Preston, September 1992
I arrived at my front door and fumbled at the lock. And then I stopped and looked behind me, across to the wood-yard, and then back in the direction I had just walked. The long, straight road from the town centre to home. I must have looked back at where I’d come from for a good while.
Something had changed, fundamentally, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Less to do with the route home, or the look of it, more as if I’d started out the day a different person altogether. As if the road back had taken me beyond the everyday world and out into an unfamiliar place. What kind of journey had I just made?
Maybe it was to do with that old character I fell in with at the Black Horse.
That’d be it. More than likely.
And then, finally, my key made sense of the lock. I turned it decisively and, without even glancing at the neighbour’s door, I stepped inside.
But something wasn’t right. I was met by an unusual silence.
I ventured through to the kitchen. This wasn’t normal at all. For a moment I was lost as to what to do. I thought about checking to see if she was upstairs, in the bedroom, but ended up stopping at the foot of the staircase.
It’d probably be best if I just retraced my steps.
“I can remember slipping through the ropes and climbing into the ring.” The old man twitched and took a gulp from his glass, as if he was again squaring up to his opponent and the drink was for courage.
“I could hear familiar voices in amongst the shouts from ringside. And then the bell rang.”
He looked at me and his face opened into a ruddy grin, revealing a gold cap here and there. His grey eyes were rheumy and veined with the whiskey and Woodbines.
“Next thing I knew, I was regaining consciousness on board the ferry heading back for Pompey.”
I had been sitting quietly at the bar, before he took the stool to my left and struck up a conversation. And now the Black Horse was filling up, the weather an encouragement to a rush of late afternoon custom. Gusty rain struck the stained-glass window panels like brass tacks.
“One of the trainers spoke up first,” he continued, “a little, punch-drunk fellow, a Cockney lightweight called Artful. He said to me, ‘by Christ, Doc, you were in an entertaining fight!’ he said, ‘each time the Scots lad knocked you down, you kept getting back up.’”
The old man shuffled on his stool as he spoke, throwing short hooks at shadows.
“He said I must’ve hit the deck a dozen times in those three rounds but the Scotsman had to settle for points.”
“And you had no recollection of this?” I asked.
“Nothing.” He said, slapping the palm of his hand on the counter, causing the barman to glance our way. “Nothing after the first punch. But I was told I landed a few good shots myself. Yer man didn’t get away with it completely.”
He smiled and shook his head at a memory. Something hazy, probably – skipping ropes, cigar smoke and jazz.
“Wheeew!” I whistled.
“The Home Fleet Championship,” he said looking ruefully past my shoulder along the bar, “and me, a ship’s Doctor, beaten by a hairy-arsed stoker from Aberdeen.
I was telling ol’ Lew Lazar about it yesterday. We were swapping stories at the Wheatsheaf (a good Haringey pub, if you ever find yourself over that way). Anyway, you wouldn’t know Lew but he’s the gentlest fellow you could meet. He has time for everybody around the bar, but if anyone misbehaves in there…” he slammed a fist into his thick, shovel-sized hand.
He was still trying to catch the eye of the barman who was dealing with the late run of drinkers. I was weighing up whether I had time for another. I’d only stopped in for a quick drink on my way back home. Maggie had gone on ahead, after we watched the parades, to prepare the celebration dinner.
“You know he knocked out Charlie Kray once, and said he never felt so bad about stopping an opponent.” The old man held up a five pound note as if he were bidding at an auction, and then must have received some signal that his request was in hand, as he again turned my way.
“Well anyway, I was telling him about how, when I was a young’un, I listened to his big fight with Ratcliffe on the radio. Lazar v Ratcliffe at Wembley or Earl’s Court, it was somewhere like that, an eliminator for the British title. And it was a dramatic fight, sure enough. Ratcliffe was miles ahead on points, running circles around poor Lew and then suddenly, in the 10th, Lew was all over him. He virtually took the bastard’s head off.
And you know, Lew told me that when he’d slumped onto his stool at the end of the ninth he could hear the BBC announcer, the same fellow I was listening to at home, saying: ‘this is a classic match up where a slick, stylish boxer is outwitting a rough-house East End brawler.’ And Lew thought to himself – I’m not standing for that bullshit, who’s he calling a faacking East End brawler?”
The old man paused to laugh himself into a choke.
“So he went out for the 10th in a fury!”
I finished rolling perhaps the most slowly assembled cigarette of my life, and lit it. The barman came our way and I reached along the counter for a tin ashtray.
“What’ll it be, Tom?” the barman asked
“Let me buy you a pint.” I offered up and the old man looked at me closely before accepting.
“You beat me to the punch,” he said, “so I’ll get the shorts. A Guinness, young Jack, whatever this gent’s pint is, sorry I don’t know your name…”
“Gable.” I said. “Gable McGrath, and it’s a Double Hop for me.”
“A pint of Double Hop for Gable McGrath,” he continued, “and two large Jamies.”
What the hell, the old man Tom was one of those characters you don’t meet every day. And this was, after all, last orders for the afternoon on the Friday of Preston Guild. Maggie wouldn’t mind if I was half an hour or so late.
“Slip a shot in a tumbler for yerself Jack.” Tom winked as he passed over his fiver, and I handed across a couple of pound coins rummaged from my pocket.
With a glass in his hand, Tom stood up from his stool and proposed a toast for Jack and myself to join.
“To Proud Preston and the Guild!” And we all downed our whiskeys with a flourish.
“By God, that’s good!” He said, wiping his lips with the back of his hand, and he resumed his perch.
“I guess this’ll be your first drink at a Guild?” He asked and I nodded – although I had a vague memory of ghosting about the floor as a child, hands and knees commando-style in 1972, the adults all high-spirited and loud, barely noticing me, let alone my sips from their Martini glasses and Party Sevens.
And I remembered playing a game of soldiers in an attic.
So anyway, I was in a haze on a wet, poorly-lit street and thought to myself – fuck it, I’ll walk home. The buses were unreliable into the evening and a walk would do me good. I made for Friargate and through Adelphi, where groups of party-goers were spilling from one pub to another amid roars and the clatter of high-heels.
As I lurched my way past them, through sharp wafts of after-shave and perfume, I thought of my home. I thought of my darling young wife who waited inside for me. And I am certain that I felt as blessed, that I was as sure of my place and time, as a man could be.
All this despite the fact that, even though I had always lived in Preston, I had never felt comfortable here. There wasn’t much talk on offer whenever I revealed I was a freelance photographic artist; whenever it got beyond the page three pin-up quips and I explained that I was documenting our disappearing world, that my current project was to photograph the analogue age in all its forms before it was lost to computers, that I took pictures of streets before they were demolished, old pubs and vanishing traditions.
But this evening I felt different. I felt a keen sense of belonging. At least that’s what I recall feeling, somewhere along the walk back. Then, without noticing the last half a mile, I found myself at the front door fumbling at the lock with my key.
“Maggie!” I called out as I stepped inside. I could smell the sweet drift of roast chicken in the warm air of home. But no-one, not a soul, stirred.
“Maggie?” I ventured through to the dining table and peered into the kitchen. Everything was quiet except for the buzz and rattle of the fridge. This wasn’t what I expected. I felt at a loss.
The dining table was dressed with party cloth and set out with an opened bottle of wine, two glasses, a bowl of peanuts and cutlery arranged for a three course dinner. After checking to see if she was in the bedroom, and finding it empty, undisturbed, I returned to splash some wine into one of the glasses and slump onto the couch.
She must have despaired waiting in for me and gone out. I didn’t blame her. After all, this was Preston Guild and the understanding was that I’d be home hours ago.
“… and I filmed the fucking fight from the ring apron!” Tom staggered and chuckled, doing a dance almost, around his stool. “Yeah, I had an 8mm camera with me, one I ‘borrowed’ from the local newspaper to take shots of the parades, so I filmed it! And Pete did the whole thing for a bet! Right there on the Flag Market, the silly bugger!”
I was doubled up on my stool, hugging my midriff with my arms, laughing so hard the tears bulged down my cheeks.
“Anyway, I had to hand it to the bastard for having the presence of mind to put my money in my shoe, before leaving me in the flower bed that night.” Tom pulled himself back onto his stool.
He slipped a hand around his pint glass as if it were a staff.
“I don’t suppose you know the family?” He asked.
“Remind me, what was his name again?” I spoke in gasps, wiping my face with my shirt sleeves.
“He’s called Pete Irongate. My old sparring partner…” Tom’s voice trailed off.
“That was the Guild of ’52,” he said softly.
I decided an answer to his question wasn’t necessary and instead sized up the remaining beer in my barrel glass, holding it up to the light.
“Well, I must be going,” I announced, “I have a lovely lady expecting me home for my dinner.”
“Ah, bollocks you will!” Tom roared, and slapped my back. “This is the Guild, man! Once every twenty years! You’ll be middle-aged next time around, enjoy it while you’re young.”
“Last orders was over an hour ago.” I was groping for a reason not to.
“And we’ve had a few rounds since, and we’ll have one more now,” said Tom and he called Jack over from a session he was conducting with a small group at one end of the bar. They had a bottle each of Tequila and Vodka pulled from the optic rack and were swapping rounds of slammers.
I was walking, no, stumbling a little… anyway, I was making my way up the straight road home when all of a sudden I shouted out loud.
“Oooh! Aaah! Gabe McGrath!
Oooh! Aaah! Gabe McGrath!”
So tell me, Gable, was there a defining moment in your life, a moment that you can pin down and say, ‘that was when I realised I would become the most influential artist of my generation’?
In fact, as some would have it, the artist that defined the end of the century?
That is a good question, Mr Parkinson… it’s difficult to pick out one moment but, if I had to, it would be the Preston Guild of ’92 and a chance encounter I had with a worldly old boxer called Tom Ballindine. When I met him I was still an aspiring artist. I was flat broke and working on the first of my disappearing world volumes. It was as if I needed some direction, and it turned out that meeting Tom opened up a whole new disappearing world for me. It opened doors. After I met him I began photographing people instead of objects. It was not long after that I began my portraits of the forgotten.
Which, of course, led to my commission to document the escalating crisis in Yugoslavia. That’s when the big deals started rolling in.
And now? Now I am relaxing, taking a well earned rest in my luxury Haringey apartment – considering my next project. It’s been a busy, but rewarding couple of years.
You know, one day I wished upon a star and now it feels like I have woken up and the clouds are way behind me.
And all this, I achieved all this, from a humble home tucked down a side street. Humble, yet warm, with the sweet drift of roast chicken in the air. And always a rousing welcome…
I arrived at the front door, a cosy glow evident through the frosted glass, and I thought of my beautiful young wife waiting inside for me.
I turned the key.
But Maggie wasn’t there.
My concerns for her whereabouts seemed to disappear once I’d slumped onto the couch. Instead I fell into dwelling upon my drinking session with the old fighter. What a fateful encounter that was! You rarely chance across characters like Tom. He made an ideal subject for my portfolio of work. He was a memory worth keeping.
The only shots I took of him were casual, like family photos, and he was happy with that. He was happy with that and the fact that I could pay for a round. I caught him at the right time. I only cashed my Enterprise Allowance cheque yesterday.
I’d have to go back to the Black Horse tomorrow to find him again and set up a proper photo shoot. But, hang about! The thought slowly crept up on me. Where was my camera now? What had I done with it?
I frisked myself gormlessly.
I had it when I left the pub. How the hell could I have lost my camera? I looked around the room.
How did this happen?
“Careful, McGrath, you’re spilling most of that good stuff down your shirt!”
I couldn’t be sure whether he was rocking and swaying in a pronounced fashion on his bar stool, or whether I was so drunk I was, myself, responsible for all the motion.
“Slainte!” I said – in fact I probably yelled, it was difficult to tell.
Tom peered as I took some time lighting a cigarette, the end too soggy for the flame to catch.
“Ah, you’re not bad,” he said. I watched him down his tumbler of whiskey and reach for the stout chaser.
“You remind me of Danny.”
“Who’s Danny?” I asked, fighting the hiccups.
“My son,” he said. “You may have heard of him. He was in a pop band until recently. They were in the hit parade.”
“Go on, what was the band called?” I was onto my third match.
“They were called the Smokin Joes and the song was something about emasculation, or castration or incarceration – something like that.”
“Rings a vague bell but I can’t bring ’em to mind, sorry.”
“Well, they were number one in the hit parade, a year or so back.” He took a long gulp of stout. “Not my thing, though.”
“And what are they doing now?” I asked. I felt as though I was brushing with fame.
“Beats me. I heard that Danny went off to Yorkshire a couple of months back. Up on the moors. He lives with a bunch of hippie layabouts.” Tom looked at me, but also through me. “Pity, the lad has talent.”
And then he turned his attention back to his pint.
“Fancy that,” he said. “Giving up on the one thing you’ve achieved in life.”
So I arrived at the front door of my humble home. Humble yet cosy, a visible, cheery glow through the frosted glass: my launchpad to success and fame. And all this with my darling wife waiting inside for me.
I could only dimly recall walking the last half mile. What kind of stumble had I been in? And here I was, barely able to find the lock with my key.
I had been dwelling upon my chance encounter with that worldly old fighter and failed to notice my progress past the terraces and ginnels, the cattle sheds and the Big House pub. Although now I thought about it, I had actually noticed the smell of beer, smoke and piss by the Big House and the wafts of cattle muck from the sheds. I recalled registering the thought that this was the smell of my home town. And I felt the firm tug of belonging. At least, that’s what I imagined my feeling was.
So, having looked back down the road I just travelled, I took a deep breath of timber-scented air and turned the key, finally, to be met by a rush of warmth, sweetened with the smell of roast chicken.
I looked clumsily around the living room – the dressed table, the dim lighting, some low music I could hear all of a sudden.
Where was Maggie?
Jack had come over and was listening in to the conversation, propping his chin in his hand with an elbow on the bar. His drinking group had disappeared.
“… so this was the pub I had my first pint in, and it’s the first pub I have a drink in whenever I’m back in Preston.” I noticed that Tom’s ring was a Claddagh, which he couldn’t quite fit through the handle of his pint pot with the thickness of his fist.
“But each time I’m here it feels like chasing ghosts. The old faces have all slowly gone, one by one, and now no-one even remembers them.”
“So what brings you back this time, Tom?” Jack asked.
“See that snug over there.” Tom pointed into the gloom towards the rear end of the bar.
“That snug was our HQ. There’d be myself and Angela, My brother Paddy and his fiancé Bridget, and then there’d be Pete Irongate and his wife Irene.”
I looked over and could imagine that table lit by a dusty bulb, slung with a paper shade, blue cigarette smoke drawn upwards like the spirit of moths. I could picture a group of young men and women laughing and joking with jazz trumpet blowing from the jukebox…
“I’m here to bury my mother,” said Tom.
And then the tears started rolling down the old man’s cheeks and around his nose – a nose which was bent from several short-arm punches. Both Jack and I remained still, watching him until the sobs were reduced to the odd piteous mutter. Then finally he wiped his face dry with the palms of his hands and reached for his glass.
“It’s a terrible thing, losing a mother,” concluded Jack. “But at least she’s going out during the Guild. It’ll make for a good wake.” And he grinned. “She must’ve been lucky.”
Tom laughed heartily.
“I should have been buying her lotto tickets in Cork all this time.”
I looked down at the cigarette I had just rolled. I seemed to have been rolling it forever. It looked like a trampled worm with deathly brown innards spilling from its split.
“There are only a few ways to get rich quick.” Tom declared. “Win the Irish lotto, do ten rounds with Tyson, get a number one in the hit parade…”
I stumbled so badly, in a such a pronounced manner, that the cigarette fell from my mouth. I didn’t even know if it was lit. I wasn’t sure how long it had been since I rolled it and struck the first match.
It was the smell, no, the actual fine, wispy air of beer, piss and cattle muck that brought me out of my thoughts. What was it about this particular combination of smells that, right now, felt so profound? I stopped mid-track in the street. I wanted to fully consider the question while engulfed in the aroma of home.
That was it!
I may have hailed my own name to the rooftops at that point. I recall delivering it like a football chant. But the fact was, I realised, I was home. This was my home. I felt at home.
With that decided I lurched forward once more, weaving my way towards that little side street opposite the wood-yard which lent the freshness of timber to the clean air of Savick Brook. The air around my small nest in which greatness was being hatched.
And that’s what else struck me. He compared me to his son. His gifted son, who was a pop star. Wait until I told Maggie. Her patience seemed limitless, her willingness to sacrifice so much to support my artistic purpose. But surely there were limits? Surely she would appreciate the fact that I’d been recognised as talented by the father of a star. By a man from a generation soon to be forgotten.
Then, without any sort of warning at all, I found myself at the front door. I stood before the frosted glass, swaying to and fro, for what seemed an age.
I looked stupidly about the room. Where was Maggie?
Having ascertained that she wasn’t in bed (and certainly not with the neighbour, whose overattentive ways bordered on the creepy) I returned to contemplate the table once more. I emptied some wine from the bottle in the general direction of a stemmed glass and most of it seemed to end up in the peanut bowl.
What the hell. Who could blame her for not stopping in? This was the Guild, after all.
I could hear just a buzz and a rattle. And some soft music. Where was it coming from? Had she left a record on repeat?
And then it was as if the world fell away from beneath my feet, as it dawned on me that I’d lost my camera.
How could I have done that? It was unfathomable.
Tom rocked forward on his stool, leaning in towards my face, so that he could speak to me confidentially. His breath was over-proof, his voice reduced to gravelly, Louis Armstrong tones.
“You know there’s some who will say that the fellow at the Wheatsheaf, who calls himself Lew Lazar, is in fact an impostor.”
My face must have looked blank.
“That, in truth his name is Ronnie; that he was a bit-part actor in the 50s, who now masquerades as Lew, because he’s either a hoaxer or deluded.”
“And…” I began to respond.
“And you know what?” Tom said. “I don’t care. He’s as real to me as the Ratcliffe fight was on the radio. It’s all a matter of faith.” He sat upright again with a look of satisfaction on his face. I realised this was something important to him but, at that very moment, it was lost on me. I was well past my drinking limit.
“It’s all a matter of faith,” he repeated.
“… and imagination.”