I’ve a lot to write, a lot of soul to tear up, a lot of wounds to heal. Some of them I know’ll never be fixed. The plan’s a dud before I even start. But I’ll tell you this anyway – let’s call it catharsis…
In 2000 I took a girlfriend to show her the city I used to live in. I told her all the stories, and showed her all the places I knew.
I’d arranged to meet an old friend at the Cathedral. We hadn’t been in touch for 25 years. As he walked down an outside cloister I found him hard to recognise. I believed I didn’t look a lot different, but perhaps I’d had an easier life since leaving town, in comparison with Matt.
He’d lost his hair on top, and what remained was almost white. Tonsure-like you could say. Although he was of a similar age to me he used a walking stick. He’d left school, but hadn’t followed his sister to university, out of choice. Instead he’d gone to work at a local hospital as a nurse. It was what they call a psychiatric hospital today. At some point he’d become ill. Perhaps as part of the healing process, he’d gone to live in the Forest, with a woman I have never met, and probably never will.
Left to talk on our own, we chatted together for a couple of hours. I think I talked too much about my happiness with my own girlfriend and a successful career change. I was struck by the burr of his accent. At the time I lived there I never noticed his accent, but my time in the North had since attuned my ear to this difference between us.
Before we left the deteriorating town behind I drove past Matt’s old house and shed some tears for the passing of time. It was as though a chasm had opened up and the intervening years were sliding into it right in front of my eyes.
Matt had said I could write to him. I did, but I was too pushy, wanting too much from him. I never kept the letters and I’ve a poor memory so I don’t know exactly where it went wrong. He told me in a letter that I was ancient history, which hurt. He couldn’t go back into the past. But now I think it was because I was a ghost, reminding him of illness, the mother who’d died , his ageing father, lost happiness and innocence and who knows what else? I couldn’t blame him. We all have crosses we carry.
I’d failed my 11+ and then my Dad’s job moved. Mum and Dad relocated and I followed on from my grandparents’ house when my last primary school term had finished. Mum wanted to give me one more chance of educational salvation, so I ended up in a small private school of only 69 boys.
We lived in a bungalow in our first year in town. I like to think we moved because of a scratchy recorded broadcast of church bells which disturbed my sleep every Sunday. We moved less than a couple of miles down the road, but maybe because of the railway line between us and the bells, my lie-ins weren’t as disturbed as they had been.
While Dad was on the road, selling carpets, and Mum was at work in a local department store, and re-decorating the house in her spare time, I spent a golden summer watching Wimbledon, over step-ladders and through decorating sheets, as John Newcombe beat Ken Rosewall in the Final. My hero was Rod Laver, and I was in awe of the strength in his massive muscled right forearm, which the cameras loved to focus on. The soundtrack to my summer was Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge over Troubled Waters’.
I guess the Vietnam War was still going on through the summer but it had little impact on my world. UK soldiers weren’t being killed in the jungle, so war news was fairly scarce. All the same, the melancholy lines “Acid, booze and ass, needles, guns and grass, lots of laughs, lots of laughs” from Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” * are some of the words that resonate with me from those times. It’s strange in some ways because, apart from a bit of marijuana in my late teens, I’ve never played with drugs and guns, although I still play Joni’s records frequently.
I became friendly with 3 friends of Matt’s at school – Martin, Ian and Mickey. One summer 4 of us went camping with our bikes in the West Country. I’ve a photo of Matt and I resting at Lostwithiel Station, probably waiting for a train to Golant or Fowey. We’re on a bench outside the Parcels Office and the Ticket Office is close by. The red paint of the Great Western Railway peels, nature creeps down the platform and a couple of blackened palm trees strain for sunlight. I’m on the left, Matt’s on the right, and our rucksacks are at our feet. The picture’s taken from our left and we’re looking straight at the camera.
Knowing them as I did, I think Martin and Ian were probably too shy to appear in the photo, but one of them was happy to take it. There doesn’t seem to be another soul on the station to oblige with a snap, and self-timer buttons weren’t even a twinkle in my Daddy’s eye. This captured moment is the only physical thing I have to remind me of our friendship.
Autumn came and summer was eclipsed by wind and rain. I spent many winter evenings at Matt’s house, where they lived a more bohemian life. Matt, his Mum, Dad and sister Jenny exuded a hippy style in the way they dressed and their easy-going attitudes.
Don’t get me wrong, no laws were broken, and the only high we enjoyed was caffeinated. Jenny was older than Matt, and loved Joni Mitchell, Carole King and James Taylor. Those are the names and theirs the music I remember from those wet nights and dark days. Mostly due to Jen, Joni’s the one who’s stuck with me most through the years. I like to think I could have been some clouds in her coffee. Dark gold hair and piercing open blue eyes, Joni spoke to me and Jenny, but Matt ridiculed her piano playing. “She’s just bashing it out” he’d mock. Clunk, clunk, motioning with his hands. He was wrong, of course.
Sometime later I was drawn away by some new friends I’d made. There’s no point in me trying to spell Pawel’s surname. At least we could call him Paul. But his surname began with a Z and was difficult for us. I think his Mum and Dad were Ukrainian but that’s all I can tell you. Mark was a nice guy who always knocked around with Pawel.
One abiding memory is going to Mark’s house, with Pawel one night – a lot happened in near darkness through my middle teenage years – and one of them had bought a new prog music album. We went into the living room and Mark put the record on and we sat there in rapt attention, for half an hour listening to the first side.
It was like nothing else we’d ever heard before. A swooping mass of electronic birdsong led into a voice singing a poetic stream of consciousness. “Close To The Edge” by Yes was a powerful experience for us.
And that opened up the world of progressive music for me. I tried some cross-fertilisation with the hippie folk crew when Genesis one of my new bands appeared at a local Top Rank, and it went down well with Matt and Jenny I think. How could they not fall for Peter Gabriel singing the 18 minute ‘Supper’s Ready” dressed as a flower and superbly singing the climax in a fox’s head and red dress?!
One day on the school bus, a girl I’d seen before with her friends, sat down next to me. And soon after that we were inseparable.
It’s funny how I drifted from one group of friends to another during this period. Penny was complicated. She was mixed up with a dark figure I never met, who she only called by his surname, Bailey.
On one of my rare evenings at home, Mum told me we were moving North again due to a promotion for Dad. My first real girlfriend was being torn from my grasp and I was devastated, contemplating staying behind. But it seemed impossible for me then at 16 years old.
We moved of course and in the following year, in spite of a week together in youth hostels in the Yorkshire countryside where I lost my late virginity, Penny and I quickly split up. Distance can’t support relationships at that age. I lost touch with Matt, and my Dad died from a long and painful illness soon after returning to the North West. He was only in his early 40’s. There still aren’t many weeks go by when I don’t think about him.
I seemed to have developed the fine art of losing things.
“I’m gonna blow this damn candle out, I don’t want nobody comin’ over to my table, I got nothing to talk to anybody about”.
© adewils 2011
* With grateful thanks to Joni Mitchell for her wonderful songs “Blue” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard” JONI MITCHELL MUSIC Inc.(BMI) ©1971 which I’ve taken the liberty of quoting.
Listen to Joni sing “The Last Time I Saw Richard”
And if you enjoyed this post, why not look at my post about my internet radio show “The Music Box”.