Life on the Suburban Fringe by S.R.Noss
Thursday November 2nd to Friday November 3rd 1989
The Righteous Brothers crooned softly from two old battered speakers perched in the corner of the lounge. Someone clearly had a sense of humour as the lyrics ‘…as time, goooes by, sooo slowly…’ drifted around the room
Time; something few who sat listening had left yet I had too much of back then. I’d have been a rich man if I could have bottled it and sold in on.
All around the lounge the elderly slumbered or chatted in hushed voices whilst the memory music drifted around the room. Few paid much attention to my entrance. I could see Grandad snoozing in an armchair by the fire with Alfie sat next to him contently soundo. A little trickle of post-dinner saliva ran down his chin as he snored.
They seemed so peaceful that it was a shame to wake them but we had to get going. I picked my way through the room, careful not to disturb a soul, and shook Grandad gently on the shoulder. Sleep befuddled he began calling out for a change of watch as he awoke. Bodies stirred around us and I had to reassure him everything was alright, we weren’t aboard ship it was just an old man’s dreams, not reality.
As we drove home I wondered if he be happier in a care home like the Daff’s. Three square meals, comfy beds, old friends and middle aged women to care for his needs; what was there not to like? After all, it seemed to have done Alfie the world of good. But I knew he wouldn’t go for it. Not being in a home was the last remnant of independence he had to cling onto and that was more important than anything else.
I parked the car and as we shuffled up our pathway the neighbour’s front door opened and Mrs Harrison popped her head out.
‘Ooh you’re home then,’ she said whilst reaching down to unchain her door, ‘I have a surprise for you two. The postman tried to deliver it earlier but he needed someone to sign for it, so I said I would.’
‘That’s strange,’ I replied, ‘we weren’t expecting anything, were we Grandad?’ He shook his head and carried on shuffling towards our front door. ‘But thanks anyway Mrs Harrison.’ She stepped out from her own doorway and handed me small brown box over the fence. It had a heavy feel and the postmark this time was stamped London.
It was getting late and with Grandad’s medication making him groggy I didn’t want to get cornered talking to Mrs Harrison about her most recent list of ailments, so I said a quick thank you and headed inside to put Grandad to bed.
That meant he didn’t notice the watch until breakfast on Friday morning.
‘What’s that?’ he asked, pointing his spoon in the direction of the open box on the breakfast table.
‘That’s what was in the package that came yesterday,’ I replied.
He scooped up a spoonful of porridge and ate it, then told me to give him the watch to take a closer look at. He turned it in his hands feeling its weight. It was an impressive piece; the main watch face was surrounded by two other smaller dials on the bezel, one bronze, the other silver, each with a different range of numerical markings on. In the centre of the watch was another smaller stopwatch face to time seconds and a magnifying Cyclops bubble showing the date. It was frozen at the 1st of November 1989.
The watch also had two crowns. The main winding crown jutted out from the 3 o’clock position and another smaller push button crown was inbetween the 1 and 2 o’clock. Grandad peered closer at it, squinting first to make out the intricate detail of the watch face itself and then the maker’s name, Hanhart, which was discretely engraved beneath the watch hands. He wound the winding crown and the watch began to tick. It was a classic made-to-last piece.
‘They no make watches like these anymore,’ he said, marginally disinterested.
‘Now look at the back of it,’ I said and he turned it over in his hands. On the back was an engraving of an eagle perched upon a swastika. Beneath them was the letter ‘M’, the number 203 and the word ‘Stahl’.
‘It’s German,’ I said whilst leaning forward to point at the engraving. Grandad tutted.
‘I no stupid you know, Marty.’ He sat back in his chair and stroked the rough of his chin. ‘I seen watch like this before, somewhere long time ago.’
‘Really?’ His statement had surprised me. ‘Where have you seen it before?’
He thought for a while before answering.
‘That the problem Marty, I no remember. I remember type of watch clearly but no where or when I saw it.’ He gave a shrug of his shoulders and passed the watch back to me. I could tell he had become disinterested. ‘Memory goes with age.’
Oh how we both laughed at the irony of that.
After breakfast I made a call to Big Tony. I figured he was the most likely person to know something about watches and their value. On the phone I explained how it had arrived unexpectedly and its appearance.
‘And you’re sure your papa didn’t mail order it or something?’ he asked, clearly puzzled. ‘Watches like that don’t just turn up outta the blue, mush.’
‘I know it’s bloody odd Tony. Like I said it was addressed to us but I can’t find any record of Grandad having ordered it. I asked him and he said he didn’t and as he doesn’t have access to the bank account I don’t see how he could have.’
Tony grunted down the end of the phone. ‘A right bloody mystery then mush. So you want me to find out how much it’s worth then?’
‘Well I don’t know if it’s mine to sell Tony but it would be good to know if it’s valuable or something.’
‘Ok. Let me make a few calls fella and see what I can find out. You going to be on the end of the phone if I call you back?’
I told him I would. We never had plans to go anywhere on a Friday, for Fridays were memory days.
It was a technique one of the doctors at the hospital we try. The aim was to stimulate the mind of the patient to try and slow down the deterioration of the mental muscle. Like a workout for the brain, was how the doctor had described it. At that stage I had figured anything was worth a try, despite the evidence of Al’s increasingly frequent appearances. The battle against him had turned into a war of attrition and no weapon could be left unused to try and win it, even though I knew it was always only going to be a hollow victory at best.
I had made a box labelled ‘Marty and Artur’s Box of Memories’ in thick black marker pen that contained an assortment of items from both of our pasts. The approach to using it wasn’t much different to ‘show and tell’ in a primary school. The patient (Grandad) was allowed to rummage through the box, taking out whatever piqued their interest, so as to talk about it with the helper (me). The idea was to get them to reminisce using the object as a memory catalyst and for the helper to be the passive audience who listened. Telling the patient what the object’s significance was would have defeated the purpose.
Unfortunately Grandad was not a supporter of this process and sat grumpily in his armchair throughout the morning, arms folded in defiance with a little devil Al sat upon his shoulder, as I tried to coax and cajole him into some form of action. He didn’t like to be reminded of what he couldn’t remember.
I took out of the box a small stack of 12 inch records.
‘Look Grandad,’ I said, holding up a series of them in succession, ‘Perry Como, Mario Lanza, Connie Francis and Jim Reeves. Do you remember them? They were Grandma’s favourites. You used to play them of an evening and slow dance in the lounge here.’
He barely acknowledged their existence. Perhaps some memories were too painful and best forgotten. I moved on. Battered Corgi cars, a soft toy bear and a dirt encrusted Action Man, missing his arms and legs from a war fought in the garden long ago, are pulled out like rabbits from a magicians hat but to no avail. Clearly my possessions did little for him so I moved on to our meagre photographic collection.
First Grandma as a girl before the war, all blonde curls and black and white smiles in her Sunday best but none of Grandad because his were left in Poland for the Germans to march over. Then Grandma and Grandad on their wedding day, VE day not long past, he proud and pigeon chested, her smiling coyly to the camera, a slight bulge discernible about the belly, out of wedlock, things best not said. He began to talk.
‘Proud day,’ he said, ‘the best of life.’
A few years passed. My mother came next, a smaller version of my Grandma with Grandad’s nose, head half cocked, scowling to the camera in a polka-dotted dress. My mum must have been seven or eight. I asked Grandad what she was like as a child but that only seemed to make him sadder.
‘Daddy’s girl,’ was all he said.
We persevered on as the fifties thickened out into the sixties. Grandma in cat’s eye glasses, Grandad on a beach, pasty black and white, a smattering of summer holidays, Christmases and school, always individuals though, never all three of them, which I had always found odd, but Grandad dismissed it as the way it was. He fingered the photographs with maudlin eyes and explained most of their photographic collection had been lost in a house fire years before I was born. It was only these they had managed to salvage from the wreckage of the flames.
We moved into the sixties and along with colour came my mum in all her teenage glory; tousled black gypsy hair, little skirts and smiling eyes, larking about in carefree days caught on film. Briefly my father makes an appearance, a young amore with serious eyes and then comes a few of them together, very much in love, mum with swollen tummy, waddling along until, of course, comes me.
‘Your parents so very proud,’ Grandad tells me, ‘so happy, it such a shame what happened.’
He patted me gently on the arm to tell me that it was ok to feel sad.
The pair that came after always made me wonder if they were taken that way on purpose. The first was of my dad, proud as punch, holding a new born me in his arms, rocking away towards the left. The second was a mirror image of that, with my mother cradling me in her arms, rocking towards the right. Placed side by side they appeared to create a landscape of them both swaying me to sleep. I held them up to show Grandad and asked if they meant to create that effect. He shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know. He reckoned it was just that one was left handed, the other right, which made sense but I preferred to think that they meant to make it look like that.
And then, like that, my parents were gone, expunged from the record. The only photos that remained after that we all of me, growing up as a kid. I dug to the bottom of the pile to see if that was all there was.
‘How about this one Grandad?’ I asked, holding an old black and white up for him to look at. On the back faded pencil stated ‘The Cowboys, 1951’. In it a mixed group of younger and older men sat atop piles of timber. All were dressed in work boots and rough trousers, flat caps and braced shirts. The older men all sported uniform moustaches and scowled at the camera whilst the younger men were clean shaven and posed jauntily. In the background a railway track ran into the distance where a series of sheds stand.
Front left of the group was a lone detached figure. He stood ramrod straight, like a sergeant major, arms folded behind his back. He was dressed like the others but his moustache was fuller, engulfing his top lip, whilst his expression was stern and he wore his peaked pushed forward low down his forehead, military fashion.
‘Who’s that?’ I asked Grandad as I passed him the photo and pointed to the man at the front. Grandad laughed for the first time that day.
‘He the Sheriff. All day long he says ‘what’s the hold up, what’s the hold up?’
‘The Sheriff?’ I asked, puzzled. Grandad laughed again.
‘It nickname. He gang master, the stevedore. We call him Sheriff because he looked like cowboy with moustache. Rest of men call us Cowboy gang because. Every dock gang had nickname.’
‘So which one is you then?’ I asked, cottoning on quick. Grandad pointed to one of the grinning younger men to the rear of the picture. ‘And that’s Alfie is it?’ I said, pointing a lad who stood beside him with thumbs up for the photographer.
‘Hmm yes, he rascal back then.’
‘So what happened to the Sheriff?’ I asked, wanting to engage Grandad further now he had decided to start reminiscing. He turned over the photograph and looked at the date written on the back.
‘He die few months later. Heart attack.’
‘Then what happened?’
‘I took over job. Fill dead man’s shoes and become new stevedore for gang. I the best man for job.’ He said with obvious chest thumping pride.
‘See it’s not so hard is it,’ I told him with a gentle pat on the back, ‘you’re doing well.”
He looked at me with sad knowing eyes.
‘Past easy Marty,” he said, ‘it yesterday I cannot remember.’
We carried on for a while longer but to little purpose. Grandad had said all he was going to say and had begun to shrink back within himself. It felt like a small victory in our mental war though; progress to some degree, just not enough to turn the tide. For a couple of hours later, as darkness began to fall, Al was back in full force, as mean as he ever, vacant eyed and repetitive, waving his stick and demanding to know who I was and why the hell I was in his house.
Resigned to my fate I coaxed him to bed early, with the help of a couple of powerful tranquilizers and sat brow beaten and battered on the sofa wondering how much longer I could cope with it all.
I couldn’t sleep. Like Al, insomnia would strike me without warning. No matter how hard I tried to trick, cajole, relax or bribe, my mind will not shut down. Cocoa would probably have helped but we were out of milk, so I decided to go for a walk. Once tranquilized Grandad would have slept through a tornado, so leaving him for a while was safe at that point and I needed to get out to clear my head and breathe the night-time air. The house had started to feel claustrophobic.
The air had grown frosty and cold. Pinching chilly, as my Grandma used to call it. Small clouds of condensed oxygen formed with every step in the iciness of the midnight hour. I clomped my hands and stomped my feet for a few minutes to get the circulation going before setting off along the winding riverside path that ran up to the old Roman road on the top of the hillside.
All was quiet. Occasionally the odd car would drive by, illuminating me for a moment in the headlights glare, but other than that no one else passed my way. That was the way it always was when insomnia hit; me alone on the concrete. People preferred to stay inside at that time of night around our way. A few net curtains that I passed still flickered TV blue. Others cast stray bedroom light out into the gloom.
I often found myself wondering, as if a modern-day Winston Smith, what went on behind those windows I passed. Fucking, arguing, singing, game shows, silence, rows and razing merry hell, all of the things I didn’t much do. I often wondered why I had been cast as an extra to life, to be the one outside of the world looking in, consigned to spend my days living on the suburban fringe.
Lost in thought I’d already walked a good mile or more along the hilltop and found myself looking across the old Peartree Common at the twinkling hump-backed curve of the Itchen Bridge. Lit up in the night-time sky it looked like the spine of a great whale soaring out of the water, caught freeze framed as it arched its back, ready for entry back into the murky depths of the river.
I stopped and watched for a while. The view was one of the few decent things that damn suburb had. From atop the hill you could follow the river in both directions as it simultaneously curved northwards towards the Hampshire hills and southwards towards the Channel and onto France, Europe and the world beyond. Whichever direction you chose to travel in you would have ended up somewhere better than here.
It was a place of history though. You could almost feel it echo beneath your feet for this was where generations of sailors women had stood, waving their men folk off as their ships slipped out into the Solent and then awaiting the day of their return. Not all came back. The old squat Chapel nestled upon the hill paid testament to that. The cemetery around it was gnarled and twisted with age. A rusting metal railed fence surrounded the lurching graves whose words had become eroded by the wind and rain, just like the bodies of the once living sailors they contained. Grandad used to bring me here as a boy to walk amongst the dead and tell me the old sea stories behind the names. At night the place had a haunting feel about it, dark and foreboding, somewhere to be bypassed and not waylaid.
The sound of singing, faint and wispy on the night air, drifted out of the darkness within the willow trees. The tune was maudlin and sung with sadness, the voice a baritone male kept in time by the harmony of a harmonica. A couple of old drunks, I figured, finding a Gothic spot to while away their cares. I carried on walking, moonlit eyes itching on my back.
The night was neon bright closer to the water. The bridge overhead dominated the little enclave of houses nestled by the river and no matter which way you turned you couldn’t hide from its light. The sound of cars crossing mingled with the toots of tugs out on the water and distant metallic bangs of cranes loading scrap onto barges. The river at night still throbbed with the last efforts of dying industry. No one stirred indoors for all were accustomed to the noise of living in an old sailors suburb gone to the dogs long before.
On the crest of the hill overlooking the river a developer had, a few months before, begun a new block of flats and then run out of cash or simply thought better of it. Architectural skeletons loomed out of mud, casting bony shadows out across the water whilst a Billboard that had been erected to cordon off the site and now housed a bikini clad, simpering blonde with raised glass of martini under the slogan of ‘Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere’ dominated the skyline. Anywhere but here, I chuckled to myself.
The all night mini-mart stood out as an oasis of light in the darkness of the night. Inside it was devoid of life. The person visible was the clerk stood at the cash desk; a young man, about my age, with shorn blonde hair that rose into a spiked little quiff at the front of his head and a toned physique that told you he could handle himself.
He looked like the sort of guy who had a lot of pent up aggression in his broad shoulders. Not that that was necessarily a bad thing in that sort of job. After all he was working the night shift in an area well-known for its wino’s, smack heads and teenage yobs. For a few minutes I just watched him through the shop window, never moving from his position, concentrating solely on the task before him.
He was leant nonchalantly on the counter reading some sort of glossy magazine, a ball point pen held in the tips of his fingers, which he would absent-mindedly rattle against the ends of his teeth from time to time. A look of real concentration was etched across his face. From time to time the pen would move to be poised over the open page before he would attack it with a short burst of jagged writing. Then it was back to being poised once again.
A small buzzer sounded over the doorway alerting him to the newcomer’s presence. He looked up at me and I felt him size me up for trouble. His gaze did not falter. Instead he stood upright and continued to stare at me, the pen a-tap-a-tapping against his teeth as his mind ticked over. His brow furrowed slightly and he glanced down at his watch to check the time. His one mistake if I was intent on causing trouble. It was past midnight, Saturday morning already. Then the pen was moved away from his lips. As he spoke he smiled and waggled the biro in my direction.
“You’ve been fucking thinking again haven’t you Marty”
Then he laughed a belly aching laugh and I went on in.