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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5. The Netball Crew

Over the next few days, I take some of Tina’s advice. She is right: I do need to try harder. I put an ad in the London Evening Standard. “In Stockwell 1976? Knew any of these people - Greg (Algernon) Lake, Oliver (Olly) Deere, Zepp, Molocky, Derrick, Leomi? – trying to trace brother. Contact Box 5967.”

            I go to the internet café on High Street Ken and design a leaflet saying much the same thing, except my mobile number is there instead of a box number. I print it off and then take it to ‘Pronto Print’ on Earls Court Road and have them run-off 100 copies. Then I drop these through the 100 letter boxes nearest to where Turbot was.

            Whilst in the internet café, I note that there are community websites for both Stockwell and Brixton. Why not use new technology to help with my search? It is free to post messages on these sites, so I do. I resolve to visit the internet café every other day and see if there are any replies.

            I am pleased that Tina gave me that kick up the arse. “I needed it,” I tell myself. She was right to say what she said. But I’m stilled pissed at her, nevertheless. She was my best friend. I thought I knew her really well. But when I looked at her as we parted at The Cross, I was looking into the eyes of a stranger.

            This sort of thing undermines one’s faith in human nature. Can you ever truly know anyone? For example, did I really know my brother? Does he feel as strongly about me as I do about him? And if he does, why doesn’t he contact me? With time on my hands, I start to think of scenarios in which Greg is still alive but he is unable to contact me. The most feasible one I can think of is that it is still too dangerous for him to come out of hiding, even after 27 years. But why, then, hasn’t he secretly contacted me, or at least given me a subtle clue that he is still alive? Of course! - it would be too dangerous for me to have this information! His enemies would then kidnap me and hold me at ransom until he gave himself up. Then he would be murdered. But this scenario is too far-fetched. I smirk to myself for even bothering to think such rubbish. The reason why he has not contacted me is simply because he is dead.

            A few days later I meet a journalist from a local radio station. A radio station! I am so excited. After working for the local council for the last ten years, this is dizzy stuff! And they guy I meet is so cool and enthusiastic. He greets me warmly, asks his questions urgently, and makes lots of notes. But as I go-on, the more I realise that my story of Greg is much the same as that of any of the hundreds of people who go missing in London each year. I sense his enthusiasm waning.

            “So you say you took three months unpaid leave to try and find him?” he asks, desperately trying to find an angle on my story.

            “Two months.” I correct him. He looks disappointed.

            “But what makes you so certain that after 27 years, you’re going to find him?”

            “Well, of course, I can’t be certain of that.”

            “But you must think there’s a good chance, to take two months off work?”

            “Just a gut feeling, I suppose.” Again he looks disappointed. I start to throw-incultural references to 1976, to tempt him. I mention the punks, and the riot at the Carnival. “It was a real melting pot in ’76,” I enthuse. But I look at him- he cannot be more than 25 years old. He was not even born when all of this happened. To him, punks are no more relevant than skiffle bands are to me.

He took my mobile phone number and said he would ring me when it is time for me to go on the show. But he would have to speak to his Editor first, he said, to see if my story can be included in the programme. In other words, is it interesting enough? Well, several days have gone-by now, and he has not rang. I think its going to be another dead- end. But at least I am trying.

The rest of May goes-by in this way. I contact various organisations. The local

authority rating office, the local newspaper, the land registry. On each occasion, another dead-end appears. And each time I tell myself “Well, at least I am trying.” At the local authority rating office, they wheeled-out their Ken to see me.

            “This is Dougal. He is our longest-serving member of staff,” the manager said proudly. “I brought him to see you because he was working here at the time you are asking about.”

            “You’ve been here since 1976?” I remarked.

            “No madam, 1959.”

Dougal was a short whiskery man in a tweed jacket that has elbow patches. He smelt of pipe tobacco. He told me that the first computer system in his department was installed in 1976. But when Community Charge started in 1990, it was replaced by a new computer system. The data from the old system was transferred on to microfiche. “I remember we had a funny microscope thingy for reading the microfiche,” he said. I didn’t like the fact that he was using the past tense.

            “Have you still got the microfiche?” I asked tentatively.

            “We cannot find it madam.”

            “Any chance of you looking for it?”

            “Well, you see, I have already spent three days looking for it, but it is no where to be found.” In the same breath I was both touched and horrified by him spending three days of public time trying to find it for me.

            “Aren’t you supposed to keep these records safely?”

            “There is no statutory duty to keep old records for more than seven years madam.”

            “OK, but do you remember anything about the house burning-down in Stockwell Park in 1976?”

            “That’s a long time ago madam.” Of course it was, I knew that.

            “Well, even the smallest recollection may help me.”

            “I vaguely remember a house being removed from the rating list, some time around then. Yes, I think there was a fire or something.”

            “Yes yes,” I said impatiently, “some changing rooms for the playing fields were built on the site of the gutted house.”

            “Oh yes,” he said, although he looked puzzled. But he did not say anything else. I think he was scared of me.

 

Flaming June

And then, all of a sudden, it is June. It has crept-up on us, biding its time, before bursting onto the calendar without warning.  I have woken late, without meaning to. For once, my dormitory is empty, and I lie back on my bunk and enjoy the silence. To my surprise, I am not cross with myself for waking-up late. All that scurrying-around and checking this, finding-out that, suddenly seems unimportant. I am starting to appreciate that all my searching and researching, however hard I try, will not get me any nearer finding out what happened to Greg. Usually, if you keep trying at something for long enough, you eventually succeed. But if all the evidence has disappeared, then you will never find it, however hard you try.

And I have tried everything I can think of. And I have been patient. I have checked my phone, checked the website for postings in reply to mine, and checked my newspaper box number. I have done this day after day after day, but there are no replies. I think I am ready to give up. I’ve missed breakfast at the hostel, so I pick-up my coat and wander out to get a snack. But once I’m outside find I don’t need a coat. The hot weather is here!

Holland Park is fantastic in hot weather. The wealthy and famous take strolls. The attractive wear less. People are smiling again- their winter faces at last thawed by the sunshine. I pretend that I am from round here too, and I stroll with them. I buy the early edition of the Evening Standard. When I came to London in 1976, there were two evening papers: the Evening News and the Evening Standard. Now there is only one, which is a shame. I have the idea of starting my own evening paper. But lots of other things have changed since then, too, so you can’t keep hankering after the past (I tell myself). But London will always be the same bewildering mass of people ebbing and flowing towards the main railway termini at each end of the working day. For a yokel like me, not going back to the sticks in the evening leaves an alienating sensation. I resolve to beat that sensation by immersing myself in as much London as I can take. I start by reading the Evening Standard cover to cover. Every single word of it. Even the city pages and the Sky TV listings. My God, it takes a long time, and I need refreshment. Arduous tasks are always made easier by coffee! So I head to Graziana's, an old Italian café on Hornton Street where Lady Di used to chill in her Sloane Ranger days. There are tables outside, and I sit at one, sipping and reading. By now I’ve got to the personals. Don’t people leave weird messages!  Biblical quotes, a thank you to St Jude, obscure messages to lovers (maybe propositions of clandestine meetings), and ‘Gamed 1967 contact Box no 130’ – what the heck does that mean? People are mad, I feel sleepy. I wander back to Holland Park, hoping I can reach the park before I lose the sleepy feeling. I crash on the grass in the dappled shade of a tree and snooze.

When I wake-up I feel different. Not just different as in refreshed, or less sleepy, but in a different mood altogether. I feel in no hurry to do anything. I rack my brain to understand what is making me thus. Then, I think I have it- that feeling that I must, sooner or later, go back to my job in Bury, has disappeared.  Yes, I think that’s it. Or is it sex? I have not had any for a long time, and not missed it, either. But now, all of a sudden, I fancy some. When I woke-up just now, I had images of dark-haired young men with bronzed, bare chests in my head. There had been students playing frisbee in the sunshine on the grass ahead of me, as I dozed-off. But they had not been bare chested- my imagination had undressed them. I remind myself that I am 42 years old, and brand myself  SLEAZEBALL for falling asleep in the park like a tramp, and letching at young boys. But I hadn’t been staring at them in a pervy way, I remind myself. How good it would have been to be playing frisbee with them, and leaping around and laughing. I suddenly feel sorry for myself. All’s I wanted was to be playing frisbee and them, having friends and a big smile and no cares in the World! Just like them. I start to sob, at first gently, and then uncontrollably. I walk briskly to a more remote area of the park, so that no one can see my tears.

 

I hate crying. To be more accurate, I hate it when I cry. Especially when others can see me. Long-buried memories of humiliation in front of my peers at school are unearthed. If you cry, you’ve broken away from the ‘normal’ – your mind is weak, you’re half way to insanity. So, all my adult crying, I’ve done in private, until now. Eventually, I stop sobbing. Tentatively, I uncover my eyes. I am sitting on some rough bit of grass under a fine old tree. There could be mud or even dogs mess down here, but I think its ok. I look up. As I suspected, no chivalrous soul has approached me to see if I’m ok. I’m now a weirdo who must be avoided, or, more likely, simply no one cares. After all, this is London, and there are far more important things going-on. Like Tony Blair supervising the invasion of Iraq, or fortunes being made and lost in the City, or some poor sod being stabbed-up in Peckham.

            I hate it when I cry, i.e. at the time when I am actually crying. But when its all over, I feel surprisingly good. I assess the damage. A few people may have seen me. But not too many. And they don’t know me either – I will probably never see them again. So who cares if I cried? From my own point of view, it is a healthy thing (I decide). You drop so low, that you can’t hide from your problems any more. Crying represents the point where you admit that you have problems, and cleansing your soul. Now I can face my problems more honestly.

            In this new frame of mind, I decide that I have a stark choice. Either:

I make a ‘proper’ go of living in London,

Or

I sack this London lark and go back to Bury (‘where I belong’?)

A ‘proper’ go of living in London would mean leaving my job in Bury, saying goodbye to my house, and more importantly, my garden, and throwing my heart and soul into the capital city. Only this way will I settle down and make new friends.

But I can’t decide. I start to walk round and round the park, perhaps searching for a sign from God. I see a dog pissing. Perhaps that’s a sign not to move to London. A small girl is playing ball with her mother. Suddenly, she stops and smiles at me. Perhaps that’s I sign that I should move to London. I pick a 10p coin from my pocket. Heads I stay in London, Tails I don’t. I toss the coin. It lands on Tails. I feel disappointed. But, you can’t decide on just one toss, can you?. So I toss again. This time its Heads. So we go for the decider. Tails this time. OK, I say, best of five….and so on. The score gets to about 35 – 31 (one way or the other) before I appreciate the futility of the exercise.

Its not until much later that evening, when I am back in the Youth Hostel, that something occurs to me that should have been blatantly obvious all along. The choice I now face is just the same as the choice that my brother had, all those years ago. London or Bury? I smile at the irony of it. Now my life is no different to how his life was. However ‘normal’ I’ve been in the intervening years, with my marriage and my car and my house and my garden and my job, I’ve ended up with exactly the same choice that Greg had 27 years ago. Once I realise this, the choice is simple, I must follow Greg.

The following day, I am busy. I buy some writing paper and envelopes, and go to the Public Library. There, I write two letters. The first is my resignation letter to Graham. In theory, I must give three month’s notice. Perhaps two of those months can be absorbed by my unpaid leave, and I have no intention of going back for the odd month. And what can they do, I ask myself, sack me? The second letter is written to a reputable letting agents in Bury, instructing them to let my house out. I enclose the house keys.

It is 11.00 pm. Under the influence of alcohol, I prepare to drop the two letters into a post box. Despite my tipsiness, I hesitate for a few seconds. It is a big step. But a voice in my head urges Do it! And I let the envelopes gently drop into the care of the Royal Mail. I have no regrets.

The following day (the heatwave is still with us), I visit Manpower employment agency. To my surprise I immediately secure a job, which involves touring around London schools presenting a road safety training package. I start tomorrow. “Do you have a police check?” asks the Manpower man.

            “I don’t think so,” I reply, and the man gives me form to fill-in and send off. “Don’t you have to get a reply to this before I start work?” I ask. The man shrugs,

            “You don’t look like a criminal to me,” he says.

And so I head ‘home’ to the Youth Hostel, amazed at how many changes I’ve made to my life in such a short period. It occurs to me that I will now be busy. From tomorrow, I will be working full-time, so there will be no more falling asleep in the park, and no more time for working on my project. Why not have one last look at Stockwell Park this afternoon, while I still have the chance, I say to myself. So I do an about turn and head back to the tube station.

On my way to Stockwell Park, I pick-up the Evening Standard. In the Personals I notice ‘Edgam 1697 contact Box no 130.’

As I walk towards the site of Turbot, the butterflies return. Obviously, some small stupid part of my brain still thinks that I will bump into Greg, with a smile on his face, strolling down the road towards me.

But everything is as I left it a few days ago, other than a netball match on the courts opposite the changing rooms. I watch for a while, wishing that I was young enough to join-in. Then one of the black girls who is playing shouts at me:

            “Hey! Fancy a game? We’re six on seven!”

            “But I’m in my long trousers,” I say. Before I can think of any more excuses I am thrown the ‘WD’ bib and I’m there, trying to mark the Wing Attack. I jump to try and intercept her pass, forgetting that I am about a foot shorter and at least 15 years older than her. But I jump anyway.

            “What’s your name?” asks one of my team mates.

            “Madge, “ I pant.

            “Hey Madge!” The ball is thrown at me and I manage to catch it and pass it to a team mate before my opponent can block it. I feel great, despite the busted finger nail.

            To be honest, I do not play well. These girls are a lot faster and fitter than me. But to find that I can play at all is a wonderful surprise. After one minute I am puffing. After three minutes I am sweating as well. And after five I have blisters on my feet. But I keep going. All the girls, except me and a latino, are black. And they are massively friendly to me. My team mates are trying their socks off, but they never cuss me when I lose the ball, or fail to block an opponent’s pass. The opponents are also friendly. Though no quarter is given, there is no foul play, and there are smiles after every accidental collision. Except for one player. She looks a little older than the others, and her expression is fierce, especially when she’s near me. Or is this my imagination?

            A the end of the game, I scarcely have the energy to shake hands with the other players. “Well done, you played well!” they say. I know that I did not play ‘well’ – but I played better than I thought I would.

            “That’s the first time I’ve played in 26 years!” I say, fishing for compliments. I think Fierce-Face looks up at that point, but says nothing. She is the only player not to shake hands with me. One of the other girls asks me:

            “Can you play next week?” My red, sweaty head nods in the affirmative. I am delighted. Another girl says to me, “Give us your digits.” I took me a few moments to work-out what that meant.

And this is how I ended-up playing netball with these girls every Thursday afternoon. I always manage to contrive things so that I can finish work by 3-ish on a Thursday, in time for a 4.00 pm ‘throw-off.’ The morning after that first game, every muscle I had hurt. When I awoke at first thought I had been struck-down by some bizarre paralysis. Then I remembered what I had been doing the previous afternoon. I don’t know how I managed to get out of bed that morning, for my first day in my new job. But I did, and thereafter my first day went well. In fact, it was easy: to my surprise I get on well with kids (having little experience of children, having neither children of my own, nor nephews or nieces). Every one of my unfamiliar props went wrong, but I just laughed, and the children laughed too, and everything was ok.

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