, grey, corrugated bulk of “PLE_S_RE IS_AND” – the words spelled in gigantic sequins that fluttered a little in the breeze, keening for their lost letters. Under the awning that ran along the front, a small, raucous collection of machines crying out for money in tinny chimes – offering trumpery knock-off goods for anyone dexterous enough to manoeuver the slack-handed robotic claw: an ersatz Pokemon. A plastic watch. A stuffed bear that might have passed as Nookie Bear, or Pudsey, or Winnie the Pooh or… something. I declined their entreaties and passed on, pounds and pence rattling in my pocket.

Nor did I go inside. I knew what was there: arcade games from another decade. 20p horse racing machines (blue: 4/1, red: 8/1, green 2/1 fav.). A warped bowling alley all of 12ft long. Machines spooling out rows of tan tickets to be exchanged for a potato gun or lucky Japanese waving cat. One peek at the clientele, hunched over, sadly feeding machines from little tubs of change, trapped in little pools of light in the fusty darkness was enough to dissuade me.

Beyond the Pleasure Palace? Boarded up shops playing host to piles of litter that huddled for shelter in their doorways, jostling between themselves for a place nearest the door as if waiting for someone to invite them inside. A second-floor pub stretched across three such buildings: plastic signs inviting me to climb a vinyl, wood-effect panelled staircase to a long room that smelled of old men slowly dying behind round tables, picking apart beer mats during limb-aching conversations of times past and the bleak present; the steady chime of death almost comforting in its regularity, their children escaped, and their grandchildren with no roots here beyond these failing bags of DNA.

There seemed to be no point mooching further along the front, and I leaned again on the railings, looking out to sea and the sulking ships and the distant sea forts that stood, slowly crumbling into the sea.

And the great bowl of grey sky arced overhead and met the edge of the world in cold solidarity, waiting for the return of the sun and the summer crowds.

This Fucking Island

Littlejohn again appears in my sightline, rising wraith-like from the foul, boggy ditches he and his ilk inhabit. It perturbs me. My day is spoilt. I itch from the inside with the knowledge that it is for a goodly chunk of the population that Littlejohn speaks, and that I must share my island home with them.

Today the gays, tomorrow the gays, and the day after the gays – a long, unceasing, one-note, radishy billow of empty, hot air, driven by fear of the gays, hatred of the gays, fingers-in-the-ear deafness to the reality of the gays. Like all pub bores, he gleaned all the information on the subject he needed to know by age 17 and has seen nothing in the long, arid decades since to sway him from his view. A catspaw to his own dark imaginings, he stands behind his bully pulpit each week to fulminate against the gays and what their presence in the world means to him.

And yet the gays are actually only a cipher. For Littlejohn may hate the gays, but he hates what they stand for more. That they are widely accepted by many people – possibly even a majority, despite everything – drives he and those like him to apoplexy. It disturbs what he imagines ‘normality’ to be.

The normality for which he yearns is for cloth-coloured skies, suet puddings and a slipper to the backside. Of the divine order of deference to fat, windy men with burst corpuscles under their cheeks. To school changing room bullying, with wet towels applied to quivering, bare buttocks, and faces pushed into icy puddles. To bare shins over mud-coloured socks slipping to the ankle during hoarse taproom hectoring. Driving home drunk because I’m quite capable officer, regardless of what the breathalyser says. Men only golf clubs where only men discuss men only issues in blustery certitude – fortified by piggish eyes nodding along in concert over tumblers of scotch. Flatulent, porcine breakfasts in wingback chairs and clock-ticking hotel silence. Dates: Crecy. Poitiers. Agincourt. Sunday dinners of leathery beef and remorselessly boiled gravy with a side of good, astringent horseradish. Fortification. All paid for. Hard men working hard, stunted lives underground or in dark, clattering palaces lit by sparking flames and yellow rivers of molten fire  – only emerging for long enough to give their kids a good clout, and possibly one for the wife too before dying heroically of emphysema. Women cleaning their front steps. Flagships and Remembrance Sundays and dishing the French. Brass model Spitfires on brass stands at the end of the bar, next to horse brasses and a collection tin for the Spastics Society. Speaking your mind. Honest toil. Calling a spade a spade.

On a purely psychological level, I get it. I too feel the pang of the old certitudes as they crumble at the edges. My world has passed and is passing too – along with Bagpuss… Bowie… Saturday morning kids’ TV shows… round, glazed Lemon Puffs… qualifications that meant something… footballers called Gary and Derek and Stan and John… snooker players downing lagers between frames… pale, rusky sausages and Smash… sun-faded maps at the back of school libraries with sections of the globe still covered pink… every week another little part of the world I knew passes into memory: an Auntie here, a popular phrase there. Some old, barely-remembered celebrity dies and suddenly it’s 1982 and I am on my Grandma’s rug again, sat in front of her gas fire eating tinned salmon and watching British Wrestling on ITV.

And it hurts. I also remember running. Not wearing glasses. Being able to bend and touch my toes. Being able to pronounce footballers’ names because they could have come from the next street along and not Sierra Leone. The taste of pop before they took the e-numbers out. The smell of Christmas kitchens thick with cigar smoke and the swish of gaudy nylon dresses over shiny nylon tights. Pools of oil on unsympathetic driveways. Saving paper round money for a Star Wars figure. Hot trips to sand-blasted, faded nowheres in cars without air conditioning.

But it doesn’t take much imagination or empathy to see what the world must have looked like if you weren’t me. If you were Mo – the only Asian lad in the year – and everyone just called you ‘Paki Mo’. Or if you were Ms. Johnson – lesbian art teacher, lifting desks up to find “johnson licks fannies” written underneath them. Or if your horizons had been limited by poverty your whole life so a weekend in Rhyl was something you strove for into your sixties and your chairs were still post-war austerity issue plastic. Or if you were a black footballer, running onto a pitch to a hail of monkey noises and shouts of ‘zulu.’ If you were, quite literally, the only gay in the village and all eyes regarded you with suspicion and every newspaper columnist was free to accuse you of undermining the whole moral fibre of the country based on where you wanted to insert your penis, and every sexual encounter was carried out in the black fear of public exposure.

But don’t we grow past these things? Are these the things we want to pass to our children, burnished as a glorious legacy? Are we supposed to want them to huddle as we did at the back of the sports hall, furtively starting smoking habits and swapping National Front ‘Buy British’ stickers? Are we supposed to chuckle with fatherly pride if our sons burst in from school to tell us how they found out that Martin Price was gay and shoved his head down the toilet? Would our hearts swell with pride to see our daughters married to the local foundryman who’ll drink himself to death before hitting 50 and leave her with an inheritance of broken teeth? Are we supposed to beat the gay out of our kids if they come out to us? Shouldn’t we recognise that actually it costs nothing just to button our mouths or change the way we refer to certain people, and actually plays up to one of our supposed cardinal virtues: politeness. Does anyone actually aspire for their kids to grow up to be Littlejohn?

But still, Littlejohn speaks and England listens. You could swap his mouth for his arsehole and it wouldn’t change a thing – other than to sweeten his breath. Reason, nuance and fact are un-English virtues to be destroyed: and thus Newton and Darwin and Turing and Dunning and Franklin the meanest of traitors. Only the hated metropolitans have a place for such airy-fairy nonsense as facts. “Facts” in inverted commas, cooked up by the fifth-columnists at the CBI and the Royal Society and the British Medical Journal and the Metropolitan police and the whole vast, gothic array of institutions that are in thrall to trendy nonsense like “don’t judge people on their wealth, sexuality, gender or ancestry but on the strength of their character.”

And he, and Hopkins, and Morgan, and Moir, and a thousand other such commentators stand on every corner, speaking for England as if this is what England is. To hell with them.

6. The Clinic

She swung her legs nervously from her position on the plastic chair in the waiting room while her mum went outside for another fag. A bored toddler was repeatedly pulling flyers from a revolving mesh stand while her mother looked on with suppressed exasperation as they fluttered to the floor – gentle pastel leaves with stark black messages. Lilac: “Ectopic Pregnancy”. Pale orange: “Endometreosis.” The lightest of greens: “Pelvic Inflammatory Disease.”

Occasionally, one would unfold as fell to the floor, briefly revealing crude cartoons of sad looking women, diagrams of their innards, and a series of helpline phone numbers before the mother bustled over and picked them up, whispering half-jocular, half-strained pleas to her daughter to stop playing with them, and stuffing them back into the stand before looking around the waiting room with exaggerated, incongruous “what do you do?” eyes and a shrug.

Nobody was paying much attention in any case. Mel twisted her fingers and drank the last of the antiseptic-tasting water from the cooler in the undersized plastic cup before crumpling it with her hand, listening to it crackle and pop – the rim bursting as she squashed it into a perfunctory oval. She’d put it in the bin in a minute as something else to do.

Waiting. Waiting. Always waiting. In hospital, trapped under the bland face of the clock that counted off interminable minutes with interminable fingers. Behind the front desk, a couple of large nurses were gossiping as they stapled things together and placed them in manila folders. Yellow sheets in their pudgy fingers, glanced over by moonlike faces under shocking red dye, cropped hair jobs. From a distance they could be twins, taken from a seaside postcard or the kind of Les Dawson show she vaguely remembered watching, propped up on her elbows in front of the TV in another, distant age.

She’d read every notice on the notice board approximately 24 times. A litany of warnings and lamentations. Wash your hands. Eat your vegetables. Take your medicines. Don’t miss your appointments. Why not book a diabetes test? Test Your Breasts! How to spot an ovarian cyst. A primary school cavalcade of colours masking an uneasy undercurrent of female diseases, female weaknesses, female fears.

Incongruously for a fertility clinic, a poster bleakly reminded men not to beat up their partners during “this year’s World Cup” already 14 months in the past. Still, it was an eternal message.

The door opened. Mum was back from her fag, spirits restored.

“Have I missed anything?” she asked, cheerfully sitting back down – but giving Mel’s hand a quick squeeze of reassurance, for this wasn’t a day out for fun. No. This was maybe serious. Maybe not. But maybe so. Waiting.

A lightly-built Asian doctor appeared at the desk with another Manila folder and spoke briefly to one of the twin nurses behind the front desk, who then spoke to the room at general in a voice as large as her frame.

“Melanie Kennet?” Only 20 minutes after her allotted spot. Not bad going.

Mel stood, and the doctor smiled at her and indicated that she should follow with a sweep of his arm. Together with her mother, they followed him back down along the corridor from where he had emerged. The floor was hard-wearing lino, white but spackled with infinite marks of grey and black and, oddly, yellow – that gave it a slightly sickly pallor. The corridor led to a plain wooden door, behind which was a plain desk, plain bed, plain computer, plain chair. A carefully neutralised ground, designed to deliver life changing messages.

“Please,” the doctor said in a perfectly accentless voice, “take a seat,” and motioned them in to sit. He closed the door behind them and sat at his desk, folder open, his brow creased slightly as he pointed something out to himself with the tip of his pen. He leant forward slight as he spoke.

“Well. OK then….”


 

In the car afterwards, Mel’s mother fished through the oddments in her handbag for a battered pack of tissues that she handed over for Mel to press to her eyes and nose. In Mel’s lap was a pale green pamphlet. She turned it over and looked at the words and the diagrams of her innards in their crude simplicity, labelled with childish-looking fonts. They wouldn’t really have added anything to the story even if she’d been able to parse them through the tears and the general shock.

Her mother put her hand on Mel’s shoulder and sat quietly with her, saying nothing, smelling of herself: Cigarettes and Davidoff and chewing gum. Presently, she spoke.

“Eee love… it’s not the end of the world,” she began, but then – knowing instinctively that was the wrong tack – “…well. I know it is in a way.” She trailed off and looked awkwardly away through the driver’s side window., where a white Punto was executing a 33 point reverse manouevre. “I don’t mean that. It’s just bloody rotten luck that’s all.” She paused for another moment while rummaging in her bag for a cigarette and lighter.

“But you know – there are other things you can do. Adopt. Foster. All sorts these days. Did you know  Auntie Elsie was adopted?” Mel nodded, but numbly. Another family folk tale. Auntie Elsie was actually Great Aunt Elsie, and her mother – a wild child by the standards of the 1930s – had eloped with a man to America to pursue a career on the stage (according to legend), and left her to someone who was effectively a stranger. Different times. Not applicable here.

“What will Martin think, mum?” she eventually said. Her mum’s eyes creased into a sad smile and she took Mel’s hand in hers. Not for the first time, Mel noted how papery her mum’s skin was. Warm flesh pulled taut over cold bones, aged prematurely by decades of smoke and hard, woman’s work.

“I don’t know, love. I’m sure he’ll be fine about it. It’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. Tell you what, how about we go to the Railway for a bit of dinner? My treat.”

Mel sniffed and nodded and looked out of her window at the car park. The sun shone coldly on the bonnet of a Fiat as it reversed out of a space behind them.