NO LAUGHING MATTER
There was this kid we knew that had this dodge of swallowing coins: sixpences, farthings, you name it. Better than that, he could regurgitate them back in any order you asked. It was a neat trick, so my brother Fred accused him of showing off. Nothing could be further than the truth, the boy explained. Turned out he was swallowing the money because that was the only way he could keep it; otherwise his old man would have had it for beer. That’s what life was like for kids like me in Paddington in the nineteen-twenties, all tin baths and resoling your shoes with tyre thread.
Fred passed away a few years back, and I’m waiting in this care home to join him. In a funny sort of way I’m still the entertainer. I play the piano, sing songs, tell jokes. It’s in my bones; it’s all I know. Mucking about, making folks giggle. I guess I’ll have the last laugh, just like I did with my old man.
I remember the last time I visited him; the muffled voices rolling up the hall, one whining with fear, the voice of his new woman, the other with that familiar blend of outrage and contempt: ‘Who did he say he is?’ Then the door burst open and there he stood - Dad, the king in his new castle - and I knew straight off from his expression what was coming.
‘Out!’ he boomed, pointing towards the door. It was the last thing he ever said to me.
There was no use arguing; never was. I stood outside, cold and miserable, with nowhere to go - but I was used to that by then. It was his way of saying goodbye, and like everything else he did and said it was punitive and cruel.
That door at my back slammed like the trapdoor on a stage. It made it clear he never wanted to see my face again. Truth is my very existence was an irritation to him. And the only way I can explain it is jealousy.
He worked away a lot, which was a blessing for all of us. Sometimes he would be gone for months at a time and in-between he would drink. Couldn’t drink at work, see, because he used to chauffer for a living. I was nine when my parents divorced. She walked out - or ran if he’d been drinking - and moved to somewhere even his right hook couldn’t reach, leaving her boys to fend for ourselves.
I remember Mum bought me a bicycle one Christmas. It was painted red with a bell and everything gleaming new. As soon as the old man saw it he got a hammer from the shed and smashed it to pieces, each piece a tiny shard in my heart. Like I said: jealousy. Everyone had to have it worse than him or he lost his rag. No wonder Mum left him, a kinder explanation than admitting that neither parent wanted me.
He never gave us food or money, either, so me and Fred would run down to the market stalls in the Harrow Road and pilfer what we could. No shoes or socks, but that was not as uncommon back then as you might think. Some of our attempts at cooking stretched the definition of hot food to its limits. But somehow we survived for a couple of years before Dad suddenly decided to place us with guardians over in Hatfield. It was the best thing he could have done short of dropping dead.
Do you know, one day he picked me up and threw me from one side of the kitchen to the other. No word of a lie, I hit the ceiling on the way over. In a way those incidents taught me how to fall without hurting myself, a skill I used to good effect on film, as everyone knows. So, anyway, I wasn’t about to raise any objections about this guardianship lark. Mind you, even that the old man managed to foul up.
The first couple we stayed with were nice enough, but then Dad stopped paying them. I never knew why. But anyway out we went and found ourselves with a second set of guardians in Deal, Kent. They were nice, too. If anything it was them that first impressed me with the skills of acting, because I couldn’t believe their kindness was genuine. They had to be putting it on. So after a while I tried to catch them out, started mucking about, testing their patience. Eventually they got fed up with it and asked me to leave.
‘See, I knew it,’ I thought to myself. ’Can’t fool me’. But deep down I knew it was me that was the fool.
Fred stayed on in Deal, but before I left I waited up all night to watch a film crew at work. Being so small and weedy I was able to get right up close and personal, too. Fascinating it was. On location, they call it. Deal planted a seed, all right. But at thirteen school and any sort of home life were behind me and I was out on my ear again, though at least this time I had footwear.
In a way having had such a rough start actually helped me adjust to life on the streets, and I started to develop my acting abilities. There was this all night tea van that used to park up in the city every night. The smells that wafted off that van drove me to distraction, but this was no barrow on the Harrow Road, and I was no longer a light-fingered nipper. The man behind the counter looked tough but kind, the sort of chap who had to graft long hours to make ends meet but you could still have a laugh with, and, I hoped, milk some kindness from.
Being short my eyes barely cleared the counter top, my ears framed by a salt seller and a bottle of brown sauce. If being knocked about by my old man taught me how to fall without hurting myself, that tea van taught me how to put the skills of an actor to good use. So there I’d stand, knees slightly bent to make me seem even shorter and these big ‘help me, mister’ eyes peering over the scattered sugar granules and tea spoons. Worked a treat. Three in the morning he’d pass me over a mug of Bovril and a pie. I don’t think anything has ever tasted so good, even when I hit the big time and could afford to eat whatever and wherever I wanted.
One night, however, he nodded to me to come closer, and I readied myself to be told to piss off. ‘You should try the army,’ he said.
I felt impelled to be honest with him, since he’d pretty much kept me alive for weeks. ‘I can’t. I’m only thirteen.’
‘Oh, I’m sure you could convince them otherwise,’ he winked, and I blushed at my cover being blown.
He said Cardiff was the place to go, but if I’d realised how far away Wales was I might never have attempted to walk there; but walk there I did and ended up as a cabin boy bound for the Argentine. The Army came later, though even then I put on such an act for the Recruiting Sergeant that he let me in with tears rolling knowing full well I was totally unqualified to be a bandsman. I learnt every instrument I could get my hands on, carried on with the boxing I’d started at sea and got myself fit as a flea. I owe the Army everything, especially for the grub. No, really, Army food made a man out of me; and Army life gave me the confidence to…
But I’m getting tired again. Happens quite often these days, but then I am ninety-five. It’s no laughing matter. I’m afraid I’m going to have to skim over the rest of my life, but it’s the part you’re all familiar with, so no harm done.
I made an effort to treat my own children exactly the opposite way I was treated. Like I said, I never saw Dad again. But I can guarantee he saw me. I was at the cinema, on the television, in magazines, on posters; I even had hit records: ‘Don’t Laugh at Me ‘Cause I’m a Fool’, with more than a trace of irony.
But I never wanted revenge. I never harboured grudges, even when I was lost at sea. I never stopped wanting to reach out to him, to cure him of the jealousy that had eaten him to the core as much as the booze.
And even now I like to think that maybe once, just once, he saw my face on a billboard or heard my voice on the radio and pulled his motor onto the hard shoulder to sigh, ‘That’s my boy.’
Copyright 2015. Gary Kittle.