A Public Bar and a Spitfire

Gerald Wixey

The irony was lost on me at the time, but the public bar of a dingy boozer became a young boy’s safe haven. A secure anchorage and best of all, close to my harbourmaster. Alongside my old man and chance to marvel at him in action, what could be better? I rested my elbows on the counter and looked at the disparate, ragged line of drinkers on the other side. At different times, my old man shouted at them, insulted them, sometimes waved a gnarled knuckle under a red nose. But mostly he made them laugh and he nursed their drinking habits. For a man lacking any subtlety in his everyday relationships, Dad encouraged them to drink with a delicate touch that belied his ham-fisted lifestyle.

By the tender age of eleven, I helped collect empties and served while he played darts. This was obviously illegal, my old man was well versed in all matters of the law, he just chose to disregard most of it. My career began on Sunday mornings a couple of years earlier, he pushed me all the time, not content schooling me in the more physical aspects of football, or the less subtle facets to be found in the noble art of boxing, foreheads and elbows hurt more than knuckles. He groomed me behind the bar, apprentice pot-man and I worked hard for my pocket money. My catholic friends had a different Sunday ceremony, but theirs was all faith, faith and more faith. Envious of my catechism, they sat in church while I disconnected pipes from barrels, dragged caustic soda through and then flushed two buckets of water through each line. Gallons of water dragged through stiff beer engines.

Needless to say, I got lots of encouragement from my old man. C’mon, pull harder, your sister’s stronger than you.

So every weekday evening, I listened to the gossip and the arguments of this fierce bunch, members of the male only, after work club. As always this early in the evening, the same two customers, pathfinders of the beer drinking fraternity perched on stools close to dad. One staring at the froth on his first pint of the evening, the other mournfully looking down at his recently emptied glass. Jack neat in appearance, considered and thoughtful, Tommy Doyle, underneath the covering of brick and cement dust, a darkly handsome Irishman, with a temper that almost matched my old man’s. Jack once told me that people like Tommy took their raging anger out for the night. Arm in arm into small town boozers like ours. Often with the best of intentions; to drink a degree of forbearance into their irritable mood. Instead, alcohol shortened their low-amperage fuses. Then they wanted to bully and argue and fight. But Dad always kept a cap on things; alert, cocked and often unhinged; watching and waiting for them to say or do the wrong thing. If a fierce argument started, dad turned from a jovial landlord, into a violent exothermic reaction specifically directed at anyone looking for trouble.

So I watched, waiting for the inevitable, heated debate to start between two long standing antagonists. Stood between them, but the other side of the bar, my old man. His great block of a head sat on top of his massive shoulders with no apparent neck to support it. Always happy to stoke an argument between his two best patrons. But not this evening, he took his shotgun frown my way, I made eye contact and as ever he made me wait before he delivered his admonishment.

He sighed, a patient teacher about to rebuke a recalcitrant pupil, he dragged a pile of my old comics up from behind the bar said, ‘why didn’t you take them down to Kenny when I asked you?’

‘But…’

I trailed off, like all of my peer group we all tried to avoid Kenny. He was a bully, forever picking on my friends. He punched and pinched with impunity, always with a smirk across his thin lips. Although Kenny tended to leave me alone… my father had his uses.

‘Answer me.’ I held his gaze, he took a deep breath and threw a concession my way as he growled, ‘leave them on his doorstep if you like.’

Tommy stared for a minute, brought his lips back and hissed in dad’s ear, ‘why?’

A divergence of opinion between the two: my old man felt more than a little sympathy for Kenny. He said it often enough and he repeated it one more time, ‘poor little sod, you know how rough he’s had it.’

‘What’s got into you, getting soft in your old age?’ I thought this provocation enough to trigger a minor eruption, but my old man just stared and waited for more bile to come his way. Kenny had become yet another person in the world for Tommy to rant about, he pushed his empty glass across the bar and never one to disappoint said, ‘I don’t know why you bother, especially after what he did to him,’ nodding down at me and shaking his head. He dragged a battered packed of Woodbines from his shirt pocket, blew the dust my way, lit the cigarette and took a mighty drag. The smoke punched from his mouth as he snarled, ‘the fucker.’

Here we go again; another of Tommy’s hobbyhorses about to be saddled up. The best of it was, I couldn’t recall much about it – but it had fuelled Tommy’s loathing of Kenny for years. What could I remember? Amorphous images: me sat under the scaffolding, in the shade with the dog – listening to the incessant arguments from above, between the bricklayers, Tommy mainly and the hod-carrier. What can you recollect with any accuracy as a four year old? Most of it has become a reconstruction, a patchwork of other people's perceptions of what happened; memories tempered by hindsight and how others perceived that the situation developed. Nobody had seen anything, it had become just a collective and jaundiced view of events, that merely confirmed Tommy’s mutual aversion to the central character. Tommy may have been right – but I wasn’t so sure.

I tended to agree with Jack, a judicious voice in a choppy sea of intolerance when he threw a dart of provocation at Tommy. ‘You only talk that way because you don’t like him.’

‘It’s no wonder I don’t like him.’ Tommy’s eyebrows came up and he pointed Jack’s way. ‘Isaw what happened. He might not have dragged the little bastard up the ladder, but…’

Jack stood his ground. ‘The trouble is, you’re tainted by the almighty bollocking you got off Harry – you then wander off and try to find someone else to blame.’

‘I never bollocked anyone.’ My dad’s customary defensive wall was as solid as ever, but no one believed him – he gave the builders, Tommy included, a fearful chewing off. You left those ladders up against the scaffolding – what a bunch of fucking tosspots. Tommy’s face told a similar story. Never one to contradict my old man, his features powerfully demonstrated his vivid memory of that afternoon and its aftermath. He impressively said everything by saying nothing and staring despondently down at his dusty boots.

Jack turned to me and said, ‘What do you remember?’

They accepted me now and I liked them all. One or two of them even thought an eleven year old’s opinion worth listening to. Perhaps being my father’s son frightened them into liking me.

I tried again, sitting in the shade, under the scaffolding, the dog resting his massive muzzle on my thigh – my old man tutted away, shook his head, bewildered that a six-month-old dog had become so attached to a child – does he follow that dog around, or does the dog follow the boy? But even that’s a trick of the memory – my first recollection of him saying that, a good few years later. Perhaps he did say it at the time, but it only entered my consciousness much later.

I shrugged, glanced at Jack and gave up. I think most of it is just Tommy and my old man’s drunken reminiscing. But there can be no doubt how much it affected dad; even now whenever the subject came up, confirmed when he clutched his chest and groaned, ‘Oh my god! I thought my heart was going to burst.’

‘I still can’t believe what he did.’ Tommy stared at my old man, then back into his beer and shook his head. He brought his glass up, drank and carried on shaking his head at the same time.

I thought hard, children filing home from school – noisy, animated and happy; the dog, ears pricked watching them. Minutes later, Kenny, alone and well behind the pack walked by. He spotted me, did a double take and wandered into the pub car park. This is what I clearly remember, he stood on the dog’s foot and pinched my arm. The dog yelped and I may have cried, certainly I was on the edge of tears. Later Mum said he looked furtive, sneaky and highly excitable – but even this is hindsight. I’m sure she noticed him with me. She always had the alert systems running and I always felt her watching me, Tommy always said that she had eyes sharper than a shithouse rat, so it’s quite likely that she noticed Kenny, whether she saw how it all developed is another thing.

He said, ‘I’m a Spitfire. I can fly.’ To demonstrate exactly that, Kenny proceeded to bank and dive around the car park, arms out horizontally by his side as he swooped past me. The Rolls Royce Merlin engine worked hard as it climbed, revs dropping at the apex of the climb. Then he dived and banked again, looking for a place to land, eventually taxiing close to me, cutting his engine and saying. ‘You see, I can fly – do you want to fly?’

Yes!

I would do anything to be a Spitfire. The thought made me laugh, jumped up and down and clapped my hands. This is where it gets really vague;Tommy is convinced Kenny persuaded me to climb the ladder and use the scaffolding twenty feet up as a runway. Would a four year old climb a ladder unprompted? Would a seven year old boy be that dangerously devious? Tommy had convinced himself that Kenny persuaded me, or somehow coerced me into making the climb. My old man was for once unsure – but Tommy had stumbled upon a conspiracy and he firmly believed that Kenny did just that and persuaded me to climb the ladder and then coax me into jumping off.

Tommy’s relentless pursuit in this belief became his obsession and he reminded Jack, ‘He’s a sneaky little bastard.’ He used his smoking cigarette as a pointer. ‘Course he told that little fucker to climb the ladder.’ Tommy fired a challenging stare across at Jack, who sensibly looked away and down into his glass.

I wasn’t so sure – Kenny did say, ‘Do you want to fly?’

The next thing I remember is walking along the scaffolding, thinking that it was higher than my bedroom window and the sun appeared to be at eye level. It was a brilliant, cloudless, late September afternoon and the air had that pure feel that comes after August humidity. I leant against a scaffold pole, looking at the world below and saw Kenny waving at me, holding his arms out – flying. But the most brilliantly clear recollection – a voice, Tommy’s voice, so deep and loud and urgent, that I froze, statue still.

‘Don’t move – Harry, Harrryyyyy!’ I suppose I heard the weighty tread of his heavy boots on the ladder. I assumed I saw his thick, black, dust coated hair come over the top and then this dark-eyed, high cheek-boned man, shouting as he came up to me. I have no recollection of his expression at the time, but now I easily assemble a perfect mental image of Tommy’s wide-eyed, alarmed expression.

‘Stand still little you little fucker – please don’t move.’

He held the palm of his hand out like a determined traffic policeman advancing towards a hapless motorist. His movement was slow, slow until he snatched me up and threw me over a shoulder. Going down the ladder, I was actually flying. I remember Tommy shouting at me as we went slowly down – stop fucken wriggling and I just laughed as I flew, nothing between me and the car park, looking down seeing the tops of mum and dad’s heads, losing height and coming towards their worried faces, staring up at me. Tommy put me gently on the floor, only for me to be grabbed by my old man and crushed in his grip.

* All four antagonists are long gone, my enmity with Kenny a lifelong affair.