Simon Smith's Autobiography
1973 – Roundshaw
Something hit the ground. One of my toy soldiers was sprawled, gun in hand, across the lino. The friend I was saying goodbye to looked at me and smiled. At first I was confused about where it had come from but then, still grinning, “my friend” looked at me and let the whole platoon fall from inside his coat.
* * *
My politically aware Action Man radioed ahead. “We have one man, sorry person, down…..” “Who is it?” I radioed back. “I'm sorry sir, I know this is a bit of a cliché, but it's Truth”.
* * *
It was “us and them”, and “you and me” this dislocated sense of community underpinned the neighbourhood. There was a predominant sense that people outside the estate saw us as a “a bad lot”. We were the enemy, we were their enemy and my enemy's enemy were all around me, we were linked by our sense of being an under class.
Where we lived was rough, we all lived by the sword, we were tough and they were soft and they were scared of us. They were the haves and we were the have-nots. Within our own strata there were feelings of resentments towards anyone who seemed better off. My friend saw me as “a have” and therefore I was game for being stolen from.
* * *
“All I need is the air that I breath and to love you”
I used to think that at the root of most “evil” acts you'd find betrayal. Even in the bible the Lucifer falls from grace via an oscillation of betrayal. An oscillation of betrayal is where one act of betrayal is met with another, normally a slightly greater one, which in turn is met with another until eventually a large betrayal takes place. In relationships if you follow the path of a break up backwards you'll find it starts with mini betrayals or at least perceived betrayals.
To feel betrayed normally requires an expectation. Whether an expectation is a just or unfair one is a matter of debate but all the same expectations stand nose to nose against betrayal.
Some people might say that at the heart of our suffering, is not betrayal, but expectation. But I wonder if it's an inability to grasp the truth. We suffer because we are unable to truly understand what has happened to us and more importantly why.
This probably isn't much help really I mean if we can't get to the truth of hardly anything we might as well make the most feeling betrayed and battering ourselves for having expectations, that's far easier and much more satisfying in the short term.
* * *
I came in tonight, I was home later than I said I'd be. When I got in Kathy had kindly kept some food back for me. I said that I was sorry that I was late and as I passed her I gave her a hug, she told me to eat my food as it was getting cold. I continued to maul her a bit and she repeated that I ought to eat up.
As I sat down to eat she told me how annoyed she was that I didn't stop hugging her when she'd asked. The proceedings then took a turn for the worse because I felt she was making a meal of the incident. She then told me I wasn't listening to her, I felt she was being controlling and within seconds the whole evening was ruined.
* * *
A year ago I sat in my kitchen while Sean, a neighbour and friend who'd already done some building work for me, went over the plans and schedule of works an architect had drawn up to develop my property. He told me that it would cost from £55,000 to £75,000 depending on what was included. He said that because I was a friend he would only charge me a fee for acting as a coordinator, he'd fit the electrics within this fee and outside of that I'd have to pay for the workers wages and materials. I agreed and just after Christmas the men started working on my place. I started the project with £38,000 in the bank and realised that I would have to borrow an amount to cover the remainder.
Sean told me that the job would take 16 weeks. By the 12 th week I'd spent £45,000 on wages, materials and his fee and we were nowhere near finishing the job.
When I talked to Sean about it he said “Well you obviously can't afford to finish the job can you? I've got some friends who might buy it from you”.
I went back to my mortgage company who lent me a further £25,000 and told Sean that I could afford to finish it after all. A few weeks passed, I spent a further £10,000 and very little seemed to get done.
So we sat down in a café and went through what jobs remained and what I'd have to budget for but within a week a job he'd told me would cost £2,500 came in at £5,500. At this point I made it absolutely clear that I needed accurate quotes for the remaining works. He told me to write out a list of what I thought remained, he'd write one too and we'd agree what jobs needed to be done and that he'd definitely be held to those prices.
I typed up the job list and left it on site for him. A few days later one of the large burly workmen came up to me and said, “You're a cunt for writing that list”.
I said “why?”
“Well who are you to say what needs doing and how long it'll take”
“I'm just doing what Sean asked me to do.”
Another week went by and hardly anything got done I woke up feeling angry about being taken for a ride and on the way to the house I discussed what I should do with Kathy, she took on my feelings and fed back to me how angry it made her feel. By the time I approached my house I was extremely wound up. If I'd had a gun I'd have walked in and shot each of the builders, firstly in the knee caps, then in the elbows and then in the stomach. Fortunately I only had a Swiss Army knife, so the worst I was likely to do was peel off a lid from a bottle of beer and drink it in front of them
When I got there I went to find the list of jobs I'd written previously only to find it had shit smeared all over it, someone had wiped their arse on it. I asked the big burly builder if he'd done it and he said “No it was Ron”. Ron was a carpenter who was particularly slow.
I went quiet, had a piss, and just as I came out of the loo Sean arrived. I said I needed to talk to him in private so we went outside.
“Sean, I'm really pissed off,”
“Why, what's the matter mate?”
“Well there's a few things. Firstly I don't like being treated with disrespect by the guys, one thinks it's ok to call me a cunt, the other has wiped his arse on my documents, on top of all this they're taking the piss by working slowly. You said this would be almost finished two weeks ago, but there's hardly any change.”
“Do you want me to pull them off the job?”
“I want what's best for me. I want a job done for an agreed price. If they don't agree to work for a fixed price send them home.”
“Ok I'll talk to them.”
I went off for a while and decided I didn't want Ron in my house anymore, he'd shown his true colours and he was a liability to my security. What he thought of me was of no interest to me but his actions were. So I came back to Sean and told him I wanted Ron off the site.
“How about I run him in to the ground for a week, make him do loads of the shit work and get someone else in to do the good stuff?”
“Ok do that”
The next day I turned up and the builders were packing everything away.
Sean greeted me with “They're not willing to work for a set fee” and a ‘told you so' look on his face.
“Well they can get lost then can't they?” I replied with a “Do I look bothered” face.
The house emptied and work came to a stop. A bit later on a couple of the builders came up to me and said they were willing to work for a set fee per job but they hadn't wanted to look like they weren't supporting the others. S o for a few weeks the work went on.
I started to bring in people independently and paid those who'd agreed prices with me directly, suddenly I had people coming in on Saturdays whereas before hand they were leaving work early on a Friday – “POETS day” they called it, “Piss off early tomorrow's Saturday”.
One of the guys I brought in independently was Trevor, although Sean had introduced us to each other because we were both song-writers Sean hadn't wanted him to work on the job. But Trevor had given me a quote for decorating far lower than Sean's workers had asked for. In turn Trevor introduced me to a tiler and he too offered to do the tiling for a third of Sean's price. Sean told Trevor that he shouldn't be poking his nose in to business that didn't concern him and that he should approach him with quotes which he would decide on as he was the foreman.
Trevor is a black man and it wasn't long before racist graffiti appeared on my walls.
Every quote Sean gave me came in at double the amount and took two to three times longer than expected yet all the jobs I had set up came in on budget and sooner than estimated. One Friday, as I paid the workers Sean told me he was no longer on the job, that I had insulted him by slyly taking over. This had insulted him in front of the others. So I pointed out that I'd now spent £90,000 and a further £30,000 worth of work was still outstanding. He said his initial costing was just a guide price. I then told him that given he was unable to keep to any agreed price or time limits that I felt it was time for me to take responsibility.
To him though, none of this mattered, his main concern was that I had insulted him. This became his main focal point in terms of resenting me. From then on, whenever I'd drive past him, he'd mutter and look away from me in disgust. He walked off but things didn't end there. He kept on asking for bills to be paid for materials, some of which were not even for my job. I always tried to be fair and pay what I owed, but he didn't do the same for me.
I subsequently found out that he had a history of getting people in to far more debt than they'd anticipated and then getting them to sell their property at a low price because it was unsellable and they were desperately in debt.
It didn't make sense. What had I done to deserve such bad treatment? Perhaps firstly there was a perception that I would be making a good profit out of this venture and the secondly the friendship between us was worth very little in comparison to his allegiance to his workers. – There is, after all, honour amongst thieves -.
From the point when Sean and I parted company I felt a strong sense of relief. I knew that I had to take over and find a way forward but the responsibility was mine. Over the next three months I had to hire and fire workmen and organise everything.
If ever there was a good way to learn management skills this was it. One of the big lessons was that nearly all people you deal with will overcharge and under perform unless you make it hard for them to do so. There are good people around but learning who you can be safely dependent on is a drawn out task and finding them is like finding good friends. It takes time and an ability to limit what you'll accept. You get what you settle for.
The end result of this was that my we made a lot less money than we thought which has resulted in a larger mortgage which means having to work more and for longer. Also the area I'd grown to love over a twenty year stay became an area I no longer wanted to be in because not only was Sean a neighbour but also the residue of this whole misadventure was all around me. But we did make a profit and perhaps it was time to move off anyway. On top of that I'd learned skills that might see me well in the future.
* * *
Trevor walked past Sean the other day and said “Hello Sean”.
“Don't fucking talk to me”
“Why? What have I done to you?”
“What haven't you done to me?”
* * *
I'm riding my bike through Roundshaw. There's three kids playing football. As I pass by one of them starts calling me names. Apparently he's a boxer and has a reputation for fighting well. I continue on my way but start to feel overwhelmed by a feeling of fury. I double back, park my bike at the bottom of the stairs that lead back up to the deck where they're playing. I walk up the dark steps which smell of piss and radiate coldness. As I stand at the top of the stairs, I try to work out how to do what I have to do but I needn't have worried. The ball bounces to where I'm standing. The kid walks over to it and passes me. I step out, he turns around looking shocked, I kick him in the stomach, he falls backwards, hits the wall, drops down, curls up in a ball, tries to cry, but he can't breathe.
“That's what you get for calling me names”
I walk off and from then on he always showed me respect.
* * *
The pleasure that comes with teaching someone a lesson can easily blind one to the important fact that the world is full of people who are not going to show respect and many of them can't be beaten in to submission.
But even in my own home – even if it was a building site - I have seen what results in an enemy being let in to do what ever they want. It ends in the destruction of my well being. Sometimes it's a fight for respect other times it's a case of survival.
One of the great lessons I learned from Roundshaw was how important honour was. To be a coward, well at least for me, hurt much more in the long run than standing up to a bully and getting physically hurt. I also learned that “Don't be right be clever” should also be borne in mind when it comes to conflict.
Sean had taken me for a ride. Either he was inept and wasn't willing to take responsibility or had seen me as a target to con. Either way he hadn't shown me respect. Deep down I wanted to kill him but I also knew that letting go of all of this and seeing the positive aspects would be for the best. Forgiveness apparently is the way to freedom.
* * *
1974 – Roehampton Hospital
A boy with no legs is sitting on my chest, a girl with red hair, short arms and legs is lying across my legs.
“Say sorry for telling on us for smoking” shouts the legless boy.
“Say sorry or I'll hit you”
“Get off! I'm not sorry”
The boy punches me in the eye. I scream in agony. The nurses pull him off. The girl, Veronica is filled with guilt and admiration. This moment connected her to me. 33 years later we are still the best of friends.
* * *
I'm sitting on the road side, Kathy is sitting on a bench next to me. I'm getting dressed and putting on my underwear. A car goes by and a middle aged black man makes eyes at Kathy, I watch him then check her out to see if she flirts back at him. I ask her if she did and she says “no, can you imagine what would happen if I made eyes with every guy who did that to me?” she laughs “You learn from a young age not to look back at every man who looks at you.”
I'm now in my Aunt Anne's house standing in the back bedroom. A woman is in the loo and I'm hovering near the doorway of the room so I can speak to her when she comes out. Perhaps she has a partner downstairs and I want to get her alone for a moment. When she comes out I ask her in to my room. She does so and we stand in front of a mirror. She's short, petite, big brown eyes and has close cut dark hair wrapping around the edge of her face. I say “I want to tell you something, don't be embarrassed, but I've always felt something for you.”
She says “I know, and maybe in six months when I split up with Mike we could try to get together”
With that I hoist her on to my back to show her how strong and comfortable I am. A shower is sticking out of the wall and has water pouring from it. It's pouring on us. I start to worry that the furniture and clothes strewn across the floor will get soaked so I check there's a plug hole in the floor. I find it. I also realise that the woman I'm carryings back is wet through too. She says it doesn't matter.
I don't want to wake up, but I do. I move across the bed and cuddle up to Kathy.
* * *
As I was writing this I started to get the sensation I had as a child of the smell and taste of anaesthetic. It filled me with fear. The irony is that anaesthetic protected me from unbearable pain but the association I made wasn't of protection but of pain and nausea. I thought just now of how alone I would have felt when that mask went over my face, its big black overly sweet smelling membrane felt like a hand trying to suffocate me. So much of what is good for us looks bad up close until we see it in a wider context.
* * *
A year and a half has passed since I walked out of Kathy's place wondering if that was the last time I'd be there. I did return though, but the relationship had changed. It didn't seem so at first. But a week and a half after she'd returned from the holiday I started to notice it. Instead of wanting to make love on a daily basis there'd now been a 10 day gap. When I questioned her about it she said I was making an issue of it by bringing it up. I wanted to know if she didn't fancy me anymore.
* * *
Marcia is a painter. She's a friend of mine's partner and he thought I ought to meet her, so one evening we met up and I took them to the Chelsea Arts Club. At one point Marcia and I discussed painting a picture together. A man nearby overheard this conversation and introduced himself as a film maker. He told us he'd be interested in filming us doing a painting together. In a short while we were meeting on a weekly basis, painting and being filmed. The painting's themes were mainly centred around grief. In fact the bit of grieving after the initial mourning period, the bit which can last a life time, the bit where “the shadows of those we've lost illuminate our internal world”. In other words a world where we're no longer trapped in the grave with the one we love, an existence where we've come to accept that we have lost them, but a state of mind that we can call on them to come to us in our mind. We may speak with them, go walking in dreams with them, hold them, kiss them goodnight, tell them we love them, and will always remember them.
The painting came from the pattern of brush marks we made across the canvas, and ended up as a picture of a man half lying in a stream, with his eyes closed. Near to him is a woman who looks as if she's illuminated. Behind her is a vividly coloured and stormy sky.
During the process of making this image, which has a slightly classical look to it I decided I wanted to cut out the figure of the woman, then photograph and scan her before burning the bit we cut out. Once that was done the figure was printed out and stuck back in to the same position in the painting. This was done to make a point about how important it is for us to use painting and other more modern forms of capturing images to hold on to the visual form of something we have lost. The juxtaposition of the modern and classical ways of creating images – painting and computer graphics - was also a comment on how we hark back to an era when painting seemed it couldn't get better and anything since is seen as sub standard. As if we are stuck in the grave with a lost world.
As the film progressed the camera man, Sam Small, interjected with comments aimed to stir up a reaction, such as “Painting died after Van Gough”, or “You're just making this up as you go along, your painting is meaningless.” And “Van Gogh didn't need computer graphics”.
One day Sam and I were talking together after we'd had quite a heated discussion about how the painting would be read by onlookers compared to how we intended it to be viewed. A couple of people came in and sure enough felt confused about what we were trying to say. The air was thick with resentment from both sides.
Sam asked me if I felt I'd dominated the project.
“Partly” I said.
“I think you have” he said.
“Do you think you're a dominant or submissive person?” He asked
“What do you mean?”
“Well a dominant person is one who likes to take control, make decisions and have things go their way whereas a submissive person is more nurturing, likes to take a back seat and doesn't like making decisions.”
“I suppose in terms of those definitions I'm a dominating person then”
“So what kind of women do you end up with then?”
“Dominating types, that's the only type that exists isn't it?”
“Maybe that's why your relationships don't work? A dominant person needs to be with a submissive person and vice-versa.”
“The only trouble is” I suddenly realise a problem I have. “If someone shows any sign of pulling away from me, I suddenly start to feel weak and become submissive”
“Ah so maybe you do attract women who want a dominant man, submissives, who then find they've got a submissive partner. No wonder your relationships collapse”
I'm almost taken in completely by this way of seeing things, but I suppose we all change depending on mood and circumstances so that at times I might be dominant where as at others I'm not. But on the whole I am.
* * *
* * *
Kathy and I had an argument a couple of days ago. I walked out after she told me she didn't find me sexually attractive anymore. That I had put the dampeners on her sexual feelings towards me a year ago when I had said that if she wasn't interested in me sexually that I wouldn't stick around. She felt it was an ultimatum whereas I saw it as an obvious point about relationships. The irony was that a year later we've hardly had any sex but I'm still here with her. After a night of being apart I yearned to be with her and to be home. But after this last argument it felt like an end date had been stamped upon us, we can't see it but know it's there.
The thought of not having this home together anymore and that I would be alone in the new house I've bought on the seafront is one that feels scary. Even if separating might make room for a dream girl to come to me the idea of parting from Kathy fills me with nausea. I can not see beyond the pain of the present the possibility of joy in pastures new. And without this vision it's so easy to get trapped in a dead relationship. At the moment our relationship feels very much alive but the end date is looking at us but we've trained ourselves not to catch its eye.
* * *
The engine is pulsating of the Saab 900i as I pull up in a side street. We're in a small town. It's dark, everything's wet but it's not raining. I get out the car to look at the damage. There's a dent where the brick landed on the bonnet. The car was pristine until that moment. I wipe off the dirt hoping it's just a surface scuff but t isn't.
I walk to the back of the car open the boot and pull out a large over powered air rifle which I pass to Lee as I get in to the driver's seat. “OK” I say “let's get ‘em.”
From the view point of the two guys who'd perpetrated the crime it must have been a strange sight. A man with short arms drives back towards them after they'd thrown a brick at him. I'm not sure who'd started it, but all it took was a bad look.
It's night time, the sunroof is open with the passenger, like a tank turret soldier half hanging out of it with a large rifle aimed at them.
“You fucking cunts” I shout as Lee pulls the trigger. The smaller of the two falls backwards, yelps and doubles up in agony. We drive off at top speed. The adrenalin is pumping through us and for a minute we say nothing. Then I look at Lee and say “By the way you got the wrong one, it was the big one who threw the brick”
“Did I?” says Lee most apologetically, which sounds even more genuine given his Northern accent. “Ooh sorry about that mate”.
He's still holding the gun and as apparently the messenger always gets it I feel I ought to add “Oh well not to worry, at least the other bloke will feel a bit guilty”
“Aye there is that”
* * *
When Lee was 8 years old he lived in a big house on a small council estate on the out skirts of a mining town. His father was a miner and a father of 6. On non school days his mother would put the kids out in the morning to play in the fields, call them in for tea and shout them to bed at night.
A few miles away across fields of long wet grass Lee and a couple of his brothers would play amongst the coal trucks of trains that took the coal from his father's mine away to far off destinations known as “the smoke”. The trucks were black and sooty and towered over the children.
Each truck had buffers that would push against the next truck's buffers when they started to move. They acted as a shock absorber, but no amount of absorption could have taken away the shock that Lee experienced when one day the train started to move and Lee's right fore-arm became caught between two buffers. Lee screamed out in agony but the screeching of the wheels took his cries for help and cast them in to shudders. His brothers played on while Lee was dragged two miles to the depot. Every sleeper that ran along the track bumped against Lee's left foot until by the end of the journey only a crushed and bleeding stump was left.
The train driver who found Lee came to hospital to visit him every day for months, the train company however fought off any claims for compensation, sighting that notices warning children not to play on the tracks had been ignored.
Lee, once out of hospital, was taken to a residential school for disabled. In the holidays he'd come back to his family home. After a few hours he'd want to go back to the school because at school he'd get three meals a day whereas at home he'd be lucky if he got one. At home life was mapped out for most people, but there was no map for a footless armless man. In a mining village if a man was not a fully functioning body he was a nobody.
Lee's school was set in an old stately home, with grand staircases and gardens. Many of the children were severely disabled so Lee who was seen as almost able bodied and therefore jointly ruled the roost
* * *
“Please Simon, leave Kathy, not just for her sake but for your's too.” These are the words of one of Kathy's friends to me at a party the other night. I know anything I say will be repeated to Kathy. I tell her that whatever will be will be, and that she, like us, should just wait and see what happens.
But Kathy and I had a big row just before we set off for the party. Something had happened where I felt she'd been selfish, she thought I was being overly nasty about it, I didn't feel like being apologetic and Kath wasn't going to forgive me for it. We got to a point where we had to stop speaking as we weren't getting anywhere talking about it.
The next day went well, Kathy came down to my house in Eastbourne, some friends visited us, we ate together, sat on the beach, chatted and went for a drive to Burling Gap, walked on beach at the base of the cliffs, drank in a pub originally built in the 11 th century, waved our friends off and after curling up on the sofa together we'd gone to bed in each other's arms.
The next day the sun shone bright upon us, Kathy went running along the shore, we had breakfast then drove towards Brighton . On the way we stopped at Alfriston. We sat in a pub and started to talk about petrol money. Within seconds we were in to a full scale argument. We left soon afterwards and continued on our journey to Brighton , still arguing, only it escalated. By the time we hit the traffic lights at Rottingdean we'd decided it was time to split up. No sex and frequent arguments was not a relationship upon which to build a future. As we got to Brighton station I pulled up at the pick up / drop off point, went to the back of the car and opened the boot. Kathy took out her bags.
“Do you want to come in to the station with me?”
I nodded “It's probably better if I don't”
She lent down and put her arms around me. I could feel her start to cry. Normally I'm not one to cry but I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of loss and pain, I wanted to plead to her not to go but I knew it was the right thing to do. We both held on to each other crying for a few minutes then she walked in to the station both of us sobbing. People could see our trembling faces, someone asked me something, I could hardly speak. I saw Kathy wave at me and waved back at her. I drove home and every few miles I got a surge of tears. This sadness, this separation, was the consequence of betrayal. Somewhere in the relationship an oscillation of betrayal had started between us, starting off small it bounced backwards between us both unchecked so that eventually I no longer wanted to listen to what Kathy had to say, she didn't feel listened to and the relationship got on a train and made its way to the smoke.
* * *
End of chapter 12