They Had To Be Rockets
Nero’s thoughts slipped back to his early teenage years, when he was still known as Nigel to his friends. In those days, he reckoned Nigel wasn’t a cool or groovy name, certainly not for a twelve-year-old lad just becoming aware of pop music and the flamboyant fashions of 1971. Of the two other Nigels he could think of, one was a posh, ginger-haired and swatty boy a year above him at school, with a father who smoked a pipe and spent his Sundays clipping the hedges of their large suburban villa.
Then there was nerdy Nigel who lurked on railway platforms, pointlessly collecting train numbers. He’d known it was pointless because he’d once done it himself and got bored after about twenty minutes, having resorted to reaching deep inside his small canvas shoulder bag for some Tooty Frooties; but all he’d found was a single toffee covered in dusty fuzz. He’d eaten it anyway, then sidled up to the other Nigel who was clutching a British Railways Locoshed train numbers book, and said he needed go home and do something – a something that he hadn’t taken the trouble to think of in any detail, and left him appearing vague and unconvincing in the bespectacled eyes of nerdy Nigel. He’d sloped off, trying to think of a more interesting hobby he could pursue that didn’t involve quite so much standing around.
Alain glanced down at his scribbling. “So, would you say that, on the whole, you tended to prefer your own company?”
“Not really, no. There was a lad called Ralph I use to hang around with, and a few other mates; just that I did my own thing too, by myself – hobbies and that.”
Nigel thoughts travelled back to some of the typical boyish devilment he and Ralph had got up to, including a grandiose and whimsical plan to launch the first snail into space.
They’d both been around eleven or twelve when for the two months leading up to bonfire night they’d put any spare pocket money they had towards the purchase of fireworks. But not just any fireworks: they had to be rockets.
Nigel had lost his eyebrows in the pursuit of science after a singeing flare up while dissecting a Brock’s Hornets Nest; separating out the gunpowder from the other powders that created whistles, crackles and multi-coloured sparkles. In the carefully controlled environment of Ralph’s dad’s shed, the explosive material was then gathered together and forced into several cardboard toilet roll tubes which were then taped together and stiffened with a slender length of balsa wood about eighteen inches long. The stick would then be placed in a used lemonade bottle to be used as an off-the-cuff launch pad.
Both boys had studied NASA footage of Apollo space missions on TV documentaries and were well aware that the astronauts had to undergo a gruelling series of tests, including the human centrifuge. It consisted of a horizontally aligned arm with a cabin at one end where the astronaut would sit. White coated, earnest scientists could be seen checking dials and scrutinising grainy monochrome monitors as the arm gradually accelerated, rotating faster and faster. A camera trained on the astronaut generally showed a spoon faced image of him grimacing and gulping air as the speed and gravitational forces increased, ultimately concluding with the willing victim’s head flopping to his shoulder upon falling unconscious.
Nigel and Ralph felt that a snail would be the ideal passenger for their own space programme: light enough to be propelled through the stratosphere – to the starry beyond – and for the inevitable heavy impact back on Earth; protected by its own shell, and an improvised plastic nose cone upon re-entry. However, they were never to witness this concluding phase of the mission.
Astro-snail centrifuge training sadly met with the loss of two gutsy gastropods. The first fatality occurred when Ralph clumsily lost grip of the string knotted around the tissue lined cardboard capsule as he madly flailed it around his head like an Olympic hammer thrower. The matchbox landed on the main road and was crushed within seconds, together with “Brian I”, by the offside front wheel of a metallic purple Ford Cortina.
Ralph managed to successfully hold onto the string for the second attempt with the unwittingly plucky “Brian II”. His energetic lassoing easily created the desired g-forces, but the sticky tape securing the drawer of the matchbox wasn’t up to the job, resulting in the flimsy Command Module parting company and hitting the pavement with a heavy and disheartening squelch.
Eventually, the day of the great launch arrived. The boys believed they had everything planned to perfection. In the back garden behind the shop, “Brian III”, who had wisely retreated into his shell, was slotted into an expertly secured England’s Glory box on top of their teetering toilet roll rocket – and the countdown began. The red seconds hand of Nigel’s black faced, chrome rimmed Timex reached number ten on the dial and he instructed Ralph to approach the blue touch paper with a match.
“Ten... nine... eight... light!” Ralph knelt down and struck the match, ″Seven...six...” cupping his hands to protect it from the breeze, and mercifully got a flame on the third go. “Five... four... three... two... one... launch!”
Three seconds passed and their shoulders were fully flopped just at the precise moment the device spluttered into life. Red, purple and yellow flames spurted and flashed from its base, and the object fought a determined gravitational pull to rise up into the grey November sky. For a few more seconds the two boys were thrilled at the powerful progress the rocket made, inching its way into the air and making a ferocious racket; its speed increasing as it passed the top of the roof. They began shouting words of encouragement; the pair as excited as punters on a racecourse watching their chosen horses racing head to head over the final furlong.
But elation turned to despondency at the sight of the small-time Saturn V veering at an alarming angle and heading towards Mr and Mrs Eccles’ house, losing Earth escape velocity by the second. Then finally, abject despair at the sight of their precious projectile extinguishing itself and dropping silently and gracelessly, until they heard the shattering glass of their neighbour’s prim conservatory.
Alain leant forward, placed both his hands on the desk with a mild slap and smiled politely. “Right, Nigel, thank you. I can tell that you obviously have some happy memories from childhood. You made your point.”
“So, is it onto the parents next, then?” Nero added defensively, surfacing from his cheerful reminiscences; but quickly returning to his sceptical mood.
“Fine, if you want to tell me about them. But don’t imagine there is a script I’m reading from; just looking for clues, and to find out –”
“What makes me tick?” interjected Nero.
“OK, if you prefer to call it that – and what makes you tock too, maybe,” added Alain with an inculpable grin.
Several seconds of silence passed during which a more purposeful expression crossed the young doctor’s face. “Look, Nigel, imagine if it were possible to have your mother’s great-grandfather or your father’s great-great-grandmother sitting with us here right now, I’m sure I would see something of your personality and mannerisms shared between you. Over the years, I’ve come to believe we are a composite, if you like, of our own individuality merged with all the inherited quirks and qualities of our parents and their ancestors too, going back and back. I believe we are connected to them and they live on in us all in some mysterious way even though they can seem so distant to us now. Do you see?” Before Nero could respond with another negative escape tactic, Alain seized his opportunity. “So, for example, perhaps you could help me by introducing me to your father; tell me a little about him. Is he still alive?”
At this stage, Nero could think of no option but to yield to the doctor’s reasonable request. “Yes, he’s still alive.”
Gordon had always been a private sort of man; even less inclined to talk about feelings than his son. He was from the generation who just got on with things and avoided any form of navel-gazing.
Nero never knew it, but his dad was only thirteen when he first fell in love. The first time was at his local cinema. Before the main feature, a breezy Pathé newsreel showed highlights of the 1948 London Motor Show. During mid-suck of his lolly, Gordon had been transfixed by his first sighting of a new sports car called a Jaguar XK120. He’d felt a shiver of excitement throughout his body and a concentrated awe aimed at this beautiful, streamlined object before him on the screen. Within seconds though the image had been replaced by a shot of a sober Wolseley saloon, the sort of vehicle his father would have seen as a wise and sensible choice.
But he remembered the name, “Jaguar XK120”, and the irresistible curves of that car; curves that couldn’t be equalled in his youthful admiration until a few months later, the next Spring, when Gordon shoved his way through a crowd of mackintoshes on a drizzly afternoon in Edinburgh and saw the teenage movie actress Diana Dors arrive in a pristine white XK120 at a promotional event.
Diana was blonde, brassy and British cinema’s only serious sex appeal competition to Marilyn Monroe, and the sight of her peroxide perfection stirred unfamiliar but wholly satisfying sensations within him – quite different and far more intoxicating than those he’d felt for the car. For young Gordon this was as good as it could get: his two fresh passions there right in front of him.
Eight years passed before Gordon first caught sight of his own Diana. It was day one in his dream job at the Jaguar car factory in Coventry. He’d applied for the vacancy during the final year of his engineering apprenticeship up in Scotland, where he’d grown up. His parents had said their farewells to him on the platform at Waverley only the night before. It was the furthest Gordon had ever travelled by himself.
It was just gone 1pm when it happened. He was sitting in the Brown’s Lane factory canteen, aimlessly pushing a greasy sausage roll around his dinner plate. Pulling up a chair to sit down right opposite him was to all intents the double of his beloved Miss Fluck (the real surname of the Swindon starlet being the object of much smutty and wilful mispronunciation amongst his workmates). Gordon’s mouth was wide open, so blatantly that the latest object of his desire felt compelled to ask him what he was gorping at, with a not entirely alluring Brummie accent.
However she spoke, he was instantly smitten with his Diana, who’s name turned out to be Pam. God knows what she saw in him: a pleasant looking, mild-mannered young man, careful with money, yet wanton in his pursuit of transport-themed cigarette cards. An attraction of opposites perhaps: a workaday Norma-Jean and Arthur Miller.
Within six months they were married and went to live in the rooms behind and above Pam’s mum’s pet shop, which was situated next to the gaping hole of an overgrown bomb site in the Foleshill area of the city. Pam’s mum, Betty, appeared to be an inflated early middle-aged version of her seventeen-year-old daughter, with bleached hair and dressed perhaps rather too young for her years; affecting slightly irritating showbiz traits, including greeting her customers with an artificially refined “Hello darling, what can I do for you?” as she bent over to clean out the guinea pigs with a cigarette stub wobbling in the corner of her mouth.
She’d picked up these mannerisms on the West Midlands working men’s’ club circuit, having been a singer with the stage name of Rosa Palma, belting out standards in front of distracted bearers of drinks trays and chattering audiences for nearly twenty years. Crooners, camp comics and rabbit hat magicians were frequent callers to her kitchenette, squeezing past the pet food boxes in the cramped corridor to stop by for a cuppa and a chin-wag.
Inside a year, Gordon and Pam became the proud parents of a baby boy that Pam pressed to name Nigel, born on December 15th 1958. It later transpired that two of Pam’s ex’s before Gordon had also been named Nigel. The first of the two – a slightly backward but fanciable storeroom assistant – she’d seduced when she was fifteen; leading him by the hand to a secluded, overgrown graveyard close to the factory after clocking-off.
The second Nigel was her departmental foreman, and she’d got as far as being engaged to him before their ways parted. But Pam continued to hold a soft spot for each of them. She’d presented these facts jovially to a somewhat stunned Gordon and Betty over Christmas drinks just a week or so after Nigel’s birth.
Over the coming years, Gordon slowly saw his wife in a different light. She loved little Nigel, but loved going out, buying new clothes and partying even more. And affairs too, he’d discovered from his workmates. Gordon, in contrast, was more of a tinkering stay at home type with modest ambitions and a precocious interest in pensions.
Late on Christmas Day 1962, Pam blurted out to her mum that she wasn’t cut out to be a housewife, that the child would be better off without her; and anyway she’d “met someone”.
He was obviously worth a few bob too, going by the motor he’d turned up in the next evening to collect Pam and her luggage. Gordon had hovered at the front door, displaying a distant expression on his face as he’d reached down to place a comforting arm around young Nigel’s shoulder, giving a half-hearted wave at the departing vehicle as it pulled slowly away in a plume of icy exhaust smoke.
Pam had promised to visit the child for Gordon’s customary family Hogmany get-together, but failed to make it, using the subsequent heavy snowfall of what would be the harshest winter since ’47 as an excuse for not travelling. There was the occasional tearful phone call to the boy and a few letters, but they tailed-off within a few months.
Gordon became highly respected for his work at the factory and gradually got promoted and given more responsibility. But in 1972 he was tempted away from Jaguar by a position he’d heard about on the grapevine, based at the British Leyland Cowley works in Oxford. It was a better paid job and more of a challenge to his skills, but the humble Morris Marina model he’d be working on was a dull and utilitarian beast compared to the glamour and prestige of the Jaguar range. However, with this job he’d be able to buy a decent house, finally moving out of the confined surroundings of the pet shop accommodation.
He hadn’t remarried or even looked for a new wife, but had settled rather into what seemed to be a comfortable and predictable bachelor existence, able to devote more of his spare time to projects in his shed.
Betty finally came around to the idea and decided to sell her shop and put the resulting sum down as a deposit for the mortgage – she’d been complaining anyway of the work “doin’ her back in”, and her nightclub bookings were drying up. Nigel had felt a certain trepidation about the big move, but he hadn’t really settled into the secondary school he attended in Coventry – being a bit rough to say the least – so he’d seen Oxford as an opportunity to start again, though he’d definitely miss Ralph and a couple of his other friends.
“That must have been quite traumatic for you, Nigel, going away from your roots like that?” enquired Alain.
“How did you settle in to the new place; did you make any friends there?”
“Well no, not at first, I was a bit wary for a while in the new school; kept my head down a bit. The other kids use to laugh at how I spoke; my accent. I expect you get a bit of that behind your back, yeah?”
“Ah, yes, and in front of it too,” Alain laughed.
Nero was feeling more at ease now and was warming to this slightly offbeat character.
“Oh, while I think of it, you haven’t got a charger I could plug in that would fit this have you? Mine got lost last night.”
Once again Nero presented his phone.
Alain examined it: “No, mine has got a wider, flatter connector. That’s a weird one you’ve got there.”
“Oh, right. Thanks anyway,” said Nero, returning the mobile to his pocket.
“Well, I learned to speak pretty much like them after a while; sort of came naturally,” began Nero, “after a few months I started to hang about with a few lads at the school who were into rock music and messed about with guitars and stuff in the music room at lunchtimes.”
“Did you play anything?”
“My nan showed me a few chords not long after we moved into the new place. She’d unearthed an old guitar from the loft: a really nice Gibson L5 semi – I’ve still got it; put a Bigsby on... Anyway, one of the musicians my nan worked with had left it with her; he’d owed her money, but she never saw him again. So she kept it.”
Nero explained to Alain about her regular nightclub appearances while Pam was growing up.
“You were close to your nan?”
“Yeah, I got on with her. She was a bit different to other kids’ mums... I mean, grandmas.”
Alain paused slightly before speaking.
“She sounds like an interesting lady. Did she get on with your father?”
“Well, (sniggered Nero, knowingly) you could say that.”
Nero informed Alain that after his mum had walked out, Betty and his dad had eventually began “comforting” one another.
“I remember one night when we were still over the shop, I thought I could hear my nan in pain; she was moaning. So I got out of bed, went onto the landing and shouted to ask if she was all right. Then I heard muffled ‘shushing’ and a sort of breathless, “I’m fine, luvvy; just a bad dream. Go back to bed, darling.”
“How did this make you feel?” asked Alain, slowly leaning forward.
“Well I didn’t really understand until I was older. I mean, it’s not exactly normal for dads to sleep with their mothers-in-law is it? I must have guessed in some way, as I didn’t let it slip in front of the kids at school or visitors,” said Nero, folding his arms and looking up at the dusty light fitting.
A silence hung in the air. Alain chose not to comment.
“Well there were things about her I found out later on, after she died – personal stuff. It was before the funeral and my dad didn’t want to go through her things himself; sort them out or anything; didn’t want to be reminded. So I said I’d have a look through them instead. Most of it was old clothes, nick-nacks; the usual stuff to throw out or take to the charity shop. I’d found one of the cupboard drawers in her room was locked. My curiosity got the better of me, so I picked it open. Inside there was a framed photo of her brother in army uniform on top of bunches of letters bound together with elastic bands. The rubber had perished on most of them so they all scattered out in a pile when I picked them up. The postmarks went back to 1963, just after my mum had left with her new bloke. I couldn’t resist reading some of them – well, you couldn’t could you?”
“Well that’s it. There were diaries underneath all the letters. So I sneaked a few of them out of the house, past my dad, and read them back at my place. Up to then I didn’t really know much about my nan; just the usual stories of her younger days in the shop, her singing in the war, the nightclub work afterwards; that kind of thing...” Nero paused, waiting for a sign of approval from Alain before continuing. “But like I say, the diaries had all these personal things she’d written about her husband – and afterwards, up to what happened after my mum was born. I felt really guilty reading it all, but I couldn’t resist it. I wanted to know the truth about her, to fill in some of the gaps, yeah.”
“I take it they were quite intimate facts about your grandma?”
“Yes,” replied Nero, unconsciously touching his left ear.
“We generally don’t get to hear about this side of our family members’ lives, do we; does it bother you talking about these things?” asked Alain, with a Gallic shrug.
“Not to you, no; I mean you’re a stranger – no offence, like.”
“It’s OK. I get what you’re saying,” Alain smiled back.
“When I read them, I discovered my nan had kept these diaries from when she was in her teens up until a few years after my mum was born – well, for the most part; there were gaps here and there.
The diaries were written in a candid and spontaneous style; succinct and unselfconscious. It was unclear whether they were meant for Betty’s eyes only or with half a nod towards a wider audience some day. If Alain had been able to speak to her himself, how would Betty have told her tale, he wondered. Usually of course, impressions of family members were relayed to him in fragments, diluted by false memory and one-sided impressions.