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A FIRST CHAPTER
- A work in progress

NORTH ROAD END
by Paul Blake
'Robert hated Joe then and hated him still'.


Robert took his brother's call many times in his dreams. Each time Joe was ringing from New York, just as he had on Robert's nineteenth birthday. In the dream Joe would hold the receiver up to the night, as he had on that day, urging Robert to absorb the sounds of a new world, one of music, sex and electricity, far removed from the semi-detached childhood they had shared.
Then something unexpected would happen. Joe would be pulled down the wires, limb by limb, until he appeared before Robert, smaller than he remembered with greying beard. Robert would wait for Joe to speak and each time he did was always shocked by his voice. It was thin and chemical, the voice of someone who has passed from one world to another. Joe would ignore Robert's questions and show no sign of hearing his apologies. Instead he would turn away and begin to sing, accompanying himself on an invisible guitar. 'Shake, rattle and roll,' he would sing, 'shake, rattle and roll.'

Robert had grown to believe that people left behind strange, small memories of themselves. Inconsequential moments that were given life by those who observed and remembered them. He felt he had come to own Joe's memories. No-one else wanted them. Sometimes he felt more alive in Joe's memories than his own.
Joe told Robert that when he first learnt that he was coming into the world he tore up his favourite book, a collection of Beatrix Potter stories, and hid them underneath his bed. "I knew you would be trouble little brother," he said.
Joe was four then. When he was five he solemnly told their parents that it was time for Robert to be sent home, from wherever he had come. When he was six he pushed Robert down the stairs. The first clear memory of Robert's life was of being weightless then still, marooned in carpet threads and the dirt from his family's shoes. Joe stood over him, inquisitive, wilful. "I thought he might be able to fly," he said.

Robert hated Joe then and hated him still. When he was around he plundered Robert's sense of newness, sending tiny postcards of experience from three years down the road. Robert felt he lived on Joe's cast-offs, all the things that had lost their glint. After Joe left he became serene in the imagination of the family, a benevolent spirit with an unblemished history. Robert was the only one with the concentration to recall him as he really was.
Robert believed there was a technique to remembering the lost and departed. It began with the shoes. Recall the shoes and build the body upwards. As time went by it took longer and longer to move beyond the knees and then the torso. You needed hard study and patience to rebuild a departed face.

Robert always pictured Joe wearing the pair of cowboy boots he bought on one of his first trips to London. They were a tan colour, with red stitching around their base and top. Over time they became coloured with the sand and clay that layered the town the two boys grew up in. After rainy days Joe would stand in the kitchen chipping the clay off the soles of the boots with an old knife, while Robert would hover behind watching the movement of his hands.

Their town sat in the shadow of a brick works that belched out smoke from three tall chimneys. They gave the streets a smell of sulphur that Robert imagined dissolved into the threads of their clothes and then submerged down through their skin.
The town had been built for the brick workers. The houses were regimented along straight avenues with the occasional tree, stunted and apologetic. Grass grew between the cracks in the pavements and on each house the missing roof slates looked like blackened teeth. At the gates to the works was a clock tower that had forgotten the right time, its minute hand hanging untethered at a permanent half-past. On the green opposite people walked dogs and old men sat staring into space, waiting for what Robert could never tell.

Their mother worked part-time at the town bakery and each afternoon would bring home whatever had past its sell by date, mostly brown loaves but sometimes sponge cakes or chocolate éclairs that had begun to grow stale. She would serve them after dinner when the whole family settled in front of the television.

Robert remembered her chopping carrots, onions and aubergines into squares and long strips for their dinner. He would go to her after school hoping for something to keep him going, something sweet. He knew by looking at the red wine bottle next to the chopping board it would be at least another three glasses until the chopping and stirring stopped.
Their father was one of the few men to work away from the town. He had an administrative job in a glass factory ten minutes drive away. Each evening when he arrived home he gave his sons a whiskey kiss, the rich smell of alcohol blending with his aftershave and the feel of his bristles against their cheeks. Robert would wonder if that odour, so deep and otherworldly, was the smell of the adult universe and whether his father's rages that buckled the calm atmosphere of the house were its rhythm.

Their father loved football. He had played until the pressures of his young family left him working long shifts at the factory then selling insurance door-to-door in the evening and at the weekend. He preserved the 90 minutes each Saturday as his own, when he returned to who he was, shouting on his team, swearing at the referee, joking with his mates. As soon as Joe was old enough he started going with their father, returning with the match programme and team scarf tied around his wrist.
For three seasons Joe and their father would leave the house on the dot of 1.30 pm to get to the ground in time. Robert's bedroom overlooked the front of the house and he would wait for them to reappear, watching the light grow dim and the street lamps begin to glow red, one by one. He would listen to the radio as well. To the commentaries from up and down the country, not understanding the game they described nor able to picture the players so lauded for the goals they scored or saves they made.

Two birch trees stood at the entrance of the house. They were broad, bushy, trimmed once a year by who Robert didn't know. Certainly he couldn't remember his father up a ladder, a saw or a pair of clippers in his gloved hands. They would lose slender flakes of bark, so fine that they resembled sheets of paper, layered on the earth at their base. Empty sheets of paper, dry without letter or word. Robert would look at those trees and wonder how much bark did a tree have to lose before it was no longer a tree? And how much of his childhood did he have to lose before he was no longer himself?
In the fourth year Robert was allowed to go with them to the football. He was fourteen and for his birthday he was given a team scarf, just like Joe's. He was also given a woolen team hat, which he pulled down to cover his ears. He tied the scarf around his wrist, just as Joe did, then pulled on the hat. He looked at himself in the mirror. He didn't look like anyone he recognised. He looked like a ridiculous impostor.

Robert felt awkward climbing into the car in his new gear, although his mother assured him he looked the part. His unease grew as they parked the car on one of the narrow terraced streets that led to the ground. He had imagined there to be wide boulevards leading to a spectacular golden stadium. Instead he found himself scrambling to keep up with his father and Joe along a street much poorer than their own.

In Robert's town the streets were orderly and so empty that you could ride your bike down the pavements using the curb as a ramp to leap into the air. Here though the streets were littered with crushed beer cans, fish and chip wrappers that had grown soggy, a circular patch where someone had been sick the night before. In one doorway Robert saw an old man curled asleep, sunk deep into a dirty sleeping bag, his face blackened with the grime all around them. Robert wasn't sure whether he was really human at all and felt fearful. He wanted to go home, but there was no turning back.
"Keep up little brother," Joe called out to him. "Otherwise we'll be stuck at the back."
Joe looked comfortable striding alongside their father. It was only then, seeing them side-by-side, that Robert realised the Joe had grown to almost their father's height. Joe had left the country of childhood and for a moment Robert felt as he had been abandoned, left to navigate that world alone. Why was it that nothing was as it seemed? And when you delved deeper you always found something worse than you imagined?

They entered the ground at the North Road End, waiting in line to go through the turnstiles. There was an anxiousness to the wait, with the crowd pressing forward towards the narrow entrances. When it came to Robert's turn to push through the turnstile he felt for a moment in a dark limbo, in front of him a dank concrete cave, behind him thousands of men desperate to be where he was now standing, on the edge of a secret, masculine place.
Then they were inside, climbing big steps up and up until Robert could see a slit of light in front of them. They came out at the very top of the stand. Below them was tier after tier of steep terraces that led down to a rectangle of grass with painted white lines and goal posts at each end. Robert had seen football pitches on television but he hadn't expected the playing field to be so tiny and the stands so huge.

They began their descent, Robert struggling to keep up. The steps were broad and at times Robert felt he was bound to trip and begin bouncing downwards, falling over and over. They sidestepped groups of men, gathered together in threes or fours, leaning against paint peeled barriers drinking beer. Finally they reached the bottom and found their own barrier to lean against. They were almost opposite the half-way line and Robert could see the stand across from them was beginning to fill will rival supporters, who had begun to chant support for their team.
Their father took out a hipflask and passed it to Joe.
"There you go son," he said. "Don't tell you mother," he added, turning to Robert.
Joe disappeared to buy two match programmes, one for each of them. Left alone with their father, Robert wasn't sure what to say or how to act. He stared out at the pitch, at the muddied penalty areas and at the boards around the ground advertising local car dealerships and funeral parlours. He was relieved when a tall man with greased back hair came up to them.
"Johnny Boy, how the devil are you?" his father asked.
"Pretty good, though I'm going to be sick if they play as crap as last week," Johnny Boy said.
His father nodded. "Westy is shit at the moment. Four yards out and he sticks it over the bar. Not once but twice."
Johnny Boy pulled a face then looked down at Robert.
"Joe has shrunk since last week," he said.
"Very funny. This is my youngest, Robbie."
Robert was uncertain whether he should step forward and shake the man's hand but in the setting of the ground that seemed too formal. Instead he stood still and peered at Johnny Boy, who he noticed now was wearing a full length leather coat that made him look suspicious and shifty. Johnny Boy for his part stared at him as if he was an article of curiosity, rather than a human being and was soon off on another track.
"How is it at work, Pete?" he asked Robert's father.
"The same. Always rumours that there will be lay offs if we don't up productivity. I reckon it is just a ploy to keep everyone on their toes. If they think they are about to be axed then they won't complain."
"They're all bastards," Johnny Boy said with a passion that made Robert think that he had a particular bastard in mind.
He was about to say more when Joe returned.
"Here you are little brother," he said, handing him a match programme and a bar of fruit and nut chocolate, his favourite.
Robert was grateful for his brother's presence next to him and for the chocolate, which tasted creamy and familiar in this strange place. His father's confession of problems at work was dangerous news. What if he lost his job? What would they do then? Robert had never contemplated that the world could be such an uncertain place.
The two men were talking about Margaret Thatcher.
"Its alright for her to talk about removing the barriers to competition," Johnny Boy was saying, "but in my mind that just means it becomes easier to fleece ordinary people like us. Mark my words the rich always get richer and the poor poorer."
Their father nodded, although Robert remembered he had voted Conservative at the last election saying it was a time for a change.
"You old men haven't a clue," Joe said. "The political system is a waste of time. The unions are dead. They only way we are going to get rid of Thatcher is by getting out on the streets. Petrol bombs, not ballot boxes."
There was a sharpness to Joe's voice that Robert hadn't heard before. It sounded almost serrated compared to his normal tone. Robert hadn't realised that Joe thought about such things, let alone had such firm opinions on them. Robert felt his version of reality wobble once again. It was turning out to be an uncomfortable day, one in which his world had grown harder, more angular than before.
He was relieved when the players took to the pitch. It gave him time to gather his thoughts and adjust to all that was around him. The game was not a good one. Neither team could string more than three or four passes together and the pitch soon became cut up and muddy. Robert watched the linesman nearest to them as he ran up and down the line. He was older than any of players and had thinning ginger hair. Robert wondered how he could keep up with the action. After only ten minutes he looked as if he was about to keel over.

At half time their father and Johnny Boy went to the bar and returned with plastic pint glasses of beer and meat pies which the four of them ate uncomfortably out of their plastic wrappers. On the pitch the Chairman of the club was accepting a donation from a local businessman, although none of the crowd paid any attention. Joe smiled at Robert, but he felt unable to return it. He was still struggling to come to terms with the new Joe, the one who drank whiskey and planned to petrol bomb the Prime Minister.
"That was fucking diabolical," Johnny Boy said. "I don't know why I bother coming."
No-one said anything. The atmosphere around the ground was morose and even the opposition supporters had abandoned their taunts and chants.
"Has your dog had her pups yet?" Joe asked Johnny Boy.
"Had them last week. Six little beauties."
"I bet they are mongrels," their father said. "You'll be pleading with the RSPCA to take them away."
"That is where you are wrong," Johnny Boy said. "They are pure border collie. I'm going to make a mint out of them."
It was at that moment that Robert realised he wanted a dog. It came to him, not as a half-thought or a suggestion but as a complete desire, perfect and intact. It was a new feeling, nothing like wanting a new bike or to see a particular movie. It spanned all his previous desires and transcended them. It seem to bury deep into him, into a place that was hollow and dark. A place that craved to be filled.
He was tempted to say it out loud, there and then, but his instinct told him to be quiet, to wait for the right moment. Besides he hadn't said a word for an hour. It felt too late to join the fray, as if the conversation between his father, Joe and Johnny Boy had swept them miles downstream on a twisting, strange river while Robert was still waiting on the shore. He was alone, he knew that, but he was glad to have distance between himself and them.
The second half began just as badly as the first. As the players tired the game became stretched but instead of creating goal chances it had the opposite effect. Now neither team could make more than two passes without the ball going out of play or to opposition feet. The flood lights that were switched on with half an hour to go had no effect. Robert tried to follow the action but grew bored. He felt as if time had elongated. He returned again and again to the thought of having a dog, of taking it for walks in the morning, feeding it in the evening, of having it follow him around, excited at the journeys they would make.
They arrived home after dark. Robert was relieved to go to his room and be surrounded by familiar objects. His bed was the bottom bunk of a set that he had once shared with Joe. The top bunk had long gone, but Robert could remember the feeling of having Joe sleeping above him, a dark yet comforting presence.
From where he lay on the bed he could see outside. The scene was as before, the birch trees, the street lamps, an empty pavement. Yet Robert felt there was something different. An energy that he imagined as a swirl of reds and browns. It was bewildering and violent, and it lived both outside and within him. He took the charcoals and artist's paper he had been given for his birthday and tried to draw the energy, but it had neither shape nor form. He gave up and went downstairs to watch Dad's Army and the Generation Game.

© Paul Blake October 2002
comments to: pablake@btinternet.com

*Paul is a former editorial director of vnunet.com and currently works in Publishing

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