Voices on the Tides

By Kenn Taylor

Art is a call and response but, assembling in the Bluecoat, we anticipate listening. Tonight, we have come to hear some voices from the North.

Our first is Dinesh Allirajah, who tells us of the characters he has created and how each one has a little bit of himself in them. His experiences slipped under the radar into a story, from a bad knee to a favourite record, all taking on a life of their own.

“Like I did with my asthma in 2008 and like I did with being Asian 1992 – 98.”

Our voices are shaped by our experiences. Personalities determined by the connecting of synapses as we each go through life’s commonalties in our own unique way. From this our stories emerge. Changing and modifying, we iron out the details and preserve the best and the worst. The stuff we don’t want to lose or can’t throw away.

Some though, go further and write their voices down, make narratives from their own stories. “These people I have created,” says Dinesh, “in order to preserve slivers of my own life I want to keep. Preserved forever in the chilly embrace of a writer.”

We are all taken into this chilly embrace in the clean, dark auditorium. As the characters that writers create struggle for life, we see it all through our own filters of experience. We have come to listen but, as we do, we dig inevitably into our own memories and neurosis. A call and response.

Rebecca Sharp puts her own voice onto the spaces painted by Anna King. We are taken to insignificant patches of rough grass and distant tower blocks, worn looking wooden sheds and bent fences. The everyday changed by paint and then once again by verse.

We find ourselves in a faded and blurry place, somewhere in the back of our minds. We know we have been here before because it is everywhere. Places where everything of real importance usually occurs. These are where the true voices emerge from, not the seven wonders and centres of the universe, but the insignificant spots of ultimate reality.

Andrew McMillan talks to us about family. His own nephew impressed, not by poetry, but that his mum’s boyfriend can bench press him.

“Everyone has a family, even War Criminals.”

Andrew takes us a long way from here. To a crumbling building on the edge of a Serbian forest, or even a clinical but comfortable cell in The Hague and Ratko Mladić, wondering about his children. Like we all wonder. about. our. children.

In the interval, waiting for a Coke, we stare at the dead flies in the lightbox above the bar.

Back and, as the sound of seagulls fills the auditorium, Chris McCabe takes us to the Mudflats. Here in the theatre there is a theatre that has come from the basement. The place where we keep all the things from our lives and our families that we can’t or won’t throw away. What we hear when we are young embeds in our minds and we pass it on even as we don’t mean to. We may forget about the things we carry around, but it all lies buried. Writers may mine their lives for characters, stories, truths, but when we are faced with a question we can’t answer, we all do the same. A call and response.

All the love and pain of a family are revealed by the four on stage. People, and the ghosts that they live with. When those we love leave this life they remain in our minds, shorn of many of their layers and complexities. Only a cipher of what they said and did to us and what we said and did to them, all of the love and all of the pain and everything in-between. And their ghosts are strongest when they shape what we say and do to others. They are gone but their voices remain.

Grandmother talks to dad and dad talks to Chris and he talks to his son. Generations of change, but the same struggles continue. The same questions and confusions, getting by, trying to be there for each other despite the world, trying to make each other understand what we have been through.

We all tell our own story, drawn from the actions and experiences of our lives. Our own story, to suit ourselves, but others will tell it different. Our lives in the chilly embrace of others.

“WAR WOUNDS and WORD FIGHTS, that’s men!”

Dad once wrote a book because he had to but, in true Liverpool fashion, tells his son, “Don’t look at the dark stuff, tell the jokes!” Look back and try to view the past through the lens of humour. Let us forget the dark stuff. Leave it in the basement. It never goes away though, always waiting with the ghosts to come when you have to draw on your past to make sense of the present.

“What’s a tide dad?”

“It’s when the motion of the sea hits the shore.”

Tides come in and go out but the pattern always repeats. Like Dinesh said, it all starts with a memory. We pass on the experiences that we each have to go through, a flow between different generations, all waiting on the same tides.

Why be away from your family. “I have to work.” “I had to work.” We all have to work and we miss each other. Miss those who we love as we work to support them. This is the particular story of a family, a particular story of Merseyside, of ships and the lack of them. Of the North and the continual struggle were wealth and opportunity is limited. There are the truths and fallacies, triumphs and regrets, exaggerations and myths. The lies we tell ourselves and others.

The tide goes out in the Mersey and reveals the mudflats underneath. Authors may sit and write and we may listen, a call and response in the places of culture. What really matters though is that we pass our voices on. Whether through family or through art it is all part of the same attempt to communicate all that we have learnt and seen before we depart. As individuals, we’re merely keepers, of genes, but also of stories. Messages. All artists steal from the past, their own and others. We create voices from the voices we have heard. We refine and change again and again but fundamentally the stories remain the same.

The writing is done now, because it had to be. Because you have to work and you have to pass on. A call and response.

Now, “let’s go and play.” Before the tide comes in again.

This piece was commissioned as a creative response to the ‘Mudflats’ evening of spoken word. This was curated by Michael Egan, orginated by Northern Elements and held at Bluecoat, Liverpool in March 2013.

245 Aigburth Drive

245 Aigburth Drive Image

By Kenn Taylor

The room was long and high, but dark and thick with silence. A lack of sound so heavy as to stupefy anyone caught inside it.

She lived at the top of the house, the bit where the mid-sized Victorian mansion spiralled off into intricacies of points and towers and chimneys.

Flats since the 1960s, these attic rooms had once housed the servants. Country boys and country girls packed off to attend the merchants of the city. Now it was home to just her, alone.

On the windowledge, a once bright flower, now a mass of fraying brown matter, slowly decayed in a thick, glazed pot that retained a brightness even through its dust coating. Behind it, she sat at her desk staring out of the long sash window that let through the filtered cold light of the day.

She had held her pen poised over the pad for so long that her hand ached. As she struggled to write down her story once more, it all seemed gone, lost in the depths of her memory.

Her spirit, though bright, had not escaped the passage of time, her body even more so. She had lived a high life of intense emotions, passions, dreams and excitement. In her time, she had seen and done all; partied for days, travelled far and alone, attended protests, attacked the system. She had been there at the beginning of things, seen great arts at their inception and history in the making.

In the end though, it was all too much. New young idealists began to fill the space. Idealists as yet unlined by the stress of it all, as yet un-jaded by the pain caused by all of these beautiful people. She chose to pull away from all the excitement. Retreat. Retreat.

Decadence burns you up faster, till there seems to be nothing left but a longing for peace. Now that she had peace though, she lived in replays of past glories: sights, faces, feelings, places.

Since then, she had tried many times to recapture her experiences, but there was no way of recording it all. Too much had occurred. To be there was to be there and not to have been there meant that it didn’t matter. For the joy was all in the moment itself, now long past.

Some of the best times though, still remained in her head. Small spots of brightness that cut through the thick fug of greyness and confusion that now filled so much of her mind. Things that had once seared through her were now just a vague tingle, a snatch of a memory drying her throat and dilating her pupils a little on recollection.

Yet, even though so much was gone, she felt some satisfaction that this state had been brought upon her by seeing, doing too much. Even if it was all lost, there was still the contentment of that, a cooling sensation in her body that collapsed the tension and gave her comfort.

She remained poised, fading into those dreams, her desire to recapture them for others, fading also, always flawed because they would never see through her eyes. All that mattered now was the memory and that was all that remained as the trinkets and the people and the places faded away, such as beautiful things always do.

As she retreated further, she lowered the pen slowly down onto the desk and carried on looking out of the dusty sash window, long after the view had turned to absolute black.

This piece appeared on Northern Spirit in November 2012.

Culture

P1070262

By Kenn Taylor

Blood flowed freely from both his nose and mouth. He was forced to sniff and swallow constantly to keep it from streaming down his face. The wet metal taste sickened him and he felt pain deep in his limbs with every movement.

He forced a cough when the blood in his mouth started to drip down his throat, a cough that scattered a field of red specs across the pavement. He accepted that this was just what happened, and tonight he had been unlucky, but a raw anger still seared through his stomach, his throat, his eyes. A pure anger the likes of which he’d never felt before. He coughed another mouthful on the pavement.

The rage he felt wasn’t so much for his attackers. No, rather his employers who had demanded once more that he stay behind to help them catch up with work that hadn’t been done. So he had ended up going home in the dark, and they had ended up getting him. And he wondered again if there was any point in trying.

As muscles and bones across his body complained, he gritted his teeth hard and felt enamel jarring on enamel. He would be dammed if he was going to let them get inside his head. They could beat him up, but he would come back stronger, as always.

The four of them had gripped him down by the Baltic Fleet as he walked home from the function in the arena the agency had sent him down to steward. He had stayed behind reluctantly, knowing that if he’d argued, he would have been blacklisted by the agency again. Now though, he knew however late he had worked today, if he turned in tomorrow, black eye and all, they’d accuse him of having been fighting and send him home, “Can’t have your sort upsetting the guests now can we?”

They’d been waiting down a side road off Jamaica Street that he’d had the misfortune to take a shortcut down. There were four of them in big Honda. It was past eight o’clock, but it wasn’t even that dark. He’d seen them eyeing him up as he walked past. Lips pursed, watching everything and giving nothing away.

He’d picked up the pace right away, hoping they had bigger fish to fry. But they decided he was something for them to do while they waited for whatever business that had brought them to that part of town to materialise.

His mistake was to put up a fight. They probably would’ve just taken his money and left if he’d stayed down. But he wasn’t going to go down without a having a go at least. Never. Even though he knew it was stupid, he had always stood up to what he saw as badness even after being knocked down so many times. So he took the beating, lay for a while to recover and consider his situation, and then moved on as best he could. Like he always did

He pushed on up past Cains and the new arts centre where he’d been working on a function the other day, passed the wrecked looking maisonettes that still contained a few families and the big, faded posters proclaiming brand new developments. “What a mad fucking world,” he said aloud through the blood and bile that filled his throat.

His faith in the rightness of things that had once been so strong was now decaying, but with every blow his faith in himself grew stronger. And he knew that it was only by being stronger and fighting harder that he would be able to push past all that had been loaded upon him. His only fear was that this desire to escape would corrupt him, but he took solace in all those others who had made it.

He pulled at his uniform; a nylon polo top now speckled with sweat and blood, and coughed another mouthful onto the pavement. A passer-by glanced briefly at his shambling but determined figure, before quickly averting their eyes and crossing the street.

Sucking the blood back into his nose once more, he hammered intently down the long expanse of Upper Parliament Street. Cars streamed past him, but as this point he had neither care nor thought to if they saw his split lip, swollen eye, bloodied top, and he raised his head and walked faster.

As he readied himself to cross over towards his street, he noticed something odd in the corner of his eye. Something incongruous had appeared in the familiar landscape of his regular walk home. He slowed his steps and the stopped to examine the new addition. All pain was forgotten briefly as he stood and stared at the object.

It stood on a battered and pock-marked field of grass where rows of terraces had once stood. It was a collection of white, flat metal strips. The strips weaved in and out of each other to form a slightly flattened square with criss-crosses at all angles. All-together, it resembled a kids’ climbing frame that had been assembled incorrectly.

He stood stock-still, save for blinking, and carried on staring intensely at the object. Behind him, cars still continued to scream past towards the Women’s’ Hospital and Renshaws.

As he stood, he raised his hand again to wipe more of the blood from his nose and to check on its congealing process. He looked absent-mindedly at the long, black and red smear on his hand and felt again the pain in his kicked shoulder as he lowered his arm.

He stepped over the small ledge of rubble that divided the field from the pavement, the only remaining marker from the houses that had once lined the street, and, with a confident stride and a slight limp, he headed across the grass towards the object.

He walked right up to the frame and lent in close, staring hard at its poles. He moved to one side, then another. Ran his hand along the smooth, coated-steel surface and look at the ridged bits on the edge where it had been folded by machine. He squatted down, lent on the frame and felt its coldness next to his cheek, then stood up again quickly, the blood rushing to his head giving him a touch of dizziness and clear white spots in front of his eyes.

As he regained full balance he looked at the object again. It still revealed nothing of its purpose, why it was here and what it was meant to be. What it had to do with anything in fact. This item, object, thing had arrived suddenly, without consent, and had been planted without asking. Not grown, bled, eeked out, but dropped from on high.

At the other end of the object he spotted a small, tilted plaque on a pole in the ground. He went over and read it: “Playground in a New Media Universe. Coated steel structure, 2008. Otto Lucas b. New York 1974. Commissioned for Liverpool’s Community Culture Programme.”

He read it again, then looked at the object, then read it again, then looked at the object. As he went to read the panel again, a drop of blood landed on it; a bright, bright red spot that expanded outwards a dozen tiny lines.

This made him smile, and he sucked the blood back up through his nostril once more, turned away and walked off purposefully towards a dead tree at the edge of the field.

Beneath it was a pile of rubbish left from the demolition of the terraces; broken brick, crisp wrappers and other assorted crap. A stubby, grey steel scaffolding pole that was amongst the detritus caught his eye. He lent forward slowly and gripped it with intent. The crusting stalagmites of blood in his nose heated and his heart pounded harder with every footstep as he headed back towards the object.

Once he reached the object again, he stopped and looked hard at it once more, willing it to reveal something, to give it a chance to redeem itself.

As he heard the cars streaming past behind him once again on Upper Parly, he smiled wide and manically, raised the scaffolding pole high above his head and brought it crashing down on ‘Playground in a New Media Universe’.

This appeared on Northern Spirit in November 2012.

Birkenhead, England

By Kenn Taylor

With all the will in the world/Diving for dear life/When we could be diving for pearls
Elvis Costello ‘Shipbuilding’

Even the tiniest sound bounces right round thee hall as me feet kick through the bits of rust and crap that lie dotted around the concrete. The floor’s damp in places were the leaking roof has allowed puddles to form, mingling with the left-over grease te form shiny patterns. Bits of pipe and rod lie in piles, one of the old side cranes sways and a piece of the plastic sheeting that covers the holes in the walls billows out. Lookin up and down the vast expanse, I try an remember what it had been like when this place mattered, when it was filled with dozens of machines an hundreds of people thundering away, making ships hulls rise out of base metal. When I stared at Laird’s in ‘63 as an apprentice there were twenty thousand people working here ye know. 20,000. Say that number again and try to imagine the sight of twenty-thousand people leaving work at once. To arrive aged 15 was overwhelmin.

I still remember going to work for the first time. I was apprenticed to a guy who had been in the War. My foreman introduced me to him after getting me papers from the office. He was a decent guy, good teacher. You had to get the job done like, it was all piecework then and he wasn’t happy if your slack lost him money. It was hard bastard work too, and nowhere to wash, going home in shitty, greasy clothes, doused in red lead. He told me about the old toilets they’d just got rid of, just a bloody trough with a bar across it, all these fellahs inside sitting in a row like budgies discussing Tranmere Rovers and asking each other for lights. The noise in the yard was horrendous too, sitting in a tank with three or four riveters going at it, that why so many of them are deaf now. But it was still better than Dock labourin or sitting on a production line. You put up with it to learn a trade. The money wasn’t bad n’all. Three years in I was a fully fledged tradesman and as long as you got the job done, you could have a chat and a fag and a brew. Watch the sun go down over the river. Talk about the lasses and the football and then go down to the Royal Castle for a pissup. It was all startin to end even then though.

I met Martha at a dance on the ferry. Looked top in my togs I did, no Docker could afford a suit like I had. We danced an, as it started to go dark, I pointed to the hulls on our side of the river and said tha I was building those ships. “All by yourself eh?” she said and laughed. I told her to come along to the launch and she did. To see thee whole town and a big chunk of Liverpool out on launch day was a dam good reward.  Me and Martha went to the cinema afterwards. And after that we were rarely apart.

We got one of the new Council houses out on the Ford estate in ‘69 and our Paul was born a year later. You’d didn’t hang about in them days. It was a good house, three bedrooms and a small garden front and back. The kind that me mam would have dreamed of, and we hadn’t been too badly off living in Tranmere. The estate was allright too. There was a pub, that was all I needed, and loadsa grass for the kids to play on. There was even a swimming pool over on the Woodchurch. We saved up and got a Ford Escort an rented a caravan in Rhyl. Tracey was born in ‘71 and we called it a day after that. The money was getting a worry too by then. The nuclear sub contracts had ended and Lairds were laying off left, right and centre. I ended up taking redundancy that year because I’d heard they were taking on at Vauxhalls in Ellsemere Port to make the new Viva. I always swore I’d stay away from factory work, but they pay was better and it was more secure. I had a family to keep together now.

I hated it though, the endless, dull rhythm of the line. Supposed to be a modern factory and yet here we were stuck in this massive, dark building with machinery towering above us at all angles. It was less noisy than the yard but the work was so constrictin. Me neighbour used to ask why, with the employee discount, I didn’t buy a Vauxhall. I told him, “I build the damn things; I’ve got more sense than to buy one.” The hopes of more money were largely dashed too, if I could get to work without stoppages then maybe. I’ve always been a union man, paid my dues to the GMB since I was an apprentice and I remained so at Vauxhalls. We’d walk out first sign of any bullshit from the bosses but these guys looked for reasons to kick off, all these hot-headed young lads going onto me about the dialectical materialism and the revolution. “After the match and me tea I’ll think about it,” I used to tell them. I got spat at by one of the little shits once. Then there was the infighting and the grab for membership between AEU, GMB and T&G. Workers of the world unite they say. Ha, maybe if we could stop fighting each other for five fucking minutes. I think, deep down, most of them were trying to do some good you know, but they probably ended up making things worse. The layoffs were starting to bite here too. The Yanks at General Motors who owned it threatened to shut the whole of Vauxhalls down at one point. When we did all go out, I refused to cross the lines of course. I may not have agreed, but I knew better than to show the bosses our divisions. Agitation or not, the moment you break ranks they’ve won. That’s the classic way, divide and conquer. I may not know much about dialectical materialism but I know that. But thing were starting to hurt at home now. The kids needed school uniforms. We had to let the caravan go.

Things weren’t any better at Lairds though. They finally got the new, massive construction hall built, about twenty years after every other yard on the Continent. But the ships got less and less, and the workers got less and less.

I was laid off by Vauxhalls in 1980, one of three thousand. You don’t here of such big layoffs anymore. Not because they don’t happen but because companies have got wise to how damaging that can be. They wind factories down slowly now, demoralising everyone till you’re glad to be given you P45 and go without a fight. We were just one of many getting laid off round here by then though. Dunlop, Lucas, Standard-Triumph, Meccano, Tate and Lyle, GEC, you could go on forever, the numbers were astronomical. Lairds continued to shed too. Mike, the lad next door, was the only son of the neighbours and he was still in the yard, clinging on. Must have been on one of the last proper apprentice intakes. There was talk of converting to build oil rigs for the North Sea boom. “Some hope at least then,” I said. “Some hope, yeah,” he said.

By then I was just one of many unemployed. Martha still worked in the Sayers on Hoole Road and cos of that we weren’t entitled to full benefits either. I had to take the car off the road. It was all coming down and I had no idea how to fight it. I began to wonder if those lads talking about a revolution might have been right. I mean this fucking country voted that iron-knickered cow back in even after what she’d done to us.

Everythin round here got worse and worse. The drug problem really started to kick in, especially around the towers. Kids on Heroin, I mean Heroin, Opium. It’s all so accepted now, but that was something out of the films when I was young. Our lovely new house began to show its true colours too, with the damp and the bad rendering. My dad, who’d been a Brickie, came round and tutted at the half-arsed construction. That was not long before he’d died. He’d been a long-standing union man too, couldn’t believe all that we’d fought for so long was being taken back, and that we were lettin them do it.

I went to the Labour Exchange in town of course, but there was never anything doing. We were all chasing the same disappearing jobs. So I spent more and more time in the pub, The One O’clock Gun. We’d all sit in there, the ex-Lairds men, and drink. I’d always been a drinker, me only real vice, but there was nothing now to stop us. Martha was at Sayers all day, the kids in school. They were doing okay, Paul was good at metalwork and woodwork, or CDT as they’d started calling it. Tracey was good with her numbers and that. So I was on me own. I wasn’t going to sit at home, so it was either the bookies or the pub and I figured it at least at the pub I was guaranteed to get somethin for me money.

I jus needed somethin to keep me occupied, to get us through the day. And being with the lads in the pub it was like the old days in the yard. Cept of course we were spending money not earnin it. I realise now my wife and kids should have been me priority, but I’d become selfish. I’d worked so hard for them for so long and they still needed me and I couldn’t provide for them. I could have been there for them at least, that’s what out Trace told us later all she wanted. But I wanted to be away from them. They’d got me stuck so I couldn’t get out. It wasn’t really their fault a course, but that’s the way I saw it anyway, and I couldn’t deal with it.

It got so I was drinking at home too, arguing with Martha. I slept in till I went the pub. I pissed meself once and she woke up in it. Screamed at me and literally threw me down the stairs, where I stayed ina heap till morning. I woke to find our Paul in his school uniform lookin at me with concern. “You better get going, you’ll be late for school,” I offered. He looked at me, with his face trembling, and then ran off.

Paul and I stopped talking. When I was workin we used to go to all the Rovers home games, but I couldn’t afford that now. I probably wouldn’t have been arsed tho even if I did have the money at that point, truth be told. The pub was closer and better. He’d struck up a friendship with Mike next door, even though he was a few years older. Mike had got his cards from Lairds that year, and so spent all his time fishing at Arrowe Brook and started taking Paul with him. I stayed in the pub and watched the miners go at it. “This is it”, said Ernie, Guinness in one hand, lead for his mangy dog in the other. “If the miners can’t win were all buggered.” Ernie lived in the sheltered housing block. He’d been in Birkenhead for the General Strike in ‘29. I knew then that he was right. I think we all did.  The lads at Lairds had occupied one of the oil rigs they were buildin in protest at job cuts. They’d been arrested and sent to Walton prison, on the same block as murderers and rapists.

The final straw had been over Paul. He’d been missing school to go fishing. Martha was giving him a bollocking when I came home pissed. She started having a go at me then and I had a sore head and I’d just been jostled by a bunch of fucking kids and the Yorkshire miners had turncoated and there was no need to shout so I lashed at her just to stop the noise. None of it is an excuse I know. I never said it was, but that was what happened. She just quietly picked herself up. Tracey started wailing, Paul started punching me in the arm. Martha got them all I walked straight out. I lay on my side and fell asleep.

I stayed there till morning then went straight to Threshers for a bottle of Grouse. When I came back her sister was there with that spare-prick of a husband of hers. They lived in Greasby and thought themselves a cut above. Ha. So they owned a house rather than rented one. Big deal, just as crap as ours, they couldn’t really afford the mortgage n’all I knew. The way they paraded around you’d think he was a fucking lawyer or somethin when he was actually just some sort of manager for Kwik Save and she worked in a flower shop. They were getting Martha and the kids’ stuff. Martha wasn’t there. Her sister scowled at me and spat at my feet. I didn’t flinch. The husband said “You ought to be ashamed.” Not taking that off that tosser. And I swung at him, drawing back at the last-minute. Just enough to make him lurch backwards and his lip quiver. Cunt.

After that things were simpler. I drank. Eat. Shat. Slept. Made no real effort to see the kids other than the odd drunken phone call to Martha when me emotions got the better of me. I was an old drunk and that’s what the kids in the street called me. Martha and the kids stayed at her sisters till they got re-housed on the Woodchurch. I drank and watched Colombo and the football at home. It was getting harder to go the pub now. It had become taken over by little gobshites who wore sports tops an training shoes like they were track stars, so-called hard men that used to make us move if they wanted a seat.

But at least we were famous once more our little town. Ye see Birkenhead was now famous for having the highest rate of heroin addiction in the UK, not for building ocean liners.

I saw our Paul walking down the road one day. I was pissed and I shouted to him. He didn’t recognise me at first. When he did his eyes narrowed and his face when into a snarl and he shouted “Fuck off you wife-beating bastard” and turned to go up Mike’s path. “Paul, it was just the once. I was wrong but I’m sorry son.”

“Fuck off you alchy cunt.” He looked a lot older than when I’d last seen im.

“But I’m your dad.”

“FUCK OFF”. He started jabbing furiously, repeatedly at Mike’s doorbell. Mike opened the door and Paul dashed inside. It was time for another drink.

I went to see Mike later. He was still unemployed too. His dad had died now so it was just him and his frail ‘ol mam. Paul was still coming round. They went fishing, they talked, even went the match now and again. I realised then that he’d been there for him more than I had been for my own flesh and blood. Mike told me that Paul was slipping away from even him though.

It was then I started the struggle. If I was to mean anything to me kids then I had to stop the drinking. It was just me now anyway; the lads didn’t go the pub anymore. There was too much grief from the little scallies. I joined the Alcoholics Anonymous at the Community Centre on Beech Street. There were a few ex-Lairds men there, all ages. But lots of others too, even a Doctor. It can happen to anyone. I began the cure. I found God. I stopped drinking.

There were lapses though, specially when I got home one night and saw an ambulance outside Mike’s. Not his mother, she’d passed away peacefully a few months previous. He’d hanged himself. Left a note saying he had nothing to go on for now so he might as well pack it in. He was always the solitary sort but I never figured him to do that. I had to have a drink after that.

I found out later though somethin even worse. He’d done himself about two weeks before they found him. No one went around you see. Till Paul did. He hadn’t seen him in a year. He was in trouble and went round to ask for some advice. He saw it was all dark and, what no one else had noticed, the pile of mail, so he went over the back gate and saw him hanging through the rear window. Smashed the back door in and had to face two weeks of decay. I nearly lapsed again when I heard that off Tracey.

She started to come around ye see. She had a husband now too, going out since 14, married at 18. She worked for the Council as an accounting technician; she’d done a course at Borough Road Tech. They had a house in Moreton now. Her husband was a nice fellah too. He worked for the GPO but was talking about becoming a driving instructor. They were planning kids and she wanted to reconcile with me. What about Martha. Got another man, younger brother of that spare prick her sister married. A tax officer no less. Christ, some families eh? I felt a lot of regret, but also a pang of happiness for her. Me new faith helped me cope with that and if Trace was willing to forgive then I felt blessed. But what about Paul? It was then she told me about Paul finding Mike.

Paul had dropped out of school not long after he’d moved to Martha’s sisters. He was 16 and went on an YTS at some window firm in Bromborough. They treated him like shit so he packed in, don’t blame him, and he ended up on the dole, gettin to be a family tradition. When they all moved to Woodchurch after the divorce went through he got in with the wrong sort. He needed to belong somewhere, Tracey said. He got into all kinds of trouble shoplifting, taking drugs, vandalism. He got caught graffiting the rail bridge on the old steelworks line by the transport cops. He got away, but his mate got caught. If his mate dobbed in him he knew he’d go down as he’d already been collared for that before. That’s when he went to see Mike for help and found him dead. Trace said he just went into the drugs full on then. Trace only got to find all this out when he went around to hers looking for money. He looked different she said, older and colder. She said we had to be strong together to try an help him. It was all so, so much, the easy relief of the drink called me again, but I knew then that would be the end of everything. This was my last chance. I never drank again after that.

We tried so hard to find Paul. Went to all his old haunts, tried his mates, spent weeks with no luck. Everyone kept stum. We didn’t give up though, me, Trace and her hubby. It was 1992 by now. The announcement came on the radio that unless a buyer was found, the owners would close Lairds next year. ‘Post Cold-War lack of demand for military vessels,’ was the reason the suit gave on the news. Maybe, but much more to do with Thatcher’s government getting £140 million in European Union aid in 1985 on condition of closing nine British shipyards I think you’ll find matey. Our death warrant signed eight years before the sentence was carried out.

Even then it seemed incomprehensible that they wouldn’t be ANY shipbuilding. That tosser Wilson called it “The death of a town” on Granada Reports. “Only putting it out of its misery” I murmured at the box. I mean what else was there here. Heroin. Heroin and my son.

We heard not long after that he’d held up a Spar in Pensby at knife point for the till money. The police were after him as well as us now, but they didn’t have much luck either.

Eventually they did find him, dead on the floor of a bedsit in Oxton. Not an overdose or the AIDS though. Apparently some guy he’d tried to rob had turned around and stabbed him and he’d staggered back to his digs and died. The papers called it poetic justice. I cried till I was hollow.

We buried him in Landican Cemetery. The wife and her lot laid off having a go at me for Trace’s sake. We exchanged no words though. Only glances. All lost in our own private grief. I looked for a long time at the two Liverpool cathedrals ye can see across the river from the Landican, high up on the ridge above the town. I was lookin for some sort of guidance I think, but none came.

I kinda lost me faith then. I thought of killing meself, but there had been enough death already. And it’s a young man’s game that. I didn’t have long to go, that would just be impatience. And I’ve got Tracey and her little one, Hannah. They come around to the house sometimes, but mostly I go to hers. It’s got worse around her. The drugs aren’t as bad since the tower blocks got knocked down, but there seems to be more trouble. There’s even jobs now, they opened a big ASDA on the Woodchurch on top of the old CO-OP factory. But I think you can earn more money selling the drugs and I don’t blame them sometimes. At least then you don’t have to have to put up with some spare prick like that fucking ex brother-in-law of mine telling them what to do. I worked hard but we were free, we had responsibility, we had our own skills which they needed, we were building something, we got paid decent wages.

Even me, the old ex-alchy, managed to rejoin the world of work eventually, fulfilling that cunt Blair’s idea of having us all working away till we collapse. Gives me somethin to do I suppose. So I sit here in the remains of Lairds, in the Portakabin with me flask and the TV and Alan and Nathan and Pete sharin the shifts, keeping an eye on all 150 empty acres. Twenty-thousand people down to four in twenty years, not a bad achievement for the Iron Lady and the Western world I think. And here we wait, until they decide what to do with it all. I go wandering aroun now and again, trying to remember when this big, old place was more than just a collection a decaying sheds full a rats and rusting metal.

They’ve already knocked part of it down. Watchin them blow up the cranes was a real wrench. There’s talk of making tha whole thing into a ‘mixed-used’ development; shops, flats, offices, a marina. And, in the old main building hall, would ye believe it, a snowdome!

New jobs they say. Get the kids to hand out skiing goggles. That’ll get them off the streets. Birkenhead, we used to build big ships, now we do skiing. Better than Heroin I suppose.

Apparently, there’ll even be a museum here as part of it about all the shipbuilding that used to go on. I do wonder if they’ll they’ll put me in it. Yeah, I can see me and my Paul and Mike and the rest of us in glass cases. Here be relics of people who tried to get one with their lives, but their lives ceased to be of any profit to anyone so it was taken away from them. Now, you best do as you’re told or you’ll end up like them. Go forth and Ski.

Yeah, I think that would be a fitting tribute.

This piece was published in Issue 13 of The Crazy Oik in April 2012.

The Bicycle Thieves

By Kenn Taylor

Hear no evil. See no evil. Speak no evil. All three sat in the front of the Transit, faces locked in grimace.

The van’s old heater could not mask the cold of winter. They wore their high-collared, all-weather coats up past their chins and their breath turned into long streams of white mist with every exhalation.

Aaron drove the van around at a steady pace, focused intensely on the road and his labours with the knackered gearbox.

Phil and Ethan sat adjacent on the dual passenger seat. Casting narrow eyes through the murky windscreen for targets and occasionally rubbing their hands for warmth.

Aaron and Phil were the old hands at this game, Ethan the apprentice. They had been working since first light. Out to catch anything good left overnight.

As time passed, dialogue was reduced to a few comments about the cold and remarks on the sight of any prospects. Coughs, squeaky farts and the crunching of the gears were the only other sounds that echoed around the metal box of the van.

The miserable day had reduced even the glow of a successful prize to minimum. It was now midday and they had two bikes in the back already: a fairly decent Scott and a good-but-old racer. More was needed though.

Coming back around the north end of town, they drove down between the Royal and the university and turned into Paddington.

Hoards of students filled the squares that formed the centre of the university. Aaron slowly moved the van over towards the large bike rack by the university branch of the bank.

“They’re jus goin in for their afternoon lectures,” said Aaron, “we’ll wait till it’s all quietend down a bit.”

“Aye yeah,” said Phil.

“Fuckin gormless studes eh?” said Ethan looking towards the others. They stared ahead unmoved.

They parked the van a little distance away from the racks. Even when most of the students had disappeared into the various university buildings, they continued to wait as the engine ticked over and a Radio City DJ chirped away low in the background.

Eventually, as the student body trickled down to a few stragglers, Aaron nodded and Phil got out of the van and walked casually over towards the bike rack.

Adjacent to the rack, there was a CCTV camera high on a pole. Phil pulled his high plastic coat collar a little further up his face. No one would be watching he reckoned, they never were. But, even if they were recording, on the shit grainy video he would now be just another shaven head in a big coat.

In the rack there were four bikes. Phil assessed the scene within a few seconds, glanced around to see if anyone was watching, and then walked back towards the van. He raised his eyebrows a little and smiled at the other two as he approached.

He climbed back in the van and, still looking forwards through the windscreen, said, “There’s a quality Specialized, but it’s got a decent D-Lock on it an, at this time a day, I jus don’t think it’s worth riskin it. We’ll have the saddle off it though; that’s jus bolted on. There’s also a half-decent Dawes racer and a class Kona. We’ll ave both a them. And a piece of shit Raleigh, but I can’t even be arsed carryin it.”

“Nice haul,” said Ethan.

“We aint got anything yet mate,” said Aaron, and he looked Ethan in the eye for the first time in ages. “You hold yer fuckin horses.”

“Let’s jus get it over and done with,” said Phil, and he pushed the van door open again. As it separated from its bent frame it made a popping sound.

Aaron also got out of his side and walked around to the back of the van. He and Phil pulled the back doors open and picked up a set of bolt cutters off the floor.

Leaving the back doors a little ajar, they walked quickly over to the bike rack.

Without speaking, Phil went over to the first bike and snipped its loose chain in an instant, then set to work on the next one. Aaron pulled the first bike free from its holder, lifted it up and rolled it rapidly towards the back of the van.

Ethan, meanwhile, having unscrewed the bolts on the expensive saddle, began to pull it out of the frame.

They all glanced around constantly, but worked in silence.

Ethan pulled the saddle free with a grunt and fell backwards a little with the force of the release. He walked around to place it in the back of the van.

Phil hacked through the last of the chain on the second bike, it had been harder than he had imagined. Grabbing at the crossbar, he prepared to yank it upwards when he heard an intense rushing at the side of his ears.

He was hit in the side of the head with so much force that his whole body swung violently sideways. He heard a cry and ‘Fuck, Phil.’ before his vision turned red then black.

His sight returned within a few seconds and he found himself rolling uncontrollably on the ground. Reflex and long experience made him jump up immediately, but before he could fully regain his feet he was hit in face again, this time he could identify by a foot, and slid sideways into a brick wall, tasting iron in his mouth.

A second kick to the chest knocked the wind out of him and he curled up to protect himself from further blows. But instead he heard a yelp of pain from above and then felt a dead weight slump onto of him.

As Phil struggled to cough out the blood and the chunks of teeth and gum that filled his mouth, he felt his arms get grabbed and his whole body being dragged violently forward. Still dazed, he figured more pain was about to come his way. He braced himself but, even though his arms were being strained in their sockets, he realised he was being lifted up.

As his vision recovered, he could see that it was Ethan that was pulling him forward, holding him by the shoulder and arm. Phil didn’t even have the time to set his legs straight and his feet dragged and kicked as he tried to find balance.

Ethan continued to pull him along aggressively. He stared straight ahead to the road where Phil could see Aaron rapidly turning the van around with the gears grinding loudly again.

Aaron pulled up with the open back doors facing the two of them. Ethan pushed Phil forward straight onto the greasy metal floor and leapt in behind him. Phil looked back and caught a glimpse of a crumpled body slumped by the bike rack as the van moved away. And the bolt cutters covered in dark blood held by Ethan as he pulled shut the doors.

This piece appeared in Issue 12 of The Crazy Oik in January 2012.