I dreamt I went back to Great Barr against last night! Okay, so I cribbed that line from Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, switching Mandalay for that sprawling conurbation in the West Midlands which straddles Birmingham, West Bromwich and Sandwell. My excuse for the plagiarisation is that I wanted to imbue this post with a sense of foreboding. For it was in Great Barr I came to terms with the fact that I am a misfit, that I will always be one, and that I will never see eye to eye with anyone, ever.
Here’s how it happened. I spent five years in the 1980s working for the now
sadly defunct Commonwealth Institute. I was part of an exciting project called WINDOW ON THE WORLD, run by the Institute’s educational department to introduce British children to the cultures of various Commonwealth countries. The Guyanese poet John Agard was also part of it, as was an awesome Nigerian storyteller called Moses Ntuk Indem, several Indian dancers and musicians, an Australian boomerang expert called Prue, and a Scottish thatcher who’d spent time sheep herding in Newfoundland.
The local education authorities that bought into the programme would book a speaker or an artist for a whole week, expecting him to appear at two schools a day from Monday to Friday. At CI mission control, two lovely Trinidadian ladies called Joan Kong and Vaidoo Naidoo sorted out train tickets, school schedules, hotel accommodation and payment. I would travel on Sunday, ready to start work on Monday morning. This worked fine while I was single but once I settled down with my partner in Brighton I started resenting having to give up a sizeable chunk of my weekend. I got into the habit of travelling as late in the day as possible, hopping into a taxi outside the station to get me to the guest house just before eleven.
The time I went to Great Barr it was nearly midnight when I got into the taxi. It dropped me off outside a shabby double-fronted house with a sloping front garden. You couldn’t see any shrubs or plants even when the automatic emergency light came on. The lawn was covered in plastic crates stacked high enough to block out the ground floor windows.
The door was answered by a muscled, shirtless man in his mid-thirties. His arms were covered in snake tattoos and his jeans were so low-slung you could tell he shaved more than his face of a morning.
‘I’m Mr. Pirotta from the Commonwealth Institute,’ I said brightly.
‘Tony,’ he replied. ‘Come in.’
He turned to lead the way down the hallway, exposing a back-tattoo I’m sure was modelled on Bernini’s crucifixion. It was so lifelike, my mum would have put candles and flowers.
‘Let’s see, Mr Pavarotti from the Commonwealth Institute,’ Tony said in his office, consulting a diary. ‘Single. Room 11 at the top. That’ll be sixty quid.’
‘You’re meant to send the bill to the Commonwealth Institute,’ I replied.
‘We only take payment upfront, I’m afraid.’
‘No probs,” I said, reaching into my holdall. ‘I’ll write out a cheque.’
‘We only take cash.’
I checked my wallet. ‘Sorry, I’ve only got a tenner.’
‘You can pay tomorrow, then,’ Tony said. ‘I’ll take your watch as security.’
‘It’s only a Swatch,’ I laughed, not sure if he was having me on. ‘I only got it for £9.99.’
‘I’ll take it just the same.’
He led me up the stairs to room 11. ‘Breakfast is between 7.00 and 8.30am. Goodnight.’
When he left, I realised a previous guest had bashed in the lock. Not to worry, in the days before laptops and ipads my only bit of expensive kit was a green sony walkman and that never left my side. There was not much furniture in the room – a single bed, a chest of drawers and three built-in cupboards one on top of the other. The top one was filled with worn-out trainers, the middle one had a load of empty Brut bottles in Tesco carrier bags and the bottom one was empty save for a transistor radio that had been taken apart and never put back.
Joan had booked me a single room with shared toilet and shower facilities. When I finally located the toilet, I discovered a man sitting cross-legged on the toilet seat, tucking into a kebab and a lager.
‘You want to go?’ he said.
I backed out pretty sharpish. ‘Don’t worry about it, mate. I’ll come back later.”
He got off the loo and stood by the sink, stilling tucking into his kebab. ‘Don’t mind me, I can only eat in the pisser. You want some lager?’
Not wanting to offend, I took swig. ‘Ta.’
I saw the man again in the dining room the next morning. He was lying on a sofa, decked out in a pink negligee and matching bedroom slippers. His mates were ogling Lorraine Kelly on TV AM. As I took my seat, he sat up and announced to no one in particular, ‘Anyone seen me fooking glasses?’
‘Nah, Stan’ chorused the others without looking away from Lorraine’s cleavage.
He fell back on the sofa and exhaled slowly. A woman in a tabard, presumably Tony’s other half, came out of the kitchen. ‘You want breakfast?’
‘I only want coffee and toast?’
‘Brown or white?’
She stomped back to the kitchen and returned a few minutes later with four pieces of white toast in a rack. She was followed by a girl bearing a packet of butter.
‘Hello,’ I said to the girl in my jolly, professional voice. ‘I’m Saviour, an author. What school do you go to?’
‘Junior School,’ replied the girl.
‘Which Junior School?’ I said, hoping to be able say she might be in one of my storytelling sessions later.
‘You heard her,’ barked the woman with the toast, who was obviously her mum. ‘She goes to Junior School.’
Stan sat up on the sofa again. ‘Anyone seen me fooking glasses?’
‘Nah,’ came back the same reply.
When I got back from my gig later that day, I discovered someone had nicked all my toiletries. The Brut bottles in the middle cupboard had been replaced with jam jars and the trainers were missing their laces.
I went out and bought new toothpaste and soap. But they were stolen again. Twice! On Thursday, the head of the school I was visiting offered to give me a lift. He blanched when he saw me coming out of the guest house.
‘Im amazed they put you in there. Who did the booking?’
‘Joan back at the office. I think she just picks b&bs out of the yellow pages. Why do you ask?’
‘That’s a half way house for repeat offenders coming out of prison.’
Sometime that afternoon, the school secretary very kindly rescued my kit from the guest house and I was put up in a posh hotel in Sandwell. I can’t remember much about this posh hotel, except that there was a pink valance round my bed, and the windows had gold-lustre pvc frames. It was the first time in my life I’d seen either.
Which I suppose says it all about me! I remember every detail of the doss-house but hardly anything about the posh hotel. Lying under the warm duvet that night, I somehow felt that I’d been cheated. No one had asked me if I wanted to be moved to five star accommodation, they’d just ASSUMED I wanted to be rescued from the ex-cons. In reality, I missed the doss-house, I found it a million times more exciting than the lush hotel. I’d rather share a kebab in the john with Stan than be in a restaurant full of grey suits any time, even though I acknowledge the fact that my livelihoods depends on the suits doing a good job at sales meetings and so on.
Twenty five years on I still can’t decide why I’m attracted to the edgy and the dispossessed. Perhaps it’s because I’m dispossessed too, because I can’t find any other water-babies I can relate to. I don’t know any other published Anglo Maltese children’s authors with no children who beat diabetes, live in Yorkshire and like watching rugby as much as they like making a good ragout.
Or perhaps, I’m just attracted to good stories, or at any rate the possibility of a good story. That guest house in Great Barr was full of narrative potential, of interesting characters, and what irks me about the sudden move to Sandwell was the fact that I never got to hear the end of that particular adventure. What do you all think?