Thursday, August 13, 2009

Death Star

It must have been November. The distant chestnut trees were already bare, but no snow yet lay on the ground, just a sharp frost beneath a clear northern sky, filled with pin-sharp stars. Forty years later, the constellations of the southern sky appear blurred, less familiar to my ageing eyes.

I remember it was cold walking down that stony road, where I had lived from infancy to manhood, if you could call it that. We groped in the dark, my mother and I, down that unlit street of pre-war houses.

"Blast, I've lost my shoe," she said, stumbling behind my longer stride. "Just wait a minute, will you." She had broken her foot as a young girl and limped a little.

I halted and waited for her to recover her balance and catch up. She had been complaining ever since I could remember about the lack of street lighting and the rutted surface of the road, but nothing had ever been done. I took a last drag on my cigarette and crushed the glowing tip underfoot.

A dozen or so semi-detached houses ran down the hill, facing south. There were no houses opposite; just a strip of long, faded grass where the speculative builder might once have planned to complete his Garden City.

We lived at the top of the hill, where the houses were a little larger, but not much better than the vamped-up workers cottages that architects had deemed suitable for England's petit bourgeoisie in the years between the wars.

Doris Hogget, a belated friend of my Mothers, lived half way down the hill, and was, commensurately, lower down the social scale. My father had been a surveyor before his death and Doris's husband Les was a stores clerk at the ordnance depot where I now had the misfortune to work. Lower down still, various tradesmen safely grazed.

We didn't have a TV in those days. If there was something special on, a state funeral or a wedding, my mother went to watch it at Doris's house. I sometimes went too, although with some reluctance. It was a grim affair with Les, Doris and their teenage daughter, crammed into the pokey living room. My mother and I sat in the back row, with our backs to the wall, behind the dining table.

Les's bald head glowed in the firelight, the smoke from his cigarette coiling above his chair. The monochrome set flickered fitfully, blaring out the band music of his favourite programme, 'Billy Cottons Black and white Minstrel Show'.

Les was the spitting image of Billy Cotton: five foot four (the average height of an Englishmen in the middle ages), barrel-chested and almost bald, given the severity of his short back and sides. Like Winston Churchill, he was a paradigm of the bulldog breed.

Les and Doris had fled the London bombing, bringing their children to the safety of the Midlands. Her sister had been killed, and Doris had adopted her surviving daughter, Polly, as her own. That was the story we heard, anyway. Polly had found a boy and got married since my last visit.

Doris had rung my mother late, around eleven-thirty that night.

"Can you come down; Les has taken a turn for the worse. The doctor gave him an injection to help him go, but I can't get him out of bed."

"I need you to come with me to Doris's," my mother said, after putting down the phone.

That's why we stumbled down the road on an errand of mercy, not exactly my cup of tea, counting the dark shapes of the houses against the gloomy backdrop of the ancient woods. The living rooms were at the back but a few windows at the front were lit with an orange glow, where the inhabitants were going to bed, but probably not enjoying connubial bliss.
"It's here," My mother said, fumbling with a gate latch.

We crunched down the sparse gravel of the drive to the back door and knocked. In a while, the passage light went on, shining through the marbled glass pane of the door. It opened to reveal Doris's pale face beneath a mass of reddish frizzy hair.

She was a tall, gangly woman with a big nose and buckteeth; quite a catch for Les in the pre-war years, I suppose, discounting the time that had elapsed.

"Come in, come in dear," she said to my mother, in her slurping cockney tones. "I'm sorry to call you so late but they're away next door."

I refrained from saying we had seen 'a light from yonder window break', out of sympathy for her distress.

We followed her into the kitchenette, as she explained Les's unfortunate condition.

"It's the emphysema. I keep telling him not to smoke so much, but he won't give up. Now it's turned to pneumonia. I have to keep sitting him up, but I can't manage on my own."

"I know, Norman died of pneumonia, you have to be so careful," my mother replied.

The lower rooms were in darkness. Doris led the way up the narrow staircase to the landing.

"He's in here," she said, pushing open the door to the back bedroom. For some reason she did not put on the bedroom light, so we had to see by the shaft of light from the landing.

A strangled cry came from the inner corner of the room, where Les lay in striped pyjamas. He was flailing weakly with his arms and legs in the gloom, eyes rolling in the beefy folds of his face. He was obviously trying to speak but could not muster enough breath to get beyond incoherent cries.

"Get round behind his back," Doris said to me. "Try to get him upright. I'll try to get his legs on the floor."

I moved over to the corner and bent over the struggling man, but I could not get much purchase on his beefy shoulders. When I did get a grip, I realised that I was just not strong enough to lift him. He must have been at least sixteen stone, all blubber and muscle like an elephant seal.

Les fixed me with a baleful glare, his beady eyes like angry buttons in his pyknic face. Grunting, he forced himself up on his arms until he was sitting half upright. The women dragged on his massive legs until he sat, panting, his feet planted on the floor. Even in the gloom, I could see his face had turned purple with the strain.

Les began to whimper in great agitation, looking wildly from face to face.

"He has to go, the doctor gave him an injection," Doris said, grabbing a shiny tin bucket from beside the bed.

Placing the receptacle strategically in front of her husband's feet, she stooped down and draped his left arm over her shoulder. She gestured for me to do the same. With a mighty heave, we got him to his feet.
My mother withdrew respectfully while Doris fumbled in Les's pyjama trousers, and pointed the weeping sausage over the bucket.

Les's beefy arms began to shake and contract around my shoulders as he tried to summon the waters. I was relieved to hear intermittent spurts ringing in the bucket. The diuretic finally did its work. The spurts became a foaming flood, filling the bucket to an impressive level.
"He'll feel much better now," my mother commented from the doorway.

Les collapsed back onto the truckle bed, moaning with relief.

"Help me get his feet back up," Doris said, moving the bucket out of harm's way.
When the invalid was restored to a more or less supine position, I was glad to leave the room. I joined my mother on the landing and listened to Doris soothing her husband in the darkness.

My reflections were interrupted by the rattle of the front door knocker.

Doris emerged quickly, smoothing down her hair.

"That'll be the doctor. He said he would come back to see how Les was after the injection."

We followed her downstairs and stood in the hallway while she opened the door.

The doctor entered, bag in hand, tube of office draped round his neck. Grey faced, nondescript with rimless glasses, he shot us a quizzical look before running up the stairs. Doris followed on behind.

We stood looking up the empty stairs, listening to the creak of floorboards and the murmur of muffled voices. Les coughed a couple of times.

It seemed quite a while before Doris came unsteadily down the stairs, followed by the doctor, snapping shut his bag.

"Are you relatives?" he asked.

"No, just friends," my mother replied.

"I'd like to speak to Mrs Hoggett alone, if I could," he said. "It might be better if you left," he added, rudely.

He ushered Doris into the parlour and closed the door. We withdrew to the kitchen and listened for a while.

"It doesn't sound too good," my mother said, "I don't want to leave Doris on her own."

I was dying for a fag but decided against lighting up.

The lounge room door opened and the doctor emerged.

"I should ring your son right away, see if he can get round here tonight.
There's not much more I can do tonight but ring me in the morning and let me know how your husband is."

Doris let the doctor out and went into the living room to use the phone.

"I've got to ring John," she said in passing, "the doctor thinks he should see Les tonight."

"Is there anything we can do?" my mother said.

"No, nothing dear, I've got to ring John, and Polly. I'll be alright, you go now."

It seemed we really were in the way.

"If you're sure," my mother said, making for the back door.

We let ourselves out.

It was a fine, clear night outside, with no moon. The sky was a leaden blue colour, above the darkness of the southern horizon. A solitary oak, blasted and hollow, spread its leafless arms towards the sky.

"What's that?" my mother said, as I was fumbling with my cigarettes.


"Over there, that star."

I was sure it hadn't been there earlier, but it could have been low down on the horizon, behind the bulk of the hotel.

"It's a bloody comet," I said.

It was indeed a comet, very neat and clear, with its tail pointing to the East.
Not a big, nebulous one but very bright and well defined.

"I saw Halley's comet when I was a little girl," my mother said.

We didn't say anything about Les on the way home. It seemed to me rather a waste to display such a fine comet for someone so unimportant, so perhaps it was a harbinger of someone else's fate on that clear November night in 1963.

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