155. Trouble and bliss on the Essex border

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Living with Maureen in Ilford, on the border between Essex and London, was the transition point between boyfriend-girlfriend culture (meeting in the pub) and house-holding. We knew nobody in the area – but had traded that for cheaper renting prices than those asked in Brentwood.

We inhabited four rooms on the bottom floor of a house in Argyle Road, near Valentine’s Park, from early 1983. Discovering each other’s intimate habits for the first time. Domesticity seen through the filter of young, hopeful eyes.

I had to get used to being in a regular job. My first. Starting in an ‘easy’ Ladbrokes shop at Manor Park, full of unaggressive punters, before the tougher challenges of Green Street and Barking.

It was a delightfully insular time. Every evening I would wrap myself up in my new found horse racing and betting studies, taking notes, seeking patterns. I hold a memory of M blowing smoke rings around the lounge, as she watched telly. It was sentimental nonsense, but my favourite programme was Minder. Arthur Daley and Terry. Dodging the not-so-long arm of the law.

The essence of living together, for me, was bedtime. The bliss of falling asleep with our arms around each other, in a big bed with a double twin mattress. I wonder if I have ever enjoyed that very intimate form of companionship so much again. Sex was a bonus, still exciting, a beautiful addition to simple delight. Some Sundays we would sleep for so long after a night out that the light would be fading outside the curtains.

Going out had its range. Curries, eaten in Indian restaurants without cutlery. Cinema, drinks. Sometimes to parties in London. To Valentines Park on hot Sundays, reading and sunbathing. We disappeared to Surrey for Mike Beaver’s wedding, for which I bought my first suit. The reception was great, much laughter and dancing, followed by the hospitality of Mike’s parents.

All normal stuff for a couple in their mid-20s.

People visited us occasionally. Jonny Marks, Steve Lowndes, Big Dad, John Devane, and many of Maureen’s family and friends. Paul and Katie on the night when my insides exited through my trousers. My Ladbrokes mentor, John Schaper, and his girlfriend Sharon, came round for food. Afterwards we went to a Stratford club, drinking and dancing. My nearest brush with debauchery was a solo evening visit to Thamesmead. Steve was throwing a party. He was somehow conducting sexual liaisons with three different women, one of whom he married.

There were massive drinks opportunities with the Ladbrokes boys and girls, but I struggled to fit. So many were trying to bed each other. Managers and cashiers. Often married. Good luck to them. I was no moral judge, but could see destruction slipping its reins. I was ridiculously contented at home, and fiercely protective of that. Alcohol has a habit of stripping away discernment, weakening the head and heart.

One evening I attended a managers’ ‘drink-up’ after work in Manor Park. Time flew by, and pints went down until about 7.30, when it dawned that I had neglected to tell Maureen. I phoned from the bar, and she was in floods of tears. I legged it, and was welcomed by the most delicious spaghetti bolognaise, that she had kept warm for me.

We had a cracking holiday in Dorset. A Swanage B and B, then Mudeford, staying with Maureen’s sister Marilyn and husband Mike in a caravan. We fell off the bed one night, carousing so much, then praying that any awakened humans nearby would soon relocate the arms of Morpheus.

My anti-social credentials declared themselves a day or two later. Attending the wedding of Maureen’s cousin Janet Dubber, I sat under a bush while wedding photos were taken in stifling heat.

Later, Maureen quit her job at Elm Park, which she had once loved, due to discomfort with some of her co-workers. To this day, she regrets that decision. I probably didn’t help with my classic advice of: ‘If you don’t like something, and have made an effort to stick at it, then why not walk?’ This started a period of depression for M, who had huge chunks of time alone on her hands, with me working six days a week. I didn’t know how to help. Not a clue. Except: ‘I’ll be here for you. Whatever choices you make.’

Maureen decided to sell her car, to help keep the money pot topped up. She began to take on agency work, travelling to places such as Enfield and West London to earn a crust. And making enough of an impression at a nursery in Russell Square that she was asked to work full-time. She was brave. There were demons bubbling away.

And I still knew how to get in trouble. It never goes. Languishing in bed one Sunday morning, the phone rang. The transport police at British Rail. Informing me that I was booked to appear in court in Southend, as a result of not paying for my ticket on an evening trip to see a pal.

It was one of those things I had done on a near-automatic basis since teenage years, figuring that I would never get caught. I wasn’t the only one to notice a financial Achilles Heel in the layout of the big stations at Barking and Stratford. Both had platforms where underground and overground trains pulled up on either side. If you paid a small fee to get a ticket into the underground system, you could then travel to Southend on British Rail trains, jump out at the other end and offer a fare from a couple of stops back. Cunning stuff eh?

But this time the guard did not believe my concocted story. That I had sprinted into Leigh-on-Sea railway station, just in time for the train and lacking the time to buy a ticket. And travelled just a couple of stops down to Southend.

So I appeared in court for the third time in my life. Already on the CV were the offences of freewheeling down a pavement on a moped, Actual Bodily Harm, and sounding my ice cream chimes after 7.30 in a built-up area. I pleaded not guilty, but my solicitor provided some awful advice, not worth going into, and I deservedly got landed with a £90 fine for fare-dodging.

I managed to keep my job with Ladbrokes. I was honest about almost all of the events, and they must have liked me. Or I was being looked after by unknown forces.

Why have I consistently broken the law? Not just the list of official offences. The stolen beer barrels and the milk bottle through the window. Nicking 50 pence pieces from my dad’s money jar. It is too easy to default to blaming Eric, my dad. The corporal punishment to enforce his rules. Never being cuddled, not being loved enough etc etc. Yet my brother has been law-abiding all his life.

Maybe this is a clue. At the age of 12 I decided to smoke my first cigarette, in the bathroom. My parents had both smoked robustly and warned me that this was not behaviour to be emulated.

I would see about that. Locking the door, I stood in the bath, by the window, in order to let the smoke drift away. The taste was horrible, but the forbidden was exciting. I found myself erect.

Naughty boy.


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