For the umpteenth time, I poked at that bell of number Five Edenhurst Grove. Rucksack and sportsbag on the steps of Vera Jones’ house, my childhood home, next door at number Three.
The Bartons’ chimes were running out of juice. Peal a note or two off-key. My heart pounded and—like the skewed tune in my ears—was sour with apprehension.
The car factory—still called Austin by locals—laboured away at my back, its paintshop fumes drifting through the jerry-built housing hereabouts. When the wind was right, I remembered, you caught the drilling of iron and steel on assembly lines; noo-o-oozshk, cloo-o-oozshk, bynk-ga; and in the dead of night too, like competing knells. Noo-o-oozshk . . . . Massive smithy-craft in the rainshadow of Lickey Hills. Birmingham—‘The Working City’ as Elmdon airport had it. Central England’s dole-queue hub—as the advertisements had not.
Longbridge. Cars and trucks heaved upon the world. Ninety-four years of them. Factory hooter at 5 p.m. Men and youths in windbreakers, boiler-suits, scuffed shoes—racing past guarded gates into Bristol Road and Longbridge Lane chockablock with flight. Ninety-four years of that too. This was my dad Frank Jones’ kind of industry; and after him, my stepfather Graham Dagg’s life.
My history. Painted by numbers, smudging the finish.
Today though—May 1st—was more about denuding Vera’s house.
And the getaway.
Waiting for a reply at the Bartons, I took a good gander about. Clouds as perturbed as the hurrying workers below them; sun-speckled, brooding. West Midlands’ spring all right, last of the century. But mostly you didn’t notice that kind of thing in these parts. Nor young daffodils bordering the Bartons’ path; the sloping lawn neatly trimmed. Roses fastened to attention—plant ’em, spit and polish. Front steps glistening with ruddy good health. Nor this disheveled, all too unfamiliar son at a neighbour’s bell.
You looked straight ahead.
Behind Woolworth’s netting.
Rat-a-tat-tat. Would those Bartons even come to the door?
I’d been travelingovernight from Toronto—alongside a delirious Burberry-wardrobed American couple, both retired high-school principals, on their way to Shakespeare’s Warwickshire and the swans at Stratford. A twenty mile pilgrimage south of this doorstep.
I’d encouraged them to visit Cadbury World and the chimney-stippled plain a stone’s throw north of Avon’s famous theatre. The other Warwickshire. And the Black Country—source of the industrial revolution, bellows to the defunct Empire. I went on a bit. The sort of claptrap retired educators savour as they begin to develop again. Catch up for the slowed up.
The Bard would have re-written ‘The Tempest’ if he’d seen Birmingham, I confided in them. “Longbridge, especially. Now there’s a wizard’s spot.” The Americans’ eyes lit up as though they’d unearthed a priceless Folio as my own eyes closed down on Madonna—or someone like her on the headset—after a fourth and hugely silencing Bloody Mary. “It’s a mysterious island,” I continued, trying to sound like Caliban. “Longbridge. Exile territory. River Rae running through it!” But I must have dozed off in mid-misrepresentation. And oddly, the two pedagogues had disappeared when I awoke to the landfall ding-dong.
Would the Bartons break down and give me Vera’s key? I’m only Vera Jones’s son after all.
Across the road a dog began to bark.
“Mrs. Barton!” I yapped through the letterbox.
At last a silhouette appeared at the top of the door’s frosted glass: Nelly one-lung Barton—chain-smoker extraordinaire—Vera’s neighbour of nearly thirty years, friend and I suppose of late, bedside confidante.
I didn’t have a chance.
Nelly—four changes of Marks and Spencer clothes a day, according to Vera—made it downstairs and opened the door. At the end of the hallway her husband, Ted—lofty and bowed, mute to the last drop—ambled away to the seed packets in his back garden.
He had once or twice spoken to me, when we arrived on Edenhurst in 1971. Just before I was sent away to Blanchland House reform school in north-east England. “Join the Merchant Navy, lad,” he had said. (He was an Austin security guard) “It’ll make a man of you yet.”
That would have taken some doing. I had ignored the armchair Captain Nemo; factory-gate watcher. ‘Uncle’ Ted was always just this; a buzzed haircut disappearing from view in the nick of time. Periscope up.
“Oh ah,” said Nelly, recalling a not unpleasant chore. She was wearing a green nylon housecoat and a tangerine blouse. Underneath, a pleated floral skirt that betrayed a slip. Nelly moved colourfully—a stately and unwilling mid-sixties—in stockings and determined peach-tone pumps. Mutton dressed as lamb, as Vera always put it when Nelly had done a favour or shared a tea and biscuit.
I waited in the gloaming of spic and span tornadoes in the Bartons’ fitted carpet: a lemon, black and red convulsion. I refocused, then came to terms with the gleaming white and yellow-ochre banister that steadied the couple as they moved about their palette.
An intercity train—the Bristol to Birmingham—hurtled past Longbridge station on its way to town.
And I waited.
Nelly, in a timeless perm that nearly matched the skirting-board, returned at last from her through-lounge (much celebrated in its day for being, amongst other things, the privilege of homeowners—rather than council tenants—to smash down a drywall and shake hands with Paradise). She offered Vera’s house keys and the gravest of expressions to go with them.
Close up, Nelly seemed enervated. Her lips—or was it lipstick?—mauve-rimmed, cheeks drawn beneath the powder and blush. Sixty years or more were seeping through. And Vera’s demands would have hastened the damp. I wondered whether she and Ted had trailed Vera’s hearse in the funeral limousine my mother had arranged for herself. Or had it followed empty?
Nelly leaned against the door and sighed. Layers of clothing pressed against the glass like upturned flowers in a vase.
I began to speak—the first person I’d met, apart from the cabbie, since landing at Elmdon that morning. Had she been at Vera’s side through the final ordeal? Months, weeks? It looked like it. Supervised the cremation? Wake? I assumed so and began to thank her.
But Nelly pushed the door to. “Your mum left a shoe-repair box on the pouffe in the front room, Enoch,” she said too quickly, pop-popping. “Nigger black.”
“Beg your pardon?” I said, pressing my foot against the door-jamb.
“On the pouffe,” she repeated irritably.
Where Vera kicked her heels. Eighty-two years of them.
But Nelly was making a point.
Nelly Barton had had her word. Exit with a flourish. Unpursued by a bear. I guarantee the Burberry Americans hadn’t seen anything like this in Stratford. Amongst those swans. No pouffe or nigger blacks in that crowd.
Like Aladdin holding his lamp, I watched the frosted glass as Nelly shrank away, genie-with-second-thoughts,into the brilliant white kitchen as meticulously scrubbed, no doubt, as Nelly and number Five ever were. Ted crossed her path. Shadows fusing.
Down the Grove on Longbridge Lane, an empty transporter air-braked to tackle the zebra-crossing off Sunbury Road opposite the 41 bus terminus; and those unsteady pensioners fresh from the post office; another week’s bingo and rent in hand.
“To the pouffe then, Mrs. Barton!” I said, somewhere between a toast and repeating directions. I glanced up Edenhurst Grove—one or two faces behind the mesh—and sensed the verdict on Enoch Jones.
I wasn’t surprised.
Down on Longbridge Lane, the transporter rattled into gear and off over the bridge past the Austin apprentices’ clubhouse. File of vehicles behind.
Just like swans.
I’d broken every conceivable rule in the neighbourhoodbook. I’d say it over and over again. Without remorse I’d avoided my elderly, widowed mother’s funeral. Her one child a no-show. What tragedy, that procession at St. John the Baptist; and to Lodge Hill Cemetery. Sinister, that Enoch. Always said he was a street Arab. Waste. Rotten to the core.
Know where he ended up, don’t you?
All that remained of Vera Jones was simple. A breeze: emptying the house; paying final bills and handing over the rent book to a ‘City Council Neighborhood Office’ on Central Avenue. Key through the letterbox.
Who better to take up a broom than the sashaying devil himself?
Closing the door of number Three Edenhurst Grove, I paused stock still next to the miniature barometer. Setting down the rucksack, I accidentally brushed my forehead against a poster of Barcelona nailed crudely into the wall: the infamous Sagrada Familia—Gaudí’s eternally sprouting cathedral.
Any minute, Vera Jones would leap out from the kitchen alcove, at the door in the small, un-through, front room, or at the top of the stairs. You’d never catch ma sitting down. Trailed by cats—her own and several neighbours’—she’d be on her feet until Graham’s sideburns, Vitalis thinning hair, told her to sit.
Someone—Nelly Barton of course—had sprayed freshener to disguise the sourmilk and talc of an elderly widow’s final days. Vera’s slippers neatly at her armchair by the gas fire.
Handbag. Gloves on a threadbare rest.
Why would she arrange Vera’s things like this? Was Nelly Barton expecting me to put them on in a moment of weakness? Want Vera back? Or was it to unnerve the reprehensible, selfish son? Vera’s day done. A mother’s house. Not yours, son.
Nigger black shoe-repair box perched on its pouffe.
Core of a labyrinth.
Finally, I had to remind myself—for Vera’s presence was the very wallpaper—the old duchess has parked herself. But if it were relief I’d been feeling, it was not cheery.
Bolted to the floor, I tried to understand the ill-humored nonchalance that had overtaken me ever since Nelly left word on our Toronto answering service. Two weeks before. Dutiful, admonishing: “Enoch? (transatlantic cough) This is Nelly Barton in England. Your mum went into hospital last night. Unconscious, like. Poorly with her heart (more coughing). She’s in intensive care at the Queen Elizabeth. They don’t think she’ll be coming out again. The doctors thought you’d better know. Cheerio, Enoch.”
Exactly what had I been told? Vera was about to die. That was it. The first news—and of fatal illness—in four months. Vera wasn’t expecting any deathbed scene with her son. Or much else. That’s what I figured. Nevertheless, I planned to go. Then changed my mind.
You don’t do duty anymore.
Every inch of these rooms was like the back of my hand. Years bursting into view as I ran my fingers over painted wallpaper.
‘Get Well’ cards trailed along the mantelpiece; two of condolence on the sideboard. People I’d never heard of.
I climbed the ladder-width staircase to Vera’s bedroom. Scent of lavender all the stronger. A view beyond Edenhurst Grove to the factory. Bed made up neatly—more than Vera would ever do—pink terylene nightie. Dressing-gown folded in readiness. All Nelly’s work: number Five (houseowner) meets number Three (council tenant). With aerosol. Vera must have been confined to this room for weeks, months, before the hospital.
Nelly Barton—on Vera’s orders—had spared me any warnings.
A near-empty bottle of Rose’s lime cordial stood next to the bedside phone. A scrap of newspaper with my lengthy Canadian number scrawled upon it in large, felt-tip figures, had been placed in the dial.
In her dying, she never called me; nor I her. Maybe her final struggle was to resist calling? Who knows? She’d pushed me beyond any limit. And I, clearly, had done the same to her.
The slip of paper was at least there.
And the pouffe downstairs.