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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2. To London

“Graham,” I say to my boss, “how comfortable do you feel with the concept of unpaid leave?” [Graham and I have this faux pretentious way of introducing a topic.] He frowns. But it is not a severe frown. Eventually he says,

            “I suppose from an employer’s angle we like it slightly more than paid leave. Why, what had you got in mind?”

            “I have some family business to sort-out.” Graham’s expression says ‘Hang-on, I thought all your family had expired?’ But I continue: “The kind of business that will take me longer to sort-out than my normal leave entitlement.”

            “How much longer?” asks Graham. I shrug my shoulders. I do not know how long it will  take. So I estimate.

            “Two months,” I say. Then I hold my breath. Graham’s face relaxes a little.

            “That’s OK, I thought you were going to say 12 months, or something.”

            “So its OK then?” I ask.

            “When I say ‘OK,’ I mean its OK by me. But you know this sort of thing has to go through Ken [all public bodies have a moderately senior pen-pusher named Ken in their hierarchy, usually aged 55]. And Ken will want to know what its for.” So I give Graham the sketchiest outline of what I am going to do during the two months, avoiding any specifics that may make my project sound nutty. I do not want him to think that I am a nutty old bat. There are enough of those working here already. “Let me speak to Ken,” he says. “I will let you know tomorrow.”

That night I wonder where to start this project. Now I regret destroying Greg’s letters all those years ago. They would have been a good place to start. But I tell myself that ‘regret’ is a negative emotion. Make the best of every situation! So I think harder. I remember back to the time when I worked-out how to find Greg among the crowds at the Notting Hill Carnival. If a human tries very very hard at something, there is almost no limit to what she can achieve. What is the next-best thing to having Greg’s letters? Answer = a word perfect transcript of the letters. So I sit at the table and write….and write…I am appalled at how well I can remember those letters. Appalled at how ineffective my efforts at forgetting them have been. But I tell myself that if I face-up to the past and look it full in the eye, then one day I will be able to relax. And after an hour of writing I have the five letters. I reckon they are 95% accurate. Together with the real one I found on Sunday I have a canon of six Greg letters, to guide me through my investigations.

 

š            Now it is Friday afternoon, on my last day at work for two months. I say to my best mate, Tina, “See you in two months!” But she says,

            “See you tomorrow!”

            “What do you mean?” I say.

            “I’m taking two weeks holiday, I’m coming with you!” she says.

            “But I haven’t even told you where I’m going,” I protest.

            “You don’t have to tell me, I know where you’re going.”

            “Where then?” I challenge her.

            “You’re going to find your brother.”

            “Ssssshh!” I impeach her, because I don’t want all my colleagues to know about this. Well, that Tina knows me too well, I tell myself. I agree to meet her at my house early tomorrow morning.

In the evening, I sit at my computer. I stare at the screen for some time, just thinking. Finally, I type some words in a column:

 

Name

Approximate age

Race

Last known address

Last known occupation

Distinctive features / other info

 

Then, I fill-in the information, like this:

Name                                            Oliver Deere

Approximate age                            52       

Race                                              White European

Last known address                       Turbot

Last known occupation                  Drug dealer

Distinctive features / other info       Strong Glaswegian accent

 

I write-out one for Greg:

 

Name                                            Algernon/ Greg

Approximate age                           46       

Race                                             White European

Last known address                      Turbot

Last known occupation                 Insurance clerk/ music writer/unemployed

Distinctive features / other info       tuft of hair that sticks-up

 

I cry while I write this.

 

I aim to do one of these for each person that Greg knew in London. But then I think, how am I to transport this information with me? I’m not going to carry my computer around with me, after all. Daft cow! I will have to buy a note pad and write-out these pro-formas by hand. I rush-off to Tescos and feel grateful for the 24-hour economy.

My sleep that night is disturbed by two nightmares. In the first, a small boy is about to dash across the busy road. I grab his hand to save him from being mown-down by the speeding traffic. Having performed this good deed, I let-go his hand. He runs into the road, and is struck by a car. During the rest of that nightmare, I am wracked by guilt. I tell myself that I had done my best for the boy, but in my heart I know I should have held his hand for longer. It is a nightmare that I used to have regularly until just a few years ago. The boy, I had decided, represents Greg, and letting go his hand represents not having searched for him since our initial attempt back in ’76.

            In the second nightmare, I am very excited. I have found-out that Greg is alive! I am to meet him for the first time in 27 years. But when I meet him, he looks nothing like Greg. In fact, it is not Greg at all: it is definitely someone else. My disappointment is bitter and absolute.

---š

 

It is about 10.00 am on Saturday morning. I sit with Tina on the train to Cambridge. At Cambridge we will change for The Cross. We are in good spirits, but secretly I wonder whether I might prefer to be on my own, so that I can savour the journey, and imagine what Greg was thinking when he came this way 27 years ago. ‘Oh what the hell!’ I say to myself, and we carry-on laughing and joking and I decide I am glad of the company after all.

            Cambridge station is crowded with English language students. They are all aged approximately fourteen and wear bright orange cagoules, even though it is a fine day. They have disgustingly attractive dark skin so we decide that they must be Italian or Spanish. They gabble-away in whatever language it is, apparently having learnt no English at all at the language school. I tell myself to be tolerant, and appreciate other cultures, like Greg did. But these kids barge into us and annoy us. So we go to the far end of the London train and get a good seat in an almost-empty carriage.

            “Excellent!” proclaims Tina, as we pull-out of Cambridge.

            “Excellent….NOT!” I reply.

            “Why ‘not’?” asks Tina.

“Because the ticket collector always starts at the far end of the train.”

“How do you know that?” Tina asks, sceptically.

“Because der little man in der WAGN cap has just come into our cawiage,” I say in a baby voice.

“But we haven’t got a ticket!”

I scratch my chin. For some reason, we only bought tickets to Cambridge at Bury St Edmunds. I think Tina said the London tickets would be cheaper at Cambridge. Or was that me? But in our panic to find an empty seat, we have forgotten to buy them. We stare at each other for inspiration, but it is too late, the ticket inspector is upon us. At this moment, Tina bursts into tears. For a split second, I wonder what on earth is wrong with her. Then I explain to the ticket inspector,

            “She just got her handbag nicked.”

            “Didn’t you report it at the station?” asks the inspector, sceptically.

            “We were on the train already. Then one of those little Italian kids runs on the train, swipes her bag, and runs off it again. We started to chase him, but the doors closed before we could get off. It had our tickets in it and everything,” I tell him.

It works! The ticket inspector buys our story and tells us to report the Police as soon as we get to The Cross. More importantly, he doesn’t ask us to buy a ticket! As soon as he’s gone to the next carriage, we start laughing again. “Don’t laugh too loud in case he hears us!” I tell Tina. We celebrate with a coffee and put our feet up on the empty seats opposite us. “This trip is fantastic already!” says Tina. I agree with her, but deep down my conscience is pricking me. Nothing to do with fare dodging. I am thinking of poor Greg when he made this journey. He would have been tense, uncertain, and lonely. I feel guilty for having fun.

        

I was convinced that when I told Tina we would be staying in a Youth Hostel, that would be enough to deter her from accompanying me on this trip. But she just said “Great!” On the train I remind her again, but she just says “Sounds like fun!” The reason I decided I will stay in Youth Hostels while in London was mainly economy: I may be here for two months and two months of hotel bills would be too much. But I also have some vague notion that by being in hostels I will somehow be nearer ‘the people’ – therefore somehow nearer to finding out what happened to Greg.

 

As we approach London, I tell Tina about the time I came to London to meet Greg, only to be met by Olly instead.

            “How horrible!” says Tina, “Anything could have happened to you!”

            “It was only by luck that Greg was there, otherwise…….Lord knows.”

At The Cross, the train pulls-in at platform 10 [one of the platforms in the little annexe attached to the main station], just like it did when I came down in ’76. I tell Tina this and I get very excited. I think she does too, because she seems to be looking-out for Olly as we walk down the platform. Then we wander through the main station, trying to find our way, trying to think how Greg felt when he was here 27 years ago. It doesn’t seem to be that bad here, but I’m sure it was bad back in ‘76- full of pick-pockets, druggies and prostitutes. I buy an Evening Standard, and ask the vendor the way to the Youth Hostel.

            “Out the front of the station and turn left.”

            “Thank you,” we say.

            “You don’t look like typical Youth Hostellers,” says the vendor.

            “Youth Hostellers come in all shapes and ages, these days,” I say.

            “Didn’t mean it like that, dear,” he says.

            “Would you say this is a rough area?” I ask him.

            “Yeah, a bit, but in a couple of years it’ll be as posh as Belgravia.”

            “How come?”

            “Cross Channel rail link, innit.” It seems a pity to me that one of Greg’s old haunts would soon be gentrified beyond recognition, but I do not say so.

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