Simon Mark Smith’s Autobiography
Tonight I’m teaching web design at a local adult education college in Fulham. There’s a football match on at the Chelsea Stadium which is nearby so there’s heavy traffic and finally when I get to the college there’s nowhere to park. I drive around the nearby roads looking for a space. A van comes up behind me, at first I think it’s being driven by a fellow tutor but it’s not. As I proceed at about 10 mph he starts to flash his lights and honk his horn, I shout out to him that I’m looking for somewhere to park. He shouts “fuck off you prick”. I slam my brakes on and drive even slower.
* * *
My sons have just started at a new school and they have already had a taste of bullying. When they told me today about it I wanted to get the kid involved and threaten him in to submission. Instead I tell them to reason with him. They say they have already asked him to try and understand how it feels for them to be subjected to such behaviour. The reply that “I’m not you so I can’t understand” gets thrown at them. I recommend they speak to the teacher again and if that doesn’t work to come back to me. Julia, their mother, interjects, “that’s enough for God’s sake, I don’t want them getting in to trouble”. The boys looks at me and wink, we are, you see, in accordance that force sometimes may have to be met with force.
* * *
2006 Fulham – Sands End
I’ve started to drive really slowly in retaliation to a guy driving behind me’s aggression but then I try to let go of the anger that’s welling up inside of me. I take the first available turning to get out of his way. Instead of driving on he follows me. I continue looking for a parking space, the driver is shouting at me. I see a space which will be no good for parking in but I pull over. This is more of a gesture of “OK if you want a fight come and get it.” He pulls up beside me and blocks me in. I get out the car and watch him take a long spirit level from behind his seat. I feel no fear, just calm. My thought is that I might be able to take him, if he swings at me I’ll try to either block, ride or take the blow and if I get close enough I’ll kick him with my artificial leg, most probably across his knee or shin. As he approaches me he sees my arms and immediately apologises, “sorry mate” he says. I reply, in a slightly indignant tone that I was “just trying to find somewhere to park”. He says “Yeah sorry mate, yeah you were trying to park, sorry” He places his hand affectionately on my shoulder, says sorry again and then walks away.
Perhaps for him it was a relief to find a way out and to show a better side of his nature. And for me too, as calm and as unshakable as I was, I preferred this realisation that we are both real humans after all, not some violence crazed characters from a Tarantino film fantasy.
* * *
“ I see the purple shades of evening
And on the ground
The shadows fall and once again you’re in my arms
The sidewalks in the street
The concrete and the clay beneath my feet
Begins to crumble
But love will never die
Because we’ll see the mountains tumble
Before we say goodbye”
Concrete And Clay
(written by: Eddie Rambeau)
1972 – June
Standing in front of a class of children, a man standing next to me, the Headmaster, is telling them that “This is Simon and he shall be joining us next term”, I see faces staring at me, a couple of girls let out exasperations of pity.
My next visit, the one where Peter and I got lost, that took place a couple of months later. Mum was already moving in by then. These first visits took place on sunny summer days, but when I came to live there it was September and already the days were rapidly shortening, the weather was mainly grey, and I spent most of my time either at school or with a babysitter until my mother came to pick me up.
Mum bought me a bike. I couldn’t walk far and Roundshaw was a sprawling mass of concrete walkways. Most of the estate was connected by decks. These were large slabs of concrete, about 30 feet wide that were positioned above garages or roadways. To the edge of each deck would be doorways to people’s apartments, next to each doorway would be a cupboard in which people could put their rubbish. Opposite the doorways would be a wall and beyond that a 20 foot drop. Stairs and ramps would take the inhabitants from terra firma to terror firmer! Roundshaw had already gained notoriety not only in the local vicinity where if you were from Roundshaw you were seen as at best very common but more likely very common and dangerous. It had also featured on the national news because milkmen were refusing to service the area for fear of being robbed. I was completely unaware of Roundshaw’s dark side at first. Instead I smelt the newness of the paint, was dazzled by the sunlight on the lino throughout the flat, and felt that finally Mum and I were together at last in our own home with, Michael, a new boyfriend for her and a possible daddy for me.
The decks lent themselves particularly to being cycled on so for my first few ventures out of the flat alone I rode up and down the deck in front of our doorway. Our deck, Powell Close, was a thoroughfare, so within a short time my presence, the little boy with short arms, became known all over. As I peddled up and down, mothers pushing their children, stray dogs and other children passed me too. It wasn’t long though before a gang of children passed by and taunted me for having stabilisers on my bike.
I got off my bike and tried to detach the stabilisers, which were bolted on. I saw an old man looking at me. “Excuse me mister but can you help me take these off please.” He came over crouched down and told me that he would if my Mother said it was ok. I told him I’d ask her when she got in, but I wasn’t prepared to wait so once he was gone I went at the bolts with my teeth. Years later the old man, Bill –the one in the dream about debris in his garden-, told me he’d watched me from his window in disbelief. The stabilisers were off and I would no longer be persecuted for not being able to ride a bike properly, instead it would be because of my arms.
* * *
When I was 32 I was cycling along a road in Fulham when I heard laughter, I looked across to see three teenagers pointing and laughing at me so I did a u-turn and pulled up next to them. I said “I shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of behaviour when I go out, should I?” I looked at one of them who was mixed race and said to him,” how would you like it if someone called you a nigger?” He said, “Are you calling me a nigger?”
I said “No, I’m just pointing out to you that you wouldn’t like it if someone called you a nigger”
“Right,” he said “I’m going to teach you a lesson”, he threw off his jacket, “I’m gonna knock your lights out”
I felt very relaxed and looked at him. “The moment you touch me will be the last time you’ll be free to live in Fulham, I’ll make sure you’re beaten up every day until you can no longer bear to stay here. I know you live in Sherbrooke Road .” – This technique of “psyching someone out” was one of the first things I’d learned on Roundshaw -.
He seemed a bit disturbed by my approach, picked up his jacket and walked off cursing me. I cycled home but when I got in my rage started to pump through me. I told Eileen, my partner at the time, what had happened and she said she’d come out with me to find him. So we got in the car and drove around the streets until we found him in a playground. I pulled up, my car was pointing towards him. I leant out the window and said “See this car, this will be the last thing you see if I feel like getting you, you should be careful who you threaten you fuckin’ cunt”
A couple of days later I saw him standing in my street looking at my house. I went to my kitchen put on an arm band put a knife up it and walked downstairs. Faced with someone threatening me I wouldn’t hesitate to push a knife through their chest and move it around to make sure their heart could no longer function. Somewhere in the dark garages and sparkling decks of Roundshaw I had learned that being ruthless was the best way to deal with threats. Sometimes I would find myself hurting someone, they’d be screaming out in agony, I’d feel sorry for them and want to stop, but I knew I had to hurt them in order to teach them a lesson. I went out the door but he was gone, I had my arm pulled towards my back, the blade was a long one. If he’d confronted me both our lives may have taken a different direction. That evening I visited a friend who I thought might know him, he said he did and he’d have a word with him.
A few weeks later I was driving down Sherbrooke Road when a person on a bike pulled out in front of me, I slammed my brakes on and as we both came to an emergency stop I realised it was the same guy, we looked at each other and I gave him a “see I told you” smile. He almost smiled back. A few weeks later I heard he’d been put in prison for punching a police woman in the stomach.
When I was 41, nine years after this all happened, one of the girls from the group who initially laughed at me served me in a chemist. I wondered if she remembered the incident. Maybe she was thinking the same thing. A few days after I saw her walking an old lady home and as I passed by in my car I heard her tell the old lady that “it was nothing at all.”
* * *
Outside of not wanting to be psychologically attached forevermore to this guy, or being imprisoned, or possibly losing my soul the thought of killing him wasn’t too unappealing.
My murderous violent temper was already pretty bad before I got to Roundshaw, but once there it was honed to a far greater degree.
My first fight went something like this.
I cycled down a ramp from our deck, in front of me a group of children started calling out “oi you where’s your arms? Hey where’s your arms?”
I had just moved from a provincial village and the worst swear word I knew was “bastard”. So with as much vehemence as I could summon I told them I thought they were “bloody bastards”. They laughed at me and started to imitate my middle class accent and shout out “no arms”.
I cycled over to them, got off my bike and started to chase them. They got out the way then formed a circle around me, and started to taunt me further. As I would run at any one of them they’d move, almost swarm like, out of my way. I started to cry.
One of the boys yelled “Oh poor little cry baby”. I looked at him and spat in his face. He put his hands to his eyes and leaned forwards. I ran at him and kicked him in the head with my built up boot. I heard a clonk and he fell backwards. He rolled in a ball clutching his head. He got up, tears streaming and screaming in pain and ran to one of the doorways. A few seconds later a well built blonde woman came out dragging him by the arm. When she saw what was happening she started to smack him and told the others they should be ashamed of themselves. She knelt down, wiped the tears from my face and invited me in to her house to get properly cleaned up. I went in, and was introduced to her Turkish husband and three other children. After a short while I was playing with them all and through them was introduced to the other children from the block. I learned that having an aptitude for violence not only stopped the taunting but also earned respect and friendship on Roundshaw.
* * *
When I entered the house of the boy whose head I’d just kicked, I entered not only a foreigner’s home but also an environment which was foreign to me. It was a family home. A mother and father who seemed to love each other, 4 children, two girls and two boys and a myriad of pets all lived together within this council house, which just to add to the strangeness of the scene had been decorated in a Turkish style. The youngest daughter, Selma , wanted to show me her cat’s new litter of kittens and asked if I wanted one. When I got in that evening I asked my mum if we could have one of them but she said no. The next day Selma turned up at our front door with one of the kittens in her pocket. She went to my mother and said she had something to show her. She held out her hand with the kitten curled up in the palm of it. My mum let out a sigh of resigned debilitation at its sweetness. From the “family home” I was given an opportunity to experience the joy of a pet. I named the little black kitten Ginny after a cat mentioned in a book that had been read to me in care.
* * *
My first day at school was marred by two main events that related directly to my disability. Both involved my clothing. The first one was caused by the occupational therapists at Roehampton hospital cutting a hole in the groin of my trousers so that I could get my penis to poke out through it when I wanted a pee. The problem was that as with most penises mine seemed to have a mind of its own and decided to pop out during my first hour of class. I walked up to the teacher and asked her to push it back in for me. She seemed to get quite flustered and told me to go away and not to be so silly. I don’t remember how the issue was solved but I did feel humiliated in front of my whole class. Some of whom were making gestures and exasperations of disgust. The other incident involved playing football. We were told to put on our football gear. I went in to the changing room full of pride that I had a Chelsea kit and couldn’t wait to get out there with rest of them but I took so long trying to get my boots tied up that the class was over before I was even changed.
Possibly this event turned me against football for the rest of my life. By not being interested in the world of football I was segregating myself from an important part of male culture. At seven years old I would sit out of games and chat to the girls who sat on the sidelines. While the boys in my class developed skills in kicking a ball around I learned how to talk with girls. And for most of the time it didn’t involve football.
One of the girls I’d talk with was called Jackie, she took a shining to me which somehow ended up with her being my girlfriend for a few days. She even came to my home one day where mum and Michael created an elaborate tea ceremony. Possibly my proposal of marriage and offer of fathering copious amounts of children with Jackie gave her the wrong impression so that when we arrived at school a few days later she told me I wasn’t her boyfriend anymore. My reaction was to kick her hand, maybe it was symbolic, as in wanting to damage something that she had that I didn’t. Her hand or her heart possibly. When I was told that I had broken her finger I could feel the condemning gaze of my peers fall upon me.
* * *
There’s a new guy just started at my work, one of my friends who’d come in to my office today told me she thought he was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. Even in his wheelchair he sits almost as high as I do standing up. I told Kathy about this good looking man and she asked “so what’s wrong with him then?” and laughed.
* * *
I’ve just had a dream about Boris. In it he has had to move out of where he lives, and we’re talking on the phone. I’m trying to guide him to where I am waiting with some other people. “Where are you?” he asks. I explain to him that he’ll have to walk to the end of the high street, then go up a hill and does he “remember the building with the dome?” In real life this building would be an eighth wonder of the world but in my dream it’s the roof to a Starbucks coffee house.
As soon as I wake up I wonder if he has just died. I feel guilty that I haven’t seen him over the last few days, and regret not telling him that I’ve just become a member of the Chelsea Arts Club. I shall ring him shortly just to check he’s still alive and to tell him about the club.
I called him and he’s alive and kicking still. He wasn’t impressed about me being accepted by my peers. There’s no pleasing some parents is there?
* * *
March 18 1972
I had met a few of mum’s boyfriends on the occasions that I was at home. Of course the notion of what a boyfriend is to an under seven year old is pretty limited and for all intents and purposes in a world that rotates around one’s self the main reason for looking for a boyfriend was to find me a father.
I was still in care in Pastens on my seventh birthday and I can remember a long wait mainly by myself sitting on the lawn in a fenced off part of the garden and later in the main building talking to the cook who was preparing food for my party. When the time finally came for the festivities to begin my mother turned up with a man called Michael who was a cut above the rest in height and looks. Mum gave me the best present I could have hoped for. She told me that in a few months time I would be coming to live with her. So not only was I to be reunited with my mother but she also had a potential father waiting in the wings for me.
* * *
Cut to a few months later. I am moved in with Mum and Michael. When he was there her bedroom door was locked and if I knocked on it in the morning I was told to go away.
One day I came home and found Michael in too, he was pointing an air pistol at a photograph of his ex wife, Sue. He pulled the trigger and where her face had been a hole appeared. He reloaded and shot another pellet in to her.
Michael had been a soldier and was now a photographer. He had been brought up in Yorkshire within a strict family, joined the army, worked within the medical corps and after leaving the army became a nurse. He then suffered a brain haemorrhage which resulted in him having surgery. The scar tissue on his brain caused him to have blackout type fits and unbeknown to us at the time violent, psychotic episodes.
Perhaps the fact that he had been stopped from seeing his daughter by his wife should have been a clear sign that this man was dangerous.
For someone coming from a strict family the behaviour of a precocious child, erm that’s me I’m talking about, can be particularly riling but for Michael it was worse because he seemed to be on a quest to obscure his angry side by being as good as possible when he could. So he’d try to put up with a lot then suddenly blow his top
* * *
“And if you ever tell your mother I will kill her in front of you and then I’ll kill you. Do you understand” That’s what Michael said to me as he smacked his hand across my back side. He had me over his knee at the point in the hall way where he confronted me about going out.
Earlier on I had crept down the stairs, opened the front door and had wanted to walk out to see my friends who were playing outside. I was still in my pyjamas so closed the door, quietly walked back up the stairs and went back in to my room. Mum had gone to work and Michael was sleeping on the couch in the front room. After months of bullying us mum had managed to get him out of the bedroom but not out of the flat.
The first incident seeped in to my consciousness one Saturday morning as I sat on my bed playing. I heard raised voices and then a yelp from my mother. I picked up my milkshake and walked to the doorway. Michael was shouting at my mother about her using his towel which was damp and she wasn’t to touch it. I heard a thud and mum crying then the bathroom door opened. He faced me and said “What are you looking at” I stood frozen to the spot. I wanted to see if mum was ok. He stepped towards me picked me up and threw me across the room. I landed against the bed which partly cushioned the fall but still winded me. The milkshake spilled all over me and the bed. Once I could breathe I wanted to cry but mum walked in and in silence with tears streaming down her face she cleaned up. A few days later I came home from school and found Michael decorating the lounge.
The second incident involved Michael grabbing me by my arm and throwing me under the table. This happened in front of Peter, the friend I’d got lost with, Michael had been watching an orchestra performing on the TV and Peter and I imitated the conductor which we laughed at hysterically. Michael told me to stop being stupid, I continued and the next thing I find I’m being flung to the floor. I continued to laugh but I wanted to scream out for help.
When Michael went for mum the next time I shouted that I would tell sister Meers from Roehampton hospital about him if he continued hurting us.
* * *
So after getting past Michael and then returning to my bed I heard Michael call me. I walked to the landing. “Did you go outside earlier?” “No” I replied. “Don’t lie, I know you did because you left the door open”.
I could clearly remember shutting the door but perhaps in my efforts to be as silent as possible I hadn’t let the catch of the lock click in to place.
“Right I’m going to teach you a lesson” he said as he grabbed me and pulled me across his knee. “So you’re going to tell Sister whatever her name is about me are you?” His hand came down hard on my bottom. “Well let me tell you that if you ever do I’ll make you wish you’d never been born.” Another smack hit me. “And if you ever tell your mother I will kill her in front of you and then I’ll kill you. Do you understand?”
I was crying in shock, “Yes”
“Now get out of my sight, go on go out and play with your friends if you want, I don’t want to see you” As I walked away he kicked me up the backside so I slid and fell over at the top of the stairs. I got out the house, still in my pyjamas. A few yards away stood a group of friends. I walked up to them, wanting to tell them what had just happened but instead I burst out crying. They looked at completely confounded.
A bit later Michael called me in and fed me.
* * *
One night I was allowed up late to watch “Mutiny on the Bounty”. A film in which the overly harsh captain of a ship is overthrown by his crew but later comes back and kills them.
Later that night I experienced what is known as a night terror. This is like a nightmare but it includes sleep walking and a certain amount of consciousness. Even now 32 years later I can remember clearly having to find my mother to tell her the ship we’re on is going to sink and she must get off as soon as possible. She then told me I was dreaming so I pleaded with her to wake me up. She continued to speak to me then got me back in to bed where I went back to sleep properly. A few nights later I had a similar experience but this time it was a train that was going to crash at any second. “Please mummy you’ve got to get off”.
If Michael had banned me from telling mum directly then my subconscious mind had to try a different tack.
But mum didn’t kick Michael out, instead one day we came home and he was gone.
A few months later there was a knock at the door, I looked through the glass door and recognised Michael’s form. I said to mum who it was and she uttered a no of disbelief. I went to bed and the next day he was there on the couch sleeping. I wanted to kill him in his sleep.
That night I went to the local community centre and watched people doing karate. I stood in front of them and kicked my legs along with them. I had seen “kung-Fu” on TV and dreamt of being able to defend mum and I from Michael’s attacks.
* * *
There must have been a volcano erupted somewhere in the world around that time because beautiful sunsets seemed to be all the rage. From the exact spot that I cried in front of my friends you could see St Paul ‘s glimmer in the distance. As summer frayed in to autumn and the nights drew in cold around us our adventures upon the old runways of Croydon Airport became more extreme.
The world of children has few social inhibitions when it comes to making new acquaintances. Asking a complete stranger if they want to play with you is a perfectly acceptable pick up line –when you’re a child I hasten to add -, especially when it came to playing war games.
The war games were less pretend and more war on Roundshaw. Firstly there were real trenches with sheets of metal laid over the top of them to form tunnels, secondly real artillery in the shape of firework rockets were fired across the battleground along with bangers and any other fireworks that could be stolen from the local shops and thirdly hand to hand combat included quite extreme violence. The pleads of one kid who I’d crept up on and held a brick over went unheard. I let the brick go and he curled up in a ball crying. Later he became a manager in McDonald’s. This had the effect of associating my ruthlessness and guilt with Big Macs, resulting in what little pleasure that can be derived by such pursuits being curtailed further.
There were also large old air-raid shelters which we would dare each other to enter. They were pitch black inside and smelt of piss and dampness, I once fell over in one, landing knee first on some barbed wire.
After one evening’s exciting game of war I returned home at 9pm to find my mother was hysterical with anger. She’d called the police, allegedly, and was not going to let me play out anymore, so from then on, well at least for a while I went directly from school to a babysitter called Lyn.
Lyn’s flat was dark, smoke stained throughout and was filled with the smell you get if you leave a gas flame on too long. The flame was partly on to cook us the nightly beans on toast but was mainly so she could keep the cigarettes lit that she continuously had hanging from the corner of her mouth. At least it kept the flat warm.
Lyn’s husband Doug was often sat in a chair dressed in his Teddy Boy regalia, which even in 1972 was rather passé. They often argued, unbeknown to me Lyn had recently revealed to Doug that she was pregnant, which might have been a joyous occasion had Doug not had a vasectomy shortly after the birth of their last child. Mum might have got me out of the killing fields of Roundshaw but now I was immersed in the deadly feuds of a struggling marriage. I didn’t like being there and I didn’t like Lyn, who seemed to have me there merely to make money and her heart was definitely not in the job, the home or the marriage.
* * *
A day in the trenches
I wonder if the type of breakfast one chooses is partly influenced by genetics. My Gran had always cooked a breakfast, in fact her day started in the kitchen because that’s where she could get dressed in warmth. Perhaps having a cooked breakfast was as much a choice related to stoking the oven in the morning than any need to eat. Although given the lack of food in those days they probably were hungry anyway. For me I don’t wake up feeling hungry but by lunch I quite fancy a breakfast. For my mother however breakfast is an important way of starting the day. Cereal was the mainstay, cooked breakfasts were for days when we weren’t in a rush but throughout the cold months a plate of porridge covered in sugar surrounded by a moat of cold milk was the default. The problem with porridge is that five minutes after leaving the house you find your bowels stirring with an unstoppable force that often resulted in returning home for an emergency poo, much to my mum’s anger. This was probably tempered by the memory of the incident in the garden wearing my new trousers.
“Oh Simon, I’ve got to get to work, why do you always want to go to the loo just when we have to leave.”
Had I made the biological connection between porridge and an overwhelming need to have a bowel movement I possibly could have pointed the finger back at her.
There’s snugness about walking to school in the darkness of a winter morning, seeing a friend from school and trotting up to join them. This morning it was a boy with wavy auburn hair called Michael, there were a lot of Michaels around back in those days.
“Shall we go to the supermarket and see what toys they’ve got?” I ask and within minutes we’re in the shop, bleak and bright with yellow strip lights – it’s still dark outside-. The place is full of freezer cabinets but in the middle is a stand with toys, records and other things. What interested me this morning was a magnet set. We both sat on the floor and started playing with whatever we could get out the boxes. A woman who worked there kept looking at us. Then a man in a white uniform asked us if we intended to buy something. Given we had no money it wasn’t likely. “We’re just looking” I said. As the man turned his back Michael slipped a magnet set in to one of my pockets. We walked out slowly looking a bit pissed off about our play time being bought to a premature end. As we walked off both the man and woman watched us and said something about us to each other. As we got close to the school Sevin, the boy I’d kicked in the head, joined us and told us about a dead dog he’d just seen. It was still early so we went to have a look at it. The dog was a sandy coloured mongrel we’d seen roaming the estate. By this point we weren’t the only children gathered around it. We stared at the pool of blood that had dribbled from its mouth, its long grey purple tongue, draped from its mouth to the paving slab. Beside these signs the dog looked like it was sleeping. As if the day wasn’t going to get any better we stood looking at the dog, pretending our breath was smoke when a boy ran up to us and said he’d just seen a woman commit suicide by jumping off the tallest building on the estate.
He told us that a man who’d seen what had happened told the congregation around the body that he’d come out to get his milk and said hello to his neighbour, the next minute she’d climbed on to the balcony wall looked across to him and then before he could even say anything she let herself fall. Apparently she was still alive for a few minutes after she hit the ground. She was motionless except her eyes kept looking around and her mouth quivered a bit. Then she became totally motionless. As this story was relayed to us an RSPCA van pulled up to take the body – of the dog – away. If there’d been a policeman there he’d have said something like “Come on, move on, there’s nothing to see here” but there wasn’t so once the body was taken we continued our pilgrimage to school. When we got there children were still playing outside. The sun was low and cast long shadows across the icy playground.
A few children were taking running jumps on to iced up logs which resulted in them skating the length of it. I decided I wanted a go, but as I tried a boy from a year ahead, Mark Cutler, pushed me off. So I decided to run at him instead. He tried to put his arm around my neck but I managed to bite his arm. The more he tried to shake me off the deeper my teeth went. I was screaming in temper, well as much as you can with an arm in your mouth, he was screaming in agony, and Mrs Gee one of the teachers was screaming from a window for us to stop fighting. By the time she got to us blood started trickling down his forearm. We were both crying, but he was crying in disbelief because I’d managed to bite through his Parker coat sleeve and pierce his skin.
When Mrs Gee separated us we both ended up standing outside Mr Garyock, the headmaster’s office. At first recriminations between Mark and myself were met with calm commands to be silent. Eventually we hushed and awaited our fate. Mrs Digsall and Mrs Phillips and Mrs Spawl- were the secretaries, playground attendants, and nurses amongst many other things. One of them came to clean us up and dress the wounds whilst reprimanding us, I’m not sure who was more scary the secretaries or the Headmaster. We were then warned by the headmaster that he’d be watching us, and were sent back to class.
* * *
This evening I took Kathy to the Chelsea Arts Club for a meal. The set meal offered as a starter either tomato soup or crayfish, thinking the latter would be something like a small dish of prawn like fish in a mayonnaise sauce we went for it. Instead the waiter bought two plates with six little monsters I wouldn’t want to see on a nature film let alone munch on. I looked around me to see people on other tables happily dissecting and tucking in to their large insect like prey and came to realise that being brought up on an estate in South London didn’t necessarily mean you’d end up having a harder constitution than a middle class person brought up in the quiet suburbs. Have you noticed how it’s the middle classes who tend to survive endurance type programs such as “I’m a celebrity get me out of here”. I remember giving a certain amount of respect for a glamour model who ate jungle food such as worms, and kangaroo testicles in order to win her fellow contestants a good meal. Had I known she was just licking the tip of the iceberg when it comes to disgusting delicacies in middle class circles I might have held back on giving her so much credit.
* * *
One evening mum took me along to get a Chinese takeaway about a mile from home. As we waited for our food I decided I’d show the owner some of the kicks I’d learned from watching the karate class. As I kicked they had big smiles on their faces and whenever I’d stop they’d get one of the relatives from out the back and ask me to show them my “feet of fury” in action.
As we walked through the dark damp garages beneath our flat the bag holding the food gave way. Mum and I stood almost crying over spilled Chop-Suey.
* * *
Sean is one of the hard kids from the year above me. I am beginning to see that the kids at school are divided between fighters and those who prefer to remain quiet and by doing so manage to avoid getting in to ruts with other people. I am one of those who can’t help but get themselves in to a fight when push comes to shove.
On the way to Lynn ‘s from school I decide to visit the community centre where there’s a lounge and snack shop for kids. Lots of kids from school hang around here.
Within minutes of arriving Sean says something derogatory to me, I retaliate, and then he is sitting on my chest and trying to punch me. Every time his fist comes down I put my arms in the way. I am in full blown temper mode by this point, tears of anger are streaming across my face, I see him raise his arm high above his head and he’s looking for an opening to crash his fist down on. I bring my foot almost up to my own head then crash my heel in to Sean’s eye. He clasps his face and screams out a yell. He is no longer on top of me but writhing around in agony crying. The crowd around me look on in disbelief. Not only is the victor younger and smaller than Sean but he has short arms. A consensus amongst my peers starts to develop that I am more dangerous than I appear. It is not that I’m seen as one of the hard kids it’s more an issue of being an unexpected contender.
* * *
Tonight Steve, the friend I mentioned in paragraph one of this book, and I pulled up in my car outside his home. Just as we came to a halt I heard a cracking sound then felt a splat of something hit me. At first I thought it was a gunshot, then I realised a bird in the tree above us had been startled and had shit upon us.
As I drove off I started to feel as if I was dreaming. The music didn’t seem to sound right, my mobile phone kept lighting up and I started to feel uneasy. Just like in one of those films where the twist at the end is the main character is dying and suddenly realises the reality they’ve experienced throughout much of the film has been made up by their own dying brain, I too wondered if after all the crack I had heard was a gunshot after all and that what I was experiencing was a reality my brain offering to me in order to soften the reality that I was dying.
* * *
As I stood looking at the dead dog I didn’t realise that Roundshaw was actually encircling me and creating a new reality around me, a reality that created a new value system within me while the old “alive me” was laid out to die. My own fall on to the concrete decks of Roundshaw had paralysed me too. Life on the estate came at a cost and that meant you weren’t allowed to live fully. Just like in the film the Matrix, people are farmed in order to power the system that in return offers a pretence of living but does not reveal its role openly. Estates are a way of keeping a resource – human beings – available if ever the system should need it – such as in war -. But the deadening process starts as soon as you try to live.
* * *
Children with heart defects are normally kept in during lunch breaks or games, in fact kids with anything “wrong” tend to be wrapped in cotton wool whether they need to be or not. The a + b = d lack of thought process that leads to disabled kids being seen as delicate is the start of the perception that disabled people must be judged with a different yardstick which leads to more serious issues later on, most of which result in a lack of equal opportunities for disabled people.
Andrew Wilson, a thin blonde –almost white haired- and slightly blue lipped boy played in the library during games and lunch break. Andrew had a hole in his heart. Perhaps because my classmates were playing a lot of football at the time I decided to play with my Action Men in the library with Andrew too. Throughout the winter and even in to the summer months Andrew and I sat at a table in the library and played together. The library also acted as a corridor from the secretary and headmaster’s offices to the gym / assembly / dining hall so we started to become friendly with the staff. The disadvantage of missing out on football allowed me to establish a more informal relationship with members of staff which would later have a profound effect on me.
The headmaster, Mr Garriok, was tall, wore glasses, had white hair and smoked a pipe. He exuded quiet authority, rarely shouted, read stories to the school every morning during assembly and inspired a desire in the kids, well me at least, to impress him.
At the school disco we played a game where he would stop the record playing, by the way he was the DJ, and over the microphone give us an instruction to do something, like lie on the floor or raise an arm in the air. The last person to do the action had to sit out. Eventually only a few of us remained on the dance floor. When he asked us to stand on our left foot I put my right foot on my left foot whilst my competitors balanced on one leg. I could see him look at me and wonder what I was up to, and once he saw my response told the rest to sit down. I for once in my life won something. I don’t remember the prize but his desire to train me to pass the 11 plus grammar school entrance exam possibly was born of these early moments.
If Mr Garriock was a kindly man he was protected by his henchwomen, Mrs Digsal and Mrs Phillips, later to be joined by the smolderingly good looking Mrs Spall. These women sat at the main entrance to the administrative area like the three headed dog Hades, everyone, even the caretaker feared them. Because Andrew and I sat near their office and possibly because we looked a little vulnerable and sweet we were taken under their wing. Even the Mafia couldn’t have provided better protection.
* * *
The issue of how I manage to go to the loo is often brought up by complete strangers on our first acquaintance. Nowadays I tend to quip back that if they hang around they’ll get to see for themselves. The question of how I masturbate also comes hand in hand with the loo question. That query will normally get the “where there’s a willy there’s a way” joke, or “I use my mouth”, or that I do have a problem reaching, then reach up above my head.
* * *
Walking back from school one sunny early summer afternoon I found I was desperate to have a pee. I found a quiet spot in the garages but couldn’t undo my trousers. I decided to go to Christopher Fagbone’s place, he lived very close by. Chris was one of the few black kids who lived on the estate. I knocked on his door and his father answered. I explained to him that I needed help going to the loo and that I was desperate to go. He looked at me and started to shout at me, telling me to go away. I walked off, at first slightly distracted by the shock of what had just happened I made my way to Lynn ‘s. As I got closer the feeling of desperation became stronger until when I got there I’d reached “legs crossed” mode. I knocked on the door but there was no answer. I knocked again and then a few more times. She didn’t answer. I started to cry. A minute or so later her door opened. We looked at each other. I told her I was desperate for the loo but as I uncrossed my legs the warm pee poured out and down my legs, possibly spurred on by my anger at her not answering the door quickly enough, although gravity was more likely the greater force. At first the feeling of relief outweighed the fear of the repercussions, possibly the look of fear in my face touched Lynn’s conscience and instead of telling me off she told me not to worry and beckoned me towards her. Apparently the Vikings had a saying about such moments. “He who pisses in his shoes will not have warm feet for long”
As I got older my arms grew longer in proportion to my upper body so that by about 9 years old I could reach my penis and trousers. Until that time I was reliant on help but at 8 years old it wasn’t an issue that worried me too much. So in answer to any queries regarding pissing and wanking I can reach. But thanks for your concern regarding such matters.
* * *
One of my teachers once told me that the US had been built on a society that was polarised between criminals and religious fundamentalists. As we, the kids from Roundshaw fought our way through life people from the outside world wanted to save us. As we’d play in the park a group of young adults sat in the sun playing guitars and singing. In time we’d ride up to see what was going on. They’d invite us to join them and at first we’d ride off thinking they were a bit weird but after a few weeks we became so acclimatised to them that we joined in with them. We’d meet them every Thursday and listen to their stories, sing along with them, pray and never questioned if God was real or not. This club was called Thursday Special and was run by the local Pentecostal Church . How they managed to get us in to their Church I don’t know, they probably used the cold and ever darkening evenings as an excuse, but for at least a year and a half many of us regularly went to Church and a day later would be involved in stealing, fighting or swearing. When Elvis sang “I used to lie, I used to cheat, I used to lie, cheat, and step on people’s feet…. But now I’m saved” he sang to us the story of our own theological path to God.
* * *
Last night I watched a film in which the central character, Borat, winds up in a Pentecostal church. From the outside the speaking in tongues, the laying on of hands, the writhing on the ground and running around uncontrollably looks extremely disturbing and comical. When we were kids we didn’t see that sort of behaviour but instead a slower propaganda machine worked upon us. It wasn’t particularly malicious, in fact the criticism I level at it was the same that I would make of nearly all political or religious groups and that is that the only truth that’s important to them is that which supports their point of view.
And so it was with our Thursday Special sessions. We would sit in the park, sing songs, such as “Give Me Oil In My Lap” and “When The Saints Go Marching In” and they would tell us stories from the Bible. They would test our faith by asking us to fall backwards so that they could catch us although most of us would take a quick peep over our shoulder to check they were actually there. They would tell us about having dark hearts, and temptation and that if we loved God and Jesus and were good to others, as we would have them be good to us that we would be welcomed in to the Kingdom Of Heaven when we died. And we would see a giant Jesus in the clouds and a place at his right hand for us. If there was a lack of love in our lives then God and Jesus would always be there, in reserve, for us.
During the summer months we would go to a camp in Bonsall, a small village near Matlock in Derbyshire where we would be further inducted into the way of Christ. Just before we got on the coach that would deliver us from evil my mum told me to make sure I looked after the new clothes she’d just bought me. I kissed her goodbye and with God’s speed we were on our way. A hundred and fifty mile long journey can seem endless for a eight year old so when we finally arrived at a field with some wigwam type tents with no cover on the ground and a few log cabin huts we were slightly disturbed and possibly subconsciously transposed this to what might be in store for us when we actually arrive at heavens gates.
We were shown to our tents which were green and had green canvas camp beds in them, told to get our beds ready have a wash and then to meet in the tabernacle, which was a large marquee – well we were small so it probably wasn’t large really –. When we were in we were asked to pray and then the main pastor introduced himself, he then introduced his wife and daughter. The moment he said, “and this is my daughter Caz” , one of the older boys from our group, Terry O’Brien, shouted out “Yeah Caz the spaz”. There was a moment’s pause and the pastor continued on. No doubt our pastor had informed the other pastors that we were a rough lot and no doubt our conversion in to good folk was a main objective of these people. To help in this matter we were split into several groups, and the group with the most points would earn a prize, most probably a Bible, at the end of the week. Points could be earned by doing chores and deducted for misbehaviour and swearing. If you’ve ever watched South Park the cartoon series and seen how often they swear then you’ll have an idea of the colour of our language.
Terry O’Brien had come to the camp with his two younger brothers Andrew and Michael. Michael was the fat kid in my class at school, and the O’Brien’s were known on the estate as a hard family. Within the first two days I’d had fights with all three of them. Unfortunately when I went for the older of the three I ran along the top of a couple of bunk beds in one of the dormitories fully intent on kicking him in the head, he gave me a bit of a concerned look and just as I went to deliver my attack I ran straight in to a beam and almost knocked myself out. I was dazed and laid out spread eagled upon the bed, and as I started to cry I heard them laughing. I was still in temper mode and started to shout out obscenities and threats at them when one of the staff came in and restrained me. He took me to a group of women sitting on the other side of the field and asked them to keep me separate from the others.
Each day we’d be taken on an outing, such as visiting caves or going for walks in beauty spots. For children such as us there was a problem when it came to identifying what beauty was, maybe it was our age but also our whole value system revolved around excitement and distraction. Beauty didn’t play much of a part in our lives. The caves were not particularly of any interest except that there was an inherent danger about caves and to be under such a threat gave us a sense of bravery.
A few days in to the week we visited Matlock, the nearest big town. One of our activities involved going swimming. Just before swimming we’d looked around the shops and I had been mesmerised by a toyshop which had a model railway displayed in the shop window. I went in and immediately had my eye on an underwater mask with a built in snorkel. I bought it and decided to try it out in the swimming pool.
At first I played around in the shallow end then I decided to try it out in the deep end. I jumped in along with another boy I’d just met, as soon as I hit the water I felt the mask, which was over my nose and mouth start to fill up with water. I quickly made my way to the side of the pool, but there was no bar around the edge to grab hold of, nor was there a drainage channel, so I tried to reach for the side of the pool and hoist myself up, but there was such a large gap between the water level and the edge so I couldn’t pull myself out. My new “friend” looked on laughing. No doubt he thought I was clowning around. I then tried to pull the mask off as I was beginning to breath in water, I started to cough and splutter and then I felt myself relax and looking down at the bottom of the pool I said to God “I didn’t think I was going to die this soon, but if that’s your will I’m ready” I started to blank out, everything went fuzzy, my vision went speckley and just as I thought that was it I felt myself being dragged and lifted. The lifeguard pulled me out and asked if I was alright. The mask was off me and I was coughing, and crying a bit. I told her I was and thanked her. I looked at my new “friend” in disgust even though he was now looking a bit more concerned. The life guard told me to go to the children’s pool so I did. When I got there I dived in head first and bumped my head on the bottom of the pool. I let myself float to the surface, got out and rubbed my head better.
After swimming we were allowed to visit the fun fare, which was actually quite a small affair, but feeling ravenously hungry I decided to have some almost luminous green candy floss.
All went well until the next day when I thought I better show one of the people in charge my luminous green poo. All Hell broke loose. Firstly I was moved to a dormitory and put in the care of the five girls sleeping in it. In turn they thought I should be tucked up in bed which was where I spent the day under observation. Food was brought to me and concerned visitors came in every now and again to see if I was ok. I failed to make the connection or tell anyone about the previous day’s green candy floss and that morning’s poo so I was pretty concerned for myself too.
That evening the logistics of where I should sleep became an issue. I was given the choice to either sleep in a bed by myself or share a bed with one of the teenage girls. Just as I was unable to see nature’s beauty I was also unable to feel sexual attraction and the thought of sleeping next to someone was filled with horror, especially at the thought of what would happen if I wet the bed.
Before going to bed one of the older girls helped me get ready, just at the point when I was completely naked I jumped in the air, spun around, gyrated my hips, wiggled my penis up and down and shouted “Tom Jones, Tom Jones”. The girls looked a gasp for a second or two then shrieked and covered their eyes. The girl helping me change pulled me back towards her and admonished me. I laughed as she told me not to do it again.
The next morning over a breakfast of porridge one of the O’Briens taunted me about sleeping with the girls and in order to protect their honour I thought it best to attempt to leap across the table to land a kick, punch or bite. One of the staff grabbed me and took me outside. He tried to tell me about another way, about turning the other cheek but it fell upon deaf ears. Whilst speaking to me he helped me climb over a stone wall and he walked me across a field. I felt my feet get wet and he showed me the dew on the grass and the fields around us and the world God had made for us but when you live in a concrete jungle where those around you seem to come from Hell and make you feel like you’ve got to be on guard all the time God seems to have forgotten about you.
On the last day we were called together to find out which team had done the best, not surprisingly we didn’t win, but when my name was called out to receive the prize for best boy camper of the week I was more shocked than anyone. This was my first taste of being judged by a different yardstick than others because I have short arms. My position on this now is that I’d rather fail on an equal footing than succeed because I have a disability. This isn’t in order to appear more heroic it’s simply because there is no pleasure in being praised when in fact there isn’t anything outside of being diligent. It’s like saying ten out of ten for trying but only one for succeeding. The noble failure is still a failure at the end of the day.
When I got home I showed mum the Bible and she was very impressed but less impressed by the loss of most of my new clothes. They had been left in the tent when I was transferred to the girls’ dormitory. In just one day I felt what it was like to reach the heady heights of success and the crushing blow of a fall from such a height.
End of chapter 11