Welcome to the Back List...
I don't suppose anyone knows excatly how many forgotten titles there are in publishers' Back Lists, but one thing is for sure, some of them would be really worth discovering by a new audience. Here's a sample I have chosen to show you what I mean...
Meet Jimmy Costello. Quiet, respectable, God-fearing family man? Or thuggish street-fighter with a past full of dark secrets? Perhaps the answer is somewhere in between . . .
After Jimmy's wife dies the conflict inside him is too much and the violent assault he commits on a gangster forces him to leave London and his job as a detective sergeant and disappear for a while. Now he's back, on what you might call a divine mission . . . and to settle a few old scores too.
Through the eyes of his hard-boiled ex-cop, James Green takes us on a thrilling journey from 1960s Kilburn, through war-torn 1970s Africa to the streets of a London that seems to have cleaned up its act . . . until you scratch the surface.
Kilburn, December 1994
The weather, as usual, was trying its best to fit in with the general mood, cold and overcast, the rain driven by a sharp east wind. Traffic moved sullenly on the wet road and people huddled into their coats and averted their eyes from the shop windows. They were the unlucky ones who hadn’t been able to flee the season of goodwill and enjoy warmth and winter sun.
The man on the pavement of Kilburn High Road had seen some of the lucky ones arriving at Malaga Airport that morning as he waited to board his flight for Heathrow. Now he stood in the rain looking across at a large Edwardian pub on the opposite side of the road. It was a beautiful façade, elaborate but not fussy or overdone, a London classic in its way, and fortunately never ‘improved’.
But the name was wrong.
No one would have called a pub The Liffey Lad when that pub was built. If Kilburn was Irish in those days it wouldn’t have wanted to advertise the fact. You might as well have come straight out with it and called it The Fenian Bastard.
He was middle-aged and carried a black holdall. An anonymous man, wearing a grey, lightweight suit. He held the collar of his jacket tight around his throat, a useless gesture given the thinness of the material.
Suddenly he stopped looking at the pub and seemed to become aware he was getting wet. He looked up and down the street. Three doors up was a charity shop. He walked towards it and stopped, the display in the window told him there was a considerable choice of ill-matched crockery, hideous ornaments, and improbable items of glass and kitchenware, but he went in.
It wasn’t much warmer inside but at least the wind wasn’t blowing and there was no rain, that was something. An elderly black woman was sitting reading a book behind the counter. She didn’t look up as he went to the men’s rail and put down his holdall. There were shirts, lots of shirts, a few cheap suits, and a concise history of the polyester tie. The rail had three coats but they didn’t look promising. He took the only overcoat and held it up. It had belonged to someone who had been seven feet tall, weighed twenty-five stone and had worn it every day for fifteen years. He put it back and took the next one, an imitation sheepskin, which he tried on over his damp jacket. It had belonged to a human pipe- cleaner and the buttons wouldn’t touch, never mind fasten. He took it off and put it back. The only remaining coat was a blue anorak with a fur-fringed hood. He hoped for the best but when he tried it, it fitted. He kept it on, picked up his holdall and walked to the counter. The woman looked up.
‘You really want that?’ It was a genuine enquiry. ‘Man, you must really need a coat.’
The man smiled.
‘You don’t have much to choose from and it’s cold and wet out there. It was warm and sunny where I started from this morning. What’s the price tag say?’
‘One pound. You goin’ to wear it or shall I put it in a bag for you?’
‘I’ll wear it.’
He handed over a ten-pound note from his wallet. The woman gave him nine pound coins.
‘We ain’t got no fives.’
She took up her book again and continued with her reading, The Christian Doctrine of God by Emil Brunner.
The man pulled up the zipper on the anorak. ‘Is it any good, your book?’
‘I don’t know, I just read it to keep warm.’
He went and looked out of the window across the street.
The rain on the glass blurred the people and traffic.
‘That pub across the street, when did it change its name?’
‘The one across the road, The Liffey Lad.’
‘I’m from Antigua. Ask somebody else.’
It was the way she turned the page that told him their conversation was over.
The nine coins in his hand would be a real pain in the pocket of a lightweight suit. He thought about it. A couple of pints at London prices would lighten the load. It was just past twelve o’clock.
Outside he pulled up the hood of his anorak and crossed the road.
The pub was warmer than the charity shop had been. He pulled down the hood of his anorak. Why was it so empty? It always used to be a busy place. He stood just inside the door, feeling nervous. Kilburn was a bad place for him to be, and maybe the worst place in the whole of Kilburn was inside this pub.
He looked round. It was different, it had all been changed. They had knocked the old lounge and public bar into one big room that was set up for eating rather than drinking. And it was Irish, not the cheap comic Irish of the theme pubs, but as if you were in a good class Dublin pub. It had been very well done.
A voice called from the far end of the bar. ‘Clear off, we’re not open.’
The barman was young and big and as well done out as the lounge but his voice wasn’t Irish, it was London, south of the river. The man looked at his watch, then he realised he hadn’t re-set it for English time. It wasn’t just past twelve, it was just past eleven.
‘The door was open.’
The barman looked up from his paper, gave the visitor a steady, hostile look, and then grinned.
‘What are you supposed to be then, a fucking trainspotter?’ Then the grin was switched off. ‘Now fuck off, we’re closed,’ and he returned to his paper.
The man moved towards the bar, looking around him. ‘This used to be The Hind, didn’t it?’ He carried on talking as he approached the bar. ‘I liked it better as it was.’
The barman leaned forward with his hands on the bar. ‘You fucking deaf or something, didn’t you hear me? I said fuck off, we’re closed.’
The man reached the bar, he put his holdall down and looked towards the range of beers and lagers which all came from a fancy continental-style set of taps, except for one black beer handle which was labelled Courage Directors. The man went and looked at the shiny brass array of taps then came back.
‘What’s Callaghan’s Shamrock Ale? I’ve never heard of it. Is it any good?’
There was no reply; the barman was thinking, you could tell by the strain in his eyes.
‘Anyway, I’ll stick with Directors. A pint of Directors please.’
The man pulled the nine pound coins from his pocket and looked at them cupped in his right hand, when a new voice
cut in from the end of the bar.
‘Something the matter, Billy? Got a problem?’
A heavy-set man had come through the staff door behind the bar.
‘Only I’ve told you before about your language, Billy, so I thought there must be a problem.’
‘This bloke’s making a nuisance of himself, Mr Doyle.’ ‘Well, if he’s a nuisance throw him out.’
The man’s hand closed tightly on the coins. ‘No need, I’ll go.’
‘No you won’t, you’ll get thrown out, I want to see you fucking well bounce.’
The barman moved fast for his size and vaulted onto the bar, but the man stepped back and ducked low and his fist came up hard between the barman’s legs as he jumped down and there was a howl of pain as they collapsed together onto the carpet. The man pushed the barman off him, got to his feet, and dusted off his anorak. The barman struggled to his knees, bent forward clutching himself, barely able to breathe because of the pain. It was a simple matter to finish it by kicking him hard in the face.
Doyle looked over the bar to where Billy was lying on his back, bleeding heavily from his mouth and nose. He turned to the man.
‘Have you killed him, Jimmy?’
‘No, George, he’ll live.’
Jimmy opened his fist, tipped the nine heavy coins into his left hand, and flexed his fingers.
‘Pint of Directors.’
Doyle pulled the pint and put it on the bar. ‘On the house.’
‘No thanks, I’ll pay.’
‘Come on, just to say welcome back.’
Jimmy paused for a moment and then poured the coins
back into his right hand, slipped them into his pocket, and picked up the pint.
Doyle waited until he had taken a drink. ‘Been back long?’
‘Back for any special reason?’
‘Just a short visit to see a man about a dog.’
‘You’re not here to cause trouble, are you? We wouldn’t want any trouble.’
‘You know me, George, I never cause any trouble.’
‘No, Jimmy, what gave me that idea? We all stood and waved you goodbye with tears in our eyes, as I remember, all so sad to see you go.’
‘That was different.’
‘Too true it was different. Everyone had to run for cover, no one wants that sort of trouble again, no one.’
They paused as the young man sat up, blood from his mouth and nose spreading across the lower part of his face, staining his white shirt.
‘You were right, Jimmy, he’ll live. I’d have got rid of him anyway though, even if you hadn’t given me a good reason. He couldn’t control his fucking language, always fucking swearing in front of the punters. It’s not the sort of image we want.’
Doyle looked over the bar.
‘And look at that carpet. I can’t have blood about the place, can I, not real blood anyway? You’re not back five minutes, and you’re already costing me money.’
‘This place yours then?’
‘It’s in my name.’
‘It said Eamon Doyle over the door when I came in.’ ‘That’s right, Eamon Doyle, that’s me.’
‘Suit yourself, it’s a free country. What trade do you get in here now?’
‘Tourists mostly, American, Oriental, all sorts. They bus them here to drink Guinness in a genuine London Irish pub. The Guinness and the others are all three pounds a pint but they love it.’
‘No local would pay three pounds a pint in my time for Guinness or anything else. Isn’t there any ordinary trade any more? This was always a busy pub.’
‘There’s a special rate for some of the locals, half-price.’
‘I’ll drink here for £1.50 a pint, that’s the cheapest beer in London.’
Doyle’s accent changed.
‘Can you do the accent, boyo?’
‘Only North London, George. Pure Kilburn.’
‘Do you know any Shaw, Yeats, or Wilde?’ Jimmy shook his head.
‘Can you look a bit literary? Can you be local colour?’ ‘No, George. I’m no colour at all.’
The voice was North London again. ‘Then you’ll pay
£3 like the other punters. We have a string of local talent who come and argue literature, the Troubles, and religion. They know how to talk and dress. It’s all very well done.’
‘Religion and politics? Does it ever come to blows?’ ‘Nearly.’ Doyle’s London accent gave way again to the
stage brogue. ‘Ah God, Jimmy, doesn’t myself put a stop to that? It’s me, Eamon Doyle, you’ll have to reckon with if you can’t sort out your differences like gintl’min.’
They both laughed.
‘I like the accent, very Victor McClaglan. And Eamon’s a nice touch.’
‘You know how it is, Nat always likes to give value for money.’
‘Nat’s still in charge is he?’
‘Oh yes, Nat’s still very much in charge. Hang on.’
The young man was now on his feet.
Doyle spoke with genuine concern in his voice. ‘All right, Billy?’
Billy wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. ‘Yes Mr Doyle.’
‘Right, then fuck off and don’t let me see you near here again.’
The ex-barman looked as if he might do something but then thought better of it. He didn’t look back as he left.
‘You know, for a moment I really thought you were going to leave when I told Billy to throw you out.’
‘I told you, I don’t cause trouble.’
‘Come off it, Jimmy, you wouldn’t leave for the likes of him, I’ve seen you at work too often.’
‘Suit yourself. Maybe people change.’
‘People don’t change, except maybe their underwear. You’re the same all right, look what you did to Billy. He’s not a mug but you made him look like one.’
Doyle folded away the newspaper and gave the bar a casual and unnecessary wipe. He had a question that needed an answer.
‘Does Nat know you’re back?’
‘I told you, I just arrived, there’s only you knows I’m here.’
‘It won’t stay that way long, you know how things work.’ Jimmy took a long pull at his beer.
‘This is a private visit, I don’t want trouble.’
‘If you say so. Are you staying locally?’
‘In London.’ He finished his pint and put the empty glass on the bar.
‘Well, I’ll know just where to come and visit you, won’t I?’
‘That’s right. Can’t miss me in London, can you? Another pint of Directors.’
Jimmy pulled out the pound coins again and counted out three.
‘Sorry, no more. One pint to find out why you’re back and where you’re staying will stand up with Nat but that information doesn’t need two pints. I don’t know what you’re up to but whatever it is I don’t want any part of it. A second pint and more chat puts me too close to you for real comfort.’
‘How do you mean, too close?’
‘The first thing you do when you get back to London is walk in here, which is bad enough, then you break up the staff, which is not a nice thing to do. It’s very violent. If I have a heart to heart with you after that, certain people will start asking are we still close, like in the old days. Tell me, why do I feel that close to you is not a good place to be?’
‘Have it your way, George. It’s not a very good pint anyway, not like it used to be.’
‘We don’t sell enough to keep it, really. We should take it off and put in another joke beer with a name like Kilkenny Cats’ Piss.’ Doyle brightened. ‘In fact that’s what I’ll do, as soon as this barrel is finished. We’ll get something cheap and fizzy, give it a real fancy name and ask £3.50 a pint for it. There you are, see what you can do when you try? You can still help people make a few bob as well as cost them money.’
‘Always glad to help out, George. See you.’
Jimmy picked up his holdall, turned and walked towards the door.
‘By the way, have you taken up trainspotting or what?’ Jimmy stopped.
‘It does make a sort of statement, doesn’t it?’ They both grinned.
‘Jimmy, don’t ever come in here again,’ Doyle said. ‘In half an hour I’ll have somebody else behind this bar, somebody who could do more than just throw you out and make you bounce.’
‘I know you will, George. Nice to see you again.’
‘And you. Take care.’
Jimmy stepped into Kilburn High Road. It was still cold, windy and wet, but now there were white flecks of sleet among the rain. He zipped up his anorak and pulled up the hood. The coins felt heavy in his pocket.
It didn’t used to be so hard to spend money in London. Things must have changed in three years. He paused for a moment then headed towards the nearest Underground station.
In the pub George was on the phone.
‘Yes, Mr Desmond, Jimmy Costello. I thought you’d want to know … By the way, Billy’s given in his notice, can you get me someone over here? We’ll have our first coach-load for lunch soon. I’d prefer Vic. I don’t think there’ll be any trouble but you never know, Costello making this pub his first port of call. It’s not as if it makes any sense, not unless he wants people to know he’s back … Yes, that’s what I thought, so I’d be happier with Vic here until we know what’s going on. No sense in taking any chances.’
George put down the phone and stood for a while. He was beginning to get worried about the health of his old mum. He worried about her sometimes. He didn’t visit her as often as he should and right now he was getting a strong feeling that this was a good time to think about going away and asking after her health.
Kilburn, December 1952
In the pre-dawn dark of a cold December day two figures hurried along the empty Kilburn streets, a woman and a young boy. The boy’s skinny legs poked out from the bottom of a long, belted navy-blue mac and on his head was a school cap. The woman also wore a long mac and had a headscarf tied tightly under her chin. The boy had to hop and skip
every few steps to keep up with her.
‘Mum, if the Jews don’t believe in Jesus, why won’t they eat pork?’
The woman sighed. Sometimes she just couldn’t make him out, he said the strangest things.
‘Jimmy, what has believing in Jesus got to do with not eating pork?’
‘Well, yesterday at Sunday Mass Father McGinty was telling us about Jesus putting the demons into the pigs. But if it was Jesus put demons in pigs, then only people who believe in Him wouldn’t eat pigs, and if the Jews don’t believe in Jesus they could eat pork if they wanted, couldn’t they?’
He was a strange child.
‘Did you work that out for yourself?’
‘Yes, Mum,’ Jimmy said proudly. ‘It means the Jews are wrong, doesn’t it?’
‘Not really. I think Jews didn’t eat pork for a long time before Jesus. It wasn’t because of the pigs in that story. I don’t think Jesus Himself would have eaten pork.’
‘Because Jesus was a Jew and the Jews don’t eat pork.’ ‘But I thought Jesus was a Catholic, like us.’
‘No, Jesus was a Jew. So were Mary and Joseph.’
They hurried on in silence. Jimmy thought about it. He didn’t for one minute believe that Jesus was a Jew, or Mary and Joseph. If God was a Catholic then Mary and Joseph had to be Catholics and Jesus was God’s Son so He had to be a Catholic. But he couldn’t accept that his mum could have got things so wrong. That would be just as threatening as the Holy Family not being Catholic. So he did what he always did, he put it away for the time being.
‘When will I be a proper altar server, Mum?’
‘When Mr Slavin says so.’
‘Will it be soon?’
‘It’ll be when Mr Slavin thinks you’re ready.’
‘I nearly know what to do, and I can say a lot of the Latin.’
His mother intoned the priest’s opening words of the Mass, ‘Introibo ad altare Dei.’ Jimmy parroted the server’s response, running the meaningless sounds together. ‘Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.’
They smiled at each other.
‘Well done, that was very good.’
‘What did we just say, Mum?’
‘I will go into the altar of God. To God who giveth joy to my youth.’
He thought about it. Into the altar? The priest didn’t go into the altar, how could he? And Mum wasn’t young, she was old, so what was that about youth? Faith was full of mysteries, he knew that, so he put away the deep mystery of the Mass and moved on.
‘How much longer, Mum? Maybe soon?’
‘Maybe, but serving at Mass is a very great honour, you represent all the people who’d like to be up there with the priest but can’t be. It has to be done well, because you’re not just serving the priest, you’re serving God.’
They walked on through the wet Monday streets towards the church and the first weekday morning Mass. The dark sky still showed no signs of dawn and the street lamps gave out a comfortless light. Christmas was only three weeks away but this was where the Irish working-class lived and when daylight came and curtains were pulled back there would be very little show in the windows to welcome the great Feast. Money was too scarce to spend it on entertaining passers-by.
Eventually they arrived at the parish church. Two other people arrived at the same time and they smiled acknowledgment at each other as they made their way out
of the darkness into the light of the church. This six o’clock Monday Mass would last no more than twenty minutes. Other weekday Masses were more leisurely and began at the more comfortable time of eight o’clock, too late for most workers but as early as the new parish priest would permit. He liked the sound of his own voice and a quick Mass with no sermon was not something he approved of. The Monday congregation was always quite considerable, about forty to fifty people.
The brightly lit church was warm and welcoming after the wet, dark streets. Jimmy and his mother blessed themselves at the holy water font just inside the door and Jimmy snatched off his cap, tucked it in his mac pocket, and ran up the aisle and into the sacristy.
A harsh voice met him.
‘Don’t you know better than to run in church? Have you no respect for God’s house? Get out of here and go back and walk like a good Catholic and don’t run like some wild animal.’
Jimmy turned and slowly left the sacristy. Father McGinty had shouted at him loud enough for everyone in church to hear. He walked slowly down the aisle, his head bent in shame. Those already in the church, sitting or kneeling, avoided looking at him and embarrassing him further.
He wasn’t ashamed so much for himself, it was his mum he felt for. Everyone would see him walk down the aisle and then go back to the sacristy and know that Father McGinty had said he was a bad Catholic, no better than an animal. And Father McGinty was a clever and important man, a priest, so he must always be in the right. Jimmy added the shame his thoughtlessness had brought on his mother to his growing store of Catholic guilt.
Suddenly she was at his side, taking his hand.
‘Come on,’ she said in a voice unnaturally loud for the inside of the church, as if she was making an announcement, ‘We’re going home.’
Jimmy’s brain turned slowly all the way home. This was a completely new thing, a new and totally unexpected star in his private sky. He couldn’t be sure, of course, but he had got the idea that his mum had defied Father McGinty, defied the priest, the parish priest, who had been to Rome and seen the Pope.
The only other person he had ever heard of who had done something as terrible as that was Tim Folan’s father. He had heard his dad tell his mum that Mr Folan had sworn at old Father Shillitoe one night in the parish club and had never set foot in the club or the church since. Tim Folan and his mum now arrived just after Sunday Mass began and left just before it finished and always sat at the very back. Would that happen to him and his mum now, he wondered. Had his mum really defied the priest and would they have to sit right at the back of church on Sundays? And what about his altar serving, would he ever get to be a server? It took some thinking about. The seven years, eleven months, and twenty- eight days of Jimmy’s life had not prepared him for this.
‘What will you tell Dad?’
‘I’ll tell him you weren’t well so I decided you should come home.’
So that was it, he was right, his mum had defied the parish priest and now she was going to have to tell Dad a lie. Now she would have to go to Confession and if anything happened to her before she could get to Confession she would go to Hell for ever and ever and never see God. And it was all his fault because he had run like an animal in God’s house. Jimmy’s sense of horror, sin, and guilt moved into an entirely new gear. Then his mind suddenly retrieved an earlier piece of information which was now ready to be dealt with. God had to be a Catholic or how could He forgive these terrible sins when you went to Confession, especially the mortal sins which closed the gates of Heaven and sent you to Hell for all eternity. And Jesus had to be a Catholic to be on the altar at Mass, because it was only Catholics who went to Mass. If Jesus and God weren’t Catholics then none of the rest could work, could it? So God and Jesus were Catholics after all. Of course they were, and that meant that Mary and Joseph must be Catholics as well because they were Jesus’s family, the Holy Family. Well, that was all right then.
Paddington, January 1995
‘People never cease to amaze me,’ said Sister Philomena.
She laughed and continued in her thick Irish accent, ‘Not you, Jimmy, you don’t amaze me.’
‘Is that a compliment or an insult, Sister?’
‘A compliment if you’re humble and an insult if you’re proud.’
‘I’ll think about that. Where do you want this box of paper towels?’
She pointed down the harshly lit, institutional green corridor which ran between the staircase and the dining room.
‘Down there, in the cupboard under the stairs.’ They walked to the cupboard.
‘No, it’s Lucy Amhurst who amazes me. It’s not just that she gives her time in helping out here, it’s that she’s so good with the clients. She has no training or background in care or social work, yet she seems to know just what to say and do for them.’
‘It’s a knack, some people have it.’
‘It’s a gift. Here, I’ll open the door. Put them on that shelf.’
Jimmy put the box on a shelf and closed the cupboard door.
‘Sorry, but let those toilets go for a minute and we’d need to divert the Thames to get them clean again.’
Jimmy moved away to collect the necessary equipment. One bucket and one mop was never enough. Philomena’s voice followed him.
‘And plenty of Jeyes Fluid, plenty of that. I only want to get the smell of Jeyes Fluid when I walk past those toilets, that and nothing else.’
Bartimaeus House was a day centre run by the Sisters of St Zita. In a more-than-usually run down part of Paddington, it was a shabby, three-storey property, its main door halfway down a grim cul-de-sac. It had been many things in its history before being donated to the Sisters by its last owner, whose generosity had been amply rewarded by the tax benefits he had obtained on the gift. Known locally as Bart’s, it had become an established feature of the neighbourhood. A welcome waited there for everyone who came through the doors. Addicts, homeless, battered women, the abused, the mentally unbalanced, all were offered warmth, safety, food, clothes, and washing facilities. There was always someone to listen if they wanted to talk and medical help and a bed for the night could be found if required. Local residents also came during the day for companionship and coffee. Many were elderly people who survived alone and forgotten. At Bartimaeus House they found a place where they felt cared for and listened to. However, Philomena had been told that the enterprise would have to be self-financing after ten years, a target she sometimes despaired of achieving. If she failed, Bart’s would have to close.
Jimmy had gone to his unpleasant task and Philomena stood, preoccupied by her usual worries, when the first of what she called the ‘night shift’ arrived.
Damn, she thought, as a hideously dirty, barefoot old man shuffled through the door, is it that time already?
‘Hello Mac,’ she called along the corridor, smiling. ‘Are you well?’
‘Did you have a good day?’
‘Where’s Norah? You know Norah can come in with you.’
Mac’s mad eyes glared at her, then he turned and went out to return moments later with a brown and white terrier as filthy as himself.
‘Enjoy your cup of tea,’ she said to his back as he pushed through the door into the dining room.
Philomena wedged the dining room door open then headed off towards the toilets. As soon as she could detect the smell of the disinfectant she called, ‘Jimmy, it’s later than I realised. Leave that and get to the front door. The night shift is coming on.’
Jimmy didn’t answer. He just put the mop he was using back into its bucket, collected the other reeking bucket and mop from one of the toilet cubicles and took them to the nearby handyman’s store. He poured the foul water into the low sink, put the empty buckets on the stone floor, and left the mops in the sink.
There was a chair with a newspaper on it by the foot of the stairs next to the front door. Jimmy picked up the newspaper and sat down. From that position he could see most of the dining room and hear what was going on. Philomena was behind the tea urn at the counter talking to Mrs Amhurst, who was setting mugs out.
Mac sat at a table with a mug cupped in his hands. On the floor beside him, Norah looked up at him with simple and total devotion.
‘Does Norah want anything, Mac?’ Mrs Amhurst called. But Mac, in what was left of his mind, was far away. ‘I’ll get her a saucer of milk, shall I?’ she added.
She poured some milk onto a saucer, came from behind the counter, and set the milk down in front of the terrier, who immediately began to drink. She patted the filthy animal gently, then went to the kitchen to wash her hands.
Philomena’s right, thought Jimmy, Mrs Amhurst is amazing, bloody amazing. Her appearance perfectly described her, a sixty-something lady who lacked for nothing financially. But she had a way of looking at people and responding directly to them. Maybe it was something to do with the eyes, she always looked at your eyes. And she listened, it was as if she was really interested. She was more popular with the regulars than Philomena or Janine, even though Janine had all the charm and vivacity of a young American as well as considerable good looks.
The front door opened and a young addict sidled in, glanced at Jimmy, and hurried into the dining room. Jimmy smiled at him as he passed. The smile was forced, a requirement placed on him by Philomena. It convinced no one and was not intended to. He wasn’t like Mrs Amhurst. He looked at people’s clothes first, noticed how they walked or stood, listened to the way they spoke as much as what they said. He looked into their eyes last, if at all. He automatically judged them ‘no problem’, ‘problem’, ‘big problem’, or ‘not sure’. It was the ‘not sure’ ones he watched with the greatest care. It was the ‘not sures’ he disliked most of all, but then, there weren’t many people he did like.
Philomena came out of the dining room drying her hands on a tea towel. Behind her he could see Mrs Amhurst pouring tea for the addict and talking cheerfully.
‘A slow start tonight.’
He nodded. Philomena was one he did like. It was a harmless indulgence he allowed himself.
‘But it’ll pick up. There’s too many out there in need of this place for any night to be really quiet.’
‘That’s a fact, Sister.’
‘It’s good to have you here, Jimmy. I feel much better about Lucy and Janine with you here. Money and good looks are a terrible responsibility in a place like this.’
‘I knew you had good looks, but I never knew you had money. If you hadn’t taken vows, I might have done something about it.’
‘Go on, you. I never had money and I never had looks and I never missed either. I never saw the one bring joy or the other last.’
‘But you worry about that pair and not yourself? Couldn’t you come to a bit of harm as well, or is The Man Upstairs looking after you?’
‘I’ll be all right. If you’ve done time in Idi Amin’s Uganda, Paddington isn’t so bad. And maybe I am being looked after by The One Upstairs, and if so, I think She’s doing a good job.’
At that moment the front door crashed open and a drunk staggered into the hall. Jimmy was up and had him face hard against the wall with an arm twisted up behind his back before Philomena had moved.
‘Easy Jimmy, easy. It’s only Freddo.’
Jimmy moved back slightly and Freddo promptly vomited.
‘Oh, God, sit him outside, then come in and clear that up will you? Some of our best nights started quiet.’
Jimmy took Freddo outside and sat him on the floor in the alley with his back resting against the wall. He was in no state to worry about the cold. Jimmy poked him hard in the leg. ‘Don’t come in again till you’re fit.’
Freddo nodded without looking up, rolled sideways, and went to sleep. Jimmy went back inside, closed the front door, and headed to the store room. This job meant cleaning one of the buckets and mops he had left there. He pulled on a pair of bright yellow Marigold gloves and, as he tried to clean the shit out of the mop head under the running tap, pondered on how Philomena took it all in her stride and never seemed to sit in judgement on the trash she dealt with. Maybe she was genuinely good, holy even.
As Jimmy put the mop down and reached for the Jeyes Fluid it was not the odour of sanctity that he felt was clinging to him. This was his third week as general odd job man and ‘security’ at Bart’s. It was not what he had been used to but the work was easy. Some of the clients might be violent but never in any professional way, so they presented no real problem. He rinsed out the sink and poured some of the whitish fluid into it. Not hard work, but no one could say it was pleasant.
He put the mop into the bucket, half filled it with water, and hoped they and he smelled more of Jeyes Fluid than anything else, then set off back to his next little assignment. He looked at the floor as he came back to the hallway. Someone had walked straight through the vomit and trailed it into the dining room.
‘What the hell am I doing here?’ he said to himself. But he knew exactly what he was doing here. Exactly.
Kilburn, June 1956
The group of three girls ran to where Jimmy was standing in the playground. They formed a line in front of him and chanted:
‘Jimmy Costello, he can’t dance,
Because he’s got no underpants.
Jimmy Costello, he can’t sing,
Because he hasn’t got a thing.’
The last word was almost shouted so there could be no doubt what the ‘thing’ he didn’t have was. Having finished their performance, they giggled and ran off to another part of the playground to annoy some other boy.
Jimmy was eleven and in his last year of primary school. Next term he would go to the secondary modern. Hardly anyone from his school ever passed the eleven-plus exam, at least, not often. This year Terry Prosser had been the only one, the first in a long time.
Another boy came out of the mass of noisy children and stood beside him.
‘What you doing, Jimmy?’
It was Kevin. Kevin was a thief. That wasn’t so bad though, because everyone knew Kevin was a thief so no one gave him a chance to steal anything. Jimmy disliked Kevin, not because he was a thief but because he was stupid. He was always trying to show off but had nothing to show off about. He loved to swear and show how bad his language could be but he had no imagination so he simply parroted the strings of obscenities which everyone knew, even if they didn’t use them in school. He often tried to become aggressive but anyone who stood up to him, even a bold infant, could face him down. He was poor and he was dirty. At his First Communion he had been brought by his grandma and he had been wearing black pumps with a hole in one toe where the dirty grey sock showed through. He often tried to talk to Jimmy because Jimmy frequently stood alone in the
playground. Kevin also tried to talk to him because he was one of the very few people who didn’t humiliate or reject him as a matter of course. Sometimes, if Kevin was lucky, Jimmy would even talk to him for a bit.
‘Do you want to do something?’
A sly look came into Kevin’s eyes.
‘Let’s go and shit on the floor in the toilets.’ Jimmy recoiled.
‘We could leave shit on the floor.’ Then Kevin had a better idea. ‘Or we could wipe it on the walls.’
He was grinning with enthusiasm. Jimmy was appalled. In his own home no one swore, ever. He had once said fart, and his mother had been visibly shocked, not angry, but shocked. Gently, with sadness, she had explained to him how a home was a place where the family were just that, family. You didn’t bring the dirt of the streets in on your boots, your tongue, or your mind. Everyone had to make sure the home was a place where the nastiness of the outside world didn’t intrude. You couldn’t always get away from that nastiness, but there were places where you didn’t bring the dirt from outside in with you. Church was one and home was another, they were both sacred places.
At home elaborate language had been developed so that bodily parts or functions, if they had to be referred to at all, were referred to so that no suggestion of the rude or vulgar crept in. Jimmy knew the words others used, how could he not, but he never used them himself. Now, to have it suggested to him that he might go to the toilet on the floor, that was awful. But to touch it, to put it on the walls – he was physically revolted. He walked away from Kevin. Even standing next to him made him feel dirty.
About a quarter of an hour after the end of the lunch
playtime, when everyone was back in their classes, the headmistress, Sister Augustine, sent for him. He went to her office, a forbidding doorway at the end of a dark corridor reached by a staircase of grey stone steps. He knocked and entered on her command. She sat behind a large desk. Her office was light, tidy and well-decorated, so different from the rest of the shabby, decaying school. Her expression told him something had happened, clearly not something good. He was glad he knew nothing about it and would not be called on to tell tales on anyone.
‘You are a filthy little boy, Jimmy Costello, a disgrace to the school and a disgrace to your family, and if you were not so close to leaving I should certainly have expelled you.’
He was stunned. He had no idea how he had arrived in such a situation or even what the situation was. Sister Augustine got up, walked around her desk, and stood in front of him.
‘Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.’ He didn’t pretend.
Suddenly Sister Augustine slapped his face.
Jimmy had not expected that. He knew he would be punished for whatever he was supposed to have done but he had not expected anything so personal. In a way he was glad. That put her in the wrong.
‘That awful mess in the toilets. I will cane you then you will clean it up yourself. No one else should have to clean it up.’
Then she became calm. She took her cane from where it lay on the desk. Jimmy held out his hand. He had never been caned before. His life in school had not been good or bad, it had been anonymous. The cane rose and fell three times. Jimmy winced. It hurt, but the pain somehow didn’t seem to go past his wrist. It was a fierce pain, but it all stayed on the palm of his hand. He found that odd and interesting.
‘The other hand,’ demanded Sister Augustine. He held out his other hand. It was the same, fiercely painful, but localised. Jimmy lowered his arm and Sister Augustine returned to her chair.
‘I have told the caretaker to put a bucket, mop, scrubbing brush, and disinfectant in the toilets. Go and clean up your mess.’
‘What did you say?’
He knew all about it now. Kevin had carried out his foul joke and blamed him. He didn’t mind being caned but he would not go among shit, especially not among Kevin’s shit.
‘No one else will clear up your mess, Costello.’
‘It’s not my mess.’
‘Don’t try to blame anyone else. I know it’s your mess.’ ‘It’s not.’
If asked, he would name Kevin, but he had to be asked. ‘Then why did Terry Prosser tell me it was?’ Sister
Augustine was playing her trump card. Terry Prosser’s word could not be doubted. He was known by all to be as honest as he was clever. Jimmy couldn’t understand it.
‘You will clean that toilet and wash it down so the vile mess and smell are removed completely. If you do not do as you are told, I shall write to your parents and not only ask them to remove you, but to remove your sister also.’
To have to leave the school was of no consequence to him. In just over six weeks he would be gone anyway. But his little sister loved the school and all her friends were there. Sister Augustine was using his little sister against him. He also knew that the shame would be massive for his parents, especially for his mother.
If he gave in now, the whole thing would be forgotten by
tomorrow. He turned without speaking and left the office. ‘Come back, you rude boy, and apologise.’
Her voice followed him down the corridor but she herself did not.
Jimmy went to the stinking toilet where he saw the ordure wiped across the floor and walls. How had Kevin managed it without taking the awful smell with him into his classroom? It wasn’t a skill he wanted for himself but he was impressed that it could be done. There was a bucket of water with a can of disinfectant and a large scrubbing brush on the floor. He took off the disinfectant lid and recoiled, holding the can at arm’s length, but at once realised that only such a powerful smell could eradicate Kevin’s handiwork. He looked at the label – Jeyes Fluid. It would be a name and smell he would remember. He poured the disinfectant into the water, took up the scrubbing brush, pushed it into the whitish liquid and began to clean.
After he had finished he left the bucket, the brush, and the can and went back to class. He carried about him conflicting smells but the overriding one was Jeyes Fluid. His teacher, a kindly, gentle man, quietened the class on his entrance and continued with the lesson.
‘Richard, called Coeur de Lion or Lionheart, was as brave as he was good …’ his reading from the history book resumed. The girl who shared a desk with Jimmy fussily shifted herself and her books to the very far edge of the desk, held her nose, and made a face. Jimmy sat very still. He didn’t join in when the writing began and wasn’t asked to. He was left alone until the end of the day, when the bell rang and the class stood, said prayers, put their chairs up onto their desks to make life easier for the cleaner, and were dismissed. Jimmy went to the Infants’ exit and met his sister, Mary.
‘You smell funny, not nice.’
‘Wait here, I’ll be back in a bit. Wait and don’t go anywhere.’
Mary was puzzled, but she nodded. Jimmy went to the main gate. As soon as he saw Terry Prosser he began to shout.
‘Proddy Prosser, Proddy Prosser, Proddy Prosser is a dosser.’
It wasn’t much but it was the best he could manage. Terry Prosser was an outsider, his family had moved to London from South Wales only a year before. The whole family spoke with a strong Welsh accent. His father was Chapel and it had been Terry’s Catholic mum who had insisted on Terry going to the local Catholic school. Terry felt his strangeness very much among the London Irish of Kilburn and the taunt of ‘Proddy Prosser’ was enough. He ran through the crowd of children to confront Jimmy.
‘A fight, a fight.’
The chant began as the two boys faced each other. Terry spoke in his gentle Welsh tones.
‘What d’you want, shit cleaner?’
Jimmy hit him once, hard, on the chin. The blow jerked Terry’s head back and tears came to his eyes but he didn’t fall down like they did on the films. He touched his chin, then, suddenly and furiously, set on Jimmy. Jimmy didn’t try to fight, he just wriggled and held on and, finally, fell down with Terry on top of him. Terry’s fists were furious but only occasionally effective. Some blows landed hard but no real harm was done.
Jimmy had always, in a vague sort of way, felt afraid of pain and violence. He had avoided rough games and never been involved in the frequent playground fights. Now he found it didn’t matter. Some punches hurt but it was just something that was happening to his body. He found he had gone somewhere else, somewhere deep inside himself where the pain didn’t matter. The pain was there and it was real but it didn’t touch the deep, inner Jimmy.
Terry Prosser stood up and looked at Jimmy on the floor,
then he turned and walked away through the crowd. The fight was over and Jimmy was beaten.
The children dispersed, happy to have had a little extra thrill at the end of another day. Those few mums or big sisters who had been waiting at the school gates ignored the whole business. Most of them had been to this school or a school just like it and had seen it all before, it was just children coming out of school.
Jimmy got up and looked at the school building. On the first floor Sister Augustine was standing in her office window, watching. Then she disappeared.
He now knew what had happened. Kevin had told Terry that he was responsible, then told a teacher that Terry knew something about it. Kevin would have known that Terry, unschooled in the ways of Kilburn, would pass on his information. He had gambled, correctly, that once Sister Augustine had the information she would not enquire too closely as to its original source nor its truth. She would be satisfied to have a suitable culprit on whom to inflict punishment. Jimmy acknowledged that while Kevin wasn’t good at much, some things he could do quite well. His were small talents but he knew how to make the most of them.
It was all over now. His parents need never know, or at least his mum could pretend she didn’t know. He walked back to where his sister was waiting.
‘I got a star for my writing today,’ she chirruped happily as they walked hand-in-hand away from the school. Jimmy looked back at Sister Augustine’s window. There was no one there.
It was then that he made a decision. He would join the parish boxing club, where he would learn how to make a fist and how to hit people. He would find out what to do to avoid being hit and what to do when you were hit. He would learn how to fight, and he would do it properly. The Church would teach him.