The North of England Home Service

BOOK: The North of England Home Service
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GORDON BURN

The North of England
Home Service

for
Carol Gorner 

With the exception of those persons appearing as well-known personalities under their own names, albeit often in fictitious circumstances, all other characters do not bear any relationship to living characters and any resemblance to living persons is wholly accidental.

Ray Cruddas, a name half remembered by the older generations of listeners and viewers, went to the window and looked across at the trees. He had a battery shaver in one hand and a steaming cup of tea or something – today it was tea, although on other days it would be a clear dumpling soup maybe, or blood-red borscht with a little apple vinegar added to counter the natural sweetness of the beetroot, depending what Marzena, his wife, had prepared and left in a cylinder flask on his bedside tray – in the other.

This was his getting-up routine every day now, ever since he came back to live in the town after very many years away. He had grown up close to here in a house in one of the densely packed terraced streets that had been pulled down in his absence to make way for blocks of dirty lemon-yellow high-rise flats which in their turn had been flattened for an estate of fast-build boxy brick units which had quickly become known as a bad address and cropped up frequently in reports on the local news.

This recent history of the area was clearly traceable across the allotments that were visible from the window where he was standing, absently working the razor over what he regarded as his old man’s grey beard. Heavy four-panelled wooden doors of the type he remembered from when he used to live in the
back-to-backs
round Turkey Street had been incorporated with fifties ‘flushed’ doors – the same old doors with new, modernizing sheets of hardboard pinned to them – fibreglass cottage beams, corrugated-iron sheeting and strips of carpet manufactured in tufted nylon to make the structures that together formed the whole rambling, ramshackle hutment. A number of sheds on the
allotments were made entirely of doors – doors with raw gashes where letterboxes had once been and ghost numerals, erected shoulder to shoulder – and these tended to be the Georgian doors with built-in fanlights that had been the first sign of owner
occupancy
on the newly privatized council estates but which had recently clearly fallen out of favour.

The style around that way now was all for the white UPVC – white nylon-framed windows and fondant-white nylon doors, some with decorative glass panels in the singing, chemical blues and yellows of alco-pops and TV-advertised detergents. The ubiquitous white doors never failed to remind Ray (three times married) of wedding-cake mouldings or (he had been trying to think of a way of working this into the act without it being
interpreted
as a kick in the eye by his audience) slabs of sculpted lard.

Ray’s own house was part of a Grade-II-listed terrace of clear classical lines and much touted classical proportions that ran the whole length of the north side of Allotment Field. The ceilings were high, the windows elegant, the courses repointed, the fault lines pinioned, the view across the Field (always known as ‘the Moor’) to the Park a couple of hundred yards away unimpeded. When new bricks had been stitched in, they had been chosen from old stocks to match the existing ones and created the
illusion
of a seamless web.

The allotments themselves were away to the right and acted as a baffle against the noise of traffic on a busy main road. Even though it was very close to the centre of the town, dairy cows were brought to graze on the Moor as a result of some centuries-old by-law or ordinance. And this too helped to preserve Moor Edge’s timeless period aspect. It had been a common failing among the terrace’s succeeding generations of residents to
imagine
that they were eighteenth-century landed gentry, looking out on an open vista disposed and ordered at their pleasure. All hell had broken loose when the plans to hand over some of the
southern acreage of the Moor for a People’s Park had first been made public more than a century earlier. A slanging match had ensued between the elected representatives of the people who opposed the provision of amenities for the contaminating rabble and the progressives who pushed the social and hygienic benefits of having a place of outdoor recreation so close to the homes of the poor. Now the poor had other things to amuse them than afternoon boating and quoits. The bowl of the lake was cracked and leaking; the block stone of the Victorian enclosing wall was soot-blackened and perpetually sodden; every plinth inside the Park was topped off with a spiky tuft of reinforcing cable instead of the original stone alderman or whiskered city merchant.

And now that the dairy and the brewery and the dry-cleaning plant where several of Ray Cruddas’s female relatives had worked as Hoffman-pressers while he was growing up were all gone, the number of people crossing the Moor to and from work every day was probably in the dozens rather than the hundreds. The Moor had become the terrain of dog-walkers and joggers and the small herd of watchful, indolent, ear-tagged, inner-city cows. Daffodils appeared in bright patches every early April. There were bluebells in May. Ray Cruddas, not previously known for his calmness or equanimity, had certainly slowed down a lot since he moved there.

Like today. He was late, as he was always late, but he was unhurried. Using the fingers of his free hand to guide the razor to the usual holdouts of irritating stubble, he was content to go on watching the day move past his window: the heavily rouged old woman with the pack family of Yorkie dogs trailing their leads around the perimeter path of Allotment Field; the old man in the boilersuit with ‘
NORTH EAST GAS BOARD
’ in faded letters on the back having his daily conversation with the cows, quite possibly his only conversation of the day. Daisy, Flossie, Bessy, Dolly – there were more, perhaps a couple of dozen in all, but Ray quickly
ran out of suitable cow-sounding names – moved their big Neanderthal carcasses towards their friend in lowing, lumbering recognition.

Very soon, Ray felt sure, a Sumo-like Labrador-Rhodesian Ridgeback cross called Fleet would appear, towing on the end of a long washing-line lead a permanently exasperated Filipina screaming ‘Fleet! Fleet!’ at the top of her lungs. Moses was a lurcher; Annie was a Jack Russell with anal-gland problems constantly dragging her bottom against the ground; Beetle was an albino boxer with a pink velvet muzzle and damp red vampiric eyes.

All these Ray had come to know, as he had come to recognize the ties of familiarity and affection that bound each animal to its owner and criss-crossed Allotment Field as plainly as the beaten tracks made by both humans and animals and the official paved paths with their occasional benches of perforated steel. The owners, on the other hand, he noticed hardly spoke to each other and often would step away from the path they had been taking if this meant they could avoid an awkward encounter with one of the other walkers on the Moor.

It was late February, already nearly spring, but spring tended to arrive late up there, a fact that, if he ever knew it, Ray Cruddas had forgotten. Brightness, he knew, was forecast for later. But now a sharp draught edged in where the windows were loose in their frames and raised the hairs on his skin.

There was a stand of trees on the Moor. By bending his knees slightly he was able to bring his face in line with the leafless but still distinct scribbled cloud shape of the trees and that way see himself clearly mirrored. One of the things he had learned in life was that things that grabbed him were always things he didn’t understand. And it isn’t a great exaggeration to say that he had spent a substantial part of his nearly seventy years being in some way haunted – even inhabited – by these trees which rose as the
only vertical punctuation on the humpy flatness of the Moor. They lived in him as a shape which, both onstage and elsewhere, he would unexpectedly find himself imagining; as a mood – a secret atmosphere – which could momentarily overwhelm and debilitate him; as a place he would experience sudden
inexplicable
yearnings to be.

This is something he has revealed to nobody and always kept to himself. Although recently his hard-working Polish wife, Marzena Szymborzaly, had been moved to recite to him a folk lyric learned in childhood, and he had momentarily wavered.

There was an old tree in the park

Even stuck there when it was dark

And it witnessed such acts

Wrought by devilish pacts,

And its tales held captive the lark.

Marzena spoke this in her still heavily accented English, and laughed the gay throaty laugh he had come to listen out for on the rare occasions when she was in an audience, and he almost came out with it then.

Too small to be called a wood, too cave-like to be regarded as unconditionally welcoming, this clump or copse or grove,
whatever
you chose to call it, had, for various reasons, stayed with him from being a child. But what could the reasons be?

He could have said it was its outlined shape he remembered from the wartime bombing, flashed up like a simple piece of marquetry pattern against the strafed and stirred-up night sky. Or the paler, less emphatic brain shape these trees made in the all-clear when they were sometimes wreathed in a red-tinged vapour drifting back from the coast. He could have said this, if the truth hadn’t been that he had quicker memories of the times spent below ground in the barrel-vaulted tunnel that ran under the Moor and then all the way under the town – the Bus Station,
the Infirmary, the Grand Assembly Rooms, the Dreamland Ballroom De Luxe – to the river.

The tunnel had been built by colliery owners in the previous century as a way of getting loaded wagons down to the quayside under the force of their own weight and had been drained and re-opened for use as an air-raid shelter in the war. And it was there, as has been often told, that as a schoolboy Ray Cruddas learned how to handle audiences paying more attention to the drone of bombers overhead than to his quips and songs, and that his career as an entertainer began.

Apart from the dramatic, rather dream-like glimpses he caught of it while the sirens were wailing, and again when the
emergencies
were over, he could think of only one other instance of the little grove on the Moor making any direct contact with his life.

This had happened even further back, before the war, when his mother and father were still together and apparently on the up and happy in a way that many of the people who met them in those days even commented on. The three of them had been on their way back from a small shopping errand down the town and were walking across the Moor towards home when there was a sudden downpour that none of them had seen coming. His mother was the first to make a break for it off the path, skipping across the springy turf towards the cover of the trees. She was wearing a pretty summer dress that Ray was always particularly pleased to see her in and flat orthopaedic sandals and shrieking like a girl as the rain falling from the black skies slicked her hair and Ray ran behind his mother, still holding tightly on to her hand.

His father laughed at the two of them. ‘Only sheds love being under sycamores,’ he said, flinging his head back to throw a rope of water off his heavily greased hair. They stood in the green light, just a few feet under the thick canopy of the trees, and soon felt the chill that was at the heart of the little grove moving on their backs. In the winter the mud floor had been churned up and
it had dried into those shapes. The plate-sized feet of the cows were imprinted in the ground, and away from the cool centre, in the spaces between the hoofprints, grew complicated, saw-edged ferns and other plants that favoured shade.

Small clumps of grey and sandy-coloured hair had become attached to the trunks of the trees from the cows’ big swelled bodies chafing against them. The rain came down around them like a curtain through which a shaft of sunlight could soon be seen falling on the allotments which were no distance away at the other end of the Moor from where they were standing. The
sensation
was of standing in one room, looking through to another where lights were on and life was happening.

Raymond’s father, who was called Tommy, was wearing broad canvas braces over an open-necked shirt. The shape of his vest was visible where the shirt stuck to his body. Although he was standing in front of his parents, Raymond was aware of them holding hands, and this embarrassed him. He imagined they must look like the mannequin models of a mother, father and small boy that that winter had appeared in the window of their neighbourhood draper’s, exciting much local comment. The shop had been taken over by a new man – a Londoner (although in fact he was from the Isle of Sheppey in Kent). And the display he had put in place to demonstrate the unparalleled waterproof qualities of the new season’s stock – the family group of three dummies in mackintoshes and rain hats with water from a sprinkler device washing down over them – was regarded as being both showy and wasteful of water.

In an area where most families still shared an outhouse in a communal yard and paid ninepence to bathe in a cubicle at the municipal baths it was seen as being typical of bright but bogus southern ideas. The southerner soon afterwards packed up and left (headed for the cheap fur trade in a growing, good-class neighbourhood, it was rumoured). But to Raymond the window
display was hypnotic, and he had found himself being drawn again and again to watch the indoor rain drizzling over the finely cracked hands with the painted-on nails and the feet with the painted-on dull black shoes.

It was a classic tableau of the happy family, and it was easy to imagine them frozen into these postures for all eternity, just as it was easy for Ray, standing under the dripping trees on an early August afternoon all those years ago, to believe that it was always going to be this way, him and his mam and his dad, the three of them easy-going and happy together, for ever. (In fact, his father would walk out on them both just over a year later; his mother was now dead.)

The sound of his mother’s handbag snapping shut made Ray jump. Turning from the still steady downpour, he saw her
handing
his father a plain brown-paper bag. She did it in the slightly furtive way she always slipped him a handkerchief when his nose was running in a public place. But Raymond knew what the paper bag contained.

BOOK: The North of England Home Service
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