Journey to the End of the Bed

Journey to the End of the Bed

London, July 1989

The phone rang and it was Kim. He agreed to go and see her. He simply couldn’t refuse that beloved voice at the other end of the line. He hadn’t heard from her in a while but when he got there, her boyfriend was away. They had a good time in the pub on the corner that same evening before returning to the laboratory conditions of the flat, to flashbacks of the agony in the box garden.

The heavily scented bathroom had a noisy ventilator. Windowless, the enclosed space intensified the claustrophobia. There had been candles for the sacred rites after someone dried his hair too vigorously with a towel and smashed the light fitting in the ceiling. While the sturdy ventilator was booming, no one inside could hear a thing from the rest of the flat, no matter what was being said about him or her.

There was even less illumination after someone stayed in the bath so long that the hot candle wax that filled a glass ashtray on the upper of two glass shelves by the wall inside the bath caused a cracking, crashing, flaming cascade into the water and she screamed through her Psycho moment.

Two of her man’s brothers were now crashing there, in the main man’s absence, so she brought him into her room to continue the chat. She sat up on the bed, leaning on the pillows. She was in one of those moods again. He took the other end but her boyfriend was in real trouble.

“Right now I feel like crawling over there and nibbling your ear,” she offered.

It was a journey to the end of the bed. Was there something the world knew that he did not? At his age, twenty-five, he wondered sometimes about that.

“But you can’t, you know that.”

He felt a little unwell but he had to tell her now.

“Have you any idea at all how much I wanted you, from the beginning?”

In the beginning, when it had been just about the two of them, there might have been a double date with Adam and Eve.

“But darling, you never gave the slightest sign of that.”

“I thought you were… you know… you hadn’t.”

“I had.”

To him she’d seemed a childlike angel with a body to confuse all the tadpoles down below, with all the false alarms, but it hadn’t been as it seemed. It never was. There had been a blessed spell in the petting zoo that lasted a month, before travels on her part intervened for the first time.

When she came back the first time, she soon said the thrill was gone. She told him he was up in the air, like a man tied to balloons in an art shop print, on one of those Dublin afternoons where there was always a bus or a train to get, but he didn’t understand what she meant.

Now, in the room, she was quiet for a moment. Then she spoke up again. Though she would end up comfortable with one of her own kind, it seemed he wasn’t quite that much of a dreamer after all.

“But wouldn’t it be a mistake for us to make love now?”

He thought of three things at that instant: the knot of bitterness and the pair of righteous brothers outside the door. The bitterness could have been overcome but, like Wilhelm Reich, he at least understood the crippling effect of a lack of privacy on human relationships. He muttered an answer instead of breaking something. He mumbled that it would.

One of the righteous brothers even entered the bedroom to give her a quick little lecture while he was in the bathroom, having flashbacks. Thereafter their conversation died away, drained unnaturally after that talking cure. He left the room for good soon after she said she was tired. He retired once more to the living room.

In the course of falling asleep again on the extendable chair, it seemed to him the emotional coast might be clear. No noise came from the flat upstairs. Presumably they still blared Doris Day, occasionally. Our lips shouldn’t touch, I like it too much. He thought again of a night in February.

As he’d reclined in his sleeping bag on the dental chair, the only light came from a far streetlight through the window. All it really needed was the faint sound of jazz but beside him Donegal Dec was lying on the floor, reciting one of his poems. He was proud of the line “Vivaldi plays on hired contraption” and why not.

The room was hot because the tenants were in the habit of leaving the radiators on all night. This only added to the claustrophobia. The window was open almost a foot. Instead of Vivaldi, the music they had to listen to consisted of Doris Day records. They were having a party upstairs and shouting voices could be heard erupting intermittently, over Doris. If it meant he really had to listen, then he waited for Move Over Darling.

Waking up in July was like the relief after an operation. Then the patient leaves the hospital, thinks he’s healed, but the scars are tender for a long time and finally leave their mark. A girl friend of hers called to the flat and the three of them went down to the park, Wormwood Scrubs. The way Kim was dressed, in light pink shorts and matching tight top, with sandals with heels, helped explain the looks she got from the chaps sitting drinking outside the couple of bars on the road. Jaws were dropping away from the pints, at the tables, across the lively traffic. He saw them. He understood them. As for the feeling in the park, he felt like tearing up tufts of burnt grass instead of contributing to the conversation. By then the summer felt like a Mediterranean climate. Another feeling was one of wondering if the emotional coast really was clear. The prison stood in the distance. What prisoner, had he known, would have swapped places with him at that moment? The common or garden psycho would have had no problem with that.

The Low Life Highs of Jeffrey Bernard

The Low Life Highs of Jeffrey Bernard

I was walking along Cleveland Street the other day in a cold drizzle when I suddenly came across an amazing collage on the pavement which just about summed up the human condition to perfection. It comprised a pool of vomit, an empty beer can, some dog shit and a sprinkling of confetti.

– 3 January 1987

My favourite English writer finally got his name in lights in 1989 with the hit play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell that was largely based on his long-running column for the Spectator magazine. That column was also published in three collections – Low Life (1986), More Low Life (1989) and Reach for the Ground (1996) – though some notable omissions mean these are not the collected pieces.

In these books the style changes over time in one important respect. The earliest is perhaps the most uneven. Presumably written in more of a hurry, it still contains more high points of utter quotability than the other two. By the last book, his various ailments have slowed him down so much that he inevitably has more time on his hands, as incident gives way to reflection.

No matter the year, though, Bernard (1932-97) still gives the reader a reassuring feeling like the one he himself had about Turkish baths. You can walk about and have a chat and all sorts of oddballs loom up in the steam. The main subjects remain the same. Booze, women, horse-racing, hospitals, the peculiarities of the rich and famous, getting away from it all, and the Coach and Horses pub in Soho, with his comic foil the gruff Jewish landlord, Norman Balon. I overpaid him with a penny for his thoughts.

In more ways than one, as Bernard reminds the reader, drink gets you somewhere you wouldn’t otherwise be. I have even woken up in a drawer at the bottom of a wardrobe. That was fairly frightening. Trying to open a drawer from the inside. It’s quite tricky. 

His real boozing set in during the Sixties. There is a vignette of the comedian Tony Hancock (1924-68) falling in a heap on the floor of a London cab, after a ten-hour session with Bernard, but still reaching up and handing him his card. Phone me if you get into trouble. I think you may have a drinking problem. Nevertheless it is doubtful Bernard was ever in the eating-is-cheating camp, as is evident from this one-liner.

People who drink wine without food smell like drains.

Drink was always the other woman, he eventually grasped. What I know about women could be put inside the head of an ant. This of course was not true. With seriously dangerous women you can hear them thinking in the dark. He had reached the point of low to zero expectations – All I expect is that they wake me up when the waiter brings the bill – but it was there he could make a vintage brew from emotional and literal car crashes.

I remember once being given a severance kiss in favour of a property dealer who turned out to be impotent. There was also a woman… who… jumped into her car and drove straight into a wall, blinded no doubt by crocodile tears.

I just heard a terrific bang and smash followed by screams, and ran out into the street to find that someone had driven a car right into the Draper’s Arms. It was sitting there oozing smoke in the saloon bar. Luckily the occupants were… simply shocked. Whether they were shocked by the crash or shocked by the fact that it wasn’t quite opening time is debatable.

On life’s episodes of jumping into bed, un-followed, though he was married four times, Bernard focuses on the effects of pre-coital (or non-coital) tobacco consumption.

Sadly I’ve never had a footman to summon and have these people thrown out before they smoke all my cigarettes. I resign myself to the situation, take a Valium and then fall asleep and burn the bedspread… I now have a fire extinguisher by my bed but I never really know whether to aim it at my privates, the lady or the bedspread.

On hospital patients, his conviction did not quite match the old theatrical metaphor that the characters may change but the play remains the same. For him the characters alas did not vary either.

my three companions are dead ringers for any and all the other trios I’ve ever served time with in hospitals. It’s a bit like being in rep.

Sadly the patients never change. Are they provided by some sort of agency? Is anyone worth talking to ever hospitalised?

… it is the patients who get up my nose the most: readers of The Sun, football fans, moaners and men who would take an oath on Reader’s Digest. I sometimes wonder if it is only the ugly and mindless who get sick.

To be fair he does not care for medical students either, with one or two “who couldn’t diagnose a decapitation” but all exuding halitosis.

Norman is a kind but sometimes embarrassing hospital visitor, paying calls as he does to every bed in the ward and then announcing in a loud voice gloomy prognoses on the doomed inmates. ‘He hasn’t got long,’ is his usual verdict. He should wear a black cap on his hospital rounds.

In honour of his hero Admiral Nelson, Jeff recounts the highest point of his hospital career in the style of a naval battle in the days of sail but, in the excitement and fog of war, he also lobs in land-based allusions to Shakespeare, horse-racing and the English Civil War. The incident took place at dawn, while he was trying to sneak a cup of tea, outside the surveillance of a West Indian kitchen tyrant.

This mere sloop, as redundant as a dinghy at Trafalgar, was suddenly about to be engaged by the… Santissima Trinidad, the biggest warship afloat. Vainly I swung the wheel hard to port but her first shot knocked the cup out of my hand and sent boiling water everywhere… ‘Dis my kitchen. Get the f*ck out.’ Now she was wrestling the kettle away from my grasp and… the last thing I could afford was a Rastafarian boarding party. I backed away and dropped anchor by the fridge… There are… moments of inspiration that have changed the course of history and as my right hand suddenly felt the comforting lump of a half pound of butter I knew she was but a Rupert to my Cromwell. I had offered my kingdom for a horse and got Shergar. The butter hit her on the left shoulder with such force she spun round and dropped the kettle… I could hear her in the distance… ‘… Mister Bernard, he f*cking mad. Try to kill me. He cut my arm wid butter…’ It was a momentous victory.

Regarding those historical figures he did know personally, in little more than half a page elsewhere he touches lightly on Germaine Greer, Mick Jagger, George Best, Michael Parkinson and the writer of Chariots of Fire, one Colin Welland, whom he labels Smelly Welland. But the Stone is the most vivid.

I went on the piss with Mick Jagger and… he suddenly burst into tears. Solicitous as a spider to a fly, I enquired as to the cause of the dreadful stream of tears and mucus ruining my lapels. ‘I can’t take it,’ he howled… ‘The success. The money and all those birds.’ At the time, I happened to be short of both… and suggested a transfer of both cash and crumpet into my safekeeping. He soon stopped crying and left without paying. My turn to cry.

Laurie Lee, however, proved even more bizarre and miserly.

Last year I sat next to him and he shovelled four lamb cutlets into his jacket pocket without even bothering to wrap them up in a napkin. I said to him, ‘I didn’t know you had a dog.’ He said, ‘I haven’t. They’re for me. I shall heat them up again tonight for my supper.’ I should have thought that the royalties from such works as Cider With Rosie would bring in enough to pay for food instead of having to wash old chops covered with fluff and bits of tobacco from a jacket pocket.

As for getting away from it all, Samuel Johnson is enlisted to frame the context of it all.

that daft utterance about London and not getting tired of it (a man, like him, who has an opinion on everything can be a bore).

Sitting beneath the palms… I can hear the fizz of frying prawns, the dying hiss of a lobster and the rattle of a cocktail shaker and, with luck, the scream of a German tourist treading on a sea urchin.

The only foreigners he liked and had real sympathy for were the Irish. With the understandable exception of Terry Wogan.

I expect strange things from Americans but this nut introduced himself and then said, ‘You write for the Psychic News, don’t you?’ I told him I didn’t and held out very little hope for much entertainment after death which is why I was holding on to the bar with such tenacity.

For the reader, his best holiday is his most nightmarish, in Egypt, where he battles diarrhoea cramps in forty degrees, with no hat. But, like Indiana Jones, our hero escapes in the nick of time.

I found a lavatory with as much wonder as Carter experienced in 1922 on opening that tomb.

Jeff is nothing if not a philosopher, whose imagination is not of the fantasy variety but that of the man who can grasp connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena. Note how a glass of vodka in the sun causes him to reflect on playing the Good Samaritan.

the ice melts away as quickly as a man you’ve helped.

Nonetheless, where such a man may disappear to can still surprise him from time to time.

A couple of Sundays ago I was watching Songs of Praise, which was coming from Maidstone prison of all places, when to my amazement I spotted a man in the congregation of the chapel who owes me £50. He was standing there and had the gall to be singing Abide With Me.

Another example of his philosophical talent is shown after he has a bag nicked in the pub and he extrapolates on theft.

Most blessings are heavily disguised… I vaguely remember having left a chunk of cod fillet in the carrier bag with the sweater and by this time the thief will have come to acknowledge that it is better to give than to receive.

His powers of sociological observation are also considerable. Though, with the amount of geography thrown in, it is only fair to give credit to both his social and spatial awareness.

Today’s spiv is a smoothie more than anything. He is to be found in advertising, television, Fleet Street and, by the score, in the House of Commons… Most Soho spivs work at producing television commercials.

… journalists are simply shit-stirrers paid to drink on expenses. 

A lot of people in Islington have been hinting at potential talent for at least fifty years. Most of them end up as rip-off antique dealers

Name me a gossip who has been snatched away too soon. You can’t. (…) There’s a nasty grin that plays around their wet lips when nothing whatsoever funny or amusing is being said… they understand the human condition, which is something the village idiot can’t comprehend… The village idiot is the man who mentally jogs through life.

The key to Bernard’s black comedy is that it hinges on the sinister side of life, his philosophical consideration that something bad has either previously happened, could still happen or might just as easily have happened. The more surreal the better.

His life in the Coach and Horses included the day he was stared at and then chatted up by a beautiful black woman who turned out to be the tax inspector who was on his case. The pub also landed him famously in court for operating an illegal gambling book for his friends on the premises.

My lawyer made a really excellent speech to the magistrate but my friends in the gallery who came to lend me support, and in some cases write about it all, laughed too much and the beak didn’t like the levity.

By 1990, the phone revolution was underway and his biggest remaining problem in the Coach was gaining attention at the counter.

A man came into the pub the other day carrying one of those awful mobile telephones. I asked him if I could use it and he kindly obliged and asked me what number I wanted. I gave him the number of the pub. Norman was standing no more than six feet away and when he answered the call he barked, ‘Coach and Horses! Hallo!’ I said, ‘Is there any chance of being served a bloody drink in this ghastly pub?’ My language was a little stronger than that…

At that point Norman just called him a bastard and gave him a vodka. Bernard goes on to link this moment to a racing reminiscence.

… I remember once being served by an Irishman at a Derby lunch in the Dorchester when I spotted Sally, the Begum Aga Khan, a couple of tables away. I asked the man to deliver… a note without a word in her ear. I had written on it, ‘Although I am only a humble Irish waiter, I think I am in love with you.’

Though the play conveyed with pathos the happiness of lunchtime sessions in the Coach and Horses with many old friends by then dead, Bernard’s columns also captured the sadness of the pub life, as in the last days of the year, of any year, as Christmas goes on too long, like the patron who should just go home.

The crowd in the pub is a human left-over soup of a kind… A cheque is cashed, a round is bought and Chorus enters stage right declaiming, ‘You should have been in here last night.’

In his introduction to the first volume, John Osborne remarks on Bernard’s eye for physical detail. This is perhaps most evident in two passages from the late Eighties in which Bernard looks back on good times, out in the country, where, despite the failed attempts to settle down with various wives and despite the various spats with vicars and rural gentry, he was evidently happiest, at least when he was on his own.

(The first spell was ruined when he unwisely invited two rowdy house guests to join him in the sticks.)

There was a cold winter that I did enjoy though… [X] lent me a cottage in Suffolk and I got a job from the neighbouring farmer. For two months I worked at hedging and ditching and it was tremendously satisfying… After every twenty yards or so I made a little bonfire with what I had cut and sat down and had some tea from the thermos. The country was crystal clear. Cloudless pale-blue skies and the cold brought everything into the sharpest of focuses so that a frozen blade of grass was as a needle. Blackbirds and squirrels followed my progress along the edges of the frozen meadows, and then just as I was beginning to feel like St. Francis of Assisi the spell was broken. (…) No more log fires, bonfires and blackbirds eating the crusts of my sandwiches under the frozen blue silence of that sky. I could have killed them but they managed that themselves in their own good time. I miss them a lot.

– 5 November 1988

But the thing I thought mostly about during this sleepless night of remembrance was walking my dog… at dusk on autumn and winter evenings. She was a very pale Labrador – the pallor native to East Anglia … I had a very good gun… and when the sun began to dip below the trees of the wood we would walk along through the mist that gathered above and beside the river. She would go along ahead of me, stopping from time to look back and see if I was still following, and I would be looking out and listening for pheasants, wood pigeons and rabbits. I was poaching but… the farmer didn’t spend money on breeding game. It was just there, like the trees that had been there for hundreds of years. An all-too-rare treat we had was to see the barn owl gliding down along the river. He was so powerful that one that one languid flap of his great wings would carry him about a hundred yards. Freewheeling majesty. Then, when the sun had really sunk, we walked home through the wet grass, the smell of gunpowder lingering, cold and hungry towards the log fire.

– 21 January 1989

As for an epilogue, I choose the passage most apt for these Brexit times, which Jeff would have seen as the predictable evolution of the grossness of this age.

The English man-in-the-street… is largely envious, vindictive and punitive. (…) He knows little about himself, would not even understand the recent Budget but, by jingo, he knows what is best for other people. It is a mercy that there aren’t more referendums in this country. They would be hanging children.

 

 

The Irish Pound Note

The Irish Pound Note

November 1989

I was caught by the Tube inspectors at Victoria one Sunday evening on the way back from Croydon. Not for the first time, I gave a false point of embarkation. “Vauxhall,” I offered, adding that there had been no one there to give me a ticket. The senior inspector, the main man in black, then asked if the stairs went up or down at Vauxhall. I tried to be smart.

“There are no stairs at Vauxhall.”
“Wrong,” said the chief.

There were three of them in black. He told me to empty my pockets. Then he took whatever was there. It amounted to about four quid in coins. There were no notes and they duly escorted me from the station.

With more time to think I walked from there to Piccadilly. There was a pub – St. James Tavern – that I knew well on Shaftesbury Avenue and it was still a weekend night so I thought I’d surely find a familiar face. The bar was a ring in the middle of a timber floor and I circled it. I checked the gents’ toilet too but there was no one around.

It was still nowhere near closing time as I stood outside the pub again. I was in the middle of the bright lights in a very big city. No panic. My pockets were empty. No one I knew worked in central London so, even if I passed the night, walking around or something, I’d still be stuck there, unless I tried jumping the Tube stiles. Only central stations had those stiles back then.

My pockets were empty. I checked them again. In my old navy blue overcoat, the right inside pocket was torn. It would have been empty at any rate but the lining was intact. Then I put my hand down inside it, remembering. I’d left something there from my last trip home. Something that was of no use to me in London, that wasn’t worth extracting from the lining of an old coat. It was an Irish pound note.

Hmm. I straightened the green sheet and looked at the picture. Just maybe she was less Queen Maeve than Lady Luck. Despite a sign in the window of a nearby bureau de change that indicated the minimum transaction (£2.50), I went up to the Arab behind the glass.

“Can you change this for me?”

He looked at the crumpled note and pointed to the sign in the window. I nodded.

“I know but the Tube inspectors took my money and all I want is sixty pence, just so I can get through the barriers.”

I held up a thumb in the direction of Piccadilly Circus. He said nothing but gave me 60 p for the green Irish púnt, which was worth, on average, almost 87 p in 1989. This meant I could get a minimum fare ticket and get down into the Tube. I met with no further trouble on the long ride back to Dagenham. The Tube got quieter and emptier and there was no one at the other end. The note was withdrawn from circulation in June 1990.

Maureen

Maureen

1989

Living in London but in Dublin for a weekend for a quiz show…

13th November, Monday

There were plenty of f*ck-ups in the programme preparations but in the end of the day I pulled off a clean sweep of the show. The unexpected stoppage I caused by giving two answers to one question must have helped. With flights having been cancelled due to fog, J. wanted to keep going so we hit Bad Bob’s and Leeson Street again. In a wine bar maybe I fell in love with a blonde called Maureen. She’s from Leitrim and she teaches English to Spaniards. She’s cynical and witty but I got the better of her on Eurovision trivia. She gave up on Paris. Why?

“Parisians.”

20th November, Monday

I started as a chain boy on J’s site near Tower Hill. It’s all right. It’s better than labouring. I can cope with heights.

21st November, Tuesday

It was in a wine bar called Suesy Street, at the end of the night of the quiz, that J. and I ran into Maureen, who was sitting on her own at the counter. Her friend was in the process of getting off with a guy, nearby. Soon J. told her that there was something strange about her.

“Maybe it’s because I don’t simper.”

I was hooked. Description: fairly tall; slim but solid; hair clasped up none too carefully; a fine-looking woman without being stunning; an earthy laugh. In the short time I spent with her, maybe two hours, she impressed me more than any girl I’d met before.

“Come on boys, walk me home.”

She gave us a cup of tea. I asked if I could see her again, at Christmas.

22nd November, Wednesday

This could prove to be the best job I’ve been on. I can stand the cold, taking measurements. I don’t like using a sledgehammer but it helped me stay warm. Steel work seems more manly than being a donkey.

25th November, Saturday

Up on the steel girders of the seventh floor I sang Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne to myself to help me stay calm. As somebody wrote on a girder – erectors get you high. There is a rush of adrenaline all right. I went to Harlesden to collect a typewriter. It was too cold to get mugged.

26th November, Sunday

The sun these mornings is dazzling as you feel the cold steel under your arse.

29th November, Wednesday

The docklands: sandy brick in the morning sun and frost, yellowy-brown like a painting. It turned out I was glad to have gone to work. Breakfast sorted me out. Am I getting more used to the cold? The warm office is a sanctuary.

30th November, Thursday

I got paid. It feels calming to have money again. Some of the lads watched a man and woman bonking in an office across the street.

The psychology of steel: fear keeps you careful. I climbed up on the ninth floor this evening, partly to keep in practice and challenge myself to the test. To stay up too long brings on stiffness and that needs to be avoided. On the steel always keep two limbs firmly fixed. It’s pointless looking down. Your world must only be the few feet of space in your immediate vicinity. I tie my glasses around my head. I don’t need my concentration to be upset by the worry that they’ll fall off. After a spell up on the steel and the resultant buzz, the ground can feel unreal. I get flashes of the feelings of newness from when I first came to London. The strange red buses.

1st December, Friday

I was thinking a lot about Maureen. I was freezing. On a foggy evening Tower Bridge and its lights remind me of a Whistler painting.

3rd December, Sunday

“If you f*ck this one up I’ll never speak to you again,” J. said (re Maureen).

4th December, Monday

After work I called the number Maureen gave me and was told she’d been killed two weeks ago when she was knocked down in Killiney. A hit and run. The rest of the night I was waiting to wake up from this unbelievable dream.

5th December, Tuesday

Life is never dull, is it? I collected the rest of the script notes from R. Two silent Japanese girls were making breakfast in the kitchen in Harlesden. They served tea without a word. When I got home I put on Vesti la Giubba and then I cried. It was only the beginning. There is no future with Maureen, because she’s dead. The conversation on the phone with the girl who told me was like something out of a film.

“Could I speak to Maureen please?”
Silence.
“Am, who is this?’
“My name is John.”
“Am, are you a friend of hers?”
“Yes.”
Pause.
“Where are you calling from?”
“London.”
Silence.
“Am, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Maureen had an accident two weeks ago. She’s dead.”

There I have been, feeling death close at hand every day up on the steel and this unbelievable turn of events happens. I really don’t know how I feel. Kind of numb with the shock. Angel it doesn’t matter who took your life that night. You’re gone but your face will haunt me. It makes everything else look trivial doesn’t it?

I used to think these things don’t happen to me. After all, I was twice hit by cars and walked away both times. Now, it just seems that the way something unforeseen and bizarre often gets between me and women has taken a seriously unfunny turn.

I realize I’m missing the agony of her close friends and relatives. This circumstance is truly bizarre. A lot of the time I can only think in terms of black humour. You win some, you lose some. Passing strangers in the night. Life is never dull, is it? This kind of thing makes everything seem pointless, worthless. Maybe there’s a tarot card for it. An evil eye watching over those around me. Make a grave for the unknown lover. Just think of it, she was already dead when I wrote about her in earlier pages. You in truth were the unknown lover, the Other, maybe you were, to a man who doesn’t want a whole sex at his feet, who never wanted that, but if you can be taken away, just like that?

When I heard over the phone I instinctively felt I knew it would happen, like some dream, like I once wrote: lucky to have achieved creative fulfilment and a preparation for death at such an early age, I just missed out on a partner and economic viability. It’s as if my written moans over the years have now come into their own, that I was right all along, as if I understood all along. It’s just beyond belief, it’s mind-boggling that all I should have had of her were those few hours. That she had only a few days to live. It must have been a tearful, very emotional occasion, her funeral. I was told she was never conscious again so she didn’t feel any pain. Here I sit upstairs, writing, drinking, listening to music and crying from time to time. Maybe it’s things like this that make a man of a man. A queer twist of fate. My eyes are stinging from the tears.

6th December, Wednesday

I haven’t cried like that since I was a child.

14th December, Thursday

I got a doctor’s cert around the corner from the flat on North Pole Road. He told me I had the flu. Then he started talking about the IRA (“Why don’t they hang them?”).

Have I yet described the way Maureen used to throw her head back between her shoulders when she was laughing? Or how at first she was stiffening her lips trying not to laugh (her raised eyebrows – like ‘Are you speaking to moi?’). Weren’t the first impressions brilliant? By the end of the night I had her attention in the palm of my hand. J. can always vouch for that. He described it as a brilliant performance when we left her place, saying it had never been done to him before, being blown out of the water like that. She was the spark.

She was twenty-three.

London, November 1989…

London, November 1989…

In November 1989 I started as a chain boy, or engineer’s assistant, on Richard’s site near Tower Hill. A Nineties documentary on the 1980s building boom in the City of London would reveal that the tallest of the three blocks in Minster Court had become known to the suits as Dracula’s Castle. At the time of the broadcast, under the Major regime, twenty per cent of the office space was unoccupied and the block overlooking the Thames had already undergone restoration following a serious fire. On TV, the empty halls were like The Shining.

MinsterCourtNight

Photo source: www.tgb-uk.com

There on my first day, I saw the pools of water on the ground with cables lying in them like creepers in a swamp. I saw the generators and the clumps of rusting steel rods. I heard the rasping of angle grinders and the constant banging of the ‘guns’ tightening nuts on steel columns. I saw the sparks flying and landing in the water and looked up at the tower cranes, soon swaying ominously on windy days. It was all right. It was better than labouring. The requirements were a head for a heights and an ability to read technical drawings. I could do both, with practice.

A good policy for newcomers anywhere: keep your mouth shut until you find out what the story is. There one could learn a lot from the graffiti in the kazes. This was what someone wrote about the deckers from Derby.

£175 per week. Six days. All the shit. You must be f*cking joking.

All the shit” encompassed everything existential on the site. Then there was the scrawled inventory of the Irish concreting firm.

200 men, 10 shovels, 2 dumpers, 1 brain cell.

The morning papers said telephone numbers of Czechs and Slovaks were out on the streets. Even Dubcek had reappeared on the scene. The sun in the mornings was dazzling, bouncing off the river, as I held the measuring staff for the engineers with their theodolites, down below, and felt the cold steel under my arse. I could stand the cold. I didn’t like using a sledgehammer on stray columns but it helped me stay warm. Steel work seemed more manly than being a donkey. Up on the steel girders of a seventh floor, I sang Suzanne to myself to help me stay calm. This too was a place near the river. As somebody wrote in chalk on a stairwell, “Erectors get you high”, and there was a rush of adrenaline for sure.

The warm engineering hut was a sanctuary of instruction, first thing each morning. Two hours later all the men lined up in the cold and dark under the block nearest the river to wonder would those ahead in the breakfast queue ever get served and move the line on a bit. These figures had faces of stone and bodies wrapped in heavy clothing. Inside the huge prefab the light was a bit warmer and when their trays were full they found tables and sat down without a word. They ate with an animal concentration. The hunger-artistry of a student getting through a day on, say, a toasted cheese sandwich and a packet of crisps was less impressive if he or she didn’t have to get out of bed until three, in comparison.

When the scraping of cutlery on the plates began, so did the canteen conversations about confrontations, near falls, mistakes and final warnings. There were plenty of sources of amusement, like “Barnsley” getting the hem of a leg of his overalls caught on a hook at the end of a chain from a tower crane, which lifted him six feet into the air before, it was said, dropping him on his helmeted head.

When I got paid it felt calming to have money again. In the dark by a fifth-floor railing, builders in a lengthening line of helmets like troops in a trench watched a man and woman having their affair in a fifth-floor office across the street. The numbers at the railing were greatly up on the third evening, when a surprising number of employees were slow to clock off the site, but by then the novelty of the desk was evidently wearing off on the woman who resisted the ongoing amorous advances of her secret lover. Maybe she just wanted to get out of the office and bring it to another level.

A month was left of the Eighties. The psychology of steel: fear kept me careful. I climbed up on the ninth floor of what became The Castle, partly to practise and challenge myself to the test. To stay up too long brought on stiffness and that had to be avoided. After a spell up on the steel and the resulting buzz, the ground could feel unreal. I got flashes of the feelings of newness from when I first came to London, always conscious of trying to get used to everything. On foggy evenings, Tower Bridge and its lights reminded me of a Whistler Nocturne.

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My confidence on the steel was growing. Up there I always kept two limbs firmly fixed. It was pointless looking down. The world had to be only the few feet of space in the immediate vicinity. I tied my glasses around my head. I didn’t need my concentration to be upset by the worry that they’d fall off.

Soon, though, I felt like a victim of a flu epidemic. Everyone on that site developed lingering colds and that winter I naturally got run down from burning the candle at both ends. I knew I’d have to get a doctor’s cert on some dark, wet morning when I felt particularly bad. The doctor was a Philip Larkin look-alike. I think I have the flu. The man performed an examination in the quiet surgery. Then he started to write out the necessary dockets. I asked him a question.

Well, what have I got?
The doctor looked puzzled.
You’ve got the flu.”
He started to write again.
Ah, right.”

I almost added “Good” but, having completed the prescription, the doctor suddenly started talking about the IRA. He wanted to know one thing. Puzzlement again.

Why don’t they hang them?
Folding the sick cert in my hand, I shrugged.
Do you want more martyrs?

It was the Sunday before the last working week before Christmas. I tried to go back to work but then Ryder, the man in charge, caught me walking on top of eleventh floor steel without a harness, when I should at least have been scuttling along the bottom flange with my hands holding the top one. You’re not to do it any more, lad. Walking top flange. Christmas was near. I’d have a few quid in my pocket when I got home. I was glad to be working for an English firm. The hours were long but the money was decent. Ryder had proved sound without a shadow of a doubt. When one of the foremen claimed, He’s like a mad professor, Ryder said I was the mad professor, but if my money ever came late the top man would offer some himself. I hadn’t even a national insurance number so they paid me each week with a special cash packet sent down from Yorkshire. It was a bit different from having to go looking for wages in some pub in Kilburn or Archway and therein experience the full extent of Irish ethnic solidarity.

I still had a sinus headache on the right hand side of my face and head and it was killing me until the use of hot lemon brought some relief. I could only hope that lasted. Less than two weeks remained of the Eighties. Before the train departure for home, I was drinking with two young Scottish sailors in the bar in Euston Station. At first they claimed to be students in Portsmouth but, given the sociable chitchat, they looked at each other for a while before, over the second pint, warily admitting to being in the Navy. I looked at them both and turned aside as I bought them a drink. You’re all right, boys. You’re safe enough with me. I just want to get home.

I continued to drink on the train to Holyhead, taking an enthusiastic part in the singing that went on at the food and drink hatch in the buffet car. The Welsh lady on duty there cheered up immeasurably in the course of the journey and ended up giving out free sandwiches in return for the concert.

The number of people leaving the Irish state had mounted steadily from 1983 until the figure passed the one-hundred-thousand mark in 1989 but a minister in an Irish cabinet of west side Tories and papist Paisleys explained to the little people that we couldn’t all live on one small island.

On Christmas Eve, the shooting had stopped in Bucharest. On Christmas Day, the TV said the Ceaucescus had been executed. The grainy footage of the bodies was an exciting glimpse of history in the making. Given where the uprising had kicked off, Transylvania had just become world famous for another scary reason.

I went to work the first morning back in London in January and the site was all water. I stepped into a box called the man-rider and a tower crane lifted me, Jr and a couple of erectors over fourteen floors like a balloon trip until we were looking down on the skeletal frame of the angular roof of Dracula’s Castle, before it dropped us off to do a job on the roof frame. Sometimes, perhaps, I enjoyed working on that site. It was just the horrible first ten minutes of consciousness in the mornings that were the worst, before I managed to get out of bed and get dressed, having time only for a cup of tea at best, before getting to the Tube.

A pretentious fart worked part-time at Minster Court because his brother was the chief engineer. There was a problem with a column overlooking a street and he and Richard were about to take a sledgehammer to it. I stood back with some welders. The fart was first up. He missed the column completely and clipped the side of Richard’s hardhat.

In outrage, Richard grabbed the sledge off him and took a swing but managed to catch it in the hollow. It spun out of his hands and looped over the side of the building, fortunately landing just inside the hoarding. One of the welders gave me a nudge.

Are these two for real?
They’re available for weddings and parties.”

Always game for a laugh, every time they saw an opportunity, the welders would lift sheets of decking where rainwater had gathered on high floors and pour it over the side, down onto my compatriots – mostly angry men from Clare – laying concrete. It was only the eternal war between the bird men and the muck men. In the morning at about nine o’clock the sun in the south-east bounced off the river on the other side of Tower Bridge. As I walked from the site to the Tube in the dark, through the City of London, it was quiet, mild and still.

A really violent wind in early February caused Ryder to come into the hut around two o’clock that day, as planks and scaffolding poles and what not were raining down on sites all over London. You’re best off in pub, boys. More than forty people were killed by the wind.

The basement at Minster Court was an awful place. It was some hole. The mud men down there didn’t even know I was Irish, like them. To them I was just an intruder from the light. Most days I was doing something terrifying to most people, at first sight, but whenever I was down there, facing that black horizon, that firmament, with piss holes reeking in a deep, damp chill, it wasn’t physical courage I needed.

I got so tired that at times it made me very low. All my wages are gone, I noted, one Monday, blown on things like twenty-five quid per minicab home from the West End whenever I hadn’t the patience for a night bus, whenever it was too late for the Tube.

Just before starting at Minster Court, I was caught by the Tube inspectors at Victoria on a Sunday evening on the way back from a house in Croydon. Not for the first time, I gave a false point of embarkation. “Vauxhall,” I offered, adding that there had been no one there to give me a ticket. The senior inspector, the main man in black, then asked if the stairs went up or down at Vauxhall. I tried to be smart.

“There are no stairs at Vauxhall.”
“Wrong,” said the chief.

There were three of them in black. He told me to empty my pockets. Then he took whatever was there. It amounted to about four quid in coins. There were no notes and they duly escorted me from the station. No prosecution would ensue.

With more time to think I walked from there to Piccadilly. There was a pub I knew well on Shaftesbury Avenue and it was still a weekend night so I thought I’d surely find a familiar face. The bar in St. James’s Tavern was a ring in the middle of a timber floor and I circled it. I checked the gents’ toilet too but there was no one around.

It was still nowhere near closing time as I stood outside the pub again. I was in the middle of the bright lights in a very big city. No panic. My pockets were empty. No one I knew worked in central London so, even if I passed the night, walking around or something, I’d still be stuck there, unless I tried jumping the Tube stiles. Only London’s central stations had those stiles back then.

My pockets were empty. I checked them again. In my old navy blue overcoat, the right inside pocket was torn. It would have been empty at any rate but the lining was intact. Then I put my hand down inside it, remembering. I’d left something there from my last trip home. Something that was of no use to me in London, that wasn’t worth extracting from the lining of an old coat. It was an Irish pound note.

Hmm. I straightened the green sheet and looked at the picture. Just maybe she was less Queen Maeve than Lady Luck. Despite a sign in the window of a nearby bureau de change that indicated the minimum transaction (£2.50), I went up to the Arab behind the glass.

“Can you change this for me?”

He looked at the crumpled note and pointed to the sign in the window.

“I know but the Tube inspectors took my money and all I want is sixty pence, just so I can get through the barriers.”

I held a thumb in the direction of Piccadilly Circus. He said nothing but gave me 60p for the green Irish púnt, which was worth on average almost 87p in 1989. This meant I could get a minimum fare ticket and get down into the Tube. I met with no further trouble on my way back to Dagenham. The Tube got quieter and emptier and there was no one at the other end. The note was withdrawn from circulation in June 1990.

Now I was in London a year. On a bright afternoon in March I was hammering a dried concrete spill off a beam on a tenth floor and thinking, ‘What the f*ck am I doing here?’ In the sky, planes were descending for Heathrow in a continual stream. Two good nights of sleep had me feeling fine, physically. Inspired by the skyline, the mood lifted. It was only when tired that I felt at the end of my tether.

When next I got back to where I lived, after a night bus, at half past three, unhappiness returned and settled like a shroud. I was too dead to go to work in the morning. I sat barefoot on the couch, with the bars of an electric fire providing company. An endless television programme awaited the release of Mandela. The sound was down. The crowds waited in the heat. Everyone I knew seemed to have a lingering cold.

I knew I could learn enough to pass myself off as an engineer. I knew I could do it very quickly if I wanted, if I kept asking questions. But I didn’t want to. In the middle of the afternoon at work I’d usually be afflicted by an awful sleepiness. I’d be hoping that today Richard wouldn’t ask me, or tell me, rather, that we were going for a few drinks later. I knew I’d be wide awake when clocking out and the vicious circle would continue, even though it was an entertaining circle. By rights I should have slept for a week. That would have been sane.

A. wheeled a bike on site, to order, having stolen it from outside Fenchurch Street station, using tools from the site. Many bicycles were chained outside the station but a building site had all the relevant equipment. He simply requisitioned the clippers and pliers he needed. He was nineteen, living with his girlfriend, his “old woman” as he called her, in a Sarf London tower block. She was nineteen too, and pregnant. His dad’s word was gospel. His dad was doing well. They wanted foreigners out, especially dark ones.

I pay my taxes,” I said.
I know, you’re oroi’. I like the Irish.”
He asked about a name for the baby soon to arrive.
If it’s a boy, roi’, I wanna call ’im Chawlie, but if it’s a girl, she wants to call ’er Chanel. Is that oroi’?
I shrugged.
What do you think, yourself?
I mean, it sounds like a perfume. It is a perfume, innit?

Coco Chanel was a genius: the first woman to give women comfortable clothes and also the one who said that the people who laugh are always right. Spring tended to bring an ethereal sense of optimism. I remembered this as I gazed east, down on a City-scape resemblance to summer dusk. That afternoon, I was momentarily at peace. Otherwise I was tired, pissed off and wanted to go home.

A quick kip in a toilet cubicle at work lifted spirits again. I took a red marker from a pocket on waking up. After that interlude, other employees could be overheard speaking in admiration of a large cartoon on the white chipboard wall of the cubicle, based on an actual incident. It had Ryder throttling his counterpart among the deckers, with a caption underneath. Ryder’s New Work Incentive Scheme.

What an artist slept in me. Strong winds regularly disrupted work that spring. It meant I did f*ck all most of the time. By late March the job seemed to have lost its urgency. Men were just standing around in groups. Overlooking the entrance to the station, Casper told me he was having second thoughts about getting a divorce because his wife had got herself a shop. That was one good reason. Many of the Yorkshire men were ex-squaddies. Casper had twinkling eyes. He wondered why so many Paddies on building sites wore the jackets of old suits. The suit is the most democratic uniform. Even I had an old sports jacket.

The fourth successive night of poll-tax rioting saw looting in Hackney. Money was the only true revolutionary motive. Brixton rioted the next night. The government and press blamed the commies but their sects couldn’t have made up the numbers. I pulled a fast one at work by clocking in and then going back home to bed. I went back to Minster Court in the afternoon. Colour pictures of sizeable naked women now adorned the walls of the engineers’ hut. “From a cun’ book,” as A. said. Their breasts were like dead limbs.

I even slept a night on site, having walked from Piccadilly to Tower Hill when I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to do at the end of a West End evening. It was nonetheless quite comfortable, lying for the night on a bench in the changing hut, with the blow heater going round the clock. Then, at half past seven in the morning, I took my site gear off its peg and put it on, with my boots, and went into the office. There we were told what to do before the eternity before breakfast.

Steve was a Cockney kid who’d done time for a cinema hold-up – he’d used his own car for the getaway – and then got a job there because one of the foremen was intimate with his mother. One day he turned to me.

My surname is Irish, innit?
I asked him if he wanted to see its Irish language version.
You speak the lingo, then?
I wrote the boy’s Gaelic name in a flourish on a column, with a piece of chalk. He seemed chuffed by this calligraphy.
Write somfing else.”
Biting the hand that fed me, I complied. Beir bua Óglaigh na hÉireann. He was mystified.
What the fark’s that mean, then?
Victory to the IRA.”

I walked away, leaving him furiously rubbing the chalk off the column with his sleeve. My mind settled down in the aftermath of deciding to go home. On a particularly quiet day I clocked in but stayed in a toilet cubicle until breakfast. I then skived around the office, sellotaping torn building plans back together and reading the papers. I went down to the sandwich bar at the Tower half an hour early in the middle of the day. A young black cat among the pigeons and tourists there was so brilliantly and alertly absorbed by the birds. I stood around, eating a hot dog. Later A. showed me fresh, unwrapped, uninstalled kaze cabins to kip in on the eleventh floor on Building 1.

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Before the end, though, a gust of wind nearly blew me off an eleventh floor beam into a lift shaft. I went over nearly forty-five degrees before the gust ceased and I straightened up again. Just like that. In a state of low-level shock for the afternoon, I found nobody made me go up on the steel again for the rest of the day. It was an unwritten rule of the site. The next day the nerves were fine again but Ryder called me in. I was down the road on Friday. He knew I was going home anyway and explained that they had to get rid of some people as the steel part of the site was winding down.

You’re a good lad. We’ll give you a few quid and a good reference and you’ll always be able to get a job with us again.”

At six on the last day of March I went into the St. James Tavern on Shaftesbury Avenue to meet a couple of college mates living in Dollis Hill. There we also met Richard, who was back with an ex (Eileen) for the hell of it. He plotted and schemed his social life like Richard III playing a part in Cheers. She’d turned up at Minster Court, as a secretary, but that was London. The two of them were talking about the big poll-tax march down by Trafalgar Square. They had only left it to get some food when they decided to have a few drinks in the usual spot first.

Richard was then told by somebody in the toilets that a riot had kicked off, after the march. Next thing the Old Bill came in and told the staff to close the bar because trouble was on its way and the Glass Blower pub had already been done over nearby. Down below, Piccadilly Circus was jammed. Police in riot gear were marching like river currents and the atmosphere was tense and noisy. We stood on a pile of rubble from some road works outside the pub, watching and waiting to see what would happen.

Richard and the girl went down closer and we got split from them when the cops charged a short distance up Shaftesbury Avenue. Half way up the street, into Soho, I turned back as far as St. James’s again. Richard crossed the Avenue and stood in front of the line of police, taking photographs. One copper then told him to move, as something else was about to happen at any moment.

I was by then on the dovetailing side street on the other side of the pub and saw a rock the size of my fist tracing an arc over onto the police line. It had been taken from the heap of rubble where we’d been standing moments earlier. The Bill charged again, the watchers ran up the other side street, but Richard stayed back, down on one knee, taking more pictures. The police cordoned off the side streets one by one and pursued rioters up Shaftesbury Avenue, where windows were being driven in and shops looted. I only hoped his photos came out good. In the event, they were stolen at the shop where he took them to be developed. Then they were sold on to a tabloid.