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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4. Stockwell

We decide to put the last two days behind us. Tina is in a much better mood. We have slept well. It is Monday, the start of a new week. We feel optimistic about finding Greg. So its off to Stockwell Park. We trundle round to Victoria on the Circle Line, then catch the Victoria Line to Stockwell. When Greg rode the Victoria Line in the 1970s, it was virtually new. Even in 2003, it does not feel as cranky as the old Circle Line.

            And believe it or not, we have a plan, Tina and I. First we will peruse the site of Turbot. We will be like detectives or crack journalists, looking for clues to what happened to Greg. We will approach the site with minds that are both alert (to spot the clues) and open (to be able to connect the clues into the bigger picture). “Remember,” says Tina, “the sort of clues we find after twenty-seven years won’t be obvious things like finding his wallet in the street. They will be far more subtle things.”

            “Like?” I ask. There is a long pause.

            “Dunno,” says Tina.

Secondly, we will interview all the residents in the 20 houses around Turbot: 10 up the street (from Turbot) and 10 down the street. If we get no leads we come back tomorrow and do the next 10 in each direction, and so on.

We alight from Stockwell tube and walk towards Stockwell Park. I feel nervous. Part of me wants everything to be exactly the same as it was when I came here in 1976, the other part of me wants it to be completely different, so that none of my feelings are rekindled. But it can never be exactly the same as in ’76. Obviously, Turbot won’t be there, as it has burnt-down. And there are more differences: today it is cloudy and almost cold enough for a coat: in ’76 it was always hot and sunny. And today people wander around talking into ‘phones, it looks like they are talking to their hands. In ’76 we’d have thought they were mad. But a lot of things are surprisingly unchanged. That massive block of flats, that was there in ’76. It overshadows everything, in the same way that the sugar beet factory dominates Bury. In fact, apart from Turbot, all the buildings from ’76 are still here. The High Road near Stockwell tube, uncannily similar to how it was, with its little lock-up shops and fast food joints, litter and all. We turn into Stockwell Park: again, I would say that very little has been built since ’76, and very little pulled-down. London streets are surprisingly timeless. It is very strange to think that these old houses were built over a hundred years before I was born, and will doubtless be here a hundred years after I have left this Earth. But something has changed down this street. Whereas in ’76 these houses where often run-down, sometimes with boarded-up windows, damaged gutters and overgrown front gardens, now they are all smart again. Money has moved-in here. The tenants and bed-sits have gone. The houses are returned to their former glory. The area has become gentrified.

It does not occur to me immediately, but this gentrification is bad news in our hunt for Greg. It means that all the original residents will have moved-out, replaced by new posher ones who won’t know anything about Turbot, the fire, Greg, Olly, etc.

Tina and I are now at the point on the street where Turbot was. I have held an image in my mind for the last 27 years of the charred ruins of the house and I subconsciously expect them to be here still, possibly smouldering. But of course, the ruins have been built-on. Land is valuable in London: gaps in streets cannot be left idle for long- money is being wasted. We stand in the street. I feel disorientated. I cannot quite work-out where Turbot was. I can hear Tina thinking ‘well, where was it then?’

            “Yes, yes, it was here,” I finally say. In front of us is not a house, but a small one-storey building that could be a small community centre, or changing rooms for a sports pitch. It is rather run-down, but probably not disused. “How old would you say this building is?” I ask.

            “Maybe twenty years old?” suggests Tina.

            “OK, let’s get knocking!” I say. Tina looks hesitant. “You’re not up for it?” I ask her.

            “OK, I’ll do it.”

We start at the house next to the changing rooms. It is a small house, joined on to a larger one next door. I do not remember it being there, but then, it is 27 years since I was last here. We ring the bell. There is no reply. I breathe a sigh of relief.

At the next house, there is someone in. We can hear the telly on indoors. But they do not answer the door. Tina and I think this is very rude.

And so it goes-on. We knock on our ten doors, and only one person answers- someone who cannot understand one word of what we are saying. She says something in a language we do not recognise.

Over the next few days we work our way along the whole of Stockwell Park, knocking on doors. We manage to find a few people in, but they say they have only lived in the street since (say) 2000. The most promising interview went like this:

Me: “We are researching the disappearance from this street of my brother in 1976.”

Very old lady: “Oh yes.”

Me: “We are finding it very hard to find anyone who lived here that long ago! Have you been living here very long?”

Very old lady: “Oh yes dear!”

Me: “How long?”

Very old lady: “Since The War dear.”

Me (very excited): “Well, you remember that house that burnt down in 1976?”

(Very old lady says nothing but looks confused. My spirits start to sink again).

Me: “Yes, it was about a hundred yards down the road [I point]. It was called Turbot. It burnt down. In 1976. The changing rooms are there now.”         

Very old lady: “Those changing rooms have always been there.”

Me (trying hard not to show my frustration): “No. They were built where the house was. The house that burnt down.”

Very old lady: “No house burnt down there.”

Me: “Yes…….”

            “Senile old bat!” says Tina afterwards.

And we have started to get into a routine. We spend the mornings planning and/or researching in the public library near the hostel. In the afternoons we visit Stockwell Park, putting our plans into action. In the evenings we cruise the cafes on High Street Kensington, before we go to bed. I feel that we are achieving something, even though we have found no leads whatsoever. It is Tina who first raises this paradox:

            “We’ve been in London a week and we haven’t found a single clue – yet you seem happy.” It is then I realise that I am happy whenever we are doing something, however pointless that something is. She continues: “Remember, you didn’t come here for a holiday. You didn’t come here to take your mind off things. You came here to find what happened to your brother, and to face up to awkward facts.”

            “So, what are you saying?” I say, lamely.

            “You should put all your effort into finding him. Then, one of two things will happen. Either you will find out what happened to him, or, you will not. But then you can rest in the knowledge that you have done everything possible to find him. At the moment we are just pissing about.” I am offended by the suggestion that we are ‘pissing about.’ But deep down I know she is right. “We have to cast our net much wider,” she says. “Have several different irons in the fire at same time, or whatever. And we’ve got to be cleverer in our search. There must be better ways of doing it.”

            “Hmm, yes,” I say, but I am sulking.

The following morning Tina says she needs to have a word with me.

            “I need to go back to Bury soon,” she says. She had initially said she was going to be with me in London for two weeks, but only eight days have passed.

            “How soon?” I ask.

            “This afternoon.”

Tina did indeed go home this afternoon. She caught the 16.45 from The Cross. I went to see her off. Although we have not officially fallen-out, I feel as if I have lost a friend. To be honest, things had been cool between us ever since that night club incident. But last night she sounded frustrated by the search, and by what she saw as my inadequate approach to it. To be honest, it must be quite boring for her, tramping the streets on an obscure search for someone else’s brother who was last seen twenty-seven years ago. Afterward she has gone, I sit in Holland Park on my own, and contemplate my situation. Not far from me are some down-and-outs, sitting under a tree, drinking lager from cans. I start to understand that all of us are potentially one bankruptcy, one redundancy or one relationship breakdown from being where they are. And it hits me how lonely I am. With a friend, I never noticed it. Without, my lack of living relatives takes its toll. I have no one.

It is cold. My coat feels too thin. I wonder at the down-and-outs: they seem impervious to the cold. And the sky is grey. My melancholy is complete. Yet, inside me there remains a tiny spark of excitement. Although I have no one, equally, no one has me. For the first time in my life, I have complete freedom to do whatever I like.

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