|Publisher:||Head of Zeus|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.10(d)|
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By David Essex
Head of Zeus LtdCopyright © 2016 David Essex
All rights reserved.
FLAMING June. Bloody typical.
Albert Charles Kemp smiled at the bedraggled street party. The flags were soaked, the kids' jelly only just edible. Despite the rain, this was a special day, a new Queen crowned and nothing would stop the celebrations. Nothing apart from the weather could rain on this parade.
East London may have been battered and bombed in the Blitz, but these people were brave, proud and full of love for the Royal Family. They had long memories too, remembering the new Queen Mother's many trips to East London and how she'd helped lift morale through the bad times. Their affection for her and her family was overflowing, filling every street party with God Save the Queen, Rule Britannia and the exciting sense of a new beginning.
Together with a small crowd of locals, Albert had watched the history-making ceremony on a black-and-white television through a local electrical shop window. Now he watched the families dressed in their Sunday best, kids running here and there, mums and dads talking, singing, dancing; a community united. As he walked through the streets full of bunting, Albert felt a sense of belonging. These rough and ready neighbours were his people, these were his streets and this was his home.
Albert lived in a rented, one-bedroom flat on top of a shop that sold secondhand toot. The owner, Simon, never tired of looking, searching, for that elusive Fabergé egg, or an old master in someone's unsuspecting attic. A lover of Sousa's marching music and with a military, waxed moustache to match, Simon and his merchandise belonged to a bygone age. Whenever he saw Albert, Simon would give his usual military-style salute, delivered in a battered German helmet from the war. It had made Albert smile the first few times, but had now become tedious.
Albert reached his front door.
"Greetings, Kemp," called Simon, a Union Jack flag draped around his shoulders like a greatcoat.
Albert nodded with a smile of recognition, put his hand through the letter box and reached for the key to his flat.
In 1953, a door key hanging down on a piece of string through the letter box or under the door mat was the norm in this part of the world. Most of the time, front doors were just left open. Turning his back on a spirited version of the Hokey Cokey kicking off a few doors down, Albert turned the key and went in.
The stairs to his flat creaked reassuringly underneath the cracked brown linoleum. He had climbed this wooden hill so many times that the familiar worn beige and faded pink wallpaper, the nondescript stairwell, felt like home. For better or worse, it was home.
Trying hard to ignore the smell of boiled cabbage that often seemed to prevail, Albert hummed Land of Hope and Glory as he progressed slowly up the stairs. Reaching the worn welcome mat on his threshold, he fumbled through his grey raincoat for a second key to open the half-glazed ill-fitting door to his world.
Not that this world was that important to Albert. Two rooms, a few memories and a roof over his head was good enough. A head that once boasted dark and curly hair had now matured with age to silver. A face still handsome, but battered by almost sixty years of struggle. A tough life of World Wars, hard work and the open wounds of faded glory. Still a fit man, Albert had the face of a boxer and the heart of a lion.
Once inside, he closed the door, took off his wet raincoat and hung up his brown trilby hat: a hat he was very proud of, bought from a milliner in the West End to celebrate the end of World War Two.
Rocky, Albert's pet budgie, cheeped a cheery hello as if sensing the excitement in the air flowing from the streets below, while Albert filled the kettle, put a shilling in the meter and lit the gas. In the corner, a comfortable but worn old armchair sat and waited patiently for its owner. On it, Albert had placed a regal cushion recently bought from Simon at a bargain price, commemorating the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. He was proud of that.
The kettle's homely whistle spluttered with a head of steam and competed with Rocky's cheerful chirping and a chorus of Knees Up Mother Brown from the street below. Albert washed out the lived-in teapot and spooned tea leaves into it. Tea-making ritual concluded, cup in hand, Albert decided to engage his flatmate in conversation.
"Good bird, Rocky."
Rocky responded with a dance of excitement and some manic chirping as Albert unlatched the cage. With a whisper of wind, the budgie took flight, stopping to perch on the room's plastic cream lampshade. Albert took to his armchair, tea in hand. Alone as usual.
His wife, Vera, had died six years ago. The doctors had said it was cancer, but Albert knew it was really from a broken heart. Losing their only son Tommy at the beginning of the war had been a devastating blow for both of them. They said time was a healer, but time had never really healed the heartbreak of Tommy or the loss of Albert's first and only love. It had left scars. But Albert was not a man to wear his heart on his sleeve and he kept the hurt well hidden.
"Good bird, Rocky," he murmured again.
Just when Albert thought Rocky was actually going to say something back, there was a knock on the door.
Albert recognised the voice of Mr Abrahams, his landlord and the local money lender.
"A word, Mr Kemp?"
Albert opened the door and Abrahams came in. He was a pale man in his late sixties, wearing his usual long black coat, pigtails and black hat, the uniform of his orthodox religion. He gave Albert a grudging half smile.
"Mr Kemp, good day. I see your rent is overdue."
"I get paid this week Mr Abrahams, you'll have it by Monday."
"That's good Mr Kemp, that is good." Abrahams sniffed the air. "You should open a window, freshen this place up. It smells like a fish market."
Albert remembered the nice piece of smoked haddock he had treated himself to for yesterday's tea. Advice delivered, Abrahams circumnavigated a low-flying Rocky, avoiding one of Rocky's deposits, and pointing to the window he said, "A lovely day Mr Kemp, people coming together" and left with the same grudging smile.
Albert returned to his tea and armchair, switched on the radio and, with Rocky now on his shoulder, listened to the music of the day. Looking around the room, his mind wandered through the sense memories of his possessions: the trophies, the photographs, the snapshots of his life. A picture of Tommy in uniform sat in pride of place on the mahogany sideboard beside boxing trophies, a champion's belt and a yellowing photograph of Albert in his prime, bruised and battered and holding the same boxing belt proudly above his head. There was much to look back on at his age, but not too much to look forward to.
Lost in his thoughts and memories, the chime of a carriage clock on the mantelpiece brought him back with a jolt to the present.
"Six o'clock, Rocky mate," he told the budgie. "Time for me to get going."
Putting the bird back in the cage, Albert put on his coat and treasured hat and headed back down the stairs.
He knew these cobbled streets like he knew his own skin. They were the streets where he had grown up, streets which were often cloaked in a yellow-grey fog fuelled by the coal-burning of the Victorian terrace houses, local factories and the close proximity to the River Thames and the London docks. Ocean-going ships towered over everything like high-rise blocks from distant shores, emptying strange foreign sailors in exotic dress into the East End streets.
Albert turned the corner and walked past a derelict space, a living memory of the Blitz, where a German bomb had flattened all below it. A street party and happy celebrations now filled the site, children playing and adults celebrating, their Coronation party still in full swing and set fair to go on till late, or until the drink finally ran out. On Albert walked, under the railway arches and on to his place of work, a Victorian public house called the Live and Let Live.
The Live and Let Live was gearing up for a busy opening time, creatively decked out in bunting by Maurice the landlord and his wife Maria to celebrate the Coronation. It was a cosy, well lived-in establishment, filled with horse brasses, toby jugs, dark wood and the smell of tobacco and beer. Albert worked in the pub as a pot man, collecting glasses and helping out behind the bar. After years of working in the Royal Docks, where each morning the dockers would line up hoping for work on what was called the "Stones", desperate to be picked out by a charge hand to join a gang to load or unload the waiting ships in dock, the relative security of the part-time pub work suited Albert just fine.
They knew Albert here and respected him, and the job brought Albert a little money, which helped. But most importantly, upstairs was a boxing gym, an important link for Albert to the noble art and his glorious past.
After a quick "Evening all", Albert headed towards the boxing gym. The loud voice of Maria, feisty wife of the landlord, followed him up the stairs.
"Albert, don't you be long! It's getting busy, I'm gonna need some help!"
Upstairs, three or four hopefuls were punching bags, while in the ring itself, two men were sparring under the watchful eye of trainer and gym owner Patsy O'Neill.
"Albert," said Patsy in his usual ferocious bark. "Will you come and teach these girls to punch?"
"Not today Pat, I think that day has long gone," Albert replied.
Patsy pushed his ham-like hands through his receding curly hair and glared at the sparring pair. "Now that's a champ, boys. I'm telling you, that boy could fight."
"Yeah," Albert replied, "before these two were born, when dinosaurs roamed the Hackney Marshes. Any glasses up here from last night?"
Albert went back down to the bar with a few wayward empties. It was filling up, locals drifting in and pints being pulled. The regulars were mainly dockers, local men with stories to tell, decked out in a collective uniform of flat caps, leather jerkins and strong arms. A couple of ladies, a little past their prime, were sipping Guinness and gossiping at a corner table. Over by the door, Dolly played her heart out on the piano. The clientele sang along, not always in the same key, but with gusto. These were Albert's people, salt of the earth, working-class folk, and he moved around the smoke-filled room with the odd smile here and the odd conversation there.
But although most people knew Albert, he had always been a man of few friends. Some old mates had passed on, others had moved away to greener pastures in Essex and Kent: an exodus that would become the norm, as Londoners looked to better themselves and bring up their children in fresher and cleaner air. New towns were being planned to house them, towns like Harlow and Stevenage, but as far as Albert was concerned, he was East End born and bred and that was where he was staying.
At the bar of the busy pub, sat Black Lenny, Albert's closest friend. Lenny had come over from Jamaica actually on a banana boat, landing at Southampton with the first influx of immigrants from the Caribbean, bound for the National Health Service, public transport and a new hopeful beginning. After working initially as a hospital porter, Lenny had scrimped and saved and was now the proud owner of a car repair shop, situated locally under the railway arches.
"Did you get that motor going yet, Len?" asked Albert.
"Yes Albert, the old banger is running sweet now, ticking over."
"A bit like me then Lenny, an old banger ticking over."
The men, although from different worlds, got on like a house on fire. Albert endured endless ribbing from Lenny about the West Indies' recent cricket victories over England, with "Ramadhin should be made the king of the Caribbean" being Lenny's constant observation. Albert enjoyed the stories Lenny would tell him of a distant world that he would never visit, of golden beaches and a sun-drenched Jamaica, while Lenny would love hearing stories and memories from Albert about his glory days and the boxing world. Albert was often reluctant to go down memory lane with its many dark shadows and painful yesterdays, but if Lenny pushed hard enough, the effort was worth it. After all, Albert was a man with an impressive past and stories to tell.
The ring of the bar bell finally came, followed again by a more determined "Last orders please!"
Albert rounded up the glasses, helped to wash up, collected his wages and with a "Night all", headed for home. The rain outside seemed to sparkle on the cobblestones, softly lit by street lamps that did their best to penetrate the misty night and the damp air. The remnants of the earlier street parties were now few and far between, just a few folks persevering by the dying embers of a celebratory bonfire, talking and laughing.
Back inside the flat, Albert put another shilling in the hungry meter, lit the blue-flamed gas fire and turned on his precious gramophone. He owned a large collection of classical records (this new "rock 'n' roll jungle music" wasn't for him), and after choosing Elgar's Cello Concerto, he sat down to reflect on the day.
The Coronation celebrations reminded him of the celebrations when the war had ended and Britain danced in the streets. He and Vera hadn't danced. Instead they had looked to the sky as if searching for Tommy, hoping he could see that his sacrifice was not in vain. Tonight, with patriotism on every street corner, Albert thought about his son, killed in action just weeks after joining the fight for freedom. How full of life he looked in the photograph, sitting there on Albert's sideboard. There in his uniform, so proud to fight for King and Country.
Although not a sentimental man, past adventures, good and bad, would sometimes engulf Albert. This was one of those times. Memories of the women and children he had tried to save as part of the home guard – their screams, tears and desperation – still cut like it was yesterday. He had been too old to enlist, turned away by the army, but had done all he could at home in the burning streets of London. Sometimes it hadn't felt like enough.
Broken from his thoughts by the clock striking twelve and Rocky's twittering, Albert decided it was time to clear his head of the dark shadows that often seemed insurmountable in the wee small hours. Covering up the budgie's cage for the night and turning off the gas fire and gramophone, his usual late cup of Ovaltine in hand, Albert went to bed.
* * *
The next morning, awoken by the foghorns of the ships gliding through the foggy dockyards, Albert rose, had a cup of tea, a wash and brush-up and then, as usual, set off for what had become his morning ritual: a walk round the park, feed the ducks, then back home for breakfast or, if he had money, to the local cafe for a full English.
Albert cherished this oasis, where the birds of London did their best to sing as the sun broke through the late-morning fog. As he walked his usual path armed with a paper bag filled with stale bread, the dark memories of the night before melted away in the morning light.
Crossing the small bridge that led down to the lake, he saw a gang of five or six likely lads having a kick-about. He smiled to himself as he watched their antics. Their lack of footballing prowess was amusing, a toe punt here and a sliding tackle there and many wayward passes. "Not much of a career in football there," he thought.
As Albert reached the lake, the ducks seemed to recognise him as their friend and, in a quacking frenzy, came swimming to greet him as fast as their webbed feet would carry them. Albert found their attention and reliance on his morning visits something he enjoyed. It felt good to be needed. He had not gone as far as naming each one, but he recognised them individually and did his best to see that each one at least got a share of the bread.
He was lost in his duck duty when a mis-hit shot from the gang of boys flew like a cannon ball, hitting Albert in the back, scattering the ducks and causing the wayward football to land in the lake.
"Oi, Grandad! Can we have our ball back?" cried one of the gang.
"Why don't you watch what you're doing," Albert muttered.
"What's the matter Pop, did we scare your ducks?"
The youths started making quacking noises. From out of nowhere, Albert felt the threat of violence. He could smell it in the air as the boys closed in on him.
"Whoever touched the ball last has to fetch it, Duck Man," one said. "That was you Pops, wasn't it? So in you go," threatened another.
Excerpted from Faded Glory by David Essex. Copyright © 2016 David Essex. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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