“So what have you been doing lately?” Stacey Warrington shouted above the
roar of Ken the Chin’s motorbike as we bucketed down the Great West Road.
“Not a lot,” I yelled back.
I winced at the pressure of her weight on my knees. We were squeezed into the sidecar and we were heading for Devon. Stacey was sitting on my legs and our luggage was on her lap. The situation was uncomfortable, and probably illegal, especially considering that Ken the Chin’s best mate Carlotta was riding pillion with his rucksack stuffed with pot. But what did I care? Unknown to Stacey, in whom I’d decided not to confide, I’d escaped from my failed honeymoon with Colin Shuttlehanger and the summer was all mine.
I’d been friends with Stacey in our first year at secondary school, and then she’d moved out to Reading with her family. After that, we’d done little more than exchange Christmas cards. Auntie Pam had never cared for Stacey, who lived on a Council estate and whose father was banged up for GBH. Stacey had bushy brown hair, smoked, was on the pill from the age of twelve and always copied my Latin homework. It was Stacey who told me, as we hid in the stock cupboard of the Domestic Science department at school, illicitly eating the dried fruit and sticking our wet fingers into the jars of sugar, that you should always close your eyes when kissing a boy and make liberal use of your tongue. She also told me that if you saved up ten thousand bus tickets, London Transport would give you a Route-master of your own, that you couldn’t get pregnant if you did ‘it’ standing up, and that oral sex caused gum disease. But, despite this misleading information, she also protected me from the bullies who hung around the bike sheds at Brondover Girls School. I’d missed her when she’d left, and now here we were, reunited.
While I was glad to see Stacey again, I had mixed feelings about Ken the Chin and Carlotta, who, despite the nick-name, was a sinuous, six foot male.
“They’re sweet blokes!” Stacey had insisted.
They didn’t look particularly ‘sweet’ to me. Ken the Chin, so named because of his Hapsburgian protuberance, was six foot two, fifteen stone and an amateur wrestler and brick-layer. Carlotta, (real name Carl), spent most of his time chewing on a matchstick. He rarely spoke and then only in monosyllables. His usual response, was to look at the ground and mutter ‘rats!’ He knew, Ken the Chin assured us, where to get ‘good grass’, and he was great fun when ‘rat arsed.’ I didn’t find either of them attractive, but I had a dreadful suspicion that Ken the Chin ‘fancied’ me.
“Where d’ya wanna go?” he’d asked as he strapped on his crash helmet.
“Devon,” Stacey said.
“Where in Devon?”
“How about Dawlish?” I said. I was remembering a British Rail poster of a gorgeously amber swathe of beach, a vivid blue sea and cliffs resplendent with semi-tropical vegetation. “It’s supposed to be beautiful.”
“Rats,” said Carlotta, and spat out his matchstick.
Ken the Chin must have wanted to please me in his Cro-Magnon fashion, since he duly set off for Dawlish. We stopped only once on the journey, in order for Ken and Carlotta to relieve themselves into a roadside hedge, and when we arrived at Dawlish, we found the place enveloped in a sea-fret. Stacey and I extricated ourselves, cramped and bruised, from the confines of the sidecar, and checked into a ten pound a night B. and B., while Ken the Chin and Carlotta announced their intention of sleeping on the beach.
An hour or two later, we met them at a pub at a place known as the Warren. The large bar area was crowded with people in their late teens and early twenties and there was a board announcing that a live band was booked to play there that night. Ken and Carlotta slurped back Newcastle Brown, and Stacey and I sipped Dubonnet with ice and a slice. Stacey had changed into a backless, silver lame dress and a pair of high heeled sandals. I was wearing a Laura Ashley skirt and a white blouse, and had made up my face with care, including the liberal use of lipstick in a shade known as ‘Courtesan red’. I felt simultaneously eager to have a good time and equally determined to repel the advances of Ken the Chin.
“You’re a bit of a miserable cow, aren’t you?” he said, putting his arm around my shoulders, breathing beer into my face. Perhaps this was his idea of seduction. I attempted to wriggle away from him along the fake leather banquette.
“Those are nice,” I said, indicating the row of coloured fairy lights hanging above the bar, hoping to distract him. My ploy was unsuccessful as he only tightened his grip.
“Gawd, what a tosser!” Stacey pointed to a middle aged man with a quiff of grey hair who had come to the microphone on the platform by the bar. Behind him, a pair of silver-grey curtains shimmered.
“Boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen,” the man picked up the microphone. There was a sharp whistling sound as the PA system rebelled. “Put your hands together and welcome the band. This group of lads have just signed a recording contract. They’re going places! They’re good! You’re in for a special treat tonight. You’ll all be wetting yourself with excitement when I tell you who they are. It’s CHAPPAQUIDDICK!”
There was a drum roll and a flash of disco lights, another whistle from the PA system, and an amplified cough. A voice from behind the curtains said, “Mind my fucking foot!” and a cymbal crashed. Then the shimmering curtains parted.
A white faced youth with dusty brown dreadlocks grabbed the mike with both hands. He was wearing baggy, slashed jeans and a faded grey T-shirt. He shook his shoulders, and then, as the music thundered, he began singing through a mouthful of rather broken teeth:
“Mother Hubbard, Mother Hubbard, why is your cupboard bare?
Open your door, give me more,
Mother Hubbard, you’re a whore!
You’re a whore, you’re a whore, you’re…”
His movements gave him the appearance of someone afflicted with some dreadful, palsied disease and his voice was raucous, urgent and anguished. Behind him, a spindly, hunch-shouldered man was playing the drums and nodding his head in time to the beat. On his left, a boy with a shaved head was making sounds using a variety of strange devices, sink plungers, and bits of lead piping, one of those children’s whirly tubes and a hand held vacuum cleaner. I didn’t know them then, of course, but later I would know them well. Dingo, Loon Tailor and Mad McArthur. “Don’t see how we’re going to bop to that,” Stacey wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“Rats,” agreed Carlotta.
“Shall we go outside?” Ken the Chin suggested, putting his hand on my knee.
And then it happened. As the first number ended, the dreadlocked singer, the spindly drummer and the man with the sink plunger were joined by someone else. A blonde young man with a guitar. The spotlight fell on him, the others remained still, and he began to play his solo. And my life changed for ever.
I’m told that some people go to their graves without ever once experiencing love at first sight. Some people don’t believe it can happen. Other people have said it’s an illusion that wears off. I can only speak for myself. It does happen, and it happened to me then.
The band began their second, ensemble number, (‘Who killed Cock Robin?’). I stood up, thrusting Ken the Chin away from me. I squeezed my way through the crowd to the platform. I had to get close to him. And I wanted him to see me.
And he did.
“Wotcha, girl,” he said, kneeling down at the edge of the platform, and looking me straight in the eye.
Now we were within an inch of each other, I noticed a tiny, strange, v-shaped scar on his left cheek, just under the eye socket. It was the sexiest thing imaginable.
The band had finished their set, and were heading off to the bar, but this young man was more interested in me.
“Hi,” I said.
“Want to go for a walk on the dunes?” he asked.
“All right,” I said. There was no question of playing shy or prevaricating. And I felt quite safe. Somehow, I knew I could trust him with my life.
We sat down on the sand. Marram grass tickled my cheek.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Dora. Dora Harker,” I told him. I had reverted to my maiden name. There
would be no more ‘Shuttlehanger’ for me.
“I’m Dave,” he said, “Dave Dellow. Cor---if you married me, you’d be Dora Dellow. ‘Ow about that?”
Somehow, it didn’t seem strange or threatening that we’d only just met and he was talking about getting married. And somehow, that. It felt just right. He put his arm round me. Then a coarse, unearthly cry fractured the night.
“What’s that!” I jumped.
“It’s just an old mad beach donkey,” he said, “What did you think of the band?”
“I thought you were brilliant. Chappaquiddick, though, it’s rather an odd name, isn’t it?”
“Is it?” he frowned, “We used to be called Nagasaki, then we was Gangrene, then Dingo changed it to Chappaquiddick.”
“All in very bad taste,” I giggled. “Those names.”
“Why’s that then?” he stroked my arm.
“Nagaski was where they exploded an atom bomb, gangrene’s a flesh rotting disease, and Chappaquiddick was where a girl died in an awful accident in the sixties.”
“Dingo said it was a place in America.”
“It is. That’s where it happened. Senator Edward Kennedy’s car went into the water and a girl drowned, Mary Jo Kopechne.”
“You know a lot of stuff.” he said “First I’ve heard any of this. I thought Nagaski was food you had with noodles. And gangrene---well, that’s the colour of me mum’s curtains, you know, like lime green, sea green, gang green…”
“Oh, oh….” I started laughing and then I stopped because he was kissing me.
I’d never known anything like it. It wasn’t as though I’d never been kissed before. I’d experienced every form of kissing. I’d had dry kisses, wet kisses, tongue wrestling kisses, kisses where teeth unfortunately clash, shy kisses and cursory pecks, sex-mad kisses and kisses that tasted of nicotine and cheese and onion crisps. But Dave’s kisses were entirely different. I had just found the world’s most expert and wonderful kisser, and as an added bonus, he looked like a Greek god.
There was no point in resisting destiny. The next day, I decided to abandon my college course, I wrote an apologetic letter to Uncle Horace and Auntie Pam and I went on the road with Chappaquiddick.
It was the best time in my life, even though I had to put up with the company of Loon Tailor, Mad McArthur and Dingo Potts. Sleeping in the van was uncomfortable, and so was going without a shower for days. It wasn’t healthy, living off a diet of booze, fags, Coca-Cola and chips. I had to listen to the rambling conversations between Loon and Mad and endure bitchy comments from the groupie girls that Dingo picked up along the way. They always hated me, those girls, because I had my hands on the best looking and only monogamous guy in the band.
Every warm summer night, Dave and I made love, after gigs where Dingo had urged the band on to a frenzied climax, shaking his dreadlocked hair and rasping out his nursery rhyme lyrics, Cut off their tails! Cut off their tails! Cut off their tails with a carving knife! Dave and I fell upon each other in meadows, on haystacks, in long grass, in parks and on waste land, in forests and down by the river by the reed beds, by gorse bushes and once even on a newly mown cricket pitch. There’s nothing like sex in the open air, even if you do get bitten by mosquitoes and find
squashed spiders on your skin, and run the risk of picking up a tick and getting
that awful disease that ticks spread, except that we never did.
As time went on, I realised that Dingo was the driving force behind the band. He’d recruited Loon when they were fourteen and then they’d met Mad McArthur when they were playing at a holiday camp in Pwellhi (a place which Dingo pronounced ‘Pure helli’, claiming that was an accurate description). McArthur was a semi-alcoholic, Loon Tailor always wore the same pair of jeans and a red T-shirt, and had only two fingers on his left hand, and Dingo was filthy. His clothes had never been washed, and his hair, I was convinced, was lice ridden, but he wore his dreadlocks and his abnormal pallor with pride. His expertise, if that is really the word, consisted of arranging the lyrics to the so-called ‘music’. I say ‘arranged’ because Dingo never wrote any original material, but simply adapted nursery rhymes, and jokes he’d read on toilet walls:
“He kills cornflakes! He kills cornflakes!
Cereal killer! Cereal Killer!”
‘Cereal killer’ had made the charts at number fifty four after John Peel had played the record very late one night when only insomniacs and truckers too stupefied with cholesterol to take anything in were listening to the airwaves. It had been that song that prompted Kumquat records to offer the band the contract for the album, Who killed Cock Robin. And then it seemed everyone knew those lyrics:
“I said the sparrow, cos your eyes are too narrow…”
And then Dave asked me to marry him.
“First you marry a man with no balls, and now you’ve married a man with no brain,”
Uncle Horace told me over his third glass of port at the wedding reception. “Dora, I
despair of you.”
He said this with a twinkle in his eye, as if he didn’t really mind. It wasn’t true that Dave had no brain, but he hadn’t had much education. His ignorance and simplicity was touching. He didn’t know the names of any film directors, or even that films had directors, he’d never read a book, apart from the reading primers he’d been given in the Remedial department at school, he didn’t know whether the Tudors came before the Plantagenets or whether it was the other way round. He believed that the sun went around the earth, that God had a long white beard and that Elvis Presley had been the King of America, in the quite literal sense of having sat on a throne with a crown on his head in a palace called Graceland. What did I care? I loved him. He was angelically beautiful and he was good and kind and gentle.
My guitar hero and I found a small flat in the London Borough of Havering over a TV rental business and next door to what was described in blue lettering on a white background, as a ‘Quality Fishmongers’. The quality fishmonger, Mr Jowls, was in the habit of loping down to a shed at the end of a long narrow garden where he smoked his own haddock and kippers. He had a rubbish tip, not far from the back of the shop, piled high with fish guts, fish heads and flies. The smell was intolerable, especially in warm weather, but we didn’t care. We were too happy.
That day began just like any other, except that I woke up feeling queasy and dizzy. The band had a gig that night, but I couldn’t face all that bumping around in the van along country roads, coming back late at night, after three hours in a smoke-filled venue. And so Dave set off on that fatal journey without me.
That evening, I was lying on the bed with a tissue pressed to my mouth, my eyes closed, trying to sleep. At least, I thought, Mr Jowls was on his annual holiday. The shop was locked up, and he hadn’t been loping down there to his shed to smoke his herrings and haddock for several days. If I’d had to put up with that fishy stench when I was already feeling so nauseous, it would have been intolerable. I had no idea why I was feeling so ill, unless it was something to do with the kebabs we’d had last night. I began to drift away, and then Dave spoke.
“Sorry to leave you like this, girl,” he said softly, “Especially with you up the duff an’ all.”
I sat up with a start. I was alone in the room. I saw the time on the bedside clock; eleven thirty three. I wasn’t expecting Dave home until the early hours of the morning. ‘Up the duff’? Was that it? Was I pregnant? How funny to have dreamt that Dave knew. But what did he mean, sorry to leave you?
It had happened, at that exact moment, all those miles away, on that quiet fenland road. Killed instantly. I was told that it was better if I didn’t see Dave’s body. I knew what that meant, and I tried not to think about it. The other thing I tried to forget was Dingo’s account of the crash.
He never changed his story, even after he was sectioned. White and shaking, he insisted he hadn’t been hallucinating on drugs. He hadn’t hit that tree. The tree had hit them. He’d seen it with his own eyes, and he hadn’t been able to avoid it. Not when, without a moment’s warning, it had heaved itself up out of that ditch, and walked out on its muddy roots, straight on to the road in front of him.