Chapter 3 – where the swallows fly.


It’s a nice day, the sun is shining. Our taxi driver is a cheery chap who regularly picks us up for our Thursday jaunts. We’ve signed out until dinner time, so I’m looking forward to some good cricket and some aimless chat with the other pensioners in our enclosure.

“Good morning, professor, good morning Mr Betts.” Our Taxi man is not from these parts.

“Good morning, Mohamed.” Smiles back Geoff.

“What oh!” say I as I can never remember his name. the taxi is an ancient Mercedes and Geoff and I settle comfortably into the creased leather seats.

At the cricket ground all we ancients are corralled into an area near the pavilion, marked ‘Senior Citizens’ so we don’t have too much time travelling to the bars and the conveniences. The latter is pretty damned important for a group whose average age is late seventies. I am regarded as a senior amongst the seniors – bloody old!

I can never remember any of the names of my fellow oldies, neither can anyone else, so we all call each other ‘old chap’.

It’s all “Good morning, dear boy, or my friend, or old fella’”.

Geoff breaks the convention some times by settling down on our bench and telling me, I remember Simon when I clearly do not. The same goes for Bryn, Jonathan, John and all the rest of them. They are an anonymous group of pleasant but bland, gentlemen all. Let me not exaggerate we are not a crowd of thousands, we are about twenty on a good day and today despite the weather about fifteen.

I shuffle along the bench over the peeling paint, now peeling and greying like the skin on my withered arms. I’m warm, should have put on a lighter jacket. Strange but I sometimes feel the heat and sometimes not. I always feel the cold though, and tend to overcompensate with heavy clothes which today is obviously wrong.

Geoff in his patient way chats about Somerset cricket, after, he’s drawn attention to his odd socks. He seems to be able to reel off a whole load of statistics. He talks too of the personalities, who’s batting and in which order and the like. Good for him, it occurs to me that I have very little grasp of this detail despite my delight in watching the game unfold. I try to avoid talking about ‘when I was at school or with the regiment when I was this batsman or that.’

“I remember scoring 86 off some pretty serious speed when I was in the forces, on a quick wicket too……”

Who cares? I certainly don’t.

That’s what everyone else does and I find it hard to join in with this delusional self-aggrandisement. Despite this I am content, listening to my fellow old farts waffling about their pathetic pasts.

In the morning sun, I bask under my old panama and my dark glasses and remember…….

It is 1940, I am ten years old, we are playing cricket in the little park behind my house. Its summer holidays, and I’m still unsure of my cricketing skills. Colin Evans who’s about the same size as me, is so good he knocks the ball miles no matter who is bowling.

“C’ummon, six and you’re out!” Shouts Mal Morgan, he’s tall and gangly with a shock of hair that almost stands straight up. He has a darker complexion than the rest of us. He lives over near the railway station, where a lot of tough boys live. Tougher than me, and they have a gang. My dad says they’re not good boys and I should be careful who I play with.

We all go to the church primary school, most of us have just done our exam for the grammar school. Of the cricketing gang I know only two of us will pass the exam. That’s what we all expect, I live near the park, they live near the station, my dad owns my house and they live in council houses. That’s how it is.

At the back of the park is a pond, and beyond the pond is the steel works. Steam rises giving the pond an air of mystery, in fact it’s a cooling pond for the steel mills. Despite prohibition notices we play there often. There are swans and ducks and a little island shrouded in bushes and surrounded by reeds standing like soldiers guarding the island mysteries.

There are real soldiers, my dad says there’s going to be a war. I’m not at all clear what that means. Will it be like in the pictures? Mum says she hopes there won’t be a war. I think it might be fun.

“What’s this mum?”

I’m holding a floppy white balloon half filled with liquid.”

My mother shrieks, “Uugh throw it away, the bin.”

I wondered why, but then, used contraceptives weren’t in my domain.

My house is in a terrace, I live there with my mum and dad and my sister who is older than me. She goes to the girls’ grammar school. Jennifer is much admired by some of the boys. I don’t know why, she’s very bossy……

“Come on John, time for a beer and a sandwich.” Geoff squeezes past me and we troop into the bar for my customary pint and sandwich.

“89 for one, not bad before lunch” it’s that bloke who never buys a round making himself a part of the small group that includes Geoff, me and whatshisname.

“What would you like?” Geoff as always falls for the creeps and hangers on.

“A pint of Tribute.” Is the prompt reply, “thanks!” an afterthought.

I didn’t used to listen very much but now I do. It’s as if I’m too tired to lead a conversation any more. I can remember little of this morning’s cricket but I do remember me playing in People’s Park in 1940. Still the beer tastes nice so does the sandwich.

The lunch break is forty minutes and the times goes by quickly punctuated by members of the group using the comfort room.

“Are you all right?” It’s Geoff again being solicitous.

“Of course I’m all right, bugger off Geoff, I’m fine, thinking about another pint, what do you think?”

“I’d leave it, if I were you.” Geoff retorts, in a neutral sort of way.

“Then we’ll have one, Ok”

“Ok.” and I order two more pints being careful to avoid the freeloader.

The day passes, two hours then tea, two hours to end of play, then the taxi ride back to Swallow House. This is as good as it gets.

Of course we have to stop for fish and chips. For Geoff this is the highlight of his week. I watch as he transmogrifies into an aged Errol Flynn, he makes really bad jokes about cod and haddock, and praises the modest shop for excellence of its fare. I have to sit whilst this pathetic Lothario treads his stuff. I wonder idly what would happen if two tonne ‘Tessie’ responded to him. Don’t think Geoff is much of a sprinter actually. I suspect that Geoff loved his particle physics more than anything or anybody hence his late fascination with two tonne Tessie and what could have been. Nonetheless I enjoy the grub, as does our Taxi driver whose name is Salman. Salman always does our return journey, he seems to have an instinct about when we are to stop for fish and chips. Mohamed, obviously works mornings only, or perhaps Salman keeps the evening fish and chip trip to himself. Geoff tips him as well, the silly bugger.

In my room, I take off my heavy sports jacket and help myself to a scotch and water. I sit to watch the late news but then…

The war is all round us, the interview was in a grand office, I don’t recall where. My mum takes me and explains that I’m perhaps going away to school to Finsbury College where my rich cousin Michael went. I am shown into an office and a fat clergyman who is I learn the headmaster of Finsbury College. I am not nervous, I am curious, what was all this about?

The questions come and I remember the Head Master asking me, “If I saw a railway train and it sounded its whistle, what would happen first? I would see the steam or hear the whistle? Any ten year old would know that answer and I was no exception. The fat clergyman, I’ll swear, looked impressed. I couldn’t wait to go home and out to play.

Mal Morgan and his gang gathered by the canal and often walked under the long tunnel, fetid, stinking and refuse laden. Rats occasionally scampered as the gang clattered through, throwing stones, fooling and wrestling each other to the brink of disaster. No one I can remember fell in, though on many a time I shrieked in fear much to the mirth of Mal and his close gangsters. I can smell the yellowed sluggish canal, see the rubbish half submerged and still stiffen at the echoing squeal of the scampering rodents.

They never really let me in. I lived the wrong side of the park you see. I was about to separate, forever, away to Finsbury College with all the rich kids.

There’s a knock on the door. I wake from my reverie.

“Come in” and in breezes one of the male carers whose name ‘Alex’ is pinned to his uniform.

“Evening Mr Betts, how are you this evening. I’ve brought your pills, and checking if you need anything? Need any help at all?”

“No thank you, put the pills over there, there’s a good fellow, then I’ll hit the sack, thanks…”

“I’ll just get a glass of water, Mr Betts,” which he does and the proffers the glass and my four tablets, one pink, one brown, two white and of various sizes, he waits over me till I obediently take my evening medicines. I hate this bloody standing over me, as if I am some sort of halfwit. They do it every night. I do as I’m told. I don’t turn round, and wish Alex a curt good night without bothering to look back.

My room is warm and the bed comfortable, but it is the loneliest place on earth. Sleep never comes easily though I desperately wish that it will. Because when I sleep I live again and hear my girls laugh, I see them plainly together, despite their differences they are the same, age, place and time. I listen to them chat, they talk about me.

“He was a silly boy when I met him first, he limped like an injured lamb.”

“He was angry that you’d gone when he met me, he was like a wasp not knowing where to sting.”

“You made him happy.”

“You made him happy”

And they laugh, and then first light comes, and I wake.












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