Jimmy, my teddy bear
Jimmy was my all-time hero. I even named my teddy bear after him. He was my cousin from London. He looked like a film star or, to be more precise, like Stuart Sutcliffe, the Beatle who died. Dressed in a leather jacket, drainpipe trousers and winkle-pickers, he preened his Elvis quiff and d.a. with a comb he kept in his back pocket. He had bright blue eyes which smiled through the smoke of his Golden Virginia rollies.
I was missing my front two teeth at the time. It was taking an age for the new ones to grow through. Six months had elapsed but still there was only a gaping hole and a ridge of gum to rub my tongue against. My Uncle Bill and Auntie Edie hooted whenever my dad called me “Teeth”. Jimmy just raised his eyebrows, then winked at me.
We had come down by train to King’s Cross before taking the Piccadilly and Central lines to Northolt. The prospect of riding the underground escalators had given me nightmares for weeks. Each time I tried to jump off at the end of a descent, my foot had got trapped between the rattling wooden steps and the toothed, metal bar under which they rolled. The more fiercely I tugged to get free, the greater the force which dragged me down. I was being slowly eaten alive, my fingers clawing the air for my dad’s outstretched hand. Relentlessly, the metal teeth shredded my legs, then my trunk and arms until finally my head was crushed, leaving a single, blood-stained ear to flap against the bar.
But, thankfully, this time I had survived. Leaning on my dad’s arm, I had timed my jump to escape the angry jaws. As the crowd surged around and above me, I could feel a buffeting wind heralding the arrival of the next tube train which exploded out of the tunnel into the station. The air smelled of dust and axle-grease and had an acid tang that reminded me of the transformer on my train set at home.
After Holborn, we took the Central line towards West Ruislip. Northolt was way out in the western suburbs of London and the train was overground for a fair part of the journey. Turning around in my seat, I pressed my nose against the window, overawed by the vast sprawl of houses and factories which stretched to the horizon. My dad pointed out Wormwood Scrubs. As I pondered on a life behind bars, and master-minded daredevil escapes, the track was suddenly bordered by the allotments of Perivale and Greenford which meant that we were nearly there. My dad was ready with the suitcases as the doors slid open at the Northolt Station. He had tightened the belt on his gabardine mac and my mum had licked her hanky to polish my sister’s jewel-red shoes (Clarks’, ‘Bingo’ style).
We regrouped on the platform next to one of the benches so that my mum could get herself straight and put a comb through my hair. I had only just had it cut at Ken Frost’s barber’s shop on Mount Bridge which was within spitting distance of my school, St Nicholas’ Infants. He had given me the super-shaved version of short back and sides with a smearing of brylcreme to keep the top flat. Five minutes, that’s all it took. Just long enough for him to smoke a cigarette which he kept in his mouth the whole of the time. He lit it as he was pumping up the chair. Then, with both of his hands occupied with comb, electric shaver or scissors, I watched him in the mirror as he snipped away, the ash on his cigarette growing longer and longer, gradually developing a droop above my crown. Miraculously, it never dropped off. As his lips started to burn, he would tip his head to one side before releasing the tab end and finger of ash onto the floor to be swept up with the locks of hair which surrounded the chair.
My mum looked me up and down. I knew that she would tell me to pull my socks up even though they were the shorter versions for the summer.
‘Those trousers had nice creases in them before we started out this morning. Now look at them. They look as though they’ve been sitting in the bottom of a dog basket.’
I looked down at my knee-length shorts. I could still see the creases. O.K., so they were no longer razor sharp, but you try, I should have said, sitting in a pair of itchy shorts without squirming. I should have also told her that I hated the colour (mushroom soup), the zip (the top two teeth missing), and the belt (elastic). But I didn’t. I did like the jumper, though. Knitted after a trip to the Scotch Wool Shop, it was crimson with blue flecks. I had chosen the wool myself. I held my zip-up windcheater over my shoulder. As for footwear, I was wearing a pair of Clarks’ red-brown summer sandals with leather lattice work beneath the straps.
So, the country cousins had arrived. Not just hicks on their summer vacation, however, but bearers of traditional, Lincolnshire fare: two haslets and three pounds of chipolata sausages from Bycrofts, the butchers in Boston. We braced ourselves for the uphill struggle which would eventually lead us to the council estate where my auntie and uncle lived. I was full of nervous anticipation, both excited and apprehensive in equal measure. I had met my cousins before but only as a young child. Now I wanted to breathe the atmosphere of their teenage world.
The teenage Beatles in Hanover; Stuart Sutcliffe far right
They didn’t disappoint me. As we approached my auntie’s house, we could hear the staccato growl of motorbikes competing with the tinny harmonies of ‘He’s So Fine’ by the Chiffons which burst from an upstairs’ window and which echoed over the playing fields to our right. Jimmy waved from the pack of bikers and whistled across to the house. Immediately, the music stopped and a figure in a pink towelling dressing gown came to the window. It was my cousin, Anita. Her hair was a shaking stack of curls and her eyes shone from great ovals of mascara. She was bouncing up and down, clapping her hands and squealing.
‘Mum, dad, arnty Jean ‘nd arnkul Wally are ‘ere.’
I was still on the front step when Anita joined the cramped throng of adult hugs and handshakes in the hallway. Having thumped down the stairs in a pair of pink, fluffy mules, her shrieking form had leapt from the bottom step into my mum’s arms. As the group swayed with the impact, I edged my way onto the door mat. It was like standing in a bus shelter during a cloud burst. My sister was buried in a forest of frocks, coats, cases and bags. Above the din, I could hear the budgerigar in the kitchen squawking as it flapped hysterically in a series of metallic trings against the bars of its cage.
By the time we had shuffled into the kitchen, however, and the adults were swooning over their first cup of tea, the bird had settled down into a continuous chuckling as it shimmied along its perch. Anita had returned to her music and her preparations for a night on the town. Jimmy made a brief appearance at the back door, just a wave and a wink, before he was gone as well.
It became a familiar pattern for the rest of the week. Having given up their bedrooms, Anita and Jimmy were staying with friends. They occasionally made it back at meal times or in the early evening when they needed to raid their wardrobes or the airing cupboard for a freshly pressed shirt or a newly washed pair of stockings. Never stationary for more than five minutes, they were always on their way to somewhere else.
There was a beep from a car horn.
‘’Neeta, Ron’s here.’
A door slammed upstairs and the floorboards creaked, then groaned. The cutlery on my plate rattled as the stairs resounded to what sounded like a rapid succession of hammer blows. The budgerigar had already started to bob its head.
‘Arm orff, mam. See ya.’
I looked down the hallway. With one hand on the front door catch, Anita was standing in front of the hallway mirror, prodding at her curls with the other.
‘Heh, ‘Neet, cam and say gadbye to Jean and Wally.’
‘Oh, Da….ad. Arm layt.’
‘Neet, cam ‘ere.’
My mum leaned forward, her chair scraping across the lino.
‘It’s all right, Bill. She’s in hurry…. Ooh, dunt she look lovely.’
She certainly did. She was wearing a thin, white cotton cardigan over a body-hugging black dress which accentuated the curves of her hips before narrowing again and stopping just above her knees. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the black seams of her stockings and the way her feet were made to arch in the pair of pointed, black stilettos upon which she teetered. It was only when my mum used the word ‘sexy’ that I felt a hot flush of embarrassment. My cheeks began to burn and my ears tingled.
As Anita opened the front door, we could hear the impatient revving of the car. Once again, the bird cage erupted in a swaying cacophony of squawks, flinging out a shower of small, downy feathers which swirled in the through-draught from the hallway.
‘Joey, stop it…. Ooh, that bladdy bird… Bill, chack the tea towel over the cage… Eh, and ‘Neet, tell Ron to drive….’
The door slammed and within seconds we could hear the roar of the engine and the squeal of tyres.
‘Oh, I do hope he’s careful.’
The only information we had managed to glean about Ron was that his hobby was making belts from the skins of adders, ones which he had caught himself. I couldn’t wait to meet him. Unlike my mum, whose face creased in disgust at the very idea of being in the same room with such a fashion accessory.
When my dad indicated that it was time to go to bed, I gladly submitted, eager to explore Jimmy’s room where my sister and I would be sleeping. At the top of the stairs, the landing and bathroom were still clogged with the choking fumes of hair lacquer. A single spark from a cigarette lighter, that’s all it would have taken, for the roof and the whole of the first floor to disappear. My cousin must have used two cans at a time, one in each hand, spraying until her fingers were numb and her hair had achieved the consistency of concrete.
To be continued.