NEW YEAR’S EVE 1986
Sitting on the bed in the dark, I try to block out the noise from downstairs – Mal and his parents laughing and joking together, drinks being topped up ready for midnight, while the Hogmanay Show blares out from the television. Somewhere in amongst all this is fifteen year-old Grace, probably not far from her granddad.
But I can’t go down there and play happy families; I’m not a hypocrite. Mal and I have drifted apart over the years to the point where he spends most of his leisure time at the pub while I work evenings and weekends, mobile hairdressing, hoping to amass enough money to be able to leave him.
My thoughts run back down the corridors of time to Ron – his blue-grey eyes always slightly amused; his appetite for life. In a dizzy moment I had sent him a fortieth birthday card; the 9th December etched onto my memory along with his parents’ address. I had no idea where this would lead but I willed the card to reach him, wherever he was.
Every morning I rush to pick up the post but every morning I’m disappointed. It’s nearly twenty years since I last saw him. Maybe he’s not even in this country?
Mal shouts up the stairs. ‘You coming down? It’s nearly midnight.’
‘In a minute,’ I shout back.
But I stay rooted to the bed and dab my eyes, delve into my memories and unwrap the evening I first met Ron.
I was seventeen.
MONDAY 12 SEPTEMBER 1966.
Marie and I joined the queue, paid our entrance fee and had our hands stamped with the invisible marker. In the cloakroom, surrounded by a fog of hairspray, three girls elbowed each other for a piece of the mirror while applying layers of mascara and giggling over who they might meet tonight.
We handed our coats to the assistant and quickly gave each other the once-over.
‘You look nice, turquoise suits you. New shoes?’ asked Marie.
I looked down at my square-toed black patent. ‘Yeah, I shouldn’t really but they were in the sale; only thirty-nine and eleven. I like your dress. Is that the one you got in The Clothes Peg?’
Marie nodded. ‘Red again, I know, but I love it!’
We jostled our way through to the bar, bought our drinks and managed to find two seats at a table in the corner of the hall. We chatted about things that had happened in the salon that day until the lights dimmed and Chris Barber and his Jazzmen took to the stage.
After enjoying the first few numbers, Marie’s infectious laughter signalled Geoff’s arrival. They had only been dating for a few months but were already talking of getting engaged. At seventeen – and Marie was even younger – this was the furthest thing from my mind. And I couldn’t understand what she saw in him; he seemed rather ordinary compared to her.
We clapped and tapped in time to the different rhythms while a few couples jived. Thirty minutes into the performance the band announced they would be taking a break after the next number. The Sheik of Araby gave way to Reach Out by The Four Tops. Geoff offered to look after our handbags while Marie and I made our way onto the small crowded dance floor.
‘I thought you said Geoff was at night school?’ I shouted, trying to make myself heard above the loud speakers.
Marie beamed and shouted back, ‘It was cancelled.’
We got into the groovy beat, Marie provocatively swaying her hips for Geoff. In the semi-darkness I scanned the hall and wondered if I would meet anyone tonight. Some of the local boys looked my way but I looked away. I had never wanted to go out with anyone local.
The Beatles Gotta Get You into My Life suddenly resonated around the hall. After a few moments I was aware of someone beside me, jigging to the beat.
‘Hello,’ he shouted, ‘on your own?’
‘No. I’m with Marie.’ I pointed in her direction. She flashed us a smile.
He shook his head. ‘That’s not what I meant. What’s your name?’
‘Mine’s Ron. You’ll probably think this very corny, but do you come here often?’
‘Yeah, most Mondays.’
He nodded, took a sip of his beer. Even in the dim light I couldn’t fail to notice his alert pale eyes, fair hair and tall slim outline.
The music stopped. I looked around for Marie; she was sitting at the table with Geoff. I went over to pick up my drink. Ron followed, pointed to my glass. ‘What’re you drinking?’
‘Oh, only port and lemon.’
‘Looks like cherryade! Want another?’
We pushed our way to the counter and waited. The bar-staff were flat out.
He pointed again to my drink. ’Want something stronger?
I shook my head. ‘This is fine, thanks.’ I didn’t want to give the wrong impression.
I’d had an embarrassing experience last New Year’s Eve: Pam, one of the girls at work, had invited me to a party. Being very naive, I thought a party meant food, so I purposely went without dinner. I was the only single girl there and they kept taunting me – ‘Sweet sixteen and never been kissed,’ and shouting, ‘Don’t let the side down, Julie!’ while I sank another whisky on my empty stomach. They all thought it hilarious when I vomited all over the sitting room carpet before I could find the bathroom.
Pam’s husband ran me home at two in the morning. Before I knew what was happening he was all over me. I felt powerless but finally managed to get out of the car and stagger up the path to our front door. He was suddenly there beside me asking for another kiss. Somewhere deep inside I knew it was wrong, but I was too drunk to hold him off. However, I was conscience-stricken the next day when I was too ill to go to work (no public holiday for New Year in those days) and beside myself for having earned my father’s disgust.
I cast the thought aside and watched Ron as he caught the barman’s attention. Ron. His name didn’t suit him; it belonged to someone older, more ordinary, like one of our neighbours. But somehow I knew, for me, the name Ron would always be synonymous with this animated person.
I heard Marie’s voice behind me. ‘Aren’t you going to introduce me?’
Ron turned, took a mouthful of beer and carefully passed my drink over to me.
‘Thanks,’ I said, ‘this is Marie.’
She flashed him her brown-eyed smile and I felt an unusual twinge of jealousy. They shook hands. Geoff was hovering behind us; I introduced him then he sank back in the shadows.
‘I don’t suppose you’ve seen my mate Lofty, anywhere?’ asked Ron. ‘I don’t know how I’ve lost him; he towers above everyone!’
‘He’s probably in the next bar,’ suggested Marie.
Ron took another gulp of beer and led me through to the brightly lit saloon bar where we found Lofty on the far side.
‘Pleased to meet you, Julie,’ said Lofty, in his brown velvet voice. He must have been all of six foot six.
Ron saw my reaction and said, ’I’m waiting for, “what’s the weather like up there?” That’s what people usually say.’
Aware of my silly grin, I looked down at my feet.
‘Do you live around here?’ asked Lofty.
I nodded. ‘Not far, just up the road.’
‘Not like us,’ said Ron, ‘I expect you’ve picked up the Hampshire accent? Full of oohs and ahs.’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that.’ I felt my cheeks burn under his gaze; took a sip of my drink. ‘So, what brings you here?’
They exchanged glances. ‘Work mainly,’ said Lofty, ‘but we heard the music was good at the Black Prince so we thought we’d give it a try.’
‘Yeah,’ said Ron, ‘beats hanging around the digs!’
‘Oh? Where’s that?’
‘Catford Bridge. It’s nothing much but it’s somewhere to lay our heads at night.’
Chris Barber’s jazz band was again in full swing and people were beginning to drift back into the hall. Lofty bought another round of drinks and the three of us made our way to a vacated table. As I listened, I couldn’t imagine living and working away from home. Ron did most of the talking while Lofty kept an eye out for any attractive girls. It became obvious Ron loved his hometown of Petersfield but there was little or no work to speak of. The bright lights of London had attracted them but I got the impression it wasn’t matching up to their expectations. They had landed themselves in dead-end jobs – Ron was working at a textile firm and Lofty at a furnishing store – and both were desperately trying to keep up with the rent.
All too soon the evening was drawing to a close; from the hall came the sad hollow sound of the band packing away their instruments. People were drifting out to cars, waiting for buses.
Ron checked his watch and downed the rest of his beer. ‘We ought to be making tracks, too, Loft.’
‘What time is it?’
‘Just gone eleven,’ Ron stood up and turned to me. ‘Can I walk you home?’
‘Yeah, I’ll just get my coat. Meet you outside?’
He nodded. ‘See you at the station, Loft.’
I queued impatiently for my coat hoping Ron would still be there when I came out. I couldn’t exactly say what it was, but he was different to anyone else I had been out with. At last the attendant handed me my dog-tooth coat, I threw it on and ran outside. Ron had waited; he was smoking a cigarette and watching the last of the cars leaving the car park. As we crossed the road and walked briskly up the side streets, I watched the yellow streetlights casting our two moving shadows on the pavement; his a little taller than mine. We walked in virtual silence until I asked him if he would be able to get a train at this time of night.
Full of confidence, he said, ‘Oh, yeah. Last one’s at midnight.’
I slowed my pace and stopped at our wrought iron gate. He glanced at the Victorian facade of our five-bedroom house, then at me. ‘You live here?’
He gently tilted my face up to his. The kiss caught me by surprise and sent a delicious kick through my body. His eyes lingered on mine. ‘See you at the same place next Monday? Will you be there?’
I nodded again.
‘Which way’s the station from here?’
‘Turn left at the end of the road and keep going till you get to the baker’s. The station’s on the opposite side. You can’t miss it.’
‘D’you wanna bet?’ His mischievous gaze swept my face as if trying to commit my every feature to memory. He kissed me again, softly, and a knot of excitement hit my belly.
‘Well, must dash or I’ll miss my train. See you next Monday. Don’t forget!’
I watched him hurry to the end of the road, willing him to turn round. Then, just before he disappeared from view, he turned and waved. I waved back.
Aware of the late hour, I let myself in as quietly as possible, hung my coat on the hallstand and went through to the breakfast room. Mum was still up, sitting at the dining table reading the Evening News.
She looked up. ‘Hello, Ju. Did you have a nice time?’
‘Yes, I met someone. His name’s Ron, comes from Petersfield.’
‘Oh? Where’s that?’
‘Huh, he’s a long way from home.’
‘He’s got digs at Catford. I gave him directions to the station.’
‘Oh?’ she was only half listening, engrossed in the newspaper. ‘Will he get a train at this time of night?’
‘Mm, last one’s at midnight.’
Mum turned to look at the wooden clock on the mantle piece. ‘He’s cutting it fine.’
I smiled; I knew Ron would catch his train. ‘Well, I’m off to bed; another busy day tomorrow.’ I kissed her on the cheek.
‘Yes, sleep well, love. I’m turning in soon. Oh, will you have time to do my hair on Friday?’
‘I should think so. I’ll check in the book tomorrow. Night, night.’
I ran up to my bedroom; one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos faintly audible from Dad’s studio. I knew better than to intrude – he would be bent over his drawing board, carefully filling in meticulously drawn letters with Indian ink, for a piece if advertising; just the angle-poise lamp and his music for company.
I closed my door, sat in the pale green tub chair in front of the dressing table mirror and watched the smile spread across my face.
Since that night I had continued to meet Ron at The Black Prince on Monday evenings but he let me down a couple of times. One evening I waited outside for half an hour in the freezing cold. I finally gave up and went home when neither he nor Marie showed up. Ron’s reason this time was that he’d been moving to a flat in Vauxhall and couldn’t let me know.
Ron had started coming to the house on Wednesday evenings and brought his records to play on Dad’s hi-fi – a privilege that implied I was capable of being trusted with this precious piece of equipment. I had grown up with the sound of Dad playing his jazz or classical records in our big front room on Sunday mornings and sometimes he would play the Boogie-Woogie on our upright piano. On the odd evening when he didn’t have any homework, I would quietly sneak in and sit with him in the subdued light to soak up the atmosphere, while he sat engrossed in Beethoven or Mozart with a gin and it in his hand.
One evening Ron brought Ravel’s Bolero with him and we sat on the settee in front of the electric fire, moving in time to the infectious beat.
‘What d’you think?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, I like it.’
‘I first heard it at school. It had the same effect on the whole class. They couldn’t help tapping and clapping anything in sight! Even the desk lids were banging up and down.’
He nodded. His gaze fell on my lips and I felt the spear of excitement as he tilted my chin. We had the room to ourselves all evening but he never tried anything; his hands never wandered. I was unsure whether I wanted them to or not.
Ron’s other choices included the sound tracks to The Big Country and The Magnificent Seven. I was happy to listen, eager to know more about him and what excited him. One of my favourite pieces was the romantic theme from the soundtrack of Genghis Khan. In the last scene, after the final battle with his arch enemy Jamuga, Genghis Khan is slumped on his throne against the vast Mongolian landscape, bloodied and exhausted. He tells his wife, Bortai, ‘I want that God should see me in the face.’ She orders two of his men to turn his throne into the wind; the music plays out as she holds his hand and he quietly slips away. No matter how many times I saw it, the very poignant and beautiful scene engulfed me with emotion and I wondered if it had the same effect on Ron. I did hope so.
OCTOBER 31 1966
Halloween at our house had become a momentous occasion. Every year the neighbours’ children went home dripping wet after bobbing apples. However, in recent years, they’d got the game down to a fine art and came armed with their swimsuits. Dad decorated the breakfast room with bats cut out of thick black card hung from the ceiling, and flames cut from black and orange crepe paper stuck to the picture rails. My sister, Louise, and I had the job of hollowing out the swedes, faces cut into them and candles placed inside. These stood outside on the gateposts. When the party was in full swing, Dad would put an old white sheet over a mop and emerge from the cellar making ghostly noises, sending the children into an excited frenzy.
By six o’clock the excitement was mounting.
I went to the kitchen to see if Mum needed any help preparing the buckets of water for the bobbing apples.
‘I’m fine, Ju. Just keep Herbie off the cakes, would you?’
My little brother shot me a cheeky look and put his hands behind his back. I wagged a finger at him and wandered along to the hall, eager for Ron’s knock on the door. I checked my vampire make-up once more in the mirror – white greasepaint on my face, thick black lines round my eyes, blood red lipstick and wondered what Ron would say.
On the hall table the telephone rang. I picked up the receiver.
My heart sank. ‘Yes.’
‘It’s me, Ron. I er...I’m afraid I can’t make it tonight.’
’Oh.’ My excitement ebbed away to a pool at my feet. There was a long pause as he tried to think of something else to say. I swallowed and caught sight of my vampire face in the mirror. It suddenly looked absurd. I sat heavily on the bottom stair.
‘Yeah,’ he began, ‘I’m really sorry, but the truth is I’m skint.’
Another awkward pause.
’I can’t make it on Wednesday, either. I know I said I’d come down but… I just don’t have the money.’
The burden of double disappointment made me crumple into a heap.
‘But er...I’ll see you next Monday, OK?’
I managed a response and ran upstairs to wipe off my make-up, tears mingling with the cleansing cream. I was so looking forward to the evening with Ron; seeing the surprise on his face as I opened the door. Now he wasn’t coming.
I could hear the front door banging and excited children trooping through the house, the opposite of my mood. I sat for a few minutes reluctant to join in, then realising everyone would be asking after me, I reapplied a little make-up and went downstairs.
Dad frowned. ‘All right, love?’
I nodded and swallowed my sadness.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. ‘Not really. Ron just rang – he can’t make it tonight.’
Dad went to put his arm round me but not wanting the others to see I was upset, I drew away. ‘I’ll be OK.’
He smiled and gave me a wink.
I followed the excited voices to the kitchen where Mum was judging the fancy dress. I left them to it and retreated to my room. I could hear a lot of giggling then the inevitable screaming when Dad came out of the cellar with the white sheet. I smiled to myself; how easy it was to be a child.
Twenty minutes later the telephone rang again. I ran downstairs and picked it up.
‘I just had to ring you back; you sounded so upset. Listen, I’ve got around the problem for Wednesday. How about meeting me on Charing Cross station at seven-thirty? We could see a film or something?’
’All right. Whereabouts on Charing Cross?’
‘Under the clock, you can’t miss it!’
‘Ok. See you Wednesday, then.’
I was already planning what to wear. Time would soon go – when I woke up in the morning I would only have to wait another day before I saw Ron again.
The children were still shrieking with laughter. The kitchen floor was awash.
Dad looked across at me. ‘Did he ring back?’
I nodded. ‘I’m meeting him on Wednesday at Charing Cross.’
He smiled. ’Mmm, I see.’
I beamed at him.
WEDNESDAY 2 NOVEMBER 1966
It was my day off so the hours dragged, my thoughts on little else but meeting Ron on Charing Cross. By 5 o’clock I had so many butterflies in my stomach there was little room for the eggs and bacon Mum had cooked for me.
Feeling confident in my outfit – a blue dress, my favourite dogtooth coat, black patent shoes and handbag – I boarded the train and chose a forward-facing window seat. At New Eltham more passengers crowded on. Not wanting to catch the attention a businessman who sat opposite me, I stared through the window into the dark night. My reflection stared back at me. From the edge of my vision I watched the man take out a biro from his breast pocket. He kept looking at me then I realised he was drawing my portrait on his newspaper. Sitting still as a statue I covertly watched him in the reflection of the window, trying not to smile. I felt very flattered but my shyness would not allow me to ask if I could see the finished sketch. He suddenly replaced his biro and sat back with a smug expression all the way to London Bridge.
My skin prickled as the train pulled into Charing Cross. I opened the door to the echoing sound of whistles blowing and carriage doors slamming. Walking quickly towards the ticket barrier I scanned the crowds for Ron. I spotted him under the huge clock – the designated meeting place – wearing a beige knee-length raincoat, navy trousers and black lace-up shoes. He was smoking a cigarette and observing people as they rushed past. Recognition lit up his face when he saw me walking towards him. I felt lighter than air
‘You didn’t get lost, then?’
He trod on his cigarette, took my elbow and guided me towards the underground station. ’Would you like to see The Ten Commandments?’
‘I’d love to.’
I was astounded at how well he knew the underground: up and down escalators, on and off tubes, through draughty subways. I was being carried along on a tidal wave until finally we came out into the cold night air and the bright lights of Leicester Square. To me, the West End was a glamorous place, especially the Odeon cinema with its dazzling frontage.
I felt very privileged as we took our seats eight rows back in the stalls and settled down to watch Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner and thousands of extras in this epic film that had been made in the previous decade. I had already seen it at the Regal in Bexleyheath but nothing compared to the sense of occasion in this cinema and sitting next to Ron made it doubly special.
‘Are you enjoying it?’ he asked, handing me a tub of ice cream during the interval.
‘Good. I thought you’d like it.’
We talked about other classic films we’d seen and it was obvious we shared the same tastes.
After sitting cocooned all evening in the warm cinema, we came out to a cold wind, hurried along to the underground and boarded the tube back to Charing Cross. The station was a lonely place late at night and I was thankful when Ron waited with me on the platform. We huddled in a corner out of the wind.
‘Have you enjoyed yourself tonight?’ he asked again.
I nodded. ‘I always do when I’m with you.’
He drew me close and I melted into his long, sensuous kisses. I love you flashed up on the inside of my closed lids. But I couldn’t tell him. Not yet.
He saw me onto the train and slammed the door. I pushed down the window. He gently brushed a strand of my hair aside and gazed into my eyes. ‘I’ll phone you tomorrow.’
The train began to pull us apart. ‘See you on Monday in any case,’ he shouted.
I waved until his image disappeared and my train snaked into the night.