The Hero – John Holland

Since I started growing my hair, the neighbours – the men – have stopped speaking to me. Although their wives still do.

“Your hair’s growing, John.”

“Can’t stop it, Mrs Wilkinson.”

It’s tea time. I’m striding home from school, past the rows of semis in the next street to mine, when I see Mr Wilkinson, in his frameless spectacles, walking towards me. It’s too late to cross the road. I know he won’t speak. And I won’t either. But as he approaches he lets out a broad smile, and says, “Your dad did well, didn’t he?”

“Yeah,” I say. And then we have passed.

I have no idea what he means.

By the time I push open the backdoor of our semi, painted a tawdry yellow, it has left my mind.

“What would you like for tea?” It’s my mum. Dad doesn’t get home for ages so we eat without him.

“Steak and kidney pie, chips and peas,” I say.

“Hard luck,” she says.

It’s not just the luck that’s hard. The crusts on these luncheon meat and salad cream sandwiches taste like they have been rusting away behind the shed with the rest of Dad’s collection of ‘useful’ metal parts.

“Chef quit?” I ask, joking.

“Sacked,” she says.

There are three places set at the dining table. I sit at one end where I can swivel to watch teatime TV. Opposite me is my dad’s place, awaiting his arrival in an hour or two. Mum sits between us. Symbolically probably. With her back to the TV. Opposite her is the hatch to the kitchen that my dad made for the passing of plates of food. Plates of food so hot that they melt the skin on your fingers.

“Why don’t you sit in dad’s place, so you can watch Zoo Time, Mum?”

“Zoo Time, Schmoo Time,” she says, pretending to be Jewish.

Desmond Morris, with a comb-over that risks him being flagellated to death on a windy day, is cuddling a jaguar cub.

“Lovely,” says Mum without turning. “Although many people confuse jaguars with leopards. The jaguar is a South American mammal, the leopard is African. They don’t really have spots. More sort of circular rosettes. Jaguars tend to have larger rosettes with spots in the middle; the leopard has plain rosettes with no central spot.”

It’s impressive. Within seconds, Desmond says the same thing about jaguars and leopards.

“You the script writer?” I ask

“Your hair’s getting long,” she says.

“You will tell me when it actually is long, won’t you?” I say, tossing my head so that my hair flies from one side and meets me on the other.

“Probably not,” she replies. “You’d never hear me through all that hair.”

She remembers. “Isn’t it great about Dad?”

But I’m heading for the front room and my homework.

The front room is the better, less-used room – grey sofa, two grey arm chairs, my dad’s tropical aquarium, the Dansette record player on the floor and the golden plastic hostess trolley, which is thought to be posher than the wooden one in the dining room. But no TV or table. I use the seat of an armchair to kneel and write. The front room is also where I entertain my girlfriend, Janet. She is due at 7.30. A switchboard operator at the Gas Board, she is unencumbered by homework. I have about an hour and a half for A level geography.

The fishing industry in the Adriatic Sea makes me wish I’d taken history. But I enjoy the names of the principally caught species – common dentex, red scorpion fish, monkfish, John Dory, spiny dogfish, Norway lobster (surely a long way from home), mullet and red mullet. I wonder what colour the mullet are that are not red. And whether the two species clash, at least aesthetically. Mum would know.

I’m entering Trieste as I hear dad arrive home and go straight to the dining room for his tea.

I finish the homework without feeling the need to get the definitive word on the colour of the non-red mullet. And gratify myself with the double LP ‘Bitches Brew’ by Miles Davis that I’d bought in town on Saturday. I hold it by its pristine edges. Slide one of the black discs, with its orange labelled centre, from its white inner sleeve and place it on the Dansette, dropping the stylus arm carefully onto the spinning vinyl. The music crackles into life. I gaze at the distorted yellow orange figures on the album cover while extraordinary sounds fill the room.

I am in a voodoo opium den in Harlem.

I see the handle of the door turn. I imagine a Chinese dealer with a coloured silk hat and a braided ponytail. Mum’s head appears. It listens for a split second.

“Is that Herbie Hancock on an electric piano – something of a departure for him, isn’t it?” she asks.

I check the sleeve. And nod in resignation.

“You’ve been looking at the cover, haven’t you?” I say.

She shrugs the one shoulder I can see in the half-opened doorway and recites from memory the band’s entire fourteen-strong line up from Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet to Jack DeJohnette on drums – right channel, and Lenny White, drums – left channel. Although with only one speaker channel on the tinny Dansette that’s academic.

“You’re not normal,” I tell her.

“Your dad’s here, you know, if you want to ask him.” She says and disappears.

But, as I stand I hear the door bell.

Janet, in all her darkness, has arrived. I look at my watch.

“Just four and a half minutes late,” I tell her.

If a face can shrug hers does. I get a lukewarm half-kiss. She doesn’t have her dog – a boxer – with her. I’m relieved. It salivates when we are at our loving. Glutinous strings hanging from its mouth to its chest and even the floor. And that sad face it pulls.

The upside to the dog is that I can blame him when Mum complains about suspicious wet marks on the carpet or rug.

Janet and I have been going out for nearly two years, and have a routine. She comes round to mine three times a week and I go round to hers less often – because it’s not so convenient for me. Saturday we go to the pub, or the pictures, or a party.

I help her off with her sheepskin coat, and open the door to the front room, from which emerges the sound of Miles and those fourteen named individuals blazing a riotous storm.

“What the bloody hell’s this?” she says.

I tell her. She says nothing. As usual I sit in the grey arm chair next to the fish tank. She sits on my knee. We kiss properly, and I announce that tonight I will be removing her bra single-handed.

“Not getting one of your mates to help?” she says, throwing back her black hair.

“No, I mean I won’t use two hands. You know, I’ll be smooth and a bit sharp like James Bond or someone.” I hold my face at an angle I think is smooth and a bit sharp.

“We’ll see,” she says. “You know your hair’s getting really long.”

“I had no idea,” I say, pulling up the back of her red woollen jumper and weighing up the opposition. It’s an old adversary – the white bra with lace between the cup and the straps. It has three pairs of hooks.

“My mate Geoff says Diane has one that unloads at the front,” I tell her.

“Like one of those new washing machines,” she says. “I bet he doesn’t play her shit music like this.”

It’s not the best moment for romance. But there follows a lengthy period, with her jumper pulled up, in which my right hand pinches and squeezes the back of the bra with a combination of finger-numbing tension and bloody-minded determination, for which even Wayne Shorter’s exquisite tenor sax solo is not an appropriate soundtrack. Finally, I admit defeat.

“I’ll get you a mannequin for your birthday. You can practice in the comfort of your own room,” she tells me.

“And a supply of bras,” I add.

My dad never enters the front room when we are there, but mum normally comes in about 10.00, always turning the door handle artificially slowly whilst rattling it, so it makes as much noise as possible.

She did catch us on one occasion, but told us not to worry because she was young once. We doubted that.

10.30 is the time I walk Janet home.

And at exactly 10.30 I shout to my parents, “See you later,” before closing the back door and walking Janet almost silently in the chilly darkness through our estate, along the main road – until the sickly odour of the Lanolin factory is obliterated by the salt and vinegar smell of Pauline’s Fish Bar. Then between the high rise flats to her parents’ terraced house. In the lamp-lit alleyway I kiss her goodnight. Watch her walk up the stone steps to her parents’ back door. As she turns to call her final goodnight, she shouts out, “Great about your dad.” Then closes the door before I can ask her. She knows about Dad. Perhaps the whole town does.

When I arrive home my parents are in bed.

As usual, Dad leaves early for work the next morning, so I don’t see him, but the first thing I do when I get up is to ask Mum what he did.

“You mean you don’t know,” she shouts, laughing.

“No, I do not!” I say.

“W-e-l-l,” she says, rolling her tongue around her mouth to mark the fact a story is to follow. “Yesterday lunch time, when you were at school, Dad was walking home from work when there, in the avenue, was this huge bull. I think it was a Holstein Fresian. They’re sort of black red in colour with white patches, and originate from cattle bred on the island of Batavia between the Rhine, the Maas and the Waal.”

“Yes, yes, yes. What happened?”

“It was in a truck bound for the abattoir,” she says. “But escaped. Your dad grabbed it by the nose ring, and calmly walked it back to the truck.”

“What?” I yell. “Surely that’s not true. How did it get out of the wagon? Why was a wagon, carrying a bull bound for slaughter, driving through the estate? Why didn’t it gore Dad, or run away from him? How did they get it back in the vehicle? I have these and other questions,” I say.

“Your dad used to work in an abattoir before the war, you know. Bulls are a speciality of his.”

“That’s a sentence I never thought I’d hear.”

“That’s your dad, isn’t it?” says Mum.

The phone rings. Unusual for 8 am. It’s Janet.

“Hello, my love. This isn’t in today’s programme,” I say.

“Look,” she says, “I’m dumping you.”

“Why beat about the bush?” I say.

“I want to go out with other boys. With men,” she says pointedly.

“Are you saying that I’m not manly enough?”

“I would never say that, but yes, you’re not manly enough. You’d never tame a wild bull like your dad did, would you? Not with that hair.”

“I might.”

“You’re an idiot,” she says.

“You used to think I was funny,” I say.

The phone goes dead.

My mind is fireworks. I wonder what Miles Davis would have done. His father was a dentist and never went near animals. Maybe if I’d been born black this would never have happened. Or played the trumpet. Or owned one I couldn’t play. Kept it on top of the bookcase.

I go into the kitchen to tell Mum. With black biro and pad of paper, she’s noting down all the players from Yorkshire football clubs who played international football for the home nations. It’s quite a short list.

“Did Denis Law play for Scotland as a teenager with Huddersfield Town?” she asks.

“Can’t help you, Mum,” I say, and break the news about Janet. She winds her arms around me, folds me in her Luncheon Meat, Leopard Spots, Lenny White Drumming, Denis Law love. And, as she holds me, she has to blow my hair away from her mouth.

“Do you think you might get it cut now?” she asks.

“Probably,” I say.

 

Winner in 2018 of both the Dorset Fiction Award and the To Hull And Back Short Story Competition, John Holland’s short fiction is published online and in magazines and anthologies. He is the organiser of the twice-yearly event Stroud Short Stories. John’s website is http://www.johnhollandwrites.com

 

Image via Pixabay

 

cabinet of heed contents issue 16

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