Thursday, 25 October 2012

1977. A Jubilee, a lump, and a present you can’t wrap.




I can’t remember much of 1977, well I can, I just choose not to. I started my second year at Preston Catholic College, and the less said about that the better, though I will go into detail at a later date, just need a bit more therapy first. 

It was the Queens Silver Jubilee, it rained, Elvis went to the great Vegas show in the sky, Punk landed like a brick on the glass coffee table of popular music, safety pins and bin bags went up in price, and everyone in class had a copy of ‘Never mind the Bollocks.’ Everyone that is, apart from me. 
I needed a new bag for school, I didn’t want my old satchel, or a briefcase as some of the older schoolboys had. No, I wanted a sports bag, and an Adidas one at that. My Mother, Bless her, gave into my demands and went out and bought me a sports bag. A pale blue sports bag, with an emblem on the front that proudly said ‘1952-1977 The Queen’s Silver Jubilee.’ It would have been easier and cheaper if she’d just written ‘My son’s a puff, please kick him at any opportunity you get,’ because that’s what happened. From the start of the day waiting for a bus to school, the walk through Town, the day at school, the walk back through town, the bus journey home, I got kicked, and not just by school mates, kids from other schools, punks on the bus station, the odd Nun, anyone really. And no matter how much I tried to deface the bag, lose it, burn the bastard, it was indestructible. It stayed pristine. I couldn’t blame my Mother, she thought it was a lovely bag and one that other children would envy. I don’t know where these envious children would have been or what mental state of mind they would have either, but none of them lived in Preston.

That same year I started being a little ill. Tired, grumpy, gawky, hyper active, under active, miserable. And it wasn’t all due to the Jubilee bag. I sprouted what looked like a second Adam’s Apple, just below the original and prominent enough to stop me fastening my shirt collar properly. After a lot of faffing about with a doctor who specialised in not knowing arses from elbows I was finally sent to the hospital for a check up. After many blood tests, prodding and poking, I was diagnosed with having a growth on my thyroid gland and all I needed was a simple operation that would involve slitting my throat open and removing said growth and I would be alright, though my eyes would still resemble a Bush baby on acid. The date for the op kept on being put further back. Time and time again I’d get ready to be admitted to hospital only to be sent home again. It also meant time away from school. Result.  

Knowing I had to go into hospital meant I needed new pyjamas, I couldn’t be wandering around a ward in my pants and vest, it would be like ‘Music and Movement’ for sick children. So, during one particularly cold Autumn half term my Mother took me to Blackpool for a day out and a trip to Brentford Nylons. 

Blackpool out of season is a thing to behold. Everywhere was practically shut, something I was reminded of years later when I started work at Blackpool County Court, January 1995 to be precise. I remember asking one of the women I worked with as to where the best place to get a sandwich was.

‘Just over the road and up the side street,’ she told me. ‘Best sandwiches going.’

I returned an hour later, empty handed and rather hungry.

‘I couldn’t find that shop,’ I told her.

‘Oh, you won’t,’ she said. ‘It only opens from May to October. But they are good sandwiches.’ 

Anyway, back to my tale. We found Brentford Nylons, and after a lot of, ‘Oh these look nice,’ from my mother and God knows how many sulky replies from a twelve year old me, we settled on a pair of pale blue jim jams. Pale blue, with a navy blue collar, and made of nylon. 100% nylon. I couldn’t go past anything electrical, or walk quickly on carpet without building up enough static to power a light bulb and my hair in a constant state of shock. I could get up from the settee and take the cushions with me. This only added to my awkwardness. I must have been a joy to live with. 

The best thing about the trip was that I had time to myself with my mum, something I loved, but would never admit to. We went for fish and chips, walked along the prom fighting the wind, the Northwest gales, not my mothers, and spent as long as we could in the amusement arcade. This was a time before the likes of Pacman and Space Invaders and the ability to shoot as many zombies as you can for a pound, and by today’s standards probably very boring too, but one machine held our attention. ‘The Penny Falls’, simple, slow, but brightly lit, we’d stand for what seemed like an eternity, putting a tuppence, ( that’s inflation for you) in the slot, watching it travel down the slide and onto a pile of other hopeful two penny pieces to then wait for the big, slow mechanical platform to move ever nearer to them in the hope of knocking the entire pile off the edge and into the dispenser for your collection. Not the quickest or most successful way to win your fortune, and thinking of it now we must have looked like two country bumpkins on their first day in the big city, but there we stood in anticipation and hope, gazing at the pennies:

‘That one’s going to go soon.’

‘Try the other side.’

‘Got it.’

We’d make as much celebration as our timid selves would allow as a whole 10p’s worth of pennies fell off the edge, only to be returned again as quickly as we could.

This was exciting, this was fun, this was…heaven.

A whole twenty pence could last forever, well, until home time any way, and then back on the bus. 

By this time my two sisters had gone to college in Liverpool and my brother was working for the Co-Op. Home was quieter, colder, not the hive of activity it once was, and, apart from my dad, there wasn’t anyone to tell our tales of a great day out to when we got back. Just ourselves, in front of the telly, over an Ovaltine. 

About once a week we’d get a call from my sisters, my mum would do most of the talking, how were they, were they eating, keep away from boys, that kind of thing, and I’d stand next to her awaiting my turn, always so much to say to them, couldn’t wait to tell them about my week, find out when they were coming home, but, as usual as the time came all I could do was grunt a reply to my sisters questions:

‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s alright, yeah. Bye then.’ I don’t know why we made such a fuss of a phone call each week as they came home most weekends, but Liverpool is a long way from Preston, at least an hour in the car. 

It was getting near Christmas and nearer to the date when I was again going to be admitted to hospital, hopefully this time to have my operation. One evening my sister Aron calls, mum answers and talks for awhile then passes the ‘phone to me, I grunt the usual replies to the usual questions, then my sister says, ‘put your mum back on, I need to ask her something’, I do, and after a couple of words my mum turns to me still standing there in a cold hallway in my nylon pyjamas, hair on end, crackling away like a bad AM radio, and she say’s, ‘Go into the living room, this is private.’

I go back in, sit on the settee, try and peel the cushion off me without getting frazzled to death, and wonder what they’re talking about. I hope it’s nothing bad.

Mum comes back into the room.

‘What were you talking about?’

‘Oh, nothing,’ she says. Immediately I think the worst. 

It’s a few days before Christmas Eve. My sister Grainne’s home from college for the holidays, she loves being back, my brother Sean’s working in Chorley and only gets home late, and my sister Aron is still in Liverpool. That evening she calls.

‘Put your mum on the ‘phone’, she says. I do.

I stand next to my mum, I’m the worlds worst eavesdropper. My mum’s answering with ‘yes’s’ and ‘no’s. Something’s up. Then she says, ‘Your sister wants to talk to you again.’

‘Hello.’ I say. Always one with sparkling repartee, me. ‘When are you coming home?’


‘How soon?’

‘Couple of days. Listen, I’ve got you a Christmas present…’

‘What is it?’ (Please say Donna Summer’s new album.)

‘I’m  not telling you, but you’ll get it Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day, all right?’

‘Yeah, allright. You are coming home though aren’t you?’

‘’Cause I am. Put your mum back on.’ 

Christmas Eve. It’s getting later and later. It’s dark now, mum’s delaying putting out the tea, and my sisters still not home, and I’m starting to worry. Well, I’m starting to worry I’m not getting a prezzie. By now my mum’s sick of my endless mantra of ‘When’s she coming home?’ The kitchen windows are steamed up from cooking, it’s dark outside, and someone taps on the back door. My mum opens it to a swirl of steam and cold air. It’s my sister Aron. She steps inside, cold and smiling, and holding a bundle in her arms. She turns to me.

‘All right Our kid,’ she says, she’s a fully fledged scouser these days. ‘Merry Christmas.’

She opens her coat, and there’s the smallest puppy I’ve ever seen, shivering from cold and nerves.

‘His names Fonz.’ She says.


‘Yeah.’ And he’s yours.’

‘Mine?’ I look at my mum who’s busying herself at the sink. ‘I’ve got a dog, Mum.’

‘I know,’ says my mum. I’m not sure if she’s happy or not.

‘He’s a Collie cross. From Bootle. My friends dog had a litter, and he was the runt. He’s a gammy leg, I think he’s deaf in one ear, and one of his eyes isn’t too good. But he’s lovely,’ Says my sister. ‘They were going to throw him in the Mersey. I’ve carried him all the way home’ 

She hands him over to me. I look at him. He’s like a baby womble, so small and shaky, and warm. And a bit wet. 

‘He might have a weak bladder as well,’ she says. 

Might? That was a little understatement. 

He yawns, a little row of white pointed teeth, a tiny yelp. We look at each other. He’s beautiful. 

And he’s all mine. 

( To be continued….)