Thursday, March 25, 2010


The older you get, the more you begin to be nagged by those inner questions: Who the hell am I? What have I done and achieved? Will anybody remember me? If they do, what the hell does it matter?

I hope you agree.

For those of you who are, like myself, jobbing thespians of over fifty-five years standing, the first question mentioned is one I know you will have asked every time you picked up a play or a script, or were offered a job. And as I have portrayed the complete gamut of human personalities with social stature ranging from street beggars to kings, and even once a queen, this was always the first question I would ask. Once I’d formulated an answer, the other questions fell by the wayside.

However, with the Black Reaper hovering around my person, I decided, six months prior to a forthcoming trip to Munich, to conduct some much-needed genealogical research into my own civilian origins.

The question “Who the hell am I?” immediately developed into an enquiry of a more personal and sensitive significance. My mother, Gladys the famous fan dancer of the forties, was in hospital suffering from terminal throat cancer, and I had been informed that her time left was very limited, so speed was of the essence.

After a long rummage through chests and old suitcases, I left my mother’s small council abode in Oxford heavily laden with photographs, documents and paraphernalia collected over eighty years of a diverse, entertaining, fruitful and intriguing life. After asking the advice of my eldest-born, which was to “Hang it in down the IT café, Pop!”, I slowly grasped that he was telling me to frequent an Internet Café.

I was surprised at how easy it is, using the modern technology available on the Internet, to trace one’s ancestry. With the limited resources available to me I managed to track down a teenage barmaid, Monica Spillersbee, who had worked at the hostelry in which my mother had lodged during the Second World War. It was there, in her tiny attic room, that my mother had indulged in her extracurricular fan-dancing activities.

Monica was now a sprightly geriatric in her early eighties with a tongue as sharp as a butcher’s knife. She was a hive of information and, although a good ten years younger than my mother at the time, she too was a favourite of the returning servicemen. Armed with the collection of faded black-and-white photographs and several old demobilisation papers I had found hidden under my mother’s bed, I chatted to Monica. Beaming from ear to ear, she managed to recall all my possible fathers, Cecil, Eddie, Steven and Simon.

“ ’e’s the Polack, Eddie,” she said, pointing to a young sergeant in the fatigues of the Polish Free Air Force.

“He was a pilot?” I asked.

“No. That wasn’t even ’is name, it was Edowokwiczsky. ’E was an aerial photographer in t’ Lancaster bombers. That was ’is surname but all us girls shortened it to Eddie ’cause we couldn’t pronounce it.”

I could see a slight family resemblance but it was not enough to convince either of us that he was my father. “But he was one of ya ma’s regulars. And so was ’e,” she said, pulling another photograph from the pile. “ ’E was a Yank, a real smarmy bugger, always had lots of chewing gum and nylons. A bit of a bastard ’e was! Made us all do double time for a fucking quid! Just because ’e knew we’d be wanting the new stockings.”

“Can you remember his surname or his regiment?” I asked, picking up another photograph. It was a shot of four athletic naked young men lying on their stomachs on a beach. They were resting on their elbows looking at a very young Monica posing for them in her nineteen-forties bathing costume. Quickly she snatched it from me.

“No, but that’s ’im! Ah’d recognise that tattoo anywhere! Ah did it for ’im! A beautiful skull and crossbones on ’is right cheek! Look!

I took the photograph and used her handy plastic magnifying glass to get a better view of the tattooed rear-end left cheek. Monica was on a roll. “Bastard! Can’t remember his name right now, but it’ll come to me. ’E was only around a short while, then ’e got shipped out, but I do remember seeing a picture of ’im in t’ Blackpool Gazette a year or two later. Summat to do with do with stolen bananas, they was very scarce in them days, and old Mrs Nellie Ogden found cases of the things under her floorboards. He was one of her lodgers. They was stinking the place to high heaven, rotten as camel dung, they almost arrested her.”

“Why?” was the next obvious question.

“The smell of ‘em! All t’ neighbours were complaining.” Her eyes widened with a flash of recognition as she looked at the photograph, “Nellie then told the cops they belonged to that Yank. Ah tell ya, it was all in t’ Gazette.”

I made a quick mental note to visit the offices of the Manchester Guardian archives and search for a post-war American who’d been stealing bananas.

“And the others?” I asked pointing to the four naked backsides.

“Well,” she said, lapsing in a long gurgling laughing-cough. She gave a quick snort, swallowing the phlegm that had collected from over sixty years of Woodbine-smoking, “Them’s definitely the other two who was always hanging around ya Ma.”

“How do you know that? You can’t see their faces.”

“Ah can spot and identify a naked arse from twenty paces, Cess! That’s definitely Simon’s skinny runt and that one’s ya Polack’s, Eddie, and t’other one’s Steven. So there ya are! The Yank must be Cecil! Told ya ah’d get it!” She slapped me robustly on the knee and fell into a gleeful fit of coughing, gurgling and laughing.

I handed her Toddie, hoping she’d take a sip and stop her false teeth falling out.

“Ta, Cess. Ya Ma must’ve taken the picture with ’er little Brownie 127 ’er other Yank, Todd, give ’er! ”

“He also gave her that,” I said, trying to disengage her gnarled arthritic fingers from Toddie.

“Ah, ’e was a nice one, that Todd. ’E was like you, Cess, an actor. A real gentleman. Ya know, ’e could be ya dad too. Might not be one of this lot!” she said, as she stroked her fingers over the naked bums.

“But I thought she only met Todd when I was about five or six?”

“Ay, that’s right. That was ’is second visit over ’ere. But ’e was around at same time as them lot as well.”

So I had now five possible fathers, not four. It looked as if the problem was deepening. “So we’ve got Todd, right? What about the others, can you remember their surnames?”

“Well, bone-head Cecil was one of those American-Paddies, you know, their granddads went over in t’ potato famine, y’ll get his name from t’ Gazette. Simon and Steven were posh English lads, some public school down south, and ah’ve already given ya Eddie’s!”

“Edowokwiczsky, right?”

“Ay, Polish Free Air Force!” she repeated. “The one with the huge backside, there’s a bit of ’im in ya, Cess, the cheekbones and the eyes. But ah’d follow up on Todd ’cause of ya business connections!”

Old Monica was starting to sound like Agatha Christie in full swing. “But the two English lads? Whereabouts in the south?”

“Ah, give us another sip, Cess, that stuff is really’elping with t’ memory.”

I passed her back Toddie, which I had tried to hide in my crutch, as supplies were running low.

“Ta,” she said, and then knocked back the remaining contents. “Not bad, Cess, tastes just like that nettle wine Nellie Ogden used to make. Ah suppose that’s what she was doing with them bananas.”

“The English boys?” I quickly asked, trying to get her back on track.

“Oh, yes, that one!” she said, as her finger jabbed the second biggest bum on the photograph, “That’s Simon. He also liked the wine. Wouldn’t drink the beer, said it give him the squirts. He was a mate of Steven’s, went to the same school but his old man was a South African. That’s right, I remember now, Van der Spay! Simon van der Spay. We always called him Van the SS! Used to piss ’im off really bad! ’Cause you know some of them boers was supporting t’ Jerries back then! And look, ’is arse is darker than t’others’! Loved the sun, that one!”

My God, I thought, I’m in for a bloody history lesson as well, I’d better quickly steer her in the right direction. “But what was the name of their school? Or even the name of the town?”

“It was somewhere down East Anglia way, I think; could’ve been Grantham. They went straight in the RAF, ’cause, as ya know, most of our air bases was down there. They snatched the poor little sods straight off t’ school cricket pitch! I remember that. Both of ’em used to love their cricket. We ’ad games of “hit-it-u-run” down on Pilling Sands. Bit like them twenty-twenty games ya ’ave today. Great fun!”

If Monica was Agatha Christie, I reasoned, with a flash of creative genius, that I must don my Sherlock Holmes hat. I have never played Conan Doyle’s masterful creation but I immediately knew what he would do in this predicament. He would light his pipe, have a large glass of dry sherry, play his violin, and send out his Doctor Watson to do the groundwork. But seeing that I had neither a Doctor Watson nor enough ready cash to buy a small sherry, and I didn’t play the violin, I chose the next best option. I packed up my mother’s memorabilia, gave Monica a little peck on her ravaged cheek whilst I filched her pension book from her open handbag on the sofa, and bade her farewell.

My next port of call was Yates Wine Lodge down on Blackpool promenade opposite the North pier. I knew I would find old Larry-The-Fingers there, perched on his usual stool quaffing his nightly pint of sweet sherry. Larry was a pickpocket and had a lot of contacts on both sides of the criminal fence. Monica’s pension book would end up in the hands of one of Larry’s forger friends and I would be able to give her back at least five brand-new pension books, so I felt no guilt as I slipped it into my pocket. I also knew that Larry would stand me a pint and point me in the right direction of a bent copper who could use the data files stored in the police computer’s mainframe.

Five months later Larry gave me a large sealed brown paper envelope. “It’s all in there, Cess. The lot!”

“What do I owe you?”

“Ah, nowt, lad. Ah did it for Monica! It were grand seeing the lass again after all them years. Ya know when I gave her back them pension books, ya know what she said?”

“No, how could I?”

“ ‘’Ave ya still got that mole on ya scrotum, Larry?’ ” He laughed like a cat who’d remembered licking the best cream he’d ever tasted, albeit sixty years ago. “Tek ’em, lad, they’re on the house, enjoy ya trip to Munich. Give them Jerries summat to think about!”

And think about it they did. It is not surprising that the German secret service interrogated me after they had arrested me on the pavement outside the Franz Josef Strauss International Airport.

It was post 9/11 and I was in possession of five passports, one Americian, one Irish, one Polish, one British, and one South African.


Anonymous said...

i love it brillant

Iain said...

Nice one, Ron.