A Twitter conversation last night about the shitefest that is Glastonbury provoked an idea so wonderful I can't sleep properly. That Glastonbury has made the journey from counter-cultural peace movement mung bean folk rock oddity to corporate staple of the musical calendar is hardly an original announcement but something is wrong with music and, as with most things, I'm pinning the blame on the Tories (and by default New Labour).
Music needs to be overhauled every now and then. Beatlemania, Punk, Acid House all lit the fuse under a tired culture at the time. Now, in an age of Spotify and YouTube, where musical discovery is no longer the art of time consuming investigation and risk taking that it was in my day (IN MY DAY), everything seems to be heading towards some kind of homogenous sludge.
I want to be excited by music again. As a kid, there would be a new song every month or so on Top of the Pops that would make me feel something akin to delirium, a fever only soothed by that moment when I was finally able to see the stylus of the family record player hit the first groove of the vinyl I'd spunked my paper round money on. Occasionally I would fuck up and buy something like Toto's enduringly crass Africa but purchases like Eurythmics electro take on the Shangri-La's psychodrama , Frankie Goes to Hollywood's ballistic Cold War funk and this thrilling voyage into the brave new world of sampling made me feel that pop music would forever mutate into new exciting streams and sub streams, that despite the British public's fondness for novelty shit, sentimental shit and Euro holiday shit - there was still the very realistic hope that next week's edition of Top of the Pops would deliver something wonderful for me to feel that strange anticipation of the new.
When the coalition formed a government in 2010, some wise heads consoled themselves with the thought that music would improve as it had under the last Tory regime. Though industries closed and millions of dreams fell by the wayside, the Thatcher era was ushered in by the post punk sound of Joy Division (led ironically by a Tory voter) and over the next decade or so bands as disparate as The Smiths, Culture Club and Happy Mondays made debuts on Top of the Pops that made a nation gawp - an ever evolving national soundtrack providing sweet relief from the miseries of Margaret.
But it hasn't happened. Top of the Pops finally died in the face of public indifference and the technological marvel of unending libaries of downloadable portable music. Indie became a marketing term for guitar pop as groups of identikit middle class kids from the Home Counties formed the "The" bands - Vaccines, Kooks, Fratellis and decided that vaguely hummable choruses were all that was needed to sustain some sort of career in the music industry. The jaw dropping global success of Mumford and Sons, tonight's headliners at Glastonbury, is the last straw. A band whose schtick is dressing like 18th century mill workers whilst playing mildly anthemic dross have sold 2 billion copies of their records. The nation that gave the world Slade, the Specials and Pulp are repackaging the Tolpuddle Martyrs as life-affirming rock and it wont do.
What we need is a band that understand the true fuel of pop music isn't ambition but an understanding that it should be escapist, absurd and thrilling all at once. That bands dont need stories or journeys that the public must be drip fed in the tabloids, that mystery is the currency of pop genius. What we need is revolution. What we need is the KLF.
The KLF took the entrepeneurial can-do mantra of Thatcherism and subverted it via the technological advances of sampling, hijacked an emerging dance culture and invented something called Stadium House. Epic, thrilling nonsense. What Time is Love - a hybrid of acid house, hip hop, illuminati references and air raid sirens was everything pop should be - a shock of the new containing references to the old. 3AM Eternal topped the charts and was banned from a war-sensitive charts due to its machine gun sample. These were gargantuan slices of lunacy that had no right sharing chart space with Beverley Craven and Simply Red but there they were persuading country queen Tammy Wynette to join them in a song about acid house ice cream vans nonetheless. They ended up burning a milllion quid and dragging sheep carcasses to the Brits - now that's rock and roll - irresponsible, irreverent and irritating all at once.
Watching the likes of Mumfords top Glastonbury with the grim prospect of tomorrow evening being headlined by the Dignitas advert that is the Rolling Stones, it's clear that pop music needs an injection of thrilling irrelevance. Dizzee Rascal won't provide it. There's an embryonic campaign kicking off on Twitter - KLF to headline Glastonbury 2014. The nation needs them, your ears need them. There's a generation of kids right now that think paying £150 to camp for three days in a Somerset puddle to watch some old rich men playing tired old songs half a mile away is a rite of passage. Let's save them.
Saturday, 29 June 2013
Saturday, 15 June 2013
Another piece of autobiographical writing about my son.
Part Time Dad
It’s the Saturday before Christmas and I’m on a packed Tube train headed for Oxford Circus. I hate Christmas. I hate the Tube. Shopping and people – I hate them too. I am devoid of the Christmas spirit but I have promised all year to take my son, Josh, who is nine, to Hamleys. We probably won’t buy anything there because it’ll be ridiculously overpriced because most of their customers are tourists who won’t realise there are other toy retailers within half an hour’s walk. Josh and I are standing – the train is packed and we’re up against a door.
My son looks like the Milky Bar Kid. Little thatch of blond hair, spectacles that keep falling down his slightly freckled nose. So far, so cute. Add to this the fact that he has somehow managed to cultivate an accent which combines the cut glass Sarf Lahndn voice of his father and the sing song soft Welsh lilt of his bitch mother and he has quite a sweet little voice too.
A voice which, sadly for me, he is about to shatter the traditional silence of the packed Tube train with.
“What does homosexual mean?”
Now, at this point, I ought to point out that I am wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend “GAY DAD” in big letters. They’re a band I went to see the weekend before. I liked the T-shirt and I knew that wearing it when I went to pick my son up would upset his evil cow mother.
I look at the rest of the people in our carriage who have turned their heads to me as one, like some Christmas shopping Hydra. They’re all clearly keen on hearing me answer this question and, having clocked the T-shirt I’m wearing, have agreed between themselves on the events that have led me to this moment.
I reckon they think that I’m gay and that my son was the result of a doomed relationship with a woman in which I lived in denial of my true sexuality until I could stand it no more. Perhaps they’ve added a boyfriend. A job too. Perhaps I live in Muswell Hill with a set designer called Piers.
Their eyes haven’t moved. The Hydra, like my son, wants to know what a homosexual is.
“Daddy? What does homosexual mean?”
“Well, it’s a very long word for a small boy to be using. I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
“Billy called me one.”
“Well, Billy shouldn’t use words he doesn’t understand. It’s not an insult, ignore Billy, he’s being very childish.”
Even my stupid hateful and ugly piece of shit of an ex would have to agree that I had displayed something approaching maturity here. The rest of the carriage, I feel, are about to break into polite applause at my thoughtful parenting skills. We’re all bonding together in the warm glow of my magnificent answer. I feel Christmassy. Come on Hydra, let’s go to the pub and drink some mulled wine and crack open a walnut.
Josh ruins it though. Josh ruins Christmas.
“It’s OK though Dad. I called him a cunt.”
Thursday, 13 June 2013
I like really short fiction.
Many are the ways in which this tale will be written. I want to recall it perfectly, write it purely as I see it from the distance of the sole hour that has passed since the occurrence. For, despite the warnings, already I imagine the varying interpretations taking place, the calculated Chinese whisper passing from powerful ears to weaker ones.
At three minutes past noon today I went to a cash machine a few yards from my office. In error, I asked for a receipt. There was a queue behind me but I waited till it was printed lest others discover the extent of my poverty.
I bought a cheese and onion roll.
Opposite the baker’s there is a pub that sells cheap beer all day and cheap beer all night. Outside it there were the usual crowd of refugees from the world of work. There’s a bench a few yards up from there where I like to sit with my lunch if the weather’s not too bad. I took a seat and opened up the bag. A pigeon heard the tiny crackle of paper and landed close to my feet.
The pigeon looked at me. I thought about shooing him.
And then it happened.
I knew it wasn’t just happening in my head because of all the spilt cars around me, the stumbling beers and crashing women, the way that people clutched their heads to listen closer to the voice, to blot it out, to protect themselves from the sudden madness.
A voice, a voice like none heard yet in the sane world, spoke in all the heads on Earth.
I am the Creator.
I made you and I can unmake you. Abandon your churches, your mosques and temples. Destroy your banks, burn your things. Eden exists. It is all around you. Your beliefs are confirmed but do not become complacent for your rituals disappoint me. Put down your weapons and feed each other. Abandon your wealth as you would your worries for the two are one. The next time I speak will be the last.
I heard the church on the hill at the top of the town smash, saw the smoke rise from here and turned again as the town’s mosques, temples and banks fell into dust. I felt the coins in my pocket burn through the lining, fall and melt into nothingness.
As I speak, the televisions are beginning to crackle back into life silent. I can hear sirens and gunfire. The sky has emptied of clouds and the streets are filled with wondrous, upturned heads. A man on the radio is crying. There is talk of rioting.
A pigeon nibbles at the dropped roll by my feet. I think about shooing him.
And then it happens.
Saturday, 8 June 2013
I overheard a conversation between two old women in the now closed Borders in Cardiff. "You never used to like crime, Mary" stood out as something I should at least try to draw inspiration from. So this is it, the second ever story I wrote.
The Book Club
Ann and Mary were sat in Espressions, a book and coffee shop opposite the building site that occupied most of the city they had grown up in. They were both in their sixties and had seen a lot of change in Cardiff but it was getting ridiculous now, they thought. Having finally got used to one monstrous shopping centre, now that had been knocked down to build a bigger, better, brighter one.
At the moment the bigness, betterness and brightness was represented by a set of nine foot posters depicting the ´capital´s exciting retail experience of the future´. That and a square mile of cranes, rubble and fat men in orange hats.
Espressions wasn´t the sort of place they went to normally. But a lot of those places had gone. Once, if Ann or Mary had fancied a cup of tea, then they would have gone to one of the many cafes and teashops that used to operate in the city. Nice, quiet affairs. There were coffee shops everywhere now, all of them filled with horrible teenagers with those skateboard things. And you couldn´t tell if they were boys or girls. And the price of a cup of tea in those places. One pound fifty. For a cup of tea. Ridiculous.
But now Ann and Mary were sat with a pot of tea for two and a cake each that hadn´t given much change from a ten-pound note. Sipping at their tea, they exchanged glances at each other´s little book-sized shopping bags, wondering what the other had bought.
Ann and Mary were both widowed. They´d known each other all their life; they´d grown up on Claude Road together, kids next door. Ann had married Charlie, a bus driver and they were together forty-one years until he´d had his third heart attack and died loudly in his sleep. Mary had married Charlie´s brother, Roger. Roger was a salesman for a local brewery. He´d fallen down the stairs at home after several pints down the Conservative club. The neighbours claimed they´d heard a row but the police weren´t convinced. Still, Roger was well insured and Mary had finally had the house paid off as a result. She´d taken Ann on a cruise but they were both bored now they didn´t have husbands to be bored with.
That was when they joined the Book Club.
There was a poster in the window of a charity shop that they both volunteered at. The shop raised money for the care of rescued circus animals. A man they both recognised, whom Ann always thought smelt slightly of cough sweets, came into the shop with a bin liner full of stuff he thought they might be able to sell. As he was leaving, he did an about turn and asked if he could put a poster in the window.
´What´s the poster for?´ said Ann
´Oh. It´s a book club. A friend of mine is starting one up. Like on that Richard and Judy.´
And so it was that Ann and Mary met Mr. Chubb or Peter as they got to know him. Peter Chubb was a friend of Isabella who was heavily involved in local arts. The Roath Book Club met every Tuesday 6pm at an old church hall off Albany Road. The first meeting it was just the four of them, Peter, Isabella, Ann and Mary. Ann and Mary didn´t know how it worked, that they had just turned up for something to do. Isabella explained that each week someone would suggest a book and the others would read it over the week and then talk about it. Also, somebody would be asked to nominate a book for the group to read the following week and so on.
Isabella´s initial recommendation was The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon. Ann really liked the book, Mary was not so keen. Ann’s first recommendation was a romantic novella she´d read on the cruise the summer before which was a predictable enough romp about an older woman who befriends a Turkish restaurateur with one leg. Mary chose Black Beauty as it was her favourite ever book and she was certain that no one else would have read it. Peter never turned up after the first meeting.
Over the next few months, the book group swelled. There was little Vicky who liked stories where vampires and rape prominently featured. She worked in a bank. Then there was Matthew, a shy Northern man with thick glasses who also liked horror. He had that screeching violin from the film Psycho as the ringtone on his phone. People only knew this because Matthew would show them. The Book Club wasn´t like a library; you could have your mobile on just in case the babysitter rang or the police or whoever. Nobody could recall anyone actually ringing Matthew.
There was Tony, the supermarket manager with a penchant for SAS memoirs. He was a fat man with a speech impediment and always stank of beer. Whenever he used to turn up, he would always try and sit next to Mary. The last time he turned up, he was clearly drunk and asked Mary to come for a drink with him after. She declined the offer and Tony was clearly mortally wounded by this snub as they never saw him again. There was something in the local paper a week or two later. He´d been found dead in his car. No note, just a bottle of Gordon´s and an empty packet of headache tablets.
Mary had made an ill-advised joke when they next met. Vicky had brought in the local paper, trying to look sad and shocked but failing to pull it off. Tony´s picture was in the paper underneath the sad tale of his demise. The headline read ´Suspected Suicide of Supermarket Manager´
´Oh, his poor family, ´ said Ann. ´Why do they have to make such a big headline of that? It should be kept private, these things.´
Mary began to giggle.
´I have a better headline. Who dares gins? ´she said.
It was thought best to cancel the meeting that week.
Catherine was next, both Ann and Mary thought she was a bit stuck up, partly because she had a double-barrelled surname but they admitted to each other that they really liked her recommendation, which was a book about a boy with cancer who could fly. Kim was a bored housewife who liked extremely erotic fiction, which made Ann extremely uncomfortable discussing. The book they´d been asked to read was set in Berlin in the 1920s. The things that people did to each other in that book. Ann was horrified; Mary called her an old prude. They´d had a bit of a row about it on the drive home but it was quickly forgotten unlike the daisy chain scene on page 48 of Verboten Loves.
Then there was another Vicky, who liked something called chick-lit. Duncan liked detective novels. Mark liked detective novels. Ursula was a fat Irish girl with LOVE tattooed on both sets of knuckles. She liked a book called The Tesseract, which everyone pretended to read but didn´t get past page 19.
As a result of this group, Ann and Mary had quickly expanded their literary tastes as well as the contents of their own personal libraries. It was Ann´s turn in a week and Mary´s the week after that. They had heard about Espressions from the other members of the group the week before. And so, one Wednesday morning a few weeks before Christmas, the two ladies caught the bus into the city. Surrounded by iPods and call centres, they felt almost like tourists and instinctively made their way from the bus stop towards the indoor market just to be somewhere that hadn´t changed from their childhood.
Espressions was a big glass fronted department store on the other side of the Victorian market building. It had a coffee shop on the top floor and was staffed by excitable young people with strange facial hair and those headset things you saw assassins wearing in American films.
It was a prime location and handy too as it sat on the space where there used to be a separate bookshop, record shop and an old cafe. The cafe, Bruno´s, had been there since before the First World War and both Ann and Mary remembered being taken there as young girls. Upstairs in Espressions, one wall had been entirely taken up by a huge black and white photograph of Bruno´s so people would remember it fondly.
Mary stared at the moustache of the original Bruno on the wall. Blown up like this, his moustache was now wider than her head. She closed her eyes and tried to remember the sounds and smells of Bruno´s but all she could hear was a compilation of Argentine folk music that was free with every fifty pounds you spent in the store.
The daydream ended. Ann was excitedly emptying her Espressions bag.
´Mary, come on. Show me your wares! This is what I´ve bought.´
Ann had bought three books. One was a romantic novel by someone she'd seen on a cookery programme on telly. Next out of the bag was a selection of poems by Dylan Thomas. She´d probably give it to someone for Christmas. The last book was one she´d seen on display in the front of the store. Tunnel Boy was ´a harrowing memoir of an abused childhood´. Since they´d read the book about the flying boy with cancer, Ann had become slightly obsessed with tales of survival. She hadn´t yet read Robinson Crusoe. For Crusoe to appeal now, he would have to have been raped and partially eaten by Man Friday. This was the book Ann would read first, she found herself quite excited at the prospect of a quiet evening in with Tunnel Boy.
´So. Come on what´s in the bag? ´
Mary emptied her bag. Works by Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and John D Westlake lay on the table. Murders, robberies and more murders. In the last month alone Mary´s eyes had witnessed 27 murders, 14 armed robberies, at least a dozen rapes and various blackmails, beatings and buggeries. No wonder she looked tired, thought Ann.
Ann looked at Mary. Mary stared at Signor Bruno’s 18-inch moustache.
´What´s got into you Mary? You never used to be into crime.´
At this point Fate intervened in the shape of the clumsy looking assistant who´d had the decency to look apologetic when handing Ann the heartbreakingly small amount of change from their tea and cake. He was named Michael and he was, according to the hand written badge on his striped shirt, a barista. Michael had slipped on a piece of spilt tiramisu behind the counter and, in his effort to stop himself from falling, accidentally turned the stereo up to full volume.
Consequently, the only person that heard Mary break down and confess to pushing her violent husband down the stairs and breaking his neck; to holding up a sub-post office near Monmouth with a sawn-off shotgun; and to a host of other criminal offences was Mary herself. Everyone else had their fingers in their ears trying to blot out the noise of an Argentine sheep herder mourning what could have been.
´What did you say Mary? ´
´Oh nothing´ said Ann.
Outside, the cranes swayed uneasily in the wind as the rain picked up again. Shoppers ran for cover. Espressions filled with the sound of wet people pretending to be interested in literature.
Mary stared at the window, at the fresh raindrops silently racing down the outside of the glass.
Wednesday, 5 June 2013
I wanted to write something about being a dad. I'm stealing a title, of course, from the wonderful Blake Morrison.
And when did you first see your son?
So that wasn’t the first time I saw you.
Four minutes after you were born, sometime after two in the morning, I held you for the first time. I remember the surprising warmth and weight of the bundle. I remember the smell of the efforts of labour and the sight of your mother angry with exhaustion. A father can feel like a fraud at such moments, I did. The only thing I saw was the next sixteen years of my life spread out like a dull, sufocating blanket. I knew I loved you but I loved myself more. That wasn’t the first time I saw you.
Taxi home from the hospital; you in the Moses basket on my lap. In the thirty-six hours since you were born I have sterilised the house or near as dammit. I have vacuumed, polished, scrubbed, aired, fumigated, cleansed. It is a museum not a home. My parents are there to greet us all, excited at the new generation of our family getting under way. They coo and they aah at the appropriate junctures. My dad’s brought flowers and champagne. I coo and I aah at the appropriate junctures.
Over the next 18 months your eyes opened more, you crawled, took your first steps. Our days were adventures in growing up for the pair of us. Nappies and inoculations for you; responsibility and domesticity for me. However, my evenings were mine. I couldn’t wait to say goodnight. I could have read to you. I rarely did.
A few days before your first birthday you were rushed to hospital with suspected meningitis in an ambulance with a police escort. Meningitis is big news round here right now. Some tiny lad round the corner died only the week before. And now we’re in a hospital drama, being wheeled at high speed to some special room where I have to bend you and somehow ignore your screams whilst they drain fluid from your tiny spine.
Anxiously we wait for some guy in a lab upstairs to call down. No news is bad news. You didn’t have meningitis. You would live.
I cried that night because I was angry at you for making me cry.
The rest of that time is textbook. Parents too young. Unplanned child. Thwarted dreams. Poverty and rows. The inevitable split. Your mother getting custody.
Before that, not long before that, maybe a week or two earlier, I saw you for the first time.
A miniature village green that acted as an excuse for the cul-de-sac we lived in. A February morning, short on sunshine. What light there is is watered down from months of winter, the birch trees stripped and thin against it like angry veins, tired fingers. The pair of us padded up in thick coats on the wet grass. An impossibly red football in front of your little fat corduroy legs. You are running towards the ball, running, properly running for the first time in your life. You kick at the ball and pleasingly, it shoots away from you a few yards. You chase it. We chase it together. Kicking and running and chasing the rest of the morning. These are the greatest minutes of my life and I don’t yet know it. This is the first time I see you.
It's a story. I never knew quite where I was going with this. The idea, or at least what passed for an idea back then, was to write about the idea of family trees, roots etc. But it's still better than Dan Brown, right? Right?
My dad’s been digging all day. And not just today, he’s been at it for weeks now apparently. A huge hole at the bottom of the garden with the discarded earth behind him rising, becoming quite the little mountain. My mum just takes him out tea and sandwiches. She walks out with the tray and the torch and hollers down into the deep that there is refreshment. Then she starts with the pulley.
All hours he’s out there, digging.
When she called me over for lunch I knew that there was something wrong. My parents don’t phone me; apparently it’s my job to phone them. If I don’t call at least once a week then I can expect to be on the receiving end of several doses of low-level emotional blackmail.
“Just ring her up once or twice a week, mate. It’s not hard.”
“Well, I know you’re busy but I worry. Five minutes is all.”
I didn’t know about the hole till today.
My brothers are both there when I arrive. I’m the youngest of three and I’m thirty five in a month. This, I sometimes joke, is better than being the youngest of thirty five and being three in a month. Ben’s a year older than me, runs a garage about ten miles from here. It’s called Ben’s Garage. There’s a huge neon B in the kind of font they have on American vaudeville posters. A big B hanging out above the road off the roof of the garage. A little part of me dies each time I see it.
My older brother is called William and I have no idea what he does but it earns him enough money to live out by the sea and drive a car that will cost more money to insure than I’ll ever see in my bank account.
I am an obituarist. I write obituaries to order for national papers. Someone famous dies, the phone rings. That’s how I make a living.
Ben and William, of course, ring my mother every day. They seem oblivious to the great crater our dad is making at the end of the garden. They sit there and drink their coffee and read the sports pages.
“How long has he been doing this?”
“Couple of months,” says William without looking up.
“Why? What is he doing?”
“He’s just digging a hole, he’s happy enough.”
Ben starts humming La Cucaracha. My mum joins in whilst she peels potatoes at the sink.
I leave the three of them to it and make my way into the garden.
I hear the echo of my own voice before I see how deep the hole is. One syllable, the second I ever learnt, dropping deep beneath the earth and repeating itself. At the lip of the hole there is the first of what appears to be several improvised ladders. I turn my gaze to the flanks of the garden and notice that the trees are all stumps, amputated limbs from the garden war.
I start to climb down the first ladder.
“Dad,” I call again.
It was around the time of the third or fourth ladder that I started to really worry. Christmas lights stretched down from the extension lead from the shed. Rather than getting thinner, the tunnel started to widen the further I descended. The ladders became stronger, the lights brighter. Further and further down I climbed, calling my Dad’s name all the time until I reached a well-lit platform.
A few yards in front of me there was a door. Behind I could hear voices, one of them my father’s clearly. Several male voices, all familiar to me somehow. A lot of laughter and the clinking of glasses, somewhere beneath those voices I could hear distinctly strains of music.
Swallowing hard and trying to keep my breath at a polite volume, I knocked the door.
It was a wonderful few hours we spent sitting round that table. My great-grandfather was a hoot; he had us in stitches about his time at sea. His own father was also present; several generations of my family were there. Just the fathers mind. We talked about raising children, politics and women. One of my really old ancestors told us about the time he slept with one of the Brontes. I can’t remember which one now but it was a good story. My dad just sat there laughing, turning to me and smiling occasionally as he poured another round of drinks. Every now and then I would feel myself starting to panic; my dad would reassure me with a hand on my shoulder.
A guy with exactly the same jaw as my dad was halfway through a story about hiding from Oliver Cromwell when my dad looked at his watch and said it was time for us to go.
“Nice to meet you all,” I said.
They all smiled politely, raised glasses, and wished me the best.
My dad held out a hand as I negotiated the last few rungs to the surface. I brushed a little dirt off myself and made my way into the kitchen. Will and Ben were sat there eating sandwiches. I made my excuses, kissed my mum goodbye and got into my car.
Tomorrow I will plant a tree in my garden. Maybe after that, as long as nobody I’ve heard of dies, I’ll phone home.
So this is the first of a bunch of bits of writing I did at some point in the past, I'm not going to get it together to do anything else with it. This is a piece of semi-autobiographical writing. I was seven when I discovered death was real and actually happened to ones you loved. I've patched together that and a few random memories from the same time to try and make something bigger than is probably there. But feel free to tell me it's shit and you hate my guts or you loved it and now want to build shrines to my memory.
We were on the back seat of my uncle’s Ford Cortina. Outside there was a storm and my Dad had run inside the hospital to see if Nanny Cuckoo was awake. It was a strange hospital, very quiet. No flashing ambulances, no orderlies running about like they did on the telly. Nanny Cuckoo had been awake when we’d seen her the week before and I’d sat on her bed and asked about her eye and when she was coming home and we talked about school. We ate loads of grapes and my Granddad insisted on driving us back. It was a quiet journey.
Now I was telling my Mum about my day at school. She’d asked me but she was worried about something else. I could tell that much.
“Here’s your Dad”.
I glanced outside and saw my Dad and his brother running towards us. They clambered breathlessly into the front of the car.
“Nana’s not up to visitors today mate. We’re just, you know, going to drive home and we’ll sort something out. Ok?”
My Dad was turned towards us from the front seat and trying to address each of us at the same time. I was upset; I wanted to see my nana. We drove home, the windscreen wipers struggling all the way with the weather.
Dad was gone all the next day. He’d left pretty early even though he didn’t work Saturdays. Mum didn’t seem to know where he was, just out. But he’d left a present for me and one for my sister. My sister had a doll and I had a sticker book.
I didn’t know anything about football except it was what my friends now did at playtime. We didn’t play superheroes or Top Trumps anymore, all my mates played with a bright orange ball initialled GB that belonged to Graham Broad who hated losing. I used to read comics in the corner instead. I liked Hulk and The Fantastic Four best because they were on telly and I could read the speech bubbles in the voices I knew they had.
Occasionally the ball would ping its way towards me and I’d try to join in but I was rubbish.
If it was raining and we had to stay inside then football still dominated proceedings – all the boys bar me had a sticker book and spoke dementedly of swapsies and gots and needs.
Now I had a sticker book with loads of teams in it and ten packets of stickers to start me off. When I’d finished putting all the stickers in, my Mum sat us down on the sofa and said she had something to tell us. I knew what she was going to say because she was crying. It was the first time I’d ever seen her upset. People only cried on telly when people died.
It was my first dead person and it was Nanny Cuckoo. She was called Alice really and had gained this nickname because of a ritual conducted between us when I was a toddler. We'd visit her flat and I'd knock on the door and she'd call out Cuckoo. I'd call Cuckoo back before being let in. My Nan who looked after me at weekends and gave me 10p to spend on sweets every time she came to visit. My Nan who said “Presently” instead of “In a minute” and who had a plastic chair in her bath. I cried for as long as it takes a seven year old to cry themselves to sleep.
We didn’t see my Dad till the next day and we didn’t get the chance to say goodbye. We had a couple of days after the weekend off school and then when we went to school on the Wednesday my mum spoke to my teacher, Miss Hope.
I’d been quiet, quieter than normal. I could see the teacher and my mum looking at me in that way that parents sometimes look at children when they’re ill.
I had my sticker book and my swapsies in my little Gola bag ready for playtime. Graham Broad had forgotten to bring his football and so the two of us and some other boys formed a circle like Chinese gamblers did in films. The names being read in solemn incantation as the swapsies were announced.
Joe Jordan. Ray Wilkins. Bristol City. John Wile.
A mumbling chorus of declarations from the marketplace.
Got. Got. Need. Need.
My eyes stung as I looked down at my stickers and realised I was speaking the mantra too.
Got. Got. Need. Need. Need.