Pushing away the cheddar sandwich offered by his weary mother, a little boy jumped up and down with glee as khaki tunics and sturdy new boots marched in perfect synchronisation, the gravel crunching under their feet, past the new park bench, with its glossy railings and mahogany-painted slats, on which he sat. One private, a little shorter than the rest, who couldn’t have been even ten years the senior of the excited child, cast him a sideways smile and knowing wink. The youngster’s cheeks puffed with pride and enthusiasm as he solemnly saluted the rapidly departing battalion, his half-size arm perfectly straight.
His eyes followed their straight backs as they crossed the field adjacent to the tree-lined walk. Through the sparse barrier of the young saplings, barely more than shoots, he could still discern them advancing steadily across the field, eventually dwindling as the last of the troop passed through the gate and disappeared around a corner.
‘George, eat your lunch.’ Mum offered the sandwich again and this time, breathless but acquiescing, the little boy accepted it.
‘’E never even come ‘ome last night, Margaret – I ‘aven’t seen ‘im since the first one dropped. Up ‘e was, in a flash, rushin’ out the door to go an’ ‘elp. Ask ‘im to wash the pots and ‘e stays put, but ‘e leaps at the first bloody chance to get ‘imself killed.’
The two women passing the bench were from Salford.
‘You just can’t believe it can you, Shirley,’ replied her friend, ‘two days before Christmas.’
George couldn’t help overhearing their conversation, and he knew they were talking about the bombings his dad had spoken of over breakfast. Wondering whether Shirley’s son, or maybe husband, had managed to save people from the rubble, or if he now lay beneath it himself, George watched as they passed slowly, continuing to chatter.
‘The bleedin’ ‘oly ground, John. The ‘ospital and the ‘oly ground. Soddin’ bombs. Soddin’ Germans. They’re talkin’ about movin’ to Maine Road now. Bleedin’ Blue territory. Soddin’ war.’ The fifty-something’s pace was quick, and his thick Mancunian accent spat out the words in the manner he might spit in the Hun’s face, if he had his chance on the front line again.
‘Why’s that man so angry, Mam?’ George whispered softly.
This time George was alone on the bench, enjoying the freedom of a day off school, looking on from his seat as the park filled, slowly then suddenly, with blue, white and red. Waving flags and booming cheers surrounded him on all sides as the elated multitude crowded the gravel path. Trees were strewn with Union Jack confetti and tuneless renditions of ‘God Save the King’ littered the flattened grass, flung from nearby rooftops and windows. George let himself be pulled into the revelling jubilance of the crowd, shouting, singing and dancing with the best of them. He enjoyed watching – but this was the time for joining in.
These days George had increasingly less time to spend on his park bench, but usually managed to find a quiet half hour in his lunch break.
‘I wanna hold your hand,’ he sung to the tune of her whistle as the girl in the mini-skirt passed. His widened eyes followed the bare legs, never-ending and wonderfully exposed, until she glanced round, and he self-consciously dropped his gaze. He could sense the little smile on her lips, and returned it sheepishly, though under the cover of his sandy brown mop-top.
‘She loves you, yeah, yeah yeah,’ he whispered, smiling to himself in jest as he watched the goddess continue walking, parading the pair of fantastically-formed legs, and let herself in to one of the new-builds which now bisected the field, behind the increasingly leafy line of trees.
Scoffing as the leather-jacketed scowl with its pompadour haircut and studded motorcycle boots passed, George received an acerbic glance in reply.
‘Nice haircut that. My mum’s got the same one.’ The rocker spat at his feet and carried on swaggering.
George moved his briefcase closer to his side as shiny hot-pants and glitter, glitter everywhere filled his eyes; he took in the glam-rock trio with their flamboyant, sparkling make-up and platform heels, clip-clopping on the newly tarmacked walkway.
‘You know they’re all from Hull, right? The Spiders? Michelle couldn’t believe we lived practically down the road from them!’ The girl’s voice was high-pitched and giddy.
The three moved on, giggling and strutting, carrying George’s gaze along with them. There was a pleasure in his habit of casual surveillance, watching from the outside.
‘We showed ‘em in ’74 – we’ll bloody well show ‘em again. We’re not gonna take any of their shit now. This time we’re making a stand. I’m telling you Bill, 6,000 of ‘em at Cortonwood. And the rest of Yorkshire. Even in Scotland, Bill – they’re striking in Scotland. She’s got to back down. I know, I know, Bill, ‘wife and kids’ – but it’ll be over in no time, I’m telling you. Her coal reserves ain’t gonna last forever.‘
The two men carried on with their long strides down the tarmac, under the green canopies of gawky trunks, the first with clenched teeth and fists, the second slightly frowning and eyeing the floor pensively.
Hustle, bustle, shoving, shouts, yelling shattered the customary peaceful quiet as George watched from his usual spot. Angry chants crowded his ears as placards were thrust upwards, exalted, reinforcements for the bellowing mantras.
‘Coal not dole! Coal not dole!’
Thatcher, the enemy within. Save the pits!
142,000 workers, he’d read that morning. 142,000 worried spouses, kids heading to school with grumbling tummies, dejected men – strong, bracing, working men – all calling hungrily for Thatcher’s head on a spike.
It became increasingly difficult for George to carry on his people-watching with an excitable toddler tugging at his hair and clambering over his pin-striped suit. With a little voice begging to be carried over to the shining new playground which monopolised the remainder of the field, he only caught snatches of the conversation between the two teenagers in their Levi’s 501 jeans and Doc Martens.
‘Come on man, you can’t say ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ isn’t a crackin’ tune. Johnny ‘imself says it’s one of the best.’
‘I’m just sayin’ this new stuff is top. Squire’s riffs and Reni’s beat – you just can’t match ‘em.’
‘All I’m sayin’ is Squire wouldn’t be playin’ his guitar like that if it weren’t for Marr.’
A miniature finger poking George’s cheek withdrew his attention from the passing conversation, and a playfully-frowning little mouth and shaking head covered in blonde curls teased him. George chuckled and tickled the giggling infant in his lap, forgetting his cares over feeling rapidly more distant from the music scene which had formerly defined his very existence.
‘Maybe, I don’t really wanna know, how your garden grows…’ A twenty-something nodded rhythmically and George was close enough to hear her murmured singing and the tinny guitar track which oozed from her headphones. Looking towards the row of terraces through the line of trees – thick, heavy trunks, dense with foliage – she seemed to recognise her friend, or boyfriend maybe. George couldn’t tell. He looped his arm around her waist in a maybe-platonic, maybe-romantic swoop.
‘Were you in town when it went off?’ It seemed to be just about the only thing she could focus on, and her furrowed brow and concerned, searching eyes ignored his casual greeting.
‘I heard it from the garage. But we were fine – it was on Corporation Street. They’d already managed to evacuate 75,000 people, and a bunch of lads from Joe’s shop on Deansgate had got away in time. He came to warn me about it.’
‘It’s so bloody atrocious. I can’t stop thinking about those two poor kids when they bombed Warrington.’
‘I know it was awful. But the police ’ve obviously learnt a lesson from it – no fatalities yet. Around 200 injured, they reckon, but so far, no deaths.’
George’s wrinkled eyes still watched and appreciated, but he missed the distraction of the head of little blonde curls sitting on his knee these days.
‘I’m not joking. Zayn has actually left. Of course he’ll be touring up here, Becky! He’s from Bradford! I’ll text you as soon as I find out about tickets. I’ve got him on Snapchat and Instagram.’
He smiled a subdued smile as the girl on the phone passed.
Intermittently, George shared his dilapidated bench with a passing stranger – this one was easily half a century his junior. He didn’t watch as George did, didn’t sit back and take in the ever-shifting scene, probably didn’t see the point in spending half an hour of a busy day absorbed in anything other than the screen in front of him.
As the youth carried on staring at the moving images fed to him from whatever device it was that George couldn’t even attempt to name, George looked on at the beloved scene before him. No fixed features, no regular players on its stage – even the trees had grown beyond recognition of their former selves. The sprouts which had done a poor job of hiding the marching battalion, which George could still picture so vividly, now well disguised the children’s playground with its border of housing and concrete.
He turned slowly towards the boy at his side, who didn’t even look up, clearly oblivious to the external gaze resting upon him. George lifted a worn but venerable elbow to the boy’s own, nudging him to attention and meeting the gormless glance with a friendly smile, then nodding to the approaching couple who chattered away, walking hand in hand.
‘What d’you reckon those two are talking about, lad? There’s some cracking stories out there, you know, if you just sit and watch once in a while.’