I GUESS this is how it ends, life bubbling on, the sky like this, and you noticing, for the first time.
The Germans are bombing the crap out of London when I slop out onto filth- smelling, blood-covered hospital sheets. Explosions ringing in my ears, a siren wailing and two people grinning at how I can’t move properly. Flinging my stupid arms about, they’re not going where I want them, I find this a little frustrating, but everyone around me’s so bloody happy that there’s a little not-dead baby they’ve forgotten about the blitz, just watching me struggle. Next thing I’m picked up and slung into some one-up one-down that two of these people call home, brothers and sisters looking at me like I’m an alien.
They’re playing at being doctors and deep sea divers and astronauts and other professions none of us are ever actually gonna be qualified for, I’m stumbling around on pudgy legs, stupid hands pushing at the world like a non-swimmer in the deep end until, finally, these flabby meat poles push bloated, miniature, alcoholic-looking me around the garden. My head lolling about while everyone grins like I should know them, I try to talk, I really try but all that comes out is, “Gaaaagh Jeeeeeef,” and it squeezes more happiness out of the scuba divers and astronauts and out of my mum. My poor old mum who gets the news that my dad’s been blown to kebab, begins a trembling that becomes a shaking that becomes the beginning of her disease.
School starts and there’s no point going anywhere unless it’s a race. Playing kiss chase, I completely deliberately fall over and fail to get up because Polly Brown, the lovely, Polly Brown in a dress so impossibly bright that somehow it suits her, Polly Brown who only ever exists when it’s sunny, Polly, like an advert for being ten, has caught me during kiss chase and…
Middle school and everyone else knows what they’re doing, I can’t find classrooms, I’m crap at PE and I’ve got no mates. Barry ‘The Bully’ Batten asks me to head-butt the wall, I head- butt the wall. Compulsory Sports Day and my lost-property- shorts fall as I cross the finish line last with my prepubescent willy bouncing about, not wanting to stand up in assembly but being hauled up by the scruff so everyone can see I’ve wet myself, and my eyes find Polly’s in the crowd. All this seems like consistent failure, doesn’t it? But screw you, because, that summer, Polly and me are washing up posh food in the hotel together and I work out exactly, exactly how to make her laugh. And Pablo the kitchen porter shows me how to roll joints.
High school and my spliff knowhow makes me Daddy Cool. My brother’s not a doctor, he’s a tailor and he makes me the first mod in my hometown. Singing in a band just kind of happens to me Polly and me smoke weed on the roof. Me and the band get Coke cans thrown at us, I lose a fight, sleep with someone’s mum at a house party, get a cock drawn on my face when I’m passed out I’m basically a grown-up. When I go for a fag at the end-of-school disco Polly’s crying out back, Tom Mann was fingering Shelly Wilkins in the girls toilets. It’s probably muscle memory or the cider talking but somehow I articulate how bloody brilliant Polly is until…she’s actually… The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is echoing over the playing field and we’re kissing…her tongue’s actually…we’re…my bum’s wet from the field and we’re kissing, and her lips and tongue—this is Polly!—I’m kissing her and…
I wouldn’t say the experience was unforgettable but I think any girl would be hard pressed to forget the first time they kissed a boy and he came in his pants. I’m not proud of being so premature that my dick needed an incubator, but I’m proud of kissing Polly Brown. I don’t know where Polly went after, I was so excited that I ended up going back to the dance floor and having to pretend it was toothpaste on my trousers.
I saw her around after that, just on the High Street, sometimes I’d go into her newsagent, end up buying stuff. Shoelace licorice, bloody shoelaces, made me feel sick, I hated them. But the conversation—
“How’s it going?”
“Not bad, you?”
“Can’t complain, mustn’t grumble.”
“Be lucky then ”
“See ya”—it was worth it.
University and I’m trying to write essays, drinking and fantasizing about my own funeral. Polly would be there, being brave. But actually I haven’t seen her in one, two, three years, university’s over in a blur and I’m spat out of education into the seventies. Cue the wilderness years. Before I know it I’ve been fired from a load of crappy jobs, and I’m bawling my eyes out at Mum’s funeral. I did always consider her dim and happy, but somehow she got to me and I’m fucking sad. Who’s there? Polly Brown. I don’t talk to her, try not to look at her, but I do, and she smiles. Smiles at me like I’m at the bottom of a hole and she doesn’t have a ladder for me.
Suddenly I’m a teacher, me. Somehow, I’ve become a teacher in the same school I went to, in the same overspill town. Thatcher’s eighties and I’m stopping kids playing kiss chase, hauling boys who wet themselves up by the scruff in assembly, firing teachers that beat me on sports day and bollocking kids for smoking on the roof. In essence I’m not a nice man and I’m lonely.
But somehow, Daisy, a hairdresser, sees fit to marry me and I move from perm to mullet to undercut as we head into the nineties. I’ve got kids now, playing in the garden, helping the smallest to walk, I forget how old I am, I miss watching Block Busters on telly, start listening to those songs from the sixties again. My boy starts a band. I go along to his concert ready to beat the crap out of anyone who throws a Coke can. He sings a song about a girl and I think of Polly Brown. The other kid wants to become a Buddhist.
Aches, pains, neighbourhood watch and stiffness that can predict the weather, the boys are spat out of university, one’s a doctor the other’s just passed his PADI certificate in Thailand he’s gonna be a scuba diver. Me and the wife giggle ourselves to sleep despite the fact that I can’t get it up anymore and she’s got tit cancer that moves faster than a rat down a drain pipe. She’s never been one for fuss, lets me wash her in the bath, next day she’s lost hair, then fingernails, then I’m getting lost in hospital wards.
At the funeral, the boys say something but I don’t want to look at anyone so keep my eyes fixed on the ground for the next couple of years and I think I’m…I think I might be shrinking.
Someone’s bombing the crap out of London now and I’m in this home for old people. Can’t even think for all the memories, head butting the wall, The Beatles in Brighton, scuba divers, astronauts. Meatpole legs have failed so I’m in nappies again, soft food and scratchy NHS sheets. It’s around now, smelly and dribbling that I get a visit, this old woman in an impossibly white dress on a sunny day. Polly Brown sits next to where I can’t keep bloody still, tells me she always liked me, and I want to tell her I’ve always had this roller-coaster stomach feeling when I’ve seen her. She starts singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” really softly and I try to tell her, I really try to tell her but all that comes out is, “Gaaaagh Jeeeeeef.”
And it’s like a shit punch line to an overly long joke. When she leaves, there’s this present next to the bed, the nurse opens it. It’s licorice, bloody shoelaces. And from this angle, trying to eat them in my bed, I can just about see the sky.
JOEL HORWOOD works in theatre in England. He likes curry and shouting.