As much as I had been excited to see Jimmy, I couldn’t help feel frustrated that his brief visit had largely gone unnoticed. There had been a few twitching curtains, which was only to be expected. None of my friends had seen him, however, and that was what really irked me. I mean, what was the point of a real-life hero if you couldn’t parade him in public on occasions: prove, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that he wasn’t just a figment of your imagination.
I would have to wait until the next year before another visit from the Northolt clan caused the kind of stir which got the neighbours really buzzing and which inspired the degree of envy I craved.
Recently married, Anita and Ron arrived on a Saturday, planning to stay for a few days. We had been looking forward to their visit for weeks. What we hadn’t anticipated, however, was the manner of their arrival. We had just finished our weekly dinner of fish and chips which my dad always bought from Cryer’s in Dolphin Lane on his way home from work. My mum was scraping the left-overs from the last plate into the bin, when a loud and prolonged series of blasts on a car horn made us hurry outside. Parked in front of our drive was a decommissioned London Taxi. It demanded a double-take. Huge, black and totally incongruous in the rural backwaters of Lincolnshire, it had an assortment of cases and bags roped onto the platform next to the cab.
Seated in splendid isolation in the back, Anita attempted a royal wave before succumbing to her more familiar display of epileptic excitement. My dad leapt forward like a doorman at the Dorchester, swinging the door open and holding her hand as she stooped forward onto the running board and into the sunlight. While Anita was flapping at my mum and sister, Ron nonchalantly stepped from the cab and strolled to the front of the taxi, bending down to pick dead insects from the grill. With his slicked back hair and thin, black moustache, he looked every inch like a card-sharp from a 1940’s film noir. After straightening, he stretched his arms behind his head, before taking a step back and nodding a greeting at my dad.
‘What d’yer reckon then?’
My dad raised his eyebrows and smiled.
‘It’s different. I’ll give yer that.’
Ron laughed and withdrew a pouch from the back pocket of his jeans. With one foot on the bumper, he rolled a cigarette on his knee before lifting the paper to his lips.
‘Too right. Ya shad ‘a seen the stares when we stopped fer diesel in Spalding.’
Flicking open his silver lighter, he cupped his hands as he lit his rollie. Spitting tobacco from his tongue, he sauntered over to us, shaking my dad’s hand and aiming a mock punch at my shoulder.
‘Tell yer what, Keef. You give as an ‘and wi’ the cases, Iyull tayk yer fer a spin a bit layter, mayt.’
Which is exactly what I wanted to hear. With any luck, I could devise an itinerary which would take in all of the high-profile places in Boston as well as including mini-breaks outside the houses of my friends. Maximum exposure, that was what was called for.
As soon as Ron had finished his cup of tea and picked his plate clean of Eccles’ Cake crumbs, he was ready. Springing from his chair (one of Jimmy’s presents from the previous year), he grabbed his keys and motioned for us to follow him. My sister had insisted on joining the tour even though I had made it obvious that I wanted to be the sole passenger.
‘Ron sez I can come and there’s note you can do about it.’
‘Yeah, well, I bagsy the back seat. You can have the one facing it.’
The passenger compartment was huge and the brown, leather upholstery on the seats was bruised, flaking and cracked. As Ron turned the ignition, I leaned forward and pulled at the strap just below the window, shutting the door with a satisfying thud. The taxi rattled into life, the engine purring like a giant cat. Ron leaned back and slid the cab window open. He was shouting.
‘Where to gav’ner?’
‘Can we go to the market? It’s straight on. I’ll tell you what to do after the Docks.’
‘Right you are.’
I couldn’t help smiling at my sister as we pulled away. Her face was flushed with embarrassment, reflecting my own feeling of self-conscious excitement.
‘Ever been in a London taxi before?’
I could see his eyes in the rear-view mirror.
‘No……it’s our first time.’
It was an admission which reflected the paucity of my experience with cars in general. Apart from a lift home in Miss Bush’s azure blue Ford Anglia when I had cut my knee at school, and the occasional foray into the Wolds in Jack’s mum’s Wolsey Hornet, the only other time I found myself being driven anywhere was when my Uncle Harold was at the steering wheel. We had relied upon his Buick to transport us to and from our caravan holidays in Anderby Creek and Mablethorpe when I was at primary school and, more recently, when our families had combined on a marathon journey in his Ford Zephyr to Butlin’s at Bognor Regis. Seven of us had crammed into the car with my sister perched on the middle of the bench seat in the front. Queasiness had set in at Kirton, five miles out of Boston, and bouts of roadside sickness had punctuated my journey, as we passed through each new county.
‘This’ll set the cat amangst the pigeons, no mistayk. They won’t have seen naffin’ like this.’
We had just passed Mrs Greasby’s house and had turned onto the Haven Bank at the New Park Inn. The taxi had already attracted attention from a bunch of young boys at Mount Bridge. They had started to whistle and wave before sprinting after us. Chris and I had done much the same thing in our urchin stage when a friend of the Kenny brothers had turned up in the Avenue in his brand new, bright red Bubble car. Apart from three-wheelers and side-cars, the only other vehicle to turn heads in our road had been Mrs Holden’s hand-cranked Austin Seven. It was called ‘Ichabod’ and had been back-firing up and down Kings Way for so long that it was no longer regarded as a novelty.
We had to crawl through the Saturday market which is what I had anticipated. Even though most of the fruit and vegetable stalls were in the process of being dismantled, there were still enough shoppers on the hunt for cheap clothes and kitchenware to have made our journey worthwhile. Women inspecting pillow cases nudged each other as we drifted by and, just past the tobacco shop, where I bought my dad a new pouch each year for his birthday, Old Sill raised his enamel mug at us before returning to an inspection of the bric-a-brac on his junk stall. One or two wags tried to hail us and, at the Cherry Corner Coffee Shop, a blond haired greeboe in a tassled leather jacket even jumped onto the running board and joined us for a few yards before Ron warned him off with a skidding stop and a blast of his horn.
‘What a pillock, eh? Where to nar?’
We headed out on the Skegness road before turning towards Fishtoft at the Ball House. My plan was to surprise Jack but, as it turned out, no one responded to the hoot of the horn and the extra growl of the engine when Ron parked outside his house. Not to worry, I thought, we still had the Avenue and the Crescent to cruise and, as luck would have it, Chris was in exactly the right place when we got there. He was chatting with his cousin, Liz, at the post box on the corner. They both looked up and followed our progress as we disappeared into the Crescent. On our way back, I pressed my nose against the window and gave them a goldfish impression against the glass with my mouth. When Ron finally came to a stop at our drive, I waved across at them before quickly following him up the garden path and through the side gate.
Of course, as an act of friendship, I should have run across to Chris and invited him to join us in the taxi, but a history of competition since we had been in nappies precluded such a gesture. I wanted him to come running to me for a change. It wasn’t often I could claim the upper hand but this was an opportunity too good to miss.
Mind you, things had been looking up for me recently. I had gained a place at the grammar school while Chris had failed his eleven plus and was at the secondary modern, albeit in the Alpha stream. Also, only last term, our under-fourteen football side had annihilated Chris’s team 6-0. I had been on the touchline and witnessed the drubbing. Even though Chris had clearly been their best player, at the end of the game he had avoided me like the plague.
But that wasn’t the point. For the best part of ten years, I had been made to suffer regular bouts of jealousy and experience the inadequacy of an also-ran. If you need proof, then cast your eye down the following list:
1. Chris had an elder brother and sister. I had a sister two years younger than me.
2. At the height of Beatlemania, Chris owned a Beatle waistcoat and a plastic mop-top. I had to make do with a photograph on a postcard.
3. Chris’s mum always gave us a tanner as a reward for carrying out errands. My mum gave us a threepenny bit.
4. He had seen ‘Summer Holiday’ five times. I wasn’t allowed to go. My mum thought it was too risqué and would lead to unwholesome thoughts and encourage rebellion.
5. Chris owned singles, L.P.’s and a record player. We were still playing my dad’s 78’s on the turntable at the top of the radio.
6. His dad often worked abroad and wore a suit. My dad didn’t.
7. They had a car. We didn’t.
8. When Levi’s became fashionable, Chris bought a pair immediately. My jeans were poor imitations which lost their colour after the first wash and ended up looking like a couple of canvas sacks sewn together.
I could go on, but I hope you see what I’m getting at.
Chris turned up at our back door the next morning, ostensibly to invite me out for a game of football, but I knew what was on his mind. By the time I had got my boots on (moulded studs, continental style), he was already by the drive, bouncing the ball on the pavement next to the taxi.
‘So, is he going to take it out again?’
I feigned ignorance.
‘They’re going on Wednesday.’
‘’Cos I was wondering……’
‘He won’t take it out today ‘cos it’s Sunday.’
‘If he does….’
‘Take it out again.’
‘I mean, do yer reckon I could come with yer?’
‘Don’t see why not. I better ask him first, though.’
‘Course I will.’
I smiled at Chris. It was now time for the coup de grâce.
‘You do know what he used to do, don’t you?’
‘He was the Road Manager of ‘the Four Pennies’. They had a number one hit with ‘Juliet’ in 1964.’
I had only just learned this myself.
‘Yeah, he sez he met lots of groups. Including ‘the Beatles’ in Ipswich.’
‘Bloody hell. Does he talk about it?’
‘Yeah, when you ask him. He went on about it loads last night.’
Chris got his ride in the taxi on the Tuesday morning. Depending on where we had got to and who we were passing, Chris either gave a royal wave or flicked double handed v-signs. After a while, Ron told him to cut it out.
‘Don’t fink the faz’ll have too much trabble tracking as darn, if yer get my drift.’
Anita and Ron were gone by eleven o’clock on the Wednesday morning and onto the second leg of their tour of the relations. This time they would be stopping with my Auntie Lily and Uncle Harold who had just sold up the bus business in Old Bolingbroke to open up a trinket shop in Skegness. Life was certainly quiet without them. But, as Chris said, there was always the Winterton Show to look forward to. It was on in a couple of weeks’ time.