135. Feedback and flashback

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Rose Valley. That last blog had a tremendously buoyant effect.

The spring and summer of 1981 in Brentwood was always categorised in a box marked ‘magical time’, but to go back and excavate the details has added to the wonder I felt, and feel again. It brought back other memories of love and sensuality – again a cocktail of ecstasy and vulnerability – but making me so grateful to have been through the experience.

That recollection pulled scales from my eyes. Maureen walked in from work Monday night and I was seeing the 21-year-old nursery nurse whose body rested against mine in that Brentwood single bed. The clean smell of her hair and her gentleness. Amazing and beautiful. What a lucky boy. Still lucky 38 years later.

It’s arguable that memory is all, or most, of what we are.

My wife was talking on Monday about how difficult it is to rid yourself of the Pavlovian reactions that get built in at a young age. At her January 27 birthday celebrations, a group of people laughed at the other end of the table, looking at her.

Her immediate and unstoppable thought was that they were laughing about her weight. The legacy of her younger school years.

It reminded me of crossing a road in Chelmsford on a summer evening several years ago. A group of lads drinking their lagers all burst out in laughter about 20 yards away, and all my internal defences came shuttering down. They hadn’t even seen me.

Fortunately, perspective and common sense kick in. But the neural pathways from school days never disappear.

 

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134. Rose Valley

 

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Maureen created this picture a couple of days ago. With her typical colour, attention to detail and wit.

The second time we met was 459 months ago, in late November 1980, almost two months after the Southend introduction.

Inveigled by Maureen’s mate Sue, my mate John Devane invited me over to Chelmsford. To the Saracens Head pub, in the high street. It was a cold Friday night. She looked just as good as on the first evening. I felt a nervous anticipation. But mixed with that feeling from Greece that I was being looked after, that all would be well.

After drinks, we strolled over to Dee-Jays night club. We danced, pissed, to Eddy Grant. That was big fun. The snog was only a matter of time. And so it went.

She reckons she chose me. I know that I gave her the choice. Leaving Sue’s early the next morning, I scrawled my number on a beer mat. “Call me if you fancy seeing me again,” or some such. She did, which saved me from having to chase.

Maureen Dubber must have already trusted me deeply by the next Wednesday evening. She came to the door of her house on the East Ham estate, in Brentwood, wearing the frumpiest cardigan imaginable. In the Boar’s Head pub in Ingrave, she trusted me further, relating affairs of the heart and loins. She laughed at my stories and jokes, which came flooding out whenever an attentive listener appeared. There was a maturity about her, and a kindness, that complemented her sensuality. She seemed to accept me for who and what I was.

And so I decided to tell the truth about my hair, still an ultra-sensitive matter. After the first in a series of letters to her, she was sweet about it. I found out later that she had undergone painful infant and junior school days. Mainly spiteful comments about her puppy fat. Those hurts never really leave. They made her sensitive to others, and an empathic listener.

On New Year’s Eve, 1980, she told me in bed that she loved me, and I said….nothing, as I kissed her. It didn’t feel that way for me. What should it feel like? I had no idea.

A month or so later, sitting opposite Maureen at her friend Allison’s house, it hit me that I was completely trusting of her, found her company a constant delight, and fancied her with an ever-rising heat. Later I said the three words for the first time. Tentatively, but truthfully, sensing that I was opening a gate to the unknown. I love you.

That spring, by the time that I had moved into a shared house in Rose Valley, Brentwood, passion was starting to tip me over. That is how it was. A time that never happened again. The Rose Valley time, which I had wanted for so long.

Looking back, it was as if every aperture of sensitivity in me was torn open. Even saying goodnight to her outside her house was delicious, as I could dream about her on the way home. I used to stroll back alongside the railway line, singing the line from the Police song: “Walking back from your house, walking on the moon. My feet don’t touch the ground, walking on the moon.”

I still remember the thrill of being told by her in the Sir Charles Napier pub, in Brentwood, that our sex life “just gets better and better”. Bliss mixed with relief to know that it wasn’t one-way traffic.

I paid for the ups with the downs. For me, the cycles of our relationship were emotionally exhausting, a roller coaster ride. Utter delight, eyes transfixed, unable to look away as we joined. Hypnotised, I could not look away, my heart no longer mine.

Then plunging lower and lower in her absence. I worked the night shift at Thermos, the vacuum flask maker in Brentwood. One afternoon, as I went for a run to clear the cobwebs before work that evening, I had to stop by the side of the road and throw up, so lovesick was I.

It was part ecstasy, part agony. I wrote out the words from Paul Weller’s lovely song ‘English Rose’, and dedicated it to her. I think I may just have lived up to it, by the skin of my teeth.

No matter where I roam
I will return to my English rose
For no bonds can keep me from she

Sitting in the Seven Arches pub, or the Brewery Tap, wrapped up in each other’s eyes.

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Later she would go, and I would steadily go mad waiting until the next time I could see her.

1981 was a summer of great parties, where we would take my dad’s car up to London or elsewhere. In Lewisham, and Chislehurst, where we slept in the car outside. In Amersham, we went to a party thrown by Shaun’s forestry ranger mate Steve. Before it started we went in a pub, and sat at the bar. Maureen was wearing a white teeshirt, with her jacket draped around her shoulders. I could have eaten her there and then. I have never wanted anybody so much……apart perhaps from the time when we had a party in Rose Valley.

Bed space was at a premium, and Tim Devane had crashed out on mine. Maureen crashed down next to him, leaving me trying to get to sleep in the kitchen at four in the morning. No success, so I tramped up and down the streets of Brentwood feeling like an unreleased pressure hose, with zero blood available to my brain.

And then, when all had gone home in the morning, we snuggled into one another.

Also a pregnancy scare. One day I withdrew wearing one less prophylactic than when we began, which was both funny and frightening. Far from ready for kids, I was equally ready to help M do whatever she felt was necessary. Which meant having a child, if that was her choice. The condom thankfully re-appeared a few days later.

We went to Wales on holiday, and caroused hard in a Llandudno hotel room. We popped into Moseley to see Shaun and Fran on the way back, and persuaded them to come to a party in Essex. It is impossible to put into words how besotted I was during these months. There were nights of such passion, and laughter, and love, and once speed, which was a passion killer.

It came to an end, of course. My last but one night in Rose Valley was a balmy September evening. We walked with my housemates Pete and Paul to the Thatchers Arms out at Great Warley. Paul Garrett, who died a few years ago, was in great form, making us all chuckle. Then home, and puffing on somebody’s marijuana in the kitchen. Paul placed his head in the oven, in mock suicide mode. And so to bed, before driving with Maureen the next day out to Herne Bay, in Kent. I was starting a teacher training course in Canterbury, and she helped me take all my stuff across.

I woke up on Monday morning in an empty Rose Valley room. Everyone had gone to work, so I gathered my last few bits, left the key and caught the train to Kent. Feeling very nervous about the new adventure.

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133. New life

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I like to make a small mention of the eight seasonal punctuation points in the pagan calendar.

Imbolc, the halfway point between winter solstice and spring equinox, can fall anywhere from February 1 to February 7. Known as St Brigid’s Day in Ireland. A Celtic festival to mark the stirrings of new life, and the beginning of the lambing season. I read that Imbolg is Old Irish for ‘in the belly’: a time when sheep began to lactate and the grass began to grow. The promise of hidden potential, of life-force stirring.

All of this stuff means more when you live out in the countryside. Especially the returning light. In mid-Essex, I am feeling better with each passing day. The winter has at times been an endurance test, a time to maximise sleep, relax, reflect and stay healthy.

 

Our lad, Rory, was ill last week. Horribly sore throat and fevers. Days spent in bed in his shared house in Cheltenham. So the poor bugger missed out on any 20th birthday celebrations on February 1st. It was also the first time that he has not been with us on this day.

His house mates brought him a cake. That was about it. So I was impressed that, instead of feeling sorry for himself, he managed to find nuggets of gold in the experience. Spending the best part of three days alone, he said, brought his first ever realisation that solitude has benefits in the form of freedom and thinking time. That’s my boy.

Here he is a year and a half ago. The first time that I perceived his saintly halo. All the more surprising as he was hugely hungover.

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On a Saturday in early May 1998, Maureen and I drove down to Brighton, for an overnight stay. This time had been deliberately set aside, with my parents booked to look after Lauren and Josie. I needed to tell my wife something, in return for which she could also provide vital information that would help clear the marriage decks. Very intimate, private conversations.

On the Sunday, we had been on the road back to Essex for no more than half an hour when an urgent need to stop and vomit overcame her. Nine months later, Rory was born.

His birth was also poignantly memorable for Maureen for another reason. Her friend Christine Bull was riddled with cancer, and promised to hang onto her life until Rory was born. He came into the world at two minutes to midnight, and Christine slipped away at 5.30 the next morning.

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132. Danny Dyer

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I don’t give a flying one about celebrities. Zero interest.

But, hand on heart, I started watching Eastenders due to Danny Dyer. Not because he is a good actor, but because the actor and the man were, to my eyes, almost one and the same. But not quite.

It jumped out of the telly at me one evening, as we were eating our dinner. You couldn’t miss it. He seemed to be in this liminal space where all his vulnerability poked through, and yet he had the confidence to improvise more than anybody else in the cast.

Can I do this? My old man will be watching. Shit, let’s try something difficult.

I didn’t previously watch soaps, because they seemed to show characters going around in circles. Miserable. Not evolving. Being victims, submitting to smaller and larger constraints. Not fascinating. An underlying message that our lives have impenetrable ceilings. Which isn’t how I feel.

Anyway, there he was, landlord of the Queen Vic. As he moved and talked, I saw doubt and swagger wrap themselves around each other, locked in battle, grinding out the fruitful unknown. The crucible of being human. Many others probably just saw a cockney blagger making the most of a lucky break, getting to play himself.

My notion that there is more to him was reinforced just now when a quick use of the search engine revealed that Harold Pinter was Danny’s mentor.

That’s the intro.

Instead of going back to work yesterday, after lunch, I sat with Maureen and watched Danny excavate his heritage in ‘Who Do You Think You Are’, recorded in 2016. I came to it not knowing a thing about him, except that he is a West Ham fan, with an East End background. As was Pinter. But you can blow those starting gifts from the Gods, as Ray Winstone has shown with his Bet 365 adverts. Like I say, you can shove celebrity lives.

But again, as Danny raked back through his family tree, that captivating mix shone through – humility meets wide boy. I was fascinated as he chatted to his older female relatives, who so reminded me of how my dad’s aunties spoke. Self-effacement, right in your face. Family lore had percolated down the years that his ancestors had owned a workhouse in Poplar, but it turned out (of course?) they had been forced to take refuge there. Disappointment written deep all over Danny’s boat race.

Yet, working way back, he eventually found the treasures he had hoped for. The Gosnold and Tollemache families in Suffolk, where Danny shook with joy as he found a “geezer with a moat” to be his relative.

Even better for Mr Dyer, his 15 x great-grandfather was Thomas Cromwell. Who clawed his way up from a blacksmith father in the back streets of Putney to be the second most powerful man in England. TC does it every time for me, having surmounted those impossible odds.

And further back in the DD tree, the jewel in the crown. King Edward III.

When he arrived home to tell his missus, she ran round shouting that she was a “princess”. I yelped with joy. Not because of Danny’s royal blood, but the overgrown state of his lawn. Just like mine. Love it that a guy with a few quid in his pocket and an audience of millions couldn’t give a fuck about mowing the thing. That lack of bourgeois pretence endeared him to me further.

But he should have left it there. Dwelling quietly on his joy. Instead, he is the MC for a new history series, ‘Danny Dyer’s Right Royal Family’. What are the chances he’ll make a dick of himself? I’m inclined not to watch. Hope he proves me wrong.

 

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131. Full circle

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On 20 April Jono and I are headed off to Southend to watch TV Smith. The former singer with the Adverts is playing at the Cricketers pub, which is where I first met Maureen in 1980.

I’d love to pull out deep memories of that night. But they are few. It was a warm evening. I know it was September 23. John and Tim Devane’s birthday, which we were celebrating. The first thing she said to me, standing at the bar, was some kind of witty put-down. No idea what. I liked her heels, eyes and hair, among other attributes. The attraction was immediate. After drinks, a group of us went for a curry somewhere on the London road near the pub. We sat opposite each other. I could see that she listened, between the lines, as I trotted out a few obligatory jokes.

Driving back to Romford, I had an idea that we might hook up. The three boxes of sexy, witty and kind had all been ticked. But I wasn’t a chaser, and so let the buck pass to serendipity, fate and their relatives.

My experience is that key present moments can act as reconnaissance missions for the future. The first night that we slept together was in a flat on a council estate in Chelmsford where I became a milkman six years later. Maybe my happiest ever job. The second time we conjoined followed an evening in a Great Waltham pub just half a mile away from where we currently live. Destiny foretold? During this period, neither of us lived or worked in in Chelmsford.

Maybe there is more going on than simple coincidence. In summer 1982 I worked an ice cream round for Tonibells, and was warned one evening by a policeman that I was breaking the law by sounding my chimes after 7.30. This was in Mews Court, a Chelmsford cul-de-sac. I preferred risk, and so carried on regardless. He stuck to his word, and I ended up paying a fine.

Fifteen years later we moved to Mews Court, very near to where the copper had lived. It was there that I tumbled into the financial abyss of credit card debt, linked to risk. Make of this what you will.

By mid-2005, we had moved again. To a road just a stone’s throw from the Cricketers pub in Chelmsford, mentioned in Blog 8. The only pub in my entire life that felt like a local. Decent beer, a Hammers-supporting landlord and a fine jukebox. Not only did Jono and I enjoy copious drinking sessions there, but it served as the base for many an evening of fine marital fun.

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So I’m looking forward to returning full circle to the Southend Cricketers, as the days lengthen again.

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130. Concresence

Good company and good discourse are the very sinews of virtue

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I have always enjoyed my own company. That characteristic was one of the driving reasons for going self-employed over two decades ago. Being constantly told what to do was difficult to tolerate, however good the boss.

Yet tides turn. A part of me has increasingly come to crave membership of a group of peers with similar interests and temperaments. People to meet with, face-to-face, on a regular basis, but in purposeful equilibrium, without being dragged into the regular ego battles of younger days.

More than that. The word that sums up my desire is concresence. Not just a growing together of initially separate parts, but evolving, together, preferably to embrace a learning process of some kind.

Not straightforward friendships, which require good chunks of in-between time to stay fresh. I love all of my mates but beer and banter soon run their courses, for me. The pressures to meet more, rather than less, were fundamental in my leaving the pub/cycling group described in Blog 10.

I have run a betting syndicate, which was really a case of my egotistical enjoyment being matched by the passivity of the other participants. So it’s not that.

Last winter I had the notion to start up a secular prayer group, as an experiment. Firstly, to see if a group focusing on helping others could have a measurable, practical effect. In the spirit of scientific enquiry. Second, as a way in which I could get to sit with similar minded people, but with a distinct task in mind. Not droning out handed-down words, or begging for bounty from on high, but wishing for improvements in the lives of others while we grew as a group.

I got as far as a few volunteers, generally with backgrounds in Christian worship. My decision was to put it on the back burner. Intuition said there would be clashes among the potential members. Maybe I will revisit this down the line.

The Buddhist group spoken of in Blog 126 was maybe the nearest I have come to group concresence. High levels of devotion, layer upon layer of spiritual learning and the use of prayer to heal. I lacked the time and money – and perhaps the willingness to jump completely in, feet first – that would have greased that journey.

The Ubuntu gatherings mentioned in Blog 6 were fascinating, but nobody could agree on common, achievable aims.

Certain aspects of being a monk might have suited a few centuries ago, but not the celibacy and lack of family.

What has quietly thrilled is how my marriage has come to exhibit rising levels of concresence. Even if I never find – or found – the type of group mentioned above, Maureen and I have run a home for 36 years and a family for 31 years. We have had some big ups and downs, for sure, but these have steadily smoothed out. Now, we can sometimes begin talking in the mornings and produce an exchange of exploratory ideas lasting for hours, putting standard tasks on hold (Blog 58).

It is an extraordinary achievement, for which I am supremely grateful.

 

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129. Southwold blues

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Where does the black dog come from?

This one poked its miserable head a few inches out of the kennel as we drove into Southwold Saturday afternoon. Maureen was talking about her 60 years, and her various regrets, some of these linked to work choices.

We parked, and browsed the shops for a top she could wear on Sunday evening. Shops struggle to interest me, but it felt good to help. And Southwold is not plagued by the usual set of horrible high street franchises. Eventually, we found an orange sweater she liked. She tutted about the price.

We decided to eat in an Adnams pub. Maureen nipped off to the loos and left me to order. Being a sucker for curry, I requested the chicken jalfrezi. So pleased to be out of the biting wind. Antipasto for her. Ten minutes later, a huge platter arrived with several cured meats, and I watched her face descend. “I wanted the vegetarian option”. Shite. I hadn’t been listening hard enough.

The waitress was not happy, but reluctantly agreed to take it back. Maureen reckoned that the woman behind the bar had clearly heard the vegetarian order. The pub landlord was sitting nearby, looking disgruntled.

Some of this was my responsibility, so I offered to have the meat antipasto myself, and could they please bring the vegetarian version for Maureen. For the same price? Yes. So another large meal arrived. Everyone seemed placated until five minutes later, when the waitress lugged out a sizeable curry. I had assumed it would be cancelled, without specifying.

We sent it back, to more glowers from behind the bar. Not sure if the landlord thought his staff were crap or his new customer was mad.

I could have handled all that but Maureen’s eyes had filled with tears. We finished the food quietly and tried to walk off the blues that had crept in under the radar. Southwold is so dark at night, and none of my stabs at conversation had any positive effect.

The drive across to Leiston cinema was almost silent. One of those occasions where my every thought had become pessimistic. Was it a poor sleep on our first night? The reflections on the downsides of being 60? Our ever-precarious financial situation? Tried to let the thoughts come and go, without much success.

Leiston was equally dark. So few street lights. We were early for the cinema, and found a pizza restaurant to sit and have a coffee. By a warm heater. The proprietor was a charming Italian. The place could have featured in Twin Peaks. Very bright, clean and unadorned. I wondered if a dwarf in a red suit might stroll in, speaking backwards, or a tree with a brain appear behind our table.

We started to talk about our three children. The pros and cons of them being young, and the easier but lonelier days when they have fled the nest. Holidays that we had been on. The course of our lives.

Suddenly, without warning, the blues had gone.

The cinema possessed the charm of a bygone age. Each seat was sponsored by a local citizen. The film, ‘Welcome to Marwen’, was OK. The experience was brilliant. We departed on a high. Had a great sleep and a brilliant Sunday.

Maureen said later that she had felt pulled down so remorselessly at one point that she was on the verge of asking me to cancel her birthday celebration back in Chelmsford. Which turned out very happily, with about 20 friends and family toasting the light that she shines out.

I suspect she is no different from most people in her vulnerability to negativity that can steal in silently. We all react differently. The blessing is that these feelings are almost always transient, and their departure brings relief and joyful perspective.

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