147. King of the road

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I turned into the Chelmsford close, and hit the switch. The sound of ‘Greensleeves’ pierced the warm afternoon air. Within 30 seconds the urchins came running out.

“Kevin Special please!”

Grabbed a double cone, squirted in a decent dollop of ice cream from the machine, and dipped the thing voluptuously into the hundreds and thousands tray. Inserted a small lolly, followed by a flake, and drenched the calorific monstrosity with strawberry sauce. Lowered it down to grasping hands on the pavement. 10 pence.

“Kevin Special please!”

It was a one-off improvisation that triggered endless encores. 10 pence, 10 pence, 10 pence. Again and again. A madly cheap price for the kids of Widford Chase, where John Devane also happened to live. I should have charged three times as much, but liked seeing the happy faces. It also pulled in more adult customers, swayed by the Tonibell man’s generosity to the little ones. A 16-year-old girl climbed in the van one evening and asked me to drive her somewhere quiet. Flattering, but no thanks – my love life was back on track.

I started the round in April 1982, badly in need of a job. Was still signing on in Herne Bay, mainly because the DHSS was paying my rent, and Maureen and I could use the place at weekends, if we wanted. Once it was clear that money could actually be made selling ice cream, I came off the dole, and lived full-time at my parents’ place in Brentwood, sleeping on a mattress in the spare room.

Setting the tone for my working life, I toiled six days a week throughout the summer of 1982. Started the day by loading up with fresh supplies at the Tonibell yard in Basildon, where a very small man called Andy would disappear into a freezer to haul out the family bricks and lollies. I wondered sometimes if he lived in there, clad in his furry parka. Then off to serve two schools at lunchtime, in Harold Park and Brentwood. Jumping out and picking up the litter afterwards.

Maybe time for a quick sandwich and a 50p each-way accumulator on the nags. By 3.15, I was parked on the A12 outside the Chelmsford junior school where all three of our kids went in the decades ahead. On a good day, the day’s expenses were paid by 3.30, and every subsequent sale was pure profit.

The rest of the round mainly involved two large Chelmsford estates, Moulsham Lodge and Westlands. On the latter, I stumbled into an ice cream war with an Italian guy working for rival company Rossi, who felt his pitch being queered by my interlopings. The mad fucker chased me round the estate one day, sounding his chimes and waving a clenched fist. It would give so much pleasure to say that we had a duel with cornettos at ten paces, or wrestled naked, smeared in mint choc chip. Practically, it made far more commercial sense to work out his approximate times and not clash with these.

Sunday was the bumper day, when people were at home. Maureen came out with me a couple of times, and almost demolished somebody’s fence when I let her drive. If it was sunny, Sunday takings could be immense. Maureen’s mum and dad often received a huge 99 on my way home.

Steve Lowndes, my old Birmingham mucker, also had a Tonibells round. He was living with his girlfriend in Hornchurch, and offered his chilled wares in Laindon, just west of Basildon. It never worked out for him, but he left a magnificent memory one day as he overtook me on the A127, shades on, chimes blaring at full volume.

Inevitably, routine set in. The van and the ice cream machine had to be kept in reasonable hygiene. The fragrance of the diesel fumes from the back of the vehicle would fail every emissions test today, and could be whiffed inside the van. The same route, same times, same faces, same orders, became a chore. Some days I only broke even, and now and then I went home early, battered by mundanity. My parents’ neighbours sometimes got the arse-ache with me, if I cleaned the van too early in the morning.

But the trade-off was worth it. All the clichés – king of the road, free as a bird, lone wolf, master of my own destiny – were spot on. Moreover I had my very own unique form of personal transport. If Maureen and I were going out, I would call round in my pink conveyance. That alone must have made her the envy of every woman in Brentwood and probably further afield. Once I even drove up to Lewisham for an evening with Tony, John, Al and Nick, sounding my chimes outside their house to let them know that the flakes were on me. How cool was that?

Even better, I managed to squirrel away three grand over the summer. Which was a lot then. The mark-up on ice cream was something like 500%. When autumn set in, John Madden cunningly suggested I heat the ice creams up, to maintain cash flow. I did sell a few hot dogs at lunchtimes, but it got to the stage where there was no profit, and so I went back on the dole.

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146. Don’t You Want Me Baby

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From late November 1981 I was alone, for the first time in my near 25 years. With no money to maintain any regular contact with the teacher training students at Canterbury, nor to visit friends, it was only my habit of writing letters that kept me linked to my former life.

I would occasionally bump into Helen, Grubs and another housemate, Pete, in the kitchen or lounge, but tended not to pursue that. Didn’t have much to say. Certainly no regrets about ditching the course. Was I lonely? Probably. Didn’t see any kind of future, at the foot of my self-dug hole.

But I had an optimistic nature. Still have. I found my own company comfortable. Things would work out somehow. They always did. I remember walking at nights around the streets of Herne Bay, to keep fit, and eliminate the need to use the electric fire in my room. I wasn’t a TV watcher, but there was always something interesting to read, or John Peel on the radio. And I liked long sleeps.

Yet one of the jobs I considered applying for was as a milkman in Whitstable, a few miles down the road. I reckon I figured that spring would be a better time to start. Flashing five years forward, I was driving a milk float around Chelmsford.

Retrospect from a long way out can provide surprise insights. It has only just occurred – literally a couple of days ago – how the serendipity of that Christmas saved me from myself. If Maureen and I had split up at another time of the year, the chances are that I would have found a local job in North Kent, and might not have come back to Essex for many months.

But Christmas was approaching, and it felt necessary to see my parents and brother Neil. And, perhaps, Maureen. I’d asked in a letter to meet again, for a drink, to see how she was and to try and apologise for the pain I’d caused. She agreed. Was I angling to re-start things? In truth, I didn’t see how I could even consider it. Choices had consequences, and I would live with these. Grit the teeth. Move on.

Shortly before Xmas day, we met at the bus stop near Wilson’s Corner in Brentwood where we had often rendezvoused in happier times. Just the sight of her, looking brave and confident, amplified the magnitude of my loss. It hurt in my stomach.

We chatted, and walked along. Not holding hands anymore. We entered the ‘Good Intent’ pub, where my friend Ron from Thermos was working behind the bar. I had my standard beer, and Maureen her usual Pernod and lemonade. It wasn’t hard to find things to talk about, and the drink flowed easily, as we stood at the bar. It was strange, to be inches from that face that I’d loved to kiss, and the body that had driven me half-barmy with desire. As if a glass screen had been pulled down between us.

We got on well. The drink was smashing a question in quickening circles around my brain. How the fuck could I have thrown away such a good relationship? Her body language was fairly neutral, but then she had always carried herself like a great actress.

At some stage in the evening, the Human League song ‘Don’t You want Me Baby?’ poured out of the speakers. What a mirror to our drama.  As the alcohol kicked further in, I felt increasingly bereft, really quite overwhelmed by loss as we were packed together by the growing Christmas crowd. Alcohol also lowers risk-taking thresholds. A thread of chance made itself known.

I doubt that my reasoning was logical, but the thought was something like this. Let’s say that she, also, is missing “us”, even if just a little, I told myself. If that’s so, can I ever live with myself for not exploring the chance of trying again?

Rejection would have killed me off for months, but the risk of immense pain often has a shining flipside. Praying that all my guardian angels were looking down – or that the demons were looking the other way – I simply asked her. Can’t remember the words I used, but knew within seconds that it was going to happen.

Maureen’s eyes filled with tears, the first time I had seen my actions do that to her. “But I thought that you needed to be on your own, that we had grown too far apart”, she sobbed, making me love her then as much as I had ever done. “I can’t bear this, being without you,” came my truthful reply.

We fell into each other, and my evening of raw pain changed into a super-happy night. Quietly, I thanked the universe with all my heart.

Thinking about this 37 years later, it stands out that, but for the seasonal punctuation provided by Christmas, it is a near certainty that she would have moved on and found somebody else.

The Human League song remains a constant reminder of what a dick I was.

 

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145. My favourite joke.

If anybody suffers from excessive political correctness, then best turn away now. This still makes me weep with laughter.

 

 

A guy with Tourette’s syndrome walks into the poshest restaurant in town.

“Where’s the pissing, motherfucking manager, you cock-sucking arse-wipe?” he enquires of one of the waiters. The waiter is taken aback and replies: “Excuse me sir but could you please refrain from using that sort of language in here. I will get the manager as soon as I can.”

The manager comes over and the bloke asks: “Are you the chicken-fucking manager of this bastard place?”

“Yes sir, I am,” replies the manager, “but I would prefer it if you could refrain from speaking such profanities in this, a private restaurant”.

“Fuck off” replies the bloke. “Where’s the fucking piano?”

“Pardon?” says the manager.

“Fucking deaf as well, are we? You snivelling little piece of shit, show me your cunting piano.”

“Ah,” replies the manager, “you’ve come about the pianist job” and shows the bloke to the piano.

“Can you play any blues?”

“Of course I fucking can,” and the bloke proceeds to play the most inspiring and beautiful sounding honky-tonk blues that the manager has ever heard. “That’s superb. What’s it called?”

“I tried to shag yer missus on the sofa but the springs kept hurting my dick,” replies the bloke. The manager becomes anxious and asks if the bloke knows any jazz.

The guy proceeds, playing the most melancholy jazz solo the manager has ever heard.

“Magnificent,” cries the manager. “What’s it called?”

“Wanted a wank over the washing machine but I got my balls caught in the soap drawer.” The manager is a tad embarrassed and asks if he knows any romantic ballads.

The bloke then plays the most heartbreaking melody the manager has ever heard. “And what’s this called?” asks the manager.

“As I fuck you under the stars with the moonlight shining off your hairy ring-piece,” replies the bloke. The manager is highly upset by this language but the man’s skills are so sublime that he offers him the job on condition that he doesn’t introduce any of his songs or talk to any of the customers.

This arrangement works well for a couple of months until one night, sitting opposite him, is the most gorgeous woman he has ever laid his eyes on. She is wearing a very transparent dress, silhouetting her breasts, and sitting with her legs slightly open, sucking suggestively on asparagus shoots as butter drips down her chin. It is all too much for the bloke and he sprints off to the toilets to release his tension. He is tugging away furiously when he hears the manager’s voice. “Where’s that bastard pianist?”

He just has time to finish off, and in a fluster he runs back to the piano having not bothered to adjust himself properly, sits down and starts playing some more tunes. The woman steps up and walks over to the piano, leans over and whispers in his ear. “Do you know your knob and bollocks are hanging out your trousers and dripping spunk on your shoes?”

The bloke replies “Know it? I fucking wrote it.”

144. Two little things

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The roads leading to and from our home in Great Waltham have witnessed a trail of slaughter in the four and a bit years we have lived here. Crumpled, blood-smeared, tyre-decapitated corpses of foxes, rabbits, badgers, pheasants and hedgehogs dotting the routes to Chignal Smealy, Pleshey and Howe Street. Carnage that offers a free source of protein to the corvids, but messy as fuck to look at.

When I get on the bike again in the next few weeks, it is almost guaranteed that an animal corpse or two will litter the route. A year or so ago it occurred that by stopping and removing the body from the road, I could give the victim a smattering of dignity. I have lifted dead badgers and one very young deer onto the grass verges. They are not light.

Accompanying these ceremonies, I quietly chant the Great Compassion Mantra, learned back in 2012 from the Hanmi Buddhists.  It asks for compassion for all deceased and living beings, protection from suffering, and assistance with the spiritual journey. It feels like a suitable purification rite for the poor buggers mangled by vehicles. I do the same for the dead mice, birds, voles, and rats that our cats bring to us.

Does it make one iota of difference? No idea. It just feels right.

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It was enjoyable to memorise, like learning a poem at school. Here is how it sounds out.

Ong ah shay hong, ong moni beni hong

Nama redna zayaya, nama bangawaday,

Maha gurunigaya

Bia sara, buru madena, data gataya ahaday

Samyasam buddaya dayata ong

 Dara dara, deri deri, duru duru

Ai-zhay, weh zhay

Jali jali, bejali bejali

Sawa galita, sawa garma

Yawarananay

Suday

Besoday besoday

Gugana subawa

Besoday, soha

 Add in my Essex accent, and you have something to conjure with.

Another ritual of mine happens last thing at night. No, not that.

This involves eyes closed, left hand placed over heart, right hand over navel.

I visualise a golden light, radiating and welling in the heart area. That light is my love. I imagine and feel it intensifying, linked to my love for Maureen, or the kids, or maybe friends, neighbours and family. I envisage it shining outward from my chest, shafts of golden light reaching out across the room, the house, the village, the fields, the treetops, the towns, rivers and seas. To everyone within a radius of hundreds or even thousands of miles. Having done this regularly for some time, a point is reached where imagination and feeling become one and the same.

Then I stop, bring my hands together in prayer, just touching my lips. And whisper inaudibly, ‘my love is yours’.

It is known as the Blessing of the Inner Sun. Based on a Hermetic philosophical notion that the inner light from any individual can illuminate vast corridors for the living and the dead.

All very mystical and unknowable, but, again, it feels correct, good, benevolent and a great thing to do before a head hits a pillow.

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143. The North Kent wane

 

Easy to say in hindsight, but I should never have left Essex in September 1981.

Somewhere in that list of digging holes to climb back out of was the decision to start a one-year post-graduate teacher training course at Christ Church College, in Canterbury.

But something had to be tried. Manual work was easily found but always boring in the end. And I could not get the best memories of Birmingham out of my head. So a return to academia held out a certain promise.

I had applied and been accepted many months previously, and Maureen helped me hunt around for accommodation. A room was found, at the top of a tall house in Herne Bay, on the North Kent coast, about 8 miles away from the college. Quiet town, with seaside promenades. And a nice boozer nearby, the Druids head.

 

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It was easy to kid myself and others that I was on the way to getting a qualification for a career. Deep inside, I couldn’t envisage it. Didn’t believe in it. The propensity for any kind of career was lacking, unless somebody would pay me to indulge in the pleasures that interested the most.

The kidding continued during the first few weeks in Kent. I made a good gang of new friends, having worried that I would struggle to fit. It helped that I was 24, whereas most of my fellow students were fresh from university.

Every appearance of confidence, for the moment. Tapes of Heaven 17, Wah! and Echo and the Bunnymen playing in my room, as I skimped through the course material. Autumn warmth still in the air. Minor friendships were struck up with my new housemates, Helen and ‘Grubs’, a Welsh wannabe novelist. Big Dad paid a surprise visit from Manchester one weekend, joining Maureen and I for pub jaunts.

But nothing could halt the looming cloud of teaching practice, which began with an observation period for several days at a school in Faversham. That clarified what I had known quietly. By the end, I had observed beyond doubt that teaching was not for me. More specifically, I had no interest in the subject, history, and almost zero inclination to put myself in a situation where one performed publicly for most of the working day. Worse, the necessary imposition of class discipline went completely against the grain. That other people could adapt to that was of no concern. That’s how it was for me.

I decided to jack it in, rather than pretend until the pretence ran out. On the Sunday before I was due to start in earnest, I took a bus to the school and left a mass of loaned materials and books on the reception doorstep. Glancing around quite shamefully.

Relief and terror punched and fought hard on the bus journey home. What the hell could I do for a living? Living at home again with mum and dad was a depressing thought. I was beginning to fret about my hair again, in the autumn winds. Was there any future?

There was another massively troubling issue. My bleak outlook had been enlivened by several women showing an interest in me in the first few weeks at college. Cheating on Maureen was never contemplated, but it flattered my ego at a time when the general outlook was shrivelling by the day. One of them had showed an exceptional interest, exacerbated by alcohol. Another was very open to my company, and a third always made time for a chat. All three exerted a waxing moon pull on my waning stability.

With little future on offer, everything seemed to matter less. After wrestling with myself for many days, I sent Maureen a letter on the day that I officially dropped out of my course, saying that I wanted our relationship to stop. We had been growing apart. There was some truth in that. Some of it down to greater geographical distance.

The bigger, overwhelming feeling was of everything coming to an end. Purpose running down to nothing. Still I dropped the letter into the red postbox with dread, with no certainty that I wasn’t cutting away the best source of nurture, friendship, love and support that would ever be available. Ever.

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Maureen’s response beamed out dignity and class. She wrote back, saying I had hurt her immensely, but that it was probably for the best. And that yes, we probably had been growing apart from each other.

With bridges burned, there was freedom to explore temptation. Before too long, the attractions were seen through.

My recollection is that a typical male stance kicked in, of not dwelling too long or hard on my actions. I signed on, looking for work. Applied for a pub job in Canterbury, and was knocked back. I was told later that it was a gay pub. Maybe my homoerotic tendencies were insufficient. Worked for a day in a Herne Bay home for the physically and mentally challenged, but it didn’t feel right.

It was clear that I was destined to be on my own for a while. I lived in what was now a cold coastal town, and would stay in bed until lunchtime. Then buy a paper, look at the racing form, and split the afternoons between a warm betting shop, where I might spend £1, spread out over the course of an hour, and a warm library, to keep pumping out the letters to mates that I enjoyed so much. Cook a warming stew, and go to bed early, to read. Always scanning the job pages, but feeling unsuited to most tasks. Living on less than a tenner a week, and with absolutely zero prospects in my own head. Emotionally desolate, but reluctant to admit that.

Weekends were sometimes filled by visits from friends. Steve Lowndes and Jon Marks, on one nicely drunken occasion. John Devane on another. Once a week, to break the tedium, I attended a Quaker-run course on philosophy and meditation at the house below with a lovely Scouse guy from the teaching college, John.

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Whether to fill in the time, or unable to resist the black hole of genetic gravity, I decided that there would never be a better opportunity to make a massive and thoroughgoing effort to learn as much as I could about horse racing. Despite the win on Shergar, I had not let myself be carried away with bigger stakes. That was a one-off. But I had been fired up inside by the growing notion of becoming a “professional gambler”, having read that guys such as Alec Bird, Phil Bull and Simon ‘Dodger’ McCartney were alive and well and making it pay. And from the little I had read, it seemed that they simply studied the formbook with more perspicacity and dedication than others.

With no firm concept of how to achieve such a desirable destination as theirs, it seemed that the old adage about perspiration, rather than inspiration, would be the watchword. So I made a start, and studied a book in Herne Bay library each day on the racecourses of Great Britain. ‘Horses for courses’ was an old saying that I had given little more than lip-service to.

In particular, I would pore over the spread of articles in a weekly publication entitled the Sporting Chronicle Handicap Book, which were giving me ideas on why horses win and lose races. In the paper’s section for readers’ letters, a bloke called Mr Van Der Wheil (or VDW, The Flying Dutchman) first introduced himself into my life, albeit initially as just one of many readers claiming to have cracked open a chink in the bookmakers’ armour.

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I settled down to make some serious notes. And carried on wrapped in my sleeping bag late into the night, as there was no money to heat the room for more than 2-3 hours a day. I remember rising one morning with iced phlegm hanging from my nostrils.

I cannot say that I won anything overall from my betting, but it began to strike me that the winners of certain races had a logic to them, as patterns seemed to assert themselves on the racecourse, as in nature. I liked it that any of my small perks, such as beer and newspapers, might depend on nothing more than one’s judgement and courage.

Nonetheless, as Xmas approached in 1981, that activity covered over a constant feeling. I had cut myself off from something never to be regained.

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142. Van Gogh in Essex

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A mad idea, I know.

But somehow, when Maureen and I first moved to Great Waltham, we conjured up the idea that Vincent Van Gogh once lived in our village. It’s not very far to Holland from here, and he was open to travel.

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More than anything, it was the lie of the land that amplified our twinkling thought. The undulating nature of many surrounding fields, and the sweep of burnished gold that meets the eye as summer progresses. The stark, gaunt landscapes of the winter. Also, the unpolluted skies at night, when the stars shine so clearly. We reckoned he would have felt at home here, whichever side of his character manifested.

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We used to sit on the patio of an evening chuckling quietly at the notion that Vincent once lived in our house. That he had probably left some old paintings laying around. Shall we open another bottle of wine? Perhaps we could start guided tours. We might be the only two people in the world to find this amusing.

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As things stand, I console myself that there is a fine artist here, right by my side. Working in a range of mediums, splashing joy and colour around our domestic environment.

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