Grovel Greg, Grovel Part 2

A continuation of Grovel Greg, Grovel - Greg moves to London. It is 1976. Greg is a shy and naive 19 year-old, who has decided to take his chances in the big city. He must pitch his wits against racism, unemployment, and people who want to take advantage of his inexperience. But things don’t go well, and by the Autumn, he has disappeared from the face of the Earth. Or has he? In Part 2 Greg moves to London, and takes-up residence in the strange lodging house, "Turbot". Part 3 is set in the present day, as his sister sets out to discover what really happened. One chapter will be published on Movellas each day, until the story reaches its gripping conclusion.

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1. London

Greg is in London. He has got here by taking a rattly diesel train to Cambridge. His fillings vibrated in his teeth as Greg rode this train. At Cambridge, he had caught another rattly diesel train to a place called Royston. On the rattly trains, his journey had felt precarious, as if it was not supposed to be. But at Royston, he had boarded a modern electric train that went all the way to London. Then, it felt inevitable that he would get to London- there was no escape. The new train had transported him through the 'new' cities of Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth Garden City. These had made Greg think of Man creating a utilitarian environment for Fellow Man to live in. Man in control. Greg in control (he’d told himself). Then he had gone through a place called Potters Bar. This made him think of pubs: the possibility of agreeable evenings in London pubs, away from the disapproving eyes of his sub-Baptist parents.

Now, he is still on the train, but he is in London. Just after Potters Bar, the train had passed through a procession of tunnels. On emerging from the third and last one, London was all around him, mile upon mile of it. He felt incredible, at that point. All this was his- a virtually endless resource of girls and pubs. But Greg had nobler ambitions too: here were the people who were going to read the rabble-rousing pamphlets that he was going to write!

But how is he to make friends here? He knows no-one in London, and (for good measure) he is an introvert. He blocks these facts out of his mind, and instead allows his excitement to buoy him up.

Greg thinks he is the only person ever to come to London out of choice: he does not realise that thousands upon thousands of young people have trod his path before, expecting to find streets paved with gold; or at least excitement.

Greg can tell he is in London, as the station-names are ironically rural. Oakleigh Park, Wood Green, Finsbury Park.. At Finsbury Park the station platform is raised above jumbled streets of blackened terrace-houses, thrown-up in the Nineties, and looking like they have not been scrubbed-clean since. As the train charges southwards, Greg is falling downwards, further and further from small-town respectability, deeper into urban iniquity. He passes a wrecker's yard, scruffier still than the decaying streets around. “If you look at a scrap heap, you can see what [cars] we were driving fifteen years ago,” Greg’s father had once said. Sure enough, Greg now sees the mangled hulks of Ford Populars; big, black Consuls and Zephyrs; and a grey Standard Eight- all wagons that had their heyday in the Fifties. Now they have no wheels, and their rusting carcasses are piled ignominiously on top of each other.

 

The Cross

King's Cross station seems very, very big to Greg. He shuffles around it, getting his bearings. He drags the old suitcase behind him, which ploughs a furrow in the litter. Then, he stands for some time near Platform Eight, apparently mesmerised. He is staring-upwards, jaw agape, at the vast canopy that covers the platforms. He breathes-in the diesel fumes that are trapped by the canopy. A faint smile is on his lips, and he says to himself 'This is London- big and smelly.'

            People rush past him, on their way to somewhere, not noticing him. Greg reflects that if you stood gormlessly (as he is now at The Cross) in the street in Bury, you would be branded an idiot. But here everyone is too busy to care about you. This is the most impersonal place that Greg has ever seen. A gang of people with accents of The North hurry-by, anxious not to miss the Leeds train. Northern people are different to 'us', Greg decides. Although rushing, they constantly gabble to each other in their funny voices, comparing notes and checking on the welfare of their compatriots. By teamwork, they contrive to delay the departure of their train, ensuring that even the slower members of their party can board in time. Southerners rarely display such team spirit, Greg reckons. Greg counts himself as a Southerner, even though he is from East Anglia (‘Easterner’ not being a recognised breed of Englishman). Then he watches the Northerners’ train slowly pull-away, dragged by a great bull-nosed Deltic. It screams as it hauls its twelve cars from the platform. More fumes are belched into the station canopy.

            Although Greg is very nervous about his adventure, there is something about The Cross that he likes: it is to do with anonymity. It is easier to be a lonely where nobody knows you, than in a place where everybody knows you. In Bury, Greg was an odd-ball, the boy who did not conform with the way he was expected to look, or behave. But here, at The Cross, there are plenty of odd-balls. People dressed in rags and who are drunk (or would like to be) and are begging for money. People that have taken the modern look to its hideous extreme and are happy to dress like Liberace, or Gary Glitter. People that have forsaken all of that and have gone for a meaner, simpler look that Greg can't yet define. And people that look squarer than even Greg, or his friend Simon, for that matter.

            One of the ragged people creeps up to Greg, and mumbles 'Speh sum chinge?'. Greg sniffs a 'No I cannot' and walks away abruptly. And, of course, he is right: someone like Greg, new in the big city with less than two hundred pounds to his name, should not give his money away. Indeed, this ragged fellow does have less money than Greg. But this is not true of all the ragged people at The Cross: some of them have begged, thieved and prostituted themselves a comparative fortune. But their wealth is transient: soon to be blown on heroin (not methylated spirits, as Greg naively believes). Greg's father, and Simon, have given him stern lectures about various categories of people in London who will try to get his money, or worse. Greg heeds their advice. He feels vaguely sorry for the beggar, but thinks he must protect his money as if he were protecting his sister's virtue. He still has seventy pounds of his cash left (fifty of which he has buried deep in his suitcase, the other twenty being in his pocket), but he is convinced that London will be a 'hard' place to live, and every penny will be valuable. For example, he is sure that Mr Zabbath, his new landlord, will require a week's rent in advance. This reminds Greg- he must telephone Mr Zabbath, to arrange to collect the key for his accommodation. Thus Greg starts to shuffle around the station more earnestly than before, searching for a public telephone that has not been vandalised.

As he scuffs around, Greg loses his bearings and finds himself in an open patch of tarmac, used as a turning circle for cabs. But from this nondescript place he can see something that takes his breath away. There appears to be another railway station alongside, one that is grander still than The Cross. It is more like a cathedral. It is the vast Victorian-gothic hulk of St. Pancras, although Greg does not know this. Greg has never seen a building this big before. He is profoundly impressed by the opulent grandeur and the sheer amount of capital he thinks such a building represents. If you had built that, you were a serious player in the railway game, thinks Greg: you would be expecting your company to be in railways for a long time: a hundred years, maybe two hundred, to repay that kind of investment.

Eventually, Greg finds an un-vandalised ‘phone box. It has that curious ‘piss’ aroma that you sometimes get in ‘phone boxes in Bury. He dials Mr Zabbath's number, and forces a two pee coin in the slot when the call is answered. The two pee leaves a big groove in his thumb. He has lined-up several more two pees on top of the phone, just in case.

Greg clears his throat before saying the name 'Mr Zabbath'- for some reason he feels stupid enunciating such an unlikely surname. To everyone else in London, he is just an another insignificant boy with an insignificant life making an insignificant ‘phone call. Why should he feel stupid?  Nobody cares whether he is talking to Mr Zabbath, King Zog or Peter Pigeon Poo. But as he talks to Mr Zabbath, Greg notices a thin blonde-haired boy standing nearby, staring at him. It is a strange stare- worrying, though not overtly aggressive. He wears a blue denim jacket, which at first sight looks cool, but when Greg looks harder, he sees that it is frayed and miserable.

            Mr Zabbath tells Greg to meet him in half an hour. Then he will show Greg to his accommodation. As he listens to Mr Zabbath, Greg tries to ignore the blonde boy, and concentrate on what Mr Zabbath is saying. Mr Zabbath tells Greg where to meet him. In his polite English way, Greg reminds Mr Zabbath that he is unfamiliar with London and therefore does not know how long it will take him to travel from The Cross to the address stated. But either Mr Zabbath does not pick-up on the implication of what Greg has said, or he simply cannot be bothered with the detail of it, because he terminates the conversation rather abruptly.

            As soon as Greg puts-down the receiver, the blonde-haired boy approaches him and Greg thinks ‘oh shit.’ The blonde boy says (in a strong Glasgow accent which Greg mistakenly thinks is slurred by drink):

            "So yu're wuth Mr Zabba are you? Yule be staying wuth me then in Stockwell I'll betcha?"

            What did he say? Stockwell? What on earth is this boy on about? The address that Mr Zabbath gave Greg was in South Kensington, not Stockwell, so Greg decides the Scot is talking rubbish. But how did he know about Mr Zabbath? Greg decides that he does not know about Mr Zabbath: he had simply heard Greg using the name on the 'phone and copied it. Greg says, sharply:

            "No, I will not going to Stockwell.' He remembers to pick-up his 2 pees and his suitcase, and marches off.. The Scot, apparently perplexed, calls after him:

            "Where wull yu be livin' then?"

But Greg ignores him. He assumes that this conversation is some strange ruse to trick money from him. So he scurries off towards the tube, leaving the Scot behind. Probably one of those people his father and Simon had told him to be careful of, thinks Greg. Where was Stockwell, anyway? Greg organises himself and his old suitcase down the stairs, half-heartedly trying to pick-up speed, just in case the Scot is following him, although he senses that he is not. At the bottom, he looks around. There is no sign of the Scot, he can relax.

Greg begins to notice the adverts on the walls of the tube:

West End shows- 'Oh! Calcutta!'- (“The nudity is stunning!”), 'No Sex, Please-We're British' (“5th year!”); West End stores- “Look up our skirts!” and “Our knickers down............in price!” Everywhere, reminders of sex. These posters are even raunchier than the adverts in the Sunday supplements. Beautiful women in only underwear, only bikinis, or (even, in one case) tied-up with string. Someone has scrawled 'Sexist Shit' on this one.

A group of pretty girls pass Greg going the opposite way. Greg remembers his reason for coming  to London: to loose his virginity. The girls are smiling and Greg thinks that they are smiling at him. He smiles back. Then they have gone- lost to Greg forever in the scurrying throng of The Cross. But Greg does not mind. He thinks that picking-up women in London will be as easy as smiling. At that moment, a voice says to him: “Fancy some company?”  He turns around to see a thin, tired-looking middle aged woman eying him up and down. She is wearing a very short skirt. Greg assumes she is a prostitute. There is no way he would ever sleep with someone like her, even if she did not charge him, he thinks. Finally, he is through the ticket hall. Clutching a fifteen pee ticket in his spare hand, he and his suitcase descend the wooden escalator to the platform.

Greg takes the Piccadilly line to Gloucester Road, where he alights, dragging his increasingly heavy-feeling suitcase after him. He has no perception of how far he has travelled by tube. It might be five miles, it might only be five hundred yards- he has no idea. All he knows is that he is somewhere in London. By now, it is thirty-five minutes after he had spoken to Mr Zabbath, so he is already five minutes late for his appointment. And he still has to find 76 Stanhope Gardens, the address which he has been given. He did warn Mr Zabbath that he might be late, so Greg thinks this will be OK. Greg is favourably impressed by this area- now London does not look as grimy as his mother had warned. Here are big houses with nice white facades. Greg thinks they might be Georgian. Some are in a poor state of repair, but most are respectable. Not unlike Bury town centre, in fact, though these houses are taller. Greg is quite relieved at this, as it suggests to him that he will not be living in squalor. However, his adventurous trait (that which is responsible for him being in London) is vaguely disappointed to see that he will be living in such a well-to-do area.

            Greg potters with his head submerged in an old A-Z that his father has given him, still dragging the suitcase behind him. At last he finds the address that Mr Zabbath stated on the 'phone. It is a three-storey town house of the kind prevalent in the vicinity. He walks up the short pathway towards the front door. As he does so, he notices the privet bush that partially obscures the way: it lends a damp, established aura to the place. He rings the doorbell, by pressing a serious porcelain plunger housed in a wooden disc recessed into the wall. It gives a satisfying 'bong' that echoes around the building. Greg is tired. It has been a long journey: furthermore, he is emotionally fatigued by the trauma of leaving home. A sense of relief comes over him: he is glad he is finally here, and that he will soon be able to unpack his things and have a rest.

            But there is no reply. At first Greg is unconcerned by this: it may be a very big house inside and it is simply taking Mr Zabbath a long time to get to the door. Greg imagines the butler in Chigley walking down the endless corridor to answer the ‘phone. Eventually, Greg rings again, and waits as the echo fades-away once more. Still no reply. Anxiety starts to creep-in. Soon this gives way to a kind of horrific dread- akin to the sensation of realising you've left your wallet on the bus. Except he doesn’t travel on buses. It dawns on Greg that he is in the middle of a huge city, on his own, potentially with nowhere to stay. Yes, he is on his own- genuinely so. This is a venture that he has undertaken without his parents' approval. He cannot expect them to appear from around the corner and sort-out his problem: he must sort it out himself.

            He presses-open the letter box and calls Mr Zabbath's name. He shuffles to the edges of the house, crunching the gravel, to see if there is a back door he can knock at. But this is a town house: it is joined to next-door on both sides, so there is no way around to the back. The house, Greg decides, has an empty feel to it, as if no one lives there at all. He begins to suspect some kind of con, though he cannot yet see precisely in what manner he has been ripped-off. Nevertheless, he resolves to wait a little longer, maybe until four o'clock, clinging to the hope that Mr Zabbath will eventually appear.

            The big hand on Greg’s slightly childish Timex watch (one model up-range from the Mickey Mouse watch) reaches the top of the dial: Four O'clock. He thinks its starting to get a little gloomy. Thus another consideration occurs to Greg: it is getting late. He cannot simply wait and wait: he must do something, before it is too late to do anything. Maybe he can find a youth hostel that he can stay in fairly cheaply. Maybe he can find a telephone box and ring Mr Zabbath again; but what was the point? Why should he answer the 'phone if he will not answer the door? At the last resort, he could return to The Cross and go back to Bury. But he did not want to do that. Not for a couple of weeks, anyway. He turns, and starts to drag his suitcase down the street, away from Mr Zabbath's house. As he is doing this, a black Mercedes D class pulls-up alongside him. It is quite old (an ‘F’ reg- it has those subdued 'fins' at the back which suggest its early 1960s design), but a desirable motor all the same. The driver opens a window:

            "You Greg?"

            "Yeah." Greg assumes that the driver is Mr Zabbath.

            "Get in" says the driver impatiently.

            "Why?" says Greg. He cannot see why he needs to be given a lift as he is only a few doors away from the house. At this, the driver glares at him. Maybe, thinks Greg, that offering a lift, however short the distance, is a traditional hospitality afforded by foreign people (he has assumed that Mr Zabbath is 'foreign', because of his funny name). It would therefore be rude to refuse, decides Greg, so he gets into the back of the car, hauling his suitcase onto the empty seat beside him. As he does so, he thinks he may have scratched the leather upholstery with a rough edge of the suitcase; but he decides not to say anything about this.

            "You must be Mr Zabbath" says Greg hopefully. But Mr Zabbath says nothing, and just drives rather quickly past his house and right down to the other end of the street. Greg finds this rather strange, but assumes that Mr Zabbath is working his way around to the rear of the property- there is probably a place to park the motor there.

            Eventually Mr Zabbath says "You were supposed to be there at three fifteen." Greg finds this criticism unfair, as he has travelled as fast as he can from The Cross. But he senses that Mr Zabbath will not be interested in his explanation, so he simply makes an unembroidered apology. More worryingly, Mr Zabbath seems to be driving further and further away from his house. On crossing a large river which Greg takes to be the Thames, Greg asks:

            "Where are we going?"

            "Stockwell."

            "But I thought you said I was going to live in Stanhope Gardens?" says Greg.

            "I live in Stanhope Gardens, you live in Stockwell," explains Mr Zabbath. At last the penny drops with Greg- Stanhope Gardens was just a rendezvous point: Greg's accommodation is elsewhere. Stockwell. The name sounds familiar- he is not sure why, or where exactly Stockwell is. He is not even sure if it is in London.

Mr Zabbath has a deep, monotonous voice. Greg tries to place his accent. Greek? Or maybe Middle Eastern?

            "Where's Stockwell?" asks Greg. But Mr Zabbath does not reply. He just continues driving Greg quickly and angrily towards this place called Stockwell. Greg hopes that Stockwell is in London, as he does not want to travel too far to work each morning.

            Greg notices how Mr Zabbath drives his Mercedes through the streets of London. In Bury, driving is a precise exercise: there are no grey areas- if it is safe to go you go, but if you're not sure, you wait. But in London it is different: driving is an art not a science- the roads are so busy that its never 100% safe to go, so Mr Zabbath eases his Mercedes out into the junction, relying judgement, luck, and the vigilance of other drivers to get him through.

            Eventually Greg sees 'Stockwell' on a road sign, and he realises that they are almost there. So this will be my home patch, thinks Greg, so he looks out of the car window more intently than ever. He sees litter: lots of it- more than in Bury. And graffiti, again, more than in Bury. He sees scruffy take-aways and lock-up stores with young black men on the pavement outside, walking along, but not walking anywhere in particular. Their hair is big and bouncy. Then he sees a huge tower of flats, so tall that he cannot see the top of it from the car window. Greg thinks these modern developments are impressive, but he has heard that they are not nice places to live. Certainly, to most people in Bury, with their front paths and gardens, the idea of living in a tower block would be an anathema. Greg realises that he has been naive to believe that he would be living anywhere as posh as Gloucester Road. Of course he will be living in a dump! What else should a country chump with scarcely two brass farthings to rub together expect? The real question is, how much of a dump will it be?

            Mr Zabbath swings the Mercedes around a corner, into another street. 'This road looks alright,' thinks Greg. It is called Stockwell Park. There are big old town houses here, like Gloucester Road. There are railings in front of the houses, and trees here and there. There is even a small park on one side of the road. Greg looks at the houses more carefully. Some of them are red brick Victorian houses, others are white-faced Regency affairs. Greg notices that, here and there, the white paint is flaking off the walls of the Regency houses. In fact, flaking quite badly in some cases. Each house has a tiny front 'courtyard', separated from the pavement by iron railings. Some people have managed to squeeze old cars between the gaps in the railings and park them there, outside their homes. Most of the cars have at least one wheel missing. It would be better to scrap such cars, thinks Greg, but their impoverished owners cling to the hope that one day they will be able to afford to mend them. Then Greg notices that some of the houses have not even got glass in the window frames; they are boarded-over with wood. Greg thinks that such houses must be uninhabited- maybe they are awaiting the outcome of complex Jarndyce and Jarndyce-like proceedings before they can be sold and refurbished. Finally the Mercedes stops outside a Regency town house. The house has a tatty name-plate pinned-up near the front door: the name Turbo is just legible. Greg is pleased to see that there is glass in the windows of this house, though he reckons the window frames could do with a lick of paint.

            Mr Zabbath turns round in the driver's seat to speak to Greg. He has a key in his hand: "Front Door Key". He is about to hand-over the key when he says:

            "Room three seventy."

            "What do you mean 'three seventy'?" asks Greg.

            "Room Three. Seventy pounds." Greg gasps. Seventy pounds- was he being serious?

            "What do you mean 'seventy quid'?" squeaks Greg. He has made a decision that from now on, he will always refer to pounds as 'quid' as it will make him sound more street-wise.

            "A month in advance. Deposit. Key money" says Mr Zabbath in his funny accent. Greg has heard of rent 'in advance', and he is familiar with the concept of a 'deposit'. But he has not heard of 'key money'. Greg thinks quickly:

            "I've only got fifty quid." Greg can see Mr Zabbath weighing it up: the little shit may be telling the truth- he may only have fifty on him. And it is Saturday- the banks are shut. Seventy is just a bargaining position in any case: fifty quid is not a bad return for an afternoon's 'work', especially given the poor state of the accommodation that the boy is about to rent.

            "OK. You give me fifty now. I take twenty on rent day." Fifty is better than seventy, but even so, it is quarter of his savings. Now Greg weighs it up. He decides that his London adventure is worth fifty quid, so he rummages through his suitcase and hands it over. Then he asks Mr Zabbath for a receipt. Mr Zabbath is angry. "Listen. You want the room or not?" Greg says "OK" and leaves the car, scratching the upholstery a little more with his suitcase. The Mercedes roars off.

Meanwhile, back in Bury, Greg's family potter around their house rather aimlessly. They are expecting Greg to 'phone when he has arrived at London, although he has not specifically promised to. Greg's father half-heartedly watches the football results coming-in, though, in truth, he does not care these days whether its Birmingham or The Wolves who go down. The 'phone does not ring. They have tea together. Greg's father says he is sick of Nimble. Greg's mother thinks she is somehow to blame for the fact that Greg is not there, but she does not say anything. Madge watches her parents with curiosity, learning whatever she can about human nature.

            Greg's new room is very small. Smaller still than his bedroom back in Bury. So small that there is no room for a desk or a chair. The only furniture is a small set of drawers that look a hundred years old, and a bed covered with a grubby blanket. The air in his room is stale. At least, he hopes that it is just 'stale', as opposed to seriously smelly. He decides to open the window. It is an old-fashioned sash window with a curious pulley mechanism, although the cord that Greg thinks should run on the pulley is missing. He tries to push the window open, but it will not move. On closer examination, Greg realises that the window is locked-solid by layer upon layer of paint. Whoever decorated the room in the past (and, Greg supposes, it must have been a good few years ago) was too lazy to paint each lath of the window frame separately, and just slapped paint over the whole structure indiscriminately. The window would have to stay shut.

            Next, Greg looks at the carpet. It is so old, dirty, faded and tattered that it is impossible to tell what colour it originally was. And the walls- a similar state of affairs: a grey greasy mess. And to think that Mr Zabbath wanted seventy quid up-front for this! It took Greg nearly a year to save-up seventy quid! In the last few weeks Greg has learnt something about himself. Although it is true that Greg is a shy man, when pushed hard, something 'clicks' in his brain, and he responds in a distinctly un-shy way. For example, he stood-up to Mr Zabbath, refusing to give him the full seventy quid, despite having nowhere else to stay that night. And he stood-up to old Stan at work, the office misery-guts. And something is pushing Greg hard now- something to do with the fact that someone called 'Mr Zabbath' has had the audacity to try and charge him seventy quid for a grubby room the size of a broom cupboard with no fresh air.

            Greg opens his suitcase and finds his penknife. He unleashes its blade and starts to hack-away at the paint on the window frame. At first the blade makes very little impression, but after a while a satisfying groove appears in the deep coat of paint. Greg continues to hack-away. His wrist becomes sore. He thinks that if British Leyland could paint its cars this well, it may actually sell some them. Eventually, he has completely cleared the excess paint from one side of the sash window. In doing so, Greg has damaged the wood in a few places, but he refuses to feel guilty about this. By now, it is almost dark outside. Greg’s hand aches. He turns the light on. It is a meagre forty-watt bulb, approximately as powerful as Wee Willie Winkie's candle, but  gives just enough light to see that his hand is blistered. Greg is not used to manual work. This makes him hope that his job with the finance company works-out, as he believes he is not strong enough to do manual work for a living. Greg wraps his handkerchief around his blistered hand, and starts hacking at the other side of the window frame. By eight o'clock his hand is bleeding, but he has become so doggedly determined to loosen the window that the pain spurs him on. 

            By nine o'clock he is through the paint. He pushes hard at the window. It does not budge. He pushes again, this time harder and angrier. There is an almighty crack. Greg assumes he has smashed the glass. But it is just the last stubborn traces of paint giving way. Greg eases the window open and 'fresh' London air flows into his room. Greg lies on the bed, satisfied, and falls into a deep sleep.

      

 

SUNDAY

Unusual sounds permeate the sub-consciousness. A lorry rumbles-by, quite near. Some people are shouting in the street. Then it is quiet again. The air flowing through this sleeping person's nostrils smells unfamiliar. He is cold. He curls his body deeper inside an inadequate blanket, which smells, well, unfamiliar. Greg opens his eyes. He thinks "Where am I?" Then he remembers his folly, his real nightmare: he is here is because, at some point in his life (a few weeks ago), he decided (for some reason) that it would be a good idea to give-up his comfortable, predictable life in Suffolk, to try-out London.

He stares at the window: it is wide open. It has been like this all night, allowing the cool London air to fill-up his room, and his lungs. His chest feels damp, and he splutters as he sits-up in bed.

            It is then that he becomes aware of another sensation. He is hungry. He had not had any food last night. In fact, he has scarcely eaten a thing since he left Bury. He is so hungry that he reckons that a shop or cafe (wherever it may be) is too far to be reached in his famished state. He decides he must eat something nearer to hand. Then he remembers that he is not at home any more. It is not just a question of nipping into the kitchen and grabbing a Weetabix. Maybe......in his suitcase: yes! A tinned cake! Greg rummages through his suitcase for the prize. Sometimes, tins (for example corned beef tins) have a little 'key' clipped-on, to enable one to open it easily. Greg hopes the tinned cake will be like this. But it has no 'key', and Greg has no tin-opener. But he does have an idea: he grabs his penknife and prepares to hack at the tin with its blade. However, as he makes his first blow, a searing pain shoots through the palm of his hand. He drops the knife and looks at his hand. It is covered with blisters and bloody sores from last night's window-opening exercise. It is then that he notices that the blood is on his trousers too, and his shirt. And on the sheets on his bed.

            But Greg is too hungry to worry about blood now. Who would care, anyway? He is anonymous here. An anonymous man in a vast city...with blood on his clothes. Perhaps there is a kitchen in this house, with a tin opener? He opens his bedroom door in readiness for the exploration. Then he remembers his money, and decides that it would be prudent to take it with him. He turns back into the bedroom, rummages through his belongings, places his money in his pocket, and turns round to leave the room.

            There is a man standing in the bedroom with him. This surprises Greg a great deal, and for a moment he stands there, in a stupor. The man is smiling, and looking at Greg's bloodied bed linen. He says:

            "I see ye've teeken a vairgin, then?" It is the Scot that Greg saw at The Cross. He is still wearing the same shabby denim jacket that he wore yesterday. Greg recognises him, and tries to say something, but nothing comes out. The Scot continues: "I told you yud be staying at Stockwell didn't aye? But y'would nae believe me. I knew it the moment I heard y' talkin' to Mr Zabba on the phone." Greg, who has finally regained the power of speech, says:

            "I'm sorry that I didn't believe you. I did not know I was going to be living in Stockwell, and I'm new to London, and I didn't know who I should talk to and who I should not." But the Scot does not seem to have taken any offence from Greg's behaviour yesterday. He says, cheerily,

            "I'd better introduce myself. I'm Oliver." Greg was expecting the Scot to be called Dougal or Hamish, not 'Oliver', and this raises a faint smile on Greg's lips. Oliver takes this to be a sign of friendship, and makes to shake Greg's hand.

            "My hand’s all bloody," warns Greg.

            "Och, typical reserved Englishman!" says Oliver, and grabs Greg's sore hand, and gives it a firm prolonged shake, leaving Greg in agony. "And you've nae told me yure name."

            "Greg." Oliver looks confused.

            "Grigg? Grieg?  What did yu say?"

            "Greg," says Greg loudly, "As in Greg Lake."

            "Greg Lake. I'm Oliver Deere. Deer, as in the kaind with antlers, but with an 'e' on the end. But yu must call me 'Olly'. And I'll betcha yu’re hungrier than a horse? Come with me and I'll take y' to the caff."

 

Greg looks at Olly; he sees that he is just a little bit taller than himself and has broad shoulders. At The Cross Olly had looked short and puny- but then almost anything would look small in The Cross. Olly has dispassionate, grey-blue eyes, the same blue as his denim jacket. It is the blue of cold steel: hard, and tough enough to survive in Glasgow. London would be a doddle compared with the Gorbals, Greg realises. A shudder makes its way down Greg’s spine.  Nevertheless, Olly seems friendly enough.

            "Is the caff far?" asks Greg.

            "Nae far."

 

Greg follows Olly to the cafe. He worries that the cafe will be a long way; Stockwell Park does not look the kind of street that would have a cafe. And Greg is right, Stockwell Park is a residential street and there is no cafe . But they round a couple of bends, and come to a wide, litter-strewn street with small lock-up shops and other businesses, including a cafe. Greg surveys this street and smiles. All forbidden pleasures are here- a pub, a book-makers, various take-aways including fish and chips and doner kebabs, something that Greg has heard of but never seen, until today. And to crown it all, it is OK to chuck your litter on the floor when you have finished eating your take-away. The cafe has no name as such but there is a big plastic sign sticking-out from the side of the building saying ‘Cafe Open.’ So Greg christens it the ‘Cafe Open.’ Once in Cafe Open, they have sausage, egg and chips, and a cup of tea. Somehow, Greg ends-up paying for both meals. But he does not mind, and he feels a lot better for the food.

As Olly eats, Greg takes a surreptitious look at Olly. When he had seen him at The Cross, Olly had looked like a boy. Now, as Greg looks at his face more closely, he sees a dry tiredness around his eyes, and faint crow’s feet. Olly must be substantially older than he had at first thought- maybe as much as ten years older than Greg. Ten years’ more experience, ten years’ more wisdom, ten years’ more anecdotes. Why would a man like this want to befriend a naive youngster like himself, Greg wonders? What light could a kid like Greg possibly shed on Olly’s life? Greg suddenly feels pressurised to say something, anything.

            "Can't believe I've just had sausage, egg and chips at ten-thirty on a Sunday morning!” Olly looks puzzled. “You wouldn't be able to get that in Bury on Sunday morning," Greg explains.

            "We must go for a paint too," Olly states. As he talks, Olly smoothly transfers several sugar sachets from the bowl on the cafe table into the pocket of his denim. 'Going for a paint' sounds strange to Greg, though unthreatening. Strange, because (perhaps unfairly) Greg did not anticipate that a working-class Glaswegian would have a liking for art. Greg is slightly lost for words, but manages to come-up with:

            "Err, I don't have any materials with me."

            "What are yu on about!" proclaims Olly. "A paint!" He spells it: "P.I.N.T.! Paint!" He frantically imitates the action of drinking with his arms. "You know, a paint in a pub. They'll be open soon. Surely they have pubs where yu come from? Ah, Sassenachs!" he says, shaking his head.

            A 'paint' sounds very appealing to Greg. Nevertheless, his cautious side gets the better of him, so he makes an excuse:

            "Well, I have to go and ring my parents soon."

            "NO!” Olly says ‘no’ with such purpose that Greg is startled. “No,” he continues, “just write them a letter. Much easier. You do nae want tae get in the habit of having to ring them at certain times. Just drop them a line, in your own time. Don’t ring them."

           

In Bury St Edmunds, the telephone in the home of Greg's family does not ring. His parents start to think something is wrong, though they choose not to air this view to each other. Even the calmest member of the household (Madge) is agitated. None of them know what Greg's new address is, so they feel isolated and helpless.

            Their 'phone does not ring because Greg has taken the decision to communicate with them only by letter. He has decided this for three reasons. Firstly, he likes writing. He likes to organise all his thoughts in his head, and then set them carefully out on paper. It allows him to take care over what information he gives (and, of course, what he does not), and convey subtle nuances by judicious word selection. He prefers this to blurting out whatever comes into his head when he is on the 'phone. Secondly, Greg believes it will be cheaper to write the occasional detailed and informative letter, than to shovel unpredictable amounts of his valuable coins into a 'phone box.

The final reason: Olly is right, he tells himself: if he calls his parents at (say) eleven o'clock on Sunday morning, they will expect him to always ring at eleven o'clock on Sunday morning - it will become a chore. Or is he just scared of Olly and dare not defy him? In any case, Greg chooses letter as his means of communication. But he doesn't write on Sunday, or Monday, or even Tuesday. He justifies this delay by virtue of his sore hand. It is Wednesday when he writes it, and Thursday by the time he gets round to dropping in a post box: with a second class stamp on it. By this time Greg's parents are at their wits ends. His mother has convinced herself that Greg has been murdered. His father has decided that, come the weekend, he will take the Wolseley down to London and start looking for him. Madge does not like to point-out to him that this will be somewhat harder than finding a needle in a haystack.

            Meanwhile, Greg carries-on with his new life harbouring only the vaguest notion that he has caused his family anxiety. As with most teenagers, he seems not to know (or maybe it has just slipped his mind) that they love him.

            Fortunately, the Royal Mail excels itself and Greg's letter arrives on Saturday morning, saving the poor Wolseley's creaky shocks for another occasion.

 

šGreg is keen to make a good impression at his new job. So on Monday morning he wakes-up especially early. This is not difficult for him, as he has had a restless night, anxiety preventing a sound sleep. He is about to find-out something about himself: is he good enough to be able to market his labour in the big city, or is he a country-duffer? As he steps-out towards the broadway (where the tube is), the sky is full of heavy grey clouds. Very heavy grey clouds. They weigh-down upon Greg, almost squashing him into the pavement. His mood is grim. He feels bad. At this moment he would give anything to be walking to his nice little job in good old Bury. He visualises its safe, familiar streets, the VG shop, the grey cylinders of the beet factory looking down on everything, and a lump develops in his throat. He thinks of his Mum and toast and marmalade in the morning, and, amid his angst, he even has a pang of guilt about not having rang her. He builds an image of a typical London worker in his mind: a sharp-witted, quick worker with a thick skin. He does not see how he can live-up to that model.

            Lack of breakfast and nerves make Greg's stomach feel very unusual. Suddenly he breaks into a cold sweat and he realises his body is going to do something- he is not sure what. He dives into an alleyway and retches. Very little comes out, so little has he eaten in the last forty-eight hours. He wipes his mouth with his hanky and begins to assess the situation. One should not be sick in the street. If it is unacceptable after seven pints of Abbot ale on a Saturday night in Bury, then presumably it is unacceptable first thing on a Monday morning in London. He looks around him. It is still early in the morning, but there are already people walking to the tube, going to work. But that is exactly what they are doing- walking to the tube. They are not standing around staring at Greg. It is now that Greg realises that THEY DO NOT CARE. He could be picking his nose, or being murdered, it would make no difference: he is anonymous. If he was Jesus Christ, they would still ignore him.

            Suddenly Greg feels better. His stomach is normal again, and he becomes optimistic. He picks up his stride, goes into the tube, and goes to work.

The office  of 'Mark Loan' is situated near Waterloo Station, near the south bank of the Thames. It is located in a run-down zone of the kind that often surround large railway stations. The building in which the office lies is a large three-storey Victorian house. Like the other buildings in the area, it is a little dilapidated. Yet with relatively little effort, all of these buildings could be made into really impressive head offices, or smart residences. But nobody seems to realise this. So instead they play host to ephemeral businesses such as ABC Insurance Services and ABC Taxis and XXX Bookstore, which, for some reason, has blacked-out windows. But Greg tries to be up-beat about his new employer's inauspicious location.

            As Greg gets nearer to Mark Loan's front door, he notices a group of about eight people, men and women, waiting outside. Greg takes this to be a very good sign- it is barely eight-fifteen in the morning but already the workers are queuing to get in. They must really like working at Mark Loan! Greg strides up to them with a confident smile on his face. They look at him with vague curiosity as Greg stands there with them. Eventually Greg says to them,

            "Isn't the door unlocked yet?"

            "Yeah, its open," says a man.

            "Then why don't we go in?" asks Greg. The man looks uneasy at this suggestion.

            "We have to stay outside," he says. To Greg this sounds rather odd. He cannot see the point of making one's staff stand outside when they are obviously keen to get to work. Nevertheless, he is unwilling to break ranks with his co-workers, so he stands there with them.

            In time, another worker approaches the door where the group have congregated. He has a worried look on his face. As he approaches the group, he dips his chin into his coat collar and bustles past them towards the door. Suddenly the group start to shout. At first it is the solitary cry: "Blackleg!" But this is merely the herald for more vehement abuse, reaching the crescendo of "SCAB! SCAB! SCAB!" As soon as the man is inside, the group stop shouting, and a cynical silence returns, as if nothing has happened.

            One of the group asks Greg why he did not shout at the man. Greg (thinking quickly) replies,

            "Er, I prefer just to give a good hard stare." At this, Greg himself darts through the door to safety.

            Mr Markarian, Greg's new boss, meets Greg, and begins to explain the job to him. Mr Markarian has a very smart suit on. He has fairly dark skin and black hair. He looks very professional and smells of strong aftershave. His accent reminds Greg of Mr Zabbath's. Greg hopes he is taking-in most of Mr Markarian's instructions, but his brain is distracted by the presence of the pickets outside. Eventually Greg cannot hold-back his curiosity any longer.          

"What are those people doing outside?" he asks. Mr Markarian smiles.

            "You see when I came here there were many bad things. Everything was done in the slow English way. We send a form to people. They fill it in, send it back. We look through it, they've filled it in wrong, we send it back to them. They send it back again. Eventually, eventually everything is OK and we loan them money. But it takes a long time. Why not use the 'phone? So I said Put a big ad in the paper, with a big 'phone number. People ring the number, we ask them the questions over the 'phone, and we fill-in the form for them. The forms are punched into the machine and the machine does the rest."

            "The machine decides whether they get a loan or not?" says Greg.

            "Exactly. Why do you need a human being for that? Enough ticks in the right boxes and you get a loan- right? [Greg nods]. Its not magic- a machine can do that. But the workers do not like that. You will work us too hard, they say. You will not need so many people. You will be sacking us! That is really silly. We will attract more customers this way, I will not need to sack you, I say. OK, we go on strike then! they say. And there you have it. My old staff stand outside whilst my new staff get on with the work inside. It is a very funny way of doing things here in England."

Greg is alarmed to find he is a strike-breaker. Whenever he had seen picket lines on The News, he had always been on the side of the oppressed striker, who was fighting for justice against the greedy employer. But this is 'real': it is him or them. Morally, he thinks that he should resign forthwith, and find a job with another employer who is not embroiled in an industrial dispute. Realistically, however, he knows he is only a timid little thing who has just arrived in London. What chance has he of finding another job soon enough to satisfy Mr Zabbath's exorbitant rent demands? Greg knows he has no real choice: he must stick his principles and stick at Mark Loan, braving the picket line each day.

            He had wondered, from time-to-time, why the agency had been so keen for him to start work in London; and so certain that there would be a job for him when he arrived. Now he knew. Who else would want a job that involved having 'SCAB!' bellowed in your ear every day? Only a naive country boy like himself could be duped into a situation like this.

By the end of his first day at Mark Loan, Greg has learnt several things. He has learnt the standard telephone patter ("Good morning Mark Loan finance-over-the-phone Greg speaking how can I help?"). He has learnt that he is good at it, because Mr Markarian said he has a 'good telephone manner'. It does not matter to Mr Markarian that Greg has got weird short hair or comes from Suffolk. As long as Greg can do his job well, he thinks Mr Markarian will be happy. Greg has learnt the names of some of his colleagues. As well as Mr Markarian, there is a man called Ray, an Indian lad called Sanjit who seems very brainy, and an extremely quiet guy known only by the nickname ‘Chocolate.’ Why ‘Chocolate?’ Greg had asked. ‘Its the only thing we’ve ever heard him say.’ Mark Loan has a drinks machine with tea, coffee or hot chocolate. When it is your turn to fetch a round, the others place their orders. Chocolate. Just chocolate. Not chocolate please, or hi, how’s it going, I’ll have a chocolate. Just chocolate. That’s the only word anyone has heard him say. ‘So that’s what we call him, Chocolate.’

And Greg has learnt the name of a stunning brunette girl that works near to Greg’s desk: Nadia (he has not spoken to her yet, though).

Finally, Greg has learnt that he is a SCAB! Greg writes all this down in his diary when he is back in his little room. But this is not before returning to the little caff on Stockwell Road to have sausage, egg and chips (again). And that is another thing: he has learnt he is too lazy to attempt any cooking after a day at work..

As the days go by, Greg begins to find amusement in the irony that he is a 'scab'. Irony, because instead of being disgusted at himself for betraying his socialist principles, he takes a curious pride in the bravery he must employ each day to cross the picket line. This deed is helped somewhat by a stand-off that has developed between the pickets and the workers. The barracking has become half-hearted. Some days pass without any abuse being presented to the Mark Loan workers at all. It is as if the pickets have lost all hope of attaining whatever it was they hoped to attain, but are too proud to abandon the cause altogether. For their part, the workers hope that the pickets will soon disappear entirely.

As well as the pickets, there are other differences that Greg has noticed between Mark Loan, and his old place. The building, for example. Despite the antiquity of the building in which it is located, Mark Loan has a transient air, demonstrated by the hurriedly-arranged desks and the clutter of empty package-casing and other debris a round the office. This was the result the rapid conversion of the company from a 'traditional' one to one which is 'telesales-orientated'. Accordingly, Greg does not believe that his job at Mark Loan will last for ever. But this does not worry him; now that he has 'taken the plunge' (as it were) by giving-up everything to come to here, the prospect of swapping jobs again no longer worries him.

šLittle-by-little, Greg's homesickness abates. The sad longing for the swirly-patterned carpet of the living room at home changes to nostalgia. Meanwhile, the streets around his new home start to become familiar, instead of an apparently random litter-filled urban maze. He knows where Cafe Open is, where the launderette is, and where the shop is. He has been to the Indian restaurant  (the 'Indian') with Olly. And he has got to know the other people in his Turbot. As well as Olly ('The Scot'), there is Zepp (the lisping African Prince) and Bollocky (‘Bollocky’ is Olly’s inevitable nickname for a quiet Hungarian called Mollocky).

Greg even starts to get into a routine. He writes in his diary at least twice a week- normally Monday and Tuesday. He writes home on Thursday nights, to his parents one week: then to his sister on the next. He plays his parents with a very straight bat- the job is going well, he is paying his rent, he is eating OK, that kind of thing. To his sister, he tries to write with flourish. He knows she likes writing too. He describes the people he lives with, the pickets, his admiration of Nadia, the devil-may-care attitude of Olly; the anarchic 'feel' of his new surroundings. He knows his sister will not pass-on any information to their parents that will worry them. On Wednesdays, and Fridays, and Saturdays, Greg has taken to going out. He goes out with Olly; sometimes Zepp and Bollocky come along. Of these, Olly is his best friend, the one of the trio that he met first, and the one of them that was most usually ‘up for’ going out. Zepp is often studying, whilst Bollocky is the most illusive of the three. He disappears for long periods during the week and he never says where he has been. In fact, he does not say much about anything. Moreover, he has barely any distinctive features at all. All’s that Greg can say about him with confidence is that he is about the same height and build as himself, and his father originated from Hungary.

 

The Wednesday excursion is usually low-key, taking account of the fact that Thursday is a working day (though Olly's working hours seem to be haphazard, and minimal for that matter). A game of pool in a pub with Olly (with Greg buying the drinks) is a good example of a Wednesday night activity. On Fridays and Saturdays they (all four of them) 'go down town'- to Leicester Square or the Kings Road, for example. The pints of beer that they drink cost money, but Greg is surprised to find that his wages will generally run to it. His sensation of financial well-being is helped by the fact that Mr Zabbath does not collect the rent very regularly.

Greg finds Olly a little scary. He is also concerned at Olly's reluctance to stand his round. But Greg tolerates these faults because he does not have many other friends. Greg has also noticed that Olly has a propensity to be light-fingered. Once, in a 'VG' store, Olly 'lifted' a large pre-wrapped slab of gammon right under Greg's nose. It was such a large chunk of meat, Greg was sure it would make Olly's denim jacket bulge suspiciously, and cause him to be caught. But with an expert twist of the torso, Olly made the gammon merge with the gaunt contours of his body, and walked out of the store without a care in the world. Meanwhile, a stunned Greg followed him with burning cheeks. Greg does not approve of theft- his parents have made sure of this- nevertheless he refuses to condemn Olly for his thieving, justifying it (on Olly's behalf) on grounds of both youthful larks and economic necessity.

On Sundays, Greg visits the launderette, once he is sufficiently recovered from Saturday night's boozing to be able. One Sunday Zepp invited Greg to come to church with him. Greg scoffed at the suggestion. Since then, Zepp has not suggested this again, nor has Zepp been to the church on his own.

            Although Greg is becoming familiar with his new surroundings, he has not found a local barber's shop yet. This is a concern, as his tuft has started to appear. He must find a barber's within the next few days, otherwise he will look seriously silly. [Greg had hoped - in a similar way to a balding man who hopes to wake-up one morning to find that his hair has re-grown - that 'this time', now that his life is different, his hair will grow without that stupid tuft appearing. But alas, Greg's tuft is still lurking there, ready to pop-up the moment his hair is an inch long]. 

The hair situation is even more of a concern to Greg because he works in close proximity to the exquisite Nadia. Greg has made two observations about Nadia.

 

Observation One: she is the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. He thinks it is amazing that he’s lucky enough to see her every day. One night he writes in his diary a list of the things that are beautiful about her:

 

The shiniest brown eyes that it is feasible to have.

Impossibly thick, long (but orderly) jet black hair, like slabs of coal.

Luxurious brown skin lacking even the slightest of zits or other blemishes, compared with my pale, blotchy, fluctuating stuff.

A nose so delicate that a twitch from it conveys more emotion than the average person can convey from their entire face in a lifetime

A marvellous little bum,

....and so on.

 

Observation Two: he has no chance of going out with her. Yes, he knows that. In the cold light of day he understands this. But he cannot shake her perfect image out of his mind, and it begins to burn him. He becomes annoyed about the helplessness of his situation. 'What if I did intend to go out with her,' he asks his diary, 'what steps would I take to bring this about? The trouble is- I have absolutely no idea. The whole thing of getting off with a woman is a mystery to me. I suppose in Nadia's case, the thing would be to build-up a rapport, a laugh and a joke in the office, that kind of thing. Then asking her out would be a natural progression. Yet Nadia is cool, she shuns attention from me, or anyone in the office for that matter. She is not unpleasant to me, but its clear that she is not interested. I guess I will never be her boyfriend. Unless I can find a clever way. But the matter raises broader questions: why have I never had a girlfriend? How does one lose one's virginity? How do I get from the dull situation that I am in now, alone in bed with my pyjamas on, to being naked with a woman who is also naked and willing to share her private parts with me??? The whole thing is a mysterious mystical mystery to me. But I intend to find out, quite soon. I mean, I'm already 19.'

            Despite desiring further contact with Nadia, Greg nevertheless does not want her to see him with his tuft up. Furthermore, he dreams that  when he loses his virginity, it will be to Nadia, or someone equally as attractive.

 

May, 1976

One Thursday (the 6th May 1976) it is sunny. Not just a flickering glimpse of British sunshine, but the proper stuff. The sun's rays bounce off the pavement slabs and hit Greg in the face. It is warm already, even though it is early in the day. This makes Greg happy as he walks to the tube. 'Anything is possible today' he says to himself.

As he approaches Mark Loan, he has his usual pang of disappointment when he sees that the huddle of pickets is still there. Greg cannot believe that they would bother to picket on a day like this. Mr Markarian will never give them their jobs back, so why don’t they go to the park and enjoy the sunshine?

Greg nears the door, and eyes the pickets more closely. They look different to the usual ones. This unnerves Greg a little. Today there are two stocky white men, taller and older than him, on the picket line. Their hair is even shorter than Greg's. They look very serious, as if they may be off-duty pall-bearers (or some other grim occupation). They look Greg in the eye as he walks past them. Their stares manage to convey the concept that they are genuinely surprised that Greg dares to pass them. As Greg opens the door, one of them says, quietly but firmly, "Judas" and the other one snarls and utters the very unpleasant four-letter word that begins with 'C'.

Once inside, Greg relates his experience to his colleagues. The same thing happened to them, they say. Ranjit says that the abuse was very racial. The pickets gave Chocolate a very hard time too, apparently (although now he sitting there in his irritatingly silent way, not contributing to the discussion). Mr Markarian calls the police. Soon, a panda car rolls-up outside Mark Loan. The staff inside watch from windows. The police don’t get out of their car, but their presence is enough to prompt the New Model Pickets to leave. They troop-away, snarling at the staff inside. The staff hope that this may be the last of the pickets, and that they will now be able to get on with their jobs without daily intimidation. But they cannot understand why today saw different, nastier pickets, than the ones they usually had. None of the staff recognise any of the new pickets: they certainly are not people that have ever worked at Mark Loan, they say.

The rest of the morning, by contrast, is uneventful. Some of the warm weather seeps in to the office, and Nadia and some of the other staff take-off their jackets. Greg can see the outline of Nadia's bra-strap through the back of her white blouse. Someone finds an electric fan and turns it on. It makes a subdued hum, lulling the workers into a slower pace of work. The 'phone is quiet. Greg forces himself not to think about Nadia's non-opaque blouse. Nevertheless, he finds it difficult to concentrate on work today: he is looking forward to going out in the sunshine at one o'clock, especially as there are now no pickets. Perhaps he might bump into Nadia in the sandwich shop, and strike-up a conversation. Meanwhile, the morning drags.

Suddenly, at 12.30 pm, there is a moment of personal horror for Greg. His tuft has sprung-up! He pats it down. It springs-up again. He licks his hand and pats it down again. The tuft springs-up once again. Try as he might, he cannot subdue his tuft. Furtively, he looks around the office. Fortunately, neither Nadia nor any of the other staff appear to have noticed it.....yet. He cranes his head forwards in the forlorn hope that he can hide his tuft among the paraphernalia on his desk. But this is not a practical solution as makes it look as though he has fallen asleep. He tries resting his head in his left hand, positioning his hand over the tuft. This seems to work. He is still able to write with his right hand, whilst affecting a thoughtful scratching of the head with the left. However, Greg's telephone soon rings, and he remembers that he must answer it with his left hand so as to leave his right hand free to write-down what the customer is saying.

Greg decides that, on the stroke of one, he will run out of the office, and find a barber's shop at all costs. Meanwhile, he hopes that none of his colleagues will spot his tuft.

 

            It is one o'clock. Greg is out of the office. He is pacing the pavement in the vicinity of Waterloo station. Now the sun is really hot, its rays spanking the pavement slabs, bouncing back and burning Greg's face. But he is too pre-occupied to enjoy this. He is looking for a barber. Greg, in desperation, decides it is best to ask someone where the barber's is, rather than wasting all his lunch time on a random search. He dives into the nearest shop, which happens to be a chemist.

            "Can you tell me where the nearest barber is?" he asks of an elderly shop assistant.

            "We haven't got one here," she says with a certain vagueness. It is not clear to Greg whether she means there is not a barber in her shop, or whether she means there is not one in the entire vicinity. Anyway, he thinks he hasn't got time to clarify this with her, and is about to leave when she smiles and adds: "We do have hair lacquer though."

Greg thinks about this for a moment. Hair lacquer would be better than spit at holding the tuft down. He could hold it down with the lacquer, as a temporary measure, until he can get to the barber's.

            "OK, gimme some lacquer," he says.

Now outside the shop, Greg hides in a shady alley-way and applies some of the lacquer to the tuft. He holds his breath. The tuft stays DOWN. Greg is pleased. He is about to stride out into the sunshine when he senses the tuft springing up from his scalp once again. He checks it with his hand. Sure enough, his tuft HAS to sprung-up, despite the lacquer. "Shit" he says. Then (for some reason) he thinks of his old friend Simon, back in Bury. Indeed, Greg receives a very clear picture of him, virtually a vision. Simon is sitting in a pub sipping a pint of Greene King, with his hair sticking-up like Mr Whippy's. This inspires Greg.  'The lacquer may not be strong enough to hold my tuft DOWN,' thinks Greg, 'but surely it will hold the rest of my hair UP?'

Enthused, Greg applies large quantities of lacquer over the top of his head, and then drags his comb backwards through the whole lot. Sure-enough, his entire barnet stands-up as one, so that it is impossible to distinguish the tuft from the rest of his hair.

Greg is impressed by his own resourcefulness. He is not sure whether his new hair style looks stupid (he suspects it does), but there is no time to worry about it now. He walks back into his office and awaits the witty remarks...

His colleagues see him...

They notice his hair...

He waits.......but nobody laughs. Nadia looks at him (which is unusual) and seems (but perhaps Greg just imagines this) to give a sombre nod of approval before returning her attention to her work. Somebody else says:

            "New hairstyle Greg? Very smart." And there was no mockery in her voice.

 

            That afternoon, Greg is pleased with himself. It appears that he has got himself a cool new hairstyle to match his cool name ('Greg'). He is not yet totally confident with it, but the initial reaction was good. He is sure that, in Bury, a man with sticking-up hair would be laughed out of town. But two things are in his favour:

 

(a)  it is 1976, and

(b)  he is in London.

 

Regarding 'a' (1976); it is not '75 or '74- or '67 for that matter. Times are changing. The long-haired 'thing' must eventually end, and Greg believes it has gone-on for long enough now. And, regarding 'b', things normally change first in London, before spreading to the rest of the World. One or two people are starting to wear shorter hair, so Greg is in the right place to be in the vanguard of the new look.

 

It is five o'clock. Usually at Mark Loan, but perhaps unusually for Britain, the staff are not in the habit of leaving on the stroke of five. This is partly because the pickets are often still there until five, but also because Mr Markarian inspires his staff to have pride in their work. But today is different. The nice weather and the apparent absence of pickets has resulted in a traditional British Five O’clock En-masse Exodus from Mark Loan. Greg joins in.

He strolls off towards the tube with a confident swagger. He does not notice that two men are tailing him.

It is hot in the tube. Greg can feel a bead of sweat trickle down his chest inside his shirt. He thinks he may be sweating all over. He looks around the car to see if anyone is watching him sweat. He sees his reflection in the window which reminds him that he is sporting a new hairstyle. He then looks around the car again, this time to see if any girls are looking at him. It is only then that he notices two of the pickets from that morning. They pretend not to see him. Greg notes the sensation of unease welling within his digestive system. The sensation grows when the men fail to alight at either Kennington or Oval. Still, he tells himself that their presence on his train is mere coincidence.

Stockwell. Greg gets off the tube, as usual. As he reaches daylight, he sees no sign of the pickets. He breathes a sigh of relief and walks back towards Stockwell Park. As he nears Turbot, however, his unease returns. He 'senses' he is being followed. But when he turns round, he sees no one. He takes a final look behind him just before he reaches Turbot. This time he sees them: the two aggressive blokes from that morning's picket line. He thinks that they will probably hate him even more now he has sticky-up hair. Greg's heart sinks. He is suddenly reminded of how he felt when he was caught by the school bullies- that curious combination of dread and self-loathing. Why did it have to be him who was being picked-on? Why hadn't he anticipated the situation and taken preventative measures? Greg tries to think harder: to make his brain tackle the problem-in-hand, rather than becoming absorbed in self-pity. WHY are the men following him? What exactly do they plan to do? Surely they are not planning to beat him up in the open street, in broad daylight? No. More likely they are tailing him to see where he lives, in order to wreak havoc later. So Greg hits upon a plan.

Greg decides it is best to walk past Turbot. This may not stop them beating him up, but at least they will not find out where he lives. So he just walks straight past Turbot without batting an eyelid. But where should he go now? If they are intent on beating him-up, where will his beating take place? Where would he like it to take place? At least, perhaps, he can influence the location of his beating, if not its extent. Will he die? What will his parents think if he is killed? His mother will say "I told him not to go to London."

Greg reckons if he can reach a busier area before they catch-up with him, he may yet be saved. He scurries towards the end of Stockwell Park. He can hear their steps behind him, getting nearer. Nevertheless, he reaches Stockwell Road unscathed. Here quite a few people out in the late afternoon sun. This will surely deter his pursuers, thinks Greg. But he is wrong. One of the men dashes in front of him, blocking the pavement ahead. He knows that the other is directly behind him. Of course! It dawns on Greg, the presence passers-by in the street will not deter thugs like these. After all, this is London, and everyone turns a blind eye in London.

            "You Paki-lover!" snarls one of the men.

            "You Fucking Paki-lover!" clarifies the other.

            "We're gonnar teach yer uh lesson you little c***!" continues the first. Greg supposes they are referring to the fact he works for Mr Markarian. Sure, Mr Markarian is a bit foreign-looking, but he never realised he was a "Paki". And why should Greg care if he is a "Paki"?- it does not matter to Greg anyway. Greg could be in Lahore for all he cares, so different is south London to Bury.

 

Greg darts down an alleyway to his right. It leads into a 'high-rise' block of flats. Greg has heard bad stories about these places. But it is too late now. He dashes up a flight of stairs with thugs in pursuit. He hopes that his youthfulness will help him pull away. Upstairs, he comes to an elevated walkway, which links the front doors of several flats. Greg runs down it, his heart pounding. A dead end! He is trapped. Adrenalin kicks-in, and Greg adopts a kung-fu style pose, in readiness for his pursuers.

            "Look its farkin Bruce Lee!" laughs one of the thugs.

            "More like Dairylea!" says the other, and a fist shoots-out towards Greg's face. It comes very quickly. Greg has always been crap at fighting. It does not matter how alert or fast he tries to be, he is simply not aggressive enough to get the first punch in, or sharp enough to avoid one. People who are good fighters always seem to know exactly the right moment to swing the arm.

            But the fist does not hit Greg. Instead, another arm appears, seemingly from nowhere, and grabs the wrist of Greg's would-be assailant. This arm is even bigger and stronger than that of the thug. It is a black arm. One of the thugs shouts "Fuck!" The other shouts "Let me go you...." and cuts-short his sentence. All three white men look round to see a West Indian man, who is about seven feet tall. He says to Greg’s assailant in a deep slow voice:

"Now what you gonna do?" After a short pause to see if his captive would attempt to retaliate, either physically or verbally, he continued, "I'll tell you what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna fuck-off." He has a slow, gentle accent. Greg thinks it sounds strange to hear the word 'fuck' uttered in such a nice accent. The West Indian allows the thug he is holding to struggle free, who runs off. His colleague has already run away. Then the West Indian looks at Greg and says "You. You stay here."

Now Greg is truly scared. The two pickets were scary indeed, but now Greg's predicament is worse than ever. He has strayed into the black man's manor, and, to compound matters, dragged two white racists along with him. Greg sinks to his knees, and begins to grovel.

"I'm really sorry!"

But the man just laughs.

"You were in a bit of trouble there, I thought I would help you" he says. Greg has never spoken to a black man before. He does not know what to say. Part of him still believes he is about to be beaten-up. But the black man looks amused. "Don't look so scared. I'm Derrick. What's your name?"

Greg manages to stammer his name and a rather wobbly 'thank you', then runs-off as well.

š

Friday 7th May 1976

Ah, the bravado of youth! Logic alone would say that Greg should be psychologically wounded by his narrow escape the night before. After all, he has the physique of a twig and would have stood no chance against the thugs. But he shows little concern over the affair. Instead, he smirks to himself over the irony of his skin-headed aggressors being scuppered by their antithesis. Greg begins to credit his escape to his own speed of thought. He convinces himself that he cleverly led the thugs into a trap. In fact, he has been lucky. By the end of the incident he had been on his knees, groveling. His brain conveniently blanks-out this part of it. His escape was thanks to the good-will of a fellow man. If this episode had taught Greg anything, it should be that, in Life, it is sometimes a healthy thing to be vulnerable, and when one is so, it is also healthy to accept with grace the kind help of another. But this idea is too slapdash, too fatalistic to appeal to Greg. He believes he is in control of his life's events. Even though he has just embarked upon the most risky venture of his life to date, he likes to think that it is going according to plan. Only in his humbler moments does he feel a debt of gratitude to Derrick.

Today is another hot day, which melts into a warm evening. Though it is still early in summer, evenings are long at this time of year.

 

During that evening- that slow, balmy evening, a complacency comes over Greg. He sits alone in his room with his sash window wide open, reading his newspaper. The warm south London air wafts in. In the newspaper it is the same old stuff- Uganda, I.R.A., strikes.

 

Although alone, Greg is not lonely. He has friends- Olly, Bollocky And Zepp. He has money- enough to buy food whenever he is hungry. He is idle, that evening- but he has no guilt about this as he can think of nothing that needs to be done; there is no point in tidying his room, as there is nothing in it to keep tidy. There is no point in writing to his parents: he did that just a few days ago. There is no point in worrying about his health: he is far too young to worry about that. So he just sits there, in a smug (because he is cutting it in The Smoke) semi-trance. In this mellow state, he reflects that he would like some music. Indeed- he is convinced that this would make his satisfaction complete. He would love to hear the first few bars of Tubular Bells drifting around him right now. But he'd left his old record player at home; it had been too bulky to bring down on the train from Bury. He had not even brought his records with him; even the few that he owns would not fit in his suitcase. He only has 6 records. These are: Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery, Tubular Bells, Ommadawn, Hergest Ridge and Volume 4, by Black Sabbath. When he lived at home, he always hid his Black Sabbath record under the other ones as he thought that his parents, with their chapel background, would disapprove of him having such a record. So what? They had probably found it by now, he thinks. Hergest Ridge is a good album, remembers Greg. Aside from the music, if one placed a cylindrical mirror at the centre of its album sleeve, the mirror would reveal an impressive panorama of the Welsh Marches. Trouble is, where do you get a cylindrical mirror from? He promises to himself that one day he will go back to Bury and get his music. One day.

 

Greg writes in his diary:

"I imagine Mark Loan was once like my old employer in Bury: slack, + stuffy. Then Mr Markarian came along + turned everything on its head. The staff he inherited thought he'd bring redundancies, or at least, challenge their cushy lives. So they went on strike, desperately wishing-back the old days. Wouldn't it have been more logical to give their new boss the benefit of the doubt, roll their sleeves up and get on with it?

But I try to see it from their angle too- what if I'd gone on strike in Bury- how would I have felt if I thought the new staff had stolen my job, and I saw them drawing MY wages?"

Greg reflects on the pathetic plight of the strikers. How, to start with, they must have hoped that the mere inconvenience caused by withdrawing their labour would be enough to win their old jobs back. When it became apparent that this alone was not enough, they focused their hopes on a psychological war. Intimidation. Making the 'blacklegs' feel guilty. Later, as realistic hope fades, the strike becomes a moral crusade. Face must not be lost. The strikers win support from The Left. It becomes a story, a saga; the media get interested for a while. Then, finally, the last, sordid death throw: some racists hear that the white people have had their jobs axed by a 'Paki' entrepreneur, volunteer as 'pickets', and use the whole thing as an excuse for some fascist thuggery.”

 

That whole weekend is warm. It is not unheard-of to have a spell of fine weather in May, but it is unusual for it to be this warm this early in the month.

 

 

 

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