I wrote this quite a few years ago now, and wanted to share it as part of this daily blogging exercise. It’s dedicated to Elizabeth and Glyn, who inspired it.
I don’t know if I can trust him, even after forty years. It seems like one memory after another tumble and crumble and leave every little thing reminding me:
We’re listening to “Hey, Baby” by Bruce Channel. His favourite. It was a big hit that year, ’62. The first man in space from the great country over the pond, John Glen. The first Telstar broadcast. The Cuban missile crisis. Lawrence of Arabia.
And the first time I met him. His name was Barry then, a tall and baby-faced, blue-eyed blonde with clumsy hands and a sweet smile. A trainee engineer from Salford with a baby sister and a brother in textiles. He wanted to have hit records and be a pop star.
No matter these were ten-a-penny in 1962. Every group of streets had its Adam Faith or its Billy Fury or its Dickie Pride. Cute kids with reasonable voices and snappy suits, production-line, indistinguishable.
We went ice-skating, a group of us from work. That’s how it started. Us typists and clerks and filing staff, fifteen, sixteen years old, in our first jobs fresh from school. A bus to Manchester, a 7-Up, a look in the shop windows at all the things we couldn’t afford to buy.
Here’s Victoria Station. Only now its 1996, after the bomb fell slap bang on City Centre. I’m wearing a necklace I’ve had since I was a child, mock gold and stones. The music fumes out from HMV, “I can’t get no satisfaction“, the old stuff trendy again and its even older performers looking, if not the part, close to some decayed dream.
My sister, Margaret:
“Are you really going out looking like that?”
My new coat, pedal-pushers, long white socks, shiny shoes. A handbag which clasps shut with a satisfying click. I have sellotape on my hair ends while I’m in the house to get that ‘straight hair round the face’ look. I’ve got kinky red hair, no chance of a beehive like Dusty. My friend Bren has hair just like that, blonde, piled up, scratches her head with a knitting needle. Lacquer bugs on her collar.
Margaret was married, with a child, but still went to the Savoy Ballroom of a Saturday to jive and drink iced tea. Girls can’t drink beer in respectable dance halls. Can’t even get a pass out like the boys. Anyway, she’d met Paddy in the Savoy, an Irish bus driver who told tall tales and had a romantic heart. She didn’t marry him. Instead she got Tim, thin and wiry and not at all like Elvis, except to me.
Barry liked Elvis. Cynthia told me this after she’d asked him at the jukebox.
“D’ya like Elvis then?”
I liked Elvis too. “Don’t be cruel,” and “Heartbreak hotel“. A true artist. When I’d been at school we had to get foreign news items for a project from the papers. I brought ‘Elvis joins the army.’ I couldn’t see why they were laughing.
Speed-skating, that’s all the boys were good for, at the ice-rink. Cynthia and Jenny and I used to watch, sometimes wandering close enough to feel the air as they sped by.
I’d wandered too far and Barry and I were in a heap on the floor. My leg was bleeding from where he’d crashed into me, ripping my shin with his skate. I swayed a bit and felt faint but thought of the attention he’d give me now. Clumsy kid, carried me off the ice, nearly fell again twice, bought me a hamburger and a coffee, too many sugars, tomato sauce all over the place.
Margaret’s daughter soaks everything in ketchup. Its nauseating, and makes me remember. That and the small white patch on my leg where the hole used to be. Katie sees me watching her, glowers in that childish way.
Maybe we were dating after that? “My guy” by Mary Wells. Seventeen and from Salford. He’d got a band by now, name lifted from West Side Story. Called me Maria, for Mary. Or Bloodnut, for my red hair. I don’t remember calling him anything. He was cute, though, funny, complicated, talented. The band was a fun one, Elvis pastiche, strumming guitar, with the stance and everything.
Dad quizzed me down at the allotment, in his cap, thick pants, two jackets, cigarette, He always carried his false teeth in his pocket along with the usual string, nails and matches. Talked about honourable intentions. Not like all those love songs. “In dreams.” “I think of you.” “All I have to do is dream.”
We went to see ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ at the Royale and every girl saw Atticus Finch as the perfect dad, the perfect husband. Home and hearth, none of the other stuff crossed our minds. I doubt we even knew about babies, not really. The moon bloomed velvet as we walked back home. Cynthia’s shoes were too tight, completely impractical. Saw Tim and his best mate Frank coming out of the Swan. Frank always reminded me of Bilko, grin and glasses.
I heard one of Barry’s songs on the radio the other day. The one he wrote after we split, the first of a batch of lost love songs which didn’t sell too well, in that plaintive voice he still has, out on the nostalgia circuit. I decide between turning up the radio or clicking off. The silence is sweet.
Life at the office didn’t vary much. I filed and tidied for a company who produced bathroom suites. Quite high-class stuff, bidets and all. We didn’t have a bathroom at home, only a tin bath and an outside loo in the shared courtyard. I learnt to type at the college across the town. Proud of myself, shorthand and all.
It was raining and the clouds bowed grey and full with their cargo of tears. And it was July, and Barry kissed me for the first time. Picked up on his heartbeat, his breathing.
“We are in love, and we’ll keep it that way.”
It’s 1992. Ambition is a cruel thing. We’re probably both better off than if we’d stayed together. Margaret and Tim have split. Katie and her husband have split, my daughter and her husband have split and she tells me she thinks Barry is good-looking. What goes around, comes around. All sorts of memories.
“I want to grow old with you.”
One cliché after another, the same old stories. I was getting bored with the hesistating, the writing, the crying at night for what – a foolish thing called love?
I liked Roy Rogers, and Bonanza, and Hopalong Cassidy. I rated Marlon Brando above anyone, but didn’t understand all that honourable men stuff in ‘Julius Caesar’. What was it all about? Doesn’t reach me now. Not even Romeo and Juliet.
My own blonde Romeo, with the sweet smile he still has after all these years. Saw him play live a few years ago, caught his eye. Remember me? Maybe. After all this time? Maybe not.
“There’s something I’ve gotta tell you.”
“You’re not the only one.”
Silly girl, at the bus stop in Stephenson Square at 10pm. I’m shivering, I’m feeling alone. I have to wait for the 18B and the other girls are off to Bolton. Jenny and John are going steady, they’ll marry in a year or so. Cynthia is a regular Scarlett O’Hara, with a bevy of beaux. “Little town flirt.”
“You’re my world, you are my night and day.”
I change jobs; I go to dance halls. Barry plays there with a new band and a new name. They’re quite good. They have a number one hit in the States. We share an orange juice and a few kisses outside, go for a walk over the bridge, to Central Station.
In 1969 I married someone else. I hadn’t heard of Barry for a couple of years. He’d had the odd hit record, he’d gone solo, he’d got married, he’d gone to the States. Then I’d forgotten him.
Devlin is my regular beau after thirty years. I’m his second wife, he’s a quiet square who keeps me happy. I’m a good wife, the odd memory bringing a smile to these old eyes of mine.
The ice rink has gone, an Argos superstore stands there now. The dance hall has changed its name – its second was after Shakespeare – but the building is the same.
I don’t dance anymore, don’t go bowling, don’t skate. It’s a different world.
Barry’s back in England. He’s had more problems than all our family put together. I wonder what would have happened if we’d married. Would it have been enough? Was I wrong to think I was holding him back?
“So won’t you stay, just a little bit longer?”
I click off the radio. They do the 60s to death these days, all those compilations, student discos, theme nights, adverts. He’s even done a couple of advert themes, old songs, re-jigged. I recognise the voice. A bit late to be trendy.
In 1999 they’re filling in Piccadilly Gardens. And the trams glide along rickety rails as you walk across to St Ann’s Square. Time goes on. I feed the pigeons right under a sign saying ‘Don’t feed the pigeons.’
“Always something there to remind me.”
“Words of love you whisper soft and true.”
“You know sloopy girl, I’m in love with you.”
I don’t know if I can trust him, even after forty years. It seems like one memory after another is tumbling, chasing, chafing the time away.
“For who knows where the time goes?”
I couldn’t trust him after forty minutes. I never could. But I buy a ticket anyway. It’s a laugh, its only a laugh, after all. And whatever has happened then and now, I used to love him, and he used to be mine.
(c) Louise Penn