2 Bridgwater Days
By Sam Smith
Published: February 21, 2008
Updated: October 27, 2008

Prologue

Part One: A love story.

i)

Many love affairs can be conventional. None are typical. These two candidates for love worked in an ordnance factory. The factory was on the edge of a marsh a few miles outside of town.

He was on a government training scheme for the young jobless.

Classified as neither apprentice nor as unskilled labour, the factory did not seem to know what to do with him. He was as unsure of his role, felt that he had been foisted on the factory by someone in an office somewhere else.

The older men in the factory resented and patronised him in equal parts. They resented him because he represented the threat of cheap labour. They patronised him because he was young and therefore ignorant of many of the ways of their world. Left forgotten in a shed he spent the whole of one afternoon pondering the apparent innocence of acid's pale viscosity.

The only good thing to have come out of the job and the government training scheme, so far as he was concerned, was that he had been given free driving lessons and, the first time of taking it, he had passed his driving test. He wasn't, though, paid enough to be able to buy or to run a car. He owned a yellow moped.

He was tall and skinny and seventeen years old. His name was Paul.

Her name was Julie. She was twenty one years old and worked in the ordnance factory's canteen.

Julie worked to escape the inside of her flat and the company of her four year old son. She was small and compact, her dark hair clipped, her clothes pressed.

At work Paul wore a baggy blue boiler suit. Julie wore a green and white tabard.

ii)

In this prelude to the two days, in this history of histories, let us first tell of Julie's.

Julie was divorced. Her ex-husband was a big man. He had been a big man when Julie had met him. She had been fifteen then. In those Bridgwater pubs to which he had taken her, everyone had seemed to respect, if not to fear him. His parents had long been divorced and he had had his own 'flat'. She had conceived in the grubby single bed of that beer-smelling bedsit.

He had married her. Others, male, had expressed their surprise at his doing that. Julie hadn't considered that he would or that he wouldn't. As she hadn't considered falling pregnant. It had happened. She had been young. The young are passive. Life happens to the young.

At sixteen she had been working as a shelf-filler and living at her mother's. She had had no practise in controlling her own life, nor had she examined the world which had been controlling her. Without question she had accepted that, in her 'condition', she would go to the top of the council house waiting list. As she had also accepted the interest that she would have to pay on the credit that she would have to have to buy the furniture. She had not, however, accepted her husband's idea of marriage.

As she had become more pregnant, and less able to go to the pub, she had been left alone with the unpaid-for furniture. And, as she had become less able to go to work, she had become more aware of their finances. Their outgoings had soon — with her diminishing wages and even before he went out for a drink — been more than their income. Julie had tried to talk to her husband.

What she had seen before as his attractive and manly taciturnity, she suddenly perceived as his being stupid and surly. What she had seen as his masterful domination of her, now became pure and simple bullying. What had been a flattering lust for her, now became but beered-up randiness.

But, she told herself, this was the world of adults. Her mother lived on this same council estate. This was where, all her life, she had heard women complaining of their husbands. Julie hadn't wanted to be like them. But when, finally, her own husband did come home, all that he too had wanted was to screw. Even if he was incapable.

Her contempt for him had grown with his every unsatisfactory performance. So had she come to notice that the beer was swelling his belly at about the same rate as her pregnancy had been swelling hers. She had been sixteen. He had been twenty.

Julie's belly had gone back to flat after she'd given birth. His hadn't. And he'd been drunk elsewhere at the time.

He had hit her the first time during her pregnancy. And he'd been apologetic for days afterwards. He had even promised to sort out some of their debts. They had been behind with the electric as well by this time. He had worked overtime, had drunk less for a few nights, had gone out later, had come home earlier.

Before her bruises had faded, however, he had again been coming home only to eat and sleep; and she had been left with her worries and the television, unpaid for and unlicensed.

She had had to stay at home with the baby. The only time she had been able to talk to her husband sober had been when he had come home for dinner. His single response had been to tell her to stop nagging. Occasionally, and always grudgingly, he had given her a few extra pounds.

Such became the habit of their life together. If she refused him sex when he came home beered-up he had hit her. With contempt for herself for staying, consoling herself that this was the real world and not some glitzy soap, she had fatalistically accepted the thumps and bruises on her small frame, even the occasional swollen lip and black eye. As payment she had emptied his trouser pockets just as soon as he had been snoring. And, by way of remorse, of apology, he had never questioned this morning absence of change in his pockets. So had she kept the creditors at bay. So had they continued for a year and more — she and the baby inside the house, he out drinking.

By backwards logic she came to view the odd bruise and beery screw as the price she had to pay for peace of mind so far as the creditors were concerned. And, not wanting the world to know what had become of her, she had confided in no-one, had admitted to no-one her hurts. (Julie is one of three sisters, the three each having a different father: her mother having been passive too, so far as men were concerned.)

Then, one night, Julie's two year old son had been awake with a fever when the father had come home wanting to screw. The child's being awake, and the child's condition demanding his mother's exclusive attention, had infuriated the father. He had punched both wife and son.

Injury to herself Julie could accept: it was her own fault, she had allowed it to happen to her. Her little boy, however, had not asked to be born. She had taken herself and the boy screaming through the empty streets of night to her mother's.

It took her groggy husband a half hour to realise what had happened. He had then pursued them. Julie had refused to let him in. Roaring he had banged on the door. Michael, the boy, had screamed. Child abuse had been in the news. Julie's mother had called the police.

The police had taken the husband away. Julie had refused to return to the matrimonial home unless he was kept away from it. The police had been able to offer no such guarantee. She had stayed in her mother's house. Her mother told her that she couldn't live there indefinitely.

So had Julie and Michael entered the world of Social Services.

Julie, it has to be said, saw here the opportunity to be rid of the matrimonial home and its debts. So she became obdurate in her refusal to return to her own house. Every offer of reconciliation and promise of reform from her husband she rejected out of hand. She wanted her whole life divorced from him, to be disassociated entirely from him.

Her husband could not understand her unflinching refusals, came beer-fuddled to bang on her mother's door. Julie called the police and had them remove him. She made sure that the Social Services knew of the every latest episode. They found her a flat on the other side of town; and she was left on Benefit, but otherwise in charge of her own finances.

At first it had been enough, on her own, to make an independent home for herself and Michael. But a toddler is no company and the Benefit didn't stretch to much. Julie's being a single parent, however, meant that Michael was now eligible for a State nursery place.

Solely to get out of the third floor flat, she looked for a job. The only job going, whose hours matched those of the nursery, was at Puriton. So that Julie could travel the four miles without relying on bus services or lifts, her mother leant her the money for a secondhand moped.

Julie's canteen wages were deducted from her Benefit. So, although her income was officially only a few pounds more, and the expense of the moped accounted for that, she was still better off because she was able, like the other canteen women, to take home the odd left-overs and the cakes and pies past their sell-bys. She also ate her main meal in the canteen, as did Michael at nursery school, so she could go weeks sometimes without buying any major groceries. Within six months she had paid her mother back the loan for the moped.

Her ex-husband had inevitably discovered where she had moved and, occasionally, he came a'maudlin banging on her door. Only twice did she have to call the police. Other times a threat had been sufficient.

Most evenings, however, she still had to stay at home alone with Michael. Her mother refused to babysit, as did her two sisters, just in case her ex-husband came around. Nor did she have any female friends who would babysit. She had been at school when she had got pregnant. Thus had she abruptly left childish things behind. Those schoolfriends had been children with her. She had talked to no female friend of known adult life.

Such had been the state of her affairs when she had become aware of Paul.

iii)

Julie had noticed Paul on the other side of the canteen counter initially only as one of the younger faces. She had noticed too, but only because she had one, that he too came to work on a moped.

One afternoon her blue moped sputtered to a standstill. Cars went whooshing past her on the straight flat Bristol road. In the kerb were drifts of gravel and chippings. Beside the road was a long ditch and some spindly desolate trees.

She was stood there, looking around her, not knowing what next to do, when Paul stopped, climbed off his yellow moped and unplugged his head from a black helmet. He took three minutes to find the loose lead. He told her, blushing, that in his spare time he made and mended motorbikes. Julie passed no comment on his yellow moped. She had to collect Michael from the nursery and left quickly on her blue moped.

The next lunchtime in the canteen Paul blushed when Julie brightly said hello to him. The other trainees made hooting noises at him.

Julie had never seen herself as having power over another adult. (The responsibility she felt for Michael at times overawed her.) But, thereafter, she took pleasure in making Paul blush, in watching the blush start part way up his long white neck and spread out over his face. The other kitchen women took to nudging her when Paul came into the canteen. Similarly, when she was clearing tables on the other side of the counter, Paul's workmates nudged him as she approached. Those times too he blushed. Thus, by their contemporaries, if only for their amusement, Paul and Julie were already viewed as a pair.

Paul and Julie's only meetings outside the canteen took place on the road. Both finished at about the same time. Over the noise of their whining engines, through the padding of their helmets, the shouted conversations comprised mostly his asking if the moped was alright these days. She'd shout thank you. Paul did manage once, when they both happened to be getting on their mopeds at the same time, to convey to her that if her machine ever went wrong she should bring it to him and he would fix it for her.

He blushed those times too.

iv)

Susceptible to blushes he may have been; but Paul was no virgin. Because he then lived with his mother, however, and he didn't want any girl to meet her, he had nowhere to take a girlfriend. And the possible girlfriends, who still also lived at home, were all getting a bit old now for the walk down by the canal or for ungainly fumbles on their parents' sofas. Consequently, apart from the nudges of those he worked with, apart from her smallness among all those stout kitchen women, it was her having her own flat which most attracted Paul to Julie.

Paul's, though, were the small bounded territories of youth. He did not know how to approach a woman — the word itself denoting her remote status — those colossal four years older than himself. From the factory gossip, which had told him of her flat, he also knew that she had been married, that she had a little boy, and that her husband used to beat her up. Such experiences were but stories to him.

Nights he lay awake fantasising about her, attributing to her all kinds of social and sexual sophistications. Until his mind could bear such fruitless conjecture no more. He had to make at least one attempt to have her; and, failing — as he knew he must — thereafter put her beyond his reach and out of his mind.

Pretending he had a fault with his moped he waited for her in the carpark. He was trembling when she came. Luckily alone.

"Hello," he said. Neither had yet used the other's name, "Fancy coming for a drink tonight?"

"Sorry. I can't," she said.

Paul accepted that as a total rejection of himself as suitor. And stood there in his boilersuit, beside his yellow moped, he tried to accept her rebuff with a throwaway insouciance.

Julie felt sorry for him. Tall, white and skinny he may have been, but he was the only one his age in the factory who hadn't been making fist-fucking gestures behind her back.

"I have a little boy," she explained, "I can't get a babysitter."

"Oh," Paul said, realising that her refusal was not absolute, but not knowing where to go from there.

Telling Paul of Michael, Julie conjured up a vision of her evening — alone again indoors.

"Tell you what," she said brightly, "seeing as you fixed my bike that time, (a token excuse to give her invitation some respectability), why don't you come round for a meal?"

"When?"

"Tonight."

"Shall I," he'd heard this line before, "bring some wine?"

"If you like. But food's all you're getting."

Food was all that he did get. He expertly uncorked the wine, grunting without farting; but neither of them drank much. Which realisation let Julie relax. And in his own clothes Paul looked more of a piece, not the white stringy being trying to escape the blue boiler suit.

All they had to talk about, though, was the people at the factory. And where they had both been brought up and gone to school. And they talked of television, comparing likes and dislikes. He noticed that she didn't have a video. He said he knew where he could get one cheap for her. At half ten he left.

The next day Julie didn't serve him in the canteen, was busy out the back. Paul, though, couldn't let what had just begun end there. He realised, however, that she had no other excuse to invite him to her flat. So that evening he arrived at her door with a video recorder. Michael was still awake.

"I can't afford it," Julie blushed. Frightened of debts and of those things she couldn't there and then pay for, Julie was out of step with the credit times.

"It's a spare one," Paul mirrored her blush. (The video recorder was his mother's. His mother, though, didn't know how to use it; and he had too much surplus energy to sit before a video for two hours.) "You can borrow it till I need it back." He dumped it, trailing wires, on top of her telly.

"Thank you," she said, "Like a coffee?"

While the coffee cooled Paul talked to four year old Michael. This visit, with the excited and exuberant Michael to fill the gaps, Paul and Julie's conversation was less noticeably strained. When Michael's bedtime could no longer be postponed, Paul left, pleased with himself.

Julie was waiting for him by the mopeds the next afternoon.

"I can't get the video to work," she worriedly told him, "I can't make out where all the wires go."

"I'll come round later," he indicated that his boilersuit stank, that he wanted to change.

He got there just as Michael was being put to bed. Michael insisted on kissing Paul goodnight as well as his mother. This embarrassed both Paul and Julie — it betokened an unconfirmed intimacy. Paul hurriedly set up the video. But he had to wait while Julie read to Michael. Then Julie wanted to be shown how to work the video. This entailed recording bits of programmes and playing them back. After that she made him coffee. It was gone eleven by the time he left.

The next day he again missed her in the canteen. Then came the weekend. All that he usually did of a weekend was insufficient. Added to which, most of his usual crowd seemed to be away that weekend. He mooched around the town, mooched around his mother's flat, tinkered with a motorbike that he'd been renovating the last six months, and mooched off up town again. That evening he found himself in the back of a car heading for Taunton. But the three others in the car were looking for trouble more than a good time. They found it. He ducked away, ended up walking back from Taunton. He got home at four in the morning. And he didn't mind because it had filled the hours.

He slept late Sunday. Still he awoke thinking of her. Except that now it was as a real person, not some factory fantasy conjured out of his frustrations. And he wanted to be with her, the real person. But he had no further pretext. She was that much older than him, didn't frequent the same streets nor know the same people. Nor did he want, by some inept advance, to make a complete fool of himself, to have her and the canteen women all laughing at him. He rode his moped up into the hills; and, looking down on the town, all that he saw was her block of flats, its tiers of brown and white concrete panels, and he ached wondering what she could be doing.

Monday lunchtime she was again out the back of the canteen. Monday evening he began walking towards her flats, reached the canal bridge, abruptly turned and walked home again.

Tuesday lunchtime she served him. Neither smiled. From the inside his face seemed an immovable mask. Her pale face too was rigid and expressionless. He couldn't eat the sandwich he had bought.

Only late at work that afternoon did the realisation come to him that, if her expression had been the same as his, then maybe so too were her feelings. Heart hammering he waited by the mopeds.

"Can I come round this evening?"

"Make it eight. Michael should be asleep by then."

v)

Julie too had missed him. Her weekends were usually busy. On Saturday there was the shopping to be done, then the housework and the ironing. And on Sunday she and Michael usually went over her mother's. But this weekend her mother's new man had been there grumbling and opening beer cans. So Julie had taken Michael to the park. Michael this Sunday, though, had tired of the swings before she had, and she had been back in the flat sooner than she had wanted; and with nothing to do. Only then had she realised that her weekends were busy only because she had made them so. And she had made them so only to hide her loneliness from herself.

She had looked forward to seeing Paul on Monday, had been ready to flirt with him; and, as repayment for his blushes, she had intended inviting him round for another meal — a thank you for the video — had decided to try cooking a curry, had even looked up the recipes. But the manageress had picked her, that Monday lunchtime, to go out back and prepare the teas; so the moment had passed. And it was a job Julie usually preferred to being on the counter; back there she could chat easily to the other women, did not have to fend off the banter and bellyaching of the men at the counter.

That Monday Julie had waited by the mopeds when it came time to go home. But Paul's yellow moped had still been there when she had had to leave to collect Michael. The depth of her disappointment at not seeing Paul that day had surprised her.

"He's only a kid," she had told herself that evening, "A boy still." He had been eleven when she had been fifteen and falling pregnant

Monday night her ex-husband had come a'banging on her door. There had followed the usual shouting match through the thin piece of wood. With the threat of the police being called, with Julie's frightened neighbours shouting at him, he had left. She had stayed awake most of that night.

On Tuesday she saw Paul not blushing, saw an echo in his blanched features of the tension that was making her feel sick; and she wondered, again with surprise, if she had found someone in this big ungainly boy like herself. When he asked if he could come round, and her telling him when, they seemed to be just the words clothing decisions made lifetimes before.

vi)

So it was, with the trepidation of all new lovers, of those about to step into another's life, to take on a new status, to alter themselves, that they met in her small square living room. And for all her years of marriage, for all his canalside tumblings, they were both inexperienced lovers. After the first shocking touch of one another, they groped and slavered on her sofa for an hour or more before making it into the small square bedroom.

New lovers are always intimate strangers, know so little of this person they take naked to their bed. So it has to be. So it was, due to their inexperience and delay, that their first coitus was over too soon and was therefore unsatisfactory to both. What they lacked in expertise, however, they both made up for in energy.

Paul didn't stay the whole of that night, nor the next. Thursday night, bothered by their age difference, Julie accused herself of cradle snatching. Atop her Paul told her that he was man enough; and she smiled happily at his boast.

All her romantic storybook notions of love had been destroyed by her husband. Coming to Paul she had told herself that she knew what to expect of a man. And, not wanting to be disappointed, she had expected him to turn out ultimately like her husband. For the moment, she had told herself, all she needed of Paul was his company and sex was the price she had to pay not to be lonely. But Paul was not at all like her husband, was gentle and considerate in his lovemaking, and she found herself enjoying it as she had not considered she was capable of such pleasure taking.

Not until Saturday did Paul stay until morning, and then it was because her ex-husband had come again banging on the door and had this time refused to be put off by threats of police.

By repute the man beyond the door was one of Bridgwater's more fearsome brawlers. Paul, though, knew that his future self-esteem left him no choice. So he dressed himself, opened the door, punched her ex-husband on the nose, kicked him in the stomach as he went down; and he breathlessly told him that if he ever came round here again he'd get more. Pushing Julie back inside, he closed the door.

Julie stared up at him.

"My oh my," she smiled, "You are man enough." She hugged him around the waist. "You alright? You're shaking."

"Desperation measures," he told her, "I was scared shitless."

Covering their sniggering, lest the man retching beyond the door should hear and it add to his humiliation, they slid together to the floor.

Paul moved in on the Monday evening.

vii)

Paul played rough and tumble with Michael. But he did not ask for Michael to call him 'father'. Nor did Paul bring any stern or sentimental notions of fatherhood to the flat. If Michael wasn't doing as his mother told him then it was because he wasn't doing as his mother told him: Paul, being young, accepted everything at its face value.

Although Paul told Julie of his punk phase, and showed her a photo of himself with an orange cockade; although he told her of his motorbike phase, and showed her the white scar on the bridge of his nose where he'd crashed; and, although he told her of his smoothy phase, told her of the girls he'd pulled, Julie knew that those phases had lasted but a few weeks at the very most and that she was his experience. And, realising this, not wanting to cheat him of the moment, feeling that he ought anyway to know, Julie told him of her ex-husband's beer-smelling brutality and of his sexual inadequacies — apparent to her only now through her experiences with Paul.

At the factory they told no-one of their new domestic arrangements. Apart from the tea and coffee transactions in the canteen, the only words Paul and Julie exchanged inside work were when they were alone by their mopeds.

Eventually, however, those who cared about such things found out. So Paul rose in a few of the younger men's estimation. So did a few of the canteen women wonder about Julie's taste.

Julie shrugged off their whispers with the confidence that comes from happiness; because, never in her 21 years, had she been so consistently happy. Paul went out alone only to his mother's. The rest of the time he was near Julie, within touching distance, to be talked to, or teased. She had never felt so young in her life, not even when she had been young. Then uncertainty of herself had marred her pleasure in the moment. Now she, Paul and Michael went rolling in a tickling ball of limbs around the flat. And, when Michael was asleep, she flung wide her legs and gripped Paul in the wet maw of her love.

Paul, for his part, lost his inhibiting reverence for her being older, forgot his gratitude for this endless supply of sex; and, growing bold in his lovemaking, he, one memorable night, picked her up and played her like a guitar, fretting her nipples and strumming her pubes.

Wrapped around and in him, soothed and excited by him, surprised by her own capacity to take and to give love, Julie felt loved as she had not imagined love could exist. And that love, the lengthy twilit sensualities and experiments apart, came about through such small gestures, such small considerations — a cup of tea in her Saturday morning bed, an apology for an imagined hurt... a single word can last a long time in any love affair... and not only did Paul have little in common with her ex-husband, Julie realised, he was also unlike those others on the factory job scheme, unlike even those male others in Bridgwater.

Words he sometimes used, quiet attitudes... he looked the same, dressed like them, but with intimacy there was so much about him that she found to be different. Nor did her certain knowledge of the future, that — given his age their love couldn't last — detract from the wholeness of their present love, where to love gave as much pleasure as being loved.

The whole of her life had never been better. Their combined wages lifted her from the floor of subsistence — they were able to treat one another to little luxuries — items of clothing mostly, a toy for Michael, or an adult video for them to puzzle over and to later giggling emulate. And Julie had the freedom, conferred by company, to take walks where before she would have felt conspicuous or afraid with just her and Michael. But with Paul to talk to, an arm to hold, a face to smile at, her self-consciousness and fears were forgotten.

Not that Julie wholly believed in Paul's skinny powers of protection. Because her ex-husband had again come a'banging on her door. Not wanting Paul damaged in a brawl she had light-heartedly told the mumbling oaf outside to go away or she'd set her lover on him again. Paul had laughed aloud at her choice of words; and that laughter had been more successful in sending the husband away than ever had been her or the neighbours' threats to call the police.

Julie had nightmares in which Paul changed into her husband and kicked her in the stomach. She had nightmares in which Paul sneered at her nakedness and punched Michael in the face. Julie knew that the affair must end, had foreseen from the start the time when Paul would tire of staying in with her, would want to get out and be with people his own age. The end of the affair, though, or that episode of it, came about not as she had imagined or feared.

viii)

Out at Puriton there was rumour of the factory being privatised. The workers feared that privatisation would do away with their nationally negotiated wages. The managers, however, earnestly believed in the imminence and, therefore, the desirability of private ownership. They envisaged higher salaries and improved career prospects for themselves; aside from which the privatisation seemed politically inevitable and their careers would not benefit were they seen to be obstructive. So, to make the factory a desirable prospect for privatisation, they decided to present a streamlined operation. To achieve this 'streamlining' they resolved to do away with several of the factory's accepted practises.

One accepted practise was for the casings workshop to save all the brass filings and sell the accumulated brass to a scrap merchant. As Paul was surplus to working requirements it had become Paul's job to take the week's collection into town in the firm's van. The four men, including Paul, got on average about a fiver each for that bag of brass filings.

When the memo came telling all factory hands that such perks would cease forthwith, there was much grumbling in the casings workshop. Paul didn't pay much heed: the three older men had many such arcane and downhearted discussions. From one such discussion, they unanimously decided, and heatedly informed the foreman, that the brass filings had become theirs by established right. So, as usual, the bag was filled and Paul was sent off in the van to town. He ran many such errands. This day, beyond the factory's wire fence perimeter, the police were waiting.

The two policemen stopped the van and questioned Paul about the van's ownership and contents. They asked Paul where he was going and what he was going to do when he got there. Also in the van was a hydraulic jack being taken for repair, some parcels for posting, and he had to collect some printed stationery. When the two policemen's attention became fixed on the oily bag, Paul belatedly realised their intent and said no more. They told him that he was being silly; but they appeared to feel more sorry for him than angry at him.

They took him to the police station. The bag of filings was dumped on desk after desk. A statement was written out for him to sign. It said, more or less, what he had already told them.

All the policemen were polite and friendly. At half past four they released him on bail.

Paul arrived at the flat to find Julie in tears. He smiled at her. He couldn't believe what was happening to him. He couldn't understand why she was so upset, intimated that she shouldn't cry in front of Michael, that they'd talk about it later. But he didn't. There was too little to say. It was all too preposterous. It was all too ordinary. He could not believe that the police, or his bosses, could be serious.

Even when, the next morning, the two security men wouldn't let him through the gates; and a suited manager wheeled his moped over and told him that his official notice of dismissal would be sent to him through the post, he still could not believe that they meant it. Even though he mounted his moped and, not knowing what else to do, went to the Job Centre, where they told him that his Benefit would be stopped because he had technically — by his 'alleged misdemeanour' — made himself unemployed, he still did not wholly believe that this was happening to him. This was not the world that he had known when he had left for work yesterday morning. His life had dramatically changed, and that change had all been achieved so politely and so without passion that it did not seem possible.

The management had not set out to deliberately trap someone on one of the schemes for the jobless. But, having so caught Paul in the act, they had to go ahead and charge him. And, having once done so, the realisation came happily upon them that charging a Job Centre trainee might actually work in their favour. The union made noises; but Paul wasn't one of their paid-up members so they weren't dutybound to represent him. And Paul's stubborn loyalty to his workmates, his refusal to name the other three so obviously involved in the 'theft' of the filings, made both management and unions feel safe. Paul was not going to muddy their waters.

Nor were the men whom Paul was protecting going to make trouble. They were sorry he'd been caught, but they were not sorry enough to put their own jobs in jeopardy. As another of the older workers said,

"If it had to be someone, better someone who won't lose their redundancy." In the management's streamlining process, job cuts were also threatened.

On the Thursday of that week, on his way back from delivering Michael to the nursery, Paul met an old motorbike friend. The friend needed some help on his windowcleaning round. He paid Paul cash.

That same day Julie realised that no-one in the factory was going to come to Paul's help. When the three casings men came to the counter Julie thanked them for sticking by Paul. The rest of the canteen turned to look at her immobile white face and hard words. She was disliked for the shuffling embarrassment she caused to the three men.

Later the canteen manageress took a quiet opportunity to remind Julie of her own leftover perks, pointing out that the sneaked-out sell-bys weren't strictly legal either.

Julie took her indignation home to Paul. With cash in his pocket he told her not to bother,

"What can they say? It's the way things are."

In all subcultures the grass, the snitch, the telltale, the informer is the lowest of the low. And the irony of it was, Paul intuitively knew, that the men hadn't so much taken the brass filings for the money, but as an underhand gesture of their independence and individuality, to show to themselves that they were not wholly owned by their bosses. Now they were humbled men, and their self-respect was of no consequence.

"Why should you be the only one with principles?" Julie asked of him.

Julie did not want Paul to be like those shamefaced men. But neither could she forgive those men. To her it seemed that all in the factory — on either side of the canteen counter — had had a hand in sending Paul to trial. So she thereafter wore a harsh mask in all her canteen and counter dealings.

While he waited for his trial Paul continued to help his friend on the window-cleaning round. They also painted and papered someone's living room, laid a carpet in a bedroom and put up some garden fencing. Paul discovered that for working fewer hours he was being paid more than he'd received on the training programme.

At the factory, in the week preceding Paul's trial, the worry of the job cuts, threatened by the streamlining process, led to a spontaneous strike. The picket line and its florid uncouth faces made the television news. And, because privatisation of ordnance factories was on the political agenda, it also made the privately owned national newspapers. Thus, in the magistrates' minds, when it came to sentencing, Paul represented a whole host of inarticulate troublemakers. Added to which, by not naming his fellow conspirators, he had brazenly refused to co-operate in this public administration of justice. Thus, for his being faithful to a sense of honour, for his doing what he thought was honourable, Paul was given a six month prison sentence.

In the courtroom Julie crying cursed him for a fool. But Paul still had more respect for himself than for those three cringing old men whom his sense of honour had protected. He heard of his 'crime' in court, of those 'unnamed fellow conspirators', and those words had no connection with what had happened to him; nor could he believe that those solemn-faced magistrates and earnest solicitors took themselves seriously. The language and the consequences were out of all proportion to the act. His solicitor, aghast at the sentence, wanted to appeal.

"Absurd for a first offence," he kept telling Paul. Paul agreed, until he found out that the appeal wouldn't get to court for another six months, by which time he would have completed his prison term.

Julie was allowed to quickly see him before he was taken off to Bristol. She continued to be angry at him for his continuing refusal to name the others,

"They don't give a damn about you."

"Doesn't matter," clean and proud he replied, 'I've got to live with myself."

"Who'm I going to live with?"

The following lunchtime Julie announced to the crowded canteen,

"Thought you might like to know! Paul get six months yesterday. Thank you very much!" No-one asked her for details.

The next morning a couple of oafs came to the counter and asked her for porridge. And again the next morning. It was their lifetime's one joke. Julie handed in her notice and got herself a job in the jam factory.

The sugar-scented jam factory offered no perks. Nevertheless Julie and Michael visited Paul at every opportunity during his four months incarceration in Bristol. It would have been less, but someone somewhere forgot to make an application for a good behaviour early release.

Those four months apart became the crucible of Paul and Julie's partnership, made their being a couple something worth fighting for, made them important to one another above and beyond sexual gratification and social need.

To Paul in prison Julie came to symbolise freedom. She was his other self out there, living a life he knew and could imagine from within the confines of his cell. While, to Julie, Paul became a symbol of innocence wronged.

"A man got fined sixty quid last week for careless driving. He killed someone. And you got six months — for what?"

"Careless stealing?" he smiled. Julie, though, refused to be mollified, added to Paul's prison bemusement by being fiercely indignant on his behalf. He consequently felt mothered as his apathetic mother had never mothered him. Indeed Julie's maternal care and concern for him was more real than ever that of his wishy-washy mother. His mother had never stood up for him, "Should've looked where you were going..." "I 'spect you deserved it..."

At home Julie refused to drift back into her isolated life, kept her anger alive by reading what fines and sentences others received for other crimes; and, relating to her mother and sisters the injustice done Paul, she cited example upon example of the idiosyncratic administration of justice in Sedgemoor Magistrates Court...

In prison Paul drifted through the weeks, kept his conversation for Julie. Sex was not allowed on visiting days: the only intimacy they could therefore achieve was through the baring of their every thought and feeling. Thus it was, in those four months, that Julie and Paul learnt to talk to one another. So it was that, on his release, they found that the talking had become as important as the sex. Especially as they were now to spend their days apart.

ix)

In Britain in the eighties unemployment was running at over three million. Paul had a recent criminal record, no skills, and no chance of any of the few jobs on offer. All he and Julie had were his unemployment benefit, her jam factory wages and her single parent benefit, which she would lose if they discovered that Paul was living with her.

They nevertheless re-established their previous domesticity. Paul looked up his windowcleaning friend and began helping him again on dry days. Through him Paul met a jobbing gardener and began giving him a hand occasionally for cash. Julie's mother's man had a van and did removals. Paul also began helping him. Soon, on a good week, he was bringing home almost twice as much as Julie.

Although the memory of their recent separation still lay occasionally like a sadness between them, one that could suck the joy out of an embrace, Paul and Julie began to relax and look to the future. Paul talked, after good weeks, of coming off Benefit altogether and becoming self-employed. Being able to make his own working arrangements already meant that Paul could often be at home to look after Michael when Michael was on holiday from the nursery, which meant that they didn't have to pay a childminder. Then there'd be a week with no work. Then he got a few days labouring for a brickie, who was also working on the side. In between times he finally repaired the motorbike he kept at his mother's and sold it. With some of the proceedings he bought another two MOT failures, rebuilt and sold them, sold Julie's moped, bought another MOT failure, repaired and sold that...

Their lives were busy and complete. For a while building or decorating work would dominate Paul's life, then it might be a run of removals. Most of the removals were local, introduced him to others' taste in furniture and to turnings off roads unnoticed before; or, the van crammed with a whole household, he trundled down gravelled tracks and around wooded corners, where previously only his imagination had ventured.

To have his income on a regular footing Paul still applied for whatever jobs were advertised. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, according to the woman in the Job Centre who filled out the forms for him, did not apply to him. But there were so many other applicants; and, insofar as rumour and repute went, Bridgwater was a small town, and Paul didn't even get interviewed.

Some weekends Paul and Julie borrowed her mother's boyfriend's smaller van and drove around the coast to Minehead, on to Porlock, or down the motorway to Dawlish. They took Michael to Bristol ice rink; and, with Michael sleeping across the front seats, they slept in the back of the van; and, the next day, they went to the zoo and to the camera obscura. Julie liked to believe that it was in Bristol, fraught with squeaking springs and involuntary yelps, that she conceived.

Paul was arrested that week for fraud.

x)

The DHSS investigators said that he had not declared his earnings from some windowcleaning, nor had he declared the proceeds from the sale of two motorbikes and one moped. The moped had been Julie's. The solicitor got that taken off the charge sheet. For the rest the DHSS declared themselves determined to prosecute.

Paul felt innocent; but already he knew that that was no indicator, and so he took his solicitor's advice and pleaded guilty.

The magistrates were again incensed by Paul's refusing to incriminate his fellow undercover windowcleaners, and by his generally uncooperative attitude towards the police and the hard-pressed DHSS investigators. (Paul was surprised when the magistrate said that: the police had been friendly to him, offering him cups of tea and fags; and he had been polite to the DHSS, even though they'd been rude to him.) For his defrauding the DHSS of a 'known' £283.53, Paul was given a year's sentence.

Paul accepted the sentence with a shrug and a shake of the head. He was, with his record, after all, a proven criminal. The disproportionate sentence, he knew, had nothing to do with justice, everything to do with the bad luck of getting caught. Everyone he knew in Bridgwater broke laws, laws which were acceptable to break. They sold drink to minors, solvents to children, drove over the limit, turned a blind eye to their own taking of perks; and the magistrates and their rich friends all used the cowboy builders, the cheap removal firms, the undercutting decorators and the jobbing gardeners. They had to know that, at those prices, all of those services were dole-subsidised and, therefore, strictly speaking, illegal.

They also had to know that they, the casual employers, would not be the ones who would be prosecuted for defrauding the DHSS, only the poor saps for whom there were no other jobs and no other means of a decent income.

Paul's being a non-violent criminal, police and prison officers told him, he should have done his time in an open prison. But there were no places in any of the nearest open prisons. So he was sent back to Bristol. With remission he'd be there for nine months, maybe less.

His sentence being twice as long as last time, he approached this prison term with a different frame of mind. This time he couldn't just shut down for four months and ignore those about him in the belief that he would never see them or their like again. Nine months was a lifetime, was the gestation period of the child within Jackie's womb.

Nor would Julie be able to visit him as often as before, there being that many more visits she'd have to make. This time Paul would have to do his time mostly on his own.

So Paul learnt what doing time was. That Time existed as an enemy, as a wilderness to be navigated, as a featureless ocean to be crossed. Slowly. Time: every second a step, every minute a hill, every hour an Everest... but an Everest without achievement, an Everest unrecalled, an Everest forgotten in the next blank minute. Time, as palpable and as oppressive as a thunderstorm which never came — a whole day didn't bear thinking about beforehand, let alone a week. As for a month entire... And some of those men had already been incarcerated for years, seeking forgetfulness of unmemorable Time.

Paying heed to the few facilities on offer Paul took up a book for the first time since leaving school. He also forced his body to gasping exertions not experienced since the school gym.

Paul paid heed too to the men about him, to the upright frightened wardens. But he saw only their uniforms, their function. Mostly he studied his fellow felons, dishonoured men all. Because these common criminals, with whom he shared cells, believed themselves to be men without honour, and so they took a pride in being without honour. Paul, though, much to his own puzzlement, still held intact a sense of honour.

How others chose to perceive him, however, was of no account — their vision he had already found to be faulty. His own vision couldn't be: he had to be honest with himself. That honesty required that he maintain his self-respect and, thus, his sense of honour.

In prison all that he had to take a pride in was his body and his mind. So he carne to furiously dislike being bested in any argument over facts. Nor did he like to think of himself as being physically weaker than any other. In an all-male society all that counted was his muscular masculinity and an uncluttered mind.

Still the ache of loneliness could squeeze all sense from him. In the long nights and the weekend bang-ups his every tissue cried out to be close to Julie, his imagination tortured by the knowledge and number of cold walls between their two warm bodies.

He tormented himself too with his fears for her, his worries that her ex-husband might call; his fears that another male, some man unknown, might take his place in her bed, between her legs.... (Being all men in prison they had reduced all women to the singular idea of a hairy avid vagina; and Paul had known Julie like that, a wet vacuum drawing all the strength from him....)

In recompense for his treacherous thoughts — because he had knowledge of other Julies — Julies that were stiff-backed, frigid, independent and proud — he tattooed in blue biro and letters large her name upon his left forearm. To give his being balance, to further punish himself for having thought of his slight Julie in such a grossly singular fashion, he pricked the same tattoo upon his other forearm and secretly wore the two discoloured scabs beneath his sleeves.

When Julie next visited, and Paul shyly pushed up his cuffs, she was not flattered by the blue disfigurement. Offended that he found it necessary to prove his affection for her, she suspected too that the pain he had inflicted upon himself had been meant for her, to punish her for not having been to see him for the past three weeks.

Paul vowed to have no more tattoos. She was his, he had no need to brand himself with her name to claim his ownership of her. Sight of her swollen abdomen was reassurance enough.

In that room of tables they were not allowed to kiss. A greater intimacy was for him to place his hand upon her tight belly and to feel there the tap of the foetal heartbeat, like a hard-beaked chick pecking inside a warm soft egg.

Doing his time Paul talked, for distraction, to other prisoners. So he often broke the supposed code of prison reticence. That code existed, though, only in order that inmates could keep themselves in safe ignorance; an ignorance that did not know, for certain, that they shared their cramped living space, breathed the same tired air, as a child rapist or sadist of some other order. Any such knowledge might require dangerous action from them. Better not to know. Except that only a minute and a half had passed and words, any words, were easier to bear than silence. And most prisoners, once approached, were only too pleased to talk. About their obsessions granted. But talk they did.

"You've been convicted of your crimes," one cellmate said over and over again, "now count the crimes committed against you."

Nor were those cellmates sinister in the least. Murderers, cut-throats, thieves and robbers they may have been, but without knowledge of their past skullduggeries they appeared ordinary. Only when he knew some of what they had done, did he credit their features with the ghost of an evil leer. But he too was in here, and being covertly studied by others like himself... Whatever they had done, it was in the past. And everyone has a past. Here and now, suffering this present, they were all just sad and lonely men — like himself, pathetic and pitiable, inside and out.

In the gym one man sat and watched him as he sweated and trembled at the weights. Paul suspected a voyeuristic sodomite. Instead the man said,

"If you could run for as long, as cunningly and as fast, as the great Alberto Cova; if you had such ιlan, such economy of movement, such ramrod elegance; then you'd be off across the fields out back before anyone noticed you'd gone. Think you're going to lift up the walls?"

A moment in one long moment, but nothing profound.

xi)

On compassionate grounds they allowed Paul an early parole. Released suddenly from that crowded prison, he stood alone in the street beyond its walls, aware of his awful isolation under a vast sky, saw Julie and Michael and ran to them to seek again the warmth of his own small herd. Two days later, wearing a green mask, he witnessed the slippery birth of his pink daughter, Alice.

Now a father he mentioned to Julie the desirability, the convenience, the possibility of marriage. Julie said no. Never again would she tie her fate in with another. If it wasn't booze stealing her man away it was prison. She had to remain in control.

To soften her refusal she told Paul that, in her vocabulary, husband was a dirty word. She didn't want to think of Paul as her husband, or to have others call him by a dirty word.

Paul allowed her that; and, being now four, they applied for a three bedroom council house. His probation officer found him a job in the wire factory. To get there he bought a pushbike. He painted, polished, and added bits to the pushbike; and sold it for four times what he'd paid for it. Michael already had a pushbike. Paul bought one for Julie, added a babyseat for Alice, and walked to work until he found himself another cheap bike.

The wire factory laid him off. He and Julie were offered a council house off Parkway, near her mother's. Her mother's old boyfriend leant Paul a van. Paul removed himself, signed on, drew Benefit, sold his pushbike and bought another. Julie told him to be careful.

"Providing," he told her, "I buy and sell only the one bike at a time, I'm just trading in one bike so I can buy another." And, scavenging bits from tips, doing up the current pushbike, no road tax, no MOT, no records, the occasional £20 he added to his dole took them above subsistence living.

Julie cycled to the mushroom factory, climbed rotten ladders, crawled around in warm compost and came home smelling of mould. Michael didn't like mushrooms.

As Paul had taken on muscles and maturity Julie had become more confident in him, more sure of him, less aware of their age difference. Indeed so small and slim was Julie that she looked younger than him. It did embarrass her, though, to see her name branded upon him every time that he rolled up his sleeves. So, as a Christmas present, she paid for him to have the two tattoos disguised. After several sessions Paul ended up with a basking butterfly and uncoiled cobra upon the right arm; a leaping panther and pouting cherub on the left. And, thereafter, Julie smiled to see the tattoos, because they hid a shared secret like their clothes hid the delightful knowledge of their sex, an intimacy and nakedness purely their own.

When the dole began to push, Paul stepped up the rate of his applications for jobs. So did he get taken on at the cellophane factory; and, last in, he was first out when orders for cellophane tailed off. So did he go cheerfully back to claiming Benefit and buying and selling his one bike.

Occasionally, when on the dole, he helped with a removal or a small decorating job; but always now on the clear understanding that, if any authority came asking questions, no money had changed hands.

Paul was no longer prepared to be the end of the line man, the only one who went to prison. Never again would Paul let himself be deceived by humbug or bullshit. Never again would he let the assumptions made in manly asides, and their inherent expectations, lead him back to jail; so he asked always for clarification, spoke the incriminating words,

"Is this legal?"

"Not strictly speaking," said with a wink, a grin, or pursed lips.

"What happens if we're caught?"

"We're not going to be."

"What happens if we're caught..?"

Paul took his desire for exactitude from there to those other aspects of life where the words were not spoken. No more would he make dangerous assumptions.

"A bit what? You saying he's a homosexual?" And for legality and sexuality the response to his words were often blushes and stammers. But Paul did not go back to jail.

Paul's regular jobs were about as lasting as a film star's marriage. Soon the pattern seemed to be six months out of work, six months in. He worked in a car repairshop for longer, got to use some of the cars at weekends, took the family on trips. That business, though, went bust.

The family's only other day trips were on the railway to the flat white town of Weston, with its grey sea miles away, beyond the khaki sand. On the little two carriage train Michael liked to stand behind the driver looking down the straight miles in front of him, the rails widest apart under him, meeting in the distance in front and behind.

A stint in a furniture factory supplied their house with a few reject sticks. But that was seasonal. The scent of sawdust, however, was preferable to the smells of the chemical factory; and there Paul didn't share the foreman's high opinion of himself. And Paul smiled because that bullying foreman was afraid of Paul's muscular tattoos. 'This ex-jailbird,' the foreman had working for him, 'has his girlfriend's ex-husband going in fear and trembling of him, and that ex-husband is no mean brawler himself...'

Paul pitied such fools impressed by such nonsense. His muscles may have been begun in prison, but he only kept them with a routine of regular exercise: such muscles could belong to anyone physically fit and sufficiently angry. And Julie's husband was more afraid of the alcoholic phantoms inside his own head that he was of the flesh and blood Paul.

But in his every job his prison past set Paul apart from the other men. Knowing its history Paul despised both their superstitious awe and their physical fear of him. Unequal, they were as uncomfortable with him as he with they. Both, consequently, welcomed any excuse for a parting of the ways.

He was glad whenever he returned to the dole, to the daylong company of his bright little daughter, to the freedom of time and roads to cycle down. Then came a stint on a building site down by the docks. They laid him off from there because he didn't want to go self-employed: Paul didn't trust to the probity of tax and insurances, nor to the prospect of unlimited employment.

Julie had meanwhile moved from the mushroom factory to the cellophane factory, with its giant rolls of clingfilm like a slug's roller-coaster. From there she had started going to evening classes to get herself some GCSEs to take her into an office. For the moment, though, at the start of these two days, she is back among the stainless steel vats of the jam factory.

Occasionally, on quiet evenings, Paul and Julie glance back through the brief history of their life together, smile often and reaffirm their love for one another. Against all the odds... They have fought and they have won, and in the lottery of love they themselves are the prize.

During such bouts of self-congratulation they pity their current acquaintances who have not found their match, or who are trapped in partnerships they loathe. Consequently Julie doesn't envy them the cars and the houses that they own, nor the mortgages and loans they have to repay. Her bleak council house is more her home than are their repossessible des. res. assets. Paul is more her man, too, than are their trimmed and travelling husbands.

In the summers Julie thinks Paul, with a tan and his hair blond and bobbing, better looking than her small dark and dowdy self. Winters, though, he goes mauve and blotchy and his nose dribbles. Then Julie, from behind her make-up, knows that she is the more attractive. This seasonal seesaw equality sees their partnership settled.

Thus, reborn seasonally in them, is the mutual amazement of new lovers — that the person they so desire should so desire them. What a happy fluke love is...

Yet Paul and Julie have few of the illusions of their time. After two spells of prison and the habit of contemplation begun therein, Paul has no intention of throwing over that hard-won freedom of the mind to lose and entrap himself among comforting untruths. So do both he and Julie know that present actions have to be paid for, that there is no endless credit, no infinite dodging of consequences

On the morning of the first of these two July days, a Thursday, Paul is again unemployed. He is twenty one years old. He has a three year old daughter, an eight year old son and a twenty five year old common law wife, who, last night, unprovoked, told him that she loved him. So here they are — stuck in Bridgwater, trapped in love.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

Prologue

Part Two: The Place.

Most people have known of Bridgwater only as a nameless brown smell that they passed through on the motorway in the flatlands south of Bristol. That stink, that yellow stain up the nose, has not invited a closer look.

If, however, their job or their family left them with no alternative but to take the slip road off the motorway, then they found a town wholly misplaced. Pipe-wrapped factories, chemical stench of industry, smoke-trailing chimneys, burnt bricks, estates reeking of communal neglect.... the whole looking as if it belonged more to the grinding mills and flat-capped bigotry of the satanic North. Not there in Somerset's green and fitful levels, where the day's moods should have depended solely on the colour of the sky.

Given Bridgwater's age, its once having been a small thriving port, its having been witness to battles and to the treacherous machinations which have unmade kings, one would suppose that this miniature Middlesborough amidst Somerset's marshes would have been made historically scenic, like, say, once-mercantile Amsterdam. Bridgwater's quota of redundant water, though, the inaptly named River Parrett, allows for no comely reflections. This river is not some gentle meandering mirror for honeyed brickwork and weeping golden willow; rather the tidal Parrett lies dirtily along the bottom of the grey slimy trench that slices though the sprawling town. And all that grows atop those sides of steep ravined mud are a few pollution-resistant sedges.

Once — so exploitive have its inhabitants been — Bridgwater had a little industry, uniquely its own, in the making of 'Bath' bricks from the river slime that had been deposited under Town Bridge. People elsewhere in the country then used those bricks for cleaning their kitchen knives. The people elsewhere have since got wise. Inhabitants of Bridgwater, however, continue to singlemindedly exploit their own environment.

So used and abused has Bridgwater been in the past that there is little now to inspire civic pride. Its past municipal planners gave little thought to their creations. It being flat land they drew straight lines on flat paper, with the consequence that, going into and out of Bridgwater now, the roads are straight, the pavements are straight and the rows of brick terrace houses are straight. The only angles that are not exactly right angles are where the straight lines of the electric pylons intersect occasionally the straight lines of the streets. In the summer of 1990, along those straight flat roads, along those straight flat pavements, there was not one rounded shadow of one mature tree.

The train too goes straight through Bridgwater. Some trackside trees are visible from the train, but what one mostly sees of Bridgwater is a few small back gardens, yard upon dark yard of dusty warehouses, steaming chimneys squat and tall, a single green playing field and a strobing glimpse of a concrete works.

Imagination has never been much used in the construction of Bridgwater. Over the unremarkable river are three unremarkable bridges, joining one flat half of the town to its other flat half. One might semantically assume that the name of the whole town derived from any one of these three bridges. The name 'Bridgwater', however, is a corruption of 'Burgh of Walter', Borough of Sir Walter, Sir Walter being the mediocre Norman knight to whom this portion of English bog was given as booty after the conquest of 1066.

Not until 1180 was the first Bridgwater bridge built, and then it was by a Lord William Brewer. Although he didn't personally build the bridge, did not himself shovel mortar and hew rocks. Rather his pride and his vanity caused the bridge to be built, like it did the castle, neither of which is any longer there.

Thus began the working model of transience which is Bridgwater. Because, ever since within its boundaries, Bridgwater has been in a permanent state of reconstruction, some bits of it being knocked down and some bits of it being rebuilt. In the late '80s, early '90s, the town's new buildings were mostly the doll-like brick houses on the estates of mortgaged starter homes and lead-paned double-glazing. Sprawling supermarkets too, on the carpark sites of defunct factories, were in dark new brick, with varnished flower tubs and no windows. While the high new factories were in ribbed sheets of bright plastic colours. Toy men with hard plastic hats strode about in that legoland carrying sheets of white paper in their hot pink palms.

On one side of the river the parts of the town are called Eastover and Sydenham. This is the side where the largest council estate and most of the factories are. The other side is where the old docks are, and the clapperboard warehouses that are now so tastefully and profitably converted to flats; all of which will, one day they say, enclose a yachting marina.

The town's few quaint buildings are on this side of the river. Some of these buildings have been incorporated into a shopping complex, complete with glass lifts. These parts of the town are called Westover, Hemp, Durleigh and Newtown.

But, no matter what its parts are called, the whole of this town has always produced a stink so bad it kills flies. Even the old rustic market was famed for its smelly cheeses. Other past noxious culprits have included a cattlefood factory, a tannery, oil and cake mills; and cement, iron, brick, railway and gasworks. A place of fire, steam and tar, clang, grit and stink.

The bricks of old Bridgwater still look indelibly charred, blackly overbaked. While in 1990 the new Bridgwater was anonymously notorious for its brown westerly smell, for an airborne chemical cocktail caused principally by the manufacture of cellophane.

What with the wire factory, the mushroom farm, the jam factory, the munitions factory at Puriton, the nuclear power plants at nearby Hinkley, and the nuclear flask depot that backs onto the Sydenham housing estate, Bridgwater is no place for fastidious souls. Indeed this thoroughly industrialised town has relied for centuries on cheap human labour, most of which has been male and stupid.

To keep those males stupefied Bridgwater has more pubs per street than any other town in Somerset. To further compensate for the numbing tedium of repetitive labour, Bridgwater, like all poor places, has to lose itself, at least once a year, in an orgy of public noise and frantic glitter. This takes place every autumn with the carnival, the fair, and the squibbing.

Paul, Julie, Michael and Alice live on one of the straight, wide and wind-blasted roads of Sydenham's council estate.

True Stories

In August 1985 12 year old Jennifer Briley, of Crossacre, Webdon, hurt her hip when she was in collision with a car at the junction of Northfields and Durleigh Road. The car was driven by Margaret Siderfin of Over Stowey.

In April 1986 the bodies of four trussed dogs were found in the Bridgwater canal and docks. Each dog had a rope around its neck. All four dogs were thought to have been hanged.

In May 1989 £70 was taken from a coin machine at the carwash in Mount Street, Bridgwater. This was the 26th time the coin machine had been broken into in two years.

At 6:45am, on Tuesday 20th March 1990, a fire was seen in the corner of the Borden UK Ltd warehouse in Colley Lane, Bridgwater. The warehouse was subsequently destroyed by fire. During the fire Colley Lane was closed, factories nearby were evacuated, and householders downwind of the fire were warned to keep their doors and windows closed.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

Day One

1) Paul Waking.

5:37 say the red numbers on the black clock.

He needs a pee. Closing his eyes he tries to ignore the balloon of his bladder, sinks into a floating slumber.

5.56 say the red numbers of the black clock.

An hour and a half's sleep yet till the alarm. The day is trespassing on his sleep. And he wants sleep, to not be awake.

The football bladder in his abdomen will not let him slip back under sleep.

The day is sneaking grey through the curtain, carving blue scallops of light along the curtain's rucked top.

5:58 say the red numbers on the clock.

On one single implulse he moves himself from under the duvet and he is creeping across the landing, the air passing cold through the hairs on his legs, his mind trailing after him, trying to catch up with what his body has done.

He pees against the polished side of the ceramic pan — so as not to wake the children. He holds down all other thoughts. His mind wants sleep.

The dry ammonia smell rising from his warm and weighty penis reminds him that they had sex last night. He had meant to go for a pee and wash afterwards. Sleep, though, had kidnapped him

He doesn't pull the flush, turns and moves himself out of the bathroom. He sees himself in the landing gloom as a white skin containing red automated jelly. The machine must be kept just about ticking over. Slumbering and walking on the edge of the fall back into sleep. Thought will give his insides bone and muscle. He must keep himself at the jelly of sleep.

He is back in the bedroom trying to decide if he should close the bedroom door behind him. He notices himself doing this. The door was closed last night to prevent the children hearing the noises of their sex. He doesn't want to remember the reasons. He doesn't want to be his daytime self yet, wants to be this sleepwalker with his deliberately limited awareness. Every day, he thinks as he lays the body horizontal under the duvet, we awake empty and we re-invent ourselves. No, to sleep. Sleep! he commands his mind.

6:04 say the red numbers of the clock.

Turning his back on their thought detonations he pulls Julie into his lap. Always, after sex, her body is more malleable to his, is relaxed towards him

His breathing steadies and he slides under sleep.

7:14 say the red numbers of the clock.

He is awake. The back of his mind, though, is still dark and heavy with sleep, is craving his sixteen more minutes. He frowns towards sleep. An anxiety tugs him towards wakefulness. Something from yesterday? What's to do today?

Yesterday was Wednesday. Today is Thursday. Tomorrow is shopping day. Signing-on was Monday last week. Should he go back to the Job Centre today as promised? He won't get the job. Now, before the alarm, he can choose to go or not to go. If he goes he may get a job which may change his life. If he stays home he might finish doing up the bike, might sell it this week, might have some extra cash for next weekend. Choices .... and every choice he makes deprives him of the alternative. He can't, though, be having with the Job Centre this day.

His eyes move to the blue curtains. This new day, already one decision old, seems dim and silent. He imagines the hush of a thick damp mist making people oversleep. Michael has to be got ready for school. Julie has to go to work.

commentary .... Let me make this clear — I am Paul. Paul is I. But the Paul that I am writing of here is not me now. The years between him and I, and this writing, have changed me. So I, now, will write of his doings then in the present tense; and I will talk here, in these 'commentaries' of him in the past tense.

Distant that Paul may be, but he is no stranger to me. I know him. I know all these people.

And another look at Paul's initial sense of contentment on waking is now required.

Primarily this sense of contentment came about because he found it easier to love Julie's softly sleeping self: in the day he concealed his adoration lest it repel her. (All his life Paul has heard Bridgwater women say they like their men to be men, by which they mean dour and undemonstrative.)

Having had sex with her the night before had also given Paul a sense of security about her, while also knowing that to be a wholly false security. Firstly because in their enjoyment they inflicted on one another the small exquisite pains and deliberately tantalising delays of coitus; and he wondered then whether those pains were a harbinger of the out and out social cruelties they would succumb to later. And, secondly, he was not reassured by their recently having had sex, because he knew that appetite — in relation to sex — can only mean capacity for. In sex, unlike food, one cannot stuff oneself to the limit. A woman may say she is satisfied but she is never replete in the sense that she is incapable of having more. So can none of us assume of our lovers that, just because we keep them regularly serviced, they will not stray. Rather, being kept so sensually aware, they may be more susceptible to sexual undertones, be more readily excited by the least suggestion. Paul and Julie's sex life then consisted of two or three groin-bruising, bed-thrashing bouts, which seemed to last all night, followed by weeklong rests.

Mention is also required concerning Paul's being first up to make breakfast and get Michael ready for school. This is because, although Paul had rationalised his being out of work as nothing to be ashamed of — employers don't need him, most machines run themselves — and, although he knows that he and Julie could be just as financially well off if Julie didn't go out to work, that she only goes out to work because she cannot bear to stay at home; even though he knows that any guilt he feels is politically inspired — industry will be rewarded, idleness punished — even though he knows that he, as an unemployed individual, was but an awkward government statistic, that in those days of automation it was illogical for him to find historically conventional work for historically conventional wages, still he felt awkward about female Julie going out to work while his idle male self remained at home.

Guilt was not inspiration enough to make him find a job. The factories layed off then by the unnamed hundreds, took on by the singular interview. Those interviews, in the small back rooms of the Job Centre, were designed solely to intimidate. 'Cowed men only need apply...'

Paul knew those interview rooms at the rear of the Job Centre — the half-frosted window, the formica table, the two chairs, and on one of those chairs Mr or Mrs Middle Management, or one of their flustered minions trying to follow their step by backward step procedures.

At this two-day point in English 20th century history we have probably reached the nadir of British politics, the crass Thatcher having been 13 years in office. This was reflected in Paul's then belief that Middle Management was the curse of Britain. Middle Management being the people who both lost themselves in procedures and who lost sight of the end product. So, in British football, you had managers who didn't care that their team lost in the quarter finals, only that — in losing — the team had played according to plan. In cricket those same managers didn't care that their gate would fall but, following their strategy, they sacked their three star players. All those managers prided themselves on being extremely capable of assessing the fine details, of overlooking not one tiny aspect of their operation. Thus they missed the overall thrust — of what all those fine details added up to. Middle Management, for instance, thought themselves scrupulously fair in noting the exact time the lower echelons started work and the exact time they finished. While overlooking the fact that their time-logging procedures kept the lower echelons hanging about before they started, and kept them queuing after they had finished. By such stratagems those managers thus antagonised strikes, pushed the wrong product, they prevaricated, were mouthpieces of company policy, talked a language peculiar to Middle Management, lived in little brick houses with garage doors that swung up and over, told each other the same jokes, carefully watched the same programmes, and thought themselves responsible people.

Paul did not think of himself as being responsible. Responsible to who? Paul thought of himself as a landless serf, unemployed and of no permanent abode. He had no title, nor claim to any bit of Britain. And even if he, by miscalculation, got himself a permanent job, then all of his wages would go to pay the rent of what wasn't his. That was his life. And the class, from which Middle Management came, imposed their values and their laws upon him.

Paul knew what he was. In his life he had found out what he was supposed to do and what others supposed him to be. He had wasted fewer time than others in finding that out. Other men, for instance, still believed that they had to have a function: they could not just be. Paul could.

Others also felt that they had to belong. Paul didn't. He knew that he did not belong in Bridgwater. He knew too, however, that most of Bridgwater's other inhabitants were misplaced. Even those born there. None belonged there. Or elsewhere come to that. Which is why they stayed in Bridgwater.

So far as belonging, so far as having a function and a job went, Paul also knew then — it was an accepted fact of life to him — that all were prostitutes. Are prostitutes. Every time that anybody sells something that they don't want to sell to someone to whom they don't want to sell it, then they are prostituting ourselves. We usually call it going to work. Or doing a day's work. Or having to go to work. In essence we are selling our life's time to an unliked other. And like all doubtful activities we turn it into a virtue.

But, although Paul could then occasionally voice such opinions with convincing certainty, Paul was certain then only that he didn't understand this world. So it was without conviction that he told himself that he did not feel guilty about being unemployed. He certainly did not, however, feel that his manhood was in question because he prefered to be at home looking after Alice. Rather he used Alice's existence to, in part, justify to himself his being at home.

True Stories

In the summer of 1984 lorry driver, Harry Cox, of Weacombe Road, Bridgwater, sexually assaulted a 5 year old girl. 63 year old Harry Cox said, "...the girl encouraged me..."

On the morning of July 29th 1985 an 18 year old apprentice was carrying out routine maintenance in Autobar Vendabeka, the plastic packaging firm, when a gas cylinder exploded and a stream of molten plastic caused him facial injuries.

In October 1989 a collie dog called Geezer bit a woman called Lola Lloyd several times on the leg, as she was walking past the dog's house in Friarn Avenue, Bridgwater. Two of the bites needed medical attention. Geezer's owner, Miss Caroline Master, said that the dog had never shown any aggressive behaviour towards her two young children or to her neighbours. Since the attack Miss Master has bought a strong link chain for Geezer and has put up a warning sign on her Gate. Miss Master also went and apologised to Lola Lloyd for Geezer's attack.

In June 1990 thieves broke in to the Hope Inn, Bridgwater, and stole £250 from the gaming machines. Two days later there was another burglary at the Hope Inn, and £700 was stolen from the gaming machines.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

2) Julie Cycling

One foot on the ground Julie waits for a break in the traffic.

Although it is supposed to be a thirty mile per hour limit, and it is flat here and she can see the cars coming, their speed is deceptive.

A large silver van goes by on the other side. In the queue coming from town there is nothing behind the maroon car. She launches herself across the road and, before she knows it, she is sat comfortably upon the saddle.

That junction — of Parkway and Westonzoyland Road — with the cars coming so fast around the looping bend and not looking, often makes her nervous. But what frightens her, what she dreads most when she comes this way, what she sometimes dreams about with horrific clarity, is cycling over the railway bridge.

Some days, especially when it's been windy, she has gone up to the Bath Road and into town that way, even though — with the extra distance and all the traffic lights — it can put fifteen minutes on her journey. And there too is a stone bridge on a slant to the road, which narrows, and the bridge has rounded kerbstones at its base which look as if they've been set there as a cycle trap. At least there, though, she can wheel her bike along the pavement. But, going that way, she also has to ride into the smell of the cellophane factory. So she comes this way.

The iron railway bridge is guarded by two second world war pill boxes, one of red brick, one of bleached and blackened concrete. The odd thing about her fear is that, coming home from town, although the same conditions prevail, the iron bridge doesn't scare her half as much. She thinks, she told Paul, it's because coming from town she can see open land ahead of her; whereas going in to town, squeezed in between the riveted panels of the bridge, and with all those small dark brick houses squashed together below her, she feels that there is no escape; that, should she be hit, she will be thrown to the rusty rails.

On the long incline up to the bridge her bum rises slightly off the saddle. Cars are coming rushing through on the other side like cattle being pushed from a stall. She grips the handlebars as she strains up the last of the slope. At her request Paul took the 3 speed gears off her bike. In fraught conditions such as these they are a distraction she doesn't need.

On reaching the level part of the bridge she hears a lorry behind her.

The bridge allows room enough only for two vehicles side by side. Cyclists cannot be overtaken. For the length of the bridge, therefore, the lorry growls along behind her. She can feel it above and behind her, its chrome bumpers pressing down on her small back wheel, its diesel breath moistly spotting her thin neck, the lorry driver hating her.

So she keeps rigidly straight, defying comment, can feel the lorry's vibrations being transmitted ahead of her along the bridge and coming up through her pneumatic tyres. She presses harder on the pedals, reaches the end of the bridge and swoops down into the bend between the houses.

Her increase in speed didn't give the lorry sufficient opportunity to overtake her; and now she is riding alongside a line of parked cars and the lorry's behind her again.

The parked cars end and she drops in towards the pavement. The lorry, a large refrigerated van with two engines, rumbles past her. The driver doesn't look at Julie.

The shops and front doors of the houses here open onto the pavement. The lorry stops behind some cars at the traffic lights. Julie goes between the lorry and the pavement, dodges out around some plastic rubbish sacks, slips along the inside of a line of cars... she feels she has the legitimate advantage over cars here. The lights turn to amber, go to green as she reaches them

Julie used to turn left here into Cranleigh Gardens, cycle under the chestnut trees, but they made it One Way. Now she has to go up to the dual carriageway. Because it's wider, though, she feels safer; and the only obstacle after that is the lido roundabout. And the traffic is slower there, so it's just a matter of picking her moment.

commentary .... Self-evidently, given our closeness, I know what Julie thought, what Julie feared. Because Julie and I used to talk. Talking was the mainstay of our relationship. In Bridgwater that made us untypical.

True Stories

On May 9th 1985, while driving in excess of 55 mph, Alan Stratford, driver of a 5 year old Talbot, was in collision with 55 year old cyclist David Cavill. The accident happened near the Greenway garage between Bridgwatar and Cannington. Alan Stratford, an engineer at Hinkley Point nuclear power station, said,

"...I saw him trying to cross the road. I thought he'd stop. When I realised he wasn't going to I pressed the brakes and horn and tried to steer away. I thought he'd stop, but it was all so fast..."

On May 13th 1985 David Cavill died from injuries received in the accident.

In May 1986 2,700 Chinese grass carp were put into the Taunton-Bridgwater canal between Kings Lock and Standard Lock at North Newton. A Chinese grass carp can eat its own weight of weed each day. The British Waterways Board were hoping that the fish would clear the canal of weed faster than men with cutters.

In September 1989 Stephen Goodchild of Wellington Road, Bridgwater, was fined £50, with £21 costs, for being in possession of 5½ grams of cannabis. Twenty three year old Stephen Goodchild said that the cannabis had been for his own use.

In May 1990 a brick was thrown at a train from the Bath Road bridge in Bridgwater. The brick went through the co-driver's side window of the express parcel train from Plymouth as it was passing through Bridgwater on its way to Newcastle. The train driver, Ken Willams of Plymouth, said,

"Luckily there is no co-driver on that journey. So nobody was injured."

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

3) Paul Waiting

"I'll come in and get it."

"No," Michael says.

Paul is about to pretend to ignore Michael and go with him into his classroom; but, seeing how rigidly earnest Michael is, Paul stops where he is told.

"It's only a piece of paper," he says quietly, warningly, to Michael.

"Wait here," Michael orders him.

Paul can't remember being that anxious about anything at eight years old. He watches Michael, all thin and stiff and jerky, and tries to recall his being like that. He was worried sometimes — about looking a fool, about being told off — but he can't remember being that afraid. And it is only over a note, telling of a future school trip, that Michael forgot to bring home yesterday.

From the yard the school seems all portakabins and unbroken blue sky. Other children, boys and girls, all are reminded to say goodbye to their parents. Alice dully, dozily, watches them from her pushchair. None of these other children seem as tense as Michael. But then Michael has always been one for correct form. His clothes are always precise, his hair neat. Even his shoelaces have equal size bows.

Julie ascribes Michael's pernickitiness to his insecure infancy.

"He has to have as much as he can under his control," she says, "Let him be."

Paul lets him be. But he feels that he should occasionally be allowed to comment to Michael on his peculiar ways. Others will. And if Michael is used to it from Paul then he will have learnt how to deal with it.

More children, brothers older and younger, a sister and younger brother arguing, go in past Paul. He is beginning to feel tall and conspicuous in this school yard. Self-consciousness brings with it associations of guilt. Because, if he feels that his standing here can be remarked upon, then he has to be doing something remarkably wrong. What wrong, though, can he be doing here with little Alice as his alibi? Only if he was loitering here alone could his suspicious mind cast him in the role of child-abductor, and have him trying not to act suspiciously and thus acting suspiciously.

Paul considers going in to look for Michael.

"Come on Michael," he mutters, and imagines Michael in there in a state of panic because he can't find the note. All Michael has to do is ask the teacher for another copy of the note, explain what has happened, 'We're all of us human, aren't we..? Teachers too...'

One of those teachers sits alone in one of the portakabin classrooms. Behind him are wall paintings of plain green fields and white woolly sheep. Paul watches the teacher turn the pages of a large newspaper. Also on the desk is a blue-patterned mug of tea. Steam curls from the white rim of the mug. The blue sky is reflected in the windows. Paul, standing behind the pushchair, waits for the teacher to look up from his newspaper and smile a hello at him. The thinning teacher reads.

Two boys run in barging together. That was me as a boy, Paul decides. And knows immediately that it wasn't. Because now he can remember wanting to be like those so physically confident boys for whom all life seemed neatly simple — for, against; good, bad; let's do it, let's not. The predominant state Paul remembers of his own childhood is embarrassment, confusion and awkwardness. Always he had one item of clothing that didn't fit — jacket or trousers or shirt — and he had to put red-faced self-conscious effort into what came gracefully to others. Yes, he certainly was not like the two boys who now used upright Michael to dodge around. But nor was Paul as a boy like neat Michael, who makes no attempt to exert himself unless he is properly and sportingly attired.

Paul wishes that Michael would now loosen up and run. Skip even. Instead Michael marches towards him victoriously bearing the note like a wages clerk come up on the pools.

"I put it inside a book," Michael smiles a tight little smile and looks around to see who might be looking at him.

Paul reads the note.

"Can I have the money then?" Michael asks him.

Before he puts his hand in his pocket Paul knows that he hasn't enough on him. He shows Michael his handful of change.

"You can bring it tomorrow," he tells Michael.

"Oh..." Michael's knees jerk in a suppressed stamp, "Paul I told you."

"It says," Paul shows him the note, "it doesn't have to be handed in until Friday."

Alice is looking incuriously up between them, waiting.

"That's the last day!" Michael's voice is low and urgent as two older girls walk smiling prettily by them. "That's the last day she wants it in. She'll ask for it today."

"And you'll have it tomorrow morning. Do you want me to come in and tell her?"

"Doesn't matter." Michael marches off.

"See you tonight."

Michael doesn't answer. Nor does Alice say goodbye to her brother when told. The teacher's head is bent over his paper.

commentary .... In every life there are repetitions. Not every moment of every day is filled with importance. Except in that moment's moment. Then it is usually gone and forgotten. Observe it, take a photograph of it, study it, analyse it, write of such a moment; and those few minutes take on an importance unrelated to the rest of that life. Put it into context and that moment disappears into the humdrum. Paul's waiting in that schoolyard, for instance.

He disliked that teacher sat there reading his paper carelessly ignorant of him. His uninterest denied Paul's existence.

Paul's transient discomfort in that hard school yard, however, was not due solely to a teacher turning pages and making him a nobody. It was because Paul secretly wanted to be seen and to be liked by that particular teacher.

One winter's evening, in a borrowed car, Paul and Julie had gone to the pub in Burrowbridge. They had recognised the teacher as one of the teachers at Michael's then new school, and they had sat out of sight of him and, smiling at one another, they had eavesdropped on him.

The teacher had been with a friend. He had been arguing with that friend in his teacher's loud confident voice. Here follows what Paul overheard that evening, and other information he has subsequently added, although the order here is not as Paul first heard it, rather it was his then understanding of that teacher's past.

That teacher had once been enthusiastic. That, though, had been in London, with disadvantaged children. Not here in Bridgwater. Although many Bridgwater children, he said, just by being Bridgwater children, were disadvantaged.

"An odd mix though. The eager and the indifferent. I must say I prefer the problem children. That sultry bunch that skulk at the back of the class. Not the eager crew jumping about me with their hands in the air."

In London he had lived in the same catchment area as the school. By choice here he lives in Burrowbridge. By choice he sold his London house ten years before, paid off his mortgage and bought outright the house in Burrowbridge.

"My last act of idealism brought me here. I came in search of an idyll. Boredom keeps me here .... I can't believe it of myself. In Hammersmith, so committed was I, that I was accused of fanaticism. I'd only been eager for change, though, for improvement." (Fanaticism is a petty mentality carried to extremes: an awareness of the whole of life, an acceptance of such diversity, defeats such smallmindedness. Any fanaticism on the teacher's part, therefore, had only been his battling against the establishment's inertia.)

The teacher was balding with thick-rimmed glasses.

"I used to have a beard you know. Now I wear a tie. That most absurd article of clothing. Like a dead fish of many colours hanging from the collar of one's shirt. And it's not even as if my employers insist upon it: I now expect it of myself..."

"Pack it in," his friend told him, "You could easily make a living from your watercolours."

"No I couldn't. And that sort of living is too vague. I only know how to work. How to have a job. I don't know how to cultivate people. I don't know how to take people out to lunch. I don't want to have Rodney and Sylvia around one evening. I want to work and I want to be paid for it. As simple as that."

He repeated that he didn't care anymore,

"What point in creating caring individuals for an uncaring environment? I teach in a school that is next to a busy road, is beside a chemical factory, and is under electric pylons. What chances do those children have?"

By this time Julie and Paul had stopped smirking over their naughty eavesdropping: their son was going to that school. The teacher, however, had become fed up with being solemn.

"People these days," he said, "can be divided into those who wear barbours and those who don't."

Paul would have liked such a man for a friend, to be the recipient of such clever remarks. To the teacher, though, Paul continued to be just another parent, to be kept at a cautious distance. Mothers berated teachers at the school for the failings of their children.

"I am tired," the teacher reverted to his disillusion, "just tired. Those teachers who can impart an enthusiasm for their subject are leaving and are teaching their own selves. This teacher now feels he knows it all, has nothing new to learn or to teach. There's not one enthusiast left now in that school. Cynics and careerists all. Graduates of Brown-nose College. Without honours."

The drunker the teacher got the more sober did Julie and Paul become by his description of their state of existence.

To Paul and Julie their being parents, their watching over their children's welfare and education, was all happening for the first time and was therefore, to them, unique. That teacher, though, had been a part of their new experience a thousand times and, having once decided on the parents' type, he could predict their almost every reaction. So did Paul learn that the advantage will always be to the policeman, the doctor, the nurse, the solicitor, the soldier, the teacher... they are familiar with the rules of the situation and know their role in it. Paul will be a stranger to every step.

Paul thought then that he knew much more than many of his neighbours; but, at 21, life was still largely a puzzle to him. In prison he'd said to a cellmate who'd been wont to spout politics at him,

"I don't accept any of your creeds and philosophies. I am trying to work out my own." His cellmate had contrarily congratulated him on that.

"Education is the learning of something," the teacher said that night, "Indoctrination is the teaching of it."

Those words stuck; despite Paul already knowing that we, as a culture, had got into the dangerous way of thinking in singular dichotomies, believing that to every pro there is but one con, that every action must provoke but a single reaction, rather than a multitude of inter-reacting reactions. Such is life. Such are we. Yet so small have we allowed the general intellect to become, so little have we come to expect of it, that we now, confronted with any novelty, seek but mental simplicities to explain it.

Paul was still having arguments with the memory of that cellmate, used him as a mental device, bouncing new ideas off him in an internal dialectic. From which Paul, at this remove, usually emerged triumphant and vindicated. Yet what his actual cellmate had actually said had often been complex and too subtle to allow for anyone being proven wrong or right. In that shared cell Paul had rarely been able to pre-empt his conclusions. Even with hindsight. Paul didn't know what to label him. Trotskyist?

No. That cellmate had called Trotskyism another of history's missed opportunities. He did say, though, that as an idea it would continue to appeal to young people because it was both vigorous and neat. Only later, given today's society, would they see it as impracticable. The world has had other inventions since its conception.

Any dogma is attractive, Paul was told, because it enables the believer to see clearly. The lack of moral certitude of all governments thus makes the moral certitude of terrorist organisations all the more attractive. Mao Tse Tung had been right in theory, he said, wrong in application. We do need a constant revolution. But one cannot impose a revolution. One can only devise a system whereby the old order is unable to entrench itself. Yet such a system is impossible, because the power in ascendancy will always seek to protect itself, thus altering the system to suit itself and to prevent the rise of anything which threatens its establishment. Thus the new will be strangled yet again.

Impotency was the gist of all his cellmate's conversations.

Loyalty, he said, is promoted by all those in power. Loyalty of itself in their eyes is a virtue. It doesn't matter to whom or to what the individual is initially loyal — football team, brand name, nation, political party, pop group — so long as the individual gets into the habit of loyalty. Because once they 'know' that loyalty is good then they can be manipulated.

That teacher too was someone Paul had come to use to clarify his own thoughts. He had himself mentally admonishing the teacher for his sophistry, for its inherent defeatism, thus finding for himself reasons for hope. However, the teacher being someone he thus intimately employed, and content then to own him as such a device, Paul was uncomfortable with but a windowpane between their two real selves.

True Stories

In July 1985 David Charles Williams appeared in court charged with being in fraudulent receipt of £1,335.75. While making false claims against the DHSS David Charles Williams had also been working for Bridgwater Taxis and BT Transport Services. He also admitted to the theft of a case of pernod from BT Transport Services.

"But I'm not taking the blame for everything that's gone missing," 27 year old David Charles Williams told the police, "They're all at it."

On being found guilty David Charles Williams told the court that, at the request of his wife, he had left the matrimonial home. He was now living in lodgings and looking after his 4 year old son whom his wife could not control. David Charles Williams was sent to prison for 6 months.

Peter John Claxton, of Middleton Close, Bridgwater, was brought before Sedgemoor Magistrates charged with receiving a stolen half bottle of whiskey. He had drunk the stolen whiskey in Blake Gardens. On the morning of his court appearance, in September 1985, the magistrates decided that 36 year old Peter John Claxton was too drunk to understand what was going on. They remanded him to the police cells until after lunch.

In August 1989 a bread van crashed on the motorway at Dunball, near Bridgwater. The loaves, that were strewn over the motorway, attracted a flock of seagulls, which became a hazard to traffic.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

4) Paul Sitting

At the thin-legged kitchen table Paul sits reading The Guardian. The paper holds itself flatly to the formica top.

From the telly in the living room comes a quiz programme's jingle. Paul feels that he ought to go in there and turn it off; but Alice was grumpy on the way back from taking Michael to school, went straight into the living room, switched on the telly; and, sitting herself in her corner of the sofa, she hugged her green cushion to her tummy. Paul knows that if he tries to change channels now she will cry. She was late going to sleep last night, was awake early this morning. Paul doesn't want to make her cry.

The white quartz clock, with its red hands and blue numerals, measures time without malign noise. Time to be doing. The rest of the paper can wait until lunchtime.

Closing and folding the paper Paul lays it on the check-bottomed chair. The breakfast bowls and cups have yet to be washed.

The stainless steel sink is under the metal-framed window. On the tiled windowsill are small plant pots of red plastic. The windowsill is narrow, the plants pale and spindly.

Paul lets hot water run into the sink, looks out over a hillock of steam.

This end of the garden, by the white outhouses, is a square patch of lawn. Single blades of grass glisten still with the dawn damp. In the narrow flower bed between the vegetables and the lawn is a home-made birdtable. The wooden struts and supports look dry and cracked this time of year. The wire nut-basket hangs, like an empty gibbet, lopsidedly from a bent rusty nail.

Beyond the birdtable and the orange marigolds, in the black/brown soil, are three green neat rows — carrot, lettuce and radish. Full grown round lettuce are behind them, and the large mildew-frosted fronds of two courgette plants.

Along the sides of the garden, and across its end, are brown/black panels of lapped wood. Above the end panels is a bush of light green leaves, above them the white back of the house opposite, above the black/grey roof of that house a pale blue sky.

Michael and Alice had porridge for breakfast this summer's morn. Paul scrapes rather than scours the pan. Bowls and plates, inside the warm foamy water, squeak under the sponge.

Paul makes a stack of the dishes and leaves them to drain. Julie prefers to wipe them and put them away. Paul believes that to be an unhygenic waste of time. It has been a longstanding disagreement.

The steel sink is emptied and rinsed of bubbles. Wiping his reddened hands he wanders through to the living room.

Alice, aware of his coming in, doggedly watches the disapproved-of television. Smiling at her Paul drops down onto the fat sofa and pulls her onto his lap. Hers is only a token grumpy resistance.

"What do you want to do today?" he asks.

"I want to go to playgroup." Her newly learnt diction is precise. The faster flow of blood around her little body is warm upon his trousered lap.

"I told you there's no playgroup today." He has guessed correct two of the answers to the quizmaster's nudging clues. Now the quizmaster has digressed to a reiteration of the rules.

"I want somebody to play with."

"We'll go over Granny's."

"Will you stay?"

"It's Monday. Kevin'll be there."

"I don't like Kevin."

"He likes you."

"Does he?"

"He's always happy to see you."

"Is he?"

Paul misses the clue. Where his sleeves are pushed up, Alice absentmindedly strokes the soft blond hairs on Paul's blue tattoos. He lays his lips in a touch-kiss atop her clean warm hair. He could wrap her in his arms here and they could both go back to sleep, all warm and cosy, like a grizzly and its cub in their snug lair. His eyes are heavy with the thought of it. Alice's cushion rolls to the floor

"Are we going Granny's now?"

"I've got to finish the beds and hoovering first. Then we'll go."

"After lunch?"

"Just as soon," he places her back in her corner or the sofa, places the cushion in her midriff, "as I've finished the beds and the hoovering."

The quiz show has become all squares, flashing lights and numbers. Paul glances to the window.

"Oi!" he leaps to bang on the glass. A plump, black-banded tabby was about to step onto his three rows of seedlings.

"I hate cats," he says. Tin-fed sadists slyly crapping in children's sandpits; or, for the sake of a shameful crap, scratching up his new seeds; slaughtering fledglings...

"Well I like cats," Alice stands bobbing on the sofa to look out the window, "Pretty pussy." This is a game they play. "Pretty pussy."

The tabby has scrabbled up onto the fence, glances yellow-eyed back and goes on over the other side, its curved tail like a question mark.

"Bloody cats," Paul pretend grouches.

"Well I like cats..."

commentary .... A person's character is not a simple matter of surface reactions to scenes and events. Those reactions, or non-reactions, have their roots in a deep bed of knowledge. That bed of knowledge is comprised of their own life experiences plus the vicarious experiences of friends, neighbours and acquaintances; as well as all those spectator experiences gained via the television, radio, video, books, magazines and newspapers. Most characters too have developed political and religious schemata to suit their own temperament; and which, confined by the limits of their imagination and the generosity of their spirit, can be both contradictory and complementary to their knowledge.

But nor can Paul, Julie, Michael and Alice be solely described by what they know. Because, like an island is defined by the state of the surrounding, but otherwise featureless, sea, so can each of their characters be defined by what they don't know. But, then again, nor is anyone's knowledge continuous: each can easily forget, overlook, and re-remember bits of their knowledge. Paul, for instance, is aware that, although close to it, he can't remember details and dates of his own childhood. He feels at 21, therefore, that his life is out of balance, that all the formative events seem to have been packed into the latter half, that he has consequently lived only half a real life, that the first part is missing, or is yet waiting to be created in memory. Paul looks at Alice and Michael some days and wonders what they will remember of this life that they are so earnestly living with him minute by minute.

Although it is important to his view of life, Paul does not think all the while about his having been twice to prison. Nor does he dwell all of the time on his being presently unemployed. Nor does he constantly re-examine and update the political and spiritual convictions which have come from those experiences. Some things do, however, require further explanation.

The morning's proximity to the teacher, for instance, had been in itself stimulus for further mental hectoring of him. Because, having seen the teacher reading The Guardian Paul had attributed to the teacher's page by page perusal a weary act of habit. But for Paul his purchase of The Guardian was a self-conscious assertion of his individuality: he would not be palmed off with tits in a tabloid. And, at his kitchen table, Paul imagined the teacher taking for granted The Guardian and his consequent sneering at the journalists' choice of words. Paul, using the newspaper as a symbol of his refusal to bow to Sydenham type, tries to take all that it proclaims seriously. (Prison, again, was the fount of his assiduous newspaper reading. In prison there is no news. Which is why, no matter what the cost, Paul makes sure that he can afford a literate newspaper.)

Julie is happy for Paul to stay at home with Alice. Julie and Paul have discussed, with every new case in the papers, the horrors of child abuse. And because they have talked of it Julie feels reassured — those households where that sort of thing isn't mentioned being often those households where the unspeakable happens.

Like most men Paul has been frightened by his male sexuality, which has found for itself stimulus in the most inappropriate places, from — in his adolescence — bandy-legged whiskery old women bending over in front of him to the red tart lips of a fat cashier; and, surprised by his response, he has felt the shame crawling over his skin and making him vulnerable to every look. (This confusion over their own sexuality is often why most heterosexual males cannot look into the unflinching eyes of male homosexuals. Eye contact is arousing and they are frightened of getting turned on and of becoming, because of a wayward erection, something which they have no desire to be.)

Paul made a study, for his own benefit, of the nature of physical desire. He discovered, from his own reactions, that desire has little to do with conventional attractiveness, with any fashionable notion of what is beautiful. Rather it is a heat being given off by a woman, plus a host of indications of availability, of sexual readiness. Or could it be, regarding women — he is not absolutely sure — that, like a child, a pleasurable preoccupation with her own flesh, coupled with a curiosity about his flesh; and, added to that the current state of his hormones, his own sexual associations and taboos, the nature of desire being such that what is forbidden by it being forbidden often becomes the most desirable? The Madonna for many men, for instance, is their first sex symbol. In our Western psyche their very familiarity has made the mother and suckling child an image that is very appealing to men, and could be why some men, Paul thought then — afraid of the sharp-voiced rebuffs of women — transfer their desire to the soft child.

In prison Paul met with the nonces capable of committing such atrocities. And they were largely pathetic men monstrous only in the pain they had inflicted. Paul despised them; but knew too that he, as a man, was capable of just such a crime. As every honest man must suspect himself capable of it. Thus the general male desire to push the topic aside, to not confront it, this sundering of children being the sour aspect of their otherwise proud priapic maleness.

Paul had guilts enough already — over the lack of toys and holidays that Michael and Alice suffered, when compared to their credit-happy neighbours — to add the guilt of abuse to his burdens. Indeed the very idea of that pain and anguish being inflicted on little Alice was almost too disturbing an image to hold in his mind.

Paul discovered too that he did not know, being an only child, how to feel, how to show, how to act familial affection. He had learnt only, by intimate touch and gesture, how to demonstrate his fondness for his sexual partners. Any affection he had felt up to becoming a parent had thus been firmly associated with sex. But now he had children and he loved his children. He didn't want to have sex with them, yet sensuality is associated with warmth and he has felt himself becoming aroused. The idea of doing 'that' to their little frames, though, appalled him. If another man were to do that he'd tear that man limb from limb. He hated his own mind that could even imagine it, and he worried that one drink too many might have him giving into the fascination of the moment.

Men who have had solitary childhoods have this difficulty in disassociating the desire for physical closeness from the desire for sexual congress. Women can easily indulge in the idle sensuality of their own warm skin being in contact with the warm skin of another, and women can take satisfaction from that closeness without a sexual thought entering their heads. For many men, though, that wanting to be physically close has become tangled up with the desire for sexual gratification, is an echo of their prepubescent sexual fantasies where, when they didn't know the aim of their longing to touch and to be touched, they breathlessly imagined only the warmth being given off by the unclothed skin of another. Adulthood teaches these men what it was in their innocence they desired. Physical closeness, therefore, denotes for them now only the likelihood of sexual gratification; and when it's not obviously forthcoming from that source it leads often to sublimation in perverse practises of one kind or another.

For a while, lest his own body so tempt him, with stiff arms and frowns Paul had pushed Michael and Alice away from him. As his own self-preoccupied mother had to him — with the consequence that the only love he had learnt was sexual. His children were not going to suffer his confusion. Telling himself that sexual attraction need not translate into sexual action, he made himself relax towards them. (A man may only have limited control over whether he has an erection or not. He has absolute control over what he does with it.)

Even Paul's hatred of cats is not without its history. He enjoyed the sight of wild creatures going about their lives, delighted in their different ways. He despised pets.

"Show me someone who is sentimental about animals," his grandfather had said, "and I'll show you someone who hasn't thought about animals and who, through their thoughtlessness, maltreats them." His grandfather's was another, not always welcome, voice in Paul's head.

Another voice was that of Julie. She had so often justified — solely to him — her hatred of being indoors that he too now felt uncomfortable being inside with the windows and doors closed. So he transferred that vague discomfort to Alice sitting on the sofa blithely watching television — inactivity indoors was wrong — and he decided that she should go out.

True Stories

In July 1985 vandals ripped out the Silver Jubilee tree that had been re-planted by MP Tom King in April 1984. The tree was torn up by its roots, leaving only the inscribed plaque that recorded the planting and the first re-planting.

After a party in 1989 Andrew Munn, a postman, slapped his wife Geraldine because he was tired and she wouldn't come to bed. 29 year old Andrew Munn said that he did it because he had been drinking and had financial worries. Geraldine Munn had swellings around both eyes.

On July 13th 1989, in Bridgwater, 1998 people were registered unemployed.

In March 1990 Keith Watts, of Thorncombe Crescent, Bridgwater, was attacked by two stray alsatians and a black labrador as he took a short cut across fields to his home on the Sydenham Estate. 29 year old Keith Watts was bitten on the arms and legs and required stitches to a chest wound.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

5) Parkway, Sydenham

Julie's mother moves through her day's treadmill of routines. She has reached the bedroom.

The lumpen parachute of the duvet deflates onto the double bed. On the fluffed up cover, in brown and green on a cream background, is a country scene of shire horses and tall elms. It does not engage her interest.

The bedroom unit, beside it, is in teak finish melanite. It is in three parts. Two wardrobes have between them a vanity unit complete with mirror and light. Below the mirror are trays of cosmetics, tubes, sprays and glass jars. The shrine of her womanhood, the mirror itself is hung about with belts and flimsy scarves, and a couple of glitzy necklaces. In the bottom corners of the mirror are photographs of both sets of grandchildren.

This is a mirror to be sat in front of, mascara applied, and reflection avoided. A reflection to be communicated with unseen. (If looked at wholly objectively she would see, like all the pink world, two small piggy eyes, a fat red nose and swollen purple lips.)

The mirror shelf does not need tidying. Tucked neatly under the shelf is a velvet quilted stool in the same off-white as the quilted velvet headboard. On the two matching melanite bedside lockers are globe bedside lights. The pink globes are made of plastic with an angular frosted motif. The bases of the lights are white ceramic with an indentation on each for the black on-off button. Also on one locker is a clean glass ashtray, on the other a digital clock/radio with red numerals. The time is 11:17. Kevin's due at twelve.

The curtains have a pattern of interlocking quadrangles in fawn and green. She slowly pushes back one curtain, then the other. Her movements lack alacrity, are those of tired ritual, easily relinquished. So she stands where she stopped, looking out through the white net curtains.

Beyond the clean nets is grey space and separateness. The light comes down from the sky and sits in square blocks between Sydenham's houses and across the straight road.

The road's broad grass verges make it look wider than it is.

One mile long, straight and flat, the narrow dual carriageway runs from the Bath Road to the Westonzoyland Road. Along the green middle of this dual carriageway, that isn't a dual carriageway, are high pylons, stepping down in perspective like rigid stick insects holding hands.

This is Parkway.

On either side, beyond the strips of lacklustre grass, are council houses of every style once in fashion with the people who built them. Some have white stippled walls and flat iron window frames; others are low dwellings of plain brick; some are tile-hatted and some have concrete porches. There are also squat blocks of flats in greenstained concrete. Apart from the evenly rectangular council houses there are a row of shops — across from the glass and green panels of a large school, which also doubles as a community centre.

Near the Westonzoyland end of Parkway a low pub, with black glass windows, sits in its carpark.

From here she cannot see the pub, nor the cellophane works. This, her house, is almost midway along Parkway. All she can see from here is the wide road and the houses opposite — all their upstairs windows have net curtains. A few gardens have green hedges growing through their wire fences. Hers has only yellow grass clinging to the rusting and sagging wire.

Not that she looks down at her garden, nor the wire. Except that its sagging reflects her state of being. Inert.

Remaining where she stopped in the window her whole posture denotes defeat, her upper half sinking into her hips.

In the house next door a hoover grinds off and on like a baby's whine.

Dimly, from a conversation she has had with herself before — in her life now everything is a repeat — she tells herself that she is tired of it all, dog tired. She gives up. She's beaten. What's the point?

A week or more now since her latest man has been gone. Or longer. She again tells herself that she doesn't care. All she has left is habits. And they're no comfort. Dead of feeling she no longer has any expectations of life. Nor of men. Especially of men. What right, she asks of herself again, has a grandmother to have feelings?

She sees herself as an impostor in the present, a ghost from the past, being where she has no right to be. And all that frantic past seems so unimportant now. All her memories, of men and children, are like photographs of long gone pets, forgotten until the photographs are found, and the feeling then that those memories should mean something.

Her last man — she won't now favour him with a name — is already a part of that past. Her men, all much of a muchness, smelling of pubs and fag smoke, have ranged from the quiet to the non-stop talkers; and all have been the same type. The type who blamed her for her being who she was and left her.

What more did they want? She sighs at the bedroom window. She tried to give them everything they asked of her, in bed and out. To be whatever they wanted her to be. If they had the nerve to ask. And while she was with them she was faithful to each of them each in their fashion. Maybe they just got tired of her. She is tired of herself.

Maybe they just didn't like her come the end. None of them had liked her children. And that was her fault. She wanted everybody to like everybody else and for everyone to like her. When the girls had been little she had wanted to be the most popular mum on the whole Sydenham estate, the one her daughters' friends would wish they had a mum like. She had let them run wild in her house. Swearing and jeering and shouting and screaming, they had driven her men away.

Not her daughters' fault. The way she had raised them. Still her responsibility. The three had issued from her womb and had suckled at her breasts. With all three she had waited for that special mother-child bond to appear. She is still waiting.

Nor can she hide from herself that all three were closer to their fathers, or stepfathers, than to her. Except when their fathers, or stepfathers, left. Then they shared their secrets with their sisters.

Certainly they cried for their mother when they were ill, or in discomfort — the same wail as when they'd sought her swollen breasts, as when they'd had dirty nappies. So do they now come looking for her only when they're in trouble of some sort, or in desperate need of a babysitter. At least, if she's not their friend, she can still be of some use to them.

Three daughters with three different surnames different to her own. And they're each of them going the same way. Fine example she's been. What else could she have done though? The opportunities just hadn't been there. And she hadn't pushed, hadn't delivered any ultimatums to her man, had been scared of driving him away. Maybe she should have pushed, should have argued and clung and fought.... What was the point though? She wouldn't have liked to have been a woman like that. Nor does she like what she is now. This lonely tired woman.

Life happens to some people, she tells herself again. Some people seem to have no control over their own lives. She is one of those people. Though she doesn't truly believe it.

She watches her daughters sometimes, all keen and eager, chattering together and clicking off to their lives. Then sitting in pubs somewhere here waiting for Life to happen to them. Later on they will realise that all those evenings, all those little inconclusive miscellaneous adventures, were It. And they'd thought that'd do until the Real Thing came along. She tells herself, again, that she has given up waiting for the Real Thing.

They laugh and they talk and they put their arms around each other; and we're all of us lonely. Don't you know that? We're all of us lonely daughters. It's part of being human. And that's why you go out and sit in pubs. It's to ease the ache of loneliness. To let you feel you belong. Because the good times'll never come .... Yet she knows, somewhere deep inside her weary soul, that still she wants this other life, that clean nugget of existence that's there somewhere inside the loose-ended shell of a world out there.

Paul and little Alice are coming along the street talking together.

Now there's a puzzle — he asked Julie to marry him and she refused. At least he doesn't beat up on her like that other sod. And he takes good care of the children. And she didn't find him in a pub.

She wonders again at that novelty; and she smiles to see him and Alice laughing together. She's bright that one. Julie was like that at her age — small and cheeky with a swagger. Have to watch this one when she's fifteen. And no good telling her. Oh no. She'll have to find out for herself, the hard way ....

She turns from the window.

commentary .... Keeping a spotlessly clean house is typical of Bridgwater. Because of its multifarious stinks the majority of Bridgwater people are scrupulously clean in their personal habits; there being nothing like an unidentifiable smell to make one turn out cupboards and wipe down shelves.

Within the house Julie's mother was the kind of person who, being alone in a house, imagined she was being watched. Not that she was frightened of being watched, rather she was made aware of her loneness and that what she was doing might seem odd or of interest to someone imaginary watching. So she caught glimpses of herself. So she had a contemptuous pity for herself that was not self-pity.

This is not surmise. I knew her, had heard her shouting at her men, sobbing to her daughters; and I have sat across dead-of-day kitchen tables to her, and have listened to her grumbles, her defensive self-mockery.

She was one of those women, her expectations still determined by a pre-War love-is-all romanticism, who believed that the whole of human intercourse consisted of courtship, sex and child-rearing. And, depending on the state of her current man she could happily or unhappily accept that as the sum of her own existence. Such a belief, however, post-courtship, left but a little part in it for men. The men consequently felt largely superfluous to the process and so had to find other reasons for their existence. So did some men beyond Bridgwater invent Art and Science and other noble pursuits. Such men, though, were not of Julie's mother's acquaintance. Her men just got fed up with being indoors with her and her children and, eventually, they left.

Men may have been an integral part of Julie's mother's existence, yet she was also a woman for whom men were an alien and dangerous species. A species who occasionally sent another representative blundering into her life. That strange creature, like a fierce animal, could sometimes be roughly domesticated, petted even. But, like the snarl lurking within all dogs, she could never wholly trust them. Bearing in mind that she was also of that generation of Bridgwater women who conspired in their own degradation by actively seeking out and making themselves attractive to Bridgwater's more brutish males.

Her mental and emotional processes were further flawed by that self-negating fear many people have of being left to age alone. Consequently she was a woman who had allowed herself to be used, believing that as long as she let people use her someone would find a use for her. Her men used her, until they no longer needed her. She let her daughters use her — as a loan bank, as unpaid childminder.... Although the latter was not simply her passivity dictating her inaction, but rather her own experience leading her to be charitable towards her daughters. She knew that little children do not bring couples together. More likely the sleepless nights and the differing ideas on child-discipline would drive them ever further apart. All over the Sydenham estate the tyranny of infants presided over the disintegration of marriages. So it was that, selflessly, she tried to stop her daughters suffering her experience

Unable, though, to impart her experiences to her daughters she worriedly watched them repeat her mistakes — with men and with children — and she invariably made things worse by passing the same stupid remarks that had pushed her into uncaring arms.

Or she saw herself as ineffectual because she simply didn't understand why her daughters did what they these days did, even when she was proud of or pleased for them. (In this she was not exceptional: whether parents approve of them or not, children are always a profound puzzle to their parents. The product of different times the next generation must always be an enigma to the last.)

So was Julie's mother imprisoned as much by her experience, by the times in which she lived, as by the place where she lived. And in those times, on the cusp of the 1980s/90s, there was nothing in the Sydenham estate to spark her draining lethargy. No love had gone into the creation of the Sydenham estate, no expressions of delight. Lines had been drawn and prices agreed, leaving it about as visually appealing as stained underwear.

True Stories

In April 1986 Mr Ray Whitney, a Junior Health Minister, said that radiation-linked cancer deaths were double the national average in the Sedgemoor district. Sedgemoor had 8 deaths from myeloid leukaemia in 1984 where statistically there should have been 3.8.

On Boxing Day 1988 John Ernest Robinson, a self-employed builder of Bristol Road, Bridgwater, took a loaded shotgun to the Bath Bridge Inn, Union Street. When challenged by Mr Burton, the Bath Bridge Inn's landlord, John Ernest Robinson ran off. 41 year old John Ernest Robinson later told the police that he had taken the gun to the pub only to show off. He had been drinking heavily and remembers getting involved in a dispute of some sort in the pub and returning home for the gun and the cartridges. He denied any intention of using the gun.

On March 1st 1989 Roger Withers of Parkway committed an act of gross indecency against a 5 year old girl while babysitting at her home. The girl told her mother about the incident two days afterwards. Roger Withers, a 19 year old butcher, pleaded guilty and was placed on 18 months probation.

24 year old Anthony Paul John Butcher, of Chamberlain Avenue, Bridgwater, stole £38.03 worth or goods from Safeway supermarket on January 12th 1990. Anthony Paul John Butcher said that it had been a hard Christmas and he had stolen the food to feed his girlfriend and child, a crisis loan having been refused. Sedgemoor Magistrates fined Anthony Paul John Butcher £60, and ordered him to pay compensation of £22.38 and £21 costs.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

6) Julie Sitting

It takes Julie ten minutes to reach the green canal. That leaves her ten minutes to eat her lunch, ten minutes to get back.

Julie hasn't done this before. Nor, to her knowledge, has anyone else in the factory.

She thought she remembered a brown wooden seat here, two long name-scarred boards slotted through two iron uprights.

The canal here curves away from her. She can see no seat. Nor does she have time to go looking.

Perching herself on a bum-high wall of black brick Julie takes her plastic sandwich box out of her leather shoulderbag. She tries to remember where she saw the seat. Was it back towards the orderly docks with their black-painted bollards? Or down towards the overgrown orange brick bridge..?

Looking along the towpath of crumbled concrete, Julie decides that it was in that direction. Yes, she sat there once with Paul at dusk and looked over to the football ground's high clusters of mercury-bright lights.

Regaining her breath she bites into her warm cheese sandwich. On her hands is the sickly taint of the factory's over-scented soap.

She chews and she swallows.

Across from her industrial units are being built on the wasteland. Over to the left are the flats in which she had lived — far away and long ago — with little Michael.

She checks her watch. She has been here three minutes already and only eaten half a sandwich. This is not the image she'd had of herself — escaping from the hot and hissing racket of the day to relax briefly beside cool unmoving waters.

No water is visible. All is covered in the tiny green pads of floating duckweed. A few blades of iris stick like mini-excaliburs up through this level green fogbank. But no bead of water is visible, not even through the meandering trails that moorhen and coot have left, only paths of overturned duckweed.

At least here she can't hear the radio. At least here she doesn't have to breathe cigarette smoke. At least here she doesn't have to listen to the same old toing and froing conversations. She listens — only the stopping and starting traffic along Broadway's dual carriageway.

Julie lifts her factory-damp face to the sharp naked sun, lowers it to look at the digital time, reaches for another sandwich.

Chewing she studies the width and unevenness of the path. Paul wants the whole family to cycle along this towpath all the way into Taunton.

"No traffic," he has reassured/cajoled her. But Julie is worried about Michael on his bike. He doesn't always pay attention to what he is doing; and sometimes he deliberately does the stupidest of things.

"...to see what'd happen," he says. But one wobble... and splash! Below that duckweed the water can be deep.

Part of Julie wishes that she could adopt her sisters' attitude to their children, to view them as a noisome burden. Instead she worries for Michael and Alice and transmits that worry to them. So she, who is concerned for the well-being of her children, has two neurotic wrecks while Kevin and Sean and Polly are three happy little thugs.

In the sunlight, she sighs. Paul has already talked to Michael about the trip. Michael has already boasted to his schoolfriends and teachers that he's going to ride along the canal path all the way to Taunton.

She eats. Then there's little Alice riding up behind Paul. It'll be a bumpy ride for her. And what if Paul crashes and falls in the canal? Alice is strapped into her seat. The bike could get stuck upside down in the weeds.

Two minutes to go. The foil wrapping of her chocolate bar is tacky, needs to be licked. She scratches her ankle. A mallard and five brown ducklings come paddling out from under a clump of bushes and brambles on the far side. Julie wishes she'd kept some crusts.

The mother breasts the duckweed, which closes under her wagging tail. The ducklings appear to be almost walking on the duckweed. The five ducklings make coming here worth it, Julie tells herself.

Time to go.

She scratches her ankle. On the outside of her ankle are two big red bites with, beside them, chocolate smudges. Licking her finger she rubs away the chocolate. The two insect bites are hot.

Pressing the plastic lid back onto her lunch box, she hitches up her leather-sticky shoulderbag. She still has an apple to eat. Biting into it she starts back along the foot-wrenching path.

Will she now tell them about coming here, make a joke of the bites? No, she'll let them think she popped up the shops, mention the bites to Sue maybe later on ....

commentary .... This is a story with neither innocents nor heroes: Paul and Julie covertly made their own rules.

Paul had convinced Julie that she only had to pretend that she was intelligent for her to become intelligent,

"Idiocy is genetic. Stupidity is a voluntary state. Act intelligent," he had told her, "and the person becomes the pose, becomes the pretence. The outer becoming the inner. Think it, act it, become it; be it."

Trick was it worked. With him, Julie now talked in a different voice, used words she had only read before; and she went to books looking for facts to back her arguments, in so doing acting like someone intelligent. Now she even thought in big words.

The act, though, remained inside her own head, the display stayed within her own home. Coming back into Paul's company now she could feel her brain changing gear, preparing to engage him as an equal.

Outside of home, away from Paul, her acted intelligence manifested itself more in her actions than in her speech content. Her going to the canal, for instance, sprang from her secretly believing herself intelligent and therefore believing herself able to rebel against the remorseless jam factory routines, as well as being capable of appreciating the anticipated pleasure of sitting by still waters. That languishing by cool water, though, had not been itself simply for pleasure, for a moment's sensual gratification, because Julie had also believed that there was a heaven to be found, or made, somewhere in this earthly life.

Not that Julie had any conventional religious convictions. Rather — despite Paul's scathing cynicism — she lived in the subconscious expectation of perfection. Nor did she have any real concept of that idealised life to come, save that it would be tranquil and that she would be tranquil within it.

She knew that it would not come all of a piece, rather she would have to grab bits of heaven here and there. She was also, at that time, coming slowly of the conscious opinion that the bits of heaven here and there was all that there would be for her. Even so they would add up to a tidy store, in retrospect. Her future offered little else but hopes of a past.

Because Julie knew, no matter what Paul said and she agreed with, that things didn't, don't, change for the likes of them. Whatever else changed, the likes of her and Paul, who wanted to just get on with their own lives, would always lose out.

So she had gone breathlessly to sit briefly beside the canal; and there the dragonflies had whirred, flies had buzzed and ants had crawled into her moment's Eden. And she had worried too about her children, who hadn't, at that moment, been present, falling in....

Julie's whimsical expectations of brief heavens were counterbalanced by her certain knowledge that she lived on the edge of destruction. Her happiness, her family's well-being, was so fundamentally insecure that life itself appeared always tenuous. So many quick and accidental ways of dying. Thieves, cancers, cars, lay-offs, vandals .... all were a threat. In her council house she at least had security of tenure, could not be that easily evicted. Unlike many of the women she worked with, who put in all the hours they could and went in dread of losing their jobs and the building society repossessing their house.

Her mother, like Julie, did not have that worry. Her mother had her council house and didn't think much beyond keeping it clean.

True Stories

In October 1985, at the junction of Taunton Road and Broadway, a car driven by Councillor Trevor Donaldson, of Springfield Road, Bridgwater, was in collision with cyclist Paula Morse. Councillor Trevor Donaldson was reported as being unhurt. 16 year old Paula Morse was said to have received head injuries.

In April 1986 a burglar entered Graham Turner's house in Friarn Avenue, Bridgwater, and stole a £300 Hitachi video.

In July 1987 Gerber Foods Manufacturing Limited was fined £250 on two counts of allowing inadequately protected machinery to be used. A female employee, on reaching into a box-making machine to clear a blob of glue, received cuts to both her hands.

In Sainsbury's carpark, in March 1990, Mark John Edney, of Moorland Road, Bridgwater, accused a man of looking at him. The man locked himself inside his Ford Escort. 23 year old Mark John Edney then began kicking the Ford Escort, denting it and smashing a headlight.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

7) Paul Cycling

The cherry red bike has white-taped drop handlebars. Paul has on a blue shirt and baggy grey trousers. The sun is hot, the air fills out his shirt. He rides leaning stiff-armed on the white-taped handlebars. He looks relaxed; but it is only when the motorway bridge is behind him that he feels free of the town.

The road bends into a clump of willows and pale poplars. Beyond that is the level horizon and the sky. Tall poplars, singly and in groups, stand up like exclamation marks surprised to find themselves in that flat soft landscape of rounded willows. A self-conscious church steeple knows itself to be a landmark. The farmers' silos are thoughtless erections. While the gaunt pylons and looping cables are so obtrusive that they are no longer seen.

This flat land under his tyres, though, is but a manifestation of gravity, is merely Earth's silted crust. Because this is principally a place of skies; and the sky this day is blue — save for the dotted and disjointed cream lines left by criss-crossing jets. The black abandoned roads of an old airdrome seem a negative mirror. Except that the old wartime runways are sectioned off by sandbags and builders' rubble, plastic sacks and single strands of electric wire. Paul has many a time been tempted to dismount, lift his bike over the roadside barbed wire and go pedalling off down Runway 6 — among the fat fresians.

Paul self-consciously regards himself as privileged in this proximity of his to the countryside. Already this day he has seen a yellowhammer, its blunt head as bright as a canary's. That's the beauty of a bike, he likes to tell Michael, coming along so quick and quiet before the wild animals know it.

"....In a car you're going so fast that so much is missed. And, caught up in the traffic, it's not always possible to stop...." On his bike Paul can pull up wherever he wants, and can take time to look about him as he goes along.

Paul has chanced upon great crested grebes on the old claypit ponds. And these exotic creatures were alert to his sudden presence as no animal in a zoo or a wildlife park could ever be. Try explaining that to Michael, though. Michael is impressed by cars and comfort, wants only names and places to lord over his schoolfriends.

What need riches, Paul now asks of Michael, when he can be witness to such small beauties for free? What need riches anyhow? If he were a man as rich and as short as Onassis, a man with riches beyond even his dreams, would he end up, like Imelda Marcos, with thousands upon thousands of shoes? When he could only ever wear one pair at a time..?

Paul loves those days, when Julie is at work or at home, when someone else is taking care of the children, and he has time unlimited to wander where he will; when he can surrender to impulse, give himself to the mood and, making himself passive to his own whims, let them take him where they will. Today, though, he has a definite destination.

Slowing he turns off the Westonzoyland road and goes coasting along the smaller road between the rines. He is looking for a turning, in this uneventful countryside, that will take him along to the canal.

He passes some newly pollarded willows, all in a knobkerry row, and he checks his watch. He has to collect Michael later. Julie's Mum doesn't like going to the school. She says it makes her feel withered and lined among all those plump young mothers.

Another turning takes him along to and beside the concrete reinforced banks of the Parrett. The salty tide is on the slow ebb. No wildlife livens the dark slimy sides of the river's shallow ravine.

Paul presses on, crosses the river, takes a left, a right, and another right. The air is dry in his mouth and his nose; and he worries now that he has taken a wrong turning. To get his bearings, still wheeling along, he sits up straight with the fingertips of one hand on the handlebars. He thinks he can make out the lump of Burrow Mump over to his left. Over to his right is one of Bridgwater's tall chimneys.

To pedal up to the bridge over the railway he rises out of his saddle, and makes a mental note that the backwheel (or could be a pedal?) is grinding slightly. (Tied with an oily shoelace to the chrome saddle stem is a rust-stained carrierbag of tools.)

Stopping on the bridge he looks down on the orange and iron tracks and thinks of Michael standing behind the train driver, going under low bridges like this.

Away from the rusty lines the land recedes in line after line of disordered willows and sedge-bladed rines. A squared, paralleled, rectangulated flat land. Except for the brown tit, with its nipple pierced, that is Burrow Mump.

A heron, wary neck erect, is by a nearby green rine. A red and white helicopter is rattling away above Burrow Mump. A line of spiky pollarded willows look like punks' heads all in a row. Paul waits. The heron doesn't move.

Looking over to Burrow Mump he rotates his usual thought on seeing it — how his mind can be in two places at once. How he can see from this red-black bridge today's distant ochre ruin. How he can also see, while remaining here, the pale mallows growing in and around the roofless ruins of the Mump, as well as the views of the blue hills framed through its rounded windows and underlined by cattle bars; with Michael and Alice taking turns to swing noisily on those smoothed iron bars, while he and Julie speculated in murmurs on cosmic connections between the tor under their feet and that other tor at Glastonbury, thinking that over on that dark nippled pimple were minds imagining themselves over on this dark nippled pimple .... Paul's mind has its own maps of the Levels.

Pushing off from the railway bridge Paul drops down; and there's the wide green road of the canal, with oblongs of clear water like upside-down puddles.

A gateway leads off from the road. Be easy from here to get onto the towpath. Be in Taunton in no time. This is the place to start. Here between greenery. He'll have to put Alice's seat back on this bike. Which means that he won't be able to sell this bike this week. Which decision, a change postponed, makes him feel easier.

To test the towpath he opens the gate and freewheels down to the canal. Satisfied that Julie will tolerate the path's bumps, he stops and turns the bike. In the clear water here is the dark curving reflection of the bridge's arch. The mirrored sky makes of it a blue hole in the planet Earth.

True Stories

Michael Horsington's dairy herd of 100 cows, at Moorland Farm, were slaughtered in July 1985, after becoming infected with brucellosis.

On Good Friday 1986 hundreds of women tried to block the arrival of heavy plant at the site of Hinkley C power station. A dozen women had to be dragged clear. No arrests were made.

In October 1989 David Smith, of Pinetree Close, Bridgwater, was walking across Town Bridge with his girlfriend when a man passed them and was abusive towards David Smith's girlfriend, who took offence. 29 year old David Smith then went after the man and they had a fight. When the police tried to break up the fight David Smith kicked and swore at them. He was arrested.

In April 1990 Peter Alexander Tottle, of Withygrove Close, Bridgwater, was given a conditional discharge after admitting an indecent assault on a 13 year old girl. 21 year old Peter Alexander Tottle was ordered to pay £21 costs.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

8) Paul Cycling

The trouble, he decides, is not that there is a wind, because there isn't. Or only the draught from passing cars. No, it's that the pressure of air moving westwards around the planet is against him. He can get no volition. When he stops pedalling he sinks to a stop. Not like those two caterpillar-humped bridges where all he needed was a couple of kicks on the pedals and he was up and over the second bridge and floating on, granting him the illusion of being free and far from this sticky earth....

Nor is there anything wrong with the torpid bike. A mile back he upended it and spun the wheels. The wind in the spokes hummed a one note song in praise of ballbearings. Naught to do but give his mind to grinding on.

He enjoys those days when his legs feel full of power and his nose, like a ship's blunt prow, cleaves the air and the divided wind slipstreams along his rippling flanks. Not today. Today Bridgwater remains a line of thin red and white blocks laid upon the narrow horizon. Chimneys, like stunted black markers, rise above that horizontal. The size stays the same. The relaxation of the ride, the feeling of unfettered freedom, has long gone. Now he is aware of time being against him: Michael has to be met.

Trying to impress his will upon the pedals he dips his head with the muscular effort. He is breathing harder now, realises that his mouth is open and closes it.

He is grateful for the reprieve of a slight downhill slope. But it offers only a temporary increase in speed. The chimneys of Bridgwater seem as far away. Two green-black jets go screaming together in a semicircle behind him. Over there a row of poplars are like a line of sharpened pencils.

The smoke from Bridgwater's chimneys thins out on either side of their tops. Like the hand of a malign deity, fingers outspread, that smoke reaches out towards him. Black and white, its particles are diluted into the clear grey English air. He tastes the chemicals at the back of his throat, and closes his mouth again. His nose hairs can filter the crap.

Downwind of Bridgwater, within its realm of smells, he knows that it isn't just noxious smoke and chemical vapours coming his lungs' way. Bridgwater is a place of airborne dust and grit, from brickworks, from cementworks, from building sites .... Promiscuous bonfires spout fountains of white ash, a fine dust comes spinning out from carpentry workshops, along with paintspray from car bodyshops and the tart scent of burnt acid from metalworks. Add to that the passing traffic's tainting exhaust fumes and the drifting chemical sprays used in the fields on either side .... Paul's grandfather curses the invention of pesticides,

"They killed all the glow-worms of Westonzoyland."

In his mind Paul holds images of words sinister like herbicides, nitrates, PCBs, carbon monoxide, lead poisoning, fungicides .... Breathing heavily here on these green Somerset levels is unhealthy. He retches and hawks, sends a worm of white spit flying over a new wire fence.

Such thoughts have averted his face from his destination. He recognises the long bend before the motorway bridge. Willows and silver poplars here, trees exuding oxygen. Their massed leaves also hide the chimneys. His blue tattooed forearms are gleaming with a golden sweat.

From the motorway bridge, Paul looks at the gabled outskirts of Bridgwater, no different in its new houses from any other English town; except maybe Bridgwater has more chimneys than steeples. The town, though, has nothing to do with him. He does not feel that a part of it. He does not feel himself to be a part of his fellow men there, nor of anywhere else for that matter.

He will be back in plenty of time to meet Michael.

commentary.... People imprison themselves within their own lives. Aware of this Paul courted freedom. Paul, however, also enjoyed the responsibility of having a family. The two being irreconcilable he compartmentalised them. Conflicts subsequently arose only if the two overlapped the time span he had allotted them. As in his bike ride back from Burrow Mump.

That Paul should have obeyed the impulse that took him out towards Burrow Mump demonstrates how indefinable is freedom. Because, back then, Paul felt constrained to obey such impulses, to throw himself upon unconsidered chance ....

These 'carefree' bike rides were the price he felt that he must pay for being unemployed. (Unemployment being a privilege in Paul's book.) Out of work he had time, theoretically to call his own. Being unemployed he could break up the remorseless routines of the weeks and days without having to pretend to go sick; and then having to sneak off for a bike ride. (He didn't always, when claiming to be too ill to go to work, go for a bike ride. Often he simply sat around at home alone for a couple of days and caught up with himself. Being for these two days unemployed, however, he was up to date with himself, had only to catch up on the bike rides.)

These bike rides were also the price he felt he must pay for continuing to live in Bridgwater. When in prison, and when removing furniture, and people had asked him where he had lived, and if they had known of Bridgwater and so had said that they couldn't understand why any sane person would want to live in the middle of that brown stinkpot, then Paul had told them how very easy it was to get out onto the green Levels or up into the heathered hills. Thereafter, simply to justify his continuing to live in Bridgwater, he had felt compelled to go out into the countryside and under the colossal sky.

Of such complexities and compunctions is freedom made.

Add to that a story a prisoner had told him of walking along a rutted farm track between deep autumn hedges and of a grey deer leaping across the track directly in front of him.

"I lived in that place for three years," the prisoner had told him, "But all I can really remember of those three years is that deer leaping through the blue air above me. Its forelegs were tucked up under its chest. Its hind legs were outstretched. It had short Y-shaped antlers. And one brown eye was looking at me. That deer took three years to leap over that track ...." So did Paul go looking for his deer to go soaring over him, was waiting for all his Bridgwater years to be encapsulated in one such moment.

Yet Paul knew then that that was a dream, not of freedom, but of ownership — to have for himself just such an anecdote. Thus did Paul contrive to put himself in positions where things might happen to him. So did he also like to walk down streets he hadn't walked down before, to ride down tracks previously unnoticed.... all in the expectation, in the hope, that something there would change or explain his existence. Such were Paul's accommodations with circumstance, which he called freedom.

For all of the above labrynthian thought processes, Paul was unworriedly aware that he was not in control of his own life. Nor did Paul have conceit or arrogance enough to want to be in control. He knew that his spiritual and psychological state was dependent on the physical things of his existence. Even taking good health for granted, he knew that he was then limited by the house and district he could afford to live in, the furniture he could afford to fill the house with .... a car would make an enormous difference to his life; but he'd have to work long hours to afford it. Even so it would grant him greater freedom of movement, open his mind to other places .... Possibly. Record players, books, holidays, television, video — each could free, or each could create its own dependency.

So too are we defined and confined by our sexuality, our race, our religion, our intellect, our talents and our taste. (Although the latter three can cancel the first three.) Such are the boundaries of choice.

Paul knew then, too, that always there was something happening off-stage which would affect him. He likened it to watching finches through binoculars .... because he couldn't see the creeping cat — beyond the binocular's field of vision — the finch's sudden starts and flights were inexplicable to him. He had a clear view of what was happening; but, while the binoculars were at his eyes, he couldn't see what was happening.

So too off-stage in his own life. He often knew, with gloomy clarity, what was happening to him here in Bridgwater. His income chased inflation, an inflation caused partly by harvest failure in the Ukraine and Kansas, that harvest failure caused by global climatic changes; those climatic changes caused in part by the industrial practises of places like Bridgwater ....

So could Paul, in his freedom, also become captive to circular thinking. So did Paul also know that he was not in control of his own thinking. Every time that he followed a fashion he knew that his mind, his perceptions, had been altered by persons unknown to him. Defiance occasionally led Paul to deliberately do the unexpected, to do the mirror opposite of what might be expected of him, to thus contrarily battle against expectations' curtailments .... So he made himself smile when, in such a role or situation, he was supposed to have been grim. So he found advantages to living in Sydenham, within the realms of British Smellophane. So he declared himself to have no desire to leave Bridgwater.

He would not, however, Paul then told himself, take perverse satisfaction from how dirty Bridgwater was, would not cap work and pub stories of the worst industrial practices. But neither would Paul be made to feel guilty over Bridgwater's noxious emissions. He was not responsible for Bridgwater's ecological crimes. He did not profit from them.

At the same time Paul knew too well that feelings of guilt or innocence had little to do with laws or morals.

Rich farmers broke actual laws when they let slurry lagoons flood rivers. Most times those rich farmers weren't even charged, let alone fined. They caused more damage than Paul had ever done; and they profited from their semi-deliberate neglect; yet Paul was the one who knew the inside of prison cells.

Paul let himself be angry occasionally at the injustice and waste all about him. The waste of energy, the wasteful way people used their lives. But Paul felt no personal anger at the chemical farmers, nor pity for himself. The paradoxes were others', not his. Although he did feel, when chasing pennies, that he was the one wrongly embattled, that he was the one being drowned by petty circumstance and having to fight his way to the surface and the light ....

In loftier moments, from his bike saddle, he felt sorrow for this tatty little country which wouldn't help itself. Only for him, a moment later, to look on those other men, farmers and industrialists, as the spoilt creatures of this wealthy planet, destroying it with their wanton thoughtlessness. In particular he despised their incidental destruction of the Levels.

Saddened him too. Because Paul had almost convinced himself that he had a profound affinity with the Levels, with that thin crust of peaty earth laying over its bed of sand. There was no misleading sense of permanence there among the repeatedly pollarded willows, only of time and sky slowly shifting. Some egotistical men had tried to leave their imprint: bits of the Levels had been sliced about where they had drained it, elsewhere a canal had been chopped out; and some men in pursuit of quick money had even cut and carted away the black peat for potted plants. All, in the end, men and marsh, would come to a soggy nothing, with the sea waiting.

As to his estrangement from his fellow men — Paul had then decided, it was due neither to his having been to prison nor to his being presently unemployed, rather it was but a general product of the contempt the British have for one another. In the shops customer and assistant despise one another, employer and employee distrust one another; in every industry there is a gulf of scornful incredulity between management and shopfloor. In politics there exists the same contempt between parties. And in everyday civil life the dichotomy of instant hatred continued — between driver and driver, pedestrian and driver, driver and cyclist, farmer and hiker, child and adult, mortgagee and tenant, etc.

A country of public corruption and private morality: no-one expected anyone else to keep to the same standards as themselves. So no two sets of values were wholly alike, none meshed, and so there was no net, no skein of common purpose nor social integrity running through the country. All was alike and divergent. Where then nobility of purpose to salvage a life?

Paul then had no conscious politics. Neither Julie nor Paul considered giving their allegiance to a parliamentary political party. The Tory MP for Bridgwater was once the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Both places owned bleak and dangerous mentalities.

Paul's politics then, though, were more a plague on all their parties. So far from his own perceptions were all their policies that he couldn't credit the relevance of any of them. Quality was a consideration of the past or a mere buzzword, copywriterspeak for expensive. Murdoch had taken over The Times and its crossword and had made them commercial and mediocre. The BBC had been intimidated into inoffensiveness. (Where politicians seek votes or influence, quality is always the loser.)

Ironically those then of the Right, who might have been supposed to mind, who did concern themselves with falling standards, who disliked and distrusted innovation, they did least to preserve the country itself. In fact they were the ones whose industrial wastes were contaminating the seas and the rivers, whose buildings were squaring off yet more greenfieId sites, whose incomes came from the industrial practices that were killing them and us all.

Nor was Paul certain what any of the political parties wanted him to value. Fatherhood? The life of a little child? Profit? Mothering Sunday? Traditions? Institutions? Progress? The working class? Family life? Around about the Levels the families had been so incestuously interbred that there was a preponderance of club feet in the villages. All welcome, therefore, to the motorway yuppies with their candid lusts and fresh genes.

Paul then knew intuitively that human morality was no more than the unwritten laws of the powerful imposed on those without power, and that always would the powerful pinch pennies off the many poor to pay the few rich. He regarded these as immutable laws of human existence, no matter what the politicians said. Besides which, having become used to examining what people said for what was omitted, Paul got quickly pissed off with politicians' speeches.

Authorities had made of Paul, because he had been to prison and had been so often unemployed, a problem. To call something a problem, though, was to imply that it had a solution. In social terms that was not always the case. To solve the problem might require the whole of society to be 'cured'; and not just Paul, not just the part that did not fit in with the present political ideal. Vested interests in any society, though, would rarely allow for such a radical cure.

Paul then knew the mechanisms of vested interest.

In prison he had learnt, from dealers and druggies, that there was no Mr Big beloved by the newspapers. Dealers and users all were more like a snake with its tail in its mouth. The new, when bitten, joined the circle. Then they too pushed at a profit to keep themselves supplied; and to supply themselves with customers they made glamorous their habit, they introduced, they bit, others. To support their growing habit those others then started dealing, started pushing, had to find themselves their own customers, who started dealing .... and so the circle expanded. Paul had refused all offers generously made, and had kept his body to himself.

Those addictive circles were not confined to prison or to tainted needles. Farmers too had a habit. The application of chemicals improved their crop yield. Bankers gave them loans to buy the chemicals. The farmers then had to have improved yields to pay the interest on their bank loans. The chemical companies offered discounts to farmers if they told their neighbours of their improved yields.

To make themselves acceptable/respectable the chemical companies exceeded this sales technique by adding perfume to their PCB (polychlorinatedbyphenyl) pesticides. A family thus strolling along a country lane might say,

"What's that scent?" The whole family then paused and sniffed, inhaling lungfuls of perfumed pesticide vapour. PCBs affect the human immune system.

That added perfume had made Paul suspicious of the scent of massed blooms. As much for that distrust of innocent flowers as for the PCBs and the pollution of the planet, did Paul hate the corrupting chemical companies.

Paul also had an inbuilt aversion to smoke, Bridgwater's and everywhere else. Smoke denoted destruction. Smoke lay always over the cruelty and confusion of war, over the bright arterial gore of every battlefield, over a riot, over a bombed city .... Smoke lay also over every industrial landscape, where lives too were being destroyed. But slowly.

"You can tell farming's become an industry," Paul's grandfather frequently said, "it's the farmers these days who cause most of the pollution."

Thus spoke an old man's bitterness born of a lifetime's irreversible disappointments. Paul, however, still attempted an objectivity born of hope. Human self-destruction was, after all, nothing new; and we have survived thus far .... Civilisation, or at least what we victors subjectively thought of as civilisation, had always been a despoiler. If solely in terms of land abuse. The Roman civilisation deforested the Sahara to feed their fattened favourites across the sea in Rome. Likewise were we Westerners then deforesting Southern America. At that time not even for food; but for woodpulp for newspapers so that civilised men could keep abreast of destructive events. Or ogle the nipples of seventeen year old girls, or kill time doing crosswords, or read their stars, guess their small futures ....

All drives, all desires have but one aim — their own abolition. Thus does every civilisation destroy itself. Thus did the Romans destroy the granary of the Sahara. Thus did the twentieth century delay banning the aerosol and put off curtailing its other noxious emissions. Now the ozone layer is partially destroyed and Earth is about to bake .... Destruction is an integral part of control. We then controlled most of the land surface of the planet. Hope was hard to sustain.

All drives, all desires, have but one aim — their own abolition. Thus does the competitive drive seek to abolish all other competition. Thus, although they confuse themselves with their own slogans, the aim of any capitalist is a monopolistic state, the conglomerate ruling all. Thus, although it claimed to, Britain did not reward enterprise, merit, industry or thrift; opportunism alone was applauded and rewarded, resulting in a consensus of small minds that thought well of themselves solely because they happened to have made some money. Hope was hard to sustain.

Paul and Julie lived amongst such self-congratulatory people and amidst the results of their opportunism. The rules of the profit-takers did not apply to Paul and Julie. Their way of life was perforce different. Small wonder then that they were both so on guard against being manipulated. Small wonder then that they made such small mulish rebellions. Small wonder that they were viewed as problems by the powers that like to be.

True Stories

In August 1985 David John Lazowski, of Stafford Road, Bridgwater, used a wardrobe key to open an electricity meter. 19 year old David John Lazowski said that he didn't regard it as stealing.

On Wednesday 4th October 1989 Robert Tivey was fined £250 and disqualified from driving for 12 months. 34 year old Robert Tivey, the Hinkley C consent team manager, had been on his way to work in the morning when he had driven into the wall of the Cottage Inn at Keenthorne. When breathalysed Robert Tivey was found to have an Intoximeter count of 59. The legal limit is 35.

In November 1989 Frank Parkinson put his hand into a machine at Autobars, Wylde Road, Bridgwater, to release cups that were jammed. 30 year old Frank Parkinson had to be released by firemen. Three fingers on his left hand were crushed.

In March 1990 Kevin Gary Vearncombe, of Devonshire Street, Bridgwater, deliberately bumped into a youth in Polden Street. At the time the youth had on a walkman and his arm was in plaster. 18 year old Kevin Gary Vearncombe shouted at him, then took off his jacket and pushed and head-butted the youth.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

9) Paul Collecting

Alice is sitting in the striped buggy. Its black and shiny handles are like umbrella handles reversed. Paul rattles its small noisy twin wheels round the corner.... and sees the parents waiting.

At this distance familiarity tells him that they stand in isolation, none moving from their arrival positions. They might, self-consciously, step towards one another to converse, but only with the release of the children will they bend and commingle.

Paul, preferring the unstraitened company of children, slows.

Two pairs of sparrows hop in and out of a loose-twigged hedge. Paul points them out to Alice. The cocks have pretty caramel and chocolate markings. Their misfortune to be ignored, like the resplendent starling, because of their ubiquity. He knows men on Sydenham who are like starlings — fine swaggering braggarts when viewed in isolation, drab in the mass.

A green dented furniture van, its rusty rear open, is parked outside a house without curtains. Two men are carrying a glass-fronted wall unit out through the front door. Both men are bald and red-faced, their heads shining with sweat. Paul stops to let them cross the pavement.

In the back of the tall van are piled cardboard boxes of different sizes, with grey plastic bags jammed in crevices and ballooning backwards. In the centre of the cardboard and polythene mosaic is a white melanite wardrobe with bright gold-coloured handles. Atop and behind the white melanite wardrobe is a freckled green sofa. A fawn blanket is draped diagonally across the wardrobe. At the very rear of the van is a lopsided stack of folded blankets, some cream, one green, but mostly grey. Lengths of white webbing hang from buckled rails.

The two sweat-dripping men have slowed to manoeuvre between the iron gateposts.

"Look!" Alice points. She and Paul are reflected disjointedly in the dark glass panels of the moving unit. Behind them blocks of landscape move, the square houses and the straight road swapping places with the sky, and cut across by pylon cables. The two men grunt questions and queries at one another. Paul and Alice smile at the other's shifting reflections, and are then swung out of sight.

Further along, on one of the grass verges, sits a punctured white and black football. Each day he has seen it Paul has been tempted to abandon the buggy, take the first running steps off the pavement onto the sharp grass and give it a boot, send it rolling soggily through the air. Hasn't yet.

Inside and outside the school gates the parents stand in timid isolation, each in their cylinder of silence.

Casual conversation is dangerous here. On the estate couples exchange husbands and wives and houses; and here the scandal is relayed, the first signs of infidelity detected, the schism marked. Here most of the faces are of that age when the only new people they get to meet are the parents of their children's friends. So the children too are wary of who they introduce into their household.

When, here at the school gates, mothers ask Paul if Michael can come to play with their son, those young mothers blush. Those blushes know the inferences that the watching eyes might draw from the innocent exchange of words, from those telltale blushes. So, today, as usual, as he wheels Alice in through the school gates, Paul nods only to those few men he knows.

The men here, like him, are out of work or off shift. Or they are grandfathers acting as unpaid childminders. There's also a couple of professional childminders here, their pre-school charges piled into double-buggies. Two of their boys are running around the yard and around each other. Paul bends to unbuckle Alice. She stays in the buggy watching the two boisterous boys.

The parents all around, plus some older brothers and sisters, all stand, or lean, and wait. Only those like Paul with pre-school Alice can be released from their immobility, have an excuse to move their jaws, can safely and unselfconsciously chatter to their little chaperones. And be watched.

Paul's arrival, and his subsequent movements down to and up from Alice, has attracted eyes.

"How's it going?" a paunchy father steps towards him.

Paul sinkingly knows that the man, with whom he once worked, will now ask what he is doing these days, which — unless he's working shifts or won the pools — is pretty obvious. Then the man will mention names of people they both once worked with, of who else has left, been sacked; or where those names were last heard of, of places he himself has worked since....

This man has difficulty breathing with his mouth closed. Such a feat requires the simultaneous completion of two ideas.

Tired of this conversation even before it begins, Paul looks up out of Bridgwater to the hills lying way off above the roofs and tempting his mind with clean unpatterned greenness. To go walk and untroubled breathe there.... But this man, to Paul's surprise, has a new story to tell.

This being the man's first time on the dole, he decided not to sit around at home and moan, but to get out and go windowcleaning.

"Didn't you used to do that?" So off he went, with bucket and ladder, to find windows to clean. Knocking on doors down Durleigh way, he was asked to clean all the windows of a big house. He did the inside first, then the outside. Took him all afternoon. He wanted to make a good job of it, have the house as a regular call. And, as he washed and polished, he thought how he would spend the money. But, when he knocked on the door to be paid, the owner had disappeared and the house was locked. He'd heard about this sort of thing happening to people on the dole, customers refusing to pay them, knowing they couldn't make trouble. He wasn't going to have any of that.

Certain that the house's owner was hiding somewhere indoors, he shouted through the letterbox. Then he went around the house banging on the windows and doors. Finally, to bring the owner out of hiding, he broke one of the windowpanes that he had just cleaned and polished with such care. He had broken six panes in all when the owner came running back from the cashpoint.

Upright and quiet, Michael is the third boy to appear. Alice now decides to get out of the buggy. She goes up to Michael's thin brown legs, and turns with him to walk back to Paul. They do not touch. Michael stands still and erect before Paul, who waits for the man to finish telling how he is paying for the broken windows.

Michael shows no interest in the man's story. (The past is as incomprehensible to children as the future: both are places of the imagination.) Alice arranges herself into a similar posture to Michael's.

Paul turns to Michael, a legitimate exit,

"Good day?"

Michael shrugs. Paul tells Alice to get back in the buggy. Michael waits, the intolerable burden of the incomprehensible future on his thin shoulders.

"Gotta go," Paul tells the man.

Once through the school gates, and out of the crowd, Michael silently walks beside Paul and Alice. He is not sulking. Ahead of them a broad-hipped woman in grey tracksuit bottom leads a fat black labrador. The labrador walks with his back feet together like a mincing hippo. The woman's children have run on ahead to the next corner.

Paul tells Michael that he cycled out to the canal and found a starting place for the ride to Taunton.

"Think Mum can make it?"

"There's power in them little knees."

"Look!" Alice shouts.

Rising above the slanting roofs and into the blue sky is a red balloon. Paul and Michael lift their heads. The red balloon rapidly soars up above them. With their heads back, they all three laughing exclaim to see it so swiftly go. It becomes a black dot on a white wisp of a cloud. Gone.

commentary..... Unlike many of the men he had worked with, Paul took no satisfaction from the redundancies of others, even from those at the ordnance factory who had failed to defend him.

Although some of the men he had worked alongside — one place or another — had pronounced themselves, purely because of their daily working proximity, his friend, he did not regard any one of them as his friend.

Not trusting any man, Paul had not allowed himself to be drawn into those friendships. Besides which most friendships, Paul then knew, were better in retrospect. And the sooner the better.

Few of the men Paul had worked with had made his study of the commodity Time. So these men made the mistake of believing that the length of time one had worked someplace, or lived somewhere, meant that they knew it better than someone who had known it but briefly.

Paul then was of the opinion that it was, not the duration, but the intensity of the experience, like the leaping deer, that marked itself upon time. Paul knew too that it didn't matter to what great age we might live: what mattered to that whole life could happen in less than a minute. No matter how many years he might have known a neighbour, he wouldn't know him as well as the person who shared a frightening or ecstatic few minutes with him. And would they remember him? Paul knew too, at twenty one, that he couldn't build himself in the minds of others.

In some jobs Paul had felt the repetition of the years ahead weighing on the present. So he had jacked in the job while the present still had meaning and was not something done a thousand times before.

In some of those jobs Paul had felt surrounded, beset, at times by people who — to be able to carelessly turn aside from whatever ailed them — gratefully accepted the most convenient simplicity or the grandest sounding bullshit. Anything other than grapple with the convoluted complexities of cause and effect that comprised reality.

Paul did not want his life to be that small, to be ruled by that smallness of vision. With that smallness of vision a state of mind not peculiar to Bridgwater, Paul knew that moving from Bridgwater wouldn't make his life larger. Knowing would. The more he knew the larger would be his vision.

Paul wanted to become a man not strictly defined within his own mind; a man without edges, open to the Big Wide World. What Paul especially did not want was for his mind to become so closed in that it was occupied solely with thoughts of burglary. Such a mindset was common in Sydenham. A burglary mindset so acquired, he would get himself a dog, which would need taking for walks, leaving his home untenanted and unguarded. And, while taking the dog for walks, he would discover bodies. (Bodies are always discovered, either by children playing, or — more often — by men walking their dogs.) Or he would turn the hound loose to run in the Sydenham pack; and have that on his conscience.

Paul already had a conscience because he already had a larger vision; and because he had a larger vision he would not get a dog, certainly not out of fear of burglary. In his vision of himself Paul had to declare himself unafraid.

Most of the people Paul knew then were frightened — frightened of becoming anonymous. So they tried to assert their individuality through their mass-produced cars. They hung mass-produced mascots from their driving mirrors, stuck mass-produced slogans in their rear windows.... Same with their houses, with their individually designed brick boxes — they spent hours trying to distinguish their own little brick box from that of their neighbour. So they stuck mass-produced wallpaper on the walls, painted the woodwork this year's colour, layed mass-produced carpets on their floors, arranged mass-produced ornaments on their windowsills.... And for their every attempt to make their brick boxes look unique they succeeded only in making them all much of a muchness. Of a type. Tin boxes. Brick boxes. Paul had no time for either. There had to be more to life than that. Paul mended and rode and sold and bought a pushbike.

Some of the half-remembered people Paul worked with, who still worked in the same place, had no idea what he was talking about — even the everyday things — when he met them again. They could not comprehend the altered focus of his life, that he could happily coexist independently of them and their concerns. Nor did they have any idea of the kind of lives other unconnected people lived. To them the unknown rest of the world merely formed part of the background, faces on the pavement, drivers of cars, figures behind supermarket trolleys....

That is not to say that Paul had not become fond of some of the quirky people he had worked with. Albeit that that affection began usually in the week when he had decided for certain to leave that place of work. Then, no longer seeing the place as a day prison, no longer seeing his fellow workers as its wardens/inmates, then he had allowed himself to be briefly fond of the establishment and its residents. Wasn't now so bad a place, provided that it wasn't a prison.

Communities exist only ever in the mind. The end of the eighties saw the English becoming aware of their separateness. Thus there were times then when Paul thought of himself as the semi-invisible man, a being glimpsed by himself only in retrospect. 'I can't believe I used to do that....' 'I can't believe I let that be done to me....' He was semi-invisible too in his way of life then, in the bikes that he semi-legitimately sold, in the jobs he tried not to get, in trying not to be seen, not to be noticed. Self-effacement as a way of life. Invisibly inoffensive.

True Stories

In July 1985 Meare Heath farmer Melvin Sweet, of Chapel Farm, Blakeway, gave a pledge that he would not plough up the land that he owns at Tedham and Tedham Moors, Wedmore. The land is a designated site of Special Scientific Interest. Included in the site is a heronry and meadows of rare wild orchids.

After a betting shop win and a heavy drinking session, 20 year old Stephen Hughes, of Friarn Street, Bridgwater, returned to an open car he had seen at Friarn Lawn with a key in its dash. He decided to drive home to Scotland to see his mother. The police stopped him at the Knuttsford service station in Cheshire. In July 1985 Sedgemoor Magistrates fined Stephen Hughes £575, and he was disqualified from driving for eighteen months.

In the summer of 1989 John Barker, of Longstone Avenue, Sydenham, told what happened to his 10 year old son, Martin, on his way home from school,

"...He was grabbed by two teenagers. First he was thrown over their shoulders. Then they decided on the latest cruel prank the older boys on the estate do to the younger ones — they call it a leg and a wing. They held Martin by a leg and an arm, swung him high into the air, then let go. He landed on his back... An ambulance was called to take Martin to hospital... The doctor said that Martin had been very lucky, his spine having been dislodged and vertebrae damaged..."

On the night of Sunday February 11th 1990 the cooling systems of both nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point shut down for approximately 20 minutes. Nuclear Electric spokesman Julian Curtis said that, had the station chosen to, it could have continued with additional cooling had it been necessary.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

10) Julie Taking

Julie tries not to grab the pushchair from Alice.

In the pushchair is Alice's folded green duvet and a fluffy white teddy.

Julie tries not to snap at Michael.

This night out was arranged weeks ago: Michael, though, is now acting surprised and put upon, is claiming now that he wants to be doing things at home, does not want to spend the night at his grandmother's, is making himself miserable for his grandmother.

Alice has to look out around the pushchair to see where she's going. Every time she looks out around the pushchair, it alters course.

"Watch where you're going!" Julie jerks the hard little wheels off the dog-messed grass.

Across the other side of the grass the boy, as usual, is sat in his car by the kerb and talking on his father's CB. Soon as he comes home from school he is there. Holidays he sits in there all day.

The boy irritates Julie. Everything about him — from the sprung aerial on the roof to the dull wax gleam on the car, from the spiky hair to his solemn expression as he speaks into the black microphone held like a mask over his lower face; and the snatches of arcane conversation so soberly enunciated "...square-wheeled on the super slab..." — everything about him, the transparent limits of his life, the poses he adopts — he often stands with one hand atop the open car door talking to his skinny friends; or, in the car, he sits with one arm laid along the back of the passenger seat; all the while trying to impress another cretin with a car radio parked elsewhere.

To be not irritated by his posturing, Julie does not this day look at him. She knows, though, that he is sat there.

'If you can't keep it in a straight line, don't bother!" Julie pulls the wheelchair back on course.

At home Paul is in the bath. Julie has had her bath, feels pampered and petulant. Her mood isn't helped by her knowing that she is being unreasonable. Tonight is a treat, a meal out in a restaurant. This night out, though, was planned so many weeks ago that it feels as if it has already happened. And the meal is with his patronising grandparents. "Yes my dear, but..." to her every ventured opinion. The predictability of the evening, the expectations of her, is what depresses.

"That's it!" she snatches the pushchair from Alice, grabs hold of Alice's little hand.

"It was a stone," Alice says. Children always have alibis.

"Why can't Granny come to our house?" Michael sulks, "I don't want to go to her house. She smokes all the time."

"She'd smoke if she came to our house."

"In our house I could go to my room."

"Granny wants to stay in her house. I told you this weeks ago."

"No, you said," the pedantry of children, "Granny was going to look after us."

"I meant that you'd be going to her house."

By the shops are the surly skateboarders with their hard sudden noises and husky voices. Alice pulls her hand free, stands pouting on the pavement behind.

"Well come on!" Julie flaps a hand at her. Michael comes to stand in front of her,

"lt's not fair..."

"Just don't you start!"

commentary.... Julie had more anger than acceptance. Although, in Julie's mind, what placed her apart from those she lived and worked with was again, knowledge of her entrapment. On her guard, she would not be conned by the advertisers or history. She didn't have to enjoy being a housewife or a mother.

Thinking it was one thing, feeling another. Because, whenever Julie was impatient with her children, she felt guilty. Idealised mothers did not get angry or impatient with their brood. And idealised grandparents were supposed to dote on and indulge their grandchildren, not ignore and avoid them.

Julie couldn't get used to calling her own mother grandmother. She was so unlike a grandmother, was still looking frantically for a good time and a man. Grandmothers, according to Julie's ideal, should have been plump and have knitted. They should not have been slim and glitzy.

Paul's mother was dowdy and dirty, and indifferent to her granddaughter. While Paul's grandparents, although they at times took upon themselves the responsibility of rearing Paul, claimed now that they found all young children tiresome, had seen Alice, their one genetic great-grandchild, but two or three times.

Julie saw the ideal grandparent sitting with their grandchildren, the very young and the very old together, both having time to spare, few demands on them, time to sit and watch and marvel. Such old people would most definitely not be passing clever comments, and the children would most definitely not be sneering.

Julie's own mother, though, tried to pretend that time and men hadn't passed; and she sought still the ideals of her own past — a man in a marriage — whilst acting and knowing that the ideal was incapable of realisation because of her age.

Julie's mother, however, was trapped as much by her circumstances as by her aspirations. Were she richer she could have envisaged for herself a variety of other lives, could have belonged to clubs and gone for holidays abroad with friends of either sex. Because what her mother now wanted of a man was company and escort as much as sex. Often, Julie knew, she looked upon sex as the price she had to pay for the company and the escort into public places. If her mother was richer, if she had a car, she could have legitimately socialised on her own and would not have been reliant on a man; and her dreams and ideals would therefore have been different. While for her daughters, trapped in her circumstances, she saw no alternative for them to her own past, envied them only their presently having a man.

Paul called Julie's mother The Modern Savage. A savage in that she accepted all modern day gadgets without question, did not know nor care how they worked, nor where they had come from, nor how they had been made nor who had made them. Merely accepted. So Julie's mother also accepted that that society, that system of gross inequalities bred, as it must, gross injustices. So she accepted that Paul, although he'd been less culpable than the others, should have been sent to prison where the others, who hadn't been caught, should have stayed free. (In Bridgwater the inequalities and injustices were almost arbitrary, depending mostly on how much money or education one had. In a place like South Africa it still depended, at that time, totally on what colour you were to how the law treated you. Mind you, in Bridgwater, at that time, Paul wouldn't have been helped by being black.)

When Julie hadn't looked across at the boy talking on his CB it was because, peripheral vision aside, she had had no need to look to know that he was there. Not looking, however, was also unconscious habit. No-one on the Sydenham estate looked directly at anyone else in passing. Add to that the flatness of the landscape, so grim and uninspiring the architecture, the inhabitants all walked at a cultivated slouch and stared at a point on the pavement two meters ahead of their torpid feet. Mothers with prams and pushchairs on this grey and yellow estate, men tiredly on their way to and from work, getting in and out of their cars, none risked raising their eyes. To look directly into another's eyes there was to challenge or to invite.

True Stories

In September 1985 20 year old Stuart Douglas Norton, of Furzelands Farm, Moorlinch, stole a cardboard figure of Rambo from Mount Street Film Centre, Bridgwater.

In April 1986 30 year old Jacqueline Brenda Chilcott bit PC Peter Yeoman on the wrist after he had reprimanded her for drinking from a paper bag.

On June 30th 1989 Caroline Ann Symes, of Shervage Court, Bridgwater, threw a glass at her cousin Rachel in the Blue Boar Inn. The glass missed Rachel and hit Waverly Liane James.

On Wednesday May 15th 1990 county councillor David Loveridge, of Wellington Road, Bridgwater, asked a meeting of Somerset County Council in Taunton for nuclear flasks to be removed from the railway sidings adjacent to Wellington Road. David Loveridge said,

"After yet another radiation leak from the nuclear flasks stored at the Eastover railway sidings, this council calls upon Nuclear Electric (CEGB) to cause the loading and off-loading of nuclear flasks to be completely removed from the present Eastover location. Coupled with the fact that it is within 50 feet of one of the largest primary schools in Somerset and in the midst of a heavily populated residential area it is vital that this menace is forever removed."

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

11) Money

This Thursday, this early, the hard lacquered cow is behind the desk in the massage parlour. (It's called a 'massage parlour', but he is a practical man, knows that it's really only a shop with its front window bricked up and its length divided into cubicles. The low background music is to disguise the rattle of the air extractors.)

"Full body massage," he pays his twenty quid out here in the foyer with its furniture polish smell of suburbia.

He was working all last weekend, and all this week. Fourteen hour shifts. Cash in hand. He's seen only a few women in those many hours. And with every one of those women he has been aware that she has been naked under her clothes, that all that any of their clothes did was to emphasise her nakedness.

This overweight 'manageress' makes a show of looking through the appointments ledger. Beneath her tailored tunic top are white rolls of belly fat.

Artfully arranged on the partition wall behind her are photographs of the masseurs with smiling clients, all white-faced snapshots taken here in the foyer with a flash. The paintwork gleams in those photographs, the men's round faces shine, the girls are all hair and make-up. He doesn't recognise any of them.

"If you would take a seat, Sir, someone will be with you in a moment."

Not a hint, not a glimmer does this fat cow give that she knows what goes on back there on the hard black rubber beds. He despises her. She is of no use to him and all that he wants from any woman now is a screw.

Finishing work tonight, to get it done with and out of the way, he prescribed for himself a visit here, lest his daylong edginess around women interfere with his drinking. Because tonight is his. A piece of time all his own. And what better to start it with than a piece of ass all his own?

His massage money paid, a tall blonde girl he hasn't seen before shows him into the second cubicle from the end. This early in the evening the place seems empty.

"If you would undress and wrap that towel round your middle," she says in her best posh voice, "one of our trained staff will be with you shortly."

All of them go on as if they didn't know what is really happening here. The pretence alternately pleases and angers him. The dishonesty and deceit angers him; while the success and seriousness of the charade pleases him, because it means that they're playing safe and they'll be here for him next week; and this is a fucking sight easier and cheaper than having to chat up some silly tart, spend a fortune on funny drinks, try not to insult her; and then have her shouting at him in the morning. (He has never sought or thought of anything more than a night with a woman. Love's a joke, he early decided. We all die alone, so fuck making deals just for a little bit of company in our soft-brained old age.)

The black rubber bed has blue tissue paper laid end to end over it. He undresses completely. (He showered before coming). The crisp white towel wrapped around him, he lays back on the soft blue tissue paper.

The dark-haired girl from last time comes in and drops the latch on the door. The red engaged sign will now be showing outside.

"And what would you like Sir?" She has a thick waist and big tits. Like the tall blonde one she is wearing a white tunic and dark blue trousers.

"Same as last time."

"And what was last time?" she oils her hands and smoothes them over his chest.

"You on top."

"Are you sure Sir?"

"Cut the crap. Money's over there."

She begins to rhythmically knead the muscles on either side of his neck. He looks at her face. The nose seems to descend in a straight line from her square white forehead. The rest of her face is small and happens in the shade of those horizontal eyebrows.

"You the drummer?" she moves her hands up over his shoulder and under his back, so that her face is closer. Her breath is warm and moist on his cheek. She presses into the two knotty muscles between his shoulder blades.

"Was," he says

"Fifteen again?"

"Was ten last time."

He makes as if to get up. She brings her hands back up around to his chest and flattens her palms, leans her weight on him,

"Inflation."

She lets him raise himself partly up, rumpling the blue tissue paper. Her smile assumes he's going to reach for his trousers to get the extra fiver. She reaches down to the towel. She is pretty when she smiles. He doesn't want her to be pretty.

"Ten," he says.

"Meany," she pouts as she removes the towel. The pout makes him think she means to get away with a blow-job.

"You on top," he tells her.

She glumly, resigned to taking off some clothes, nods. Stepping backwards out of her sandals, she drops her blue trousers and pushes down her green and white knickers. Her thick white knee presses into his side as she climbs up onto the iron-legged bed and straddles him. She watches his face as she grips his erection before pushing it up between her legs. He feels her cunt's welcome warmness, his erection being where it wants to be. He makes no movement.

She presses her hips hard down upon him, lifts off, and presses right the way down to the speckled base of his prick — to make him cum quickly. A whore's trick. Time's money. He wants her to not move so fast, to make it last longer.

"Undo your top."

"Fifteen," she says.

"Fifteen," he agrees.

She unzips her white tunic. The big white tits with their dark nipples spill out. She watches his face, moves her hips faster. His abdomen feels hot. He reaches up to hold the tits. The whole of his being is instead focused on six inches of engorged gristle. His eyes go wide, his face goes red, and — staring at the ceiling — he cums.

His arms drop by his sides. She climbs off and goes to the sink in the corner. He listens to her splashing. Now he hates her for her instant indifference to him.

"The money?" she says. She is dressed and done up right down to her sandals: no-one would think she had a body.

"In my trousers. I'll get it."

He rolls off the hard rubber bed and goes, bare white feet flapping, to the sink. She steps out of his way, gathers up the torn and scrunched up blue tissue paper and drops it in a plastic bin. He rinses off his limp dick. It doesn't feel as if it's had a bit, no sense of weighty achievement.

She waits, standing at the end of the massage bench, while he dresses. Only when his shirt is tucked in and his fly zipped does he put his hand in his pocket and pull out his roll of notes.

"Here you go," he tosses two fivers onto the black rubber.

"You're a note short." She doesn't attempt to touch the money.

"That's all you're worth."

"Don't bother coming back here." She still hasn't moved.

"I'll be back," he lets himself out.

Her non-reaction was as much a disappointment as the fuck.

One woman he'd shortchanged in Bristol had come at him all teeth, tits and flying hair. Fighting her off had been as much fun as fucking her. She'd had bare arms too, as slender as an Indian temple dancer's.... This square lumpy cow had been altogether about as exciting as flat cider. Thinking of which....

commentary.... This man, drummer, is possibly an amalgam. Or, possibly, he is an accurate representation of the real man, but compiled from unconscious signals, subliminal mutterings, that I picked up later. Or was it simply something half-said, half-heard, half-seen; a half-remembering of another part-met man? Or was it, later that night, a glass and ashtray finger flourish subconsciously registered that had me make him here a drummer?

That said, this drummer, as will become evident, had no dreams nor ideals. (I have heard other men, like him, brag of visits to massage parlours.) If asked, this drummer would have said, with an air of sour cynicism, that he had no dreams or ideals left him. But, truth be told, he hadn't any to start with.

I am going to write of him as if I knew him.

This drummer grew up in a rowdy household convinced that neither of his parents liked him. Not that he took it personally: his parents hadn't liked anyone else either.

He was convinced that everyone and everybody had lied to him. As, for instance, all his teachers had lied to him. What about? The worth of his education.

To not get bogged down in details, the outcome of his whole childhood was that the adult world had put no love into him, no compassion. Nor had he been given any examples of selflessness that hadn't reeked of conceit. Aware of this loss to himself, he had tried to rectify this poverty of emotions in his adolescence, had tested out emotions on himself like a girl in a chemist spraying perfume on her wrists. (The only emotion he hadn't had to teach himself had been fear. A beneficial counter to that was that he knew when and where he felt safe.)

By the time he was twenty he had taught himself — by trial and error — love, compassion, sympathy and sentiment. And the lessons self-consciously learnt, he had found that he hadn't been able to use them, because, having all been learnt, all four had felt false. ('Love' continues to be a word used to describe a variety of wants and needs.) So, when later those emotions temporarily took him over, and had his eyes filling because of some manufactured happy-ever-after, he felt instantly false, and this person acting in this manner was not his real self.

Thus, a reflection of himself, had he come to perceive the rest of the world as being about as sincere as a chorus girl's smile. Which about summed up his attitude to sex — the chorus girl's smile being an offer of sex which she had no intention of fulfilling. All such trappings of sex he saw as a fraud. (Air women's skirts on a line and their gentle waftings are as mysterious as when they are moved by the living limbs. Sexual fetishists are the most obvious victims of this fraud, always become fixated on articles of clothing.)

The drummer, distrusting all, came to listen only to his 'real self'. Thus had he become wholly reactive, a base creature satisfying his base needs and his addict's cravings. Every other ideal he had been presented with had proved unworthy; and his character was such that, those ideals having been shown to be false, he had not gone seeking new ones. Instead he had withdrawn further into himself with his self-mocking knowledge, wanting of the future only the prescribed response from the rest of humanity that would reinforce his comfortable cynicism.

True Stories

On a Saturday night in December 1988 21 year old Martyn Prowse hit a woman in the face because she spoke with a Scottish accent.

In April 1989 a brick was thrown through a double-glazed window of Mr C W Long's Durleigh Road house. £150 of damage was done.

On Tuesday 26th September 1989 fighting broke out between 25 youths in the Blue Boar pub in Penel Orlieu, Bridgwater. People connected with the fair were involved. The fighting spread from the Blue Boar into North street, where a £500 shop window, belonging to John Baker's, was smashed. There were no arrests.

In May 1990 Paul Joseph Chilcott, of Addacombe Avenue, Bridgwater, threw chips on the ground by Cornhill. A Special Police Constable asked him to pick them up. 20 year old Paul Joseph Chilcott refused. He then dropped a drinks carton to the ground. Sedgemoor Magistrates fined him £25 for depositing litter in a public place.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

12) Eating

Having worked in canteens and cafes Julie knows that the pristine appearance of the food on the plate belies its kitchen history. She knows too that when Paul's grandfather asks the waiter to pass his compliments to the chef that that is unlikely to be the message related in the kitchen. Rather, if any comment at all is passed, it will be on the niggardly size of his tip. (Paul's grandfather is a man who has never had to live on tips.)

Julie feels an impostor here. Kitchen and restaurant are two different worlds. The strict strip lighting in the humid echoing kitchen allows for no cockroaches or pretensions. Out here in the restaurant it is all deep shadows and warm glows, fostering delusions — of intimacy, of seclusion, of wealth.

Julie feels that she is imposing here. The conversation certainly doesn't include her.

Paul was raised partly by his grandparents, has had years of practice with them, begins his dialogues past her comprehension, taking up from points established years before. So he lets his grandfather ramble boringly on, enjoys his grandmother's tart interjections, then amuses them with an apparently unrelated story; and they are all so very pleased with one another. Like the mutual flattery actors and audience go in for, praising and applauding one another, all so very appreciative of themselves.

Julie looks across the table at them; and, as always, with their plump jowls and bead-bright eyes, they remind her of a couple of well-fed fluffy house dogs.

Their appearance, however, is not the principal reason that Julie dislikes Paul's grandparents; but because they say they can't be bothered with children. They say that children are predictable and boring. Children, according to their social tenets, cannot be invited to a restaurant. So they invite Paul and Julie only to restaurants.

Julie also believes that they only like Paul now because he has become their clown. They enjoy the thrill of having a meaty grandson with tattoos on his arms and a criminal record, as well as an appetite for intelligence. They want to be his mentors in the realms of art and taste.

Paul, though, has too much vigour to adopt their arty-liberal inclinations. They talk around a subject, their gestures circling the plates, leaning to the side to approach doubtful topics, even their faces twisting the shape out of certain words. Paul talks directly across his food, his occasional gestures directed to the middle of the table. Nor do they take umbrage at his contradictions, but smirk approvingly when he disagrees with them, for then they can present him with arguments possibly previously unconsidered by him.

Like most married couples, knowing their spouse's philosophies through and through, with each other both are impatient for the other to finish their piece so they can say theirs. While Paul can still, building from ideas new to himself, surprise Julie. So, despite Paul often telling her that she is the one person he doesn't have to explain the whole of himself to, she continues to listen to what he has to say.

Julie draws comfort from her importance to him. Yet here, with these two old people, there is on display a part of him that she does not know, that she has no claim to. Her one consolation is that, later, Paul will tell her of his impatience with them and their attitudes, that it will be to her that he will rehearse his myriad criticisms of them.

"Two stodgy old people," he calls them, "out of touch with everything but themselves."

Julie knows the reality of Paul's Iife, the breadth between his knowledge and theirs. Prison to Paul, for instance, is not some sinister fact in the abstract, but carries the imprint of anxious experience. While his grandparents don't now care whether Paul was guilty or not, they have chosen to tolerate and celebrate him as a proven criminal.

Paul's grandfather frequently says that he is a broadminded man. And, because Paul's grandfather is so very broadminded, he can therefore make crude jokes about ethnic minorities and about feminists, and about the unemployed, and about single mothers, without anyone taking offence, because everyone can see that really he is ever so liberal and ever so broadminded. Paul and Julie went with them for a curry just the once.

With aspirations to village eccentricity, Paul's grandparents cannot abide to be thought of, by themselves, as normal. Or, should they do something normal, then they mock its normalcy. They call this restaurant, for instance, 'a suburban eating out place'.

Even when Paul and his grandparents concur, as on their opposition to the building of Hinkley C, the grandparents seek always an idiosyncratic reason for their opposition, solely to make themselves unique. Under this compulsion to be sophisticated, to be thought clever, they also have to criticise. Thus have they become unable to accept and enjoy anything for what it simply is, will find fault even with a sunset. So accustomed have they become with being critical that, no matter how good a time they are having, they cannot help but seek flaws in some aspect of their circumstance. Thus Paul's grandfather now decides that the lemon meringue is a little too sugary. It isn't. Nor does it matter to the sweating student waiter. A comment, however, has to be passed. Has been passed. The old couple is satisfied.

Julie does not own Paul's affectionate exasperation with them. Julie is suspicious of anyone who deliberately tries to be different. If they want to be different then it must mean that they do not want to be like others, that they, therefore, have a low opinion of those others. Those others will include herself.

Paul's grandfather wants to be markedly different. It comes from, Paul says, his being like a lot of clever men, emotionally immature. His grandfather believes that human intercourse can be governed by reason, by rationality alone. But likes and loves, by their very definition, often defy reason. Love has certainly paid heed but rarely to logic. And for all his cleverness and jokey hypochondria, Paul's grandfather is terrified of old age and death, fights the subversion of time by publicly pretending to a strength and energy that he patently no longer possesses. Likewise he still boasts a vigorous sexuality.

"Sometimes I think he hasn't moved on from thirteen years old," Paul has told her, "There he is in the gents, comparing cock sizes at seventy."

Julie looks to the others in the restaurant. A bearded man with a flat face is sitting opposite a thick-waisted woman with loose long blonde hair. Julie hasn't seen her face. They look like they should be a married couple, but she keeps saying things like, "I didn't know you were interested in..." "I didn't know you were keen on..." "I didn't know you liked..." His deeper voice makes it hard for Julie to hear his words.

She decides that she has nothing in common with these interesting restaurant people. This one meal will cost his grandparents more than Paul and Julie spend on groceries in a week.

A man there in smart casuals is using managerspeak to his smart wife. Listening to the managers in the factories Julie has often wondered if they mock their working language away from the factories. And she has always known, so shiny-eyed zealous are they at times, that they did not, that they have allowed themselves to become wholly the management's mouthpiece, that they have wholly duped themselves with managerspeak of career structures.

Julie's compatriots, her equals — though she despises many of them too — are those whose total frame of reference is the telly. All, in their workaday conversations relates to something on the telly, a character or a catchphrase. Of their own lives there is nothing. Their own lives lack glamour and excitement. The dramatic and interesting bits, prison and illnesses, are squalid like hers.

An old man, even more upright than Paul's grandfather, is sat at the table by the door, prosperity sewn into every seam of his suit, his yes-dear wife glancing to right and left at his every command, one of those smug I-told-you-so bastards who paid into his pension plan and never once participated in the foolishness of his time. Imagine him young with a punk's pink coxcomb.... Julie smiles.

Paul's grandfather also always tries to go one better over his wife. Paul's grandmother, though, has more spirit than that confused woman by the door. She competes. And, competing, these grandparents are even envious of each other's illnesses, the other's aches and pains. Their own is always worse and the other is always putting it on. Or they both seek and find rare symptoms in themselves: a mutual downward-spiralling hypochondria. All forgotten the moment something else takes their fancy. Small wonder, although it continues to amaze them, that Paul's mother is the way she is.

Julie sees that dithering woman as a result of this suave seIf-congratulatory pair, rather than, as they'd like her to be seen, as an aberration. This grandmother, self-congratulatory again, is smiling at Julie and talking of marriage as an ideal. Because she's failed at motherhood, Julie cynically thinks; and Julie believes besides that marriage is no more nor less than clearing up each other's sick, and staying afterwards.

Paul's mother was never married. To escape the family home, the family story goes, the teenage daughter got herself pregnant to trap a man. The man had refused to be so trapped. (Bridgwater, faced with any such choice, is an easy place for a man to leave.)

Paul's mother, poor woman, was browbeaten as a baby, and made to feel inferior thereafter. Except when, in that same teenage period of independence, she had refused all parental offers of assistance and had let the local council house her. Consequently Paul, only spending school holidays with his grandparents, escaped such close critical contamination.

"About time you paid a visit to your mother," his grandmother tells Paul, "She's slipping towards the abyss again."

Now, poor woman, she is patronised and pitied by the generation after as well as the generation before.

The upright old man by the door is shouting at the bewildered waiter. Faces are turning from other tables. The old bastard is sucking in importance from this.

"The man who barks has someone barking at him," Paul's grandfather says.

Julie smiles to find herself in agreement with him. He returns her smile,

"Should have been an old Chinese proverb," he says.

Paul is also smiling at her, glad that she has become a part of the conversation. She glances to him, pleased that he is not the kind of man who shouts at waiters.

commentary .... Life can be a hopping from ruts and routines to other routines and other ruts, in the expectant illusion that we are enjoying freedom. Paul knew then that, in his occasional employment and his semi-permanent unemployment, he was but switching tracks. Knowledge of the truth, not the continual exchanging of ruts, was what made him feel superior to his once workmates. Though he did not lord that superiority over them. With them he used their language. With his grandparents he corrected his grammar and extended his vocabulary. Alone with Julie he used an amalgam.

We are all of us many people. Paul was no exception. Except that he noted that disparity of roles within himself and at times he sighed for a simple — by which he meant singular — life. To be but one being the whole of the time.

He knew that others were as aware of this inconsistency in themselves. How, when he started new jobs, people were attracted to his blond height and prison reputation, but were uncertain of him. So they introduced him to people they already knew, used those known peoples' reactions as a measure of him, as a test, see how he fitted into their small order of things and so could gauge what aspect of their own personality they should use towards him.

These often subconscious assessments amused Paul. Not, though, that he didn't want new people to like him. Like us all he would have liked the world to think well of him. But as Paul didn't think well of most of the world he had made his own world a small one — consisting of Julie, Michael and Alice. Now, so long as Julie approved of what he did, so long as his idea of what a future and grown Michael and Alice would make of him, he was happy with what he thought of as his true self.

His true self did not know what truth was. Nothing was exactly what it seemed. Paul's grandmother, for instance, simply because she fiercely echoed, or publicly tried to smooth away, so many or her husband's fierce opinions, could have appeared browbeaten by that articulate man. Not so.

It has to be said here that Paul didn't agree with Julie that his grandparents were always in competition. Paul, saying that he had known them longer, claimed that their intellectual bickering was but the public face of their marriage. Privately they were in accord. And his grandmother was the one who had shaped it.

Although she hadn't fed her husband any new ideas, she had, over the years, watched his every new opinion form and solidify; and she had helped shape those opinions by silences rather than words, by affecting an indifference rather than by an outright voicing of her disagreement. Thus, by such covert pressure, had she made those opinions acceptable to herself, thus could she nod in agreement with his utterance of them; and, because she had, inch by inch, adapted to her husband's affectations, thus had the two of them been able to present a united yin/yan public front. And this fiction of themselves in their phoney relationship they had sustained throughout their married lives. Like all other long married couples they would probably die in their self-ordained parts, both holding the other secretly in contempt.

It is not easy for any ego to accept the increasing anonymity of age. Once your own generation was the ultimate. Of the new generation, you were the end result of years of selective breeding. There had never been anything like you before, the world's attention was focused on you. But you too grew old, and when you had children those children became the ultimate. While you, the parents, simply entered the muddy pool of the past, conjoined with all those homogenous adult others.

Even back then Paul had moments of panic — when he thought that life was too quickly passing him by, that life's adventures and accomplishments were reserved for others, that he would never own a lifestyle like his grandfather's, that his entire existence would be confined to Sydenham. Then he decided that he didn't want a lifestyle like his grandfather's, fortressed with routines and opinions; and that his life had already had adventures enough thank you. Besides, adventures were only adventures in retrospect, when they could become dressed in a story. In the happening they are a going from this moment to whatever comes next.

And Paul, being still of importance to his young children, could then continue to feel that his life had meaning, that it was of unknown potential. His death, to him, was thus not yet an impending reality. Death as an idea impressed him more than did the fact itself. Is and was. The concept fascinated him. As he got older, though, (if he got older) he would lose interest in it as an abstract and come to dread its inescapable reality, or relish it like a tender wound. Death alone, however, was not then his sole future.

Julie had no concept of herself in any future. She could not see herself either lined and withered, or plump and matronly. For her the future was simply a blank. All she knew of it was that she would not allow certain things of the past, a boozy husband, and debt in particular, to happen to her again.

Nor did Paul then have any concrete image of a future for himself, save that it would probably be more of the same. Although both he and Julie did have the conventional hopes for their children... that they would do well at school, have good jobs, good homes, good partners and good lives. But, both having been made sceptics, they knew how little control they had over that future.

Julie, consequently, had no real ideals for her children. She accepted as self-evident that the rearing of children was/is a lottery. She knew that some children could be neglected, maltreated, abused even, and could find it in themselves to grow into reasonable adults. Other children could be reared conscientiously according to every socially acceptable child manual and they could turn into thugs. The only rule, therefore, Julie decided, was to avoid the worst excesses and to treat her children according to her own conscience; and keep her fingers crossed that, somehow, they would bring themselves up to be someone she would be pleased to know.

Michael, though, had already developed the habit of sneering suspiciously at all adults, suspecting them — when they united against his desires — of conspiring against him. Especially when, having dared voice a criticism of any one of them, those adults stood up for each other. And Julie had seen herself fail because she knew, but was unable to impart to Michael, that those incompetent adults hadn't been guarding any secrets, had just been watching each other's backs.

All parenthood is thus destined to be miserably wrapped around with guilt. Because all diligent parents are held to blame — by themselves — for the whole of their children's childhood, even for the nine tenths over which they can have no control.

Julie felt inadequate; and Julie's antagonism towards Paul's grandfather, and his pomposity, was not so much at him and respectable people like him — managers and teachers and social workers and solicitors — but at the unthinking assumptions of their respectability. They knew so much, but they had no idea what her life was like, what it was like not being able to afford new clothes, what it was like being on her own, what it was like visiting her lover in prison, what it was like still waking nights and listening and waiting for the drunken mumble and the bang on the door.

Paul's grandfather had been a quality control manager. A pseudo-scientist he had now appointed himself an authority on all matters scientific and moral. Sex abuse, for instance. Because he knew he was a liberal, Paul's grandfather liked to talk with other liberals about sex abuse. He could then say out loud naughty words while all around him people nodded solemn and serious agreement, and waited their turn to speak out loud the naughty words. Julie imagined how being raped must feel to the child, and she squirmed in horror at the knowledge she had given herself.

Julie also knew, for all that respectable people like Paul's grandparents talked of fundamental human values and basic decency, they were more impressed by what other people were capable of buying than with who they were, or what they did, or what they made. Such people were only impressed by what one made if one could sell it and, with the money so acquired, buy other things.

Julie saw the middle classes pretending to one another that life was too complicated for honesty.

Julie's, though, was a bitter outlook. She harboured more rancour than Paul over Paul's imprisonment. It had been happening to Paul, a new experience, and therefore, to some extent, interesting. Julie, though, had been simply deserted, abandoned, left to fend.... While Paul had been guilty of what? Crimes are supposed to be unusual, exceptional. Paul had done no more than most of their neighbours.... So, when respectable people on the telly or radio talked about democracy being better than communism, or then South Africa, or Islamic states, Julie said to Paul,

"Sure, that's what the rulers of the democracies keep telling us." She said such things only to Paul, "When everyone's been fed and housed, and people don't get sent to prison because of a bit of bad luck, then I'll consider democracy's merits."

That Julie should feel free to voice such thoughts only in her own house was not because such thoughts, at the end of the eighties, were politically unacceptable to the ruling state, but because she feared derision from anyone other than Paul. At work, for instance, the other women would only have looked askance at her saying such things.

In that level of general intellect Bridgwater is/was no different to the rest of Britain. It is axiomatic that in an age of mass communication most individuals have lost the ability to communicate. People spout jingles and catchphrases and slogans at one another; and expect not to be understood.

Paul's grandfather didn't spout jingles. But Julie didn't like him, because he tried to impress her. Her husband had tried to impress her. To get a reaction from her, to make her see him as an individual, to impose his presence on her, he had beaten her up.

Against her will, however, Julie was influenced by Paul's grandfather.

"These sad young women one sees on council estates," he shook his head in clever sorrow, "tripping along on their white high heels, in their snow-washed jeans, and hanging on to a pushchair for security." Julie would not thereafter even consider buying snow-washed jeans, no matter how much of a knockdown bargain they might have been.

Not that she wanted to be different to the snow-washed mothers. She viewed all such efforts as futile, a vain waste of time and energy. All babies looked more or less the same. All old people looked more or less the same. Only in the middle, in what each person consciously made of themself, were people noticeably different. And if she couldn't afford to make herself different, why bother?

For all his quick acerbity Julie knew that Paul's grandfather wouldn't have lasted long in Sydenham, would soon have made himself the object of feuds and vendettas. He was also one of those who identified with authority. Although he would, while he could get away with it, cynically and with bravura break authority's rules; Julie knew that, on his being caught, his cynicism and bravura would evaporate, and he would beg, and he would plead, and he would cite extenuating circumstances, say I was not the only one.... Because Paul's grandfather was at heart a corporate man. Please don't expel me. Whereas an instinctive, anti-authoritarian like Paul, on being caught breaking their silly rules, said,

"Do your worst. I'm not going to play your game."

Paul told her a prison philosophy on self-reliance. It ran thus,

"No-one will give it to us. We have to take it for ourselves. And if you're scared of the responsibility, if you're scared of being the one who makes the mistakes, then you deserve all the shit they hand out to you. And it doesn't matter what you do back to them. It doesn't matter even who you do it to. It doesn't matter if no-one knows about it but you. As long as you're the one to do it. As long as you mess up their order of things. As long as you make it less reliable. So that no-one relies on it."

True Stories

In April 1986, after coming home to find her ex-boyfriend asleep in her bed, Lisa Bone left the flat she had shared with him to collect her car. Anthony Cowlin had, by this time, woken up and had followed her. As Lisa Bone drove along St John Street he threw a dustbin at her car. Anthony Cowlin then returned to the flat and barricaded himself in.

In April 1989 physicist Alan Martin told the Hinkley C Public Enquiry that fuel elements and other contaminated items were among some 2,600 cubic yards of intermediate level waste already stored on the power station site.

On September 24th 1989 a total of 1,938 council house tenants were in arrears in the Sedgemoor area. The arrears of 850 averaged £19.56, or one week's rent. Another 880 owed less then £100. 208 tenants had arrears of more than £200. The total amount outstanding was £45,111.14.

In March 1990 Kevin Brian Lewis of Bristol Road, Bridgwater, went barging into the High Street Kentucky Fried Chicken. 21 year old Kevin Brian Lewis asked customers what they were looking at. He then punched Ian Howell in the face, causing his jaw to be fractured in two places. As a result of the attack Ian Howell had to have two teeth extracted and a metal plate inserted in his jaw. Sedgemoor Magistrates ordered Kevin Brian Lewis to pay £400 compensation. He was also sentenced to 6 months imprisonment, suspended for 18 months.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

13) Drinking

The fingers of drink have crawled up his spine. They clutch now open-handed at the back of his brain. His attention has to be concentrated. Events, people and objects come into his focus; and are gone.

His hand encloses the pint glass. The beer is the same clear amber as morning urine. The thought is an old thought.

The hand is a strong hand, has a round solid wrist attached to it. The thumb and the fingers have shape, are not the tubular sausages of shovel pushers. These hands have a craftsman's sinews and musculature.

He uses the arm to raise the cold glass to his warm mouth.

The game machines have bright lights of different vivid colours. Earlier he passed time putting his change through. But he couldn't much understand how he was supposed to win, nor why he did win the few tokens the machine pumped rattling into the tray. Then some know-all berk came over and kept telling him what to do. He still lost all his change.

He looks around the bar. More people in now. Mostly men — standing near the bar, some at the dartboard, some through the archway by the green pool table. A group of four women at a table are oohing and tutting over some story. He is the only man sitting at a table.

He doesn't feel a part of this pub. No-one here has talked to him except the berk earlier and the barman. And the barman said only enough to serve him. Sign of loneliness, anyway, to chat to barmen.

He prefers those pubs where talking just happens. Where someone says something to him and he answers back and before he knows it people are laughing and he's a part of the joke, a part of their night out. No chance of that happening here. All he can see is backs to him. Bastards.

One bloke facing him beyond the backs is staring at him. He isn't seeing him. No expression on his face. Looks like a boxer, feet planted solidly on the ground. Now he glances to a word, the eyes move to others, the quick bright eyes of a man who enjoys a fight. And now the man has noticed the drummer staring at him. With the quick intelligence of a fighter he gives the drummer the once over. Unafraid. And in that appraising twinkle there was a question mark that was a challenge.

The young men with their backs to him have the cylindrical necks of weightlifters. Most have a day's growth unshaven. As fashion here dictates.

A girl is sat alone, excluded from the gaggle of oohing and tutting women. Her man is in one of the groups with his friends. She is young. Must've been born worried though. The anxious wrinkled face is at odds with the rounded proud body. One part of her is lying. He is glad he doesn't have to be bothered by her: the massage parlour tart has served her purpose.

A man immense with silence stands in a niche at the end of the bar. His immobile self-containment starts to irritate the drummer.

Four young girls, shining with make-up, come shimmying in. They recognise someone and, whispering, go rushing into the lavatory.

Through an opening door he sees two fat men in suits sat at the saloon bar. Their faces are the colour of old offal. They are his age. He should be sat in there drinking spirits with them.

The door closes. He looks at the door. At his age his should be the boozer's beetroot-stained jowls. He was never, though, a steady sociable drinker, more a binge merchant. He doesn't want to be those two fat men sat there every night. He doesn't want their money. He doesn't want their easy jobs. He doesn't want to join in their nostalgia. Nostalgia is not a solitary exercise. And he is a solitary man. And nostalgia is for oldsters, for people who want to be old; and he wants to stay young. Folksingers get themselves suckered into regretting times past, when men were men and women wore braces. He wants time not to have passed. Nor does he want to play the game of complaining about these days. It was always as shitty then as it is now. He wants to be young among the young now, fears being kept at a distance from their vitality.

So, wherever he goes, he seeks to ingratiate himself with the young. The young are foolhardy and reckless. When drunk he is foolhardy and reckless. He drinks.

Still he feels time overtaking him, gravity pulling him down, and he knows he can never be young again. He hears himself tell himself that. And slowly he's coming to believe it. Not by the evidence of himself, though — he has always been a stranger to his body and mind — no, the world is changing around him.

They were a small population, his generation, seemed to keep meeting each other at every turn. Now, gone forty, the young are suddenly vast and he meets no-one anymore. All his generation are indoors or dead. Or selling heroin and buying bits of Brazil by the square mile.

Not that it's a sudden influx. Young people have been coming onto the scene for years. Breeding didn't let up after his generation. But those latecomers were background people, were apprentices to his letting rip generation. Or they were young girlfriends not to be taken seriously. His generation was still dominant, still set the pace... It was they who the young were privileged to know.

This new lot though... they are so many. All around him these days is youth with its passions and perversions unformed. He can feel himself being overtaken, overcome by this mass of unknowns who care not a jot whether he exists or not. Just another lined face in the watching crowd. While their every new face reminds him of another, some other place, some other time, ghosts of his past.

When working at his machine he tells himself that he has reached the age when no-one asks him to be in their band anymore. Or their team. Now he's there for just as long as the job lasts. Oh they tell him he's a good worker. But if they're going places he's now considered too old to even tag along. A has-been. As for bands... he's now way back old hat.

Still, though, he cannot accept that age has estranged him from their irreverent vigour. His anger at being estranged further estranges the puzzled young. His now is the voracious rage that grows inside impotence. Like an old volcano he knows that anger well. The young are new to it. So he drinks to extinguish that rage, the sole object of his drinking these days being insensibility, to not feel.

At the bar is a tall nodding man. The nodding is a listening habit. The drummer wants to shout Noddy! at him. Two more pints and he will.

His glass is empty.

commentary.... Every life quickly develops habits. Babies soon have their favourite waking times.

A whole science — behaviourism — is based on the undoing of old habits and the creating of new. The change for most individuals, however, is made voluntarily: their habits changing along with their changing circumstances. The same man — let's take an example to the extremes — can be brave and adventurous in his arrogant youth, then can become circumspect and cowardly in his shrinking dotage, his old mind obsessed with his aches and the lateness of the post.

Some people, though, hang onto habits like outmoded clothes. Some do it consciously, aware that the habit gives them, to their perception, an attractive eccentricity, or at least a social mask to be repetitively remarked upon and hidden behind.

Other people are not aware that they continue to live their lives according to inappropriate habits.

Could cynics and innocents be thus divided into those who are aware of their own habits, and those who are unselfregarding and unaware? But no division can be that simple. In the drummer, for instance, we have a cynic who has a romantic/tragic self image. And he inflicts it on others.

Habits, however, are the root and core of our being, of our intellect even. Paul in those days maintained that stupidity was a habit, a habit of self-denigration, a habit that could be broken. What Paul couldn't accept then, being young, was that life felt safer for some people if they didn't let themselves know.

To some habits denote security, to others a trap. So were some of the people in that pub regulars craving safe habits, while others had gone there looking for a change, albeit that it was but another pub in an habitual round of pubs. And in Bridgwater, of an evening, there was little else to do but drink. (Every night in Bridgwater, after the pubs kick out, staggering men litter the pavements.)

The drummer drew comfort from the very familiarity of his habits, even when those habits were a self-punishing frame of mind — the drummer being of a generation that had been led to enjoy its guilts. He knew too that his were the squandered talents of a man who was always over-concerned with appearances — looking the drummer rather than being the drummer. Aware then that, because he knew himself to be not the genuine article, suspecting that he might look a fool, he had deliberately played the fool, set himself up as a fool, and drank. Then, when drunk, he had become angry at his easy fooling of others, at their unwitting fooling of themselves, and the drummer, not being a man to beat his own breast, had cursed the self-deluded fools around him.

In his uninhibited cups he knew that he had made a life-style out of almost having made it, of having just missed. Certainly his band had a couple of records that had nearly made it into the charts. Certainly he had appeared in the supporting bands on the same stage as the big name bands. And maybe they remembered him. Maybe they remembered all those other nearly people....

His own very private knowledge knew that his one claim to savage creation had been usurped by a synthesiser. What need now did any band have of a fevered man hitting skins when a sober machine was so much more reliable? He knew that had it not been for that box of electronics he would now be happily guzzling and softly tapping out the beat in some second-rate combo, paid in pints.

At work, to fend off the creeps, to score first over the point-scorers, the drummer mocked his band-playing past. Work and the voice of machines, he told himself, that was the real world. Being part of a machine, though, gave him no satisfaction. (Only the professions now can take a pride in their work, in their expertise. There are no tradesmen these days who do not know they can be replaced by a machine, are left with jobs in which they can take no pleasure, only wages.)

When drinking, the music loud, the drummer found his heels unconsciously beating time; then he outright hated the manacling rhythms of work, as he hated too this primeval music of pubs. His mind then launched itself to the greater world of music, and in such a musing mood he approved of the ephemerality of all art, its poignant reflections of life's slippery transience. He, creature of habit, had often decided that if he had his life over he'd have liked to have been a jazz vocalist. Hit those perfect chords, catch that subtle once-only harmony. Here and gone. He wasn't that jazz vocalist. Nor were the bodies around him outwardly aware of their ephemerality. Tomorrow's ghosts.

To break a life's habits some resort to drastic measures. The most blindly desperate might kill themselves. Others simply run away. All those who have an unhappy past want first to escape the place in which it happened. And in an overpopulated country like ours it's easy to disappear. Nobody really cares. Even the professionals just make you someone else's problem, someone else's district, someone else's department. They don't know you personally, so how can they care? They owe you no emotions. They just fill out the forms and cover their backs.

Unless you become their problem, no-one cares who you are in Bridgwater. No-one knows you. So estranged have we all become that nowadays the people of Bridgwater, like communities elsewhere, keep in touch only by radio phone-ins.

Gone now are the settled communities with their network of spies and corroborating lies. Everyone now is in transit. So it's easy to be anonymous these days. No-one knows anyone else. Or, if they are known, then they are more readily recognised by the car they drive and the clothes they wear, rather than their physiognomy and their past. Most people these days know the people on the telly better than their next door neighbours.

You could disappear tomorrow. How many people would even notice you'd gone? Would any of them make a concerted attempt to find you? Where would they start to look? And when you weren't there, or there, where then?

Even in the small towns, even in the villages, no-one knows anyone anymore. There are just too many people for us to be able to care about them all, and they're simply not around long enough for us to find out enough about them to be able to even start to care what becomes of them. Everyone's commuting somewhere else. That's how these nutty mass murderers get away with it for so long. They're usually only caught when someone accidentally stumbles over the body of one of their victims. Nobody missed those victims when they disappeared. Because people are always disappearing, are always moving on....

Bridgwater is a place to run away from and a place to end up in when you've run out of steam. Paul has gone home from new jobs to tell Julie, "Everybody here's from somewhere else."

Bridgwater can absorb drifters, can use their rootlessness, their lack of responsibility, their lack of pride in place, their wage packet mentality. In return it dulls their disconnected minds with mechanised labour, soothes their severed lives with the socially-approved balm of ritual alcohol. Most of Bridgwater's runaways are men. Men who ran rather than become nonentities in their own homes shouting at their own children. Spurned husbands, rejected fathers, all find a shore in Bridgwater after the wreck of their marriages, after the sinking of their egos.

"Nobody comes from Bridgwater anymore," Julie said of one of her jobs, "People only end up here."

It's nothing new. Drifting men have always fetched up in Bridgwater. They came to this nothing place where there are plenty of pubs and a plenitude of fellow drinkers. Distressed Mariners and Disenchanted Gypsies, having escaped their past lives, here they undertake the stilling of time with drink's slow death. And, with the perversity of all ιmigrιs and exiles, once here, they develop a nostalgia for the places from which they fled.

Negated, we are all travelling people now, live lives much alike, and in this small tatty little country we can no longer be fooled by talk of places distant and habits strange. Northern Industrial places, for instance, are an abuse of all our environments. The only reason any people carry on living up North, in stinkpots like Middlesborough and Manchester — with their primitive chip-eating habits, flat cap, real ale, beat your wife crap — is that they haven't the sense to get out. That they may claim to be proud of living on slag heaps and breathing smoke only demonstrates that the despoliation of generations has affected their cranial capacities. To stay there they've got to be stupid. Even some of those who leave have sufficient sense only to seek a close approximation — in Bridgwater — of what they escaped from.

People end up in Bridgwater by birth or by accident. Never intention. Bridgwater's own self-mocking legend has it that every local able-bodied man was recruited to fight, and was subsequently killed in, the Battle of Sedgemoor. This left all the cripples and feeble-minded to interbreed and populate Bridgwater. Paul and Julie were both born in Bridgwater.

True Stories

In August 1985 two brothers, both of Fairfax Road, Bridgwater, were shouting and swearing as they left Charlotte's nightclub in St Mary Street, Bridgwater. When the police intervened Raymond Keith Paul Riddle pushed a policeman in the chest. Upon being arrested 19 year old Raymond Keith Paul Riddle struggled violently. 17 year old Jeffery Gordon Riddle tried to pull him away. Jeffery Gordon Riddle subsequently put up such a struggle that he had to be handcuffed. A group of 30 — 40 onlookers gathered. More police were called to clear the street.

The Department of the Environment, in a letter to Somerset Health Authority, said that the incidence of leukaemia deaths around Hinkley, between 1959 and 1973, being five times what statistically should have been expected, had no link with any incident at the nuclear power station. The letter, in April 1989, said that the higher levels in the early 1960s were due to weapon test fallout.

In June 1989 Paul Baker and Nick O'Grady, both of the Sydenham estate, Bridgwater, were commended by the society for the Protection of Life for having smashed their way into the Fairfax Road home of their neighbour and having rescued Fiona Dunbar and her baby son Joseph. The citation read, 'It is considered that the gallantry and endeavour of Paul Baker and Nick O'Grady secured the lives of Fiona Dunbar and her infant son.'

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

14) Drinking

Julie is sat at one of the round tables. Paul is away at the bar behind all those other shouting moving bodies.

The smell and noise of pubs still gives Julie that associative teenage tingle of adult excitements. They also remind her of her husband and of his violence and they frighten her. Her husband isn't in this pub. Only copies of him.

"Go boil your head!" one man shouts laughing at another on his way to the lavatories.

Why, Julie wonders, do Bridgwater males employ the language of aggression even when they don't mean it? Two there are smiling over a darts disagreement, "Like hospital food?"

In the bar beyond is yet more shouting. All the ill-manners and mulish aggression of Bridgwater men, deriding one another upon sight and out of habit. Julie tries to think of a Bridgwater man with an open face, a ready smile. Can't think of one. Only the sucking up smarm of the salesman and the shop assistant.

No single man here wears a face of amiable enquiry. Not that these harsh masks denote strength, rather theirs is the immobility of fear. Julie knows that all these loud men are but children desperate for attention, not wanting to be noticed, however, to the extent that they will be laughed at.

Knowing them does not make Julie feel superior to them. Because it's this idea these little boys have of what constitutes a man that means that sooner or later these little boys, proving themselves men to each other, will go home and punch their womenfolk.

They frighten her.

Paul they amuse. He sits down smiling beside her. His idea to come in here. And how could she have objected to such an ordinary thing to do, go for a meal and a drink after? Now he nudges her attention towards four red-faced girls giggling together on another table.

"Four fat and foolish virgins," he says.

"Fat and foolish maybe," she says.

"It happened to their bodies not their minds."

Now she knows why they came here: it's Paul's turn now to talk, to sound off in the manner of his grandfather without his grandfather going one better.

"It's all a matter of knowing people," he nods at the crowded pub, "and being known. The drink," he swallows from his yellow pint, "is incidental."

A man in earshot tells a Rastus joke. Another man laughs over-loudly. Another voice is telling Irish jokes.

"Here we have a state of mind," Paul says, "that believes the more noise it's making the better the time it is having."

Julie smiles with him. She and Paul have a home, two children, a life and thoughts other than this inside of pubs. This once, she thought, excited her. The loudness and bumping familiarity all making her feel a part of the grown-up world. But this is only pretend grown-up. This is playing. Grown-ups playtime. Attitudes and poses. Grown-ups playing parts to themselves, with themselves as their own audience, all in their chubby rounded ordinariness wanting to be singular angular characters.

"Fuck you Williams," a voice leers.

"Wanker," comes the reply.

"Two more graduates," Paul says in her ear, "of the Bridgwater school of protocol."

Which leads Paul to a favourite topic, Bridgwater men, "In any pub in this town all they boast of is feats of endurance — the number of pints they can drink, how many hours they worked one week, how long they can stand under dribbling fireworks.... making virtues of their serfdom, of their being beaten. How much they can take. Not what they can do. No, how much can be done to them...."

He realises that Julie has heard all this before, points her towards a man listening to the arm-waving ramblings of another. The listening man is full of a lofty wisdom.

"Sucking on his secrets like boiled sweets...." and not imparting even a betraying breath of wisdom to another.

Sue from the jam factory uses this pub. Most nights. Julie can't see her here tonight.

In the jam factory Sue and Julie have formed a partnership. Sue tries to create the impression that she and Julie alone in the factory are madcap and unconventional. Sue because of her pub escapades, Julie because of a lifestyle which has her and Paul cycling penniless over the levels. The two women together pity the other plain and spiritless women who work in the factory.

Julie tells Paul about Sue, about why she says she prefers coming here to staying at home with her children,

"Sue reckons they're honest here."

"About as sincere as channel swimmers trying to drown themselves. Listen to 'em. The uninformed full of their own opinions, forcefully delivered. Like tabloid headlines. That's what the opinions and conversations are in here — headlines shouted at each other."

"Sue says," Julie says, "that there has to be more to life than drinking and fucking and keeping each other amused. But what? You tell her that."

Julie sees another woman she knows. The woman has long painted fingernails.

"...She's always been in a hurry. Both her babies were premature. No kidding. She even had a bicycle bell on her pram, used to ring it to make people get out of her way. Look, she can't sit still now..." Paul and Julie watch the woman leave her seat to talk to a man, move on to someone else, go into the lavatory....

"People here," Paul says, "tell each other they're the norm. But you look, there's no old people in here. The old people are all locked indoors watching telly. Old people now are human beings who live through one day and on into the next inside two rooms. All of them see themselves as no use anymore. Because they can't work. And because they're not allowed to work they don't have the money to come out to the pub. So they stay indoors and worry about their bowels and the state of the roads. With the result that these few people in here and in the other pubs think they fill the world."

Julie changes the subject. She and Paul compare notes on their separate excursions to the canal. Julie is pleased that Paul doesn't now want to start from the docks.

commentary.... Julie's workfriend, Sue, said that she went to that pub for the company. Like Julie she could not bear to be indoors alone. Alone, that is, without another adult. Children, in this case, didn't count. However, only in their distaste were the two women alike: their tastes differed.

In fact, looking at the inside of this pub and its patrons, Julie had had to reassess her friend. That she should so enjoy coming to this unremarkable pub, that she should bring to work with her excited tales of this pub's unprepossessing patrons.

Julie saw nothing in the pub to please or to excite her. Her initial nervousness was purely associative with her ex-husband. She was not, for instance — as is customary with most Bridgwater women on a night out — watching out for her man's straying eye.

Neither Julie nor Paul owned any of the conventional jealousies. There was not between them even latent suspicions. Both may have entertained the notion of a bit on the side; but, apart from the logistical complications any act of infidelity could bring into their lives, also leading them to constancy was the thought then of AIDS, was the thought that the gratification of a sexual whim could kill the one they loved. Some do it with a sword, some with a fuck.

Not that Paul or Julie had any need to go outside their partnership for sexual satisfaction. Sexual curiosity possibly. And possibly, if needs must, either one of them could have adapted to the other's infidelity. (Let it be understood here that infidelity in itself is not the prime sunderer of marriage. The first refusal, the first 'Not tonight', 'Not now', 'Not here' is that. The rejected partner thinks, 'if it wasn't me, if it was him/her, she/he would be only too eager...' Even if the infidelity is only wishful thinking — popstar adulation say — a third party has entered all connubial transactions, and the imaginary cuckolded self is diminished, feels it must assert itself — by actual infidelity. Whatever.... the 'If' one is present, and one of the pair is estranged. Julie and Paul, however, are unsuspiciously by themselves.)

As for the habit of profanity in that pub, which might have made those from outside Bridgwater nervous... Some people are overcome by the sociable urge to communicate. Yet they have nothing of any import to say. So they do the human equivalent of moo and baa. In Bridgwater they swear. Or they find themselves recklessly telling the most outrageous stories so that the communality of communication will be sustained, talker and listener, performer and audience.

The polar opposite of this phenomena are those people who are sober and who do have something of matter to relate, but who find themselves incapable of expressing it: they stutter and they stammer in their futile attempts to communicate the inexpressible.... Finally it erupts in a frenzied shout. Usually it is the word 'No!', a denial of all assumptions made of that person, a denial of all systems of belief, of all accepted notions, all interrelated concepts, of all contemporary understandings.... Where else to start, but with the word, 'No!'?

Paul did not want to be superior to the people in that pub, even better than them; he simply didn't want to be like them. Out of unthinking habit, for instance, many of the male customers in that pub passed racist remarks. There are very few noticeably coloured people in Bridgwater: racism has been imported there. But Somerset men, taken as a whole, think it macho to be racist. Somerset men also think it macho to drink lots.

Bridgwater's modern industries continue to intermittently require an unthinking workforce. That workforce is therefore kept in a state of near narcolepsy and its subsequent near poverty. The narcotic can be the obvious type as with the drummer and his binge-addiction to alcohol, or it can be the constant keeping up of appearances as with consumerism, or combinations thereof.

Bridgwater continues to own too the mythos of machismo. "Call yourself a man..." "Make a man of him..." "Act like a man..." "Take it like a man..." This all suits the employers as they can continue to employ cheap male labour to do dirty and dangerous jobs. The mythos even glamourises the bosses own hard-nosed exploitation — "What a bastard he was..." And as such that boss will enter, for a forgetful generation, the mythos of Bridgwater machismo with its exultation of casual violence.

On occasion Paul and Julie too have wanted to believe the worst of Bridgwater — that Bridgwater was the most chronic polluter, most coarse, most philistine of towns — so that they could bask, for a brash brief moment — before sense reclaimed them — in the glory of those reflected upside down superlatives.

Society only works by us seeking the good opinion of those we have been led to admire. The most admirable men in Bridgwater are all liver-destructing drinkers. Most drinkers also feel sorry for themselves. Self-pity, though, leads inexorably to self-hatred. Egoists all, they feel sorry for their diminished egos. Egoism cannot despise itself, so it must look outwards. Ergo a facile racism, or the drunk looking for a fight.

True Stories

In January 1989 M. A. Jeans (Farms) Limited polluted Stogursey watercourse with farm waste from Stowey Court Farm. M. A. Jeans (Farms) Limited subsequently had to pay £5,000 in fines and costs.

At about 11pm on March 18th 1989 two motor patrol constables saw Stephen Scanlon, of Cranleigh Gardens, Bridgwater, being spoken to by a constable in Broadway. Thirty minutes later Stephen Scanlon shouted and swore at them as they passed him in the High Street. When the two motor patrol constables turned their car around they were again sworn at by Stephen Scanlon. He then pressed the button on the pelican crossing and made the two motor patrol constables stop their car.

"That showed 'em," Stephen Scanlon shouted. Another policeman approached Stephen Scanlon. He warned Stephen Scanlon about his abusive behaviour. As the policeman walked away Stephen Scanlon shouted, "Come back here and I'll have you." The policeman went back and arrested Stephen Scanlon.

In May 1990 13 year old Dean Maker, of Sydenham Road, Bridgwater, was playing on the Beazer Homes Polden Meadow Estate when a 3 foot diameter concrete sewer pipe rolled onto him and killed him.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

15) Fighting

Paul's drink is finished. He goes to the bar for another. A man steps jarring into Paul. The man is drunk. Paul waits for him to move himself.

The man looks up at Paul, at this tall big-nosed man. Paul has on his moving-through-a-crowd face. The man below Paul has bloodshot eyes. He sees on Paul the expression of amused tolerance that many tall men wear. The man's knuckles jolt off the rounded side of Paul's ribs.

In the thick of the crowd near the bar Paul has nowhere to go. Nor does that thought initially cross his mind. First comes the realisation that this man has purposefully hit him.

Part-smile fixed he tries to think why this man should want to hit him, was it him he meant to hit? He doesn't recognise him from anywhere, nor has he just now bumped into him. Next he sees the man pulling back his arm to try to punch him in the face. The arm pulled back jostles the men around him. They begin to turn to see what all the bumping's about and Paul realises that it really is him the man wants to hit.

Years of Bridgwater training now lead him to come in close and grapple the man to him until he can find out why. And he thinks it had to happen while Julie was here.

Having bear-hugged him, Paul can't now keep his balance. The two of them topple through the crowd towards the bar. Drinks spill. The crowd shouts and shoves back. The barman screams, "Out!"

Julie, sitting at the round table with its clean ashtray, sees Paul come tottering out of the crowd with the shorter man held to him. The man is older than Paul. He is pale and red-eyed. His face contorts with effort as he tries to free his arms. Paul, though, has him so tightly held that all the man can do is try to butt him. He can't: Paul has his head pressed down against the man's, so all that is happening as the man furiously jerks his head back and forth is that they are rubbing heads.

The joined pair of them have come to a standstill by the flickering fruit machine, have set it rocking back and forth. The fruit machine's pattern of lights stays the same.

Some of the men in the bar are now laughing at the spectacle.

"Stop them!" Julie feels the shriek open her face.

The barman has come busily from behind the wet bar. He is skinny and, feeling himself watched, is red in the face.

"Stop them!" Julie commands him.

"The two of you," he officiously shoves Paul in the back, "Out!" An incoming customer has opened the door.

The flat-handed shove is enough to send Paul and the man tottering towards the open door. The man jerks and writhes. He is now trying to knee Paul in the groin, to kick his shins, to grind his heels on Paul's instep. Paul stays intent on keeping his balance and keeping hold of this sudden enemy.

"Stop it!" Julie stamps her foot.

Paul and the man bounce off a doorjamb and come to a stop in the doorway beside the customer, who stands looking at them with raised eyebrows.

"Out, I said," the skinny barman steps forward and, to cheers, gives them another push. The pair pass over the bristled threshold and the customer smartly slams the door, stands looking through its small thick-paned window.

"Let me pass," Julie orders him.

"Don't bother yourself love," the man says. "Like some new sort of dance. Silly buggers."

"Out of my way!" Julie screams at his back. Some men in the bar hoot. She pulls at the man's sweatshirt.

"Suit yourself. Suit yourself," he steps aside.

To shouted laughter Julie emerges onto the pavement.

Two policemen from a white transit are stood on either side of Paul and the jerking man still held to him. Another policeman is climbing slowly down from the back of the van.

"Come on lads." Paul feels a hand on his shoulder. "Break it up now."

"Police?" Paul's face is buried in the man's neck. Squinting out he sees black trousers and round black shoes, "You got him?"

The man, all twitching muscle and hard hairiness, has gone still. Paul releases his arms and steps back in under the policeman's hand.

The man, without Paul's enfolding support, staggers first to the side, sways back and, at the same time, launches a fist at Paul's face. Paul can't go any further back because of the solid policeman behind him. The lumpy knuckles ruck up his cheek and scrape across his eyeball.

"Hey!" the policeman opposite Paul shouts, reaching forward for the man's arms.

The pain travels like a red light through Paul's head and down in an internal arc to his stomach. The red light rebounds as white anger. Who is this man? Paul's arm whips out and his fist cracks on the man's nose.

"Cunt!" Paul shouts.

"Jesus," the policeman behind Paul says, grabbing him aside as the man breaks free and hits Paul in the face again. Paul wrenches at the policeman holding him.

"Paul!" Julie shouts, "No!"

"In the van?" one of the policemen asks. The man tries to break free, curses Paul. His arm is screwed up behind him.

"Wish I knew what the fuck this was all about," Paul shouts to the policeman who first caught hold of him.

"Sort it out at the station."

Paul lets himself be led to the van. Two more policemen had been prepared to grab him had he resisted. The man has been squashed into a corner of the van. The policemen wait for Paul to get in and sit down.

"What're you going to do to him?' Julie asks their large backs. The driver is talking loudly on his radio, is saying that they're on their way to the station.

"Depends what he's done," one of the policemen winks and smiles at her.

"We just called in for a drink on the way home. Paul went to the bar. Then that man..." Julie alone is now standing on the pavement. She looks along the street, "I don't know. We've been for a meal. Paul went to the bar. I just saw..."

The policeman glances behind him. Sitting in the front of the van is a policewoman. She reaches for the doorhandle. The driver beside her touches her arm and shakes his head.

"Come up the station,'" the policeman starts to close the doors, "Soon have it sorted out." The white door is closed, the black handle turns and the van drives away.

commentary .... Anger must go outwards. No ego can tolerate being continually berated. The individual must seek a second party to punish.

Like all potential recruits Paul had been led to believe that to fight is right. Hence his instant response.

No matter what delusions of intellectual sophistication Paul then might have chosen to cherish, sooner or later the real Bridgwater had had to come bludgeoning in. So do we all wander blithely into the habits, external and internal, of others. So do we become twofold casualties of habit, of others and of our own.

True Stories

In the Sedgemoor district, between May 1988 and October 1989, 547 stray dogs were impounded.

After 10pm on May 1st 1990, and before 6am on May 2nd, a thief broke in to the Hampton Close house of Kevin Tumbull and stole a video recorder, TV and radio cassette, as well as some food and drink.

In May 1990 Joseph Michael Baker, a teacher at Blake School, Bridgwater, grabbed hold of a 12 year old boy by the hair and shook him. 45 year old Joseph Michael Baker had repeatedly asked the boy to be quiet. The boy had responded with a smirk. Finally Joseph Michael Baker had grabbed the boy by the hair and had shaken him. Chairman of Sedgemoor Magistrates, Tony Conibeare, said, "The bench considers that any assault of a pupil by a teacher is a very serious matter. However, because of the degree of provocation, we believe an absolute discharge is appropriate." Joseph Michael Baker, of Spring Cottage, Spaxton, was ordered to pay £5 compensation and £16 costs.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

16) Walking

Julie walks.

Fore Street's black bollards stick out of the patterned bricks like armless dwarves.

Paul being in police hands means that Paul is going to prison means that the whole of him is being stolen from her again. Not just parts stolen by jobs and time apart, the whole of him is again behind bars, separate from her.

"Doesn't the world like fathers anymore?" Julie asks Fore Street, and sees a girl sat on a shop doorstep, her head between her jellied knees, puking up her dreams of sophistication. Her friend is supported by the shop window and is looking off beyond Julie's head.

Julie walks.

Scraping by on benefits Julie often consoles herself that her children at least have in Paul a real father, an image in their mind that they'll be able to refer back to, whether they turn out to like him or not. Neither she nor Paul knew their fathers, save by reputation and speculation. Paul, possibly for that reason, does not want to leave his children even to go to work. But he does keep getting taken away.

But wait a minute, wait a minute, her sensible voice tells her. No need for all these dramatics. Because here, now, on Fore street's pedestrian bricks the sergeant's words come to her,

"No damage done. Just keep 'em here a couple of hours. Let 'em cool down."

And Julie hears her own words tumbling over one another to explain how she and Paul went for a drink on their way home from his grandparents, how they hadn't met the man before, didn't know the man, how could it be Paul's fault? An unprovoked attack... two little children at home... must get back to my mum's... we can't afford a babysitter... acting in self-defence...

The words came out of books and newspapers, didn't belong in her mouth, in her life.

"Bastard. Bastard," she hears herself saying.

Cars with yellow lights come over the bridge and go down towards the library. These are the same streets, she tells herself, same shops, same people, same river as in the day. But, because it is night, because it is past shops' closing time, because the people are fewer, this is a completely different town. One of arbitrary menace.

Three men are coming over the bridge. They are shouting and shoving at each other. On the other pavement a drunk is flopped over the side of the bridge, the rail running under his arms, his legs limp.

Face averted from the three men Julie strides onto the bridge. The draped drunk is singing dirge-like to himself. Hearing her clipping heels he swings his head around and swaying watches her approach. She looks beyond him.

The tide is full, the water coiling in incomplete whirlpools. Beyond the streetlights and the jagged roofs is a round umber moon. A few thin clouds lay like pencil shadings diagonally across its anxious face.

The drunk lifts one arm flapping off the rail. The three men across the road are laughing and grabbing hold of one another. One keeps slipping off the edge of the pavement, jerking himself back on to it, off again. Julie keeps to the edge of her pavement. The drunk, one of his supporting arms removed, slides further down the side of the bridge.

"It's a bore waiting for a bore," he singing tells her. He has a Midlands accent.

Julie steps smartly on, crosses the side road. Two more men are coming towards her along this narrow pavement. She crosses the road. Cars pass between her and the two men. She looks again to the moon.

"Next time you look up at the moon," Paul told her, "imagine you're looking down on it. It'll make you dizzy." It had.

"Bastard. Bastard," she says. On the long road ahead single lights carve empires out of the night.

commentary .... Julie's initial response, after Paul's arrest, had her falling into the grieving frame of mind that had become her habit after Paul's two imprisonments. Paul was in the hands of the police, therefore he was lost to her.

Only in a just society do the innocent have nothing to fear from the police. Unfortunately Paul and Julie did not live in a just society. Not that either of them committed unjust acts. Both were innocent of wrongdoing in that both tried to live as honestly as they could. This country they lived in, though, was a country where honesty was inherently penalised, whose language gave us the saying 'poor but honest.'

Previously, when Paul had had to stay away twice overnight on some furniture removals, and once when an inescapable job had had him working night shifts, Julie had found herself emotionally shutting down — during the day when Paul was occasionally around as well as during his night absence. Such behaviour on her own part had puzzled her, until she had realised its cause. Realising it she had thought herself cured of it. But the fear that created those emotional habits ran too deep.

So, on the first of these two Bridgwater nights, was Julie again made aware that her life was beyond her control. So, again, Julie was made to know that, in the big wide world, she and her penniless family were people of no account. The absolute certainty of that knowledge underlied her life.

True Stories

In August 1985 Peter Arthur Burrows, of Brooklands, Bridgwater, went late at night to the house of Mrs Josephine May Woodrow. 18 year old Peter Arthur Burrows had lived for a short time with Josephine May Woodrow. She refused to let him in. He banged on the door. Then he threw empty milk bottles against the walls of the house.

According to the Central Statistical Office car ownership in the South West, in 1987, was 373 vehicles per 1,000 population. For the rest of the country it was 320 vehicles per 1,000 population. The South West also had the highest rate of fatal or serious road casualties in 1986, with 161 per 100,000 population. In 1987 the South West had the highest number of home owner occupiers at 7l%. The South West also had, at 17%, the lowest proportion of people renting from local authorities. In 1986 the South West had the lowest household size, with 2.54 people per household, compared with a national average of 2.58.

On March 15th 1989 PC Douglas Shaw entered Cornhill gents in Bridgwater and saw John Wilkins going into a cubicle adjoining one which was already occupied. PC Douglas Shaw suspected that an act of gross indecency was taking place between John Wilkins and the person in the next cubicle. PC Douglas Shaw asked PC Andrew Owen to come down into the gents. PC Andrew Owen then pulled himself over the top of the cubicle door to see if an act of gross indecency was taking place. PC Andrew Owen then told John Wilkins that he was under arrest. Whereupon John Wilkins said, "But I haven't done anything."

After a visit to the underground gents in Cornhill, Sedgemoor Magistrates decided that the space between the top of the cubicle door and the lavatory ceiling did not allow sufficient room to see if an act of gross indecency was taking place in the cubicle. John Wilkins had no previous convictions. He was found not guilty.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

17) Fighting

The policeman is podgy and black-haired. His straight black hair is cut straight. He has a thick black moustache and bluey-white skin.

"Just what did you two think you were doing?"

The man next to Paul sways forward, and blinks slowly. He has two deep lines like cuts around his mouth. Dried blood is caked blackly around the rim of his nose. Flecks of it are in his bristles, a speckled smear across his yellow cheekbones. His breath smells of incipient vomit.

"We know you," the policeman tells Paul. (Intimidation technique Number 51: omniscience.) To contain any hint of a mental smile Paul concentrates on the policeman's wide blue midriff.

"This isn't your scene," he tells Paul

The policeman waits for a response. The single pint of beer that passed Paul's lips has left his mouth dry. The drunk beside him seems to be dreaming on his feet.

No-one has taken a statement from Paul. No-one has questioned him about the fight. His future has been decided. The cells are full, or they don't want the paperwork, or this is tonight's policy. Whatever.... he is to go.

"I don't know what it was about," the policeman says, "but it wasn't worth it...." And on he solemnly drones.

Paul lowers his gaze to the policeman's two shiny black shoes; and he anticipates Julie's surprise and pleasure in seeing him home again so soon.

Paul hasn't recognised any of the policemen here tonight: he wonders who recognised him. They took his name and address in the van. Probably ran him through the computer. And he was right; they're letting him go.

"....don't think you're getting away with it. If there's anything like this again we'll throw the book at you. Have you for having your shoelaces undone. Now go home quietly like good little boys...."

The man and Paul shuffle out of the police station together. Paul turns left and the man goes with him. Paul is heading towards the bridge to take him home. He hopes the man doesn't live in Sydenham and they have the embarrassment of walking home together.

"Lucky there," the man lays a hand on Paul's back, "thought we were in for the night."

The hand goes up to Paul's shoulder and the man leans dragging on Paul. His vomit breath is like acid spray prickling into Paul's soft skin. A car is coming. Paul glances behind, can't see beyond its lights. It may be a police car. He puts his lips to the man's ear, "Listen you arsehole — if it wasn't for you I wouldn't have been in there."

The white car is not a police car.

"Yea. Well. Sorry about that."

"I've never even fuckin' seen you before."

"I'm sorry, alright?" The man's words are all slurred.

"Ah fuck off!" Paul flings off the hand.

"No need to get stroppy."

"Just fuck off!"

The night road is empty and endless. Paul's heels start biting into his walk.

"Who the fuck you think y'are?!" the drunk shouts, comes shambling after Paul in an overloaded run.

Paul, shaking his head, stops.

"C'mon you! Tell me!" the man bellows as, to stop himself, he swings around Paul, "Tell me. You cunt!"

"This is fucking ridiculous."

Paul looks up at the blank offices, the noise of the man's shouts painted on their startled panes. Above the orange streetlights he glimpses a single silver star; and here he was on the planet Earth face to face with another human being.

"C'mon you cunt," the man snarls, "you're yesterday you are. Yesterday!" He has a finger pointed at Paul's nose, "what makes you think you're so fuckin' superior?"

If the man follows him shouting and swearing, then the two of them will be picked up again. Paul knows that it has to stop here.

Behind the man is a low round wall. From the top of the wall clipped lawns lead up around a tree and on to a large square house.

"Right," Paul shoves the man, sends him tottering backwards to the low wall. Paul wants to keep pushing him back to a yellow gravelled drive beside the lawn. That short drive ends in shadows beside a dark slatted fence and gate. Paul can give the idiot a good shove to sit him on his backside and then he can sprint away.

The man's calves, though, have fetched up against the wall and, recovering his balance, the man has swung a straight arm punch at Paul's face.

"Right then," Paul angrily thumps the man in the chest. Then, to drive him in the direction of the gravel, he punches him in the ribs. He punches him again. The punches, however, feel as if they have no power, are being absorbed by this soggy formless drunk.

The man is keeping himself upright by one flat palm on the low wall, his supporting arm locked straight. Paul angrily goes on punching him with both hands, but his punches are seeming to get tangled up in the man's other arm. The punches that do get past the waving arm graze across the man's shirt, skim off his face, knock against his head, and all the while the man is talking, "...I'll get you for this you cunt. You fuckin' done it now. Right, you bastard. You fuckin' had it..."

Paul has no power left in his arms, the damp night air won't seem to fill his lungs, and still the man stands there swearing.

Mouth stretched open to catch his breath Paul walks back and forth before the man. The two legs and arm have formed a tripod. The man's nose and mouth are bleeding and his head is blindly swaying.

Knocking the supporting arm away, Paul tilts the man backwards. Pirouetting on one heel, the man sits on the wall with a bump. He stops talking and lets his head drop between his knees.

Studying him, Paul considers grabbing the ankles and tipping him backwards like a wheelbarrow onto the lawn, then dragging him along to the gravel and leaving him out of sight there.

Blood is dribbling from the man's face onto the pavement. He is moaning now. Paul's knuckles are torn and bloodied.

"Ridiculous," he shakes his head at the man and walks off expecting to hear the man vomiting. He doesn't look back.

A harsh yellow moon is cutting shadows out of the buildings.

commentary .... Habit being the product of experience, habit is also the mainstay of survival. When the drummer left the police station the drink had so affected him that he had no actual recollection of what had put him in there. Habit alone had had him standing up straight and being quiet. He had been aware of Paul beside him only as a possible drinking partner picked up along the way. So, when they had been released from the station, habit had had him wanting to celebrate their release.

At an early age, however, poets had talked to Paul of Time and Space, and so Paul had owned too the knowledge that most of our big troubles we can't take our fists to, that we can only come to terms with them. Experience, therefore, had Paul in the police station neither seeking nor expecting justice. Police stations knew him. He knew police stations. So long as he didn't make extra paperwork he would be treated benevolently. For him, and therefore in extension for the likes or him, he believed that there was no justice in this country. Or only what the rich and connected could buy for themselves.

Unlike the drummer, however, Paul was not in the habit of negating himself. Paul could not yet say that he did not matter. Paul knew that what he did and how he did it was important. What befell him, he knew, began with him. How he acted to other people was how they would act to him. And what he was, what he chose to be, multiplied a millionfold, was what humanity might be. Paul, therefore, could have no truck or patience with that self-made moron.

Rejected by Paul, however, habit immediately had the drummer on the defensively aggressive, trying to frighten Paul off with loud verbals. Even when Paul had been hitting him, even in his state of near total inebriation, habit had had the drummer swaying upright and trying to ward off the blows. A creature of dangerous habit.

Thus came to an end Day One, with Paul, in torn shirt, walking home through the calm chill of a summer's night, and with, out there, somewhere behind him, the two massive black blocks of Hinkley Point nuclear power station floating within its own sea of lights.

True Stories

In May I989 a WPC saw Timothy Anthony Nash, of Longstone Avenue, Bridgwater, standing beside his Ford Cortina, which had been damaged. When the WPC spoke to Timothy Anthony Nash she realised that he had been drinking. 27 year old Timothy Anthony Nash was later found to be four times over the drink driving limit, to have no insurance, and to have never passed a driving test. The damage to the car was caused by its having been driven into a tree.

In August 1989 disabled 73 year old Arthur David Wynn-Jones, of Westfield House, Bridgwater, pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting a child to whom he had given a ride on his motorised wheelchair in the park.

In September 1989 Jacqueline-Anne Murphy, of North Street, Bridgwater, stole the Giro of another person living at the same bed and breakfast accommodation. 26 year old Jaccqueline-Anne Murphy had come from Birmingham to Bridgwater looking for work. After all her lodging expenses were taken into account Jacqueline-Anne Murphy, her boyfriend and her five year old child were left with £8 a week for food and clothing. Jacqueline-Anne Murphy told Sedgemoor Magistrates that she regretted having stolen the Giro.

At 2:15am on January 20th 1990 an off-duty PC challenged two men carrying eagle statues along Bagborough Drive, Bridgwater. Wayne David Izard, of Phillip House, Bridgwater was carrying one eagle. Wayne Anthony Bilton, of Queens Road, Bridgwater, was carrying the other eagle. Wayne Anthony Bilton ran away from the policeman. The policeman pursued him. Wayne Anthony Bilton stole his truncheon and ran off again.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

Day Two

18) Paul Waking

Pain wakes him.

Semiconscious, he tests the pain. His right hand, under him, is throbbing like another heart.

He frees the squashed hand and turns onto his back. The movement, plus the pain, accelerates the pulse. The hand lays across his stomach echoing his heart.

Remembering last night, how late he came home, he thinks how tired he must be.

Sleep doesn't come.

He slides his head around on the pillow to look at the clock's red numbers.

He can't make sense of them. Yes, he can, 5:22. Hour and a half yet.

His eyes stay open looking at the red numbers. 5:26. He is prepared, lying uncomfortably here on his back, to measure the relentless progress of the sleepless morn towards the alarm, to be relieved of his vigil by the morning's song. Radio serendipity.

He will be tired.

His left eye hurts. He brings movement to his body and, with his good hand, touches the puffy upper lid of the eye. The eyeball under the lid is as warm and as round as a newly laid egg. He can't remember being hit in his left eye. He'd said the same last night when he'd looked at the blue veins and the small red capillaries like little rivers running from the white skin into the purple lake of the bruise.

Now he goes over the fight, detail by detail, from its inception in the pub, the expression of the onlookers.... He is trying again to see if he gave cause for the attack on himself, or was he guiltless? Not that it makes any difference; if he wasn't to blame, it means he's again just unlucky, and for once he'd rather that he'd had some part in it than to be just unlucky. Again.

He can't remember seeing the man before the moment of anger, of his suddenly being there before him.

He grimaces as he recalls the semi-grappling outside the pub and wishes he'd run off when he'd seen the police. The grimace has made him aware that his lips are puffy. He can't remember being hit in the mouth.

The lips, on being parted, have let the damp bedroom air meet the night's concentrated mucus. He tastes sour beer. He reminds himself, apart from a couple glasses of wine with the meal, that he only had the one pint. But, like a dry sponge, his body is unused to drinking.

The fingers of his left hand too are sore and swollen. They do not throb like the right. His enlarged bottom lip has a split in its centre.

To test his fingers for damage, and to not disturb Julie, he slowly presses each of his left fingers against his breastbone. Of course, he remembers, he'd been double-punching after the police station.

He sees the man sat on the low wall, blood running out of his face, retching and cursing. And Paul knows that the man will have collapsed somewhere in the night. Probably, the instinct of the wounded taking him out of sight, down by the dark fence where Paul had wanted him to be.

Last night, getting home, Paul was full of anger at the man, at what he had caused to happen. He had let that anger out to Julie who, glad only to have him home, had weeping washed his cuts and held his head.

Paul hadn't then given a thought to the man's welfare. Now he knows that if he hurts this much, and he was handing out the damage, then the man must have been hurt even more.

Paul sees him sat on the low wall with all of his face bleeding. He will have flopped back onto the lawn and choked to death on his own blood or vomit. His body is there waiting to be found at first light, the grey face fixed in the grinning grimace of death. And the joke's on Paul, because the police will know immediately that it is Paul who killed him.

He makes himself go through it again, from the pub to the police van, from the cells to The Caution, to the man's swaying over his own dribbling blood. Inexorably connected. His two hearts beat faster.

What will he tell Michael?

"Don't fight," he has told him, "Don't fight." What will this do to him? And he won't be here to see. Little Alice too.... And back will come Julie's husband. If he's around. Last seen with a bottle in Blake Gardens. Was the man last night a friend of his? Was that why? No. No connections there. But what will he tell Michael?

Paul enjoys talking to his children, teaching them, giving them other versions.

"Never have a disease named after you," he told Alice, "you'll be the first to have died from it."

"D'you know," he told Michael after a video, "in a real firing squad execution the firing squad don't stand more than two yards from the prisoner. And when they kill him they blow a hole in his chest big enough to put your head in."

"Why," Michael asked him, "would I want to put my head in a man's chest?"

No firing squad for him, even if it is murder. Just prison again. He wished someone had talked to him. He too had wanted to be told he was doing well, that what he had done was right. He didn't like working things out for himself. He wants to be safe, now. To know that what he did last night was right. This is pain. This is pain, he wants to say to his children. He wants to twist their thin arms, pull their hair. This is pain. Learn to avoid it.

Paul doesn't understand.... Paul doesn't understand industry, commerce, finance, family life, children, parents, grandparents, people.... Paul doesn't understand what has happened to him now. He doesn't know if his confusion comes from fear or his fear from his confusion. Why me?

Come back sleep. Let me lose this muddling world. Although in sleep he will be absolutely alone. Which is why, he knows, his children put off going to sleep. They have to learn to not be afraid of shutting off, of closing down for a whole eight hours. Who will they be when they come back up?

"Julie?"

commentary.... Hindsight doesn't help. This part-remembered part imagined past was a strange place.

True Stories

In October 1989, after an evening in the Labour club with her mother, Marie Milcoy went home to her flat in Sydenham Road and set fire to her bed. 31 year old Marie Milcoy then went to a telephone kiosk and called Social Services. When the police came and asked where she lived Marie Milcoy said, "Nowhere now. I've just set fire to it."

In November 1989, in the early hours of the morning, Mrs Nash, of Longstone Avenue, Bridgwater, called the police to her house. The police arrived to find a distressed Mrs Nash standing in the street with her small children. The police had to pick their way through broken glass to get to the house. Timothy Anthony Nash, 26 years old, swore at the police and ran away. Mrs Nash said that she was surprised when the police arrested her husband.

In March 1990 the lock-up Post Office in Hamp, Bridgwater, was burgled for the fifth time in a year. Mrs Janet Beckett, the Post Mistress, said, "Once again we discovered the break-in, not the police. This estate seems to be a no-go area as far as the police are concerned."

Chief lnspector Dave Winters said, "It is not true to say there are any no-go areas in Bridgwater as far as the police are concerned. We are on patrol 24 hours a day, every day, but the limitations on our physical resources mean we cannot keep a non-stop continual watch on any area."

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

19) Phoning

Julie has let herself into her mother's kitchen.

"Can I call work?" Julie speaks softly, doesn't want to wake the children, alarm them.

Her mother, in blue dressing gown, is emptying the plastic kettle into the tall white teapot.

"What's up?" sleepy.

"Paul got into a scrape last night."

"Oh?" interest.

"I told you how his grandfather talks...? Well we went for a quiet drink afterwards. Only some bloke hit Paul."

"What for?" amusement.

This, so far, has Julie's mother's approval. This is rebellion. Sensible people go to work and sensibly spend their wages on boring things like cars and videos and holidays for all the family. Alive people, rebellious people, drink.

"No reason at all."

"Paul was drunk?" Eyebrows are arched.

Julie has come here, instead of to the phone box, to get her mother's reaction. She can use that as a measure for what her own reaction will be. She can also practise the telling of this new tale.

"He had some wine with the meal. And a pint in the pub. Neither of us though had seen this bloke before. Oldish he was..."

"And he just started on you..?"

This is the sort of pub-centred drama her mother revels in. Julie wants last night to be different: it is too important for such easy excitement.

"No, he just straight out hit Paul. Didn't say a word, just hit him. Then Paul hit him, and they were pushed outside. As luck would have it the police were already there." Julie drops a sigh, "So they both ended up in the cells. Anyway," she forestalls her mother's misplaced sympathy, "the police let them go because they were both quiet. But, no sooner had they got up the road, than the bloke started fighting all over again."

"Poor old Paul," her mother pityingly shakes her head and pours two cups of tea, "always seems to happen to him."

Julie doesn't want Paul to be just a victim, "So Paul really laid into him. Now he's worried that he hurt him maybe too much."

"Oh no," her mother sits at the table.

"So, if he's going to get done for it, he wants one last day out on his bike."

Her mother slowly shakes her head. The first cigarette gets lit.

"Shall I keep the kids here?" She wants to contribute to this drama, to be a part of it in the future telling.

"Thanks. But Michael's got to go to school anyway. And I'd like to be around. Just in case. The bloke's probably alright, it's just... Can I phone?'

"Why can't anything go right for us?" her mother asks the tall white teapot. Julie dials. listens.

"Hello it's Julie... Morning. Yea... No, I won't be in today... No, Paul's not feeling so good..."

commentary .... Julie may have appeared here, in light of her mother's readiness to help, to be ungrateful to her mother. But Julie had decided, in her own childhood, that it had been her mother's love of drama that had gotten her so intimately involved in her children's concerns, and not her concern for her children.

Julie would sooner have foregone and forgot life's little unpleasantnesses, was not an enjoyer of scenes, wanted only to slip away at the first snarl. But there was nowhere, in her life, to go.

Julie doubted that her mother could remember half the battles she had been involved in; her mother didn't look deeply into herself; and for all the dramas of a life like that, for all the years accumulated, it was only days here and there that were remembered, and then only moments in those days. That's all that Julie's own life had been in retrospect — a small collection of moments.

Julie wanted an existence that would unfold for her like a plan, like the well-known plot of a book. Here I am at Volume Three of Life. And here I am at Chapter Four, childbearing and nappies.... It wasn't that Julie wanted life to be wholly safe, nothing at all happening, no surprises, but she did crave a particle of certainty in her life — other than the sooner-or-later inexorability of death.

True Stories

In March 1989, while employed as night security guards in Brean Down Pontin's, Andrew Trimms, of Highbridge, and Steven Hardcastle, of Furlongs Avenue, Bridgwater, stole more then £9,000 from the fruit machines.

At 1:3Oam, on April 30th 1989, Simon John Burrell, of Bayford Road, Bridgwater, was urinating in St Mary Street, Bridgwater. On being approached by a policeman Simon John Burrell said, "You're not going to do me for that?" Sedgemoor Magistrates fined Simon John Burrell £20 with £20 costs.

At 10am, on Wednesday November 29th 1989, a fire was discovered on the premises of Severnside Waste Paper, Colley Lane Estate, Bridgwater. Over 300 tonnes of waste paper were subsequently destroyed by fire. Because of there being plastic in amongst the paper being burnt, and its giving off toxic fumes, police patrolled the Rhode Lane area advising Hamp residents to avoid going out and to close all doors and windows.

On March 16th 1990 Keith Watts, of Thornton Crescent, Bridgwater, was in a field near Fairfax Road when an alsatian leapt at him, gripping hold of his hand in its jaw. The alsatian, called Rambo, was owned by Nigel Stephen Walford, of Fairfax Road. He told Sedgemoor Magistrates that the dog was not dangerous. Nigel Stephen Walford also told Sedgemoor Magistrates that the dog was now always muzzled when it was taken out.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

20) Taking

Wanting to hurry him, Julie walks along the path ahead of Michael. She is aware of him a grumpy two or three paces behind.

Tyres squeal. Brakes scream. A crunch of thin metal is followed by the snicker of falling glass.

Julie and Michael have turned. A red car, coming along Parkway, has driven into the side of an older blue car that was coming out of a side road. A little cloud of orange dust hangs over the fresh impact.

The man in the red car rapidly disentangles himself from his black seat belt and throws open his car door.

An old man in his doorway, a fat woman with a tartan shopping trolley, a bald-headed man about to get into his car — all have stopped to look.

The driver of the red car is a young man in dark suit trousers, striped shirt and tie.

"Why the fuck don't you look where you're going? You pulled straight out in front of me!" There is a womanish screech in his voice, the shout of a man making himself shout, anger as a personal policy decision.

The driver of the blue car sits holding his steering wheel. He is shaking his head as if to clear it, not in denial.

"You pulled straight out in front of me. Straight in front of me. Look at my car. Look at it!"

The driver of the blue car tries to open his door. It is stuck. The driver of the red car bends down and shouts through his window about him pulling straight out in front of him. The driver of the blue car flaps a hand at the shouting face and awkwardly clambers over to the passenger seat.

Other cars, their orange indicators carefully signalling, slowly pass the two buckled cars. A teenage cyclist smiles at the driver of the red car, who seems determined to go on shouting.

The driver of the blue car is pale. He holds flat-handed onto the roof of his car.

"Look. Look," the driver of the red car comes shouting towards him, "You pulled straight out in front of me."

"Come on," Julie tells Michael.

"Hang on."

"What? What did you say?" the driver of the red car shouts.

"I said I'm hurt!" the pale man shouts. He clings to his car as if the shout itself has enfeebled him, "You shook me up."

The old man in his doorway lifts a hand and goes indoors.

"You pulled straight in front of me!" the driver of the red car shouts.

"You were going too bloody fast!" the fat woman breaks into voice from beyond the damp morning grass, "Look at your bloody skid tracks. You all go too bloody fast up here!" The driver of the red car is looking at her terrified, defenceless outside his car.

"He pulled straight out in front of me," he says.

The grip of the pale driver slips and he jerks, his slack jowls wobbling like a fly shiver on a horse's flank. The bald man, reluctant to get involved, conscience-bound to offer help, closes his car door and starts hesitantly towards the two crashed cars.

"Come on," Julie says to Michael.

"Wait." Michael has a child's fascination with injured creatures, with the green liquid insides of caterpillars and dead things in general. Julie thinks this curiosity morbid and sinister.

The fat woman is now shouting about the driver of the red car not caring. The driver of the blue car has not fallen to the ground. The bald-headed man has decided to return to his own car. The fat woman's face is now purple with her shouting. Shouting is nothing new to her.

The drama of name-calling does not interest Michael. He turns away.

"Paul said I could have the money today," he skips to catch up with Julie, "For the school trip...."

"I don't have my purse...."

"Oh Mum...."

commentary .... Unlike her mother Julie did not enjoy the dramas of life. Such dramas manufactured yet more dramas. Like the two men in that car crash, a self-inflicted crisis, the one not looking and the other going too fast. They would go on to do battle with insurance counter claims.

As a buffeted cyclist Julie, anyway, had no high opinion of car drivers, watched them all playing to the dangerous theatre of their driving along, the man telling his wife what a good driver he was and them together tutting over all the other drivers in the rest of the world. The young bespectacled men with thin faces; or hamster cheeked, with dark glasses and striped shirts; and all of them in fast mass-produced cars; and all of them ready to self-righteously, because it was their right of way, trash themselves in their trash society.

These were image people, and fashions changed. Tin cars, tin lorries, tin buses. Tinned people on wheels. Julie still leant forward to look at the individuals inside their machines. The drivers, though, because they were a part of the collective moving dream, all they were aware of was the images moving past them. They had forgotten that it was real people inside the tins and they saw only the tins, only the packaging. And they saw sleek packaging, cheap packaging, stylish packaging, lumpy packaging — the people in their hurtling machines weren't visible anymore. Like the mortgaged brick boxes in which they lived — they had been sold the packaging.

True Stories

In 1988 101 Somerset children, aged 14 or under, were injured when the cars in which they were passengers crashed. This was an 18% increase on the 1987 figures.

At 4pm, on Friday 7th July 1989, in the Angel Place carpark, Bridgwater, three youths with Bros style haircuts knocked down 25 year old Mrs Gillian Howard, kicked her, and stole her purse.

38 year old John Michael Bayley told Sedgemoor Magistrates, in October 1989, that he used the cannabis that the police had found on him to combat his asthma.

In December 1989, just before 7 one evening, Rosemary and Phyllis Nation were standing and talking in King George Avenue, Bridgwater. Rosemary Nation had her young son in her arms and was carrying a torch. Kenneth Fairfax, of Mendip Road, Bridgwater, came towards them. Both sisters made room for 19 year old Kenneth Fairfax to pass. As he went by Kenneth Fairfax swore at them, held his fist up to Rosemary Nation, pushed her in the face, knocked her glasses and made her drop her torch. Kenneth Fairfax then ran off.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

21) Sleeping

Sleep lays under his awareness like a duvet of the mind ready to comfortably billow up and wrap itself around his melting consciousness. He can feel Julie's noises on his eyelids as she moves around the room. The tinkle of wire coat hangers is like an effete ghost shaking thin chains.

He knows that he could, that he should, come fully awake from this heart slumber and that he should offer to take Alice to playschool. It is his job, his part of the domestic bargain. The selfishness of sleep, though, lets Julie painstakingly creep about the bedroom. Her small sounds snag the rhythms of his heart.

Again the coat hangers ping together, the unstructured chimes falling like frozen feathers onto his pink lids.

He thinks no more on her noises. Thought will rouse him to wakefulness.

The bedroom door closes.

Alone, he waits for sleep to rise up and fold itself over him, listens to the delicate voice of his heart claiming his existence.

The kitchen door closes. The pushchair's hard wheels rattle along the concrete path. From over the back a clicking train passes. His mind is clothed and cosseted by the familiar sounds. Beyond the station the train looses a donkey's strangled bray. In the rising grey sleep he notices each of the sounds — a sparrow's lackadaisical cheeping, the murmur of a radio a few doors down — and he ticks each off, nothing odd to disturb him there.

A car keeps its engine running, burbling away to itself. He imagines it pumping out invisible fumes, the carbon monoxide piling up outside the window. He waits for it to stop, or leave, gets himself ready to be angry and awake. His mind drifts aside. He notices that the car has gone. He sleeps.

9:36. He doesn't have to concern himself with the children this day. This day could be his last poignant day of freedom. He decides that, in another ten minutes, he will heave himself out of bed and head for the hills.

commentary.... Paul, like Julie, expected no security. Nor did Paul suffer that other delusion of the young — that life is always happening elsewhere, and so the young go off searching for that glamorous and exciting elsewhere existence. A whole life had already happened to Paul. Consequently he knew that, wherever he was, that was it.

The previous night he had had a taste of being cut off again, of being severed from all ordinary human contact. Locked in that police cell he had had no means of finding out what had become of Julie, if and how she had got home, what her mother had said when she had heard, if the children had gone off to sleep alright.... The very idea of prison again, of being shut away from the daily doings of Michael and Alice, of losing the childhood bits and pieces that they themselves will forget.... At any other time the thought of losing that would have brought him to a wide-eyed rocking despair. Instead, tired beyond further thought, when he had got home he had slept.

His sleeping had offended Julie. Falling out of love with him at that moment, despising him for his bruises, for his again probable imprisonment, she also knew that it was not the end of their affair. They had been together long enough for them both to know that lovers don't fall in love just the once with the one person. They changed, their lover changed. They altered and adapted. They moulded themselves to the new. With the result that, every so often, lovers found themselves falling in love with their partner again. And again. And again. And that was beyond the natural affection they felt for someone they had known for a long time. They caught an unexpected glimpse of their partner and they fell, dropped, wham bam in love again.

This time would that love be for a murderer? Or would they call it manslaughter? No matter, Paul would have killed someone and Paul himself had condemned all such distinctions of killing. 'Romantic murder,' he called the soldiers' killings. Or any other such killing — "...there can be no justification — even in extremis — for killing another person." So he spoke in prison legal jargon. How extreme any justification of course depended on the society. In some cultures an insult was considered sufficient, in others an attempt on one's own life could make it an allowable killing.

"While murder is viewed as a valid option lives will be taken." That Paul hadn't meant to kill the man.... He had already condemned himself.

True Stories

In August 1985 Mrs Winifred Brown, of Bridgwater, was cleaning paintwork in her house when she was hit on the head from behind with a rolling pin. Mrs Winifred Brown was knocked unconscious. The rolling pin had been wielded by her husband, Mr Clifford Brown. During the previous week Mrs Winifred Brown had hit her 57 year old husband with a poker and had broken his elbow.

In August 1985 a milkman, Graham Andrew Glassup of Hawthorne Close, Bridgwater, came to blows with his customer, Michael David Dyte, over a cash disagreement.

Despite having been prosecuted seven times for polluting the environment Nether Stowey landowner, Metford James OBE, was put forward in October 1989 for honorary life membership of the NFU "....for his services to agriculture."

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

22) Cycling

In the shade the air is cool and tender on his blue bruises. Sunlight scorches the expanded skin.

Lowering his face he watches the pale knees of his jeans go up and down, up and down. As he crosses the bridge a white gull skates on wing tip over the grey gully of the writhing river. Paul's jowls are weighty with bruises and booze. He lifts the heavy mask of his face, lets the skin lie more closely against the bones of his skull.

This is his most vulnerable part of the ride. Not that the police will have found the body yet. His not yet having been arrested means that the man has taken himself off, with a drunk's cunning, to die hidden. In a twilit room somewhere, his body is curled comforting around its once pains. Paul's freedom will last until someone notices that the man's curtains haven't been pulled, that he hasn't come in to work, that his rent hasn't been paid....

On his red bike, on Broadway's narrow dual carriageway, Paul is tall and conspicuous. The road winds tediously up between wooden fences and anonymous walls. Cars in speeding pairs squeeze together past him.

A white van has pulled in close to the kerb before the lights at Penel Orlieu. Paul stops, holds his pulse-ticking head bowed. The leg supporting him has the toxic ache and lightness of hangover. His swollen knuckles throb.

The stationary traffic burbles carbon monoxide. Like feathered rats, fat sparrows rustle about in a corner drift of paper rubbish. A piece of white paper flies up and becomes a pigeon. A whirligig of dry rasping leaves and brown dust comes towards him. He is inside it. The wind, despite the circling leaves, does not feel as if it is going around him. Rather it is one single direct gust that sends dust particles stinging against his stretched skin, and then is gone.

An air-filled plastic bag is left hanging above a clean brick wall.

The traffic moves.

Paul turns left at the lights; and, dropping his head, he pedals hard down through Durleigh. With speed his legs gain power. The road swoops down and up. Soon the houses are hiding from the road behind gardens. In one small garden a thin old man is smiling back at his flowers.

True Stories

In April 1986, after being in collision with a car near her Somerville Way home, six year old Louise Perry was treated for bruises in Bridgwater hospital. The driver of the car was 24 year old Andrew Webber of St Thomas Court, Bridgwater.

19 year old Sharon Jane Hambridge was fined £50 in October 1989 for assaulting another woman outside the shops on the Sydenham Estate. Prior to the assault the two women had been shouting at one another.

In October 1989 Brian David Gent, of St John Street, Bridgwater, was fined £350 and was banned from driving for 18 months. 24 year old Brian David Gent, a machine operator at Gerbers, had registered a reading of 76 on the Intoximeter. The legal limit is 35.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

23) Housework

It's not that she feels tied to the house. Nor imprisoned. Within a prison's solid walls and unbreakable routines many a lifer feels secure. Rather it is that any house, any flat, makes Julie aware of her insecurity. She feels any house to be made of paper. Doors so thin they can be punched through, windows can be smashed, cars driven into and demolish walls. Slugs can slide under doors. Mice can nibble through boards. Wasps, bees, moths and spiders can come creeping in from outdoors. Dirt comes treading in with every child. Noxious odours ooze in through every crack and cranny.... All that any indoors does is to increase her awareness of her human vulnerability.

So, this Friday morning, Julie quickly does the housework, a rapid going on from task to task, hoovering the hall and stairs, straightening the beds, washing the dishes.... Being busy to get out, and to stop worrying over the man Paul hit, what it might mean, not wanting to be left alone looking at the furniture again.... The blue cloth in her hand wipes over the stainless steel draining board, and.... damn it's only just eleven o'clock. What to do with the rest of the morning?

Julie knows that for some the brittle shell of a house offers the illusion of control. Within they can order their own life, arrange their ornaments and rugs, keep the thin crust of a wall between the ordered inside and the confusing outside.

But, beyond the brick box, Out There, the shabby reality waits always to encroach. Two days neglect will have soft dust settling over the furniture's hard edges, marring the distinctions of tone, texture and colour. Without the hoover's daily whisking the carpet pile will subside. All has to look like the photos in the magazines. Set off by a potted plant. Inside.

In the world outside this house, this place to live, this postal address, has to be for. Paid for by her conjunction with some man. Let it be Paul.

For somebody somewhere life has to be easy. She can't believe it. Rich or poor they've still got to fill the hours, to be someplace. And it's not class, has nothing to do with being tenants or homeowners. Even on Sydenham people are buying their own homes. They paint them a different colour. They're still here.

There are no neat divisions now. No strata in society now. Compartments now. Home compartments. Car compartments. Job compartments. Each of us in our own little cell of a life, cell of a family, cell of a house, cell of a car, cell of a job. A cellular existence. And in this cellular society we have to belong to a group of at least two. Julie's lucky: she has three. It'd be four; but they will keep taking Paul away.

The rich put locks and chains and bars on their brick boxes. Distrustful people advertising their untrustworthiness. Paul's grandfather says — clever bastard — "Instead of moving the furniture about, these days the bored housewife moves house instead." He's as closed in.

Comfortable, and closed in. Inactivity, and ennui. Many lives can be lived inside one house. Inside one mind. Inside one room. Shut away from the indifferent world with each our own small despairs. Shut inside a thin little house, shut inside a thin little skin, terrified that someone, something, is going to break in, make contact. Frightened of being shut in the house forever, and frightened of its shell becoming transparent and frail and of the outside coming crashing in.

We're all closed in. All closed in with no norms to rebel against, only types to avoid. Avoid being with them, avoid being like them, avoid being them. Fragmented people in a fractious society. Watch them slip from guise to guise, type to type. Well-behaved people in a schizoid society.

Here women take their identity from their function — mother, wife, manageress, typist, tart. An identity clothing them from the tasks they set themselves. Housewives with handfuls of bubbles leaving trails like snails on whatever — child's head or doorhandle — they touch. But being the functions they set themselves, and feeling safe within those functions, when the tasks are removed, through divorce or bereavement, or the children leave home, the women are left without an identity. Only a house.

If Julie wanted to be anyone else it would not be the good-time girls in their short skirts and perms, nor the knitted country lass letting her labradors out the back of the car. Julie would like to be those women with full trolleys in the supermarket. Slim tall women with clean hair, pink skin and new clothes.

She switches on the radio. A DJ is excitedly sneering at an item of news, making nonsense of it. All over Bridgwater lonely people like her are plugged into their radios. It's the companionable noise they want, an occasional tune to trickle into their isolation, to break their own mouth-stuffed silence with a few familiar words that isn't talking to themself. They don't want the DJ's swank. Not the DJ's fault. The DJs cater to the extremists and the cranks who make the calls and write the complaining letters. The DJs think that's the listening public. The real public couldn't give a shit who the DJ is or what he says, they're just waiting for the next piece of music.

Irritated with his talking Julie switches him off.

The anger at his silly excited voice stays within her. The anger is a separate thing. It is anger at Paul for getting into this new scrape. She knows it's not his doing, so the anger is at herself for being angry at him. Angry at the children too for not being concerned. She knows they don't know enough of what happened to be concerned. So she is angry at herself for being angry at them. Angry at her mother for making the most of the drama. Even that is without justification. She forgives her.

Julie has got in the habit of forgiving her mother. Julie has learnt how fallible as a mother she herself is. Michael's neuroses undermine her self-confidence. And she regards Alice with dread. There is no place in Julie's life for self-congratulation. Such is her own lack of parental self-confidence that she disbelieves any parents who believe themselves satisfactory. Their mistakes are waiting to be born in their child. Alice is waiting to be of breeding age. No-one to blame. Just life. And Julie herself too is innocent. It's the bloody world and life that's all wrong. The anger's there still, but sometimes it's not enough to just shout at some DJ on the make or at the TV's banalities.

So what else does she do? Write to her MP? The thought has her laughing aloud in her clean kitchen.

Why, tell me Mr Politician, does living have to be so hard? Why, just to get a house and a few little comforts, do you put so many obstacles in the way? In a place like this it's the only way to make life tolerable. Why make it so hard?

Why?! Why do I bother even thinking of you, she mindshouts. You don't give a shit about us. Economic integers, that's what we are to you. Not even our own numbers. You don't give a single shit. You're more concerned with winning votes than causes. And d'you know what you do — by your transparent courting of votes — you lose respect. And votes. I ask you, Mr Politician, what kind of people politicians are when they made of idealism a dirty word. You made the word mean impractical. But where, Mr Politician, would we be without ideals? The rule of law, joke, is an ideal. Brotherly love, joke, is an ideal. See, Mr Politician, where we are without ideals. We're here, bloody here. And d'you know why you, Mr Politician, have got no respect for the law? Because it's you who makes the bloody laws.

You jailed a girl for seven days for stealing a single bottle of milk. Why? The world is all wrong, all wrong, Mr Politician. And don't tell me you've got the answers. No system of government works. All systems contain the seeds of their own corruption. You know it. But we kid ourselves, Mr Politician, that you and your colleagues are intelligent people, wise in your devious ways. If without honour. Solely because you are our government. Then we once again discover that you're neither honourable nor intelligent. And that's depressing, because it adds to our impotency. You're just performers. Tricksters. Barking dogs.

I'm not going to rely on you, Mr Politician. Nor on any of your systems. Certainly not on any of your systems. Because once any mind relies on a system then it stops thinking for itself. Then they're yours. Right, Mr Politician? Even if they're not yours, you still win. Right? You're taking Paul from me and I love him.

She realises that anew, with a deep anxious thump of the heart: I love him.

What did that man want last night? She has no understanding of the self-centred worlds of childless people. What do I do, Mr Politician? Do I read my stars like all the rest? Horoscopes to give us hope? Pretend that in the future something might happen?

Julie doesn't cry out for help because she knows there is no-one she knows can help her. She knows too that the police aren't coming for Paul. They would have been here by now. She decides to go and do the week's shopping on her own. Her mother'll collect Alice. Paul's got the money. Has he?

Feet thudding on the carpet she rushes up the stairs. His last night's trousers she put in the wash. They were empty. The money will be beside the radio clock, if he hasn't put it in his jeans.

She lifts the clock. The money isn't there.

The washing machine whines as it spins. The clothes can now be hung out. In a minute.

Forcing herself to move slowly, she descends the stairs.

commentary.... Julie's anger, this Friday in July, was self-evidently deeper than at the one aggressive drunk. Hers was an anger at the hand life has dealt her. Life itself, though, that organic pulse and net, could not be held to blame. So, instead, she directed her anger at the way values had been arranged by others around her tiny existence. Those others she saw as politicians — of many colours — and her way of existence she saw as inescapable.

When we are young our thinking is dominated by our wondering what we are going to become, by the reading of signs and portents into our every indecisive venture. When we're older, and by trial and error we have come to know who we are — sexually, spiritually, socially and intellectually.... Knowing all that doesn't help, because we're still in a stage of becoming, but now of becoming only older and we know that we are about to lose all that knowledge. We have changed, in that we have grown and that we have known life, but we're little the wiser. We are still, like Julie, lost.

All Julie wanted was freedom. Freedom of choice — the choice of lives. Freedom to move — to move to another life. She did not want to be a damp housewife tainted by kitchen smells. She did not want to be a coarsened factory hand. Nor did she want her life all neatly parcelled up one minute, and the next all undone.

Life happens in bits and pieces. Security is just a matter of kidding yourself you can hold it all together. Julie knew different, and life's chanciness appalled her. There she could be walking about the streets one minute, the next she'd be undressed in bed, or in hospital, or half undressed or bombed or blasted apart by a car accident. That was her future, a future of grabbing life by its edges and pulling it back together again.

Poverty is a dearth of expectations. Julie wanted a political system, a social set of values that would have given her real freedom. The poor and the helpless cannot be reliant upon the doubtful altruism of rich individuals.

"A country is its people. And on how a government treats its every citizen shall it be judged." So said Paul's grandfather, and that someone she distrusted and disliked should be so right angered her again. The truth, she felt, should belong to the wholly virtuous, not to those who have made mistakes, like Paul's grandfather with Paul's mother.

The freedom Julie desired was based on justice, and she knew that there was an absence of justice, both social and legal, in her life. The punishment for any crime was according to who you were and not what you had done. If you were a Minehead bank manager or a Nether Stowey retired major, then you were let off with a warning, whether it was for importuning fellatio off 12 year old boys with a knife in your hand or for shooting your neighbour's cat with an unlicensed gun. But let you be unemployed and young and living in Bridgwater, then you would be a menace to society, made an example of, and locked up. That was Julie's perception of what passed for justice.

This kind of anger lies simmering below a life, ready to erupt in mindless violence or vandalism, which will only make matters worse in that it will diminish the perpetrator's self-respect and add to the anger. For Julie this anger manifested itself in tightened lips, which had become already an habitual grimace and which put others off, and so shut off yet more avenues of escape, of freedom.

Those tightened lips deterred the children. She saw their life like her own and became angry for them, and angry at their innocent impotence. Angry too at their innocence making irrelevant the dramas of her life. Michael's preoccupation was with the money for his school trip and, though annoyed by his apparent selfishness, Julie knew that such concerns were natural to the state of childhood.

So what did Julie actually desire of life? Although Julie disliked solitude and privacy, neither was she one of those sociable animals capable of time and again chuckling at the same jokes made by the same people. She certainly did not desire the respect of others. Julie knew how in a million little ways she daily hoodwinked the world. If she had earned the world's respect it could only mean that she had, for the moment, successfully fooled them all.

Self-respect was consequently impossible: her standards were too high and her aspirations too various.

All religions, all creeds, were the inventions of other people and were inapplicable to her life. Happiness of itself was always too brief a state. So what was left? Sex? That she should be the plaything of her glands? She aspired to more. Yet what was there? The answer had to be humanity itself.

But humanity also was too many. Julie's concerns were for Paul, Michael and Alice. But, like her, Michael already held life on a very tight rein, had to control it lest it bolt away with him. And she loved Alice for her liveliness, but knew that it was that which would lead her into trouble. And she loved Paul for his lack of malice; but knew that if he wasn't so easygoing she might have ridden out of the trap of her life on his pillion. So the safe thing she loved him for — his acceptance of life — added to the trap of her life and made her angry.

Julie didn't know what Paul — sat somewhere on his bike with the fight having happened — must now be thinking, feeling.... and the estrangement of the new added to her sadness and her anger.

True Stories

In August 1985 Co-operative Retail Services evicted squatters from their 8 room Down House in Eastover, Bridgwater. Among the ten people made homeless were Tony Pryk and Andy Hill.

In 1985, while her husband was in prison, Mrs Patricia Margaret Dunn, mother of two, removed the coin box from her meter and, using the same 50p, she stole 32,900 cubic feet of gas.

In December 1989 Lloyd Jonathan Phipps, of Chilton Street, Bridgwater, and Robert William Rawlings, of RAF St Athen, Barry, South Glamorgan, were in St Mary Street when two men asked them the way to the Admiral Blake fish bar. The two strangers were met with abuse. They walked away. 19 year old Lloyd Jonathan Phipps and 19 year old Robert William Rawlings ran after them and attacked them. During the fight one of the men fell through the Kwik Fit showroom window. He needed seven stitches to a shoulder wound.

In January 1990 Somerset County Council released figures which showed that pesticide levels in the 220 million gallon Durleigh reservoir, Bridgwater, were in excess of Common Market limits. Wessex Water spokesman, Mike Peacey, said, "There's no risk at all to anybody drinking the water."

Wessex Water have earmarked £350,000 for clean-up projects, such as a carbon filter being fitted at Durleigh reservoir.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

24) Sitting

Sweat is, in itself, a purgative. He sucks it off his upper lip, recycling his own impurities; and he pumps on up the hill.

From out of the trees a grey pigeon throws itself into the green air, angling skyward the instant it sees him. On the hillside opposite pink sheep crawl like plump maggots about a green carcass.

Paul sucks on his sweat. He has come up here past concrete farmyards deep in khaki shit and yellow straw. He has come up here between tatty and tangled hedgerows, guarded by sentry foxgloves. He has come up here past an ancient church, past a mildewed graveyard, with its tempting acre of stillness. And, with a great expenditure of punishing energy, he has come up here into this scrawny woodland. Having arrived, he drops off the road onto a gravelled track, passes through a red-dusty and deserted parking area and, watching out for stones and smooth roots, he pedals on up a black path to a heathland that is patched with purple heather and green bracken.

The peat and flinty path goes into a rutted track of hardened clay. Paul wobbles alongside a line of spreading beeches. The black rubber tyres crackle on the brittle beechnuts. He glimpses a hollow gray trunk split like a gigantic cunt. Then there is only the sweat hanging in his eyebrows and dripping off his nose, and all around the yellow sun.

When he can go no higher he swings his leg over the polished saddle and lays the red bike on its side. Lifting his face to the blue sky, unlocking his muscles from the machine, he breathes deep the harsh cool air. His lungs cannot hold it. He expels the air, takes another lungful. Now, with the toxics gone from his system, his mind is clear and awake. Now, up here in the blue sky, he knows that he is not wanted for murder. Now he knows that the man's body would have been found while he himself was still in bed, that the police would straightaway have been round to arrest him, that the man was just another drunk who got another hiding he didn't know he'd deserved.

Up here, breathing deep, he feels doubly free. His legs, though, tremble. Sitting on a low hummock he surveys the world.

Speckled Bridgwater lays over to his right, the flat sheen of Durleigh reservoir before it like a long sheet of polythene. Further away the silver Parret worms its way through flat fields to the Bristol Channel.

All on the land is cleanly lined and separate, the pale beech distinct from the dark conifer. A glinting white and glass car passes over a gleaming grey road. Paul watches a green tractor with an unseasonable plough, notes the driver's unconscious artistry in the interweaving of furrows. Likewise the pale fields where the silage has been mown in ever-decreasing squares.

Finger-scraping more sweat from his face Paul looks up from those geometric fields and away across the rippled surface of the melancholy sea and he thinks he can see the Black Mountains of Wales. Or so he's been told of that occasional horizon.

The Channel is made lilac-grey with silt. That same silt, in suspension, has floated back and forth with the tides, up and down the Bristol Channel, for the last thousand years and more. Fascinated by its enormous movement Paul has tried to find a symbolism in it, has tried to liken humanity to that twice daily drift of silt — that we are all but flecks of silicon settling slowly into the grey amorphous mud of time. But it isn't so. Humanity is more like a green duck-paddled pond, he decided elsewhere, with the rich and ambitious, like scum, floating on their own sour gases to its top.

Below, along the side of the hill, a couple of black rooks go flapping and floating by with graceless ease.

On a low green headland, sticking out into the grey sea, are the two square boxes of Hinkley Point power station. Now that he has brought himself to look upon them he studies their sheer blind sides. They remind him always of a wicked king's castle from a children's story. And, like those sinister castles, they hold the fascination of the forbidden unknown; and, because their dangers can't be seen, smelt, or touched, then they have too the magical malignancy of the superstitiously terrifying.

Another reactor is going to be built down there. Like a blister beside the other two. It will leak. Those leakages will cause more cancers. Paul wonders again if he should actually join those who campaign against nuclear power, if he should walk behind them in their street processions, stand in shopping precincts with petitions, save the world from fall-out and fools. He knows they won't succeed. Mindless money will do the talking. What's the point? he thinks before he starts thinking. The same for living midst an agriculture that kills.... The world is too big and its enemies too many. Impotent, powerless, Paul cannot do battle against the agricultural chemical industry. He knows the poisoned earth is ticking away like a cyanide clock, but he can see no point in his doing anything. His thinking is, after all, framed first in an industrial landscape. Living in philistine Sydenham, next to a chemical works, underneath an electric pylon, with an explosives factory up the road, what difference to his chances of life can yet one more nuclear reactor make?

Where is the selflessness, he asks of his indolent self, that sent past others off to fight dictators and lost causes? Not in Bridgwater today. Although even Bridgwater has its own war memorial, must once have contained simple idealists, people who loved their country and believed what they read in the papers. Where did that ingenuousness, those ideals and principles go? Life now is a mess, everyone walking around hating themselves and each other.

Up here he hates no-one. Here he feels aloof from his own life. Here the link between him and Bridgwater could be just a trick of memory, a dull story someone told him. He tries to see now the route that will take him down over the hills and between the hedges and the sheep-cropped grass to Bridgwater.

Looking down on the town, imagining himself higher, he thinks of drawing a map of his life in and around its buildings and streets. The map will have thick lines where he went back and forth to his two schools, then out to Puriton and his other jobs, with but faint lines for excursions that took him off the edges.... the map of a life in one place.

Now here he sits on a green hill on the edge of an arrogant little island in the North Atlantic. Directly below him, in the lee of two twisted hawthorns, is a dark boggy pond. On brown wings dragonflies with bodies like the insides of blue biros will be whirring around its swamp edges. Further down is Hawkridge reservoir. There the green water will be flowing in sheet metal curves around the massed concrete dam. Down there, visible now, three gulls fly high over the one dark ploughed field. Symbols of white purity are seagulls. Except that around Bridgwater the seagulls are rubbish tip scavengers and they die of botulism....

Down there, below this bald hill, are all the dark enclosed spaces of summer — the leaf-shadowed realm of trees, the cool glimmering underneath of bridges and tunnels, the deep bottom of fern-dark gullies, dense bushes where clumsy fledglings hide.... Down there too is a church which is the colour of dust and dry stone outside; within, the stained glass makes it like being inside a speckled jewel. Down there, and up here too, snakes wait out the hot day under cold stones.

Here, now, a white butterfly seems to bang at the air with its veined wings. It tilts, and drops to the brittle heather. The bright sun burns into the back of Paul's neck. He turns up his shirt collar. Down there, beside every village and town, are clusters of clay-coloured houses with clean new roofs. In his visits here Paul has watched the fields down there being taken over by those new small houses, gable end after gable end. He and Julie believe that, even during their own short lives, they have had the best of the countryside. Can't They see.... Can't They see.... that all these scattered little estates depend on cheap petrol? Few of those small householders work locally. All commute, and oil is a finite substance. At times Paul wants to bomb those little neat houses, convert them all to rubble, clear the rubbish away and get the land back to green.

He does not want to go down into that town, to be again in among buildings with their pretensions to solidity. He does not want to take ownership of his future. Whatever it may be. He wants to be here with the flitting swallows and the swifts slicing through the hot air. Flipping above and slipping below one another they seem suddenly as numinous as the gnats they are chasing. Paul wants to follow with them the contours of the hills, go skimming down over curly bracken fronds, zigzagging between the spiky tops of conifers, hurtling low over a wide flat beach....

He scratches. The sweat is cooling on him, his skin tightening under its salty astringency. In a moment he will unbend his back and his limbs and he will go to his bike. Eyes then only for the rutted track, he will cycle back to the bare parking area, then he will drop down and down and down the hills and into flat Bridgwater.

commentary.... Paul's was not the unprejudiced panorama of the traveller, no broad sweeps of vista for him. He had expectations of the scene below him, immediately avoiding, or seeking, landmarks — the two islands, Flat Holm and Steep Holm, floating in the misty channel; the river looping in towards the town; the square blocks of Hinkley Point power station.... His were the particulars, the miniatures, of the stationary.

The vision of the traveller and the stationary are incompatible. The one moves warily towards; the other confidently accepts what is moving towards him. The traveller can date a chance remark, slot it into a place, knows the memory to be his own. The stayput keeps it all with him, assumes it to be common knowledge. No yesterplaces for the stayput. All is before here to the traveller, a geography of mnemonics. And to the traveller the stayputs are insignificant, are but types seen from a train window. While to the stayputs the one stopover traveller, like Paul's father, can take on a lifetime's significance.

For a stayput like Paul, even from the top of that hill, from where Bridgwater looked like but a scattering of gravel chips, still the town had held Paul's mind. But, as in any high place, by any tranquil shore, for either traveller or stayput, there must come floating on the noiseless currents of air or water mind flotsam from turmoil elsewhere. Although we ourselves know the desperate truth of it, that such disturbance can take place in the same world at the same time seems inconceivable.

As in his ride out onto the levels Paul carried with him up into the hills the baggage of other rides there. He couldn't, for instance, cycle that day's route without remembering the bread-delivery man telling him that it was where he'd brought his bit on the side for 'a meat injection'. And, always on that same route, he remembered the evening he came upon a pastoral scene quintessentially English — a flamingo pink sunset silhouetting a church's slender spire.

Not that this ridge of heathland could be thought of as a dewy place of sprites and innocence. Here the sweating hounds went baying after exhausted deer. Paul then was passively opposed to that too. Not so much for the terror that the hunting inflicted on the animals so worn down, be they deer or fox, otter or hare, but for the barbaric effect the hue and cry had on the human beings doing the hunting.

Paul had become briefly caught up on his bike amid steam-panting hounds and iron-shod horses. And to extricate himself from the melee he had found himself smiling placatingly at the hard-faced horsemen and women.

Other riders he had seen singly at other times had been straight-backed women; and he had smiled at them too thinking of them with their stone faces and haughty eyes simultaneously satisfying two desires. Not only did those female riders have something large, warm and comforting between their outspread legs, and not only was that large and warm thing pressing rhythmically on their clitoris, they also had the fairground exhilaration of being perched perilously high. Small wonder they made their faces such rigid masks.

As with the levels Paul loved the Quantock Hills, delighted in his familiarity with them and their few remaining wild creatures. He would hate, though, through his avowed love of the land surrounding stinking Bridgwater, to be called a patriot. The word patriot, he believed, was only heard now when someone was trying to make their country the enemy of another country. Anyone who promoted division being inherently evil, the word had come to have connotations of dishonesty and dishonour. Paul therefore vehemently disclaimed any patriotism. But he did love these green bits of countryside with the consistence and persistence of life itself, which sent generation after generation of swallow and swift north and south.

Mostly, though, Paul then looked down with contempt upon Bridgwater and the surrounding countryside, looked down on a rip-off economy that produced nothing but despoilation, all awaiting the radio screech of a nuclear blast. He should, he told himself, he should have joined in the fight against Hinkley C. As he should also have been joining with others against the use of poisonous chemicals on the saturated land.

Only individuals can see into the future and warn of what they see. Corporations can't. Governments can't. So in England did there then exist, of necessity, a subculture of concern. An alternative lifestyle that was comprised of all classes, individual hotheads and idealists, faddists and prophets, artists and cranks.

Bureaucracies, institutions, societies, do not have foresight, only momentum. So did dormitory estates continue to get built out along the motorways, while the individuals living within those houses, and the individuals working for the building companies, knew that oil was a finite substance.

Paul's was a life controlled by those deadweight forces. Paul's was a life controlled primarily by the one deadening place. When the Parrett flooded again some would again find their homes untenable. When the Parrett froze over again they would cook another ox upon it. Future local history.

Paul stayed because he knew that his life was also controlled by events beyond that landscape. As in Roman times, still did civilisations depend on the price of corn. That price governed his life as much as the rise and fall of the river. As with the pesticides and nitrates on the levels, as with planes dropping out of the skies, as with leaking nuclear power stations, gas tankers exploding....

The powers-that-be might sometimes, when it suited their democratic purposes, let him think that he had his life under his control. Then some bastard out of sight would again pull the plug on him....

Of small consolation, on this trashed planet, is Darwin's assertion that a herd species is more likely to survive than are lone animals of prey. The human herd now outnumbers all but the rabbits, and humankind are killing them and themselves. There are just too many of us and all of us dissimilar. Sicknesses — viral, mental, social and spiritual — spread too quickly to be understood in this global overcrowding.

That's why Paul's then being alone on a hill was such a luxury. Alone on a hill he could be aloof from our species. And we have to be aloof, because every day we hear of a fresh slaughter, of a fresh genocide. But it is just another slaughter, just another genocide. We can't get righteously indignant about it anymore. Best too to keep it at a distance, because as soon as we become a part of it, a part of the process, our abhorrence will be used to justify the slaughter and the genocide of the perpetrators. Or of someone else. It won't matter who. Provided that those who do the killing can show that they were wronged in some manner first.

On this overcrowded planet, where the perpetuation of the species is putting the species in danger, what is the point of life if procreation is not desired? Answer me that, priest and philosopher.

True Stories

In March 1989 Michael John Martin, of Edinburgh Road, Bridgwater, was given a three month prison sentence for driving without insurance and for driving while disqualified.

In March 1989 Nichola Ann Roberts was fined £50 for stealing £20 from the newsagents in St John Street, Bridgwater, where she worked. Nichola Ann Roberts was 27 years old.

On 27th June 1989 the Ann Summers Roadshow came to the Rock Garden Cafe, St Mary Street, Bridgwater. Tickets were £3 a piece, and Diamond White was sold for 80p. The choreographed show had three female and two male models doing at least 50 costume changes to demonstrate the lingerie.

In June 1990 the Policy and Finance Committee of Sedgemoor District Council refused an application for charity rate relief for the Masonic Hall in King Square, Bridgwater. Councillor Michael Payne took exception to the Policy and Finance Committee's decision, "The Masons were founded in the late 17th century," he said, "and they are a charity. Their main aim is to seek the welfare and dignity of mankind."

Councillor Joe Ayres, however, said, "With respect, in my experience, I have never heard of any philanthropic actions to anyone but themselves."

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

25) Standing

Paul stands at the closed window. On the roof of the orange brick house opposite is a flock of dark blue swallows. All of the swallows are clinging to the tiles and fluttering their wings. Other swallows come down and, hovering, attempt to land. Many can't find space on the roof, fly off and come around for another try.

Their behaviour intrigues Paul. On a bright hot day like this they should be flying high, be but dots up in the blue blue sky, not be down here in Bridgwater all huddled together on the one roof. And why that one roof? Paul guesses, from their plumage, that most are first brood fledglings. But he can't understand what they're doing. They don't appear to be feeding, or collecting building materials. So far as he can make out they are just clinging to the roof with their beaks open and are fluttering their wings. If they weren't in full sunlight he'd have guessed they were trying to cool one another. If it was later in the year he would have assumed that they were massing together prior to migration.

His mother is not the least interested in the swallows. Not that she rebuffed him for drawing her attention to them. She simply said, "Oh yes," and didn't look. She mutters indistinctly now about his not having been to see her. She has never been to see him and Julie in Sydenham. He berated her once for it. She didn't bite back or come up with any alibis, simply said, "Oh yes," and carried on talking about whatever it was that had then been bothering her.

She is bothered now because she has heard that they're changing the benefit rules, and she doesn't know how they'll affect her. Paul doesn't bother saying anything: she won't take any notice of anything he might say even were he to go to the trouble of finding out in detail about the benefit changes. She has to have something to mutter about.

He tells himself that she doesn't make him angry anymore. Yet he knows that still he wants to impress and understand this muttering woman who is so indifferent to his existence.

He expects her now to forget the children's birthdays. Like he told Julie, "She always forgot mine. Why change the habit of a lifetime?" Julie's mother remembers birthdays, wants to be seen as a good mother, a good grandmother, a good wife.... and overzealously fails at them all. This muttering woman, on the other hand, wandering about in her dingy house, couldn't be bothered getting out of bed in the mornings to send him to school.

Paul finds it hard to imagine now how this cowed woman and this closed orange brick house with its squeezed-in rooms could have formed his expectations for all of life. Although the truth is she hadn't governed his expectations. His friends' houses had shown him alternatives. So too had his grandfather's. But, although Paul had stayed there most school holidays, his grandfather's was not a house to be lived in. His grandfather then had already been an old man passionate about small domestic routines, while the house itself was big and old and empty and the quiet had condensed in it, had stuffed the hallways with pillows of silence. To shout there had been unthinkable. And his childhood discomfort there had been increased by his having to defend his mother against remarks and criticisms aimed at her that he hadn't understood.

He wants to understand his mother now, to find the key to this self-centred enigma. Is she the sum of this anxious world? Or does she look for things to be anxious over?

Paul was always glad when the school holidays were over and he was returned through narrow streets to this his mother's closed brick house, where he could pull the smells comfortingly around him. And was only too pleased to dash from its claustrophobic cloying, from its twilit netherworldness, and to sample again other houses, watch himself in those new surroundings acting differently and wonder if this was his true self.

The mass of swallows lift a few feet from the roof and twittering settle. Individuals are now diving down over the roofs and darting through the orange streets. His mother takes no notice of their excitement. She grumbles about the heat, the heaviness of it. The television mutters back at her.

This is a house where the television is always on, its colours flickering in the semi-gloom. In his adolescence Paul used to turn the telly off to try to get her to take notice of him. They argued over it. Or rather he argued, she sulked.

"I'm lonely," she'd say, "It's alright for you, out all day."

Once, because it reflected on him, he would have railed against her uninterest in him this day, against even her uninterest in the swallows. Now, though, she is no part of him: he has made his own life, is not just her son. Yet, still he acknowledges her importance to him: he came here today to see how she would react to the bruises on his face, and a visit to the bathroom on arriving here showed him how visible are those bruises. The dark discoloration around his eyes has grown since this morning. His left eye is almost encircled now by a polished purplish corona. His right looks like misapplied eyeshadow.

His mother has made no comment. Once again in his life is he disappointed by her. Because this was, he recognises now, again an attempt to make an impression on her, to see if his bruises would shock her into recognition of him, if she will give him some thought other than mere acceptance of his existence, of his presence. Not that she ever did anything about him being with her. He can remember tailored women coming to this house, Health Visitors and Social Workers, his grandmother too, all of them telling his head-bowed mother, "The boy needs this...." He stood in other rooms and heard them.

They even said it standing beside him, "The boy needs to have...."

"I've got to meet Julie," he loudly tells his mother. "Go shopping."

The black mass of swallows clinging to the roof flutter their wings. He was waiting for them to leave. A single fork-tailed swallow hangs desperately onto the gutter like a peg on a washing line. From inside this dark room the sunlight makes the houses look golden. Outside is the place to be.

"Can I use your phone? See if the police have been round?"

"Don't be long. It all adds up..."

commentary.... Genetics is a lottery whose odds retreat into prehistory. Paul could only speculate on his paternal antecedents. What his self-esteem could not begin to see, however, was how any intelligent man could have been attracted to his doughy mother. Except for easy sex. Or did she once have the spark of life and some firm flesh? Although he himself had had sex with some doltish girls — their very stupidity being the reason they had allowed his spotty bumbling self to have sex with them — he wanted to credit his father with greater discernment. He didn't want a man like his self-gratifying self to have pumped sperm into his mother and produced himself.

Wiping out all paternal speculation he assumed that his genes had skipped a generation and that he owed his intelligence to his grandparents. Paul's grandfather now hailed him as an equal. Although he told Paul that his was a poorly nourished intellect, his grandfather did nevertheless welcome it as a stimulating one. Paul, however, knew that his grandfather was using his own intellect to kid himself: it didn't matter how clever people were, it was perception that counted.

He accepted their estimate of him, however, and he did view himself as his grandparents' equal. So had he joined with them in holding his ineffectual, unintelligent, unperceptive mother in contempt. Because she hadn't been a bright child, her mother and father too had held her in contempt, producing this woman who doubted her every own thought. She was perceptive enough to know, however, that, since the age of four, her son too had held her in contempt; and she knew too that she didn't understand him, where he came by all the words and ideas that eluded her.

When he was a child his mother, when asked, told Paul of his conception — her being in love, her falling pregnant, his father not wanting to settle down so young.... That love affair, so important had it been to him, had loomed large over his childhood, had been hazily ringed about with the idea of impetuous romance.

When, later, in a picking mood, he had wanted names and dates, he had discovered that his mother had known his father for only a week. It had been no glorious romance, just a single week's collection of one night stands. She hadn't even known his surname or where he had worked. If he had worked. Derek Somebody. The pregnancy had been what had mattered to her. The use she had made of it, not telling anyone until it had been too late to abort. To have a baby of her own, somebody to love, somebody to give her unconditional love....

The baby had cried, had wanted things of her. So she had locked herself inside herself again. Her mute rebellion, her articulate parents had called that locking in.

"Got the sulks," schoolboy Paul had described it.

Paul had soon learnt to insult her, that it had amused his grandparents, who had made only token noises of disapproval. He had also learnt to watch out for the deep silences that had preceded his mother's slapping screaming rages when nothing was forgotten. Most times, though, he could insult with impunity.

Neither Paul nor Julie knew their fathers, had any certain paternal ancestry they could draw upon. Nor did Julie have any direct knowledge of her maternal grandparents, her mother having been disowned when she had first become pregnant out of wedlock. Paul's grandparents would rather not talk about their other relations — not from Bridgwater. So Paul and Julie, being able only to conjecture on possible pasts, having no reference library of relations, no readily-tapped precedents to make normal some peculiarity of body or temperament, to have some odd behaviour make sense, no saying, "That's just like old Uncle Albert. Remember...." or "Your Aunt Sissy always used to do that...." Paul and Julie had only their own experience and what the adverts told them was within the bounds of normal.

Both Paul and Julie's mothers had been led to believe, by pre-War romanticism, post-War female emancipation and Sixties into Seventies permissiveness, that all life's solutions lay through sex. Paul's mother had rapidly found that such a philosophy had not applied to her. Julie's mother still couldn't understand what she had been doing wrong that it had never worked out.

Nor did Paul draw much compensation from knowing his grandfather. In his adolescence he had despised his grandfather's cleverness. Of all people Paul had then least wanted to be like that prattling opinionated man. So he had played truant from school and had completed his education in prison.

The past, though, for all of us, has to remain a mystery. We can imagine how it must have been back then, but we cannot know. Even our own unremembered infancies make us mysteries to ourselves. All those years and days and hours of the childhood that formed us and of which we have no adult recall.

Paul wanted to go even further back than his childhood. He felt that his flawed being would be redeemed if he could believe that his mother had enjoyed the sex that had resulted in his conception, if he could believe that it had truly been a communion of two impassioned strangers. He knew, however, and with a cold certainty, that his mother was one of those people who have had no passion in their life, who have known only worries. He knew of his existence that he was but a stray sperm, could as easily have ended up on a tissue.

Paul knew that he gave more thought to his creation and upbringing than his mother did, or had. Paul knew that, as he was still trying to come to terms with her, even though he now had children of his own, so was she still trying to understand where she went wrong with her own pitying mother and arrogant father, wondering still what she might do that might impress them and yet make them love her.

All family relationships are centred on the past. Yet families are people with whom we have so little in common that even our recollection of that shared past differs. If Paul's mother summed up her past, she said that neither her mother nor her father had liked her. If they looked back on her past they had pitied themselves because she had been so stupid. Her mother felt that if she been mentally handicapped they could have coped better; but how to explain one's giving issue to someone who was simply not that bright...?

Paul believed then that underlying all human transactions is a basic honesty, so that we all know all of the time who is playing what part, what lies they are telling to what purpose, even if we don't know the exact truth of what is happening. Therefore it always came as a surprise to Paul just how successful were our many pretences to one another. He could not believe that his mother didn't know that he too despised her for being so stupid and timid. He hadn't told her that. When, maudlin, she said that at least he loved her, and he reassured her that he did, he believed only that he was playing the part in her pretence and that she knew it. In any family the betrayals are many and mutual.

Like most Bridgwater people Paul's mother was unable to give expression to her emotions. This is because in Bridgwater there is a dearth of vocabulary, of experience, of examples. To give words to the emotion they are at that moment feeling they may say 'I love'. To say 'I feel joy' would have them feeling foolish. Or to say 'I am desolate' would find no sympathetic ear. So they sublimate all their emotions, turn them into obsessions, illnesses, or benders. With the result that, to give reason to their joy, they drink; and to assuage their despair, they drink. Both end in confusion and tears. But at least the drink, in Bridgwater, has given this outpouring of emotion — the tears — legitimacy.

True Stories

On March 29th 1989 Miss Suzanne Yvonne Woods, of Sommerville Way, Bridgwater, was arrested for being drunk and in charge of a child. The child was seventeen months old. 25 year old Miss Woods' speech was slurred and, although she said that she had drunk only 4 cans of lager, she was unsteady on her feet. Miss Woods had no family living locally.

On July 9th 1989, shortly after being filled with petrol, a car burst into flames in Bristol Road, Bridgwater. While Chris Anderson doused the flames with a fire extinguisher John Caddy pulled his wife, Angela, and his two children, Claire and Simon, out of the car. No-one was hurt.

From 'The Bridgwater Mercury', dated November 28th 1989.

"Comfortable bedsit, Bridgwater, employed only — Tel. 785705."

"Single bedsit, central Bridgwater, £30 per week. No DHSS, references — Tel. (0278) 424365."

On May 8th 1990 Jane Marie Groves, of Chilton Street, Bridgwater, went into a Bridgwater pub, cut the cable to a payphone, and took the payphone away. Having broken the payphone open Jane Marie Groves took the £3 inside it and dumped the phone in an old washing machine behind a house.

The British Telecom payphone was worth £381.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

 

26) Muttering

"Stupid man," she mutters at the television, "Get a new suit." How can any actor expect to be taken seriously when for every role he wears the same suit and the same hairstyle?

"Did I say that out loud?" Maybe.

It's not yet time for tea. She will make tea when the children's programmes start. She doesn't understand the children's programmes, why the presenters get so excited. She will eat her tea as she watches the news.

"Don't know why I watch the news. Only frightens me. That's all they do. Try to frighten me."

Three thousand British women a year die of breast cancer, they told her on the lunchtime programme. Is she going to die of breast cancer? She doesn't mind dying.

"Not suicide though." Suicide is never a solution. Nor is it an escape.

"Be ever after trapped in death." She has thought a lot on death. When she was young, when she was full of vitality.

"Was I?" The very idea of her own death then seemed preposterous. Admissible, but unlikely. Now that she is tired and worn out death is easy to accept. After she had that ovarian cyst, after the pain, then it was easy to plan out her own death. Comforting too.

"Not suicide you understand," she tells the television. Just imagining how it will be, at last going to sleep.

"I don't sleep," she tells the doctors: hers is the doctor-haunting loneliness of the insomniac, "Only nap." Throughout the day and throughout the night she naps. She is aware that it is day sometimes only when the sun shines on the light bulb.

Looking into her mind's mirror the whole time, watching herself do things, puts her physically off balance. Then she has to sit down. Then she naps.

She hasn't had a nap this afternoon.

At least he came to see her. So big though, blocking out the light, talking loud, banging the lavatory door.

They never come to see her now. She never goes to see them. He didn't say anything about them. Did he? Should she go to see them? Could catch a bus.

"Only get told off."

She doesn't go anywhere anymore, walks through all the empty rooms here when she remembers, disturbing the air. This is where she likes to be, has got her little habits, can wrap them around herself like a child's sour blanket.

"No, I don't go out." She is afraid of going out. "Why are they trying to frighten me?" Stories of rapes, of muggings. They make horror movies too, show them in the middle of the night when she can't sleep.

"Why are they trying to frighten me?"

commentary.... When do we learn that we are utterly alone? Paul learnt that lesson during his second prison sentence. Julie learnt it during the nights she was being besieged by her ex-husband. Julie's mother, awaiting the next partnership, has yet to learn the lesson. Paul's mother discovered it in infancy.

To have been deceived in one part of your life is to thereafter distrust all its parts. Infancy was when a profound doubt was generated in Paul's mother. No matter how she attempted to please her parents, she missed the target of their affection. She copied the happy little girls she saw in films and her parents despised her for it. Then, when her parents were, rarely, pleased with her, she didn't know why. Never since has she been sure that what she was doing was right, which was why she held a constant discussion with herself.

Her parents' disappointment was as great as her own confusion.

It is a sad fact that intelligent couples do not necessarily have intelligent children, with the consequence that they can have less in common with their own child than they can with an adult acquaintance who is only approximately their intellectual equal. Likewise it is no fun being the bright child of a dim parent.

Under what appeared to Paul's mother to be her parents' arbitrary rule, they taught her to fear. Fear is a habit. Her fear was another agent of her confusion. Only the children's programmes she didn't watch seemed straightforward. But even they twisted and turned things, looked behind things, so she became confused about what the things were for, why they were made. People too. They seemed to come undone in front of her.

Deaths, violent deaths, were shown on television. Real and fictional. And that's what Paul then argued with Michael over on the television. It was not war itself, Paul maintained, but the quantity of deaths that brutalised. With a single death we can feel both the dying and the grief. Any more deaths, though, and the feelings are too many, too confusing. On television the images themselves are too many for the single human mind. And on television these are not real people. The characters are usually a soap opera stereotype, at best but a dramatist's device. Yet those telly characters were those on which real people modelled themselves, thus creating a new reality, which another dramatist then tried to depict, and in so doing created characters on which other people then modelled themselves....

It was television, however, Paul had to admit — though not in front of Michael — that had taught him morals. Those days when school had been forgotten he had watched those old black and white movies, where the men never took their hats off. Wartime or gangster, western or pirate, right and wrong had been in those films, with their hats on.

His mother would have liked to believe that all was still as simply right and wrong as in those old films. But there were just so many more people now than when those men with hats on had made simple morals. Now was the age, not of grey individuals, but of colourful insignificance. Morality was public consensus centred on the self, but where the self was negated. And if one sees one's self as not mattering, what does it matter what one does?

Paul's mother both watched and carefully ignored the television. Reading was no safer. The hypochondria of housewives was catered for by women's magazines, giving them descriptions of every new ailment, and hinting at worse. Likewise the local papers featured prominently all the local villainy and vandalism.

Paul, visiting his mother, stopping off for a cup of tea with Julie's mother, caught glimpses of other figures standing back from their unlit windows, wondered at the strange occluded lives most people lived; he sensed a town of quiet people ticking like primed bombs, their minds as unstable as sweaty dynamite. They were potentially more frightening and murderous than a few bitter drunks.

Paul stoutly refused to be frightened. Fear for its own sake was a weapon of the rule-makers. The unafraid are uncontrollable. So to their ends, the obeyance of rules, the rule-makers will create and employ superstitions. Fear is the state of the governed. But to be ruled by fear itself, like Paul's mother, was stupid.

Julie's mother was also stupid. She irritated Paul too; Julie's protection of her, the listing of her good points in comparison to his mother.... But for someone who was usually, when with a man, crass, backslapping and uncaring, to be told, when that same woman was snuffling like an asthmatic hog in manless self-pity, that she was a sensitive person... Such was pushing the limits of his affectionate credibility.

Most of his cross-generation anger, though, was reserved for his own mother. Which was why, distance apart, he visited her less. His mother's house was off the Taunton Road. (The Workhouse used to be on the Taunton Road.) That estate was also Paul's living past. He spent his closed-in childhood there, being returned there.... The orange bricks reeked of a misery that sat over the flat place like an invisible cloud perpetually pressing down upon it. There it had been that he had first experienced divergent realities — escaping the reality of home for the reality of school, escaping the reality of school for the reality of home, escaping the reality of home for the reality of his grandparents, escaping the reality of his grandparents for the reality of home. Like all misery, his too had appeared circular and inescapable.

He had learnt only later how to escape, how to thrust aside his anger at his mother's timidity and stupidity, and he had learnt how to flee from the stupidity of others like and unlike her. So had he gone steaming up into the Quantocks to get away from a stupid world — trapped by itself and trying to entrap him — and from the top of the Quantocks he had seen below him a green world as fresh as if he had just reinvented it.

True Stories

43 year old David Iles, of Bath Road, Bridgwater, visited his ex-wife, Theresa, in the afternoon. At her house, in September 1985, he punched her in the face.

In December 1989 Dean Hamblin, of Knightsbridge Way, Bower Manor Estate, Bridgwater, became trapped by his left arm in a machine while slitting cellophane. Other workers switched off the machine and helped free 20 year old Dean Hamblin. He was then taken to Musgrove Park Hospital, Taunton, where he was treated for a fractured arm.

In February 1990 Ann Heritage, of Chepstow Avenue, Bridgwater, took some photographs back to B&H Fotofast Ltd in Angel Place. 31 year old Ann Heritage complained about the quality of the prints. The manageress of Fotofast Ltd offered to reprocess the prints, but Ann Heritage said no, she wanted her money back. Ann Heritage knocked frames and albums off shelves and told other customers not to use the shop because they were no good. The manageress asked Ann Heritage to leave. Ann Heritage kicked and slapped the manageress. When Chris Hockey and David Evans sought to protect the manageress Ann Heritage kicked Chris Hockey in the stomach, slapped his face and pulled his hair.

In June 1990 Donna Louise Roberts, of Lonstone Avenue, Bridgwater, went with her aunt to visit a partially disabled woman in Osborne Road. While in the house Donna Louise Roberts stole £20 from the partially disabled woman's purse.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

 

27) Shopping

On and off, clothes are a burden. Standing on Fore Street's bricks Paul is aware of every wrinkle and crease of his jeans, has his shirt undone. Alice is flopped wide-armed and wide-legged in the pushchair. Even Julie occasionally, and unconsciously, wafts her cotton top to send some new air up around her breasts. Michael alone, in his long grey school trousers, white shirt and school tie, looks cool. Every other Fore Street shopper oozes sweat and discomfort.

At the top of pedestrian Fore Street, the grey road looping around it, Cornhill stands like a pillared cake. Within Cornhill's shade is a cement-floored market smelling of raw meat and melted butter. Thin old women come out from among the wooden stalls with scowls of doubt and disapproval. Below the pillars, down narrow steps, are subterranean lavatories. It will be cool down there.

Michael is in need of a new jacket. Price is the prime consideration. They have had to buy hardly any new clothes for Alice — she gets Polly's hand-me-downs. Fastidious Michael, worse luck, has to come and choose. Today, as a prospective treat, they are also pricing up cycling shorts.

Further down Fore Street a small round man waits outside another shop. Instead of a pushchair, he waits with a two-wheeled shopping trolley. Paul worked with him once. His wife is a big round woman. The man has a squeaky voice. Giggling, he told Paul that he wanted to be a male chauvinist but his wife wouldn't let him.

Paul looks aside before the man can make eye contact.

A tall old woman, curved over her folded arms, stands in the curved shadow before Cornhill.

Impatience governs Paul's own clothes shopping. He will set out from home with every intention of finding the best buy. But soon he is seeing the same article at about the same price in all the shops and is aware of shop assistants all poised to serve him. So in the next shop, different labels same clothes, he will grab the nearest thing approximately his size, part with his worried-over money, and go home dissatisfied.

Michael and Julie, though, look, try on, look, and look again; often they go home satisfied without having bought a single thing. Now they stand side by side before a window of immaculate dummies, and they look.

Michael is already almost as tall as Julie. Both are neat people. Julie has on a cotton top with thin straps, a short dark skirt and flat blue shoes. Both stand with their backs straight and their knees together.

Paul and Alice are used to waiting for them. It is a family division. Paul looks to the other shoppers and wonders what they find to buy, and why.

Paul's view of these other shoppers is larded with contempt. Not that he thinks himself, by comparison, superior. The contempt is apart from him, is not related to him, is for them and their gawping selves alone.

Giving in to the human craving for novelty, these people travel miles simply to go shopping. Skimming along on a totally artificial environment of motorway and shopping precinct, they have no roots to their being. Pensioner couples in pressed clothes, made-up women packaged atop high heels — they haven't delved into themselves to see how they work. All are content with the superficialities of existence. Media fodder.

Paul exempts Julie and Michael from this gullible shopping mass. Their income means that they have to seek out the best buy. Otherwise Paul despises consumerism. Its dupes come to look at the world and its antics solely through the lens of consumerism — am I being shortchanged? Thus, rather than appear to have been cheated, do such people become critical where it cannot matter — of scenery for instance — where they are not being sold anything, where there is no transaction other than human intercourse, where there is the exchange of ideas and opinions, not of cash and goods.

Here, by shops, on an overbearing hot day such as this, Paul knows that he could so easily become a misogynist. Most shoppers are women. These shops, these prettified precincts, are not designed to attract men. Most shops, even the men's, are designed to attract women. And women, women who like to shop, do not see the whole. They do not accept that their way of life, no matter what they can't afford, is paid for in starvation elsewhere. The price of a nice cup of tea or coffee is poverty.

A big pink man stops, sweating, beside Michael and Julie.

He has short curly gingerish hairs on the back of his solid neck. Looking into the window he moves slowly around Julie and Michael like an amicable and inquisitive bullock. Michael and Julie don't move.

Turning away Paul looks to the statue of Admiral Blake. Looking up makes his right eye throb.

Two different policemen have passed him here in the precinct. One's eyes noted Paul's bruised face. Neither passed any remark. If last night's assailant did find a corner to die in, no-one has found him yet; and the further away the death the further away any connections with Paul.

Fitting, Paul thinks today, that Bridgwater's one statue should be of a fighting man. And he wonders again why they have placed the statue of a nautical man with his outflung arm pointing inland....

commentary.... The world has become acceptably cynical. The clean-cut heroes have all been found to have weaknesses. To fight, to take up arms, once sounded so simple and noble, brave and clean. War, we have found out, is usually very muddled and messy.

The past is a fiction. Remember, in every nostalgic past, there was always some out-of-sorts bugger like yourself.

The present makes the past. Who, for instance, would Bridgwater have to celebrate if it wasn't for Admiral Blake? He is the present's invention, fulfilling the present's need.

Paul could not think of that statue, nor of any other indicator of civic pride in Bridgwater, without a sneer. Because, in Bridgwater, despite the thin steeple beyond Cornhill's low white dome, despite the admirable admiral, despite the intense brick college at the back of Sydenham, all was commerce. It was the shopkeepers, the factory owners, the local men of business who made their money and their names in Bridgwater, who had taken their profits and their importance from the town. Everyone else had just been customers, or hired hands; the most they could ever hope for was the foreman's top hat. While the men of commerce continued to put up plaques to each other; and to this day they still — when pillars are only kitsch-decorous — call themselves pillars of society. And still, to make themselves rich, they rob their workers of wages, cheat their customers of pennies, then give a few of those pennies to a charity and make believe they are doing some good. What good, Paul wondered, had they ever done the likes of him?

Those sly men of commerce had to have one hero to give themselves respectability. The erectors of Blake's statue, though, had not themselves been heroic people. Nor had they had much choice. Blake was Bridgwater's one success. Bridgwater otherwise had been the home of pompous causes whom history had overtaken. Here Colonel Wyndham surrendered his stout castle; here the Duke of Monmouth declared himself King, before being trounced at Sedgemoor.

And now there can be no heroes. Their pedestals are flawed before ever they climb on them. We've seen it all before. Soldiers and politicians, laughing stocks who end up killing people, for which they want the world and its dog to think well of them.

Should Bridgwater have celebrated in stone one of its more prosaic citizens? A giant marble figure, say, of some farmer come to market, sat formally with his large red hands on his outspread knees, while he waits to be cheated? Or, more typically, a wobbly statue of a drunk, legs bent sideways?

Paul knew, however, that statuary does not exist to foster truth. It is part of an illusion, of a town that, individually and collectively, practises deceptions upon itself. Koi carp, each fish worth thousands of pounds, are kept in a manor house pool in the very middle of the stinkmaking cellophane factory. While the admirable admiral continues to point into a window above a shop that keeps changing hands...

The world does not now want heroes. Heroes demand allegiance and are therefore dangerous. Now we have instead destroyers and creators, contributors and consumers. And while potential heroes strike poses the world goes shopping, ignores the statues, ignores the other people in the precincts, and steps aside from danger. The heroes are all elsewhere.

Paul, though, did then have a hero.

In Bridgwater, in 1986, a pavement artist lived in a rubbish shack, built and decorated by himself. The council evicted him from the piece of spare ground. He made no protest. But, curiously, some of the local residents did.

Paul had more respect for that pavement artist than for any of the local dignitaries who bought and sold and thought no more on the big issues. Because, when it comes down to it, it's only the big issues that count. Not the little snitchy ones like money, but the meaning of life. That kind of thing. What we're doing here on the planet Earth. Not how much we're earning. Not how much we make in a week. But what we make of our lives. That's what counts.

How can money, how can the owning of things, help us to achieve wisdom? Money, the making of and spending, simply fills time, provides distractions. The things that money can buy will not help you think. And what is money but a system of barter, a result of trade? And trade is a fiction that has grown upon the necessity of provision. A self-sufficient people do not need to trade. Needs can be artificially created through advertising, but real trade must always require a deficit on one side and a surplus on the other.

Paul had not once spoken to the man, but the pavement artist, by his way of life and demeanour, had obviously given life some thought. Not, maybe, that he could have expressed those thoughts — he was not that good a pavement artist, and Paul had only heard him grunt an acknowledgement of the change thrown in his tin. Through the mode of his existence he continued to be, nevertheless, Paul's one hero.

The man tried, albeit ineffectually, to leave behind beauty. His rubbish shack collected curiosity and comments. The weather quickly washed away his paintings. But he did try. And in this life there are those who try to leave beauty for those who come after, and there are those who thoughtlessly fuck this world up.

Here and now most of us are property speculators. Like rats on this dump of a planet we seek to turn temporarily abandoned bits and pieces into a passing comfortable niche. Until it all slips away from under us. The painter's way of life knew this.

The greater the possessions the less the humanity. Materialism is inherently dissatisfying, ownership always a disappointment. The search for profit knows no scruples, and the people who declare that everyone has their price are the first to be bought. In a society that believes everything can be bought everyone is for sale. In this society the thief and procurer are tacitly respectable because their motivation is personal gain. The heretic here is he who goes and does for free. In a society that makes whores and hustlers of its artists, the pavement artist remained unbought and unsullied.

Paul's own ambition was to be conscience-clean contented. No more, no less. (Only sad or disappointed men strive for the good of all mankind: the happy and the fulfilled strive only to maintain their status quo.) Failing the success of his family, it had become Paul's fantasy ambition to be that pavement artist. To be free, unowned and unowning, moving on, moving out of people's troubled static lives, walking about inside his own stink.

How's that for an honest man's hero?

A high red car comes creeping around Cornhill. In the high red car are four upright fat people with tight expressionless faces.

The less proper shoppers open their new clothes in the hope of air. Alice uncomfortably stirs. Paul moves her bright blond head around a black bollard and into the shade.

Within this shop/office window a thin man with clipped hair leans back from his desk with a flat white phone to his ear. It is a customary posture. He is one of a new breed of people who spend their lives with an ear plugged into a phone talking to voices not present.

Paul sighs, bored with being here, doesn't want to be seen by anyone he knows. His bruises will only attract comment, and confirm him in the character that Bridgwater has given him.

commentary.... The heroes are all dead. The world is too cynical now. Politicians have seen to that. Shallow ambitious people every single one, hyping themselves up to a sublime saintliness which they do not expect to be believed. The public domain is full of such fictions. The quiet clean-cut heroes have all gone.

Standards now are set by the single amoral eye of television. That those standards are nothing more than images is beyond contention. All images, however, are examples for us to follow, models for us to copy. Workers leaving a factory gate, combat soldiers in single file, crowds waiting glumly for a train.... all are situations with their own modes of behaviour. With the new we are at our most uncomfortable: but if we can see ourselves via an existing image then we have one concern less. Television provides us with those images, with those millionfold norms.

Theatre has always been propaganda, if only on behalf of the status quo — stereotypes keeping to their station in life and the ruling elite to theirs. Now, though, we have so much theatre, television, that it has no overall single message. All is image. And the viewers know that those images, especially with regard to adverts, are being used to manipulate them. People may think that they themselves are sophisticated because the images being used to manipulate them are sophisticated. These, though, are exactly the same minds that were once moved to patriotic indignation by a propagandist's clumsy puppet show. Those minds question now only the efficiency of the image — if it can make them do what they think the propagandist wishes.

Television swamps us with images. Every single one of those images has its own set of values. So when the psychopath horror movies are shown, or the explicit porno sex, or the slushy romances, or the bank robberies, or the car chases and muggings, television is setting a precedent. Certain minds will not question their own actions in such situations, they will simply act out the scene according to television's precedent, according to that situation's set of rules. Singing, dancing, and murdering in the rain....

Television's images are usually those of destruction — bombs, car crashes, ordered demolitions even. In a society of instant images destruction is instantaneously effective. Was there, now isn't. Creation takes longer, is not so immediately noticeable.

Violence also makes better drama. But violent heroes now are not those who, sacrificing themselves for their fellows, recklessly charge at machine gun posts. Instead it is the saboteur who, hidden safely from his enemy, blows them up and, mission accomplished, sneaks off into the night. This makes better TV. Viewers all — assassin and spectator — we are uninvolved. So do all in these times pursue the image and not the ideal.

Television is the agent of amorality. When the plot's hero is a saboteur it makes of sabotage a glamorous thing. So children place concrete blocks on railway lines and, like the TV saboteurs, hide and watch the results with glee. Killing at a remove, anonymous killing.

The saboteurs on the screen pay no heed to unknown human lives. If the train so dramatically destroyed contained human beings, then the plot pays little attention to their passing. The message is that only the lives of people known to us are important. Strangers are of no account. And these days we are most of us strangers looking out from our cars at strangers, locking ourselves in our houses away from strangers.

In a world of strangers we are all anonymous and of no account, live lives barely touching. Acts of sudden random violence can therefore make others aware of us. Respect us. You will never take us for granted. None of you scum. Hear that? the boy wrote on the listening wall.

There are too many people breathing now on this small globe. Too many of us rubbing against each other and having to ignore most everyone, like the world's become one big city.

True Stories

In September 1965 McPheat, a machine operator of Main Road, West Huntspill, was seen sitting on the kerb in St Mary Street, Bridgwater. 23 year old McPheat was apparently crying. A police officer offered to call a taxi. Mcpheat started shouting, "Leave me alone. Leave me in peace." McPheat became so agitated that it eventually took four policemen to restrain him. McPheat was later fined £50 for being Drunk and Disorderly.

On the afternoon of March 15th 1989 self-employed Agricultural Contractor Roger Douglas Sparks, of Haines Hill, Taunton, went in to the Cornhill gents, Bridgwater. PC Douglas Shaw saw 30 year old Roger Douglas Sparks go into a cubicle and soon came to suspect that an indecent act was taking place with the person in the adjoining cubicle. PC Douglas Shaw fetched PC Andrew Owen, who had been waiting outside the lavatory. PC Andrew Owen looked over the top of the door and challenged the two men. Roger Douglas Sparks said afterwards that he was very ashamed.

By Wednesday 15th November 1989 ambulancemen had collected 32,927 signatures from Bridgwater people in support of their pay claim. Steve Jones, of Colley Lane, volunteered to take the bundles to Banstead in Surrey.

"I am more than happy to help the ambulancemen," he said, "As I am in the haulage business it seemed a good thing to do."

In July 1990 Anthony Leslie Finka, of Fairfax Road, Bridgwater, dragged his 17 year old girlfriend out of their house by the hair. They had been arguing and she had broken some fragile ornaments. Having dragged her out of the house, 19 year old Anthony Leslie Finka forced her back inside and made her paint the living room door.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

 

28) Picnic

On the yellow-grey block sits a yellow grey woman holding a hollow crown. On the steps, that run round the base, is where wax poppy wreaths are laid in wet Novembers. On the steps now Paul, Alice, Michael and Julie all sit in a line. Each has an ice cream cornet.

The tree shade in Kings Square is palpable. So too the sunshine holes in it. The trees are high and dark.

Paul likes being here. Around the square are high old buildings with small squared windows. Some of the buildings have ivy. Narrow roads lead off the square. It has a cosy, closed in and comfortable feeling that somewhere like Sydenham, no matter how old it becomes, will never have.

Two fat men with black beards and white tee-shirts go swaying slowly past. Their trousers are baggy around their backsides. From the path beyond them comes a tall timid man crouching in self-effacement. He quickly goes out of the Square.

These buildings are used mostly by solicitors. One is a psychiatric day hospital. The patients passing obliquely through the little park, and the besuited solicitors skirting its edges, give the place an air of prosperity and eccentricity which Paul thinks of as being uniquely English.

That this square should exist in the same town an the stench-making factories, as regimented Sydenham, as featureless Hamp, as the new rabbit hutch estates, as the wide open docks.... The housing developments around the docks are trying to emulate this place, to give themselves the same quiet air of peace and prosperity. But the buildings there are all too self-conscious and too far apart; and the wind sends the cement dust zinging around their clapboard sides; and that dust comes floating over the scuffed playing green to turn to cinders in the noses of breathing Bridgwater folk....

Paul prefers being here among the high tilted roofs of red and black speckled tiles. Yet this place too has been deliberately made. An area roughly triangular, bordered by the river and the shopping precincts, it has been town-planned to retain its narrow streets, statues and doric doorways. Intentionally olde worlde, its little shops are self-consciously designed to entice. Yet, despite being aware of its worked-at artifice, Paul finds it, with its hanging baskets of trumpeting flowers, pleasant.

Paul is not alone in his preference. All the metal benches are occupied. A couple of old women with lumpy white carrier bags on one, on another sit two fat old men with a nostalgia for hard times. Listening a moment to them Paul feels that their comparisons are being directed at him — he being there in the middle of the day obviously unemployed and visibly bruised. A moment's anger has him feeling cursed to live among people who talk only of jobs and children and who never question the concept of eternity.

Gone the anger.

He used to enjoy coming here to see his solicitor, walking out from the doors as if he belonged. It was like being another species on another planet, another being from another time.... That something so old should still be standing in demolition-minded Bridgwater.... To sit on a bench here, head back and looking up out of Bridgwater through the branches. Here even the constant noise of the traffic is far away.

The choice today was to come here or to wander down to Blake Gardens, where the traffic is visibly present and the deep grey river is just over the other side of a low wall; and where they'd also have had to keep a watchful eye out for the alkies, the sniffers and the sorry queens hanging around the lavatories. Here are only the tall smooth trees.

Such, though, is Bridgwater's geography that but a hundred meters from here, 15 hours ago, in the light of the moon he was punching a man's head. The bones of his hands still hurt, the skin is still torn, the scabs black and nobbled. And, frightened of what his knowing eyes might find, he has no wish to walk the 100 meters to see where it happened.

Alice's ice cream has melted and dribbled down the side of her cornet and over her fingers. Paul takes if from her and licks the soft ice cream from the cornet's edge. Alice sucks all her fingers at once, then one by one. Paul holds her ice cream out to her.

"Look," she points a wet finger.

A four year old boy is stood behind his mother's bench. He has a blue tube of bubble mixture. His red lips purse behind the blue dipper and lines of bubbles float away from him. As they pass through the tilted sunbeams each bubble becomes a rainbow.

True Stories

On Saturday afternoon May 20th 1989, the former Kraft Products factory in Cornborough Place caught fire. Eleven fire fighting vehicles and 45 firemen were in attendance for five hours. A CEGB spokesman said that the nearby nuclear flask dispersal point had not been threatened by the blaze, and that anyway the flasks were built to withstand exceedingly high temperatures.

In May 1989 three ex-Cellophane employees, who were among the 340 made redundant the previous year, were awarded large cash settlements after negotiations between BCL and the TGWU. The industrial tribunal found that the three men had been unfairly dismissed. Brian Toomey, Cellophane's personnel director, said, "We were going to appeal, but the whole matter was dragging on. We decided the best thing was to settle the matter outside the tribunal."

In November 1989, when PC David Cooke and PC David Pither went to the Bristol Road home of 51 year old Annie Elizabeth May to arrest her son, she set one of her alsatians onto PC David Cooke, who had his leg bitten. Annie Elizabeth May then pulled PC David Pither's handcuffs from him and locked PC David Cooke in the garden shed. When PC David Cooke kicked the shed door open Annie Elizabeth May hit him over the head. Annie Elizabeth May has osteo-arthritis and had a heart attack in 1984.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

 

29) Shopping

Alice is having a game of reaching forward from her pushchair and putting both hands against a black bollard; then, with a shove, sending the pushchair back against Paul's legs. He flexes his knee to send Alice back within reaching distance of the bollard.

Inside the charity shop, at the back, Michael patiently waits, stepping forward occasionally to let Julie measure jackets against him. Michael knows, logic has him say, that some of his clothes have to be bought in charity shops. He and Julie, together with a pocket calculator, have gone through their family finances. Michael left the exercise surprised that they were able to afford even secondhand clothes. (Some of the town's charity shops are indeed priced too high for them.)

Logical acceptance is one thing, being seen buying clothes in a charity shop is offensive to his eight year old sensibilities. So he positions himself where he is least likely to be seen from the street.

Paul is hungry, the rumblegut below him vast in its echoes. The ice cream has stirred up his digestive juices, has made him realise that he hasn't eaten this day.

"D'you know," he says to Alice, "the ancient Egyptians considered their internal organs divine? Because they continued their functions during sleep?"

Alice is not interested in him or in his stomach noises. His knee pushes Alice back within reach of the bollard.

The night and the day have left him with a headache that wants only to lose itself in sleep. To be alone. But this street now is crowded with shoppers, people breathing his air, people moving through his space, all strung out and twitchy, most of them unknown to and afraid of each other. Gawping, gaping, greedy for sensation, mouths clacking open, they walk splayfooted, leaning forward from the hips, their eyes fixed singlemindedly on their next acquisitive objective. Or they turn aside from the object on window display, lean back from it, view it with sidelong measuring glances, flirting with ownership, wary of being owned, to not be trapped into a rash purchase.... They are still buying something. Still have money to spend.

The lads come running on a shout.

Paul sees the first three round the corner from the library. All are wearing long baggy shorts and trainers. The shorts are pink and green, zigzaggy orange and black. The trainers have fat white tongues. More come shouting, voices hoarse, in among the Fore Street shoppers. Some of the lads have sweatshirts knotted around their waists. All are up on their toes, convinced of their corporate invincibility.

About ten or twelve of them now; they are jumping onto each other's backs, shoving each other, careering off walls and stumbling between shoppers. One has on a small round black hat. He stops in front of women, waggles his tongue and screams at them. A slim boy sprays lager from a can over two old men, who bending duck. He then sprays it white over a shop window and, shouting, he runs.

A rat-faced boy, his jowls abristle, is coming towards Paul. He has fixed eyes with Paul. Paul's tattoos and bruises are making him one of them, a legitimate tribal target. Paul tries to edge aside, to become an invisible part of the crowd. But Alice has hold of the bollard. The boy has registered Paul's awareness of him, is coming faster.

Paul tries to pull Alice past the bollard. The boy's arm is up. He has a short blade in his hand. Alice is between them. Seeing that the boy may under-reach himself and hit Alice on the downward stroke Paul steps around the pushchair and stumbles on a back wheel.

He feels the hit on his shoulder, sees his shirt is cut through and the skin beneath, sees the browneyed boy jigging excitedly still here in front of him, the blade slicing back across his midriff, but missing, then coming back again and tearing into and along his bare arm down through the blue tattoo.

Another boy is coming running, slaps the browneyed boy on the shoulder. Shouting together they go running up Fore Street.

Paul looks down to Alice. She is looking blue-eyed up at his shoulder. The slashed blue shirt is red with his blood. He looks back to Alice's round blue eyes, sees the bright red blood running from his pink fingers and spotting on the dark bricks. He hears Julie shout. He turns towards her.

"She's alright," he says. Julie screams. The blue sky flees from him.

commentary.... The young have to fight to be recognised. To conform to the past is to fail. Conformists, besides, are confused. There are no communities to conform to anymore, only some people who know some other people. And a moral code is difficult to impose on a mobile society, where one's imagined peers can be left rapidly behind and one's behaviour is adapted always to the normative immediate, to what is tolerable to those present and which those out of sight need never know about.

Nor can we expect the young to willingly participate in a system that is designed to subjugate them. Yet their oppressor is amorphous, their fight for freedom not clean cut. When indifference and apathy are enemies the weapon is to unsettle, to defy, to disrupt. So do the invincible young revenge themselves with vandalism and cavort rudely among the defeated old.

These young, though, are not heroes, and they are far from brave. They too all want to belong: so do they all follow fashion, and the weakest seek to bond together by creating a common enemy.

Fore Street that day was, like any war, mediocrity taken to extremes. Eccentrics don't need to do violence to establish their own existence. But for the faceless unheroic, once behind a flag, once inside a uniform, once under a label, they can do anything. Drunk, and showing their contempt for themselves, for those like them, for the kind of life they are expected to lead, they can savour their own rottenness and they can, at the same time, have absolute licence.

Paul then often condemned Bridgwater men as types, when he himself was viewed as a type — of the type who aspired to be semi-invisible, who didn't want to stand out from a crowd....

There are just too many people in this crowded world for all of us to be known as individuals. All of us, therefore, must be recognisable as types.

We consequently proclaim our part-identity by our choice of styles. Which is why these mobile days style is so socially important — so that you can be instantly categorised as type A, B, C, or an aspirant to type D. By your haircut and hair colour, by your choice of clothes, by your bearing and demeanour, so shall ye be identified. And, in the case of Paul that day, stricken.

We know those who are like us, know enough of them to make them our enemies. Other types are strangers to us, their lives distant and superficial. We don't know what homes they return to nor venture from; nor their daily gripes and complaints, nor what each aspires to. Not having lived it we do not know the substance of their lives; and, therefore, all their actions are surface actions and are, to us strangers, incomprehensible and unpredictable.

So we attack only those we know, whose responses we can predict. Paul, that afternoon, was marked safely down as one of them and, therefore, as a safe enemy. They could know and easily despise him. Tattoos, open shirt, muscles, bruises.... And it was all in part Paul's own doing. Because we all have to go by appearances. All too often that is all we've got to go on. And people are often only what they want to appear to be.

Although it may then have wrung its hands over casual violence such as this, the establishment was reaping only what it had sown. Because, in an inherently violent society, people think first of violent solutions for whatever ails them, even if it is only boredom, if it is only in giving vent to all their resentments of being looked upon with contempt.

Extreme places and extreme policies breed extreme reactions. Every society creates its own crimes. The world doesn't need warriors anymore. But still we're brutalising young men with the philosophies of belligerence, the language of fighting, the idea of loyalty right or wrong. And if the law is the arm of justice then, as there is no justice, there is no law now. Any law now is applied according to the status of the individual and not the severity of the crime. The young and scruffy are consequently pursued, picked on, provoked; and the destitute and deranged moved on. The only moral, the only law now, is not getting caught.

There are some people, however, no matter what the age, no matter what their age, who are always ready to join a mob. These are the people for whom there are no excuses, for whom there are no extenuating circumstances. These people are neither unintelligent nor uneducated. (Not, though, that anyone has to be educated to be aware of injustice, to feel injustice, or to create, to perpetuate, injustice.)

Likewise the saboteur too only fails if he gets caught. Any excess can be justified if it can be gotten away with, if the perpetrator is in a position of power to make it respectable.

True Stories

In July 1985, shortly before midnight, Kenneth Stanley Thomas Smith threw 2 stones at a neighbour's window. He caused £8.84 worth of criminal damage, for which Sedgemoor Magistrates gave him 100 hours community service. 20 year old Kenneth Stanley Thomas Smith told the police that he had done it to get his own back on the neighbour who had some time previously told him to get back in prison where he belonged.

On April 12th 1989 Timothy Andrew Ash, who was then living in Hembdon Road, Bridgwater, went to the house of his ex-girlfiend, Teresa Weller. Not finding her there he went to her current boyfriend's house. He asked to see her and she spoke to him outside the door. Timothy Andrew Ash then pushed Teresa Weller to the ground. When she got up Timothy Andrew Ash grabbed hold of her tee shirt and punched her in the face. Timothy Andrew Ash was conditionally discharged by Sedgemoor Magistrates.

In May 1989 Hilda May Kitch, of York Road, Bridgwater, stole cheese and meat worth £18 from the Safeways supermarket in Angel Place. When stopped outside the supermarket by a store detective 73 year old Hilda May Kitch had £33.63 on her person. Hilda May Kitch said that she had planned to give the goods away to neighbours as a way of making friends. Hilda May Kitch lives alone. Sedgemoor Magistrates fined her £20 and ordered her to pay £21 costs.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

 

30) Hospital

Paul sits with his bum on the edge of the long padded green bench, his legs stuck out before him. His gauze-taped arm is held up across his chest.

Paul is in waiting mode, a level above sleep. A hospital blanket is hung squarely about his shoulders, pillows his neck.

When he arrived the ambulancemen took him straight through to the curtained cubicles. A plump apologetic doctor scissored open his bloodied shirtsleeve, made soothing jokes, said something about having to get a seamstress in, congratulated the ambulancemen on their butterflies, was about to start picking at Paul's shoulder when something happened.

Paul had made himself passive, inert, ready to submit to proddings. Instead the doctor quickly gave him an injection and a little nurse with dark rings under her eyes stuck some more gauze dressings over his cuts, told him to keep his arm above his chest, arranged the blanket over his shoulders, and led him out to the long waiting room, his cut sleeve swinging free.

A backlog of patients are now sitting on the two facing rows of long green benches. New arrivals, limping, are told there's been a pile-up on the motorway, they'll have a long wait, would they prefer to see their own GP? It is not an option that has been offered to Paul. He waits.

A florid man in shock sits grinning like a farmer with no trousers. A prim woman fusses about a bespectacled older man, fetching him cups of coffee and tutting at him. Paul watches her as she walks back and forth past him. He tries to imagine in her upright carriage the yearning to wrap her body around a man's and devour him with her loins.

Another man, further along, sits with a loose bandage on his wrist and with an idiot's features unscarred by expression, untroubled by thought. With him is a tearful fat woman in tight clothes. Her talk is all of mysticism and ley lines.

Ambulances queue outside. Their stretchers, on long chrome legs and small wheels, are pushed straight past the desk. In his mind's eye Paul sees people struggling all hot and bothered from their crunched cars like turtles from damaged shells, all of a sudden soft and vulnerable.

Walking patients feed change into the telephone at the end and tell people where they are, how very long they'll be. Julie knows where he is. He waits.

In a railed enclosure a toddler with a scraped face talks to a fat brown bear. The toddler's parents hover, self-accusing.

Here are people in shock, not seeing what's going on around them, watching the replay inside their heads, and contemplating the large effects of such little things — viruses, pills, blades, burst tyres....

Paul sees some patients trying to catch a nurse's eye, smiling like court sycophants at the chubby young doctors. Smarm is the word, like a grass in the witness box. M'lud doctor, I am guilty of letting myself be injured, guilty of being presently imperfect....

Nurses and doctors are people who can see into your bowel shames and beyond. Soldiers too. They know all the hard facts of life, injury and death. The rest of us are deluded with our perfect beings.

Listen schmucks, Paul says inside his head, there's no such thing as innocence, just people who haven't had it happen to them yet. You are fooling yourselves that it can't happen to you.

In the doctors' power, these people have forgotten that doctors and the like have their fears too. Wise in the ways of death and drugs they may be, but they are as terrified of mice and loneliness as the rest of us.

The creeps are making another mistake too — for the doctors and the nurses the illness is the interesting thing, not the person who has it. The rest of us here, watching, are the diagnosticians of the human condition.

The ambulancemen asked what connection the bruises on Paul's face had with his sliced-open arm and shoulder. No direct connection, Paul told them moving with the traffic, just the way it is these days. Their silence didn't believe him. Their turning away said that it was none of their business anyway.

"Why Taunton?" he asked them.

"Something up in Bridgie," the driver said, without turning around. Bridgwater being a place that has many crises, Paul did not ask for details. And now, sat here, he tells their disbelief that if you revert to the laws of the jungle in your economics then on the streets you create savages.

Two young girls, long thin legs crossed about each other, sit whey-faced together. One — Paul has heard it said — overdosed, and the other is shocked out of her make-up. So young and got her whole life in front of her and from what she can see from here that whole life aint worth a shit.

A gesticulating man is arguing low-voiced with the white-coated receptionist. He is swearing to the truth of what he is telling her. You have to believe what a man says of himself, Paul mindtells her. If you can't, then you can believe nothing of anyone; and all laws, all morals, all ideals mean nothing.

You have to believe. You have to trust.

The receptionist is becoming flustered, is looking for help. Where's the old-fashioned goodness that knew right from wrong and tolerated wickedness and weakness in all but oneself? Uncertainty now.

The prim woman is on the phone, complaining of the time they've had to wait. She is smartly dressed. Listen you tight cow, Paul tells her, this is where most of the charity goes. All those fun runs that hold up the traffic, all those boozy dart marathons and silly trolley pushes — they're to keep this hospital going, to buy bits and pieces necessary to somebody's life. So wait a bit, and keep your trap as firmly shut as your legs.

He smiles inside his face.

Two besuited drunks are talking loudly near the phone. Bullshit terms, "I said I wasn't having any of that..." "Listen pal, I said..." So do bullshitters always provoke antagonism towards themselves. "If they thought I was going to stand there and..." This injured drunk is talking himself into new opinions, new hatreds, new angers, new injuries.

They are being looked at by two bodybuilders. Both are in shorts and stretched tee-shirts, slabs of hard flesh above a mosaic of stomach muscles. One has strapping on his thick leg. They impassively stare.

No more stretchers have arrived. Paul rolls his head to look behind him. The ambulances have all gone. On the glazed bowl of the orange sky are black wispy plane trails like pencil scratches.

A fat nurse with a hard face is calling Paul. He starts to stand. The blanket slips. He rearranges it with his good hand. The nurse holds his elbow. Paul smiles at her. They are back inside a curtained cubicle.

"Possibly a little heavy on the pethidine...?" the nurse looks significantly at the doctor. All three look up at some shouting in the waiting room.


"A lot of angry people out there," the doctor says.

"You're telling me?" Paul says



True Stories

In 1988 Colin Coleman, of Heathcombe Road, Bridgwater, sent tapes to Shell, Esso and BP headquarters. On the tapes he said that devices had been fixed to petrol storage tanks and would be detonated within 30 days unless each of the companies paid £100,000 into a Giro bank account.

Realising that they had all been sent the same threat the three oil companies didn't take the tapes seriously.

When opening the Giro account 34 year old Colin Coleman had used the name John Perkins. John Perkins had once been a neighbour of Colin Coleman. The police arrested Colin Coleman after he collected a letter from Bridgwater Red Cross addressed to John Perkins. Colin Coleman told the police, "For me it was exciting. I don't do anything anymore. Life's boring. Even though I've got a wife and three kids. For me, this was different."

On the night of Saturday 20th May 1989 a thief entered the house of Michael Vickery in Taunton Road, Bridgwater, and stole £100 in cash.

In September 1989 Mrs Doreen Jones, of Heather Close, Bridgwater, was hit by a car while walking in Mary Street. The car driver, Mrs Theresa Merritt, of West View, Othery, was unhurt. Mrs Doreen Jones's breastbone was fractured.

In May 1990 Nicholas Deadman, of Edward street, Bridgwater, got fed up waiting to be served in a St John Street pizza parlour and he shouted and swore at the staff. 26 year old Nicholas Deadman left the parlour once, then returned, still shouting and swearing at the staff. Not realising that it was a police officer who was arresting him, Nicholas Deadman turned to the officer and said, "Who the fuck are you? God?"

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

 

31) Sisters

Julie and her children are at her mother's house. Alice in her yellow dress is following Kevin back and forth along the grey concrete path. She makes whooping noises. The red iron gate is closed. The sky is heaped with grey and black clouds.


"Dump him."

"Is that all you can say?"

"It's obvious," Julie's sister says. She is sitting with her back to the window. "Nice enough bloke. But what good's he done you? Eh?"

"He sticks with me." Julie is standing.

Michael is upstairs reading. And listening? Julie's sister is wearing snow-washed jeans, court-heeled shoes, and she has that sisterly knowingness in her eyes.

She is wrong though. Julie cannot dump Paul. Paul, the man, has become Julie's ideal. He it is who gave her liberty. He it is who became her cause. He opened her life out for her. Opened the doors of her closed flat, opened her body, opened her mind.

Paul is so necessary to her life, to her idea of herself, that she cannot, will not, entertain the idea of losing him.

"So what do I do when I've dumped him?" Julie knows that her sister does not have a mind that can be converted, only challenged: "Live like you?"

"What's wrong with that?'

Their mother is in the kitchen cooking.

My sister's one idea of liberation, Julie told Paul, only extends to her being fucked by a man other than the man who normally fucks her.

"I said what's wrong with that?"

"You use a condom?"

"What're you talking about?"

"Do you use a condom?"

"Sometimes. Depends."

"That poor little sod out there is going to be without a mother soon. Who'll he have then?"

"I know the blokes I go with. I'm not some tart."

"I'm not saying you are." (She was.) "But I know my luck, and I don't want my kids to be orphans." Nor does Julie want to go back Out There where the sexes are sizing each other up.

Kevin is at the back door talking to his grandmother in the kitchen. Alice, on her own now, goes mechanically whoo-whooing back and forth along the front concrete path. A bright white gull flies flickering before the purple-black clouds.

"Mum would look after him anyway. If something happened to me."

"She doesn't use a condom either. Terrified of causing offence."

"Older you get, the less your options."

"She doesn't go up the street undressed. Use a condom."

"What's with you and condoms? Could as easy get run over."

"While I got Paul it's one risk I don't have to take."

"Just the shit the world hands out. That thunder?"

The kitchen radio is crackling. The rain is sudden and hard. Alice is standing where she has stopped and is looking at it coming down around her. Large spots are appearing like bullet holes on the yellow dress.

"Come in here!" Julie heads shrieking for the door, "You stupid little girl! Don't just stand there! Come in here!"


commentary .... We seek to make contact and find only accidents of meeting. Chance events, accidents of meeting, that's all her life amounted to; so Julie told herself at such fraught moments. She wouldn't go Out There again. The women don't know what the men want from them, the men can only guess at what the women want from them. All of them fucked up in a fucked up world.

Given my authorship you may think that some of Julie's thoughts about Paul then erred on the side of self-flattery. But I am merely taking at face value what Julie said about me to me at around about the time of these two days. And I don't flatter myself that it was I in particular that Julie needed. Julie, stated simply, didn't want to be single again. And it was I then who stopped Julie being single.

True Stories

In September 1989 Anthony Finka, of Fairfax Road, Bridgwater, shouted abuse and spat at a member of a ladies football team. The ladies football team had that evening training on the hockey pitch at the Sydenham Sports centre. 19 year old Anothony Finka was fined £75 with £16 costs.

In October 1989 Mr James Allan, former landlord of the West India House, Bridgwater, died from internal bleeding due to a liver condition caused by drinking. Mr James Allan was 48 years old.

On Saturday November 4th 1989, on the Westonzoyland Road, Richard Ogg was knocked off his bicycle by an Austin Metro being driven by 19 year old Julie Graham of Bridgwater. 71 year old Richard Ogg, of Broadfield Caravan site, was killed.

In January 1990 Norman Gadsby, of Ludlow Close, Bridgwater, indecently assaulted a 13 year old girl after he had been drinking. 45 year old Norman Gadsby, a Courtaulds administration assistant, had been convicted of indecently assaulting the same girl six years before when she was 7. Then he had been put on probation. This time he was given a year's prison sentence.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

 

32) Raining

The rain is remorseless in its singleminded descent. The police car's black windscreen wipers slash rapidly back and forth. Little but the golden rain and the rebounding spray can be seen in the headlights.


Paul feels large sitting in the back of the car.

"Glad I'm not on my bike," he says.

Paul has been talking since they left Taunton. They have gone slower as the rain has increased. Neither of the police officers now responds, both are sitting forward straining against their wide seat belts.

"Think we should stop?" the PC passenger asks.

"Slow moving heavy showers, forecast said," the driver replies, "If we keep on we'll come out the other side. If we stop we could be sat here all night."

Paul looks forward with them into the golden bars of rain and at the little bit of solid black road. His mind, smiling, re-runs the conversation they've had since leaving the hospital, his telling them what happened to him Monday night, even the fight after the station, and then this afternoon....

"Still," the driver said, "weather's been nice." Then they drove into this rain.

They all three have been laughing. Paul wants to say something else now about this rain, but the words won't come. The stitches took a long time and began to hurt. He was given another injection.

The two policemen came to interview him there in the curtained cubicle, but they knew little more than he did. The gang who'd cut Paul were apparently off a coach on its way back to Bristol. The coach's hirers hadn't been traced yet. A bossy nurse told the policemen to give Paul a lift back to Bridgwater.

Paul doesn't know either of these policemen. Not that that matters: Paul has struck up a journey's length friendship with policemen before. Even when it had been the arresting officer travelling with him. Those policemen didn't take the crime personally; and in a society like ours with no values there are no real rules to break. Save one — don't get caught. And if you are caught then no-one who's honest really blames you. There but for the grace.... policemen too. So together, officer and culprit, they go joking through the process, both at that moment victims of the system. Most policework, like nursing, involves looking up the arsehole of humanity: no need to make it worse with acrimony or ill-manners.

The car's radio crackles and crackles.

"Don't think your luck's rubbed off on us?" the PC passenger turns to Paul. The seat creaks. "We all about to get fried by lightning?"

"Perfect end to a perfect two days," Paul grins. His arm is in a purply-pink foam sling. The golden rain beats on the roof of the car, hisses into the road all around, rolls transparently down the black side windows.

"I'm not sure any more that I exist," Paul frowns hearing himself say this. The PC passenger looks to the driver, who concentrates on the golden aura before the slashing wipers.

"You've got a past," PC passenger looks through Paul's eyes to somewhere inside him. The truth is not there.

"Maybe I imagined it."

"You've got children. You said that's why you wanted to get home."

"I could be imagining them."

Paul is surprised that this sober policeman is taking his words seriously. He wants out from this dialogue.

"I'm real," PC passenger says, his eyes two gravity holes, "I can soon verify you've got children."

"What, though, if I'm imagining you saying that?"

"Pain's always real. I could hit your arm."

The driver is acutely aware of this conversation. The hissing rain encloses it.

"Believe me," Paul finds his grin again, "pain can be dreamlike."

I want more than reality, Paul listens to his mind saying. What is this life that we are so misled? I want to defy the process of continuity, to not be just another nameless son, just another nameless father, just another nameless corpse. I will not be the victim of my own body.

The radio crackles, bursts into voice, "...and high tide. Flash flooding..."

"Always floods in Bridgwater," Paul says while they try to listen. "Fires and floods. Town's history is full of it. Hot and wet."

In the hospital he thought it had been the bruises and the bloodletting that had given him the lethargic headache. Then the lightning had spoken otherwise. Now he feels liberated, exalted.

The PC passenger talks into the radio asking for a response. The radio crackles.

"Ground's baked hard," the driver says. "All this'll run straight off and into the rivers. Tomorrow, if we get more, it'll soak in. Be alright then."

In the car's headlights the rain is fierce and golden.

"Need a boat," Paul says. "Though being Bridgwater it always misses the boat. The year the Severn Tunnel was finished Bridgwater decided to renovate their docks. When the trains got going, that was when Bridgwater decided to connect itself, by canal, to the South coast. Like the power station now. All that's obsolete, and Bridgwater starts building another one. Funny 'ol place Bridgwater...."

The rain stops. The road is black and gleaming before them. Silver cat's eyes curve out of sight. The driver sits back and speeds up. The wiper blades squeak. The driver turns them off.

Like a heap of yellow light black night is swept before the car. The radio speaks crisply inside the car of a flood in Durleigh requiring all emergency services. The PC passenger asks Paul where he lives.

"Sydenham. But you can drop me at Taunton Road roundabout. I'll walk from there."

"You sure?"

Reality is always somewhere else, is happening to somebody else. What happens to him is contrived, is artificial.

"It's my arm," his voice says, "not my leg."

"Thanks."

"Always floods in Bridgwater," Paul says. The police car is low and fast under the polished orange lights. "Think they'd have learnt by now."

He climbs out and stands unaided on the wet pavement. He stoops to wave goodbye with his wrong arm, and the police car is gone, leaving him partially bent over.

Aware of his walking he starts walking. His posture and his gait are affected by the strapped arm. The town is orange and gleaming, its bricks dark and damp. A solo drunk, his trousers rolled up to his knees, runs back and forth through a long puddle, scattering sprays of liquid tangerine glass as he goes. The drunk chuckles to himself, and grunting runs again. There are no other noises. Paul walks, cumbersomely.

Inside the brick houses, behind the glass sheets, slabs of bodies are stuck together this hot meaty night. He turns his whole head. A shadow is gone from the corner of his eye as quickly as a spider. In the full wide river is the brazen moon. Turning Paul looks up, the moon and he with battered heads staring sadly at one another.

"Is that it?"



True Stories

Dorothy Davies, of Chamberlain Avenue, Bridgwater, used a matchstick to stop the meter disc of her electricity meter. Dorothy Davis, mother of five, told magistrates, in October 1989, that the family was short of cash because her husband was a taxi driver and work was slack. 38 year old Dorothy Davis was given a 2 year conditional discharge.

In November 1989 17 year old Jody McKay, of King George Avenue, Bridgwater, punched Phillip Bolton in the face, knocking him to the floor. 19 year old Jonathan Fairfax, of York Road, Bridgwater, then joined with Jody McKay in kicking Phillip Bolton in the face and chest. On admission to hospital Phillip Bolton's face was found to be broken in three places.

In December 1989 a young seal swam into the 709 foot cooling water intake inside Hinkley B Nuclear Power Station. Hinkley B workers hauled him out of the forebay area with a cargo net. The seal was later released into the sea apparently unharmed.

Christopher Beeson's 21 year old daughter, Lesley, was declared officially exempt from paying poll tax because of her mental handicap. Christopher Beeson, of Bagborough Drive, Bridgwater, filled in the initial form and put a tick in the box indicating the reason for Lesley's exemption. A month later Christopher Beeson received a second form warning him of a £60 fine should the form not be completed. When he took the completed form to the council offices he was told that the first form had been found. Lesley Beeson then received four demands for overdue payment of her poll tax, and one more for a reduced amount. When, finally, Christopher Beeson convinced the council that his daughter was wholly exempt they, in July 1990, sent him a demand for his poll tax. He had already paid it.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End

 

 

33) Home

The night is saturated with the smell of wet dust. Light cuts through the wet air and singles out unremarkable bits of the world — part of a trench, a damp back yard and sparkled pram, a line of soak-stained bricks.
Fat drops queue on overhead cables to fall with electrifying force onto the hollow roofs of parked cars. Other independent drops fall from gutters and from the points of leaves and disappear into silence.
With her fingertips Julie pushes open the iron garden gate. Drops from it, like a volley of arrows, shoot into the wet ground.
The drop-laden bushes decide Julie against going around the concrete path to the back door. Her key slots into the lock and the front door swings open easily.
That is wrong, makes her take notice.
The inside of the house is dark and quiet.
Warily she reaches into the dark for the light switch. Stairs and hall, bright and yellow now, appear as they should. So what is wrong?
When the door opened there was no answering pressure of air as from a closed house. Part of this house is open.
"Paul?" she says, in no expectation of a reply.
The brick and plaster house soak up her sounds as she passes through the short hall. Glass lays glinting over the kitchen floor. A window has been smashed, the latch undone. Jars of flour and cocoa have been emptied onto the worktops.
The back door is open.
In the stainless steel sink a green plant lies beside a heap of black peat half-spilt from a red plastic pot.
Julie tiptoes over the crunching rubbish. Rice crispies are in amongst the glass.
A black bush glints in the yellow light from the door. Down the side of the house she can see the base of the birdtable lit by the kitchen window. The lawn's sharp grassblades hold round drops by their edges.
Nothing moves out there. Except the water in single drops rolling and dropping earthward.
Julie's face is a taut mask, only the large eyes moving.
She steps back into the crunching kitchen. The flour jars, Self-Raising and Plain, have been emptied upon the worktop and fingers dragged through the grey flour. No money here so no hiding places for it. Fools! Certainly no money in the Coffee Jar, smashed, its circular base lying in a corner with one sharp triangular piece waiting for an incautious foot.
Too much danger in the kitchen. Striding over the wreckage she closes the door on it and goes through to the living room.
The video has predictably gone. Books have been thrown over the floor, the sofa's cushions chucked off.
Julie picks up the cushions, lays them back on the sofa, and she sits down looking at where the video was. It was repaired secondhand, will be worth nothing to the thieves. Paul's voice is in her head, "The poor robbing the poor always pisses me off. It's an act of cowardice. They know their crime, although it's going to be enormous to the victim, is less likely to be reported. Even if it is reported the police aren't going to do much about it. The area you live in, they'll say. Buy yourself a dog. Which is why no-one bothers reporting their burglaries. The thieves know that. And they know that even if they're caught, because of the piffling amounts involved, the courts aren't going to be that hard on them. But let the thieves start robbing from those not so poor as themselves, then suddenly they become a menace to society — to the society from which the judges and lawyers come. Then they will be dealt with harshly. Which is why they stick to robbing the poor. The uninsured aren't going to make a fuss. The poor robbing from the poor is always cowardice."
Julie thinks of them in here, excited and enjoying themselves, the unfailing pleasure to be had from secretly prying through someone else's house, imagining their life, sneering at the owner's assumptions of security and permanence.
Julie can guess their satisfaction in her home's destruction. And Julie knows that they will have drawn the wrong conclusions about her life, because minds that can break into another's life are not capable of true sympathy.
"Bastards!" Julie thumps both hands down on the sofa and goes on her knees to pick up the splayed books.
"Michael's room!"
Julie runs clumping upstairs.
On glimpsing the wreckage of Michael's room she shouts, a wordless exclamation.
Everything had its place here, marbles in line according to size and colour. Michael knows if a book or a favourite stone has been moved. Books, stones, toys, models have all been scattered around and around the little room like a giant whisk has been lowered into it. And then the mixture was trampled on. Bedding, lights, games, radio, tapes.... a football poster has been partially torn from its blue tac.
Alice's room, not having had so much, doesn't appear as bad. And maybe they decided that someone so young had nothing worth stealing.
Julie and Paul's room is wrecked. Drawers have been upended, their clothes thrown about the room. On the floor and over the bed all is one undulating level with coat hangers sticking out here and there like broken limbs and incomplete question marks. The white pockets of some of Paul's trousers have been pulled inside out. Two of her blouses have been torn down the front. The radio alarm has been stamped on.
The room is stuffy. She opens a window.
Air from the hot stone night falls past her into the room. Light from the bedroom cuts around her shadow and down onto the glinting lawn and part of the dark wet earth of the garden. Beyond the light, out there somewhere, are the thieves.
She turns her back on them. Her foot catches in a shirt. She kicks at it. Her other foot is standing on the shirt. Hands on the windowsill she kicks at the shirt with both feet. The shirt doesn't go anywhere, doesn't even rip. Bending, grabbing and spinning, she throws it.
The white shirt goes floating like a ghostly owl out through the window.
At this moment Julie could laugh at her silly tantrum. She doesn't.
"Yes! Take it!" she screams. "Take the fuckin' lot!" She snatches up other garments and throws them at the window.
"Take it all!"
Some of the thrown clothes miss, go slipping to the floor. She scoops up more, carries them trailing to the open window and throws them all out into the wet and gleaming dark.
"Yes! You heard!" she shouts at the black silence. "Take it all. You don't want me to have anything. Take the fuckin' lot! Take my children!" She throws a fawn jumper into the face of the night. "Take it! Take it! You've had everything else. Take it all! Why not?"



True Stories

22 year old John Hood, of Taunton Road, Bridgwater, and teenager Lee Fury were arguing in CJs nightclub, Bridgwater. John Hood smashed a beer glass and cut Lee Fury's face and arm. Lee Fury needed 36 stitches to his face. In November 1989 John Hood was sent to prison for 2 years with half the sentence suspended.

In November 1989 Sedgemoor Chief Executive, David Tremlett, said, "The CEGB were contributing £10m towards the estimated £12m cost of the Cannington and Bridgwater bypass scheme on condition Hinkley C was given the go-ahead and we as a council express grave concern about what is going to happen...."

In September 1989 Brian and Janette Hayman separated. They have two children. 38 year old Brian Hayman could not accept that the marriage of 12 years was finished. Brian Hayman, a computer engineer, attacked Janette Hayman. A court order was obtained granting her protection. In November 1989 Brian Hayman assaulted his mother-in-law. In December 1989 he drove a car through the window of his mother-in-law's house in Ruborough Road, Bridgwater. In January 1990 Brian Hayman planted a hoax bomb in Janette Hayman's house in Leyton Drive, Bridgwater. Brian Hayman was arrested.

In July 1990 cyclist Kelly Ride, of Witches Walk, Bridgwater, was hit by an articulated lorry at the Junction of West Street and Penel Orlieu. 12 year old Kelly Ride received cuts and bruises. The driver of the lorry drove on unaware of the collision.

 

 

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 End