‘J’ow know why they call it the Black Country?’
I shook my head.
‘It’s cuz whun Queen Victoria came through, on the train like, she took wun look out the window an’ shut the blinds. The blinds wuz black.
John’s fingers were curled around his empty tea mug. I refilled it from the pot on the kitchen table. Ayisha, my baby daughter, grizzled in her bouncer.
‘She’s a right bobby dazzler,’ John said, looking at her. ‘Yoam a right bobby dazzler. Yoam. Yoam.’ Her little legs flexed excitedly like a mad frog. A bubble of spit formed on her now grinning lips. I watched her hands clench and unclench, wondering what she was trying to grab, what imaginary thing she kept catching hold of and letting go.
I smiled. He just needed some company for a while, and so did I. The hospital let him out on a kind of day release scheme. He’d been really bad when he was admitted. Up all hours of the day and night. And when I say ‘up’, I mean UP. Like, he’d offered to refit my kitchen. At first I was delighted, until he arrived, at six in the morning, a tool box in each hand, good God, and a smile on his face as wide as the Cheshire Cat’s. Shiny, shiny, far too shiny. By eight he’d ripped out all the old units, replaced the skirting boards, fitted a new work-surface and was ready to start on the painting. It was as if I’d been hit by a hurricane. Six weeks of intensive drug therapy and two sessions of electric shock treatment later and he was back to normal, John shaped normal.
‘An’ what j’ow think of the blokes from Tippon and Wolvo joinin’ the Taliban, eh?’
‘If I lived in Tipton, I think I might join the Taliban,’ I said.
John was always picking things apart. He taught me how to break into a car, his car, once when he’d locked the keys inside. You have to bend a dry cleaner’s metal coat hanger into a hook and slip it between the window and the outer door frame, until you find the lock mechanism, then you pull upwards, to release it, bit of a fiddle, but it only usually takes a few attempts.
‘Says summat, that they’d rather be in Afghanistan,’ he said, ‘cuz I mind whun it wuzn’t shithole round ‘ere.’
Tipton is a pretty bleak place, in parts, as are Tividale, Smethwick, Oldbury and many others. In Victorian times, the Black Country was the industrial heart of England, with its iron foundries and steel mills. I don’t know when it all started to go wrong, but in Cape Hill, where I lived, the only factory still working was the brewery, which spewed Marmite smelling fumes into the air every day.
‘Whun I wuz a kiddie, it wuz different. Me fertha wuz a drayman, an’ ‘e luved ‘is osses. Sumtimes, early in the mornin’, e’d race ‘em, in a trap like, alung the Odebury Road. Ah, an’ down at the stables, whun the brazier wuz gooin’, it wuz right toasty. ‘E’d plait the osses manes with ribbons, took ‘im hours, an’ groomed ‘em ’til they shone. Beautiful.’
‘It used to be like that,’ John said, ‘a bloke could ‘ave real pride in ‘is wurk. The gaffer wuz an arsehole, but gaffers always are.’ He laughed. ‘This wun time, me dad ‘ad to geld an oss. ‘E lopped the bollocks off and slung ‘em in the pot on the brazier, boiled ‘em up, they wuz smashin’ with taeters, a poor man’s stek an’ chips – not that we ever ‘ad stek mind.
John was one of those rare breeds, a working class man with a brain. It’s the big secret no one ever tells, that the vast majority of the working class are thick as two short planks and happy as pigs in shit about it. Intelligence, aptitude, creative flair, is generally frowned upon.
‘What are you doing?’ my father said to me.
‘Reading a book,’ I replied.
‘What do you want to do that for?’
While it may be impossible to find the answers to every question within the pages of a book, it’s damn near impossible to find any answers if you don’t even look. My Uncle Frank was different: Scottish, a miner, down the pit by the age fourteen in the late 1930s. He told me every miner had two books, Das Kapital and the bible. They used to go to night school. Something prodded them onwards, the idea of better, because this was worse. The thought that one day it would change; it never did.
After the First World War there was the Second World War. The brief haitus of communism in between was a dream, corrupted, degenerated. It didn’t matter whether it was lions led by donkeys or donkeys led by lions, the same outcome always threatened. And then there was introduction of mass media, via the radio, in England the British Broadcasting Corporation with its motto ‘The nation shall speak peace unto the nation’, tried to out do Hitler’s propaganda machine, pumping homes full of homilies, until television arrived, at which point the whole population cluttered around screens to watch the coronation, mesmerised by patriotism.
‘It’s an urban myth,’ I said to John, ‘It was called the Black Country because it was filthy. All those factories pumping crap into the atmosphere. At night it glowed red. It was like a huge furnace.’
He started to trace his fingers across the rose pattern on my plastic, kitchen table cloth. ‘What would yoam know, yoam a Brummie?’
It wasn’t the time to pick a fight. Pride is a very fragile emotion, you’ve either got too much of it or you haven’t got enough. John didn’t have a lot left. Enduring manic depression had meant he’d been jobless for years. His wife had left him and he lived in a pokey flat on an estate where there was only one road in and one road out. ‘J’ow know what that feels like?’ he once asked me. Yes, I did, but I was pretty near the exit, on my way, it wouldn’t be long now. I could have quoted Oscar Wild at him, something about stars and gutters, instead I said, ‘Do you want another tea? I can put the kettle on again?’
‘That’d be smashin luv.’
‘So what are you plans then?’ I said.
‘Wull, I’m up for discharge next wyke, still fiddling with me medication, sumthin’ about levels, but aer Sharon sez she’s got sum wuk needs doin’ at wum. That minds me, I go’ this picture fu yow.’
He took a small parcel out of his holdall and passed it to me. ‘I med the frame meself.’ It was brown wood, lightly varnished, the corners joined perfectly. Underneath the glass were dried flowers, arranged on a grey silk. ‘Sharon did the flowers.’
‘Oh it’s lovely, John,’ I said, ‘really pretty’.
‘Wull, I noticed yow didn’ ‘ave much on yourn walls by way of pictures.’
‘No, it’s a bit bare,’ I agreed.
‘Me fertha, he used to mek ‘em, after me mother died. Started with ‘er funeral wreath. ‘E couldn’t stand to leave it on the grave. Wun gilded lily, got a painter mate of ‘is to do it in gold leaf. She always wanted a diamond. Wuzn’t tae be. ‘E saved up ‘ard fu that lily. ‘Ad enough time. She ‘ung on forever, rotted all the way thru’ from the inside out, like a banana she wuz, her skin wuz black. ‘E went quicker tho’. Bladder cancer. Didn’t say ’til ‘e wuz nearly dead.
The baby had fallen asleep, her head resting against the side of the bouncer, dribble making her bib all wet.
‘I never told anywun this before, but me fertha, he died in bed, propped up on his pillows like. Me sister wuz meant to be lookin’ after ‘im, but she’s a right cow, an’ went out to get blathered, left ‘im on ‘is tod. I goo round, and there ‘e is, stiff as a board, bolt upright. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. No wun should ‘ave tae die alone. So I med ‘im flat. I leant on ‘im, forced ‘im backwards, down into the mattress. ‘Ard it wuz. ‘E didn’t wunna goo. ‘Is ‘ole body rigid. An’ I’m leanin’ on ‘im. Took all me strength. I ‘eard ‘is bones goo, wun by wun, in ‘is chest, ‘is ribs, ‘is back. I must’ve bust ev’ry fuckin’ bone in ‘is body.’
He took a gulp from his tea. ‘Stupid thing is, I found out later, rigamortis wears off after a couple of hours.’
‘I just couldn’t bear the shame of the ambulance men thinking ‘e’d died alone, that no wun cared; cuz you should care, about ye fertha, sumwun should be carin’.’
There’s a painting of Ironforge, ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’, showing the Bedlam Furnaces. It’s a vision of hell, flames against a blackened sky, a ruined landscape falling away from industrial buildings and a big, old horse shackled to an overloaded cart. The few men visible are minuscule, entirely dwarfed by their surroundings. When I first saw this picture, I couldn’t help but remember ‘The Fighting Temeraire’, which used to hang on the wall in my parents’ lounge: a majestic sailing ship being pulled into harbour by a tug, a ribbon of flames coming out of the tug’s stack, melting into the air, and a sunset of biblical proportions lying down on a calm sea, lighting up the whole scene of serene, glorious victory.
‘An that wuz the first time I went doolally,’ John said.
Men can be driven to madness, as sure as a horse can be beaten to death.
‘I’ve always thought it funny, not funny haha, but funny strange, that the furnaces were called Bedlam.’
How j’ow mean?’
‘Cos that’s was the name of the first lunatic asylum,’ I said. ‘They charged a penny so visitors could watch the freak show.’
John bowed his head.
‘I didn’t mean …’
”S’all right, I know what you meant, luv,’ he said.
‘Do you think you’ll ever get better?’
‘I dunnow, can’t see it ‘appening, too far gone now. Maybe if things ‘ad bin different sumwhere alung the line. But it’s like a train, wunce it gets gooing, with the momentum an’ all, it’s ‘ard to stop. I wuz drivin’ down the motorway, nut lung back, ‘ad the car on cruise control. Anyway, I’m comin’ into Brentford, on the M1 like, an’ I goo to disengage the cruise control, but nuthin’ ‘appens. I know I can’t put the breaks on, cuz I’m gooing so fast the friction’ll burn through the pads straight away.’
‘What did you do?’ I said.
‘I ‘ad to rip part of the fascia off and yank the cruise control wires out. That’s what gooing doolally’s like. Wun minute yoam speedin’ alung, the next yoam gooin’ to crash.’
And I remembered another picture my parents had, hanging at the top of the stairs, ‘The Last of England’. A woman and man on the deck of a ship, the white cliffs of Dover receding behind them as they make their way towards a new life, in Australia most probably. Her one hand, wearing a dark, leather glove, pokes out from under her cloak to grip her husband’s, and they both stare forwards, stony faced, into their future. Her other hand is bare. There’s a distortion in her cloak, the bump of a baby’s head, in utero, beneath the fabric. Through a gap the tiny infant’s hand is visible, curled around her thumb. It would’ve have been cold on that boat, a wet, unrelenting journey. They were going to the other side of the world. People do. Working class men are notorious for it. They join the military and pledge allegiance to the queen. Some of them join a different army, the army of unemployed. Some more still find an army they can believe in, one that’s fighting for their principles, which I suppose is how they end up in Afghanistan. Very rarely they read Keats or Yeats or Eliot and find themselves in university, except they don’t find themselves there, instead they find out they don’t fit anywhere. They can’t go back into a factory once they’ve been educated. And the chattering classes don’t want them, not ever.
John did none of these things, instead he tried to follow in his father’s footsteps. What he didn’t know was that it’s trench warfare, whether you think it’s a battle or not, so he slid about in the mud, in the filth and the shit, in the big fucking Bedlam furnace of it all, getting burned, getting wasted, getting eaten alive, fed to the fire of industry and then spat out again, as slough and slag, some waste product needing to be buried or recycled. Round and round he went, unable to fully disengage the cruise control. Didn’t matter how many times he’d ripped the fascia off and yanked the wires out, or how many bones he’d broken in his father’s dead body, it couldn’t be fixed, it could never be fixed.
‘Oh,’ I gasped. The sharp sensation made me take a quick breath. I put my hand on my belly. I was six months’ pregnant and the bump now reached my ribcage. ‘The baby’s kicking. Do you want to feel?’
John smiled shyly as I guided him to the right place. He became silent and attentive.
‘There! Did you feel it?’
‘Ye,’ he said, withdrawing his hand. ‘Ave yow thought of any names?’
‘If it’s a boy, John.’
He blushed. ‘An’ if it’s a gel?
‘Aurora, after the Russian ship that fired the starting shot for the revolution,’ I said.
‘Yoam a strange wench.’
‘And you’re a great bloke, John. Don’t forget that, will you? You won’t forget that?’
He got up from the table. ‘It’s time I wuz gooin’ anyway. They like us back fu dinner, or else they send a search party out.’
I kissed his bristly cheek.
‘Mek sure you tek care of the babby,’ he said, nodding towards Ayisha asleep in her bouncer. ‘They’s the best of us.’
I opened the front door and he walked out into the street. It was winter, very cold, one of those clear nights. He looked up into the sky and said ‘Can yow see the stars?’.
‘There’s gooin’ tae be a bad frost. Yow’ll need a scraper fu yow windscreen in the mornin’.’
I would. I waved goodbye and retreated back inside, away from the brewery Marmite smell, back inside where I heard my baby stir as I shut my curtains against the black country.