Black Country fiction: Gooseflesh, by Michael Jarvie

In memoriam Kassamali Moledina and Amirali Moledina

One of those familiar poles, with alternating bands of red and white, can be found outside the barber’s shop on the Soho Road in Handsworth. Its semiotic significance has always been eclipsed by the remarkable optical illusion of upward movement of the helicoidal stripes, which in reality are only travelling about the axis.

In the display window I can see an array of items arranged on glass shelves: aftershave lotion, coconut hair oil, shampoo bottles; cans of hairspray, disposable razors, a pack of shaving brushes; a chromium-plated mirror, packets of contraceptives, black nylon combs.

I come here about once a month. The barber pronounces ‘hair cut’ as ‘air cut’. Tufts of what appear to be steel wool frame his tonsure. Once I’m settled in the chair he covers me with a white nylon sheet and puts a black yoke over my shoulders before he sets to work.

The vibrating diaphragm inside the transistor radio emits a comforting babble, but the drone of the electric clippers never fails to annoy me − a swarm of wasps buzzing in my ears. I prefer it when he uses the scissors instead. Throughout the procedure he manipulates my head up and down as though arranging a tableau vivant.

After he has stropped the blade of the cutthroat on a leather strap the barber scrapes away the hairs on the back of my neck with a surgeon’s precision. Then he holds up a mirror behind my head, moving it adroitly from side to side as he awaits my nod of approval. Finally, he unshrouds me and hands me a paper tissue. Soon I’m outside again, screwing up my eyes against the lacerating brightness of a September afternoon.

Hours later I’m standing at the gate in Westminster Road, when it happens. About to turn right, I experience the strangest sensation; the gooseflesh that creeps over my skin is a manifestation of the uncanny rupturing the fabric of reality.

My body swings me definitively to the left, the direction Dante takes with Virgil down through the circles of hell. I turn into Putney Road, still puzzled by this message from the primordial part of my brain.

It’s just after seven o’clock on a Monday evening and I’ve been out of work for more than two years. The miners — that heavy brigade of the working class — have already been eviscerated. No haruspex is required to examine their smoking entrails. They have returned to their underground burrows while they are still able to do so. They remind me of the enslaved Nibelungs in Wagner’s Das Rheingold, except Alberich is no longer a whip-wielding dwarf. He’s become a woman with a bouffant hairstyle who is taking elocution lessons to deepen her hectoring voice.

I stroll back home with two cans of Kestrel lager and a packet of Refreshers jostling together in the bottom of my carrier bag. As I walk, I try to work out what has just happened. Later, I wonder if it was a premonition. At such a distance my hearing certainly wasn’t acute enough to pick up the sound of breaking glass, nor was my sense of smell sufficiently sensitive to the smoke molecules rising in the air less than half a mile away.

When I reach my shitty bedsit with its threadbare settee, Erika typewriter and MFI desk, the radio crackles menacingly like a forest fire. There’s the clanging of fire engines and police cars in the distance. Despite the sense of incipient danger, I feel an urge to go back out into the evening. But to do what exactly?

I remain beside the window as darkness falls. Like the radio, my body is tuned into vibrations of discontent and violence, though I remain completely unaware of the tragic events about to destroy two innocent lives.

 

Biography

Michael Jarvie was born in Darlington, County Durham, in 1958. He read English Language and Literature at Birmingham City University and graduated with a 2:1 in 1983. After completing his studies he lived in Birmingham for a further five years. In 2015 he obtained a Masters Degree in Creative Writing (with Distinction)from Teesside University. He is the author of a collection of twelve stories entitled The Prison and a novel, Black Art.

Banner image: Birmingham Mail

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Black Country memoir: Timeslots, by Martin Begley

The Black Country. Country of the blighted, country of unwanted coal and lost industry, of long-extinguished foundries and murdered steelworks. And my town, dear old Wolverhampton.

Its motto is, ‘Out of darkness cometh light.’

Its people’s motto is, ‘Out of arseholes cometh shite.’

I was born onto the floor of a terraced house one autumn night, into a different world than the one we occupy today. That world has mostly gone. Some parts remain as the ghosts of forgotten buildings but most of the people of that time are no more, and certainly the character of those people has been bleached away, watered down like beer in an overpriced pub. But in my mind, and sometimes in my dreams, they are there, living on.

Those memories are coming back more often these days. They court me, as if I’m walking with old ghosts who have risen unbidden from the sleeping graveyard in my head. A sense of the past is so strong and undeniable that I can almost see it. It wraps around me with smoky, sooty arms.

That terraced row of houses where I breathed my first is still there, but changed. Modernised, yes, but somehow so much smaller. Sometimes in vivid dreams I drift through the familiar rooms, and they are as real to me as the room I sit in right now. I wonder if the people who live in my former home sometimes wake in the dark of night and see a small child moving through the shadows, a patch of boy-shaped mist or fog, my dream self.

Time. You can’t catch it and you can’t hold onto it. It’s like air: we move through it every day, every hour and every minute, but we just can’t see it.

***

It’s a dank morning in distant 1963. I am walking with my mother to nursery school, past a children’s clinic. The near-rancid smell of the Midland Counties Dairy cuts through the cold, still air. Shiny silver tankers wait in their bays like torpedoes in launching tubes, off-white effluent streaming across the pavement as the trucks are sprayed down and cleaned with industrial jets. I hear the belching of the pumps, the hammering of the generators, and the sound of shouting, busy men, all in overalls, all wet with the cold spray-back of water ricocheting from the curved bodies of the tankers. Some of ‘the crafty uns’ as my Nan would have said, are skiving off, skulking and hiding around corners or hid in dark doorways and niches, snatching a sly fag, dragging deep on Senior Service or Woodbines. All are flat-capped, all grizzled and weather-worn and some wink at me and say, ‘’Oroight yung’un?’ as my mother tugs me past, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

The dairy lives and breathes; sour, milky breath caught in the rumble of big diesel engines and men coughing from smoke-stained lungs and throats. It cannot see its demise hiding just over the horizon, cannot imagine the golden arches of its headstone, the drive-thru of its grave.

The chill of the morning attacks us all. The mums drag us duffle coated and balaclava’d kids alongside them; in thick drab coats and dull coloured headscarves, they seem almost greyer than the day, and much older than their years, shaped by hard work and hardship.

A winter’s night, a few years later. I think it must be a Friday because there is no school tomorrow, and there’s the scent of fish and chips in the air, heavily salt-and-vinegared, marinated in the headlines of yesterday’s Express & Star. Perhaps it’s November, because it’s cold but there is no snow. I’m standing on the step of our front door. It’s already dark and a pea-souper is forming, slowly settling, already smothering Ashland Street chip shop. The pungent tang of burning coal and slack, of unswept soot-lined chimneys joins the already tainted air. The street lights are doused one by one as damp grey-green waves billow, then settle. It’s here now; the street light opposite has vanished in the murk.  I look up at the lamp right outside our house and all I see is a dull yellow halo, a small land-locked lighthouse. Its sad, dim glow is answered by the muffled sound of a trolley bus lumbering across the top of our street, not fifty feet away. Then even this is gone, and silence and the fog reigns supreme.

I know better than to venture even a few yards in exploration. Grown men get lost forever, and mothers whisper of strange untold dangers, things that I should heed but of which I know nothing. I continue to watch awhile, and the damp chill breath of this town seeps into my lungs and its grimy, sooty touch scratches at my eyes.

My mother’s voice cuts from somewhere behind me.

‘Come inside and CLOSE THAT BLOODY DOOR!’ I turn and obey, shutting out my silent friend.

***

A bright March day and years have gone by. I must be at least thirteen. It’s a special day for our family, the glorious seventeenth, St Paddy’s day. Yes, even in darkest Wolverhampton, the Irish, my parents among them, have carefully unwrapped and brought out the ‘Auld Country’. The now not-so-smoggy air of this town is forgotten for a while, the tortured vowels of yam yam banished by brogues and the gentle whispers of Connemara and Connacht.

The Emerald club is alive and jigging. Older kids like me are tolerated on this the day of days. No booze of course, no pint of plain for me. Well, technically. My uncle Pat has stealthily placed a glass of the black stuff near my hand and judging by the surreptitious winks he is firing my way, this dark liquid magic is clearly meant to be mine.  Sometimes, I love my uncle Pat. The men in here don’t appear any different from their outwardly Wulfrunian selves, except perhaps the worn black suits are a little cleaner, the Brylcream-lined caps a little less crumpled and the scuffed shoes and boots a little shinier. I’m confused, because I was born and bred here but today I’m Irish.  I’m still too young to know that I am actually both, that this town will hammer my shape and grind my personality, and that Ireland will rain-wash and soften the Black Country corners, dampen down its angles.

The flag of Ireland hangs everywhere and the chatter of the men is loud – mostly accented English, but some speak softly in Gaelic, my father included. Some of the ‘auld boys’ shyly display the medals of their younger days, some talk quietly of Michael Collins and the lads of the Flying Columns, riding rusty bicycles along dark and dangerous boreens. Others speak more urgently of how The Officials should play their part in the Shitehole North.

The heady scent of porter and strong untipped cigarettes billows through the room as I watch the band tune-up for the Ceili. They will play Quadrilles and slow Irish waltzes. You can’t see it, but there is a cable of connection between this place and that land, forged through poverty, through history, through common needs tempered by love and marriage.

***

July 1976. Summer has flooded this place. We live in a golden lake; its only tide is heat. Wolverhampton has been this way for weeks, or decades, or maybe forever. Night never really comes; the hot dusk just lingers on until the hot dawn. Long-dead beer gardens have been miraculously resurrected and seem constantly full. Brightly-coloured sun umbrellas bloom around these mad oases.

On the sticky, melting streets, girls have never worn so little and boys have never been so pleased. Our parents are dazed and confused; they shrink from the shimmering air, their energies sun-leeched from them. They hide indoors from the syrupy heat of the day. We school-leavers are now Kings of All. We wear our tans like medals. Our sunburns are badges of honour.

My friends and I have sweated our way through this heat, and cursed our way through our ‘O’ levels. On this day, the last day of long and unjust incarceration, the final exam is over and school is finished. Forever.

‘Free at last!’ I yell as we burst from the school gates. Adolescence is fading, soon to be washed away by a wave of politics, music, and sex.  For now, we soar over North Green, blazers flying against the bluest sky. We yell and gambol our way across scorched, wiry grass. School ties are fashioned bandana-like around foreheads, the colours of our tribe.

***

Our tribe. The Wulfrunians. This place has always been us and we have always been this place. We pride ourselves on denying it to others, but we can never truly deny it to ourselves. Over forty years have passed since that last school day, when we ran too quickly towards our futures. My town and I have changed. So very much. But beneath it all, we are still the same.

 

Biography

Martin Begley is a student of Creative Writing at the University of Wolverhampton.

 

Banner image: Bev Parker, Wolverhampton History and Heritage.