As a kid I wanted to be just like the Morton-Lea’s up the road. Sarah, Dave and little Tina. They were always on TV. In adverts. And always doing a facial gesture I found danger in copying. Those big smiles. Such perfect teeth as no doubt they all still have today. Perfect TV teeth that should have won them a lifetime contract to promote toothpaste. But I suppose they always collectively got television work anyway as they went on to advertise going to a zoo and smiling, sat on an Inter-City train pointing out the window and smiling, walking about at the Tower of London and smiling, eating KFC and smiling, on some ride at Thorpe Park and smiling, fashioning clothes at Marks and Spencer and smiling, on board some canal boat and pointing at the sky and smiling, the never-ending story of a smiling childhood. How I secretly wanted to wipe them smiles clean off. What a life they had. All things that I never experienced let alone went on TV to show off about. Because all the while the Morton-Lea’s had it all I was stuck indoors, failing on all levels. For example, I often forgot about things, basic instructions, the instant I either read or was told about them; I couldn’t even make a good Pot Noodle. But I make no apologies. No point. It’s the way I was back then. A kid with nothing but an idle wind blowing between the ears.
For someone who once couldn’t remember where a full stop should be placed in a sentence, it’s surprising I can remember right now that I always forgot how to work the video recorder. It was once always my job to record Match of the Day for Long John so he could watch it when he got in from the pub. There was a golden age when Mum and Long John never once missed the pub on a Saturday night. It was their religion. Before they departed each Saturday, Long John would show me how to hold the chunky play and record levers down at the same time. But after they had gone out, whenever I tried to record, I could never get them both locked into place and with only one lever in position the damned thing only played what was already on the tape. No matter how often I tried I simply could never master the knack of holding down the record lever at the same time as play. It just wouldn’t happen for me.
So every week, every Saturday creeping into Sunday, Long John would arrive home first – Mum always stayed across the road with Val and Jim to allow Long John the space and comfort to watch the recorded football – always very drunk, me upstairs in bed shitting it. The video cassette would then be heard playing. But not Match of the Day; for weeks it was the same old Clint Eastwood film that Long John had tried to record all the way through on ITV – he was wanting to cut out the adverts – but he was pissed and had dozed off during one portion of break and ended up with only half a film.
“What the fuck’s happened to Match of the Day you absolute cunt of a cunt!” he would yell against the backdrop of a spaghetti western soundtrack, me then called more names under the sun as the tape was fast-forwarded and rewound until it was established beyond all doubt that I had failed him again, YET AGAIN. As I was such a failure why not instead give up on expecting me to master the impossible? But no. Week after week it was the same routine. Up the stairs he thumped. No matter how many times he beat me, it didn’t change a thing. I would never learn how to work that fucking video machine. Eventually – after a violent month of Saturdays – the lanky coward drunken bully gave up the chase. He started to stop over the road late for extra drinks instead; lucky Mum, Val and Jim, I remember thinking. I guess he never told Mum that for a short period of time he had been returning early back to the house all in vain. That I failed every single time to record him Match of the Day. No, he never mentioned anything to Mum. That sort of information might favour the ride down a dark hidden track. Unlock the truth about the times he used to enjoy secretly beating me. And there were so many many times. But those evil punches in the balls, ribs, stomach and back of the head at least made me realise that I was alive. There was no escaping that reality. The biting awareness of being bang smack in a moment.
I also certainly felt alive at Mum’s funeral. Which was all a surprise really. I’d felt sick all morning and hadn’t slept soundly since that dreadful moment when it happened. Me coming home from work, just after 7am, putting on the kettle and bringing her a nice cup of tea. She looked like she was made of white marble, her mouth wide-open; I will never ever lose that vision. That’s all I want to say about me finding her.
Mandy at least did the decent thing. She called the ambulance, tried her best to console me. It was during those moments, the after-shock, that I realised I actually cared more for my Mum than I did for Mandy. It was like I wanted to lay the blame of Mum’s heart attack on her; it was a heart attack, timed at about 3.15am – while I was at lunch in the thick of night, slurping on soup, cursing my life. What little I knew back then about what true loss would be. Yes, I blamed Mandy for the stress she caused Mum. But in truth, we all know exactly who broke Mum’s heart. Long John turned up at the funeral. Many said he wouldn’t. But they were wrong. He turned up looking all grave and mock-sincere and never said a word to anyone outside the church. He stood apart, by the car park entrance and replicated the gesture once inside the church; he stayed right at the back. Never even bothered with the wake. The minute the service was over he’d fucked off out. I was hoping to have some words with him. Hear what he had to say about everything. I was stood outside the social club, searching for his arrival.
“Where in hell is he? Where in hell are you?”
But what was I really expecting. That he’d turn up and verbalise his remorse over a few beers. He couldn’t even do that. Have a few beers and at the very least allow the beers to dress up his words, words that I wanted to hear from him. He never loved her. He held her in contempt. At all times. I know this.
Long John used to have this nickname for Mum. Peaches. He said he called her Peaches for two reasons. One, her name began with P (Pauline) and two, ‘Peaches’ was his all time favourite Stranglers record. There was a faint wind of truth; he was once well known in the house to enjoy one or perhaps two singles released by The Stranglers. So calling Mum ‘Peaches’ all seemed quite plausible. Except that that there was more to this than me or Mum knew about.
I found out by cruel accident. At my much older stepbrother Ian’s wedding. It had been a long day. A painful drawn out ceremony. Speeches that made slaves of us all that grim afternoon. Everyone had drunk heavily to accommodate the occasion. These were pre-Mandy times, and I engineered the day by sitting among others, while having no end of internal conversations with myself. I could never see myself ever getting married – at the time I truly believed my destiny was to be a loner – and not getting married seemed fine by me. And then, in the evening and well into the disco, I was up at the bar and waiting to order a lemonade and lime and I overheard Long John recount a story as he held court at the bar to some of the mates of his now married eldest son Ian Silver, how he was so happy over the years with his Treasure Island moniker, that to add a golden touch to his Treasure Islandness, my Mum was his Pieces of Eight.
Pieces of Eight’s apparently Cockney slang for weight, as in she needs to watch her pieces of eight; yes, there was no debating that Mum did have weight issues. But he had to take it all one step further. So typical of Long John. He said the reason he called her Pieces was that his own Pieces of Eight rhyming slang translated as a right fucking state. He was happy to proclaim how his latest wife, having let herself go in recent times, was a right Pieces of Eight. Various nondescript friends of Ian Silver thought it was funny, how Long John was evil but hilarious. Many from that group seemed to then delight in repeating to both my step-brothers as they approached the bar the obscene comedy of Long John; Long John had now gone for a piss. No one had had the decency to notice my small frame standing there further down the bar. I was raging. My hands quite literally shaking. I was also gasping to breath. I had to abort the lemonade and lime and get outside.
When I had calmed down, I at least appreaciated how I now knew the truth. That Long John actually called Mum ‘Pieces’ and not ‘Peaches’. I remember when Mum questioned him that first time it slipped out of his mouth by accident and how he delivered The Stranglers ‘Peaches’ version. Always the one, when cornered, to rise quickly on his feet even after he’d done in his knee from football all those years before. Yes he always rose freely. Not like me. Why should I suffer, feel in adequate because of how he made me feel? He had shaped me. No one but Long John. If all isn’t yet clear, he has driven me mad. He caused me to deteriorate after Mum died. He made me lose Mandy. Even worse, was this. For in the stinking madness that prevailed, Mum confessed often to like being called Peaches. How she melted in the shadow of Long John’s hot bad breath. When Long John jumped ship and set sail permanently to
“Who is going to call me Peaches now?”
I hadn’t the heart to tell her the truth.
I even called Mum by that name as we buried her.
“I will always love you Peaches,” I said as stony soil was tossed in a brutal fashion onto her coffin.
The world’s mad but me saying that back then by her graveside clearly demonstrates how the early signs of my madness were already starting to take a firm hold.
An extract from the novel Barking Frog by Joe England