The gas-main repair crew taking a tea break in Bradley Road, W11 didn’t spare much notice for Ethel Bratby as she shuffled along the broken pavement with her heavy bags. Most of the workmen were too intent on the young girls sunning themselves in the beleaguered park over the road, between the new private bus depot and The Cock and Bottle, to notice a seventy-year-old woman who muttered to herself and whose spectacle frame contained only one very thick, cracked lens. Others of the crew were far too busy ogling the signs of the New Deal Used CarMart, whose banners announced that ten times the wonders of the world would be revealed to any adventurer who stepped into the multi-ribboned forecourt. Since Ethel could not compete with girls and certainly not with the offers of the CarMart, the flickering advertisements of the great roaring world made her virtually invisible.
As if she were some pagan form out of a shipwrecked region of disintegrating uncertainties of belief, Ethel quickly disappeared down the garden path of one of an ancient row of wall-eyed dwellings. Sinking into a narrowing trough within a stained and menacing grid of frowning concrete rectangles, these mostly abandoned homes still had something of a smile on their faces, as if they remembered a happier time. Some had seen Mafeking Night celebrations, heard lamentations upon the death of great Victoria, and the roar of Armistice crowds and VE-Day celebrations. Somewhere within the carcass of the foundering wreck which was Ethel’s own Number Thirty-three was a memory of foaming teams carrying reports of the Franco-Prussian War to the newspapers of the North and even the wistful recall of Disraeli’s pale face within a passing carriage. Valiant to the last, Bradley Road had managed to keep its pecker up until the Age of Christine Keeler but was now a similar historical curiosity, begging history for merciful oblivion. Windows were the blown mouths of corpses, lintels and door frames were starved ribs, and a hundred years of squashed toys and garden ornaments had been seized and buried by the writhing intestines of a ferocious ivy.
When we look, we look upon worlds. The deep grooves on the chimney-stack of Number Thirty-three had been gouged by shrapnel from a ten-pound bomb dropped in 1916 by a Zeppelin. This was released almost with good grace by the elegantly gloved hand of a Count of Holstein. As the Count casually threw it overboard as a minor inconvenience, he lit a risky cigar, and looked with pride upon his splendidly appointed gas-cupola, whose furniture included a miniature Bechstein and a splendid silver samovar, which the salesman claimed to have been captured at Tannenburg. It is more likely that it had been made by a certain family Zweig, who ran the silver forge in an alley off the Invalidenstrasse just where it crossed the railway line. This was not far from the equally private factory of the family Kleist, where the bomb had been filled, an action quite oblivious to the crowded markets surrounding it. The modest weapon stripped the attic roof of No. Thirty-three, wrecked Mr. Blackstone’s Empire Wet Fish Store, and silenced Edward the family parrot for months. It had also given the chimney its permanent acute angle, a landmark on a foggy night for the last generation of horse-drawn cabs.
In August, 1944, with almost all Bechsteins long gone to deep storage and the entire Zweig family long gone to Belsen, a late V1 packed with 200 times more explosive than the Count’s bomb, and launched with no good grace at all, left the chimney of No. Thirty-three alone but disobligingly moved the foundations some three inches southeast. This piece of visiting kultur blew the local rat-catching lodger Mr. Wigginton, through the fragile wall of his outside lavatory, and he died cursing the eternal Teuton, his severed hand being found later, still gripping a well-thumbed copy of a 1938 Picture Post whose Folies Bergere photographs had caused questions in the House. In addition, an ancient cobbled yard was minced, one of the very first Co-Operative bakeries burnt down together with an original Spiritualist Hall where the dead spoke frequently. Also destroyed was the Mechanics Institute where Keir Hardy had roused the masses and an ancient inn-brewery where the masses repaired to celebrate their arousal. This hate from the sky (as it was called) also caused the last two Clydesdale dray horses in the south of England to go for a non-stop gallop, wildly distributing casks, hogsheads and firkins of best malt brew for thirty miles to a populace for once grateful for the doings of what was later to be called the Master Race.
Contributing again to the casting out of the larger proportion of the Nineteenth Century from the area forever, the IRA, with far less tactical and political clarity than dearly beloved Fritz, had weighed-in by blowing up the last public wash-house in the south of England. This military strike, worthy of inclusion in a book of illustrious Paddy assaults, brought down Ethel’s H-shaped television aerial (by means of which she saw the second Elizabeth’s coronation) and collapsed her outside coal-house, one of the last of such in the south of England. The tremors of the IRA’s 500 lbs of doped commercial fertiliser had caused the hairline fractures in the old 6-inch London County Council gas-main, whose corroded cast-iron lengths the North Thames Gas crew were now replacing with thick yellow PVC piping.
Just as Ethel disappeared muttering to herself, a worker squatting in a deep channel stopped digging and gazed hard at the cascading earth and grit from the blade of his shovel. He picked out a horseshoe and a blackened, rectangular block of thick and worn rubber, and promptly threw them into a nearby skip. Perhaps he thought that, like Ethel, they were rusty and tired, of no use for even the ornamental reassurances of Strontium 90 generations.
But when we look, we look upon worlds. On a morning from paradise in August, 1914 Helen, Ethel’s newlywed mother, was out in the road scraping up horse-manure together with almost the entire population of Bradley Road. One of Kitchener’s regular cavalry regiments had deposited this excellent fertiliser as they cantered by on their way to meet the Bosche. Outside Number Thirty-three a downcast cavalry trooper comforted his mare, who had shed a shoe. The Farrier’s Wagon arrived, a new shoe was fitted, and the old one cast into a newly dug channel which would soon contain the area’s first gas main. Trooper Oliphant cheered up after one of Helen’s strong cups of tea and, waving goodbye to her, rounded the turn of cobbled street to the corn-chandlers and, a few weeks later, an unmarked grave near the Marne was to take him quickly from the fast-changing early years of the new Century.
The block of rubber, produced by a history become exponential, was an item of militaria thrice pyramid-time away from the cavalryman’s pennant-hung lance and sabre. The block had fallen from the track of an M4A4 Sherman as it slewed round the tight corner below Ethel’s bedroom, heading for Omaha beach on the evening of June 5th, 1944. Soon to be shovelled aside by Blitz clearance teams, for over fifty years the block had fallen through the earth, a single flake in a slow-motion snow of crushed meat-safes, shattered wooden washtubs, cracked whalebone corset-stays, ivory collar-studs, broken pots of Brylcream, twisted celluloid combs, withered Spam slices from the last fried breakfast of Mr. Wigginton, and even the dehydrated forms of some of Mr. Blackstone’s quality pickled herrings. All such fossils were ready, no doubt, for entertaining misinterpretations of the future, both geological and anthropological.
Ben Dakin, the hawk-eyed gas-foreman, took the steel horseshoe and the rubber block from the skip, turned both in his hands, and wondered. As he looked his mind reached for the few books of his boyhood. He’d seen things of this kind. For no reason that he knew his eyes flashed to the dense privet of No. Thirty-three and he took a few steps past the hedge into the garden beyond.
He’d seen some holes in the ground but never anything like this. An ancient “Dig for Victory” sign was nailed above the front door and a “Smother All Incendiaries” notice half-covered the front-room window. Two red fire-buckets flanked the door with “National Fire Service” in flaking black letters. Curiously for such a stout fellow, Sam wanted to run from Ethel’s face as he saw it twitching behind the ragged curtain. He stepped quickly backward as an eye flickered behind her one cracked lens, and the still-vivid warning flames of the “Always Keep Your Stirrup-Pump Serviceable” sign for a moment almost came alive.
But what shook Ben even more was a model Sherman tank perched on top of a five-foot-high pile of rusted food-tins, some opened, some closed, some still with the high-contrast coloured labels of another Age. Now chilled as well as fascinated, he stepped closer to inspect the pyramid. Big-mouthed, blue-eyed American girls with puff-sleeved Girl-Guide blouses, Betty Grable hair and with nothing of European guile or sorrow in their gym-mistress smiles offered sausages, fruit and hams. In other ruined cartoons, now holed, rotted and torn with the changing seasons of five decades, rock-jawed men in smart uniforms served ice-cream, milk, and orange-juice to smiling families. The food and drink was from hampers taken off cars, which looked to Ben like shining science-fiction robots fresh from a landed UFO—but their rounded shape and chrome-plate and brushed-aluminium finish was of long ago. Ben felt queasy like some of the UFO abductees he’d read about in the popular press recently. He had never conceived of an old-fashioned UFO before. To him, such a thing seemed to violate all expectancy like a dugout canoe with an outboard motor, or Henry VIII with a mobile phone.
He did not like such thoughts. They were silly, wasteful, even cheeky, like the art-students he hated who passed on their way to college and who, in his opinion, should have been given better things to do. He stifled an impulse to throw the rubber block and the horseshoe through her window, as if to try and break a spell. But as the temple-charms above the door jangled in a sudden breeze Ben lit a cigarette to calm nerves which had easily survived gas-main blasts and oilrig fires. He noticed now other rusted tins with similar labels suspended from the roof of the small porch like strings of French onions. Once, thought Ben, with these chromium gods perhaps all things had been possible. He knew that fifty years before he was born people from a new and glowing land had arrived in silver flying machines. Full of millennial promises of magical succour, the crew-cut invaders from another planet drove much bigger trucks and tanks and gave away food from shiny tins. The tins had dream-pictures pasted on them and the taste of their contents was beyond the wildest fantasies of a growth-stunted folk with an appalling diet, small tanks, and even smaller ideas.
His newly contemplative self frightened him and he looked again at the cracked, dusty window where the face had flickered. Perhaps these ruined fragments of a past sunshine were the last of the memory of this lost creature, waiting for death in her ruined hole on a last bit of doomed river-bank. He was again surprised at his own inner voice, his own thoughts. A monosyllabic man, rarely introspective, yet words filled him that he did not understand and thoughts which were hardly his own. What the hell, he thought, was a millennial promise of magical succour?
He poked the mass of ivy with his foot. More old tins and dolls with scared eyes, even older. History was everywhere; Precambrian strata shifted and stirred in semi-redundant mental layers of the stout gas-fitter, who usually lived in a world incapable of creating abstractions; all meaning become completely identified with the traps of visible, tactile structures of endless digging, drilling, hammering, and thread-cutting. He smiled grimly to himself. Little did the woman beyond the fire-buckets know that the smiles on the labels had come to pass. But he knew that the fact that, for nearly forty years, all this multi-coloured stuff she yearned for could be had by the ton from the nearby Tescos was somehow to miss the point. He supposed it was no good a childhood spreading out around if you had lost yours long ago. His rejected and despised Catholicism surfaced but offered him only scraps from a ghost dictionary.
The woman within was waiting for the Return.
Ben looked at the pyramid of tins intently. Scraps of their labels trembled in another draught of air and for a moment the bronzed and handsome girls and men of young America before the Fall danced into life. Awe was a new experience to him. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Joking to himself, he tried again for concentration levels that he probably hadn’t used for several hundred years. Having few qualities of mind, in the face of the inexplicable Ben functioned like an elemental, searching anxiously for stored mental muscle in long-deserted west wings of the spirit.
A word sang in his brain.
What bloody Invasion?
Of what towering cliff-faces are our intuitions made. The threat of knowing who we were before we were born always threatens us with an avalanche. Ben could just accept that somehow his broad back and hands, extended in time, had helped carve the canals and the railways but before the first electrical hum and hiss of steam there existed a region which to him was full of fearful uncertainties. Sentences now came half-formed to his vocal chords, sentences to him as long and complex as his newly extended being. They came, in their various versions, from a country stretching through and beyond the little ritual theatre before this shabby front door, flanked by the twitching eye behind the torn curtains. They spoke and pointed to an old track leading to carved stone and scratched clay and axed wood and the almost fearful touch of fur on the belly, and hunger and ice and fire.
Ritual? Something was near in the sense of a space and time that he had once known, a continuum that would change his life utterly were he ever to know it again. Other voodoo-words clustered. Shrine. Rites. Dedication. Words long gone from the manual of the digital electronics of his Datsun which was in turn itself a book of dedications with the protecting and comforting logos of his own time. Strange words indeed, and even stranger ideas passing through his mind as things that he felt he’d once known but had now forgotten.
A shadow now passed across the greyish dark of the front room. Whoever she was, he thought, she had chosen to live in a kind of advertising hell whose space and time was built of all possible Promises of all possible Returns. He laughed out loud as this strange language and ideas sang in his head, together with a slogan: you’re never alone with an advertisement. He was comforted by his own laughter. That slogan was almost good, almost real TV-style. Perhaps he had missed his vocation in life. He now wanted to knock on the door and introduce himself instead of standing in the garden like an idiot with the horseshoe and a block of rubber in his hands. But he was tired. He had never thought so much in his entire life. Here came the words again. He laughed out loud, the sound echoing through the dilapidated garden.
He put his face into his hands. What was he talking to himself about? What was this ghost vocabulary rising within him like the stirred bed of an old pond? Now came fear. There was someone inside his head who had never bothered to introduce themselves. Now came panic. For there were others, clamouring behind his new, momentary self. Lots more than he could count and threatening to break through with their babble, asking millions of incomprehensible questions. Now more again, using meaningless words in hundreds of different languages and the whole of it rose like a ghastly symphony within until all within was wiped out by two pneumatic drills opening up just beyond the hedge.
His previous banging, drilling world returned with a vengeance, vanishing the ever-widening penumbra of uncertainties from his momentarily heightened state which floated away like blown bubbles in sunlight. He took his face from his hands as staccato drilling-phrases hammered stakes through the heart of all other abstractions, which were shut into their vampire-coffins within him.
Now the Earth had clay feet again and even the golden American girls looked old.
Nothing was possible. Absolutely nothing.
Load of bollocks here. The woman was mad. Filthy. Should be taken away. Locked up, cleaned up, shut up. Council should be ashamed. Demolish the entire dump. That’d be the solution. Fucking well fumigate it, too, by the look of it. Should have gone years ago. Valuable land. Whole row was disgusting, ridiculous. Shouldn’t be allowed. Shameful. Crazy. Filthy.
What was that?
Kicking the tin pyramid to pieces, he was about to smash the rest of the blasphemies of this haunted and devilish place when he heard a familiar voice behind him.
“Ben, fucking Clamper’s got your Datsun!”
Foster, his Number One Ganger, stood looking downright real pleased with himself.
“Foster, don’t just stand there looking like a ponce with a hard-on, git outa my way.”
He turned on his heel, went thankfully from the now ruined pyramid, and energetically threw both the rubber and horseshoe back into the skip like cursed objects, part of the life of an older self he thought he’d cast off before he was even born. Managing to get his precious Datsun liberated, he gave a section of pressed tarmac a final inspection and, carefully locking-up the JCB and the steel tool-chest, he hurtled homewards to Willesden in a terrible rage.
Inside the fringed parlour of No. Thirty-three a voice spoke quietly to itself amidst kitchen items which, apart from the huge Mullard valve-wireless (one of the great full-stops of history) would have been familiar to the last generations of authentic English peasants from Hardy’s Wessex or even Dickens’ smoky London. Brown embossed wallpaper blistered the sides of the black-lead range, a single cold tap dripped into a steel-rimmed wooden bowl which stood on cracked green tiles with a faded red rose motif.
“I saw Meg Barsby by me garden gate the other day just as I was going out, and she says to me I see you’ve had your hair done, Ethel. And I said to her yes well I always have it done for Tom’s birthday, don’t I? She gives me a look that’s well spiced and she blushes as she pulls a packet of Frisby’s Dream Topping over the four bottles of Newcastle Brown she doesn’t want me to see in her bag.
“She draws herself up to her full four feet five in her son’s cast-off Dr Martens, she does, looks at me blackout blinds that I’d forgot to draw that morning, she does, looks down her nose at me ‘National Fire Service First Aid Point’ notice she does, and tries to talk to me like Queen Victoria lecturing penitent Salvation Army whores in 1880. Then she’s smirking at me like they all do. Then she’s grinning at the graffiti over me big ‘Dig For Victory’ notice over me front door, looking snide and smarmy over the football slogans the yobs have scrawled over me big red fire-bucket. Looking down her long nose at me ‘Smother All Incendiaries’ notice and me ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ notice above the old Anderson Shelter still there by the hollyhocks.
“‘Well, if Tom’s comin’ back soon, you’d better have your curtains done for him, hadn’t you? I mean fifty years like should have seen a bit of a wash-and-brush-up, don’t you think, Ethel? And as for that bucket of sand and the stirrup-pump you’ve got by your door, you can have tablets for that sort of thing these days you know. I reckon if you don’t sharpen up, Ethel, the Neighbourhood Watch is going to give your name to the vet, know what I mean dear?’
“Eyes dead as turnip-pieces in a piece of cold Woolton pie, she starts to shuffle past the Bingo Hall, going all slantwise past George the Fishmonger. A bit more slippery and George could have served her up as a special offer with a sprig of parsley up her gills.
“I follows her past Ye Olde Sex Shop, and The Vinyl Solution, don’t I, and I says to her well I can’t take the old blackout blinds down ‘cos Sergeant Tom Lennox put them up new for me when he was here, and he won’t be very pleased if he comes back and finds I’ve taken ‘em down. In any case. You never know. I believe in being prepared. And she comes back at me all the time, going past Mr. Fook’s Brasserie and Seven-Eleven.
“‘Well he’s bin gone a long time now, ‘ain’t he? I mean over fifty years means he’s not just sloped over to William Hills for a crafty flutter with your milk-powder tokens, has he? As for the Luftwaffe, Ethel, if you can still hear ‘em above Bradley Road at night I reckon you are goin’ to need more than a new gas-mask for Christmas if you don’t wake up soon, darlin’.
“That’s what they all say.
“And Meg Barsby disappears past Cosi-Bake and Jake’s Laser VideoDrome quicker than you could say BBC Light Programme and then up come the kids pointing and shouting at me. ‘Look, there’s Mrs. D-Day,’ they scream in the middle of Westbourne Park Road and people start to pass me even quicker than they usually do, which is fast enough.
“‘Wake up, wake up,’ the kids cry.
“I’ve tried telling one or two locals the full story, but Abdulla from the Taj Mahal Launderette says he’s heard it so many times he don’t want to know no more. Most of ‘em say that. Tariq from the Golborne Mosque says it, and old Anne from the Night Shelter says it and skinhead Sidney of the Berliner Burger Stall, well he blows his top every time he sees me now. Even Charles the Addict, who buys me a free tea every morning in the MetroDiner, he interrupts my story and starts to talk about Millwall for the F A Cup, he does. I ask you. And he thinks there’s something wrong with me.
“Nobody listens any more, so often I starts to tell myself the story for the millionth time. Right here on the pavement.
“They were parked outside for weeks. Hundreds of ‘em. Thousands. June, 1944. And one bright morning. A golden morning. American tanks, trucks, and guns parked for breathless warm nights outside Thirty-three Bradley Road. And me making tea for the gods! Cutting loaves for the bronzed and handsome from another planet and their great adventure.
“Sweet seventeen and a high time!
“The 743rd Tank Battalion, and the highest god of them all, Top-Sergeant Tom Lennox from Missouri, sitting smiling as the English blossom brushed the turrets and aerials of the Shermans. Summer kissing the trucks and carriers, blessing the petrol, food, oil, water, ammunition, blessing the beckoning sea of grey ships.
“Summer was Tom Lennox born in my blood and the blue air bright with silver planes. And Bradley Road bright with the immortal Tom Lennox and his fabulous voyage.
“But wake up now Ethel, they say.
“It’s all over long ago.
“Which is why I’ve always wondered about honeymoon couples. I’ve always wanted to know why they say they always have to wake up. They all say you’ve got to wake up—to something that takes you by the neck and bangs your head against a wall. They smile only when you’re bleedin’ to death, they say well you see there’s the truth, gel, you crying into your own blood, so face up to it, and when they see me looking at the blood, they say well there you go again gel, see now what you’ve done to yourself.
“That blood’s reality, they say. And I say I haven’t done it to myself, and they say well who’s done it to you they say and I say you’ve done it to me, I say. And they say the truth’s hard. And I say the truth’s wonderful. And they say I’m daft, that’s what they say: ‘What you tryin’ to prove?’ They say. ‘Might prove something some day,’ I say.
“And then there is always their beloved Reality. They still talk about that like it was their weekly ration of butter from their coupons, they do. I understand it now as I understood it then. Reality is essentially something very simple, hard like a brick, and just as painful when it hits you. I used to imagine this thing they all said was the core, the centre, the absolute. I used to imagine it as a milk-less teat they all sucked on day after day, night after night, month after bombed-out month.
“Some still say that this Reality is easy to find. There’s always lots of it around, they say. All I have to do is wake up, grab me some of this stuff, and take my punishment. They said I would feel a lot better for it. In any case, say some, Reality is cheap. And available. Oh yes, Reality is easy, is Reality. A regular bargain. And it isn’t even rationed. You can always order as much of it as you want. But it still comes in the same old way, does Reality. They even deliver it straight to the door of your mind with no extra charge. It comes with the same bright banana-smile that comes with your new washing machine, video or fridge, does Reality.
“But the trouble with me is that I’m difficult to sell things to. Because I am not a prominent consumer. Of anything. And I’ve always hated advertisements. Especially for Reality. You see I’ve no stomach for it. Reality always makes me throw up. I reckon I must have a piece of that there antimatter up me pipes, or something. All I know is that you’ve got to watch the quality of Reality. It don’t half go off quick, by all reports, specially if you’ve been sold a phoney piece of the stuff. Give it an hour, it smells and rots, and if you get some inside you that’s gone real mouldy, then it can put you up shit-creek quicker than you can make a new Benefit Claim. I had some bad Reality by mistake, once. And I’ve never quite got over it. Sometimes I can still feel bits of it inside me. Destroying. Pressing. Unbearable. Piercing, slashing, tearing, kicking. So long ago I said to myself, well it’s going to be a Reality-fasting life for you, Ethel, gel.
“People tell me I should get back to Reality but the trouble is I can only just remember it. I think it was a thing the socialists used to talk about. I can remember Clem Attlee, Max Bygraves, the dustman’s strike, and Elsie Tanner but I can only remember bits of Reality. I can remember it definitely wasn’t cerebral, Reality. Only bucktoothed peasant-hayseeds were real. Essentially workin’ clarss, was Reality. The less you had, the more Real you were. Funny idea, that, when you come to think. Still got a bit of shelf-life to go, I suppose. Somebody should do it as a game. Think a thought, go to a public school and you’re well fucked. Read a book and you’re down ten. Pronounce your aitches and you’re well out of the game. Yes, I’m beginning to remember it now. Ten out of ten for a starter if your surname ends in a vowel, eleven out of ten if you happen to be a rear gunner in the bargain. Get five A-levels and you go to bed without any supper. If you win the game, you take your clothes off, and go into the middle of a ploughed field when it’s pouring with rain (rain’s essential) and you are the winner, King of the Factual Universe, top-shot of the Reality Hit Parade.
“Yes, come to think, Reality was funny while it lasted, like the Twist, the Pogo, Time Out magazine, or what they used to call the Revolution. I remember Reality was good for two minutes of Entertainment Time but it broke down as often as the British Rail Advanced Passenger Train, Sinclair computers, or The Pound In Your Pocket. The only other thing I remember about Reality before it went the way of The Singing Postman was that I wasn’t very good at it. It was designed for component failure, was Reality, planned obsolescence as they used to say and you just couldn’t beat the bank before the cheques for spare parts bounced. Yes, Reality was like the cartridge player my dad told me about. Fiddling through a maze of wires under the dashboard to put on a quarter-inch tape of a two-minute single of Diana Dors yowling about April in Paris. That’s how I remember Reality. A good thing while it lasted I suppose, like Homes for Heroes, or the Three Day Week, or the Bus User’s Charter.
“I can’t say I remember Reality with any kind of affection, like some folks recall Radio Four or the white heat of the technological revolution. I reckon if ever there was a fixed game, it was this Reality. You couldn’t win a single round. My dad never got his supercharged Cortina or his Tudor-timbered semidetached and, as far as I know, over in cardboard-truss land, not a single peasant got a single tractor. It was like nuclear power stations, was Reality. It split, cracked, blew up, or it wouldn’t work at all, or your children came out of it with two heads and no arms, which is no kind of bio-kit at all for signing on. I mean you couldn’t say you were living alone, or your partner was working, could you?
“Reality. Yes, it’s all coming back now. I remember young John, next door. He practically ate with his feet, and he thought Hamlet was a grocery in the East End. He couldn’t read or write and this made him so full of Reality that although his many worshippers were slightly pissed off because he wasn’t black, insane, crippled, had AIDS, or was on heroin, they nevertheless ran out of polytechnics to shake his peasant-hand. He was so full of Reality was John, the working-class truth came pouring out of his ringed nose. But he hated his new-found fame. And he also hated every second of his political enlightenment. As he told me at the time, if he understood the socialists correctly, the less you had, the more Real you were. And he had nothing at all. So he supposed that made him some kind of god. So he went down to Social Security and asked ‘em to kit him out with what a god is supposed to have. And John told ’em, he did: like he wanted palaces, concubines, magical powers, a brand-new BMW with a naked Virginia Bottomley bouncing about on acres of fresh leather (John had good taste, had John) and all that caper. And according to Notting Hill legend, John told them that he was going to come back next week for a hell of a lot more than that, but that nice little bundle would do for a start.
“I’ll never forget John’s face when he told me all he got was a big cut in his Diabetic Support-Hose Allowance.
“But if you think Reality is bad, just you wait until you come across the Truth. The Truth is far worse, the Truth is. Between these two stage-magicians Reality and the Truth, you lose each way. You never know where you are. This pair whet your appetite a bit like soft porn, but you never get the goods. You never get the cargo. You never win. You never get the stuff under the counter. Long ago, I began to nurse suspicions about this Truth and Reality game. You see I never won. Not even on average. And I wanted to win, even on average, as the statisticians says. Trouble is you see, my big problem in life has always been that I always thought Reality was wonderful. So wonderful that when I came across it I wanted it to last. And I always thought the Truth was a magnificent thing.
“I asked them often why they said that the Truth always hurts.
“I was daft as a brush, they said.
“And I asked them if the Truth was so nasty, why was everybody looking for it?
“And I said I wanted to win. But they said I couldn’t win. They said nobody ever won, so what the hell was I talking about? The truth was savage they said, corrosive, deadly, awful, bleak, nasty, the truth was every kind of bad shit you could think of, the truth was, but I said to them when you put a thread through the eyes of all these interesting little needles, it all adds up to a pretty massive NO to something, I said.
“And they told me that if I was not careful I could get myself very lost. I told them I was used to getting lost in any case. I got lost with Tom Lennox on his Sherman steed. I used to get lost in a bird, a mountain, I used to get lost in the voices in deep-buried cables below sunlit speeding sea-foam; I used to get lost in Tom’s Popeye badge, cracked Benny Goodman disc, and picture of Jayne Mansfield’s Buick; I’d get lost looking at surplus bits of Army radios I picked up on sale in Lyle Street after the war. I still keep all these things secret in my old wire-mesh meat-safe, with a few tins of Spam, and some 1945 stubs of Lucky Strike.
“And even now, when the house is quiet I light candles, open the door of the meat-safe, and lose myself in the theatres of this vast interior.
“That is what I call cargo-time. I wait, look up and listen, and sometimes I hear them above; Flying Fortresses, Mustangs, Liberators, Lightnings, bringing back the cargo, the Reality and Truth of the flying gods.
“And I sometimes I hear Tom.
“And sometimes I hear the revving Chrysler engines of his column of Shermans like the beating of angel’s wings.”
The voice stops for a moment as small stones fly at the kitchen window. The children who throw them are equally ghosts of exponential time. Young Ethel’s single orange and bag of monkey-nuts at Christmas is as far away from their Nintendos as the sword of Trooper Oliphant is from a cruise missile. The voice continues, as it has done since the paradise morning, but now the valves in the old British Army 19 Set in her attic have lost their vacuum. And the charcoal filter in the Gas Mask, Civilian, MK I (1940) on the shelf below her narrow stairs has become dry and brittle. Time to go is almost here. But still she prays as the stones fly and the porch is now full of abusive filth as the temple charms are torn down and trampled on.
“But sweet seventeen didn’t get no cargo. And neither, or so they tried to tell me, did the 743rd Tank Battalion. Came one summer dawn and they were gone. The sixth of June. And within two hours of my last cups of tea, and within split seconds off Omaha beach, the gods were shot to the bottom of the sea. Or so they told sweet seventeen.
“But sweet seventeen refused to believe it.
“So they started telling me time and time again, but I still refused this waking, this cold dawn, this savage facing up to this brutal Truth of theirs, this game I couldn’t win, this game of theirs called Reality where they beat me every single bastard time: the doctors, parents, the schoolteachers, the social workers and oh yes, of course, the beloved psychiatrists. When I didn’t play the game their way they didn’t like it, they didn’t like it at all. But they weren’t really worried about me. They were worried about themselves. They were very worried about me still playing, even though I was losing. But the loser is the terror of the Earth. Because everybody knows that one day the loser is going to win a round.
“People simply do not understand. They do not recognise the scale of my requirements. My requirements are infinite. Which doesn’t half give some little soap-opera heads a problem. I was talking to my Social Worker the other day, who of all people has the least idea of how much I need. I said to her, I said, I need a bigger place. She said how big? I said infinitely big, and she said that’d cost you, and I said well have you got anything like that, and she said well, failing something coming up cheap in Shepherd’s Bush, she said that I could always buy one myself. And I said well I haven’t got any money and the DSS won’t pick up the tab for stables, swimming pools, and a Rolls Royce. To that, she gave the usual working-class simple-minded cliché of a non-brilliant reply, saying well you’ll have to work harder Ethel, won’t you? To which I replied, what? I’m not here to work hard! To which she asked, well what are you here for then?
“And I said I’m here for glory.
“And the little meat-and-potatoes git had the nerve to laugh in my face and call me a wanker.
“I suppose glory was a difficult idea for her. And I know she hated me not only because I forced difficult ideas on her, she hated me again because I didn’t think the Truth was awful. And she hated me yet again because I didn’t think that Reality was terrible. It always gave some people the worst dreams they had ever had in their lives, that did. It wasn’t fair they said, it was ridiculous they said. And in their eyes I saw panic. And in their minds, terror. Fear that Truth and Reality were wonderful.
“And just one round from Ethel would be all it would take to prove it.
“But even the ones that were friendly would say Ethel, they’d say, there’s nobody out THERE any more! Nothing there but the maddening tick of clockwork, is Reality, so start counting. So I said fuck you, I said. And they didn’t like it, they didn’t like it at all. They wanted to destroy me. They wanted to break me like they broke Charlie Dean and Freda.
“Charlie and Freda used to creep up the railway embankment to stopped trains, selling the passengers fresh sandwiches and coffee at half-price. They were rubbed off the map of this universe faster than proverbial lightening, they were. I must have been about ten at the time. I saw them from my dad’s allotment. Pulled away they were, down the grass in a blur of uniforms and shouts. Constable Black laughing his little pig-head off as I wandered near the embankment. Charlie’s pipe and one of Freda’s shoes all in amongst the squashed bread rolls and coffee-stained grass. Summer heat shimmering over Freda’s broken spectacles and me supposed to start learning the rules from then on in.
“Blank, work-drained faces watching at the carriage windows.
“It’s nothin’ to do with us, well they shouldn’t have done it, really, should they? Nothin’ you can do. Dangerous, notices to tell ‘em don’t go up on the embankment. And the faces. Reality. Hopeless and helpless and loveless. The Truth. Home at seven. Limp smiles. Shrugged shoulders. The Reality. And Charlie dead the week after with a heart-attack and Freda in an institution named after one of our beloved Leaders. Charlie and Freda hadn’t learned who runs the street fast enough. They hadn’t hopped, skipped, jumped, foamed at the mouth, done the Rain-Dance of the Rules.
“Years later I’m working in the local Bus Garage Canteen. The now Sergeant Black drops in quietly for his free lunch. His favourite was on that day, boiled beef and carrots. I dose it nicely with some real unmentionables. Service with a smile they call it. And he didn’t work for a month.
“Sometimes revenge is the hottest meal around.”
Sneering shouts through Ethel’s letter-box, now. Something noxious pushed through, and the garden full of bangs and crashes. Crushed tins, smashed bottles, fly against her door. The rain she almost thinks she hears is several youths pissing against her door. As she continues the walls of her heart-valves are become as thin as the blackout curtains, ration cards, and the pages of the wartime Penguins in her lavatory. Exponential time is here, almost vertical, and the vandals are at the gates of the temple as she dreams on.
“And at college I still thought of Tom Lennox. And the dream-eaters there they smelt something, they did. They fell upon my dream of Tom like blood-lusting wolves. They bit, scratched, tore. Their favourite menu was big, fat, fantasies. Their terror was even greater than their fury. It can’t happen they said, it shouldn’t happen, they shouted, it must not happen they screamed. For Christ’s sake Ethel, they bawled, all we have is the Fact, and if that goes up the pole we’re all lost.
“But I fought off the controllers. I kicked away the vision-correctors, the witching professionals who circled me, lusting for dream-blood. At a cave-mouth coffee-morning of loony-toons there gathered no less than a social-pyschologist, a Marxist, and a psychiatric social-worker, who utterly convinced me that I was in the grip of a fantasy which was a compensation for a deep feeling of personal inadequacy which was a direct function of my poor economic position and sense of class inadequacy, and other such assorted two A-level old polytech bollocks.
“So they tried telling me again.
“Ethel, you’ve just got to face up to it. Top-Sergeant Tom Lennox lies forty feet down and a quarter of a mile off the Normandy coast, his skeleton of over of fifty years still gently moving with the currents against the closed driver’s hatch of his Sherman M4A4
“And I said bollocks to all that, I said you’re all fucked-up I said. For you, there are rules. For me there is Tom Lennox. And I said he’ll bring the cargo back when he comes, I said. Cargo? They asked. What bleedin’ cargo, Ethel? What you sounding off about all this cargo rubbish all the time, then? Later husband, sister, parents, friends, whole myriad parties, breakfasts, dinners, weddings, births, deaths and suppers, teas, jobs and generations later, and it’s still cor blimey stone the crows Ethel, What bleedin’ cargo you on about, gel? And I said to them, you don’t want me to get out, that’s the trouble, you don’t want anybody to get out.
“And still they said, what is this cargo?
“Tom Lennox I said. A golden boy surfing over the tops of the stars, I said. And he’s coming back. With a tin of pineapples, some silk stockings, and a box of Hershey Bars. But Ethel, said the Vicar, you can get all them at Tesco round the corner. But I want Tom to bring them, I said.
“Bats! Shouted the stone-throwing yobs. Romantic! Shouted the pate-eaters. Irrational! Shouted the white-rat torturers.
“And so was I begirt with foes. And so the real ones came fast upon me. Tearing open wounds only half-healed, telling me I should direct my proper attentions to all the armpits of the world. I should, they said, be properly despairing about the exploitation of others, about corruption, about drugs and about stinking violence in the stinking cities. On top of all this dose of Reality, this symphony of tribal bollocks, I was supposed to do the rain-dance of the Real ones.
“I told them Tom would come back for me. And they said what for? And I said to take me away from all this British socialist-Reality-crap. Come back, they said? For what? For you, Ethel Bratby? Come back for you, the way sweet seventeen looked to Top-Sergeant Lennox one hot and lovely June night in 1944? Come back to you, they smiled, with your grey hairs, your three hot water-bottles, your arthritis, your limp, your bent back, your false teeth, and your crippled sense of Reality and Truth? He’ll come, I said. No, they said, he won’t. Ever!
“And I could see a great fright in them, like in animals before thunder.
“But sometimes the bastards made sure they got through to me. It was my sister Mabel what got through most often. Ethel, she said quietly one day, taking a precious second off from the everlasting television which I refused to watch. ‘Ethel,’ she said quietly, ‘Tom Lennox’ is dead, she said. Then she said: ‘There’s only one thing certain in this world, Ethel, and that’s that nobody gets no free cargo no-how, right? No chance!’
“’I must get a new frying pan,’ I said to her. But it was no good. The little sod knew where to hit where it hurt most. But I rallied in time. I said “Perhaps Tom might drop in tomorrow,’ I said. She didn’t reply. Just changed channels to EastEnders, and muttered something about my dangerous fantasies.
“’Tom will come back,’ I mouthed back at her. ‘He’s out there somewhere, and he’ll come back for me,’ I raved. And the laughter and the sneers continued along the avenue, by the playing field, by traffic island and outside Woolworths: come back, Ethel? Who? Where? Why? When?
“’He’ll come,’ I said.
“And numberless silent nights descended upon Bradley Road. Time and the seasons became like Tom, fugitives in the growing dust in the brain. Dust creeping now, even over the grey sky now, and more dust over the still-heard laughter by the Shermans and the apple-blossom and ashes now in the retreating whispering music of the dream and dust even over the fantastic trembling promise of the unimaginable Return.
“I was in agony.
“And they were happy at that.
“But two days ago I forgot my fear of freedom. It was the Invasion Day. My Victory Day. It was the handle of the pantry door, of all things, what did it. Jim from Ledbury Road had just come in and fixed a new one for me. The handle was a five-inch long piece of aluminium at least three-quarters of an inch thick. Mabel had just called round with some various Mediterranean-ish all-sorts for our dinner. I went to the pantry to get a fresh bottle of Harold Wilson (brown sauce to you), in order to kill it all stone dead. As I touched the door handle, it bent like a veritable banana.
“And of course Mabel saw it. I know she saw it because she jumped up and scattered curried salmon and dollops of coleslaw all over her. With her face nearly enough to make the bar turn straight again she fled in her socked feet in a trail of pitta-bread and pickled-onions. But it was the hour when all and everything rejoiced. Even Mabel’s false teeth, firmly embedded in half a kebab, smiled a victory smile.
“I stood there for a day and a night, holding the glittering cargo in my hand. A 90 degree right angle turn in solid aluminium, with no fracture. Tom had sent word.
“Stay at your post, Ethel.
“You’ve won a round.
“Reality and Truth had got their knickers in a right old twist. Time had forgot. For a minute. And Truth had hesitated. Just for a while. And love had poured through the gaps. Product Time eased up a little, growing old, like me. A newly minted aluminium bar. Hard as the first rocks. From Speedy Hardware, Praed Street, Paddington. Two pounds forty pee, with just a bit on top that crafty Jim added for himself to add to the Reality and the Truth of the occasion.
“Aluminium, furnaced and hammered. Poured and mixed and shaped and cooled. Now the hammers and furnace were rent in twain. One round was enough. On this rock, I found my tale of love. Certainty trembling. Tom had sent word. And the Word was enough. And the Word was that the War had never really ended.
“It had only just begun.
Ben Dakin was not in the very best of moods when he hurled his Datsun down Westway towards his work the next morning. The night had been hot, he woke covered with sweat beside his sleeping wife and annoyed her by getting up to make tea. He was even more angry when he saw his entire crew had downed tools and were talking to three constables. The JCB had been moved and in its place was an ambulance and two Panda cars. But it was all soon over. No suspicious circumstances. Later on that day Ethel came out in a box and Ben’s men were allowed to recommence their work.
A day later, the house was being cleared and rubbish emptied into a skip, when Ben saw something fall to the road. It was a door-handle made of one-inch-thick aluminium, bent through a complete right-angle. As a fitter, Ben knew his bends. Curious. No crushing within the bend. No stretch-deformations on the outer rim of the bend.
And the turn so acute there was no real radius to speak of.
But this was a curiosity quickly lost in the increasing noise of the working day. Walking towards his own men, Ben tossed the handle into his own skip where it joined the horseshoe of Trooper Oliphant and the track-pad of the tank of Sergeant Tom Lennox. The pyramid of tins soon followed. Golden men and silver cars tumbled over twisted door-handle, horseshoe, and rubber block. The ever-smiling gym-mistresses were next, still offering dream-fruit from spaceship kitchens. Buried by a slowly falling snow of dreams, the model Sherman followed, to become a holy thing deep under the city’s rubbish by the Southern Outfall, waiting for the call of some inconceivable destiny.
A week later as Thirty-three Bradley Road was smashed to dust by his bulldozers Ben Dakin, after another sleepless night, was glad when this particular job was over and done.