Never said a word
April 26, 2016
Never Said a Word
It all came back to me years later when the wrong men were appealing for the third time. I’d missed the first two trials, working hard on the bar exams, and besides, I’d had my TV knocked off in a break-in one Christmas. But now an ITV reconstruction brought me back to 1974, the gingery men with their wavy, shoulder-length, slightly dirty hair, long leather coats and platform shoes being dragged off to the cells. Seventies footballers or pub bombers, they all dressed pretty much the same. It’s a measure of just how wrong the wrong men were, that the six main characters didn’t remind me of anyone, just three old men, older than my dad anyway, and three thick set Irish hard cases. No it was the actors playing the police officers and the journalists who brought back the memories and made me think of the gangs of blokes who sat around our kitchen table drinking over-sugared tea made with sterilized milk while they waited for my father to open his wallet. Scruffy, paint-spattered men who distracted me from my homework and made my mind wander to the Bay City Rollers, Gordon Hill and the pristine copy of Tammy waiting on my bedside table.
As I watched the handsome young men playing the police officers I was reminded of the sun bronzed labourers who had visited us in the autumn of 1974 and as I looked at Martin Shaw’s bright blue eyes, I saw Michael leaning down to talk to me in the garage, and I just knew it had been them. I’d never took much notice of Martin Shaw before, I thought the Professionals was slightly dubious and besides when it comes to Seventies cop shows I’ll always be a John Thaw/Dennis Waterman kind of girl. But here was Martin Shaw playing a serious role and I had to take him seriously, particularly those eyes; Michael’s eyes.
At eight years old I loved the Rollers and the Villa (Gordon Hill was the exception to my Villa players only rule), and each week I read every word of Tammy, and Jackie if I could get hold of it from my older cousin, but never till I’d finished my schoolwork. But when these tea-drinking, long-haired, foundry-smelling crew with impenetrable accents distracted me, I’d end up showing off my new Bay City Rollers game or my shiny plastic Aston Villa baseball cap or even performing an Osmonds number on the recorder for them. Most of the Irishmen were off the minute they got a sub from my dad; they didn’t even stay to finish their tea. Except one, a man called Michael, who liked to hang around. He’d encourage me to play another tune on the recorder even though I was, and remain, tone deaf – or he’d help me finish the story I was writing for school for next day. And he’d tell me stories of his own, miraculous stories of Irish Knights, Brian Boru and Fin MacCool. We would read poems together: ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ and ‘The Jumblies’ were my favourites. He promised to buy me a ‘monkey with lollipop paws’ and a ‘green jackdaw’. I knew he was pulling my leg and there was no such thing as a monkey with lollipop paws and I was pretty sure jackdaws only came in black. I liked it best when he treated me like a grown-up and we talked about the Villa. He even got me a complete set of first eleven signatures on Aston Villa headed note-paper. I realise now that it was a standard Xeroxed copy sent to every fan who sent a SAE to the club, but at the time I thought it was wonderful.
My dad was a painter and decorator and a dodgy one. Not his work, that was always top rank, but he had a relaxed attitude towards tax, health and safety: minor details that ate into his profits – and he employed a lot of Irishmen. All the local firms did, you just pulled up outside a pub and picked them up at the roadside. The favourite place to do this was a huge pub by the Seminary on the northern edges of town. The old man or his foreman would roll down the van window and ask: ‘Are you a painter, Paddy?’
‘No, a brickie’s labourer.’
They’d move onto the next and then the next until, with no names asked and no pack-drill, a couple of hungover, so-called painters were bundled into the back of the van where they would either go back to sleep or light a fag and try their hand at having the craic with their temporary employer. Then it was off to some godforsaken, grimy Black Country foundry in need of a coat of limewash.
My dad liked his Irish workforce. He’d keep the more reliable of them on to work for him for months at a time and some were even trusted with a van, so they’d become regular visitors to the house, picking up paint and ladders, money and instructions. And so Michael had reason to be around the house, even when my dad was away – and both of them often were.
Watching the actor, who looked so like Michael, with his long brown hair, and bright blue eyes, I remembered more and more about what I had seen. And what I had heard too. I remembered a time I was hiding under the discarded clothing on the bed. Mom and Auntie Aisling were trying on clothes, flouncing around in front of the cheval mirror, deciding what to wear for a forthcoming wedding. I had burrowed under the discarded clothes and lost myself in a flurry of Estee Lauder face powder and that perfume mom used to wear, the obscure one from Ungaro that was virtually impossible to get hold of in the UK, or so dad claimed when he showed up empty handed every birthday, Christmas and anniversary. I hadn’t moved for ten minutes when I heard Aisling ask, ‘How’s Michael?’
‘Wonderful,’ she said. They had both forgotten I was there. ‘I think, no I don’t think, I know, I love him.’
I couldn’t hear what Aisling replied.
‘He’s so different to Jim, I tried to teach Jim how to love me but I never succeeded. I haven’t had to teach Michael anything.’
I still couldn’t hear Aisling’s reply.
‘Not make love, just to love. I don’t think Jim can love anyone after what happened to him.’
Then I felt something lift from me and heard a stifled yelp. ‘You asleep Daisy?’ asked Mom, sounding panicked.
I shut my eyes and pretended.
Mom pulled back the pile of clothes. ‘Off to bed with you. School tomorrow.’
She tapped me on the backside and I was off like a shot, yawning a lot, probably too much. I didn’t know what to make of what I had just heard. Michael was better than my dad at something but I wasn’t sure exactly what. Perhaps it was telling stories but dad was good at that, so it could have been singing. Dad was a terrible singer. He used to come home from the pub and sing something awful in French about the knights of the round table. But Michael had a beautiful voice. He usually sang David Bowie or T Rex but he played up the Irishness for mom and me, giving us the “Wild Rover” and “Whiskey in the Jar.” But my favourite was “The Black Velvet Band” especially when he sang the lines:
“Her hair was black and shiny, her neck it was just like a swan’s, with her hair flung over her shoulder, tied up with a black velvet band,”
Although mom’s neck was more “like a swan’s” than my pink and chubby one – though Michael said that my “eyes shone like the diamonds” and called me “the queen of the land”, although I’m sure he was looking at mom when he said that. But for some reason I knew Mom hadn’t meant singing.
These men in my dad’s kitchen were typical of the 1970s itinerant Irish worker. They’d arrive at Holyhead or Fishguard armed with a tax exemption certificate, which meant they could be paid in cash, the employer had no PAYE problem and the worker would then pay a bit of tax at the end of each year. It solved the unemployment problem in Ulster and the labour shortage in Britain. Everyone was a winner: the government, the workers and the employers. And my father more than most. If an Irishman entered his employ with an exemption certificate, he rarely left with it: my father would buy it and use it to siphon large amounts of tax-free cash out of the business. Large amounts of tax-free cash that paid for my expensive girls’ school in Edgbaston, my pony and piano lessons, my lacrosse sticks and a brace from a private dentist.
My dad liked these men and he exploited them. They did a lot of work for not very much money, but I wondered now how they had exploited him too. How they had used his very ordinary dodginess as a perfect cover for their deadly activities. I realised watching the documentary that evening that I knew they had, and that I always had done. And this is how I knew.
I’d just saved the dog. My brother had tied Sellotape around his front and back legs, his snout and his tail, and was marching past me with a stapler, intending to staple Copper’s ears together on top of his head. I disarmed him and went to free our lovely but stupid dog, who my father insisted on calling ‘Chopper’ after Ron Harris. I’d looked up Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris in Purnell’s Encyclopaedia of Association Football and I hated him. He played for Chelsea, a sixties throwback with no flowing locks and not at all like my dog.
My brother was upset at his game being spoiled so I took him into the garage. The garage was our forbidden playground. It was where my father stored his paint and his ladders; his spray guns and pressurized pots that blasted concoctions of lime and distemper onto factory walls; asbestos sheets and nasty, sharp fibreglass sheets used for skylights that we made dens with; plus a bright red steam-cleaning machine which was shaped like a steam locomotive. There was row upon row of heavy-duty paint cans: rusty, dusty and stolen paint, expensive industrial paint and specialist chemical paint. Some had been there for as long as I could remember, but they would all apparently come in handy one day. In the meantime, they were great for climbing on and perfect for hiding behind.
I helped my brother aboard the steam-cleaner steam engine, but he scuffed my lacy white socks as he settled into position, so I picked up an oily rag off the floor and chucked it into his face just as he was beginning his Casey Jones impersonation. I stuck my tongue out at him and ducked behind the nearest stack of paint cans. He came after me, grappling for my ponytail. He missed, but connected with a dented tin of red lead oxide. It went flying and the clatter of cans brought us both to a sudden halt.
Then he was heading for the door before I had chance to order him out. I shouted that he could keep running, though I would have preferred him to stay and help. The lead oxide can was large, but grubby and forgotten after its plummet from the back of a lorry. It held five gallons, which was probably more than I could lift unassisted but it was better that my brother stayed hiding for now as he couldn’t be relied on to stay paint free. I wasn’t sure I was going to be successful in keeping my pinafore clear of incriminating evidence, but I needn’t have worried: no paint was spewing out. The lid had gone cartwheeling along the concrete floor and even though the specialist stuff that Dad used could be very thick, some of the tin’s contents should have been oozing out. I looked inside. All I could see was an old curtain.
I tugged at the curtain but whatever was wrapped inside was too heavy for me to shift, so I pulled back a corner and saw a big lump of brownish clay, like marzipan. I pushed at it and it gave way under my fingers. I pushed my whole hand against it and left a perfect impression. I grinned. This was like modelling clay but not as messy. I remembered the ring I was wearing – my best Mattel Liddle Kiddles ring – it would make a great shape in the marzipan. I took it off and pressed it down, once, twice, then a third time in a circular pattern before I had a frightening thought. Earlier that year, Dad had appeared before the local magistrates on charges of storing dangerous industrial materials in a domestic garage. He’d had to pay a hefty fine and when he told the magistrates the proceedings were ‘a load of piffle’, they promptly increased the fine. He didn’t care and he went on using the garage for storage just the same. So I knew that he kept some really horrible things, acids and chemicals, in there and knowing my luck this was probably one of them. I put the lid back on the tin and went to scrub my hands, not forgetting to give my Kiddles ring a good clean with my brother’s toothbrush. Well, he hardly ever used it, the stinky sod.
Next morning, the familiar chug of diesel engines and Dad’s banter with his sleepy workers woke me but the noise seemed to go on for longer than usual. I heard my dad leave, but one van was still there. I could tell it was the van that the Irishmen used by the splutters and rattles it made as it ticked over beneath my window. My dad’s business didn’t have any really reliable vehicles, but the one kept for his casual workers was a shocker even given his cavalier approach to MOT standards. The van backfired away. But I thought no more of it and went to clean my teeth, glancing lovingly at my new David Cassidy poster on my way to the bathroom.
School was great that day. I came top of the class in English and history and got a gold star for spelling. Back at home, I ate a Twix and got started on my English homework. I was really excited by our new book – A Kestrel for a Knave. A proper book at last, one that had been made into a film for adults, not the stupid kids’ stuff we’d done before.
I was alone in the kitchen. Dad was still at work, my brother was probably out torturing toads with his horrible friends and I didn’t know where my mum was, shopping or seeing her mother perhaps.
I was reading away when the first van pulled in, followed by a knock at the back door. I opened it and was confronted by a set of nicotine-stained teeth beaming from the soot-blackened face of ‘Mick’. It makes me cringe to think about it now but all the Irishmen were known as ‘Paddy’ or ‘Mick’, the Scotsmen ‘Jock’ and the Welshmen ‘Taffy’. Over the years my dad had three or four Nobby Clarkes working for him, at least two Chalkie Whites and a Yosser Hughes long before Alan Bleasdale, although this being Birmingham in the seventies everyone just called him ‘Scouse’. I realize now how those four men must have been very glad of the anonymity that the lazily racist generic provided, but the others – the ordinary, decent, non-bomb-planting Irishmen – didn’t complain either, not to us anyway. My father used to put ‘Paddy’ on their wage packets and no one commented when they collected them.
Mick ruffled my hair, which messed my pigtails up, but I smiled politely back.
‘Daddy’s not back yet,’ I said.
‘Not to worry, darling. Why don’t you come out to the garage? We’ve got you a little present.’
I hesitated. ‘I’m not supposed to go in there.’
‘Oh you’ll be all right with us, come on now.’
I followed him and found ‘Paddy 1’ and ‘Paddy 2’ smoking at the side of the van. In front of Paddy 1 was a large paint tin that looked just like the one that contained the marzipan and the curtain. Michael came from behind the back of the van. He looked stern.
I stopped short.
Mick put his hands on my shoulders. ‘Don’t worry, darling. It’s a bit of advice we’re after giving you, nothing more.’
Michael took over. ‘There’s nothing to worry about, lovey, but your da wouldn’t be too happy if he knew you’d been messing about with this.’ He pointed at the tin. ‘It’s some dangerous stuff that we use in the building game.’
Paddy 2 snorted. ‘More like the demolition game.’ He got a kick in the shins from Michael for his trouble.
‘How do you know I was touching that tin?’ I demanded.
Michael took no notice. My attempt to sound authoritative didn’t work then and it hasn’t worked much since.
‘See that ring you’re wearing, darling?’
I looked sheepishly at the ring finger of my right hand before hiding both hands behind my back.
‘Well,’ said Michael, smiling and pointing at the decorated corner of the marzipan, ‘there it is.’
I bit my lip.
‘Ah, there now, darling, we’ll say nothing if you say nothing.’
I looked at him and said nothing.
‘All right?’ he pressed.
‘All right,’ I stuttered.
‘There now, we’ll take this away and we’ll pretend it was never here. Your da will never have to know. We’ll say it was never here and you’ll do the same. It was never here and you never saw it. OK?’
Michael let go of my shoulders and ruffled my hair. ‘Didn’t I say we’d got you a present?’ He smiled and handed me a small package: ‘Go on, open it.’
I tore at the paper, which had several greasy thumbprints on it, to reveal a Mattel Liddle Kiddles ring. It was ‘Harriet’, the prettiest one, the one I wanted.
‘How did you know this was the one I wanted?’ I gasped.
‘Your mum must have mentioned it.’
Paddy 1 interrupted. ‘We’re good at guessing things like that.’ He scowled at Michael.
Mick joined in. ‘That’s it, luck o’ the Irish.’
Michael smiled at me sadly. ‘Now be a good girl,’ he said, ‘and go and put the kettle on. We’ll load up and then we’ll be in to see your da.’
Mick ruffled my hair again. ‘Remember now, you never saw that tin.’ He rubbed the side of his nose, which I thought was a funny thing to do, but I nodded and ran into the house.
It was only when the kettle was boiling that I realized they couldn’t come in for a cup of tea with my dad because he wasn’t at home. I headed towards the door to tell them, but something made me stop. I stood there for a moment and then went up to my room. I brushed my hair straight after all that ruffling and then I tried ‘Harriet’ on.
Three days later two concealed bombs tore through two pubs in the centre of town, killing twenty-one people and injuring one hundred and eighty-two others.
Paddy 1, Paddy 2 and Mick stopped turning up for work for my father; the other men said they’d returned to Belfast. They certainly didn’t hang around to sell him their tax exemption certificates. But Michael hung around for a little longer. He’d telephone the house and speak to my mother. And once, when my father was working away – or playing away; I found out as I got older that it amounted to the same thing – he telephoned almost constantly and I heard my mother use the F word for the first time. Apparently ‘the fucking babysitter had cried off at the last minute’. She shooed me away before I could hear any more, but soon afterwards a beat-up old Datsun pulled onto the drive and my mother rushed out to meet it. She sat out there in the car with Michael and I leant on the windowsill, chin in hands and a lock of hair in my mouth, watching. I saw their heads come together and after a while I realised they were kissing, a long kiss as well. The lock of hair fell from my mouth and I forgot about my homework as I watched, straining to make out what was going on in the eerie, grey light from our authentic, reproduction carriage lanterns. Michael was unbuttoning my mom’s blouse and I watched him put his hand inside. Then my mother’s head disappeared below the dashboard and all I could see was Michael’s face, his eyes closed in a funny expression. Just before mom reappeared, Michael’s eyes flew open, those winning blue Irish eyes I’d seen so often across the kitchen table and now I was seeing them again in the face of an actor in a TV reconstruction.
After what had happened, Birmingham was probably the safest place in the country but mom refused to go into the city centre and we had to make do with Christmas shopping in Walsall. My brother was disappointed because he had his heart set on the Airfix Stalingrad set, which was only available from Beatties in the Bull Ring. I wasn’t too bothered. I didn’t feel too Christmassy. I’d got ‘Harriet’ but I’d got her for doing something I shouldn’t have done. I’d seen and heard things I shouldn’t have seen too, and looking at it made me think of the expression of Michael’s face in the Datsun. On Christmas Day I wrapped the ring up in tissue paper and hidden it in the bottom of my wardrobe, packing away with it the memory of how Michael and the other three had smiled at me in the garage then driven away with that paint tin in my father’s back-firing van.
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