Oh Lucky Man -- Peter Leyland
Oh Lucky Man
( Two chairs facing each other)
Tell me about your parents David. Who were they and how did they get together?
Well, they were both from Aintree in Liverpool. You know, where the racecourse is. Nan lived in Cornet Road and Mum was her second child, both girls.
Two daughters and she the youngest then, I see, and Dad?
No, wait a minute, let’s have Mum first. Nana Baker would tell us how Mum played with Alec. She would invent games, like circuses, and write programmes for them. I think there was a dog too somewhere but I can’t remember its name.
Alec, who was he?
He was Mum's cousin. Aunt Emily, Nana’s sister, went abroad with Uncle Jim to live on a rubber plantation in Malaya, and Nan brought up Alec for her.
How old were they then?
Probably 10 or 11. It was before they went to secondary school. Mum went to Queen Mary, she was paid for to go there. She was good at sports, she was hockey and netball captain.
Well, no. She didn’t have much of that, girls didn’t then. Nana took her away before the secondary exams. She thought Mum was too sensitive. Dad was good though.
How do you mean?
Oh, Dad was clever. He went to Alsop’s grammar, he won a place there. He was brilliant at Maths.
Not like you then?
No, I was more like Mum. She loved reading books, like Anne of Green Gables. I think she identified with Anne.
A tomboy, you said?
Yes, she was called Billy by Nan, not Marjorie her real name, but Billy because she ran around like a boy with Alec, who got up to all sorts.
Nan used to tell us but I can’t remember any now. It might come to me later.
Oh, hang on, I remember one now. Somehow he got a canary in a cage and brought it back to Cornet Road. Nan let him keep it. Mum and Alec used to like playing with it, letting it out and putting it back in, and then one day it escaped. It flew round the living room and out of the window. It never came back.
Ok, so what happened to Mum after Queen Mary?
Nan sent her to learn the comptometer.
What on earth was that?
Oh, it’s just like typing but to do with figures. She got a job at Dunlop’s, that’s where she met Joan Davies. Then there was the Waafs.
The Waafs, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The war was just starting and Mum applied to join. She was turned down at first at the Medical.
Why was that?
Something to do with her nose, ridiculous really. Apparently, Nana found her crying over it in the front room at Cornet Road. She went down and raised the roof with them and got Mum in.
Formidable, your Nan, then?
Oh yes. Her husband was a butcher, something special in those days. Baker the Butcher, that was the joke.
Hmmm. What were your Dad’s parents?
Oh, Nana Blundell was an assistant teacher, and Granddad worked for Roebrothers as a cashier.
Did they have any other children?
Oh yes, John and Derek who were carpenters. Dad was the middle one. He stayed on at school and matriculated in Science and Maths. He should have gone to University but they wanted him to get a job. He went to Clay and Abrahams the chemist and got sent to London.
London, that must have been exciting for him?
No, not really. He didn’t like it there. But he was in the Territorials and when the war started he was sent to France driving lorries. That was more exciting. It was just before Dunkirk, you know.
I thought he was in the Air Force?
Oh yes, he was, but later. He joined that and was sent to train in Canada. He was a navigator. He flew in Wellingtons with Jack Bell. They were like a team.
He was the pilot. He used to come round after Dad had - I think he liked Mum.
Ok, let’s not go there. What were they doing in the Air Force, bombing?
My God, no. They looked for airmen who had ditched in the Mediterranean. It’s in here look…
(Shows her the log-book)
Yes, I see. He must have had a good sense of direction then, your Dad? Not like you…
No, not like me. I was more like Mum.
(There is a pause)
Did they meet in the Air Force then?
No, it was later when they met. It was after the war had finished. Dad was part of a gang that played tennis with Mum’s sister, Joan. Billy - Mum, was on the fringes, ‘the little sister’.
Sounds like a book.
It is, it’s by Raymond Chandler… but I’m getting off the point. I was telling you about how they got together.
Yes, go on with that.
Well, Mum was pretty you see. She’d had lots of boyfriends in the Waaf. There was Richard from Devon, and then Mo, an American airman who she really liked. Mo used to come to Nan’s with some other airmen for supper, and to see Mum.
Nan invited them?
Yes, they wanted to be friendly to the troops.
Your Mum was careful, though?
Oh yes. She had this friend Kate from London. We called her Auntie Kate and she had a daughter called Patricia.
Hold on what’s this got to do with the story?
Well Kate, who was in the Waafs with Mum, had an affair with an American soldier and he went back there, leaving her with a baby.
Leaving her with Patricia you mean?
Yes, so Mum was careful.
Oh yes, and Dad was safe. He’d saved up his Air Force pay, so when he came back to England and back to Joan’s crowd he must have been full of confidence. He noticed Mum on the fringes, like I said, and he fell for her.
And asked her…?
And asked her to marry him, that’s right. He must have been so pleased when she said yes, but he was a good catch too, you know. He was clever and working at the docks for the customs.
Customs and Excise. It was part of the civil service. They had to inspect ships’ cargoes. He took me there once before he got ill.
Got ill. How was that?
Oh, it was MS, but not now, that’s too painful. Another time. Anyway, I was telling you about how they got married. She was pretty, and he fell for her and asked her and she said yes. They lived for a year in Park Gate and then Dad had enough money to buy a house and they came to live in Grassendale.
And had you, right?
Yes, they had me. My beautiful Mum and my clever Dad.
(The chairs are replaced)
David wakes up and somehow he is singing: ‘You can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant.’ Do you know the song because if you don’t you could listen? It is a song by Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody, and Woody was Bob Dylan’s mentor, as Bob Dylan was David’s mentor, and the singer went to visit Woody in hospital when he was dying from complications due to Huntingdon’s disease.
It is good to visit the dying and David’s father was in hospital in Stanley Park, suffering kidney failure from the multiple sclerosis that had affected him for the past seven years. David's mother took him to the hospital to visit his father and David had with him a stool he had made in woodwork class with Mr MacDonald, who wore a tobacco coloured overall and had a white moustache, and who was good with his hands; like David’s father had been, good with his hands when he made his children toys: forts, castles, garages and a farm, in the shed in the garden from his Hobbies magazines.
And I think David’s father probably smiled as he looked at the stool, but his mouth, which had once held a pipe filled with St Bruno Flake, was now slack.
One night and it must have been late July, David’s Mum came into the boys’ bedroom and said that she wanted to talk to them. They had divans and their Mum sat on one of them and asked them how they would feel if God took Dad away from them?
I don’t know how they responded, they probably cried, but softly. The next day Mum told them that Dad had died in the night. Tony was 11, David was 12, Anna was 5.
Nothing much was said about their father’s death to his children. They didn’t go to the funeral, but David remembered people in black in the front room eating cake and drinking sherry. I suspect that at some point their mother told them that they must be brave, the same words David had said to Anna when he knew that he had to be brave, not her. But in this case their mother had to be brave, very brave, and she was.
And in September David struggled up the road to the bus for school in the mornings and never said anything to anybody about what had happened to his father, except once at the front of an Atlantean bus, looking out of the window, and his friend Blackburn (Blackie) asked him what his Dad did and David said, ‘He’s dead,’ and Blackie looked surprised because David was choking, but luckily the bus then came to his stop and David got up, got off, and walked quickly down the road to 28 Mersey, his house.
This is part of a series of memoir pieces created with an artist friend and rewritten for this blog.