Grovel Greg, Grovel Part 3

Do you remember 1976? Madge does.

She was a 15 year-old school girl in that long, hot summer. She remembers the heatwave, the stand pipes in the streets, and the first strains of punk music from her transistor radio.

But she remembers it for another reason too.

For this was the year that her brother Greg disappeared, just five months after starting his new life in London.

Nearly 30 years later, Madge re-traces his steps, and tries to find-out what really happened to him.

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9. "Are you ready to face the truth?"

I bunk work on Friday. My agency is not impressed. “Ken Livingstone will not be pleased. You were due at Stratford today – and Uncle Ken has high hopes for Newham.”

Then, off I go to see another ‘Ken’ – Dougal who had so earnestly searched for 1976 rating records for me a couple of months ago.

            At the Council Tax Office (where Dougal works), you have to take a ticket, wait for the number on your ticket to be called, and then present your enquiry to the customer services assistant. The system is not designed for someone to wander-in and have a quick chat with Ken, or Dougal. Last time, I had to wait several days for an appointment with Dougal to be arranged.

            “I need to speak to Dougal.” I say.

            “Dougal works in the back office, all enquiries are dealt with here. So can I help you?” So I start to explain everything about Turbot, 1976, rating records, missing brother, and everything. The young man’s face visibly drops as I go on. “We only deal with Council Tax queries,” he says.

            “But last time you helped me with this query. Dougal helped me.” The young man sighs. I start to feel like a mad old woman. To him, 1976 is just some arbitrary date from the mists of time. It may as well be 1876.

            “I can write your query down and put it in the work queue. Then someone will call you when your query comes to the top of the queue.”

            “What’s a work queue?” I think. “How long will it take?” I ask.

            “About two weeks.”

            “Two weeks! I’ve had a day off work specially to deal with this. I want something done today!” The customer services assistant on the adjacent desk leans over and says something to my assistant.

            “My colleague says that Councils don’t generally keep records for more than seven years, unless there is a statutory requirement, or outstanding legal procedures. But he suggests that you try the Rent Service.”

            “The Rent Service? What records do they keep?” I ask. My assistant doesn’t know. The other assistant leans over and speaks to him again.

            “The Rent Register. It’s a long shot, but its worth a go, he says.”

Later that morning I am at the Rent Service. Unlike the flashy council customer service centre, there is an air of fusty formality here. It is as if the clock stopped in 1979. I ring a bell on the counter and it makes an old-fashioned ‘ding.’

            “Can I see the Rent Register please?”

            “For what address?” I give the address. “That will be one pound please.” I pay the pound. I would have gladly paid a thousand pounds if I thought it was going to find Greg. No, ten thousand.

            “What will the Register show me?” I ask.

            “It will show you whether there is a tenancy under the 1977 Rent Act registered at that address.”

            And I wait. My nerves start to build. There is a loo here. I feel like using it, but I am scared of missing the assistant when she returns with the register. Finally she re-appears, and hands me a piece of A4 paper. I grab it and scan it quickly. My eyes nearly pop out of my head.

           

Tenancy commencement 1st March 1977

Landlord: Appletree Housing Association

Tenant: Mr G Lake

Date rent last registered: 1st March 2003

Fair rent registered: £89.50 per week excluding water rate and sewerage charges.

 

I think I may be about to faint. Somehow I manage to ask:

            “What does this mean?” I ask the assistant. She reads it, then says:

            “It means that G. Lake has been the tenant since 1977, and the last time the rent was registered was this year.”

            “Does it mean that he has been the tenant continuously from 1977 to now ?” The assistant looks surprised.

            “Yes, that’s what it means,” she confirms.

 

At 5.20 pm, I am on the ‘phone again to Tina. I have no consideration for the fact that she has just come home from work- I just need to talk to someone.

            “You’re telling me he’s been living in that house since 1977 without telling you! The rascal!” says Tina.

            “I need you to come down, I can’t go and see him on my own,” I say.

            “That you can,” she says.

            “No, I can’t. I’m scared. Its been twenty-seven years. What if he looks different? What if I don’t recognise him? What if he doesn’t recognise me? What if he doesn’t want to talk to me?” I start crying, and this clinches it.

            “OK, I’ll come down tomorrow morning. Meet me at King’s Cross.”

From having a kind of magnetic attraction to Stockwell Park, all of a sudden I feel repelled. All the hope of my whole life is contained within that little house next to the changing rooms. Yet all my fears are there too- what if Greg doesn’t live there? All those hopes would be dashed. Despite this, I find myself making one more nocturnal trip to the site of Turbot. In the dark, I stand as near as I dare to Turbot, wondering who is inside. A light is on, but there is no sign of movement behind the curtain. I peer intently at the lit window, waiting to see Greg’s silhouette.

            “Hello Madge!”

            I jump out of my skin. There is someone behind me. I spin round. It is Marcia.

            “Wow you startled me,” I say.

            “I see you’ve followed my advice,” she says.

            “My brother’s in there!” I say, excitedly.

            “Are you going to knock on that door?” says Marcia.

            “Yes,” I say. “But I’m going to do the knocking tomorrow, with my friend.”

            “So you’re ready to face the truth, then?” Marcia asks me.

            “Why should I be afraid of the truth?” I ask.

            “Because, until you know the truth, all possibilities exist. But there is only one truth: once you know it, you’re stuck with it.”

       

There is silence for a while. Marcia looks tired. “Are you feeling any better now?” I ask her.

            “A little,” she says.

            “Someone told me how old you are. But you play netball like you’re twenty,” I say.

            “Thank you,” she says, “I want to play for as long as I can.”

            “What motivates you to carry-on playing?”

            “Lady, you’ll spend long enough not playing.”

            “So, why were your adverts in the paper so cryptic? Why couldn’t you have just written ‘Madge 1976’?” I ask.

            “I had to see how determined you were. I’ll only show you the truth if I’m sure you’re ready for it.”

            “Why couldn’t you have contacted me before, to tell me this?”

            “I didn’t know where you lived. I didn’t even know what your name was. I had to wait for you to find me. I know you’ve been waiting twenty-seven years, but so have I.”

            I glance back at the house. When I turn around again, Marcia has gone: she is no where to be seen.

           

On Saturday morning, I meet Tina at Platform 9- the same platform where Greg (and Olly) met me in 1976. It has hardly changed since, and I feel sad to stand here and remember Greg. I should be happy, because today I am going to see him again, but I cannot believe that its really going to happen. I am pleased to see Tina coming down the platform towards me. She is smiling her usual big smile: I think she’s put our argument behind her. We hug, and I say “Let’s get a coffee.” But she says:

            “No, let’s put you out of your misery first! We’ll get straight to Stockwell.”

On the tube, Tina and I discuss the whole thing.

            “If he’s been living in that house since 1977, why didn’t he contact his family?” I shrug my shoulders – why not indeed?

            “Maybe he went abroad for some time, but retained his tenancy. Maybe he had a head problem and forgot who he is. Or maybe he didn’t contact us because our father was not talking to him. I don’t know,” I reply.

            “Don’t take this the wrong way darling, but maybe this tenant is someone else also called ‘G. Lake’. You mustn’t build your hopes up too high,” says Tina. I know that she is right, but I cannot help it – you try and hold-back twenty-seven years uncertainty – its impossible to not build-up your hopes.

 

And now we are standing outside the house where Turbot was. Tina is holding my hand, which cannot be very nice for her as it is sweaty. I am breathing fast, my heart is thumping, but I am not crying (yet). Tina looks at me.

            “Let’s do it,” she says. Tina opens the little wrought iron gate at the front.

            “You knock,” I say. Tina knocks.

No reply. I feel relieved. Then there is a sound in the house, and my heart starts to thump again. The front door opens. I am preparing to scream ‘Greg!’ and fling my arms around him.

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